…. Well to title this post as ‘Kenya’ is a little misleading, but easier to insert into the blog. A ‘Tour of Lake Turkana’ would be more accurate; as we only saw a very small part of northern Kenya which I gather is also quite different to the rest of the ‘developed’ Kenya. In all we only drove on about 20 km of tarmac road, otherwise on some of the worst kept pistes in Africa, potholes, mud and corrugation, in part compensated by the extremely colourful and bizarre tribes and strange landscapes. ..but I’m going ahead of myself. This strange itinerary that we undertook was inspired by a series of impulses. A chance conversation with a fellow traveller talking of an Italian travelling around Ethiopia in his truck, a phone call and discovery of common friends. Although they have never met, Luca and Walter talk enthusiastically about a remote piste running along the west side of the Omo river, down past Jimma, Bonga and Maji, travelling through Omo National park reaching the ‘beautiful long necked women of Lake Turkana’ on the Kenyan boarder near Lodowar…As a young boy Luca was inspired by a book written by Nino Cirani recounting a tour of Africa from Tunisi to South Africa and back up to Cairo that he and his companion Vittorio Parigi undertook in the mid 60’s in a land rover… the most vivid images firing Luca’s young mind were the photos of precisely this piste, where the two intrepid travellers slid through thick mud, thin invisible pistes in high grass at impossible angles and met strange wild tribes with exotic body tattoos and lip plates.
It’s soon Lucas birthday and this seems a fitting present, another little piece in the strange jigsaw of dreams to be fulfilled. We hope we will also be able to show the children some of the wild Africa with elephants, lions and crocodiles…. it will probably be a long time before we return to this part of Africa in the truck….
This little ’holiday’ was also to be a break from filming and taking photographs. We knew that the strange tribes populating this remote area are not keen on being filmed…and despite the huge temptation we didn’t want to spoil the experience. We have come away without a single photo of tribes people…but with many beautiful and strange images imprinted in our minds!
After a long stay at ‘Wims Holland House’ in Addis organising the trip and relaxing in the easy company of the staff, we set off behind Walters’ compact Unimog .The start of our route took us along a surprisingly (and somewhat disappointingly) well-surfaced ‘Chinese’ road with the usual muddy road works in between. We climb up through mountains into high forests and through huge tea plantations and picturesque villages. As we proceed the huts along the roadside start to be painted, people are shedding their t-shirts preferring colourfully draped cloths and now carry spears instead of sticks. Children bathe naked in the rain (I shiver for them at almost 3000m) and there is somehow a tribal feeling to everything. Faces too have changed….blood-shot eyes, blue- black complexions and hard proud stares, funny wormy hairstyles and robust muscular bodies. The women now show their breasts, their hair at times decorated with red mud and their skin covered with tribal scars, they carry their infants in leather pouches on their backs.
The area is suddenly scarcely populated and no one comes to our camp in the evening. I somehow expect to see a hyena or wildcat…the sounds are African with strange birds, crickets and other unknown noises.
When we finally reach Maji, it is a particularly insignificant little village that serves good hot spicy tea. We lunch on bread and goat soup, and then set of on a tiny track that is the start of the adventure we had imagined before leaving. Our pace is slow and hesitant, it is evident that we won’t meet any other vehicles along the way, and will have to clear the road of fallen trees and land slides. The rocky surface gives way to black mud, high trees and grass even taller than our truck. The path is so narrow that there is no room to get out of the truck…when I finally manage I feel somehow bare and exposed, expecting something to poke out of the grass any minute. The men we have occasionally met walking in small groups along the path are all armed with Kalashnikovs and wild faces…. they too would make me jump if they appeared (as they often do) silently and suddenly from the thick foliage emerging from invisible paths!
We are mostly driving on a narrow ridge on the top of a mountain; the land drops dramatically on both sides at times enshrouded in mist that works its magic on our imagination. As suddenly as the forest sucked us in, it expels us into a high plain with cultivated fields. We stop for the night in a clearing, greeted by a delighted group of women smelling of palm wine. They are friendly and suitably amused and hilarious at our presence…. they are also the only people who insist on being photographed. It is refreshing, and although they wear ragged t-shirts and aren’t the tribes typically photographed in this area, their faces are open and their eyes full of light…people who rarely see their own reflection and have no face to present you except their own. To my surprise an old man asks in Italian ‘dove andate?’ …I imagine him asking the same question 40 years earlier to a young Cirani in a very different, but similar world. In the morning we are given two huge sticks of sugarcane, I appreciate the gesture and return the hospitality with a cup of Italian ‘bunna’ (coffee) this too is appreciated.
