Driving in Eastern Africa

The Sudanese road approaching the Ethiopian border was terrible. Survival of the fittest was the name of the game and I’d had to let two fat men on a small motorbike overtake us. Their nimbleness avoiding the car-size potholes was extraordinary, and it had me wondering why Kickstart never had a weight-handicapped pairs category.

Entering Ethiopia from Sudan was incredible. Although the desert had started to become bush a few hundred kilometers before the Metema border, Mohammed and Jesus had clearly put their heads together and decided to turn the colour contrast and saturation up to 11 on the south eastern side of the border. They’d also gotten bored with the Flat Earth brigade, so had banned flatness and covered the entire country in mountains.

East African drivers don’t think like most people. There is less entitlement to a side of the road. If they feel the need to use your side of the road, they will think nothing of it. They assume you won’t get all arsey by protecting your side of the road, maintaining your line, and will, instead, move over to the side of your lane to give them more room. It works, after adjusting your own way of thinking, and there is little to no road rage. They make terrible decisions and are macho beyond belief: if they drive up behind you, they must pass you, regardless of the situation. If you attempt to pass them, they will drop a gear and fight you for position.

The majority of East African drivers don’t understand that cutting a corner should only be done when one can safely see far enough around the corner to see nothing is coming. The larger the vehicle, the less regard for other drivers, seems to be the rule of thumb.

The dipping of headlights appears to be optional in Africa and, as we’re wielding some powerful spotlights, I’ve had great fun teaching the locals. Thankfully this hasn’t resulted in any crashes…

It turns out that most African countries on the east coast, between Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, have very similar driving habits. Sure, there are fundamental differences such as which side of the road they drive on, but the general characteristics of driving in each country are pretty much the same. However, we were only involved in a road incident in one.

Side-swiped

We left Addis Ababa heading south, bound for a reggae festival in Shashamane where we were to meet up with a group of guys we’d just shared some beers, stories and laughs with in Wim’s Holland House (campsite and rooms). They were travelling by public bus. Our mood was good and we’d made it out of the city onto the motorway when we came across some congestion and slowed to a halt with the hazard warning lights on. A handful of seconds later and there was a loud woosh, some bangs and Chuck shook a little. My immediate suspicion was that Max Verstappen had crashed into us, but it proved to be a local in an Isuzu flatbed truck who had been unable to stop. Thankfully he’d almost managed to negotiate the corridor between us and another car, albeit hitting us quite hard. I’d left a gap in front of us and this was what the Isuzu driver – let’s call him ‘Perp’ – was aiming for. He parked neatly in front of us in the gap, though at an angle.

Chuck, reconfigured
‘Perp’ checking his truck

Patricia and I checked we were each okay before I grabbed my phone and stepped out. I was concerned about the damage to Chuck, but more concerned about ensuring Perp was accountable and didn’t nash off. I took pictures of his number plates, front and back, himself and of the damage to Chuck. I approached him and asked if he was okay. He seemed to understand a little English and though he was unable to speak much he said he was okay and apologised. A lady stepped down from the passenger side, so I asked her if she was okay also. A lorry driver advised us to go to a police station just up the road and Perp agreed to lead the way.

I surveyed the damage. The front right of Chuck had taken all the damage and the Isuzu had hit the point of the steel front bumper right on the tip, bending it forward almost 90 degrees so it was pointing forward. The wheelarch extension had been ripped off and I found it 20 metres behind, with the mudguard still attached. The wing was slightly dented and the side-light was missing. I couldn’t see the light anywhere so I put those loose parts I could find in the back and followed Perp.

Rather than arrive at a police station, however, we arrived outside a hotel in Bishoftu where a friendly, English-speaking gent started to take control of the situation. His name was Jonas, he was Perp’s boss, he was a local who lived in Richmond USA, and he was in town for a couple of months on business. I asked him how best to deal with this situation in Ethiopia – was the police and insurance the best route? It was a possible route, he agreed, but strongly advised that we sort this matter between ourselves and I had to agree – as long as the repairs were good.

Jonas already had a local garage waiting and advised us that we should grab some bags from Chuck so we could stay in his hotel for a couple of days while the work was completed, all on him. We agreed, so I comforted Perp once more and followed Jonas and Perp to the garage. Perp had made a mistake, but he’d immediately done the right thing and there was no point in my being angry with him when he was already clearly upset about it.

The garage was outdoors. There was no indoor workshop. No sooner had I parked than the right-hand spotlight had been removed. Had I just driven Chuck to be dismantled?! Once Chuck was no more, would they ‘rub us out’?! They reckoned they could heat the steel bumper and bend it back into place, but I expressed my scepticism. We were driven five minutes back to the hotel, where we were to spend four days. We spent a lot of time with Jonas, hearing his amazing rags-to-riches story in the US and eating a lot of beef. Yup, Ethiopia likes beef, and it’s eaten for most meals, often raw. We declined the raw beef, despite it looking very high quality, as we were quite sure our stomachs wouldn’t be happy with us.

We enjoyed our four days in Bishoftu and we were very well looked after – we didn’t spend a penny in those four days. But it was another delay and we spent a lot of time just waiting around. Finally a new side-light had been acquired so we were ready to go pick Chuck up and get on the way.

