Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Turkey at Turkana

While I was jotting out my travel thoughts on Kenya, one place kept cropping up though at that time I had no idea how I could manage to go to a place that most travel portals named as simply ‘unreachable’ by an individual. The place was and still is Lake Turkana. Till the very last moment prior to my departure, my friend Sandy in Kenya, who was self-appointed as my Kenya trip manager cum whatever, could find no reason for me to visit Turkana and neither could I come up with an excuse for the same. I am not much of a water or heat person yet why did I pine so eagerly for a place that is among the driest, hottest and windiest in the world! It had two attractions for me. One can be blamed to a website, which popped out during Google search, which showed a volcanic crater, surrounded by a magnificent lake of the purest jade. That color and that crater took hold my wild imagination in such a violent grip that I am still shaking from it. The other factor that worked for me along with its remoteness and supposedly ‘unreachable’ status was the Turkana wildlife and its people. One website mentioned that Turkana wildlife, among others, abounds with Nile Crocodiles (among the largest croc varieties), stinging scorpions (Turkana is full of scorpion jokes), and the deadly spitting cobras. So my basic goals were: to ride and swim with a croc, out spit a cobra and toy with a scorpion.

I redoubled my efforts to find out any means whatsoever by which I might be able to reach Turkana alone but I could find none, unless of course I hired a 4X4 and drive out (way too expensive) or walked all the way (too time consuming). But I do have an asinine head and a bovine will and the two combined perhaps harassed fate so much that finally it became my destiny to reach Turkana and not alone but in style with a complete party of party-poppers and much more. This is the first part of that story. Now before you plod further I would strongly recommend you first read my post ‘Turkana Trippers’ and then recommence your journey with me here. In that post I had given graphical descriptions of my intrepid fellow conspirators in this epic adventure. And that would help you enjoy this post more as here I would keep most of them for most of the time vague and ill-defined and again without any name. This post is more about the journey, about the place and about what it did to me. Now let’s continue…

After I reached Kenya and started my literal whirlwind trip around the country, everyone whoever listened to my wish, agreed that Turkana is a must, though most of the advisors had never been there themselves. That only added to the intrigue and its charm. The first ray of hope came on the slopes of Mt Kenya, where I met a young cherubic girl on a hike. When she heard I wished to visit Turkana, she almost peed with excitement and shed big droplets of tears (of unrealized dreams) from her really bigger eyes. But of course she couldn’t come along, but she knew how I could go or whom to contact. That was the first I heard of an inanimate entity called Kenya Museum Society or KMS. KMS does trips all over the country and anyone can join them by becoming a member and they were planning a Turkana trip around Christmas / New Year. I immediately told Sandy to cancel all my appointments, etc around that time as no matter what I was Turkana bound. Sandy too got severely excited, which is quite a sight and so did our common friend, again by the name of Sandy. Right away there we were, a trinity of SSS ready to drop all and head for Turkana. On reaching back Nairobi I logged on to KMS website and realized that the excitable girl had been right. I found out the contact person for the trip and decided to call the next morning. We were still a month from the tentative dates. Surprisingly the contact person’s name sounded masculine and distinctly of Indian origin.

Though I am amazed at almost everything, it’s rare that I get shaken or stirred much by anything. So when the voice answered from the other end, which was distinctly feminine and strongly frail, I did a double-take and posed my query. Conversations, emails and meetings (of which you can read in Turkana Trippers) followed in cataclysmic capacity and I was more than happy that the trip sounded so obviously dubious and improbable. When the final email arrived telling us of what all things one must or mustn’t carry, I noticed among others: cheap mosquito net (with emphasis on ‘cheap’) and do not bring hard suitcase (with emphasis on ‘hard) as the only oddities. I should have known then that there isn’t much that one can do with cheap mosquito nets while there’s so much one can do with ‘hard’ suitcase that was to be abdicated. The game was afoot, we had paid our non-refundable deposits, had nearly emptied the Nakumatt Store food section and had piled up so much stuff inside Sandy’s Landcruiser that if we added another inch of anything it would simply burst from where it had no seams.

