one of our favorite sights

Sunday, January 19, 2014

From Mt. Elgon to Mt. Kenya--A Wild Journey in Four Parts


river in Samburu reserve

lion  looking at prey

samburu National Reserve

one of my buddies in the river in Samburu
hiking Mt. Kenya

bamboo forest

view of Mt. Kenya

boys playing soccer at orphanage

interesting flora on Mt. Kenya

Our holidays this year entailed taking gifts to children at an orphanage in Kitale, about 2 hours northwest of here, and making sure our guest, Jackson Grimm,  got to see some cool stuff.  We decided to go on a camping trip to several different areas. The only thing Jackson was sure he wanted to do was to climb Mt. Kenya, the highest peak in the country, and the second  highest  in Africa. So…we got a guide for the boys, set a date, and waited for his arrival. Meanwhile, our church, the UU Congregation of Columbus, Indiana, raised some money so that we could purchase individual gifts for all the of the kids left at the orphanage during the holidays.  A friend brought us red and green M and M’s so I could make some festive cookies, and Jack brought along some candy canes as a special treat. He arrived on Christmas Eve, pretty exhausted but raring to go. We had been packing gifts and baking for the last few days, so we loaded up the Prado which we rented from IU, and got ready to” Bounce” (literally!).

 Kenya is a large country…as big as Texas, and it is incredibly diverse… culturally, geographically and biologically.  Since we are residing on the western side of Kenya, we had not yet spent much time in the east. We love to spend time in the countryside, so we were excited to go to new areas and see guaranteed to be spectacular scenery.  

We spent a very nice Christmas  day with the children at the orphanage and I think they were both stunned and thrilled by the gifts which we brought along. For many of the teenagers it was the first time in their lives to receive a personalized wrapped present. It was an incredibly sunny and bright day for Christmas and we enjoyed playing, eating and laughing with them. Many thanks and kudos to the Columbus UUs!

  Mt. Elgon

Mount Elgon National park is about 40 miles from Kitale where the Children’s home is located.  It is remote and quiet and offers some great natural world experiences including an incredible night sky. There are caves formed from ancient lava tubes,  beautiful  bluffs to climb,  enormous trees, and large and small wild animals . Since it is the second highest mountain in Kenya, it seemed like a good place for the boys to acclimate before climbing their mountain. Coming from the flatlands of the Midwest, we knew Jackson would need an opportunity to get used to  the elevation and Michael really wanted to climb  the peak  as well to prepare for his climb to Mt. Kenya in  February.

 The day after we arrived we all climbed the Endebess bluff which provides an amazing view of the surrounding region. The boys hiked back, about 14 kilometers, discovering caves along the way. The guide book tells you to take an armed ranger when hiking there, but we have never had any reason to do so and having any armed person with us makes us more nervous than running into a water buffalo or forest pig. Personally, I’m not great at climbing trees, but pretty quickly it became clear that Jack and Liam could do that easily if need be! We knew they would have stories to tell at the end of that day and they certainly did, especially after trying to enter  a bat filled cave!

The final full day that we were  at Mt. Elgon was much anticipated because we planned to climb to Koitoboss peak at 4222 m.  Since I’m always conscious of the possibility of hurting myself I was hesitant to go along, but Michael encouraged me. Fortunately the weather is dry at this time of year so we left early under another clear sky and no rain in sight. We had met some young Kenyans the day before who were staying nearby and they had requested a ride to the peak road. There is a 36 kilometers drive and then an 8 kilometers (about 48000 ft there and back) hike to the peak. We told them they were welcome to  come along and they were ready to take off at 7 am as planned. It was a group of very nice young professional Kenyans; a dental surgeon, his assistant, and his wife, who is a lecturer at Mt. Kenya University in Kitale. They were cheerful, game for the adventure, and prepared with snacks and beverages in their plastic grocery bags. Chepkorir, the dental surgeon, was quite chatty and we had a nice conversation about Kalenjin culture. The drive up the mountain is quite daunting   but the variety of fauna is very interesting and changes quite rapidly as you gain elevation. There are huge Podo trees, with enormous twisted trunks, giant figs and also giant parasitic figs which grow attached to other trees and have great vines coming down from their branches. There is also a  bamboo forest on the way up,  and then when you get close to the peak trail it turns into afro-alpine  moorland with odd trees and other flora that are not found in the U.S.

