Congo what? Congo-Brazzaville!

Never in my wildest imaginations thought I would come here. I have been to Congo – Kinshasa many times, rather the big nation, The Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire). But the other Congo, The Republic of Congo, just across the might river has always been a vague entity.

But thanks to some business, I landed in Brazzaville, the capitol of the Republic of Congo.

The consulate in Nairobi gave me a visa in a record 30 minutes. The ladies in charge of the the visa section did not talk much. Took the documents, the fee and I was on my way.

I landed at Maya Maya airport and regretted skipping my college French lessons. Yes, they proudly speak French here.

Brazzaville is a pleasant city on the shores of River Congo. Across the river, you can see Kinshasa, the capitol of The Democratic Republic of Congo. It is actually a five-minute ride by a motorised boat between the two. The two cities are the closest capitols in the world.

At times I would have lunch or dinner at Mami Water, a famous restaurant and watch over the other city or fishermen in the river.

Brazzaville is small – well done streets and amazing architecture. One of its major features is the Pont du Août 5 bridge, a 560-metre cable-braced viaduct. It is a wonderful piece of art. And every Sunday they close the road to the bridge to all vehicle moment and let the people walk and enjoy. On this day, you will find families, joggers, lovers, photographers and choirs in practice.

On the southern part of the city stands the concave Nabemba Tower, the tallest building (30 storeys) in the country which rises from the banks of the river, loading over the city with magnificence.

But my eye popping moments are always in the markets and clubs. In the markets, I saw live and dead bats on sale. Yes, Ebola virus is not going away any time soon! I also saw massive worms on sale – big, succulent, fat worms! I was curious as to how they would taste once roasted. It is a delicacy and an important source of proteins here.

The people of this nation take things easy – polite, too. The Senegalese and other traders from the north (the Fulani) do most of the businesses. They literally run every part of Poto Poto, one of the major markets in Brazzaville.

My best moments here are at the street bars and restaurants. At the end of the day, they seem to pop out of nowhere. It is amazing to watch how evenings turn out where people set tables and seats outside their homes and have a good time.  Of course, the hot and humid weather makes it a necessity to do this in the evening.

For international shoppers, sorry – Brazzaville has few options. There are only two malls. A few hotel brands like the Radisson Blue and Michaels are present – you will find an expatriate crowd here.

For an East African, I finally found out the meaning of Lingala music – yes, here, it runs in blood and they can dance!

My First Flight after ET302 and Africa’s Emotional Connection with Ethiopian Airlines

The flight was tense. The passengers politely sat back as if awaiting a disaster to happen. A passenger on my left had a bible at hand, praying quietly.

I was aboard an Ethiopian Airlines plane a few days after the tragic crash of their Boeing 737 Max 8 which killed all on board. The ill-fated ET302 flight connecting Addis Ababa and Nairobi, Kenya, crashed six minutes after take-off killing 157 occupants on March 10.

I was traveling from Congo Brazzaville to Zimbabwe but the drama of flying in Africa meant several connections and a night in Addis Ababa (which I didn’t mind). The first stop was Ponte-Noir, a port city at the Atlantic Ocean near the Angolan enclave of Cabinda.

The landing was rough and a few passengers screamed! Was it the pilot or an uneven runway? I don’t know.

The point is, this was an emotional flight. It is an emotional connection to an airline that Africans have come to love. We love Ethiopian Airline because it represents what a great Africa could be. It represents excellence.

Ethiopian Airline has become a shining beacon in a continent where management of large corporations can sometimes look dodgy.

In the 90s and early 2000s when pan African airlines started to falter, leaving most of West Africa in confusion, Ethiopian Airlines stepped in and connected the region to the rest of the continent and the world.

While its major peers and competitors (Kenya and South African Airways) continue to suffer under incompetent management, making losses and seeking government bailouts, Ethiopian Airline is thriving with efficiency. So how can we NOT love this airline?

When the news of the accident broke out, it actually broke the heart of Africa. We mourned from every nation, ethnicity and language.

More importantly, what the rest of the world missed during the tragic accident is that those who died are not just passengers on fun travel. They were Africa’s best brains – children, pilots, scientists, sports-people, business-people, engineers, journalists and doctors.

Most Africans who travel in the continent are not tourists but problem solvers – gifted people who are working all around to solve problems facing our continent.

So, we can’t forgive Boeing for what it did. This is a costly price that Boeing can never have enough money to pay for.

Fuck Boeing!

Over the last eight weeks, I travelled extensively with the airline and seeing its planes lined up at various airports across the continent is such a source of pride.

Rakesh Young: Bike-packing to Kenya’s Equator and Beyond

Rakesh Young

Nyambari, Uplands to Mogotio is approx 154km from Nairobi. I had planned to only ride to Nakuru but when I got to Nakuru at 3.30pm, hungrier than a hippo, I realised it was too soon in the day to end my ride – the sunset still three hours away. I tried looking for some kibandasky (street eatery) to eat at but found none,. so I rode to Naivas supermarket and went straight to their food sections. I got cashew-nut rice and two chicken drumsticks with some stew. The damage is five times what a typical Kibandasky meal would cost and it was a little on the spicy side. But I was full.  

By this time, it was 4.30pm and according to google maps, I had 42km to Mogotio. I’ve been on this road before, so I remembered the long climb out of Nakuru towards Kabarak. But with cashew nut, rice and chicken in my system, there was no stopping me. Some school kid on a black mamba tried to catch up and overtake me…bad idea!

So I get to the Equator crossing at Mogotio with the very last rays of the sun. There’s a way sunsets make everything look ever more beautiful – the wheat, sisal and grass fields. Even I, with my salty face, looked very beautiful! 

Since my phone was already off, I took photos with the camera. Then I went into the Baringo County Tourism Information Centre where they have a metallic globe depicting the world and how it spins on its own axis. Took more photos here with no one in sight and started contemplating pitching my tent right under the globe for the night, but there were two problems:
1. There was no place to shower
2. The nearest restaurant is in Mogotio town, probably 2km back.

Enter Kirui, a young boy, probably 14 – 15 years old. Well spoken, respectful and knowledgeable. He laid down the options for me: behind the globe is a slaughter house with tap water but no one in sight (so I can bathe there and still camp under the globe); 2km down the road is Lozich Bar & Restaurant with well kept lawns – I can possibly pitch my tent there and eat at the restaurant. I chose Lozich. I’m yet to get a hang of this wild camping thing.

I rode down the remaining stretch in partial darkness to Lozich. Sam Kibiko calls me wondering if I made it to Mogotio and after a few minutes I cut him short promising to call back after I’m settled in my new home. I went straight to the butchery section which is also the reception and put across my needs: a place to pitch my tent, water to bathe and food…please! (of course I’m prepared to pay but I don’t say this just yet). The lady in charge goes towards the back to look for the main man, Alex, who makes the decisions around here.

Enter Alex, a bespectacled gentleman – humble and soft-spoken but stern in his own way. His first reaction is that, it is not possible for me to camp here. Why? There are a number of reasons: he doesn’t know me, there are dogs wandering the place, what will his boss say if he sees my tent there.

I sensed that he was a little scared of something but couldn’t spill it just yet. So I tried to calm him down telling him my name (doesn’t always help in these situations), how I’ve cycled from Nairobi and I’m possibly going to Iten, I’m a Christian boy (not), all I need is a 4 by 6 space on the grass, a bucket of water and I’ll buy my dinner and drinks from them. Still undecided, he excused himself to discuss further with his colleague. I take this chance to stretch my sore muscles. Stretching after a long ride sure helps with recovery, just as much as a warm shower, good food and rest.


He returned after ten minutes with some good news and terms and conditions. He’ll allow me to spend the night here but not outside, in a room (there goes my camping dream again but I don’t complain). He will also go through all my stuff, thanks to the latest bombings in Nairobi where I have come (thanks a lot terrorists!!). He will also store my bike away from where I will be sleeping. I will also have to give him my National ID (I added him my High School ID just to prove my genuineness). 

I obliged to all the terms and took his bed (he said he’ll make other arrangements for himself). The entire time he kept apologizing for the above terms, but I understood. I took a lukewarm bucket bath under the stars – it was magical…and reminded me of why I hated bathing when I was ten. They shared their dinner with me so that I save my money for future expenses on the road.

Rakesh Young is a Kenyan adventure cyclist who uses his bicycle(s) to traverse the East African region connecting with people of different cultures and lifestyles. He is the founder of www.baiskeliadventures.com.

How a 24-year old Samburu Warrior Captured Images of Kenya’s Black Leopard


Letoluai Ambose, Research Assistant, Sandiego Zoo Global

The story of a black leopard being allegedly seen in Kenya for the first time in 100 years broke out this week – but a young Samburu warrior is really the silent figure behind the discovery.

“The remote camera that I helped set up started capturing images of the black leopard from January 2018. I have many images and videos of the animal,” Letoluai Ambrose, a Research Assistant with Sandiego Zoo Global told me. He seemed perturbed by the interest that the leopard has received from all over the world since last week.

Letoluai Setting up remote cameras

Letoluai, 24, grew up in Koija near Loisaba Conservation. He studied wildlife science at Kenya Wildlife Service Training Institute and returned home to support conservation efforts.

He was hired by Sandiego Zoo Global as a research assistant in a project that studied the behaviour of leopards in the Laikipia plateau. Part of this research is finding ways of mitigating the problems that leopard cause within the pastoralist communities.

During his interaction with the community, he heard about the presence of black leopards.

“At first I did not believe what they were telling me since historically we have been hearing such stories from old people,” he said.

At a later date, an elder asked him “Why don’t you capture the big black one in Lorrok area with your cameras?” He also confirmed with the owner of Lorrok ranch about the sighting.

He wrote an email to his boss and fellow scientist, Nicholas Pinfold, about the presence of the black leopard and they agreed to place trap cameras with hope of capturing images.

The activities of the black leopard started appearing in the cameras and a paper about its presence was published here.

The black leopard that has been captured since Jan 2018.

But the leopard became famous when Letoluai was requested by the owner of Lorrok Ranch to take a British photographer Will Burrad-Lucas to see the leopard. He showed the photographer where to place his remote cameras.

“Will Burrad captured quality images but the media should not state that he found the leopard. He was only here for three days,” Letoluai mused.

Letoluai states that no individual can take credit for research findings because so many people are involved in the activity.

”Were it not for that elder, the local rangers, the landowner and the involvement of scientists from Sandiego Zoo Global, we would not have made this discovery. Everyone had a role and no one person can claim credit,” said Letoluai.

Some sections of the media have claimed that this was the first time that a black leopard has been seen in Kenya in 100 years but to the contrary, the cats have been sighted many times in different parts of Kenya.

Author: John Kisimir – jkisai@gmail.com

The Marvel of Kenya’s Hell’s Kitchen

The spectacular Marafa Depression, also known as Hell’s Kitchen, is a sandstone canyon outside of Malindi, Kenya. 

Into the Unknown: Hike to the Everest Base Camp

Do I stop walking in the middle of nowhere because I just cannot take any more step or do I keep pushing, even though it’s becoming physically impossible? Is it my mind that’s giving up or my legs?

What will my parents say if I fell down from a 400 feet see-through suspended bridge in the Himalaya? How will this make sense to them? They know I’m very adventurous but wouldn’t this be a little too much?

Why am I here? What is it about mountains and the outdoors that I cannot get enough of?

Don’t forget to be on the mountain side when Yaks (long-haired domesticated bovid)  pass by.

I wish I was on my couch.

Oh God, get me to safety!

These and many more were some of the thoughts that were going through my mind when I was experiencing physical and mental exhaustion as I have never had before during my Everest Base Camp trek in Nepal.

My trek started out with an exhilarating flight from the capital Kathmandu to Lukla. Lukla airport is one of the most dangerous airport in the world because of its short, treacherous runway on a steep cliff. So, the first relief of the multi-day journey starts with landing safely at Lukla airport. Then begins the grueling, 90 miles (154 km) round-trip trek to Base Camp at a very high altitude, where the air gets thinner with each elevation gain .

