“Nothing,” I grinned, holding up my sign that no one seemed to be reading. “I’m trying to get to Mombasa.”
“Oh,” smiled the driver. “There’s a stage back there where you can take the bus.”
“Yeah, I don’t take public transport. I hitch hike,” I explained. “Don’t suppose you’re going to Mombasa?” I was hoping for a tinted-window SUV to play chariot.
“No,” the driver laughed. “I’m just around. But I’ll be back soon. If you’re still here I’ll help organise something for you.”
I stepped back to watch him pull away, the last of his cooling aircon evaporating in the day’s heat.
The morning had started with an 8-K hike to reach the A104 highway to Mombasa, 500 K’s south of Nairobi, on the Kenyan coast. I awoke at sunrise to beat the heat but still arrived soaked in sweat under a shady tree. I held up my sign and stuck my thumb out, even though the conventional way of hitching a ride in Africa was to flap your arm. The hike had taken about two hours and I had been hitching for about an hour before a young couple pulled up.
Linda and Paris took me a few K’s down the road to a service station where I stood on the corner where a driver of the parked van approached.
“You need to get to Mlolongo,” Kennedy explained, writing it down for me. “Here,” he shoved 30 Kenyan Shillings into my hand (also known as bob), “take a matutu. That’s where you’ll find a truck to Mombasa.”
“Don’t suppose you’re heading that way?” I asked.
Kennedy laughed. “No, I’m just around. Good luck.” We shook hands and I flagged down a matatu, the local suicidal-driven mini-vans that serve as local buses.
“50 bob,” the conductor said.
“Yeah, for tourists,” I grinned. “I’ve got 30 bob.” He slapped on the side of the van and drove away.
Sonofa… another matatu pulled up. “I’ve only got 30 bob to reach Mlolongo,” I said to the conductor.
He looked at me in disappointment (or was it pity?). “You’ll have to buy another seat for your bags,” he said.
“Nah, I can put them on me.” I climbed in and buried myself under my packs, my head forced to stare out of the dirty window. I didn’t know how far Mlolongo was but I was in that mini-van for at least 40 minutes before we reached a barren, slummy, dusty strip of land.
I set up shop right by the speed humps that someone thought would be a great idea to put on a national highway. As the cars slowed down I stuck my thumb out and pointed at my sign, indicating my want to reach Mombasa.
Most of the drivers smiled back and gave me a thumb’s up.
“I’m signalling for a ride,” I said aloud. Not giving you a thumb’s up.
Some shop vendors came out to see who the crazy foreigner was that was by the side of the road, eating up dust and diesel fumes.
I tried the flap method, pointing in the direction I needed to go.
Most of the drivers smiled back and waved.
“I’m not waving, I’m indicating the direction I need,” I called out.
After almost two hours, on the brink of grabbing my packs and just walking down the road to take on a coat of self-pity, a truck rolled slowly by and the passenger called out, “Come with us.”
He was sitting in a 20-wheeler which pulled over from the middle lane on the 3-lane highway connecting Nairobi to Mombasa.
“I don’t have money,” I explained to Alex who had hopped down to let me up.
“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you,” he grinned. “We are going to Mombasa.”
I threw my bags up to David who was sitting on the bunk, welcoming me aboard. Raphael, the driver, shook my hand. “I don’t have money,” I explained to him so as to avoid tension of expectations.
“Don’t worry,” Raphael grinned. “We’ll take care of you.”
“We always pick up travellers,” explained Alex. “We just want to learn about different cultures. We decline money when it is offered.”
Well, this was some bit of awesomeness.
“Where are you guys coming from?” I asked, settling in comfort.
“Kampala,” David named Uganda’s capital. “We drive all over East Africa. We drop off this container and collect another one to head to South Sudan.”
“I’m heading there in September,” I exclaimed. “What’s it like?”
“Life is very hard there but it is peaceful and the people are nice,” Alex said. “Do you know the supreme leader of Iran?” he suddenly asked.
“You mean the Ayatollah?”
“Yes,” he pointed to a rocky hill coming up past the runover hyena that lay dead by the side of the road. “People think this rock looks like him.”
The truck pulled over at a bus stop. “Come,” Alex said, hopping down. “Bring your camera.” I followed him down the road and took a photo of the rock.
“Yeah, it kinda looks like him,” I said not really seeing the resemblance. “When will we reach Mombasa?”
“Tomorrow,” David said as he switched with Raphael on the driver seat. “We’ll unload the cargo in Machinery village and then continue to Mombasa empty.”
Empty might mean more speed.
“What’s the cargo?
“Maize from Uganda,” Alex said. “Our gross weight is 47 tonnes. The truck is 20 and the cargo 27.”
“Sheesh, that’s heavy,” I watched the needle of the speedometer hovering on the 40 mark, tryign to Jedi force it to rise but to no avail.
“Do you know what this is?” Raphael lifted up a plastic water jug with a misty liquid in it.
“It is Changaa,” he grinned. “African gin!” He opened it and urged me to smell it. I took a whiff almost passing out.
“Wow, that’s strong,” I said hoarsely, clearing the water from my eyes. “Say, what’s that beeping?” I referred to the constant alarm ringing out in the cabin.
“It is the door lock,” Alex explained. “We had changed the lock and now the electronics can’t sense that it is locked. It rings like this from Uganda.”
This had happened to me before, on a truck to Arusha from Chilenze, covering the same distance as Nairobi-Mombasa with a constant ringing alarm in the cabin. At least the radio was on, albeit to a gospel station, it was still better than listening to Celine Dion and Michael Bolton as I had suffered on that truck to Arusha.
“Come,” Alex got up from the passenger seat. “Sit here so you can take photos.”
