Home My Experience YOU THINK YOU HAVE SEEN IT ALL, UNTIL…

YOU THINK YOU HAVE SEEN IT ALL, UNTIL…

The Chalbi Desert

by Chris Shitote

I need inspiration for this. Just like Moses and the burning bush. I need somewhere quiet. To collect my thoughts. I might need to watch all the videos again, but I think much is captured in my mind through my eyes than the camera could. I had a 360 view. The camera only had what the director pointed it to. The lens was dusty and so were the roads. The weather was hot and so was my company. People I have known for the past 4 years, some even longer. It’s an acquired family.

I have to roll slightly back to get everything into context. We have been creating annual calendars since 2017. Since The Trek defined what it is now. Suggestions have been floated year in year out of places that we should go. Buckets full of lists have been crafted to feed and satisfy everyone’s needs and maybe budget. We have always tried to remain on the lower side of the Kenya shilling demand, but still maximize on every inch of fun that comes through. Maasai Mara for ksh.10,000, yet we found a lion on the hunt. Amboseli for ksh.7,000, yet we managed to spot a cheetah looking for her cubs. Hell’s gate for about ksh.2,000 yet we managed to nourish our aging skin through a dip into the geothermal spa. You get my point by now. 

We have been all over the place, for prices that people gasp when you mention. For prices that most of us spend in one night at a local joint over a game of Arsenal vs Manchester United. I’m a football fanatic by the way. 

Anyways, this destination had been suggested since my brains can take me back. (I’m not senile yet.) The only challenge has been the budget. 

We were told it is a harsh environment and that only land cruisers can take you there. I just think it is a marketing strategy, or these marketers haven’t met the mighty probox yet. Hehe

We had to plan early compared to most of our activities. People needed to fill confirmation forms 3 months to this. “What was the price?” About ksh. 33,500. Please don’t gasp. Or, please explain the gasp. Hope it’s a good gasp. This was the most expensive activity since The Trek started, and that’s like 5 years ago. It did put a dent in most pockets, or at least mine. 

That meant hiring a land cruiser and driving up North to the driest part of the country. The Chalbi Desert.

You think you have seen it all until you step foot in this sandy zone. Geography books don’t have enough words to describe these conditions. I guess I don’t have either. But I’ll try.

You can’t just drive there, you need someone experienced and a car that bites dust and hills like its horsepower depends on it. For this case, a land cruiser. But I guess any 4X4 slightly more comfortable ride will do. Remember, this is after the roads have been graded since elections are just a few weeks away. Happens every 5 years here. 

Back to Chalbi. It’s taken almost half of Marsabit county and as Geography depicts, it’s bound to spread further southwards in I don’t know how many years to come. I might be buried in it by then. 

It’s a long journey to get there from Nairobi, so we have to make a road trip out of it. None of us has a Land Cruiser so we have to get there through Green Ranger Safaris.

Day One. My friends are in town at the pick up point by 4:30 am. It’s winter in Nairobi, so you can imagine the feeling underneath the jackets they bought in summer for cheap. Well, for me, I’m still at home but awake and anxious of what the next 5 days will look and feel like. I have my bags packed and 50 liters of water by their side. I have no idea what’s going on in town but I had to wait for almost an hour before the team arrived. I’m glad they did. I have to sneak out so that my kids don’t wake up and make it difficult for me. It’s a Thursday and they are just back in school. So they need that extra hour of sleep.

All things packed in the car, we leave to pick up the last crew. It’s an hour and a half after our scheduled departure time. A prayer to bless the day and the cruiser roars its way to Marsabit. A pit stop in Nanyuki to freshen our bladders and get more supplies to fill it up again. Another stop in Isiolo to feed our bellies. We have left the winter in Nairobi and the Sun has babies here. So we have to get hats and or caps to cover up. Sun screens have now found a market as well. Lunch rating maybe a 5/10, especially for those who don’t like much spices in their food. 

The drive from Isiolo has nothing much to it. It is dry, dusty and windy. Most windows are shut and the music is what soothes most of us to a nap. A few ostriches, antelopes, and of course camels along the road but nothing different from what we are used to, at least for me.  Moreso, the roads are smooth. A bugatti might set a new record here. 

