The eastern banks of Lake Turkana in Kenya, and onto the tribe-inhabited Omo Valley in Ethiopia, have been calling us like sirens since we met Peter & Leonie on the Turkish-Iranian border in August 2016 and they billed it as one of their favourite trips in all Africa.
Wir haben noch keine deutsche Übersetzung: Wir geben Bescheid, sobald sie fertig ist!
But these new customs rules for entering Ethiopia look like they might be putting a stop to our dreams. Another round of emails are again all but ignored; I even write to all the consuls listed on the Ethiopian Embassy website in Germany and finally one warm response encourages us to actually call Berlin. After a couple of failed attempts, Jens is eventually connected to someone with an open ear, the day before Malina depart Uganda. We should call back in 3 days, after the weekend.
From Monday, Jens dedicatedly educates Mr. A as to the current situation of (about-to-be-) stranded overlanders, the fallout this will have in the future and the need to resolve the matter with customs. Mr. A is keen to ensure Ethiopia remains a tourist destination. Three calls to him and 2 calls to Mr T. in Addis Abeba and against all hopes and expectations, we finally hear we can cross the border with no unaffordable deposits to pay! The only snag is that we have to cross at the Moyale border, hundreds of miles out of our way through some potentially monotonous landscape. It’s tough to swallow, but we are so grateful for the effort they’ve all quickly invested and it’s a huge success to actually be able to continue our journey, we meekly accept the restriction.
Fortunately, one of our favourite internet travel communities recommends our visiting a particular guesthouse not far over the border into Kenya. Richard Barnley comes up with the goods not only for suggesting a superb paragliding spot for our next night, but also playing out various scenarios at each border. We’re galvanised into calling Addis Abeba again. We’re directed to a third person, Mr C, who we call a couple of times, until we are finally given the full go ahead to cross at whichever border we please!
We’re ecstatic! The paragliding spot at Kerio Valley provides us with our first truly impressive view of the Great Rift Valley: we goggle down to the valley floor almost a thousand metres below, along the steep escarpment stretching off into the haze, which will be perfect thermal flying with the paraglider, as well as across to the green valley wall on the other side. The panorama is endless and neither our eyes or the camera can process it, so we just sit back and enjoy it as the light casts shadows and dims the colours after the sun has set.
Click on the first photo in each set to see the larger format
We might be overjoyed at the news, but we’re still a little nervous about the reality of getting into Ethiopia. We’re in high spirits for the trip up the lake, but at the same time we’ve crossed a line. There’s to be no hanging around in Kenya and it looks like there’s no happy reunion with our friends and Lotta in Cape Town.
We’ve begun our journey home.
Richard also serves as our ”man in the know” for safe routes through Kenya. The last elections were officially concluded a week ago, but the opposition leader has already announced his dissatisfaction. (Actually, since leaving Kenya, before writing this blog, the whole election has been annulled and will be re-run at the end of October 2017. An absolute first for Africa, well done Kenya for this huge step!) But back to our time: with some uncertainty in election results the mood could quickly destabilise and we’d like to be far away from hotspots should that happen.
The last couple of years has seen critical water shortages, not only in Kenya, but here it is compounding the problems experienced, and in part, environmentally-speaking, caused by the pastoralists and their cattle. This in turn heightens already present tensions between tribes and between them and landowners. The situation earlier this year wavered between precarious to dangerous. Richard expertly picks out our potential routes and alternatives.
We set off brimming with excitement. There is a certain, almost legendary, magic involved in reaching Lake Turkana, of which we were previously, blissfully ignorant, but now we’re hyped up and almost bursting with eagerness to take on this isolated, track less-travelled. We prepare unusually meticulously, evidence of the remoteness of the route. We read detailed accounts of previous travellers, ask advice on internet groups, calculate worst-case scenarios for food, water and diesel and fill up on everything.
Finally we get going. Will it be the dream we anticipated? Are we going to have to be rescued from this lonely part of the planet? Are we going to get into Ethiopia? Are we going to get out of Kenya? I mean there isn’t even a border post on the Kenyan side: we have to prepare our official exit hundreds of miles south. Thankfully I’ve already been in contact with the Head of the Revenue Authority and a bit of honest name-dropping goes a long way in getting or carnet (car passport) stamped relatively quickly.
Leaving the milky waters of Lake Baringo, we soon pass the rifle-toting shepherds we’d read about. We wave and smile before they have chance to wonder if we’re an enemy and they all wave back enthusiastically. We don’t feel too unperturbed, knowing any bullet action would seldom be directed at a tourist, the shepherds have other worries in this area. A sea of acacias appear soft and fluffy around us, though beneath their green and their blossoms, which surprise us, their thorns can be deadly to your tyres.
