Off the Grid at Lake Turkana…where the donkeys are flexible… (2018)

Prelude to a Journey

To Go or Not To Go / early 2017

About a year ago Marius Coetzee, the CEO of Oryx Photographic Expeditions, wrote to Shobs and me, inviting us on an inaugural trip to Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. The dates weren’t good for Shobs and given the losses in the family that had just happened, I wasn’t in any mood to make any decisions – especially one that involved travelling ‘solo’. It wasn’t till some months later that I decided to take the plunge and ‘just go lah’.


Singapore – Nairobi / Saturday-Sunday 3-4 February 2018

And so, here I was, at Changi Airport once again, having been dropped off by the sib and niece in their brand new car, and having promised the son “I’ll message when I get there” – a sure sign of parental ageing…when the children start worrying. My new nifty Osprey (a very early birthday pressie from the master of bags herself, Shobs) weighed a mere 11KG – and everything including hiking boots, tripod and steroid belt fit with space to spare.

There was just enough time on the Thai Airways flight to Bangkok to watch ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ (on Vin’s recommendation) – a slightly disturbing film with more than a few ‘I didn’t see that coming’ moments.  Some Oscar worthy acting (according to me).

The Indian vegetarian meal for dinner was yum, especially the sweet rice pudding which tasted just like mum’s – we had just had mum’s first year anniversary prayers that morning and to have this very unexpected dessert on board felt just right.

It was a two-hour layover at Bangkok – most of it was spent in the very un-aptly named Miracle Lounge.

Next stop Addis Ababa – I slept for most of the flight, waking up for a quick breakfast before landing. I think it’s only SIA that has passengers in landing mode more than an hour before landing. On Ethiopian (and some other airlines), this is when they start serving meals. It was a short layover before the flight to Nairobi. Immigration was super efficient and I was at the now familiar Ole Sereni less than an hour after landing.

It was lovely to see Marius again and to meet Celestine of Cheli and Peacock. It was back to the Talisman for lunch where I met the rest of the group (sans one who would be arriving that night). I was the ‘newbie’ in this group as most of them had travelled either with each other or with Marius on previous trips; everyone seemed pretty relaxed and ‘easy’ – at least as first impressions go. Lunch was delish – pumpkin soup and prawn/meat samosas – and a nice cold Tusker.


Nairobi Pre-Ramble / 4 February 2018

Before I left Singapore, Nicolette of Oryx had asked if I would like to visit an elephant orphanage in Nairobi. I could do either the public visit (inexpensive but crowded) or I could foster a baby elephant (or rhino or giraffe) for USD50 and do a less crowded foster visit, OR I could pay USD600 and do a private visit (er…maybe not).

I decided on the USD50 option. There was a list of names to choose from – Sana Sana jumped out at me – it was the only name I understood. ‘There There’ in Malay and ‘very much’ in Swahili. When I clicked on the name… her birthday was the same as son #2’s …it was a sign – this was it, and I looked no further. And Sunil did say, after our South Africa trip, “Shall we get a baby elephant?”

And so, on the afternoon I arrived in Nairobi, Astrid (a Turkana co-traveller) and I were off to visit our foster ellies. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is quite an impressive setup, and is touted as “one of the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation programmes in the world and one of the pioneering conservation organisations for wildlife and habitat protection in East Africa.”

We got a quick briefing on what to expect – the ellies were out in the park with their keepers – part of the training to ‘keep them wild’. They returned to their stockades every evening to sleep. We were not to feed them or get in the stockades with them (if this instruction had to be given, I can only assume that someone did try to get in the stockades with them!) – however ‘cute’ they seemed, we were reminded that they were wild; signs around the orphanage also reminded people not to stick fingers or limbs into the enclosures – at risk of losing fingers / limbs / worse.

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Returning after a day out

The aim of the orphanage is to eventually release the elephants (and other animals) back into the wild; they were not being trained to trust humans or to expect food from humans.

Till they are about 3 years old, the keepers actually sleep in the stockades with them, waking every 3 hours to feed them (milk from a bottle). What a dedicated bunch! As the orphans grow bigger, they’d be gradually let loose near herds in the wild, in the hope that they’d be adopted by these families.

The only animal that has remained at the orphanage till adulthood was a blind rhino, Maxwell. On account of his blindness, Maxwell couldn’t be released into the wild – as one of the trainers said, he “wouldn’t last a day” if he were to be released.

More details of the Trust can be found here (and also info if you’d like to foster an orphan) – David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

All in all, an afternoon well spent. It was an early dinner (quite yummy stir-fried beef with ‘egg fried rice’) with the whole group before bed. Tomorrow the adventure begins.

