Matthews Range Walking Safari

Kenya

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

Woken, disorientated, at 6.30am by an insistent alarm. I remember reasonably soon where I am – in the Aero Club at Wilson airport on the edge of Nairobi.  Time is short before we are picked up for our flight, so I drag myself up, blearily – it was bed at 2am – for a rushed pack.

The airport is a throwback to old Kenya, full of people and not wildly organized, certainly not acquainted with modern methods, and all the more atmospheric for it: we have started an adventure. I am getting a feel for our group, and it looks like Sam has chosen well: we should have fun. We are through onto the tarmac, which is crammed cheek-by-jowl with little planes. We are in our encouragingly trim machine and in the air, rising above towers poking into the smoggy early light. The 1hr+ flight is a marvel; the complicated green hills of the highlands, the forests and shrubby heights of the Aberdaires, then the huge mass of Mount Kenya, all slide past on either side; then it is increasingly dry, thorny landscape and rough granitey-looking tummocks; then we cross the deep Laikipia escarpment and are over parched semi-desert with huge views of plains, flat ridges and conical hills, with occasional thorn-branch boma pens, many deserted after months of drought.

We circle and land with an offhand bump on a rough little strip which Helen and Peter, our hosts and guides, have cleared themselves. Hands are shaken and we are in acacia shade, shared with some grumpy camels and cheerful Samburu cameleteers, and a laden breakfast table; we are suddenly in an utterly different world, and I am awash with anticipation.

After a leisurely and full meal, including scrambled eggs, bacon and sausages, we are off across a gravel plain to a couple of huts in a big boma. A quick inspection of the shop, cool with its stone walls woven together with barbed wire, which is bare of provisions but crammed with much of the local population. Our main camel train is scattered about under the nearby trees, uncountable in their jumble but they turn out to be 35 in all, some loaded, their Samburu minders fiddling with bags and their bindings.

The walk starts in earnest now, in our trekking formation: a scout with rifle fore and usually aft; our three accompanying camels with our daypacks and supplies usually with us, although they sometimes divert to avoid thick bush or trees; and us, usually talking louder than we should, stretched out in the middle.  We climb a long, rocky slope to a flat top with long views over the Laananikon (Seiya) river to the inviting ridges and cones of the Matthews range. It is hot now, and there is little cover.

We descend a bit, then turn left and drop down a rough hillside to a small lugga, a dry river bed, which we follow as it widens and turns green, packed with tamarix and salt bush and alive with birdsong. Then we join a larger lugga, where the drought has left a last muddy pool which is alive with hundreds of squirming catfish, which will die or hibernate in the mud when the water finally goes.

We turn up the new, wider bed, passing deep holes where elephants went in up to their knees in the then much softer riverbed. Then we are into the bush, winding through impenetrable scrub on an elephant track. Helen says that the local ecology has benefitted from the reintroduction of elephants, as the bush has had these paths gouged through it so more animals – and people – can now get through.

We pause under a huge acacia wrapped by a salvadora vine; then more scrub, and we emerge quite suddenly into the wide, dry, sandy bed of the Seiya. We turn south and walk on the hot, white sand. Francesca (Cheese, of course), fair-skinned Scot, is struggling with the heat, but it is fortunately not too far (half an hour?) to our camp on the bank, with views over the bed to the drama of the Matthews. My main memory is of the tamped elephant trail up the river bed being marked out by  clustered cairns of huge droppings.

It is 1-ish. We get stuck into cold drinks – it is amazing what is brought on the camels, with a big cold box accompanying our walking party.  The main camel train has already arrived while we made a big detour, so lunch is ready pretty soon, a feast including a ham which is carved by Peter, salads, cheese. Somehow incongruous, but delicious. While we are heading into truly remote country, we are not going to be uncomfortable in camp, but they judge it beautifully: glamping it is not.

Leisurely talk, then we spread out our mattresses and snooze in the shade, what feels like 2 hours’ worth in my case, although it must have been less, as I get in a rather primitive watercolour before it is evening-expedition time.