The repairs were not of a high standard. The bumper had curves where they’d had to use filler. The wing and wheelarch extension had been roughly filled and painted, but it simply hadn’t been finished. The paint hadn’t been ‘cut’ or polished and so the finish was lumpy and ugly. The side-light was a cheap copy and the fit was poor. Both spotlight bulbs had blown and it took us until Nairobi to find replacements. The replacements were expensive and were 100 watt, rather than 75. Later, in Zimbabwe, I noticed that the lenses had warped a little as a result of the higher wattage bulbs and one of the reflectors had blackened due to water ingress caused by a crack in the housing – so new spotlights are needed now, too. We discussed the poor repair quality briefly and decided to accept it and get underway rather than make a scene with Jonas. A harsher couple would have demanded cash on top, and in hindsight that would have been fair – to sell Chuck, after our trip, I’ll have to spend considerable money getting him back to his former glory. Anyway, we were back on the road.

After Ethiopia, the Kenyan drivers stepped things up a little. They’re just markedly more orderly and drive in a safer, logical manner. Dare I say it, but could this be a result of colonialism? There was still a familiar lack of indicators, but this was the same from Italy to Zimbabwe.

Crashes

In general, African roads are littered with vehicles of all sizes which have been rolled, involved in collisions, have broken down, have flat tyres and clearly had no spare, or have burnt out. This is in keeping with the standard of driving and the fact that most people simply can’t afford to maintain their vehicles properly.

On a single day in Tanzania we encountered three crashes. The first was while in a slow-moving trail of traffic exiting a small town, ascending a gentle hill with large, steep ditches on each side. I noticed an oncoming tuk-tuk attempt to navigate around the inside of a vehicle and I was immediately concerned that there wasn’t enough room. Sure enough, the rear wheel caught the lip of the steep ditch and the tuk-tuk slowly tipped over and rolled down the hill. The locals either hadn’t noticed or didn’t care, so I ignored the overlanders rule of not stopping for this sort of thing, parked by the side of the road and crossed the traffic. Three generations of females were in various stages of removing themselves from the tuk-tuk. The youngest I met first and helped to the top of the hill. She was mildly appreciative and visibly upset, with some blood on her face. Further down the hill I helped a wailing middle-aged woman, who was too upset to know what was going on. Reaching the tuk-tuk, which was on its side, an elderly woman was wailing and gesticulating as she stood on the ground with her head out one side. I helped her out but she seemed much more concerned that she has lost her grip on her two chickens, which were squawking nearby. Locals had started to arrive so I began to get nervous – overlanders like to tell tales of how foreigners are frequently blamed for these type of incidents, simply because they are there. Some incidents have – apparently – resulted in deaths at the hands of the angry mob, so I quickly checked the driver was okay and legged it back up the slope, jumped in Chuck and drove off.

An hour later we came across a just-happened incident on a dirt road where two trucks had met around a sharp bend and they’d become intertwined, blocking the road. We were told by some locals to wait and seconds later a Toyota microbus came bouncing out of the trees, up the steep hill and on to the road in front of us, having cut the corner. We were invited to go next so I launched Chuck into the bushes, avoided some trees and emerged onto the dirt road on the other side amid cheers from the locals. The third was merely an overturned articulated lorry – an all-too-common scene on African roads.

Navigation

We generally use Maps.me for our GPS navigation, as it works offline and mobile signal is sporadic, to put it mildly. It has a way of taking you on adventures, though, as it takes shortcuts where no road exists. Maybe a donkey once meandered through some of these places, but how would Maps.me know this?! Whenever we need to get somewhere on schedule we will check the suggested route against GMaps if available, or simply scrutinise it intensely and overrule some turns. Whenever we aren’t under time pressure, though, we will often throw the Maps.me dice and see where it takes us. Most often it’s much more interesting and we get to do some off-roading.

We broke a rear, upper suspension control arm when following Maps.me in Rwanda as it took us along the incredibly rough Congo-Nile Trail on our way to the Gisovu Tea Plantation. After a really interesting tour with the two managers, I ratchet-strapped the control arm together and we crawled through about four hours of off-road tracks until we reached the main road and a campsite in the pitch black. The next morning a mechanic arrived with his accomplice, removed the two pieces of metal, welded them together in the dirt and rain and bolted it back onto Chuck. I’ve never seen two men less concerned with being electrocuted than those two heroes! $25 seemed fair and we were back on the road with only a couple of hours delay. Within a day I had procured a new control arm via a Kenyan Land Cruiser group on Facebook, with the part being sent to Kigoma in Tanzania. This trusting man packaged the part off on a bus to me based on a promise that I’d pick it up and pay for it afterwards. If you read this, Hardo Singh, thank you!

Bush mechanics at its best – ratchet strap holding a control arm together

We spent four hours navigating a ‘track’ in Burundi where the many villages we passed through had obviously not seen a four-wheeled vehicle in years, if ever! We met some motorbikes and donkeys, but no other cars for those four hours. Two football games came to a complete stop as some players waved and some simply stood looking at us with confused expressions on their faces. It was all incredibly friendly, though, going against the UK Foreign Office’s advice to not travel there. We sense international politics is at play here, intentionally messing with Burundi’s tourist industry because they won’t play ball with some bullshit.

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