The Road Ahead… (The Lake Turkana Road Part I)

Back at home when we were planning this trip, I would occasionally be asked which parts I was most worried about. I would reply Sudan or Northern Kenya, Somaliland having been a late spontaneous diversion. My worries were mainly based on a lack of knowledge about what things were like on the ground in these places, and the true risks of driving through them. The reason we didn’t know much about them is because there just aren’t that many people visiting these places and writing about them. As it turns out Sudan was one of the best experiences of the trip, safe and friendly, and Somaliland one of the most exhilarating (although with enough anti British sentiment to justify my concerns!). The third and final ‘scare’ was to come in Kenya…

The crossing into Kenya from Ethiopia is renowned for being remote, difficult, and dangerous. The traditional route from Addis Ababa to Nairobi runs through hundreds of kilometres of Ethiopian lowland before the lush fields give way to desert mountains. Here, in the forgotten north of Kenya lies a barren wasteland populated only by nomads, bandits, and the occasional traveller. This is the section that has really had me worrying; over a thousand kilometres, with multiple reports of robbery and murder, with two Brits and two French overlanders having been shot here in 2009. We also had in the back of our minds the knowledge that we have an old car, and over such a distance a major problem could develop which we might not be able to solve. Staying in one place to fix the car in this sort of territory didn’t sound like something we wanted to do. Unfortunately this part of the trip was entirely compulsory: there was no alternative if we wanted to continue driving south.

Planning the road ahead (Photo: RWH)

Planning the road ahead (Photo: RWH)

There were two options. First, the road through Moyale, which is the ‘official’ crossing and regarded as a risky and uninspiring route with apparently endless corrugations. These are infernal waves that arise on unsealed roads that make you feel as though your very teeth will be shaken out. If hit at their fundamental frequency (which happens all too often), the car will protest loudly, refuse you the privilege of steering, and ultimately shake its self to bits. Until recently, tagging on to an army convoy was compulsory along this route.

Second is the Lake Turkana road, which runs through the tribal lands of the famous Omo valley and down the east coast of this great lake, through the beautiful Siboloi national park and past Dr Richard Leakey’s Homo Erectus footprints. Think The Constant Gardner. Sounds far more appealing, except in reality it is more of a vague track comprised of deep sand, sharp igneous rock, and multiple river crossings which can easily rise to leave you stranded half way down if the rains hit. Fortunately we had a full 5 days before the storms were meant to arrive… There are also reports of a significant Al Qadea presence on the opposite side of the (admittedly huge) lake. This road is much less travelled, and as such it would involve a bit of a leap of faith.

As budding anthropologists and connoisseurs of human folly, we decided to opt for the latter option. Naivety played its part as we assumed that a single day of rest after our whirlwind Somaliland tour would refresh us for the coming passage. We set off after sad fare-thee-wells to our dear friend Bob*, the British cyclist we had met in the Sudan, and Colin, a French reggae saxophonist whose appearance is not unlike John Lennon, and whose hospitality we can confirm to be excellent.

The mountains retreated as we wound our way south, as did the tarmac. Good roads lasted as far as Arba Minch, a picturesque market town happily situated overlooking lakes Abaya and Chamo, and home to a significant American Airforce base. Here we forgot our worries for a few hours as we supped cold beers (the gloriously named St George) and watched the monkeys pull the outside of the Landie apart.

Contented monkey/accomplished breakfast thief (Photo: RWH)

Contented monkey/accomplished breakfast thief (Photo: RWH)

A chance meeting in Addis had put us in touch with an Australian surgeon, who had lived and worked in Ethiopia for over thirty years. We postponed our onward journey and spent an enjoyable morning accompanying him on his daily ward round, which seemed in the main to consist of abdominal examination with his walking stick, and cajoling male nurses by way of headlocks and Dutch rubs. It made me think what it would be like to spend a whole career in an isolated African hospital. Lonely, would be my first thought, quickly followed by isolating. Infrastructure just doesn’t allow easy access to the outside world here, although the internet and mobile phones are helping. As friendly and all consuming life here would be, cultural differences are so vast that it would surely be many years before one felt truly at home here. It takes a certain type of person to manage that, and looking at this man laughing and jostling with the patients, I felt a sudden rush of respect. I wondered if I could ever be that person.

We were five days drive down the Omo valley, and approaching the border town of Omorate when I jumped down from the Landie to get some phone credit from the village store. This haphazard assembly of wood and sacking toted the village’s only light bulb, which swung cheerfully from its bare wires, sparking occasionally, as if to remind the observer of the exotic nature of its power source. I retrieved the credit from through the metal grating (a security device preventing you from swiping the three Coke bottles or twelve bars of soap that populated the store’s sorry shelves) and turned back, only to find my way blocked. Under that grubby light I could just make out traditional tartan and a kaleidoscope of beads tumbling over bare breasts. My gaze shifted upwards to note the drooping ear lobes and prominent lip ring of a Morsi tribeswoman.  She swept past me, producing her HTC smartphone from the depths of her garb and brandishing it at the shop attendant who picked up another card just like the one I held in my white, western hand, and pushed it through the grate. I returned to the car, feeling all at once like I was a very long way from home, clutching my ten year old Nokia and thinking it odd to hold such a 21st century errand in common with such a lady.

We were invited to spend an evening with a family from the Hamer tribe, who are famed for their traditional lifestyle and muddy dreadlocks. Luckily the son of our hosts was able to guide us to the village; we picked our way through kilometres of bush, avoiding mud holes and camel thorn. Motor vehicles just aren’t a feature here, so we had to make up our own way to the village. We were warmly welcomed into the settlement, a rough collection of traditional huts ring-fenced by viciously barbed wooden fences (everything in Africa has spikes). Our first glimpse of host family was of a dozen naked children of varying sizes playing amongst the goats, and the two wives of the head of the family sitting either side of the threshold, one nursing, one threading beads. We spent a memorable evening cooking and working out ways to communicate.

Omo Valley and Lake Turkana (2)

Hamar wife nursing the latest arrival into the family (Photo: RWH)

Our conversations drifted lazily. We discussed the health giving properties of drinking cow blood (particularly good mixed with milk, apparently), and the recent losses and gains of each tribe. The merits of each breed of goat were explained, as were the turns of fortune that were heralded in the stars. Our chatter continued, until the head of the family, a wizened, wispy man asked us what we thought of the men who could kill from the sky. We approached the subject from as many different directions as we could, given the limited vocabulary of our translator, before we realised he was talking about the drones that frequently flew nearby from the Arba Minch base to Somalia. It struck us how strange a worry this was for the chap to have, given how many other more apparent troubles he had to worry about; the state of the crops, the arrival of the rains, or the threat of neighbouring tribes. We imagined him sitting at the door of his mud hut at night, watching the lights of the drones overhead, and wondered at how else the outside world affects even this apparently isolated tribe. We tried as best we could to explain the intentions of these men from across the sea who possessed this secret of flight. His blind, amber eyes fixed on us in turn as we spoke, but here under the African sky the motives and justifications seemed peculiar and distant, and we struggled to convey the ethos of the Americans to this man, a true elder.

Dario indulging curiosity (Photo: RWH)

Dario indulging curiosity (Photo: RWH)

We awoke with the sun, as it rent apart the sky in spectacular crimson. The boys were already gone with the goats to the watering hole. The wives were digging the vegetables. It was time to turn south, towards Kenya, and trouble.

*It is only in the last few days that we have heard from Bob. Given that he left Addis on the 3rd March, we were getting pretty worried. All we know is that he has made it safely through to Nairobi. You will soon be able to read about his experience here.

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