The road less travelled – exploring the overland routes to Ethiopia


Most travellers would not place Ethiopia very high on their list of travel priorities.  In fact most tourists you would rather visit Outer Mongolia than venture into a country that has become synonymous with drought, famine and starvation.  Who could forget those heart-wrenching pictures that flashed across our television screens and appeared on the front pages of our newspapers at the height of Ethiopia’s 1984 famine?  Those distressing portrayals of hideously thin children, covered in flies and wearing nothing but a look of utter despair?  Certainly not the appearance of a glamorous holiday destination where you would chose to spend your savings and your long awaited annual three-week holiday.  If you plan is to travel overland from Cape Town to London as we do, however, Ethiopia is one place that will, of necessity, have to be included on your travel itinery. 


Traditionally, overlanders would head west through Uganda and into the Democratic Republic of Congo (erstwhile Zaire) before heading north to the Central African Republic, Niger and Algeria.  Although everyone who travelled this route complained about the suffocatingly dense jungle and massive muddy bog holes that needed to be dealt with on a daily basis, the route remained the most direct (and consequently the most popular) across the continent.  With the ongoing civil war in the DRC, however, this route is currently closed to all but the very hardiest overland travellers or at the very least those on the lunatic fringe.  The alternative route that has developed over the last few years runs from northern Kenya, through Ethiopia and into the Sudan.  From the Sudan, overland travellers have various options.  It is possible to travel by ferry to Egypt or Saudi Arabia or to attempt a Sahara crossing to Chad and Niger.  The two unknowns on the new overland route remain the stretch through northern Kenya to Ethiopia and the conditions in the Sudan which is also in the throws of civil war.  


Needless to say, we were slightly nervous about what we would find in Ethiopia.  We too had bought into the latest media reports that yet another drought and famine threatened to obliterate what remained of Ethiopia.  We expected to find a desolate wasteland filled with starving people and the same distressing sights that we had seen on TV news a couple of years ago.  We couldn’t have been more wrong!  What we discovered when we arrived in Ethiopia was the most spectacularly beautiful, lush country teeming with exotic bird and animal species, a country with a stable economy to which tourism contributes a substantial amount of foreign currency, a country with an ancient and mysterious history and a unique culture and people that could not have been more friendly and generous.  We certainly do not want to detract from the problems Ethiopia faces in relation to water and food supplies, unemployment and homelessness but these issues should not deter potential travellers from visiting this fascinating, diverse and magnificent country.


As it turned out, getting to Ethiopia proved to be far more problematic than anything we encountered during our stay there.  The only official border post where travellers can cross from Kenya into Ethiopia overland is at Moyale, a dusty, depressing town situated at the end of the notorious Marsabit/Moyale road.  Travelling north from Nairobi, the tar road ends dramatically just outside the town of Isiolo which marks the last frontier of the Kenyan north.  From Isiolo the road degenerates quickly into a dusty, potholed affair that is punctuated by a series of bone-rattling corrugations which continue for about 500 kilometres via Marsabit to Moyale.  The road is notoriously unsafe and the area has been prone to spasmodic incidents of banditry, cattle rustling, tribal violence and attacks on vehicles carrying food.  In an effort to safeguard travellers and other vehicles crossing the Isiolo/Moyale gauntlet, the Kenyan government has put into place various security measures.  Should you wish to travel north of Isiolo you are required to join a convoy of vehicles that is accompanied by armed soldiers.  Should you elect not to join the convoy you are required to have an armed guard accompany you in your vehicle to Moyale.   The convoy is not without its problems not least of which is obtaining reliable information about its departure time.  If you do manage to get to the start point before the convoy sets out, however, it seems that the minute the boom is lowered the faster vehicles shoot ahead while the slower vehicles are left to their own devices defeating the whole object of joining the group.  If you do happen to be one of the slower vehicles you will probably spend the journey eating the dust of the slower trucks.   In addition, the locals gleefully tell you all sorts of stories about corrupt police who elicit extortionate amounts from travellers in return for accompanying them along the route or phone ahead to warn their cronies to be ready to attack the convoy.  We could not confirm any of these reports and they are probably best left in the realm of urban legend or gross exaggeration!


