Lance Richardson Writer & Photographer

Tag Archives: travel

© 2013 Lance Richardson

Vanuatu: Tales of the south seas

At a certain point, propellers whirring high above a reef, the Mormon missionary pulls out a palm fan and begins to flap it methodically, circulating an acrid bouquet of human sweat around the cabin. Two seats behind, I want to lean forward and clear my throat: Hey buddy, maybe loosen the tie, pop a button instead? This is the South Pacific, after all. ‘No Mo Wori,’ is written on the wall of Port Vila’s domestic airport, a gospel of sorts in Bislama, the creole language of Vanuatu. It occurs to me that polished nametags and starched collars are as fish-out-of-water here as French baguettes, though I’ve seen plenty of those around as well.

The plane is stifling, with 16 intimate seats. Outside, an ocean of deep Klein blue gives way to shallow turquoise, then the green tangle of Malekula, studded with palm trees like a pin cushion floating on the sea. The closer we come to the island’s airstrip the more coconut palms there are, until there is nothing else: a copra plantation.

Malekula is famed for copra, which is processed into everything from cooking oil to biofuel; along with beef, it remains Vanuatu’s most lucrative export. But the island is otherwise mysterious, despite being the second-largest landmass in the entire archipelago (after Espiritu Santo). Tourist literature defines it as the “island of cannibalism and custom” – a vague but darkly thrilling description – with 30 indigenous languages and 20,000 residents. To this I would add that it is the island of deranged roads, some so disfigured by rain they belong in a museum. Beyond Lakatoro, the administrative centre, there is almost no electricity, making it a hallucinatory place after sunset, with fires in the jungle and hushed voices like spirits whispering through the banyan trees.

Etienne, from the Malekula Bungalow Association, offers a telling statistic. Of all the visitors to Vanuatu – 108,161 in 2012 – 80 percent stay on Efate, home to Port Vila and the international airport. The island of Tanna draws 15 percent because of Mount Yasur, sometimes described as “the world’s most accessible volcano.” According to Etienne, just 0.01 percent fly to Malekula. This suggests a great deal about the sort of experience one should expect here. It’s also a number that will have a certain type of traveller searching for the flight schedule immediately.

I come to Malekula for five days. I come without my computer or phone – little more than a paperback and open mind. I come, too, hoping for some small insight into “cannibalism and custom,” and find a way of life where most everything is organic and sustainable. Malekula is far from romantic; it is enlightening, though – a reminder of what and how much a human being needs to live decently. My married guides, Erima and Fernand, carry a bag between them that is smaller than my own. When I offer to shout Erima at a roadside refreshment stand she glances beyond the biscuits and soft drinks and says, smoothing her dress, “Four pens, please.”

The recent addition of a call centre in Lakatoro, organising all attractions and accommodation across the island, has made travel on Malekula relatively easy, at least in the planning stages. There are three worthy tours within a thirty-minute drive of the airstrip alone: a Small Nambas tour, a Big Nambas tour, and a cannibal site tour.

A ‘namba’ is a decorated sheath traditionally worn by adult males; these sheaths are used to differentiate the Malekula population into two distinct groups (covering numerous tribes). To clear up any confusion, Erima explains that though the Small Nambas wear small nambas and the Big Nambas wear big nambas, this is aesthetic preference rather than a sign of biological inequality. Then she laughs and widens her eyes.

Enough said.

The Small Nambas tour, at Rano, focuses on the Nemi Gortien Ser (Spirit of Unity) Tribe, and has a great deal of shimmying in the sunlight. One dance calls the wind; a man jogs into the jungle clearing with a towering headdress, representing an eagle. The women perform a flower dance, bake shredded yams in bamboo sticks, and weave palm fronds into a floor mat. It is energetic and illustrative, with careful explanations by an English translator. The Big Nambas tour, by contrast, is largely inscrutable, the dancers at Mae showing just enough Nalint custom to make you intrigued – and then stopping. Perhaps this is fitting for a group renowned as secretive; they live deeper in the bush than the Small Nambas, who they occasionally fought in the past and vary from on almost every point.

