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The Turkana Bus - Journeys to the Jade Sea

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Soukous

The Turkana Bus – Journeys to the Jade Sea

 

(I should mention that this is a composite report that covers my time driving the Turkana Bus rather than a TR of one specific trip)

 

Early in 1981, I was in Nairobi after completing an overland journey across Africa. I decided that Kenya was a country I'd like to explore a bit more and so I approached one of the local safari operators for a job.

 

Lake Turkana was one of the places I'd long wanted to visit, ever since reading John Hillaby's 'Journey to the Jade Sea', the story of his 1,000 mile walk with camels across Northern Kenya to Lake Turkana.

 

At the time the local operators were only too keen to employ ex-overland drivers. They had a familiarity with the same Bedford trucks that the local companies were using and, for the most part, they had demonstrated an ability to keep the show on the road in trying conditions.

At that time, there was no problem with the fact that we were foreign and did not have work permits. Even though we were stopped at police checkpoints every day and had to present all our papers, our status was never an issue.

 

Even when I moved on from the Turkana run and started leading groups on wildlife safaris into Maasai Mara and other National Parks it was never an issue.

 

The way things worked was that all the foreign drivers working at SCS – there were 3 or 4 of us at any one time – would live in a rondavel in the garden of our employer's house at Langata, a suburb of Nairobi.

We were paid the grand sum of £25 a week. It didn't matter, most of us would have done it for nothing. When we were not on the road we joined the family for meals. If we ever got a week off it was spent in the workshops, fixing trucks or Land Cruisers.

 

The roughest bus ride in the world

 

this is a postcard of an artist's impression of the Turkana Bus

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Billed as 'the roughest bus ride in the world', the Turkana Bus was in fact one or more Bedford trucks (exactly how many depended on how many bookings there were). That would collect passengers every Saturday morning in Nairobi and set off on a journey to Lake Turkana and back.

 

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Our route

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Leaving Nairobi we'd climb the escarpment overlooking the Rift Valley and drive to Gil Gil before turning north east to pass through Nyahururu and Rumuruti before reaching Maralal.

From Maralal we'd continue through Baragoi to South Horr. After a night at South Horr we'd continue up through the Chalbi desert to Loiyangalani on the shores of Lake Turkana.

Our return route took us back down as far as Baragoi before turning south east to go through Barsaloi and Wamba on our way to Archers Post and Buffalo Springs game reserve. After 2 nights in Buffalo Springs/Samburu we'd leave the park and drive south to Nairobi, arriving back in town on Friday afternoon.

 

A slap up meal and a good night's sleep, then back into Nairobi on Saturday morning to do it all over again.

 

The Turkana Bus was very special.

Even though the trip was about as basic as it could be it attracted an amazing diversity of people; not just budget travellers at all. We used to get Kenyan residents, UN workers, foreign executives posted in Kenya and international travellers. The great appeal of the Turkana Bus was that it took people to a place they were unlikely to visit by themselves. The rough terrain and the lawlessness of the Northern Frontier District, with very little accommodation to be found meant that even those who would happily self drive into the game parks were wary of visiting the NFD.

 

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Sometimes I'd do the route in just one truck, with a cook for company. Other weeks, there could be 2 or even 3 vehicles travelling together. The trip was, consistently, incredibly popular.

 

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SCS was one of 2 companies that ran regular trips to Lake Turkana, and by far the most established at it. So much so that in addition to our regular departures I took private groups from San Diego zoo and also from Marlboro Adventure Travel. Although the Marlboro groups only drove in one direction then flew from Loiyangalani to Lamu. Now that was a cool trip.

 

In terms of interest, the trip really got going once we'd passed through Rumuruti and left the tar roads behind. We'd generally stop in Maralal for drinks (tea, cola etc) in the late afternoon then leave town and look for a place to spend the night.

 

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We'd literally scour the roadsides for a suitable spot where we could leave the road and drive 50 metres or so into the bush. Then we'd unload the gear and people would set up their tents while the cooks set about preparing dinner.

