There is very little information about traveling from northern Uganda to northern Kenya, and even less about traversing the western flank of Lake Turkana into southern Ethiopia. Even where there are snippets of information, they are often conflicting. We decide to attempt a Turkana road trip, buying jerry cans for extra petrol, a shovel for the mud, and enough water for four days. We just hope we do not need anything else which cannot be found in the desert.
The Turkana Road Trip from Moroto to Lodwar
Descending south from Kidepo Valley National Park in Uganda, we arrive the town of Moroto where nobody has any helpful information about crossing the border. Google Maps guides us northwards around Mount Moroto to a little check point outside of Nakiloro where we are searched for weapons and allowed to leave Uganda. There is no immigration or passport stamps. The Ugandan military officer tells us we have 17 kilometers of no man’s land to navigate before reaching the Kenyan border post.
The road drifts down and around small hills and valleys through the heart of cattle rustling land. In the town of Lokiriama (also called Lokiriania depending on your map) we find a Kenyan military officer that scrambles to find his shirt, and greets us with a smile. He asks if we are carrying weapons, notes our license plate, and ushers us forth.
The road extends to Lodwar crossing the Turkwel River twice. We pass through traditional Turkana villages, desert scrub, herds of camels, and flash flood plains. Lodwar is the only major urban center on the west side of Turkana, and serves as our last chance to buy major supplies. We manage to buy petrol and food. However, letting our guard down momentarily, a child steals our best cell phone, which means we are down to our back-up phone with a cracked screen to navigate us north.
The Turkana Road Trip from Eliye Springs to Kalokol
Before heading north, we take a detour east to Eliye Springs to fish Lake Turkana, and camp on Central Island National Park. Our time at Eliye Springs was incredible, but heavy rain brought plagues of grasshoppers, gnats, and flash floods. The local elders said they had not seen rain like that for fifty years.
The floods trapped us in Eliye Springs, and destroyed the bridge north to the town of Kalokol. Since no one could travel, there was no information on the status of any of the other roads. Waiting for the desert sun to dry the landscape, we scour maps for alternate routes north. The topography to the north is revealing, showing that our intended road continues on a narrow corridor between the lake shore to the east and the Kalimapus Hills, Murua Rith Hills, and the entire Lapurr Range to the west. This means that all the rain would be running from the elevated positions to our west, across our road, and into Lake Turkana. A horrible sign for the road condition.
The bartender at the lodge tells us he made the journey years ago and remembers it being 4-5 hours to the Ethiopian border, but nobody else we speak to has ever tried. Waiting for the Kalokol bridge to be repaired, we visit a Turkana village, but also get stuck in a pit of clay. While we are casting for tiger fish the next day in the afternoon, we receive news that the bridge is now passable, and we make it three hours north arriving under a starry desert night.
The Turkana Road Trip from Kalokol to Lokitaung
In the morning we awake early to beat the heat to the road, but receive bad news from our hosts. We had hoped we were only about two more hours from the border, but we are corrected. The road along the lake is completely washed out, and has not even really been used for years. The alternate road that the locals use cuts west before heading north, but had been swept away flood.
We drive north to gauge if we can engineer and passing anyways, but the road ends in a five-foot cliff. The flood plain that washed the road away is so vast we cannot even make out where the rest of the road used to be. Nobody can cross it. Back in Kalokol we learn we have to back track south to Lodwar, and take the road northwest towards South Sudan, and then cut east before heading north again. We have to drive around the western side of all hills that are flooding into the lake.
So instead of being two hours from the border, we are actually a minimum of two days away. It is a mental punch to the face. Our gas, water and patience are starting to run low. We drive hard all day. The road to Juba was paved once, but we mostly drive next to it, as the potholes are so bad it appears to have been shelled in a great war. At Nachok town we veer east on a dirt track, and do not see any other vehicles besides a military transport until long after we cross the Ethiopian border a day later.
Under an acacia tree we pour the last of our fuel into the car from the jerry cans, and are now fully committed to making it through. We arrive in Lokitaung at sunset, and stay in a small room resembling a prison cell that smells like ten years of sweaty desert travelers. We drove from dawn to dusk that day, and would have to do so again the next. The kind keeper offers to find a chicken and kill it for dinner. Finally, at mid-night our stew is served, but desert chickens have more bones than meat, so we sit sucking the bones under a big desert moon.
The Turkana Road Trip from Lokitaung to Todenyang
Leaving at dawn, we become immediately lost. Google maps is showing us a clear road heading north east, and our paper map is calling it a “primary road”, but we see nothing of the sort. We realize they were referring to a dry riverbed which snakes out of town and up and over the Lapurr Range.
The entire morning we crawl through the riverbed. We are constantly in and out of the car to build rock bridges down cascades, and scout the riverbed where it widens and there is no clear way forward. We have made under 20 kilometers an hour hoping boulders and dodging alluvial sand, and in the mid-afternoon the road dumps us out in the swamplands on the northern border of Lake Turkana. Luckily the swamps are fairly dry, and full of birds. Huge saddle billed storks take flight, and magenta colored bee-eaters cut through the air, picking off the insects.
The Kenyan police post in Todenyang looks like an abandoned settlement in a zombie apocalypse movie. The compound is surrounded by rusted barrels of petrol, and stripped vehicles in the swamp grass. A single decrepit outhouse teeters next to the office, already halfway sunk into the swamp mud at a 45-degree angle.
The officers are super friendly, just glad to have someone to speak to as their only position is a month old newspaper they take turns re-reading. They ask us where we are heading, if we are carrying guns, and then tell us to head north across the swamps until we find the road in Ethiopia.
The Turkana Road Trip from Todenyang to Omorate
The stretch of land from Todenyang to the closest town in Ethiopia, called Omorate, does not have a road on any map, and that was the most accurate piece of information we got all trip. It seems like a swamp land neither country saw any use in trying to claim, preferring to have it as a buffer zone on the border. We just drive aimlessly north until we are jolted to a halt in a mud pit so deep that the entire car is resting on its frame. The wheels just spun hopelessly on either side.
We disembark into thorny bushes that stick translucent fiberglass-like spines into our feet. The ground is the consistency of porridge. As we shovel out mud around the wheels, more seeps down from above. We take turns digging in the desert heat, and soon we are all drenched in the thick swampy air. A nomadic pastoralist and his children from the Daasanach tribe comes to watch us. It might be the most entertaining scene he had in years.
Fortunately, a there is a little bluff with an Ethiopian military post situated about 500 meters away, and couple soldiers spot us, and come trudging over with another shovel. After about two hours of five men digging, we create long enough trenches in front and behind the wheels to garner some speed, and rock out of the mud.
Free, and finally in Ethiopia we rush to Omorate and make it to the immigration office right as they are closing. We declare an exhausted victory. Traversing western Turkana is the worst road and best adventure I have had after road tripping around Africa for over six months. It is impossible to fully prepare for, as conditions of the road and rivers can change daily, and it is anybody’s guess how well the car will perform when you push it over such rough terrain. If you do decide to take Turkana road trip, just make sure that beyond the fuel and water you need, you bring a bucket of patience, some good friends, and a wild sense of adventure.
Author’s Note: Eliye Springs Resort is just a couple hours from Lodwar, and is a great remote lodge on the lake with camping and thatched bandas. For more on our time thee, and our adventures on Central Island National Park in Lake Turkana, see: The Floating Islands of the Jade Sea.