Kenya: Lake Turkana, the Ndoto Mountains and the Chalbi Desert Tour Report 2021
26 October 2021
After three extensive years of planning a very specific and unique route in northern Kenya, I was incredibly excited to be arriving in Nairobi to start my much longed for expedition into some of East Africa’s most remote and beautiful tribal regions.
We spent a day getting over jetlag and doing some antique shopping in Nairobi before enjoying our first dinner where I mapped out the route to our guests, explaining exactly where we were going and what we were going to see in each place.
Lake Baringo and Njemps
Our expert driver guide collected us from our Nairobi hotel after breakfast and we started our journey to Lake Baringo. We made a brief stop as we crossed the equator and another to buy ‘car snacks’ in the small town of Nakuru and when we arrived at our beautiful lakeside lodge, we found out that recent high waters in the lake actually submerged the road to reception!
We took a small canoe through the impromptu wetlands near the lodge, a journey we were to do several times as we left and returned to the lodge to go on excursions. As it turned out the boat trip alone ended up being a highlight of our stays there as it allowed us to silently float through a submerged forest looking for resident waterbirds.
We checked in and enjoyed a wonderful lunch before boarding another canoe to visit some shoreline waterbirds and a community of Njemps people living on Kokwa Island in the middle of the lake. Arriving at the island we were greeted by a number of resident Njemps men who walked us up to their village on a path hewn through volcanic rock. It was quite amusing to see some of the Njemps goats grazing on prickly pears as we walked! Arriving at the village we learned more about Njemps way of life, watched a traditional dance and then took some photographs before we were shown via a different path, the way back to our waiting canoe. Shortly before we boarded the canoe we visited a thermal spring that the people used to boil eggs and we got a chance to see our first Kaldich, the boats Njemps people make to fish on the lake. Njemps men make Kaldich from ambach (balsa) wood saplings that are tied together using wild sisal (Rapai).
Returning to the lodge we enjoyed dinner on the edge of the lake.
The next morning we took our lodge canoe out to our vehicle to visit a family community of Pokot people living in their boma inside a grove of pretty acacias. Pokot people remain some of the least visited people in Kenya. They originate in a region that spans eastern Uganda and western Kenya. Arriving in the boma we were fascinated to find a series of simple “Karen” or wooden necklaces worn by young Pokot girls hanging in the trees. These large, disc shaped necklaces are made from sapling wood and worn by uninitiated girls. Once Pokot girls initiate and turn into women, their disk necklaces are made from wired beads and they are worn with beautiful brass earrings called Tawuyi. The disc shape is to enhance their vibrant dancing which we saw during our visit and we truly delighted in watching these amazing women bounce their necklaces up and down during their dance.
Reluctantly we made our way back to camp for lunch and a rest. That afternoon we went off and explored nearby Lake Bogoria to see its hot springs and resident flocks of flamingos. Wildlife highlights here included a lone female Kudu and many Kirks Dikdiks. Sadly Bogoria was suffering the same fate of flooding that Baringo had so the high water made for more dispersed flocks of flamingos. We still found some, however, that were incredibly beautiful for photography. Returning to the lodge as the sun got lower we were surprised to find ourselves in a traffic jam created by ostriches! We also enjoyed a brief stop to watch local women smoking, deep frying and drying fish. Sadly we had to cut our visit with them short in order to make our canoe ride to the lodge before dark when the hippos came out and made for a dangerous transfer? We still managed to see some really beautiful water reflections in the sunset that afternoon, providing a restful and quiet end to our first full day of photography on the tour.
At sunrise the next morning we explored a curious relationship that the Njemps fishermen have with some of the resident African Fish Eagles on Lake Baringo. We first met up with a fisherman bringing in his catch, who spared some for us to take to the local fish eagles to share for breakfast. As we searched for the eagles, we chanced upon numerous beautiful waterbirds to photograph including Yellow-billed Storks, Grey Crowned Cranes, Hammerkops and Pied Kingfishers. Finally when the Fish Eagles were spotted, our Njemps guides broke into a series of high pitched yelps and whistles to alert the eagles to their breakfast. Instantly, one of them spotted our tossed fish and flew down right next to the boat to grab it! It took us by surprise a little and we were thankful that we had a few fish with us in order to try and get those perfect flight photos of the eagles.
Returning to the lodge, we enjoyed a late breakfast before commencing our thrilling drive over the beautiful Owamba Range towards Samburu.
Arriving at Samburu late in the afternoon we made a slow safari into our lodge until sunset. This gave us our first taste of safari life in this incredible reserve with its unique wildlife that included Reticulated Giraffes, Beisa Oryx, Grevy’s Zebras and Vulturine Guineafowl. What a fantastic way to end a full day of wildlife photography on our tour!
