By the time you get to Mandera by road, via Garissa and Wajir, a number of things will have happened to you. One, your mind will have learnt to numb the pain at the small of your back. Two, you would have learnt to accommodate dust as a fellow passenger. Three, you will long have forgotten how driving on tarmac feels like. Four, your body will have made it clear to you that water is indeed life and finally whether you are religious or not, you will give thanks to whoever you think saw you through the 1,135km journey.
We live Nairobi some minutes to 9 am clueless on the kind of journey that lay ahead of us. None of us- the photojournalist, driver nor I- had been to Mandera before. The first five hours of the journey are a walk in the park. On to the super highway to Thika Town. From Thika one proceeds to Matuu and then to Mwingi Town. At this point, it is advisable for one to refuel and more importantly get the reserve petrol. Here, it is also advisable to leave behind any feelings whatsoever of shame that might prevent a grown man from walking to a shop and buy several empty plastic 20 litre jerry cans and fill them up with fuel. We had been warned against taking insufficient fuel. Logistical issues conspire against us and we leave Mwingi Town some minutes to 4pm, already several hours behind schedule but the allure of the open road wills us to go on and conquer new horizons. At some minutes past 6pm we get to Garissa where we hold fort for the night. Completely unaware of what lay ahead of us.
At exactly 7am, the party leaves for Wajir. We leave Garissa onto the B9 highway then turn left. If we were to proceed straight on, we would go to Liboi and eventually Daadab Refugee Camp. But today, we are focused on Wajir. Exactly 400 kilometres from Nairobi the tarmac comes to an abrupt end and for the first time in the journey, our vehicle’s limits are beginning to be put to test. The loose murram road provides and endless supply of pebbles that are in constant collision with the cars underbelly. The vegetation is made up of stunted acacia trees and dust. Occasionally, a raised water pan pops out from the horizon ready to embrace caravans of camels and tribes of goats plus their herders who have walked for miles to get to it.
The small towns along the road are almost all littered with empty water bottles. Dik dik pairs dart across the road oblivious of the danger posed by a hurtling vehicle. The one gets to Shimbirey signs of life. We collectively think we must be near Wajir but a quick check on the mileage shows we have only travelled 40km from Garissa. We dig in. After 50 km we get to Dujis Town. No stop overs. Next is Afwein, then Maalimin and then Todgab, jilango and Modogashe. Still no need for a break so we proceed to Sericho then Habaswein. The mileage reads that we are 585 kilometres from Nairobi. No time for stops, we proceed to Guticha, then Lagbohol, Boji, Leheley then a white earth road ushers you into Wajir town. A quick stopover to get blood flowing into the legs again. We do not want to hang around. We have heard of random terror attacks in Wajir. We know we stand out so we are back on the road again, 700km from home. Next comes Tarbaj, Hungai, Maada and Kotulo. At Kotulo, we meet a senior police officer who beseeches us not to proceed past El Wak without having sought advice on the state of the road from the local police post. We proceed to Dinu, Bore Hole 11 and finally El Wak. We get advice from the police station. AS it turns out, the shortest and smoothest route to Mandera through Arabiya town is also the most dangerous. Everyone implores us to keep to the longer, backbreaking road through Rhamu Town. We have little reason to do otherwise.
We reason amongst ourselves.
“Look, all of us have young children. Let’s keep to the rough road and get to Mandera safely. Personally, I want to see my grandchildren,” the driver says. All of us are in agreement.
After El Wak we proceed to Iresuki then Wargadud. Next is Gari, but darkness is falling. Fast. All we see in front of us is a rocky road with hills around us. No signs of life. When we eventually get to Sala then Defo Epag, complete darkness surrounds us.
We can only see as far as the car’s headlights allow us to. Some gulleys on the road we see and the driver brakes. But most we do not see. No one in the car complains of the discomfort of hurtling down a rocky road at 80kph. What is a few sore bones and muscles in comparison to staying alive and reaching safely?
It becomes apparent that the driver, all this time, has not told us his ambitions to one day participate in the East African Classic Safari Rally. But his actions, let this secret out.
One of us gets an automated cell phone message:
“Dear Dickson, welcome to Somalia.”
For a moment we think we are lost and in the deep darkness took a wrong turn but when we see lights in the distance, we feel some relief. This is Rhamu Town. So far we have come 1055km from Nairobi.
Rhamu is unremarkable. The entire town is located on a sideways v- shaped stretch of road. But for the night, it is heaven. The adventurers in us were long subdued. The darkness, the bad road and rabid imaginations ensured we stayed the night.
“Wapi ile hoteli yenyu mzuri kabisa mtu anaweza lala,” we asked the first person we saw.
He duly obliged and instead of giving us directions as you would expect, insisted on walking us to the hotel.
Here, you do not need to call in advance to book a room. To begin with, there are no rooms to book per se. The hotel has no name. All we knew was that it was opposite a shop selling an assortment of fruit juices and slippers.
The lodging arrangements are simple. Boarders can take one of two options. Inside or outside.
“Lakini musilale ndani. Huko kuna joto sana. Huku tunalala nje,” said our host.
So mattresses were hurriedly put on beds and covered with thin polyester bed sheets. A wire runs across the block shaped building’s verandah. On it, mosquitoe nets are hung. One of us chose to sleep inside a room. At that time, the wisdom in his decisions was not obvious to us.
So after a meal of rice and boiled beans we called it a night. At around 4am, two of us were wide awake. Looking for our hosts and demanding extra bed sheets. The temperature had dropped significantly.
The party leaves Rhamu at 6am. An hour and a half later we get to Mandera. 1135 kilometres covered. Copious amounts of water consumed. Today we feel what Vasco Da Gama must have felt when he docked in Malindi. Soon though, we start to think about the return trip. Same road, same concerns but with a brand new fear- will the fuel be sufficient to get us safely back to Garissa. It was, but just barely.