We are walking to the attractive conical hill over the lugga. We cross the wide, sandy river bed and strike into the thick riverside scrub on an elephant track. We come across some burning wood, which Helen says is charcoal making. The guides kick sand around it to stop it spreading.  Then we are out of the brush and back to bare, dry-treed stony hillside, climbing gently to the base of the cone. A 15 minute slog gets us to the top, to enjoy big views of the Seiya valley in golden evening light. We see two adult elephants and their calf in a riverbed far below.

We retrace our steps, but join the lugga upstream. Some wild dogs patter across the bed ahead of us. It is a huge sandy expanse here, often hard underfoot, with deep water holes dug into it.

We change and shower in a little clearing hacked deep into a thorny thicket. The setup is amazing – the camel train has brought lot of ingenious equipment made by Peter, who was an engineer, including a wash-stand with a cup with a hole in the bottom, so you can wash your hands in the dribble without wasting water, obvious really, and tables and boxes hand made to pack into each other and stow neatly on the camels. Our tents are made of tight, mosquito-stopping mesh, through which we can see moon and stars. Not long on privacy with a torch on, but who cares.

 Drinks and a supper of several courses. It is a warm evening. Elephants huff and crack branches across the river bed. I write this diary as the team goes to bed one by one. I am the last off, tucked up at 10pm for a 5.30 start.

What a lovely day.

DAY 2

I fell into a deep sleep pretty quickly, coming up into a light doze some time early. Creepy comes round singing us awake at 5.30 with a Samburu love song, which appears to evolve over the days with his own extras, quite possibly mocking of his guests. A couple of minutes of lying there luxuriously in the dark, the stars so bright I can see them through the tent’s mesh; then it is an efficient up, dress and pack, a shot of tea and dried fruit, and we are off sharpish to start our day’s walking in the cool of the morning.

We cross the lugga, and take yesterday evening’s path through the riverside scrub, having to divert to avoid the area of burnt, indeed still burning, bush where yesterday’s charcoal-making evidently wasn’t contained. We climb the ridge toward the conical hill, then swing left and descend to a wider stream bed, which winds up into the hills. Helen tells us to talk less or we won’t see anything, a refrain she will have to repeat….

This is a long meander in the cool, deep shade of the early morning. We see monkeys swinging away through the trees; rock hyrax sitting plumply watching us atop their boulder-colony; several improbable hornbills.

Our camels, both our supporters and the full caravan, pass and repass us. They are very beautiful in the sharp light, with their heavily adorned Sambura drivers.

We turn up a hillside and start a long, steady ascent to a wide low watershed, not that there is any water, passing trees dangling weaver bird nests, and more hornbills. It is grand landscape, framed by rough mountains a way back on both sides. We descend down a wide, sandy lugga bed under the shade of large trees.

Breakfast is a shady bank on the riverbed. The full camel train comes endlessly through. They stop and are unpacked. We perch on our seats and enjoy the activity around us, as we knock back another large and delicious meal.

It is really hot when we start again, beginning a long walk down the wide, sandy riverbed to the even bigger Milgis. I have the leisure to quiz Edward at some length about Sufism, about which I know far too little. He is very long-suffering, as I hear him undergoing a similar catechism a couple of days later. Cheese starts looking very poorly in the heat.

We eventually emerge into the wide Milgis riverbed. Cheese is mounted onto a camel. We turn upstream (I find out a full day later we have been actually walking downstream, but the bed is so flat it is thoroughly deceptive). It is now burning hot, with a stiff, dusty breeze in our faces. It becomes a very long slog. We break for water under some fine big acacias on a raised bank. It is even hotter when we emerge, it wouldn’t surprise me if it is 40° and in hindsight we take it too fast as we trudge up the broiling sands. I think I’ve stopped sweating, which isn’t good, and produce an odd shiver when I take a swig of water, which can’t be great either.

We clamber past a rocky narrows harbouring some small, dirty pools of permanent water, with a wide expanse of sand above (below) it. We rest in some shade above, then cross to the other side of the bed for another rest in more shade. Behind us is a pool in a recess, with some birds and possibly other game about, but we aren’t in a mood to enquire.

A troupe of desultory baboons crosses the lugga in the distance, probably vacating our campsite on the arrival of the vanguard. They are shy here, and Peter and Helen work to keep it that way.

Over one more stretch of burning white sand, and we are in the trees above the river bank. 10 minutes further on is the campsite, under some big and fine acacias. We sink into chairs and guzzle soft drinks.

