With the rain pelting the windshield and the windshield wipers offered additional percussion to the Kenyan music blasting distortedly through the trucks sole speaker I knew I was in for a long ride. I didn’t have much information either. Sitting in
a cab with my driver Abdulah and Sofia, a young 14 year old girl crying because she didn’t want to return to her native land, I contemplated my situation. I’d ridden Doc, my bike, virtually everywhere on this journey. Now, Doc sat on atop more than 50 sacks of dolomite powder and we were together embarking on a 2-3 day ride through some of the toughest terrain in Eastern Africa.
Sofia and I spent many hours in the cab of our lorry making the journey to the Kenya – Ehthiopia border.
Initially I thought we would take the road from Isiolo north to Marsabit then onward to Moyale at the Ethiopian border. But Abdulah with his broken English explained that while longer the road through Garissa would be gentler on the truck, cargo, tires and our spines. Instead we headed east toward Thika where we made our first and only stop for the first nine hours. The small market had a fair selection of breads, biscuits, meats and soft drinks. Here I loaded up on snacks, water and even some cold cuts. At once I was excited about the adventure ahead and then I went through phases of self-doubt. Should I have ridden this leg of the trip? Did I make the right decision? Sure. I knew I’d save time and with the question still hanging in the air about whether I’d get a visa to enter Sudan. Shit. If not, I’d have to make a U-Turn in Addis and cross this desert a second time. Or head to Eritrea and hope for a ship somewhere. With my mind racing and sitting in the cab of a Mitsubishi Lorry with a 14-year old Ethiopian girl and the man responsible to take the precious cargo to the Ethiopian border.
Abdulah was tall, lanky and while he could speak in English phrases he was taken to saying yes or simply answering a totally different question, one in his mind, than the one I’d asked him if he didn’t understand me. This would be rather comical for the next sixty hours. His sidekick, the back-up driver Keisha, new about as many words in English as I in Swahili. But we managed to communicate and make each other laugh and smile. What more could you want. But it was at this market in Thika that the two of them negotiated side deals that saw about 5 or 6 passengers negotiate for a ride to somewhere in the desert.
This deep sand would be taxing and tiring on a motorcycle. Not to take into account temperatures, lack of available water and what else?
“No bus go past Garissa,” Abdulah explained. “And bus very expensive.” Garissa is about 300 km from Nairobi, and most of this road is paved. Heading due east toward the Somalian border, there are few vehicles that travel this route, and since January 2007 amidst fighting with Somalian Islamic extremists, the Kenya border has been closed. Since then several policemen were murdered by desperate Somalians trying to enter Kenya. The suspension on the Mitsubishi did its best to cushion the cab from the badly potholed road while Abdulah cranked the African music. I tried to sleep my way through it. But the beauty of the dark sky and massive full moon captivated my attention and as I dozed learning my head against the window the all to recurring jolts of the cab bounced me like a bobble-head knocking me into the window and waking me up. I’d just gaze up and see that moon and fall back into the zone.
The major metropolis of Shantabak. Great Boiled Goat Meat, Potatoes and Chapait.
About nine hours and 340 km later server rocking backing forth bounced my head repeatedly against the glass. So I woke. It was 4:30am. “We Garissa now,” Abdulah announced detecting life in the cab. Ahead the lights faded into a horizon of simply sand and low lying plants and thorn bushes. My confident driver seemed to drive an obstacle course or maze around the plant-life. There were no lights. No vehicles. Just a bush-covered semi-arid desert. Long behind me was the fertile and arable great rift valley, Mt. Kenya and the lands that inspired Ernest Hemingway, Teddy Roosevelt and many before and after. For us, Garissa and this vast wasteland represented a turning point. Time to head north into no mans land — though Garissa itself only distinguishes itself from where we’re going but a narrow strip of poorly maintained tarmac that ends there.