We arrived around 9 am at the beginning of the trail and the Kenyans (carrying their plastic grocery bags) and the boys took off immediately, headed towards the peak, which was not yet visible. Michael stayed behind to accompany me. The day was long and the climbing was not easy. The paths were very rocky with various other obstacles along the way, including sticky mud, broken branches, and boulders to climb over.  Since it is an extinct volcano ( last eruption 12 million years ago), there are all sorts of interesting rock outcroppings along the way. As I doggedly trudged along I would glance up from time to time to see the silhouette of what seemed to be a big boy standing on a huge boulder in the distance. Although that image made me gasp, I was so preoccupied with not hurting myself I could hardly be concerned about them!

 After a few hours it was lunchtime. I was getting very tired and with the elevation I was starting to have trouble breathing. Another hour or so of climbing, after getting within 1000 ft. of the peak was all I could manage without great discomfort. I have never been a big “gotta do the big thing to notch my belt” person, so I was happy to stop and wait. Michael went ahead and I lay down among strange mosses and lichens,  took a nap, then hid behind a boulder to wait for them. It was so peaceful and beautiful just lying there listening to the trees shake and the few birds cry. I waited a couple of hours, all the while watching the peak as the wind picked up and the temperatures dropped significantly. Unfortunately, a completely clear day turned  cloudy with giant wisps of clouds encircling the peak. It  started threatening  to rain as soon as I estimated they were all near the top. Finally, maybe two hours  after stopping I heard a cry from on high. I knew they had made it! Yea! I called up to them and hoped that they weren't too near the edge, then went back behind a boulder to wait in order to keep warm. Finally, they all returned, the boys first, of course, and it had been they who had hollered from the peak, then the Kenyan woman, and then Michael and the other men. Michael had not made it to the peak, but far enough to see the caldera on the Ugandan side,which he described as incredibly beautiful.  He had gone  far enough to gain confidence for the next climb (it had completely fogged in which is why he did not continue) which made him quite happy. It was a long exhausting hike back and by then I was so tired, my legs were like jello, so I had to be extra careful not to fall and break something. It took us at least 2 hours to descend, and it continued to get colder and damper along the way. By the time I reached the car, I was drained of any reserves of energy and just wanted to go to bed (the Kenyans put up a rousing shout for “mama” who finally made it!). All in all it was a great day of challenging hiking, stunning scenery and  good company. And I only fell once, without doing much damage.

The Valley and Lake Baringo

The next day we left Mt. Elgon and headed into the Great Rift Valley. Our ultimate destination was Samburu National Reserve, on the northeast side of Mt. Kenya, where we were bound to see some big animals. Lake Baringo is a freshwater lake on the northern end of the Great Rift Valley and we chose to stop there along the way to break up the drive. 

The Drive. We have this road map, but it is a bit outdated and all of the roads on it, although they are different colors, have the same designation (tarred/untarred). So, it is never quite clear on what kind of road one might end up.  Well, the road through the Rift Valley, was BAD. Worse than any we’ve been on , and that is saying A LOT. (Since returning we’ve had people say to us, “but, there is no road through the valley!”) We drove this road, thinking it would get us to Lake Baringo, more easily than the long way around, but it ended up taking us over 10 hours and it was literally unprecedented…like a rocky path that had been cleared of brush but nothing else. We ran into perhaps 2 cars along the way (200 miles) and probably about 5 shepherds and their cattle/sheep. The landscape is DRY and lots of scrub brush. Pretty in its way, and we did see many  camels which we didn't know Kenya had, but honestly, it was probably the most amazingly poor road one could travel. The valley is hot and dusty and seems quite inhospitable but we were happy to see   a river finally and noted that people were congregated next to it, logically. Bathing, eating, swimming and washing clothes, as well as  watering their animals.  We seemed to be moving out of Kalenjin country as  there was a dramatic  difference in dress and housing , with more traditional looking outfits  and jewellery, rather than the western clothes that we are used to seeing in Eldoret. This was particularly evidenced in the town of Lomut  where we drove through a very crowded  market scene where the people were as dressed as colorfully  as some of the splendid birds that we see here.  
After hours of incredibly slow and bumpy uncomfortable driving, feeling exhausted and frustrated, hungry, thirsty and dusty, we finally found our campsite at Lake Baringo at about 10 at night. Sadly, the lake was flooding and the restaurant at the campsite was not very well stocked or dry,  so after waiting what seemed like forever,  and much to the boys’ dismay, we were served  4  very small Tilapia pan fried whole, fries with crappy ketchup, and thankfully,  cold beers for dinner. We set up camp in the dark, near the lakeshore and I spent the entire night nerving out knowing there are many crocodiles (turns out I am a crocophobe) and hippos in the lake. In fact, during the night we could hear the hippos walking around munching and harrumphing on the grass next to our tent. Needless to say I did not get out as I normally have to during the night! We were pleased the next morning to wake up to another beautiful day and a campsite inhabited by fabulous interesting birds and monkeys scampering all around. It was also nice to learn from the owners that hippos are not aggressive unless they're scared. 

