Adventure Journal #1: Walking in the Footsteps of Elephants

Taking A Good Look At the Elephant in Safari

There is something very special about walking in the footsteps of elephants. Watching my feet step into these huge prints was moving in ways I struggle to articulate. Perhaps it is a feeling of being physically connected to these magnificent creatures. Perhaps it is the red soil, the acacia trees, the prickles the size of toothpicks, the vistas, the flowers, the prints of the other animals who also walked these trails through the forest. Perhaps it simply the pace of walking that opens me to the sights, sounds and smells of Africa, to the sensations of sun and wind on my skin; allowing me to really taste and feel this environment in a deep way.

Each morning of our trek we were gently awakened by Samburu tribesmen. It was still dark, the black sky filled with stars. With headlamps we made our way to the fire, where tea and coffee were waiting. We drank, and watched the sky gradually lighten to blue. Then breakfast – oatmeal, eggs, sausages, toast, and fresh fruit. By 6:30 we were walking. Three Samburu guides, 3 camels, 2 camel minders, 13 hikers, and our intrepid leader Maria set off each day to walk in the footsteps of elephants. We stopped frequently to stare back at the zebras, giraffes, antelope, gazelles, and baboons who were staring at us, or when our beautiful and knowledgeable Samburu guides were identifying flowers, trees, insects, bones, or animal tracks. There were moments of pure magic – like being upwind from a family of elephants, watching them drink and splash in a watering hole.

On this trip I fell in love – wait for it – with camels! There were 28 camels on our journey and they all slept very close to us. They make the best sounds! Gurgles, and snores, and some sounds I won’t mention. Three accompanied us as we walked, carrying snacks and water for us, and once I rode one of them. There are great views from the backs of these tall boys! The other 25 camels traveled on more direct routes between our campsites. Most days our camps would be entirely set up upon our arrival – tents, beds on which one could bounce a dime, latrines, showers (yes daily hot showers), wash stands in front of every tent, dinner tables with table clothes and candles, chairs, our packs, and the kitchen.

All our food was cooked on an open fire and these guys made bread. How? They put a large round pot on the fire, 3 stones in the pot, a loaf pan on the rocks, a lid, and voila – fresh made bread, rolls, cinnamon buns, pizza, and cookies. Each meal was delicious and satisfying.

In total we had twenty-one Samburu tribesmen as our escorts. In their culture, men do not cook, make beds, or serve food and I worried that they might feel subordinated. Three experiences helped allay my fears. The first was when we walked though Samburu community lands, and families who lived in mud and stick huts came out to stare at us. With great pride, our guides told them that we were walking to raise money to protect their forests, the elephants, and other wild animals. The second was when I  heard that the tribesmen would be dancing for us.  I cringed, thinking of hotels and cruise ships where “native” people perform their cultural dances for white folks’ amusement. But this was different.  We were in the Kirisia Hills with men who loved the purpose of the trek they were taking us on, and who loved to dance. Their enthusiasm was palpable and as we danced with them their energy and exuberance infected us all. The third experience was when I talked with some of the tribesmen about their work. They said it was a good job that it allowed them to provide for their families and send their children to school. They were happy to be doing this work. Subordinated? Not one bit.

We stopped at a village named Nalare. Maria Coffey and Dag Goering of Hidden Places Travel created our trip and Maria walked with us. She and Dag have had a relationship with Nalare for some time;  they funded the building of an arts and craft centre where a women’s co-operative make elephant dung paper and beaded jewelry. These women knew we were coming (news travels through the forest) and started to sing as we walked in. They embraced us, danced with us and celebrated our arrival. We bought their jewelry and spoke with Joseph the local schoolteacher.  Maria and Dag are currently funding the education of one of Joseph’s former star students, Agnes. She had wanted to study law but was forbidden to do so by her father because she refused to be circumcised. (Female circumcision has been outlawed in Kenya since 2011 but the practice continues in some areas.) Maria and Dag agreed to fund Agnes’s law studies and in a year and a half she will graduate. Joseph also introduced us to another bright young woman who wants to continue her studies in order to become a teacher. Her husband does not support her going to school, and Joseph asked if Maria and our group could help her. Laurie and I will be making a donation to help support both these women’s education. This visit to Nalare helped compound my feeling that our foreign presence was welcome, and made me feel much more comfortable in this environment.

Our trekking group raised about $40,000.00 for Space for Giants, a local charity working to protect the elephants. These monies will help pay the wages of rangers who patrol the Kirisia Hills. We had the good fortune to meet with three of these rangers who spoke about why they became rangers: for love of the land, the trees, the animals, and the people who live in these hills. Our donations will also help other work of Space for Giants, including their efforts to educate the consumers of ivory, both in Kenya and overseas, to help implement better laws against poaching and  to mitigate  elephant and human conflict through fence building and GPS tracking of elephants.

Walking through this land, I was peaceful and joyful. At the end of the trek, as we drove out of the wilderness and back towards populated areas, the tears came. I did not want to say goodbye to Kenya, its mountains and high plains, its people and wildlife. I wanted to stay there and walk many more miles in the footsteps of elephants.

— Dr. Karen Kranz, Vancouver, BC

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Elephants in African Safari