**Bandits not included, call for special availability

To the countless cartographers, surveyors, travel writers, and bloggers who refer to the road north from Kitale to Lodwar as “paved,” I have only this to say: liar, liar. Pants on fire. It appears that way on virtually all maps and in virtually all guidebooks, but like a self-portrait from an online dating profile, the resemblance to reality is only passing. As well-tarmacked roads are a bit of a rarity for many Peace Corps volunteers, I believe I can speak for our entire wayfaring band when I say that it was something we were anticipating with some enthusiasm.

According to sources I spoke with in town, it was paved in the early 1980s by the Norwegian government, supposedly in an attempt to open the north for … something. Tourism, commerce, economic development – all of which would probably be welcome, as Turkana County is the poorest in Kenya, with nearly 95% of its residents living on less than 100 shillings a day (about $1.20 USD.) But, to quote one of my traveling companions: “Like most things from the eighties, time has done little to improve it.”


So as we approached our tenth hour of our fillings rattling in our teeth, and tried in vain to stare down Kenyan mamas who view the human lap as community property for the placement of children, maize sacks, or milk crates overstuffed with live chickens, it took time for the intensity of our surroundings to sink in. Oh, you, Kenya whispered as every bone-jiggling mile bought us a little more distance from the verdant Marich Pass, where our journey began. I may not have charmed you yet. But I will. I always do.

Turkana is desert, strictly speaking. Rainfall comes in the form of brief, violent thunderstorms during the rainy seasons, while the rest of the year, temperatures can creep north of 50 degrees Celsius (that’s 122 degrees Fahrenheit, for the Americans in the audience.) But here’s the thing: when people think “desert,” they think “empty” and “desolate.” There are certainly places where this is accurate – but Kenya’s northern deserts, in sun-drenched glory, are not among them. Generally. As overexposed daylight shifted into that magical late afternoon period filmmakers call “the golden hour,” then further on towards a lingering dusk, our grumblings amongst ourselves quieted into silence. Sure, this was partially exhaustion, dehydration, and the restiveness of wondering if you’ll make your destination by full nightfall (we did.) But much moreso, we found ourselves increasingly entranced by the view from the bus windows: flat, dry wadis (or luggas, by the local name) that host violent flash floods in the brief wet season, herds of camels resting beneath thorn-covered acacias, rocks and mountains looking as though they were shaped by someone who hadn’t read the manual all the way through, and tantalizing hints of the region’s volcanic past.

The northern Rift Valley offers a landscape as rich and varied as any jungle, in its own stark, Venusian sort of way. It literally steals your breath – and not just from the heat. It’s completely, utterly stunning.

(And per usual, my pictures could never do it full justice.)

Some people compare this segment of the journey to “a trip through the Sierra-Nevadas,” but personally, I was more reminded of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Beautiful either way.

The closer you get to Lake Turkana, the closer you also get to Central Island, the lake’s active-ish volcano. As a result, the landscape turns to glittering obsidian. Some have described it as looking like “landing on another planet,” but some traveling companions and I prefer to think of it as more like what the land of Mordor must have looked like.