Chalbi Desert in Northern Kenya

Chalbi Desert, Kenya

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The Chalbi Desert is a small desert near the Southern border of Ethiopia between Mount Marsabit and Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. The word Chalbi means a bare, salty place in the language of Gabbra pastoralists who inhabit this part of Kenya. The desert lies at an elevation of 370 meters above sea level and covers approximately 100,000 sq. km. It is Kenya’s only terrain classified as a true desert. It’s among the aridest regions and hottest deserts in Kenya.

The vast desert was formerly covered by a lake formed by damming from lava flows resulting from volcanic activities in the Mount Marsabit area. The plains around this area consist of an extensive lava plateau and volcanic hills. Dunes, ash-grey ridges, broken clusters of tiny huts, and inselbergs of varying sizes and shapes dot the landscape. Dust storms blow across Chalbi, moving sand and silt particles towards the northwest, and lines of camels shimmer in a mirage-like vista. The bleached stretch of coarse sand is enlivened with immense clay, and pure rocks are frequent with desert storms.

Camels walking on the Chalbi Desert, Kenya
Camels walking in the Chalbi Desert, Kenya

The climate of Chalbi Desert

The temperature conditions of Chalbi Desert vary from over 36°C during February, the hottest month, to as low as 18°C during July, the coldest month. Temperatures are very high during the day and get extremely chilly at night. 

Wildlife in the Chalbi Desert?

Pastoralist women and a caravan of camels walking to the local well to collect water in the Afkaba region of the Chalbi Desert

The saline soil of the desert allows only a few plants to survive, so most of the Chalbi is bare of vegetation. Occasionally, you can see oryx, ostrich and zebra dashing across the vast white land and the Gabbra leading their camels between watering holes and grazing lands on the desert margin. 

Things to do in the Chalbi Desert

A visit to the Chalbi desert is a worthwhile adventure. It is a perfect place for:

  • Desert safaris and motorsports
  • Camel derbies and caravans
  • Nature treks and filming, among other experiences.
  • Cultural tours with the local communities like the Gabbra, the Rendille, Orma, Turkana, El Molo, and Dasanaach, among others. 

To the further north, discover the Huri Hills, which liss the sweating traveller with moderate temperatures and distant vistas over a boiling country.

Chalbi Desert – Deserts in Kenya
Chalbi Desert – Deserts in Kenya

The Chalbi Desert is an ocean of hot and dry volcanic sand, stretching from one horizon to another with an oasis in Kalacha. The oasis is beautifully surrounded by doum palms and acacia trees, which offer a haven from the hot and intense sun. At Kalacha springs, locals, tourists, livestock, and camels come to slake their thirst. The village of Kalacha stands at the north end of the desert. The Gabbra community has a beautiful culture, including great food, cultural festivals, art, games, striking dances, and colourful adornments, among other traditions.

How to get there

It’s a 7 to 8 hours drive from Nairobi. There will be lots to see and experience on the road trip; views of Mount Kenya, the yellow-filled canola and wheat fields in Timau, the mighty Ewaso Nyiro River, Mt. Ololokwe, and Moile Hill, among others.

Top ways to experience the Chalbi Desert and nearby attractions

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  • Gregory Battaglia
    Mar 27, 2020 at 11:13 pm

    Very beautiful. I wish we had deserts like those in Kenya and Tanzania in Upstate New York USA. There’s none at all there; just lots of mountains, rivers and lakes, which flood and which will get worse with human-induced climate change. I would love to move to So-Cal or New Mexico but I’m scared of earthquakes and wildfires, and much of NM has a crazy crime rate. So very hard to decide where to retire. Thanks for sharing. Stay healthy!

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