2016 has been a remarkable year with many changes that will reverberate for years to come. It feels like what ever follows this year will have its roots in this year and as we say good bye to it, I can’t help but appreciate that significant effect that it has had.
For Sofia most notably it has been a year of expansion of awareness and confidence. The results of which I got to experience full force at the schools parents evening a few weeks ago. Every teacher was so complimentary of her, her enthusiasm, her engagement, and her manners. It was such a joy to hear that she was doing so well. She is not ‘cured’ of autism, there is no cure, her brain still functions in particular ways that is obvious to those that have experience, however, her ability to cope and function in the world is allowing her to experience it more positively and to interact with out fear of failure.
For me, the change has been one of liberation. We don’t realise how much our environment in the western world erodes our confidence and prohibits us from experiencing life to the full. It was a huge step for me to drop everything and embark on adventure that showed a completely different side to life and prove how safety is one that we create for ourselves rather than an existential given that can be taken away. I stand in a place of appreciation for all the people on our path who helped us realise this truth – and I particularly appreciate Sofia for coming into my life and being my inspiration to do something that added value to so many others as well. It has been wonderful to hear how we have inspired people to travel or make changes in their lives or do things they didn’t feel able to do before.
For 2017, whilst there is plenty happening on the home front, I am hoping that we will get an 8 week ride in the summer. For now the decision is definitely Europe which will see us travel up into Russia and then down to Gibraltar and back again (map embedded below). The world of Europe is becoming dangerous and it may not even be viable by the time we get to summer, so the USA is our back up plan and we will do it 2018 if Europe is a go for this year. I wish I could be more committed, but things are changing fast and it is impossible to have a crystal ball to know how things are going to look in 6 months time. All I do know is that once Europe starts to collapse into violence, it will be a long time before travel is going to be possible with any degree of realistic safety. The violence is inevitable now, it is just a question of when.. this coming year, the next year, or the year after – all are possibilities. So I think we go now whilst the going is still good.
Thank you everyone for following our adventures this year, and I hope you stick around to watch us in 2017! if you would like to donate, please feel free to do so at the Virgin money giving link on the right had side of this page.
We spent a 4 weeks in Kenya, and almost all of it was in Nairobi! One would think that this would have been a great time to relax and unwind, but sadly the opposite was true.
When your mode of transport becomes inoperable, it is stressful, and crossing borders in this condition only compounds this, so it was with relief that we arrived at Jungle Junction, on the raving recommendations of travellers, to rest up and have the bike fixed. Indeed, the bike was worked on, and the primary fault fixed within a number of days, however, it became apparent that more needed to be done, and this is when we hit a wall.
Jungle Junction has a constant flow of overlanders with their various vehicles needing attention. Sadly however, any bike that requires more that superficial attentions tends to go to the bottom of the priority pile. And so we waited. I did some work on it and resolved a fault, desperate for progress. And the stress started to build. The head mechanic, and owner of the establishment, eventually pulled out the stops and worked on a Sunday to resolve the problem. But it didn’t help my levels of stress to hear the bike being referred to as scrap metal! Negative attitudes to a job invariably lead to negative results.
The fault was found and resolved. And despite the sound not being 100%, the machine worked and I wanted to get back on the road. I don’t remember why we delayed the test ride a couple of days, but finally on the Wednesday we were riding to Nakuru, a good distance to ensure that any further problems would have a chance to show. The results of the test told me all was not perfect, but the expense both in time an money thus far was too high, and it would be better to start moving South again.
The Saturday morning, I started to get ready to leave, checked the oil and tappets, the latter because after the still recent (in terms of kilometres) rebuild and suspected valve not seating properly. This is when I discover they had been redone for the compression test and done incorrectly. This was too much for me! utterly desperate to get going, and risk that damage had been done to a valve!
I freaked in a thousand directions, burst in to tears a few times, and generally looked decidedly unstable for about half an hour as I contacted a new mechanic to check the valves, get them ground in properly which we didn’t have the kit to do in Addis. Things that had actually been requested and not done, and whilst it still clearly needed doing had decided to stop wasting money waiting – but now was an absolute necessity to do.
It turns out later, in conversation with another waiting motorcyclists, and perhaps as a result of what was going on with me, that the head mechanic was now saying that he was not prepared to take responsibility for taking apart cylinders and doing valves. Well I wish he had said something like that to me when I arrived! We would have been on the road 2 weeks sooner and saved a lot of money!
