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Limping into Maralal


Outside, the bus smelt of diesel. Inside, it also smelt of diesel, but more so.

It was deemed to be full when it became physically impossible to cram into it any more people, chickens, bags and boxes than filled the seats, aisles and overhead luggage-racks, even by pushing; and so the driver climbed into his seat, inserted and turned his key, and with a great shudder and a cloud of black smoke, the engine burst into life. Then it promptly shut down again. A second attempt brought nothing but a dry whirring. On the third go the thing got up and running; and so, with an audible crunch, the driver jammed the engine into gear and the bus jerked suddenly forward, sending bystanders scattering and bags tumbling from the racks onto the heads of passengers.

It headed out of the garage and – without first stopping to see if anything was coming – lurched out into the street. Thankfully, many of the oncoming vehicles had brakes in various degrees of working order, and so it was that the bus managed to take the corner and make its way into the flow of traffic, and without any deaths or serious injuries, as far as I could see.

The driver turned around and gave a great beaming smile at his passengers – for a worrying length of time, in my estimation, given that we were moving at a fair lick by now; and then he turned his face back to the front and slammed his foot down on the accelerator, pinning us into the backs of our seats, just in time to cross a traffic-light which had recently turned an attractive shade of red; and just in time to give a cheery wave to the driver of the car that had been crossing the junction at the time, and which, by some miracle, managed to swerve out of the way. And on we went; and at some point in the journey, the driver seemed to have noticed – perhaps for the first time – that the bus was fitted with a sort of stick thing just below the steering-wheel, and that by moving it about into different positions it was possible to cause the engine to make all manner of entertaining noises, from high-pitched metallic shrieks to low, shuddering growls; and that, moreover, these sounds were all accompanied by actions of various kinds, including judders and lurches, near-stops and starts, and sudden, mad accelerations just as someone was about to cross the road in front of him. And given that it was going to be rather a long journey, he took the opportunity to make full use of all of these possibilities, more or less constantly, all the way through the city and out into the land beyond.

The passengers, meanwhile, or most of them, seemed to see what was happening as perfectly normal, as par for the course, as golfers say, and as part and parcel of taking a bus; and they sat back and chatted to each other, or looked out of the windows smiling to themselves, even as chickens and metal cooking-pots fell about their heads.

The journey was scheduled to take some eight hours to cover the hundred miles north to Thompson’s Falls, where we were to meet a second bus; but after we had been driving for about an hour we became aware of a strange metallic wailing noise from beneath the floor, and the bus began to shudder and slow down, and the driver pulled over to the side of the road, climbed down from his seat and opened a large hatch in the aisle between the seats, revealing the grease-encrusted engine, within which was a tube from which a brown liquid spurted directly upwards, as from a punctured artery.

Having satisfied himself that he had discovered the source of the problem, the driver closed the hatch on it, started the engine up again and drove on. We managed to get almost another hour out of the bus before the noise and the shuddering became markedly worse, and we made a second roadside stop.

This time, it was apparent that something was seriously amiss; but the driver was onto it. Rummaging around in his glovecompartment, he pulled out a plastic bag, which he wrapped around the tube. This made an immediate difference. No sooner he had done it than the brown liquid instantly stopped spurting upwards. Instead, it spurted sideways. Or at least, it spurted sideways for a few moments until the bag melted, and then it started to spurt upwards again. But at least something had been done, and that was the important thing, and so we were ready – once the hatch was closed – to set off again.

We drove on, climbing painfully slowly as the land around us rose, the engine shrieking fit to burst, and as we did so we left behind the dust and dirt of the city and its surrounding plains and entered lush farmland where coffee and tea grew. At length, though, we spluttered to a halt, by an iron water-tank on the edge of a village called Nyeri, a place of tin-roofed breeze-block huts. From a church in the village, some fifty yards from where we sat, came the sounds of drumming and singing.

The driver got out and came back with a man with a spanner, who removed the tube and took it away.

