EAST AFRICA 2021-2022. EPISODE FIVE

A NEW UNDERSTANDING OF THE KERIO VALLEY BY ‘FOOTING’ AND AN ELEPHANT ENCOUNTER

The wonderful Kerio Valley from 7500 feet. Here the floor is about 4000 feet below

Riding a motorbike is a different experience to driving, enclosed in a car, whatever wonders may unfold. It’s what’s kept me riding in Africa for all these years. I am exposed to the elements, part of the landscape, open to the people I pass. If it’s hot, I am hot; if it rains, I get wet; if it’s windy, I buffet about. It’s a tactile experience. I smell the aromas of the country through which I pass – bad ones too, if there’s a dead camel by the road. If the road is rough, I need to dance about, often standing on my foot pegs to lower the centre of gravity of man and machine. Of course, I am more at risk too, but that adds a certain edge to the riding. Nothing encloses me; it is an immediate sensation, a mixture of discomfort and exhilaration. And I am seen as a celebrity by those I pass and interact with, however briefly: an ‘old’ man riding like a youth. Sometimes feeling like one too.

One of the many added attractions to riding a motorbike about this area is the dramatic quality of the roads. I am descending back to the head of my favourite Kerio Valley, where this offshoot diverges from its mother valley, the Great African Rift that stretches from Mozambique to Jordan. I ride towards Kapenguria, a road I dislike, it’s narrow with broken edges that drop onto loose gravel and roadside craters, onto which crazed matatu and truck drivers attempt to push all the weaving, slow boda-bodas – and me. It’s a frightening road, but only for the first 35 kilometres. There’s no alternative that makes geographical sense, so I must run its gauntlet for now. I know that ahead, past the untidy town of Kapenguria, already at high altitude, the road rises further into cool, coniferous woodland and then plunges away into the depths of the Rift Valley with its endless deserts, curling and twisting downwards for twenty miles, from 2260 metres dramatically down to a mere 930 metres (still a higher altitude than most of Britain) – a contorted, twisting descent of 4350 feet.

Having caught up with my American colleagues by the magic lantern of the internet, and been assured that for now I can stand down, I take this safari northwards from Kitale in relaxed mood. Last March, right in the last three days of my journey, I discovered wonders I hadn’t found before. Then I had to run to beat a lockdown in Nairobi that threatened my departure from Africa. Even then, I promised myself that I’d take the ride again and explore more of the area along the fine escarpment of the Kerio Valley. These gravel and dust roads hardly exist on maps; it takes a questing spirit to go and find them. That, and a suitable off-road machine. Happily, I have both! I’m on my way back…

Down through the shady dark conifers: cedars and fir trees that stretch above local flowering shrubs – it’s a handsome descent – the road eventually levels off into a slow decline towards the valley floor, still beyond the tight confines of the Marich Pass, the final gateway to the northern deserts that reach away to far South Sudan and Ethiopia. It’s fine riding; a good road and little traffic, just those pesky Kenyan speed humps to watch for. They’re a national obsession in the Highways department, but they cause accidents too as most are unmarked, just sharp lumps in the grey surfaces of the roads. On my little bike I can stand up and coast over most, but it’s a dangerous assumption that I can do that for all: some are lethally steep and make my bike bounce up to hit my bum if I am unwary. Failing to spot one is serious. I must pay attention, despite the fine scenery that unfolds down these roads.

In time, the slopes of the dry scrubby pass fall back and I roll out onto the sunburned desert floor, where aloes and strange water-hoarding plants swim in the sweaty heat.

*

A junction to a side road. Every school and project must have a board!

