Zebra Babies

“Just 20 bob!” the market seller cries. With slang like that you could be in Peckham but over the border the shillings are known as bob for short. Very strange! I am in Kenya. It’s cold here apparently, the people are wearing winter gear, puffer jackets, scarves and beanies despite the twenty plus degree weather. But I am yet to even use my sleeping bag, I’ve been lugging the dead weight around with me for blooming miles. I don’t have much stuff: a few T-shirts, cooking equipment, my tent and a few other bits and bobs. But I am planning on getting lean and ditching a few choice items.

Today, my post lunch cycle partner informed me that in an attempt to reduce a reliance on charcoal, the government has imposed a six month ban on the public felling trees. I actually assumed that this was already an illegal activity. Silly me. The alternative fuel is gas but apparently the local people are reproachful; there are concerns that gas is dangerous. I am told that it is thought to be volatile and prone to exploding on account of frequent gas explosions in films and TV programmes. The second fear is that kids will tamper with it. I ask, what sort of miscreant would do such a thing, but he meant the children playing in the house. To me there seems a simple solution; don’t let your toddlers play with fire. And while I am at it, don’t let them play with knives or axes! I saw a six year old wielding a full size axe above her head before bringing it down not a foot from her sister’s little fingers.

As I cycle east towards Nairobi, huge plantations of coniferous trees dominate the hill sides. They are suspiciously bald, all the lower branches have been stripped leaving just the top branches attached to the trunk and out of arms reach. In spite of the six month reprieve for the trees, I saw two topple as loud chainsaws cut into their soft wood. Teams of women emerge from the woodlands, walking in columns they laboriously lug logs up the steep slopes to the road side. The wooden burdens are carried on their backs, with straining necks, the weight held fast by a strap wrapped around their foreheads. I suppose your neck is a strong muscle which maybe we overlook in the west, as carrying the load like this keeps their hands free to clamber up the slick mud slopes. But I have no intention of tying my shopping to my head so I will just stick to using a rucksack.

The following morning I descend into the depths of the Rift Valley which splits the country in two, east and west. As I cross this pancake flat valley floor I pass lakes and conical shaped volcanoes, evidence of the volatile past of this seismic region. The mountains here are like massive rolling hills rather than the jagged snow capped rocky peaks of the Alps. Ahead of me in the haze looms the ascent I have to scale to reach Nairobi, but the road veers and I run parallel to this lofty obstacle.

As I repair a puncture, a small herd of zebra trot skittishly past, no doubt on edge on account of the trucks hurtling past at breakneck speed. I let out a small chortle as they remind me of my white water rafting instructor from a few days ago. Juma steered me and a small group along the course of the White Nile, down plunging rapids. Being the character he is, he kept up an onslaught of constant banter in which he referred to his children as “his little zebra babies.” He met his wife on one such rafting trip whilst she was over from the UK working for an NGO.

The White Nile is changing with the third and final dam scheduled to be completed in August 2018. The Isimba Dam is casting a shadow on the future of Uganda’s adventure capital, Jinja, and will see an end to the aquatic adventures, as the waters rise submerging the rapids. I asked Juma what his plan is following the flooding of the rapids. His solution is a simple one. Buy a decent sized building, some speakers and a few pews; he is setting up a church. Apparently, anyone can do this and people will just generously donate to the cause. Perhaps a morally ambiguous solution.

My speed inexplicitly takes a dive. I check the bike over, nothing is amiss. It’s strange, some days I feel like the wind and others, for no apparent reason, it’s a chore. Is it the altitude? The long steady climb out of the bulge of the Rift Valley? I change tack as the road curves and off I go. No, I’ve not had a sudden injection of haemoglobin as my body adapts to the lofty heights (I’m nearly at 3000m); my old school bully, the wind, is back. It’s subtle, but enough to sap my speed. As luck would have it the two hour climb is a pleasure, off to my right I catch glimpses of the valley floor. As I climb, the horizon expands. Look past the human detritus of busy roads and development and it is quite beautiful. In the haze looms the extinct Longonot volcano with its hollowed out crater and further in a field lay shimmering lakes. I pedal on to Nairobi.

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