On Saturday the 22nd of March I set out on a small drive. Against most wisdom and logic I had decided to drive myself and my Subaru Legacy station wagon to Juba, Sudan from Nairobi, Kenya.
1400 Kilometers or about 900 miles. In the U.S. that wouldn’t be a big problem. About 13 or 14 hours of smooth driving with a few leisurely stops in between. But then this isn’t the US.
I left around quarter to six on Saturday morning. I arrived at my half way point at around 10 p.m. that evening. 16 hours and only only 700 k. Most of that time was spent on two portions of the road that are less than wonderful. Not just talking about a few pot holes here and there, but rather kilometers of nothing but pot holes and uneven grading. Or rather no grading at all. Some places still had some tarmac on these stretches, but for the most part it was either dirt or stones. Actually the tarmac portion of the roads on this stretch were the worse. These were the places that had the most difficult pot holes to navigate. Hundreds of holes, most deeper than the wheel base of my car, causing me to drag the bottom on more than one occasion or hit the tire with such force that I was convinced it was going to fall off.
There were a few beautiful stretches of road. Like the one coming out of Nairobi up to Nakuru. They have just finished resurfacing and extending the size of the road. It was a pure pleasure to drive on. It also gave a false hope that more of the road would be like that.
Other than the bad road, the drive was quite enjoyable. Outside of Nairobi, the country side opens up and the landscape is amazing to see. Although it was difficult to enjoy so much as I had to pay very close attention to the road.
I arrived in Kampala, Uganda that evening. I was fortunate to get a friend of mine to meet me at the border and help get myself and my vehicle through the visa and immigration process. Total cost for entering Uganda was approximately $120. $50 for the car, $50 for myself and $20 or some sort of taxes, etc. Plus a few dollars to pay the broker that assisted me with the paper work.
The next morning I woke up at around 3 a.m. . I had been advised by a few people that the earlier one started from Kampala, the more chance to arrive in Juba before nightfall was possible. I had spent the night in Entebbe, which is about half an hour south of Kampala, with some of Mary’s family. When I woke up, it was raining hard. I wasn’t very exited by that. I knew it would slow me down a bit. My half hour to Kampala turned out to be about an hour.
The most frustrating thing I found about driving this trip is the lack of markings on the road. You are lucky if you find a street sign somewhere indicating a name. You are even more lucky if there is a sign posted somewhere to point you in the right direction. I had to stop so many times, especially at road junctions & round-abouts, to confirm where I was going.
In Kampala, there is actually a very decent road system, lots of round abouts, lots of junctions and very few signs to indicate direction. I drove around Kampala for almost an hour lost and confused. I found out later that one road I had followed and feared was incorrect was actually the road I was to be on. The rain continued throughout all of this adding to my aggravation. I found another road that looked like maybe it was the right direction for me to go.
I came upon a gas station and saw a number of people, vehicles and a police car parked on the road next to it. I thought I would pass and inquire from one of them the direction I needed to go. I pulled into the station and then realized that I was looking at the scene of an accident and everyone seemed highly frustrated with themselves. So instead of bothering, I decided to go ahead a bit and see if I could find someone else to inquire from. As I was pulling out I saw a car, very far down the road, coming in the same direction as I was turning. I had plenty of space and time to get myself out on the road, so I did. As I was accelerating, I passed more vehicles parked on the shoulder on my left. I was in the right lane. All of the sudden I heard from behind me a honking. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw headlights approaching, and approaching fast. I was about too move over to the left lane to get out of the guys way when he hit me from behind on the left side of my bumper.
I wasn’t happy. I got even more unhappy when the guy passed me and sped away. I pulled over to inspect my damage. The left corner of my bumper was mangled, my taillight was busted and the side panel next to the wheel was slightly deformed. Not a very good way to start my trip to Juba. As I was looking at my vehicle, the police from the previous accident pulled up and asked me where the guy had gone. I pointed in the general direction, convinced he was very far gone by this point. They disappeared.
