Crossing Ethiopian – Kenyan border and cycling in Turkana, Kenya

After a brutal 4 day ride we have finally reached our first bigger civilization in 3 weeks. Lodwar is a provincial capital of Turkana County and its biggest town. We are in Kenya. Kenya and Lodwar gave us a few “firsts”! Here we have tried a first yogurt in two months. We were asked for a bribe and reluctantly gave one, also very first 🙂

When battling Turkana’s sand we saw this poor dead owl. Looks like owl was defeated by this hostile environment.

The bribe.

The worst is that later I found out this bribe/fee was completely unnecessary for our proceedings and we could have simply refused one. I guess it is same in most cases with the bribe giving. Kenya – Ethiopia border crossing at Todonyang does not have resident immigration officer and officially you are allowed to travel until nearest town with resident immigration office which is Kisumu. There you are able to finalize your arrival procedures with arrival stamp. Problem comes when this information is very hard to obtain and neither at border crossing nor at the nearest towns anyone (including all the officials that we have spoke to) knows the right procedure or what to do with tourist who wants their passports stamped. After extensive search for an immigration official in Lodwar and with lots of local police and civil servants involved we gave up. Then couple of them came up with the plan to issue us an officially authorized letter acknowledging a fact that we were in need of an immigration officer and that there was none in Lodwar therefore “permitting” us to travel freely until we find one 🙂 It sounded wonderful to us and they actually produced stamped letters and… asked us to pay $50 per letter. After initial shock and some reasoning we decided to part with $5 per copy and this is how officially we gave our first bribe in Kenya. Hakuna matata.

Termite skyscrapers are featured prominently in Turkana landscape.

Only at Kisumu we were able to find an immigration office. Sadly it was not a very pleasant interaction. Whole office seemed to be full of clerks that were more interested in kicking the tire further down the road rather than solving the issue. At the end we got an entry stamp but we had to wait almost 4 hours for the procedure to be over. Maybe we made a mistake in the first place when we’re expecting something very straight forward. Nope. First – “Why didn’t you get your passport stamped sooner?”. – “There were no immigration officer sooner, we searched in every bigger town we have passed by”. – “There is one in… (officer names some town that supposedly has an immigration office and was on our route)”. “Nobody knew about this office and were directing us to Kisumu”. – “Ignorant people unfortunately, show me your passports and flight tickets now”. Then – “Write the explanation letter why you are here and what do you need from us”. “You can get the sheet of paper to write on outside in a cyber shop”. “Wait in the next room for one more hour until after a lunch brake”. “No, I won’t give you your passports back, you have to wait”.

“Why are you standing you are not allowed to stand. You can streatch your legs while sitting” – young security guard instructs me angrily, after I stood up from the chair. “Just wait”. All this waiting became more and more ridiculous and a little scary. At the end they did call us into another office and one of the officers stamped our passports with the entry stamps. “Have a safe journey”. Success!

The bottom line is that you most likely will get your passport stamped somehow if you are choosing to cross via Todonyang border crossing, just it might get messy and prolonged, but yes it is possible.

You get to ride through various versions of sand tracks/roads until Lokichar

Back to the roads.

This was another impressive riding stretch. Afer you enter Kenya at Omorate – Todonyang crossing, you virtually are in a no man’s land.

This track leads you towards Kenya after you exit Ethiopia

The land belongs to Kenya (or at least parts of it as it is still disputed with its northern neighbors) but nobody except very few live there. Vegetation is very scarce due to the extreme heat. Sand is everywhere as well as sun, and lake Turkana’s waters. It is unfortunate that lake is very salty so it is problematic to use it for drinking purposes. River beds are dry and so called road (more like multiple and random car tracks in the sand) crosses them at places making the region isolated once the rain season is in full swing and the river beds fill up with water.

