In among the Samburu


The thrill of walking with camels in the stark lands of northern Kenya will linger forever in your heart and memory, says Lucia van der Post

Of all the journeys I have been lucky enough to make to Africa, four particularly touched me. Of those four, three of them are now either impossible to do or have changed so much that the experience is much diminished.

The first of my most memorable adventures was a five-day canoeing trip down the Zambezi Valley some 30 years ago. Way back then the crocodiles and the hippos were still timid and unused to man, but today they have lost their fear and there have been too many tragic incidents for it to be something I would allow any of my nearest and dearest even to contemplate.

Then there was the wild-camping trip in Niger, right up in the Aïr Mountains, to see the deserts and to interact with the nomadic Tuareg people. Today the threat of terrorism and kidnapping is so real the Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel in the region.

And finally, there was the wonderful escapade up the Omo River. In these lands the Mursi, Kara, Hamer and other tribes still practise their ageless rituals. They abide by strict tribal taboos and use body-painting, elaborate hairdos and scarification as a means of identification and self-expression. Today the peoples of the Omo valley that we were so privileged to encounter are being moved to make way for biofuels and cash crops. They are losing their ancient lands and their special way of life is under threat.

But, dear reader, there is one all-time treat of an African adventure that can still be had — immutable, unchanged, unforgettable. This adventure is to walk with Helen Douglas-Dufresne, her partner Pete, some 50 odd camels and her group of noble and beautiful Samburu tribesmen high up in northern Kenya, in among the Mathews Range and the Ndoto Mountains. Walking may not sound very exciting or unusual, but believe me, it is quite unlike a little amble in the Cotswolds, a hike up Ben Nevis or even a serious scramble to bag a Munro.

What makes it special is the terrain — it is vast, wild, with breath-taking horizons and skies that stretch forever, wide and blue — and the company of Helen, Pete and their gloriously robed and bejewelled Samburu helpers. Here is something infinitely more precious than swanky lodges and posh grub; here is an austerely beautiful land populated only by the indigenous peoples to whom it belongs, who live easily and naturally among the lion and the elephant as well as the goat and the cow. Through these remote lands wander some of Kenya’s most traditional and noble tribes, the Samburu, the Rendille and the Gabra. Here is a chance to catch a glimpse of how things once were and how perhaps they may be again. To go deep into this land is to witness an Africa that has vanished almost everywhere else and which one fears will not be there forever.

Helen and Pete waste no time. You arrive by charter plane, which lands on a dusty hill. From there it is on with the shorts, the boots, the sun hat, not forgetting the sun cream, and you’re off. The days take on a leisurely rhythm all of their own. You wake at dawn in time to see the stars fade as the sun creeps over the mountains. After a cup of hot tea and a biscuit or two, it’s off up into the hills or into the wide, wide luggas (dried-up riverbeds). The views are awesome, the air awash with the sounds of the bells, the songs of the woodpecker and the dove, and later, much later, when the main camel train carrying all our tents and camping equipment catches up with us, the deep and musical voices of the Samburu. As they walk, they sing their tales of glories past and present.

At about 9am you breakfast under the shade of an acacia tree — fresh fruit, yoghurt, newly baked bread and eggs to order — and then you continue onwards, accompanied always by some of the most beautiful men on Earth. They are there to keep you company and to ensure you are safe by keeping an eye out for animals. You move with them through their exquisite lands, where every bush and every mound has a story to tell, and where the spirits of their ancestors still linger.

At about 2 or 3pm you arrive at another campsite, where the camels and the Samburu have already pitched the tents and whipped up some lunch ready for your arrival. Then it is siesta time: you read or snooze until it’s time to climb a small hill, grab a glass of something light and chilled, and watch the sun go down. After dinner, eaten around the campfire, it is time for bed.

The days pass. Although elephants are returning to the Ndoto and Mathews mountains in ever greater numbers, there is little wildlife to see. You nevertheless grow increasingly aware of what a privilege it is to spend time in such extraordinary landscapes. You begin to feel the deep rhythms of the land and to understand something of the hardships and splendour of the lives of the people who make it their home.

You realise, too, how brilliant are the skills of Helen and Pete. They have got to know every inch of this land and forged such a special relationship with the Samburu. Their nomadic way of life and the austere nature of their surroundings have made them courageous, resilient and strong, perfect companions on what is the adventure of a lifetime. They are expert at tailoring the walk to suit the tastes and physical strength of their guests: some want to pound up the mountains, others prefer a leisurely stroll along the luggas. And always a small group of camels and their Samburu keepers accompany us to carry the daypacks and offer a ride for anyone too tired to go any further.

Some days we covered about 15km, others more and others less. Best of all is to come for six to ten days and amble all round the Ndotos, head over the mountains with porters or up to Lake Turkana. But this isn’t for everybody; as Helen puts it, “It’s particularly not for people who want to do a bit of this and a bit of that.” It’s a deep, immersive experience. However, it is curiously addictive and many find something so compelling, so meaningful in these lonely places that they return time and time again. One visitor summed it up perfectly: “Aching feet and smiling hearts… We couldn’t have felt more privileged.”

Safari Planner
• Getting there  Both British Airways and Kenya Airways fly direct to Nairobi. From there, you can travel by private charter to The Milgis Trust in northern Kenya. The writer’s journey was arranged by Africa Travel, which offers a seven-night package from £5870 per person sharing, including British Airways flights, transfers, internal charter flights, one night at House of Waine in Nairobi and seven nights’ walking safari with Helen Douglas-Dufresne and the camels.
• When to go  This is an all-year-round destination; it is a dry desert area so gets very little rain. But should you happen to be there when the heavens open, you’re in for a treat as the landscape bursts to life.
• Health  Visit your GP or travel clinic to ensure you have had all the necessary vaccinations and antimalarials.
• Further reading  Samburu by Nigel Pavitt; My Kenya Days by Wilfred Thesiger

To subscribe to Travel Africa magazine, click here.