Lake Turkana and the Omo Valley

Wednesday, January 20, 2010 - Jinka - added by Steve

We've finally made it out of Kenya, which I have to say is a real achievement! We planned on a month for Kenya, but more than 4 months later we were still there! Kenya was incredible, we met so many friendly Kenyan settlers who invited us all over that we just couldn't turn down the offers, not a bad thing!

After New Year's, which we spent down on the coast south of Mombasa, we returned to Nairobi to Jungle Junction, the go-to place for private overlanders. It's run by a great Swiss guy called Chris, and he's got overlander's needs sussed: free fast Wi-Fi Internet and an awesome workshop... what more do overlanders want?! Chris refuses to be put into any guidebooks or to advertise in any way. He relies entirely on word-of-mouth, which is obviously working because it's always packed to the gunnels.

At Jungle Junction we hoped to find information about the various routes to Ethiopia and better, create a convoy of overlanders to get there. The main road is notorious for it's terrible condition and for the numerous shiftas (bandits) that lurk around looking for an easy score. Since arriving in Kenya we've heard about several people being shot at, including a biker who got lucky when the bullet missed him and hit his motorbike instead... small mercies hey? Other people have had to arrange police and military escorts to get through, at obvious vast expense! We were definitely looking to avoid this route! While at Jungle Junction we met some great people who were also looking to head up to Ethiopia, and arranged to drive in convoy. However, December saw a monumental amount of rain in northern Kenya, resulting in several bridges being washed away and most roads becoming impassable. We met people who had had to turn back when they couldn't continue, and heard some people were stuck in Northern Kenya unable to come back down. Eventually we heard someone had managed to make it back down and decided to risk it. More rain was forecast for the near future, but we hoped to get through in time, otherwise we'd wait it out or make some other plan. The only route that was open was the rough and remote route up via the eastern side of Lake Turkana, which is the way I had wanted to go anyway.

Our group consisted of an English couple (Barny and Pip) who have 2 young daughters (Romely, 2 and Tabitha, 4 years old) who live in Addis Adaba. They were in a truck, named Sailor, that is far cooler than ours (it has a washing machine, dishwasher, microwave, flat screen TV and DVD player - PIMPING!!! ). Next was a 59 year-old Englishman (Beverly), who has done the same route as us in a 1954 Series-1 Land Rover that he rebuilt himself! Finally was a group of 3 young Dutch (Martin, Sanna and Rianne) travelling in a Hilux they had bought in Jo'burg to drive back to Holland.

Heading out of Nairobi was a mission because of all the accidents that were caused by the rain, but after 4 hours we were on our way. Soon the roads deteriorated and the tar disappeared. We took a photo of the last bit of tar because we knew it would be more than 1000km before we saw it again!

Driving at first wasn't too bad, but then we met the dreaded black cotton once again. Black cotton is a particular type of dark mud that is horrifically dangerous because it is like ice, you simply slide all over it. Towards the end of our first day we were in the thick of it, the cars in front of us sliding around as if on an ice rink. We are pretty used to this mud by now, but it invariably catches you by surprise. We were cruising along pretty slowly when suddenly we started sliding towards the side of the road. Steering was ineffectual and we were heading for the embankment. Before we knew it we hit the embankment at an angle and with 10 tonnes of momentum sliding on black-cotton, ramped right over it! Rox and I were thrown around in the cab like rag-dolls, and as we came down on the far side of the embankment side-on, Songololo went up on 2 wheels to such a degree we were convinced we were going over. Time really slowed down as we hung precariously in the air, waiting to see what would happen. Luckily with our full spare fuel-tanks and full fresh-water tank on the side in the air I think that was just enough to drag us back onto 4 wheels rather than continue what seemed the inexorable tip onto our side! We were a little cut up, but thrilled we'd escaped by a hair's breadth!

