Wild life

White-knuckle ride

15 May 2010

10:00 AM

15 May 2010

10:00 AM

Rainy Season on the Cattle Stock Route

From the side of the track, a Samburu youth waved me down. I stopped the vehicle. He was gorgeously dressed for market day: all feathers, beads, disks of aluminium, with ochre on his head and bare shoulders. He wore in his beaded belt a stabbing sword in a leather scabbard. In his left hand he carried a herding stick and metal-headed knobkerrie. In his right was a long spear with a teardrop blade at the point, and this he hid in the branches of a wait-a-bit thorn tree for safekeeping until his return. He loped towards me, spat in his palm and shook my hand. He asked for a lift and I told him to get in. I was on a supply run to town.

In the back I carried empty butane tanks, crates of empty beer and soda bottles. It had rained overnight. Near the Lolldaiga hills the black cotton soil had turned to sticky mud along the track, which curved in a series of sharp bends. I fought with the wheel as the 4×4 skidded, but reckoned I had the hang of it and drove at a respectable speed. Next to me the young Samburu chattered away. His cheerful warbling made me laugh so much I took my eye off the road as we turned too fast into a sharp bend.


At that moment a Kikuyu market lorry came hurtling towards us, horn blaring, metal parts clattering, tyres churning. What stays in my memory is the motto emblazoned on his windscreen: LIFE IS SHORT — PRAY HARD. We were both out of control, but the lorry was bigger than me. To avoid getting squashed I spun the wheel hard to the left. We hit the ditch next to the track at speed and flew over that. On the other side we rammed a steep bank and zoomed up it like a stunt skateboarder. The Kikuyu lorry roared past on the other side of the ditch and kept on going. I steered hard right in an attempt to avoid flying over the bank, hoping to get back on to the road.

The vehicle’s nose spun into the turn but I could feel the leftwards momentum forcing us into a roll. At this point I realised that I was strapped into my seatbelt — but my passenger was not. We cartwheeled upside down on to the roof, dislodging all the kit in the back. Bottles, gas tanks, crates and car tools flew everywhere. As we continued to roll I got a split-second sense of bright sunshine. The cabin roof had ripped off entirely. In the next split second my hitchhiker got sucked away like a pilot in an ejector seat. He vanished completely. I had no time to wonder where he had gone, or if he was being crushed or decapitated. The vehicle went into another 360-degree roll. This time when we hit the roof there was no cabin top to hold the body rigid. The impact burst the windscreen and side windows. What was left of the car interior filled with a blizzard of glass shards and exploding bottles. The next instant the vehicle landed upright on its tyres once more and at last came to a halt.

We had rolled twice completely and I felt sure I had been injured. I was holding on to the steering wheel and I only slowly became aware that I had miraculously escaped any injury except for a speckling of cuts from tiny slivers of glass lodged in my hair and clothes. Right away I thought, ‘But where’s the Samburu boy?’ I feared the worst. ‘The car’s squashed him!’ At that moment I saw the youth standing next to the car, roaring with laughter. He had miraculously been flung clear from the open roof of the spinning vehicle and landed on his feet. He had not a scratch on him and stood there languidly with his beads and ochre, herding stick and knobkerrie.

It took a couple of hours to get the car back on the road, using a jack to bend back torn and buckled body metal. Luckily the steering was alright and the chassis appeared to be undamaged. The black cotton mud had cushioned our rolls. As we trundled into Nanyuki town without windows or roof, I felt sorry for my hitchhiker, whom I had nearly killed. But when I stopped to let him out of his now twisted door before heading for the garage he thanked me with a huge grin. He said he had enjoyed himself and when I was heading home, would I please give him a lift. 

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