Journey to the city that was off the beaten track

A police roadblock near Blue Post Hotel in Thika. [John Muchucha, Standard]

Six weeks ago, a journey from Nyeri to Nairobi cost Sh350 and took about two-and-a-half hours.

But that was BC (Before Corona) when life was a lot simpler. Last Saturday, the same journey took nearly six hours on the highway and through back routes and farms.

I spent most of those hours on the back of motorcycles in an eventful trip where we evaded roadblocks, dodged wildlife and had an unexpected visit to a spot where two men were shot dead in a land war.

For the record, I could have easily travelled back to the city through the official route. After all, I was working. But my journalistic instincts got the better of me.

How, I wondered, do people still travel in and out of Nairobi amidst the curfew and heavy police presence along the highway? Only one way to find out.

I began my preparations three days in advance. My first contact was a matatu driver who operates daily between Nyeri and Gikomba transporting parcels, food items, second-hand clothes and anything else that needs moving from point A to B.

He said it would be easy to travel back to the city as part of his crew. He was, after all, offering ‘essential services’ and all I had to do was pretend to be his turn-boy.

“All you need is Sh50 for every police roadblock, and Sh200 for the main roadblock at Thika,” he said.

But the position of turn-boy was apparently very popular and I would have to wait one week for a slot to become available. He put me in touch with two other transporters but they were also ‘fully booked’.

But I was not about to give up. So on Saturday morning, I grabbed my small backpack and set out on a journey I was not certain would happen.

It did not start very well – I was conned.

At the Nyeri matatu stage, no vehicle indicated that it was headed to Nairobi. The furthest destination on display was Othaya.

As I planned my next move, a tout told me there was a vehicle going to Thika. I gladly paid Sh400 and took a seat. It took more than an hour for the matatu to fill up, and then we were off to Thika – or so I thought.

Somewhere at Makutano, where the highway from Embu joins the one from Nyeri, the driver made a U-turn and stopped. He stepped out, opened the door and furtively asked each of us where we were going. It turned out that only a young woman and myself were headed to Thika.

Evade roadblocks

He beckoned for us to disembark and took us behind the vehicle where, in a staged half-whisper, he gave us instructions on how to evade two police roadblocks that lay ahead before could reach a place called Kabati.

“From there you can get another motorbike to Thika,” he said.

When we asked how much it would cost, he beckoned at one of several boda boda riders parked by the road.

“It’s Sh800 to Kabati,” said the rider. But I managed to bargain down to Sh500.

We rode past the first roadblock without incident. There was a long queue of vehicles on the Nairobi side and everyone was stepping out to get their temperature taken, but not us. No one even glanced in our direction.

The next roadblock was at a place called ha thamaki (the place of fish) situated a short climb past River Sagana. Before Corona, one would find locals dangling freshly caught fish to entice passing motorists.

Now, instead of fishmongers, a contingent of police officers occupied the road. This one, the boda boda rider said, will be tricky to pass.

“Hawa wanatusumbua sana. Lazima uwalipe mia mbili (These ones harass us a lot. You have to pay them Sh200).”

The rider pointed to a small path to the left and said it would take us past the roadblock. But we would have to pay the farm owner for access.

The motorbike turned onto the dirt road and we sped off, weaving through the trees. As I peered over the rider’s shoulder, I spotted a black, writhing movement ahead. My legs shot up as my heart lodged in my mouth.

“Was that a snake?” I shouted amid the din of the engine.

“Yes, but it is dead now. I ran over it."

We rattled though the small grove until we reached a clearing where a man sat in front of a makeshift barrier. The rider stopped, dug inside his heavy coat and pulled out a Sh20 coin which he handed over.

The barrier was pulled to the side and we continued with our short detour before joining the highway at a place called ha muthike – named after a woman who was said to cast a spell on her sacks of charcoal by the road to keep thieves at bay.

The road ahead was largely clear and we sped past Kabiti – the hill of the hyenas – and past Kenol.

Further ahead we spotted another motorcycle and my rider hooted and waved. “This one will take you to Thika.”

Police harassment

The other rider pulled off the road and we joined him. As we chatted, he revealed that the route I had planned to use was strictly monitored.

“Wako, na wanasumbua sana. Wako na njaa mingi. Lakini kuna njia mingi za kwenda Thika. Utafika tu (The police are there and they are harassing us. They must be very hungry. But there are other ways of reaching Thika. You will get there,” said our new friend.

“How much?” I asked. “Sh500,” he said, so I switched motorcycles.

We left the highway at Kabati and rode past Methi. After a while I lost my sense of direction. But I could see Mt Kilimambogo looming ahead.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“Have you ever heard of Kihiu Mwiri? They killed many people here because of land. We are now in the middle of Kihiu Mwiri.”

I had heard of the place and its bloody history. It was of little comfort when the rider slowed down to show me a spot where two victims were shot and killed.

We rode on and my rider soon flagged down another boda boda.

“Meho? (Are they there?)” he asked, inquiring about another roadblock up ahead. He said if we used the route, I would have to pay them Sh200 and he would have to give them Sh50.

I pleaded that I had run out of money and asked if there was a way around the barricade.

Njia ni mingi (There are many routes),” he said, and we turned back.

Soon we were whizzing between rows and rows of pineapples at the vast Del Monte farm. We rode past the farm’s yard and the packaging plant before he slowed down and turned to break some bad news.

There were two roadblocks ahead and he did not have the money to pay his way through, so I would have to walk.

“Shika 50 kwa mkono na uwaambie umetoka Kabati uanaenda kibarua Thika. Ukipita pande ile ingine, chukua pikipiki hapo watakuweka kwa barabara (Have a Sh50 note ready for the police and tell them you are from Kabati and are going to Thika to do casual work. When you get to the other side, take a motorbike and it will take you to the highway).”

I started walking while thinking why I would give a hungry police officer Sh50 in these hard times. I got to the road block and stopped.

“Unaenda wapi?” asked one officer.

“I am headed to work,” I said, and pulled out my press card.

“Ah, wewe ni mtu ya Standard. Enda!” he said.

I walked on, leaving three other desperate travellers who were pleading to be allowed through.

I could hear the angry roar of River Chania up ahead. If I made it across this natural border between Murang’a and Kiambu, I would be in Thika.

But there was another roadblock just after the bridge.

I crossed the bridge and walked up to an officer who, by the look of his uniform, must have been a chief.

“Where are you going?” he demanded.

“Thika. To work,” I said, and pulled out my press card.

“Where are you from?”


“Why didn’t you use the highway?”

“Because I am working.”

He gave me a strange look, then said: “Wacha niite mkubwa uongee na yeye (Let me call the big man you chat with him) as he waved over a policeman who was standing nearby.

I was asked the same questions and gave the same answers. The officer waved me through and I walked to a group of waiting boda boda riders who said that for Sh100 they would take me to Makongeni.

Suffice to say that by the time President Uhuru Kenyatta was announcing an extension of the 21-day curfew and Nairobi lockdown, I was safely in the city, albeit nearly Sh1,800 poorer.

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