The truth is, I think it was my fault. I wasn’t driving but I was riding shotgun. The rules of the road say that if you are in the number two seat and you get stuck, then it’s probably your fault. You should have warned the person at the wheel.
I didn’t. Turkana’s Chalbi desert isn’t just an expanse of cakey mud with endless cracks in perfect symmetry. There’s a side of it that looks like any other desert, with sand dunes as far as the eye can see. There’s a road through it. The problem is, you can’t see it.
The rookie in the desert was now riding shotgun. It looked like a normal patch of sand until the Land Cruiser hit it and skidded, then settled. Any attempt to drive out, Njoro sighed, would just be digging ourselves further in.
Unlike mud, sand is easy to dig, but the more you dig, the more stuck you get. The secret is to dig and free the differential so the wheels can work together. Getting to it without a spade is impossible.
The first brilliant idea, after we’d dug with our hands to no avail, was to use makeshift spades. So we cut bottles into two and use them to scoop sand. But that didn’t help much.
So here we were: a team of scouts, models, photographers, producers, and a lone, skinny writer. Our skills were more suited to an art fair than a real-life situation such as this.
We shouldn’t have been there actually. Njoro, our driver, had been trying to get us to heave the desert before it got dark. It was the only time in the 13-day road trip that I saw him flush with anger.
“Guys! We need to go!” Silence.
He tried again. “The desert is not to be trusted, guys.” We ignored him.
Halima, the model up there on the sand dune, with her dera blown by the wind and the sun setting in her background, was the perfect muse. The photographers were in love and wouldn’t stop clicking.
I, on the other hand, was somewhere out there writing my name on the sand. At some point, when I’d walked far enough and couldn’t see the rest of the team, it hit me that this felt like the beginning of every survival movie – the sequence of little mistakes before the big one.
As the sun dipped, we set off. We’d been on the desert road barely 20 minutes when we hit the patch of sand that would be home for the next few hours.
Halima called home. Playing on our fears, she started talking about the animals of the desert. What if a scorpion were to come, she wondered. She’s heard of hyenas in these areas, she added. Then she laughed her head off and started singing. We dug faster.
Two hours in, we stopped to rest. This magnificent car, built for ruggedness and survival, had become a slave to the desert. She was now lying even deeper in the sand than before.
“Perhaps we should sleep here,” someone suggested.
Njoro gave a bitter laugh. “Have you ever slept in the desert?”
Without proper supplies, we knew, an entire night out in the desert wouldn’t be as romantic as we all thought.
Meanwhile, Halima had managed to call for help from her hometown in North Horr.
Our saviours, all three of them, arrived on a motorcycle. Crucially, they were carrying spades.
The mood finally lifted. We now had the right tool, and at least three people who understand how to beat the treachery of the desert.
Still, the sand was refusing to let go of the Cruiser. We’d tried everything at that point, but someone had to keep digging. We took turns under the car. If we had to sleep in the desert, it wouldn’t be because we hadn’t tried.
Then a spade broke. In such a situation, two things happen. One, a sense of curiosity takes over, making you want to see where this night goes, so you can write about it later.
The second is that you finally start believing Halima. You don’t want to be the one dragged off into the wild by hyenas. Hyenas crush bones. Only your sand-filled clothes would be left. And maybe the notebook.
As I thought about this, the car finally broke free. There was a glow in Njoro’s eyes, quickly replaced by the realisation that we weren’t truly free yet. There was still an hour of desert to go.
Back in the car, my eyes were now fixed on the road, calling out suspicious sand surfaces as I saw them. I was finally the navigator I should have been when I claimed this seat.
From the back, someone said: “Njoro, drive like you are alone in this car.”
Without responding, he did exactly that.
On the rooftop, our three musketeers screamed with glee as we cruised through the desert.
Morris Kiruga blogs about travel, culture and more at owaahh.com
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