Lake Turkana,

Cradle of Mankind:
An Aerial View

Lake Turkana, a glittering jewel in the northern deserts of Kenya's Rift Valley in East Africa, is a startling contrast to the extinct volcanoes, barren rock and lava beds that frame it. A goldmine for anthropologists, the area has been defined as the cradle of modern humankind. It also is the home of the hospitable Turkana people and desert wildlife. Getting there is practicable only by small plane.

By Linda Quinet

Mounds of elephant dung dot the air strip at the Mount Kenya Safari Club, with occasional Maasi cattle herders competing for take-off clearance. Two hours later arriving in the South Horr Valley, it was goat herds on the landing strip with Samburu tribesmen appearing unexpectedly to welcome this alien bird, a Cessna 182. To get to Lake Turkana where roads increasingly become figments of the imagination, a flying safari is highly recommended--that is, if one wants to get there with spinal column intact. Letters home can also marvel about landing on hardened lava flows and dry lake beds.

Thoughtfully, the pilot flies over the landscape at a low but safe altitude so passengers can see the greenery of the Rift Valley changing to increasingly barren land in northwest Kenya. Previous day trips from Mount Kenya Safari Club had already introduced us to Angus and Jill Simpson, a.k.a. Simpson Safaris in Gilgil, Kenya. Angus flies low.

The four days/three nights out include flying to Loyangalani, a fishing trip on Lake Turkana, a drive around Koobi Fora Paleolithic fields with stops at its museum and teaching sites, a visit to a Samburu village and overnight at Desert Rose Lodge. Particularly fond of this area, Angus and Jill's experience here dates back several decades to when they came with their children, to help "develop" the area, i.e., working on roads and bettering educational opportunities for the locals. Angus Simpson, is the son of a British consul from colonial days. Raised in Kenya, he never left.

His wife Jill makes guests as comfortable as possible in tents in a dry river bed strategically situated too far away to be harassed by begging locals. Tent, kitchen and other accoutrements arrive by Toyota on the iffy and torturous roads in this part of Kenya. Chandeliers are not included, but the guest tent includes a pee pot in case one doesn't want to go out in the night (not an appealing thought). A bag shower is warmed by Mother Nature. In the background, helpers cook on wood fires. More stereotypical accommodations can be found within 50 miles at Loyangalani, but this trip promises to get closer to the area's real life.

This is where Richard Leaky, flying in a similar small plane, perceived the importance of the area. Detouring along the eastern shore of Lake Turkana due to bad weather, he saw what he thought might be layers of lake deposits. In his vernacular: Jackpot! The black rocks were, indeed, fossil-bearing sandstone layers, not lava flows as previously thought. His discoveries in this area of East Africa and those of his parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, as well as by others in nearby Ethiopia have resulted in this being called the Cradle of Mankind. Our ancestors, fortunately, crawled out of this cradle about the time the area changed from a lush to hostile environment. Gazelles, Oryx, Topi, lions, cheetahs and hyenas don't seem to mind, however. Africa's finest are staying.

Loyangalani is the only settlement of any size along the eastern shore. There is an island populated by El Molo tribespeople, of which only about 200 are left. Other nomadic tribes people are drawn by its spring water. The airport's hand-lettered sign extends a WELCOME TO LOYANGALANI AIRPORT. The "Oasis Club" VIP lounge resembles a bus stop.

One day is spent at Koobi Fora, where the research that earns the area's "Cradle of Mankind" name is conducted. This beyond-the-norm tourist adventure pales in comparison to the perseverance, expertise and grit with which researchers here carry on. Days are spent combing through rocks and thorn scrub in horrendous heat. For the tourist, this kind of day-to-day dedication elicits more admiration than, for example, a three-million-year-old tortoise shell. Similar "younger" bones are displayed along barely discernable roads winding through Koobi Fora's rich paleontological trove. The Koobi Fora Museum tells the story concisely, complete with a roof for shade.

Students from Rutgers University in New Jersey are "boning up" (as archeological students do) at the lakeside teaching center. Intent on identifying femurs, mandibles and such, they are often frustrated at not being able to name-that-bone instantly nor the era it came from, as staff do innately. Here, bones and time are inextricably entwined. Potentially important archeological finds may be just the tip end of something protruding from silt. To experienced archeologists, this is something crying out to be found. The unknowing would trample it.

Further south near a mission in Samburu territory where Jill's camp is located, there are plenty of opportunities to tramp along dry riverbeds that provide innumerable paths. The challenge is to find the way back-or, if in a four-wheel vehicle, to dig it out it from sandy traps in which even the most experienced driver occasionally buries wheels.

