A couple of weeks ago we left Nairobi for Tiwi Beach on the Indian Ocean coast, south of Mombasa.
The road there took us between two National Parks, not completely fenced, so wildlife sightings can be expected almost anywhere.
About halfway to Mombasa a herd of zebra seem to live permanently by the roadside - they were still there when we returned a week later.
And a little further on something large was rummaging around in amongst the trees on the right hand side of the road.
It was an elephant's ear.
With elephant attached.
It wasn't completely oblivious of us, staring in our direction a couple of times and shuffling around warily.
The regular stream of heavy lorries zooming along between us seemed to convince him or her that a sudden charge across the road would be a little unwise, for us anyway.
It's a completely different experience seeing this sort of wildlife from the open road, as opposed to inside a commercial wildlife park with their pretty high entrance fees. From what we can tell from guidebooks and other visitors, entrance fees have tripled in three or four years, yet still the numbers of animals declines, except for a few particularly successful species.
So we watched our elephant doing lunch for a while before continuing, leaving the tarmac road nearer Mombasa.
There are two routes to Tiwi, on the tarmac through Mombasa where the potholes and the estuary car ferry cause suffocating traffic jams.
.... seventy miles of not-difficult dirt, mud and stones through a few nice little villages and the Shimba Hills.
Then our campsite on the beach.
It was hot and humid, not much below 30C by sunrise, but plenty of showers, swimming and beers on site.
And rain the night before we departed back to Nairobi, and most of the following day. A little late, we had found the rainy season!
The rain followed us off and on the three days back to Nairobi, where our journeys went in opposite directions.
Before we departed last year, Caroline and Beau decided that they would have to fly home from Nairobi to continue paid employment. Then return back here early in October to collect their bikes from storage and either go north to Khartoum if tentative job offers materialise, or continue on to Cape town.
They left their bikes at Jungle Junction on Friday night,
and boarded a taxi for the airport and home.
So, congratulations to them on reaching Nairobi and Mombasa, and thanks for everything they contributed to the adventure. We hope it continues later in the year.
Now I'm planning my next steps, or turns of the wheels.
After the heat of the coast I'm drawn westwards towards Lake Victoria and Uganda. An option that comes with many recommendations from other travellers.
But I have a three-month Kenyan visa and three months road tax for the bike, which I might as well use up before leaving the country.
Particularly as I seem to find myself in the middle of a manic rush-hour.
The football World Cup starts soon, so the roads south, and the campsites, are full of overlanders heading for the big kick-off.
When we arrived at Jungle Junction at the end of last week there was hardly room for our two little tents and three little motorbikes. The place was crammed with massive overland trucks, 4X4s, cars and more motorbikes, plus a huge marquee tent housing a sizeable band of fans from Spain and Portugal. They were bedecked with colourful banners on their trucks campaigning to host the World Cup in 2018 and 2022.
And the rains continue. Which, I'm assured, become worse if you head west towards Uganda.
So I'm content at the moment to stay at the bikers' 'home from home' and let the football fans, their trucks and marquees, and the rains, go on ahead.
Then the next stop looks like the tea-growing region of western Kenya which seems to have particularly nice places to stay, followed by Lake Victoria and Uganda.
Internet is still a problem here, all the power went off at around 10am and now there's an angry thunder storm circling around. So don't know when contact with the outside world will recommence. There's a generator here, but only for the workshop (get the priorities right!) and I'm using a battery-operated device to get this update typed.
The Nairobi newspapers publish a full-page timetable each day for all the areas that will be without power between 9am and 5pm that day, and the local supermarket has TV screens showing which areas will be without water in the few days ahead.
Consequently this place has a few massive water tanks and pumps dotted around the house and yard that fill whenever there is water in the mains, so as to keep the toilets working for the sudden arrival of dozens of football fans. But in the last few days a water tanker has twice had to be brought in to keep the tanks full.
Which leads to a little story I'll venture to include for anyone interested.
A few days ago one of Chris's mechanics set up an electric water pump screwed to the top of a vertical steel pipe that he'd attached to something down inside an underground manhole, situated in a large concrete slab by one the the camping areas.
A large and very old hose pipe ran from the pump along the ground towards the office annex building nearby. Then the hose disappeared somewhere beyond out of sight.
I happened to walk by at the same time as Chris, after the pump had been powered up.
"Is that a bore hole down there?" I innocently enquired, assuming he was trying to keep the water tanks full.
"The opposite, more or less," was the reply.
He then tried to politely explain that all the compound's sewerage was channelled into a large cavern under the concrete. There, "solids and liquids separate, the solids decay naturally, the liquids flow off into the land beyond the end wall over there, where nature takes care of that as well."
"But it's been raining so much the land over there can't take anymore liquid and it's backing up. So now and again we have to pump it over to the other side of the compound where the land is less waterlogged. It's an African solution! It means we're having sufficient rain this year."
The hosepipe is a magnificent African solution in itself, having thick insulating tape wrapped around it every ten inches or so, neatly tied in a bow here and there.
And hardly leaks at all.
Weather forecaster's footnote:
The other day Chris said the rains might be coming to an end. There'd been a couple of sunny days (but still with some rain), and his tortoise had come out of hibernation.
