The Omo Valley

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March 1st 2010
Published: March 1st 2010
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Leaving Addis

Well it's been a while since my last update. Almost a month. In fact it wouldn't have been quite so long if I hadn't deleted - without saving - my previous attempt last week; an idiocy so depressing and annoying (it having taken most of the day to write!) that I have been putting this second attempt off until now, knowing that if I don't write something soon, I probably never will again. The draft I deleted was undoubtedly some of my best work: witty, poingaint, overflowing with insight. In short, a joy to read. Obviously any shortcomings you find with the below are simply down to fatigue at having to attempt such heroic efforts again and I can only ask for your patience and understanding.

So let's try this again...

My last update was from Addis Ababa (not AbEba I have been assured, despite seeing both versions of the spelling on various adverts, pamphlets and beer coasters around the city). On the whole I wouldn't say I have very fond memories of Addis. Not a wholey nasty or unpleasant place and I quite enjoyed the vibe on the street and chilled atmosphere of the city, but a couple of street scams made me wary and the general negativity of the clientele at the place I was staying also darkened my mood and left me keen to get moving again. But in what direction...

There are 2 main routes, each with their own meanderings, from Ethiopia into Northern Kenya. The route more usually taken is via the Moyale border post, crossing into Kenya and cutting back West along the border for about 100km before plunging 200km South to Marsabit, and onwards. All in all it's approximately 450km of hard, rock strewen dirt roads, sometimes called the 'the bandit highway' because of infrequent, but occasionally quite dangerous attacks on travellers. The most recent I heard of was a fellow biker coming South a few months back who was shot at, not hit himself, but the bullet took a chunk out of the front rim and he was left to limp away as fast as he could on a ruined front end, no doubt thankful he could keep moving at all. It's a tough road for sure and yet it has the advantage over the other by being short - at least short enough for me to cover with a single full tank of fuel - and reasonably well travelled, with a steady trickle of trucks and other travellers to give some level of support if the need arises.

The second option strikes West into the Omo Valley, down to the top of Lake Turkana in Kenya and then either West around the lake towards Uganda or South and East towards the Sibiloi National Park, Loyalangani and, eventually, 1200km of dirt roads later, Maralal where the first certain fuel awaits. I very much wanted to do this route, but with a range of 500km per tank, fuel alone was going to be a major problem. Lugging an extra 30 litres plus water and food for at least 4 days over every type of nasty road East Africa can throw at you sounded like a great way to destroy my bike and leave me stranded on roads which probably see traffic once every couple of days. And what if I take a fall? All in all not a great option for a solo biker. I needed some company...

The night before I left Addis, over a half bottle of whisky and a few beers, I discussed this dilemma with Marcel and Johanna who had arrived the previous day and who I'd last seen up on Lake Tana at Tim and Kim's. Turned out they had a similar problem. They also wanted very much to do the Turkana road, but didn't trust their 1953 converted fire truck quite enough to do it all on their own. Me joining them would be great, and they would happily carry any extra fuel, water and food, but there was obviously no way I could winch them out of any tight spots or carry ruined tires back to the nearest town for repair... we needed a third.

The next morning, a Monday, I left for Awasa, a small, but busy little town set back from the shores of... Lake Awasa, there to meet Amy and John who I'd travelled with into Ethiopia and who I'd also parted company with at Lake Tana a few weeks before. They had met up with some other friends and, over successive rounds of St. George beer (very good) and, when that ran out, Dashen (less good) I tried to convince them of the joys of 'real' adventure and the merits of wild Lake Turkana over dull, boring Moyale 😊

In the end I couldn't convince Amy and John who had already been in Awasa a week and were reluctant to hang around another few days for the fire truck and then take a longer, more difficult route which would probably leave them behind schedule for a pre-arranged date in Nairobi. HJ and Liina were more interested, but having already been half way to the Omo Valley before being forced back the week before with a broken suspension strut, and also with their visa expiry date fast approaching, they were keen to push on and get within a day or 2 of the border where they would wait for us as long as possible before crossing into Kenya. Time was tight and the truck was still being repaired in Addis. Things were definitely still a bit uncertain as I watched the 4 of them head off in their respective directions and set up my hammock to wait for Marcel.

In the end it all worked out well. Marcel arrived on the Thursday and first thing Friday morning we were on the road; first to stock up on fuel, food, a quick spot weld on one of my pannier racks which had come adrift and a check on one of the truck tires which seemed to be leaking air; then driving South in the rain through surprisingly tropical mountain scenery: mangos, pineapples and bananas on sale by the side of the road and enough road between the potholes to aim at through my rain spattered visor. Part of the work which had delayed the truck in Addis had been to fit a new set of tires, and it was with some dissappointment that, still 100km from Yabello and in the fading light, we pulled off the road on a steep downhill with a flat rear wheel... the same rear wheel we'd just had checked and changed in Awasa. By the time we arrived in Yabello it was dark, wet and getting cold and we pulled into the first llikely looking spot we saw which turned out to be cheap, friendly and clean. We weren't long out of our beds that night.