 

Collecting wood was a ritual that began as soon as we left Maralal. All meals were cooked on open fires and it was impossible to have too much wood. We would collect huge piles which we'd then stack on top of the trucks and carry with us. It was not so much for the roadside camps as for our time in South Horr and Loiyangalani where firewood was harder to find.

 

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Edited by Soukous

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Treepol

@@Soukous thanks so much for a secondnostalgic TR.

 

Thats a very interesting round trip to Lake Turkana. Apart from Buffalo Springs did the groups spend other nights in national parks and reserves? What was the most frequently seen species north of Maralal and which species did you see in the highest concentrations?

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Soukous

Whoa there Hoss! That's not all of it. There are more installments to come which will answer many of your questions. :o

 

Buffalo Springs was the only official reserve we spent time in (ie the only one for which we had to pay entry fees)

The most frequently seen species overall were kori bustards and ostriches.

In Buffalo Springs it was gerenuk, zebra, waterbuck and elephants

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Kitsafari

really interesting read. do such overland bus tours still exist? how much did it cost in those days? it must have been hard on the bums sitting in the truck on those bumpy tracks. seeing those buses, i can appreciate how lucky, and pampered, we are nowadays.

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twaffle

Very interesting indeed, I'm looking forward to the next installment.

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Soukous

Thanks @@Kitsafari,

 

The 'original' Turkana Bus no longer runs and I believe there are no companies that now offer seat in trips on a weekly basis. But there are companies in Kenya with similar trucks that can be chartered for private trips.

 

I don't think it was too hard on the bums, but then I never sat in the back for very long. For me the uncomfortable aspect of the seating was that the seats were not forward facing, they faced inwards, which meant that passengers spent the duration of the trip travelling sideways.

 

, we never went to Marsabit or North Horr. Even if we had ben tempted, there was frequent Shifta activity (more on that later) on the region and we were strongly advised against going there.

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Game Warden

@@Soukous Another fascinating report from Kenya's past. Thanks Martin, look forward to more updates :)

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Soukous

The Turkana bus gets through no matter what the weather



Conditions on the route could vary hugely – a dry TB meant dust – lots and lots of it.



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A wet TB meant mud, and getting bogged and chains and a lot of work.



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When conditions were dry and the driving was easy people would comment that it wasn't as rough as they'd expected. You could sense that they were almost disappointed.


When it was wet it was a real adventure. Everyone enjoyed the wet TBs much more. It gave us drivers the chance to play with 4wd, get out the sand mats and put heavy chains on our tyres and get everyone involved in digging the truck out of mud holes. It meant that the clients got the kind of trip they had anticipated, one that they were grateful they hadn't tried to tackle alone.



At South Horr, in the shadow of Ol Donyo Nyiru the company had its own permanent camp, with mud built rondavels and a bar!! It was like an oasis.



One of the things I liked to do at South Horr was take clients on a hike through the forest, following a small river uphill to some fresh water pools and waterfalls where we could swim.



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South Horr was also where we tended to meet quite a lot of Samburu. Because the camp was permanent and because we came through every week, there was always a welcome committee.



(I may need a bit of assistance here. I originally filed the people in all these shots as Samburu, btu I have a feeling there may be some Rendille in amongst them.)



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In fact, just about wherever we stopped, crowds would quickly gather, trying to sell us stuff.


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Game Warden

@@Soukous Let's see a photo of the driver in his younger days... ;)

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Safaridude

@@Soukous

 

Wow, this is great stuff. I feel like I am reading one of those old books lying around by the fireplace at one of the old homesteads in Kenya. Looking forward to more.

 

I took a trip in a lorry (with about a dozen other friends) in 1989 to Turkana. Saw only one vehicle in 3 days. Looking back on it, it was a dangerous trip (banditry was around, unbeknownst to us).

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Soukous

@@Soukous

 

Wow, this is great stuff. I feel like I am reading one of those old books lying around by the fireplace at one of the old homesteads in Kenya. Looking forward to more.

