An overlander’s rite of passage: Marsabit to Moyale
After far too many days in another African city, our new shocks supplied by RAW 4X4 Australia arrived and we were finally able to head out of Nairobi. Leaving the city late, we only made it to Nyeri and headed for a farm, Sandai, which had been recommended by fellow overlanders Oli & Lisa. It was the perfect stop after the city and arriving late in the evening, the owner Petra, welcomed us into her home and seated us in front of the roaring fire with a big glass of red wine. After the city, the peace of the countryside was amazing and our host was so welcoming that we were very tempted to stay a lot longer. The farm sits at the foot of Mount Kenya where they run safaris into the nearby Samburu National Park, as well as offering riding safaris, painting tours, fishing trips – they would really cater for anything you wanted to do. We decided we would go back to Kenya to just spend time here, but for now we had to press on to our next country, Ethiopia.
There are two routes into Ethiopia from Kenya, a more direct but notoriously rough road from Marsabit to Moyale or a longer, very remote track via Lake Turkana. Both are legendary amongst overlanders, with tales of bandits, tribal clashes, breakdowns, chassis cracking corrugations and sharp tennis ball size rocks that can split even the toughest tyres; the mention of either road is enough to strike fear into the most hardened overlander. The road out of Kenya really is a rite of passage for any overlander travelling Africa and this article on Overland live blog tells you what the road can throw at you.
We had hoped that when the time came to face either of these roads, we would be in the company of other travellers to tackle the road as a team, but after as luck would have it, there was no one else travelling north at that time and so we were going to have to go it alone. We decided that we should take the most direct route, Marsabit to Moyale apparently the banditry had subsided recently and tribal clashes had eased off, we just had to hope to hell that the rains of the November wet season hadn’t already arrived in Northern Kenya. Our thoughts turned to our friends Oli and Lisa, who also had to drive this road alone and in the wet season – and the pictures from their blog had haunted us for a long time, the thick mud, lorries stuck everywhere and people on buses stranded for days. That night, despite our peaceful surroundings we barely slept.
The next morning, we were up at first light to hit the road. My stomach had managed to knot itself so tightly that not even Petra’s cooked breakfast could persuade us to eat. We just needed to get going, and get this over with!
The drive through to Isiolo was stunning, the beautiful scenery a welcome distraction, the green rolling hills inhabited by the Samburu tribe, their colourful beads a stunning contrast to their grassy surrounds gradually began to open out into sandy, flat, camel-filled plains. As we pulled up at check point, another foreign vehicle pulled up next to us. We desperately hoped they would be going the same way as us, but unfortunately they were going via Lake Turkana, even though they had 2 previously failed attempts.The first time the car broke down (Landrover) and the second getting shot at and robbed by bandits and yet they were still keen to try again! It was at this checkpoint that they told us the news we’d been dreading, the rain had arrived the week before so not only was the Marsabit to Moyale road in bad condition, but the road leading into Marsabit was also extremely difficult. The knot in my stomach tightened further, our best laid plans of tackling this road in convoy and in the dry season were unravelling fast!
As we drove on, the tarmac finished and we bounced onto the corrugated sandy road, The 100km off-road stretch leading into Marsabit had come as a complete surprise as we thought it was tamac all the way up. We sat in silence, eyes focused straight ahead waiting to see what fate would have in store for us. We didn’t have to wait long, as we rounded the next corner the sand gave way to mud and the mud soon turned into deep wet, slush. Engaging low range and dropping the tyre pressures we ploughed through the wet sections of mud but before long we were at a standstill. Lorries had already begun to get bogged, completely blocking the road and so we waited as attempts were made to try and pull them out. The new tarmac road, which people have talked about for years, is still very much under construction, and so conditions on the side track are worsened by the heavy machinery travelling up and down. However, the plus is that there are plenty of road workers and excavators on hand to pull people out when needed!
By the end of the first day, we’d made it into Marsabit, exhausted and a little stunned by the unexpected amount of mud we had already faced. The last 100klms into Marsabit had been hard work and we hadn’t even started the ‘notorious’ 250km section to Moyale yet! We were very happy to call it a day and pull up into Henry’s rest camp it was definitely time for a beer. To say this trip has turned us into mild-alcoholics, is probably an understatement, any day of driving in Africa always requires beer at the end of the day! Rich set to work checking the car and I began cooking up big pasta dinners to ensure we had plenty of supplies to last through the next few days. The sun had come out and we began to feel hopeful that things may not be as bad on the road ahead as we were expecting. But no sooner had we begun to relax, then a huge clap of thunder boomed out across the valley beneath us and as we quickly packed up tools and cooking equipment the heavens opened. We dived into the tent as the lightening, thunder and rain opened up on us. It was so bad it was laughable, the situation could not be getting any worse! Another sleepless night, as the heavy rain continued through the night, the not so lovely pitter-patter on the rooftent tormenting us into the next day. We awoke the next morning to thick fog and swirling misty rain, we questioned whether we were completely insane to continue in such terrible conditions but with the rains having arrived the road would only get worse and the way we had come was already on the verge of being impassable. If we were to wait, we would be waiting in Marsabit for weeks, something neither of us were particular on doing. The only option was to keep moving forwards.