The next day is perhaps the most memorable and bizarre of the entire trip. As we descend the mountain the scenery again changes dramatically giving way to yellow grass and scattered acacia trees. As we advance small figures shoot in and out of the high grass, some totally nude with white tinted hair, others clad with strange ornaments, dimpled scars all over their bodies and huge wooden earrings as large as coffee cups. The children are too scared to succumb to curiosity and scuttle away, whist the older boys excitedly running along side our truck screaming strange words with their spears raised. I feel my adrenalin flowing and am glad that I know them to be friendly…in this remote context their expressions can be disturbing, until they inevitably break into their wide smile.
I spot a young girl with a huge ceramic lip-plate inserted in her lower lip, and am suitably impressed, its a strange shocking sight but one I have seen in many documentaries and photos…. what I have never seen and what shocked me more was when we stopped on a high ridge to absorb the scene…. to be met by a women without her lip plate!! Her bottom teeth have been removed and her bottom lip sags down to her breasts. She dries it with a cloth and starts stretching it to an incredible length. Then she holds out her hand to greet us. I can’t help smiling as little Giulio obediently holds out his hand…he normally hates greeting people, evidently he thinks it’s a bad idea to refuse!
Omo National park brings mud, rain, and animal droppings, but no animals. The scenery and smells are of elephant territory, but we have no luck apart from two stray ostriches. We struggle through the deep muddy tracks that spray up to our windscreen. The tracks are so deep that when you have to change direction it takes a good ten minutes of ploughing the ground with your tyres before they are released, a bit like driving on a railway track .The savannah gives way again to low acacia trees and young herders with their goats, as we loose any hope of seeing animals. When we arrive finally at the Kenyan boarder, we are informed that there is no boarder here and that we’ll have to cross the river in a hollowed tree trunk to do the formalities in Omorate on the other side of the Omo River. My eyes are now accustomed to the strange variety of tribes populating the area, but the concentration in this village makes me smile … old men resting on their carved wooden ‘cushions’ with large pieces of wood in their chin (chin?!!), leather in their hair and large earrings and metal bangles and bracelets just about everywhere, two month old babies being carried confidently by snotty three year olds clad in decorated leather skirts and other unusual paraphernalia…’C’est l’Afrique!! Since there is no customs or even any type of rubber stamp, we cross the boarder in no time and lazily chat to the Kenyan authorities (Your welcome into Kenya) We soon arrive on the shores of Lake Turkana, red in colour and full of flamingos but evidently no crocodiles as people bathe without hesitation. Lusira and Giulio go with the men to a colourful boat not far from our camp to try and buy some fish. A group of men in the mean time come to our truck to find out our mission. Strangely out of ten men only one has a complete set of eyes. An old man sits on one of our chairs and unceremoniously orders a cup of coffee…I try to placate him and light a small fire on which to boil the water only to discover that he’s totally drunk and also wants us to give him money to stay here for the night… he is sent away by Luca again without ceremony, but the incident somehow marks the start of a down note in our trip…
The next morning Walter wakes with a white strained face. He’s been sick all night and has a light fever, we proceed along the sandy and bumpy piste only to discover that Giulio too has a temperature, he is strangely listless and sleeps all afternoon. We head for Lodowar to change money and rest in a cosy campsite cum lodge…. I feel uneasy. Although we have given the kids ‘Malarone’ a prophylaxis against malaria for this short dip in to the lowlands, and have been careful to dress them before sunset and spraying them with huge quantities of insect-repellent, (I think Giulio only had three bites in all!) a fever with no other symptoms seemed ominous. The next day I take Giulio to do a blood test surprising myself with my apprehension, but my worries were well founded and the test is positive…we started a treatment with ‘Co-Artem’ immediately. The effect of the medicine is dramatic, by evening Giulio is running around excitedly, but the cure will take three days and we decide to choose an itinerary that takes us closer to ‘civilization’ rather than the planned piste around the lake. We are told the piste going towards Maralal is decent, going east we can also visit some game parks WITH animals.
