If you are a globetrotter who has for one reason or another never taken a road trip to northern Kenya’s Turkana, sorry to burst your bubble but you are missing out big time!
Turkana- an infamous arid area nestled on the north-western part of Kenya that has for the longest time been hackneyed for drought and famine, hunger and starvation, agonizing heat, inter-community cattle rustling and banditry, high illiteracy levels as well as underdevelopment. It remains unfortunate that several decades down the line, most people are yet to unlearn such vile thoughts. Yes, there remains to be a lot of work that needs to be done, but we cannot sit back and downplay the major strides that the county has made as a whole.
My Turkana’s Background
I was born in a small fishing town in Turkana Central known as Kalokol. My favorite childhood memory involves building castles in the sand dunes, feasting on lots of fish as well as topping in my class. Does the latter count? I want it to. Anyway, at the age of 5, my parents moved out of Turkana, a shift that saw me have no contact with the area for the next 12 years of my life. Thanks to my aunt who paid for my first ever flight, I got the chance to reconnect with the motherland, widely known as the cradle of mankind. At the time, the road to Lodwar was such a dreadful experience, almost like a punishment for choosing to not afford a plane ticket. Although, my flight was mostly a gift to me for passing my KCSE exams. Since then, the road has been significantly improved, something that has been a game-changer to the harshly stereotyped locality.
The road to Lodwar situation- back in the day
A few years ago, the road from Kitale to Lodwar was a literal bumpy ride. The 297.4-kilometer stretch was known for its tribulations that involved a rough road, more like you are in an uncontrollable fit the entire time. The yawing chance of banditry did not make the situation any better. Flash floods could fill up the seasonal rivers, bringing your unending trip to a sudden halt, leaving you at the mercy of well-wishers. Also, did I mention that the road situation wore off vehicles and their parts? Buses like Dayah Express and Eldoret Express were some few that were endorsed to ferry people and loads of goods to and from Turkana. 4- Wheel land cruiser vans also started operating at the route but you had to dig deeper into your pocket to afford the relatively comfortable, safer, and faster alternative. A solid road trip to Lodwar used to take 24 hours at the very least. It surely used to be a journey and a half.
Due to the hustle and bustle of it all, most people opted for air travel. To some extent, flying to Lodwar seemed like the only viable means of transport to the cradle of mankind. One could book flights to Lodwar from either Nairobi, Eldoret, or Kitale. Airlines such as Fly 540, Skyward Express, Sax, Safarilink, and Silverstone made it all possible. At the moment though, one mustn’t travel to Lodwar via air only since the expedited road experience is one to relish.
The ultimate road trip to Lodwar experience 2021
If you are looking to traverse the northern Kenya region, going to Lodwar via road should be at the top of your bucket list. Why? You ask. Hold your horses.
The 601 km highway from Kitale to South Sudan is a shy away from completion. Oh, and the views are to die for. From Kitale, you will pass through towns such as Kapenguria, Ortum, Kainuk, Lokichar, Lodwar, Kakuma, and Lokichoggio then to South Sudan respectively.
If you are coming from Nairobi (I am using Nairobi for familiarity and referencing), drive down to Trans Nzoia’s Kitale town. The drive will cover 386.5 km and will take approximately 7 hours, enabling you to pass major towns such as Naivasha, Nakuru, and Eldoret. It is important to start this journey early enough, say at about 4 a.m., enabling you to get to Kitale at around 11a.m. Once at Kitale, you can have a quick stop where you can stretch and stock on essentials such as gas, water, and snacks. At midday, let the show-stopping trip commence. Be keen on having daytime travel since that is the only way to visually tell the gradual yet sure change in geography and climate.
The road distance between Kitale and Lodwar is about 297 kilometers- 4 hours of lingering sightseeing if you ask me. By the way, the road is fully tarmacked to standard apart from a 45 km course in between Lokichar and Lochwaa. The rough stretch is equally passable and the task to tarmac it is underway. This is nothing to fret about since the rate at which those Contractors are working will see the road to completion before you even plan your trip up here.
The unforgettable road trip from Kitale town to Kainuk town
As you move from Kitale to Lodwar by road, be sure to pass through 6 major town centers. These are Kapenguria, Kapkoris, Chepareria, Ortum, Kainuk, and Lokichar sequentially. The entire trip involves summiting Cherangany ranges, snaking through the hills and lush green plains, descending the beauty then having the last leg through a growingly arid stretch towards Lodwar town. For a moment, the views through the summit allowed me to imagine that I was in Hawaii. A girl can dream, right? Truthfully so, the Pokot highlands have nothing short of magnificence to offer. Such a sight to behold!
The highlight of the trip occurs at Marich Pass, ‘Marich’ being Kalenjin for ‘narrow’. True to word, this path is visibly narrow, one that makes you hold your breath as you snake through it. Marich pass is one stretch that demands alertness since the Turkwell River that is crammed between 2 cliffs leaves you no mercy if things go left and your vehicle ends up skidding. You end up trotting through the bridge, making it to the other side, where slowly but surely, the reality of the Turkana landscape and climate starts hitting you.
