Monday, 19 January 2015

Night train to Mombasa

It has been a while since I took the night train from Nairobi to Mombasa, but I still remember that last unforgettable journey and my futile attempts to sleep.
En - route

The railway track was an engineering marvel of its time, created with the intention of opening up markets in Uganda.

There are two books to read which tell the story of how this line was built, 'The Man Eaters of Tsavo' by Col J H Patterson and 'The Lunatic Express' by Charles Miller; where everyday hazards included waterless deserts and consumption by lion . The hunt for the lions was made into the film 'The Ghost and the Darkness'.

Despite all the odds the railway has lasted the test of time, which for Africa is impressive.

My previous trip to the coast by overnight bus had been enlivened by unscheduled stops in remote dark places for unknown reasons, where the slightest light attracted vast swarms of flying insects into the coach to happily feast upon their captive audience for the remainder of the journey. I felt sure any alternative would be an improvement.

In Nairobi the train was clean and smart, with sittings organised for dinner and the service was great. It all looked quite promising until it was time to turn in.

It quickly became apparent that there was going to be a party in the next compartment.

They had come well prepared with a primitive music machine and two unspeakable tracks which they played again and again at increasing volume.

One visit to the near riot next door assured me reason would not prevail.

I returned with a selection of my favourite African music tapes as a contribution to the revelries and left them to it.

The rest of that terrible night was to hear my once favoured music tracks slowly murdered at volumes I would not have thought possible for the human ear to endure .

Sometimes the train stopped and the faint hope the torture would soon be brought to a close was extinguished, until with agonising slowness the journey shuddered back into life.

Finally as the sun came up you could feel the temperature increase as the coast drew near.

The music had expired and the inhabitants of that appalling pit next door lay sprawled, stunned unconscious by the racket.

I left the train, excited to be back in Mombasa, and assured that however tired I felt, my nocturnal suffering would be as nothing compared to what my fellow passengers were about to endure when they woke up.

Morning arrival in Mombasa

The landmark tusks - Mombasa

Today the lunatic express is an  experience for the history books for in May 2017 it ran for the last time; the end of a legend.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Camels and remote lands

After my first camel safari the length of Somalia, I was hooked.  There is only one thing better in life than loading your camels in the pre dawn darkness, with the embers of last nights blaze slowly dying away and another day in the deserts of  Africa and  Asia to look forward to; and that is making the same journey by the light of a full moon.

Camels are so much more than transport. They are perfectly adapted  to semi arid environments; their soft padded feet  suited to the fragile soils and their selective browsing quite unlike the devastation caused by overstocked herds of cattle and flocks of goats.


As for personality, when you get to know them, each has its own character and temper, and if mistreated they will remember and wait for that moment when you are all on your own and no one is looking.  

Camels are bred for a wide range of characteristics be it milk production, riding or pack camels. In the Middle East a good racing camel can be worth a small fortune. For me they are simply the best excuse to travel in and experience remote lands.

one big camel 

Perfectly adapted for semi arid environments.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Northern Pakistan - Takht I Bahi, Churchill’s Piquet and the Malakand Pass.

Northern Pakistan is a land of superlatives.  

The area abounds in Buddhist temples and stupas to remind you of the rich heritage that stretched north to Afghanistan and the now tragically destroyed Bamyan Buddhas.

Takht I Bahi started out as a Zoroastrian temple before it began its long history as a Buddhist monastery. Its magnificent hilltop location protected it from the ravages of wars and invaders that have swept by through the ages. 

As the finest and most complete Buddhist monastery in Pakistan, it was listed a UNESCO world heritage site in 1990.  

Takht I Bahi

On the road to the Malakand pass

I first travelled through Malakand and the Malakand pass in the 1990’s. The Chitral relief force passed this way in April 1895 leading to the formation of the Malakand field force.

The Pathan tribes and the British go back a long way.  Serving in the Malakand field force a  young Winston Churchill gave his name to a fort still perched high on the side of the Swat valley.

Lower Swat valley

Churchill's Piquet - high above the valley

The malakand pass today
Upper Swat has been compared to Switzerland for its panoramic landscapes, but any further comparison would be greatly misleading.  As a land of high adventure this really is the genuine article.

Upper Swat

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Zwedru - Liberia

Years of working in conflict zones meant inevitably that you had to sit down and deal with some very questionable people.

Often it was just hustlers trying to scrape a living from whatever angle they were touting. Occasionally it was more serious when presented with the option to hire trucks or other equipment that had clearly been looted from their original owners. Peeled off letters from Agency landcruisers, tended to leave a clear outline on the vehicles paintwork.
Then once in a while you met someone who simply radiated bad news.  They could exude the charm of a self confidence backed up by their militia and a terrified local population; or they would just maintain  a brooding silence, their face hidden behind  a pair of dark sunglasses. Some had inflicted considerable suffering on the population amongst which they still continued to live
Zwedru located in the far south east of Liberia was identified as a centre for an agricultural rehabilitation programme. Access at that time was by helicopter, with ECOMOG maintaining a visible presence on the ground.

An assessment of the agricultural infrastructure 

With a Country Office already established in Monrovia,  it was time to identify a suitable base for a field office. Introductions were made and I found myself in the presence of a group who had clearly been actively involved in the fighting. 

