Lake Turkana

To the cradle of mankind – Getting there

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The area we traveled. Attribution: Rudyologist [CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Day 1 – Nairobi to Maralal

Not intimidated by the amount of stuff packed in and on the cars as well as on the trailer and full of enthusiasm we left Nairobi via Nyahururu with Maralal as our destination for the first night. A drive of over 350 km of which, about half would be done on tarmac, the last good road we would enjoy until our return to Isiolo.

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Paul coming with the trailer when things were still going well.

Slowly we left Nairobi and drove along the eastern wall of the rift valley towards the north and soon passed some of the landmarks we knew well, Mt. Longonot and Lake Naivasha. We passed Nakuru and reached Nyahururu from where we headed across the Laikipia plateau towards Rumuruti on a good dirt road. Once we passed the latter, the road narrowed as it started to climb towards the 1,965m of Maralal, unknown territory for us. Our excitement grew and things started to happen!

The combination of a heavy trailer being towed uphill in a hot climate started to take its toll and Paul’s Land Rover’s engine started to heat up. When I saw him flashing lights at us we stopped and, after seeing the situation, decided to wait for the car to cool down and then see what to do as we could not see anything obviously wrong. This happened about 30 minutes later and we decided to resume the journey.

After a few kilometres Paul stopped again and it was clear that the problem needed a more radical solution in order to -at least- reach Maralal. We could not lighten the trailer so we decided that we should tow it. Although our car was shorter, it was much newer and we hoped that it would be better able to withstand the effort.

Luckily the car put up with the extra burden and that is how I acquired the responsibility of pulling the rather large trailer all the way not just to Maralal but to Koobi Fora and back to Nairobi, learning on the job! The first thing I quickly got to terms with was that my driving style needed to change if we were to survive! Every time we braked, we could feel the trailer’s inertia pushing us and slow us down by severe jerks when we needed to accelerate. Gradually I got the hand of it and made good progress, all things considered.

Quite late that day we reached Maralal late and we set up camp with the aid of the car lights at the Catholic Mission. It was very cold and through the mist we caught a glimpse of the very old and somehow decaying cedar trees (Juniperus procera). This cedar is known as African pencil cedar, obviously from which pencils can be made. These trees were part of the highland mist forest, indigenous to Maralal mountain.

All the cedars were decorated with Old Man’s Beard or Spanish Moss (Usnea spp.) an epiphyte or plant that grows on another but not as a parasite. The area was renown for been forested by these species but there were not many left, at least around the area we were.

Although leopards were common, we did not see any while we spent a cold night and we were ready to go as soon as we felt strong the following morning.

Day 2 – Under Mt. Kulal

The following day we continued towards the southern shores of the lake. The road went down until we reached flat ground. On the way we turned into a small track sign-posted “World’s View” or a similar name. We were curious to see what it was but soon our curiosity turned into impatience, as the road was endless. We stopped and discussed our situation but decided to go to the bitter end rather than to turn around.

The long drive was worth its length and every shake we experienced not to mention the inhaled dust for, at the end of it, we were contemplating the southern tip of Lake Turkana, bright green against which rather recent volcanic cones were prominent. Southern Island could be seen far off towards the north as well. We were all speechless for a while and I believe that we were far too impressed to take pictures as I could not find any!

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Once we filled our eyes and minds with such an unforgettable view it was time to move on as we still have some kilometres to drive before arriving to our next stop by the shores of the lake. We retraced our route and eventually we got back to the main track, with the image of what we had just seen fresh in our minds.

The road turned to rough and sharp volcanic rock while we crawled towards the lake and, somehow, we went over a small hill avoiding large black boulders and we got to the lake. We left its shore on our left and continued on the black track that turned inland through dry bush for quite a distance until we could see a large mountain that we -correctly- assumed to be Mount Kulal.

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Shade booked by Turkana sheep and goats. No room for us!

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A Grevy zebra, a “special” of Northern Kenya.

With its 2,300m Mount Kulal dominated the landscape and we could just see its two peaks but in order to see its evergreen forest where cedar trees and lammergeyers are supposed to be found we needed a much closer approach that was not part of our itinerary.