The cannibalism site tour is fairly self-explanatory. Here is the ‘naserah’ (ceremonial site) of the Amelbati Tribe; here is where the chief once sat; here is where they strung up their enemies nears the tom toms which drowned out the screams. “The people in the past used a magic chant to make heavy things light, so they could drag up stone from the sea,” Erima says, pushing her way through frangipanis, which make the place look beautiful even as we’re examining the fire-pit. All of this is reported without pride or shame, though Erima cracks a joke. Regarding a white missionary: “Oh, he must be very clean! He will taste good.”

There are no cannibals left on Malekula, just as nambas are worn sparingly today. These three tours are dazzling historical artifacts. They are pageantry, acts of cultural preservation.

Things have changed considerably across the years, and I begin to get a sense of this while visiting Tenmaru, a small settlement on the western side of the island where Max Arnambat has built a bungalow on top of a volcanic rock. “My grandfather, Chief Nihambat, lived here,” he tells me. “One day in 1909 the blackbirders came and took him away to Queensland.” ‘Blackbirding’ was the deceptive recruitment of island labourers, lured to the sugarcane plantations by promises of tobacco and alcohol. Some, like Nihambat, were eventually returned; many never were. And those who came home were profoundly changed: “He came back to his people and told them, I have brought a new religion,” says Arnambat.

Missionaries are a conspicuous presence on Malekula. Their reach is everywhere: the driver is Presbyterian, Erima is Mormon, the Nemi Gortien Ser are Protestant; there are Seventh Day Adventists, Methodists, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a handful of other denominations. “What is your religion?” is a common question, trumped only by “Where are you from?” and “Have you tried kava yet?” Imported religion has altered the rhythm of the island, eradicated cannibalism, and made it a self-consciously Christian place. I see two books in five days: the New Testament in a glove box; and the Book of Mormon clutched by a man scrambling off the ferry to Wala.

But the situation is more complicated than these images suggest.

To gain insight into Malekula circa 2013, I follow Erima and Fernand into the jungle on a two-day trek through the northern reaches of the island. On maps, Malekula looks like a sitting dog. This is the Dog’s Head Walk – nose to ear.

What unfolds, besides the mud, the sweat, the river bathing, the clearings hemmed in by canopies of cocoa leaves, a moment with a spider, a bone-crunching ride on the back of a truck with passing children yelling, “Hello white man!” – what unfolds is the counterpoint to those tribal tours and harrowing tales of cultural assault: namely, life today.

At Womul village, the entire population is gathered beneath a tree, arguing the case of a pregnant girl and the man who denies that the baby belongs to him. On the way to Botco, we pass half the village carrying their children to the coast for measles vaccinations. Women wander barefoot through the jungle to vast ‘gardens,’ where they’ll collect taro and bananas. Then there are the taboos: Erima tallies them with hushed solemnity. For the next thirty minutes, in this jungle pass, I must not break a branch or answer a call of nature, otherwise spirits will punish me like the time the Dutch girl scoffed and they twisted her ankle. “You will discover many different things to add into your notebook,” Erima tells me – including, apparently, this surviving belief in animism.

Some of the taboos have her smiling a wry sort of smile. On the chief of Kalele: “I’m not allowed to speak his name, but I will spell it, J, A, M, I, N, O …” Other people she is not meant to talk to include “the younger brother of the chief, as he is married to Fernand’s older brother’s daughter.” She speaks to them anyway because – well, shrug. “Old rules!”

The high point of this two-day walk – indeed, my entire visit to Malekula – comes at the village of Kalele, deep in the interior on a manicured bluff. There is hardly any money here, but the settlement is far from grim, characterized by exquisite bamboo houses and plenty of food. I stay overnight in a tiny hut where every single element is wrought from the jungle to which it will one day return. The school sits in the centre of the village. Children gather outside my door with exercise books, imitating my scribbling. Later, at dusk, the kids are replaced by men, who deliver fresh prawns from the river along with cups of bitter-tasting root water.

“Tell the Australians this is a good place,” says Knox Malili, a ship captain who ferries copra across to the processing plant on Espiritu Santo. He points into the sky. “Look, we drink kava in the moonlight.”

Then he guffaws heartily, raising his glass. “Do you feel it, Mr Lance?”

