Rising from the edge of the Chalbi desert in northern Kenya, the wild hill country of the Mathews Range offers a different kind of safari experience. Sally Beck visited the Kitich Camp, as featured in the Rough Guide to Kenya, to get acquainted with the local wildlife.
Landing on a private airstrip in a retro 1958 Cessna at the foot of Kenya’s Mathews Range is quite a rush. It’s a tricky manoeuvre which involves dropping down over a ridge and flying to the opposite end of the red earth airstrip, before executing a tight turn and coming in to land. As a passenger, sitting up front next to the pilot, the one thing you must not do, tempting as it is, is put your foot on the dual control brake. Do that, and you’re likely to veer off into the scrub.
Ngelai is the last strip of parched plain in the Kenyan landscape that you encounter before heading by 4WD upwards into the green canopy that is the blissfully isolated Mathews Range. Climbing steadily, you bump your way through the odd Samburu village, where little children wave happily at you and the flora turns greener by the mile.
Our destination is Kitich Camp, an intimate, six-double-bedded-camp, complete with silver medal eco rating, in the heart of the forest.
In the open-air “lounge”, safari chairs covered with sheepskin overlook a floodlit glade where, if you’re lucky, elephant, buffalo and bushbuck emerge from the forest at dusk to drink from the stream.
On the way to my luxurious canvas tent, I heard the low rumble of an elephant from somewhere in the lush indigenous forest. A pied kingfisher began an impressive acrobatic display above the stream that ran a few feet away from my “front door”, and as we slept, a large male lion woke the others with its throaty call, close-by.
Kitich, the Samburu word for Place of Peace, accurately sums up this remote paradise, which scientists refer to as “Sky Island”.
Unlike most safari treks, which you spend observing wildlife from inside a jeep, Kitich is explored on foot. A pride of lion won’t walk ten feet away from you like they would in the Maasai Mara, but they will be there. Their paw-prints can be seen everywhere, as well as those of a leopard. Neither will you get close to a herd of elephant, but butterflies the size of dinner plates or small as daisies and red and black Turacos swoop across your path. With binoculars, you can study a troop (or congress if you want to get scientific) of baboons in the distance.
Escorted by three native Samburu, carrying spears and a gun – just in case – and Stefano Cheli, the camp’s owner and knowledgeable guide, we walked through the tall grass into the unknown. We passed thorny acacia, mountains of elephant dung and scattered bird feathers – a sign that a big cat had fed recently.
Armed with a rifle, the elder Samburu, Thomas, took the lead. He was watching mainly for buffalo, which present the most danger to pedestrians in these parts. At the rear was Touson, wearing an impressive headdress indicating he is a young warrior. Then Stefano disappeared from view only to jump out again hollering like a warthog. For one tense moment Touson crouched, spear poised, ready to throw, before we all dissolved laughing.
We saw more droppings – of all kinds – which revealed so much. We could tell that a lion had feasted on a buffalo by the undigested fur and hoof, and that elephants digest only forty percent of the grass and leaves they eat, because their droppings are full of straw. And when a hyena’s droppings are white, it shows that they’ve recently eaten bone.
We passed ancient cycads, wild orchid and a white fungi that looks like a sea-shell. Thanks to protracted stays by professional botanists, our Samburu guides know the Latin names for pretty much everything.
Just as I began to flag, a river with its own plunge pool came into view. It was complete with sisal rope dangling tantalizingly from a tree screaming “swing on me”, which I did, before allowing tiny fish to give me a free pedicure in the shallows. In another clearing, a picnic lunch appeared, complete with pudding, cheese and wine.
Back at camp, after an al-fresco shower, I sipped sundowners of Tusker beer and the local cocktail dawa – vodka, honey, lime and mint – by a campfire, examining our collection of porcupine quills and bird feathers. Stefano explained how this whole place, once owned by olive oil magnate Julian Bertolli, would disappear if tourists stopped coming. The income we generate shores up the local economy. “Otherwise the Samburu would chop down the trees and use it to graze their cattle,” he says. “All this would be lost.”
A scientist recently found 150 undiscovered plants at Kitich Camp; in addition to the 380 species of birds, the butterflies and insects, it’s an ecosystem that suggests the forest has been there for millions of years and hopefully, will be for several million more.
For further information contact www.chelipeacock.com. For a tour operator package including international flights contact www.exceptional-travel.com.
If you want to explore more of this rich country, buy the Rough Guide to Kenya. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.