October 2010

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The author on a stretch of tarmac through Lost Kenya. Photo by Chris Fletcher.

The road we are on is variously called the Cape to Cairo Road, the Great North Road of Africa, or—my favorite—the Highway through Lost Kenya. Mostly it’s just the standard African corrugated dirt track that shakes you like a martini but every once in awhile we’ve hit a stretch of pristine blacktop where we can drive for ten or fifteen minutes without coming across another vehicle traveling in any direction before it suddenly ends just as quickly as it began and we’re back on the corrugated road again.

These short stretches of tarmac (which are officially closed but we haven’t seen any construction going on so Calvin figures what the heck and runs on them when he can) are part of a multi-million dollar road being built by a Chinese firm called China Wu Yi that eventually will stretch from Mombasa, on the coast, to Nairobi and then all the way to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The most important section is the one we’ve been hurtling over from Isiolo to the Ethiopian border, about 530 km. of road that has never been paved. So why would the Chinese be interested in building a road from Ethiopia to the Kenya coast?

Because they’ve been carrying out oil exploration up here in Northern Kenya and in Ethiopia and are expected to start drilling sometime next year. So, if they find oil or natural gas (and let’s be honest—of course they’ve found it! Why else would they spend $65 million to build a tarmac through a stretch of Kenya that is so isolated from the rest of the country that when people in the north head for Nairobi they say they are “Going to Kenya” because they just don’t feel a part of the country?) they’ll need a way to transport it or will need to build a pipeline. In either case, they’ll need a road.

The trouble is that the Kenya government has always had a hard time controlling the Northern Frontier District. Kenya’s Lost Land has for over a hundred years been troubled by shiftas—Somali bandits that steal cattle, poach elephants, hijack vehicles, and, every once in awhile, murder intruders. Just this April a Chinese engineer working on the construction of the road was shot and killed near Merille, where we watched the Rendille wedding ceremony, by shiftas who, supposedly, weren’t happy that the day laborers building the highway were mostly Chinese. Or maybe they just didn’t like their noodles. In any case, the project was shut down for awhile and eventually many of the Chinese were sent home and now Kenyans are on the job. Which may explain why we haven’t seen any construction going on during our drive. Fortunately, we also haven’t seen any shiftas.

Here’s a 30-sec. video of our photographer, Pete McBride, explaining where we’re going on the Chinese highway to Lost Kenya.


The wedding party

The bride and groom strut their stuff at Rendille wedding ceremony. Photos by David Lansing.

While we were at the wells where the Rendille were watering their camels, a young man came up and told us that there was a wedding ceremony going on at the Merille manyatta and if we wanted, we could watch the dancers. We crossed the sand river and followed a trail towards the village. The dirt here is rust colored and fine and seeps into your skin so that weeks later, long after you’re home, it leaches out of the thick soles of your feet or your scalp and turns the bath water a faint red.

Beneath a tall umbrella acacia were a dozen morani all dressed in their finest outfits. While the Maasai tend towards bright red shukas, the Rendille seem to prefer pastels—Easter egg pinks and blues, in particular, as well as canary yellow. Some of the warriors wore the traditional long hair flowing down their back while others were bald or almost so and all were painted in ochre.

The women are invited to the dance as well just as long as they, you know, keep their distance.

The dance ceremony seemed as prescribed as a hoedown in Texas. First the men formed a circle and started chanting and clapping their hands rhythmically. Then a single moran would enter the middle of the circle and leap straight up and down for as long as he could before being replaced by another warrior, each trying to outdo the other. Meanwhile, one of the warriors would recite some chanted littany, like a caller at a square dance, at which point the morani began to bob up and down as they danced in a circle beneath the shade of the tree.

At this point, there were no women in the dance although several young girls were huddled together at a discreet distance, giggling with their hands over their mouths and obviously keenly watching the warriors leap and chant. Like with the Samburu, the women live separately from the men until after they’re married; also like the Samburu, a Rendille marriage is usually arranged by elders and a wealthy man (i.e., one who has many camels and cattle) may have as many as five wives.

Eventually the dance reached a stage where one of the young women, who I assume was the bride, was led to the circle. A warrior lightly held her hand and together they led the rest of the group around and around as the morani chanted and clapped and the caller gave instructions or a blessing, I don’t know which. The other women cautiously approached the dancers but stayed just outside the circle, giggling and bobbing up and down until eventually they were invited to dance with the others.

