John Pakenham traversed the unforgiving landscape surrounding the largest desert lake in the world and lived to tell the tale – albeit four decades later. A lock-down read that transports you to lesser explored lands, his debut book packs a powerful punch and examines the attraction to extreme travel.
“Pursued for several days by a raiding party whose ethos was to gain social distinction from killing as many people as possible, we knew we were on their list,” says John Pakenham.
This is a man who left the bright lights of the film industry – working on special effects in Ridley Scott’s Alien in 1979 and bringing R2D2 to life in The Empire Strikes Back – to trek one of the world’s most inhospitable environments.
“As they gradually closed on us, our six loaded donkeys ludicrously joined with a herd of wild zebra and galloped off together over the horizon, leaving us with nothing in the vast emptiness of Africa as AK-47s approached.”
As horrifying as it was, there was always duality, even in the most dramatic moments Pakenham spent with the tribal people of Lake Turkana. “Their extraordinary resilience and courage, without pretensions or boasts, was an example to me,” he recalls. “Often in dangerous situations they could maintain a great sense of humour.”
According to the Zanzibar-born septuagenarian, the important thing when travelling in dangerous places isn’t fitness or courage, it’s reassessing your own value.
“At last the world has started to come to its senses about where human beings fit into the great scheme,” he offers by way of explanation for taking 40 years to pen his story. “It’s incredible that since those treks, 60 per cent of the world’s wildlife has been destroyed as a direct result of our activities and the way we mismanage the environment. We are a pariah species. Things must change.”
Donkeys and camels
Fascinated by the journeys of past adventurers, by 1980 Pakenham had befriended the last of the old-school explorers, Wilfred Thesiger. He encouraged Pakenham to travel without modern comforts, using only donkeys and camels.
“Wilfred became a close friend. While I stayed at his ‘camp’ near Maralal in the Samburu tribal region, he helped me to focus my energies on my treks, refusing all gadgetry except map and compass.”
When it came to committing his tale to paper, Pakenham knew it would require the unsanitised truth. “I was determined every single word would be rigorously honest. Anyone can gild a lily to invent a good story but this had to be an accurate record.”
While travel as a means of introspection wasn’t his initial motivation, it became an important thread sewn through the fabric of four gruelling expeditions in five years.
“The tribal people accept life as a privilege, not as a right. They taught me a valuable lesson in re-evaluating my own mortality,” he tells me.
“At times of extreme danger we are all tempted to cry for help to some deep spiritual presence within us. I was at an age by which I had rejected Christianity but an elemental belief in ‘God’ in the form of nature persisted. I was constantly moved by the immensity of it all.”
East Africa had always beckoned. “Life in most of the world had become so dull and amorphous – everyone dressed the same and were doing similar things. I didn’t want to visit towns and cities but to experience the real country of tribesmen still carrying spears in remote places.
“Even in 1980, I came across people who had never seen a white man before, within a country of a million tourists a year at the time.”
It took a few days for Pakenham to cast off the shroud of Western self-esteem and realise he was no different from his tribal companions. “There was no sanctity of human life; our lives were all potentially cheap,” he says matter of factly. “We all bleed the same and, to a lion, we all taste the same.”
Mental fortitude and the kill of a chase
Being stalked by a large party of Ethiopian bandits is one way to find out what you’re made of. After the vast savannahs of the south, the volcanic deserts of the north west were among the last regions of East Africa to be explored. This was due to their hostility as well as Kenyan geography.
“One of my party, a young Samburu called Ayoko, was stabbed in front of me. For two and a half hours I tried to prevent him bleeding to death,” says Pakenham. “I failed. That challenged every fibre of my being.”
Filled with angst over whether his presence had led to Ayoko’s untimely death, Pakenham debated whether to jack in his mind-juddering jaunt. It was the only incident that gave him real cause to question what he was doing.
Times of interminable boredom – planting one foot in front of the other for mile after mile, hour after hour – presented their own mental challenge.
He adds: “But there was so much of interest and so many dangers and hardships to focus the mind. The landscapes were breathtaking – endless gravel plains or brutal shattered volcanic rock – and so often under implacable skies in temperatures of up to 42 degrees.
“I have always been a sucker for dramatic sunsets and they were often inspiring in their intensity. You realise how insignificant you really are.”
At about 180 miles long, Lake Turkana also has the highest density of crocodiles anywhere on the planet. This brings its own excitement. “You don’t get bored if you’re walking unarmed through a maze of lion tracks,” Pakenham adds.
Sometimes thirst presented the greatest threat. Finding water while digging in volcanic ground was by no means certain. In the intense heat, the lake would evaporate a quarter of an inch a day, turning the water increasingly brackish. “Few Europeans could drink it,” Pakenham says. “I had to live on it for weeks at a time.”
