Kenya

To the cradle of mankind – The return

Someplace in the Chalbi desert

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The vastness of the area.

Too soon the time to leave Koobi Fora arrived and we headed back to Nairobi. Luckily we would still visit a couple of unknown and hopefully interesting places. We planned a different route that would take us across the Chalbi desert to Marsabit National Park and then to Nairobi, via Archer’s Post and Isiolo and the start of the asphalt.

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A stop on the way.

The road was very rough and, after a while we started having punctures, first in the trailer, then Paul’s car had two more and, finally, we had one. We were in a tight spot as we had no more spares and from then on, we would need to disassemble them to patch the inner tubes, a hard job with large wheels such as those of the Land Rover, particularly pumping them back to the needed pressure!

We continued our journey and after a while got to a vast expanse of cracked red soil where soon became the only feature we saw. We had arrived to the Chalbi desert, a little known desert outside Kenia. We planned to cross it assuming that we would be able to follow the wheel marks from earlier vehicles as we carried no electronic orientation devices then. Despite following a few tracks that, luckily, soon ended nowhere, we managed to get to a promising track although we did not find anyone to consult!

We were still crossing the Chalbi when dusk caught up with us. We then decided to leave the main track to get the full desert experience while be less conspicuous to potential unwanted visitors. The evening was very warm and there was not a drop of wind and just nothing apart from reddish sand as far as we could see, except for a lone zebra skull. It was a totally new experience.

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The redness of the Chalbi desert with the lake behind.

We did not bother to set up tents and judged that no mosquitoes would be alive there so we just slept on our camp beds, after a tinned dinner. The biggest disappointment of the day, apart from having to change four wheels, was that our watermelons kept on the roof racks for a night like this, were rotten and we could not enjoy them after having saved them for days! Laying on our beds, we witnesses one of the most incredible skies we have ever seen and we watched it mesmerized until sleep defeated us.

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The cracked earth of the Chalbi desert.

The following morning, the discovery of our fifth another puncture, this time in the trailer delayed us for about an hour while we did the repair. Although we still had no spares, we trusted -rightly this time- that we would get to our next destination without another puncture. We managed to negotiate the Chalbi successfully and soon we found ourselves back at a track that we believed looked respectable enough to take us to the Marsabit mountain and its homonymous National Park.

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On the way to Marsabit.

Our spirits soared when we saw spotted the outline of a large mountain in the distance that could only be Marsabit. It was and, as we approached it, we could see its green hue becoming sharper after every kilometre we traveled. We were soon climbing and the green vegetation was quite a novelty after spending almost a week without seen much in terms of trees! So, we entered Marsabit National Park and went straight to the Park Headquarters to leave our tires to get mended and then to a nearby hotel for a cold drink, just refraining ourselves from rolling on the lush green grass of the garden!

The mountain was a true oasis with a large forested area where elephants dwelled. In particular it had been the home of one of the most famous elephants known, Ahmed, the King of Marsabit that carried very large tusks that prompted President Jomo Kenyatta in 1970 to declare it a national treasure and was given special protection against poachers in the form of 24 hours custody by two hunters.

By the time of our visit Ahmed was dead (it died in 1974) but his fame was still very much alive and we were familiar with its shape and tusks from its monument at the Kenya National Museum in Nairobi. Ahmed was a loner and quite evasive and the stories about him became mythical after several years. It is said that when it died at the age of 55, the King was leaning against a tree, resting on his tusks.

Marsabit was a great stop and we explored its lush green forest and lakes without seeing any of Ahmed’s offspring but getting refreshed by its greenness before embarking on the final leg of our journey. We had still about 260 km of very corrugated road in front of us before we would get to the better road at Isiolo.

To Nairobi

Refreshed after so much greenery and with the full complement of fuel and repaired tires, we started our descent from Marsabit on the wide and corrugated road army-built that would eventually see us through to Isiolo. After a while we reached flat ground and we started meeting a succession of truly large herds of cattle moving north, we imagined towards Marsabit in search of greener pastures. There were thousands of animals being herded by nomadic people, probably Rendile.

After about 100 kilometres we passed Laisamis, a small settlement with a Catholic church dedicated to St George and continued our journey south with us leading the way. The driving on such corrugated road with a trailer was a new experience for us and a rather hard one as the trailer was still very heavy.

All went well for a long while until suddenly the trailer violently veered to the right forcing me to correct to the left to keep the car on the road and from then on I lost control and the next thing I remember is that we abandoned the road and started a mad race through broken terrain and thorn bushes until the car came to a halt by getting lodged into a low and very thorny acacia where we rested luckily still on our four wheels with the trailer at a right angle.

We, luckily managed to miss the deep “dongas” that crisscrossed the bush but we were lodges so deep inside the bush that we were not able to open the car doors. Luckily help, in the shape of Paul and his brother arrived soon and hacked the branches enabling us to get out of the car. “I saw a large cloud of dust and then you were gone” Paul said adding “I am glad that you managed to keep things on their wheels”. I replied that I had done nothing to achieve this as I have had no time to do anything once I lost control!

Regardless of how the despiste? took place it was a lucky one and, after quite a lot of maneuvering, we managed to get back on the road and resumed our trip with no obvious damage to the car or the trailer.

This time Paul went in front and we both drove carefully, having realized that things can go wrong in just a fraction of a second. The remaining 100 km passed very slowly but, eventually, we approached the familiar settlement of Archer’s Post.

Perhaps it was the anxiety of getting back or maybe he just forgot but Paul entered Archer’s Post quite fast and forgot that there were a few respectable bumps to slow the traffic down. He hit the first bump and, realizing that there was a second one, he tried to brake but still hit the second one rather fast with disastrous consequences.

Now it was our time to watch events from the rear and witnessed how, after hitting the first bump the u-bolts the hold the back axle to the car’s body went and the wheels were bouncing rather than turning. The second bump completed the damage by dislodging the axle completely and the car stopped with one rear wheel under the car and the other one behind at a right angle to the car!

We pushed the car to the side of the road knowing that we have finally found some serious trouble and, with the high-lift jack, attempted to lift the car and bring the axle to its original location. Among the tons of spares we had new u-bolts but, although we brought the axle back, we needed to lift the body and for that we needed a bottle jack that we did not carry with us!