Right where Ethiopia, South Sudan and Kenya meets

Normally cutting river bed on the bicycle is extra challenging as it’s even softer and the sand is looser. You just have to pedal as hard and as fast as you can, hopping that you will hold the balance all the way until you reach the opposite bank. Because once you loose the momentum it will be almost impossible to start pedaling again and your only option is pushing your heavy bike.

There was a lot of pushing in the sands of Turkana. Some stretches were extremely hard and it took us longer than 1 hour to bike/push through only 1 kilometer of particularly deep and soft sand. We were desperate sometimes and I was cursing like your roadside mechanic. Boy, I was swearing a lot in Turkana. I think not even I was aware of my new talent to curse the f@$#ing road. It required so much physical strength to stir this heavy tandem. I am glad we have wide tires so we were able to cycle all the way through until we got to paved roads. But you need to cycle ~270 km first. And it lasted 5 days.

When you zoom in you can see that dust has covered everything

Most difficult is the stretch from the border all the way to Lodwar. After Lodwar you still have to deal with the beat up gravel-ex-paved roads that sometimes are under construction and that force you to use sandy detour sections. Very very frustrating, especially in the second half of the day when your energy levels are low and the motorcycle tire track that you faithfully follow suddenly decides to jump onto another car track and you are just desperately trying to straighten out your bike to avoid going into another sand dune. A rarely successful endeavor. “Those f@#ing roads!” Remember, all this happens during a scorching 40+ Celsius heat.

Thudbuster busted – after grinding Turkana roads one of elastomers litteraly bursted so we had to use one of the dead tubes to support the suspension

Indeed all Turkana County feels like a different world from anything we have cycled so far. And probably it was the most remote area we have ventured to. We have the heat, we have the sand and basically only salty water available if we mange to find it…

The water.

While traveling in Ethiopia almost all the time water was not an issue so we got spoiled and were cought by surprise that naturally available drinking water is so hard to source in Turkana. All the way to Kitale the water situation was pretty much the same. Drinking water is carried from further distances, away from the lake in order to get one without the salt. In some bigger willages you could buy bottled water but the majority of the population there cannot afford it and they are left with the most available but least healthy option – utilizing lake water or some water holes that are within walking distance and around the lake.

In two months in Ethiopia we only purchased 4 plastic watter bottles throughout the entire time. We were proud of this fact and were inclined to stay away from bottled water in Kenya too. Until our pump water filter broke. It happen in Omorate on the night before we left for Kenya. We still were calm as we’re expecting to use alternative UV light sterilization while sourcing tap water across the border. Little did we know that tap water is very very rare in most of Turkana. Even parishes and other official institutions did not have abundance of water and were able to provide us with a few litters only.

Kenedy (on the left) kindly allowed us to pitch a tent at his hospital. And made delicious tea and fish. Thanks, Kenedy!

They themselves were fetching their water in somewhat limited quantities from somewhere far. So unvillingly we were forced to buy the bottled water and to expedite purchase of another pump filter – we still have nearly 3 months of travel ahead of us with some very remote areas to bike through. In only 2 weeks time we have already used atleast 12 plastic water bottles 🙁

Thankfully we have already received our new filter and are looking forward to getting back to sourcing local natural water for our drinking needs. Thanks to our Lithuanian-Kenyan family’s joint effort!

Turkana lake stretch took us through another but very real Africa. The one that we in the West get to hear more often – about Africa’s heat and droughts, about people and animals being more prone to various diseases due to the lack of proper nutrition and watter. Through multiple conversations along our route you see that their culture and lifestyle allow them to mitigate these harsh living conditions. They are cattle herders (pastoralists) and they like it that way. They can catch the fish and that helps with their nutrition. They can drink cow’s blood and this too keeps them stronger. They live that simple and true life where child education is rarely a priority but their culture and centuries old ways of surving are the bright enough guiding stars. It keeps them content and enjoying what they have.

So we too are content and were happy to cycle through Turkana sands and experience “other” Kenya.

More pictures you can find on our Flickr page here.

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