Sometimes we walk ahead, sometimes behind the camels, seeing and experiencing new things every moment before finally collapsing in the midday heat, snoozing under a tree as the camels are unloaded so they can browse. The camel herders, also our guardians in this wild place, have wonderful names like Lenkopiya or Mingelus. In the evening, after we’ve walked again (this time without the camels) usually climbing the nearest hill to get our bearings, the men hobble the camels for the night, then fill my shower bucket with hot water, hanging it beneath a tree. After sunset I share their simple but satisfying meal; ugali with fried cabbage and onions. I’m too tired for chatter, but before falling asleep on my mattress that doubles as camel saddle blanket, now faintly tainted with camel sweat and hair, I watch shooting stars. The men laugh softly around the fire then wrap their blankets round their heads to sleep, although they’ll leap up, spears at the ready, if a hyena or lion threatens the camels.
I could opt for a luxurious, fully-catered camel safari but I’ve chosen this ascetic walk in the wild, out of my comfort zone, because there’s nothing like it: In the last decade I’ve been on three camel safaris in Northern Kenya, with its boundless arid expanses of breathtaking valleys, mountains and views. I hope to take time out to do many more.
The Samburu people have different words for a camel, depending on whether it’s singular, plural, male or female and I could think of plenty more imaginative terms to indicate how these crazy-looking ungulates behave, not to mention their repertoire of gurgles, roars, spitting, belching and even ruder sounds. But camels make ideal travelling companions; they carry plenty of food and water for us, while surviving on minimal food and even less drink themselves.
There’s a timeless quality to walking with camels, settling into a calm rhythm as you follow their enormous flat footprints in the dust or along sandy river beds, keeping time with the wooden jangle of camel bells, listening to the bird (I’m told it’s a slate-coloured boubou) that mimics the bell. I learn to smell wild animals before we see them. There are moments when my heart beats faster and others when it soars as the men sing hypnotic melodies to urge the camels through difficult terrain, soothing away their fears and quelling rebellions.
You face yourself out there in the wild; opening windows into your soul, experiencing moments you’ll never forget: I’ve lain with only mosquito netting between myself and the giant tree-trunk legs of passing elephants beside the Seiya Lugga. In the foothills of the Matthews I’ve shone my torch on the glinting eyes of hyenas as the men frighten them away from the camels. Higher in the mountains I’ve lain fully clothed in a stream after days of seeing no water. In northern Laikipia I’ve listened to morans sing as they entertain the girls and keep watch for lions. Their joy is contagious.
It feels safe out there in spite of no mobile phones or vehicles: I’m with strong confident tribesmen who’ve always roamed this wilderness. In spite of those who said “…but, is it safe?” I took my daughter on a camel safari to celebrate her 20th birthday. We slept beneath the stars in mosquito-netting domed tents, surrounded by munching elephants. We swam in an ice-cold rock pool watching dozens of migrant Steppe Eagles soaring above the Warges peaks of the southern Matthews. We paused beside “singing wells” where Samburu morans came to water their cattle, sheep and goats (in that order), their ancient songs stilling our minds. The water, filtered through layers of pristine rock and sand, was clean enough for us to drink. Our camel herders talked fast, their words rolling off their tongues; half song, half poetry. Sometimes they paused to point out a group of shy lesser kudu. or showed us which plant they burn to sterilise their gourds. On our last night they sang and danced in the dry rocky riverbed, faces sculpted bronze by the flickering firelight, a vast moonlit view falling away behind them. My daughter was smitten by the whole camel safari experience too.
After each camel safari I return to the “real” world with a new-found freedom, humbled and empowered. I’ve stretched myself beyond any self-imposed confines and feel healed, brimming with well-being, ready to take on anything.
Camel Safaris in the Matthews:
• Wild Frontiers offer tailor-made all-inclusive camel safaris with Helen Douglas-Dufresne, an expert on camels and Kenya’s northern mountains and sand rivers, usually starting out from her camp in the Milgis Lugga. Helen recommends a minimum of 6 nights although is happy to arrange shorter walks. Excellent food and drink will be provided as you travel in style in relatively unexplored country. The distance you cover each day is flexible and usually between 8 and 20 km. You don’t have to be super fit, just a little resilient, Helen says.
• Jeremy Bastard also offers all-inclusive camel safaris, usually starting from Sarara Camp in the southern Matthews, which is situated within walking distance of the Sarara singing wells. A very special safari would be to spend 2 nights at Kitich Camp then walk down to Sarara Camp (about 3 days) to spend another 2 nights there. This gives you the chance to appreciate the contrast between the high forests of Kitich and low dry country around Sarara.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org/ katie.rowe@nrt-Kenya.org
Wellness Walks in Laikipia:
• Anne Powys, yoga teacher, expert naturalist and the brain behind her unique camp, Suiyan Soul, offers various options for foot safaris on Suyian Ranch in Laikipia, allowing the opportunity to stop and appreciate plants, birds, insects, ancient stone tools and tracks made by passing wildlife. You can opt for daily walks, returning to the comforts of Suiyan Soul at night. Or you can walk and camp with camels for as many days as you wish on this lovely ranch, while some adventurers venture further into the dry cedar and olive forests of the Kirisia Hills. Anne’s walking safaris aim for simplicity, comfort and affordability.