Both sides had a vested interest. I needed a compound to rent and they were after hard currency.  Options were limited but in the end I walked away from the deal as actual ownership was unclear. The last thing needed was to find the place had a complex history or worse.

I still remember sitting down in that darkened room. eyes slowly adjusting after the glare of the sun. The militia standing around the room, backs  against the wall whilst  their leader and I weighed each other up across a table.  It was on reflection the right decision.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Hargeisa –'Truly impressive'. - Somaliland

My first visit to Hargeisa was in the 1980’s, walking camels up from Kismayo – it was one of those journeys that shapes your life forever. 

Back then Hargeisa the former capital of British Somaliland  was showing its age. The resident  Isaaq clan were already pressing for greater autonomy, and as the country began its long slide into anarchy no-one could have imagined what the President of Somalia, Siad Barre was about to do next.

I returned again in 1991 during a bleak period in the civil war to establish an agricultural rehabilitation programme in the south of the Country, flying first into Hargeisa.  Alongside the airstrip a nomad was firing his M16 into the air, no-one paid attention. 

Hargeisa was a shock. All that remained of the old cinema was the flat concrete roof on the ground, underneath lay the people that had been packed into the building for shelter when it was bombed flat.
A memorial to those that died 
Yet 1991 was to be the year things began to take a turn for the better in Hargeisa.  Instead of slipping into the grip of warlords, Somaliland chose a different path. Without international recognition and the associated financial support, they began to rebuild Hargeisa with their own hands to create their State of Somaliland. What they have achieved is 'truly impressive' (a quote from the English Guardian newspaper).
Most of the money to fund this miracle has come via remittances from the diaspora, but there is a thriving commercial sector as well.  Against all the odds Somaliland is a  success in a region used to  bad news stories. 
Somaliland is only recognised internationally as an autonomous region of Somalia and not as an independent republic, which remains  at odds with its existence as an independent State prior to  merging with Italian Somaliland in 1961.
The icing on the cake for Hargeisa is the marvellous neolithic rock art cave system at Lass Gaal, discovered by  the outside world in 2002.  Over 5,000 years old, they are some of the most pristine on the Continent. 

 Laas Gaal cave painting
Somaliland now has an elected parliament and a thriving economy, all achieved from the rubble of a bombed out capital without large scale international aid.   It just goes to show what can be achieved with determination and self-belief.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Three Years in Lunsar - Sierra Leone

For a while 33 Portland Place London felt like my second home.  

Like the country it represented, it exuded a rumpled old world charm clearly in need of a makeover. Downstairs across a well-worn counter I accumulated numerous visas as I travelled to and from Sierra Leone. Sadly 33 Portland Place  was later acquired by another leaseholder under very questionable circumstances and as a High Commission it is no more.

Lunsar in the early 1990’s had already taken a battering from the fighting. Buildings still standing showed signs of gunfire.

Outside the town lay the rusting machinery that had once chipped away at Massaboin Hill, a mountain of iron ore which in the local dialect gave the town its name.
Lunsar was the base for a swamp rice rehabilitation programme in the surrounding countryside. Security could best be described as fluid as the fighting ebbed and flowed to and from the south and east of the country.

It was hard to believe that the Queen made a State visit here in 1961. Back then some up country towns had street lighting. 
One day I paid a visit to an old Paramount Chief, reduced to tears as he showed a framed black and white photo of his introduction to the Queen during her tour. Outside few buildings were left standing and the street lights had long since ceased to shine.
What makes Sierra Leone special are the people. They are some of the nicest you will find anywhere, despite one of the world’s worst mortality rates and the horrors of what the RUF rebels perpetrated.

The local blacksmith using hand bellows
By 1995 the RUF had reached close to Lunsar and in places were only 20 km from Freetown. This was the time of Executive Outcomes and their highly efficient campaign to secure the Freetown perimeter and push back the rebels. When their funding was stopped in 1997, the RUF inevitably overran the capital with appalling consequences, leading eventually to the intervention of  British Forces.
Now finally Freetown is again buzzing with new investment. A return visit to River Number Two and Lumley beach, Freetown's cotton tree and Lunsar are long overdue.

Boarding the Lungi ferry at Freetown

Saturday, 13 July 2013

A journey across Transnistria

My first visit to Transnistria followed on from a field visit to Moldova, once one of the wine production regions of the Soviet central planning system.  Moldova is holder of a Guinness World record for the largest single underground wine storage area –over 200 km of tunnels - Yes 200 km.
Moldova had gained its independence with the fall of communism and turned toward Romania as its bridge to the west whilst moving to the Latin script. The  Russian minority objected and a short war in 1992 ensued with Russia invited in as peacekeepers. 

The result is Transnistria a small section of eastern Moldova across the Nistria River which has remained determinedly Russian. 

It is not a recognised state and appears more Russian than Russia itself. Entering the capital Tiraspol was quite literally stepping back in time to another era.

Travel across the border is reasonably straightforward and Transnistrians appear to be able to travel to Moldova without any problems. However as it is only recognised by a few equally marginal states such as South Ossetia and Abkhazia you are likely to be without consular support if you have a problem.

If you are in the region it is certainly worth the detour to step into one of the 21st century's unresolved political dilemmas.  

The people are polite and always excited to try out their English language skills as travellers are a rarity.  The one thing Transnistria is not geared up for is tourism.  Chisinau to Tiraspol to Odessa is in the summer a journey through soviet history in the region.