The days were long and arduous, terrible roads often with evidence of having had flash floods come through and numerous rocky sections with sharp rocks that had to be negotiated at a snail's pace.

The road also takes you down the escarpment back into the Rift Valley, incredibly steep, narrow and in terrible condition. This is a really remote area of Kenya, with few people living out here because it's mostly desert and there is a huge scarcity of fresh water. We were only making about 150kms each day. In the evenings we would invariably find beautiful spots to bush camp, setting up camp, make a fire and rewarding ourselves with a cold beer or gin and tonic together after a tough day. One evening we found a particularly spectacular spot on the edge of a rocky desert underneath an Acacia tree.

In such a magnificent setting it was no surprise spirits were particularly high that evening. Copious beers were consumed, conversation became increasingly loud, and eventually Sanna and Rianne pulled out their guitar and serenaded us. Soon we were all attempting to sing along, but I have to admit our voices just weren't at their level! Luckily we were in an isolated place as I'm sure if we were near a village we would have set all the cats yowling and dogs howling!

At length we came to the shores of Lake Turkana. What a view! They call it the Jade Sea, and for good reason! Unfortunately it's home to the world's largest population of Nile Crocodile and the shores are home to loads of vipers and scorpions, so we were reticent to dive in! As we made our way up Lake Turkana's shore we entered the Sibiloi National Park. The mind boggles as to why the park even exists, as there is very little game (I mean, it's in a desert!), but the only way to get to the Ethiopian border is to pass through it, so in we went. We bought a map at the entrance which showed the numerous roads throughout the park, and chose a route which we thought would get us across in the shortest time. We ended up going on very little used tracks, and at one point completely lost the track, but bundu-bashed on nonetheless, confident that with the correct compass-heading we'd eventually find our way. I think at this point we were getting a little gung-ho with our approach to driving in this remote area, as for the last week we'd covered the worst roads imaginable (you can't actually call them roads really), crossing tricky rocky sections and numerous dry riverbeds. We had lost the track, but were continuing in a more-or-less northerly direction, hoping to meet up with another east-west track before too long. We came to a large dry riverbed and started to cross over. The Land Rover and Hilux crossed with ease; next came Sailor, the big truck belonging to Barny and Pip. Just as they left the river bank the left hand tyres suddenly sank in. The riverbed looked dry, but the recent rains had left pools of water beneath the sand, and Sailor's 10 tonnes sank right in. Hours and hours of digging ensued, made especially tough by the midday temperatures peaking around 40 degrees! Rianne started to get heat-stroke, and ended up sick as a dog, lying in the shade of a tree, too weak to even get up, so just rolling over and vomiting around herself! We felt terrible for her. The boys were digging as fast as possible with little headway. We dug under the wheels, put down rocks and sand ladders and then tried to use Songololo to pull Sailor out backwards. Sailor was stuck fast! All too soon the sun started to set and we realised we were spending the night there in the bush. The Dutch left us to find the main park campsite so Rianne could have some comfort, and not have to spend the night vomiting in the bush in a park which claims to have lions and jackals around! Unfortunately there was little comfort for Rianne as the room she managed to get looked more like a chicken coop! Instead of walls it was surrounded by wire mesh and there was a rat and cockroach infestation! With no electricity they had to use their head torches, which resulted in them being dive-bombed by literally hundreds of moths and other bugs, to the point they couldn't see in front of themselves! All too soon Rianne gave up and went back to her tent which offered more comfort than the room, where she had one of the worst nights of her life!

