A walk­ing tour in Kenya re­veals crea­tures great and small

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W WHEN I land at Nanyuki Air­field in Laikipia, some­where near the cen­tre of Kenya, I’ve al­ready been on sa­fari for more than a week and I’m tir­ing of it. Not tir­ing of the wildlife, which is end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing. But tir­ing of all the in­su­la­tion – trans­fer­ring from per­ma­nent camp to for­ti­fied ve­hi­cle then back again, like mov­ing be­tween pro­tec­tive air bub­bles. I can see the wilder­ness out­side. But I can’t touch it.

Which is why I’ve come here – for the prom­ise of some­thing more hands-on. “They say that when you cross the equa­tor your blood starts go­ing the other way around,” the pi­lot jokes through the head­set as he pulls our eight-seater to a stop on the tar­mac. We are di­rectly on the equa­tor, nearly 2000 me­tres above sea level. Aca­cia trees rip­ple in the shim­mer of the bru­tal heat.

As a con­cept, a “walk­ing sa­fari” seems to break all the rules of com­mon­sense an­i­mal view­ing. Sa­fari rule No. 1 is, after all, don’t get

out of the car. So to not only get out of the car but to then wan­der onto leop­ard-in­fested plains is a sce­nario that seems in­ad­vis­able.

Yet it is pre­cisely what hap­pens on a pri­vately owned prop­erty called Tu­maren in the north of Laikipia County. Com­mu­nity lands bor­der­ing Tu­maren are home to live­stock keep­ers, the Sam­buru and Laikipia Maa­sai peo­ple, who main­tain a tra­di­tional semi-no­madic life­style. A walk­ing sa­fari here fol­lows their ex­am­ple. This means that for four days a vis­i­tor will say good­bye to per­ma­nent lux­ury camps, tak­ing ev­ery­thing with them as they ven­ture across a stark land­scape with vir­tu­ally no roads. It means the only for­ti­fied ve­hi­cle is an ir­ri­ta­ble camel with hal­i­to­sis.

Itch­ing to be­gin, I con­vene with some of my guides in the air­field car park. They usher me into a dusty four-wheel drive that will, the­o­ret­i­cally, take me to the start­ing line, way out in the mid­dle of nowhere, then leave me there. But when the driver goes to start the en­gine, he dis­cov­ers the bat­tery is dead.

Swahili words are ex­changed. The driver gets out and re­cruits some peo­ple to push. Then he tries to start the truck again. He gets out again. Some­body else is re­cruited to drive. The orig­i­nal driver begins to push with the crew. They make it halfway across the car park and… noth­ing. The en­gine makes a sound like a plain­tive bull: leave me aloneeee. I be­gin to laugh be­cause is there a more per­fect way to kick off a long walk in Kenya? Even the jeep can tell it’s no longer wanted.

WAKE-UP CALL

I ROUSE to the sounds of Barcelona win­ning the foot­ball. More ex­actly, I wake to the sounds of some­body fid­dling with a small tran­sis­tor ra­dio, which is blar­ing a game from some dis­tant land. It is 6am: time to get up. Hot water has been left out­side in a can­vas basin. I freshen up, dress, shove ev­ery­thing back in my bag, go forth for French-press cof­fee. Within 30 min­utes a small crew has dis­as­sem­bled the tents and loaded them onto the backs of grum­bling camels. The en­tire camp – ta­bles, out­house, din­ing room, kitchen – van­ishes like a mi­rage.

The crew is em­ployed from lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and my guides are gen­uine Sam­buru war­riors – young, thin men in bril­liantly coloured cloth­ing and jew­ellery. Nta­tion Nkaiduri, an an­i­mal tracker with un­canny eye­sight, wears se­quins and beaded chains around his face. Gabriel Ewoi, the head guide, wears bright red and car­ries an im­pos­ing ri­fle in case he needs to fire warn­ing shots. (Ewoi has been at­tacked by an ele­phant and a buf­falo in his life­time but as­sures me noth­ing will hap­pen dur­ing our stroll.)

“When you’re in the car you are re­ly­ing on big an­i­mals,” Ewoi told me last night when I asked him what I should ex­pect to­day. “On a walk­ing sa­fari, it is the small things you no­tice.” As if to prove his point, he shone a torch into a tree be­hind me, il­lu­mi­nat­ing the eyes of a small pri­mate – a bush­baby – watch­ing us from high in the branches.

Now Ewoi sets out with slow, steady strides across a deeply cracked mud plain, trailed by a car­a­van of peo­ple and pack camels. The plan is to walk for sev­eral hours, ul­ti­mately ar­riv­ing at a new camp site in the early af­ter­noon. Then ev­ery­body will snooze un­til the tem­per­a­ture drops enough to be­come tol­er­a­ble for a sec­ond jaunt in the evening. The go­ing is not ar­du­ous, though sev­eral camels are equipped with rid­ing sad­dles just in case.

It doesn’t take long to re­alise how lit­tle I’ve no­ticed in the Kenyan land­scape on pre­vi­ous sa­faris. I’ve be­come ac­cus­tomed to look­ing out, look­ing quickly. Nta­tion and Ewoi draw my at­ten­tion near and

down, point­ing out wild-dog prints in the dirt, snake­skins and small fruits, such as cherry toma­toes that work as a hand­wash when squeezed. They spot old bones, dung bee­tles and black ants with pin­cers large enough to use as makeshift med­i­cal stitches (no­body vol­un­teers). They en­cour­age me to feel the bark of trees and smell grasses scent-marked by hye­nas. For much of the day, this is in­deed a sa­fari of small things – Africa up close, in minia­ture.

