The Great North Road – A trip through the wild splendour of northern Kenya.
The ‘great north road’, also known (less romantically) as the A2, links Nairobi, and the rest of East Africa, with Ethiopia. It does so by traversing some of the most dramatic and inhospitable parts of the northern half of Kenya. The 507kms between Isiolo and Moyale take you through the Kaisuit Desert, over 1500m of volcanic mountain (topped by thick forest) and on through the Dida Galgalu Desert and the Shinil Plains, before climbing again into the low hills around Moyale, where the road passes into Ethiopia.
When I first travelled this road you considered things were going well if you made the trip from Isiolo to Moyale in 2 days. The rough corrugated dirt road, strewn with either rocks or a fine clinging dust, was hard work in the dry season. During the rains however it was almost impossible. It wasn’t unheard of for the journey to stretch to a week, as buses and lorries became stuck in mud over their axles, and completely blocked the road.
The heat of the desert stretches is intense so it was normal for vehicles to travel at night. More comfortable for the drivers and passengers but it also helped to reduce the number of tire blow-outs and punctures. Poor quality tires, in extreme heat and on sharp volcanic rock, is a recipe for endless tire changing.
Upgrading the road
The project, to upgrade the stretch of the A2 from Isiolo town to the Ethiopian border at Moyale, spanned 3 presidents and construction took 9 years. The finished product is one of the best roads in the country though, reducing travel time from Nairobi to Moyale from 3 days to around 12 hours.
It’s not likely to appeal to petrol heads however, one of its defining features is how very straight most of it is, hardly even any undulations, and bends mostly occur in long gentle curves. The most challenging aspect of this road are the frequent speed bumps. Every hamlet quite rightly has them, to protect people and animals from speeding vehicles. It is easy for your speed to creep up on the long straight stretches of road, there are few land marks to give you any indication of how fast you are going.
Already the road has had an impact on the communities it passes through. Villages have rapidly expanded into small towns, shops and cafes have opened up where none were before and traditional housing is being replaced by buildings using modern materials. There are also cars, actual cars, not just Landcruisers or Landrovers or beaten up old lorries. There are big cars and small cars, hatchbacks, saloons, estates, 2 doors, 4 doors, very cheap cars and some very expensive ones too (county government staff one assumes!) It’s a brave new world where this ribbon of tarmac passes through.
….but will it last?
It is worth considering the fate of another ‘great north road’, the A1 between Kitale and Lodwar. This road was once also a masterpiece of smooth tarmac. During the 80’s tour operators would take visitors from Kitale to Lake Turkana for a boat trip, and be back in Kitale again in time for supper. Now it’s hard to believe there was ever a modern road here at all. The only signs that remain, of this once excellent road, is the odd patch of sharp edged tarmac, standing proud in the corrugated dirt, and just waiting to tear your tires to shreds.
Currently it takes a long day of dust and hard slog to get from Kitale to Lodwar by road (dry season timing), never mind continuing on to the lake. So I guess a road is only as good as the maintenance schedule.
Worryingly there are already patches of the new A2 that are showing wear. Considering how long it took to build this road and that almost all the contractors (and funding) were foreign, I am a little concerned that maintenance might not have been given much thought.
So, just in case the new A2 goes the way of the Kitale to Lodwar road, you should plan to enjoy it sooner rather than later. Visit Samburu National Park, climb Ololokwe, stop off in the cool and verdant Marsabit forest and get your fill of desert vistas, marvelling at the incredible people who manage to live in this extreme environment. Finally end up in Moyale and, if you hold a Kenyan I.D. card, stroll across the border into Ethiopia for some Ethiopian food before you wend your way back south again.
Isiolo, Marsabit and Moyale all have banks, fuel stations and shops selling most things you might need.
Even new cars can break down or get flat tires and there are still plenty of places with no phone signal. For the most part this road goes through very hot areas with no shade, so be prepared and make sure you have enough water with you.
This trip can also now be done by bus or matatu, you no longer have to travel on the top of a lorry (unless you want to).
You need a 4×4 vehicle to visit any of the national parks but, if you are staying in one of the lodges, most of them will provide transport to and from the gate and offer game drives.
Where to go and stay
These three parks are close together and all little more than 30 mins up the road from Isiolo. They are all worth visiting. The parks have tourist lodges and permitted camping areas. However, the easy distance to Isiolo makes staying in one of the many hotels there also an option. Check out TripAdvisor.com for suggestions and reviews.
Ololokwe, a spectacular mass of rock rising out of the plains, lies just to the left of the road about 20 mins north of Arches Post. It is sacred to the Samburu people but you can hire a guide to take you up the mountain. Enquire at Sapache Eco Lodge, which is sign posted on the road as you pass below the mountain.
Marsabit National Park
This forest park is a world away from the hot desert areas that surround the Mt Marsabit. Cool, thick forest with a surprising variety of wildlife, this is a real balm to mind and body after a day in the desert. The park has one lodge, Marsabit Lodge, and 2 permitted camping areas, one at the main park gate, which is close to the centre of Marsabit, and one on the shores of Lake Paradise. As the park entrance is literally in town it is also possible to make a day visit and stay in one of the hotels in town (again check TripAdvisor.com for suggestions and latest reviews). However, I would strongly recommend Marsabit Lodge; simple, friendly and reasonably priced, the lodge sits on the edge of a volcanic crater lake. From the picture window in your room (or the balcony) you can watch the animals as they come out of the forest to drink, it’s a little bit of peaceful heaven.
Accommodation options in Moyale are still quite limited, however with the improved road and impressive new border point I expect that will change. Currently you can camp at the KWS compound, stay in the Arid Lands guest house (both on the edge of town) or stay in the Al-Yusra Hotel (easy to find, a large multi story orange building a couple of streets to the right of the main round about as you come into town). I am not a fan of the Al-Yusra Hotel, a rather unfriendly place with claustrophobic bedrooms and bathrooms that are often dirty, but it is the only place in town that can currently be described as a hotel.
If you have a Kenyan I.D. card you can just walk across the border into Ethiopia here (day trips only). The Ethiopian side of Moyale is larger and more bustling than the Kenyan side with many small bars and restaurants. The best is the Koket Borena Hotel near the top of the hill on the left, as you go up the main road through town. It serves good food and coffee and has a nice leafy environment to eat and drink in.