"Ex Africa semper aliquid novi", quoth Pliny the Elder. There is some debate about what he really meant, but most likely he meant trouble. In this sense has the phrase been used most often since but I hope to reverse the trend and on these pages bring you the exciting, novel and curious out of Africa.

And wherever I am I hope to remain,
Ex Africa Semper Yours,

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Northern Exposure I - Stranded

And I was worried that nothing exciting or adventurous will ever happen again now that I am back in civilised Kenya. Fine, dancing at night with tribeswomen and being named again, attending a Rendille wedding, seeing bush animals and listening to hyenas at night were all interesting but not anything you could call properly exciting.

Now this, i.e. sitting (we think) exactly in the middle of the biggest desert in East Africa at 3.30am with the truck broken down, and no hope of assistance for the next two days (that’s when we know another truck is due) and typing on my laptop certainly exciting (of course if you manage to read these words, this means I made it to safety which takes the excitement away for you somewhat; but there is always a chance that my laptop had been found on my dead body, which adds to the excitement again). Not scary yet, as the night air is nice and cool and I know that I’ve got enough water to last me and my 8 companions for the next 24hours. If we are frugal, that is.

The driver and another man went forward in hope they can reach the next village before daybreak. Chances are, it is no further than some 4 hours walk. But as no one has any idea where exactly in the Chalabi desert we are, this can prove to be a futile exercise.

I recall Kapuscinski had exactly that kind of experience in Mali. His truck had also broken down and he and the driver were stranded in the middle of Sahara, with little chance of assistance and even less water. Their circumstances were even direr – this is the middle of the civilised world by comparison. If we are desperate we can just walk back along our own track and reach Marsabit (let me see, 4 hours drive times average speed of 25, makes 100km) in three days, andthink) but still I believe I can classify that as exciting.

To fill the waiting hours I can either lay back and admire the starry sky and the fairly frequent meteors or I can keep on typing the backlog from the previous couple of weeks. I guess I will do the latter for sitting on the scorched desert earth (yes, exactly like on the cover of Meredith’s Africa book) and illuminating the darkness with my Windows 7 is delightfully surreal.

It might be helpful to enlighten the reader as to the circumstances that brought about my current plight. After all, why am I in the North and going even Northier? After all, on Thursday, that is five days ago, I was still in Uganda. Yet, I decided to take a night bus back to Nairobi to join Asaaska (who is a friend of Kate and Jedrek’s I met a month ago) on her trip to the North where she was to attend her friend’s wedding. Asaaska is a Rendille, a small Northern tribe, and hails from a remote settlement of Kor, some 400km north of Nairobi. The wedding, held in the nearby village of Merille, promised to be very traditional and colourful so when Asaaska kindly invited me, I did not hesitate.

After 15 hour bus ride I reached Nairobi; only two hours later than I had promised Asaaska to join them but as we were scheduled to leave at 8am “Kenya time”, I did not worry when I arrived there at 10am. We left theirs at 11.30. I had enough time to refresh myself and prepare for another, what turned out to be, 13 hour journey. I don’t quite know what took so long, but I guess that’s always the case when you travel in groups, stopping, changing vehicles, waiting for others. That’s why I avoid it as the plague. But sometimes it cannot be helped and, in any case, my company was very pleasant. We stopped for late lunch in Nanyuki, which according to my hosts sports the best nyama choma in the whole of Kenya. Indeed, it was rather palatable. Especially the small pieces of juicy fat, fried in such a way to give them very crispy outside and melting soft inside. I’m serious, couldn’t stop stuffing myself with them to the delight of the locals.

Other than driving past Mt. Kenya, which brought back a flood of memories from the time (yes, now over 12 years ago!) when I climbed it with my mum (unassisted by either guides or porters, on Chogoria-Naro Moru route, with no preparation, in just 4 days – yes, my mum is crazy), the drive was uneventful. We arrived in Merille at midnight. The wedding, which took place the next day and the lovely stay at Asaaska’s village of Kor on Sunday I will describe in a separate post as it certainly merits one of them or two (for now you can read my article on the subject in Standpoint magazine). But now it’s time to press further north.

A map of Kenya would be helpful at that point, so please help yourselves or use this one. The village I was in is off the main Nairobi-Ethiopia road, also known as Transcontinental East African Highway. Sounds awfully proud but the tarmac ends in Merille and, if anything, it’s Transcontinental Dirt Path after that all the way to Ethiopian boarder. In Marsabit, some 60kms north of Merille, two other roads branch out going west towards Lake Turkana. I am on one of them right now, the one going to North Horr.

(Slight digression: it all got a level spookier now with all my companions snoring in deep slumber around the truck and weird insects flying by my head with deafening beat of wings every now and again; luckily, it’s very dark so I cannot see just how weird they are. I guess they are attracted to the light of the screen – I prefer not to think what other things might be too. I resolved to think of cute desert Fennec Foxes if I start to panic.)

Now, to go back to our story, the plan was to go to South Sudan. The most sensible option, in fact one that most of my local interlocutors thought the only possible, was to backtrack to Nairobi and take a bus or plane from there. But if you look at your map you will see how much of the gained latitude you lose by doing so. Moreover, avoiding Nairobi should be travelers’ first priority. It would have been ideal to just cut across from Merille towards the west and then head further north but as it turns out there are simply no east-west roads in that part of Kenya – probably because there is a mountain range in between. My only other option was to go further north towards Ethiopia, reach Lake Turkana and find a way to cross to its western shore. Once there it should be fairly easy to reach the main Sudan road again.

Now judging from the map it looked like a jolly good plan indeed. The devil, as usual, is in the details. The map does not tell you just how wild and sparsely populated the North is. After Logologo, the next village north of Merille, there is no more public transport. All traveling is done in private 4x4 or trucks delivering goods. These are not frequent and one can find oneself waiting for a few days for a chance to hitch (a paid) ride. The roads are dismal and covering 200 kms can take anything from 6 to 12 hours. To be on the safe side I was advised to reckon with 3 days to travel the 300 kms (in 2-3 stages) to Loyangalani on the Lake Turkana shore.

And once there, I was told, my chances of getting across are slim. Lake Turkana is no Bodensee – people do not cruise it for pleasure and have no need to do it for business. Tourists are practically unheard of and they certainly never cross. There is just a handful of motorboats belonging to Kenya Wildlife Services and other than that there are the dugout canoes of the fishermen. Crossing the lake in the former will cost me a fortune if can be arranged at all, and in the latter is not only a two day paddle but also a certain death by the waves and crocs. I have to say this is not how I imagined it. But I was desperate to avoid the stinking mess that is Nairobi and give it a try.

(It’s getting quite cold so I think I will pause and make my way back to the truck in search of warm clothes and a sheltered spot. TBC)

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