Wedged between Tsavo West and Amboseli is the voluptuous Chyulu Hills range. Catrina Stewart wonders if the country that Ernest Hemingway wrote about still exists.
It was the late 1940s, and Peter Jenkins, the warden charged with building a road over the Chyulu Hills, would sit on the hillside, idly counting rhinos. It was not unusual to count 20 in one sitting. They picked their way across the emerald hillside, browsing on euphorbia. There were thousands of them, and it was perhaps the most densely-packed area of rhinos in East Africa.
Half a century later, the rhinos had disappeared. J A Hunter, a legendary biggame hunter, led colonial-era culls in the 1950s and 1960s – in one year, he was said to have killed 1,000 rhinos – and poaching in subsequent decades finished off the rest.
Or so it was thought.
Richard Bonham, a hunter turned conservationist, and married to Hunter’s granddaughter, had flown over the Chyulus dozens of times before setting down his roots here in the mid-1980s. He built a small lodge – Ol Donyo Wuas (“the Spotted Hill”) as it was in those days – and came to know the area, wedged between Tsavo West and Amboseli national parks, intimately.
And so he was sceptical when a herder came to him in the late 1980s, carrying what he claimed was rhino dung after sighting one of the elusive animals. “We thought there were no rhinos left,” Bonham recalls. “But one of the herders told me he had seen a rhino, so we explored and found tracks.” Enthralled by the find, he offered Ksh 1,000 to anyone who could produce rhino dung.
The thicket, however, was impenetrable. A rhino, even if it existed, might not be seen for years. And if you did happen to encounter one, then the chances were that you were dangerously close. After a lengthy search, Bonham was finally rewarded with his first rhino sighting. Despite all the evidence, he could hardly believe what was in front of his eyes.
At their peak, the rhinos numbered 14, a rump population at best. Now, following repeated droughts, they number a mere seven, and even the more than 60 rangers tasked with protecting them see one of the great, grey
beasts only once every three months or so.
The Chyulu Hills – blink and you miss them as you zip down the Mombasa highway – are perhaps one of the most beautiful – and youngest – ranges on earth. In his fitting ode to the Chyulu hills, American author Ernest Hemingway wrote in his book, “Green Hills of Africa,” about his lengthy expeditions tracking (and killing) the huge herds of kudu antelope, recognisable by their telltale striped hide, that roamed these hills.
As Brian, Nomad’s photographer, and I veer away from Amboseli into the hills to our left, we look in vain for kudu. Instead, we see eland, scrambling away in the distance at the approach of our vehicle. With miles and miles of verdant plain stretched out in front of us, we take our time in climbing slowly away towards Ol Donyo lodge, our home for the night.
Ol Donyo started out as Bonham’s “bachelor’s pad,” where he threw up several bandas on the slopes in the mid-1980s. It took painstaking negotiations with suspicious Maasai herders to win their trust and secure a three-year lease for the land, gradually extended over the years. It was, says Bonham, the first community lodge in Kenya. Around the same time, he established the BigLife Foundation, which channelled money back into the community. “I realised very quickly that unless the Maasai started seeing revenue streams, we’d lose it pretty quickly,” he says. “So I started getting involved in the conservation.”
It’s something of an irony that Bonham, who has forged a reputation as one of Africa’s most fearless big-game hunters, should turn to saving the very animals that in another era he might have killed. In the 1990s, Bonham decided he could no longer both run a tourist lodge and the foundation, so he sold shares in Ol Donyo to Great Plains Conservation, which swiftly turned the lodge from rustic simplicity into something altogether much grander in the midst of a “forgotten paradise.”
Arrival at Ol Donyo
Within an hour of our arrival at Ol Donyo, we’re on horseback, picking our way through scrub towards the plains. Despite the recent rains, reminders of the preceding drought are everywhere. Dozens of cattle carcasses dot the rangelands, some simply starving to death, others, already weakened, thought to have succumbed to a poisonous grass that emerged in the wake of the rains.
After an hour of gentle riding, our guide, James, steams up in a game vehicle, and says, “Want to see some lions?” There’s no time to waste, and we pile into the vehicle, and race towards a volcanic outcrop, a violent torrent of black rocks where predators hole up during the day. We’re in luck and come across two male lions resting, one of them attempting (unsuccessfully) to crack open a tortoise.
Back at the lodge, we are shown to our rooms, mine an opulent suite with plunge pool overlooking the plains below. From the bath, sculpted to follow one’s contours, the view is equally sublime, and I regret that our visit is so fleeting. We later join our hosts and the other guests for dinner in front of a roaring log fire, where arrangements are made for airstrip drop-offs. Meanwhile, we have an 8.30 am assignation with a ranger positioned halfway up the hill, although we’re not quite sure where.
