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Published: March 4th 2010
So the guy on the border was very relaxed and after our previous rather tense night it was good to feel welcome and at ease again. We waited for him to get his pants on and he made room on his little bed for us to sit while he had a quick glance at our passports and radioed something to someone on the ancient looking set stacked in the corner. 10 mins later we were good to go and so off we went, following what could barely be called a track through the low bush and into Kenya.
The first stop was to be Ileret, a little village about 80km South and set back from the lake on a small, sandy hill. There we were to check in with the local police and register our arrival in the country. All the actual paper work and passport stamping was to be done in Nairobi, but we had been told we needed to make this stop in order to keep our progress logged with the authorities. I still don't really know what this was for exactly, considering nothing was put in our passports in Ileret and when
we did eventually get to the immigration offices in Nairobi all I did was walk to the counter, say I had arrived through Lake Turkana and the rather bored looking clerk on duty, grunting a question to the effect of "when was that", reached to his stamp and wacked my passport with it, scribbling next to it in black pen that I had a one month visa from the date I'd given him. The carnet process was equally brisk and didn't seem to refer to any other official records in any way, so it's anyone's guess what the police registration process actually achieved.
In any case, Ileret was South and we were heading South anyway. It was good fun that morning: the track was sandy but firm, fading in and out between the bush and low trees. A few locals, colourfully clad as ever in blues and reds and yellows, smiled and waved back to us as we passed. The sky was clear and blue and I was warm, but not yet roasting in my gear, a pleasant breeze drifting by as I cruised along at a relaxed 40kmph or so. We passed through this easy scenery for an
hour or 2 and then up a very sandy hill - well dune really - into the town and found the police compound. All smiles again and we were welcomed into Kenya, assured that it was a 'free country' (er, good...) and sent on our way. As we pulled out of the compound another vehicle was coming in and we met Germano, a lone Italian also travelling South in his small, underpowered but well kitted out truck. Germano was looking for some company to tackle the next few hundred kilometers and soon it was a procession of bike, landcruiser, mini truck and fire truck moving South towards the Sibiloi National Park.
We had no intention of entering the park but planned instead to circle round the Eastern edge for a couple hundred kilometers and then cut back towards the lake and the main town of the region: Loyangalani. Partly this was because entering the park was an extra expense of USD 20 per person, plus vehicle (nothing like the USD 100 per person for the 'premium' parks such as Masai Mara, but at least the Masai holds the prospect of actually seeing some game!), but we had also heard
the roads through the park were very deep sand in places and the route around was harder packed and perhaps a bit easier. Oh yes, and there was the final point that bikes are not allowed in Kenyan national parks... 😞 So with this in mind we headed South and, at the first branch in the track, clearly sign posted with a notice declaring the main route was now entering the park, we dutifully took the left option and began to skirt the border heading East into a series of increasingly rocky ridges and gullies.
This is where things got tough. For me at least. The other vehicles were happy enough getting bounced around in the now very rocky ruts, but I was struggling a bit. In places the track would degenerate into little more than 2 ditches, each perhaps 3 foot deep and then filled to a foot and a half with assorted rocks and stones, ranging in size from golf balls to footballs, all loosely tossed together to form a sliding mix of smooth and jagged edges which threw the front wheel mercilessly left and right into the rut walls. Add sudden drops into rocky (but mercifully
dry) river beds and steep, twisting climbs up the far banks and you have a recipe for a hard, tiring ride. And then the wind picked up. With each kilometer South it got stronger, at first hitting me more or less head on, but as the road began to turn South again the head-wind became a cross-wind, gusting fiercely into my left shoulder, and it was a constant fight to keep the front wheel straight and away from the rut walls and mess of ridge between the them, and the rocks and thorny Acacias lining the sides of the track.
The only thing to do is go fast. Well perhaps not that fast really, but faster than instinct seems to suggest is safe. Going slow simply removes the 2 chief factors keeping you upright: traction and forward momentum. Besides, by this stage my battery was totally dead and useless. It had died completely sometime back in Ethiopia and kick-starting a single cylinder 600cc bike takes a bit of a, well, a bit of a kick. The prospect of stalling on a steep, loose, rocky mess did not appeal. The only thing to do was get my weight low, open
the throttle as much as I dared, hold on tight and hope like hell I could stay on. I'm no Dakar rider. This was hard! Each 10km I would stop and rest and wait for the others to catch up. I was going a lot faster than they were so this would give me up to half an hour to chill and take stock and be generally thankful that I'd survived another 10km without smashing either myself or my bike into the ground.