The new mechanic, Rick, did a fantastic job with the valves – and thankfully the unseated valve showed no signs of damage and was once again reseated properly. Although the prognosis was a cylinder head replacement would be needed at the end of the trip as a seat was worn.
Finally we found ourselves back on the road and heading South, with an engine that has never sounded so smooth! There were a couple of concerns as we headed for the border to Tanzania, but ultimately my fear of spending any more time in Nairobi kepting biting our heels and we kept going, with Rick accepting my panicky phone calls and putting my mind to rest.
We spent one more night in Kenya, and then crossed the border, an exact month to the day that we crossed the border into Kenya. I have never been so happy to leave a country, and yet so sad that we never really had an opportunity to explore it a little.
We have now been in Kenya for almost a month and practically the entire time has been in Nairobi waiting for the the bike to be good to get back on the road. I hope now that in the next few days the wait will be over and we will no longer be mazungus (white skinned) in a mutatu (mini bus public transport)
So what has happened in this last month? From an autism perspective, we have met with a couple of charities in Nairobi. The founder of Autism Society of Kenya and principle advocate in Kenyan government, Felicity, met us for lunch and we found out about the remarkable progress that she has made in the last 10 years in terms of getting recognition for Autism in the Education Ministry, and on the day we met, how she received her first email from the Health Ministry acknowledging the need for a committee to be established to identify the needs presented by autism. Felicity has also been involved with outreach programmes but is constantly struggling to find sufficient funding to continue this work.
Knowing the struggle to get any recognition for autism in Africa, it was nothing short of a miracle to hear her story. She puts much of her success down to her previous involvement within government (from a nutrition education standpoint) which has helped her to understand the process, and effectively identify the contacts, follow the right processes, and use her her existing reputation as an expert to ensure that she is heard. Behind all of this however, is her drive an commitment to establishing an effective support system for autism that springs from her grandson’s diagnosis. Indeed, it was only through taking him physically to the registration office to register the charity, that she was able to convince the registrar that autism was real so that the charity would be registered.
I also had the opportunity to meet (albeit briefly) another star on the autism scene in Nairobi, James. Having worked with children with autism in New York, he returned to Kenya committed to helping families affected by autism. Setting up the Autism Support Centre, James works to help parents by bringing them together, providing information, and helping to apply pressure to get more support for their children. I was kindly invited to attend a parents group on a Saturday morning to speak a little about what Sofia and I were doing. I wasn’t the only speaker, as other parents where also invited to speak with the subject of discussion being Autism and Sexuality.
It was a wonderful experience and really interesting to hear about the cultural challenges that parents were facing and wonderful to see a couple of the speakers being fathers, as well as a number of fathers in the the audience. On this particular subject line major concerns included sexual abuse of the child due to their increased vulnerability, and accusations of harassment (perhaps hugging strangers, or staring inappropriately) in a country where very few people outside the community have any knowledge or understanding and the law does not take any account of disability when considering a case should it be brought to court. The primary message however was hope, hope for the mothers who’s husbands refused to be involved, hope for parents concerned about the future and how they will cope, hope that despite autism, that into adult life there was every opportunity for their children to experience normality – as one parent put it: I am still hopeful that my son will find love and get married, even if it means his wife will live with us I will be a very happy man.
All in all, this time in Nairobi has been about interesting people. We have been staying at a major overland rest stop and mechanic shop, and whilst Sofia has been doing her utmost to make up for lost TV time both past and future, I have been regaled with wonderful travel stories – from the guy who was asked for the police report for his stolen car because he may have stolen it from himself, to the couple who seemed to have more than their fare share of break downs and improvised solutions like using margarine as grease, draining a pond of water because they were stuck in it, and a ranger vehicle running out petrol on them as it was coming to rescue them from the bush! But the time has definitely come to leave, as I become more frustrated with the stagnation and concerned about the finances, and judgements are starting to be made about my lack of control over Sofia’s TV obsession by the longer term punters of the Jungle Junction establishment. Judgemental strangers is part of what it is to be a parent of autism, as few people take the time to find out more about why things might be the way they are and even less interested to accept autism as a valid reason to any behaviour that they personally disapprove of. Yes I definitely feel it is time to go! 😀
Well what can I say, it seems almost repetitive to say we were stuck on the side of the road, but there we were, making a run for the border with a day to spare, and we lost all power. First I thought it we had run out of fuel, but topping it up, it was clear that it wasn’t. Then I thought is was compression, and discovered one of the cylinders was full of fuel.
