Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Worst Road in Africa/A Song in the Wilderness

Posted from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (more or less)

Legend has it that Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, used to use the Great East-African Highway to visit Halie Selassie I, the emperor of Ethiopia. The two agreed, each would pave the portion of the highway that lay within his border. Selassie (also known as Ras
Tafari) followed through; Kenyatta did not. The unpaved Kenyan portion of the highway would come to be known as "the worst road in Africa," which, to borrow a phrase from the Coen Brothers, puts it high in the running for worst road world-wide.

The infamy of the "highway" is not limited to the quality of the road itself; tribal warfare, highway banditry and miles of inhospitable and tedious surroundings contribute to a whole package of desolation. From Isiolo, Kenya to Moyale, on the Kenya/Ethiopia border is 500
kilometers of wilderness that MinWah and I alone decided to traverse.

In Isiolo our group split permanently. Karen had already flown home from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Orian caught a truck up to Moyale - he's trying to reach Cairo in time to fly home for their anniversary; Quinn caught a lift back to Nairobi, and has since flown to Europe where
he'll spend the summer touring.

It's garbage burning day in Isiolo when we leave. (For all I know, that's every day in Isiolo). The foul gray smoke bites our nostrils as we pull into a petrol station to top off our stove. We've heard two stories regarding northern Kenya's bandits. In one version, the bandits are well organized and only go after convoys that they know are carrying something valuable.
In the other, they are involved in tribal warfare (mostly killing and stealing each others cattle) and leave foreigners mostly alone. These two are encouraging to us, but the gas-station attendant offers another perspective.

"There's no police, very long ways," he says fearfully.
"There are men who are not right," he continues, pointing to his head. Then
he pretends to hold a gun.
"They will...." he trails off as he pulls the imaginary trigger.

It's not the first time we've heard terrible stories about the place we're about to go, so we cruise downhill from Isiolo. It's tarmac at first, followed by flat graded gravel, preparation for future paving. It's fast going, but we know it can't last.
"The Chinese are building a road," the locals say. The sign says "Government of Kenya, Ministry of Roads and Public Works, Financed by the Governement of Kenya and the African Development Fund. Main Contracter: China Wu Yi Company."
Either way, the road shortly spits us out onto rough gravel.

We bump our way down into a dry river valley where about eight kids are letting their goats drink. As we pass, they ignore their herd and turn their attention to us. They run along side, shouting and waving their herding sticks, joking and having fun. At least that's how it seems until one of them hits me with their stick. I slam on the brakes and turn around. The kids scatter, dropping water bottles and sticks. The one who hit me drops his close enough for me to pick up,
so I do. I wave it at them and ask who it belongs to. They don't speak English (except for "give me"), but eventually they understand, and the biggest one acknowledges it is his.

I toss it in his direction, thinking this sign of goodwill will pacify them. Not so. As I pedal off up the other side of the valley, rocks throw up clouds of dirt near me. The little punks are throwing rocks at me; big enough to hurt, if I should be hit, but not big enough to do any real damage.

When the second volley flies, I stop and pick up one of my own; small enough to throw hard but big enough to do some serious damage. I toss it to myself and try to look menacing.

The kids keep their distance, but they're not leaving us yet. I consider throwing the baseball-sized rock in their direction, but I've reached the crest of the hill and the downhill ahead allows me to outdistance them.

I hope a lion ate one of their goats while they were chasing us.

Thoughts come in sound-bites when the road is rough. You barely have a chance to complete one before a wayward rock pulls your attention back to the road.

Even so, cycling in the desert gives you lots of time to think. It also gives you lots of time to lose motivation. Some people set goals for themselves. In South Africa Quinn referred to his left as his pizza pedal and his right as his beer pedal. Here in the desert, I've purged myself of external goals. I don't pedal because I'm trying to reach somewhere by a certain time. I push down with my left simply because it comes after my right.

You pedal because that's what you do. You go north because the road only goes two ways and you've come from the south. The scenery doesn't change much. Flat, with some thorn bushes on both sides. Sometimes the gravel is reddish, sometimes it's white.

A gray-bearded man in a southbound Land Rover stops to tell us the upcoming town of Merille - which doesn't appear on our map - had a cholera outbreak. It's true, acknowledged Yusuf, a youth we talk to when we reach the town. It happened a week ago, but only small children were affected. No food is available, but we can still get cool drinks.

MinWah says she's got repeating thought syndrome, common of desert-touring cyclists.

"I think to myself, 'God forsook this road'," she says. "Then I think, 'is forsook a word?' Then I decide I'd better just say 'this is a Godforsaken road.' Then it repeats."

