Kenya's Rift Valley
We headed south-west from Isiolo into the Rift Valley and its many lakes.
There's plenty to see and do, not the least zig-zagging across the equator about five times in ten days.
Our first sight-seeing stop was Nyahururu and Thomson Falls, a scenic Rift Valley water fall. A few days later we arrived at Lake Boringo, to the north, and Robert's Camp located on its shores. Both had been recommended to us quite a few times.
The camp, like most we had stayed at, is within a fenced compound, and we had become grateful to find such fenced areas now and again on this journey.
It's all very well, and entertaining, stopping on the road somewhere for a break, or for the shops, or outside a hotel, and being surrounded by curious children and welcoming adults, wanting to know 'Where from?' 'What country?' 'Where to?' 'How long in Ethiopia/Kenya?' 'How much the motorcycle?' 'Give me the motorcycle.' 'Manchester United!' 'Jambo!'
But a spot of relaxation is needed now and again. So a hotel inside a walled compound is welcomed, or even, in southern Ethiopia, roadside restaurants within fenced courtyards that we could ride straight into.
So we were happy to ride through the gates of Robert's Camp and to be able to park and unload with no one around.
Within a few minutes of selecting a likely-looking spot for my tent, these two locals ambled up.
You've heard of swimming with dolphins, well, Robert's Camp is famous for Sleeping with Hippopotamii.
Johnny Morris would have a very appropriate voice-over dialogue for this, I'm sure.
Or maybe something like this:
"Ohhh Ron, look where that fellow has parked his bike, right on our favourite clump of grass! Do go over and say something."
"Say what, Eth?"
"Ask him to move it straightaway. Say we have to be back in the water in a few minutes, we can only stay out for half an hour in this sun."
"But supposing he won't move, Eth? Look! He's wearing a funny-looking hat."
"Oh Ron! Just yawn at him, like you always do when my mother comes to visit!"
"Right you are, Eth."
(Readers who are not British, and not 'of a certain age', may like to look up 'Ron and Eth' on the internet, or even 'Johnny Morris Animal Magic').
There was no yawning that time, but plenty of noises through the nights.
Late one afternoon another pair turned up further along the shore.
And yes! A small yawn.
But as a rule, they only leave the water in the hours of darkness. And as they have the reputation of killing more humans than any other animal in Africa, this little venture is not without its excitement.
Especially as it's pitch black by seven pm (no moon) and the bar and restaurant are a hundred yards back from the water's edge through tall grass and many trees.
Consequently, after nightfall, a network of night guards patrol the site. They maintain an awareness of where the grazing hippos are and escort wandering visitors between bar and tents. They are described as 'benign' (the hippos, that is) and only dangerous if startled or annoyed by sudden movements. So the advice is to listen out carefully, move your torch around slowly and make some sort of gentle noise to signify your presence.
Oh, and, "do not leave your tent before sunrise unless absolutely necessary."
So the nights were somewhat disturbed, as they have quite loud and varied grunts which they use to politely converse with each other right through mealtime.
The usual conversation went:
A loud couple of rumbling grunts from the direction of the water's edge,
Followed by a higher pitched double grunt from nearby to the right,
A snort and a grunt from the direction of the bar,
An arpeggio of grunts pretty close by, somewhere between grunts two and three.
And so on. A hippo version of, "Who's been eating my grass?"
"Could you pass the ketchup please."
"OK, I'll fetch another one from this tent right here."
During one night things got particularly loud and expressive, a veritable '1812 Overture for Hippo and Bass Tuba'. There were loud snorts, grunts and rumbles everywhere in a sort of call-and-response concerto, some quite close by. I thought at first that a lot of hippos must be very pleased about something, or very annoyed. Then I remembered how football-crazy Africa is, particularly when it comes to the English premier league. Obviously they were watching Chelsea v. Arsenal on the TV and lots of goals were being scored.
