Before I left Kenya I spent a week in Sagana doing some long awaited white water activities that included a near drowning. With special thanks to Savage Wilderness, read about it here:
A guest post by the wonderful Gypsy Queen who opened her mind and heart to the ways of a bartering nomad. She showed me love, art, inspiration, creation and fed me words of wisdom which I adhere to every day (well, most days).
She comforted me during every hospital visit where I was at the whim of the doctors. She introduced me to a bounty of awesome friends. And she provided a patient ear to chew on whenever my heart and soul needed unraveling
If you’ve ever met her, then you know she truly is an Unbound Gypsy Queen.
Check out her amazing talent on Facebook: Unbound Ether Photography.
From the Gypsy Queen:
Please note, I don’t call or refer to myself as the Gypsy Queen but do so here because the Nomad King has generously given me this title in his memoirs and for continuity’s sake, I must respect that in this missive.
It is necessary to admit that I never thought I’d be looking at the opposite side of the Indian Ocean before me. The same trade winds that blew north along the eastern-facing Kenyan coast one year ago, are the ones that are blowing along the western-facing Indian coast, where I am sitting now, one year later, in the little seaside village of Ashvem in Goa, India.
It has been several months now with this testimonial on my plate of things to devour, process and respond to. From day one with the Nomad King, timing has been everything and this missive to The Universe is no different.
Milestone Moments in one’s life have to be patiently awaited for, and even then, it’s only in hindsight do we realise the beauty in those moments. All the pieces of the puzzle needed to fall into place to bring you to that Milestone Moment. When that last dot joins the rest, completing the circle and finally, realisation sets in.
I think of it as Resolution.
Yesterday was one of those days for me. Almost one year ago the Nomad King and I first collided on our paths in Kilifi Creek along the Kenyan coast. I was living and helping build Musafir the boat, and grow the community that surrounded it.
Little did I know that this scruffy, ruggedly handsome Nomad that washed up on our shores was about to jump start my life and put it straight into high gear. Unbeknownst to me at the time, he was exactly who I had asked The Universe for, just two weeks prior to our meeting.
But that’s a different story.
Freedom has always been a major theme in my life but never once did I imagine that I was about to be exposed to a new kind of freedom, one I only vaguely knew existed, let alone imagine my own journey taking a radical twist the day the Nomad King and the Gypsy Queen met.
I have the spirit of a gypsy, one who must simultaneously follow the wind and intuition, the stars and the dusty road, the fires of the heart and rhythm of the earth, for they are all one and cannot work alone, in order to truly be happy and healthy in life.
The day we hit the road for the first time a new kind of adrenaline became known to me. My whole being was vibrating with a sensation, a whisper almost, of a whole new world tingling at my fingertips. Each physical step forward, packs and tents and camera equipment included, was a step towards the Unknown.
And what greater high than the Unknown?
Every facet of bartering and hitch hiking reminded me of a way of life that addresses the need for living simply that is almost entirely lost to us today – in theory and in practice. Traveling without money, relying on the kindness of strangers to voluntarily take us to the next destination and then, conjuring faith in humanity, all the while constantly renewing this personal relationship with the earth’s geography, space and time.
All vital aspects of bettering one’s connection to the pulse of Life and The Universe.
I thought I was already pretty well connected, so imagine my surprise when I discovered I had only just scratched the surface, that below sat a locked box of life’s mysteries and the Nomad King held the key.
And open that box I did! Quickly. For the road has many teachers, and one must keep up! Every lesson learned on the road with the Nomad King made up for every wasted day that I spent trying to get an education in formal schooling.
He showed me then, and continues to show me a thousand different ways how a person can give and collect love and kindness. Every barter was a gift that we received and a gift we gave in return; a pure exchange of respect and compassion. Every story swapped, every song, every article, every photo, every second of footage, every peal of laughter, every meal, every sanctuary, every kilometer, hug, handshake and ‘hello’ is given and received in gratitude. Very quickly this cup of gratitude spills over, washing over one’s being like a glorious swell.
A surfer’s wet dream.
Though I have bartered many things in my life, I never fully realised the power that lay in an exchange devoid of anything that even remotely smells like money. I’ve always loved to barter, little keepsakes and presents sent out and returned into the world; reminders of a kindred spirit’s touch.
Sometimes leaving something behind in a place that you may never return to again is like leaving a piece of your legacy. It has always felt like that for me with every installation the Nomad and I created together. A part of our story, not just a barter, but a mark that we were once there. That we loved, laughed and created something beautiful . Something that place inspired in us. Our response to the world in the form of beautiful artwork, song, written word.
Through the life of a Gypsy and a Nomad many kilometers are traversed, many souls encountered, many connections welded together on a string, like beads, each individual but essential in completing the Whole.
So from place to place we travelled, each time making a mere outline, allowing the dots to complete themselves, not worrying about plan B (at least not the Nomad. I, on the other hand, had to learn that there is never a plan B), and simply trust in the process.
Many a time the Nomad gently tossed my philosophical ideas about The Universe back at me – The Universe will never give you more than you can handle, being a favourite. An undeniable truth (among others) that would always bring me back to my centre and the moment I’d let go of fear and doubt, the road would magically open up again, sending us just the right ride, or just the right barter, right when we needed it the most.
For example, 70kms shy of our day’s final destination at the lakeside town of Kisumu, Kenya, while waiting for almost an hour by the roadside with barely a car stopping for us and with the sun setting, I frustratingly asked the Nomad what plan B is.