Everything started out great. I was feeling strong, great pace, enjoying the extraordinary view, making new friends, counting my blessing, and just soaking it all in until half way through the trek where I got the flu because of the extremely cold temperatures at night (-20 to -10) and sanitary conditions at the tea houses. (Tea houses provide accommodations for trekkers. They are run by locals and all trekkers basically have to stay there at different stations along the route).

At the Everest Base Camp

I do relatively ok at higher altitudes so I wasn’t having altitude sickness but was suffering from cough, sore throat, headache, lost my appetite, and had no energy to keep on (lost 10lbs (4.5kgs) on the trek, I can’t really complain about that).

I observed that the trekking industry in Nepal is so unregulated that it’s actually dangerous for the many tourists that visit the region. Many of them get sick, some lose their lives, and many feel drained so much so that they vow not to ever go back again.

I remember thinking, I cannot return without accomplishing my goal. Turning back was not an option I wanted to consider. I thought I will be so disappointed at myself that I decided to push through the difficulty. Happy to say, I made it!

Himalayan mountain range is the highest mountain range in the world. In this range, Mountain Everest is the tallest mountain. Therefore the Himalayas is a range of mountains while Sagarmatha (the “mountain that touches the sky”) or, Mt. Everest, is one mountain.

Everest Base Camp at 17, 600 feet (5,365 meters) is the gateway to Mt. Everest. It’s one of the most surreal and unique places I have ever been. It felt remote, dangerous, but exciting and beautiful at the same time. I was lucky to get there early before other trekkers so I had Base Camp for myself for 2:30 hrs before the crowd. I wanted to stay longer but I needed to get to a lower altitude for me to feel better. Despite the physical exhaustion, I realized that the only way I was able to make it was because of an unexplainable desire and determination to fulfill my goal.  

I have had so many favorite moments throughout my journey. Seeing Mt. Everest for the first time in a clear sky and wonder what it would mean to be up there, looking at the stars at night over  Everest from Kala Patthar, being able to cross those insane, see-through, wobbly, suspended bridges (personal goal), and so on.

This experience meant so much. Each day was filled with a reality, story, thoughts, and imagination that I still need time to process. It pushed me to my limit, but it did not break me. It’s a tremendous opportunity and a self-discovery journey.

I promised myself that I will never go back to the Himalaya for any kind of trekking but that seemed to quickly fade away even during my flight back home. Save me from myself!

*Selam Mesfin is an Ethiopian-American adventurer. She lives California and has traveled to over 67 countries and 42/50 US States.

The call of Mt. Whitney, Contiguous USA Highest Peak

I started hiking a few years ago because it is a bit of a mix of sports and outdoors, both of which I enjoy.

At the beginning of 2016, I set a goal to hike Mt.Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States and the Sierra Nevada with an elevation of 14,505 ft (4421 meters), 22 miles (36km) round-trip, 6,100 ft (1859 meters) elevation gain. In order to prepare for this challenge, I hiked many of the Southern California mountains including San Gorgonio, the highest peak in Southern California with 11,503 ft (3506 meters).

After few months of training, on Sunday, July 3, 2016, at 2:00AM, I started the journey to conquering the world famous Whitney trail with three of my team members. The weather was pleasant, except for some temperature fluctuation in the early hours. The recent warm temperature has melted most of the Winter snow on the trail. There was some snow towards the summit, which required me to have my micro-spikes. The trail starts at 8,360 ft (2548 meters) with quick elevation gain. I saw few people struggle with elevation, but I have found myself to acclimate relatively well so the quick elevation gain did not bother me.

After 7 hours and 11 miles (18km) of continuous ascent, I was able to reach the summit to be rewarded with such a magnificent view that Mt. Whitney can only offer. I stayed at the summit for about 40 minutes enjoying the views and taking plenty of pictures. I was also able to sign the Mt. Whitney registry as part of Mt. Whitney legacy, which was so special.

Hiking Whitney was a difficult physical and mental challenge, but it has also been very rewarding. I felt greater sense of accomplishment and a sense of assurance that anything is possible if we put our mind and effort into it. I always encourage people to go out and experience what nature has to offer. There is so much beauty not to enjoy.

Signing the famous register

*Selam Mesfin is an Ethiopian-American adventurer. She lives in California and has traveled to 67 countries and 42 US States.

Ololokwe: In the clouds of a perfect mountain

Perfect timing for a perfect Mountain!  Mt Ololokwe aka Oldoinyio Sapache  is my last major hike for 2018. 

It not only closed a remarkable hiking year but also a milestone for a mountain that has deep spiritual connections among the Maa speakers of Northern Kenya. It was only fair that I came here after Oldoinyio Lengai– another shrine of a mountain where my people converse with God during challenging times in the south (northern Tanzania).

The night before the hike was at Sabache Camp, a gem that’s sandwiched between Mt. Ololokwe and Loontare Hill. I am in the company of seasoned travellers (LG Shiks and two friends). We arrived at night by following Dipa, the camp manager, on a winding dirt road, not seeing much beyond the headlights but the profiles of dark mountains against the moonlight.

6:00 AM: We filed out of the camp, led by a quiet Samburu guide. I prayed for God’s protection and asked my legs to bravely carry me. The climb is steep and the trail is narrow – one foot after the other, following the famous elephant trail towards the top. At 6:37AM, the sun rose, painting the east with shades of orange.

The magic of sunrise and mountains. Photo: John Kisimir

There were two men ahead of us and one gasped at the rising sun. He has never seen sunrise from such a vantage point. That is the magic of mountains.

As we trudged on, elephant dung on the trail, broken branches and barks peeled off from trees – this is elephant country.

We reached the eastern rim slightly after an hour.  Loontare Hill sat pretty from northeast, shyly touching the rear side of his superior brother. From a distance I could see the famous rocks (Nkadoru Murto) where rich tourists sometimes land helicopters. 

Below us, the Isiolo – Moyale highway beautifully finds its way through the arid country.

I looked down again to admire the amazing view of Sabache camp – perfect location.  My mind drifted towards its manager, Dipa. When we arrived late last night, he offered us his room because another group arrived at the camp with more guests than booked and dislodged us. When I woke up at 5:00AM to get ready for the hike, I found him asleep on a mat by the bonfire site.  

To the West is a surprising view– all green, a mix of forest and open lush grass patches. Now I understood why elephants take the trouble of making treacherous trails to come here. 

The guide nudged us on, a little impatient with our pace. We walked west into the forest. The clean heavy oxygen hit our lungs as the calm breeze cooled down the sweat. It is an easy walk mostly on flat land.

At the top is lush and green! Photo: John Kisimir

We arrived at the Southern rim of the mountain after another hour. It’s a mammoth rock face and is what gives this mountain its magnificent shape. From a distance, the rock wears the top of the mountain like a hat, and then drops down hundreds of metres, making Mt. Ololokwe look like a massive tree stump from a distance.

Engulfed by clouds on the southern rim. Photo: John Kisimir

Below us, the eagles flew in cyclic patterns – six pairs and my heart leapt in awe at their welcoming party! Cattle bells of the Samburu people rang from a distance. Their circular villages are perched under miniature hills many kilometres below us. 

Then the clouds came in intervals, running over the mountain – engulfing us in acceptance.

I feel the presence of God. Mountains will always remain my true place of worship!  

We returned to the camp in time for lunch. Dipa, again showed his kindness by driving me to the nearest town, Archers Post, where I hitch hiked to my next destination.

Sabache camp, perched between mountains. Photo: John Kisimir
An eagle welcoming party, flying in cyclic patterns. Photo: John Kisimir

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On the Footsteps of Marsabit Peacemakers

I am in Marsabit, Kenya’s northern county – a land of camels, mountains, elephants, deserts and diverse people. It is the home of Ahmed – the greatest elephant that ever walked on earth and the only one in history to have been protected by a presidential decree until its death. It is the home of Lake Paradise, possibly the most breathtaking place you will ever see.

I am not here to chase mountains but rather in search of peacemakers. Marsabit is beautiful but also a troubled land. Its people have been fighting for the last six months – lives have been lost and property damaged.

Mediators huddle together for a quick brief before a peace meeting.

For days in the last three months, I watched my friend Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan post depressing messages on social media – calling for peace among her people. She is the head of, Horn of Africa Development Initiative (HODI), an organization that uses soccer to create peaceful co-existence among various communities.

Fatuma’s posts were heartbreaking and in the process informed me that they have formed an interfaith team that will go around dangerous places to mediate peace. I got curious. What does it take to make peace when lives have been lost? What kind of people would put their lives on the firing line in search of peace?

So, I drove 550K from Nairobi to meet the Marsabit peacemakers also called Interfaith Mediation Team.

We left Marsabit town in the morning towards the conflict zone. In my company was Fatuma, two priests (Anglican and Catholic), a Sheikh, an ex-politician, a teacher, NGO and government officials. We headed east, dropping from the mountain height towards arid land. The mood was jovial – the group made jokes about their faiths, families and trivial things. They also reviewed the outcome of a meeting they had in a different village yesterday – it did not go well but no life was lost. They called that a win.

Mediators convincing Borana elders to attend a peace meeting with the Gabra.

Today, the aim is to negotiate a ceasefire between two villages – Jaldesa and Shurr villages

The road is rough and rocky and this was the first time that any vehicle has plied here in 90 days. On arrival at Jaldessa, men with guns accompanied by elders and their chief surrounded us. The armed men are called KPR and armed by the government to protect their villages. Some were very angry at our presence. To make things worse, the peacemakers wanted their elders to accompany them to Shurr village for a peace meeting.

This will not happen! They said. They are not willing to walk into the lion’s den. There was a melee. I could see anger, pain and genuine fear in their eyes. Someone’s father and husband was killed here. Inside a pump house where they draw water, I was shown bullet marks on the generator, an effort by their rivals to destroy their only source of water.

After almost an hour of tantrums, several elders and the chief agreed to go to Shurr. As we were about to leave, one elder walked away from the group – no, he was not going to give his life to the enemy.

The drive to Shurr was not long, may be 15kms but the tension in the vehicle smelled of a war zone. No one knows what waits ahead. A few peacemakers have already received calls warning them not go. Chances of a bloody ambush were real.

Shurr is stunning village – about 300 dorm shaped colourful houses surrounded by large umbrella-shaped tortilis tees. Our arrival was shrouded with palpable tension. Elders and young men under a tree even though they knew of our coming, were not welcoming. They had knives and guns. One commented while servicing his weapon and said “this gun should do a good job today,”

A mediation meeting under a tree in Shurr between Borana an.d Gabra people

We were directed to a place for lunch. There was immediate relief. Provision of a meal is a very good sign – they are willing to talk.

I heard from mediators that Shurr was not just attacked but bombed! Several people died but the numbers are dodgy depending on the source.

The negotiations started under a massive tree – cold shed. Only few elders (men and women) joined us with all the furious young men staying away.

There were long-winded speeches from sides. There was talk about how some of the elders have been friends before the conflict – they had visitations, friendships and intermarriages.

I heard about the source of the conflict – boundaries over land, access to water sources and grazing rights. I heard about politics too – that local politicians are fuelling the conflict by buying guns and grenades for their respective tribes.

The armed youths trickled in – mostly on motorcycles and sat at a distance, observing the process. None uttered a word.

The mediation team pressed both sides for a ceasefire and after about four hours, I started to see a relaxed mood and at the end, they agreed to talk further. A meeting was set for the following day at Jaldesa. Hope is in the air.

Peacemaking is not for the fainthearted.

The meeting ended with prayer – no one was smiling but the elders from both villages hugged one another. This was good enough for the mediators. Peacemaking is a process.

We drove out as the sun painted the sky orange on the horizon of Mt. Marsabit. The mediators were tired but satisfied by the outcome. A joke went round about how much water they drunk but no one went to the toilet.

We arrived at Jaldesa and were received by an anxious community – glad to have their elders back in one piece. They could not believe that they were not hurt. The mediators briefed them on the outcome and requested that they prepare to host the mediation meeting the next day.

The drive back to Marsabit was one of emotions and relief. Father Racho skilfully paced the Landcruiser through the bends towards the mountain. There will be more meetings like this in the coming days and weeks until peace is achieved.

Peacemaking is not for the fainthearted.  May God bless these men and women. 

Good evening Marsabit!

