Nairobi to Rio … by the scenic route

Updated: Feb 10

By Mark Nicholson



At the beginning of the year, I paid my rates on our three plots of land in Kenya. To my annoyance, they have doubled the rates to US$13 per plot. “For what?”, I asked. We built and maintain our own road, we drilled over 100m for our own water, we hand- carry to Nairobi what little refuse cannot be composted. And access to services? You must be kidding! If we need the Police, the first thing they demand is money for the fuel to get here.

Just before Christmas I found a man on a mountain bike outside my gate who said he was looking for land. A week later he pitched up in a 1997 Landcruiser (the same vintage as mine) and walked around our triangular one-acre plot. He fell in love with it and badgered me until I gave in, mainly because I enjoy the company of people with interesting stories. So, we are now down to two plots in this area, which saves me US$13 a year.

How far would you drive to see your national football team play a game (substitute that for your rugby team, or band or opera company, according to your interest)? The answer for Florian Keller, that man in the ancient Landcruiser, was 54,000 km. Being German, Florian decided he wanted to see Germany play at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. He decided to drive there. And being German he planned his route with meticulous precision, spending months working out visas, carnets, shipping routes and distances. He speaks English, Spanish and Portuguese fluently and armed himself with a Russian phrase book. He later found that a knowledge of Japanese would have helped.

In late 2013, having strengthened his vehicle, aptly named Pele, he set off north from Nairobi towards Ethiopia. He had had to change his original plan to go via Sudan, Egypt and Syria, owing to war in the latter. He had organized a series of local guides throughout his journey but occasionally drove alone. He drove first to Addis Ababa, taking in the southern tribes of Ethiopia such as the Hamer of the Omo valley, who indulge in dangerous bull-jumping, and the Mursi, whose women wear 10cm diameter clay lip-plates in their stretched lower lips. His first encounter with difficult border crossings came after a 1000km day-and-night drive alone from Addis to Djibouti for the first sea trip. Crossing the border before dawn and unable to see the border post, he was almost fired upon by Ethiopian border guards.



Hamer people


From Salalah in Oman he drove to Dubai and put Pele on the ship to Bandar Abbas where he met Iranian bureaucracy. Eight hours, ten forms and fifteen offices later, Pele was out and heading for the magical sites of Shiraz, Persepolis, Isfahan and on to Teheran. Iran was summed up by Florian: ‘Take a slab of deep-frozen butter, colour it black and you have the image of Iran: cold, hard and unforgiving. But as soon as you touch it, the butter melts and the true nature of Iranians comes to the fore: extremely friendly, touchingly hospitable, unbelievably helpful and deeply poetic’. He found Iran a country of beautiful, untouched landscapes and charming cities, and Iranians the ‘friendliest and most welcoming of any I have met in the world’. Diesel in Iran was 5 cents a litre so he could fill Pele’s fuel tanks for US$ 4.50.


The Iran-Turkmenistan border, 80 km from the nearest town was a totally different experience. He arrived five minutes after the border closed at 15.30h and was denied entry by a surly border guard. Turkmenistan had the worst roads of the 25 countries he drove through and a soulless and pompous capital, Ashgabat (‘a mixture of Pyonyang and Las Vegas”) It remains a country ruled by megalomaniacs - Niyazov until 2006 - and Berdimuhamedow since. It was the only country Florian did not feel welcomed. From there he crossed a 500 km stretch of Kazakhstan in order to get to the great ancient cities on the Silk Road: Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan. As the weather got colder, he arrived in Tashkent in Kyrgistan and took time off to ski in Kyrgst. He was in awe of the empty Altai and Alatau mountains as he pressed on 1300 km through another part of Kazakhstan to the Russian border.


Altai Mountains

Alatau Mountains

His main technical problem was the freezing of diesel as temperatures fell to -20 degrees C and later -43 degrees C, which meant covering Pele with mattresses and running the engine for hours at night. Still, there were always amusing anecdotes. In Bukhara, he was invited to a breakfast of tea and vodka. He returned later to find the same group with eight empty Vodka bottles in front of them. On another occasion a Kazakh policeman tried to fine him US$100 for failing to put on his headlights in the dim late afternoon light. After a mutually incomprehensible argument, a police car drew up without lights and Florian used sign language to tell the cop to go and fine the police car first.


Pele


After the vastness of Kazakhstan, the even greater vastness of Mongolia and Siberia awaited him. It took him a week to drive with a guide on a dirt track from the western Mongolian border to Ulaanbaatar (anglicized as Ulan Bator), staying in traditional yurts with solar panels and satellite TVs. Many of the livestock owners had herds of camels and horses valued at over half a million dollars. One of his special memories was finding a monk near a Buddhist monastery checking his Facebook account. Back into Russia he made it to Lake Baikal in the middle of winter to enjoy the wonderful experience of snowboarding for 26km on soft snow towed by Pele on the ice and later having a bath in the hot springs on the shore. He still faced another 4000 km of eastern Siberia round the northern Chinese border, eventually reaching Skovorodino, the coldest town on Earth having recorded -52 degrees C, on a milder day of -40 degrees C. Before crossing the 3km-wide Amur river, he fell through the ice and fought for his life to get out*.