I’m not heading far this afternoon, just 70 miles or so to a guest house at the edge of the limitless valley floor, amongst the sand and rocks and aloes. It’s a long-established place started by an Englishman and his Eritrean wife years ago. It’s a shady place filled with the mature trees and the landscaping that we Brits seem compelled to bring to Africa. I stayed here back in 2001, sharing the encampment with the last evening of a school group from Gloucester, watching overweight pale teenagers clumpily dancing the local Pokot tribal dances round a big fire. Last year I stayed a night with the late David’s Eritrean wife, Mama Roden, drinking her buna (the elixir of the gods: Ethiopian coffee), eating a tasty Ethiopian supper and conversing about the changes we have both witnessed in African life, in my case for 35 years. Now she is abroad but I find companionship with Kate, an Englishwoman in her 50s, who’s been working with Oxfam at home. Her husband works with the Foreign Office in the aid sector, both disillusioned by the way British foreign politics have slid into meanness, selfishness and drawbridge-pulling-up and trying to work out the last decade of her working life in something that will bring more satisfaction. I’m glad to find a few tourists filtering back to help the beleaguered foreign earnings of Africa. I’ve spotted a handful this year, to last year’s total of three young Englishmen working from their computers, who’d escaped without question during ‘strict lockdown’. “No one even asked! And Heathrow was heaving!” I remember them telling me when I expressed surprise to find them here, having escaped myself a few days before that lockdown. “Huh, they can’t afford to stop travel, it’s just the spin they put on it…” They were dismissive of British politicians too…

*

Next morning, I set off on my promised safari, on rocky, dusty trails round the base of the great escarpment, here perhaps 4000 feet above me. I have a great sense of freedom here; of delight to be experiencing this again; an anticipation of the trails in front of me today: the desert shimmering endlessly to my left, the scrub-covered steepness to my right, rising into a bright, hot sky. In Sigor, the first village on my ride, it’s market day, mainly local vegetables and shoddy, brightly coloured Chinese goods and men driving flocks of knotty sheep and wayward goats along my road. I cause a stir as I pass, everyone turning to look at the old white bloke bouncing through town between the untidy shacks alongside the dust trail.

Here and there I bump through washouts, dry now and for some weeks to come. The rock road is rough and dusty, wriggling its way through this parched landscape. There aren’t many people about; scant villages, just a few people sitting here and there beneath shady trees, turning in surprise to see a mzungu biker passing, returning my waves. I am a mystery to them, as, largely, they are to me. What’s it like to spend your life in such harshness, relying on a few goats, an odd cow or two, with basic education, little awareness of anything much more than a few miles away – except the inevitable Football League matches? I’ve no idea, as I pass through in moments, leaving them to their sixty-one-point-four average years of this privation, as I ride away with all my privileges. Already ten years beyond that average. A wave, and I am gone, discussed for a moment and forgotten forever. It’s philosophical stuff that I ponder as I ride! I’ll never know the answers. Thank god.

I come at last, after 42 kilometres and about an hour of this rough trail, to an area I remember from last March. I’m relieved to recognise it, as I have felt a bit lost for a while, although the mountains rising on my right give me confidence. As long as I keep round the base of these steep slopes I am heading into the Kerio Valley. What I recollect is a disaster area of huge boulders and broken trees, disturbed terrain and devastation. I weave my way over the rocky mess, thinking about the natural disaster that overtook this valley bottom three years ago: a terrible landslide that took over 200 lives in a few minutes, as a huge section of mountain, loosened by tree felling, swept horror downwards from the steep escarpment. It swept all before it, even a dormitory of schoolgirls. I remember my shame that this occurred at the same time that there were floods in UK, in which no one lost life, but many lost (mostly insured) Stuff. Of course, the media in England had the cameras and reporters and it made the world news night after night, even to be seen here in Africa. Meanwhile, nearby, families disappeared; orphans were created in moments; livelihoods were lost; a whole generation of schoolchildren perished. But that was in remote rural Africa so it didn’t count.

Here I can still see – three years on – the devastation. When I stop for tea, the people who suffered this trauma still remember it as if it were yesterday. No one came to help them clear up; no services were mobilised; no emergency was declared: they just had to pick up any pieces left and cope as best they could. A community largely wiped off the face of the earth. I can see the scars today.

*

A road from nowhere much to nowhere much.

