Frontier passage and the Jade Sea


“An adventure is never an adventure when it is happening. Challenging experiences need time to ferment and an adventure is simply physical and emotional discomfort recollected in tranquility” – Tim Cahill

The variety in culture, language and tradition is abundantly clear in Ethiopia. We heard the word used for ‘white person’ change four times as we traveled south through areas using different regional dialects. For just three or four towns and villages the women wore their hair in wavy bops, the traditional style of their ethnic group, and just as quickly as it appeared, it was gone. For a few more towns the children began a bizarre dance routine when they saw us approach, quickly knocking their knees together, and like all the other curiosities it soon petered out and we never saw those strange dancing children again, but I loved Ethiopia all the more for it. The Ethiopian children south of Addis kept up their demands for money, to which I replied by asking them for pens, or for pens, to which I then asked them for money. These weren’t poor children, they were boisterous chancers who would often throw stones or pretend to ram large sticks into our spokes as we rode past and I was getting fed up with their baleful antics.


We rode towards a lakeside town called Arba Minch, mountains to our right and vast banana plantations to our left. Baboons surveyed us suspiciously from the road ahead and then scampered off to feast on the fruit nearby. Young children from the villages tried optimistically to sell us live chickens. We would usually arrive into a village together and leave in a peloton, anyone in the vicinity with a bicycle would hop on to follow us out and for several kilometers past.

‘You ride from England!?’
‘Yeshalla!’ we would reply. Amharic for ‘anything’s possible!’.

When we arrived into the town it was Ethiopian Christmas, which fell on January 7th. Most of Arba Minch was drunk, including the policeman who stopped me in the road. I was cycling on the left, in Ethiopia nobody paid much attention to which side of the road you were on, but the inebriated copper was having none of it. He looked unsteady and clumsy and sported an unnerving malevolent sneer, I immediately sensed trouble. ‘This is the wrong side of the road!’ he bellowed. ‘Of course, I’m very sorry’ I replied and began moving to the other side. ‘Stop there!’ he yelled. ‘Don’t go anywhere! I’m talking to you!’ I was now in the centre of the road and a queue of vehicles was building up on either side of me. ‘Don’t you know this is the wrong side of the road? This is very bad news. I am a policeman! Bad news! Bad news!’ I apologized and edged away. Drunk officials are a dangerous breed and all too prevalent in Africa.


Arba Minch sat by a lake famous for huge crocodiles, hippos and birdlife. We ventured out on a boat in search of the crocs and came across several five metre long specimens sunning themselves on the lake shore, mouths agape and motionless they stared out at the water with an ancient fire behind their bright green lambent eyes. Just ten metres away I watched a local fisherman standing thigh deep in the lake humming a tune to himself, oblivious or indifferent to any apparent peril. Our guide informed us that every year around five fishermen go missing, presumed eaten by hungry crocodiles who have become increasingly ravenous as their main food source is in decline with the lake being over-fished. It seemed to me quite an effective but cruel self regulating system for the crocodiles to then eat the fishermen.



Afterwards we went out in search of ‘tej’, a locally brewed honey wine gulped down voraciously by Ethiopians out of glass vials similar to the ones I used in my chemistry lessons at school. When I entered the tej bar my first impression was that some sort of scientific experiment had gone very acutely and horribly wrong. In the dim light I could make out the glass vials, many were smashed and a viscid yellow goo spilled from them onto the tables and the floor. Men were slumped around the room, semi-conscious and drooling, some mumbling incoherently. One man glowered in my direction, he was cradling a vial of tej in his left hand and an AK47 assault rifle in his right. Bees flew in erratic and haphazard loops around the room and some floated in the vials. Tej’s cunningly benign taste hides a potent kick that takes full effect when you attempt anything more ambitious than ordering more tej. This includes trying to stand up, having a conversation and then a little later, maintaining eye contact.

