Lake Turkana, Kenya

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Its Not Just the Destination its the Journey

Look at a map of Kenya and find its capital Nairobi, then draw your eye directly north you’ll reach a place called Loiyangalani on the south eastern shore of Lake Turkana. We first became curious and well, instantly enchanted with Lake Turkana after watching the film adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener. Sure, it’s a Hollywood film with a professional cinematographer to ensure the location looks amazing, but in the case of Lake Turkana, the cinematographer didn’t need to do very much.

Known as the Jade Sea, it is not only a breathtaking color but a notable slice of nature. Lake Turkana is the largest desert lake as well as alkaline lake in the world, measuring 154 miles long and 20 miles in its widest places. Its lowest recorded depth is 240 feet but the Lake’s relatively shallow depth doesn’t stop it from being a source of life to large populations of fish such as tigerfish, Nile perch and Talapia. Not to mention the largest Nile crocodile breeding ground in the world. Lucky for the crocs, the lake also has a healthy hippopotamus population.

Lake Turkana additionally, supports the palaeartic birds that use it as an important stopover in their yearly migration. There are 350 different species of birds including flamingos, cormorants, and kingfishers who live, breed and stop by Lake Turkana.

With Lake Turkana teeming with life, humans have long made their home on its shores. In fact, it’s known as the Cradle of Mankind and is a World Heritage Site largely due to its role in the the world’s pre-historic fossil heritage. In 1984 a Mr. Kamoya Kimeu made an incredible discovery near Lake Turkana, the almost complete skeleton of a human who lived between 1.5 and 1.6 million years ago. It is the most complete pre-historic human skeleton ever found. The Turkana Boy was 1.6 meters tall and judged to be a boy of 9 to 12 years old.

The area around the lake has been a treasure trove for scholars with over one hundred archaeological and paleontological sites identified. Five human ancestor species have been found here, as well as important fossil finds. This is down to the volcanic activity in the area which preserved people, plants and other life forms during their devastating eruptions. Scientists have discovered through fossils that this special place was once a rich forest grassland that evolved into the hot dessert it is today.

It is obvious that Lake Turkana is unique, important and well worth a visit, but it appears that part of its mystique is the actual arduous overland journey it takes to get there. The journey from Nairobi northward and through the Chalbi dessert is not for travelers looking for a smooth, coordinated tour bus experience. Read some visitor reviews for the destination and you’ll be struck by their honesty and enthusiasm. Tourists describe the 5 to 6 day return journey as more experience than pleasure, but all say the final destination is completely worth it.

Tour companies take the same overland journey as intrepid solo travelers by leaving with jeeps from Nairobi and heading north with stops in Marsabit, the closest large town to Lake Turkana. From there it is westward across the Chalbi dessert on some dodgy roads before reaching the oasis.

The journey is challenging due to intense heat, poor road infrastructure and long driving hours but these things only seem to add to travelers’ awe when they finally reach the lake’s windy shores. The blue water of the lake is a stark contrast to the constant dry, dark dust of the dessert tourists have just driven through.

Because this area is remote with a low population, those visiting remark on its untouched quality. Due to this, there is not a huge amount to do once you arrive at Lake Turkana. The main draw is seeing the natural wonder appearing out of the rugged terrain and basking in the scenery it offers. Actually, many visitors comment on the extreme heat, fierce winds and fact that swimming is discouraged due to the crocodile colony. All however also comment these things do not matter because there is a sort of magic there. ‘Once in a lifetime’ is something you will hear again and again from those who have reached it shores.

Another thing that makes the area special is the people. The Samburu, Turkana, Rendille, and El Moro are indigenous tribes whose way of life, language and culture are under threat from climate change and man made change specifically in the form of the Ethiopian Gibe dam project currently underway. Still, the tribes and their way of life along the lake are another aspect of Lake Turkana that visitors speak highly of. The tribes are relatively friendly and willing to engage with strangers although not keen on having their pictures taken without permission.

After a day or two or three spent on the shores of this amazing lake, visitors will have had time to encounter the local tribes, take a boat ride, visit one of the lake’s islands, and just sit at sunset watching the scene as the sun sets first over the shimmering dessert mountains and then disappears into the iconic Lake Turkana itself.

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