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May 17th, 2010 | Africa

Hell on the Road to Moyale…

We shivered as we passed the sign...and not because we felt the effects of the cold desert air...!!

Single track through thick desert sand in places...

Just outside Isiolo, is a road sign (one of very few you will encounter between Nairobi and Isiolo) that basically says it all…

“Marsabit 277km

Moyale 526km”

There is hardly any town or village worth mentioning between Isiolo and Moyale. Ahead of you lie 526km of the toughest conditions imaginable… It is not the actual conditions themselves, but the sheer distance of unrelenting corrugations, rocks, ruts, potholes, dongas, and loose sand, that make it so difficult… None of the sections of road would have been unmanageable on the Big Fella, as I had ridden on roads that were just a bad before, but never over such great distances…and with hardly any habitation between them… This is what makes it so tough… The thought of having to pull over in the middle of nowhere to rest or camp on your own, is the problem… In a group, with time on my hands, I would definitely have given it a go… The stretch from Marsabit northwards, is well known for prowling gangs of bandits, and no traffic is allowed to pass the village of Turbi, (about 130 km before Moyale) after 5.00pm… If you get to Turbi after that cut-off time, the Police and Army on duty will not allow you any further, until 6.00am the following morning… Turbi is NOT a place you would want to spend the night…

Matthew's Mountain rises up out of the desert in the early morning light...

About 40kms north of Isiolo, is the village of Archers Post, where there is a Catholic Mission that allows travelers to camp in its grounds for a nominal fee. Archers post lies between two Game Reserves; Buffalo Springs National Park, and Shaba National Reserve, both of which are only accessible by 4×4, or light aircraft… The only mountain of any consequence that you will see along this stretch, is the impressive Matthew’s Mountain, that seems to rise out of the desert to the west of the road…

Toothbrush anyone...??

Another 50kms north of this, is Serolevi, and another 50kms north again, we came to Merille, a cluster of huts that is best taken at whatever speed you are able to muster… Although dawn was just breaking as we passed through it, I figured the harsh light of day would have been even less kind to this remote little cluster of huts… Shortly afterward, we stopped to have the tyres and springs checked again, and from out of the darkness a young girl appeared, selling short sticks tied together in little bundles… These sticks are used as toothbrushes by the locals, and are similar to those of the Gwarrie Bush in Southern Africa, which are used for the same thing… For the next half hour, much scrubbing of ivories and spitting out of open windows took place…

The road sometimes followed dry river beds...

Our next stop was Laisamis, on the northern edge of the Losai National Park, where a Police Control Point awaited us… A “toll fee” was paid to the officer on duty, to avoid unnecessary inconvenience, and we motored on into the Kaisut Desert, not unlike the drier and more arid sections of the Kalahari, with low scrubs and the occasional Acacia Tree making an appearance in the early morning light. Much of the road here wound through long stretches of thick sand that had me thankful that I was negotiating it from the confines of a big-wheeled truck, instead of the 19’’ wheels of a heavy 1200cc motorbike… The truck swayed from side to side, often leaving the road to pick a cleaner, harder route through the low shrubs…

A Samburu Moran (Young Warrior)... I thought the socks were a nice touch...!!

We began encountering members of the Samburu tribe, dressed in very colourful wraparound skirts, and decorated with necklaces and beadwork… The warriors, known as Moran, go off on their own after their initiation rites have been completed, and live in small bands and sometimes even alone, while they accumulate enough cattle and goats to pay a bridal price for a wife. They then return to their villages, take a wife, and settle down to live among their people…

Samburu women collecting firewood, while their men seek out the shade of their huts...

These bands of warriors are not too perturbed about how and where they acquire these cattle, and it is quite common for them to steal them from towns and villages in the more remote areas of this harsh landscape… They do not like to be photographed, and become very aggressive when you attempt to take snapshots of them or their cattle…

Wedged in-between the Captain and Kadir, I was forced to take pictures through the windscreen, with mostly disappointing results…

Lunch in Marsabit... Tea, Dadzi and a Samoosa...

