The Worst Road in Africa

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Ethiopia  ,
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

I am now one of the few people who know what the last words will be to go through their mind just before they die. Mine will be "NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!"
I have just finished the craziest two days of travel in my life. More dangerous than the fast boat to Luang Pabang, more hair raising than the truck top ride through the mountains of central Laos. If this trip has generated one "take to the bank" piece of travel advice yet, it is this - "Do not try to cross Northern Kenya in the rainy season."
I've spent the last two days in the back of a little pick-up truck with no tarp, driving on the worst road in Africa in pissing down rain. I honestly don't know if my words can do justice about how bad this road actually was. I'll try.
Moyale was a hole, but getting out was an ordeal. The morning after I arrived, I was up early, waiting for the bus to leave. I was approached by a guy who said he worked for the bus company, and that he would put my bag on the top of the bus when it was time to go. Fine - this was standard in Ethiopia. You always had to pay for someone to lift your bag those three or four feet to the top. I figured I would carry it to the bus at least, reducing the extra I would have to pay. This guy would not go away, however. He kept hanging around, leaning in through the window of my room, and frankly, making me nervous. Finally the bus arrived - looking like a neon green combination of a bread box and an animated Disney cartoon character. The little man sprang to life - running up and trying to grab my pack. When I wouldn't let him, he desperately clawed at my plastic bag of water and cookies. Again, I told him to leave it alone. The reason for his desperation soon became clear - he didn't work for the bus company at all.
When I reached the bus, an actual employee told me to throw my bag inside and wait. I got on the bus, followed by my new friend, who had the balls to ask me for money. "For what?" I asked him, "You didn't do anything." For over an hour I waited. The bag man spent his time between sitting a foot from me and simply staring at me, and standing outside the bus window, staring at me, shaking his finger at me, and telling me I was no good.
This delightful distraction made the hour speed by, as you might imagine. After a little more than an hour, I was told the bus was not running today. Why? The road was broken. Broken? I got out, and dragged my bags back to the cover (it was raining), of the hotel entrance. The baggage parasite followed me.
Within minutes I was approached by another "agent". A lorry (big cattle truck) would be going in about an hour, no problem. I refunded my ticket (minus a 100 shillings. My "tout fee" I was told.), but refused to give the next agent any money until I was on the truck. 11:00 a.m. came and went - no lorry. "No lorry today," I was told. "The road is broken." Broken? But once again, no problem. A land cruiser would be going. I could get a seat in a 4x4 drive SUV.
This went on and on, and every time I went to move my bags, the luggage parasite made a grab for them. He was determined to carry my bags and get some money. In fact, he has become so annoying, that I had given him some money earlier just to go away. While he had accepted the birr, he hadn't honoured his part of the deal. It was only whetted his appetite for more.
Finally one of the agents came running up and told a small group of us to follow him. Our group consisted of two Japanese guys, two Ethiopians, a Kenyan, and myself (Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.). We ran down the road in the rain, still followed my little friend, to where our ride awaited us. There sat a tiny green Toyota pick-up truck with 2 little benches running along the sides of the box, with a big iron roll bar enclosing it. There was no tarp or cover of any kind. Our agent stood beaming like he was a proud new father.
"Where are we supposed to sit?" I asked.
"In the back."
"There's no cover. It's raining - hard," I pointed out.
"No problem." I was assured. "It will stop as soon as you leave Moyale."
Lies, lies, lies, lies, lies.
I then made one of the dumbest decisions of my life. I threw my bag in and scrambled into the back.
I will try to convey the terror and discomfort that followed over the next two days to Marsabit, the next "town" in Northern Kenya. Nothing, short of actually being in the back of that pick-up truck, can ever truly explain the stomach lurching, sphincter clenching fear and discomfort we would go through.
After a brief stop at the security gate leading out of town, where the two Ethiopians were forced to bribe the guards 100 shillings each (I guess they didn't read the signs in the office), we were off. It was immediately apparent why the bus, all the lorries, and the land cruisers were not leaving Moyale. Actually, the fact that none of the above were willing to risk the journey despite money to be made, should have warned me that going with the one idiot who would risk it was probably not a good idea.
The road was a slippery mix of red clay, mud, standing water, flowing water, huge ruts and holes, and large, jagged rocks. Our truck bounced, splashed, and slammed its way along the road. Everyone in the back was holding onto the roll bar for dear life while water and mud splashed down on us from the huge puddles and holes we were barreling through, as well as the rain from above. I have though about this trip a lot, and I have finally come to the conclusion that it could have been worse - it could have been on the side of a mountain. This part of Kenya was flat, a small respite, very small.
Every time there was even the slightest less rough patch, our driver would gun it, aspirations of the Indy 500 taking over. The speed, the shuddering, and the clattering made these parts horrible and terrifying, but even worse was when we slowed down. For this maniac to slow down meant something truly horrific was about to happen. Braking at the very last minute our truck would slam into two three-foot ruts filled to the brim with water, mud, and unseen rocks. The truck would pitch to one side and the other, water, mud, and bodies flying everywhere. It would tilt so far to the side that you felt there was simply no way it would not flip over, that you were going to die on some god forsaken road in the middle of Africa, and then suddenly you were through, slipping and slamming your way down the worst road in Africa.