I nearly looked out of the tent to see who was winning, but then one hippo clearly bellowed out, "If you don't want to know the score, look away now!"
We were unexpectedly delayed at this hippodrome for a couple of extra days (see boring bit below), and I was lucky enough the night before departure to have a couple of wayward animals grazing just a foot or so from my right shoulder.
With jaws about a foot wide (so, they must have been two feet from my right shoulder) their chomping is pretty loud. One woke me at about 3:00 am with a very rhythmic munch-munch-munch, moving slowly along right next to the side of my tent, and another, almost in unison, probably just the other side of the first.
The nearest one went something like:
..... munch-munch-munch-munch - hesitation - gentle grunt - (skip of heartbeat inside tent)
- muffled shuffle - munch-munch-munch-munch .......
Loosely translating that into English it comes out as:
..... munch-munch-munch-munch - "what's this? Ah, a tent peg! Oh Ron!"
"Move over a bit will you so I can get round the corner of this tent."
"OK Eth." - munch-munch-munch-munch ......
Or something like that.
The pair continued steadily, keeping a constant noisy rhythm, in what sounded like a straight line beyond the front of my tent, which would have sent them in the direction of the toilet block. Well, after eating about half a ton of grass, you would, wouldn't you?
View of our tents and lake without hippos in the way.
There was quite a bit of other wildlife on view, mainly birds with very musical songs.
Local dragonfly with chequer-board wings.
Lazy local crocodile in the afternoon sun.
After three days we broke camp, loaded up and headed to the exit gate.
But no Beau.
His bike wouldn't start. Dead as a Dodo.
So it was the usual routine:
Petrol in tank? Yes.
Flowing into carb? OK.
We have transparent fuel filters fitted, and on the Moyale-Isiolo road Caroline's engine died for no apparent reason.
The filter looked pretty black inside and a quick check revealed nothing flowing through. A new one fixed that. There must have been a blob of mud or something in the petrol she last bought. Not surprising, considering.
So, we had a close look at the filter on Beau's bike and found it didn't look as though petrol was flowing through normally. It's usually easy to see the flow through the transparent casing, especially after the float bowl is emptied and then re-filled.
But releasing the drain screw on the carb showed a healthy flow of petrol all round.
We removed the spark plug next, all OK, but fitted a new one after checking for sparks in the normal way.
Bit still no life in the engine, and we're running out of simple routine things to check.
One worrying thing on Beau's bike is that noise from the starter mechanism has increased recently, and these TTRs are known to have weaknesses in this area. But the engine still turns over OK when the starter button is pressed.
So we make more attempts at starting and the pretty nasty clunks coming from the engine while the starter motor is running are accompanied by a couple of loud misfires. Suddenly, the clunks sound like they might be from a camchain slipping over a worn sprocket. Highly unlikely but relatively easy to check, and all was OK there.
Remove spark plug again to check compression.
Yes, it was impossible to hold a finger in the spark plug hole without air squealing past.
But with a strange lack of petrol appearing on the finger.
Try again with full choke and the throttle pumped a couple of times.
Still no petrol at the spark plug hole.
Recheck the flow through to float chamber drain screw. All OK.
Oh dear. Removing the TTR carburretor is not easy. For a start, all the luggage has to come off. But it has to be done, maybe the jets are blocked by chunks of the Moyale to Marsabit road.
Just a reminder, we're in Kenya in the middle of the rainy season, so you'd expect it to pour, not rain. And so it does. Like stair rods.
All these attempts at starting Beau's bike had drained his battery somewhat, so I wheeled my bike up alongside to clip on the jump leads. Then the noon-day sun paraded across the sky a bit and we had to move the bikes further to stay in the shade. 'Mad dogs and Englishmen' and all that. But there's plenty of shade, under plenty of thorn trees. On reaching the shade and reconnecting the jump leads I spied a large twig firmly attached to my front tyre. It sported a full complement of long, sharp, sun-dried spikes, one of which had surely pierced the (well-worn by now) off-road tyre and 4mm thick inner tube beneath. Let's see, pull the thing out.
