He was under a tiny patch of shade under a tree in one of the earth’s remotest spots. At Nadapal, the Kenya–South Sudan border, you might expect to meet the ghost of Chatwin, but not a dead ringer for Peter Sellers dying of thirst.
‘You English? Ach great,’ he croaked as he loaded his Samsonite suitcase into our Land Rover. ‘I love the English.’
‘Scottish, actually,’ said Ken, at the wheel next to me. I stayed quiet, immediately disliking him.
‘The name’s Eddie.’ He extended a trembling hand. We could see he was very ill. He drank pints and pints of water but wouldn’t eat though he was so clearly starving.
An endless road opened out in front of us, lined by anthills with elephant-trunk chimneys pointed skywards. It was a strange journey. We had passed a truck shot to pieces, still smoking; a freshly dead hyena with its eyes open crouched in the road, a circle of tribesmen squatting in the dust, their skins scarred into the patterns of crocodile hides.
The night before, we’d stopped in the desert and seen a flickering luminescence I can’t explain. Ken said it was caused by the Snake Star, which local people believe falls from heaven. This ‘star’ grows like a fungus and is fed on by adders which then exhale fire.
I asked Eddie, ‘Where are you going?’
I angled the side mirror so that I could keep a watch on his face, which was blistered with extreme sunburn. Not only did he look like Sellers, but he spoke like Clare Quilty in Lolita, except with a South African clip.
‘Cairo, Cairo, yah, I’m going to Cairo. Do you think I can hitch?’
‘That’s 2,000 miles away!’ I swung round to look at him. ‘Why didn’t you fly?’
‘No money, you see. No money. My wallet was stolen. No passport either. Got to get to Cairo.’
He said he had a hundred shillings on him. Less than a pound. He’d abandoned Nairobi hundreds of miles to the south, where he might have got a new passport, credit cards and a flight.
‘How do you propose to reach Cairo with a hundred bob?’
‘Ah, hitch, I guess. I hear there’s a boat too.’
‘There’s a war on. Khartoum and Juba are fighting and the border’s closed, so there’s no Nile traffic any more.’
‘Ah, that’s bad news. Sure. Hmmm.’
‘Ah, I’ve got to pick up a car for a client. Yes. Then I’m going to drive it back down south.’
As we passed through a landscape of whirling dust devils and jagged distant hills, he told us a ridiculous story of how rich South Africans would employ him to deliver their personal cars to distant points in Africa where they wanted to go on safari — or they sent him to collect vehicles that had to be returned to Johannesburg.
‘Yah, usually it’s Nairobi. I love Nairobi — lovely girls — do you know a bar called Sippers?’
On the road I’ve encountered some strange people. In Croatia I met a British mercenary lost in a minefield. A lunatic in the jungle who believed he had an appointment with King George VI. In Aden there was a Kiwi yachtsman with Marlow’s haunted face who was sailing all the way to the North Island in a 15-foot dinghy. Halfway to India the monsoon had swung round and blown him back to Crater on the edge of scurvy. I gave him dinner and beers and left him with an outboard engine stuck in reverse.
‘Can I ask you if you know Cape Town?’ We said yes.
‘Yah great, do you know…’ And he began to list an inventory of drinking holes that he’d clearly spent the past few years patronising. His geography of Africa was drawn in bars.
Eddie yammered on, hardly drawing breath in his croaking voice making little sense, but he kept returning to the subject of his daughter who was now all grown-up and doing so well. His marriage had fallen apart, he had been sacked from his mining job, times were hard, but he loved his daughter. Oh, how he loved his daughter. He began to sob. Ken and I didn’t know what to say.
Finally, I asked, ‘Eddie, are you on the run? Have you done something?’
‘Ah, come on,you guys, come on, ha ha ha, come on…’
A shanty of mud huts, millions of plastic bags and rusty old blown-up tanks heralded our entrance to Kapoeta, the first settlement in South Sudan. Eddie, who had wanted to travel with us all the way to Juba, suddenly developed a tourist’s curiosity for this godforsaken place. ‘Here’s fine. Just drop me here. Great. Super. Love the English.’
We stopped at a tree. Nearby was a mud hut where a woman was selling tobacco, Omo detergent and about 15 tomatoes. Eddie piled out of the Land Rover and pulled his huge suitcase from the back. Ken gave him a few bank notes and we left him standing there in the scorching sun, in the middle of Africa.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 22 September 2012