Lake Turkana: Cradle of Mankind

Shimmering like a mirage in the harshly beautiful landscape of northern Kenya, Lake Turkana (6,400 sq km) is the largest permanent desert lake in the world, an alkaline giant, whose treacherous mercurial blue-green waters have earned it the title ‘The Jade Sea’.

Fringed by stark cliffs, rocky beaches, and the petrified remains of a once-great cedar forest that flourished seven million years ago, this surreal landscape is lashed by searingly hot winds and is home to the world’s largest population of crocodiles. Survivors of an epoch long before mankind, Lake Turkana’s estimated 12,000 crocodile have hardly changed in 130 million years. Despite their monstrous size and formidable appearance they are generally inoffensive beasts living in perfect harmony with their environment and feeding on the Lake’s prolific fish.

Located on the Lake’s northeastern shore and known as the ‘Cradle of Mankind’, Sibiloi National Park was created to protect the sites of the many remarkable hominid fossil finds revealed by its searing winds. The Park yielded its most striking treasure in 1972 when a 2 million-year-old fossilized skull was discovered by eminent paleontologist, Dr Richard Leakey, and his team at Koobi Fora.

The almost complete skull (labelled ‘1470’ by the National Museum of Kenya) confirmed the existence of a sophisticated evolutionary hominid named Homo habilis, the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens. Evidence of Homo erectus was also unearthed along with some 160 additional finds relating to the early hominids.

Although all Koobi Fora’s human fossils are now housed in Nairobi’s National Museum, you can still view the fossil of a 3 million-year-old giant tortoise, an ancient species of crocodile and a 1.5 million-year-old behemoth on-site.

A Guide To Lake Turkana

At Kenya’s far Northern frontier lies one of the natural wonders of the world Lake Turkana

Lake Turkana is a massive inland sea, the largest desert lake in the world (6,405 sq km). This single body of water is over 250 kilometres long- longer than the entire Kenyan coast.

It is widely known as the Jade Sea, because of the remarkable, almost incandescent, colour of its waters. After a long journey through the sweltering deserts and lava flows of Northern Kenya, the sight of this vast body of bright turquoise water comes as an unearthly, ethereal vision.

Lake Turkana is a source of life for some of Kenya’s most remote tribes. The Turkana, with ancestral ties to Uganda, live a semi-nomadic existence around the Lake. The country’s smallest tribe, the El Molo, live a hunter-gatherer existence on the shores, in villages of distinctive rounded reed huts.

Turkana has one of the longest living histories on earth, and recent fossil evidence unearthed at Koobi Fora has led to the Lake being referred to as ‘The Cradle of Mankind’.

The site lies at the heart of the Sibiloi National Park, a place of stark beauty and prehistoric petrified forests.

Lake Turkana itself is a natural treasure, with the world’s single largest crocodile population. In Turkana these reptiles grow to record size, with some of the largest specimens found on remote windswept Central Island.

Lake Turkana is Kenya’s most remote destination, but one that repays the intrepid traveller with rich rewards…

How to get to Lake Turkana

The East and West Shores of Turkana are accessed completely separately, and are physically separated by the vast uncrossable Suguta Valley south of the Lake. The east shore is reached via Maralal and Marsabit with the central point of access being the small oasis town of Loiyangalani.

The west shore is accessed via Kitale and the central point of access is Lodwar. There are airstrips on both shores for chartered aircraft. This area is used as a launch site for safaris into the remote Omo region of Soutern Ethiopia. Turkana should be visited as part of a professionally organized safari.

Lake Turkana
Lake Turkana

Getting Around Lake Turkana

There are very few defined roads around the Lake. The lakeshore can be explored on foot, but plenty of water and a good sense of direction are both vital. Boats are available for hire in villages along the shore, and this is the best way to explore the lake. a local guide is advisable.

Lake Turkana – Overvew

Kenya’s North is desert country – hot, parched and broken by volcanic activity, where ancient blackened lava flows and endless thorn trees stretch from horizon to horizon.

Life here is limited to the hardiest species of wildlife, and the seldom seen human culture follows well worn paths beaten by the tracks of nomadic camel trains.

Travelling overland through this country is not easy; roads wind their way through broad hot valleys and over shattered volcanic rocks. Nothing seems more miraculous than to crest the top of a hill and discover a vast inland sea of the brightest shade of Jade, shimmering under the baking sun.

Lake Turkana History

This sight certainly came as a remarkable vision to the Austrian explorers Teleki and Von Hohnel, who reached its shores in 1888, driven on by local legends about a mighty sea that lay beyond the desert Frontier. The same legends spoke of a place surrounded by tribes of giants and of islands that were the realm of monsters and ghosts.

Their incredible discovery – first christened “Lake Rudolf”- amazed geographers around the world. This was the world’s largest permanent desert lake: a 250 km length of blue water in a broken dogleg that lay like a bright scar in the blackened landscape. Its waters were home to springs and geothermal geysers, its islands breeding colonies for thousands of birds and its waters filled with fish, hippos and crocodiles- plenty of them.

Lake Turkana was the world’s largest crocodile colony, with some truly massive specimens.

This land was no new discovery to the many tribes who lived in the area, and for whom this seemingly inhospitable land was a source of life. For tribes such as the Turkana, whose name was eventually given to the lake- this was home.

Lake Turkana – People

Many legends still abound about this area, and throughout Kenya the people of this area, especially the Turkana, are regarded as the toughest, most aggressive people on earth. As usual, there is a lot of truth in the legend- and most of the tribes that live around the lake have had to develop a strong survival instinct to prosper on these shores- and the cultures here are some of the most pure and isolated on earth.

Fossil evidence found in the earth around Turkana suggests that humans have survived these conditions for a very long time- and that Turkana may be the true “Cradle Of Mankind”.

