April 22: My Lucky Break Part I

22nd April 2001 |

Over for the first time. Third time, unlucky.

Over for the first time. Third time, unlucky.

Although it goes against the grain to say it, I really don’t think it was my fault.

Of course I was carrying too much weight. Of course my tyres weren’t right for those conditions. And probably I shouldn’t have filled that 43 litre tank.

But then every account I’ve been reading for the last three months has talked about stones. The road from Moyale to Isiolo, they said, is a horrible, bone-shaking, tyre-ripping bed of stones. And I’ve done stones already in Ethiopia, 600 miles of them, and I don’t mind them any more. I know the bike can handle them, and I probably won’t fall off.

On top of that the road was dry. There had been no rain in two weeks. If there was going to be a problem, I thought, it would be the dust, and that really could be difficult if I was made to ride in convoy.

Moyale is at the southernmost border of Ethiopia, and the northern entrance to Kenya. The country is dry savannah, a landscape of thin grasses, termite mounds, and acacia trees, inhabited by giraffe, ostrich, wart hogs, various gazelle-type animals, lions of course, and the Borani tribe.

The Borani live on both sides of the frontier and are semi-nomadic. They live in sketchy dwellings made from brushwood and thatch that can be put up pretty quickly. The women look fine in brilliantly coloured clothes, but are usually bent double under a load of stones, or forage or cowpats, because they do all the hard work.

The men are a lazy lot who keep goats, cows and camels, and stand around all day with sticks prodding their animals out of the way of trucks. This doesn’t prevent them from believing that they are the victims of government abuse and discrimination (which is probably true – almost every tribe in Kenya is). So occasionally some of them go on a rampage and kill policemen, soldiers, and anyone else they associate with authority before disappearing into Ethiopia.

Hence the convoys. There is virtually no danger to pale-faced tourists, in my opinion, but I’m told we have to join the police convoys which are arranged largely to protect themselves and non-Borana Kenyans.

And that, more or less, is the state of my knowledge this Saturday afternoon in the Ethiopian half of Moyale. It is really too much to expect me to remember, after 27 years, that the first part of the road is not stones, but plain, red dirt.

I’ve got a room at the Tourist Hotel because I haven’t seen anything better, and it is situated very conveniently right there by the metal pole that bars the road between the two countries. The room is only moderately awful – a bed and a cold water shower stall. I ask them to replace the missing hook in the ceiling so that I can hang my mosquito net. I haven’t investigated the toilets yet, which turn out later to be unusably horrible. And all this for only $2.30 a night.

My friends at the Tourist (in Ethiopia one always has “friends”) are a tall, slim ex-soldier dressed in blue, and a short fellow rather stylishly dressed in loose jacket, pants and hat, all white, who carries a cane and has an interestingly remote expression.

I know they will both profit from me in ways I don’t even suspect, but they are undeniably helpful. The blue fellow is the one who invited me into the hotel and showed me the room. I thought he worked there, but he’s just a gentle hustler trying to make a few pennies in the tourist industry. He’s alert but pleasant, and useful to the hotel because he speaks good English.

I ask him if it would be possible to phone London.

“Maybe, from the other side,” he says. He is not talking about spirit guides (handy though they would be with Africa’s phone systems) but Kenya. Under his patronage, we can walk under the bar and into Kenya. I see that the sky is now uniformly grey, but not dark. Nobody thinks it will rain.

In a small office run by Asians I try, unsuccessfully, to call the newspaper in London and tell them what I know about the riots in Addis Ababa, and after much fruitless dialling, we return to Ethiopia to meet with the man in white. Between them they roust out the Immigration Officer and the Customs man from their homes and bring them to their offices, so that I can be ready to leave first thing in the morning.

There’s a minimum of formality at this border, just as there was in Metema coming in. In fact there was no customs then at all. When that happens I also see it as a wasted oportunity, but it’s hard to think of anything worth smuggling in from Sudan.

With all the right stamps in my passport, I find that If I want to take advantage of cheaper Ethiopian petrol I need to fill up now because the pumps won’t be working in the morning, so I do that, and then manoeuvre the bike through ruts and rubbish into the back gate of the hotel.

After all this activity there is suddenly nothing left to do. The bike is safely parked, and the three of us are sitting outside the metal door of my room, surveying the squalid hotel yard. Across from us are the stinking toilets, and a tiny hutch where the night guard sleeps. I would do anything not to live in this environment, but for my “friends” this is life.

Tentatively I broach the subject of Kenyan shillings. I am at a serious disadvantage here because, having forgotten to ask on the other side, I have absolutely no idea what they are worth.

“Ah”, says Mr Blue, indicating Mr White. “He is the money changer. You have Birr?”

“What are they worth?” I ask.

“Seven shillings to the Birr,” says Mr White firmly. The Birr is Ethiopian money, worth about eight fifty to the dollar, but I’ve used most of my Birr to buy petrol.
“Actually, I wanted to change some dollars.”

