These past days we have been making our way south from the Ethiopian border through northern Kenya, home to some of the most marginal lands in East Africa.
In the not too distant past for the natives of this region, Nairobi was just some far fetched idea of a place in Kenya. The progressive paving of the Nairobi-Addis Ababa Highway all the way to the Ethiopian border over the past 10 years has turned a multi day journey by car into a matter of hours. We could see the rock and dirt road that our TDA predecessors had to contend with running parallel to the new tarmac at points. As we said in our last post, thank you China!
Pastoralists have eeked out a sparse existence here for centuries. Cycling through the bleak lava rock of the Dida Galgalu Desert, the only signs of life we encountered were the odd nomad and his camels. At the tiny village of Turbi, we purposely lingered at a coke stop in order to delay our arrival at camp in the scorching badlands just to the south.
The next day’s ride to Marsabit proved to be our biggest test since the blast furnace of Sudan. We have learned that statistics alone cannot forecast the difficulty of the ride that awaits. On this day, it was heavy crosswinds that turned the 122 km and just over 2000 meters of vertical into a real grind. We spent the morning cycling in an “echelon” pace line with 12 of us in rows of 4 angled in a formation that cut the wind for those on the inside. Riders rotate in and out of the wind blocking outside position, where peddling takes much more effort. This requires some concentration, and is hardly a way to enjoy the scenery of Africa, but it is an effective way to save energy. We were unable to keep pace with some of the stronger riders in the afternoon, but formed some new alliances and arrived at a reasonable hour, exhausted, sweaty and caked with the grime of the desert.
Continuing south to Laisamos we encountered members of nomadic tribes such as the Rendille, the Borana and the Samburu wandering with herds of camels, goats or cattle. They motioned for us to stop on our bikes to let them drink from our water bottles, which we did when we were confident that we had enough to meet our own needs. In the town itself we encountered women whose heads were adorned with spectacular weaves of beads, flowers and coins. They are people of the Samburu tribe, distant relatives of the Maasai, nomadic peoples whose movements (for this group) have been altered by the construction of a permanent water source.
In this part of Kenya water is so scarce that families can literally spend all their time and energy sourcing and collecting it. This means that they never settle in one place and kids never go to school. The lack of an education assures that the cycle repeats itself. Part of the objective of aid organizations in building a well is that a community can form around it and break that cycle.
For many, a lone acacia silhouetted on the savannah against the horizon stretching into eternity is the iconic image of Africa. The place that invokes that image is often Kenya.
We have yet to see that terrain. Our point of entry into the country means that we will have to be patient. But we will get there, and in the meantime we are seeing and learning much along the way. Paul Theroux wrote in Darkstar Safari:
“I reflected that a person who has not crossed an African border on foot has not really entered the country, for the airport in the capital is no more than a confidence trick; the distant border, what appears to be the edge, is the country’s central reality.”
The Tour d’Afrique is a far cry from a safari vacation in Africa: transfers to a hotel and game park and a checklist to mark off the “Big Five”. With so much to take in before we get there, Nairobi remains, even for us, some far fetched idea of a place in Kenya.
From Laisamos we were bussed to the frontier city of Isiolo – this to keep us safe from the bandits and tribal unrest that have presented problems along this stretch. Gazelles, ostriches and warthogs were spotted en route. Back on the bikes the next day, the miles to the equator at Nanyuki felt like we were in the foothills of the Rockies in Alberta. As we gained altitude, fields of wheat and corn (large acreage farms are left over from British soldier settlement schemes after WW1) stretched before us, along with a dramatic snow capped Mount Kenya, the 2nd highest peak in Africa. We happened upon a cafe that offered home style brownies, milk shakes and lattes – western treats we have not seen since January.
The lone acacia will surely follow soon.
Thanks for reading.