I've come here at Jungle Junction, in Nairobi, to do some maintenance on the bike, and get a new tyre. The place is famous to the overlanders as the only place in East Africa to get competent mechanical help and some spare parts. It is also conveniently half-way between Cairo and Cape Town. It's a very laid-back place, and great to meet other overlanders (on 4x4 as well as bike) and swap stories. And it's got fast and free Wifi! The first place in Africa where I can get a decent Internet connection, Ethiopia in particular was catastrophic.
Back to Ethiopia, shortly before New Year's eve: CÚcile, my girl-friend with whom I've travelled in Turkey and Oman, is back for some more fun (yeah, she does have LOTS of holidays as a teacher). No this is Africa, and even more than in Oman, running two up will restrict the kind of roads that we can use. Unfortunately, there's a stretch of very, very bad road in the north of Kenya that is unavoidable, 370km that would break my bike (and possibly our limbs) if I did with a pillion. The only solution is for her to ride the bus while I try to get through without breaking anything. Not a very pleasant experience for sure, but much safer - and a good memory.
Leaving Addis - a pretty painful experience by itself - we take a good tar road down straight south toward Kenya. But on the way we make a detour to Bale Mountains, to do a 5-days trek. We walked mainly on a high plateau at 4000m, very cold and dry (at this time of the year). We haven't met much wildlife, and I spent some miserable nights freezing in my light sleeping bag. But it was good to get some exercise and acclimatize to the high altitude, because we were planning on trekking the Rwenzori mountains in Uganda, which culminate at 5000m.
Back on the main road, we keep going south and the landscape changes, from the lush mountains to a dry savannah. We camp a little of the main road near a village, and in the middle of a forest of termite mounds. Nice! The Lonely Planet mentions "singing wells" and dug in cattle water holes that are special to this area and should be visited. But the thing is, the locals have started a business of asking money to foreigners for the privilege of being able to see it. I have a GPS coordinate of such a well, so we go straight to it without local assistance. But as soon as we get there, a couple dudes on a bike showed up and ask for money to be here. No way, I agree to pay for a place that needs people to run or maintain, such as ruins, but this is just part of the local life. So we get back not the bike and just leave.
We skipped the other wells to void the touts, but there's this crater lake that seemed interesting: local dive in the lake to get salt. The place is very impressive, a deep crater perfectly round, with a lake at the bottom. It comes a s a surprise, as the roads gently climbs one side of the volcano and without knowing it you end up on the rim of the crater. Again, the locals have learned how to exploit it, and we park the bike next to a souvenir shop and the welcome comes with the price of the descent to the lake. No way around, we even have to be escorted by a cop. This time we agree to pay and get down with a guide and policeman. It's a very steep descent, which is fine on the way down but quire demanding climbing back up, especially in midday heat. So much so that we cross a couple of overweight and totally exhausted tourists that agreed to pay for a donkey to carry them back the rest of the way. Poor beast!
It's a nice walk but not that interesting, and some of the workers/divers get a little aggressive about us taking picture of the them. Back on the main road, we easily get to the border town of Moyale, which is also the end of the tar road. Apparently the Chinese in Ethiopia work faster than the Chinese in Kenya, because there's 370km missing to be able to do Cairo - Cape Town entirely on tar. Worse yet, it is not only unsurfaced, it is also probably never maintained. This road is pretty famous in the overloading community, so we had time to talk about it. CÚcile agreed to take the bus with some of the bagages, so that I can get the bike through without too much damage. I've met at least one biker in Addis who broke his shock on this road, and Chris in JJ keeps a crate full of broken shocks from bikers arriving in Nairobi.
I had a bit of fever, so we spend another night in Moyale, and asked when the bus is leaving from the Kenyan side. We get up early, only to find out that this being Sunday, the customs officials are still sleeping. We wait there, talking with one of the many money changers there, until they finally show up and we can get our passport stamped. It's probably no big deal to get out without a stamp, if you don't plan to get back in Ethiopia, but you never know. The carnet I didn't get stamped in at the border with Djibouti, so no problem on this side. On the Kenyan side it was quick and efficient, but still, when we get to the bus stop the bus had already left. I was anxious to get going as I night have issues on the way and this could take me a few days if I had to fix stuff on the bike. So I leave reluctantly CÚcile in a ramshackle hotel in this dodgy town, for her to catch the next bus on the next morning.
