In the north of Kenya you’ll find the Chalbi and Dida Galgalu deserts. Both are inhospitable places – they are deserts, after all. And on any Cape to Cairo expedition, this is probably the most challenging terrain you will encounter. But even in deserts like these, complacency can set in, so always remain vigilant, says Johan Badenhorst.
The Voetspore team crossed both the Chalbi and the Dida Galgalu deserts for the first time during our Kilimanjaro to Cairo journey five years ago. The Chalbi, originally a lake that turned into a desert over thousands of years, presented a physical obstacle – a challenge. But we managed to overcome it without too much hassle and experienced one of the most fantastic desert drives imaginable.
The Dida Galgadu was something different, though. It is a severe test for man and machine, and very few vehicles travel on the road between Marsabit and Moyale without losing a shock absorber or two. But there were other challenges that year as well. Lurking behind the rocks were bandits from Somalia!
Five years ago, this was a very serious danger. Most travellers were accompanied by an armed escort through this desert.
When we arrived at Marsabit, the local police said we should be fairly safe, since we were in a convoy of three vehicles and not lone travellers. Nevertheless, we were warned not to stop if anyone tried to flag us down, as this was usually a trap.
As we travelled through the desert, there were two attempts to flags us down. We just looked ahead and drove past, even though it was difficult to do. Perhaps the people were in real trouble? Perhaps they just needed water or a lift to the next village to survive? But we made it through the Dida Galgadu, despite virtually losing the fillings in our teeth because of the road condition. Never before had we seen such a badly corrugated road. Luckily our shocks lasted!
On our Agulhas to Alexandria trip a few months ago, we had another stab at these two deserts. First, we tackled the Chalbi. The area had experienced a severe drought over the last five years, but two weeks before our arrival, conditions changed drastically. The heavens opened and it started raining. The Chalbi was once again turned into a lake. This time it was impossible to cross. We had no option but to drive around it.
Then we tackled the Dida Galgadu. We left quite late in the afternoon from Marsabit. At a fuel station, I enquired about the road conditions and the security situation. The road was as bad as ever, we were told, but the Chinese were busy building a new tarred road. (There goes one of the great adventures in Africa!) The security situation was a different matter. Armed escorts had not been necessary for quite a while. But just prior to our arrival, apparently, there had been a few incidents. It was not clear if this could be attributed to the current turmoil in Somalia.
We left the town and started travelling through the Dida Galgalu. Along the way we saw the Chinese road builders. We also saw a vehicle dropping off armed guards at the various building camps. These guys clearly knew something that we did not!
Just after sunset we left the road, drove for about 500m into the desert, and set up camp. Like most desert camps, this was a wonderful experience. We had a braai, and then went to bed. All of us slept on stretchers next to our vehicles. There was no need to pitch a tent, and anyway, sleeping under the stars is one of life’s most wonderful experiences.
Next day we travelled north, past Turbi and all the way to Moyale. Rain made the terrain difficult to traverse, but our Amaroks did very well.
At one point we arrived at a bridge that had been washed away. The locals offered to build a new one for about R5000 a vehicle, but we declined and found another way through.
We arrived at Moyale just before sunset, and two days later we were in Addis Ababa. Once more, we had crossed the northern part of Kenya without incident. And then we heard the news on the radio…
“Gunmen killed the driver of a tourist vehicle and wounded a foreign tourist in northern Kenya on Friday, a senior police officer said. This was the latest security incident involving foreigners in the east African country.”
Over the past 11 years we have travelled about 180 000km on the African continent. We have completed seven Voetspore expeditions and, sure, there have been a few hair-raising incidents. The “Acre of Death” in Angola, our arrest in Agadez and, more recently, a near-fatal helicopter crash, are a few examples. But we have never had any life-threatening experiences involving the local people. Is this just luck? I’m not so sure.
On our travels we regularly encounter other overlanders. Mostly they are couples travelling in a Landy, Cruiser or some other 4×4 vehicle. We, on the other hand, always travel in a convoy of three. I sincerely believe in the safety of numbers. A mini-convoy of three Voetspore vehicles, kitted out and driving with lights on, may look more threatening than a local tribesman armed with an AK47.
The north of Kenya is a dangerous place. It makes serious demands on travellers and their vehicles. But by treating the area with respect, these dangers can be overcome, just like most other obstacles.