Omo Valley – Lake Turkana route
The Omo Valley – Lake Turkana route was a highlight of our trip and we would highly recommend taking it over the Moyale – Marsibit – Archer’s Post hellroad! It’s a beautiful drive and the landscape and the interesting tribes in the area really make it worthwhile. We’ve put together the notes below, but also found a number of accounts on other people’s websites which we found useful. Thanks to all the overlanders who have made this information available on the internet.
Picture Africa – Dawie du Plessis has written up notes for each country on his overland adventure from South Africa to England which have been extremely useful on our trip.
There is some good info on the HUBB here.
When entering Ethiopia from the North try to avoid getting your carnet stamped, as it’s a pain to get it stamped our again as there is no customs or immigration at the Omorate border crossing. It is possible to bring a vehicle into Ethiopia without a carnet despite what they might say on the border. The best approach is to tell them you don’t have a carnet, then they will give you a temporary import permit. Tell them you’re leaving via the Omo Valley border crossing. If you tell them you have a carnet but don’t want to get it stamped (which is what we did) they will refuse to let you in the country unless you use the carnet. It seems you no longer need the letter of guarantee for your vehicle from your embassy, although for us it was very easy to get by emailing the British consulate in Addis Ababa with our passport and vehicle details.
If your carnet was stamped at the Sudan – Ethiopia border then you need to get the exit stamp in Addis Ababa – easier said than done! To get to the customs building head west out of town (about 6.3 km from Wim’s) until you get to N9 01.133 E38 47.963 where you turn right. Head down the side road for 400m and you will see the tall customs building on your left at N9 00.886 E38 47.952. I went up to the customer services desk and explained we were taking the Omo Valley – Lake Turkana route so needed to get our carnet stamped out. The young man behind the counter told me it was impossible to get the carnet stamped there, that they had never done it before and couldn’t do it now, and we would have to go to Moyale to get it stamped there. I stood my ground and explained that they wouldn’t let us in the country unless they stamped our carnet, even though we told them we were exiting via the Omo Valley, and the Customs at the border assured us we could get the carnet stamped out in Addis. After a very long time protesting I asked to see the manager, and got taken up to the director of the Customs building!! I explained my case and eventually after we wrote a long letter explaining exactly what had happened, they stamped out the carnet. As you can see, it’s easier to not get it stamped in the first place!!
We got our Kenyan visa in Addis Ababa (Embassy is at N9 01.945 E38 46.994). It’s supposed to take 24 hours but we asked if they could do it faster and gave them our phone number and they managed to process it in half a day, gave us a call and I went to pick it up just before closing. It cost $25 for a single entry visa. If you want to get a multiple entry visa you’re better off getting it in London in advance as it takes a long time in Addis.
Customs and Immigration
Before you head down to the border, you need to go to Omorate first to get your passport stamped out of Ethiopia. When we went there a very quick and efficient man had us samped out within minutes! Very good service. At the border there is nothing, no customs or immigration, just sand and scrub! Once you get to Illeret, the first “big” town in Kenya, visit Charles at the Police station where you need to register your passports and vehicle. You can’t get stamped into Kenya here or get a visa here! Get it in advance in Addis.
When you get to Nairobi you need to complete immigration and customs formalities. Firstly, go to the Department of Immigration at Nyayo House (S1 17.245 E36 49.098, SW corner of building on ground floor next to carpark), fill in an immigration form and explain that you entered the country at Illeret. We got our passport stamped after being in the country two weeks – possibly not the best if you get stopped by the police… Once immigration is all sorted then go around the corner to the Times Tower (S1 17.456 E36 49.444). Don’t take any cameras or electronics in as they will make you leave them at the security check. I think I got the carnet stamped on the fourth floor. I didn’t have to pay anything, and we never paid road tax for Kenya either (when we left the country heading into Uganda we chatted to the customs officer to distract him and he forgot to check our road tax!!).
