Buckle in and get ready for a rant. This stretch of 5 days was some of the most dangerous and risky time I’ve had on my travels. A thousand things could have gone wrong, and a few did, but since I’m here writing this you know I’m still alive. The drive from Samburu, Kenya to the Ethiopian border is famous for a lot of things, the least of which is high quality roads with pleasant scenery. In fact, the roads are poorly maintained dirt tracts, there are very few villages and those to speak of can’t even be larger than 1,000 people, and the scenery is an unchanging flat barren volcanic rock-scape with literally no variation for 500 km. Thus our journey begins.
The first day we sat in the back of the spacious truck and… did nothing. We warned of frequent bandit attacks along the road and we had two security guards with huge rifles on hand, but fortunately, we never needed them. All I did was read (I’m deep in the A Song of Ice and Fire books better known as the Game of Thrones books – I’m almost up to date with the series and so far the third book is my favorite) and occasionally played cards. That’s it. The drive from Samburu to Marsabit, our stop for the first night was 100km of smooth tarmac and then 150km of slow dirt road. We made good time and the whole drive only took us 8 or 9 hours! Hooray! At Marsabit, we spent the night in dodgy hotel and watched a little bit of local Kenyan television. They have horrible but great low-budget soap operas in Swahili, a group hip-hop dance competition, and there’s a very popular candid camera kind of thing.
The next day, there was just more driving. Another 250km, all horrible roads, with police escorts, no scenery. That just means I did more reading and played more cards. The drive to the border town of Moyale took us about 12 full hours, but we made it without shredding any tires or getting attacked by bandits so we considered it a victory. At Moyale, we camped out at the police station and went to a local bar for a traditional Swahili dinner of chicken stew, sukumawiki (spinach), ugali (stiff porridge), and chips (French fries). Unfortunately, this is where I had a kink in the plans.
If you remember, in Nairobi I had a few problems getting my Ethiopian visa. As a brief reminder, I was originally planning on flying into Ethiopia where you can get a visa on arrival. When you go overland through the town of Moyale, they won’t issue one there. The Ethiopian embassy in Nairobi won’t issue visas to foreigners so I had to ship my passport back to the U.S., have the Ethiopian Embassy there rush process it, then get it shipped back to Kenya.
Now, by this point I was in the border town of Moyale and it is so difficult to reach, that they don’t have a regular working post office. So I had to research a hotel in Moyale, the very lovely Al Yusra hotel, to accept it. The owner told me the best way to get a package to Moyale was through the Moyale Raha bus company, which I later found out was conveniently owned by the owner. So I had my parcel which would hopefully contain a shiny new Ethiopian visa delivered to the bus company’s office in Nairobi.
Through a long series of phone calls, I found out that when I got to Moyale, the parcel had arrived in Nairobi, but FedEx was unable to deliver and had it waiting to be picked up at the office, which office no one could seem to tell me, but surely at one of the offices. I then had to convince, over the phone and in a foreign language, one of the employees of the bus company to go to the office, pick the parcel up for me and put it on the bus that left that evening. I must have made 50 phone calls that day. Every 5 minutes there was new information. First it was we have the package and it is on the bus. Then it was we don’t have the package and we don’t know where it is. Finally by 4PM, I got confirmation from all parties involved that my parcel had made it on to the bus as a personal package for the owner and not through the regular package shipment which usually contains sacks of rice and it would arrive at the border the next afternoon. I spent a restful night at a very clean and safe hotel doing laundry, taking hot showers, and watching movies. So maybe this snafu wasn’t a bad thing after all.
I was told that the bus would arrive sometime in the late afternoon, too late to cross the border on the next day so I just spent the whole next day being lazy, reading my new book (The Constant Gardener by John LeCarré, about a murder that happened outside of Marsabit… great.) and just being lazy. However, the local buses make great time and the package was there by 1PM. I flew into crazy packing mode and sprinted to the bus station to find they were on lunch/prayer break. Fine. At 2pm, I got the parcel and lo and behold I had an Ethiopian visa and I was only a day and a half behind my tour group.
I ran to the border and crossed in a mere 15 minutes, most of which was spent physically walking between the border. When I got to the other side, all I had was an itinerary of where my group would be and a lot of Kenyan schillings. I had to barter with the locals to get an good exchange rate and then figure out how to get to Konso, which I had no idea how far away or what direction it was in. It turns out, that you can’t get straight to Konso, but you first have to stop in the equally small, equally middle of nowhere town of Yabelo. But I didn’t know this yet. The locals just heard Konso and threw me on to the nearest bus, crammed into the back for a mere 3 dollars. Eventually, I got someone to draw me a “map” of the route I needed to take. A 4 hour drive to Yabelo through ever greener landscape and a beautiful sunset made me feel adventurous. I was in the middle of fucking nowhere, setting out on an adventure with no skills or language or guidebook, just my own intuition and an ample but kind of small amount of Ethiopian money. Bring it on.
