Getting Around Athi River Traffic on Mombasa Highway on the Way to Kitui
Wherever you go, you can’t avoid it. It’s a phenomenon that when you get on the highway, everyone else gets on at exactly the same time! And when the highway you’re traveling is one lane each direction; you have to share with massive trucks, hundreds of cars and matatus; and it’s Christmas — you best be prepared for anything.
We finally started our journey to Kitui for Christmas. It started off easy enough. Nothing like driving back from the coast [still the worst traffic ever]. We’re rolling, and the sign hung on the walkway over Mombasa Highway just as you get to Athi River should’ve been an omen.
Within minutes, there’s a line of cars, none moving, stretching into the horizon. No movement moving forward and no cars coming in the opposite direction. Nothing. Everyone’s confused. Traffic can be bad in Kenya, especially Mombasa Highway, but not like this. This was a bad sign considering we just got on the road and could see cars literally to the end of the earth.
As we sat there, I knew it was just a matter of time before Kenyans did what Kenyans do when stuck in traffic. And any Kenyan reading this knows exactly what happens next.
It started with one person, running out of patience and making a break for it.
Then the fun began…
Soon dozens of cars made a break for it. Unlike in America where there’s a curb of a few inches discouraging people from risking damaging their car, in Kenya, everything is game. Just slide off the road, roll down the hill and who needs asphalt?
Then coming out of nowhere was some competition. A herd of cows. Then again, let’s just all share.
As an American, riding along the dirt road beside the highway, it’s really a surreal experience. In America, you’re going to jail. In Kenya, you’re just being innovative. And while you’re riding along, you’re thinking it’s only the crazy ones doing this, but then you look around and there are whole families dodging mud puddles and bumping along. There are buses coming down the hill, looking like they’re going to flip over, but it’s obviously not their first time and soon they join the line.
Seriously, it’s simply chaos yet so normal. If we were back on the pavement, motionless, baking in the sun, I would’ve felt lame not climbing down the hill and joining the other cars. And because there was no traffic coming from the other direction, the highway turned into a two-lane, one-way highway. Every now and again when a car did come down the road, it turned into a three-lane, get-in-where-you-fit-in highway.
And, amazingly, absolutely no road rage!
There are some challenges to riding on the dirt road, though. There were some police vehicles with lights and cops waiting for those coming down the side road. You think they were there to direct everyone back on the highway which was still not moving. But, they were really just warning people of a big puddle that required four-wheel drive, an SUV or some insanely desperate people not wanting to join the traffic. And the cops just let them by.
We got back into traffic with most of the others, only to come back down further down, after driving on the thin strip of dirt along the paved part of the highway.
Finally, the end was in sight. All this traffic was caused by an accident, a truck fallen over in the middle of the highway.
For the local commuters, this was a headache. For me, it was the best part of the journey!
After passing the overturned truck, everything cleared up. It was as if all those cars floored it and disappeared into thin air. I mean, I don’t know how else to explain it, but after sitting there for what felt like days with hundreds of cars or bumping alongside the highway with dozens of innovative drivers, 80 percent of them vanished. It was us and the buses who couldn’t floor it.
We made a stop in Machakos, a town on the way to Kitui. It was time for a bathroom break, stretch our legs, and grab a bite to eat or a drink. While everyone went to the bathroom, ordered something to grub on or went to the grocery store, I walked around.
We were at this place called Tea Tot. I walked through the restaurant, out the back door just to be adventurous. And standing there was a guy, just standing there, with a bunch of chickens that looked either waking up from a long slumber, were drugged or just confused as to why they were all piled up on top of each other.
Then it all made sense. They were there for lunch. Our lunch. It was a delivery, some guy weighing the chickens that were being served in the restaurants. How often do you see the delivery of your food, only it’s alive?
For the moment, though, I decided I’ll just get some nyama choma or a hamburger. Well, until I saw the meat delivery.
Wow. In the back of a pickup truck, handled without gloves and aprons, out in the parking lot? It was time to get back on the road.
And there was no one else out there but us.
Once you leave Machakos County, entering Kitui County, the biggest headache you’ll run into is seeing the speed bumps. Machakos County put up reflectors by some, a sign here and there, painted them a white stripe or something. In Kitui, you just better have some quick reflexes. Actually, that’s the way it is all over Kenya. Machakos County gets props for realizing hitting a speed bump at 50 mph can cause concussions.
Nduku’s dad, though, virtually has them all memorized. He slows down before anyone can even see them. This one, though, has a police road block, common in Kenya, so I had time to get a picture.
Ahhh, Kitui County…
Kitui County is what Kitui County is. It’s very green; has a lot of little hamlets, villages and towns; but is not very developed. It feels like you just went through a wormhole to a time passed, as if the hands on the clock got stuck and it’s still the 80s. Or earlier. But I’m not going to risk talking about everything I saw and get in trouble with the lady. Really, I saw the same things in Kiambu, Wangige, Kilifi, Malindi, just about everywhere. But in Kitui, it just seems a little more exaggerated.
But, for whatever reason, though only my second visit, I felt at home. I’m not really a suburb, countryside, quiet living type of person, but I like it in Kitui. There’s a simple way of living that makes you appreciate life just as it is.