Day four of our Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destination.
Some time during the night, I wake up to use the toilet - boy is it dark! There are a lot of wilderness noises, although I can't make out what any of them are. I try peeking through the curtains to see if there are any elephants on our balcony, but no such luck.
The alarm is set for 06:00 so that I can watch the sunrise over the lake. It is still not light when I get up, and certainly no sunrise: the crater is swathed in a thick atmospheric mist!
For a while I sit outside and listen as the jungle wakes up. From the eerie stillness of pre-dawn, to the air coming alive with sound: birds chirping, eagles screeching, baboons barking and buffalo squelching through the boggy grass. With no human sound whatsoever, I feel at one with nature.
As day takes over from night the mist descends further into the crater and for a while I can barely see the lake. A few birds flit around the bushes and buffalo graze by the lake. But no elephants.
Black Headed Heron
Parrot Billed Sparrow
The breakfast waiter tells us there are elephant footprints and droppings in the grounds from a nocturnal visit, but the elephant has gone. Hmph!
I order one sausage and a Spanish omelette. David asks for omelette, two sausages and beans. I get two sausages, David gets one sausage. No beans. With so many people staying it must be hard to get the orders right. Ha!
When we are half way through the meal, David's beans arrive. Note the luminous ketchup on David's omelette!
Filled up with sausages, beans and chapatis (!), we are ready for another adventure-packed day.
David looks fed up as well as filled up!
As he takes our money for last night's drinks, the manager insists: “You need security for North Horr. Many bandits. You need gun.” Sigh. Here we go again... How to make foreign visitors feel safe. Not.
John, having spent the night in town, arrives with the car and we bid farewell to Marsabit National Park and the cool air, with our fleeces firmly packed in the bottom of our bags. All the staff turn out on the front porch of the lodge to wave us off. Such lovely people.
In Marsabit Town we pick up our (non-armed) guard. The instantly likeable Abdi is a quiet man of slight build and gentle nature who is going to be our facilitator and translator on the journey across the desert to Loyiangalani.
The jumbled nondescript town of Marsabit, with a population of around 5,000, is a dishevelled outpost of urban civilisation in the vast surrounding desert.
Urban civilisation African style, that is.
Old plastic bags never die, they just hang around in the 'Marsabit Plastic Bag Cemetery'.
As soon as we exit the town, we leave the sealed highway and relative civilisation behind, for quite a while this time.
Initially the surroundings are dreary and uninspiring as we head for Chalbi Desert on empty gravel tracks. This is the main road to Lake Turkana.
After many miles we meet our first vehicle: a truck carrying dried fish from Lake Turkana. We can smell it before we see it!
Despite the rocky track, John manages to get quite some speed up on these roads while I try to hang out of the window to take photos of the surroundings. After three bumps on my head from the window frame and the second bash on my cheek by the camera, I give that idea up and just hold the camera out of window, point it in the general direction and press the shutter button, hoping for the best. While not exactly artistic, it gives me a few record shots from today's long journey.
Throughout the morning, the under-wheel surface changes from almost-smooth concrete sections, to shifting soft sand, to hard compacted dirt rutted into a bone-rattling washboard effect.
We hit traffic congestion, Chalbi-style: we follow another vehicle for a while and eat their dust!
While there is a (sort of) cooling breeze created by having all the car windows open, the relentless sun is inflating the already smouldering heat of the desert making it 'somewhat warm'!
After about an hour David pipes up: “Are we nearly there yet?” The saying obviously doesn't translate well, and the joke falls on stony ground. Well, there's plenty of that here!
This is a sea of red hot lava rocks: large boulders everywhere, fiery rocks of death. Apparently a previous tourist asked John: “who put all these stones here?”
Uneven doesn't even begin to describe the surface. We bounce and bump along in this cocktail shaker they call a Landcruiser, crumbling and crunching on the ridged and jerky track. This is not the 'Rocky Road of my dreams.
The stones give way to compacted sand.
Here in the desert wilderness there are no road marking, no street signs, no landmarks. You have to know your way. Do we turn left or right at this 'junction'? Having driven this route more times than he cares to remember, John fortunately knows the way.
Ahead of us lies a vast expanse of ... nothing.
