Thursday, May 5, 2011

Kenya Calling – Trucking To Turkana

This being the concluding part of my passage to Turkana and in all likelihood you won’t ever again read another post on Turkana from me, so let’s begin by demystifying a little about the place and the lake in that order.

During British colonization, it was called Lake Rudolf that was changed to its current name post independence after the most populace tribe in the area. Measuring around 290 km in length and 32 km at its widest, Turkana is the world’s largest desert permanent lake and the largest alkaline lake. By volume it’s the world’s fourth largest salt water lake. It has two major islands; South Island and the Central Island (which is a national park) that contains three volcanic crater lakes of unparallel beauty. At the northern end it enters Ethiopia and is fed by three rivers of Omo, Turkwel and Kerio. The lake has no outflow of water hence whatever water is lost is solely due to evaporation. The water is of the deepest and purest shade of turquoise due to a kind of algae that arise to the top and it is also referred as the Jade Sea. Turkana contains the largest concentration of Nile crocodile in the world that are often seen sunning on the shore or on sand dunes. More than few hundred species of birds are common including many migratory ones. Little stint, ibis, wood sandpiper, common sandpiper, African Skimmer, white breasted cormorant, greater flamingo, herons and Heuglin’s Bustard are widely found. Wild life mainly comprise of zebras, gazelles, topis, oryx, giraffe, few lions and fewer leopards. The Chalbi Desert from the east brings in hot arid winds. The tribes that populate the area are Turkana, Rendille, Gabbra, Daasanach, Karo, Mursi, Surma, Molo and few others. Fishing and animal (cows, goats, camels) herding are their only occupation. Turkana basin is also known as the cradle of mankind, of which we would see further since I did visit this place and picked up something predating human history.

With that short intro let us now recommence our journey on 26th December 2010. I wake up as the cold desert wind caresses my face and I discover that I am half buried in fine sand. The eastern sky has just begun to turn pale. I brush the sand off and get my camera. There’s a riot of clouds drifting in from Mt Kulal painted orange, pink and ochre by the desert sun. Soon it would be time to depart. Others gradually stir out of their bandas and are predictably aghast that I had slept the entire night by the beach on ground. We start off after breakfast, our convoy as before. Sandy driving, Sandy snoring and I just using my camera to advantage. Turkana, Borana, Molo settlements spring out of nowhere. At a place we see a small congregation of people by a makeshift Cross made of wooden poles and a white shroud. The blue lake, arid brown mountains and the dark cloud-riddled sky make a dramatic composure and I really wished I could capture it all on canvas. Very soon we leave all the settlements behind and climb a hill and then down the other side. Lyongelani disappears from our rear-view mirror and just when we are settling down to the groove, our car breaks down and careens to the ground. We jump out and inspect and finally Sandy agrees that this vehicle wouldn’t go any further, might not even go back either. Both the Sandys ask me to hop into the truck and press forward while they would seek help and return to Nairobi if possible else wait for us to return at Lyongelani or South Horr. My portion of food, water, clothing and tent shifts quickly inside the truck and I part company of my friends. They look miserable and so do I. I know how much Sandy (woman) has been wanting to visit Koobi Fora and Turkana Basin. We wave at each other till they merge into the desertscape and are seen no more.

The truck occupants welcome me profusely and I find a vacant seat next to the lady dentist. Now only the UN marked Land Rover accompanies the truck. Suddenly the cool air is redolent with the fragrance of moist earth and we all poke our faces out of the windows and draw in a lung-full. We see dark ominous clouds ahead. It’s an amazing sight in this area. Our driver informs that this region has rain only two days in a year and we are precisely on one of the two days. As we approach the rain area, the air temperature drops considerably and the breeze builds up. Some of my companions even draw shawl around their exposed limbs. At an oasis well we find an odd assemblage of human, camels and goats all vying for the sparse water. We scatter some of the camels away with our hulk and noise. And then we run into deep trouble.

