Cycling to Kenya. Part 1. Crossing No Mans Land.
I roamed from pub to party until I'd forgotten how to do much else. I looked to memories from 'back in the day' sitting on the swings in my trackies and proudly telling my mates that one day I would travel the world , and I really believed I would. But years plodded on and nothing happened, life was plain and I had to do something about it. I had no qualifications, no skills, no experience and no money. But, I did have a bicycle and the road wasn't asking for a CV.
Felt pen lines ran across the world map on my wall, until eventually, for some reason, cycling to Kenya looked like the right idea. It looked far enough away that to get there would take a proper adventure, but close enough that maybe, one day, I might actually make it.
I worked in a sad petrol station and stared out at the forecourt for months during late shifts in a glazed dream of the open road. My savings grew and eventually the day came when it was time to leave. Four panniers stuffed with mostly unnecessary things were fiddled onto the new racks of my old red Raleigh mountain bike. The bike was my life, my shelter and my way to travel anywhere in the world for free and duly I christened him ‘Allen’ after my Grandad, as it belonged to him in the first place.
I ran up and down the stairs of my mums house slightly hungover and still packing (my mum sneaking in a mountain of plasters and a vitamin selection) and then I rode for the first time with the shockingly heavy weight to the train station.
The twenty-year-old frame squeaked through town and I wrestled Allen onto the train (bike not Grandad) and said goodbye to my family. The doors slid shut on a row of worried faces and the train headed to the coast.
It was my first ever trip and I hadn’t yet cycled further than the few miles to work and back, I had no right to worry my mum with such ambitious plans - I had no idea what I was doing.
But without that rosy cheeked naivety I doubt I would of found the nerve to begin.
I stood in the rickety bit between the carriages keeping hold of Allen, an unmatched mix of excitement and fear rushing through me like rapids - life was suddenly completely unpredictable.
A WINTRY DRIZZLE FELL ON THE COBBLES OF BRUGGES. I stood on the street with my hood up, the air spiraled with rain, Allen leaned at my feet against a hostel doorway. An eye scrunched to the rain I peered in the window; life was lovely in there, could I stay another night?
To my left down the road out of town the shiny black tarmac belt swung around the bend and on forever. Or so it seemed from there. I turned my eyes on Allen, what else was left to do? Nothing but cycle, this was the road to Kenya.
A single firework of panic lit, rose and burst in my brain - 'what am I doing again?!' - I stamped it out and pedaled, the skill of a young mind dodging doubts. 'Wait a tick...Which way's Africa?’ - pulling to a stop to find the compass, the little red arrow swung North and I turned roughly east, for Istanbul.
Smoky clouds lowered over the city and I slugged beneath them for a few tottering hours before starting a fretful search for somewhere to camp. Turning off from a busy main road toward some trees, I slid nonchalant into the rain soaked ferns. Dodgy joggers and shifty old ladies walking dogs passed by and I lay low in the shadows like a commando behind enemy lines. A drab darkness fell and a resounding silence filled my ears. I crawled into the limp tent; my heart pumped awake at every breath of wind and falling leaf fearing a weirdo in the bushes or the dangerous Belgian squirrel no one had warned me about.
Nine months later I rolled into town at the tip of Ethiopia. Night had crept in and the world was clasped by an African darkness, only the roaring lights of trucks bobbing along the road split the black-flooded land.
I took a beer and leaned in a plastic chair by a restaurant pumping the awkward heartbeat rhythm of Ethiopian music. Bugs soured around a beaming florescent floodlight and locals danced sporadically and awkwardly raunchy. I turned my eyes away hoping not to get involved and supped to Ethiopia.
It was a big monster to get past, different to any other country I'd cycled through and after nearly three months I was ready to leave, I needed to leave. I felt wrung out like a frayed old towel and I slouched deeper in the chair, the beer hanging heavy on my eye lids and I went looking for the nearest old rope bed, and slept.
A rain galloping on the roof woke me in my tin shack room. I flipped around for a while before accepting I needed the loo and felt for the slidy lock. The rain had softened, it was pitch black and I walked like a blind man across the yard in search of 'the hole'. I gave up and relieved into the night. I looked up: a thick brush sweep of stars glimmered above like a deep black sparkling puddle you could drop into and never come out of. Another African sky that never stopped being brilliant.
I couldn't believe I was actually here. Tomorrow, I would cross into Kenya. I'd thought of this day since I first marked the border town in a wall map daydream back in England. This was the last hurdle, the big scary hurdle and if it was to ever going wrong, it was here.
Overland travelers had two options to get into Kenya. Either use the usual straight road south from Addis Ababa - quicker but apparently quite boring and known for the occasional ambush.
Or, the westerly route that's winds through tribal Ethiopia and into Kenya along the banks of Lake Turkana.
The latter was the more adventurous, twisting down through the Omo valley and crossing the hot, wild bandit land. Scary tales of this 100 kilometer square of disputed desert roamed by various tribes and apparently prowling bandits had plagued my thoughts for months. Every other traveler I met on the road was paying an armed guard for safe passage. I had some crumbs of money left, and Allen.
As I rode and Kenya neared, my mind pulled like a magnet from one route to the other and one day when I headed south from Addis Ababa for the final leg of the trip, I turned onto the westerly road.
I had made it this far down roads by hoping for the best and leaning on strangers and taking the boring way felt an unworthy end to a lucky trip.
