The Moyale-Isiolo Road

Ethiopia/Kenya Border Crossing – Moyale to Isiolo.

We thought, naively, that once we got to east Africa it would be plain sailing – at least in terms of route and road conditions – as far as Cape Town.  Then we started reading about northern Kenya, and heard some pretty horrifying stories of massacres and ethnic violence, along with tales of how bad the road is.  We found it hard to get reliable, up-to-date advice, so thought we’d post our impressions here – as usual, this is mostly aimed at cyclists but other overlanders might find it useful in parts.  Above all, it’s best to get information from as many sources as possible – we found the Horizons Unlimited and Lonely Planet Thorn Tree bulletin boards really useful.

Ethiopia – south from Addis Ababa to the border.

This section is pretty sraightforward – decent tarmac all the way to Moyale (about 800km).  If you’re on a bicycle, the section south of Awasa as far as Yabelo is pretty hilly, but also very scenic.  South of Yabelo, there are reasonable (basic but cheap) accommodation options in Mega but not much else along the road.  100km a day is perfectly feasible here though – just make sure you have plenty of water on board.  Unfortunately, virtually as soon as you leave Addis and certainly south of Shashemene, you’ll get lots of (sometimes aggressive) attention from youths and children on the road – stone throwing is not unheard of.  On a more positive note, we didn’t feel we had anything to fear from the ubiquitous cowherds armed with spears and rifles – they were among the friendliest Ethiopians we met.

Moyale and the border.

The town of Moyale spans the border – we stayed on the Ethiopian side as the hotels and restaurants are supposed to be better.  There are certainly several decent hotels, and foodwise you’ll be fine as long as you’ve developed a liking for injera!  You can clear immigration (and customs) on the Ethiopian side the day before you intend to cross, which is useful if you want to get an early start and do choose to stay on this side – the Ethiopians at the border don’t open up until 9am although the Kenyan side is open from 6.30am or so.  If you’re driving, (or cycling but decide to take a lift in a truck for this bit) then there’s a convoy leaving at 9.30am from just outside Kenyan immigration, which will take about 12 hours to Isiolo assuming all goes well.  You don’t have to join this though, and there’s plenty to see along the way if you want to take your time – also, the convoy, which is supposed to be for your safety, does probably the most dangerous possible thing in these parts by driving into the night to get to Isiolo in one day.

It would be well worth asking here for up-to-date information on security conditions – but unfortunately everyone you ask seems to have a different answer and you’re never sure how much they actually know, and how much their answer is determined by what they want you to think (the touts on the Ethiopian side for example were keen to sell us a place on the trucks and told us it was far too dangerous to cycle…)  We even got different answers from a junior policeman and his boss!  At the end of the day you have to use your own judgement, possibly combined with advice from your goverment (who will almost certainly say it’s not safe) and any other travellers you come across (in our opinion the best source of up-to-the-minute advice).

For changing money, try the many, many touts who’ll approach you on the Ethiopian side.  Most seem honest enough in terms of actually giving you the notes they say they will, but as always you’ll struggle to get a decent rate.  We eventually got 8 Kenyan shillings to the Ethiopian Birr, but it took ages to get above 7.8 – it helped that we weren’t leaving the same day so didn’t have to change there and then.

Into Kenya – the Moyale-Marsabit-Isiolo Road.

0km – Kenyan Immigration.
3km – end of tarmac, reasonable murram road begins, dropping towards the desert plains.
70km – turning on the right, and a couple of basic shops.  Water available here.  We mistook this for Sololo, which is in fact 10km or so further on.
80km – turning for Sololo on the right.  There is accommodation here, and a decent hoteli with drinks and water at the junction.  The road deteriorates soon after this, becoming very rocky as it descends to the Dida Galgalu plain.
105km (GPS N03°27.29′ E038°30.92′) – Walda, a small village with a very friendly police post where we camped – they gave us loads of water (slightly salty but fine to drink) and even have a running-water shower!
132km – Turbi, a smallish village with very good tea and chapatis and more salty water (you can also buy mineral water here – sometimes!).  Between Walda and Turbi the road is OK, but soon deteriorates and becomes very hard going on a bicycle – lots of rocks and sandy patches.  We struggled to average 5kph overall from here to Marsabit…
162km – Staffed telephone transmitter station in a locked compound, where you might well get water if you needed it.
207km (GPS N02°42.34′ E038°05.21′) – Bubissa, another small village with tea, soft drinks, mineral water and salty tap water.  Lots of sand before and after here.
248km – Choba – marked as a village on our map so we had high hopes, but actually just a transmitter station and police post.  Water available from the police though if you need it and only 10km to go to Marsabit.
258km (GPS N02°19.70′ E037°59.24′) – Marsabit town – full range of hotels and much needed cold drinks!  By now you’ve climbed from 400m to around 1200m.

That section took us 4 days, with the fourth day being very short (30km, although it still took us from 7am to 1pm!).  You’d be better off doing it in either 3 (staying in Walda and Bubissa) or 4 full days (Sololo, Turbi, and Bubissa).  We wild-camped on two nights which was slightly nerve-wracking given the security situation but definitely safer than being on the road after dark.  Even Turbi to Bubissa would be very hard in a day though – it took us 13 hours or so of cycling!

308km – Lokuloko, a village with tea, cold drinks food and water available.  This is the end of a big descent and a reasonable road from Marsabit – the 50km took us 5 hours.  After this the road is flatter but very bad again – particularly if you don’t like sand.
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358km (GPS N01°35.41′ E037°48.23′) – Laisamis, small village with food, water, coldish drinks and a very basic hotel.  There’s also a police post here.
381km – Merille – food, water, cold drinks and accommodation.
425km (GPS N01°07.73′ E037°36.02′) – Sorolivi, a tiny village with very salty water (mineral water also available) and a beautifully-situated but very basic hotel.
470km – tiny hamlet by a (dry) river bed,just after another road comes in from the right.  Not much here but warm drinks and salty water available.
491km – Archer’s Post, a very hustly village where you’ll almost certainly be ripped off for anything you buy (some jokers tried to charge us 300 shillings for two Fantas which usually go for 20 or 25 shillings each!)  Almost back in civilization now, with the Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves just down the road – luxury lodges if you have the cash!
526km – Isiolo – apparently not a very safe place but by now (if you’ve ridden all the way) you’ll be ready for a shower and some decent food!

We did Marsabit-Isiolo in 3 days, but the last was very long and we arrived in Isiolo in the dark (not a good idea).  We’d stopped overnight in Laisamis (10 hours or so from Marsabit) and Sorolivi (8 or 9 hours).  We’d have been better off going slightly further to the little hamlet at 470km on the second day to give us a shorter last day, as Sorolivi-Isiolo took 14 hours.  With a really early start from Sorolivi and a lighter load than we had, this is probably a feasible day though.

There’s basically nothing else on the road other than what we’ve mentioned here.  We were told there were police posts every 20km but this is rubbish – there are sporadic police patrols and loads of police in a few barracks, especially in the far northern bit.  If you decide to go this way please do check the security situation carefully,and remember that our experience might not be representative – bandit attacks definitely do occur.

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