There are times when the world stands still, when everything but the here and now melts away. Experiences so vivid, so captivating that they drown out the humdrum, the mundane, the banal. Sights so intense that they seem to pull at the very fabric of your soul. Staring out over the jade waters of Lake Turkana, Kenya I experience this unearthly feeling of total submission to the beauty in front of me. I crane forward, scanning the landscape from side-to-side, through the polished Perspex of the helicopter’s cockpit.
A paralysing sense of wonder grips me, as I greedily scour the mishmash of rock, water and sand below me. Flying over the darkened lava flows that disappear beneath the lake’s opaque surface, I gaze forwards, sideways, backwards, attempting to come to grips with scale of this volcanic work of art that carpets the world below me.
Slowly, my other senses return. I finally come back to myself, detaching from my reverie. As if someone has turned up the volume, the sound of music re-enters my consciousness, playing through the helicopter’s headphones.
“But I keep cruising
Can’t stop, won’t stop moving
It’s like I got this music in my mind”
I look across to Andrew, my pilot. He grins. Feeling slightly intoxicated by the sight before me, I grin giddily back, and comment on his unusual choice of playlist. “It is so bizarre to experience all this whilst being serenaded by Taylor Swift.”
“I know. It’s surreal.” Is all he can say.
Andrew has seen this many times before. After all, it’s his job. But he too is gripped by Lake Turkana’s unusual beauty – a beauty that clearly doesn’t grow old. Dropping lower, with our shadow flickering along the lakeshore’s succession of deserted beaches, we drift inland.
The beaches give way to arid plains, punctuated with a polka dot of stunted palm trees, their bases sunken beneath wind-driven mounds of sand. The occasional manyatta flickers into view – sometimes inhabited; other times nothing more than a charred circle. In between, small herds of goats graze on what little plant life there is.
As I look east, I see the plains end and erupt into a grey mass of unforgiving-looking hills. Andrew catches me gazing into this distance and speaks through the intercom: “That’s a wild place – there are still bandits out there.”
I look at him, half wanting to venture east in search of bandits and half worried I am about to hear something that I might quickly want to un-hear.
“They aren’t bandits the way you imagine them; inter-tribal warfare is still commonplace, so they simply attack and steal from rival tribes.”
This hardly allays my fears, but I am gripped.
“Earlier this year, I was flying low over the plains close to the Ugandan border, when I spotted some wild-looking men on the ground below. I knew it was a bit of a risk to land, but the clients with me were keen to do it. I landed the chopper a distance away, then I got out and waved. They waved back. That’s always a good sign – bad guys rarely wave.’’
“They were all covered in blood, which had been smeared on them from a fresh kill – part of a traditional ritual. It was a haunting, gruesome sight. But they were happy to chat, so I called the clients over and we sat down and offered them some coffee.’’
“They were especially eager for our sugar, which is hard to come by in this remote region. Unfortunately, we had no more cups and they only had gourds – these were all full of fresh blood from the kill. The solution was a simple one: they poured the coffee and sugar in with the blood, gulping down the resulting mixture.”
“I’ve never come across them again. But that’s the beauty of the Turkana region – you just don’t know what you might come across. It is truly untamed.”
Soon we are again over the lake, with small rafts below us fishing its opaque waters. And then, suddenly, we bank left and I see a row of tents spread along a white-sand beach, protected by rows of palm trees.
This is Lobolo Camp, one of the few places you can stay on the lake. The camp itself amazes me. My home for the night is a modern safari tent, with running water and mains-voltage electricity. In such a harsh, isolated region, I am surprised by the level of comfort. Suddenly, blood-painted bandits seem a distant memory.
But I do not get long to enjoy my tent, before Andrew is cajoling me into the water. “The lake stays shallow for almost a kilometre, so you don’t need to worry about crocs. Not during the day, anyway.”
It’s hardly convincing yet I find myself in the metre-deep water a few minutes later. Its alkaline quality makes it feel smoother than normal water – like bathing in fabric softener. But in the oppressive heat, under the mid-afternoon sun, it is a pleasant feeling.
We lie in the cool water, chatting. Behind us a group of young Turkana boys are fishing and in front the lake extends into the horizon – the far shore invisible to us. The only disruption on the hazy horizon is the jagged shape of Central Island, a pocket-sized national park.
As the sun begins to lower and the heat starts to recede, we set out again in the helicopter for this distant island. This time, the doors are off and I feel the wind pressing in as I peer out across the lake. As we near the island, it begins to take a more defined shape. Andrew swings us on a wide arc along its southern edge and explains its unique nature to me. “Central Island is made of three volcanic craters, each one filled with water. They are all entirely self-contained – unconnected to the lake that surrounds them.”
Then we dive. And we hurtle down over the first of the lakes, swinging low past steep cliffs that are packed with nesting birds. Above, the crater rim rises high; below the dark shapes of crocodiles are visible in the still water. As the lake end draws near, we soar upwards, slowing over the crater rim’s highest point.
Carefully, Andrew eases us down onto a treacherously narrow strip of rock, and I jump out. I am accompanied by a local Turkana man, who will act as my guide. The helicopter pauses for a few seconds, its rotors still spinning, before shooting upwards and banking away over the island.
Almost instantly, a silence descends. Without the noise of the helicopter’s powerful engine, the air is still. The only sound is a soft hiss. I look to my left, towards the precipitous edge of the rim and see steam spluttering out of one of the rocks. The smell of sulphur wafts towards me – a reminder of the volcanic nature of this remarkable island.
As we ascend the next small peak, another lake appears below. We are almost vertically above, looking down at the dark green waters. It is a mesmerising sight. My guide points at dark patches in the water, “Shoals of tilapia.”
Then I look towards the base of the cliff. “Crocodile,” is all he says. I see the shape, lying almost motionless. Its entire outline is visible, only inches beneath the surface of the lake.
Another ten minutes of walking and we find ourselves at the level of the lake. The lush vegetation here contrasts with the dusty, rock-strewn slopes of the crater rim. Although a national park, the island has remained relatively free of signs of human presence. But here, just before the lakeshore, a wooden placard warns visitors not to walk any closer. The image of the croc still fresh in my mind, I heed the warning.
Leaving the interior lakes behind, we finally reach the black beach that rings the island. It is strewn with white fish bones – leftovers from both birds and fisherman, I guess. As we struggle across the shifting surface, a growing thunder begins to fill the air. Within seconds, the helicopter appears from behind us, setting down on a narrow spit just ahead. It is the perfect spot to watch the sunset.
An exhilarating moonlit flight later and I find myself back in my tent. Although it is still more than 30 degrees, I am comfortable in the dry heat, with a breeze rippling through the tent. As sleep embraces me, my mind replays a memorable day, certain that the excitement is over.
But after only a few hours, Lake Turkana decides it is not done with me yet. I awake to a roaring sound, feeling the tent swaying around me. Then, slowly, I register the noise is the wind howling through the camp. It is a remarkable phenomenon. I am not annoyed by this disruption of my sleep; I am thrilled to be awake to experience it. And that seems, to me, to be the essence of this isolated region.
Although inhospitable and challenging, Lake Turkana is an area rich with experiences. They are experiences that are unpredictable, inaccessible and inconvenient. But they are also experiences that capture the imagination, that chisel themselves into the memory. Surrounded by the roaring darkness, I am aware that every moment here is unmissable.