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Entries about desert

Dashoguz - Konye-Urgench - Darwaza

The Gates to Hell


View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

With David still being unable to put weight on his leg to walk, we take a serious discussion about the programme this morning; and when Meylis and Artem arrive, we tell them about our suggestion for Plan B:

Instead of driving from Turkmenabat to the village of Koyten where we have two days of walking in the Kugitang Mountains at the end of the trip, we propose that we return to Mary for a night, then continue to Ashgabat for the last night here in Turkmenistan. It seems totally pointless to travel all the way to the far north east of the country, seven hours drive each way, when David would be unable to do ANY walking when we get there.

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Discussing Plan B

It also means the journey home won't be so arduous, as the original plan saw us driving seven hours to Turmenabat, flight to Ashgabat, a few hours for change and a shower in Ashgabat, then fly home via Dubai – making it a heck of a long day.

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The boys think it should work, but obviously they have to check with the office, whose immediate reply is “of course”. The service from Owadan Tourism, the local agent here in Turkmenistan has really been excellent!

Pharmacy

Before we leave town, Artem takes me to a pharmacy so I can get something for my upset tummy, as the Ciprofloaxin isn't working. I am given some capsules and told to take one of the green ones and two of the silver. Getting it all mixed up, I take two of the green and one of the silver.

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I later find the green packet contains Tetracycline and the other one probiotics, so no real harm done by the 'overdose'.

Konya-Urgench

The UNESCO Heritage Site is the place of the the ancient town of Ürgenç, and the capital of Khwarazm Empire, parts of which are believed to date back to the 5th century BC.

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Its inhabitants deserted the town in the 1700s in order to develop a new settlement, and Kunya-Urgench has remained undisturbed ever since.

Many ruined buildings of the former town are dotted over a large area, and most tourists walk between one site and the next. With David's bad leg, however, we are given special permission to drive, and the barrier is lifted up for us to enter.

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Türabek Khanum Mausoleum

This is the largest and most impressive of the surviving monuments at Konye Urgench, the mausoleum is final resting place of Türabek Khanum.

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The story goes that a renowned architect was madly in love with Türabek and asked what it would take to win her love.

“Design me a unique building, like no-one has seen before” she said, “and I will marry you”

He does.

Still not satisfied, she stipulated: I need you to jump from the top of the building to prove you love me. Then I will marry you.”

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After he made his leap of love and broke both legs in the process, the cruel heartless woman stated with disdain that she couldn't possibly spend the rest of her life with a cripple. Ouch!

Instead Türabek married the ruler at the time (1321-1336) - Qutlugh Timur.

Türabek Khanum Mausoleum is recognized as one of the earliest monuments to make extensive use of mosaic faience (multi-coloured ceramic tiles).

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The inner dome is of particular interest with its 365 stars (one for each day of the year), 24 arches with 12 of them open to the elements, and the other 12 closed (to represent the 12 hours of daylight and 12 of night time). The 12 larger arches below denote the months of the year.

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And lastly, four large windows stand for the four seasons.

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The tomb chamber

Another interesting thing about the mausoleum is that while the outside shows eight sides, from the inside you can only see six.

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This drawing shows you how.

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Kutlug Timur Minaret

Legend tells that the minaret once had a golden dome atop with a fire inside, and when Genghis Khan arrived at this site, he thought he was seeing two suns and fired his catapult at the minaret, causing the top of the tower to lean. A much more logical story would be that it was caused by the Mongolians breaking a local dam, creating a considerable flood which undermined the structure.

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In the photo below you can see the entrance door is a considerable distance from the ground. When the minaret was built the access to it was via a bridge from a mosque close by.

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Inside the mausoleum there are 144 steps (12x12) in a spiral fashion (anticlockwise, of course, as it would be in Islamic architecture). At 62 metres high, it is the tallest building in Central Asia.

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The site includes a few more reminders of its once great importance at the time when Urgench was the capital of the Khorezm Empire.

Soltan Tekesh Mausoleum

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Sultan Ala al-din Tekesh was the founder of the Khwarezm Empire and its ruler between 1172-1200.

Fahr-ad-din Razi Mausoleum

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The mausoleum of famed Muslim theologian and philosopher (1149-1209) is one of the earliest surviving structures in Konye-Urgench.

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Kufic Arabic letters

Reading these intricately carved scriptures, taken from the heart of the Koran, is said to bring forth angels to protect you from the evil eye.

Najm ad-Din al-Kubra Mausoleum

The façade of Kubra's mausoleum (on the left) is leaning toward the Sultan Ali Mausoleum which stands directly opposite it, in what is believed to be a show of respect.

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Pilgrims make an anticlockwise circumbambulation around a piece of wood sticking up from the platform of the gukhana - the building which contains Kubra's cenotaph. The post is said to mark the traditional place where Kubra's head was cut off and buried during the Mongol conquest.

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Lunch

We stop in Konye Urgench town for lunch in a very touristy place with several other westerners. Both David and I order samsa – a pasty-like snack which traditionally is made from a choice of meat, spinach or pumpkin. Today we have the meat variety.

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Desert Drive

Driving out of town we head for the Karakum Desert and the adventure that lured me to this country in the first place.

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I love these little three wheel tractors - I have never seen those anywhere else

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There are miles and miles of cotton fields along the side of the road

After a couple of hours, we leave the sealed road behind and continue on sandy tracks.

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I have to pinch myself at this stage, as it doesn't seem real. For so many years I have dreamed about the burning crater of Darwaza, expecting it to be out of reach for me, and here I am, on my way to see it, and in a few hours I shall be feeling its heat.

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I gasp as we reach the top of a hill, and there, spread below me, is the flat desert floor. With a huge hole. Darwaza Gas Crater. Wow.

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Darwaza Gas Crater

The crater – or more accurately sink hole – far exceeds my expectations. Although I thought it would impress me after dark, I was not prepared for the sheer magnitude and drama exuded during daylight hours.

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Even the disappointment of finding the crater surrounded by a fence, does not take away from the extraordinary sight before me.

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The fence was erected within the last twelve months as The Mongol Rally made a stop here, and officials were concerned about drivers going over into the massive fiery hole. And quite rightly so: from a car it can be quite difficult to see the edge of the crater.

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I guess the fence is there more as a visual barrier than a physical one as such, as it has been broken down in many places, and is easy to climb across.

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The back story

Colloquially known as The Gates of Hell, the Darwaza Gas Crater was accidentally created in 1971 when a Russian drilling rig punctured a gas chamber which subsequently collapsed, taking the entire rig with it into the newly crated sink hole.