I’m starting to, Mr Malili. I really am.

(Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 2013).

© Lance Richardson 2013

Northern exposure

Jaffna 590x752 Northern exposureVavuniya is the sort of place you go on the way to somewhere else. Though it’s in the centre-north of Sri Lanka – a bindi on the country’s forehead – it has the hallmarks of a border town, with trucks churning dust and policemen multiplying like mosquitoes. Away to the south are Sri Lanka’s famous tea plantations and sun-kissed ruins, Anuradhapura and palm-fringed beaches such as Tangalle. Above Vavuniya, all the way to Jaffna on the country’s ravaged peninsula, is a great green terra incognita.

This bulk of Northern Province, also called the Vanni, makes for a fascinating road trip. One morning I board a bus at Vavuniya clutching an orange suitcase; 20 minutes later I’m off again, waving my passport at a military checkpoint. The Vanni is open scrubland and squat houses with their windows gouged out, and a bald ridge of dirt stretching off to the horizon – the once and future railroad. The Vanni is a vast, ominous nothing.

And yet, seen from another perspective, this land is also a great deal. During the 1970s several groups of young Tamils, some militant, responded to government laws that favoured the ethnic Sinhalese by agitating for an independent state called Tamil Eelam that would annex the Vanni and Jaffna Peninsula. Things escalated, at first slowly and then in a shocking, violent rush; civil war was born. This northern quarter of Sri Lanka is both a contested dream and, until recently, a battleground.

Our bus shudders along the A9 Highway, passing dust-choked roadworks that make women onboard wrap scarves around their faces. Sometimes I see President Mahinda Rajapaksa striding confidently across a billboard; most signs are blank though, or revealing in another way: “Welcome to Omaha Police Area” and “Paranyapa Police Area” and “Mankulam Police Station”, with scrap lying out front like a junkyard.

BE PATIENT AND DRIVE UNITY IS STRENGTH is stencilled across a small hill.

These signs become more pointed the further north you travel: “Mine Clearance”, “Danger: Mines” and “De-mining”, with people digging holes, disguised behind face coverings of a different sort. This is not far from Kilinochchi, the old administrative capital of the Tamil Tigers, the most famous separatist group in Sri Lankan history. The war was declared over on May 18, 2009, when the Tiger leadership was killed by the army on the north-eastern Mullaittivu coast.

Further on we reach Elephant Pass, a ligament of road joining Jaffna Peninsula to the rest of the country over a watery expanse. I spend a week on the peninsula, wandering its quiet streets, paying respects in technicolour temples, taking ferries, cycling beneath palmyrah trees. But of all the things I see there – disturbing, miraculous, confusing, and gorgeous things – the most remarkable begins right here, at the start of Elephant Pass, with a burnt-out bulldozer propped up like a war memorial and a Sri Lankan family posing together, taking photos on a holiday to the newly opened north.

Jaffna

The electricity fails on my second afternoon in the city. Nobody seems concerned, though: the cook tunes a radio on the verandah, searching for Hindi music; Manattrii’s man-of-all-trades, Balu, sweeps bare dirt with a wiry broom, his face swollen from a bee sting. The man who runs this guesthouse is T.A. Arulnayagam, and when I ask him what’s happening he explains that the power often goes out on public holidays. “They’re doing works on the roads,” he says. “Six, six-thirty tonight, it will come back on. Maybe seven.”

Things happen when they happen in Jaffna. It has a population of about 90,000 but the character of a country town, albeit one with a battered past. It’s a diurnal place, for example, with locals rising early and all but abandoning streets to stray dogs after nightfall – a self-imposed curfew, since the official one ended in 2009 (after 14 years). Though it sprawls through leafy neighbourhoods, Jaffna has almost no height except for temple gopurams, those terraced towers cluttered with vivid Hindu gods. Many of the roads are unsealed and there are very few cars – just buses, auto-rickshaws (tuk-tuks) and the occasional Morris Minor. “In Colombo it is very noisy,” one local tells me. “In Jaffna, no noise.” Indeed, bikes are the most common form of transport. It’s not unusual to be walking down a street, note a rattle, and turn to see a young girl gliding past on her bicycle, sari dazzling in the sunlight.

