Land of warriors

Translation courtesy of Natalia Gouric

Getting to Omo valley had already been a transfer in time and space to a completely different dimension, different to everything that I have ever experienced. However, that experience was stained by the deeply negative effects of tourism in that region. But after crossing the Omo River at Omorate everything would be radically transformed. There, with the exit stamp of Ethiopia already in the passport, we put the bikes into a traditional Dassanech canoe to cross the legendary river and set upon one of the most rigorous, remote and unpredictable stretches of the entire East of Africa: the unstable no-man’s land of the triple border between Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan. Very few times in my life I have waited for something with such an anxiety and now, I was finally about to receive the great dose of adrenaline that this experience would bring with.

When you get off the canoe across the Omo, everything becomes immediately different, something that is largely due to the infamous 4x4 tours not getting to this side of the river. You clearly feel it on the attitude of the tribes people, their behavior, and their way of looking at us timidly with the same intense curiosity that we look at them. But above all things, it does because they don't ask us for anything anymore. We pass by the first huts of the Dassanech villages by the shore of the Omo, women wrapped around their necklaces made of little blue and red balls, water containers on top of their heads and their breasts swaying from side to side while walking. Children, boys, and girls, come out of the igloos made of sheets of corrugated metal where they live and run to meet us. They don’t annoy us like on the Ethiopian side, but they laugh, follow us, and try to help pushing our bikes instead. They look at all our equipment and want to touch everything like if they were completely unknown objects, which they are for them actually. Julia let them try her sunglasses, and I let others ride my bike.

We head across no-man’s land to the invisible border with Kenya, following the errant tracks that whimsically appear and disappear among the dry bushes of this desert. Only the compass and the GPS can guide us while we are heading forward to a faraway black point (the Ethiopian military post), far away in a diffuse horizon of mirages, where the world splits perfectly in two halves, between an immaculate blue sky and a yellow carpet of sand. Sporadic wind gusts spit us out sand while we constantly alternate between cycling and pushing along the first few kilometers in the middle of nowhere as we slowly move on towards Kenya.

At times we think we are completely alone, but then suddenly a series of thin silhouettes are drawn on the distance. Dassanech children approach rapidly, they seem to have no any idea of the objects we have. As soon as I make a move to pull the camera out of my bag, they run away terrified and shrieking. It takes me a few minutes to gain their confidence so they can finally come closer, step by step, cautiously, almost on tiptoes, and lose their fear. They look at the camera without understanding what it is, but their staring is priceless, and even more so are their gestures and reactions when they see themselves pictured on the camera's LCD.

This is a legal border crossing but not official, there aren’t any roads, any kind of sign posts, there is neither a border post nor immigration officers, just a military garrison on each side. I turn around 360 degrees and everything looks exactly the same, empty, huge, inhospitable, only the low hills of South Sudan raise up on the right side breaking down the perfect monotony of the environment. With the GPS in hand, I move forward the last meters until I finally cross the imaginary border line. I step on the other side of it and we are already in Kenya. An enormous feeling of happiness that I can’t control overflows me like a waterfall. Spontaneously, I start jumping, shouting and vomiting a catharsis of contained emotions that instantly gives me a gratifying physical sensation of liberation, like if I'd been carrying an incredible burden on my shoulders all this time and now suddenly disappeared. The long awaited moment in which I can look back to those 52 damned days we spent in that country called Ethiopia has finally arrived and I feel ecstasy for burying it in the past. It’s time to move forward and don't look back.

 In the middle of nowhere

If anyone asked me where my favorite place in the world is, I would answer quickly without hesitation that it is in the middle of nowhere. The middle of nowhere is both a place and not a place. It is that place where the inevitable universal reality of the uncertainty becomes the only certainty that rules the existence, leaving no place for the mind to keep believing in the fiction of a world where everything is tangible and certain. That’s why in that very same uncertainty, we, adventurers, find the perfect environment where we see our lives thrive in a spontaneous way; it’s in that space where we finally let go the last claw that hangs onto the illusion of a world where we believe that we can have control of things. The reward is nothing but the gift of freedom, and when we arrive to that conclusion, the uncertainty not only doesn’t scare us but it feeds us, because it aligns us with the most certain of the universal realities: everything is constant change, everything is uncertain. 

 That’s how we move forward on this remote land in the middle of nowhere, where I feel aligned with the universe and the adrenaline flows through my body in the shape of electric stimulus of pleasure that have no parallel. Adrenaline is the gasoline that feeds my muscles when pedaling or when I push on the sand, but it’s also the one that keeps my wits in a state of constant alert here, where there are no defined boundaries and the possibility of conflict is always latent. We are right at the heart of a land of warriors, going from Dassanech country to Turkana country, two arch-enemy tribes that constantly engage into battles that turn quickly into bloodbaths in order to control the pastures where they take their animals to feed. Everybody is armed around here, each pastor is a warrior on guard ready to resist a sudden ambush from the enemy tribe and die defending his tribe and cattle. Turkana warriors are tough men of such an intense look that they emanate an extreme sense of confidence in themselves. Their lives are scared by an inhospitable environment, and by the marks left on their bodies product of scarification, where each round bump on their skin computes the quantity of enemies (or wild animals) they have killed in battle.

