I come around a bush, and there is the pool… Except there’s a naked local woman in it, bathing, waist-deep in the water. She pauses scrubbing herself and glowers at me. Our eyes lock for a moment, both of us caught by surprise. I hastily turn around and walk back up. So, once again, I don’t have photos of the pool. If you want to see it you will just have to visit the place yourself, ey?
We need fuel. We have been assured that fuel is available in the village, but neither one of us wants to ride today. Not even a few meters. We agree to buy the fuel in containers and bring it to our bikes. But we don’t know how much we need. After a half-hour or so of separately scouting around, I am left to fuel the bikes. Akoth has a work call to make. I go to the village to a place that sells fuel at 10 litres for 2000 shillings. I need to do this quick because the sun is going down, and I must enjoy and photograph the sunset.
Dinner today is, again, another feast worth of kings. We have conversations with the other guests (they are leaving tomorrow too) and later settle into our tents for the night. But not before Akoth spots a small brown scorpion rushing from under her tent.
Day 8: Friday 28th January, 2022 | Illeret to Koobi Fora
I have bad memories of Koobi Fora and Sibiloi National Park from my trip two years ago. I have always wanted to go back to exorcise those memories, and hopefully create good ones. I wanted to ride through there last year solo, but was told that the security situation in the park was not good. Today it’s all systems go. I’m excited about that, despite the lurking anxiety.
Good morning. After breakfast, we pack up to leave. While packing up my tent, I disturb the peace of another scorpion that runs out from underneath it.
We stop at TBI to take some photos at the gate.
We are riding the Illeret-North Horr road. We need to find the junction where we branch off and make entry into Sibiloi National Park. Like I said earlier, my traced GPS route is not helping us. We navigate by phone.
Akoth goes ahead, as usual. After a bit of riding, I slow down. We have gone too far, we should have turned into Sibiloi already. I stop to check the map, and sure enough, we missed the turn. Akoth shows up, she has also turned around. I turn around too, and we slowly make our way back, looking for the junction.
We pause, to check with each other, and confirm that we are committed to this madness. Yes, we are.
He sorts out Akoth’s footpeg issue and makes me a pair of tyre levers. I don’t like the tyre levers. They are a far cry from my Buzettis, and will be really difficult to use in case of a puncture. I don’t like them so much that I never even take a single photo of them.
I also buy a spare clutch cable. I tell the guys seated outside the shop that I’m not happy about how they are giving us high prices.
“What can I do to be one of you, so you can be nice to me?” I ask. “I should marry one of your daughters!”
They tell me that that is ok, I just need to give them 300 camels.
“Where will I get 300 camels?” I ask.
They also express interest in Akoth. “Leave her with us, they say.”
I have another phone conversation with someone whose home is Kibish, about the possibility of going around the lake through Omorate. The moment I mention that I’m with a white person, he tells me to forget about it. The Ethiopians are real jumpy right now, and they might think it’s an investigative reporter. And just like that, we bury any thoughts of going through Omorate.
We need to find a place to have lunch.
We find a hotel after looking around.
Done with lunch, we leave and head north. Going to the KWS camp and the fundi has eaten up some good time. It’s running late now. We don’t know the condition of the road north. Our options are to go find out or spend the night in Kalokol. We go to find out.
The road north turns out to be not as sandy as I thought it would be. If you look at maps, it closely follows the edge of the lake, and so I expected it to be as sandy as the one heading south towards Eliye. But it still is rough, and not fun to ride.
It is becoming increasingly clear that we shall not make it to Nariokotome before dark. We discuss options, one of which is to find a way to the lake and camp by it for the night.
Akoth stops. Her headlamp is moving around too much. It’s threatening to fall off. We hope to tighten whatever is loose, but find that we have even bigger problems. The bracket holding the light is breaking off its support. It needs to be welded back. Not a roadside fix. We try to hold the lamp still with bungee cords, an effort that proves futile. We eventually decide to remove the lamp altogether from the bike. It’s the heaviestheadlampintheworld lamp! That’s a German word. No wonder the bracket gave up! I’d give up too! The headlamp ends up in my poor pannier bag.
That eats over thirty minutes of our time. Things are now getting desperate. We need somewhere to stay for the night. We can camp anywhere, but we did not stock up on enough water. We are not sure the little we have will last us a night in this heat. Our option is to find a way to the lake, or camp at any village we come across.