Yabello was the last we saw of tar for the next 1200km... and 50km into it I had my first (and only as it turned out) problem with the bike. The first stretch was to cover 100km between Yabello and Konso where HJ and Liina were waiting for us. The road was lovely, well graded dirt and I opened the throttle and zipped along at 80kmph, standing up on the pegs and taking in the beautiful bush landscape. And then I noticed something a little odd: between my petrol tank and my seat a massive gap! Either my seat or my tank seemed to be coming off... I pulled over, took the seat off and realised that one of the top subframe bolts that keep the seat and rear section of the bike mounted on the main frame had sheered in 2 and the second bolt on the other side had worked itself loose so that the seat and rear, dragged down by the weight of my top box and panniers, had fallen backwards, disconnecting the air filter from the carb at the same time. Hmmm. I waited for the truck to catch up.

I think without Marcel's drill it could have taken me quite a while to fix. The sheered bolt was still tight in the frame and it took a while to extract it even with the drill. Once we had it out though, I found a match amoung my assorted spares and we had both bolts back in and the bike running again about an hour later. A minor hiccup. With my paanier bags now happily stowed in the truck, and now also with 2 hitchhikers Marcel had picked up just after Yavello, we moved on to Konso.

The Omo Valley

HJ and Liina were waiting for us as we pulled into Konso. A quick lunch, tire check and a final top up of fuel for me and we were set. In fact 1200km of dirt isn't entirely right. The first 20km or so out of Konso was actually brand new tar, wide and inviting as it curved down a steep escarpment towards step-tilled hills and fields dotted with small thatched huts and roaming cattle. As we hit the dirt again the road started winding through more mountainous terrain and suddenly, round a bend in the track and over a small rise, the land dropped away so sharply I had the illusion we'd hit the coast somehow and below was the sea that stretched out in hazy blue to the horizon. The Omo Valley. It was spectacular. It was also where the fire truck's brakes failed.

I had gone on ahead a bit and had been sitting and looking out over the valley, feeling pretty relaxed and contemplative as I waited for the others to catch up. When they didn't I figured they must have stopped futher up to survey the view and turned back to find them. What I found was Marcel on his back under the truck - a position he'd spend a lot of time in over the next few weeks 😉 - surveying his master brake cylinder which was gushing brake fluid and generally looking in a fairly bad way. It was not obvious what was wrong exactly, other than there was no preassure and so no brakes. More obvious was the steep, 800m drop off into the valley below, not to mention the 1000km still to go to Maralal. "No fear," says Marcel, "we're not turning back now! We can brake with the engine and if we keep the speed down and the reservoir topped up we've got enough preassure for 3 or 4 emergency brakes if we need it." :D And so, keeping a close eye on them in the rear mirror, I set off and we wound our way slowly down into the Omo Valley and on towards Turmi.

But progress was slow and 60km short of Turmi it was already starting to get dark, the sun dipping between the threatening clouds and behind the jagged line of mountains flanking the West side of the Valley. Driving at night without brakes was unanimously agreed to be a bad idea so we found a place to camp, turning off the road between villages and settling for a non-descript, but secluded spot between the thorn trees. It was a hot, sweaty night and I don't think anyone slept particularly well. In the morning we woke and got ourselves ready for an early start under the rather intense gaze of some local herdsmen. We were a bit wary of perhaps having camped on village land or in some way annoying or upsetting the villagers, but they seemed more interested than anything else and with a few smiles and handshakes we got on our way towards Turmi.

After a couple of longish days it was good to have a short stretch and get some time out of the saddle. We arrived without mishap around 11am and pulled into a really nice little camp site on the banks of the dry Turmi River. A quick run into town for beer and dinner supplies and it was time to chill. Well, except for poor Marcel, on his back under the truck again, now, as well as checking out the brakes, also concerned with a new knocking sound from the clutch - perhaps caused by the stress of engine braking the last 250km through the valley. We couldn't find anything wrong with the clutch, but did pin-point the trouble with the brakes: a blown main gasket, and with no spare, not repairable until Nairobi. Hopefully the clutch would hold together until then.

The next day was Monday and we had a lot to pack in. First was the Turmi market, a small but lively local market with an eclectic mix of food, pottery, jewelery, livestock (well I saw some chickens) and hand crafts. Mostly it was about the local people though. Hopefully some of the pictures give an decent impression of the colour and variety of jewellery and dress on display, but I didn't get that many good ones. There are more on my facebook for those interested. After soaking up the atmosphere for a while we picked up some much needed food supplies for the next few days and, sometime around midday, took the road west to Omorate, there to complete our Ethiopian paperwork and stamp out before heading to the Kenyan border.

