After what seemed like a forever we were finally leaving Nairobi. There was much excitement but a little apprehension too. It is so strange that we can ride day-in-day-out for a year just about; then after a short break… ok a 4 week break, we were feeling like newbies again. The nervous excitement to be riding again was almost as pronounced as the day we uncrated our bikes in Durban almost a year previous. The fact we were about to do the famed Lake Turkana route after a month of getting soft (in both body and mind) weighed on my thoughts. Turkana was to be our most challenging riding since Kaokoland, Namibia… and we had yet to wean ourselves off the quality lattes and tasty foreign food on offer in Nairobi. Full on, physical riding and tinned food was going to be a shock to the system.
We had a decent run out of Nairobi taking the eastern bypass out of town thus avoiding the worst of the traffic. Once we were out on the open road we were very much back onto the swing of things and feeling like no time had passed. We made it to Nanyuki where we found a cheap hotel with decent food and prepared for the next couple days of riding Turkana.
This is what the ‘Hell Road’ looks like these days. From what we hear only 80km remains to be tarred from the once feared road from Marsabit to Moyale. Want to ride in Africa? Get here quick before it all gets tarred.
We managed to find some nice gravel before too long though
And had a good time
A bit of background on Lake Turkana: It is known as the Jade Sea in reference to the stunning, deep turquoise colour of the lake that is accentuated by the bright reds and blacks of the landscape. Fun fact – the turquoise colour comes from algae that rises to the surface of the lake in calm weather. Turkana is the largest permanent desert lake and the largest alkaline lake in the world. Its other claim to fame is that it sports the highest density of Nile crocodiles anywhere in the world. But with ample fish stocks in the lake they were said to be relatively ‘friendly’ to humans. We had no plans to test this crackpot theory – no matter the heat.
Not another person in sight
Here you can see Mick’s bandage from his screwdriver accident. It took 4 days before the swelling went down enough to wear a helmet. Goose.
Jagged this batboy from the inter webs
Lake Turkana is situated in the north of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley and extends from the Ethiopian border some 249km north to south and measures 44km at its widest part and a depth of 30m. But it is not expected to maintain such dimensions for much longer following the damming of the Omo River in Ethiopia. It could in fact be facing an Aral Sea situation. We will talk about this a lot in our Ethiopia blogs as in our travels north we came to understand the implications for the local tribes that line the river and live on Lake Turkana. With the completion of the huge Gilgel Gibe III dam, life for these people will never be the same again.
This is the route we took along Turkana
On the way out of one of the many dry river beds
And going into another
But more than anything for us Turkana represented a decent challenge that we had long been looking forward to. Our friends Michnus and Elsibie had whetted our appetite for this route with their fantastic unsupported crossing of Turkana http://advrider.com/index.php?threads/michnus-elsebie-piki-piki-around-the-world.696647/page-8″>
The route has everything we look for in a challenging ride – utter remoteness, limited chance of seeing another vehicle, logistical issues such as water, communication and fuel access and no margin for poor decisions. We look forward to any opportunity to need our secondary fuel tank which is common back home but less so on the highly populated African continent.
We were carrying our new tyres despite the hassle as we didn’t want to shred up our brand new tyres on the nightmarish rocks of the Turkana route. The aim was to get as far as the track would allow on our clapped out (and rather disappointing K60s) before donning the new Golden Tyre GT201s.
A rugged beauty
We crossed this mostly dry river bed shortly after descending into the valley
Climb, descend, climb, descend
Riding the ridge line
Not long ago the Turkana route required 870km of range from bowser to bowser (Marallel to Arba Minch) which made unsupported bike crossings a rarity. But over time black market fuel has been getting closer and closer due to the rise of cheap Chinese motorbikes. Prior to meeting Caleb (the biker whose parents live in Ethiopia) in Nairobi we were preparing for about 710km of range (we had reliable and current information there was fuel in Woyto, Ethiopia) which we estimated would require us to carry between 45 and 50L of fuel each based on expected poor fuel efficiency on the highly rocky and sandy offroad route followed by a bit over 200km of tar. However Caleb informed us we could now access fuel in Baragoi (100km north of Maralal) and that we could very reliably get black market fuel in Omorate, cutting the range required to 490km of off-road (including a trip into the Siliboi NP). So in the end we only needed about 35l – easy to cover with our main and secondary tank.
