bicycle

PANAFRICAN CYCLE PROJECT

The Reverse Turkana Route

Gabbra women (2)

01/02/2011 MOYALE TO KISUMU, KENYA (Hannah)

- Distance on bicycle: 526km
- Distance on motorised transport: 556km
- Cycling days: 9
- Average distance per cycling day: 58km
- Total cycling distance since leaving London: 7629km

Let’s get the nasties out of the way first. We’ve had to take two lifts on motorized transport (Shock! Horror!). The first, from Moyale, at the Ethiopian border, to Marsabit. The second, from Lodwar to Kitale, in Western Kenya. We’d never planned to do so, and each ride brought with it a sinking feeling: we were not there. But both of these roads are historically known to be patrolled by shiftas, the North Kenyan rebels, and their security fluctuates depending on the degree of police or army presence. In both cases, we’d sought local advice and updates on any recent incidents. A consistent picture of the current situation was difficult to establish as reports varied. Those who wanted to reassure us insisted that the troubles were solely intertribal, and were down to cattle stealing or fights over the ever diminishing pastures in these times of draught. However we also heard an alarming number of first- or second- hand accounts of attacks on passing vehicles, truck drivers with bullet wounds in their shoulder narrowly avoiding their death, descriptions of bus drivers being shot so that the bus could be freely pillaged. We thought we could reduce our vulnerability by at least reducing our time spent on the road: a 12 hour truck journey versus a 5 day bike ride. So, for better or for worse, we loaded our bicycles on the back of a truck, and along with 4 Israelis, a fluctuating number of Kenyans and 26 carefully counted sacks of beans, we shook, rattled and bumped our way down the 250km long, dusty road. Daybreak had greyed the sky by the time we arrived in Marsabit, revealing our faces blackened like chimney sweeps.

Marsabit: a wind-swept, ground-level, dusty little town in the middle of the deserted North, and a meeting point for an odd collection of people. Passer-bys on their way to or from Ethiopia, including a handful of Mzungu (white) overlanders, bump into local self-made “tour operators”, who in turn introduce you to the only Indian in town, a man who responds to your practical needs and who turns out to be a rather good friend. At night, you brush shoulders with a young man holding a spear, ears full of rings, an erect feather on his head. You give him a surprised salutation and he responds with a completely natural one, and a smile. There is no water in this town: it is transported in and stored in 5000L containers. An expensive commodity reflected in the prices of accommodation; hotels will ration your shower water to one bucket. It is a surreal, yet definitely real, place.

It is in this setting that we dreamily take our boldest route decision yet. Between Marsabit and Lake Turkana lies a stretch of desert named “Chalby”. On the other side of Lake Turkana, according to our map, lies a major tarmac road leading to Kisumu, where we need to be in two weeks time... and seems a more appealing alternative than carrying on down to Isiolo, where the road continues to be terrible and the threat of bandits still exists (at the time, of course, we were unaware of the security situation on the road south of Lodwar). The persistent tour guide Duba, eager for business, refers enthusiastically to the Chalby desert, and talked of a wild, little explored land, where inch thick salt is layered over the great flat expanses of sand, water is scarce and the colourful nomads, grouped in a handful of semi-permanent settlements, are far too busy with their own harsh living to be interested in troubling any passing traveler. The line connecting Marsabit to Loyangalani, on the shores of the lake, is faint on our map. The legend refers to it as “track”. It is 270km long and we can only see one village dotted along it. Our map’s lack of detail, however, is supplemented by our new friend Mangia the Indian’s extensive knowledge of the area. He helps us establish a credible plan involving a five-day crossing interspersed with regular water points within or outwith the settlements. His connection in Loyangalani confirms the existence of motor boats crossing the lake. It’s looking more and more possible and Itai, one of the Israelis who’d joined us in the initial talks, isn’t too fazed about not having a bicycle to join us on the ride. He immediately proceeds to searching for one, and within half a day, after a parade of rusty, creeky, partial bikes are offered to us, he settles on the only new one in town: an undersized, single gear mountain bike. A local assures us this Kenyan make won’t last 3 kilometers… on the test drive around the square, the chain falls off. Twice.

