The highwayman’s safari

Posted on 18 April 2019

Our hellraising columnist will do anything for a beer – or with a beer in hand. Join him on his trip in Kenya.

When I was younger my mother would say to me, ‘Son, you are on the road to hell.’ I would give a carefree laugh, nick another fifty from her bag and head out in search of whatever would help get me to manhood the quickest.

I have since discovered that hell is not a destination. It is, in fact, a road. Specifically, the road from Nairobi to Mombasa.

I set off late, thinking the road might be less busy at night. Climbing into my rented Subaru, I inched my way to the outskirts of Nairobi, reclined the seat a few notches, opened a cold Tusker with my teeth and floored it. Dusk was falling. In a flash, so was I. Into a pothole the size of the Ngorongoro Crater. By the time I drove up the other side, the moon was out.

It wasn’t long before I encountered the first of many, many trucks. He was ahead of me on a blind corner. The driver saw me in his mirror and hit his indicator. At home this means it’s safe to overtake. In Kenya they use it to help oncoming traffic gauge to the millimetre how much space they have before sideswiping each other. I had to take an emergency detour through the veld.

I also wasn’t expecting speed bumps leading into and out of every town. These are not marked in any way. Neither are they the shape nor size of normal speed bumps. These are designed to get your car airborne at anything over 70 kilometres per hour. Several times I took off only to land in a pothole. It was insane. The Kenyan authorities have no idea how dangerous this is when you are trying to drink and drive.

But spillage was the least of it. Hell’s Highway met Dante’s Inferno around about the town of Voi, when I encountered a convoy of trucks evacuating what appeared to be the whole of Mombasa in a single night. I don’t know what they were carrying because their loads were covered with tarpaulins.

My nerves, together with the shock absorbers, were shattered by the time I killed the engine and stepped out beneath a palm tree in the dark heart of Mombasa. I was hit by a tropical fug so thick that my eyes misted up. Fug this, I said, and jumped back into the Subaru just as an anopheles mosquito the size of a cricket ball slammed into my window.

With raw malaria dripping down the glass, I headed at high speed for my beachfront hotel. Veering into the space reserved for important guests, I flung myself from the moving car, broke my fall with a parachutist’s roll and sprinted for reception, where I plunged my head into an ice bucket, then tried to charter a fast-moving dhow to get me the hell out of there. I calmed down when management offered me a purple cocktail and free water sports.

Before leaving Nairobi, I’d read in the East African Standard that DDT was the weapon of choice against malaria, so I picked up a pint from a general dealer in a muggers’ alley near the harbour and used it as mix for my nightcap. The dreams were so vivid that I almost woke up a completely different person. After a Bloody Mary to help restore my bearings, I sloped off through the backstreets of Mombasa’s old town.

As I rounded a corner, a man wearing a fierce beard stepped out of a doorway and approached me. He had a bag over one shoulder and a ceremonial dagger in his belt. I took a couple of steps backwards but he told me to relax and offered to show me something for a thousand shillings.

‘How many shillings to the doubloon?’ I asked.

He smiled from behind his imitation Ray-Bans and tapped his nose. That’s always a good sign, so I followed him into an abandoned mosque and up a spiral staircase so narrow that I couldn’t even turn around. Just as the cold claws of claustrophobia began scratching at my brain, we reached the crumbling minaret and stepped out into the warm sunshine.

My new friend adjusted his dagger and reached into his bag. I went into a defensive crouch. He laughed and pulled out two cold Tuskers.

Every country has its own unique sayings. The Spanish say ‘Mañana’, South Africans say ‘It wasn’t me’ and Kenyans say ‘Anytime is Tusker time.’ Never argue with the locals. Besides, any country where the beer is cheaper than the bottled water is my kind of country.

Text: Ben Troavato

Image by Getty/Gallo Images

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