This all went on for some time until Hardy decided that he wanted to dance too so showing off his best “white-man’s-overbite” he crashed the party and started bobbing up and down like a wounded duck and chanting something that sounded faintly like those hokey Indian war chants you hear in old John Wayne movies. The Rendille didn’t say anything but I don’t think they were too impressed with Hardy’s dancing (nor were we) and shortly after that everything began to wind down. I only wish we’d had a nice bottle of champagne to toast the bride and groom.

Here’s a short clip of Hardy pretending he knows how to dance. It’s very sad but explains why the party broke up so early.


Snotty camels

Osa Martin was smiling here after Martin purchased some camels for their safari, but the camels got the last laugh.

Watching the Rendille water their camels in the wells of the Merille sand river, I couldn’t help but think of Osa and Martin Johnson and one of their little safari disasters that occurred here. In her book Four Years in Paradise, Osa doesn’t really touch upon it. She writes about meeting a Rendille chief (they don’t really have chiefs, but never mind) who had fifteen wives and over a thousand camels. “We bought some of his camels for pack purposes and our headman had a grand day bargaining with his master’s wealth, paying forty to sixty shillings apiece.”

Sure, I look cute now. But wait until I blow my nose all over your camera. Photo and video by David Lansing.

And then we don’t hear about the camels again for the rest of the journey. But according to Pascal James Imperato, who wrote a biography of the couple, Martin made a huge mistake in purchasing the camels as his men had no idea what to do with them or how to handle them. “This led to inordinate delays as the camels bucked and threw off their loads.” Following his and Blayney Percival’s unsuccessful search for a shorter route to Lake Paradise through the Mathews Range, “Martin wisely traded his five camels for posho and donkeys, regrouped his seventy men, three vehicles, and mule and ox wagons, and on March 24 (1924) headed north toward the Kaisut Desert.”

That’s why we don’t hear about the camels again from Osa—Martin had gotten rid of the nasty critters. Watching the little Rendille herders work with their camel herds, I could see why it could be a disaster to use them for pack animals if you’d never worked with them before.

Even for the Rendille, for whom the camels are their lifeblood, these suckers were cantankerous, spitting when annoyed, ignoring repeated swats on the rump with sharpened sticks, wandering off when they just didn’t feel like doing what the herder wanted them to do. The fact of the matter is, camels look kind of cute from a distance, but you really don’t went to get too close to them—as I found out when one decided to blow his nose on me just as I was snapping his portrait. Snotty bugger.


The Rendille

A young Rendille boy keeps an eye on his camels. Photos by David Lansing.

“In the early hours of the morning we came to the sand river of Merille, lined with dom-palm and mimosa trees.

“We had no sooner arrived and replenished our water, than I saw a huge cloud of dust on the horizon, which would be natives bringing their flocks to water. We waited, and sure enough, the camels began to arrive. Then came goats and sheep and humpbacked cattle, until the place was thick with dust.

“Martin sent out boys to reassure the natives, who proved to be Rendille, and when they settled down to their watering Martin set up his cameras, but the dust made it difficult to take pictures. The Rendille natives continued to arrive with their herds until there were thousands of groaning camels. Except for carrying water, these camels are generally accumulated only for wealth and display. Such trade as the Rendille carry on is always in exchange for camels, and the trade is mostly for wives, which they also accumulate. A wife fetches as many camels as her beauty or her working ability seem to warrant, the rate varying from one to three camels per wife.”

–Osa Johnson, Four Years in Paradise

In the early hours of the morning we also came to the sand river of Merille, and there, just as they’d been when Osa and Martin Johnson passed this way in 1924, were Rendille herders watering great herds of camel, humpbacked cattle, goats, and donkeys. Almost nothing had changed.

The farther north you go in this country the drier it gets and here the herdsmen had dug wells that were considerably deeper than the singing wells of the Samburu and it took two or three Rendille to pass the bucket up from the bottom to the top.

Despite the vast number of animals waiting for a drink, everything was quite orderly. A herd of maybe 50 camels would stand at a distance from the well, waiting until a young boy with a sharp stick was told to bring forward maybe eight or ten beasts and they would drink their fill as the others patiently waited their turn. Behind the camels were the herds of cattle and goats and donkeys, all separated and in specific locations in regards to the wells, and around all the animals were the young boys who maintained order with their herds and beyond them, farther out in the circle, clumps of Rendille women with their babies on their hips or at their breasts (the women are not allowed to talk or fraternize with the men). The women were ornately dressed with the same colorful nkelas wrapped around their waists and lots of beaded necklaces and bracelets.

