Journey to Lake Turkana

January 15, 2019

Flying in a helicopter over Turkanaland in northern Kenya is like a strange dream, except that the intensely visual journey is very real indeed. Here the landscape is being ripped apart by tectonic forces beyond human comprehension. I leant out of a helicopter with my camera, and snapped some images of this African netherworld with skies of pink angels.
Flying over Lake Logipi on our way to Lake Turkana. Feeling small yet? The further north you go in Turkana land, the less welcome you feel...but the flocks of flamingos seem perfectly at home on the caustic lakes.

Flying over Lake Logipi on our way to Lake Turkana. Feeling small yet? The further north you go in Turkana land, the less welcome you feel...but the flocks of flamingos seem perfectly at home on the caustic lakes.

We’re flying low at almost 200km/h over Lake Logipi in Turkanaland and I’m leaning out of the helicopter to get a better view of the desert landscape.

The windgust is hot, like a pizza oven, and it’s blasting my eyeballs. I’m doing my best to capture the scenes with my camera but there is too much to look at, let alone photograph.

The land seems too big, the sky too large for human vision. It’s as if my brain’s CPU can’t process what I’m seeeing quickly enough. (I’ve often thought my mind needs a RAM upgrade anyway though.)

So I set the camera’s aperture to F8, ISO to 800 and, in the searing sunlight of the Kenyan desert, the shutter speed sorts itself out at about 2 000th of a second. I hold down the button on my Canon in high speed multi-shot and autofocus modes. The shutter clicks away, taking ten images a second. Thank goodness for clever Japanese camera engineers.

The landscape below us looks apocalyptic in its sheer emptiness and harshness. It has a strange, almost malevolent indifference about it. 

The landscape below us looks apocalyptic in its sheer emptiness and harshness. It has a strange, almost malevolent indifference about it.  The renowned writer AA Gill once wrote of the Kalahari: “The great thing about the Kalahari is that it hates you. It wants you dead”.

I get what Gill was trying to say, but I reckon Turkanaland simply couldn’t be bothered about humans. It’s too busy dealing with more important things.

Here on the Great Rift Valley, Africa is being ripped apart by tectonic forces beyond human comprehension. The Nubian and Somali tectonic plates are moving inexorably away from each other. In a few hundred million years, East Africa will drift off into what we call the Indian Ocean. And Turkana land is ground central for these violent geological forces. Against this timespan, the human species seems laughably insignificant.

But I’m not finding any of this funny. By now it’s over 40 degrees Celsius and the heat of the desert air is intense. I’m feeling nauseous. The pirouetting movements of the chopper and the burning winds don’t make me feel any better.

I soon forget about it all. Suddenly there are flamingos flying all around our chopper. Thousands of them. They are soaring over Lake Logipi, one of many shallow, caustic lakes in this netherworld of Kenya’s northern desert. The birds turn this way and that, swooshing currents of pink and white. We fly low over the lake and thousands more flamingos rise into the sky, wave after wave of them.

By now my nausea seems to have morphed into some sort of natural high and it all starts to feel a bit trippy, like some bizarre dream that leaves one baffled and bewildered.

By now my nausea seems to have morphed into some sort of natural high and it all starts to feel a bit trippy, like some bizarre dream that leaves one baffled and bewildered.

For most foreigners (including me, until recently), Kenya seems to be a land of lush savannas and huge herds of wild animals. Go to the Maasai Mara in July and August for the wildebeest migration, and you’ll see one of the world’s most impressive natural events. But that’s only telling half the story of this diverse country. In fact it’s barely a quarter of the story.

Most of Kenya – more than half – endures semi-arid or desert conditions, and receives between just 200 and 400 mm of rainfall annually. If you look at a precipitation map, the whole of the northern half of Kenya is semi-arid or desert. To the northwest is Sudan, to the north is Ethiopia and to the north-east is Somalia.

