Driving Kenya’s Roads

‘I think you could well be interested in this,’ a friend said, as she handed over a book. It was the AA Members Handbook for 1982-84: ‘Guide to Motoring and Touring in Kenya’. I was certainly well interested – particularly, because it was published around the time I came back to Kenya to stay.

Gavin Bennett was then the Editor of the AA magazine, Autonews, and he contributed two fascinating articles in the handbook; fascinating because they show how some things have changed – and some things have stayed the same. I have always appreciated Gavin’s writing. For his column in the Nation, he could even make a half-page article on the care of a car battery not only informative but also enjoyable.

Gavin said in his handbook article, ‘Driving in Kenya’, that the best advice he had ever heard given to a visitor to Kenya on how to cope with our roads and our traffic was ‘Expect anything. Depend on nothing’. True. This was brought home to me not so long ago when I was on a visit to the UK and driving one day with my daughter, who was living there.

‘Why are you braking?’ she asked on one occasion.

‘There’s a car coming on the that road from the left,’ I said.

‘But we are on the main road!’ she replied, not understanding why I was so cautious.

 Another time, as we were on a smooth motorway, she asked, ‘Dad, where are you looking?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You are not looking at the vehicles, you are looking at the road.’

‘Oh, I must be looking for potholes.’

Gavin wrote, ‘Around any given corner you might meet a Ferrari, or a giraffe; a splendid tarmac motorway, or a raging river; an experienced driver in a roadworthy motorcar or a man in a rickety old jalopy loaded with chickens, goats and wives.’ True, again. I well remember the pleasure I felt on my first drive from Mombasa to Nairobi when there was an elephant at the side of the road – and then my shock when the tarmac ran out at Mtito Andei and didn’t start again till Hunters Lodge. But that was back in 1967.

I had brought out with me on the boat a Ford Cortina GT. Of all the cars I have been lucky to own, it was the most fun to drive; it was fast and it had a silky gearshift. It was also Ferrari red. But it hadn’t been Kenyanised, so it got bent by the rough roads. My in-laws came out for a holiday, and my father-in-law asked if he could drive on a trip to Kericho. His eyesight was not so good, and he missed less than fifty percent of the potholes. In those days, I didn’t have the courage to stop him.

Back in the 1990s I used to cover the Safari Rally for the Nation under the pen name of Ralli Shabiki. Our rally was the wildest of all the events in the World Championship. But what the international drivers feared most were not the dirt or the rocky roads, the sticky mud or the blinding dust, but the potholes on the transport sections.

Writing in the mid-1980s, Gavin identified four kinds of road in Kenya: smooth tarmac, rough tarmac, all-weather murram, and dirt tracks. Writing now, I think he would add the new by-passes. In the old days, it was almost impossible to take a wrong turning; now, it’s easy to get lost in, or trying to leave, Nairobi.

There was much more in that AA Members Handbook: a list of AA approved garages, overlanding in Kenya, tips for breakdowns, points of law, buying a second-hand car, guide to accommodation, distance charts. We could do with an edition for the 2020s.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation

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