Nov, 2017: Lake Turkana is an enormous alkaline lake which sits mostly in the remote north west of Kenya while also poking just into Ethiopia. Around it’s edge are super isolated tribes of goat and camel herders who live a harsh life with virtually no modern services and definitely no electricity or running water. The countryside is wild, untamed but epically beautiful changing from sandy flood plains to rugged hills of wildflowers to lush river country and back again. From our experience driving up Africa’s east coast it really feels like one of the continent’s last untouched frontiers. That is, untouched except for a tiny dirt track which winds it’s way around the eastern edge often disappearing from sight completely. Driving Lake Turkana from Loiyangalani in Kenya up to Omorate in Ethiopia was without doubt the toughest four-wheel-driving we did in Africa. Damn, was it amazing though!
Driving Lake Turkana: Day 1 – Nakuru to Baragoi, 313km in 8.5 hours
While the road around Lake Turkana was undoubtably beautiful, even just getting to Loiyangalani was amazing. We started from Nakuru in south west Kenya around lunch time on a Tuesday and took the B5 tarmac north east through lush plantations and hill scenery until turning onto the C77 at Nyahururu. As we approached the scruffy little village of Rumuruti the countryside suddenly changed becoming way more desert like and tribal. The change was quite disconcerting and a reminder of the remote country we were heading into. With equal suddenness, about an hour beyond Rumuruti, the new Chinese built tarmac gave way and we got our first taste of the ROUGH dirt roads ahead. For the rest of the afternoon we bumped our way along at 30-40km/hr racing as best we could to get ahead of some rather nasty looking storms before pulling into Maralal to stretch the legs and fill up with fuel. By this time it was nearly 5pm and while we would have loved to stop, instead we pushed on with the intention of bush camping somewhere along the road. I mean, the road couldn’t really get much worse could it?
Almost as soon as we left Maralal and with the day’s light fading rapidly, the C77 worsened drastically as it climbed up through the Samburu Hills. I had fortuitously handed over driving to my cousin meaning the poor bugger had to struggle as Bertha (our Toyota) bucked and bounced her way along at ~15km/hr. Several times we had to slow to an almost standstill as mist brought our visibility to less than five metres. Still, we pushed on determined to make the next day’s drive to Loiyangalani a little shorter. Push on we did through the village of Suyani and down out of the Samburu Hills. After a few hours night driving (far from ideal on African roads), we gratefully found our bush camp 15km south of Baragoi. We quickly set up the tents and made a rushed cup of chicken soup before gratefully collapsing into bed.
Driving Lake Turkana: Day 2 – Baragoi to Loiyangalani, 161km in 7 hours
We woke in the morning as the sun rose across rolling green hills flecked with a million wild flowers. After the previous night’s mission it was an absolute treat to wake to such beautiful surroundings. We boiled a quick cuppa and then got on our way driving through Baragoi and onwards to South Horr. The rolling green hills became increasingly rugged but we couldn’t have cared less given the cracking scenery. For a time our path was blocked as AK47 wielding herdsmen pushed a big mob of cattle along the road and up into the hills. While at first look these dudes looked seriously fierce it only took a grin and a wave from us for them to repay the favour (most of them anyway). Their eclectic mix of tribal wear and ammunition bandoliers was something special as well. Just outside of South Horr we stopped for breakfast on the lush green banks of a sandy river bed while a huge crowd of timid little urchins came to stare. There was no begging for money and definitely no boisterous shouting as these little munchkins tried to figure out if we were dangerous or not!
From South Horr the road mercifully improved and we were able to up the speed to nearly 60km/hr. Again the scenery changed from the relatively lush slopes of the Samburu Hills to a bleak and windswept landscape dotted with rows and rows of wind turbines. Apparently this project is due to bring clean energy to the region but for the time being they seemed to be doing nothing but make for good photos. As the road worsened again with very rough volcanic rocks, we finally got our first view of Lake Turkana. With the huge expanse of water stretched before us it really felt like we had come across a massive inland sea. I guess given the alkaline nature of it, an inland sea is virtually what it is. With only 24km to go to Loiyangalani we thought we’d be in good time for a frosty lunch time beer but the busted road had other ideas. 1.5 hours later we crested yet another rocky ridge line where stretched before us lay a small settlement of ramshackle huts and palm trees. We had finally reached Loiyangalani.