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Turkana Boy

I really had very little idea what to expect. I had first heard of the Turkana region while at London’s Natural History Museum a couple of years ago – where the almost complete skeleton of the 8-year old Turkana Boy was on display. He dated back about 1.5 million years ago – and from what I remembered from that museum visit, the  region is synonymous with the ‘cradle of mankind’. It was almost a perfect place for the preservation of fossils (one of the archaeologists said, “…fossils were tumbling out of the ground at Lake Turkana..”) – and besides Turkana Boy, many other even older fossils were found in the area – some as old as Lucy.

But besides this, all I knew was that:

  1. Lake Turkana is the world’s largest alkaline lake;
  2. The Lake Turkana National Parks are World Heritage Sites;
  3. Crocs abounded – the lake was said to be ‘packed with thousands of large Nile crocodiles’ (this bit of trivia from the sibs who were slightly concerned – though I’d assured them that swimming wasn’t on the agenda – as far as I could tell).

Nairobi – Lodwar – Lake Turkana /

5 February 2018

Marius had said we’d be completely off the grid at Turkana, no wifi, no telephone service. So we all sent our various messages home before leaving the Ole Sereni – this would be a first for me – being completely off the grid.

It was an early checkout with “wheels up” at 5.30AM – a phrase we’d hear repeatedly over the week – one of many Marius-isms. Breakfast of muffins and coffee was had at Wilson Airport – and over breakfast I discovered that Mike (from the US) is a neurologist – which was a source of some relief to me…though realistically speaking, if I did have a ‘funny turn’, he would probably be able to make a diagnosis and do little else!

It was a bigger plane to Lodwar (compared to our flight to the Mara from Wilson) – on a Dash 8. There was a short stop at Kapese before we got to Lodwar at about 9AM.  Peter (our ‘fixer’ and local guide),  Simon (our driver) and Ilida (one of the camp’s staff) were waiting; bags (3 of our 6 bags were Ospreys!) were loaded onto our Mercedes truck – we hauled ourselves up after them, and drove a little distance away, to a quiet spot away from the dusty town and by a river – for breakfast, and some welcome coffee – with curious children, goats and dogs for company.

We spent some time walking through the little town of Lodwar, which is the capital of Turkana County, and known for its basket weaving. There also seemed to be an abundance of churches – every other building or little thatched shack was a church. Most of the schools seemed to be church-run as well.

Most people weren’t too keen on being photographed, though there were many who didn’t mind or actually wanted their photos taken. It was slightly reminiscent of the Omo Valley, the reluctance to be photographed and the demands for payment – but not so ‘in your face’.

Lake Turkana is about 70KM from Lodwar – a drive in our truck that took the better part of 3 hours. It was HOT. The breeze as we trundled along in the open truck was HOT, the sun that beat in on most of us was HOT, and I could feel my thighs burning despite the trousers. Cold water was in plentiful supply and we downed several bottles, stopping to ‘mark territory’ a couple of times. As in the Mara, this drive kept piling on the stepcount on the Fitbit.

We reached the entrance to our camp at about 1PM. The sun was really beating down by now. It was fortunately a mostly downhill walk in the soft, HOT sand, through palm groves, to get to the camp. As I walked, I felt something (other than the sand) underfoot…the sole of one of my shoes had melted off and was flapping as I walked. The sole of the other shoe was on its way off too! Peter helpfully ripped the sole completely off so I could at least walk properly. I could really feel the heat from the sand now, through whatever was left of the bottom of my shoe. Fortunately, I’d brought a pair of sandals – and Peter had reassuringly said they’ll get the shoes fixed. I wondered how and where??

But first things first – lunch, plenty of water and a nice chilled glass of wine. The food was fab – cold soup, salad, fish, fruit salad. As we tucked in, our bags arrived – on a large cart, pulled and pushed by four of the camp’s staff. I can’t imagine how hard that must’ve been – it was strenuous enough just walking through the soft sand…or maybe it was just me that found it strenuous on account of the flapping sole. We randomly chose our tents – Debbie in Tent 1, me in Tent 2, Astrid in 3, Mike in 4, Joe in 5 and Marius in faraway 6 – home for the next 7 nights.

We had a couple of hours before we headed out for our first shoot – time to unpack, shower and cool off. The tents were very comfortable – 2 large single beds, a power strip for charging stuff, individual water tanks so showers could be had at anytime (more on this later), a flushing toilet…it was quite startling to see the Armitage Shanks sink in the middle of nowhere.

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View from the back of Tent 2

Next to the bed, was a side table with bottled water, a flask (no, not with hot water, but some very welcome iced water – refilled several times a day), a torch, a whistle (in case of emergencies??…snakes??), insect repellant…all the essentials. Interestingly the toiletries in the bathroom tent were the same as the ones at Nkorombo Camp in the Masai Mara. I wondered if the suppliers have a monopoly on all the Kenyan camps!


