Turkana - Africa’s Jade desert lake
We knew this stretch of our planned journey could potentially end our trip.
Words and photos: Michnus & Elsebie Olivier
There are two routes from Kenya to Ethiopia or vice versa. The main road through Marsabit which is about interesting as watching paint dry and the most popular with travellers. And then there is the route which is the road less travelled via Lake Turkana. This route is more a track and can take days to traverse but much more fun and with incredible dramatic landscapes. Lake Turkana is the worlds 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.
We got told at Jungle Junction, an overlanders oasis in Nairobi, Kenya, about the route from a few overlanders and with fair warning that they did not advise riding the route unsupported. Especially on motorcycles.
What makes the route so dangerous, yet interesting is that overlanders need to carry their own fuel and water for the nearly 900km of the route.
Most travellers team up with 4×4’s 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 is also crossing into Marsabit, making riding slow, dangerous and potentially a killer of tyres. It is extremely remote and you can not just summons 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 overlanders and very few ever choose the Turkana route. Eventually, we decided to buy some fuel and water containers and go at them on our own. In addition to our bikes 18L fuel tanks, we each carried an added 15L of fuel, an additional 10L water with me and full water trippers on our backs.
We started the route at Isiolo in Kenya and the next stop was at Maralal. The last town we were sure to get fuel and water, we set out. A motorcyclist is a rare sight in the village and with strange looks from the locals, we left late afternoon on very heavily laden bikes en route to Lake Turkana.
Not 5km out of town the road slowed to technical rock climbing all the way up the escarpment. We only managed 25km for the rest of the afternoon and late the afternoon set up camp beside the road.
If it started like this we were sure as hell going to suffer the next 5 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 1st and second gear 20km/h riding was going to be 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 3rd and 4th for a few hundred meters at a time.
As the day progress, the heat got really unbearable, it must have been well over 40'c.
Just about 50km before Loiyangalani we rode into the lava fields. It was like being on the receiving end of a nasty ‘bitch' slap, you are suddenly wide awake focusing not to crash.
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 sure this place is Satan' 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, it is a brutal place. The huts resemble squatter camps more than anything else, and there’s no water, except lake water and that is salty but drinkable and some waterholes.
Tired and thirsty late that afternoon we reached Shady Palms Campsite in Loiyangalani. We could not remember when last we felt so tired. We each downed 1.5L of beer and at least 1.5L of water before going to bed and did not even go for a pee.
With a WTF expression on our faces, the manager at the campsite told us there are showers with hot water! Well up to now we got used to mostly cold showers because that was all that campers got at campsites in Africa. But, here, there was no cold water! In 40’ degree heat, we had a shower which was great but was scolding hot!
We took a ‘rest-day’ and strolled through Loiyangalani village with its roughly 1000 inhabitants and home to 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, we decided to rather 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 sceptic looks. It was only then that we saw the size of the water well. Roughly 6m deep and 5m across tapering down. They 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, a while before Karsa gate entering the national 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 the 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 9km away there’s a small canteen where they might have a beer or two! After half an hour rest we dragged ourselves back to the bikes and head off to find the canteen. Fuck, 9kms sand riding 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 road condition is just to beat up. Even their drinking water gets delivered in 200L 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 10km just after sunrise was quite easy. We hoped it would last and be in Illiret late the afternoon. Well, it did not last!
One thing we learned was that planning goes out the window on routes like these. Our speed dropped to 20km/h on average and our fuel consumption to a 16km/L which presented a fresh new hell. Our next place to get fuel would only be in Turmi or Granada, Ethiopia and still a good 500km away.
This is where the proverbial shit hit the fan in bucket loads.
Exactly at the intersection to Koobi Fora research station, the track turned to a challenging sand track. 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 4×4’s had dug up the sand to such an extent that it offered no grip.
The bikes kept digging into the sand.
When we got them to float the track altered direction. Overgrown bushes and thorns hanging into the track hit us on the face and body and our progress slowed to a crawl. Neither of us is new to sand riding and can cope with most sand track with ease, but this was the first time that we got into sand tracks that were really difficult to ride.
It took us over 2 hours to negotiate the 12km sand track to the research station. The bikes were starting to overheat 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 5L oil container.
The container was wrapped in the dirty old sponge, tied up with an electric cable as 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 we were going to need it! Gratefully, they filled our water bottles from their 200L water drums. Apart from being a scientific 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 piece out of Koobi Fora is sand and with the bikes warmed up, we stormed into the sandy field in a northerly direction trying to avoid the previous day’s route.
By now it was a lot of fun riding the rocky roads, skills got sharpened up in a jiffy, progress was great and we were in good spirit chasing over some of the dry pans that formed next to the lake. As we got closer to Illiret we saw Zebra’s and some other big buck trotting away as we rode by.
At Illeret we needed to get stamped out at the police station before heading off to Omorate, Ethiopia, 60km away. God knows how de hell people make a living here and from what. The police were extremely friendly, even escorted us to the closest cold drink. There is no official border crossing here between Ethiopia and Kenya and we made our own 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, 25km before Omorate, were full-flowing. The first river I walked and we managed to cross it quite easily but just 5km 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 water. The bad news was that the bank was washed away 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.
Quite a friendly chap turned out to be a local policeman. We communicated via self improvised sign language and smiles. We gathered that he had to get to Omarate himself and gestured we can 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 20km and crossing the one river again then take a northerly direction towards Omorate. He rode the small bike like a real pro enduro racer and we made good progress via the cattle tracks.
Around 17km before Omorate the policeman stopped indicating to me that his fuel tank was empty. We offered him our last 2L that were in our jerry cans hoping we could get a few litres in Omarate. As our next know fuel stop was still 200km 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 were free to enter Ethiopia.
We were quickly whisked away to the local hotel by a fixer. The only hotel was in fact a dodgy brothel, which was confirmed by loud moaning and groaning noises emanating from the rooms throughout the night.
Cats mating made less noise and porn stars will cry from envy. We opted to pitch our inner part of the tent outside the room and rather sleep in our own bed. The pleasures of travel.
Our last issue was to get fuel as we had about 5L or 7L left in our tanks.
We were up early the next day to try and find fuel and since it was still 185km to the rest camp close to Granada we wanted to get going while it was still cool. The problem was we would not make it to the Granada with the fuel we had. With some luck, a local at the hotel took us to a friend in Turmi the next town who had some fuel stored for himself in 200L drums in the back of his house. Fuel in these remote is an extremely valuable commodity. He sold us some at quite an inflated price, but that is how it goes.
We were happy we finally made it into Ethiopia!
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