Discover Kenya's Hidden Gem: Lake Turkana

Updated: Feb 16, 2020

friends posing at sunset on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya
Posing at sunset on Lake Turkana

Escape the crowds and head north to Lake Turkana in Kenya

Travelling away from the well-trodden trail is fairly easy to do in Africa, at least compared to many worldly destinations that are getting more and more crowded by the day (*ahem, Europe, ahem*), and it's one of the greatest benefits to travelling to this largely undiscovered continent. Want to escape the crowds? Africa is your best bet.

So what can you expect when you leave the Masai Mara and Mombassa behind and heard north to Lake Turkana?

Only the best place to visit in Kenya!

Having had one of my top experiences ever in Africa during my visit to Lake Turkana, I'm a bit biased. But I'd love to share with you what it was that made my visit so special.

Well, to start with, only a destination of Lake Turkana’s credence earn Lonely Planet write-ups that cause even the most adventurous of travellers to sweat a little at the brow.

“Step forward only if you’re able to withstand appalling roads, searing heat, clouds of dust torn by relentless winds, primitive food and accommodation, vast distances and more than a hint of danger.”

Driving the route to the world’s largest permanent desert lake, Kenya’s “jade sea”, travellers could encounter banditry, petrol shortages and harsh weather conditions. There is little English spoken in villages, and the sun’s heat is so oppressive, a tree branch offering shade or a cup of water is worth its weight in gold.

Why do adventure travellers go to Lake Turkana?

Thankfully, Lonely Planet’s description also indulges readers in Turkana’s equally alluring payoffs. So persuasive is the alternative portrayal, that images of Indiana Jones type exploits replace all former intimidation.

“The rewards include memories of vast, shattered lava deserts, camel herders walking their animals to lost oases, fog-shrouded mountains full of mysterious creatures, and pre-historic islands crawling with massive reptiles”, the Planet states.

Clearly, there are plenty of reasons why thrill seeking travellers go.

If you're an adventure traveler with an insatiable desire for off-the-beaten track self-drives, Turkana is the place for you.

How I travelled to Lake Turkana

Turkana is accessible by bus, with an overnight stop in the junction town of Marsabit, but the optimal way to travel there is of course in one’s own 4 x 4.

My driving hosts were John and Peggy, an incredibly kind, laid-back middle-aged Canadian male and his 84-year old mother, whose wit is quicker than a 100m dash and sense of humour richer than a garden after the rains.

John and Peggy were heading to Turkana with Damian, a Turkana-born young man whose college education they were funding. Venturing into a remote region like Turkana, one must choose their company carefully. Luckily my road trip crew was exceptional, due, in large part, to the underlying charitable motive for their journey.

The heart-warming story began when Damian’s sharp intelligence and even sharper good looks won John over on a visit to Turkana the year before. Unable to finish his college degree in dietetics and nutrition, because of the responsibility of sending money home, Damian had returned to working at a lodge in Loiyangalani, the largest town on the eastern side of Lake Turkana.

While staying at the lodge, John heard of Damian’s dream of finishing school and returning to work in his village, educating mothers on sanitation and pre-natal nutrition. Almost immediately, John decided to invest in Damian’s future.

A little over a year later John and Peggy were back in Kenya to attend Damian’s first-year graduation ceremony in Nairobi. Afterwards, they would drive to Damian’s village Moite, located along the shores of Lake Turkana. I was thrilled at the opportunity to tag along.

Kenya Nutritionists & Dieticians Institute graduation in Nairobi
John and Damian at the graduation in Nairobi

graduates of the Nutritionists and Dieticians Institute of Kenya
Graduates waiting to enter the ceremony

Overland adventure to Lake Turkana

Nairobi faded into the distance as we began the three-day adventure north. On the way we drove through forests of gum and eucalyptus trees and dined on the shores of Lake Naivasha, where a family of hippos grazed mere meters away. We posed at scenic Rift Valley lookouts, and sang hymns in a village church, bathing in the pastel morning light streaming through stained glass windows.