It was in Garissa, off the tarmac and still under the falling full moon we stopped for a cup of tea — the first stop in over eight hours. The small settlement consisted of corrugated metal buildings, ragtag shacks and mud, manure and stick shacks. But it was the sunrise just a couple hours later where we stopped and for the first time in nearly 12 hours Keisha took over the driving duty while Abdulah snuggled in the narrow stretch of space behind the seats in the cab. “Two hours I drive again,” he assured me. “I need sleep now.” Two hours. I know that this schedule would never work in the USA where truck drivers are monitored by satellites so that they follow hours of service regulated by the Department of Transportation and where speed, fuel consumption and idling are all logged electronically. But I guess driver fatigue, productivity and performance are measured by more rudimentary methods. I just hope that Abdulah is in touch with his circadian rhythm and we arrive in Moyale unscathed.
But there are some rules for Kenyan truck drivers. Apparently the extra passengers we’d picked up in Thika were illicit and illegal cargo on lorries in Kenya. When we came across a makeshift gate between two shrubs across the stretch of sand that was serving as our driving track I got inquisitive. A young dark-skinned man with a dim flashlight appeared out of the bushes and approached the cab. He shined the light on the cargo space and pointed it to the top of the tarp where our human contraband tried to shield themselves from the wind and cold. As Abdulah stuffed a few shillings in the palm of the torch-toting policeman, I wondered how our passengers would handle the blazing and radiating heat of the sun that was sure to beat on them in a few hours — and throughout the day.
We had passed a village of perhaps only several dozen. Yet there was a police checkpoint. I was puzzled. But this is Africa after all. “Why police here? Not many trucks. No cars. Why check point,” I fell into speaking in broken English mimicking Abdulah. He explained that the passengers were illegal but for a few shillings he could pass, even though I’m sure he coulda barreled right on through. But this was just another example of Africa and the way things work. Nobody questions it. Everybody abides. Almost everybody, that is.
Boiled goat meat, potatoes and chapati. Yummy!.
By the time Keisha was booted from the driver’s seat I had seen my first camels of my entire journey. We’d passed through miles and miles of this desolate and dusty bush covered plain where seemingly in the middle of nowhere a silhouette of hundreds of goats with a herder would appear. Shadows of the massive wing span of marabou storks would float across the track we followed. Then I saw my first camels. Just a 100 meters from the truck lurking in the shadow of the bush ten or twenty camels seemingly drifted by gracefully followed by a young boy carrying a stick. Camels.
Abdulah. My driver, confidant and new friend. Sitting on the floor of a Shantabak shanty sipping and slurping our lunch.
Life goes at a slow pace here in no man’s land. And our Mitsubishi lorry followed suit. More goats, hundreds of donkeys packing water from who knows where and camels it was almost six hours later and only 2200 km(120 miles) that we made the next stop. All along the way I spotted a few cellular phone antenna towers but not a shred of evidence of electricity. We were in Shantabak, not on the map — not even Google Maps. But with the diesel engine idling we entered a dark shaded structure and sat on a tattered fabric on the floor. A young woman carrying a pitcher of water and shallow bucket walked up to me and I washed my hands as she powered the water over them and into the bucket. In these parts of Africa there’s no cutlery — silverware — you simply eat with your hands. And while I must admit I was a bit concerned about the food I’d be served, the boiled goat meat and potatoes served with chapati, delicious African flat bread, and rice was flavorful, tender and perfect. I wondered if I’d be opting for Imodium or Pepto later, but using the chapati to scoop and grab the food Sofia, Abdulah and Keisha munched down the meal before heading out past the goats, camels and donkeys to yet another police checkpoint, a shop as Abdulah called it, and headed back into the desert.
Outside Shantabak we were dangerously close to the Somalia border. I spotted a Kenyan military camp on the horizon with a few vehicles jockeying back and forth while I tried to position paper, my dirty socks and whatever else I could find to create shade from the windshield as we continued through. As we plodded along at about 30km/hour (20-mph) we passed a few settlements that consisted of dome shaped huts made of sticks and the cardboard and plastic from USAid and World Food Program boxes and cartons. Some of these communities reminded me of the shabby shacks in northern Peru along the Atacama desert. But here there was no road. And we’d only seen one other lorry for the past two days, save a few vehicles in Garissa and an NGO vehicle in Shantabak. But out here? Nothing. Camels, donkeys, goats and warthogs — lots of warthogs.