The following morning, after a bad night's sleep because we were worried that the river might flood, we woke up and continued trying to get out. Overnight the truck had sunk deeper into the soft sand and we were worried it might get to a point where it would topple over. We had to dig under the wheels to put sandladders, rocks and logs under to give the wheels traction, but digging under only caused the truck to list even more! We were digging as hard and as fast as we could, getting exceptionally tired. After some time the Dutch came back and thankfully brought 4 Kenyans to help us dig. The best $50 we have ever spent! The work continued for hours, and we tried more than once to pull the truck out but failed. Suddenly the truck started to sink faster, and leant over to a dramatic degree. Panic ensued and as a group we went completely silent. We knew then that we had to move quickly and try and pull the truck out, and we HAD TO succeed because otherwise we'd be in serious trouble. I backed Songololo up as close to Sailor as I could and then floored it, hoping the momentum when the tow-straps snapped tight would be enough to pull Sailor up and out. The straps snapped tight, with a massive jerk Songololo was flying about, the engine gunned up to maximum revs, black fumes were everywhere, but eventually, slowly, Sailor finally broke free and came up and out of the riverbed. Everyone was exuberant and somehow found the strength to jump around a rejoice!! What a moment!

Needless to say we turned around and sought out a better used track. Within a couple hours we crossed into Ethiopia, something we only knew because the GPS told us so. There was no border to be seen. Immediately as we crossed we started to come across the famous Ethiopian tribes. They are beautifully adorned with incredible jewellery, some of which is exceptionally creative, such as incorporating old padlocks and watch straps into their necklaces, and covering their bodies with body paint. They are virtually naked, have no shoes and are incredibly inquisitive. As you drive past whole villages come to a stop as everyone runs out onto the track to watch the procession. In that little visited part of southern Ethiopia the people are welcoming and friendly, although every single person also asks for handouts, which can get tiresome. We made a detour to a town called Omorate where we were able to get our carnets and passports stamped, and then continued up into the famous Omo Valley.

The Omo Valley is known as the living museum of people. The tribes here live, for the most part, how they have lived for hundreds of years. A lot of emphasis is put on body decoration, which makes them look simply incredible. Unfortunately the tribes close to the main road have become used to tourists and crowd around every vehicle demanding you take a photo of them, for which you have to pay 2 birr for the pleasure. It has become somewhat of a zoo in certain areas, but as soon as you venture off the beaten track you are immersed in traditional life and they aren't nearly as corrupted by the influence of tourism. We say many amazing tribes, but the most unusual was certainly the Mursi women who cut a sit in their bottom lip so they can insert a clay lip-disk. The size of the disk and its decoration denotes the woman's rank, the rank of her husband, how many cattle he has, etc. It is a very unusual sight, particularly when they remove the disk and just have a distended lower lip hanging free!

From here we will move on to Addis Ababa and make our way to the northern rock-hewn churches, literally cut out of the cliff sides, and eventually on to Sudan.


1 .
incredible and awe-inspiring guys - keep it going!! and bring back one of those lip disks for some frisbee in wandworth park this summer
Seamus - 29 Jan 2010, 9:32
2 .
I have to say I am so grateful not to have been born a Mursi woman - that all looks too painful for words. Thank goodness for a strong engine, well done for rescuing Sailor!
mum - 30 Jan 2010, 2:44
3 .
Do you think the Mursi lady was telling tales and rewarded accordingly? Could you say that a sound from here was a "clatter"? Fascinating reading and good luck to you guys. Love Dad (Digs)
Digs - 30 Jan 2010, 5:21
4 .
Hey you guys! We read you made it into Ethiopie! Finally out of Kenia! Great story about Sailor, thank goodness he made it! What a pitty for Rianne that she got ill! We hope she is feeling better now. We took the Isiolo-Moyale road en drove it twice! 1 time to pick up the ambulance and our friends, 1 time to go back. The road was shit, but thank goodness we didn't get shot or robbed! We wish you a good trip, take it easy and enjoy the moment! Greetings Patrick and Annemarie The dutch people at jungle junction (nissan patrol)
Patrick and Annemarie - 30 Jan 2010, 14:39
5 .
Wow is all we can say!!! No wonder we have all been anxious, including your Folks Rox. All love and Prayers Grandad and Jen
Harveys JHB> - 11 Feb 2010, 12:25

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