Refusing to believe that we could not repair the car we wrestled with it fruitlessly for about an hour under the curious gaze of members of the public and having declined help from an African gentleman wearing a blue overall, probably a mechanic. We decided that we should borrow the essential jack from the Catholic Mission nearby but we went there and, being the end of the year holidays, no one could assist us.

Empty-handed and crestfallen we returned to the car to find that the ladies we had left behind, showing their practical approach, had discussed our situation with the gentleman with the overalls who had assured them that he fix the car. Beaten, we concurred and negotiated for assistance with him.

Once we agreed, the gentleman disappeared and returned with just three tools: the bottle jack, one large spanner and a long steel tube. We looked at each other with Paul and shook our heads. However, we decided to wait and see. It was immediately obvious that the man was indeed a bush mechanic and he knew what he was doing.

After removing the broken u-bolts with his spanner he lifted the body of the car with the jack and he used the steel tube as a lever to gradually align the axle until the new u-bolts could be fitted! So, after about an hour we were on the road again not without thanking the bush mechanic profusely and settling our account well beyond our earlier agreement.

Mobile again but unable to reach Nairobi on the day we decided to spend the night in Samburu National Park so we got to one of the camps near the entrance. We had a very pleasant surprise as our good friends François, Genevieve and her mother Paula were camping there and we joined them at their camp in Samburu to enjoy some of their fresh food and to share our tins with them!

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The survivors and friends at the end of the journey in Samburu Mational Park. From left to right: Francois, Paul. Else, Paul’s brother, Bushsnob, Genevieve, Mabel and Paula.

It was the 31 December 1986 and we started the New Year in the bush before continuing home the next day, this time with a smooth drive all the way to Nairobi.

 

 

 

At the cradle of mankind

We saw the camp way before we got there and, involuntarily speeded up to finally arrive and have a break in our journey. Our entrance was far from a triumphal one. We got to the camp near the shore of the lake where the track suddenly changed into deep sand and we got buried as our car was not able to pull the trailer in the sand. Despite unhooking it, it would not bulge and, worse still, when Paul tried to help, he got also stuck.

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Stuck on arrival at Koobi Fora.

Too tired to dig them out we decided to leave them for later when the day was cooler. So, we walked to the camp and did a few trips bringing our luggage. Luckily messages sent to the camp via the National Museum of Kenya had arrived and they were waiting us so our bandas were ready and very well equipped and comfortable so we could have a shower and relax during the rest of the day.

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Relaxing at camp.

Later on we decided to tackle the cars, more out of embarrassment than real need.

With the help of a few camp hands, we succeeded and we were ready to re-enter the camp now as a proper expedition, after a quick wash in the lake to freshen up. While digging our cars we learnt that the Koobi Fora sand spit was the best area for fishing and we had decided to try our luck the following morning and, with this in mind we had an early night as we were rather tired after a busy day.

Early the following morning we assembled the boat and a party ventured into the lake, heading for the sand spit as advised. The idea was to do trolling with our largest lures in search of Nile Perch or Tiger Fish as we had done in Lake Victoria, hoping to catch some sizeable fish.

We knew that the lake had a large population of crocodiles, some of them truly humongous, and that some of the lake dwellers hunted them [1]. Crocodiles were not new for us so, as usual we kept an eye for them but did not worry too much.

The sight that waited for us at the sand spit was as unexpected as frightening. The people at the camp had omitted that the place was the parking area where the they enyoyed their daily sunbathing. The whole length of the spit, between two and three hundred metres, was “green” with crocodiles.

In view of this unexpected and rather perturbing find, we decided to keep our distance from the area and fish some good distance away. As we approached the spit the crocodiles started sliding into the water, an even more unsettling situation as now we could not see them!

Despite this, we stuck to our plan and fished, perhaps at a greater distance from the sand as previously thought. We trolled along the spit and, every time we passed, the crocodiles -clearly with large mouths but small brains- kept jumping into the water only to climb back again on the sandy spit once we had passed! We trolled the whole morning but only caught a couple of small Nile perch and one Tiger fish. We were not impressed and decided to come back in the afternoon.

The lake has no outlet and water levels are kept by a delicate combination of the river waters, volcanic springs, rain (if it ever falls!) and evaporation. We noted that the water was a bit cloudier in this area, probably due to the entry of the Omo river from the north and we thought that this interfered with the fish seeing our lures. A good excuse for our failure!

The afternoon fishing, again, did not live up to our expectations and we only had a couple of bites but the fish got away. Busy fishing somehow we forgot the rather predictable crocs an we nearly came to grief when the boat shuddered violently and unexpectedly! A fraction of a second later, looking back we saw a commotion in the water and a large crocodile turned and showed itself clearly! The beast, I believe as shaken as us, crash-dived and disappeared.

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Sunset view of the sand spit and one of its occupants…

Luckily we did not hear any hissing so we assumed that the rubber dinghy was intact and, to our great relief, we saw no obvious damage. However, the crash shook us badly and, unanimously, decided that we had fished enough and that it was time to return to land doubting whether we hit the crocodile by chance or it came towards us with bad intentions or just got too close while having a look.

The crash with the crocodile rather than our rather poor fishing anecdotes dominated our conversation during and after the trip and, at the time, we did not of any one that had had a similar experience although today a few can be seen in YouTube.

That afternoon, after resting, we decided to have a swim in the beach shallows where we had seen people bathing earlier. While we were washing ourselves at dusk we detected a circle of red eyes at a distance and we withdrew rather fast from the water, ending our wash with buckets of water, quite away from the lakeshore!

Before we left Koobi Fora, we had a walk along the sand spit and, although we did not find any new hominids to make us famous, we saw the crocodiles from a different angle and we realized their true sizes and were rather impressed despite having seen many during our bush life. We also found lion footprints and decided that the wiser move would be to return to camp where we were informed that there was a lioness that “specialized” in hunting crocodiles.

That afternoon we packed our cars and got ready to start our return to Nairobi after a rather exciting time at the camp.

 

[1] Graham, A. and Beard, P. (1990). Eyelids of Morning: Mingled Destinies of Crocodiles and Men. Chronicle Books. 260p.

 

To the cradle of mankind – Background and preparations

Koobi Fora takes its name from a ridge located on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana in the territory of the nomadic Gabbra people and within the Sibiloi National Park. In Gabbra, Koobi Fora means a place of the commiphora and the source of myrrh [1].

