Road trip through Africa

I had undertaken to travel six hundred miles by road in a single day. I departed from my lodgings in the Karen suburb of Nairobi at seven in the morning. My intention was to get to a village called Nakwamoru, far away in North West Kenya by nightfall.

I left the city centre of Nairobi on a little twenty five seater Akamba bus. My first destination was Kitale, a town two hundred and fifty miles west from Nairobi . Kenya has few good roads and most of the ones I travelled over were in a terrible condition. Pot-holes were consistently everywhere and the bus sustained a constant bumping chatter all along the route.

The first few hundred miles of my journey passed through the Great Rift Valley . This valley begins in Syria and winds south for 4000 miles before finishing up in Mozambique . It is one of the Earth's most monumental geographical features. The bus trickled up steep ascents, stuttered along bumpy plateaus and hurtled down into the wide valley.

Sitting on the sunny side of the bus I gazed out the window. All around me was the most majestic and grand landscape I had ever seen. In all directions the land rushed out in a sweep of endless grassy plains. An occasional tree and bush broke the scene and I also saw the flamingo framed waters of Lake Baringo . The sky as always was a deep blue.

Along the route indigenous commercial activity sprouted up in little pockets. As the bus sped along, eager farmers waved live hens by the necks to the potential customers in transit. Anytime the bus did stop swarms of eager vendors crowded onboard to display their carrots, onions, potatoes and bananas.

They were initially a welcome source of food for me but their persistence was unflinching and became tiring. The driver was familiar with their tactics and he always responded by driving off regardless when all his own passengers had moved on and off. Any seller who was left still onboard had to leap perilously from the moving vehicle.

As I travelled further west and nearer the border with Uganda the number of road blocks increased. Thousands of refugees still cross into Kenya every year and the authorities have their hands full trying to deal with the situation.

On one occasion a heavily armed policeman boarded the bus for an inspection. Nothing save the sound of his heavy breathing and footsteps was heard while he sniffed around peering at everyone. No-one was questioned and the bus moved on again.

In the early evening, nine hours after leaving Nairobi , little Akamba arrived into Kitale. It is a small highland town with a local population of mostly farmers, shop owners and inn keepers . I was passing through, but first I had to meet my contact, a fellow Irishman, Father John O'Callaghan.

I had no idea what he looked like nor had I been to Kitale before. However the task turned out to be remarkably simple, we were the only two white people in the town and we both spotted eachother just as I alighted from the bus.

We shook hands.

“You must Fionn”

“…and you must be Father John”

The strong Limerick accent was incongruous, but very reassuring. He introduced me to his other passengers, locals also travelling to Nakwamoru.

“Are you hungry or would you like to keep moving?”

“No, I'm fine. Let's get going”

I got into Father John's truck and we drove out of town.

The end of the journey was due north, in the Turkana desert valley, 450 miles away. In leaving Kitale we travelled up into the Cherangani Hills of West Pokot . As we ascended the air temperature fell and it became a little cool. Driving along the upland I got to know the shyly courageous and warm hearted Father John.

He had been living and working in Kenya for over thirty years. He recounted altercations with bandits, flash floods, hostile elephants and many broken down roadside stoppages. I silently marvelled at his calm resilience. After an hour we began descending from the plateau of the hills and down into the valley. Both the countryside and local custom became wilder. The landscape changed from an abundance of vegetation and greenery to spokey bush and acacia trees. On the road, a car with four men in an open boot overtook us. Their legs dangled freely on the bumper but they were mostly tucked inside.

Driving out of West Pokot and down into Turkana we were stopped at a checkpoint. Here, local police told us we would be getting an escort for travelling any further. Father John conceded with both resignation and familiarity. We drove on.

Quickly we were alone on the road again but with no sign of any escort. We descended deep into the Turkana valley, darkness falling as the humidity increased and the temperatures rose. The condition of the road became very changeable. Sometimes we often found it easier to drive in the dusty hard shoulder rather than in the potholed remains along the centre. On other occasions we had to drive straight along the middle of the road to avoid the encroaching bush and shrubbery.

Close to our journey's end we stopped for a visit to a small mission house at Kaniuk. The house like the road before was completely dark and without light. Our Kenyan host, one Father Patrick, was enduring a power failure. He welcomed us in and by the light of a single torch we each enjoyed a cup of tea. It was a short visit and once back outside we got into the truck. While reversing and turning, the beam of light from our vehicle swung around in a wide arc.

As it cut through the darkness a young teenage boy with a machine gun was illuminated for less than a second. It was a chilling sight. Only I had seen it but I said nothing to Father John at the time. We rejoined the road and continued onto our destination. Just after nine o clock that night we arrived into Nakwamoru. We were greeted by friends and a cooked meal. I had made it.

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