“Are you back from Uganda?” asks a young man when I stop for sweet chai and a chapati from a makeshift grubby tent in Karena village, just above the disaster area. Ten months on, a mzungu on a motorbike is still remembered. “Do you still have that map?” I sit for half an hour, chatting to the gathered young men who have nothing better to do. I tell them that this was my best ride last year, so I determined to repeat it. “I’m going back up the tar road to Chesoi. It’s one of the best roads I’ve found in all Africa!” It is too: this spaghetti-twisting road that rises three thousand or more feet in the next 15 miles. I search the world for roads like this. And then, when I least expected to find it, I found this magnificent zig-zagging contorted road. It makes no sense: it just goes up the mountainside, partially blocked by landslides that have been colonised by vegetation as big as bushes and small trees, unmaintained, between a rough valley-bottom rock and dust road, to a broken once-tar meandering strip thousands of feet high above. A road to nowhere that should be a feat of road design but makes little sense. Multiple hairpins with corners steep enough that they tax even my versatile, light little bike, labour upwards for no apparent reason. I suppose some vainglorious politician thought it’d be a vote catcher once upon an election…

A politician’s vanity project?

Still, I love it! It’s amazing as I first-gear upwards on the steepness. The valley expands, plunging ever downwards on my left, then my right, the escarpment soars skyward on my right, then my left. Here and there, the road has collapsed, one level dropping tarmac directly down to the broken tar below. Roads like this should be in record books, but here on the remote edges of the Great Rift Valley, they don’t get noticed. Doubtless, the politician who inspired it is long out of office, or elevated to the untold wealth of national government and doesn’t care any more about his remote constituency. A vanity project mouldering on the precipices of the Rift Valley. Wonderful beyond compare for a wandering, adventure-seeking mzungu motorbiker.

I search the world for roads like this

Then comes 20 kilometres of horribly pot-holed, broken old tar through magnificent scenery. Last year I described this as a delightful parkland, reminiscent of the background of 18th century paintings: a sort of Gainsborough fantasy landscape. It’s charming and beautiful, mature trees and sweeping meadows, flowering shrubs, light and shade, greens beneath a sky of speckled clouds. My road weaves and meanders through the splendour, up here on top of the world. I just love it. It’s worth coming back.

I saw this as a sort of 18th century idealised landscape

I reach the remote town of Chesoi, balanced on the edge of the escarpment. Young men laugh at me. I call: “Kapsowar…?”, my next destination, and they indicate upwards to the right with big smiles and waves. I turn right… Funny, I’m sure that last March I turned left… It was counter-intuitive at the time, as the road dropped away, and I knew Kapsowar was miles away up on the heights. Still… they all waved to the right, uphill…

I turn right, uphill.

It’s perhaps an hour later – and I am getting very tired, despite the fine scenery – that I feel intuitively that I am wandering deeper and deeper into countryside that doesn’t bring me to Kapsowar. I stop two elderly gentlemen for information. “Oh! You have gone the WRONG way!” they exclaim, as a cheerful drunk festoons my handlebars with convolvulus. (William tells me later that this is considered a blessing in this region). “Oh, the WRONG way! But if you go on, you will come to the tar road in 13 kilometres. Keep left at the next junction. Where are you from? How old are you?” The questions come happily as an election vehicle flies past in a dust cloud, wardrobe-sized speakers deafening us with pounding ‘music’ and filling the rural landscape with a hideous cacophony. I shake friendly proffered hands and ride on. The drunk stumbles off chuckling at some inner joke – maybe me. I keep left at the next junction, but it’s the first of dozens. I am LOST, entirely lost on these narrow red dust tracks in the back of rural beyond. It’s cool now too: the sun’s gone, the clouds have rolled over the heights. I keep asking my way. It’s always “Not far!” – but it’s always actually VERY far.

