The only way out is through! (Lodwar, Kenya – KM 15,680)

I am not going to lie, we were suffering from Ethiopia-fatigue when we left the Forty Springs Hotel‘s shady garden in Arba Minch. With our eyes on the prize, Kenya, we pressed on towards one of Ethiopia’s most distinctive region: the hot and dry Lower Omo Valley and its many tribes.

The same menu of annoying children, stone throwing and begging was served up until Key Afar but further south it slowly subsided into an aftertaste.

From the cotton plantations along the 500-metre high Weyto River the road climbed gently, then steeply to Key Afar. On the busy highway, used mostly by hundreds of goats and cows coming and going to watering holes, all we could hear were the sounds of hurried or lazy hoofs hitting the tarmac, some baboons howling in the shrubs and our own winded breaths, until we turned a corner and saw the water pump.

Two young men from the local tribe were actively manoeuvring a large metal handle to suck enough water up to quench the thirst of one hundred four-legged beasts that had been gathered under huge trees, their masters enjoying the shade sitting among them, others showering. We saw the 8% incline up ahead and the group of children running to the road and thought “Here we go again!” “Money” had disappeared from the chorus and was replaced by “birrrrrrrrr” and “islan”—a mispronunciation of Highland Springs, a bottled water brand, one birr is given to anyone bringing empty plastic bottles back to a shop. We hung on to the handle bars tightly, by now accustomed to these clouds of midges engulfing us on every uphill section we cycled in Ethiopia. Then the rock came and hit Pierre at the back of the head. He was wearing a thick cotton sunhat, he was fine, but it was the rock that broke the camel’s back and he lost his mind. He dropped his bike, ran downhill after the boys—in vain, we have ran after lots of kids in Ethiopia and never caught one!—and screamed like a possessed man for the adults to intervene. That spurred them to leave their shady retreat, come to the road…and laugh their beaded armbands off! Looking down at my defeated partner walking back to his bicycle, with a bandana wrapped around each of his sunburned hands and a crowd of seventy five making fun of him, I wished I could make him feel better.

Further up, a Land Cruiser stopped to ask some questions about our journey. “Any cold Walias in there?”, I joked as I reached the driver’s door. “You can get beer in Key Afar but here is a litre of cold water for now”, the driver answered. We had been drinking forty-degree water under a mid-day sun and the glacial beverage felt like liquid gold in our parched throats. The rear window lowered slowly and I heard “Riding to South Africa? I’m so jealous right now.” The young woman and her dad—or sugar daddy she did not say—were sitting behind their guide and drivers in the air-conditioned passenger compartment, wearing crisp polo shirts, shiny Ray-Bans and the whitest skin, they were the cleanest people I had ever seen. I was thinking of my stale shirt and shorts, my rotten sandals, the sun baking my skin and willpower, the sweat stinging my eyeballs and running between my breasts, the dry cookies we had had for lunch, my thigh muscles screaming for this climb to end and the children looming at every curve, rocks in hand. My reply was quick, probably too quick: “Really? You want to trade spots right now? There was no answer as the subtext was crystal clear: “Shut your mouth, you have no idea what you are talking about!”

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Leaving Arba Minch towards Lake Chamo, home of a large population of crocodiles! Arba Minch, Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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Baboons escape the near-by Nechisar National Park to feast on delicious garbage! Arba Minch, Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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Loaded! Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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Preparing for the two-day Meskel festival involves gathering lots of fresh food. The important holiday celebrates the finding of the true cross. Yes, the cross used to crucify Jesus is in Ethiopia! Konso, Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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More meat for the end of the fasting period. Konso, Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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The terraced fields, along with the stone walls and ceremonial structures of the Konso people are so unique that they were declared Unesco World Heritage Site. Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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Cotton balls! Weyto, Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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On the Cow Highway! Weyto, Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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Pink flowers and termite mounds. Weyto, Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

People are shooting guns on the road to Dimeka, it is not safe for you to go”, said one of the “guides” assailing us upon our arrival in Key Afar. After checking-in with the police the next morning we headed south on the hard-packed dirt road, moving from the Banna tribe territory to the Hamer tribe. The ride was easy and quiet and the interactions we had—with the few people we encountered on the side of the road—felt surprisingly normal until it turned to business when we asked if we could take a photo of them. People come from the world over in Land Cruiser convoys to point their lenses at the sixteen ethnic groups of the Lower Omo Valley—the naked lip-plate wearing Mursi being the “must”—in kinds of human-safaris. Seeing an opportunity for cash, now all tribesmen are paid models.

In Dimeka, a former teacher enlightened us about yesterday’s shooting. A couple of bandits had robbed two motorbike passengers and shot rounds in the air before escaping. This was an unusual event in the gun-heavy but peaceful region. The kind man inquired about our well-being while Pierre fixed a couple of punctures on his threadbare tubes—picking up new Michelin tubes in Nairobi soon! “We are great! This road is wonderful and nobody begs anymore, except the children, of course, but at least they don’t throw rocks”, I answered starting to feel like we were finally out of the woods. “I know! The tourists they come and they give things to the kids, I don’t understand why”, he answered as baffled as we were.

