Trucking hell

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April 8th 2009
Published: May 13th 2009
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Metaphor for MoyaleMetaphor for MoyaleMetaphor for Moyale

Sheriff Hotel
The landscape as the bus continues south is plains with a patchy covering of trees, which I know will continue into Kenya. I see a small tortoise crossing the road, which the driver expertly navigates around. At the breakfast stop, a man shouts "China!" at me, which I can only laugh at - it makes no sense to me that with so many people here fans of Premier League football, which features players of every colour and shape, I can be mistaken for Chinese.

A couple from the bus invite me to share breakfast with them. They are Ethiopian but have been living in South Africa for the last decade. Even so, they don't have South African citizenship and the man complains that they have to jump through bureaucratic hoops in order to get back into South Africa every time they leave. He seems resentful of the fact that, as a mere tourist, I can pretty much get into any country I choose. I incorrectly interpret his mood and sympathise at the expense of visas, but he angrily says that money is not the problem - it's documentation. Before we leave, I visit the cafe's toilet - the reek is powerful, but less worrying than the rain-slick approach that means I almost slide into the hole.

The border crossing is quiet and uneventful. I was expecting something busier, as this is the only overland route between the two countries, but it's so dead that the Kenyan immigration officer has to be summoned from his home in order to stamp me in - traffic had been so light that he'd figured it wasn't worth sticking around. He gleefully informs me that, the previous day, the visa fee had dropped from $50 to $25 in an effort to boost tourism, so the foresight I'd shown in buying mine in Addis has turned out to be a mistake to the tune of a dozen beers.

The towns on either side of the border are both called Moyale. Or maybe it's just one town split by the border - I don't know. No border town is ever particularly salubrious but, after an extensive trawl of an online thesaurus, I'm choosing my words with care when I say that Kenyan Moyale is a fucking shithole. I doubt that even a local would disagree with the noun in that description. As I trudge from
Bed bug bitesBed bug bitesBed bug bites

On one of my glutes
the border to the "main square", where I know I will find a hotel, I am approached by numerous touts, all trying to persuade me to buy a bus ticket to Nairobi for tomorrow. From what little Internet research I've been able to do, and from talking to both travellers and locals, I know that the bus defies its schedule (it's supposed to run either daily or thrice-weekly, depending on who you speak to) by departing maybe just twice per month - this is because it won't go unless it's full, which rarely happens. I mention this to the touts and none of them even attempts to deny it, so I don't know why they bothered in the first place.

Instead, most people's route south is in a truck. These vehicles bring groceries up to Moyale from Nairobi, then return with cattle or agricultural produce such as beans - extra income is generated by putting passengers in either the cabin or the back of the truck. The road south from Moyale is supposedly one of the worst in Africa, if not the world - a rutted, dusty, bumpy stretch that lasts for nearly 500km until the appearance of tarmac at Isiolo, with the added bonus of frequent bandit activity along the way. I have read and heard many horror stories about this overland leg and the most comfortable option - a relative term - would seem to be to pay for a seat in a truck's cab. Hence I try to find a driver willing to take me.

I've been warned about the legions of brokers in Moyale that will purchase a "chance" (their name for a seat on a truck) for you for a commission but I decide to cut out the middleman by speaking to a driver directly. Unfortunately no-one can/will tell me where I can find one. I am told to simply hang around in the main square at 7AM the following morning and sort things out then. With no other better alternatives, I resign myself to this approach. I regret not using up all my birr in Ethiopia, as the black market exchange rates are pitiful - I know I'll be unable to change them further south so I have to suck up a rate 20% below the "real" one. The $ rates are also dismal on the black market, but I decide to wait until the bank opens in the morning to obtain some Kenyan Shillings. Wandering around Moyale, I am the only whitie and am constantly approached by either brokers or people who exchange pleasantries and then ask me for money. Young men whiz too fast around the dusty streets on motorbikes.

Dinner gives me an introduction to Kenyan cuisine that - like Moyale itself - I hope is unrepresentative of the rest of the country. The "beef stew" is a strange mix of rice and spaghetti, covered in a watery gravy in which chunks of bone, gristle, and the occasional sliver of actual flesh sit listlessly. At least it's cheap, and whatever protein the stew might be lacking in is no doubt offset by the couple of flies that like splashing around in it. I see another customer with the same dish, but he is eating it with his bare hands.

My night is blighted by the heat of the room, a few mossie bites (the room's windows contain no glass, and the mosquito net has holes in it large enough to admit an elephant), and the worst bed bug attack I've ever experienced. My left buttock in particular
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On my knee
looks as though it has chicken pox. There's also a faint smell of meat throughout the hotel, that doesn't add to its charm. I wake early and head outside at 6:30AM, hoping that I'll be able to conduct my truck-hunting and negotiations without a retinue of touts.

I assume I have found a driver when I see a chap changing the tire on a truck. This assumption appears to be confirmed when he says that yes, he is the driver. Unfortunately, as I find out through trial and error, you HAVE to go through a broker in order to get a seat. And people will tell you whatever you want to hear - I figure out later that this "driver" is actually a broker too. I have only a vague idea of what the price should be so, after some pitiful bargaining, I have an assurance that I will have a cab seat. He tells me not to speak to any other brokers. My business done, I return to my room to wait until closer to the departure time.