Time’s moving on. Children are returning from school, many of them so astonished to see a mzungu – they probably never saw one before – that they don’t even wave. I am riding through deep rural extremities here. Well, last year I did promise myself that I would explore more of this region; I just didn’t plan to be doing it now. I’ve had a bad neck ache for days and now have a stonking headache, and am not really in full adventure state. I’m tired from a great deal of trail riding on which I hadn’t planned and the fun’s going out of it…

A fine forest ride at the top

Then I am in a deep forest. It’s magnificent, even though I’m not fully in the mood. Great sweeping meadows flow beneath old old trees; the trail, bumpy and hard riding, is contorted and complex. I slip and slide, bump and bucket. But it IS magnificent, even if I am lost and far off route. I just wish the sun was shining (the clouds are thick and threatening now) and I didn’t have this pounding headache. Every time there’s a junction, there’s no one to ask. I have to double back a few times. To all I repeat my mantra: “I am going to Iten! But I seem to be lost!” Most exclaim and tell me I will meet the tar road. “Not far!”

Huh. ‘Not far’! Eventually, late in the afternoon, after many mis-turns and riding through the smallest of hamlets, weaving my way past endless tiny shambas, watched by amazed countryfolk, I DO find the tar road. I even recognise it. I am WAY further from Iten and Kessup than I expected. I still have another 35 miles – at least – to ride. At least now I know I have tar roads – and those bloody speed humps, most of the way. I stop on a steep hill and text William that I am still on my way and will be with him in about an hour.

“Eh, you were TIRED! I’ve not seen you like that!” My head’s pounding. My neck’s aching fit to sever as I pop Paracetamol and drink my beer. “Sorry, William, I don’t think I can walk down to the valley tomorrow as we planned. I need an easy day!”

I’ve ridden 115 miles, of which over 60 were hard trail riding. I am utterly exhausted. I am in bed by 8.00pm and sleep for eleven hours.

*

High above Kessup and the Rift Valley

Next day we saunter in Kessup Forest, if ‘saunter’ can really describe an eight mile walk that starts with a scramble of 1000 feet up to the top of the escarpment. “The goodness is, (here comes one of William’s favourite shibboleths) that we both like to walk!” The forest is nationally protected, so it’s full of old trees and thick underbrush. It’s cool in the shade. Shrubs are bright and the paths faint. Not many come here; there’s nothing much to exploit, just some firewood from fallen trees, fair game. Not much fodder, and habitation is a way off, so it’s silent. In four hours we meet no one. We see no wildlife either, not so much as a lizard. We are surprised, but perhaps the animals are suffering too from the lack of rain. People’s onions are wilting in the shambas below and William hasn’t planted his tomato seeds yet. “I don’t want to waste them; they won’t germinate. Maybe the rains will come early. We are praying they come by middle of next month.”

Kessup forest, a peaceful wander, even if we were lost

We mislay our way soon after we leave the clifftops, but here we’ll never really be utterly lost as there’s always that yawning valley to the east. Finding the trickle of the Kessup River, we pick up our trail again and slowly wander back to the steep path down to Kessup after six hours on the mountain top. William’s an easy companion and this is a ‘gentle’ day in preparation for our planned descent back into the valley tomorrow. I’m spending more time this year ‘footing’ the landscape, and coming to appreciate it more through this slow intimacy.

*

So now we are going to ‘foot’ back into the depths of the valley we gaze down into like a map below, as we eat our supper on the Kessup plateau. At least ten miles away, across the blue haze of the valley, I can see the Tugen Hills as I sip my Tusker mixed with Guinness. We’ll head for a village called Barwessa, William says. He doesn’t know that side of the valley either, past the elephants and crocodiles. It’s an adventure for him too. “The goodness is, we like the same things!” We’ll find someone local to guide us to the river bank. I can see the Kerio River glinting far away from my perch here on the escarpment edge. “We can wade across.” Pity I once saw those ugly crocodiles upstream! But I am assured it’ll be puddles or slow moving shallows. I guess I’ll see the crocs coming in time, chomping their prehistoric jaws.