After all this waiting it's getting late, but I don't need to get to a specific town this day, I can sleep anywhere in the bush, so I just go. The first 125 km to the next town is more or less okay, some corrugation, but not too bad, I manages 43 km/h average. There's even a grader working on improving some parts of it. In Turba I get a quick lunch in a "hotel" (which means a restaurant over there), talking about the next games of Arsenal and Manchester (what else ?), and the condition of the next 125 km to Marsabit, the next major town. This stretch crosses a very rocky desert, and one has to ride within the big ruts formed by the trucks plying the road. The ruts are also full of big stones, and badly corrugated, so it needs constant total concentration, which means I managed less than 30 km/h average there.
The main danger actually comes from the 4x4 going full speed (80-90 km/h) to "fly" above the corrugations. The 4x4 are much more robust than bikes, and are much less likely to break a rim or a shock hitting a stone. And when you're driving a U.N. Landcruiser, you obviously don't care about having to fix it every other week.. I try to get out of the road to let them pass, but it's not always possible on a bike when you're inside one of those big ruts. One of those 4x4 passed me very closely without even slowing down, and threw out a big stone which I saw almost hitting my front wheel. A few centimeters closer and it would have certainly broken a spoke or two. And 1 meter more and my knee was gone!
A good surprise comes when I cross another biker coming the other way, a nice German dude riding an old BMW R100GS, badly patched up and leaking oil. We chatted a bit, talked about the road conditions ahead of each other, and offered some water to a passing local. The locals here wear very colorful dresses and often seem to be needing water. Sorry for the lack of pictures, but I was more concerned about my driving during these couple days!
After all these hours of fighting, I'm getting pretty knackered, and as the sun is getting lower the road head right toward it which makes it even more tiring. I lose concentration for a split second and my front wheel goes over the side of the rut while the rear stayed inside, so I go down. Fortunately without much harm as I'm going pretty slow, but that means I need a rest, even at only 50 km of the Marsabit. I find a place that's not too rocky and where I can pull over and lay my mattress. I cook a quick instant noodle and slip into my sleeping bag as the sun sets. Fortunately, nobody wants to drive on such a bad road at night, so there was no traffic until sunrise.
The next day, I come to Marsabit, get breakfast and keep going for the last leg of 120km of pretty badly corrugated road. Not much to do here, other than going slow. But how slow can you reasonably go ? there's still a lot of stress on the shock so I stop from time to time to cool off the oil (and the rider). Finally, the only issue I got is a flat, just 400m before the start of the new tar road. A nail went right through the read tyre. No big deal, I have time and the BMW rapid assistance team!
The help comes in handy twice: first to break the bead. I put the wheel under the side stand and need 2 people leaning on the bike to do it. And of course when it comes to inflate the tyre for it to set in properly, with my small mountain bike pump. The last 120 km is brand new blacktop. But the Chinese seem to have stopped there, and there's no sign that they're resuming work to close the gap.
After so many hours of hard riding, it's pretty nice to relax a bit on the smooth tarmac, with almost no traffic. After an 1h or so, I lose a bit of concentration. I see a donkey standing still on the road ahead, which a common sight in Ethiopia. After crossing hundreds of those guys, I learned that they are no problem: they're used to vehicles and if you pass them behind they don't budge, so I merely slow down a bit. But as I come closer, I noticed that this donkey is actually pretty big and fat. And it has strange black and whites trips on the back.. a zebra! the beast panics and turns around just as I arrive. Shit, I brake hard, and miss its rear hoofs by 1 or 2 meters.. pfeww, that was a close call. In fact the road is adjacent to a game park, so it's not so surprising to see wild animals on the road. I have to be more careful, Kenya is very different from Ethiopia.
Finally I arrive in Isiolo a few hours before CÚcile, who left Moyale the same morning around 9 and arrived at 11PM, totally knackered by the very rough ride (and the loud music). The next morning we leave and head straight south. The road gains altitude as we get around the slopes of Mt Kenya and it gets quite a bit cooler. No picture of Mt Kenya as it was all in clouds, but we do stop for the obligatory shot in front of the sign marking the crossing of the equator. Finally, after 6 months, I'm in the southern hemisphere.
The road gets a lot
more busy as it nears Nairobi. As I mentioned before, I have to get there to do some maintenance but for now I want to spare CÚcile the geeky atmosphere of an overlander camp, so we turn west and cross tea plantations to avoid the big city and its mad traffic.