Each morning I wake at Manattrii and take a cup of tea on the verandah. Then I simply stroll in random directions. “Serendipity” is derived from a Sri Lankan word and good inspiration for the traveller with the luxury of time.

Arulnayagam encourages me to roam widely. Originally from Kayts on the nearby island of Velanai, he moved to Jaffna in 1990 because of the conflict. “Now we are all OK in Jaffna,” he says, when I ask about safety. “Development is going on, buildings and construction. You’ll find a lot of intellectuals. The ethnic conflict still exists – there has yet to be a solution for that. But in Jaffna we don’t have any problems.”

It’s through strolling that I find the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, a lavish Hindu temple devoted to Murugan, brother of Ganesh. The exterior walls are striped in red and white; inside is a cool sanctum filled with incense and devotees waiting for the next puja ceremony. Just across the road are temples of another sort – “cream houses”, Rio and Rajah, where teenagers bow down over baroque sundaes studded with nuts. It’s 9am when I visit and the parlours are bustling with trade.

Heading in another direction, the centre of Jaffna unfurls as a grand bazaar seemingly grafted onto the bus station. One street is occupied by tailors and clothing shops: S. S. Fancy, Arul’s Fancy, Abiramy Fancy House. Another is filled with merchants selling spice from enormous sacks, or flayed fish hung along a line like tatty business shirts. In the vegetable market, banana stems look like stalactites and durians are the size of dinosaur eggs. To pass the stifling midday hours I visit Malayan Cafe, a vibrant eatery with marble tables and glass cabinets filled with portraits of yogis and bottles of Coca-Cola. The curry comes served on banana leaves and you eat with your fingers – delicious and liberating. “Ricky Ponting!” the waiter croons when I reveal my origin.

As the heart of Sri Lanka’s Tamil culture, Jaffna is different from anything south of Vavuniya, where Sinhalese dominates. It’s also more fraught, with the deep scars of a war veteran. Trapped between militant separatists and the government, Jaffna and its citizens spent decades amassing collateral damage. The UN estimates that more than 160,000 houses were damaged or destroyed in the north. It’s impossible to miss these urban ruins: mouldering Mughal houses, empty and fractured. The once-famous art deco railway station is an eerie wreck with bullet holes in the walls. Jaffna Fort was the setting of a 107-day siege between the army and Tamil Tigers in 1990; despite slow restoration, funded by the Dutch, evidence of the battle remains visible.

But things are growing back, too. More than once I notice a line of abandoned townhouses punctuated by a freshly painted one. “Modernity”, proclaims one rental advertisement; another sign reads, “Now in Jaffna: Civil Engineering”.

And then there is the Public Library, inaugurated in 1841, burnt in 1981 – 90,000 volumes lost – and resurrected a decade ago through international donations. As Arulnayagam says, Jaffna has always been a centre of intellectuals. The library is a symbol of Tamil learning. It’s a beautiful, neo-Mughal place, with stacks of National Geographic and students studying law in the airy reading rooms.

A statue of four-armed Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, sits out front cradling her stringed veena. Later I will read that Hindus believe it was with her wisdom that Brahman created the universe.

DSC 0726 590x391 Northern exposure

Jaffa Peninsula

It’s easy to lose time in a seldom-visited city, eating new foods and discovering sites you’ve never read about. But Jaffna Peninsula is a thousand square kilometres – much more than the limits of its urban centre.

Ask around and everybody offers tips on places of interest. Visit Chatty Beach, says the proprietor at Cosy’s Vege, writing a list on a napkin. A British expat extols the virtues of Delft, a desolate island famed for its wild Dutch ponies and a rock that locals believe is growing by the year. Another island is Nainativu, worth visiting for the Naga Pooshani Amman Kovil – a temple that has never met a colour it didn’t like.

Arulnayagam speaks highly of Keerimalai Spring, recently opened after 20 years of military embargo; its waters are revered for having supposedly healed a Chola princess of facial deformities. To reach this spring, however, you take a bus through the High Security Zone of Palali, where more than 25,000 families lived as agriculturalists before being forcibly evicted. Most are waiting for permission to return – a stark reminder that, as Arulnayagam says, “full normalcy is not there”. Many believe that Tamils remain subject to discriminating policies in Sri Lanka (the news, when I visit, is filled with allegations by the International Crisis Group and questions concerning war crimes).

