Meltdown Madness: Bandits, Dust Devils & Lava Rocks
“We camped for a night in the lava rock landscape that is the Dida Galgalu Desert and felt like we had just set foot on Mars.” – Bina Belinky Trahan, 2014
For years, one of the most dreaded sections on the Tour d’Afrique was the 3 day, 260 km stretch between Moyale, on the Ethiopian border, and Marsabit in Kenya, optimistically labelled ‘The Great North Road’ on Kenyan maps. This section of the tour wasn’t named Meltdown Madness for no reason. A TDA staffer, Catharina Robbertze, remembered that, “Travelling through Northern Kenya the land was harsh. Of all the deserts we’ve ridden through this one seemed the most unforgiving with lava rocks making the landscape rough and almost impenetrable.” In addition to the incredibly tough road conditions, and I use the word road lightly, the route was also known for its opportunistic bandits.
One rider wrote, “This is one of the worst roads in Africa. It is so desolate that all vehicles must sign out of Marsabit and into Isiolo, so that they know you’ve survived. From the lava rock camps to the road-side camps you make it through each day. Your body has taken a serious beating. Over unending corrugation; it’s so rough that you feel like your teeth with rattle out. Every muscle in your body hurts by the end of the day and as you crash into a dreamless sleep (despite the Larium) your last thought is that you get to do it all again tomorrow.”
Former Tour Leader Randy Pielsticker added that, “But it’s not just the road surface. While travelling through this landscape there is no reprieve from the elements. The sun bakes everyone while the wind carries sand at velocities that will remove paint from your bike frame. In addition to the roads and weather there are no opportunities to restock any food or water provisions during the three days it takes to traverse this desolate wasteland.” And it wasn’t just the riders who suffered, “Punctures and broken spring blades drastically delayed our mechanical support. I found myself driving the bakkie in a race against our fastest riders. Getting to camp ahead of them and not destroying the truck in the process was a monumental challenge in itself.”
One of the strangest events happened in 2014. Randy picks up the story, “there were some ominous clouds looming on the horizon, but I just assumed that rain in this parched corner of the planet was an impossibility. While delivering the rider meeting I was interrupted by crack of thunder, and within 30 seconds the most torrential rainstorm unleashed its fury upon us. The desiccated ground was unprepared for such a deluge. Tents were flooded, jerry cans and cooler boxes were floating out of the kitchen. Some cyclists ran for shelter, others attempted to batten down the hatches on their tents, a few decided to embrace the storm, got naked and had the most magnificent shower ever.”
Despite the horrible conditions, there were moments of happiness, even joy. Take, for instance the Tree Top Safari Bar in Sololo. There is virtually nothing else between Moyale and Marsabit yet here was this small shack serving somewhat cold beverages. After struggling along all day on the lava rock road, nothing ever tasted so good. Or perhaps the emergence, seemingly out of nowhere of a large, noisy herd of camels, led by a well dressed friendly family of local herders. Or the welcome shade of a lone acacia tree in midst of the endless desert.
I remember on my ride, starting out just as the sun rose, on the toughest day of the stretch, the last 90 km in to Marsabit. Combine loose sand, large lava rocks, 40C+ temperatures, a nasty headwind and a steady climb and you have quite a day. I was so proud to actually finish that day but the most lasting memory occurred just after I left our camp. Completely alone, I suddenly noticed a large cat loping across the ‘road’ just ahead of me. My initial reaction was unsurprisingly, fear, but as I watched this beautiful animal continue on its way, completely uninterested in me, that feeling changed into something spiritual, something mystical. That is how I remember my Meltdown Madness experience.
Note: In 2010, construction began on the Great North Road, progressing year by year until the entire distance between Moyale and Marsabit was paved. In 2015 the riders of that year’s Tour d’Afrique enjoyed the brand new pavement, making that ride in 2 days instead of 3. That section of the tour was later renamed Tribal Lands, the trials and tribulations of the lava rock road and Meltdown Madness now just a distant memory.