MARSABIT: The Return
My husband and I had felt Marsabit calling us for some time. We first visited in 2017 (you can read about that here) and were so drawn to this town on the mountain, bathed in cool mists… so when we felt the pull again this year, we started to make plans. We downsized and got rid of anything that would have been a load, bought things that would help store things while on the move. We had no clue where we would be staying as everything we found online was either too expensive or not available. But, we prepared anyway. Before long, we were just days away from our journey; suddenly it was as if the world conspired against us. A new lockdown was announced that would prevent us from travelling to Marsabit.
Given the ambiguity in the language of the latest Covid provisions, and since we had already given notice where we lived, we took the split-second decision to pack up whatever could fit in the car and head for Nairobi. I prayed and I felt so strongly that God could give us a loophole within the new requirements and that we needed to be ready to use it. As we had already given notice, we simply updated the owner that based on the latest announcement we would be leaving a few days earlier than planned. Within two hours, we were packed and we were in Nairobi by the new curfew hours, having dropped one item off along the way. The whole afternoon and evening following the announcement, people flooded social media with their anger, frustration and disdain at the way the new measures were meted out.
This online protest flowed into the following day and the next thing we knew, the government spokesperson was on-air announcing a temporary extension until the following day at eight pm to allow all who had been caught flatfooted to make the necessary moves to get where they needed to go. This was the loophole!
We took it. The following morning we left the house – where we had stopped over for an indefinite period – at nine am. We fuelled God’s Chariot and left the Zone which they had called diseased, thanking God over and over for His kind graces and amazing mercy! We were not fleeing the lockdown, you see, we were heeding the divine call to head to Marsabit.
We crossed the five-county lockdown line before ten am and we were in Makuyu shortly thereafter, making a brief stopover before continuing our journey. Our plan, as we had laid it out originally, was to visit Nyeri for a few days and then continue on to Marsabit. So, with Nyeri firmly in our sights, we headed off once again but within a few minutes, our lives were literally in jeopardy. We had come face-to-face with the terrors of that road – the infamous Miraa (khat) transporters who – caring nothing for the life or limb of other road users – fly down the highway at speeds that appear to defy manufacturer specifications. We encountered many of these speedsters and I finally understood the term ‘speed demon’ because these drivers are so focused on the task of making money that they are possessed by something other than love. One guy was overtaking some cars and decided to continue on in our lane, despite seeing that our car was really close to the lead vehicle that he wanted to pass. There are road works in progress along the highway and to our left (the only option for escape) was a steep drop into the excavated section. The driver did not back down, ease back into the traffic on his side of the road or anything like that. It was like a real-life game of chicken. He kept coming. Unrelenting in his advance. It was up to us to join him in his psychotic race to death or back down. Thank God there was a tiny bit of space to our left, a little ledge just large enough to fit our car and for the madman to get past us safely. Once he had gone by, we continued all the more cautiously down the highway, encountering a few more of these unholy drivers – until we passed their turnoff to the highway and went on to more peaceful roads.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been so shocked, they have had a terrible reputation for decades and have caused deaths more than once in their pursuit of profit. A ban on Miraa exports appeared to have clipped their wings for a time and following its removal, it is clear that they and their masters did not use that time for any introspection whatsoever. Maybe it’s okay that I’m not okay with the idea of someone driving like a maniac and endangering others just because they want to make money. It is an evil culture that has pervaded the world with its perpetrators believing they are entitled to behave however they want, to the detriment of many – and it is a culture that too many have become numb to.