With its inaccessibility, harsh conditions, spectacular scenery, wildlife, remarkable cultures and archaeological treasures, Turkana has become a favourite destination with adventure travellers.

Lake Turkana
Lake Turkana

Getting to Lake Turkana

Getting to Turkana overland is no mean feat. While it is possible to fly to the Lake in a Chartered aircraft (and indeed flying is recommended for the furthest Northern reaches) it must be said that flying to Turkana somewhat distills the adventure. This is place where the journey is very much part of the destination- and it is only by taking the long difficult road that a real sense of remoteness is gained.

However, the flight itself is quite an experience, taking in wonderful vistas across the Suguta Valley and providing a birds eye view of the Lake itself.

Most visitors make the long trip from Nairobi over a 2 or 3-day period, stopping en route at Maralal, Samburu, or Marsabit. The trip winds through some beautiful country, and travelers invariably encounter Rendille camel trains, and pass by tiny villages and nomadic encampments along the way.

The history and cultures of the North- the Samburu, Pokot, Gabbra, Borana and many more are written upon the soil of this trackless land- and travelling through this area is a great education in itself.

Lake Turkana – East and West Shores

Both the East and West shores of the Lake each offer unique areas of interest.

At the South East tip of the Lake, reached via South Horr, the tiny oasis of Loiyangalani (“the place of the trees”) attracts many travelers to its palm groves, where a constant wind offers relief from the searing heat. There is a well-maintained campsite and basic lodge here. Many safari companies and operators offer truck trips to this area- sometimes combined with a Camel safari further south.

Loiyangalani is a good base for exploring- either by boat to South Island National Park, or by climbing nearby Mount Kulal- a challenging climb which needs to be undertaken with care.

El Molo Bay is home to Kenya’s smallest tribe, the El Molo whose numbers have dwindled through intermarriage and linguistic and cultural absorption into the Turkana and Samburu communities.

One of the last true hunter-gatherer communities, the El Molo are centered on this small bay, which is also a good place to spot crocodiles and birdlife. Outside influence has been slow to reach this distant frontier, and the El Molo, Turkana and other communities along the Lakeshores still live lives dictated by tradition, myth and custom. In many places here, life continues unchanged as it has for centuries.

For much more detailed information on the cultures of the Lake, see the Related Links above.

For the more adventurous, the long road North leads to Sibiloi, a 1600 square km National Park recently accorded World Heritage Status. This park is a real surprise after a long desert journey- there is plenty of open green, grassland- and plenty of game. Zebra, Topi, Giraffe, Ostrich, Hippo and the occasional Lion and Cheetah have all been sighted in the park.

Sibiloi also incorporates Koobi Fora a very important site for Hominid Fossils, famous internationally since Richard Leakey’s discovery of ‘1470’ a 2 million year old skull of Homo Habilis. As interest in visiting this area increases, there is promise of improved visitor facilities and safari options in this area.

Lake Turkana – West

Western Turkana is more accessible, via the road North from Kitale to Lodwar and onward to Ferguson’s Gulf and the village of Kalokol. There is a basic lodge here- originally a fishing lodge for those looking to catch prized Nile Perch. About 60 kms further North is beautiful Eliye Springs, home to spring fed oases, large crocodile populations, and many small Turkana villages. There are a few simple lodgings available here.

Just a little further North, the all new Lobolo Camp treads the fine line between roughing it and the more comfortable “easy” tented camps in Kenya’s more accessible Parks and Reserves.

The first permanent tented camp in Turkana, Lobolo is nestled among 100 acres of lush forest, watered by a series of fresh water springs. The camp is owned and managed by Dutchman Halewjin and his Kenyan wife Joyce, who have been running safaris into this region for more than a decade- and have developed a zealous passion for providing efficiency and service in this remote area.

The camp has 6 spacious, spotless tents with spring water showers and specially raised beds to take advantage of cool breezes, and provide views of the sunset over the Lake.

A central mess tent serves up remarkably first class meals, with flame grilled brochettes, fresh salad, and excellent local Nile Perch.

Lobolo is used as a base camp for journeys around the Lake, through their specialized safari company Jade Sea Expeditions.

With excellent boats and guides- trips around the Lake, specialized fishing trips for Nile Perch and many others are possible.

Lobolo caters for those who still want to enjoy the adventure of travelling to this wild frontier, but still appreciate the value of a comfortable bed, a cool shower in the evening, and the occasional unexpected luxury- such as delicious hot samosas with soy sauce served by the campfire.

Overnight fly camps on Central Island National Park can also be arranged. The island is a great place to spend a day exploring. Although only five square kilometers in area, the hills neatly conceal three separate volcanic crater lakes.

A hike around the crater rims is an ideal way to spend the morning or afternoon. Each lake has its own unique ecology- and flamingo, crocodiles and plenty of waterbirds can be seen as you follow the narrow ridges across the islands spine.

One of these small lakes is home to an ancient species of Tilapia- a small freshwater fish- whose existence suggests that the Lake may have once been fed by the Nile.

The outer slopes of this upthrust volcanic cone are breeding colonies for many waterbirds, and a slow drift in a canoe around the island makes for great birdwatching- with plenty of nesting pelican, cormorant, heron and gulls- and hunting raptors including African Fish Eagles, Osprey and even Marsh Harriers, and local rarities such as Skimmers.

The delicate ecological balance of this region is threatened by increasing human population pressure, but the development of tourism- and its economic benefit- may just be the vital ingredient for the preservation for future generations of intrepid travellers.

For those who reach these outer limits today, there is no better way to spend a night than stretched out by a campfire on Central Island, listening to the soft lap of water on the shore as the sunset gives way to a stunning starscape overhead.

Lake Turkana Video