There is a security checkpoint, and it’s not your regular security checkpoint. It has the Kenya Defense force to it. We need our IDs to get through. Luckily, it is a quick one. But that means we are entering a security tense zone. No warnings though, so it seems like all will be well for now. About 10 kilometers later we are staring at one of the most photographed hills in Kenya. Mt. Ololokwe. It’s stunning, It’s a huge rock protruding from the ground. it’s just by the road side. We have to stop. I need photos for my Instagram. No no, I need photos for when I’m senile. 

It’s very dry, not much of what we expected. You know Instagram vs Reality. Hehe. But I’m glad. The Director has us all lined up for a group photo, we have to capture our signature pose. A Jump. Time to move. Destination, Ngurunit. That means we have to branch off at Laisamis and experience why we need a 4X4 vehicle. I called shotgun earlier so I have the comfort seat. Guys at the back, sorry. At least you have a fridge next to you. So you can cool off the bumpy ride. I told you, we got some luxury going on. 

We arrived just in time.Oh, sorry I didn’t mention. Marsabit is under a dusk to dawn curfew. There have been insecurity incidents across the county for the past few months, which now explains the KDF check point earlier. 

Galbot Resort will be our place of rest for the night. We had a bit of a hiccup regarding the accommodation. They had 3 options but the organizer had already checked us in in the Manyattas. From the experience of one of our teammates we opted not to do Manyattas. Implications? We have to add an extra Ksh. 500 to get modern rooms. Again, easy fix. I have a team of friends who are so reliable in decision making. Very few back and forths. 30 mins later, we are settled in. We need to freshen up before dinner. No one knows what’s on the menu. One thing I have learnt over my past travels, especially in these remote areas is to lower my expectations. That way you take what comes through and allow your body, mind and soul to adapt quickly. By now you know what I mean. After the meal, we sit around the dining table and listen to some easy music while having an adult conversation. Interesting topics. Sheila has us discussing menstruation. Bringing up children and even Hygiene. We know a lot more than we thought we did. We are 6 of us and what I don’t know the next person knows. We veer off topic once in a while. That way we learn a lot about both genders. It’s bedtime.

Day Two. Breakfast is early, tea and some of the best crepes I’ve ever heard. I used to call them pancakes until Sheila came along. She is good with her googling skills. 

Well, day two. Ngurunit – Loiyangalani. You need an experienced driver and a good 4X4. The terrain is rugged. Not your regular potholed tarmacked road rugged but rather naturally rugged. This in itself defines the beauty of this place. It’s like Deja Vu in every turn Sam (the driver) makes. Dusty, rocky and WINDY, yes, that has to be in CAPS. The wind is just too much. Even at stand still, it feels like you are seated behind a pick up truck traveling at high speeds. In the horizon I can spot something moving. Rotating is the right word. Is this one of those desert mirages? Am I in Ngong Hills? It’s too dry, it’s too flat. We get closer and closer. I have read about this place in newspapers, but as you know nothing in Kenya is believable until you see it. Well, Good job Government or whoever did this. There are wind turbines everywhere. This is the famous Lake Turkana wind project. I have always pictured it as a failed project since we keep experiencing blackouts. I have always thought it’s on the other side of the lake since the name defines the adjacent county. I have to go back to my books and yes, the majority of the lake is in Marsabit county. I’ll get to the lake in a bit. You’ll be surprised by how little you know about this place. I signal to Sam that we need a picture for this place, a 360 video will do better but still less justice to what my eyes are seeing. We stop and wait for the director’s direction on how and where to pose. Oh by the way his name is Abdi and he came with 3 models and 2 gentlemen. I don’t know what we will call this movie, but for now let’s pose. We proceed. 

This has to be one of my best views. Just a few kilometers from the wind turbines there is a blue horizon. I mentioned something about the lake right. Well, it’s in front of me. It is blue, surrounded by black rocky hills. I am staring at an Island, still balck and rocky. It is not your regular view. There are no people here, there are no white sandy beaches, there are no houses, it’s just empty and fulfilling. I need to breathe it all in. A few photos and we are off. We are driving along the lakes’ shore. The speed is just relaxing, the brain is shocked on how such a place exists and how people survive here. I can spot some people living here, the goats are fat as well. Yet I can’t spot a single blade of grass. I wonder. I check my maps just to make sure the driver isn’t deporting us to Ethiopia. It’s surprising that we haven’t even covered a third of the lake. Like I said, I got facts about this place. The lake is the Largest in the country, save for Lake Victoria with Uganda and Tanzania’s share. It is a stunning 300km long and 50 Km wide. It’s a salty lake but hosts some well known freshwater fish such as Tilapia, catfish and the nile perch. 

