Cold-cocked in Kensington, gobsmacked in Kampala
Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
37Trip End Jun 01, 2010
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Get in a bus halfway down Africa, cruise toward Johannesburg at 90km/h, and you should be fairly sure that the city is approaching you at 90km/h as well.
But when the real Gotham City gets up and careens towards you at a rate approaching mind warp speed, understand synchronicity is falling out of kilter.
Cities, notions and nations can and do reach out, thread tendrils, tentacles across continents, and try drag one home faster than Einstein made allowance for.
Long road trips are not only the tarmac in front and behind, the buildings, bushels and banter alongside – they also take place in a parallel universe, in parallel time with the world, friends and family, and at any time any of the physical and virtual factors can alter the ride.
Get in your car in downtown Jozi (Johannesburg), 8.30pm, with just enough time ahead of you to get home, warm up a pot of cooling eve soup, pour a Scotch and put your feet up to watch some telly.
Arrive outside your house, grab the electronic gate opener, recently replaced after losing the last one, roll down your car window, aim the device and congratulate yourself on another day's work well done.
"What the fuck?"
A hand appears at the rolled down window, out of the dark.
“Bang,” explodes a flare of flame from the front of the disembodied hand, mystery torso hidden behind line of driver’s sight.
“Bang’ is not a Marvel Comic word in a black, line-drawn star box.
“Bang” is not the silly bang-bang, bling-bling millionaire rapper-dapper crap.
“Bang” is an explosion, deafening, ear-drum splitting at less than half a metre, an axe in the body, a terrifying, bone-shattering smash of lead through rib, smash, through right lung, rip and tear, nicking the edge of the T8 vertebra, splinter thresh and thrash, deposit smush bone in the spinal cord, through left lung, rip and tear, through rib, smash. Breathe through three holes, lungs leak, dribble and spurt fluid through four.
Almost impossibly the bullet passes behind the heart, miraculously missing vital arteries.
Body rigidifies, collapses, a gunless hand rips the door open, grabs the 50-year-old woman, gushing blood and froth bubble, throws her into the gravel, jumps into the wet, sticky driver’s seat, smashes the gear lever into drive, and drive, drive.
Locate victim, immobilise, end any hassle, steal a car.
That’s Jennifer last week, my friend of 30-years, calling her story out across the continent.
Today a potential paraplegic, so far paralysed from the waist down - for a piece of Japanese tin!!!
What price a moulded blob of melted soup cans? Of my friend? How many friends of 30 years do you really have?
Gotham comes rushing towards me faster than anticipated. At mentally warped, plain old warped, speed.
Things are out of sync.
Sit in a soft canvas chair on Zanzibar beach sand, sip a strongly-tequila’d margerita, look at the menu of Livingstone Lounge, discover the Victorian shorefront building was once the British Consulate, and in hospitable times hosted Burton and Speke, explorers and feted discoverers of the source of the Nile River – or at least as legend and fable would have it. In truth they only came very close.
The inn housed 19th century missionary Stanley Livingstone (of “Dr Livingstone, I presume” fame) during his campaign against Swahili slave-trading, and kept him cool, in state, on his way home after his death and transport half-way across the continent.
Fire up a friend’s computer, access the local wireless connection, and get cold-cocked, smacked between the eyes with the carjack news from Kensington suburb.
Hello Columbine, hello Bosnia, hello Kashgar (China), hello Rwanda, Zaire, Algeria, hello Myanmar, hello Cambodia, hello Afghanistan, Pakistan ... before everybody gets out the big pail of Afro-sanctimosity paint and starts splashing it around.
Socialist revolutions once riddled Africa, and helped end the colonial days in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. Small wars too often becoming a proxy of the Cold War.
Give thanks to Russia and China for dumping millions of AK-47s and other firearms across the continent. Thanks to the USA for stoking and stroking the embers.
Most of the wars are over, the old soldiers are dead, or tucked up tight and warm with their old wives, but the guns don’t die, or stop killing.
They mostly go to the highest bidders, who're found where most of the money is, south of the Limpopo.
On the way to Zanzibar, head southwards through the bottom end of Ethiopia. Lakes and rolling fields. Small towns with big smiles and warm hearts.
