Route: We entered Kenya south of Omorate in far western Ethiopia, near the border with South Sudan. We drove the lakeshore route on the western side of Lake Turkana south to Eliye Springs. West from Eliye Springs to Lodwar, and then Lodwar south to Lokichar, then south to Kitale via Marich Pass. Kitale, then northwest to the Suam border post with Uganda.
Travel Distance and Time: 610kms in four days, including two nights at the Eliye Springs Resort.
Borders: Both Lake Turkana and Suam are very remote borders. In fact, there is no Kenyan immigration or customs at Omorate. This means if you leave Ethiopia at Omorate you will be traveling without a stamp in your passport or a TIP (or stamped CDP) for your vehicle in Kenya for some time, no matter how you cut it. It was never a problem even at the multiple police checkpoints we passed through. Most overland travelers who take the Turkana route check in with immigration in Nairobi, and we believe the closest customs and immigration offices to Turkana are in Eldoret.
However, after consulting with Theresa at the Karibuni Guest House in Kitale about our travel plans to Uganda, she advised just going straight to the border post at Suam instead of backtracking south 70kms to Eldoret. At Suam, there was a little bit of confusion at first, but we managed simultaneously to stamp both in and out of Kenya at the Suam border. Kenya visa is $50 USD/pp; the East Africa Travel visa is not available at Suam. The TIP was free for fewer than 14 days (ask for form C32). Note that this strange simultaneous stamping procedure on the Kenya side will result in some sharp questions at Uganda immigration. We were patient in explaining the situation, and all was well.
Roads: Roads in northwest and west-central Kenya are a decided mixed bag, but overall were the worst of the trip up to the point that I’m writing this in western Uganda, the day before we enter Rwanda. (Note – the “worst roads” trophy now belongs to Tanzania.)
Regarding the Lake Turkana route, there are lots of small villages, goats, camels, and countless motorbikes shuttling between the settlements. The lakeshore road has some deep sand, multiple dry stream bed crossings, and lots of corrugations – we also encountered our first mud just south of the Ethiopia border. The multitude of winding and intersecting tracks can be a little confusing, but if you keep your nose pointed south, and the lake to your left, you’ll be golden. Take your time and enjoy the harsh but stunning landscape, camel herds, and folks in the villages wearing colorful traditional dress. We received nothing but smiles, friendly waves, and thumbs-up from everyone in this notoriously disreputable corner of Kenya. It is African adventure driving at its finest.
It took us approximately 6 hours to get from Omorate to Eliye Springs, including 30-40 minutes fruitlessly searching for someone in the town of Karakol who could change our Ethiopian birr for Kenya schillings. The birr abides, still.
Leaving Eliye for Lodwar is straightforward, but the highway south from Lodwar to Lokichar is terrible. The old tar road has been removed, and, even worse, in many places only half removed, and none of it is rebuilt. Huge trucks and minibuses ply the road, raising big clouds of visibility-blocking dust, and the dry streams where bridges should be require climbing up and over the banks in low gear. Plan on extra time for this section of road.
Thankfully, in Lokichar, the highway south turns to tar, and the villages spread themselves out. Watch for the shoulder – where it exists – because it is very soft, and will suck in a wheel quickly, but otherwise the road is clear and fast.
The wonderful surprise of the route south to Kitale was Marich Pass. Climbing relentlessly up to an elevation of 2301 meters, you pass through a multitude of ecosystems and small villages clinging to the cliff-sides. Homemade fruit and vegetable stands slouch under the conifers at 7000 feet, and the air is blissfully crisp and cool. You won’t be making time on this tarred highway, but you won’t want to.
Kitale is the large regional capital on the far side of Marich Pass. The road northwest from there to Uganda – the Kitale-Suam Road – is currently under construction. Like the way south from Lodwar, you’ll be dodging heavy equipment and lumbering farm trucks. Thankfully it’s only 45 kms from Kitale to Suam.
Police Stops: Again, currently writing from Uganda, Kenya has had the most intense police presence of our trip to this point.
Our first roadblock wasn’t even a police checkpoint, but rather an impromptu diversion by the Kenyan military about 15kms south of the Ethiopia border. Two very bored soldiers had simply laid a log across the road. On learning we were Americans, one of them asked, “what the dollar looked like these days”. We told them we spent all our money in Ethiopia, and hadn’t found an ATM in Kenya yet, so they reluctantly let us go. About 5 kms further, another group of “soldiers” flagged us down with their Kalashnikovs. They scoped out our passport photocopies, and looked over the outside of the vehicle – letting us pass without a fuss or a solicitation. We learned later from the actual police that these guys were part of a paramilitary group, and were also likely very bored.
A few kilometers further south, we checked in at the police station in Todenyang, located just east of the airstrip. As noted in the iOverlander app, in lieu of an official immigration office, they checked our actual passports for the Omorate exit stamp, and informed us about the security situation. The “Captain” of the “police region” openly joked about getting us to pay for a police escort south to Eliye, and a lieutenant, eying the fridge in the back of the Defender suggested that there was probably lots of cold beer in there. We played dumb, and a third officer told the other two that they should just let us on our way, which they did. Ironically, we ended up following a Kenya Police Land Cruiser closely for the next 45kms, getting that hinted-at escort, gratis. Did we need it? Not at all.