 

I took a trip in a lorry (with about a dozen other friends) in 1989 to Turkana. Saw only one vehicle in 3 days. Looking back on it, it was a dangerous trip (banditry was around, unbeknownst to us).

 

Thanks @@Safaridude, as I have been writing this and looking through old photos the urge is growing stronger and stronger to do this trip again. I think i would pay a lot more attention this time. When you are doing a trip every week there is always the temptation to put something off until the next time, until suddenly thereis no next time and the opportunity has slipped.

Edited by Soukous

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Soukous

@@Soukous Let's see a photo of the driver in his younger days... ;)

 

I have spent my life hiding behind the camera but there may just be a shot coming up in a later installment

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Soukous

We were busy every day. On the days when we were not travelling, there were excursions to make and the trucks always needed attention.


By and large the passengers we had were fabulous and a real cross section; from army officers to zoology professors and doctors to diplomats. One the highlights for me was getting to meet so many interesting people.



On the rare occasions that the group became hard work I had perfected the art of crawling under the truck with a spanner. There was plenty of space under there for me to lean against one of the wheels and snooze in the shade, spanner in hand.



The Jade Sea



One of the most eagerly anticipated days on every trip was the first sight of Lake Turkana. Fittingly the lake came into view as we crested a rise and we would pull over to the side of the road. At first people would assume it was just another pee stop, then someone would spot the water in the distance and everyone would rush for their cameras.



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Loiyangalani



At Loiyangalani we also had a semi permanent camp. There were huts built from mud and straw, long drop toilets, open air showers and a bar, although the supply of beer depended a lot on us bringing it with us.




The El Molo - Africa's smallest tribe


Our time there was always busy with excursions to the lake, to the nearby El Molo village (the El Molo were at the time officially the smallest tribe in Africa with a population estimated to be less than 150) and to local springs where drinkable fizzy water bubbled up from the ground.



This article give a bit of background on the El Molo.


Kenya’s Smallest Indigenous Tribe Faces Extinction as the impacts of climate change take a toll on their livlihoods.



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The future of Lake Turkana and the people that live around it is even more uncertain due to Ethiopia's Gibe 3 dam on the Omo river.


This article from The Guardian,sums it up pretty well: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/mar/05/ethiopian-dam-gibe-iii-aral-sea-disaster



if you'd like to know more about Lake Turkana then visit the website of the excellent 'Friends of Lake Turkana'. http://www.friendsoflaketurkana.org/



There was a fish factory at Loiyangalani and consequently on hot days – which was most of them – the air was heavy with the stink of drying fish. Ironically, the indigenous Turkana people would not eat fish - apparently believing it made them impotent – so the fish was dried and then transported south in trucks for sale elsewhere.



Lake Turkana was a rich source of fish. In particular, Tilapia, Tiger Fish and Nile Perch.


I got to know a white Kenyan who would frequently fly up to South Island to spend the weekend fishing. He had driven up once and could not see the attraction of driving, preferring to pilot his own plane and avoid the dust and the bumps.



Everywhere we went, the shoreline was littered with the skeletons of Nile Perch. They were massive, growing up to 2 metres long and a weight of almost 200kg. Though most that were caught were quite a bit smaller than this, the skulls were still almost as large as cattle skulls.


The favourite for sport fishermen was the Tiger Fish. Not great to eat but great fighters.


My favourite was the Tilapia, just because it tasted great. Whenever I was there I would drive down to the lake shore, a bit south of the village where Luo fishermen were bringing in their catch and buy fresh fish.



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Turkana Bus passengers always wanted to spend time by the lake shore. It was a hive of activity with locals bringing livestock down to drink, doing washing and bathing.


I remember we caused a lot of interest when someone brought out a frisbee and we started playing with it. All the local kids wanted to join in.


A week later when I returned I saw that the local kids had acquired a frisbee of their own and were playing along the shoreline. We went to join in and got quite a shock when we tried to catch it. Not having access to a proper frisbee they had improvised and cut the bottom from a 50 litre plastic barrel. The damn thing was lethal. Made from heavy plastic and with a rough edge it was a world away from the lightweight flying toy we were used to. The first time I tried to catch it I nearly lost my fingers.