 Lunch follows – ham, mutton, safari pickle, salads, cheese, fruit salads. And a lot of fluids. Lunch and reviving conversation – it doesn’t take us too long to perk up – are done at 3.30ish, an we stretch our mattresses in the acacia shade, snooze luxuriously and read. 

At 5.45, we cross the half-kilometer wide sands of the lugga to the far bank, to watch a water hole – one of the few patches of permanent water in this area. A satchel with water bottles filled with gin-and-tonic is missing (William probably responsible); our guides arrange with rather haphazard signalling for it to be fetched. We nibble cashews and drink G&Ts as the light fades. It is lovely, but no game shows. Anything to do with our yacking?

A trudge back across the sands to camp. Showers, delicious steak for supper in a semi-circle by the fire – but not too near, as it is still warm. Everyone is pretty tired after our exertions and we are to be up at 5.30 again, so we have all headed for bed by 9.15, except the diary writer.

DAY 3

Wake (very) early but slowly to the stars and sounds of the bush, and drift in and out of doze. Creepy sings us awake again at 5.30. With a departure time of 6.30, it is quite a leisurely dress and pack-up, then some biscuits and chai as the light gathers over the lugga. Not much animal movement.

We take off across the lugga to the water on the far side, then wander downstream (I am informed with curled lip by Helen) and climb the bank up onto a sandy little plateau, a delightful area of widely spaced scrub lit up in the early light. We meet an Ozymandean elephant skull. Perhaps an hour or so’s walk gets us to a crumbling clifftop with a view across the lugga expanse to the green trees of the far side, behind them a rough but shapely small mountain. A caracal lopes away gracefully on the sand below our cliff.

Another hour or so on, and we breakfast under some thorn trees where a side valley empties into the main lugga. Cut pineapple and orange, scrambled eggs, bacon and sausages again, eaten in a leisurely manner as the day heats up. The camels sit in front of us; one stretches his neck and head fully out on the broiling gravel.

We emerge into the full sun, and set out up the river bed, crossing to the distant bank. It must be more than half a kilometer wide here, and the thought of it in spate is pretty shocking. We enter the scrub, which has an encouraging number of larger, shady trees.  We wind through the trees, then onto a vehicle track of sorts, which we follow as Francesca is struggling with the heat again so has hopped on a  camel.  A long walk in the heat, discussing MS and legalizing cannabis, with quite frequent water breaks in increasingly welcome shade.

We drop off the track into the bush, then cross a funny open area of red earth, then salty flats, then more hot bush. We finally drop back into the lugga, Sam’s blisters agony on the short but steep descent. A few hundred meters of sandy trudge, and we can see our chairs lined up beneath a tree on a low clifftop. Wonderful. We sink into said chairs at 1-ish, and tackle cold drinks, then a lunch of cold beef, salads and cheese.

Further leisurely talk, then we disperse to lie on mattresses under patches of shade – there is no escaping the heat, though. I sleep fitfully, emerging to find our seats rearranged in a row along the clifftop. I write some of this diary, as lighthearted conversation flows around me. A luxuriously bright starling hops gorgeously through the trees.  Helen shows us where things are: “The shower is that way, beyond the fresh elephant dung” is particularly memorable.

A quick shower in a bower right on the clifftop: one of the most exotic washes ever. Then a drink as the light fades. Helen and Peter are silhouetted in their chairs against the sky over the river. We are learning more about them and what they do, Helen in particular. She has close relations with the locals, having lived in the area for 30 years, and has successfully encouraged them to cohabit with the animals, and this is actually the special magic of the area, much of it attributable to her. Her charity is funding the digging of water holes in the riverbeds to try to save the wildlife in this terrible drought. 

Some elephants appear teasingly on the far bank, toy with shuffling down the ramp to the riverbed, then disappear back into the bush. Gentle breeze, gentle light, the Matthews  dark but muted mauve against the pale, hazy sky.

Supper must have been delicious, but has faded into a haze of wellbeing. Off to an earlyish bed after some account writing.

DAY 4

Another early wake to stars and camel grunts and the odd other animal noise; I doze fitfully but pleasantly on. Sung awake at 5.40 again. An efficient rising and preparation, with time for tea and dried fruit before we hit the road at 6.40.