For a final excursion I choose Point Pedro on the north-eastern tip of the peninsula, a place that has suffered the double indignity of war and the 2004 tsunami, which washed fishing boats more than a kilometre inland. When I reach the beach, I find it cluttered with rudimentary shacks; men fuss over tangled nets in the sand. I walk alongside, searching for a place to settle down for lunch, and the nets are succeeded by barbed wire. Suddenly the beach is deserted and strange.

Perhaps I’ve gone too far. Perhaps the area is restricted. But as I turn around I notice a busload of Sri Lankans wearing floppy hats and sunglasses. They are gathered together near the lighthouse and some are taking photos of the soldiers there.

“Where from?” one soldier asks as I drift through the spectacle. “Why you come?”

“Just visiting,” I say, gesturing to the people and the lighthouse. “Just come to see the sights.” And then, holding up my camera as an alibi, I keep on walking, the traveller as witness.

(This article was originally featured in The Sydney Morning Herald, May 2013).

Jaffna1 590x410 Northern exposure

© Lance Richardson

The Ascent of Ausangate

At its height, the Inca Empire covered more than two million square kilometres, from modern-day Colombia down into Chile. This staggering dominion was due to one unusual advantage: a single soldier, equipped with a dozen llamas, could walk until he died from old age. Llamas are a one-stop-shop, providing everything from fleece for warmth to dried skin for sandals. Indeed, the Inca Empire died in 1533, but its mountain descendants dusted themselves off, loaded up the llamas, and kept on walking right into the twentieth century.

Then the Peru government built a highway through the Andes. Smallpox from Europe failed to finish these people, but asphalt is a different sort of disease. For hundreds of years Quechua in the highlands collected corn and fava beans in Pitumarca, or coca leaves and sugar in the Amazon, transporting everything across the mountains. “The reason we’re poor now is because our llamas lost their jobs,” one local told me recently, lamenting the arrival of trucks and shipping companies.

Rather than give up and moving to the metropolis, though, some Quechua locals have pushed back with a new strategy. There is a small community called Chillca near the mountain of Ausangate; the main town looks like a handful of gems rolled to the bottom of a glacial moraine. The residents – around 160 in all – noticed a steady flow of visitors to the city of Cusco, a short drive away. They decided to entice visitors to Chillca, putting their llamas back to work. To make this happen they called Roger Valencia.

Valencia is an internationally renowned tourism consultant, expert climber, and fierce advocate for all things indigenous. He works with world leaders and the head curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He once saved a Peruvian town by having it host an ultra-marathon from the mountains to the jungle. He is, by all accounts, a fearless entrepreneur, and to save Chillca he proposed a plan so ambitious I would laugh if he hadn’t shown me the end result firsthand. For nearly a week he guides me through remote ravines and scree fields beneath the summit of Ausangate. The Inca saw the mountain’s ‘apu,’ or spirit, as a giver of life, part of the sacred river cycle flowing through Willcamayu, the Milky Way. Valencia saw the mountain as a giver of life, too – and an opportunity.

He began by working with local people to plot a route so high in the Andes that some outsiders said it couldn’t be done. He designed a series of lodges called tambos (four in all) that visitors would hike between over the course of five days. Then he raised more than a million dollars. The community would fund one lodge, giving them a financial stake in the project. And community members would staff nearly every available role, from tambo guardians to itinerant cooks, following visitors with a llama weighed down by clanging pans. Valencia set up a training program at up-market Cusco hotels, ensuring women were included on the class list. Everybody was paid from the first day. This wasn’t a band-aid solution so much as a seismic cultural shift for the Quechua people of Chillca.

“If we get 1000 people on this trek each year, nearly all of the llamas will be back to work,” Valencia says confidently.

But the project almost collapsed before it really began, because even though locals were receptive to the plan, weather meant they could only build for a few months each year. By the third exhausting season of stop-start construction, disillusionment set in. “When will the visitors come?” they asked.