Loiyangalani was a funny kind of a place. It’s a meeting point for the several tribes which call Lake Turkana their home while also being a tourist destination of sorts. It’s dry, dusty and rather sweaty with the shimmering lake in the background. It is also the last opportunity for fuel (albeit expensive and out of plastic bottles) before the ~300km stretch to Illeret at the top of the lake. We parked up at Malabo Guesthouse which is run by a Loiyangalani local named Steve and took great enjoyment from a couple of cold beers over lunch. The afternoon was spent having a swim in a hot spring fed pool (ask Steve), drinking more cold Tuskers and grilling up some fresh Tilapia which we’d bought from a fishermen on the way into town. All in all a pretty enjoyable place to stop before the rigours of the road ahead.
Driving Lake Turkana: Day 3 – Loiyangalani to the middle of no where, ~180km in 11.5 hours
After a 6am start, we charged off driving Lake Turkana’s east coast. No more than 10km after leaving Loiyangalani we had our first reality check in the soft black sand of a wet river bed. The sand sucked at our wheels and we had to gun the engine hard to gain enough momentum to get through. To start with we made pretty good time through an ethereal scenery which I imagined could have been something off Mars. The bleak but beautiful landscape stretched unbroken to the horizon except for the odd splash of bright colour as local women came and went with loads of water or firewood. Villages passed us by while goats and the odd camel grazed on the lake shore.
We were going pretty well until about 95km from Loiyangalani. Here the ‘road’ all but disappeared into a flood plain where we had to back track several times to either avoid soft sand, drive around a washed out river bank or just find the road. We went in and out of low range 4WD, locked and then unlocked the wheel hubs and generally pushed our Bertha to the limit. Despite our best efforts we got bogged on a greasy flat and barely managed more than 10km/hr. Around 1pm we came across a long sandy river crossing with water still flowing from the recent rains. We got out and walked the crossing and feeling it to be relatively solid jumped back in Bertha and charged across. Alas our ‘charge’ ground to halt in the middle of the river and try as we might Bertha only dug herself deeper. Getting out of Bertha to see her axle deep in river sand, really brought home the loneliness of our situation. We were miles from anywhere with barely any sign of a road let alone another vehicle. For a moment I think we all tried to recall the survival skills taught by too many Bear Grylls shows while we considered the prospect of being stuck out there for days.
Drama aside, we got to digging Bertha out of the sand and stuffing as many logs and sticks in her wheel tracks to hopefully get traction. Bertha wasn’t done in the sand though and when we tried to drive her out she again only dug herself deeper. Time for the big guns AKA our cast iron frying pan and a high lift jack which I’d never used before. We deflated the tyres and after a quick trial run to recall a long forgotten high lift jack lesson, put the frying pan in the water to create a solid base for the jack. Ever so slowly we jacked Bertha’s rear end up high enough that we could get flat rocks right under her wheels. The process was repeated on the front until we finally had daylight between Bertha’s axles and the river bed. More logs and sticks went in the wheel tracks and then the moment of truth…. With Fi and my cousin pushing from the back I gunned Bertha’s six cylinders. Slowly she found traction and crawled out of the bog until with a roar she found harder ground and took off. Not game to slow down I flung Bertha across the river bed before coming to a halt in a cloud of exhaust smoke on the other side. WOOOOOO HOOOOOOO! I have never been so relieved.
By the time we had re-inflated Bertha’s tyres it was 3:30pm and we’d hadn’t even made half the distance we had wanted for the day. Thankfully though that river bed was our last serious hurdle for the day as the road climbed out of the flood plains and into the rocky hills. We now started to head away from Lake Turkana as we made our detour east and then north again around Sibiloi National Park. For the rest of the day we were able to average a decent 35km/hr and as the daylight began to fade we had made up some good ground. Exhausted we pulled up at a beautiful high point with a cracking view of the setting sun and made camp for the night. Cold Tuskers from our fridge and goat chops grilled over the coals had never tasted so good.
Driving Lake Turkana: Day 4 – middle of no where to Omorate, ~170km in 10 hours
In the pre-dawn light as a gusty wind ripped across the ridges we packed up camp on what we hoped would be our last day around Lake Turkana. The road to date had been stunning and the four-wheel-driving fun, but with a deadline looming of getting my cousin to Addis Ababa we needed this to be our last day. As we continued north around Sibiloi the terrain remained rugged and rocky but was softened by lush grass and wild flowers. It reminded me a lot of driving in western Queensland, Australia when the country seemed to spring back to life after a long dry spell. The recent rain was a double edged sword though and more than once we had to get out and walk a dodgy looking river crossing.