Eventually the track turned left towards the lake and, again, we got to its shores in mid afternoon. We were still south from Loyangalani and there were sandy beaches. Tired we stopped to contemplate the lake and soon a group of Turkana came to greet us and to watch us from a distance. It was very hot so we had a quick swim -after checking for crocs- and then started preparing our camp.

It seemed that Mt. Kulal acted as bellows blowing very hot air towards the lake but we were prepared to protect ourselves from it. Or so we thought… As rehearsed in Nairobi our cars were parked parallel to the lake at about 10m from each other and then, once the tarpaulin was dug up from the depths of the trailer, we proceeded to assemble it.

We immediately realized the difference between setting it up in windless Nairobi as compared with the true hot gale coming from Mt. Kulal. After quite an effort from all five of us, we managed to tied it to the two vehicles and create a shelter although the wind was still passing under it and through the sides. I am sure the Turkana members of the public watching us had a good laugh about the antics of the bunch of “mzungu” [1] trying to get blown away into the lake instead of settling down!

We soon realized that we could not achieve the expected results and, as light was fading, with our pathetic wind breaker flapping loudly and constantly, we proceeded to organize our camp. However, after a few minutes we heard a ripping noise and our tarpaulin became a gigantic green flag flapping in the wind, held to only one of the cars.

We decided to untie it before it flew into the lake and drove the cars together across the wind and use them as a shelter. I am sure the Turkana visitors approved of that! Unfortunately camping was still difficult and, at some stage, following a particularly strong wind attack, all our light stuff including chairs and clothes flew off towards the lake, followed behind by our complete fire together with our pans, including their contents!

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After the struggle, the tarpaulin became our floor!

In view of the crisis, we had a tinned dinner and did not bother to put tents up but slept under the stars behind our cars putting up with the occasional gust of wind as it was a hot night. I still remember that I had difficulties to go to sleep as my hair (quite long then) kept hitting me on the face and eventually I needed to wear a cap to be able to stop it from bothering me! After that I managed some sleep.

Day 3 – Dry river-bed in Sibiloi National Park

Luckily, the following morning was windless and we could enjoy a very needed English breakfast. After short walks in the beach it was time to move on to cover the approximate 200 kilometers we had plan for the day.

We drove north and, somewhere after Loyangalani while driving close to the lake, we encountered a solitary mzungu walking in the opposite direction. He stopped us. He was a young man with severe sunburnt that just managed to ask for water despite his mouth being very dry and his tongue rather swollen. We gave him some of our water and filled his water bottle and, as soon as he got the water, without saying a word, he just walked off, ignoring our offers for help!

Still thinking about what this lone walker would have been doing there, we followed the road that at this point moved inland and then run parallel to the lake. After quite a long drive we go to the entrance of the Sibiloi National Park, created in 1973 for the protection of paleontology sites and wildlife. It is 1,570 km2 of semi-desert habitat and plains bordered by volcanic hills, including Mount Sibiloi.

Migrant waterfowl stop here and many of the more than 350 species of aquatic and terrestrial birds found at Lake Turkana can be spotted here together with zebras, Grant gazelles, lions, leopards, stripped hyenas, Beisa Oryx, greater kudu, cheetahs and northern topi. Sibiloi is also a crocodile breeding area and the Turkana, the Gabra and the Dassanach ethnic groups surround it.

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Mabel at the entrance of the Sibiloi National Park.

After entering the park we stopped briefly to look at the rests of a petrified forest and, in the afternoon, we got to a dry river bed where we decided to go against the manual and risk the unlikely flush flood camping there on it as it offered a nice and soft sandy bottom, quite a change from our rocky and thorny surroundings and, most importantly, it offered a pleasant windless environment!

There we spent a rather pleasant night, again under the stars, as the temperature was still hot. The following morning, after another excellent breakfast, we broke camp and left for the next few kilometres that remained before getting to Koobi Fora.

 

[1] A term used in Kenya to refer to white people.

 

 

 

 

To the cradle of mankind – Background and preparations

Koobi Fora takes its name from a ridge located on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana in the territory of the nomadic Gabbra people and within the Sibiloi National Park. In Gabbra, Koobi Fora means a place of the commiphora and the source of myrrh [1].

