Travel in northeastern Kenya has a special quality. For much of the time, the normal stimuli – passing scenery, animals, people and fleetingly witnessed events – are replaced with a massive open sky, shimmering greenish-brown earth, and, just occasionally, a speck of movement. It might be some camels, a pair of ostriches, or perhaps a family moving somewhere with their donkeys. It’s a sparse, absorbingly simple landscape, and not the least of its attractions is the restful absence of hassle and shove, and a solitude hardly found anywhere else.
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Some 390km east of Nairobi, on the route to Somalia, GARISSA is the capital of North Eastern Province, sprawling out widely across the plains, east of the bridge across the Tana River. It’s the furthest east you can safely go towards Somalia without an armed escort: indeed, with its access road checkpoints and busy military presence it’s long been considered the safest town in Kenya, and, despite gun and grenade attacks on churches in 2012, attributed to Al-Shabaab, it remains a relatively laidback town, with next to no hustle.
While at times the well-surfaced streets, offices and NGO presence make it feel a little like the offspring of Nairobi and Mombasa, a visit to the teeming market will remind you that you’re in a largely Somali town – and reckoned to be Kenya’s hottest (the thermometer rarely leaves the 32–37°C range during the day). Apart from the lively central market, which has some particularly nice merchants’ courtyards on the eastern side, there are few other attractions, though the huge Wednesday livestock market is one. Still, several surprisingly good hotels, and the other services here, make it a very likely stopover if you’re travelling in the region.
ISIOLO – the northeast’s most important town and the hub for travel to Marsabit and Moyale – is a frontier in every respect. The Somali influence here is noticeable everywhere in the northeast, and Isiolo is one of their most important towns in Kenya. It was here that many veteran Somali soldiers from World War I were settled: having been recruited in Aden and Kismayu, they gave up their nomadic lifestyle to become livestock dealers and retail traders.
The town is a real cultural kaleidoscope, with Boran, Meru, Samburu and some Turkana inhabitants, as well as the Somalis. To someone newly arrived from Nanyuki or Meru, the upland towns seem ordinary in comparison. Women from the irrigated shambas around Isiolo sell cabbages, tomatoes and carrots in the busy market; cattle owners, nomadic camel traders and merchants exchange greetings and the latest news from Nairobi and Moyale; in the livestock market, goats scamper through the alleys, while hawkers stroll along the road raising their Somali swords and strings of bangles to the minibuses heading up to reserves. And, in the shade, energetic miraa-chewing and hanging around are the major occupations. Miraa has a long history in Somali culture; the Nyambeni Hills, where most of the Kenyan crop is grown, are just 30km away.
The town is lively and welcoming, relatively safe and generally hassle-free, though it has become outrageously scruffy and litter-strewn in recent years. And when the tourist season is in full swing, with vehicles driving through to Samburu and the other reserves, it can seem as if you can’t take a step here without being approached to buy something. If you’re staying the night it’s worth getting up early enough to have a chance of seeing the distinctive silhouette of Mount Kenya rising directly above the main A2 highway through town, 60km to the south.
To Moyale and Ethiopia
To Moyale and Ethiopia
From Marsabit, the journey to Moyale, which straddles the Ethiopian border, takes upwards of ten hours, depending on the vehicle. For the first three of these you descend from the mountain’s greenery past spectacular craters – Gof Choba is the whopper on the left – to the forbidding black moonscape of the Dida Galgalu Desert. Dida Galgalu means “plains of darkness”, according to one old story told by Boran pastoralists. Another account derives it from Galgalu, a woman buried here after she died of thirst trying to cross it. The road arrows north for endless kilometres, then cuts east across watercourses and through bushier country beneath high crags on the Ethiopian frontier. En route, you pass the turning to the small village of Sololo on the Ethiopian border, arrestingly sited between soaring peaks that can be climbed for stunning views over the northern plains and Ethiopian highlands.
There are some magnificent, towering termite mounds along the northern part of the route. They’re a sight that seems quintessentially African, yet one that can quickly be taken for granted, like leafless trees in a northern winter. As the kilometres roll away, the day-long 250km from Marsabit to Moyale is resolved in just a few bends and a couple of minor scenery changes. Over distances that would take days to cover on foot you can see where you have been and where you are going – a still, vast landscape seemingly echoed in the pastoralists’ conservatism.