*

The downward hike begins into the wide Kerio Valley

We set out about ten thirty. It’s cloudy today – a relief for me, for we’ll be without much shade, exposed like flies beneath the searchlight bulb of the equatorial sun for hours. It’s uncompromising, this landscape, and we’re challenging the climate. We’re going to walk back down the unfinished road that we walked UP last month. We can’t see how the engineers can ever hope to connect the two lengths of bulldozed gravel: the missing bit – about 300 feet in height – is on the steepest slopes and of friable rock and dust. For that part we have to take to a shortcut trickle of a trail through the prickly pears, aloes and scrub, slipping downwards on the grey dust. There just doesn’t seem enough room for the connecting part of the ‘road’, and if it’s not constantly maintained it’ll fracture and collapse on these rocky angles. We’re in no hurry today; we know where we will stay tonight. But it’s still about 15 miles to hike today.

We will hike to the other side through the inferno below

Anne is the pretty cook at the Kipoiywo guest house, which we discovered last month. She’s a good cook too. Her husband, Colin, is here this time. He comes from the top of the escarpment, not from this community. They’ve already three children under three, only youths themselves, probably in their early 20s. The two small boys are ecstatic to have a mzungu visitor, screeching in delight and invading my basic oven-hot room with a bed its only furniture under a burning zinc ceiling. It’s probably 100F degrees in here at the end of the afternoon; and it won’t cool much until the early hours of tomorrow. They throw themselves at the bed, touch my skin, investigate my few belongings (I’ve just carried them for 15 miles downhill by 3000 feet, so I was careful what I brought), and interrogate me in screeches in a language I don’t comprehend. But they’re charming and I can’t be angry with their inquisitiveness and thrill, despite my weary condition. I’m the first mzungu they’ve seen.

*

There’s little food down here in this parched dry season world. William’s carried a woven bag of my favourite green vegetable since we bought it for 50 bob from a farmer this morning. It’s called nightshade, and looks as if it could be a relative of our nightshade, or even the potato. But this one is tasty and Anne cooks it well, with some oil and tomatoes. It’s a bit like spinach but with many small leaves off a central stem, not a vegetable I’ve seen anywhere outside East Africa. William goes off with a boda to fetch beer from a bigger village along the white dust road. He finds six small eggs and some tomatoes. We sup off scrambled eggs, Anne’s delicious chapatis – she really makes the best I’ve eaten – and the green vegetables. We must adapt to local resources, notwithstanding our long hikes.

William talks about the chicken he wanted to buy up top. “We could have saved 100 bob! (70p). They are EXPENSIVE here!”

“Yes,” I say dryly, “and we’d have carried it for six hours, stressed and flapping and shitting down my back!” For William had suggested we could hang it from the straps of my little backpack. He laughs loudly at the image I conjure and assures me he was only joking. But I know if I’d conceded, we’d have walked 15 miles with an unhappy, fretting chicken shitting down my shorts. You don’t buy dead chickens here, and certainly not ones vacuum packed in plastic, you just dangle them by the legs… It’s just the way things are. Feathers and all.

*

We stay the next day. A lithe young Masai stops to chat as we take our leisurely next-morning milky tea beneath a shady tree. Only chapatis this morning. There’s nothing else available. The sun’s already hot in this low-lying inferno. The Masai wears car tyre sandals, and a colourful chequered cloth. He’s got no ounce of excess fat, just smooth, almost girlish skin and polished chin and cheeks. Even his head looks polished. His narrow face is not handsome but he carries his body with the relaxed ease of one used to endless walking. And I don’t mean the kind of walking I am doing: this boy spends his life walking, the modern traditional peddler, selling beaded bracelets, leather belts and a herbal mixture: a sort of tonic, William says, from a grubby five-litre plastic container. He seems to carry nothing but his few wares – and a mobile phone. He walks without stopping to the most remote hamlets and habitations looking for sales of a few bob a day. Then he finds a place to sleep and carries on tomorrow. An odyssey that may last for years, I suppose. A bunch of handmade cattle bells hangs from his hand. William pumps him for information about our walk across the great valley tomorrow. He can do it in three hours. “So maybe we will take five…” William tells me with a chuckle. The Masai walks off, soon swallowed by the spiny trees and crackling undergrowth, something slightly mythical in his rootless existence. All hail, the wandering Masai.