Average temperatures around Loiyangalani were near 40 degrees Celcius. At night the heat barely dissipated and the hot wind sucked the moisture from you. But there were compensations. The night skies around Lake Turkana were the clearest I have ever seen. Millions of stars against a dark blue sky. My favourite place to sleep was on the roof of the truck where I could watch the shooting stars and fireflies.


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Soukous

 

It was there in 1986. In fact in 1986 there were 2 camps at Loiyangalani.

 

I went back in 1986 (more on that later) and re-visited the route.

Although the camp we had ben using was still there I discovered that the company had not owned the site but had been leasing it. For whatever reason the lease had been terminated and a new camp had been establishd a short distance further north, but still within the boundaries of Loiyangalani.

Edited by wilddog

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Soukous

An Interlude in the Northern Frontier District

During my stint in Kenya I spent a few months based up in the NFD, managing both the South Horr and Loiyangalani camps. God that was a lonely time, fascinating but lonely. I remember counting down the days until the next group would arrive and I would have someone to talk to.

 

An encounter with Shiftas

At that time the area was rife with Shifta bandits who crossed the border from Somalia to raid local villages and steal cattle. As a security measure, in each village a number of people had been appointed as a 'home guard' and issued with old bolt action rifles.

On one occasion I was driving between the 2 camps when I was flagged down by a group of villagers who told me that there had been Shifta raid and they were in pursuit of the raiders. They were on foot and wanted me to give them a lift so they could catch up with the poachers before they got away.

If you read my last historical TR, you'll recall that I was young and naive at the time. Well nothing had changed. I couldn't take all of them but I agreed to take the ones with rifles.

After about half an hour of driving one of the villagers caught sight of the poachers and urged me to drive faster.

What they had failed to mention was that the Shiftas were armed with automatic weapons; a fact that came to my attention when they spotted us in pursuit and opened fire.

I slammed on the brakes and gestured to the posse that this was as far as I would go; they were close enough now to continue on foot.

They jumped down and ran towards the bandits, shouting loudly. Unsurprisingly the Somalis turned and fired at them, whereupon the villagers dived for cover behind rocks. From where I sat I watched them as they raised their rifles at arms length to shoot at the bandits whilst still crouching behind their cover. They didn't raise their heads to take aim, they just raised the rifles and fired in the general direction.

The firefight didn't last long. After a surprisingly brief encounter the 'home guard' stopped firing. Then, once they realised they were no longer under fire, the Somalis also stopped firing.

The Kenyans stood up and casually walked back to where I was waiting with the pickup.

 

In response to the obvious puzzlement on my face they explained that they had done everything that was expected of them and now it was time to go home.

Not understanding at all I pointed to their rifles and to the Shifta and asked whey they didn't continue their pursuit. One of them released the magazine from his rifle and showed me it was empty. 'They only give us 5 bullets each' he told me.

 

Perhaps, if they had told me that before I let them climb aboard I might not have been so keen to go chasing armed bandits.

The only real chance these villagers and cattle herders had against the marauding Shiftas was to catch them in the act so that the whole village could work together to defend their livestock with their traditional weapons.

Edited by Soukous

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Soukous

Interesting video from YouTube about the Gibe 3 dam, with a plea to China from Richard Leakey

 

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Soukous

Heading back to Nairobi

 

Once we left Loiyangalani to drive south we would drive back through South Horr and Baragoi then, instead of going as far as Maralal, we would veer south eastwards through the fringes of the Kaisut desert to Barsaloi and on to Wamba.

The unspoilt openness of the Kaisut was wonderful with hardly ever any other vehicles to be seen. I recall kori bustards and ostriches running alongside the truck, even the occasional oryx, but mostly camels and their nomadic herders.

 

Herder's camp with thorn bomas

 

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From Wamba we'd drive to Archer's Post, a small settlement just adjacent to Samburu National Reserve.

Archer's Post was the other place where we used to get mobbed by locals with items to sell.

