Lake Turkana

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Thread: Lake Turkana

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Feb 2008
    Cape Town
    Thanked: 3021

    Default Lake Turkana

    Hi all,

    I posted this on FreeflyD's Cape Town to Cornwall thread, but am posting it here as well so it doesn't get lost. It's a piece I wrote for Out There magazine 13 years ago on travelling to Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. Not much has changed. Picture at the end.


    OUT THERE MAGAZINE: June, 1977

    OFF ROAD: Lake Turkana, Northern Kenya


    Story: Tony Weaver and Liz Fish
    Photographs: Tony Weaver

    THERE are places in Africa where the journey becomes as much a part of the landscape as the destination itself.

    Such a place is Lake Turkana, remote, mystical, bleak, forbidding and one of the most breathtakingly beautiful destinations on the continent of Africa.

    Turkana is the biggest permanent desert lake in the world, 250km long and on average, 40km wide. Three metres of water evaporate every year and with the partial diversion of its Ethiopian headwaters, the Omo River, it is a shrinking ocean. 10 000 years ago the lake was 150 metres deeper and stretched to Lake Baringo, 190 km to the south. Once a part of the Nile system, it is now a blind lake in the desert, a magnificent jade sea.

    You leave Rumuruti, the last town on the edge of the Laikipia Plateau, and leave England behind and drive into Africa. It is a land of potent vistas, the images which inspired the artists behind Disney's "Lion King" and the cinematographers of "Out of Africa".

    Maralal is where the great African explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, has chosen to live out his last days, surrounded by his Samburu friends, isolated from the world. The road from Rumuruti to Maralal starts out well, then rapidly deteriorates into a corrugated washboard. The distance is only 112km according to the maps, 123km according to our odometer, but it took us the best part of the day.

    In the main street of Maralal we had to brake for a herd of zebra. Leopard roam the yellowwood forests and hyenas howl as they scavenge urban detritus by night.

    Maralal is a Wild West kind of place, we should have spent days exploring, but the road was long and hard so we left in the pre-dawn light, and 25km out of town, turned left through the village of Poror to the knife-edge rim of the Losiolo Escarpment. As the sun rose, one of the most breathtaking views in Africa unfolded below. The cliffs drop 2 000m sheer into the Suguta Valley, one of the hottest places on earth, with a mean annual temperature of 54degC.

    We descended into the Suguta and the road fell apart. The El Barta Plains stretched into the distance, grim and forbidding, boulder strewn and desolate, the track meanders through the rocks, and travel is reduced to a snail's pace as soccer ball sized sump destroyers leap malevolently in the heat haze.

    The road improved marginally as we approached Baragoi, a single line collection of tin houses with deep verandahs, then it deteriorated again as we ran the gauntlet of the 2 600m Ndoto Mountains to the east and the Samburu Hills (1 300m) to the west. The going gets rougher and rougher on the approach to South Horr. As we neared the head of the precipitous descent into a gorge of the Nyiru Mountains (2 700m), a Somali trader flagged us down.

    "Be very careful up ahead," he said, "there has been an accident. And when you get to the bottom of the hill, turn right into the river bed and look for a track out to South Horr, the main road has been washed away."

    We engaged second gear, low range for the nerve-grinding descent into the oasis of South Horr, and halfway down found a Range Rover lying on its roof. The driver's brakes failed at the top and he rolled at 120km/h. He was lucky to survive. An outboard engine and a 40kg gas bottle in the back broke loose, reducing the front cab to pulverized metal.

    By the time we reached South Horr, it was getting late, and we decided not to head on, having covered the grand total of 157km that day (137km on the map).

    South Horr is an astonishing place, a green oasis surrounded by some of the most forbidding deserts in Africa. The village is wedged between two mountains, the Nyiru and Ol Doinyo Mara ranges, a place for exploration.

    Six km north of town is the Kurungu camp site, one of the most beautiful in Kenya. The forests conceal elephant, buffalo, zebra, gerenuk, hyena and lion, and the birding is spectacular. An old man called Simbati joined our fire and told of the years he worked for George Adamson. "Bwana George," he said, "was a fine man, but when memsahib Joy came to join him he would go a bit crazy, she was a hard woman."

    We left at dawn for the last slog in what was developing into an epic journey to Lake Turkana. The map showed the distance as 70km, a doddle. Our odometer registered 90km. Whichever. It took six hours of hard, tough driving. By 9am, the temperature was 32decC. Lava fields took the place of sand and scrub.

    The road is vicious, razor sharp ridges of lava and volcanic rock claw at your tyres, ripping chunks of rubber from the treads and we began to realize why veterans in Nairobi had advised 12 ply tyres. At times we were reduced to speeds of one and two km/h, the chassis screeching and complaining as it twisted from side to side, springs thumping as we climbed down steps of black rock.

    Then the road dropped down in a huge sweep of epic landscape to Lake Turkana.

    Nothing can prepare you for the first sight of the Jade Sea.

