From Marsabit, the journey to Moyale, which straddles the Ethiopian border, takes upwards of eight 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 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. It used to be possible for foreigners wanting to have a short look around to be granted entry for a couple of hours without a passport, but heightened security means this is no longer generally permitted. You can still try to persuade the Ethiopian immigration officers that a quick visit to their country would make your day – but you’ll 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.