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Father and son carrying their small wooden headrest/stool. Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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Ladies of the Hamer tribe wear goat skins, heavy jewellery, coppery-coloured tresses and deep scars. Turmi, Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

Refusing all monetary-motivated invites to a bull jumping ceremony—a Hamer and Banna tradition where boys have to jump from one bull’s back to another, up to thirty of them, naked and teased if they fall, while their female siblings beg to be beaten with sticks, and are, to show their love and support—we set out for Omorate, the last Ethiopian town on our route.

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What a surprise to find 70 kilometres of pavement between Turmi and Omorate. The fresh “km 165” mile post provided support for Pierre’s bike while we fixed a rear-wheel flat tire on my bike. Of course, children materialized from sand and thorns to enjoy this entertainment. The three boys watched attentively our every moves, I took some photos, then they ran away. Strange. I made a visual inventory: Suunto watch, check, handle bar bag, check. Then Pierre saw it: the unzipped frame bag and the missing headlamp! He ran after them into the bushes and did not come out for ten minutes. With another fruitless chase we pushed on to Omorate and provided the police with the exact location of the offence (km 165), a photo of the offenders and a replica of the stolen item, my own Petzl headlamp, we had built the case for them. One hour later two policemen came back with Pierre’s headlamp and a triumphant smile—the boys had been by the road at km 165, one of them wearing the headlamp as a bracelet! Now they needed 200 birr for the motorbike rental and fuel—fair enough—and 200 birr each for doing their job! We settled on 50 birr each and that was fine too. Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

At Omorate’s immigration office we walked the officer on duty through the process of applying exit stamps with tomorrow’s date onto our passports, we wanted to be rolling early. In the small outpost Ethiopian plastic Mary Janes were replaced by tire sandals and leather shoes. Daasanach men wore hoop ear rings, khaki shirts and fishing hats and carried miniature wooden stools to sit on at ease. Local women walked around bare-chested carrying heavy bundles of firewood on their heads and babies on their backs.

After eating a solid breakfast we approached the bridge linking the Omo River’s east bank—where we were—and the west bank—where we needed to go. There were two small tree trunks blocking the way and a police officer sending us back into Omorate to cross on a boat. Dozens of locals were walking freely across the bridge, on their way to Omorate’s Saturday market. We pointed this out to the stubborn officer and started advancing onto the forbidden construction. He became furious, pushing Pierre’s shoulders backwards and screaming, he was ready to fight. One English-speaking immigration officer tried to reason with him on our behalf, to no avail. Apparently the bridge was unsafe for bicycles but would open in three days. None of this made any sense. At an impasse we arrived on the muddy Omo’s east bank with one sole 100-birr bill, we had already exchanged the rest of our cash in Kenyan shillings (KES).

-Here is the procedure. First, you go to the immigration office…

-We’ve been there already…

-Listen! I am telling you the procedure!

-OK

-First, you go to the immigration office. Then, you come to the Guide Association and pay and we will organize the boat service.

-We have been to the immigration office, we have our exit stamps. We don’t want to pay for a guide, we are not going to the tribe’s villages, we are heading to Kenya directly.

-I know but to get boat service you need to pay at Guide Association.

-OK Where is it?

-It’s me, you pay me. Come with the money now!

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Just get me out of here! Omorate, Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

By the time the bikes were reassembled on the west bank it was almost 11am, the mercury had risen to forty degrees and dust twisters were visible all over the dry plain. For 28 kilometres we used the GPS—something we had not done since Jordan’s Wadi Rum Desert—to navigate the powdery tracks. At 4pm we had reached the last Ethiopian police station and contemplated spending the night. The officers were staring at us, talking among themselves, not offering any water and the representative of the group said something like “Of course you can stay here, but Kenya is so close, like 16 or 11 or maybe just 6 kilometres.” Come what may and off we went.

Actually Kenya was less than 200 metres away, we passed the white cairn marking the border right away, but there were over 10 kilometres of sandy road to the actual police post at Todonyang. Pushed by excitement and a lack of water we left the soft track and rode straight on the hard thorny desert—we would pay for it later with a collection a tiny punctures but we did not care.

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Going from Ethiopia to Kenya via the Omo River and Lake Turkana is not for the faint of heart. The track is hard to follow in some places, sandy and rocky in others. There are few services, little water and sporadic banditry. It is a 169-km stretch of desolation before you come to Kalokol and reappear on a road map, a stunt we had been looking forward to. Last kilometre in Ethiopia here. Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

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Pierre’s first “pedal strokes” in Kenya! Turkana County, Republic of Kenya.

Rolling into the courtyard flanked by four low-lying buildings, a skinny officer greeted us “Welcome to Kenya! You must be tired. It is too late for you to continue to the mission today, you will stay here. Settle down, we’ll fetch some water so you two can wash up, I’ll look at your documents tomorrow.” Then he added, “Oh! Be careful there are lots of snakes and scorpions here, lots of them!” He was not joking, there were a dozen baby scorpions, two centimetres long, roaming around our feet as we prepared our evening meal. That was somewhat exciting until we saw the mother-ship, a twelve-centimetre long monster with its tail curled up like a bazooka ready to fire. We zipped the Hubba Hubba‘s door super tight that night!