An amazing find is that Samburu territory is a major recycling center for plastic bottles. Almost everyone carries one. Water is a premium item in this arid area. An eight-year-old boy risked his life in front of a Toyota carrying tourists, planting himself with no intention of budging without filling his bottle. He got water. Not all people along this route are as astute, else travel would be impossible. A bottle labeled "Battery Acid" drew fearful glances, but the young man using it was not suffering any lethal effects the label implied. Angus and Jill bring all the water and airplane and auto gas needed for four days, not to mention food and living quarters. This is not an impulse trip.
While water of the drinking kind is hard to come by in this arid land, Lake Turkana is a vast vessel of the saline kind, nearly 150 miles from north to south. After tramping around in intense sun at 115-degree temperatures, relief felt from swimming in the jade-green lake can make one believe in higher powers, at least those which created geological shifts that cut this body of water off from the Nile a couple of million years before the Pleistocene Humanoid uprightus came along. Volcanoes dam the south end. If not flying, a spectacular photo op will be missed--silt-laden orange waters of the Omo river from Ethiopian highlands melding into the Jade-green lake. Equally as awesome is the lake's abundance of crocodiles, especially considering they are meat eaters, and humans swim in the same lake.

Angus comes equipped with rod and reel for American and European types accustomed to fishing streams and lakes. However, an hour's casting yields nothing. Eventually, two little girls find us. Angus speaks Swahili and explains the problem. They fetch their father, who quickly casts nets. With the help of an uncle, they round up enough tilapia for dinner, encircling fish with their nets, pulling them out with their hands and filleting them on shore. Knowing that crocodiles inhabit other of the lake's shores, they carry on their work not the least concerned. That evening at camp the temptation is to claim the catch, but the truth emerges.

The elder fisherman's daughter, 12, is learning English at school but, so far, has a vocabulary of five or six words. School is not a major part of her life. However, routine walks of 30 kilometers are a necessary duty, balancing on her head the sun-dried catch made by her father to sell at the nearest population center. Their "factory" is piled-up stones. Fishers in this area may be Samburu, Turkana, El Molo or other tribal people.

The Samburu encampment not too far from camp is a lesson in democracy (if male). Samburu and the Turkana are independent and egalitarian. Community decisions are normally made by men-women communicating via a male relative. Whatever the case, Angus's request to allow tourists to take photos had been considered before the group arrives, and the vote allows it (for 400 shillings). Those who do not want to be photographed stay out of camera range. If a camera even appears to aim in their direction, you hear about it. Those who agree to be photographed assemble in their finery, a basic dress and jewelry. Girls with the most necklaces are the most desirable, it is explained. But no matter how high the rows of beads, a woman inevitably ends up in charge of children, maintaining the portable huts, milking cows and fetching water. Boys herd goats; men herd cattle or work elsewhere.
The fee for pictures includes an invitation inside one of the stick huts. The octogenarian mother of the translator sits weak and incapacitated in the smoke-reeking enclosure around the fire, although smiling toothlessly and welcoming. Sleeping quarters splay radially from the central cooking area. Pillows are curved branches embedded in soil. Compared to stone "beds" nomadic people have constructed elsewhere around the lake, the wood pillows are goosedown. The stone version consists of a wall to break the wind and a head rest to snuggle up to. On a five-star scale, the wood pillow gets a minus five, the rocks a minus ten.

Desert Rose Lodge:

An entirely different use of wood occurs at Desert Rose Lodge. Mostly cedar--as well as olive wood--is hewn into bathtubs, lamps, chairs, fireplace frames, toilet seats, you name it. The bathtubs are open air, arranged off the side of a bedroom intentionally missing a wall. This offers a full view onto the valley below while soaking. Short hikes take you to see the huge fig trees that have found roots in rock, as well as follow the path of the stream that bounces down the mountainside alongside the lodge. Birdwatching, camel safaris and anthropological drives are other choices.

Located in a remote indigenous forest on the slopes of Mt. Nyiru near the southern end of Lake Turkana, Desert Rose consists of five units (accommodating 12 guests) built with rocks and timber. Emma and Yoav, the young couple who own it, carved it from nothing with the help of local tribespeople. It is best reached by plane or helicopter. Otherwise, from Nairobi, it's a 10-hour drive, guaranteed to play havoc with the spinal column. An intact spinal column is needed for the requisite 2,000-foot, 40-degree vertical ascent up to the lodge, a road that tests the mettle/metal of any Land Rover. The road was dug by hand out of the mountainside, carefully avoiding any burial grounds of significance to the locals. Once there, the lodge is the epitome of art and nature. The view is breathtaking. Local tribespeople employed by the lodge have a great attitude. They consider it a privilege to work here; they want to please; they want others to appreciate their tribal grounds. The pool, views, service, massages and artful accommodations provide a luxurious finale to a flying safari.

For more information:

Simpson Safaris: Angus and Jill Simpson; Box 401; Gilgil Kenya,
Direct Phone: ++254 (0)50 50050, - ++254 (0)50 401 5443,

Desert Rose Resort:

Photo Credits: Linda Quinet
– as published in Romar Traveler online magazine