It’s understandable why most tourists on a first-time visit prefer going to the well-watered southwest of the Maasai Mara, where the climate is more gentle and the wildlife plentiful during the famous migration. That’s where most safari companies operate, and that’s the stuff that gets promoted endlessly in the tourist brochures. But it’s also what millions of people have already seen, and it’s a cliched – albeit important – story that’s been told countless times by wildlife TV film crews.

If you want to gain a more holistic appreciation for Kenya, then you should head north to Lake Turkana. Psychologists say that everyone has a dark side. Maybe countries do too. The Turkana region is the wild and unpredictable part of Kenya's complex personality.

If you want to gain a more holistic appreciation for Kenya, then you should head north into Turkana land. This is the wild and unpredictable side of the country’s personality. If you do, then it soon becomes clear why most tourists steer clear of this region. It is simply too challenging for most humans to live in, or even visit for extended periods. Turkana land is the yin to the Mara’s yang. Take a look at the photos below, and you’ll understand why.

The Turkana, Rendille and Samburu people claim this turf as their territory, but the majority of the place is uninhabited. The climate and landscape are too ferocious, even for these famously resilient people.

Intrigued? Then you can visit this netherworld of Kenya the hard way – or the easy way.

The hard way is possible, of course, but it will take you several weeks of driving terrible roads in a convoy of 4×4 Land Cruisers, an inordinate sense of humour (or maybe none at all would be better), plenty of water and supplies (which means there’s less space for cold beers), lots of good luck and a willingness (or naivety) to endure the usual unpleasant surprises of travel in rough and sometimes lawless areas of Africa.

Or, you can do it the easy way. Flying in a helicopter, it will take just a day to travel almost 1 000kms over some of the most astounding landscapes in Africa. You’ll also be landing in places where almost no modern humans have been, simply because the mountains, the gorges, the craters, the volcanoes and the soda lakes are impossible to access by vehicle or even on foot (unless you’re a wandering Turkana warrior with seriously big balls, which I’m guessing most of you are not).

Mikey and Tanya Carr-Hartley from The Safari Collection offer various helicopter tours around East Africa, but the day trip into northern Kenya is one of Mikey’s favourites, because it is so different to anything most guests have experienced elsewhere in Africa. If you’re looking for a day to remember, this is it.

As a photographer I've been lucky to see some very special sights on the continent. I'd say that this helicopter trip into northern Kenya was the most intensely visual day I've had for a while.

As a photographer I’ve been lucky to see some very special sights on the continent. I’d say that this helicopter trip into northern Kenya was the most intensely visual day I’ve had for a while.

There were so many moments during the day when I felt like I was in another realm, a place that didn’t feel familiar at all. Maybe it was the heat, maybe a bit of dehydration from the hot winds, or maybe it was the sheer scale of the place.

It was also one of the most physically demanding days I’ve had. I know that sounds weird, because we were sitting in a chopper most of the day, but because pilot Andy Belcher had taken the doors off (for photography and filming), we were exposed to the intense heat and pounding winds for 10 hours. At the end of the flight, when we landed at Lake Naivasha, I felt like my brain had been barbequed. But I’d do it again tomorrow, if I could.

Leaving Sasaab Lodge before sunrise, flying over the Ewaso Ng'iro River.

Leaving Sasaab Lodge before sunrise, flying over the Ewaso Ng'iro River.

Samburu homestead. Note the inner cirlce of thorn bushes, protecting the livestock from predators. Also note the erosion on the landscape from overgrazing (too many people, too much livestock, not enough productive land, and unpredictable rainfall). According to government census counts, the Samburu population has more than tripled in the past 30 years, from 67 000 in 1984 to 224 000 in 2009. Cattle numbers have increased similarly.

Samburu homestead. Note the inner cirlce of thorn bushes, protecting the livestock from predators. Also note the erosion on the landscape from overgrazing (too many people, too much livestock, not enough productive land, and unpredictable rainfall). According to government census counts, the Samburu population has more than tripled in the past 30 years, from 67 000 in 1984 to 224 000 in 2009. Cattle numbers have increased similarly.

