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The Journey

There is more than one routing for overland trips to Lake Turkana, but in each case, it's worth remembering that the journey is as much part of the experience as the destination. This might sound like a travel cliché, but you'll not only see remarkable sights along the way -- camel-herding tribespeople, strange mirages, phenomenal volcanic remnants -- but you'll have the chance to overnight in miniature Edens, even more beautiful thanks to the vastness of the stark, lunar desert that you'll travel through to reach them. Described below is just one of the overland routes, but it's the most obvious and fruitful one, commencing in the vicinity of Samburu National Reserve and doing a U-turn in the vicinity of Turkana. Most safari companies also do a similar trip in reverse, and there's the option of chartering a flight (at enormous cost) to any of the stop-off points mentioned along the way, but you'll need to ensure that you've properly arranged onward 4X4 through one of the travel companies mentioned here or through your tour operator. Bear in mind that (for a reasonable uptick in price) you can create a personal itinerary through any of these overland operators -- you can hire their services on an exclusive basis, specify how long you wish to overnight at any point along the way, upgrade to a better vehicle, and decide whether you'd prefer to camp in portable tents or stay in privately owned lodges where, indeed, these are available. (The few that do exist are mentioned below.)

Isiolo to Marsabit -- A true frontier town, Isiolo is at the edge of the desert and feels almost like the last chance to consider turning back before heading deep into the unknown. If you've driven all the way from Nairobi or Nanyuki, you're sure to stop here for fuel and to pick up supplies (if there's anything you're likely to crave farther down the line, this may be your last chance to stock up). You'll also get your first real look of the type of disheveled cosmopolitanism that's evident throughout the north -- a heady blend of Somalis plus tribespeople in traditional attire. Isiolo is south of Samburu National Reserve and attracts foreigners being transported to their lodges there, which means that locals are familiar with tourists and are likely to try hawking bargain-priced curios. (Much of what's available isn't quite as authentic as what you'll find on offer later in the trip.)

Between Isiolo and Archer's Post, the muddy roads and rain-soaked fields turn to dry dust and desert. You'll leave behind the pastures, cornfields, wooded valleys, and hills scored with furrows of cultivation. No more the tufted green copses on the banks of little creeks when you reach Archer's Post -- about an hour away from Isiolo (in a fast car) -- you'll have a real sense of being in a tiny, dust-blown sprawl that's pretty much in the middle of nowhere. If you stop, you'll be pestered by young boys -- as much out of curiosity as out of need.

North of here exists a landscape that's unequivocally beautiful; hardly settled, it's a stretch of the imagination to assume that it's a part of the Kenya you've left behind. Passing Samburu game reserve, you cross the Ewaso Nyiro River and head -- along the famous A2 northern highway -- into the stark wilderness of Samburuland and across wide-open country inhabited by members of the Rendille tribe. Unearthly, even enchanted, the plains that stretch out before you are mostly flat and gravelly, but studded with sudden and stupendous volcanic outcrops that poke out of the barren wilderness. Some of the massive, broad, tall mountains, with 1,524 to 1,828m (4,999-5,996 ft.) rounded summits, are brilliantly rounded by millennia of harsh winds coursing through the desert. Most of these are sans vegetation or sparsely tufted with clumps of ragged bush. But then there are patches signifying nature at its most paradoxical, such as in Marsabit.

Marsabit -- Accessible only by 4X4 (along tough dirt roads, 260km/161 miles from Isiolo) or by chartered plane (it's a 2 1/2 hr. flight from Nairobi, which is some 560km/347 miles south), Marsabit exists because of its high elevation in the midst of the desert plains. It is an anomaly, a lush, thick-vegetation mountain with a climate resembling that of a rainforest. Buzzing Marsabit town draws all kinds of traders and tribespeople from as far as Ethiopia, and it's an eye-opener for anyone looking to get a taste of a colorful mix of local cultures. The town is just .5km (1/3 miles) from the entrance to Marsabit National Reserve (tel. 69/2028; kwsmarsabit@yahoo.com; admission $25 adults, $10 children), a dense and untamed forest where there's reasonable, inexpensive accommodation at Marsabit Lodge (tel. 735/555-747). The only alternative to camping, the lodge is best remembered for its views (the little bungalows are arranged around one of the cliff-lined crater lakes), and although the 24 basic guestrooms are nowhere near ideal, they do have attached bathrooms, relatively decent beds, and views of the waterhole (although you'll probably want to head for the lounge, where the seating is more comfortable). There's a swimming pool, and the lodge's location overlooking the water makes it one of the few places in the reserve that's often teeming with game. Although there's a good mix of wildlife in the forest -- including elephants known for their oversize tusks -- game viewing isn't always easy because of the density of vegetation. You'll need a bit of patience and may have to wait out the heavy rains that slick the roads. If you do make it to Marsabit, though, make every effort to check out the more beautiful of the crater lakes, aptly named Paradise Lake (Gof Sokorte Gud).

