Malawi: “The Warm Heart of Africa”

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But is he to the left or the right?

The 5th section of the Tour d’Afrique began after a rest day in Mbeya, Tanzania. The scenery was breath-taking as we descended into the Rift Valley with Lake Malawi visible in the distance between sprawling  banana and tea plantations. We did not let the rising temperature and humidity interfere with our enjoyment of one of the most scenic stretches on our Capetown quest to date.

Malawi Gin

5th section of the Tour d’Afrique

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Tea plantations in Tanzania’s breadbasket south of Mbeya

We checked out of Tanzania and cleared Malawi customs without any surprises – country, currency (kwachas), SIM card and Lonely Planet download number 6. Still, the combination of bureaucracy and steamy temps finally got to us and likely tempered our 1st impressions of this new country.  Vast rice paddies and usipa (a small sardine-like fish) laden drying platforms lined the shoreline of Lake Malawi. Enthusiastic children running carelessly onto the road ahead of us were, this time only, an irritant as we peddled to the village of Karonga on the shores of Lake Malawi.  

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Fisherman on Lake Malawi

We don’t often associate fresh water with this continent but the African Great Lakes actually contain more water by volume than our own Great Lakes.  The largest by surface area (3rd in the world) is Lake Victoria, followed by Lake Tanjanyika (2nd largest by volume and depth). Lake Malawi ranks 3rd in Africa by surface area and accounts for almost a 1/3 of the surface area of the country. It has more fish species than any other inland body of water in the world. Sadly, the risk of bilharzia kept us from swimming in it. A few among our ranks took the plunge, but they will need to take preventative medicines upon their return home and undergo blood tests for parasitic flatworms that can cause liver failure.  We’ve reserved that role for alcohol.

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This haunting image was taken in an unventilated former school classroom repurposed for cooking over open fires.

Malawi is a poor country. We could see it in the houses with roofs of straw and walls of roughly hewn bricks set among the rice paddies as soon as we entered the country.  Because english is widely spoken here, we could understand when told as much by just about everyone we talked to: an idle young man  in Karonga  lamented that there are no jobs to be had, an elementary school teacher we engaged in conversation while cycling who pointed to his bicycle as evidence of his lack of means, an entrepreneurial sort on the beach at Chitimba who was counting on jobs promised by candidates in upcoming elections, and most disturbingly from young women cooking nsima (the staple of the Malawi diet – a thick paste made from ground white maize flour) over open fires in an unventilated, repurposed classroom at the Liviri School where our TDA travelling show set up camp for a night.  

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Somehow, people find a way to get what they need.

Despite all this everyone is friendly. The jobless young man in Karonga  considered himself fortunate to have recently married and is looking forward to god blessing him with a child.  The biking teacher was accurate in linking his means of transportation to economic hardship insofar as fuel shortages have beset Malawi, but he considers himself fortunate to have work at all.  The hustler on the beach in Chitimba offered to take us fishing, weaved a “Malawi” bracelet right in front of us as we spoke, and tempted us with his teak wood carvings (which, unfortunately, we had no hope of carrying home).  Somehow, people find contentment and a way to get what they need. This must be why Malawi has a reputation as being “The Warm Heart of Africa”.

What is easy enough to see in real life is confirmed in Lonely Planet download number 6: this is a country grappling with political corruption, unsustainable population growth, and one of the world’s highest HIV/ AIDS rates. Sadly, more than one person we spoke to said they would not be voting in upcoming elections, including the well spoken owner of a cafe and art gallery we happened upon in Lilongwe.  She seemed resigned to the fact that  corruption on all levels is an incorrigible way of life in the country.  As an aside, we asked her if the modern, completely out of sync parliament buildings we had come across were a misappropriation of government funds.  Nope.  They were a “gift” from China.

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No worries

We had a day off the bikes at Chitimba Beach on Lake Malawi. A kindred spirit (and Dutchman to boot) and his wife have built up an impressive compound with a camping area, comfortable cabins and a restaurant.  The place is a real find for TDA.  Liquor flows freely and we are responsible for our own meals on off days, so business was good. He is doing well with overland tours originating in Nairobi or coming up from Victoria Falls, but he is dismayed by the fact that this can bring in 60 young people laying about,  staring at their phones and complaining when amenities don’t meet 1st world standards.  The place is for sale. If you are looking for a lifestyle change we can hook you up with a motivated seller.

