Keep Your Land Rovers In The Garage: Here’s How To Cross Kenya In An Alfa Romeo
Photography by Jethro Bronner
After a tough few days in Tanzania on the previous leg of my African road trip, Nairobi was a nice change of pace. Traveling in Tanzania—food poisoning aside—had its challenges. The police were eager to get fines out of tourists, and one had gone as far as to check the water level in the windscreen washer system of my car while looking for something wrong that he could ticket me for. Another police officer had stopped me twice in one day to check my paperwork, as if it could have changed from one hour to the next. In Kenya the police seemed more concerned with my safety and making sure I was having a pleasant stay in their country, which was a refreshing and much welcome shift in attitude from the officials I’d been dealing with on the other side of the border.
Nairobi is only 100 miles from the border and the going was fairly easy on the way there, but the roadways in the city move incredibly slowly. I spent an hour and a half in traffic inching along in first gear, often shutting off the engine after standing still for extended periods. Eventually, I reached the first destination in the city on my list: Wildebeest Eco Camp would be my home in Nairobi. The camp is a center for travelers and overlanders, and so it didn’t take long until I found myself part of a small group of travelers like myself: a researcher from Michigan, a couple from Amsterdam overlanding with their Land Rover, a backpacker from Shanghai, and a motorcyclist from Canada.
Nairobi was a good spot for a little down time with my new and like-minded friends; I needed a break from so many days on the road, so I spent almost a month in Nairobi just exploring the city, sorting out paperwork, and relaxing. I even attended a classic car show which was a huge surprise! It turned out I had arrived in Nairobi a week before the African Concours d’Elegance, the largest concours on the continent. I turned up to find an Alfa Romeo Montreal, a Series 1 E-Type, a Safari-spec 911, and hundreds of other classics. This was the first time since leaving South Africa that I had come across any type of vintage car culture on the continent. It helped make me feel a little bit more at home in the Alfa.
Taking some time off and exploring the area was a much-needed diversion, but it was time to get back to the trip at hand. Nairobi is the halfway mark on pretty much any Cape-to-Cairo adventure, and during my journey everything up to this point was fairly easy—there had been no real language barriers or major paperwork issues save for a few “fines.” The roads were generally navigable, and friends were never too far away either. North of Nairobi is where things get tricky though. For decades, the road heading to Moyale, on the border of Kenya and Ethiopia, had been known as the Bandit Highway. There are hundreds of horror stories of overlanders getting stuck in the difficult terrain, and Paul Theroux was even shot at on the highway while writing his Cairo to Cape Town epic, Dark Star Safari. I knew that once I left Nairobi my holiday would be over. It would be tough going all the way to Sinai.
I continued to put off my departure, mostly to spend a little more time with my new friends, and because it seemed the locals were so hospitable, but at 4AM on an October morning, I finally packed up my luggage and set off into the darkness, racing through empty streets on my way to the Bandit Highway and Ethiopia. The quiet of the early morning let me cover ground quickly, and by sunrise I was climbing the hills around Mt Kenya, far from the city I’d awoken in.
There was major construction on the road heading north, but for most of the morning I enjoyed flawless tarmac, along with scenery to match. One day, when the road from Nairobi to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, is finished, I believe it will be one of the greatest driving routes in the world.
At the time of my trip, the blissfully new road ended at the small town of Merille, and I found myself on a dusty, rocky, and rutted dirt road running alongside the construction of the beautiful smooth stripe of tarmac I’d enjoyed all the way from Nairobi. The corrugations got so intense at times that the Alfa would cut out from the fuel sloshing around the in carburetors too much. I was sure I was going to punch a shock absorber through the chassis or else I’d crack open the differential on a rock. The vibrations caused a rear window catch to come apart—the E-clip had rattled loose. I pulled over to see what I could do when a trucker showed up and gave me a piece of wire to hold the window shut. He told me “Don’t stop for long on the side of the road here, there are shifta here… bandits.” Terrific. As I got back to putting mileage behind me, trucks traveling in the opposite direction left me in a cloud of fine dust that flooded into the car, making it difficult to breath or see. This was certainly one of the least enjoyable moments of the trip so far.
I had been on the “road” for eight hours by the time I made it to Marsabit, a small town on the edge of Kenya’s Northern Desert. I made a stop for fuel and a quick lunch break before heading back out into the desert. The route from the other end of town all the way to Turbi had been completed thankfully, so I was treated to a perfect stretch of smooth driving through the strangest landscape I had ever seen. As far as I could see were fields of little rocks, spaced evenly on the desert floor, going on forever. There was only the occasional camel for variety. It was like being on the surface of another planet out there.
At Turbi the road returned once more to a dirt track, but at least this time it wasn’t laid over flat terrain, as this path wound up through the hills as I moved eastward along the Ethiopian border and further up into the hills where the dirt got softer and softer among the trees and scrubby grass—I had reached the end of the desert, and Ethiopia was just around the corner. On either side of a narrow gorge is the border-straddling town of Moyale.
With dirt streets and no real connection to the outside world on either side of the border, it’s not much to write home about, but it marked the end of a notorious stretch of road, and I was relieved to have arrived with no unwanted visitors drawn to the Alfa. I had been on the road for 14 hours straight by this time, and I was filthy, tired, and hungry to put it lightly. I believed that I was out of the woods, and that the trickiest part of this trip was now behind me. So, late in the afternoon, I crossed the small bridge, changed over to driving on the right-hand side of the road, and arrived at the border post of Ethiopia.