Northern Kenya: diamond in the rough
TRAVEL & DESTINATION
By Peter Muiruri
| May 22nd 2021
From a debauched lifestyle espoused by the former settler community, Laikipia is about the sheer numbers of wild animals that share their habitat with Boran cattle. Did you know that Laikipia is home to 75 per cent of wildlife outside of Kenya’s protected areas?
Sample this: the 7,000 elephants in Laikipia are rivaled only by those in Tsavo, Kenya’s largest wildlife conservation area. Out of the 2,000 lions in Kenya, 250 are in Laikipia. The area has of late become a safe haven for the endangered black rhino.
For good reasons, my recent forays into the north — during the intermittent breaks in the lockdowns — began at Ol Pejeta. You know Ol Pejeta because it is home to the two remaining northern white rhinos. Here, Fatu and Najin stare at a bleak future, but also hopeful that the ongoing research for surrogates to carry their genes will succeed.
Of course, they are unaware of the efforts being made to keep their hopes alive. Sadly too, they do not know that their problems began with man, that savage predator who hunted their kind in the equatorial region to extinction.
Najin and Fatu are docile and seem to enjoy a gentle rub behind their ears. Their counterparts in the thickets are not, as we soon found out when a startled black rhino, in a bid to escape from the intruders zoomed within inches of our car.
“He means no harm,” our driver said. “His eyesight is poor but his other senses are perfect.” True, but the sight of a live ‘battle tank’ with an attitude to boot can scare the daylights out of a mere mortal.
Ol Pejeta though is just the frontier. To get to Laikipia’s hidden gems requires not just an adventurous spirit but the will to survive some of the country’s rough terrain, so rough that the valleys, kopjes and river beds are perfect destinations for the world-acclaimed rhino charge.
Past the Dol dol-Jua Kali junction lies the 14,000-acre El Karama, located centrally in Laikipia and enjoying unobstructed views of both Mount Kenya and the Aberdares.
Set up in 1963 by Guy Grant and his family as a working cattle ranch, El Karama is one of the best positions for stargazers to peer into the dark night sky.
I am no astronomer but when armed with a phone app that pointed out the exact position of the Milky Way Galaxy, I had to act like one. Here, by the last embers of a bonfire, the Ewaso Nyiro hippos made their short, guttural sounds, the small creatures of the night whistled away, and one of Laikipia’s magical nights just flew by.
To the north of El Karama is yet another enchanting location, Suyian where the Powys family have called home for decades. Suyian is Maa for the African wild dog and it is here that one can catch a fleeting glimpse of the fast-disappearing canines.
I had met Ann, a descendant of the Powys sometime back, when the old camp stood tall in between deep thickets before it was razed to the ground by an angry mob. The Powys suffered yet another misfortune in 2017 when the family patriarch, Gilfrid Powys was trampled to death by an elephant within the expansive ranch.
Before he died, Gilfird and I spent an evening sipping tea as he regaled me with the endless ‘Laikipia tales’ of especially how the early settlers came to own large swathes of land in the region.
The Powys’ ties to Laikipia date back to the 1920s when his father Will, a sheep farmer from Dorset, England, first grazed his small stock in the area.
Moved to Kenya
Will had moved to Kenya in 1914 to become a farmhand for a Mr Cole in Kikopey, Rift Valley. Later, Cole leased Suyian estate from the colonial government in order to raise some sheep.
With his fortunes up, Will bought some land in Laikipia too, where he raised his three children; Charles, Rose and Gilfrid.
Will would later acquire Suyian in 1963 where he entrusted Gilfrid with the livestock.
Gilfrid was 74 when we last met, and our conversations would only be interrupted when he needed to fly to his next-door neighbour, Kuki Gallmann.
But Ann has taken over the love of ranching and conservation from her father. She has acquired immense knowledge of the vast topography through her popular botanical safaris.
Her interaction with the local Samburu and Dorobo communities has provided her with immense facts about the local environment.
Yet, the story of the 56,000 square kilometres that make up the Ewaso Nyiro ecosystem cannot be told in a two-day rendezvous.
A lifetime is not even enough to comb every nook and cranny of these plains. But like a diamond, each day here unfurls a hitherto unknown secret. Kenya’s north is a diamond in the rough whose beauty lies hidden to all but the brave.
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