*

The customary African demon raises its head here in Kerio Valley: ALCOHOL. The Achille’s heel of Africa. I’ve seen many die and very many more lose all sense of self respect and decency. It’s a major problem of Africa. There’s so much of it down here in Kerio Valley. It’s probably the main reluctance I have about going back to Navrongo in Ghana too, which provided such a framework to my life for thirty years, and where still lives one of my closest friends, my dear brother Wechiga. Some years back, it came to the point where I would not go to town after lunchtime, for I knew I would see only misbehaviour and suffer from educated people begging for more hard alcohol: the white man an irresistible ‘touch’, for we are all so rich from our money trees. People sensible and respectful in the morning are talking nonsense, begging further alcohol and harassing me after a small amount of very intoxicating hard alcohol, home produced and unregulated. It’s costing lives, families and development. Yet no government dares to expose it or attempt to control it. They’d lose votes of course. This way they just lose voters… A day fending off alcoholics – for that’s what many have become – becomes irritating. My usual adaptability and acceptance reduces: I hate this.

Largely, it’s a problem of the useless African men who hold back this continent so much, doing little useful but fathering children with their scattergun approach: sex with any woman, like the proud cockerels. With no more responsibility for the consequences too. The women do all the work, unless they too join the legions of drunkards, in which case children go hungry and miss school. People on the very edge of poverty spend what tiny resources they have on this poisonous hard alcohol, wirigi, then try to beg for more as they become addicted. In this hard, hungry drought-scoured valley it’s a problem of depressing proportions. “Oh, you have assISTed me a LOT!” exclaims William many times as we walk between groups of drunkards. “You made me leave this wirigi! And the cigarettes.” He knows he is much healthier and stronger than he was five years ago when we met. Would that I could influence these desperate communities burning up in the sun and avoid the frustrations from drunkards that I now associate with the villages of the Kerio Valley.

*

On Sunday there’s no food but two cold chapatis and half an unripe mango for breakfast. William’s walked for half an hour before I get up, looking for eggs. We must make do. It’s not a lot on which to walk for the next six hours in the scorching sun. For today we intend to walk right across the valley floor to the foot of the hills to the east. I’ve looked down into this valley for six winters, not really knowing the landscape.

Edward, William’s sort of uncle’s cousin or something, the man we walked with last month, is going to come with us and show us the way, for there’s no defined path through the thick scrub and bush. And there may be elephants in there… Real live pachyderms…

I fill my three water bottles early. By afternoon, the water from the borehole tank is hot as bathwater. Here, even the nights are hot as the fires of hell. By morning, the water is still tepid. What a place to live. I lecture Colin, Anne the cook’s husband, angrily. Last evening he cheated me of 200 bob (£1.40 – a considerable sum here: it’s the pay for a day’s labour) implying that he needed to get supper supplies. He arrived home four hours later rolling drunk, having left Anne to cook alone, care for her three very young children and look after the two guests. There was discord in the house; we ate late, and he stole our remaining ripe breakfast mango. Later, Edward tells us he is a ne’er-do-well; he’s stolen money from the hotel owner, but he comes back to force his ‘rights’ with his gentle wife. Of course, no African would countenance the concept of marital rape. They just laugh at the idea. Who knows why Anne made such a poor choice, one that will perhaps ruin her life and leave her lovely children in poverty? Who can tell? It’s the cause of our lack of breakfast too. She hasn’t even money for chapati flour.

The status of African men… the majority raised and indulged by mothers, their fathers frequently having cleared off like those cockerels to find other women to despoil: that’s the root of this evil. Boys are always favoured. They grow up knowing they are better than their sisters: the inferior sex that is provided to work for men. Few men take responsibility for their offspring and many descend to deceit, drink and womanising.

