Africa’s New “Hell Road”

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Blog 57 by Mick: Africa’s new “Hell Road”

We had already gotten our passports stamped in Omorate when we left for Kenya. The day previous, we had gone in to town without luggage but still pretty burdened by the idea of crossing the bridge over the Omo River. When we had done this trip 7 weeks beforehand, we had come face to face for a second time with ‘Mr Angry M16’. We still weren’t exactly sure what this guy’s story was, but we were confident whatever it was he was up to no good.

 

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A Map of our riding in Kenya between our two visits. We did 3190kms in total in the country (green lines are tar, brown lines are not), of that 1147km was off-road (36%, includes the shocking bit of road south of Lodwar). We came into the country in June from Uganda, down to the capital Nairobi, then up to Ethiopia on the east side of Lake Turkana (blue arrows). We then came back into the country down the less traveled but easier west side of Lake Turkana, down to Nairobi and out to Tanzania (orange arrow). The red dash line is alternative offroad route to the “A1” – see tips at the end.

 

As a bit of backstory, the first time we tried to cross to the bridge over the Omo River on the day we entered Ethiopia, we had been stopped by a local Daasanech man wielding an M16. Like all men who wave an assault weapon in your general direction, he was very convincing and we turned around as directed. Thankfully later that afternoon when we went for a second time to try and cross, it was nearing sundown and he must have given himself an early mark from his bridge troll duties for the day. Lucky us. So we crossed uncontested and got to Dick and Donnas late in the afternoon.

 

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Riding south for the border – not much here but hard-packed sand.

 

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And some soft sand too… but it was very easily avoided

 

Our next run-in with him was a little more confrontational. After a few days with Dick and Donna on the west side of the river, we needed to cross back to head off on our route north, and that’s when we met him for a second time. He heard us coming and got prepared, dragging a log onto the road to try and block us. Thankfully it wasn’t so big, maybe only 15cm diameter, so we simply rode over it, ignored his armed posturing, turned our back on him and rode off for Jinka. I was very worried he would remember this act of flippant disrespect and treat us accordingly.

 

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So, question time: Once the Gibe III Dam is filled, can you imagine land like this being used for Cotton and Sugar Cane production?

 

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… no, me neither….

 

So this time around, we made sure we gave him as little warning as possible that we were coming. We coordinated our run up over the intercom and hit the bridge side by side… and had a free run. No one blocked us; thankfully Mr Angry M16 was nowhere to be seen. We were very relieved. In town, Immigration and customs were quite straight forward, and we made our way back over to the west bank to Dick and Donna’s. This time around we again had an unmolested river crossing, very likely because we found at that time 4 or 5 police officers doing an inspection of the bridge. They gave us a polite wave as we rode over, and Mr Angry M16’s notable absence in the presence of the Police reinforced our view that he probably was in fact a foreign tourist targeting scumbag as we first suspected.

 

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Border markers on the ground. According to my maps they were about 100m out of place, but no-one is arguing… yet. Apparently oil has been discovered in this part of the world and Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan are in a constant tussle over the “Ilemi Triangle”, a little piece of land very near these border markers (like, about 5km) that all 3 countries currently claim, so I’d expect maybe these markers will get moved when oil/money is at stake.

 

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“So, south then?” “yep”

 

So with paperwork complete we were free to head to Kenya. We left Dick and Donna’s mid morning and headed south into the wind that blows down the Rift Valley and over Lake Turkana for 10 months of the year and powers Dick’s windmills. For those curious, for the other 2 months of the year the wind comes from the north, up the Rift Valley. This is of great benefit for Dick, it means he can build his windmills without a swivel and tail and eliminate the huge amount of construction and maintenance effort that these extra moving parts need. It just means for the 2 months of the year the wind comes from the north, the windmills run backwards and pump at a slightly reduced efficiency, and for the very few days a year (maybe 5 or so) the wind comes from some other random direction the pumps don’t really work a great deal at all. But this is hardly a big issue compared to the benefits of simplicity. This is Africa, anything that is to survive here must be built as tough and simple as practicable.