    The lake stretches to the horizon in a sea of forbidding volcanic desert, seared black and red by ancient forces. The water constantly changes colour as the desert light shines down at different angles, azure, then jade, steel-blue in the morning light, green and dark as the dust clouds roll in, soft turquoise shot through with purple when late afternoon brings short relief from the heat of the Northern Frontier District.

    At midday, our thermometer registered 40degC in the shade, at midnight it stood at 28degC. Malicious winds raging at gale force sweep down from Mount Kulal, the 2 300m high peak east of the lake. There is a brief period of calm around dawn, and another in the evening. The shores of the lake are rocky and barren, the beaches strewn with lava under which thousands of scorpions and carpet vipers nest. The lake has the largest population of Nile crocodiles in the world, and the water is harsh and alkaline, barely drinkable.

    Dust storms rip through, making cooking an ordeal. The heat tormented us until we resorted to showering fully clothed, then sat in our steaming garments as the blown dust turned to mud on our faces. That night we lay huddled as the gales blasted down, bending the poles of our rooftop tent and setting the Land Rover rocking.

    Turkana is a compelling destination, one of the wildest, most remote places in East Africa, a place of awesome beauty and bewildering contrasts. On the eastern shores, Loiyangalani -- "the place of the trees" -- is the only oasis, a cluster of round grass huts, a main street with a handful of tin-roofed shacks, a huge wooden cross in the lava rock, a Catholic Mission in the desert, and a line of doum palm trees huddling for survival along the edge of the vaguely sheltering hill.

    It's a hell of a place to be.



    Route 1: From Nairobi via Nyeri to Nyahururu, Rumuruti, Maralal, Baragoi, South Horr and the lake.

    Route 2: Via the Rift Valley lakes: From Lake Baringo, head east at Loruk up the spectacular road via Tangulbei to join the Rumuruti-Maralal road.

    Route 3: From Marsabit to North Horr to Loiyangalani through the Chalbi Desert. Impassable in the rainy season. The Chalbi route changes as the pans fill with water. You should have two vehicles and be an experienced off-roader.


    The 1:1 000 000 BP/Shell road map of Kenya is the clearest available. The Kenya Survey 1:1 500 000 Route Map (Survey Office, Thika Road, Nairobi) has good detail.


    At Nyahururu, the Thomson's Falls Lodge site is pleasant. Just south of Maralal is the Yare Safaris camp. Kurungu camp at South Horr is a gem. At Loiyangalani there are two camps -- El Molo Lodge and Sunset Strip. Otherwise head north and bush camp in the dry river beds. It is not advisable to bush camp on the road to Turkana -- see Security advisory.


    The road to Turkana has only recently been reopened after vicious fighting between Pokot and Turkana warriors in the Suguta Valley. There is sporadic bandit activity throughout the area, so check before leaving Nairobi. The most reliable source of information is National Parks HQ at Nairobi National Park.


    Extreme. Very hot all year, with gale force winds. In the rainy seasons (March to May/October to December) all routes can become dangerous because of flash floods.


    This destination needs good, concentrated driving rather than a high level of 4X4 expertise. Moderately difficult on most stages, with some tricky descents. Some very sticky patches on the Chalbi Desert route.


    On really rocky terrain we lower our pressures until the tyres start to bulge, and travel slowly. This, in effect, gives you a second set of shock absorbers, and allows the tyre to bulge around the rocks rather than hit them hard and split the rubber. Punctures are cheaper to repair than a smashed suspension or cracked chassis. On the really rocky stretches, engage low range first or second, don't touch the clutch, and "walk" through the rocks.

    Always keep your thumbs on the outside of the steering wheel. Rock-induced whiplash can mash your thumb.


    The Turkana, nomadic pastoralists; the Samburu, cousins of the Maasai, cattle-owning pastoralists; just north of Loiyangalani live the El Molo, the smallest tribe in the world, a thousand or more strong. Their name comes from the Samburu, loo molo onsikirri, 'the people who eat fish'.


    More than 40 different species of fish occur in the lake, including tiger fish. The Nile Perch are among the biggest in Africa, with specimens of 90kg landed.


    Sparse. Lion, oryx, antelope, zebra, cheetah, hartebeest and topi are all endemic, but seldom seen. The world's largest breeding population of over 12 000 crocodiles is on Central Island. Birders will go ape over the waders and larks. The endemic pallid or Kulal white eye occurs on Mount Kulal.


    Last fuel at Maralal (or Marsabit). Black market fuel in South Horr at an exorbitant price. Basic supply stores in Maralal and Marsabit. You need to be completely self-sufficient. Drinking water available at the camp sites on the lake, but carry a good supply for the journey.


    Carry plenty of water and fuel, full tool and spares kit, two spare tyres and puncture repair kit, and good camp site shade.


    Carry a full medical kit, be prepared for a high level of discomfort, and watch out for crocodiles, scorpions and carpet vipers. Malaria prophylaxis advisable.


    From El Molo village (north of Loiyangalani) a track heads along the lake for about 10km to a volcanic peak, Porr, a perfect pyramid whose summit is reached by an easy scramble.

