Strategic Retreats

[Note: this is a long story about the last couple days in Northern Kenya, where I still am]

Reaching Lake Turkana was one of the big steps we needed to do along the way for our excursion into the Northern part of Kenya. It was adventurous, but little did we know that it was just setting the tone for the rest of the trip.

Larachi is a small town East of Loyangalani as you head towards Mt Kulal. It’s nestled in a ravine with a about 170 families consisting of the odd mixture if the warring Samburu, Turkana and Arial people groups. They have a school, but no teacher, since all teachers refuse to come due to lack of water. We spent a warm day in the hot sun discussing this with their elders and the possible building out of a gravity water system by Food for the Hungry.

We started to see clouds coming together around noon, deciding it was prudent to make a move away from the mountain into the stony soil around the lake. This also gave us another chance for a quick dip to cool off, Erik some time to fish, and to drink a pot of chai.

This is when the rain started.

Contrary to popular belief, it does rain in the NFD, but not much. Currently it’s green and vibrant, contrasting with the normal dry, brown, dusty and arid state that you usually find it. That too isn’t abnormal. What is, is the fact that it’s been raining across the north for the last 3 days, flooding an already wet desert. People who have lived here for over 20 years have never seen it this way.

Mt Kulal

We made it to the top of Mt Kulal, to the town of Gatab that sits at 5800 feet, that evening. Kulal is God’s viewing point for all of the north. It’s a lush, green, forested environment that serves as an oasis in the desert and haven for weary travelers, such as ourselves. We could see it raining all across the horizon, from Marsabit to South Horr and even over Lake Turkana.

Besides having the chance to sleep in a non-convection oven type environment, it also provided us access to the only other hospital in the area to re-bandage my hand (Frankenstein stitches and all). We pitched the tents in a friend’s plot of land, after a great evening of chai and fish (Talapia) that we had brought up from Lake Turkana.

At 2:00am it started to rain. Not just any rain though, this was big rain, the type that feels like someone is pelting your tent with golf balls. After 10 minutes it let up. A hasty debate on the merits of pride and honor verses the fact that we had sited the tent on a strategically poor “river valley-like” side of the hill ensued. Shortly after, we made a strategic retreat for our friend’s house and piled onto the floor. That whole night I slept with a grin on my face as I heard the rain battering the mabati (sheet metal) roofing, while I remained dry and comfortable.

The next morning we found our tent 10 feet further down the hill, upside down and swamped with water. Barak and Pam’s tent was of better quality and better sited, so they emerged dry and calm the next morning. Lessons were learned.

The Run to Korr

Arapal, a town directly on the other side of Mt Kulal from Larachi was our aim for yesterday. They have had a water project going for a while, and their community has benefited greatly from it. Our goal was to hit their community, and then try to make it to Korr by the end of the day. A long day of driving, but very doable (most of the time).

By midday we again saw clouds forming, big thunderheads forming to bring the hammer of rain down on the desert. Our planned route from Arapal to Korr via Karagi we were told would be a great risk. Plan B was hatched to make a run back south of Mt Kulal and to the gap between the mountains where South Horr resides. This would be two times as long of a trip, 6 hours instead of 3.

We made a mad dash for South Horr, knowing that the rains we had seen over the area the day prior and the clouds we saw forming that day, were likely to leave us with some tough choices. By now those who know the North will realize just how much crisscrossing of the area we were doing. Our diesel was starting to run low, and there are no petrol stations anywhere. We begged some from the nun at the catholic mission in South Horr and set off for the gap.

Just after the mountains, the road splits. One branch heads directly towards Korr, the other takes you through a beautiful valley within enclosing arms of high cliffs, where you will find the town of Ngurunyet. The branch towards Korr was closed. We gamely turned towards Ngurunyet and ran until after dark to get there, only to find out that the rains had closed down the road from there to Korr completely.

It was time to camp again. We found a place by the river and held out until morning, hoping and praying that it didn’t rain. It didn’t.