Mr White is looking down nonchalantly at a stone that he’s pushing around with his stick. I observe him with more attention. Mr Blue is nicer, but Mr White is more intriguing. He has created some kind of aura around himself, and lives inside it in a self-contained way.

“How many dollars?” he asks.

“Maybe ten.”

Mr White gets out his calculator. He is not looking enthusiastic. He can’t even bring himself to name the figure, but hands me the calculator. It shows 360. Plainly ridiculous. Even I know that seven eights are fifty-six.

“That’s not much,” I say.

Mr Blue looks sympathetically sad.

“Well, you see, they are not much liking small notes. Fives and tens. That sort of thing.”

It’s got to be a ten or a hundred. I have nothing in between.

“For a hundred,” says Mr White, busy with his calculator, “I can give you sixty-six fifty.”

That’s a spectacular leap upward. I can’t help feeling that it must be somewhere near the true value. And I do want some shillings. The bank is shut and it’s important to have some useable money.

“It’s a good rate,” says Mr White. “He will tell you.”

I glance at Mr Blue, but he says nothing. Even so I eventually agree to the deal.

Mr White doesn’t actually have the money. We walk to the hotel desk where a pretty woman with a hard face listens stonily to his proposition. They speak in Amharic. I imagine they are splitting the profit. Then, grudgingly, she hands over the money, and I go outside to the concrete terrace and order a beer. They don’t have Bedele, my favourite, but Harar is not bad.

Below me is another level, covered by an awning, where several men are pulling small green leaves out of large plastic bags and chewing them. They don’t speak, and have a distant look in their eyes. The leaves are called “chat” and exude a mild narcotic. I’m playing with the comic possibilities of the Tourist Hotel having a “chat room” when Mr Blue suggests I might want dinner.

He knows of a better place, not surprisingly. It happens to be run by his younger brother, but that’s all right too. The kitchen is a hut in the yard. The stove is a bed of glowing charcoal. I like it. It’s clean, and I get a plate of goat’s meat fried with onions and peppers, with bread and a soft drink, all for seven Birr.

While I’m eating Mr Blue takes his leave. He will be back in the morning, he says, and entreats me, with a smile, to remember to reward him for his services. But Mr White has meanwhile appeared to take his place, sitting silently by my side and tracing patterns in the dust with his stick. He evidently wants money too, but I drag it out until we’re back at my room. Then he gets it out.

“You should give me something for helping you,” he says. I grumble a bit, and argue that I’m already paying Mr Blue, but my heart’s not in it. The amounts are so small. So I fob him off with 100 shillings. He declares himself a happy man. I reckon he must have made enough already on the money changing.

It’s time for bed. What else is there to do? I climb under the mosquito net, but the night is terrible. Gradually I become aware of a dreadful smell seeping into the room. I suspect it is coming in from the shower drain, like a poison gas, and that it originates in those ghastly toilets. The stench becomes unbearable. I cannot recall ever being kept awake by a smell before. In my toilet bag I have some scented soap liberated from the Sheraton in Addis, and I sleep with it against my nose.

When I wake it is still dark, and I hear rain falling on the roofs. As I listen the sound mounts to a deafening downpour, and I have my first presentiment of disaster.

“It will probably be just enough to lay the dust,” I tell myself.

Up at first light to pack. The sky is grey and releases sporadic showers. I’m not interested in breakfast, or even coffee. I just want to get out. Mr Blue appears, and I give him 300 shillings, which is plenty, and then I’m under the barrier and into Kenya. Even on a Sunday they are open for business. My visa costs $50 – a new and unwelcome change in the rules – but I can’t get excited over it. Customs for the bike is swift and careless, and the customs officer tells me that with a bike they will let me ride ahead of the convoy.

I ride up the hill for a few hundred yards to where the convoy is gathering. There are many trucks, and I think it would be good to stay in front of them, so I ride out on a narrow, rutted detour that brings me to the road. Police shout at me from a police post, but I shout back and keep going. Then there’s a police barrier, but after a bit they let me through.

“There’s a LandCruiser ahead of you,” they say. ” Try to catch up with it.”

I nod, thinking, “No way,” and go on.

So far there has been no heavy traffic on this road, and though it is wet, the red murran soil is firm and the tyres hold. Encouraged, I put on speed and manage thirty, even forty miles an hour, only rarely feeling the wheel slip a little. But it is all earth, and no stone, and then I come to a part where trucks obviously have preceded me, and the surface is churned up. In places the mud is too deep for too long to risk rushing over it, and I have to almost walk the bike through.

Then, quite unexpectedly, comes the first fall. I can’t explain it. It just happens. The front wheel twists and the back slides over. The bike leans on the box in the mud, and I can’t move it. I take fifteen minutes unpacking stuff until, with all my strength, I can lift it. Finally, after forty minutes, I’ve got it together again, but in the meantime two big open trucks have gone past. Clustered in the top of each truck, presumably standing on the load, are thirty or more Africans. The trucks drive very fast, and they all wave and shout as they pass, but I am not happy to see them. There will be trouble ahead.

