Night had fallen and they needed to find somewhere to camp. The lakeshore was still a way off, yet the smell of sulphur blowing across the flats from Lake Turkana was overwhelming. Their surroundings were astonishingly serene, and there was not a wisp of cloud anywhere in the sky. Billions of stars were scattered across it, of such magnitudes they lit up the earth more vividly than a full moon. It was as though the universe had flipped and they were standing upside down in a stellar millpond. Although sodden, their clothes were quickly drying in the warm, parched air. “There’s definitely an otherworldly quality to this place,” said Derek, wringing the water from his scarf.
“I know,” said Abdulmajid. “It scares me.”
“Somewhere near here is where they found Nariokotome: Turkana boy, a one-and-a-half-million-year-old hominid.”
“Who?” asked Abdulmajid.
“Homo ergaster, one of your earliest ancestors.”
“Your ancestor, maybe,” laughed Abdulmajid.
“I’m telling you,” insisted Derek, “this is one ape you’d be proud to call Grandpa. He was an incredibly fast runner, and the stone tools he used were far more advanced than anyone expected to find from that far back in time.”
“I guess Nariokotome liked his high-tech gadgets just as much as the next guy,” grinned Abdulmajid.
“You could be kicking some of Nariokotome’s bones around as you walk.”
“It certainly feels like a graveyard.”
“What the hell’s this?” gasped Derek, stopping suddenly. Spread out before them, across an area ten by twenty metres in size, was an array of stone pillars averaging a metre in height and protruding at different angles from a layer of smaller stones. “Sure is one incredible sight out in the middle of nowhere,” he whispered, touching the tops of the shiny basalt monoliths as he walked between them. Some had pebbles on top of them, laid out in figures of eight. “I would say this place definitely serves some sort of scholarly purpose,” he added. “Look at the way they’re all arranged. It’s like a miniature Stonehenge.”
Abdulmajid wasn’t as keen to go wandering through them. “Could these be the Dancing Stones of Namaratunga?” he asked, scratching his chin.
“The dancing stones of what?”
Just then a voice spoke from the darkness beyond the pillars. “The Turkana believe they were dancers who were turned to stone after they mocked a malevolent spirit.” Derek and Abdulmajid both looked up in amazement. Making his way towards them was a slender old man dressed in an orange and blue tartan fabric tied around one shoulder, and carrying a stick and a small wooden neck-rest-cum-stool in his hand. “Hello. How do you do? My name is Gabriel Lokonyi,” he said, extending a lithe hand.
Derek hesitated, then reached out and shook the man’s hand. “Derek Strangely.”
“You speak like an Englishman,” said Abdulmajid, coming as close as he dared. “Are you a guide here?”
“You could say that,” chuckled Gabriel, grinning toothlessly at the two of them while puffing on a clove cigarette. “I’m a palaeontologist. As for my accent, I got that serving in the King’s African Rifles during World War Two.”
“Ah, a war veteran. You have my greatest respect. Abdulmajid is my name.”
“Thank you,” replied Gabriel.
“I’m curious to know the story behind these stones,” said Derek.
“It’s an observatory,” he replied.
“You see,” laughed Derek. “I knew they served a purpose.”
“Each stone corresponds to a different point on the horizon where seven star clusters rise,” he continued. “Or, should I say, used to rise, in 300 BC.”
“Wow! A two-thousand-year-old observatory…out here in the middle of nowhere. I had no idea such a place existed.”
“Was it the Turkana who made this?” asked Abdulmajid.
“No,” said Gabriel, raising his eyebrows. “They were here when the Turkana arrived. We don’t know much about who made them. Maybe Borana cattle herders from Ethiopia, as they were noted astronomers.”
“Which selected stars do they correspond to?” asked Derek.
“Ah, a fellow astronomer, I see,” said Gabriel, reaching into his tartan and removing a card to show to Derek. It was a simple diagram showing the positions of the pillars transected by long arrows, delineating lines of sight to the points on the horizon where each star rose. “The seven harvest stars from the Borana calendar,” said Gabriel, who then proceeded to point to each object in the sky as he read its name on the card: “Bellatrix, the belt of Orion, Saiph, Sirius, Aldebaran, Pleiades and Triangulum.”
“I can see why they would build an observatory here,” breathed Derek. “There is just so much horizon, bound to an almost perfect semi-sphere of celestial night sky.”
“And plenty of fish in the lake,” added Abdulmajid.
“Nile perch, crocodile, hippo, soft-shelled turtles,” laughed Gabriel. “Who wouldn’t want to settle here?”
“There’s something of the supernatural about this lake,” whispered Derek.
“Anam is a sacred spring,” said Gabriel, seating himself on his little stool, with his back against a pillar, “the beginning and the end of all rivers.” He gazed out across the flats to the lake, a distant placid sheet that mirrored the sky in every detail. “It was once a vast oasis, you know, a much wider lake that drained into the River Nile. Eight thousand years ago it would have been lapping at our feet.”
“Why does it all seem so strangely familiar?” sighed Derek, sitting down beside him. Abdulmajid remained standing.
“All human beings possess a memory of this place,” continued Gabriel. “It’s midpoint on the path our gracile ancestors took out of the heart of Africa. From here you can see everything, both in time and space, and in any direction.” Derek glanced at Gabriel. The twinkle in the old Turkana’s eye suggested a fondness for riddles, and did much to compensate for his complete lack of teeth. “Come,” the old man laughed, “let us make a fire to dry your damp clothes. Are you hungry?”
Pirates is available on Amazon