As always I woke later than planned and rode around town looking for the immigration office to get stamped out of Ethiopia. The man in there told me to follow a road around to the east, "not far, 70 kilometers" he said, to find my way into Kenya. Clearly he'd never cycled 70 kilometers before.
I looked for another way and met a thick brown river where a crowd collected at its banks. They pointed across the croc-deep murk - "Kenya" - and I climbed into a dug out canoe. Allen stood straight up in the boat, my bags sat along the trunk and after paying the extortionate fee for the lift I climbed up the crumbly banks. Harassing hands of locals reached for Allen to help me carry and I ushered them away, at the top a dozen open palms encircled me for payment, as expected.
I shrugged and started into the desert following a maze of tire tracks twisting between dry lifeless bushes. A local yelled and waved me towards a rising mountain wall glowing bright blue far across the desert. Apparently, those mountains were Kenyan and until the man had pointed me south, I had begun chasing tracks westward toward South Sudan. But as always on this trip, a stranger had saved me.
Allen's thin tires cut a trench in the desert and I couldn't keep up the cycling for long. I slogged past villages pulling Allen by the handle bars: groups of domed huts behind thorn fences where lean locals wandered, bare chested and wrapped with a cloth. One little girl returned me a hasty wave and then looked to her family for confirmation; they lay under a tree with thinking stares turning and watching me pass.
After frightening a couple of kids by honking the horn to warn my approach, I overtook occasional wanderers slowly and silently and waved a chirpy "morning" as I bounced past. Jaws dropped with doubt; I'd never felt so stranded and apart from the world I felt I knew and for the first time on the trip there was no tarmac to escape on and it made me panic. If somewhere meant harm, what could I do? Ditch Allen and run into the desert? Stand and fight? Neither option was appealing and I never came to a decision.
Amongst the dunes appeared a collection of white mud buildings. Most were empty and crumbling, built years ago with hope for the future but now seemingly left to be buried by the desert. From one small building a group of smiley faces waved me over. They were policemen keeping an eye on the few happenings of the no-mans land and I stayed to share a pot of something and for a chat with the cheerfully bored men.
A tall weathered tribesmen appeared at the doorway carrying a machine gun over his shoulder. The men sniggered as he tried to lean the gun against the wall at an impossible angle for quite a while. He had some complaints of the village and the men seemed to promise the right words and he relaxed and lay down to watch me from a safe distance. What was he wondering?
A boy of maybe sixteen came and squatted on his haunches next to the elder man, he kept his eyes low but I could see his questions reeling, questions I wished I could of answered, I had many to ask him too.
He wandered off after a while and I watched him strut across the sand slow and aimless, his long bone-thin back slinking and bobbing, his black coffee skin a shield to the smack of the sun.
I stepped out from the shade into the white light - the power was immense and instant.
The whirring of an engine arose and I ran out of the building waving at a Land Rover. I had hoped to find a lift through this dodgy patch but I was yet to see anyone pass and here I thought I had a hope.
Across the back seats three Spanish missionaries peered out the window at me like startled meerkat's, panic gleaming in their glassy wide stare. They were clearly on edge at crossing bandit country and hearts must have flipped when a strange filthy man came running out of the desert toward them.
They didn't trust me, I could tell, and quite un-christian like they had no room for an extra passenger and I watched them rev on out of sight annoyingly quick.
By then the sun was building its burn and I should of stayed the night with the police, but stupidly, I decided to push on. I think I was too impatient on getting to Kenya.
The land dropped into an empty sand sphere arcing to where the land met the sky, the sun lifted higher and fried the air. I couldn't imagine it getting any hotter, but it did and for the first time in Africa, unable to find a scrap of shade to hide in, I walked on through the midday hours dragging Allen like an anchor across a frying pan. The wheels wouldn't turn and I bashed my shins into the pedals again and again. Frustration boiled and I moaned to the sky as black dots circled in my eyes like flies that wouldn't shoo. I passed a small camel thorn bush and dug myself in beneath the skewer thorns; I wanted rest but my head crawled like an ants nest, something felt wrong about lingering here.
An egg yoke sun sizzled on the blurry horizon and when it finally fell away the relief was instant. The desert so empty I kicked off my shorts and realized with a twang that I had no fire wood to cook with - today I needed some dinner.
I searched the huge empty floor and trudged footprints around in complete nip finding nothing but a piece of cane and started to feel a bit glum and hungry when I noticed seared dry cow pats plopped about and gathered some up in a hope they might catch fire.
I stabbed matches into the bone-dry dung and lit a corner, wafting with a plate. Soon though, I sat back in a huff - "who am I kidding, I'm no Ray Mears".
And then, a constant flicking stream of smoke caught my eye and I sat up, wafting with a sweat at a glowing ember, and it grew and flames flickered to life and burst upward. I threw on some charcoal and danced around the smoke beating my chest in deranged delirium - "ME MAN!!! ME MAKE FIRE!!!".
Calming down a bit I crouched to fill the pot and my chin turned downward to notice black hands prints of charcoal on my chest, and I wondered, what had happened to my life?
From that first nights camp in Belgium twitching at a sparrow in the bushes, I now found myself full native and nude in the dessert, dancing around a scavenged fire with hand prints beat on my chest like an ousted mad man, and now finally, with Kenya in sight.
Nine months isn’t very long in life. Nine months on a bike ride is longer.