Arrive at the border with a warning of a hell ride through the north of Kenya. There is no public transport. Rogues, rebels and bandits patrol this zone, a borderless concept that disregards national boundaries, incorporating a swathe of southern Sudan, north-eastern Uganda and northern Kenya.
Take your chances on top of the canvas coverings of 10-ton trucks, or in faster Land-Cruiser-type vehicles.
Opt for the quick dance with hell, rather than the prolonged version.
The surfaced road ends with Ethiopia. The national divide is where rolling hills end, and Kenya’s little known Chalbi Desert begins, and continues and continues.
The road is rutted, gutted, a raised, or hardened course, cut into, or reliefed out of the surrounding inhospitable moonscape.
The land is flat. Dead flat, from horizon to horizon. Littered with irregularly shaped black stones. Like a volcano once blew itself into smithereens, shattering inconsolably, Humpty Dumpty extremis, slaking the ground with millions of football sized lumps. Lumps that hurt all feet, inacessible to all living creature, except reptiles, and camels driven by the most cruel of handlers.
The stone is buried in the road, partially unearthed, unendingly, shaking, spine-shatteringly stupifying, skeletal settling, absolute and total kidney stone therapy.
The road, or pathway, breaks animal and machine. Tyres burst, springs break, unseen metal fracture and fatigue trammel body and frame.
Days before my ride, a Swaziland acquaintance, filming and starring in a BBC Discovery television documentary, driving a motorbike around Africa, has his machine shot out from beneath him on the same stretch.
“Bang, bang, budabudabudabuda,” bullets smash into the rear wheel, tyre, brake calipers. Down, slithering if one can call the motion that, over the savage lumps and bumps.
Look up, three guys stand 80m away, firing wildly, then run towards fallen man and machine.
Right the bike, tyre shredded, brakeless, one panier spilling seriously required tool-kit. Start and drive as fast as physically possible on a rear steel rim.
20km further, breathe, and survive.
Ya, Spencer, weren’t your producers delighted with the added twist.
Some adventure roads come with cachet, fun and dusty smiles. This is not one of those roads. You don’t visit this road 'just because’.
Down to Isiolo, a 12-hour ride. Hold on, sitting just above the rear-wheel well. Hook feet into anything hookable. Hold on to straps and roll bars with both hands. Anticipate the spine-smashing. Lift, load, release, softly down. Think of England, think of anything, just distract yourself.
As dark falls, roll into a hub-town pitstop, bus terminus, a row of flea-pit hotels, “Texas” somebody calls it. Check out one: Single rooms. No running water. Anywhere. Buckets for ablution. Ladies, overweight by 20kg dressed in blue and pink nightgowns, lounge against shabby wooden door-frames watching us troop in, sighing, knowing there is faint chance of business from this dusty mob.
A quart of Nile Lager floats across the courtyard at waist-height. A voice out of the dark, at head-height shlurs: “Hullo honey,” to the sole female travelling in the group, “why don u shtay hyah tonite?”
Right. Next bedding option?
Onwards, southwards, across the equator just north of Nairobi.
Ethiopia had somehow held me back, as if leaving the strange unknown country for the more accessible and run-of-the-mill Kenya would be entering my home run, my home zone.
The border is crossed, the equator is crossed, my rubicon is crossed.
A Middle-Eastern dancing queen drags me hurriedly towards the coast, with a scuba-diving mission on her mind.
There is no problem with only spending an afternoon flirting with Nairobi, becoming more well-known as Nairobbery, having exported its thugs to South Africa, and imported their recently acquired skills.
Most of the petty street crime one stumbles upon across the entire trip is of the scam/lifter kind. Distraction, quick fingers, a nudge, shove, the profit of prestidigitation. Shifting goods from one pocket to another, without too much violence.
Then there is Nairobi and Johannesburg. Violent apprehension: gimme or die. Nairobi’s reputation as a nasty place is growing.
My afternoon spent strolling the inner city streets picks up no prowlers, but the radar is definitely running at full bleep.
