From a bustling nightlife in Kisii to a fishing village in Homa Bay, Martyn Pollock tears across counties on the wheels of a Honda Ace before hopping aboard a speedboat to the little-known Ngodhe Rao Island, and back.
Neon lights and flat screen TVs illuminate the clubs on Kisii’s second street. Couples mostly, sit packed together into small booths eating ugali and choma late into the night while Afro-Dance-Pop blares out of huge speakers several decibels too loud. Despite the nightlife on offer, I find myself on some backstreet dive. An unmarked door takes me and a friend four or five storeys up to what reminds me of a Scottish working-man’s social club; faded smoke-stained furniture and used sodden beer mats. Patrons line the bar knocking back high-octane Guinness and nodding to the rhythm. The band plays Kisii traditional music with a Latin beat, it’s a sound like I’ve never heard before and the place is jumping.
Dancing is an all-male sport with plenty of awkward eye contact. In wellie boots and a ski jacket, our de facto leader controls the pack; he drops, and we follow time and time again. The band sweating into their mics seem to constantly lift the tempo and it’s gone half past three by the time we decide to make the journey home. Kisii has some surprisingly active nightlife. It’s the kind of surprise night you don’t forget and the next morning I’m feeling worse for wear. But I’ve got a free weekend, time to kill and I want to make the most of what South Nyanza has to offer.
The Honda Ace is to the piki piki world what the Prado is to the world of luxury 4x4s: a premium machine with a premium price tag. They are pretty much all the same bike, but this has a feel of quality and workmanship that means even the older bikes still look and feel new. A chorus of ‘muzungu, muzungu’ follows as I jockey through Kisii town traffic. Stopping, starting, weaving the ride is exciting if a bit terrifying. After a couple of near misses, I’m free of the urban chaos and on the open road. Ahead of me lies pristine Chinese tarmac meandering its way westwards down, down, and further down towards Lake Victoria.
Kisii town, and Kisii County for that matter, do not get large numbers of foreign visitors. A small Indian community of business owners and less than a handful of expats (of which I am one) and that’s the whole county. A shame really as the rolling hills of South Nyanza are truly spectacular. Banana, coffee, tea, avocado and of course maize cover every inch of land. If you drop seeds here, they will grow. And for this reason, it is the most populous county in Kenya. It’s a sort of urban-rural sprawl where families are densely packed into tiny parcels of subsistence farm land. The villages are idyllic. Immaculate homesteads with well-built houses, only the mabati sheet roofs and mobile phones serve as reminders that you are indeed in 2019.
I take advantage of the new road and gun the bike through its 4-speed box all the way to a brisk 95Kph (downhill). The open road is a dream, but I continually remind myself that dangers lurk, and I try to remain focussed. Soon I’m in Homa Bay county and the dramatic landscape of the lakeside mountains and islands unfold in front of me. I try not to get too lost in the moment for fear of speed bumps, potholes and of course other road users.
A boy of around nine years holds his hand out at the side of the road. As I come to a stop, he just stares at me wondering if his eyes are telling the truth. ‘Wathi’, the only word I know in Luo, which means ‘let’s go’, and we are on our way. We ride in silence for a couple of miles until he says ‘hapa’ and as I come to a stop he runs off into the bush to tell everyone he meets about his free ride, questioning his own story with each iteration.
I’ve decided to camp at Wayando Beach Eco Resort and I pitch my tent with a beautiful view of the lake. It’s a modest place in an excellent setting, serving up succulent fresh fish dishes at bargain prices. A great place to stay if you are travelling on a budget. After nearly three hours in the saddle and darkness setting in, I settle down for a few beers in front of an open fire watching the shifting shadows as the sun light turns to moonlight over this great body of water.
The next morning, I charter a fishing boat to Ngodhe Rao Island with the only other guest in the resort. Under a patchwork sail we cruise between the two islands at great speed. Our fishermen cum tour operators are eager to please. There’s Walter, the confident outgoing one with a steady stream of interesting facts, Bernard, the intern who is doing almost all the work and Dickenson who sits at the front almost in silence. It’s hard to work out who is the boss, but my money is on Dickenson. The waves lap at the boat as the morning sun begins to show its strength on my Celtic skin. The Sound is awash with boats, but hardly an engine can be heard as almost every boat is as the traditional dhow sailing design. Ngodhe Rao Island reminds me of a mythical pirate island in some classic eighteenth-century novel. Two distinct rocky peaks that lead down steep slopes to the lake. Coves and inlets patrolled by tropical birds and countless monitor lizards. But far from deserted this island has a vibrant community.
We land at a small fishing village on the biggest stretch of beach. It is the closest thing to a town on the island. There are no cars and no bikes, and the pace of life is probably little changed in decades. Kids play in the water while adults fish with varying methods; line and net with the latter being a communal affair. Instantly I’m roped into hauling in the day’s catch. No mean feat as huge nets are pulled by opposing parties from hundreds of meters offshore. After about 40 mins of rhythmic heaving, I’m exhausted, but the net is on shore and the catch distributed evenly among the two parties. As I watch, a man is weaving a net on a huge wooden loom. “Which country?” he asks. “UK,” I reply. “How do you like Trump? I like Trump, he is a great leader,” he says. I nod, not wanting to correct him. Geopolitics aside and we are back on the boat to finish the circumnavigation of this idyllic isle and back to our campsite.
I’ve got a three-hour blast ahead of me and I want to get back before nightfall. For all its pluses, the Honda Ace doesn’t have a fuel gauge which makes me nervous about coming unstuck. The journey back is smoother and faster. I’m used to the bike now and feel much more confident on the road. I turn into Suneka, the first town back in Gusii lands and the chorus of “muzungu” from every man, child and mzee begins again. I’m home.