Most of the hotels in Ethiopia double as brothels. Fine. This meant that when I arrived to the one intersection town of Yabelo in the dark most of the hotels were booked up by the hour and I had to try three hotels, the third being a sketchy bar with a few rooms in the back. This affair currently holds the award for my cheapest accomodations of only 3 dollars and that’s about how much it was worth. It was surprisingly roach free so I slept fine. That night I went out for a traditional Ethiopian meal of njera (sour spongy bread) and eggs and asked all of the locals about the first bus to Konso. Some said 8AM, some said 10AM, others said 5AM. With that being no help, I decided I would go to the bus station at 4:45 AM just in case.
I woke up super early and walked through the darkness with a couple of locals to the bus station. No buses left until 6 and the bus to Konso left at 8AM. So I dutifully waited at the bus station until 6 then they let me on to the bus and I tried to sleep there for a couple of hours unsuccessfully. 8AM rolled around, there were about 10 people on the bus and I asked when the bus was leaving. The driver replied 9AM. At 9AM there were maybe about 15 people on the bus and I asked when the bus would be leaving. They told me 10AM. I grumbled and went back to my seat. 9:30 rolled around and I asked when the bus would be leaving and they told me 11AM. I finally communicated my frustration and asked why the time kept changing. They explained that the bus only left once it was full. For the second time in as many weeks, I lost my shit.
I started screaming and shouting. I knew that they didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand them, but that didn’t stop me. I just kept pointing and shouting numbers. I had crazy eyes and a deep pool of rage and frustration. I had places to be! I was hoping to meet up with my group that night and I needed to get a move on! I tried to tell them, “This other woman has been sitting here with me since 7AM! We could have been to Konso and back by now! It’s not even good economics to wait until the bus is full! WHY THE FUCKING HELL WON’T YOU LEAVE?!?!?!” I think I scared the bus driver so badly that he immediately turned on the bus and off we went. I took it as a personal victory.
We left the town slowly, the conductor hanging out the door shouting “KONSO! BUS TO KONSO!” As soon as we started to leave Yabelo though, we realized there was an unclaimed bag in the back and we left a passenger behind at the bus station. Oops! We doubled back for him and he was visibly shaken and relieved that we came back for him. By the time we ended up leaving Yabelo, the bus was mostly full and everyone got their money’s worth and I got to leave hours earlier than I would have otherwise. Everyone wins. The bus ride from Yabelo to Konso was about 3 and a half hours of rolling hills and a beautiful river running along side of us. My sense of adventure was high.
As soon as I got to Konso, I found a series of mini buses all leaving to go to the destinations where I was supposed to meet up with my group. Well, all except the one town I needed to go to, Turmi. I ended up communicating that I needed to go there and I would join a van that went half way there, all of the passengers would get off and then I would pay a shit load for the driver to take me the rest of the way. Almost as soon as we started going, we stopped for lunch. Then we started our drive deep into the Omo Valley. The roads were all incredibly well maintained and I forgot what it was like not to ride in a giant hulking vehicle. The little van whipped through the mountains and hills at 100km an hour and we made it to the tiny halfway point in just a couple of hours. The ride was so beautiful as we twisted through the hills. The Omo Valley looks like the south of Spain by way of Africa. There are rows of terraced crops carved into the hills dotted with tiny African straw huts. The greens were incredibly green boldly contrasting the rich brown soil and the sapphire sky. I just stared out the window for the whole drive.
The rest of the bus ride to Turmi was just as beautiful. I had been in contact with my tour leader and she had a local guide who communicated to my drivers where I would meet them. After a couple more hours, we made it to the tiny town of Turmi. I would be shocked if 200 people lived there. There was one intersection and I could see the entire town if I stood in the middle. There, my drivers just dropped me off and sped away. I was again in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, I lucked into finding the campsite where my group was possibly staying. I went into town with a local for dinner and ate another great traditional meal. That night, I was having a beer at a bar and I found out that one of the guys there was the local contact for my group and he told me that my group would be arriving soon and eating dinner at another local restaurant. We got to the restaurant just as they were pulling up! Success! I had met up with my group in what is debatably the most remote part of the entire world. I could not have been more proud of myself.
And it turns out I didn’t miss too much. They had two days of uneventful driving and the third day they had a really cool but really awful experience with the Mursi tribe, commonly known as the lip plate people. It was a crushing blow to miss out on the lip plate people, but I had made it in time for another full day of tribal visits, only missing one 45-minute visit to a very aggressive and unpleasant tribe. Plus, being on a tour you lose the essence of traveling on your own. I gained such a sense of Ethiopian people and culture from being shoved next to them on a series of buses. I talked with locals, I ate their food in their restaurants, and I negotiated with them at every step of the way. My adventure was worth a hundred times more than any tribal visit. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t super excited for the tribal visit I had earned for the next day!