The sinister ocean of volcanic sand and lava rocks commands respect and yet seduces with its own brand of beauty and harmony. It is a seemingly extraterrestrial landscape where only the toughest species survive. Looking carefully we see that far from being devoid of all life, the flat and far reaching desert floor is in fact home to a rich habitat with an abundance of plants that have adapted to the harsh environment here, overcoming a life of thirst and deprivation.
Amazingly, herds of impala, baboons and ostriches make their home in this forbidding environment.
More traffic! It is now over an hour since the last vehicle we met on this road.
For a while we waltz our way along in the soft sand, sliding around like little ballerinas on ice.
We come across a number of livestock carcasses scattered by the side of the road as a result of an accident a couple of weeks ago. The driver, travelling at night from Lake Turkana, fell asleep. At least 70 animals and one person died in the carnage. Not much is left of the dead animals now: vultures and other carrion-eaters will no doubt have had a feast, and maybe even local nomads.
I get extremely excited when we spot our very first mirage. A naturally occurring optical phenomenon caused by light rays bending to produce a displaced image of distant objects, desert mirages are often mistaken for water reflections implying the presence of an oasis.
Here comes the technical stuff, pay attention now!
Cold air is denser than warm air and, therefore, has a greater refractive index. As light travels at a shallow angle along a boundary between air of different temperature, the light rays bend towards the colder air. If the air near the ground is warmer than that higher up, the light ray bends upward, effectively being totally reflected just above the ground.
Once the rays reach the viewer’s eye, the visual cortex interprets it as if it traces back along a perfectly straight "line of sight". However, this line is at a tangent to the path the ray takes at the point it reaches the eye. The result is that an "inferior image" of the sky above appears on the ground. The viewer may incorrectly interpret this sight as water that is reflecting the sky, which is, to the brain, a more reasonable and common occurrence.
Thank you Wikipedia
As we near the village of Maikona, the only settlement we've seen this morning, the scenery changes and the vegetation becomes more abundant. Straw huts appear on the horizon, goats graze on whatever little food they can find and camels are kept in thorny enclosures.
The local Gabbra people believe that being photographed will take their blood away, so I merely snap a few photos from a safe distance inside the car, hiding my lens from their sight. The scenes are so photogenic and I am itching to walk around with my camera at the well with all those camels, goats, people and cattle. But I believe in respecting the local culture as much as I can so I shall just have to keep the images on the 'memory card in my mind'.
For miles and miles and miles and miles (you get the picture?), the track and surrounding terrain is just loose sand. The car acts as a whisk and the sand gets everywhere. I eat dust, I breathe dust, I feel dust, I blink dust, I hear dust. I am dust.
After a while we pass another small oasis, complete with goats. Some of these people walk for days from their village to get to a well, and can often been seen carrying water in bright yellow jerry-cans on the back of donkeys.
Ostriches wait in the wings for their turn at the waterhole. There is a distinct pecking order at the wells, and not just for animals: many a tribal dispute has started over watering rights and escalated into violent clashes.
A huge area of virtually flat desert, Chalbi is an endless wasteland of clay and white salt, where the horizon dissolves into a mirage.
The name 'Chalbi' comes from the local Gabbra language, and means 'bare and salty'. This is one of the hottest and most arid regions in Kenya, a barren salty pan surrounded by volcanic craters and lava flows. Long ago this was in fact part of a lake and even now, during periods of particularly heavy rainfall, large areas flood. Being such a flat area, expansive shallows of standing water and mud form, causing the desert crossing to become impossible. Today, however, the pan is an immense spread of salty, cracked earth.
The desert is restless and unpredictable, nothing is constant. Even the road is transitional: when John came this way three weeks ago, the track took a different route across the desert to where it is today, making for challenging navigation!
The temperature in the car is stifling. Having the windows open is akin to being assaulted by an industrial strength fan heater with a sandblaster attachment. Keeping the windows closed is not an option.
Having read horror stories on the internet before we left home about how the temperatures regularly reach a blistering 60 °C here, I am grateful the thermometer shows 'only' 51 °C ! It is feverishly hot with the brutal sun relentlessly blazing down on the already scorched and bleak ground, cremating it further to a despairing sizzle.
In the midst of this dystopia*, a young boy herds his cattle to the waterhole, which is likely to be at least a day's walk away.
*dystopia (dis-toh-PEE-ah) — an imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror. The opposite of utopia.
The top layer of the salty earth is caked to a crusty skin, much like you'd find on snow after rain, making a delightful crunch as you step on it! Gabbras nomads collect salt here, which they then sell in Marsabit.