We stop a truck in desperation and ask the occupants if there is any shop nearby where we can get water. They say no. We ask if they can spare us some water, which they do.
We reach a small settlement. Akoth is running fast ahead, trying to cover as much ground as she can before dark. She is flying, now that we have shifted 50 kilos of heaviestheadlampintheworld headlamp from her bike to mine. The next small settlement we saw on maps is 6km away. I, however stop to chat a man and a woman by the side of the road. I ask them if there’s anywhere nearby we could buy water. They say that there is a shop nearby. I ask if there’s a way to the lake. They tell me that the only way is the dry river we just crossed a few hundred metres behind. I get the feeling that this would be a good place to stay for the night. I run to catch up with Akoth.
We decide to go back and stay at that settlement for the night. We reach near some huts, and Akoth says she will go and talk with them and see if they can allow us to camp at their homestead for the night. I say ok. There are some women in the homestead, and she starts a conversation with them. I can’t hear them, but I’m not hopeful. I can’t see a man. I do not think these women will make such a decision without a man present.
Akoth calls me over. I try to talk with the woman, but her body language is enough to tell me we won’t get anywhere. I instead ask her if there’s a place we can get water, a shop. I thank her, and we walk away.
“They can’t decide without the man,” I tell Akoth.
We keep riding back. A short distance away we spot some mabati structures by the side of the road, and some men chilling on chairs outside. The men turn to look at us and run towards us as we slow to a stop…
It is said that the Turkana people don’t bury casualties of war. They leave them in the open fields, to be devoured by animals and birds.
In May 2011, bandits from Ethiopia, armed with AK 47 assault rifles assaulted a group of Kenyan traders who had gone into Ethiopia to buy food. This happened at a time when there was lots of barter trade across the border between the Turkana of Kenya and the Daasanach of Ethiopia, despite incidents of cattle rustling. This attack is said to have been a retaliation, but I have found it difficult to know who started it all where. This brutality, and the resulting counter-attacks left at least 42 Turkana people dead. Casualties of war. The ones not to be buried.
The Tondonyang Catholic Parish laid these casualties of war in a mass grave, that today remains a stark reminder of the savagery of war. A giant tombstone crowned with a simple cross sticks out into the clear blue skies like a sore thumb against the expansive plain landscape.
This mass grave is the furthest north Akoth and I went on our January 2022 adventure ride to Northern Kenya. And it is the furthest north I have ever gone.
In January last year, I did a solo motorcycle trip to Turkana and Marsabit counties. You can read that whole story here. On my way up, I did not want to use the usual Kapenguria to Kainuk to Lokichar to Lodwar tarmac road. I scouted for a new route and found a scenic and enjoyable road that goes through Kacheliba and Lorengippi, places I had never been to before.
I wanted a similar experience again: To get to Lodwar using a road I have never used before. Poring over maps revealed a road from Turkwel Dam to Turkwel town, via Naipa. It was difficult to get information on this route, but I happened to consult someone on Facebook who said that indeed it is a passable road. And safe.
The plan solidified.
Having slaved over work through the December holidays, I decided to up and go immediately I wrap up some projects mid-January. I was ready. My bike was ready.
I informed a small group of bikers of my plans and asked if anyone was willing to jump onboard, we go suffer together. It’s difficult for people to make time off work in January. But Akoth could, and this brave soul stepped up.
And that’s how I ended up doing this trip with Akoth Manu, a toughasnutsKenyanGermanlady. My space bar works fine. You will understand as you read the story…
I was anxious and apprehensive about doing the trip with her. I have had bad experiences with riding buddies in the past, and the last thing I wanted was to wish I did the trip solo. My solo trips have been heaven. But I decided to just go for it and see what happens. We had a little chat online, and I could see that she was anxious too. There was an unspoken understanding in the air that if we find out we can’t get along we shall amicably part ways. We left it open, it could work, or things could go south.
And so, a couple of days before the trip, we were both studying maps, talking to people, and getting as much information as we could. We also met once and came up with a loose trip plan. Loose, because there were just too many unknowns to make any solid plans around.
But what is an adventure without unknowns, ey?
The grand plan was to make a loop around Lake Turkana. Go north along its west, nip into Ethiopia at the top through Omorate (after possibly visiting someone in Kibish), and come down south along the lake’s east side, through Illeret.