Leaving the lake the route headed south and west, climbing up the escarpment into the Rumphi Valley, part of the central plateau of Malawi.  We had our 1st real rain and a welcome dip in temperature with the elevation gain. The 4 day stretch on the bikes started out on the challenging side with 2 of the biggest climbing days of the entire tour, then eased.up as we reached the capital city of Lilongwe. The scenery was lush, but Malawi has issues with deforestation,  so it was good to see plantings of large tracts of fast growing, non endemic eucalyptus and pine trees . We wondered out loud if the high percentage of cropped land is the reason for the comparatively few numbers of  cattle and goat herds which we have been dodging in every other country on this trip, but apparently it comes down to cost and unsuitable grasses for grazing.  

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Riding the “train” into headwinds on the way to Lilongwe. We are at the rear.

We are over the 6000 km mark.  Jen, the tour doc, says it is normal to be feeling fatigued at this stage, but the drivetrains, mechanical and flesh, are hanging in there. The desert seems like a lifetime ago.  Every day, clipping  in to the pedals and making those 1st rotations of the legs is a reset, the beginning of another adventure, a fresh canvas and a 1000 faces to discover. The roughly cut video below captures a single day’s ride and a little bit of fun recently in Tanzania.

Thanks for your donations to Suitcases For Africa for the  project we have committed to.  If you have not had a chance and would like to contribute, please specify “Shamoni Community Well”  and do so here:

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Thanks for reading.

 

 

Tested in Tanzania

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Headed out early AM on the dirt

Thanks for your contributions to the  Suitcases For Africa well project which we have committed to Fund with your help.  If you missed the last post it is available in the archives.  If you have not yet had a chance to donate you may do so here:

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Now, back to our little bike trip.

We have mentioned previously in this space that there is no “hand holding” for participants on the part of staff here on tour, so we ought to have been suspicious when tour leader Tallis gave us a pep talk after the group returned from various safaris near Arusha – allegedly to ward off what he called the “mid tour blues”.  We suspect that his timing had more to do with the fact that we were about to embark on a 7 day run with some impressive stats: 934 kilometres, 439 of them on dirt/gravel/sand, 8180 meters of vertical, 3 nights with only a bucket shower and 1 with no water for bathing at all.  We were warned that we are now in a malaria zone, that tsetse flies are an issue (they were -think horse flies in appearance and bite – not as painful but with potentially greater consequences), and to be very cautious of street food because of typhoid and dengue fever outbreaks.  On the penultimate night, the one preceding 2150 meters of climbing before the end point in Mbeya, the bars adjacent to our camping area would blast music until 3:00 AM, exactly 1 hr and 50 minutes before the local Imam was to join the roosters in announcing that it was “go” time once again.  Tallis was doubtlessly anticipating issues.

We are pleased to report that we both completed EFI (every f#*king inch of this section – a goal which is important to a handful of riders for the entire Cairo to Capetown route), but it wasn’t easy. We certainly have been tested in Tanzania. 

Oh . . . and it was magnificent!

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At least once a year we cycle to the family retreat “Mountain-View”, in the Adirondacks. A recently introduced weekend ferry service between Les Cedres and the Valleyfield Islands has made this into a pleasant ride of 128 km, all but a short section of it paved.  We always make sure to have someone available to take us to our dock across the lake when we arrive to avoid the last 8 km to the cottage.  The specific reason for this is that the road surface is gravel.

The 4th day of this stretch was also a 128 km ride, 100% of it sand and gravel. As in the case of the cottage ride ferry-to-dock service, a lot of forethought went into making sure we would be able to handle this section of the tour (along with a longer stretch of dirt upcoming in Namibia).  It began with acquiring Trek 920 bicycles, which are quick enough on good surfaces, but also rugged and built to fit 2.2 inch mountain bike tires for traction when conditions demand it. Inflated to a low 35 psi, they allowed us to plow through sand and absorb bumps at speed on the downhills. This full immersion on gravel has taught us to trust our equipment in the same way that we trust the edges of our skis and snowboard on icy surfaces, surely making us better all around cyclists.  At least that’s what we would have us believe.

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Off to school

The 7 challenging days began in Arusha with 2 century rides.  The  terrain consisted of lush rolling hills with stands of corn, sunflowers, bananas, and endless processions of school bound children in electric blue uniforms.  On day 2 we chased down the distant volcanic Mt Hanang, Tanzania’s fourth-highest mountain. We came up even with it by lunch, then watched it fall off behind as we pedalled on to Singada.  We pinpoint these landmarks on maps ahead of time, then take satisfaction in conquering them – obstacles between us and Capetown.  