"Not a reliable sign - it's not a Kenyan tortoise, and as there's no winter here, the local ones don't hibernate anyway. But we can always hope!"
Now I notice that the staff have rolled up the large carpet in the lounge and stacked it away in the corner. Not a sign that they expect dry weather to break out soon.
When we first arrived in Nairobi a few weeks ago, Bodo and Sabine, and Kathy and Jonathan were also here in their trucks, so we had a session of comparing and swapping photographs.
Mainly photos of the Trans East-African Highway, the Moyale to Isiolo 'most-discussed road in all Africa'.
So here's a selection of their photos:
Huila and Eva service their bicycles in the campsite in Addis Ababa before the long trek to the Kenyan border, and THAT road.
Kathy and Jonathan's Volvo truck gets going on the dirt and stones.
The first of very many rest stops.
L-R: Beau, Caroline, Jonathan, Sabine, Kathy, Ken. Bodo behind the camera.
Three motorbikes head off into the distance, the route blocked by a dense cloud of dust behind a speeding bus.
"What do you think of it so far??"
Stopping for our second overnight wild camp.
Tiny roadside village the next day.
The first camel traffic-jam.
Kathy tries Caroline's Serow for size at another rest break.
Beau comes steaming around the bend .....
...... hurrying to another rest stop.
And gets away third behind Bodo on Caroline's bike in first place followed by Ken.
And quickly makes up the distance.
"How many overlanders does it take to change a fuel filter?"
Caroline's needs changing at another rest stop.
Bodo and Jonathan let them get on with it.
Second camel traffic-jam.
Another roadside village.
Taking photos of local tribal peoples isn't really a welcomed activity. But from inside a large truck it can be done discreetly.
Here, three motorbikes have just passed by - another trio of crazy Europeans.
There they go......
Smallholding near the village of Laisamis where .......
....... we spent our fourth night on the road.
Our fifth day. Next stop - Isiolo.
Local police move the tyre-shredder out of the way at another village.
Unfortunately, the different tribes in Northern Kenya don't always get on very well.
It doesn't affect us tourists though. We are always welcomed.
The road narrows and changes its character slightly as we are diverted off of the main track a few miles before reaching the start of the tarmac and the approach to Isiolo.
Colobus monkeys are quite common in Northern Kenya, especially near tents where food is likely to be found.
This one's counting the motorbikes in and out.
It's the middle of the day here at Jungle Junction and I've just made some tea in the kitchen with the help of a torch.
This is now the serious rainy season.
A noisy thunder storm is circling overhead blocking out all the daylight, the power has gone off, and there is no mains water.
But never mind, I'm no longer camped in the grounds - they flooded out a few days ago. So I'm in a proper bed in a proper room.
And the wisdom of rolling up the lounge carpet is there for all to see. The night before last, the rainwater was two inches from entering through the back door, which is about ten inches above the garden path outside. Making eight inches of flood water, at its height, across the camping area.
So the occupants of the three tents, crazy enough to be camping in this season, including me, found space in the lounge for that night.
The difficulty was wading through the floodwater to reach your tent to retrieve whatever you needed for the night. Like mosquito repellant, which was badly needed in the lounge that night. There was no way to be sure of walking on the zig-zag pathway, hidden by the water, rather than in the squelchy muddy flower beds either side.
But, all three tents stayed dry inside during the night, which they wouldn't have with people inside them.
Last night wasn't quite so bad. Still not possible to see the pathway under the water, but the tents were on grass once again instead of on water.
And again, the inside of my tent stayed dry, but was invaded by hundreds of tiny ant-like creatures that seemed to be multiplying ferociously in this wet weather. A similar thing had happened a few days before, and they had invaded my tent through two small holes in the floor. I repaired those, but it was a mystery how the holes got there. They were definitely not caused by thorns or spikes or anything similar.
This morning there were five new holes, allowing hundreds of the insects inside, and still a mystery as to how the holes get there. It was lucky the rain stopped during the night before the floodwater reached the tent floor.
It looks to me very much as though the creepy-crawlies are chewing the holes themselves, which is pretty bad news if the floor of the tent isn't proof against such activity. So I took some photos which I'll email to the makers in Derbyshire and ask what they think. Whatever that is, the tent is pretty useless for now in wet weather, or anywhere these insects exist - which could be everywhere in southern Africa for all I know - and is now packed away.
Just as well maybe. In the time to write this, the water has risen about four inches on the grass outside. Time for more tea......
............... and now the light has returned, the rain has ceased, and the waters are receding. That was three inches of rain in twenty minutes the locals tell us.
But it's easy to become blase about being in Africa, especially if you're English and it's the rainy season. I've run out of breakfast stuff and need to visit the supermarket a few miles away to stock up, with only an hour and a half of daylight left. So I study the clouds, their movements, and calculate that I should be able to dodge any more cloudbursts if I'm quick, just like going to Waitrose in Caterham on a rainy day back home.
But this is Kenya, and I find that the tarmac at the bottom of Kingara Road has disappeared, buried under the mud washed down the hill by the day's rains. So this isn't like going to Caterham after all - I must remember that!
