The road to Lamu

I sat beside the dusty road and wept.
I’m so sorry
Where was the man on the bike? I wanted to tell him
I’m so sorry
I lifted my head from my knees – a crowd had begun to gather. Where had they come from? So many people so quickly in so lonely a spot. Sad eyes, curious eyes, confused eyes – they looked at me, at us, at the twisted tumble that I had created. I wanted to tell them all
I’m so very sorry
but I could only weep.

Friday, March 13th: 8pm
Pasta dinner. My apartment. Spring break planning meeting.
The four of us sit around my dining room table – Jon and Conny, Jeannine and me. School is finally out and soon we would be heading to the coast. A few days earlier, we had booked a four-day/three-night kayaking safari at a marine reserve north of Lamu. The question on the table: how do we get there? With a map of Kenya spread before us, we discuss options. Fly directly? Convenient but expensive. Take a few different buses? Potentially tedious. Train? Not reliable. Rent a car and driver? Possible … a little cheaper than flying but more flexible than the bus … oh wait. The rental company won’t let one of their cars go to Lamu. Too high a risk. Risk? What risk? Surely the roads aren’t that bad, and there haven’t been reports of banditry recently … at least none that we know of. In any case, that option is out. Hmmm … so what should we do?

Jeannine offers her car. She’s got a Honda CRV that’s been recently tuned up. “I’m happy to let us all use my vehicle. It’s got a clean bill of health and is ready to get a little dusty again. Let’s just agree that if anything happens to it along the way, we’ll split the repair costs. Not that anything should happen of course …” We debate a little longer before agreeing that the car is the best option. We decide a route, divvy up gear and food responsibilities, and say goodnight.

Sunday, March 15th: 6am
Dawn. The curb in front of my gate.
The moon is still high in the milky sky. Headlights pull around the corner of my street. Jeannine pulls up and Conny gets out to help me load my bags. “Is that it?” she asks. “Yep!” I grin. “Wow. Light packer.” Truth is, I didn’t have much to pack. Between the three of them, our gear was covered. The back of the CRV was already full of shared goods: tents, sleeping bags, coolers, water. I throw in my contribution to the group food stash, my back pack and satchel of school work. We were off.

The Nairobi roads are empty on a Sunday morning and we cruise out of town. Before noon we’re at the Garissa turn-off. Why had we planned to stop and camp? At this rate, we could be in Lamu by sundown … that is … if the road ahead is like the road behind. What are the chances?

The gas is getting low. Stations are few and far between. We pull over in one small town but don’t see a station. We ask a man on a bike to show us where to find gas and he beckons us to follow. Three minutes later, we’re in the thick of a settlement. It’s not a village but not a refugee camp – something in between. The women here are veiled and the children are lighter skinned; perhaps part Somali. Jon gets out of the car, and the man disappears behind a gate. A few moments later, he reappears with a large jerrycan. “How many litres?” “How much per litre?” Jon asks. The man names an outrageous amount and Jon doesn’t bother to argue. Five litres. That should at least get us to a real gas station. A small crowd of children and old men gather around the tank side of the car as the gas is poured.

In a few minutes we are back on the road – fingers crossed, hoping for a real gas station a the next town. Though it takes a little exploring, we find a little two-pump gas station in Hola and fill up for a reasonable price.

My turn to drive. I pull out of Hola and the road suddenly changes. What had been patchy tarmac was now red dirt. Not too bad … bumpy and dusty, but manageable.

“Diversion ahead.” With little warning, the road splits. It looks as though the main road is under construction. The dust on our road deepens. “So … what’s the trick to driving in sand? Just keep going right? Don’t stop?” The wheel ruts are at least a foot deep, but the sand is so soft that we rarely scrape the bottom of the car. I plow forward for almost a half hour until I finally loose traction in a deep bank. We step out of the car into ankle-deep sand so fine that it flows like water. Jon, Conny and Jeannine try to push. Everything’s hot – like standing in water that’s about to boil while pushing a metal mountain under an equatorial sun – and the red dust covers everything. The car moves a few feet and gets stuck again. We unload the bags. Another few feet before it looses traction again. A semi-truck comes around the corner ahead of us. Flag them down. Men help push. I’m still behind the wheel. Up on the ridges. Keep going. Don’t stop until flat ground. We carry the bags for a bit. Load back up. Through the dust. The detour rejoins the road. Collective sigh of relief. “Well done Lillis, I’m glad you were driving.” Jeannine and the others look at me encouragingly. Wow, hope I don’t have to do that again any time soon. Maybe it was a good plan to camp after all.

It’s almost 5pm when we pull up to the Tana River Primate Reserve. One of the wardens takes us to the campsite. An open air shower! Eager to wash off the dust of the day, we pitch our tents in a small clearing near the river, open a few drinks and take turns getting cleaned up. It’s dark by 7:30 and we’re in our tents by 8:30. We fall asleep to the sound of monkeys, tree hyrax, and hippos.

Monday, March 16th: 7am
Boat ride on the Tana.
Roll out of the tent, grab a few bites of breakfast, and walk down to the river. Two of the wardens have a motor boat ready to take us on a short ride. We cruise up the river as the sun rises. Herds of hippos lounge along the banks. A few crocodiles are catching the morning sun. We watch for birds. The wardens take us to a farm where they cut some sugar cane, and we suck the sweetness on the ride back.

Strike camp and load the car. Jon knocks the air filter against a tree and we all try to brush the dust out from inside of the car. Who’s turn to drive? Encouraged by the success of yesterday’s sand experience, I volunteer for the first shift. By 9am we’re back on the road. Within an hour, the road turns back into patchy tarmac and we all cheer. Compared to the dirt roads of yesterday, it feels like we’re flying. The windows are down and the ipod is on; the sky is blue and the sun is warm.

12 noon
The road changes again. Now we’re on hard packed gravel. “Ah well, nice while it lasted.” “Lillis are you okay driving? Want to make a switch?” Jon offers to drive. “I feel okay.” I’m not quite ready to switch yet. “Maybe when we find a shady spot we can get out and stretch the legs a bit,” Conny offers. I look down the road. There aren’t many trees on this dusty stretch.

I glance at the speedometer a few times, conscious of the bumps in the road and the stress on the car. I try to find the least bumpy “lane” and find myself once again on the far left.
It happens before I know what is happening.
Soft shoulder.
Rear wheels catch the dirt.
Spin right.
Man on a bike.
Swerve to avoid the man.
Swerve to stay on the road.
Loose control.
Hit the grass.
Snap, crunch.
Suspended by my seatbelt.
A pause.
Then the clamor of voices.
Oh my God, oh my God. Jeannine are you okay? Jon where are you? Conny are you okay? Lillis! Lillis? Can you turn off the car? I can’t move. I can’t reach the ignition – my seat belt is holding me too close. I can’t undo the belt, can’t reach the keys. Jon and Conny have crawled out the back windows. Jeannine is hanging next to me trying to undo her belt. Jon is next to my window. I can’t get my stupid belt off! I shout in frustration. He reaches through the window while I push against the steering wheel. It unhooks – I tumble to the roof of the car and crawl out the window. Two men pull me through. Are you okay? I’m fine! I just … and then I turn around. The car is upside-down in the grass. I walk a few steps before my wobbly legs and the flood of emotion forces me to the ground.

I sit beside the dusty road and bury my head in my knees.
I’m so very sorry.

3 thoughts on “The road to Lamu

Add yours

  1. I’m very sad, that you had to go through something so traumatic. I hope that you are recovered from it now more fully, and that you have had some peace settle over you, and that noone has any lingering effects, physical or emotional.


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