The border between Ethiopia and Kenya is a pretty vague affair up at the north of Lake Turkana. Omorate is a tiny little town, the last on the Ethiopian side and still about 40km North of the actual border line itself. The procedure for crossing down the East side of the lake involves driving from Turmi to Omorate, about 2/3rds of the way along passing the Southern road to the border. At Omorate you get your passport stamped and carnet completed, a very simple and painless affair which involved the rather strange process of reading out our own engine and chasis number to the official who dutifully checked it against the carnet document in his hand. Presumably it didn't occur to him that anyone might memorise their fake numbers and as it happened turned out to be a lucky break for HJ who couldn't remember where his engine number actually was and so managed to get away with simply sticking his head inside his bonnet and reciting the numbers he'd quickly scanned before handing over his carnet to the official. It was all smiles though and less than an hour later we were done and off into town to try and exchange our last Birr for Beer and other essentials. This was not a simple process. Ethiopians have a very possessive relationship with their beer bottles. In fact with any glass bottles, and for the most part this in doubtless a great idea. Certainly I didn't see a single broken bottle throughout the entire month I was in the country and this alone is laudable. However, it also means that breaking a bottle by mistake costs you the full price of the beer again (as I'd learnt to my cost in Yabello) and getting anything to take away with you, thus depriving them of this valuable glass receptical, can nececitate full fledged diplomatic negotiations, especially complicated in our case as we arrived with empties from Turmi with which we then attempted to swing our purchasing power. After protracted discussions and about 2 hours in the heat and dust we eventually made our escape with 6 beers and 5 cokes, with I think 2 beers and 5 other cokes having to be drunk and their bottles returned before we could depart. It was a bit of a trial. Anyway, happy to have at least a couple of extra beers, off we went, heading back along the road we'd just come to find the track South towards the border.

Sand, sand, sand! We'd been warned, in fact warned off this route for 2 main reasons: first the length and isolation and second the deep sand and river crossings between Omorate and the border. I think if it had been raining it would have been almost impossible. In the dry though it was actually quite fun and especially with my bags packed away in the truck I was surprised how well the bike handled and churned its way through even the deepest gullies. The road wasn't much more than a selection of tracks at this point and would split further as we approached each sandy river bed, previous vehicles opting for a range of individual routes through the bush and trees. We took our time and, with an eye on the GPS now only as a general guide, we pushed on slowly but without any real problems until the first village.

I don't think these villages see much in the way of traffic coming through. The road, such as it was, cut straight through the corner of the first and I found myself in the lead, wondering if we were still going the right way, when a group of teenage locals stepped out in front of the bike and forced me to stop. I smiled and did so, keeping the engine very much running. The oldest of the group (maybe about 10 in all) seemed definitely on the aggressive side and he planted one of his mates in front of my wheel, instructed him to hold onto my bars and then dashed off to check out the landrover that was now coming up behind me. The others began demanding money and one grabbed at my trouser pocket where my wallet was bulging rather obviously. I wasn't having this. A quick glance over my shoulder to check that HJ and Liina were good to go and I gunned the engine. The poor lacky who'd been parked in front of me jumped to the side and I wasted no time shooting off down the track and away. The next village I didn't even look like slowing down and they got out of my way pretty quickly, which was lucky for them because the bike was slewing around a fair bit on the loose sandy ground.

It was starting to get dark by now and we were still a good 15km from the border which we had hoped to make that night. Again, driving at night was a unanimous no-brainer. It was just a question of finding somewhere secluded enough between villages where we could pull off the road and not worry about further hassles. The truck full of rifle carrying military we passed a short while later did little to make us feel safer. Eventually we just ran out of time and with darkness falling, we pulled off the road as far as we could through the low bush and made an impromptu and rather nervous camp for the night. Not wanting to draw too much attention to ourselves we kept light at a minimum, but in one of the few little flashes around to find a good spot for my tent, my beam fell on a nasty looking scorpion - which of course only added to the general unease. We had a beer, went to bed early and were up before dawn the next morning and on our way again at first light, already with a curious crowd of locals looking on although, happily, being quite friendly about it. Perhaps it was just the village kids who were looking for a quick score, I don't know. Or maybe it was just those previous 2 villages with a mind to extortion. In any case the locals who gathered round that morning were pleasant and smiling and we had no further trouble. We hit the border - a lone hut to the side of the track where the official was still inside and in bed when we arrived - around 9am and it was all smiles again as we were welcomed to Kenya: Karibu! be continued...

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4th March 2010

Cracking read mate - very much enjoying the updates!

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