We got third party COMESA yellow card insurance in Ethiopia at NICE insurance company, on Obale Road, just above the Ethio Supermarket at N8 59.972 E38 46.227 2nd floor. The staff were very friendly and it took a few hours to complete. We got 5 months 3rd party insurance for 1798 Birr – £67. They charge a bit extra for each additional country you want it to cover.
We did the route by ourselves, although I’m not sure if it would be wise to go through here alone unless you have a very strong vehicle and the ability to fix things yourselves on the road. It could be rather interesting in the rainy season too, although when we went through they hadn’t had any decent rain in two years – a contributing factor in the massive drought and famine that has gripped the area this year. We had heard that there is sometimes fighting between the different tribes in the area, but they rarely trouble travellers – unlike the bandits on the Moyale road. We felt safe the whole time and wildcamped every night except in Loiyangalani where we stayed at Palm Shades campsite. A week or two after we came through some French overlanders got held up just north of Archer’s Post on the Moyale – Isiolo road. They decided to make a run for it and the driver got shot through the jaw. I would say the Lake Turkana route is safer than the Moyale road, but you never know what is going to happen!
We were quite worried about the rainy season making the roads impassable. It turns out the rainy season in the Omo Valley is May-June, and it had been raining heavily every night, however the area between Omorate and Illeret (where all the big, muddy river beds are) hadn’t seen any rain in a while, and the roads were fine. Apart from Jinka in the Omo Valley we had fine, clear and sunny weather the whole time. It was very windy at times, and pretty hot, even at night.
You definitely need to be totally self sufficient, in food, fuel, tools, spare parts and water. If you get stuck it could be a long wait! Expect dry and barren desert conditions.
We had banked on buying food in Loiyangalani but there was nothing to buy, so make sure you stock up on food in Addis Ababa – although even there it’s a bit limited and pricey! There is a supermarket up Churchill St – I think it’s in the Lonely Planet. We ended up using a fair bit of our stock we had brought from London. Stock up on lunch stuff as you can’t buy bread once you get to Kenya (we did manage to buy bread rolls most places in Ethiopia, including Konso and Omorate). We bought vegetables at the Saturday Market in Jinka. We finally managed to buy a few supplies in Kenya at Ngurit, but the first town with any decent food is Isiolo. Once you get down to Nanyuki there is a Nakumatt which is like heaven on earth after no decent supermarkets since Turkey!!! If you’re heading north stock up on all your favourites, food is very limited in Ethiopia and Sudan especially.
Coming south the last petrol station is in Jinka – there are two petrol stations and they both sold petrol and diesel. We took 170 L of diesel and easily made it to Isiolo, a total of 647 miles (1035 km) with 30 L to spare. You can also get diesel in Maralal (and apparently Baragoi) if you’re taking that route in Kenya rather than crossing over to Isiolo. Fuel is much cheaper in Ethiopia than in Kenya.
We carried about 90 L of water and filled up our tanks in Turmi at the Kasseke Campsite (from a well, but there is also a water pump). There are villages with water pumps between Omorate and Illeret, and there is a spring between Illeret and Loiyangalani, although I wouldn’t rely totally on these water supplies. At Palm Shades campsite there is a good quality freshwater spring where we refilled.
Take plenty of money in small change for both Ethiopia and Kenya as few places will accept large notes. Get this in advance if possible. Going south I can’t think of anywhere where you could get Kenyan Shillings – we took $150 worth (KSh13,500) but only in large notes (KSh500) which made it hard to buy any souvenirs or bargain with anyone! Going north try and get at least several hundred 1 Birr notes if you want to take photographs. 10 and 20 Birr notes are also good for buying souvenirs and produce from the markets. I think you can change money into Ethiopian Birr at Buske Lodge in Turmi, and we changed some money at the bank in Jinka at very reasonable rates – they accepted dollars, Euros or pounds. The exchange rates in May/June 2011 were 16 Birr and 90 Kenyan Shillings to the USD.
