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How we conquered last leg of epic road trip back home

Sunday March 10 2019

Mzee Peter Shompole, 83, who dared all odds and took a road trip to South Africa. PHOTO | COURTESY

Mzee Peter Shompole, 83, who dared all odds and took a road trip to South Africa. PHOTO | COURTESY 

JOYCE NYAIRO
By JOYCE NYAIRO
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In this second and final part of Peter Shompole’s road trip from Kenya to South Africa and back, the 83-year-old recounts his encounters with racism, seeing the ‘meeting’ of ocean waters, getting to the

Tropic of Capricorn and facing the risk of flash floods.

***

When we planned the road-trip to Cape Town, we knew my daughter, Samante, would host us in Kimberley and Cape Town.

But between Kiserian and Kimberley we had no advance booking for accommodation. Our plan was to cover 1,000 kilometres a day, and sleep wherever nightfall found us. Adventure!

Every morning, we mapped a route and noted the big towns. Sometimes, my grandchildren called ahead to book rooms for that night but, too often, in Tanzania and Zambia, the phones were unanswered.

A TASTE OF RACISM

After the 18-hour delay at Martin’s Drift, the Botswana-South Africa border point, only two lodges were available close by. One was fully booked and the second one, we were told, did not admit blacks, especially at night.

We had to drive 100 kilometres to Lephalale. My grandchildren made some calls and secured a booking, only to get there and find the same barrier.

At the gate, in full view of the security cameras, and suddenly there was no vacancy, no entry for us.

Fortunately, we were welcomed at Palm Park Hotel not too far off, but now we were triggered to discuss the history of apartheid for a long time the next day.

Mzee Shompole poses for a photo with his travelling companions. PHOTO| COURTESY

Mzee Shompole poses for a photo with his travelling companions. PHOTO| COURTESY

CODED LANGUAGE

South Africans impressed me with their road courtesy. Drivers yield instinctively.

They indicate to communicate their intentions and to greet fellow drivers. Once you overtake successfully, you indicate twice to say, “thank you”, then glance in your rear-view mirror to see the driver you overtook acknowledging you with two flashes of their indicator.

They speak differently, very commanding — “When you see the robot, you must turn left, go around the ring, and straight ahead”.

This means: when you see the traffic lights, go left, then go straight after the roundabout. My son, Daktari, mastered the signals and terms and on Christmas Eve, we covered 730 kilometres with ease.

We saw lots of birds, ostriches, and other wildlife, and arrived in Kimberley at 1am.

Our family reunion was happy and noisy! More than half my family was scattered between Kenya and America, but I was very happy to meet the new addition, Jaelynn Naisula.

Some of my grandchildren had not seen each other, or their uncles and aunts for years, so this was an important reunion.

ONSET OF THE REAL ADVENTURE

We resumed our sightseeing as soon as Christmas festivities were over, this time, in two car loads.

My son-in-law, Edwin, and my son, Sosio, took turns driving the second car.

First on the agenda was The Big Hole in Kimberley. It is literally that — a huge crater, dug by hand. It used to be a hill, but consistent mining between 1871 and 1914 turned it into a crater, half-filled with algae-green water. I toured the diamond vault in a rented wheelchair.

I was surprised by the poor cell-phone network in South Africa and the prevalence of call-boxes. I made a game out of spotting them along the 965km journey from Kimberly to Cape Town.

It’s been so many years since I saw a call-box in Kenya! I also searched for familiar things like boda bodas, kiosks and hawkers. There were none.

BEYOND BEAUTIFUL

The size of white-owned farms shocked me — huge, like the distance from Kisumu to Nairobi, secured all along by an electric perimeter fence, all wildlife locked in.

The Cape region is beautiful wine country. Natasha felt homesick. This landscape reminded her of Napa Valley which is close to her base in northern California.

South Africans are very clever at tourism. Unlike us Kenyans, they have maximised everything they have — God-given natural phenomena like mountains, caves and oceans, and the brutal man-made suffering of apartheid history.

Even when you are not actively looking for something that you need to pay entry fees for, there are wonders to behold.

