About the Chalbi Desert and the NFD
The Chalbi Desert lies in the extreme north-east of Kenya. A wild and seldom-visited district, once known as the ‘Northern Frontier District' (NFD), it centres on Isiolo, the northeast's most important town and the hub for travel to Marsabit and Moyale.
Southernmost of the Northern Frontier towns, Isiolo is on the border between two different worlds, the fertile highlands and the desert. The area reflects a strong Somali influence since it was here that many veteran Somali soldiers from WW1 were settled. Recruited in Aden and Kismayu, they gave up their nomadic lifestyle to become livestock and retail traders.
The north of Kenya (over half of the country's total area) is a desert - exclusively arid land, burned out for more than ten months of the year. Once known as the Northern Frontier District (NFD) is remains one of the most exciting and adventurous parts of Africa: a vast tract of territory, crisscrossed by ancient migration routes and still tramped by the nomadic Samburu, Borana, Rendille, Gabbra, Turkana and Somali herders.
The target for most travellers is Lake Turkana. Lake Turkana stretches south for 250km from the Ethiopian border, down through Kenya's arid lands, bisecting the rocky deserts. It is hemmed in by sandy wastes and black and brown volcanic ranges. The water is alternately glassy blue or jade green. Lake Turkana is the biggest permanent desert lake in the world with a shoreline longer than the whole of Kenya's sea coast. Today it has been reduced to a sliver of its former self. An alkaline lake, it has no outlet and 3 metres of water-depth evaporates from its surface each year. A mammoth inland sea, it is fed by the headwaters of the Nile and is famous for the presence of enormous Nile perch.
The lake was discovered for the rest of the world only in 1888 by the Austrians Teleki and von Hohnel, who named it Rudolf after their archduke and patron. Later it became eulogized as the ‘Jade Sea' in John Hillaby's book about his camel trek. The name Turkana only came into being during the wholesale Kenyanization of place names in the 1970s. By then it had also been dubbed the ‘Cradle of Mankind', due to the existence of Koobi Fora a major paleontological site, which is now incorporated into the Sibiloi National Park.
Sibiloi National Park
Known as the ‘Cradle of Mankind', Sibiloi National Park was created to protect the sites of the many remarkable hominid fossil finds revealed by its searing winds. The Park yielded its most striking treasure in 1972 when a 2-million year old fossilized skull was discovered by eminent paleontologist, Dr Richard Leakey, and his team. The almost complete skull (labelled ‘1470' by the National Museum of Kenya) confirmed the existence of a sophisticated evolutionary hominid named Homo habilis , the direct ancestor of Homo sapiens . Evidence of Homo erectus was also unearthed along with some 160 additional finds relating to the early hominids.
Though the landscape is parched for most of the year, when the rains do come (usually around May) they can have dramatic effect, bringing torrents of water along the ravines.
How to get there
By air: access to Lake Turkana is usually by air and there are two all weather airstrips.
By road: the Lake is three-day drive from Nairobi (Marsabit-North Horr or Kitale-Lodwar-Kalokol).
By boat: access can be obtained by boat - Kalokol to Alia Bay.