By Marlies Budde
|For us Wazungu--Kiswahili for white people--the rugged journey to visit the First Turkana Cultural Festival in a remote corner of Kenya was an epic one. Established to promote tourism in the Turkana area of Northern Kenya , the festival was sponsored by the German, French, Italian and US Embassies and organized by the Women´s Group MoSaReTu representing the ethnic groups El Molo, Samburu, Rendille and Turkana and including the unaffiliated Gabbra and Pokot peoples. Held in the provincial town of Loyangalani, the festival also served to bring together those ethnic groups known to each other on a much less festive basis through their occasionally violent skirmishes and the frequent outbreaks of cattle rustling.
Equipped with spare tires, tools for all kind of repairs, water, fuel, food, tents and GPS, six European and two American residents of Kenya started very early morning on 10th June in four 4x4s . From Nairobi we headed north into the highlands via Gilgil to Thomson Falls. Highlighting the potentially incendiary gathering of these sometime hostile communities, a police escort was waiting for us at Thomson Falls. Shortly after leaving the tarmac road, the first of 15 flat tires presented us with the new experience of changing a tire under police protection.
The first night we spent at Maralal Safari Lodge in the Maralal Game Sanctuary, approximately 350 km North of Nairobi. It is a rather charming place with wildlife like zebra, warthog, gazelle and guinea fowl to watch from the terrace and friendly staff and a lot of potential. All that is lacking is a coat of fresh paint and warm water for bathing. In the cool highlands, a bath in cold water is not always the most desirable refreshment.
The next morning we drove to South Horr through fantastic countryside that made us wonder what the first white settlers of Kenya thought on their way north, towards the Somali border, passing what was then called Lake Rudolph. In this inhospitable bush the land is progressively more and more arid, too dry for farming due to unreliable rainfalls but at the same time breathtakingly beautiful! Our cars and the drivers´ skills were tested to their limits. Murram (clay soil) roads turned into sand then into rocky surface and then into volcanic rock.
We spent the second night at Karungu Campsite near South Horr where the askaris (formerly colonial military, now local gendarmes) kept a fire burning all night for us and to keep off curious predatory animals. The campsite is in a pleasant setting between big acacia trees, but, unfortunately, the facilities are rudimentary and completely run down. Thankfully, we were equipped for this eventuality, and with the help of a bush shower we managed to get rid of most of the journey's dust.
After an early wake-up call by a group of noisy monkeys the following morning, we travelled through a countryside increasingly arid, with more and more volcanic rocks and with decreasing vegetation until we came to that unforgettable first glimpse of Lake Turkana the world's largest permanent desert lake. What a bizarre view it was after having driven through desert, rocky terrain and lava flows for hours to come on the awesome sight of Lake Turkana, its water gleaming a stunning turquoise green against a background of volcanic reds and browns, all framed by Kulal Volcano on the opposite shore. With good reason, this lake is also known as the Jade Sea!
It took us another two hours to get to the Oasis Lodge in Loyangalani. Passing domesticated camels and goats and tukuls (rudimentary mud huts), we wondered where the animals find grazing in this barren, austere country and how people manage to survive.
In stark contrast, the Lodge once was the playground of eccentric American millionaires from Cairo and British rock legends Mick Jagger and David Bowie.
Perhaps due to its former famous guests, Loyangalani can boast of having a dirt landing strip for small aircraft. The following morning festival visitors unwilling to make the arduous trek from Nairobi by road, arrived by plane, strong winds creating a challenge for the pilot. Guests were met by community members who helped arrange the carrying of luggage on donkeys' backs to the Lodge.
| In the afternoon, the festival began with traditional dances by each of the participating ethnic groups wearing their traditional dresses and colorful beadwork. In softly accented English, speakers explained their daily life and traditions and showed off their modest homes to us fascinated visitors. It became clear to us that the people we met at Loyangalani had not changed their way of life in hundreds of years! In the evening a Turkana wedding ceremony was held, and dignitaries and guests were invited for a feast of nyama choma (grilled goat meat) and traditional dances.
Early the next morning a large group of visitors was taken to a site where ancient rock art had been discovered by some local herders. Experts from the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) and the National Museum in Nairobi believe that the Loyangalani engravings are some 500 to 2000 years old. Images depicting giraffes suggest that a long time ago this area may have been green and fertile with many trees to provide pasture for these animals.
