Mandera, a northern frontier town that sits at the northeastern tip of Kenya, bordering Ethiopia to the north and Somalia to the east, is as spectacular as it is hair-raising.
Here, in this expansive terrain of deserts, semi-deserts, and shrublands interrupted by an occasional boulder of rock or a hill, perspectives change and even the most intrepid adrenaline adventure junky is easily humbled.
If it is not the blazing afternoon heat which feels like the sun dropped a few centimetres towards the earth that you are fighting to steer clear of, it is the constant realisation that every bend you take along a solitary, winding off-road, the threat of an Al Shabaab attack is imminent.
Many times you mistake an occasional jolt of the car due to the ruggedness of the road for a landmine – even the herders on the roadside peacefully tending to their camels look suspicious to you. This is unchartered territory, the hallmark of extreme but hugely rewarding Kenyan adventure and a destination not for the faint-hearted.
Yet here we were, on a 5,000KM epic road trip, oblivious of the danger that lay ahead but lured by the thrill of adventure – to go where few travellers have been to before. Our first destination was the land of misty mountains, the cradle of man – Marsabit.
In Marsabit, our stay was brief as our purpose was to rest after the long trip from Nairobi. We needed to be fresh for the next 246KM journey to Moyale that was awaiting us the following day. Nowadays travel to Moyale is much easier because of the new tarmac road and so by around 10:00 AM, about a 2 hours drive, we were in the border town of Moyale.
It was just the other day, when my visits to northern Kenya were more frequent, that a trip here used to be a whole day’s roller-coaster ride in a Land Rover. Fortunes have changed for the northerners but even then some areas still remain phenomenally impenetrable.
Indeed beyond Moyale, this became true as we parted ways with tarmac and all forms of modern communication to plunge deep into some of the most treacherous rough roads the north could throw at us. The rains this year were unusually heavy across the country and here they came in torrents. It was evident from this point on that this would be a journey we would not forget.
Here, only SUVs can survive. It is perhaps such places that still make Kenya Land Cruiser country. The only other machines that come close are the lorries and commuter buses that ferry merchandise and people daily. As for the speeds at which they move, that is a story for another day. Let us just say, they can put a few rally drivers to shame.
We passed through the picturesque town of El Danada, also known as Qofole. El Danaba is about 496KM from Marsabit town. Mostly remembered for the Danaba massacre of 2000, this town holds custody of perhaps the most breathtaking rock scenery in the country.
With Danaba behind us, our next destination was the small town of Dandu in Mandera West. Nothing much was known of Dandu until 2010 when the story of Shukria Abdi Issak, a boy who for 25 years had to live like a girl because of a rare genital abnormality, propelled it to the limelight. Dandu ushered us in just as the day was breaking but the heat did not.
It can sometimes get very hot here that spending a night in a room becomes torturous. Daring travellers at this point usually opt to move their beds outside to enjoy a star-bed experience on a shoestring budget! That is what some of us did and I can tell you there is nothing that beats spending a star-lit night gazing at the sky above and the openness around. Try it someday.
From Dandu we travelled through the towns of Gither and Burduras, which lie on the western side of Mandera, close to the Kenya-Ethiopia border, to Takaba. It is in Takaba that a massive aquifer with a pumping capacity of 300,000 cubic metres of water per hour was recently discovered at a place known as Darwed.
From Takaba, we ventured further into Banissa and later stopped in Guba before heading out to the quarry town of Shimbir Fatuma where a recent attack blamed on the Al Shabaab had left 4 quarry miners dead. It is said the attackers trekked a remarkable 65 KM from El Wak town to carry out the attack.
Our next stop from Shimbir was the town of Elwak. Once a thriving commercial centre, years of terrorist attacks had dwindled its stronghold as one of the region’s commercial hub.
When we arrive, the residents are very apprehensive. They are still recovering from a recent gun attack. Gunmen in a stolen civilian car had killed 3 people, including a police officer outside Equity Bank, where we are standing. Besides this mood of fear, we find Elwak to be quite a vibrant town. One can only imagine how it may have been in its hay days.
By the 8th day, we were travelling along the edge of the mighty River Dawo, stopping briefly to take in the spectacular views, before arriving in the town of Rhamu. Rhamu is situated in the extreme northeast of Kenya, at the border with Ethiopia.
It is actually River Dawo that marks that boundary between Kenya and Ethiopia. To come to Rhamu, we have passed through a security zone in the towns of Borehole 11 and Wargadud under armed escort.
In the years gone by, the town of Rhamu has known its fair share of conflict. The most memorable is the 1977 unconfirmed attack by Somalia which has simply come to be known as the Rhamu Incident. In later years, in 2014, this small but far from quiet town was thrown into the limelight again when ethnic conflict erupted between the Degodia and Garre communities.
That too passed and Rhamu moved on. But on this day we arrived, a more subtle conflict was underway – that of 2 male bulls fighting for supremacy and the right to father the next generation of weather-hardened cattle which are the next most important animal in this frontier territory after the camel.
It was nothing close to the legendary bullfights of western Kenya but it was nevertheless a sight to behold as the rays of the setting sun cast their golden hues upon the stirred-up dust, transforming the duelling males into creatures nearly out of this world.
While in Rhamu, we were let in on an ancient food preservation practice where locals smoke camel milk containers with a special aromatic herb that gives the milk its distinctive smoky taste. Besides the taste, it also helps increase the milk’s shelf-life. Next time you take a glass of fresh camel milk, you will be privy to the origin of its distinctive signature smoky taste.
In the days we traversed Mandera, camel milk became our close dietary ally – almost our staple food. It is indeed true that when you get used to camel milk, anything else you take feels like adulteration!
In Mandera town, our epic 10-day road trip came to a dramatic end. On arrival here, we were greeted by a miasma of apprehension as the town was slowly emerging from a recent curfew that had just been lifted. Residents, as if harkening to an unseen master, were hurriedly closing shop and disappearing to their homes. You would almost imagine the curfew was still on. In no time, the otherwise vibrant town was transformed into a ghost town.
If your notion of the north is that of barren wastelands and unbearable heat, then Mandera will surprise you as it did us. In the marketplace, we found all manner of food crops on sale. From potatoes and greens to giant watermelons, we momentarily thought we were in the highlands of Mount Kenya or Central Kenya.
We had covered what must have been, arguably, some of the most rugged countryside terrains in Kenya. Finally, even our hardy Land Cruiser bowed out gracefully with a broken differential. This was the third time it was developing mechanical problems – this Land Cruiser country had proven, once again, that it was still the ultimate extreme off-road land.
Yet in every drop of sweat, every episode of fatigue, every burst of the tyre, every cracked exhaust or an overheating engine, it had all been worth it as we connected dramatically with an off-the-beaten world that unfolded before us like a great masterpiece.
As we prepared for the long journey back to Nairobi, fresh inter-clan conflict erupted in Banissa between traditional rivals, the Degodia and Garre. This forced us to spend a few more days in Mandera town waiting for the situation to calm down. Then the rains started again and we knew we would have to brace ourselves for a rougher return journey. That is just how amazingly spontaneous the north can be. Either way, we resolved this was not the last time we were going to see Mandera!