Kenya’s response to the Wild West?

I’m at the airport in Eldoret. Walking some few steps outside in sunny weather before boarding a small aeroplane. I find my seat next to Alex. He is – among other things – a Kenyan travel vlogger. We have a mission. We are going to northern Kenya to a place called Turkana. In about an hour we will arrive in the main town, Lodwar.

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The main town of Lodwar seen from above with the characteristic hills

We’re on a plane because of a relapse in violence between two tribes. The Turkana people and the Pokots. Both tribes are semi-nomads. They seem to learn to hate each other from childhood and to steal each other’s animals. Most likely 100 to 700 cattle at the time.

The animals are often used as brides payment, and you don’t get a good wife for two heads of cattle. It’s young men with an AK-47 in their hand who steal. Involving firearms probably started back in time when Italy colonized Ethiopia and also planned to go after northern Kenya.

Specifically, the Italians had their eyes fixed on Turkana Lake, as an attractive natural resource. But they didn’t want dirt on their hands. Therefore the Italians went to the Pokots and gave them firearms to expel the Turkana people. Subsequently, attempts have been made to establish peace between the two tribes, and for a period there has even been peace.

But the rumors say that not everyone are equally interested in its success. At the same time, it might not be up to the two tribes to decide entirely on their own.

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Turkana Lake is still considered to be a lifeline in Turkana

Now the unrest has flared up again. Therefore I’m reading the local news from Turkana to be able to make a relevant risk assessment. It’s the main road between Kitale and Lodwar which will cause the biggest problem. This road is crossing in between the two warring parties.

When I read that passengers were herded out of the buses by road robbers, the matter is settled. That’s why we are now sitting on a plan overlooking a magnificent semi-desert.

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The desert of Turkana is referred to as a semi-desert as there are still some trees and shrubs

Turkana is significantly different from the rest of Kenya. I’m aware that I travel to this place with 100’s of prejudices, that I hope to get nuanced.

The place is also quite expensive. Partly because it costs a lot to ship goods out to sparsely inhabited areas with a challenging infrastructure. Partly because Turkana people, understand how to do business in a deserted area, where a tourist will run out of options as fast as a lizard can climb a tree.

Numerous times I have been warned to visit Turkana without the protection of a travel agency. But since reading Grete Roulunds book “Kenya” my mind has been set on the idea of traveling solo. Her travelogue inspired me, and her aim became my dreams.

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In the footsteps of Grete Roulund at Crocodile Lake on Central Island

On Lodwar’s hill

I’ve been reading a lot about the capital of Turkana and I’m expecting the worst. Especially because the town’s primary propulsion is generated based on NGO businesses. They swarm to Turkana to save the place from famine. It’s an event that is as traditional as Christmas and Easter.

I have my thoughts on why Turkana needs to be rescued ones a year, instead of finding durable solutions. Hopefully, the trip will show me wrong.

After a walk, I am becoming pleasantly surprised by the town itself. The airport lies at a very short distance from the centre. The place appears cosy and has all the necessities a traveller would look for. I am appreciating how relaxing it feels to walk around. The residents will look at me with great curiosity, but they mind their own business unless I seek contact.

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The copy of Christor Redentor in Lodwar reportedly turns his face towards Rio de Janerio

The next day we see one of Lodwar’s few tourist attractions. A copy of the statue Cristo Redentor, which in the original version is in Rio de Janeiro.

From the top of the hill, I enjoy the quite breathtaking view. I let the story lead me back to the time of the English colonists. Back then as now Lodwar and Turkana has been considered wasteland. Thus it was natural for the British to send the former Kenyan president in jail here. He was allowed to walk around in the daytime. So every day he would walk up to this particular hilltop.

It’s said that he did it to see his enemies in the eye from afar. It makes me wonder. Why see his torments come from afar when he couldn’t defend himself against them? But I certainly accept that he has found the perfect place for the purpose.

I can see most of the town and far beyond in the horizon. The dried-up river looks like a main road at the foot of the hill. In a few weeks, the rainy season is coming. The rain will let the river overflow its banks and take cars and unwary people with it. It’s also a tradition in Turkana.