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Fearing the poisonous gases would create an environmental catastrophe, the Soviets set the hole alight, figuring it would stop burning within a few weeks. That was 48 years ago.

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We chat to four German guys who have travelled down from their home country in their campervan, a journey which took some three months. I am concerned that they have parked so close to a flaming crater with a massive gas cylinder on the side of their van!

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The temperature in the centre of the fiery cauldron is said to be between 6,000 °C and 7,000 °C. That is mighty warm! Standing close to the edge (where the flames reach around 700 °C), is OK for short periods, apart from downwind from the crater, where it is unbearably hot!

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Although I could stare into the flames for hours, we reluctantly leave the burning crater to head to the nearby yurt village, owned by Owadan Tourism, our local agent.

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I must admit that while it almost seems like sacrilege to build a (semi) permanent camp here next to the crater, the thought of having a proper bed and toilet facilities does rather please me. But first we are shown how the local chorek bread is made in traditional ovens.

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We get a chance to taste it as well.

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The general director of Owadan, who we met in Ashgabat, is here, and he explains how he leased this land to build up a solid tourism business here for people who want that little bit more comfort.

Horses and camels have been brought out here, for tourist rides and photographic opportunities.

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Our accommodation is not part of the main complex (which is occupied by a larger Belgian / Dutch group); we have a small, select camp with is much more private, with just 3 yurts for the four of us.

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It is set up on a hill, overlooking the crater.

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Chez nous on the right

The yurt is spacious, with three beds and a set of drawers.

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There is also a toilet block with cold showers and flushing loos. Plus a massive pile of toilet rolls. Now I know why there has been such a shortage of paper in all the bathrooms so far on this trip – all the rolls are here!

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In a small communal area we are served dinner, and get chatting to a couple from Brazil who flew in from Almaty in Kazakhstan this morning and are continuing to Baku in Azerbaijan later this evening. They are obviously 'collecting countries' and boast of having visited 120 so far. Meylis takes great delight in informing them that we can beat that, with over 150 countries and overseas territories. They struggle to understand why we'd want to spend two weeks exploring the one country, rather than moving on to one we haven't been to.

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The kitchen and dining area

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Vegetable soup

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Grilled chicken with grilled veg, tomato sauce, [] smetana[/i] (Russian style soured cream), chips and salad

Artem has gone off to fill the car up with diesel for the long journey across the desert over the next two days, and once he is back and has had something to eat, we all go down to the crater for a party.

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And what a party! The boss gifted us a bottle of vodka earlier, and we are joined by one of the other drivers called Max, as we share jokes and stare into the eternal flames.

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The fire in the crater is made up of thousands of little flames, and is stunningly spectacular. Photographs cannot do it justice, and I give up trying to take pictures, and just sit by the crater enjoying the moment. After all, I have dreamed of this place for so long.

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We eventually retire to our yurts, where I promptly get locked in the toilet! Eventually, after no-one hears my screams (for what seems like an eternity), I figure out that there is a double lock and you have to pull the door towards you and lift it at the same time as turning the key.

David has more luck in the ablutions block and comes back terribly excited, having seen a three-inch long scorpion on the path!

Even after the generator is switched off for the night, the moon lights up the landscape beautifully, and I go outside for one last photograph of the crater, before going to bed feeling unbelievably content, having just fulfilled a long time ambition and dream.

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Thank you Undiscovered Destination for making my dream happen.

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Posted by Grete Howard 14:15 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged desert horses party flames fire unesco tractor camels ancient gates_of_hell scorpion pharmacy yurt turkmenistan minaret timur central_asia gas_crater undiscovered_destinations upset_tummy sink_hole karakum toilet_rolls darwaza ex_ussr karakum_desert dashoguz ciprofloaxin owadan_tourism konye_urgench tetracycline urgenc khwarazm soviet_central_asia tubarek_khanum mausolem kutlug_timur soltan_tekesh fahr_ad_din_razi kufi_arabic_letters najm_as_din_al_kubra darwaza_gas_crater darwaza_crater locked_in_toilet vodka_party yurt_camp chorek Comments (5)

Serdar - Kopetdag - Magtymguly - Mollakara - Balkanabad

Moon Mountains and the Salt Sea


View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Breakfast this morning in the guest house here at Serdar consists of yogurt, cherry jam, cheese, tomatoes and the ever-present bread. There can't be many nations on earth who eat as much bread as the Turkmen do.

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Later we are asked if we want fried egg and salami. It's an unusual combination, but rather enjoyable.

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This morning's drive takes us south through barren and desolate scenery, with no trees or even falcons, which we saw many of on our journey yesterday. Nothing. The place appears eerily devoid of life.

We are now nearing the Iranian border and arrive at a restricted area that requires special permission to enter. We have been warned that the checks here may take a while, and that we are to avoid photography at all costs. We hand over our passports, which Artem (our cute driver) takes to the police post along with vehicle registration documents, his driving licence and the tourist authorisation certificate; and wait. And wait. Meanwhile we listen to music in the car; Artem plays a good mix of popular western and Russian songs. The procedure takes just over 25 minutes in all, and we are on our way again.

Moon Mountains

The Kopetdag Mountains is a 600 kilometre long mountain range stretching along the Turkmenistan-Iran border. The landscape is distinctly lunar in appearance, living up to its local nickname of 'Moon Mountains'. The name Kopetdag, in fact, means 'many mountains' in the Turkmen language.

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Once located at the bottom of the sea, the heavily furrowed sedimentary rock slopes look like soft gravel or even slag heaps, but are in fact more akin to solidified mud, and very firm underfoot. We see evidence of crustaceans on the ground, adding to the surreal atmosphere.

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Stretching as far as the eye can see, the forbidding desert-like landscape is as curious as it is beautiful – seeing the arid remains of low-level vegetation, I can but wonder what it would look like in spring, after the rains, when plants and flowers come to life.

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This area is rich with pomegranate and walnut trees, and we see a number of the former along the side of the road.

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It's the first time we have seen pomegranates in their natural habitat, and I am keen to see how they grow and photograph them. That is one of the numerous things I love about travel – exotic fruits that I have only ever seen in the supermarkets, are commonplace somewhere in the world. It never ceases to amaze me that however much we travel, we still manage to get 'firsts' on every single trip.

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Magtymguly Museum

We make a stop at a small museum dedicated to a local hero, Magtymguly Pyragy, who was an Iranian-Turkmen spiritual leader and philosophical poet in the 18th century.

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Looking at the copies of some of the books Magtymguly has written, I am intrigued by the frames within each page containing diagonal writing. Neither the guide nor the museum curator are able to shed any light on this peculiar aspect.

