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Journey to Lake Turkana (part 1)

November 4, 2009

“I would like to visit the tribes living around Lake Turkana,” I tell our ever-helpful guesthouse owner, Sally. “Do you know which buses go there from Nairobi and whether it’s popular and we need to book?”

She breaks into peals of laughter. “Buses don’t go there,” she laughs. “Hee, hee, which bus to Lake Turkana?” she chuckles again. The area is a lawless zone, troubled by frequent tribal conflict, agressive bandits and reached by some of the worst roads on the continent.

Eventually, Sally stops laughing and takes pity on us. After establishing that we really do want to go there, she tells us that she has a cousin who’s a Catholic priest at the Lake, and she promises to call him.

A few minutes later, her happy, smiling face is back. “When do you want to go there?”

In the next few days, I reply. I’m really just at the information-gathering stage.

“You can go tomorrow,” she says.

It turns out that one of the priests from the mission is in Isiolo awaiting a spare part for his LandRover. He can drive us back to the mission from there. And how would we get back? The same priest will be journeying back to Nairobi in a few days to pick people up from the airport. It would work out perfectly. And yet… the region is so unstable and the ongoing drought is inflaming things more.

The opportunity is too good to pass up, we decide, and by 6.30 the next morning we are at the matatu (minivan) station in the city, waiting to leave for Isiolo. Four and a half hours later, after a very uncomfortable journey with many police checks, it’s “everybody off” at a small town called Nanyuki. The matatu driver has lied to us, cheated us on the ticket and dropped us just two-thirds of the way. An hour or so later, the priest calls us from Isiolo, where he is anxious to get going. We are now sitting on a matatu bound for Isiolo but it won’t leave until it is full, and there is just one other passenger (not counting the three people who are sitting in the vehicle as a way of passing the time, but with no intention of going to Isiolo). Another hour passes and there are no other passengers. The priest rings again, with increasing urgency in his voice. More time passes. Nick and I decide we have no choice and stump up the fares for the invisible passengers on condition we move NOW.

We finally leave and begin with good speed. Of course, as soon as we set off, people ascend the matatu from nowhere, happy for the free trip and deciding that even if they didn’t want to travel to Isiolo, it’s free and there are Westerners to stare at. The tarmac road soon disappears and we are jolting along uncomfortably in a steel can built for penance. As we approach Isiolo, the matatu slows to a walking pace and then almost stops. Increasingly frantic, and with the priest calling again, I urge the driver onwards, but he feigns deafness. It’s excruciating but we roll into town finally, while I scan every billboard and building for the Catholic mission. It’s a difficult task – 400 million Africans are ‘born again’ Christians and the various sects of Christianity are well-represented in this small town, which also has a large Muslim community. There is the Church of Wonderful Miracles, the Church of The Best Future… indeed, when I start my own religion, I can see that I’ll struggle for an original name. People give something like 10% of their meagre incomes to these groups – that’s far more than the government takes in taxation.

We spot the Catholic mission eventually, and there, waiting patiently in a LandCruiser, with its engine running, is Father Fabio-Miguel Chaparro, a 35-year-old missionary from Columbia. We are more than two hours late, but he couldn’t be more understanding. He drives us into the mission, where he must gather his things together, and Nick and I stretch out beside the jeep, while schoolgirls from the mission’s highschool file past. There are plenty of longing glances directed at the handsome young priest, but he is oblivious, checking the engine and politely replying to unnecessary questions from doe-eyed schoolgirls, who hitch their skirts as short as they dare under the persnickety gaze of passing nuns. Nick, too, gets his fair share of interested glances, before the nuns shoo the girls away from our car.

Within minutes we’re on the road, driving a little too fast through the town, past faces that glare at us in open hostility. And then we see it: a great blackened field in the heart of the town, still smoking from its charcoal heart, where people are attempting to reconstruct A-frames of timber. The market place was burned to the ground yesterday, Fabio tells us. Everything was destroyed – all the shops, stalls, produce (much of it desperately-needed food), people’s houses and livelihoods gone.

It started with the shootings, he explains. Yesterday there were gun battles in the streets between the Turkana and Borana tribes. More than 10 people died, including a 14-year-old schoolgirl from the mission school. She was travelling in a truck when the Borana ordered everybody off, separated out the Turkanas, including her, and shot them all.

The conflict, like all conflicts here, began with one tribe stealing cattle from the other. The mainly Christian Turkanas, whose ancesters came from Ethiopia, burned the marketplace, which is mostly owned by the mainly Muslim Boranas, whose ancesters originated in Somalia. The Boranas are now seeking revenge and the Catholic mission is considered by Boranas, to be on the side of the Turkanas. Our car, with its missionary stickers fixed to both sides, is a moving target.

