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Wildlife Camera » Quietly through Masai country

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Quietly through Masai country

14 November 2008


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gerenuk

The camels in a Rudyard Kipling poem were called Can’t, Don’t, Shan’t and Won’t … and listening to our camels groaning and complaining in the cool Kenya dawn, I could understand why. On first acquaintance, camels are not attractive or willing animals.
But after a week in the dry bush of the Laikipia Masai country in Northern Kenya, trekking from camp to camp on camel-back, I think they are one of the great re-discoveries of tourism. A camel safari is a wonderful way to see the real Africa.


Silently swaying along at an unwearying amble, the great beasts allow you to look out over the thorn trees from a perch twice as high as the back of a horse and to take things at the pace of the early explorers. There are no roaring mini-bus engines, no nattering guides, no rush to get to the hotel by nightfall.
My safari camel was a tall, one-humped, ghostly-white beast called Pulel, who carried my 16-stone weight without sweat or strain for four or five hours every morning at a steady three miles an hour. And although the ship of the desert has the reputation of giving a rather seasick-making ride, I found it wonderfully relaxing on the antique padded saddle, lulled by the clank-clonk of the wooden camel-bell round the beast’s neck.
I didn’t have to worry about controlling Pulel, whose only bridle was a rope tied round his lower jaw. He took his orders from a Masai youth called Parkorit, a proud and wild creature out of Africa’s past, whose red-ochred and braided hair announced his status as a young unmarried warrior, never parted from his 7ft. spear and lethal throwing stick.
The routine was unvarying. As dawn came up on our little camp beside a waterhole, the desert sand-grouse would be flitting in to drink and the wood doves would be cooing their sad dirge as the Masai warrior arrived with warm water for a wash.
Breakfast with our hosts and guides, Julian and Jane McKeand, was taken around a trestle table, chatting about the day ahead and the game we were likely to see. The Kikuyu cooks produced bacon and eggs, tea and toast, from their primitive camp stoves with an efficiency which many restaurants would envy.
Then aboard the camels, each rising with an alarming lurch – backwards, forwards, backwards – until they are all up on their feet and ready for the trek in the high-altitude sun, bang on the equator. The heat is tempered by the height of the plateau, which at Isiolo is higher than Ben Nevis.
The morning then passes in a quiet, plodding wander through low hills, unexpected green valleys and stretches of open bush, occasionally meeting herd boys with their cattle and goats. Because this is not a national park but the tribal lands of the Laikipia Masai, over which Julian McKeand had special permission to take his safaris because he had known the elders for nearly 40 years and employed several of them in his White Hunter days.
Julian was professional hunter for the Mount Kenya Safari Club founded by film star William Holden. In the heyday of big-game hunting, Julian led John Wayne, Bing Crosby, Stewart Granger, Edward G. Robinson and other well-known personalities on wide-ranging safaris after Kenya’s game.
Julian long ago gave up the shooting safaris – although he made certain that a large-calibre rifle is to hand all the time, “just in case an awkward fellow like a lone Cape buffalo is around”. He was accompanied by his wife Jean, the daughter of one of his big-game hunting clients. They bought a house in the Cotswolds, but Kenya is home.
Julian employs nearly 30 Masai, providing the only regular wages on the reserve. Some of the elders have been with him for years, including his gun-bearer, Moloi, who once saved his life by shooting a wounded buffalo which had gored McKeand and pinned him to the ground.
Many of the young warrior morans are the sons of men who hunted with Julian in the good old days. He trains them from scratch: “They have never tied a knot in a piece of rope, never seen a knife and fork.”
They are never parted from their spears, usually kept hooded with a tuft of black ostrich feathers to show that they go in peace. But take off the plumes and they are ready for battle.
Julian told me the story of the only theft from one of his bush camps, when the Austrian Ambassador to Kenya and his family lost all their clothing and camera gear in a sneak grab from their tent during dinner. When they were told about it, the Masai of Julian’s staff were outraged. They set off in the darkness, with torches, to track the thieves.
In the middle of the night, they came up with the robbers, who flung away the clothing and kept the cameras as they fled. Keeping close pursuit in the darkness, the trackers realised that the men they were chasing were members of a closely related tribe, which upset them even more.
They eventually caught up with the thieves at two o’clock the following afternoon, after an 18-hour chase without food or rest. The gang abandoned the cameras and the camel-trek Masai decided that honour had been saved. Julian was glad that it had not ended in a shoot-out.
He has great respect for the warrior qualities of his men. But sometimes they are surprisingly vain. Like the occasion when Jane was asked by the morans to buy them some red-ochre powder for their hair during one of her shopping expeditions to the town of Meru.
She brought back several pounds of the stuff, but was surprised when they seemed embarrassed. “It’s the wrong shade of red,” they said.
They are certainly tough. Day after day, they lead the camels through the harsh landscape, singing to themselves in rhythmic chants, with alternate high notes and grunting sounds, in time with the gentle pad-pad of the camels’ feet.
After 10 to 12 miles on the trail, with breaks for cool drinks, the trekking party arrives at the lunch site which is also the camp for the night. The afternoon siesta is followed by a walk in the cool of the evening, looking for game and birds.
One evening we saw a gerenuk (illustrated), a dark-eyed, long-necked gazelle of the dry bush which browses gracefully among the thorns. Julian remembered William Holden shooting one, then saying as he looked at the elegant creature: “Oh, my God! I think I’ve killed Audrey Hepburn . . . ”
During the afternoon of each safari day, the camp is set up, using all the equipment carried by the long train of camels – eight for riding, more than 20 for the baggage, including everything from short-wave radio to portable showers and loos, paraffin lamps to Tabasco sauce.
The red-robed Masai have it all set up by dinner time. There is no fridge, so as the week goes on, the public-school food gets notably more vegetarian – meat doesn’t keep too well in the heat. But with culinary achievements, such as a cheese souffle, coming fresh and light out of the tin oven on the open fire, it’s not exactly hardship.
The rivers, when they run, are thick with red mud and the waterholes are not appetising, but modern water filters take care of all that. The tea tasted far better than most British cafe brews.
After the meal and a natter around the fire, we can slip gratefully under our mosquito nets and sleep, lulled by owls and cicadas and the distant rumbles that could be a lion, but are more probably the camels having their night-long browse out in the bush.
My companions on safari, 10 of us altogether, included a dry-stone wall builder from Bristol, a Polish lady doctor taking a break from her university work in Nigeria, a Canadian farmer’s widow, a California couple who had left a manager to look after their pharmacy business and taken off for several months of bird-spotting in Africa, and a Swiss biology teacher.
They all enjoyed the adventure and marvelled that it is even listed in holiday brochures.
The ancient rhythm of the camel’s easy shuffling pace, the clonking of the wooden bells, the low murmer of the Masai trail songs, the vast skies and the wilderness . . . they added up to one of the most memorable weeks of my life.– Willy Newlands (from archive, 1986)(Gerenuk portrait from iStockphoto).


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