Saturday, July 23, 2011

Second Kenya

There’s no fuel now at Loyangalani and they don’t expect any to come in the next few days. We calculate and recalculate, but even with our 27 liters of spare fuel we’ll never be sure of reaching a reliable filling station before we’ll run out, no matter how we plan our route. Due to the state of the roads our consumption has been much higher than average and that isn’t likely to change any time soon. Basically our options are:

a)      Wait for fuel to come to Loyangalani, which might take a couple of days. BUT we’re supposed to leave the country by the 24th of June.
b)    Take the shortest possible way into Ethiopia and look for black market fuel there. BUT there are no guarantees we’ll find it. So we might be stuck there waiting for some to arrive or be obliged to hitchhike to the nearest selling point to get some.
c)     Take the road to Gaz and then to North Horr, with an increasing likelihood of finding petrol the further we go from the lake. BUT this means taking a huge detour, so if there isn’t any in North Horr, we’ll be forced to go to Marsabit.

We finally settle on plan C, seemingly the least risky alternative… 

The first few kilometers the road meanders alongside the lake but then it decisively turns inland, leading us past spectacular desert scenery, dotted every now and then with the brightest green. 

We begin to ascend gently and the soil gradually becomes rockier, with a few challenging stretches here and there. 

At the end of the climb we find the village of Gaz, but unsurprisingly no petrol, so we continue to North Horr. Once on the plateau again we stumble upon a parking-lot-like terrain, where it’s easy to ride next to the tracks and speed it up to 100kms/h and more. 

Then the landscape suddenly changes into a white sandy desert specked with little dunes and palm trees. 

In the middle of this hot and hostile environment lies North Horr. It doesn’t feel like the “big town” as it was described to us, but it does have a decent fuel stock and a “Down Town Palace” – place of maximum refreshment (?), where we ask around about the road ahead. 

We’re informed that the distance to Illiret probably is something between 200 and 300km – “anyway, it’s far” – that there’s no sand, maybe some bad people on the road but definitely – “with God’s grace” – we’ll make it.  We also learn that in the afternoon, there’s a pickup truck leaving for Illiret. We decide to go ahead; it’ll catch up with us on the way.
At first we follow a broad decent graveled road. So when the GPS sends us in the direction of a smaller, sandy branch-off, we’re in doubt. Maybe there’s a new and an old track? But we can’t risk going into a totally deviant direction when we’re in the middle of the desert, so we’ll have to stick with the Tracks4Africa on this one. Inevitably our progress slows down. We come across one last vehicle in one last village and after that there isn’t a soul to be seen, aside from a rare antelope or two.

The sun blazes and it’s searing hot.  I feel the energy drain out of me. 

When after a little rest the road turns to worse – sand with rocks, 

then rocks 

and finally just loose boulders – I find it difficult to keep the pace. Every muscle in my body, but especially in the shoulders, is tensed from the constant balancing all day. We can’t go any further today. It’ll be faster and safer to continue in the morning, after some food and some sleep. We put up our tent behind some shrubs in a dry river bed and while we’re busy cooking dinner we hear the pickup pass on the road…

We get up at dawn to travel as far as we can while it’s still cool. We haven’t gone far though, when we come to a ridiculously rocky slope. I tell Nicolaas to take a picture that really shows the outrageous underground, while I struggle up the hill. 

As I try to reach the side of the road where there seems to be a bit clearer path, my back wheel slips on a large stone. I don’t have enough momentum to keep the bike straight. Instead, I make a sharp turn, lose balance and fall over. 
I let out a high pitched scream of pain. My foot is crushed under the bike and even in my boot it’s folded double. I scream again, as Nicolaas rushes over to lift the bike. The second I pull my foot out underneath, I feel it swell. I try to stand on it, but I can’t. The hurt is making me nauseous. I limp to a big rock and sink down on it.

F###! What do we do now? I can’t ride right now… We try to assess the situation. Nicolaas can go back to North Horr to look for a vehicle. But then what? It would put us back to square one, while still leaving us quite in the middle of nowhere. Plus I don’t like to quit.

No, we’ll try to go on. The road will probably improve after a while, won’t it? I remember reading in the HUBB Turkana report that near Illiret the main road coming from North Horr is “compacted sand and in good condition”. Nicolaas finds me two sticks to serve as crouches so I can limp on while he rides both his bike and mine. It doesn’t take us long to discover the flaws in this arrangement though… I think we must have advanced at a rate of at least 1km/h. Change of plans: I’ll catch a ride squished between Nicolaas and my luggage. Well, that did speed things up a little. But it’s really exhausting for Nicolaas to walk all the way and ride two bikes, while the sun has already climbed the sky. So when the road improves slightly, I get back on.