I sighed heavily, said a few words under my breath and got back in my car with the thought that I would continue to try to get myself to Juba that day, even if my rear end was a bit mangled. I followed the same route the runaway driver had taken and the police and found them both a few minutes later. So I stopped. They said we had to go to police station and make some reports. At this point I decided I was finished for the day and that there was no more going to Juba.
In the US, I would have traded insurance contacts with the guy and gotten a police report or something along those lines. In the US, the guy would have been arrested and thrown into jail. He was very drunk. They said he blew something like .6 into the breathalizer. I think that is pretty high.
But here, the police harrassed the guy for a couple of hours, refused to give me a report and in the end told us to sort things out between ourselves. And they let him go. I think he parted with a bit of cash, but he was able to avoid sitting in a dirty cell and got off free as a bird.
I spent the next two days with the guy trying to get my car fixed. We took it to a funny mechanic. He knocked out the dents, reshaped the bumper a bit, put something to fill in the gaps and repainted everything. The paint job wasn’t the best. On the last coat, the shiny thing they sprayed left dots… The sprayer wasn’t spraying very well. Unless you know what to look for, you can’t really tell there was ever a problem with it. They only thing they were not able to replace was the light fixture. They said they couldn’t find the part anywhere in town. So the guy told me he had a friend that was traveling to another place and he had asked him to bring one back and he would send it to me when he got hold of it. I have the feeling he is going to screw me over in the end, but it was either that or sit in Kampala for another week hoping it came.
I finally got back on the road Tuesday morning. Monday evening after I got my car back, the mechanic drove me out of Kampala and got me pointed in the right direction. I put up in a strange little hotel. I came to realize later that it was a hotel where most of the guests only spend a few hours visiting. I was the only overnight guest they had that evening. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking I was sweating in my bed because it was a bit damp in one place. But I wasn’t sweating and I had dried off after my shower. I cannot confirm, but I have the feeling I wasn’t the one that had made it wet and the hotel staff hadn’t bothered to flip the mattress after their last patron. Thinking bout it now makes me slightly ill.
I took off at 4 a.m. this time. For some reason, it felt like the roads in Uganda were a bit better than Kenya. I think that maybe to some extent they are maintained better than those in Kenya. By 10:30 I arrived in Gulu, which is 400 out of the 700 kilometers to Juba.
Early that morning I said a very small and quick prayer. I prayed “Dear lord, please help me get to Juba”. The answer to that prayer came in the form of a phone call. A Sudanese friend I had worked with in Loki so many years ago was travelling on a bus to Juba and had seen me pass his bus several times. When I reached Gulu, his bus passed me again as I was refueling. We hadn’t talked in about two years. I was very surprised to get his call. Up to that point i was dreading the final leg from Gulu to Juba. Dealing with the “officials” at the border, knowing they were going to harass and attempt to get more money out of me than was necessary. Driving the road, not knowing if I had taken the right turning, or if something happened along the way what would I do. So many things. Then my friend found me. All of those fears, all of that dread disappeared.
During the time I was stuck in Kampala, I was rather aggravated and upset. At one point I was talking with the man who had hit my car and he commented that while this was not a great situation, maybe it happened for a reason. I think now he was absolutely right. If it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have found my friend and who knows all of the other troubles I may have run into.
He joined me from Gulu and we started making our way towards the border. At the Uganda side, we passed through customs and immigration very quickly. On the Sudan side we were able to get through quickly again, but with a little bit of hassle. He was able to sidestep a few attempts by some officials that seemed keen on giving me some grief.
To enter Sudan I had to pay another $50 for a “road license” and a “road toll” fee. I was expecting to part with alot more money, but was very grateful I did not. Nimule is the border town and from there it is approximately another 200 kilometers to Juba. On very, very rough roads again. We left around 3 p.m. and figured if we made good time we should arrive in Juba around 8 or 9. That would have worked out well. But this is Sudan and nothing ever can go as planned.