One of the most frightening moments was the skidding. The truck would be going flat out along a road most Western drivers wouldn't dream of trying to inch a vehicle along, when the front tires would hit a patch of denser mud or a little lip. In a heart beat, the truck was fishtailing out of control. In the first (and worst) of these incidents, the truck was doing about 70-80 km/hr and all of a sudden the back end of the truck was sliding along towards where the front end has been a second before. It was at this point when I learned what my last thoughts would be before I died. As the truck slid out of control, I was convinced that this was the end. Running through my head as I clung to the overhead roll bar was the word "No" repeated over and over. This was accompanied by a sharp intake of breath that seemed to go on forever.
Somehow, beyond any understanding, our driver brought the truck back under control, and we sped off again. All of the passengers in the back simply looked at each other, white faced and silent. At one point, when we were simply bouncing and shuddering along at high speed instead of actively facing death, I turned to Akmad, the Kenyan in our group, and said, "You know? I've bungy jumped off bridges, leapt off cliffs, and been threatened by men with rifles and machetes, but I don't think I have ever been this frightened." He laughed, and said the worst was yet to come.
And dear gods, he was right.
The most memorable part of the trip came in the first day, a couple of hours into the journey.  We were bouncing and jolting our way through ruts and water when a large tanker truck came into view.    It had lost control in the terrible conditions, spun out, and was tire top deep in the soupy mud, completely stuck.  It was perpendicular to the road, and filled well over half its width.   In front of the truck the road was a swamp.  It was huge furrows of black mud, completely torn up and filled to the brim with water.   It was obviously impassable, and as there was no way we could turn around, it was clear we would be stuck here for who knew how long, far from anywhere and freezing in the steady rain.
Our driver must have had the same thought, and decided he wouldn't stand for it.  He gunned the engine and it front of the incredulous eyes of the stranded truck driver (and to my terror), aimed for the soupy patch of sure death in front of the tanker truck.  All of us grabbed for the roll bar, and held on for our lives.  We hit the water and mud, engine screaming, truck pitching side to side, everyone being thrown around the back smashing into the sides and iron bars, and somehow, someway, we made t through. Everybody looked at each other, and all of a sudden I broke into huge, manic laughter.  This seemed to break the unbearable tension in all of us, and soon everyone was laughing, hysteria tinged braying drifting over the savannah.  We drove on.
All of these events, if they had been unique incidents, would have been memorable enough but this is the thing - this kind of moment happened almost every minute.  You could never relax, the moment you did was the moment the truck hit a massive rock sending you six inches into the air, and smashing your head into the iron bar overhead.  The only consolation was adrenaline exhaustion.  It seems the mind and body can only take so much before it tries out a few defense mechanisms.  Mine was road hypnotism.  I was sitting at the back, the most uncomfortable and potentially dangerous spot, especially of bouncing over the tailgate and onto the road.  It did, however slightly, give you a chance to jump out the back if the truck flipped, possibly saving your life.  It also gave a clear view of the road rushing below.  I found if you made sure your grip was tight, and you were on a slightly less rough patch, you could put yourself into a kind of waking trance.  The sound of the truck constantly splashing through massive puddles almost sounded like waves crashing on the beach.  And thus we made our way across the north of Kenya.
Somewhere during the afternoon of the first day, we were forced to stop at a police checkpoint and take on two young tribal women as extra passengers.  With them was a tiny, new born baby.  One of the women had the baby wrapped in a way that attached it to her side.  This child made it through the next day and a half with hardly a sound.  If I hadn't seen it move and feed from time to time, I would have sworn it had been killed constant shaking and rattling.  Through everything, these two women stayed silent and taciturn.  Feeling vaguely protective, I gave them my water and cookies when we stopped for a break.  They accepted them with hardly a blink and not a word, but it was obvious they had nothing.  Later one of them favored me with a smile, and despite the lack of a common language, it was another of those moments when humanity feels like it has more in common than not.
I suppose I should mention the other reason why this road was called the "Worst Road in Africa."  Northern Kenya is notoriously lawless.  This area, and its road, was prime "shifta" country - bandits.  The government had increased security recently and I was told it had been a few months since anyone had been killed.  They had even restarted the bus service to Marsabit (although not on my chosen day).  Still, even though they were not longer required to carry armed guards, trucks, busses, and lorries tended to gather in convoys in Moyale for safety before heading out.  The fact that we were a lone, small truck with absolutely no protection from the elements, let alone bullets, was yet another reason why this trip was a stupid decision.  To my immense relief we had no security problems.  (As an aside, to illustrate the sometimes divergence of African reality to anything else, about two weeks before there had been a raid of about 200 bandits from Ethiopia into Kenya for cattle.  A battle ensued where about 17 raiders and a number of locals were killed.  As this did not directly involve the road and people who were on the road, it did not count as related to the safety of the journey.)
That night we stayed in a tiny village huddled at the base of a lone, small mountain in the savannah called Tolbee.  Heard of it?  Yeah, me neither.  In June 2005 this was the site of a massacre of over 200 people - 71 of them children.  It's cynical, but I think if this had happened in any Western country, everyone would know about it.  Apparently it was a mixture of tribal warfare and cattle stealing.  The next morning as we pulled out, little children stood up from the puddles they were playing in and waved to us as the large mounds of the mass grave at the edge of village retreated slowly into the distance.
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Chrissie G on

Have you done it?

s-bell on

dude, that is the scariest thing i could imagine going through.. thanx for article, was thinking of going by road but i think i'll fly...........

Laureene on

I am thinking of making this trip at the end of December, and while i would not mind flying from Kampala to Ethiopia, i plan to make a pit stop in Nairobi,
Have things changed since?

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