For hours we pitched and swayed through the vastness where northern
Kenya fades into heat and stone. Somali ostriches stared, incredulous.
Few travellers take the road to Lake Turkana, and fewer still would
regard it as a family fishing trip, but then our hosts, the Carey
family, are an unusual crew. We were four adults with four boys who
already knew better than to ask if we were nearly there, rolling with
the Land Cruiser like sailors.
A day and a half’s drive north of Nairobi, where a sign says
“Loiyangalani 232km”, we had turned off the tarmac to follow a
lurching track westwards to Turkana, the “Jade Sea”, the world’s
largest desert lake. In two vehicles we were equipped for a 10-day
expedition around the remotest edge of Kenya, though we would need
more water and food. “Camel milk will save us!” said Steve Carey, our
leader. His two sons, Ffyn and Rafe, raised on a safari camp on the
Laikipia Plateau where we had begun and would end our adventure, had
been to Turkana before.
“And fish, Dada,” said Ffyn, 11.
“We need to catch dinner tomorrow, yes,” his father replied.
Our six-year-old was already a disciple of the bigger boys, entranced
by their bushcraft and the fearless way they sought out scorpions.
“What kinds of fish?”
“Nile perch, tilapia, whatever we can get,” Steve said.
“If the crocodiles don’t get us,” I put in.
My partner Rebecca rolled her eyes. Our friend and guide, Rod Tether,
laughed. For him this was a recce before starting to offer the route
as a new adventure through his company, Natural High Safaris. Improved
roads had made it viable, he said, though an excerpt he had sent me
from Kenya: A Natural History had formed my ominous imaginings of
Turkana: “Baking hot, shadeless and harsh, the haunt of gigantic
crocodiles, scorpions, red spitting cobras, abundant carpet vipers,
hyenas, lions and tough nomads . . . ” We beetled on, sustained by the
unlikely promise of swimming. “There is one place where the crocodiles
don’t go,” said Steve.
On the map, Turkana is a blue rip in the north-west corner of Kenya,
one of the hottest and harshest regions of the world. The lake runs
150 miles up to its main source, the Omo river on the Ethiopian side
of the border. There is no outflow — water leaves only through
evaporation. As you approach it, a distant blue line becomes a
burnished expanse, fading towards mountains 20 miles away on the
further shore. Until 1885 only the locals knew it was here. Their
descendants, the Turkana tribe, are gaunt pastoralists and fishermen.
Food is scarce. There have been showers but no real rain for months.
Unesco, which has listed the lake and surroundings among its World
Heritage sites, asserts that Turkana is shrinking and becoming more
saline as the Omo is choked by the Gilgel Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia.
Water levels fluctuate naturally so the influence of Gibe III is hard
to prove, but with another dam under construction and massive water
extraction in Ethiopia going ahead, the lake and its people are
imperilled. Kenya buys electricity generated in Ethiopia. Politicians
seem resigned to long-term hunger and drought in this region.
Reaching the shore, we found a fishing community at ease. A grave
elder took a camping fee and reminded Steve that we must burn only our
own firewood. He carried a staff and a wooden headrest, almost the
only possessions we saw among the Turkana people.
We ran into the alkaline and silky water, the children squealing
joyfully. There were crocodiles in the next bay but we followed the
example of fishermen who swam in from their boats, untroubled. They
hauled in a net jumping and threshing with silver. As yet the stocks
of tilapia, tiger fish and perch are still strong.
As the stars brightened, we lined up camp beds on the beach and
wriggled into our covers. “If it’s a wild night, Steve says that’s
normal,” Rod reported. “ ‘Wild’ could mean anything!”
