Wednesday, December 28, 2016


The flight to Nairobi is painless. The gorgeous flight attendants flit around in their bright red skirtsuits. Two back-to-back red eye flights have left us a bit dizzy and dopey but not unable to appreciate our incredible good fortune. We step off the plane on to the tarmac and into the cool morning light. We collect our luggage and are escorted through customs and outside to the other terminal. Dozens of flagpoles, most of which are flying bedraggled flags or bare, frame a median decorated with lifesize sculptures of the local wildlife. A choir sways in the shade of the terminal singing christmas carols and songs in swahili for the new arrivals. We zip through the domestic terminal where we go through not one but two security machines — the first of which neglects to notice the full water bottles in our backpacks. We are warmly greeted by Noah and then the rest of the Jonas team in the terminal.

Out on the tarmac our little plane awaits. Just enough space for the two families and in a few minutes we’re up over Nairobi. The land around the airport is grassland but soon gives way to the shantytown on the outskirts of the city. Every cluster of houses — a tight grouping of rusty tin roofs from above is bordered by colourful piles of garbage. Mist whips across the wings as we climb. The city, with its very sparse skyline, fades into the distance as we sail over bigger houses and greener neighbourhoods. The streets give way to fields and compounds of houses and shacks with yards hemmed in by shrubs and little corrals for goats. The clouds billow around us, looking substantial enough to step out on to and they unsettle the little plane. We see Mount Kenya piercing through the cloud cover in the distance to our right and below, expanses of tan scrub interrupted by the occasional road or landing strip.

We come down after what seems like minutes on to a landing strip in the middle of nowhere. Three jeeps and the other two families await. We meet our travel companions along with Kerry, our guide, and jump into the jeeps. Some of the kids climb up on the roofs, we pull over briefly to watch the plane take off overhead and then head into the bush.

Kerry drives, snaking along tracks and weaving in and out of dry stream beds. We pull in to camp where we are greeted by a crowd of men dressed in layer upon layer of colourful fabric. Some have stretched earlobes, some wear elaborately beaded jewelry and headdresses. All are smiling from ear to ear. We are greeted with a cool washcloth and a glass of water or juice. We walk around and take it all in. The camp has been set up very thoughtfully, with communal spaces and a long line of tents leading off into the bush. Behind the tents are a line of showers and latrines. The outhouses are a rectangle of canvas with a velcro door and inside a foldable wooden open-sided box topped with a seat over a freshly-dug pit. The dirt that came out of the hole sits beside the box and you shovel in a heapful when you’re done. Each of us has a canvas tent big enough for a mattress on the ground with just enough space for our bags. Outside the front is a washbasin with towel, a little table with mirror, drinking water and a chair. The bed is draped in colourful fabric, with a bathrobe, towel and headlamp. Not a lot of details overlooked in this place.

In the distance are two rock formations that jut above the flat terrain. They are this afternoon’s destination. The ground all around is rutted dusty dirt or sand with clumps of bone dry grass and the occasional shrub or small tree. Nothing is very tall and the land is quite flat except for a few distant outcrops of rocks. The flora consists of plants that look like a solitary spike of aloe popping out of the earth in clusters, acacia bushes and the occasional spiky tree.They haven’t had rain this year and it shows. The only animals who flourish here are the ones that don’t drink. Ever. Grant’s gazelle, impala, eland, dikdiks and gerenuk — variations on a theme which vary in size, colouring and horns but who all jump like champions and dash off at an impressive clip at our approach.

We scramble up a little hill of rocks and find dry puddles of baboon droppings. From the top we watch a hyena scramble away, we see a few giraffes’ heads comically pop up above the tree tops. Tatian, one of the guides, amuses himself and us by mimicking baboon noises and popping out from behind bushes to scare the daylights out of us. The sun is punishing. We are above 5000 feet and our December lily white skin is suffering.

We head back to camp, stopping at the local soccer pitch — a field of dust with four upright stumps buried in the soil for goalposts. Our guides and some of our team kick the ball around in the blazing sun. Some tiny local kids come out to watch — it’s hard to tell from where with nary a building in sight. They stand huddled close together a few yards off and are rewarded with a handful of candies to share.

Back at the camp we find the camels all hobbled — a rope running from one front leg across the back of the neck to the other front leg.