 

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We rode plenty of this

 

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…and this…

 

We made our way to the Namoruputh Police Checkpoint on the Ethiopian side of the border, had our passports checked out and we were sent on our way by the clearly bored and surly border cops. We soon crossed into Kenya and the difference couldn’t be more striking. Before we had even reached the Todenyang Police Checkpoint on the Kenyan side, we were stopped by a waving and super friendly policeman coming the other way in a Landcruiser. He was all welcoming smiles and laughter, asked us where we had been, where we were going, about our bikes, whether we had been to Kenya before and how was Ethiopia. We were back in proper Africa and couldn’t have been more relieved.

 

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Pretty easy going out here, just a little sandy and hot.

 

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The road was nearly 150km of this – hard and fast sand.

 

The trend continued when we reached the checkpoint. The policeman was very easy going as we chatted about all sorts of stuff while he entered our details into his ledger. We had a bit of a chuckle at the expense of the stereotypical unfriendly Ethiopian – he had heard all the stories before from the foreigners he had met and said he really struggled himself with the reception he received when they crossed over to Namoruputh for meetings on border security. As we left he reassured us “You are in Kenya now, you are welcome here!”

 

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Water and rest stop.

 

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Riding through a river bed, some green things to look at.

 

We had a great ride south. There was the odd Turkana village and a few tiny little towns but mostly just open tracks, generally hard packed sand with some gravel and soft sand here and there. But it was all quite manageable and a pretty easy and enjoyable day’s ride. After about 150kms we rolled into Kalako, the first town of any real consequence on the lake shore. We stopped for some snacks and a cool drink and wondered why on Earth there was an ancient tar road which was shockingly deteriorated connecting this tiny town from the south. Some investigation discovered why.

 

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We stopped for lunch under this tree, just some snacks and a bit of water and a sit down. A group of Turkana kids came walking down the river valley making all sorts of noise, and then they spotted our bikes and stopped, looked over suspiciously and instinctively ducked for cover behind some vegetation. We then stood up and gave them a wave, they realised we were just some tourists and laughed and waved back and continued on. Sounds silly that they ducked for cover and hid from us, but these guys are in a constant state of war with the Daasanech to the north. Daasanech kill Turkana. Turkana kill Daasanech. Tit for tat for ever. I’d be suspicious and ducking for cover too if I saw strange bikes stopped in a strange place.

 

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We were quite close to the lake for most of the day but didn’t get too many views of it. And unfortunately that will be the case forever now, with the Omo being dammed. The flow on effects of this dam are predicted to be devastating, yet Ethiopia persists. Filling the ‘first stage’ of the Gibe III dam of the Omo River in Ethiopia will drop the lake level by 2 metres, which will destroy the major fisheries areas on the western shore around Ferguson Gulf, where 50% of the lakes fish is produced. Very conservatively, the lake level will ultimately drop 13m, lose 41% of surface area, and double in salinity. More realistic/aggressive models suggest it might drop 22m to an average depth of only 8m and lose 60% of its size. In addition to this, the lake floor includes a ridge about half way down the lake meaning a land bridge will form between two isolated mini-lakes, one south and one north. The southern one with no inflow will evaporate, increase in salinity and degrade to salt marsh. According to scientists who know better, the likelihood that Ethiopia is currently creating another Aral Sea situation is very high.

 

In the late 60’s it was proposed to enrich the lives of the Turkana people of north-west Kenya by utilizing the previously ignored resources of Lake Turkana – Nile Perch and Tilapia, both excellent eating fish. And the Norwegian Government were going to help the locals do it; the fact they would have to completely upend their entire culture and turn pastoralists to fisherman was of little concern. A plan was hatched in the 70’s and by 1980 a fishing port and processing infrastructure were finished, including ice makers/freezers and diesel generators to power them, and at a cost of $21M, a tar road connecting the factory to the main highway network near Kitale where the fish could then access the large market of Nairobi.

 

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“Cold soda now available”… Just not today, we missed out. Love the sign though “drinks and all that you need”

 

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Two ubiquitous things in this part of the world: Football and Church, and prioritised in that order too.

 

The culture of the Turkana people is focused on their cows and goats and they see little value in fish; it is food for poor people. So to find sufficient workers with the necessary skills for the project, outsiders were brought in from the east, essentially an act of war for fiercely tribal groups like the Turkana. Yet, this was only one of many stumbling blocks for the project.

 

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Local Turkana Village.   They make their dwellings outs of dried palm fronds.

