Chapter 6 - The Bone Cruncher


Point A- Arusha

Being white in Africa is, at times, like having a target on your back: white = money. We were having a hard time convincing people of our current poverty. The main problems being that every tourist starts off declaring that they don’t have money, and then ends up buying the over-priced goods anyway. So whenever we said it, no one believed us. Arusha was tourist central – Mount Kilimanjaro, plenty of game reserves... to a local, being in Arusha without money was ludicrous.

So, when it was time to leave Arusha, we spent an entire day trying to bargain for a cheap bus. Without luck. By the end, we were desperate and decided to make like the locals: climb on a bus, sit, and refuse to budge. From there we could firmly negotiate a price that suited us.

The conductor comes round. We produced half the demanded fee: “That’s all we’ve got”. But he just won’t buy it, and we debate for ages. He says we have to get off. We say we have to stay. We empty our pockets and wallets, throwing in the few extra coins that fall out. But still he refuses.

Meanwhile, delight has spread throughout the bus. The passengers seem genuinely stoked that there are three white guys in the world as poor as they are. They laugh and throw comments at the conductor. I can only guess they’re saying “give them a break, they’re like us”. One punches me on the arm and smiles, another winks and points at me. Both nod reassuringly. And so the conductor, urged on by the other passengers, finally accepts our money.

Just before the bus leaves, Jordan decides he’s starving and he ducks off to grab a meal, all cloak and dagger, we must maintain the pretence of absolute poverty. That’s how it works with everyone. Before he’s back, the bus begins to pull out of the rank. I look behind. There’s Jordan, running, half a chapati in his hand, the rest stuffed in his mouth. The conductor turns, his thumb rubbing against his index finger, “Money, money,” he shakes his head, “chapati, chapati”. The bus roars with laughter, this time the conductor joins, graciously conceding that we are worthy victors. Throughout the journey there’s laughter in our direction, and kiSwahili conversations that feature the word ‘chapati’.

Travelling in Africa is always so ridiculously overcrowded and I think back to all the lifts we’ve caught so far. It’s nearly unbelievable, except that you’re there to see it happen. This afternoon the seat in front of me is broken; it reclines so far back that the person’s hair in front of me is tickling my Adam’s apple. I look across at Rob who is sitting at an open window. I envy him. Though I know each seat will have its own problems. I don’t have to wait long. Whenever a bus passes in the opposite direction Rob is covered in dust. He’s coughing. His eyes water. When we hit a bump, his head smacks the overhead baggage holder. I start to feel much better.

Jordan’s also in the thick of it. Peering over the bosom of the large lady next to me, I spot him. Bags, shoved under his seat, steal his leg room. He sits with his knees under his chin. If we were flying, he would be demonstrating the ‘brace’ position, the one the demo warns you about during emergencies.

As for me, my neighbour on one side (the large lady) is a breastfeeding mother. When it’s not feeding, the baby sprays soggy biscuits all over me. On the other side is an over-inquisitive child who prizes my eyelids open every time I’m about to fall asleep. To my relief, he is replaced by a goat half way through the trip. The animal is superior company, apart from the smell and a mean bite. Still, if we ignore each other I manage to drift in and out of sleep.

As night falls, things begin to quieten. People become more malleable and their bodies begin to fold neatly over one another as they drift off to sleep. It’s best to sleep at night if you can. You don’t want to see the driving. Better to be blissfully unaware. During the day, the driving is bad. Terrible. Come night time, it’s preposterous. Overtaking can be so tight you feel the heat of the oncoming headlights. Blind rises and hair-pin bends are treated as occupational challenges, or a test of manhood. Drivers use them to prove their valour within the drivers’ fraternity, though to the passengers, all that’s demonstrated is stupidity. After all the trips we’ve taken, Robs, Jordan and I, pretty much conclude that every bus driver in Africa is a madman. One comfort on this trip is that our bus is big, which means our driver rules the road.

Point B - Nairobi

But apparently all’s well that ends well and we arrive in Nairobi at about two am. We sleep on the bus and at five in the morning the driver’s alarm kicks us out into the misty streets. We wander aimlessly, waiting for the rest of the city to wake. It’s cold. We don’t have warm clothes.

We’re stopped by a drunken hobo and as usual, for reasons unknown, the hobo’s English isn’t bad. We glean bits and pieces of information and head in the direction of his pointing finger to find a bus that leaves for Isiolo. A friendly piki-piki driver helps us further along the way, pausing to give us directions from his motorcycle taxi. “I would lift you if you weren’t three,” he says, “or even I can if you are happy to wait”. We tell him not to worry and before we know it we’re on our way to Isiolo.

