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.…