09.07.2010 - 13.07.2010
Several days ago we arrived back from our ten-day safari to the Lake Turkana region of northern Kenya, one of the remotest areas of the country. We had spent months hoping to be able to do this safari, but as it is the low season for tourists, it took until just 4 days before it was due to leave for us to find out that someone else had signed up. Gametrackers, the safari company, was willing to run it if three people wished to go. This was the first safari to that area in three months so we very lucky.
Before I begin, I will outline where our journey took us. We drove to near Nanyuki and camped there the first night. The following morning we drove to Samburu Game Park (near Isiolo) and spent the night in the park in a permanent campsite that Gametrackers owns. We then proceeded across the Kaisut Desert to Marsabit, a town high on Marsabit Mountain. After camping there, we drive through the Chalbi desert to Kalacha where we camped under a huge tree. Our journey the next morning took us to near Loiyangalani on the shore of Lake Turkana where Gametrackers has a site right on the lake with traditional domed huts made of straw and branches. We stayed two days here exploring the area. After this we continued our journey to Tuum where we went on a camel walk that took us to a lovely campground at the foot of the Nyiru Mountains. We got up early the next morning and walked again for several hours until we met George with our Landcruiser. Our journey then took us to Maralal where we stayed at the campground that is used when the Camel Derby is on in August each year. Apparently, many people come from all over Kenya and the world to be there for the three-day event. From Maralal, we drove to Lake Baringo where we had a campsite right on the edge of the lake. From Lake Baringo, we drove back to Nairobi.
All in all, the trip covered about 2200 km which may not sound like much but which took us a long time to cover. The roads were, in many places, so rough that I sometimes wondered how they could actually call it a road and show it on maps as such. The erosion of the roads is unbelievable. Paradoxically, the very bad conditions of the roads in this area help keep it remote. I can imagine that, if the conditions ever improve, there will be a dramatic impact on the tribal peoples who live in the region. At the same time, the present isolation is clearly obvious, and it’s very evident that, if there were a medical emergency, it would be rather hopeless in terms of getting someone to needed care.
Our tour guide and driver was George who we found to be a wonderful man and a very skilled driver indeed. He never, in the whole time we were away, got lost which is amazing. There are no road signs and you basically have to chart your direction by landmarks which are often hills or mountains. The roads can, in some places, change from morning to night depending on where and how the wind is blowing or whether there has been a heavy rain storm. It was quite an experience!
Johanna was our cook for the trip and he looked after us very well. Each day he would have to set up his kitchen in new places, including lunch times as we were mostly on the road during daylight hours. He quietly set things up and prepared our meals. I kept on offering to help but he was happy to prepare and clean up all on his own. It was lovely as this gave us a chance to explore the areas where we camped when we stopped at lunch and supper. We both stayed very healthy on the trip I’m sure due to Johanna’s meticulous hygiene and care of the food. Sadly our hope that we would lose some weight here is not happening.........
Our travelling companion was Dan who is from Alaska and is 55 years old. We were so grateful for him signing up for the trip as it made it possible. We certainly learned a lot about Alaska as he liked to tell everyone about it including showing them numerous photos that he had stored on his camera. The locals were very interested in the photos, though I wonder how much most of them were able to really understand what he was talking about.
We started in Nairobi and drove to near Nanyuki where, after setting up our tent in our first campground, we went to visit Ol Pejeta Sweetwaters Conservancy, which includes a centre where chimpanzees have been rescued (sadly, they are still often sold and kept in captivity). They have about forty chimps living there, each with a name. Unfortunately they will not be able to go back to the wild, but they have a much better life there than they would have in captivity. It was obvious that the men who cared for the chimps really loved them. One of them told us that he could recognize them without even seeing them, but just hearing their calls. I would have loved to stay longer but we arrived there just as they were closing up for the day.
Chimpanzee Close Up (they were behind a wire fence to keep away from visitors, but had a huge open space in which they live)
From there we drove to another sanctuary where there is a blind black rhino who we could get close to. Baraka (his name, which means blessing) was beautiful, though he was very blind and would often bump into things. He certainly needed to be led by the trainers to his food. It was amazing to be that close to a rhino.
Luckily on the drive there, Chris spotted a black rhino – it was fabulous to see this huge strangely shaped animal in the wild.
