This month, the road trip series heads south. We wonders if it’s possible to drive across the Loita Hills, and set off to find out how.
The map of Kenya pinned to my wall shows an inviting dotted red line curling from the Maasai Mara to Shompole via the Loita Hills. I wondered: is it really possible to take a direct route across the hills from the Mara to Lake Magadi? On Google, all I could find was information about walking treks, taking several days. Yet, that red line was there, and I felt strangely drawn to it.
I rang around. Was it possible, I asked, to drive across the hills? The answer seemed to be a resounding ‘no.’ Even if you could drive, one said, parts of it crossed private land, making access tricky. Another spoke of a “barely motorable” road on an online forum. My guide book said, “don’t even think about [it].” I had started to research other options, when I thought I’d give it a final shot, and contacted a community group down in Shompole. The man I spoke to said airily, “Oh yes, it’s possible. I often do it.”
By far the easiest way, he said, was to come from the Mara across the Loita Hills, and down the Nguruman escarpment. Not only were the views perhaps the finest – stretching to Lake Magadi and Lake Natron to the south – but it was not as tough on the car as going up.
A battered car
I won’t say I wasn’t nervous: the car wasn’t in the best shape. While in the Mara, we had had problems with the brake pads, and there was a mysterious clanking noise that wouldn’t go away, and, frankly, I wasn’t sure that I was a confident enough driver. And then of course, we still had to cross private land, permission for which we did secure. Should we be doing this road trip for a magazine, I pondered, if others couldn’t easily retrace our steps?
Musa, who had agreed to guide us through the Loita, met us at Narosura, a little town in the foothills. He did little to allay my fears. Pointing to Brian, the photographer, he asked me: “You’re not the one driving, are you?” Yes, I am, I said. He let out a high-pitched squeal of horror. “Even I find that road hectic,” he added, “and I do it all the time.”
By now, I was in something of a state. Jumbled thoughts raced through my mind: I hadn’t filled up with petrol, my brakes might fail, I might get stuck, or drive the car off a cliff. “I know you’re scared,” said Musa in a belated attempt to reassure me, “but it’s not so bad. It’s just the escarpment that’s steep, but as long as your brakes are ok, you will be fine.”
“How will you get over that?”
The road wound out of Narosura towards the hills. We passed trucks laden with tomatoes, donkeys lugging firewood. Steadily we climbed along a picturesque red dirt road. Musa pointed to the peaks rising above us on the horizon. “How do you think you’ll get through that?” he said. No idea, I smiled. Yet with each passing mile, I grew more confident, more relaxed.
Meanwhile, Musa chattered. He had driven tourists across this route before, he said. Hearing that gave me hope that it might not be so bad. But as we approached the first of three makeshift checkpoints, I wondered how we would navigate this if alone. A Maasai man, dressed in colourful robes, leaned over the wound-down window, and requested a fee to pass. Musa had a rapid-fire conversation with him before we were back on our way. “They could charge you up to 2,000 shlllings a time,” he said.
We wended our way through several villages, houses made of mud and sticks, until suddenly, round a bend, we found ourselves at the top of a jagged track, treacherous rocks threatening to slash my tyres, and a steep descent to boot. “Uh, should I go into low ratio,” I asked. But Musa insisted I could go down in first, and deftly guided me through it. “You think this is bad. You should see the escarpment,” he said, letting out a deep laugh.
The Alpine-like route wound through thick forest, across river streams, and at times petered out to little more than a piki-piki track, and I wondered at times how it was possible to stay on the road. In a valley below us, a river with sandy backs snaked through the forest. Above it, water cascaded down a steep ledge into a stream below.
A rocky road
“There’s a tricky bit coming up,” warned Musa, as we approached another ford. “Keep it in first, and don’t stop.” Ahead lay the first of several boulder-strewn extensions of the road and I inwardly thanked my ageing car as we lurched over the rocks to the top.
We never did drive over the peaks, but instead through the pass before finally reaching the private farmyard through which the road down the Nguruman Escarpment leads. A conversation ensued between Musa and the farm director, and we assured him that we had sought permission in advance. Finally, he waved us off with a man to unlock the gate at the bottom of the escarpment.
This was the part of the journey I had most feared. But in the end, it wasn’t so bad. Steep, yes, but not especially rocky. The road dramatically overlooked the vast Shompole plains, and Lake Magadi glittered in the distance. We had done it, and yet it was something of an anti-climax. Later, over a drink at Soralo research centre, I described our trip to one of the researchers. “Oh yes, I’ve done that road,” he said. He was strangely dismissive of our adventure, and I finally realised that the difficulty had been all in my mind.
The dirt road from Sekanani gate to Narosura takes about three hours. A couple of kilometres out of Narosura, take a left, and head into the hills. It is a fairly straightforward route, although a guide is advisable to navigate the “checkpoints,” and the areas where the road peters out. To the top of the Nguruman escarpment from Narosura takes about two and a half hours, and it’s 30-minute drive to the foot of the hills. Turn right for the road to Lake Magadi, doable in under an hour and a half. The road down the escarpment passes through private property, and it is necessary to seek permission from the landowner before taking this route. Contact Soralo in Shompole for assistance and advice.
Read about our road trip in northern Kenya The Road Less Travelled