The North Kenya Road is as notorious for its potholes and dust as it is for its shiftas – the Dick Turpins of Africa, raiders and bandits who hold up trucks and villages. Thankfully there are fewer shiftas now and attacks tend to be limited to inter-tribal raiding. Nevertheless, the road was brutally bumpy and painfully slow. With hotels and campsites non-existent we had to make do with what came our way. Running water and electricity became welcome bonuses, and wifi a distant and decadent luxury, but in a perverse way the four days it took to reach the border town of Moyale were some of the most rewarding of our Africa trip.
The first twenty four hours were relatively straightforward: a four hour drive north of Nairobi, followed by camping in a local farmer’s plot of land. In fact camping isn’t quite accurate – the succession of local drunks passing through the camp at dinner time, giving us their two cents in Swahili, was enough to persuade Lorna and I to sleep in the back of the truck. Surprisingly cozy.
Day 2: Tribes and Chiefs
As the lushness of southern Kenya gave way to desert and its all pervasive dust, shanty villages and clutches of Masai people changed into desert towns and trails of Rendille and Samburu tribespeople, proudly sporting brightly coloured robes, red ochred hairstyles, a profusion of gold jewellery, and AK47s. Even we changed – to the local children we were no longer mzungus, we became faranji – or so they yelled at us from the side of the road.
Around lunchtime we drove over what felt like a few speed bumps without slowing down, flinging me out of my seat and jarring my fillings somewhat. Then I realised – the tar-sealed road had ended – this was the start of the apocryphal dirt track which passes for the highway until the Ethiopian border. So much for reading Game of Thrones. We bounced along from rut to rock in a ball of dust as fast as the suspension would allow, until at dusk we reached the town of Laisamis. Finding ourselves firmly in shifta territory, it was felt to be unwise just to pitch the tent by the side of the road. Luckily for us, the local police station was more than accommodating and let us camp in their grounds. The police chief even chased a begging woman and her two babies away with a large stick, and gave us a key to the outhouse (two bricks and a deep hole with a corrugated iron roof). Luxury.
Day 3: Roadworks Inn
Following a night of sleep punctuated by the surprisingly loud grazing and snorting of the donkeys who patrolled the station grounds at night, we pushed on through the desert, hoping to reach the Ethiopian border by nightfall. We stopped for lunch in Marsabit, a hill-town providing a brief respite from the dust and heat. The crowd of children and adults who stood fascinated as we ate constituted evidence – as if much was needed – that we were somewhere which tourists don’t generally visit. The only other faranjis we saw were driving white 4x4s with NGO stickers plastered across the sides.
Through the afternoon the landscape became more austere, with only camels and the odd tribal hut breaking the view to the horizon. An hour with our wheels stuck in a dried riverbed, a broken muffler, potholes and the continuous roadworks put us at least half a day behind schedule. It seemed in the hour before dusk that we’d have nowhere to sleep but the roadside, perhaps in the company of the shiftas. However, it was the roadworks that provided succour. We drove up to an armed secure compound catering for the Chinese foreman whose company was building a new road that we were unfortunately not going see the benefit of. A collection of residential huts, toilets, various bits of machinery, and a basketball court, we were permitted to camp inside one of the fenced off areas with some ponderous Asian building equipment. One of the foremen even offered us water and beds, although I was more interested in the stir-fry which I could smell wafting through the compound. Rather implausibly I slept magnificently that night after cooking a plantain curry for our group. However, as I brushed my teeth the next morning (pictured), I realised that I was caked in dust and had turned a slightly sandy shade of orange. Rustic.
Day 4: Border and Bucket
“There was fighting between the tribes yesterday, but not today, so it’s a good day to drive,” a policeman reassured us around midday after we had given him a lift from the roadworks to the next town. Thankfully he was right – by the time we reached border town of Moyale in the afternoon I had managed to read 150 pages of Game of Thrones without interruption and our hotel gave us each a lukewarm bucket of water to wash with in a foul smelling toilet. Bliss.
I wondered if such an inhospitable border marked a distinct change in the people and culture of a country. As I was awoken at five the next morning by chanting from mosques and the Ethiopian Orthodox churches, I was amazed at how prescient this thought had been – and not for the last time over the next few weeks.