The knobbly tyres get me across the mud OK, then it's back into Caterham mode when I enter the supermarket. Weetabix and McVities Digestive fill the shelves and there's even Guinness, albeit a 'Foreign Extra' version, brewed here in Nairobi, not on the River Liffey.
Then back into Kenya mode once again in the car park outside as everyone calls "Jambo! Karibu!" when they realise from my numberplate and luggage that I'm a foreigner.
And I reach Jungle Junction just before the big black cloud that was following me.
The supermarket, by the way, is in the suburb called 'Junction', hence the quaint name of this overlanders' bolthole, although it is actually in Lavington.
If power returns, and the internet is connected, maybe I'll post this update. But Scott, a Canadian on an F650 BMW riding around the world has just returned from the Eritrean embassy. Eritrean visas are like gold-dust just now so Scott invented a story about a Canadian-Eritrean twinning association of which he's the president, printed a letterhead at an internet cafe, and set off earlier today on his umpteenth visit to the embassy in his quest for a visa. He's just announced that this afternoon he had a personal audience with His Excellency The Ambassador so I'm sure there's going to be an entertaining and lengthy story to listen to.
Personally I'm hoping that someone will arrive soon who's going north and has travelled up Lake Tanganyika on the ferry. I've had a few recommendations to travel down the west side of Lake Victoria, into Rwanda and Tanzania and thence south to Lake Malawi via the Lake Tanganyika ferry. But I've met no one who can confirm that motorbikes are carried on the ferry, and the road alongside the lake has more horror stories attached to it than the Trans East-African Highway. Which might just mean that it's a brilliant road to ride.
............... the next morning, and it's sunny and dry, the power is on so there's a possibility of internet.
Scott was promised a visa by the Eritrean Ambassador yesterday afternoon and he's just returned from the Embassy waving his passport with visa inside. So in celebratory mood he leaves shortly to Moyale and the Ethiopian border. I'll leave when the time feels right, and when the odds of riding into three inches of rain in twenty minutes have lengthened a little.
In the meantime I have a brilliant large-scale road atlas of the whole of Africa to study for my journey south, very kindly given to me by Gareth, a South African living in Australia riding from Cape Town to Germany on a KTM Adventurer. This map even has detailed Lat and Long grids so is dead handy for entering data on my ancient GPS box.
So thanks are due to Gareth for that. Not only from me, but from a New Zealand/Japanese couple going north to whom I gave all the maps north of Nairobi from Gareth's atlas. I kept the maps south of Nairobi, so the whole atlas will get good use.
Gareth's story of visa difficulties is similar to Scott's. He was planning quite sensibly to obtain his Ethiopian visa here in Nairobi. As were about four other north-bound groups who have been stranded here for around a month. Three weeks ago, the Ethiopian embassy here stopped issuing visas to non-Kenyans. No ifs or buts - no more visas for foreigners - no reason - end of story.
And there's no way of entering Ethiopia without that visa obtained in advance.
A British couple tried, departing about two weeks ago for Moyale, along the length of the Trans East-African Highway (yes, THAT road!) They thought they'd at least attempt to obtain visas at the border. But no, they were refused and had to drive all the way back here along the same road. They then did what all the other stranded groups have done, sent their passports and applications to the Ethiopian embassy in their home country.
That's what Gareth did. But the Ethiopian embassy in South Africa wanted to know how he was entering the country. We'd not heard of anyone being asked that before. Consequently they wanted to see his carnet and other bike papers, which told them that his bike was registered and purchased in Australia. Oh dear - no visa for Gareth - he could only enter Ethiopia on a vehicle registered in his home country.
So he too has been here for quite a few weeks, and recently received his passport back from South Africa with no visa. Last week he visited the South African Embassy in Nairobi to check if they could help. Well, as luck would have it, the South African Consul knows his Ethiopian counterpart quite well, made a phone call, and wrote a letter for Gareth to hand in at the Ethiopian embassy carrying a special request for a visa to be issued. And it was. So Gareth departed north about four days ago.
Now only one traveller is still stranded here, from England. He has his Ethiopian visa, issued by the embassy in London, in his passport. But his passport has been stuck in the customs office at East Midlands Airport for the last two weeks or more. It seems that UK customs didn't like the idea of his passport being returned, not to his accommodation address at Jungle Junction, but to a DHL office in Nairobi (where he had arranged to pick it up).
That's taken about a million phone calls to sort out and he hopes to be away north by the weekend.
So I see I have to be grateful for obtaining our Ethiopian (and Sudanese) visas so easily in Cairo.
And everyone says the same - Ethiopia is one of the big highlights on this route, as we have found, so everyone is determined to get into the country.
Now some photos - if the internet is working. A busy morning at Jungle Junction after the rains have receded. Remember, they come to you via Mombasa and the optical fibre cables along the Mediterranean..........
Here, big black afternoon clouds are gathering once more.
Scott (centre) loads up his BMW ready for the off.
Some of the camping area churned to mud.
It's still raining here, so I'm still biding my time.