Naloolo: The Spirit of African Exploration

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I am an Explorer. An explorer is a traveller-storyteller, a seeker of the unknown. I travel and tell stories of our people, mountains, rangelands, rivers and wildlife in East Africa.

I have traveled to 40 countries around the world – Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas.  One of my favourite accomplishments so far was driving 6000Km from South Africa to Ethiopia.

My inspiration to travel came from my father when I was very young. One evening, he brought home a large book with a black cover.

“What is that?” I asked.
“It is a map,” he answered.
“What is a map?”  I asked.
Dunia.The world,” he said.

He opened the atlas – I saw the different parts of Kenya, Africa and the world. My eyeballs could have fallen out with excitement. I had never seen such a colourful book in my entire life. I had no idea how big the world was and we spent hours following roads, towns, rivers, mountains and oceans on the maps.

This encounter changed my perspective about school and developed a singular focus to finish school and travel the world.

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Why Naloolo Explorer?
There are two things that worry me about the environment in Africa. The first is that many Africans are getting disconnected from nature as they embrace urbanisation. Many can no longer connect their future to the existence of pristine rangelands, mountains, forests and wildlife.

Secondly, even though Africa has changed in the last few centuries, what has not changed is how the story of exploration and expeditions is told. This story and its tellers have not changed since the arrival of the first European explorers in the 15thcentury. Western travel and conservation media outlets still majorly control the narrative.

This story telling space needs to be expanded to accommodate the natives of Africa. Expanding it will bring not just add Africans voices to the media but millions of audiences that will re-connect with their lands, cultures and wildlife heritage.

In late 2017, I set out to change the above issues and formed Naloolo Explorer (www.naloolo.wordpress.com), an exploration outfit that will put passionate modern day African explorers in the media to tell stories of their continent and in the process reconnect people to nature.

It has been a life changing experience building Naloolo Explorer from a simple blog to something that many people follow and admire.

 In order to do this, I drew inspiration from the wandering spirit of my people – a people that travelled the vast lands of eastern Africa for centuries. With their long spears, they ruled this land until they were silenced by the arrival of incurable diseases (that killed 70% of their population) and the power of European weaponry. Like many nomadic people in Africa, the Maasai were the true explorers.

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I started traveling – climbing mountains and other amazing destinations in East Africa. I wrote and photographed about these adventures and shared with my social media followers. The response was astounding. The first question from fellow Africans is always:

“Why are you doing this?”

My response: “Why Not?”

Over the months as I traveled, wrote and photographed, the narrative changed to:

“Can I come with you on your next hike?”

“I admire your courage”

“I love what you do” and “You make us proud.”

I expect this movement to keep growing and I am happy that my travels, writing and photography is encouraging people to travel and connect with nature. The more citizens travel, the more they are inclined to care and protect their environment.

Stories matter and must be told and that is my purpose in life.

See details www.naloolo.wordpress.com
Naloolo Explorer: The Journey Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqUBeJqjZ5A

Loita: The Forest of the Lost Child

DSC_3072.JPGOn top of my bucket list this year were Oldoinyo Lengai and Loita Forest (Entim Enaimina Enkiyio).

Oldoinyo Lengai hike took place in April and is probably the most dramatic adventure so far. I hold it dear because of the spiritual connection of my late paternal grandmother, Nembulung.

With a team of fellows from The Amani Institute, we trekked through Loita Forest a few days ago. This forest occupies a special place in Maasai mythology. Its real name is Entim Enaimina Enkiyio (The Forest of the Lost Child). In my generation, it signifies a conservation morality and consciousness that for generations has guarded it against any form of encroachment.

Legend has it that a young girl was tending her father’s calves at the edge of the forest. When some calves strayed into the forest and she followed to retrieve them but the forest never gave her back – hence the name, Forest of the Lost Child.

We arrived at Morijo, Loita on a late Friday evening – a bruising 265km drive – the road was very rough after the diversion from the Maasai Mara highway at Ewuaso Ngiro town. It was dark and hardly saw much but listened to grind of tires against gravel. It can get disorienting and made the distance seem much longer.

Our host James Sumpati, a veteran mountain guide who made our stay an experience with long lasting memories, received us at the camp that he set up near his home at Miton.

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Amani Fellows from various countries in Loita Forest

We set off in the morning into the forest – greeted by the joyful call of the turacco, flapping their green and purple wings as they run up branches in the canopy. The colobus money barked – invisibly. Fresh buffalo dung and spoor led us deep into the forest.

We hoped and prayed to see the elephants but they remained phantoms in the shadows but left their dung for us to wonder.

The air is fresh and cool as we walked, trudging on the undergrowth. Some trees here are huge, very huge and as old as 200 years or more. The forest, which covers 302 square kilometres is one of the few non-gazetted trust land containing indigenous forests in Kenya. The plains for Maasai Mara straddle the west and the Great Rift Valley to the east. Lake Magadi and Ngurman Escarpment in the Southeast. This place is jealously guarded by the community here and it remains largely undisturbed. It is the source of water, pasture, medicine and pride to the Loita Maasai.

But this is a forest where the community has to stand guard every minute against encroachment – both from some community members who think they can over exploit it or from outsiders who salivate at the possibility of getting a piece of it for personal gain.

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Oloiboni Mokombo Senteu and his son: At the forefront of protecting the forest

In our conversation with James and members of the community, the word “conservation” by NGOs is considered a dirty word and some international organisations have been chased away from the forest for the community sees no value in their conservation models.

“My grandfather Olonana (Lenana) gave away Nairobi and Oloolaiser (Ngong) forests to the British, I will never allow anyone to take Enaimina Enkiyo,” Laibon Mokombo ole Senteu told as we sat in his house on our last day in Loita.

May Loita Forest live forever!

Ngong Hills Adventure: Hiking with My Father

My name is Timpiyian Nanana Kisimir.  I am 13 years old.  I am going to tell you about my experience of a recent hike on Ngong Hills. Ngong Hills is a series of seven peaks. We started early walking up the first hill from the gate (I, dad and brother, Lemayian) after saying hello to the rangers. It was fun as we took photos of the wind turbines and talked to friendly Maasai children who were selling sweets along the way. Dad told us many stories and learned a lot about the mountain and animals that live on it.

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We started cheerfully with my brother, Lemayian.

The first hill was quite long but not steep, had a nice breeze, which a think is caused by the tall wind turbines. We took breaks to rest, drunk water and snacked.

We proceeded to the second hill, which was quiet steep. As we approached it, dad asked me if I wanted to use a short cut but I was determined to take the rough and tough way. It was a hard, steep and slippery but we still climbed and reached the top.

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I chose the tough steep climbs, avoided short cuts. Not an easy job!

Going down hill number two was not a problem because it was filled with long nice grass and not rocky. Our goal was to reach the summit and we would not give up. Lemayian walked faster than us but slowed down many times to wait for us. In hiking, one of the rules is to stick together so that no one gets lost.

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Tough but fun. We were determined to reach the summit!

The third hill was even steeper than the second and was rocky but dad helped me. Lemayian did not need any help – he had good shoes and was good at climbing. Climbing the third hill was easy. The fourth hill was not steep but it was one of the hardest to climb because of all the rocks and the soil was very slippery. Going down was very nice and smooth filled with good grass.

We met many people on the way and said hello. We saw people who came to the mountain to pray because of the quietness and beautiful nature. They pray for the country and other things.

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We also found people who had given up climbing and were waiting for their companions to come back so they can return together. We met found a lady who had flat shoes and a formal white dress! Dad told us that he had even met ladies who came to the mountain on high heels! I could not imagine myself climbing hills with high heels! I also saw a boy who used to be in my school with four other boys, accompanied by their father.

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Keep waking. Don’t even think of giving up!

Now it was time to climb the hardest of them all – the fifth hill! In the middle of the fourth and fifth hill there is about 100 meters of flat land. We rested, took photos as we prepared for the climb to the summit. This is the tallest of all hills that makes Ngong Hills. It is steep and a forest. We were surrounded by so many trees and insects like fire ants. I did not enjoy this stretch because of the rocks – I slipped many times as I led us upwards. It was tough but I was determined to reach the top and there was a lot of sweat and pain as but we finally reached the top.

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The forest area as a tough section with twigs, bees, wasps and fire ants.

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We took breaks to rest and eat. I was tired. So tired!

We sat down – exhausted and had snacks (yoghurt, cup cakes, milk, soda). We then had conversations with other hikers who were at the summit.

Going down the hills was very rough and painful.  I thought it would be easier to go down but I was surprised to find it very tough. Dad knows this mountain inside out so we took some short cuts around the steep sections because the shoes were hurting my toes. It was very painful but got better when I removed the shoes and walked barefoot. I had to walk without shoes!

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Mission accomplished! Celebration on reaching the summit.

We got back late afternoon and passed by a friend’s place for lunch. I fell asleep while watching T.V and it really helped. We then said our good byes and left at around 5:30pm and returned home for a restful movie night.

My experience at Ngong hills was fun and adventurous. It was my first serious hike on a mountain – I really enjoyed it even though it was quiet hard. I will never forget!

Kileleoni Hill: The Roof Of Maasai Mara

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Our guide, Amos Kipeen

For the most part, Maasai Mara consists of flat land with a few hills and many ridges. The safari paradise with its vast plains is overwhelmingly beautiful but can also get dull.

So, some members of Friends of Maasai Mara sought a new challenge by hiking to the highest point in the horizon.

I first took interest in Kileleoni Hill weeks ago, while on a visit to a rhino sanctuary in the north of the game reserve. It is the highest elevation in the Mara ecosystem – a beautiful hill that hosts one of my favourite animals – the colobus monkey. It is also the only place to find the rare mountain reedbuck.

Seeing a rhino up-close is an emotional thing – I heard gasps of “wow and hmm…” from the visitors. But my focus was on the mountain. It stood straight up with rocks that looked like they were deliberately placed.  It was densely forested and there were many spots of white atop the trees, which I later learnt, were the shy colobus monkeys.

I made a mental note to return for this hill.

On my return, I spent the night at Lemek town, with a friend, Fred Kariankei. Fred made it clear to the team that he is not interested in “looking for trouble” – his mild way of saying hiking is such a waste of time. He uttered the words slowly just to make sure they sink in. He agreed to drive us though, as close to the hiking trail as possible.

We were dropped off just after Rekero Camp, on the eastern side of Kileleoni Hill. The area is dense with acacia forest, lots of wild fruit trees – a perfect habitat for browsing and grazing ungulates, as well as hideout thickets for the predators.

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Yours truly and Sintoyia Sengeny at the summit.

There were elephant dung everywhere – the grass is healthy from the manure. It is an active wildlife area and there were lots of signs. Please be accompanied by armed rangers if you are not familiar with this territory.

Our team leader, Amos Kipeen, who grew up here, used his sword to make us walking sticks and started off the trail, followed by Harrison Taga and Sintoyia Sengeny.

It was one happy leisure walk – the wild fruits that we ate during childhood while grazing livestock are in season and on several occasions we huddled around fruit trees. It was one beautiful way for down the memory lane moments.

It took us about an hour to get to the summit which is about 2040 metres above sea level. We had several stops for water and laughter – the stories. There were several moments when larger mammals bolted out of the bushes and ran away. We had giraffes intensely watching as if counting minutes for us to leave.

We had a moment where some of us saw the rare mountain reedbuck for the first time.

But the icing on the cake was being at the roof of Maasai Mara. Atop Kileleoni Hill, you can see as far as the eye could see – the stretch towards Serengeti, Kilgoris, Bomet, Lemek and beyond.

By the way, our driver friend, Fred, took our lunch and water closer to the summit by car – there is road. Then he decided to hike for the remaining 1km and insisted on not missing on the photo sessions. Sawa tu!

If you truly want to see how breathtaking the Maasai Mara ecosystem is, get to its roof.

Enjoy the photos from the hike.

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The making of walk.ing sticks

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Oh wild fruits!

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Harris Taga leading on the trail

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Hungry!

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The summit of Kileleoni Hill is the highest point in Mara.

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I see down there!

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Your sighting of the rate mountain reedbuck

Maasai Mara: Perfect Calm Before the Wildebeest Storm

This is one of the most beautiful moments in the Maasai Mara ecosystem. We have had months of unbelievable rain. It is lash green – tall grass.

