My favourite tour company organised an event that I had been dying to try – a visit up North to Lake Turkana through some of the driest parts of Kenya. I always wanted to experience the largest desert in Kenya – Chalbi, and as expected, it was on the itinerary.
A little dive into politics: a few months after the current administration of President William Ruto was sworn in, the deputy president had equated the country to a limited liability company where the largest shareholders were the counties that contributed the most votes to the sitting presidency. How that was received is anyone’s guess, and so going into this trip, I looked forward to seeing how one of the least populated counties, and by the deputy’s utterances, the least contributors to the national cake made do.
The first day led us to Marsabit, the 10th county per the government’s coding system, and home to 459,785 people as per the latest census. Clearly, I was quite ignorant of a tiny town with a few camels (a most valued asset among the Northerners) and a scattered population. Marsabit town is quite vibrant, with enough amenities to show the work the county government has been doing since power was devolved in 2010. Not nearly enough, but not bad, either. The road from Nairobi that heads all the way to Moyale, the largest town in Marsabit County, is super smooth, making this 600km journey from Nairobi bearable.
We didn’t have much time in this town as we’d spend the better part of the day on the road to get here. We spent the night at Nomads Hotel, right in the heart of Marsabit town, then headed for North Horr in the morning. Tip: Buy your headgear in this town if you intend to visit the dunes in Chalbi, our next stop.
After breakfast, we headed out to the expansive Chalbi desert, which is also home to one of the largest dunes in the country. We left our overland truck and made our way to the dune on foot, about a kilometre through Chalbi. Along the way, we stopped to interact with a father and son who had brought their head of sheep and donkeys to a watering hole in an oasis in the desert. Most locals are friendly and used to inquisitive tourists that frequent their part of the world. The kids speak Kiswahili, the national language, and some are quite fluent in English.
The large lone sand dune in the part of Chalbi we visited is a beauty and gives one the best backdrop against the setting sun in the evenings. After a flurry of photos, we left for our accommodation in the village where one of the locals, a woman, has set up these traditional houses with a few modern amenities for visitors to the region. I found this exciting as almost all the places we stayed in the heart of North Horr and Turkana were either community-owned or started by women who smartly took advantage of the growing tourism in the region.
The last part of our itinerary led us to Lake Turkana, a shallow alkaline lake that sustains the local nomadic communities. The route is inexplicably scenic, with rising hills and mountains (Mounts Poi and Kulal), large boulders, and rock formations for days. The drive along Lake Turkana is a treat I’d wish for any wanderer. Our first mission was to visit the El-Molo community, the smallest tribe in the country, with less than 1,500 members as per the 2019 census. Intermarriage with surrounding tribes – Turkana and Samburu – has expanded it, but ‘pure’ Elmolos are said to be below 300. This vibrant and welcoming community relies heavily on fish from Lake Turkana, the chicken they raise as a community and green produce from a distant town. Lake Turkana shows off a great deal from this side of the country, making the visit to this tiny island a must-do on the list of things to do around Lake Turkana. The waters are calm and inviting for a dip here, and you will be surrounded by large boulders that give the lake a fort-like feel.
We drove further into Turkana for the last night to this scenic place called Ngurunit, Samburu, where we would climb Mt. Poi at dawn. We also wanted to slide down this set of smooth rocks, Ngurunit Rocks, a major attraction in this area. The community, as observed earlier, accommodated us at Laisamo Campsite, which has traditional manyattas and modern facilities for between $10 and $20 a night, depending on one’s choice.
If you are ever in Kenya and would like something different from the usual white sandy beaches in Diani or the wildlife in Maasai Mara, take the trip up north and ensure not to skip Lake Turkana. You will want to use an overland truck or a cruiser for the trip, as the loose sand easily stalls anything less. Carry a DSLR camera for the scenery because phone cameras, advanced as they are, won’t capture the ranges, mountains, and expansive savannas as well as the eye does.
Though the region is arid and inarable, the locals make do with other sources of food – fish and animals for protein – and the communities we encountered are not as badly off as has been portrayed repeatedly.
Swimming in one of the most alkaline lakes – Turkana – was such a treat. Chalbi desert, which extends over 1,000 km and has the usual characteristics of a desert – dry, hot, and flat – was once a shallow lake, and it shows. This trip was on a budget – $400 per person for five days.
The road up North is great all the way to Moyale, and KENHA – Kenya National Highways Authority – is working on some of the rough parts leading to North Horr to open the area up even more. The scenes along the way make up for the rocky rides in the parts with challenging terrain. But in all, the trip was worth the adventure.
Waithera Mbugua is a creative writer, wanderer and data analyst.