After 20 minutes of driving from Nimule, we came to the first of six bridges that have to be crossed to reach Juba. When we got to it, we found that it was being repaired and that until they finished the work they were doing on it that day, it wouldn’t be opened up. From 3:30 in the afternoon until about 7:30 that evening we sat at that bridge. We were not the only ones. About five buses full of people, along with numerous trucks carrying cargo and a few other passenger cars got stuck there as well. Not only on our side, but on the other side too. When they finally opened the bridge, it took them another 30 minutes to figure out which side they would start to let to pass first. This was because the bridge was only one lane wide and couldn’t accommodate passing vehicles.
Right before they had started to allow the vehicles to cross, a man approached our car and ask my friend for the car keys. He didn’t want to explain why he needed the keys, only that we had to give them up. My friend became very irritated with this. He got out of the vehicle and they walked a short distance away and proceeded to argue for the next fifteen minutes. Finally he came back, still rather irritated and we were able to go our way.
One of the saddest things that is taking place in the Southern Sudan since the signing of the peace is the amount of corruption that takes place. Especially corruption that takes place against foreigners. What was happening here was that “security” personnel were “inspecting” all the vehicles and making sure they had not “snuck” into the country. After taking the keys, they would most likely demand some sort of payment so that one could get them back, regardless of whether one had already paid money at the border to enter the country. What wasn’t clear was which “security” apparatus they represented and who had given them a mandate to perform such security checks. We didn’t pay any more money and we went on our way.
By the time we left this place it was beginning to get dark. The road was very bad. At 40 kpm, one could travel comfortably, but slowly. Between 70kpm and 80kpm one travels quickly, but dangerously. We averaged something between 60kpm and 70kpm. I had a massive adrenaline rush for the next four hours as my friend navigated in the dark at speeds which I would never have attempted. On more than one occasion I was convinced the car was about to lose control and go flying off the road. I was very surprised that by the end of the journey we had not blown any of the tires, broken an axle or completely annihilated the suspension. We did managed to bust a hole in the exhaust pipe and the next day I found we had dented up the bottom of the car in a few spots. It was like taking the longest, most exciting and dangerous roller coaster ride in the world.
My friend knew we were taking a risk driving at that speed. But we were also just taking a risk driving on that road at night. In the past few months there have been several attacks by unidentified groups. We passed a spot where two lorries (big trucks for those that don’t know what a lorry is) were laying on the side of the road, nothing left but the burnt out frame of the vehicle. A few weeks before they had been ambushed, the occupants shot and killed and the vehicles torched. Those responsible were never apprehended. So regardless of how we were driving, we took the risk of something happening. We figured if we went as fast as we felt was reasonable, we would arrive in Juba at a much more reasonable hour than if we went slowly.
Finally we made it. We both were fine, but very tired. The car was ok, just beat up a little bit. My wife was very happy. I had called her from the border and told her I should be there by 8 or 9. It was midnight before I arrived. She spent the whole evening extremely worried that something bad had happened to me. After leaving the border there was no cell phone connected until we reached Juba. No way for me to communicate what was happening.
Now I am in Juba. It was a lovely drive. Full of fun and excitement the whole way. I look forward to driving it back. Not exactly sure when that will be. Two to three weeks from now, maybe more. It can’t be very long because the rains are coming. If I don’t make it before the rains, then I won’t make it all. The road between Juba and Gulu isn’t paved. There are areas that get flooded and parts of the road that become too bogged down in mud to pass. So if I am not careful I may have brought my car to Juba to stay.
I had planned to take a number of pictures along the way. Unfortunetly between the time I arrived in Kampala and tried to leave that place, my camera walked away from the car. I still can’t figure out how that happened or who had the chance to help it find its way. Am slightly bummed about that.