No Man’s Land.
One of the police checkpoints we encountered in No Man’s Land.
We carried contraband passengers and had to bribe police at feeble checkpoints in order to pass
Keisha the back-up driver and hired hand taking a smoke break somewhere out here in No Man’s Land.
As Abdulah battled with spastic steering wheel as the big lorry tried to get a grip and traction through the deep stand I assured myself that I was happy I wasn’t sweating the sand and trudging through the 104ºF (40ºC) wasteland on my bike. Nope. It was clear this would be a slow burning hell. Where does the water come from? Goat herders sit under the dappled shade of thorny bushes while others reached for the truck begging for water. I just wanted to sleep. Sleep this entire trip away. Drift. Bounce. And dream.
Civilization. Power lines. But no powered vehicles.
Many hours later I spotted power lines for the first time in days. There seemed to be some development. Stucco-ish buildings mixed with thatched stick huts. The population was denser than I’d seen, too. We stopped for a cup of tea and while the temperatures scorched and the sun blinded me, the hot tea was refreshing. Standing by the side of the lorry I attracted attention. I was used to this when riding the bike. But here a crowd gathered around and just watched me drink my tea. My efforts to engage them in conversation were futile due to the language barrier. Though I managed to elicit smiles and a few giggles, one boy appeared and beamed into my eyes. “Money,” he said and just stood there. Though I new what he wanted, the pronunciation was off.
“Many?” I asked. “Many. Many what?” He just repeated the word. “Many donkeys,” I said with a grin. There’s a problem with Aid without education. While World Food, USAid, C.A.R.E., WorldVision and the many other aid organizaitons I found evidence of in Africa, it comes to a point that when a visitor – a white man in these parts – appears the population immediatley associates the visitor with hand outs. I tried to give away some bread and biscuits that I bought in Thika a couple nights back, but amazingly there were no takers. The crowd grew denser. Though I know I was an anomoly, I started to feel uncomfortable. In my animated and comical delivery I suggested that the crowed move on — go to school, with their families or anywhere but just staring at me. I waved my hands in another animated attempt to “shoo” them away. But it didn’t work. Then it occured to me how to get the crowed to move on. In these rural parts and many places along my journey there are people who are simply afraid of cameras.
“Okay. If you don’t want to go then I’m going to take a picture of you,” I said as I pulled my camera from my pocket. In breakneck speed the crowd fled in every direction. Hmmmm. That was easy.
The road went on forever. I couldn’t believe there were communities out here. This red clay would turn out to be our nemesis days later.
Fast break. The crowd disperses as I whip out my little digital camera. No photos. Well if they’re gonna stare at me, I’m gonna stare back with my camera!
I was tired. No real sleep for 36 hours. And sitting all this time, I was getting store. I pretzeled myself to the best I could to find a comfortable position in the cab.
We continued driving as the sun finally set and gave both us in the cab and our poor passengers sitting atop the tarp covered cargo area. We got within 60 km (36 miles) of Moyale by about 1am when Abdulah announced we’d spend the night and head out early in the morning explaining that it’d be safer to park the loaded truck in the desert rather than in the town. After a cup of tea the owner of this small guest house that consisted of open door mud and stick shacks surrounding a courtyard of sand, thorn bushes and junk, Abdulah and I shared a shack where we both conked out on mattress-less beds made of sticks.
Morning came to soon. Actually, it was still dark when Abdulah wrested me out of bed. After a warm cup of tea I made my way to the cab of the truck where I found Sofia sleeping in the cab — she opted for the comfort of the bench seat rather than the stick beds — smart girl.
