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!

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.

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

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.

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.