Whilst I suspected all wasn’t well with the bike, I really believed we would make it to the border and didn’t top up the phone card and couldn’t even contact the mechanic to see what else I could do. So every vehicle that passed, I flagged down and asked for a tow to the border, but none were going that far, so the best option was to return to Yebello. It eventually turned out to be the French tourists in their 4×4 with guide and driver who passed us on the road earlier, who we stopped to have a chat with, who had passed us again and were now on their way back to Yabello for the night, who towed our sorry bike to a place where a truck would be much easier to find should we need one to get to the border.
Armed with phone credit, I got in touch with Mick our mechanic, who instructed me to clean carbs thoroughly, and check the timing device. Carbs cleaned just as it got dark, and no improvement in the bike. The next morning, I checked the interrupter and that seemed fine too. So without further consultation, I arranged a truck. Getting across the border was a higher priority now.
Truck found, price agreed, I thought we would be on road to Kenya, but 3 hours later, we found ourselves outside the house of the local transport official where her mother was persuaded to allow the driver to complete the necessary documents and sign it in her absence. The legality obviously questionable, but when you in a hurry, you gotta do what you gotta do.
Finally we were on the road to Moyales with Ethiopian folk music quietly playing in the back ground, whilst I tried to ignore the vulnerability of the situation we were in terms of crossing the border handicapped by a bike that didn’t work.
As soon as we arrived, with 2 hours to spare, the haggling commenced on how much for a bunch of guys to get the bike off the truck and local fixer/guide/helper/money changer extraordinaire made himself known and pointed me in all the right directions to documents stamped, fingerprints taken and photos logged. Surprisingly, Ethiopia customs and immigration processed us quickly, and by 4.30pm I was encouraging the bike pushers to push harder to get the bike up the hill to the Kenyan customs and immigration.
Finally we were in Kenya, and a feeling of safe in terms of visas! The next day, I worked on the bike, still on the side of the road. I sent the tank off to be cleaned, double/triple cleaned the carbs, and changed the oil yet again. So back to the timer, and found that it had moved about half a cm. Right on the border of Kenya and Ethiopia as not the place to find solutions, and despite the best efforts of the local mechanic, he clearly didn’t have tools or the right experience, and so another truck was arranged and it was time to go the Jungle Junction in Nairobi where a good mechanic and a great location beckoned us.
The sun was going down and I must have smoked 10 cigarettes whilst we waited. Sofia was quietly playing on my phone, and a nice young guy who taught mechanical engineering at a local college was chatting to me in his best English. The 20mins wait for the truck was about an hour in standard time, and the signal of its arrival was the sudden flurry of activity.
It was a standard transport truck, of which you see many on the roads here, and I became hopeful when something that resembled a ramp was pulled out, thinking that yes our bike would be pushed/pulled up onto the truck. This hope was soon dashed when I saw it being folded under the truck.
I asked what was happening and was neatly told that they were going to lift it by hand. Any subsiquent protest from me was ignored as they wheeled the bike out and discussed how it would be easier to get the front wheel up first. There was really nothing I could do but stand back and watch, and so I quickly whipped out the phone to film as they hoiked it up, with all it’s bags on, with about 10-15 men trying to get the back end up and onto the truck. It was hard to watch, but they managed it! I can’t imagine how they thought they were going to do this on a mini bus!
The bike was on the truck tied down with string (calling it rope would be a stretch, but it seemed secure) and it was time to go. The driver, a young chap, clearly meant business and I was assured that the road was good all the way to Addis.
Obviously Sofia and got into the cab, the helmet promptly removed from our clutches, I kept saying no, it is safety equipment, but they insisted there was room ( I thought there was plenty!) and so the helmets where secured (jammed) into the bottom of the sidecar.
There was some cuffuffle about seat arrangements, and then it all became clear. The driver, Sofia and myself and an extra body, all jammed into the truck cab! Well, if we weren’t getting enough adventure, I’m sure this arrangement was going finish us off!
We said our good byes to the guys who had been so nice and helped us, and the parting ‘good luck’ from their mouths, I can’t say was entirely appreciated on the one hand but made me laugh on the other (why did we need luck?)
We hadn’t got to the end of the road when it was clear that we were in good Ethiopian comapany – the Driver and character in his own right already, was already on the phone telling his mates something to this effect:
Yes yes, I can’t talk right now I’m on very important ferengi business (hahaha) yes, I am taking ferengi motocycle to Addis (hahaha) 3000Birr (HAHAHAHAHA!) – you could hear the laughter of said friend on the other end of the phone and words to effect you lucky b***d were probably also uttered – Yes you see I’m important now, bye!