 

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Another very common sight in this part of the world – people fetching water from a river bed. Life is tough here. Real Tough…

 

In the punishing heat of summer the freezers struggled to function, and the cost of diesel to generate electricity was more than the fish was ever worth. Frozen fish products were abandoned for salted and dried fish that was produced for lower cost, but also attracted less revenue. The lake level fluctuated from year to year and with it so did fish yields, and the main fishing port at Ferguson’s Gulf that was built when water levels were high became landlocked for years. And like many aid organisations, the enterprise became bloated with excess personnel and plagued by mismanagement. In short, it was a failure, and shutdown in 1990.

 

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The service station in Kaloko. We were fine for fuel but did get some dried mango to snack on.

 

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The road south of Lodwar…

 

So it was no surprise the road we found ourselves on from that sleepy town of Kaloko was a disaster, it was 35 years old and never seen a second of maintenance. It was horrid; heavily corrugated and pot holed, the foundations eroded leaving dangerous ledges and sharp square edges where stubborn islands of tar refused to die. It was a relief to make the 60km to Lodwar, find a cheap hotel with a fan and get a cold coke.

 

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Broken islands of tar in amongst potholes and corrugations. Oh what a joy.

 

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Stopping for a rest.

 

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This Turkana women popped up out of nowhere. There were plenty of people around and we would have loved to have gotten more photos but they were quite shy and more focused on just going about their business then worrying about us, so we never got to interact or talk to any Turkana, apart from this lady. Turkana are renowned for the colourful beads and iron jewelry.

 

But the shocking road persisted the next day for another 200kms, 5 hours worth of riding at the speeds the conditions permitted. For lots of the way, the ‘road’ had been completely abandoned as traffic created its own routes through the bush. In truth it was more piste than road, with multiple lines to choose from but all going in the same direction. We were both relieved when we finally hit a proper road, and we picked up some speed as we rode on to the outskirts of Eldoret where we settled for the night. It was the only time either of us had got arm pump and sore shoulders from riding what was technically a highway. It was an awful section of road completely devoid of enjoyment, that had Tanya saying for the first time of the trip she would deadest rather be working that riding this monstrosity of a road. Despite that fact that the east side of Turkana was more difficult, remote and longer we would sooner do that route than the west side again. It was all kinds of unpleasant.

 

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Had to be careful in some areas…

 

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200km of this… horrid

 

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Having a breather

 

The road from Marsibit in northern Kenya to Moyale in southern Ethiopia was often described as Africa’s “Hell Road” – 260kms of nasty corrugations connecting the two countries. That bit of highway has since been tarred, so we are proclaiming that crown to now belong to the ‘A1 Highway’ (literally, it is designated the A1! Oh the irony!) from Mariach Pass to Kalakol through Lodwar, 260km of corrugations, holes, erosion and smashed tar, Africa’s new “Hell Road”.

 

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A particularly bad section

 

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This hole was actually handle bar deep if you compare it to the original road height over to the left

 

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So many large corrugations it shook the barkbuster mounting bolt out of the end of the bars! I put that stick in there and cable tied it up to stop the barkbuster pivoting down on the inside mount and interfering with the tank.

 

From Eldoret onwards, not too much exciting happened. We presented at Eldoret Immigration to get stamped in to Kenya, and were looked at with puzzled expressions. We explained what we had done, where we had come from and that immigration in Nairobi had advised us before we left for Ethiopia that this was the place to get stamped in after coming down the west side of Lake Turkana. Well, it was the first they had heard of that, but they did nevertheless, once they had found a stamp and worked out what on earth to do with the new online visa that is. But they were very friendly and helpful and we waited patiently. It was a joy to be in a country where the people were friendly, communication was easy and stuff happened as it should.

 

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Kenya’s 50 Shilling note… celebrating the ivory trade! Ahem, not cool Kenya, so not cool…

 

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The corrugations of the Lodwar Road made my dodgy repair I did of my cracked tank with a tyre iron and petrol stove leak. It wasn’t flowing fluid, but it was weeping ever so slightly and made the bike stink.

 

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So I cleaned it and cut back all the old filler. When I had done this repair I struggled to keep enough heat in the tyre iron and ended up with quite a few cold joins in the repair. That’s how it was leaking.

 

We headed down to Nairobi and checked back into Jungle Junction where we had some stuff waiting for us – new swingarm and rear suspension linkage bearings, plus tyres. We tried for a second time to apply for a DRC visa but were knocked back by the fearsome receptionist. We just couldn’t even get a shoe in the door. No non nien! Not happening. All our usual tricks couldn’t even dent her armour, let alone pierce it. She was formidable.