 On the way, as we keep going pushing painfully on the thick sand sand passing by Turkana’s villages, we also find the Catholic Missions that are active in the region, some of them have turned into onerous luxury castles which even include vineyards in what is one of the most deserted regions of Africa. As someone who has always been against any kind of impossition of religion (any kind), It’s difficult for me to find an unselfish reason behind their beneficence work here. However, we have found exceptional people, like Father Andrew who risks his own life going to the villages to talk with the chief of the tribes to disarticulate imminent wars that will derive in an unpredictable number of casualties. He does it in the name of peace, not in the name of the god he believes in. Also, we’ve met many exceptional volunteers that go there with the only aim of genuinely helping people, providing medical and sanitary attention without charging them with the high price of evangelization, to those who could otherwise die of afflictions that are easy to avoid.

While men are herding their goats, Turkana women do housework, take care of their children and spend long hours a day sitting in groups working on their personal decoration under the relative freshness of the acacias. In our view, their lives are very primitive, so much that until nowadays Turkana people have rejected the use of the wheel, but they seem living without any hurry for getting to work early.

 The exquisite decoration of little colorful ball collars, and trinkets one above another, indicate women status and their “value” within the village. The more quantity they have, the higher their status. Painful scarification is also part of their body decoration.

 The villages are of the most simple I’ve seen in the whole region of Omo valley and lake Turkana, consisting of groups of half-dome huts built with a structure of tree branches covered in dry leaves. The family sleeps directly on the ground, and unlike traditional homes of many tribes of the world, for obvious reasons, fire for food is lit outside and not in the center of the hut like it's usualy the case.

It took us five physically tough days to peddle, but mostly push on the sand up to 8 hours a day, the 167 km of vanishing tracks in this forgotten land between Omorate and Lodwar, the first small city of Kenya. When I look back in hindsight at the images of these infernal stretches, like the sandpit we just crossed, sometimes I find it hard to believe (as in previous occasions in jungles, deserts, etc.) the enormous challenges that I put myself in, because as always, I could have chosen a simpler and safer route. But this isn’t something new for me, it is part of my personality. What brings me much more surprise and admiration is seeing my iron maiden, Julia, tolerating the "tortures" to which this terrible knight subdues her. She pushes always forward without any complaints or disgusts, with the mettle of someone who gives everything before complaining or giving up. Behind her, in silence, I start to realize why I’ve fallen in love with this woman of indomitable character and spirit of steel. 

Our journey turned out to be a success and an extraordinary life experience, one of those that will be forever remembered amongthe most incredible memories that I collect while traversing the world by bicycle. Spending these weeks with the Turkana people and previously with the ancient tribes of the Omo valley have been as fun as exhausting, and sometimes quite tense, but mostly, they have been fascinating to the point of leaving me speechless. We have been the stars of our own documentary; we’ve lived very close to these people, that we usually see as something as distant as unconnected to us, in a National Geographic documentary. The result was a unique and unforgettable life experience.

NOTE: After reading this, and maybe other stories from other cyclists that crossed this region, it’s very easy to fall into the belief that going through it doesn't have its own risks. However, as a warning to those who aspire visiting this fascinating place in the world, risks are big and many. Every people you see pictured here, don’t see the world as you and I. They live in a completely different dimension, which turns their character totally unpredictable for us. This is a place where EVERYTHING can happen at any time. You can end up in the middle of a crossfire in the frequent tribal wars, or you can be mugged by factions that start to see the economic value of a foreign. You can be a victim of what could be an irrational whim for us, like the example of a Dutch cyclist that got back home with a shot in his chest after refusing to share his water with a Dassanech, or like my friends Sarah and Scott who have been recently robbed at gunpoint and knifepoint, and she has been groped by a group of Dassanech teenagers, and later they had to postpone their march because of a shooting. After reading so many stories of other people about this region and having perceived a tendency to minimize the risks, and after I have assumed myself the personal risks of crossing it, I’d like to make clear, like my friend Salva (a legendary cyclist from Granada) made clear to me one time: you can't underestimate the potential risks of venturing here with people, like I said before, that live under radically different codes from ours. Just as until now, the experience was mostly safe and positive for almost everyone that has been here, potential dangers are certain and constant all the time and you do need to evaluate them seriously before venturing through there.