These phone calls went on for an hour or two, with intermittent conversations in broken english along the lines of :
Driver – Where are you going? (a favourite question in Ethiopia)
Me – Addis – Where are you going?
Driver – Addis
Me – Great! I’m on the right bus then!
Driver – HAHAHAHA!
This joke had several iterations when it became clear that he actually wanted to know information in the more general sense.
Clearly he was a popular chap and had a string of contacts on the route, as we dropped off wood here, and picked up letters there, bags of stuff, the odd person (extra body got chucked in back as a better english speaker joined us in the cab) The music blarred with Ethiopia’s best talent, food ordered ahead of arrival, and the boys chewed their chat and chatted the night away.
At about midnight, Sofia and I were falling asleep, I think Sofia managed it fairly well, however, the ‘good road’ was only half good, and if one wasn’t holding on for dear life around the hair pin bends, it was a case of mastering rocky roads, pots holes, or simply no road at all, and various animals, people and other vehicles seemingly oblivious of the imminent danger they may be in. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep.
I must have nodded off at some point, as I woke up and checked out location on google maps and suddenly we seemed alot further down the road. The extra body, despite having chewed a ton of chat was now dropping off, whilst the driver chewed on the dregs left in the bag. I asked him if he was ok, and he had that classic, over stimualted, clenched teeth wide eyed look, when he turned to me nodding with a smile. I could have got worried about it, but really I was too tired to care and instead teased him about it for a while.
The hours slipped by, and finally the Diver announced we were in Addis! just like that, our 11 hour journey was coming to an end and the discussion started as to where we were being dropped off. I had no idea other than some vague directions and, regardless of the hour (clearly my situation could be classed as urgent) I called Flavio, the Italian mechanic.
The truck had a drop to make and in the process of trying to find the location, a stone had got caught between two tyres. That was when I decided to help with a torch, and realised that the tyres on the truck were completely smooth! OMG! so glad I didn’t know that at the beginning of the journey!
The drop done, the Driver pulled over to catch a kip, whilst I was still trying to get hold of Flavio. Suddenly at 8am, driver was keen to get going again, so they asked if they could take me to another mechanic. At this point, if Flavio wasn’t answering, he clearly wasn’t helping so I agreed, and sent Falvio a message to say we were now going somewhere else. Amazing the effect that had, as he texted back immediately to apologise and to let him know how it went. The driver and his friend, who has been busy arranging things, were wondering why I didn’t call Falvio, and immediately asked his number and called themselves. These were clearly nice guys and concerned about our welfare, and knew that a ferengi sticking to ferengi contacts may be preferable regardless of the greatness of the place they were taking me. The call connected, and once it as established that they were calling on my behalf, Flavio immediately said, I am busy! and hung up.
The poor chap was lost for words, asking what we should do. I shrugged and said he is Italian, he clearly not interested, and lets go to the place they were recommending. Personally, I was horrified and so glad that these guys had an alternative option at the ready.
It took some time and a round of fresh mango juice on me, when we finally arrived in a semi- shanty town area, down a road that only passes for a road because there is nothing else on it, and is used by cars to connect to main roads. We stop out side a workshop clearly for bikes as there are many, and the first thing I see is 4 Ural outfits sitting there – I was speechless! Somehow, we had managed to find a mechanic who actually had some Ural experience! turns out various people had brought them for fixing, but cost of spares or lack of spares had resulted in them just being left there, never to see the road again.
Now was the time to get the bike down, only this time I insisted we take the bags off the bike, because now it was half the number of hands and actually this could be a more hazadous task. it was also at this point that the phone had not recorded the loading of the bike, so this time, I made double triple sure that it was recording this.
I can’t say the bike was dropped, but there was a moment where it didn’t look good as it rested on the spare tyre and with too much angle, but somehow they managed it, and the video has the appropriate shakes and movement of a camera person who is more interested in saving the bike than taking the film!
The bike off the truck, more good byes, and here we now were in Addis. At least, we were told, with the best mechanic in town – Mohamed.
I wish I could say our night ended at this point, but next on the list was find somewhere to stay – this ended up with a long walk that took us through a shanty town area and up a steep hill being guided by a young chap from the workshop doing his best to find us something in our price range. To cut another long story short, mission was accomplished, Sofia was parked and left to catch up on sleep whilst I returned to the bike and started working on a plan.
I’m not going to put too finer point on the fact that as I worked, I thanked my lucky stars over an over. Never once were we met with anything other than concern, and a desire to ensure we felt safe, even the workshop where the bike now rested, could not have made us feel more welcome and looked after.