Kenya: Keep on trucking

"Are you comfortable?" the gentleman next to me asks."Are you being ironic?" I reply, with perhaps a little too much resentment in my voice.Nothing can quite prepare you, or your body, for riding the top of a truck in northern Kenya.

By Lottie Gross
Published 20 Nov 2012, 16:34 GMT, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 11:49 BST

We're trundling along a dirt track, littered with rocks and potholes, that stretches 155 miles from Marsabit to Moyale. Having waited on the truck for what seemed like an eternity in the burning sun, the relief to finally be on our way proves short-lived. We soon discover being on the road is even less comfortable and a lot more exhausting.

This enormous and relatively untouched area of Kenya is grossly neglected in the mainstream guidebooks. The north of Kenya is a fascinating collection of tribes, cultures and languages in a scattering of charming towns and villages ripe for exploration.

Atop the truck, the metal bars are unforgiving on my bony bum, I've dust in every visible crevice and everybody is clueless about our estimated time of arrival, even the driver.

Yet there's something special about watching the sun setting over the Chalbi Desert. I'm wistfully reminded of a scene from The Lion King.

My fellow passengers — mostly men, young and old — are all Kenyan nationals, bemused by the sight of the two mzungu (white) girls accompanying them on their journey.

While the two of us chat to pass the time, they relentlessly chew mirra. This narcotic shrug is a big part of life in northern Kenya; its presence guaranteed on almost every cargo truck, regardless of its destination.

Later that night, the truck finally grinds to a halt, unannounced, in a small village called Torbi. The accommodation here is basic to say the least and the noise of the stray donkeys, cats and dogs ensures we never forget we're not alone.

After just a few hours' restless sleep our unpredictable journey continues, only to sees us pause again, 30 miles later. This time it's the small town of Sololo, and to my surprise we're here to deliver relief food supplies.

As we enter the town, a small lake by the roadside is the first sign of fertile land. There are buildings made from concrete, small plantations of crops and grassy areas with an abundance of birds and deer.

After riding the barren and dusty road to Moyale, Sololo is a diamond in the rough. The imposing mountains that surround this community make it a refreshing and beautiful place. Very few settlements in the north are as fortunate and flourishing as Sololo.

In stark contrast is the town of Kalacha, a 187-mile drive from here. There are perhaps only 10 buildings made of concrete, all of the homes are manyattas (huts), made of anything the occupiers could lay their hands on, and there isn't a speck of green in sight.

Cultivation is not an option here, as the water is too salty; vegetables simply can't grow. Government healthcare is almost non-existent and the missionary hospitals are expensive.

Kalacha is among one of the driest, hottest places in Kenya and it serves as a harsh reminder that even in the most charming setting surrounded by the friendliest people, life is often unfair.

When we set off again, our truck is empty and noticeably faster. As we drive onward in the daylight hours, I see the changing landscapes of the north. We've come from red dust in Marsabit, through the yellow sands of the desert and now trees and small shrubs line the road.

In the distance is a tall set of blue-tinted mountains, rising dramatically on the horizon. It's not far beyond these mountains that our final destination lies.

When we finally arrive in Moyale, I'm grateful but already feeling nostalgic. I'll have to say goodbye to these men — my new friends, with whom I've shared this memorable journey — and in a few days' time, board an entirely new truck to take me south again.

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