The traffic is snarling, that really is the only way to describe this pre-dawn suburban Nairobi logistical catastrophe. Our coach is currently stranded in an ocean of vehicles facing so many different directions as they attempt to find an escape route that it seems as though the world’s largest magnet has drawn them unexpectedly to this epicentre of metallic chaos. Both my British queueing sensibilities and my Swiss need for order and punctuality are being stripped from me, layer by layer. We have not moved in ninety minutes and word has just drifted from the carbon monoxide airwaves that a petrol tanker has overturned six kilometres ahead. That the previously uninterrupted cacophony of minibus, boda-boda and car horns has stopped, like a mutually agreed ceasefire in the early morning traffic hostilities, bodes no better than the fact that most coaches have disgorged their bored passengers onto the fractured asphalt to stretch their weary legs. We are going to be here for a while.

As comfortable as I am initially, safely ensconced in my faux-mahogany and leather VIP class armchair seat and with a combined total of seventeen US TV series seasons on my laptop, my travel-planning muscles nevertheless start to twitch a little as the clock minute hand ticks closer to 5am. If it takes us more than an hour and a half to reach Nairobi central bus station, as there can be no doubt it will, then I will miss my onward connection to Dar es Salaam. As unexcited I am at the prospect of a further eighteen hours on a coach, missing this bus will almost certainly mean missing my flights to Abu Dhabi, Beijing and my final destination of Pyongyang in North Korea. I silently curse myself for making the only rule of this trip that no air travel is permissible within Africa.

Having shared my concern with the three members of the coach crew on two previous occasions, they can almost sense the heightened despair in my voice even before I speak to them. “Sir, we think you must now take a boda-boda.” The solution suggested had been swirling through my mind since the germination of my first seed of worry, but I was supremely reluctant to take my favourite form of East African transport for two very important reasons. Riding pillion on a motorbike with a total stranger, laden with three backpacks and daypacks, might seem a deranged idea at the best of times, but doing so at 4:30am in a city affectionately nicknamed ‘Nairobbery’ by locals and visitors alike would enter the realms of the terminally insane.

“Sir, come now, we have a boda-boda.” He is right, I have no choice. As I step off the bus, I feel as though I should cast a final wave over my shoulder to my fellow passengers. Au revoir mes amis, and into the breach. My spontaneous travel agent has stopped the first motorcyclist riding alone, a young fellow with a face that is neither reassuring nor intimidating. As I move to launch the backpack onto my shoulders in an arc-like motion by now as fluid as a golfer’s swing, so rehearsed is it, I am surprised to feel it being grabbed from me. Putting it over his back, the coach driver smiles at me: “No Sir, I cannot let you go alone. I will be your escort, for safety.”

And so we drive off on the bumpy hard shoulder, between the never-ending rows of cars and through any gap available: the boda-boda driver with my running kit bag wedged between his thighs; me with my daypack strapped to my chest and a bottle of water in hand; and the coach driver behind me with my backpack on his back – a human double airbag transforming me into a pre-dawn Kenyan motorbike sandwich. Progress is slow initially as we weave in and out of traffic like a motorized ski slope slalom circus act, but once we pass the overturned tanker he opens the throttle and we shoot forward into the new day and Nairobi proper. Any boda-boda ride is an exhilarating affair, an adventure into the unknown, but a boda-boda ride against the clock and in such unconventional circumstances is simply magical.

Rwandan boda-boda, no helmets were present in the Kenyan boda-boda of this story. Payment for the ride can be seen on my left wrist in this photo…

We make it to the bus station with ten minutes to spare and I high five my crew with sheer, undisguised relief. Only then do I remember the second reason I did not want to resort to this course of action: with both my bank cards having been rejected by the last four ATM machines, I have not a single cent to my name. As the boda-boda driver looks at me expectantly, I take off my watch without hesitation and offer it to him with the gritty but fair stare of a spaghetti western anti-hero. But he is confused and I worry that he will not go for the deal, an outcome that would pose both a real and moral dilemma as I have no intention of parting with iPod, phone or camera – the next upgrades in the bartering order of ascendant value.

Again, the coach driver saves the day. “Swatch?”, he asks knowledgeably. I acquiesce. He takes the timepiece from my hand and gives the driver the KYS 500, or $5, that he is owed for his prestation. “I like it.” We both smile and shake hands solemnly as I board my next bus. Another day, another adventure.

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