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Turkana town with foreign names

By | March 29th 2012

From the non-existent five-star hotels to exotic menus waiters have no idea about, Kalokol town on the shores of Lake Turkana has many surprises, writes JACQUELINE KANDAGOR

The pamphlets in my friends’ hands assured me that they had done enough research ahead of the much-anticipated trip to the Jade Sea.

"From my little research on the Internet, there are two hotels in Kalokol," said Abraham, one of the local tourists, as we boarded the Fly 540 plane at the Kitale Airstrip that was to take us to Lodwar.

After a 30-minute delay, we were glad to escape the midday sweltering heat at the modest airstrip and be in the cool air-conditioned plane.

We had barely buckled our seat belts when the pilot’s voice over the intercom alerted us that the plane was about to take off and that it would take us 40 minutes to Lodwar. The steward recited the safety precautions and even before he could conclude, the plane was racing on the runway as if rushing to meet the gentle forested slopes of Mount Elgon in the East. It then turned northward tracing River Sinyerere until it joined River Suam that marks the border between Kenya and Uganda.

Skyway Bar & Butchery that is advertised as Skyways Hotel on the Internet.

I had barely gone through the information Abraham had downloaded from the Internet when the steward rolled his trolley down the aisle.

"Juice please," I said while taking in the picturesque sight of the mountainous terrain below — the border between West Pokot and Turkana counties.

Scorching heat

My drink was still untouched when the pilot’s voice alerted us that we were approaching Lodwar town.

"How short!" Joyce exclaimed as she gulped her orange juice.

River Turkwel, which empties its water into Lake Turkana, snaked through the barren vastness of the earth below. The palm trees lining its banks were the only sign of life before we approached Lodwar town that is spread on both banks of the river.

It was 13.40pm when we stepped into the scorching heat at the Lodwar Airstrip. Ekai, the driver, who I had organised to drive us during the two-day visit, picked us and after lunch at Chomazone, Lodwar’s latest joint, we drove to Kalokol, a fishing town on the shores of Lake Turkana.

"You escaped the tiring bumpy ride from Kitale," Ekai said as we left the town’s dusty roads and joined the relatively good tarmac road to Kalokol. The vast savannah was deserted save for a lonely cyclist or herdsmen.

True, travelling by plane saved us a seven-hour bumpy ride, but it denied new tourists the chance to savour the beautiful sceneries between Kitale and Lodwar.

"Skyways?" the young man repeated Abraham’s question with a mixture of doubt and surprise written all over his face.

"Yes, Skyways," Abraham nodded, pointing at the papers in his hands.

After shifting glances from our car to Helen’s unmistakable tourist appearance, the young man unenthusiastically pointed at a building with people seated on benches along the low-roofed veranda sheltering from the late afternoon scorching sun.

We trooped to the building, our eyes searching the boards bearing the names of the shops. After a while, we spotted ‘Skyways’.

Initially, we were amused and thought it was a joke, just like the many shacks named after the White House or the Hilton.

"Kindly direct us to the Skyways Hotel," I requested a woman emerging from the noisy Skyways Bar.

"You are there young lady," the cheerful woman responded with so much pride in her gesture that we thought she was pulling our legs. The small dimly lit drinking den looked nothing close to a tourist hotel.

Foreign menu

We decided to take a walk around the town and inquired about the other place on our information booklet: the Kalokol Tours and Travel. The blank stares that we received every time we asked for directions made us realise something was amiss.

Sunset was fast approaching and panic was setting in slowly. We decided to change tact and instead inquired about where visitors and tourists usually slept in the town. Nine of the ten respondents told us that there was a guesthouse on the outskirts of the town.

Luckily, Kalokol Guest House had vacant rooms and space outside in case we needed to pitch our tents in the sandy corner. Food was prepared on order and since we still had time before darkness completely blanketed the town that had no streetlights, we decided to take a walk in the town.

The scent of fried fish, smoke from fish-frying open fires, roaring generators from buildings and blaring music from a religious crusade filled the air in the small dusty town whose residents idly roamed the roads.

From our earlier experience, we avoided making inquiries about restaurants and simply headed for the nearest building that had an eatery. Our faces brightened when we saw a signboard that read, ‘Local and foreign foods available’.

The menu reflected that of a five-star hotel, although the restaurant had wonky seats and stained tablecloths in the restaurant. After a couple of attempts at ordering the ‘foreign foods’ on the menu, we gave up and settled on fried meat and ugali, a speciality in the region.

Kalokol has no electricity and businessmen use generators, which limits the length of their opening hours, so we had to eat in a hurry.

Kalokol, like the rest of Turkana, is hot and the rooms at the guesthouse had no fans. Some guests, therefore, preferred to sleep on the veranda with mosquito nets hanging from poles.

After a comfortable night in our tents, we set off at dawn for the lake that once stretched to the outskirts of the town. It has now shrunk by approximately three kilometres.

Mythical sea

At Ferguson Gulf, named after the Crown Prince of Australia, a dozen irritating wannabe guides accosted us, each promising to give us the smoothest ride and attempting to herd us towards the boats that were to take us to Long’ech Island.

After settling on one of the boats at Sh50 per person across the kilometre-long gulf, we hopped onto the boat and rowed towards Long’ech.

Fishermen were busy pulling in their overnight catch while women with baskets waited patiently to buy the fish that they would send to Lodwar town.

The ruins of the once famous Turkana Fishing Lodge stood ugly and vandalised, telling the sad story of its last owner who has since died.

The lodge’s infrastructure boasts an interesting glorious past. The rustic timber cabins with wide verandas stand on a patch of high ground, giving the most magnificent views of the lake.

Due to its incredible rugged beauty and unique isolation, many distinguished guests visited it in the 1960s. Among them was Duke of Luxemburg Prince Charles who spent his honeymoon at the lodge.

We used one of the verandas as our changing room before going for a dip in the cool alkaline waters.

The island’s sandy beaches and palm trees give the impression of an oceanfront and it made me, for a moment, forget that we were on the shores of Lake Turkana. The soft whisper of the palm trees, the waves and white sand on the shores reminded me of the Indian Ocean. The lake’s turquoise water is a sight to behold, little wonder it was named the Jade Sea.

At noon, we sat on improvised hammocks under the shade and had our picnic as we watched children noisily playing in the water below.

In the evening, we passed though the village where we bought Turkana crafts and souvenirs including necklaces made from ostrich eggshells. We could only admire the exaggeratedly big baskets as couldn’t be carried onto a plane.

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