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What might look like a wide road is in fact a dried-up river

We do our last shopping in Lodwar and find a Probox taxi to Kalokol. A town close to Lake Turkana. A Probox taxi is a common station wagon, where the driver can carry up to 12 passengers – with the help of the big trunk. We drive into the desert to a steady stream of songs from Tanzania and Uganda. Our first sign that Turkana doesn’t feel especially Kenyan.

Charismatic diplomacy

When arriving at Fimbos campsite, I’m speechless. I was expecting a ramshackle hut with a small area to pitch the tent. But we are met with a cosy bar that radiates Caribbean beach. A big TV screen is showing a football match at a sound level that causes the sand to vibrate under our feet.

On the roof of the bar, I see one solar panel after another. Sparkling in the last few rays of the evening sun. The campsite is infinite, with attached toilets and bathing. Not with showers, but the classic “water in a basin”-version.

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The entrance to Fimbos surprisingly large and cozy campsite

We are sitting and talking with Fimbo while drinking a cold Kenyan beer. Fimbo doesn’t consume alcohol. Instead, he drinks a soda from Uganda. We explain to him that we would like to reach an island about 20 km from the campsite.

Fimbo gives us a total price of 17,000 Kenyan shillings. At the same price, we can buy a Kenyan standard refrigerator. But regardless the comparison this is infact incredibly cheap. According to my research, he could easily have asked for 25.000 shillings. So we decide that Fimbo is our man.

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The camp is close to a small fishing village where the visitor can get an insight into everyday life

We are telling Fimbo that Turkana is not at all as people have told us. We are both surprised that there are electricity, cold drinks and we have 4G access to the Internet. We had expected to climb a tree in an attempt to get a network. The general friendliness has overwhelmed us too.

Fimbo is smiling at our statements. “We are peaceful people if we are visited with peace. If people come with other intentions, then everything you’ve heard is true too”. I’m looking at Fimbo with a big smile on my face. He has already crossed me as being charismatic. But now he has just demonstrated diplomatic abilities. I’m indeed about to get my view of Turkana nuanced.

When going to bed, there is only a mosquito net between me and the rest of the world. The sand moulds around my body and feels warm and soft. When I turn on the side, I see the silhouette of a guard with an AK-47 hanging over his shoulder. I smile with a sigh of content, knowing that no hyena will come around the tent tonight.

Myggenetstelt-overnatning-kenya The mosquito net tent is closed for the night by digging the edges of the net into the sand

When nature strikes back

We are on the beach waiting for our boat. The lake looks calm, so we’ll try to cross over to Central Island. We pick up our handbags and begin to walk towards the boat. Alex is filming a bit for his vlog, and so begins our boat ride.

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It’s relaxed to be on the beach in Kalokol

I sit at the front of the boat, which turns out to be an exciting choice. Little did I think of how the waves like to build up in the middle of the lake. The bow is now pounding into the waves with such an amazing force. I catch hold of a rope that is attached to my seat receiving some solid beating by the boat.

I’m not even considering to be worried. We have an experienced boatman with us, approved life jackets and an powerful outboard motor. On top of that, our boatman turns out to be worth my trust. He decides that the waves are getting too high. Therefore, we go alongside an island somewhere in Ferguson Bay.

Turkana Lake is 250 km long and can behave like an ocean. So it’s not unusual that we can’t cross over at the first attempt.

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A well-kept boat to cross with is important. Here we are on the second attempt

We go for a walk on the island. Villages with thatched cottages have been built with respectful distance to the lakeshore. There are smoked and dried fish around us. I ask if they are being sold to people further into the Turkana desert – where may be less natural resources.

There are already rumors that the annual famine is about to set in. But the answer is no. The fish are shipped to Congo, for which they pay a better price.

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Fish are dried before being transported to Congo or Rwanda

I’m a little shocked by the answer. Why should NGO companies help others in Turkana, when resources are right here to take care of themselves? Why are Turkana people by the lake so greedy? I stop and look around.

I see hard-working people under an unbearably hot sun. Then I remember my amazement at the decor in Fimbos camp. I’m surrounded by people whose mindset is guided by achieving modern conveniences. I think it’s okay as it helps to raise the standards of living. But they are also up against a harsh environment. It challenges them in even simple everyday problems. If they want to achieve modern comforts, they need to be innovative and financially strong. Therefore they don’t sell their fish to the most starving, but the highest bidder.