The land being so arid, even with little rain the place gets flash floods and sudden swelling rivers that wash away all tracks. Predictably our driver isn’t too happy to see the rain despite the cool breeze and respite from the sun. Our truck tyre even with its deep traction begins to skid and slip on the rivulets that now mar our way. The black earth is now more like quicksand pulling in the tyres mercilessly. Soon we grind to a halt and we are stuck. The wheels churn but find no traction and we are jammed at a place. We all alight to inspect the damage. We pull out shovels and spades and corrugated traction plates while the girls gather stones to lay beneath the tyres. For the first time the police escorts prove handy. They hand over their guns to one amused lady who promises to shoot anyone who doesn’t offer help. And the rest get down to the job. The truck and the humans are all sinking slowly into the oozing mud and it becomes more like a mud-wrestle. The escorts and the co-driver had already stripped to their waist and rolled up their trousers as they were right in the middle of it all. After an hour or so we finally pushed and pulled the truck out much to the relief of all. In less than an hour it again gets stuck. Thankfully another supply truck headed for Koobi Fora came from behind. With that truck, pushing from behind and the UN Land Rover, pulling from the front and our driver flooring the accelerator this time we emerged much quicker and less muddier. Now we come across flooded rivers of all size. Across a few one of us has to cross on foot first to gauge the depth and flow and only then does the truck follow. I am amazed at the volume of water that only few minutes of rain had amassed.

Finally towards the end of a long and exhausting day we sight the gate of Sibiloi National Park. But one last deep ditch full of running water stands between us and our night abode. We plan to camp just inside the park gate and then head out the next morning. The UN vehicle nearly drowns in the ditch as it is towed by a truck to the other side. Then our truck follows. It nearly stalls at the upper curve, threatening to drop back in into the ditch but the collective will and prayer of 24 human is a big strength that gets us out finally. And only then I learn that I am still far from entering the park. Our group leader tells us all to hand over our citizen / resident id cards for the park fee. Of course I have none I declare and she gives me a horrific look and dressing down. Being a bona-fide foreigner I need to shell out US $ 60 per night inside the park and we intended to spend three nights. This is completely unacceptable to me. After a brief discussion Scott offered his golfing id for me that doesn’t have any picture. Somehow I am pushed in as a resident and everything seems in order. We find our place on the camping ground and spread open our tents. I quickly cook some pasta and gulp it down with water. As the night deepens and others all gather around a camp fire I sit quietly at my corner looking up at the stars and wondering about life and such other trivia.

Morning alarm wakes me up with the sun and we are blessed with another magnificent sunrise. Sibiloi is a UNESCO world heritage site and is known more for the abundance of fossil than for its sparse wildlife. As others prepare to eat and leave I scour the ground in search of fossils or early human remnants. I find none as it is a foolish enterprise. Our journey commences and once more we get stuck nice and proper. We jump off and people scatter around, some to look for birds, some for fossils, some with books while some to doze and I in search of silence. Leaving only the driver, his crew and the police to do something about the truck. Our journey recommences in due course of time. Another four hours later we finally sight the Koobi Fora KMS bandas along with the blue waters of the lake that had been invisible all through the day. We grind to a halt and the camp manager steps out to greet us. I hop out to find a white Land Rover with Turkana Basin Institute painted on its side awaiting my arrival.

Turkana Basin Institute (TBI) is a unique initiative of Dr Richard Leakey where he and his team of researchers, field workers from across the world are continuously looking for fossils and other paleontological evidences to trace back human history to its earliest days. It is located further north around 54 km distant. I had earlier met Richard Leakey in Nairobi through a friend and he had arranged for me to stay at TBI for a night and see the kind of work they do. I take leave of my group and immediately hop into the TBI vehicle. Some of my co-travelers expressed disbelief that how I arranged a trip to TBI, something that is the privy of the extremely privileged. Traveling through extremely bumpy and arid land as we push further up, I realize that now I am headed into perhaps the remotest corner of Kenya, Elleret where TBI is located. The jocular driver talks unceasingly while his helper behind guffaws in a tongue I don’t understand. The land remains stark, sandy and full of thorn bushes. I doubt as we rumble on that if any other vehicle besides a Land Rover can sustain such toil. Another two hours and we sight the Elleret air strip. And then the impressive gate of TBI looms ahead. I am now deep within the ‘cradle of mankind’, a place where the first hominids were born and bred.