And have found that it's quite a lot of work trying to organise and back-up all my photos, in addition to the ones that Caroline left with me and others received from fellow overlanders.
So here's a few of those, just to make use of them.
And some recent photos of the English weather here at Jungle Junction.
Now the flood has receded from the driveway, I can almost reach my bike.
No tents in the camping areas now.
Funnily enough, the only unflooded area in the whole compound is where customers' bikes are kept, awaiting work in the garage.
(And the area around the office annex behind).
A wet scene on the busy driveway.
And a lone rider heads out onto the Nairobi roads.
And some photos from previous journey highlights in Egypt.
At the summit of Mount Sinai. Caroline particularly wrapped up against the cold.
A Sinai coastal road.
Entrance to Ras Mohammad National Park on the southern tip of Sinai.
Setting up the kitchen at our Ras Mohammad campsite.
Another sunset, at 'Hidden Bay' on the southern tip of the park.
Strange mist effect on the way to Suez.
Pretty big ship on the canal passes pretty small bikes in the security zone (just before police moved us on).
Caroline and Beau and bikes at the Saqqara pyramids south of Giza.
Caroline and Beau and bikes at the Dashur pyramid south of Saqqara.
A break in the White Desert, part of The Western Desert.
Back here in Nairobi the rain has changed somewhat, from overwhelming short and sudden deluges (overwhelming for the camping and parking areas, that is) to the steady day-long rain that makes it feel like I'm back home.
The newspapers are carrying stories of serious flooding in various parts of the country with many fatalities. But also, an excellent tea harvest is expected.
So it looks as though the rainy season is bringing sufficient this year.
Travellers arriving here from the north have brought stories of trials and tribulations on the Moyale to Isiolo road, parts of which have been washed away, and other parts turned into big mud holes.
Motorbikes, fairly ordinary and heavy ones, still continue to arrive here though, with not too much drama.
Most of the travellers' trucks that stop here are fitted with heavy winches, and the drivers tell stories of the number of Kenyan goods lorries they've winched out of mud holes.
And of a few enterprising villagers. Who, finding a section of the road completely washed away, gatherered and transported huge quantities of branches and stones to make a long by-pass road, charging twenty dollars per car to use it, maybe twice or three times as much for goods vehicles.
Electricity and water go on and off irregularly as you'd expect and African life goes on.
So I must get ready to continue soon, particularly as almost everyone who was here when I arrived has departed. (Although not to western Uganda).
Today has been dry so far, but lots of power cuts, so maybe lots of rain not far away.
A young family in a Land Rover arrived a few days ago, also plannning to go round the west side of Lake Victoria. They are biding their time here too. It seems certain that whatever rain there is here, there's a lot more there.
....... a few days later....... the rain seems to be easing off the last couple of days. Lots of sunshine followed by rain in the evening and night. This morning looked as though my departure west may only be a day or so away - plenty of African sunshine and blue skies. But now, the power's off, the rain's started. So we'll see.
More news when internet availability coincides with something to report.
PS. It's not only necessary for the power and internet to be on to send emails and updates.
I've discovered that it's necessary for no one to be watching films online either, otherwise it would be quicker to write the email on a piece of paper, stuff it in a tin can and wait for it to squeeze down the piece of string to reach the pea can at the other end.
I'm sure, if I look hard enough around here, I'll see a cyber cafe called "Fiddler's Elbow Internet."
If not, maybe I'll open one.
That's about the third day in a row I've said that, so I left Nairobi this morning for the ride to Kericho, in the direction of the Ugandan border.
It was morning sunshine and blue skies on leaving the capital but there's a long climb up the side of the Rift Valley to almost 9000ft. Up there the clouds were black and threatening, and the bike once again was gasping a little at the lack of sufficient air to keep the fire burning inside.
It stayed dry, and the road then plunged back into the valley with magnificent sunny views of Lake Naivasha followed by Lake Elmenteita. Lake Nakuru completed the trio of scenic features along this part of the valley.
Then another long climb up the other side to Mau Summit where the ominous clouds returned.
This is tea plantation country. Tea bushes as far as you can see in any direction. And so green. A luminescent (when the sun momentarily broke through) bright green, all immaculately laid out and manicured. A topiarist's delight.
Rain is needed for all this of course, so it rained. Just a little, before I arrived at the Tea Hotel in Kericho. The camping there is pretty waterlogged, though not as bad as Jungle Junction at its worst, and the hotel rooms (built by Brooke Bond in the fifties) are fully booked. So the tent is back in service with some more repairs to the floor and we'll see what happens.
But the staff here say it's still the height of the rainy season, which goes on until July.
Oh dear. I knew it would be more rainy here than Nairobi - but lasting until July doesn't sound much fun.
So I'll see what happens, how the weather goes, and probably stick to my immediate plan for now of riding next to a recommended place outside of Eldoret, not far from here. (The last stop before the Ugandan border).
If things stay wet I can always head back east again to take the standard route south into Tanzania and onwards to Lake Malawi from there.
There seems to be some sort of folklore about Jungle Junction, that when people depart to continue their journeys they often return again for one reason or another. That happened with one or two travellers while I was there. Maybe I'll return a third time if the rains persist here.
