Spirits high and feeling surprisingly refreshed with our water bottles refilled, we set off from the South Horr mission ready for the adventures a new day holds. It’s early but already warm and we’re driving slower to conserve our little fuel. At this speed, we pick out animals more easily. Dik diks stand in our path, feeing at the last minute with exaggeratedly startled eyes. “Mmm, good to eat,” says Fabio.
We pass two beautiful, ornate sort of grouse, indigo coloured with a small comb. “They’re lovely,” I say.
“Yes, very nice,” Fabio agrees. “Better even than chicken.” I realise that Fabio sees the wildlife here more as items on a picture menu than as zoological curios. Even the donkeys here are pretty cool – they have been interbreeding with zebras. I can well imagine that a donkey would be bowled over by the prettiness of a stripy zebra, perhaps it goes some way to mollifying it over the realisation that the only song it will ever produce is that terrible baying noise. Nick and I decide the males are zonkeys and the females are debras. They have a stripe across their shoulders, prettier ears and, sometimes, decorative stripes on their ankles too.
Every few miles, we are overcome by the terrible stench of rotting flesh. At the edge of the road, a camel, cow or goat will be there, identifiable only by its broad outline, jawbone shape or a hoof, in a slick of buzzing, purple and green liquid. The smell is indescribably bad, we actually retch just passing in the car, although it’s clearly perfume to the vultures here. Some carcasses are already white skeletons. The animals have been dying since April or May, Fabio says, starving to death or dying of thirst, their owners waiting for rains that never came. The loss of animals has been worse this year than people can remember, people’s whole herds dying as the nomadic herders grow weaker in search of grazing.
We pass through a village of Samburu people. This is a very decorative tribe indeed, men with painted ostrich feather headresses, festooned with sequins, beads and other ornaments. Men here are often seen, mirror in hand, admiring their beauty – and there is much to admire, certainly. One woman who thought so, was a Swiss, who while on holiday with her boyfriend in Mombasa, met a Samburu who’d come to the city seeking work, and fell in love with him. She left her boyfriend, followed him back to this village, where she married him, bore a couple of children and lived here for a while, before it all went pear-shaped and she returned to Europe. She wrote a book about the experience, called White Masai, which was turned into a film.
Driving through the village, we sense an unease, directed at us, and a little hostility from the spear-carrying warriors. “I have been attacked by these people,” Fabio says, and we speed up.
After some time, another village appears in the desert. Like most here, it is just a stopping place – a settlement of perhaps 20 roundhouses, constructed from sticks, with skins thrown over the top. The tribes, all nomadic, move frequently, so nothing is permanent. All they take with them is what they can load easily onto a donkey or two, so usually, the houses will be left and new ones constructed at the next place using more sticks from days and days walk away. There are very few trees here – the forest that carpeted this area in the early 1970s has long ago been cut for housing, charcoal burning – which is a new cash occupation for herders who have lost their animals – or firewood. It’s a tragic cycle of degradation that worsens as the population increases.
We pull into the village, called Sarima, stopping by the schoolteacher, Lowoi’s hut. He is one of just two men here, I notice, the others are all women and children, who gather excitedly around, tugging at our fingers and repeating the few words of English they know. “How are you? How are you?”
The men, it transpires, are all off looking for the goats. Last night, there was a raid by another tribe, and most of their goats were stolen. Suspicion falls on the Samburu. This tiny village of Turkanas would have a hard time taking on the Samburu, but there is a combatant faction of Turkanas, a rebel group that live in the mountains and trained to survive anything. Last year, the Samburu stole some goats from the Turkana, who called on this military faction. The rebels responded by going into the Samburu lands and stealing thousands and thousands of goats and cattle. “You could see these vast herds of animals were taken, and then distributed among Turkana villages,” Fabio says. “The army came with helicopters and guns, but they were no match for the rebels and had to return to base with dead soldiers.”
I am beginning to understand the nervousness we saw in the Samburu village we passed. But I still don’t really understand why they persist in this ridiculous deadly cycle of cattle raiding. “It’s just what they do. They don’t know any other way,” Fabio explains, rather unsatisfactorily. “They used to fight only with spears and sticks, which was bad enough; now they have AK47s and many many people die.”
