Distance Cycled : 18,275km
What a fortnight it has been! Battling sand, strong winds and unbelievably bad, rocky roads we have made it to Nanyuki. We have reached the Equator (well, virtually – it’s a couple of kilometres down the road so we’ll cross it the day we leave here) and are now in the shadow of Mount Kenya which is hidden in the clouds – the peak snowbound and chilly at 5199m despite the latitude.
Our last few days in Ethiopia were uneventful but for the terrain – we toiled up fog-bound mountain roads where the visibility mercifully kept the kids at bay a little. They couldn’t see us coming! On the downhills we had the energy to glance around, and it really was a lovely landscape of riotous green vegetation, maize fields and sticky brown earth. Blue-grey smoked curled up from neat little thatched huts, half-hidden by floriferous gardens bursting with poinsettia, dahlias and cannas. As we gradually descended the fertile valleys were replaced by fields of wheat, farmers busily threshing and winnowing with not a tractor in sight. By the time we reached Yabelo the landscape was dominated by acacia and cracked red earth, the odd towering termite mound breaking up the monotony. Huge herds of cattle occasionally roamed across the road, en-route to a good patch of grazing or a source of water. They must be valuable beasts judging by the cowherds, who bristled with weapons. An average herd might be attended by two boys with sticks, two youths with spears and two men with rifles! The atmosphere was one of sleepiness and langour, though, with a heat shimmer on the asphalt and plenty of all-pervading desert dust. We rested up in Yabelo, where Ethiopian New Year celebrations were in full swing on 11th September! Sometimes the changing calendars of the countries we visit can be a bit disorientating – this was the third “New Year” we’ve seen in since leaving London. Festivities seemed to involve chopping down greenery and flowers to spread on the roads and paths (rather like Palm Sunday) and eating lots of meat – one thing Ethiopians are very good at!
The road narrowed at Yabelo, as though the government had realised how little traffic goes on past this point and had decided to economise with the tarmac accordingly. The quiet road suited us just fine and the dessicated scrub yielded a surprising rich array of wildlife – dik-diks (tiny antelopes, similar in size and swiftness to hares), mongoose, ground squirrel and a serval cat. Plenty of hornbills and rollers too, though sadly they obviously can’t eat as many tsetse flies as we would like. These are nasty bee-sized beige and red insects that swarm and bite and occasionally transmit African tripanosomiasis – or sleeping sickness. And the bites itch like hell.
We arrived dusty and tired in Moyale – the last town in Ethiopia and a rather forlorn and forgotten place – on 14th September. Little cafes abounded though so we took the opportunity to stuff ourselves with cakes and spiced tea. The cafes doubled as chat chewing dens and there were rather a lot of wild-eyed men about the place, many of them Somali refugees. Chat (or qat, or kwat) is a mildly narcotic leafy green plant. People chew it deliberately to reduce hunger and fatigue but who knows whether the goats are addicted too – there always seems to be one lurking when chat is being chewed, ready to hoover up discarded stalks and wayward leaves! The whole atmosphere wasn’t too reassuring given that we were already worried about the road ahead…our guidebook promised a rough route and banditry as a few of the problems ahead. The moneychangers and tour guide types that always hang around at borders were pessimistic, but it was clear they had a vested interest in getting us to take a truck – a handsome cut of the ticket price. So we went in search of the Kenyan police to seek what we hoped would be sound and impartial advice.
“It is dangerous” said one policeman, “but you can talk to my superior after lunch.” (Some time later)… “Hakuna matata” – no problems – said the superior! We were a little confused but, on balance, we decided the risks were not too great and so, early the next day, with panniers bulging with biscuits, bananas and any other high-energy food Moyale had to offer, we left the quiet confines of the hotel and headed off into the desert. It would be over 500km before we returned to civilisation. Our departure coincided with that of a rather tired looking lady from the adjacent room. One of Moyale’s sizeable community of “night shift” workers…judging from her outfit! That made us laugh and the laughter reduced our nervousness! Down at the border, the guards were hardly less bleary-eyed and only half-heartedly attempted to enforce the customs regulations. The office didn’t open for at least half an hour and we didn’t want to hang around so we smiled our nicest smiles and explained we had a long way to go today…yes, yes, with the bicycle…and they waved us by! We rolled a few yards on into Kenya, the immigration officer courteously welcoming us to his country and asking us how long we’d like to stay. Our visa said one month but we hazarded for two and he promptly said, “ah let us make it three” and smacked down the rubber stamp with satisfaction. Africa – continent of flexible rules! More often than not it seems to work in our favour!