No photos with this update. Now that Caroline and her camera are no longer here I'll try to remember to use mine now and again. Today - not much to photograph except black clouds.
At the Kericho Tea Hotel my repaired tent worked fine, and it hardly rained while I was there. But the ground everywhere is so waterlogged and muddy that camping isn't a very comfortable option so I found a very nice small hotel in town where I've been for a few days.
And Kericho is a nice laid-back sort of place. There isn't much traffic on the streets so the characteristic noise that you come to associate with the town is the clatter of dozens of treadle-operated sewing machines scattered all over the pavements of most of the streets.
Tailoring seems to be the main industry after tea growing. And I suppose the two go together in a way - it was probably a colonial tradition to take your afternoon tea properly dressed!
I've spent a couple of days exploring the town and seen only two other white faces, two Japanese who were here for a day, so there are no tourists as far as I can see except me.
Being a non-tourist type place, it's not a very comfortable option to explore the streets with camera in hand, and there aren't many things to photograph anyway. So I just tried a few street scenes:
Almost like Ethiopia - more people than cars on the street.
Small park on the right - Chai Square.
Then I came across this sign hanging on the verandah of a cosmetics shop, which I decided to investigate:
A close-up. And a tailor sitting at his treadle table, one of dozens on the pavements.
The sign led to this, and ............
...... Nelson and his two children coming out of the alleyway.
Well, you never know where these things will lead if you don't look.
Nelson introduced himself and his children with vigorous handshaking all round. He was curious why I was photographing an old sign outside his home. (He lived in the building next to the engineering emporium).
I explained my work back home.
"Let's go inside and meet the engineers," he said. And so we did.
Inside were the two owners of the business, a big lathe tooled up for some job or other, and tons of steel in disarray all over the little workshop. We exchanged the usual greetings, followed by Nelson insisting we go to his home for tea.
And so we did.
During most of the time, Nelson, his wife Patrice and their two children live in a single room in a compound of single rooms behind the machine-shop. Their room contains a large bed, filling half of it, with small bunk above for the children, a bench seat along a remaining side, and a charcoal stove on the floor opposite the bench.
We had tea with ginger from a flask and Nelson and Patrice wanted to know all about my journey. Another cup of tea later a young friend of the family came in wanting to know where I lived.
"Yes, but where in London?"
"In the south."
"No, what I mean is, near which football team?"
"Oh, they've been relegated haven't they. Arsenal is in the north isn't it?"
"That's who I follow."
And so it was English football again, about which I know very little.
Our friend realised that pretty quickly, so asked, "Crystal Palace, is that where the Queen lives?"
I explained about the Crystal Palace and about Buckingham Palace, and he definitely had an interest in London.
"Talking of glass, there's a tall round tower in the middle isn't there, with glass windows all around and the top revolves where you can see all of London. Is that right?"
I replied that I worked in there from time to time as an engineer, which was why I was photographing the sign outside. He looked a bit puzzled at that.
So we had an interesting interlude talking about London, followed by the weather, with Nelson confirming what the hotel manager had said, the rains continue until July.
"We only live here because of my work," he said.
"We have a nice house nearer the Lake (Victoria) which we visit about once a month, but it's too wet to live there and travel here each day for work until July. So we move out there then and stay until the end of the year. This year the rains came early, January, so I don't know when they will end."
Alternative travel plans were forming in my head.
He gave me one more piece of advice for forecasting the weather.
"If it's cold in the morning, until late morning, and then warms up by midday, there'll be lots of rain in the afternoon."
Nelson explained he was a salesman at a nearby insurance brokers and he would show me the town as we walked over there, as he's supposed to be at work. (But this is Africa......)
But first, everyone wanted photographs taken.
Nelson with some local children in the courtyard of the compound.
His own children didn't seem to want to be photographed with their Dad.
Patrice on the left with neighbours.
I had already walked around all of the town but thought it could be interesting to go with Nelson, and being with him would make it easier to photograph street scenes without people getting too curious or concerned.
More street scenes:
We left the tarmac on the way to the office ..........
...... and detoured via the market. This is a corner of the clothes market.
Nelson's office. It's a family business, and more photos were requested.
His sister, seated, is Operations Manager, his brother is Sales Assistant. Their secretary is on the right.
View from the office balcony.
On the way back there were more engineering signs to snap.
Maybe someone at Hillside Road could tell Keith he has a sister business in Kenya - Dalton Electronic.
This is where they train. And "Hotel and Butchery" signs are as common as "Engineering" signs.
A "Hotel" in Kenya is a cafe or cafeteria. So much the better if the Butcher is on site.
So, in Kericho it's easy to find an Engineer. I suppose with all the machinery needed to process the huge tea harvests, (harvesting is a continuous process, leaves being picked whenever it's not raining), and all the pavement sewing machines, you sometimes need to find one in a hurry.
As I'm not travelling much at the moment, this posting doesn't have much to do with the Cape Town journey as you've probably already guessed, so we'll continue with the engineering theme.
Internet services here generally seem to be unreliable, dependant on the weather, going off when the rain is heavy. As a consequence, mobile internet is pretty popular, particularly as mobile phone services cover most of the country using the latest technology, and is much more reliable than the ageing landlines.
