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First stop Ngurunit: Exploring the north

By Peter Muiruri | Jan 16th 2022 | 5 min read

Sights and sounds on a journey to Ngurunit, Samburu.

I am not an early riser. In fact, I hate mornings, more so in December when the entire humanity puts on the holiday jacket.

Yet one Thursday morning last month, I was up hours before dawn. To be exact, my ‘timekeeper’ who was hundreds of miles away in Marsabit had placed a wake-up call to me at half past three that morning.

My dreams deferred and with my body half awake, I stumbled and fumbled if only to find some decent wear for the journey to the unknown. An hour later, Jeff, our driver, was at the gate. I could only vaguely make out his face in the wee hours of the morning. My other travel companions were heavy with sleep to care about the final pickups.

“How many hours to our first pit stop?” I inquired from Jeff as he hurtled down Langata Road and onto Mbagathi Way, now renamed Raila Odinga Way. “Not very sure, but it should be more than seven hours,” he replied.

Was he exaggerating? Could Ngurunit, the tiny enclave off the Isiolo-Moyale Highway be seven hours from the city? Then it occurred to me that Sarah, the timekeeper who had also arranged this trip to the north had also sent some pace notes in a document. While the Mugos, my travelling companions were grabbing a cup of coffee at Hurlingham, I decided to verify the veracity of Jeff’s assertion. He was

right. Driving to Ngurunit, 506 kilometres away from Nairobi, would take us eight hours and eight minutes. Would it be any consolation if we cut the time by eight minutes after the hour?

Let us go back to the beginning of this trip.

David Macharia, a Nairobi-based photographer, had always awed me with images of Kenya’s North. He had further regaled me with stories of Kenya I never knew including the peace and serenity of the thirsty land, but with sand dunes that may soon give Dubai a run for its money.

All these, together with his interactions with El Molo, Kenya’s smallest tribe that feeds exclusively on fish from Lake Turkana had left me with a hunger to create my own experiences.

But to get all these experiences, I needed to set aside what Macharia had termed as “a couple of days.”

Sights and sounds on a journey to Ngurunit, Samburu.

He should have just said the trip would take five days of driving through some of Kenya’s roughest and remotest roads and resetting every bone in my body. The 506 kilometres to Ngurunit was just the beginning.

The second part of the leg was going to take us to Loiyangalani, on the shores of Lake Turkana, 161 kilometres from Ngurunit. From Lake Turkana to Kalacha in North Horr would be another 130 kilometres; then 132 kilometres to Marsabit Town, traversing the famous Chalbi Desert.

The smoother part of the trip would be the 532 kilometres from Marsabit back to the city. Get the drift?

By eight, the whole car was now awake as we left the last traces of a city on the fast lane.

The large destination markers hung along Thika Superhighway never made sense to me. I was never interested in the 783-kilometre stretch between Nairobi and Moyale. Now it did. Moyale lies in Marsabit, a county that would be our home for the next five days.

The ongoing works along the Nyeri-Marua Road made the trip all the more eventful as traffic came to a standstill in some sections.

We got to Nanyuki just before 11am. “You can take a health break and fill up your provisions for the rest of the journey,” Jeff announced. “It will be another long drive from here.”

In the dusty town on the slopes of Mount Kenya, Cedar Mall stands out like a sore thumb. The mall is patronized by the descendants of white settlers who have conquered the inhospitable North. Their old and rusty Land Rovers are common specimens on the mall’s parking lot while their owners traverse the town in khaki shorts and worn-out Safari shoes.

We bought about two dozen fresh water bottles, or what we thought would take us through the trip. Northern Kenya is unforgiving to the unprepared.

The heat began to take its toll once past Isiolo. Vibrant urban centres began to give way to sparsely populated Samburu villages. Past Archers Post, the reality of what a trip to the North entails was brought to the fore by a military-manned roadblock.

“Be careful as you drive further into the interior,” a soldier warned.

Sights and sounds on a journey to Ngurunit, Samburu.

We got to Laisamis just after 3 pm. “Welcome to the North,” screamed Sarah, the lady who had rudely woken me up almost 12 hours earlier. She had driven down from Marsabit to meet us here.

Sarah is indefatigable and daring. She has taken it upon herself to arrange road trips to a region characterised by insecurity, where death and destruction make headlines. They call her the Queen of the North.

“We will try and avoid any trouble spots,’ she assured us.

Leaving the Isiolo-Moyale highway, we delved deeper into the bush, the dust becoming almost unbearable. This was the far reaches of Samburu, but there was little in the way of human, or vehicular traffic.

Foreboding rocky outcrops hugged both sides of the route. This is a hiker’s paradise. At Ngurunit, a cool settlement under the shadow of the Ndoto Mountains, the team got to cool off at the sliding rocks.

Here, cool waters seeping from the mountains form some cascading ponds where adventure lovers slide from one to the other. Yes, a swimming costume is a must-have on a trip to the North.

Tired, weary and hungry, we retreated to Camp Ndotto, a semi-luxurious tented camp overlooking the mountains. We had not imagined we would get such kind of accommodation in this treacherous environment.

On a cool evening, we sat by the campfire, mapping the clear night skies and reliving the first day of our adventure to the North. 

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