Personally I hate carrying extra fuel containers on remote routes due to the anxiety that comes with worrying about crashing and rupturing crucial fuel supplies. And the threat of the bike catching on fire is a decent fear in such an event too. I will never forget the story of a poor bugger in Australia who had his brand new KTM 525(I think?) go up in flames in a matter of seconds on the Gibb River Road. He’d not put his jerry can cap on properly at the last service station (easy enough to do on rides like this) and the fuel had splashed out on to his panniers and the whole thing caught alight. With the bike being so new he hadn’t gotten around to insuring it either. Ouch! Though I am sure if it was the DR it would merely rise out of the ashes like a phoenix… stronger and more beautiful than ever 😉
Pretty easy sand
Anyways, back at Epupa Falls in Namibia we had bumped into a fellow mining person and Africa mad traveller named Simon. He recommended we take a less conventional and more scenic route to the start of Turkana. Naturally we jumped at the chance to take the less traveled route of an already less travelled route. It took us past the Namunyak wildlife conservancy and through areas with only the slightest signs of habitation. We only saw the odd herd of goats and bomas visible on distant hilltops. It was extremely fun riding as we cruised deserted winding track along ridges, down valleys and in and out of steep sandy, dry river beds.
Crossing the largest riverbed
It was at one of these steep dry river crossings, however, that a photo opportunity went awry and led Mick into a spot of bother.
The troublesome photo-op
Anyway, part way up a steep rocky incline Mick thought it would be a perfect spot to grab an action shot of me coming up the climb and pulled off the road. What he didn’t count on was getting started again on the steepest part of the incline, off the track and on his heavily worn K60. Trying to get going again from his position on the wrong side of the loose grader rill, the rear wheel slipped onto the steep and rocky side of the hill. Now this was a bit of a problem as the rocks on side of the hill were large rectangular heinous things that every time he tried to get the bike back on line the bike slipped a couple feet further down the hill and closer to a decent 2 to 3m drop down into a gully.
Unfortunately I was unaware of this and had zipped on ahead. By the time I returned he had expended much energy and was even further away from where he wanted to be. I went to help extract the bike but even with the two of us we just found the bike sliding further down the hillside and closer to the drop off. The huge angular rocks made it hard for us to get purchase for our boots let alone the balding tyres. Seeing the situation was a bit precarious I thought it best to bring in reinforcements to avoid a trip ending bike loss. I told Mick I was going to go and grab a couple of Samburu fellows I had passed up the road to help nudge the bike back on to the track.
Love a good rocky climb
So off I sped in search of the guys I had seen just moments ago but they were nowhere to be found. I dropped by two separate bomas to ask if there was anyone that could come and help us retrieve the bike. There is not much English spoken around these parts and my Swahili is limited to ordering tea so I had to use sign language to get my point across. It was quite remarkable how quickly the women cottoned on to what had happened but unfortunately it was just them and their small army of little children around. The next boma was a similar story. The ladies were all surprised and amused then clear on what I was demonstrating but were similarly devoid of heavy lifting power with all the guys gone. Reinforcements weren’t available so I headed back thinking we were just going to have to do this smarter. But low and behold there Mick was with the bike back on the trail having managed to get it done by himself. But he was shagged.
While he was getting his energy back we saw the women from the first boma I had called on had walked the couple kms from their house to see if everything was ok with us. It was incredibly touching. Their kids had followed the tyre marks and were excitedly putting together what had happened – Samburu CSI style. The women went and looked at Michael to see he was okay then we all got about laughing at the situation which they found highly amusing now they had seen no one was in trouble. We said some fond farewells and they started up the hill on their way home.
