Kenya: crossing the desert

We could already see the Kilimanjaro range pretty close ahead of us when Suusi dies out on the next set of speed bumps. She refuses to start. Its clutch had started slipping the day we left Issa’s village and the Indian Ocean behind. Juka can still ride at around 70km/h at high revs, but now we suspect the engine is so hot that it just refuses to get started.

Another hour and no luck starting the bike. It’s nearing 40 degrees. The usual bike-hypohondria kicks in, we start imagining that probably the valves are bent from overheating. A little later we tie her behind Kotilda, pull hard and it starts after a while. Now don’t let it die, don’t get in an accident without a clutch and let’s try to roll into Moshi. We’ve made 350km already on this clutch, only 50 more to go.

[ Here is the bike troubles and desert crossing illustrated in a 2 minute video. ]

Hey, let’s ask this dude,” Juka points to an older local guy on a really banged out chinese bike, which there are thousands around us where we stopped on a busy roadside in Moshi suburb. Why him, I don’t get it – but I ask anyway. He takes off the helmet, speaks good English and says “let me call a mechanic for you, he is a young guy but good”. Turns out Juka had noticed that the old banger had a 400cc engine, not the usual 150cc like the Chinese bikes do. Also turns out Moshi happens to have a little bike scene, which is unheard of in a non-capital African town. The guy Vincent he called is working for a group, who have 5 adventure bikes and organise tours around the area. 20 minutes later we’re in front of his house, Suusi’s clutch is taken apart and its pretty obvious what the problem is. Two of the seven clutch plates have completely worn out. Metal to metal, surprised there is enough grip to go at 70km/h.


Magically mechanic Vincent produces 2 plates from a Yamaha that look a little different, but seem to fit Suusi. It’s already dark when we get the clutch together. Suusi starts but only after a while. Five minutes later the carburettor is open, without even taken the seat off, at the light of the head torch. That was so spectacular for me to watch as it takes me half an hour of dismantling Kotilda to even get to the carb, then to take it off and clean another couple of hours. Suusi starts after cleaning on half the turn of the starter and the clutch feels like new again. Being so impressed with Vincent we decide to stay overnight and give Kotilda a service next morning – weld the holes in the exhaust pipes, give its carburettor a clean.

By noon our spanking new feeling bikes are climbing to the base of the Kilimanjaro. It is getting pretty cool. Finally. We’ve really been missing that feeling when you get a little shiver from cold. I’ve been texting with the customs lady, but there is no news from the Commissioner on our petition to extend the TIP. We figured we can’t wait forever and are now heading to the small border post called Tarakea on the northern slopes of the mountain. We’re pretty much the only vehicles when we arrive to a little house and a gate on the road guarded by an armed soldier. As all border posts go – there is Immigration, where you get the visas checked and stamped in, and then there is another place for Customs, where you’re meant to check-in or check-out your vehicle and goods. We do immigration and then walk over to the bikes skipping customs, start off, wave to the guard and ride through the half-open gate with confidence. As we go through, the guard jumps out and shouts us to stop. Shitf*ck! This little trick didn’t work. The guards points at a little tent showing we need to go there. I look at the tent – it says “Vaccination checks” and get tremor with relief. We show our yellow fever papers balancing speed of movement and trying not to look suspiciously rushed. Get to our bikes and ride into Kenya border point. Now we just need to get away from the border fast enough, before anyone figures out we have bypassed customs in Tanzania.

I’m woken up by bitter smell of urine. We arrived in Kenya in the dark last night. No chance to find a spot to camp after the rain and we had an option of a shitty looking guesthouse and an even shittier looking one. Once you enter the compound the smell of urine is so strong the brain stops processing anything else. Luckily it was worst on the ground floor, but once we was up to 2nd floor to our rooms it was a bit more bearable. The $5 rooms are effectively luxury prison cells with heavy metal door, bars for windows and a little ensuite bathroom (a hole in the floor). The guest house was run by two Maasai and one was continuously making a whining hum, which I guess was some weird local song. He was whining even while talking and being talked to. Later we found other people in the area whining the same song as they go about their day. My wake up next day was someone else in this guest house taking their morning flush and activating the sewer.

The empty road north is beautiful, heards of zebra and giraffe in the roadside savannah, the snow cap of Kilimanjaro in the mirrors. We reach Nairobi by noon as the bikes are in such great shape there’s not much there to do on a Sunday. We have to make up our mind which way we go next. Two weeks ago we read a report from a biker who came from Ethiopia through the one and only border post called Moyale to Kenya. He said some of the houses were still burning in the village, army was coming into town and he passed a dead man on the road just before the border. There had been ethnic clashes between the Ethiopian tribes, official reports give a number of 20 dead. This didn’t inspire us much. The other route is in the west near lake Turkana, but involves crossing a desert, where the last village in Kenya and the first one in Ethiopia are 340km apart. We decide we rather take our chances with nature than with people. Of course I have no intention mentioning any of this to my wife or parents.

Crossing from Tanzania to Kenya was a bit like crossing the Poland-Germany border, nice people on both sides – but one is clearly further on in terms of economic development. Kenya had malls, supermarkets, even in smaller towns. Not quite like Namibia, but pretty western. We head north, the villages get smaller and in the last small town we swap our worn out tyres to brand new MT21, which we had been carrying since Dar. These are relatively okay on tar road and just amazing once you get on gravel and soft sand. Last village of Laisamis on the tar road with a petrol station and 250km of dirt road west to get to the Turkana lake and the village of Loyangalani. It starts getting pretty remote, we see a car maybe once an hour. Villages are 50km apart and merely a collection of huts. Good coincidence that the same guy Ali, who we met in Zambia last year is now on a trip to Loyangalani too, just a couple of days ahead of us. We hope to meet him there, before he heads back.

