Onwards to Ethiopia through Lake Turkana

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.

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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

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Glass.

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.

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Victory at the equator

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.

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Which way?

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.

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Some of the day’s better roads!

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.

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Coming through

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We’re in Ethiopia!

-Eugene

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In the big city of Nairobi, Kenya

Bumper to bumper traffic welcomed us into the Nairobi, East Africa’s hub. And we were quintessential country kids who finally arrived at “the big city,” marveling at the 24-hr stores, cosmopolitan fare, and skyscrapers 10 stories high.

One of our first days here, we delved into Nairobi’s wild side and paid a visit Nairobi’s Giraffe Center, a success story amongst conservationists. The efforts of African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW) has more than doubled the population of Rothschild’s giraffes, and the center has successfully released these beautiful animals across Kenya’s national parks.

Hands full of food pellets, we stood face-to-face with the giraffes on a perch and fed them their afternoon snack. With tongues rough as sandpaper, big shiny eyes, and an unimaginable amount of slobber, the gentle creatures won our hearts. As evidenced below!

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Slobber all over the place

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Getting a Valentine’s Day kiss from Lena!

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Two nights later, we checked Carnivore off our Nairobi bucket list. This restaurant takes nyama choma (the unofficial dish of Kenya, meaning barbecued meat) to new heights. With unlimited soup, salad, and 20+ meats brought to the table on swords, the food doesn’t stop coming until the white flag waves, literally. (There’s a flag on the table you need to knock down). Needless to say, we left satisfied.

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The following day we visited the David Sheldrick Center, a foundation that takes in orphaned baby elephants and rhinos, rehabilitates them, and releases them back into Kenya’s wild parks. For one hour every day, they allow visitors to come and watch the baby elephants get their daily mud bath and lunch time milk bottles. We were smitten, and promptly adopted one of them–a baby girl named Sonje. As new foster parents, we received an invite to return in a few hours and see her bedtime ritual.

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Joining the elephant dog pile

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All grown up and bottle-feeding himself!

To pass the time before the private viewing, we made a stop at Kazuri Beads in the Karen & Langata neighborhood. (Kazuri in Swahili means “small and beautiful.”) What began as two women is now a workforce of 100+ single mothers and disabled women who commute daily from the slums to make a living for themselves. A tour of the facilities covered everything from clay making to molding to painting and glazing–it’s a well-oiled operation that provides opportunity and empowerment to a disadvantaged social group.

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A hard day’s work drying off in the sun

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Each bead is hand-rolled, hand-drawn, and hand-painted

Back at the elephant center, we watched the keepers bring all 20+ babies from the bush. The young ones strutted (some ran) into their pens in anticipation of their milk nightcap. Walking around, we looked on as some babies were wrapped up in blankets, a few babies cried out for more milk, and one cheeky little guy chewed on his trainer’s coat (and then proceeded to chew on Eugene’s arm). Sonje, who will be released back into the wild soon, spent the entire time chowing down on dinner.

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Wrapped up for the cold night ahead

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Saying hello to the visitors!

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Nom nom

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Clearly not satisfied with his ration of milk

Last but not least, we can now add another home away from home to our ever expanding list: Jungle Junction. Popular amongst overlanders, the Nairobi house was packed the entire time.

We met a few couples headed the same way, and after careful consideration, decided to change our route north to follow the caravan. Instead of bumpy and bandit-infested Moyale, we are now headed towards remote and beautiful Lake Turkana, en route to Ethiopia.

The Jade Sea awaits!