Expert Reviews – Lake Turkana

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Lake Turkana – water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink
Overall rating

When I say I went up to Turkana in the dry season, I am probably understating it a bit. It was in the thick of a drought. There hadn’t been rain for three years. Children were begging beside the road with empty Coke bottles. We had to take all our own water. It made it all the more frustrating to see animals lying dead beside the shores of the soda lake – all that undrinkable salty water. The only thing that was thriving was volcanic lava which lay strewn across the wasteland. I brought a piece back with me, thinking that locals could start a cottage industry selling pumice stone. It stained me black. It still lurks reproachfully on my bathroom shelf.

Lake Turkana is exciting in a hell-mouth sort-of way. In the desert in the far north of Kenya, this is the largest and saltiest of the Rift Valley lakes. If full, it stretches 249 kms from north to south, is 44 kms at its widest point and up to 30m deep. Its total surface area is 70,000 sq kms (27,027 sq miles). Of this, 161,485 hectares (623 sq miles) is protected within three separate national parks – Sibiloi National Park, the South Island and the Central Island National Parks, which together have also become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, both because of their importance to wildlife and prehistoric heritage. The Turkana region as a whole and Koobi Fora, in particular, is one of the great treasure troves of palaeontology, offering up some of the richest evidence of man’s earliest roots from fossil beds well-preserved within the Rift walls.
As far as wildlife is concerned, there are relatively few mammals around, but they do manage to survive. However, the lake is an important birding centre, with up to 350 species from local residents including pink-backed pelicans and flamingoes which thrive on the brackish water to many migrants which use it as a stopover en route to their European summer homes. It is also an important breeding point for hippos, several species of venomous snake and the world’s largest breeding ground for the Nile crocodile.

Truthfully, this is probably not a collection most people would cross deserts to see, but the lake does have a real fascination, particularly when you throw in the local tribes people who have a festival each May. In this instance, wildlife takes backseat to the overall experience.

Emerald splash in an untamed terrain
Overall rating

Visiting Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world, is a real adventure. For the cash-rich and time-poor, it’s a flight in a private light aircraft over the blistered earth below. For everyone else, it’s a couple of days of hardy overland travel from Nairobi. However you choose to come, your first view of the lake – a slash of iridescent jade, stretching down along the Great Rift Valley from Ethiopia - is one that will stay with you for a long time.

There are three national parks at Lake Turkana: Sibiloi National Park, South Island National Park and the Central Island National Park. Much of the wildlife that you find here is fitting to the harsh landscape, including Nile crocodile, plentiful venomous snakes and scorpions. Mammals include zebras, hippopotamus, gazelle, hartebeest, lion and cheetah, though this isn’t the place to come to see big cats.

Facilities here are few and you won’t meet many other travelers and that is the appeal. Traveling in a Landcruiser across bleak desert and past dramatic volcanic backdrops; encountering traditionally dressed nomadic pastoralists herding their camels; and sleeping in absolute tranquility in rustic Turkana style huts beside the lake are among my favorite Kenya experiences.

Lake Turkana, an oasis for desert people and animals alike
Overall rating

Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world, lies in the scenic Rift Valley in the very remote inaccessible part of Northern Kenya. Getting here means crossing the inhospitable Chalbi desert. This is not a place to include in just any Kenya safari; this is a destination and trip in its own right. Getting here and back, taking in some of the other attractions of Northern Kenya takes time and is only for people who don’t mind roughing it a bit and are up for some adventure.

The wildlife is scarce, but all the expected desert creatures of this part of the world are present. These include gerenuk, dik-dik, reticulated giraffe and beisa oryx. The birding is excellent and you’ll be able to tick off some real desert specials. For me, coming to this part of Kenya isn’t primarily about the wildlife or scenery. Ancient tribes rule here and a little interaction with these incredible people has made for an unforgettable experience.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.7/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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