That phone call came from an agency that was handling Safaricom back then, and the lady on the other side of the line asked, “Unajua North Horr?” And I remember blinking several times wondering if I heard the last part right,it sounded terribly close to something you should never call someone else.
“North Horr,” she said, “Do you know North Horr?”
“No, I do not know who North is, or why she is being called a ho.”
She laughed, then said, “It is a place, Magunga, in North Eastern province.” And was I free to visit it tomorrow and come back on the same day? I was. That is how I found myself at Wilson Airport with some suits from Safaricom going to visit a school in a part of the country I had never heard of. It was a small plane that danced in the air half the time. I swear if someone had sneezed hard enough, we’d have spiraled out of control. It was so small, we could see the pilot up front, and after sijui two hours, he pointed to the ground and said we are going to land at the airstrip below.
Down where? I couldn’t see shit. Just a sea of brown dust.
Some Landcruiser was waiting for us at the…field…he called an airstrip and from there we were taken to this school where students, teachers, parents – pretty much the entire village- were waiting for us. They’d lined up and sang as we drove in, but I couldn’t hear much of the lyrics because that North Eastern heat was sitting on my head. Swear to God, I felt some hair follicles burn. At the event, they served us sodas – CocaCola – that boiled up as soon as they were served. It was not soda anymore, that was strungi.
That was back in 2015, I think. After that I swore I would not go back there. If I had been there once, then I had been there one too many times.
Well, guess what? I went back to North Horr last week.
This time it started with a conversation with the folks at Kilian Tours, while in Mombasa. We plan for a trip to Samburu. Cynthia takes it up and decides to run point. I tell Gufy we are going to Samburu. Bonita gets into the mix. It is sorted that we are going to Samburu, dates fixed, leave days taken by those who need permission to rest. Then the day before we are to leave for Samburu, Cynthia sends the itinerary via group text, and there is no Samburu in it. Instead, it has a route mapped for Nairobi > Marsabit > North Horr > Loiyangalani > Ngurunit > Nairobi.
There is no Samburu. I wanted Samburu, we spoke about Samburu, Gufy and I had lined up ourselves to create kickass wildlife and enjoyment content in Samburu. You know, tented camp, glamping, chilly evenings, lies exchanged while sitting around bonfires, drink in hand, elephants farting in the distance. The works. Then on the day before, Cynthia changes the itinerary to North Horr. NORTH HORR! That North Horr where I almost died of heatstroke years back. And then Loiyangalani where this happened? Never.
I text back to the group and said, Guys me siendi North Horr. Let me know when y’all are going to Samburu then nitakuja.[By the way, I do not text the way I speak. I do not say y’all. My tongue can’t twist in that direction.]
If I am writing this today, it doesn’t mean that I swallowed my fear of the North and went. It means that I went because Bonita called me saying she had already taken leave days, and apparently leave days are like Tupperware. Once taken, they can never be returned. And you know me, I am not the kind of person who can say no to someone who has already taken leave days.
We met the next day at 6am for Marsabit. Well, I was there at 6, Bonita was there at 6.30, Cynthia (at whose place we were meeting) was there at 7am and Rais Gufy Kingston – arrived at 8am.
A lot happened on the trip. It is expected when you are going on a journey that is over 2000km long, on rough terrain. It is an adventure that everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime. The most important thing would be to hydrate, slather yourself with sunscreen, curate a dope playlist, and maximize on the laughter, the times when things work out, the mandatory photo shoots at Mt Ololokwe, the sound of the rubber on asphalt on an open country road, the sunsets, the sunrise at the dune in North Horr, the meal they call Federation, the people of the North, and their colorful outfits. And if you want to follow the journey, check my IG then call Kilian Tours.
To retell everything, I will need more word count, but there is a story I must tell for now. About a brand-new drone and the Jade Sea.
The moment I spot that hill, I knew what I want to do with it. I have seen variations of it done by influencers wa majuu on Instagram. But none of them has scenery like this. Not this hill of stone that spikes at the apex, with the turquoise waters of Lake Turkana at the back, and the El Molo island just above my shoulders. This is one of those images you know will do numbers, but even if it doesn’t you do not care because it is still dope. The idea is that Gufy will send the drone up in the air and capture me from the top, so I run up the kahill and stand, waiting.
Gufy, however, sends the drone to the El Molo island across the lake. I know because I can hear it buzzing in the distance, and I know it was too far in the wrong direction to take the picture I want. So I whip out my own camera and start shooting. It is a good vantage point, but not high enough to shoot anything close to what I want.
About twenty minutes later, Cynthia and Gufy shout over to me to get in position; that he is sending the drone back to me. I drop everything and pose. I stand for about five minutes before I hear Gufy screaming, but because I am a little far and high, I do not make what he is saying clearly. The wind must be sending his words to the lake. But I can see everyone in the van get out and run towards him. Gufy is pacing around, throwing his hand in the air, screaming. This time I hear what he is saying.
“I AM LOSING MY DRONE!”
I think he is messing around. That is a DJI Mav Air 2 and it is only a couple of weeks old. There is no way you can lose it. Afterall, the way drones work is that when it feels like there is a problem, it makes a beeline for the spot it was lifted. And because I had heard the drone buzzing before, I take my 100-400 lens to my camera and start scouring the skies. Drones do not just disappear. It is a drone, not a Malaysian aircraft.