Day by day account
Addis Ababa – Lake Awasa (264 miles)
We drove along tarsealed roads to Shashamene – the home of Rastafarisim and the only place in Ethiopia we felt uncomfortable and on edge – we watched Rodders like a hawk when having lunch! From there we took the road to the west which was mostly tarseal but slow going because of all the people on the road. We took the high road to Dorze (gravel), and wildcamped on the north side of the hill, overlooking Lake Awasa. It was a nice place to camp, but lots of creepy crawlies. This is where we met Michael the preying mantis, who travelled with us the next day.
Lake Awasa – Dorze – Arba Minch – Konso (111 miles)
The gravel road over the hill to Dorze was interesting in the wet – it was pouring with rain when we drove it and rather muddy! In Dorze we called into Dorze Lodge and arranged lunch, a village tour and a trip to the weekly market (Thursdays) with Getu, a lovely young man who we’d been recommended. We had a fantastic day. The village tour was very interesting and a great way to see the local customs and practices of the villagers, as well as seeing how they live. After lunch we went down to the market which was excellent! Definitely a highlight of the trip, and great to go with a friendly guide. We bought some shamas (the cotton shawls Ethiopians wear), some coffee pots, vegetables and bowls. After this we descended the switchbacks to Arba Minch (back onto tarseal, and probably the last big town for some time – stock up!) and then carried on to Konso (part gravel part tar but in reasonable condition). Unfortunately we must have timed it with the end of market day in Arba Minch and there were thousands of cattle on the road – a crazy sight! It took a really long time to drive through all the cattle, but was pretty interesting. At Konso we stayed at Strawberry Fields Permaculture lodge which was really interesting but not really set up for Roof-top tents – we had to camp in the car park. Also the paths are made from thick clay so in the wet season it’s a challenge not to cake everything in mud! Lovely lush food gardens and great breakfast. We paid 31 Birr pp but I think the price has gone up to 55 Birr pppn.
Konso – Jinka (94 miles)
It would have been nice to do a village tour or something in Konso but we were worried about the rains and the roads so pushed on. It turned out the whole way from Konso to Jinka was newly tarsealed, so it only took a few hours to get there. Lovely drive through lush green fields – not what I was expecting! We had a look at Rocky’s campsite, but it was miles out of town and looked a bit shit, so we carried on and stayed at Jinka Resort & camping which is within walking distance to town and has a good restaurant and bar. They let us camp in a shaded grassy spot, and we had access to the staff shower (very cold water!!). We organised a guide to take us to visit the Mursi tribe the next day. In town we changed some Euros at a very reasonable rate, and found somewhere to have an avocado shake (very full-on!!) and a cold beer. We had dinner at the restaurant – pretty good steak eggs and chips! The camping was 50 Birr per tent.
Jinka – Mursi tribe – Jinka (60 miles round trip)
The gravel / mud road from Jinka down to Mago National Park is notorious in the rain, and we weren’t sure whether we could go or not as it had been raining heavily the night before, however the guide assured us it would be ok so off we went. The road had recently been graded, so although muddy, slippery and steep, it was fine and Rodders made it no problem. It’s probably worth asking around about the state of the road before you commit to the trip. The village charges 100 Birr per person, plus a per person charge for taking photos. The Mursi are so interesting, it’s definitely worth making the effort to visit them, although it is a strange experience. You have to take a guide, pay national park fees, pick up (and pay for) an armed scout in Mago NP, and if you go to the market in Jinka, it costs an additional 50 Birr per person (although if you go by yourselves to the market you don’t have to pay). Out of all the markets we went to the Jinka one was the least interesting. There weren’t that many people traditionally dressed. Worth going though if you’re in Jinka on a Saturday. Most of the markets don’t really get going until about 11am so its possible to drive somewhere in the morning then have a look around the market in the afternoon.