Discovering Turkana’s Iman / 5 February 2018

The plan for this afternoon was to find out where the camels were – besides crocs, the Turkana region is famous for camels – which we were told are cash cows (or cash camels) in this arid environment (Turkana is probably the driest county in Kenya). A camel can be sold for up to KSH25,000 (about USD250 or SGD325).

The Turkana’s main source of food and income are from their animals – camels, cattle, donkeys, goats. As in many other pastoral communities, their animals are also used to trade and as dowry (which reminded me of a friend who travelled to northern India…her male companion was offered three camels in exchange for her…he tried to bargain for more – unsuccessfully). Peter also told us that donkeys are fast becoming an endangered species. There is an increasing Chinese presence in Kenya (and the rest of Africa) – and donkeys are being slaughtered by the hundreds, the meat exported to China – donkey meat is a delicacy apparently, and the hide has medicinal properties.

[Note: I had to look this up when I returned to connectivity. There were several articles on the ‘Kenyan donkey crisis’ – like this one in the New York Times earlier this year.]

We met at the appointed time (3.45PM) in the vague shade of a palm grove outside Tent 5. In my sandals, I quickly found out how HOT the sand really was, as we trudged the 700 metres or so, uphill this time, to the entrance. We also realised how easy it would be to get lost in the palm grove – and quite unnecessarily take a longer route in the blazing sun – which would’ve been good for the stepcount, and little else.

Huffing and puffing we got to the entrance and piled into our Land Cruiser (not the truck anymore) and downed some much needed ice cold water. And off we went in search of camels.

_0ST9045In classic Oryx fashion, there were many unplanned photo opp stops. The first when we saw a group of women, girls and children carrying the soon-to-be-familiar yellow water containers on their heads. We all hopped out and the Marius drill began – slow shutter, high key, portraits, low angles….

A little further on, there was a girl burning some wood. We jumped out again. The first thing that struck me was her posture – which was perfect, and her long neck. She had supermodel looks, and I could easily picture her on some flashy New York runway. She, we were told through Peter, was in-charge of the charcoal for her village.

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Giving Iman a run for her money?

While we were photographing her, an older man came by – there was some long chatter with Peter – and I think it was established that he either owned a herd of camels or he knew the owner of a herd of camels. It was also established that supermodel girl was betrothed to this man – but not married yet, and that he had several other wives. The camels were some distance away, so arrangements were made to get to them the next day.

Next stop was a nearby village. But as we bumped along, we saw a group of boys playing – they had probably done the herding for the day and were just having some fun. The light from the setting sun combined with the dust kicked up by the boys was pure magic.

Sunset boys
The little toto in the back took a tumble – but valiantly caught up with the rest

More magic was to be had at the village and our first session of proper portraiture with individual tribespeople sitting at the entrances to their thatched huts. There was one particular lady who had the kindest eyes, and a most Zen demeanour; she looked like she had so many stories to tell…I wished I could have had a proper conversation with her, beyond eye contact, smiles and ‘asante sana’s.

[In the photo below, the ball-like thing behind the lady’s left ear is chewing tobacco, conveniently stored for easy access}.

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My favourite lady of the trip

At some point during this village visit, supermodel girl in-charge of charcoal appeared – this was her village! Now she had a little one on her hip, whom she was most casually feeding as she stood watching us.

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The sun was going down fast – and all that was left was some silhouette shots, before the drive back to camp, to a much needed shower and a very yummy dinner. What a first day – this was just one outing…I couldn’t imagine what the next six days would bring…

 


Turkana Days – and Nights / 6 – 11 February 2018

As unreal as it all was (to me, at least), we all got into some semblance of a ‘routine’ for the next 6 days. It went something like this :

  1. For some of us who wanted coffee in the morning before ‘wheels up’, coffee was IMG_9763served – I got mine at 5AM. Most times I was already awake when Myna (the very cheerful camp staff who did all the serving of food and drinks) came by with coffee. The tray would be left on the table at the front of the tent. The first morning, when I went out to get my coffee, headlamp on head (the generator hadn’t come on yet), I had to smile…not just Armitage Shanks sinks…there was a Bodum coffee press on the tray. It was all strangely incongruous – in a good way!

2.  We usually met outside Tent 5 at 5.45AM, Debbie from Tent 1 starting the trudge, me joining her, Astrid from Tent 3 joining us…. Walking to the camp entrance by torchlight in the soft sand was a bit of an adventure in itself – especially when, on more than one occasion we made a wrong turn in the palm grove. I think it must’ve been on the fourth day, after going down the wrong path yet again that Joe (who’s a project manager ‘in real

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Following the arrow

life’) drew a big arrow in the sand at the ‘junction’ where we always went wrong – and we didn’t make another wrong turn for the remaining days. We also learnt that walking on the sides of the (non-existent) path where the sand was packed a bit more tightly was (just slightly) easier.