Our Marsabit passenger contemplates the madness of the Mazungu...

We arrived in Marsabit at midday, having stopped at Log Logo to stretch our legs and take a smoke break, before entering the Marsabit National Park, where Elephant wander across the road, sometimes blocking traffic… It had taken us almost 10 hours from Isiolo… That made it an average of about 30kms per hour… A page out of a guidebook which had been given to me by Gael Edwards in Nairobi, described Marsabit as “a scruffier place you will be hard-pressed to find”… And that it was!!

Another leaf spring for the scrapheap... "But don't worry, we have wood to replace it with..."

We stopped in the “main street” where rubbish was strewn across the open fields on either side. Adan, the young man who had been wedged into the bunk behind us, invited me to join him for some tea and a bite to eat… I followed him into a dingy “restaurant”, not without some trepidation… It was crowded with locals, who all stopped eating and chattering when I walked through the door… To break the ice, I gave a loud “Salaam…!”, raising both my hands to cover all and sundry, and accompanying this with the biggest grin I could muster under the circumstances… A burst of “Salaam’s” echoed back at me, many of the diners nodding in approval and adding a few “Welcomes…!”

Kadir and Adan pose behind the truck while the Captain goes off to find more Miraa...

An enamel mug was placed before me, and a stream of weak tea, already mixed with milk, was poured into it from a dirty old flask… Adan and I then went over to a tap in the wall, and washed our hands, as is the custom before eating… More nods of approval from the hard-faced men at most of the tables… We sat down and were served a plate of Adazi and Samoosas… Adazi is like a small “vetkoek”… You bite the top open, shove the Samoosa inside, and munch down, sipping your tea as you go… This allows the mixture to slide down before your taste buds can work out exactly what it is you have just put into your mouth… I was to use this method of “washing strange food down” many times in the next few days…

There was a bustle of activity at the rear of the truck when we got back to it, and we discovered that a rear spring had broken… Much cursing by the Captain, as he shouted instructions to the “spanner boys”… A piece of wood was wedged into the gap where the broken spring used to be, tied in position with a bit of old rope, and we were good to go… As I got up into the cab, I wondered how long this bit of repair would last… Not too long as it turned out…

Another minor complication arose when the Captain, “out of respect for the elderly”, agreed to take on board yet another passenger… This time it was a be-turbaned old man, who hardly said a word all the way to Moyale, except to reprimand Kadir and the Captain, for chewing so much Miraa… To liven things up, I agreed with the old man, much to their consternation… Anything to pass the time….!! Adan mumbled something about “conditions being cramped” at the back, and put my helmet on to make more space for himself… This had Kadir and the old man screeching with laughter…

People actually live out here...

A Samburu woman in conversation with friends...

Kadir's favourite type of Miraa, grown on the slopes of Mount Kenya...

The open craters of no less than eight extinct volcanoes lie northwest of the town, among them the Nyarali, Dakara, Mude, Jirimi, and the largest, Redo… A few kilometres north of town are two even bigger craters, the Choba and the Ano… The earth here is littered with volcanic rocks, strewn for miles on either side of the road by eruptions that took place here hundreds of years ago… They must have been big ones, because for the next 100kms or so, we passed through one of the most barren and stark places I have ever seen… The remnants of long past eruptions still evident…

Yet people eked out an existence in this harsh land… Nomadic tribesmen tended large herds of Camels, goats and sheep, and Borana cattle, identified by the humps on their backs, and their colourful hides… We saw Grant’s gazelles and Dik-Dik, Black Backed Jackals and a number of small raptors, who would rise up from the low thorn bushes on the side of the road as we passed, and go zooming off into the desert on their short sharp wings…

Its a small target, and whatever you do, do not lean too close to the screen... you may just get a whiff of what I experienced...

Lies, I tell you... All lies...!!