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Magtymguly was much more than a renowned poet; he also worked as a silversmith for a while.

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He even made a wedding ring for Mengli, the girl he loved and wanted to marry. Unfortunately her family forbade the union, and the ring remained unworn.

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Magtymguly had a number of strong political views, and fought to keep the Turkmen-way sacred, as well as maintaining the harmony and integrity of the Turkmen nation. He became a symbol of Turkmen unity but also a common voice of Turkish and Islamic world and is revered not only in Turkmenistan but also in neighbouring countries. The museum is very proud of the artefacts associated with his life and career.

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17th century ewers found during excavations

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Meat cooler made from sheep skin

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Kitchen implements, including a pestle used to make the customary small holes found in the traditional Turkmen bread

David is suffering from a severe cold he picked up on the flight out here, with his eyes being extremely sore and sensitive to light, so stays behind in the car while I have the museum, guide, and curator to myself.

The journey back through the border control is way quicker, just a mere three minute passport check and we're on our way, continuing further west. For a while the road is intermittently bumpy, with a number of potholes, and a couple of times I find myself caught unawares and bouncing off the ceiling.

Lunch

Yet another private room with a huge flat-screen TV. This one is not playing Lara Croft, however, but a very funny Russian slap-stick comedy about an incompetent chef in a restaurant. There is no need to understand Russian to appreciate the humour, although Meylis translates any dialogue of importance. None of us want to leave when we have finished our meal, as we are desperate to find out what happens next in the soap opera. Alas, we will never know the fate of the live goose the hapless chef bought.

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After the huge lunches we've had the last couple of days, and as my tummy is still pretty fragile, I order just a plain lentil soup accompanied by the ubiquitous bread

The road from here is long and straight, cutting through a vast flat area with the Kopetdag Mountain Range behind, and in the distance a mirage appears on the horizon. It must be soul-destroying boring to drive, and although the speed limit is 90km / hour, we are travelling a 'little bit' faster than that.

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Sand from the Karakum Desert (which covers 80% of the country) blows across the road for a few miles, offering some reprieve - and interest - from the previous monotonous view.

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In this arid and barren region we are surprised to see a flood plain. Apparently the water is still here since some heavy rain they experienced in April. I am absolutely flabbergasted that surface water can survive the oppressive dry heat in this region for five months without evaporating. That must have been some rain storm! It's not just a small puddle either, but covers quite a substantial area. Meylis tells us that at the time the road was deep under water for a couple of weeks. I can well imagine that is must have been pretty bad for there still to be so much flood water left now.

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We stop at a filling station to put fuel in the car, and are impressed by the Eco 93 petrol sold here. Apparently it is the first 'clean petrol' in the world, made from gas (of which Turkmenistan has rather a lot). At 2 manat a litre (57c / 46p at the official rate of 3.5 manat per dollar) it is more expensive than regular petrol. I wish I could take some home!

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Mollakara Sanatorium and Salt Lake

Opened in 2012, the modern health spa was built in a famous therapeutic mud resort on the shores of Lake Mollakara. The lake is fed by underground sources, and its healing features include chlorides and sodium sulphate, magnesium, iron, bromine salts and other minerals.

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Artem is trying to find a way down to the lake, but it seems the sanatorium wants to monopolise the salty waters, and has closed all gates and entrances that lead down to the shore. After trying a number of options, which include ignoring signs, attempting to pick gate locks, and driving off road to get around fencing; we finally manage to get near the water's edge, only to find the lake is almost dry!

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How astonishing! We passed areas of flooding just a few miles back, yet here there is very little water left in the lake! The sanatorium websites talk about swimming and floating in the alkaline waters - here it is so shallow that you'd be lucky if your ankles get wet!

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After driving around a little bit more, Artem finds another part of the lake, where, although there is very little water left, the salt deposits are easily accessible close to the road.

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The salt has formed little ridges on the surface, creating an interesting texture.

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Like little kids, all four of us go and play on and with the crusty salt formations.

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The benefits of salty water and mud treatments have been know to people from old times, and as long ago as 1900 there was a sanatorium built here.

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Who needs an expensive health spa to reap the benefits?

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Cemetery

It seems that different regions of Turkmenistan have different traditions and cultures when it comes to burying their dead. The grave markers at this cemetery consist of leaning plants of wood.

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Balkanabat

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This area is well known for its strong winds (which we saw evidence of earlier, with the sand drifting across the road), something that is reflected in this sculpture depicting desert people leaning in to the wind and shielding their faces from the blowing sand as they walk.

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Balkanabat may be a modern city built on the proceeds of oil; but there are still unattended camels wandering around the streets.

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Nebichi Hotel

As with the hotel we stayed at in Ashgabat, Nebichi Hotel looks palatial from the outside and has a grand-looking lobby.

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What it doesn't have, however, is a lift. Nor does it provide more than one set of towels or spare roll(s) of toilet paper. This seems to be a common trend here in Turkmenistan, and we ring for Housekeeping to bring the missing items to the room. Thankfully Meylis helps carry our bags up the two flights of stairs. Having a strong young man for a guide, certainly has its advantages.

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Dinner

As he did last night, Meylis knocks on the door as he has been asked to come down to the restaurant to help us order as the waitress speaks no English.

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The restaurant is full of idiosyncrasies – lovely linen tablecloth, covered in tacky-looking plastic; and the beautifully folded cloth napkins are apparently just for decorative purposes. Once the waitress has taken our order, she removes David's napkin and places it on a storage cabinet next to us. As soon as she is out of sight, however, I recover the napkin and place it back onto David's plate. When she returns with our drinks, the server yet again removes the cloth napkin, and brings us cheap paper serviettes instead. By this stage I have already unfolded mine and put it on my lap, so the moment she disappears back into the kitchen again, I carefully re-fold it, thread it through the little serviette-ring and put in with David's on the side. I might as well comply with the unwritten napkin rule and enjoy a my beer.

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Too pretty to be used

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David's head cold is still making his eyes extremely sensitive to light, so he plays Mr Cool with his sunglasses on.

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Adana Kebab - meat in a wrap with vegetables and a tasty sauce.

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The beef stroganoff features the best meat we've had so far on the trip

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Russian salad. With ham. In a Muslim country. OK.....

