Tanzania: Hey, Mr Moi, where's my Mombasa gone?

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The Independent Travel

They say when your horse throws you, get straight back on. Good advice, but what if you break your leg, and have to wait and think about it?

They say when your horse throws you, get straight back on. Good advice, but what if you break your leg, and have to wait and think about it? I got back on my bike in Nairobi, and that was no problem because I was on tar. No chance of falling on tar. But rough dirt, sand? I'll be honest. The prospect scared me. "Oh, it's tar all the way to Cape Town," they said. "No more worries." They lied.

I found a pair of used motocross boots to protect my legs and thus armoured I got on the 300-mile road to Mombasa. The bike ran beautifully. At 4,000 feet, even so close to the equator, the air was cold. The road was good, too, and I managed to keep out of the way of the buses hurtling towards the ocean at 80 miles an hour.

Halfway there I passed Kibwezi Junction, where I spent such memorable days in 1974, but everything had changed. The Curry Pot Inn had vanished. There was no trace of my friends Paul, Pius and Samson, and the bar girl I slept with had probably died of Aids.

Rain clouds formed as I neared the coast. The road was wet. Then, 10 miles outside Mombasa, the road disappeared. It became an obstacle course of sand bars, pools and potholes. I felt hollow at the sight of it, but had to join the crowd of trucks and buses crawling over this travesty of a road that joined Kenya's biggest city to its capital. But I struggled through, the bike felt stable, the fear eased, and I found the hotel I was looking for.

It was just off Moi Avenue, behind a barely disguised and rather banal brothel called Casablanca. I had two ambitions in Mombasa. The first was once again to lunch, preferably on lobster, at the Castle, an old-style, white stucco hotel of monumental proportions. The other was to find out what had happened to the glorious, disreputable and mysterious Sunshine Club on Kilindini Street. I had no great expectations, but even so I was disappointed to find that Moi had stolen my Kilindini Street and renamed it after himself and that the inferior Casablanca now stood where the Sunshine had once entranced me.

As for the Castle Hotel, that grand old lady was still there, abandoned and rotting, shut since 1994, another victim, I was told, of power games. Even so, there were good things to be had in Mombasa, including the best Indian food I've ever eaten, and I limped around town for a day before taking the ferry to the luxuriant, banana-lined coast road and Tanzania.

According to the maps, one last stretch of dirt awaited me, about 40 miles of it, from the border to Tanga. When I saw the red earth stretched out before me I had no rational doubt that I would survive it.

The weather looked good. The ground was firm. The potholes were easy to avoid. And still I felt the panic. The question was whether I could free myself of this choking anxiety, because the prospect of riding another 50,000 miles in fear of fear was unacceptable. It was touch and go for a bit, like the first intimations of sea-sickness. I had to work hard to keep it down, but about halfway through I felt it evaporate. The sun shone on me, and I arrived in the bright and pleasant seaside town of Tanga in a state of exhilaration.

After that the miles accumulated rapidly, and easily. Tanzania, a rain-sodden and dismal country when I rushed through it in 1974, was sunny and beautiful, and seemed much more prosperous. I began to be aware of a subtle change in the manner and appearance of the people, something that became more and more evident as I moved on through Malawi, and Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. I saw a degree of awareness and sophistication that was absent a quarter century ago. Hardly surprising perhaps, but heartening. There is so much bad news about Africa. Death is ever-present. At the roadside, in a Malawi village, a bold sign announced in white on black:

COFFINS

24 hours

Coffins in 24 hours? Who knows? Who cares? Death and life go on.

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