The elation of survival is not to be underestimated. I would bouce my way down some steep scree slope, hit the bottom with as much pace as I could manage, throw the bike in the general direction of the track as it twisted up the far side and open the throttle in second gear to feel the bike just roar up the other side, spitting rocks and dirt behind me in distain. I may have been scared shitless but the bike was in its element, eating up the rocky track like some razor toothed salavating beast. LOL, I just love that image, sorry 😉 Damn but I love my bike 😊 Those Austrians know how to
build an engine...
Anyway. By about 3pm we were all knackered and even the 4 wheel drivers had had a few tricky moments and were happy to take a break from being bounced around in their cabs. There was nobody around - we hadn't seen another vehicle or person since Ileret - but still nobody wanted another night like the previous and it was unamimously agreed to find a secluded bush camp, well off and screened from the road where we could feel secure and perhaps get a fire going without attracting any attention. To this task I was assigned and after a bit of searching I came across a nice flat spot, about 500m from the road and nicely positioned in a small depression with low slopes and ridges running round 3 sides. It was a great bush camp... if I do say so myself. Despite the wind, and some disspointing efforts to cook what turned out to be the hardest, least palitable corn cobs I've ever known, we all had a pretty good time and a good night's sleep. Bush camping is perhaps the best part of travelling through that part of Africa. There's not much game
- we saw a few Oryx, couple Ostrich, a baboon or two, and that's about it - and even fewer people, but the scenery is wide and beautiful and feels as remote as it is, which for me is just perfect and well worth the tough roads to get to.
The next morning we were back on the road, but not particularly early, aiming to get as close to Loyangalani as possible - still about 280km away. As it turned out we didn't even get close. 56km was all we managed and that was with a 8km detour to see a petrified forrest! We were never really going to make Loyangalani that day and I don't think anyone seriously thought we would, but as we came down from the petrified forrest it soon became apparent that there was something curiously wrong with our information and route: ahead of us, looming a little ominously in the distance was a group of official looking buildings, car park, white painted stones making a rough fence and, most importantly to us, a boom pulled down across the road in front of us - a barrier which we were clearly on the wrong side
Considering that we had quite deliberately avoided entering the park, finding ourselves on the inside and blocked from leaving was a bit of a surprise. I have to say the guards on duty were very friendly, as was the head warden who was eventually summoned to explain things to us... but they would not budge. We would have to pay (they would overlook the bike issue - they had never seen one come through that route before... ha!!) and that was that. We pointed out that we had consistenly taken the sign-posted track away from the park: they pointed out that they were aware one of the signs was missing and they were sorry about that. We suggested that our GPS track log clearly showed our route around the park and that this route tied in exactly with their own map on the wall of their office, showing that at no point did we in fact enter the park as defined by said map: they explained that unfortunately this was an old map, now out of date and that the park borders had in fact been extended to include the area we had now passed through. We plead
that we had no dollars to pay: they believed this not at all. And so we sat. For 3 hours. On the wrong side of a wobbly looking boom while tempers flarred and fingers wagged and the sun sank.
Pleading no money was a tricky one. With our bluff essentially called and the boom still down we had dug ourselves into a bit of a hole from which it would be difficult to crawl out. After it became clear the guards were not going to make any special dispensation for us, I had kept myself out of the debate and avoided the claims of having no money. Pulling the others to one side I suggested that I would pay the bill and be done with it and we could sort it all out between ourselves later. I was getting a bit tired of the whole thing and I could see the guards were starting to lose their sense of humour. Guns were being meaningfully held and so forth. In the end it was settled and we managed to save enough face to agree a place to camp on the other side of the booms, outside the park, but free
to use the toilets and even set ourselves up in one of the guard house buildings and out of the wind if we so desired. Really they weren't that unreasonable. Unorganised with their old maps and missing signs, and unsympathetic to our obvious mistake, but not unreasonable once they had their ticket stubs duely processed. We paid up and put it behind us.