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“So, you guys are here like two weeks on, two weeks off?”, we asked. They laughted. The policemen stay for six months at a time at the road’s end, WhatsApp their only lifeline to loved ones. TodonyanG, Turkana County, Republic of Kenya.

The wind pushing our loaded bikes backwards, the sand swallowing our wheels, it took two hours to ride the 10 kilometres to the Catholic mission. Father Andrew showed up in his office, where we were sitting, in a short-sleeved shirt, shorts and Ecco sandals, with a frosted bottle of Bombay gin and two empty glasses, “Here is some cold water. The wind is terrible today, what you are doing is NOT my vocation. In one hour I’m going to visit some nuns in Lowarengak, 23 kilometres from here. I can give you a ride if you like.” Those 23 kilometres would have taken us all day, and there would still be 100 kilometres to ride in this dust bowl, so we took the ride.

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The nine-year old solar powered Catholic mission, like a mirage. Todongyan, Turkana County, Republic of Kenya.

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A night spent at another Catholic mission further south. Nariokotome, Turkana County, Republic of Kenya.

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At this convenience store we spent our first shillings on a cold Tusker beer and mandazi, a dense triangular doughnut. We recognized two men from the mission and learned that they travel weekly to Omorate to bring medicine, enjoy injera and an Ethiopian beer before driving back to Todonyang. “What do you do? You park the Land Cruiser on the west bank of the Omo and ride the boat?”, we asked. “Oh no! We drive across, on the bridge you know.” Turkana County, Republic of Kenya.

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Turkana villages in a barely habitable land. The tribe has moved here in the 17th century from the greener present-day borders of South Sudan and Uganda, it must have been a do or die kind of a situation. Turkana County, Republic of Kenya.

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Water scarcity is a hot topic around here. Young cyclist coming back from a shallow well dug in a dry river bed. Kalokol, Turkana County, Republic of Kenya.

In Kalokol we ate our first beans and chapati, washed down by ginger ale and cups of sweet milky tea. Freshly arrived from Ethiopia we automatically compared everything. Regarding their politicians Ethiopians had been naive and hopeful while the Kenyans were disillusioned and pessimistic. Newspapers and books were on sale even in this remote village, did not see much of that in Ethiopia. The sedated careful drivers of Ethiopia were replaced by maniacs here! Children never came on the road to touch our bikes or throw anything. Kenyan washrooms were clean. And we had gone from being faranji (foreigner) to muzungu (white person).

When we stopped at the police checkpoint to grease our chains before heading west to Lodwar it was 38.6 degrees in the shade—the advantage of having cycled across Sudan’s Nubian and Bayuda Deserts in June and July is that, since then, it never feels too hot to ride, “It’s not even 45 in the shade, let’s go!” One officer asked how was Ethiopia with obvious disgust. “They are our enemy! And the Pokot!”, he proclaimed. I realized he was a Turkana and by Ethiopians meant the Dasanach tribe of southern Ethiopia, with whom the Turkana engage in raiding and retaliation on a regular basis. The Pokot were another fierce bunch to the south.

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-“Hey muzungu! What you gonna do with that fuel?” -“Cook my food!” Kalokol, Turkana County, Republic of Kenya.

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It is an archipelago of busted pavement in an arid volcanic landscape between Kalokol and Lodwar. Turkana County, Republic of Kenya.

We were told most Turkana men had gone with their goats and cattle close to the Uganda border in search of pasture. The rainy season should start soon and they would come back then. Although, with the climatic changes affecting this inhospitable region, nothing was certain anymore. One could wonder what about Lake Turkana? The biggest permanent desert lake in the world is too alkaline to be used for irrigation or for drinking—although it does support fish life and a healthy population of crocodiles. We were truly amazed at how hard people clung to this sun-baked land, with appalling roads and insufficient water, and headed out in the desert in search of the next cold beer!

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Made it to a cold beer and a shower—actually, we were given one bucket of water for both of us—yet Kenya’s lush hills to the south still feel like light-years away. Lodwar, Turkana County, Republic of Kenya.

 

It's a holiday in Kenya! (Borana Ranch, Kenya - KM 16,405)
Rocking and Rolling to and from Addis Ababa! (Arba Minch, Ethiopia - KM 15,130)

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3 Comments

  1. victor brian Nov 16, 2015, 11:37

    keep up the good work guys

  2. Steve Hoge Nov 17, 2015, 00:38

    Of course, Ethiopia had one last scam to deliver at the border! As well as a parting episode of pilferage. (Good thing to get the headlamp back, even if it cost you!)

    Glad your 10-week nightmare is over – must be bittersweet to leave that fantastic landscape and the annoying social conditions behind. It’s Tuskers every night now, eh?

    Bon voyage, Steve

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