It must have been day four or five, though I’m not really sure. I was on top of a lorry, sitting on a three-inch wide metal bar that formed part of the frame over the top of the goods below. If you want to travel cheaply in northern Kenya, this is more or less your only option. The trucks head from Isiolo to Ethiopia, then they head down towards Somalia before veering off towards Garissa.
We hadn’t really slept in the previous days. The trucks pass through low-hanging thorn trees, and if you’re not alert you could lose an eye or worse. Being knocked off the top of that truck would be like falling from a cruise ship. I had been garrotted by a low-hanging telephone wire in Masarbit and was taking no chances, and so I was clinging to this swaying, bumping metal bar at 6am, bleary-eyed and trying to stay alert.
The sun would rise in an hour or so, but already the sky was a deep pink at the edges. A truck in that talc-fine dust kicks up thick clouds, and the haze trailed out behind us for miles through the scrub. The lorry was moving slowly but steadily along a trail that was not a road, but which certainly bore the marks of other tires having passed through since the last rains. The engine was in a low gear and just humming as it pushed the wheels over ruts and small bushes.
The glowing horizon was a comfort to me. The driver was a Muslim, and Ramadan was ongoing, so he would have to stop soon to eat before the day ahead. So I clung, and stared at the passing bush. I was drifting off when I saw in the near distance, to the east, a funny bump. It was moving, its head clearly pointed towards our grumbling approach.
It was a cheetah. Sitting like a housecat, tail twitching as we got closer. We drew level and it opened its jaws wide, a hiss not audible over the noise of the truck. I was suddenly awake and staring, and it stared back. I had seen ostriches before, and elephants, but this mottled shape, in the dust and backed by the pink sky, was captivating. Remaining still aside from its scowl, its eyes followed us as we carried on moving away into the bushes towards Garissa.
It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a big cat in the wild (despite living and working in Uganda) and at that time and place it was a lifesaver. Poor Steve (my travelling companion) had been dozing and missed it, and had to put up with my babbling when we finally stopped for tea and roasted goat. I had received my second wind, and when we reached the tarmac later that day it was only the second best bit of the day.