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Wine and dine at the rock of life

By | December 16th 2010
By | December 16th 2010

The ride to Samburu witness one of God’s impressive work of creation, which resembles a table from a distance, is a mixture of prolonged discomfort, apprehension and pleasure in near equal measure, writes Joe Ombuor

To reach what the Samburu people of northern Kenya call soit engushui (rock of life) requires grit, resilience and determination.

Once there, and that depends on whether your muscles and stamina can cope, you can dine and wine under a roof formed by the rock while enjoying the ravishing sights below in what is a truly exhilarating experience.

For those with deep pockets, a night in a room etched in the rock with elephants ambling on the natural solid rock roof above while other creatures of the wild roar, howl, hiss, twitter or laugh in the neighbourhood.

For the area is rich in jumbos, lions, leopards, wild dogs, hyenas, snakes and an entire world of birds and insects.

Fun and adventure is but one aspect of the sprawling rock dubbed "Kenya’s table mountain", by dint of its shape. It sits about 160 kilometres east of the historic Maralal town where founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was detained. It appears majestic and proud to be the custodian of life giving water in the torrid jungle, hence the name soit angushui.

Prolonged discomfort

Whether approach from Maralal or Isiolo town 60 kilometres away, accessing the rock involves penetrating the 2,000-acre Kalama Community Wildlife Conservancy where the presence of fierce wild animals and bandits are a constant worry, dissipated only by the reassuring sight of armed guards at all times. From

Maralal where I started my odyssey, the ride to the ‘rock of life’ was a mixture of prolonged discomfort, apprehension and pleasure in near equal measure. The four wheel drive vehicle trundled over truly forbidding terrain where dust rose as though stirred from underneath, choking, blinding and working the lungs into a cough that lingers on long after the journey.

In its initial stages just outside Maralal and past Kisima trading centre where the stretch to Wamba begins, the punishing journey is spiced with breathtaking scenes in the rolling, sparsely populated plains where livestock out-number human beings almost three to one, and wildlife blends with the goats, sheep and cattle, grazing peacefully together as if they are part of the large herds.

Oh! It is beautiful. Imagine gazelles mingling freely with goats and sheep or zebras with cattle, accompanied or escorted by white plumaged birds that seem to obey unspoken rules to be behind or ahead of the animals.

Figure the skimpily dressed herds boys playing hide and seek in the thickets, unbothered by the animals.

The scenes that resemble films shot out of this world serve as kind of an elixir for the pains of the journey ahead as the lush plains thin out, giving way to scorched landscapes where nothing but desolate jungles prevail as far as the eye can see.

The barren expanses are dominated by baked, red earth where occasional trees have tiny or no leaves, and anthills grow to the height of trees, giving them the strange look of earthen pillars planted in the wilderness. What a contrast with the anthills back home on the shores of Lake Victoria that hardly grow to the height of a dining table!

Rivers are dry towards Wamba, a township about 100 kilometres from Maralal. Donkeys are galore, all weighed down by water containers secured to their backs. The beasts of burden that do not hesitate to kick when disturbed accopmanied by women who use them to fetch water from long distances slowedddd us down whenever we came across them on the road.


A short distance past Wamba, we hit the bandit infested final leg to Archer’s Post on the newly tarmacked Isiolo-Marsabit section. Instinctively, the driver accelerates. The logic is that speed helps foil bandit attacks. I felt my heart jump to my mouth as we hurtled on the bush-ringed road at breakneck speed, our safety belts securely buckled. We cruised in silence, exchanging only brief, fearful glances. Tension only easesd when settlements began to pop in the thickets.

Five hours since Maralal, the rock that was our destination came fully into view, an impressive work of creation that resembles a table from a distance, hanging over a cliff above the expansive wildlife conservancy.

A tourist attraction in its own right, Soit engushui overlooks wooded plains teeming with game animals that troop in droves to its surface to access water that initially collected in a hollow cavern during the paltry rains. That was until the Government chipped in through the Arid Lands Resource Management Project (ALRMP) and constructed a bridge across the rock below the cavern to harness more water.

Wildlife theatre

Result? More water and more life on the rock as witnessed by the volumes, shapes and variety of animal droppings- and dung littering its surface. It is in this effusion of nature, where partridges and other wild poultry flit in the undergrowth unperturbed and warthogs seem to challenge elephants to a contest of tusks, where the roar of lions sends small unguents stampeding for their lives while zebras and giraffes behave as though in a perpetual skin beauty contest, that the spectacular Saruni Lodge has been built — on the back and shoulders of the rock. Saruni means ‘saviour’ in Maa language.

"We view this rock on which the lodge is built as a saviour, because life would be impossible here without it," says Lodge Manager Tom Hartley.

Everything at the lodge has a touch of the rich Maasai culture. The structures that serve as lodging rooms, hotel and a conference centre are modelled on the Maasai mud and dung huts known as enkang, albeit built using cement instead of dung.

Guests sweat it out climbing the steep sides of the rock in a compulsory exercise to access the unique facilities, some of which are sunk into the rock in a peculiar cave like style or hollowed out by chipping into the rock. The swimming pool, for instance, is a hollow in the rock, modified to suit the recommended specifications.

Each of the 12 luxury rooms that cost Sh10,000 per night is a study in finesse, with fittings to give guests five-star aura in surroundings imbued with nature.















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