About 50km into dirt road my front tyre goes flat and I get to remind myself how to change one under a tree. Last and only time I had to do it myself was in Mauritania 10 years ago. All other times there have been villages nearby and we could ride with the other bike to the village. Luckily we bought a bicycle pump in Nairobi, which became handy now. The mistake was letting the roadside shed change our tyres in the last village. Their methods are rough and careless and in this case they ruined the inner tube.

After a day of dirt riding we reach a desert of volcanic stone, soon see the lake and ride into Loyangalani in sunset. The last stretch of 50km of coconut sized stones is pretty rough. The village itself is just a bigger collection of huts, but quite a local destination with a couple of compounds for tourists. We splash out on a $10 Palm Shade lodge and find out that we passed Ali, when he was taking a break in a village and saw us blasting past. A well deserved night of rest and tomorrow we plan to tackle the desert.

The peoples of Turkana are completely different to the rest of Kenya. Their most striking feature is very small heads and they accessorise. Colourful necklaces, headbands, bracelets.

The Maasai men in the south used to carry three tools with them everywhere – a long walking and herding stick, a knife on the belt and a wooden hammer shaped thing. People here don’t have the knife or the hammer, they carry a stick and a contraption, which looks like a mason’s plastering plate. It later turns out it is a little chair that they sit on. Their round huts resemble eskimo’s yurta – sticks in the ground, bent across and tied together, covered with animal skins.

We make friends with Kenyan mzungu David, who is visiting Turkana with his family. Through the evening we get an exchange of first-hand history refreshers of the post-colonial East Africa and in return provide our account of the Berlin Wall, the Perestroika and post-soviet Baltics. Our morning job is to find petrol, water and food for the 2- day trip through the desert, with the chance that it might turn into a 4-day trip if something goes wrong. A bike breakdown or an injury would be the most likely situations that leave us stranded. Locals say there’s nothing north from here. Estimates go about a couple of cars a week would come through. We buy a 10l jerry can for extra petrol and another one for water, 14 oranges, 4 onions, some rice and beans. The last stretch of stones was tough, but bikes are in good working condition. We take 16l of water, eat the last meal and set off at high sun.

The desolate space we’re crossing is amazing. We see noone for the rest of the day, just tracks on the stones and some camel paths crisscrossing. There are occational small camel herds grazing, so I’m guessing there must be someone somewhere to herd them, doubt they’re wild.

We see only birds, jackals and camels and by nightfall the stone desert gives way to more sand and some vegetation in dry river beds. It’s hot, technical and energy consuming to ride. We make a deal to stop every hour to rest the buttocks, rehydrate and eat one orange. As soon as I saddle up again, I can’t stop thinking about the next orange.

Next day the same again. Until Suusi stops on a climb. Snapped throttle cable. Nearly high sun. Hot as hell. The next village is 180km north or 160km south, make a pick. I park Kotilda such that I get a little shade under its tank for another hour and watch Juka get his tools out. It seems impossible to rejoin the cable, but luckily it broke about 5cm from the handlebar end. We have some copper wire and tin, decide to make another stopper in the end. These cables come with round lead blocks on both ends, which go into their respective slots in the carb and on handlebars. We have to make one of those blocks. I make up the fire and start cooking rice, Juka uses the flame to solder the tin onto the copper wire rapped around the cable. An hour later we fit a makeshift cable ending into the slot and it seems to be strong enough. Now the problem is that the cable is 5cm too short to reach the carb. We find some more steel wire from one of our key rings and extend the carb side. Suusi runs again.

A little shaken by the incident we ride on, the sand gets softer, we turn back west towards the lake and in the evening reach a small village of Ilaret, 10 miles from the Ethiopian border. There is even a lazy police post in the village. They wave us to stop, but we ignore and head on. We reach the lake and are definitely out of the desert, plenty of people around us now. We have come around the Sibloi national park on the lakeside, which apparently is the place where Leakey found one of the best pre-human remains. It’s pretty crazy why would the early people choose a desert to live in, but I guess 3 million years ago it must have been a very different climate.We still have about 3 litres of water left, when we stop by the lake. We drink two liters of the three, ride into Ethiopia and set up camp. There were lots of people with cans walking out of Ilaret, heading to the dry river beds nearby. The technique is to dig a hole in the river bed a metre deep and wait until it fills up with water. “Dig” means bare hands ofc. There are no boreholes or pumps. At least now we know how to get water.

People here are different again, now they have very tall but oblique heads and they’re fascinated by thirsty mzungu.

The next morning we follow some tracks through Ethiopian villages and eventually reach a tar road.

As exemplary citizens we detour to a larger village of Omorate to go through immigration and check in the bikes. This is only a voluntary procedure as there were no checkpoints on the real border. We’re the only ones in the immigration office, get stamped in and get a 90 day temporary import permit paper for the bikes. This time it is clear there will be no electronic records of us or the bikes in the country. The same dude who stamped the passport offers us to exchange birr. The rate is spot on official mid-market, which I checked earlier, so there’s definitely a black market. I just cross-ref against the price of petrol, which comes to $0.50 litre on that rate. Very handy border post. There is a monster truck outside with German plates, they say “customs issues” – I can imagine.

We find a bar in the village, drink endless water from the tap, get served a $0.20 cold coke and a $0.10 fresh roast coffee. The desert was beatiful, but it is nice to be back in the civilisation.