Matthew Parris Matthew Parris

Lake Turkana, Kenya: postcard from the edge

A postcard from Kenya

As I write, a great gale is blowing in from Lake Turkana. The dry hills on the other side, always faint, have disappeared. Sheets of warm rain lash our tent, rollers crash on to the white sandy shore, huge pelicans struggle against the wind, the flamingos are gone, and fishermen like thin black sticks — Lowryesque — from the Turkana tribe can be seen streaking up the beach ferrying equipment from their now-beached wooden fishing canoe to a clump of doum palms where they’ll shelter.

But nobody is cold. The lake feels like a tepid bath when we swim (where humans fish, the Nile crocodiles stay away), while the air temperature has plummeted within hours from about 45˚C (113˚F) to more like a muggy English summer. These windstorms (though not the rain) are common on Lake Turkana. In this part of far-northern Kenya the average annual rainfall is 110mm (less than five inches), but the region’s oven-like heat meets the sharp cooling effect of this huge body of water to produce great blasts of wind. Readers of my generation will remember this lake from geography lessons as Lake Rudolph: the largest permanent desert lake on the planet, some 150 miles long, 20 to 30 miles wide, and the northern-most of the string of great African lakes along the thousand-mile trench of the Great Rift Valley.

And by far the most remote. Two super-rich Americans arrived by helicopter last night; we got here by flying from Nairobi to the airstrip at Lodwar, then bouncing down to the lake along a sandy track past the tiny, beautiful wicker huts of the Turkana people: about two hours in a hardy Toyota Land Cruiser painted in the milky green that gives the lake its other name, the Jade Sea. You could drive up from Nairobi past Mount Kenya but you’d need two days; and a driver trying to reach Nairobi has just returned, reporting impassable conditions.

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