Soon after leaving Sasaab, the landscape became devoid of obvious signs of people.

Soon after leaving Sasaab, the landscape became devoid of obvious signs of people.

Entering the Hudu Valley, a series of gorges formed by red volcanic ash deposited by millions of years of eruptions in the Rift Valley. This is the stage of the trip when you're glad you've got a highly skilled chopper pilot on board. Andy Belcher was flying me and film maker Austen Johnson from Etched Space in a small Robinson R44, and Sarah Snell was flying Mike and Tanya and their kids in this enviably powerful Eurocopter.

Entering the Hudu Valley, a series of gorges formed by red volcanic ash deposited by millions of years of eruptions in the Rift Valley. This is the stage of the trip when you're glad you've got a highly skilled chopper pilot on board. Andy Belcher was flying me and film maker Austen Johnson from Etched Space in a small Robinson R44, and Sarah Snell was flying Mike and Tanya and their kids in this enviably powerful Eurocopter.

The red cliffs and towers of the Hudu Valley is one of many places that would be otherwise almost impossible to see, if it wasn't for a helicopter. There are no roads, and no tracks to walk...there's no reason for herders to bring their livestock in here, and so it remains unseen by most humans.

The red cliffs and towers of the Hudu Valley is one of many places that would be otherwise almost impossible to see, if it wasn't for a helicopter. There are no roads, and no tracks to walk...there's no reason for herders to bring their livestock in here, and so it remains unseen by most humans.

A scene of out Airwolf, that 80s TV show that made every boy want to be a helicopter pilot.

A scene of out Airwolf, that 80s TV show that made every boy want to be a helicopter pilot.

Crossing the Suguta River, leaving Samburuland and entering Turkana land...though of course, the land is oblivious to such distinctions. The Suguta River flows northwards towards Lake Logipi, and originates from hot springs around Mount Silali, a dormant volcano to the south.

Crossing the Suguta River, leaving Samburuland and entering Turkana land...though of course, the land is oblivious to such distinctions. The Suguta River flows northwards towards Lake Logipi, and originates from hot springs around Mount Silali, a dormant volcano to the south.

And then there was nothing but sand and rock. The Suguta Dunes were formed when Lake Suguta dried up about 8 000 years ago, and the relentless winds carved these dunes. No wonder the lake dried up. Today the area receives less than 200 mm of rain annually, but evaporation is between 3 and 4 litres per year.

And then there was nothing but sand and rock. The Suguta Dunes were formed when Lake Suguta dried up about 8 000 years ago, and the relentless winds carved these dunes. No wonder the lake dried up. Today the area receives less than 200 mm of rain annually, but evaporation is between 3 and 4 litres per year.

On first glance, I would never have guessed this scene was in Kenya...Namibia, North Africa, Sahara...yes, but Kenya?

On first glance, I would never have guessed this scene was in Kenya...Namibia, North Africa, Sahara...yes, but Kenya?

Can you spot the chopper? Africa - and Kenya - is a big place.

Can you spot the chopper? Africa - and Kenya - is a big place.

North of Suguta Dunes, we flew past this massive rock mountain. The Eurocopter provides some perspective and scale to the image.

North of Suguta Dunes, we flew past this massive rock mountain. The Eurocopter provides some perspective and scale to the image.

Southern end of Lake Logipi, heading north towards Lake Turkana...

Southern end of Lake Logipi, heading north towards Lake Turkana...

Pelicans and more pelicans...this is the Great White Pelican species. They are huge birds, weighing up to 15 kgs, with wingspans up to 3,5 metres, only second to that of albatrosses. Kenya has one of the largest populations in Africa, but there's a real concern that their population is falling, because of the drying up of the lakes in the Gregory rift, which are generally shallow. A combination of excessive water use from the rivers that flow into the lakes, and an increasingly arid, hot climate, means that many of the lakes are getting smaller and smaller. This not only affects water volume and fish numbers, but also leads to an increase in the toxicity levels of naturally-occuring minerals like zing, mercury and copper.