 

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The technique the locals used was to try and get one of the clients to take hold of an item and then refuse to take it back, all the time asking them “How much?”

On one occasion I gave in to mischief. I waited until half a dozen items had been handed up into the truck and then drove off. It caused pandemonium. In the back of the truck people were shouting for me to stop, in the mirrors I could see locals running after us, waving frantically. I only went about 100 metres.

 

Buffalo Springs

 

The public camping area that we used was in the Buffalo Springs reserve, across from the Samburu reserve on the south side of the Ewaso Nyiro river.

 

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That's me on the roof of the truck. I have no idea what I was doing up there.

 

Within Buffalo Springs there is actually a freshwater spring. A stone wall has been erected around it to create a pool where you can bathe.

After the long dusty drive we would stop by the natural freshwater springs and take a swim before setting up camp.

 

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After dinner what we liked to do was drive to Buffalo Springs Lodge and visit the bar. Luckily it was only about a kilometre from our camp or I am sure we would have got lost on the way back.

The spring is still there. I stopped there when I was in Samburu/Buffalo Springs last year, and it looks just as inviting as it used to.

 

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We would enjoy a day of game driving in the reserve and then on Friday morning we'd pack everything up and drive back to Nairobi to drop off our passengers and drive back out to Langata.

 

It's hard to recall a time when I was happier.

Edited by Soukous

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Sangeeta

These are truly fascinating memories, snippets of memories and photos, Soukous. Do you know how many times in total you must have done this trip?

 

It does sound like a very happy time. If you ever plan that return trip, you're getting a lorry full of STers to come along with you this time!

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Soukous

Now you're talking @@Sangeeta

perhaps a bit more comfort as we are all older than we were in 1981. A mobile safari sounds good.

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Sangeeta

Well, perhaps we'll need padded and outward facing seats, but as for the rest, after all your tales and travails, a Bedford Lorry it must be! I'm signing on for whenever you want to plan this... Seriously.

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Safaridude

Sweating just reading about Turkana… I remember I washed my jeans (and why the heck was I wearing a pair of jeans?), and they dried in about 30 minutes in the shade.

 

It's funny how extraordinary, magical, and surreal these old film photos are … compared to today's high resolution digital photos. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side.

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Kitsafari

buffalo springs looked amazing. so when are we getting on board the Turkana Soukous Express?

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Soukous

I left Kenya in 1983, almost by accident.

When the long rains arrived it was normal for us to close our camp in Maasai Mara. The Turkana Bus was still running but at that time of year bookings were light and only a couple of leaders were needed. Quite rightly priority was given to the Kenyans for whom this was a regular job and so I found myself with 2 months of free time.

 

Fortunately for me, I had landed a contract to spend a month working as a photographer for a tour operator in Europe. It was only a month's work, but it would keep me occupied until it was time to return to Kenya.

 

Once my assignment was completed I started making preparations for my return to Africa. I was in London visiting friends when, quite by chance, I saw an advertisement for a company seeking someone with mechanical experience to work as a group leader on a boat on the Red Sea.

I knew little of boats and even less about the Red Sea, but a quick look at a map showed me it was halfway back to Kenya, so I applied.

 

I got the job, and within a week was on a flight to Tel Aviv, where I caught a bus to the Red Sea city of Eilat.

The boat in question was a Baltic Trader; a 2 masted, 75 foot sailing boat that was currently docked in Eilat where a new engine was to be fitted and my first job was to go and assist with that.

I soon discovered that the Red Sea was not a good place to bring an oak hulled ship built for the North Sea.

 

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Little did I know that this would be the beginning of a 3 year stay in the Middle East and that it would be more than 3 years before I returned to Kenya.

Edited by Soukous

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TonyQ

@@Soukous

Fascinating report with great photos - they really create an atmosphere

You have certainly had a varied career pattern!

(I went on 2 Bedford truck trips in the early '90s. The inward facing seats were actually quite comfortable - and there were a wide variety of people travelling. My older bones might think differently now)

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Soukous

very kind of you to call it a career @TonyQ it never really felt like work to me :D

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