Through Samburuland
After our experience the previous day on the unbelievably bad road, we considered getting on the “highway” but determined, with the help of several others at the campsite that it would be a waste of fuel and time. We got on our way, knowing that the road could be far better or far worse than what we had been on the day before, and it might be very slow going,  but glad  that we would go through some towns so we could at least stop and find fuel. I have a Rough Guides to Kenya also that is fabulous and has all sorts of great tips and interesting little tidbits about things to see/do. I cherish it because although it is a bit outdated it is almost always right! Love that. 
Although it was still dry and dusty, we began to climb into high savannah so the temperatures cooled quite nicely. I was seated in the back so that Jack could have room and a better view, and believe me the difference between a horrible road and a bad road is felt. So we plodded along and we made relatively good time. There were very few things to see along the way except the camels standing on the side of the road, but then at a certain point we began to see different kinds of housing and herders wearing interesting garb as they walked behind their goats, mostly. These were the Samburu people, relatives of the Masaii, who had stayed in the north while the Masaii moved to the south thousands of years ago. Both are pastoralists, and of course at this point both of their cultures have been heavily influenced and potentially degraded by a very westernized society. The Samburu did not seem overly interested in us nor did they beg from us, which was our experience in Masaii land last year.  We were driving through what seemed to be fairly uninhabitable land again, but the Samburu have these interesting little shelters/compounds made up of sticks, mud, and plastic bags. They resemble pictures of a Native American sweat lodge that I’ve seen, but these are for living/sheltering their goats. The compounds were encircled with very thorny sticks acting as fences. The Samburu also wear very interesting clothing…the women wear very large beaded necklaces if they are married and big metal earrings, and the men wear cloth wrapped around their waists, and carry staffs. The men who become warriors (Morans) wear all sorts of interesting garb, including feathers, headdresses, beaded ankle bracelets, colorful  hats, and they sometimes have hennaed hair. As we got onto our next road, we realized that it was going to be dark by the time we got to Samburu National Reserve, our destination. We decided, since we didn’t want to set up camp in the dark, that we would go onto the next town , called Maralal, which had a somewhat appealing description in our Rough Guides. We were all intrigued. It  turned out to be a dusty, dirty town and the most entertaining thing about it was the number of true Samburu wandering around. We spent some time wandering ourselves and found The Hard Rock Caf√© which was humorous because the “rock” was a diamond. We had a little snack there and then wandered around some more investigating some of the local shops. We had dinner in our hotel, “Cheers”  and that  was Jack’s first experience with a restaurant where most of the food on the menu is not available which is always a little jarring, but one of the ways in which one must “go with the flow” here. After a semi reasonable night’s sleep in a tiny bed, we got up early in order to get to the reserve as quickly as possible.

