Welcome to my new blog Cork to Cape - the second leg of my round the world motorcycle adventure. As some of you know my first trip took me down through Central and South America on the back of a BMW R1100GS. This trip will take me from Ireland to South Africa on an F800GS. My goal is to take my time, enjoy the ride, meet new people and volunteer along the way. I welcome everyone to view and enjoy the blog, add comments and give me any advice on special places to see or people to meet. And, of course, if anyone wants to join me for a section of the journey or if there is a place you always wanted to visit, please come along.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Paradise Found

Day 372

Milage 30,100 (48,160 kms)

I can see you
Measuring a journey in terms of distance covered or time elapsed provides only a superficial gauge as to what a voyage is truly about, it is the unique combination of experiences along the way, the highs and lows, the triumphs and disappointments that really give it life. Although the previous two weeks have seen me pass some significant milestones, it will be the people I have met and the experiences I have had that will remain longest in my memory as I look back upon this trip. It feels like only yesterday that my father kick started this journey into life in a cloud of smoke and a burst of noise on a damp morning beneath Shandon Tower on the south coast of Ireland. Just over a year later, I am sitting on a beautiful island in the middle of the Nile River, not far from its source at the north end of Lake Victoria. The roar of nearby rapids fills the air, challenged only by the occasional rainstorm that reminds me the wet season has finally arrived. The tin roof above my head amplifies the atmosphere as fat drops play percussion to a frantic rhythm. As suddenly as it starts the rain ceases and the sun emerges to slowly dry the saturated earth, this is a fertile land, they say if you spit on the ground something will grow. Red tail monkeys leap gracefully between branches, foraging for berries amidst the surrounding trees while the noble African Fish Eagle looks down from its perch, eyeing the river for its next potential meal. Countless species of colorful butterfly float between shade and sunlight while a large tortoise meanders its way through the lush, green grass, pausing occasionally to nibble on a particularly juicy stem before pondering its next move. A monitor lizard, over a meter long, basks upon a log in the heat of the sun and two bright emerald, green snakes slither between the rough cut rafters above my head, searching every nook and cranny for snoozing geckos. It is a stark contrast to where I began my journey. 

My new riding companion
After returning to Nairobi to consult the motorcycle guru, Chris Handschuh, as to what may be causing my bike to suddenly stop running I spent a couple of days switching parts around, testing and retesting, before reassembling the original components and trying it one more time. To my surprise everything worked perfectly but I was left with the frustrating dilemma of not knowing what caused the original malfunction. As with my previous alternator problem, a quick internet search revealed several forums from riders having similar issues. Now that I had the bike running and a viable roadside repair option I decided to push on with Chris’s Teutonic words of wisdom still ringing in my ears, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.' Before leaving the city I decided to take one last, fateful trip into its chaotic centre. A late lunch in the downtown district with an old friend turned into a long discussion about Kenya, politics, corruption, tourism, corruption, gender equality, corruption, religion and corruption. Before I knew it, the sun had set and I was in downtown Nairobi after dark, a city with a shocking reputation for daylight robberies. As I walked back to my bike I tried to look brave by resisting the temptation of wearing my motorcycle helmet and gloves. On a positive note, I suddenly found myself being approached by some beautiful women who genuinely seemed interested in spending time in my company, flattered by the sudden attention I soon had my ego deflated by my friend who pointed out that these ladies were neither interested in my rugged good looks nor my charming personality, only how quickly we could exchange bodily fluids for hard cash. 