And he looks at me simply and says, “There is no plan B. Just plan A – we get to Kisumu.”
It took a while, but the moment I resigned myself to whatever fate befell us, a pick-up truck slowed down and the kindest driver the road has ever sent me (I say ‘me’ because I know the Nomad has met many a kind driver and I don’t want to take anything away from them), not only took us to Kisumu, but paid for our bed and a couple of meals for our bellies.
On the latter half of our Ugandan trip in Mbale, the Nomad fell terribly ill and between a dozen bathroom calls had to be rushed to the hospital with a horrendous ear infection.
The kind souls of Sukali Hostel where we were being hosted, let us stay for days without insisting that he perform. Insisting he get better first, feeding and providing us shelter without question.
Cut to yesterday:
This Gypsy is in limbo at the moment, hanging out along the coast while my new roomy and I await our monsoon retreat to begin in our new home in the hills of Goa. My friends Adrien, Justine and Emma left on their mini-vacation to the big, bad city of Bombay, leaving me to my own devices.
Having been back in India almost a month now, I’ve had to shift gears once again and adapt to a more conventional way of life here. Namely, paying for transportation, accommodation and meals.
Earlier this week I found some distant relatives in a wonderful creative space called Vaayu where artists, travellers and surfers flock to during the cooler, busy seasons. The end of the season is upon us, most places have shut and the majority of people have begun heading for the Himalayan foothills where life is much cooler.
On Thursday morning I made a sincere intention, took a leap of faith and approached the Vaayu tribe to see if I could barter work – any type of work – for a bed. Though there are many people out there who are doing this, it was the first time I was approaching a community/business to let me in, without having any money to offer, alone and in India.
They have never been approached in this way either, although they do host an artist residency program which attracts a very colourful group of people, which has made them open to the barter way of life and those that live it.
Needless to say, they accepted my offer and even offered me three meals a day. So here I am now, working on this piece, reflecting on my life and watching the last dot connect itself to all the other dots that have led me to this moment, closing the circle – a Milestone Moment that marks the end of one chapter in my life and the prophetic beginning of another.
As the Nomad King likes to say, “The end is the power of the beginning.“
And I have all this because one year ago, a scruffy, ruggedly handsome Nomad washed up on Kilifi’s shores and I followed my gypsy heart.
I’ll call this, Resolution.
Although this one happened a few months ago, it took me some time to come to terms with it. Here’s a short account of my climb up Nelion Peak on Mt Kenya with the awesome folks at African Ascents as published in Africa Geographic:
A few months back, I headed up 4,985 meters on Mt Kenya’s Point Lenana, third highest peak in Africa. It was one of the toughest, physical and mental moments I have ever been through.
Thanks to Julian and Tom of African Ascents and to Stocky, Face and Turkish for the great company and Jacob the machine and Joffery the camp cook.
Click here to read about the experience.
A few months back, in preparation for my ascent of Africa’s second highest peak, Mt Kenya, I joined African Ascents for a fly-fishing expedition. Here’s a snippet as published on that wonderful platform, Africa Geographic magazine:
“What’s plan B?” the Gypsy Queen asked.
It was getting dark and we had only reached Kericho on our way to Kisumu where our friend, Toto, was willing to host us for the night before we’d continue to the border and hit Jinja.
Just like the last time we hitched to Kisumu, this town seemed to not want us to reach our destination, resulting in us pitching our tent in the AP barracks (Administrative Police).
The day had started late. We had joined Jonathan, Camilla and Aleks to camp in Hell’s Gate National Park on the outskirts of Naivasha, to celebrate Aleks and Jonathan’s birthdays. After leaving the park we found ourselves on the highway by 13:00.
Our first hitch took us to Nakuru where the driver dropped us on the outskirts of town. From there we progressed slowly on a truck that bounced us to a point where GQ couldn’t handle it anymore and we got off in the middle of a tiny town. Another ride took us Kericho as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. We hiked outta town and took the road heading up to Kisumu.
Not a single car was stopping and the Gypsy Queen again asked, “What’s plan B?”
“There is no plan B,” I said, grumpy from the day’s slow progress. “We reach Kisumu. Full stop.”
A pick-up truck appeared and passed by slowly, the driver indicating that he had room for just one.
“He’s slowing down,” GQ said, following the truck.
“He’s only got space for one,” I said, keep my attention to the lack of oncoming traffic.
“I think he’s stopping,” she said.
I turned back and saw that brake lights were applied. It appeared that he was contemplating on whether or not to take us. Finally he pulled over and I ran up to him.
“Kisumu,” smiled Stephen when asked about his direction. “OK, let’s go,” he grinned, motioning his 11-year-old son, Michael to hop to the backseat.
We threw our gear into the tray and, breathing a sigh of relief, indulged our driver with our story of hitching, bartering and today’s struggle.
“Where are you staying in Kisumu?” he asked.
It had been five hours since we messaged Toto and he had yet to respond.
“We figure we’d just show up at his doorstep,” I said.
“Well,” Stephen began, “I’m staying at a hotel in town. If he doesn’t answer, I am happy to provide you with a room, dinner and breakfast.”
I blinked, staring at Stephen in the darkness before swiveling to face GQ who couldn’t believe the words coming out of our driver.
“When I was in Switzerland,” he regaled, “a stranger helped me out on the road. I feel like this is my chance to give back through helping you.”
