"This is the toughest journey I have ever made in my almost two-decade career."
These were the words of Nation Media Group's Meru Bureau driver Wilmond Murungi as he described the gruelling eight-hour drive from Marsabit to Loiyangalani.
When the opportunity arose to cover the Lake Turkana Cultural Festival, I went for the experience only to learn later that we should have prepared ourselves better, at least mentally. The trip is not for the faint-hearted; it's a test of wits, mental stability and physical endurance.
We travelled from Meru to Marsabit on November 24 and woke up at 2am the next day, having chosen the Marsabit-North Horr route recommended by Jacob Walter, the Nation correspondent based in Marsabit.
But the night before, I had contacted a member of the Presidential Communication Service (PCS) team who, at my request, invited us to join their entourage.
As we prepared to leave, Murungi noticed that we would be taking the Marsabit-South Horr route and remarked, "I've never driven on that road and I don't know its condition. Worse, Jacob told me it's not safe.
We tensed, the three of us, including NTV cameraman Sam Wanyoike, who suggested we pray. Murungi quickly prayed for God's mercy.
I tried to call my contact in the PCS team, but he did not answer. The President was due to address the residents on the last day of the festival, so I thought he had ignored my call for security reasons.
Should we return to our original route? What if we can't keep up with the speed of these fuel guzzlers? Murungi thought aloud. We had a few minutes to make a final but critical decision.
"Guys, we're safe...tuko na serikali (we have the government with us), I said. "Let's follow them."
The guzzlers sped off and Murungi squeezed between two Toyota Land Cruisers. Behind the wheels of an Isuzu Dmax four-wheel drive, he had always said "No terrain has ever beaten me", but on this day his body language betrayed him.
We drove 50 kilometres towards Isiolo, then turned right at Eldorot onto a rough road. From here it's about 280 kilometres to Loiyangalani. With the El Niño rains pounding the country, I was beginning to think it was a bad idea to take a route that none of us knew.
We had been driving for about an hour and it had rained the day before, but worse, it was in the middle of the night.
"Sam, can you see the red brake lights ahead?" This became Murungi's constant question as he ploughed through the mud and ruts of an unfamiliar track.
Wanyoike would maintain tense silence for a while and suddenly, relieved, “yes! There they are!”
Then suddenly Murungi stopped and stared at a pool of water covering about 50 metres ahead. Which way? He asked Wanyoike who by now had taken over the role of co-driver.
We all decided that since we did not know whether there was a pothole under the water, we take a detour. Wrong move.
The vehicle’s front tyre dived into a huge pothole that swallowed it entirely. Murungi tried swerving on the right and left, lurched the vehicle backwards and forwards and accelerated to the full. He tried this several times for about 15 minutes. No results. “Guys we’re stuck,” he finally announced.
It was 4am. One of the Land Cruisers caught up and the driver joined us, trying to help push the vehicle but realising he was wasting time, left. He drove into the pool of water and slowly negotiated out and vanished into the darkness.
A few minutes later another one pulled over. The driver asked if we had a wire so that he could pull us out. None. To Murungi’s utter shock, since he had never witnessed a driver leave another stranded on such a route, he also sped off.
Now all alone, we figured out how to pull ourselves out, and started collecting stones and feeding the hungry pothole that swallowed the two front wheels. About 40 minutes gone.
Then something quite frightening happened. A weird noise from the bushes. “That’s a hyena,” Murungi said, and jokingly remarked that it might make one of hands its supper. For our safety, we decided to wait for daybreak.
It was the longest two hours of my life. Ordinarily, the stars would have been dazzling with various constellations drawing patterns on the cloudless sky. But the constant mocking laughter of the hyena sent cold shivers up the spine.
At 6am a lorry pulled over and the owner, Samuel Sahado, turned out to be our savour. “We people from the bush have suffered in these routes so much that we will never leave anyone stranded. I would rather evacuate you to safety and come back for your vehicle later,” said Sahado.
We get stuck again several times, but as we can now see the tracks of other vehicles, we manoeuvre our way through several areas where the road has been cut off by floods.
As we cross Samburu County, the road is relatively motorable. The scenery is enticing. The valleys and hills, now lush with vegetation due to the rains, are panoramic.
Then I notice a sign: Sidai Primary School, Baragoi. My heart sank. Murungi opens his eyes and we look at the board in shock.
The school's auspicious mission - to enhance and impact knowledge, skills and values for a better community, society and nation - does not distract me from the events of November 2012.
This is the area where 42 policemen were massacred by outlaws in the Suguta Valley of Death. In my mind, it did not matter how far Suguta was from where we were, as long as the bell registered Baragoi.
Samburu is characterised by gorges, ravines, escarpments, valleys and hills that provide perfect hiding places for bandits who strike in broad daylight.
At Nyiro village in South Horr, about 100 kilometres from Loiyangalani, we witness some of the severe effects of the current El Niño rains. When there is drought, the dry land cries out for a drop of water.
When it rains, the raging waters destroy this very land, wreaking havoc on the local population as thousands of livestock drown. The floods carve huge gullies and uproot the few trees along the way, leaving destruction that will last for years.
The rest of the journey is uneventful as the road improves. Then we are suddenly welcomed to the festival by the Turkana Wind Power Project, where hundreds of turbines noisily suck the wind into their huge electric motors, generating over 300MW of electricity.
The festival showcases the best of Kenya's cultural traditions, bringing together the Borana, Gabra, Buriji, Turkana Redille, Konso and Samburu communities, among others, in a celebration of culture.
We also meet Didhole Guyo, a chicken farmer from Moyale on the Kenya-Ethiopia border, some 500 kilometres away. Guyo tells us about the difficulties he encountered in transporting his chickens to the exhibition, and says that the main problem in the area is the bad roads.
"I raise over 2,000 layers on my farm where we face many challenges including lack of water and transporting feed from Nairobi, which is almost 800 kilometres away. The high cost of transport makes our products uncompetitive," said Guyo.
The bus fare from Marsabit to Loiyangalani is Sh2,000 and the only vehicle plying the route is the tough Toyota Land Cruiser. A litre of diesel costs Sh226 and food is so expensive that breakfast at the Palm Shade Hotel, comprising a cup of tea and two mandazis, costs Sh300.
Later, in the vehicle, as we marvel at the sight of the world's largest permanent desert lake, Murungi asks: "When do we go back?"
There is silence as the setting sun casts golden rays on the alkaline water.
"Tomorrow," I reply.
"On the same route? Wanyoike interjects.
At this point, Wanyoike, whom I have never known to be religious, calls for another prayer.