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The food is good, and we go to bed feeling very satisfied after another fascinating day here in Turkmenistan. Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this private trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 06:12 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged beer desert landscape cemetery scenery museum dinner tv flood camel salt gas petrol cold travel_photography mirage poetry fuel arid comedy poet turkmenistan salt_lake kebab central_asia undiscovered_destinations head_cold pomegranate karakum ex_ussr fried_salami border_checks moon_mountains kopetdag kopetdag_mountains lunar_scenery pomegranate_trees magtymguly magtymguly_museum private_dining lentil_soup karakum_desert mollakara sanatorium mollakara_sanatorium mollakara_salt_lake balkanabat petrol_station nebichi_hotel idiosyncrasy napkin napkin_saga serviette adana_kebab beef_stroganoff stroganoff russian_salad Comments (11)

The Empty Quarter

Rub' Al Khali


View Oh! Man! Oman. 2018 on Grete Howard's travel map.

It looks to be another nice day out there. No chance of rain.

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Today we are leaving civilisation behind and travelling out to the fabled Empty Quarter, or Rub' Al Khali, the largest contiguous sand desert in the world and one of the driest regions; virtually uninhabited, and largely unexplored. I have high expectations for today as we set off with a different guide, also called Issa, heading north.

Once we have climbed over the mountains surrounding Salalah, the road is straight and flat, with very little interest either side. This road carries on for 650kms to Nizwa, through vast expanses of nothing.

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At the edge of the desert Issa lowers the tyre pressure to cope with the soft sand. The vehicle has been specially modified with roll over bars fitted for safety. I am hoping for some exhilarating 'dune bashing' today.

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Camel Farm

Our first stop of the day is a camel farm to see the rare, and much sought-after black camels who are only found here, Saudi Arabia and in Yemen. Another first for us.

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The baby is only two or three days old

The place is swarming with flies.

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Rub Al Khali

We are now entering the Empty Quarter and soon the gravel road turns to sand and we start to see some dunes.

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I am surprised at how many small shrubs grow in the sand dunes. So far it doesn't have a particularly 'empty' feel to it.

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Despite a number of strategically placed rubbish bins along the side of the track, trash gets caught on vegetation as it blows around in the wind.

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The scenery is dominated by long, linear dunes running parallel to the prevailing winds. Between these are crescent-shaped barchan dunes, and large, firm salt flats called sabkahs, which is what we are driving on.

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The dunes are getting slightly higher now as we drive deeper into the wilderness.

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Issa takes a couple of attempts to drive up a steep-sided sand dune and then swings around and follows the ridge before heading directly back down again. After a couple more swirls on the dunes, he stops the car so that we can get out and stretch our legs. Walking in the soft sand is hard going though.

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We are only just touching on the very edge of this enormous desert, the world's largest erg (sand sea) at 583,000 km². That's about the size of France. To me it is totally incomprehensible to imagine an area the size of France covered in sand.

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Just like Wahiba Sands, Rub' Al Khali is popular with young lads and families on the weekend, coming out here to have a BBQ and maybe try their hand at some serious desert driving. You can see several failed attempts at driving up this sand dune.

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As we make our way back to civilisation, I am left with a feeling of “Is that it?” The dunes are all very nice, but I don't feel any of the mystery and romance that I expected. It all feels like it is just a 'tourist day trip into the desert', which of course, is exactly what it is.

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The ever-present tyre tracks don't help, and neither do the several other tourist vehicles we meet.

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Wubar Archeaological Site

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At the edge of the desert, near Wadi Thumrait and a small settlement of the same name, is the UNESCO Heritage Site of Wubar (AKA Shisr), believed to be the remains of the Lost City of Ubar, often referred to as the Atlantis of the Desert.

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Wubar was the 'door to the desert' in the heyday of the frankincense trade, a prosperous and wealthy caravan oasis; until the desert once more swallowed it up and it remained hidden for centuries.

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A 180° Audio Vision display in the newly built visitor centre shows the fascinating and moralistic story of how man's greed once again ruined the environment by overuse of water.

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The site, however, is way older than that, and evidence found here suggests it dates back to 5000 BC.

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Thumrait Palace Restaurant

We stop for lunch near the site, and enjoy some chicken nuggets, chicken fried rice, vegetables in a sauce, bread and salad along with some delicious fresh mint juice. It makes a nice change not to have the typical Indian fare for once.

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Wadi Dokah

On the way back to Salalah, we swing by Wadi Dokah to see the frankincense plantations. This national park is a stony semi-desert valley and a perfect habitat for the 1,257 frankincense trees found here.

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Issa shows us the proper tool for shaving the tree to get the sap flowing, although we don't actually use it, of course.

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As we make our way over the Dhofar Mountains and on to Salalah, I can but notice that Issa has a most unusual driving position, with his left leg tucked under his body.

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Pool / Beach time

We dump our stuff in the room and head for the beach. As we make our way through the reception, a young man appears from one side, making a beeline for me with his arms outstretched. “Baby, hello, I love you, you are beautiful...” Reaching out towards me he gently caresses my camera. We get chatting and it turns out he is the in-house photographer and does indeed have camera-envy.

We leave the photographer behind and spend the rest of the afternoon / evening walking along the beach, around the pool and in the little café.

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The hotel has a beautiful private beach that stretches around the bay in a crescent shape, with plenty of activities laid on if you are into that sort of thing. We're not.

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At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I have to admit that this five-star luxury and fabulous mini-suite is all well and good; but give me a small, rustic hotel or lodge any day. This place is much too big for my liking, there are too many people, and I hate buffets with a passion. I prefer a small privately-owned place, where maybe the owner is the chef and you eat what they have that day. Something more personal where you get to know the staff and there are just a handful of guests. I don't need luxury, I want authenticity. In a large fancy hotel like this you could be anywhere in the world.

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It is not really a complaint though, just a personal preference. I understand that there are no such hotels in this region, the middle market is sadly lacking accommodation. The rest of this trip has been fault-less, and I yet again Undiscovered Destinations have done us proud. Thank you for organising this trip (and several more in the past and in the future).

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:13 Archived in Oman Tagged desert beach hotel sunrise sand pool unesco luxury camels dunes national_park sand_dunes erg unesco_heritage_site frankincense salalah camel_farm empty_quarter rub_al_khali wadi_dawkah thumrait deser archaeological_park anicent_city wubar ubar shisr al-fanar five_star Comments (2)

Wahiba Sands

Lunch in a Bedouin camp, sunset over the dunes and the stars at night


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As soon as the sun rises at 06:15 this morning, the peace is broken . It is a case of “Gentlemen, start your engines”. Except these are no gentlemen: the sound we can hear is cars revving up to trash the dunes by young lads who have come out from town for the weekend. They make as much noise as possible, take unnecessary risks on the steep slopes and leave a lot of rubbish behind in the desert. They are about as popular as stag parties in the UK.