Jordan and I sit either side of the aisle, enjoying the leg space. Before long a plank is placed between us and a quivering little girl is unceremoniously plonked in the gap between. It’s not long before we stop at a spaza shop, and I decide to buy some biscuits for the little girl. I also buy a cardboard carton of what I call yoghurt. Almost immediately, I donate the full container to the street kids who hassle me, begging for ‘European coin’. They fall on the yoghurt in a frenzy of sharing. Clearly, they’re not worried by its sourness.

There’s one more stop after Isiolo until we reach Marsabit. Another change of taxi. We jump out and everything is completely different. The Christian prayer meetings of Isiolo taxi rank have been replaced by sounds of “Allah-uh akah-bah” spooling from the speakers of a Mosque. The air hints at desert winds; the geography is dry. It’s a poor area and it seems unforgiving and melancholy. Everyone suddenly seems more Arab.

I watch the bags as Jordan and Robs enquire about the rest of our journey across the Chalbi desert to Moyale, a town on the Ethiopian border. It’s going to take three days and can only be done in a 4 x 4 or lorry. There is a bus that comes straight from Nairobi, but the hobo clearly didn’t know about it, so we’ve missed it anyway. For this trip the first and third legs must be done at night to avoid the heat; the second must be done during the day as it crosses an area that is bad for bandits. Just in case anyone is considering making the journey at night, there’s an official police road block.

Point C  - Isiolo

I hoist my backpack up the ladder of the lorry, my face dodging the pair of huge, muddied boots two steps ahead of me. Jords and Robs bring up the rear and must be enjoying face-offs with other feet. Our lorry is full of vegetables. Thousands of loose cabbages lie at the rear. In front of these are large bags of carrots followed by even larger bags of potatoes, maybe 200kgs apiece. The vegetables are still unwashed. Everything is covered with sand.

Five minutes in, we stop for more cargo and a few more passengers. Also more massive bags. This time it's sugar and rice. Boxes of biscuits. Beef cubes, and washing powder. In the soapy vegetable aroma, I count a total of twenty-three men, one woman and her baby.

I adjust a few things and make a fairly comfortable bed on the sugar. Jords and Robs settle in on the potatoes, using their backpacks and the carrots as head rests. Some people sit outside on top of the lorry’s metal frame.

The journey starts comfortably enough. The road is tarred and the rain holds. But then we catch up with the grey clouds that were once far ahead. The second they’re solidly above us the first few drops begin to fall, fat and splattering. The rain comes quickly; within minutes it's pouring.

The back of the lorry is covered by two plastic sheets; the outer one is a thick green number, old and holey but still strong. Under this lies a clear plastic that provides the main rain protection. Those sitting above hastily duck inside and my spacious throne is gradually toppled. As the rain continues, more and more people come inside, and soon I’m reduced to a footstool shoved against the tarp.

Rain begins to leak through the holey green plastic, and creates little pools of water in the clear plastic above us. With every bit of braking, accelerating and sharp turning, a game follows among the passengers as the water sloshes from pool to pool. Overfilling is greeted by frantic hands that push the liquid balloon into someone else's suspended territory. All eyes watch as the water tables rise and fall, and everyone calculates the risk of getting doused. Both the safe onlooker and the endangered individual are obliged to find the situation comical, and the ongoing entertainment makes the wet a lot more bearable. Soon teamwork takes over, and everyone works together to push the water away from danger, out over the cabbages.

When it clears we pull back the plastic and, climbing up on top of the trucks metal frame, make our way to the front of the vehicle. The wind is icy against our damp clothes. Flat plains, covered with sporadic shrub and thorn trees, roll out endlessly all around us. To one side, distant mountains shimmer in the heat. In the foothills, there are clouds of rising dust –the huge herds of Masai cattle, hundreds of hooves trampling the barren earth. They need our rain.

On my left a Masai guards his herd, wrapped in two cloths. The first, a bright, pawpaw orange, partly covered by a deep, imperial purple. He wears a burgundy scarf wrapped around his head with feathers sticking out, almost like an American Indian. Around his ankles, wrists and neck hang many pieces of beaded jewellery. Both his earlobes have wide, fleshy holes pierced in them. From one hangs a feather; in the other is a big, shiny metal earring. He holds a black stick decorated with green beads. At his waist a leather belt secures a long machete. Over his semi bare chest hangs an AK47.

Here, the Masai seem more nomadic and wild. They don’t wear the more traditional red outfits common elsewhere among their tribe in Kenya. It feels good to see them, so different from the Zanzibari sell-outs. I take a primitive pleasure in knowing that these machetes are used to protect cattle and not merely to peel oranges.

As night falls the lorry slowly empties. More and more people get off and when we finally reach our destination, Marsabit, only five of us remain. The driver checks into his 'hotel' and we're allowed to sleep in the back. Suddenly the bags of potatoes seem much harder than before. The carrots and cabbages are no better. It’s like trying to sleep on a stone mattress. With no excitement to cushion us, we settle in for another uncomfortable night. The rain hasn’t stopped either, so the water dodging must also continue. In the silence I hear crunching. A carrot. One of the passengers is helping himself to the goods. I’m also peckish, so I follow suit. In the darkness, there’s laughter when my crunch echoes his.