Overall, between the Ethiopia border and the Uganda border at Suam, we stopped for eleven police roadblocks, and experienced four open asks of one kind or another – everything from Cokes to pure cash. Kenyan police are forward and jolly, with lots of “Jambos!”, “Karibus!”, and handshakes, and we often couldn’t tell if they were playing a bit, or genuinely fishing for a bribe. When in doubt we counted any ask, even in jest, as a solicitation. We were never menaced – when it was clear we weren’t going to pony up, we were waved on with, “Safe journey!” and a smile.
Camping: We stayed at two campsites in western Kenya – two nights at Eliye Springs Resort near the village of Eliye on the shores of Lake Turkana, and one night at the Karibuni Guest House in a leafy suburb of Kitale.
Eliye Springs Resort does a pretty slick impression of a Caribbean island in the middle of a vast desert. Lake Turkana is a mildly salty inland sea, ringed by long-dormant volcanoes, and the resort itself is set on rolling sand dunes in a grove of palm trees. We parked Toto right on the beach, just 20 meters from the lake. Eliye Springs features a full-service restaurant and bar with fixed menus for full-board, or an a la carte menu. You can book a boma or a lodge room, in addition to the beach camping.
The location of the Karibuni Guest House in Kitale is, at first, a bit hard to trace, but if you trust the GPS coordinates listed on iOverlander, you’ll find it. It looks just like all the other large walled properties lining the red dirt roads in the neighborhood, with the notable exception of the wide-open gate. Just drive in and ask for Ibrahim or Theresa. Camping is set up on the huge private lawn where the Ibises squawk in the trees. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served in the homey dining room; beer and wine are available as well. A separate private bathroom and a hot shower are provided for campers. Alternatively, you can stay in rooms in the main house. This “guest house” feels like a guest home, and at 700 Kenyan schillings pppn for camping, it’s probably the best camping for the best price in Kenya.
- Lake Turkana is notorious for its crocodiles. But, much of its western shore is thankfully crocodile free, because on our last night at Eliye Springs, and long after Julie went to bed, on a whim I went for a swim. I swam under a full moon, on the shortest day of the year, in the overlapping hours of my Grandmother’s 90th birthday in the tepid water – like a bath you let sit just a little too long – and I laughed out loud. I swam to shore after bobbing along for 15 minutes or so, but went back in immediately for a second go-around in the knee-deep waves. A supplication.
- In Kitale we needed to fill our LP gas tank that powers the two-burner stove in the Defender. The previous owners of Toto had bought the gas bottle in South Africa, and as many overlanders have frustratingly discovered, LP gas bottle fittings are not universal. Even on the same continent, valves, hoses, and fittings that fill bottles and power accessories are not necessarily compatible. Such was the case when, anxious to get moving toward Uganda on Christmas Eve, we stopped at an LP service point at a large mall in Kitale. Finding our bottle impossible to fill at their station, they sent it down the road to another location. 30 minutes later, they came back with bad news – they couldn’t fill it there, either. After another 20 minutes on the phone, and fiddling with hoses and valves, we finally all piled into the manager’s Toyota for a 15-minute ride out to the local LP wholesale depot. There, out of sight from us, they somehow (probably very dangerously) crammed 5kgs of gas in our bottle. These guys gave up their whole morning on Christmas Eve just for us – calling in every favor, and trying every angle to net just a few hundred schillings worth of propane. The manager said, “in Kitale, we have all the tribes of Kenya, and Muslims and Christians, and we all find a way to live, and to help one another.”
- “Can you type fast?” Um, yeah, I can type pretty well.” “Ok, you can fill this form out. Have a seat here.” Thus it went with the Customs officer at the tiny Kenya border post in the village of Suam. I sat behind the desk and filled out my own Temporary Import Permit on the Kenyan Customs computer. Save. Print. Onward.
General Comments: We saw only a sliver of Kenya – a truly massive and diverse country, so it’s hard to generalize about the nation as a whole. While we endured nearly a dozen police stops, the gendarmes were invariably friendly, even when they were hinting at a little baksheesh. This friendliness extended to regular Kenyans we met – from the kid at the gas station in Lokichar who commandeered a motorbike and led us all over town on a Sunday morning trying to find a functional ATM, to the woman who sold us roasted ears of corn by the side of the road in Kitale, we were always made to feel welcome.
We missed the big attractions, like Mt. Kenya and the Masai Mara, but the drive on the western shores of Lake Turkana was genuinely wild and remote, and reminded us of southern Africa, with the exception of the tiny villages whose inhabitants still largely live a traditional pastoral life. The security situation there is calm at the moment. From the vast plains and palms of Lake Turkana, to the dripping conifers high on Marich Pass, we did feel like we got a good taste of this incredibly varied country – but we’re anxious to return for more.