Camels racing during the Maralal Camel Derby in Kenya. (Photo by KARIM SAHIB / AFP)

God created many beautiful people. Then he created the Samburu. Like their cousins, the Maasai, the Samburu have been drawing visitors from around the world, thanks to their rich cultural heritage.

There is no better place to catch a glimpse of this vaunted beauty of the Samburu than at one of their cultural festivals, the famed camel derby in Maralal.

Before coronavirus put the derby on the back burner, this was one of the key tourism events in northern Kenya. We’d left Nairobi on a rainy Friday. The road past Isiolo to Archers Post is heavenly, thanks to the Lapsset project that aims to open up the region to international trade. The same, however, could not be said of the road to Wamba and on to Maralal. For four hours, we drove through one of the roughest terrains ever. There were foreboding hills and creepy ravines that put the entire team on edge. Stories about armed bandits watching a vehicle from atop some of these hills and descending to the valley did little to calm our nerves. A trip to the ‘wild north’ is not for the fainthearted.

The skies threatened to open up and we feared for what would become of the dirt road—a soggy quagmire. But the heavens held up, at least until we got to Kisima where some showers shoved our van from side to side. This part of the road though, has now been worked on.

Maralal town was okay but nothing to write home about. It mirrors similar ‘towns’ across the country. But then we were here to watch camels race. Leaving the comfort of city homes to watch camels race seemed to impress a fellow journalist who had sneered at the idea.

After a night in one of what could hardly pass as a ‘hotel’ in Maralal, we were ready for the wild entertainment. Yare Club was the venue. Camels came from as far as Marsabit, some handlers spending weeks in the bush but eager to have their animals compete. Camels are no horses and respect no rules. As the race began, some defied their handlers and ran in the opposite direction. Another one got tired of the whole event and ran into a forest without the rider who had fallen off. Yet other camels could not resist a pause to take in a mouthful of foliage on the roadside. But who could blame them?

Honestly, I cannot recall who won the race but I learnt a few things about it. Camels can run, at least 40 km/h, and 65 km/h if need be. Simply put, a camel can outrun you! I also knew that camel races have been held in Kenya for more than 20 years. Despite the perils of our journey, the race lived up to its billing as a hilarious event where rules exist to be broken—at least by camels.