We walk up the wide, pale lugga, back towards where a big valley joins on the far side. We push into the scrub, and start one of the best walks of the trip, gradually climbing through thick bush, then sparser thorn forest. We are in the zone now, and walk in silence. Extrovert hell: all those lovely people to talk to, and you can’t.

The forest is still and quiet, yet full of life. We see a striped kudu flit across a glade, some more jumpy little dik-dik and, a flock of Guinea fowl.

We pass fully equipped Sambura warriors, spears and all, driving their emaciated cattle. The drought is taking its toll, and Helen says they drive them down from the mountains, where there is grass to be found, to the river for a drink every 3 days. Half of them will die.

The forest thins out a bit, bare ground with more scattered thorns and scrub. Various water breaks. Our various foot sufferers wear brave faces. Francesca seems better with the heat. Discuss her entertaining concept of inner ghastliness. We are sooner than usual at breakfast in a lugga bottom, in the shade of a low cliff. People come and go, one group with baby camels pottering in their wake.

 Discover Edward and Camilla adore Leonard Cohen and agree about Bob Dylan’s decline. Long talks as we walk on; the time passes quickly and we have climbed to our camp without noticing the climb, having passed two deep wells between boulders in which men are scooping out water for the cattle – two can drink per hour, so it is relentless work.  We are stopping below the pass we have been walking towards, even though it is 1pm and we aren’t really ready to stop, as it is the last realistic site for some way. Our site is a bit dreary at first sight, a dusty patch under a big [tamarind tree. The cameleteers hack the undergrowth away while we sit, mildly embarrassed, in a semi-circle watching them with cold drinks in our hands.

 Lunch is cold (well, lukewarm but still delicious) pork, with pickles, salads, cheese and more of their amazing fruit salad.  What they are capable of producing in this remote desert is extraordinary, although I suppose there must be a reason for those 35 camels. Helen tells us that they have just heard that Tristan Voorspruy, horse safari-er sans pareil, has been shot in the Laikipia unrest we have been hearing about. Sounds horrendous.

An hour on a mattress looking up at the delicate tracery of the acacia branches above me. Then it is watercolours out, but I have no inspiration and doodle at ideas for Matissean cutouts.

Most of us decline the opportunity of an evening walk, and miss a beauty, we are told – but we would be.

Another superbly constructed bush shower, a fiddle with my luggage, then diary writing, drinks and talk and supper. Another delightful time. See a spectacular shooting star whizz behind the ridge above us.

Day 5

Up early again to Creepy’s singing. The most delightful feeling lying there in the quiet pre-dawn.

After tea and snacks we climb steadily for 1½ hours through mixed scrubby forest to the pass we had seen all yesterday. Fine views back over the Milgis Valley to the Ndoto hills appear occasionally; we see a booted eagle, raiding parties of army ants carrying home termite grubs, and more hornbills.

The pass has a wide flat top, grassless and with several thorn boma fences, recently tidied up as they contain still-fresh little yellow fruit, untouched as they are deadly poisonous. It has a grand view back over the forest we have climbed through to the slumbering Ndoto behind the Milgis.  The other way to the east is a wide valley between high rocky ridges, the high ground looking more thickly forested and greener than where we have come from.

A long, steady descent through dry forest onto the valley floor with regular water stops – it is heating up now. We pass a leopard print and porcupine claw-marks. We pass a couple of herds of thinning cattle, their owners’ life-blood, but clearly at risk. The lugga at the bottom is lined by tall, still-green trees. Downstream a bit is a particularly fine tree on the far bank, the dust below it a fine crushing of camel dung. Our breakfast spot. It is 10:20, late by our standards.

Another delightful and leisurely breakfast, honey mangoes, a first, and the brightest yellow scrambled eggs. The camels are particularly entertaining, one youngster groaning and roaring as it strap are tightened for the off.

We walk downstream on the lugga bed. It is getting really hot now, but it isn’t as extreme as on the bed of the Milgis as it is narrower, with trees and therefore cooler air on the banks. We pass a horribly smelly cow carcass, a drought reminder. Admire a gorgeous red-headed agama lizard.