Leaving the madness behind, we drove on to Nyeri and just past an area called Chaka we found the turnoff to White Rock Resort. The quiet place where we would spend a few days at the foot of Mount Kenya, detoxing from the atmosphere we had come from and preparing for what was ahead. I think the highlight of White Rock Resort was its vast gardens and forested area of indigenous trees, which not only purified the air around us and infused it with abundant phytoncides (read more about those here), but offer shelter to so many different bird species that we were constantly turning our heads to try to spot them and delighting in their different colors and melodies. The loudest of our avian neighbors were the silvery-cheeked hornbills that dominated the trees around us. Their wings made a loud whooshing sound as they took to the air as we passed and when they opened their beaks? It was like donkeys honking! I have never heard the likes of it before in my life. I loved it.
The view around Chaka town and the surrounding area is defined by the commanding presence of Mount Kenya in the distance. The mountain’s distinct form is constantly present to the east, with the peaks coming in and out of view depending on the weather. On a clear day, one can easily make out the highest peaks, the moorlands and the foothills of Kenya’s highest mountain from Chaka and the highway near the resort. The mountain looks so serene and insistently makes the call to one’s heart to come away from the mess and the noise that ‘modern’ society has become and to find the stillness and peace of simple living once more. The night before our departure, we found ourselves downsizing once again. Removing things from the Chariot that did not make sense to be lugging around and that were simply loads weighing down our journey.
On the dawn of the third day, we made our way out of our refuge and down now-familiar roadways through Nanyuki and Timau and past breathtakingly beautiful landscapes to Isiolo town, where we stopped for supplies, and then onwards to Marsabit, pausing briefly along the way for security checks and to capture photos of the mighty Ewaso Ng’iro/Ewaso Nyiro River (which was down to not much more than a stream when we drove by), Mt. Ololokwe and other gems along the way, and to say hello to and share water with the young herdboys who were out with their camels, cows, sheep and goats. There’s such contrast between these young boys, some who couldn’t have been older than ten, who are out there with their bare chests, spears, knives and fierce eyes, and beautiful smiles… some of them all alone – and the children we left in the city, with their plastic brightly colored toy guns, video games and sugary breakfast cereals. These young boys we met were already warriors in their own right.
We arrived in Marsabit town a little before one pm. The empty, smooth highway is a temptation to fly… but the journey is in the surprises that lie around the next corner, like the ostriches, which we didn’t see the last time, and the amazing rock features along the way. This time we planned to make camp in the forest instead of staying at a hotel. Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) maintains two public campsites, one at Ahmed Gate and one at Abdul Gate which one can access easily. These facilities are equipped with showers, toilets and lighting to make your stay much more comfortable. They also supply firewood to their campers for bonfires and their armed rangers move through the forest checking on things from time to time. Which is good. You’ll see why later.
We chose to camp at the campsite next to Ahmed Gate. When we arrived in Marsabit town, we drove to Ahmed Gate to check out the campsite. There we met one very pleasant and welcoming ranger, Jacinta, who picked up her rifle and walked with us down to the camp. It was really beautiful. Just the right balance of wild, rustic and modern. After the visit, we made our payment for two nights – $2 per camper per night – and headed back to town to get some supplies for dinner then returned to set up camp. Pitching our tent in what appeared to be an ideal location next to one of the washrooms, we set about the business of making our camp comfortable. Cleaning the washrooms, setting up our chairs and preparing what our bodies were crying out for – a meal! Along the way, a troop of baboons came by and sussed us out while they played on the ground in the trees and on the nearby water tank. You could just see them looking for an opportunity to grab something. It was a little funny.