The next morning was an early start. Travelling behind us by a couple of days were a group of 8 Germans in 4 vehicles. We'd met them all before and last seen them in Turmi. Marcel had also been keeping them up to date on the road ahead via sat-phone each evening (the wonders of technology!) and we knew they were now close behind us and would be arriving at the park gate early that morning. We got ourselves ready and waited, and - in punctual German fashion - they did not dissappoint, rolling into the gate compound a little after 8am. Already wise to the payment issue they wasted no time haggling and after a quick look at the difs on one of their trucks which was leaking oil we set off again, determined to
make Loyangalani by nightfall.
The first hour or so was horrible riding again. The same loose, rocky filth I'd been battling the last few days and it didn't seem to bode well. After about an hour however, the road suddenly came up over a ridge, onto a flatter rolling plain and the surface smoothed out beautifully. Now heading more or less due East, the wind was in my face and the ride became instantly fun again as I swept along hard packed dirt and soft, but easy sand. I waited for the others to catch up after about 50km and then again after another 100km. The road stayed, for the most part, good, and I rode happily past camels and ostiches and now again, after 2 days without a soul, the occasional local herding goats or cattle. The easy riding was, alas, not to continue. We stopped for lunch at the junction where the road split off to North Horr (North East) or Loyangalani (South). The main track was definitely more well ridden towards North Horr and stretched invitingly off into the distance as we turned South, back into the ruts and stones and cross-wind. And so followed another
tough afternoon riding. We passed from rocky dunes, to long soft sand and back again, sometimes finding a stretch of good riding only to be thrown suddenly up a steep hill of broken stone - each unyielding boulder slamming into my front wheel and up my tired arms. After what seemed like an age, I navigated a final boulder strewn escarpment and dropping down an unexpected (but very welcome!) concreted pass, the Lake once again shone below me, looking wonderfully picturesque in the afternoon sunlight.
I coasted gratefully down the pass and onto the easy dirt track running along the lake shore. It was a beautiful setting: the mix of barren, open landscape, late afternoon sunlight, brooding clouds (even a rainbow shining through the crystal clear air) and exotically dressed locals with massive, coloured strings of beads around their necks all woven together to make a perfect African scene. By this stage I was a fair way ahead of the now 7 vehicle convoy behind me. Taking it slow and with plenty of stops to soak up the views, I drove the final 15km or so into the town. During one of my stops I had a quick play
with my GPS and noticed a swimming pool (!) marked invitingly in the town. After 4 showerless days through heat and dust, the thought of a pool was almost too much to take in. I could picture myself already floating happily in the cool clear water, perhaps sipping on a icy beer when my companions eventually pulled in hours later. With these dreamy thoughts I continued on into town where disappointment awaited. Apparently the pool, if indeed there ever was such a thing, was part of one of the camping compounds towards the rear of the small, 2 street town. And the compound was closed. I never got to see the pool. Instead I pulled up at a small general store and settled for an icy cold coke and some halting conversation with the chat-chewing proprietor.
And then a slightly annoying thing happened. Or perhaps not annoying exactly, but it definitely made me feel sad in a guilty "It's so obvious I'm just a rich Westerner to you isn't it" kind of way. A local guy had come up to me as I stopped. He spoke good English and we went through the usual questions and answers as to
where I came from, was going, names etc. He was pleasant enough and the conversation continued as I left the general store and wandered back down to the main intersection to wait for the others. It was obvious the guy wanted to do some business of some sort: suggest a place to stay, provisions to buy, just get a hand out - I don't know, and this in itself was not unusual and no big deal. I politely explained I was traveling with a group and was in no position to make any decisions until they arrived. I was tired and was happy to sit and have a smoke with him until they arrived. Then another guy arrived, offering the same services and soon the first was shouting at the second to leave me alone, explaining heatedly to me and the newcomer that he had 'seen me first' and any business to be done should be contracted through him and him alone. A peaceful rest on the side of the road, surrounded pleasantly by well behaved and interested little kids, was turning into a tiring slingling match as the 2 touts fought verbally across me. It was the desperation of
it that depressed me. It was almost lke, without my business, they wouldn't eat that night (and maybe they wouldn't?!) but what had been an initially pleasant atmosphere which might indeed have lead to some business had now turned sour and I simply couldn't be bothered hanging around either of them as they fought over who had the right to my affection and my cash. I got back on my bike and left back up the road to wait for the group on a ridge overlooking the lake. They were not long in coming and, having determined that the German group had already settled on a camp site and knew where it was, my friends and I let them go on ahead - content to follow them and eat their dust back into town.
