Traversing the formidable Chalbi desert

Trip through some torturous terrain for both man and machine. (Photo:Martin Mukangu/Standard)

The rugged 800 kilometre expedition from Sibiloi, through the famous Chalbi desert, to Marsabit is a real adventure through some of Africa’s most challenging roads, writes ALLAN OLINGO

It was time to head back to Nairobi, after my journey to the cradle of mankind-Koobi Fora. The previous night, Rufus and Kyalo, our lead drivers from Game Trackers had warned us that we should brace for the toughest and most challenging journey back to Nairobi.

That night, in our vehicle, Robin, Janet, Hebrone, Biko and I had an ‘emergency meeting’ and plotted on how we would manage this 14-hour non-stop journey as a team. The plan was simple and rudimentary—steal the food and pack it for the journey!

The dawn chirping of tens of different species of birds energized us and we woke up and packed boiled potatoes, ugali, rice, packets of milk, nyama choma and even the alcohol from the kitchen in our van before the rest of the groups had woken up. This was to act as our back up, and make the journey bearable. It was a little bit mean, but come on, in this jungle, every man is for himself.

In any trip to the Northern part of Kenya, Kyalo told us that the rule of the thumb is to check your car every morning. The desert is harsh and in case of a vehicle breakdown, you could be in trouble. You will be lucky to spot any vehicle to help you out.

“We always examine all of the engine fluids, the oil, radiator water, and brake fluid every day. This is to avoid surprises in the jungle,” he informed us as he signalled the rest of the five land cruisers that we were ready for takeoff.

We set off at 7am in the morning and interestingly by 9am; the temperatures had risen to an unbelievable 27 degrees Celsius. We passed the wardens at Sibiloi National Park main gate as we raced through the rocky surface towards ‘Network.’ Well, it’s the only point within Sibiloi that has network coverage.

Dreaded desert

After a couple of hours driving in unforgiving conditions we arrived at North Horr, a small dusty settlement on the edge of the Chalbi Desert. This is  where we had our lunch. North Horr interestingly has one hotel with a three-bed capacity! Interesting huh? No prizes for guessing what the hotel management would happen if they had two couples for  a night.

After lunch, we started again crossing the Chalbi Desert. As you cross, you will see a great variety of tribes. We’d been driving for an hour heading down to the outskirts of the Chalbi Desert when suddenly, Kyalo stopped. The other cars were stuck in the sand! Unbelievable!

The surface of this desert is extremely flat, but quite deceiving as the top layer was one inch of soft dusty sand soil and this makes inexperienced drivers have a rough time, trying to manoeuvre through it.

With the desert winds howling, and with our adrenaline pumping, we disembarked and helped to push the stuck cars. The sand was hot and those who had open shoes, risked getting blisters.

Back on the road again, we crossed the desert with no problems and were able to move quickly. We were four and a half hours into the crossing, and were cruising literally ‘into the sunset’. The vastness of the desert is so barren and inhospitable, but yet the parched red soils under the orange colours of the setting sun were stunning.

The approach to Marsabit, though, is unmistakable. The road begins to incline upwards and suddenly and you’re on a hilly island in the desert. At 9pm, we arrived at Marsabit and put up at JeyJey Centre owned by former Saku MP Jarso Falana. Marsabit is very cold, a stark difference from our previous night at Sibiloi.

It’s hard to imagine that it sits minutes from the flat dust desert. It is a town surrounded by a fascinating hill oasis, covered by green trees. The high forest is usually mist-covered until late morning and waking up in the morning, the fog was a surprise as we set off towards Isiolo en route to Nairobi.

About 30 kilometres on the murram road, we got to Laisamis, which isn’t much of a break but a windblown cluster of low, tin-roofed huts offering sodas and toothbrush sticks to passers-by. Then 40 kilometres later and we were back to a tarmac road at Merille.

It had been eight days of pure rocky, murram and sometimes no road at all and our vehicles had faired on well, as none of them had taken in the terrain and broken down.

Tarmacked luxury

After a quick lunch at Merille, we headed down the Merille-Isiolo road. Dozens of lorries laden with goods and people is a common sight as it’s the most common mode of transport. We also passed about a dozen different ostriches and a mother elephant with her calves. They were a mere two or three feet from the road. I never realized how big they are, and I’m glad none decided to run across the road in front of our car!

The Shaba scenery introduced us to the sweeter side of life, comparing to where we had come from. We checked into the Sarova Shaba for our night. Even for the most travelled among us the beauty of the Shaba is unmistakable.  The most interesting part was that the rooms are facing river Ewaso Nyiro, which is full of crocodiles. From your room, you can admire them as they sun-bathe and at exactly 7.30pm, you can join the lodge’s staff in feeding them!

We went to the shores of the Ewaso Nyiro River for a sun downer. This was a great relief and you could see the excitement in the group as they sampled the drinks, a true reminder that we were back to modernity.

We were back to the hotel for our last dinner together. It was emotional. We had spent nine days in the northern Kenya, exploring this tourism jewel as a big family. Friendships had been created, bonds established and unbelievably this was the ‘last supper’ together.

One thing remained clear though, that the northern tourism circuit is a thrilling adventure. It is an under-explored tourism resource that I would recommend to any one with the will to explore.

The next morning, we left for Nairobi, driving through Kongoni lodge in Nanyuki where we had lunch, en route to Nairobi.

Beautiful, scenic and full of friendly people with interesting cultures, Northern Kenya remains the perfect place to have that safari experience that will leave you reliving its memories forever.