Once at Kainuk, this is how the view behind you looks like;
Now, it is important to note this town because it is the perfect border between West Pokot and Turkana. Do not be shocked to see more guns than people, warning you that this was once a banditry-prone area, thanks to the occasional Pokot-Turkana clashes. You will spot so many police officers doing random checks, ensuring that you are safe to enter Turkana. As you start heading up towards Turkana, the green vegetation gets sparser, the arid vegetation becomes more visible and the air becomes hotter. You even catch yourself undressing some clothes that are piling up to the literal heat.
Lokichar is the next town on your way to Lodwar, about 1 hour from Kainuk town. In the last couple of years, this town has flourished, thanks to the oil wells that surround this corner of the world. With that, people from far and wide are attracted, locals and foreigners alike. Projects such as Ngamia One are just a stone’s throw distance from the rapidly growing arid town. One reputable hotel in this small town is the Black Gold Hotel.
Lokichar to Lodwar is about 90 km, but half of that distance is yet to be tarmacked.
Lochwaa i is the center that is in between these two areas, dividing the distance into halves. Lokichar to Lopii is a dusty yet passable stretch, where you have to maneuver through the fields since the main road is under preparation for the tarmacking that is yet to commence. Once you get to Lochwaa, the road is tarmacked all the way to Lodwar town.
Lodwar town, Turkana County’s capital
As you move towards Lodwar town, the denser the settlements get. You will notice that the traditional Turkana homesteads are built in such a way that caters to their semi-nomadic pastoralist lifestyles.
You will see men dressed in their shukas, carrying their ákicholong,’ and rungu everywhere they go. Women on the other hand will be seen with their lessos on and beautiful layers of beads on their necks. Apparently, in Turkana culture, women are home keepers while men are herders and protectors. Be sure to spot herds of camel and flocks of goats and sheep on your way to Lodwar.
One major landmark you will come across as you near Lodwar town is the Turkana University College, formerly known as Mount Kenya University-Turkana Branch. Another landmark would be the Fire Brigade Offices, a brightly colored establishment right by the roadside. You pass through Kanamkemer, a celebrated estate that is on your gateway to the Town. Then you cross River Turkwell via the recently completed bridge, coughing you into Lodwar, a town surrounded by tens of hills.
Hotels in Lodwar Town
There are so many hotels in Lodwar town, something that will keep you spoilt of choice. If you are looking for a modern one situated a few minutes away from the airstrip, I suggest you consider Solmar Gracious Hotel.
Ceamo Prestige Lodge gives you a lush vibe but it is situated about 10 minutes drive away from the town center. Sandfields Hotel has a swimming pool and is farther from town on your way to Tobongú Lore, off the Lodwar-Kerio road. Stegra Hotel, The Cradle Tented Camp, Young Star Guest House, Rudolf Regency Hotel, The Great Turk Reef Hotel, Africanah Hotel as well as Acacia Residences are all hotels in Lodwar that offer reliable and extensive accommodation.
Getting to Lake Turkana from Lodwar Town via road
There are 2 major ways to get to Lake Rudolf, also known as Lake Turkana via road from Lodwar town. The first one is to drive down the tarmac road to a small fishing town known as Kalokol. For a better experience, once at Kalokol, take a 15-minute boat ride to Longéch island, where you will be able to enjoy the clean waters as well as interact with the El Molo people that inhabit the island.
The second and common way is to access the crocodile-infested Lake Turkana via Eliye springs, a destination situated on the western shores of Lake Turkana. It is a 65 km drive that starts as you take the Lodwar- Kalokol route then you branch off on your left, thanks to a signpost that guides you.
The journey takes about one hour on a sandy yet breezy path to the lakeside beauty. You will be welcomed by the relaxing lake breeze, the sounds of waves crashing on the beach as well as the noises of people playing games by the beach. Eliye has several accommodation resorts such as Eliye Springs Resort (Kwa Mzungu), Christine Camp (kwa Christine), and Napak Camp.
Fun activities to do at Eliye Springs in Turkana
Experience the hot springs at Eliye by bathing in the waters from the springs
Have a night in the Traditional Turkana Manyatta.
Swim in the on-site pool. At night, you are not advised to swim in the lake since Lake Turkana is infested with crocodiles. So if you must have a dip at night, opt for the pool at the resort.
Eat lots of freshly prepared fish. The fishermen do hawk fresh fish at an affordable price. Talk to your accommodation, and I am sure they will gladly prepare the fish for you at a small fee.
During the day, swim in the lake waters.
Bask, sunbathe in the sun and forget about the network because you will not need it here. Matter of fact, there is barely any network connection here.
Have a stroll along the sandy beaches. The dunes will have you in awe.
Hunt for wild fruits commonly known as mkoma.
Play beach games. If you are experienced, feel free to do lake surfing.
If your budget allows, take an engine boat ride to and from Central Island.
Lastly, take lots of sunset shots. The views here are breathtaking during dusk.