The ridge contains mainly Pliocene/Pleistocene sediments (clay, silt and sand stones) that have conserved fossils of terrestrial mammals, including early hominid species.

In 1967 Richard Leakey’s flight to the Omo region the pilot flew over lake Turkana to avoid a thunderstorm. Although he expected the Koobi Fora area to be volcanic rock, he spotted sediments and later, during another visit by land, he saw tools and fossils that led him to establish the Koobi Fora Base Camp on a large sand spit projecting into the lake near the ridge.

Lake_turkana Credit NASA

Lake turkana in Northern Kenya from a satellite. Credit: NASA.

In 1969 Leakey’s team found a cranium of Paranthropus boisei that created great enthusiasm. Three years later the skull of Homo rudolfensis (KNM ER 1470) was uncovered and after another three years a Homo erectus skull was found. (KNM ER 3733) and a second -intact- one in 1978 (KNM ER 3883). Leakey wrote a number of books on the subject of the evolution of man that made him world famous [2].

Leakey’s books were very popular at the time we were in Kenya and reading them was probably what hatched the idea of a safari to the area to see where the fossils had been found as an excuse to explore the area of lake Turkana, immortalized in the book “Journey to the Jade Sea” [3].

Lake Turkana, a brackish soda lake, is found in Northern Kenya where its 48 km of width, extends for 256 km from north to south in the border with Ethiopia. Volcanoes surround the green lake. Some like Nabiyotum Crater in Southern island are truly beautiful but there are several in the southern part of the lake where the Kerio and Turkwel Rivers enter it with fresh water.

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Some of the beautiful volcanic cones at the lake.

The lava flows surrounding the lake are often too hot to touch, the winds blow with gale force and the beautifully green lake was home to nomadic ethnic groups such as the Turkana and El Molo and it also offered -apparently- good fishing as well as a very large population of very large crocodiles!

We knew that the lake was rich in crocodiles (estimated at 22 thousand), fish, bird life and scenery, particularly its stark volcanic hills and still rather untouched by “civilization” so that Turkana fishermen did not need clothes! Count Teleki “discovered” it in 1888 describing it as with “beautiful water… clear as crystal…” but the name he chose, Lake Rudolf, is no longer in use.

The lake offered, therefore, a number of interesting challenges that we could not resist. Three factors influenced our decision, two were related to our friend Paul who, at the time was befriending Else, a lady working at the National Museums of Kenya and the visit of his brother from the UK. Through Else we got the green light to visit Koobi Fora so, the preparations for the trip could begin.

The third concerned to both Paul and I and it was the apparently amazing fishing that you could have in Lake Turkana as no one knew why Nile Perch there reached 90kg and over and the tiger fish fought so much!

We agreed that we would travel in tour two Land Rovers but when we estimated the amount of food, water and gear we would need, we despaired, as, although both cars had roof carriers, they would be too overloaded to withstand the expected rough journey. We were stuck!

However, Paul found a solution in the shape of a disused trailer that was at Muguga that he could use and that, importantly, it had the same tires than our cars. It was a long metal contraption looking (and being!) very heavy but it was our only option so we took it from the yard where old cars were kept for a sale that never took place, and towed to Paul’s house, our temporary centre of operations.

The journey would take several days and the planned itinerary would take us through Maralal, South Horr. Loyangalani, North Horr, Koobi Fora, Chalbi desert, Marsabit, Samburu and, finally, Nairobi

We were fortunate that Paul had a small gas fridge that would enable us to carry some perishable food for a few days although we added, apart from the normal cool boxes with normal ice packs, one with dry ice to be opened after a few days during the journey.

Mabel and Else developed the menus and food and they got involved in careful calculations so that we had enough eggs and bacon, cooking oil and fresh and preserved fruits as we were not sure of how much we could get on the way.

Luckily Mabel had by then accumulated good camping experience and we relied on her to do the planning. As time was very long and the area very hot, she decided to place our “last” fresh stuff in the dry ice cool box to be opened on day five. After these final supplies were over, it would be tinned food.