Dual carriageway! Because...? There is so little traffic here that if you are unlucky enough to break down, you may end up having to spend the night here as it could be a day or two before help, in the shape of the next vehicle, comes along.
Thankfully we didn't break down. John, David and Abdi are just having a bit of fun.
Today we actually do meet another vehicle during the crossing of the desert! The truck initially appears as an unrecognisable mirage on the dusty horizon.
The stark and austere beauty about this bare and desolate landscape captivates me, despite not being at all like the romantic images conjured up by common (mis)conceptions of what a desert should look like.
Abdi and Grete
Another oasis, more camels. I don't think we have ever seen so many camels together in one place.
Followed by another mirage. Or is it a fata morgana?
These goats are not a mirage, but signal the start of civilisation. We are now on the edge of Kalacha Dida, an oasis surrounded by doum palms offering a shady haven from the hot and intense sun. This is a true oasis with a natural spring. Herders bring their camels, cattle, donkeys and goats from all around – often several days' walk - to water their livestock here.
This region is one of the poorest in the country, with the poverty level measured at 92%. The main causes of the poverty are: low agricultural production due to harsh climatic conditions, frequent and severe droughts, inadequate water supplies, lack of reliable and lucrative market for livestock products, few employment opportunities, over dependency on relief food and livestock economy, underutilised resources, illiteracy, poor infrastructures that are hardly maintained, insecurity and conflicts, which of course include ethnic clashes and cattle rustling. There is not much going for the region then.
The presence of a permanent water source attracts wild animals too, such as these impala. Following a prolonged drought this year, most shallow wells (which are the main water source in the area), have dried up, and the few that have remained cannot cope with the increased demand.
Although our itinerary states that we are spending the night here, in a camp overlooking the Kalacha Oasis, we will be continuing for another hour to North Horr. Previous clients found the facilities at this camp less than adequate, so John sourced alternative accommodation elsewhere. In this region there isn't a great deal of choice, so I am sure that was quite a challenge!
The camels look bemused as we drive by, briefly suspending their grazing to stare at the passing mzungu (white foreigners).
Called the 'ships of the desert', camels are a sign of wealth and status and a must-have animal in this region - they help the nomadic peoples move, transport goods and fetch water. A camel can be loaned or given to other Gabbra families in this, a reciprocal society, with future favours being expected. Camels also provide most of the meat the Gabbra eat, as well as milk during the dry season. The camel has an almost sacred status for the Gabbra, and selling camels or their by-products to outsiders is taboo.
This region of Northern Kenya is the most barren and desolate area we have ever been to, which is quite a claim to fame considering all the travel we have done and the places we've been over the years.
The track beyond Kalacha initially traverses glaringly white salt pans before hitting soft dunes of shifting sand and continuing amidst clumps of lifeless palm trees pretending that they hide a refreshing oasis.
Adorned with 50 shades of brown, and its severe and sombre beauty, Chalbi Desert is spellbinding in a bleak and dismal way. An absolute highlight of this trip for sure!
Built around a natural oasis, 'town' is a gross exaggeration for this vague agglomeration of grass- or mud-huts and tin shacks; sprinkled with a few permanent concrete structures. With the smaller, outlying settlements, North Horr number around 5,000 inhabitants.
The streets appear deserted: we see very few people out and about in the searing heat of the day. And who can blame them?
Looking at these dwellings as we make our way through town, I reflect on the fact that inside each and every one of those homes there is one or more person(s) whose life revolves around them in the same way as my life revolves around me. The enormity of this extraordinary perception is overwhelming: fantastic, mystifying, scary and magical, all at the same time. Or as some youngsters of today might say: “That's mental!”
Our home for the night is the Catholic Mission in North Horr where we are greeted warmly by Father John. Aimed at visiting missionaries, rather than foreign tourists, the room is nevertheless comfortable with an en suite bathroom.
The key to our room
Skin caked with dirt and grime; hair matted into a knotted, twisted tangle by grit and dust whipped up by the prevailing wind; I take my filthy self straight to the bathroom. Having a shower has never felt so good! Although the temptation to stand under the deliciously cool water for hours is almost overwhelming, I am mindful of the fact that water is a scarce commodity around here. My modest effort at preserving water by turning it off while soaping / shampooing and back on again for rinsing, makes me feel a little less guilty about the fact that this is a luxury that most of the local population may never experience.
