Mombasa is an ancient city which has been a major way-station for Indian Ocean trading over thousands of years. Its history on the Swahili Coast owes as much to exchange with the Arab world and India than it does to the interior. Hindu temples and Christian churches are found throughout, and the Muslim call to prayer echoes from loudspeakers at mosques across the city. The Ki-Swahili language is an amalgam of Bantu, Arabic, and other tongues spoken by sailors and traders throughout the Indian Ocean and served as a lingua franca along this coast for centuries.
Mombasa is also a huge 21st Century industrial port – the second busiest shipping port in Africa after Durban South Africa. There’s no passenger terminal for ships. We docked in the middle of a gigantic industrial facility with shipping containers stacked dozens deep and swinging from cranes as they are sorted and shifted.
The port of Mombasa is on an island, and once we crossed the river on a huge bridge, we joined the heavy truck traffic inland. Out past the city limits most of the vehicles are flatbed trucks that haul shipping containers, and our Land Cruiser was tiny among them. The trucks lumber along very slowly, maybe 30 kph even though the speed limit was 80 kph.
I’ve seen very heavy container traffic before near the US ports of Oakland and Long Beach. But it’s different in Kenya: the highway is just two lanes, so passing is tricky. The trucks go really slowly, so it’s just not feasible to fall in line and drive behind them. And for hours and hours it really is almost all containers on trucks, with other traffic being a small minority of the vehicles.
What’s really striking is that although Mombasa is a huge center of global shipping, it’s not really served by railways. The cargo containers unloaded from gigantic ships here don’t proceed into the interior by train. Instead each one rides a truck, often for thousands of miles across the continent. Trucks from the port of Mombasa carry containers to Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Sudan, Central Africa, Ethiopia, Zambia, and beyond.
Our driver-guide was adept at passing the big trucks several at a time, darting out into the right (oncoming traffic) lane and tripling our speed to pass. The unending trucks made this nerve-wracking as there was always a huge oncoming truck bearing down on us. Sometimes they flashed headlights as a warning, but every time Milton expertly dived back into our lane and hit the brakes just in time.
Milton called the road out of Mombasa the Great Northern Highway. It’s part of a really ambitious emerging network of good paved highways called the Trans-Africa Highway network. It’s financed by the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the Africa Development Bank. Much of it (especially across the forests of central Africa) is still a dream, but there are thousands of km of north-south trucking routes in East and West Africa.
It was both un-nerving dodging in and out of the lines of containers in the face of oncoming traffic, and fascinating to realize that this we were swimming in a river of shipping containers that crawl all over the continent.