Indeed, Karma works in mysterious ways.
By the time we hit Kisumu we had lost all contact with Toto. Something was up but we didn’t know what (we’d later find out that even though Toto was doing worthy work in Kenya through his NGO, Cheap Impact and building a dome house to help out with an orphanage and fund raising, the Kenyan government was deporting him for the above ‘crimes’).
“Stephen,” I turned to our happy-go-lucky driver, “I think, if it’s alright with you, that we’ll take you up on that offer.”
He grinned. “Not a problem,” he said.
At the hotel, he organised a room for us. “Let’s meet in an hour for dinner.”
At 21:30 we chowed down on tilapia, caught fresh from Lake Nalabulu (aka, Lake Victoria) on which the city of Kisumu sits. The city became world-recognised when it was discovered that President Obama’s step-grandmother lives in a village on the outskirts.
An hour later we were in bed.
The next morning we met Stephen and Michael for breakfast. After the meal he took us out to the Kisumu Airport where we parted ways.
“Your father is a great man,” I said to his son.
GQ and I still had some smokeables with us so we decided to roll a small one and walked down the highway. When we finished and were in a comfy high, we crossed the road and hitched a ride about 20 Ks out of Kisumu with a young couple. We hiked through the small village and hitched a ride that dropped us in the middle of nowhere. Lush green fields and banana trees surrounded us as we found a mango tree that provided some shade from the baking sun.
We rolled another happy stick and puffed it out before hiking down the desolate road.
“No cars,” I pointed out. But we were in high spirits and were happy to continue to hike.
We came upon a shady corner where we figured, “May as well roll that last one,” GQ suggested. No point crossing the border with arresstable excuses.
We sat down and smoked, keeping an eye out for vehicles. Three trucks passed and by the time we finished smoking all we saw were some bodas. Until a car pulled over. Tinted windows greeted me as I crashed through the roadside bushes to reach the passenger side window.
“Where you going?” I asked the two shady looking characters.
“Busia,” answered the passenger, giving me a suspicious look. I instantly became wary and my sixth sense kicked in.
After explaining our penniless ways, they agreed to take us to the border town. I ran back to grab my packs and GQ. The passenger had stepped out to water the bushes and upon seeing the Gypsy Queen suggested I sit in the front seat so he could sit with her in the back.
I instantly went to Delta Orange and as I grabbed the handle of the back door said with the confidence of someone about to voluntarily wrestle a bear, “It’s OK –” motherfucker – “I’m good in the back,” and shut the door as he reluctantly sat in the front.
He laid out all his attention (and intention) on the Gypsy Queen while I sat quietly observing his every move and the driver. Both seemed to be street hustlers and I noted the position of the hand brake should things go haywire.
“You are very quiet,” the passenger turned to me after about 20 minutes.
“I’m just tired,” I lied, trying not to giving him a death stare, alert and ready for anything.
An hour later they dropped us by the border without incident. We hiked past the harassing bodas and got stamped out of Kenya.
“I gotta feeling the Ugandans are gonna give me some bullshit issues about getting an East African visa,” I said to GQ.
The East African visa costs $100 USD and lets you have multiple entries over three months to Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya. The Ugandan visa is at the same cost. But I’ve heard stories from the Ugandan side where they refuse or cause hassles claiming they can’t issue the visa because they don’t want to share with the other two countries the hundred dollars.
It was just after lunch and the 24-hour border post was empty. I stood in line with GQ who, as a Kenyan student, had no issues getting her interstate pass.
And then my turn came up.
“Hi,” I smiled. “I’d like the East African visa.”
“You cannot get it here,” said the customs officer behind the glass. “Get it in Kenya.”
“But the Kenyans said I can’t get it there,” I tried to remain calm. “They’ll just send me back here. You’re not gonna play ping-pong with me.” Asshole.
“You cannot get the East African visa,” continued the officer. “You will abuse it.”
Abuse it? How the fuck can anyone abuse a visa? “It’s my right to get an East African Visa and you must, by law, give it to me.”
Meanwhile, a busload of overland tourists had lined behind me.
“Step aside,” said the officer.
I did as told while GQ tried to calm me down.
“Motherfucker,” I hissed. “I know he’s gonna give me the visa but why do they have to put me through this fucking hassle and waste our time?”
The overlanders were also refused the visa, told that they had run out of the visa stickers. I approached another officer who took my passport and tried to come up with excuses for not issuing me the visa.
“Look, I’m not getting a Ugandan visa,” I tried to contain my anger. “You’re gonna give me the East African one anyway so why are you creating this hassle?”
The overlanders stood to the side and suddenly another officer came in with a fresh booklet of stickers. The officer I was talking with finally placed my passport under their pile.
When I was finally stamped in I said, “You guys are useless. Instead of welcoming foreigners you have to cause chaos. Schmuks,” and I walked away with GQ to hit the road.
It was almost three PM before we finally got a ride to Jinja on a truck. The driver pulled into a weigh station that had a queue of trucks a mile long. After we got through the driver announced that there was a problem in the truck so GQ and I hightailed it to the highway where we waved down a car that took us to Jinja.
We caught up with our old friends, Teresa and Saleem at The Black Lantern where we had been invited back to create another art installation.
“Need a smoke, a shower and a hug from your kids,” we said as we settled into the banda prepared for us. The Nile River welcomed us with a magical sunset as the long day on the road came to a slow end.