I try to get down a little something at breakfast, but as I still have the runs, I also want to be careful with what I eat.

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As I wander around the restaurant area taking photographs after breakfast, I somehow manage to miss a step and splat flat on my face. Thankfully I am able to avoid my camera hitting the hard concrete floor. Phew. My knee doesn't fare as well, unfortunately. Before I have even had time to realise what has happened, four strong men are there to help me up. Thankfully there are no serious injuries, so I am able to continue with my day.

Bedouin Camp

Today we are seeking out a Bedouin settlement to learn about their way of life and have lunch with the family.

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We are visiting Salma and her extended family, with her two sons and a daughter living in the camp. The daughter and one of the sons are married, while the other son remains a bachelor as the family cannot afford the dowry (the going rate being around £14,000).

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Salma's daughter-in-law and her children

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Salma's daughter is expecting her ninth child; she already has two sets of twins.

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We have lunch in their dining tent: chicken, biriyani, 'desert fish', vegetables, rice and Omani bread.

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It is all very tasty, but I am still very conscious of my delicate tummy, so I just nibble a little of each dish. I hate for Salma to think I am being rude or fickle, so I ask Said to explain to her why I am not eating much.

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After lunch, the Bedouin women dress me up in their traditional face mask and I ask Salma's daughter-in-law to paint my hands with intricate and beautiful henna designs.

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We return to our camp in time for a pre-dinner drink in the 'Boat Bar'.

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When I say “drink”, I am not talking about an alcoholic beverage unfortunately, as this, like so many in Oman, is a dry hotel. Chocolate milkshake it is.

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We don't linger too long, as the place is swarming with pesky little flies.

Sunset

After a short snooze, we leave the camp once again in search of some suitable sand dunes for creating beautiful vistas as the sun goes down and the shadows become longer and darker. My favourite time of day.

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We are certainly not the only ones enjoying this evening's sunset.

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We leave before the actual sunset, as we saw the big red ball in the sky last night, and it is nowhere near as bright tonight. I am really only interested in photographing the shadow-sculpted dunes anyway.

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Entertainment

After dinner, a local Bedouin family entertain us with songs and dance.

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There is what appears to be a party of local lads and hearing all their cheering, clapping and whistling, you'd be forgiven for thinking they were watching a couple of strippers rather than this demure family-friendly display.

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The Stars at Night

When booking this trip, I paid special attention to the moon phase, to ensure we were going to be here in the Wahiba Desert where there is almost zero light pollution at the darkest time of the month.

So here we are. The stars this evening are fabulously bright and I try to take some photos with the tents in the foreground and then wander into the car park to get a different view of the camp.

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We get chatting to a couple of guys who had also been out taking pictures of the stars over the dunes, and when they complain that this is a dry hotel with no alcohol for sale, we invite them back to our room to share our rum and some great travel stories.
Sebastian and Kasper – if you are reading this – thanks for a fun evening!

Yet another fantastic day in Oman, thank you Undiscovered Destinations once again for arranging this trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:24 Archived in Oman Tagged night desert sunset travel sand shadows dancing drums sand_dunes oman stars henna singing rum bedouin astro bedouin_camp burqa wahiba_sands night_shots night_photography astro_photography wahiba 1000_nights_camp henna_painting dowry face_mask burka long_shadows stars_at_night Comments (4)

Ras al Jinz - Wadi Bani Khalid - Wahiba Sands

From turtles on the beach to a gorgeous oasis and finally a fabulous desert.


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Bleary-eyed, we drag ourselves out of bed when the alarm goes off at 04:10 this morning in order to get down to the beach for the sunrise and hopefully see some more turtles.

Unlike last night, this morning's excursion is only available to hotel guests, so thankfully there are nowhere near as many people as there were last night. Today's walk is further than yesterday, however, as the one remaining turtle is further down the beach; and it is still dark when we reach the nesting site. The turtle is just finishing off covering her eggs with sand when we get there.

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The sunrise is a little disappointing (especially as this is the most easterly point on the Arabian peninsula I was expecting a little more), but the surreal rock formations along this stretch of the beach more than make up for it.

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As soon as it is light, the turtle makes an awkward dash back to sea, having deposited her eggs on the same beach she was born on many years ago.

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Back to the hotel for breakfast and then meet up with Said, our guide, for the today's journey. Having been up so early, we sleep most of the way, but wake up as Said takes a turning off the main road, into the mountains again.

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Our hotel seen from the track leading up from the beach.

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Said turns off the main road up this track

Wadi Bani Khalid

At the top of the hill, Said stops the car for the view over the bleak and desolate landscape. The scenery may be barren and harsh, but it has a stark and austere beauty to it that totally mesmerises me.

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Said beckons for us to walk to the edge of the cliff (my fear of heights has kept me well back so far), and tells us to look at the crack in the plateau. Our eyes follow the canyon down and then we see it. Wow! There, nestled on the valley floor, is the most picture-perfect oasis: Wadi Bani Khalid.

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After taking our photos from above, we drive back down to the oasis and walk from the car park along the felaj (ever-present irrigation channels) to reach the stunning pools of iridescent aquamarine water.

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The water is unbelievably clear and glistens in various shades of blue and green under the bright sunlight. Apparently this place is extremely popular on weekends, and I can see why.

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Said relaxes in one of the many pavilions that dot the area around the emerald-green pools.

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The pools are fed year-round by a stream making its way down through the crack we saw in the Hajar Mountains. This is known as Oman's most beautiful wadi, and for good reason.

Lunch

In the town of the same name, we stop at a small restaurant for lunch. As my stomach is still very much playing up, I just order a plate of hummous and some bread, while David chooses a schwarma. Said, of course, has his usual mountain of rice.

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And, no, this is not water from the oasis, but a refreshing minty drink.

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Back in the car, I doze until we reach the small town of Bidir, where we lower the tyre pressure on the car for the journey into the desert (plus pick up a tow rope, 'just in case').

Wahiba Sands

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Suddenly the tarmacked road ends, rather abruptly, and we continue on a reasonable track of compacted sand. “This used to be like a washboard” Said says, and explains that the camps come out occasionally with heavy machinery to create new 'roads' in the sand.

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This vast expanse of perfectly formed rolling sand dunes stretches 200 miles from North to South and is named after the local Wahiba tribe who still spend their winters in the desert tending to their camels before migrating to the coast in the heat of summer.

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Other than the tourists camps, there are no permanent settlements in this hauntingly empty swathe of sand, featuring towering dunes, reaching almost 100m in places, sculpted by the wind into delicately moulded crests and hollows.