Sandy cautioned that it was an old vehicle and had the habit of breaking down when it’s least recommended and sought. He had got a roof top fixed that was already groaning and splitting under the weight. We also carried two spare wheels and hubs and enough gear to set up an emergency garage if we ran out of all other options. I should have known even then… but then I am one of those people who never know what’s good for them. We struggled and sweated till late hours under a search light to stuff everything in keeping just barely legroom for the three human occupants in the car and then crashed off in our dirty overalls. I was past caring though I particularly worried about the wine carafes and the champagne; and yes, even by then I should have known better.

We get up early next morning, all red eyed, unkempt, growling but totally ready to go wherever it was we were supposed to. The plan is to meet up with the group truck somewhere along the Nakuru highway and then form a convoy for the rest of the journey. Sandy in the driver’s seat with Sandy behind as our pantry in-charge cum food supplier and I next to Sandy as the navigator. We look hassled, sleep deprived, ill-nourished but as ready to go as we would ever be, by then I must have known better. We hit the road and hit a curve in that order and our journey begins. Sandy curses, Sandy curses and I swear diligently. The map is spread open upon my lap along with several instruments of sharpness one of which is threatening to cut off an appendage of my body that I don’t even want to know. Sandy is speechless as he is smoking, Sandy is speechless as she is drinking, I am clueless as I have never seen a map like the one in hand.

It is early morning, windows are down, the breeze is brilliant, the map is shit and I am scratching my head. Sandy doesn’t bother to ask and takes a turn and then we get lost till we follow another car, looking equally lost and get back on the road we were supposed to be. Frantic sms and calls flood Sandy’s mobile device, none of which help us in any manner. Sandy is frustrated so she swears, Sandy is frustrated so he swears and I am clueless so I smile ‘all fool’s smile’. Eventually somewhere in the vicinity of Nakuru, we sight a massive military-green truck rasping and ranting, belching black smoke cruising at a dangerous 40 kmph, threatening to outwit every other modes of transportation in the vicinity. As we overtake the truck we see our fellow adventurers giggling and waving in various forms of dress and undress. Inside a Landcruiser packed like a tin of sardines we feel superior to the truck and I wave back nonchalantly, knowing little that the truck would eventually be my vehicle to Turkana. The individual cars and the truck meet up at a gas station and from there we form a convoy. The newest car in the front followed by us then the truck while the UN marked vehicle takes up the rear.

From Nakuru we take a right turn and head up into the highlands of Nyahururu along the Eastern Rift Valley. The land is intensely dry and barren with sudden splashes of sporadic green. At a place we cross a cordoned private game sanctuary and then hit a road with massive dry runnels that shake the car like inside a mixer cum grinder. Soon we reach the police station compound of Rumuruti. This is where we pick up our armed escorts, since the area around Turkana (as we were told) is full of bandits and dacoits. Though we realized later that it is only a ploy for the police to earn some extra bucks. The worst things in Turkana region are the roads and the rains (when they fall). If a bandit had indeed hit us it would have been an enjoyable diversion.

We hop out into the scorching heat and dust that reminds me of India. There’s only one decent shade of a thorny tree beneath which the truck hands quickly spread tables and chairs and food for the truck occupants. I realize we are outsiders since we have our own food. So we park the car under another imaginary shade and get out bread, cheese, juice, fruits and a sharp looking panga (machete). Soon we are surrounded by curious onlookers, some of whom look hostile but they observe from a distance and mean no harm. Colorfully dressed Samburu and Bantu people walk by and so does few trucks loaded with goats in such dire conditions that Sandy’s eyes fill with tear. Sandy smokes, Sandy drinks and I run my palm like a prop in front of my face to stop a dozen fly enter my orifices. The police people take their sweet time, while the sun burns us down and our fellow travelers eat like Somalian refugees under the tree. The truck driver is the largest sized human specimen I have ever seen in close proximity with a heart of gold and he carefully looks after his charge. Finally two scrawny looking police fellows holding menacing looking Kalashnikov’s saunter out as if they own the place and then we are off.