So overland travellers in cars or trucks (and sometimes on motorbikes) usually carry their own laptops with a mobile internet USB stick to be able to update their websites using the country's mobile phone networks. And it was an interesting lesson back in Nairobi watching one in action.
A traveller can plug a USB stick, a shade smaller than a box of matches, into his computer, and the screen will show a data speed peaking at 2.2 Mbit/s with only two bars showing on the signal strength gauge. That's 2.2Mbit/s received off-air through an aerial inside the USB stick, encoded and decoded inside the stick and presented to whatever software the traveller is using to browse the web.
Now back in the seventies, when data rates of that sort of speed were first becoming available on telecoms networks, the government was first in the queue demanding those speeds on its own networks. And I worked on the engineering of one such installation. In fact it was the first shipment of 2Mbit/s systems from GEC (who made them at the time) to be used on a private network.
The terminal equipment on those systems comprised two racks, each about six feet tall, the size of two upright fridge-freezers. Something like these:
Closer view to give an idea of the size. There's an ordinary 3-pin socket outlet at the bottom of each rack.
These racks and the panels in them are all painted. If you scraped the paint off, it would never fit inside this:
A mobile internet USB stick.
Yet the modern-day equivalent of all the stuff in those two racks, that I worked on 35 years ago, does fit, with room to spare for the aerial and 4GB of storage card.
I can't begin to calculate how much room would be needed to house that amount of data storage in the seventies, but would guess at something around the size of the old disused Battersea Power Station in London. That springs to mind because certainly, to power such a huge collection of hard disc drives would have taken most of the output of that old electricity generating station. Now it all fits on half a postage stamp.
To put all this into context, I was actually pondering and reminiscing these huge advances in technology yesterday morning at breakfast. The conversation with Nelson's friend about working in the BT Tower had started it, and yesterday's paper carried the news that the mobile phone company Safaricom had published its annual results. It was front page news, as it's the fastest-growing company in Kenya, and one of the richest.
The overland travellers in Nairobi were using Safaricom mobile internet as the picture above shows.
Then, after breakfast, as I contemplated this massive progress in computers and telecoms during my career over the past 35 years, a bolt from the blue hit me for six, fully square-on.
I received two emails from a couple of BT friends, telling me that one of my closest working colleagues, the same age as me and who had retired shortly after I did, had died.
Les joined the 'TV Networks Engineering Division' of the Post Office in 1971, straight from graduating at University, and was teamed with me working on early cable-TV systems for a number of years. And we worked together for a good part of the following thirty years, staying in contact when our careers diverged from time to time.
When we both retired, another member of that old engineering division had set up a Reunion Club of retired Engineers that was particularly successful and well supported. It met twice a year at first but everybody enjoyed the get-togethers so much it grew to four times a year.
Les and I at one of our reunions, in Eastbourne, 18 months ago.
Don't know what was going on here - maybe I was teaching Les to ride a motorbike .......
But that still wasn't enough for Les and I and a few others, living all around the outskirts of London. We got together at various bars, cafes and restaurants almost once a month.
Also, various members of the club took advantage of the privileges and good contacts we had all gained over those thirty years, and managed to arrange, through somewhat unofficial means (it's easier to get forgiveness than permission) to hold at least three of our big reunions in the VIP suites right at the top of the Post Office Tower. (Now the BT Tower). With full VIP catering thrown in! I think Les got to all of those, as I think I did too.
(So the spontaneous conversation with Nelson's friend the day before this bad news arrived turned out to be particularly foreboding).
At the top of the BT Tower for our Christmas 2003 reunion. Les, centre, examines one of Des' collection of 'old boy' ties (I think).
A couple more photos from that reunion to show the view from the top and of the interior.
Some of the readers of this account will know these colleagues.
John Franklin and Don Whitehouse reminisce way up above the streets of London.
View of the bar area. I don't know who everyone is in this picture, but here goes ....
Tony Wright, Dennis Stephens (I think, behind John Fevin), John Fevin, Mick Barnes, Alan Witts, Des Duffy (far right).
For those interested, the strange curved line on the carpet is the join between the fixed floor and the bit that revolves.
If you want to keep your place at the bar, you need to be on the right side of this line, or the bar will disappear around the room. (Whether you're drunk or not).
So this is a very sad time, and contemplation is the thing at the moment. Of my departed colleague, and less so of the weather and travel plans which were the focus of my attention until yesterday morning's news.
A deluge has just started with thunder echoing all over the place. And I read, also in yesterday's paper, that Roberts Camp on Lake Baringo (where the hippos came out of the lake to feed on the grass around our tents) was hit by a storm and flood the day before, requiring some of the tourists there to be rescued. That's not far north of here so I'm beginning to think I'll return south and take the route to Tanzania.
Lake Victoria may have to wait another time.
So I'll offer a little anecdote that Les used to relate on social occasions when we were in polite company.
