Michnus Olivier heads into a land of desolation as he attempts to cross the border between Kenya and Ethiopia in the Turkana Basin
We knew this stretch of our planned journey could potentially end our trip. There are two routes from Kenya to Ethiopia or vice versa. The main road through Marsabit, which is about as interesting as watching paint dry, but it’s the most popular with travellers. And the route which is the road less travelled, via Lake Turkana.
This way is more like a track and can take days to traverse, but it’s much more fun and with incredible dramatic landscapes. Lake Turkana is the world’s biggest desert lake and Africa’s most saline. Fondly called the Jade Sea because of its breathtaking colour, it is surrounded by an arid, seemingly extraterrestrial landscape that is often devoid of life, and our journey would take us right past it.
We were told at Jungle Junction, an overlanders’ oasis in Nairobi, Kenya, about the route, and were given fair warning that they did not advise riding it unsupported. Especially on motorcycles.
What makes this voyage so dangerous, yet interesting is that overlanders need to carry their own fuel and water for the nearly 560 miles of the route. Most travellers team up with 4×4 trucks to carry their fuel and water, and for added support when things go wrong.
Just to add some more zest to the mix for this adventure, the route follows the lava rocks and sand that crosses into Marsabit, making riding slow, dangerous and potentially a killer of tyres. It is extremely remote and you can’t just summon a helicopter or rescue effort if things go wrong. This is desolation valley! You are on your own!
We were completely out of luck with any backup overlanders. This is Africa and there are not hordes of them around, and very few ever choose the Turkana route. Eventually, we decided to buy some fuel and water containers and go at it on our own.
In addition to our bikes’ 18-litre fuel tanks, we each carried an extra 15-litres of fuel, an additional 10-litres of water, and full water trippers on our backs. So, from Maralal, the last town we were sure to get fuel and water, we set out. Motorcyclists are a rare sight in the village, and with strange looks from the locals, we left late in the afternoon on very heavily laden bikes en route to Lake Turkana.
Not five miles out of town the road slowed to technical rock climbing all the way up the escarpment. We only managed 15 miles for the rest of the afternoon before we set up camp beside the road. If it started like this, we were sure as hell going to suffer over the next five days.
Early the next day the road meandered over amazing mountain ranges and the most beautiful surroundings imaginable. The going was slow and although it was partly overcast, it was as hot as hell. The entire road was badly eroded and corrugated, little did we know the first and second gear 10mph riding was going to be the theme for the majority of the route to Ethiopia.
The route to Loiyangalani became a bit easier with its powdery sand tracks, and at some places, we could even use third and fourth for a few hundred metres at a time. As the day progressed the heat became unbearable. It must have been well over 40C.
Just about 30 miles before Loiyangalani we rode into the lava fields. It was like being on the receiving end of a nasty ‘bitch’ slap, and you are suddenly wide awake focused on not crashing. Riding on fist-size marbles that throw your front wheel all over the place in a hollowed-out track, and still trying to avoid the sharp-edged rocks, requires your full attention. Riding out of the track was impossible and dangerous.
I am told this place is Satan’s home. When even camels succumb to the terrain it’s really not a good environment for people. How the tribes survive here is an absolute mystery. The huts resemble squatter camps more than anything else, and there’s no water, except lake water and that is salty and barely drinkable.
Tired and thirsty, late that afternoon we reached Shady Palms Campsite in Loiyangalani. We could not remember when we last felt so tired. We each downed a litre-and-a-half of beer and at least the same of water before going to bed.
We could only laugh when the manager at the campsite told us there were showers with hot water! Up until then, we had gotten used to cold showers, because that’s all that campers get at most campsites in Africa. But here, there was no cold water! In 40C degree heat we had a shower which was scolding hot!
We took a rest day and strolled through Loiyangalani village with its roughly 1,000 inhabitants of three different tribes of people. It is an oasis in the desert, with lots of palm trees and a hot water spring. And nothing else. The heat was unbearable, even with the wind blowing, so we decided to relax in the hammocks and drink beer.
The next morning, with the sun mercilessly beating down on us, the technical riding started soon outside the village. There’s a strange exhilaration about travelling alone in such absolute desolation. Life and adventure is so much more prickling.
In one of the dry river beds, we came across a group of men scooping water from a well for their camels. As we stopped under the trees we were greeted with sceptical looks. It was only then that we saw the size of the water well. Roughly 6m deep and 5m across tapering down and they had cut steps down to the water.
The men stood in a row passing the bucket to the top man. They offered us one of the buckets, I tipped it over my head… Damn, it felt good! Relaxing a bit like that makes it difficult to get back on the bikes.
We had to keep going, and a while before the gate entering the park, the road turned really nasty. The track turned into one bad rocky bed. Our hands took a beating from the vibrations and the bikes’ fans were working overtime in the heat. In the back of my mind, I could not stop worrying about the tyres, those rocks are sharp and it does not take much to cut a tyre.
Eventually, late that afternoon, we rode up to the park gate and collapse onto the cement floor under the cool shade of the grass roof. We were dead tired and dehydrated. The two guards just smiled at the two crazies and went on their merry way, watching local soap operas on their solar-powered TV.
We did not have the energy to ride any more. The men at the gate told us that five miles away, there was a small canteen where they might have a beer or two. Say no more. After half an hour rest we dragged ourselves back to the bikes and headed off to find the canteen. Five miles can be a lifetime away!