The road ahead is a misnomer since we drive on plain earth, shattering and jarring our bones with every rotation of the wheel. Shortly the truck is lost inside a huge bellowing mushroom of dust and we can see only the UN car behind. We follow some pre-arranged instructions, since I have long ago given up any hope of map reading, and take a turn for out intended campsite at Maralal. Predictably we get lost as the UN car owner pokes his shining pate out and utters one of his insufferable innuendoes to no one in particular. His wife must be the only person who ever responded to them any way. Eventually we find ourselves in the camping ground that is fully overgrown with savannah. We stamp down the grass, get our foods going and the sun sets at the opportune moment. Sandy declares that the roof top is a goner; Sandy declares she needs a drink and I declare that I have nothing to declare. Post dinner we repack and lighten the car. Next day morning we emerge from the campsite to realize how dirty and dusty Maralal is.

It’s a small shallow township around and upon a lowly hillock with unkempt houses scattered like matchsticks in a marathon. We fill our tanks with gas, report at the police station that is completely unnecessary except for the purpose of some under-table monetary transaction. From the main circle we start climbing upon a hill of considerable green. I shudder to think what these roads must look in rain. We all are rolling like pendulum and at several narrow places the truck nearly seems to topple over with its extra high chassis. We guzzle water. We have a mini portable fridge in the back that works on the car battery and it completely fails to cool anything bigger than a pair of oranges. Everything is at boiling point and we must have a dust layer of at least few inches if not more. The road continues to climb and with that the outside air begins to cool. Following the truck at snail’s top speed we stall at few places. Finally the truck stops at a view point and hops out all our trippers, literally tripping over each other in the rush to vacate the leviathan. The driver points out to distant valleys and hills of the eastern Rift Valley and even to the Charangany hills beyond. He asserts that this is one of the finest views in the world and I wonder how much of the world is he talking about. There are trees around and we quickly take advantage of the shades and shadows to relieve ourselves of unwanted fluid. Then the journey resumes.

We clear the trees and then start descending. The view is good with huge forest land below us bordered with distant hills. At a point we stop again and realize it’s a curio shop for selling things that you won’t buy if you aren’t mad enough to be headed this way. The ladies went in and returned gleefully though mostly empty handed. And again like before the truck rumbles on and on like an elephant with weak knees. Lunch is done beneath a thorny bush and I knock off for a while inside the car, thankful for the coat of dust on my person since that now acts as fly-barrier.

Suddenly a shanty hamlet springs up from nowhere. We are in Baragoi. I couldn’t fathom why this place should be! Not why it should be here, but why should it simply be? A Kenyan mystery. The people are poor, the shops are rickety, the roads are just clearings. No sooner we stop we are surrounded. But no one begs for money or anything else. The tribal people only look at us. Noticing Sandy’s pink nose plastered to the window, a young fellow approaches and claims he is the guy from Baragoi and can get us anything we desire. I tell him I desire to get the hell out of here. He displays his white teeth and disappears. We resume our journey. Towards the end of the day we reach a place that immediately ranks high on my book.

South Horr is a mountainous region where the Great Rift Valley, Ndoto Mountain Range and the southern edge of Chalbi Desert collide to form a curious and exciting landscape. The camping ground is an oases amidst poverty. Wide spacious bandas (cottages), running water shower, clean flush toilets, oversized open dining hall and a delightful kitchen along with playground and flower decked plants prove to be a soothing sight to our sore eyes and sorry bodies. Others head for bandas and we set up tents next to a trampoline. The night air is distinctly cool and the sky fills up with bright stars as I shower under the sky. Dark silhouettes of the surrounding hills peep at us menacingly. I await the arrival of dawn when we will see them properly. The dinner is delicious and the night cool enough to rock me to sleep.

Next morning up with the larks I get out of the compound for a little exploration and come head on with a Samburu goat herder, colorfully dressed even in that hour. We wave at each other as he pushes and guides his herd through the bush and they soon disappear within their own dust. Then comes a tiny boy with a long whip driving a camel so huge that the boy can barely reach the camel’s tail. I help him a bit and with a grin he continues with his camel. I hope his big brother comes soon else the camel would be lost soon. I return to make breakfast and find Sandy standing arms akimbo with the remnants of the roof top lying in front on ground like the desiccated humanoid of Terminator 3. He looks at me and I don’t even ask, while Sandy is wrestling with the huge tent that’s simply refusing to get inside its petite bag. I pull out the gas stove and put some water to boil.

