A Season of Migration to the North

Arid desert landscape with shrubs against the backdrop of a distant blue mountain near Marsabit, in the Kaisut Desert, Northern Kenya
Jennifer Sophie / Getty Images

Why did I go? I was bored and had been paid an inordinate amount of money for my fiction, so I got onto a bus and went to Marsabit.

Both times, I left Nairobi under the haze of a romantic affiliation that had gone bust. The first time I went, the goal was Lake Paradise. When younger, my mother and I talked often of Lake Paradise, and of visiting it, and of the mountain below it. We knew that somewhere in Northern Kenya, surrounded by three deserts—Chalbi, Kaisut, and Korole—Mount Marsabit rose 7,800 feet (2,400 meters) in the air. At the top of the mountain, there is an extinct volcanic crater, and in the center of the crater, a lake: Lake Paradise.

My friend D hosted me on that first trip. I texted him to tell him about my plans, that I wanted to see Lake Paradise, that I was coming North. “Come,” he said. “Accommodation yako in Marsabit town is at my place.” I said OK.

The bus to Marsabit was old and empty. There couldn’t have been more than 15 people in the 60-seat bus. I texted a friend this, sent her the requisite travel selfie and told her that my neighbor was already at work on his laptop. “Nobody with goats on the bus?” she responded. A week earlier, this same friend asked, “Who goes on holiday to Marsabit?”

Marsabit occupies an eerie place in the imaginations of Kenyans. The tourist circuit north from Nairobi ends in Samburu, 124 miles (200 kilometers) south of Marsabit, where plush luxury camps tend to a revolving cast of mostly white tourists. Beyond Samburu, the story goes, is the badlands. My father’s work frequently took him to Marsabit in the mid-2000s, and his stories usually didn’t feature much beyond the physical discomfort of traveling from Nairobi in eight-seater planes. However, in July 2005, in the midst of his travels to and from the town, 95 people were massacred in a morning of terror in Turbi a town 81 miles (130 kilometers) north-east of Marsabit, the culmination of years of tension between the Gabra and Borana communities. 

My friend, who spoke the exultant language of the reaspora bubble in leafy-suburb Nairobi, also asked if police protection was offered to travelers venturing North. Several friends asked variations of this question. In fact, I half-expected there to be cops riding along with us on the bus. There were none. Instead, there was a lot of soreness; the effects of a nine-hour bus ride. 

That first week in Marsabit, the three of us—D, his wife N, and myself—made arrangements to go to Lake Paradise. We drove into the park that houses the lake—Marsabit National Park—in the morning. Inside, the park was green with foliage. Mount Marsabit is buttressed by montane forest, with tall trees rising from the ground to form an impressive canopy and strings of Spanish moss hanging from the trees. There are two crater lakes on the mountain. The first, lower on the mountain, is Sokorte Diqo, and the second is Lake Paradise or Sokorte Gudho in the local Rendille language.

We got to Sokorte Diqo first. Elephants and buffaloes were grazing by the water and shimmering birds, riding on the crest of the wind flitted back and forth, their dance an exquisite choreography. The three of us sat there for a while by the water’s edge, on the other side of the lake from the elephants and buffaloes. Then, back in the car we went, driving slowly under the canopies of the rangy trees. The earthen track opened up before us the closer we got to the summit of the mountain. I tingled with excitement at the prospect of seeing the lake I had dreamed of for years. Only, when we got to the top and gazed down into the crater, there was no lake. Instead, there was a green patch and an outline of where the lake’s boundary should be. 

Lake Paradise in Marsabit National Park, Kenya
FernandoQuevedo / Getty Images

In 1910, having been promised a lake which “nobody knows about,” Osa and Martin Johnson traveled across the Kaisut Desert with an army of porters and ox-drawn wagons in search of a lake they weren’t even sure existed. There at the top of Mount Marsabit, gazing from the edge of the caldera, they found a lake “shaped like a spoon, less than half a kilometer wide and about 1.2 kilometers long, and sloped up into steep, wooded banks 200 feet high. A tangle of water vines and lilies—great African lilies—grew in the shallows at the water’s edge. Wild ducks, cranes, and egrets circled and dipped. Animals, more than they could count, stood quietly knee-deep in the water and drank.” This they christened Lake Paradise. In travelogues written about the area, Lake Paradise has a certain lore. It has been called “a Noah's Ark” and otherworldly. David Lansing, tracing the paths of Osa and Martin Johnson, waxes poetic about the lush wildlife, “oozy shoreline,” “cerulean sky,” and “green, boggy meadow.” And what of Osa, in 1921, with her simple, “It’s Paradise, Martin!” 