The ridge contains mainly Pliocene/Pleistocene sediments (clay, silt and sand stones) that have conserved fossils of terrestrial mammals, including early hominid species.

In 1967 Richard Leakey’s flight to the Omo region the pilot flew over lake Turkana to avoid a thunderstorm. Although he expected the Koobi Fora area to be volcanic rock, he spotted sediments and later, during another visit by land, he saw tools and fossils that led him to establish the Koobi Fora Base Camp on a large sand spit projecting into the lake near the ridge.

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Lake turkana in Northern Kenya from a satellite. Credit: NASA.

In 1969 Leakey’s team found a cranium of Paranthropus boisei that created great enthusiasm. Three years later the skull of Homo rudolfensis (KNM ER 1470) was uncovered and after another three years a Homo erectus skull was found. (KNM ER 3733) and a second -intact- one in 1978 (KNM ER 3883). Leakey wrote a number of books on the subject of the evolution of man that made him world famous [2].

Leakey’s books were very popular at the time we were in Kenya and reading them was probably what hatched the idea of a safari to the area to see where the fossils had been found as an excuse to explore the area of lake Turkana, immortalized in the book “Journey to the Jade Sea” [3].

Lake Turkana, a brackish soda lake, is found in Northern Kenya where its 48 km of width, extends for 256 km from north to south in the border with Ethiopia. Volcanoes surround the green lake. Some like Nabiyotum Crater in Southern island are truly beautiful but there are several in the southern part of the lake where the Kerio and Turkwel Rivers enter it with fresh water.

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Some of the beautiful volcanic cones at the lake.

The lava flows surrounding the lake are often too hot to touch, the winds blow with gale force and the beautifully green lake was home to nomadic ethnic groups such as the Turkana and El Molo and it also offered -apparently- good fishing as well as a very large population of very large crocodiles!

We knew that the lake was rich in crocodiles (estimated at 22 thousand), fish, bird life and scenery, particularly its stark volcanic hills and still rather untouched by “civilization” so that Turkana fishermen did not need clothes! Count Teleki “discovered” it in 1888 describing it as with “beautiful water… clear as crystal…” but the name he chose, Lake Rudolf, is no longer in use.

The lake offered, therefore, a number of interesting challenges that we could not resist. Three factors influenced our decision, two were related to our friend Paul who, at the time was befriending Else, a lady working at the National Museums of Kenya and the visit of his brother from the UK. Through Else we got the green light to visit Koobi Fora so, the preparations for the trip could begin.

The third concerned to both Paul and I and it was the apparently amazing fishing that you could have in Lake Turkana as no one knew why Nile Perch there reached 90kg and over and the tiger fish fought so much!

We agreed that we would travel in tour two Land Rovers but when we estimated the amount of food, water and gear we would need, we despaired, as, although both cars had roof carriers, they would be too overloaded to withstand the expected rough journey. We were stuck!

However, Paul found a solution in the shape of a disused trailer that was at Muguga that he could use and that, importantly, it had the same tires than our cars. It was a long metal contraption looking (and being!) very heavy but it was our only option so we took it from the yard where old cars were kept for a sale that never took place, and towed to Paul’s house, our temporary centre of operations.

The journey would take several days and the planned itinerary would take us through Maralal, South Horr. Loyangalani, North Horr, Koobi Fora, Chalbi desert, Marsabit, Samburu and, finally, Nairobi

We were fortunate that Paul had a small gas fridge that would enable us to carry some perishable food for a few days although we added, apart from the normal cool boxes with normal ice packs, one with dry ice to be opened after a few days during the journey.

Mabel and Else developed the menus and food and they got involved in careful calculations so that we had enough eggs and bacon, cooking oil and fresh and preserved fruits as we were not sure of how much we could get on the way.

Luckily Mabel had by then accumulated good camping experience and we relied on her to do the planning. As time was very long and the area very hot, she decided to place our “last” fresh stuff in the dry ice cool box to be opened on day five. After these final supplies were over, it would be tinned food.

Apart from having the Land Rovers in the best condition possible according to their ages, Paul and I dealt with fuel and other car essentials as well as the necessary camping and fishing gear. We prepared our tents, sleeping gear, camping chairs and tables, making sure that all necessary bits and pieces were there, including mallets and spades as well as some charcoal for the areas where no firewood was obtainable.

The safari stuff mountain grew by the day and the inclusion of the fishing gear did not help. As this was considered as one of the highlights of the trip the rubber dinghy was added, together with engine and petrol. Aware that the lake harboured large fish such as Nile Perch and Tiger fish we took heavy fishing gear, hoping that it would be enough for the expected fish fights.

We also needed to carry sufficient water and fuel. Although we would be able to find both on the way, we settled for 80 litres of petrol. As far as water was concerned we only took 40 litres as the water of the lake was considered as mildly alkaline and drinkable in an emergency.

We took four spare wheels, as we could share them and we also collected what we thought was a rather comprehensive set of tools and a rather large assortment of essential spares that included everything we thought our cars might need during the estimated 3,200 km of the return journey, without counting local travel.

Security reports were essential before venturing into this area and we learnt that it was good at the time although the occasional incursions by bandits known as “Shiftas” could not be predicted. We decided that this was good enough and decided to risk it.

The final moment of truth came when Else got the permit to enter into the Koobi Fora area and use the accommodation that had been built there by Richard Leakey and the National Museums of Kenya. We had then, like Julio Caesar, crossed the Rubicon and there was no way back!

However, there was one more step before we were ready to go. We knew, from the experience of other visitors, that we should expect very strong winds, particularly in the vicinity of Mt. Kulal, the mountain of the winds! We decided that we needed a barrier and we borrowed a rather large and heavy lorry tarpaulin that we intended to use as a wind barrier by tying it between the two cars.

So, the Friday before our departure we decided to have a “Windbreak setting up rehearsal and dinner party” that had more of a party than a rehersal for the setting up of the tarpaulin!

However, afterwards, we felt we could handle the voyage.

 

[1] See: https://www.museums.or.ke/koobi-fora/ consulted on 21/11/19. My addition: Commiphora, is the most species-rich genus of flowering plants in the frankincense and myrrh family,

[2] Origins (with Roger Lewin) (Dutton, 1977); People of the Lake: Mankind and its Beginnings (with Roger Lewin) (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978) and Making of Mankind (Penguin USA, 1981) among others.