TBI is a completely self sustained campus with its own power and water generation and distribution. Employs around 40 permanent staff of diggers, cleaners and researchers besides the scientists and researchers that come regularly. It has a separate line of visitor tents with attached shower and toilet. The camp manager shows me my tent and cautions that I should be careful of the snakes at night. My tent gives me a down angle view of the shimmering lake beneath. The day is tolerably hot and I feel thrilled to the core, knowing full well that very few people on earth have been where I stand now. After a quick shower and a bit of food I leave with my field guide who is a local Dassanatch. We soon reach the excavation site and my guide takes me to the area 8A. He briefs me about the discoveries and how they prospect and look for minutest remains of human and animal fossils and then how they dig for the remaining parts. The entire process is unimaginably labor intense and time consuming. The recreation of a skull or a skeleton starting from its first piece could easily take half a decade. I begin to understand the painstaking labor of such occupation. There’s nothing romantic or glamorous about it, its sheer hard work and calls for highest degree of patience and perseverance. The oldest human teeth from this area dates back around 2 million and my guide urges me to try my luck. I feel it’s my lucky day and I could be the next household name in paleontology; I get down on my fours in deep earnest while my two companions look across other dunes. My guide had told me earlier that to begin with one always looks for something small like a tooth. In less than ten minutes of scrounging lo and behold, I find a shining white teeth lying right across my left foot. Though it doesn’t look like modern human teeth and is far too sharp for any human I jump up in joy. I might have discovered the ‘missing link’ which appeared just before homo erectus and baffles us till date since no fossil has ever been found to corroborate this supposedly missing link to modern man that occurred between 1.8 to .8 million years ago. No human fossil has been found to cover this one million year gap and no one knows what happened to humanoids during this era. It is the greatest mystery of mankind.

The guide and his assistant rush back as they see me gesticulating and hopping like a kangaroo. He looks at my find and declares that it is an important find indeed though it won’t make me a household name in anything. It’s a crocodile tooth dating back perhaps 8 million. My head reel as I try to calculate how many zeros that figure contains. I had never held something so ancient in my hand. I asked if I could keep it as a souvenir, to which he agreed but asked me to be careful while exiting the country. Thus elated clutching my prized possession we return to the camp and I sit outside my tent with a packet of crackers watching yet another glorious sunset into the lake and wishing that I had someone to share the view with. The night wind cooled down perceptively and I had another open shower beneath the moon. The following day the manager takes me around the TBI complex and we begin with the lab and sample room. I speak with some of the researchers and view all the fossils lying around. I am surprised to see the completely preserved skull of a crocodile that is barely the length of my thumb. Thereafter I am taken into the neighboring village to see the Daasanatch people and their livelihoods.

The village is as dirty and unkempt as I have seen everywhere and the round huts are so flimsy that they defy belief they can stand even for a week, whereas entire families reside in them over years. As we drive back to TBI I am struck by the beauty of a girl standing by the road, who must be in her late teens. An array of flashing bead necklaces girdles her neck and falls delectably between her proud naked breasts. She should be on the front cover of Cosmo I tell my guide, who laughs and asks if I noticed the girl’s ankle. I answer in the negative, to which he retorts that for all I knew, the girl could already be betrothed to a man and one can find that out by seeing if the girl wears an anklet or not. Any girl with an anklet is already booked by some man and this can be done even when the girl is a mere child. We return to TBI for an early lunch and then it is time for me to depart.

