Oliver finds new love in Kenya – March, 2014
Ugly, smelly, grumpy and liable to foam at the mouth after catching the scent of a female five miles downwind – I’m not getting personal again; I’m talking about camels. It seems to me that camels often get a very bad press. In March however, I was lucky enough to strike up an excellent working relationship with ‘Mongolia’; a decidedly distinguished dromedary. As per his likely wishes, I had better briefly address the above stereotype for my avid readers (after all, we wouldn’t want him to ‘get the hump’…). In his defence I will say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, some might enjoy a piquant musk, and, most importantly my trusty mount carried me across equatorial Kenya very patiently and with only minimal salacious foaming.
The morning I first met Mongolia began as all good mornings should: with a piping hot cup of tea. This particular cup of tea however was poured from a somewhat care-worn teapot, displaying characterful battle-scars of chipped enamel that told tales of many years’ faithful service in the field. Sitting in a sturdy, well-seasoned camping chair I surveyed the scene before me with a generous helping of excitement!
The Martian-red, sun-scorched soil of the Laikipia region stretched into the distance. Parched thickets of small bushes clung to life in this vast empty landscape, their desiccated twigs shivering in the light breeze like ancient, gnarled, twitching fingers. In the background of this unending canvas, a large sand coloured mountain rose to meet the clear blue sky. Taking centre stage in this incredible alien landscape, a train of four Somali camels were lying down in an orderly fashion. The tallest, with the lead position and the most imperious expression, was Mongolia.
The three camels who followed compliantly in his wake carried all the necessary camping equipment for my expedition. At the head of the convoy, Mongolia was reserved for the exclusive duty of first class personnel transport.
The day ahead was to be a long and fulfilling one. There was a lot of ground to cover before we would reach the target site where tents would be pitched for the night. The camels were tugged unceremoniously to their feet, their haughty expressions growing even more contemptuous as they rose awkwardly to their full height. Two local Samburu guides, resplendent in red, set out into the bush, accompanied by a lady bedecked with swinging binoculars and a large rifle slung over her shoulder. I marched into the wilderness with this small party at a purposeful pace, determined to cover the day’s allotted mileage.
After a few hours walking we stopped for water and something to nibble on. I stuffed my hat into a ‘wait-a-bit’ bush to prevent the increasingly lively wind from carrying it off into the far unknown, and chose a comfortable rock to rest on. Less than a mile into the quest, I had discovered first-hand how this bush acquired its informal name. The protruding thorns of the plant (acacia mellifera) are so long and sharp that if you aren’t paying sufficient attention and your clothes become entangled, you will be forced to pause in your journey until you can extract yourself from the bush’s painful clutches.
Apart from the attention-grabbing flora, there are so many interesting things to see on a walking safari, from observing strange insects and birds, to witnessing a master-class in tracking big-game. In the intense heat, with the sun at its zenith, we walked on and I took a studious interest in being shown hoof and paw prints of increasingly large sizes. Suddenly the group stopped. In an instant the locals and my guide silently dropped to their knees. I followed suit and joined them in gazing through a tall screen of impenetrable bushes just ahead of us. My eyes searched quickly in the middle distance as feelings of excitement and wonder as to what was just the other side of this flimsy shrubbery curtain gripped me.
Then I saw them. Breathing as silently as I could considering my quickened heartbeat, I crouched low to the ground as my gaze was met by the two beautiful creatures just ahead of me. A baby zebra with soft matted fur was starring right back at me through the thicket. Just to the left of this dainty striped horse was its very sturdy mother. The mother kept a careful, controlling eye on our group. Quietly watching these gentle animals was a magical experience; time passed slowly while I was a momentary guest in the private world of these zebras.
We moved on, and after more walking I thought it was about time to test whether Mongolia had a Rolls-Royce ride to match his upper-crust personality. He did not. If you haven’t tried it before, boarding a camel can be a surprising experience. For your own future reference, be prepared that the camel will lurch quite suddenly forwards. Then, just at the point where you think he’s standing up, he will sway equally forcefully backwards and further upwards, until you are perched a lofty ten to twelve feet in the air! I held on to the saddle well during this initiation test, Mongolia clearly judged that I had passed with flying colours, and the view from my new vantage point was wonderful.
By the time we stopped to set up camp in the late afternoon, I was glad to roll out my comfortable sleeping bag for a short rest. Then, after a thirst-slaking tea and a jolly good slice of cake, we left the camels behind and made one final foray into the wilderness before I could curl up in my cosy tent.
I was under the impression that we were just going on another short walk to survey the land immediately around where camp had been pitched. We ambled quietly along, as the light began to soften and a few heavy drops of rain slightly darkened the earth. My guide drew her binoculars to her nose and peered through them. Ahead of us was a huge rocky escarpment. While we were looking up, on top of this great cliff a troop of baboons were congregating to look back down at us and the vast open world below them. To the right of the baboons, dramatic ink-black clouds and a brilliant vivid rainbow painted the enormous other-worldly sky.
The next thing I knew, I was following the locals on all fours, climbing up this same cliff. An unimaginable reward awaited me at the top. Time stood still as immense clouds rolled across the steel grey sky. There was nothing but flat, empty shrub-dotted landscape as far as the eye could see. I had concentrated so hard on climbing that I hadn’t realised how high up we were until we stopped to sit on the pinnacle of this great rock formation.
There was total silence. The occasional gentle breath of wind passed by, emphasising in my mind the incredible remoteness of my position, and adding an extra deference for the breath-taking sheer drop a few inches in front of me. The sun began to glide behind the flat sea of heavy clouds, the light transforming from pale pink-grey to a burning deep orange.
After what felt like a lifetime absorbing this dream-like scene, the sun had set and it was time to climb down (literally) and return to camp. That evening, the ‘head chef’ had created a delicious roast with nothing more than a camp fire and a large pot. As we ate, the leaden clouds finally released their pent-up torrent of water and the East African rainy season officially began. Despite the downpour I slept soundly in my tent.
A walking safari in Kenya can be a really rewarding experience. By exploring the bush on foot you are able to interact with nature in a completely different way that is not possible from a vehicle. Although the extra level of adventurousness required is not for everyone, you can certainly get far more ‘up close’ to the surrounding landscape, and you will be treated to things that are often overlooked on a normal game-drive from a 4×4. You will have the chance to learn about the world of smaller animals, from tiny insects to the many species of birds. There are even plenty of interesting things to discover about some of the plants. Perhaps the most exciting element of a walking safari is being taught how to recognise the many different animal tracks; you may even be rewarded with some big game sightings as the result of your tracking. The extra effort required to see the animals makes a sighting all the more rewarding. Try it for yourself – camels are optional.
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