Wild Black Rhino
On day two we drove to Samburu Game Park which was an easy drive. We had some great views of Mt Kenya’s peaks in the early part of the journey. The game park has really beautiful scenery as there are high hills and the Ewaso Nyiro river runs through it. The name means “brown river”, the colour coming from all the soil that flows into the river at all times of the year. There were many elephants in the park and very large groups of them, both adults and smaller and sometimes baby elephants. It was fabulous. On one of our two game drives in the park, we got so close to the elephants that there was one adult which was immediately behind the vehicle.
This was close!
I later found out that George always tries to have the elephants behind him, just in case they charge, as he can get away quickly. If he had to back up, he wouldn’t have enough speed to get away safely, as the elephants can move very quickly. We also saw some oryx – the first time I have seen these beautiful antelopes.
Now Chris will continue on with our account of our time.
Just outside the game park, on our way to Marsabit, we stopped to look around a small Samburu village. In a way that was similar to the visit we had made to the Maasai village in Tanzania, we were greeted by some tribal dancing and singing, then invited into one of the huts within the village.
After that we heard the children in the nursery – about eight of them – recite the alphabet and count in English and Swahili, then went to see the blacksmith who wasn’t working at his trade at the time, but who was surrounded by different artefacts that we could buy if we so wished – and then we looked at the necklaces and other beadwork that the women in the village had all laid out in hope that we would buy some items. I bought a necklace for Dana – and we left a small donation to help with the educational needs of the village. I don’t know if the latter had anything to do with what followed, but one of the village elders came up to me and asked me to put the palm of my right hand against the palm of his right hand, against which was the top of a stick that he had been carrying (as do most Samburu men). After we had done this, looking into each other’s eyes, he told me the stick was mine. I thought he wanted to sell me the stick, and asked the English-speaking Samburu who had been our guide to explain that I didn’t want to buy anything other than the necklace. “No, no – it’s not for sale – he wants to give you his stick as a gift.” I felt completely humbled by this kind gesture, and regularly carried my Samburu elder’s stick with me when we got out of the Landcruiser to walk around other towns and villages!
Chris recieving his elders stick
Samburu traditional houses
Samburu woman and her children singing
Whilst we had been looking around this village, George had driven back to Isiolo to pick up two armed tourist police who were to accompany us for the next few days. So it was that we first met Charles, a police corporal, and Joel, both carrying AK 47s. I felt a little daunted by the prospect of having armed guards with us – but as the days passed and we got to know Charles and Joel better (like George and Johanna, they both spoke excellent English), we came to feel really close to them as friends, and both Dana and I had tears in our eyes when it came time for us to go our separate ways (there’s been hardly an entry that I’ve made in this blogsite in which I have not, at some point or another, told of tearing up ..... it seems I do have emotions that show themselves now and again!).
The stretch of road from Isiolo to Marsabit was one I had driven going the other way when, in 1969, I brought back to Nairobi one of the two Land Rovers that Andy Chater and I had used in Ethiopia when we had been doing our PH. D. Fieldwork. It was tarmac for some of the way, and was being prepared for tarmaccing for much of the rest of the way (I recall it was in a similar state of intensive construction back in 1969!). I particularly enjoyed the last part of the drive when we turned off the main road to go through the rain forest that caps Marsabit Mountain. We first saw Paradise Lake that both Dana and I had read about in a book written by Osa Johnston describing her four-year stay there in the late 1920s (is my memory accurate ?) when she and her husband came there to photographically record this part of the world before it was changed by western civilization.
Lake Paradise - Its hard to see the two huge elephants grazing at the bottom!
Two large tusked elephants were grazing in the Paradise Lake crater. Later we passed by a fancy tourist lodge overlooking another smaller crater lake. Back in ’69, I had stayed in a now-gone stone house (replaced by the much more extensive, luxurious lodge) and had been bitten to death (well, not quite!) by mosquitoes, quite possibly the source of malaria that hit me immediately I got back to the UK some week to ten days later and that resulted in my having to spend a week or so in the Tropical Diseases Hospital in London. We camped that night in the grounds of the Marsabit National Park Ranger Station.
The fourth day, and we were off to Kalacha via – provided reports from other drivers were favourable – the Chalbi Desert. As we descended Marsabit Mountain, the heat and dryness became increasingly noticeable – camels were the dominant animal life that we saw (there were also donkeys and an ostrich or two) – and plant life became stubbier and more distantly separated until we came to the very flat, essentially non-vegetated, salt-surfaced, mud-cracked plain.
