Lake Turkana - water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink
18.03.2010 42 °C
We knew a group were passing through Lodwar in a convoy of 4x4's the following day on their way to Eliye Springs, the only functioning lodge and campsite on the western side of the lake. We busied ourselves in the morning organising supplies, including topping up the petrol for our stove at the Caltex station as we knew there would be no more fuel stations until we were well into Ethiopia. We met the guys with the 4x4's for lunch and loaded our bikes into Rolfe's backie for the drive to the Lake.
Pulling into the Caltex station to re-fuel the vehicles we were struck by how different the reception was to the one we'd had earlier that morning when we'd pulled in on our bicycles. Now there was no joking and no smiles it was strictly business and a hoard of hawkers.
As we were sitting there waiting a man came over to sell us a Turkana stool. He walked over surreptitiously removing a green fish-shaped clip hanging off the handle of a stool which I instantly recognised as Rob's. Confused, since I didn't know Rob had even lost his stool, I opened the window and took it off him. It turned out Rob had been sitting on it guarding the bikes whilst I was in the shops and until this moment he hadn't realised he had forgotten to take it when we went to meet the others for lunch. Incredibly the guy believed our story and was happy to leave the stool with us after receiving just a small recompense for his trouble in bringing it over to us – a price Rob was more than happy to pay to be re-united with his seat!
It was a fun but very bumpy drive from Lodwar to Eliye Springs with Barbara, Sonia and her mum, some Swiss guys up from Nairobi for a long anticipated trip to the Lake. The desert sailed passed our windows as the cool breeze from the AC washed over our faces. The occasional figure of a desert wanderer shimmered in the distance, in the haze of the remote heat, as we sped on by bobbing to the beats of the Latin American salsa that danced out of the CD player. Children came running from patches of shade but before they could reach us we were gone and I looked back to find their smiling, waving faces obscured by the cloud of sand-dust we whipped up as we went.
From the security of Eliye Springs with it's source of drinking water we did some dummy rides up the side of lake next to the water where the sand was hardest. We practised drinking the terribly unpalatable lake water saturated with sachets of “Nutri-C” (fruit juice powder) and Citric Acid to see how our bodies would react and we also made enquiries about hiring camels to carry our kit and some extra drinking water!
As it worked out our bodies coped with the water and we decided to go it alone up the shore to Kalakol where we would be able to detox on mineral water and reassess our plan. Well acquainted now with the malicious malevolence of the desert sun we set off well before dawn by the light of our head-torches scouring the sand and waters after the 6km mark for any traces of the infamous crocodile population left to their own devices beyond this point.
We cycled silently along accompanied only by the gentle lapping of the waves on the sand. It was hard to believe it wasn't the ocean we were next to especially since, like the sea, this huge reservoir of water could not be relied on as a source of drinking water. We savoured the joys which come with such an early start as we watched the sun rise over the lake.
We shared the serenity of the dawn with a lot of water birds along the lake shore. A pair of pale flamingoes flew silently in from over the lake, their slender legs extending as far behind as their necks in front, forming perfect symmetry about their bodies. They landed in a shallow pool where some spoonbills were busy sifting the water for goodies next to some smaller waders strutting around.
Midday approached and we started to see fishing boats in the distance. As we drew closer we saw people gathered around the boats and it was apparent that the shores of Kalakol were a hive of activity. Groups of people were sitting around fixing vast fishing nets whilst others were gutting and de-scaling the day's catch. Children waded through the water hopefully pulling long fishing lines behind them whilst men dragged boats out the lake and onto the sand. Gazing upon the scene you would think it had always been this way – generation after generation hooking their living out of the lake. In fact the Turkana people are traditionally pastoralists who migrate strategically around the desert and inland mountains in annual cycles, with their camels and goats, moving from one water source to the next depending on the season. There were severe droughts, and famines followed in the '60's and '70's. Since there were no roads in the dessert or the mountains it was impossible to access the communitities with aid so the people were transported to temporary settlements all along the edge of Lake Turkana where aid could be supplied with ease. And then the people stayed. All the little towns and villages on the West shore of Lake Turkana were born in this way.