“I found your sandals,” Sophie said stopping me in the carpark of her restaurant, Cape Chestnut.
I was packed and ready to go, lacking my sandals. I simply couldn’t remember where they were. Sophie had been kind enough to allow me to use her shower in her house for the time I spent in Nanyuki, working with African Ascents. And it was at her digs that I found them.
I whipped off my heavy hiking boots and slipped on my preferred foot attire and with a renewed skip in my step, hit the highway. My first ride was with Isaac, a business man who was also a chess master.
“My son is Kenya’s chess champion,” he said proudly. “He competes internationally. Do you play?”
“I used to,” I said, staring at Mt Kenya as we sped along the highway. I still couldn’t believe that I had reached its peak, free-climbing a 500-meter vertical face to reach the top. “I’m more of a backgammon kinda guy.”
Laughing, he dropped me off in Naru Maru where I began to hike through the town, waving off the pestering matatu conductors and the boda-bodas that raced up to me.
“I’m waiting for a friend,” I’d tell them so that they’d leave me be.
I trekked down the road and, leaving the town, looked back on occasion to see if a car was coming. I tried to flag down whatever came by that wasn’t an overloaded truck or taxi and found myself walking for almost five K’s before John stopped.
“I’m a clinical officer,” he said, inhaling deeply on his cigarette. He showed me a message on his phone. An order for prescription medicine, as though to prove himself. “I’m visiting my mother and I have to get her this medicine. I’m going to Karatina to place my order.”
John drove calmly, beeping at the drivers that overtook dangerously, explaining how driving should be done. I sat quietly, ‘Ah-huh-ing’ on occasion. I had other things on my mind. Like trying to reach Nairobi early enough to reach the immigration office to extend my second tourist visa.
We pulled into Karatina where, instead of letting me off on the highway, he drove into town and parked outside of a pharmacy.
“I’ll place the order and collect it and then I’ll take you to the road,” he said.
For fuck’s sake, how does this even make sense in anyone’s world? I could see from where I was sitting that the pharmacy was busy and crowded.
“Look, John,” I said, collecting my gear, “I appreciate the ride but I gotta keep moving. Gotta hit Nairobi in time.”
I walked back to the highway. Reaching the main road I again found myself in the middle of a town full of harassing matatus and boda-bodas.
I was well pissed off, ignoring the requests of the locals for me to stop and play a song. It was 11:00 and I’d done way too much hiking and not enough hitching. I didn’t want to linger in Nairobi as hitching out of the city could take a few hours. My outline was to get up early the next morning and hit the highway to Kilifi, about 500 K’s south.
It was time to summon the powers of The Universe. I asked for a direct ride to Nairobi and if it wasn’t too much, that the ride would reach either Westlands or Loresho, the neighbourhood where I’d be crashing at Julio’s at Atah’s property.
Finally, I saw a car among the motorbikes and dispersed as much positive energy as I could. It was coming fast but pulled over and stopped.
“Where ya headed?” I asked in Ki-Swahili.
“Nairobi,” answered Teddy.
“Me too!” I grinned.
“OK, let’s go,” he uttered the three magic words.
Teddy is a communications engineer and was on his way to do a job in Nairobi.
“Where in Nairobi are you headed?” I asked, hoping that it might even be the city centre.
“Westlands,” he said.
I stared, blinked and then erupted in laughter.
“Mate,” I chuckled, “that’s exactly where I need.” I looked out at The Universe. Looks like I’ll be in debt for a while.
Two-hours later I was dropped off at the Westgate Mall roundabout and managed to hitch a free ride on a taxi going up the hill as the baking sun had me rethink about walking. I rocked up at Atah’s, placed my gear and headed out to immigration in the city centre.
The website had informed me that it would only cost me 2,000 shillings (just under $20 AUD) to extend. Reaching the building, I walked over to the customer service desk where a soldierette sat chatting to a woman on the customer side.
As the chat went on I saw that the woman was the soldierette’s friend so I interrupted with, “’scuse me, hi, where do I extend my visa?”
The soldierette looked at me, then at her friend and then back at me. “This woman will help you. She works there.”
“Hi,” I smiled at the lady. “What’s your name?”
“Betty,” said Betty, leading me out of the building, ‘round the block and into another entrance, past the people waiting in line and directly to the office where I’d later be fingerprinted and get my extension stamped.
“Sit down,” she indicated towards the waiting area. “Give me your passport.”
Sweet. Skipping all these people. Must be my lucky day. Betty came out after a few minutes and indicated me to follow her, leading me back past the people and the counters to the outside where she leaned casually against the wall and said, “5,000 to extend.”
I cracked up laughing. “But your website says its only 2,000,” I grinned.
“Oh,” her face fell. She picked it up and said, “Are you sure?”
“Preeeetty sure. I can show you if you want.”
She thought for a second. “Do you have the money?”
“Give me,” she stretched out a greedy hand.
“Why don’t we do this properly?” I continued to grin. “Inside, where you can give me a receipt, sauwa?” I hate corruption, more so that because of my skin colour it’s presumed I’m rich and will just whip out a few thousand shillings on demand.
“OK,” she grumbled and led me back inside. “Sit.” I saw her talk to her superior who then called me in, handed me my passport and said, “Go to counter number 6.”
At counter number 6 I was instructed to go to counter number 4 where I was given an extension form and told to fill it out and present it with two passport photos and a copy of my current visa.
