When I first saw Lake Turkana on a map I knew I would have to go there sometime. First up, it’s enormous: 200km long and 50km wide, to be precise. And it’s home to world-record sized Nile Perch. But even more intimidating is its location in Kenya’s wildest northern corner, near the borders of Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda. With Turkana, getting there is half the battle and getting back is the other half. Travelers must choose between two roads. Road one floods every year. Road two passes through bandit country and attacks occur regularly.
The easy part of the journey took us from chilly Nanyuki to Maralal, via Rumuruti. We shared the back seat of a crowded matatu or minibus with a local farmer and his prize rutting ram which lay at our feet, hooves trussed together with rope. The goat had testicles the size of spanspeks and his services were in demand throughout the region. I can’t say it was the most comfortable or sweetest-smelling nine hours I’ve ever spent, but we did get to Maralal in the end and we even saw some elephants and endangered Grevy’s zebras on the way.
From A to B
We checked into an absolutely filthy hotel, dumped our bags, and went in search of a ride to Turkana. Turkana is so seldom visited that there’s usually only one vehicle headed there on any given day. Two if you’re lucky. Zero if you’re not. Because transport is in such short supply, you have to pay handsomely – even if you are sharing the back of a truck with livestock.
We’d been around long enough to know that these things always start in bar, the seedier the better. And in Maralal this meant one thing and one thing only: The Buffalo Hotel. There we met a guy who went by the name Tony Blair. Tony promised to get us on a truck which was leaving at 5am the following morning. An early night was in order.
We woke at four, took turns to use the bucket shower and avoid contracting athlete’s foot or worse, and were packed and ready by half past. Too bad the askari had gone AWOL and taken the keys for the front gate with him. Two giant Tri-Circle padlocks lay between us and the outside world. For once Tony Blair could not talk his way out of a situation and we were left to watch, helpless, as the truck truly did depart. It was our own tame version of Locked up Abroad.
I’m not sure what happened between then and lunchtime, but somewhere along the line Tony Blair managed to secure us spots on the back of a Red Hilux which was taking the local MP to visit his constituents in Loiyangalani – the only town on the lake’s Eastern shore. All I know is that it was the best $100 I ever spent, as by mid-afternoon we had overtaken the truck which left hours before us.
Black Rock & Blue Sky
The scenery got harsher as the journey went on. Green trees and red earth gave way to brown grass and browner earth which in turn gave way to black basalt cannonballs. Twelve-year-old goat herds carrying AK-47s across their shoulders waved as we passed. We made a canopy out of our towels, but still the sun got to us.
By the time the Jade Sea – as Turkana is also known – was laid out in front of us, we were delirious, but one glimpse of its shimmering expanse cured everything that had gone before.
Black black rock; blue blue sky; shimmering quicksilver water; and a dry heat which permeated my skull. We couldn’t see the other side, but we could see a gnomish island floating on the horizon. The Hilux descended the ‘staircase’ (an almost vertical zigzagging pass cut out of the rock) painstakingly and we hopped off as soon as it reached the lakeshore.
Turkana shouldn’t be anyone’s home. The water is sodium rich, and it tastes vile and softens your bones. But we didn’t have much choice, so we drank it. The wind is incessant and bone-deep. On the first night it snapped one of our tent poles in two. There is no vegetation around the lake, which means no shade and no firewood.
Turkana may be hell on earth for humans, but it is an aquatic paradise. Home to 22, 000 Nile Crocodiles, it has enough to fish to feed all of them. We spent a few days hiking and fishing our way towards Loiyangalani. Apart from the occasional mute kid in search of chewing tobacco, the wind was our only company.
We caught enough fish to just about survive, and our backs got used to sleeping on jagged rocks. We even managed to scavenge enough firewood to cook once a day. It was the water which really got to me, though, and by the time we reached Loiyangalani I was hallucinating Valpre.
Loiyangalani has one electricity point, where locals charge 12 volt batteries which in turn are used to power cellphones and hair clippers; TVs and fluorescent lights. The power is supplied by a solitary wind turbine which threatens to launch into orbit.
We bought a 5L bottle of water (not Valpre, alas) and a six-pack of Tuskers and booked into a campsite which advertised not only green grass and palm trees, but also a swimming pool. The swimming pool was empty, and although the manager did agree to fill it for us, we ended up having to sit in a knee-deep puddle in the deep end to enjoy our Tuskers.
Apart from booze, food, and fresh(ish) water Loiyangalani didn’t have much to offer. And besides we still hadn’t caught that monster Nile Perch.
We arranged to spend our last night at the lake on South Island, a national park about 15km from the lake’s edge. The ‘BECKHAM No. 7’ was quite unlike any vessel I hade ever seen. A much bigger, much cruder version of coastal Dhows, with a sail made of USAid maize bags tacked together and an adolescent crew of eleven, it should never have been allowed near water. One boy manned the sail, and another the keel. The remaining nine bailed water, fixed leaks, and performed running repairs on the sail.
By some miracle we made it to the island in one piece. Huge bulbous granite slabs punctuated the bay where we made camp. Long dry grass shimmered in the late afternoon light. Bare trees looked like they might even provide some firewood.
We fished till way after dark, expecting the dull thud of a leviathan hitting our lines on every cast. We caught lots of tilapia and small tigerfish, but the giant Nile Perch we had been hoping for was still elusive. We slept under the stars, knowing that in three days we’d have to be in Nairobi to catch our plane home.
Luckily we found a lift as soon as we got back to Loiyangalani. Edward, an Indian grocery merchant agreed to take us to Maralal, provided we keep him company in the front of his truck. In spite of hours of torture on a dodgy jump-seat listening to dance remixes of Abba and a forced stopover in Baragoi due to reports of roving bandits, we made it back to Maralal with just enough time to spare.
We might not have been in such a panic if we’d known our flight home would be delayed by 12 hours anyway. Not that we let that bother us too much. After a week camping next to Turkana, a night on the floor of Jomo Kenyatta Interrnational Airport was child’s play.