Sipi Falls, Mt Elgon
Back on my bike I was soon weaving my way between the late night traffic hoping the police would not mistake me for a Boda boda, the motorcycle taxis which are prohibited from using the roads after dark. I’ve ridden through Nairobi at several times of day and I’m happy to say there is no such thing as a rush hour in this great city, nothing can rush, ever. It is pretty much gridlock all the time through the downtown streets but, at least on a motorcycle you can make some progress. As I neared the edges of the city the pace of traffic began to pick up and, unknown to me, I was driving towards one of the milestones I had hoped I’d avoid altogether, my first crash. Roundabouts in Nairobi are governed by traffic lights, which would appear to defeat the purpose of having roundabouts in the first place. Installed by the Chinese there is probably some logic to their sequencing but each color is interpreted by the locals as a signal to either go or go faster. To add to the confusion a police officer is often added into the mix to ‘direct’ traffic but on this particular evening the officer on duty seemed to be too busy dodging the cars that were ignoring his frantic hand signals. As I entered the roundabout the driver of the mini van I was following decided the wide open space in front of him would be a perfect place to disgorge his passengers so he came to a complete stop in the middle of the roundabout. 

Calm before the storm

I am a cautious driver and I always try to predict the worse case scenario when I scan the traffic in front of me so I can be ready to react but even this performance was so outside the realms of logical behavior I didn’t see it coming. Mini vans, or Matatus, are the perfect size to block the view of anything beyond them, if they were empty it might be possible to look through the glass and out the other side but they rarely are, more often than not they are packed to capacity and beyond, each window revealing a collage of contorted faces and unidentifiable body parts. I swerved to avoid hitting the rear end of the mini van, missing it by inches, but as I turned the bike to correct my new trajectory my front wheel caught a piece of debris left behind from a previous accident. Losing traction under the front wheel while already at a precarious angle can result in only one outcome and I was soon sliding on my side to an inglorious stop. Before the police officer could think of a reason to issue a ticket I picked up the offending debris, threw it off the road, checked the bike for damage and got back on. As I completed my journey home and the adrenaline wore off I began to flex each limb, checking for tenderness and pain. Other than a few bruised ribs, a torqued back and several scratches there was no significant damage and a daylight inspection of the bike revealed the same, all the protection bars I had fitted performed perfectly. 

A potential replacement

With that reminder of how vulnerable I am on a motorcycle I packed my gear and prepared to leave Nairobi for the second time. I took a similar route into the Great Rift Valley but chose to camp along the shores of Lake Baringo, a freshwater lake famous for its bird life and hippo’s. As I set up my tent, several curious Vervet monkeys came to watch while birds of all shapes and sizes fluttered amongst the canopy above. It was only after dark that the hippopotamus made an appearance. Hippo’s spend most of their days wallowing in the cool waters only venturing onto land at night to graze along the shoreline. At around midnight I was awoken by the deep grunts of a large hippo pod as it came onshore to graze alongside my tent, often weighing over 3000 kilograms they need to consume roughly one-tenth of their body weight each night so the feeding frenzy kept me awake for most of the night. On more than one occasion I checked my tent for anything I thought might attract their attention, vividly aware that only a thin layer of nylon separated me from these immense, and often temperamental, beasts. By morning they had retreated back to the water but they quietly watched me as I packed up my tent, I was surprised to notice how close their footprints came to the edge of my tent. 

Shower with a view
I made an early start before climbing out of the west side of the Great Rift Valley towards the small town of Iten. Once home to one of Kenya’s former presidents, the roads were in remarkably good condition and I was soon lost in a rhythm of twists and turns, climbing and falling over spectacular ridge lines through deep valleys lined with coffee plantations. Crossing into Uganda was relatively easy, a swarm of ‘fixers’ surrounded the bike as soon as I pulled up assuring me that the process could only be completed with their costly help. Fortunately for me, one of the legacies of British colonization is that most signage is still in English, so after a sweaty couple of hours another frontier was quickly disappearing behind me. I noticed an immediate improvement in road conditions and driving etiquette but dark clouds hung ominously overhead and before long the first fat drops were splashing onto my visor, mixing with the dust and grime and making it almost impossible to see the road ahead. I pulled over at a fuel station and joined a large group of local bikers who were sheltering beneath the huge awning, my 800cc bike attracting a lot of attention. Before long I was answering the standard list of question about my bike and the journey, the maps I’d painted on the panniers providing a useful aid in explaining where I’d come from and where I was planning to go. Eventually the rain eased and the thunder and lightning abated so I decided to push on while I still had daylight. I verified some rough directions and soon realized that Ugandans really want to be helpful, even if they don’t know where a place is they will make something up so as not to disappoint. 