I can’t tell you how nice a moment it was knowing that despite the language barrier these people had not only understood the fact we had some trouble but went out of their way to travel the distance to us to see if there was anything they could do for these oddly dressed strangers who rocked up on their doorstep waving their hands around and making precious little sense.
Our home for the night
Once everything was back in order we rode on and considered where we would be able to spend the night. Mick was happy to camp wherever but as ever, I wanted to first suss out the lion/hyena/boogeyman situation with the locals now that I knew I was fully fluent in Samburu-English sign language.
Trying on some Samburu bling – heavy stuff
The women got a kick out of it
But the men for some reason found it hilarious
We rode up to the second boma and watched as a big group of ladies came rushing down from the huts to see if we were both ok. It was another really lovely and humanising moment. The women were all so happy to see us both and proceeded to fuss heavily over Michael. When he took his helmet off they saw the band aid on his forehead from his liaison with the screwdriver and obviously thought it was a result of this bike drama. He got mass sympathy with the two oldest ladies patting the bandage and saying ‘pole sana, pole sana’ – very sorry, very sorry. It was so sweet.
This young woman was an utter stunner
I then asked if it was safe to camp in the area or if there were lion or hyena. I knew the Swahili word for lion was ‘simba’ but not knowing the word for hyena I was reduced to impersonating one to much hysteria… seriously they must have thought I was positively demented. I asked if we could camp under a tree that was in view of their boma. They instead insisted that we camp in the safety of their boma.
They went to great pains to find the best place for us to park our bikes which was in the shelter of their largest construction which appeared to be a storage house. They did confirm that there were hyenas in the area so my foolish questions were at least justified. A couple of the guys were keen to help us set up the tent and the older ladies fussed endlessly over us. The matriarch was only too happy to make us a huge flask of sweet milk tea which was fantastic. One of the older ladies seemed rather taken with me and kept shaking my hand and rubbing my arm and touching my forehead. The rest of the night was spent communicating in signs until a 15 year old member of the family showed up. It was shocking how well this young goat herder spoke English – prodigious even. He was a very clever kid named Peter and easy to talk to. Most of the conversation related to animals and the family seemed to love hearing about our outsider opinions on the levels of intelligence displayed by the various animals we cross on the road. We were all in agreement that goats were the smartest while sheep were clearly the most stupid of animals. Their reaction to my critical thoughts on the low intelligence of sheep made me feel like Chris Rock. They were overcome and I could hear them repeating the tale to other family members who’d missed the conversation.
Mick getting ready to go the next morning
Peter explained how the family and people of the area mostly drink milk and eat things made of flour. He rather astutely explained that the people in their area have a lot of wealth (in the form of livestock) but no money. Overall it was a really unexpected and pleasant evening. And a reassuring one – it is the constant string of encounters like this that remind us we are far from home yet far from alone in the world.
I bet when these guys woke up the previous day they weren’t expecting visitors like us
The old lady in the middle was the one who made us the tea and was so happy to have us
The next morning we woke up and downed another flask of milk tea and packed up camp. The men of the family were keen for a bit of cash for having spent the night which we thought was only fair. However we were pretty sure they would walk of with the cash and use it to buy booze in the evening, which was where all the fellas were the night before. That of course is their prerogative but we wanted to leave the women who did so much for us with something. So I went thorough our stuff and found some tea, milo, a dishcloth we’ve never used, some laundry soap, a worn pair of sunglasses and a set of sewing needles. You wouldn’t believe the reaction of the woman when I gave her the sewing set. You’d think I’d have given her a hundred dollars. I had noticed one of the old guys had an eye drop container tied around his chewing tobacco pouch that he wore around his neck. I had over catered the medical kit with saline eye drops so gave a fresh bottle to him and he was absolutely ecstatic.
