‘Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted’ – I saw this very apt computer print-out stuck to a bar in a tiny African village where we stopped at 2 in the morning 3 days ago, and it had the same effect on me as being told, when I was young, that the unpleasant experience I was enduring – and I can’t even remember what it was – was ‘character-building’. You know it’s probably true. It might even be a highly appropriate philosophical statement. But it’s the last thing you want to hear when you’re ‘gatvol’ (an Afrikaans word which loosely translated means gut-full; I like it because it conveys, in a way that English can’t, that sick-to-the-stomach, full-of-frustration feeling that you sometimes get when you’ve just had enough).
This is how I felt when we pulled in for a cup of ‘Chai’ (which I don’t even like) after being on the road almost constantly for more than 24 hours. And when I say we pulled in, I don’t mean we calmly turned down the throttle on our bikes and coasted to a suitable parking spot outside the premises. I mean that the truck we were in came bouncing to a stop at a rapid rate of knots, jolting into its final position behind a similarly canvas-covered monolith of vehicular transport with an inch to spare.
Let me explain! We left the border town of Moyale on Saturday morning, heading for the town of Marsabit 150 miles away. We knew, as we told many of you, that this would probably be the toughest bit of road to ride: it has a reputation for having marauding bandits plying their trade here, and it is also notoriously difficult in terms of driving conditions. We weren’t entirely sure just how difficult it was going to be, as much of this depends on the weather and how much rain there’s been recently. The evening before, we’d done some asking about in town and found that although there were some light rains, it wasn’t too bad and we should be able to make it. Anxious, though, about the time delays we might have because of unplanned falls from my bike, we got up really early and were ready to leave at 5:30am. The only problem? A police checkpoint with a horrible metal stinger across the road which, because it was dark and we thought everyone was still asleep, we just decided to move out the way ourselves. Except, as the good, law-abiding citizens of this world that we are, we very stupidly also replaced said barrier; giving the policeman asleep by on guard enough time to come hurtling out of his hut above the road and call out to us to stop. Doh! We both wish that we just hadn’t, but it was still dark and we couldn’t have known what would befall us as a result of this delay, so we waited for him to join us. There followed a telling off from him about moving police equipment, as well as a discussion about the condition of the road, the bandits and the fact that because we were on motorbikes we couldn’t be accompanied by an armed guard. If this was all it had been, it would have been fine; but I think he lost his nerve, and decided to call his commander just to check what he should do under the circumstances. Big mistake! We were summarily told we shall not depart until the convoy of trucks leaves, at 9am! We were flabbergasted. This was really not what we needed, but no matter how hard we argued, pled or begged, they were having none of it. Bureaucracy, above all, is my number one dread now.
Having really kicked up a fuss about not wanting to be driven over by a truck in a hurry if I were to fall off, they finally ‘released’ us at 8 o’clock. Relieved to finally be on the go, we made very good progress, thinking to ourselves that although the road was tricky in places, it really was not as bad as some we’d ridden previously. It was also nice and dry in most places, and on those where it wasn’t we were able to pick a line that avoided most of the dark, slippery mud. I remember reaching a point on the road where there must have been lots of trees in bloom, because a sweet fragrance permeated the air, filling me with joy and making me really feel that this was what I’d embarked on the journey for. We made very good progress, relatively speaking, and I remember at one point calculating that if we continued at this rate, we’d be in Marsabit by 3:30pm. I was looking forward to this, as we were going to stay with the infamous ‘Henry the Swiss’, a man known for his good campsite and fresh bread.
Alas, it was not to be. Around noon, we’d been slowed down a bit by a very rocky stretch, where the going was tough and even if you slowed down you still felt like your bones were being shattered into tiny shards by all the collisions with the unavoidable jagged stones. Then, around 2, we pulled off the road to wait out a lightning storm which, although it wasn’t upon us, was close enough to give us the heebies about being hit. Glyn is particularly sensitive on this subject, because someone who was his namesake did actually die from being hit by lightning on a golf course. After about 10 minutes, it seemed to subside a bit, so we continued on our way, little knowing what would soon befall us.
Then, at about two-thirds of our way down the road, at odometer reading 9239, it hit us. The road went from pure gravel to a mixture of gravel and red, sticky mud which was so full of clay it had become incredibly slippery, causing more than one sideways delivery of body to floor. At first, this was annoying, because it’s not fun falling off only to pick up your bike, move two metres, and then repeat the process again. But after a while, it became clear that not only was it slippery, it also had the properties of superglue on steroids. Large clumps of what looked and felt like glue-infused pottery clay embedded with glass shards collected under our front mud guards and over the chains (our rear guards having both been lost by this point, on the bumpy sections of road). This seriously hindered our progress. More than once, we had to get off to scrape away what had collected there, which without the right tools was rather frustrating – the first casualty was our wooden spoon, which within two minutes had broken in 3 places. Next, we tried a bit of metal that was left on the side of the road, but this wasn’t very long and didn’t help. Eventually, we got out the toilet trowel, and proceeded to use this. We also landed up having to get Glyn to ride both bikes, while I followed behind, pushing him out when the rear wheel got stuck or was just spinning in mud – getting thoroughly coated in mud myself, of course, as a result.
And then it happened. I’d returned to my bike, having plucked up the courage to give it one more go on this awful road surface. I was about 250 metres behind Glyn, and we needed to bring my bike closer to his so that I could help him again. I rode 50m, and then swerved slightly right, but managed to correct the bike and keep upright, before again pulling on the throttle to go again. But would it? Would it ever? No, there was no response. Frustrated at the thought of yet another scraping, I got off and walked back to Glyn’s bike for the ‘tools’. He was equally stuck, and for some reason offered to go himself to the bike. The sound he made when he reached it and realised why it wouldn’t move forward was the most gut-wrenching, soul-destroying noise I’ve ever heard him utter, and it included expletives that I cannot repeat here, but it told me there was something seriously wrong. In trying to run, but actually only managing to slop, through the mud back to him, I knew this was bad. And it was – my clutch had gone. That was it, it was kaput. No more bike. The dawning realisation that I had managed to destroy my primary means of making it out of that hellish reality was a sensation that I really do not enjoy – it’s that same gut-curdling feeling that you get when you dread and then hear really bad news. And I hate it.
We had already begun to be passed by some of the lorries that were travelling behind us in the convoy during the three hours that we’d been labouring down the one mile of road that we’d managed since reaching this sticky stretch. One mile! In three hours! I was gob-smacked. I was now also very down-hearted. And not thinking straight. Because when one of the lorry drivers offered to take us to Isiolo, the next town after Marsabit, for 10,000 Kenyan shillings I miscalculated how much this was in US$s, figuring it much more expensive than it actually was. We turned him down, hoping that perhaps someone else might come along who could do it cheaper, and still not properly realising just what a predicament we’d found ourselves in. The reality of our situation only really started to dawn on us at about 5pm, an hour before sunset here in Kenya…
We realised that we were probably going to be spending the night in this vast, desolate mudpit which we subsequently figured out must have been created by the thunderstorm that we’d sat out earlier.