Well, so much for that idea! We were not 10 kilometers outside of Maralal when we got our first puncture of the day. It’s so nice to have young strong men with you when the tire blows! The boys made quick work of the tire change while Michael provided technical supervision  and I was photographer.  Michael felt strongly then that we needed to go get the punctured tire fixed so that we would have a spare, so we went on to the next village, and after inquiring multiple times, were finally led to the “tire guy”. There we waited while Wilson the tire guy fixed the puncture with what seemed rather rudimentary tools. Liam and I took a stroll around the village because it was also filled with Samburu in varied colorful clothes and I was enthralled. It took a couple of hours to get the tire fixed and by then we had drawn quite a crowd of needy folks. The kids hanging around were clearly hungry as well as some of the adults.  Feeling self- conscious with our packed to the brim giant vehicle, we got some breakfast snacks for the kids and a couple of the old guys which were heartily enjoyed and disappeared quickly.
 Finally we were on our way on a wing and a prayer, hoping that the tire would hold. We gave several folks a lift to what seemed like the end of the earth, and we learned more about them in their and our broken KiSwahili. The first group of women we picked up were going to the next village with their babies on their backs and their important documents and money in small plastic bags. While sweating and scooching to make room for them as they laughed and climbed in the car and passed Jack their empty paint cans, I was able to get a better look at their jewelry which is quite ornate. Liam had asked them if he could take a picture and the “spokeswoman” from the group of three friends seemed to be playing hardball with us as she insisted that he pay them each 100 bob, or a bit more than a dollar. He happily complied but she wouldn’t let him take her photo! She got in next to me all the while, chatting and laughing and pointing out things to the other two women (she seemed quite amused that I had a large carton of eggs on my lap…I imagine 15 eggs at once seems like quite a luxury) not to mention several books. We dropped them at the next village, about 20 kilometers up the road (remember they were walking in the 90 degree heat) and immediately as they descended  from the vehicle, two Samburu men gestured that they too, would like a lift. Of course, we took them. They wanted to go a long way, in fact, beyond our turn, so we told them that we’d take them to the turnoff. Now, I’m pretty sure these guys were shepherds also, as they had their staffs, and were wearing the traditional cloths wrapped around their waists, but I think they must have been long lost friends because they chatted the entire way in Samburu, for about 50 kilometers, and they were not the least bit interested in us! At one point, we saw elephants out the window, our first time seeing them outside of a reserve, so we stopped and backed up to look. They were not as enthralled as we were, telling us that elephants kill people. We tried to encourage them to see the elephants  as beautiful, which they are, but it was indicative of the whole wild animal/human conflict still going on here. After that, the guy closer to the window kept hollering a warning about the “ndovu” to the shepherds that we passed.  They gave me a hearty handshake and said “Thanks” in Samburu, posed for a picture for Liam and then were on their way, another 30 kilometers or so. They had said they were going to town, but we were trying to imagine them walking back in the  dark…maybe another nice driver would pick them up on the way back. Soon we picked up another woman and her small child with his chicken, who said they were going “not far" and after driving 30 kilometers we wondered what her definition of "far"  was..but suddenly we heard the whoosh of a tire leaking quickly and everyone had to get out. I apologized to the woman as she looked quite worn out but she thanked me and they hoofed it up the road. Within 10 minutes they were no longer visible. Meanwhile the boys got to work. At that point it was midday and very hot and dry, so the work did not go as quickly.   Fortunately, we were only about 15 kilometers away from Archer’s Post, which is the town just before the entrance to Samburu Reserve. UNFORTUNATELY, about 10 minutes later, just as we turned onto the first paved road of the day, ANOTHER tire popped and this one went down so quickly it was like a balloon popping. Well, now we were SOL as you can imagine; out in the middle of nowhere and no tires! So, there was nothing to do but try to hitch a ride. I was convinced by the group to let the young men stay on the road and go with Michael to town so I “wouldn’t worry” too much. They had plenty of water and food, their instruments, sunscreen, and are strong, so I wasn’t too anxious, except that we didn’t know how long it would take and the day was now getting to evening. Fortunately, as soon as we started standing on the side of the road with our tire, a pickup/camper came barrelling towards us, slowed, and stopped. It was a  German couple who had been traveling for 15 months and were heading south from  Ethiopia and to the next town. They happily took us on and drove us to Archer’s Post, where a young man jumped on the runner and showed us to the “tire guy”, named Michael. We said our thanks and goodbyes and spent an hour or so waiting for Michael to fix the puncture. He seemed much more likely to do a good job because he actually had some equipment and  an air compressor. Meanwhile, the young man who had shown the way, Lawrence, became our new best friend, guiding me around the village, telling me about the Samburu, finding us a taxi back and helping us load the tire. A very nice guy but like many of the folks in that area, seemed a bit desperate and also a bit high. Kat, which is a common stimulant chewed in that region, is found everywhere and I swear everyone was chewing it. We told Michael we’d be back soon to bring him the other tire but at the same time were realizing we were not going to make it to the reserve that day. We found the boys next to the car, safe, sound, and cheerful, as they had expected us to be gone much longer.

We drove back to Archer’s Post, bought a few items for our next campsite meal, located a small “guest house” that seemed ok, and then tried to find some food without much luck. Meanwhile the tire guy fixed our other tire so we had a spare. The guest house turned out to be a disaster as there was no ventilation and the boys had no working mosquito nets so they were up all night killing mosquitoes and laughing, groaning, and generally keeping us up as well. The estimated number of mosquitoes in their room was 1000 which they spent most of the night slapping with flipflops. At one point management arrived because Liam broke a window in his zeal to kill mosquitoes.  One thing I don’t expect anymore in general is a good night’s sleep, but definitely not on these camping trips. We got the hell out of there as early as possible the next morning and headed to the reserve.