We’d received a text message from my mother in Moyale RE: the safety of the road south to Marsabit. She’d googled it for us and her message went thus: “other comment outside drought is only for hardiest souls able to embrace highest levels of discomfort”. Note to parents: if you ever want to convince your child to do something foolhardy, this is a good way to do it. We aren’t prepared to take risks involving safety, and for this reason, don’t regret the lifts. It is difficult, however, not to feel like we’d copped out. We almost needed to prove to ourselves that we could indeed embrace the “highest levels of discomfort”… and so we set off on what would indeed be the most physically challenging (and health threatening) part of the trip yet.

The road West out of Marsabit starts out as a winding descent from the plateau to the basin in which lies the desert. Mount Marsabit is only one of the extinct volcanoes in the area and the road leading down from it is simply a crude carving out of the fist-size volcanic rocks. With the help of gravity, we make reasonable progress. The occasional glimpse up from the concentration-demanding road downwards reveals the blinding white, bright expanse in which we were about to be immersed. Bushes and trees thin out, signs of animal life diminish. At the bottom of the hill is a small collection of nomadic huts 500m or so from the road; once we pass them, we are alone.

The rocks continue for another 50km, and we are slower on the flat. We lunch in the shade of one of the rare trees, and continue until nightfall. We are aiming for a camp: we’ve been told there are a group of men living out in the desert along the road that they are supposedly improving with a tractor. We’ve been told they have water. Water. How much more do you think you consume when cycling in the desert heat? We were confident: we’d done deserts before. We had over 20 litres to last the 3 of us one and a half days, or until the next village. But by the end of the first day, we’ve run out. Heatstroke has made me vomit my dinner and we are all feeling slightly week. Then something wonderful happens: a car drives by. Itai reveals his oratory skills and voices our quest, our cause and our plight. The two occupants of the 4x4 are impressed enough to fill us up with 5 precious litres of water, one heavenly Sprite, a tin of tuna and some tomato paste. Alex and Raphael will turn out to be our guardian angels more than once on this trip.

The following day, the rocks give way to sand. First, we gleefully rejoice in the hard, flat surface (how smooth! No rocks!) and fly along with the wind at our backs. It doesn’t last long: patches of soft, deep sand appear. We push and ride intermittently. We meet the tractor&Co for lunch and they give us a further much-needed 15 litres of water. Itai and his bicycle stay there and wait for a lift: his back wheel keeps coming out of its socket (I reveal my ignorance in bike matters beyond those of my own faithful two-wheeled companion: ours don’t have “sockets”), causing the chain to slacken and fall off, and putting everything back on has become too time-consuming. Reza and I carry on. The sand worsens. At times we can find harder sand off the main tracks, and cycle with the track in the corner of our vision for a while. Most of the time though, we are pushing to exhaustion (imagine pushing a 70kg bike through sand so soft, the wheels are sinking in 10cm deep). We reach an unsigned fork in the road and warily follow the vague instructions about keeping to the left. Up a hill and onto rocky but cycleable ground again. A tyre bursts. We sit down and proceed to replace it. When we next look up, we are surprised to see a row of brilliantly coloured Gabbra women coming straight for us… Huts are in the distance, and the women are carrying yellow jerry cans: there is water behind us. I am awestruck. They come to us in such grace and beauty amid this rough, ugly terrain. Their smile is luminous. I manage to steal a quick picture before they catch me… The last 5 km to Maikona, the village we’ll be staying at, I spend in a state of exhilaration. This is why we’d been through the hardship of the past two days.

