Northern Kenya

To the cradle of mankind – Getting there

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The area we traveled. Attribution: Rudyologist [CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Day 1 – Nairobi to Maralal

Not intimidated by the amount of stuff packed in and on the cars as well as on the trailer and full of enthusiasm we left Nairobi via Nyahururu with Maralal as our destination for the first night. A drive of over 350 km of which, about half would be done on tarmac, the last good road we would enjoy until our return to Isiolo.

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Paul coming with the trailer when things were still going well.

Slowly we left Nairobi and drove along the eastern wall of the rift valley towards the north and soon passed some of the landmarks we knew well, Mt. Longonot and Lake Naivasha. We passed Nakuru and reached Nyahururu from where we headed across the Laikipia plateau towards Rumuruti on a good dirt road. Once we passed the latter, the road narrowed as it started to climb towards the 1,965m of Maralal, unknown territory for us. Our excitement grew and things started to happen!

The combination of a heavy trailer being towed uphill in a hot climate started to take its toll and Paul’s Land Rover’s engine started to heat up. When I saw him flashing lights at us we stopped and, after seeing the situation, decided to wait for the car to cool down and then see what to do as we could not see anything obviously wrong. This happened about 30 minutes later and we decided to resume the journey.

After a few kilometres Paul stopped again and it was clear that the problem needed a more radical solution in order to -at least- reach Maralal. We could not lighten the trailer so we decided that we should tow it. Although our car was shorter, it was much newer and we hoped that it would be better able to withstand the effort.

Luckily the car put up with the extra burden and that is how I acquired the responsibility of pulling the rather large trailer all the way not just to Maralal but to Koobi Fora and back to Nairobi, learning on the job! The first thing I quickly got to terms with was that my driving style needed to change if we were to survive! Every time we braked, we could feel the trailer’s inertia pushing us and slow us down by severe jerks when we needed to accelerate. Gradually I got the hand of it and made good progress, all things considered.

Quite late that day we reached Maralal late and we set up camp with the aid of the car lights at the Catholic Mission. It was very cold and through the mist we caught a glimpse of the very old and somehow decaying cedar trees (Juniperus procera). This cedar is known as African pencil cedar, obviously from which pencils can be made. These trees were part of the highland mist forest, indigenous to Maralal mountain.

All the cedars were decorated with Old Man’s Beard or Spanish Moss (Usnea spp.) an epiphyte or plant that grows on another but not as a parasite. The area was renown for been forested by these species but there were not many left, at least around the area we were.

Although leopards were common, we did not see any while we spent a cold night and we were ready to go as soon as we felt strong the following morning.

Day 2 – Under Mt. Kulal

The following day we continued towards the southern shores of the lake. The road went down until we reached flat ground. On the way we turned into a small track sign-posted “World’s View” or a similar name. We were curious to see what it was but soon our curiosity turned into impatience, as the road was endless. We stopped and discussed our situation but decided to go to the bitter end rather than to turn around.

The long drive was worth its length and every shake we experienced not to mention the inhaled dust for, at the end of it, we were contemplating the southern tip of Lake Turkana, bright green against which rather recent volcanic cones were prominent. Southern Island could be seen far off towards the north as well. We were all speechless for a while and I believe that we were far too impressed to take pictures as I could not find any!

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Once we filled our eyes and minds with such an unforgettable view it was time to move on as we still have some kilometres to drive before arriving to our next stop by the shores of the lake. We retraced our route and eventually we got back to the main track, with the image of what we had just seen fresh in our minds.

The road turned to rough and sharp volcanic rock while we crawled towards the lake and, somehow, we went over a small hill avoiding large black boulders and we got to the lake. We left its shore on our left and continued on the black track that turned inland through dry bush for quite a distance until we could see a large mountain that we -correctly- assumed to be Mount Kulal.

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Shade booked by Turkana sheep and goats. No room for us!

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A Grevy zebra, a “special” of Northern Kenya.

With its 2,300m Mount Kulal dominated the landscape and we could just see its two peaks but in order to see its evergreen forest where cedar trees and lammergeyers are supposed to be found we needed a much closer approach that was not part of our itinerary.