Valencia told them a story.

Every February, the Inca used to celebrate the land’s fertility with a big carnival. But the river god would get so drunk he’d begin to dance, drowning everything in his path. Eventually the Inca Emperor took offerings of coca leaves and seashells to Ausangate, begging the mountain spirit for help. The apu was silent. Disillusioned, the Emperor began to give up. But when he turned back he saw his people assembled in the shape of a giant: where they cooked they looked like a stomach; where they harvested they looked like arms. “We are the giant,” the Emperor yelled to the Inca. “But the giant has no head!” So he pulled the elders together, forming a head capable of designing a canal.

“If our ancestors can order a river to march straight, how can we not build a few tiny lodges?” Valencia asked the people of Chillca.

When he tells me this we’re sitting in the first tambo surrounded by candles. All of the lodges are finished now. All of the locals are trained, or in training. His story leaves me momentarily speechless, and into the vacuum silence slides the musical strains of an Andean harp. Nelly, the housekeeper, begins to sing huayño, a thin reedy style popular in the mountains. Then she walks over and holds out her hand. When Nelly first started working here she could barely look a stranger in the face. Now our dance is called ‘Love is like a plant.’

There are many such encounters on the ‘Camino del Apu Ausangate.’ The community may have set out to put their llamas back to work, but what they’ve created is something far more remarkable. I learn the story of these people, their customs and rituals; and I learn about the power of the mountains in a landscape so stark and unsettling I quickly understand what Valencia means when he says, ‘Sometimes, carrying logs up the valley, I would wonder if I was in a dream.”

Between the first and second tambos we meet Santos, heading to the ‘chaco’ – a gathering where community members corral wild vicuñas and shear their valuable fur for market sale (the animals are then released). Santos loiters on the path until I take his photo with Hatun Jampa, a mountain he refers to as ‘grandfather.’ After this impromptu photo shoot, with Santos posing like the Lone Ranger, Valencia points out Hatun Jampa’s three peaks and reveals Santos has two wives. “He had no choice,” Valencia says with a sly smile. “The mountain dictated his destiny.”

Mountains motivate most elements of life in the Andes. “The Inca in the sixteenth century were a culture unusually obsessed with the beauty of mountains,” writes Hugh Thomson in The White Rock. Little has changed over time, and the obsession turns out to be contagious. The second lodge, Machuracay Tambo, is tucked beneath Ausangate’s southern ridge. By the time we arrive I can think about nothing but mountains and vertiginous drops.

Partly this is due to a growing sense of illness. Machuracay Tambo is 4800 metres about sea level, making it the highest fixed accommodation in the world. Valencia is leading us over stones fringed with ichu grass, chattering about condors and Andean cats, while my mind is stretching out like mozzarella cheese. Though the walk is structured with a policy of ‘walk high, sleep low,’ altitude sickness in an unpredictable foe. In worse case scenarios “people start walking like they’re on a boat,” Valencia says, describing cerebral edema. Nothing that extreme is going to happen here, but I pass a strange day suspended between migraine and delirium. To help me relax, Valencia takes me fishing and tells another story.

“I used to spend months hiking here,” he says. “Once I spent 45 days in a row. After seven peaks my pants were walking on their own; I hadn’t washed them all that time. I’d buy a sheep, slaughter the sheep, eat the sheep. Then I’d dry the sheep’s skin and use it for tent cushioning. The tents were very comfortable, as you can imagine.”

So are the lodges. Each one features a shared living space filled with candelabras, and wide double-pane windows open over vistas like the snowy mountain face of Mariposa. Every night a hot water bottle appears in my bed. Meals are ample and delicious, designed by a nutritionist to satisfy without being heavy (in oxygen-thin altitude the first bodily function to be sacrificed is digestion). There’s quinoa soup and rainbow trout, Spanish omelettes and yellow potato causa. I could stay forever, I think, were it not for the trek unspooling like a cliffhanger serial, each break in the narrative capped with the promise of something new just over the top of the next mountain pass.