Apart from having the Land Rovers in the best condition possible according to their ages, Paul and I dealt with fuel and other car essentials as well as the necessary camping and fishing gear. We prepared our tents, sleeping gear, camping chairs and tables, making sure that all necessary bits and pieces were there, including mallets and spades as well as some charcoal for the areas where no firewood was obtainable.

The safari stuff mountain grew by the day and the inclusion of the fishing gear did not help. As this was considered as one of the highlights of the trip the rubber dinghy was added, together with engine and petrol. Aware that the lake harboured large fish such as Nile Perch and Tiger fish we took heavy fishing gear, hoping that it would be enough for the expected fish fights.

We also needed to carry sufficient water and fuel. Although we would be able to find both on the way, we settled for 80 litres of petrol. As far as water was concerned we only took 40 litres as the water of the lake was considered as mildly alkaline and drinkable in an emergency.

We took four spare wheels, as we could share them and we also collected what we thought was a rather comprehensive set of tools and a rather large assortment of essential spares that included everything we thought our cars might need during the estimated 3,200 km of the return journey, without counting local travel.

Security reports were essential before venturing into this area and we learnt that it was good at the time although the occasional incursions by bandits known as “Shiftas” could not be predicted. We decided that this was good enough and decided to risk it.

The final moment of truth came when Else got the permit to enter into the Koobi Fora area and use the accommodation that had been built there by Richard Leakey and the National Museums of Kenya. We had then, like Julio Caesar, crossed the Rubicon and there was no way back!

However, there was one more step before we were ready to go. We knew, from the experience of other visitors, that we should expect very strong winds, particularly in the vicinity of Mt. Kulal, the mountain of the winds! We decided that we needed a barrier and we borrowed a rather large and heavy lorry tarpaulin that we intended to use as a wind barrier by tying it between the two cars.

So, the Friday before our departure we decided to have a “Windbreak setting up rehearsal and dinner party” that had more of a party than a rehersal for the setting up of the tarpaulin!

However, afterwards, we felt we could handle the voyage.

 

[1] See: https://www.museums.or.ke/koobi-fora/ consulted on 21/11/19. My addition: Commiphora, is the most species-rich genus of flowering plants in the frankincense and myrrh family,

[2] Origins (with Roger Lewin) (Dutton, 1977); People of the Lake: Mankind and its Beginnings (with Roger Lewin) (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978) and Making of Mankind (Penguin USA, 1981) among others.

[3] Hillaby, J. (1973), Journey to the Jade Sea. Academy Chicago Publishers. 206 p.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Africa! – Arrival

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This time I do remember boarding the Boeing 707 of Kenya Airways at Fiumicino airport, as it was like moving into another dimension. All passengers seemed exotic to me and there was an African crew! After dinner I read and re-read all the documents I was given in order to impress the people I would be working with. At dawn, the plane started to lose altitude and I was very excited when I saw an incredible green lake in the desert. The pilot explained that it was Lake Turkana and that we were close to landing in Nairobi.

The first area of Kenya I saw: Lake Turkana. The picture was taken a few years later during a safari there.

The first area of Kenya I saw: Lake Turkana or the “Jade Sea”. The picture was taken a few years later during a safari there.

Then I felt it. It was a light stitch of pain in my lower abdomen. I dismissed it at first as the consequence of lake Turkana´s beauty on my system, but when it repeated itself I knew that not only were the passengers on board colorful and exotic but also the food bacteria belonging to that category. As we had less than an hour until landing, I decided that I was going to manage by focusing my mind on my surroundings. In any case, the pre-landing queue for the plane’s toilet was such that I had no options left.

By the time we landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport I only had one thing in my mind: finding a toilet! I learnt that it is called choo in Kiswahili. This was my first and very necessary brush with the language. My obligatory gut-related pause took its time. When I was able to emerge, I was relieved all the passengers were already gone. Although it did not seem like it to me, it had taken quite a while! Luckily there were still immigration officers waiting and I entered Kenya after a careful and thorough examination of my exotic Uruguayan passport. Only my suitcase remained on the conveyor belt.