Into The Hills
As we wind our way up into the hills in the early morning, past bomas and large herds of cattle, the wildlife thins out. Nevertheless, the Chyulus are a vital wildlife corridor for animals moving between Amboseli to the southwest, and Tsavo to the east. Herds of elephant roam here, along with a large population of lion and cheetah, and antelopes, such as lesser kudu and gerenuk.
A decade or so ago, lions had all but been wiped out, often in retaliatory attacks. Elephants, in revenge for killing villagers, sometimes very young children, were also being slaughtered. BigLife stepped in, providing compensation to farmers instead.
The effect has been staggering. Up until just a few years ago, some 30 elephant were being killed every year, now it’s less than three. And the Maasai, for whom lion slaying was once a rite of passage as they were adopted into their brethren of warriors, have instead embraced the Maasai Olympics, a biennial event that tests young Maasai in running, spear throwing, vertical jumping and other feats.
As we near the hilltop pastures, the road in parts becomes virtually unnavigable. Recent rains have cleaved vast trenches in part of the road but our rangers guide us skilfully around them. I ignore the instructions to take the steeper bits in low ratio, and the tyres lose their grip on the smooth rock, and we slide back ignominiously. With low ratio finally engaged, we crest the hill.
We make our goodbyes at the top of the hill, where the conservancy becomes the Chyulu Hills National Park, administered by the Kenya Wildlife Service. We weigh up the wisdom of continuing on to the Mist or Cloud Forests, a four to six-hour round trip, and said to be the place to find the most potent wild miraa grown in Kenya. Despite such temptations, we decide against it, and head down the steep, craggy road that leads to Kibwezi and the KWS gate.
As we pick our way down over the rocks, I try to imagine the hillside dotted with rhinos. In any park nowadays, that would be an impossibility, I realise. Across Africa, poachers have decimated rhino populations, hacking off
their horns, and spiriting them to the Far East.
The glory days of the Chyulus – when thousands of rhino roamed these lands – might be over, but Bonham is trying to ensure that the small population that has established the most tenuous of footholds can survive. He hopes by 2030 to have raised the numbers of these cantankerous beasts to 30, mainly by bringing them in from other areas. Then they might, just might, survive.
Whether the newcomers would adapt to the harsh conditions of the Chyulus, where water is scarce, is anyone’s guess. The lush green of these hills is deceptive, for there is no water source. How, Bonham wondered, were the rhino surviving? He sank three boreholes here, and was stunned when the rhinos appeared to shun them. Over the years, speculates Bonham, the rhinos here have learnt to manage without water, gaining nourishment instead from waterbearing plants such as euphorbia.
Despite the draw of caves, lava tubes and beautiful hiking trails, the Chyulus get few visitors, overshadowed by their more famous neighbours, Amboseli and Tsavo West. But if the last free-ranging black rhino population in Kenya were to grow, it might just provide the impetus for visitors to come.
I ask Bonham if he misses the old days when he used to lead hunting expeditions. “What I miss is the proper wilderness,” he says. “I don’t miss the actual hunting, I miss the adventure.” In a country that has changed so much, this is perhaps the closest Bonham will come to his patch of true wilderness. This is the wild and untouched land that perhaps more than anywhere else in Kenya still evokes the golden age of safari.
The writer and photographer were guests of Ol Donyo in the Chyulu Hills. Resident rates start from Ksh 27,000 pp, all-inclusive of board, house drinks and activities. Conservation fees cost Ksh 5,155 per resident or citizen. www.greatplainsconservation.com
PRACTICALITIES: There are two main access points into the Chyulu Hills. From Nairobi, head down the Mombasa Road until Emali, where you will turn right towards Tanzania. It’s another hour to Mbirikani, where a public road to the left will take you through the Chyulu Hills. It’s an hour’s drive to Ol Donyo Lodge, and another 90 minutes to the top of the hill where you’ll have the option of continuing to Tsavo West or heading down the hill at Satellite Camp towards Kibwezi, a 90-minute drive. If you wish to camp, picnic or do a game drive in the conservancy areas, you will be required to pay the conservancy fee of Ksh 5,155. If leaving via a KWS gate, you will need to pay the national park fee before exiting (Ksh 300 per citizen, Ksh 600 for residents). Alternatively, enter at the KWS gate off the Mombasa highway, four hours’ drive, or 211 kilometres, from central Nairobi.
For guidance on places to stay in the Chyulu Hills area, visit http://nomadmagazine.co/where-to-stay-around-chyulus/