North to Ethiopia

Kenya had been so varied and very satisfying – from the urban throb and Western attractions of Nairobi; the Masai Mara experience with a huge variety of wild game in their natural environment; off the beaten track meeting local people benefitting from SELF HELP development projects; close encounters with crocs, hippos and the extraordinary bird life of Lake Baringo in the Rift Valley; the fresh climate and fertile dairy lands of the Highlands around Eldoret; hot and steamy Kisumu on Lake Victoria; immersion in Kakamega, Kenya’s last patch of tropical virgin rain forest; a brief encounter with, or just a glimpse into, the colonial life still lived in Kenya; and ahead of me, the daunting challenge towards the Ethiopian border – the Dida Galgalu Desert.

Baringo village 530 1

Cross Country from Eldoret
From Eldoret, rather than head back to Nairobi and take the standard route north to Ethiopia from there, I returned back over the magnificent mountain road to Lake Baringo then turned north on a fairly rough route skirting the north of the lake. This was very interesting territory – no other vehicles, or people for that matter on the road, just one settlement (pictured above).

On joining the severely rutted dried mud track to Maralal it began to rain, quickly turning the surface into a big bar of wet soap, making it very sloppy and difficult to keep the bike upright. After an hour or two of very slow progress
Bike lie down 350 1
slippin’ and a-slidin’, struggling to pick up the bike after its occasional little ‘lie downs’ (right), I spotted a bicycle a few hundred yards off in the bush making steady progress parallel to me. Guessing it couldn’t be any worse than the muddy road that was beginning to gain an edge on me in a frustrating battle, I threaded my way through the brush across country until coming across the cyclists tyre tracks and followed them. In the far distance ahead a cluster of huts indicated to where I presumed the road led. And to which I eventually arrived after a few more ‘challenging’ areas of mud. One difficulty in riding a loaded bike in these conditions was to beware of the rear wheel going from under you from slightly too much throttle, while attempting to maintain sufficient forward momentum. There was a certain kind of thrill to the novelty of bushwhacking across the scrubby, untrammelled landscape. A herd of zebra, disturbed in their grazing, nervously jerked their heads up at my approach, and skittishly trotted off to a safer distance.

Kisima Nightlife
With evening approaching I arrived with relief at the small crossroads settlement of Kisima twenty kms short of Marilal, and managed to find a (very, very) basic room for the night - a U shaped bed (with a torn mosquito net, rendering it useless) and bedding that could generously be described as... not having been changed in quite a while. This wasn’t a problem as I had my own sleeping gear. The room was dry, had a door with padlock, and an electric light. The electricity went off shortly after dark, but a candle on the concrete floor of the bare cell was fine. In situations like this I was grateful to have the option, much preferring a room than having to sit in my one man tent in the rain for the evening, wet gear stuffed under the fly sheet. One advantage in travelling with others is that this kind of predicament is not nearly as dreary, with a bigger tent, cooking shared, and not least the consolation of company. This was a pattern of the journey for me, opting generally for the convenience of a room, however basic.

And taking advantage of the opportunity to ‘enjoy the local cuisine’ rather than go to the trouble of preparing meals and cooking for myself. Tonight’s fare, after being led through a few doors by a friendly local looking for anyone that might have something in the pot, was a day-old flour chapati, with the texture and taste of a piece of carpet, and tepid goat stew. It was way past dinner time in Kisima. In the low yellow lamplight I was amused to see the menu - ‘chapati’ and ‘goat stew’ and ‘kitheri’ (a tasty bean and maize dish popular in Kenya) - scrawled on the grimy plastered wall. Suppose it didn’t really change much? At least there was some nourishment in chewing the - predictably gristly and indigestible - pieces of meat. It cost less than a dollar.

And there was company. In the small, candlelit bar that rented me the room, a scattering of increasingly intoxicated Samburu farmers got louder and more demanding of attention from the barman and then me. My customary gestures of politeness don’t stretch to humouring drunks, and when they didn’t seem to get bored with my non-engaging monosyllabic replies or shrugs of the shoulders, I decided to call it a night, retiring to my cell. The young barman told me the farmers were waiting since the afternoon for their weekly delivery of ‘quat’ - a mildly intoxicating stem chewed over a number of hours, used throughout these parts - from the slopes of Mt Meru which hadn’t yet arrived. It was about two dollars a bag for “Grade 3 or Grade 4 - hangover material” and maybe eight dollars for “Grade 1 - no hangover!”