As we sat outside the canteen downing some beers and drinks, staff told us all their food and necessities are delivered by boat from the other side of the lake. Nothing gets trucked or driven into the park by road, the roads are just too beaten up. Even their drinking water gets delivered in 200-litre drums. We stocked up on beers and eggs and pulled into a dry river bed under some big trees for a very hot, long night.
The first six miles just after sunrise was quite easy. We hoped it would last and we’d be in Illiret late in the afternoon. It did not last. One thing we learned was that planning goes out the window on routes like these. Our speed dropped to 12mph, and our fuel consumption to 10 miles/L, which presented a fresh new hell. Our next place to get fuel would only be in Turmi, Ethiopia, and still a good 310 miles away.
This is where the proverbial shit hit the fan in bucket loads. Exactly at the intersection to Koobi Fora Research Station (which is where we were headed), the track turned to a challenging sand trail. This is why this terrain is so unpredictable, only 2mm of rain can turn it into a fast, rideable track, or not. The weight of the bikes and the soft powdery sand made riding it virtually impossible and 4×4s had dug it up to such an extent that it offered no grip.
The bikes kept digging into the sand, and when we got them to float, the track altered direction. Overgrown bushes and thorns hanging in the way hit us on the face and body, and our progress slowed to a crawl. Neither of us are new to sand riding and can cope with most sand tracks with ease, but this was the first time that we had got into sand tracks that were difficult to ride.
It took us over two hours to negotiate the seven-mile sand track to the research station. The bikes were starting to over-heat and we used all our water. This was as bad as it could get as we were smack in the middle of the route, and recovering us or the bikes from there would be a huge challenge.
Eventually, when we reached the buildings, a man gave me much needed water in an old five-litre oil container. The container was wrapped in dirty old sponge and tied up with old electric cable to make a homemade water cooler. It took us quite some time to cool down and feel normal again.
The local staff offered to cook us some fried lake fish and rice as it would help restore our energy for the next day and boy, we were going to need it. Gratefully, they filled our water bottles from their 200-litre water drums. Apart from being a scientist research station, the place is a graveyard to old Land Rover wrecks that, in days gone by, only made it there and died.
We went to bed with trepidation, knowing the next day’s riding was going to be challenging. While the coffee was brewing the next morning and we packed up the tent, there was not much talking. The first section out of Koobi Fora is sand, and with the bikes warmed up, we stormed into the dusty field in a northerly direction trying to avoid the previous day’s route.
By now it was a lot of fun to ride the rocky roads, our skills sharpened and spirits high, progress was great as we chased over some of the dry pans that formed next to the lake. As we got closer to Illeret we saw zebras and some other big buck trotting away as we passed them.
At Illeret we needed to get stamped out at the police station before heading off to Omorate, Ethiopia, 40 miles away. God knows how in the hell people make a living here. The police were extremely friendly, even escorting us to the closest cold drink. There is no official border crossing here between Ethiopia and Kenya and so we made our own in the sand based on the GPS coordinates.
Meanwhile in Ethiopia, unknown to us, there was an early start to the rainy season and the only two big rivers we still had to cross, 15 miles before Omorate, were in full flow. The first river I walked and we managed to cross it quite easily, but just a few miles away the second big mother of a river, nearly 500m wide in full flood, left us dumbstruck.
As a precaution, I walked through and nearly got washed away by the force of the current. The bad news was that the bank was washed away, making it too deep for us to exit the other side. As we stood there contemplating what to do, a local, casually dressed man came up to us on a small Chinese bike with an AK46 over his shoulder.
He was quite a friendly chap who turned out to be a local policeman. We communicated via self-improvised sign language and smiles and we gathered that he had to get to Omarate himself, and gestured that we could follow him as he knew another route. We looked at each other with very tired expressions but had no other choice. It meant riding back 10 miles and crossing the other river again then taking a northerly direction towards Omorate. He rode the small bike like a pro racer and we made good progress via the cattle tracks.
Just before we reached Omorate the policeman stopped, indicating to me that his fuel tank was empty. We offered him our last two litres that were in our jerry cans hoping we could get a few more in Omarate. Our next known fuel stop was still 125 miles away.
The small village of Omarate is a busy little place with curious people, and we were soon greeted by the familiar “you, you, you…money, money” that all the other overlanders warned us about. As we reached the local immigration office, a small, skinny man came over to greet us. Our names got dotted down into a book that resembled “the dog ate my homework”, and we crossed into Ethiopia.
We were quickly whisked away to the local hotel by a fixer. The only hotel looked more like a dodgy brothel, which was confirmed by loud moaning and groaning noises emanating from the rooms the entire night. We opted to pitch our inner tent outside the room and sleep in our own bed!
We were tired but happy we made it to Ethiopia!
The Turkana Basin
The Turkana Basin can be found in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. While the majority of the land here is basically desert, in the centre of the region sits Lake Turkana, a monumental saltwater lake that’s 180 miles long and 20 miles wide.
By volume, it is the world’s fourth-largest salt lake (the Caspian Sea being the largest), and the world’s largest permanent desert lake. Interestingly, the Turkana Basin also contains some of the world’s most well-preserved fossils, with some dating back as far as 145 million years ago.
Koobi Fora, where Michnus and Elsebie stayed on their ride, contains hundreds of important archaeological sites where fossils are still being uncovered to this day.