Malindi, home of juvenile sailfish and marlin, a playground for people who can throw US$500 at a morning’s fishing, a mini-scuba diving mecca, and a massive profit zone for Italian travel agents, who send troop upon troop of fast-talking sun junkies to fill the long line of coast resorts dedicated to pizzas and pasta.
Italian speaking Masai trot along the beach in checkered red wrap, white leggings, spear and/or knife, shmoozing the blonde Italian babes in their lingua franca.
Waiters and receptionists trot out all the “multo grazis, tutto benes, buono seras, belissimas”.
Italy was twice veni, vidi, NON-vici’d in Ethiopia. There is definitely something in mid/east Africa that attracts.
Down through Mombasa, Dar es Salaam (Haven of Peace) and find the Italian connection in Zanzibar as well.
Here lodges vie with local villages, one lending profit, the other ambience.
Situation normal, all fugged up. Profit eats into ambience. The east coast is lined with lodges and resorts. The only local beach land left is burial ground.
One by one, family resting plots are falling to the lure of the Lira. There is nearly no soft ground to bury the newly dead. Pick and shovel move to shoreline coral reef. Hard, hard. Shallow graves, the sea reclaims some remnants, carrion birds the rest.
Inevitability rears its ugly head. Soon there will be profit and no ambience, then probably no profit because no ambience.
Yet Zanzibar does carry the lure of the exotic, the past, it trills thickly from the tongue with the same succulence as Timbuktu. The charm of the ‘other’, of the ‘where, there’.
Approach the island after a two-hour ride on a high speed ferry from Dar, and ride into the back-end of shoreline warehouse-type buildings.
The streets are narrow and windy, and filled with tourists, all answering the call of the Arabian-African coast legacy. An island used and abused since simple dhows found safe passage down the east coast. The Chinese popped in centuries ago, Arabian traders. The Swahili empire was run from here, where Islamic slave-traders made their fortune stealing and selling Africans from as far inland as the Congo.
A softer, modern Muslim-feel shrouds the old town, Stone Town, peppered with the very intrusive irritation of the street flunkies, offering accomodation options, travel options, eating options, excursions.
Of course none of them own anything. They are commission sleazeballs. Locally known as papasi, (ticks, in KiSwahili) as appropriately a parasitic name as English might construe.
Take a taxi to a hotel, tick runs in ahead of you. The price leaps 10%.
Only running aggressive interference saves one from this mini-theft.
“Don’t talk to the hotel man!!!!”
“Yes, I have booked.”
“Drop me here,” ... and then walk there.
Never-ending ploys to keep one’s hard-earned pennies from flittering down a cobbled road.
Walk into a restaurant in Malindi. The venerable ‘Old Man and The Sea’. Scoff a delicious dorado (dolphin fish) fillet. See the bill has a large, unknown amount added to it. “What’s that?” The commission for the guy who brought you here.
“You mean the guy who was standing on the pavement, and walked through the door next to us?”
Sorry pal, somebody won’t be getting that slice of my pie.
Fish markets always reveal the tale of local oceanic depredation. Zanzibar’s is old, on quay and soggy, sandy shore. Hundreds of years of scales and guts squelched into the grime and mud. A fine aroma guides one in.
The regulars are there, sardines, tuna, calamari, garouper, the array of grunts - and sadly a shoal of large sailfish. The handsome fish are near the bottom of the culinary experience. Even sharks don’t eat them. They lie strewn about, cut in half, bills hacked off, their grandiose, eponymous dorsal fins bedraggled, broken, flopped over their grey-dead flanks. Cats nibble at their spilling gut. There are releasable world records lying in the slop this morning.
Take a punter fishing, let him pay more than the fish is worth, catch it, release it, and do it again tomorrow. Keep the farm alive!
The coastline itself does live up to its exotic descriptions. Soft white sands, calm bathing in pristine waters.
Classic beauty, in the picture-postcard sense. Palm-tree lined beaches, fishermen, rough, hard hewn, sun-toughened, course of hand from net and heft, small loin linens, rippling back and arm muscles, colourfully bedecked wives and women.
Blue seas are accentuated by the sand’s whiteness, small islands frame and filter sunsetting horizons.