The path out of South Horr camping ground is paved with Desert Rose on either sides sprouting like wild fire. Curious onlookers gaze at us wondrously while I get a creak in my neck by looking up and around at the magnificent mountains, cliffs, and rock walls that form an uninterrupted chain on either sides of the road. All the hills are covered in lush green foliage and I am curious to look within. Later I learn from a wildlife expert that these hills are a treasure house for insects and small animals. Within an hour though the chains of hills terminate and we enter extremely arid brown landscape covered with lava rocks everywhere. Dust storms swirl around us and everything within sight is completely immersed in that abominable red dust. We cross few odd nomadic settlements of people unbelievably dark and then go atop a sudden patch of concrete tarmac out of nowhere and sight the vast expanse of Lake Turkana that completely swallows the horizon on the front. Our convoy stops to take the scenery in and click pictures by the hundred. The hot wind hits us like jackhammer but is unable to subdue our joyous enthusiasm. Within that vast arid expanse of red and deep brown stands one solitary bare tree of white barks and everyone gathers around it for a photo shoot. As we laugh and display our teeth to advantage, Sandy rolls in to declare that our vehicle has developed some serious lurch and needs to be inspected.

Sandy rolls beneath the front where a pool of oil has already moistened the ground. Sandy looks on with an expression only she can perfect while I look on as if I am beyond caring, which at that point I nearly am. Helped by others soon Sandy declares the vehicle road worthy and we all hop back to recommence our journey. Within few hundred meters of downhill driving, our Landcruiser lurches alarmingly to the left and then crashes into the ground like a slain gladiator. We jump off and Sandy howls in the radio set to the people ahead. Sandy again crawls beneath the car and emerges smiling like Buddha to declare that this vehicle would now probably become part of the landscape till a new axle could be arranged. Being at a place as remote and corrugated as the moon I assume he is in a jocular mood. But the car looks like that and we ponder the imponderables. The vehicle is loaded with food, equipment and goods worth thousands of dollars a literal fortune in the middle of nowhere and no way can we simply abandon it and go. Neither can one of us just stay with it. After all as the police escorts told us we are already well within the firing range of the invisible bandits.

As we swelter and simmer beneath the burning sun while keeping our mouth and mind shut to the hurricane breeze soon enough the new car (now looking like a battered junk) arrives with the two escorts. The plan is simple. The guards will guard the car, which worries Sandy to no end, and she volunteers to stay with them, which worries the other Sandy and the rest of us to no end. After much deliberation we leave the two happy guards with enough water to drown Sahara and food to liberate Somalia and then take off in search of a mechanic or a messiah (whoever came first) in the next township of Lyongelani. We descend to the lake bank where sparsely located trees are bending into the wind and we spy some odd ball shaped stick and thatch covered huts of the local El Molo tribe who are hunter-gatherers and expert fishermen. We see several of them fishing in the lake as they wave back at us. The white salt encrusted path skirts the shore dramatically weaving like a pale snake upon the red earth while to our left the sparklingly incandescent lake water of the most vivid turquoise keeps company. I know the water is mildly brackish and replete with Nile crocodiles, yet I feel the deep urge to simply strip off and jump in. The wind rattles our vehicle from side to side. We soon catch up with the truck and the other vehicle and follow them from a safe distance to avoid the tail dust.

At a particular place suddenly a large group of tribal surrounds us and push into the car. Their act seems hostile yet they smile. We smile back but don’t open the door or lower our window. Scott drives very carefully so as not to run over one of the fellows in the front. It’s seems a strange ritual, as if they are restraining us and allowing us passage at the same time. Eventually we come out of the crowd and pursue the truck ahead. Soon enough we sight a fishing harbor and a fishing boat tied to its anchor. Then we round off another hill and descend to the camping ground of the Truck Company. The moment I step out the wind slams me down with ferocity I did not expect. The truck occupants as they exit one after another are treated to the same fate. Skirts bellowing, hats galloping and feet fleeing we head for the dining shade of the stunning campsite. After dropping me at the place Scott’s car heads out for Lyongelani where they were booked into a luxurious resort and the two Sandy hoped to meet the messiah. The bandas here cost 1000 Ksh per night and I have my tent to pitch but the only place that can keep my flimsy tent upright and out of harm’s way is already taken over by the UN couple of fabled fame. She sits there like a cannibal queen refusing to share the space though there’s plenty of room for a Rugby team’s victory dance. It’s futile to argue with senile so I get inside one of the thatched bandas and deposit my bag on ground.

