Without warning, my front wheel struck a bulldust-concealed dip in the track and I tumbled head first over the handlebars, landing with a spectacular face-plant into the ground. Fortunately, the only damage was a slight scrape on my nose and a dent in my pride. It was no more than an embarrassing slap in the face and a reminder to remain vigilant all the way to the finish. There were still at least 250 kilometres to go and I was aware that most expeditions fail on the homeward run.
By the early evening I began to wonder just when we might make it to the finish. During the course of the day the commander had been trying to avoid villages wherever possible – the fewer people who knew our position the better for security. While attempting to divert around significant settlements we lost our way more than once. At night we sought the opposite situation – it was preferable to be within the protection of a community rather than out in the open.
After obtaining security advice, Issa had arranged for us to stay in a small village called Hiriiro. The local mayor reported by phone that his community was ready to welcome us and had slaughtered two goats in our honour. But about three kilometres before Hiriiro, our security guards suddenly halted the convoy. The commander had just received fresh intelligence information that a group of twenty-two al-Shabaab militants was hiding in the village; the insurgents had arrived the previous day having fled the conflict. At a cost of offending the Hiriiro mayor and community, Issa decided that we give the village a wide berth. We veered off the main track, following a faint trail away from the settlement and behind a large hill that shielded us from view of the village. The new plan was to continue to the next known village, Mareera, in search of cover. But now off the main route, it was impossible to know which course to take. There were faint, unmarked wheel ruts peeling off in every direction, most dissipating in the bushes. We could find no obvious path leading to Mareera.
As the sun set I was still going strong. I continued for another hour in the dark until finally Issa and the other Somali group leaders conceded that we were lost. By this stage nothing fazed me. I had done 190 kilometres and was well into overdrive, numb to just about everything. In the preceding hours I’d tipped over several times, jagged myself on thorn bushes and my knees complained from the constant jarring. Pain and negative emotions such as fear and frustration had been blocked out as a matter of course. Now, focused on the moment, I was most acutely aware of the evening chill as it started to seep through my saturated clothing, but I didn’t care. The headlights provided me with a tunnel vision where I just concentrated on the ground in front in an effort to stay upright. I found a pace that I could maintain for as long as it took. All I wanted was to get to a place – a landmark, a village, or a nomad encampment – any place where we could identify our location. After unsuccessful attempts to pinpoint some nomads, it was decided that we should camp in the open, near the best groundcover we could find. Not ideal.