The next morning we started our AM safari at sunrise and were blessed with sightings of Verreaux’s Eagle Owls in a few trees. We enjoyed our boxed breakfast on the banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro River while watching and photographing one of Samburu’s resident elephant herds coming down to take a drink. We waited for a while and a few other vehicles who had joined us left just as an entire herd crossed the river and surrounded our car at close range providing us with some wonderful photographic opportunities. Also present on safari that morning were African Hawk Eagles, Vulturine and Helmeted Guineafowls, Grevy’s Zebras, Beisa Oryx, Grants Gazelles and many, many Waterbuck. We were quite sad to end that safari actually!
Leaving Samburu we drove a couple of hours to the foothills of the spectacular Mount Ololokwe where we checked in at our secluded tented camp at the foot of the mountain. This camp, which is on a regular elephant route up the mountain (the elephants actually climb the steep slopes of Ololokwe to drink from the freshwater springs at the summit!) is hidden away at the end of a drive with large acacias. Checking into the camp we arranged for our first photo shoot with Samburu people and decided to meet a group of Samburu Morans (warriors) for sunset. This ended up possibly being one of our most favourite shoots in all the trip for the Samburu guys were not only beautiful to photograph, they were hilarious with their behaviours with us also!
After exchanging contact details and doling out bottles of water to everyone (photography in the heat is hard work), we made it back to the camp in the dark.
The next morning we also met a Samburu Moran for sunrise photography near the mountains. Before the light got too harsh we went to visit a beautiful boma of a Samburu family to learn more about Samburu culture and take photos. As we arrived the women of the Boma broke into a beautiful dance which gave us goosebumps through its beauty!
Returning to the camp for a late breakfast, we packed up our expedition vehicle and left for the journey northwest to the rugged Ndoto Mountains.
The Ndoto Mountains and Rendile
Leaving Samburu we drove a spectacular route over semi desert to reach the Ndoto Mountains.
We knew we were getting close to the mountains when their large granitic peaks loomed large on the horizon. The beauty of these hills took our breaths away as we drove into the forested grove of Ngurunit, where we checked into our beautiful tented camp outside the village.
For the rest of the afternoon we visited a community of Rendile women with their beautiful necklaces called Mala. Initially we hoped to meet around 3 or 4 women at the village but word got out about our visit and all of a sudden we found ourselves surrounded by around twenty amazing women and several ‘morans’. Rendile name young, unmarried women ‘Morans’ as well as the men. Young women who are ‘Morans’ are instantly recognisable by their strings of red beads that form a multi-layered necklace. In the end, we weren’t sure what was more beautiful – these more simplistic forms of adornment, or the intricate and colourful dress of married Rendile women. We were just surrounded by so much beauty that afternoon!
Shortly before we arrived at camp we both flew our drones in the Ndoto to try and capture some scenery shots but sadly the light wasn’t on our side.
Returning to our camp for the evening we ate dinner under the stars and fell asleep listening to Pearl-spotted Owlets calling in the night.
The next morning we left before dawn to collect a group of three Rendile male Morans to have a sunrise shoot in the mountains. These highly decorated and enthusiastic guys all piled into our vehicle with us while we found the perfect place to photograph them. After the light rose higher in the sky, we found a spot to do some portraits before we dropped our newfound friends off in their village.
After another late breakfast we packed up and drove north towards Lake Turkana. It was hard to leave the amazing peaks of Ndoto as the road meandered out of the mountains. We eventually started to hit the rock desert that surrounds the world’s largest desert lake.
Driving over a low hillock we got our first glimpse of the lake, which is sometimes known as ‘The Jade Sea’.
By the time we reached there it was early afternoon and the sun had turned the stones into an oven. There is very little shade around Lake Turkana. We were instantly stunned at how the incredible Turkana people actually live there. Driving around the lakeshore we searched for a place of shade under a spindly acacia to eat lunch but literally every tree had some resting people or wildlife under it! We finally found a tree that we thought was vacant, only to find that four Turkana women were close by fetching water from a tiny well they had dug in the gravel. We said hello and shared some of our lunch with them and in turn they instantly invited us over to visit their homes. If this was our first taste of Turkana culture, we were instantly hooked!
We continued our drive around the lake shore to reach the small town of Loiyangalani, where we checked into our neat and basic lodge.
