There is a fine line between real and surreal. Right now it’s a skein of dawn-grey cloud. Below the line, the great beast of Nairobi is growling into wakefulness, above the line is an expanse of rain-sodden air. In the far distance rise the silver spires of Mount Kenya. And the snout of the plane is pointing straight at her.
We had left Nairobi in the half-light as strings of rush-hour headlights spun cobwebs across the city. Now the temperature in the cabin is plummeting and there’s a roar of rushing air. Someone has taken the back door off the plane and a square hole gapes where seats and windows should be. In the hole, lashed to the fuselage with a harness, a photographer wields a lens-heavy camera.
We’re doing the ‘scenic trip’.
The closer we get to the mountain, the higher we climb and the more the air thins until we’re breathing through oxygen masks. Fingers turn to ice. Our headphones twitter: Nairobi Air Traffic Control is uneasy. What are we doing at 17,000 feet they want to know? Gradually, the vastness of the mountain engulfs us until it fills the screen, the windows and the howling hole where the photographer hunches. We seem perilously close; it seems terrifyingly alien. Suddenly we swing east to circle the citadel of peaks. Below us, vast skirts of forest wash up the mountain’s flanks – they’re deeply striated by valleys and icy tarns as if clawed by a monstrous beast. It’s minus two degrees centigrade in the cabin now and the high peaks are dusted with snow. Despite the rushing roar of air within the plane, the mountain is wreathed in stillness and sanctity.
This is not the realm of man, but of God. And we’re in his airspace.
Abruptly, as if she has tired of us, the mountain releases us from her orbit and, as her enormity falls away behind us, a lone puff of pink cloud attaches itself to her highest peak. As we skim the sun-blazed plains of Laikipia, the ranch land below us is veined by slow moving chains of black, brown and white cattle; also visible are the circular cattle enclosures of the Maasai, scrawled across the landscape like the hieroglyphics of the Gods. There’s a sudden change in tempo as the plane is buffeted by hot blasts of air and, as if in response, the landscape begins to buckle and convulse. We’re heading down into the inferno of the Suguta Valley, one of the hottest places on earth. It’s 60 degrees centigrade in the shade here. But there is no shade, just bald, burning, baking earth. Eight thousand years ago this valley held a vast lake whose white crystalline shoreline is still painted on the landscape. Now it’s known as the Valley of Death.
As the shadow of the plane flits across the landscape, time flips and millions of years seem to concertina into a gigantic geological wince. It’s at this point that the scenic trip turns psychedelic and the earth goes mad. Huge calderas, the size of cities, give way to great outpourings of glutinous black lava so liquid as to appear as though still on the move. Lurid green crocodile pools mark the path of an ancient river; battalions of half-moon sand dunes march across a landscape eerily reminiscent of the roof of a giant’s mouth. A monstrous set of rocky teeth, high as skyscrapers, bite into the sky; great golden rock-castles rise out of a landscape that’s part Lord of the Rings, part Armageddon. Ahead of us lies a black barrier of volcanic cones, slithering and sifted-sugar soft. The beauty and majesty is becoming almost too much to bear. »
But the show’s not over yet. The plane skips gaily over the black satanic barrier and swoops down into a heat-shimmered heaven where Lake Logipi lies sweltering amid streaks of lilac, pink and gold. It’s a limpid mirror of cloud-shadowed water in which is reflected the ethereal stone steeples of Cathedral Rock. Across its surface, thousands of carmine flamingoes are blown as if by a giant breath and its shores are laced alternately grey, green and violet like floating petticoats. As the plane banks, sky, water, cloud, rock and birds merge into a kaleidoscopic blur: we’re heading for the final frontier.
Despite what’s gone before, Lake Turkana steals the show. The largest alkaline lake on earth, her jade green waters are wind-whipped into a million white horses. At her southern tip, lies the perfect volcanic cone known as Nabiyotum. Encircled by a filigree of peacock blue bays, it is otherworldly in its serenity. In the far distance lies the shimmering mirage of South Island where a million crocodiles bask. Much further north lie the petrified forests of the world famous Paleolithic site, Koobi Fora, home to our earliest ancestors. It’s hard to believe we’re still in Kenya; we might just as well be on the moon.
And here, in the madness of a moonscape, some maniacal genius has built a wind farm. Hundreds of whirling turbines stride across the landscape and harness the hot wind to supply 17% of Kenya’s annual energy requirement. Surreal blends into bizarre as the pilot turns in his seat to announce, ‘five minutes to landing.’ We drop out of the sky on to a baking stretch of rust-red gravel. Welcome to the airstrip at the end of the world.
‘Tea?’ says the pilot unscrewing a Thermos flask. We’ve flown way beyond fantastic and well into weird. There’s nothing here but a squat breezeblock arrival building. Inside is a circle of red plush sofas and six empty magazine racks. On the rough dirt track outside stands a lone traffic sign: T-junction. It’s slightly bent: somebody has driven into it. In the shadow of the plane, we stare into the reflections of each other’s sunglasses and sip our tea. Had we not believed in the existence of a God when we climbed out of Nairobi, we certainly do now.
Our incredible trip was organized by Boskovic Air Charters, a long established and much respected local company who provide a wide range of private charters throughout eastern and central Africa. They operate out of Nairobi’s Wilson Airport. Our pilot was Andy Allen. For further information, visit:
Our photographer was professional safari guide Sean Dundas (www.seandundassafaris.com) who leads his own safaris with Kenya’s original safari operator, Ker and Downey Safaris.
Our aircraft was a Cessna Grand Caravan EX and our round trip covered 800km.
Lake Turkana lies in the Kenyan Rift Valley and is the world’s largest permanent desert and alkaline lake.
The Lake Turkana Wind Project was completed in 2018 and consists of 365 wind turbines, each with a capacity of 850kW, and a high voltage substation connected to the Kenyan national grid.