Roughing it in Africa

Crossing northern Kenya on a cattle truck.

Kenya 311 (photo credit: Eldad Brin)
Kenya 311
(photo credit: Eldad Brin)
NAIROBI – Keen travelers fly as little as they possibly can.
It’s not 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 – armed bandits from across the Somali border. As public transport was unheard of in these remote reaches of Kenya – as were decent roads, electricity and clean, running water – there was really just one way of traveling overland: on the back 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, plying the route between Moyale and the city of Isiolo, located in central Kenya, by the Equator. It’s about safety in numbers, but it’s more than that because a 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 no guarantee against Chifta attacking the convoy; about the near impossibility of securing a seat – the very word “seat” being a gross overstatement – on such a truck. But after a sleepless night spent in a burning-hot dungeon of a hotel room I found myself walking pass the small airfield where a Cessna plane was lying in wait for potential passengers and entering an open, dusty area in the heart of Moyale, where trucks were gearing up and slowly forming a convoy.
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 the hardened ruts and become sitting ducks. As this was before the rainy season, what were the chances? Still, when an attack occurs, it’s merciless. The bandits appear like a mirage out of the desert, armed with automatic guns, machetes and axes.
Unchallenged and in full control, they take their time and strip the passengers of everything, from water to valuables to shoes, leaving them naked on broken-down trucks, often with their tires punctured or even stolen, in 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, some more conveniently than others, holding on to the skeletal poles.
I paid my fare to one of the drivers and seated myself among them, attracting curious, blank gazes. I smiled back, a lone Mzungu (white person) on this convoy into the unknown. Ahead of me was a 500 km journey through one of East Africa’s least accommodating terrain.
We set off. The first leg of the journey saw us bumping along at 5-10 kilometers per hour down an especially bad dirt road, potholed and crisscrossed by deep channels on which every meter was hard gained. The sinking of the truck into every rut hurled the passengers into the air and led me to strengthen my grip of the poles beneath me to the point of having my 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 the adrenalin was pumping through my veins as if on an amusement park ride, minus the amusement.
Accustomed to worse than this, the Kenyans around me were far more relaxed, with some seated on the very edge of the tarpaulin, staring at 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 of watering holes. I didn’t know whether this was the case here, but it was rather obvious one would need the skin and cool-headedness of an elephant to see one through this ordeal. I decided to relax, fully open my eyes and look around.
We were riding through open desert savannah. In the distance, beautiful Somali women, clad in colorful gowns, were leading camel dromedaries. Gazelle were grazing the low-lying dry grass. Baboons scouted us from the treetops.
Here and there a local inhabitant would suddenly appear from the thick bush, squinting, scruffy, holding an ancient rifle, causing the heart to skip a beat, but that’s as bad as it got. This was just as well, because the accompanying soldiers and police ditched us midway and the trucks drifted far apart, rendering the whole notion of a convoy meaningless.
Perched uneasily on the rolled tarpaulin I divided my attention between the magical 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 huts, with a dismal church or mosque and a few goats panting in the shade of a derelict, turned-over jeep. My face grew redder with every stop, my lips blistered and cracked. No matter how much fluids I took in, I sweated it all out and never once throughout the day felt any need to relieve myself.
At sunset, already settled and relaxed in my corner of the tarpaulin, the skies went dark 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, walking north. It was hypnotic as it was otherworldly. This sight – more a magical mirage than an actual spectacle – made the entire trial of that day worthwhile.
SOME 12 hours, 250 kilometers and two punctured tires since we set out that morning we made it into the oasis town of Marsabit. Darkness falls fast in the tropics, and it was pitch dark when we scrambled off the 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 to that. I and Charles, a 25-year-old Kenyan who set off with me from Moyale, shared a basic hotel room. Little did I know that Charles, a businessman who spoke six languages, was a devout Christian and an ambitious missionary. He was almost ecstatic knowing he was sharing a room with a Jew from the Holy Land, and from the holy city of Jerusalem at that. I just wanted to get some sleep.
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 thought little of his native Kenya, a “crime-ridden country, corrupt to the bone!” There was little Christian brotherly love in his aversion from Kenya’s Indian minority, the economic success of which was “suspicious” in his eyes. No, he didn’t care for the Indians, but he loved the Israelis and the Jews, God’s chosen children. Did I believe in the coming of the Messiah, he asked, and I, eyes already shut, with poor judgment borne out of sheer exhaustion and possible 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 deja vu to my basic training in the military. Someone was banging violently on the door. Charles scraped himself from his bed, his hand still marking a place in a shut Bible book, and opened.
Our truck driver was standing there, half-hysterical, telling us we were the only ones holding up the truck.
I remember thinking: at 3 a.m.? But there was no time for useless contemplation. This was one ride I wasn’t going to miss. In less than five minutes we were dressed, wobbling half-drunk on the tarpaulin. To my utter terror the driver, probably making up for lost time, set out at breakneck speed down the dirt road 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 I was 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 airborne, hit my head against the railing and landed on some restless she-camels.
Groaning and cursing I climbed up again and repositioned myself on the rolled tarpaulin. The rollercoaster continued unabated. And then, a miracle: the truck in front of ours had a flat tire. It pulled over, and our driver pulled over after it to assist its driver. I caught my breath and wiped 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 cool morning air desert birds scattered in all directions, frightened by our presence. A lone ostrich stood proud, examining us at a distance. Charles pointed far away: Samburu tribesmen, clutching spears, led cattle to pasture. A giraffe was gracefully sauntering the endless expanse, and in the far away distance – green, majestic mountains. It was the quintessential African cliché; it was beautiful.
I washed my face with some brackish water offered to me by Charles.
“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 goat meat and chapatti bread. Samburu girls came up to us, trying to sell us food and beverage.
Few Mzungus pass this way, which led me and the Samburu to examine each other in equal curiosity. The ride continued through an outlandish landscape of tropical birds, gazelle and the occasional zebra. It was as if I was riding through a wildlife documentary, halfexpecting to hear the familiar and calming voice of Sir David Attenborough come through over the flat acacia treetops. The heat became oppressive, as did Charles’s incessant chatter.
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 per hour, it took twelve hours to reach the regional hub of Isiolo, where the warm night 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 burst into our room late at night suspecting Charles of being a drug dealer, were any challenge to the taxing 40 hours we had endured. The next morning we got up, washed, and boarded a Nairobi- bound bus. While I took my seat I heard the drone of a light plane hovering in the sky above us, also heading south, its engines disrupting the equatorial quiet.
I watched it disappear over the bus and winked at Charles, who lifted his head from his Bible, suppressing a smile.