A bright soul with a sharp mind once told me: “one should never give unsolicited advice dear boy, for the intelligent don’t need it and the foolish won’t take it!” A glaring contradiction in its delivery, granted, yet it struck me that this was guidance worth taking and I’ve tried my best to follow it since. I will however go against this better judgement today to impart towards you few enlightened, faithful folk, a nugget of knowledge so great in its consequence to your own potential wellbeing that it would be irresponsible, nigh churlish, of me not to share it. Prick up those ears my precious darlings, this is the earth shatteringly vital bit you have to absorb (you can skim past the rest if you must).
Once aboard a kneeling camel you will find yourself in the relative comfort and security of a large and homely saddle. Serene though this may be, do not relax now! This camel is about to stand and when it does, it will rise rear end first, pitching you forward with such ferocity that you will need to grip on with absolutely everything that you can grip on with. Keep your wits about you here, my dependable troop, because the front end of this one humped desert badboy is about to play catch up with a passionate vengeance. Once you are up there though, it’s plain sailing and it’s awesome. Relax, enjoy your Lawrence of Arabia moment but please, for the love of all that is beautiful, remember that this camel is going to get down just as savagely as it stands up.
In the middle of Kenya, north of the glacier-capped cathedral spire of Mount Kenya and south of the country’s northern frontier desert lands, there is a region with such breath-taking highland beauty that it has to be seen to be believed. Welcome to Laikipia. Serving as the grand entrance to Kenya’s vast Northern Rangelands, Laikipia is an enormous haven abundant with an astonishing diversity of wildlife and encompassing a dramatic array of stunning, arid landscapes.
At the beginning of 2017 Jana and I were given a wonderful new perspective on this striking ecosystem, atop a pair of dromedary named Trogo & Tanai (forgive the spelling here, those that may know), on a privately guided, camel supported, foot safari with Karisia Walking Safaris.
Founded in 2005, Karisia is the brainchild of a remarkable young couple, Kerry Glen and Jamie Christian. On returning to their beloved Kenya, having studied abroad, this intrepid pair pooled their experiences in conservation, environmental science and eco-tourism to create a unique, mobile safari operation. The team at Karisia distinguish themselves foremost in providing authentic, “nuts n bolts”, walking expeditions with a tremendous weave of meaningful cultural interaction and unforgettable wildlife encounters. All held up on the backs of these fabulous camels!
Along with their team they brought bucket loads of passion, tenacity and seemingly endless patience to a portion of Laikipia so heavily overgrazed that it was close to ruin. Now, twelve years of sustained protection in partnership with the surrounding communities have proved a monumental success. In rehabilitating this fragile ecosystem, they have allowed the return and flourish of a plethora of keystone species; Grevy’s Zebra, Reticulated Giraffe, Elephants, Lions – to name but a few.
Jana and I had squeezed ourselves into their already brim-full schedule to garner as much as we could in two nights, three days, filled with adventure. We were met off a teeny-tiny plane at Tumaren airport by our lead guide and trail manager, Gabriel Ewoi. He seemed to have picked up the brief because we hit the ground running, after a few minutes he palmed off his Land Rover keys so the chef could rattle back to camp (I’m British, I love these vehicles but let’s face it – they all rattle and leak) while the three of us took off on foot.
Gabriel was born right here. His first ever job was tending to the guinea fowl at the famed Sabuk Lodge and it was there that he began joining as a young assistant on his first camel safaris. Over the subsequent years he learnt his craft and cut his eye teeth supporting some of Kenya’s most experienced guides and traversing vast swathes of Laikipia, Samburu and Northern Kenya.
A tall, powerfully built man with a calm and gentle manner, you feel immediately comfortable following Gabriel out into the sticks. There is in some ways a sense that he is ancestrally infused into this environ but that combines with a brilliant eye for detail when it comes to identifying the plants, birds, insects, tracks and signs that we find ourselves surrounded by. The result is captivating. He joined the Karisia team eight years ago and with their support has furthered his knowledge and skill set at every opportunity traveling to partake in specialist courses in animal behaviour, rifle handling and even rock climbing (which can be built into an active safari that’s great for kids). He’s also fantastic company at the campfire (enough already, you’re all sold on Gabriel by now).