“Can I have a pen, please?” I asked politely.
“No,” the woman behind the counter said sharply and got up to walk out of her office.
“Wait!” I called after her, “I need a pen! And where do I go to get my visa photocopied?” But she had completely turned her back on me, leaving to go to her lunch break. “Fucking great customer service,” I said, loud enough for all the people in the building to hear.
I headed to the next counter where I was also denied a pen. At counter number 6 I was greeted with a smile and a pen from the woman who wanted me to sell her my curly hair.
“It’s so pretty,” she reached out to touch it.
I leaned back, laughing. “Thanks, I grew it myself.” I filled out the form, got the photocopy and returned to number 4. The angry woman had returned from her break and snatched the documents from my hand and told me to go to, “Counter number 6.”
At number 6 I filled out another form and was told politely to wait. I waited for ten minutes before being called back to go to counter number 8 where again I was told to wait. After fifteen minutes I was called upon.
“Are you Australian?” asked the man behind the counter, holding my passport.
I sighed. Did my nationality of Australian written in clear, bold capital letters on the form he was looking at not answer his question?
“Yes,” I said (but the above was stated in the subtext).
“OK,” he said. “Please, sit down.”
I waited a further ten minutes before being summoned again and directed to the same office where Betty worked. I grinned at her and her superior who displayed pissed off looks. I was told to sit and wait. Another ten minutes went by before I was summoned to give my fingerprints and sent back to counter number 8 who sent me to number 6 who sent me to number 4 where I finally collected my passport with the extension stamped in.
I made my way back to Atah’s where I hung out with Julio. “I’m gonna hit the gym,” he said, inviting me to partake in his jujitsu class. Not wanting to indulge in anything that involved headlocks (my hair had a potential sale) I waited for him in the lobby of his gym. Once done, we headed over to The Alchemist where I caught up with friends who retired home after a few hours while Julio and I continued onto Havana’s, a local hotspot down Electric Avenue.
At 03:00 I found myself in the driver’s seat driving us back home where Julio instantly crashed on the bed. I lay beside him on the edge and fell asleep, snoozing the alarm to go past seven when I finally made the effort to hit the road.
Julio was still sleeping as I headed out and hiked about 8 K’s before I caught a ride to a petrol station near the airport. The problem with trying to hitch on a road that leads to an international airport is that everyone that stops assumes you’re going to the airport.
Before long a few police officers showed up and stood beside me.
Shit. Who’s gonna stop with cops around?
One officer came to chat with me. I answered all of his questions and he laughed saying, “You’ll never get a ride.”
I laughed back and said, “Never say never.”
As the time passed and the cops continued to linger I asked, “What’s with all the police presence?”
“The president is going to the training facility for a graduation ceremony.”
Shit. That means they’ll be closing the road soon for his exaggerated entourage of what would probably be fifty vehicles screaming by at 180 K’s an hour.
“You think the president could give me a ride?” I joked.
The cop laughed but answered sincerely that, “The president stops for no one.”
It was just going past eleven and I was barely outside of Nairobi. I was desperate to reach the coast that same day to partake in the Musafir film festival that would be held on the beach in Kilifi. It was also my last weekend in Kilifi where I was parting ways from the world-changing boat-building project and Distant Relatives Eco Lodge as I needed to head to Ethiopia and further north, reaching the Middle East by at least June so that I could have a year of eternal summer.
If I could just reach Machakos I’d be fine.
After almost an hour of waiting a car finally pulled over that wasn’t going to the airport.
“Machakos,” said Joseph.
Fuck yeah. I hopped in and tried not to look at the ticking clock on his dashboard. 30 K’s later he dropped me in the familiar territory of the dusty town of Machakos. I walked past the buses and matatus, completely ignoring the drivers and conductors until I reached the familiar speed bump from where I’d hitched many times before to the coast where, after another half hour wait, a truck pulled over.
“Where are you headed?” I asked the driver.
“Mombasa,” he said.
I hopped on and asked that I’d be dropped at the Mariakani turnoff. It would save me the hassle of entering and then having to exit Mombasa. The port city is one of the hardest to hitch out from due to the traffic congestion and wide expansion of the city.
And also it’s on an island.
The truck took off at the earth-shattering speed of 40 K’s an hour. The diesel engine put me to sleep almost instantly having lack of sleep due to the previous night’s partying. I was jolted awake to find myself in Salama, a town located 50 K’s outside of Nairobi.
I looked at the clock and noted that two hours had passed.
Just had to grab a ride on the slowest truck in Africa – again.
I turned to the driver.“Can you drop me off in Voi? I gotta hit the coast tonight and at this pace, that’s not gonna happen.”
“No problem,” grinned the driver.
We continued to truck along at a such a frightful speed that even my hair stayed still. Voi was about 200 K’s away. At this rate, I’d reach the coast next year.
After another slow hour we pulled over as the driver needed water.
“I’m gonna get off here,” I said, grabbing my pack. “I need to move fast. I’m sorry but your truck is too slow.”
“But you will never get a ride here,” the driver looked surprised and a little hurt.
“I will,” I said, apologising and thanking him as I hit the road with my feet. He waved and blew his horn as he passed me. I waved back and farted (doubt that he heard it though) as I hiked down the Mombasa highway. A few vehicles passed until Tommy pulled over with his young daughter riding shotgun.
“If you don’t mind the smell, you can come with us to Mombasa,” he said.