Areas of the game reserve that were once degraded by thousands of livestock that grazed illegally at night for years have healed. And this is such a relief.

The grass is so tall such that most grazers have left the park and found home in community lands and conservancies where the grass is shorter and where they all feel safe from predators. This means that the lions and fellow meat eaters are following them. Do not be surprised to find lions right at the gates of the reserve or sometimes marauding in the small towns.

But the elephants and bigger mammals seem to be doing great inside the park – they are out in great numbers – lots of calves recently born.

The park is so quiet without the wildebeests. Ii gives you that city feeling of 3:00AM. It is literally a perfect calm before the great storm because soon and very soon, millions of wildebeests and zebras will arrive from the Serengeti.

They will fill the plains and mow down the tall grass to the ground. They bring with them noise and drama that irritates the elephant and the buffalo. They will awaken the ferocity of the lions and the insanity of the urban tourist.

The open plains will be painted black and grey. I think Maasai Mara in its current state is more than ready for the next wildebeest migration in a few weeks time. Get yourself out there!

Enjoy these photos from the game drives that I did – guided by my friends Amos Kipeen and Harris Taga of Friends of Maasai Mara.

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A herd of topis grazing inside the park – look at the open wilderness with few animals. Soon the wildebeest will arrive to occupy every inch of it.

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Elephant and calf approached us near Mara Sarova, telling us to get out of the way.

 

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Mongoose in their little city – always cautious

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Another herd of elephants ring fenced off their calves – creating an impenetrable wall.

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It is grooming time and expression of love for these impalas near Talek Gate, where the grass is short and safe from predators.

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A crane atop a tree – giving itself a real bird’s view of its surrounding.

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These amazing fellows, Harris Taga and Amos Kipeen know the park like the back of their hands

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And as usual, even with a powerful 4×4 truck, you can get stuck in Maasai Mara. We had that moment and had to be rescued.

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Members of of Friends of Maasai Mara – from left Jully Senteu, Amos Kipeen, Nase Kelel, Harris Taga and Sintoyia Sengeny enjoying the morning sunshine after breakfast in the park.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lost for Words at Orbatatata Gorge

WhatsApp Image 2018-05-26 at 6.59.34 PM.jpegThe name is Orbatatata! It is a tongue twister even to native speakers. It is a beautiful gorge and here, I am trying to describe the indescribable – its display crushed my comprehension. I looked. I gasped. I shuddered with awe.

Orbatatata gorge means “The Massive Fall” in Maa language –  a hidden gem that starts from the southern periphery of Hell’s Gate National Park – a massive canyon that opens its face to the direction of Mt. Suswa – 10KM from Suswa Town.

I came here at the invitation of a friend, Eric ole Reson, a raptor conservationist who grew up here and I tagged along two other friends, Nase Kelel and Josephine Kindi (the manager of Suswa Conservancy.)

The road from Suswa Town at entrance of MaraGateway Hotel is not pretty – it needs a 4 x 4 truck. We drove past sleepy villages –  a beautiful country of happy cows and people.

You won’t see the canyon until you arrive at the base, then, it suddenly opens up like a beautiful flower. We stood next to each other in silence, basking in the glory of our surroundings.

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We stood next to each other in silence, basking in the glory of our surroundings.

This gorge, to all of us here brings a mixture of emotions not just because of it is a marvel but it is the route that our forefathers used as a safe escape during the massive relocation after the expropriation of their land in Laikipia by colonialists from 1911. Thousands of Maasai children, women and the elderly died during the trek to the south – mostly from diseases. Our forefathers walked on this canyon and I looked at the massive cliffs, the sand on the riverbed and imagined their footsteps and sadness.

This gorge is also the source of the famous red ochre, which has decorated generations of Maasai warriors and women. It houses many caves like Enkapune Olpelesi that have housed past men of the warrior class as they partook herbs, beef and prepared for wars.

Its massive cliffs are home to dozens of endangered ruppel vultures and eagle nests. These raptors fly out here to Maasai Mara every morning to feed and return in the evening. The whole valley is actually a bird’s paradise. It also has a famous well, Paepayan – with its favoured sweet coloured water.

Another major feature is Kaibartani a massive rock in the middle of the canyon that the Maa believe was a bride that turned into a rock after ignoring advice by looking back to where she came from instead of following her husband.

Enjoy the photos of our hike and I hope you will be motivated to visit.

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We descended into the gorge from Olorriri village. 

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How do you describe this view? The high cliffs resemble pyramids.

DSC_7151.JPGShoes off as hikers walked on the soft, wet sand.

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Eric Reson, our guide and raptor conservationists.

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Walking on the footsteps of his forefathers. 

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Steam spewing from fissures in many places in the gorge. 

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Cliffs, caves, nests for vultures and eagles are part of the landscape.

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It is the wild fruit and berry season.

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Red ochre boiling on a hot spring.

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Kaibartani, a landmark feature on the valley.

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The sweet coloured waters of Paepayan well.

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The southern end of the gorge facing Mt. Suswa.

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The hikers. Mission accomplished!

 

Young Kenyans Seeking Adventure, Freedom in Nature

As the old saying goes, “A wise traveler must never despise his own country.”

So this WhatsApp Image 2018-05-22 at 17.06.38-2Sunday, I took my spiritual warfare to Ngong Hills. I consider this place in my home County (Kajiado) as one of the most beautiful mountains that I know. And just a quick reminder that the original name is Oldoinyio (Mt) Loolaiserr but the Brits in their arrogance and laziness baptised it Ngong Hills.

My plan was to walk and pray – Sundays rarely disappoint because there are many other prayer warriors on the mountain.

It was chilly but not raining. I arrived at the gate at about 9:00AM – rangers were busy advising and directing groups of hikers. I paid the Sh200 entry fee by M-Pesa and trudged on.

I walked past a broken vehicle a few metres from the entrance and met a group of young people taking selfies. They were excited and I made an effort to walk past them but was quickly invited.

They were from eastern Nairobi – an area that I know little about. They were young too, their first time here – some of them were hiking for the first time in their lives.  It warmed my heart to meet young people who seek adventure and freedom in nature. I ended up being their guide for the day.  See some of their images.

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Calling it cold is an understatement! Visibility was not at its best

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The gentleman holding a water bottle performs massage for hikers at the summit for a fee of Sh100. It works magic!

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Celebration on reaching the summit!

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I think this is an iconic image. These are rocks near the Kona Baridi Gate.

Ngong Hills (Oldoinyo Loolaiser) Hike in Photos

This is my fourth climb to Ngong Hills (Oldoinyo Loolaiserr) this year. I hiked with a friend and photographer, Solomon Odupoi. It was a chilly morning, the weather kept fluctuating by the minute. PHOTOS: Odupa Photograpy/Solomon Odupoi

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Foot forward. Ngong Hills is a photographer’s paradise.

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The weather changes by the minute – mist, the sun, cold warm.

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Clean air hits your lungs – fresh, sweet!

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New feature: A mudslide as a result of recent rains.

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There were quite a number of international visitors on the trail.

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Chatting with new friends – fellow hikers.

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Teenagers on the trail selling walking sticks. They were respectful and kind.

 

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The Ngong Wind power turbines occupies the east side of the mountain.

Engare Sero Waterfalls: A Walk in True Paradise

930A7576After being battered by Oldoinyo (Mt.) Lenkai, drowning a few drinks and lots of goat meat last evening, we needed a bit of nudging to go anywhere but rest.

The muscles were sore but our guide and host Lemurra ole Kingi had a better idea – a 45-minute walk along Engare Sero River Gorge to the natural swimming pools.

The trail was close to Worldview Campsite where we stayed, the river emanates from a gorge of the Great Rift Valley. I heard its waters rumbling last night but did not give it much thought.

930A7595As the guide led us forward and the gorge came into view, my first reaction was a mental picture of those beautiful images we see on calendars – cascading wild valleys, spectacular scenery. We got into the shallow water, walked along the river before crossing it several times – getting wet, clambering just a little, to arrive at this cool oasis.

The walk was great for relaxing the sore muscle but when I saw the waterfalls, I knew, this is the place to heal from yesterday’s hardship. It is an unforgettable experience, a show stopper.

930A7722The water gushes out of the high cliffs to the right as well as from the river flow. It is warm and there was no one else present but the six of us. The best part is we could lie down on the rocks and let the land on our sore backs and legs – a natural massage, taking away the pain of mountain climbing. It brought both emotional and physical relief.

The downside of this paradise, we all realised is that we couldn’t take photos because the water could spoil cameras or phones but somehow the guide managed to sneak in my camera wrapped in two shukas. Lemurra’s commitment to his clients goes beyond the call of duty.

As we left the pools, what we all knew that we will come back some other day. It is a perfect holiday destination especially for families with children. This was a worthwhile adventure

Engare Sero River flows into Lake Natron, one of the most alkaline lakes in the world – a home to millions of crustaceans and a heaven for thousands of lesser flamingos.
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Humbled by the Majesty of Oldoinyo Lenkai

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On our way up – Music and stories kept us going.

This is a journey of a “thousand” miles and it took me ten days to settle emotions and write it down.

It is 2:45AM at the base of Oldoinyo Lenkai, one of the few active volcanoes in East Africa but also the spiritual home of the Maasai people. It is called the Mountain of God, a spiritual place where our people pilgrimaged during times of difficulty, to make sacrifices and plead with Enkai (God) to remember mercy. Such an event took place a few months ago.

We stood at the base, six of us, including Lemurra ole Kingi, our Tanzanian guide, who lives 15kms from here and Solomon Lekui, also Tanzanian friend who drove us from the  Namanga border crossing. The rest of us were Kenyans – all of us with our burdens of spiritual and physical expectations.

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Approaching the summit!

The guide, I and Tete Kisenya (an engineer with Nokia), were the only experienced hikers. We also have with us Nase Kelel, a friend who runs an NGO in Narok and Nelson Ole Reyia, a charming fellow, and proprietor of Oldarpoi Camp in Maasai Mara.

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The crater is still emitting hot magma from two vents

The breeze was cool, not cold, really nice and felt great on the skin as we walked, tall grass scratching my hands, itchy and I put them in the pockets. The first two kilometres were easy and we were in a great mood – friends among friends, the jokes endless.
Lemurra, the guide led us in a single line, insisting that we must follow one another. His space, his short steady legs told a story – strong, agile, and experienced.

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At the summit. 

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Walking on the rim of the crater. It is cold…surreal.

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Nase made it to the summit. Her body beaten but her mental strength conquered it all.

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The treacherous Goal and its sakafu were quite an ordeal.

Characteristic of the Maasai, music came along the way. We sang warrior songs, Lekui mostly creating verses that fit the moment, Ole Reyia singing along, nudging the talkative soloist. It was motivating, we were having fun.

Trouble – Nase’s shoes were too heavy for her. I thought so. She changed shoes after the guide’s wife earlier advised that Nase’s beautiful shoes won’t survive the mountain. Shoe swap – Nase took the guide’s shoes and we hit the road again.

The climb is getting steeper and our music and jokes got better as we slipped and held onto our walking sticks. On both sides of the trail were deep and dark crevices.

“If you get lost here, fall into one of these valleys, no one will find you, Not even helicopters,” the guide had earlier warned.

We must stick to one line, follow one another’s steps. It was a comfortable pace – the climb was getting hard and there were no more gentle drops that help one to catch up energy or breathe.

Lemurra and Nase were at the front – they were having conversations about pain here and there but the guide had this way with words, encouraging words that kept the lady moving.

Our pace started to slow down as the mountain got steeper. I looked up and was shocked – it was almost at 60+ degrees steep and there was no other way up but a straight path. We trudged on, a slow under a kilometer per hour on a very irregular surface, lots of slipping and scrambling. But we still sang and laughed at ourselves.

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Going downhill testst every muscle in your body.

Water, snacks and energy drinks here and there. Ole Reyia and Lekui were strong – actually very strong, a little reckless too and excited to get to the top.
Lekui turned out to be the surprise since we had ambushed him to climb and I still remember the horror on his face. But he is a child of the savannah, grew up a herdsboy, he can survive any challenge.