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Every now and again Said makes a detour off the main track, shimmying up the soft dunes and back down again.

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1000 Nights Camp

Nestled comfortably on the valley floor, this is one of a handful of tourist camps in this area, surrounded by nothing but sand with high dunes either side.

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Just outside the gates, an old truck is partially buried in the sand.

The car park is almost full as we arrive (being a Thursday, it's the eve of the weekend here, with most locals having Friday and Saturday off), with almost every car being a self-drive 4x4.

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We are greeted with a refreshing wet towel in reception and after the usual formalities an electric golf buggy takes us and the cases to our room.

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The rooms are fashioned on the traditional goat wool Bedouin tents but with a touch of modern comfort.

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The camp is nicely spread out in amongst mature trees, with four levels of accommodation: basic Arabic tents with no bathroom facilities; the Sheikh tents that we are in with attached open-air bathroom; luxury glass-sided Ameer tents with A/C; and lastly, two-storey brick-built Sand Houses.

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Also on site is a large restaurant, a snack-bar on board a wooden boat and a swimming pool.

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Restaurant

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Traditional seating area

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The snack-bar

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Swimming pool

With no A/C, the temperature is almost the same inside the tent as it is outside: 32 °C.

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Sunset from the dunes

After a quick change, we leave the camp behind and head for a bit of fun on the dunes with Said. Seeing a group of lads just outside the gates, crowding around a wreck of a car that has obviously been 'rolled' doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. I check that my seatbelt is properly fastened before we tackle the off-roading.

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As we race up the steep-sided dunes, large amounts of sand gets thrown about, and the car slides around like a ballerina on ice. Great fun!
Here, on top of the dunes, the wind is quite ferocious, sandblasting everything in sight (including us and the cameras). No wonder these dunes are constantly on the move, shifting inland at a rate of 10m per year.

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There is a definite driving skill involved in scaling the soft dunes, and Said makes it effortlessly to the top every time, unlike these Germans in a self-drive car. The secret is to keep the speed high and the tyre pressure low.

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After trying unsuccessfully to free their car, which is stuck half way up the dune, the tourists walk back to camp to recruit a local expert to help them out. The local guy gets the car out of the pickle without too much trouble, then shows off as he reaches the crest of the dune: taking off and landing awkwardly, dislocating the bumper of the car. Oops. Having finally reached the top, the Germans join us to watch the sunset, and we have a good laugh with them. The ridge is in fact full of tourists waiting to see the sun go down over the desert.

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These people seem to have brought a picnic

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Strangely enough, as soon as the sun goes down, the wind drops. We head back to camp, driving straight down the dune in front of us. Eeek!
What a fantastic way to finish another eventful and exciting day! Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for organising this fabulous Oman trip.

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Posted by Grete Howard 07:01 Archived in Oman Tagged mountains turtles oasis desert sunset beach travel scenery sunrise valley sand camp camping dunes sand_dunes wadi glamping bedouin middle_east hajar_mountains wahiba_sands ras_al_jinz wadi_bani_khalid hajjar_mountains natural_pools wahiba sunset_over_the_dunes off-roading dune_bashing 1000_nights_camp desert_camp Comments (2)

Lake Turkana

People of the lake

sunny 40 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day six of our Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations.

The wind certainly kept us awake in the night, rustling through the palms, banging tree branches against each other, sending the wind generator mental, knocking over chairs and making our mosquito nets billow out away from the beds. But it definitely helped keep the temperature down: I even had to cover my legs with the blanket at one stage!

Travelling overland down through Africa in a Land Rover has always been my dream, but one that I have never been brave enough to set into action, nor have the circumstances been right. I am now beginning to feel we are getting too old for it – I am therefore quite surprised when I meet Andrea, an Italian photographer and the occupant of the overland truck, this morning: he has at least ten years on us, maybe even fifteen! They have driven all down through Africa from Italy and are now on their way back home again. In broken English he asks John for directions to Sibiloi as his Sat Nav is “kaput”. We get our map out and explain as best as we can: 20 kilometres north, turn left, then left and left again. Seems simple enough, but his English is extremely limited. I cannot help to wonder how much his lack of English is a hindrance in his travels – not many people speak Italian in this part of the world! They scoff at the offer of taking a local chap as a guide and confidently set off on their own.

We are off to the lakeside this morning, starting early to avoid the heat of the day. Seducing and mesmerising in its simple beauty, the conflict between the abrupt and severe surroundings against the dazzling and dreamy water of the lake makes it all the more beguiling.

The Jade Sea

Originally named Lake Rudolph in 1888 by two Austrian explorers, in 1975 the lake was renamed Turkana after the local tribe who inhabit this area. It is also known as the Jade Sea because of the colourful, ever-changing reflections that decorate its surface – which you can't always appreciate fully from ground level.

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I would have loved to have been able to take a sightseeing flight over it for photography, but as that is not an option, you'll have to make do with some images from google:

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The colour comes from algae that rise to the surface in calm weather.

El Molo Tribe

The lake is a source of life for some of Kenya’s most remote tribes, including the El Molo people who live in just two small villages on the south-eastern shores of Lake Turkana. We are visiting one of them this morning.

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I am guessing our escort and facilitator Abdi is some sort of 'royalty' or high caste within the local society, as after speaking with the village chief, it was agreed that Abdi should be called Number One, while the local chief would be referred to as Number Two.

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Number Two shows us around his village and explains about their culture.

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The name El Molo comes from the Samburu expression loo molo onsikirri which means 'the people who eat fish'. Also known as gurapau, 'people of the lake', they are the smallest indigenous tribe in Kenya – in numbers, not stature - with around 10 true members left (only one in the village we visit) out of approximately 1000 inhabitants; the rest being of combined Samburu and Turkana bloodlines though intermarriage.

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As a result of their almost constant suffering from other tribes over the years, they prefer to remain cut-off from much of the world, maintaining a very traditional life eking out an existence from fishing.

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Hunting/Fishing and Diet
When the El Molo originally migrated down into this area from Ethiopia around 1000 BC, they found the land to be too arid to sustain their livestock, so they abandoned agriculture in favour of fishing.

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The El Molo have no access to fresh water, and as they do not engage in agriculture; they survive on fish alone, turning to the alkaline lake for their drinking water. According to Wikipedia, the water is “potable, but not palatable”, yet later in the same article it is claimed that it “is more alkaline than seawater”. Either way. I fail to understand how people can survive on a constant diet of fish and salty water.

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When fishing, the El Molo use number of different implements depending on the circumstances: spears; harpoons; fishing rods made from the roots of an acacia with doum-palm fibre and a forged iron point or hook; or nets made from doum-palm fibre.

