Trekking for Elephants – Kenya

This was an adventure that came out of the blue. We doing some work on elephant conservation in Laikipia, Northern Kenya, when a friend of ours, Anne Powys, asked if we would consider supporting a group of community anti poaching scouts/forest rangers in the Kirisia Hills. She suggested taking us to meet the group; the hills were about 80 miles away and I presumed we would drive there. Of course, I should have known better….

Anne is a fourth generation white Kenyan who grew up in the bush, on a 43,000 acre ranch in NW Laikipia. She built a small, remote and very beautiful eco lodge on the land and also helps her father Gilfred –now in his eighties – to run the ranch. They are both passionate conservationists, and deeply involved with local communities. They are also wildly eccentric. In his younger days Gilfred used to go on very long walkabouts through the far north of Kenya and into Somalia to buy camels for the ranch, and got into all sorts of scrapes along the way. Anne roamed wild when she was growing up; she has a scar from when she was grabbed by a crocodile – it was that kind of an adventurous childhood!

So of course we didn’t drive to the Kirisia Hills. We walked there. And back. With six camels, a Somali camel trainer called Ahmed and several young Samburu men. Anne had told us the trip would take two weeks, with a at least three nights in the Kirisia Hills, “depending on how long it takes us to get there.” The morning we set off, however, she mentioned that she had just had a last minute booking for her eco lodge, and that we would need to get back “a bit sooner than expected.’ A bit sooner turned out to be eight days; and we needed at least two nights in the hills, so – we walked, and walked and walked!

We’d already spent a fair bit of time in Kenya, exploring it by jeep and small plane over the last couple of years. But this was something entirely different. Walking across the high, wide plains of the Laikipia Plateau, watching herds of curious zebra watching us pass by, skirting around elephant families, seeing the Kirisia hills gradually ease up from the horizon, I began to experience Africa in a deep seated, visceral way. I felt it though my feet with each step; in the dust that mixed with my sweat, the sun beating on my skin, the smell of the camels plodding along beside us, the relief of dappled shade when we rested beneath an acacia tree, the sense of an endless sky and the blanket of stars we lay under each night.

Anne had provided us with a simple tent – mosquito netting stretched over a frame to make what she called a ‘meat safe’. In the middle of the night we would be woken by lions roaring, elephants trumpeting, hyenas whooping. Our hearts would beat fast with the thrill of their proximity; then we would fall back into a deep, dreamless, peaceful sleep.

Lots happened along the way: celebrating Dag’s birthday with a crowd of newly circumcised and still partying Samburu warriors; the camel that got spooked by bees and bolted, scattering my precious things – computer, passport, glasses and much more – across three miles of high grasses; the sheep I bought from a village as a thank you to our team who found every bit of my missing stuff; our arrival into the Kirisia Forest, a wonderland of huge trees and hanging mosses ; meeting the scouts and promising to help them protect their elephants; the shaman who walked us out of the forest and performed a ceremony to ‘close’ it behind us and keep it safe until our return. And then the walk back, our tiredness chased away by the ongoing magic of putting one foot in front of the other to cross this wild landscape.

We kept our promise to the scouts. And we went further. To date we’ve run four 100 Miles for Elephants treks , and raised over $100,000 for anti poaching work. It’s more than the scouts need, so now we also support some of the more wide ranging efforts to combat poaching, working closely with our partner in Kenya, Space for Giants. We’re a bit more gentle with our trekkers than Anne was with us: they walk 15 miles a day for a week. But it’s still a challenge. And no one is left unchanged.

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