Ten or so miles farther on I meet it. Another truck has just passed me. I see it stop, and a soldier gets off. There’s some heavy road equipment at the side, and the soldier joins a man in overalls. I wave as I pass, but immediately confront a long morass of red mud. Gingerly I make my way along a deep tyre rut, but at last I can’t hold it, and the machine overturns completely on its side. As I scramble to shut the taps I see the two men running towards me.

They help me stand the bike up. There is thick mud everywhere, on me and the bike. The soldier asks for money to buy a soda. The road worker tells me he’s about to grade and cover this stretch. He says it continues bad for another twenty miles, and then, after a bridge-building detour, it gets better. Slowly and painfully , I literally paddle the bike through this quagmire and out the other end.

My thoughts are somber. The weather is not lifting, the bike is too heavy, and these tyres, which have been so good so far, are not good for this mud. And it doesn’t help to have sixty pounds of petrol sitting over the front wheel. Nevertheless, the next stretch is not too bad. Then there’s a detour, but it’s come much too soon to presage relief. Down in the gully Africans are labouring and a grey-bearded Sikh oversees them. They look miserable, but he is smiling, a pattern I have seen repeated several times. We exchange banter.

“Are you enjoying yourself?” I ask.

“Not as much as you,” he says.

“You think this is fun? Well, we’ll both be happy when it’s done.”

Another few miles and I get to a junction where a road goes off to Sololo. I have no idea what or where Sololo is, though I will soon find out.

It is already midday, and I have gone less than a third of the way to Marsabit. If the road doesn’t get better, I realise I may have to sleep out. I’ve already resigned myself to it, and decided to take my time. The penalty for falling is too great.

There are khaki-clad police at the junction, and a shop called “Sisters Cafe,” so I stop for tea, and as I’m drinking I hear a motorcycle engine. A Swiss rider pulls in on a Jap dirt bike with the knobbly tyres I wish I had, but unfortunately he’s coming from Marsabit. I would have liked company. He promises me another twenty miles of mud before it gets better, and I offer him more of the same.

When I set off again, I can already see a long stretch of mud ahead. Painstakingly I work my way through it recognising how tiring it is, particularly on the legs, only to encounter another stretch soon after. I am already out of sight of the junction and halfway through the second patch when I lose it, but this time my right foot is in the mud, and the forward motion of the bike drags it under the box before I fall.

It’s very bad. For the first time in my life I hear the snap of bone breaking. Then I’m on my left side in the soft mud with the full weight of the bike pressing down on my boot.

I feel the panic rising.

“Oh Christ! Oh God. You’ve done it now. Oh shit.”

But there’s no time for histrionics. I can’t get the foot out. The lip of the box has caught the boot. I keep pulling, and then wriggle around to get at the toe, trying to lever it and worm it out. At last it comes. I have no idea what’s broken. I can’t feel anything. It must be low down, because above the boot my leg still seems to be in one piece. I can think only of getting out of the road to the side, and I stand up on my left leg and hop around the prostrate bike to the verge, but at one point lose my balance and I can’t help putting my right foot down, twice, only to see it flop over uselessly, a sickening sight, before I fling myself to the ground.

Now what? Sooner or later – probably later – someone will come. Meanwhile, what can I do?

How about pain? I can’t feel a thing, but maybe the shock is protecting me. Surely the pain must hit me soon.

I drag myself to the back of the bike and open the top box. Stuff falls out, including the first aid bag. All I’ve got for pain is Tylenol. Seems pretty inadequate, but I take two capsules anyway.

Then I put the bag under my head, and lay down in the soft mud to wait.

I am very aware of being in the middle of a vast plain populated only by a tribe with a bad reputation, but that doesn’t worry me. I have faith in people. And the junction is not far. Someone will find me. Still no pain.

It’s only five minutes before the children come, a crowd of them, all ages, from four to fourteen. They filter through the bushes on to the road and approach cautiously, fascinated, the older boys in front. One of them holds his hand out and says, “Money”. They all giggle. They see me in the mud, and the bike on its side, and it doesn’t add up to them. I’m a white man, an M’zungo. Maybe this is something M’zungos do.

I shout out “Police” and “Army” and “Sisters Cafe” and “Go, go, go” and “Accident” and “Ambulance,” but the words mean nothing. The girls back off, frightened by my violent behaviour, and still, despite the urgency in my voice they seem to have no idea that there’s anything wrong.

Then I stumble on the magic word, “Doctor”. It didn’t occur to me before. How could there be a doctor out here?

But the boy nearest me, in tan shorts and shirt, repeats, “Doctor.”

“Yes, yes,” I shout. “Get the doctor.”

Hesitantly he moves back up the road.

“Go, go” I shout, waving, and now I think he’s got it. He starts to run, slowly, and I sink back into the mud, too tired to even think what “doctor” could mean to him. Maybe he’ll bring a witch doctor. I don’t care.