A strong whiff of puppy came from the back of the station wagon as I noticed the two small South African Ridgebacks in a box, staring at me, contemplating if my beard were chewable.
“I breed dogs,” Tommy said.
After an hour and a sense of relief a stronger sense overcame the interior. What the… I thought and recognised the smell. It hit the front seat and Tommy said, “I think the puppies did something funny.”
“Mate,” I said, as my eyes watered, “whatever they did, I do not find it funny.”
Laughing he pulled over at the next roadside town where his daughter hopped out to buy some toilet paper and they began to clean up the mess while I borrowed his phone to call the Gypsy Queen who was already at the coast. He overheard me say that I’ll ask to be dropped at the Marikani turnoff.
“Why do you need there?” he asked as I hung up.
“Need to reach Kilifi,” I said.
“Actually, I’m from Kilifi but I live in Mtwapa.”
Mtwapa is on the outskirts of Mombasa and the beginning of Kilifi County.
“I can drop you where the matatus are and I will pay for you to reach Kilifi.”
“That’d be amazing Tommy. Thank you so much.” I just hoped that the puppies wouldn’t do anything funny again.
We took a break in Voi where Tommy shouted a late lunch before we continued on. We hit the Mariakani turnoff at sunset and ploughed on through to the Mtwapa turnoff. I got off the phone for the second time with the Gypsy Queen where I asked her to order for us a pizza at Distant Relatives. It was Friday – pizza night – when Tommy said,
“There are no more matatus.” Ali hopped into the car. “So I will take you to the highway,” my driver seemed to simply accept the new passenger. “Is that OK?”
I was taken aback. This guy had picked me up less than five hours ago and was willing to go 42 kilometres out of his way to help me, a complete stranger. I turned to his daughter. “Your father is a great man,” I said, and slapped Tommy on the back.
Ali was a fruit vendor also heading to Kilifi. “We’ll take a boda from the highway to Kilifi. I can pay for you.”
How was this generosity happening?
We bounced along the dirt, unpaved road and an hour later reached the highway in complete darkness.
“Call me so I know you reached safely,” Tommy bid me farewell while Ali secured us a boda. The two of us rode in the darkness behind the driver, a young inexperienced kid who didn’t realise that when passing a truck in the opposite direction, one should brace for the jetstream that follows.
I rode the 3 K’s clenching my hat in my teeth and holding on to the sides for dear life. I was dropped off at Tuskys (local supermarket) where, as it was late and I was too tired to walk down the dark dirt road to the backpackers, I ended up getting another boda to the awaiting Queen and pizza.
I rocked up at the bar at 20:00 where the Gypsy Queen sat quietly, our pizza still warm on the bar.
I couldn’t believe that I had made it from Nairobi to Kilifi in the time I did.
“How was the road?” she asked.
“Well,” I began, “lemme tell ya…”
“Found fresh leopard poo,” Julian announced at breakfast.
“What?” I jolted. “Thought I heard something stalking around our camp last night.”
“We’re stalking in the leopard’s camp,” he corrected me.
It was early, a touch on the freezing side of life in the Aberdares, a moorland covered national park about three hours north-east of Nairobi, bordering the Great Rift Valley.
The six of us – Tom, Daniel, myself, Jeremy and our well-trained climbing guides from African Ascents, Julian and Tom – were in the Dragon’s Teeth, a sporadically spread of jagged rocks that rise above the consistently wet moorlands.
“We had ice on the tent last week,” Tom had told me which prompted me to bring every layer of clothing I had.
I travelled with Jeremy, a Welsh-born-now-living-in-Kenya businessman to this remote, middle-of-nowhere location to train for our ascent of Mt Kenya’s second highest peak, Nelion – a technical climb that involved harnesses, helmets, chalk bags, ropes, nuts, camelots, slings, rock-climbing shoes, a lapse of sanity, physical and mental strength to endure not only the freezing weather on the equator but also the climb itself.
We arrived around lunchtime under a grey-covered day as we hiked through the moorlands, stepping around the giant groundsel plants which, unlike myself, are resistant to frostbite.
Having come directly from sea level to 3,800 feet in the space of 24 hours, time to acclimatize might have been a good idea. Climbing craggy rock faces with numb toes and finger tips wasn’t, as the first two climbs had me realise two things:
I hate the cold and perhaps I should have mentioned beforehand that I have an inverted fear of heights called, Anablephobia. The origin of the word, ‘ana’ is Greek for up, ble is Latin (meaning result of the act of) and phobia is Greek for fear. Basically, I can’t look up at anything over nine feet. It terrifies me for unknown reasons.
I blindly searched with my numb fingers for grips as my legs stretched out in yoga-like bends to hold onto anything remotely sticking out, relying heavily on the grip of my rock-climbing shoes.
Our third climb for the day was the toughest due to the challenge of not having many holds. Thoughts of, What the hell are you doing? You can’t even do this 20-meter climb and you expect to summit the second highest peak in Africa? tried to deter me.
I told my subconscious to shove off and resumed the climb, finally hi-fiving Tom and Jeremy at the top. We abseiled down the other side and made for camp where I rugged up in nine layers and put my boots and only pair of thin socks by the fire to dry.
During the night I was stirred awake by the sound of scratching around our tent – probably the leopard that had left a fresh pile of faeces.
