Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Island hopping part 1

The dusty sweaty heat of the workshop is intense.  Every day, my light coloured clothes and skin are caked in a layer of brown gunk.  Mixing this with sun cream or mosquito repellant creates a coating of soft brown plasticine.  One afternoon a refreshing wind picked up, carrying ominous clouds over the distant hilltops.  The tree tops swayed vigorously and the mark-i turbine buzzed in a worryingly fast frenzy.  Sitting on top of Douglas the spare parts man's shipping container shop, it normally is very indecisive in finding the wind with its small tail fin, but now it had no doubt.  Then the rain came, occasional big blobs of rain rising to a power shower of warm sweet water.   Brown rivers washed all of the dust and dirt away in no time, and soon the rain passed, leaving a much cooler, cleaner damp air.  

The following morning it was noticeably cooler.  I went out to buy eggs from the stall in the compound of the Marie Stopes nursing home and in true British spirit, chatted to Patrick our day guard.  He asked me if it was true that ice formed on the rooftops of our houses.  I explained to him the concept of snow and how it can bring everything to a standstill.

On Friday afternoon we packed and got in the car to meet up with Elin on Rusinga Island, off Lake Victoria.  We drove through a landscape of enormous Flintstones boulders and got to the Ferry slipway just in time for the 6pm departure.  A loud commotion of drunk men sprung upon us, amused by the unnecessary need to help us push the car onto the boat (a connection between solenoid and starter motor I suspect).  We sat on the roof rack and watched the most majestic sunset, spilling shards of light out through golden edged clouds. Sam pointed out that it looked like the cover of a self help book.  Night fell and we followed some vague directions over a dusty track with Josh still on the roof rack.   As we asked directions, locals joined him as they were going the same way.  Eventually we found Elin and Michael who she had been staying with.  We took the car over some pretty rutted off road track up to the small cluster of tin roofed houses where Michael lived with Mama Jane and their family.  Whilst having dinner, Michael roped me into setting up business with him starting a volunteer tourism business.
We rose at the break of dawn, greeted with large plastic mugs of gritty coffee from Mama Jane.  Two locals on their Indian motorcycles waited for us to take us to the other port on Rusinga.  I was confused how four of us plus luggage (including guitar) could get on the two bikes, but we did, gliding off down the dirt tracks with quite some grace.  We got to the port and waited for the little wooden boat to take us about 10 miles across the bay to Mfangano Island.  The start was much more leisurely than Mama Jane had warned us, after plenty of waiting around a breakfast of Ugi, Chapatti and beans, our boat arrived.  Most of the passengers were being carried through a stinky mire to the boat for 10 shillings (around 7p) but with my pride and gangle I squelched up onto the boat. We faffed for a while and left at 10, three hours later than expected, but only went 20 meters along the shore before we picked more passengers up.  Then we motored off through the soup of flies and algae in the blazing sun.  I amused myself at the sight of the passengers reading a newspaper named 'the Standard' and how different it was to the 'Evening Standard' reading passengers on the tube in London.
20 minutes in and the engine spluttered, forcing the driver to head for land. 200 shillings were handed down the boat to the helmsman, who ran off 'for a spare part.'  He returned a while later on the back of a motorbike with some sparkplugs and we were soon back on the water.  The algae and small flies increased and on the horizon there appeared to be a plume of smoke.  It was apparently an enormous cloud of these flies, visible twenty miles away. A local told us all about the ecosystem here, how the algae was caused by rainwater churning up the algae from underwater currents, and how the entire lake was populated by the Nile Perch.  Introduced in the 1950s, this enormous predator has eradicated virtually all of the other fish in the lake.   Growing up to two meters in length, its white flesh is exported in enormous quantities especially to Israel, creating a huge local economy where people from all over have settled on these shores.  There is one distant rock island on the horizon where twenty thousand fishermen have settled and created a tin city upon it.  A fragile microcosm which will only last as long as the massive stocks remain.

We hopped off the boat at Mfangano and strolled up the dirt track circling the island to meet Adam, a young American who has lived here for five years as a fisherman.  He lived an almost feral existence on the beautiful shoreline in a mud hut, line fishing every afternoon in his little boat.  We were showed our camping spot, went for a swim in the warm waters and then had a late lunch with him and Brad, another American seeking sanctuary from western civilisation.  We joined him for a trip our fishing, taking it in turns to cast the four lines as we drifted down the beautiful coast, watching the birds circling around and occasionally spotting a large monitor lizard on the rocks.  Needless to say we caught none of these legendary beasts, and as the sun set and we headed back we watched a dramatic tropical storm on the horizon with bolts of lightning illuminating the distant hills on the mainland.  Half way back it was clear we were not going to out-run the rain, and as the little boat crashed up through the huge oncoming waves we began to get rained upon by the biting wet deluge.  As I sat at the bow the spray of the lake water warmed me up, I looked behind us as the rest of the crew were huddled and shivering.   Visibility was nothing, so I was very pleased to hear Michael, the Kenyan navigator recognise our beach.  How, I just don't know. 
We heaved the boat onto the shore and fled up to the warmth of the hut where Elin had made some pizza dough.  How much of a treat this was!

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