When he first arrived at our office in Finsbury Circus, fresh out of University, one of the projects underway was to test long lengths of the underground cable that we were installing for one of those cable-TV networks. This was new cable straight off the massive wooden drums, because the stuff that had already been put in the ground wasn't working very well and we suspected a manufacturing fault. A lot of space was needed for this so the work was carried out at a big Post Office vehicle depot in North London.
Les was to accompany me on this project as it was a good introduction to a lot of the division's work, but he was new to London having lived and studied in Glasgow.
However, he was happy to use the Underground to get to the site while I travelled there by motorbike. (So, there is some motorbiking in this posting after all).
I told him clearly the address of the depot, on the Holloway Road, and he had a nice new A-Z map, and one for the London Underground as well.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, much later that day I had done a lot of testing and was a tad worried. Les had not arrived. There were no mobile phones of course, and I knew neither his address nor home phone number. And no, he wasn't at the office.
Knocking-off time came round and I phoned the office once more. Ah.... Les had phoned earlier, he had got hopelessly lost and would be back in the office the next morning. Sigh of relief.
It seemed simple enough - I had given Les an address in the Holloway Road, a main London thoroughfare, which was the start of the London to Edinburgh Great North Road. But, Les was from Glasgow, maybe that was the problem??
No, it was this: he had a strong Glaswegian accent, and I, well, was born and bred in London.
So, when we left the office that morning and went our separate ways, Les expectantly looked up 'Olloway Road' in the index of his new A-Z.
It was nowhere to be seen.
He checked and double checked.
He looked at the Underground maps in Moorgate station.
Asked at the ticket office.
Asked a policeman.
All to no avail. No one understood the Glaswegian version of 'Olloway Road'.
So there we are, two Engineers separated by a common language.
He'll be missed.
He also gave us much entertainment with numerous stories of his trek to Everest Base Camp many years ago. This included graphic tales of a nasty abcess he developed on a somewhat tricky part of his anatomy during the trek. His travelling companion, Colin, from the same TV Networks division, had to attend to it now and again. Les couldn't reach it, you see.
Here's Les and Colin at our Eastbourne reunion, maybe remembering how they sharpened the scalpel before Colin got to work. Alan Gwynn on the left.
(Thanks are due to Pete Chatten for the photos of our reunions.)
Les was a great friend, and everytime I went on one of my journeys he would insist that I keep in touch with him, and send him accounts of my trip by email.
Since I set out in September last year on this one, he has often emailed me with comments about what I've written on this blog, and told me if it's been too long since my last posting.
"What have you been doing? Keep up the blog!" he'd say.
So this posting is for him.
A few friends and acquaintances have asked, What news of Caroline and Beau?
As well as the sad news about Les recently there's been much happening with my daughter and son-in-law.
Take a deep breath -
About two weeks ago Caroline had an interview by telephone with the British Council in Khartoum, for teaching and examining English.
They offered her the job straightaway - "Can you start Monday?!" crackled down the phone wires.
They realised that was a bit impractical and it became Monday week.
So, the current situation as I understand it (it sounds a bit chaotic) is that she's been frantically packing everything she needs to live in Khartoum and teach English to classes of Sudanese adults, having hardly unpacked everything needed to ride a motorbike across the Sahara and halfway down Africa. The British Council freights that lot to the Sudanese capital in the coming week.
A working visa is organised for a few day's time, for Beau as well (as her accompanying husband). They both also had to dash up to London for medicals, for the British Council medical insurance.
Caroline flies out in the coming week. To a hotel to start with while she finds a flat.
Not to be outdone, Beau has a job at the Khartoum College of Music and Drama but with a more 'African' timescale. That starts in August.
So he stays behind for a while to organise the hundreds of loose ends that will certainly pop out of the woodwork, and will try for a job at the British Council as well if he arrives there before August.
Then there are two Yamaha motorbikes in Nairobi which need to be in Khartoum.
So this blog awaits the exciting report of their return journey along the Trans East-African Highway and back into Ethiopia. Maybe there'll be a hundred miles or more of new tarmac by then - what a disappointing thought!
This is one of those bikes. On Day 1.
No photos for this entry, but I'm still sorting through earlier photos. So here are a few from the past.
This is Day 1. Caroline departing Eastbourne, for Dover and The Unknown.
Seven months later bike and rider entered Nairobi.
We stayed at Soft Beach Camp in Nuweiba in the Sinai for quite a long while, twice. So we got to know the excellent head waiter in their excellent restaurant.
This was our departure.
Classic photo of the Sphinx and Pyramid
And less usual angle.
Caroline and Beau at one of the Saqqara pyramids
Blue Nile Sailing Club, Khartoum. Where Caroline and Beau will soon be visiting again.
This is they, with one half of an English couple who were travelling south to north.
They gave us the best advice of anyone about travelling through Ethiopia and meeting the people there.
As a consequence we had a pretty good time with all the people we met, unlike many other travellers.
Even just before I left Jungle Junction to come here, a young English couple arrived from the north, saying how difficult it had been in Ethiopia.
They seemed to be quite interested in our experiences and the advice we had been given in Sudan.
More Observations in Kericho.
Here's another aspect of everyday life here. I had noticed that there are sometimes young lads busying themselves in the background behind all the tailors operating their sewing machines on the pavements. Then I noticed bags of charcoal here and there.