Locally, the Desert Museum, sponsored by the Italian Embassy, is situated on a cliff overlooking the Lake. The museum, sponsored by the Italian Embassy, displays local flora and fauna and examples of the traditional ways of living of the people inhabiting this region. The inspection visit was concluded by traditional singing and dancing.
|After these festivities, we eight road warriors left Loyangalani to follow a track through volcanic rock to North Horr where we spent the following night at the Catholic Mission. Led by some friendly local people, we found the track that would take us to a shortcut through the Chalbi Desert. Approaching the desert, we saw plenty of camels and goats, some of them with their herders, others without, clusters of tukul huts and more and more sand.
Eventually, we arrived at the outskirts of the Chalbi Desert and realized with much concern that a sandstorm was gathering behind us. As the desert surface was hard and smooth we decided to take our chances and race the storm. What a feeling! After a thrilling 40km of high speed driving, outracing the sandstorm, dust clouds billowing behind the cars, we crossed the desert and arrived safely in a small settlement.
Our next destination target was Marsabit, an outpost of urban civilization located within the Marsabit National Park in this vast Chalbi Desert of northern Kenya. To get to Marsabit from the small settlement, we had to turn right at a watering place for camels. According to our GPS and maps this was accurate, but there were so many tracks leading away from the watering place that it was impossible to know which one to follow. Again, we asked the local people, and two friendly gentlemen in a pickup truck led the way. Turning south the landscape changed again to arid rocky bush land, very dry and inhospitable.
In contrast, Marsabit is situated on heavily forested Mount Marsabit, an isolated extinct vocano which rises almost a kilometer above the sea of desert. Arriving in this remote island of civilization, we took the opportunity to fill up our fuel tanks and to repair punctured tires badly lacerated by the volcanic rock we had encountered on the way.
We then made our way to Marsabit National Reserve to spend the night in the Marsabit Lodge. The Reserve includes three amazing crater lakes that sustain large populations of birdlife. Additionally, known for its elephant population, it was the home of Ahmed, a bull elephant so old and with such enormous tusks that the government assigned him 24-hour protection from poachers.
After settling in at the lodge, we went for a game drive before dinner. The lush green of the Reserve was a pleasant change after the arid and rocky road. Eventually, we found Lake Paradise, one of the crater lakes. Despite the low water level, some elephants and buffaloes stood grazing. To round out the perfect view, we decided this to be a perfect spot for a Sundowner a venerable Aussie pick-me-up, usually imbibed at sundown after completing the day's work. As for the elephants, Ahmed was not among the them. Sadly, he passed away of natural causes some years ago.
The following morning we made our way out of the Reserve headed for home, following the southern route once again across the Chalbi Desert. This time the surface was less enticing. After a two-hour run through the sand and another tire puncture, we made our way back to South Horr and Kurunga Campsite where we had camped our second night on the trail. We spent another night guarded by sleepy askaris and their camels.
The next day's first stop was Baragoi where we had to meet our police escort. Baragoi is a market town that is part of the Samburu District, an area also home to the Turkana and Somali peoples.
The police chief was hesitant to let his people go until we refuelled the police car. Properly escorted against unforeseen incidents, we left Baragoi and headed for Maralal. It became clear why we needed an official escort when we saw some livestock herders, some still young enough for school, carrying their AK47s.
Maralal is the administrative center for the Samburu people and also the location where Jomo Kenyatta was detained prior to his release. The town attracts tourism, offering opportunities for camel trekking, bush walking and whitwater rafting. It is a sizeable town, and we welcomed another night at the Maralal Lodge. This time hot water was brought to the rooms in buckets. The following morning we turned east after leaving Maralal and headed for Lake Baringo.
Our travails were not over. On this stretch we experienced the most spectacular tire burst, but it was not to be the last one. We had to change two more tires before we were back in Nairobi. All in all, 15 tire changes were required during the entire trip, but, fortunately no more serious mechanical damages occurred.
One half of the group headed south back to Nairobi, the other half stayed at Lake Baringo for one more night to relax and chill and explore the area around Lake Baringo and Lake Bogoria. The lush green scenery, the hippos, crocodiles and flamingos were in stark contrast to what we had seen further north. Once again a beautiful and different side of Kenya revealed itself before us. The next day the remainder of the group headed back to Nairobi.
|In 2009, the festival takes place from 15th-17th May, and an exhibition of photographs of the 2008 Turkana Cultural Festival will be on display from 26th February 2009 at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi.
PHOTO CREDITS: Jutta Joppke, Chris Petch, Brigitte and Helmut Opitz