Concerned about the road that goes from Nairobi north through Marsabit into Ethiopia, I’d been warned by Chris and others that the route is perhaps the rockiest and most incessant display of corrugation this side of Latin America. Glenn Heggsted, the legendary Norwegian-American who traveled around the world on the same bike a few years back blew his shock on the road, as well as three others I’d met over the last few months. Another American, a former airline pilot traveled the same road the year before decided after one day that he hooked up with a truck and had his bike trucked to the Ethiopian border. Stuck in Marsabit for two weeks, another rider bid his time in this desolate outpost while waiting for a replacement shock. Even more, a couple on two 650 BMWs spent four days and crashed several times simply trudging through the 300 miles of hell.
I don’t mind bad roads, but I also know when to be smart. I still had decent tread on my tire and my Works Performance shock, while certainly bearing the weight of me and my heavy load, has served me well on this journey. I’m sure it would make it. And I could make it — slowly and surely. To be sure, the bad road was not my concern. Two things weighted heavy on plans: time and rain.
I’m heading into the rainy season as I make my way to Ethiopia. And while the first 150 miles to Marsabit cross a normally dry desert, it’s during the rainy season that this rocky road becomes a slippery oil slick that sometimes causes trucks to get stuck and stranded for weeks. And these trucks sometimes block the way of other cars, and potentially motorcycles. If the road remains dry, I’d go for it. But going slow and even slower in wet conditions, I had one thing on my mind: TIME. Rather than put myself through hell and potentially dangerous slippery conditions that could have me spending 3-5 days riding a mere 300 miles. No thanks. I’d rather have the extra days in culturally-rich Ethiopia. So I’ve got to explore other options. So taking advise from Chris at Jungle Junction I headed toward Isiolo where I can check with police and truckers regarding road conditions.
That’s when I heard about the rain north of Marsabit and into the Omo Valley in Ethiopia. “Sure it might dry in a few days,” one trucker posited. “But more rain make very bad road,” he added. Further information led me to the same conclusion. Rains have caused trucks to get stuck outside Marsabit and north. What should I do? I don’t have the time to waste. I need to get to Addis to sort out my Sudanese Visa, and I’m gearing to make the April 9th ferry to Aswan Egypt. Sure, self-imposed deadlines, but deadlines nonetheless. I don’t want to compromise on Ethiopia so putting myself through a hellish wet and muddy road for the sake of it made no sense. I went in search of a truck.
I learned that some trucks take the rocky and muddy-when-wet Marsabit route, while others opt for the longer, sandy route through Garisa to the east and north through the desert. One trucker explained that though the route is longer and goes through sand, it’s easier on the truck tires and the cargo because there is less corrugation and the sand makes for a smoother ride. Of course, that would be in a truck, not necessarily in a motorcycle. So I called, Steve, the taxi driver I’d met earlier in the week. He provided me with negotiation and navigation through the slums of Nairobi in search of a truck.
We wandered through rocky streets where sacks of coffee, sugar, lime, shoes, fruit, clothing blocked passage ways. Passed alleys stinking of urine and drifted pass tiny shacks where sweet smells from wafts of coffee aromas contrasted with the harsh conditions in this slum of Nairobi. We were stuck for one hour trying to navigate through only three blocks. Trucks blocked intersections, the stench of bad sewage permeated my helmet while an endless array of dirty and sweaty palms were thrust in front of my helmet. Money. Some beggars cupped their fingers together and motioned with their mouths that they wanted food. But as the temperature soared from the heat of my engine, sun beating down and density of congested streets, Doc’s temperature warning light glared at me while trying to follow this taxi. I was in no position to heed to the beggars — not that I would in any case anyway.
At one time the roads through this sprawling Nairobi slum were paved. But the ingenioius planners forgot one detail: drainage. The streets have no drains, the rooms simply dump water onto the street or walkways. Broken concrete, exposed rebar and haphazardly placed markets with shading provided by plastic sheets, cut up boxes and clothes too deteriorated to wear. This is where tourists fear to tread, yet the vibrancy, energy and chaos is a feast for the eyes. But keep cool. And alert.
Nairobi slum is a haven for ad hoc markets shipping sugar and cane, clothes, vegetables, soap and no my motorcycle. Sitting on the hood of the car on the left is Steve my taxi driver and the owner/broker of the truck that would take me and Doc to Moyale on the Kenya/Ethiopia border.