[3] Hillaby, J. (1973), Journey to the Jade Sea. Academy Chicago Publishers. 206 p.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Working in the Northern Fontier District

After my FAO Fellowship ended and I joined the ICIPE and my work shifted towards the understanding of the resistance that some cattle have against ticks. Some colleagues there were working on a tick vaccine while I was given the task of exploring the natural resistance that is observed among cattle in the field.

At the time there were reports of animals that were refractory to ticks while the opposite also happened, a few animals in the herd carried most of the ticks and culling them was recommended to reduce tick populations in the long term. We needed tp prove this in Kenya, in an area free of Theileriosis as the work demanded to stop the application of chemicals to kill the ticks.

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Beautiful Boran bull.

After discussions with colleagues and with the agreement of the Government of Kenya’s veterinary authorities it was agreed that we would focused our work on Mutara Ranch in Laikipia District where the Agricultural Development Corporation had the National Boran Stud. They were prepared to let us work on a group of one hundred young bulls to determine their resistance status.

After the trial preparation period we started with the work that lasted for six months. We got a number of interesting results that confirmed the hypothesis that tick distribution in the herd was normally distributed with a few bulls carrying few and lots of ticks while most were somewhere in between.

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Working. From left to right Mark, Henry, Joseph, Bushsnob, Gitau and the other Henry.

So, we decided to compare our list of best ranked bulls for tick resistance with those of the Farm Manager for physical quality and body built. Our best animals for tick resistance did not match those regarded as best by the Manager! Although this was not what we expected and a disappointment as it was clear that selection would take a longer route than anticipated, the geneticists and statisticians unanimously agreed that the consistency of the results merited continuation[1].

We then entered in collaboration discussions with geneticists from Texas’ A&M University in the United States to expand the work and, with them, planned a series of follow-up trials. Unfortunately, the research group dispersed and myself and another of the collaborators departed from Kenya and the work stopped there.

In addition to doing very interesting work, my regular visits to Mutara gave me a great opportunity to explore some areas of the Northern Frontier District, a fascinating area that I mentioned in my previous post. These safaris follow next!

 

[1] Results of the work are published and those of you with a scientific mind can access the publication. See:https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337857245_Towards_the_selection_of_cattle_for_tick_resistance_in_Africa

 

The Northern Frontier District (NFD)

A decision made in 1925 by the British Colonial Office in London turned the NFD of Kenya into a buffer zone, to curb the influence of a southern influx from the horn of Africa of both Muslims from Somalia and Christians from Ethiopia. The buffer zone excluded all European settlements and missionaries.

When Kenya became independent in 1963, the Somali-inhabited areas included in the NFD struggled to unite with the Somali Republic resulting in the detention of its leaders by the Kenya Government. Severe unrest followed known as the “Shifta period”. During this time the area was closed to visitors until the end of the 70’s due to security concerns but, by the time we arrived, it had been open for a couple of years without known incidents.

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Kenya’s agroecological zones showing the predominance of semi-deseric and desertic areas.

The region had a semi-arid and hot desert climate with infrequent rains that vary on a yearly basis. The exception being the extremely fertile southwestern area where the Tana River supplies water to farmers. The NFD was a massive wild area combining small farming communities, huge private ranches, and conservation projects within Samburu and Maasai lands. It extended further north to even wilder lands and deserts with some little known people such as the Turkana and El Molo to name some.

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Samburu manyatta.

This was the country that Wilfred Thesiger trekked while he lived in Kenya [1]. Thesiger, who passed away in 2003, is often referred to as the last of the old-time explorers, having lived a life reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling and Lawrence of Arabia. He lived in Maralal until his final days.

The NFD still offered a real sense of freedom and adventure and the far away northern views of Mount Kenya reminded us that we were far away from home! Wild animals still roamed outside protection areas. Several species of gazelles, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, Somali ostrich and all kinds of predators including hyenas, lions and leopards were still in sizeable numbers and elephants were abundant.

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Ol Olokwe, a dominant feature in the southern part of the NFD.

It is not possible for me to describe all the places that the NFD had to offer to avid visitors like us. We visited a few great places but the privilege of traveling across arid and hot lands inhabited by people that still kept their -for us- amazing traditions while being able to find wild animals anywhere were an irresistible offer.

We had enjoyed visiting the Samburu region protected areas (Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba National Reserves) and enjoyed them as, like Tsavo, these offered a different environment that it was new to us.

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A black-bellied bustard at Samburu.

Luckily, not too long after having visited the NFD I winded down my work at Intona Ranch in the Transmara and started working on the resistance of Boran cattle to ticks at a ranch in Laikipia. This change in the geographic focus enabled us to combine the work with travel in the area.

It was like this that, apart from re-visiting the Samburu region we also traveled to Wamba and the Kerio river valley (see https://bushsnob.com/2019/12/31/spanning-the-kerio-river/) and, later on, organized a safari that included Koobi Fora in the eastern shores of lake Turkana via Maralal, the Chalbi dessert and Marsabit as well as a camel trip along the Milgis River, a beautiful watercourse that winds its way through the Matthew’s Range and the Ndoto mountains.

I will, in the next posts, deal with the places and activities mentioned.

 

[1] Thesiger, W. (1994). My Kenya Days. London: Harper Collins, 224p. He has also written two classic books of travel and exploration, “The Marsh Arabs” and “Arabian Sands,” and a engrossing autobiography, “The Life of My Choice.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spanning the Kerio river

In the lake Baringo area the Kerio, one of the longest rivers in Kenya, coming from the Amasya Hills (on the equator) and west of lake Bogoria, flows towards the north through the fertile Kerio valley between the Tugen Hills and the Elgeyo Escarpment. It continues its way to the north through semi-arid country where it has carved narrow valleys, some very deep. Then, it enters in the southern end of lake Turkana. Together with the Turkwel river it contributes to almost all the river water that flows into lake Turkana.

The information we got was that one of the gorges known as the Cheploch gorge was so narrow that it could have a leg on each side while watching the river gushing through on its way to lake Turkana! We thought that it was a good reason to explore an area we did not yet know.

