Lake Turkana (western shore)

The largest lake in the country, Lake Turkana runs about 250 km from the Ethiopian border in a long thin body of water that is never more than 50 km wide. It stretches into the Ethiopian Highlands where the Omo River enters its waters. Giant Nile perch are reported to grow from 90-180 kg in the lake, but Nile tilapia are a more commercial option as they are more palatable and are either dried or frozen before being marketed all over Kenya. There is also a profusion of birdlife including many European migratory species.

Count Sammuel Teleki Von Szek is believed to have been the first white man to see the lake in 1888. In honour of his patron, Von Szek named it Lake Rudolf, after the Austrian Archduke. President Jomo Kenyatta changed the name to Lake Turkana in 1975. This lake used to be far larger than it is today. Around 10,000 years ago it is believed the water level of the lake was about 150 m higher and considered to be one of the sources of the Nile. At that time it supported a far greater number and diversity of plant and animal life. Now a combination of factors including evaporation and major irrigation projects in southern Ethiopia have brought the water level to its lowest in memory. As a result, the water is far more alkaline than in the past. The lake still supports a huge number of hippos and the largest population of Nile crocodiles in the world, estimated to be 20,000-strong.

Do not be fooled by the lake's calm appearance, the waters are highly unpredictable; storms build up out of nowhere and are not to be dismissed lightly as they are capable of sinking all but the most sturdy craft. The climate up here is extraordinary. It can easily reach 50°C during the day with not a cloud in sight, then out of nowhere a storm will break whipping up a squall on Lake Turkana. For most of the year the area is dry, but when the rains do come, the rivers and ravines become torrential waterways sweeping over the parched plains. It is quite a sight, and it can leave you stranded until the water levels drop.

Ins and outs

Seeing the western side of Lake Turkana by road involves a long rough trip. It is best to spend one or two nights at Marich Pass and access the lake from there. It is possible to get a
matatu
from Kitale to Marich Pass via Kapenguria. At Marich Pass transport on to Lodwar passes once during the day. It is then possible to get a
matatu
from Lodwar to Kalokol, of which there are about four daily. From Kalokol it is a one-hour walk or 4 km to the lake and you will need to walk out to the abandoned fish-processing plant. The local boys will offer to be your guide. You are advised to walk either in the early morning or evening as it gets extremely hot. Plenty of water and a good sense of direction are both vital.

Kalokol

Only 58 km from Lodwar, this is a small, simple town lying just a few kilometres from the lakeshore and with quite oppressive heat. From this side of the lake it is possible to access Central Island National Park. Getting water supplies in the dry season poses major problems here and the women walk 3 km to extract water from the riverbed. Although you can drink the lake water after boiling it, it is brackish and tastes unpleasant. Note that there is nowhere to stay here and only a few very basic food stalls.

Ferguson's Gulf

Some 4 km beyond Kalokol, this is the most accessible part of the Lake Turkana although not the most attractive. However, the lake is fringed with acacias, doum palms and grass, in contrast to the moonscape appearance with a mass of volcanic lava around Teleki's Volcano at the south of the lake. There are loads of birds, particularly flamingos, and it is the only place in Kenya where, in the springtime, black-tailed godwits and spotted redshanks can be seen. Birds of prey can also be spotted, and the number of hippos and crocodiles make swimming exciting. If you intend to swim, ask the local people where to go. En route to or from Kalokol look out for the standing stones of
Namoratunga
, which have a spiritual meaning to the Turkana. Although they are only 50 m from the road they are hard to spot and resemble sacks of charcoal. There are 10 cylindrical stones about 1 m high, although some have fallen over. Nothing is known about them; the Turkana themselves don't know what their original purpose was. In the past the lakeshore may have come right up to the stones. The name is derived from a Turkana legend that some visitors came across a group of dancers at the site and laughed at them, turning the dancers to stone.

Eliye Springs

Eliye Springs are a far more pleasant place to see the lake from and under the palm trees the springs themselves bubble up warm water. However, you will need a vehicle to get here. There is a small village nearby where you can get some food and drink and no doubt some of the local people will want to sell you their handicrafts. The turn-off for Eliye springs is about halfway along the Lodwar-Kalokol road.

Central Island National Park

This was established as a 5-sq-km national park in 1983 in order to protect the breeding grounds of the Nile crocodile. Formed as a result of volcanic activity, the island is an old volcano with three immense crater lakes that lie in the basins of a series of volcanic vents. Researchers suspect that there is still a tiny active volcano situated on the tip of the island. The crater lakes are connected through subterranean ducts with the main lake, and are renowned for the differing shades of jade, green and blue at various times of the day. The island is a favourite haunt for breeding crocodiles as well as migratory and resident birds. If you arrive around April-May, you can witness crocodiles hatching and sprinting off down to one of the lakes. The island has black lava sand beaches. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 and is approximately a 45-minute boat ride from Ferguson's Gulf. It is possible to negotiate with a local fisherman to take you out on his craft, but remember that the lake's unpredictable squalls are a real danger, and there are crocodiles.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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