Today, however, Lake Paradise is dying, threatened by the horrors of climate change. Gone are the crowds of animals and birds that came to the water to drink from the lake. Gone too are the water lilies and the vines. Lake Paradise now exists as a small patch in the middle of the caldera, and the animals have largely abandoned it for other water sources lower on the mountain. Soon, in a few years, some contend, Lake Paradise will cease to exist, except as a figment of one’s memory, gone the way of Lake Chad.

Lake Paradise having proven a bust, I decided to stay on in Marsabit. I stayed there a month and assimilated into habits of domesticity with D and N. Friends would call, ask whether I was there on holiday or for work, and neither answer was true. Nairobi held nothing for me so I was in Marsabit, spending days writing and living and watching football, Bollywood soaps, and trying to watch Ava DuVernay’s tragic miniseries. I spent nights talking about books with D.

My last weekend in Marsabit, I went to Moyale, a city 155 miles (250 kilometers) north of Marsabit, on the border between Kenya and Ethiopia. Whenever there is violence in Ethiopia, as there were a few weeks before my arrival in Moyale, it spills over into the Kenyan side. A new friend told me this matter-of-factly, like one would share news of the weather while we sat in a market in the middle of town drinking sodas. The gunmen who attacked Turbi in 2005 came from Ethiopia, according to multiple news reports. We sipped our sodas. The sun was hot.

Jade colored waters of Lake Turkana
Martin Harvey / Getty Images

The second time I went to Marsabit, a few months later, it was but a stop to my final destination of Loiyangalani, a town on the shores of the largest permanent desert lake in the world. Three hundred kilometers west of Marsabit town, across the Korole and Chalbi deserts, there is a lake, Lake Turkana, nee Lake Rudolph, also known by what is my favorite name for any body of water anywhere—The Jade Sea.

I was with a friend, L, who I somehow convinced to abandon her life and accompany me on my sojourn across the desert. However, we were delayed. First, by a desire to visit Lake Paradise (semi-full this time because of a deluge of rains that struck Marsabit), and then by a myriad of factors that spoke of the volatility of the region: the rain had rendered the roads across the desert undrivable; there was an ongoing election, and a fear of clashes arising from said election; the drought that the rain was breaking lasted a long time, more than a year, and in the immediacy of droughts, communities restocked which sometimes meant people with guns raiding other villages for cattle.

So, for a few days, we lulled our feet in D’s house, bags still packed, calling the transport company we booked every day to see if the desert was crossable.

Then, at the end of the week, a call. “Mko tayari?” We were ready. We left, L and I.

There is traveling, and there is Traveling, and there is also traveling, and then there is being in the back of a Landcruiser hightailing it across the desert with the might of the sun above you, the road so sloshed and muddy the driver decides to drive through the underbrush, with a Sheikh seated in front with the driver, one of your companions in the back screaming into a phone about how the Gabra should not do revenge attacks, while you and your travel companion look at each other in alarm at this phone call, then shrug it off because it can’t really matter. Not when you’re bouncing in that Landcruiser with the back open and you almost fall out with every swerve, while clicking away with the camera slung around your neck, especially as the golden light of the setting sun casts its gaze upon the sand. And then, after six hours of travel, the Landcruiser breaks down on the shores of the lake, and it’s so beautiful how the dark water ebbs against the shores, and one your fellow passengers warns you not to venture close to the water’s edge because there are hippos and crocs waiting.

That night you’ll sleep in a manyatta (though it will technically be morning when you arrive), and wake up in an oases town by the Jade Sea. Later in the day you and your travel companion will walk to it, your camera clicking away greedily at every sight and you will sit by the water’s edge, reading, as the birds skip off the water and into the air above you.

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