After breakfast we tackled a 65-meter rock, a very enjoyable route named Alex’s Incisor. The view from the top had us spot a dik-dik (smallest species of antelope) galloping across the moorland. I watched behind it to see if perhaps a leopard was on its tail but it seemed to be out for its morning jog.
At the peak we could see the Rift Valley before we abseiled back down for lunch, a 7-K hike back to the car and warmer weather.
In two weeks I’m to ascend Mt Kenya.
Don’t know how, but I am.
“Do you want to try and get a lift from here or should I take you to the tarmac road?” Jeremy asked at the intersection.
We had just come off Alex’s Incisor, a 65-meter rock that we climbed in preparation for our ascent of Mt Kenya’s peak with African Ascents in the Aberdares National Park. My next destination was to reach Nyeri, on the other side of the range.
I looked down the dusty, desolate road. I had a tent with me, warm clothes and an apple. “Yeah, I’ll get off here, mate,” I grinned. “Part of the adventure.”
We parted ways and I began to hike in the direction that would take me to the highway to Nyeri. I had no idea of the distance but I was still high from the morning’s climb and I had at least four hours of daylight ahead of me.
Worst case, I’d pitch a tent somewhere.
Three minutes later I was almost kidnapped onto a bus. Instead of money, I played a few songs on Ol’ Red which took me as far as the junction where a left turn would take me to Nahuru and a right turn to Nyeri.
We bounced over shoddy roads as the conductor hung onto the side of the bus screaming repeatedly into my ear the names of people on the road and the villages we passed. It’s not the noise of the bus was so deafening that he needed to scream. Let’s just say that I and my left ear were happy when he was swapped with a softer-speaking conductor.
I was squashed into the front row with my backpack and guitar. I had to lean out of the window, which the conductor kept banging on to notify the driver to continue after we stopped. I waved at the villagers who smiled and eagerly waved back from their laidbackness on the grass. Two hours later, half-deaf but with a smile on my face, struggling to believe I had just scored a free ride on a bus in the middle of nowhere, I thanked the driver and conductors when they dropped me at the intersection.
That’s what I love about Africa. Everyone is eager to help and money isn’t always a factor. Especially when I tell them that, “Music is my currency.”
The intersection was crowded with boda-bodas and matatus. I hiked up the road deterring away the wants of the riders and drivers to take me and as I looked back to see what potential ride was coming up I stuck my hand out for the pick-up truck that rolled to a slow stop.
“I need to get to Nyeri,” I informed the driver and his co-passenger after they let me in.
Ophia and Alicia happily conversed with me as I regaled my travel stories. I was telling them of my experiences in the Masai Mara National Park and how I had obtained a shuka (a traditional Masai blanket from the village elder).
“The Masai live like animals,” Ophia spat in disgust.
“No,” I corrected him. “They live with animals. And besides, humans? We are animals. We all live as animals just in different settings. The Masai are very friendly.”
Ophia pondered on this as we passed what appeared to be a blue-roofed village.
“What’s that?” I asked them.
“It’s displaced people,” explained Alicia. “In the 2007 election violence, 600,000 people were displaced by Odinga (then president) supporters and were forced to live where you now see.”
“You mean, those folks are refugees in their own country?” I blinked.
“Yup,” he said.
I was a bit shocked by this revelation. The complexity of Kenya’s – and indeed – Africa’s politics – were something I don’t think I’d ever comprehend. Especially since I don’t even try.
“You guys want some water?” I asked, trying to find a way out of the political conversation.
They politely declined and after they let me borrow their phone to call Aleks, who I was visiting in Nyeri (and had no idea that I was arriving), the guys went out of their way to drop me off at the Barclay’s bank.
“We are just passing through Nyeri,” Alicia said. “But no problem. We can take you to your friend’s.”
Have I mentioned the friendliness of Africans yet?
I waited at the bank for a few minutes as I waved ‘goodbye’ to my ride and hopped into the car Aleks had organised.
I looked forward to defrosting from my Aberdares experience with a hot shower.
“Why do you stay here?” asked Richard, the askari (security guard) of the ruins of whatever lodge I had picked to hang my hammock in.
“It’s nice,” I grinned. “I have a great view of the ocean, I’m out in nature and I can see the stars as I go to sleep.”
“I have 50 acres. Let me give you one acre, you build a house on it and you can stay there,” Richard offered.
I had reached this cliffside in Watamu after a hectic three weeks building up to the preparation of the Musafir Floatel and Sundowners fundraising and on top of that, managing the campsite at Distant Relatives in exchange for a ticket to one of the biggest New Year’s events on the East African coast.
The Gypsy Queen was hanging out with her friends and I was about to hang out in my hammock which I had strung up between two dead trees in the property of this run down lodge. Richard was kind enough to allow me to spend the night. We sat and chatted. I explained to him my philosophy which was very confusing to him. In the end he asked me to sponsor him a ticket to Russia to go see his brother.
“Rafiki, my friend,” I said, “you see where I’m sleeping?” I indicated my hammock. “You think if I had money I would be sleeping out here? Let alone you want me to buy you a ticket to Russia? And you are only asking me because of my skin colour, no?”
He hung his head in shame.
“We are all humans, my friend,” I philosophised. “You are not a black man and I am not a white man. We are hu-man. Kweli? True?”
He nodded, his spirit lifted. “Why don’t you have money?” he asked.
“Money is evil,” I said. “It’s destroying the world. All of our problems come from money. War, famine, you wanting to get to Russia. Money is bad. I survive on trade.”