Eventually the track turned left towards the lake and, again, we got to its shores in mid afternoon. We were still south from Loyangalani and there were sandy beaches. Tired we stopped to contemplate the lake and soon a group of Turkana came to greet us and to watch us from a distance. It was very hot so we had a quick swim -after checking for crocs- and then started preparing our camp.

It seemed that Mt. Kulal acted as bellows blowing very hot air towards the lake but we were prepared to protect ourselves from it. Or so we thought… As rehearsed in Nairobi our cars were parked parallel to the lake at about 10m from each other and then, once the tarpaulin was dug up from the depths of the trailer, we proceeded to assemble it.

We immediately realized the difference between setting it up in windless Nairobi as compared with the true hot gale coming from Mt. Kulal. After quite an effort from all five of us, we managed to tied it to the two vehicles and create a shelter although the wind was still passing under it and through the sides. I am sure the Turkana members of the public watching us had a good laugh about the antics of the bunch of “mzungu” [1] trying to get blown away into the lake instead of settling down!

We soon realized that we could not achieve the expected results and, as light was fading, with our pathetic wind breaker flapping loudly and constantly, we proceeded to organize our camp. However, after a few minutes we heard a ripping noise and our tarpaulin became a gigantic green flag flapping in the wind, held to only one of the cars.

We decided to untie it before it flew into the lake and drove the cars together across the wind and use them as a shelter. I am sure the Turkana visitors approved of that! Unfortunately camping was still difficult and, at some stage, following a particularly strong wind attack, all our light stuff including chairs and clothes flew off towards the lake, followed behind by our complete fire together with our pans, including their contents!

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After the struggle, the tarpaulin became our floor!

In view of the crisis, we had a tinned dinner and did not bother to put tents up but slept under the stars behind our cars putting up with the occasional gust of wind as it was a hot night. I still remember that I had difficulties to go to sleep as my hair (quite long then) kept hitting me on the face and eventually I needed to wear a cap to be able to stop it from bothering me! After that I managed some sleep.

Day 3 – Dry river-bed in Sibiloi National Park

Luckily, the following morning was windless and we could enjoy a very needed English breakfast. After short walks in the beach it was time to move on to cover the approximate 200 kilometers we had plan for the day.

We drove north and, somewhere after Loyangalani while driving close to the lake, we encountered a solitary mzungu walking in the opposite direction. He stopped us. He was a young man with severe sunburnt that just managed to ask for water despite his mouth being very dry and his tongue rather swollen. We gave him some of our water and filled his water bottle and, as soon as he got the water, without saying a word, he just walked off, ignoring our offers for help!

Still thinking about what this lone walker would have been doing there, we followed the road that at this point moved inland and then run parallel to the lake. After quite a long drive we go to the entrance of the Sibiloi National Park, created in 1973 for the protection of paleontology sites and wildlife. It is 1,570 km2 of semi-desert habitat and plains bordered by volcanic hills, including Mount Sibiloi.

Migrant waterfowl stop here and many of the more than 350 species of aquatic and terrestrial birds found at Lake Turkana can be spotted here together with zebras, Grant gazelles, lions, leopards, striped hyenas, Beisa Oryx, greater kudu, cheetahs and northern topi. Sibiloi is also a crocodile breeding area and the Turkana, the Gabra and the Dassanach ethnic groups surround it.

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Mabel at the entrance of the Sibiloi National Park.

After entering the park we stopped briefly to look at the rests of a petrified forest and, in the afternoon, we got to a dry river bed where we decided to go against the manual and risk the unlikely flush flood camping there on it as it offered a nice and soft sandy bottom, quite a change from our rocky and thorny surroundings and, most importantly, it offered a pleasant windless environment!

There we spent a rather pleasant night, again under the stars, as the temperature was still hot. The following morning, after another excellent breakfast, we broke camp and left for the next few kilometres that remained before getting to Koobi Fora.

 

[1] A term used in Kenya to refer to white people.