Lowoi wants to show me the school-cum-church. It’s a small hut, like all the others, but with a small lectern in it. Twenty children pile in and sing a hymn in Turkana, their high-pithed voices belting out the song in perfect harmony. Then, in our honour, they sing their English song: Baa baa, black sheep. It’s fantastic rendition, even if it makes no sense because the words are mixed up and the teacher, singing along, also seems to have made up parts of it.
We’re in the village to do business. The people here make incense – many of them are chewing it, like gum – a wonderfully fragrant type that they collect from a specific tree, more than 25-kilometres-walk away. Fabio is buying the incense for use in the missionaries during mass and the like. With concentration, the entire village crowds around two women who are measuring out cupfuls into a sack. With this many people counting, no one will get cheated, it’s sure. It’s a long process, but at the end, we load two enormous sacks of incense into the car, pay the village schoolteacher, who will, I hope, distribute the money fairly, and we’re ready to continue. Before we can leave, there’s some more negotiating to be done. Several of the women want a ride in our car to the oasis 35-kilometres away, to fill their jerry cans and save them the walk they usually make every two or three days. There’s not enough room for all of them and Fabio wants to be fair. Also, 10-15 kids have climbed into the back too, just for fun. Eventually, a compromise is reached, whereby we take six women and a couple of kids who actually live that way and have come for schooling here.
We set off again, everyone in the back bursts into song, and we have great music all the way. By now, Fabio has switched to the second tank, whose dial registers there is nearly one-quarter of a tank left. But something worrying occurs: the fuel-out light stays on even with this tank – the dial must be faulty. Fabio does some quick mental calculating, we have 35 kilometres to go, and we are on the emergency reserve, which could last 10 kilometres, he reckons.
We are driving through uninterrupted desert now. There are no trees, nothing. The high salt levels here render this strange volcanic landscape utterly barren. We’re in the Rift Valley. It is hot and there are balls of pillow larva everywhere and fossils – evidence of a time when this would have been under the sea. It’s incredibly windy here, the sort of wind that knocks down a motorcyclist, Fabio tells us ruefully, having been flattened himself. There will be a giant windfarm here by a Dutch-Kenyan consortium, with construction being started as soon as next year. More than 350 turbines will be installed over and area of 7.5 square kilometres. Fabio worries that the isolated tribes living here will lose their culture and way of life with the influx of so many outsiders to the area.
We climb a slope and there, revealed below us in this stark rocky landscape, is the lake. It’s amazingly green – they call it the Jade Sea – and it stretches all the way to Ethiopia. The lake’s shoreline is longer than Kenya’s Indian Ocean coastline, but the lake is shrinking year by year. 10,000 years ago, the water was 100 metres higher and used to feed the Nile. Now, siltation, dams and irrigation in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley have reduced its inflow considerably. Ethiopia is also building a major dam on the Omo River for hydropower, which will cut flow further. But, in an unusual upstream-downstream situation, it is in Ethiopia’s interest to maintain flow to the lake, which has no outlet, because it is the evaporation from Lake Turkana that provides the essential rains over its highlands, including the Simien Mountains.
The brilliant lake looks so out of place in this dry, barren desert, that it takes our minds off the current fuel crisis. But I am soon back to anxiously calculating how many hours it will take us to walk 15-20 kilometres with our bags in the searing sun and whether we will manage on less than one-quarter of a litre of drinking water. Each time I work it out, I come to the same disturbing conclusion. We haven’t passed a single other vehicle since we left the mission, four hours ago. We have iodine tablets, so we could purify water, but the lake water is salty.
The car keeps on going, despite its increasingly flat tyre and the fuel issue. Every now and then, Fabio flicks between the empty tanks and back again. The light stays on. Despite the continually joyous singing from the back, my earlier high spirits have slumped and I’m anxious and tired. The three of us drive silently along as the rocky track rumbles away beneath us.
More time passes, and then we mount a hill and, suddenly, there below us is the most wonderful sight I’ve seen: seemingly out of nowhere, the town of Loyangalani appears like a mirage before us. It is nothing but a few hundred stick and palm huts, but it is the most welcome sight and I drink it in. We drive through the town, my anxiety gone now we are in civilization, and head for a cluster of palms and other trees that grow by the oasis. We have arrived at the Catholic mission, 15 hours late and much adventured.