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Bandits! (The Lake Turkana Road Part III)

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It was about on day two that the bushes on our rear suspension failed. Long suffering, these rubber buffers prevent a metal on metal clash in the suspension components. Although this didn’t halt our progress, it made us wince every time we hit a medium to large bump, which happened about every three seconds. It did nothing for our confidence as we had days of off road still to drive, and it sounded as though the car was falling apart! Fortunately Land Rovers are built of stern stuff, and Tess struggled on.

We pulled into Loyangolani, the first convincing Kenyan settlement towards the south end of the lake with two flat spares. We breakfasted, wincing despite ourselves as the gomister (tyre repair guru) bashed our tyres off the rim with a sledge hammer. Punctures fifteen and sixteen. I did a complete double take as a young man wandered past wearing the Exeter University rugby team strip. I recognised it from a hundred yards, as several of our friends played for the university during medical school. He had bought it from the local shop, and had no idea why I was so excited – garments are purely functional here, and he spoke not a word of English. I returned to my chapatti and chai and wondered whose footsteps we were following.

We were a full four days drive into Kenya before we found ourselves on a road that could be classified as having two carriageways. We were unpleasantly surprised to find ourselves on the wrong side of the road when a great pickup full of jackfruit came tearing around the corner. There was barely time to wonder at the irony of this given the amount of times we have rounded corners in Africa to find our carriageway occupied by something with big momentum and small brakes. We swerved back to the left for first time since England, and rattled on our way.

 Bandits! (The Lake Turkana Road Part III)

Team beer on Dan’s Birthday (Photo: DN)

We found a particularly beautiful riverbed surrounded by acacia trees and steep hills. The shadows were lengthening and we had business: it was Dan’s birthday. We turned ‘upstream’, away from the deserted road, and slid our way into the forest. There in the safety of the bush, we celebrated with precious Ethiopian beer, cherished single malt, and well travelled Swiss fondue.

We set off late the next day, perhaps not as sharp as usual after the celebrations. As we passed west of Baragoi at the southern end of the lake, we were waved through a fairly significant military checkpoint. There’s a heavy military presence up here, and we read no significance from its existence. A few more kilometres and one of the Swiss’ tyres falls victim to the sharp rocks on the track. Well practised, they swapped over their wheel while we made the team some coffee (just what you need in the midday heat!). We crouched in the six inches of shade that the car threw this close to the equator, and waved as a church group passed in a Land Cruiser, priests in the front, children leaning cheerfully out of the back. We commented on its passage as even this far into Kenya another vehicle on the road was still a noteworthy event. I saw Bass and Michael, one of the Swiss, exchange glances and a raised eyebrow as we packed up, but thought nothing of it, as none of us really understand how Bass interacts with anyone.

As we rounded the next corner, barely two minutes after the church group, we knew something was very wrong. A hundred yards ahead, the Land Cruiser lay was splayed at an odd angle, its doors swinging. The children huddled in the back, and we could see the priest and driver sitting by the car, head in hands. We stopped, and took a moment to scout the situation. This was setting off all sorts of alarm bells. This was perfect ambush territory.

We approached cautiously, game faces on, hearts thumping. There was thick vegetation on each side of the road, good cover for villains. I could see bullet holes aplenty down the side of the Land Cruiser. There was an oil spray from the engine block. The windscreen was shot out, as were the back windows. We crouched by their car.

 Bandits! (The Lake Turkana Road Part III)

Bullet holes in the children’s compartment (Photo: DN)

The priest greeted us eagerly: he had a split brow, and was nursing his arm, which was cut and bleeding. We quickly asked about casualties. None hit, both adults assaulted with rifle butts and robbed. Six bandits, AK47s, they had apparently fled. There were two children missing, who had run off into the bush.

We herded the group towards our Land Rover, and squashed them inside or planted them on the roof. We made the executive decision to go for back up before searching for the two that were lost to the bush. Speeding across the rocky piste with eleven people aboard really put Tess through her paces. We passed a band of men, perhaps seven strong, all with rifles on the road about a kilometre back. They looked at us innocently; we could see no animal herds nearby, no reason for them to be together and armed. They chose to ignore our passing. We made it back to the military block unscathed. Afterwards, I thought again about this unknown platoon, who could so easily have turned on us. How can you tell the difference between an armed shepherd and a roving robber? Fighting any guerrilla war must be impossibly difficult.

