NAIROBI – Keen travelers fly as little as they possibly can.
that they don’t value their time and it’s often not about not wanting to leave a
carbon footprint. It’s also not about skimping it; overland alternatives to
flying sometimes work out to be more expensive. Rather, it’s about being
strapped to a seat in a huge metal tube floating high above the real people and
the real action down below. It’s about not seeing the landscape change with
every passing mile. Indeed, it’s about seeing hardly any landscape at all. When
it’s all said and done, travelers seem to be in agreement: flying isn’t travel;
it’s mere transport.
Traveling through Africa, I chose to go overland
from the Ethiopian-Kenyan border town of Moyale down to the Kenyan capital,
Nairobi. The first leg of this journey is the dangerous and inhospitable stretch
called “Dida Galgalu” – “flat desert.”
Flat is certainly was, the road
unmetalled and the surrounding, lawless plains likely concealing Chifta –
bandits from across the Somali border. As public transport was unheard
these remote reaches of Kenya – as were decent roads, electricity and
running water – there was really just one way of traveling overland: on
of a truck.
Genuine, well-grounded fear of Chifta raids prompt the locals
to traverse the Dida Galgalu by way of weekly convoys of cattle trucks,
the route between Moyale and the city of Isiolo, located in central
the Equator. It’s about safety in numbers, but it’s more than that
loose police or military escort is guaranteed as well.
I’ve been warned
about the extremely rough and tough, no-frills ride; about there being
guarantee against Chifta attacking the convoy; about the near
securing a seat – the very word “seat” being a gross overstatement – on
truck. But after a sleepless night spent in a burning-hot dungeon of a
room I found myself walking pass the small airfield where a Cessna plane
lying in wait for potential passengers and entering an open, dusty area
heart of Moyale, where trucks were gearing up and slowly forming a
I calmed myself: the Chifta seldom attack, and when they do it’s
usually after the rainy season, when the heavy-laden trucks get stuck in
hardened ruts and become sitting ducks. As this was before the rainy
what were the chances? Still, when an attack occurs, it’s merciless. The
appear like a mirage out of the desert, armed with automatic guns,
Unchallenged and in full control, they take their time and strip
the passengers of everything, from water to valuables to shoes, leaving
naked on broken-down trucks, often with their tires punctured or even
the very heart of sun-baked nowhere. No fun.
I swallowed hard and
approached one of the trucks.
Cheerful soldiers and civilians were
loading the impromptu storage rack with weighty bags and flimsy parcels
reinforced by duct tape. Cattle and camels were huddled below, with the
passengers seated, somehow, above them, on the rolled-back tarpaulin,
conveniently than others, holding on to the skeletal poles.
I paid my
fare to one of the drivers and seated myself among them, attracting
blank gazes. I smiled back, a lone Mzungu (white person) on this convoy
unknown. Ahead of me was a 500 km journey through one of East Africa’s
We set off. The first leg of the journey saw us
bumping along at 5-10 kilometers per hour down an especially bad dirt
potholed and crisscrossed by deep channels on which every meter was hard
The sinking of the truck into every rut hurled the passengers into the
led me to strengthen my grip of the poles beneath me to the point of
knuckles whiten with strain.
My mouth was shut tight from fear of biting
off my tongue and from sheer tension. My eyes were open to a slit, and
adrenalin was pumping through my veins as if on an amusement park ride,
Accustomed to worse than this, the Kenyans around me were
far more relaxed, with some seated on the very edge of the tarpaulin,
the endless plains.
They say that every existing path and trail used by
humans in sub-Saharan Africa was initially formed by elephants in search
watering holes. I didn’t know whether this was the case here, but it was
obvious one would need the skin and cool-headedness of an elephant to
through this ordeal. I decided to relax, fully open my eyes and look
We were riding through open desert savannah. In the distance,
beautiful Somali women, clad in colorful gowns, were leading camel
Gazelle were grazing the low-lying dry grass. Baboons scouted us from
Here and there a local inhabitant would suddenly appear from
the thick bush, squinting, scruffy, holding an ancient rifle, causing
to skip a beat, but that’s as bad as it got. This was just as well,
accompanying soldiers and police ditched us midway and the trucks
apart, rendering the whole notion of a convoy meaningless.
uneasily on the rolled tarpaulin I divided my attention between the
scenery, the attempt to locate the other trucks and the danger of
falling off my
seat into the desert or onto the camels below me.
We traveled this way
for hours in the scorching heat.