3. Peter and our driver Simon were always waiting for us at the entrance to the camp. Our seating arrangements in the Land Cruiser didn’t vary the entire time we were there – Peter up front with Simon, Joe, Marius and Mike in the row behind, Debbie and me in the next row with the water cooler between us, and Astrid racking up the steps in the back row.

4. The morning photography session usually happened from sunrise till about 8.30 or 9AM – by which time it already was too hot to do very much more. We usually stopped for coffee and some nuts and fruit in the middle of nowhere; standing with a coffee, in the middle of this expanse of land, listening to the silence is a memory that is etched in my consciousness.

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Coffee stop at 8AM

5. It was back to camp by 9.30 or so – after a quick shower, it was breakfast time. While all the meals were fab, breakfast was somehow my favourite. It felt like so much had been accomplished “and we hadn’t even had breakfast yet”. Breakfast comprised fruit juice (orange or apple), more coffee in Bodum presses, eggs (any way you wanted them), bacon, sausage (thanks to Joe, by the end of the trip, we were all having the sausages cut lengthwise with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice), and the freshest of fruit. The mango was particularly yum – it tasted like the Alphonso mango which my grandparents used to bring back in baskets from India.

6. Post-breakfast, it was back to our tents till lunchtime – so it was time to download the morning’s images, charge batteries – and shower about three times before lunch. I usually did some editing, occasionally read and/or had a nap. It was too HOT to do very much else. I am sure it was over 40C. There were days when I stood under the shower (the water was lukewarm for about 20 seconds at the start, before it got hot) with my clothes on. This provided about 10 minutes of relief – especially if there was a breeze outside – after which my clothes and I were completely dry – the heat was mind-boggling. I had to remember to keep drinking water (Marius was also great at insisting we drink – and wear hats/caps) – and despite the bottles of water that I downed I am sure I was still dehydrated. One particularly hot day, I wet the towels and lay on them – they remained wet for about 20 minutes.

7. Lunch was usually at 2PM. The food was delish – and would easily make the cut for the Healthier Dining Programme back home – a meat/fish, loads of vegetables and fruit, and a carb. One day there was chicken nuggets, and on another, fish fingers…none of the frozen Birds’ Eye stuff – this was fresh chicken/fish, breaded and grilled. After the first couple of days, some of us had to tell Myna and Simon the chef to give us smaller portions. Somehow it felt worse wasting food here than it does at home – the whole ‘starving children in Africa’ image is a lot more real here.

By lunchtime, most of us had done some editing, and had to ‘pass up homework to teacher’ for feedback; our 6 phones would be passed around the table to various levels of oohs and aahs – it was so very interesting to see how each of us had quite different spins on the images despite all our subjects being the same.  About midway through the week, the other thing that was passed around was a jar of Wonder Cream courtesy Marius – it was good for anything – bites, allergies, sprains, pain, itch, burns…much like Franch Oil. All of us had some itch, bite or other, mostly from midges and sandflies – so Wonder Cream was slapped on very generously. Once Wonder Cream’s amazing properties were ascertained by all, it was suggested that Oryx provide Wonder Cream for all its repeat guests instead of Oryx caps 🙂

Post-lunch there usually was about an hour before we left for our evening session. This meant another 1 or 2 showers, and slathering on more sunscreen.

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Beach dancers

8. ‘Wheels up’ for the evening session was usually at 3.30 or 4PM, and we’d be out till 6.30 or 7PM. On some evenings we did a middle-of-nowhere stop for a sundowner. The three girls fast gained a reputation for white wine, and soon we were being served some very good white wine without even having to ask. On a couple of evenings, the evening shoot was on the beach, complete with high-energy, sand-churning dancers.

9. Back at camp, it was downloading time, shower, editing – by the middle of the week, most of us had gotten quite efficient at processing the images quickly – which was a new experience for me, as I usually don’t do any editing while travelling. Then we’d meet for drinks and dinner. Dinner never disappointed either (none of the meals did) –  we sat at a table out in the open, stars above us, and often there’d be a nice breeze which cooled things down a bit. One night, there was chappati, mutton curry and beans – definitely my favourite meal of the trip!

10. The nights were interesting to say the least. The generator was switched off from 11PM to 5.30AM – not that it mattered, as I was usually asleep before 10PM. On most nights there was a (warm) breeze for some of the night which sort of helped. On other nights it was so still and HOT, I thought I might self-combust. There was no question of getting under the covers. I remember looking at the stars through the netting (the Milky Way was obvious even to me) and trying to stay very still so as not to generate any more heat, till I fell asleep.


