Field Challenges

Doing remote location fieldwork in Africa presents significant challenges, and West Turkana in northern Kenya, where the WTAP works, is even more difficult a location than most. Imagine all of the things that you would need to go safely camping for a month: water, shelter, food, tools, fire, medical supplies, and a power source might be the basics. But then scale that up to a camp of 15 working scientists, in a dry, wild landscape 2 hours drive from the nearest town, with near-constant 35ºC (95ºF) heat, rough terrain, potentially dangerous wildlife, and no telephone network to rely on. This gives you an idea of the logistical challenges the WTAP face each year, even before mentioning any scientific challenges.

Each summer the WTAP does exactly that – it’s a monumental effort that for 4 weeks turns the bank of a dry riverbed (lagga) in the middle of nowhere into a small village. Before the team can conduct any scientific research, we are out searching for sources of fresh drinking water, collecting firewood, setting up a kitchen, a miniature petrol station for our 4×4 vehicles, and pitching a science and medical tent, as well as a food store. And all that is in addition to the basic things needed for comfort, like tents for sleeping, showers, and toilet facilities.

It’s little wonder then that it is impossible to spend all day out in the field, while also maintaining the camp, preparing meals and ensuring a constant supply of clean drinking water that is needed to sustain the team. We rely on an amazing Support Team of local Turkana and other Kenyans, who not only help us to excavate sites, but also help keep the camp, equipment and team running smoothly.

The WTAP camp is so remote that at night there is no light pollution, and the Milky Way and passing satellites can be clearly seen.

All of this work takes money, and the WTAP currently operates on a relatively modest budget. We make what we have go a very long way, since it must pay for airfares, equipment, salaries for our Kenyan and Turkana colleagues, as well as for food and vehicle repairs.

We are always pleased to accept offers of equipment and donations – can you help?

Turkana is an extremely dry landscape and sources of drinkable fresh water are scarce. Local Turkana source water by digging holes in dry riverbeds and collecting the water in plastic containers. The sand acts as a natural filter to purify the water, but open water sources are also attractive to goats and camels and do not remain very fresh for long. During dry years the water table sinks too far down to be accessible. Scattered around are a few hand-pump wells made by NGOs or foreign governments, but these are often broken due to worn out parts, or get washed away by flash floods. Deeper bore-holes are more rare, but where present can provide large volumes of safe drinking water from underground aquifers.

The WTAP has to source enough water to support about 40 people and all their needs each day for a month; that’s a large amount of water. On average about 10 litres of drinking water are required per person per day, but water is also needed for cooking, showers, and for washing clothes. All in all, we need about 400 litres (~88 gallons) of water a day to keep the camp running. In very wet years, the water table is high enough that water can be taken from a hole in the lagga right next to the camp, but in dry years we rely on a borehole further away. Wherever it is sourced, water for drinking must be carefully stored and chemically treated to make sure that it is safe.

2014_Pumping drinking water at the spring
This spring – a very rare occurrence in Turkana – serves as an occasional source of fresh water for the WTAP camp. Here, Geologist Xavier Boës has set up a petrol-driven water pump to draw water from one of the open pools and collect it into barrels inside the vehicles.

Terrain and Vehicles
Standard vehicles are no match for the terrain of Turkana, which is only accessible using dedicated and robust 4×4 vehicles. Outside of Lodwar, there are no paved roads, and so all driving is on very rough rocky or sandy tracks which, when it rains,  become so potholed and muddy that it is often impossible to drive at all. Sharp rocks and Acacia thorns are the cause of frequent tyre punctures, while the sheer roughness of the terrain wears out shock absorbers, damages suspension systems and wreaks havoc with fuel lines, filters and radiators. Even Land Rovers and Land Cruisers – designed for the hardest of conditions – struggle here.