Thatched cottages are home to families long-since of hunting, fishing, foraging, farming, feeding, rearing, earning an honest day’s dinner ... and now selling off the sacred grave sites.
In between Euro-gallumpers frolic, throw Euros around with gay abandon, inflate the cost of everything. A paradoxical demise of a paradise.
Zanzibar is an archipelago, a strip of islands. The major neighbour, Pemba, is more heavily Islam influenced, less visited, more pristine, more independence-minded.
Each election brings out the worst (or just pride?) of the archipelago. Fighting always erupts, and killing sprees follow any kind of pro-mainland victory.
Disembark from the ferry, and pass through an ‘immigration’ post. Have your passport stamped with Zanzibar. A self-proclaimed semi-independence.
Thirty years ago, a power cable was laid across the sea bed from Dar to Zanzibar. It carried a 25-year guarantee.
Last year, it finally broke, and was fixed fairly promptly.
It broke again in December. It is still not fixed. Through the extreme heat and humidity of a nigh on equatorial summer, of sweat and swelter and drip nonpareiled, the mainland authorities have not managed to find a solution.
The truth rings loud: “You want independence? Try this problem for size.” Power supply, power play.
The vegetation is reminiscent of Sumatra, on identical latitudes. Thick, green jungle, large fleshy leaves, palms, fans, bananas, coconuts.
Traditional roofs are built with the same technique as is found in north Sumatra. Palm leaves cut to about 40cm in length, all ribbed along a metre length of spine. Overlapped down a sloping roof incline. Identical. Coincidence or shared knowledge? Commonality of humanity?
The mainland’s vegetation is not as fleshy, with kilometres of coconut groves, the same as those that run up the Mozambique coast.
A tropical beach is a tropical beach. I prefer Indonesia for its calmitude, and much wider array of leeward and seaward options.
There is only one Great Rift Valley. The journey is discovering the unique, not revisiting the easily. duplicatingly accessible.
Head west, far west. Make a runner from Dar to Kampala, Uganda.
But not before bumping into Jurgen, a German newly retired, on his first trip abroad with his pension. First day in Dar, first day out of Germany, go for a stroll near the ferry port. Stumble into a pair of muscled arms pinning him from behind, a knife point at his throat. Thanks for the bag, mate.
Luckily it only contains guide book and airplane ticket.
He drinks beer at a rate, and philosophically decides a lesson is well learnt, and that the joys of Kilimanjaro and Masai Mara safaris are still on schedule.
Kenya and Tanzania are safari countries. Looking at animals. I thank all the gods I have seen all or most in fair profusion, lest I too need to throw thousands of dollars at the voyeuristic equation.
Thud, thud, thud back-breaking bus ride around the top of Lake Victoria, back north of the equator again for the warm-weather boy.
The destination is a Giant Nile Perch, fresh-water angling’s equivalent to a marlin of the seas.
Hit Kampala, and discover an orderliness not apparent in the past half dozen capitals.
Manicured lawns, gentle folk strolling down main roads, cafes bustling with chip and grilled chicken eaters, Nile and Club beer drinkers.
Shops carry freshly-licked fronts.
Of course the downtown markets and taxi ranks hustle and bustle, and hands in pockets and no bags is the only way to go. Idle hands, or at least unemployed hands ...
I walk into a nightmare. The sogginess of Zanzibar has left a little friend in my cameras. Moisture, rank, dank, inside a leather bag, I discover, is the perfect recipe for fungus and mould on a lens. Little grey dots appear on photographs. Deep inside the lenses. No way to fix them here and now.
Seek a new lens. Impossible, but in doing so, find myself drawn back into my parallel universe.
I get sent to a common South African chain-store, Game.
Arrive on the back of a boda-boda, scooter taxi, and am gobsmacked.
In the middle of Africa is a building that has its architectural roots in my homeland’s history. Shoprite (another supermarket chain) and Game have construed to build a shopping mall identical to those found on the satellite suburbs of all South African towns.