On day 3, a right turn precluded us from sticking to the tarmac and riding through the Tanzanian capital of Dodoma (great trivia question).  The longer paved option would have meant an extra day of riding.  Instead, we met with gravel and proceeded alongside the Rungwa and Usungu Game Reserves over the next 3 days. Once again lucky riders had giraffes cross the road in front of them. A reliable spot to see hippos was a bust, but we did see baboons and vervet monkeys. As for the natives, other than subsistence farming, wood (for fuel) collecting and child rearing there seemed to be a lot of hanging about in the small villages. As usual, there was no shortage of children.  At times it seems that every eligible woman has a baby hanging off her back or front wrapped in a blanket with its head bobbing about. 

At our campsite on the grounds of Biti Mayanga School, we watched children in their uniforms tilling the land with hoes as an after school activity.  A supervising teacher explained that this is part of their practical education.  He told us that there are 10 teachers for the 1200 students, and that there is a shortage of books and sporting equipment.  We did our best to compensate by bringing out the frisbee.  It works every time – a hundred or more squealing kids swarming like black flies until darkness falls and the strange white biking people retreat to their tents with their toy.  

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Future tarmac

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Richard- happy to see the end of 439 km of gravel

 

The best was saved for last: an epic day of riding into Mbeya. 

In his book Kapp to Cape, author/cyclist Reza Pakravan sets out to bicycle from the northern tip of Norway to Cape Town in 100 days (in pursuit of a Guinness Book record).  He followed the same route as the Tour d’Afrique through northern Kenya, but describes the picture perfect highway we were met with from the Kenyan border at Moyale to Isiolo (north of Nairobi) as “the worst road in the world”.  He takes more time to describe the hardships encountered on that stretch than any other in the entire 18K km journey.  We had a first hand view of the conditions he was talking about. It is still there for all to see, right next to the pristine strip of tarmac we were lucky enough to ride on.  

That was only a few years ago.   Had there been rain, our 439 km of gravel here in Tanzania would have just as trying as Pakravan’s ordeal in Kenya. Still, it was difficult enough to make the comparison fair.  

The final 35 km of gravel was on rough and steep surfaces.  Right next to this goat path a new road was being built. We cycled on the dirt surface beside the construction in progress to Chunya Town, the point from which the southbound route to Mbeya is already paved.  Rumor has it that the paving will eventually lead all the way back to that right turn we made on day 3.  An  impressive array of equipment, African workers and a handful of Chinese foremen are hard at work as you read this, taming the Tour d’Afrique route for future editions. 

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Climbing north of Mbeya

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East African Rift Valley

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Taking a moment

 

Back on pavement, day 7 culminated in an epic climb to Loleza Peak overlooking the Rift Valley at 2656 meters.  The views from the summit of a region which has been described as the “Scotland of Africa” were the best of our trip to date.  On full display are the ridge of the East African Rift and the valley floor below, which eventually will become a sea and split the African continent.  We took plenty of time to savour it, then raced 20 km downhill into Mbeya for a well deserved (at least that’s what we would have us believe) rest day. 

Check out TDA’s wonderful video below featuring Lenore.  Thanks for reading.

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Familiar sight

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Peek-a-boo

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Giving mom a break

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Family outing

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Looks like the cover of a rock album

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Lenore & Fred on the road out of Arusha

Ngorongoro Crater

 

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Ngorongoro Crater as seen from the rim. There are over 25,000 large animals that live within this frame!

We used our break from cycling in Arusha, Tanzania to do a 2 day safari in the Ngorongoro Crater. Our guide referred to this Unesco World Heritage Site as a “natural zoo”.  In that category, it falls 2nd only to the Galápagos Islands in our experience.  Ngorongoro is a world of singular beauty that stands apart in our tour from Cairo to Capetown so far.  

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Camping at the rim of Ngorongoro Crater – an elephant and Cape buffalo visited us during the night

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Headed down to the crater early AM

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Acacia with masked weaver bird nests

We loaded a subset of our stuff (George Carlin reference) into a ubiquitous Toyota Land Cruiser and set off to camp overnight at the rim of the crater some 180 km west of Arusha in the Crater Highlands area of Tanzania.  This set us up for a sunrise safari. 

The blue-green views from the rim are almost worth the trip itself. At 19 km wide, Ngorongoro is one of the largest unbroken calderas in the world that isn’t a lake. Its steep walls soar to 600 meters and are a backdrop for virtually every photo (especially because we are not equipped with the requisite safari telephoto camera lens).

Animals graze and stalk their way around the open grasslands, swamps and acacia woodland on the crater floor. Minutes into our sarfari we came upon a lion napping next to a recently killed buffalo – temporarily satiated we assume. The victim was still largely intact. In the periphery, hyenas and feisty jackals were patrolling, waiting for their turn at the carcass.  We were witnessing a well established heirarchy.  