As the day wore on the road improved and we were able to make better time. It felt amazing to wind old Bertha up to 60km/her after the painfully slow progress of the day before. We completed our detour of Sibiloi and after a quick fuel stop to empty our jerry cans pulled into the tiny outpost of Illeret just after midday. We gratefully took on more fuel from the very friendly Father Florian at his mission in the middle of town and then got on our way again. As we drove out of town we marvelled at the dedication required from a German pastor to live for 15 years in one of the most isolated towns in Africa. Crazy! The other thing to be marvelled at was the uncanny ability for a lone local to appear out of no where in the middle of the bush with no water but with a walking stick a little wooden seat which could also double as a pillow. Seeing these dudes trudging around in the blazing sun with seemingly no supplies made us feel almost sheepish to be storming through the countryside in our kitted out Toyota.
The final stretch from Illeret to Omorate saw our patience wear thin. Being late on a Friday we were worried about missing the immigration post at Omorate so pushed on without stopping for lunch or much of a break. Hungry and tired, the constant search to stay on the ever disappearing track was exhausting. Still, it was awesome to finally note when village signs changed from English to Amharic. Hello Ethiopia! Every so often we would pass through a tribal village where the women and kids would race out laughing, waving wildly and shouting hello. In contrast the men mostly lazed in the shade and barely raised a hand in greeting. Just before 4pm we were amazed to emerge from the rough and dusty dirt onto a brand new, freshly tarred road. HALLELUJAH! We had made it.
While Bertha had certainly picked up a bunch of new rattles, for the first time in three days we found fifth gear and 100km/hr for the final stretch into Omorate. At 4pm, after taking 37 hours of driving time across four days we had finally completed the ~825km drive to Omorate. Driving Lake Turkana had been an absolutely amazing journey but I think all of us, Bertha included were glad just to have it done!
Driving Lake Turkana: the fine print
- Fuel: With Bertha having a 29 year old 4L petrol engine, she is thirstier than most overlanding vehicles and requires A LOT of fuel. For the ~350km from Loiyangalani to Omorate we averaged about 3km/L. As a result we ensured we left Loiyangalani with 135L capacity including our 90L main tank, two 20L jerry cans plus an extra 5L bottle. Maralal was the last real fuel station heading north through Kenya but we were able to fill up again in Loiyangalani and then buy another 20L from Father Florian in Illeret. Other than that you won’t find any fuel between Loiyangalani and Illeret so come prepared. In and around Omorate in Ethiopia there weren’t any petrol stations either but we could generally buy black market fuel if you asked around.
- Driving solo: While we did the trip by ourselves it would have been more reassuring and as a result more relaxing to drive Lake Turkana in convoy with another vehicle. This way you don’t have to worry so much about getting stuck. If you can’t find anyone to go in convoy with and you still really want to do the trip (it is amazing) you could get in touch with the police chief in Illeret (or Steve from Malabo if you’re going the other direction) to let him know about your planned route and timeline. That way if you really get stuck at least you have someone who might be able to raise the alarm.
- Immigration: There is no Kenyan immigration when you cross the border into Ethiopia and you need to ensure you have your Ethiopian visa sorted beforehand (we got ours in Nairobi). We came direct from Uganda so managed to convince the Kenyan authorities (customs and immigration) at the Malaba border crossing to stamp us in and then straight out again for USD50 for the three of us. Alternatively we have heard of people getting their Kenyan stamp out at the Eldoret airport or in Nairobi. When you actually cross into Ethiopia there is a tiny checkpoint which might have been manned by a policeman but we didn’t do customs and immigration until Omorate. Ironically this turned out to be one of easiest border crossings yet. For info on how to apply for an Ethiopian visa in Nairobi here.
- Navigation: We used a combination of maps.me, Pocket Earth and Tracks4Africa on our Garmin for navigation but maps.me was definitely the most useful. Google Maps would have been useless. Given the disappearing nature of the road at times we often had to just follow our GPS until we could find it again. This was especially the case in the 95 – 105km stretch from Loiyangalani.