In 2016 I was commissioned by a large oil exploration company to do a road survey in the counties of Kilifi and Kwale. These two counties are coastal, one just a bit North of Mombasa and the other to the South. Every day for two weeks I would get up at 5 am and drive up the main Mombasa-Nairobi road to a place called Mariakani which was the starting point for the survey. My team would then head off in different directions into the bush to check the roads making sure they were passable for large trucks, we also noted the schools and other features which might affect the vehicles.
The main road to Nairobi is not in the best of conditions, it has loads of potholes the whole length, the main traffic is large trucks and buses that head either from Mombasa to the whole of East Africa or are returning to Mombasa. If any of you have watched a Mad Max movie, you will get a general idea. The police force of Kenya is largely ineffective in this area, it is no fault of the officers they do their best to try to keep everyone under control. It is mostly the fact that you can easily buy a driver’s license for any kind of vehicle, so most of the drivers never get old enough to actually learn to be safe on the roads.
The general rule of thumb is to overtake as often as possible, another rule is he who is biggest has the right of way.
So, I am driving along this road every day, up and down we are either going at seventy miles an hour or we are stopped, there is very little in between.
On this particular day, we had to head thirty miles further West along the road towards Nairobi, as soon as we left the town of Mariakani we were in gridlock. Now when you hit a gridlock situation on the road to Nairobi it most certainly does not mean you must stop, sit and wait for the traffic to start moving, this is considered as just stupid. When you are jammed between two twenty wheeler lorries with forty-foot containers on the back, you would think it best to sit and wait, well that is not what happens here. First, you wiggle your vehicle back and forward until you can just poke your nose out, if the oncoming lane is free, when I say free I mean a car Is not racing towards you right now! Then you go for it, racing along the wrong side of the road for as far as you can. Smaller cars and motorbikes coming in the other direction have to veer off the road, it is only when you come up against a bigger car or a lorry you must veer off. Now here you have two choices, one to just drive off the road and into the bush and try to keep going, the second is to try to force yourself back into your lane. This is harder than it seems, giving way in Africa is just a sign of weakness and should never be done, if you are lucky you might get a half spot, this means you can enter and then exit again on the other side of the lane and into the bush once again.
Try to imagine this happening at about 50 miles an hour, and everyone is doing it including the trucks, then you might be able to picture the scene. We are dodge balling along the wrong side of the road, then we come up against a huge eighteen-wheeler barreling down on us, he had no intention of stopping, he probably couldn’t anyway brakes are for ‘pussies’! We can’t go further right as we are blocked by a massive drainage ditch, so we swerve to the left through the lane of lorries which are stationary and into the ditch on the other side. We come up behind a massive fuel tanker, the driver has decided to do some off-roading along the bank on the side of the road, he is driving slowly but gradually the gradient of the bank is getting steeper and steeper. Our driver just stops and says, “Oh Shit”. The driver of the tanker realizes that he has maybe pushed his luck a bit far he opens his door and jumps out, leaving the tanker to carry on alone, maybe it will make it through! Then it happens, the wheel that is highest on the bank starts popping off the ground. We all stop and watch as the long heavy tanker slowly twists as the center of gravity bounces the wheels higher and higher, then the twist becomes more pronounced, it takes control of the whole thing and the vehicle elegantly flips onto its side, like a beached whale. It topples over and landing gracefully flipping the tractor unit too then slides another ten feet along the dirt with the remaining momentum.
The driver knows his career is over so legs it off down the road. As is the case in Africa, if you have ever seen the movie with Nicolas Cage, ‘The Lord of War’ where the aircraft lands on a remote road in Africa and all the people seem to come from nowhere this is true, it has amazed me on many occasions. In front of our eyes, people started to materialize with anything from a soda bottle to twenty-liter jerry cans. Within minutes someone had broken the padlock on one of the taps, and the harvest had begun. Queuing in East Africa is not really something that is considered to be essential etiquette, so it turned into a free for all. Women, Kids old and young came to harvest the Kerosene from the tanker, people were walking away soaked in the stuff, soon motorbikes were arriving with more people all with jerry cans on their heads, coming for a bit of the free fuel harvest opportunity gifted to them by Total.
We were held up as the mass of people soon grew into the hundreds, we had our fire extinguishers out incase anyone caught fire, but thankfully it ended happily. Within an hour the tanker had been sucked dry and lay just an empty carcass on the side of the road, like a poached elephant. The people had taken the fuel and wandered off back into the bush, all that was left was the very strong smell of Kerosene on the wind. I think it was at this time the Police arrived.
Another day in Africa.
Steve Braker Blog Post Author and Travel Writer.