We stopped again at Bubisa, where I was introduced to the toilet facilities behind the Allahu Wakillan Modern Hotel… It was a rather basic affair, to say the least! A small square of corrugated iron sheeting, enclosed an even smaller square of concrete over a long drop. A tiny hole in the middle of this was all you had to aim at, and from this hole a swarm of flies rose up to greet me as I closed the door behind me…

The smell was overpowering, and stayed with me long after we had left the delightful environs of Bubisa, a place where I will wish my worst enemies to in future… Those of you who might fall into the above category… You’ve been warned…

Yeah, right...!!

An hour later, we passed the radio mast where my friend Lodie de Jager had spent the night in 2009, after taking most of the day to ride the 96 kms from Marsabit… It’s a rough road, Dudes! Make no mistake! The corrugations will set your teeth chattering in your head if you do not keep your jaws clenched, or mouth slightly open… If memory serves me correctly, Lodie and his KLR 650 had “laid themselves down” on a number of occasions before he got to this telecom mast, and he decided to call it a day, and take stock of his dents and bruises before continuing the next day to Moyale… He is one tough hombre (currently riding across Russia on the same bike…!), and for him to ride less than a 100kms in a single day, tells the story of how difficult a ride it must have been…

Told you it was bleak out here...!!

"Come Martha, we're moving...!" Nomadic tribe packs up and moves to greener (ha-ha!!) pastures...

Donkeys gather around the only greenery for miles around...

We battled on… It was hot, dry and dusty, with little whirlwinds rising up off the desert floor and dashing across the landscape before dying down again after a few hundred metres… The temperature rose into the upper 30’s, a heat haze shimmering over the rocks and sand… Yet to me, there was a stark beauty to it, and despite the discomfort and the heat, I found myself smiling at the wonder of it all…

A growl of discontent came from the back of the truck when I looked in to see if the Big Fella was OK...

We reached Turbi at 4.00pm, well before the curfew. I climbed onto the back of the truck and looked in to see if the Big Fella was OK… I thought I heard a growl of discontent coming from him, as I saw to my horror that despite the canvas covering the load, he was covered in a thick layer of red dust… Crates of Coke and Sprite were piled up against the crash bars, dislodged from their original positions by the earth-shaking vibrations of the last 400kms… I climbed back down and began to worry about the possible damages that the bike was incurring… Nothing to do but wait for Moyale to check it out… I was not going to crawl around in the back of the truck to check… Not for any money!!

Another rear leaf spring had broken, and the guys knocked it out of its bracket, and replaced it with yet another piece of wood…I guessed that this had happened many times before, as there was a stock of thick branches in the back of the truck, and after a few blows with the machete, another “spring” was fashioned, and we continued on our not so merry way…

“Broken spring is not a problem,” the Captain said, “There are many trees between here and Moyale…”

You do not want to grab onto these mirror stems in the dark...

The last 125kms to Moyale took 6 hours to complete… I was aching all over from the constant shaking inside the cab and wanted this ordeal to be over as soon as possible… The Captain placed the spanner boys on full alert as darkness fell, making them stand up on top of the cab to keep an eye out for any suspicious characters that might materialize out of the darkness… I had earlier asked about the rusty nails that had been attached to the stems of the side mirrors of the truck, to which Kadir and the Captain explained,

“They are to stop people from jumping up next to the door and holding on while pointing their knives and guns at the driver…”

The “Spanner Boys” were also armed with pangas or machetes, and a few weeks previously, one of them had hacked the hand clean off a would-be hijacker, when he jumped up onto the side of the truck and began cutting through the canvas…!!! The Captain burst out laughing at the look on my face as he related the story…

“We gave the hand to the police in Moyale when we arrived, and until now, nobody has come forward to collect it or report a missing hand,” he said, chortling to himself…

“What will we do if they attack us?” I asked…

“If there are few, we will fight them… If there are many, we will give them the rice and the sodas…” he replied, grinning in the darkness of the cab…

“And my bike…?”