As we speed out of the town, Nick and I are tensely watchful. Squashed next to Fabio, we are on ambush alert. Every man, woman and child is a potential killer. many hold guns, bought cheaply from Somalia, or from the Sudan via Ethiopia. Corrupt police officers provide the tribes with plenty of bullets, and then vanish when trouble kicks off. Fabio points out a patch of desert where planes carrying weaponry land at night. “Insurgents live in that mountain, there,” he points, as we crash past on the dirt track that passes for a road. We are thrown left and right, up and down, painfully against the car’s hard interior, but Fabio doesn’t slow the pace. Large boulders and high mud embankments appear at the side of the road – perfect concealment for men with guns – we breathe slightly easier on flatter, more open landscapes.

Turkana people flag him down for a lift, but he motion’s the Kenyan sign for “full” and speeds past. “A few months ago, I was carrying Turkanas in the back and Samburu people opened fire at us. Three bullets hit the car: one went past me here [motioning from his door, past his stomach to the other door], one hit the engine and one punctured the front tyre, but I drove on a couple of hundred metres until I lost control,” he says. “I was so scared. That was the fastest tyre change I’ve ever done,” he smiles. “Since then, I don’t give lifts to a tribe in a mixed area.”

Fabio’s mobile phone keeps ringing with people asking him where he is. Fabio is deliberately vague, not answering and faking signal outage in a way I’m sure priests aren’t supposed to. He catches my quizzical look. “If I tell people where I am, the message will spread and we will be ambushed,” he explains.

Ostriches stand at the side of the road like made-up cartoon birds, and we pass zebras and tiny, delicate fairy deer called dik diks. It’s hugely exciting for me, having only seen these animals on television or in a zoo, but it’s too dangerous even to slow, let alone stop for photos, so they flit past, while I hope that at least we won’t run them over. we pass no other vehicles but army patrol jeeps and a couple of trucks – “they travel in convoys to survive banditry”.

The kilometres fly away, the road a conveyor belt beneath our tyres, and the hours roll by. This part of the road will be tarmacked by the Chinese, Fabio says. But people here are not enthusiastic about the project. The Chinese have a reputation for eating everything near their work sites, he explains. They eat the precious goats, causing conflict with the tribal owers, they eat dogs, so that people either sell their dogs to the Chinese, or steal another’s dog to sell to the Chinese. And they eat the wildlife too, everything from deer and antelope to big cats, which are killed by the tribes and sold to the Chinese. Most upsetting is the healthy trade in ivory, which again involves local people shooting elephants for the lucrative ivory sales to the Chinese. Then there is the concern about prostitution, which clings to construction sites like a spectre of death in a region where at least one in ten has HIV.

Five hours later and the road abruptly disappears into a small river. Stuck between us and the other bank is a floundered truck, with its driver and companions, spade in hand, attempting to dig it free. Fabio gets out of the car and assesses the situation. The men are all Boranas, which makes us nervous but we are hundreds of kilometres from Isiolo now. The main fear is no longer being shot at, but whether we can pass the water. The LandCruiser is bad in water and mud, Fabio explains. He gets out of the car (engine still running for a quick getaway if necessary) and approaches the men. Things seem to be cordial, if not overly friendly and we get out and stretch our legs too.

One of the men tells fabio that he knows of a route through and our car will be able to pass. He will show us the way, walking ahead of our car. Fabio hesitates for the briefest time, and then agrees, grateful. We get back in the car and drive forward, following the man. His friend, a man with sly eyes, who I instantly mistrust, then jumps into the back of our jeep where our bags are. I think about my mobile phone, a very cheap model but with my precious phone number and contacts, and surely of some value here. And my iPod with its hours of treasured listening – probably the most expensive item I own. Both are in the top zip pocket of my bag.

“My bag is there,” I tell Fabio, and his eyes show he understands, but can do nothing at the moment. I crane around but cannot see the man clearly. We cross the river at speed, keeping a low gear and we are past the truck and onto the submerged road on the other side. The car is sliding in the mud and water, with Fabio doing his best to keep at least one wheel on drier mud at all times. Just as looks as though we are going to make it, the walking guide motions for us to turn left off the road and head through thr brushland. “It’s better if we keep straight ahead,” I plead to Fabio, but he says that the man has scouted out the best way already.

We follow him until we reach another deep river crossing. Fabio stops at the bank, but the man beckons him across until Fabio agrees. The opposite bank is high and steep. We plunge forward into the river and with spinning wheels, make it to the other side, but the heavy LandCruiser cannot mount the bank. Again and again Fabio revs the engine and tries to lift us out, but with the clutch burning and the wheels spinning freely, we go nowhere. He tries to reverse us back out, but succeeds only in sinking us deeper into the mud.

The two men guesture for us to go forward or back, but we are stuck. All around the car, the brown water swirls increasingly high. The men tell Fabio that they will go back to the group by the truck and bring men to help push us out. We watch them disappear into the gloom. We wait in the car in the river.