At one of the small towns, the centre of a two-way road is not marked in the traditional yellow colour, they use wine-coloured paint. One look at it and you want to stop and have a long glass of red wine!

Other wonders are the mountain passes where the road cuts through rock, leaving the roof of the mountain intact.

They are maintained through road tolls. It feels like driving through a cave, though many caves elsewhere are open for guided tours.

IN FAMILIAR COMPANY

Robben Island and the Table Mountains need advance booking.

As I sat in the car waiting for my family to get entry tickets for the cable cars, I was approached by Kenyans from all over our country — Nanyuki, Nakuru, Embu, Nairobi and elsewhere. “Habari?”; “Supaay?”, “Andu a gwitu!” we saluted each other in many languages. None had taken a road trip; they flew from Nairobi.

Many Kenyans there work in the corporate sector. Others run their businesses — curios, restaurants, car hire, and guided safaris. I was so proud of them.

We saw a bus bearing the name Ng’ang’a, across the windshield and we made it a point to find nyama choma at one of the Kenyan-owned restaurants.

We found Kenyan tourists there who had found rooms at Air BnBs leased out by the corporate Kenyans who were back home for Christmas.

The queues at Table Mountains were very long, even though the price is quite high — equivalent of Sh9,000 per person.

We gave up and went in search of the Cape of Good Hope, the place made famous by Bartholomew Dias, a Portuguese explorer who found big storms there in the 15th century, as he tried to navigate a route to India.

MEETING POINT

The Cape of Good Hope is not the southernmost point of the African continent. That distinction belongs to Cape Agulhas. We went to both Capes.

Cape Agulhas is the official geographic divide between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, but it is Cape Point that is marketed as “the place where two oceans meet”. And what a dramatic meeting it is!

I was completely spellbound. Splash, go the waters, as the cold, white ones from the Atlantic are pushed back further by the warm, deep blue Indian Ocean, leaving pebbles and fish on the rocky beach.

This was the highlight of my 23-day adventure! I was doubly happy when I saw a Catholic Church at Cape Agulhas.

We encountered very friendly people in most places.

However, I was struck by the general lack of knowledge of geography. Beyond Tanzania, people could not identify what country we were from even after we pointed to our car registration.

LACKING KNOWLEDGE OF REGION

Daktari would ask: “What African country starts with letter ‘K’?”, 80 per cent couldn’t get it.

But they were quick to name the SADC countries. I found a ceiling in their imagination because what shocked them most about us is that we had the courage, and means, to take a road-trip.

Potatoes (chips) were the most available food throughout this region, and English was the common medium of communication.

But South Africa is full of place names and road signs in Afrikaans — long words that I had difficulty reading.

By the time we left Cape Town on January 2, this year, to start the return journey, we had been away from Kenya for 15 days and had covered 6,054 kilometres.

My daughter Grace had flown from Nairobi but when she heard the tales of the sights and wonders on our road-trip, she abandoned her fellow air-travellers and jumped into our car.

CAR TROUBLES

The car needed new bearings. Daktari improvised and we set off at 3pm. Fifty kilometres later, we lost the air conditioner.

Outside, the temperature was 38 degrees centigrade. As Daktari said, the car became “a cruising oven!”

About 510 kilometres later, at 10pm, Naasisho was driving downhill when she noticed complete loss of brake power. As I explain in my autobiography, Dare to Defy, I was once a matatu owner and driver, so I knew how to guide Naasisho to slow down to a halt using the handbrake.

Her father was sleeping in the back. In the 1980s, when he was an undergraduate at the University of Nairobi, he used to drive my matatu whenever he was on vacation.

I woke him up. I was confident he could navigate with faulty brakes. He took over and crawled at 40kph to Lephalale, 26km away.

At Lephalale Toyota, the following morning, the brakes were fixed, and the AC recharged as we chatted with the Indian manager and his wife.

We had chosen to go through Botswana once again because our research showed volatile politics in parts of Mozambique and some terrible roads on the Zimbabwe-Malawi route.

I was looking forward to seeing the Limpopo River at Palapye, once again. It marks the border between South Africa and Botswana.