There we remained for two hours, while a steadily growing crowd of small children gathered around to watch. Eventually the man came back with the driver, and together they tinkered with the engine until both seemed satisfied, and then they closed the hatch and loaded us all on board, and after three or four false starts got the engine going again, the cloud of smoke sending the children running; and we set off once more on the road to the north.

As we drove on, the land became flatter and drier, with breezeblock and mud-hut villages surrounded by banana trees and fields of tea and coffee bushes becoming fewer and farther between andgiving way, at last, to broad savannah. And once we were truly out, at last, way, way out in the middle of nowhere and away from all settlement, then the bus took its one big chance to do the thing for which it had been rehearsing the whole journey long: it stopped, dead, and packed up for good, and no amount of opening and closing of hatches or wrapping and unwrapping of plastic bags could do anything to coax even the faintest flicker of life from it. That was it, finished.

All there was left for us to do was to get off, pick up our bags, and walk.

The driver stood in the doorway of his bus as we all set off with our rucksacks and our parcels and our pots and our chickens, and waved us off with one last cheery smile.After an hour or so of walking another bus pulled up beside us, loud African music blaring from within. It was already packed to overflowing; packed both with its own passengers and with stragglers from our bus it had picked up on the way. Some people hung from the doors, some sat on others’ laps. Some chickens sat on other chickens’ laps, such was the press within. And yet, somehow, we managed to climb on board.

We spent the night at a cheap hotel by Thompson’s Falls, sleeping on the bare floorboards of a single room, which though it lacked the luxury of a working light-bulb, was nevertheless clean and well kept. And cheap.

Then we took breakfast at the big old colonial-era hotel nearby, eating toast and scrambled eggs and fresh fruit, all delicious and plentiful, and served up to us by attentive uniformed waiters. This also was remarkably cheap, and much to be recommended.

Greatly refreshed, we climbed down to the bottom of the falls and explored the dense forest by the river’s edge, seeing the footprints of a big cat of some kind, before joining our next bus around lunchtime, bound for Thesiger’s home town of Maralal, in the north.

For most of this journey we sat on the roof-rack of the bus, among the luggage, with the hot wind blowing in our faces, and we watched as the land spread out around us became ever flatter and more arid. There came a point at which the tarmac roads gave way to packed dirt. At this point also the appearance and manner of the people changed altogether, as if we had crossed a border and entered another country, where lived a different race.

It was, this place, one of traditional people, of picture-book people: of women in bead collars; young girls in mother-of-pearl headdresses; spear-carrying young men in bright red togas with ochred hair. And also the bearing of them, we noticed, the posture and the stance of them: very upright and very tall, and a look about them as if all they surveyed belonged to them and them alone.

We saw giraffes and herds of zebra also; and at one point we had to stop while the driver got out and flapped his arms at two elephants, which were sitting in the road. On being approached, the beasts heaved themselves to their feet and lurched away, flapping their ears and casting looks over their shoulders as they went.

Maralal means ‘glittering’.

It was so called because of the corrugated-iron roofs of the buildings in its single street, when they were built, of which no one in the area had ever seen the like before; and how they sparkled and glittered in the sun.

Crowds of children had gathered to watch the bus arrive. No sooner had we climbed down than we were surrounded by small boys in shorts, the uniform of the local mission school, wanting to know whether we had anything to give them – sweets, money or the like. Across the street, at a roadside trough, Samburu girls in traditional costume threw water at each other and ran and dodged to escape retaliation, shrieking with laughter.

After some time the crowds began to disperse, and a young Turkana man in Western dress approached us.

‘I am Kibiriti,’ he said, holding out his hand, ‘You are Wilfred’s guests, yes?’

We said that we were indeed.

‘That is good,’ he said. ‘That is very good. We have been expecting you. Wilfred has been delayed, but he has made arrangements for you. He will be here to see you soon. But for now, you come to my house.’

Warwick Cairns ebook, ‘In Praise of Savagery’, is out now and a good read. Get your copy by following these links: Amazon UK, Amazon US.

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