Weeks 10-12: Turkana Thrills

You know the saying, “sometimes the journey is the destination”? Well, as I found out during my last course in Africa, that was only partially true for the Lake Turkana region – as both the journey and the destination were the destination.

Okay maybe that doesn’t make a lot of sense. I should probably set the scene a little bit – give a little introduction. It was my last quarter in Africa, my last class, my last three weeks in the country I’d grown to love spending time in. We were learning about paleoecology – the study of past ecosystems and environments – under the tutelage of Kevin Uno. Over the course of three weeks we’d complete projects on everything from oxygen isotopes in water to tree rings as a proxy for rainfall in the region. The second half of our course, though, was to be held in a new location – Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya.

Lake Turkana is a unique place not just today, but in the history of Kenya and the world. The region is home to some of the greatest human fossil finds ever discovered – uncovering ancestors in our family tree as old as 4.4 million years. It’s the perfect place to learn about the world of the past. Getting there from the Mpala Research Center required a 12 hour drive or a 2 hour flight in a mini bush plane. We opted for the latter, and so this is where my first sentence hopefully begins to make sense. The flight was a truly fun experience for me – we coasted through the sky at only 11,000 feet allowing for amazing views of the Kenyan countryside below. As someone who has always wanted to try aerial photography, this was a little taste to just how fun it could be.

Our view of the Kenyan landscape from above offered many incredible views – like this one of a winding river and the gorge it’s created

Turkana was even more beautiful than I expected. It was hot, very hot, but there was something refreshing about the consistent warm breeze and abundant opportunities to work on my atrocious farmer’s tan. Despite its reputation as one of the driest places in Kenya it rained often and torrentially during our 10 day stay – including the second highest day of rainfall the region had seen in recent memory. But one thing was always certain: the end of each day was capped off with a spectacular sunset over the distant lake that was impossible to miss from our research center.

One of the daily sunsets we were lucky enough to witness from the Turkana Basin Research Center. That’s our dining hall on the right, our classroom on the left

It’s pretty difficult to pick a highlight from our time in Turkana. But one of our wackiest and most interesting days occurred towards the end of our trip, as our group set out on a quest to find a downed tree to cut a slab from and use for dendrochronology studies. We trekked through a dry river bed in search for the massive fallen trees that would suit our needs. All the storms and rains from days prior had turned the usually sandy bed into a mush of mud which, instead of being gross, was an absolute blast to sink into barefoot. The really challenge, though, was staying afoot and our group was not without casualties. I watched in pure bliss as Juan, in a momentary lapse of concentration, began to flail in the wet clay and in an effort to stay upright slipped completely and body slammed poor Micah into the ground. Both spent the rest of the day covered in mud. After recovering from my first fit of hysterical laughter I turned to watch Juan do the same thing again – falling on top of her and creating a second Micah-sized imprint in the soft surface. It was one of the funniest moments of the trip.

The rest of the day was very hot and long. We found our tree, and spent four hours taking turns hacking off a slab with a massive two-person saw. It was exhausting and sweaty, and left every person sore and covered with hand blisters. As we waited for our turn I had yet another unique African experience when a group of small native children approached – curious to see what we were doing. They didn’t speak a word of English, so we resorted to communication using a method common to our study abroad group: music. A dance party ensued, with little African children and large American students alike jamming out to “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift. It was a classic example of the friendliness of all the Kenyans we met over the course of three months, and an amazing way to cap off a long but rewarding day.

Our dance party with this group of cute and energetic Kenyan children was one of the highlights in Turkana (photo by Kevin Uno)

It didn’t make sense. But somehow, a few days later, it was our last full day in Kenya. It was hard to believe how quickly it all flew by. We needed some way to fittingly end our trip (if that was possible), so we decided to spend the late afternoon swimming in Lake Turkana and watching the sunset.

Behind the scenes as our group enjoys swimming and sunset-watching in Lake Turkana’s warm waters

And wow, it was amazing. The waters of Turkana were perfectly warm, not a soul was in sight, and the setting sun created a calm atmosphere that made everything seem like paradise. We tossed around a Frisbee and basked in the warm light (and I, of course, took photos). But just like seemingly every aspect of our time in Africa it was over all too fast. It felt like minutes after we arrived (it was 2 hours) we were loading into the van, dusk covering the landscape and leaving the shore shrouded in shadows. We left the beach, making the drive back to the research center in complete silence. We just stared out at the sky, exploding with color, as the sun set on our time in Kenya.

My last Kenyan sunset slowly makes its way towards the horizon behind the rippling waters of Lake Turkana

It’s been three weeks since I returned to the U.S., and I still haven’t gotten used to being back. My three months in Africa flew by, but the memories I made there will last a lifetime. It has been so much fun writing and sharing this blog with you and the positive response I’ve received from so many people has been heartwarming. Thank you all for reading. As this is my last blog – at least for now – I just wanted to offer a few thanks to everyone who made these posts possible:

A huge shout-out to the Mpala Research Center for their generous and incredible hospitality. We weren’t there for long, but it really did begin to feel like home.

To Dino, Paula, Rob, Dan, Kevin, Tong, Justine, Kaia, and Mama Z – thank you for being friendly and engaging teachers and TAs. I learned far more from each of you than I ever could have expected in just three weeks.

And finally to PBK. You guys are the 14 best people I’ve met and it was a real pleasure getting to know you all so well. I can’t wait for a day 30 years from now when we sit down and reread these together, laughing at the insane/wild/terrifying experiences we had. None of this blog would have been possible if you didn’t make every minute an adventure.

I’ll leave you with a photo of our amazing group, looking spry and fresh back in week 2:

Our adorable group of 15 adventurers back when we were younger and cleaner – featuring Bug Man Dino and Bird Guy Tong

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Tutaonana Baadaye!

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