The land was so uniformly flat I could see the foreign contractors a mile to our right. Even flatter than the landscape, the dark tar that spread behind them would become the main route through the ever dryer savannah of Kenya’s north, meaning travellers would no longer have to endure the rough, rocky surface that I was forced to ride over.
Not that there are any travellers on board the battered bus. I’m alone though. There are a pair of soldiers, veterans by the look of them; tissue stuffed into the nozzle of AK47s older than they are. Their presence gives the only indication that we would be leaving the safety of Kenya’s south for what is considered bandit country. The basic and dusty interior is filled with the unusual sounds of Swahili and Amharic, and occasionally the more comprehensible sounds of English.
‘In the UK – the trains!’ my neighbour says in reverie, ‘you can go anywhere on the train. Transport is a big problem in Africa.’ His short hair is turning grey; he reminds me of long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie.
As if to prove the difference between his and my home, a tyre change takes an hour and a half, and means we’re still heading through the thick traffic of the foggy built-up areas of greater Nairobi when night falls.
Passenger comfort is an optional extra no one seems to have paid for. The road goes from unbelievably bad to intolerably worse outside of Kenya’s capital. I’m thrown repeatedly clear of my narrow seat, like a ragdoll; winded, and aching. For hours nothing changes.
The darkness beyond the strip lighting of the bus’s interior means I can’t see the evolution of the landscape beyond Mount Kenya and the equator, towards the elephant sanctuary at Marsabit, into Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, the scenery now spotted with low green conical mounds amid the ocean of brown grasses.
With the first light of morning, dusting the hills with the colour of honey, I’m thrown – again – from my admiration for the landscape. Women wrapped in long dark shawls bend low to collect water with aged-looking yellow-orange jerry cans, donkeys waiting patiently to haul the load back to small villages in the bush. Camels wander among the hills, never straying far from the track, grinding nonchalantly on the tough acacia stems.
We stop for tea – stewed and sweet – in a town of exactly three buildings. I take the opportunity to stretch tired limbs, and relax taught stomach muscles. I’m soon joined by an elegantly-dressed Kenyan girl of my own age.
‘You work in Kenya?’ she asks, pointing vaguely to the empty savannah.
‘No, I’m just travelling around the country, as a tourist. I’m British’ I say.
‘So this is your country too. You helped us map this country; welcome.’ Her kindness after the tough road is almost too much.
‘It’s good you travel by road’ she continues. ‘It’s the only way to really travel and see the country. Otherwise you would miss these beautiful hills.’ It’s as if she has read my mind, channelled my thoughts as to why I was tackling what is tantamount to a rough farm track. It makes the hard 24 hour journey worth every bone-jarring moment.
I M Packham