Jinka – Turmi (78 miles)
The road back to Key Afar is tarseal, and from there to Turmi it was a gravel / marram road in good condition. They are building a new road through here so before too long this section will be tarseal too. We saw loads of people from the Banner and Hama tribes. We’ve heard the markets in Key Afar and Dimeka are excellent, so worth trying to time it to coincide with the market days in these towns. In Turmi we stayed at the Mango campsite (70 Birr per tent) about 4km out of town which was ok. The campsite is beside the river, under a grove of mango trees (watch out for monkeys pissing and shitting on your tent!), and has cold showers, no food or bar (well they had warm beer…). We went for a walk up the river bed then came back to the nice lodge called Buske Lodge next door for a cold beer and some excellent injera (the best we’d had in all of Ethiopia). I think you can camp at the lodge as well and they will change money. It would be well worth trying to see a running of the bulls ceremony or a local dance while you’re in Turmi. I’m sure they could arrange it at the lodge.
Turmi – Kolcho (44 miles)
The next morning we headed into the Turmi market held on Mondays. This was one of the most interesting markets we’ve ever been to and definitely a highlight of the trip. We went in about 10am and things were pretty quiet, so we just sat in the shade and watched the locals. We managed to take quite a few photos for free with the telephoto lens but got told off a few times! The general rate for taking photos is 1 Birr for a child and about 3 Birr for an adult. Some of the more ornate women might charge 5 Birr. You can usually get away with taking a few photos for the one price (on rapid fire) – this doesn’t work with the Mursi – they count each click!! My advice would be to just pay to take as many photos as you want – at the end of the day its actually pretty cheap per photo, and these people look absolutely amazing, so its worth paying the money and getting some good photos rather than regretting it later. They have some curio stalls at the market where you can buy local crafts such as headstools, calabashes, bracelets and necklaces, beaded cowskins etc. It’s pretty reasonably priced and chances are you won’t see this stuff for sale anywhere else, so if you like something, buy it!!
The main road between Turmi and Omorate was pretty corrugated – we didn’t actually take this road but took a fun wee bush track on Tracks4Africa that went between Turmi and Kolcho (via Dimeka) then down to the Omorate road. We stopped a few people on the road to take photos and even bought their stools and jewellery off them! The road was in good nick to start with, but as we got closer to the Omo River it was basically just a dirt bushtrack – good fun though! Loads of scope for bushcamping. We tried to stay at Kolcho village (Karo tribe) which has a spectacular setting on a big bend overlooking the Omo River. Initially they said it was 50 Birr each to camp in the village, but just before we were about to set up camp they tried to charge us 450 Birr for the car, which in Ethiopian terms is a ridiculous amount of money, so we moved on down the river a bit and camped there at N5 11.814 E36 12.153.
Kolcho – Omorate – Bandfort, Kenya (84 miles)
The bushtrack from Kolcho to the main Turmi – Omorate road was pretty remote, just a tiny wee track barely big enough to fit Rodders, and would be rather interesting in the rains! We saw a lot of birdlife on this road and quite a few tribal people. Once back on the main road we detoured to Omorate to get our passports stamped out by a lovely and very efficient wee man! Again, if we had time it would have been good to cross the river and have a look around a local village.
Once you leave the Omorate road to head towards Illeret its just a bush track. There are a few villages on the way, and near the border there is a police post. The road was in reasonable condition, but was pretty sandy in places. There were a number of wide, dry riverbed crossings which were very sandy and muddy and would be rather interesting in the rain!! We saw a number of local water pumps so you could get water here if you needed to. There isn’t any border crossing as such, or indeed any border marker at all!! We bushcamped just over the border near Bandafort at N4 24.190 E36 13.994 and were attacked by lake flies.
Bandafort – Ileret – outside Sibiloy NP (78 miles)
At Ileret we found the Police Station to register with the police. Unfortunately Charles wasn’t there, but the chaps were very friendly and just took our names, passport numbers and vehicle details. Next we went to visit the Michael Cronhelm Memorial Library – worth going to have a look if you’ve got some spare time, and they would greatly appreciate any unwanted books, pens etc. The GPS waypoint is N4 18.494 E36 13.740.