Hitting Korr

At this time, you can imagine what this feels like. You’re trying like mad to get to a location, thinking through every path and camel track that you know of to get there. Obstacles keep forming, being overcome, and reforming along the way.

Everything looks better in the morning, as it did for us today.

Marsabit was closed to us, which would get us to the main road. Maralal could get us towards Nairobi, but we’re very hesitant to go that way due to the number of shootings by the ngoroko (the Turkana bandits) along that route. Korr, is where Erik used to live, where he has a house and where we can camp out for a few days, hoping that the land dries out so that we can make a run for the main road and Nairobi.

Distances are deceiving in Africa. You might be only 30-40 kilometers from another town, but that town could as well be another continent if you try to reach there during the wrong season.

Under hastily muttered prayers and hopes of a nyama choma feast in Korr, we set off. Things were going well, we had been joined 2 days previously by another vehicle full of Kenyan Food for the Hungry staff. They knew the paths, and knew how to drive. Unfortunately, like us, they were driving a large, long wheel base Landcruiser.

A Short Aside on the Merits of Landcruisers vs Land Rovers

There is a long-standing battle on which is better: Landcruisers or Land Rovers. Erik and I represent the two opposing factions, with him in the Land Rover side of the debate and myself on the Landcruiser side. Regardless of what your emotions might tell you, the Land Rover’s weak aluminum body does make it lighter so it does perform better in boggy and muddy conditions.

As we were the first to trek out upon this road since the rains, we had to do a lot of testing before we entered into questionable areas. Fine driving by Erik and Peter got us through most of it, until we found an area that looked like dry sand, but which had about four feet of soupy mud beneath. An hour of digging, finding rocks and lifting the vehicle later, and we were free.

I now sit in Korr, drinking some homemade lemon juice and basking in the glory that is a cool breeze after a much needed shower. We’re completely boxed into Korr now, but there is a small airfield here, even if there is no internet of mobile phone connection. For now, I’m just happy to have a dry place to sleep, a healing hand, and the knowledge of an adventure now behind me.

9 thoughts on “Strategic Retreats

  1. Matt Rose says:

    Makes me wistful. Some of my best times growing up were driving around Kenya, Tanzania, and Somalia (back in better days). Your travelogue brings it all back. Thanks.

    Oh, and both Cruisers and Rovers are amazingly tough trucks that can take any kind of road, but I do have a soft spot in my heart for a ’67 land rover that took me across a lot of East Africa. It had a snorkel, a crank starter, and could traverse just about anything that was thrown at me, even though if you weren’t careful when going into reverse, you’d slam your knuckles in between the shifter and the dash every single time…

  2. Rinnie says:

    Coriena: I hope your finger feels better and you get out from the mud and come back to us, hopefully!
    Meredith: Did you get the car out of the mud?
    Lauren: Are those people related to the Maasai? Can’t wait to see your stitches!

    We love you!!

  3. I salute you sir! This is the best web coverage this areas have recieved in almost a decade! (maybe a little over the top but you get my point). I will be sharing these articles with some friends from these areas. Cheers and I hope your hand is better

  4. Steve says:

    Well done Erik! I hope your hand feels better. Make sure to take care of your feet! I can smell you from here!

  5. enjoyed reading that, Mt Kulal is and will probably remain a dream for me to come back to Kenya and actually climb it.

    last time we were up there (landcruiser – btw) the chalbi dessert was flooded and there were no mobile phones, but cans of castle beer had just flooded Kenya and we had to use some beer for the radiator on the return leg between Marsabit and Samburu..

  6. MOSES LEARAMO says:

    This is great man,my breath was taken away when i saw my village name in your article(LARACHI)….I wish i could change my profession and be a teacher to teach my little brothers and sisters in larachi..i use to travel on foot across the forested terrains of MT.Kulal to access my primary education in Gatab……Nice work man…..Cruiser and Rover both survives in the hatch Northern climate…..

  7. Ekai says:

    Eeei whiteman you have tried big up my friend well come once again i know some places you have mentioned in your article since am from baragoi town some kms to loyangalani b bless man

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