At dawn we drove out of the village toward the Chalbi Desert, a land of dry volcanic sand that stretches all the way to Ethiopia. Judy and Ali, as well as a couple of other village friends, all lifetime residents of Kargi, were interested in joining us on this expedition and so they joined Kura, Semeji, Omar and me.
“No one would be able to cross this land on foot, Mama Rungu,” Ali tells me, “The alkaline soil sucks the moisture from your body and burns you up.”
As we drive, the ground turns from brown to white, from rocky soil to fine sand. Another vehicle has passed this way in the past 24 hours and we follow the tracks that lead us to a grove of trees. It is a strange looking sight – leafless trees, no taller than 8 to 10 feet, sprout out of the sand. There is no grass or bushes. Just trees and sand.
“When it rains the trees will have leaves, but only for a short time,” Judy tells us.
Kura announces, “This place is called the Trees of Sand.”
Suddenly we see a creature run across the sand, headed towards the black hills of ancient volcanic rock that rim one side of the desert . Kura guns the engine and our racing vehicle cuts the animal off before he can make it to the hill, giving us a good view. He has dark circles around his eyes, a striped tail and a low, badger-like body. Later we find out that it was an unusual daylight sighting of a civet cat.
To our right we see rows of large black stones.
“This was a place from a long time ago,” Ali tells us. “There was a great battle between the Gabbra and the Rendille and there were so many Gabbra killed that the Rendille elders told the warriors to place large black stones in every place where there was a dead Gabbra warrior.” Laid out like a runway, we saw hundreds of stones.
“This happened a long time ago, Mama Rungu, but the stones are still here.”
Kura is driving fast and the morning wind coming through the open windows feels great. Finally the desert is ahead of us – a white land of nothingness with a horizon that is a straight flat line.
“Do you see the mirage up ahead, Mama Rungu?” Kura asks me. After crossing the Falam and other desert lands of northern Kenya, I thought I had the ability to discern mirage from reality.
“Not so!” says Kura, “This time it is not a mirage. It is actually a lake, an alkaline lake, here on the edge of the desert. Camels love this water and our warriors risk their lives to bring their camels out here.”
We get out and wander to the edge of the lake. Crumbling crystals of salt cling to its rim and flocks of plovers, geese and ducks honk and squawk. We poke at the crusts of salt and throw stones at the feathers drifting in the putrid green water. Paleontologists have found the fossilized remnants of fish and snail shells in the desert – evidence that a large lake once existed here. But today it is a shallow pond – amazing given that it has not rained here in over a year.
It is too hot to linger. We climb back into the vehicle and drive out into nothingness. Flat, hot nothingness for as far as you can see. This is a first for Ali and Judy. We stop a few more times and take lots of pictures before the sun drives us back into the vehicle for the journey back to Kargi.
We need to get back – the women in town have planned a special event for us. We don’t want to be late.