 

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Cleaning the soldering iron before use.

 

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Stitched up the crack. I didn’t want to just push the iron down in the crack as it only pushed more plastic away and made that area thinner. So I pushed down the crack in stages to try and keep the plastic over the crack.

 

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Weld weld weld.

 

So, after sourcing some bits and pieces (tubes, grips, chain lube, gloves) and doing a few little jobs, (service the bikes, fix my leaking fuel tank and have our pannier bags repaired… again), we decided to go for Arusha, Tanzania. We could spend some time with Dick and Donna’s son Caleb and his wife Joanna, do some riding while we sent our passports to Pretoria for our DRC visa. If we were going to make this Congo crossing happen, we were starting to run out of options.

 

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I found if I preheated the tank and got the plastic around the area I wanted to weld fluid, then welded in the filler, I could get a decent result.

 

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Neatening it all up.

 

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And finished!

 

So we hit the highway for Arusha in Northern Tanzania with fresh rubber loaded on the back. We used the main crossing between Kenya and Tanzania, and it sees the majority of overlander traffic doing “Cape to Cairo”, so it should have come as no surprise that they knew what they were doing with Carnet de Passages. As our bikes had never entered Kenya properly, we had hoped we could just sneak past customs and out the gate. Well… not so. We got pinged, but after explaining our situation they stamped us out with a few waggled fingers and “don’t do that again”. “Yes boss!” We entered Tanzania late in the afternoon, considered finding a hotel but quickly realised we had no money and with the ATM at the border out of action, we decided to go for Arusha in the dark.

 

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Some of the overlanders we met this time around in Nairobi. These guys were about to head up the east side of Lake Turkana and we were able to give some advice on what to expect.

 

Some tips for people who want to ride the West Side of Lake Turkana:

  1. If your doing it from north to south like we did, make sure when entering Ethiopia you nominate “Omorate” as your exit port. This gets written on your importation documents and apparently they don’t like it so much if you try and exit somewhere else. If you nominated Moyale but want to leave at Omorate, you can (apparently?) change it by going to Customs HQ in Addis Ababa, at N9° 00.871′ E38° 47.968′. No idea what the process is… good luck!
  2. Immigration and customs in Omorate is at N4° 48.336′ E36° 03.066′. Get your exit stamps there.
  3. You need to get checked out and put in the police register at Namoruputh Police Checkpoint on the Ethiopian side of the border, co-ordinates are N4° 37.995′ E35° 56.914′. It is situated on a bit of a rise and easy to spot.
  4. Tondenyang Police Checkpoint on the Kenyan Side is at N4° 32.194′ E35° 55.587’. Get checked in there; it is very easy to find, just follow the track.
  5. We were told by the immigration people in Eldoret that in Lokitaung (co-ords for town based on T4A N4° 15.880′ E35° 45.482′) there is immigration and customs for entering Kenya. No idea where exactly the offices are in town.
  6. We used Immigration in Eldoret at N0° 31.413′ E35° 16.562′ to get stamped in, but this isn’t right. We never actually went to Customs and never entered the bikes formally into Kenya, pretty naughty, but we got away with it. The people at Immigration said customs was out at the Eldoret Airport.
  7. There is an off-road route south of Lodwar which runs parallel with the Lake which, based on the condition of the “A1”, I would consider using as an alternative. We didn’t as it would have added about 150kms or so onto our route to get to immigration in Eldoret, but if you get stamped in at Lokitaung and are going to Nairobi then this route is actually slightly shorter than the “highway”. Our older version of T4A warns of “bandits” on this road – we never looked into it so don’t know for sure but heard nothing about recent bandit activity, just old stories, so maybe it is out of date information. Not sure. But as always in Africa, get some up to date local info before going!

6 Comments on “Africa’s New “Hell Road”

  1. Have not seen an update for a while. Was wondering what you were up to. Still banging around in the desert I see.

    • Hey swamp – while the blog might have us in East Africa, in real time we are actually in Morocco. But yep, still banging around the deserts!

  2. We traversed that atrocious road from Kalakol to Marich Pass last year in September. It was without a doubt the most terrible road that we have encountered on our seven month trip from Cape Town to Ethiopia and back. Agree that the eastern side of Lake Turkana is much more special!

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