The other day I saw the complete picture. In a street out towards the mosque the ironing boards are on the pavement as well as the sewing machines. The tailor's assistant gets the charcoal glowing just right, sometimes with the help of a parrafin blowlamp, and tips it into the top of the iron. When the iron is at the right temperature (one dot for synthetics, two dots for cotton, three dots for linen. Is that right?) the assistant gets to work pressing the suits and dresses that have just left the sewing machine.
Coincidentally, when I looked in an ironmonger's window when out with Nelson the other day, there in the middle were two charcoal irons, a 'standard' and a 'de luxe' version, all shiny steel with brass embellishments. Now that would be a worthwhile souvenir from Kenya, something you definitely can't buy back home (I don't think so anyway).
It's like everything else - who says cordless irons are a new thing?
I have found in all 'third world' countries that ironmongers' shops proliferate in ordinary towns, and are incredibly interesting places to look in. But sometimes it's impossible to do so. Because, immediately identifiable as a western foreigner, you'll be besieged with requests to buy everything there is in the shop, (especially in Egypt) and there'll be insufficient common language to explain 'I'm only looking', or, even more difficult, to explain the thing you actually are looking for if that's the case.
Not so much a problem here as English is pretty universal. Maybe I'll go back to see how much the irons are, but I've nowhere on the bike to put one.
Nor the charcoal.
I did that once in Guatemala where the local ironmongers sold a shower heater that would definitely be impossible to buy in England, or anywhere else in Europe. It was cheap enough but I already had a carpet, a thick bedcover (to be used as a rug) and other stuff to somehow fit on the plane journey home.
Those shower heaters were used everywhere in South and Central America and were known as 'suicide showers', but only by westerners I think.
They have the same devices here in Africa, also on sale in the ironmongers. I won't buy one but here's how they work:
The device is a large-ish plastic shower head with water heater incorporated inside. It fits on the water pipe coming out of the wall and there's an electricity cable connected to it, often with completely bare wires. The holes in the head are tiny so the jets of water flowing out are also tiny. Quite important, that.
And, they are mounted quite high up, so unless you're VERY tall, you can't reach the thing to touch anything. Quite important, that.
Inside, the water flows over coils of bare wire connected to the electricity cable, via a crude switch which detects when the water is flowing.
To use these you just turn the tap on and listen for a 'zizzing' noise, which tells you the electricity is connected to the heating coils inside the head. The noise comes from the 240 volts in these bare coils which are immersed in the water that your standing under, so the electricity buzzes and zizzes as it flows into the water. And the water is heated instantly to quite a good temperature.
Most people know that water conducts electricity quite well, and that will explain why these things need to be fitted quite high, and also why the holes in the shower head are quite small. It relies on ALL the jets of water from the shower head changing into streams of water droplets BEFORE reaching your head, thus not conducting the 240 volts, which would upset your hairstyle if it reached it.
But it's an interesting experience to stand under one of these and raise you hands until you almost touch the shower head, with your fingers maybe one inch from the head itself. Check the nature of the floor your standing on first, that there are no metal fittings around the plug hole for instance. The tingling massage that travels down your fingers is quite something! Very tall people report a similar feeling on the head, especially if the shower is mounted not very high.
I know all this because in that ironmongers in Guatemala, even though I'd told the shopkeeper I'd decided not to buy the shower heater, (because I'd seen something else on his shelves), he let me take it out of the box and read all the fitting instructions (which were quite comprehensive I was pleased to find, having stood under quite a few of these), and look inside the thing as well, being partly dismantled ready for fitting.
Instead, he had a Guatemalan version of Monopoly, called Bancopoly. So we opened that up. It looked pretty fascinating, incorporating a journey around all the highlights of Guatemala, with the money being a pretty good copy of real Guatemalan money. So I bought that instead.
As I said, you find interesting things in third-world ironmongery shops.
Although not to western standards, these showers are actually reasonably safe. To be so, they rely on there being no earth cabling in the country's electricity wiring system. So you'll only ever see them in such countries, Africa, and Central and South America as far as I know. It would have been a bit dangerous to have brought one home and fitted it, but I had formulated the necessary circuitry in my head to make it safe before going into that ironmongers to check it out. But the Bancopoly won in the end. Just as well really, because on reflection, the circuitry necessary to make it safe in the UK would also, probably, have removed the tingling electrical massage down the fingertips! But there are plenty of them here in Africa to use.
Here's a photo of one.
More stuff in shops:
This is only for those of 'a certain age'.
If anyone mourns the passing of old domestic brand names, many of them are still alive here in Africa, and very popular, sold everywhere.
Eno stomach powders (Seen advertised on the TV here).
Omo washing powder.
Tide washing powder (I remember my mum being particularly annoyed when that disappeared from the shelves).
I think that's all Unilever stuff. There are many others that I don't remember right now.
It's raining here as usual, so I'm pretty certain tomorrow or Tuesday I'll return towards Nairobi (where I've heard it has remained dry) and head south for Tanzania. Maybe stop at Jungle Junction again which would be handy as I'll need to do an oil-change around about then.
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