The call of mankind’s cradle

Friday January 5 2018

A Turkana family in their homestead. PHOTO| RUPI MANGAT

A Turkana family in their homestead. PHOTO| RUPI MANGAT 

By RUPI MANGAT
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This is the world’s largest permanent desert lake and the world’s largest alkaline body, officially known as Lake Turkana. It sits on the northern reaches of Kenya’s once wild Northern Frontier District.  It’s now a World Heritage Site.

It’s no hardship arriving here now on a flight via Kapese, the latest dot on the flight path of aircraft to Turkana.

This previously unheard of Turkana village is now the home of the recently-discovered oil deep in the ancient desert soils. Under the midday sun, there are no fishermen around at Eliye Springs that’s on the west side of the lake, sixty kilometres north of Lodwar.

As recent as ten years ago, the Turkana fished on rafts made of tightly bound doum palm logs and with marked accuracy speared the huge Nile perch and crocodiles.

The springs of Eliye are there –one in a forest of doum palms that l step in to enjoy the natural shower with little fish swimming around me.

The derelict lodge that in the 1960s and 1970s was a high-end establishment is back on its feet as Eliye Springs Resort fashioned as a Turkana village complete with the doum-thatched huts that look like enormous beehives perched on the sand.

The road to Lodwar is a tapestry of sand drifts, dry river beds, plains dotted with towering termite mounds, thorn trees and doum palms – thick along the Turkwel River. Pastures of hardy grass break the monotony of brown sands that camouflage everything – the camels and the homesteads. We keep our eyes trained to the volcanic rubble of Loima Hills that line Lodwar in the absence of any signboards on the forked trails.

 When we stop for a picnic under the shade of an acacia tree, a Turkana woman laden with beaded finery and wearing little else besides a shuka emerges with her four children. In 1887 and 1888 Count Teleki, a Hungarian aristocrat hungering for adventure, and Lieutenant Ludwig von Hoehnel, armed with an armoury and a few hundred porters, took to the northern reaches of today’s Kenya in search of the last of the big geographical mysteries of East Africa – the “great black lake,” or the “Empasso Narok” that the intrepid Joseph Thomson had heard about at Lake Baringo from the Samburu visiting from Mount Kulal in 1883. Teleki and company reached the lake on March 5, 1888; almost half-dead were it not for finding some water in a dry lugga.

THINGS ARE CHANGING

Things are changing in this little known vast area of Kenya where political prisoners were flung into obscurity like Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president and Makhan Singh who advocated for workers’ rights and coined the phrase Uhuru Sasa (freedom now).

It was the norm to see tall, bony Turkana men with elaborate head dresses carrying the ubiquitous head-rest and wooden staff striding the desert to somewhere.  Now everyone’s on a motorbike speeding across desert trails. Driving into Lodwar we pass a huge farm under drip irrigation to feed the county. With a few hours to sunset, the makeka market is bustling with the women selling everything woven from the doum palm — including thousands of brooms stocked for transport to the city. At Kenyatta House — where the founding father spent two years from 1959 as a political prisoner — the house is empty save for a portrait and a short history of the statesman. The tiny house has to be gazetted l’m told and then turned into a museum with artefacts.

Next stop is to Saint Teresa’s Pastoral Centre on the banks of the Turkwel to see the mural painted by the Hawa artists in 2004. We had driven to Kalokal, a fishing village on the lake to collect the soft stones in different colours. These were pounded and made into paint in the reception of the centre that at the time was under construction. I see the mural but much is blocked by two enormous fridges. No one knows anything about the story of the mural and is indifferent to it.

I wait for the relentless sun to take to the hill where the statue of Christ watches over the city of Lodwar. The sun glides down in the vast horizon and the track up tells the story of Christ. Checking in at the Cradle, Lodwar’s newest luxury lodge with delegations from the oil and road companies discussing the future, Turkana is changing rapidly where the Homo emerged and made Turkana the Cradle of Mankind.

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At Lodwar

Check in at the Cradle Tented Camp http://www.thecradletentedcamp.com/ for the modern visitor – the tented en suite rooms are fitted with a flatscreen TV, fridge and there’s WIFI.

On a budget, go to Saint Teresa’s Pastoral Centre: Phone: (+254-54) 21.468, Email: [email protected]  – en suite rooms by Turkwel River.

There are many local airlines flying the route to Turkana’s different spots like Lodwar and Loiyangalani. Turkana is a vast area and impossible to do in a visit – so it’s a great destination to visit many times to places like Nariokotome to see the fossil of the 1.6 million-year-old Turkana Boy, fishing in the lake, meeting the people and more.