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The fishermen brave the waves, winds and swells of Lake Turkana in traditional boats crudely made from doum-palm logs held together with rope. Modern boats would be too difficult to maintain and are rarely available anyway, due to their expense. Imagine the skill required to ride this into the waves of the lake and chase after crocodile or hippo - then kill them with a hand held harpoon! These days, however, they mostly fish for catfish, Nile perch, tilapia or Solomon fish.

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The catch is either roasted immediately or preserved for eating later by sun-drying it on mats on the ground or the roofs of the huts.

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Every part of the fish is utilised, including all the innards.

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Housing
The El Molo live in lakeside homes made from the little vegetation this volcanic wasteland has to offer – straw and palm leaves are woven together by the women to create little igloo-shaped huts.

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People
It is thought that the singular and exclusive diet (high in protein but lacking in fruit, vegetables and carbohydrates), along with drinking the salty lake water, is to blame for the high incidence of ill health and genetic defects amongst this group – blindness, bow legs, and early death. I also guess with so few members of a tribe, inbreeding is inevitable, adding to the genetic deterioration. In addition, every few years cholera outbreaks run rampant through the village causing the demise of the very old and the very young. In a society where reaching the age of 40 is considered 'old', their spartan lifestyle has taken a toll on their appearance way beyond their years.

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Seats
Men often carry stools, known as ekicholong, which are used as simple chairs. They also double as headrests or pillows, keeping the head elevated from the sand, and protecting ceremonial head decorations from being damaged when they lie down. I remember seeing these in a museum in Ghana some years ago and thinking how uncomfortable they look but it's the first time I have actually seen one in use.

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Journey to extinction
There are calls from human rights groups and environmentalists for the government to step in to provide much needed medical and sanitary facilities, secure funding for a fresh water drinking source and save the community from the impacts of climate change, as they fear the ethnic group is on a journey to extinction if nothing is done.

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Thirty years ago an anthropologist who visited the El Molo wrote, "I felt as if I'd stumbled on a race that had survived simply because time had forgotten to finish them off." Very little has changed since then.

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Counting my lucky stars
Spending time amongst these people and seeing how they barely eke a living in such a hostile and inhospitable environment, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of appreciation for the privileged life I was born into, and gratitude for the hardships I have not had to face. I humbly admire their resilience in the constant uphill battle against adversity and the mercilessly grim terrain as they cling steadfastly to their somewhat tenuous existence. Having adapted to their surrounding environment, their simple code of life is built on survival: eating, sleeping and reproducing.

We are One
Being with these indigenous tribes with their seemingly naïve purity and primordial lifestyles, I feel like I have been transported to a bygone era, the Africa of long ago. Despite enormous disparities between our lifestyles and prosperity, I sense a strong connection – we may have lives that are poles apart, but we are still the same - and I find myself wondering: "What are their dreams for the future?" Not the all-encompassing future popularly written about by environmentalists and social reformers, but the more tangible, everyday, personal circumstances of tomorrow or this evening. Fun, laughter, love, appreciation, family, friendship, food... we surely share the same emotions and desires?

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Island of Ghosts
El Molo practice a traditional religion centred on the worship of Waaq, with shrines known as gantes. The shrines are located on an island known as the 'Island of Ghosts' or 'Island of No Return'. Legend tells the story of how the tribes people would retreat to this island when being attacked and use huge piles of catfish to barricade themselves in. The spiny fish bones would ensure raiders were unable to reach the villagers.

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We take a boat out to the island – thankfully a much bigger, motorised boat than the ones the locals use when fishing.

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There are four shrines (which look curiously like the huts the people live in on the mainland) on the island, each with a different function:

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The first hut is a shrine where barren women spend time with a village elder to receive blessings in order to conceive. Today there are baby goats inside...

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Next is the place where sacrifices are made and ceremonies are held to ensure good luck while hunting hippos, although following Kenya's anti-poaching laws, hippos are now officially off the menu. The El Molo's hunting prowess, especially with regard to the ferocious and murderous hippo (hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal – apart from the mosquito), have earned them a reputation for bravery among other Kenyan tribes. During the ceremony – known as ngwere – songs and dances pay tribute to ancestors and the young warriors have their bodies whipped and slashed before being sent out on the hippo hunt!

The third hut is reserved for female circumcision. The practice is outlawed in Kenya, and the hut appears dilapidated. While in the west we have an absolute abhorrence towards what we call Female Genital Mutilation, the general feeling on the subject here is much more ambivalent and complex. Although ingrained in their culture, some girls feel it is an outdated and barbaric practice and they are glad it is now outlawed; while others are more philosophical. As one girl we spoke to said: “the circumcision is all the girls here have, that is purely for them. Everything else in society is about the men - women are rated somewhere below the goats - and this ceremony is the only time in their lives they are the main and most important character.” While I can see the rationale behind this theory, I can think of way better ways of making a young girl feel special and valued!

The last shrine is dedicated to the sick, used as an isolation unit or a place to make requests for protection against diseases.

Birding
While David and Number Two go hiking to the top of the hill on the island, I do some birdwatching with Abdi.

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Crested Lark

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Little Egret

During March and April, Lake Turkana is a major stopover point on the flight routes of migratory birds on the journey back north to their European summer homes. The area also has many local residents, with up to 350 species recorded, including pink backed pelicans and flamingoes who thrive in the brackish water, supported by plankton masses in the lake.

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Slender Billed Gull

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Pink Backed Pelican

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Egyptian Goose

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Grey Headed Gull

While not a true twitcher, more of a dude; I am a lister and am happy to announce 103 trip ticks so far, of which 27 are lifers.

Roughly translated from 'bird watching speak' to plain English, this means that “I am a keen birder but a novice and more into the photography aspect rather than serious study. I do, however, like to keep a list of birds seen in the wild, and I have identified 103 different species so far on this trip, 27 of which are new to me”.

See more English twitcher vocabulary here.

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Spur Winged Lapwing

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Long Tailed Cormorant

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Kittlitz' Plover

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Ringed Plover

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Common Sandpiper

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Long Tailed Cormorant

From the island we spot the Landrover carrying the two Italians driving along the shore of the lake, which is somewhat strange as they left Loiyangalani long before us!

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As we say goodbye to the El Molo village, we give a lift back to town to three girls. One of them is nine months pregnant. She was intending to walk to Loiyangalani, some 20 kilometres away (in this 40 °C heat), in order to try and find a truck which would hopefully be able to take her the six hour drive to Maralal to the maternity hospital. It's a hard life.