Fortunately the first 50km out of Marsabit is the most glorious tarmac imaginable, so as we dropped down from the mountain town we came through the low clouds and out onto the open road. By the time we hit the mud we were pumped, ready for action and ready for total Armageddon. The muddy track was slippery and slow going, huge, deep pools of water covered large sections of the road. It felt like everything we’d experienced so far on this trip had been preparing us for this – the river crossings in Botswana, the mud in Malawi and our overall new levels of resilience to be able to dig deeper than ever before. We ploughed on, passing yet more stricken lorries, buses and cars, who despite the passengers predicament all seemed remarkably cheerful and were happy to wait for one of the excavators from the road-building team would come and rescue them at some point.
We continued slowly, but were soon at a standstill once more as we came to another huge pool of water which had claimed its first victim of the day. A Landcruiser troop carrier had become bogged in the middle, blocking the road. There was no way round and the car, filled with road workers had decided to abandon the car in the middle leaving the main route blocked. The workers came over to us and said we should try driving up onto the embankment, where the foundations of the new road were going in, from there we would be able to drive round and rejoin the track further up. We took their advice and turned around, driving back down the track trying to find a clear route up onto the embankment. Rich got out and walked the area between the track and the embankment, it was soft, soft clay but with rocky sections so we thought we’d give it a go. As we drove off the track, the soft clay began to take hold of the wheels and it needed a lot of momentum to keep the car from sinking down. We soon realised that this was not a good idea, but just hoped if we were able to get up onto the embankment, the surface would be more hard packed and easier to drive on. With foot to the floor, we sped the car up the side of the embankment and onto to the top, but as soon as we onto the top, what looked like hard-packed surfaced was just more soft clay – shit, this was a really bad idea! We kept going for as long as possible, but as we hit yet another large pool of water, the inevitable happened and the car sunk lower and lower before grinding to a complete stop. We were now stuck in about a foot of muddy water and far from the beaten track. It was time to get digging. Rich got to work trying to remove mud from under the wheels so that we could get our Maxtrax (sand/mud ladders) under the wheels to create some traction. Digging Kylie out of this on our own, without help was going to take all day. But with no other option available at that point, we had to keep digging. After about an hour of trying different things and desperately trying to keep frightening thoughts of being stranded here for days at bay, I heard the sound of another car driving up the track below us. Without a second thought I began running, slipping, sliding through the mud to try and get down the car before he passed by. The old 60 series Landcruiser had managed to find a way round the other stricken cruiser and was heading our way. I skidded down the embankment and ran towards the car waving frantically. It must have been quite a sight for the car’s 5 occupants to see a lone white female, covered head to toe in mud running towards them. Thankfully they stopped! I explained our predicament and they also said they’d tried to follow our tracks onto the embankment but had got stuck. I asked, then begged and pleaded with them to come and pull us out – initially reluctant to come to our rescue due to realising how soft the ground was where we were stuck, I was able to reassure them by showing that the 2 roads were almost joining up just ahead, so it would be easy for them to drive round to where we were. They agreed! A huge wave of relief swept over me, we were saved! I directed them round to where Kylie sat looking sorry for herself and Rich, not having seen where I’d run off to, was relieved to see me arrive with back up. The men got out of the car, but as Henry (the driver) reversed the car round to line up with ours he managed to slip straight into another pool of water, also bogging his car right up to the chassis. Great, our rescue attempt was looking like it was over before it had begun – the other guys were also not looking impressed. So it was all hand on deck to try and rescue the Cruiser first. We all began to dig, push, bounce the Landcrusier until we get its wheels onto the Maxtrax – it was sheer brute force with everybody pushing but we finally got the back wheels to grip and force the car out the muddy predicament. Huge cheers erupted as we got the first car out and the stern faces began to smile again. To keep their vehicle clear of the mud, we looped together 3 snatch straps and attached it to Kylie and as soon as the cruiser had regained some grip he was able to pull our old girl out with no problem. With both cars freed, we made our way back to the track. A lesson learned – never, ever leave the main track!!!
The guys in the cruiser, were in fact researchers from Marsabit, who were trying to locate the current whereabouts of certain Gabra tribe members. They were only heading so far up the track that day, but agreed we should follow them as the road was only going to get worse. We travelled in convoy, happy to have another vehicle with us, suddenly the extreme situation seemed a lot more relaxed and the adventure, dare I say it, was becoming quite fun?