We all bundle up in our down jackets and have cocktails — sundowners — around the fire and watch first Venus, then a dazzling display of stars emerge from the darkening sky. We sit down for a feast. It is amazing what they can produce in the makeshift kitchen tent. We head to bed and find hot water bottles in our bed for the surprisingly cool night. We lie awake listening to the wind and the hyenas call — first from one side of the tent then the other. Close enough to discourage any midnight trips to the outhouse.

We are woken at 6:30 for our 8 o’clock departure. The kids start the walk with a little camel ride. Kerry and Rana, one of the Samburu guides point out gazelle middens, baboon spider nests, leopard and hyena droppings, and the tracks of a dozen animals — from dikdiks to baboons to giraffes. Everywhere are mounds of dried ]elephant droppings. Kerry explains that the lack of rain here while other areas have had their share means the animals are in short supply.

The landscape goes on and on, as far as the eye can see. We are heading for a river a few hours’ walk away. The sun beats down with little to no shade, crisping all the skin that didn’t get fried in yesterday afternoon’s outing. The kids, with their hot pink cheeks, are taking today’s warnings about covering up a little more seriously.

We walk single file and then clump up. The closer to the front or to the guide, the better your chances of seeing wildlife or hearing the explanations of what we’re seeing. Kerry leads the charge with a shotgun slung nonchalantly over her shoulder in case we get charged. Every growing thing looks to be at death’s doorstep and is peppered with spikes which seem to reach out and grab at your legs or clothes, leaving fabric torn and skin in bloody tatters. The prickly tree is dubbed the fish hook tree as it cleverly plucks hats of people’s heads or plunges itself deep into our flesh.

We see common zebra, lots of gazelle, eland and dikdik and the occasional foursome of giraffe. Rana point out baboon spider nests in the ground, perfectly symmetrical holes that look practically woven. Someone dangles a piece of grass into the hole, trying to bait the spider into defending its lair. It finally latches on, the guide pulls it out in one fell swoop and deposits the massive hairy crawler on someone’s hat. A little smaller than the palm of my hand, it is covered in pale brown fur. It isn’t aggressive but it is huge and those of us too proud to chicken out give its soft down a stroke before depositing it back in the hole. They bite, Rana tells us, but it doesn’t hurt that much. Pass.

Kesheeneh finds a tortoise and flips it over for us to have a look. It pees in self-defense, undoubtedly trying (and succeeding) to make itself less appetizing to us. In the process it loses precious moisture that will not be replenished until the next rains. Rana counts the stripes on the two-foot long creature’s breast plate and divides the total in two before telling us it’s about 16.

I’m learning that you can tell a lot about an animal by its scat. Leopard and hyena may have the same diet but a hyena’s stomach is able to dissolve the hair and bone fragments that a leopard’s will just pass. The hyena’s is white and chalky while a leopard’s just looks like a big cat poo. Aardvark bury their droppings underneath other animals’ middens, their pellets sparkle with the metallic looking heads of termites.

We arrive at our new camp, this one strung out along a winding river. Kerry looks crestfallen when we arrive. The river is so low. Each of the tents faces the meandering river and the smaller people head down to play and wade in the shallows. Everything around us is dry and dusty but the river is alive with birds. Herons and hawks, weavers and starlings are fishing in the eddies or dipping overhead. The trees are full of nests — elaborate, cleverly designed constructions like the social weaver’s nest which looks like a a woven ball. It only has one door until the eggs hatch and then the parents open a second as an escape hatch. The duplex of the bird world. They are called social weavers because they nest in large colonies, making the tree they’ve chosen look a little like a christmas tree dripping with ornaments.

Jamie, Kerry’s husband, joins us for Christmas eve. A fish hook tree is strung with tinsel and ornaments. I can’t quite accept that tomorrow’s the big day in this oh-so-unchristmassy setting.

After another terrific meal, we watch monkeys screeching and gamboling on the opposite shore. We hear a leopard grumbling as the sun sets, as it paces along the opposite bank. Hyenas call throughout the night and the guides hear a lion roar but we sleep through it.


Unknown said...

Love it Sas! So foreign and so intersting and as aways, so well written. Keep them coming xxoxoxoxoxoxoxooxoxox

Peter C said...

Sounds great. Just read it to Dad. He recommends avoiding all wildlife. Peter

Unknown said...

Hi Sarah, Just catching up on your amazing adventure..fascinating and love your writing style! from Nancy Fletcher