Late that afternoon we drove out to one of the two last remaining villages of El Molo people. As one of the most critically endangered cultures in Africa, we were saddened to learn that real El Molo people now number less than a hundred and their entire culture is hanging by the thread of several elders who are considered to be full blooded El Molo. Through intermarriage, ‘education’ and population pressures many El Molo are now wedding either nearby Rendile or Turkana people which is diluting their culture. Their official language is already extinct. It was quite special spending an afternoon watching how El Molo women weave their intricate baskets and make homes from the fronds of Doum Palm leaves. We also learned how they dry fish and we watched a few fishermen preparing to go out fishing on the lake that night. We stayed until sunset and just before we left we gave a donation to an elderly El Molo woman to help her with paying her husband’s hospital fees as he was sick.
The next morning we met a group of elderly Turkana men to enjoy what we hoped would be a sunrise shoot next to the lake. Sadly the sun never materialised but the clouds we experienced made for some very moody photos and also made the timed exposure images we did on the lakeshore a lot easier. It was so lovely to spend time with these elder men and as we finished the shoot I arranged to meet them in their village. After all the overcast weather was actually quite favourable for people photography! We arranged a meeting time and returned to our lodge for breakfast. As we were leaving we managed to squeeze in a few quick photographs with a beautiful young Rendile woman who was working at the lodge before we went off to the first of two Turkana villages we visited on our trip.
On the way out of town we met some Turkana people and photographed some of the women in front of brightly coloured buildings.
Arriving at the village we met our elder friends from our dawn shoot with their families and we engaged in some beautiful portrait photography over a load of laughs and learning. We also watched an extraordinary group dance that involved the entire village! Wanting to grab some photos of this dance without the crowd I asked if it would be possible to step away from the buildings to photograph a lady dancing on her own. This wasn’t a problem and we were both enthralled by this solo performance and the beautiful way in which this Turkana woman moved. It was quite hard to wrap up the shoot that morning.
We returned to the lodge for lunch and a siesta as the cloudy day continued.
Later that afternoon we went off to do some more photography in another Turkana village but rain and too much interest thwarted our initial attempts so we found a local guide who took us out to an extremely remote manyatta of Turkana women and girls where we had a fantastic afternoon of photography with them, between rain showers, right on the edge of the lake. A brisk wind was blowing that day which also made for some lovely images as the clothing of the Turkana women fluttered in the breeze. Despite the occasional bouts of inclement weather it was an amazing afternoon for photography with these beautiful and friendly people.
The next day we embarked on the first of our truly adventurous days of the trip as we drove north along the lake shore, over the harsh rock desert and made our way towards Sibiloi National Park and Kobi Foora, one of the most far flung corners of the trip lying close to the border between Kenya and Ethiopia.
We were astounded to find some very desert isolated communities of Turkana people on this drive. These people were quite literally living in a treeless landscape of rocks. We really wondered how they survived.
It isn’t until you get to places like this in Africa that you really need to understand where you are and where you are going.
We literally followed desert tracks to the gates of Sibiloi which we reached in time for lunch. After stopping at the park headquarters for a rest and to eat our boxed lunch we left to explore a petrified forest nearby. The largest of two main forests of its type in Africa, it was more interesting to explore this site than we initially thought. Some of the tree trunks measured up to 80cm in diameter and the stones around the tree sap formed beautiful pieces of yellow quartzite.
Leaving there we started to see some of our first wildlife of the trip in the form of jackals and birds including the regional endemic Heugelin’s Bustard. We also started to see some very remote Dassanech livestock herders on the drive into Kobi Foora.
Arriving at the research station shortly before sunset we checked into our banda (basic accommodation) and went out to see if we could visit a local community of Dassanech people. We found a small one but many of the people were still out herding sheep and cows so we left a little earlier and caught the most beautiful red sky sunset on the way back to our camp.
After a cloudy and mottled sunrise the next day we drove out to an extremely remote group of Dassanech people in northern Kenya. Consisting mostly of women and girls were met an extraordinarily beautiful little girl here named Horar. Her decoration was so elaborate and intricate, it was quite a contrast to the Dassanech over the border in Ethiopia. We enjoyed some portrait photography in the village and finally, just before we left, we were granted permission to fly drones over this village. From the sky, the huts of these Dassanech people looked like jewels of the desert. It was really beautiful.
We made it back to the lodge in time for lunch, a rest and a visit to the museum showcasing Dr Richard Leakey’s excavation work in the area. Later that afternoon we went out on foot to photograph the Nile Crocodiles and waterbirds living near the bandas. Finally we decided to fly our drones over Kobi Foora which was a fascinating thing to do as it gave us a true idea of the southward facing peninsula where we were located!
