Written by Cynthia Njeri
There are still so many places on our planet that remain unexplored. I’d love to one day peel back the mystery and understand them.-Annie Leibovitz
The word of the day is simple. It is often said that normal is boring and it is true even when it comes to travel. Doing something different can be nerve-wracking or scary but you never know how things will turn out unless you try, right? It can’t be that bad, can it? These are some of the words that I found myself thinking about before I made the concise decision to travel up North.
In all the pictures you ever see of deserts, they look uncomplicated, plain, smooth, simple. I’ve always wondered what they do up there. Yes, I know that they put their pants on one leg at a time but what else? Left to my own devices, I’d have to struggle really hard to understand what life in the desert is like so I thought I’d find someone who could tell me.
They call it the Chalbi Desert which translates to “bare and salty” in the Gabbra language. Pretty straightforward naming process. Simple. Deserts are remote by design which is why you probably haven’t heard much about it. Some locals up there probably figured there were a few people like us who’d want to find out more about the place so they started an initiative to promote tourism in the region. They are called Chalbi Extreme and all they want is to help people get a clue and also promote the livelihood of the communities that live there. That gets a tick in my book. Simple.
The basic premise is that there’s literally one contact person for the whole region. Her name is Sarah and she works with travelers and tour agents in planning trips. She has partnered with various local communities and most of the accommodation and food is provided by the self-help groups/women groups she’s in contact with. In return; tourism is enhanced, the misconception about the places is disregarded and the livelihood of the local community is enhanced through tourism. How cool! You’ll have to excuse the long preamble but I spent 3 days in the desert alternating between cars and dust and lakes and camps so I thought I’d lay down some context. Will it be worth it? I guess you’ll have to tell me.
First things first, it takes 7 hours to get to Marsabit. When we began, I couldn’t tell if I was excited because I would be doing something different than my usual adventures or because of the fact that I had missed early morning adventures. Those 4 am trips bring out the best in me. Our first real stopover was in Isiolo which is about 4.5 hours away to have lunch. I don’t know why I was expecting a rough ride but we didn’t hit a single bump or porthole till we reached our destination, Marsabit. The last thing you want is that vibrating feeling that murram gives you for 7 hours.
My first glimpse of rewarding views was one offered by Mt Ololokwe. Things to know about it; it’s apparently sacred and also considered one of Old Africa’s mystery mountains. (What are Mystery Mountains anyway?) It is interesting how the massive mountain seemingly appears out of nowhere from the desert plains making it a sight to behold. Mt Ololokwe is often visited by the Samburu people to pray for rain and ask God for healthy livestock.
Seeing it on photos or videos is alright but finally experiencing the views first hand was startling. As you drive towards the mountain you just get this urge to get out of your car, sit in the middle of the road and charge someone to take pictures of you. It’s not exactly an urge so much as something on your checklist. The road isn’t busy so you probably run the risk of having 10,000 pictures of the same thing on your phone. My feet were itching to climb it because it was just promising me an awesome view; no questions asked. That’s the thing with having an itinerary though; sometimes you don’t get a break to go find yourself on a sacred mountain.
That first day we didn’t do much. We got to our hotel in the evening and just ate, drank, and played some games. Just standard road trip stuff. Simple.
Day 2-Marsabit to NorthHorr
The second started with a game drive at Marsabit National Park (hands up if you knew Marsabit had a national park) and a visit to Lake Paradise. The park has densely forested mountains and three crater lakes. The elephants from Marasabit National Park are apparently famous for having massive tusks. That’s not all, there’s a type of Zebra called Grevy’s which are endangered. They’re the biggest kind of zebra you can find and the most threatened and they’re just chilling there waiting for you to go see them. Lake Paradise is the second largest of the three crater lakes in the park and from the top, you get a view of all these different birds and a scenic forest. There is, however, a price for all this beauty. The water level has been falling for years and it’s almost dry now. Someone told us that it’s because the locals are building dams and diverting the water away from the lake. Frowny face emoji.
Ps: Carry a shawl/ anything and cover yourself as you leave the park, or you’ll be treated to a free make up sessionfull of dusty overtones. If that’s your kind of thing though, don’t worry about your fashion choices. Just do you.
Once we left the park, we headed straight for the main activity of the day; the Chalbi Desert cruise. I knew we were going to be in a desert but for some reason, I did not expect the heat to be as brutal and annoying as it was. If there had been a way to just walk around naked then I’d have found my birthday suit and put it on. Or off.
Chalbi is the only true desert in Kenya. It’s harsh and sparsely populated but its also known for its stunning and natural beauty. The landscape is vast and has this view of brown sand interspersed with white salt perches. The cruise began with a brief from Sarah, the ground handler who told us we’d be doing the trip alongside another travel company called TurnUp Travel. Lucky us. I call it lucky because the landscape offered by the desert gave us a chance to race alongside the TurnUp team upping the thrill on the desert cruise. I’m not what you’d call a speed freak but you just can’t beat a dusty trail, bumpy roads, and a low-stakes race whose sole purpose is to get your heart pumping. What a rush.