Pelicans and more pelicans...this is the Great White Pelican species. They are huge birds, weighing up to 15 kgs, with wingspans up to 3,5 metres, only second to that of albatrosses. Kenya has one of the largest populations in Africa, but there's a real concern that their population is falling, because of the drying up of the lakes in the Gregory rift, which are generally shallow. A combination of excessive water use from the rivers that flow into the lakes, and an increasingly arid, hot climate, means that many of the lakes are getting smaller and smaller. This not only affects water volume and fish numbers, but also leads to an increase in the toxicity levels of naturally-occuring minerals like zing, mercury and copper.

Encountering our first flamingos on the shores of Lake Logipi...

Encountering our first flamingos on the shores of Lake Logipi...

I've got a new collective noun for a group of flamingos...a hallucinogen of flamingos...or maybe a strawberry milkshake of flamingos. These ones are soaring over Lake Logipi.

I've got a new collective noun for a group of flamingos...a hallucinogen of flamingos...or maybe a strawberry milkshake of flamingos. These ones are soaring over Lake Logipi.

Arriving near Lake Turkana, we came across this flock of flamingos in one of the smaller lakes to the south. Note the black rocks of the lava flows from Nabiyotum Crater.

Arriving near Lake Turkana, we came across this flock of flamingos in one of the smaller lakes to the south. Note the black rocks of the lava flows from Nabiyotum Crater.

The trapped waters of the lava lakes are green because of algal growth, while the turquoise waters of Lake Turkana lie in the background...

The trapped waters of the lava lakes are green because of algal growth, while the turquoise waters of Lake Turkana lie in the background...

Mikey and Tanya and their kids (with Sarah Snell as pilot) landed on top of Nabiyotum Crater before us...what this photo doesn't show is the gale force wind that was pumping our little Robinson R44 into hell and gone...pilot Andy Belcher did a great job to land us safely on top of the crater a few minutes later. This area of Kenya has some of the highest wind speeds in the world...there is a huge temperature differential between the intense heat of the land and the cooler waters of the lake.

Mikey and Tanya and their kids (with Sarah Snell as pilot) landed on top of Nabiyotum Crater before us...what this photo doesn't show is the gale force wind that was pumping our little Robinson R44 into hell and gone...pilot Andy Belcher did a great job to land us safely on top of the crater a few minutes later. This area of Kenya has some of the highest wind speeds in the world...there is a huge temperature differential between the intense heat of the land and the cooler waters of the lake.

Another photo for perspective. This place is so massive that if I used my wide angle 16mm lens, you wouldn't be able to see the Eurocopter...so I zoomed in slightly.

Another photo for perspective. This place is so massive that if I used my wide angle 16mm lens, you wouldn't be able to see the Eurocopter...so I zoomed in slightly.

It's amazing to think that just a few million years ago, this harsh desert region around Laka Turkana was once a well-watered marshland that hosted some of our earliest of human ancestors, dating back 4 million years. Paleontologists consider this area one of the richest in Africa for fossils of early human origins. It was around Lake Turkana that many of the most famous early human fossils have been found...and continue to be. The giants of East African paleontology - like Meave and Richard Leakey, and Komoya Kimeu - made groundbreaking discoveries on the edges of the "Jade Lake", now known as Lake Turkana (and once known as Lake Rudolf during colonial times).

It's amazing to think that just a few million years ago, this harsh desert region around Laka Turkana was once a well-watered marshland that hosted some of our earliest of human ancestors, dating back 4 million years. Paleontologists consider this area one of the richest in Africa for fossils of early human origins. It was around Lake Turkana that many of the most famous early human fossils have been found...and continue to be. The giants of East African paleontology - like Meave and Richard Leakey, and Komoya Kimeu - made groundbreaking discoveries on the edges of the "Jade Lake", now known as Lake Turkana (and once known as Lake Rudolf during colonial times).

If Nabiyotum Crater isn't intimidating enough for you, then let's take a waltz over the lava fields...