    Sibiloi National Park with its world famous archaeological sites is reached via an arduous journey through North Horr to Alia Bay to the sites at Koobi Fora.

    Mount Kulal is a fascinating, 2 300 metre mountain reached by turning right onto a major track leading east about 15km north of Kurungu outside South Horr. Zero your odometer here. At 21km, take a left. Ignore all side tracks and continue about 37km to Gatab Mission, where guides can be hired. Continue up a very rough track to Ladarbach to a spectacular camp site with sweeping views over Lake Turkana. Magnificent hiking.


    Don't rush. Allocate a minimum of seven days, and try for much longer. It is a tough route, physically draining, but the rewards are enormous. Take time out to explore along the way. And remember that this can be a dangerous destination -- be careful out there, many people have died in the NFD.
    Attached Images Attached Images  
    Last edited by Tony Weaver; 2010/11/07 at 04:43 PM.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Dec 2008
    Suffolk, UK
    Thanked: 37


    You know, Tony, with a good editor you might be just about able to squeak out a living as a writer....

    Just as a PS to the above, the great Wilfred Thesiger died 7 years ago, in a nursing home in the ghastly Croydon I believe. Blind and unable to walk......the greatest explorer of the 20th century should have had a much more gloroious end.

    "A poxy, feral, Brit architect who drinks bad beer and supports the wrong rugby team." Tony Weaver

    "Mike for President" Freeflyd

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Feb 2008
    Cape Town
    Thanked: 3021


    I think he died in Chelsea (don't know how that relates to Croydon). We tried to look him up on our way through Maralal but his adopted Samburu son said he had gone walkabout in the desert. Here's an extract from a piece I wrote for another magazine, "Living Africa":

    The desert roads are unrelenting. On the way in, we stopped to help a man in an old Land Rover. Every single spring was broken, rubber inner tubes and frayed ropes were wrapped around blocks of wood holding the broken blades together. But that wasn't his problem. His problem was that three U-bolts had sheared off, and he could no longer keep his axle straight, so the Land Rover steered like a drunken crab. We picked up his tracks later. It looked as though a dying donkey was pulling a heavy cart through the desert sand.

    We gave him three old U-bolts and drove off into the desert. A week later we saw him in Maralal, he drove off the crowds of beggars and children when he saw his friends had arrived. His Land Rover was fine, he said, with those U-bolts he would be able to drive for many more years.

    Maralal is the centre of life in this part of the NFD. Zebra wander down the main street, crowds of nomadic Samburu lounge on the front porches of the sliding down trading stores looking beautiful. It is where Wilfred Thesiger, the Arabist and fearless wanderer, has made his home. In the sunset of his years he sits on his stoep and watches over the desert.

    Mary Anne Fitzgerald, in "Nomad", describes how she went to visit Thesiger: "Had he, I wondered to myself, acquired insights on life that would enlighten us all? It soon became apparent Thesiger wasn't long on philosophy. Prompted to name the pinnacles and troughs of his extraordinary existence, he swatted a fly with some plastic netting tied to the end of a stick and pondered.

    " 'Excitement,' he decided, and the shame of accepting a hare's liver from his Bedu companions in the Empty Quarter. 'It was more than my share,' he said with genuine regret."

    We knew the feeling.

    We arrived in Loiyangalani in the heat of midday. The temperature was hovering around 40 degrees. At the El Molo campsite, the man in charge was standing with three Cokes in his hand. They were lukewarm, but wet. We drained two, fast, then bought the third and shared it. Then, remembering the basic rules of African hospitality we asked him to produce more so we could buy him one too.

    "Sorry, so sorry," he said, "that is the end, there are no more Coca Colas in Loiyangalani."

    It wasn't quite the Empty Quarter, and it wasn't hare's liver, but we felt a kindred sense of shame.
    Tony Weaver

    1991 Land Rover 110 Hi-Line S/W 3.5l V8 carburettor
    Cooper Discoverer STT tyres, four sleeper Echo rooftop tent
    2012 Mitsubishi Outlander.

    Previously Land Rover 1968 SII, 1969 SIIA, 1973 SIII, 1983 Toyota HiLux 2litre, 2006 Land Rover Freelander TD4 HSE.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Dec 2008
    Suffolk, UK
    Thanked: 37


    It's only a minor detail........but Encyclopedia Britannica has him dying in Croydon.

    He was of extremely blue blooded backgorund, so posh Chelsea would have suited him better from that point of view. Being squished by a rampaging bull elephant would have been far more dignified.

    I think I mentioned before that my brother went through Maralal back in about 1990, I guess, and heard of an old Englishman living there. "Wouldn't he like to meet him?" "Nah, why would I want to meet a geriatric Pommie?"..........philistine!

    "A poxy, feral, Brit architect who drinks bad beer and supports the wrong rugby team." Tony Weaver

    "Mike for President" Freeflyd

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Sep 2007
    Thanked: 3


    The true facts, dates and places are posted on the wall at the Maralal Safari Club... You'll just have to go and see.

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