Over the next hours we saw wildebeest, zebras, black rhinos, hippos, elephants, warthogs, flamingoes, secretary birds, Thomson’s gazelles, Grant’s gazelles, Sacred Ibis, Crowned Cranes (the national bird of Uganda) and many other species.  Ahead of us in another vehicle, fellow TDA riders saw a group of lions bring down a zebra – an event very few get to witness.  

In 13 years on the job, our guide Ezekiel has seen an increase in the number of animals in the crater, thanks to better management and the eradication of poaching. Nice to hear some positive environmental news for a change.  

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Lion napping by a recent buffalo kill. Hyenas and jackels await their turn at the spoils..

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Hippos

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Crowned cranes

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Black rhinos

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Zebras

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Zebras & Flamingoes

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Thomson’s gazelles

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Wildebeest

Masai Steppe – Half Way Home

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“Jambo” from Tanzania

The Tour d’Afrique 2019 has pulled up in Arusha, Tanzania. We have crossed the equator and rolled past Mount Kilimangero, the highest peak in Africa.  Riders have 3 days off to enjoy various excursions which originate here in East Africa’s safari capital.  Next up is the 44th of 88 stages, the first of 7 straight days in the saddle which will bring us closer to our final destination of Capetown than our starting point Cairo 2 months ago. 

Masai Steppe

Tour d’Afrique – 4th section

TDA labels the 4th section of the tour “Masai Steppe”. It began with a turnover day in Nairobi, where we visited a wildlife trust for orphaned baby elephants and rhinos, as well as a rehabilitation center for Rothschild Giraffes. 

There is no regard for cyclists in the horrific traffic of Nairobi. Some routes feature speed bumps on the shoulder (where we are often forced to ride) rather than on the road itself, to keep drivers from Using them to pass other vehicles.  Some of us have nevertheless been passed on the outside while hugging the side of the road! We have become hardened to these conditions, but 2 new “sectional” riders who followed us out of the city with were injured when forced off the road less than 5 km into their inaugural TDA ride.  10 km later another rider crashed and dislocated his elbow, putting his tour on hold  for at least a month.  All of this pales in comparison to our returning rider and “mule” (he had returned to Canada for his mother’s 100th birthday and been imposed upon to return with supplies for those already here).  Tom arrived in Nairobi on the same flight, same plane, 24 hours before the Ethiopian Air crash that killed all 157 on board. 

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Entering Tanzania added a new chapter to our border chronicles. We were asked to show original proof of yellow fever vaccinations, but could offer only the photocopies we had brought of our booklets. “Look, the requirement is marked right there”, the young official scolded us, motioning towards a scrap of loose leaf taped to a wall above his head.  “Otherwise you have to buy a booklet for 50 U.S. dollars!”  

Lenore eventually half convinced him  that we had not had a recent opportunity to read the border notices, and that transposing the information from our photocopies to his regulation booklets (with his crayon) did not in fact constitute any additional guarantee that we have the necessary yellow fever antibodies. We say half convinced because his next move as as the mouthpiece of the United Republic of Tanzania was to knock down the price of the booklets to $25! Imagine bargaining for leniency with U.S. border security. 

With more time, and perhaps somewhere other than in Africa (and Italy, of course), we might have taken the matter “up the ladder” to make the argument that our documentation must have been sufficient if the remedy was negociable. We have learned to accept over paying in small measures in the interest of saving time and stress. 

We didn’t have to wait long after the border event  to bring this new found wisdom into play once again.  Rolling  in to Arusha after store hours, we took the advice of a “handler” (the usual hustler who spots tourists in the city and has the solutions to all their needs – and then some) and bought SIM cards from a street kiosk where we suspected that the price had been enhanced.  It was.  We also bought some “art” from the handler to thank him for showing us to the nearest ATM and used the expensive taxi driver he introduced us to before ducking into a cafe he recommended. All in all, for a small premium we freed ourselves of administrative tasks the next morning, had a bodyguard for our money matters, had a great meal and were whisked home safely.  Bargaining is an unfortunate necessity in some cultures. We try to keep it to a minimum.

Once out of the city we returned to our reason for being here with a spectacular ride into Arusha. Early on, baboons made themselves known in large numbers, but the highlight was a giraffe which some riders were lucky enough to have cross the highway in front of them. Mount Meru presented itself gradually on the horizon and we mistook it for Kili.  As we drew closer its silhouette was filled in with rocky contours and finally shadows and  shades of green. A Masai herder enlightened us on the local geography by pointing out the snow capped peak of Kilimangero far off to the east.

