Fund-raising walk around Lake Turkana (Lake Rudolph) in northern Kenya and Ethiopia
by John Hare
"On March 1st 2006, Josh Perret (Jasper' Evan's grandson), Ivan Jensen (Josh's friend) eighteen camels, six herdsmen and myself walked/rode around Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. The first time, as far as we are aware, that camels have been taken right around, that harsh, forbidding but spectacular lake. The average temperature during the six-week, 460-mile camel walk/ride was 43 degrees in the shade. This journey was undertaken to raise funds for the Wild Camel Protection Foundation in its efforts to save the wild Bactrian camel in China and Mongolia from extinction. In that respect, the expedition was very successful. Also many generous WCPF donors and friends in Kenya contributed towards the cost of the expedition.
To walk completely around Lake Turkana the Omo River has to be crossed. This river, which flows out of Ethiopia, branches into numerous tributaries before it reaches the lake. In the rains the current is strong and the swift-flowing river brings with it fertile silt which provides the fiercely independent Dassenach tribe productive soil for farming. And what farms they are.
We had come up the eastern side of the lake where the effects of the drought that has gripped the Horn of Africa were clearly seen. Hollow-eyed, hungry people sat and stared at us as our camels passed through what remained of their domestic flocks. The topi antelope, indigenous to this area had suffered and died in large numbers. Their carcasses were scattered among the skeletons of starved sheep and goats.
But once we had entered the Omo Delta the change was dramatic. Round-bellied, plump, naked urchins sat on platforms made of sorghum stalks and pulled at strings, which rattled tin cans to frighten away birds from preying on ears of corn bursting with grain. ‘It’s a second crop’, I was told. ‘The first was harvested before the end of November.’ Two crops in four months, not bad going.
Tiny cattle, the size of the Irish Dexter breed, were herded around the farms. The sheep and goats were fat and healthy, the Dassenach themselves were sleek and oiled, exuding rude health. No wonder they were eyed by their hungry neighbours to the east and west who were itching to let their AK47s off the leash. This tribal animosity and suspicion had ensured that two of our Turkana camel boys would not accompany us through the delta. They were to be ferried across the northern end of the lake where we would pick them up after we had made the Omo crossing.
A key to the crossing and to getting in and out of Ethiopia was an extraordinary Dutchman called Halwejyn. He had spent so much time in the Omo delta, luring rich tourists into Dassenach country to part with $1000 plus a day for the sight of an unspoilt part of Africa that he now styled himself, the King of the Omo. Tall, brisk, fiftyish and bursting with energy, Halwejyn was of the Dutch flower power generation who once he had abandoned his hippy lifestyle had fallen in love with Africa had spent a life time seeking out those parts of the continent that were still relatively unspoilt. The Omo Delta is all of that, but my guess is that it won’t be for long. Missions, money, and AK’s will soon, in their respective ways, change all that.
But for the moment, the Dassenach remain picturesque with their colourful head caps fashioned from mud and their womenfolk dressed in animal skins. But how to get the camels across? The rains had broken and the river as running hard. We attempted to wade them across after Josh and Ivan had assiduously sought out a viable route. No such luck. The delta mud gave under the weight of the camels and as they threshed about to free themselves they sunk deeper and deeper in the black sludge. It took a hundred Dassenach with ropes to eventually get three that were stuck in the mud to the top of the steep riverbank.
Then one old Dassenachian suggested that they had, from
time to time, pinched a camel from the Turkana and demonstrated how camels
could be successfully trussed up to enable them to be roped to the side of
a boat. Halwejyn sprang into action and commandeered a steel-built
government boat. Then he weighed in with an outboard motor and soon we were
ferrying the first camels across the Omo. ‘Beware the crocs,’ we had
been warned but as far as I am aware we didn’t see one. Maybe the
multitude of helpers and the general frenetic activity scared them
off. When half the herd of eighteen camels were over, the remaining nine
were showing signs that they were anxious to join their chums on the western
Was it the tsetse fly that caused two of the camels to go temporarily blind a few days later? We were not sure but the tsetse seemed to be high on the possible culprit's list. The relief in getting all eighteen camels across safely was palpable. Amazingly, on the whole these wonderful creatures seemed not to suffer from trauma or stress and like so many other characteristics of the camel, took this novelty in their stride. Considering that the width of the river was equal to nearly two football pitches it was a great achievement.
Later when we advanced over the little crossed Loriyo plateau the camels again showed their great worth. The plateau is strewn with larva and the descent, which we made off a beaten track, showed just how amazingly versatile and astute and long-suffering a camel, can be. The brittle larva flows from Teleki’s volcano were somewhat of an anti-climax after the Omo and Loriyo crossings.
There was much else of interest on this extraordinary camel journey. Josh caught a 80-pound Nile Perch from the shore, which kept us in food for days. We had an encounter with armed Turkana bent on plundering a neighbouring tribe. Just for a moment the thought occurred to them that our camels might be a useful acquisition but a good meal calmed restive trigger fingers. The tall shade trees in the Turkwell River Delta set us in close quarters with other potentially turbulent Turkana tribesmen but the highlight of this enjoyable, and for the wild Bactrian camel and the WCPF, very rewarding trip, was the Omo River crossing."