Well, the actual trip did not go that way, for reasons you will find out as you read along. So many things did not go in any way we planned. Every day’s plan turned into a whirlwind of chaotic adventure and unknowns.
So, dear reader, welcome to chaos.
Not complete chaos, though. Somehow, things worked out. Akoth and I worked well together… Kinda… And we met good people along the way who were kind to us, who made our travel possible and gave us lots of useful information.
I have tried to pen the events as accurately as I can remember them, and to put as many photos as possible. I aim to genuinely share my awesome experience with you. I hope, in the end, to make you feel like you were on this trip with us! My work will be done well if you slump into a hangover after you are done!
Before we begin, here is a rough outlay of how the trip actually went (for me), in terms of days and destinations:
Day 1: Nairobi to Kainuk [463 km, about 107km off-road] Day 2: Kainuk to Lodwar, via Turkwel Dam, Kapelbok, Naipa, Turkwel [224km, about 175km off-road] Day 3: Lodwar to ECD School [100km, about 70km off-road] Day 4: ECD School to Tondonyang [188km all off-road] Day 5: Tondonyang to Lokitaung, via Lowarengak-Lokitaung gorge road [57km off-road] Day 6: Lokitaung to Illeret, via boat across lake [149kms, 56km on tarmac, 40km on boat] Day 7: Rest Day, a visit to Turkana Basin Institute Day 8: Illeret to Koobi Fora [102km off-road] Day 9: Koobi Fora to Nowhere [151km off-road] Day 10: Nowhere to Loiyangalani, via Gas [69km off-road] Day 11: Loiyangalani to Maralal [235km off-road] Day 12: Maralal to Nairobi, via Nyahururu, Njabini [343km, 20km off-road]
And here are a few tasty bites from the upcoming banquet:
Alright, enough of that. Let’s start properly from the beginning, shall we? Sit down, and let me tell you about my trip north with Akoth.
Day 1: Friday 21st January, 2022 | Nairobi to Kainuk
Today is a longer day for me than it is for Akoth, who left yesterday and spent the night in Nakuru. We agree that she can keep going, and we can catch up at Marigat. I need to move quickly, because the last 100km of our trip will be off-road, and we don’t want to be caught up by darkness.
First stop at Kabarak. It’s getting warm, some clothes have to come off. I give Akoth a call, and she tells me she is already at Marigat. She will do a work call as she waits for me.
I get to Marigat, roll into a petrol station, and there she is. She just got here too, after wrapping up her work call.
We fuel and catch up. We need a plan. Akoth has another work call to be done before end of day. We are not sure we will reach Kainuk before nightfall. She may have to do it somewhere along the way. We decide to have lunch at Chemolingot and think it over some more.
Akoth leaves Marigat town and goes ahead, while I go to nearby shops to shop for sandals.
We arrive at Chemolingot, and have lunch at Mama Juniour’s.
We also discuss Akoth’s meeting and decide that she can do it at 7 pm. We estimate that we will be at Lomut by then. A chat with some security people had informed us not to go into Marakwet County. At Kolowa we will hang right to stay in Baringo County, and get into West Pokot county, avoiding the route through Tot.
After lunch, we hit the road. A few hills later, the tarmac road ends. It’s 1543hrs, and we have 100km of off-roading to do!
We are doing quite well. Akoth can have her meeting at Marich or Kainuk, instead of Lomut.
We reach this bridge near Marich, and I can’t believe my eyes! It’s now a proper bridge!
Last time I passed here, this bridge was a twisted mess below:
We agree that Akoth will make her call at Marich.
I message and chat with guys on my phone, and take dusk photos as I wait for her to be done. The network here is terrible.
Once she is done, we leave. The plan is to spend the night at a place called Calabash, some 17km away. I have already spoken with Winnie of Calabash about our arrival. Winnie has also been very helpful in getting me information on security in the area, and on the condition of the road we intend to use tomorrow to Lodwar.
I have been to Calabash several times before, and I know they have signboards starting a few kilometres away. I’m in front, looking out for them. I see one signboard, approach it, but I just can’t read it. Akoth can read it. We reach another signboard, and again I can’t read it, but Akoth can.