We deduct the 200 bob from our small bill (the rooms were just £3.40 each), but I secretly give it back to Anne as a tip before we leave. Why should she and her toddlers suffer for her useless husband’s misdemeanours? The sooner she sacks him back up the mountain, the better.

*

We walk away along the white dust road. It’s 10.30 and the sun’s already high and hot. It’s so hot that despite my litre water bottle, various quantities of water that we beg from mud and stick homes the other side of the river, a bottle of juice we scavenge from a small shop, two mugs of tea and two pints of beer, I don’t urinate for 23 hours! THAT hot! Oh boy, it’s HOT!

For an hour we follow a dusty track made by lorries bringing river sand from the valley floor. As we walk, I ask Edward what crops he grows on his shamba, which is quite deep in the valley. “I had fruit trees, like the ones where we got the mangoes yesterday, but more than a year ago, elephants destroyed my trees. I have filled in all the forms for compensation, because the National Reserve is supposed to maintain the electric fences to keep the elephants from our tribal lands, but they don’t care; they say they have no money. Even until now, they say the papers are still in Nairobi…”

“They will be there for ten years!” exclaims William in disgust at the power of authorities to procrastinate.

“…unless they settle our claims and mend the fence before the rainy season (now within weeks) we won’t be able to plant again.” It’s a hard life, stuck between the harsh climate, marauding elephants and African bureaucracy.

The sandy track turns sharply; we branch off directly into the low bush and push our way for several kilometres through dry thorn bushes, whipping branches, crackling drought-suffering bushes and beneath small, weakened acacia trees eastwards. It’s hard going and painful. I draw blood frequently, embattled by vicious thorns. Sometimes I must crouch under trees like bags of needles. The scrub fights back. Branches like whips attack me from every direction. I’m tired and SOOOO hot. The bush isn’t thick enough to prevent the searing overhead sun at under half a degree from the Equator in this burned up ghastliness.

We duck under the broken electric fence that is supposed to keep the wildlife in the national reserve.“We are in the reserve now,” says Edward. I should be paying over $50 for this! It’s even harder going and excruciatingly uncomfortable. It seems to just go on and on; no real route, just pushing through the knife-edged growth. ‘Mr Currter’, the ugly old white shirt I bought for these expeditions, is constantly catching on thorns and I have to extricate myself and my small backpack. I’ve a grubby tee shirt over my head, held in place by a sweat-stained baseball cap: both are frequently entangled. Often, I suspect we are going round in circles: the two mountain ranges to east and west are invisible from amongst the underbrush. We’ve passed a lot of monkey prints as we walk, big ones, although we’ve seen no wildlife, but now we’re stumbling over large quantities of elephant dung; some is fresh, from last night. Elephants are close by. The reserve’s last head-count tallied 210 elephants.

Edward’s walking quietly, looking ahead where he can, spotting lots of fresh elephant footprints. When he picks up their direction, each time he diverts. We avoid any shady trees we see ahead over the underbrush, where elephants might spend the day. Twigs whip; thorns catch. I stumble on, punctured. We spot the bones of an elephant in a small clearing. “Probably poached…” says Edward as we inspect giant bones like something in a museum display. We hear a branch break not far away. “Elephants,” whispers Edward. It’s quite exhilarating; we have no idea quite where they are. Or, I suspect, quite where WE are…

Where an elephant went to die – or perhaps was killed…

The ground briefly opens out and ahead is an area of thick mud: an elephant-made dam about thirty yards around. It’s churned and scarred by giants’ footprints. We rather tiptoe across where it’s thick and dry. Then to the left, about 80 yards away, a huge elephant pauses in tearing leaves from a tree and turns to watch us. He’s a big tusker. A giant. Off to our left, there’s another, about 50 yards distant. Huge. “Keep moving!” William and Edward both insist, as I scrabble with my camera bag, preventing me from getting a picture, which I regret all day. It wouldn’t have hurt to delay for twenty seconds, but Edward and William communicate their nervousness to me. William’s never actually seen a real live elephant up close before. “NO! Only from FARRR away! Eh, they were BIG!” William exclaims over and over for the rest of the day, excited by his close view. “HUGE!” Perhaps Edward is more afraid of the rangers than of elephants, but they too are probably far away, for we are in a remote corner of the small reserve, unlikely to be spotted as trespassers.