Camels, Flexible Donkeys and Other Wildlife

Livestock is very much a part of life for the Turkana. We all had in our heads various versions of images involving livestock, dust and young herders.

Caravans of camels

There were two standout ‘camel days’ –

The first was on our first full day there. The earlier exchange with supermodel girl’s man had pointed us in the right direction the next day. And that was how, in the afternoon of day 2, I found myself lying sniper-like on a dusty plain, facing off with this large herd of camels about 20 to 30 metres away. It was a tad daunting, as these huge animals were walking towards us, in clouds of dust – led by their young herders (who made the camels look even larger). It was truly an amazing experience – one that I doubt I’ll ever have the opportunity to repeat.

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The second was the sand dune experience. This was a morning shoot, and we’d left slightly later than usual – so when we got to the bottom of the dunes, the sun was already on its way up. Marius raced up the dune, followed by Joe…as I climbed, the dune seemed to get more steep – it was 3 steps up, 2 steps sliding back. Halfway up, I was quite sure I was going to slide all the way down. Worried that I was holding up Debbie who was behind me, I called back, telling her to go past if I was slowing her down…her voice floated up from faraway, “No, you’re not holding me up.” (much to my relief; we had enough air in our lungs to laugh about this only much later).  Just then 3 Turkana girls in sandals and traditional dress, sauntered past, strolling up like they were walking in a park, having a conversation, with absolutely no signs of being anywhere near short of breath…I suspect they were trying not to laugh at us – or rather, at me, who by now had resorted to using hands as well as legs to get to the top of that %^&*#@* dune.

BUT we all made it to the top in one piece – and it was magnificent…the sky a fiery red, turning to purple and orange, a herd of camels on the ridge, and in the distance Lake Turkana and Central Island with its volcanic peaks. When I’d caught my breath from the climb, the real life canvas that was before me took my breath away all over again. It was a surreal morning. Each day that I’d been here in Turkana, I’d think “This has been the best day yet.” and then the next day happens.

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When we finally were done on the dunes, and it was time to get back to the Cruiser…we discovered that there was a far gentler slope near our 45-degree ascent (ok, I may be exaggerating – but only a little) – which we used to get back down – easily – even for me.

The donkeys are flexible

By the time our last full day at Turkana came around, we were convinced that Peter could produce any animal or photo opp on cue. So Marius asked for “a herd of cows meeting a herd of donkeys”, and we added the requirements of “some goats in the foreground and camels in the background – with clouds of dust and the setting sun” correctly positioned. I don’t know what Peter really thought of us, but he laughed and said he’ll “try” (!).

And that was how we ended up driving on this dry dusty river bed on our last evening at Turkana, in search of the aforementioned tableaux. I was convinced we wouldn’t see very much and was happy just to enjoy this last evening even if nothing spectacular happened photographically.

Then Peter points to a large shaded palm grove and says “the cows are there”. We couldn’t see anything and Marius said, “If they’re there, that’s takataka, they need to come out.” There’s a whole back story to takataka – at one of the villages, where Marius was showing us ‘radial blur’ techniques, one of the village women imitated the sound of the continuous shutter “takataka, takataka“. From then, everytime Marius wanted to get someone to look at the camera, he’d say ‘takataka‘ – some of us did too. Till many ‘takataka‘s later, Peter said, “Actually takataka means rubbish.”!! God only knows what those tribespeople must’ve thought…Anyway, right now, takataka with reference to the cows in the grove, was being used correctly – for the first time on this trip.

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Radial blur takataka

As Peter started to go see what he could do about the cows, we saw a large herd of donkeys coming in from the opposite direction! There was much excitement, then all of a sudden the cows charged out of the grove towards the donkeys – we had no idea why, and I certainly wasn’t going any closer to find out. The cows seemed quite agitated, with some swerving away when they were almost on top of the donkeys. Marius was asking Peter if he could get the donkeys to come our way –  to which Peter uttered, the now legendary Line of the Trip, “The cows are mad – but the donkeys are flexible.” – and with that, all of us were pretty much hysterical – just thinking about it, makes me laugh.

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Mad cows and flexible donkeys

With some thoughtful collaboration (us moving towards the donkeys as they moved flexibly towards us), we got some pretty fab backlit shots of donkeys, dust and the father-sons trio of herders. And I thought it was going to be a slow evening!

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Totes mcgoats

Goats were a big part of the trip too. One early morning, we spotted a couple of blue tents strung between two trees – apparently, these were the goat herders’ tents. Nearby was a family with two young boys, and their goats. The goats are very much part of the village, often carried around like a kitten or puppy.

All the livestock we saw – the camels, donkeys, goats – were all very healthy-looking. The donkeys especially, had a sheen about them. No wonder their hides were in such demand.