I plonked down to enjoy the open grassland scenery. Alex pointed out the gazelle as we headed downhill, David pressing lightly on the brakes. Unlike other truckers I’d ridden with who allowed gravity to pull their vehicle to within Mach speed going downhill, these guys were the first responsibly safe drivers I had come across.
“This place is called Salama,” Alex explained. “It means ‘peace’ in Ki-Swahili but the place is not peaceful. There are road bandits here. Men wait for a truck that goes very slow up the steep hill. They pour oil on the road so the wheels slip and then they rob the cargo.”
“Uganda is safer, people are more honest,” said Raphael. “Here, in Kenya, everybody will rob you or ask for a bribe.”
Indeed, Kenya was one of the most corrupt countries in the world. When you have signs that proclaim, ‘You are entering a corruption free zone. Do not accept or take bribes’, you know you’re in the land of corruption. In Nairobi they have a building called the Integrity Centre where they ‘investigate’ corruption.
We stopped for lunch – rice with beef – in a roadside village called Sultan Hamud. As we walked back to the truck a woman called out to me,
“Muzunghu!” which I replied with,
“Mambo?” How are you?
“Eh! Something-Ki-Swahili?” You speak Ki-Swahili?
“Kidogo-kidogo,” I grinned. Little bit.
Then she said something that David translated to, “She wants you to fuck her so she can have a white baby.”
Raphael added, “She wants your seed.”
I cracked up laughing and continued towards the truck before I’d be dragged off into a dark shed.
“You see that hill?” Alex pointed ahead while Raphael snoozed on the bunk. “It is called Mbuinzau. It means White Goat.”
I stared at the pile of rocks. There was nothing white or goat about it. “Why do they call it that?” I asked.
“Don’t know,” Alex shrugged.
We slowed down as we went through Makindo, “This place is historical,” Alex explained. “It was from here that the old railroad in Kenya was constructed.”
We stopped to buy watermelon and oranges. The watermelon was refreshing although the abundance of black pips had me spitooning like a Howitzer.
“That is Chulu,” Alex pointed out to the far hilltops as we resumed our journey. “It is a volcano. In the dry season you can see steam rising.”
“Over, there, you cannot see it now, but that is Kilimanjaro,” David pointed to the bank of clouds on the horizon.
“So that’s Amboseli National Park?” I queried.
“Yes,” he nodded.
I was getting sleepy and began to doze off when I was slapped awake. “Elephants!” Alex cried out excitedly. “We’ll stop so you can take photos.”
Not wanting to be slowed down any further than what we already were I said, “It’s fine. I have many photos of elephants.”
Ahead of us, clouds had collected to form a huge wall of dark grey. Rain began to patter down lightly and a rainbow appeared as David guided the truck into the village of Machinery.
“How many bags to unload?” I asked.
“219,” David said. “Each bag weighs more than a hundred kilos.”
It took about two hours to rustle up some workers to move the old maize bags onto a pickup truck to be moved to another warehouse. Then the workers, all skinny looking chaps, proceeded to carry the hundred kilo bags of maize on their shoulders and throw them down in a pile on the canvas floor.
These guys looked like they hadn’t eaten for weeks and they carried these immense sacks as though it was just another day at the office. Which, I guess for them, it was. With not much to do, I sat reading Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, his experiences of overlanding from Cario to Capetown (although he did fly into Sudan and Ethiopia).
I was a hundred pages deep when the rains started to pound. And then the power went out. The workers stopped unloading and David suggested that I could continue reading in the truck cab.
Raphael was asleep on the lower bunk while Alex snoozed on the top bunk. I continued to read until I dozed off. I was stirred awake when David revved the engine.
“Are we going?” I asked, rubbing my eyes.
“Not yet,” he said. “Just moving the truck to the next warehouse. We are almost at halfway.”
The rain was still coming down so I made myself as comfortable as possible and slept until David climbed aboard again.
“Now we are empty,” he grinned.
“How far to Mombasa?” I yawned.
“240 kilometres,” he said, turning the engine, reviving the beeping that had escorted us all the way.
It was three in the morning as we hit the road which was tarred and smooth. But I was thrown around the cabin an hour later as the highway to Mombasa became a patch of artillery craters. Sleep was futile and I was slapped awake again by Alex who pointed to the horizon.
“Look, the sunrise.”
I sat up, rubbing my eyes as the golden hues that spark the day radiated across the great African sky.
“There is Mombasa,” Alex pointed to the sheds and huts that began to dot the grasslands. We pulled into the truck depot as I contacted Winnie, my couchsurfing host. She explained to Raphael how to get to town where she’d pick me up.
Raphael’s family lives in Mombasa. He invited me to his place but really, I just wanted to have a shower, settle into my host’s couch and catch up on some sleep. Every matatu and bus that passed were full so I hitched us a ride into town with Issac who dropped us off where we grabbed a tuk-tuk to where I was scheduled to meet Winnie.
Raphael stuck around. “Mate, you can go home. Go see your family,” I urged him. “I’m a big boy.”
He grinned. “I cannot leave a friend until I know that the friend is safe.”
So we waited until Winnie rocked up in a 1974 VW combie, a surfer’s dream ride.
“You might need to push it,” she said as she tried the engine. “I’ve been having some battery issues.”
Indeed, I ended up pushing it with the help of a local passer-by. We waited by the roadside for about an hour, talking about this ‘n’ that when Winnie tried the engine again and it came to life.
“Yeah, Bonnie!” I slapped the side of her van. “Why did you call it Bonnie?”
“My friend has one,” Winnie explained as she guided us through tight traffic. “He calls it Clyde. So we are Bonnie and Clyde.”
I smiled, looking around at the busy town which was situated on a small island off the main land.