In northern Kenya, the Chalbi Desert landscape is baked black lava, swirling sand, and silence. However, at its western boundary, the moisture of Lake Turkana spawns life. Puff Adders and scorpions hide in the shade of palm trees, camels pick at thorny brush, and camel spiders ambush birds and lizards. This is where the Turkana, Pokot, and Molo tribes call home.
At 6,405 square kilometers (2,473 square miles), Lake Turkana is the biggest permanent desert lake in the world, gracefully earning its name as the Jade Sea for its gleaming emerald green and sapphire blue waters. In the middle of the lake, lies Central Island National Park, an active volcano floating on the horizon above a rising skirt of volcanic vapor and steam from the desert sun.
We arrive at Eliye Springs Resort just before sunset, and are greeted by Rolf, who has lived in Kenya as long as the desert sands. He has an unlit pipe in the corner of his mouth, and a big gray moustache to match. His eyes glitter light blue as if filled with water from the lake. We want to hire a boat to go fishing and camping at Central Island National Park, but he shakes his head in concern.
The winds are picking up, which means a storm is blowing in, and desert storms create havoc for everything always. The boat is small and the lake is large, “I don’t think you guys want to be out there right now,” he advises, but we are looking for adventure, not advice, and insist on going anyways. Fate is not on our side though, as the boat that would take us gets trapped by the storm and never arrives.
The morning is clear, and the boat has landed, but the village elders tell us it has rained harder than it has in 50 years, and we are cut-off from both towns. So we sit with Rolf and calculate how much gas he has, and we think it is just enough to get us to Central Island and back. We load up trolling equipment for Nile perch, and goliath tiger fish and set out in the late afternoon, passing over the muddy waters on the shore, and out into shimmering blue waters.
Unfortunately, we arrive at Central Island National Park in the dark, and without fish. Our timing is bad as there is a monster crocodile that patrols this landing spot, it is feeding time, and we cannot find him. So we shine flashlights over the water between the boat and the shoreline — watching and waiting. Finally, our captain, Kibet, bravely splashes into the water scanning the water around him, and motions for us to get off the boat and bring our gear to shore.
We set-up camp on a bluff overlooking the lake, and immediately rig some lures onto casting poles and return to the lake to try our luck with the massive catfish that feed at night. As the desert heat dissipates, the lake comes alive. Thousands of frogs croak, and giant turtles crawl back into the water.
Gnats swarm around us so thickly that swatting in front of our face feels like running a hand through a bucket of rice. We have to turn-off our headlamps to keep them away, but that leaves a gnawing feeling in our stomachs as it means we cannot see approaching crocodile eyes on the water. It is estimated that there are over 10,000 crocodiles in Lake Turkana, and Central Island National Park is their breeding ground.
Then giant fish start hitting the lines, drawing them razor tight, and arching the poles. We loosen the drags and fight, but they are monsters, and time after time they snap our 15-pound test line. On a gently sloping bank of the lake, I hear a splash, and jolt my light on to check for crocodiles, but instead find a huge catfish hunting near the shore.
Creeping closer, I grab a rock and hurl it at the fish. I hit it in the head, and blood starts flowing in rivers around its body, but its armor plating has kept it alive, and is still swimming around erratically. It starts meandering out into deeper water, and now I have a big problem. I scan the surface for crocodile eyes and wade in after it, grabbing it in the corner of the mouth, and wrestling it back to shore. It is three feet long, and enough dinner for all of us.
At dawn, my friends set out to go fishing with Kibet, but I choose to venture deeper into the island. The island has three different crater lakes called Tilapia Lake, Crocodile Lake and Flamingo Lake with respect to the species that congregate in each. I climb up to a view point overlooking Crocodile and Tilapia Lakes, and watch the sun rise over Sibiloi National Park on the far eastern shore. The dawn light melts slowly into the lake, reviving its sapphire blue color from the dark night.
The boat ride back is serene, until we run out of gas, and sputter to a stop far off shore. We disagree about if we are close enough to shore to swim, and even if we were, if it were a good idea in this crocodile infested lake. Kibet removes the floor of the boat, hauls the fuel tank onto the deck, and figures out that by positioning it at a 45-degree angle, enough fuel accumulates in the bottom corner to keep us going. We putter on with bated breath, making it to shore feeling like we had gotten to have the adventure we were advised against.
Author’s Note: Getting out to Central Island National Park is a challenge. The easiest way is to fly to Lodwar, and then have Eliye Springs Resort pick you up, and bring you to the lake, so you can use their boat. Supposedly Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) also runs a boat from Kalokol, but we did not verify this. We arrived overland from northern Uganda, and had an adventurous time doing it (See: Traversing Western Lake Turkana).
Eliye Springs is wonderful and isolated, and I highly recommend staying there if you like remote adventure. They have hot food, cold beer, thatched bandas on the beach, and also allow camping. For fishing, they do have some gear there, but you will have to know a bit about rigging and trolling if you want to land a goliath tiger fish. Even though we did, we did not get lucky. Lastly, I highly recommend camping for a night at the Choroo Public Campsite in Central Island National Park. Bring your own everything because it is beautifully remote.