Kalacha -- Heading north out of Marsabit, it's only a matter of minutes before the wet and green is replaced by desert once again; it's a long, hot, tiring journey -- 140km (87 miles) through the Chalbi Desert to the next vaguely hospitable stop, Kalacha, situated on the edge of an oasis in the Chalbi Desert between Maikona and North Horr, and 65km (40 miles) south of the Ethiopian border. Kalacha is the main stomping ground for the people of the Gabbra tribe who live alongside the lesser-known Kosso, a dedicated tribe of blacksmiths. Custom dictates that the Gabbra are forbidden from forging their own weapons, so they must rely on the Kosso to supply them. The Chalbi -- a Gabbra word meaning Salt -- is named for the white salt patches that cover the dry sand here, but Kalacha itself really is an oasis, with water flowing from beneath the parched, cracked ground and serving as a watering hole for local communities. It's also a place of incredibly fierce winds that are known to lift people right off the ground. Kalacha Camp (tel. 020/33-032 or 0722/207-300; www.kalacha.org) was built as a Gabbra community project by the owner of Tropic Air and comprises just four bandas designed with desert-inspired Moroccan-influenced architecture using local palm trees. Facilities are basic, although you do get a flush toilet and shower (no hot water, though), but the experience is more about gaining insight into Gabbra tradition and getting to grips, however slightly, with their way of life. In Kalacha town, there is even a little Catholic church with some striking interior murals. And you can be entertained by Gabbra dancers and performances, with your hosts even acting out traditional ceremonies. Kalacha is famous for sand-grouse shooting, with two main seasons, February through March and July through October.

Loiyangalani & Lake Turkana -- Out of Kalacha, the road continues west to North Horr and then turns south to Lake Turkana's seemingly desolate shore, where the principle town is Loiyangalani. This hodge-podge desert town features as a backdrop to some of the action in John le Carre's political thriller, The Constant Gardener. Here, too, are natural hot springs, unusual lava formations, and doum palms that provide shade and building materials for the Turkana and El Molo tribespeople based in the area. It's not at all the idyllic, isolated experience you might expect, however, and much of the tribal way of life has been upended by the promise of financial rewards the impoverished locals can expect from camera-wielding tourists. In this respect, Loiyangalani -- and any of the "larger" settlements in the north -- can feel a little disillusioning and commercial. Still, the assortment of tribes represented here imbues the place with a ramshackle cosmopolitan flavor, offset by Christian missions, aid workers, and awestruck visitors.

Loiyangalani is an obvious base from which to explore Lake Turkana's eastern shores. It's also where safari companies usually make use of Oasis Lodge (tel. 729/954-672; www.oasis-lodge.com; $240 full-board double), traditionally the only half-decent permanent accommodations situated anywhere near the lake (and your best -- and only -- chance to grab a cold beer). Guestrooms -- there are 24, so it's hardly built for exclusivity -- are basic-but-bearable and have attached bathrooms, and there are swimming pools and the chance to hire chauffeured vehicles, take boat trips to sample Turkana's excellent fishing or to visit South Island, and drive to an El Molo village. Management at Oasis Lodge has become a bit hit-and-miss in recent times (when tourism slows, it seriously impacts the will to go on in such an isolated spot), so you might want to arrange a back-up plan through your tour operator before your arrival. If you choose to travel overland with Gametrackers , you'll be staying outside Loiyangalani, either in tents or in a simple, semi-permanent beach village comprising huts in the style traditionally used by the Turkana people.

Maralal -- From Loiyangalani, the road takes you south toward South Horr and Tuum, to the east of the Suguta Valley. Suguta is a huge sector of the Rift Valley between Lake Baringo and Lake Turkana. At the north end, the valley floor is only a few hundred meters above sea level, making it one of the lowest parts of the Rift Valley. It is also one of the hottest parts of Kenya, with deserts, volcanic cones, salt lakes, and uneven lava fields. Some safari companies use Tuum as a stop for guided camel walks, usually ending at a campsite at the foothills of Mount Nyiro. Encircled by desert, Mount Nyiro is heavily forested, thanks to underground springs that feed the many small settlements hereabouts. The drive south from Turkana is scenic but incredibly rough, taking you through lava flows to the edge of the Kaisut desert. The area is sliced through by bottomless ravines, which are regularly dry but become soaked with sudden flash floods after rain. If you want to inject a dash of class into the whole experience, arrange to break this sector of your journey with a couple of nights at the superb Desert Rose.

The road trip back to civilization inevitably takes you through disheveled and dusty Maralal, a sad-looking town that's famous as the location of the International Camel Derby, held in August each year. In Maralal (if you're not camping), you'll probably need to break the journey with a night at the Maralal Safari Lodge (tel. 065/62-060, or reservations 020/21-1124; $196-$245 double, including all meals). Again, it's the only (and, consequently, overpriced) reasonable option besides camping. The lodge is 2.5km (1 1/2 miles) from the town and is somewhat redeemed by the fact that it overlooks a waterhole attracting a fair share of animals -- zebra, buffalo, elephant -- from the adjacent Maralal National Sanctuary. Guestrooms are in huge chalet-type cottages built with cedar wood; each one has a private bathroom, and most have a veranda and additional sleeping space in a loft. It's not luxury, but a great deal better than any of the dives in town, and there's a pool and poolside bar -- a welcome antidote to the grueling desert drive you've just endured. Maralal, like many of the towns of the north, is a melting pot of different tribes and so is another opportunity to observe and photograph the local color.