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When she gets out of the car in town, I slip her some money “for the baby”, which reduces her to tears. Through Abdi she thanks me and asks my name – she is so grateful she wants to name her baby after me! I feel very humbled and honoured so I cry too. To me it is not a huge amount of money, but I am later told that it is probably the largest sum of cash she is ever likely to have and is equivalent to a week's wage of a skilled worker. I guess that would be the same in relative terms as a stranger giving me £500.

Back at the lodge we are told the Italians got very lost this morning, having not listened to – or understood – the bit about driving 20 kilometres north before turning left. They effectively drove around in a circle and ended up back at Palm Shade Camp where they changed their mind and sheepishly hired a local guide to show them the way.

It is at times like this that I am grateful we have our trusty driver John.

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John bought some some fresh fish in the El Molo village this morning, which the lodge chef cooked up for him and served it with ugali, the staple starch in East Africa. Made into a porridge-like consistency, using millet, maize of sorghum flour, ugali is eaten by rolling a small amount into a ball with your hand, creating an indent for scooping up the sauce. We have come across this in various guises throughout Africa. It is bland but filling. For someone (that someone being me) who has such a low boredom level that I dislike having the same meal two days running, I cannot imagine this being my complete diet. Every. Day. Day in. Day out. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Only intersperced with some salty water. My heart sinks and my tastebuds go on strike at the mere thought of it!

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Turkana Tribe

After lunch John suggests we visit the local Turkana tribe to see if we can negotiate for the women to don their 'skins' and dance for us. David is somewhat taken aback by Abdi's question while he is conferring with the ladies: “How many women do you want?”

Well....

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While Abdi puts the finishing touches on the deal, the children crowd around the car: shaking our hands, touching our skin and practising their English: “How are you?” “What's your name?”

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Goat or cow skins are tanned, carefully sewn together and adorned with beads and ostrich egg shells. The skins are worn by both men and women on special occasions such as the annual Turkana Cultural Festival where many different tribes from the region come together to show off their outfits and traditional dances. Today these ladies are putting on a private performance just for us.

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Livestock is the core of Turkana culture with goats, camels, donkeys and zebu being the primary herd stock. Livestock functions not only as a milk and meat producers, but also as form of currency used for bride-price negotiations and dowries. A large herd is a sign of wealth, so it is not surprising that the songs and dances of the Turkana culture are a means of boasting about their prized cattle reflecting the economic life of the tribe.

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Dances are held during a variety of special occasions such as giving thanks after the rains or a successful cattle raid; the birth of a child or a marriage and so on. As well as when the Howards visit of course.

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Love this woman's earrings: key-rings and beer-can ring-pulls seem to feature heavily.

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The women seem to be having a lot of fun; and even John joins in the festivities.

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The audience too are enjoying themselves.

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No, this is not the result of some bloody sacrifice thankfully, just a custom to smear oil followed by ochre on your body for decorative purposes.

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Time is moving on, shadows are becoming long, the sun is getting low, and we are getting thirsty. It's time to go for a sundowner. And what better place than by the shores of Lake Turkana.

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The three boys that made my journey special: David, John and Abdi

As we wait for the sun to make its daily journey behind the mountains, I play around with my cameras, my 'models', different lenses, white balance and aperture/shutter speed settings.

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It is not until this evening, with the background being a single, plain colour, that I realise just what a curse dust is for a photographer and what a toll it has taken on my camera! The amount of dirt that has managed to get in to it and settled on the sensor is quite phenomenal! Thank goodness for in-camera sensor cleaning!

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to relieve a nagging headache (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed. Cheers and welcome to Lake Turkana.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:41 Archived in Kenya Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises lakes people children birds boats desert travel village holiday africa hot kenya roadtrip dust tribes turkana undiscovered_destinations northern_kenya laketurkana loiyangalani el_molo Comments (2)

Marsabit - Chalbi - North Horr

♪♫♪ I've been through the desert in a truck with no name...♫♪♫

sunny 50 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day four of our Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destination.

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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!

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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.

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Egyptian Geese

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Bateleur Eagle

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.

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Black Headed Heron

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Buffalo

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Rufous Chatterer

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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!

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When we are half way through the meal, David's beans arrive. Note the luminous ketchup on David's omelette!

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Filled up with sausages, beans and chapatis (!), we are ready for another adventure-packed day.

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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.

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Goodbye Marsabit!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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After many miles we meet our first vehicle: a truck carrying dried fish from Lake Turkana. We can smell it before we see it!

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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.

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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.

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We hit traffic congestion, Chalbi-style: we follow another vehicle for a while and eat their dust!

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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'!

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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!

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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?”

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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.

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The stones give way to compacted sand.

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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.

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Ahead of us lies a vast expanse of ... nothing.

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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.

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Amazingly, herds of impala, baboons and ostriches make their home in this forbidding environment.

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More traffic! It is now over an hour since the last vehicle we met on this road.

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For a while we waltz our way along in the soft sand, sliding around like little ballerinas on ice.

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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.

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Mirage
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.

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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

Maikona Village

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.

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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'.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Chalbi Desert

A huge area of virtually flat desert, Chalbi is an endless wasteland of clay and white salt, where the horizon dissolves into a mirage.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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*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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Abdi and Grete

Another oasis, more camels. I don't think we have ever seen so many camels together in one place.

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Followed by another mirage. Or is it a fata morgana?

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Kalacha Dida
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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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The camels look bemused as we drive by, briefly suspending their grazing to stare at the passing mzungu (white foreigners).

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Camels
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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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North Horr

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.

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The streets appear deserted: we see very few people out and about in the searing heat of the day. And who can blame them?

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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!”

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Catholic Mission
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.

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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.

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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.

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We amuse ourselves watching the birds come to drink from the outside tap while we wait for the food.

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House Sparrow

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Common Bulbul

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.

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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.

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Surprisingly, the scenery here is vastly different to that of the Chalbi Desert.

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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.

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Then we see it, looming ahead. The 'famous' Ruso Sand Dune.

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This is a traditional, classic sand dune: a crescent shaped, ridged mound created by the wind.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Like an over-excited kid, Abdi jumps off the 'slip-face', the shorter and steeper side in lee of the wind.

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The low sun makes for long shadows, with the ridged dunes creating beautiful patterns in nature.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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We play with the cats for a while, then say goodnight to Sister Annica and Sister Maggie.

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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.

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Cheers and welcome to North Horr.

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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.

Posted by Grete Howard 09:27 Archived in Kenya Tagged desert church kenya catholic marsabit northhorr chalbi catholicmission Comments (1)

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