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His shoes….

I enjoyed walking from behind, loved the moonlight and the breeze – I needed a slow pace for my knee that got injured during a run a few weeks ago, not forgetting my primary goal here of prayer and submission.

It was approaching morning dawn and the moon was behind us, no longer bright but a gloomy orange. We were at what they call Sakafu in Kiswahili – an area of bare solid rock and just ahead of it is what they call “Goal,” a kind of entrance where two huge pillars give way to the peak of the mountain. From here, Sulphur from the volcano hit our nostrils.

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Solomon Lekui, the surprise hiker turned out better and strong climbing and coming down.

We have, without mentioning, ceded the ambition of getting to the summit at sunrise. Our pace was too slow and we focused on getting there without breaking bones or leaving anyone behind. Several team members were on their fours – climbing up by any means possible. The guide was excellent, unbelievably encouraging and it seemed he had everyone at his 930A7208beckon. The feet were in pain, shoes misbehaving but the spirit of the hikers was strong.

I looked back at how far we have come and it just hit me that this is a beast of a mountain! It is literally a wall, straight up with no switchbacks or flat spots like most mountains. If the climb is this crazy, how on earth are going to come down? Tete, the elite mountaineer among us was probably thinking of the same as she walked a few yards ahead of me.

Our music had by now died out at the shock of how to get to the summit past the “Goal.” The sun was up, shedding magical light to the Great Rift Valley behind us. The shadow of the whole mountain was reflected at the valley. I have never seen a such a beautiful scenery.

We got past the Goal at 7:00 AM only realise that there is still one massive wall to climb, steeper than We were walking past vents that emitted smoke. The summit was about 50 meters but it took us an hour and a half to climb.

We got to the summit at 8:30Am! The summit gives you a magnificent view of the crater to the east, Lake Natron to the north as well as the incredible steep descends to the south. It is windy and cold. Mt Gelai and Ketumpeine sat quietly in the near horizons.

The smell of Sulphur is strong. The mountain rumbled loudly in intervals, hot magma blurting from two vents in the crater. We froze to watch in amazement, the wind and cold beating against our faces. Surreal feeling!

930A7352This is the moment that we have been waiting for and all of us had this epiphany – generations of our people have been here. It is here, during difficult times that our forefathers and mothers met the spirit of God. I suddenly came face to face with the spirit my paternal grandmother, the first Christian in our family, who told me stories about her experiences here.

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At sunrise, the magical shadow of the mountain.

We walked on the rim of the crater, holy grounds, each one of us meditating differently. The rumble from the crater is mind-boggling as it pushed hot magma out of the vents. It will keep doing this for an average of 20 years until the magma fills the whole crater, then it will explode like it did in 2008.

 

We started the descend – a very tough one. From the start Ole Reyia realized that his beautiful shoes had lost grip – they were now slippery and dangerous. They swapped shoes with the guide though not quite the right fit.

Our energies were up going down and started jokes on how everyone was descending either on their fours, walking or on their bottoms. The “googlers” were the famous ones – the ones that went down on their bottoms and when they got up, the dust on their behinds resembled the two circles on the Google logo!

The descend tested our physical strengths to the limit. Every step going down on the rocks or soft volcanic soil took everything that we got. There were many slips and falls but we never stopped moving. Just as we climbed to the surface, we must get down – there is no other way.  Your prayer and mental strength become the only weapons that you have against the mountain, your tired body, and the hot sun.

It was hot and we were all really tired and running out of drinking water as well. We took a lot of breaks along the way. This mountain has no vegetation cover and we could see our destination down there but getting there looks like a mirage.

“I am walking like a zombie,” Ole Reyia told me as I took stopped to look around, appreciate the beauty of the valleys below. Yes, the man has taken a real beating…his shoes were no good for him too but I was not in a better shape but told him that we keep walking.

By the time we all got to the vehicle, it was 11 hours and almost 5pm. It was a huge relief, a tremendous sense of achievement as we looked back at the mountain behind us.

Oldoinyo Lenkai is one of the toughest mountains to climb in Africa. You need a good guide as well as physical and mental strength. We arrived at Worldview Camp at Engare Sero for the night, with our sore bodies but the cold beer never tasted so good!

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Tete battling the steep climbs.

Jumped Over by an Eland, Shrinking of Rangelands

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An eland leaps over a safari jeep in Maasai Mara. Photo: Eric Nixon

The Eland (Taurotragus oryx), Africa’s largest antelope, is one of my favourite souls on earth. It is quite an eye-opener when you first see it. The size hits you straight away and the beauty, outstanding.

A few months ago while driving in the evening along Kiserian-Isinya Road, an eland jumped over our Land Rover. It came out of the bushes with speed, I hit the brakes and steadied for impact but the massive bull rose up and dropped on the other side and continued trotting.

My son, Mayian and I were left in shock. My 12-year old daughter, Timpi, who sat at the back did not even see what happened. My foot was still on breaks – shaking!

Over the months, every time I see an eland, I remembered that incident and last month, a friend from South Africa showed me photos from Maasai Mara of an eland jumping over a safari jeep with lions in pursuit. It got away but left tourists in awe.

My people’s traditions talk of the power of the Eland – it is known to overpower lions, most times injuring them by leaping through and above trees, leaving the predators hanging up there and sometimes killing them in the process.

Before the entrance of modern ropes, the Eland hide was a valuable product. For those who eat wild meat, the Eland has soft, tasty meat.

I did some research and watched a few videos of lion attempts on Elands and latter most times came out the winner, dancing away powerfully, throwing the lions in its wake.

Elands are capable of jumping up to 3 metres from a standing start when startled and can live up to a good 15-20 years. A grown male can stand at 1.6 metres, a weight of 940kgs and females weigh about 600kgs with a height of 1.4 metres. It can run at a max speed for 40kph but can run for a long time at half that speed, thus, making it impossible for predators to keep up.

The last census showed that there are about 136,000 elands in East Africa – mostly Kajiado, Narok, and Laikipia as well as northern Tanzania.

It is a healthy population but these territories are shrinking especially with the continued fencing of ranches in Narok and more so by the wanton destruction of the rangelands by the dreadful act of cutting acacia for charcoal in Kajiado County.

13717337_1317031798321946_6407943454709378548_oHere are links to videos of Eland vs Lions:

Female Eland too Powerful For Lion https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0D8g7npbRWE

Lion Hunt Eland at Lewa: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7skjfDSWVs

Maasai Mara: Lion vs Bull Eland Encounter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKpuibzPuz4

Eland Bulls – Massive Fight: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jbt6128kpV8

Olorgesailie: Someone Was Here; Lots of Things Happened Here

The last days of February were marked by a heat wave and Kenyans finally had a feel of the stuff they have been hearing from foreign news. Then, rain…lots of rain! Thank you, Climate Change!

930A6433I packed my bags for Olorgesailie. Yes, that place that we all read about in history books. The place where they dug out things old, bones of departed beings – what my people call “aturu irmeneng’a.

Scientists refer to it as the world’s largest factory of stone-age tools that dates up to 990,000 years. It is the place that has excellently preserved biological and cultural evidence about the evolution of man and National Museums of Kenya is helping to move this forward to the future generations.

Shame, that I have never visited it even though it is just 65km from Nairobi and right in the middle of my home county along Magadi Road.

I drove in the evening and set up camp – it is a nice place surrounded by acacia trees. It is quiet too with only one family camping. There are a few bandas and they looked good…well maintained. It seems like it will rain tonight so I pitched the tent at an elevated area.

An elderly Maasai lady sold me firewood for Sh700…she is about my mother’s age – had a little chit-chat about that and her family.

“God knows how to feed his people,” she remarked as the M-Pesa payment message reached her phone. I guessed she had a long day and I might be her only customer today. Another one tried to sell beads but I was not interested.

Tent Affair 930A6320The night did not go well as I expected – the rain started at around 9pm and the cheap Weekender tent that I bought at Carrefour Supermarket in Nairobi did not handle it well. It started leaking from the joints. In order to make it cheaper (Sh2400) the manufacture excluded the canopy that wards off rainwater and also failed to inform its customers that it is basically a summer tent – not waterproof.

It will be a long wet night with water dripping at the corners and me in the middle. I sent a text to the mountain guide to cancel tomorrow’s hike to Mt. Olorgesalie. It stopped raining at about 3:00AM and I slept.

I went to the museum at about 10:00AM. It is a small room with specimens of our ancestors and extinct animals neatly displayed.

The Excavation Site is right behind the museum and it takes about an hour to walk through it. It is a basically a little safari walk of tools that were used by extinct species. The tools are kept under sheds with iron roofing – it kind of reminds me of a dairy cowshed.

WhatsApp Image 2018-03-06 at 22.34.32 (1)I stood at every shed and observed the tools in different sizes and shapes. They are crude and one would need a lot of effort to cut anything with them but again that was another era and they were considered cutting-edge technology.

The place made feel like something was here – a community once thrived here. I could feel their spirits and existence through their work.

930A6504I also wondered about the white dude, British Geologist John Walter Gregory who in his craziness and wander stumbled upon the first tools in 1919. I read more about him later – he was a freaking racist. This is also the place where Mary and Loius Leakey discovered more human remains and tools in 1943. Many scientists later found more stuff and I am sure more will be found in the future.

930A6516This area was once a lake with fish, lots of human and wildlife activity around it. But it dried up as a result of volcanic eruption and deposits from Mounts Suswa and Longonot. Subsequent sedimentation covering the site has preserved the fossils.

WhatsApp Image 2018-03-06 at 22.34.27You can see and feel how this place was formed by observing the soils – the various layers sometimes in beautiful colours of alkaline deposits.

And the birds of Olorgesalie sung in their numbers and sounds. Dark giraffes fed on trees from a distance as I walked away to another destination. I will return to climb this mountain when good weather returns.

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** John Kisimir is a Kenyan journalist and wildlife enthusiast. He is the current board chair of Friends of Maasai Mara. You can read more about his travels at www.naloolo.wordpress.com

Kijululo Valley: The Hidden Jewel in Kajiado County

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Facing Kijululo Valley

There are beautiful and places on earth and I have seen some. But there are also stunning places – places that would make you question reality and stuff that mother earth is made of. Kijululo Valley on Lorruka Hills, Kajiado west, is such a place.

I didn’t know it existed until I saw it.  I was both surprised and awed. We were approaching the summit of Lorruka Hills – not an easy climb and our focus was the summit, get some rest before figuring out how to descend. Then on the right, the mountain suddenly folded it shoulders, displaying a deep valley. I first thought it was a crater but no…it stretched down making a seasonal river that drains its juices to the lowlands.

IMG-20180202-WA0011The Maa people call it Kijululo because it literally means that – “the hanging one.” From the top, it is truly beautiful, with vegetation and rugged rock formations. My first reaction was how to get down into the valley but my tired legs quickly reminded me that I will have to find a way back on a 60-degree climb. I resigned my energy to admiring the place by dangling my legs on the cliff – enjoyed the breeze and the expansive country that stretched towards Mount Suswa. This is the moment that every follower of Jesus Christ sings the song “This is the day that the Lord has made…”

We left for the summit but I must return some day to go down to the belly of this mountain. I want to feel the warmth of Kijululo.

We started this hike with a little controversy: The name. Some write it as Lorruka, others Loorruga or Oloorruga. It’s a matter of phonetics depending on your Maasai dialect or which part of the Maa nation you come from. The controversy is the difference in the pronunciation of “ka” and “ga”. Locals here write it as Loorruka.

I have probably driven past this mountain many times on my way to Magadi or other fancy places. The thought of climbing Lorruka came to mind when my hiking partner enquired about it as we drove past. The little that I knew was that it was part of Enkusero Sambu Conservancy – managed by a friend, Paul Kilelu.

We called him and planned to visit the following week.

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A view of Loorruka Hills from Magadi Road

We picked up a guide from a junction just past Olepolos Resort but before you reached Oltinga centre on Magadi Road. We turned right towards the mountain. There are a number of villages and a school along the way. The area is dry, rugged – volcanic formations and acacia trees.

The mountain is long and soft from a distance, but from my experience, mountains and hills of the Rift Valley are deceptive. They are multilayered, rough and unforgiving. They smile but slap you at the same time.