But there are plenty of an­i­mals, too: an os­trich pro­tect­ing her young by try­ing to di­vert our at­ten­tion away from the nest; Grévy’s

ze­bras rolling in the dust; sec­re­tary birds – so named, some say, for the feath­ers on the head that look like quills tucked be­hind a per­son’s ears; and dik-diks, tiny an­telopes that make a mad dash for cover when­ever we draw near. These en­coun­ters feel charged and mean­ing­ful be­cause you’re see­ing the an­i­mals at eye level, on their terms.

As the sun ap­proaches its zenith, we pass a gi­raffe laz­ing be­neath a para­sol-shaped tree. Im­palas graze in the shade. I be­gin to feel the ef­fects of walk­ing in the heat, a med­i­ta­tive qual­ity that is a lit­tle like day­dream­ing.

But then I’m snapped back to at­ten­tion. “Ele­phants have poor eye­sight and good smell,” whis­pers Ewoi, ges­tur­ing to­wards a grey shape block­ing our path ahead. “We have to stay down­wind but some­times they sense our foot­steps through vi­bra­tions in the ground so pole pole [slowly, slowly].”

Ele­phants are ex­tremely un­pre­dictable. Ewoi watches with his ri­fle ready as the car­a­van moves around the an­i­mal in a wide arc, us­ing bushes as cover. The ele­phant soon lum­bers off, obliv­i­ous to our pres­ence, but Ewoi stops us again so he can check the coast is truly clear. It’s thrilling, even un­nerv­ing, to get this close in the wild. One of the camels seems to agree: he hov­ers at my shoul­der, chew­ing cud like some­body eat­ing pop­corn dur­ing a tense movie.

That night, camp is re­assem­bled near some fevertrees on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River. An open-air tent is pre­pared for hot bucket show­ers. Halfway through wash­ing away the day’s ac­cu­mu­lated sweat, I look up and catch sight of the Milky Way. The sight is so daz­zling, so un­ex­pected, that I stand there, gob­s­macked, un­til the water runs out.

NO­MADS

Late the fol­low­ing af­ter­noon, I wake from a long nap in my com­fort­able tent to find Ewoi wait­ing out­side. “There is a cer­e­mony in a vil­lage nearby,” he an­nounces. “Some young war­riors are be­ing in­ducted into the com­mu­nity as elders. They will be smeared with red ochre. The peo­ple have slaugh­tered four bulls and some goats. It is a big cel­e­bra­tion that hap­pens only rarely. There will be wine made of honey and aloe vera roots. We go after tea?”

Of course we go. To reach the vil­lage, we need the jeep, which is stashed nearby for emer­gen­cies. But rather than be­ing tire­some, the jeep now seems ut­terly trans­formed: I’m rid­ing with five Sam­buru war­riors who are de­lighted by the nov­elty of ve­hic­u­lar sa­fari. Ev­ery­thing is re­versed. When we come across an­other ele­phant, Ewoi idles the en­gine for a mo­ment so the men can pull out phones and snap their own tourist photos.

Even­tu­ally we ar­rive at a boma, a home­stead com­pris­ing sev­eral mud houses sur­rounded by a cir­cu­lar wall of thorns. Two dozen boys are danc­ing out­side, exquisitely dressed in flow­ers, beads and chains that jan­gle as they jump up and down rhyth­mi­cally, their braided hair fly­ing. Fac­ing them is a group of young girls bob­bing their heads. The two groups come to­gether and dance off in a kind of conga line. They will do this, Ewoi tells me, for much of the next two days.

The war­riors then take me in­side the boma and in­tro­duce me as though I was sim­ply the new guy in town. No­body bats an eye­lid. Ev­ery­body is wel­com­ing. Honey wine is of­fered in the chief’s hut and it’s tasty. On the way back to camp, a Sam­buru war­rior un­veils a gi­ant chunk of beef that he’s pro­cured from the feast. A ma­chete also ap­pears. “You like smoked meats?” asks Ewoi.

Spon­ta­neous mo­ments like these are one of the plea­sures of a walk­ing sa­fari. You can come to a creek to find cowherds tak­ing a break from the heat. Buy jerry cans full of milk that’s fresh from the Maa­sai cat­tle. You can stop at a wa­ter­hole and watch an­i­mals on the other side pick up your scent and scat­ter in con­fu­sion.

On my fi­nal morn­ing, I hike to the very top of a rocky out­crop be­hind the last camp. The land of Tu­maren and neigh­bour­ing prop­er­ties are mostly flat so it feels like climb­ing into the sky. Mount Kenya sits on the far hori­zon. A cool wind blows from the north. But Nta­tion touches my shoul­der: again, I’m look­ing out and up when I should be look­ing near and down. Be­cause down below, not far from the path we took on foot only yes­ter­day, a leop­ard stalks the plains. Bench Africa’s four-day Kenya Walk­ing Sa­fari – Clas­sic in­cludes air trans­fers, meals, lo­cal drinks, con­ser­va­tion fees, camels and Sam­buru guides. The com­pany also of­fers a three-day ex­ten­sion at Lois­aba Star Beds – Ki­boko. Visit ben­chafrica.com for de­tails.

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