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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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.

930A3791
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.