Two days ago we crossed the border form Kenya into Ethiopia via the lake Turkana route. This is not an official border crossing, there is no border post and not even really a road, just a series of vague tracks that go through the desert passing the odd small village of nomadic people that inhabit the area. These tracks however seem to converge into one track on the Ethiopian side where there is a small village and a shack with a barrier across the track. Before I carry on, I should point out that this area is very remote a desolate sand/pebble desert with a very few trees and some low shrub. As soon as we reached the barrier, a guy jumped out and waved us to stop. He was quickly joined by a few other guys, and within a few seconds a guy wheedling an AK 47 rifle. Only one of the group spoke some broken English and he tried to tell us that this was an "unlegal" road and that we had to turn back. We explained that turning back into Kenya was impossible as we did not have enough fuel to reach the first fuel in Kenya which was at a mission outpost (even if they had any to sell us) and certainly not to first fuel station in Maralal some 4-500 km back and several days drive. They of course must know this and so know that they have you in a difficult situation.
Over the next 30 mins of talks between us, he started to suggest that their might be a solution if we had some money. But it might cost us US$50 each. We showed him that we had only US$14 in cash on us and he said they it was impossible to drive beyond this point. I then said that we would have to wait at the barrier for people to come and search for us. This got the reaction I had hoped for and he became more interested in the US$14 we had and sending us on our way. He talked with his accomplices, and said that he needed to get into the vehicle with us and we needed to drive. So he took the AK, pushed Aaron over into the middle seat and pointed forward. His accomplices raised the barrier and I started the car. This really worried me. What was he going to do? Why was he asking us to drive into the desert? In this part of Africa it would be very easy to make us drive into the desert, shoot us both, ransack the vehicle, and nobody would ever find us or the vehicle. I just hoped that he was not greedy enough to search the vehicle to see what we were carrying as the sight of the thousands of dollars of equipment we had might be the catalyst for him to do something crazy. We did stay calm however. I had gone over in my head many times different courses of action I could take if we were held up in this way so I think I was at least partially mentally prepared. Before I started the car and without him seeing, I took our can of C7 (a South African version of mace or pepper spray) and placed it by the side of the drivers seat where I could reach for it without him seeing. I had also practiced many times in the dark and with my eyes closed how to remove the protective cap and position the can in my hand so the jet would spray in the exact direction in which I pointed the can. We also had a club which I could not pull out at that point, but I made a mental note of where it was and already had an excuse I could use to go to that part of the vehicle where I could pull it out.
"OK" he said "you drive". I drove forward along the sand track playing different scenarios over in my mind of how I could act if things turned nasty. I decided I would not let him make us get out of the vehicle. If he asked us to do this, that would be my trigger to take some action. He had the AK pointing upwards between his legs, not at us. If we had to do something, grabbing the rifle and keeping it pointing upwards would be our best chance and the two of us could overpower him away from the rest of his friends. Taking any action would be our last resort however, and only if we thought our lives were at risk. "Stop here" he said, "give me the money". Aaron took out the US$14 wade of one dollar bills and handed it to him. As I watched his greedy eyes fixed on the money, I reached down and grasped the can of C7 ready to flick off the cap. He counted the money and smiled, then looked at both of us, opened the Landy door, and got out. As soon as he closed the doors, I put the pedal to the metal and drove as fast the old Landy could go over the first sand bank and out of the sights of the AK.
Although Aaron and I could not communicate about how to deal with this, I knew he was also going through in his mind how to react, and as soon as I saw that the AK was between the guys legs pointing upwards, I knew that Aaron was thinking the same as me: if we have to do anything, keeping the AK pointing upwards would give us the best chance. In fact Dennis was right, this was exactly what I was thinking. I knew that if we had to engage in some type of struggle he would have a hard time pointing the gun at us while inside the cramped vehicle. Whatever happened I knew we couldn't let him and the gun out of the car if things got ugly as then he would have no problem shooting in our direction. I thought that if he made a move that I could easily grab the barrel of the gun and push it towards the front of the truck, but then I thought if he shot, the barrel of the gun would be too hot to hold on to. There are many people walking around these parts with guns, but I don't think all of them have ammo. I noticed that the safety on his AK was engaged which made me think that not only was the weapon loaded but there was probably already a round in the chamber. It's impossible to say what we would have done if things had escalated. All I know is that the adrenaline was flowing and there were a million and one things running through my mind.
About 20 mins later we stopped and got out of the vehicle thankful that we emerged from this situation only US$14 lighter. I have to point out that we were told by other travelers who had also taken this route that there was a Police barrier and that they wanted bribes to allow you to pass, however, none had reported that they carried an AK47 rifle, entered your vehicle, and made you drive with them into the desert. We were expecting the usual, cheerful corrupt policemen (if they were policemen)who openly ask if you have brought them a present. I am not sure how to deal with this situation from this point. I will report the incident to the British Embassy, but do not want to rock the boat while we are still in Ethiopia.
I have attached just one picture of the area where this happened, but obviously I didn't take any pictures of the actual incident as I am not quite sure the gunman would have stopped to smile!