So, once we were in lake Baringo, we extended our trip and drove about through Marigat and Kabernet to reach the “famous” gorge. Marigat, our first populated area after about 20 km was then a small and dusty town inhabited by people from the Tugen, Njemps and Pokot communities who are mainly pastoralists. We passed it and went on to Kabarnet, 40 km further on where, despite sounding like a wine-producing area, we did not see any vines, unless they used papayas for the brew!

It was in the road from Kabarnet to Iten that the Cheploch gorge was found, just after the village of Ainamoj where the road crossed the river. The river had really carved a very deep gorge, estimated at 70m deep and very narrow, but not narrow enough to span it and even if it would have been, looking down at the river’s strength, I would have declined the offer!

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The gorge at the time of our visit. Looking at the picture today, I thought I could have spanned it!

However, the gorge was indeed amazing and the trip worthwhile as it took us to one of the “secret” areas of Kenya at the time.

While writing this post I learnt that, after our departure, an “industry” had developed by local people not to help you to span the river but of divers offering to jump from the edge of the gorge for a fee!

A rather different seen today!

Although in 2016 the Government stopped this activity after one of the divers died [1], it resumed a while later and it is still taking place as there are videos dated May 2019 that show the jumpers in action as there are visitors that continue to pay to see people risking their lives!

 

[1] See: https://allafrica.com/stories/201601190899.html Accessed 21/11/19.

 

 

 

 

Samburu and Buffalo Springs

Less than one quarter of Kenya can be considered as fertile land, the rest are dry areas ranging from dry bush to straight desert. Apart from the dry and sem-dry areas in the south, the north occupying almost fifty percent of Kenya is arid and with much less human presence when compared with the fertile areas.

It is in these areas that you find a number of pastoralists that keep livestock and, together with them there is wildlife, some of it unique to this area. A number of protected areas were created to keep these animals among which the gerenuk (Litocranius walleri) and the endangered reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata) and Grevy’s zebras (Equus grevyi) are the stars.

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Credit: http://www.kenya-travel.org/kenya-parks-and-reserves-kenya-safaris © copyright All right reserved. Photo Andre Brunsperger.

Although Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves were the most visited, there were others such as Kora, Marsabit and Lake Turkana National Parks (the latter including Sibiloi National Park, Central and South island) and the Shaba National Reserve that we also visited but more on that later.

Whether you passed east (via Embu) or west from Mt. Kenya (via Nyeri) the trip was fascinating. You first will drive through the very fertile areas located in the then Central Province such as Murang’a and then start a climb that will take you through the cold slopes of the mountain from where you will then catch the first glimpse of clear skies. A stop to take in the view was a must but it had to be accompanied by putting on warmer clothes and even a rain-proof jacket for a few minutes while admiring the view as cold drizzling was common there!

The view was breathtaking as the arid scrubland speckled with kojpes extended as far as the eye could see anticipating warmth while you were still freezing. You were looking towards the Northern Frontier District and beyond, many hundreds of kilometres away there will be the borders of Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. The road would then start its downhill way and soon you would remove your added layers of clothing and eventually reach Isiolo.

I always considered Isiolo as the gateway to the north as well as the end of the tarmac. It was not more than a few buildings that included a market, a mosque, a church a bank and a craft training centre. It was the last town of any size to refuel and, if lucky, buy those things that you may have forgotten to pack in Nairobi, now 270 km to the south. At the time we did not require special permits to proceed as the Shifta (rebels) were calm.

From then to the north you would join a very wide, reddish and straight, army-like, road that had bad corrugations, seemingly endless. This road would take you through an area that was home to several northern pastoralist ethnic groups that managed to keep livestock in this harsh environment in particular the Samburu, close relatives of the Maasai.

The Samburu had been drawn to this region by the existence of the Ewaso Ng’iro, northern Kenya’s biggest river, for watering their herds. This large river -for Kenya standards- and its tributaries flow north -through Laikipia- from the Aberdare range and Mount Kenya in the central highlands. The Ewaso Ng’iro then turns east before dropping out onto the sandy plains of the Samburu ecosystem from where it continues through the semi-desert to end in the large and seasonal Lorian swamp.

The wildlife is plentiful here as several species of game congregate in the thick acacia and doum palm (Hyphaene thebaica) forest along the riverbanks to drink and enjoy the shade. With emphasis on the protection of the river, the Samburu (104 km²), Buffalo Springs (131km²) and the less well-known Shaba National Reserves were created.

At Samburu we invariably camped by the Ewaso Ng’iro River, close to the Samburu Game Lodge that was located at a sandy beach in the site where the elephant hunter Arthur Neumann’s [1] camp was located. The lodge was as luxurious as handy for us as we could use its ablutions facilities when returning from our dusty and hot game drives.

The lodge also had a bar overlooking the sandy and shallow river that meandered through where several crocodiles were seen basking under the sun during the day. We used to come for a drink in the evenings and soon understood the relatively close positioning of the crocs, they were fed huge chunks of meat and about a dozen would come to grab them a couple of metres from the patrons. The latter were separated by a wall about one metre high where a sign on our side said “Danger crocodiles” and on the other “Danger people”! A couple of these crocodiles were among the largest I have ever seen and clearly dominated during feeding time.

The lodge hanged a goat carcass at a platform up a large tree, an offering to leopards that unfortunately never made an early appearance as we needed to leave at dusk to get to our camp before nightfall. However, we did hear them often at our camp located quite close from the lodge.

Open bush country dominated most of Samburu but there was a riverine forest made of acacias, figs and doum palms fifty to two hundred metres wide along the river. The river snaked through, often shallow with clear sand banks so that large animals could wade it quite easily while hippos and crocodiles place themselves under riverside overhangs. Elephants often dig wells in the dry riverbed to find water, wells that are shared by other wild animals as well as the Samburu domestic herds in times of drought.

There was a magnificent game drive that meandered along together following the river during which at every turn was a surprise, particularly herds of waterbuck, elephants, reticulated giraffes and other interesting animals not to mention many interesting birds such as Black-capped sociial and chestnut weavers, Golden-breasted starlings, Palm-nut vultures, Red-bellied parrots, Rosy-patched bush-shrikes, Von der Decken’s hornbills and Vulturine guinea fowls to name only a few.

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Vulturine guinea fowl.

It was also not rare to find herds of camels, sometimes intermingled with wild game such as waterbucks, in the fringes of the park!

To get to Buffalo Springs we would drive through the semi-arid area of the park where we would find Beisa oryx, Grant’s gazelles, Dik-diks, Gerenuk, Grevy’s zebra and Reticulated giraffes, the latter often seen necking.

