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Hard lessons through 1,135 kilometres and 3 days to Mandera

By Daniel Wesangula | February 22nd 2015

By the time you get to Mandera (from Nairobi) 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.

Day 1: Nairobi-Garissa

We leave Nairobi some minutes to 9am, clueless on the kind of journey ahead of us. None of us – the photojournalist, driver nor I – has 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, 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 to buy several empty plastic 20-litre jerry cans and fill them with fuel. We had been warned against travelling with 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 lies ahead.

Day 2: Garissa-Rhamu

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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 400km 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 an endless supply of pebbles that are in constant collision with the car’s underbelly. The vegetation is made up of acacia trees and thick layers of dust. Occasionally, a raised water pan pops out of the horizon, ready to embrace caravans of camels and tribes of goats plus their herders who have walked 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. Then one gets to Shimbirey and sees 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 50km we get to Dujis Town. No stopovers.

Next is Afwein, then Maalimin and then Todgab, Jilango and Modogashe. Still no need for a break, so we proceed to Sericho, then Habaswein. We are 585km away from Nairobi. No time for stops, so we proceed to Guticha, then Lagbohol, Boji, Leheley then a white earth road ushers us into Wajir town. We make a quick stopover to get blood flowing into the legs again. We do not 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 away 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.

“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, and 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. We see some gulley on the road and the driver brakes. Most of the time we do not see them. 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 distant, we feel some relief. This is Rhamu town. We have come 1,055km since we left 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 are long subdued. The darkness, the bad road and rabid imaginations ensure we stay the night.

“Wapi ile hoteli yenyu mzuri kabisa mtu anaweza lala? (Where can I find the best hotel in town),” one of us asks the first person we see.

He duly obliges and instead of giving us directions, as you would expect, insists 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 know is that it is 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 (Its better for you to sleep outside as it is extremely hot inside),” says our host.

Mattresses are hurriedly put on beds and covered with thin polyester bed sheets. A wire runs across the block shaped building’s verandah. On it, mosquito nets are hang. One of us chooses to sleep inside a room. At that time, the wisdom in his decision is not obvious to us.

So after a meal of rice and boiled beans, we call it a night. At around 4am, two of us are wide awake. Looking for our hosts and demanding extra bed sheets. The temperatures have dropped significantly.

Day 3: Rhamu-Garissa

We leave Rhamu at 6am. An hour and a half later we get to Mandera. We have covered 1,135 kilometres so far, consumed copious amounts of water, and today we feel what Vasco Da Gama must have felt when he docked in Malindi.

Soon, however, 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 may, but just barely.

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