The arid, thinly populated badlands of Northern Kenya are without doubt the most dangerous parts I would travel through on my passage to Cape Town. It’s a large area which borders southern Sudan and Uganda in the west and Somalia in the East, it’s poorly administered and in many parts essentially lawless. It’s a region of tribal warriors, nomads and the notorious and ruthless ‘Shifta’, local bandits who don’t hesitate in taking lives. The main ‘Moyale Road’ that runs for 500 km has for some time been considered shifta territory. Armed guards are stationed on overland trucks and buses traversing this route and in Khartoum we met a truck driver who had been shot through the windscreen of his vehicle on this road just one month before, the bullet had entered and exited his right shoulder. I guessed rough camping here would be courting with extreme danger and friends and fellow cyclists alike warned me to abandon any hubris and take a lift if it didn’t appear safe. I wanted more than anything to ride all the way to Cape Town without resorting to cadging lifts in buses or trucks. It’s often hard to sort the scare stories and myth from the facts, even so I knew I had enough information to make a simple choice – not to ride the Moyale road. Despondently I surveyed my map and something caught my eye, a faint line in the crease of the page, well west of the Moyale Road, and it looked to cross the border into Kenya. This new option passed close to southern Sudan and skirted the shores of lake Turkana, ‘The Jade Sea’, an active volcanic region and the world’s largest desert lake. I did some online research but information was hard to come by. I discovered there were no customs or immigration on the Kenyan side of the border. The Lonely Planet and other guide books didn’t even see fit to mention crossing here as a possibility. All I had to go on was a few threads from online forums and a couple of isolated blog reports from the precious few adventurous souls who had decided to tackle the Lake Turkana route, and fewer still had attempted it on a bicycle. Although bandits may be more scarce the route was not without its own unique challenges. This is the very edge of civilization, due largely to a highly inhospitable environment, a combination of extremely high temperatures, virtually no rain and ferocious winds year round. It’s a desolate wilderness and if things went wrong out here there would be little support, many of the sandy tracks snaking through the region saw no vehicles for a week or more. Good maps of the area were non-existent and without a GPS navigation would be tough. There were also very few water points meaning I would have to carry up to twenty litres on my bike as well as a large quantity of food. I heard stories of inter-tribal conflict across the region and of lions drinking at the lake and carpet vipers common underfoot. I knew that the decision to ride or to get a lift had to be an individual one for myself and Nyomi. With her boyfriend paying her a visit in Nairobi, for Ny the decision was an easy one and she planned to hop on a bus at Konso. With the prospect of climatic extremes, arduous cycling, desolation, vulnerability, warring tribes and fierce beasts for me too the decision was easy. I started to make preparations for the ride straight away.

‘Sudden, violent storms are frequent. Nile crocodiles are found in great abundance on the flats. The rocky shores are home to scorpions and carpet vipers’ – Wikipaedia

‘We were going to die. I was sure of it now. When the next vehicle passed, they’d find my decaying corpse under an acacia. Eric was putting up a more positive front, though I caught him furrowing his brow every time he snuck a look at the compass. We obviously weren’t headed in the right direction.’ – Amaya Williams,world cyclist, http://www.worldbiking.info/

‘In 25 tours and almost 30,000 km of touring I would rate those days as some of the toughest. Hot, barren, and kinda vulnerable are the words that come to mind.’ – Thorn tree forum.

‘You’ll find animals (there are lions too, not only elephants) and rocks and sand. You’ll push a lot. The  tribes fight very often.’ – Thorn tree forum.

I gathered as much information as I could from local tour guides whom I judged may know something of the area. ‘You want my advice?’ said one ‘Don’t do it. It’s too tough’. I heard ‘don’t’, ‘can’t’, ‘wouldn’t’ and ‘shouldn’t’ and with each admonition a childish stubborn urge in me flourished and I felt compelled to give it a crack. I also found out that Merlin, the medical aid charity I’m raising funds for, have a base in the Turkana district. They operate throughout the region and this was an opportunity to visit them en route and witness their work firsthand.

Konso felt like the precipice, the last place to stock up, the last paved roads and the last town of any descent size before I leapt into an unknown abyss. It’s also where I waved goodbye to Nyomi as she sat on the back of a bus bound for Kenya. I purchased a litre of Ethiopian honey, half a kilo of peanuts, half a kilo of porridge oats, lots of rice, pasta and biscuits and got my bike ready. Before I reached the lake I would ride through the Omo valley, an area famous for the colourful local tribes, often dubbed ‘a human museum’. Some tourists fork out some petty cash for photos of the tribes. On my way through it was sad to see so many tribal people abandoning their traditional way of life to stand by the roadside in an effort to blag money for photos from passing tourists, tourists who generally contribute little to the local community and spend their money in far away countries with distant tour operators.