We got a few rather incredulous looks as we entered the dusty Kenyan Moyale, and scattered plenty of goats and donkeys as they were being herded to market in the pale, lemony morning light. Less than half an hour later we had left the last vestiges of civilisation behind The road stretched ahead as a blindingly white ribbon and nothing but the clatter of dessicated acacias and the soughing of the wind disturbed the sudden stillness. We passed a few little hamlets and startled plenty of browsing dik-diks, but had an otherwise uneventful
day, ending up in a “village” called Walda where we went in search of the police camp. The thirty or so policemen stationed here were incredibly welcoming and jovial, not in the least put out by the arrival of two dishevelled cyclists and amazingly unjaded given the isolated location – postings can last up to two years! We slept well in our tent that night, with a miniature army slumbering all around for protection. In the morning our offer to boost camp funds by a few shillings by way of a thank you was brushed aside and instead we found ourselves being ceremonially presented with a packet of Army Biscuits (made to British standards, our friends reassured us!) and a tin of pineapple apiece. We’d be glad of these later… So much for money-hungry and corrupt African police – these people were delighted that we’d entrusted them with our safety overnight, and repeatedly stressed how they wanted Europeans to know that Kenya was a safe and welcoming country.
So we left Walda well-rested and on something of a high…and promptly got a puncture less than a mile down the road! We wound on through sparse scrub, the road getting rougher and sandier but still rideable. We played cat and mouse with a convoy of huge trucks transporting road-building machinery (wasn’t this a good place for just such machinery??). Amazingly, they seemed to be making the same progress as us and so we all arrived in a village called Turbi simultaneously. Turbi is a sand-whipped collection of tin-roof shacks and igloo-shaped herders huts in a desolate part of Kenya. You may be wondering why you have heard of it… Two months (almost to the day) before our arrival, this sleepy place was the scene of a gruesome massacre in which 50 people were murdered by an armed mob of up to 500 individuals. It made us wonder about the rather sad little boy who came to peer over the wall as we ate hot chapatis and drank tea. He did his best to smile but he certainly hadn’t the cheekiness of his Ethiopian counterparts. For once this wasn’t a relief – you rather wonder what he witnessed that day and whether he had a father or a sister who is no longer around.
The friendly cafe-owner filled our water bottles for us and filled us in on a few of the other cyclists he’d seen in the last few months, before telling us it was about another 80kms to Bubisa, the next village, and that he thought we should get there today. For a few kilometres, the road cut straight across the flat desert on a bed of smooth gravel, but things rather deteriorated from then on. Click here if you’d like to read our practical information for this section – distances, road conditions, and what you can expect to find. Here are some photos to illustrate the “road”…
So it was hardly surprising that, as darkness fell and exhaustion crept up on us, we were nowhere near Bubisa – in fact, we’d only managed 40km or so from Turbi. Although we’d planned to avoid wild-camping in this area because of the security concerns, but there didn’t seem to be mcu choice – we decided that being on the road after dark would be much more dangerous. We’d been assured that there were police checkpoints all along the road and we had hoped to camp at these if we failed to reach a village, but in fact there were only a handful of police bases from which they sporadically patrol the area.
Thankfully we found a reasonable spot to pitch the tent, and with a full moon in the cloudless sky were able to avoid using our torches as we cooked our dinner and packed up for the night – so anyone intent on robbing us would have had their work cut out to actually find us! We actually slept quite well, and were up before daybreak (still making the most of the moonlight which by now was bright enough to be casting shadows in the sand), determined to make it to Marsabit that day.
Unfortunately it was not to be. The road, far from improving, actually got much worse, and it was almost lunchtime by the time we reached Bubisa, 38km down the road. With no sources of water since leaving Turbi, we had virtually run dry before we got there, and were extremely grateful when we passed a jovial South African couple going the other way in a 4WD, who filled us in on the state of the road ahead and filled our bottles with ice-cold water.
Bubisa itself was not much of a village, but did have a dusty hoteli which had a fridge and some food – both things we’d been looking forward to!
5 cokes, 2 cups of tea, 8 chapatis and 6 bottles of water later, we were feeling alive again and ready to move on. The energy didn’t last long, though, as the road deteriorated once again into a sandy, rubble-strewn mess and we were reduced to heaving the bikes over the worst sections and barely making 10kph on the best bits. To make matters worse, there was by now a blasting headwind, which threatened to knock us flat every few minutes… By the time it was starting to get dark, after 12 hours on the go, we’d covered 60km that day and were just on the edge of the Marsabit National Reserve, 25km or so short of the town itself.
