Straddling the Ethiopian border at its northern end, Lake Turkana stretches south for 250km, bisecting Kenya’s rocky deserts like a turquoise sickle, hemmed in by sandy wastes and black-and-brown volcanic ranges. The water, a glassy, milky blue one minute, can become slate-grey and choppy or a glaring emerald green the next. Turkana’s climate is extremely hot and dry for ten months of the year, and very humid during the rains. The lake is notorious for its strong easterly winds and the squalls whipped up are the cause of most accidental deaths on the lake, rather than hippos or crocodiles.
The lake was discovered for the rest of the world only in 1888 by the Hungarian explorer Count Samuel Teleki de Szék and his Austrian co-expeditionary Ludwig von Höhnel. They named it Lake Rudolf after their patron, the Crown Prince of Austria. Later, it became eulogized as the “Jade Sea” in travel writer John Hillaby’s book about his camel trek. The name “Turkana” only came into being during the wholesale Kenyanization of place names in the 1970s. By then, it had also been dubbed the “Cradle of Mankind”, the site of revelatory fossil discoveries in the field of human evolution. Apart from a couple of basic lodges and one or two windy campsites, the tourist infrastructure is nil, while only a single paved road reaches the region, stretching from Kitale to Lodwar (in dire condition) and on to the town of Lokichokio. And although vast reserves of oil continue to be discovered near Lokichokio, sadly this has yet to provide any sort of positive development for the region (Jessica Hatcher’s Exploiting Turkana: Robbing the cradle of mankind is a useful account on this topic and is available for download from Amazon).
Turkana’s traditional cultures are still very much a vibrant part of the scene, wherever you travel: the people you’re most likely to encounter are Turkana on the western and southern shores, Samburu south of Loiyangalani, Elmolo to the north of Loiyangalani, and Gabbra further east. The Turkana and Samburu are pastoralists, who hold their cattle in great reverence; the Gabbra herd camels; while the Elmolo are traditionally property-less hunters and fishers.
The best expression of the breadth of this cultural richness is the Lake Turkana Cultural Festival, which has taken place on the eastern shores of the lake every year since 2008, and brings together fourteen different communities from the region for performances and to share cultural traditions.