sunset; kenya; wildebeest; trees

A trip through the Great Rift Valley takes an unexpected turn.

Photograph by Charles Robertson

By Christopher Vourlias

From the May 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

The councillor hops down from the truck, scrambles through the mud, and stands there with his hands on his hips. His collar is turned up; he shakes his head and puffs into his fists and gives me a sour look. Night has begun to fall, and all the grunts and chirps and lusty calls of twilight in the African bush surround us. A few of the Samburu men unsheathe their machetes and start hacking at the brush, tossing branches and leaves under the truck’s wheels. Somewhere a child wails—a high, keen cry as urgent as the faces squinting into the dusk's half-light.

This part of Kenya's Great Rift Valley is dangerous country, a place haunted by lions and elephants and testy Pokot cattle raiders. Even these brave morans —Samburu warriors—get prickly at nightfall. The driver guns the engine, and the wheels whirl and spit mud, but after rocking to the side and surging briefly from the rut, the truck sinks back in. The councillor turns and stares off to the horizon; the men begin to argue. We're stuck 40 miles from the middle of nowhere, the light has vanished below the hills, and no one has even noticed the guys with the guns.

I've picked a bad time to head north. A week of brutal storms have battered the Laikipia and Samburu Districts, turning much of the dirt road to Maralal into a muddy canal. I'm on my way to the Maralal International Camel Derby, a raucous annual affair held in August that's entering its 18th year. For the impoverished Samburu of Maralal, it's the one time of year that tourists pour—or, at least, stream—into their dusty, remote town. It's a big weekend for everyone, especially the men chasing after the grand prize—60,000 Kenya shillings, which, at close to 900 U.S. dollars, is more than most will make in a year. But the road won't cooperate.

Neither, it turns out, will the bandits. As we push and strain against the mud, tossing more branches beneath the wheels, a few pinpricks of light dance in the darkness down the road. Minutes later, a dozen beleaguered, barefoot Kenyans tramp toward us. Their matatu (taxi-bus) has just been robbed at gunpoint; it was the bandits' flashlights that we saw flickering in the distance. They took everything, one woman explains, even their shoes. She wiggles her toes for emphasis.

Suddenly we're all working harder, 40 of us struggling in mud that reaches our kneecaps. The councillor, rolling up the sleeves of his white fleece, grabs at the rope and gives a half-hearted pull.

"These are my people," he explains, citing upcoming elections. "I have to let them know I'm here for them."

He grimaces and strains, the effort written across the lines of his face. Then he drops the rope and scrambles to the side of the road, relieving himself on a bush.

Distance and time are different quantities in Africa; I am learning this the hard way. Before setting off from Nyahururu, a cool highland town on the edge of the Great Rift Valley, I'd measured the distance to Maralal with my hand. It was little more than a thumb's width on my map; a hundred miles, at most. We were heading off at noon, under a bright auspicious sky, in a truck packed with grain sacks, spare tires, and boxes of Kenya Special Brandy in plastic flasks. There was a good-humored commotion as I clambered in: a mzungu, a white man, getting a real taste of the African bush. I laughed along as they teased me in Swahili and offered me greasy chunks of charred meat wrapped in that morning's Daily Nation. Our spirits were high. We watched gazelles loping along on the side of the road, elephants sending up clouds of dust. A hundred miles. I looked up at the sky and did the math and figured we'd get there in time for an early dinner.

Eight hours later, our truck stuck in the mud, things aren't going according to plan. We have exhausted most of our food and water—and, it seems, our patience. Tempers are flaring on the side of the road; men gesture angrily with their machetes. Behind us more than two dozen trucks are stuck in single file—looking, at this point, like a buffet line for hungry jungle cats or gun-toting gangsters. A couple of SUVs have tried to power through the brush flanking the road. Their drivers stand slouched against their vehicles, weary in their distress, making calls to embassies and NGOs and hoping that someone will arrive to save the day.

In Swahili, the word safari means "journey," though in the West we've appropriated it to mean something different. Just a few weeks before, I'd flown from the comforts of my Nairobi hotel to the tree-speckled plains of the Masai Mara National Reserve. The flight took just over an hour. Two tall, regal Maasai were waiting at the landing strip; from there a line of Range Rovers bumped us along toward the lodge. Tourists in crisp khakis crowded the bar, swirling their gin and tonics. On the savanna, hapless wildlife were getting ganged up on like a chubby kid in a schoolyard. It was a smooth, seamless transition from nights on the couch in front of Animal Planet, popping the top off a can of Pringles and ordering takeout from Rock the Wok. It was marvelous and majestic and more than a bit absurd.

It was also, I have to admit, reassuring. Stuck in the mud, cocking my ear for the sound of gunshots in the dark, I'm starting to suspect that thrills and adventure are really overrated. The men are outside bickering, and I've climbed back into the truck, content to wait this one out with the women and children. A few tired mothers lean against bags of grain, braiding their daughters' hair. One looks at me and sighs and shakes her head.

"I feel sorry for you," she says. "We are Africans. We are used to hardship."

We share a few cookies that I dig from the bottom of my bag. The woman's eyes are soft, sorrowful, resigned, but it's my own fleeting misfortune that troubles her. Of all the things you expect to find in Africa, sympathy isn't one of them. Earlier I'd watched a parade of women trudging on the side of the road, infants bundled on their backs, firewood balanced on their heads. I imagined that every day brought with it some fresh hardship; but maybe all those trials didn't harden the spirit so much as soften the heart. They made you more eloquent in the language of sorrow.

Outside, stooped beneath the glare of the headlights, men pile rocks below the tires. Tall, lean morans hack at the brush, tossing bundles of branches onto the road. Everyone is covered in mud, struggling, pulling, falling. It feels hopeless, but no one is ready to give up. Again the engine roars to life, and suddenly the truck surges onto solid ground. We slap backs and shake hands and offer our weary thanks in a motley chorus of tongues. Then we climb into the back of the truck, anxious for this safari to be over with.

In the end I make it to Maralal for the derby, placing a respectable tenth in the amateur race and earning plenty of good-hearted laughs along the way. The grand prize in the professional race goes to a tall, lanky Samburu who finishes in the money for the third year running. And the weekend isn't without its drama. In the waning moments of the semiprofessional derby, two jockeys come galloping down the homestretch, neck and neck. One pulls ahead as they approach the finish line, but suddenly his camel slows, bats its big eyelashes, and decides to take a breather. The other camel bears down on them. Cheers ripple through the crowd. Looking nervously behind him, fearing he's snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, the jockey hops down from the saddle, lowers his shoulder, and pushes his winning steed across the finish line.

This is the sort of ingenuity I've grown accustomed to in Africa, where, even in the face of the impossible, people struggle, persist, and pull through. Life here rarely goes according to plan and certainly not according to schedule. But in spite of it all, everyone lowers their shoulders and plows ahead, realizing that we're in this together.

On the road to Maralal, when we finally pulled out of the mud, we stopped after just a few feet. I groaned at our apparent bad luck: Had we managed to get stuck again? I asked if there was something wrong, but the councillor shook his head and pointed to the other trucks being dug out behind us. Bodies bent and scrambled in the headlights; engines rumbled. He said we wouldn't leave yet.

We couldn't leave anyone behind.

Christopher Vourlias, living out of a suitcase in central Africa, is working on his first book, Even the White Man Has Found God, a collection of stories about his African travels.

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