If Nabiyotum Crater isn't intimidating enough for you, then let's take a waltz over the lava fields...

When I look at this photo now, it feels like it's from a previous life...note the surface of the lake, whipped up by the gale force winds.

When I look at this photo now, it feels like it's from a previous life...note the surface of the lake, whipped up by the gale force winds.

The rift valley soda lakes - like Lake Logipi - are highly saline and alkaline, and toxic to most animals, except flamingos, who thrive by feeding on the microscopic cyanbobacteria alga.

The rift valley soda lakes - like Lake Logipi - are highly saline and alkaline, and toxic to most animals, except flamingos, who thrive by feeding on the microscopic cyanbobacteria alga.

A flock of lesser flamingos over Lake Logipi...their colourful pink plumages comes from a carotenoid pigment that occurs in the alga which the birds consume. It's the same type of pigment that makes carrots look orange...

A flock of lesser flamingos over Lake Logipi...their colourful pink plumages comes from a carotenoid pigment that occurs in the alga which the birds consume. It's the same type of pigment that makes carrots look orange...

Flying along the course of the Suguta River, heading towards Lake Bogoria and Lake Naivasha.

Flying along the course of the Suguta River, heading towards Lake Bogoria and Lake Naivasha.

By now the temperatures are reaching over 40 degrees Celsius, so Mikey suggests we stop at one of the fresh-water springs in the Suguta Valley...how's that green grass!!! A sight for sun-blinded eyes...

By now the temperatures are reaching over 40 degrees Celsius, so Mikey suggests we stop at one of the fresh-water springs in the Suguta Valley...how's that green grass!!! A sight for sun-blinded eyes...

Definitely the most remote and certainly most bizarre swimming spot I've ever visited. The water is crystal clear, and contains endemic species of cichlids. The water is also slightly alkaline, and feels a little soapy. But it's nowhere near as toxic as water in a lake like Nakuru, whose water can shred skin off a human.

Definitely the most remote and certainly most bizarre swimming spot I've ever visited. The water is crystal clear, and contains endemic species of cichlids. The water is also slightly alkaline, and feels a little soapy. But it's nowhere near as toxic as water in a lake like Nakuru, whose water can shred skin off a human.

Continuing our journey south, flying over the green marshlands near the relevantly-named Croc Pools, where we did see some sizeable reptiles patrolling the waters.

Continuing our journey south, flying over the green marshlands near the relevantly-named Croc Pools, where we did see some sizeable reptiles patrolling the waters.

A few more flamingos...just south of Croc Pools.

A few more flamingos...just south of Croc Pools.

Perhaps my favourite sight of the day...flying over Lake Bogoria, and a welcome return to the colour green. And of course, those thousands and thousands of pink dots are lesser flamingos. Can you spot the blue chopper?

Perhaps my favourite sight of the day...flying over Lake Bogoria, and a welcome return to the colour green. And of course, those thousands and thousands of pink dots are lesser flamingos. Can you spot the blue chopper?

Another shot of Lake Bogoria and flamingos...I love the colour of the water in this photo, and the contrasting pink flamingos. Like most of the Gregory Rift lakes, Bogoria is shallow, about 10 metres deep on average...

Another shot of Lake Bogoria and flamingos...I love the colour of the water in this photo, and the contrasting pink flamingos. Like most of the Gregory Rift lakes, Bogoria is shallow, about 10 metres deep on average...

Closer to the lesser flamingos...Lake Bogoria is a key locality for the species, along with Lake Natron in Tanzania. .

Closer to the lesser flamingos...Lake Bogoria is a key locality for the species, along with Lake Natron in Tanzania. .

Final shot of the day before landing near Lake Naivasha. The mass groupings of flamingos provides important advantages...including the calming of waters in the centre of the group, making feeding on the algae easier.

Final shot of the day before landing near Lake Naivasha. The mass groupings of flamingos provides important advantages...including the calming of waters in the centre of the group, making feeding on the algae easier.

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