I've been fortunate enough to evade such torture. Though, come to think of it, I know all the words to "House of the Rising Sun," yet just one verse keeps playing in my head.

Before nightfall we ride up to St. George Catholic Church to look for non-choleric water and a place to camp. Some kids help us look for the priest, but stop dead at the courtyard. They fear him like they would a ghost. Eventually, their curiosity overcomes their fear and they enter the compound and ask me questions and touch my hair. Then something spooks them and they dash for the gate. Before long they're playing tricks on each other, holding the gate shut to trap each other inside where, presumably, they'll get in trouble. Or eaten.

We camp at the church and when I lie down I can still feel my body rising and falling over the bumps - phantom bumps, like when you've spent the day at the wave pool. In the morning we get up and pedal back into the desert. I never did meet the priest. I was scared of him anyway.

The wind screams through the thorn trees (all the trees are thorn trees) like a faraway concert hall when Van Halen comes onstage. It's a constant. Not a constant direction, not a constant velocity, just a constant there. Other than the crunching of our tires, it's the only sound.

The white Land Rover passes again, going north this time, and the driver stops to invite us for tea at the Marsabit Anglican Church.

"We might be there by tomorrow," we tell him.
"As my mother would say, 'courage'," he says as he drives off, drawing out the oo and softening the gee: "coo-rage."

The short plants are are gray-brown here. The trees have no leaves, but the stems and branches themselves are green. These are covered with silver thorns that make the low forest look like it just received a heavy frost. Throw in some ostriches and camels and you could be
reading Dr. Seuss.

Most nights we camp in the bush. No tent, for it's far too stuffy and it's far too dry for mosquitoes. Our companions are birds, insects and a few small mammals that scuttle about. The breeze helps cool us and there's little risk of getting wet, tonight or any night. Kenya
has missed her rainy season this year; it's supposed to be March through May, but the months passed and the rain never materialized.

It is dry. It's so parched that when I take a leak on the ground it dries before I'm done shaking.

The next day we climb the hills to Marsabit, the half-way point. As we go, we encounter a family (or is it a whole village?) leading hundreds of goats and dozens of cows south. Some donkeys carry a little water, and dogs tag along.

I ask a man where they are going. He doesn't speak English, but his answer is clear all the same: "maji" means water.

From this one word I can imagine an unspoken epic of a village forced to migrate because the rainy season never came. Who knows how far they've come, leaving behind everything but their livestock. Where will they go? Hundreds of kilometers to Mount Kenya? The land there
is farmed; no space for herdsmen. Maybe the rains will come first, dampening the soil, offering rivers to drink of and green vegetation to eat.

Or could it be the cholera? Were they forced from a once-clean borehole by the disease that destroys the lining of the intestine, causes diarrhea and kills by dehydration?

When we get to Marsabit we go to the first church we see and try to ascertain whether it is the Anglican church. I ask a girl if it is Catholic.
Thanks very much for the help.

We find it anyway, and meet the friendly man in the Land Rover who is none other than the Anglican Bishop. Over tea Bishop Rob confirms the state of Kenya's drought.
"The rains have failed again. We may not get them now until October, November. I don't know how people will survive," he says.

We stop for fuel again on our way out of Marsabit. The attendant filled our bottle, about 750 mL and tried to charge us 200 shillings.
"How much is one liter?" MinWah asked, and I repeated in Swahili.
"moja liter shilingi ngapi?"
Eventually it comes out: one liter costs 91 shillings. So he tries to charge us 150 for filling a bottle that physically cannot hold more than 1L. We gave him 100 shillings and left.
"They don't even treat you as if you're a human being," MinWah said.
It's true; we're nothing but a pocketbook. He's the third person (that I know of) in Marsabit who has tried to cheat us. It's hard to have respect for a person who obviously has no respect for you.

Back in the desert, my bike is all but uncontrollable. The loose,
rocky sand gives no purchase for my tires. The wind picks up from the side and makes me wobble and with each wobble I over correct until I'm pulling my feet out of the pedals and slamming them down to keep from falling, wrestling with the bike to keep from dropping it and squishing the bread and bananas.

Tired of riding on rocks, we pull our bikes over some rocks, hide behind some other rocks and sleep on some more rocks.

Crows are the only birds we've seen in days. They haunt our campsites like they're waiting for us to expire. Today we travel into the worst of the desert, what Bishop Rob called a "lunar landscape." As we go, off to the right I hear a songbird. I don't know what he survives on,
but for me his song - nearly swept away by the wind - reminds me that it's not so far to Moyale, not so far to Cairo, not so far to home.