Suddenly it occurs to me what is wrong! I bring my hand up and touch my face… I don’t have my glasses! I removed them and placed them on the bike at Marich while wearing my balaclava. Then I put on my helmet, got on the bike and rode off. I have no idea where I might have dropped them!
I inform Akoth of my predicament, and together we search for them on the bike, hopelessly hoping to find them hanging in there somewhere.
Just about two kilometres from Calabash, we turn around and start riding back, searching for my glasses. We scour the road hoping to find them lying somewhere, unsmashed. Strange thing is, my vision seemed to have been pretty good before I realised I did not have my glasses. Now I can’t see shit! We ride up to our previous Marich stop and look around.
After a while, I have to accept the loss. We leave again, tried, aching for a rest, and head towards Calabash. I’m pretty sure I packed a spare pair in my bags. It’s not my latest prescription, but it’s better than nothing.
We arrive at Calabash and park our bikes next to the sitting area. I get some bags off my bike for the night. I packed stuff so I can leave some bags undisturbed when not camping out. But there’s no food. In the spectacle of the spectacles, I forgot to call ahead and ask them to prepare food for us. The cook has gone away for the night. Ruth, the lady in charge, tells us that we can get some rice. That works. We will have some rice with a can of githeri I carried. Another lady is nice enough to make the food for us in the kitchen, as we get shown our accommodation.
They have nice little huts, clean and well ventilated. The bathrooms and toilets are outside. We are the only guests. The huts are a little distance from the reception area, and we take our bags down. Some containers of water are brought down for our use.
After we have our simple dinner, we go down to rest our weary bodies. We are sweaty and dusty, though, a shower is mandatory.
Sorry.. A bath.
After settling in, I step out without warning. Akoth shouts at me. She is not using the bathrooms, but is bathing from a bench outside the hut.
“Don’t come this way, I’m taking a bath out here!”
Illeret. It is said to mean The lugga of blood. It is said that a long time ago, the Daasanach people (the tribe that lives in Illeret) held a circumcision ceremony at the lugga (riverbed crossing) and Gabra men attacked, and killed all the initiates. The lugga was red with the blood of the slain. Hence “illeret,” the lugga of blood. No, this won’t be a blood and gore story, I promise. This will be a story of venturing into the unknown, facing fears, and being surprised by how much joy a little trust births. The trust that the unknown people you shall meet in an unknown territory will be nice. The trust they have that you are not coming to them with ill intentions.
Early 2019, I had never heard of Illeret. Neither had I ever heard of the Daasanach people. If you follow the east coast line of Lake Turkana, Illeret is the last major town before you get into Ethiopia. I saw it on Google maps, and my curiosity perked. This is a story of how Illeret went from being just a blob on Google Maps, to smiling people. Chapatis at a village hotel. The carpeting in a Daasanach hut. A dog chewing at a boy’s shoes at church mass. Yes, a dog attending mass at a small beautiful church. Mass during a heavy unexpected storm. And forcefully throwing a drunk old man off my bike.
NOTE: This story was first published as a Facebook Note on January 19th, 2020. The trip began on December 27th, 2019, and took ten days.
This story is in 4 parts. It will do you well to read them in the correct sequence. I have woven this story as a tapestry over the four parts. Skipping any portions (even photo captions) will result in threads coming undone at the end. One might, as a result, fail to understand obscure references at the end. You will get all the juice out of this story if you chew it patiently section to section. Alright now, I will tell you the whole story from the beginning. Sit down.
Prologue | The plan, and lessons from the past
Last year, Timam, Tina and I did a motorcycle trip to Nakodok, the border of Kenya and South Sudan. It was an awesome trip, and we had so much fun together. However it taught me the value of planning well (even if you don’t eventually stick to the plan). I felt like, during that trip, we rushed through places and hardly visited them. We spent what was supposed to be our rest afternoon visiting Kalokol and fatiguing ourselves down to Eliye Springs. We did not know how close we were to the beautiful Crater Island, and we left Eliye Springs without having set an eye on the Eliye Springs. Kind of a waste. I was quite overcome with mirth when, back in Nairobi, one of us declared “I have been to Eliye Springs, and can confidently say there are no springs there.” I know the springs exist, because I have visited them before.
This time I take time to look up what attractions are in the areas I hope to pass through. I find out about the Desert Museum, I read up on the El Molo people and their sacred shrines, I read up on Koobi Fora – I go through as much material as I can find about the area.