It was beginning to look like the trip would happen without mishap, until we encountered a government enforced fuel shut down, caused by high pricing wars across the region. Deciding we’d never make it to Moite and back unless we found diesel, in the town of Baragoi John agreed to the exorbitant prices and convinced a station owner to open their pump.

A few hours later we arrived at our final overnight stop South Horr, a place of surprisingly scenic beauty. Houses were hung with brightly coloured bougainvillea bushes, and front yards graced with row upon row of neatly planted desert flowers. To top it all off, mountain peaks with sheer descents carved into their flanks surrounded the village on all sides.

A Kenyan wedding celebration

Thanks to a couple years of plentiful rains, families in the area had been blessed with enough goats and cows to suffice paying dowries and host celebrations, and we soon realized we’d arrived during South Horr’s wedding season.

In true village fashion, we received an invitation to join that day’s wedding party. To start, we watched the slaughtering of a sacrificial bull by the male elders, and the groom and his best man ceremonially carrying each prized piece of meat into a hut where the women were waiting to prepare it for the feast. The day continued to pass with hours of traditional dancing, and the bride and groom toasting over wine glasses filled with coca-cola.

After the wedding I reminisced about how why I travel to off-the-beaten path type destinations like Lake Turkana. Witnessing this wedding, and having the chance to see how strong the traditions and cultural ties are for the Turkana people, was a true gift. I saw ancient practices happen right before my eyes, and will never forget the experience as long as I live. These are the experiences for which I travel.

Arriving in Loiyangalani - first view of Lake Turkana

Leaving South Horr, a lush vegetation of billowing grassland continued for miles until suddenly, we entered a barren landscape. Looking closer I noticed the Salvador tree, precious for its shade and timber, sticking out amongst an endless dry sea of knee-high shrubbery; the seemingly empty landscape was in fact teeming with life, including wild zebra and giraffe, and Moran warriors out defending their livestock from neighboring tribes and wandering leopards. The warriors apparently survive for days on milk mixed with blood from their goats and camels, with a resilience that defies the daily struggles of living in such a harsh and remote land.

A panorama of rounded mountaintops began to form, and Kenya’s largest construction project to date came into view – a 364-turbine wind farm producing 310 MW of clean electricity for the national grid. Getting out of the vehicle to walk around, we stared in awe at the beastly machines that provide 20% of Nairobi’s energy needs.

An hour later, my heart skipped a beat when Lake Turkana finally came into view. The setting sun’s rays accentuated the view before us, and the lake’s largess stretched on for eternity. We continued to follow the road as it dipped into the valley to meet up with the lake, and then hugged its curves for the final stretch to our first destination, Loiyangalani.

Approaching Loiyangalani, it felt like we’d driven onto another planet. Clusters of semi-circle huts sprouted from a deserted earth, laid out before us like strategically placed pieces in a post-apocalyptic board game. Entering the center of town, it no longer looked like Mars. Instead, it was a haven of verdant palm tree oases and happy faces yelling “helloooo!” Children ran to their parents fishing at the shore, and herds of healthy goats faithfully followed their shepherds. Finding such a substantial congregation of life at what I’d thought was the end of the road had surprised us all; we’d reached an oasis in the rough.

Before departing for our final destination, Damian’s village, we settled into the Palm Shade Lodge to relax after a few long driving days. With daily temperatures reaching 40 plus degrees, afternoons were for resting in the shade of palm trees with whatever cold beverage we could find. When the heat dissipated later in the day, we ventured to the Desert Museum to learn about the region’s natural history and cultural traditions, which have changed very little in hundreds of years, and visited the lake for sunset photos. We finished each day by stuffing ourselves on the chef’s freshly caught perch, and retreating to our mosquito netted beds to wait for the cool nighttime breeze to return.

kids playing football game in Loiyangalani Kenya
Community football game in Loiyangalani

The final leg of the journey - visiting the village of Moite

With the crew all rested up and the Land Cruiser packed once again, we stopped at the store to purchase 50 kg of rice and 27 kg of dried beans to host a children’s Christmas dinner, and set off for Moite.