Mick fixing the busted front fender – duct tape job that will hopefully survive Turkana
Saying our goodbyes
While all this was happening Mick was fixing his front fender which was damaged by a large rock on his hillside encounter. A few sticks as splints and ample duct tape were going to have to do. After our farewells we hit the road again wondering how long the tale of the foreign bikers would do the rounds of their campfires.
Now that is how you wear a necklace
Stretching my back like an old lady – too much of the highlife in Nairobi
Back on the trail and more of the same good stuff
After some more great riding we found ourselves in Baragoi. There had been travel advisories in the past recommending people against travel in the Turkana area. In November 2012 inter tribe cattle rustling between the Samburu and Turkana peoples escalated and led to the deaths of at least 46 people (the vast majority of them police) who had been bought in to retrieve stolen cattle. While we were in town a local guy revealed quietly that things are peaceful in Baragoi now however just last year 60 army personnel that came in to get things under control again were killed in the process. There are a large number of serious weapons in these parts (AK47 and ammunition are easily sourced from South Sudan) and constant tit for tat tribal killings and cattle theft. Foreigners have never been a primary target in all of this, although there remains a small risk of getting caught in the middle or opportunistically targeted by a bandit. We did ride through a few little villages with some unimpressed looking guys wearing AK 47s but we were comfortable that the worst of the trouble had passed.
Fun and fast
The road ahead
Ostriches running wild
We topped up our fuel at the little two bowser service station and had our last cokes and chapattis (our riding fuel of choice). It was a bit sad actually because the moment we stopped we were surrounded by people falling over themselves and each other to do try to do anything for us so they might get some kind of tip. All because there are so little formal employment opportunities for the average person in the area, only traditional pastoralism and some tiny amounts of informal commerce. It struck us hard that day after so long in relatively prosperous Nairobi. It was sad and while there was a sense of desperation, people were friendly all the same.
The traditional lifestyle of the area where people see themselves more as a member of a tribal group rather than Kenyans, combined with low education levels means voter turnout in the region is very low. It is some of the lowest in Kenya, therefore the government pays little attention to the area. As much as we complain about taxes at home, they are crucial to a functioning democracy. We pay taxes and have an expectation of service provision; this encourages voter participation and government accountability. In Africa the average poor person pays nothing and gets exactly that in return. And that is one of the countless negative aspects of bloody government to government aid. The public service of most African countries are funded from outside so the governments don’t feel they owe anything to their people. Sorry for the rant; we had been reading a lot of books on African economics and politics at the time (“Dead Aid” by Dembisa Moyo, a book on aid in Africa by a Zambian Economist, and “Its our time to Eat” by Michaela Wrong, a book on Kenyan politics and corruption).
Getting closer to Turkana
And closer still
Corrugations but nothing too serious
We traveled on to South Horr, which stuck us as a really lovely looking village but we had to press on to get a respectable amount of kms for the day. From sandy tracks we soon moved onto the volcanic rock fields that make Turkana such an otherworldly looking place. Access to the southern end of Lake Turkana has been improved of late due to the wind generator farms being constructed to take advantage of the powerful winds across the lake. Good for the people of Turkana (perhaps?) or at least the energy hungry country as a whole… not so good for overlanders looking for a challenge. Can’t stop progress, right?
And there she is!
You like rocks? Good!
Exciting to set eyes on the lake we’ve been talking about for years
After rough and hot riding we were rewarded with our first views of the lake. It was even more impressive, beautiful and vast than expected. We went down to the shore but struggled to get ahead of a substantial herd of camels that insisted on running down the road every time we approached. It was difficult to manage as the road were surrounded with large, sharp volcanic rock that could easy injure the camels if we stressed them out enough with the might roar (ok splutter) of the DR’s single cylinder. After a good deal of hassle and time we managed to get past them only to have Mick pull up with a flat tyre.
