Guy and Marleen are a couple of travelling Belgians that I’ve been bumping into all the way up Africa. They used to have a BMW 1100GS that they’d ride two-up through many of their tours of Africa and South America but for this altogether tougher trip they’re in a Toyota Hilux pickup that’s set up for life in the bush, complete with rooftop tent and 12V fridge packed with beer and cheese!
Editor’s Note: It’s been a while since we had an update from our Canadian world traveller; Rene Cormier. He’s been busy getting out of Africa and into the Middle East, but for now here’s the story of taking the route less travelled from Kenya into Ethiopia.
It’s also a new format that we’re trying for Rene’s updates, with the focus on specific adventures and in more conventional story + picture format. We hope you like it, but please let us know either way.
A few months ago we were talking about the best way to go north from Kenya to Ethiopia. The most common route is a two day torture-fest along a nasty corrugated highway from Isiolo to Moyale. The more interesting option is the little-used Lake Turkana road through northwestern Kenya.
This route is rarely used by motorcycles, in part because official fuel stops are almost 900 km apart, but also because when it rains it can prove impossible to cross the hundreds of (previously) dry creeks and riverbeds – many of which are used as part of the road itself. Thus the Toyota.
The Toyota also meant that a motorcycle could tag along. The Toyota being a mule for the F650’s extra fuel, the occupants being travel companions and the combination being a safety net should anything go awry.
INTO THE VALLEY OF DEARTH
My story starts in Maralal on Hwy C77, Kenya. This was the last official fuel stop heading north and I topped up the 650GS with 36L and put another 10 litres in Jerry cans for the Toyota, as well as stocking up with tobacco – a handy trade for photos with locals.
The road leaving the fuel station immediately shrinks to a wide rocky track, and the trail shows its overall lack of use as pointy volcanic rocks stick up through the surface like small fists from the dirt.
It’s an uneventful day as we chew through the miles of the C77, ending the day camping on an escarpment rim with stunning views of the northern valley ahead.
The next morning an early start keeps the low sun hidden by the large pine forests on both sides of the road. I expected the terrain to be all desert this far north, but instead we’re in mountains – and lush forested ones at that.
Driving is slow going and I don’t get out of first and second gear as I negotiate up and down steep hills and dry riverbeds. With every winding climb to the top of a small pass, we spend an equal amount of time winding down the other side, relishing in the cool air of the shadowy bottoms before climbing up again to repeat the scene.
By noon the mountains have become hills and before long we’re descending for the last time into the arid Great Rift Valley.
Down on the valley floor we can open things up a bit, letting the dry soil in the hot valley billow into large plumes of dust behind us while ostriches cross the road ahead of us at full speed.
The occasional large acacia trees provide much-needed shade as temperatures rise well into the 30s. Small antelopes gather under these trees, only to scatter as our vehicles approach, bounding into the bush on their skinny legs.
The road, while still marked on most of our maps, no longer looks like a road. The previous day it was possible for two vehicles to drive beside one another. That eventually gave way to a track that was a vehicle and a half wide, and now it is just two single tracks.
We set up a bush camp near the rocky outcropping called the Devil’s Fist, so-called because it looks like the devil’s own fist coming out from hell.
The tents haven’t been up for long before a wall of black clouds tumbles towards us from the mountains – the ensuing downpour providing a much needed desert shower.
A brief touch with mud earlier in the day and now this shower makes us wonder how things are shaping up further north. Rumour has it that there’s a river near the Ethiopian border that always has water in it, and to cross it will need a few days of no rain.
Clean and refreshed and with thoughts of river crossings and mud streaming through my head, we’re off to bed – Lake Turkana just ahead … and the Devil’s Fist just behind us.
ROCKS, ROCKS, ROCKS, AND ROCKS
Coffee at dawn and we are off at first light. The previous day’s familiar alternating sections of rocks and sand continue until we crest a small hill and it finally comes into view below us – Lake Turkana. It is the largest desert lake in the world, home to some massive Nile perch, and perhaps not surprisingly the largest Nile crocodile population in the world as well.
From my new vantage point I can see the jade lake stretch off into the horizon where the northern shore ends in Ethiopia. But what strikes me is not the lake but what’s around it. Or not around it. No trees, no grass, no shrubs. Wind whips up little dust devils, which baffle me, as I didn’t know there was any dust there, just rocks.
This area has seen its share of volcanic activity through the ages, and we now find ourselves traversing a boulder field of large lava rocks, varying in size from baseball to basketball. No wonder the crocs inherited this place – there’s not a speck of dirt, blade of grass or clump of clay to be seen.
The ground under me and the GS is all rock. Big, small, rocks on rocks on rocks. For a four-wheeled vehicle, the going is slow but OK. Two-wheelers just bounce from one bad line to another. Like many places in Africa, the road is simply made of whatever material it passes over. At the southern end of Lake Turkana, that’s rocks.
