Sidling Lake Turkana and scaling Mt Poi
Our journey through the Omo Valley had been a highlight of the trip so far, but the adventure wasn’t over yet – we still had over 600 km of rough “roads” – if you could call them that – through the wild and woolly northwestern corner of Kenya before we reached civilisation again. And what an adventure it was! The previous night spent wild camped in the desert close to the border had been one of the more unpleasant nights on the trip. While setting up camp we had heard a curious buzzing sound, like we were about to be attacked by a hundred swarms of bees. It wasn’t until sundown that they made their attack. They were everywhere at once, relentless in their pursuit towards the lights we were using to cook dinner. Lake flies. Thousands of them, getting in our eyes, our hair, our mouths, persistently persecuting us despite our attempts to fob them off, until eventually we resorted to cooking and eating dinner in the dark, then escaped to the hot refuge of Hotel Eezi, our rooftent. We were lucky in a way – we had heard of poor fishermen getting caught in a swarm whilst out on the lake and suffocating, drowning, in flies. Must be a pretty bad way to go!
We had an important meeting that morning. A kiwi guy, David Conlin, had contacted us through our website to ask if we would like to visit a library they had built in Illeret, the most northerly town in Kenya. The library is dedicated to another kiwi, Michael Cronhelm, who had done some great work in Kenya but had tragically died, so they had built a library in his memory. I’m not sure you could call Illeret a town, more like a dusty collection of dome-shaped, rather primitive Turkana huts. In fact the library was probably the finest building in town, solidly build in stone with a strong wooden door. We met with the Marcelino, the assistant librarian – a charming young chap who was very keen to see other visitors. He told us what an impact the library was having on the local community, and how they needed more tables and chairs to seat all the visitors! We chatted for a while, donated some books and pens and then made our way out of town. If anyone is passing through Illeret, stop by and say hello! They would gratefully receive donations of books, pens or funding to keep the library going, and it’s nice to see a community initiative in such a far-flung spot! The GPS waypoint is N4 18.494 E36 13.740. Check out their website http://michaelcronhelmfoundation.org/library-project-update
The bush track between Illeret and the next nearest town to the South, Loiyangalani is one of the most remote places we’ve been on our trip. If something goes wrong out here it would be a very long walk, or a very long wait for any help. We were initially reluctant to travel this section of the route by ourselves, but after months of asking around to see if we could jack up some travel buddies for a convoy, nothing came up. There seemed to be very few overlanders going south, let alone any that wanted to do this route. So we did it alone, just the three of us and Rodders, our trusty steed. The track heads south from Illeret but soon swings to the east and passes around the outskirts of Sibiloy National Park, through dry, scrubby rolling hills on a road that varied between good, hard fine gravel, to tennis ball sized lava rocks, to massive boulders. The centre of the road was pretty high in places and we struggled a little bit with our spare wheel mounted under the rear of the car, it was often scraping on the ground which is far from ideal!
Boy it felt great to be out adventuring! Apart from a few nomads and their camels, we didn’t see another person or car for two days. There was a bit of wildlife around. We saw lots of birds, gerunuk, jackals, a dead hyena (can we claim that?!) and at one stage came across a herd of 14 ostriches. Sam divulged that he would like to leap out of the car window onto the back of one and ride it. That was all the incentive Rodders needed and next minute we’re burning across the rocky plains in pursuit of a sturdy looking ostrich. Unfortunately where Rodders had speed, the ostriches had all terrain legs and soon leapt across a narrow gut and got away from us.
The track led us through plateaus littered with boulders of black volcanic basalt, stands of acacia trees, and the occasional palm-filled oasis. The volcanic scenery was stark and harsh but very beautiful, with big open skies and occasional glimpses down to the turquoise waters of the Jade Sea – Lake Turkana.
We thought all the interesting tribes were behind us but we were wrong. The tribes living in Northern Kenya are as interesting as they get! In Loiyangalani, a dusty one street town on the eastern side of Lake Turkana there are four tribes – Samburu, El Moro, Turkana and Gabbra. The general style of the Turkana tribe was a brightly coloured cloth wrap, a stylish Mohawk or shaved hairdo, loads of beaded necklaces – some women probably had close to a hundred stacked up around their necks, and six or seven earrings in each ear, the top-most being a leaf shape. They had a regal elegance about them, a sense of strength and perseverance, which indeed you would need living a nomadic lifestyle in such a barren and inhospitable environment. The wind raced across the rocky plains, whipping up the lake into a frenzy of whitecaps, sending the traditional Arabic dhows whizzing across the lake in search of fish. An occasional thorny acacia tree provided the only respite from the volcanic rockscape and we wondered more than once how people survive here. We had hoped to pick up some supplies in Loiyangalani, or at least have a meal in a local restaurant, but there was nothing. No vegetables, no rice, no pasta, no spuds, nothing. The Cold Drinks Hotel which we had been looking forward to for days didn’t even have cold drinks, let alone food. This was one of the grimmest, most marginal towns we had ever been to. But where it lacks on the nutritional front it certainly makes up for it with its colourful and exotic tribes people which provided us with some fantastic people watching!