Predators were present but difficult to spot although we found lions rarely and we were lucky to find a Grant’s gazelle killed by a cheetah female and cubs.

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Cheetah family with Grant’s gazelle kill. A lucky find in thick bush.

Buffalo Springs “special” was a natural fresh water pool of crystal clear water where it was a great pleasure to swim to cool off and leave behind some of the dust accumulated during the day.

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Enjoying the pool at Buffalo Springs.

It was a popular place, frequented by lot of visitors and the stream feeding it was very small. It then seemed to us amazing that crocodiles could be found there. However, that was exactly what happened to the young son of a Muguga veterinarian colleague in 1972 that, while walking around the spring, was grabbed by the leg by a -luckily- small crocodile. The fast reaction of the parents that fended off the attacker saved the son that, despite this, needed quite a long treatment in Nairobi to recover from the badly lacerated leg [3].

 

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Henry_Neumann

[2] Unfortunately the formerly natural swimming pool is now closed due to the presence of the occasional crocs and the presence of predators by the waterhole.

[3] See: http://www.crocodile-attack.info/node/5681

 

 

 

 

3WD!

We first visited Meru National Park invited by our friends Ken and Betty and, as we still did not have our own car, travelled -with our friend Ranjini- in the back of their Land Rover. Despite this, our excitement at being able to get out of Muguga House as well as exploring Kenya, made the trip quite bearable.

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Ken (right) and Robin and his wife Janet (back) discuss the route while Mabel enjoys the open air drive!

Meru National Park was located east of Meru town, 350 km from Nairobi with an area of 870 km2. It was a well-known park with plentiful rainfall resulting in abundant grasslands and swamps where rich wildlife roamed, particularly elephants, buffalo, reticulated giraffes, gerenuk and the rare gravy zebras, apart from the usual large carnivores.

Our start was not auspicious! Our friends had booked the Leopard Rock bungalows by the Murera river but forgot to bring the voucher that proved it! After a long discussion we assured the camp manager that we would vacate the place if other visitors arrived with the same bookings we had. This argument worked and we were finally allowed in and spent the weekend there as no one came, of course.

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It was a short trip and its highlight was a long drive to the Tana river where we had a couple punctures on the way but, luckily, we carried two spare wheels and all needed tools. I also recall that, for some foolish reason, we walked across a shallow area of the river and I saw a small greenish fish swimming past my legs. When I realised that it was a small crocodile, I hastily retreated to dry land while warning the rest of the waders that followed my example!

Once a stronghold for elephants, by the time we visited they were getting scarce although we still saw them in large numbers but, according to our friends, their numbers had declined. At that time, if any black rhinos remained there must have been well hidden in the hills although I even doubt that!

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What we did see were some of the reintroduced white rhinos that were being herded by armed rangers during the day and penned at night to protect them against poachers. They were rather tame and behaved like cattle so we took the opportunity to collect some interesting ticks from them!

A while after this first visit we learnt about George and Joy Adamson and Elsa and that they had raised the lioness in Meru National Park and this added another interest to re-visiting the park: to find the former “home” of George and Joy Adamson.

Despite gaining worldwide fame because of Elsa the lioness that Joy immortalized in her books “Born Free”, “Living Free” and “Forever Free” that narrate Elsa’s life. Joy was an amazing painter that travelled all over Kenya painting the various ethnic groups and her beautiful portraits are on displayed at the Kenya Museum.

She married George Adamson, known as “Bwana Game’ with who she shared part of her life until they parted company. Joy went to Shaba where she was working with leopards until she was eventually and sadly killed in 1980 by a former worker. George settled in Kora National Park for many years until he was also sadly killed by poachers in 1989.

We enjoyed the place and decided to go there again. This time we camped near the Leopard Rock where we had stayed before. Our camp was simple as we only had managed to acquire the basic items but it was enough for our needs at the time.

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The aim of the trip, apart from exploring the park further, was to find Joy Adamson’s camp and Elsa’s grave. As we only had general directions, we set off early, as we were not sure of how long it would take us to drive almost to the farthest area of the park.

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Map of Meru National Park. Credit: http://www.kenya-travel.org/kenya-parks-and-reserves-kenya-safaris © copyright All right reserved. Photo Andre Brunsperger.

At first the going was good as we were on the main road to the southeast but soon we entered a narrow track that did not seem to be very much used. This did not surprise us because the Adamsons had been there several years before and not many people was clearly visiting the park and even fewer of them travelled in this direction.

After driving through a typical MMBA (More and More of B… Africa!) road that seemed endless for about four ours we stopped for a lunch break. We pondered our situation and and decided to continue for another hour and, if we still did not find anything, to admit defeat and start our return to base. Three quarters of an hour passed when we came to a steep descent leading to a dry riverbed that we could not climb and we found ourselves buried in deep sand.

meru stuck - MC

The kombi was very good in many respects but rather hopeless in sand so all we could do was to dig! Before we started to work we had a very good look to the riverine bush to make sure that there were no dangerous surprises there. Once we checked, we got to remove sand under the wheels by hand. We then lifted the car and placed the spare wheel underneath to get some grip. So it was dig and lift, move the car a few centimetres forward, dig some more, lift and move some more until we were close to success when, with a loud “crack”, the jack screw snapped, clearly abused by so much use!

There was no question of lifting the car by human power so all we could do was an all out effort to move forward. Aware of the importance of this really “final” attempt, we removed all obstacles from our wheels and placed lots of branches in front of them to gain some more traction and, with Mabel pushing hard, I accelerated remembering to keep the wheels straight.

The car hesitated at first but then it somehow gripped firm ground and we managed to climb to the other side of the steep crossing. Elation was still pending as we were now free from the sandy patch but on the wrong side of the river! Aware that we have wasted about two hours getting the kombi across the river and unsure of where we really were we, unanimously, agreed that it was wise to start of return to base if we were to arrive in daylight.

So we drove on until we found a spot where we could turn the car around safely and started our return and attempt to cross the river again! We approached it, stopped and went down to level up the road and tried to make it firmer and cleared it from stones and anything that could interfere with our crossing as well as filling in the deep ruts we had left.