Zebras 530 1

Descending from the Highlands
Before first light I was up and preparing to depart, knowing there was a long day ahead. My destination was Marsabit and there wasn’t much between here and there besides many kilometres of dirt road. The overnight rain had stopped and I set off with some trepidation in the mud. In the early dawn light the low cloud lent a threatening and forbidding atmosphere to the landscape.

The road surface was better graded and not quite as bad as the previous day’s and it wasn’t long before I began to relax and enjoy the surrounds, motoring along at a slow but steady pace. The trick was to stay in the tyre tracks of the vehicle that must have (reassuringly) passed this way earlier, avoiding the sloppier surface. Poor, scrubby plains stretched off to the surrounding hills in the distance. Once again for mile upon mile there was no sign of habitation nor human life. Occasionally I would disturb a grazing herd of zebra (above). There was a stark beauty in these barren high plains.

Samburu warriors 530 1

As the terrain became hillier and the track began to descend, views across the area known as Laikipia and the escarpment were magnificent. In the far distance the distinctive conical shape of Mt Meru rose above the supporting hills (pictured below). After hours of travelling through this seemingly unlived in land, I came upon two Samburu ‘moran’, or warriors, walking on the side of the road, dressed in their traditional red finery, with spears in hand (above). Where were they going? I had to stop and asked if I could take a photo, which they had no problem with, arranging themselves proudly for the pose, before demanding payment. I had half expected this and was happy to give them something. There were no tourists passing by these parts - this was what the guys normally wear! There was a difference in opinion as to how much each of us thought was a fair price, but eventually we arrived at a compromise. I didn’t want to get them too angry - I reckoned the spears weren’t just for decoration. Unfortunately we had no common language so I was none the wiser as to where they’d come from or to where they were going.

After three hours of slow and winding descent from the escarpment across really beautiful terrain, the small town of Wamba, fifty kms short of the road north to Ethiopia, came into view. My arrival caused the usual stir as a group of men and youths surrounded me. A few of these ‘townies’ had English and were asking me where I was from, going to, etc. I commented on the beauty of a young Samburu lady on the edge of the group, and was told “She’s married”. When I asked how it was possible for someone like me to know, it was explained that the large copper or brass hoop in the woman’s ear indicated her status.

I had my fuel tanks filled to capacity - all 39 litres - jug by jug, from a large barrel of petrol in a shed, the only source of fuel for a long way. The price was about 20% dearer than normal. He could have charged me a lot more and I still would have had to pay it!

Laikipia 530 1

The Notorious Road to Marsabit
The next stretch of the journey ahead has a reputation for being the most severe section on the Cape to Cairo overland route. The Western Highlands of Kenya sweep down across a huge expanse of barren, treeless and inhospitable terrain, with the remote and almost lunar Lake Turkana to the west, and the forbidding Somalia to the east. A tyre-shredding, vehicle-wrecking, bone-jarring two to three day stretch of ‘road’ unravels across the North Kenya desert to Moyale on the Ethiopian border. In Nairobi, Kris, the BMW mechanic who runs Jungle Junction, had warned me that the majority of bikes - and 4x4’s for that matter - coming down that route from Moyale to Isiolo damaged their suspension. This usually manifested in a busted rear shock absorber. (He showed me a handy trick if stuck - cut an old tyre into strips and try and wind these strips between the spring. This should act to ‘dampen’ the bounce.)

A lawless area, renowned for bandit attacks, traditionally the only way to travel the route safely was by armed convoy. I recalled a conversation with Andrew Nightingale the owner of a campsite near Nakuru, who’s theory is that when there had been poor rains and people were hungry, there was always an increase in bandit activity, cattle rustling, raids on neighbouring villages or attacks on travellers. I was clinging to his reassuring belief that because there had been decent rains this season, there was less of a need for the ‘
shifta’, or bandits, to go marauding. As I had come down from the Highlands to join the main route from the capital Nairobi to Ethiopia, I wasn’t familiar with the risk at present. So when the proprietor of the cafe in Wamba, in which I’d just breakfasted on a fill of eggs and chapatis, exhorted me, in a grave manner, “not to stop for ANYONE unless they’re pointing a gun at you”, I took it seriously.