We still have distance to cover, we are visiting a rare community today. The Emolo. Legend has it that there are only 99 of them in the entire country. Also legend has it that whenever they attempt to get to 100, one of them passes on and the number is maintained at 99. At least that was up until a few years back. As usual I don’t make this stuff up. We met with the elder from one of the only two villages. They are just right by the Lake. He is famously known as Number 2, corrupted from Nampatu. They fully depend on fishing. They eat fish for breakfast lunch and dinner. Again, you can’t make this stuff up.

It is up until recently that they have begun to marry from other communities such as Samburu and Turkana. Number 2 takes us through history and through what he regards as sacred ground. Fenced off at a nearby Island where the impotent are turned on by a witch doctor and attempt to sire kids before returning home. The boys are transformed to men and hunters define their hunting routes. Each of these transformations has a hut attached to it. You should hear him describe the Witchdoctors hut and what goes on in there. Maybe he has been there several times or he is the witchdoctor…hehe. He has kids though. 

We are done at the shrine. We head back to the mainland, share with them a package that the Trek members contributed to and head to Loiyangalani  just a few kilometers from the community. 

We checked in at Malabo Resort. Relax a bit and head out to swim in the lake. It has black sandy beaches. It is shallow at the shore so we all dive in. This is refreshing, it is warm and the currents are not that strong. We dive further in until the water can bear our weight. I can spot fish swimming next to my feet. The water is slightly salty but nothing compared to the ocean. The currents are getting stronger so we get out. The horizon is painted orange by the setting sun. Silhouette photos are justified at this point. We head back to the hotel, freshen up, dinner is served, the fish is tasty, a few drinks and we call it a night until the wind decides that we are in his territory and that we won’t have a peaceful night. It’s hot at the same time so you have to leave the windows open. It’s louvered so the wind keeps opening the curtains. It’s a stressful night especially for those I’m sharing a room with. She needs a cuddle and that’s exactly what I provide until morning.

Day 3: Loiyangalani to North Horr. A short distance compared to what we have been covering the previous days. The terrain is pretty much the same. Miles and miles of rocky ground. Few vegetation across the rugged terrain. The terrain has changed to miles and miles of sand. No vegetation yet. Then we get to an oasis, the 2nd we have seen so far. It’s just amazing how such a green area appears out of nowhere in a dusty, rock covered terrain. As I usually say. God is an Artist. 

We are here, an elderly man receives us and shows us to our rooms. They are grass thatched huts with just a bed in it. The washrooms are outside. More of our rural homes vibes, save for the heat. The toilet, not so hygienic, you can spot your last meal staring back at you. I’ll hold mine in. 

It’s still early for our next destination. Sam suggests that we have lunch, rest a bit then head out at around 4:30pm for the sunset at the Dune. The ladies have their bags packed for a change of clothes. I think it is the director’s orders. He needs a photoshoot and that is exactly what happens. At 4:30 we head out, but first we request the homeowner to ask the police for a few extra minutes after 6:00pm so that we can capture the sunset. Damn you Curfew.

I can’t describe this place well enough. You need your presence to understand this. The only downside is that it is just one Sand dune. However, this doesn’t diminish the beauty in it. We need lots of photos. At least for the ladies. The only moment I’m waiting for is when the sun is at the horizon and it did not disappoint. It painted the earth golden orange and we were right on it. We have to head back. Our overtime is done. The cops are lenient enough not to show up. It’s meal time. Then we have to stargaze, not the best I have seen though. We wait for the moon to show up, again, not the best I have experienced. But it is all worth it. At least I have an amazing company. Let’s call this night off.

Last Day: This is going to be a long drive. The driver has already  warned us that it will take approximately 8 hours to get to Marsabit town. We have to leave early. We had an extra package donated by the Trek members and Sam had suggested that the old man at the home we are staying usually helps the needy. So we left it there. 