930A5376We were five hikers and two rangers from the conservancy. As we got ready to hit the trail, I looked around and started worrying if all of us will make it to the summit.

I looked at the mountain again, as if to ask it to be gentle on us – just for today. Let it not mute the zeal of those who made an effort to visit.

We had our first casualty in the first 500M. It was very steep, loose rocks and the sun did not help. The 20-year old lady did not take it kindly and decided to give up the fight. We left her with one ranger to make a decision whether to return to the vehicle or stay cool under some tree. She later made it to the summit with a lot of energy and surprisingly led the troop down on our return.

The mountain has a lot of peaks. The hiking trail is still not well developed and one needs to be ready to walk through the thorny bushes. Reaching the top of the first hill gives you amazing views and features of the different parts of the mountain. It will also give you an option to go straight to the summit which is short but steep or take a longer route that takes time but exposes you to more beautiful views.

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Esoit Pus sitting at the base of Lorruka Hills

We took the longer route, turning east towards a massive outcrop of Esoit Pus (the Blue Rock). It looks impenetrable, sitting at the base of the mountain. We made an effort to climb it and spooked a huge stripped hyena that has made it home. It bolted away towards the valley.

Further east we could see Enkusero Sambu settlement with its overgrazed neighbourhood with red soil and a school. Below, in every direction, are V-shaped valleys. Ngong Hills (Oldoinyo Loolaiserr) cropped up from the horizon, dark and long from the east. Mt. Loorgesaile occupied the Southern horizon. The rock hyrax and other antelopes made noises, warning of our presence. Falcons and hawks danced in the sky. Not a lot of livestock here but cowbells could be heard from a distance.

930A5219Enkusero Sambu Conservancy is notorious for its leopards – known for their appetite for livestock. There are a few lions here but the numbers have been dwindling due to the conflict with livestock owners.

Approaching the summit from the east gives you the privilege and the surprise of walking along the rim of Kijululo Valley. Facing west is a famous tree where the Maa people carry out sacrifices in times of crisis – asking Enkai to intervene by giving rain. A little to the south of the steep valleys is the source of the whitest fluorspar (Enturoto) that is extracted for various rites of passage ceremonies for generations past.

It was time to descend and the hikers looked motivated. The young lady who almost gave up in the morning looks strong and had created a bond with the rangers. I looked down the valley and brazed for the trot because it is near impossible to go down very slowly. I also figured out that the rangers grew up here – they can climb and descend from any angle like the rock hyrax – they know the terrain but not necessarily trained as guides for inexperienced hikers.

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All hikers made it to the summit!

Our next stop on our way down is a cave where Maa warriors use as a meat camp – a place to strengthen muscle, bond, and retreat from noise. The drop to the cave was steep and through thorny bushes but the hikers held their fort.  The cave has a well that is fed by rain but hidden from evaporation by its walls. There are generational footprints from years gone marked by the red ochre on the walls. The trees too have marks that told us of those who were here before us – the warriors made marks that showed how long they lived in the cave.

The hike was 8.5kms but it could get much longer depending on one’s starting point.

We arrive at the vehicle to the glory of tea and chapatti made by our gracious host!

That was Enkusero Sambu Conservancy and Kijululo Valley!

Aberdare Ranges: The Elephant on the Elephant Hill

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They call it the Elephant Hill, part of the 70km Aberdare Ranges, but I could not see the elephant in the shape of the mountain. That’s just how my mind works – abstract art is not my thing.

The sky was clear – blue, the sun smiling at mother earth. The mountain sat calmly, waiting and unmoved by the anxieties of hikers who make an effort to conquer it. There were a lot of hikers as we arrived at Njabini Forest Station, one of the many climbing routes for the Aberdare Ranges.

I am in the company of two elite hikers (Jim and Herdsgirl) who wanted to do the hike under 6 hours as a warm-up for a climb to Mt Kenya next week (they will do it in 24 hours instead of the usual four days). I did not fancy their chitchat while on our drive from Nairobi (90km) – about how “normal” humans crumple once they hit 3000m above sea level blah blah blah! I am a rookie hiker, a child of the desert and dry country with little knowledge about altitude, forests, and high mountains but they kept on rubbing it.

Njabini Forest Station is not an organized place – hikers and vehicles were everywhere. No reception area but a small mabati office at the back of some house. We found a guide, Jackson – short, calm and with an interesting accent and I had to keenly listen and figure out whether he was saying “air or hair.”

The first 5kms were easy – wide path and excited hikers who still had the energy to chat and greet fellow travelers. Our guide met one of his TV stars and excitedly greeted her – big eyes, very pretty face. He later explained that she comes on TV screens twice a week. I have not watched TV in three years, so I zoned out and led us through the forest. It is a mix of forest plantation with controlled farming.

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We reached the bamboo forest – it was cool and the path became narrow, leaves scratching rucksacks. We met a big group of hikers and briskly walked past them and someone commented: “Team Subaru is passing.” The path suddenly turned to the left and we found another group seated, resting, some were having breakfast.

This is the beginning of a very sharp climb. It is treacherous – dry leaves on the ground made it slippery. We were under the canopy of the bamboo trees with filtered light coming through as we trudged on the steep path. It is dry – our lucky day, Jim and the guide seem to agree. The path would have been terrible if it was raining. Tough, tough walk and we found several hikers, sitting by the trail, almost giving up, some were already on their way back – given up!

I kept on plodding up – sweating buckets – heavily breathing but the cool of the forests brings relief whenever the body wants to overheat. Jim followed – the calmly placing his feet on the ground, moderate but consistent speed of an experienced man. Herdsgirl fell back, walking rather slowly while chatting with the guide. Every hiker knows how to take care of their vehicle/body.

I got to know a few things about Jim – he is more of a runner of marathons but one day he decided to climb Mt. Meru (Tanzania) after meeting hikers in a pub. He bought gear and by morning he was on the trail. He conquered Mt. Ruwenzori after that and got lost in the glacier for three hours. We would late joke about the irony of him nearly getting killed by ice on the first day he encountered real ice apart from the one he has been seeing on his fridge.

The steep climb suddenly leveled up as the bamboo forest thinned out, getting us to the alpine zone, a new kind of vegetation. It is beautiful, a stunning array of outlandish flora, a real feast for botany enthusiasts. I yelled with excitement!

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We were at the first peak, the elephant ramp (I rolled my eyes), also known as The Point of Despair.

Why has God stopped making more of such stuff? Below are amazing views of the countryside – Sasumua dam to the right and Ndakaine dams at a distance on the left. Aberdare Ranges is the source of 95% of the water that is consumed in Nairobi. It is also the source of Athi and Tana Rivers.

It is at this peak where most hikers give up. And trust me, you will despair! I do not recommend this hike for citizens of the Woyie Republic! It is also the place you will find out that you can do more, push past your limits knowing very well that you will have to come down the route, same distance.

Jim looked at his watch – we have done 1hour 40 minutes. Very good time, he said. In less than two minutes, Herdsgirl and the guide caught up with us and we continued with the climb.

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The next climb is rocky but very steep – I looked up and saw several hikers ahead of us – literally at close to 45 degrees elevation. Goodness, how on earth am I going to get there? We trudged on, Jim and I leading interchangeably. Storytelling helped – our families, passions, things of men in their 40s. The trail meandered past gnarled giant Heather trees covered in Spanish moss. I had my first slip, a light fall.

It seemed like an endless walk and I started to wonder about this mountain size-elephant back, but, it mercifully leveled off, giving us the first view of the summit! There are two peaks ahead of us. The sky is still blue, fighting off clouds, emphatically gifting us a beautiful day. We hoped to get a glimpse of Mt. Kenya but it was hidden by clouds.

Then, the wind, strong wind and it is biting cold too. I looked ahead and saw two Caucasian hikers on sleeveless shirts trudging on as if the wind did not matter. Well, maybe they are made of something else.

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At the Mountain Top!

We walked on, fighting off the wind and approached the summit, the elephant head. It is a beautiful place, the world under our feet at 3625m above sea level!

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Jim glanced at his watch – we have done it in three hours, excellent time. We opened our lunch packs as I listened to the elite hikers’ exploits of great mountains but my mind was constantly on the densely populated countryside below that stretched all the way to Lake Naivasha. Mt. Longonot (Oloonongót) stood blue and misty from afar. This was once the land of my ancestors, the land the British stole, then changed hands after independence. Kinopop and Mt. Satima is what we called you, but, now they call you Kinangop and Aberdare.

It is time to descend and we must do it under three hours. It is cold and the wind is brutal, beating our faces, freezing my fingers. Herdsgirl led the descend, walking fast and strong. Half the journey was done and the morale is high.

Going down the rocky area is a true test of one’s knees – drop, drop and drop! It will wear down your springs and shock absorbers. It will test the all the grease in your joints from the neck to your feet.

I slipped and went down. Fall # 2 and was quickly followed by Herdsgirl. No injuries. The ever-cautious Jim stayed intact – careful, slow and consistent on the trail.

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We reached the bamboo forest and just like the insane steep climb, going down is just as challenging. I slipped again and went flat down on my back. Lying on my back kind of felt nice, a relief for my feet and was tempted to just stay there and refuse to get up.

We met many of the hikers that we passed in the morning, some still trying to make their way up but most were on their way down having given up at the Point of Despair.

I walked ahead of the group, praying and talking to God – marveling at what he has created, praying for grace and healing for my family as they bury a loved one. Funerals of family members kill my spirit. Grief breaks my inner core and I don’t know how to handle it and that is the reason I am far away from home this Saturday.

We arrived at the end, rather where we began at 1600hrs. We have done the 20Km trail in 5hrs 21 minutes. I think they are ready for Mt. Kenya.

As I walked towards the office for payment, Jim called me.

“Let’s take a few minutes to stretch,” he said as they put their rucksacks on the grass.

I was a little confused. I was tired too.

“Stretch what?” I asked as I put my bag down, my sore body on the grass. “I am doing no stretching. I have been stretched enough in the last five hours.” It felt nice to just lay down and ignore them.

Lentorre: The Hike of a Super Warrior

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After sleeping off a 23Km hike on Kwenia Cliffs, the plan was to laze around the swimming pool at the Magadi Sports Club, but, by morning, the place looked small and stifling hot, so we headed out to higher ground – facing Nkurman Escarpment.

Everyone has their favourite destination – a place that elevates the spirit. Lentorre Lodge is that place for me. It is a rare gem, perched on the escarpment, overlooking the vast Orkiramatian-Shompole conservation area. From here you could see Mt. Shompole as well as Oldoinyo Lenkai and Gilai in Tanzania.

My interest here is to see the lodge after the departure of my friend, Peter ole Kiyiaa, a gold star tour guide and Ole Kuyo, a man that I highly respect for his knowledge of all things in the wild.

Ole Kuyo is a special kind of man. He has never stepped into a formal classroom but he can tell you every animal and plant species botanical, English and Maa names. My connection with him is his amazing hiking skills. He is skinny, strong and fast.

It is a 30Km drive from Magadi to Lentorre – the road is passable but I advise a 4 x 4. We pulled up to the reception area to the surprise of another friend who is now the lodge manager, Leonard ole Ndungu – small world!

Leonard gave us a tour of the lodge – there a few renovations being done. They are also building a tunnel that will give visitors an up-close encounter with wildlife at the waterhole. The rooms are spectacular, each with its mini swimming pool.

Lunch!

“Are you ready for the hills?” Ole Kuyo asked with a mischievous smile as he sized up my hiking companion.

We are ready! He handed long walking sticks to each of us. Water in the backpacks!

“The hike is for the strong,” he said as if to warn my hiking partner – “Elototo ormurran.”

It is a 4km hike – very steep hill, one of the many pieces of this massive escarpment. We must do this in an hour.

We paced up, following Kuyo, a rungu under his left armpit and a water bottle on the other. Oh, these thin legs and Bata Safari boots!

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It is fast and I started panting within the fast 200 metres. We are still catching up on news about each other – what we have been up to since the last hike, the kids, cattle and of course the deadly drought. I enquired about of his daughter who was attacked by a honey badger last year. She has healed.

