Lentorre: The Hike of a Super Warrior

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lunch!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Zebras,” he said.

“Not buffalo?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A view of Lentorre Lodge from the summit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Email: reservations@lentorre.com

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Awesome – every room at Lentorre has a swimming pool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that was Oldoinyio Loolaiserr!

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

Kwenia Hike: Cliffs and Vultures Paradise

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

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

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

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

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

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Kwenia Cliffs, the home of Vultures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brutal Descend. Drop! Drop! Drop!

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

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

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

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A bird’s nest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monkey Chair: Pyrenacantha malvifolia – a rare species

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

Mara Magic: Lions, Obama Tent, People

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

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

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

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

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

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The Spectacle of Basecamp Explorer. Sheer Magic!

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

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

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

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Friends of Maasai Mara team – dreaming, planning, doing…
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Nothing Goes to Waste. Elephant Poop Supports a Battalion of the Insect World

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

Memories: Before Giraffes Left the Rangelands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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