The descent into the Omo valley was magnificent, from the highlands I saw great plains stretching out beneath me, dust devils sprang to life in the distance, raced across the flats, slowly languished and then dissolved back into the desert. As I coasted down hill two women rushed out to greet me. They were topless with ocre coloured hair, goat skin skirts and were decorated in cowries, copper bracelets and wore the marks of scarification – I recognized them as members of the Hamer tribe. They seemed to find me as fascinating as I found them. They had children in tow who were clearly suffering from the effects of severe malnutrition. When they turned to leave I noticed large scars on their backs, marks from ritual flagellation, a long tradition in Hamer society. I continued to descend to the hot river basin. The temperature was consistently in the high 40’s and in the sun I recorded 56.5 degrees Celcius. I was now drinking eleven litres of water per day.



In one small South Omo village I was stunned to encounter another cyclist and a true veteran of the game. The Swiss man had clocked up over 60,000 km in Africa, traversing the continent 3 times by bicycle, and had ridden over 200,000 km worldwide. ‘I’ll die on my bike’ he assured me. He had a habit of bellowing every word and swore profusely, our conversation resembled a sergeant dishing out a set of commands to a fresh army recruit, but his instruction was invaluable. Amazingly he had just ridden the Lake Turkana route and he seemed just as surprised as me to have found someone else willing to ride the same path. He wasted no time in detailing how treacherous and precarious the journey would be, and from an old-timer his words carried extra weight. As he described the route ahead and traced his finger across my map he would intermittently stop in mid flow, grab my thigh, fix my gaze and yell ‘IF YOU MISS THIS TURN YOU WILL DEFINITELY DIE!’ and then soon after ‘IF YOU DON’T TAKE 20 LITRES OF WATER HERE YOU WILL DEFINITELY DIE!’ and finally ‘IF YOU CAMP HERE YOU WILL DEFINITELY DIE!’.
‘Alright, alright. I’m definitely going to die.’
‘It’s serious! Death is serious!’
‘I know, I know! Thank you’

Appropriately the sign that marked the last Ethiopian town before the border said ‘Welcome. Value your life’. Here I loaded my bike onto a dug out canoe and crossed the Omo river. On the opposing bank was a faint track and my route to Kenya. The Swiss cyclist had assured me that on this section it was impossible to get lost and I resented him telling me that. For some people it’s never impossible to get lost, and I happen to be one of them. Inevitably I ended up riding in circles, recurrently returning to the same dead goat, but on each lap I had accumulated a slightly larger group of naked tribal children following behind. Eventually a tribesman guided me to the right path. The headwind was biting and the sand underneath my tyres meant that I had to get off and push my bike more often than I could ride it. Twenty kilometres took me over three hours to cover but slowly I left the people and tin huts behind and I was riding solo through the empty desert following a faint track which frequently deteriorated to the point of non-existence and then reappeared somewhere up ahead. I persevered and eventually reached a remote police outpost. They topped me up with murky water from the river and I headed off again, pushing my bike through the sand, a bike which now carried fifteen litres of water and weighed as much as I did. I abandoned the sandy track and continued off-road, keeping the track to my left and just in view. The thorny desert scrub meant numerous punctures. In the fading light and after hours of struggling I arrived at a remote catholic mission in the Ilemi Triangle: a literal no-man’s-land between Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan which is territory disputed by all three. The priest welcomed me.

‘Well done, you’ve made it through the most volatile region’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The Turkana and the Dassenach tribes are at war. We lost sixty lives here last year’
‘I had no idea’
‘I bet you’re glad you didn’t’ he said