I see nothing but blue skies and white clouds. I turn to see what must be going on where akina Gufy were, they are running towards the lake. I will later be told that the drone malfunctioned. It still had five minutes of flight time and it decided to make an emergency landing, but Gufy ordered it not to, and he tried to bring it across the lake (it is not far, it should have made it), but after a while the thing took a plunge into the Jade Sea.
I descend the hill, running. One wrong step and I may also have gone tumbling down the rocks, but madness has reached my head, almost overflowing, like heated milk. It also doesn’t help that I have tied a shuka around my waist, so of course I’m not running properly.
We all get to the shore at the same time.
A boat is ordered, but there is only one boat that plies the mainland, El Molo route, and guess where it is when we need it the most? At the El Molo island! I look at Gufy and he is breathing like he has been running for his life. In ways that only a photographer can understand, he is. It’s now a matter of time. The longer the drone stays underwater the higher the certainty that it has been fried completely. It has been seven minutes.
From his control panel, he can see the last location of the drone. It is located somewhere in the middle of the lake where there are some reeds. The boat arrives to drop an El Molo woman. On a normal day, I would have asked her for a picture, but right now, she can’t alight from the boat fast enough. We explain to the boatmen about our predicament, only that we do not know how to explain to them exactly what a drone is. The best we can manage is tell them that it is a small aeroplane the size of a bird.
So they call some divers to help with the search. And this is where things get interesting. Those who can swim are told to get into the boat. Cynthia and Kinush (our driver) stay behind to look after our stuff. But there is Johnny – one of the guys at Kilian Tours. Sweet guy. He is Kao, yet so quick to get into the boat. In fact, from the way he speaks, you’d think he is about to singlehandedly rescue that drone.
“Mimi ndio diver wa hii side. Sasa nyinyi (locals) kujeni na mtu wenu mmoja ama wawili.”
Himself, myself, Bonita, Gufy and Abu (also of Kilian Tours) get into the boat. Three other divers also get in. At the back of my mind, I tell myself I will only get into that water as a measure of last resort. Not because I can’t swim but because anyone who has heard of Lake Turkana has also heard of the crocodiles that reside in there.
“Hapa hakuna mamba,” the boatman and divers had insisted. Here is a tip though, do not always believe locals when they tell you a place is not far…or that there are no crocodiles in a lake that everyone knows has crocodiles.
The boat heads to the patch of reeds floating on the lake. From his control panel, Gufy sees that we are right on the spot where the drone was last recorded. Soon as we get there, Johnny, our diver, takes off his shirt and he is first one into the water. Me saa hizo I am almost shitting myself-because crocodiles!!! I want to tell them that a drone can be bought, but if a crocodile bites off a chunk of your ass, there is no replacing it. And did you know ass wounds do not heal easy? You’ll spend the rest of your life sitting sideways. But of course, in that moment, you keep your thoughts to yourself.
The locals dive in as well.
And here is the other thing. Lake Turkana is not that deep. That place we were was right in the middle of the mainland and the El Molo island. Yet the divers could stand. You know what else likes shallow waters? Crocodiles! But Johnny did not know that the waters were shallow enough to stand, so homeboy was swimming like there was no tomorrow, beating the water hard. Small small, all the oxygen he had has run out and he starts swallowing water. Almost as if his plan B for retrieving the drone is to drink about the entire Jade Sea. Ha-ha. Mkamba aliona maji akachanganyikiwa. Poor guy can’t even lift himself to get into the boat. He has to be pulled in.
Seeing this, Gufy decides to jump in. Gufy is a decent swimmer. Me and him have jumped off a yacht into the Indian Ocean pale Watamu, not once but three times. No problem. But then the moment he hands his control pad to me and jumps in, all his swimming proficiency dissolves into the freshwater lake. He is paddling hard, yet as stagnant as my career. In his mind, however, he must have been moving like Dunford, because the moment he lifts his head and sees that he is still just next to the boat, his face drops like an album. The disappointment, the hurt, of not being able to do anything when he needs to do the most.
He, too, is pulled back into the boat.
I say to myself I am still not jumping in. Not yet. That fear of Lake Turkana crocodiles cripples my will to jump in. Even though I know I could be of help, I don’t. When we were in campo, all we had for recreation was a swimming pool. And it was not always clean. So we’d throw coins in and then compete to see who would find it first…in the fastest time possible. I always won. If I could find a coin in minutes, how long do you think I would take to find a whole drone with the help of a GPS?
To not feel entirely useless, I decide to coach the divers. I notice that they were all looking for it from the exact same spot, twenty minutes later. That is too long a time. The drone, we knew, was already dead. Now it was just a matter of saving the content that was in it. The problem with my coaching is language barrier. These guys understand Kiswahili, not English. Understandably. I speak Swahili like the next Nairobi chap, so you can imagine the difficulty in me trying to tell them to expand their search.
“Ona….cheki, omera…ng’anene…skizeni…” I begin and they all look to me, “fanyeni hivi….namuna hii!,” I am waving my hand furiously, indicating to them to move away from each other… “eeerm, expand your perimeter!” They look at me blankly. “Panua!” I try again. “Panua your ginene… panua your search!”
Nyasaye wuora. Koro magi tang’o. How do you say expand your search perimeter in Kiswahili? I give up, but Bonita manages to explain to them what I mean. I do not remember what she says exactly. They understand, and as soon as that happens, one of them jumps out the water shouting and waving the drone.
It has been thirty-four minutes since the two-week old, yet-to-be-insured DJI Mav Air 2 went under.
But, by a stroke of a miracle, it still lives to fly another day.