And then I spotted something I had not been prepared to see — a sign announcing, Tropic of Capricorn, the southernmost latitude where the sun can shine directly overhead. “Stop”, I shouted at Daktari who was at the wheel as we drove from Lephalale towards the border, “lazima tupige picha”. I had missed that sign on our way to Kimberley because we had left the border in the night.

On my road-trips with Daktari, whether we are in America or in Kenya, we spend 80 per cent of our time talking. We listen to zilizopendwa music sometimes, but our discussions of landscapes, business, history and politics take up most of the time. The children join in with laughter between them, and questions and stories for us. With seven of us on the drive from Cape Town, the car was full of chatter and laughter.

Friday, January 4, found us at the small town of Chisekesi. Our plan was to cover 898km to Mpika, with a brief stopover in Lusaka where Daktari was to make a presentation for the Bitclub Network on Bitcoin mining.

Their meeting started late so we set off again at 4pm, much later than planned. He was energised, and we fell into an animated discussion about Kenneth Kaunda, first president of independent Zambia.

ARE THOSE FLASH FLOODS?

And then the rain started. It was 9pm. It had been four hours since we had seen a car moving in either direction. The downpour increased.

Lightning hit the tarmac again and again; the thunder was deafening. At the back, pin-drop silence; I couldn’t even hear them breathe.

I asked whether anyone had a cell phone signal. Nothing. This was not good.

I glanced at Daktari. He was quiet, eyes trained ahead. He stopped using the wipers for fear of losing them. I asked him whether he could at least see the dividing centre line.

“No”, he answered softly. It was dark, so I sensed rather than saw his growing anxiety.

I talked to keep him calm. I knew what he was thinking because I was thinking the same thing too — flash floods!

Who would ever find us if we drove into a drift? By God’s grace, it did not happen. We crawled in the rain for almost 100 kilometres to Serenje and broke our journey for the night.

This had been the hardest part of our trip thus far. We couldn’t dare the remaining 244 kilometres to Mpika.

Over the next five days, we swung between torrential rains and minor car trouble, but not a single puncture.

When it rained hard, we would stop at the next town and take a break. That’s how we ended up having a lengthy lunch of chips and nyama mbuzi one afternoon in Iringa, central Tanzania.

It was the day Daktari had decided to cover Mbeya to Arusha, a 17-hour drive. We could only make it to Dodoma.

We lost suspension at some point, lost AC again and airbag pressure — risky, but not drastic enough for us to stop for repairs.

On Wednesday, January 9, we pushed through the final 671 kilometres from Dodoma. It took 10 hours — the car a hot, steaming oven.

We arrived in Kiserian, 13,754 kilometres later, at 4pm — just in time for a well-brewed cup of tea, the thing that I had missed the most in southern Africa. We must export Kenyan tea within SADC.

I believe the prayers held at my home the night before departure protected us.

Throughout our journey, none of us fell ill — no running stomachs from street food, no headaches, no flu. Many places we visited had surfaces that were too slippery for one like me who walks with a cane, and sometimes has to use a wheelchair.

I fell a few times and in one instance, it took the combined effort of five people to lift me off the ground.

But save for these falls, and swollen feet from extreme heat and poor circulation caused by long hours seated in the car, I got through this road-trip without damage to my health.

In fact, the morning after we arrived in Kiserian, we left for Narok. But that is a story for another day.

*********

Looking back on our adventure 59-year old Daktari (Dr Patrick Sankale) says, “There is a feeling of contentment when you have a parent around.

Mzee’s broad knowledge makes for exciting discussions, especially about land features and about Africa’s post-colonial leaders — Nyerere, Kaunda, Sereste Khama and of course, Mandela and the Boers.

“He never slept on the road and he kept whoever was driving wide-awake as he watched the road for obstacles, potholes, and advised accordingly. He was so good at noticing interesting sceneries and landscapes, making us stop to enjoy them and rest briefly. I just feel safe and energised when I’m with him. He never says I’m tired and so he motivates me to go the extra mile.”

 ***

Mzee Shompole and Dr Sankale talked to Dr Joyce Nyairo [email protected]

 

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