The road to Loiyangalani goes around the edge of Sibiloy National Park, but the last small section goes through the park so you have to pay national park fees ($20pp and KSh300 per vehicle per day). However there is a shortcut that isn’t shown on T4A that is a lot shorter and skips the national park so you don’t have to pay any fees. You leave the T4A road that skirts the park at N3 48.696 E36 28.766, just after an oasis, and follow a fairly decent road (but rocky!) for approximately 39 km to meet up with the T4A road again at N3 29.912 E36 31.347 (the other way that goes through the south end of the park is 66km, so you save 27 km by taking this shortcut as well as $45).
Leaving Illeret the road is pretty sandy, but as soon as you enter the park it is pretty good compacted gravel, but soon turns into tennis ball sized rocks with a very high, rocky central strip which requires high ground clearance! It was not ideal having our spare wheel under the back of the car as it kept dragging on the ground and got badly scraped. The road also tore big chunks of rubber out of our tyres and wore down the tread a fair bit. We bushcamped on the way on top of a hill overlooking a small valley at N3 45.135 E36 29.040 and had a big bonfire – you can bushcamp almost anywhere on this road.
Bushcamp – Loiyangalani (101 miles)
Again, the road varied from very rocky to quite fast gravel. The last section of the road between Gusi and Loiyangalani was extremely rough, with massive boulders on the road and the going was very slow – about 10 kph. One steep section has been paved in concrete. In Loiyangalani we stayed at Palm Shade’s campsite (KSh500pppn) at N2 45.385 E36 43.258 which has a nice grassy area under palm trees to camp. They have a natural spring so there is plenty of water and you can fill up your water tanks. They have very clean cold showers and flush toilets.
Loiyangalani to South Horr bushcamp (61 miles)
The road out of Loiyangalani follows the lake for about 24 km again along a very rocky and consequentially slow road with great views of the lake. The road then climbs out of the basin, and much of this steep section is concrete. The road improves a bit after this and becomes flatter and hardpacked sand – you can even get up a bit of speed! South Horr is a nice town with lots of Samburu people around. There are campsites here but we decided to bushcamp 8 km south of South Horr in a dry riverbed at N2 02.211 E36 55.445.
South Horr to Ngurit & Mt Poi (38 miles)
Just after South Horr the road splits. The southerly route heads towards Maralal, and just after our freecamp spot heads up a torturous, horribly rough and steep hill – probably the worst section of road on the whole route – and we went up it by mistake only to have to turn around and come back down!! We took the road to the South-east that cuts across to Ngurit, and on to meet up with the Moyale Road at Laisamis. The road to Ngurit was pretty good and reasonably fast with the occasional rough section that had been torn up in the wet season. We bushcamped 2 km up a dry river bed at N1 50.001 E37 15.246, which is where we started our assault on Mt Poi.
Ngurit to Archer’s Post (130 miles)
In Ngurit we managed to stock up at the wee shop – we got rice, sugar, eggs, fizzy drinks, vegetables and hot chapatti!! Gold! We were very excited!! Ngurit is a cool wee town with loads of colourful Samburu people. Fantastic scenery around with loads of granite mountains. Again the road to Laisamis was pretty good and fast (compared with the roads of the last few days that is), but with rough sections from the wet season (this road would be very interesting in the wet!!). From Laisamis you have to endure 22 km of bone shattering corrugations until you finally reach the tarseal – first in over a thousand kilometres!! From here it is tarseal all the way to Nairobi. We wildcamped just north of Archer’s Post in the Kalama Conservancy at N0 43.591 E37 34.747. Not sure if you’re supposed to pay to enter the Conservancy, but we didn’t and no-one asked… If you want to pay for camping the Ugoma Women’s Campsite in Archer’s Post has a lovely spot on the banks of the river at N0 37.877 E37 39.616, cold showers, pit toilets and I think they do food and have warm beer. The Samburu women can do a traditional dance for you as well.