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(Get Me) Out of Africa

Franz Lidz is a writer for Sports Illustrated and the author of the memoir "Unstrung Heroes."

The more you know, the more interesting being alive is. That’s my traveling credo. Or at least it was until a couple of years ago, when I got stranded in the scrublands of Kenya. Out there amid the rolling savanna and mud-hut villages, the more I knew, the less interested I was in being alive.

I have come to Kenya to see the annual International Camel Derby, a series of dromedary dashes that unfolds in Maralal, a back-country village in the central part of the country about 80 miles north of the equator. In Nairobi I rent a Land Rover for the 240-mile trip and hire a 14-year-old guide, who assures me, “I know the way to Maralal like the back of my right hand.” I look at his hand. He is wearing a glove.

The drive into the bush is supposed to take four hours, but a second rainy season in this month of November has flooded out the roads--particularly the dirt ones--and left them virtually impassable. As we set off at noon, rain begins to fall in swaying curtains that sweep across the flat fields. Undaunted, we press on. “I know a camel rancher who lives about halfway to town,” my teenage guide says. “If the going gets slow, we can spend the night.”

Torpedoing down a series of cresting mud lumps at speeds approaching 16 mph, we reach the camel ranch just after dark and discover that the camel rancher is back in Nairobi, from which it has just taken us seven hours to drive. His radish-nosed wife says, “It’s usually a one-hour drive to Maralal from here, but tonight you’ll need at least five. The mud is 3 feet high, and huge trucks are scuttled in the ruts.”

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My guide says, “We’ve got four-wheel drive. We’ll make it.”

We don’t have much choice. Radish Nose never asks us to stay, and we don’t have enough fuel to return to Nairobi. So we plow ahead in the black, black night until we hit deep mud. “Faster! Faster!” my guide shouts.

I swerve to avoid winging a scuttled truck, but the Land Rover’s wheels get sucked into the tracks, now pooled with water.

Stuck.

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The sky, implacable, walks on stilts of rain as we forage for stones and branches to wedge under the tires--perhaps not the safest task, considering we’re in the middle of East African lion country. After half an hour we’re still embedded. Rather than risk becoming lion pate, I turn in. It’s 9:30.

At midnight I hear the rumble of a truck. I watch it approach slowly, sink slowly and list slowly to one side. I call to the driver, who wades over and advises us to change the axle settings from two- to four-wheel drive.

“I thought we were in four-wheel drive,” I say.

“Think again,” he says.

We switch into four-wheel drive. I rev the engine, and we’re off again. And still my guide is not satisfied. “Faster! Faster!” he cries.

Ten miles and 90 minutes later, I try to edge around another dead truck leaning Pisa-like in our path. Too bad. More stones, more branches, more splattered mud. In less than an hour we are free.

My guide: “Faster! Faster!”

At 2:30 a.m. we reach the lodge in Maralal. At 7, I awake and hunt for gas. Or try to. Both rear tires are flat. I change them and plod to the town’s lone service station--the only one within 100 miles.

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The pumps, it turns out, have been dry for two weeks.

We are down to a quarter of a tank, about half a tank less than we need to get to Rumuruti, the nearest town. “Where’s the nearest phone?” I ask the attendant. “Nairobi,” he says. “Maralal has no phones.” I beg him to run his pumps anyway. He does.

Forty-five minutes later, he has collected enough dribbles to fill a Campbell’s soup can.

I spend the rest of the day trying to bribe police, black marketeers, bureaucrats. Only people with diesel fuel are willing to deal, and we need super premium.

“Come back to the station at 11,” says the chief of police. “The petrol truck will surely be here by then.” I go off and watch the camel races. At 11, I return. A new gas truck has been sent for. Everybody’s sure it will get through. It always has.

At noon, the chief guarantees the truck will arrive by 2 o’clock. At 2 o’clock, he guarantees 3; at 4 o’clock, 6; at 7 o’clock, 10. At 11, he tells me, “The new truck, she stuck.”

How far?

“Forty miles. I’m sending a Land Rover with a big jerrycan. Land Rovers never fail. Come back first thing in the morning.”

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OK, I say, and drive to my lodge.

I return at dawn. The gas gauge is now on empty. I motor the three miles to the gas station. No truck. “Land Rover, she’s stuck, too,” the attendant says. “She’ll be back by noon. She always gets through.”

I pace the streets, or more accurately, the street; Maralal has only one. I pass and repass the Pop-In Hotel, the Fitwell Tailoring Shop, and the Kisima Camel Improvement Butchery, where, presumably, losing mounts from the previous day’s races are “improved” into camelfurters. Parked in front of a wobbly hut called the Hard Rock Cafe Maralal is a communal taxi van, a matatu. The placard on the dash reads “NAIROBI.” The sign painted on the van’s side proclaims “Nuclear Investments Ltd.” On the rear window is stenciled “See you in heaven.” Amid the teetering tower of luggage atop the vehicle, a rooster fixes me with an archly disapproving stare.

The matatu is filling with people. I ask the driver, “Room for one more?”

“A matatu is never full,” he says inscrutably. “Listen to me, an old pig. No matter how full it be, it never be full.” I ask the Old Pig: How come you have gas? The Old Pig says: Matatu carries an extra tank. I ask the Old Pig: How does a matatu make it through the muck? The Old Pig says: When matatu gets stuck, passengers get out and pull. I survey the passengers overflowing the matatu: 27 in a van designed to hold nine. Eight in the back row. Seven hang from the open back door like Serbian gunmen. The Old Pig is half in, half out. Two infants are tied in with the luggage and the rooster.

I ask: “How long will it take to get to Nairobi?”

“Normally, four hours,” the Old Pig says. “Today, with the mud and the flood, five.”

“I’m in!”

I buy a front-row seat, collect my gear and leave the Land Rover in the care of my young guide. As the matatu pulls away, I watch him climb into the driver’s seat, barnstorm down the slick road and crash into a culvert. He is unharmed; the engine is not. As he tries and tries to crank it up, I lean out of the matatu and shout “Faster! Faster!”

We are off. Within a half-hour the matatu is bumper-deep in muck. We passengers lift. We push. We yank a rope tied to the front suspension. Uphill. For a quarter of a mile. Then . . . free! Within two miles we are stuck again. This time the mud is up to the headlights. More lifting, more pushing, more yanking. After two hours we reach a patch of paved road.

Four hours and 40 miles on we spy the gas truck--mud up to the driver’s window. Beside it is the Land Rover--also hopelessly mired. “Faster! Faster!” I cry. As we speed through a puddle no deeper than the Zambezi, the spark plugs die.

I do what I always do in moments of stress: I take a nap. When I snap to, we are moving again, barely. I look out the window. Behind us is another matatu. “Towing,” the Old Pig more or less explains. “That matatu run out of petrol.” At least we’re moving.

Five seconds later the tow rope breaks. Five minutes after the rope is retied, it breaks again. Five hours after that, we reach the next town, Nyeri, 85 miles from Nairobi.

It is Hour 14 from Maralal when I get off the Nyeri local and switch to the Nairobi express. With no time to haggle over an orchestra seat, I settle for the back row, where six passengers are already sausaged. Things are bound to get better. How can they get worse?

On the highway, the fan belt snaps. Our driver flags down another matatu and gets a replacement, which breaks as soon as the other matatu drives off.

In my 17th hour, I am dropped off at an abandoned bus stop in downtown Nairobi. The sign overhead says: “Wakulima High Class Butchery and Milk Bar: Fresh Milk and Mala--We Buy Old Pigs.”

If only you could teach them new tricks.


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