Crocs, Flamingoes, Nile Perch – & Kittens

  1. Crocs – we didn’t see any despite Lake Turkana’s reputation as Croc Central. Peter said we might see some when we took a boat out to Central Island. But all I saw at Central Island was the black volcanic soil.
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The only croc we saw

2. Flamingoes & Nile Perch – one afternoon, we took a bit of break from photography, and went fishing on the lake. The local name for Lake Turkana is the Jade Sea – and I could see why. The lake shone a jade green, and as our boat cut through the water, the surf splashed in an arc, seeming to hang like diamonds glittering in the sun, stationary for a moment at the top of the arc before splashing back into the lake. I couldn’t help thinking, ‘slow shutter speed’ (ascending arc), ‘fast shutter speed’ (at the top of the arc).    The intention was to catch some Nile perch for dinner – but Peter’s extraordinary fixing skills didn’t extend to fish, and the fishing rods remained still.

The other reason for sailing out to Central Island was to hike to a volcanic crater – which often housed flamingoes. I decided to give the hike a miss – as did Debbie and Astrid – so we sailed around a bit, chatting and quaffing ice cold Tuskers – all very relaxing. The boys had a steep hike and were greeted at the top with a crater devoid of flamingoes. They did try telling us though that we missed seeing a sea of pink flamingoes in the crater…just as we told them they’d missed dozens of Nile perch that we caught and released.

3. A kitten that pretended to be a snake – in one village we visited, there was a pet _0ST2567kitten. It was a particularly belligerent kitten that seemed bent on scratching any flesh in sight. I made sure I kept away from it, rabies shot or not. He who shall remain unnamed was focused on the photography when the kitten scratched him and flicked its tail on his ankle…he thought he’d been bitten by a snake…enough said…

4. Other wildlife – there was a time when elephants and other Mara-like wildlife roamed Turkana – but the land has become too dry for them to survive here. There probably isn’t anyone in the villages here who’s seen an elephant. At one of the villages, the headman told us that his grandfather had said that his father had seen elephants.

So, there was no need for escorts to the dinner tent – as we had to have in the Mara or in Kruger. But we did get a reminder – that we were ‘out in the wild’…one night while walking back from dinner in our slippers (and one of us was barefoot), one of the torchlights caught some movement in the sand just in front of us…it was a humungous scorpion, with a big fat sting. Yikes! The barefoot person quickly put his slippers on…though I am not sure that slippers would have offered any protection if we had indeed stepped on it.

Then the next morning as we walked back after a morning shoot, a black snake slithered past right in front of Astrid.  It was fortunate that the scorpion and snake sighting happened just a couple of days before we left – or it might’ve made for a more ‘nervous’ week.

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Star trails from the safety of my tent

I had planned to go out one night or early one morning to take some photos of the stars – following the S&S sighting, however, I decided against venturing out in the dark – I did get a 10-minute exposure of the stars from the safety of my tent one night, while lying in bed…through the netting of the tent, which made for an interesting effect.

The S&S sighting also had me making sure the tent was more completely zipped up at night, with no gaps – and checking my shoes before wearing them in the mornings. Speaking of shoes – Peter was as good as his word – my shoes were sent to someone “who knows how to repair these shoes”, and were returned as good as new by a guy on a motorbike (who also delivered a crate of Fanta Orange – which was everyone’s new favourite drink while in Turkana).


It Takes a Village…

Turkana life is a lot about family – the villages differed in size depending on their wealth (measured by livestock) – the wealthier ones had more satellite clusters of thatched huts – a cluster for each family – but all in quite close proximity to the ‘main compound’. There were huts for sleeping (with goat skin ‘groundsheets’), huts for ‘things’ (I’m guessing they were for things as these huts were padlocked), central cooking areas, etc.

In one village we went to, everyone came out in their finery to see what was happening and to be photographed. As we didn’t want ‘posed’ photos, we’d asked Peter to tell them to “just do what they’d normally do” and “don’t mind us” – eventually they did. We had to laugh when it happened – “normal village life” translated to the women scurrying here and there, chasing the goats, watching the children, pottering around the common areas – most of them with a ball of ochre-coloured chewing tobacco tucked behind their ears; the children ran around, playing with wheelies, or the younger ones lolling on their mothers’ laps; the men in the meantime got into position just outside the main compound – sitting around, chatting, brushing their teeth – with a tree branch called ‘esekon’; this dental hygiene routine didn’t seem to be restricted to the mornings, as I saw many brushing/flossing with the branch at all times of the day.

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What the kids do

Herding was also often done as a family, with the whole family, including babies on mums’ backs making their way to water holes and wells with herds of goats. We spent a happy morning with one such family – watching as water from the well was lifted out in buckets and poured into troughs for the goats. Occasionally, one of the women would take a swig from the bucket before emptying it into the trough. The men generally sat around – though we did, on another occasion, see a man in the well, passing the buckets of water out. This was when the water level in the well was low and their normal method didn’t work.

