From the Chalbi Desert to Paradise Lake
Sunday, December 26, 2021, and the first rays of the sun barely warmed the ground. Tweets from the birds in Kalacha were reaching a crescendo. As the world around us slumbered, I dragged myself out of bed, or rather the wooden loft that passed for a bed. The night in the Gabra manyatta was short, but sweet.
Amenities in northern Kenya are meager. Freshening up in the morning, a regular and almost automated affair in the city can be a messy business.
The shared bathroom, for example, was hundreds of feet away where water ran from an overhead pipe with no shower head.
Water is a rare and precious commodity here. So here’s a little guide to taking a shower: lather up lightly with the faucet off, turn the faucet on slowly, avoid quick movements that pull you away from the dripping water, dry off, and walk away. Save your perfumes and lotions. Strong winds and dust will do a better job than you ever could.
There was no kitchen at the manyattas and for a second time Anthony, the Catholic priest of Kalacha came to our rescue with fruit, coffee and pastries.
This man is everything here, mechanic, cook and his main vocation is to serve the local population.
And so all enjoyed the hearty treat except one young boy.
My nine year old son had accompanied the trip and I hoped the wild experiences would test his mettle. I forgot that this is a generation that yields to the slightest inconvenience.
Whatever bug he caught the previous night in the manyatta got the better of him, and while the others were enjoying their breakfast, all he could do was sit in the van and regret the day he accepted a desert safari. How would he fare on the most perilous part of the journey?
I was wondering. Was this an indictment of my fatherly skills? Fortunately, some paracetamol and good hydration helped calm his swollen tonsils.
A few minutes before 9am, we leave for the last leg of our northern tour. Outside Kalacha, herders watered their cattle through concrete troughs. The animals appeared emaciated.
There was plenty to drink here, but little to eat, it seemed. On a hot morning, a shepherd decided to cool off by taking a bath next to the camels. Could you blame him?
“Here we are!” shouted Sarah Elema, our affable tour guide as we reached the edge of the Chalbi Desert. Before this trip, Chalbi was just another geographical feature like the Great Rift Valley that found its way into our textbooks.
And like many subjects, I had taken a cursory look at the Kenyan version of the Sahara during my school days. But as I discovered, what little I knew was quickly erased by present realities.
Chalbi is the harbinger of a ghostly atmosphere that makes even the most determined wither away with apprehension. Sand is everywhere you look, lots of sand.
And mirages that held the false promise of water in the distance. These were the cause of the death of the reckless traveler exhausted in the arid land.
Roads are almost non-existent, almost…unless you’re Sarah who swore she could find her way through the desert blindfolded.
She’s adept at locating faint vehicle tracks, no matter how good the wind and sand do a good job of obscuring them.
In our love of adventure, we decided to leave the main track to inspect a sand dune a few miles away.
Getting back to the main trail seemed like a tougher task than we had imagined. In the flat landscape with no sense of direction, a false turn can take you on a totally different course. And we took a few of those turns.
Whenever this happened, we all looked up to Sarah, the Desert Tigress. She would face one way, then the other before calling the correct route. We were careful not to bore him for fear of being stuck in the desert for eternity. I understood why Moses and his people wandered in the desert for 40 years!
Four hours later we headed into the town of Marsabit, and the sight of the tarmac highway towards Moyale stirred our spirits, glad we had made it out of the dreaded Chalbi in one piece.
A quick meal of chicken, beef, rice and roast potatoes and the team had the energy for one more stop before stopping one day.
Despite being exhausted, we visited the nearby Marsabit National Park, which has the only native forest next to the desert. This is the land of the mighty Ahmed, the elephant immortalized in Kenya’s national museums.
Lake Paradise Crater, the highest point in the park, shines like a diamond in the rough. The sheer beauty and serenity here made all the difficulties we had encountered over the past four days fade into insignificance.
The sun that had previously mocked and tested our very existence hours ago was now setting, saying goodbye to what had been a hectic day.
We relived the good vibes of the trip and the characters that made it memorable, including the Mugo team: Ayub, Triumph, Théo and Sonia.
They are avid hikers who laugh at challenges and have done well to lift the spirits of other travelers.
A 1,461 kilometer round trip spanning five days over some of Kenya’s toughest but also breathtaking terrain was over.
A bucket list item has been checked off. And as we drove back to Nairobi, Ayub kept reminding me of his favorite quote from Brazilian lyricist and novelist Paulo Coelho: “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine. It’s fatal.”