We cruised along the desert to a beautiful oasis tucked at the heart of the place. They call it the Kalacha oasis and it’s surrounded by palm and acacia trees, offering some relief from that intense sun. For a minute you almost forget that they are in the middle of a desert. Locals, tourists, livestock, and camels come here to get a drink. If you are lucky you will spot herds of camels going making their way to natural spring. Very desert-ey.
Thinking that we had already had a lick of the icing of the cake; we were mind blown once we cruised to the Chalbi sand dunes. The pictures and videos of people in Dubai on the sand dunes, riding quad bikes and experiencing amazing sunsets at the dunes, were now a reality to us. We were those people. The only difference is that we got it in Kenya. I only bring it up because some people call Chalbi Desert a mini Dubai.
The view of the sand dunes was astounding and for a first timer like me, something was happening to my heart. We got there in the early evening so the sand wasn’t unbearably hot.Really this was an unmissable chance to run and roll down the hill of sand. Someone get me a board because I think I could sand surf here. The sunset views were also incredible. What a way to end the day.
At around 7 pm we departed and left for our home for the night. We would be spending the night at Solidarity Mission Catholic, which comprises small traditional Gabbra huts. I have to tell you that Chalbi dessert is the epitome of no-frills travel. No air conditioning, no feather bed, and no mint under your pillow. It’s all very simple. Most of the huts had only single or double beds, electricity, and one charging point. You don’t even get an en suite bathroom because both the showers and latrines were outside. Seriously; don’t forget to pee before you sleep.
Day 3: North Horr to Loiyangani to Ngurunit
Most of the action happened on this day because we were essentially packing a two-day itinerary into a single day. After breakfast, we left for a 3hour journey to Lake Turkana also known as the jade sea. Lake Turkana is the world’s largest permanent desert lake as well as the world’s largest alkaline lake. The journey is quite scenic because the lake is surrounded by volcanic rocks that form ‘mountain” like attractions. It’s called the jade sea because of its size and turquoise water. You really don’t get fresh water in that color anywhere else. The water looks so inviting and you all the way there the question at the back of your mind is how it would feel to take underwater pictures if I went diving with a GoPro. I thought that Lady Luck was with us because our guide mentioned we wouldn’t have to worry about crocodiles. Unfortunately, Father Time is a bitch so our tight schedule prevented us from taking a dip.
All we did was cross by boat and visit the El Molo community. The El Molo is the smallest community in Kenya. According to the latest census, the total population of the community is approximately 1004 people. Honestly, that’s smaller than most high schools. Their main source of livelihood is fishing. I think what I found interesting is that they don’t practice polygamy. But then again if that was a possibility, they’d be a lot of people left to dry out in the sun. Ha! The people there sell different ornaments and jewelry for a very fair price. Boat rides charges are Ksh 300 ($3) but there are also community charges to be paid if you want access to the place. After our visit to the village, we stopped by Palm Shade Resort for an early lunch of fish, vegetables, and ugali and I must say that that was one of the best fish I have eaten.
The journey to Ngurunit, our final destination, was estimated to be a four-hour journey and so we had to leave the resort pretty quickly so we could make it on time. On our way, we stopped by the Lake Turkana wind power installation to admire this infrastructure marvel. It is Africa’s largest wind station energy and it’s also termed as the largest public-private investment in Kenyan history.
Ngurunit is located in some of the most beautiful scenery of the NdotoMountains, in the shadow of Mount Poi and next to the Ngurunit River. There’s so much you can do here. My favorite was probably swimming at the natural rock pool. The rock is slick so it wouldn’t be wrong to think that Mother Nature made a slide into the water. Actually that’s exactly what Mother Nature did. At first, it seems scary because you are afraid that you might hit a rock but you realize that your hands act as your gear plus the rock slide is smooth so the risk for injury is minimal. Once you have done it once, trust you me you’ll probably end up doing less swimming and more of sliding. It’s so addictive and refreshing. Something else you can do is grab a hike at one of the mountains around the place. If you’re tired of being on your feet, don’t worry because camel rides and quad bikes can be arranged too at 1000 and 500ksh .
We got to Ngurunit at around 5 pm and camped at Lasamu campsite which is locally owned. The camp is simple and features both tented accommodation, bandas, regular brick, and mortar building as well as an open-air rooftop room which was my home for the night. I always choose wild experiences because why not! The toilet and showers are outdoors and the camp uses solar power. Unfortunately, during our stay there wasn’t any electricity but that okay because you don’t need any power to charge a bonfire.
The North circuit was definitely nothing short of amazing. For me, it was a new experience away from the usual and it had some massive rewards at the same time. The north has a lot of hidden gems and oozes a lot of beautiful sceneries that are waiting for everyone to tap into them. I’d recommend a minimum of a five-day excursion if you want to at least explore Loiyangalani and Ngurunit.
What to carry
- Light clothes and I mean light
- Sweets to help with the heat. This helped me more than even water.
- One sweater for the night
- More open shoes and less closed shoes.
- Personal effects as most accommodation are basic.
- For ladies, white or yellow will help with those sand dunes photos. Thank me later.
Join us for take two on November; 24th-29th. It will be a five to six day experiential trip featuring Samburu-Marsabit-North Horr-Loiyangalani and Ngurunit! Tag along.
Photos by Kenan Moses