The initial plan is to reach Loiyangalani in a day, spend the next day visiting the museum and the El Molo people, before going on north. The plan is to also have some rest days. Both Timam and Tina express interest in joining in on the trip. Tina can’t because she does not have enough days. Timam comes to my place on 20th December, and we each draw up our desired trip plans. Our plans don’t agree. I make it clear that I can spare a total of 10 days for the trip, and intend to be in no hurry. He wishes to be back home earlier. By the time he leaves, we are not in agreement at all. I get the feeling that I shall be doing this trip alone, and start preparing myself for that eventuality. I have been planning this trip alone for months now, anyway. The option of it being a solo ride is not so unwelcome.
I start with the bike. I have already put in fresh oil and new tyres.
Pre-trip bike problems
My plan is to go upcountry for Christmas, then come back to Nairobi on 26th, and start the journey on 27th. By 23th, Timam has showed intent to still come along, but I’m not sure he will come all the way all the days with me. On 23th too, I realise with trepidation that my bike is NOT ready for any trip! It is overheating. Oil on the radiator cap suggests a blown head gasket. Travelling to hot regions such as Northern Kenya with a blown head gasket would be impossible. The trip upcountry has to be cancelled, I have to quickly fix my bike.
Luckily, I already have fresh gaskets that I had purchased a while back. Luckily also, I do most of my own repairs and maintenance. Three years ago I took this bike apart and rebuilt it, putting almost every component in its place myself. On 24th I bring the bike into my compound and start stripping it up.
On 25th, I begin tearing into the engine.
The next day I bolt everything on. I’m a bit nervous because the trip begins in less that 24 hours. I usually don’t like working on my bike, and immediately embarking on a long trip. I prefer riding the bike around town for some days first to make sure everything is ok . But this time it will be a leap of faith. I cross my fingers and hope everything is ok with the bike.
Day ONE | 27 Dec 2019
I wake up in the morning and start packing up the bike. I had not properly figured how to strap the adventure bags, since I have never used them before, and this takes me some time. Timam tells me to carry for him the three man tent. He is coming on the trip, after all, and I’m to meet him ahead, because he is at his folks’ home in Meru.
I’m supposed to leave at 6am, but run late and leave at 8:30. The idea of doing Loiyangalani in a day is already nose diving. It’s a quick ride to Nanyuki.
The bike is running well. It seems the repairs worked out fine. I will still have to monitor the temperature, especially when we get offroad. At Nanyuki, I give Timam a call. He tells me that he is in Meru town. We agree to link up at Isiolo.
I meet Timam in Isiolo. We repack things. I hand him the tent. He gives me two five litre jerry cans to carry. We may need to carry extra fuel somewhere along the way. I must mention that we are not sure about how the trip will be, or how the roads will be. We have had conversations with a couple of people who have travelled that way, but everything is still uncertain. We have no idea what the towns/villages look like, whether we shall be welcome, where we shall spend the nights… It’s a big leap of faith. To put it another way, we really have very little idea what the hell we are doing.
We grab a quick lunch, and are soon on our way to Laisamis.
Some two boys walking a cow find me stopped and ask for water. I don’t have any water in bottles I can hand out. I let them suckle at my camel bag. I have to communicate to them using signs that they must bite for the water to come out.
We arrive at Laisamis. This is where we begin our offroad riding. It’s late afternoon, and we know we can’t make it to Loiyangalani today. We do not know where we shall spend the night.
After fuelling up, getting some cash, stocking up on bits of supplies, we hit the road towards Loiyangalani. It starts off with a bit of tarmac for the first fifteen kilometres, then gives way to a well graded gravel road. The road is well made, as it has been used by trucks taking materials and supplies to the Loiyangalani wind power project. Our plan is to follow this road till Loiyangalani. What we do not know is that the new road does not follow the old road and is not on maps, and we keep losing it along the way.
We reach the Milgis Lugga that has some water in it. I’m in front, and I do something stupid. Since I can see vehicle tyre marks going into and out of the water, I don’t bother to check the depth before crossing. There’s a deep-ish ditch under the water and it catches me by surprise, I almost drop my bike in the water. My shin-high boot sinks in the water till it’s almost pouring in through the top. I recover, though, and power out of the river.