By JOE KIARIE
There is no more tormenting moment that haunts truck drivers than the experience they face on the Voi-Taveta road. Amani Patrick, a Tanzanian truck driver, is a victim and describes the situation as pathetic.
His agony sums up that of any other motorist who has used the heavily dilapidated road over the years. The road, which forms part of the East Africa Community (EAC) Regional Trunk Road Network, is of strategic economic importance to the region. It is meant to link the port of Mombasa to northern Tanzania and beyond to Rwanda, Burundi and eastern DRC through Voi and Arusha. Traders from Tanzania and the highly productive Taveta area also rely on the road to access the market in Mwatate, Voi and Mombasa. Tanzania is among the leading markets for Kenyan products.
‘I would be shocked’
Apart from facilitating cross-border trade through the Holili border point, the road is also used by tourists traveling to Mombasa from Tanzania and vice versa, as well as those going into Kenya’s largest national parks, Tsavo East and Tsavo West.
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But nothing on the road depicts its stature.
Save for a short newly tarmacked section just after Voi, the rest of the road is heavily potholed, with drivers at times forced to drive for kilometers off the main road. The 89-kilometre section between Mwatate and Taveta, which snakes through Tsavo West’s vast grasslands, poses the greatest nightmare due to its loose soil surface. For most motorists, a journey that is supposed to take about one hour normally takes up to seven hours. The slow speed at which they manoeuvre every inch of the road, coupled with the large number of vehicles undergoing repairs by the roadside, explains why.
We meet Amani, who supplies imported construction materials from Mombasa to Arusha, Moshi and Dar es Salaam. He is stranded after his truck broke down near Taveta.
“I have suffered countless mechanical breakdowns on this road,” he laments. “I would be shocked if I make one smooth trip.”
To minimise the breakdowns, Amani, like most other truck drivers, says he now limits his cargo to just seven tonnes.
“Despite this, the truck consumes an average of Sh200,000 on repairs monthly,” he says. “During rainy seasons, I just forget about work.”
At some sections of the road, youths have also taken it upon themselves to seal the potholes and seek handouts from motorists. The absence of a single filling or service station between Mwatate and Taveta compounds motorists’ misery.
Criminals have taken full advantage of the situation to terrorise motorists. Gerard Kariuki, a turn-boy with Amazon Ltd, transports cooking salt from Mombasa to Taveta and carries farm produce on the way back. We find him stranded, at Msituni area near Maktau, after their lorry suffered a broken axle in the dead of the night. Having safely spent the rest of the night in the cabin, he counts himself lucky.
“Robbers often attack and steal oil, batteries and other vehicle parts. They also capitalise on the slow speed to rip apart the canvas and offload goods,” he says, singling out Maktau area as a hotspot.
Kariuki was on the receiving end only a month ago, when the lorry overturned as it negotiated a pothole at Salaita area near Taveta. Tourists, especially those accessing either the Tsavo West National Park or the Sarova Salt Lick Game Lodge through Mwatate have not been spared the anguish. A few kilometres to Mwatate, a group of five German tourists headed to the lodge from Mombasa wander around as mechanics fix a puncture on their van.
“This happens almost every time I use this road,” fumes Saidi Auguste, the driver guide. He says most tour drivers avoid the road, opting for the longer but smoother Namanga route to enter Tanzania. Mr Julius Kimani, a Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) Senior Assistant Director, says the poor road condition has equally effected wildlife conservation. “During the recent rainy season, I had to open up almost 60km of the park to motorists at Maktau as the road was totally impassable,” he says. “Transport of KWS supplies to Taveta and Jipe stations was impossible. I personally had to fly to Taveta but not everyone has this privilege.” Amani and others dream of getting to the Tanzanian side of the border: once there, one is welcomed by smooth tarmacked roads.
Motorists can finally anticipate smoother rides after the African Development Bank (AfDB) recently approved loans of Sh19.5 billion for the construction of the 157.5-kilometer road project from Voi to Taveta and further to Arusha through Holili.
A project of the EAC is set to commence next year and be completed by December 2018. Kenya will receive Sh9.4 billion of the loan approved by the AfDB board in April, while Tanzania will be awarded Sh10 billion.
In Kenya, the funding will help upgrade the Taveta-Mwatate road, construction of a 12km Taveta Bypass and build two roadside amenities, each at Bura and Maktau. Work is currently underway to make the road motorable.