The Marsabit-Moyale road that cuts through the arid plains of Northern Kenya is legendary among overlanders. It’s a long, car-busting road through ethereal faraway lands claimed – and fought over somewhat violently – by gun-wielding tribal warriors.
It’s also the only way to reach Ethiopia – some 800km away – overland from Kenya.
Actually, I better clarify that last statement. Moyale isn’t the only way to drive into Ethiopia. It’s just the only official way. Bruno and I contemplated leaving Kenya via Lake Turkana, further west. This is a viable option when entering Kenya from Ethiopia. But traveling the other way involves going to immigration and customs in Nairobi, explaining our plans, and begging for the required exit stamps. There is no official border at the north of Lake Turkana, and the Ethiopians in the nearest village beyond are very severe with those that leave Kenya without the required ink. Since we’d already been through some hassle with bureaucracy (Ethiopian and Sudanese visas) and are likely to have further hassle shortly (Saudi Arabian visas), we opted to simplify our lives and go the official route to Ethiopia.
The Road from Nairobi to Archer’s Post (almost 300km)
The drive is easy, as the road is smooth tar the entire way. Though we opt to break up the journey to Archer’s Post into two days, it’s certainly doable in a day’s drive. It’s a scenic road, passing through hilly equatorial foliage and past the 5200m peak of Mount Kenya.
As we leave Kenya’s largest mountain behind and descend into the plains, it’s as though we enter a new country. Isiolo is teeming with women draped head-to-toe in wispy black fabric , all but the eyes covered; men with kofia hats and brown skin, looking more like Somalis than Kenyans; and camels being trotted along the road instead of cows and goats.
Mere kilometers later, the scene changes again. Now are women draped in bright fabrics with rings of multi-colored beads perched around their necks and over their shoulders, thick beaded headbands dangling mirror-like beads over their foreheads. The men crisscross rope around their chests and jaws, sport button earrings in the large ear-holes and longer beaded earrings from the tops of their ears. Manyattas, huts shaped like well-raised bread and covered in plastic bags, dot the otherwise flat, acacia-filled landscape.
We’ve reached the heart of Samburu-land.The Road from Archer’s Post to Marsabit (about 250km)
This is the most difficult day’s drive, but also the most rewarding. Animals throw themselves across the road as though we are in a national park. We see duikers, oryx, giraffes, ostrich, warthogs, and generuk without even trying. Colorful samburu people explode like paint from the dull-colored landscape, hills like wizard hats pop up from the flat plains, and caravans of camels journey along the road in search of precious water.
It is indeed dry, and it is hot. As the road draws north, the thermometer rises and the wind blows hot. And, worst of all, 120km past Archer’s Post, the tar road ends.
Those next 40km have me wondering if it is worth driving to Ethiopia. Maybe it’s not too late to turn around. The undulating waves on the road are the worst I’ve ever seen, and too far apart to be able to drive quickly upon. I try to say something to Bruno, but can’t get the words out, such are the vibrations.
We jingle and jangle along until, up ahead, we spot the heavy equipment tell-tale signs of construction. There is no tar (yet), but the road has been mercifully smoothed of its waves. For the next 40km we ride quickly and comfortably, and only have to deal with bumpy rocky up-hill road for the final 40km of the day.
It takes less than six hours to reach Marsabit. Not too bad, but we are thankful to spend a few days recuperating and resting in cool and windy Marsabit. Henry’s Camp is an affordable and comfortable haven, and I stock up on the hot showers, electricity, and fresh produce from the local market that will be hard to find in Ethiopia.
We are now ready to hit the road again for the final stretch of this legendary road.
The Road from Marsabit to Moyale (250km)
The night before we leave, it rains. That’s no good. The road leaving Marsabit isn’t tarred and several trucks are already stuck on the clay-like mud of the main road.
We are happy when the tar comes again a few kilometers out of town. And we are surprised when it lasts over 150km. Sure, there are several diversions due to construction – and sure, some of them last 15 or 20km – but each kilometer of tarred road is like a gift from the road-constructions Gods.
The road here passes through the Dida Galgalla Desert. The earth is baked crispy, red with black charcoal rocks. Almost nothing grows here. Hints of Saharan sand dunes sometimes poke out from under the earth. Sand tornadoes whip across the roads. Villages are scarce, people scarcer. Only camels seem to survive here, which explains why we no longer see the cow-loving Samburu, but instead the camel-herding Borana people. Ethnic Ethiopians, this group is fiercely involved in the inter-tribal conflicts in the region. The conflicts are over water sources for the herds. Driving through here, I understand why.
And then, green starts to mix with the brown and red of the landscape. More and then more green. And then, surprise of all surprises, rain. In the desert, at the beginning of the dry season, we drive through rain.
We reach our destination victorious and problem-free. As If to celebrate, dry, dusty Moyale town is surrounded by bushes of thick green. It is time to say goodbye to Kenya and cross into my 35th country – Ethiopia.
Conclusions on our Marsabit-Moyale Road Trip
The Marsabit-Moyale road didn’t live up to its name. I expected little tar, gut-wrenching bumps, and at least one flat tire. I expected to feel as though I’d reached the end of the earth, to feel as though if I made a wrong turn, bandits or thirst would get me.
Instead, the 600 periodic kilometers of tar made the drive easy, even mundane.
Ok, let me rephrase that. The drive wasn’t mundane. The views – of the Samburu people, the manyattas, the camels, and the stark landscape – were phenomenal. It was a Kenya like I’d never seen before, and I’m happy I did. I just mean the road – the off-road adventure I was expecting – was rather, well, ordinary.
I’m sure the road was once as legendary as I’d been told. As the only unavoidable stretch of dirt road between Cairo and Cape Town, it was undoubtedly a bit of an adventure for those overlanders who otherwise rarely veered off the main track on their trips through Africa.
But I’d seen much worse. Take the Dodoma road through central Tanzania, for instance. Or the road around Mt. Elgon between Uganda and Kenya. Or, most grueling of all, the 900km detour through no-man’s land Luangwa, Zambia.
No, the Marsabit-Moyale road wasn’t bad at all. It’s well on its way to being fully tarred, which means that in a year or two, the legend surrounding the infamous Marsabit-Moyale road will fade away into ancient overlander folklore, just another stretch of asphalt connecting the two tips of Africa.