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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Tea on Turbulent Tahrir

Cairo – 10,472 miles

The taste of freedom was fresh on our palates as we approached Cairo, and our excitement offset any apprehension we should have felt on approaching this hotbed of political strife. The world’s media was honed in on this city as the crowds expressed their discontent with the current government. The Egyptian people famously ousted their leader Mubarak in 2011, leaving the military to organise the country’s first ever democratic elections. President Morsi led the Islamic Brotherhood to a narrow victory in June 2012, and since then has been at the helm steering, rather clumsily towards what some fear and some hope may become an Islamist state. On the 22nd of November he issued a declaration which stated that his decisions were “final and unchallengeable by any individual or body until a new constitution has been ratified and a new parliament has been elected”. To many, this harked of a second Mubarak, and a step back towards the temporary state of emergency in 1967 which lasted for over 40 years. Morsi put forwards a new draft of the constitution on the 29th November which many Liberals and Coptic Christians felt encroached upon freedom of speech, women’s rights, and the recent democratic gains made by the country. Tempers boiled over in a spate of violent clashed between the Brotherhood’s supporters and anti Morsi groups, culminating in 5 alleged deaths outside the Presidential Palace on 5th December. Morsi eventually caved to public pressure and retracted his 22nd of November declaration. He has insisted however that the new constitution be taken to referendum, despite objections by the majority of opposition parties. Violent protests continued centered around the now famous Tahrir Square, even as the media drew comparisons with Syria’s downward spiral into civil war.

Heartfelt demonstrations on Tahrir (Photo: RWH)

Heartfelt demonstrations on Tahrir (Photo: RWH)

It was in the week leading up to the referendum that we approached Cairo. We were not afforded the luxury of time to worry, as we were fully occupied with navigation and personal safety. The drive into Cairo had us harking back to our childhood Mario Cart days, desperately trying to avoid the next banana skin. We were on a Gothen City-esque motorway flyover which elevated us from the cramped and grimy streets below. Our route had us dodging past incomplete and occasionally non-existent sets of car lights in a navigational no-man’s-land somewhere between the Michelin’s ‘Map of Arabia and North East Africa’ and Lonely Planet’s tiny map of ‘Central Cairo’.

We swung our way through the serpentine streets past shisha stands, chai stalls, and army tanks. We eventually found a cheap hostel populated by a rather perplexed receptionist, whose ample eyebrows shot up at the sight of three road worn Brits stumbling through the door into an otherwise empty building. We rather anxiously left our beloved Land Rover parked on the street overnight. Lying on our beds, exhausted from the drive, we contemplated our location. Barely four hundred yards from Tarhir Square, we could hear the sound of a huge crowd in the distance. The roars were occasionally punctuated with more organised chanting, and the distinctive sound of rubber bullets being fired.

Other than blatant tourism, the purpose of our visit to Cairo was to try and persuade the great nation of Sudan to furnish us with visas. Studying the map the next morning we discovered that although a short walk away, the embassy was inevitably the other side of Tahrir Square.

Being fully subscribed to the concept of ‘as the crow flies’, and afflicted as we were with a triple dose of young man’s curiosity, we set off with our wits in close proximity towards the square. We passed some respectable barriers comprised of a veritable smorgasbord of barbed wire, razor wire and other sharp objects. Massive concrete cubes effectively blocked access to the square from most streets. Fifteen feet high and two score wide, they provided a blank canvas that was quickly utilised by political street artists. Tie-wearing workers and would-be revolutionaries queued together, waiting to squeeze through tiny gaps between the roadblocks and street wall. Suited businessmen scurried to and fro, picking their way between burnt out cars and tut-tutting at the dust on their shoes from hundreds of trampled sand bags. Self appointed guards overlooked the proceedings sporting bandannas emblazoned with anti government slogans. One of them enthusiastically showed us a flail he had made from razor wire and a length of metal piping, the handle of which doubled up as a sort of lethal potato gun. Despite looking not a day older than eleven, he was a serious young man.

An anti-Morsi protester guards the entrance to Tahrir Square (Photo: DN)

An anti-Morsi protester guards the entrance to Tahrir Square (Photo: DN)

When we eventually made the square we found to our surprise that it hadn’t been consumed in some post apocalyptic battle that our imaginations and the media reports had constructed. There were hundreds of people gathered, their numbers occasionally swollen by marches arriving in the square. They were loudly and passionately protesting, but they were peaceful. In between the crescendos, an atmosphere quite unexpected revealed its self. Street vendors had sprung up everywhere. Whiffs of sweet potato, roasted chestnuts, and falafel mingled with the more acrid smell of street bangers and burning rubbish. Chai stands squeezed in between the crowds. Hawkers flogged masks, whistles, flags and balaclavas in a rather dubious display of free market economy. Men perched outside graffiti covered tents smoking shisha and putting the world to rights. These were touching glimpses of everyday life.

We felt exposed but not unsafe. We were the only non-Egyptians evident, other than a few film crews perched high in buildings overlooking the square, or scurrying to and fro from the ample comfort of the nearby Hilton. As such we were frequently approached, and spent an interesting morning sharing tea and exploring differing opinions. Although these people were in the Anti Morsi camp, their common enemy had very much united them, and they expressed a broad range of political preference. Away from the square we encounter fiery youths convinced that the occupants of Tahrir square are all remnants of the Murbarak era, intent on keeping their positions.

A growing proportion of people seem now more concerned with the freefalling economy than in political rivalries. Overwhelmingly, the response to us has been one of sincere and enthusiastic welcome and a concern about the Egyptian image abroad. We were continually hailed with cries of ‘Welcome to Egypt’. We have been made to promise that despite the political turmoil, we must go home and spread the word that Egypt remains safe and welcoming to the outside world. For a country so dependent on tourism this is of little surprise. However, Egyptians are ubiquitously proud of their ancient nation and are appalled to hear that they are seen as dangerous to outsiders. This is one thing a nation, increasingly divided and uncompromising, still has in common.

To the Egyptian people, democracy was for many years an elusive bastion of hope that would solve all problems. The reality has sadly proved much more tumultuous. Although the days of overt corruption and fearful secret police are gone, the country is still a long way off representative political stability. Referendum queues several thousand long and ongoing protests prove that dissatisfaction is still rife.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, we hope that the Egyptians can maintain a stable democratic state from here on in. Political consistency will reassure foreign investors as well as the international community and the IMF. Peace will flood their ancient monuments – currently deserted – with tourists once more, perhaps breathing life back into their floundering economy. We will watch the referendum results tomorrow with interest as we prepare to depart for the Sudan.