I descend from the town of Marsabit perched atop a dormant volcano, a cavernous crater nestles in the mountainside with sulphurous steam creeping out from unseen fissures in its slopes. Below is a vast plateau only broken by the conical peaks of similar retirees. From this vantage point you can make out vast fields of dark basalt boulders the colour of pepper corns, they are sewn across the entirety of the landscape below. It’s difficult to imagine what it must have been like when millions of years ago these now docile peaks spewed rock, gas and ash in violent explosions. But right now however its rather pleasant.
As I cruise down the winding road I get waved down by a friendly face. Calum and his team were meant to meet me on their way south last night at Camp Henry, Marsabit, though they got washed out in the rains and didn’t reach our rendezvous.
Three Brits fresh from university they are presumably penniless but as I survey the camp I observe that they have everything on my wish list that I wanted but could ill afford; from the Surly touring bikes, multi fuel jet stoves to the extremely fancy two season tents. Though Calum’s tent is a tad worse for wear as his bike toppled on top of it in the night snapping a pole and ripping the outer sheet in the process, not ideal. Ralph even has a cot bed in his tent and a collapsible stool in the porch, I would like to see them fully loaded up as they must have so much stuff which is at this moment in time strewn about camp. So much for the insurmountable top up fees and crippling student debt. And so as not to leave Ed out, the third and final team member, he had a note worthy moustache.
On finishing up our formative years at the mighty University of Leeds my friends and I cycled from Calais to Rome which we thought was a good effort but these guys are putting our younger selves to shame. We sit and chat over a pot, well saucepan of tea which to me looks more like red cabbage than well steeped Yorkshire Gold. They picked it up in Sudan, extremely tart it needed a good globule of honey to soften the blow and save the crux of your jaw from shuddering.
They are taking it steady on an entirely different kind of trip to mine, I’m sure they will have more laughs along the way but I have gotten used to going solo. It has its advantages, there is no waiting a few days whilst your buddy gets over a violent case of the trots (calamity Calum), only one bike to breakdown and in a group inevitably you all have your own pace…patients is not one of my virtues. But most importantly, I am easy to house and feed, in a big group I suspect it is more difficult or more of an imposition on a gracious host when you ask to pitch a small festival of tents vs my one. Though on the plus side I’m sure they have avoided the slums I have been forced to call my abode in the evenings as splitting the cost of a room means they can afford all the mod cons, maybe even a shower. I wish them luck as we head in opposite directions.
This land of vast open planes looks like it should be home to large fields of maze and cereals but as I ride through the villages there is no drone of a miller nor an ear of maze to be seen. Vast herds of zebra and buffalo, elephants and giraffe would enjoy the green foliage and waist high grasses but I’ve barely spotted a single wild animal save an ostrich or two. I have been lucky enough to cross just after the rains which have transformed this normally harsh arid landscape into a green lawn of grasses and shrubs. I’ve been presented with a green facade, it’s a tough place to live and that is evident in the people, its turned tribal.
Herdsman patrol the road sides. The people have dark skin, their ear lobes droop with hollows you could pass a finger through, earrings of polished stone might dangle from the drooping flesh. The women have shaved heads, perhaps so as not to draw attention away from the intricate rings of brightly coloured beads which make up their towering necklaces which have a mirage like affect as to extend their necks. Some ladies wear caps on their heads made of the same bright beads but with a row or two of small round mirrors incorporated into the patterns.
The men that I’ve seen might have a hedge of hair starting unnaturally far back across the scalp for they have vast foreheads owing to the fact that they have shaved their heads all the way to the apex of the skull in a stark line from ear to ear. I would like to have taken a picture of one such a tribesman but I think it rude and awkward to ask for a picture of a person just going about their daily business. I would strike up a conversation and work the request in subtly but doing so with an ulterior motive opposed to just being friendly would be a tad disingenuous. And evidently it would seem that I’m not friendly!
Rather than the shaved hedge row look that some chaps are fashioning others have what look like hair nets with tight uncomfortable looking jowl pinching chin straps clinging tightly about their heads. I’ve even seen a few gingers; I believe cows urine is used to sun bleach the hair this distinct shade of ginger, we just used to use lemon juice in school, but maybe they have modernised. More than one elderly gentlemen has a clean top lip but beneath perched on their chins sit a bright orange pointed beard. Or perhaps they might just be wearing jeans and a t-shirt whilst scuffing their feet and listening to an ipod.
These herdsmen can be seen chaperoning their charges, goats and camels. Young and old all seem to carry long sticks which are used to “motivate” them, I’m yet to witness the carrot bring used. Occasionally a flat headed spear will be resting against a shoulder as they amble along or a well polished butt of an ancient rifle or AK47 may protrude from beneath the folds of their ponchos.
As the landscape has changed so to has the produce. Gone are the fruit stalls selling perfectly ripe mangos and avocados, you are lucky to find a green banana. The same can be said for the restaurants whose beans look suspiciously baked bean like rather than a variety of coloured beans with onions, fresh tomatoes and herbs. Its funny to think that the food is not only seasonal but regional as well. This area seemingly relies on preserved goods which are trucked in; that and meat from the goats and I am beginning to suspect the donkeys. Where is a good Waitrose when you need one?
I lied when I said there are no note worthy animals, camels are amongst the herds, just one humpers. I don’t think I have ever been up close and personal with one of these beast. “God he’s a big boy,” I say to myself, I’m as skittish as the camel as I pedal beneath the shadow cast by its high reaching neck. His feet are like platters and his long hind legs meet at an extremely dainty waist considering his stature. Another on the opposite side of the road stares me down, wobbling her bottom lip, I pray that she isnt puckering up to spit. The chap next to me on the bus to Mombasa bore the same expression with a teetering droopy lip before the spitting incident occurred in which I only just escaped mucus free. I duck and pedal out of range.