Towards the end of the journey, the road bends south, then doubles north again and winds up through the settlements of Burji farmers – an agricultural people who emigrated from Ethiopia early in the twentieth century (see Peoples of the northeast) – past their beautifully sculpted houses and sparse fields, to Moyale.
Straddling the Ethiopian border, MOYALE makes Marsabit look like a metropolis. Though the town is growing rapidly, the centre is small enough to walk around in fifteen minutes. You’ll find several sandy streets, a pretty mosque, a few dukas, a bar, a camel-tethering ground, two petrol stations (one of which occasionally belies its defunct appearance), a big police station, a fairly large market area, two banks with ATMs, and an incredibly slow post office. Moyale is not much to write home about in fact, and there’s not a lot to do except wander around, perhaps try some camel milk (very rich and creamy) and pass the time of day with everyone else, with or without the aid of miraa, universally popular in the northeast.
The most interesting aspect of Moyale is its architecture – at least, the good number of traditionally built houses that are still standing. The Boran build in several styles, including circular mud-and-thatch huts, but in town the houses are rectangular, made of mud and dung on a wood frame, with a flat or slightly tilted roof projecting 1–2m to form a porch, supported by sturdy posts and tree trunks. The roof is up to 50cm thick, a fantastic accretion of dried mud, sticks, scrap and vegetation. Chickens and goats get up there, improving the roof’s fertility, and every time it rains another layer of insulating herbage springs up. As a result, the houses are cool while the outside temperature hovers above 30°C for most of the year.
Even if you’re not intending to travel in Ethiopia (and if you haven’t got a visa already, you won’t be able to do so), the most interesting prospect in Moyale is to cross the valley into Kenya’s neighbouring state and spend a few hours there. For Kenyans and Ethiopians, the border is an open one. For foreigners wanting to have a short look around, this is sometimes permitted even without a visa: you’ll need to persuade the Ethiopian immigration officers that an hour or two in their country would make your day – and you will certainly have to leave your passport with them for safekeeping.
Ethiopian Moyale is larger than its Kenyan counterpart and somewhat more prosperous, with piped water, and a long-established electricity supply. In town, there are lots of simple stores, and plenty of eating places. You can pay for everything in Kenyan shillings. The market buzzes colourfully with camels and goats, piles of spices, flour and vegetables. Otherwise, life here seems much the same as over the border, but easier. As a back-door view of Ethiopia, however, it is no more representative than the other side of town is of Kenya.
Travel in the northeast: a warning
Travel in the northeast: a warning
Northeastern Kenya has long had a reputation for lawlessness, but what was sometimes dismissed as the exaggerations and ignorance of “down-country” Kenyans acquired a more brutal reality in the 1990s, which continues to this day.
Since the flight of Somalia’s dictator Siad Barre in 1991, and that country’s anarchic disintegration into warring fiefdoms, northeastern Kenya has borne the full brunt of Somalia’s desperate refugee crisis, with increasingly violent bandits targeting commercial vehicles, foreign aid workers and refugee camps.
The northeast is also home to pastoralist tribes who frequently engage in livestock rustling and clash over grazing and water rights. All this has been made more volatile by the prolonged drought in the region. You can be sure of one thing: there are more people than ever before with little to their names but guns and ammunition.
We’ve endeavoured to note the current security situation for all parts of the northeast, but the situation can change quickly and you are strongly advised to seek advice on the ground before travelling anywhere in this area. If you’re driving in this region, ask advice everywhere you go and always stop at police checkpoints and ask them about the road ahead. You may sometimes be asked to travel in convoy, or to take an armed police officer as an escort to your next stop.
The main no-go area at the time of writing is the entire region of northeast Kenya east of the A2 Isiolo–Marsabit–Moyale road and north of the A3 Thika–Garissa road (but not including those roads themselves, and not including Shaba National Reserve or Meru National Park, both of which are safe). Wajir and Mandera, fascinating and remote as they are, are too close to the Somalia border to contemplate visiting at present.