Inside the car, the mood was business. The children had recovered somewhat, and sat quietly. We have not a drop of military training between us, but thankfully we’re all used to being in high pressure situations because of our jobs, and this kept our heads cool. We piled out, and quickly informed the officer in charge of events. He explained that this was a trouble spot (although they had neglected to mention this to us at the roadblock!), and that they frequently had fatal attacks on this road. They did not have any vehicles at that outpost however, so they would have to use our two cars and a third volunteer who needed to pass through. We were dispatched back with a roof full of soldiers, the priest, the driver, and the children. The Land Cruiser was as we had left it, a sadly disabled hulk. The soldiers fanned out to form a perimeter. Looking again, I realised how lucky the occupants had been. There was a hole through the cab two inches about the driver’s head rest, and holes throughout the back compartment. The children must have hit the deck at the sound of the first shot, otherwise many of them would have been hit.

 Bandits! (The Lake Turkana Road Part III)

A soldier perches on Tess as we rig up a tow rope (Photo: RWH)

The soldiers asked whether we would tow the Cruiser to the next town, 30km west. We agreed that we would try, given that it meant we would also have an armed escort for that leg. Rigging up a tow ling took minutes thanks to a medical degree misspent rock climbing, and we crawled away, leaving two soldiers to continue the search for the missing children. We never found out what happened to them, but no more gun shots were heard after the initial assault, so we can only hope for the best.

I had planted myself in the driver’s seat of the Land Cruiser. There’s quite an art to towing off road, a recoiling cable breaking windows is not unheard of, and I wanted to be responsible if we damaged Tess. Two bullets had gone right into the engine block, and I knew that turning the engine over would just damage it further. Tess crawled forwards, puffing on the incline with Dan at the wheel, and we started to move. The strap would go suddenly slack as we descended a rise, then slap taught again. It required our full attention. We were wired.

The tow seemed to last forever as we ascended and descended rough hill passes. The priest described how they had rounded the corner and six men had opened fire without so much as a warning. The car had stalled and rolled to a halt, and the men had advanced brandishing their guns. They had taken all valuables at gun point, hitting the adults with their rifle butts. They had scarpered, just as we had rounded the corner.

I was assembling this story piecemeal, as I concentrated on the towing. I could hear the children talking in low voices through the bullet hole behind me. That missile would have gone straight through my head had I been driving; luckily Kenyans tend to be a few inches shy in height. Ahead I could see the Land Rover slipping and skidding on the loose rocky roads, and at one point I could clearly see chunks of rubber been torn from our rear tyres. Those aged and cracked shoes had served us well, but 15,000 miles, 16 punctures, and one blow out later they were finally giving up the ghost. When we eventually limped in to the town the steel bands were visible in more than one. We were thanked by the church, but departed shortly, conscious that we still had a fair way to go and darkness was falling.

That evening we camped on the shores of Lake XXXXXX. It was a sober group that sat around the fire and sipped a much needed beer. We could not dismiss the idea that it was our cars that the bandits were after, that they may have had a friend phone ahead from the village we had just driven though. Their spoils would have been a hundred fold had they targeted us instead. We were shaken by the days experiences, but not as much as we should have been. I don’t think any of us has let the reality of how near our miss was sink in – after all, we still have three months to spend in this continent. We retired to bed early, Bass and I in our tent, Dan and Dario in the Swiss’ roof tent, Michael in his hammock. I fell into a deep sleep, exhausted.

 Bandits! (The Lake Turkana Road Part III)

A raunchy young bull hippo (Photo: DN)

Although Africa has a reputation for having a relaxed pace of life, sometimes it can push you to your limits. At about three AM (why does everything happen at three AM!?) I was jerked awake by a hand slapped over my mouth. Bass was rigid beside me, and even as I tried to protest I was shaken by an ear splitting roar from just outside the tent. Sticking our eyes to the corners of the tent, we could see a young bull hippo about nine yards away, bellowing to its floozy along the shore in some sort of antisocial courting ritual. We could see Michael in his hammock behind it, trying to think himself into the landscape. These creatures kill more people in Africa than any other, by quite some margin. They are terrifying. The hippo took a minute to ponder our existence, moving closer to the tent and rippling the very fabric of the air with his snorts. At length he decided that his hormones were more important than his curiosity, and he stomped off in the direction of the distant bellowing female, his four ton body weight squelching great holes into the mud as he did so. Dan and Dario lay giggling in the sanctum of the roof tent, but the rest of us were too tired and shocked to communicate. We lay back without a word, blissfully comatose until the morning.

The joy with which we celebrated the advent of Kenyan tarmac was testimony to our knackered suspension. Its clunking had worsened bump by bump, and we were on day twelve by now. We slipped Tess back into High Range and turned west. Slowly civilisation started to win back. Nomads became few, homesteads frequent, and market towns appeared on the horizon. The density of AK 47s dropped off too, much to our relief. We exchanged rocks for lorries, and by the evening of the second tarmac day, we had joined the freight train of lorries that snake their way from Mombasa to Kampala. We were headed towards Uganda, the ‘Pearl of Africa’, and rain.

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