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Passing the Chalbi desert from Ethiopia to the Kenyan wildparks


More Adventure travel tales in Kenya:
Nakuru Park
Amboseli Park
Masai Tribe
Other African Tales:
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
Lalibela, Ethiopia
African Tribes in Ethiopia
Serengeti, Tanzania
Ngorongoro Area
Blue Nile Gorge, Ethiopia
Bahir Dar, Lake Tana


Truck in the mud
To leave the Omo Valley is as difficult as entering it. We have to pass some heavy terrain underneath the Ethiopian rift lakes, until we reach the paved road to Kenya. In Kenya, we have to cross the Chalbi desert. Here we meet the Rendille and Samburu tribes and visit Maralal, a town known from the famous book and movie The White Masai.

As we leave the Hamer tribe, we already see dark clouds above the mountain range we move along. A little later we are in the middle of a tropical shower. Worse than that, large flows of water come stream from the mountain onto the road, washing parts of it away. Our truck has to wade through the water, and enter the fields at some points, in order to continue our way.

Then it’s up again into the mountains. The sky clears a bit, but that’s no guarantee for a good passage. Concrete bridges are washed away, and every now and then we have to help putting rocks in front of the wheels to overcome the obstacles. And then, we reach the river we passed on our way to the Omo Valley. This time, the water is much higher. The river bank on the other side is washed away, and a passage is impossible. There are a number of landrovers with tourists waiting, and staring at the water, together with the locals.

We decide it is time for some action. Our crew starts wading through the river to the other side. A bulldozer is parked there and it takes some effort to convince its driver to use it. We explain how he can shift earth and rocks from the bank into the river to make a passage. As soon as our driver thinks he can make it, he drives into the river. We quickly jump on the truck, and under loud cheering we pass the river. At least, that was the idea, but on the other side we are stuck halfway up the river bank.

Joint effort

With joint effort we start collecting rocks, for under the trucks tires. And with a little pulling from the bulldozer, we finally manage to free our truck. Meanwhile, the other tourists are complaining that we destroyed the river bank again, but at least they know now how to repair it.

We continue our way back to Konso without further problems. In Konso, we do some shopping, and move on in the direction of Yabello, on the paved road to Kenya. But first, we have another bush camp. This time, it truly is the bush, not even a few local children to visit us. Unfortunately, we don’t see much wildlife, just a few dik-diks, with 40 cm the smallest of the antelopes.

The next morning we wake up early, since we have a long way to go through rough terrain, before we reach the paved road. It is clear that the rain did some damage here as well. We have to get off the truck again to help with rocks under the tires. But we do better than a few landrovers we pass, which are stuck in the mud. We try to help, but it appears their pulling cable is in the front landrover, the one that passed already.

Colorful Borana

Finally, we reach Yabello. From here it’s a paved road to Kenya. So we pass the villages of the colorful Borana people quickly, with an occasional stop to admire them. But we are in a bit of a hurry, in order to reach the border in time to pass it today. It is Friday afternoon, and we don’t want to wait until Monday. After the formalities, we make camp in the wildlife reserve in Moyale, a small campsite with limited facilities.

After a good night sleep we are ready to pass the barrier to the Chalbi desert. This area has suffered from Somali cattle thieves lately, and therefore regulations are to drive in a convoy. But because of current elections, there are no other trucks today, and the convoy consists of only ourselves. Still, we have to wait for the departure time of the convoy, so we do some shopping, and have a drink at a bar.

Chalbi Desert

Once in Kenya and the Chalbi desert, the paved road is gone. The terrain is rough, and it rained here in the past weeks as well. The fourwheeldrive helps us through, but we can see the places where trucks were stuck before. The landscape isn’t very interesting, at first we see some dik diks, but later there is hardly any wildlife to be seen. At the end of a long day driving we make camp near Marsabit, at the edge of the desert.

At night we are attacked by a million small bugs. During dinner we can escape by eating near the campfire. But the following morning we find them everywhere. Days later, we will still find them in the seams of our tents, in the truck and between our clothes.

We move along in the Chalbi desert, which is greener than ever. The plants are thorny, but green. Some think this is the nicest landscape of Kenya, but we think it’s dull. Some mountains (extinct volcanoes) give some variation to the scene, but the plants are the same everywhere, and apart from a few ostriches and other birds, we see no wildlife.

It becomes interesting as we meet some people of the Rendille tribe. Beautiful people, but if we want to take pictures, we notice that more tourists come here than in Ethiopia: they ask 100 shilling for a picture, which is almost 2 Euro. That’s a bit too much, so we only take some pictures unnoticed. And after 10 minutes talking with them (with hands and feet), we move on.

Samburu Warriors

The truck is moving slowly through the sand. We release some air from the tires to get more grip, but it doesn’t make things much better. We make some detours through the bush, although there is not much difference with the “road”. After a river bed we finally leave the Chalbi desert, and move up into the mountains. We arrive at the terrain of the Samburu tribe. They are related to the famous Masai, but on their migration south to Sudan hundreds of years ago, they stopped here while the Masai moved on.

The Samburu are also beautiful, and ask for a lot of money for taking pictures. After the village South Horr there is another truck stuck in the mud. We try to help, but they have no proper cable to pull it loose, so we leave again. A lot of angry faces are our deal. Some time later we make camp on a nice locations between the mountains.

The White Masai

The land of the Samburu is sparsely populated. Center of the area is the town of Maralal, which we reach via a mountain pass. We know about Maralal from the novel “the White Masai” about a Swiss woman who married a Samburu warrior (wrong title, very good book). We are curious to see if we can recognize anything in the town. But that’s not the case. It’s a small town with a lot of people on the streets, and a lot of Samburu warriors. Many typical African shops, but also hotels (the African kind…) and restaurants. Even a hard rock café, although not part of the official brand. The town is a strange combination of the developing Kenya and the ancient people of the Samburu.

Before we make camp we see our first zebra’s. We stare at them for a while a hope we can see them from our camp. Instead, when we build our tents, we are visited by Samburu people. First children, with whom we play. Then a few warriors arrive, who speak English quite well. They learned it at school, but after their education they went back to become a warrior, and later on shepherd for their herds of cattle.

It is strange to communicate in English with these Samburu warriors. They appear to have watches, a radio, and a bicycle, but our digital camera makes them startle. We can show them that the pictures we take can be seen immediately, and one by one they want to see themselves. We exchange addresses, and say goodbye. It gets dark and they need to return to their village with their herd.

The equator

Finally, we reach Nakuru, where we will visit our first National Park. But first, we pass the equator and the Great Rift Valley. Here in Kenya this means a tourist stop, with a large sign and souvenir booths. And on the equator a tub with water with a hole. Some con artists shows how the water turns to the right north of the equator, and to the left south of the equator. Nice…

A number of long driving days took us from the Ancient African tribes in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia, through the Chalbi desert to the Samburu in Kenya and beyond. This part of Kenya still lacks good roads, although clearly more tourists pass here. It is surely an adventure to travel through the barren terrain, seeing all aspects of the desert, and the people living there. And our overland truck survived very well.

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