Magazine article The Spectator

Distance Learning

Magazine article The Spectator

Distance Learning

Article excerpt

Chalbi desert

I am in Kenya's Chalbi desert, where temperatures soar to 140 degrees. Out here east of Koobi Fora, the Cradle of Mankind, black volcanic rocks tumble down to badlands of cracked salt - so blinding white that on the flight in I had the impression that we were floating over snowy tundra. At the northern shore of the Chalbi, where rock meets salt, is the oasis of Kalacha.

When I was a boy, safaris here with my father were pretty tough affairs. We'd spend weeks on end rambling on either side of Lake Turkana while Dad talked about livestock with the nomads. There were no tents or mattresses; we slept wrapped in blankets on the ground next to the fire. During one rare nocturnal rainstorm we all piled into the car, but Dad just rolled under the Land-Rover and went back to snoring. Inevitably the food used to run out, and for a week or so we once lived on nothing but chapattis, dried onions and tea. As long as Dad could brew his chai he was happy.

Times have changed. Aviator Jamie Roberts flew us here to the springs where he has built a set of bandas, or huts thatched with doum-palm leaves. I can't think of a more pleasurable way to pass the heat of the day than to sit gazing at the herds of Gabbra camels and goats watering at the Kalacha springs while one nurses a cold Tusker and listens to Jamie tell jokes. I have brought our children: Eve, three, and Rider, who is one. They spend most of the day bathing in the swimmingpool or catching tiny green frogs in the springs.

The Chalbi is among the remotest of places on earth but 'progress' has transformed Kalacha since my boyhood. In those days the oasis had a police post and a chiefs hut surrounded by his wife's dwellings - seven huts in all in 1976. Today there are 456 huts, an Africa Inland Mission station, a Catholic church with beautiful Ethiopian frescoes, a medical clinic, lodging houses like the Zam Zam Hotel and, sadly, a handful of tarts servicing the truckers who pass here on their way to the next village of North Horr (which logically enough is before the village of South Horr).

And on the edge of this haphazard cluster of huts I find the Kalacha School for Nomadic Girls. 'WELCOME OUR VISITOR!' trills a congregation of 250 girls in blue gingham pinafores. 'Hello my every childrenth!' lisps my Eve. …

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