In fact, the Rendille and Samburu are very similar, both semi-nomadic herders who probably came originally from Somalia. The Rendille language is very similar to that of the Samburu as are many of their customs (like marriages, arranged by parents, that are usually between an older man and a young girl and in which livestock is used for the dowry). The Rendille, however, prefer camels for their herds rather than cattle, primarily because their lands, mostly in the Kaisut Desert, are so dry and the camel is better suited to this environment.

The Rendille have been resistant to change (they believe they came to live in the desert because it is their promised land and pray to a god called Wakh and thank him for leading them to the desert “because your people cannot climb mountains or cross seas”), but it was interesting to note that while the women and men wore the traditional costumes, most of the young children were dressed in the hand-me-down t-shirts and shorts that come bundled in bales from Western aid societies and are meant to be distributed free but usually end up with some dukawallah who sells them cheaply in little shops or markets. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come for the Rendille.


The last view of Sarara

Pete shoots a Samburu warrior at sunrise on our last morning at Sarara. Photo by David Lansing.

We’ve lingered at Sarara for too long. Perhaps because none of us are looking forward to what we know will be a difficult drive north to Marsabit; perhaps because we’re secretly afraid of what we will find when we get there.

“The country to the north of (Archer’s Post) was considered extremely treacherous because permanent water holes were few and scattered at great distances. Moving a small army of porters across a landscape, which at times takes on a lunar appearance, was an enormous and dangerous undertaking. The desert crossing to Marsabit frightened a number of the Meru porters, and several soon deserted.

“It was Boculy who guided them over the elephant trails and led them to the crater lake on one of the mountain’s summits. As they emerged from the forest toward the wooded 200-foot-high cliffs that surrounded the lake, Osa exclaimed, “It’s paradise, Martin!” And thus the lake that had been known as Crater Lake since Smith had first seen it a quarter of a century before was given the name Lake Paradise, by which it is still known today.

“The twisted tree trunks and the dangling moss give the forest that enchanted look reminiscent of illustrations in a tale from the Brothers Grimm. There is often a haunting silence in this forest, broken only by the tolling of a far-off dove, and a calm made uneasy by the knowledge that lion, buffalo, and leopard lurk in the hidden ravines.”

Was Lake Paradise still there? Almost nothing had been written about in over 50 years and there were no recent photos.

What did it look like today? Did the forest still have “that enchanted look” and were lion, buffalo, and leopard still lurking in the ravines?

No one knew. No one we talked to had been there. All anyone ever said in regards to Lake Paradise was that it was in a dangerous country controlled by shifta bandits. “Not a good place to go,” said one expert I’d talked to. “You’d be crazy to go up there,” said another.

But it was too late to turn back now. We’d made it as far as Sarara Camp in the Mathews Range, the spot where, I imagine, Bud Cottar had argued with Blayney Percival and Martin Johnson before going back to Nairobi. Now I was with Calvin Cottar, who, perhaps even more than I, wanted to complete the safari to Lake Paradise his great uncle had abandoned for whatever reason 86 years ago.

We needed to move on. Finish the trip.

Knowing what lay ahead, Calvin had instructed us all to be up and ready to go before the break of dawn. In the chill of the morning, I dragged my safari duffle down the hillside to the mess tent. The sun was not yet up. Pete was laying on his stomach on the rocks overlooking the natural pool down below the mess tent taking photos. Casually standing on the edge of the pool was our guide for many of the past days, Philip Laresh. He was waiting for the sun to come up.

“So, today you go?” he said.

“Yes. Want to go with us?” I joked.

Philip considered it seriously. “I would very much like to go. Do you think there will be very many elephant?”

“I am hoping.”

“Maybe some old bulls,” he said. “Big tusks.”


“Do you know,” he said, “that although I grew up here, I never saw an elephant until I was thirteen?”


He shook his head. “They were all gone then,” he said. He stood facing the sun which was slowly creeping up between the horizon and a low bank of dark clouds. “Tembo mzuri sana.” He was silent for a moment and then he said in a low voice, “I think you will see many elephants in Marsabit. Many elephants.”

Pete clicked the last of the photos. The boys came down with their luggage, we all had a quick cup of tea, and then we were off. Headed for Lake Paradise. In hopes of seeing many, many elephants.


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