The road is pure dust. We have left the rocks behind us. We are headed towards the largest desert in Kenya. That was the main intention for this whole journey. I am excited and anxious. “Are we there yet?” I keep asking Sam. He must be wondering what’s wrong with me. I have never been to a desert. The conditions i’m seeing across the region describe a desert to me. At least from the little Geography I learnt. The air is brown from the dust. I can spot a few people herding their goats. Then there’s this one person with just one cow. I wonder what is going through his mind. It is just shocking how such places exist and how people survive here. They seem happy though and more than often, that is what matters most in life. We drive on for hours. Sam explains to me what to expect every now and then. I’m still anxious to see this place that’s more harsh than what I am seeing now. We then stop at the largest Oasis in the North, It has hundreds of camels. If I were one them, I wouldn’t leave this place. I would eat, sleep and get fat at this very spot. I’m not a camel though.

This place is green. It has palm oil trees all around it, there is a fence around a water tower and that is the magic to all the greenness.  Water is coming from under the ground and it has been tapped through a constructed trough that quenches the locals and their animals. They say that it has been running for years they can’t remember. It is also tanked to supply water to the nearest town, I can’t remember the name. It is further piped through to a fenced area where it irrigates grass to feed the animal. Now I wish I was a camel here. 

I feel there is more that can be done though. Dear African leaders, these are the populations that should be taken to Israel for benchmarking activities not the ones sitted somewhere in Nairobi making decisions remotely. Just a thought though.

The Chalbi begins. This is rough, this is harsh, this is somewhere close to hell. This is not your regular place. This is emptiness. Hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of nothing but cracked sand and tyre tracks. No vegetation at all. This is the Chalbi Desert. Like I said when we started, books don’t define these places well enough. I bet some of the writers have never visited such environments. I can’t describe this place, not with the few words I’ve learnt in English. In Kenya we can only say Wueeh

We need photos, again lot’s of them. Memories are good. The Director is at his best, he has found his masterpiece, so we let him take his time and guide us through every stunt. Done.

Destination Marsabit Town. We arrive at 3:00pm just as Sam had indicated. He is great with his timings. 

You should see us. We are dustier than the roads we have traveled on. Our bags are mad at us for dumping them in the boot. Well, we need to freshen up. A good long bath will do just that. The rooms are the best we have seen throughout the trip, but like I said always lower your expectations.

The shower is warm, the weather is extremely cold. This is a surprise, especially from what we have just experienced. An hour later we gather for a meal at the hotel restaurant then we take a walk around this very beautiful town. Again, it is exceeding our expectations. It is lovely, and lively. Just for a few minutes though. It’s 5:50 pm, we have to rush back to our hotel. There are trucks of armed police patrolling the town. We sit by the roadside next to our hotel and watch how the curfew is implemented. Not much of what we expected. Someone had mentioned that even dogs are usually chased from the streets at this hour. I guess today is not one of those days. Back at the hotel, we have requested the hotel to prepare dinner slightly later than usual. We are still full. It’s our last day. We sit in one of the rooms and listen to music and watch Abdi showcase his flexible body. We then join in. It’s late. Goodnight.

The next day is more of a quiet trip but Sam has a surprise planned for us. He takes us through the Marsabit National Park. At Least we can now utilize the cruisers roof top. It is freezing cold. The forest is as Dense as the Mau. All natural. Who would have thought. At the gate we spot some strange antelopes. Then one of the big fives – Buffalo. This place is beautiful. We spot a lake. Lake Marsabit lodge and it’s full of Buffaloes and other animals. Then of course Lake Paradise. This is a highlight. It’s getting dry though. We take it all in. 

We are out of the park, it’s clear now that we are heading back to the city. It was all worth it. 

We are stopped by a Fully Armed Defense Force and this time it’s a more thorough check. We have to alight from the vehicle with our IDs and bags. They check all of us. They then warn us that a local has just been killed along the road to isiolo. The driver knows this route well. He doesn’t tense. We stop at Isiolo for a health break then proceed to have lunch in Timau at Entrecote Kisima. I have been here before. I find their food fresh and tasty. This is a brief stop. We are back on the road. Nairobi is quite a distance and at this point I pity Sam. He has been behind the wheel since day one. 

We are back home. A thankful prayer closes the journey. Satisfying.

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