We reached the halfway mark – all sweating and the man kept walking, his earlobes dangling and no sweat. I and Herdsgirl are sweating bucket, panting, but, keeping up.

There was a commotion up the hill – hooves, rocks falling. Something is running. We stopped. Ole Kuyo tilted his head, listening keenly as the invisible creatures ran away from us, hidden by the acacia forest.

“Zebras,” he said.

“Not buffalo?” I asked.

“No. Zebras are lighter when they step on the ground,” he responded.

It was a relief to have stopped – to gasp some air.

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We resumed the climb, meandering around the trees – reaching the summit from a very steep bend. Mt. Shompole smiled at us as it calmy sit at the base of Lake Natron. We could see as far as Lake Magadi and the smoky hills towards Kajiado Central.

We spent a few minutes at the summit – conversing and appreciating the spectacular views. The path downwards was sharp, loose rocks and we were almost trotting as he explained the different types of Acacia species.

“There are 45 of them after scientists removed 4 from the list,” Ole Kuyo explained. He said a few difficult botanical names – I remember none. I have never cared for botanical names since high school.

We came across a zebra skull. Ole Kuyo picked it up – looked at it keenly, the same tilting of the head to the right.

“It is a male zebra,” he said. “What is the difference from the female?” I asked gladly catching up with my breath.

“Males have an extra set of teeth. They use it to bite during fights with others,” he responded.

We hooved on…still fast but careful as the rocks are slippery and arrived back at the lodge under an hour to the surprise of Leonard and his team.

Oh, this glorious cup of tea is just what I needed.

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A view of Lentorre Lodge from the summit.

There are new arrivals at the lodge – local rangers tracking a lion that is on the move from Amboseli and has just arrived in this area. The lion is such a nomad. It was collared with a tracking device in Samburu and transported to Tsavo National Park but it found its way to Amboseli and now traveled over 300KM to here.

“Maybe it is trying to get its way home,” one of the guys commented.

This area has about 65 lions that are jealously guarded by the community. I believe the nomadic lion has come to the right place.

It is time to return to Nairobi. I handed over a small shopping bag for his wife – 2kgs of sugar, tea leaves, packets of milk and biscuits for the kids.

“Pass my regards to your wife, “I said.

“I have two wives,” he said and we had a good laugh over my mistake and him having to sort out the mess of taking one shopping bag home.

You can contact Lentorre Lodge on Telephone: +254 (0) 723 317553

Email: reservations@lentorre.com

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Awesome – every room at Lentorre has a swimming pool.

The Beauty & the Beast of Ngong Hills & its Strange Name

Nongo 1IMG-20180125-WA0067Among the many tragic mistakes of the British colony and later the Kenyan republic is allowing human settlement between Nairobi National Park and Ngong Hills.

Atop Ngong Hills, you will notice the blight of humanity – the tin roofs and ugliness of Kiserian and Ongata Rongai towns. The unplanned towns are growing by the day, literally choking the two pristine areas – the park being ringed by quarter-of-an-acre plot investors and the mountain heading into that predicament shortly. Paradise is under siege.

Anyway, let me climb this mountain but let me start with its name. Ngong Hills is a strange name with no meaning. The real name is Oldoinyio Loolaiserr or Mt. Oloolaiserr. The Maa people named it after its Laiserr clan.

The name Ngong came from an original name of a spring in the area called Engong’u Enchorro Emuny (Source [Eye] of the Rhino Spring). The Brits who “discovered” and renamed it, in their “wisdom” called it “Ngong.”

There are still a few names that have remained to remind us of the true roots of the area – Oloolaiserr High School and PCEA Enchorro Emuny.

We arrived at the entrance of the climb just past Ngong town at 8AM – there is no barrier but a small building for the Kenya Forestry Service and a parking area. There was no one at the office so we decided to ascend and hopefully pay our entrance fee at the exit.

A few meters from the entrance, you will be ushered in by windmills run by KenGen – it harvests wind energy and connects to the country’s national power grid. It is not a pretty site but development does have costs and sacrifices. The Mountain has seven hills (peaks) that stretch from here to Kona Baridi in Kiserian – 11Kms.

We hit the first two peaks – quick and easy, may be motivated to put the windmills behind us.

The walking trail is a well-beaten path and very visible. It stretches forward from peak to peak and rarely diverts. The peaks are steep but give you a relief with about 100-200 metres before the next climb. In their usual character of urban Kenya, hikers have left behind plastic water containers and other ugly things.

930A5027The views are undoubtedly magnificent – the mix of forests and open areas give this mountain character. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The wind blows freshness to your face.

There are quite a number of wildlife species here – buffalo spoor crossed our path several times. Monkeys and small antelopes can be seen.  It is definitely birds’ paradise too!

As we approached the highest peace at 2,460 metres (8,071ft) above sea level, there was pandemonium on the valley facing Olosho Oibor – monkey noises – it started with a few then the whole valley was awash with echoes of unhappy primates. Then I heard a grunt – the unmistakable rumble of a leopard. It must have been trying to stalk but was discovered by the clever eye of the monkeys. A ranger would later tell me that there are many leopards in the mountain.

As we descended towards Kona Baridi, Kiserian area, we found young Maasai men herding goats and sheep. The area looks overgrazed. Soil erosion from the train is becoming a problem but not being controlled.

We reached the exit gate, but, again, there was no attendant. We walked on for lunch at Lesolio Restaurant with the hope of returning to the mountain and make it 22Km but it started to rain.

We rode a motorbike to Kiserian town, a matatu to Ngong and picked up our vehicle. We met an anxious ranger who has been wondering about the occupants of the vehicle that was left before they arrived. He had actually asked rangers to be on the lookout for us. We paid the Sh200 a person fee and head out.

To paraphrase Donald Miller, “This mountain which has seen untold sunrises, long to thunder praise but stand reverent, silent so that man’s weak praise should be given God’s attention.”

And that was Oldoinyio Loolaiserr!

*John Kisimir is a Kenyan journalist, nature enthusiast and current Board Chair of Friends of Maasai Mara.

Kwenia Hike: Cliffs and Vultures Paradise

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Months ago, a friend, John Saitoti, cajoled me to join a quick drive to Magadi and that is how I discovered Kwenia – a place of massive cliffs and intimidating valleys, 95Km south of Nairobi.

It looked like the Australia that I had seen in the movies or the US wild west, but, the cowboys here are my people, the Maasai. We had a simple to load up some emaciated cows onto a truck and move them to a new location.

As we departed, I looked back at the massive cliffs that stretched as long as the eye could see and vowed to return, toying with the idea of conquering them with me two feet.

I returned to Kwenia this week, accompanied by an experienced hiker by the name Herdsgirl. She has climbed mountains including Kilimanjaro, Kenya, and Simien in Ethiopia.

We pulled up at Saitoti’s homestead at 11:30am only to find it deserted – the nomad has moved, but the place is intact, well fenced with acacia thorns. We opened the gate and parked the vehicle inside the cattle kraal and left towards the cliffs at 12pm.

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Kwenia Cliffs, the home of Vultures

I stood at the base of the cliff and never in my life felt so small. The wall is tall – vultures and falcons flew around it. Kwenia cliffs host the largest colony of the endangered Ruppell’s vultures in East and Central Africa. There are 125 nests here and scientists have warned that the species is just one step away from extinction. I will explain later.

There is a pond where livestock and wildlife drink and it is also the beginning of some seasonal river. A herd of elands stood under the trees about 50 meters away – I clicked the Canon and the ever alert antelopes responded to the shatter of the lens and trotted away.

There is an official hiking trail but we do not know the exact starting point, so, we decided to climb from where we were. We turned slightly to the east and started to ascend away from the massive cliff. It is a rough terrain with loose volcanic rocks covered with acacia and shrubs.

We picked up the pace, with a mix of apprehension and excitement – what does this hike entail? How would it look up there? Can we survive the 23Km (7-hour walk) in this scorching sun?

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It took an hour to get to the top of the hill and started walking towards the rim of the cliffs. The Herdsgirl is holding her forte – careful, measured in her steps, skillfully testing the stability of rocks before stepping on them, conserving energy. I led the way, sometimes carelessly jumping from one rock to another – lighter and alert. Climbing hills is stuff I learned from an early age while herding other things – goats, cattle or hunting or extracting stuff from caves and other natural hideouts.

It seems the seasonal river below the cliff is an extension of another one above. We stood on the rim – the view is breathtaking. The seasonal Lake Kwenia is dusty with livestock raising plumes in their wake. Right below us, goats drunk water from the pond – the boys were taking a bath unaware of our presence, even though we might look like specks perched on the rim. Further West is Mt. Olorgesailie (correct spelling: Oloorkisalie) and a new ranch owned by Pakistanis who grow crops and rear livestock.

We head out facing South, looking for a place to climb out of the river bed. The rocks are blue, smooth and hard – slippery too. Once out of the riverbed, the terrain went back to the volcanic rocks, in plenty, like they were rained down by the heavens. Rocks and acacia trees are now our currency. We hoofed on!

We can make this easy by walking East until we find the official path but we chose not to but rather plowed through the bush, staying close to the rim to get a closer glimpse of raptors gliding and the fleeting landscapes below.

We walked for another three hours, with occasional breathers at the rim of the escarpment whose end is not in site. At times it meanders, giving a false hint that it will end, only for another longer wall to appear. The rocks below our feet are still in plenty – blessing our toes, the thorns challenging the soles of shoes.

Baboons and monkeys are in plenty. We came across the Monkey Chair several times. It is a plant, Pyrenacantha malvifolia – a rare species of desert flowering plants. It is not a very pretty site. It grows above the ground swollen and thickened with a diameter up to 1.5 metres. It has vine-like stems with green round shaped leaves. I don’t know if Monkeys make a chair of it but it is a useful to thirsty herds boys who cut it to draw water during tough times.

It is a birds’ paradise here – flowering season and they are happily chirping away in their colors and sounds. There is an occasional cowbell. We met one young man herding goats – we asked if we are going towards the right direction. He was kind but looked surprised with two backpackers just appearing on him – our common language helped. We still have a long way to go, he warned.

That was a red flag. We must pick up the pace if we have to make back to the vehicle before sunset. The Herdsgirl led, pushing hard against an unforgiving sun, buckets of sweat and occasionally sipping water from the backpack. Lucozade and apples helped to boost up our energies – it gave me this sugar rush and kind of got chatty but she preferred silence, maybe to conserve her energy.

We would need to descend when the cliffs get shorter and eventually end. The descend should lead us to a friend’s home where we can have a cup of tea before making a return to the vehicle and this means walking below the cliffs so that I can photograph the vulture nests.

We trudged on. Herdsgirl is running out of drinking water. I glanced at the sun and estimated that we have another two hours before sunset. Not good at all. The thorny bushes occasionally biting, blocking a straight path, fatigue is setting in.

I saw a boma down below as the cliff started showing signs of relenting…gently lowering its massive shoulders towards mother earth. The boma that I see does not fit the description of the one that I was told by a local guide. I was getting anxious for a descend because I estimated that the drop itself will take more than an hour.

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Brutal Descend. Drop! Drop! Drop!

We made a decision to descend and not go to the end of the cliff. If we find a path that goes down, we will take it. We walked carefully along the rim, hoping to find a way out.

We found a narrow path between rocks – looks like one used by goats or baboons to descend. We took it – a huge risk, it could lead to nowhere. It is a steep descend – legs screaming, shoes peeling off parts of their soles. Not a bad first drop. I looked back at the rim of the cliff and smiled, knowing very well that going down is a multi-layered endeavor.

We approached another drop after about 100 metres – we looked down, too steep and no sign of a path. We walked along towards the east and felt good that for the first time in over 5 hours, we are walking in a different direction.

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A bird’s nest

Second drop. Easy. Feet are screaming but adrenaline to go down reigns supreme. We approached the third drop which I thought would be the easiest. It led us down a gentle slope towards the south then suddenly came to a dead end. It seems that a cliff collapsed years ago and dumped massive volcanic boulders on our way. There is thick vegetation too. It does not look safe – the kind of place for the hyena, lion, the leopard, and the python.