The campsite has several clumps of date-palm trees and a row of bandas with a shade in between as dining space and an open roof shower and a toilet complex again roofless. We are by the shores of Turkana and one of the driest places on earth so there’s no chance of rain. The heat is mild as the wind blows it away even before it can touch bare skin. To speak one has to scream and everything needs to be tethered to some anchor lest it would be gone with the wind. We are privy to a fabulous shore line that resembles a sea. We can see volcanoes and mountain ranges of the South Island and the Lyongelani shoreline to our right. We are thick in scorpion country and our camp manager cautions us against going barefoot or into the water where Nile crocs prey beneath. I am thrilled.

I immediately discard my footwear, preferring to walk barefoot on the white sand and rock and quickly get into my swimming trunks and jump into the cool water. I take a gulp and like the mild taste. I am too scrawny to be good croc bait hence the Jap lady and her husband too gingerly wade in but don’t go deep. Two of the angles follow in too but soon exit as the wind begins to chill and there’s festivity in the air. It’s the oldest adventurer’s birthday, the charming doctor. So a cake is laid out accompanied with cookies and crumbs. Our group leader is at her best when chaos is needed and so we have plenty of fun and food. And then suddenly someone mentions Turkey. I think he means the nation, but he insists he means the bird and then it hits us all that today is Christmas. Our cook promises a feast in the evening and I return into the lake. I look in and out, near and far but not a single croc is visible anywhere. Either Nile croc is a myth or they are migratory and we are in off-season. I finally give up and emerge out of the lake as the sun is about to dip. The wind cuts through my skin and I get inside the shower and need half an hour of desperate rub to get some of the stickiness out of my skin. Just as darkness rolls in, rolls in our vehicle with Sandy and Sandy finally grinning like Christmas. They partake the cake and cookies and we hear the miracle story.

They finally did find a mechanic in Lyongelani who had enough temerity to take on the task and when they reached the broken vehicle, it wasn’t broken any more. Another supply truck whose driver happened to know the two guards, who were guarding the car, passing by, stopped to render help and had already fixed the axle bolt with a replacement. So the mechanic for once in his life had become redundant. The mechanic assures that this is the stuff of legend in these parts. Then Sandy leaves with Sandy and I am left with the rest of the jocular group. I go barefoot everywhere and I am still untouched by a scorpion though some of our members have already seen a few too many.

Though let down by the friendly crocs, the dinner turns my spirits up. We sing Christmas Carol, we dance into the breeze, we drink wine and we eat the imaginary turkey. While everyone sit in groups braving the wind and the cold night, I sit apart from the rest as my heart is somewhere. It is said that the home is where the heart is and for the first time in my life I am debating where exactly my heart is. I look up at the bejeweled sky and start conversing with my starry friends. Slowly the night deepens and my companions all take leave for the night one by one. The cook extinguishes the light and everything hurtles into complete darkness. I pull out my ground sheet and lay it on the sand by the lake water and decide to sleep outside all night right there. The risks are immense, not only of scorpions but also of crocs coming out at night and pulling me in. Yet the atmosphere is too stunning for me to remain inside a banda.

I lie on my back and chart the stars and the galaxies, noticing in particular the constellations of Capricorn, Gemini, Orion, and Cassiopeia. Jupiter and Venus, Mars and Mercury all twinkle too as if playing a merry cosmic band to bring joy and cheers on Christmas. On a lark I take out my smart mobile phone and to my utmost disbelief and joy find a faint signal trace. I send some extra wishes on Safaricom (the network company) owner’s way and balancing the phone on my chest quickly type out a short message and mail to someone far, far away. Then I lie peacefully and am slowly lulled into sleep by the shooting stars and the comets criss-crossing the night sky above.

1 comment:

  1. You are riot, S... love our stories. Hope you find your home soon too, my friend ;-)
    Btw, you should have uploaded some shots too...the place sounds very pretty.