Every few dozen kilometers the trucks
would stop at a small roadside cluster of tin shacks and traditional
a dismal church or mosque and a few goats panting in the shade of a
turned-over jeep. My face grew redder with every stop, my lips blistered
cracked. No matter how much fluids I took in, I sweated it all out and
once throughout the day felt any need to relieve myself.
already settled and relaxed in my corner of the tarpaulin, the skies
red, and with them the sand and the stones. From far off I detected a
woman in a
purple gown walking barefoot, leading a camel caravan laden with goods,
north. It was hypnotic as it was otherworldly. This sight – more a
mirage than an actual spectacle – made the entire trial of that day
SOME 12 hours, 250 kilometers and two punctured tires since
we set out that morning we made it into the oasis town of Marsabit.
falls fast in the tropics, and it was pitch dark when we scrambled off
truck, hurting all over and covered in dust.
We crossed the entire Dida
Galgalu desert with every cell and bone in our aching bodies to attest
I and Charles, a 25-year-old Kenyan who set off with me from Moyale,
basic hotel room. Little did I know that Charles, a businessman who
languages, was a devout Christian and an ambitious missionary. He was
ecstatic knowing he was sharing a room with a Jew from the Holy Land,
the holy city of Jerusalem at that. I just wanted to get some
Charles was on his way to Ethiopia, but his money and passport
were stolen from him in Moyale, forcing him to backtrack to Nairobi. He
little of his native Kenya, a “crime-ridden country, corrupt to the
was little Christian brotherly love in his aversion from Kenya’s Indian
minority, the economic success of which was “suspicious” in his eyes.
didn’t care for the Indians, but he loved the Israelis and the Jews,
chosen children. Did I believe in the coming of the Messiah, he asked,
eyes already shut, with poor judgment borne out of sheer exhaustion and
sun stroke, gave an honest answer. He kept me up all night.
AT THREE in
the morning, after an all-too-short, mosquito- infested slumber, I had a
to my basic training in the military. Someone was banging violently on
Charles scraped himself from his bed, his hand still marking a place in a
Bible book, and opened.
Our truck driver was standing there,
half-hysterical, telling us we were the only ones holding up the truck.
remember thinking: at 3 a.m.? But there was no time for useless
This was one ride I wasn’t going to miss. In less than five minutes we
dressed, wobbling half-drunk on the tarpaulin. To my utter terror the
probably making up for lost time, set out at breakneck speed down the
out of Marsabit. The truck had no headlights, and we were dashing to the
radiance of nothing but a full, round moon.
No doubt at other times I
would appreciate the romantic quality of the setting, but there and then
petrified, bumping and bouncing like mad. I was barely holding on,
waiting for a
lull to allow me to change position.
After a good hour of pure dread the
driver entered an unexpected rut at full speed. I lost my grip, was
hit my head against the railing and landed on some restless
Groaning and cursing I climbed up again and repositioned
myself on the rolled tarpaulin. The rollercoaster continued unabated.
a miracle: the truck in front of ours had a flat tire. It pulled over,
driver pulled over after it to assist its driver. I caught my breath and
the blood off my forehead.
I looked around: by now the sunrise painted
the allencompassing desert in hues of orange and red. In the relatively
morning air desert birds scattered in all directions, frightened by our
presence. A lone ostrich stood proud, examining us at a distance.
pointed far away: Samburu tribesmen, clutching spears, led cattle to
giraffe was gracefully sauntering the endless expanse, and in the far
distance – green, majestic mountains. It was the quintessential African
it was beautiful.
I washed my face with some brackish water offered to me
“Look smart", he said, and then tried to hook me up with a
cute passenger girl of the Buranna tribe, who smiled her pretty smiles
at me and
then shyly looked away. The heat increased. We stopped for breakfast of
meat and chapatti bread. Samburu girls came up to us, trying to sell us
Few Mzungus pass this way, which led me and the Samburu to
examine each other in equal curiosity. The ride continued through an
landscape of tropical birds, gazelle and the occasional zebra. It was as
was riding through a wildlife documentary, halfexpecting to hear the
and calming voice of Sir David Attenborough come through over the flat
treetops. The heat became oppressive, as did Charles’s incessant
Clouds of dust, lifted by the first truck, swirled around us,
making it hard to breathe. Going at a maddening average speed of 20 km
it took twelve hours to reach the regional hub of Isiolo, where the warm
air would not move and the mosquitoes would not stay still.
But not the
heat, nor the unremitting bugs, not even the three police officers who
into our room late at night suspecting Charles of being a drug dealer,
challenge to the taxing 40 hours we had endured. The next morning we got
washed, and boarded a Nairobi- bound bus. While I took my seat I heard
of a light plane hovering in the sky above us, also heading south, its
disrupting the equatorial quiet.
I watched it disappear over the bus and
winked at Charles, who lifted his head from his Bible, suppressing a