Time passes and there is no sign of the men. “We need to get out and try to move the car ourselves, Fabio,” I say. It’s growing dark. We’ve been in the river for more than an hour and night is curling at the edges. Fabio insists that they will return, believing their word. I am afraid that we will have to spend the night here and be easy prey for bandits and vengeful tribal groups.

Nick has an idea, inspired by something that he’s seen on a Ray Mears documentary. We should cut branches and lay them under the wheels, he suggests. Still Fabio doesn’t want us to leave the car, saying the men will be here soon. But I have had enough and removing my shoes and socks, I wade into the river, the slimy mud oozing between my toes. I check my bag in the back – everything seems in place, I note with relief.

There is little vegetation here, but a kind of dry shrubby grass grows, and we snap its twigs fairly easily, ignoring the splinters and hoping there are no scorpions. We gather enough of a bundle to allow Fabio to reverse the car backwards until the rear wheels are on the first bank again, but he cannot get the car completely out – the front wheels are sunk deeply into the mud. We burrow at the mud, using our hands and a spade from the car. We go further afield to gather more branches, fearful of what the twilight holds in this wild African bush, nervous of going too far from the safety of our car’s headlights.

Eventually, with the front wheels cleared of mud and the back wheels lined with twigs, Fabio makes for the other bank in one giant rev of the engine, his foot slammed onto the accelerator. He almost makes it – the front wheels mount the other bank. Now the back wheels are stuck. We battle on with our branches and spade until eventually, Fabio clears the car and drives off waiting for us well clear of the sticky mud.

It is now utterly dark, the kind of complete darkness that your eyes can’t quite believe, opening themselves wider and wider, hoping to drink light from somewhere. We are exhausted, clogged from head to foot in sticky mud. I have thorns in my feet and scratches on my arms and legs, but we are free of the river and ready to continue. The men never returned.

We push on, skidding on the track, our tyre treads clogged and smooth with mud. A LandRover would have crossed that river with no problem, Fabio says. He repeats a frustration I have heard in every developing country from NGOs to agencies: LandRovers are preferred for appalling road conditions because they are light, flexible and have good tyres, but they cost nearly twice as much as Toyota LandCruisers, the spare parts are difficult to come by and very expensive and, the killer problem, new LandRovers have complicated computerised engines so mechanics cannot fix them. The new cars are effectively useless in anywhere remote, because they can’t be fixed or maintained, whereas Toyota, mindful of their developing-world user base, keep the LandCruiser engine delightfully simple and easy to fix even in small villages. NGOs, military, police and UN workers are all switching to LandCruisers.

We come to a fork in the track and Fabio takes the righthand branch. After five minutes, he stops, uncertain. We spin around and he returns to the fork. More confidently, he takes the righthand branch again and we drive on for around 10 kilometres. He is tired and frazzled and unsure of the way. We stop again. “This is not the road,” he decides, and we spin around again. The fuel is almost completely gone in one tank, and we have just a quarter of a tank in the other. Our destination, the village of Loyangalani on the shore of Lake Turkana, is at least 7 hours away.

At the fork, we try the left track and after a while Fabio smiles. “This is the road.” We pick up speed and career along, glimpsing eyeshine from big cats – perhaps leopard – in the blackness. Suddenly, with no warning, the road vanishes beneath our front tyres and we plummet heavily into a large hole. my head collides with the roof of the car and my knees bang painfully into the dashboard. The force of the crash bounces us up and out and we stop in a cloud of smoke, get out and check the car. Miraculously, the smoke turns out to be dust, not, as feared, steam from a bust radiator, and it looks like we’ve escaped intact. We’re shaken up and I feel increasingly nauseous, worried I’m going to vomit and with a searing headache, but we can’t stay here.

We drive on, while a slow puncture develops in the rear tyre. The fuel-out light is now on and there is nowhere between here and the Loyangalani mission to buy fuel. The stress and sickness produces a strange effect on me: I find myself unable to keep my eyes open, my head lolling painfully around. I battle to open my eyes – it’s only 9pm – but fail. My stomach periodically heaves but I manage not to puke, probably because my stomach’s empty. Neither Nick or I have eaten since breakfast at 6am, and more uncomfortably, we ran out of drinking water before midday, expecting to be able to buy more. We are dehydrated and a day spent driving under a harsh hot sun has taken its toll.

Fabio decides we should break the journey at the village of South Horr, where there is a mission. There is no mobile phone signal here, so we can’t phone ahead and warn the priest, but knowing that we are just another hour from a safe bed revives me enough to lift my eyelids.

We arrive at the mission, tooting to the surprised guard to let us in and wake a sleepy priest from his bed. We emerge from the car thick with mud and shaky, but so glad to be in the mission courtyard. The Father shows us to beds, provides us with a towel and soap and bathroom and shows us where the boiled drinking water is. We glug down litres, wash until our skin reappears and fall into bed, too tired to erect a mosquito net: big mistake.

Sleep comes blissfully and by 5.30 next morning, we are dressed and back in the car. We are increasingly hungry, but it will be a few more hours till we can eat.

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