Preceding Paul Theroux
From Addis to Nairobi
     by Wayne Kessler (Adi Teclesan 64–66)

AS I AGE, I'M FINDING MEMORIES have become a larger part of my life than I want them to be. I’d rather be thinking and planning something new than being caught up in the past. Regardless, memories happen, so when I read the chapter “The Longest Road in Africa” in Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town about his journey in Ethiopia from Addis Ababa to Moyale at the Kenyan border, I was instantly caught up in my own memories of the same trip 36 years before his.

Getting going

My wife Laurie and I left our Peace Corps village in the northern Eritrean Province of Ethiopia on July 1st 1966, with mixed emotions: sad to leave our Eritrean friends but excited about a vague idea of traveling by road from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, with Gerhard Grau, a German freelance photographer. Beyond that, we had only the notion of finding work in Kenya. It was pure adventure. Had camera and two backpacks — wanting to travel. That was enough for us then.

On July 4th, we flew to Addis on a WWII vintage DC3 and promptly went to visit Clark Billings, a US government fellow from USAID, whom we had met months before. As we had hoped, he offered us a place to stay for the few days we were in Addis getting ready. Clean sheets, a soft bed and hot showers any time in a quite spacious modern home sure beat the local noisy hotels with cold showers and lumpy, dirty beds with bedbugs.
     During the four days we waited for Gerhard, we had fun bumping into PCVs like John Wheeler (64–66), having lunches at the China Bar with Alan and Sue Boyd (Gondar 64–66), a pizza dinner with Joyce Orwin (Addis 64–66) and others, and going to a concert of the Phoenix Singers on tour. City culture was radically different from the village culture that we had been immersed in for the previous two years.

Hitting the road

Finally, we made arrangements with Gerhard for the trip and left Addis on Friday, July 8. We were to go south to a small Seventh-Day Adventist Hospital in Kuyera near Lake Langano in the Great Rift Valley, and wait for him while he went to pick up our means of transportation. So, we hitched a ride with a couple of Ethiopians heading south and arrived in time for dinner with the Holmeses, one of the missionary families at the Hospital. We had met Mr. and Mrs. Holmes on their honeymoon at Tisisat Falls on the Blue Nile River about six months before. I had borrowed his wide-angle lens to photograph the whole width of the falls.
     The Willys Jeep that Gerhard bought for the trip needed fixing — lots of fixing. It was a Korean-War-era Jeep like the ones you see on M*A*S*H, but it was painted a funny blue-green repaint color. It had two bench seats, front and back; I remember them as being very hard. There was just a little place behind the back seat to stuff belongings, so we had to pile most of our gear up on the roof rack, making the whole Jeep look like it had a bouffant hairdo popular in that era. The primitive road made it roll from side to side like a boat in a rough storm. If you had imagined a Jeep Cherokee, forget it. This Jeep was uncomfortable and the rough roads didn’t make it any better.

Finally, on Saturday the 16th the Jeep, Gerhard, Laurie and I were ready to go. Nelson Mbeche, a Ugandan student traveling home, joined us. The four of us packed the Jeep high with food, cooking stuff, a yellow three-person tent, and bags and boxes of photo equipment. The thought of going along with a professional photographer was exciting. I had my little 35mm ready and was eager to watch and copy what Gerhard would be doing with his big professional cameras.

Near Dilla
On Sunday at 5 AM, we headed out of the mission grounds and turned south on the main road. It was a spottily maintained gravel road at places and just dirt in others. We thought that we were making good time until at 7 AM the engine died after going only 25 miles. While waiting for something to come along, I took my first road photo of a man on a mule riding toward us, surrounded by thick green vegetation.
     Lucky for us, we were able to stop a big truck that allowed us to hook up the Jeep’s front-end cable for a tow to nearby Dilla, a one-garage town. Also lucky for us, it was open on Sunday and lucky for us, we got immediate attention.
     As Gerhard and the Ethiopian mechanic haggled and worked on the oil-in-water problem, Laurie pulled out her travel reading book, The Tin Drum [by Günter Grass]. “I chose the thickest book in our Peace Corps footlocker library,” she stated with a smug sense of preparedness, not knowing anything about the book. We were supposed to leave the books for the next Volunteers, but she pinched it because she sensed we would need reading material for this long journey.
     With the Jeep repaired, we left Dila about 4 PM and drove up and down hills on a red dirt road lined with large tree-sized banana and false banana (inset) plants until around 7 PM, when we found a place to camp. A group of passersby and small boys watched us set up the tent and prepare our meal on a kerosene burner. Gerhard saw a photo op and quickly arranged and posed this group of very perplexed people. I took a couple of shots myself, but it wasn’t my style to re-arrange natural situations. As it was turning dark, the locals drifted away to get home before the hyenas came out.

On the morning of day two, we were treated to the first of many bowls of oatmeal, which is what we had for EVERY breakfast, sometimes with nuts, and many times with bananas. It turned out that Gerhard was a person of habit. He introduced us to chamomile tea and we were stuck with this almost flavorless drink. It was quite a change from the highly spiced and strong black tea we’d been drinking in our village. As hitchhikers, we adapted.
      That day was even tougher than the first day because, soon after we resumed the journey, the brakes froze. It took us an hour of jacking up the rear end, pulling off the wheels, banging on various parts, and then putting it all back together. Leaning against an unoccupied termite hill, Laurie made progress in her book. On the road again, we quickly got lost. Going through the Mageda forest, the road deteriorated to a barely recognizable track. We bounced from one rock to another. No other cars or trucks were in sight. We went directly across a dry streambed and up the other side. After a hundred yards we came to a complete dead end surrounded by large boulders and flat-topped acacia trees. Backing up and turning around, we stopped in the middle of the rocky streambed. Gerhard walked one way and I went the other. About 50 yards downstream I saw truck tire tracks heading out of the streambed. It had rained heavily since the last vehicle had passed and a small flash flood had wiped out the “road” and all wheel marks.

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