We spent the night in Loiyangalani then headed down the lakeshore the following morning. The road rose steeply up out of the basin, and we soon found ourselves on a fast, sandy track through a pleasant wooded valley, speeding down towards South Horr. This was Samburu territory now and our eyes were wide with delight soaking up all the glorious colours and designs of the local peoples’ dress and jewellery. The Samburu women also shave their heads, and wear a number of disc shaped necklaces with elaborate beaded designs in bright colours. They really look fantastic and we were very impressed.
We were lured into the back-streets of South Horr by a neatly painted sign on the side of the road proudly declaring cold beer and the best restaurant in town. What we found was a very empty bar with a handful of warm bottles of beer evenly spaced on the shelves. We reasoned warm beer was better than no beer, so we sat outside the shop, drinking, chatting and being entertained by a group of local kids dancing and singing for us!! Having sort of succeeded on the beer front we decided to try our luck with vegetables. We asked whether the town sold any vegetables, and the owner told us we could get some on the main street. We went there and asked – yes they said, you could get vegetables further down in town. Each shop we went to said we had to go a little bit further. Eventually we gave a kid a coin and he ran off in search of vegetables, and came back with a big bunch of skuma wiki, a green leafy vegetable not unlike Chinese cabbage. Oh well, it was better than nothing!
On the way out of town we spied three or four tall ostrich feathers swaying from side to side a bit further down the road. Our curiosity piqued we went to investigate and were rewarded with a most astonishing sight. The ostrich feather emerged from an intricate headdress, underneath which the black hair was carefully braided and the thick tresses tied back neatly, and covered with a fine netting. The wrists and ankles of these fine specimens were richly adorned with beaded jewellery, and across their strong, bare chests were long beaded sashes, one each way to form a cross. Each wore a bright pink sarong, carefully tied up to one side, and they carried long spears and decorated shields. These fine young lads were Samburu warriors, Morani, and they were beautiful. We dearly wanted to photograph them, and shyly asked for permission but they wanted us to pay 1000 shillings for the privilege, which is about $12, far more than we were willing to pay having just come from Ethiopia where the standard rate is about three pence. We had to consol ourselves by watching them for as long as possible, trying to take in all the details of their extraordinary dress.
That night we found a shaded, dry sandy riverbed just off the main road and set up camp. The skuma wiki was put to good use in a tuna and sweetcorn pasta, after which we retired to the two turkey cinema. With all the different tribes we had seen, Sam was curious to find out more about New Zealand’s native people and tribes. We decided to show him that ole Kiwi classic film – Once Were Warriors, although we were at pains to tell him this was not Maori culture at its best!! We settled into our chairs with the laptop perched on the tailgate, the lights dimmed, and were accompanied by a three or four bats swooping over and through us, keen to see what was going on. It was a superb campspot and a great evening spent in the African bush. This is what an overland trip is all about.
Rodders trundled valiantly up the torturous, rocky, bouncy and fairly steep excuse for a road the following morning. It wasn’t until we reached the top that we realised we had gone the wrong way, and would have to descend all the way back to the valley floor and take the other road. We had decided to climb Mt Poi, a breadloaf-shaped granite dome with three sheer sides and a rounded breadloaf top. It’s home to some of Kenya’s hardest rockclimbing, unfortunately well out of our league at 8c, but it’s possible to climb to the top of the loaf via the fourth, more moderately-sloped side. In true turkey style, we couldn’t be bothered with all the palaver associated with finding a guide to show us the way, so we decided we would just wing it. We were fairly confident that we had the right mountain – it was shaped like a breadloaf after all (although so were several other mountains in the locality), but we had no idea where the track went. It did look an awful long way from the main road. We needed to get closer. We came to a dry riverbed and weaved our way up it for a few kilometres, navigating around fallen trees until we could go no further. By this stage it was midday and very hot, probably a bit late to be starting our attempt on mighty Mt Poi. Nevertheless, we were not to be deterred, so we packed our bags, scratched together what food we had, and set off through the thorny scrub. It was pretty hard going, bushbashing at first, then scrambling up a river bed until eventually we stumbled upon a track and a cattleherder.