Just past Bubisa (another town not on the map) we pass a caravan of camels. Four women each lead five camels. When we stop for lunch, they catch up to us. I wonder how far they're going. I felt like we were making good progress, but they're putting us to shame, walking.

There's a little sandy berm where we can get out of the wind and out of sight from the road and sleep on sand rather than rocks. It's near a little village - just a few huts and a few more camels. I wonder how they survive. Do they eat rocks?

We're cooking dinner (rice, tomatoes carrots, onions, garlic, cabbage and salt, cayenne, turmeric and mustard seed; everything we have, all in one pot as usual) when a man walks up from the village. He's Gabra, just like the people in Bubisa. He's got a little white stubble and a shirt that says "Decastle Baseball 2004," and when he shakes my hand I notice a curled up little finger. He looks me in the eye when he talks and I'm startled to see his big black pupils are framed by bright blue.

We try to communicate but his Swahili isn't much better than ours. He squats and points at my bicycle and we try to explain what we're doing. He doesn't know Egypt, but he knows Moyale.

Again the caravan catches up to us and the man explains that the women had gone to Bubisa to get water, some 20 km away.

Before our rice is cooked our grizzled observer gets up. He points over the hill and shows me he's going off to bring in some camels for the night. He walks off with his stick over his shoulders, white turban and green and white sarong blowing in the wind. His sandals made from old tire leave indistinct footprints in the sand. I still wonder what he eats.

We're on the worst part of the road now. Rarely do I ride more than 100 meters without one or both of my wheels slipping out on the loose rock. I look ahead and there's only rock, no track that looks passable. The wind is still my enemy, broadsiding me, pushing me out of whatever path I find and into the rocks which jump out of the way and deny me foundation. Again and again I jump off and try to catch the bike before it further demolishes the bread.

It's a challenge - the road, the heavy bike, the wind, the sun, the nothingness. Physically, mentally, emotionally a challenge. But the real challenge is to let go of the anger, the frustration and enjoy where you are and what you are doing. If you can manage to put yourself in the moment, in perspective, it even becomes enjoyable. The wind, the rock, the solitude; you appreciate them for what they are. Ethiopia will come before we know it. Perhaps we'll miss the
quiet straight road and the difficult but uncomplicated task of following it.

We take a long break, eat a little, read a little. It's a reminder not to go to fast. There's no shade though. A falcon calls from the only tree.

When we go again the wind has stopped and for a little while it's easier to ride. But with no wind it's hard to stay cool and the sweat that dripped down my face before now cascades. Nothing is purely good or bad.

The next night another Gabra chats with us while we cook. He speaks good English, so I finally figure out what they eat. They eat meat. Goat meat, cow meat, camel meat (it tastes like beef, he says). They drink milk and blood. That answers one question, but raises another. What do the cows, goats and camels eat? Rocks?

In the morning we start to get out of the desert. The road is starting to improve and there are plants again. Some of them are even green. Ahead of us the Ethiopian highlands beckon blue in the distance.

By our last night in Kenya the desert has become bush. As the vegetation increased so did the people. With scarcely a moment unobserved, we dash off into the trees to find a place to sleep.

Even a relatively secluded spot is crisscrossed by livestock trails. We hear camel trains in the woods as we cook and by the time we bed down they're very close. We can hear the whistles and coos of the herders, the dull jangle of camel bells and the low, groaning bellow of the camels themselves. They make an unearthly-sounding procession and it even smells like a zoo.

Occasionally there's a loud hollow "thwack" as the herders swat their livestock with their sticks. In this way one group strolls past so close I can hear their footsteps and see the necks of the camels above the bushes. We must be found out, I thought.

Sure enough, a small animal comes rustling through the bushes towards us. It must be one of their dogs. What will it do? Bark and give us away? Snap at us? For a second it looks like it might head back to the group, though surely it sees us for it is but 10 feet away.
Then it freezes and as my eyes adjust I begin to see that it is not a dog. Still as it sits, it looks just like a prickly bush, and I realize what it is.

I sit up to see if my motion will scare the porcupine away, but it must feel safe with its protective covering. Before long it waddles off away from the camel train.
The herders never find us, though they pass just meters from our bikes.

We're finished with Kenya. I think back to that solitary bird and his song in the wilderness. His reminder that the end, though still far away, is approaching makes my bruised palms and the welt on my thigh (from a particularly nasty fall) seem nostalgic. The road was rough
and long but I wouldn't have missed it for anything.


Anonymous said...

Awesome photos! "The worst road in Africa" is now our desktop! I can't wait to see what the next leg of your journey brings.

Melius said...

Hey man great story. Missing you and your left hand.

Rhino is doing well. We beat Furious 15-11 at solstice got into ECC and Labor day again.

Miss you