 

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Post-prank

Peter told us a bit about village life which revolved around the headman. The two headmen we saw were quite charming, with the gentlest of smiles. Marius said one of them in particular had aged considerably since he last saw him a year ago. Then, he had moved a lot faster – and even mock-charged Marius with a spear. This ‘pretend anger’ seems to be a favourite prank especially when it involves unsuspecting outsiders – as I found out. I was photographing one of the older men at the well when he glared at me quite menacingly and seemed to be most unamused – I hurriedly put my camera down, and he burst out laughing, walking over to see his image on the back of the camera. Sigh.

Once the headman dies, his older wives are ‘inherited’ by his brothers and the younger ones by his eldest son who then becomes headman. The basic underlying principle is to retain the wealth within the family. The son also inherits the livestock – which also means he can then get married – as one needs to pay a dowry (in livestock) before marriage is possible.

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A very cool (and wealthy) headman

The Totos of Turkana

Over the course of our week at Lake Turkana, we kept seeing the same children (mtotos in Swahili) – by the lake, in school, expertly herding camels/donkeys/goats, collecting water, in the villages with their extended families…

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Water brigade with friends

The children – the totos – of Turkana just exuded so much joy, it was infectious. Their peals of laughter when they saw themselves on the back of the camera got us laughing too. There was one particular boy who seemed to be everywhere we went. He was constantly smiling – and fast became everyone’s favourite – his name, I finally found out, was David.

We saw the children on the beach one evening – they each had some fish – which they readily held up for photos, when Marius told them to “put fish high” (another Marius-ism from Turkana). Peter told us that all the children usually go down to the beach with their teachers after school. If they help bring the nets in, they can keep some of the fish – which is shared amongst the villagers – no payment needed.

Our visit to the local school, was particularly humbling – I hate this cliché, but it truly was. Grades 1 to 6 – all used one classroom. The headmaster and teachers ran a tight ship and the kids were polite and weren’t going crazy, as might easily happen when there are so many in the room. The ‘put fish high’ kids were here too, many in the same clothes they were in on the beach the previous day.

On another evening, we saw the kids in action again on the beach – collecting the fish from the nets, sanding them to remove the scales then rinsing them in the lake before taking them home. All this was done even by the smallest of them, who looked like he was about 4.

One morning at about 9.30AM, as we drove back to the camp, we saw a little toto in a clean albeit slightly oversized school uniform, bag on his back, walking quite chirpily along despite the sun beating down. We stopped to give him a lift to school and he happily jumped in (at home, we would’ve told him not to get into strangers’ vehicles…even if ours was the only vehicle we saw for the entire week). Peter translated for us – school starts at 7.30AM but as he’s “little” he’s “scared to walk in the dark” and so waits till it’s light before he sets out from the village. He walks 8KM to school everyday (that’s just to school). He was such a cheerful little boy, with a big smile – he turned to wave when we dropped him off, then walked off to his friends – who were all looking a bit wide-eyed at their classmate’s ride this morning. Peter also told us that most parents have bought in to the school system as that’s where their children get at least 1 to 2 proper meals each day.

On our last day there, we all chipped in to get some food supplies for the school. We made the trip to the nearby town, Kalokol, in the truck this time – as space was needed for the sacks of maize, containers of oil, etc. Kalokol is a bit of a cowboy town – it would’ve fit right in in an old Western. Most of the businesses were run by hardnosed Muslims. There was a store front that said ‘Nikon Hardware’ (selling metal parts, as far as I could see), and another with swing doors, that said ‘Tilapia Creek Bar’. There also was a Summer-land (sic) Pub which had a big screen set up outdoors and a gang of boys cheering on their favourite English football teams – I really felt like I’d entered another dimension.

Back at the village, we told the children that we were going to deliver the supplies to their school. They immediately set off on a run towards their school – one of them even went and changed into his school uniform (despite it being a Sunday) before running to school; there was such an innocence about that just hit me.

I also got a glimpse of the natural training Kenyan runners get as children. The ground in Turkana, as in most other dry areas in the country, is speckled with these shrubs which boast very impressive needle-like thorns. Even with proper shoes, we circumnavigated these shrubs quite carefully as they easily pierced through socks and trouser legs. On the days I was wearing my sandals, I got well and truly scratched despite being careful to walk between and over the shrubs. The kids, however, ran barefoot everywhere – in a straight line, thorny shrubs or not – they kept up quite nicely with the Land Cruiser. They had perfect running form, and ran with big smiles on the faces – often shouting, “I’m fine, I’m fine” even before we’d asked, “How are you?” Pretty amazing!

