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.

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. 

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!

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.

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