Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Adventures in Kenya's Dream Country




The oasis, green and manicured, swam out of the cloud below us, a flash of emerald in the apparently endless thorn bush that covers most of northern Kenya. "That's the Wildenestein ranch." Harro, the pilot of the single-engined Cessna, said and pointed downward. "Fifty thousand acres, with its own golf course. Alex Wildenstein, the art dealer, one of the richest men in the world." I had a glimpse of sprinkler-fed greens and fairways, two or three big ranch-type houses with dark, thatched roofs and a blaze of bougainvillea before we slipped behind a rocky hill and landed on the Ol Jogi strip, about 240 kilometers north of Nairobi.


Ahead of us a wall of rain obscured Wamba, our destination. "There's a big mountain right beside Wamba, and there's no way I'm going to try and land you in that." We waited half an hour for the storm to blow over, then Harro bounced the Cessna into the air, made for a gap in the clouds and five minutes later touched down among the puddles, taxiing towards a girl standing beside a green Toyota Land Cruiser. Dressed in safari shirt and shorts, legs and arms deeply bronzed, scarf tied loosely over her dark hair, Helen looked too young and attractive, I thought, to be what they said she was -- the best camel safari operator in Kenya. She greeted us, her four clients, with a big smile; Elizabeth and her brother John, Eleanor, my wife, and me.


"Welcome to Wamba. It never rains in Wamba but it's been pouring all morning. I didn't think you guys would make it. Who'd like a beer?"


Ten minutes later Helen was driving us across open country toward distant blue hills rising out of the Samburu plain. "That's the Mathews Range, where we're going." Four gerenuk raced out of the bush on our right and went leaping like ballet dancers across the road. A little farther on, an elegant gray and white bird of prey swooped above us. "Pale Chanting Goshawk," Helen said with hardly a glance.


Leaving the road we bumped through the bush towards a manyatta, a collection of low grass huts. The Samburu crowded round us, the men naked from the waist up, their skin gleaming in the sunlight, teeth flashing. The women smiled shyly until they saw it was Helen and then pressed forward, the girls slim and straight with rows of beads round their necks. The Samburu, like their cousins the Masai, are a handsome warrior race of Nilotic descent. We bumped down the hill toward the river. More Samburu appeared among the trees, and the first camels. We had arrived at our first camp, hidden under the trees on the banks of a lugga, normally a dry riverbed, but today a raging torrent. It reminded me of a Highland river in spring, peat-brown and roaring. "This is the Seiya," Helen said "the most dangerous lugga in Kenya. The water can rise so fast you don't know what's hit you."


Helen first saw the Seiya eight years ago. "After four days of walking. I came round the corner and saw this view -- like a dream come true!"


"In what way a dream?" I asked.


"This is everyone's dream country. All the old Kenya people. This is where they want to be and can't ... because it's so far from everything ... and because of the Samburu, they're fantastic. Just look how beautiful it is..."


I looked. Beyond the foaming waters of the Seiya, I could see the forested heights of the Mathews Range, and beyond them the blue bulk of the Ndotos Mountains; in the distance we could just make out the outline of Nyiru, the mountain that guards the southern approach to Lake Turkana, the Jade Sea. This was the route taken by Count Teleki, the Austro-Hungarian who discovered the lake in 1888 and named it Rudolf after the tragic crown prince who killed himself in a suicide pact with his young lover at Mayerling.


A slim shape materialized at my side and poured me a cup of kinyeji, -- tea, water and milk all boiled together, with sugar to taste.


"This is Jespat," Helen said. "He's my ngerai, my Samburu 'son.' When a Samburu is circumcised at the age of 14, a man stands behind him and holds his back. It's the most important moment of his life. He mustn't cry out or show any pain. ... Jespat's father asked me to be his ayelai, godparent, but because I'm a woman, I wasn't allowed to hold his back. But he calls me 'Mama', and he is my 'son.'" Afterwards we walked up the lugga to a rocky outcrop from where we glimpsed the 17,000-foot shape of Mount Kenya, its snowfields glinting in the afternoon sun. "Krapf was the first European to see Mount Kenya," Helen said. "But when he reported that it had snow on it, no one believed him. They said it couldn't have snow on it, being on the Equator. And it was only after he died they found out he had been telling the truth after all." On the way back to camp, Eleanor caught her sleeve on a wait-a-bit thorn, acacia senegal. Helen freed her. "You know why it's called that?" she asked.


"Because wait-a-bits have one thorn going one way and two going the other way, so whichever way you pull you're caught." In the dusk, the wooden camel bells clacked. One of Helen's Samburu was driving the camels back to camp after a day's grazing. They looked enormous in the fading light, pale ghosts against the trees.


We dined by candlelight, facing the still-surging Seiya. The new moon was a pale sliver surrounded by a dark orb. "The old moon cradling the young moon in her arms," John said, quoting Shakespeare's Caliban. Inevitably, perhaps, we talked about lions. "We had one in the camels' boms [stockade] one night," Helen said. "He jumped into the boma one night. The camels scattered and he picked one off at his leisure. It was my favorite camel, Narok, which means black. He used to come up and greet me when I came back to camp. Another time, two lions jumped on one of the camels when they were out feeding and clung on top of it as it galloped through camp. Poor thing, how it could run at all, lions are so bloody heavy!" I went to sleep listening for a lion's roar.


