The Jade Sea is the largest permanent desert lake on the planet; 150 miles long, 20 to 30 miles wide, positioned as the northern-most of the string of great African lakes along the thousand-mile trench of the Great Rift Valley. It is fed overwhelmingly from the mighty Omo river flowing from the Ethiopian highlands, yet there are no visible outflows from the lake.
Lake Turkana has an alluring reputation. To many, it remains Kenya’s final frontier. However, with the freedom of a private helicopter and the comfort of a simple camp to rest your head, it should not be missed by any curious traveller, or for those attempting to leave the well-trodden track in search of pristine, desolate regions with an innate beauty.
The surrounding landscape is arid and desolate, punctuated by occasional lines of rocky hills and is dotted with hardy palm trees. The Turkana tribes, renowned for the ferocity and history of intertribal conflict, roam this inhospitable region. Even now, the people and culture seem a world away from the Maasai-dominated savannah lands in the south of the country.
Lake Turkana allows one to explore the last frontier of untouched wilderness in Kenya, a truly extraordinary landscape of alkaline lakes teeming with flamingo, active volcanoes, deserts and mega-calderas surrounded by jade green waters. It is sensationally labelled ‘the Valley of Death’ due to the stark and barren landscape that stretches horizon to horizon!
Well protected due to inaccessibility from the ground, scenic flying is the most practical way to experience the majesty of Cathedral Rock, the flamingo flocks of Lake Logipi, the beautiful sand dunes or the peculiar mushroom rocks of the Suguta Desert.
Crossing the lake is an incredible experience and something that I remember clearly. We reached the eastern shore after a three-hour, high-speed, outboard-motor-powered ride in a blast of warm spray.
The sun had dropped below the green-grey lake horizon and night had fallen as we were guided into the far shore: a strange lava-strewn semi-desert where the archaeologist Richard Leakey and the Kenyan museums service maintain a small research establishment, Koobi Fora.
Landing on the Chalbi desert with its hissing stillness, and infinite views across the horizon, was simply magical.
I have explored Lake Turkana on several occasions, both by fixed-wing aircraft and by helicopter. Both have their merits. Most people do not have the time to venture to Turkana by road, which normally entails several days of fairly uncomfortable travelling. But the best trip, I believe, rather than fly to Turkana in one day, is to spend time in the region.
I suggest you fly and spend two nights at the simple Lobolo Camp on the shores of the lake, and then to fly to Desert Rose Lodge for your third and fourth nights. The flight is simply breath-taking, flying over the Chalbi desert, Lake Jipe with its fabulous flocks of flamingos, and the Suguta Valley.
Lobolo Camp is located on the shores of the Lake and has just a handful of tents. It is owner-managed by local Kenyan, Joyce. The camp is simple but has everything you need to be comfortable, with a main tented area for dining and lovely tented rooms, each with its own verandah, where you can sit in the shade and look over the lake. I enjoyed watching the fishermen return with their catch of the day.
During the day I recommend visiting a traditional Turkana village with its beehive-styled huts. You can meet the chief, his eldest son and his wives and children. It is fascinating to also visit the local Turkana school that teaches around 260 children.
The following day, go out onto the lake by boat and visit the various islands, where you may see fishermen bringing in their catch to sell at Ferguson’s Peak. Other islands are filled with birdlife, including cormorants, Fish Eagles grey herons, yellow billed storks and a Goliath heron. In the evening, you may have the opportunity to see a rhythmic local dance performed by these lean and sinewy people. They dance with such great elegance and stamina!
Next, you fly on south to the coolness of the mountains, and Mount Nyiro. Desert Rose is a 45-minute vertical drive up the mountain face from the airstrip to the lodge, situated at an elevation of 5500 ft on the verdant forest slopes of Mount Nyiro.
Desert Rose has a fabulous, relaxed atmosphere with the most beautiful views and imbues a Bohemian/Oriental style. You walk into a cool stone building filled with gorgeous, hand-hewn wooden furniture and Oriental rugs and cushions. The sitting room opens up to the pool area which is well shaded with lots of large cushions placed to sit on.
There are five bedrooms, quirky and simple, my favourite being like a wooden cabin, all constructed from the local cedar wood, with an outdoor wooden bath and shower, a loo with a view and the bedroom. There is a super verandah with views over the boughs of the trees and looking down to the river.
You come here for a number of reasons; firstly to walk. There are numerous walks here which are just superb and all affording great views. Have picnic lunches next to a cave, overlooking the river, then have fun rock sliding into the rock pools!
Secondly, of course, it would be to see Lake Turkana, visiting south and central islands. Thirdly, and for me this is the most rewarding, you can immerse yourself in the local culture and learn all about how the local people survive in such a harsh environment.
I would recommend four days on this trip in total, making up a small portion of a more expansive safari to Kenya. For a truly different, off piste, exciting Kenya, either before or after a safari, this is hard to beat!
Please do feel free to get in touch for more information, I would be delighted to talk more about safaris to Kenya and off-the-beaten-track adventures anywhere in Africa! Or, if you would just like to dream for now, you can do so at our Video Library.
Video courtesy of Air Kenya. Images courtesy of Scenic Air Safaris, Tropic Air Kenya and Desert Rose Lodge