It was early morning in Nairobi when I left the airport building and started looking for the airport bus, as advised by my FAO colleagues in Rome, who were aware of the need to save my limited fellowship resources and my own meager capital. I looked up and down the front of the airport and found it empty. No FAO reception committee despite the information forwarded about my arrival! Eventually I found a bus and made my way slowly towards it. My suitcase was heavy and my cabin luggage probably heavier and its strap was cutting into my shoulder! Be aware that I packed for a two and a half year journey as I was well aware that I did not have the funds to return to Uruguay until the end of the fellowship.

I entered the empty bus (with my luggage as there was no haul), chose a seat near the front and prepared myself for a long wait. I was feeling good and looking forward to the future. My gut seemed settled by now. In those days there were no cell phones so I could not call anyone and I was on my own. I was about to have a catnap as I lacked sleep when movement between the trees caught my eye. My first impression was that I was dreaming but I was actually seeing the long spotted neck, at the end of which was the head of a giraffe that was busy browsing on a yellow-bark acacia just 10 metres away from the bus. Amazed, I discovered another one and, after my eye got used to it, about fifteen more animals, all sailing slowly across the airport parking area in search of fresh acacia shoots. They were very relaxed and, as the first rays of sunlight bathed their faces, I saw the most beautiful eyelashes ever created.

One of the giraffes browsing at the airport!

One of the giraffes browsing at the airport!

The sputtering and vibration of of the bus’ diesel engine interrupted my giraffe-induced rapture and forced me to focus on holding on. I considered myself very lucky to be the sole passenger on the bus. A choo stop has its advantages I thought… My joy was short-lived. To my surprise, the bus stopped a few blocks from the airport to pick up passengers. “This cannot be”, I thought, “the airport bus goes to the centre of town and it should not pick people up on the road!” Despite my mental opposition, the stops continued at regular intervals and the bus started to fill up. This was clearly no airport bus but a normal city bus, part of the Kenya Bus Services known as KBS buses and I had no idea of its route or destination! Now I also realized why it was so cheap! To put it mildly, I had a minor panic attack! But, as there was nothing I could do, I accepted my fate and waited for the outcome of my wrong choice.

I now need to elaborate on the concept of a full bus. In the countries I had lived in until then, a bus is full and stops picking up passengers when all seats are occupied and standing people are not able to move. Not in Kenya. I witnessed a new definition of bus “fullness”. The bus did not skip a single stop and people kept getting in, first to occupy the seats –I counted four bodies in mine in addition to myself. Throughout the bus, bodies filled all available spaces, maximizing every possible centimeter with unbelievable precision, as if accomplished by professional packers. First I lost physical contact with my luggage and soon afterwards I also lost visual contact. I regretted their likely loss with a sense of emptiness and not a little despair but what could I do? My immediate attention was focused on more vital activities: getting sufficient breathing air to be able to reach the final destination. Luckily, my earlier gut incident was still not showing signs of returning. At least something is going well; I though, while trying to position my nose in an air pocket between a shoulder and a face. I smiled but the face did not! Its eyes were closed in a sound sleep!

The passengers included primary and secondary students, mothers with babies, workers, police and even a Maasai warrior in full regalia trying to avoid impaling passengers with his spear and simi (long double edged knife). Despite the mass of bodies and apparent discomfort, laughter was frequent and this would continue during all the time I spent in Africa. Although I was looked at as an unusual passenger, I did not feel threatened or uncomfortable. Body odour mingled with the smell of baby talc, stale mothers’ milk, fresh fruit and exotic spices.

When I was starting to feel that my choice of bus may have been my last, I felt a slight slackening of bodies after one of the stops and then, gradually, the bus began to expel people and finally stopped at the end of its route. To my amazement, my bags were still there and seemingly intact! All doors opened and out went the few remaining passengers and I remained, like at the start of the journey, on my own. I asked the driver where we were and I seem to recall that he mentioned Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi, very far from my destination in the centre of town.

I am not sure what prompted the next act and it remains as another mystery of my lucky life in Africa. The Driver, clearly seeing the desolation showing in my face, asked where I was going. I explained to him that the Serena Hotel in the centre of Nairobi was my ultimate destination. “You are too far from there my friend”, he said. And then added, “this area is not safe as there are too many shiftas!” (rebels, outlaws) to end with a “you do not see wazungu (white people) walking here and there are no taxis either” This left me speechless and I was desperately trying to figure out my next move -clearly quasi suicidal- when the bus doors closed and it moved again

Before I could protest for him to let me leave it, he grinned and said: “I will take you there!” He said it twice as I asked him to repeat it for fear of having misheard him. So I was the sole passenger on a trip that ended when the bus entered the offloading area of the Serena Hotel where the doors were opened and I descended to the amazed look of the concierges! That was a gesture of human solidarity that not only moved me but started to prepare me for what I would find repeatedly in Africa.

