The forest shimmers with butterflies and above us in the green canopy a handsome Hartlaub’s Turaco flashes scarlet wings. We stand motionless while a bushbuck steps cautiously into a glade. In between the plaintive calls of the emerald spotted wood doves I can hear the shout of a red-chested cuckoo. Wild flowers burst out all around us in prolific profusion of colour and an ancient cycad twists its 700-year old trunk across our path. As a species it’s older than the dinosaurs, I’m told. Walking on we stop to look at fresh elephant and buffalo dung – a dung beetle is already busy making its nest. Further on the guide points out lion spoor, then a leopard’s. There are piles of porcupine dung too and scuffed earth where bush pig have been rooting. A long-crested eagle looks down from the top of an 160-foot tree and in the distance I hear the cry of a fish eagle as it watches the crystal waters of the Ngeng River for the tiny tilapia that nibble at our feet when we dangle them in.
We’re staying at Kitich Camp in the Matthews Range. It’s a safari with a difference: you go on game walks instead of game drives. Besides the added advantage of enhancing your fitness while taking in plenty of fresh air, there’s time to notice what’s happening around you – and it makes you realise how much you usually miss. Instead of running over the dung beetle, covering the profusion of peach-coloured psuderanthemum hildebrandtii with dust (not to mention all the other delicate blossoms), scaring off the bushbuck and shy forest birds with engine noise, you are stopping to examine all those things you’ll only see on foot: We also admire a crab spider suspended on an invisible web above the path, a hyena’s footprints and mountain wagtails beside a stream.
Kitich was set up by hunter and conservationist Miles Burton back in the seventies. Later it was bought by Cheli & Peacock, who refurbished it and added their usual touches of class and luxury. Its name is Samburu – ‘place of happiness’ – reflected in the fact that some staff have stayed for over two decades. It’s truly an eco-camp (now gold rated) – no running water (cleverly designed long-drop toilets and bucket showers) and solar power. They grow their own vegetables so there’s fresh salad for lunch, storing them in a charcoal fridge. An attractive mess area and open deck look over the Ngeng River and surrounding glade, the peaks of the Matthews rising up behind. The camp is small (six tents), luxurious and tasteful, but simple; the tents set far enough apart to feel you’re own your own in paradise.
There are no fences and we sit on a log, hewn into a bench, looking over the Ngeng at the forested folds of the Matthews, watching elephants come for water. They linger in the glade, mowing the papyrus and pruning trees as they pass below our tent. The elephants took over the dinosaur’s job of dispersing the cycad seeds and I can see green tufts of cycads (red-listed by the IUCN) dotted over the mountainous backdrop. The Matthews stretch for over 150 km and rise to 7,500 feet in places. Nobody “discovered” this range until explorer Count Teleki arrived in the 1880’s. The Samburu called them Oldoinyo Lenkiyi, but Teleki renamed them in honour of Sir Lloyd Matthews, a British naval officer who became commander-inchief of Zanzibar’s army but died of malaria in 1901, aged 51.
Tea and biscuits are brought to our tent at dawn, although the leopard’s cough has already woken us. Then it’s an early breakfast – while the dew dries out – before our morning walk. We’re asked to wear neutral colours, walk silently and listen to our guides, Lesmana and Ltausen, trackers from the Ndorobo tribe. Related to the taller Samburu (and Maasai), the Ndorobo share a language with their cousins, but are small and wiry – ideal for ducking beneath branches and vines or scrambling up trees to find wild honey. We couldn’t be in safer hands as the trackers share their intimate knowledge of the area.
Thomas, who is Samburu, walks ahead with a gun, his senses also fine-tuned to every sound, smell and track in the surrounding forest. Lesmana stops to point things out; poisonous fruit of the cappensis tomentosa (although baboons eat it), the delicate orange markings of a butterfly, identifying the bark of a bushbuck, then pausing to call the Narina’s trogon: “Ooooo! Ooooo!” Several replies drift back through the forest, but these rare forest-dwelling birds don’t often reveal themselves. There are over 350 bird species here, over 150 butterflies and 17 identified dragonflies and damselflies.
I relish each stop, breathing in the cleansing air of the forest, absorbing the energising silence, feeling at peace. Lucky walkers might hear or see rare De Brazza monkeys, giant forest hogs, colobus monkeys or wild dogs. There are reputedly black leopard here too and lion aren’t uncommon. Karl Svendsen, manager of Kitich, later tells us about the lion that went off with the camera tied to a log. It took the log too and later trackers found pieces of camera far and wide. Karl glued it all back together and the camera worked! Then there was the porcupine who moved into the empty fridge when the camp was closed…
Our walk takes us to a natural rock pool on the Ngeng, where we pause for a mid-morning snack and a bracing swim. It’s too deep to find the bottom and long enough to swim invigorating lengths. Clean and glowing, we cross the river again and walk on, the forest’s shade warding off the midday heat. Can we walk another 40 minutes Lesmana asks as lunch time approaches? But just around the corner is a table laid out under the podocarpus tree beside the gurgling river. Sally Svendsen, the manageress, waits beside our surprise bush lunch – another fabulous meal (the food at Kitich is fantastic) but afterwards we’re still determined to walk the 40 minutes back to camp: Getting into a vehicle would break the magic spell.
After an afternoon rest there’s tea and cake on the deck before our walk. On our first evening we walk to the riverbank where elephants gouge out salt with their tusks, passing trees rubbed smooth by scratching elephants and pausing to watch a fish eagle on its nest. The second evening we walk uphill to a spring, diverting on the way back because of elephants. There are elephants all round the camp now and the squeals and trumpets of one young bull echo through the valley, merging into the night as we sit around the camp fire before yet another delicious dinner. And it’s no trouble to cater for difficult diets – even if you don’t touch dairy or gluten there are still mouthwatering deserts and cakes; plenty of fine fare to walk off the next day.
There are often over 100 elephants in the glade, we’re told, but as soon as it rains all the elephants head south along ancient migration routes to Mt Kenya and the Ngare Ndare Forest, returning when the rains stop. The camp closes during the April/May and November rains. Once Karl didn’t get out soon enough and almost didn’t get out at all. At one of the river crossings the water was lapping up his Land Rover windscreen.
It’s an interesting road to get here at the best of times. You could avoid it altogether by flying in Airkenya’s helicopter, landing in the glade beside the camp; or avoid some of it Kitich Camp if with a charter flight into Engilai, a short drive away. Alternatively Kitich will collect you from the scheduled flight into Samburu, about three and a half hours’ drive away. I enjoyed the longer drive as it makes the surprise of cool, forested Kitich all the more delightful after the heat and dust. You turn left off the tarmac road (from Archer’s Post running north along the eastern side of the Matthews) onto the Wamba road, bypassing Wamba town and slowly winding into the Matthews along a little-used road. We drove through Lolkuniyani market with its dusty herds of Samburu cattle, sheep and goats, then Engilai Village, passing the place where White Maasai was filmed. We waved to scores of Samburu children having lessons under a large Acacia, before crodding several rivers and entering Namanyak Conservancy.
Kitich supports Engilai Primary; they have instigated a wildlife warrior programme, as well as assisting the community with bee-keeping projects, encouraging more sustainable use of wild honey and better production. Sally tells us she once asked the school children why tourists come to Kenya? “To see the animals,” they replied. “Why?” asked Sally. “Because they didn’t look after their own,” replied one little girl. Hopefully the communities in this peaceful and unspoiled part of Kenya will continue to look after theirs.