Erik was scheduled to pick us up at 10:30 in the morning. Trish and I were ready earlier. Then we waited . . . and waited.
Erik called at 11:30 to say he would be there in twenty minutes. We continued to wait. I called him at two in the afternoon,
then at four. Finally he picked us up at 4:30 – for the beginning of a long drive. There were five other people in the “Land
Cruiser”: Natoya – a Maasai, Erik’s right hand man and Ascari (personal bodyguard), Rick – of the Borana tribe, good
looking and surprisingly hairless; two Swahili students; Saki, and his sister Aziza dressed in Muslim garb – on their way home
to Shela for the weekend to celebrate the end of the feast of Ramadan.
We spent some time in the nearby native settlement of Ongata Rongai, getting gas, attempting to drop off a camera to
someone who we never could find, and buying mira – the local mild narcotic (known as kat in Somalia) the East African
version of Betel.
Finally we were on our way, through the infamous traffic of Nairobi. Surrounded by buses, trucks, matatus – Erik driving
with one hand while munching on mira and either talking on his cell, or sending Rick in the back seat “credit” on his so he
could do his bidding.
After passing Jomo Kenyatta Int’l Airport Erik informed us that the Nairobi – Mombassa road, we were traveling on is the
major freight highway to all of Central Africa. Never have we seen such a profusion of huge trucks, belching plumes of black
Our first breakdown happened shortly after dark. At dusk Erik had stopped to adjust a headlight that was way out of line.
Then the Land Cruiser stalled and would not start. Most of the passengers, as well as several locals hanging around the
petrol station, had their heads and a good part of their bodies under the hood. When I asked, I was told that the consensus
was that a metal fuel line was at fault. It had to be removed, taken down the highway and have a hole in it welded shut.
Now I know little about cars built after the fifties, but I do know a dead battery. I very strongly suggested that before the
engine was dismantled – probably never to be put back together – to please try and jump start the car. Fortunately I was
persuasive enough that about ten men pushed the heavy vehicle fast enough that it did jump start – we were on our way – for
A few hours later we stopped for a simple African dinner at a truck stop. While we were eating our Nyaoma (a spicy meat
dish), and drinking warm beer, Erik was having the steering column dismantled to try correct an electrical problem he had
discovered. An hour later we were on our way again – except now the low beam lights did not work and we had to drive
with the high beams on. All the huge trucks approaching showed their high beams at us in retaliation. Then it started
raining. The wipers did not work – and we continued on. By now Erik had been up since 5 a.m. I had moved to the front
seat. I did doze a bit, but reflecting on our situation and imagining various possibilities – all of them very unpleasant and
several of them terminal – I suggested that we stop until daylight. It was about 2:30 a.m. when we reached the town of Voi.
I was wrong. We drove up the grade into the town – a town like so many highway towns in Africa – a stop in the Aids
I spotted a “Guest House”. It was pretty drab – surrounded by massive dirty trucks – but the rooms proved to be nicer then
the exterior appearance and the surroundings would warrant. I managed to get Trish and me a small room with a satin bed
sheet and pillow! We were on the relatively quiet side of the building, away from the highway. The toilet at the end of the
hall, such as it was, was what one would expect at a truck stop guest house on the Nairobi Mombassa highway – but we
managed to get several hours of fitful sleep before being rousted at 5 a.m. The others had already jump started the Land
Cruiser and we were on our way again! As we drove down the highway through Tsavo Nat’l Park, Bao trees appeared, lit
by the rising sun. Then it started to rain – quite hard actually, a problem when there are no wipers.
The Nairobi-Mombassa road has been built by several entities, all with the same budget per mile. The Chinese stretch was
quite nice; so was the part build by the EU. Then we reached the section built by local firms contracted directly by the
Kenyan government. The surface was so thin that it was one big pothole. For a long time, we crawled along in the jam
created by all the diversions. Then, after stopping for some petrol in the middle of the soggy mess we turned off on a
frighteningly small, rough dirt road. Erik said would save us time by diverting us around the heavy traffic of Mombassa. It
looked impassable to me, but Erik managed to maneuver the heavy vehicle around bogged down cars and trucks, sometimes
tipping us up to a 45 degree angle as we squeezed past others swimming through the muck. The 100 km “bypass” was
frightening, but fascinating. We were told it was a “poor area”. It was. The houses in the villages were mainly constructed of
a lattice of sticks tied together, then mud was placed between and around them. Finally a thatched roof completed the simple
structures – at almost no cost. The more attractive ones had curved walls, some round. Everyone waved as we splashed
through their villages, especially the children.