Male Somali ostrich - notice the purple legs!
En route here, George had asked several drivers if the road across the Chalbi to Kalacha was driveable, and it appeared that the answers were in th:e affirmative as George unhesitatingly started out across the plain with its plentiful mirages shimmering on all sides.
These next four photos are of the Chalbi Desert:
The impression that we were heading toward water was constantly with us. George kept up a fast pace along recently formed tracks, It seemed to me that he might have been a bit nervous about the Landcruiser’s potential to break through the surface and to become thoroughly stuck. I personally felt nervous that this could happen, though neither Dana nor Dan seemed at all perturbed as they both happily photographed our moonscape surroundings. This was to prove the only time on the trip that I felt uncomfortable about where we were going what we were doing, and I was much relieved when we began to cross more solid ground as we approached Kalacha.
The tribespeople in the town were Gabbra. In 1969, on the road between Moyale and Marsabit, I had been totally fascinated by, when I encountered camel trains of Gabbras moving from one place to another, how the animals were loaded as they carried materials needed to build huts, women and children, and the travellers’ few valued possessions. It seems that such sights are relatively rare now as the Gabbra way of life becomes more sedentary – largely to enable their children to attend school, but also to make their access to healthcare easier. I suspect that water supplies at places like Kalacha are more reliable than at the wells the Gabbra had traditionally used through the centuries that they roamed across northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia.
After spending a warm, windy night in our tent in a campground that was established by a missionary organization, Dana and I took an early-morning walk through the town and spoke to several groups of younger Gabbra residents who knew some English. Both of us revelled in this opportunity, all too rare, to communicate directly with local people, for we strongly sensed the possibilities of learning in much detail how people could live such hard lives with what appeared to be much equanimity. And their lives would doubtless have been much harder at this time last year in the midst of a long, devastating drought. This year, the long rains had come in abundance .....
The Old and the New
The journey to Loiyangalani (the setting for parts of “The Constant Gardner”) took us across a mixture of sandy desert and volcanic-rock-strewn desert. We saw a few Grant’s gazelles, and passed through a couple of small towns. During this segment of our safari as well as before and after, Dana kept surprising me by her oft-expressed keen enthusiasm for the desert and its inhabitants. I’d never really thought of Dana as being a potential desert lover – but here she was, gasping at the many beauties of this barren land.
None of the gasps was as strong as the one that came upon our first sight of Lake Turkana. One of its other names – the Jade Sea – was evidently well given – and remained evident from our first sighting of its waters to our last.
Our first views of Lake Turkana
We reached our home for the next two nights, situated on the shore of Lake Turkana, in the early afternoon. We chose one of a number of Turkana-style huts to sleep in and moved our gear into it, then began exploring the nearby beaches and cliffs (mainly formed of red coarse conglomerates and cross-bedded sandstones) to the south of this Gametrackers camp.
We met a Turkana fisherman who introduced us to his father and mother who lived in isolated huts a hundred or so metres inland from the shore. They had the most amazingly beautiful faces, creased and aged by the rigours of their undoubtedly hard lives, but wisdom and humour shone from their eyes. We determined to revisit them before we left Lake Turkana, hoping that they would let Dana take some photographs.
Almost immediately after our return to the camp, Joel came out of the hut he and Charles had chosen. Dan was asleep in his hut, and everyone else had gone off in the Landcruiser. Joel came with us as did Dan after we woke him. We headed north from the camp then inland a bit to some more Turkana huts. Here we found a group of women, most of whom were gathered around a woman who was lying on her side on the ground. It transpired that she was getting her hair braided by the others whilst another older woman was grinding maize using stones. We discussed (through Joel) what amount the women would accept for Dana to photograph them. A price settled, Dana began photographing even though the light was not ideal as the sun was dropping rapidly toward the horizon. Dana and the women enjoyed sharing lots of laughter as Dana showed them some of her pictures – and they invited her to do a little braiding with them. There were children around, too, who all enjoyed the merriment. More beautiful memories for Dana and me to relive when we’re back in Regina!
Turkana hair salon!
Dana joins in braiding
The day ended with another of Johanna’s fine suppers followed by a much-needed shower, and thence to bed.
The second part of our journey will continue in Part 2 of our Turkana Safari which we will get uploaded in 4 to 5 days.