Samburu National Reserve

Although dry and scrubby, Samburu is known for big animals, which is why we were there. There is a lovely big river, the Ewaso Ngiro, that runs through that area and right through the park which is what attracts the animals. We were not disappointed, as we began seeing animals as soon as we got through the gates. Impala, antelope, oryx, and then elephants and giraffes, and some incredible birds, as we drove to the public campsites, which were located right on the river. The river has hippos and crocs, so again, I was a little nervous about camping right next to it, but we were up on a ledge, under a lovely giant tree, and I figure the crocs would have to be super hungry to climb up there! After setting up camp we ate a hearty breakfast and spoke to a local guy who offered to get us wood and guard our tents because the monkeys there are so aggressive they jump on tents and tear them up. We were a little sceptical of this but there were several monkeys surrounding us in the trees and suddenly one jumped down and stole an avocado from my basket! Jack and Liam spent some time that morning chasing monkeys away and yelling at them so that they might not come back, but it didn’t really work. So we hired this young man, Marcos, to watch the camp while we went looking for more animals that afternoon after taking a nap.

It was New Year’s Eve so we decided to go to the lodge at the park for a drink before going to bed. There was a party going on there, with music and food and a Samburu speaker describing the culture. Although the setting was lovely, there were 15 enormous disgusting crocodiles sleeping with their mouths open on the river bank just under the patio. Upon seeing them I was not so thrilled about being there. We didn’t stay too long but had a nice time visiting and listening to the program. We went back to camp and had a quiet albeit hot night under the brilliant starlit skt. The next morning we got up early and went for another drive, seeing many more elephants, Impala, Gerenuk, giraffes, lions and other impressive  animals. It was a short, albeit very gratifying visit. We left after breakfast and headed towards Mt. Kenya.

There is a town on the northwest side of the mountain that we had visited before and we happened to know that there is a good restaurant there (rumored to have the best burgers in Kenya).  In order to celebrate the New Year we decided to take the guys there before they set off on their big hiking trip. After a delicious lunch,  we found  a cool place to camp on the north side of the mountain. Down an unexpected dirt road, there is  an old trout farm which welcomed campers. It turned out to be a lovely old colonial era farm with beautiful gardens, a lovely view of Mount Kenya, and an old farmhouse with rooms for rent. We surprised the people working there because they don’t usually get company, but they treated us very nicely and even let us use the old house to bathe and hang out in. The camping, although chillier than what we were used to, was awesome, because it was on grass rather than hard dirt, and again, the night sky was amazingly clear and bright with stars. AND there were no crocodiles!

Mt. Kenya
vulturine guinea fowl in Samburu Reserve
picnic on the way to Samburu

boys hanging laundry

Samburu dancers at New Year's program

sunrise over the river in Samburu Reserve

2nd puncture of the day

Samburu men hitching a ride

loading up!

waiting for tire to be fixed


road through Samburuland

Samburu warriors on bicycles

Storefront in Maralal

Samburu women who hitched a ride with us

Jack with Samburu warriors on roadside

Michael playing Santa Claus

counting gifts and checking our list

passing out gifts

passing out gifts to Kitale Children's home kids Xmas day

Impala females

giant Podo trees Mt. Elgon

moorland on Mt. Elgon/peak is visible in back

Liam and I Mt. Elgon

lion cub, Samburu National Reserve

Michael and I climbing Mt. Elgon

At the beginning of the trail, Mt. Kenya

Jack and Liam on the peak of Mt. Kenya

Jack and Liam on the peak of Mt. Elgon

heading into the valley 

on Endebess Bluff at Mt. Elgon National Park

After two days and nights of  relaxing and not driving, we took the guys to Chogoria where they met up with their mountain climbing guide. We left them at about noon, making sure that they had all their supplies and having met the guide who seemed as nice in person as over email. It was a little nerve-wracking just leaving them, because we were heading home and would be completely out of touch for five days (first time for Liam!) but their trip was great and they had the climb of a lifetime up Mt. Kenya. We headed home and arrived late that night after a long drive on mostly fair roads. The first part of the drive was around Mt. Kenya which lends itself to beautiful scenery for several hours. Mount Kenya historically is much revered by the Kikuyus who live in the Central Highlands, and the area is perhaps the lushest and richest in Kenya. Once you enter the Great Rift Valley again, the roads go downhill and it becomes a lot less lush although the vistas of the escarpments are quite lovely as well. Our trip showed us once again how beautiful this country is and how much more there is to see.Travelling here always makes us remember how lucky we are to have this opportunity for adventure and encourages us to go again despite the bumpy roads along the way!

1 comment:

  1. What a great adventure! You guys are hardy and strong, and, yes, so lucky to get such a long and thorough look at an amazing place. Love you!