As 9AM looms, I check out of my room. The manager attempts to charge me 50% more than the price we'd agreed the previous day. I refuse, partly on principle and partly because of my red-spotted arse.

Outside, I am told that we will now be leaving at 9:30AM. There are several other trucks and many other people milling around. As the only whitie, I attract attention from both passengers and touts. In particular I meet a friendly young pastor, Abraham, who will be travelling in the back of "my" truck to a friend's wedding in Marsabit. From him, I learn that I have paid well over the odds for my seat. Thus when the broker comes to me and demands further money for my luggage and his commission, I point out that he is already making an enormous profit from me so I won't pay any more. I mentally append "You fucking greedy bastard" to the end of this sentence, as my mood is by no means gracious. This travelling is really playing havoc with my language.

Shortly after, Abraham frowns. He has overheard someone say that our truck is going to be cancelled. The broker refuses to confirm this but, ten minutes later, we are told that that is indeed the case. I am given two contradictory and unlikely explanations for this. One is that the driver has to sort something out with the police - which, if true, surely he would have known earlier in the day. The second is that the truck's owner has heard that the road is in bad condition because of rain yesterday and hence he doesn't want to risk his vehicle - this also turns out to be false. Whatever, I now have no ride south.

The broker says that he can put me on another truck but unfortunately there are no cab seats left - instead, he can offer me a place in the back but only as far as Isiolo, as beyond there it's illegal to travel in the back (in fact it's illegal throughout the country, but the police north of Isiolo turn a blind eye to it as it's the only transport option available.) Isiolo is about 15 hours away. 15 hours sitting on sacks of beans in the back of a bucking truck sounds unpleasant but no more so than another night in Moyale, so I accept his offer.

Unfortunately I then learn that bean-carrying trucks are in the minority. My new truck will in fact be carrying cattle in the back, hence the passengers will have to perch on the metal superstructure of poles and bars above them. This is quite a different prospect to what I was thinking, in terms of both comfort and protection from the elements. Plus I have a debilitating fear of heights, and the top of the truck looks a good 50m away. I chicken out, to the exasperation of the tip-seeking man who has grabbed my rucksack and is already atop the truck. Abraham doesn't have the luxury of refusing, as he absolutely has to head south today, so I wish him safe travels as he ascends the side of the truck, the comfort of a bag of beans now just a dream.

Though spending another day in Moyale is not too much lower on my list of least-favourite activities than gnawing off my own leg, I console myself with the thoughts that i) I was able to get a full refund, and ii) I now have much better knowledge of the correct pricing hence can't be ripped off again. A broker tells me that occasionally private vehicles cross the border and will pick up passengers to head south, so if I sit by the road then I may get lucky. Sitting exposed in any place like Moyale is just asking for trouble, so I tell him which hotel I'll be staying in and promise him a tip if he lets me know if such a vehicle comes through. However I've mentally resigned myself to spending another night here then haggling for a truck seat again tomorrow.

Dull but possibly useful info
i. There seemed to be a policy that passengers who had travelled from Addis to Dila would retain their seats for the leg from Dila to Moyale, hence there is no need to turn up early for this second leg.
ii. My yellow fever certificate wasn't checked when I crossed the border into Kenya.
iii. I stayed at the Hotel Sheriff in Moyale, paying KSh200 for a room with all the "amenities" mentioned above.
iv. The bus very rarely runs from Moyale to Nairobi but, when it does, it costs KSh1000 and takes about 33 hours. Buy your ticket from the conductor, not from any of the touts/agencies around town, who will charge you much more.
v. If you want to go in a truck, you can choose between going in the cab (KSh2000 but negotiations will open at KSh3000) or in the back (KSh700, but this is only as far as Isiolo). Note that you will have to deal with a broker in order to get this. Trucks leave supposedly at 9AM and take 15 hours to Isiolo, arriving in Nairobi the following morning. If you're going for the option in the back of the truck, make sure you find out if it's a cattle or a bean truck! You will be asked for an extra luggage fee and commission, which I think you can simply blow off without repercussions.
vi. Spend all your birr in Ethiopia as the rates for converting to KSh at the border are dismal. Note that none of the banks will change the other country's currency. I'd read that some shops in Kenyan Moyale will give you a reasonable rate but no-one knew what I was talking about when I made enquiries.
vii. Note that, in Kenyan Moyale, only Kenya Commercial Bank does FX (e.g. for converting $) - Equity Bank doesn't. KCB's hours are only 9AM-3PM.
viii. There are many transport options from Isiolo so you don't necessarily need to get something all the way through to Nairobi.


14th May 2009

great tabloid picture!
you´ve shown ur class now sir...this should be ur most popular blog ever - not sure what that says about ur other two thousand?
16th May 2009

Telugu Movies Review
Nice Blog sir
15th June 2009

Cat on a hot ... oh, you know
The full saying is: "busier than a cat trying to bury shit on a hot tin roof." Now not a lot of people know that;-) (you still think the caption is accurate?)
11th January 2010

Blog of the year 2009 in the Africa/adventure category
Check this out, :)
20th September 2010
Bed bug bites


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