Between a rock and instant death
Words of warning from an old Turkana nomad came before the navigation of particularly perilous terrain. “It is better to die without crossing Mugurr.” Those words bounced about Pakenham’s head as if stuck in a pinball machine the day he became separated from his tribal companion. He ended up crossing it four times in search of him.
Mugurr is a rocky mountain with a deadly reputation. Perched on the edge of the lake, its name comes from the dry river bed that ‘flows’ beside it. Local nomads were certain no European had crossed it before.
“After many years of the water receding and reduced inflow from Ethiopia, it must now be an insignificant peak some distance from the lake and of no interest to anyone,” Pakenham says. “It had special significance to me because it tried to kill me.”
That moment came when following a thread-like path halfway up the almost vertical cliff. It dropped away to reveal waves smashing against black rocks 50 or 60 feet below, infested with crocodiles. They were suddenly confronted by a large boulder blocking the path.
“Maybe ten feet across, again it was almost vertical and absolutely smooth. My companion refused to attempt it and sensibly climbed the cliff face to find another way forward. I managed to wedge the edge of my boot sole into a tiny crack two thirds of the way across and slowly shuffled forward – my feet cantilevered over that awful drop.”
Heart thundering in terror, a sudden gust of wind caught his map case and swung it out over the void. “I felt myself being peeled off the rock – instant death. In a split second of desperation I stretched forward and felt my foot land on a tiny platform beyond the rock. It was several minutes before my shaking muscles allowed me to continue.”
Pakenham lived as his companions did, sleeping on the same rocks and surviving off the same diet. “We bought and killed goats as we went – a fact of life in that environment. Consequently, I ate a great deal of dubious body parts such as eyeballs, testicles, intestines and windpipe.
“Nothing was wasted. I regularly drank blood hot from the jugular. That was all part of being on an equal footing with my comrades. Some of it was ghastly, especially when meat was still cold, raw and bleeding, although we did once find a pawpaw.”
A quieter life
Having had his fill of high-octane adventures and almost two decades in special effects at home, the adventurer hit pause.
He and wife Maureen retired to Dartmoor, running a bed and breakfast in a thatched 14th-century longhouse before upping sticks to south west France, where they designed and built their own house overlooking the Pyrenees.
“At my age, days of extreme travel are but a memory,” he says. “If I was younger, I would be interested in experiencing some of the remote areas of north Afghanistan and Pakistan, New Guinea, Amazonia and, if I could bear the cold, Antarctica. I still want to see India before it becomes an imitation of the West.
“Now life has washed us up in north Norfolk in a delightful, quiet village deep in the countryside. From this base, Pakenham is writing his next book – a more light-hearted tome on the “fun but immense hard work” of the B&B.
He is coping with lock-down thanks to TE Lawrence’s Seven Pillars Of Wisdom, Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps, the ancestry of the Aga Khan, and Fergus Fleming’s exploration of the Sahara – The Sword And The Cross.
Pakenham hopes coronavirus won’t mutate to attack wild creatures and thinks it “might be good for wildlife”. He points to the reduction in carbon emissions, global tourism and ocean pollution. He hopes it will lead to a new understanding of humanity’s place on the planet in relation to the creatures we share it with.
“The unpalatable truth is we’re a vastly overpopulated species and unsustainable in present numbers. With fewer humans, all other problems would reduce in equal proportion. But when it’s over will anyone remember or will Trumpian greed begin all over again?”
Subscribing to extremism
Pakenham’s bafflement at the mindset of absolute capitalism championed above all else may equal that of those who question the psychology behind the pursuit of a potentially life-endangering expedition.
As for what attracts people to extreme travel, Pakenham can only speak of his own experiences. “Different people have different reasons. Some for money and reputation like HM Stanley, while some take a humbler approach based on learning and giving back.
“I was always entranced by hot, exotic places. I set off for Afghanistan when I was 17, then various desert lands including central Sahara for three months in 1979 with the Tuareg. Making the 150-mile camel journey to a haunted mountain called Oudane toughened me up a bit!”
Needless to say, the decision to embark on such journeys is not to be taken lightly. “To set off in such an unforgiving land carrying provisions in a rucksack, even if armed with modern gadgets – which I never had – like a smart phone and GPS, is madness,” Pakenham says.
“Without local knowledge and the ability to find food and water, you will die. An extensive medical kit is vital, although if you break a leg you will probably die anyway.
“It’s not a game. The only way to travel in such a land is to take loaded pack animals and trusted local people, including at least one who speaks your language.”
As the old saying goes, denial is not a river in Egypt – but it can sweep you out of your depth quickly. “The desert is not the Lake District,” Pakenham adds.
Walks On The Wild Side is published by Eye Books.
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