The track was very steep, it was very hot and progress was very slow. At the saddle we stopped for a snack – consisting of one small packet of rather crushed crackers each, a small tin of tuna to share, and a small tin of pineapple rings. Sam was less than impressed with the quantity and quality of culinary delights on offer, and we were all still pretty hungry. The last part of the climb was above the bushline with interesting subalpine flora and spectacular views across the plains below. We made it to the top by 5pm and finished the last of our water, with only an hour and a half of daylight to get back down. It was lucky we had the track to follow as by 6.30 it was pitch black and we were only halfway to the car. I was very tired, and struggling to keep up, kept falling behind. I kept thinking how predators prey on the weakest member of the herd, and kept checking behind me, certain I was going to get taken down at any time by a rogue lioness, as well as scanning the track in front for snakes and scorpions. (In fact I did find a very poisonous scorpion so it was lucky I was keeping my eyes peeled!) At last we came out onto the flat plain, and dialled in the GPS waypoint for Rodders – thank goodness we had marked where we had parked him, pretty much in the bush in the middle of nowhere! We arrived back at the car at about 8pm, exhausted, hungry and parched, very pleased to be reunited with our trusty steed! We set up camp then and there and went straight to bed after dinner. The highlight of the evening for Brett was pissing off the roofrack in the middle of the night instead of having to go down the ladder!
Another beautiful day dawned. Having breakfast deep in the bush some 2 km up a sandy riverbed, we were pretty surprised to see a young man casually wheel his bike past! It reinforced our theory that there are people EVERYWHERE in Africa!
It was a lovely drive eastwards towards the Moyale – Isiolo Road, although definitely not a road to attempt in the rainy season. We joined up with the infamous bandit road at Laisamis, and had to endure 22 km of the worst corrugations we’ve ever seen (thank goodness we didn’t take the boneshattering Moyale-Isiolo route as it’s about 400 km of corrugations!) before we finally emerged onto the brand new, sweet, smooth tarseal. We had a few nights to kill before Brett’s family turned up, so we found a beaut freecamp spot in a clearing just north of Archer’s Post, near a rocky outcrop. We lit a fire and spent a pleasant afternoon chilling out – Sam perfected his fire-jumping technique and I baked some bread. We’d made it back to civilisation after over a thousand kilometres of rough roads, and the first thing we did was rock up to the Tusker distributor and get ourselves a whole crate of beer – 25 bottles!
Check out our Northern Kenya photos.
We’d like to extend a big thanks to Sam for being a great travel companion, and for letting us use some of his photos! Cheers mate! He’s done a good write-up on his blog Africaman under Tribes – Ethiopia and Kenya.
Tips and tricks
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 some notes about the route, available on our website under Lake Turkana Route notes.
We were keen to do some hiking and Mt Poi sounded as good a mountain as any. We climbed it independently, but I’m sure you can also arrange a guide from Ngurit, which might be quite fun if you get a Samburu warrior as a guide!!
These may not be the best notes as we’re not actually sure where the track starts or how you get to the start – this is what we did which seemed to work…
We drove up a dry riverbed to get closer to the mountain before we started hiking. We left the main road at N1 50.809 E37 15.883 and drove for about 2.2 km, until we could go no further and parked at N1 50.001 E37 15.246. As mentioned in the post we bushbashed on the way up, but on the way down we followed the track until we were close to Rodders, then we cut across through the fairly open bush back to the car where we camped that night. So the lowest part of the track we used was at N1 49.686 E37 14.762, which was quite close to some water troughs, presumably for the cattle they take up the mountain for grazing (the track is essentially a cattle track).
So, if you get to this waypoint, then you can follow the track up from there. From the cattle troughs the track heads south, and leads up through bush, fairly gradually at first, but then steepens. After about 2.7km the track swings to the southwest and goes straight up to the saddle on a fairly steep, crumbly cattle track (there are lots of different tracks, so just generally head for the ridgeline). Once you’re on the saddle there are great views down the other side. The track heads eastwards up the left of the rocky outcrop above and then crosses the ridge and cuts under the cliffs on the right of the ridge line (the south side) up some crudely built concrete steps to reach the small summit at N1 48.039 E37 14.781, 1767m. The track then descends to the pass, then sidles steeply up the other side to the summit at 2050m. The highest we recorded was N1 47.905 E37 15.237, but the summit is not far beyond that. It took us about 7 ½ hours return, but we were going pretty slow on the way up as we weren’t following a track and also it was the hottest part of the day (as we didn’t start until 12.30pm). Take plenty of water!!