Sometime in the night the pool above me gives way. I’m soaked. Freezing. I must try to avoid touching the even colder metal sides of the lorry. I snuggle up to Rob, trying to steal his body heat. Before I drift back to sleep I think of the day’s previous passengers and how they'd probably like to know, I lost the game of water dodging.

Point D - Marsabit

From Marsabit on, we must find a 4 x 4 as the lorries are reluctant to carry tourists. They shrug us off without any explanation other than the shake of a head. The gravel roads are corrugated, they shake you relentlessly and you’re unable to hold on to anything which means with every jolt your body slams against the person next to you or into the vehicle. When we get off in Moyale, Jordan and I each have what feels like a cracked rib and Robbie is suffering from severe back spasms. We’re filthy. Rain and dust have combined to create a layer mud that covers us and our bags. My long hair has stiffened into one big dreadlock.

We’d heard about this section of the journey from fellow travellers, bikers especially. It’s called ‘the bone cruncher’ and is considered the toughest part of the entire ‘Cape to Cairo’ route. Even just arriving in Moyale, alive, made us feel all conquering. In theory, the road wouldn’t get any worse.

But Africa was intent on teaching us a lesson. As we reach the Ethiopian border we’re told we’ve been misinformed - it is not actually possible to acquire an Ethiopian visa upon entry. The official isn’t open to a bribe and declares, rather uncooperatively, “There is no option! You go Nairobi”. To add insult to injury he casually mentions that in his wide experience ours’ is not an unusual problem. Many a traveler comes this way with the same understanding of ‘visa upon entry’.

So we should feel better? I’ve lost all sense of humour by now. All I can think is that if this visa thing is such a common complaint, then do something about it you blithering oaf, instead of sitting there all smug in your fat office on your stupid swivel chair. Nevertheless, I keep quiet and we humbly prepare to return to Kenya, tails between our legs.

The thought of repeating the ‘bone cruncher’ ate away at our morale. It was typical of our travels. Most people wouldn’t even think of doing this leg once, let alone twice. And yet here we were about to do it three times, just for kicks. Well, for a visa, but still.
In fact, we were so desperate not to repeat the bone cruncher that we looked for alternative routes through South Sudan, even Somalia. The logic: we had more chance of survival in these countries than going back and forth along the terrible, broken roads. Even this plan, however, would entail a substantial amount of backtracking.

Eventually, out of options, we find ourselves booking the one way bus ticket back to Nairobi. A thirty two hour trip. Unfortunately all that is available is the back row and even after we’ve been warned against taking these seats we ignore the advice. Maybe we’re naïve or wilfully ignorant, though I have no difficulty calling us plain desperate. We settle for seats fifty eight, fifty nine and sixty.

The trip back was hell. Far worse than the trip out. The bus gave us an absolute beating. We were sitting behind the rear wheel which created a ridiculous see-saw effect, throwing you up and then slamming you down as if the person on the other end had jumped off when you were at your highest point. Time after time we were hoiked up and then smashed down. It got so bad that Jordan and I stood for two hours just to get some respite. All the old aches and injuries flared up again; back spasms, cracked ribs, and we whimpered the entire thousand kilometres back to Kenya’s capital. When Nairobi rose into view, I was parched. I was shattered. I needed to pee. I hadn’t caught a wink of sleep. We’d taken a huge dent. Bodies. Budgets. Spirits. An extra R500 wasted on doing the worst part of the journey three times instead of only once? That was pretty hard to swallow.

Point B - Nairobi

Although our journey back to Nairobi had taken 40 hours instead of the promised 23, we were learning to count our blessings. On return we had passed the only other bus going the opposite direction, and they were 49 hours in and stuck halfway.

In fact, by the time we left Nairobi, now for the second time, we were somewhat glad we’d had to return. Getting a visa for Ethiopia was interesting and a good learning curve. Without letters of invitation, booked accommodation, or a vehicle we left quite a paperless trail - something that always makes officials skeptical. While an explanation of passing through on foot might suffice here, such rationale may not hold in upcoming countries such as Sudan and Egypt which are much more militarised.

As for ourselves, we were too were better fortified, ready for round three of our Moyale nightmare. Wiser this time; and better prepared. We booked seats sixteen, seventeen and eighteen, close to the front and on the side of the bus where the wind would blow the dust away from us, rather than directly into the window. As before, the back row was singularly empty. We laughed, then, as we thought of our recent own hard-won knowledge. We thought that maybe, just maybe, if we saw any tourists on their way down Africa, we would recommend the back seats. Such seats, we would tell them, were reserved especially for tourists.