Once in Kalakol we headed into the “Barack Obama Hotel” (a hotel is a restaurant) to escape the sun and down some fluids. Although the town is without electricity the Barack Obama has a solar-powered freezer full of treats including vanilla yoghurts (of which we had about 3 each )!!
Whilst we were devouring delicious plates of liver, rice and cabbage a very energetic and knowledgeable man sitting on the table opposite started chatting to us.
John was the right man in the right place!! He was full of reliable information and drew for us a fantastic map of Lake Turkana including all the small communities and the distances between them as well as the location of all the water pumps, detailing which you should and which you should not drink from (!!) and the names and numbers of the local chiefs, many of which were his relations!! This information was invaluable. The road we were on is not on any of the maps we looked at or on our GPS software and no-one we had enquired of had been able to give us any information about communities where we might be able to get drinking water, or even if there were any.
Armed with the map we packed up our bikes and cycled on. However, we didn't get far before we met this imposing man eager to here our story.
We chatted through a translator as he had no English. He sold us his very cool bracelet and invited us to stay in his village – which we accepted.
The bracelet is a wide piece of metal with a strip of animal hide covering it's very sharp edge. When you pull off the leather it becomes a lethal weapon on your wrist and if you take it off it is used to skin goats and gut fish!!
We set off again nice and early..........
..... since we were still in the middle of a desert with temperatures to match.
The heat forced us to stop mid-morning in a little place called Kataboi where we had a great time hanging out with Felix and Edwin.
We pushed on along the sandy road which ran parallel to the lake with spectacular views and marked our progress by the advance of the lake's islands – Central Island was falling out of sight behind us now as the North Island came into view in the distance.
Every now and then the bikes rested....
.... whilst we topped up our water.
We camped in the wild in the middle of nowhere carefully positioning our jerrycan over the hole that Rob saw the scorpion dart back into! The sky was bright with stars and the temperature didn't drop all night long. It was BOILING.
Towards the Northern end of the Lake we returned to the hardened sand by the water to cycle the remainder of the way to a place called Todenyang where there is a Catholic Mission. The scenery was different to where we had cycled on the shore further south. The palm trees that had been so numerous before gradually petered out and the land became very barren. We would pass now and then groups of young men drying out fish in the sun and young boys keeping watching over herds of goats – all of them armed with Kalashnikovs.
From the shore of the lake we saw a surreal cluster of trees in the middle of the surrounding desert a few kilometres inland from an artesian wheel on the waters edge. We took a bee line towards it, which was VERY hard work....
As we approached the settlement, very slowly, we thought we were perhaps mistaken. We had heard Todenyang was a village but all we could see were a few deserted buildings in various states of disrepair completely enclosed by a tall wire fence. However we were greeted enthusiastically and welcomed in. We weren't mistaken. From where we approached we could only see the mission buildings, which actually looked a lot less bedraggled up close, then there is a small fence covered by a line of young green trees beyond which sits the village.
Note the church on the right and the line of trees on the left behind which are the mission buildings.
The entire village, and the mission are surrounded by the fence for security because there is constant tribal fighting between the Turkana and the Ethiopian Merrile who live just the other side of the border – less than 10km away. The week before we arrived 6 Turkana people had been shot dead in the reeds by the lake. Father Stephen Ochien a young, black, Kenyan Catholic Father is heading up the mission trying to encourage peace in the area but it's hard to break the hold of an age old tradition and he spends most of his time carrying out damage control.
For us Todenyang was a wonderful place to spend our last night in Kenya. There was, a needless to say hot, shower supplied with water pumped from the lake by the artesian wheel, we stayed in a sheltered canvas tent with beds and ate our meals with the mission staff.
Just what we needed before we would set off across the desert in search of the Ethiopian border trying to avoid accidently slipping into southern Sudan in the process.