Towards sundown, some of the residents of the town came by for what we were told was their usual evening bonfire and chat. We had deliberately set up our campsite away from the bonfire area to maintain some level of privacy. They settled down and as the sun went down, lit their bonfire, had some food they had ordered from town, which was delivered to them by a Boda Boda rider and they chatted and told stories for a few hours. Later on, a different group arrived, with loud music and laughter to boot. This did not feel like the forest retreat we had thought it was. We gazed at the stars; my husband experimented with some astral photography. Even with the brightness of the floodlights, we saw stars we could never make out in all the blasting lights of the city. We made our way into our tent and tried to settle down for the night. Eventually, we did doze off somewhat but were woken up around ten pm by someone who came to warn us that our particular choice of campsite was actually a preferred footpath for the animals that used it by night. You know: nice, cute bushbuck, leopards (!) and hyenas (well!!). This was new information. It dawned on us properly that the campsite was simply carved out of the bush but was not fenced in… there was no real sequestering between us and the wild apart from the floodlights. Light to chase away darkness. They advised us to move closer to the bonfire. The revelers were leaving at this point so we took the advice and relocated right next to the fire. Looking back at where we had camped, we could see why they were concerned for us. We had camped in the darkest and most isolated location where none of the light from the floodlights fell. Things look so innocuous in the light of day.
Anyway, we added some logs, fortified our dainty nylon tent with tables and chairs as some kind of early warning system and we tried to get some sleep. It was a long night. Every single time a one-inch size hard seed dropped on the roof of the chariot or on the leaves, every time some creature made a sound we didn’t recognize… we were aware of it. It was actually quite funny. Except it wasn’t so funny. Our forest retreat had turned into an unexpected extreme camping safari. We prayed about it and slept. At some point, I was given a dream confirming that help had been sent in the form of a leso-wearing bare-chested huge Moran angel. That was a new wrinkle for my brain. A Moran angel. Stereotypes shattered! Thank you leopards and hyenas.
Dawn arrived and two weary campers emerged from their tent, made breakfast, offloaded yet more things that were making our lives feel extra burdened, broke camp and went to see if the Abdul gate camp was better. It was too open and public for our liking and we couldn’t transfer our payment for the second night there either, so we settled it within ourselves that we were going to finish our camping adventure, with God and the Moran angel he had sent by our sides. Then we went to town to sort out some things, and along the way discovered one of the most delicious treats at Café Urban.
We were hungry, it was afternoon and we were looking for something to do away with the need to cook that night when someone from a hardware shop we had visited in 2017 to help us get up the mountain recommended the special platter there. Then the very friendly waiter and barista, Robert, recommended the same thing. We had no clue what was coming but we said yes to it. A huge sinia (round, metal, circular platter) of food was placed before us containing pilau, chapati, fried beef, kachumbari (onion and tomato salsa), beans (in a bowl), cabbage, a bowl of chicken soup and chips (French fries). All this for the equivalent of about $10! Our eyes were wide at the sight of it and we soon discovered that as hungry as we were, even our rumbling tummies were not equal to the task. We had to carry the rest away with us, along with a complimentary coffee courtesy of Robert. Back to the campsite we went.
This time we set up camp next to the bonfire and sat quietly waiting for the evening groups to come and go. Right on queue they began to arrive and settle in. At twilight, the rangers and officers we had met at Abdul gate came by with the firewood for the bonfire and we had a nice chat with Francis, the Tourism Officer, while our new friends, rangers Anthony and Hussein, who we had met that morning, offloaded the wood and set up the fire. The lights came on and everyone settled down to one thing or another. A few hours later, I noticed something moving in the shadows near where we had pitched camp on day one. It was crossing from the washrooms we were using near our abandoned campsite to the deep forest on the other side. I thought I saw hooves, which would make sense because earlier a beautiful bushbuck had dashed across the clearing in the early evening, before sunset, pausing only briefly to glance in our direction, before disappearing into the bush. Observing the night crossing helped confirm what we had been told the night before. We had a few conversations with the bonfire adventurers about life, Afrika and the wild animals and then our new friends moved over from the bonfire to the other side where the music masters were hanging out, just to give us some privacy. It was such a kindness because there was no bonfire where they were going and we are really grateful to them for what they did. It wasn’t the most ideal thing for them but they sacrificed their comfort for ours and called it our honeymoon. Our love for Marsabit was just increasing all the more. We got into our little ark of a tent and tried to get some sleep – hoping no animals would want to come in two by two or alone. Suddenly, about an hour later, as if on cue, the music went off and everybody drove off at the same time and the campsite was plunged into deep silence, interspersed only by the call of night birds, the sound of seeds falling to the ground, the crackling fire and our breathing.