The road from Isiolo to Marsabit is badly corrugated. An e-mail from Ben, the Irish biker I’d met in Jungle Junction riding a more agile KTM 640 related that he “... was having trouble for the first time with my panniers coming loose so I had to stop often to tighten straps which finally snapped on me. North of Marsabit take care..... there are ragged rocks protruding from the ground but disguised by the gravel etc. when you hit these bad boys you'll know about it. Carry lots of water with you as it gets pretty hot and it seems a lot further than what it looks on the map.

Samburu 2nd 250 1
Setting off from Wamba, my target was Marsabit, an elevated island of greenery and the only town that broke the journey across the desert. Very quickly I was introduced to the notorious corrugations. Though never pleasant, sometimes on a bike it can be a little less juddering if you can pick a line along the edge of the road that may not be as bumpy. This unfortunately failed to be an option. The other approach to corrugations is to pick up the speed to over 80 kph, the result theoretically being a ‘smoothing out’ of the surface as the tyres reduce their contact to just the tops of the bumps. This takes courage, particularly on two wheels, as with the resultant lessening of contact with the road surface, there is of course less control - at speed. Fine if the road has no bends, potholes or other obstacles, or there is little threat of anything wandering out into your path.

However I was to find that these corrugations had a justified reputation - because of their height and the distance between them, any attempt at picking up the speed just magnified the jarring! It was hard to know how to ride it. After hours of bumping along in 2nd gear, in frustration I opened up the throttle, ignoring the increasingly severe rattling the bike was getting, in the hope of finding that magic velocity, where the bumps even out and you’re cruising along making progress at speed. I couldn’t find that magic velocity. The only effect was to throw me off the bike, as the truck tracks I had to keep to funnelled me into a treacherous patch of deep gravel that wrenched the front wheel sideways. I was lucky to escape unharmed. I slowed down.

Hour after hour of this became heart breaking and soul destroying, with the worry the bike was disintegrating. At one stage the forward end - the headlight and instrument panel - began to swing alarmingly, attempting to detach itself from the handlebars. A bungee cord tightly wrapped around the fairing kept it temporarily stable. The landscape was very desolate and desserty. Having only seen two or three cars all day I understood it wouldn’t do to get into trouble out here. Take care, I’d be reminding myself, using the Swahili incantation “pole, pole” - take it easy.

There but for the Grace of God Go I ...
Pulling in for a breather to a settlement of a few huts and a lean-to selling warm Fanta (understandably there being no electricity!), I was approached by a guy who asked me, very politely, if I could help. The defenses were raised automatically. My usual response to approaches for help was by necessity one of lightly batting away requests. Naturally a white man, particularly a ‘tourist’ on an expensive bike, was regarded as wealthy and a constant target for begging in various guises. And of course I was the rich white man, compared with the huge majority of local people.

He told me his 185 cc bike had a puncture. I knew I had a puncture repair outfit, but it was at the bottom of one of the panniers and would need quite a bit of unloading - untie the spare tyre, the Ortlieb dry bag strapped across the back seat, and then unlocking and emptying a carefully packed pannier to get it. I still had a long stretch ahead of me and was anxious to press on. In an attempt to avoid the delay, I muttered that I didn’t think I had one, instantly feeling the pang of deceit. He thanked me and turned to walk away. However my momentary selfishness passed, and I called after him I’d have a look, and of course located it.

I was ashamed of my initial reaction, made all the more inexcusable as I knew if I was in trouble, others like him would help me. It used to amaze me stories of climbers on, for example, Mt Everest who on encountering a fellow climber in distress, would continue on, leaving him to die, rather than risk their own success. How could someone justify that? Sure they might say the victim wasn’t sufficiently prepared or equipped, and why should a climber who undertook his preparation more thoroughly jeopardise his chance of a lifetime? While the North Kenya desert was not on that scale, it was still a situation of getting by - indeed at times a matter of survival - without any infrastructure to fall back on for assistance. That is why travellers in this type of unforgiving environment help each other in trouble. Perhaps if he was a European biker I would have identified more quickly with his predicament? And as a local person he would get help locally anyway? Not my proudest moment.

