A Journey to the Jade Sea

(Now called lake Turkana)

Aspects of Africa 1 – The El Molo of Kenya

David Beeson July 2022

In 1998 our family spent some time exploring Kenya for the first time. Perhaps one of the most interesting journeys was to the far north-east of the country, to Lake Turkana, beyond the lands of the Samburu Tribe. It is remote, very remote and we drove for many hours seeing no other vehicles, and sometimes not even seeing the road – we just headed in the right direction across volcanic larva fields.

We had first spotted the area from a plane heading to Malawi. We had been in the cockpit when Annette asked, “What’s that lake?” The friendly pilot searched for an ancient atlas and responded, “Lake Rudolf”, as it was once called. Now it is now called Lake Turkana and is proudly the world capital for Nile crocodiles – over 14 000. , It is the world’s largest permanent desert lake and is semi-saline with no outlet to the sea and 1cm of evaporation daily. It, indeed, has had a third name, The Jade Sea. (See the book at the end.)

Maralal lady

The rocks in the surrounding area are predominantly volcanic. The Central Island reserve is an active volcano, emitting vapour. Outcrops and rocky shores are found on the east and south shores of the lake, while dunes, spits and flats are on the west and north, at a lower elevation. It is very dry and conventional agriculture is utterly impossible.

On-shore and off-shore winds can be extremely strong, as the lake warms and cools more slowly than the land. Sudden, violent storms are frequent. Three rivers (the Omo, Turkwel and Kerio) flow into the lake, but lacking outflow, its only water loss is by evaporation. The lake’s volume and dimensions are variable. For example, its level fell by 10 m (33 ft) between 1975 and 1993. However, it now has increased in size by 10% and many surrounding areas have been flooded, with villages being isolated or destroyed.

Lake Turkana

A new dam is in prospect in neighbouring Sudan which will divert water to irrigation schemes. This will impact a tragically poor community even futher.

Our journey to Turkana, from Nairobi, took several days, first stopping at lake Baringo before hitting the wild, remote northern Kenyan country.

Maralal was dry, even though we arrived in August. The town was lively with proud and aloof people dressed often in red, stripped clothes. Most locals were reluctant to be photographed, but some Kenyan shillings turn a few peoples’ minds.

With desert-like vegetaion the countryside felt unproductive, although the acacia trees had fearful spines that even penetrated my shoes and the Landcruiser’s tyres. Ostriches, Grant’s gazelles and zebra were around, as were large bateleur eagles.

Our road north

Eventually, the ‘road’ defeated the vehicle. Three attempts to drive up the stream bed’s side failed, until a winch (and shedding the human cargo) supplied enough pull to reach the top. At times the Landcruiser travelled at about 1kph for long periods.

Despite the remoteness, people were around. Camel herders and tribally-dressed men could be spotted sitting under bushes. Of volcanic cones there were dozens, with a count of 50 in one location.

 As one could reasonably expect, camping was basic and had its interesting side. One night, at Baringo, we had hippos trotting and grunting past our tents, and near South Horr we had a fully dressed Samburu warrior, complete with spear, squatting outside the tent all night for our protection. (No loo trips that night!) The long-drop loos here were yet another experience, with their embedded wildlife interesting and very mobile. But, at our lake venue we had our own huts, complete with a 30cm lip in the entrance. Why? To stop Nile crocodiles wandering inside.

Our lakeside hotel

At our lakeside camp, we swam inside a crocodile-proof enclosure but other activity was impossible for us due to the heat.

Near Baringo. Klipspringers.

Along the lake shore we encountered nomadic herdsmen with flocks of camels and goats, plus a few donkeys and, surprisingly, sheep.

A further issue on our exploration was that the Samburu and Rendille tribes were killing each other, each currently accusing the other of cattle rustling. This stopped us visiting the main settlement of Loyangalani.

Yes, this is the El Molo village
Annette and locals

We were picked up from our lake campsite and taken to the El Molo village. Spotting cormorants, shags, pelicans, white and goliath herons, Egyptian geese, plovers and African skimmers from the powered boat. Distant views were had of timid crocodiles, which are locally hunted for food. Around the settlement were grey-headed gulls, kori bustards, sand grouse and various hornbills.

The photographs give a feel for the village, but not the overriding smell of fish and a ground covered in fish scales. Inside, the hunts were basic with a bed, three stones to contain a wood fire (wood collected many kilometres away and carried back by the women) and a metal cooking pot. Clothes and other resources were virtually absent. There was a communally-owned maize grinding machine; the maize being donated by the USA.

Despite their basic construction, with a lack of rainfall the locals told us the buildings were long-lasting.

El Molo village
Colourful women
El Molo villagers
El Molo villagers

The tribal dead were ‘buried’ by placing stones over the body as digging was impossible.

The El Molo live in an impossibly remote location and their population was mainly found in two villages of 150 and 70 residents. The whole tribe is no greater than 1100, and its integrity is being diluted by marriage and its unique language is nearly extinct.

My Lonely Planet says of the Jade Sea – ‘Top the ridge here and therein is in front of you – The Jade Sea. It’s a breathtaking sight – vast and yet apparently totally barren. Youll see nothing living here except a few brave, stunted thorn trees. When you reach the lake shore, you’ll know why – it’s a soda lake and, at this end, highly saline.’ Of the El Molo village there is no mention.

See: Journey to the Jade Sea, by John Hillaby. This is only available second-hand and is historic, but recommended.

We had been in the cockpit viewing Lake Turkana when we spotted Mount Kilomanjaro… and the pilot flew all around it so we could view it from all sides. That would not happen today.

There is an article about the El Molo in the Guardian. See website for 1st February 2022/

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