As I put an end to my thoughts, a fisherman comes to me. “Look at this guy!!”, he laughs widely as he in the air holds up a fish. He starts to shake it. The more he shakes the fish, the more the fish puffs up.

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The air in the balloon fish is decreasing after an impressive show

How to make a genuine Turkana bath

It’s hot, so we want to jump into the lake to take a swim. I’m a little apprehensive. The Kenyan government is part of a conservation project of the Nilk Crocodile. This means that there are now just about 20,000 of them in the lake. It would be an obvious problem to continue the trip if there are some of those beasts around us.

The local Turkans are smiling while telling me, “don’t worry, crocodiles only eat fish – you know, white meat”. I raise my eyebrows while looking down at my arm. Then I look at the men who are trying to assure me of my safety. They see my point and burst into laughter.

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Ask the locals where it’s safe to swim to avoid using your travel insurance. Photo: Fimbo

I am watching our boatman. He scrubs himself with sand. Leaving it on the skin for a while,  before heading out to take another dip. I want to try that too. When I’m done with the bath, my skin feels soft.

Beside Lake Turkana being the world’s largest permanent desert lake, it’s also a predominantly volcanic area. This means that the sand is full of minerals. In other words, I’m probably standing in the world’s largest natural spa.

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One of the many beautiful craters around Turkana Lake

The sun is still too hot, but the lake hasen’t yet calmed down. Therefore, we are invited to sit in the shade of a large acacia tree. We are surrounded by a big crowd of Turkana people, and soon we are exchanging questions and answers.

I am getting overwhelmed by the greatness of the situation. Here I’m sharing a moment with a tribe that most people – including Kenyans – are described as warlike and irreconcilable. It feels unreal. But maybe the perception of the Turkana people isen’t quite right.

Island rangers without a boat

When arriving at Central Island, we are welcomed by two young policemen. They act as rangers on the island. However, I wouldn’t be able to identify them as authorities, as they are wearing plain cloth.

We are giving them a big barrel of water. They are relying on what “guests” bring them as they are on the island without a boat available. When I ask why they are left without a vessel, the answer is simple. “Otherwise, it’s not certain that they will stay on the island.” I nod. Knowing that there is a lack of trust in Kenya.

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Hike on Central Island

We find our campsite. We drop our luggage and head out on a late afternoon walk. The island consists of three crater lakes. Crocodile, Flamingo and Tilapia Lake. We go to see the Crocodile Lake.

It’s quiet except from when some ibis are flying over our heads. Our boatman and Alex are spotting crocodiles. I’m looking doubtful at the water. “Is it a branch or is it a crocodile?” I don’t have “African eyes” which can spot an animal from miles away. So I’m staying close to the men to improve my chances in the food chain.

While we’re admiring the surroundings, we hear a big splash close to us, and a bird screaming heartbreaking. We agree that it’s about time to head back to the camp and some safety. For an unknown reason, the crocodiles don’t come near the camp.

We pitch the mosquito net underneath a tree. Once again I appreciate how little is needed to camp in Turkana. There are no clouds, so we enjoy a short but beautiful sunset. It will be another amazing night with a clear sky and night with temperatures above 20 degrees

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Turkana is a paradise for people who love sunrise and sunset

Hiking Central Island – an active volcano

Early the next morning, we get ready to hike on the island. Also this time Crocodile Lake is the first place to visit. Right now the surface is completely calm. All the crocodiles have crossed over to the sunny side.

At the top, we enjoy a spectacular view, before moving on to Flamingo Lake. I’d expected to see beautiful pink flamingos walking around in emerald green water. But there are absolutely no birds at all. Not even a single ibis is hanging around to greet us.

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With or without birds, Lake Flamingo is beautiful

When moving on I finally get my mystery solved. How did the fish get into Tilapia Lake? But it turns out that most of the crater is under the water. We don’t stay for long at this place.

There has recently been a plane crash. Police officers are guarding the place until the wreckage can be shipped to the mainland. What ever the circumstances, our time is running out if we want to reach the mainland today. So we are heading back to the camp.

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With sensible footwear, the hike is not challenging and the landscape can be fully enjoyed

While we are crossing, I think of my research. The internet is divided on whether it’s worth visiting Central Island. As our trip unfolded, the answer is yes.  Mingling with Turkana people and sleeping on an active volcano island added even more to the trip.

