Miles on the clock: 29,100
I cycled slowly through a string of riverside villages inhabited by the Turkana tribe. Naked children ran out of basic huts, kicking up clouds of dust in their wakes, and watched me pass; wide-eyed and giggling. Water-carrying women with thick, red, butter-greased braids scattered in surprise at my coming, and men wielding AK47s turned their attention from their goats. Clearly this area receives few foreign visitors.
The villages ended where the Omo spilled into the swampy north end of Lake Turkana; the world’s largest permanent desert lake. A vague set of tire tracks swerved across sandy, dusty land, traversing a large arid plain between the lake and the Lapurr Mountains to the west. The sun beat down mercilessly and the cycling was thirsty work, but the bleak, eerie beauty of this uninhabited area more than compensated for the toil.
Twenty kilometres on, I found the remote Todenyang Catholic mission and wandered into the church as a long Sunday mass was nearing its end. Two hundred faces simultaneously looked around at me with my long, unkempt hair and overgrown beard. An amused muttering of the word ‘Jesus’ swept across the congregation and the priest was momentarily at a loss for words.
I was invited to join some Spanish missionaries for lunch afterwards and Father Albert (formerly a civil engineer) told me of their ambitious plans to dam the rivers in the nearby mountains and irrigate this area that regularly suffers from droughts. The enormous reserve of water in the lake is of no use due to its salt content and the semi-nomadic Turkana people spend much of their lives in an exhaustive search for the precious resource of water. The survival of their livestock depends on finding it and their own survival depends on their animals. Progress on a bicycle down Turkana’s west coast may be slow and trying but it pales in comparison to the lifelong struggle to simply exist that the local population have.
The following morning I continued south along Turkana and gazed in wonder at the seemingly-synchronised swoops and darts of immense flocks of birds, silhouetted before the rising sun’s splintered reflection on the strikingly-turquoise water. Occasional clusters of round, wicker huts, and their attendant goats, dotted the landscape. Each group of dwellings (manyata) are encircled by a fence of thorny branches to contain the livestock at night.
In the village of Lowarengak I topped up on food from shops that offered little more than flour, biscuits, washing powder and tomato paste. The Turkana region is remote and supplies are irregular. The children crowded around me and chorused English-language questions recently learnt in school. They seemed amused by my arrival. Foreign aid workers and mineral prospectors are not uncommon in the area but they all arrive in 4x4s or light aircraft. With a dust-covered bike, overfilled saddlebags and travel-worn appearance, I was something of a novelty.
I rode south past North Island out on the lake where thousands of flamingo flock to feast from the algae-rich waters of the island’s three crater lakes. Further south sits the actively volcanic Central Island where the Turkana’s 14,000 Nile crocodiles gather each May.
The rutted old road carried me across a desolate, red landscape and over some low, rocky hills. Cars were rare and the silence was disturbed only by the sporadic screech from wheeling birds of prey. Feeling the vibrations of my wheels, lizards scuttled off the road where they had basked in the sun. The temperature hovered in the high 30s but a relatively fresh wind from the highlands in the south cooled me.
Lodwar is the small but bustling town where Jomo Kenyatta (who later became Kenya’s first president) was held under house arrest for two years by the colonial administration for his involvement in the Mau Mau rebel movement. I chatted to various people in the town and was told over and over again: “don’t take the road through Lokori…the bandits are there. They will kill you!”
I was now on Kenya’s deceptively-named “A1” road which had been paved once upon a time but is now a gauntlet of rubble, potholes, corrugations and soft sand. Countless termite mounds, as tall as 6 meters, tower over the roadside and people lazed in the shade of trees while their animals stripped the leaves from bushes.
I spent a couple of days weaving and bobbing over an undulating terrain with astoundingly varied birdlife, roaming troops of baboons, foxes, scampering squirrels, and goatherds with rifles or bows and arrows. A few times I glimpsed carpet vipers slithering across the track and I often found their recently-shed skins among the brown grass. Mid-sized herds of camels grazed nonchalantly among the bushes and, disturbed by the rusty squeak of my dust-covered chain, lethargically turned their heads to look as I pedalled by. A rich brown river gave me a chance to wash the grime of several days’ sweaty toil off my clothes and body. My clothes dried in a minute under the harsh midday sun.
Early one evening I arrived in the isolated village of Napeitum which sits on a hilltop, has several armed guards and is entirely fenced in. Half the village escorted me excitedly to the wizened old headman who welcomed me and told me how his 400 Turkana villagers relocated to this formerly empty spot in 2009 after continued raids from the Pokot in their former town of Lokori. The chief then invited me to camp outside the police hut.
The curious, amused crowd jostled for position to watch this strange foreigner with the bicycle erect his flimsy tent and cook his plain rice dinner. The light faded, the village gates were locked and everyone shuffled off to their homes. There is no electricity in Napeitum and the perfect darkness emphasised the magnificently-glittering night sky; the sort of sky that city-dwellers can only dream of.
From the little fortress village I struggled southwards on a mercilessly hilly track and was often forced to push my bicycle. For 100km I forged on without seeing a single human. Abandoned on the track was the sun-bleached shell of a 4x4 that was recently ambushed by bandits. A disturbing amount of bullet casings littered the ground.
Moses, the resident doctor, invited me to camp by the clinic and told me of the sporadic nighttime bursts of gunfire that plagued Kapedo until a tentative peace was struck four months ago. The Turkana village sits on the boundary of ancestral Turkana and Pokot land and so has borne much of the conflict. Many of the villagers have dug up the earth inside their huts and sleep below ground level so that bullets can pass harmlessly through the thin mud walls.
The altitude gradually rose as I forged further south towards the highlands. The vegetation thickened and became lush as the temperature dropped. I sped up a hill and, upon reaching the top, was suddenly presented with a jaw-dropping panorama of Lake Baringo. The forest surrounding the vibrantly-blue waters are famous for their variety of birdlife including eagles, bee eaters and barred warblers.
Another day in the saddle carried me across the equator, down to Nakuru and onto the main Nairobi highway. The busy matumba (second hand clothes) markets, well-stocked shops and clean cars seemed an utterly different world from the stick huts, camel herds and gun-toting tribesmen I’d left behind. I sat in a café with a heaped plate of pilau and an ice cold Tusker, reflecting on my exhausting passage through the wild northwest. Despite the several problems faced by the Turkana District, its inhospitable environment and the hardy people who eke out an existence there had charmed me.
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