I arrive at Nairobi and pass through security three times (everywhere else it has been a mere twice). Nonetheless, I’m at the departure gate within half-an-hour of my arrival at the airport. It’s much bigger than I remember, and completely unrecognisable: it burnt down and has since been rebuilt.
I don’t know a great deal about planes. But this one is pretty retro. It’s called a Bombardier Dash-8. It’s small (about twenty passengers), and it rattles. When I say it rattles, I mean it rattles a lot. So much so that the guy sat next to me and I have to shout at each other. He’s an American palaeontologist.
Not only does the aircraft rattle, but the cloud and heat mean it’s turbulent. I spend the first hour sweating and trying not to be sick. Then we land at Eldoret. We take off again. The second hour, north to Lodwar, is calmer. I look down on the hot, dry, mountainous landscape. It’s bare and lifeless, yet deeply captivating.
My trip so far has been spent in an Africa that some might describe as surprising. My mum, for example, didn’t expect forests and trees. Turkana is therefore textbook Africa: life is hot, and hard. As the police officer at Jomo Kenyatta Airport informed me, ‘you will see a lot of suffering…there’s a serious drought.’ He stopped me for a ‘routine check’, but he didn’t stop anyone else. He told me he was pleased I was a tourist in Kenya.
There’s other suffering here, too. One of the ladies on the plane has to get to Kenya’s largest refugee camp to see her family. She’s hoping to arrive by nightfall. I do not know whether this is because of the risk of carjacking or banditry at night. I offer to drive her there tomorrow if she prefers. Secretly, I think it would be interesting to see. But ethically I absolutely couldn’t turn up as a tourist. I think that’s just plain wrong. So dropping her off would give me a reason to drop by. I think she’ll make it tonight though, which is obviously better for her.
We land on a small, dusty runway and step out into the burning heat. Luggage is brought on a trolley and we stand beside the runway picking our belongings out of the open cart. The small airport building has only toilets and a waiting room.
I find a taxi outside. The driver hardly speaks English. He weaves fast on the un-metalled roads between tin huts, spraying dust into the air. The ride is completely disorienting.
This is perhaps the point where any normal human being might wish they’d gone to Benidorm instead, but I am awe-struck. This vast, dry scrub reminds me of the semi-desert Senegal that I fell in love with in 2006.
I arrive at Sandfields camp. I’m shown to a lovely room and given time to freshen up. There’s Premier League football on in the bar (sadly Liverpool) and more people watching than I’ve seen in the entire region so far. Perhaps the whole Turkana people follow our teams. They’re certainly taking it very seriously. It’s strange hearing British commentators via the speaker when the only ‘real’ British accent in the compound is my own.
I’m persuaded to accept a guide for my five-day journey along the lake that featured in The Constant Gardener. The guys at Sandfields think I’m perfectly safe, but they want to make absolutely sure. As everywhere I’ve been in Africa, the locals look after me like they would their brother.
So we spend the evening drinking Tusker and talking politics. My newfound Kenyan mates are trying to make sense of Brexit. I’m the only muzungu [white man] at the compound, so I’m called upon to explain the unexplainable. I’m a bit ashamed of my nationality right now to be honest.
Matters are lighter in the bar itself: I see two Turkanans watching Arsenal-Southampton. One is wearing an MUFC shirt and the other an Arsenal top. I tell the MUFC-wearer that he would deserve to live in Manchester if he took his mate’s Arsenal shirt off and burnt it. We laugh. Perhaps I should watch football more closely when I get home: it’s an easier way to build friendships out here than learning Kiswahili.
So, another Tusker. Then it’s bed. Tomorrow I need to withdraw my body weight in cash (the biggest Kenyan Shilling note is worth about £7) to pay for the guide and week’s car hire. It’ll make me feel like a millionaire for a day I guess. To be a millionaire in Kenyan Shillings you need only have £7,660.75. That’s 1,094 x £7 notes. So I won’t be spending anything like that much.
Then I need a hair cut (this is going to be interesting). Finally, I’ll meet my guide and the Toyota Land Cruiser that I’m to drive towards the top of the Lake. Almost where Kenya becomes Ethiopia. Then there’ll be five days or so to work my way back down Turkana’s Western shore.