The "Palm Shade Camp Site" turned out to be a lovely spot. Run by a very friendly, helpful local guy and complete with (palm) shaded grass camping site, hot showers (well, warm, but good enough!) and cool, if not exactly icy beer. We stayed there 2 nights in the end, everyone with a few minor repairs to do to their vehicles as well as laundry
and personal hygiene to catch up on. Refreshed and relaxed we set out on the second morning, the wind still howling out of the East and the road again back to its rutted, stoney worst. Next stop South Horr, and a planned bush camp somewhere between Baragoi and Maralal. I won't bore you with further detailed descriptions of rocks and ruts. Suffice to say that when we came up out of the lake valley and onto the smoother sand around North Horr, I was a happy man. The scenery began to get less barren as the rocks gave way to decent soil and I rode South and East, leaving the lake behind as I came up over some low mountains and onto a wide, very African plateau of low scrub land and thorny Acacias. The German group had pressed on during the day and it was left to our original group - 2 trucks, landcruiser and bike - to make another bush camp about 30km South of Baragoi that night. We found a secluded spot and had a peaceful night, enjoying mostly the lack of wind which after 5 days of near constant battering had finally let up as we
moved away from the lake.
The next day was to be a short one, with only 100km or so to make over mostly good graded dirt. Just before Maralal the road turned ugly again with steep, loose and very rocky patches, but they were short lived and no real hassle after the difficulties of the previous few days. I had decided to go on ahead and meet the others at a camp site we had already agreed on and so, having shot on ahead at a decent pace - with a watchful eye on some rather ominous rain clouds that were building overhead - I arrived into Maralal around 11am already wondering whether it was too early to get started on my first beer. Happily I was not alone in this musing and when I pulled into the campsite I was warmly greeted by the German group who had arrived moments before, and was immediately invited over for celebratory Ouzo and cashew nuts. Fantastic. 3 Ouzos later and now it was definitely a reasonable time to crack the first brew. The campsite ("Camel Safari") was lush and green and had a homely wooden bar with a plentiful supply of
very cold beer. We had arrived! After 1100km of dirt roads and rocks and wind - and of course amazing scenery, local culture and adventure - we had made it back to ATMs and petrol and possibly even some tarmac (not to be as it turned out) and we were all in very good spirits. Not so much about the ATMs of course, but it was good to know we had tackled a difficult and beautiful route and made it safe and sound. An hour or 2 later and the final stragglers also arrived to join in the beers and general good mood. Marcel (who you will remember had driven his 6 ton truck the last 800km or so without any brakes!) was especially pleased and rightly so... not bad at all for a 54 year old fire truck all the way from Germany!
It took 2 days from Maralal to Nairobi and was for the most part uneventful. We had been hoping for good roads South of Maralal but instead found ourselves battling deep ruts and potholes so numerous it was hard even on the bike to pick a clear path through the mess. In fact it was
on this stretch that I did the worse damage to my bike and had my closest call with eating dirt of the whole trip - mostly because in my head things were now supposed to be easy, all the hard, dangerous tracks now far behind us. In the end it was only minor damage and I didn't come off the bike, but I do have a nice nick gouged into my front rim and a new hooter bracket to replace the one that vibrated itself to pieces about 50km from Maralal. It was a shame the surface was so bad because the scenery was now full of game and it was hard to keep a watch on the treacherous potholes while Zebra and Giraffe stood lazily by on the side of the road. Slowly the road smoothed out and began to twist beautifully through small valleys and rolling red-earth hills. Giraffe strolled across the road in front of me and small dik-dik pelted off into the bush as I approached. I saw few people and no cars, and loved it.
About 30km from Nanyuki the tar started again and after a quick stopover we left for Nairobi the next
morning. And here I sit, with a cold Tusker next to me, writing this. True it was 2 weeks ago now that I arrived at Jungle Junction, and since then I've been South to Arusha for a week and back again, but this entry is just about long enough now and I've got a few things to do before packing up and leaving for the coast tomorrow. So with that I'll leave it for now, with the rain starting up again outsíde and all thoughts of doing last minute laundry fading fast. More time to have another beer then. 😊
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