With the temperature nudging 40 °C, we find a spot in the shade, with a cooling breeze, while John goes off to hire a local woman to cook the food we brought with us from Samburu.
Father John returns and his next sentence comes as a huge surprise: “Would you like a beer?” Resisting the temptation to answer: “Is the Pope Catholic?”, we are even more delighted when the drinks arrive cold! The situation strikes us as rather surreal: sitting in a Catholic Mission in an oasis in the middle of a desert in Africa, drinking cold beer.
We amuse ourselves watching the birds come to drink from the outside tap while we wait for the food.
A young lad comes over and introduces himself and his two sisters, suggesting that we go with him to the hospital across the road, where we can photograph his sick brother (really?) and of course give a donation. We decline, but he is pretty insistent. When father John re-appears, the three youngsters scamper. “What did he want?” he asks suspiciously. “No, no, no” says Father John when I tell him, “Don't go with him, he is a bit risky”.
The food arrives, and very nice it is too – a mixture of potatoes, carrots, cabbage and corned beef, served with spaghetti. Known to his mates as 'Chilli Boy', John has brought his own bottle of chilli sauce to liven up the dish. He is delighted when we both concur that we too like our food spicy.
Time for a siesta, although sleeping at 40 °C is proving a little tricky.
Ruso Sand Dune
The people of North Horr are very proud of their one and only sand dune, and 'everyone' from Father John, Sister Annicia and indeed our very own guide Abdi (whose home-town this is) insist that we must see it at sunset, so after our 'refreshing' siesta, we head out into the desert.
Surprisingly, the scenery here is vastly different to that of the Chalbi Desert.
I love the way the low sun casts magical shadows over the tiny 'dunes' formed behind tufts of grass by the shifting sand and wind. At first glance the grass looks like trees and the whole image could almost have been one taken from a high vantage point overlooking a large area of desert. It is not.
Then we see it, looming ahead. The 'famous' Ruso Sand Dune.
This is a traditional, classic sand dune: a crescent shaped, ridged mound created by the wind.
Rising from the otherwise course, flat desert floor, it almost looks out of place: like someone has taken a huge bag of fine sand and tipped it out here, waiting for the wind to sculpt it.
Ruso is longer and less steep on the windward side where the sand is pushed up the dune, and the boys climb to the top, leaving their footprints on the otherwise pristine slope.
This is a favourite spot to take the village children for a day out, so I am surprised to find we are the only ones here. Then the realisation hits me that 99.99% of the people in the village do not have access to any sort of motorised transport, and as the dune is around 12km outside town, an outing would have to be planned carefully.
Ever-shifting sand dunes often have a negative impact on humans when they encroach on settlements. Movement occurs when small sand particles skip along the ground like a bouncing ball, colliding with others, in a knock-on effect known as creeping. Dunes move at different speeds depending on the strength of the winds. In a major dust storm, it may move tens of metres at a time!
I leave my own footprints as a wander around the lowers lopes of the dune, walking further and further away in an effort to try and get a picture without my shadow in it.
Like an over-excited kid, Abdi jumps off the 'slip-face', the shorter and steeper side in lee of the wind.
The low sun makes for long shadows, with the ridged dunes creating beautiful patterns in nature.
Not wanting to be driving through the desert after dark, we make our way back to North Horr and the Catholic Mission just as the sun is setting.
As we sit under the starry sky, drinking cold Tusker beer and eating delicious spicy lentils, we have to pinch ourselves to make sure this is real. What an amazing adventure we are having!
After dinner sister Annicia invites us to see their home, which is relatively luxurious, with a huge courtyard in which they grow their own vegetables, plus well-furnished living quarters. As my flash gun blew up a couple of days ago, I only have my mobile phone to take pictures, so I apologise for the poor quality!
We play with the cats for a while, then say goodnight to Sister Annica and Sister Maggie.
Purely for medicinal reasons: to help me sleep in this heat (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed. John placed our Diet Cokes in the Mission's fridge when we arrived, so they are lovely and cold now.
Cheers and welcome to North Horr.
As soon as we open the door to our room, the cat slips in. We play and cuddle for a while, until it is time for bed, when I let it out into the courtyard of the mission.
As the temperature is still 35 °C, we leave the curtains open to let some breeze through the iron grills, and fall asleep to the sound of Midnight Mass in the church.