Along the way, we encountered barefoot tribes traipsing through acacia woodlands and herds of camel trotting through soft dunes, all with the ‘jade sea’ shimmering in the distance. After a couple hours we stepped out into the lowland shrub to stretch our legs and search for souvenir volcanic rock, and I was swept away by the pristine, quiet nature of the environment that surrounded me.

As we crested the last sand dune and Damian pointed Moite out in the distance, I grinned and thought of the journey we’d already had just getting there. Then, a faint sound of harmonizing voices grew in the distance, and we saw a tribe of dancing people huddled around a sole Salvador tree. Moite’s residents had all come together to welcome us with song and dance!

I was speechless and overcome with emotion when we were pulled into the huddle, and watched as John was adorned with a traditional Turkana outfit - a hand carved cane, a toga of traditional cloth, and an ostrich hat.

With obvious pride, Damian’s birth father led a welcoming ceremony, where each patriarch flung water from a goat skin bowl at John in celebration, citing benedictions of approval and appreciation, and finishing with a couple firm pats on the chest. We were led back to the huddle to join hands with our new Turkana family, and dance until the blistering heat forced us to finally withdraw into the shade.

traditional water ceremony Lake Turkana
Traditional water ceremony of the Turkana people

The following couple of days passed as if in a dream-like state, witnessing first hand the transformative power of open-minded and openhearted travel, occurring only when cultures truly meet as one.

There was a swimming party at the beach and fishing trip onto the lake, gift giving, sleep overs under the clear desert sky, movie nights huddled around a laptop watching Wonder Woman, and of course, more dancing. Sitting on a mat tickling the feet of the women’s newborn babies, we looked up at a full moon and the women taught me how to say “I like the moon” in Turkana, then fit bells around my ankles and pulled me back up to the dance circle. “Ichimit elap”, I repeated to myself, and threw my head back in joy as I continued dancing into the night.

Our Christmas lunch with the children was a hit across the village, and even though there was a language barrier, we connected with them through the help of technology; and a few bottles of the toy that never goes out of style, bubbles. We all laughed endlessly as the kids posed for Boomerang videos and learned to draw on an iPad, and blew so many bubbles we were refilling the bottles with dish soap.

By spending quality time with Damian and the village kids, I learned a lot about the struggle Moite’s families are going through in order to ensure their kids finish school. Covering the cost of uniforms, books, supplies and sending kids away to attend schools offering higher grades, is a heavy burden for these families to take on, but the pay off of educating Turkana’s children is significant. We gathered the kids into the schoolhouse, and while passing out bubble gum lollipops, Damian led a speech about the importance of staying focused on studies, and helping to encourage their parents to believe in the value of school.

Moite is incredibly beautiful, but it’s location in an arid region means that fish, and meat and milk from livestock, remain the primary sources of nutrition. There is hope that private or government investment will bring sustainable energy that benefits the Turkana, or develop agricultural technology to help them farm, but today, the brand new infirmary remains empty and little food aid makes it to the villages.

On the morning of our departure, our road trip crew stood under the already scorching sun receiving the ceremonial handfuls of water thrown at our chests. The elders shared words of great thanks and hope that we return one day.

An increase in experiential tourism could bring much needed income to Turkana villages, a model that has done well for other remote areas of eastern Africa, but only time will tell if tourists are prepared to endure the hardy conditions of destinations like Lake Turkana. One thing is certain though, villages like Moite are ready for them.

If you'd like to learn more about my new initiative to raise money for girls' education in the Turkana region, please visit the giving back fundraising page for more details.

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