And so it pours!
I leave Beau to remove his carb. He's done it before, in Turkey, and it even rained a little if I remember right. Doing it again will keep him in practice.
Me, I suddenly have a puncture to repair.
Later, on Beau's bike, we still draw a blank. Everything is fine inside the carb, so it goes back on. Not much easier than taking it off.
And now it's dark, the hippos will be here soon for their night-long lunchbreak.
Next morning the grass is shorter if not greener and we wonder what to do now.
Caroline makes a brilliant suggestion to avoid more punctures, in my bike at least.
Instead of using the jump leads, let's try bump starting it. It'll be good practice.
Neither Caroline nor Beau are very familiar with this art, and Beau's bike has no luggage on at the moment. So it's a good opportunity to learn. But when you try to explain it, it sounds hellishly complicated!
Sit on bike.
(We start with the beginner's lesson, rider sitting on the bike).
Select 2nd gear.
Pull back against compression ("what's that?")
Pull back a few inches more.
After four paces, rider bounces on seat, lets go of clutch, opens throttle a little, simultaneously.
Engine bursts into life.
Well, no, it didn't.
It fell at the last hurdle.
Mysteriously, the rear wheel would not turn on dropping the clutch despite a good bounce on the seat.
We tried again - pull back against compression - yes, the engine turns fine.
Push, drop clutch, again the rear wheel merely skids along the ground.
Then at last, the final clue.
When pulling back against compression, of course, we hear the sound of the starter motor rotating.
But fortuitously Beau had the clutch out when we pushed forward to get in position. And there was the sound of the starter motor turning!
The starter motor clutch wasn't releasing.
(Anyone still reading this?
'How many clutches does this bike have anyway?')
Suddenly all that awful clanking and clunking that could be heard a mile away whenever Beau started his bike (getting worse recently), and the complete lack of starting, were explained.
With the starter button pushed, the engine started immediately. That is, fired. But the starter clutch never released. So the firing of the engine just sent a violent shock wave through the three pinions of the starter mechanism and was completely resisted by the starter motor. The noise of that, the loud metallic clunk, smothered the silenced 'bang' of the first firing.
The starter motor continued to rotate the engine to the next firing stroke, completely reversing the back-lash through the pinions with another nasty metallic clunk, and the whole thing was repeated, a few times per second.
Up until a few days ago this nasty sequence would continue as long as Beau had his finger on the starter button, and after maybe five or ten seconds the engine would fire violently enough to at last release the starter clutch and allow the engine to run.
But not now. The starter clutch was not releasing at all.
Visions of a ride in a pick-up truck all the way to Nairobi appeared.
So we decided on a final attempt at electric starting with jump leads. There was the same clattering as before, but at the last minute the engine ran, with starter clutch released. A sigh of relief.
But what to do now?
Contemplating the sequence of events up to now, with the engine at last running, and thinking of the hall-mark 'clunk' that all TTRs make when the engine is switched off, (and many other electric-start single cylinder bikes, like my Dominator and XBR back home), convinced me that we should never again switch Beau's engine off.
The 'clunk' that occurs at engine switch-off is the crankshaft bouncing backwards against the compression stroke after the ignition is cut. This engages the starter clutch and sends a shock wave back through the pinions until it's resisted by the starter motor. The more pinions, the louder the clunk.
The Dominator incorporates a one-way device in its camshaft in an attempt to prevent this 'bouncing backwards' of the crankshaft against the starter clutch on switch-off, so the manufacturers recognise this is a problem on big single-cylinder bikes. But even then the device on the Dominator isn't very successful, making the bike hard to start on occasions.
So back to Beau's TTR, now ticking over nicely.