Just after 8 the next morning we started walking, 16 camels, nine Samburu -- each warrior carrying a spear -- and five wazungu, white people. The raging river of last night had shrunk to a trickle, and the sand was rose-pink and firm. Leaving the lugga, closely shadowed by a young and handsome Eatelour eagle, we started to climb through the wait-a-bit thorn and commiphora scrub. After a couple of hours, we reached a ridge and stopped for a drink. The view was sweeping, the air sparkling after the rain. As we marched down to rejoin the Seiya, Helen talked about previous safaris. "A couple of years ago, I did a safari in this area, all women. Great fun. The Seiya was in flood then too, so we couldn't walk down the lugga. We finished up in a camp we call 'kampi ya helicopta,' because we had to fly them out of there after four days."


Although she was educated at St. Mary's, Ascot, Helen could not be more completely Kenyan. Her great uncle is Bunny Allen, the legendary professional hunter who lives in Lamu. He was the role model, they say, for the white hunter in Mogambo, played by Clark Gable, and the real-life lover of Ava Gardner. When he celebrates his 90th birthday in May, Helen and the rest of the clan will be there, by order.


The sun was now high and we stopped gratefully in the shade of some big, flat-topped thorn trees, acacia tortolis. "This is Loduar. We'll camp here," Helen said. "A lion took a goat in the camp here once when we were unpacking." After lunch, washed down with delicious South African white Zonnenbloem, we all lay down for a snooze -- except for Iron-Man John who went for a scramble up the nearest mountain. Faintly I heard the throb of cow bells.


"The old man who owns them is as skinny as anything," Helen said, "but he's worth a fortune. The other day he brought me his old watch, which had stopped a long time ago, and asked me to have it mended. I took it to Nairobi, but they said it would be cheaper to get a new one. But the old boy wouldn't have it. 'Get it fixed,' he told me. 'I don't care how much it costs. I can always sell a cow.'" I did a quick calculation. I reckoned his herd of 400 cows was worth about pounds 50,000 ($80,000).


All round us, the camp was full of bustle, fires crackling, smoke rising, camels grumbling. Helen's headman, tall, distinguished Lelesengei, was erecting the portable shower, a canvas bucket suspended from a tree, which at the pull of a toggle decanted piping hot water onto the weary walker. A portable toilet was being set up in secluded spot, and delicious smells were already wafting from the camp kitchen, presided over by Ali, a tall Turkana and the only non-Samburu on the staff.


Eleanor and I strolled up a side lugga at dusk, with Helen's dogs, Suiyan, which means wild dog, her daughter Tongai, or Leave It, and her daughter Wasi-Wasi, or Nervous. It was magically still; superb starlings already roosting, doves crooning sleepily, a sense of hush and mystery. The dogs suddenly shot off into the bush after a dik-dik, coming back sheepishly five minutes later. We had dinner sitting in a semi-circle in front of a blazing fire, the stars bright as diamonds, the air warm as a South Sea zephyr. The feeling of well-being was overwhelming.


If you go to bed at 10, it's not hard to get up at 6, when you hear the splash of hot water being poured into the canvas bucket outside the tent. A cup of kinyeji tea and we were away at 7, striding north along the lugga with the sun coming up over the hills on our right. We had only two Samburu with us, Lemusana and Lenareu, and four camels, two for riding and two carrying our personal kit. The soft sand held a multitude of tracks -- baboon, lesser kudu, buffalo, a big lone bull elephant. Lemusana stopped and pointed. A polished track six inches wide ran right straight across the lugga for about a 100 meters. I wondered if a leopard had dragged a baboon across the sand, but there were no tracks. Lemusana said something in Samburu. "Python," Helen translated. "A really big one." She bent down. "It was travelling right to left, you can see how these small stones have been moved very slightly."


We stopped on a shady knoll for breakfast -- fresh mango, buttered egg, bacon, chipolatas, home-made bread and freshly-brewed coffee -- and watched the rest of the camels threading their way down the lugga, aristocratic noses in the air, great cushioned feet carrying all our camping gear and supplies effortlessly across the sand, the Samburu walking beside them at their tireless lope. Apart from kinyeji tea in the morning, they neither eat nor drink in the middle of the day. By 10, the sun was hot. Helen persuaded me to lead one string of camels; it was hard work, having to yank them away from every succulent bush we passed.


She was almost as good a tracker as Lemusana. The big bull elephant's tracks were unmissable, but you had to be good to spot the caracal, the African lynx, and tell the neat, deep hoofmarks of a lesser kudu. We saw one ambling across the lugga, his elegant vertical stripes making him invisible as soon as he entered the bush. "There's a lion." Helen pointed to the big, round pug marks. "Probably a lioness. She's walked right down the lugga, see!" A thought crossed my mind. We had no guns with us, only our Samburu's spears.