The only way down is to plow through the bushes with minimal vision or climb over the massive rocks. We chose the rocks – and every time we jumped from one to another, I watched the spaces between them and got convinced that this is a home of predators. There is no sign of the rock hyrax, nor baboons nor any animal with no appetite for eating another one.

We trudged on as I waited for some roar, some movement, from the owners of this house but none came. I had a plan in place depending on who will show up.

We came to the end of the rocks and we could see flat land, but we must do the last leg which entailed loose rocks. We sat down under a tree – won out. I still have half a litre of water and that was sipped sparingly.

“There are no more drops. There are no more drops,” she celebrated. Yes, there is no more dropping like an eagle from the sky.

We finally stepped on flat land and start our return towards where we began.

The soft soil felt good on below the feet. A beautiful song. A reprieve from the endless knocks by the rocks.

We still have 10Km to walk but on flat land. The sun was smiling, changing colour, mellowing like an elder who has just discovered kindness. I looked at it and was tempted to give it the middle finger.

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Then the breeze came – cool, strong, resisting our pace towards the north. We were tired but we kept the pace in order to get to the vehicle before dark.

The massive columns of the Kwenia cliff stood on our right, gloriously glowing under the setting sun. The light is perfect and I clicked away. The vultures are returning, smoothly gliding to their nests from Maasai Mara where they go every morning to clean up the mess that lions cause. The estimated global population of Ruppell’s vulture is 22,000 and the numbers are rapidly declining due to habitat loss and poisoning by herdsmen. The many empty nests on these cliffs is a testament to their situation.

We reached the vehicle just before sunset and rushed for the water that we left behind. Goodness, it is boiling hot – literally. We had left the windows closed and this is Kwenia, where the sun rules.

We drove to a nearby village and asked for drinking water. The cattle were in the kraal, women were milking and some elders sat against a hut wall – possibly waiting for chai. Kind people they were. The cold water was better than some earthly things.

We arrived at Magadi at around 9pm and checked into the hotel – another blessing from a random call from an old friend, Tulito Turere, who booked us in.

I rested my sore body in bed having conquered Kwenia cliffs with hot springs and a swim in my mind. A story for another day.

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Monkey Chair: Pyrenacantha malvifolia – a rare species

*John Kisimir is a Kenyan journalist and nature enthusiast. He is currently the Board Chair of Friends of Maasai Mara.

Mara Magic: Lions, Obama Tent, People

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It is midnight as I listened to the roar of lions to my left and hyenas making their loud noises from the right. A zebra brayed and baboons didn’t sound like a very happy lot atop the trees down the river. The lulling roar of Talek River has just subsided after an evening of heavy rains where lightening beautifully lit the horizon.

I wondered whether the thunderous male lions have found a family of three sisters that we watched in the evening nursing seven cubs. It was heart-warming watching the cubs play – climbing on their mothers – learning to bite and roar. Of course, every game they played will add up to the final skill of killing and eating things and self-defense when they grow up. The play was beautiful until the rain started – dear Lord, they hated it and they curdled in sorrow.

Female lions do bring up their cubs as a group – a cub can suckle any female from the pride.

I wondered too about a coalition of male cheetahs that we left preparing for an evening hunt. They looked strong, deadly but calm – but we could not wait because there were too many tour vans waiting for the spectacle. My friend and fellow photographer Paras Chandaria was among them – waiting for the blood moment. That guy!

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Maasai Mara is spectacular this January – never a dull moment. It does not miss the millions of wildebeests and zebras that have migrated to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro. It is as if the land is celebrating their absence – displaying its spectacular warmth and beauty like a peacock. Even the usually dull Topi decided to put up a show for us – galloping away in happiness. Buffalo herds are here in their hundreds – a group of four walked towards our vehicle, seemingly harmless, but, I always say “Put me in a corner with a lion any time but not with a buffalo.”

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The Spectacle of Basecamp Explorer. Sheer Magic!

We are staying at Basecamp Explorer camp near Talek town with colleagues from Friends of Maasai Mara. We are “working hard” to finalise our annual plans – one big task on our plate handle this year is the construction of a conservation centre – a hub for our people here, scientists and other stakeholders. This will be ground zero for conservation conversations in the coming years as we seek to achieve Justice for People and Wildlife in equal measure.

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Using a drone to map the location of Maasai Mara Conservation Centre

Basecamp Explorer is sheer magic. It is a wickedly beautiful place (see photos). It is the best camp in Maasai Mara – I say this because of the effort they have put in taking care of the environment. They literally started a non-existing forest that now hosts over 200 bird species. One of its exciting features is Obama Tent – where US President Barack Obama stayed on a visit when he was a Senator. Let’s not talk about the food – It is mind-boggling. It is impossible to get enough of Maasai Mara. Every moment is new and beautiful!

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Friends of Maasai Mara team – dreaming, planning, doing…

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Nothing Goes to Waste. Elephant Poop Supports a Battalion of the Insect World

*John Kisimir is a Kenyan journalist and nature enthusiast. He is currently the Board Chair of Friends of Maasai Mara.

Defying Climate Change: The Turkana – A World of Strong Women

930A3720Late last week, I found myself in Isiolo – woke up early at Bomen Hotel, the sun lazily rising up from the horizon. Maybe I was awakened by the annoying motorcycles – the new disease of urban Africa. I do miss the days when the rooster and the donkey were the natural signals for a new day.

Anyway, I came here to film a project on climate change adaption – whatever this means in simple English. It is basically a way of intelligently saying “how people survive droughts.”

Isiolo is dusty but a fast-growing town. It has a brand new international airport and upcoming hotels in preparation for a monstrous project the government calls LAPSSET – that is expected to open up northern Kenya’s infrastructure through oil pipelines, new highways, and a railway line.

I left town after breakfast, driven by Abdi, another young pastoralist with hands that were specifically made to drive Land Cruisers. My host is Omar, the first Turkana Muslim that I ever met. Our destination is Ngare Mara villages north of Isiolo.

I am a child of the desert and have seen enough droughts and does not need to be told what climate change means.

So, I was cautious when an NGO asked me to find a silver lining in a drought situation. Omar took me to a few farms – most desolate. Crops have dried up due to lack of enough rain. He lamented about how much work he has put into training the nomadic Turkana people to grow crops as an alternative source of income from the dwindling livestock herds.

The further north we drove, the drier it got and it crossed my mind as to why my pastoralist people tend to settle in the worst of places. The sun was blazing, screaming down at us and it is not even 9am.

“God, I hope you put something very valuable under this land. Something like diamonds or oil,” I prayed.

“Everyone is trying their best,” Omar interrupted my thoughts. “The only thing letting us down is the rain.

930A3570Ngare Mara is a small trading centre on the Moyale-Isiolo Highway. We stopped at a home without a fence, house made of mud and reeds with a corrugated iron for the roof.  I got introduced to Paulina Eken, 38, a mother of 9 children. She also takes care of four orphans – children of her dead friends and relatives.

I expected Paulina to start stories about the drought, the lack of schools fees especially in the month of January. She beckoned us to a fenced area at the back of the house and opened the gate. Viola! A vegetable garden! I mean – really healthy kales, onions, and tomatoes.

What the…were the words in my mind. She told me she had stopped buying vegetables about a year ago – a happy woman and confident of surviving the drought after losing all her livestock. She is part of a group of women who have tried to grow the crop in a larger piece of land but the rain was not sufficient. Lucky enough, the NGO had introduced them to various ventures that include table banking and kitchen gardens. Paulina struggles to pay school fees and other bills but at least she is able to feed them.

Next to her is another eccentric lady – Mary Ekeno is straight out of the feminist manual and we had good laugh over many things. She runs a shop that sells Turkana artifacts …stuff that she makes with her own hands and this is helping her put her children through university, high school, and primary schools.  I tried out a wedding headgear and threatened to marry her.

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Getting their hands dirty.

In the nearby Zebra village, a group of women is working hard to better their lives. Here, poor rains ruined their dreams of a bumper harvest but they have just laid down a pipeline that will enable them to irrigate the farm. I found them working on the farm fence – they were sweating, getting their hands dirty.

“Where are the men?” I asked.

“We are the men here. We do everything. We are waiting for no one,” Julieta Ngirisia responded.

I learned that Turkana men kind of don’t fancy farming but rather do the culturally “honourable” thing of looking after livestock. Meanwhile, their women are learning new skills, trying business ventures, paying schools fees, feeding their families and planning for the future.

These women are literally defying climate change. I pay my respect to the Turkana woman!

I guess, my client has a lot of good stories that need to be told.

*John Kisimir is a Kenyan journalist and nature enthusiast. He is currently the Board Chair of Friends of Maasai Mara.

Memories: Before Giraffes Left the Rangelands

20180107_090857My earliest memory of giraffes as a child is of tall, arrogant, condescending, but beautiful giants. Of all the wild animals that we interracted with and admired, the giraffe never lacked colour.

First, it stands still and stare down at you as you approached. The huge males would let us get as close as possible before walking away, but most times, we didn’t get close enough. In my eye as a child, the giraffe had this majestic elegance and confidence that ruled the canopies of our acacia trees and anything above my height. I loved how it ran with all its legs literally in the air. That was the 1980s and 90s before the Savannah plains of Kajiado County were invaded by the land subdivision (Quarter Acre Plot) disease – before the tin-roof disease arrived in Maasailand – before the thousands of giraffes left the land for better grounds or were literally hunted down.

We would sing a particular song to the giraffes:
Ormeut Lai Lentolit Nado (My Giraffe of Red Marrow
Kimanita Eliyo Elukunya (Your Head is Lonely)

Today, I found myself at the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi – a sanctuary where the endangered Rothschild giraffes are bred and released to the wild in order to increase its depleted population. Rothschild giraffes, also known as Baringo Giraffe, are mostly endemic to central and northern Kenya. Maasai and Reticulated species of giraffe are found in Narok, Kajiado, Tsavo and other parts of Southern Africa. The obvious way to differentiate Rothschild from the rest is that they have no markings on the lower leg, thus giving it the impression of wearing white stockings.

Giraffe Centre is a popular place where tourists come to see; feed and pet the giraffes. Since I am not a big proponent of petting things, especially wild animals, I kept a little distance and watched my friends Amos Kipeen and Harris Taga of Friends of Maasai Mara feed the gentle giants.

My upbringing gifted me with a cautious mind – always be careful around wild animals, however, tamed they seemed to be! So, I preferred to chat with the guides, asking a barrage of questions – they seemed to really have a grasp of details on the giraffes, like its heart can weigh up to 11kgs. I asked “What was the worst experience here between giraffes and visitors?

“Giraffes can head-butt especially if you go close to them without the pellets in your hand. We also have one temperamental giraffe and has hurt people before,” the guide told me. I remember too as a kid, giraffes fighting – heading butting one another in a fight for dominance and at times would lose consciousness in the process.

Tourists kept streaming in – most reacting in different ways when the giraffes lowered their heads to pick up pellets from their hands. Some would put the pullets in the mouths and the giraffes would pick it with their 45cm tongues. Selfies went round as giraffes kissed the tourists on the mouths – I found it gross, rather, I am kissing no frog today, not even a Rothschild beauty.

There were moments of humour and anxiety when a giraffe would surprise an absent-minded visitor. One lady with her friend freaked out and smashed the man’s phone against a wall and ran. The man ran to the phone, picked it up, screaming “Babe you broke my phone. Oh no!”

She apologized profusely, promising to replace the screen – still in shock, with her hands on her chest. I thought the guy should have first checked if the lady was okay instead of reaching out to the phone, but, who am I to judge in this matter?

Anyway, the giraffe population is in trouble worldwide. We only have so few of them left – mostly as a result of habitat loss and poaching. The giraffe population in Africa has dropped from 140,000 to 80,000 in just 15 years, according to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. It’s a silent extinction.

That is the reason why we must support the County Government of Kajiado spatial plans to stop the continuous subdivision of the county rangelands into quarter and one-eighth acre plots. This insatiable demand for individual land ownership has destroyed wildlife habitat, taken away crucial livestock rangelands and grew urban areas in places they should not be. We must protect Maasai rangelands for the sake of our wildlife sectors.

*John Kisimir is a Kenyan journalist and nature enthusiast. He is currently the Board Chair of Friends of Maasai Mara.