Leaving Kobi Foora at sunrise the next day we drove eastwards into the Chalbi desert. Around two hours after we left we came across our first Gabra Singing Well. These elaborately constructed and deep wells are known to be the watering holes for sometimes up to a thousand animals a day. We actually saw herds of livestock being shepherded towards them, before we actually saw the well itself. When we arrived we worked out quickly why these wells are so difficult to photograph well! The shaft of them is actually quite narrow and often under the shade of bushes so while they are fascinating to see, we stopped just to learn about them before we moved further into the desert.
We arrived at the charismatic little town of North Horr for lunch and to check in to our basic guest house where we had a small break. Our sunset photography session was planned for a watering point with camels but we found a few frustrations when we got there so we decided to visit the first of our Gabra homesteads for photography until sunset. A brisk breeze was still blowing in the desert which made for stunning photos of some of the Gabbra women and elders we met.
The next morning we went to another Gabra homestead to learn how Gabra people live with their camels. We saw enclosures where baby camels were kept and we watched camels being milked. We even drank some fresh camel milk which was delicious! The Gabras are extremely hospitable people so we drank way too much camel milk tea during our time with them.
Sunset that afternoon was spent also at another Gabra homestead. These encampments with their stunning domed, fabric huts ended up being a highlight of our stay.
Facing a long crossing of the Chalbi the next day we left and crossed one of the largest salt pans of this remote desert.
During the crossing we found an Egyptian vulture on a sheep carcass which we stopped to photograph. Across Africa, Egyptian vultures are becoming exceedingly rare due to persecution so coming across this one was a highlight.
We then chanced upon a Gabra salt miner named Muro, hammering at the salt with a stick and collecting it up in hessian sacks to sell. What a great experience it was to meet him in the middle of nowhere. He kindly allowed us to photograph him doing his work and we gave him some cash for a tip plus two bottles of water as he had none with him.
After we’d crossed the salt pan we tried to fly our drones in a high wind to see if we could get some last aerial shots of Gabra homes before we left the desert but it was very difficult to fly and oddly, due to the extreme effort our batteries went flat quickly.
We continued on to Marsabit where we checked into a beautiful lodge in time for lunch.
Our sunset shoot was with a community of Borana people living on the outskirts of Marsabit. When we arrived we met a beautifully brightly coloured and traditional dressed group of Borana people who were proud to show off their culture to us. They were standing in the compound of some pretty hand painted Tukul (round house) buildings that were typical of Borana culture so we photographed them doing dances, in portraits and finally we captured some images of a group of Borana women under a twisted and gnarled acacia nearby.
The next morning we made an appointment to meet up with a lively and vibrant group of local Burji people. I actually met my third African king this year with the visit to these fascinating group who live in the mountains around Marsabit.
While we waited for our guide we were approached by some street wandering Maasai sandal sellers so we bought sandals from them in exchange for a few photos which was a pleasure way to bide the time.
Finally when we met the Burji people we thoroughly enjoyed learning about their culture while sampling some of their glorious agricultural produce and taking photos. When the light became too harsh we went back to our lodge for lunch and a break.
In the late afternoon we spent the hours before sunset meeting an extremely small group of Waata people who represented some of the last hunter gatherer communities in all of Ethiopia and Kenya. While it was interesting to learn about the demise of Waata culture, sadly the photography options were limited there so we chose to simply enjoy the company of these people and learn about them through chats with our interpreters.
The next morning we started our long journey southwards towards the end of the expedition in Nairobi. To break up our journey we spent one night in Ol Pejeta, the largest conservation project for rhinoceros in East Africa. After checking into our stunning tented camp built on the edge of a natural waterhole, we went out on an afternoon safari and saw no less than 21 rhinos (3 black, 18 white) before sunset! It was quite a remarkable number to see in a single few hours on safari. We also saw Jackson’s Hartebeest, Grants and Thompsons Gazelles and a huge herd of African Buffalo before we went back to the lodge to freshen up for dinner.
The next morning we woke to the most incredible view of Mount Kenya. Normally hidden by clouds during the day, the mount is best seen at dawn and we weren’t disappointed with the view which quite literally stopped us in our tracks as we went to join our vehicle for safari.
We went out at sunrise and saw quite a number of rhinos, Secretarybirds and a variety of other standard safari wildlife. We enjoyed a late breakfast and drove back to Nairobi where our tour sadly ended with our PCR tests and a stop at our airport hotel.
Wild Images was the first photography company in the world to lead an expedition of this kind along this route. It was, in some ways, quite challenging but as with all off the beaten track adventures in Africa, it was thoroughly rewarding in every sense. We met some truly remarkable people living in some of the most stunning landscapes of East Africa. The expedition was so successful that a future trip of the same route is now planned for August 2022.