Then we moved the car back a good distance from the crossing to gather good speed and went for it with seat belts on and Mabel hanging on for dear life. As planned we went down fast and hit the bottom of the river with a bump but still had enough momentum to cross the sandy patch and the the car had enough power to grip firm ground and climb the opposite bank before stopping somehow sideways among thorn bushes on the other side. We had made it through!

Despite the rough crossing the car showed no visible damage and we drove it back to the track to start our return journey. We now celebrated and toasted with water while rested to allow the adrenaline levels to return to normal before moving again!

After that it all went well but only for a couple of kilometres. Then I started noting that the car did not respond well to my steering movements and then I noted a puncture in the front wheel on my side! Clearly stopping among thorn bushes had a price. “On top of everything, we now need to change a wheel” I said but Mabel reminded me that our jack had broken!

We tried to lift the car to fit stones underneath but failed so we were now in real trouble and our only hope was that anothe car would come our way and help us to change the wheel. I was thinking that this was a hope rather than a real possibility when I had an idea…

We had suffered earlier when the kombi, being long, would bend when crossing a ditch diagonally, often ending up with a wheel in the air and inmobile. Although this was unimportant when a front wheel was concerned it would stop the car when a back wheel turned in the air and needed someone to jump on the fender to get the wheel to grip!

I decided to use this “frame-bending” ability that had annoyed me in the past to our advantage. I went for a 3WD!

I sat on Mabel’s seat and she went to back seat behind me so that the right side of the car had no passengers, hoping that this would keep the punctured front right wheel in the air! We prepared ourselves and tried it. The car responded well with only a few occasions that the wheel rim touched the ground due to some large pothole.

Encouraged by our first few metres, we continued slowly as I only had control over one front wheel. The going was slow but we were moving in the right direction while we hoped that we would not have another puncture! We crawled back to our camp well after sunset where we could not avoid an ear full from the rangers that became milder once we explained what had taken place and showed them how the wheel was!

The following morning, still on 3WD, we drove to the park’s workshop and the mechanics were quite amused to see us coming with the driver on the passenger seat!

The wheel was repaired as we carried a spare tube (the original tube was now black powder!). The few protruding wires of the tire’s steel belt sticking out in several places, including inside the tire, were nicely clipped and a patch placed to cover their endings and it became our temporary spare. In any case, with no jack, a spare would not have been of much use! Luckily we did not needed it and got home without further mishaps.

Years later we learnt that the available maps of Meru National Park like the one we carried were inaccurate as they had been prepared while the roads were being constructed. We felt somehow vindicated for not having found the Adamson’s camp.

We visited the park again with a large group of friends and camped by a beautiful river with clear waters where we swam in the shallows and fished. It was idyllic we thought during the first day and then at night we heard several gun shots and we got quite concerned as we realized that it was probably poachers going for the elephants.

That was our last visit and we learnt that gradually things deteriorated as many animals were lost to poachers. Sadly, in 1989 about thirty poachers came and gunned down in their pen five of the white rhinos we usually saw despite the rangers rather heroic defense that got two of them severely wounded.

Those were the bad days of Meru that extended well into the 90s. Then, things started to improve and in 2002, eight white rhinos were moved to Meru from private ranches in Kenya but, sadly, the poachers menace is still a real one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aberdares and The Ark

“The nearer to Nyeri the nearer to bliss” remarked Robert Baden-Powell, best known for having started the Boy Scout movement. In 1939 he and his wife Olave moved to a one-room cottage named Paxtu, now a small Scouting museum located on the grounds of the Outspan Hotel. He died two years later and was buried at St Peter’s Cemetery in Nyeri.

At that time the owner of Outspan also owned the Treetops Hotel, approximately 17 km out in the Aberdares Mountains, often visited by Baden-Powell and made famous when Princess Elizabeth became Queen on the night of 5 February 1952 and the renowned hunter Jim Corbett, her bodyguard at the time, wrote the now famous lines in the visitors’ log book: “For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen – God bless her”.

There was another well-known hotel in the Aberdares, the Ark, built literally in the shape of Noah’s Ark, and -like Treetops- beautifully situated overlooking waterholes in the Aberdares National Park.

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The Aberdares National Park is a part of the Aberdares mountains located east of the East African Rift Valley about 100 km north of Nairobi with an altitude of 2-4,000 metres. Established in May 1950, the park covers an area of 766 km2. Nicknamed ‘Scotland with lions’, the park is very rich on mountain peaks that go up to 4000 metres to its deep valleys where crystal clear streams run with numerous waterfalls, moorland, bamboo and rainforests at lower altitudes. The streams run through ranges that are often covered in mist and heaths and they have been seeded with trout.

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Although bongos (Tragelaphus eurycerus) were already a very rare sight, a number of other interesting species made up for this. Leopards -including black ones- were known to occur and lion had been relocated from cattle ranches further north. Elephants and buffalo were common and there were also giant forest hogs and a number of rare antelopes such as the suni (Neotragus moschatus) and the mountain reedbuck (Redunca fulvorufula).

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It was also a great place to see black and white colobus and sykes monkeys, apart from over 250 species of birds and it was common to spot black Augur buzzards as melanism was a feature of the park and we were very fortunate to see a black serval cat walking on the road in front of us.

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Black Serval.

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Melanistic form of Augur buzzard.

We usually camped at the park’s public campsites. These were frequently visited by very tame bushbucks that, interestingly for me at the time, carried heavy tick loads on their ears.

bbuck Aberdares copySome of the falls offered an opportunity of a refreshing shower that Mabel took often although I did not as the water was truly freezing for me!

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Towards the end of our stay we decided to try one of the lodges, either fame and character at Treetops or the more luxurious Ark. Because of availability we went for a weekend at the Ark. We booked a special -read cheap- package to stay two nights during the low season when more rainfall meant more water available and the game was less dependent on the artificially fed waterholes and saltlicks of the Ark.

The lodge was built in 1969 and many “famous” guests have stayed there: President Tito, Geraldine Chaplin, Peter Scott and Hugh Hefner to name a few. It also had it share of royalty as Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands and the Danish royal family.

We got to the Aberdares Country Club mid afternoon after driving from Nairobi. Although we spent a rather short time in it, we realized that it was worth of a proper visit and we did return later to enjoy its manicured lawns and gardens and to look at Rena Fennessy’s bird pictures [1].

