Wednesday, October 28

Secrets of The Forest: From Meru National Park’s Rhino River Camp

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True wilderness is mysterious. As I walk to my tent on stilts, I take in the smells of camphor, green leaf volatiles and something foetid perhaps nitrifying bacteria in root nodules or animal waste – monkeys?

I see only the little frog I saw an hour ago playing dead, on its back it’s now wriggling. It maybe poisonous or harbouring deadly microbes, because an hour is a long wait for carrion eating larvae which include beetles or scavenging ants. I help it, with my walking stick, to turn over.

The perimetre of Rhino River Camp takes you through Miraa fields and bomas – one is humble, three mere frames of wood and straw to hold the mabati roof, the centre is battered earth, smooth and swept clean. An old lady, swathed in lesos comes out to greet Peterson and I as we pass. The next boma invites us with the scent of spicy, floral tobacco. We ask permission to tarry in the centre of three mud and mabati buildings – children playing, a woman breastfeeding an infant, a cockerel watching proudly over his brood. Three men, equidistant from each other, one is elderly with misty eyes, chop bundles of yellowed tobacco leaves, whilst the youngish chap in the middle spreads it out to dry on a tarpaulin.

Back on track, we see mud flying from a mole rat’s efforts, it stops when we approach, then hear children’s voices but see nothing except the young goat herder, appearing round the track’s bend. From here, the nearest town is Maua, and three Boda-bodas with three people each, behind the driver, approach the crossing. All the passengers alight and the drivers push their motorbikes into the flowing river. The first one crosses but his bike doesn’t make it up the hill on the other side, falling in the muddy slide. The people nevertheless make it against the current and all except one driver, go with them.

The rivers are all flooded and the bridge crossings precarious. We’ve crossed one made of loose logs and railway sleepers several times. It overlooks the ruined concrete structure made of culverts, in which is lodged half a tree. The rushing flood waters of climate change’s response to the extended drought before it, cracked it and washed most of it away.

Peterson and I talk of excesses, adventure freaks, land grabbers, alcohol, tobacco and drug misuse. He is a Maasai, a long way from home, the people around here are the Ameru, they eat locusts, termites, chicken and the most unpalatable of all, fish. They are his friends and he speaks to them in Kiswahili. On a drive around the rhino sanctuary outside which the camp is located, we meet armed rangers, sitting in bushes, concealed from sight and the sun’s rays, Peterson speaks to them in Maa replying in quick succession to short questions asked with “Eey”. The traditional Maa protocol over, he talks about the animals that have been spotted. Peterson can see rhino pug marks some distance from the car and says many rhino have crossed along here. He has to stop to show me the difference between elephant spoor and the claw marks of the rhino. He sees them even when they are behind trees and eventually I am able to spot two rhinos in different areas of the thicket. The woodland is so lush, it conceals everything except what is to my imagination the wars between the plants and trees. Some allelopathic tree exuding chemicals to kill another, a leaf’s warning to its own species to exude toxins that taste and smell awful to approaching browsers and the fig creeping up the large trunk as yet still alive.

We observe grevy’s zebras and a mother and baby rhino, together in a lush papyrus swamp in the sanctuary through which Rhino River Camp is accessed. Just about 1000 feet above sea level, here giant Baobabs, over 200 years old, reach across the overstory with tales immortalised by writers like David Njagi. In his book, “The last Mau Mau Fieldmarshalls”, he describes freedom fighters who were based in Meru National Park during Kenya’s struggle for independence between 1952 & 1963 using a Baobab tree as their meat store and hideout. The trees hollow could accommodate 15 adults. “

At Kina area in Meru National Park, we found a large baobab tree with a hollow trunk which we used as a kitchen. While we were there we were found by white colonial soldiers and a big battle ensued. The exchange of fire was intense and the whole area was covered with smoke and dust. I was pushed to the edge of Tana River which was not far from the hollowed baobab tree and I had no alternative but to jump into the river. Once in the river, I was lucky to find a drifting log which I held onto and drifted to the other side of the river.”

The forests on the banks of the rivers drip with vines. The creeping tendrils of the strangling fig or sacred Mugumo tree, is where the spirits of ancestors reside.

For the Ameru whose ancestral lands are around the Nyambene hills which surround the views from the National park, the Mugomo tree houses spirits that should not be disturbed. In the Gikuyu who also live in central Kenya and for the Maasai, the Mugumo is in their origin stories.

Ficus natalensis is a tempestuous tree, starting its life as a soil-based seedling, later wrapping itself around another tree and eventually replacing the original tree with a hollow. Pollination is effectuated by a fig-wasp. While mostly one fig species is associated with one wasp species and vice versa, four wasp species were found to visit a single Ficus natalensis tree in Uganda.

In Meru National Park there are several species of Tsetse fly, that Peterson points out on the windscreen and whenever they bite him. I am wearing light khakis, greys and earthen tones that do not attract them. Meru National park forms a network of animal corridors with neighbouring Bisanadi, Mwingi, Kora and Rahole reserves. Of all the reserves there is lodge accommodation only in Meru. Here 13 rivers feed the park. Rhino River Camp is located in its deep and savage wilderness along the Kindani river, which tumbles past five of its seven tents. Gentle rapids crash past the pool which at this altitude is naturally warm. Gamewatchers Safaris own Porini Camps who have taken over Rhino River Camp. Since November last year, there’s been canvas sewing, painting, plumbing and repairing of decks onsite. Porini means wild and this landscape is confoundingly feral.

Vervet monkeys land on the decking, curious but shy. Carol my room steward, who is also a small but strong masseuse, tells me not to fear mosquitoes because strangely in this humid jungle, with its low altitude, flowing water and rampant vegetation, there are no mosquitoes. I apply repellent anyway because I’ll be going to sit by the fire pit with a drink, where the air is stiller.

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