Exploring Northern Kenya by Camel
Helen Dufresne has been walking with camels in Northern Kenya for 25 years. She was my age (29) when she started operating in these wild and unknown lands, and today she is respected as a Samburu elder, with her own hill given to her by the Samburu - El Kanto. The Milgis Trust was started by Helen in response to some of the issues she found on the ground, amongst the people and with the wildlife. Helen has always operated the trust with a grass roots foundation, and today it is no different. We witnessed many people along the way greeting Helen - she has facilitated missions to restore sight (140 in the last mission), protection of wildlife in the area, education programmes, donations to clinics and more... she is a truly amazing and inspirational woman, preferring to live in the wilderness than to be anywhere near a town, on a mission to protect the traditional Samburu way of life and passionate about sustsainable safaris that make a difference. Shelly and I were invited up to walk the camels back from their last safari - it would be faster than usual, we were told, but very interesting. We couldn't resist the invitation!
We flew from Naivasha, cold and cloudy, over varied landscapes, veiny rivers coursing through a dry yellow landscape until we reached the eastern side of the Ndoto mountains. The airstrip was in the middle of nowhere, our pilot was told 'just go down the lugga and turn left', and luckily we found it. Pete and Helen were waiting for us with their camels, and a group of ladies had gathered with a collection of Ngurnit baskets - this is the only place you can buy them - they are waterproof, and the Samburu use them to collect milk from their camels.
Our first walk was only 5 kilometers to a new camp that Helen and Pete had not used before, under huge hills and a bigger sky. Phone reception had gone during the flight, and it would not return until we flew home. Iphone off. Happy days.
As we walked we saw Terminalia trees in bloom and hear from Helen that recent rain has made everyone very happy, including the plants. In the evening we went for a walk to warm up the legs, and looked north over the Ndotos towards Poi, a favourite with paragliders because of its height. Beyond those hills lies the Chalbi Desert.
Day 2 started with an early wake up at 5am, warm water outside our dome tent and a cheery call from the Samburu. After a cup of tea and lots of water, we headed out before sunrise and started the climb up the huge hill, Helen's dogs in tow and Lemanyas leading the way - his nickname is Lemongrass, easier for our unaccustomed ears!
As we got higher, the views expanded and soon we were on top of a rock looking down where the camp had been. The camels wound their way through the bush carrying all our belongings with them, and carried on up the hill to more amazing views.
On the top we saw some amazing pools of water, some with lillies in them - it's so wild in this area; and Helen reads the weather using the plants and the clouds. Later in the safari she showed us this flower, which says it is going to rain in the near future. A few days later, there was rain and the Seiya lugga flooded.
We had time to rest on the way, and absorb the views. The camels had gone around and by the time we climbed down the other side of this hill, they had set up a scrumptious and repleneshing breakfast of pancakes, fruit salad, eggs and bacon, cereal and strong coffee.
Looking over the saddle east towards the Matthews Range over chicken hill (the pointy hill). We had breakfast in 'Goose Valley' below this hill - named so because it is where Helen and Pete's pet mongoose, 'Goose', went off to start his adult life and find a wife!
The camel train heads off after breakfast and we walk behind, a little slower than the nimble footed Samburu! We had found a plant on the mountain that is brown, but turns green when it finds water. This is it on the first day...
Our camp that evening was on the Keno Lugga; we had walked about 20 kilometers in 35 degree centigrade heat! By the end of our walk my legs were telling me they couldn't go any further so it was a huge relief to get into shade and open an ice cold Tusker. Yum.
After a delicious lunch, we slept on our bedrolls under the shade of a large tree and were woken by some very active Orange Bellied parrots sqawking around in a dead tree above our heads.
Day 3 started even earlier! We needed to get going as it was going to be a very long day. The sun wasn't up by the time we left, and it was a glorious morning - warm but not hot. Perfect temperature for walking, and not too many hills to start off with! Early in the walk we came across this bark snake, who had just eaten a lizard for breakfast. He looked very full, but played dead and I think he knew his end was imminent as nearby there was a large Snake Eagle perched atop an acacia waiting for the perfect chance to get his breakfast!
The walk today took us a long way; but we had Roadblock and his camels all the way to keep us company, as well as Lemongrass and Lapalat to show us the way.
Along the way we saw the most stunning Desert Rose tree - have you ever imagined that such a colour could be found in these hot, arid conditions? It is, quite simply, the most magnificent colour! I was quite hypnotized and took zillions of photographs but have spared you with just one!
The walk was long and hot, and we were thrilled to get down to the Milgis Lugga where there was quite a breeze blowing to push us along until lunch time in camp. As we got to camp we found the crew extracting water from the lugga - the Milgis had flooded about ten days before we got there, but most of the water is stored underground. The crew take a bottomless and topless tin, and jam it into the hole they have dug. They scoop out the dirty water and as they do so, clean water starts to filter in from the water storage below - and it's clear as a bell due to the filtering of the sand.
That evening, we took a walk across the lugga to the other side, where Helen has visited an elephant graveyard for a few years. It was quite an eerie sight, but totally amazing to see where both elephant and samburu come to pay their respects, and to see just how enormous an elephants bones can be!
Day 4 We woke with the stars still hanging in the sky and set off along the lugga and through a saddle in the hills towards El Kanto. The walk was easier today, but just to make sure we had enough apetite for breakfast, we climbed up a hill and looked out over the panorama. We scanned for ele and lesser kudu, and eventually found some elephants emerging from thick bush to graze out on a relatively open hillside. Helen was so excited and it was catching. Elephant have been very shy and nervous in this area for many years; often it was impossible to ever see them during the day.
But now they are much more relaxed thanks to Helen and Pete's hard work with the Milgis Trust. Nowadays, Lemongrass confirmed, the Samburu people in the area are very aware of how special elephant are, and they are very keen to help conserve the numbers as well. We came down the hill for breakfast with the camels.
And then the home straight, along the Milgis Lugga, the most beautiful landscapes and scenery - it's hypnotic and utterly photogenic, irresistable to the shutter finger.
Helen walks with her camels and crew up the Milgis, and in a burst of excitement the whole train comes to a halt whilst the crew sing songs about the rain, the safari and the camels.
We walked along the flat bottom of the Milgis lugga towards El Kanto, Helen's hill, which is right where three big luggas meet: the Seiya lugga, the Barsaloi lugga and the Milgis. At the bottom of the hill, we saw this plant.
The flower..... the seeds (burst on the left and full on the right).... a bursting seed
Lemongrass encourages us to keep going up the steep hill, and what a reward when we got up there! The views from El Kanto in this picture look over the Milgis, it's a magical place.
Getting artsy with the view of the Milgis, and looking west along the Barsaloi lugga.
At sunset, we looked over the lugga and saw desert warthog and kudu, Shelly soaks up the view and later that night the moon and Jupiter keep each other company as we sleep below out in the open.
Sunrise from our bed...
One last look at the maps before we go - we covered a huge distance! - and then goodbye on the airstrip before we head off by air doing a fly by over El Kanto and following the Seiya lugga home.
PS the plant did turn green in the end!