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Running to school

On our last evening there, as we came back from our final evening of photography, a group of these by now familiar kids were at the entrance to our camp – and we got to say goodbye to them with much fist-bumping and giggles. David was there too – and as we walked off we could hear him giggling with his friends. A perfect end to our time at Lake Turkana.

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For more photos of the totos – Totos of Turkana


Turkana Takeaways

There was plenty of time to think in Turkana – though the heat did not always lend itself to clear-headedness. There were a couple of recurring themes.

Going OTG (Off The Grid) – I highly recommend it. It was cathartic – being completely out of contact with the ‘outside world’. There was no need to look at the phone every few seconds because I knew there would be no new messages or notifications – in some strange (or maybe not so strange) way, this resulted in ‘being in the moment’ a lot more. I found myself focusing on whatever I was doing with 100% attention – editing, reading (I finished 2 books in 5 days) looking at the stars – none of the frenetic checking for emails, messages, missed calls, news every 30 seconds. When we met for meals, we had our phones with us but they were just to look at the day’s images. Once that was done, phones were put away and the focus was on conversation. If big things were happening in the world of the connected, we didn’t know – and it didn’t matter.

Back home, the multitaskers are lauded; I am not so sure anymore that multitasking is something to shout about. I felt I got a lot more done, just by slowing down and focusing on one thing at a time. I might just try this when I get home…

Nothing seemed impossible – it was an impossible environment – at least it seemed that way to me, especially when we first arrived – and yet things got done – quietly, and efficiently.

Fabulous meals were on the table three times a day, made from the freshest ingredients. We asked how the supplies get delivered to this remote corner of the world. Joyce, the owner who runs the camp with her brother Joe, laughed and said “Delivered? We pick it up ourselves from Nairobi. Two days there, two days back (by road).” !!  (I now felt even worse if I didn’t finish every bit that was on my plate).

My shoes got repaired with no fuss – for the princely sum of USD2.

Everything worked at the camp – flushing toilets, showers to be had at anytime, sheets changed every three days, a constant supply of iced water.

The photo opps were endless – you want camels with dust, that’s exactly what you get; flexible donkeys? No problem. You want to get a boat to Ferguson Island (an unplanned trip to this fishing island) – sure, here’s the boat (“Sorry, this is not a tourist boat, you have to walk in the water a bit.”)

When, on the very rare occasion, individuals were not too happy about being photographed, Peter always quickly defused the situation – with his smile, his gentle tone – and just plain good communication. Once an elderly herder looked ready to whack us with his stick –  Peter walked with him for a bit, chattering away and nodding – and in a few minutes both of them were laughing and…holding hands! Quite incredible.

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Pelicans off Ferguson Island

But more than all these comforts in the 40C heat, what struck me most was the joy that we saw repeatedly – not just in the kids (though it was most obvious in them), but also in the older folk, who displayed a more Zen-like joy – and in the younger people, there seemed to be a real sense of amusement (at the crazy people with the takataka cameras no doubt).

We use words like ‘developed’ and ‘third world’ so easily – if development means ubiquitous air-conditioning, long ‘healthy’ lives, apps to remind us to stand/walk/sleep, rules and regulations to guide our every move…I guess Turkana isn’t ‘developed’ – far from it. But there was something about Turkana and its people that made me feel it was far more ‘developed’ than most ‘first world’ countries. Perhaps if I had another lens to view it with, I might’ve seen that Turkana is actually the original Wakanda…[watch Black Panther if you haven’t already 🙂 ]

I had felt slightly nervous travelling solo, without my usual travelling partner and bestie – but as it turned out our little multinational group – American Mike, Swiss Joe, South African Astrid and Marius, English (via South Africa) Debbie – and Singaporean me – got on famously, and there was much bonding – especially over Tuskers and wine. Everyone was so generous – whether it was pointing out angles or providing Snapseed tutorials for quick editing on the phone (thanks Joe!). I couldn’t have asked for a better group to have shared this journey with.

On our last morning, as we drove to Lodwar at 5AM, the sky was a brilliant purply-orange, with silhouettes of camels dotting the landscape. It was another wow moment – it was almost as if every day in Turkana had to have at least one WOW moment, even if the day comprised only a couple of hours.

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And so ended this very surreal, very special trip. On my first night at home, I woke up in the middle of the night, thinking I was in my tent and wondering why I couldn’t see any stars…

For more photos from this epic journey, please visit Portraits from Lake Turkana


If you’re looking for photography (with countless ‘teachable moments’) + adventure, I highly recommend travelling with Oryx Photographic Expeditions – this is the third time I’m travelling with them, and it just keeps getting better. #oryxliveyourdreams

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Just another morning in Turkana (Photo by Marius Coetzee)

4 thoughts on “Off the Grid at Lake Turkana…where the donkeys are flexible… (2018)

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