"Ex Africa semper aliquid novi", quoth Pliny the Elder. There is some debate about what he really meant, but most likely he meant trouble. In this sense has the phrase been used most often since but I hope to reverse the trend and on these pages bring you the exciting, novel and curious out of Africa.

And wherever I am I hope to remain,
Ex Africa Semper Yours,

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Easy Rider II

The next day - riding in the sun is so much more pleasant!For all those that did not read the previous post a quick re-cap: night has fallen over Soroti in Eastern Uganda and I am about to make off into the darkness alone, on a borrowed motorbike, the jump-start mechanism of which I am unable to operate, in order to cover a distance of 130kms, on an unknown African road to an unknown destination, in pursuit of a female presidential candidate that promised to give me an interview the very same night; all the while increasing the distance that separates me from my luggage, which – for all I knew – was stolen that very morning by the Swiss who were now making their get-away towards the Kenyan boarder with all my belongings, among others, all my warm clothing and my fluffy racoon.

That is the background.

And where do I start with the journey itself? It was horrid. It was cold. It was lonely. It was scary up to a point of despair. But when it was over, and I will allow myself to jump ahead just this once, it was a feat and exploit worth committing to those pages.

During the first few miles I was too busy trying to get to grips with the bike to have the time to worry about my circumstances or what lied ahead. The gears worked the other way round to what I was used to so I kept switching down when accelerating, sending the bike to spasms that more than once nearly ended in my flying over the handlebars. Moreover, I had no idea where the flicker was and kept honking whenever I tried to flick. But then in Africa that amounts to more or less the same, i.e. they are both equally valid and polite ways of making other road users aware of my presence. Not that there were many of them but the odd sidewalk walker or other bike did appear every now and again and I was careful not to add to my problems by hitting them. Finally, it was pitch-dark and my bike was one of those old-type ones whose headlight only works when the throttle is open. This meant that when I did not accelerate the light would go off, leaving me blind as a bat without echolocation. Now, all the villages on the Soroti-Lira road have speed bumps and quite steep ones at that. That meant that I had to drastically decelerate before approach and, just in the crucial moment before the speed bump, as I was preparing to break in order to avoid sending the handlebars straight into my teeth, I was entirely devoid of light and therefore of any idea where the speed bumps is and where I am steering. At least that kept me entertained.

Once I have ridden enough to feel confident with the bike itself, I could start worrying about the petrol. Out of completely unreasonable stinginess I have only poured 5 litres into the tank. I had a vague recollection what my bike at home burns for ‘a hundred’ – about 5 litres. But then I could not at all recall if that was a hundred miles or kilometres! And that’s a difference when the distance I am supposed to cover is 130km. Damned be the confusing British non-metric system! I swore under my breath and wondered if that was how the NASA guys who confused their pounds with kilograms sending a space probe crashing down felt.

Now you might be wondering why not just fuel up on the way. Indeed, this thought also crossed my mind. But I was loath to do it for two reasons. Firstly, I was desperate to make good progress and cover the distance as quickly as possible to meet my interview deadline. Stopping would mean avoidable delays – there were no ‘real’ petrol stations and I would have to ask for bottled petrol in the huts – and with every village I passed I was telling myself that it would probably be fine to fuel up at the next one.

In reality there was another reason why I kept putting the fuelling up off. It was much more powerful – it was so powerful to overcome my anxiety about running out of petrol as well as my ever-growing wish to stop to warm up my aching and cold muscles. That reason was fear.

It is hard to describe just how dark a moonless African night is. And, of course, I had been, walked and slept in dark places, where not even a flicker, not even a haze of far-away human abode with electric light could be seen. But I had never driven on a pitch dark road like that on my own, where the only source of light is the faint, narrow beam of my bike. This little, unstable patch of light is my only destination, the only guide – as a matter of fact it is the only reality because everything else is invisible in the dark and it is only that light that creates objects in front of me. I open up the darkness with my feeble light, not knowing what obstacles or dangers it shall reveal; and as soon as I’ve had a chance to catch a glimpse of the obscure shapes, the darkness is quick to close behind me; leaving me feeling exposed, visible, naked in the very light that allows me to move forward. I tried to make myself small and inconspicuous by lying low on the bike but I knew the treacherous light and the roar of the engine gave away my presence for miles around.