He left me to go visit his girlfriend, another askari on the property. I sat to play my guitar as the setting sun played an abstract visual that could stop traffic. One of those once-a-year type sunsets with high puffs of clouds reflecting back the pinkish-orange that paints the sky as the giant orange ball of flame drops like a coin into a slot machine.
Richard came back with some bread and a bottle of Krest, a bitter lemon soda. He sat with me and although he gave me the food I demanded he share it with me. He hummed to my guitar and eventually said,
“I will come back in the morning with my girlfriend. I want her to meet you.”
“Sawa, kaka. OK, brother. Lala Salama Goodnight.”
As soon as he left I sparked up the joint I had rolled and listened to the gentle roll of the waves 30 meters below me. I packed up my guitar and hopped into my hammock with it, straddling Ol’ Red between my legs as the breeze lightly swung us into one of the best sleeps I’ve had in a long time.
I awoke as the sun rose over the Indian Ocean. I packed up my hammock just as Richard returned with Mary, his girlfriend who also turned out to be a, “Police officer,” she said.
Glad I didn’t offer them to smoke.
As we chatted two Sikorsky military helicopters flew past, heading north, not much higher than the cliff we were on. I recognised the flight pattern as being below radar.
“Where are they going?” I asked Richard.
“Kenya is at war with Somalia.”
I’ve been in Kenya almost six months now (on and off) and had no idea that war was being waged across the border.
“Kenya is at war with Somalia?” I repeated.
“We want their land.”
“For their resources.”
“So we have money.”
And there it was. “So you see?” I grinned, as the thud-thud-thud of the helicopters drifted off. “What did I tell you last night? That money is evil. It causes war and people die for a piece of paper with a number on it.”
Richard’s jaw dropped so hard he almost caused a rock slide. He stuck his hand out to shake mine.
“You are a different kind of man,” he grinned, walking off following Mary, shaking his head in disbelief.
I made my way back to the white sandy beach. I was meeting the Gypsy Queen between ten and eleven at the gelato place so I had a couple of hours to kill. I headed north on the beach and found a quite spot protected by jagged coral rock. I sat down and rolled a joint, smiling and waving at the locals that passed by.
A young fisherman with a speargun rocked up.
“Hey Rastamun,” he grinned sitting beside me.
“Karibu. Welcome,” I grinned back and gave him the spliff to light.
“My friend, in his home, has a cave. One day, I will take you there,” he said as we passed the Bob Marley cigarette between us. We talked about fishing and free diving. After an hour he thanked me and made his way home. I continued to sit, grinning, people-watching as they passed me by. Some noticing me, others oblivious.
And then Elizabeth showed up. She seemed to be in her mid-40s, carrying her bag of goods to sell. She stopped when she saw me and struck up a conversation, a rarity with African women.
“Where do you stay?” she asked.
“On the beach,” I said with a smile.
Her eyebrows almost jumped off her face. She couldn’t believe it. I continued to explain my way of life. She continued to stand perplexed.
“Are you an angel?” she asked.
Now it was my eyebrows that jumped face. I laughed. I’ve been called many things during my travels. Jesus is the prominent name, usually followed by either Moses, or even the occasional Osama Bin Laden cause of the beard. I’ve been called Chuck Norris on two occasions and even Jack Sparrow around Zanzibar.
But an angel?
“Sorry to disappoint, mama,” I laughed, “but I’m not.”
She bid me farewell as she continued on to open her shop. I felt the need to jam out some tunes so I hit the beach and hiked back to an inlet where a bar in the shape of a shack was having the sand out front of it raked by a young local.
“Is it alright if I sit here in the shade and play some tunes?” I asked.
“Of course, rafiki!” He urged me towards a beach bench and I rocked out some blues and funk instrumentals.
During the sundowner events on Musafir I was able to plug Ol’ Red into the wireless speakers we had to entertain the crowds of 50-80 people that we had every night. I couldn’t sing over the volume so I just did instrumentals.
Turns out I’m not too bad when I don’t sing. Perhaps it’s even better that I don’t open my mouth.
The guy on the rake was dancing to my tunes and after what felt like an hour I thanked him and headed up to the gelato place. The Gypsy Queen wasn’t in sight so I returned to the beach and headed to the Barracuda bar where a local I met in the village told me that an old man plays guitar.
I sat down and chatted with the smiling faces around me and the local villager that had told me of the place was there, greeting me with a huge smile.
The old man that plays guitar showed up.
“My fingers are rotten,” he said, exposing his left hand. Indeed, the flesh seemed to be falling off his digits. His hand was swollen and quite grotesque looking.
“What happened?” I asked, trying to look a way but it was like when you see a car accident. You can’t not look.
He told me of symptoms that I found to be quite familiar.
“Recluse spider,” I figured. “Doc gave you antibiotics?”
“Yes,” he said, scratching his head with his good hand. “How do you know?”
I showed my scar on my left leg. “I know, brada. I know.”
I rolled up a spliff and gave it to him to light. I stuck around for about half an hour, laughing along with the others at the local drunk that had staggered into the shack, completely incomprehensible. I thanked my hosts who offered me a place to stay next time I was around and headed back to the gelato place to catch up with the Gypsy Queen who was sat, waiting patiently.
I told her of my evening and morning’s adventure and local interaction, something I had desperately missed.
The next five days we spent doing nothing but eating and sleeping.
The New Year’s event really did a number on us.