Smaller shops are arranged around the edge. The parking zone is the same. Enter with an uncomfortable apprehension. With good cause. The layout is the same, the aisles are the same, the same Cadbury’s chocolates are next to the tills, the cheeses and yoghurts are there, the Klipdrift brandy (of Afrikaner carp fishing and barbecue fame) is there, the Cape winery’s chief export label KWV is there, the fridges and fruit and vegetable racks are the same. The colours, uniforms are the same. If I closed my eyes and opened them, I could be in a hundred different shopping malls in South Africa.
This is NOT why I have travelled this far, and into Africa. Not, not, not!
I run like hell. But know the tendrils are creeping. If I don’t go home, home is coming a’calling.
This is not a holiday. Holiday trips are when you go far away, see new things, end your vacation, and fly home.
This is a homecoming sojourn. The mental interaction and the physical plod.
The mind throws up my past, and future, increasingly, as it is triggered by growing, remembered sights and sounds of the approaching south.
The home run is taking on a personal personality of its own.
Discover that Lake Victoria (nor the source of the Nile, but close to it) is now near-devoid of Giant Nile Perch, a protein-stocking experiment that went horribly wrong some 50 years ago.
A do-gooder, and there are many naive do-gooders here under the guise of volunteers and NGOs, decided to feed Uganda and surrounds with the biggest fresh water predator of them all (perhaps barring crocodiles). The fish are known to grow up to 150kg. They simply ate everything. Then they were nearly all caught and eaten by everybody here.
I hear word that 15 years back, Nile Perch fillet was the cheapest fish available in Australian supermarkets.
I realign reality and compass and head for Murchison Falls, at the north end of Lake Albert, not too far from where the Nile enters Uganda from the Sudan. Named after a 19th century president of the Royal Geographic Society, the falls channel all of Lake Victoria’s outflow between a gorge 7m wide at its narrowest, squeezing water through with unbelievable power.
In the frothy, churning ‘boiling pot’ below, and the broader slower stretches further along, reside the giant fish.
Take a small boat, 15hp engine. drive to within 100m of the falls, catch a bucket of ‘wakka’ livebait, a strange, tough fish around 1kg each, visually a cross between a saratoga and a tiger fish (of the Alestes family).
Throw lures into the boil and holes and rips. The fish are there, but my skill does not seem to match their evasion.
Drive downstream, very gingerly navigating the small boat between the extremely powerful, surging currents.
This is also the Murchison Falls National Park, just recovering from its slaughter by Tanzanian soldiers in the wake of Idi Amin’s demise.
Hundreds of hippo line the river banks. Dozens of crocodiles many over 4m lie, mouths agape.
Elephants and buffalo and waterbuck and warthog come to the water’s edge to sip and sup.
Birds of heaven, crane, heron, eagle, kingfisher, cormorant ply their fishy trade.
Sit on a boat, drop a live bait down a swirling hole, amidst this beauty, park oneself on the river bank, suck up the paradise, and wait. One day, two days, into the third day ...
The zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz alerts one, gets hair to stand up, sends sweat beads out of the skin.
Steady, steady, no quick motion, no bump, don’t flail, let the fish go, free spool, free line, zzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzzzz 80m or so, slowly add tension and let a circular hook do its thing.
A very large animal gets angry at the end of the line, moves unstoppably to the current, and heads downstream.
Get in the boat, and follow. Force the fish to pull, then follow, force it to pull, then follow. It shoves its head out of the water. It is huge. It is too big to push itself much past its enormous gills, razor sharp. Use very thick line for the first metre or two.
On, on downstream, another feisty shake of its head, closer, its mouth and gills clatter and rattle.
Eventually, after half an hour the beast tires, and allows itself to be brought next to the boat by the line that is a little old, and only 12kg breaking strain..
It is 1.5m long, 1.1m around its girth, A complex chart plots this to around 119lb (54kg). Take it to land, take the hook out, revive it and send it off back into its world.
Job done, pack up, and head back to Kampala. Now it’s nearly time to wander along the water courses, straight south, straight home.
My good friend Mr Llewdlac says he awaits my return with a little trepidation. Will I disturb his work ethic and distract him to go fishing too much?
Trepidation? I haven’t lived there for 14 years.
Trepidation? Yours? Ha.
Anybody got a job for me?
Hope you get back to yours sooner than later, Jen!