Untitled Panorama1 590x234 The Ascent of Ausangate

The third day brings Paloma Chajoc, ‘the pass with the doves,’ a point so high it feels like going any higher – to Ausangate’s summit, for example (6384 metres) – would mean leaving the atmosphere entirely. It is bitterly cold. The pass is polished bald and streaked with unearthly magenta, cyan and metallic grey. My head pounds in the unrelenting sun as I struggle to take it all in: the jagged peaks like battleships, the shale coloured like a paint box left open in the rain.

And then, starting down a 70-degree slope, I catch sight of our retinue coming over a neighbouring crest. There is Nelly, “the mountain goat,” as Valencia calls her, clutching a transistor radio decorated with butterfly stickers. There is Nico the cook, “a tiny bottle holding a tremendous spirit.” There are our hardy llamas, trotting with luggage strapped to their flanks. It is astonishing how deftly this team navigates terrain, barely registering inclines while I struggle to walk across a flat field without losing my breath on the wind.

After stumbling down a terraced valley cross-hatched with water lines, we come across a fragrant pool filled with bacterial blooms. I poke it with a stick, unable to help myself, while Valencia pauses to take in the scene. He has one more story to tell.

The Apu Viracocha, embodied in the mighty Ausangate, once had pity for the Quechua people, struggling in the highlands with just their llama. So the mountain spirit ordered alpacas to come into the Andes, saying, “You will be part of the human family, treated with respect, and in return you will become the joy and the wealth of my children who live in the high puna.” The alpacas sprung out of natural water fountains, filling the fields with vast flocks like the ones we see today.

“There will be life in the Andes until there are no alpacas and llamas,” Valencia says then, gesturing down the road to the next tambo and our little party. “The day the animals are gone the people will also disappear.”

(Originally published in Sydney Morning Herald Traveller, March 2013).

 

A Samburu woman. Lake Turkana Festival (Opening Ceremony), Kenya.

Lake Turkana: The cradle of mankind

There is a room in the Nairobi National Museum, tucked behind bulletproof glass, that resembles a vault designed to showcase jewels. In a sense that’s exactly what it is. Though the room contains little more than bones, these fragments are just as precious as diamonds and even more rare. Here, for example, is a skull of Homo habilis (“handy man”), found in 1973 by the research team of Richard Leakey. Here is Homo erectus (“upright man”); and Nariokotome Boy, the most complete early human skeleton ever discovered. These bones are divergent lines of human evolution, or perhaps the remains of our own ancient ancestors. Almost all of them were found at Lake Turkana, Kenya.

There is a diorama in the room which shows Turkana as it looked 1.7 million years ago: a lush landscape of thick grasses and trees, complete with mannequin hominids. It seems idyllic for Africa; the sort of place you’d want to build a log cabin and go fishing for tilapia. But cue a time-lapse to the current era and the diorama lake disappears, filling with sediment in the shadow of volcanic Mount Kulal. Vegetation bakes to death on a horizon of dust. Eventually a river returns, trickling into a basin 250 kilometres long and 30 metres deep, but the tranquility is destroyed; this is a harsh landscape now. Nilotic people migrate through, including the legendary Maasai. In 1888, some Europeans arrive as well and name it ‘Lake Rudolf’ as an odd tribute to the Crown Prince of Austria (it is renamed in 1975). The British use Turkana as a buffer zone against expansionist forces. Following independence, the Kenyans follow suit, letting it languish as a backwater: out of sight, out of mind, far from the green comfort of the Ngong Hills near the capital.

DSC 0037 590x393 Lake Turkana: The cradle of mankind

At the same time, Turkana, now the largest permanent desert lake in the world, evolves into one of the last great African destinations in popular imagination. Like Timbuktu in Mali, it has the quality of fable. People often dream about what they can’t have in travel, and Turkana is on a knife’s edge of accessibility: two days driving from Nairobi, through a world of nameless rifts and phantom riverbeds. Partly its romance is due to the challenge, the stark beauty, and paleontological evidence of human evolution – Turkana has earned the nickname “cradle of mankind.” And partly it’s due to the work of Alistair Graham and Peter Beard, who came in 1968 to study the lake’s 14,000 crocodiles and described it as “awkward to get to, uncomfortable when reached, and dangerous when meddled with.” With an endorsement like that, who could resist a visit?