We have to make a decision that night. Reza and I have tired like never before. It takes us three sodas each to feel anything like normal again (though we still don’t pee) – there is only so much water you can drink, and electrolytes have a surprising impact on your feeling of wellbeing. [On average, we calculated that on this stretch, we peed between 400 and 600ml per day. Once in the morning, and once in the evening, at a squeeze. Per hour, that’s 16 to 25ml. Sustained oliguria for 7 odd days… a true experiment in human physiology. We both were polyuric once we got back to normal roads]. Not that you can really trust what locals say about the condition of a road (at least until you ask a minimum of 10 people and take the mean opinion as an approximate truth), but the road from Maikona to Kalacha is reported to be easy compared with the two previous days. The heat has been the major problem, so we set our alarms early enough so as to leave by the first morning light. A mere six hours of sleep after 2 exhausting days is by no means ideal, and for this reason the relatively easy day’s cycle proves, once again, backbreaking. Fifty kilometers of sand that is mainly hard, soft only for stretches of a couple hundred metres. A truly desolate area with not a tree in sight. No shade. Mirages aplenty. The road is a compilation of 4x4 tracks, up to a kilometer wide. Some go off into the depth of the desert: the Chinese in search of oil. When we arrive in Kalacha our exhaustion gets the most of us and we turn against eachother, the last of our energy going into vicious, needless, desperate arguing. Each of us crumples in a heap in various corners of the settlement. I am lucky and land behind the dispensary: the male nurse brings me a cold cup of home-made rehydration solution, and a bowl of Ugali (a solidified mixture of water and cornflour) with greens. Another woman, named Gumato, takes me to the shade of her lodge and nurses me back to normality. The boys are less lucky; they find themselves in a lodge on the other side of the village, with an unpleasant manager wanting only their money. By late afternoon we are reunited and harmonizing again. We need to rest. Gumato's lodge is in fact run by herself and 20 odd other women as a women's project, to provide them with an income. It is the nicest place of town and its structure is pleasingly simple. A huge well=kept courtyard delimited by a fence, and within it, a water-pump, a central shaded dining area and surrounding this is a selection of thatch-roofed huts, each an individual room with two bamboo beds and a small bamboo side table. The inside of the huts is wind-proofed with the help of a patchwork collection of recycled plastic food sacks which read the likes of “WORLD FOOD PROGRAMME WHEATFLOUR – a gift from the Russian people”. In the morning we have (free) porridge made from cornmeal donated by the USA. The drought here is real. It hasn’t rained for over a year, and last year’s rain only lasted a few days.

The road to the next village is the same as the last, but better, and we arrive in time for lunch with Alex and Raphael, our third meeting. They’d tracked us down in Maikona on our second night, and brought us another 5 litre container of water. Now in North Hor, their home, they continue to help us and astound us with their generosity. Here we also meet Father Anthony, a German missionary who’s lived here for over 20 years, as well as a group of 4x4 overlanders from Belgium and Switzerland. The latter give us a short lift over the sandiest part of the next stretch, which we’ve repeatedly been told was impassable on bicycle. We camp with them, and can’t help but notice how different the trip is with the comfort of a vehicle, with the space to carry useful things we lack.

Leading up to Loyangalani the road switches back to volcanic rocks again, as we head up the hill. This is in the realm of mountain biking, and despite the difficulty, I am actually enjoying it. It is only 40km but it takes us four hours. On the way, an antelope of some sort crosses our path and we get excited: seeing an wild animal in the wild, no matter how boring the animal may be, is always cool. Twenty kilometers from Loyangalani we first spot the lake that has been referred to as the “Jade Sea”, lake Turkana, our haven from this tough stretch. When we finally arrive in Loyangalani, we seek refuge at the mission, where the kind Kenyan Father welcomes us and shows us to the, wait for it, swimming pool. Cool at last? If only it wasn’t filled by a hot spring…

We thought we could take a boat from Loyangalani to Kalokol on the Western shore of the lake. After some investigations, it seems we have to travel a further “27km” (actually 40km) North to a remote fishing village. How is the road? “Fine! No problems cycling”. Twenty kilometres in and we hit sand. A lot of it. Deep, soft sand. We push and ride for awhile, then just push… a solid 15km. It is grueling, draining work under the late morning sun. We stop under a tree when we think we only have 7km left to go (actually 20km). Some Turkana women come to us. Here they rarely see foreigners and so approach us without the usual reservations. They live a hard life and it is visible on their faces, which look tough. They have four small children with them but it doesn’t seem as though they are the mothers. We share what we have with us which turns out to be bubble gum and caramels. One woman pops the gum in her mouth without removing the wrapper, and the others, who know better, have a good laugh! We arrive 2 hours late to the boat, but find they’ve waited for us, which turns out for the better, as the village has no amenities to cater for extra people and we have no food. The boat is small, and is filled to the brim with salted fish, due for export to the Congo. Our bikes and bags are balanced on top; we sit on the tarp which separates us from the fish. Nonetheless, our stuff stinks to this day. We set off around 3pm, make some social visits along the way, and at 2am stop at an island an hour away from Kalokol to sleep. The men know the lake well and don’t need daylight to navigate it, though the moon proves bright. At 6am we arrive.