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Mount Meru, Africa’s 5th highest peak, coming into view

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Our mission for the next week

A tough stretch lies ahead. We’ll be seeing much more of the Masai tribesmen, and hopefully more wildlife.  At Babati we’ll be pulling our bigger tires out of the “permanent bag” when we trade the tarmac for the ascents and descents of the Masai Steppe – mostly on rougher gravel and sandy roads. Rains – which are in the forecast- could make things messy. 

Thanks for reading. 

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Masai

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Acacia

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Keeping current

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On the road to Arusha

Kenya

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Young member of the Samburu tribe

These past days we have been making our way south from the Ethiopian border through northern  Kenya, home to some of the most marginal lands in East Africa. 

In the not too distant past for the natives of this region, Nairobi was just some far fetched idea of a place in Kenya. The progressive paving of the Nairobi-Addis Ababa Highway all the way to the Ethiopian border over the past 10 years has turned a multi day journey by car into a matter of hours.  We could see the rock and dirt road that our TDA predecessors had to contend with running parallel to the new tarmac at points. As we said in our last post, thank you China! 

Pastoralists have eeked out a sparse existence here for centuries. Cycling through the  bleak lava rock of the Dida Galgalu Desert, the only signs of life we encountered were the odd nomad and his camels. At the tiny village of Turbi, we purposely lingered at a coke stop in order to delay our arrival at camp in the scorching badlands just to the south. 

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Desert camp south of Turbi, Kenya

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Coke stop in Turbi

The next day’s ride to Marsabit proved to be our biggest test since the blast furnace of Sudan. We have learned that statistics alone cannot forecast the difficulty of the ride that awaits. On this day, it was heavy crosswinds that turned the 122 km and just over 2000 meters of vertical into a real grind.  We spent the morning cycling in an “echelon” pace line with 12 of us in rows of 4 angled in a formation that cut the wind for those on the inside. Riders rotate in and out of the wind blocking outside position, where peddling takes much more effort.  This requires some concentration, and is hardly a way to enjoy the scenery of Africa, but it is an effective way to save energy.  We were unable to keep pace with some of the stronger riders in the afternoon, but formed some new alliances and arrived at a reasonable hour, exhausted, sweaty and caked with the grime of the desert.

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Nomadic Samburu

Continuing south to Laisamos we encountered members of nomadic tribes such as the Rendille, the Borana and the Samburu wandering with herds of camels, goats or cattle. They motioned for us to stop on our bikes to let them drink from our water bottles, which we did when we were confident that we had enough to meet our own needs.  In the town itself  we encountered women whose heads were adorned with spectacular weaves of beads, flowers and coins. They are people of the Samburu tribe, distant relatives of the Maasai, nomadic peoples  whose movements (for this group) have been altered  by the construction of a permanent water source. 

In this part of Kenya water is so scarce that families can literally spend all their time and energy sourcing and collecting it. This means that they never settle in one place and kids never go to school. The lack of an education assures that the cycle repeats itself.  Part of the objective of aid organizations in building a well is that a community can form around it and break that cycle. 

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For many, a lone acacia silhouetted on the savannah against the horizon stretching into eternity is the iconic image of Africa. The place that invokes that image is often Kenya.  

We have yet to see that terrain. Our point of entry into the country means that we will have to be patient.  But we will get there, and in the meantime we are seeing and learning much along the way. Paul Theroux wrote in Darkstar Safari:

“I reflected that a person who has not crossed an African border on foot has not really entered the country, for the airport in the capital is no more than a confidence trick; the distant border, what appears to be the edge, is the country’s central reality.”

The Tour d’Afrique is a far cry from a safari vacation in Africa:  transfers to a hotel and game park and a checklist to mark off the “Big Five”.  With so much to take in before we get there, Nairobi remains, even for us, some  far fetched idea of a place in Kenya. 

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Mount Kenya

From Laisamos we were bussed to the frontier city of Isiolo – this to keep us safe from the bandits and tribal unrest that have presented problems along this stretch.  Gazelles,  ostriches and warthogs were spotted en route. Back on the bikes the next day, the miles to the equator at Nanyuki felt like we were in the foothills of the Rockies in Alberta.  As we gained altitude, fields of wheat and corn (large acreage farms are left over from British soldier settlement schemes after WW1) stretched before us, along with a dramatic snow capped  Mount  Kenya, the 2nd highest peak in Africa. We happened upon a cafe that offered home style brownies, milk shakes and lattes – western treats we have not seen since January.

The lone acacia  will surely follow soon. 

Thanks for reading. 

 

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Alrighty then!

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Northern Kenya