 We struggle on like this for a couple of hours, taking rests in between. For sure we won’t make it to Illiret today, the 24th, but our goal is to at least reach the junction with the road to Karsa gate of Sibiloi NP, where according to the GPS we’ll find water… And we’ll need it. Our supplies are running dry, literally. It is now 4 o’clock in the afternoon and we’ve managed to cover 40kms. It’s still another 40kms to the junction. 

When Nicolaas, near exhaustion, drops my bike on a nasty slope, we stop and reevaluate the plan. There’s no turning back to North Horr now. But we can’t ride another day without filling up on water. It’s hard to grasp this reality, but it really is beginning to be a matter of life and death. So we make the tough decision to leave my bike – locked – next to the road and hide all unessential luggage into some bushes. 

By the time we’re finished it’s nearly 5 pm; the worst heat is over but we have not a single drop of water left. With two on one bike and everything with us to repair the bike – just in case – we might make it.
But it’s a really tough road still and we start to suffer from signs of dehydration; dry mucosa, difficult speech, headaches, palpitations and sore muscles… Each time we take a rest, it’s harder to motivate ourselves to get going again. The sun sets. After dark and totally exhausted we come to the crossroads, where to our great relief we see light, hear voices… People! The Kenya administrative police welcome us with water, food and shelter. We spend the night in a metal hut: on the bed of a colleague on leave.

 Now let us introduce James and Elly, Sam, Ali and Isaac. They are proud to be from different tribes and regions in Kenya, but what unites them is having been sent to this very unwelcoming outpost of the administrative police at the foot of Mt Darate. Put up here after violent clashes between local tribes over the nearby well, it consists of 5 deteriorating metal huts – one of them being the radio chamber – with a couple of trenches dug around them.  There’s no means of transport aside from going on foot, no means of communication aside from a radio connecting them to other police posts, no food except beans, rice and ugali, no toilet – since the last latrines were blown over by wind – except for the open desert surrounding them, but most importantly no distraction apart from the herdsmen tending their sheep and the rare vehicle that passes every 2 to 4 weeks on its way to or from Illiret. They call it ”Second Kenya”, as opposed to the real Kenya that’s beyond their reach. The policemen that are sent here are condemned to stay for two years. Being on guard 24/7, they fill their days with cooking, gathering water, eating and washing. Darate is a very lonely place and the writing on the walls of the huts is testimony of the madness that befalls most Darate residents. 

No wonder these guys were as glad to see us as we were to see them! They do everything they can to help and make us comfortable. Nicolaas goes together with Sam to try and fetch my bike. But Sam is too heavy to be a pillion seat rider and too inexperienced to take Nicolaas on the back. In the end they have to go to the gate of the nearby NP to look for a vehicle. The process of retrieving bike and luggage takes a whole day, during which I’m fed and pampered, while laughing and making jokes with the guys. When Nicolaas returns, he’s pretty exhausted and my foot is still painful and bloated, but we still decide to try and leave the next day for Illiret. 
This turns out to be a disaster: physically it is really difficult for me to use my foot to balance on the pegs and psychologically I’m too scared to lose balance and fall or put a foot down. Nicolaas has to take over too many times, which is very frustrating for him. We have a stupid argument, but finally both realize that we won’t make it all the way to Omo Valley in Ethiopia like this. (In my defense: in Addis Ababa we find out later that my foot was broken!) And even if we do, it’ll take so much time and include so much suffering that it’s just not worth it.

Plan B: We go back to Darate and wait for a truck that can take us to North Horr and then further through Chalbi Desert to the Moyale road. It takes another three days of waiting – basically working as a Kenya administrative police officer – 

before we get hold of our transport. 

We’re in luck: it can take us all the way to Marsabit. 

But the driver has an even more appealing suggestion: he can drop us off at a junction a few kilometers from Kalasha, where – according to him – a decent enough road starts towards Forole on the Ethiopian border and further to Mega, where – according to the Michelin map – we can find customs and immigration. That’ll save us at least a day!

 At 1 a.m. in the morning we find ourselves alone in the middle of the desert again. We put up our tent on the rocks for a few hours of more or less undisturbed sleep. 

At dawn we start our challenge. As promised the road improves after a few rough kilometers. I’m able to regain confidence and we make good progress. Our path still takes us through pretty desolate landscapes, but at least we come across a village once in a while. 

There is no such thing as an official registration process at the unofficial border post of Forole. “For security reasons” the police advise us to take the road along the border to Tourby and cross the border at Moyale, a detour of hundreds of kilometers… We inform them that we will kindly ignore this advice and cross the border here anyway. 

