We take the road from Lake Baringo to Isiolo, a rough traverse across a beautiful and remote part of northern Kenya.
Several years ago, my boyfriend and I were driving along the road to Isiolo from Lake Baringo when our clutch went. It was a bad place to break down.
Wamba, the nearest town, was some miles back, and all around us was arid scrub, not a settlement in sight. Seemingly out of nowhere, a wizened old Samburu lady appeared. She looked at us, sucked her teeth, and said, “There’s nobody here but you and God.”
As she melted away, we hardly felt in a position to disagree. We hadn’t seen a single car in a couple of hours, and our mobile phones had lost reception.
At some point, a pick-up stopped, and the driver agreed to radio for help from Archer’s Post, an hour or so away.
Four hours later, we saw a speck of a Land Cruiser roaring towards us. The car slithered to a halt, and the occupants jumped out and handed us damp flannels and chilled orange juices in real glasses. We were bundled into the vehicle, and whisked off to start our safari.
While that surreal incident remains etched in my memory, of the scenery I remember little. And so I planned to make the trip again.
The road is, if anything, even more rutted and difficult than it was during our first attempt, but as it wends through tiny villages – and through the occasional roadblock of cattle and goats – it hardly seems to matter. My focus is on the journey, and not the road.
The road skirts the lake for the first hour before eventually bringing us out at Mugie, a vast cattle ranch and tourist lodge [see box]. Leaving Mugie, we head north in the direction of Maralal along some treacherous dirt – I rarely get out of second gear – before we hit smooth dirt just before Kisima. We turn towards the east, the beginning of the some of the most dramatic scenery of the drive, with plunging forested ravines and mountains to the south.
The views are breath-taking. At Wamba, we make an unnecessary detour into the town, a chaotic and edgy place built into the lee of a hill, to buy drinks. Solomon, a philosophy student who arrived that morning from Maralal, asks us for a lift to Archer’s Post. With only one matatu a day plying the Wamba-Isiolo route, he had been facing an overnight stay.
A short while into the drive, I ask him why so few matatus make the relatively short hop to Isiolo, and he puts it down to worsening security. Six years ago, he says suddenly, his parents were murdered by bandits on this stretch of road. “It’s just coming up,” he says. “It’s a good place for an ambush because you can’t go faster than 40 km/h,” he says.
My eyes flicker nervously to the dashboard – we’ve barely accelerated beyond that over the dirt in the past 20 minutes. Security has been a constant worry on this road. When a couple of decades ago, some tourists were robbed and badly beaten near here, it effectively closed a once-popular circuit off.
Although the road is said to be safer than a few years ago, seven people were killed in an ambush between Wamba and Isiolo 18 months ago. Security usually takes a hit during times of drought, but ranchers in the area are now also facing increasingly violent land invasions with a political dimension.
The steady inflow of arms from Ethiopia and Somalia to tribes has raised the stakes, with local police ill-equipped to act.
Although possible to arrange a police escort in Isiolo if travelling westwards along what may be one of Kenya’s most beautiful roads, it will probably be some time before this route reopens to mainstream travel as long as the government maintains a lax attitude towards security in this remote region.
Just under an hour from Wamba, the new tarmac road to Marsabit comes into view, and we breathe a sigh of relief. From here, it is just a short hop south to Archer’s Post and Isiolo. No breakdowns this time – just a few hundred kilometres on the clock, and some very weary travellers.
Read about our road trip in the Loita Hills