Sunday, December 26, 2021, and the first rays of the sun were just warming the ground. The birds’ tweets in Kalacha were reaching a crescendo. As the world around us slumbered, I dragged myself out of bed, or rather, the wooden loft that passed for a bed. The night in the Gabra manyatta was short, but sweet.
Amenities in Kenya’s North are meagre. Freshening up in the morning, a regular and almost automated affair in the city can be a complicated matter.
The shared bathroom, for instance, was hundreds of metres away where water trickled down from an overhead pipe with no showerhead.
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Water is a rare and precious commodity here. So here is a brief guide to a shower: lather yourself lightly with the tap closed, turn the tap slowly, avoid rapid movements that take you away from the dripping water, dry yourself and go. Spare your perfumes and lotions. The strong winds and dust will do a better job than you ever could.
There was no kitchen at the manyattas and for a second time, Anthony, the Catholic priest in Kalacha came to our rescue with fruits, coffee and pastries.
This man is everything here — a mechanic, a cook, and his key vocation of ministering to the local population.
And so all enjoyed the hearty treat, except one young lad.
My nine-year-old had tagged along for the trip, and it was my hope the wild experiences would test his mettle. I forgot this is a generation that buckles under the slightest of inconveniences.
Whatever bug he had caught the previous night in the manyatta got the better of him, and as the others enjoyed their breakfast, all he could do was sit in the van and rue the day he agreed to a desert safari. How would he make it for the most treacherous part of the trip?
I wondered. Was this an indictment on my fatherhood skills? Thankfully, a couple of paracetamols and proper hydration did the trick in calming his swollen tonsils.
Some minutes to 9am, we set off for the final segment of our Northern tour. Outside Kalacha, herders watered their livestock through concrete troughs. The animals looked emaciated.
There was a lot for them to drink here, but little to eat, it seemed. On a hot morning, one herder decided to cool off by taking a bath beside the camels. Could you blame him?
“Here we are!” shouted Sarah Elema, our affable tour guide as we reached the edge of the Chalbi Desert. Before this trip, Chalbi was just another geographical feature like the Great Rift Valley that found its place in our textbooks.
And like many subjects, I had paid a cursory glance at Kenya’s version of the Sahara during my school days. But as I found out, the little I knew was soon obliterated by present realities.
Chalbi is foreboding with a ghostly atmosphere that makes even the strong-willed wither with apprehension. Sand is everywhere one looks, a lot of sand.
And mirages that held the false promise of water in the distance. These have been the cause of deaths to the unwary traveller exhausted in the parched land.
Roads are almost non-existent, almost... unless you are Sarah who swore she can find her way through the desert blindfolded.
She is an expert in locating faint vehicle tracks, never mind that the wind and sand do a good job in obscuring such.
In our love of adventure, we decided to get off the main track to inspect a sand dune a couple of kilometres away.
Getting back to the main track seemed to be a more daunting task than we had imagined. In the flat landscape with no sense of direction, a wrong turn can take you on a totally different trajectory. And we took a few of such turns.
Whenever that happened, we all looked up to Sarah, the desert tigress. She would face one way, then the other before calling out the correct route. We were careful not to annoy her lest we get stuck in the desert for eternity. I understood why Moses and his people wandered in the desert for 40 years!
Four hours later, we made our way to Marsabit Town, and the sight of the paved highway to Moyale awakened our spirits, happy that we had made it out of the dreaded Chalbi in one piece.
A quick meal of chicken, beef, rice and roast potatoes and the team had the energy for one more stop before calling it a day.
Despite the exhaustion, we visited the nearby Marsabit National Park, which has the only indigenous forest next to the desert. This is the land of the mighty Ahmed, the elephant immortalised at the National Museums of Kenya.
The crater Lake Paradise, a key highlight of the park, shines like a diamond in the rough. The sheer beauty and serenity here made any hardships we had encountered the last four days fade into insignificance.
The sun that had earlier mocked and tested our very existence a few hours ago was now setting, bidding goodbye to what had been an eventful day.
We relived the good vibes of the trip and the characters that made it memorable, especially team Mugo: Ayub, Triumph, Theo and Sonia.
These are hiking enthusiasts who laugh in the face of challenges and did well in boosting the morale of fellow travellers.
A round trip of 1,461 kilometres spanning five days over some of Kenya’s toughest, but also the most breathtaking terrain was over.
A bucket list item has been ticked off. And as we made our way back to Nairobi, Ayub kept reminding me of his favourite quote from Brazilian lyricist and novelist Paulo Coelho: “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine. It is lethal.”