My two-day walking tour hasn’t even started yet, but on a spine-jangling jeep journey up to the Karisia Hills I’ve already learnt that lions have five different kinds of roar. This is just one of the facts imparted by my guide George to pass the time (he also tells me that zebra do the worst farts and that matriarchal hyenas can get erections). It may not be your standard safari chat, but then I’m looking for something a little different.
I’m lucky enough to have done a few traditional game drive safaris around Africa, so I know only too well how the initial thrill of spotting the Big Five can eventually take on a familiar hue. So for my first trip to Kenya I decided to skip the Maasai Mara and head north to Laikipia – a vast plateau stretching out over more than 9,000sq km, northwest of Mount Kenya – for something a little more intimate.
Ekorian’s Mugie Camp is a family-run lodge set in a private conservancy of rolling grasslands and acacia trees, with a dam that elephants treat like their own personal bath. It is tempting to just stay put, but I’m here to go on their two-day walking safari in the Karisias, camping out in the wild along the way. Although I’m not a hiker by inclination, the times when I have been cajoled into putting one foot in front of the other have made for some of my most memorable travel expeditions. Whether shinning up a volcano in Guatemala, striding across a glacier in Iceland or lolloping along the Great Wall of China, there’s something about a rhythmic trudge that imprints the experience right into your soul (and sole).
From Henry Thoreau’s essay on sauntering to Cheryl Strayed’s ambulatory memoir, Wild, the power of walking to liberate the imagination is well-documented. To be in the open air is to be open-minded, allowing you to follow whatever captures your interest rather than sticking to the road’s pre-determined route. However, any visions I had of a leisurely stroll – and the whimsical thoughts to match – are bashed right out of me after two hours of following my machete-wielding guide as he hacks our way through thorny branches to reach our base camp. There are no paths here, let alone well-beaten ones, only occasionally places of slightly less dense thicket that look as though they’ve never seen human feet before.
Two Samburu tribesmen – Lesambiaya and Lesorogol – guide us solely on instinct and intuition, their internal GPS. The nomadic Samburu are a tribe still very much in touch with traditional ways of life, and our guides embody this delicate balance between modernity and the old ways, with a baseball cap and a wooden spear, and colourful checked blankets and beaded bangles offset by a battered assault rifle. Lesambiaya and Lesorogol’s faces are marked with bravery rituals – large holes in their earlobes and two missing teeth. They speak a language closely related to Maa (also spoken by the Maasai) and George, my guide from Ekorian, acts as our translator.
We reach a small huddle of tents in a grassy glade, with the ochrecoloured rock that we’re climbing tomorrow looming right in front of us, almost taunting us to get up there. I’m loathe to use that hateful phrase “glamping”, but this isn’t your basic festival experience. There’s even a rudimentary shower constructed from a bucket of hot water strung from a tree and a proper toilet seat wedged over a hole in the dirt. Later that evening, as I slip between the sheets of my makeshift bed, I discover the bliss of a tiny hot-water bottle.
There’s no need for an alarm clock in the bush. Screeching hyraxes – giant brown guinea pigs – have no snooze button. After a quick breakfast of mango so yellow that it makes the stuff back home look anaemic, we head for the hills, just as the sun is peeking up over the rocks. Much of the time we plod in near-silence, struck dumb with reverence for the forest’s lush greenery (or that’s what I tell myself when I’m too out of breath to make conversation).
When we pause for water I look out through the breaks between the leaves to where the cloudless sky meets the parched land. It’s steep and sweaty work at altitude, but despite the fact that they’re wearing sandals made from tyres, the Samburu guides make it look effortless. The Samburu make this pilgrimage on a daily basis with cows, goats and sheep, and every so often we stumble across teenage shepherds in Arsenal shirts, beaded headbands and kikois (woven sarongs). They wave or greet us (“kejua”) and mosey on with their dappled herd. As pastoralists, the Samburu view livestock both as sustenance and savings account. “Cows are your pension, but goats are petty cash,” says George, before explaining how a dearth of suitable grazing in an uncommonly severe dry season has lead to tensions between the Samburu and predominantly white ranch owners.
Every so often the whirr of crickets is punctuated by the call of the honeybird – the Samburu tell me that its tune leads humans to trees filled with the sticky stuff. If we were to follow its call and smoke out the bees from the tree, the birds would then take their share of the nectar as their reward. Lesorogol picks up a mushroomy plant and flicks it with his finger to release poofs of dust into the air. He tells me that the Samburu use this fungus to see which way the breeze is blowing, so as to keep downwind of elephants and avoid the danger of disturbing them. When he stops us all to scoop up an ant, and demonstrates on his skin how the Samburu use the ant’s pincers instead of hospital stitches to close up a cut, it’s more of an insight into their way of life than seeing a lion on a game drive ever could be.
We clamber up to the peak of one huge jutting rock – used for millennia as a lookout point – and all around us are sweeping views. We’re so high that you can barely see the villages below, only the tonal changes in the ground where the grass has been grazed (and over-grazed). I spot a tawny eagle gliding on an air current below us. There’s just so much…space. And in the quiet hum of the insects on the breeze I feel something opening up inside me too – a clearing where there were tangled branches. After the initial vertiginous shock, my brain feels as though it is adjusting itself into places that haven’t been used in months. From this perspective I feel a kinship to the land stretching out before me in a way that I could never have experienced hanging out of a safari jeep. I’ve fought my way to the top of this place, and now that I’ve made it I feel a cathartic sense of pride.
We perch on a rocky outcrop to have our picnic lunch, and cautiously guard our fruit from a troop of baboons who are romping over the precipice opposite. I have to lie down in the shade of a boulder to get over the post-sandwich slump, but our guides barely take a sip of water before they’re ready to lead the charge back down. That afternoon, after walking for seven hours in baking temperatures of more than 30 degrees, I start to slow down. Just when I feel as though I’m wilting, we traipse through a field of what looks like bluebells, but smells as minty fresh as chewing gum. When I’m really flagging, Lesambiaya whittles me a walking stick from a fallen branch using his knife.
A further nine hours of walking later and it’s all I can do to hobble onto a canvas safari chair, peel off my boots and prop up my red, swollen feet. Later that night, Mungai the “bush chef” roasts a chicken with lemon and thyme in a small tin over the fire. After the meal all that is left are the bones.
The next day Lesorogol leads us back down to his manyatta (village) on a motorbike, his blue and red-checked blanket billowing in the wind behind him. He ushers us inside his dark, smoke-filled home to meet his wife and five children. The words “welcome wote” (welcome all) have been daubed above the doorway.
As we exchange awkward handshakes, George translates his parting words to me. “He said to tell you, ‘Do not be worried if you feel tired, for that is the way of the mountain.’” It is true that physically I feel broken, but in all other respects I feel pieced back together again.
Spend four days on safari, with two nights on the Karisia Cultural Walkabout and two nights at Ekorian’s Mugie Camp for £2,115 per person, based on two people sharing double accommodation on a fully inclusive basis. Includes return domestic flights to and from Nairobi Wilson airport, all transfers, safari activities and park fees trueluxury.travel