Months ago, a friend, John Saitoti, cajoled me to join a quick drive to Magadi and that is how I discovered Kwenia – a place of massive cliffs and intimidating valleys, 95Km south of Nairobi.
It looked like the Australia that I had seen in the movies or the US wild west, but, the cowboys here are my people, the Maasai. We had a simple to load up some emaciated cows onto a truck and move them to a new location.
As we departed, I looked back at the massive cliffs that stretched as long as the eye could see and vowed to return, toying with the idea of conquering them with me two feet.
I returned to Kwenia this week, accompanied by an experienced hiker by the name Herdsgirl. She has climbed mountains including Kilimanjaro, Kenya, and Simien in Ethiopia.
We pulled up at Saitoti’s homestead at 11:30am only to find it deserted – the nomad has moved, but the place is intact, well fenced with acacia thorns. We opened the gate and parked the vehicle inside the cattle kraal and left towards the cliffs at 12pm.
I stood at the base of the cliff and never in my life felt so small. The wall is tall – vultures and falcons flew around it. Kwenia cliffs host the largest colony of the endangered Ruppell’s vultures in East and Central Africa. There are 125 nests here and scientists have warned that the species is just one step away from extinction. I will explain later.
There is a pond where livestock and wildlife drink and it is also the beginning of some seasonal river. A herd of elands stood under the trees about 50 meters away – I clicked the Canon and the ever alert antelopes responded to the shatter of the lens and trotted away.
There is an official hiking trail but we do not know the exact starting point, so, we decided to climb from where we were. We turned slightly to the east and started to ascend away from the massive cliff. It is a rough terrain with loose volcanic rocks covered with acacia and shrubs.
We picked up the pace, with a mix of apprehension and excitement – what does this hike entail? How would it look up there? Can we survive the 23Km (7-hour walk) in this scorching sun?
It took an hour to get to the top of the hill and started walking towards the rim of the cliffs. The Herdsgirl is holding her forte – careful, measured in her steps, skillfully testing the stability of rocks before stepping on them, conserving energy. I led the way, sometimes carelessly jumping from one rock to another – lighter and alert. Climbing hills is stuff I learned from an early age while herding other things – goats, cattle or hunting or extracting stuff from caves and other natural hideouts.
It seems the seasonal river below the cliff is an extension of another one above. We stood on the rim – the view is breathtaking. The seasonal Lake Kwenia is dusty with livestock raising plumes in their wake. Right below us, goats drunk water from the pond – the boys were taking a bath unaware of our presence, even though we might look like specks perched on the rim. Further West is Mt. Olorgesailie (correct spelling: Oloorkisalie) and a new ranch owned by Pakistanis who grow crops and rear livestock.
We head out facing South, looking for a place to climb out of the river bed. The rocks are blue, smooth and hard – slippery too. Once out of the riverbed, the terrain went back to the volcanic rocks, in plenty, like they were rained down by the heavens. Rocks and acacia trees are now our currency. We hoofed on!
We can make this easy by walking East until we find the official path but we chose not to but rather plowed through the bush, staying close to the rim to get a closer glimpse of raptors gliding and the fleeting landscapes below.
We walked for another three hours, with occasional breathers at the rim of the escarpment whose end is not in site. At times it meanders, giving a false hint that it will end, only for another longer wall to appear. The rocks below our feet are still in plenty – blessing our toes, the thorns challenging the soles of shoes.
Baboons and monkeys are in plenty. We came across the Monkey Chair several times. It is a plant, Pyrenacantha malvifolia – a rare species of desert flowering plants. It is not a very pretty site. It grows above the ground swollen and thickened with a diameter up to 1.5 metres. It has vine-like stems with green round shaped leaves. I don’t know if Monkeys make a chair of it but it is a useful to thirsty herds boys who cut it to draw water during tough times.
It is a birds’ paradise here – flowering season and they are happily chirping away in their colors and sounds. There is an occasional cowbell. We met one young man herding goats – we asked if we are going towards the right direction. He was kind but looked surprised with two backpackers just appearing on him – our common language helped. We still have a long way to go, he warned.