On day 94 he arrived in Vladivostok having completed 23,000 km since Nairobi. Japan must have been a shock after the emptiness and bitter cold of Siberia. He collected his car from Sakaiminato and set off knowing that his Kenya driver’s licence was not valid in Japan. He was stopped at Tokyo airport and interviewed politely but endlessly by ever higher-ranking police officers, with befuddled Japanese-German interpreters. The day ended with an array of police watching videos of tribes in Kenya and Ethiopia, countries of which they had never heard. The car was transported by lorry to Yokohama while Florian disappeared north for Spring skiing. Eleven days later he flew to Los Angeles to collect his car; after five days of incompetence he actually collected it. There was never a hint of corruption in Japan.



After crossing the US-Mexican border with ease, Florian continued 1200km down the Pacific coast to Mazatlán where he watched the death-defying cliff divers who judge their dive by the incoming breaking waves. Mexico was friendly and full of historic colonial towns, wonderful food and music. He visited the ancient Mayan temples of Palanque. One startled Mexican told him he thought the vehicle was driverless…the existence of right-hand drive cars is not known about in Mexico. Travelling ever south through the mountains and lakes of Guatemala, he entered Honduras on the Caribbean coast, reputedly the country with a murder rate twenty times that of the US. He encountered both the Garifuna, descendants of ship-wrecked African slaves, and the quiet and reserved Mayans.


In Nicaragua, he visited Ometepe island with volcanoes towering above the lake. He had a terrifying ride on a Ferris wheel where the operator put it into maximum speed with one hand while munching tacos with the other, providing G-forces high enough to black him out. Thence to Costa Rica, a country with no history of coups, having abolished its army and put the money into free education and health care. After a difficult four-hour border crossing into Panama, Pele was shipped to Cartagena, Colombia, while Florian sailed south on a yacht, enjoying the last of the Cuba Libres, Margaritas and Mojitos of the Caribbean.


Thirty-five days before the start of the World Cup, Pele was in Cartagena but it took another four days to clear it. In that port city, Florian picked up a Brazilian artist who was also on his way to the World Cup. They travelled first to Bogotá and then onto Ecuador, enjoying the spectacular forest and mountains of both countries. Unlike in Colombia, Florian found Ecuador free of corruption and making real progress towards stability, democracy and wealth. In Machu Picchu in Peru Florian camped illegally in the Bush hoping for a magical and solitary dawn but was punished by fog and rain. Later, his Brazilian hitch-hiker disappeared with Pele and returned a day late, ending that friendship. Onward to Lake Titicaca, the Bolivian Altiplano, and driving between 6000m peaks, they encountered major fuel shortage problems. Finally, they arrived at the Brazilian border, reaching Sao Paulo one day before the World Cup started. Two days later he was in Rio before a final hop of 1600km took him to Germany’s opening match in Salvador de Bahia. At the end of the trip, Pele was shipped back to Mombasa and Florian was given a free ticket back on Ethiopian Airlines.


Florian’s 204-day 54,000km journey cost him 64,000€ (US$ 73,000). At the end of it Florian reflected on the quote attributed to St Augustine of Hippo (AD 350-430) “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page”.** Anyone can fly to Bishkek or Vladivostok after an 11-hour flight from Moscow but is that really ‘to travel’? Why did Florian undertake this journey? The answer he gave was: “to follow our curiosity and discover the world; to explore breath-taking landscapes, crossing swamps, savannahs, deserts, mountains and oceans; to expand our horizons, and gain new perspectives meeting people from diverse backgrounds and cultures; to learn about ourselves”. Travel for him included the frustrations of difficult border crossings, the dangers of unbelievable cold, the solitude of star-filled nights 1000km from civilization, the breakdowns and brake failures on high mountain passes. On the other hand, it was also the laughter, friendliness and kindness of strangers and the variety of cultures that made his trip so fulfilling. Or was it just that his team won the World Cup after beating the hosts Brazil 7-1 in the semi-finals?


At the end of his blog written up in the Kenyan newspaper, The Star, he wrote: “I would be happy if this story is an inspiration for other people to pursue their dreams, however crazy they may seem.” His trip also raised a substantial sum to support bright Kenyan kids from poor backgrounds to attend high school.


Anyway, I expect our new neighbour to regale us with many new stories.

*Only Connect readers have been here before – see Stoker’s review of Colin Thubron’s latest and best travel book – The Amur River - What divides Russia and China? “One of the most formidable rivers on Earth” (only-connect.co.uk)


** Up there with his “Give me chastity and continency – but not yet” and “Hear the other side.” What a saint!(Ed.)

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