Mathews Range

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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.


Fisi and mondo

A great serval photo by Go Yamagata

Last night, after dinner, we went on a game watch. I can’t say that looking for game at night is my favorite thing. It’s spooky. We had a red light spotlight that our Samburu guide, Philip, shined into the brush and along the banks of a couple of waterholes. It picks up this pink or red shine from the eyes of animals like hyenas. I don’t particularly like seeing hyenas during the day but at night they just look like devils, loping along with their crippled hips and ghoulish laugh.

The Swahili name for hyena is fisi and the natives have an odd relationship with them. They despise them yet for the most part they won’t kill them. Partly because many of the tribes, including the Maasai and Samburu, leave their dead out in the bush for hyenas to consume and so they fear that if they kill a hyena they might be killing a relative’s soul.

There is a story Calvin tells about running into a Maasai, in Nairobi, who had worked for him at his safari camp in the Mara. The man’s face was horribly disfigured. Calvin asked him what had happened.

“Simba,” said the Maasai. A lion had attacked him.

Later Calvin heard that the warrior had really been attacked at night by a hyena who tried to chew off his face while he was sleeping.

“You’ll see lots of Maasai with scars from hyena attacks,” Calvin said, “but they’ll never admit it. They always say it was a simba. It’s too embarrassing to admit you’ve been attacked by a fisi. Saying it was a lion makes you seem more courageous.”

Well, we saw lots of fisi moving around the water hole and they made me shutter with disgust.

We backed away from the water hole and the Land Cruiser got stuck in some soft sand and for a moment I thought we were going to have to get out and push, while the fisi watched, but the driver rocked the vehicle a few times and eventually we got out of our hole.

We drove through the thick woodland, the red light washing through the branches of the trees as we looked for leopard when Philip said, “Mondo!”

I had no idea what mondo was. And although I scanned the trees and bushes, I didn’t see anything. Until Calvin pointed to what looked like a large house cat with big ears—a serval, one of the Small Five. That now meant we’d seen African porcupine, rock hyrax, and serval. Only mongoose and aardvark remained.

The serval didn’t stick around for long but I have to say that from what little I saw of him, he was a beautiful cat. Maybe even more so than the cheetah. It was about two feet high, maybe three feet long, with black polka dots decorating its tawny fur. The most noticeable thing about it however were its ears which were extremely long and stood up on top his head almost like bunny ears. That’s how they hunt, Calvin said. They have exceptional hearing and they listen for the sound of a rodent or frogs or birds. And even before they can see them, they pounce. Trusting their hearing to tell them exactly where their prey is situated.

Seeing the serval washed away the bad taste in my mouth left from the hyenas. And also put a cap on the evening of game watching. We started slowly back for camp, the red spotlight turned off, the bouncing beams from the headlights occasionally picking up the glint of other small animals in the bush though we seldom had time to identify them before they were off. But just before we came to the fork in the road that led back to Sarara, we passed a banded mongoose. Standing up on his hind legs along the side of the road as if he was hitchhiking. In fact, seeing this little thing standing on his hind legs, I yelled out “Meerkat!” Calvin corrected me. Although meerkats are members of the mongoose family, you won’t find any of them living in this neck of the woods (more like Botswana and South Africa).

The little guy was kind of cute. And seemed undisturbed by our presence. In fact he sort of tottled up the road towards us to have a better look. Or maybe he really did want a ride. In any case, we left him by the side of the road, intently watching us as we drove away.

To see more of Go Yamagata’s terrific Africa images, click on the link to his website.


A warrior named Mchangi

Samburu women with their beaded necklaces. Photo by David Lansing.

If you really take a good look at the Samburu, both men and women, what you notice are three things: They are handsome people; they are flashy dressers; and they love beads. I mean, take a good look at these two women we photographed the other day and just pay attention to the thousands and thousands of beads they’re wearing (and realize that they didn’t go down to the local Samburu jewelry store and buy them; they spent hundreds of hours designing and stringing them together themselves).

A Samburu warrior named Mchangi showing me his mchangi. Photo by Chris Fletcher.

When we were at the singing wells, I asked the one warrior who spoke a bit of broken English what his name was and he said it was Mchangi. I asked him what that meant and he pointed at the bracelets on his wrist.

Mchangi are the beads,” he said.

And then he told me a story. He didn’t tell it to me exactly this way but I’d need a tape recorder to get his Swahili-English piggin perfect. He said that when the women drop a bowl of mchangi on the ground, they make the totos—the children—pick them up. The children think they get them all but mama will continue to step on one here or there for days, maybe weeks. When this Samburu warrior was a toto, his mama told him he was just like the mchangi—always under her feet! So that’s what she named him.

I asked him if he liked the name and he gave me a big smile and said it was good for him—“Mzuri.”

I rather like the name myself. And for some reason, it made me think about the orphanage Pete and I visited in Nairobi at the beginning of this trip. Those children, whose parents have died of HIV/AIDS, are a bit like these mchangi—if you leave them on the streets they’re going to get underfoot and cause problems for everyone. But if you collect them up and handle them with care, you just might end up with something quite beautiful. Like the bracelets this Samburu warrior was wearing.


Pete sings to the cows

Pete making friends with a Samburu herdsman at the singing wells. Photo by David Lansing.

When we stopped at the Samburu manyatta the other day we had to spend time finding the elder and chatting a bit before we took our photos. You don’t just hop out of the Land Cruiser and start shooting. The same was true at the singing wells.

There were children playing in the shade of the acacias and euphorbia trees along the banks of the sand river. Calvin asked them who the mzee was and three boys, about 10, ran off and soon came back leading a Samburu who looked no more than thirty or so. Unlike the other Samburu here he was dressed mostly in Western clothes—dirty brown pants and a thin plaid shirt that was torn and ragged.

It’s a subtle dance that goes on. There’s a lot of just general chatting and getting to know each other. The mzee wanted to know where we were from and then there’s a lot of head nodding and smiling, as if he too had recently come from London and wasn’t the heat there just dreadful this summer?

Eventually it’s agreed that perhaps we might be able to take a few photos but, of course, the warriors in the wells will have to approve and bakshishi given. This is where it gets delicate: How much bakshishi and who gets it? The problem is that if the bakshishi goes straight into the pocket of the elder, it may never get to the boys in the well who are actually in the photos. Then again, you don’t want to make the mzee look bad by bypassing him and handing the tip directly to the Samburu whose photo you took. Bad form.

While Calvin was working this all out, Pete, the photographer for National Geographic Traveler, was doing his usual thing, which is getting to know the people. He was walking around fist-bumping the warriors and greeting them with a friendly “Habari!” which is the Swahili version of What’s going on?

Then Pete being Pete, he asked one of the Samburu who spoke a little English if he could get in the well and sing to the cows.

“You want to sing to the cows?” asked the incredulous warrior.

“Yeah, if they’ll let me.”

So some words were exchanged between the young warrior in the well and the one who spoke English and then Pete climbed in.

Now here’s the thing: The Samburu aren’t just singing to keep themselves from going crazy while they spend hours in these wells filling buckets with muddy water for their livestock. It’s also the way they communicate with their cows. There are hundreds of cows standing around in this sand river and three or four different singing wells and yet the cows only go to the well where their master is. Because they know his voice. If some other Samburu started singing to those cows, they’d walk away. So what happened when Pete got in there and started singing to the cows?

Watch this short video to see.


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