By late afternoon I return to Koobi Fora KMS complex to find my companions sprawled beneath different shades and bandas in different forms of dress. The place is crawling with spitting cobras and scorpions, one lady cautions as she sees me set up my tent on ground. I smile at her and proceed to erect the tent. And then I look at a sand dune around 50 m away from shore and find my first family of Nile crocs. I grab my camera, click few pictures and then run wildly towards the shore with my swimming trunks. The camp keeper runs after me asking me to wait up, while the girls follow him with cameras to see if a croc would indeed eat me up. Crocs eating humans is a regular here and such incidents are not even worthy of reporting so there’s no consensus as to how many fishermen or locals become croc meal per annum. I reach the edge of the water and count around 6 adults and 3 young ones on the dune. They see me too and start dropping off into the water one by one. They hover around watching us carefully like logs with only eyes above water. I tell the camp keeper (who is a legendary croc water swimmer) my intention and the old man laughs and bids me to follow. He splashes water and I follow him closely. Soon we swim to the dune and now I don’t see the crocs at all. But the sand is crawling with their footprints and wild smell. I know I am doing something utterly foolish that every guide book prohibits yet the thrill of something this unique needs to be experienced even if at the end I stand to lose a limb or my life. I know this is once in a lifetime opportunity to do something so completely stupid and abominably risky. The water is very muddy around and even if there are crocs around, which surely they are, we don’t see any. The keeper and I dive right where few minutes ago I had seen the floating logs. We swim and float and laugh and cry out loud. I feel guilty too since we are disturbing croc habitat and I think of my marine biologist friend who would censure me strongly if she ever learns of my antics. We splash around for some more, when one of the onlookers from the shore scream, ‘spitting cobra.’ I zoom out of the water like Spiderman and run for my life to the shore. If someone has sighted that reptile then I just had to see it too.

If you wear glasses or ski goggles then spitting cobras are harmless since they always spit their venom into the eyes, blinding the victim. One of the girls on shore points towards an abandoned boat where she had seen a cobra. I head off in that direction, but even after an hour of dedicated search I find none much to my disappointment. Our enterprising leader had arranged for a boating trip to one of the peninsulas so I hop into the boat just as it is being dragged out into the lake. As we skim the lake into the setting sun, we look at the birds, mostly greater flamingoes, crowned plovers, egrets and herons frolicking in the water and diving for fish. Just before we beach a goliath heron lands near us and then takes to wings the moment we cut of our engine. It’s a majestic bird and my first view of the specie. The white cool sand soothes my feet and I take a walk away from others towards the colony of flamingoes. I sit on the sand and dip my feet into the truant waves dripping with the orange of the setting sun. I feel nostalgic and look at the empty horizon searching for someone who is across the oceans from me. We return at dusk and post dinner I crawl into my tent. I don’t put the outer sheet and once again hold court with the countless stars through the netted roof of the tent. at dusk and post dinner I crawl into my tent. I don’t put the outer sheet and once again hold court with the countless stars through the netted roof of the tent.

It takes us the entire next day to return to our campsite beyond Lyongelani. We learn that Sandy had indeed managed to get the vehicle repaired and they had already departed for Nairobi. Being the last night in Turkana I refuse to sleep at night and simply continue gazing deep into the brilliant sky that twinkles and sparkles like a diamond studded tiara.

The journey back from Turkana remains devoid of any excitement since we retrace our earlier path with only one diversion where we drive part of the trail up on Mt Kulal. The place is too dry and sparse for my liking. On New Year’s eve we reach that godforsaken town of Maralal but thankfully check into the Maralal Safari Lodge. The rooms are beyond my budget and they refuse to let me camp on ground since there isn’t any toilet for campers. The couple with the new (now battered) car come to my rescue and generously offer to share their bathroom. That settled I pitch my tent in the wide garden paying a paltry amount in camping fee. Showered and shampooed and with a good amount of wine inside of me I am ready for the New Year party. The girls look stunning in all black halter skirts, while the men folk lounge around in whatever isn’t too dirty. Now I solve the mystery of the big bags the girls have been towing all along. The night is cold and the party rumbles on for a quite a while and then we retire into the darkness. I finally fall asleep in my tent and my last thought as I remember now, was that not even in a million years would I have imagined that in this lifetime I would be ushering in a New Year at a place called Maralal.

At this juncture I conclude my Turkana trip travelogue. From Maralal we drove to Lake Baringo where ensued a new set of adventure including how I nearly became hippo bite victim. But that’s an adventure that would be featured in one of the forthcoming posts. For now let’s bid goodbye as we pull out of Maralal and everyone including the driver heave a sigh of utter relief.

1 comment:

  1. This place sounds breathtaking, S. Really wish you had uploaded some pics too... :-) and you have been pretty naughty, so u deserve a spanking for sure. Also, how come i haven't seen this 8 million years old crocodile tooth yet???? :-(