Hardly a hospitable place
They had concreted the steepest sections of the approach to the shore
It was getting towards the end of the day and we were shagged, more from the long day of sun exposure than the physicality of the riding, which must be said wasn’t all easy going. The last thing we wanted was to have to change a tyre so we just pumped it up and hoped it would hold for the last 15 or so km to Liongolani. The riding by the shore was physically demanding and I made the rather stupid decision to put off transferring water from my water bag into my empty Camelbak after I gave the last of my water to the camel herder. I ‘reasoned’ as we were just 15km from our destination that it would be fine and basically I simply couldn’t be bothered doing it. Utter folly! By the time we were just 7km down the track I was dry mouthed and desperate for water… in the low 40 degree heat the damage was done. Fortunately this coincided with needed to pump the tyre up again so I transferred the water and kicked myself for my laziness.
Camels – a source of pride (and life) for the Turkana
Mick getting photobombed by a camel
The moto-Gods decided we needed a flat tyre to round off a thoroughly exhausting day
How to describe the scenery of Turkana? It is otherworldly, hallucinatory – almost extra-terrestrial and not at all like a place fit for any human or animal habitation. It is a punishing place and despite the beauty there was no kindness to it. Even the lake is malicious with its tempting waters being brackish and barely drinkable. The Turkana people have to dig to access palatable water that is safe to drink long term. There is scarcely a single shrub growing which begged the question what on earth do the Turkana people’s goats eat? As we past groups of Turkana people herding their goats and fishing on the shore we just wanted to tell them they should pack up and get moving as they were clearly living in the wrong place for this one is not conducive to life. Yet the Turkana survive as people have done here for a long time… like 3.5 million years long. It was in this area that some of the earliest hominid remains have been found. Exciting stuff for nerdy types.
I know it doesn’t look it here but the gravel along the shore was tiring work with the layers upon layers of rock continually moving under tyres. Required lots of abdominal strength… somehow we managed without it
The most luscious vegetation we ever saw along the route
Pumping up the flat tyre again and getting some water
This isn’t one of our photos unfortunately. They are from the fantastic blog of our friends Karin and Pete with Tracks4Africa who know we have no money so won’t sue us if we share it. It is definitely worth reading their blog We passed a lot of Turkana people but were so exhausted and focused on the riding we didn’t stop to interact. Something we regret but that is just the way it is on the bikes sometimes especially on tough routes. We are generally content to share a wave but its hard when you’re wanting to share the sights with people online.
The oasis of Liongolani – another one of Karin and Pete’s shots. We were too desperate for a cold drink and a lie down to get any photos. We look back now and regret not spending a day relaxing and exploring the lovely little village. But we were so focused on the crossing that tourism didn’t really enter our minds.
We had been recommended to stay at a campground called Palm Shade and eventually tracked it down. It is a fantastic place to stay and was a veritable oasis in the desert for us. We devoured an amazing fish and vegetable meal in no time flat and knocked back a couple of icy cokes and reflected on the day. Between the ample lawn, shade, showers and fantastic stuff we were in heaven after such a tiring days ride.
The fantastic Palm Shade campsite
Arrived safely – and sweaty, stinky, exhausted, thirsty, hungry and very happy to boot
The cause of the flat tyre. A bit of metal from the road. With a tyre change due very shortly anyway Mick felt he might as well put on the new rear tyre now. We left the tyre with the kind, elderly cook at Palm Shade. Should any biker find themselves in desperate need of an 18-inch tyre that is where to get one.
Guess it was about time. My tyre was no better but with still a lot of sharp rock to go, we opted to keep riding with the old tyre. Would be interesting when we hit the thick sand!
But rest, though much sought out, would not find us easily. Quite simply it is not possible to sleep well along the Turkana route. Trust us – we are international representative caliber sleepers. The night time winds are astounding and made a continual racket as it buffeted the tent all night long. We could only feel grateful that we were not the poor couple sleeping in their roof tent nearby. The next morning we woke up with rewardingly sore muscles, tired yet keen to see what Turkana would serve up for us today.