Tales of the Jade Sea

Exotically nicknamed thanks to the effect of light glinting off the green algae in its undrinkable alkaline waters, Lake Turkana (called Ka'alakol, meaning The Sea of Many Fish, by the Turkana people) is romanticized and idealized by many as the most beautiful destination in all of Kenya. Its isolation, formidable size (up to 290km/180 miles long and 32km/20 miles wide), and startling location -- betwixt coarse, black sandy shores and striking volcanic cones -- no doubt account for much of the hype. But beauty comes with a price. By all accounts, it's a grueling, forbidding destination, with sparse vegetation -- mostly wind-ravaged acacias -- and furious temperatures. Besides the intense year-round heat -- impacted little by sporadic rains -- the lake is besieged by unpleasant winds and never appears at rest. Unpredictable squalls and full-blown storms can transform the water into a vicious tempest. It's been the undoing of many a fisherman, and a handful of ill-fated explorers, too.

The first European "discovery" of the lake was in 1888 by the Austrian duo Count Teleki and Lieutenant von Hohnel, who named it after their archduke, Rudolph -- the name stuck until well after independence. The world's largest desert lake is also where some of the most important traces of our prehuman ancestors continue to be unearthed by scientists following in the footsteps of Richard Leakey, who found hominid fossils here in 1968.

The lake also sustains the world's largest population of Nile crocodiles, sizeable hippo pods, exotic birdlife, and tribespeople who have managed to survive the unimaginably harsh conditions. There are three reserves here -- two are on islands within the lake itself, and the third, Sibiloi National Park (tel. 54/21-223; admission $25 adults, $10 children), on the northeastern shore, surrounds Koobi Fora, a remote archaeological site that partially explains Turkana's other nickname, the Cradle of Mankind. Fossils dating back millions of years have been found here. A near-complete homo erectus skeleton -- known as the Turkana Boy -- was discovered here in 1984, while in 1999, a 3 1/2 million-year-old skull was found by Richard Leakey's wife, Meave, and has become known as Kenyanthropus platyops (The Flat-Faced Man of Kenya).

Arguably the most rewarding place to visit is Central Island National Park (tel. 054/21-223; admission $25 adults, $10 children), a relatively barren vapor-spewing trio of volcanoes with crater lakes and multitudinous reptiles -- this is breeding ground for most of the lake's crocodiles, and there are cobras, puff adders, and saw-scaled vipers. Traversing the lake to get to its islands can be treacherous (and not necessarily cheap), however, and is always subject to unpredictable weather conditions (the lake can be stirred up into a tempest in no time at all) and whether there's an available boat (although, if you're on a well-outfitted safari, such matters will be pre-arranged).

Near-extinct tribes are found around the lake, too, making this prime territory for cultural voyeurs -- the El Molo, Kenya's smallest ethnic group, dwell in dwindling numbers (now around 250) around the eastern shore. On islands in the mouth of a bay just north of Loiyangalani, they live simple lives in doum palm-frond huts, hunting crocodiles and sometimes hippo; by some accounts, there are a further 500 El Molo living on difficult-to-access South Island. On a visit to Turkana, you are also certain to make contact with the Turkana, who inhabit the lake's western and southern shores and as far as Loiyangalani, on the eastern side. Renowned for their fighting prowess and recently purported to be the oldest tribal society in the world, legend has it that some 200 to 300 years ago, the tribe started to move east from the Dodoth escarpment in northeast Uganda. Of this powerful and influential people, who number more than a quarter of a million, the majority live on the western flank of the great Lake Turkana. Some, however, have migrated to make their home on the eastern shore, living among the Samburu, El Molo, Rendille, and Gabbra peoples clustered around the meager water resources.

Unusual for this part of the world, the Turkana have shunned circumcision as a practice and instead usher their male children into their age set by means of an alternative rite known as Athapan (a ritual dance). Fine craftsmen, the Turkana make use of leather, shells, seeds, bones, ivory, and horns to fabricate fine jewelry and clothing (they produce particularly striking triangular leather aprons, known as arrac, worn by unmarried women). Distinctive earrings of beaten metal hang in rows from the top to the bottom of each ear, and women are still often seen wearing the copper lip plugs of old. While you may come across completely naked, bead-wearing Turkana men, you'll notice that they always carry with them a highly decorated head rest, designed to prevent their elaborate coiffure, heavily decorated with ostrich feathers, from touching the ground when they sleep. If you are planning on picking up tribal curios, these are the people you want to bargain with to get your hands on the real thing.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.