About 560 kilometres from Nairobi, four white Toyota Land Cruisers veer off into a desert. The cars zip over sand dunes as if there are jet skis on Indian Ocean. In the distance, a rock looks so natural that you would swear you have seen such before.
There is a caravan of camels crossing the sandy paths, leisurely. Welcome to Chalbi Desert, a new wild adventure that is drawing hundreds of Kenyans to Marsabit.
Stephen Karanja, an ardent traveller, is one of the few tourists who have experienced the thrill of a desert safari and chasing sand dunes in Kenya.
He says his interest in desert scenery grew due to a fatigue of traditional trips to Maasai Mara, Amboseli and Mombasa. When he saw an opportunity to visit Chalbi Desert, he booked with African Suburbs Adventures, a tour company that organises overland tours in less-beaten paths.
On the day of the trip, the group left Nairobi at 4am and then stopped over at the equator in Nanyuki. On the stretch between Isiolo and Marsabit, they climbed atop the Ololokwe Rock from where they saw the snow-capped peak of Mt Kenya protruding from clouds before finally arriving at a Kenya Wildlife Service in Marsabit at around noon.
Here, they left the Overlander that had their tents, mattresses and even cooking paraphernalia for the chef they had brought along.
They got into Land Cruisers to traverse the desert road towards Chalbi. They wore hats, sandals and sunglasses because the journey ahead was going to be hot and dusty.
“When you get there, the view can only be described as amazing. The sand dunes are many and it is as if you are in another world. Even the photos we took there are unbelievable,” he says.
Sand dune racing
For years, well-heeled Kenyans have been travelling to Dubai to go on desert safaris but now the tide is shifting to Marsabit, an off-the-beaten-track destination. Despite the sophistication of Dubai, Kenyans who have done both desert safaris say they are unrivalled. Besides sand dune racing, in Marsabit, there is thrill of finding a picturesque oasis with palm trees in the middle of nowhere and interacting with locals, learning their way of life.
“On the way to find the sand dunes, we got a chance to stop and talk to the people living in the area. They even let us see their homesteads and their manyattas,” Mr Karanja says.
Cost of travel
A trip to Chalbi Desert costs about Sh25,000 to Sh90,000 depending on the number of days paid for and accommodation while a Dubai trip which includes a desert safari ranges from Sh60,000 onwards.
“I paid about Sh20,000 for three days, that is not even half the transport cost for Dubai,” Mr Karanja says.
From Nairobi, the journey to Marsabit on an overland truck takes eight hours. After the safari, tourists sleep in tents by the edge of the desert. The next day they visit Lake Paradise, which has nothing apart from wild animals that roam occasionally. Sunset is a perfect backdrop as the group sits by a campfire.
“The best thing is that you meet people you would never have gotten to meet. You build a campfire and it is advised that you do not go to bed early,” Mr Karanja says.
On the last day of the trip, the travellers take an early morning game drive in Lake Turkana National Park.
“You do not get to see all the big five game but we were lucky because we trailed a lion that was hunting an antelope and we took a video,” he says.
The founder of Gadget World, a company that deals with smartphones developed a love for sand dunes and rocks when he visited Mambrui Village and Marafa Depression in Malindi.
“I got a chance to race on sand dunes on a dirt bike. When I went swimming, the sand dunes were right next to the ocean. They are breathtaking. When I took photos, my friends asked me why I went to Dubai without them,” he says, adding that Marafa Depression, a sandstone canyon popularly known as Hell’s Kitchen is also very beautiful. At the canyon, temperatures can rise up to 50 degrees Celsius.
Lamech Magaki, the founder of African Suburbs Adventures, says a desert safari experience in Marsabit is different from Dubai.
“In Marsabit, you will have a combination of wildlife and desert safari which makes it very unique,” he says. So far, he has organised trips for about 80 travellers, mostly locals.
“Last year, we started doing overland truck tours. We wanted people to discover new activities. We first started with taking people to Turkana but it was expensive because of the long distance, which meant that we had to charter planes. We decided to do Marsabit instead and discovered Chalbi, a destination that is gaining popularity because the county is marketing it,” says Mr Magaki.
For an adventure safari in northern Kenya, he advises travelling in February, March, April, May, November and December. The tour company organises tours to Chalbi Desert, North Horr, Loiyangalani Desert Museum and a swim in Lake Turkana.
“We cannot promise you a luxurious and smooth journey. The temperatures sometimes rise so high and the terrain can be bad especially after driving off from the tarmac road. But this is what makes it fun,” he says.
New crop of tourists
Muthuri Kinyamu, another tour agent who co-founded Turn Up Travel says today’s traveller wants a unique experience, away from the comfort of luxury hotels.
“We are now seeing a new crop of tourists; young people who have a spirit of adventure and have disposable income to explore new destinations,” says Mr Muthuri.
These are the travellers driving the growing demand for ziplining, rock-climbing, hiking and forest-bathing tours.
Unlike Mr Magaki who has been to Chalbi thrice, Mr Muthuri visited in 2017 and has organised trips for 28 people.
“These are underrated and hidden gems, away from the destinations that people ask, ‘does the place have good food and alcohol.’ Marsabit changes your perception on a lot of things after seeing its raw beauty,” he says.
Instagram and Facebook are also drawing more travellers to Marsabit and Turkana, which have some of the most spectacular sceneries, yet far from Kenya’s usual tourist routes.
“Demand is growing. We do a trip to Chalbi every year. People are just looking for something different; they want a safari to Suguta Valley, which also has pristine sand dunes,” he said, adding that this used to attract many tourists in the 70s and 80s.
For some, it seems an improbable new tourist destination with insecure sun-scorched plains.
“When you think of northern Kenya, you think ‘difficult to access and insecurity’, but it is a chance to go to a unique place at a low cost as well as learn about the place and the people,” Mr Karanja says.