“It means if it’s a howling gale, don’t worry,” said Steve. At first
we lay under a balmy and glittering spray of stars, near enough to the
equator for the Southern Cross to rise without its pointers and the
Plough without Polaris, as though there were no directions here but
the wind’s. Later the gale came, hot and dashed with blown sand. The
temperature had been around 40C but the lake cools faster than the
land, the imbalance creating torrents which rolled through all our
We woke under a carmine sunrise feeling delightedly well. The children
swam, Rebecca practised perhaps the first yoga the crocodiles offshore
had ever witnessed and Rod, a devoted ornithologist, studied
pratincoles — angular birds that fly with flickering ease. Migrating
swallows busied the morning. After camel-milk porridge we drove up and
down dunes of shale and scrub, across cobbled stone, past herders
sheltering under thorn trees. We could smell small rainstorms that
stalked the horizons like djinns.
At the entrance to Sibiloi National Park, a sign welcomes you to the
“Cradle of Mankind”, but it feels as though you have found our
memorial. In the broken windows of the park office, in the herds of
livestock driven down to the lake, regardless of restrictions, and in
the absence of visitors (we saw one other vehicle in four days) there
is a toppling sensation of wild obscurity.
We erected our beds by a dry river and headed for the lake. Steve does
not massage expectations. “We’ll just potter down there” could mean
hours of walking or driving but we were learning that battering days
resolved into miraculous evenings. Beyond a splay of green where zebra
grazed and jackals hunted, the lake lay in immensity. Flamingoes
balanced under the towering sky. African skimmers patrolled a shore
where stints, stilts, godwits, plovers and storks were feeding. “I
could just stay here, right here,” Rod said, as the children tussled
with fishing rods and Steve cast his throw-net.
Space expanded like the giant storm clouds over Ethiopia, while time
withdrew, becoming as small and tentative as the figure of a shepherd
in the distance. On the opposite shore was discovered the skeleton of
a boy, Homo erectus, who lived here 1.6m years ago. Five human and
pre-human species have been found around the lake, along with the
fossils of sabre-toothed cats. Below the shaley hulk of Sibiloi
Mountain lie the petrified trunks of a forest. We explored there, our
boy riding on my shoulders down a path between coppery stone trunks
that were trees 7m years ago. In Turkana you have a child’s feeling
that all time exists at once. Our origins and our ends lie scattered
around the burning hills, between the water and the thunder where we
The boys spent the days fishing while we walked. One morning we came
across thousands of quelea, the world’s most numerous bird, fleeing in
dizzy gusts from a lanner falcon through pristine air. Led by Rod’s
17-year-old son Louis, the fishers landed one huge Nile perch,
monstrous-faced and delicious. At nightfall we aimed Rod’s telescope
at a huge shining moon. “I’ve never seen it so clear!” Rebecca cried.
We adults found we were often either wordless or exclaiming, as if
Turkana baffles language, such is its scale and silence, though the
children were a constant burble of games and schemes.
We sat around the fire, satellites above the only proof of modernity’s
existence, as young Rafe led giggling hunting parties up the riverbed,
flashing torches and firing catapults. In the absence of lions and
leopards, Sibiloi was an incomparable adventure for the boys. Our
Aubrey learned to study ant lions through a reversed pair of
binoculars, how to ride the roof of a Land Cruiser and that rain
spiders are not dangerous, though I screamed and ran from one in our
lake-water shower (they’re big).
There can be few lands more hostile than the territory we crossed,
driving eastward to the heat-strangled settlement of North Horr. In
flaying sun, ravens panted and swore. We pressed on to Kalacha oasis
on the edge of the Chalbi desert. The lines on the map are arbitrary
now, governance distant, the rule of the elements absolute. Women wear
Somali dress, their heads covered; men sputter from shade to shade on
motorbikes, and the evening brings bathers and camels to the Kalacha
springs, where water channels and an abandoned lodge are set about
with rattling palms. An inexplicably functioning swimming pool stands
in front of what was once the dining room. We bathed in the moonlight
while the boys caught and released nightjars. In the morning thousands
of sand grouse in chittering storms came to drink at the springs and
the sun rose like a dragon’s eye opening.