Lake Turcana: The Final Frontier

The journey to Lake Turcana in far north Kenya is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it for those short on time. While flights are possible, this is definitely a trip where getting there is half the fun…or adventure… insanity… death wish. At some point during the journey, all those thoughts will cross your mind, as well as doubt. Plenty of doubt, frustration, and ultimately- the most wonderful feeling of success. Dipping your toes in an emerald lake on a shale-covered shore has never felt so good.

IMG_9607There are many routes to Lake Turcana, each with their merits and individual beauty. Starting at Naivasha, a short distance from Nairobi, and traveling north to Barangoi is just one of them. There are numerous small towns and national parks to stop off at along the way. As you travel north, the ‘mzungu’ (foreigner) becomes the tourist attraction. Be prepared for a Music Man trail of small children and constantly having hair pulled (yes! It’s real. It’s attached.) and skin pinched (again, real.). Traveling at night is ill advised so get ready for early mornings and early nights. Most transport, if it comes or leaves on time, will leave very early. Make sure you bring a waterproof bag, to protect your assets against possible sudden downpours!

Arriving at Barangoi, it’s a bit of a shock to learn there’s no reliable transport. In either direction. Possibly for weeks. This is a journey that takes time. And patience. And a stomach for tea that tastes inexplicably of kerosene and fish. Grab your cup of tea, and sit by the road. Talk to the khat chewers, the ubiquitous leafy mild amphetamine that has its hold on the population, buy some intricate beading work. There are two streets, enjoy them- you will get to know them very, very well.  Visit every restaurant several times. While the local tribes people are stunningly covered in beadwork, silver mirrors and fake flowers, with ears and necks straining under their weight, it is considered highly disrespectful to take pictures. If you feel you must, always ask and be prepared to pay, quite literally, their soul.  As you may be stranded here for many days, making friends, rather than causing offense, certainly seems the better option!

Armed GuardFrom Barangoi, there are no more buses. Transport consists of lorries carrying anything from food to furniture to hundreds of dead dogs killed in an attempt to control a rabies outbreak. After a few days, the expression ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ starts to come to mind. Have your bag packed and with you whenever possible. When a lorry or a truck says you’re in, be ready to seize that opportunity with both hands! The road out of Barangoi to South Horr is stunning. Wide planes cascade into mountains. Herds of diminutive dik-diks scurry along the road, ostriches and eagles divide the earth and sky. As beautiful as the landscape is, this is bandit territory.  Chose an armed vehicle if you have the luxury. The juxtaposition of old and new is harsh: tribal herdsmen in traditional dress, an AK-47 slung casually over a shoulder.

The Long RoadSouth Horr is a good point to stop and spend the night. It’s a sleepy little village and welcomes the distraction of a visitor, eager to discuss everything from evolution to disability rights. In rainy season, the river that runs through it is a torrent, in the dry it serves as a beautifully tree lined avenue. Enjoy another cup of fishy chai and the local doughnut. It’s time to wait again. South Horr is far more picturesque. It is also the meeting point for the new bypass but try not to get too excited. The one bit of paved road for hundreds of miles still gets pointed out as a tourist attraction.  The bypass does mean (sometimes) daily transport back to Nairobi if your time has run out. However, if you chose to move on, keep your bags packed and your eyes on the road.

The road from South Horr to Turcana is unremittingly brutal and equally breathtaking. Attempting it in anything less than a four-wheel drive is insanity, but locals, and a few crazy travellers, will attempt it on foot, camel or motorbike. Sandy roads cut through lush tree covered planes. Camel savour the luxury, local huts nestle in the last bit of hospitable landscape. It is, quite literally, awesome. Soon the sand makes way to gravel and shale. The landscape becomes increasingly harsh, mile on mile of granite rock broken only be the odd dried tree or empty riverbed. In the dry season, it seems almost laughable that in a few months, this area will be impassable, cut off by raging flashfloods and watersoaked planes. Regardless of the season, take plenty of water and food. There is only one village between here and Lake Turcana, and with no daily traffic, a puncture could prove deadly.

IMG_9498Remarkably, people do live here, making their living turning the few remaining trees to charcoal. Their huts now made entirely of sacking and tarp, all the natural building materials burnt to feed families. It seems an impossible life. Continue through the landscape until, suddenly, it appears. Called the Emerald Lake, Lake Turcana stretches glistening into the horizon. Volcanic islands rise out of its depths, offering camping and safari opportunities for this with deep pockets. But most people will spend their first night in Loyanganli, Land of Many Trees.

The town is split into those who live near the water, Fish Eating Village, and those who live away from it, Stone Eating Village. The names are telling. Those in Fish Eating Villages are fishermen, subsisting on local ugali (corn meal) and fish. Fish smoked, fried, boiled, and stewed. Those in Stone Eating Village seem to survive by some miracle of perseverance, and the occasional aid package or goat. The land is arid, covered with sharp granite stones. Agriculture has no place here. People live of what can grow and what can eat it. Small clusters of huts dot the landscape, their colourful mushroom tops revealing themselves to be carefully hoarded debris- a last resort against the brutal monsoon rains.

While two or three campsites in the area may offer food, be warned that the town sleeps early and get in your main meal mid-day. Visit the fisherman down at the shore and bargain for a fish or two. They will be delighted to cook a feast if you can bring supplies and are happy to share. Aficionados of homebrews can test their taste buds on the local beer, mixed with flour, millet, sugar and cream. This ‘porridge beer’ stands in lieu of breakfast when food is lean. Hot samosas, donuts, chai, the ubiquitous ugali and fish will see you through.

Around the lake are innumerable spots to explore. Continue north to some of Kenya’s most remote safari parks, climb the mountains exploring the lake, visit El Molo, Kenyan’s smallest tribe. When its time to head home, try a different route if you can. Isolo is a good stopping point with excellent hiking opportunities, including the majestic and challenging Mt. Kenya or the more sedate Archer’s Point, a short bus ride away.  Be warned that unless you are happy and lucky enough to hitchhike, organized tours to these regions run into the hundreds, in not thousands of dollars. Many locals treat the ‘big-bus’ groups with undisguised scorn; meaning independent travel is the only route for those interested in an authentic experience.  But if you are going alone or you are on a budget, you will always be, to quote Williams, “dependent on the kindness of strangers.” Traveling to Lake Turcana may well be the hardest travel you will ever do, but, thanks to that kindness and the beauty of the world around you, you won’t regret it for a second.