Puncture 350 1
As we repaired his wheel, two trucks pulled in for a break. I noticed a couple of fellows riding in the back carrying rifles, as protection against bandits. My friend with the flat tyre was heading in the opposite direction to me and reassured me he hadn’t come across any signs or talk of bandit activity on the road ahead, and I’d be quite safe. The road conditions ahead was something he couldn’t reassure me on however. He pointed at six of his spokes that had been broken on the road, saying he was going to have to leave his passenger here to find a lift with a passing truck.

Just outside this settlement, miles from anywhere, bizarrely a grader was at work, the wide blade spanning the width of the road. There followed twenty kms of his work-in-progress - sand spread over the ruts and bumps before being impacted. That would surely be of some relief to four wheels, but to two wheels presented a different challenge! Sand with a fully loaded bike was never my favourite medium, continuously threatening to tug at the front wheel, but this presented an unavoidable opportunity to learn. While never getting completely comfortable - full concentration was demanded - I did gain a lot of confidence, recalling a long stretch of sandy track down the Mozambique side of Lake Malawi where I learned to keep the throttle opened (where the natural tendency is to ease off when it gets a bit wobbly), stand on the pegs sitting back on my Ortlieb bag behind me thus taking the weight off the front, and plough on!

And on the road continued through the barren landscape. The odd dik-dik, a tiny antelope about 16 inches high, dashed across the road at my approach. A lone zebra 20 yards off to the side looked different to others I’d come across. It was bigger in size, had finer black stripes, and was more beige than white. Could it have been the rarer ‘Burchill’s’ zebra I’d read about? The occasional small settlement offered a break from the relentless sparseness, the few inhabitants I caught sight of from the Rendille tribe, if anything decorated even more colourfully than the Samburu I’d seen earlier. The women had a huge amount of beads around their necks.

Main road 530 1

Arrival Marsabit
After a marathon day it was with relief I made the gradual ascent up the oasis-like green tinged hills of Marsabit, finding my way by GPS co-ordinates to a farm a mile or two out of town belonging to ‘Henry the Swiss’. Henry had been here thirty years, working as a builder for the Catholic Church. When they needed a church, school or hospital built, renovated or furnished in northern Kenya Henry was the man. He had married a beautiful woman from the Borana tribe - who are originally from Ethiopia - settled here and they had seven children. They offered camping and a small dormitory for overland travellers. It was with pleasure and gratitude I stood under the clean, strong hot water shower after the days exertions.

Henry's dorm 265 1 Dorm inside 265 1

Working by the light from the outdoor shelter, I checked the bike for damage, and for loose bolts. Predictably a little nut fell to the ground and couldn’t be found and I eventually realised to do the job right it would have to wait for the morning. The prospect of an extra day here was pleasant. I was awakened early the next morning by the yeasty smell of baking from Mrs Henry’s bakery.

Stripped bike 350 1
Based in this little oasis I spent half a day working on the bike, checking all bolts, the tyres, topped up the oil, and, interestingly the water reservoir which was a little low. The headlight had been shaken out of its bracket (not for the first time on the trip) and rather than just clip it back in, I secured it with thin wire to prevent a recurrence. The exhaust had taken quite a shaking - some exhaust putty I’d fitted into small joins in Nairobi had naturally vibrated out - and needed re-securing. A bolt securing the instrument panel to the frame was now lying somewhere on the corrugated road to Marsabit, leaving the fitting pivoting on the second bolt, which was loose. It wouldn’t have lasted too much longer. I packed my small compressor for easy access, anticipating the need to alter my tyre pressure because of sand.

The town of Marsabit did not exactly accord with my fantasy idea of an attractive oasis rest stop on this long road through the desert. It had quite a Wild West feel to it - dried mud streets with windswept rubbish all over, shop after small shop, most not much more than wooden shacks, with everything the surrounding transient population may need. Every second counter seemed to offer a few tomatoes, potatoes and onions. Tiny stores selling tin goods and bottled water, ironmongers, and plastic household items such as basins, buckets and brooms. The three storied ‘JeyJeys’ accommodation and restaurant, owned by the local politician, dominated the town.

The faces of the inhabitants betrayed their remove from the Kenya further south - finer featured and lighter in complexion. A man who showed me down a back street to a (halal) butcher was Gabbra, a nomadic tribe associated with the region west of here in the Chalbi desert. Many of the women were dressed in the strict Muslim tradition of long black gown and chador covering all but their eyes.