One might think that in these circumstances approaching the rare orange glow of fires and torches of the villages would bring comfort and be a welcome change. I thought so too in the first village I approached. I wanted to get the petrol and ask for directions (not that it was necessary – there was but one paved road). But as I slowed down and started rolling towards a group of men sitting by the fire, a sudden inexplicable fear ceased me. They did not seem to have hostile intentions, they were obviously just very curious. But then how could I be sure? If they did, what would stop them from taking my bike, my money? I felt that my only safety is in staying on that bike; as long as I’m on it and the engine is running I’ll be alright. So I pushed on past the villages, trying not to look white, lost or female, more or less in that order.

Keeping the motor running was vital not only for the reasons of safety. As I have already mentioned I had no idea how to kick-start the bike. The two times I had to start it I had someone to do it for me. And given my fear-induced reluctance to engage with any human beings met on the way, I knew I would be stuck should I let the engine choke. Alas, that I did. I had to stop to rearrange myself on the bike and was not quick enough with the revving. Oh, the unbearable silence that engulfed me! I was close to tears. With the leg still aching from the burn I sustained during my first attempts I gave the silly thing a mighty, angry kick. And lo and behold! it started from the first! I admit that might have been because the engine was warmer. But given that from that day on I never had a problem with kick starting a bike I will only say that necesitas est mater studiorum indeed.

If all these were should not be reasons enough to qualify this journey as a modern Odyssey, I have to give account of last final foe that I had to battle: the biting cold. Cold, hunger and weariness are not conditions whose magnitude and debilitating effect is easy convey to those who are warm, sated or rested. I will try nevertheless. I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and trousers which left my calves bare and exposed to the constant rush of chill air. After an hour’s drive through the slightly damp, cold night I was trembling so badly I could hardly hold on to the handlebar. I had a shawl which I tried in vain to spread in front of me as a wind-screen – in vain, as it constantly flew up onto my face blocking my view. In order to shield from the wind then, I tried to lie flat on the petrol tank, closer to the delightfully warm engine. That was by far the warmest position but a highly dangerous one as I could not keep my balance very well that way. The added advantage of this position was that it minimised the number of huge, fluffy moths that would fly into my face and eyes at regular intervals. They were more a nuisance than a danger but I the soft splat with which they would bounce of my face was highly disturbing, not to say disgusting. Shivering from the cold and the occasional fluffy touch I rolled on.

Luckily, the road to Lira is exquisite. Smooth, fairly straight and well marked. I had no fear of getting lost but I did worry that I would never get to Lira in time to get my interview. The kilometres dragged slowly despite my best efforts. Throughout my drive I was in touch with a young journalist from Betti’s entourage who organised the interview for me. As I was calling hour after hour to tell him with embarrassment that I would be yet another hour late, he kept reassuring me that I am not too late for the interview. He also very kindly offered to find me accommodation in Lira.

It took me two and a half hours to drive so I rolled into Lira just before midnight. Naturally, it was too late for any interviews. I met Dean in town and we drove together to our hotel. I don’t know what I expected but I certainly did not expect a place that basic and that dirty. Moreover, we had to share a room with Dean as no other rooms were free; there was also no running water. I would have cried if my mind were not occupied by a comic twist – both my cicerone Dean and the hotel manager insisted I roll the motorbike into my room as no other place is safe. I open my eyes wide at the suggestion of rolling my bike through the hotel’s lounge and into the room but as they seemed to be serious that I did – it did not fit through the door but I left it just outside our room, blocking nearly the entire corridor.

Only then I could sit down and think. Or rather just sit down. I was so exhausted, overwhelmed, hungry, confused and aching that I could not gather a thought. I could only blankly stare. I noticed that the scalding on my leg turned into a disgusting, puffy blister the size of a hockey puck. Only very slowly Dean joyful chattering got to me and I realised he is suggesting late dinner. We went out to town for some nyama choma. He and another journalist were so talkative and at the same time impressed by my feat and so admiring that nolens volens I started cheering up.

It started dawning on me that my adventure is over and that I have made it. I was aching but safe, tired but within a walking distance of a bed, no longer hungry and with an interview re-scheduled for first thing the next morning. I did not have my luggage, and I still had to go back but that was something I would worry about the next day. I did what I set out to do, despite no minor setbacks. I was proud, happy and tired. I slept like a rock.

No comments:

Post a Comment