There are no more alarums on our walk to the river that weaves through the valley. It’s a trickle now, no crocodiles down here! Not in this very dry season. It drifts languidly over mud. We rest under a thorn tree and I splash warm water over my sweaty body. Then we paddle across to the other side. “No elephants here,” says Edward. “These people are hunters. The elephants don’t cross the river from the reserve. They know.” We leave Edward here to make his way back between the elephants to his home amongst the elephant-ruined trees of his shamba.

*

A bizarre mud-scape burning in the valley

The other side of the river is flat and desiccated. It grows little more than thorn trees and water-storing aloes on its packed red dust surface. And it seems endless to me. The water bottles are empty until we find two women living in this back-of-beyond-inferno in mud and thatched houses. The younger one wears an incongruously glittery stylish necklace, white against dark skin. What do they EAT, William and I wonder? Only goats survive here. We plod on and on. I need more water! Much more… We trudge on; just red dust and scarce patches of thin shade from flat-topped thorn trees. We slog across a heavily-eroded mud-scape like something from science fiction film, towards Barwessa, an ugly mess of shacks and lock-ups that passes for the local town. As we enter the scruffy village, I am followed by a Pied Piper band of fascinated youngsters. They’ve never seen the like. I can’t say I’m surprised… A sweaty old mzungu, scratched and gasping for air, in a disgusting over-sized ‘Mr Currter’, now brown with filth and pitted with thorn holes. No, I’m not surprised at all that I attract a crowd of onlookers. And quickly we can see that Barwessa doesn’t provide much other excitement to its inhabitants. The first two we meet are pissed as rats… The rest look depressed, slightly glazed.

The only places to stay are airless, dingy and grubby. ‘Not good enough for William’s Mzungu!’ I’m much more adaptable than he imagines, but I agree that Barwessa holds no attraction. So we hire a boda-boda to take us 20 kilometres to the main cross-valley road, where I suggest that rather than struggling to look for accommodation when we are so tired, we take a matatu ‘home’ to Kessup, only 30km away. We phone ahead: “Put beer in the fridge! We are on our way coming.” And we ride the curling hill up to Kessup, supper, an oh-so-grateful wash and beer.

“We accomplished our mission!” declares William proudly, at least as satisfied as I am. I am fortunate in a companion who enjoys the exploration as much as me. “The goodness is, we both like to walk!” I don’t think anyone quite believes we ‘footed’ from Kessup to Barwessa, a distance of about 25 miles across the burning valley. But we did. Even William is tired. “We meet tomorrow. I go and sleep.” And he wanders away to his dilapidated wooden house carrying a plate of roasted potatoes left from our supper for his breakfast. “Eh, those elephants! They were BIG!” he says over his shoulder, still excited. “HUGE!”

I walk to my small room that hovers on the edge of this stupendous view, now hidden by night. Only a few weak solar lights and fires prick the felt-black below, reminding me that people actually make their homes on the near edges of this inhospitable void. All beyond is like pitch as far as the opposite hills, outlined faintly against the lighter sky. North eastwards, any lights of Barwessa are hidden by a shoulder of the near escarpment, drunks still probably stumbling about its single gloomy main street. To the south east, points of light glint fifteen miles off in Kabarnet, the only town of size on those opposing hills. In the big shadow between, elephants browse in the darkness. I have a new understanding of the landscape below my room; of the Kerio Valley, junior scion of the Great African Rift Valley.

William goodnights Vicky in the smoky kitchen shack as he passes. “Eh, they were HUGE!” I hear him exclaim. The awe of his first elephant encounter will stay with him for a very long time…

A tree adapts to erosion, and still lives on – just
Kerio Valley. A wonder of nature in Kenya

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