It’s a sandy track at first, but just after Magado and before the steep ascent towards the plateau it becomes a decent gravel road. 

Well... More or less anyway...

Sadly the local Ethiopian authorities confirm what the Kenyan ones already told us: there is no immigration or customs in Mega. In the end, we are forced to go to Moyale anyway. Well, at least it’ll be on Ethiopian tarmac!

For more pics see album "Second Kenya"

Instead of the luxury all-in accommodation we’d been joking about while staying in Darate, we find a dingy and smelly hotel next to the border post. At least we’ll be legally regularized first thing in the morning, after five days of stateless wandering about…

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Turkana route

After a welcomed family reunion in Nairobi, followed by an exciting tour around Kenya on 4 wheels, we mount our iron horses again. They have had their fourth oil change since we left home nearly 30k kms ago. We are carrying only 2 used spare tires now and it feels almost as if we will be riding home from here. One major challenge separates us from the smooth tarmac roads of North-East Africa: instead of plying the reputedly dreadful Marsabit-Moyale road, we decide to dare the “adventurous” route via Lake Turkana. Having crossed more than a few regions considered dangerous or desolate and overcome the horrible roads of DRC, we don’t let the stories from other overlanders about tribal conflicts, fuel shortage and sandy tracks discourage us. Our passports and carnets are stamped out in Nairobi since there are no immigration or customs offices at the border and we are armed with 27L of spare fuel, which should enable us to ride up to 900km without filling up.

First halt is in front of a traditional Somali hut at the Camel Camp in Nanyuki, at the foot of Mount Kenya. The snow-capped giant has not only his head but also his feet in the clouds. 


Up north from here, the region has a bad reputation due to armed banditry. Young men tend to use their AK-47’s not only for protecting their livestock, but also for raiding their neighbors’ herds and robbing cars and trucks. We are not completely at ease, and the information on road conditions and safety that we manage to get locally remains vague. Most locals don’t seem to know the road we would like to take to Maralal.

It starts as an improvised dirt road bypassing badly potholed tarmac, then branches off to become a decently paved road, but soon we are on a proper gravel track. It leads through unexpectedly desolate landscapes, where private parks boast considerable amounts of wildlife. 

Through the backdoor – a knee-deep muddy stream – we enter the Loisaba Wilderness, where we are escorted by the rangers, since we’re not supposed to be there. If only there would have been a signpost...

Riding through the grass plains dotted with hundreds of zebras, I hear my chain slap for the first time in 15k kms, not nearly as much as the 22k I did with the previous chain and sprocket set. I hope a few extra drops of chain lube will get me to Addis Ababa. It is not the chain, but Isabel’s front inner tube that subsequently exhales its last breath after a so-called snakebite. Two colorfully dressed Samburu boys watch us replacing it before we ride the last kilometers to dusty Maralal. 

From there, we climb into the wet and cold Highlands of Northern Kenya. And we thought we were going to the desert… We find ourselves ploughing and sliding through puddles of mud and wonder how the infamous Toyota Corolla bush taxis meet this challenge… 

High on the very scenic plateau, we are even treated to a violent shower that turns the road into a riverbed. Slippery boulders and stretches of mud require all our attention for the next hours, but gradually the sun breaks through and the landscape becomes more arid. Lonely camel herdsmen and boys carrying guns greet us curiously. 

A few kilometers after the shacks of Baragoi, the road meanders down into a valley. The view is breathtaking. The road turns into a fast but fairly rocky track and I quite enjoy the riding, standing on the footpegs and balancing through the curves. 

South Horr is even more dusty and sandy than Maralal, and notably hotter. We spend more time there than we wished for though, since I have to repair another puncture – a massive thorn piercing the ultra-heavy duty tube. 

We leave around noon, but luckily it’s only a fast 90 km ride towards Loyangalani through white sand and black volcanic rocks. 

Arriving at the lake is pretty spectacular, but in the blazing afternoon sun, its reputedly turquoise aspect is invisible. 

We meet some proud and beautifully adorned Turkana women, but they don’t speak a single word of English. It creates a huge distance and leaves us wonder how different their daily life must be from ours. 

The lakeside town of Loyangalani is basically a collection of tents and huts from several tribes, including the nomadic Turkana, Samburu, Rendile and Gavras, who have been driven away from their homeland by years of drought and overpopulation, and sedentary Elmolo fishermen who’ve been making their living at the lakeshore for centuries. 

For more pics see album "The Turkana Route"

We spend a windy night under the palm trees of the oasis and prepare ourselves for the more difficult part of the Turkana route: the journey to Ethiopia.