The sunlight bounced off the lugga with blinding force and we had a four-hour walk in front of us. Eleanor and Elizabeth decided to ride; Ndume, the big bull, and his young companion Lavan hoisting them up to tower above us. Eventually at about 2:30 p.m. we scrambled up a slope into the shade of an acacia grove. "This is kampi ya helicopta where the all-girl safari finished up," Helen laughed. So much water had come down the Seiya that the chopper nearly sank in the sand. That's why I love it here so much. You never know what's going to happen next." The spot we chose for lunch, looking out over the great lugga, was also popular with the camels that kept barging past. I expected to be trodden on at any moment, but they stepped round us with surprising delicacy, not even knocking over my glass of wine.


Next day, equipped with our walking sticks cut from a special tree for us by Lenareu, we left the Seiya, turning first into a lugga called Lokochum, and then into the Ngare Narok. It means literally black water, but that is the Samburu way of saying crystal clear. Soon we were walking between high cliffs. There were leopard tracks everywhere. A sudden movement caught my eye. A leopard? It moved again. No, a rock hyrax. It looked like an overgrown guinea pig although, incredible as it may seem, it is the closest living relative of the elephant.


We camped that night under some magnificent, wide-spreading acacia elatiors that looked over 100 years old. I noticed some of the younger trees had been chopped down. "The Samburu cut them down to feed their goats," Helen said. "It happens everywhere," To me it seemed a sacrilege, but I knew the reason: too many goats and too little grazing. And why too many goats? According to people who know the area well, aid agencies are trucking in food, which the Samburu, who have survived in this wilderness for centuries, do not need. This increases the birth rate, bigger families have more goats, which need more grazing ... a vicious circle that in the end will damage if not destroy the habitat, inevitably fragile, and the Samburu way of life.


Helen reserved the last full day of the safari for our severest test. Up at 6, cup of kinyeji, breakfast and off at 8, walking uphill through the forest. It soon became clear that we were on a trail much used by elephant and, from the freshness of the football-sized droppings, very recently. "It's only the elephants that keep this track open," Helen said, pointing to branches and whole trees uprooted and pushed to one side. Red-eyed doves cooed insistently. Helen mimicked them. "I am the Red-Eyed Dove, I am the Red-Eyed Dove" Another bird, invisible in the thick foliage, piped "Hallo Georgie, Hallo Georgie" "Emerald Cuckoo," Helen said. She seemed to know every call.


"These elephant were here on the 22nd, or the 23rd," Helen said pointing to the side of the path.


"How on earth do you know that?"


"The tracks must have been made the day it rained, the day you arrived; the 22nd, or the day after."


We started to climb seriously, watched without much interest by Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaters, Tropical Boubous and Paradise Flycatchers with extremely long, bright chestnut tails. Unfortunately, they are shy and hard to see. Reaching the top of the pass, we sat down for a cup of lemonade and a biscuit, Lemusana's spear, I noticed, had an unusually long blade. "It's a hunting spear," Helen explained. "Lemusana was a great hunter. He killed three elephants with a spear when he was young man, on his own."


Lemusana drew back his right arm and made a throwing gesture. "The elephant was as far as that tree." Twenty paces, I guessed, lifting the spear. It was surprisingly heavy, and the blade was razor sharp. Lemusana pointed on himself to where it had struck home, just behind the shoulder, right in the heart.


"He got 800 shillings for the ivory, enough to buy 16 goats."


We struggled up the last steep pitch, past huge cactus-like cycads, the dinosaurs of the plant world, to a great slab of smooth rock tilted at an angle of 45 degrees. From the top we had a breathtaking view of Mathews Peak, its summit hidden in cloud, and of the rest of the range falling away to the distant plain.


I asked Helen what her ultimate safari would be. "Well, it would have to be through the Mathews and the Ndotes to the Jade Sea. But it's a hell of a long way and the last bit would be very tough walking. You'd have to be very fit. Next time."


In the morning we said goodbye to the Samburu. "Ole serrena," they chorused. "Ole serrena." To them, of course, a walk to the Jade Sea would be nothing.


How to Get There


The safari was arranged by Desert Rose Camel Safaris, run personally by Helen Douglas-Dufresne, PO Box 24696 Nairobi, who specializes in the unspoiled Samburu area in northern Kenya. Safaris range from 1 to 14 days; special safaris available on request; longer safaris are best value. All meals, drinks (first-class food and wine) and local transport included. Prices depend on number of people in party, and range from 1 person at $752 per day to 6 persons (the preferred minimum) at $204 pp pd, to 10 persons at $160 pp pd. Charter flights Nairobi-Samburu-Nairobi, single-engined 5-seater $1,600, twin-seater $2,100, Caravan 10-seater $3,322. Bookings can be made through Geosafaris Lts Nairobi (Tel. 254 2 884258/9 882134, fax 254 2 884443).


American Express (Tel. 755-9000) offers flights to Nairobi on Air France for $1,154 via Paris. British Airways also offers flights for the same price with an overnight stay in London.