Travellers in Africa come across some seemingly endless roads through nowhere, but the longest of them all – at least psychologically – is in Kenya. It stretches from Archer’s Post to Moyale on the Ethiopian border, and is 467km long.
How could this 467km road in Kenya be the longest in Africa, you might ask? Surely there are longer roads than this? Yes there are, actually, but this road, running through the Didi Galgalu Desert, has certainly felt the “longest” for many travellers. Traversing it isn’t easy.
The road is well described by American travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux in his book, Dark Star Safari. It is about travelling by public transport from Cairo to Cape Town.
In 2001, when Theroux travelled south on this road, vehicles still trundled along in convoy, escorted by an armed guard. This did not, however, prevent bandits from opening fire on Theroux’s bus. He was lucky not to be harmed. Many other travellers have been less fortunate.
Most travellers will take the road between Archer’s Post and Moyale only once, such is the experience. Bandits, hailing from Somalia to Sudan, hide behind rocks in the barren landscape. When a vehicle approaches, one of them will flag down the vehicle, normally with an empty bottle to indicate a need for water. Most travellers will stop and offer assistance. That is when the robber’s accomplices jump out from behind the rocks and rob the poor passengers of all their belongings. The aim is seldom to kill. The bandits want food, money, vehicles and other much-needed supplies that can be tough to find in this very inhospitable place.
We have been “fortunate” to travel this route several times. The first time, which we thought would also be the last, was in 2004 on our first trip up north, all the way to Cairo. By then the armed convoys had been discontinued because the authorities felt that there was less of a threat from bandits than in previous years. Still, we were stopped just outside Marsabit and told by the police that the road was considered dangerous, and that we should be vigilant and not make any unnecessary stops. We readily agreed.
Actually, we did not approach Marsabit from Archer’s Post. We came in from the west, from Loyangalani and Kalacha. We crossed the Chalbi Desert and stayed over at Marsabit at a campsite that belonged to a Swiss gentleman and his Kenyan wife.
Early the next morning, we hit the road. It was in terrible condition. Our three Nissans were virtually shaken to pieces. Along the way a few people tried to flag us down, but we just looked the other way and drove on. Perhaps they really were desperate for water. How could we be sure? We had been advised not to stop.
Around lunchtime, we approached Turmi. The worst part of the road was behind us, so we stopped for lunch at what was called the Turmi Hotel. This was not much more than a little inn where we had some goat stew and rice. It was excellent. No beer was served as this was serious Muslim country.
We continued our journey westward to the Ethiopian border where we arrived after sunset, without incident.
In 2011, we planned another route north, avoiding the northern part of this notorious stretch. The plan was to enter Ethiopia along Lake Turkana after travelling from Archer’s Post to Marsabit, and then swing left into the Chalbi Desert en route to Omorate. But we had visa problems and had to turn back. And then we had car problems, so we eventually had to do the whole Archer’s Post to Moyale route again. Thankfully, we encountered no hassles on the road.
Last year things were going to be different, or so we thought. Once more we planned to go to Ethiopia via the Lake Turkana road, but we again encountered visa problems. We had to get to Addis as soon as possible to have our visas extended. This implied that we could not travel at our leisure along the Lake Turkana route. We had to take the road between Archer’s Post and Moyale to make Addis before our visas expired.
North of Archer’s Post, most of the road was brand-new tarmac. About 100km from Marsabit it turned to gravel, but there were major roadworks on the way as the Kenyan authorities, in conjunction with the Chinese, were building new roads through the desert.
We arrived at Marsabit, which is like an island in the middle of the desert. I’ve never been there when it wasn’t pouring with rain. The “island” seems to make its own weather.
We filled up with fuel in the town, and then set off north. What a surprise to be doing it on a brand new tarred road. We were doing 120km/h through the Didi Galgalu Desert!
The road was not completely finished, and the stretches where the road builders were still working was at times very difficult.
Along the way we also had to do a few recoveries of vehicles stuck in the mud. Yet we managed to do Archer’s Post/Moyale in less than a day – a route that had previously taken a minimum of two days.
So the “longest road on the continent” is no more. It only belongs in the memories of those who were fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to travel through the northern part of Kenya before the Chinese intervened.
– Johan Badenhorst