“Oh… I do not think they will want that… They cannot use it here…”

After this wonderful piece of news, I sat through the next few hours with my eyes peeled, as we made our way through the worst section of the road so far, where heavy rain and the trucks that had got stuck in the muddier sections, had torn the road to pieces, making huge craters in it, which caused our truck to rock from side to side in the most alarming fashion… On more than one occasion I thought it was going to roll onto its side… We traveled in 1st gear for almost an hour, rocking and rolling our way, the headlights bouncing off the thick bush which had now taken over from the sands of the Dida Galgalu Desert through which we had passed after Turbi. At one point, just after the village of Sololo, I put my hand on the Captain’s arm and told him I did not think we could get through the next section… For the life of me, I could not see a way through, and resigned myself to another night in the cab, and some hard labour the next morning, to try and repair the donga in front of us to allow us to get through…

It's rocky in places...

“The Miraa has given me strong blood,” he said, “We will get through…” And with that, we lurched forward and into the deepest set of holes we had yet encountered… I closed my eyes and felt my stomach churn as the truck rolled from one hole to another, and after what seemed like the longest roller-coaster ride I had ever been on, there were shouts of relief from both Kadir and Adan, and we were through it all…

And rather narrow in others...!!

“A young driver would never have got us through,” Kadir quipped… “The Captain has much experience…!”

“Yes,” I agreed, “And he has chewed much Miraa…!” We laughed for a long while after that, more in relief I think, than at my remark…

A Lesser Spotted Genet dashed across the road in front of us, and we also encountered many more Dik-Dik, Scrub Hares and a Hyena, prowling along the roadside, looking for the carcasses of dead sheep and goats, which are simply thrown off the trucks when they die… While vegetables and other dried goods and supplies are trucked to Moyale, cattle, goats and sheep are trucked out of it on the return to Nairobi… I felt pity for the animals that had to spend almost two days on the back of an open truck on this terrible road…

Best left to Camels and such-like...!!

At just after 10.00pm, we climbed the steep and torturous last section past the village of Odda, and into the town of Moyale… We had made it! A final Police check, and then Kadir and Adan got off with their belongings, said their goodbyes, and were swallowed up by the night…

The Captain and I made arrangements to offload the bike the following morning, as we were all too tired to attempt it in the dark… I was dropped off at the “best hotel in town” which in the darkness looked like a building site (and turned out to be just that, in the harsh light of the following morning!) and with only a few of my bags lying at my feet, I watched as the truck carrying my beloved bike, bounced away into the darkness…

“See you tomorrow!”, I shouted after them to which a reply came wafting back to me on the wind….

“Insh Allah…!!” (God willing…!!)

A pang of loneliness settled over me like a cloak as I looked around me at the run down buildings I could just make out on either side of the road… Then a voice from the darkness floated out to where I stood…

“Salaam…Salaam! Welcome….!”

The manager and security guard carried my gear into the lobby and I was quoted the princely sum of KSh 1200.00 (R115.00) for a “standard” room… No Internet, no hot water, and no arguments from me! I was knackered, and the relief at getting here after such a long time in the cab of the truck, flooded through me… I was offered “something to eat” which turned out to be Camel stew and chunks of bread, which I dipped into a bowl of what looked like vegetable soup… And of course, washed down with numerous cups of sweetened tea…

After a cold shower, I fell onto the bed, exhausted, thinking about the Big Fella and hoping that he had not incurred any serious damage… Before finally drifting off into a sleep filled with visions of deserts and dust, rocks and thorny scrub, I smiled and thought to myself…

“Moyale… After today, there could be no turning back… Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt lay ahead of me… New challenges, strange cultures…and the Sahara Desert…”

©GBWT 2010

3 comments to Hell on the Road to Moyale…

  • Mark Behr

    Hope all is well with the bike. Travel safely.

  • well there you have it. i knew you should have skirted closer to the somali border. but your driver took the chance and accepted the risk. that road deserves nobody. but you didn’t encounter rain. How lucky you can be. remember m rain encounter just 100 km souther of Moyale. Oh yes. what a time it was.

    ou ride on mr. ronnie and let’s meet in turkey for some mussels, stuffed that is, with pine nuts and more

  • Oscar

    Kindly help me get contacts for Al Yusra Hotel in Moyale

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