If we switch it off at the key, the backward 'clunk' will engage the starter clutch again, and almost certainly it won't release. It's clearly worn too much.
So we write a new rule. Beau's engine can only be stopped by engaging a gear, holding the front brake, and dropping the clutch.
Which he tries.
And yes, the starter clutch has released, we can push the bike forward, in gear, without the starter motor rotating.
So we try a bump start, beginner's version again, and it starts immediately.
That was enough back-street mechanic-ing (to borrow Fred Dibnah's descriptive term) for one day, and it'll now take Beau till sunset to refit all the luggage.
And it was nice to know I could sleep easy that night, ready to depart the next morning without the need of a pick-up truck, lulled by the steady chomp-chomp-chomp just the other side of the canvas.
But we needed a plan.
It's all very well stopping Beau's engine only with the clutch, and then bump-starting each time. But that isn't always possible, in the middle of an African muddy field for instance.
Consequently we didn't travel very far the next day, because Caroline and Beau spent most of the time on the phone and on the internet.
I had always intended to prepare my bike as much as possible before departure on this trip and that included changing the starter clutch, even though, in the end, the existing one wasn't particularly worn. And I'd left that in my garage back home.
So emails, phone calls and text messages flew back and forth, to guide my son Richard on where on earth in my garage he might find it (I didn't really know, could only guess), to arrange postage for it via courier or Post office (both have advantages and disadvantages), to contact our campsite in Nairobi for full postal address and to let them know to expect it, and to take their advice on minimising import duties, to arrange a copy of Beau's carnet to go in the parcel, and to arrange for someone back home (Caroline's mum) to actually take it to a Post Office or courier office. All on African internet and African phone lines. Quite a task.
And now Beau and Caroline hopefully await its arrival.
So, with all that done we headed first to Kigio Wildlife Conservancy. We'd heard that the lodge there was horrendously expensive, but that camping was available, and that wildlife was abundant.
The entrance gate is 1km down a dirt track off of the main road to Naivasha. There, the guard wasn't sure about camping, he radioed the office. They said to ride to the lodge, 5km further on along a hard mud track. In that distance we saw a couple of herds of zebra alongside the track, various water buck or gazelles running about, a group of giraffe crossing the track in front of us, and various other animals going about their business. No wonder this place is recommended in the guide books.
And yes, at the lodge, we find that the consequence is that the cost of staying there is indeed extremely high, and no, there is no camping.
So at least we have the 6km ride back to the main road through the herds of zebras and giraffe again.
So we ended up at a camp on the shore of Lake Naivasha, where again hippos abound.
And monkeys, including Colobus monkeys, and baboons.
But the hippos are segregated from the tents by an electric fence, switched on and gates closed at 6:30pm. So no midnight munches outside the tent.
There are a couple more wildlife centres to visit between here and Nairobi, including Hell's Gate (highly recommended by other travellers), which we'll explore in the next few days.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 03:32 PM
Isiolo - Part 2
Marsabit to Isiolo.
Travellers say this section is even worse than the previous, Moyale to Marsabit. We were keen to find out. Well, we had no choice really.
It started off OK, as it did when leaving Moyale.
With little villages and tea houses again.
But getting hotter as we enter the Kaisut Desert. A lot hotter than in the Dida Galgalu Desert between Moyale and Marsabit.
And things get worse hereon......
The railway chippings were less deep than on the previous days, taking less control of the front wheel and its direction of travel. It was this 'riding on marbles' experience that persuaded Caroline to take a seat in Bodo's truck a couple of times before Marsabit, but she rode the whole two days to Isiolo with no more get-offs.
But the corrugations return.
They're at their worst when the rear wheel fits precisely in one corrugation and the front precisely in the next - for hundreds of yards at a time.
There's a big debate about what speed to ride at over these deep ripples. Some say fast, so the suspension smooths them out, others say that will shake a loaded bike to pieces, best to go slowly when there's a couple of hundred miles of them.