Rendille shop 530 1

We were at an elevation, the plains visible in the distance. It was warm up here, and I could only imagine what it would be like descending to the heat below. After fuelling up in preparation for the haul to the Ethiopian border the following day, I headed back to Henry’s farm, where he asked for my advice on how to load and secure a motorbike onto the back of his truck. The Kawasaki 650 cc with a Canadian flag displayed prominently (as they always seem to be?) on both panniers was to be transported to Nairobi. The owner had broken his collarbone in a spill the previous week coming down from Ethiopia, completing the final stretch to Marsabit in what must have been agony. Interesting how adrenaline will help the body at times. His fellow biker had continued on alone to Nairobi.

Dida Galgalu Desert
‘Around the corner, a great vista appears: Marsabit mountain falls away into the depths ahead, a huge slope of geography cascading to a flat plain as far as the eye can see. The plain shimmers in heat despite the early hours: behold the Dida Galgalu desert, the plains of darkness. The Dida Galgalu is an extraordinary landscape of shimmering mirages, heat and desolation. Primeval geography created this Hades: black rocks the size of footballs scattered across this unearthly plain - sered, eroded by ferocious hot wind, denuded of all vegetation or water supply. The black rock attracts the rays of the sun, fierce heat radiates from the ground,  blurring the cool morning air like an oven firing up. At the base of the mountain, the track peters out to two lines barely visible in the rock, fierce ruts scour the track, huge rocks lay scattered across the trail from time to time. This is no road.’
- ‘
Observer’ from

I was off early the following morning for the second stretch across the desert towards Moyale on the Ethiopian border. Where the road north to Marsabit had been seriously corrugated, this now was replaced by a different type of poor surface to slow the traveller down. It was mostly gravel - the size of tennis balls. Where the surface underneath this was exposed, sharp rocks tore at the tyres and I soon banished any ideas I had of decreasing tyre pressure - the harder the tyre, the less chance of a puncture here. It was an ominous feeling heading out into the, if anything, more barren and remote landscape than before knowing 250 kms of uninhabited wilderness lay between Marsabit and Moyale. I passed a herd of camels tended by wild looking herdsmen wrapped in turbans and cloths, more Arab in appearance than African. Apart from my unacknowledged salutes of greeting, the disconcerting aspect was they each carried, even the boys, a rifle across their back.

‘We bounce along, the rock ruts are immune to the erosion of vehicles, the few that travel this route. There is not a trace of vegetation and by 10 am, the heat is oppressive, the noise of crashing vehicle against rock unbearable. A herd of camels appears on the left, an astonishing sign of life, with their herders... Who are these people living out here, what could they possibly eat or drink? The answer comes quickly as one of them drinks straight from the udder of a camel, which snorts and choffs, prancing off indignantly, peering at the vehicle over its shoulder as it hides among the herd... It turns out that these men are Gabra herders, who roam the Dida Galgalu with their camels and goats, eking out a living from the sun scorched terrain.’

Desert 530 1

Oh, Oh ...
Progress was very slow, second gear. Then a chill went through me as my red temperature gauge came on. What’s going on here? It had worryingly come on briefly the previous day just before entering the town of Marsabit, and I had checked the radiator level, even finding some coolant in Henry’s garage with which to top it up, and water pump, finally settling on the idea the lowered level in the reservoir must have accounted for it. That wasn’t it. This was going to be a problem.

Checking all the hoses for leaks, and that the radiator fan was working I set off again. After twenty minutes the red light came on once more, going off after a few minutes, but coming on again. In an attempt to increase the air flow passing over the engine I picked up the speed a bit which seemed to have some effect. But predictably, as I was going faster than was safe in the conditions, I came off in some gravel. I was unhurt but the bike was damaged. A sub frame bolt had been sheered meaning the whole of the weight from the rear, including the luggage, was being supported by the remaining bolt. And the exhaust header pipe (the bit that comes out of the cylinder) had separated from the main part of the exhaust and silencer.