Many overland travellers have felt that, despite the convoy and safety measures (or perhaps because of them), this stretch of road was still too risky and have tried other options.  One such option is the route via Lake Turkana which has been attempted by overland travellers with varying success.  The Lake Turkana route takes you from Nairobi to Nyahururu, Ramuruti, and then north to Maralal, Baragoi, South Horr, North Horr and finally to the Ethiopian border.  It would seem that the best reason for attempting the Turkana route is the fact that the route is much more scenic than the Marsabit/Moyale one.  Aside from the inherent beauty of the area and the colourful Turkana and Samburu people that you might encounter along the way, the Turkana route would seem to be fraught with as many difficulties as the road to Moyale.  The tar road ends at Ramuruti and it would seem that the dirt road north is not much better than its Moyale counterpart.  Although many travellers argue voiciferously that the Turkana route is much safer than the Moyale one we have heard reports of banditry and tribal clashes in the area. The biggest drawback of the Turkana route is that there is no official border post between Ethiopia and Kenya at the point where the road crosses the border which leads to all sorts of additional hassles from the point of view of immigration and customs. 


In the end, we looked at the pro’s and con’s of both routes and opted for the Marsabit/Moyale road and, on balance, this turned out to be a good decision.  At the same time however, many travellers opted for the Turkana route and had varying experiences on it.  For us, the deciding factor was that there was an official border post at Moyale and we would not have to enter Ethiopia illegally and have to explain to the customs officials in Addis Ababa how we imported our car into the country without the necessary documentation or a Kenyan exit stamp on our Carnet.  From the reports of other travellers that we have met it would seem that if you plan to travel south from Ethiopia to Kenya the Turkana route may not be too much trouble as the Kenyan authorities are not particularly bothered if you enter Kenya at a point that is not an official border post.  It would seem to be relatively easy to have the customs and immigration formalities completed on arrival in Nairobi.  On the other hand, should you be travelling north to Ethiopia it is recommended that you take the Moyale route, as the Ethiopian authorities seem to be sticky about travellers entering their country through at unofficial borders.  A Dutch couple that we met in Nairobi entered Ethiopia at Illoret/Haddo after following the Turkana route and were detained by the Ethiopian police for two days.  They were only released with the intervention of the Dutch consulate in Addis Ababa.  We did however come across two cyclists who crossed the border on a camel track and did not experience any problems.


Should you opt to travel to Moyale you will need to allow two full days for the stretch between Isiolo (N2 53 38.6 E38 08 08.9) and Moyale (N3 31 26.8 E39 03 12.1).  Prepare youselves for two days of bone-rattling boredom.  Isiolo is the last main town you will encounter before Moyale and is one of those dreadful frontier towns full of leering youths and con artists.  We decided not to take our chances with any of the cheap hotels in Isiolo and elected to camp at the Timau River Lodge (N0 05 28.6 E37 15 05.3) the night before we started the arduous journey north.  The Timau River Lodge is a gorgeous spot about 60 kilometres south of Isiolo.  It has a well organised campsite and a couple of chalets for rent.  It also has a restaurant, hot water and very nice toilets and showers.  Camping cost 450 Ksh per person (R45).  The drive from the lodge to Isiolo takes about an hour.  At present there is a Barclays Bank in Isiolo where you can get a cash advance against your credit card and exchange foreign currency.  You will not encounter another bank until you get to Ethiopia.  There are also a number of petrol stations and it is advisable to fill up for the 500 kilometre journey, as there is no guarantee of fuel in Marsabit.  Make sure you have enough food and water for the journey as there is little or nothing between Isiolo and Marsabit. 


Despite all the conflicting reports we had received about the departure time of the convoy it turned out that on the day we left Isiolo the convoy had left around 5h30 and so it was long gone by the time we got there.  We were unable to establish whether this was the usual departure time for the convoy and so cannot pass on any useful information on that score.  The whole arrangement would seem to be very ad hoc and it’s probably best to make enquiries in Isiolo the day before you set out.  As we had missed the convoy we reported to the office at the barrier just outside Isiolo and registered our names with the soldiers on duty.   They told us that we needed to take two guards with us as an armed escort was required if you were not part of the convoy.  We had no space for a soldier (let alone two) and did not think it was safe for someone to sit on the roof for 250 kilometres.  Eventually the soldiers allowed us to set off without a guard.  The 250 kilometres to Marsabit took us about 10 hours to complete and we were not able to travel much faster than 20 or 30 kilometres per hour.  The road is exceptionally corrugated and most unpleasant to drive on.  Not only is the road surface appalling but it is scorching hot and dry in the Kaisuit desert area through which the road stretches to Marsabit.