Experience makes perfect

Next day we are on our way to Kalokol. We’ll find a Probox taxi to Lobolo. But no one wants the trip, as the terrain is difficultly passable without an SUV. But we have heard of a beautiful oasis, which we must see.

There is a luxury camp to be found nearby. I hope we can stay close to the camp to take advantage of their safety. During the trip, I’ve started to be familiar with the idea of hyena free nights. I don’t mind if it stays that way.

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Our luggage on the way to Kalokol

Finally, we find a driver who’s willing to take us. He just wants to pick up a friend and do one more stop. Then we can drive to Lobolo.

We stop far from anything at a thatched hut that embraces the traditionally Africa. At the cottage, there is a refrigerator with a red and white Coca Cola logo. Just standing there and buzzing softly in the sand. It draws power from two huge solar panels located on either side of the cottage.

I’m reading a sign about the possibility of phone charging when a man appears from the shop. He is wearing what best can be described as a complete hip hop outfit. He hands over a few bottles of gasoline to our driver who greets him comradely. Turkana is full of surprises, and I like every one of them.

As we are humming along to a new song by the Tanzanian womanizer, Diamond, the inevitable happens. We get stuck in the sand. Everybody has to get out and push.

Despite a wooden board in front of the wheel, we just get more stuck in the sand. The only reward is the beginning of blisters on our hands by touching the car. That said, it’s very hot in Turkana.

I’m remembering a situation like this in the Sahara desert. I tell Alex, who translate to the 2 Turkana men. Then we start gathering palm leaves together. As many as possible. We put the leaves well under the front wheels and some few meters ahead of us. Now we can only hope the wheels will get a firm grip, so we can push forward instead of digging the car deeper into the sand.

After some hard work, we finally get out of the holes. The feeling is fantastic. We are free of sand without a single mechanical damage to the car.

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We are on an official way to lobolo – and that is why SUVs are a good choice

I just shared my last sip of bottled water with the driver’s friend. He deserves every single drop. Now I finally understand his job on this trip. The driver will probably like to get home again – and preferably today. But pushing alone won’t make it happen.

I’m okay with running out of water in the middle of the desert. I have a water filter pump in my backpack. With the right vaccinations and the pump in my hand, I can drink from almost anything. And the lake, is never more than a manageable walk away.

The Garden of Eden

When we get to Lobolo the camp is closed for the season. But they choose to let us stay overnight at the campsite anyway.

One of the employees sets up a shower and a toilet for us. We are quite amazed by their hospitality. They, on the other hand, appreciate that we are having a gas burner with us. A fire would grab the roots beneath the sand and easily burn the whole place down.

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I’ve never, ever had such a large and beautiful bathroom

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Showering in spring water in a palm grove is one of the experiences that strikes a lot.

The man helps us putting piles in the ground to make a square mosquito tent. Here we don’t use the trees as the backdrop. The close-standing palm trees belong to the animals at night.

The man advises us to always turn on our flashlights when walking around in the dark. Palm groves are enchantingly beautiful, but also a paradise for snakes. The light from the flashlight will make them go away.

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It looks cozy, but the space is reserved for snakes

That night we are digging the edges of the mosquito net even deeper into the sand than ever before. Meanwhile, I wonder about the President on the hilltop in Lodwar. I don’t think he was there to see his torment in the eyes from afar.

No, he did it to study his enemy’s routines to avoid a confrontational meeting. Just as we are now able to meet the night with peace of mind, because we have knowledge of our enemy.

Research and obtaining advice from the locals will always increase safety considerably.

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Here the tent stands in the open, which is the right thing to do in a palm grove

Next morning we are enjoying this amazing place till past midday. A genuine Turkana bath has almost become a ritual. After the bath, we go back to the camp.

I look around at all the beauty that surrounds me, and let my mind wander. “If the Bible is authentic, then it wouldn’t surprise me if this is the Garden of Eden. Which has a beautiful coincidence with the fact that Turkana is considered to be the cradle of mankind. Here we arose as human species. From here we walked on to settle an entire planet”.

I am hurrying up packing the last few things. We’ll be meeting with some people from the camp who will give us a ride in their truck. Soon we rush through the desert on our way to Eliyes  Springs.