This area of Nairobi is chock full of refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Congo and elsewhere in Africa. For some, Nairobi represents a safe haven and a place to do business. For others, it’s a better way of life outside the impoverished food-starved villages of lands faraway. For me it represents a possible quick way to the Ethiopian border, while providing me with yet another unique cultural experience. Plus, it would save me time and wear and tear on a motorcycle that still had miles and months to go in this journey. If I ended up in a bad situation I can accept that as circumstance. But if I go headlong into a situation knowingly that could affect safety, health or cause damage, injury or otherwise compromise my trip — it would be stupid and imprudent. At least I can make a choice. In this case, I’m going for the border and saving Doc’s ass in the process.
One thing travelers’ learn early on is that in third world motorcycle travel, everyone is an opportunist. That is, everyone wants to help you. Even if they can’t they’ll try to convince you they can. Whether it’s finding a hotel room, a motorcycle mechanic or a truck to take your bike to the border, the sheer number of people willing to help you is astounding. But they all can’t. And if somehow they manage to connect you with someone they expect either a tip or a commission from the truck owner. And today it was perhaps even more difficult identifying the brokers from the real deal.
Over the period of several hours Steve, my taxi guy, and I “interviewed” and “inspected” a number of trucks and negotiated with several would-by owners. We finally came to an agreement with one owner whose truck would nestle Doc in the back with a potpourri of other products heading to the border town of Moyale. It would cost me nearly $100 and take two days and a few hours to get to my destination. The truck was a late-model Volvo with good tires and in good shape. Quite different than many other trucks we’d checked. The owner/broker wanted his money. I told him I’d pay half in Nairobi and half when I arrived in Moyale. This concept didn’t go over well. He wanted it all — now. Even though I was told the truck would leave in an hour (it was 4pm by the time we’d closed the deal), I knew this was a dream. After all, I am in Africa. Nothing goes as planned, let alone on time.
Steve takes up the rear as our ad hoc team of loaders heave Doc into the back of the lorry.
The crowds hover and gather around my Jesse bags and gaze into the back of the Lorry wondering just where and why this mozungu (white man) is going.
They try to load as much more as possible for the truck to Moyale at the Kenya / Ethiopia border. Doc sits secure atop dozens of sacks of some substance that someone will make soap from. Good god!
When it came time to load Doc into the back of the truck atop sacks of a fine lime-like consistency powder that is used for making soap, the whole neighborhood showed up behind the truck eager to help hoist the 650cc machine into the lorry. The four healthiest yet still quite feeble looking were assigned the duty and we tied down Doc in the cavernous tarp covered cargo area of the 2005 Volvo truck. I supervised the tying down and insisted we cover the bike fearing that dusty mixture would all but cover my bike in a thin coat of white crap.
Still withholding payment to the owner/broker because at 6pm the driver had yet to show up. Meanwhile, my owner/broker closed a handful of side deals as the space around doc filled up with a couple large sacks of shoes and a huge box of Kiwi shoe polish. Then a sack of close.
With the truck all packed up and ready to go, the rain starts pouring yet we’ve got no driver.
“Hey!” I yelled and began to cause a ruckus if only for the entertainment of me and Steve the taxi driver. “I paid for that space!” I referred to the agreement that we made when I insisted that the bike have its own space in the truck so that nothing would fall on it or roll into it as we made the treacherous journey across the desert. “If those shoes are going on the truck, then I should get the money!” I felt that I needed to entertain myself and just test the limits of my broker/owner. After a 10 minute conversation where I wore my serious and concerned face, I broke down and let him know I was only joking yet I was serious about adding more product to the cargo that could be dangerous to my bike.
Another hour passed and as the sun dropped the clouds moved in and the rain started pouring. I was feeling pretty good about my decision at this point. With a driver, a back up driver and a 14-year old Ethiopian girl all scrunched in the cab of the truck we ventured into the night traffic and rainy roads of Nairobi making our way to out of the city. I felt funny sitting in the cab of one of those trucks I often passed and at times cursed. Now it was I slugging along and sitting up so high watching the other cars — and bikes zoom by. The sky was black and the windshield wipers rattled as we moved toward Moyale.
The back of this bus is filled with colorful graphics and words and complete who I think is Bin Laden on the U.S. dollar bill. Spotted this local bus on the outskirts of the slums as we headed out of Nairobi.