How different this side of the lake is! The small town is connected to Lodwar by a tarmac road, and the proximity to the “civilized” world is obvious in the way people behave – there are less feathers, earrings, and bright colours here, more mobile phones and cold sodas. I can’t say we notice much, though, in our daze of hunger and tiredness. Foodless for 24 hours by now, we patiently wait for the lunch menu to be ready in a hotel off the main stretch of the small town. Kenya has never let us down so far with its meals and this is no exception: an honest, hearty plateful of rice, chapatti and beef stew with (joy!) vegetables. We lounge about and indulge in our favourite card game (it’s shithead, and it’s serious business: we’ve kept a running score for months now) for a few hours before getting an early night.

Too many people have told us of the dangers of the road South of Lodwar not to take it seriously. One Italian tourist has made reference to children herding goats by the side of the road, AK47s on their shoulders. Another has mentioned that for some of these people, killing a passer-by is more than just a good income – it is also a good omen for the tribe. Mangia the Indian’s brother has recently been shot on this road. The decision is a relatively easy one. The bus journey to Kitale, however, is not. What is marked on our map as a primary tarmac road turns out to be little of the sort. In fact, the only testimony to its tarmac past are a few islands of the stuff dotted here and there. In between the islands is a grossly corrugated dirt disaster, over which our driver enthusiastically speeds. The bus lasts 2 hours before expiring. The next bus to pass is of a different company and reluctantly takes us on board, a bus load of people on a bus full of people. It seems the danger of the surrounding area was such that it was not worth waiting for the next bus of our own company, which would be passing in the next half an hour. We see Kitale in the early, ugly hours of the morning. We wait in a 24hour café and drink tea until daylight comes, then find a decent hotel and sleep virtually the whole day and the whole night.

There is a shortcut from Kitale that bypasses Eldoret and its mountain, to lead us down the green, tropical lanes to Kisumu. We are back in the hills but they are nothing like those in Ethiopia, and here, we are greeted with smiles and “Mzungu! How are you?”. How refreshing! In a day and a half we find ourselves perched atop a hill, looking down from the Northern to the Southern hemisphere at the city of Kisumu. It strangely feels like coming home and Jack, the head of ISMAT, for whom we are raising money, indeed welcomes us like old friends returning home. We’ve been on the road for a month with no more than a day at a time off; the prospect of settling here for awhile is wonderful. Reza’s mother is to come, we’ll visit the OGRA and ISMAT projects, and maybe, maybe, we’ll go to the Masai Mara…

  * * *

We make a comprehensive plan for our week at OGRA and ISMAT: not a day is left out. Visits to the local slum and health clinic, to the nearby village where we’ll see the orphan feeding centre and another bigger clinic, to both of ISMAT’s campuses and finally, to the furthest rural clinic a three-hour drive away (see “OGRA and ISMAT” section). Reza’s mother arrives amidst it all, for her first taste of Africa. We put her in a rickshaw on her first night, a shock she takes rather gracefully. She joins us on one of our visits to the orphan centre; deeply touched, she is full of admiration and praise for those running it. At the end of the week, we finally manage to convince her that a safari would be tremendous fun, and so we depart for a three day trip to the Masai Mara with our driver and guide, Alex, in far more style than we usually afford ourselves. Wildlife there abounds. Where I thought it would take some work to spot different animals, we see multitudes of elephants, giraffes, zebras, antelope, crocodiles, hippos and buffalo. More excitingly we witness a lion guarding, then dragging, his kill while the lionesses lie nearby, too full to move. We are further spoiled with the sight of a cheetah then a leopard chasing a herd of zebras. Now back in the city, we are contemplating our cycle past and in between these parks without physical boundaries with mixed feelings: on the positive side, it is always more thrilling to see these animals outwith assigned parks, and death by lion in Africa is actually quite rare at only 30-odd per year…

  * * *

 With thanks on this stretch to: Mangia, the only Indian in Marsabit, Alex and Raphael, our guardian Angels, Gumato and Boya, for looking after us in time of need, the Catholic missionaries of North Hor and Loyangalani, El Molo Bay boarding school, Jack, for welcoming us like family, and Nahid, for having the warmest of hearts.

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