 

 

 

 

Wamba sweet tea

It was Paul’s idea to do what he called the Wamba circuit that was really a long drive passing through Wamba town to an area in the bush where we would find a suitable spot to camp and enjoy the vastness of the area, together with its wildlife.

The detail of how we got there escape me now but it was a very long drive from Nairobi past Isiolo and following the road to Marsabit National Park, turning west at Archer’s post on the way to Baragoi and, a while later we got to Wamba, a small town in Samburu County in central Kenya, located to the southwest of the Mathews Range, and northwest of the Samburu National Reserve.

We were thirsty when we got to Wamba and looked for a place where we could get a cold drink as we needed to fix some mechanical issues with the Land Rover. After driving through the town’s dusty roads under the late morning heat we found a place that had fridges and we went in hoping for a cold beer or, if not, even a cold soda could have done! The attendant took the order and came back with the drinks that were at about 40oC as there was no electricity and, as it is common in Africa, the fridges are used as cupboards! We were devastated and refused to drink them!

The waiter then offered us spiced tea and we accepted as at least it was meant to be a hot drink and it was water after all. What came, served in glasses, was probably the best cup of tea that I have ever drunk, an impression probably aided by the circumstances. It was very sweet and it tasted of true clove, cardamom and cinnamon. We drank lots of it and thanked (and tipped) the waiter for such a great tea and we were ready to go.

We drove on through a vast dry and extremely hot area with scattered rocky outcrops. As we had the whole area to ourselves, we chose one of the few places with some sizeable trees for shade and also with our “own” kopje that would also provide some additional shade, we estimated.

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“Aerial view” of our camp.

There we assembled our camp that consisted of the tents and a makeshift shade added to the Land Rover, as we were not planning to drive but to walk. As usual in these places, although one believes to be alone, this is far from true and about thirty minutes after we arrived we already had a “guard” of young Samburu boys standing by our camp with who we were, unfortunately, unable to communicate apart from offering them water and food! They came from an unseen manyatta nearby and they seemed happy to stay with us until just before sunset.

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Mabel under custody!

The following morning we decided to have “an English breakfast with a view” and, not without some difficulty, carried our fried and scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, fried tomatoes, toasts and butter! In addition we carried our thermoses of coffee and tea up “our” hill. Being hot helped to keep our food warm by the time we reached the top and we started eating once we found places to sit.

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“Our” rocky outcrop with Paul at the top.

We had the most magnificent view of the immense bush country extending in all directions below us. After a few attempts, I managed a picture of the three of us with our breakfast that placed us, I am sure, among the early pioneers of the present day selfies!

We were about our second bite when a mighty blast made the kopje shiver and almost took the plates from our hands! Truly shell-shocked we all looked to see if the car had blown up but, luckily, it was still there although our Samburu guards were nowhere to be seen.

Then, we saw a column of dust and smoke about five hundred metres from us and, then another explosion and yet another! Still on the kopje we checked with the binoculars and saw that the bushes were moving! Incredulous, we looked again and realized that camouflaged tanks and other army vehicles were coming through the bush towards us!

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The selfie before breakfast. The troop movement started later in the bush at the back.

Our first thought was that Somalia was invading Kenya and we went into a mild panic as the thought of being among the first prisoners of war did not appeal to us. However, as this would be unlikely, we decided to come down from our lookout and finish our now cold breakfast at camp to wait for developments with “a stiff upper lip” as were clearly outnumbered!

We did not have to wait long before a Kenya army Land Rover with soldiers in full combat gear arrived. Clearly they were surprised to find us there but they immediately realized that we were just campers, if a bit out of the ordinary for having chosen that particular area for our holiday!

They politely explained to us that we happened to be in an area that was used for joint Kenya-British army maneuvers and they just wanted to inform us of the situation and tell us that we could stay the night but it would be better for us to vacate the area next day as some live ammo was being used!

We stayed for the rest of the day surrounded by army trucks and infantry marches until it was time to leave, obviously, without having seen much of the area!

We returned to Nairobi through Rumuruti, Nyahururu and Nakuru and later we learnt that the land we camped in belonged to the Kenyan government and it had been used for military training by the Kenya Defence Forces and the British Army for many years.

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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