I pitched my tent and discovered a small carpet viper slithering inconspicuously nearby. It made a retreat when I pelted it with stones but I slept restlessly knowing that the zip to my tent inner was broken and that it had to remain open through the night. The next day I spent two hours repairing the numerous slow punctures in my cheap Chinese made inner tubes, the last two I had left. I pushed off again but slowly my house of cards began to tumble down. First the pump to my stove broke irreparably meaning I couldn’t cook any of my food. Then the fuel for my now useless stove leaked inside my pannier leaving my remaining snacks with a petrol-y aftertaste. Then I realized I was probably on the wrong sandy track. Then my brakes seized up. Then more punctures, then more pushing through the sand and then finally a local tribesman demanded a bottle of water which I felt compelled to hand over after realizing this was a command and not a question, reinforced by his menacing tone and ready rifle. It was a bad day at the office times a thousand. But just when I was starting to abandon all hope that I could complete this section by bike, my luck changed once again. It started with a faint sound of a car engine and then the first vehicles I’d seen since crossing the Omo river, four French couples in 4 by 4s, the same group I had met days before in Ethiopia. It had taken me a day and a half to cover what had taken them an hour. They topped me up with water and checked their GPS – I was just seven kilometres from an alternative track which branched off and took me on a longer route through the mountains, but which was hopefully an easier option. The rocky road ended up being almost as tough as the sand, the stones were loose and again the track often disappeared altogether. It ran through a gorge, Turkana tribesmen watched me from the cliffs above. I needed to get to the town marked on my map before nightfall and as the light faded I was sure the characters above looked familiar. My mind overflowed with dark paranoid speculation. Were they following me from up there on the cliffs? Were they waiting for darkness to fall? Fuelled by the adrenaline of fear I pedaled furiously and arrived into the small town completely exhausted where I happened upon another catholic mission which had a bed for me and a small charcoal burning stove on which to cook.

The next day I pulled out my repair kit to fix my third puncture of the morning and to my horror found that my tube of glue had leaked. There was none left. That was it. It was all over. Only one or two vehicles passed down this road per day and there wasn’t a settlement marked on my map for 150 km, I’d have to hop on the next truck, whichever direction it was heading. I was gutted that such a trivial problem such as a loose lid on a tube of glue had killed my dream of making it by bicycle. But the next vehicle happened to be a motorbike. I explained my predicament and the driver told me that there was a village nearby, ten kilometres from here but off the main road. He offered to ride there and check for the glue and in an hour he was back with what I needed. I thanked him rapaciously and carried on to yet another catholic mission and a small impoverished community of Turkana people. The indigence here was striking. Their cattle were dying, no rain had fallen in the wet season this year and the temporary shacks which they called home looked ready to disintegrate at any given moment. The roofs were constructed out of the cardboard from boxes of US food aid. I was covering only fifty kilometres per day now and the next was the toughest yet. Gale force winds came from over the lake and slowed my progress to walking pace. In the distance a haze hung over the hills the way smog hangs over a city. I guessed that it was a sandstorm and I was heading right into it’s maw. Soon I was engulfed, my senses obliterated, eyes, nose, mouth and ears full of sand. I was completely disorientated in the murk. I pushed my bike on through the storm and finally reached yet another catholic mission and then some beautiful, glorious tarmac. For two more days I pedaled, each turn was a huge effort in my weary and underfed state. At last I arrived into Merlin’s base at Lodwar to a warm welcome from the staff at the compound. I’ve made it, I told myself. I’ve made it. I’ve made it.

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Comments (9)

  • Avatar

    Alex

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    Well done mate. Full of admiration of your tenacity and resilience.

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    Jocelyn

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    The Cahill quote that you start with couldn't have been more appropriate; what amazes me is how little distance of time it's taken you to write your travels here framed as an adventure. For me, it'd take at least a few more months (nay, decades) before I could toss off a tale of crocodiles, warring tribes, and failed equipment as jocularly as you do here. Continued safe travels, friend. In the tougher moments, just imagine the advance you're going to get on the book you'll one day write about all this.

    Reply

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    Anonymous

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    Wow

    Reply

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    Ümit Orhan

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    Just Amazing! Such a great story! I thought you were not really gonna make it while reading the story. But you did! It must be a great success. I really love your writing. Enjoyed every minute of it. Keep on pedalling, before you finish your trip i will be started to mine! 🙂 All the best!

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    Nix

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    Hi Steve, I've been following your blog and was in the cycle group with you at Explore 2009. I'm volunteering in Thika in Kenya at the moment. If you need a place to stay on your way through you are more than welcome at our house.
    Nic Steele

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    Howard

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    Amazing blog entry. Just 3 words, Big well done! Howard, incognito anti-mosquito ps: do you need any more products?

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    Chike

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    You are true warrior Steve. But a nutty one at that. Said in true inner-city London colloquialisms Big up yourself!!

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    Laura Smith

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    This is really an amazing journey and the method of describing is also very interesting.

    Reply

  • Avatar

    mayazoe

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    his is my first time i visit here. I found so many entertaining stuff in your blog, especially its discussion. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I am not the only one having all the leisure here! Keep up the excellent work.
    sea fight astuce

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