We arrived in Marsabit (N2 20 12.5 E37 58 48.1) just before dark.  Although there are a couple of cheap hotels in Marsabit town, the best place to stay is at the public campsite at the Marsabit National Park (N2 19 16.9 E37 59 04.7).  The park is well worth a visit and it may be worth breaking the journey by spending a day or two there.  Camping is in the forest at the park gates and costs 200Ksh per person (R20) although there is not water and only a long drop toilet.  You can apparently also camp at the Lake Paradise campsite inside the National Park but you need to be accompanied by a ranger. 


We were up early the next day in the hope of catching the convoy which runs between Marsabit and Moyale but once again we managed to miss it – this time by a smaller margin of only half an hour.  This convoy seems to leave Marsabit at 7h00 but once again we could not confirm whether this was standard practice.  This time the soldiers were not so happy to let us travel without an armed guard.  Once again we explained our space problems as well as the safety risk inherent in having a soldier perched on the roof.  Although some of the soldiers were happy for us to continue and to catch the convoy which was only half an hour ahead of us, their superior was reluctant.  We suspected he was after a bribe as he kept asking us what we had brought him from South Africa.  We played dumb and kept answering “our goodwill” which had him stumped as he could not come out and ask for the bribe.  Eventually they let us go and we headed off in the direction of Moyale. 


The road between Marsabit and Moyale, although corrugated in places and very dusty, is in better condition than the stretch between Isiolo and Marsabit.  This time the 250 km journey took us just over six and a half hours and we reached Moyale at around 14h00.  We caught up with the convoy about an hour into our journey.  The word convoy is used very loosely as, in fact, it consisted of only two trucks and there were no soldiers present in either.  The trucks were travelling much slower than we were and we were loathed to stick with them so we went ahead.  At no time on our journey between Isiolo and Moyale did we feel unsafe and we did not see any evidence of bandits.  This is not to say that there aren’t incidents of hijacking and banditry on this route but we, luckily, did not experience any of this sort of thing.


Moyale is an incongruous place.  The town stretches across the border but the two halves of the town could not be more different.  Kenyan Moyale is a dusty impoverished place with a distinct air of desperation.  There are no hotels to speak of and, when we were there, no water.  In contrast, Ethiopian Moyale is a bustling town complete with a bank, a couple of decent hotels, restaurants and pastry shops and a vibrant market.  An illustration of the cross border differences lies in the fact that residents of Kenyan Moyale have to buy their water on the Ethiopian side and transport it across the border – an oddity considering that for all intents and purposes they live in the same town as their Ethiopian counterparts!  Try to ensure that you cross the border before nightfall as there are many more accommodation options on the Ethiopian side of the border and it is a far more pleasant place to spend the night.  You also need to make sure that you allow a couple of hour for the border crossing as although the Kenyans manage to process you in a couple of seconds with only the most cursory glance at your paperwork, the Ethiopians are painfully thorough.  We spent over two hours at the Ethiopian border completing documentation for our vehicle, having all the chassis and engine numbers checked against our Carnet, having our kit inspected, completing our currency declaration forms and trying to be as patient as possible!


We were thrilled to cross the border into Ethiopia.  For us, this border signified an important milestone in our journey.  In many ways, having completed the hellish 500 kilometres between Isiolo and Moyale represented a point of no return as there was no way on earth we were going to go back that way!  We had taken the road less travelled and had made it.  Now all that remained was for us to come to terms with this bizarre new country we found ourselves in, a country where the year is 1993, dates and times are topsey turvey and where people drive on the right hand side of the road.  Piece of cake!


Some useful GPS points……


Timau River Lodge Campsite


N0 05 28.6 E37 15 05.3


N2 53 38.6 E38 08 08.9


Archer’s Post

N0 38 25.2 E37 39 46.3


Marsabit Town


N2 20 12.5 E37 58 48.1

Marsabit National Park


N2 19 16.9 E37 59 04.7

Marsabit Campsite


N2 19 11.6 E37 59 11.8



N3 31 26.8 E39 03 12.1