Wendy Watta discovers that a visit to Kitich camp and a hike up the beautiful chain of mountains in the Mathews Range is hardly complete without rope swinging like Tarzan into an icy rock pool.
Photos by Brian Siambi
For the fifth time this afternoon, a hitchhiker flags down our Land Rover Defender. This time it is a warden in green uniform with a stubborn white goat tethered to a short rope, and if it were entirely up to me, this is where I would have drawn the line and driven on. Brian, who is currently behind the wheel, however stops to let him into the back. So far we have picked up everyone from school kids, village elders, a pregnant woman and more. We are en route to Kitich Camp in the Mathews Range, a place so remote that there is neither network connection nor radio reception. Detailed directions from camp manager Emma Hedges are printed out on a piece of paper, and with no Google Maps for reassurance, these hitchhiking locals not only regale us with stories about their community but also confirm that we are indeed on the right road. The warden’s goat later pees all over our luggage.
After successfully maneuvering the car out of a natural ditch, we continue up the dusty underdeveloped road and the vast brown earth dotted by vegetation unusually green from the recent bouts of rains gives way to a colourful and vibrant Lolkuniyani market. It is market day, otherwise the place often looks eerily deserted, as we soon found out on our way back. A dry river bed, a shallow flowing river and several potholes later, the printed directions indicate that we are currently driving through the set of the White Maasai movie, but all we see are sparsely spread buildings.
“Are we close to the Mathews Range?” we stop to ask a group of shepherds who thankfully speak Swahili. They have no idea where that is, and I know I am about to nose dive into yet another European-who- discovered-Kenya narrative. Turns out this beautiful chain of mountains which are 150 km long and stretch north to south are named after Sir Lloyd Mathews, a Welshman born in 1850, who joined the navy and went up the ranks, ultimately being knighted and appointed His Highness’ First Minister before dying of malaria in Zanzibar in 1901. Given his rank and the notion that his assistance was key for any mission into the mainland, a Count called Samuel Teleki who was on a Northern Kenya expedition named the range after Sir Mathews.
If you ask any of the Samburu men and women around to point you to the Mathews Range, however, they will have no idea what you are on about. They instead have indigenous names for each mountain in the range. It was also interesting that they would pronounce back “kitich” as “kichich”, and we later found out that the camp’s name comes from the Maa word “kichich” which translates to “happy place”. After driving through Ngalai Village 10 hours after leaving Nairobi, we came up to the gates of the camp to a warm welcome by Emma and intern Olly.
Used as a hunting lodge in the 60s, this luxury camp is today an intimate collection of six comfortable, semi-permanent, ensuite tents: three doubles and three with twin beds. Sunrise from the main mess tent which is perched on a cliff overlooking the seasonal Ngeng River is absolutely breathtaking. The staff, most coming from the neighbouring Ngalai Village, have been working here for a while, with the bar man being the oldest having started in 1990 before I was even born. Their black and white photographs adorn a section of one wall.
Early the next morning, we set off on a two hour hike up the range with three guides: Reteno, Ltauzsen and Lesemana. The plan is to go swimming up the rock pools of the River Ngeng before tucking into a bush breakfast. Before we even set off from Kitich, we hear a hyena in the distance, to which Ltauzsen informs us that it sounds like it is eating. Towering trees and foliage so thick that the guides have to sometimes use machetes ensure that the sun is not directly overhead, making for a rather relaxed climb. It is quite cold in fact. With its highest peak at 2688m, temperatures here can get down to 10°C.
We come across a Hartlaub’s Turaco which might be weak at flying but is a champion at running through trees. The bird would be an excellent national mascot given that it has all the colours in our flag: a green chest, white patch in front of both eyes, red around the eyes and under its wings with the rest of its body being black. The Mathews Range are also home to several ancient cycads unique to the area, as well as De Brazza’s Monkeys which camouflage well into their surroundings. And as if crabs and spiders are not enough, I have my first encounter with crab spiders when Ltauzsen catches a web in his spear. The area is said to be teeming with lions, leopards, Impalas, elephants and more, but we only ever see tracks and droppings without any actual close encounters.
Two hours later, sweaty and damp from dew and crossing the river via boulders and logs, we triumphantly walk out onto the serene rock pool enclosed in thick indigenous trees. One could contentedly lie back, eyes shut, listening to the rich biophony, and never get bored. With the sunlight barely seeping through the canopy, we decide to go for a quick dip before we can eat; the longer you wait, the more the body heat from the hike gives way to a slight shiver.
There’s a rope swing from Kitich tied around one of the trees on the banks. Olly goes first, backflip culminating in a neat landing somewhere near the middle, followed by Brian. When it is my turn, it takes a little coaxing. My hesitation is largely because I have been strongly advised against touching the water first, likely hinting to how cold it is. When I finally clasp the rope and ‘Tarzan’ in, I am initially shocked at how deep this natural pool is before coming up to the surface and yelping out of sheer surprise at just how freezing the water actually is; it is like a Finnish ice bath! Well, almost. Our guides vehemently refuse to dive in due to the cold (clever chaps!) but I also suspect that they don’t care much for swimming. Still, a visit to Kitich Camp and a walk up the Mathews Range hardly seems complete without your skin turning blue from jumping into icy water.