Going down the hill to the lakeshore only makes the problem worse, as it is too rocky to keep any speed up and going slow simply allows the rocks to settle and shift under the weight of the motorcycle – threatening to dump me and my precious fuel. With feet as outriggers I bounce and flop my way down to the lake.
We eventually roll into the town of Loyangliani. It’s built on an oasis, which allows palm trees and grasses to flourish, and we find a little run-down campsite with spring-fed pool and settle in for a few days to rest.
It is such a fantastic transition: hours earlier I was navigating boulders in barren lava fields and now here I am sitting in a swimming pool fed by a clean, warm spring with a beer in hand and laughing about the day’s ride.
I spend the next few days avoiding the powerful sun and chatting with the locals. There are four tribes living in the area of the lake, with two of them (the Samburu and Rendile) still practicing the barbaric custom of female circumcision. The Samburu and Rendile also believe that eating (or catching or even touching) fish is a taboo.
That’s a bummer of a taboo seeing as they live on the edge of a desert lake surrounded by volcanic crust that makes it impossible to grow any food. You’d think they’d allow fish and make vegetables taboo!
Once we’d refreshed ourselves, we hit the road and forty kilometers later arrive at a choice; take the C77 east to the main all-weather (but miserable) north-south highway or veer north and into the wilderness all the way to Ethiopia (major river crossings allowing).
This is our last chance to take the main highway, but we’ve taken this route for the adventure and so we veer left and cut across some fast-paced black flats of hard-packed volcanic soil before hitting the usual “golf ball” tracks again.
Normally I would drive in the lead, as the truck would kick up lots of dust. But like most things, there are pros and cons and in some respects the rear can be easier as you have to worry less about missing a turn or choosing the right line through the river. Also for the sandy bits, the truck’s tires have compacted the sand, allowing me to drive in its tracks with a bit more ease.
It also means there is no one behind you to see you get stuck. On one particularly rocky embankment, Guy and Marleen crest the opposite bank and don’t see me sink the motorcycle’s rear wheel into a pool of round rocks, spinning uselessly.
With the motorcycle at a precarious angle, there’s a lot of wheel spinning, assessing, grunting and clutch burning before I finally break free and crawl my way up to the top, where I find Guy and Marleen waiting for me under a tree wondering why I was taking so long.
I am starting to lose my humour with each hour of godforsaken rocky river crossings under this blazing sun.
It will be another two hours of torture before the park huts finally come into view in the early afternoon. I am not thrilled to find out that not only is the camp another 20 km down a dead end road to the lakeshore, but that it is going to cost close to $40 to get into the park just to camp for the night.
To add insult to injury, the guard has told me that the road to the campsite was good, which means he either lied or didn’t know that long stretches of sandy river bed followed by a deep water crossing in a croc infested lake is not a good road for a motorcycle!
When we finally arrive only to find that our deluxe campsite is little more than a tin outhouse at the end of a bad road, I am not pleased, to say the least. On the upside, we have the place all to our own.
Almost on cue, a cool breeze drifts in from the east, the clouds darken and within a few minutes the rain comes, accompanied by great blasts of thunder and flashes of lightning. How many times in a row can we get this lucky with the rain? Out with the shampoo and off with the gear and another desert shower courtesy of mother nature.
IT’S A GAS (NOT)
Morning comes with blue skies and again we are off early. Thankfully the track is mostly clear of water save for the occasional muddy patch. The destination for the night is the Koobi Fora Museum (and campsite), famous for its 3-million-year-old fossils.
The route there won’t be very direct, with the road swinging away from the lake and into the bush before curving back to the lake once more. As we come back out of the bush, the road veers into deep sand through a clump of Acacia bushes.
Acacia branches are insanely prickly and the thorns rip at gloves and jacket and gouge the bags on the bike. Then my eye catches the low fuel warning light, which means that I have under four litres left in the main tank.
Thankfully I’m only a few kilometers from the museum where I may be able to get more fuel for the next leg of the journey.
“Can I buy any fuel here?”
That, I think to myself, may be a problem.
I do some quick calculations: I originally brought 36 litres on the bike, and Guy has taken 10 for me on the truck. That morning I put the 10 litres from the Jerry cans into the motorcycle. I kept three or four litres in reserve in my each of my side tanks, but still that meant I only have at most nine litres of fuel.
On good roads my consumption is one litre for every 27 km. However, in the last few days, my consumption has been 16 km for every litre, meaning that I could safely go for another 144 km. That would get me to the next village (the last village in Kenya), 80 km north, but not to the next fuel station, which is in Ethiopia.
My calculations are interrupted by another afternoon rain shower. Heavy black skies to the north mean that a much-fabeled risky river crossing into Ethiopia could be impassable.
I didn’t have enough fuel to make it back to where we came from so I can only go north, but that option is less appealing with each flash of lightning…
Part 2 – The conclusion of the Lake Turkana adventure – outrunning AK47s at the Ethiopian border!