The strategy I’ve employed for route planning has evolved since the beginning of this trip, over the last few months I’ve been following the suggestions of people I have met along the way, typically those coming from the regions I am about to enter. It has served me well and taken me to some hidden gems I would have otherwise ridden past. A rider I’d met in Nairobi had suggested the detour up to Sipi Falls was well worth the effort so shortly after crossing the border I turned north, towards Mt Elgon. Cloaked in a mysterious blanket of mist, Mt Elgon failed to reveal itself over the few days I spent on its lower elevations. The caves that pepper its vast flanks were once thought to be the original source of the dreaded Ebola virus and with the wet season relentlessly drenching its summit, waterfalls cascaded over every exposed cliff face, the most impressive of which were located outside the tiny village of Sipi, high above the valley floor. Thoroughly soaked I pulled into a small eco-camp on the edge of the village and while the rain steadily fell I enjoyed my first Ugandan beer. I spent the following day exploring the nearby falls, soaked in sweat and caked in mud I clambered over rocks to the base of the tallest before pursuing the creek further upstream through the humid rainforest. 
From the village of Sipi I retraced my route back to the South before turning west towards the town of Jinja and the source of the White Nile. 
Source of the Nile
The Nile River has been a steady companion since I entered Africa, from the lazy waters of lower Egypt to the confluence at Khartoum, to the Blue Nile source in Ethiopia it has been a useful landmark and a willing guide. As I neared the town of Jinja and the impossibly vast Lake Victoria stretched off into the far distance I smiled to myself as I realized I had finally arrived at yet another milestone. For many years the White Nile has drawn whitewater enthusiasts from around the world, it offers a challenging selection of big volume rapids and has long been on my wish list of rivers to paddle. Sadly, a series of planned hydroelectric dams will see this stretch of river soon become tamed and forgotten but for now it still has plenty to offer. Where there is whitewater of this quality there is rafting and where the is rafting the will be river guides. It didn’t take long to track down some of the guides I’d worked in years gone by and before long I found myself at the bar catching up with some old friends. That first night went on until the sun came up and a relaxed afternoon cruise on the upper river helped ease in the following day. It wasn’t hard to borrow the necessary gear and before long I found myself in squeezing myself in to the modern day torture device known and the whitewater play-boat. Designed for a person with no feet and double jointed hips I didn’t have time to complain before we were approaching the first ominous horizon line on the river, occasional explosions of mist would give some idea as to what lay ahead. The river didn’t disappoint, but the sheer volume was staggering, massive islands divide multiple channels that would qualify as big volume rivers on their own. Every river feature a kayaker could wish for was in abundance as were many features that give some of us nightmares. It was  thrilling to paddle but sad to know that it will all be lost in the near future if the power companies have their way. 
Source of a smile
After several days in Jinja and untold liver damage it was time to move on and, once again, a hot tip from a fellow traveller suggested I couldn’t leave the area without checking out the island paradise known as The Hairy Lemon. I originally planned to spend two nights on the island but it appears to be almost impossible to leave, the real world seems so far away and I have been trying to slow things down in the hope that I can wait out the rains to the South. As good as the main roads are in Uganda, everything unsurfaced deteriorates quickly after even the lightest rain. So after one year on the road, over 30,000 miles of riding, reaching the source of the Nile and having my first crash I don’t feel too guilty about taking a few days out to rest and recover.  
Don't come any closer

1 comment:

suzy said...

I am so glad you are sharing your trip. A year later - wow. It does sound like it is more than everything you hoped. Stay happy and safe.