What happens in fact is that the depth of the corrugations seems to have little effect, and you find yourself accelerating up to a resectable speed over quite deep ones with little shaking or bouncing from the bike. This unfortunately removes the motivation to look around the road to find a track that is flat, if there is one.
Then suddenly, in an instant, the bike feels as though both brakes have been applied very hard, you're thrown way forward towards the handlebars, the bike shakes and vibrates viciously and your eyes wobble so much you can't see the road's surface anymore. What's happened is that the spacing of the corrugations has changed so that both wheels fit precisely in the dips at precisely the same time. And if they are at an angle to your direction of travel, they take control of the steering as well and send you in their direction, not yours.
The important thing to do here, as with any sudden and difficult change of road surface, is not to grip the handlebars or controls in a sudden panic, or brake, or anything, except relax the grip for an instant before doing anything else. Luckily, the sudden and violent shaking of the bike and its handlebars, and the accompanying deafening noise, bring on a moment of deep paralysis and you can't do anything anyway.
The braking effect is quite fierce so that takes care of slowing down a bit, and when your brain has stopped banging about in your head you realise a lower gear is needed, but more importantly the urge to search out a smoother path suddenly returns. So a pretty quick gearchange, and rapidly taking control of the steering again, usually brings back a little peace and serenity and allows breathing to continue once again.
And don't forget to be on the constant lookout for a smoother track, maintaining the speed necessary to steer across the ridges to reach it.
More little villages. Bodo's truck competing for attention.
And more tribal costumes. Quite common, and very elaborate and colourful in this part of northern Kenya.
The corrugations over these two days were certainly more severe, relentless and difficult to avoid (if at all) than on the previous days.
To keep it interesting over these distances, occasional networks of deep random drainage ditches cut by recent rains appeared in our path.
Boring it ain't.
With occasional groups of baboons along the way.
A stop for a breather. And then........
A diversion, of all things!
WHERE does this lead to??
Well, it just led to more bumpy dirt, stoney ridges, muddy drainage ditches, dried-up riverbeds, corrugated ruts, rocks and boulders of all shapes and sizes, running in the same direction not far from the existing road.
Over there we could see the occasional worker and mechanical contraption engaged in some mysterious ritual, continuing on for about the next twenty miles.
And closer to Isiolo, another diversion sign, which led us on to THIS:
Don't know what they're cheering for - all the fun has come to a screeching halt!
Tarmac all the way to Cape Town now.
(Unless you take the occasional side road, which we have).
This was a little way before Archer's Post.
Next were the crossroads outside Isiolo, and the sign for Garba Tula Road and our campsite.
Which tells its own story.
So, a little review of this most notorious of East African 'green lanes'.
If you took the most difficult stretches of this road, cut them up into four or five three-mile lengths, planted them in the Surrey Hills or Brecon Beacons and rode them one Sunday morning for a day of green-laning, by the time you reached the lunchtime pub you'd be disappointed, and searching desperately for something far more challenging for the afternoon.
The challenging and daunting thing about this road is its sheer length.
Roughly, riding your bike from Whyteleafe to Newcastle, all on dirt, through two deserts.
But that's growing shorter every day with the advance of the tarmac. So we wonder what will happen to the little villages along the way.
We took five days to cover it, keeping together as a group of five vehicles and seven travellers. Some have covered it in one. Two days is not unusual, three being more the average. Usually by people on their own or just a team of two. Probably we could have covered it more quickly in groups of ones or twos, but would then almost certainly have joined that large band of travellers needing frames, chassis and suspension welding up in Isiolo.
Street scenes in Isiolo.
And yes, in town, the tarmac is replaced with - mud, boulders, stones and massive drainage ditches. So the fun hasn't entirely gone!
Isiolo is on the northern foothills of Mt Kenya, second highest in Africa. Snow-covered at this time of year, just visible in the distance.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 03:59 PM