Helen says we will have to walk until we find water, with the implication that we aren’t certain of finding it. Mild alarm, but suspect it is mainly for effect.

Our lugga joins a bigger one, good for water prospects if bad for the heat.

We find our campsite round a corner, chairs set up right on the bank, under a beautiful, thick umbrella-shaped gardehia tree. Some fruit bats are slumbering in its upper branches.

The great head of Matthews Peak high to the east is on fire, plumes of smoke drifting away. It is very depressing. Helen reckons it has been started deliberately, by someone disaffected or wanting to put one in the eye of the sandalwood thieves – or even by those thieves themselves, so they can claim that they are collecting “firewood”.

Another leisurely and lengthy lunch under the deep shade, a good thing too, as it is really hot out in the glare of the riverbed; varied conversation half-heard through sleepy ears.

Then it is a kip on a mattress on the sand, but still in the shade. I am really getting into this campsite: the lugga bed is like camping on a beach, only without the thump of the surf. 

A good early evening walk through the bush up to a bare low hilltop which is full of thorny bomas and sports several high, finely constructed termite castles. We get back to the river by the watering holes downstream of the campsite, some of them nearly 10 feet deep, which have kept the animals in the area alive, indeed still here. These have been dug and kept clear by Milgis Trust’s people. What an achievement.

Back at camp, it is shower and drink time, sitting in a semi-circle on the lugga floor. The camels are sitting on their tidily folded legs, chewing and regurgitating, in a huddle just downstream, close enough for a camel fart miasma to drift our way every so often, sometime alternating with the stink of a corpse somewhere in the area. I have got fond of these peculiar, patient creatures: I now find them inherently humorous and much likeable than I used to think.

A fantabulous final supper, followed by a special treat: we have bought a goat for our team, who must have eaten it and are in high spirits. They start singing back by the camels, and appear in a shuffling column, dressed right up and singing a series of intense and thrilling songs, all low rhythms and complex harmonies while they dance and jump. Truly a magical half hour.  In the background, Matthews Peak is in flames, with runnels of fire where burning trees  are falling down its huge cliffs. It is like a volcano, or like Mordor: a horrible and depressing sight, but with a curious fascination as well. To bed, to the thought of having to run for it tomorrow if the wind changes.

DAY 6

Our last trek morning, woken again by Creepy’s singing at 5.45. I am now so well drilled that I am up and fully ready by 6.20. A lovely final Samburu tea and dried fruit pre-breakfast breakfast, mellow on our chairs in the early half-light.

We meander down the lugga for getting on for a couple of hours. Our first stop, a little way downstream, is the watering holes. Some warthogs are still about, parents and young, but they trot off into the bushes as they become aware of our presence.  Great scrapes in the sand indicate an elephant joust by the holes, which are deep and would be impossible for a smaller animal to get out of: the elephants kneel down and hang their trunks in. We peer apprehensively for another drowned baby, as one had been found in a hole recently. The adults must feed the young. Nearby, where the warthogs were a few minutes ago, lies the fresh corpse of a warthog, its hind leg torn off and guts hanging out. And they’d just been hanging about there as if nothing was amiss.

The lugga is pretty in the slanting sunlight, which is soon high and hot. The camel train behind us always ensures colour and humour. The riverside bush is alive but, as usual, we don’t see a mass of animals:  glimpsed elephants among the scrub, a fantastical technicolour lizard. I talk the beauties and pleasures of gardening with Mimi.

We reach our destination, Mukindash the Meeting Tree, a huge fig casting a wide and deep shade in which locals leaders sit when discussion is needed. We are at the end, and will meet our landcruisers at 10am. After a sit and talk and admire of the camels and some noisy loading operations, we adjourn to another slightly less populous riverside tree, where we pop a bottle of fizz (cold – how?) for Maureen’s birthday. Accompanied, of course, by scrambled eggs.  A perfect finale.

A woman is perched at the top of a high tree on the far side of the lugga, cutting leaves for her cattle and singing to them to come and eat. She is definitely putting on a show for us, but I shudder at her risk. Death is commonplace here, Helen reminds us, and it feels shudderingly close.

The time has come: after very fond farewells, we reluctantly board our cars, and pull off, waving, into dust of our own making. A remarkable experience.  Well organized Sam Corsellis!

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