We hike into Tumaren Camp, the light weight yet permanent site at which most journeys with Karisia will begin or end. It has everything you need in comfort though without the trimmings that accompany many of the lodgings in the higher end spectrum of safari. The simplicity is of no detriment whatsoever, rather it is entirely refreshing to absorb all the beauty in your surroundings without confusing the experience with too much seasoning. We enjoy gin and tonics beside the fire under a crystal sky, emblazoned with a canopy of stars.
At five thirty the next morning, reality returns abruptly to my consciousness with a loud, slobbery, guttural roaring right outside our tent. “Holy shit what’s that?!” I exclaim without much class or dignity.
It seems Trogo is not a really morning camel. Having taken umbrage with the pre-dawn start he is now giving his poor herdsman the very devil of a time while getting saddled up. He’s no oil painting at the best of times but the face he is pulling to accompany this racket would turn your milk sour.
After a coffee and a cookie (a nibble or two on a bush for Trogo and Tanai), we follow Gabriel, heading north, before the sun has appeared above the horizon. We have a huge set of Granite Kopjes, great piled up lumps of rock that jut up from the plains, in the distance and that’s what we’re aiming for. We stop to look at plants and tracks and spend a delightful morning learning the bird calls that chime around us, all the while keeping a steady eye on the boulders and picking a path towards them.
We pass a little herd of Besia Oryx, their striking masks and strong, muscular bodies pay testament to the near perfect adaptations they must have undergone to survive this harsh and arid land. On reaching the rocks we clamber up to the highest vantage point and embrace an endless view. A gentle breeze cools the heat of hiking and I feel overwhelmed with a happiness born straight out of this landscape.
We breakfast together under the shade of an acacia tree and have a great deal of fun collecting and identifying the excellent variety of herbivore dung that surrounds us. There are leopard and hyaena tracks all over this spot, it is not only the bipedal apes that enjoy the shade. Pressing on towards the Ewaso Nyiro river where we intend to camp for the night, Jana and I jump at an opportunity to ride atop of Trogo and Tanai. We undergo the standard formalities accompanied by some dreadful noises when climbing on, but up there the vantage point is fantastic. We can see a little herd of reticulated giraffe in the distance and we arc our walk towards them admiring their handsome patterns. We follow this with a lucky glimpse of a huge bull elephant making his own way towards the river, while hammering some succulent Comiphora trees along the way.
The team have set a satellite camp up for us right next to the river. We have a shady spot in which to wash the dust off and are treated to a delicious lunch from a bush chef who must also be a magician. We rest and read through the heat of the day, it’s a real Robert Redford and Meryl Streep moment and we enjoy every minute. In the late afternoon, once things have cooled off a little, Gabriel takes us out to visit a few Samburu friends that are grazing and browsing their camels nearby. It’s fascinating to look at the protective “boma” in which they will all spend the night together, and to hear them exchanging stories and news with Gabriel and the team. They take us to meet a new-born camel just a few days old. An unlikely little creature almost entirely made up of four very wobbly legs. He was, in his own way, extremely sweet. Watching the sun set with a cold beer in hand and hearing stories of Gabriel’s upbringing in this remarkable place, bring our brief adventure to a perfect finale. It was such a privilege to pass though this area on our long and exciting expedition. I couldn’t think of a better way to experience it and I can’t wait to return.
When? There are fabulous adventures operating all year round but Kerry’s very favourite times for walking are after the rains (May, June, July and December in normal rainfall years) when everything is green and beautiful and the animals are relaxed and plentiful.
Where? There are a number of different trail heads all easily reached with a chartered flight like the one we used. You can save a little and take a schedule flight into Nanyuki followed by a 2-hour drive or alternatively embark on a longer (if slightly arduous) 7 hour drive from Nairobi.
For Whom? The beauty of these private adventures is they can be entirely tailored to your own interests, experience and level of fitness. Families with children in need of activity and adventure would love the camel back fun, bush craft and rock climbing. Folks seeking an interactive cultural experience combined with a naturalist’s view of the ecosystem need look no further. Couples in search of a romantic safari experience without all the dressed up pomp and luxury will surly dine out on “tales from Laikipia” on returning home.