Our route takes us through different tribal areas…it seems like a competition as to who can look the strangest and do the strangest things to their bodies. Groups of exotically clad people pop out from the fields in large colourful groups and it feels like a day of festivities, but I discover this is how they always dress. In a particularly isolated spot we come across a village with a roadblock at its entrance…. they have strewn acacia branches across the path in preparation for an expected ‘raid’ from a nearby tribe. They originally come from Lake Turkana but have moved further south because of lack of rain, the local tribes see this as an invasion of their territory. They shift the branches to let us pass, leaving me with an uneasy feeling and unanswered questions milling in my mind…there isn’t any village in the range of at least 50 km, will they march all this way with their spears, or will it be a surprise attack with Kalashnikovs like in other areas in the north?? I try to imagine living with a similar insecurity, and again my ‘European’ life seems light years away, I feel again somehow exposed and out of my element, realising that everything and anything can happen in these strange lands…what am I doing in the middle of all this??
In the evening we find ourselves in an enchanted forest with white delicate flowers covering the ground…. but I can’t enjoy the scene, my worst fears have come true and Giulio has a fever again…tomorrow we will take him straight to the hospital in Maralal. A lady with feathers on her head and beads down to her waist is cross when she hears the news and shouts angrily at the malaria spirits…she apologises to me, and I feel moved…I doubt they have any medicine to treat their own sick children or any means of reaching a hospital if they really needed to…
The next day is filled with dread and anxiety, as we approach the town I soon realise that it’s not at all what I was hoping for. The terrible potholes on the road leading to Maralal are ominous and a tangible testimony to my fears. When we arrive we find a lazy backwater village with very little amenities…. just the sort of place I would normally enjoy, but not today. The hospital looks big from the outside, but it takes us 15 minutes to find a doctor, I wait unhappily outside with Giulio on my lap contemplating the old ambulance parked in the courtyard with four flat tyres and long grass and moss growing around it…I keep reminding myself that it’s the people that make a hospital, not the buildings. It’s soon apparent that Giulio will have to be put on a drip of quinine for 24 hours. To my relief the doctor very kindly consents us to treat him in our truck…we can park outside the ward and the doctors will come to check him at regular intervals during the night. A glimpse into the ward makes me even more grateful… there are two patients per bed, head to foot, food being cooked on little stoves on the floor along with the cockroaches and no separate ward for children who are treated along with women old and young with all types of illnesses, from typhoid fever, to who knows what else…. Giulio looks wide eyed as an in-patient with a shaved head, layers of heavy colourful beads and long ears walks out of the ward…’I want the truck’ he says adamantly.
After the initial discomfort Giulio settles down with a Mickey Mouse video, a leaving gift from his uncle Massimiliano (thank-you!) This and the reassuring presence of Lusira (who couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about) soon calmed him enough for him to fall fast asleep. After a sleepless night with moments of panic where Giulios’ fever shot up to 40 degrees despite the drip, by morning he seemed much better…he was responding well to the treatment and we would be able to leave the hospital in the afternoon, the nightmare was over!!!
Our time in Kenya was running out, we wouldn’t have time to see any parks or animals, and decided to take the ‘dreaded’ Moyale road back north (dreaded for its terrible corrugations and occasional bandits) It wasn’t what you’d call a good piste, but the terrible roads we had experienced so far in Kenya somehow made it more bearable, and we even saw a few gazelles on the way. I admit it was with a sigh of relief that we entered our ‘beloved Ethiopia’…not because Kenya has less to offer, but the trip had in the end been trying and strenuous, I felt like I was coming home.
The last two weeks have past blissfully (with Giulio fully recovered) in the company of a Dutch couple Paul and Maya met on the Kenyan boarder. They have been travelling for more than two years crossing west and South Africa with a Mercedes van, having sold all their possessions in Holland and taking every day as it comes. Chatting we soon discover that they spent some time with our French friends ‘Chamaco’ a travelling family of five who visited us on their way to Africa last year. We added our handprints to ‘Wobble’ along side those of our friends…. nice to feel part of an itinerant community. To appease Lusiras’ frustration at not seeing any animals we bravely affronted the muddy tracks around Lake…. and were rewarded with crocodiles, hippos, baboons and a curious visit of a lion family in the night. After hearing disturbingly load roar like sounds in the night, I confessed that I had forgotten how similar hippos grunts could be to lions, only to find lion footprints close to the truck in the morning…we weren’t even aware there were any in the park and had been very happy drinking sundowners outside by the fire at night!)
What next you may ask??…Well tomorrow we will be heading east to Djibouti where the various shipping companies will hopefully reveal our destiny. We have had no luck whatsoever with e- mails and numerous telephone calls, and will have to discover prices and sailing schedules at the port…our options are Oman or India, lets see.