We reached a small research station, where the other guys would have to leave us as they were going to head ‘off piste’ to try and locate the tribe. We were still 140km from Moyale, so we would need to stay the night at the next settlement of Turbi. With the guys leaving us, the situation began to feel serious again, they were also still very worried about us making the last 20km stretch into Turbi as it was the worst section of the road. They recommended that we should wait where we were until another vehicle came by, so we thanked the men for their help and gave them beers from our fridge before saying goodbye. I think the look on my face said it all, as within minutes of the men returning to their car Henry came back over to say that they’d discussed things further and had agreed that they would go and do their work, but they would come back for us and escort us to Turbi, they were too worried to completely leave us! I was so thankful, I wanted to hug and kiss him right there. We sat on the side of the road and watched as their landcruiser disappeared off over the horizon. It was a surreal moment, abandoned in the middle of f***ing nowhere, with nothing but open, rocky landscape stretching out before us, the odd tribesman with his herd of camels passing us by and spectacular storm clouds rolling in across the plains in front of us.
We waited for over an hour and as we began to wonder whether they would be true to their word, the white of their cruiser came back into view. Almost jumping up and down with excitement that they were back, we readied ourselves for the last slog to Turbi – the storm clouds were by this point so heavy that we’d lost all sight of the hills of Turbi in the distance. As we drove on, the rain became so torrential that not even the wipers on the fastest setting could clear the rain and mud off the window and by now the water on the road was so deep that it was regularly coming up over the bonnet. This was the Armageddon we’d been preparing ourselves for! How we got through the last stretch to Turbi I do not know – we had to pull the Cruiser out again on the way, but Kylie had made it through no problem! As we arrived in Turbi, a huge crowd gathered round us, we were the first cars through in days and everyone was curious to see the Muzungos who’d arrived. Unbelievably, the researchers, once they had got us safely to our destination turned round to head back down the same road. Genuine heroes.
Turbi (the town of seven hills) is settled by the Gabra tribe. It really is nothing more than a few simple shops set amongst the traditional round cloth huts of the tribal residents. Amongst the huts, there is a tiny ‘lodge’ which has been funded by the local women who offer simple rooms to travellers but were happy to allow us to camp within the fenced area. As we pulled in, a large crowd of children formed around the car, bemused by the Muzungos who were taking up residence in their village and two men came to welcome us to the village. The women prepared hot bowls of water and once we’d had a wash we sat down with our new friends, to hear all about the Gabra tribe. Already aware of the tribal conflict in Northern Kenya, we were both a little unsure of our surroundings, but were quickly reassured that peace had been declared between the neighbouring tribes, 4months prior. In a land where water is so scarce in the dry season that villagers have to walk 25km every day, where nothing can grow and survival rests solely on livestock, cattle raids can easily lead to outright war. Only 8 years ago, 1,000 armed rival tribesman stormed the village at dawn, killing nearly 60 people, mostly young children and stealing thousands of animals, a horrific act that lead to many years of conflict, which had only recently been resolved. It was the harshest living conditions we have witnessed yet and so it was fascinating to hear about our people survived out here. We were invited to see inside one of the Gabra huts and as is tradition when guests arrive, sweet camel milk tea is served. For these people, water is as valuable as gold and their generosity was overwhelming. It was an incredibly humbling experience to spend an afternoon with the tribe, learning about their traditional way of life.
We also met the head teacher from the local school, the most inspiring woman we have met so far on this trip, Thume arrived in Turbi 6months ago to establish the first girls school. In a place where girls are married at the age of 12, importance has never been placed on educating girls, but through Thume’s work with the local community, she is successfully encouraging families to allow their daughters to attend school. The next morning, we visited the school where her girls were keen to meet us, it was one of the most moving experiences of the trip. Walking out across the village in the early morning sun, we passed the original school where so many children had been killed a few years before, heading out towards the new school building where we could hear the childrens’ laughter long before they came into view. As we arrived, the young girls in their neat little uniforms and braided hair formed orderly lines in front of the school, eager to greet us. As we stood before them, Thume lead them into a song, the sound of which, on that morning, was so beautiful and so moving I could feel the tears welling in my eyes. At that moment, all thoughts of where we were, what we’d been through and what was yet to come had vanished, it was wonderful just to lose ourselves in their beautiful singing.
We left Turbi feeling completely humbled, inspired and ready to take on the final challenge of our journey. The previous evening the rain had stopped for the first time in days, giving the road a chance to start drying out, we knew this was our best and only chance of getting through, so we hit the last section hard. We came across more buses of people which had been stranded overnight, the biggest problem on this section of track was the water. As we waited at one particular pool for a bus to be pulled out, the passengers crowed round our car. ‘You will never get through’ they shouted, ‘The water is too deep’, ‘You must go back’. It felt a bit like a Thelma and Louise moment as we looked at each other. There was no going back! We ploughed into the water, a 200m stretch of deep water lay ahead of us and we insanely began yelling and shouting at Kylie to keep going, and keep going she did. As we drove out the otherside we felt invincible and our old girl Kylie was more than proving herself. It was the longest drive to Moyale, every kilometre felt like an eternity but after 3 full gruelling days and 250klms we’d made it, and with that one of the greatest adventures we’ve ever had, had come to an end.