Still some 200km before the lake, we encounter our first ladies adorned with the traditional, decorative jewellery of the Samburu tribe. It’s a surreal episode watching them going about their daily business so exotically! The ladies’ faces are lined by experience and sunlight, but not weary and they wear their wide, plate-like, brightly-coloured collar necklaces as unpretentiously as we might wear a polo-neck jumper. If we hadn’t wished to appear rude we would have happily stopped openly gawped for many minutes. And had we not felt intrusive, we would have taken many more photos. Now we know we made the right decision on the routing, this is going to be unforgettable and unique!
World’s End viewpoint is this evening’s camp and we arrive just in time to fill up on more inspiring Rift Valley vistas while we’re almost blown away, literally and figuratively! It is incredibly windy, and at this altitude, as soon as the sun goes down, cold. It’s not going to be a night round the campfire tonight! The wind is howling so strongly we take our ’emergency’ set up in the car and sleep ‘downstairs’ with the roof still down. We’re as excited (change) as kids on a first camping adventure, climbing into the 90cm wide bed and snuggling up closely and under two blankets. We romanticise everything to the hilt, if it weren’t for the thermal underwear we’ve just retrieved from our rooftop box. The wind shakes Bruce like he weighs 3 pounds rather than 3 tonnes and we’re rocked to sleep like babies in a crib.
The clouds are swirling like dervishes around us when we wake and there’s no chance of enjoying the spectacular view again next morning. We’re expecting this to be the most demanding day of the tour, with poor tracks, ill-maintained and demanding on the car.
As the sun rises higher, the clouds are burnt away to nothing and we enjoy bumping along our way, though it’s thankfully not half as bad as expected. In the early afternoon we arrive in South Horr, hereafter known to us as “Africa’s Most Beautiful Village.” With hindsight, it was a mistake not to stop and at least wander around a little – for some unknown reason, we felt we ought to push on and reach the lake today. The setting, below huge, shady, leafy trees, arid hills to either side, crossing a couple of wide, sandy dry riverbeds, passing bleating sheep, schoolkids tumbling out of a minibus, men in their jeans and t-shirts, girls in dresses, but also the traditionally dressed, again brightly bejewelled with colourful, beaded, multi-hooped neck adornments, was simply idyllic. We will both regret the decision to carry on for a long time to come.
We overcome our shyness a little and stop to greet some of the passers-by. The kids are a treat, all smiles and curiosity, the women of all generations polite and patient as we try to converse. No external hint of the hunger that must be rumbling through their whole bodies; one of them refuses a biscuit: though, he only wants money, which we can’t offer.
Blowing at 11 metres per second, we’re not the only ones who consider Lake Turkana to be one of the windiest places on the planet! The 5 partners and an unknown number of financiers participating in building the wind generation plant, due to start some time this year, seem to think so, too, with a project cost of between €623m to €742m (US$ 745.5m-900m) according to Wikipedia. 365 wind turbines are standing to attention waiting for the green light to illuminate for the project to begin generating power, though it looks as though there are still many km of cables to be strung between the poles.
We’re rapidly approaching the lake and the huts of the local people appear so flimsy we’re surprised they stay in place. Old plastic bags and hessian sacks form the outside layer and if not well secured they flap loudly and incessantly in the gales. The last 16km over boulders and through meadows of dark lava take never seem to end, but the views of the lake are bewitching. The colours are true to the alternative name for the waters, The Jade Sea. After almost 8 hours we roll into our next camp at Loiyangalani, an oasis of palm fronds and rubbish.
The wind hasn’t diminished in force and we treat ourselves to another night downstairs in Bruce – but it’s far from the romance of yesterday. It’s stiflingly hot and we clamber into bed with the doors wide open, not noticing the place is buzzing with mosquitos. The wind might as well be coming from a fan oven and we are the chickens roasting nicely inside. It’s hot and sweaty and it’s all we can do to try and stay as far apart from each other as possible. Poor Jens is tortured by the insects and ends up with the sheet almost mummifying him, mosquito repellent not bringing any relief at all. Jens is fortunately my human mosquito spray and I only suffer from the heat and the shaking car, not the bites.
The ensuing scenery offers no end of variety: along the lakeshore, white sand, emerald waters, diverting inland up hill and down dale, across swathes of green-tinged desert: the rains have been heavy this season, yellow blossoms just like we had in Namibia. We see occasional figures in the distance, wind swept and dusty, donkeys lugging water canisters for mile after sandy mile, cattle camouflaged in the intense light. This is not a place you would choose to live.