Later the silence was broken by a large group of animals – probably the baboons – shrieking and doing battle over something. Eventually, they settled down and the forest was quiet once again. Our senses were super-heightened by this time. I can tell you that I heard something walk past our camp, in the bush just beyond the reach of the light sometime after midnight and I could tell that it was moving from higher to lower ground. That would have placed it a little over 100 meters from where we were. It made a low call or series of calls in its throat. Later that night, I heard a number of animals calling to one another in the distance for quite some time, they didn’t sound like herbivores; I woke my husband for that one. I don’t know what they were. I cautioned my bladder not to make any demands on me in the wee hours of the night… it ignored me, so I ignored it back.
The morning found us well; we got up, sorted out bladder issues and showered. As I was getting ready to shower I heard a loud squeal and a bang and I peeped through the grill and took note that some baboons were traveling through the campsite, quarreling with each other, stopping to pick up food from the trash left behind by users of the facility. I saw my husband holding his big wooden staff in readiness for anything. There was nothing left to do but finish my shower and head down to our campsite, walking as tall and big and boldly as I could. I wore my towel around my shoulders and it would flap around in the wind. The baboons didn’t seem to like that so they made some room as I walked. Good thing too because these were some big, round and well-fed individuals. I don’t think they know how strong they are because they could easily have overpowered us based on strength, agility and numbers. They were pouring through the camp. I think there were over 100 in this troop alone. Three of them took perch in a tree nearby. They were trying to figure out how to get their paws on our eggs and leftover pilau and chips. We didn’t give them an inch though and they eventually left in a hurry as soon as the rest of their troop vanished up the pathway towards the rangers’ base.
It was interesting watching them interact with each other. The troop marched through for about half an hour because they were that many and they kept stopping to forage for food. They had a disciplinarian who would go through the ranks, correcting behavior it didn’t like and hurrying the dawdlers in their midst along. Big beefy baboons would be running from the discipline master squealing in a panic. Babies were playfully running around or being carried. Other members of the troop took elevated positions on the rooftop of the washroom and outdoor kitchen area scanning for trouble and one character set up near the lower entrance to the campsite where the troop was coming from keeping an eye on us in case we did anything they didn’t like and watching the troop making sure that all members were accounted for and had passed before joining the tail end of the queue itself. It was only our three rogue baboons hidden in the trees that this baboon didn’t notice.
As we had our breakfast, we heard the sound of a single gunshot ring through the air. I stood up to see whether what was being shot at was heading in our direction – ready to take shelter in the Chariot … but nothing showed. We called Jacinta and she told us that the baboons were bothering them and they had fired a shot to get them to scatter. We finished our meal, washed up, packed up and headed out. Back at the ranger station, we found the damage the baboons had caused to some of the equipment on a new museum and educational facility that the KWS is constructing. Cheeky baboons!
We had only paid for two nights, so we were heading off … and good thing too because it was a public holiday and they were expecting more locals to be there for the bonfire that night. It is thrilling to know that locals make use of such wonderful facilities available to them. I hope they see and enjoy the natural beauty that we did because there are many treasures hidden in that park.
The KWS rangers told us that there is a special campsite near Lake Paradise that we would like to try someday. It has none of the amenities of the other campsites. This one is a real back to nature deal. Are you up for it?
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Chioma Phillips is the Editor of Msingi Afrika Magazine and the host of Msingi Afrika Television. Her hope is to see the Truth shared, with all who will listen, for the transformation of the people and the continent of Afrika - and the world. She believes passionately in the critical role that Afrika and Afrikans have to play on earth right now and hopes to ignite the spark that will cause them to see and believe who they are, so that they can live out their Truest lives for the remainder of their days.