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With this vehicle we are hardly going to get stuck in the sand again

Tourist magnet

While we are rumbling off, I’m thinking about our next stop. Eliye Springs hasen’t been on my list of wishes. All tourists, whether they are foreign or Kenyans, tend to flock to this site. But it’s an obvious conclusion to our journey as it’s a natural transportation route back to Lodwar.

At home, I was trawling the internet to find the least touristy campsite. On arriving Kristine’s camp turns out to be a really good catch. The place is having everything a heart can desire. Best of all – there are no other guests than us. What I think might be related to the upcoming rainy season.

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A very small section of Kristines Camp, which also has a toilet, shower, cabins for rent etc.

We enjoy a cold soda at the restaurant. The staff entertains us with colorful stories from life. For example, how children as young as 3 years old are learning to shoot at targets. How Turkana people easily end op being ambushed when traveling into neighboring areas. And of course we discuss, if there is a link between aid relief and corruption.

I’ve read about it. But hearing it from someone living here is not the same. The personal meeting promotes a more profound understanding.

Alex and I say good night and go for an evening stroll. “Wewe“, Alex says, “I’m going back home tomorrow” I nod. I’ve noticed that in the last couple of days he has been on the phone continuously. “No problem” I reply, “but I like to stay” We walk in silence the rest of the trip. The sunset, the waves beating against the palm trees. The surroundings are too beautiful to talk.

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Palms close to the water are used as “changing rooms” when people are bathing. In those cases, everyone keeps respectful distance.

The Danish song

The next morning, I’m saying goodbye to Alex and I’m heading into the unknown. Soon I meet some camels who’s moving majestically down to the lake in a sedately pace. They are only drinking very little water before eating some food.

When done they silently disappear into the rear area again. Then the goats are entering. They are running all the over the beach acting energetic and curious.

There is something soothing by sitting and observing the animals’ habits at the lake shore. I’ve been told that every day, between 2-3 pm, around 100 camels can be seen in the water. It must be quite a sight.

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A camel calf eats

I still have to get used to that I’m in a semi-desert. I mistakenly easily compare it to the Sahara. But from a climate perspective, I’m finding joy in seeing relatively many trees here.

I’m remembering a talk I had with a friend by the coast. I was told, that if someone wants to feel the rain against his face, he will have to plant a tree. “Next time”, I think to myself, “I will take a bag of seedballs with me”.

The thought occurs to me knowing that Kenya is only covered by 10% forest. The need to plant trees is real. At the same time, I have to admit that my love for deserts is perfectly fine. As long as I’m aware that it’s not durable for the locals.

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Washing clothes with a good view makes all the trivial work much nicer

It’s been a long day. As I lay down to sleep, I enjoy the comfortable feeling of safety. The Turkana people have started building houses instead of cottages. But they are too hot to sleep in at night. Therefore, they are sleeping in every palm cluster around me. It feels not only safe but cosy too.

I come to think of the book “Kenya“. Grete Roulund is telling how she one night, fare out in the bush, is going home alone. To scare off the animals, she begins to sing the Danish song called “Vimmersvej”.

The Turkana people start singing in canon with her, and the animals of the night are most likely fleeing head over heels. I’m considering giving her tale new life, but I can barely remember the text and am too tired.

The instinct is justified

Going back to Lodwar gives me two choices. A Probox taxi costing 15,000 shillings, or I can take a motorcycle taxi at the price of 1,500 shillings.

I choose the motorbike to carry me through the 60 km of desert. We pass big herds of camels. Small villages with waving children and a beautiful landscape that is constantly changing. Soon we are having Lodwars characteristic hills in sight.

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A short stop in the desolate riverbed near Lodwar

I like to take the bus back to Kitale, so I’m inquiring about the safety on the road. Not with the bus companies. They will say just about anything to sell a ticket. But with the locals. Shortly after I’m deciding that it’s safe and buy myself a seat.

The journey is just as beautiful as I am told. The quality of the road amazes me, which otherwise is described as excruciating. With that said, it’s far from a good road, but I had expected worse. However, I’m beginning to understand the many accidents when the rainy season comes. For almost every time we have to cross a river, we are driving into the parched riverbed, as there is no bridge.