After about an hour we were taken to the Ark by minibus and we arrived after 18 km driven through beautiful forest until we went through the Ark’s gate to enter the park. A short distance later we were left at the entrance of the hotel, a wooden walkway that brings you to the Ark.

It was a while before dinner so we settled in our room, small but comfortable. It had a system of communication through which you could be warned if something interesting arrived at the waterhole after you had gone to bed so you could decide whether to get up to go and watch or not.

After settling in it was time to explore the lodge. There were a number of areas where you could watch the water holes -at that time almost empty of interesting game- and we chose what we thought was the nicest to return later. It was a large window that allowed unimpeded views of the swamp and, those who so desired could also go outside to enjoy the view from a balcony.

While we explored the Ark we immediately realized that the stay was going to be memorable, but for the wrong reasons, a large school party had decided to fill lots of the lodge’s sixty rooms!

So, we had our dinner surrounded by children while the teachers and parents made frantic efforts to keep things under control but failing to do so, at least to my taste! I was quite upset thinking that I had paid good money to enjoy the place one time and found it full of kids, particularly when silence is critical in this kind of places that are in fact large and glorified game hides!

After dinner we marched to our chosen window onto wilderness only to find the room packed with kids shouting the names of the few animals that ventured out of the forest and into a very noisy water hole. Clearly only the desperately thirsty showed up!

We were a few adults in the lodge wishing to see special animals and all we could do was to exchange resigned looks with each other as the situation was hopeless! If we had any expectations that the children would go to bed early, they soon dissipated as they had come to enjoy the place their own way and were determined to stay awake to the bitter end!

As expected, we did not see much coming to the water that night and the next apart from some elephants and a few antelope that were always hanging about the water edge. We also realized that there was no point in complaining to the teachers as there was not their fault but that of the hotel managers that should not have mixed a large school party with a few paying adults.

As soon as we got back to Nairobi I went straight to the booking office of the Ark and, after presenting my case in rather strong terms, I was given a full refund for our stay. However, this did not really compensate for what we had anticipated to be a memorable stay and ended up being a disappointment. We did not return.

 

[1] Rena Fennessy created art for most of the post independent East African countries for about 25 years. She also drew birds and animals for field guides while creating her own artwork of East African wildlife and scenery. No much information is available about her. She lived in Nairobi and was possibly British.

 

Safari Rally

Soon after our arrival we heard about the Safari Rally, one of the yearly attractions that Kenya had to offer and that had been going since 1953 as the East African Safari Rally and as the Safari Rally from 1974, a few years before the breaking up of the East African Community.

Although we could not watch the race on our arrival in 1981 we learnt that the Kenyans Shekhar Mehta and Mike Doughty won it. The pair seemed unbeatable, as they had already won in 1979 and 1980.

By 1982 we had our car and we decided to follow the rally with daily trips to a couple of places near Nairobi as well as watch the cars arrive in Nairobi at the end of the rally. We studied the route of the three stages and selected areas near Kajiado and in the Kinangop plateau.

Without experience on watching races of this kind, we thought it wise to leave early to find a good and safe spot. We also carried our safari chairs and food and water to last us for the whole day. The rally was held when the long rains were meant to begin so you either had a dry or a wet rally. It was dry that year so our concern with potential mud traps did not came up until in later editions!

We learned a few things about the rally that first time. Seeking some excitement we searched for a place where we could see the cars coming from far and that, close by, would offer a bend or a culvert that they needed to do some exciting turning or a nice jump.

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A good and safe vantage point to watch the rally.

As we were in the selected area early, we had sufficient time to drive for a while until we perched on a high slope that offered a great view where we set up our camp and waited. Gradually the place started to fill up with other visitors in cars but also of people on foot coming from the surrounding areas. The latter really enjoyed seeing and hearing the powerful cars driving past as, in those areas there was no much traffic otherwise. I was also amazed that there were no accidents as people, unaware of the danger, placed themselves in large numbers in exposed spots, very close to the cars!

We waited for a couple of hours and then the crowd -quite a sizeable one by then- started to stir and soon we could also see the dust plume far away. The first car was coming so I prepared myself to take my first “speed priority” shot at a fast moving car from a good spot, near the road.

As the dust got close we could actually see the numerous and very strong lights that they carried and I had no doubt that the car coming was from the rally so I shot and got covered in dust at the same time! To add insult to injury, after the event I realized that it was a support car! Another lesson learnt: support cars look just like the real ones minus a number on the door!

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The dust of Altonen’s support car!

Eventually we watched the “real thing” or rather the first one of the race because, after the first car drove past, a succession followed in hot pursuit and the dust cloud got fed by each one of them and spectators’ visibility was severely reduced. I could not believe how the drivers could see the road, leaving alone trying to overtake! I took some poor pictures. Luckily, once the aces past, gaps between cars increased while speed decreased so we could actually see some of the cars!

Once most of the cars passed we could initiate our return home. We thought we had breathed and eaten dust but there was much more to come while driving home among a convoy of motorists doing the same. There were still some of the slowest cars coming and this added an extra touch of adventure to our trip.

Finally, the duo Mehta-Doughty won for a fourth time that year but our hearts were with Robert Collinge and Mike Fraser that were racing in a “normal” Range Rover! After a gallant race where they had all sorts of problems (I believe they hit a cow and lost their bonnet) but still they managed to arrive in 6th. place, a great achievement, still remembered in rally circles.

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The Collinge and Fraser’s Range Rover minus bonet going for the finish line.

Apart from the big rally teams, individual entries were also present and they relied on friends for repairs and to bring fuel and spares to strategic places in order to continue with the race! For those private participants just to arrive was a great achievement and we witnessed scenes charged with emotion when the crew of a private participant embraced celebrating their arrival at the end of the third stage, regardless of the position, with true sport spirit.

We did follow the rally in subsequent years but nothing compared to the first one in 1982 and we eventually stopped but not before having a test of a wet rally in 1985 where things dramatically changed as cars did not cover you in dust but in mud and water! A video below illustrates the point.

Credit: vipersan1 from Youtube.

During that rally we also learnt that it was one thing to drive through a muddy road before the cars passed and another very different and frustrating to try and return home with our kombi VW. We got stuck a few times! Things were not made any easier when some clever Kenyans started to “improve” existing potholes both lengthwise and in depth so that, once you fell in “their” mud trap, they would push you out for a small fee! African entrepreneurship at its best!