The day I turn up in the township of Loiyangalani, on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana, it is 44 degrees Celcius. So I walk straight past the Cold Drink Hotel (not so cold), the Hilton Hotel (a shack), and the Curio Shop (selling ‘abarait’ wrist knives and an alarming wooden pillow that doubles as a stool), straight into the bar. You hardly expect to find a drinking hole in a place like this, but nor do you expect to find a fading estate built over a hot spring and run by an eccentric grey-haired German named Wolfgang Deschler. Welcome to the Oasis Lodge.

“How long have you been here?” I ask Deschler, who sits immovable at the end of the bar like a piece of weathered stone.

“Too long!” he barks, downing a gin and tonic. Later he coughs up a number – 32 years – but the reason for coming remains a stubborn twinkle in his eye. This is a landscape perfect for burying secrets, just as it’s suffused with a hazy sort of surrealism. In the Oasis Lodge a sign beneath a cobwebbed crocodile skin commemorates the crossing of Lake Turkana by a windsurfer, somehow in aid of the Turkana Tree Planting Project. And the first local who speaks to me was once an extra in The Constant Gardener; he seems more interested in discussing acting technique than Turkana culture.

“Ralph Fiennes!” Angelo croons, as we step past spherical houses that look like enormous coconuts. “Ralph Fiennes was here. He told me he could shed tears just like that.” He snaps his fingers.

“What did you do?” I ask.

Angelo did not believe Mr Fiennes. “Forget about it!” So the actor in this tiny town on the edge of nowhere took off his sunglasses and began to cry on cue.

“What!” Angelo claims to have said. “Have you been bitten by a scorpion? This is not a manly thing to do here!”

It is not long before I realise that Lake Turkana is the sort of place that requires so much effort to reach that it is simply enough to bask on the cracked shore, celebrating your own fortitude. But there is a small Desert Museum, its thatch roof balding on a hill near Loiyangalani, and it is worth a closer look: the curator Abdikadir Kurewa describes it as “a platform to show how the local communities live in a place of such hardship and retain their cultural attributes.” Exhibits give a brief overview of pastoralism and what’s left of the local wildlife; the museum also surveys nearby rock art sites like Marti, where I find ancient etchings of giraffes on a stony promontory high above the lake.

Still, the main attraction of Turkana is inevitably the people. This is why the best time to visit the region is during the Lake Turkana Festival every May. In a place that is almost entirely marginalised, both culturally and economically; a place that faces tremendous challenges – an Ethiopian dam that threatens the survival of the lake, a planned wind-farm near Loiyangalani, drought so harsh it kills acacia trees, and inter-tribal warfare – here is something miraculous. “The Lake Turkana Festival gives the participating communities an opportunity for cross-cultural interaction, cooperation and exchange,” claims the literature. The main goal, besides development, is “promoting peace and reconciliation.”

Twelve groups from the surrounding region take part in full traditional garb, which turns the town into a dazzling bazaar. The highlight comes late on a stifling afternoon, when a thousand people gather on a dusty open field. Each group huddles together, whipping themselves into a frenzy of rhythmic chants and undulating bodies. Then there is dancing and more dancing, each group taking its turn to show the marital strut of the Konso, dressed in blinding patterned reds; the hypnotic jump routine of the Rendille; the ochre-coated Dassanech, waving their arms above their heads; the Borrana with their ‘elephant dance’ after all the women pray for rain. When the Turkana people finally take centre stage the crowd surges forward and the festival takes on the euphoric feeling of a desert rave.

Lake Turkana is not an easy destination. But not all travel is passive: sometimes it takes work, and the experience is sobering. The rewards often make it worthwhile, though. You come up against the pain of a forgotten place trying to modernise without losing its essence, and between the problems, dancing through floodlights, you a glimpse a young troupe of El-Molo women in handsome grass skirts, smiling before an adoring crowd.

The last speaker of the El-Molo language died in 1999. But the village is still here, open to visitors any time of year, its people preparing for the next festival – their uncertain future – just north of Loiyangalani, on the shore of Lake Turkana, that fabled place.

(Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald, July 2013).