The WTAP has been lucky to be supported for several years by Total Kenya, who have generously donated quantities of diesel and petrol to support our work year-on-year, and have periodically donated vehicles which have stood the test of time. In 2014, one of the project’s two vehicles had to be retired, and the other is now too fragile to survive more Turkana adventures. Because of this, we have been forced to rely more on renting hire vehicles, but these are pricey, have per-day mile limitations, and always come with a dedicated driver who must be accommodated at the camp.

Another breakdown
A double-breakdown on the road through the rift valley, on the way to begin the field season in Turkana.

The WTAP has about 15 tents to accommodate science and support team as well as a large dormitory tent that can house a further 12 people. The main area of our camp also includes a large ‘Science Tent’ which stores our equipment and this is where we work while in camp, a tent for our excavation tools, and a Food Store. The combined effects of strong sunlight, heat, dust, and intensive use mean that the lives of our tents are far shorter than would be the case in more temperate climates. We face a constant, year-on-year battle to maintain this equipment while also buying new tents from abroad (with the exception of very expensive canvas ones, tents are expensive in Kenya and often of lesser quality).

Keeping cool for those hote Turkana nights
Removing the fly sheet helps keep the temperature down at night, but lets in a lot of dust!

Supplying enough food for the entire WTAP field team is a huge logistical challenge, since almost no fresh food is grown locally and little is available in nearby towns and villages. Before heading to the field we stop off in Lodwar – the largest town in Turkana County and two hours drive form our camp – where our favourite supermarket (Kakumatt) is able to supply us with all the dry and tinned foods that we need for the month. We then buy fresh fruits and vegetables like mangoes, oranges, passionfuit, cabbages, carrots, and potatoes at Lodwar’s produce market. Stored well, much of this fresh food lasts up to two weeks or more, but sometimes we have to re-supply with certain items throughout the month by going back to the town. With the food at camp, our chef B.K. and his kitchen team are able to cook up all manner of delicious meals, from Kenyan favourites Ugali (a staple dish made from maize flour) with Sukuma Wiki (greens cooked with tomatoes), to couscous with vegetables, fresh salads, chapatis, curry with rice, and all manner of delicious soups.

2015_Chef BK's freshly basked bread
Chef B.K. with some of his freshly-baked camp bread.

The vast majority of people across Turkana live without the luxury of access to an electricity network in their homes: a more widespread power grid is nascent but still extremely limited. Most people power things like mobile phones using solar solutions, that are often shared within communities.

In the field, we need to be able to run quite a few gadgets; from the basics like the rechargeable torches (flashlights) and headlamps we use to see after dark, to batteries for the digital cameras, Leica Total Station and laptop computers needed to record and process the scientific data we collect in the field, and emergency communication devices like our SatPhone. To power our camp, we rely on a series of solar panels and batteries that allow us to keep things running. We also use a petrol generator which can be used in an emergency, for example if a rainstorm or cloudy day means charging from solar is not possible. It is remarkable how much more hungry all these devices seem to be when access to electricity is limited, and even with this kit and very strong sunlight everyday, most days there is only enough energy to power the very most essential gear.

WTAP solar panels generating power in the mid-day sun while a group of visiting Turkana look on from the lagga.

Many parts of Turkana – even those that otherwise seem extremely remote – are now covered by a mobile phone network that allows for calls to be made and, sometimes, for mobile internet use. However, near Lomekwi lagga where we work coverage is minimal and often non-existent. We have no coverage at all at camp, which means we must seek out places where there is telephone network if we want to make a call to the outside world. Strangely, even across entire landscapes where there is no signal at all, it is possible to find very localised (a few metres wide at most) pockets where it is possible to get some reception. The local Turkana, many of whom own or have access to a mobile phone, often know exactly where these spots can be found, just as they might know the whereabouts of a local watersource. About once a week, many of us take a ride in the vehicle after a hard day’s digging to one of these spots, where everyone simultaneously stands in a small area with decent reception and tries (often in vain) to make a phone call home, like some sort of strange, open-air phone box.

WTAP co-director Jason Lewis searching for signal ontop of a vehicle (itself ontop of a hill), while others take calls nearby.