After several hours we reached the coastal highway – but our adventure wasn’t over yet! As we drove up to the provincial
capital of Melindi, Erik mentione He makes about $4 per day – but then he doesn’t have to work very hard. He looked
pretty well dressed to us: shades, clean shirt, slacks. His stand was smaller than a phone booth. We chatted as the traffic –
pedestrian and otherwise – passed by; Muslim women with just their eyes peeking from their Bao Bao’s; packed matatus;
deformed beggars; and bicycle taxis, their passengers looking as complacent and comfortable as their New York City
Finally we left. Erik suggested a two kilometer congested detour for the promised Italian ice cream, but I’m afraid I was a bit
testy as I dissuaded him. We were told that it was another three or four hours to our island destination of Lamu and getting
close to evening. Once back on the road, we were stopped at a military barrier and told that we could continue on only if we
accepted an armed military escort – for a fee. We later found that as we were quite close to the Somali border this was one of
the most bandit ridden stretches of highway in Kenya.
This stretch of road was fine. Maybe we would make it! An hour or so later a loud crunching noise told us this was not to
be. We stalled on a desolate patch of road.
If you look closely, you can see our armed escort. That's him on the right hiding in the bushes.
We tried to start the heavy Land Cruiser but could not to push it fast enough up the moderate grade. It was to no avail; even
with the armed guard finally pitching in. A passing lorry full of Meru shepherds returning home from tending their flocks
stopped to help. They helped pack the steaming hot wheel bearing with grease using their bare hands, but the Land Cruiser
would not start. After they left, we waited in the hot sun. We tried to call their waiting friends in Shela, some fifty
kilometers away, but the cell phones did not work here. Now our worry was that they would not wait for us at the boat dock
and we would have no way to the island.
Eventually another vehicle appeared and with the additional help we were able to push the huge car fast enough to jump start
it – a feat we had been trying unsuccessfully for over an hour in the late, but still hot, tropical sun.
We were on our way – using just the front wheel drive to drag the rest of the crippled vehicle down the now increasingly
pothole filled road. We prayed. I was in the back with Saki and Aziza, both from Shela and supposedly familiar with this
stretch of road. Saki kept assuring me it “was just another ten minutes”. Maasai shepherds, both handsome men and
beautiful women had left their flocks and were returning to their thatched grass hut villages in the waning sunlight. It started
raining again – still no functioning wipers. The road was very rough – I was sure the failing wheel was going to fall off and
just roll and bounce down the road. Then we would be stranded in the dark jungle. Their “ten minutes” stretched and
stretched . . . and stretched. The running board actually fell off. It was interminable.
It seemed that it would never end. Saki and I passed the time describing our frustrations and experiences. All of the long
waits. He could have taken another ride from Nairobi, one that got to Shela early that morning. He wouldn’t have missed
the Dhow races scheduled for that afternoon!
Finally we arrived at the small port named Mokowe. I couldn’t help asking if it was the real one – McCoy that is!
Fortunately the friends with the boat for our transportation to Lamu Island and Shela had waited for us at dock.
It was dark, but we managed to find our way through the pitch black mud to their boat and scramble aboard. The ride to the
island was beautiful under the vibrant tropical star lit sky. Once at Shela, we jumped into the water, waded ashore, and
walked through the narrow twisting lanes to our new home. All the while the evening call to prayer resounded from the
Lamu island is very quiet, at least when the generators are not needed for power. There is only one car which belongs to the
police, and a couple of scooters, on the entire island. Just people and donkeys. Donkeys are everywhere They are used as
trucks; they haul heavy stone blocks, food supplies, people, and anything else that needs transporting. True beasts of burden.
It took about an hour and a half to get cleaned up and settled and a bit relaxed before we walked down to the beach for a
simple meal at The Stopover. As the power was out, we used our torches after dinner to walk along the waterfront to Peponi’
s Inn for a drink with the other Wazungus (whites). The three hundred dollar a night inn was another world, but the beers
were reasonably priced, and reasonably cold.
It was the first night of a couple of wonderful weeks spent getting to know the Swahili culture.
(But that’s another story.)
|Adventures with Erik – A Trip in Kenya - 2006
From Kitengala (Nairobi) to Shela (Lamu Island)