Another night in the wild seemed unavoidable, so we searched for a pitch away from the road and out of sight – and eventually settled for a hidden spot directly underneath a solid-looking road bridge. With virtually no water and not much food, dinner consisted of a few biscuits and a couple of carrots, and we were asleep by 8pm.
Overnight, the wind picked up again, and by morning the tent was flapping wildly and clouds of dust were billowing around us. Once again we were away at first light, hoping for a shorter day this time! The wind made for incredibly hard cycling, and we struggled to ride one or two kilometres between rests, but gradually made progress and by around 10am had reached a police post overlooking the huge volcanic caldera of Gof Choba, where we were able to get some much needed water and cook up an early lunch of pasta. The policemen told us it was a flat 10km ride into Marsabit, and after an hour or so’s rest we set off. Sure enough the road improved and we were able to reach recently-unknown speeds (15kph!) – by shortly after midday we were sitting in a room in a cheap hotel in Marsabit, cold coke in hand and looking forward to a wash – it’s ridiculous how appealing a bucket of lukewarm water seems after a few days in these parts!
A young man in Marsabit came to chat with us and turned out to be quite a source of information – he sometimes works with overland tour companies like Dragoman and Encounter. He told us we had broken the back of it and that things were better from Marsabit onwards. All good to hear! To further reassure us he then said “yes, yes, there are no bandits because the villages used to harbour them, but now if a village harbours bandits they will be exterminated…” Fleetingly we wondered if this accounted for the missing villages on our map? These exist as a dot and a name on paper but are only one more patch of sand and scrub in reality Had law enforcement units literally razed them to the ground?! As it happens, our friend had his facts wrong about a few things so no doubt this was another case of misinformation.
So after a day off, during which we ate enough to feed a small town for a week, we were feeling revitalised and were told the road ahead was better. Indeed the first 50km whizzed by (relatively) as the road tended downhill and the gravel was not too deep. An amazing pinky-gold light suffused the dawn sky and a wonderful panorama of plain and far-off mountains spread below us. We had to don our waterproofs against the dawn chill and an evil side-wind kept whipping us when there was a gap in the hills!
It was so strong that twice Anna was blown over by the force – taken too much by surprise to stop herself falling. Then the sand began again as we reached the bottom of the downhill section and we were exhausted as we pulled into the sand-blown village of Laisamis where there was a basic lodging. Anna was so tired she had to just lie down in the shade while Luke ferried the bikes to the guesthouse and then came back. It’s almost impossible to drink enough when it is so hot and of course extra water slows us down. It’s a fine balance sometimes. The next day was a little easier as there was a village 70km on so it wasn’t TOO long a day – lots of jaunty little mongooses and quicksilver dik-diks to brighten up the landscape. We were by now in Samburuland and the local people looked extremely fine. The men wear scarlet blankets and have sheathed knifes and long sticks for herding. The ladies are weighed down with huge hanks of beads, necklace upon necklace on their shoulders and neck, and both men and women wear beautiful head-decorations of beaten metal and beadwork. Around every bend is a potential postcard snap – but Luke’s big camera has been buried deep in the panniers to avoid detection by thieves and to try and keep away from the ever-present and very fine dust and sand.
The next day we reached Archer’s Post, which was touristy enough for people to try and overcharge us, and cycled by some very tempting game lodges before a long and windy final 40km to Isiolo. We arrived after sunset, shattered. Then on Friday we rejoined tarmac – at long last! – and climbed and climbed until we thought our knees would take no more. We had only managed 40km by 3pm but had climbed 1400 metres, with the icy peaks of Mount Kenya to our left, lost in the thickening cloud. But from there it was all downhill and we reached Nanyuki an hour before sunset.
So, we are feeling in need of a bit of time off the bikes and are setting off tomorrow to climb Mount Kenya! Today we have been getting wildly excited by Nanyuki’s modest supermarkets which stock Dairy Milk, digestives, real cheese and other foods to delight a greedy cyclist. They must be used to people stocking up before a trek but even so we detected the cashier’s eyes bulging as he scanned in the fourteenth bar of chocolate… Climbing Africa’s second highest peak is perhaps not the most restful way to spend five days but it will be recuperation of a kind – it should give the blisters on our bums time to heal at the very least, as well as giving Luke more opportunities for photography! Then it’s back in the saddle to explore the rest of Kenya before we cross to Uganda in mid-October…roads permitting, of course…