At the entrance to Sibiloi National Park, the Cradle of Mankind, in the early afternoon, we are greeted by a gently, well-spoken, higher-ranking Parks officer. It turns out he’s the Park head and has some business to deal with regarding encroaching villagers and cattle and two lions outside the park boundaries, intimidating both people and livestock. We chat pleasantly while the formalities are taken care of, he recommends the trip to the petrified forest and he explains a detour we need to take (or a track we need to avoid) to arrive safely: there has been so much rain this year the washaways are too difficult to get around. We are assured there’ll be no animals to see in this part of the park. And we’re unlikely to see other vehicles or tourists. Jens is in seventh heaven: this was so far, the most fun driving day on the continent!
We remain alone until arriving at the lakeside campsite and two friendly researchers welcome us to the Koobi Fora research station and the Land Rover graveyard (we always knew Bruce the Toyota is the best!) A building forms a windbreak providing a reprieve from the buffeting if the previous nights and and we can sit under the colonnade to avoid the snakes and scorpions!
Another rattly night but we’re back upstairs with the wind blowing though our mosquito nets. The lake remains green with white caps of waves from the wind. There’s a belittlingly expansive, black but starry sky and we see a shooting star. We’re loving the trip and only sorry it’ll be over too soon.
The final day promises to be the day of sandy riverbed crossings, testing our new, African driving skills and we’re relishing the bit of adventure. We just want to make sure we get the right track and not the washed away one.
Less than 45 minutes on the ‘road,’ we round a bend and see the widest riverbed crossing in front of us. And a Toyota stuck in the middle of it! We stop and I get out, a tree is now blocking my view. When I do see the vehicle a second later, I see several men getting out, some of them in sandy camouflage, a number of them with rifles and a couple with balaclava type coverings over their faces.
I suddenly don’t feel quite so comfortable. This isn’t a poor tourist rescue situation. In a millisecond I’ve gone through being kidnapped, held to ransom, robbed and even killed. But one of them is coming over with his had outstretched, “Hi, it’s me, Robert, from the camp yesterday!” So it is, and his colleague. And all these other big, burly men! They’re delighted and relieved to see us, having set off at 6.30am. I wonder they haven’t radioed for help.
They’ve managed to dig themselves into the sand and say they don’t have 4WD, though I see a gear stick indicating they do. I can only hope and presume it’s broken. They want us to tow them. Jens isn’t so keen, knowing the pressure it puts on the clutch and the gears, especially in the deep sand. In addition, the other side is steep and there doesn’t seem to be an alternative approach.
Jens starts to let air out of our tyres: they’re too hard for this soft terrain. He suddenly stops and walks back to their car with his pressure gauge. They look on inquiringly. 4.5 bar left back, 2.1 bar right back. He lets them down to 0.9 bar.
The driver’s raring to go and revs up like he’s going to attempt the landspeed record. Until Jens is standing in front of the bonnet screaming STOP!! He hasn’t realised he needs a run-up to manage the climb over the other side, first they walk together to the other side, to see what the plan is, then they all push the car forward a metre or two, then back as far as he can go. Again, he’s fully revved up and shoots off on his mission, across the sand over to the other side, he launches up the bank, front wheels in the air like something from the A Team and bounces back down, slaloming through the soft sand until he hits a firmer patch and everyone clambers in, though not before cheering and whooping as if they’d been stranded for days, and big handshakes and thank yous all round for Jens.
We continue on, savouring our last glimpses of the lake, and arrive at the final outpost of Kenya, Ileret. As we’re chatting to Christopher, the officer in charge at the police station, the Park head from yesterday shows up and comes immediately over to us, arm extended and thanking us for rescuing his men! He’s charming! We feel quite honoured that he knew already and that he remembered who we were!
Now we’re free to head up to Omorate. There are a lot of tracks to choose from and could have scuttled through the sand for ages, gingerly picking our way to the road, but we have a local hitchhiker on board who points us in the right direction.
In the middle of this dry, sandy desert, we actually pass two checkpoints, complete with rope barring our way and someone coming out to check our passports with tattoos and scarifications on his bare chest and face!
Finally we arrive at the immigration office, warmly greeted and allowed into Ethiopia after 45 minutes of form filling. No question of paying deposits or the like!
What a relief! And to think we’d be the rescuers not the rescued just tops it all!
Lake Turkana has to be one of the highlights of any trip we’ve done! With the added exoticism of the tribes of Omo valley which followed (impressions to follow here very soon), we now have a lifetime of colourful, happy memories and are so pleased we forged ahead with our plan!