Before I begin, a short disclaimer: This is a very long story, but a good one! If you’re pressed for time, skip to the last paragraph for a quick summary. If not, enjoy the read!
Part of our job as Fisi Camp researchers is to make a fairly regular drive to Nairobi and back. We do this to pick up new RA’s and grad students, buy groceries for camp, fill our liquid nitrogen tanks and run various errands in the city. If you were to look at a map, this seems like a very short trip; by plane its only about 45 minutes. By car, however, is a different story. With traffic, the poor state of the roads in some areas, and our vehicles’ inability to handle hills in higher than 2nd gear when weighted down, it can turn into quite a long day.
I had a particularly interesting experience making the return trip back to the Mara a few months ago. I was coming back from a short vacation with my parents, and missed my flight back to the Mara. Luckily, a balloon pilot that happens to live close to us was making the return trip from Nairobi the next day, so I was able to hitch a ride. We made it all the way to Narok, the halfway point between Nairobi and Talek, without so much as a hiccup. We had a minor set-back in Narok with a speed camera and an over-zealous officer who pulled us over for going 2km/h over the speed limit, but that didn’t hold us up for too long.
The fun started on the way out of Narok. This is the point where the asphalt roads end, and the murram soil roads begin. Things went smoothly for the first 45 minutes, but our conversation was broken abruptly by a very loud popping sound coming from the left rear tire. We assumed it was a flat; we get flat tires pretty often out here. But a quick look revealed that we were wrong. A section of the tread on the tire, about a meter long, had actually ripped itself off and was hanging freely. No problem, that’s what spares are for! Unfortunately our next realization was that the spare tire didn’t have any pressure, it must have picked up a slow leak at some point.
So, with no other option, we continued very slowly down the road until we were lucky enough to come across a man riding a motorbike. He agreed to carry our spare to the nearest town to get it patched, and bring it back to us. About 30 minutes passed, and we were relieved to see him speeding back toward us. He returned our tire, and left us with a few words: “Drive fast, the tire is still not okay.” With that advice we replaced the tire with no tread, and we were off.
It was about 10 minutes before the other rear tire went flat. Since we now had no spare, we drove on the flat tire until we reached the next town, and went straight to the mechanic. After about an hour of waiting, and the realization that we had lost our wheel spanner, the car was once again drivable and we were ready to go. And that’s when the battery problem started. So we got back out and push started the car, and continued on to the Oloololo gate into the Mara triangle; almost home!
We made it to the gate at about 10pm, almost 4 hours after closing. We had informed the rangers that we would be coming in late, but they certainly were not happy with us for being that late. After a little bit of argument, they let us through the gate, and as we got out of the car to thank them we discovered our next flat tire!
With no spare, and no mechanic nearby to patch our tire for us, we had no choice but to call one of the guys in the balloon crew for help. We got him on the phone and explained the situation; he told us that he would do his best to come rescue us, but he would have to get permission from the rangers to be out at night. And that’s when my phone credit ran out, and we were left to wonder whether or not we were being picked up that night.
Ninety more minutes went by, and we spotted headlights! He managed to get permission and made it out to us with two spare tires! And it was a good thing he brought two, because as soon as we replaced the current flat and got the car push started again, we found that we had another flat tire. We changed that tire with our last spare, and got back to camp as quickly as possible before the car decided to break down completely.
In the end, we had one tire with the tread ripped off, four flats, a malfunctioning battery, some trouble at the gate and a premature end to our SOS call. But after 16 hours we managed to make it back home for a well earned night’s sleep.
P.S. For any concerned readers, this was a balloon crew vehicle (and their lost wheel spanner) with all of these problems. The Fisi cars are alright!