In choosing your route north from Nairobi to Ethiopia you have two options. On one hand, there is a vague route via Lake Turkana, taking you over the road ‘hardly ever trodden,’ and travelling close to 1000km without fuel stops nor another vehicle in sight. On the other, the infamous Marsabit-Moyale ‘road’ is claimed by many as literally the worst in Africa.
With Kenya’s elections drawing nearer, we chose the Lake Turkana route, figuring our quest for isolation would keep us well and truly away from any potential political flare ups.
Day One: Lake Naivasha
Lake Naivasha, our first stop ~150km out of Nairobi, is one of Kenya’s four great Rift Valley lakes. Our campsite, Carnelly’s (spelt wrong in the guide books and possible here as well) is stunning, sitting amongst swampland that extends all the way out to the lake. We stayed a couple of nights in order to visit Hells Gate National Park – unique in that it allows people to ride bicycles right amongst the African game.
Like many parts of wild Africa, development is taking its toll. About 3/4s of the way to the end of the Hells Gate trail, out of nowhere huge construction vehicles begin appearing, tearing their way through the park’s dirt tracks. A pleasant place for a bike ride it is not. Whilst the geo-thermal plant under construction will undoubtedly improve the local economic situation, it is a shame it is to the detriment of this wonderful national park.
Day Two: Maralal
Waking bright and early, Christine and I planned on getting off to a good start on the tough 300km drive we had ahead of us. We were derailed immediately: our ‘time saving’ breakfast at Carnelly’s took on Homeric proportions as we experienced the very best service East Africa has to offer. Rolling into ‘town’ we searched for a discreet fuel station to top up our tank, in addition to the 100L capacity of extra fuel we required to cover the 1000km ahead. Discretion was important: on the continent, often you’ll turn your back for a second and find dozens of curious eyes peering into your vehicle
Thankfully we managed to avoid this as we packed and repacked the car with the extra fuel and headed out of town.
Driving through this part of Kenya up towards Maralal was unlike any part of Africa we had yet been. We were riveted by the wealth of the land as we journeyed through the green undulating hills formed by tectonic plates attempting to rip Africa in two.
200kms into the picturesque journey, the tarmac suddenly dead ends into dirt. After deflating our tyres and our 3rd hour vanished, we gave into our realization that we had seen the last tarmac until well into Ethiopia.
The final 120km of bumping around the rough stuff took us close to 5 hrs and we arrived at Yare Camel Club in Maralal in the early evening. The long, slow driving we had better get used to. A political party had gathered at the camel club’s ‘function room’ and we recalled our daily security alerts reminding us to ‘avoid all political gatherings’. We bunkered down and hoped for the best.
Day Three: South Horr
We managed to find fuel in Maralal and greedily topped up our tank on the way out of town. The GPS had two options heading to South Horr through Baragoi: one via ‘very bad rocks’ and another more obscure route through Barsaloi. Hoping to preserve our tyres, we opted for the latter.
Leaving the main C77 road behind us, the obscure route dead ended a few times in Maralal before we found the right track. The road disappeared at times, with only sandy tracks to follow as we wound our way up through the Rift Valley ranges. The road less travelled was for the most part in great condition. After quite nearly rattling our teeth out the previous day, it was a welcome change. Only when the real climbing started did we realize why maybe ordinary traffic might typically opt for the main route.
Road building typically dictates that steep ascents and descents are negotiated with winding, hairpin tracks. This particular service road simply dove straight in on a degrading marble surface. Now crawling through the mountains in low range 2nd at 15-20km/hr, concern quickly grew that the ‘short’ 150km day was turning into another epic.
Just like that however, we were through the mountains, and the wonderful Rift Valley opened up stunningly in front of us. Returning to the flat sandy tracks, we managed to make it to South Horr, a dry riverbed village by mid-afternoon. We camped out at the Samburu sports club, and low and behold, a political gathering amassed for the 2nd night in a row.
Day Four: Loyangalani
With only 90km to our first stop on the lake at Loyangalani, we left the dry riverbeds mid-morning. As we continued, the landscape changed completely once again, and we found ourselves bumping along amongst the volcanic plains. Hot and windy, the uncompromising landscape of volcanic boulders was out of this world.
Our first glimpse of Lake Turakana (i.e. the Jade Sea) was a jaw dropping experience. Out of a seeming nothingness, in a hot, windy desert, a stunning body of water began to appear in front of us. With a coastline larger than that of Kenya’s entire east coast, the Lake’s green waters were incomprehensible.
As we pointed the PPE into the oasis town of Loyangalani, we began to encounter some of the most colourful tribal people we had yet met. Adorned with beads and jewelry symbolizing their hierarchical status, people from four different tribal communities in Loyangalani coexisted peacefully. The tough desert like conditions had however taken their toll; two years earlier a devastating drought had obliterated the majority of their livestock, leaving the communities to survive on food aid.
Day Five: Sibiloi National Park
After a hot windy night in the tent, described by our friends Linda and Jurgen as ‘having hair dryers blowing on you all night’ we were up early and ready to push on. This next leg of the journey would be the most remote of the entire trip, and we stocked up well on oasis spring water before leaving.
The windy landscape that we encountered was the most devastating we had been through yet. At times we were forced to stop the car completely as the PPE was engulfed in dust storm after dust storm. Often we would emerge unsure whether we would still be able to find our tracks.
Despite all this, in the most dumbfounding of environments, we continued to encounter the nomadic tribal people battling the elements on their endless journeys for survival.
As the PPE continued over the rocks we eventually found the entrance to Sibiloi national park. Having a Tanzanian driving license we entered at the resident rate, a hefty 90% discount off tourist rack rates. Although we had hoped to push all the way through to Illeret, we opted to pull off the road and bush camp in the national park. It was our most inspiring decision yet.
Day Six: Konso, Ethiopia
Wanting to beat the heat and any potential onlookers, we were up at the crack of dawn ready to cross finally into Ethiopia. We stopped by the local police station at Illeret for updated information, and to register our intent to cross into Ethiopia. Charles, the local police officer was much obliging and we topped up our fuel tank with 50L from our reserves and pushed on.
Crossing borders at this obscure corner of the continent was a non-affair. Suddenly we were driving in Kenya; and the next, we were crossing a line marked only on the GPS and we were in Ethiopia. We had made it!
We eventually hit a real (albeit gravel) road, our first in over 750km, and turned left to report at Ethiopian immigration control in Omorate. With our passports in order after the arduous process of visa applications in Nairobi, we expected to pass through with a breeze. Not so. A customs officer was adamant that a carnet de passage was required to cross (it is not) and was unwilling to allow our vehicle into the country. He jokingly (but not really jokingly) told us we would have to turn back.
One of my favourite quotes from Europe’s most notable author on the African continent, Karen Blixen reads:
“One can always impress a Native by being willing to waste more time over a matter than he does himself, only it is a difficult thing to accomplish”
So we waited. And argued. And eventually, on presenting more useless pieces of paper, he discovered one stating ‘FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY’. Satisfied, he collected it for his folder and agreed to let us pass. The slip of paper was a receipt for payment for visas into Kenya, but we quickly gathered our things and headed off.
We neared our intended campsite in Turmi in the early afternoon, but with the promise of internet, a beautiful campsite, ATMs and hot water showers in Konso, we decided to push the 200km further on. A serendipitous call: despite lacking the promised riches, our ‘camp site’ ended with a delightful reunion with our friends Linda and Jurgen from Nairobi.
We’re in Ethiopia!