In the last instalment of my journey to update the Rough Guide to Kenya I had made it from Maralal to South Horr where we spent the night in turquoise crusty bandas with a big fluffy dog called Bear. From there, I headed north toward the shores of Lake Turkana and the ‘cradle of mankind’. The region is so named because it is here that the earliest discoveries of the human species have been found. I liked that idea, and as we embarked on the bumpy journey north I mused that I wasn’t really going somewhere new, but simply going back to where we all originally came from. I was going home…
SOUTH HORR TO LAKE TURKANA
In the daylight, I could see why the local Samburu people had chosen to settle in the oasis area of South Horr. With it’s shady trees, gently flowing river and soft banks it was a remarkably beautiful place. As we drove out of town we passed many local Samburu people – either collecting water or carrying firewood on their heads. Women passed us with their babies slung on their back, their bodies wrapped in colourful fabric and men strutted barefoot across the warm sand wielding machetes. After getting permission, I stopped to photograph a couple a woman and her child by the side of the road. In her traditional clothes, against the backdrop of the sandy stretching road with toddler clinging to her side, she looked spectacular.
As I was taking the pictures, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a crazy-eyed, toothless man with a gun slung over his shoulder approaching, closely followed by a man bearing a machete . Oh crap I thought. The moment I decide to get out of the car for a couple of quick photos, the bloody bandits come for us. Heart thumping, I ran round the back of the car to take shelter and yelled to Amos to find out what was going on. “He wants to be in the photo!” Amos replied, speaking of the machete-wielding man and chuckling at the panic on my face. Our toothless friend, on the other hand, simply wanted a lift further up the road as no public transport operates in the area. I happily took some photos, again this man looked stunning, and then greeted the toothless grinner who shook my hand gratefully and hopped into the back of the pick up truck. I resumed my position on the back seat and turned around to see him waving frantically at me through the windscreen, giant toothless grin on his face.
We’d been going for about 10 minutes when Amos stopped the car and called out to our crazy-eyed passenger with the gun in Maa (the Samburu language). They were asking him to come and sit in the front with them as his being on the back of the truck was straining the truck. I remained in the back with all the luggage whilst drivers Sammi, Amos and the toothless man all squeezed into the front (Amos comfortably sat in the middle – given there was no hand break to get in the way). They chatted away happily in Maa as we headed north, ignorant of the gun which lolled back and forward, occasionally pointing at one of their heads. I had to keep tapping him on the shoulder and asking him to be careful and point it in the other direction, much to his amusement.
After about two hours we reached the black volcanic rocky landscape of the Turkana region and the lake became showed itself in all its splendour – a wonderful splash of colour among the harsh landscape. I took in my surroundings, thinking that I had never in all my travels seen a place like this before. It was as if I was stepping foot on another planet. The road was terrible, like driving over a sharp pebble beach, so we crawled along at a glacial speed to Loiyangalani – the main hub on this side of Lake Turkana and where we would be staying whilst in the region.
Along the route we passed many Turkana people. Like the Samburu tribe, they look spectacular. They have shaved sides of their heads and braided hair on top, and are adorned with a wonderful array of fabrics, jewellery and leather. The women wear large bronze feather earrings that hang from the tops of their ears and wonderfully fierce faces. As pastoralists, they move regularly in search of the next spot for their cattle to graze. We passed many Turkana people making the tough journey across the volcanic rock along the road to find a new home, herd of goats and highly stacked donkeys in tow. Sadly, I couldn’t take any photos as they were, very fairly, not keen to be captured on film.
ACCOMMODATION: We stayed at Palm Shade Camp in Loiyangalani, which was a wonderful surprise. Given how difficult Loiyangalani is to get to, I expected accommodation options to be particularly bad, with little or no water, limited supplies – if any, and a lack of food. It was quite the opposite! I was shown to a lovely little banda with it’s own en suite shower (which worked perfectly) and European toilet. The food was excellent, and the manager Benedict was wonderful – charming and welcoming and knowledgeable about the area. There was electricity for most of the day from a generator and ice-cold sodas and water on offer. I quickly decided I would bed down here for a couple of days as a base from which to explore the north.
Being so difficult to get to, I didn’t see much in the way of tourists in Loiyangalani, but I did meet a very interesting man named Frank Brown. Aged 72, he wasn’t the type of person I expected to meet on the shores of Lake Turkana, but it turns out he’s been coming to the region every summer for the past 50 years. Frank is a lecturer at Utah University and has been studying the lake area for early human remains for his entire career. I got very excited as soon as he told me this and insisted he share his wisdom with me. We had some fascinating conversations as he explained that the volcanic rock spread all over the landscape is over two million years old. I could go on and on, but you can find out a lot more (in far more scientific and sophisticated language than I am capable of) via the Turkana Basin Institute‘s website – who Frank works closely with. The TBI was set up by Richard Leakey, he and his team discovered Turkana Boy, the most complete early human skeleton ever found.
We spent day 7 exploring the Turkana region. A few miles further north from Loiyangalani, I visited the El Molo people – a small tribe who live on the river and fish for a living. There are said to be only about 200 El Molo people left, living a very simple life in grass huts on the lake shore. Their visual identity is not as strong as that of the Turkana or Samburu people any more (they were dressed in ragged modern clothes for the most part).
The El Molo children were particularly awesome, they loved having their picture taking and posing for the camera. By the time I left I had a small school of them all clinging to my clothes and hands. I had to prize them off! I brought a little hand-made basket and a necklace made of beads from one of the women in the village.
From here we drove off road for a while and then walked out across the desert in search of salt for Amos’s cattle. They adore the nutrients from the salt apparently. In the middle of what seemed to be never ending hot, harsh rocky black sand we found an oasis with water and grass where salt was forming all over the rocks. Amos scraped up a good bag full and seemed very happy with his load.
I could have stayed in Loiyangalani for longer very happily, but to paraphrase Robert Frost, I still had miles to go. The next day we were up early to cross the Chalbi Desert on route to Marsabit…