Chinese engineer’s thrilling desert trek with a camel

Lin Qi’s camel with Martin, his guide at the Equator, in August 2021. PHOTO | POOL

What you need to know:

  • Initially arriving in Kenya to work for a Chinese government-backed aviation company, Lin came to manage a special technical vocational training programme.

Lin Qi believes he inherited the travel bug from his family.

“My grandfather was a doctor who Mao [Tse Tung] sent to work in Somalia,” says the 37-year Chinese traveller who just got back from a trek up north to Lake Turkana and back.

“My father was in the military when Deng Xiaoping was in power and China briefly invaded North Vietnam. And my mother was a medical doctor who got stuck in Nepal for three years during a civil war that blocked her passage home,” adds Lin who has been in and out of Kenya since 2011.

“That makes me the third generation in my family to be sent by my government to work overseas,” the trained engineer says proudly.

Initially arriving in Kenya to work for a Chinese government-backed aviation company, Lin came to manage a special technical vocational training programme, designed in collaboration with Kenya’s Ministry of Education. It had involved training teachers and installing electronic equipment (like 3D printers) in vocational training centres across the country.

“That was just the first phase of a three-part programme,” says Lin. “But I resigned in 2015 to get married and follow my wife [a Japanese diplomat] to New York,” adds the tallest Chinese person (1.93 metres) I have ever known.

Since marrying Kazumi, Lin has moved from Nairobi to New York (several times), and then to Gabon, Haiti, and currently back to Nairobi while his wife works at the United Nations Somali Mission in Mogadishu.

But migrating with his wife hasn’t quite satisfied his wanderlust. The travel bug burst out in a big way in Japan on the island of Shikoku where Kazumi was born and raised.

“I walked around the whole island on what the Buddhists call their Shikoku Pilgrimage,” says the tall, lanky Lin. “In 38 days, I walked 1,200 kilometres and visited 88 Buddhist temples,” he adds.

But since he came back to Kenya in 2021, he’s been enchanted by the idea of traveling up north with a camel and walking across the Chalbi Desert.

“Initially, it started as a joke, but then when I found I could buy a camel, I went up to Elementiata where Dr Piers [Simpkin] has a herd of 140 camels and bought one of my own,” says Lin who discovered his affinity for deserts while hitchhiking from Cairo to Khartoum in 2016.

His original plan had been to travel from Mali through the Sahara, but he decided it was too dangerous to risk. Then, his next idea was to walk from Rumuruti north to Turkana. But since his camel came from Gilgil, he had to start his walk from there.

“It took us 10 days to walk from Elementiata to Rumuruti,” Lin recalls. He was unphased by the time-lapse, especially as Piers and his Samburu herd manager, Prame, were so helpful in charting out the best route for him to walk.

Piers also provided Lin with a Samburu assistant, Martin, who helped him take care of Kipesh, his new camel given the Samburu name by Martin and Prame.

Lin was clearly looking for an adventure and he got one once they’d reached Baragoi. “I knew we were reaching a dangerous patch with the Samburu fighting Turkana, and Samburu fighting among themselves.

So, I hired two armed men to accompany Martin and Kipesh while I led the way,” says Lin who met groups of raiders on either side of their walk. But with his smiling, non-confrontational style, his height, and his well-armed friends right behind him, Lin navigated his way through that first potentially volatile situation.

But then, when they reached Marsabit, Kazumi called and said he was urgently required to complete paperwork in Nairobi.

“I had to leave Martin with Kipesh and took four matatus to reach Nairobi. But two days later, I got a call from Kenya Police. Twelve men, four with guns had robbed Martin of everything, including Kipesh!” says Lin who felt losing the tent, the food, even the water, meant nothing compared to losing his camel.

But a few hours later, he got another call. Kipesh had escaped! She was being kept by villagers. The phone rang again after two hours with more news that the raiders had returned, shot several people and grabbed the camel again.

But Kipesh apparently had a mind of her own and escaped again. This time, Lin was able to drive a pickup quickly to a KWS animal-safe hold to collect his exhausted, emaciated and slighted wounded camel and take her back to Piers.

“It was miraculous,” says Lin who is thrilled his camel survived and his trip ended so well. It didn’t fully satisfy his wanderlust, however, and he’s already planning his next adventure which is likely to involve another desert sojourn.

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