Limping along until I arrived at a bit of shade under a lone scrubby Acacia, I managed to repair the sub frame with a similar size bolt, and shoved the exhaust back into where it belonged. However, exhaust gases were now leaking from that join. Unknown to me at the time, this meant that the engine was going to be burning even hotter due to incorrect information it was being given by an electrical ‘sender’ monitoring the resistance off the exhaust gases.

And so I continued, realising it was foolish to compromise safety by riding too fast. The time between the red light going off and back on again began to decrease. I couldn’t think of how to cool the radiator - there wasn’t enough drinking water to spare, and I even detached the front mudguard tying it behind in an attempt to increase the airflow even a tiny bit. Not having a lot of mechanical experience, I was wracking my brain in an attempt to think step by step what could be causing the problem. It wasn't the fan, it wasn't losing water, the radiator wasn't blocked - ok maybe some of the cooling 'fins' were a little bent but surely not severely enough to cause this overheating? Well perhaps it was the water pump, failing to do its job pumping the cooled water from the radiator around the cooling system. I began clutching at any straw - what if it was an electrical fault, and the engine wasn't actually overheating? But I knew it was overheating.

The light was now illuminated continuously. I made the decision to press on. This was not an area to hang around in. Despite there being no recent reports of bandit activity, as a lone biker I would be easy prey for any ‘
shifta’, as the roving bandits are known, who make marauding raids across from the Somali border. My water situation was fine, but any extended delays out here in the baking sun, wouldn’t be good. The F650 I knew had a reputation for reliability, and I remembered something Kris, the German BMW mechanic in Nairobi had told me about the police there having F650’s. He’d have police bikers turn up having ridden the bike without checking water levels - and the radiator being empty! I found that anecdote returning repeatedly as a reassurance, as though the more I believed it, the more I’d be protected.

This was an extended period of high stress, the longest 150 kms I’ve ever ridden. And trying to disregard the red temperature light was proving even
more stressful. This red light was haunting me. How could I ignore this constant reminder that at any minute the engine was going to seize and leave me stranded out here in the inhospitable wasteland that is the Dida Galgalu desert? Staring ahead, purposefully avoiding looking at the instrument panel, I would imagine out of the corner of my eye the light had gone out... and involuntarily glance down to find it still shining like a beacon. One vehicle, a Toyota Landcruiser, had passed me so far.

Hour followed hour, and slowly the kilometres went by. I stopped regularly to give the engine some respite, pointing the bike in the direction of whatever whisper or suggestion of an air current. In those surreal pauses from my battle I found it quite a moving experience to be dismounted and still, jacket and helmet stripped off, in the silence of my surrounds. Within ten or fifteen minutes of the restart the red light would come on again.

Turbi and its shocking past

Turbi 530 1

And slowly as the day went on I was making progress. By mid afternoon on arriving at the scattering of huts that is the village of Turbi, I had the feeling of having made it through the worst of it. Turbi was the scene two years earlier where five to six hundred armed Borana, a tribe from north of here near the Ethiopian border, descended on this Gabbra village and slaughtered fifty six inhabitants, twenty two of them children at the school, in an act of reprisal for an earlier cattle raid. That kind of attack is difficult to understand and I suppose can only happen where, to quote Oxfam, “the North Kenya region is awash with guns.” I have a strong memory of a strikingly beautiful Gabbra woman, fine featured and pale skinned, looking straight through me unblinking, as if I wasn’t there. She ignored my first attempt at conversation, but then after a comment or two, responded to my complimenting her English by saying she was a teacher. She wouldn’t allow me take a photo.
Nomad girl 200 1

Arriving into Moyale
The next few hours riding was less rocky and much sandier which did mean I could increase the speed a little, even getting into third gear at stages! That along with the break at Turbi meant the red light gave me some relief for longer spells. It was a delicate balance getting the speed about right to postpone the red light coming on, yet not being reckless. A feeling of excitement grew as I realised I was on the home stretch and I might even make it. The terrain was definitely softer now, with muddy patches on the road evidence of recent rain. And then a police roadblock, manned by the friendliest policeman I think I’ve ever come across. A big man with a huge grin, he smiled admiringly at my having made it, and asking if I’d enjoyed my time in Kenya. “I’m going to come back,” I said filling with pleasure. “I hope you come back,” he replied smiling again as he waved me off. It was with an unbelieving sense of elation I arrived into the border town of Moyale. I was in awe at what that bike had achieved.