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Lodwar’s matatu stop – ready for “Downunder-Kenya”

I have to show my passport at five different police posts, which makes me smile. I didn’t show it once at the airport. At one of the posts, the driver and the police officer walk behind the car with my passport. They stay there for a long time. Instinctively, I have a feeling that something is wrong. When I’m given back the passport the policeman is smiling to me in a way that confirms my suspicions.

I’m choosing, however, to keep quiet. With the parties involved and the areas’ lack of security, this seems to be the best solution at the time. To my luck, the radio is playing a song by Jah Prayzah. My Zimbabwean hero. It helps me to breathe calmly and focusing on enjoying the rest of the trip.

I see the beautiful countryside and the village, Kainuk, with its bridge. Just a few weeks ago there were violent shootings here. I enjoy the colors of the sunset. Holding my breath as we are driving through a mountain pass infamous for highway robbers.

The trip is one long journey of impressions and the joy of nature.

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Naturen på vej mod Kitale er lige så smuk, som folk har beskrevet den for mig

When I arrive at Kitale, all my belongings are spread out in the trunk of the bus. Someone has gone through my backpack. It must have been a bad disappointment as the bag is only filled with dirty laundry.

Things of value I keep in my hand luggage. I’d heard rumors that this could happen in Kenya. I sigh deeply. But then I remind myself that this is a side issue. The journey itself has been amazing.

Turkana has probably made a lifelong impression on me. Even now I’m smiling, when thinking of the thatched cottage serving as a shop and a gas station. I’m full of admiration and enthusiasm towards Turkana.

Travel Tips

I brought my water filter pump, which helped me out a lot. So whenever I refer to drinking water, or cooking with water which is not coming from a bottle, then please note that it has been filtered and boiled before use.

Fimbos campsite is located north of Kalokol at the Impreza beach. It’s also called Erkanyarit Akicha – “the sky where the stars shine the brightest”. Net-tent can be rented.

You can shop in the town 6 km away, and cook food with your own camping gear, or have  takeaway from the town. The food will be brought by a motorcycle taxi, which you also have to pay for.

An overnight stay in your tent costs 500 Kenyan shillings. There are a toilet and a ” water in a basin”-bath. Fimbo fetches clean water from the lake. It works fine for drinking and cooking food.

You can contact Fimbo on ekuwomfimbo@gmail.com

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Lake Turkana’s beaches can easily challenge the Kenyan coast

Central island campsite is located in a national park, therefore an admission to the park must be paid. There is no shower beside Lake Turkana, and there are no toilets.

You must bring all the gear, food and drinks by yourself. In return, you might have a volcanic island all to yourself at night. Apart from the 2 rangers looking after you.

At the same time, you can start the hike early in the morning when the temperature is much more pleasant.

Lobolo camp should be contacted before visiting them. Net-tent can be rented. Cooking is only allowed with a gas burner. There are no shops around, so unless you have made other arrangements, you must bring everything yourself.

They are using spring water which has excellent quality. There are showers and european toilet facilities.

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On the hike up the hilltop of Lodwar it’s possible to enjoy a few Bible quotes

Kristines camp you will find 2 kilometres south of the town towards the lake. It’s unknown if a net-tent can be rented. Though, It’s possible to rent cabins. A tent site costs 500 Kenyan shillings.

You can dine at the restaurant if placing an order in advance. Or you can shop in town and cooke your food using own gas burners. Water is from the tap. There are shower and toilet facilities.

You can find other options for accommodation in Turkana HERE.

The temperatures in Turkana can be unbearable. But you can keep your water at a desirable drinking temperature by wrapping some soaked fabric around a bottle of water – preferably cotton. After 10 minutes, the water is much cooler.

Avoid Turkana in the rainy season, as there are some serious floods and the roads are limited navigable.

Mpesa is useful in Turkana, but mostly to draw out money since the Turkana people prefer cash.

Wondering what happened to Alex vlog? You can see it right HERE

If you have any questions about my travels, feel free to ask them in the comments below.

Read more exciting articles by Cathrine Thovtrup

Maasai land – A solo trip with volcanic adventure in Kenya
Footsteps of the camels
Singing sand in Morocco – is comming up
Through Kenya as a solo woman – is comming up