That was a red flag. We must pick up the pace if we have to make back to the vehicle before sunset. The Herdsgirl led, pushing hard against an unforgiving sun, buckets of sweat and occasionally sipping water from the backpack. Lucozade and apples helped to boost up our energies – it gave me this sugar rush and kind of got chatty but she preferred silence, maybe to conserve her energy.
We would need to descend when the cliffs get shorter and eventually end. The descend should lead us to a friend’s home where we can have a cup of tea before making a return to the vehicle and this means walking below the cliffs so that I can photograph the vulture nests.
We trudged on. Herdsgirl is running out of drinking water. I glanced at the sun and estimated that we have another two hours before sunset. Not good at all. The thorny bushes occasionally biting, blocking a straight path, fatigue is setting in.
I saw a boma down below as the cliff started showing signs of relenting…gently lowering its massive shoulders towards mother earth. The boma that I see does not fit the description of the one that I was told by a local guide. I was getting anxious for a descend because I estimated that the drop itself will take more than an hour.
We made a decision to descend and not go to the end of the cliff. If we find a path that goes down, we will take it. We walked carefully along the rim, hoping to find a way out.
We found a narrow path between rocks – looks like one used by goats or baboons to descend. We took it – a huge risk, it could lead to nowhere. It is a steep descend – legs screaming, shoes peeling off parts of their soles. Not a bad first drop. I looked back at the rim of the cliff and smiled, knowing very well that going down is a multi-layered endeavor.
We approached another drop after about 100 metres – we looked down, too steep and no sign of a path. We walked along towards the east and felt good that for the first time in over 5 hours, we are walking in a different direction.
Second drop. Easy. Feet are screaming but adrenaline to go down reigns supreme. We approached the third drop which I thought would be the easiest. It led us down a gentle slope towards the south then suddenly came to a dead end. It seems that a cliff collapsed years ago and dumped massive volcanic boulders on our way. There is thick vegetation too. It does not look safe – the kind of place for the hyena, lion, the leopard, and the python.
The only way down is to plow through the bushes with minimal vision or climb over the massive rocks. We chose the rocks – and every time we jumped from one to another, I watched the spaces between them and got convinced that this is a home of predators. There is no sign of the rock hyrax, nor baboons nor any animal with no appetite for eating another one.
We trudged on as I waited for some roar, some movement, from the owners of this house but none came. I had a plan in place depending on who will show up.
We came to the end of the rocks and we could see flat land, but we must do the last leg which entailed loose rocks. We sat down under a tree – won out. I still have half a litre of water and that was sipped sparingly.
“There are no more drops. There are no more drops,” she celebrated. Yes, there is no more dropping like an eagle from the sky.
We finally stepped on flat land and start our return towards where we began.
The soft soil felt good on below the feet. A beautiful song. A reprieve from the endless knocks by the rocks.
We still have 10Km to walk but on flat land. The sun was smiling, changing colour, mellowing like an elder who has just discovered kindness. I looked at it and was tempted to give it the middle finger.
Then the breeze came – cool, strong, resisting our pace towards the north. We were tired but we kept the pace in order to get to the vehicle before dark.
The massive columns of the Kwenia cliff stood on our right, gloriously glowing under the setting sun. The light is perfect and I clicked away. The vultures are returning, smoothly gliding to their nests from Maasai Mara where they go every morning to clean up the mess that lions cause. The estimated global population of Ruppell’s vulture is 22,000 and the numbers are rapidly declining due to habitat loss and poisoning by herdsmen. The many empty nests on these cliffs is a testament to their situation.
We reached the vehicle just before sunset and rushed for the water that we left behind. Goodness, it is boiling hot – literally. We had left the windows closed and this is Kwenia, where the sun rules.
We drove to a nearby village and asked for drinking water. The cattle were in the kraal, women were milking and some elders sat against a hut wall – possibly waiting for chai. Kind people they were. The cold water was better than some earthly things.
We arrived at Magadi at around 9pm and checked into the hotel – another blessing from a random call from an old friend, Tulito Turere, who booked us in.
I rested my sore body in bed having conquered Kwenia cliffs with hot springs and a swim in my mind. A story for another day.
*John Kisimir is a Kenyan journalist and nature enthusiast. He is currently the Board Chair of Friends of Maasai Mara.