We were 2-3 hours from Moyale it was 4:30 in the morning. All started peacefully and I feel asleep in the cab until the break of daylight which brought along with it the break of the clouds in the sky. Awakened by the loud crash of thunder, my eyes opened to the light sprinkling of rain on the windshield. As we passed a tiny a barely recognizable side road, Abdulah told me that was the road to Marsabit and had we made the trip from Isiolo through Marsabit we’d meet this road here. The more we drove, the harder it rained. The clouds were dark, brooding and ominous while Abdulah was now fighting to keep the truck from slipping and sliding. Our speed decreased to 10-km/hour (6-mph) and as we headed up a very slight incline of about 10-15 degrees we lost all traction and the truck slid into the gutter or the shoulder. The road was crowned just enough that unless the truck could straddle it perfect center, we’d slid down into the side. It was red clay and it was slippery.
With only a pick-axe and bare hands Abdulah and Keisha and with the help of a few of our illicit cargo passengers the team churned up dry clay from the road and mixed with a matrix of sticks and shrub in attempt to provide traction for the truck. An hour later Abdulah negotiated the heavy truck back onto the center of the road where we continued to slip and slide for about 500 feet until sliding down and then slamming into the side of the road landing at such an angle I thought the whole truck would tip over as we jolted with impact of the side of the truck. Once again the crew worked to dig the truck out of the muddy mess. We got moving again for barely 100 feet and slam. Once again I thought the truck would tip over with the impact. I wondered about my bike. I was sure the bike might break loose. Abdulah ordered the passengers off the top and me and Sofia out of the cab. When I made the long step down from the cab my foot slipped on the mud and I fell to my knees making a muddy mess of myself.
Abdulah jabbered on his cell phone while the rutted mud was filled with sicks and churned up dirt. Sometime later a British-built 4×4 Defender showed up. The boss. Dressed in a long bright white gown signifying his devotion to Islam, it was suggested that Sofia and I be taken to Moyale while the truck was dug out. One guy told me it could be several days if they needed to wait for the road to dry. But by now the rain had stopped and while we’d only gone about 1 km in just under 3 hours, I was hopeful I wouldn’t end up spending days in Moyale. In the distance to the West brooding rain clouds continued to drench the desert to the West. By now I was feeling real smart for choosing to truck through this part of Kenya. There was no way a motorcycle could ride on this wet clay. There was absolutely no traction. It was slipper and while the side of the road was thick mud, it would only cake up and clog a bikes drivetrain making it impossible to pass. Yes, I made the smart move.
We scrambled and tried to make a suitable track with traction. These guys must have done this before.
I sat in the back of the Defender while the Abdulah managed to get the truck moving only to be slammed back into the side. This went on for an hour while bullfrogs from a nearby creek provided the side show and the choir. By the time the truck got moving and following us in the Defender just another km down the road we ran into another truck stuck and blocking the road. By the time that truck broke free our convoy came to another stuck vehicle. This time a 2WD Land Cruiser. Again another 45 minutes of pushing and pulling and rocking, the Defender broke free. At that point my white robed friend took Sofia and I to Moyale back to Moyale. Along the way we came across a traffic accident. Two bloody Kenyans sat on the side of the road. The slipping and sliding took its tool. We picked up the bloody and crying guys and dropped them off at the hospital. Then we were dumped off in the center of town and waited for Abdulah to arrive with my motorcycle.
I could smell the Ethiopian border. An hour passed. Still no Abdulah. They were only 10 km away. I’m sure they battled more slick and muddy muck. At 2pm – about 10 hours since I woke up only 50 km from this town, I was reacquainted with Abdulah and my motorcycle.
What an ordeal. Nearly 3 days to go 500 miles. How long would this journey been if I rode?
This guy almost fell as the red clay mud was slippery as ice.
I was afraid the lorry would tip over.
We slid sideways like this for a few hundred feet until slamming back into the berm on the side of the road.
Once we broke free we’d just encounter another stuck vehicle.