On 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After 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.
As 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 beckon. 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!
This 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.
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!