Night Bus to Nairobi

Night Bus to Nairobi

We took the night bus to Nairobi, waved off by Liz’s lover, my suitor and a friendly fifth wheel, and it was only the middle of the afternoon. We left Kampala, first snuggling down into cosy gossip to the rhythm of the road, then lulled to contented silence by the rolling wheels and the regular swooshing past of Uganda’s banana palms.

Roadside market, Uganda

Roadside market, Uganda

At a village stop, the road was lined with market stalls. A whirl of frenetic activity greeted us. Vendors shouted and jostled with one another to proffer fruit, chapattis, roast groundnuts or skewered meat through the open windows of the bus. Window shopping. For a few minutes, the bus, the passengers and the vendors formed an entire world in the rural eternity, then the engine revved and we were off again in a cloud of dust on the quiet East African highway.

Source of the Nile
To Jinja, town at the source of the Nile. We crossed the newborn river over the Owen Falls dam. The Nile, already a majestic artery, flows out of Lake Victoria at Jinja to begin its epic, life-giving journey across half a continent. We entered the town for a brief stop, glimpsing the elegant but faded, peeling houses which illustrate history. They were the homes of Uganda’s Asians in the days when they formed a well-off middle class and business community, before they were summarily expelled by Idi Amin.

We too left and moved east. With the approaching dusk came the sudden and dominating presence of Tororo Rock, an ancient volcanic plug lying where it was thrown in the middle of a flat landscape. Then we were at the border. The sun set as we ate sloppy, fibrous matoke in this final piece of Uganda. After a 1 a.m. stop at a seedy transport café in Eldoret the bus rolled on in the night, across tracts of Kenya, across the equator, and we padded ourselves into an awkward bed. In darkness, eyes closed, we lolled into a shallow, drifting slumber, rocked to the rhythm of the droning tyres and spattering rain.

Shards of glass
Then, a crash of shattering windscreen and shards of glass were blown up the corridor on a gust of chill, rain-sodden wind. The bus skidded to a stop with as much of a jolt as the withered, searing, screeching brake pads allowed. Dramatically awakened, we spilled out into the night to find out what had happened. In front of us was a lorry transporting sugarcane; sugarcane that was attached length-wise to the trailer and which overshot it by several feet. It was these waving canes that had pierced our advancing windscreen in the darkness. We climbed back into the bus to keep warm. Two or three people chipped away at the windscreen to remove the toothy grin that remained there. Then, with a gaping hole where once there was glass, we draughtily continued our interrupted journey to Nairobi.
Wind and rain sliced down the bus with a chill that did not seem to belong on the equator. The bus advanced slowly, the driver muffled up like a child out to play in the snow, his eyes barely peeking out between the generous swathes of scarves wound around his face.

The bus resounded with near-hysterical laughter in recognition of the ridiculous nature of our situation. Every half hour or so, the driver pulled over and rested his wind-whipped face in his hands over the steering wheel. After a while, I made use of one such pause to ask the driver if I could please get my sleeping bag out of the boot. He looked up, grunted, and buried his head back in his arms. Apparently not, then. That bus full of fans-of-the-funny-side loved that one; laughter bounced off all remaining windowpanes.

On we crawled to Nairobi, where we arrived sometime before sunrise. At last, I fell asleep. Once the sun was up, we disembarked. A German couple, the only other muzungus on the bus, got off just ahead of Liz and I. By the time we joined them on the pavement, they had had all their belongings stolen. Welcome to Nairobi.

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