We were heading North by Land Rover, crossing the equator had happened yesterday – the ubiquitous foot either side of the red line photos done – we continued on a quest to the Jade Sea. Looking at a map of Africa, it’s hard to get a scale of how big the pentagonal shape of Kenya really is.
The stats tell us it makes up only 2% of the landmass of the continent. It’s quite the opposite of small though – it’s just that Africa is so massive that the numbers become irrelevant. Where 75% of the population make their living from agriculture it surprised me to learn that 85% of the land is too infertile to farm. The Inspector Clouseau in me then realised that there must be vast empty swathes of land and that is what I had come to find. If the Arabians have the Empty Quarter then the Kenyans are running on fumes.
Maralal came and went – the last chance saloon of a town with supplies for those who wanted to haggle. Jerry cans topped up, two sacks of charcoal and a couple of “emergency” goats in the cage on the back – we began to feel quite intrepid as we left this one-horse town. The scenery is harsh, rocks rather than sand dunes and sharp stones rather than pebbles. We pointed the truck north and headed onto the shimmering sea of the volcanic pan. There are no trees out here, no shelter and no shadows, this endless rock desert stretched off to the horizon in all directions. What followed was searing heat and nothing but sand and rocks for hour after hour. I must have dozed off at some point, my head gently knocking against the door frame of the Land Rover.
I awoke, angry that I was missing the experience to see nothing had changed. Some impressive hills were off to our left, they never got closer but at some point, they were behind us, they had been our only marker on the map all day. This is the land of nomads, Rendille, Gabra and Samburu, El Molo and Luo and Turkana, fiercely independent tribes; specialists in enduring the heat. At lunchtime, on the second day, we spotted a cluster of acacia trees way off to the west of the tyre marks we had been following. Some shade and respite from the sun and the perfect stop for lunch. Here we were off the map and our arrival coincided with that of a boy of about 8, in charge of a straggly bunch of goats. We exchanged water and a bag of dates in return for some stilted chat about the direction he had come from. He looked surprised we were there which seemed ironic.
We continued on past the Sands of Horr and eventually, the mirage changed hue and Lake Turkana was in front of us. You could smell the saline and the soothing relief of the lake only washed away the mental image of sand desert – the shore is home to Nile crocodiles, scorpions and carpet vipers so a cooling dip was out of the question. Grass huts of the El Molo fishermen cluster along the shore and vivid red bolts of cloth marked the locals moving between the huts and the shore, rhythmic chanting carried in waves across to us – the morning catch being unloaded. This was more than a navel-gazing journey -I discovered a colourful oasis of life, a level of stoicism beyond comprehension, dramatic lands and reawakened the pioneer within me.