He departed with a wave and I entered the Serena. My sense of elation evaporated the moment I learnt the prices of a room and decided that this was not for me and went back to the street. This is not a good or common thing to do when you are carrying the amount of luggage I was, but, as I did not know this then, my saving obsession got the best of me. It was even more unexpected for a mzungu (white person) to walk around carrying bags in the streets of Nairobi.

I began to ask people on the street for a cheap place to sleep that night and, as is normal in most of Africa, someone offered to accompany me to precisely such a place! Needless to say, my idea and the one of my Good Samaritan were quite different! After walking to two possible places, we parted amicably. Luckily, there was another passerby who took me to a hostel nearby that seemed clean so I settled for it, left my bags and went for an afternoon stroll to find my bearings and get my first feel for the place. (Note added on 8/10/14: The hostel was the C.P.K., now the Anglican Church of Kenya Guest House located in Bishop’s Road, off Ngong Road. The Guest House was used to accommodate missionaries from up country missions. See: http://www.ackguesthouses.or.ke/nairobi/index.html).

I returned to the hostel at dusk, very tired and ready for dinner and bed. The day had been long. Dinner was a modest affair served on a communal table. As I was very hungry I helped myself to an abundant helping of the only available dish: a meat stew that did not look too bad and there was also rice to go with it. I am a fast eater and this time I did not wait and got on with the job.

For the first 10 seconds the mouthful of meat behaved like any tough and seriously overcooked piece of Uruguayan beef. After that fleeting evaluation passed, a number of things started to happen, all new to me until then. In what I thought a miracle of chemistry, the half-chewed meat suddenly caught fire in my mouth and, hoping to be unnoticed but trying to smile –an impossible task while suffering third degree burns- I spat it out. “Uhmm very grrood” I muttered while looking for the nearest source of water and wondering about whether my vocal chords were still there. While my mouth and surrounding areas were being cauterized, I felt the hair on my head and neck rise, accompanied by copious sweating of my eyelids, something that hitherto had never taken place! As I had never cried with the outside of my eyes, I was clearly concerned but managed to wipe the sweaty tears and gulped a glass of water in a rush. I could not distract myself from focusing on the status of my already castigated pyloric region and hoped that would withstand this added and novel punishment.

Trying to appear normal and having recovered some of my speech function I muttered another positive comment about the food while I waited for the water to calm things down under the clearly amused look of my African table mates, too polite to laugh openly at my rather comic status. Thankfully, in nature all comes to an end, and to my relief the burning eased and slowly the affected organs started to respond again. I also learnt that I had just experienced my first encounter with a beef curry of the “mild” variety.

I was sure that I had locked my room to go for dinner so I was surprised and concerned when I found it open. “The only thing that I need now is a thief” I thought and walked in prepared to defend my meager possessions. To my surprise, my lamp was on and a man was lying on my bed! Confused but very tired I said good night and went to sleep in another place only to spot, among the clothes of my roommate a white priest collar. It all fell in place as I became aware that my cheap hostel find was a religious place were church personnel posted in the field coming to do business in Nairobi. So it is that, surrounded by sanctity, I had a very good night’s sleep and did not hear anyone else entering the room although it was full when I woke up to face another day. Clearly they were quite angelical in their movement.

The gardens at the Fairview Hotel.

The gardens at the Fairview Hotel.

The following morning, after a curry-free breakfast and happy to learn that all my body parts had healed, I managed to make contact with the local FAO office. Clearly unaware of my gut-rot related delay in arriving to the lobby, they were very concerned that I did not turn up at the airport and thought that I had missed my flight. They also gave me the address of the Fairview hotel where I should have been and the contacts of my future boss, a Scot with whom I met later the same morning.

But that is the beginning of another story!