“Army ants! Terrible, terrible ants!” John slaps at his pants while running away. If I’ve learned anything in Kenya so far, it’s this: When your guide is freaking out, you follow.
So I run too, then stop when John does, after 20 or so flying steps. Pulling up my pant legs, I see three tiny red ants climbing my boot, two on my sock, and one above my kneecap.
I feel no stings, and quickly flick them off. But for the rest of our hike through the tangled, thick greens of Eburu National Forest, my eyes are glued to the dirt path for ant hills.
This is exactly what I wanted, more or less. Since I’ll be clocking plenty of Land Cruiser-passenger hours chasing wildlife across the sun-scorched savannas over the next few weeks, I’ve come to this spot in Kenya for a single reason: to walk in Africa.
And here in the broad Rift Valley, which stripes East Africa from Ethiopia to Mozambique, I find some rare chances—at least without worries of predators lurking in the shadows—to get my feet on Kenyan soil.
A few hours north of Nairobi by road, past crater-top Mount Longonot, 86-square-mile Lake Naivasha sparkles in the sun. Beyond that is Lake Nakuru, where rhinos, pink flamingoes, and rare Rothschild’s giraffes come to drink.
It’s a tough row to hoe getting there (mostly due to the last 45 minutes of the route being an off-highway slog). But the view of verdant mounds bulging around the lake from my mountainside bungalow deck revives me. It’s as nice a landscape as I’ve seen in Kenya.
In the morning, a black-and-white African pied wagtail taps me gently awake as he “fights” with his reflection on my front window. After breakfast, I meet with my (ant-averse) guide, John Oleparkitele, a 35-year-old Maasai from the Masai Mara region with an easy way about him. (Once, as we drove past an elder leading goats across the bumpy road, he called out good-naturedly, “Mama, if you can’t keep them off the road, we’ll take one off to eat!” She laughed.)
We begin our day a million years ago.
In 1929, Kenya-born scientist Louis Leakey discovered the earliest known tools made of obsidian (shiny black volcanic glass) in the village of Kariandusi, Maasai for “climbing planet.” The tools are believed to date to Homo erectus times, when Lake Elmenteita’s shore reached this far into the valley.
Joseph Olesankok, an archaeologist in a red-and-white checked shirt, walks us through a gorge where tools were discovered and handles some of the 2,000 or so tools (hand axes, hammer stones, cleavers) protected by basic tin-roof shelters.
Obsidian is not naturally found in the area, John tells me. “The people here must have walked great distances for it. It’s probably all from Hell’s Gate.”
A 90-minute drive south, Hell’s Gate National Park is the only park in Kenya where visitors are free to walk on their own. And the way to reach its namesake gorge walk is by bike.
John and I rent bikes (for the equivalent of about $10 USD) at the entrance and ride into the park, weaving between volcanic rock cliffs and Fischer’s Tower, the inspiration for Pride Rock in The Lion King. As we bump along, I spy scurrying warthogs, tails raised like antennae, and cliffside aeries used by vultures that commute as far as Masai Mara for food (that’s a five- or six-hour drive for us bipeds).
Five miles in, John and I park our bikes and clamber down steep rock faces, occasionally gripping aloe vera roots to steady ourselves. A series of obstacles awaits.
First, we follow the nearly dry riverbed until we come to a giant yellow-bark acacia, toppled by the torrents of Kenya’s rainy season, that’s partially blocking the narrowing gorge. We straddle it over a muddy streamlet, then climb a dozen feet up a steep rock with a rope that leads to “Devil’s Bedroom.” Walls at least 200 feet high close in, draping us in shadows before a waterfall. (“No one gets past the bedroom,” I’m told.)
Though John is a great guide, he’s not especially adept at forecasting time. En route to Eburu Forest the next morning, he swears it’ll be “30 minutes, maybe 45.” I survey the range south of the lodge—and silently doubt it. An hour in, he revises his estimate to “at least an hour more.” We arrive another 90 minutes later. Distances are greater than they appear in much of Kenya. And time is often irrelevant.
As tourist attractions go, the 54-square-mile national forest, which runs across a high mountain peak, is a bit raw. (Indeed, both Lonely Planet and Rough Guide omit it from their Kenya guidebooks.) There are no signs or information posted.
At a guard’s hut (where I spy a poster on the rare bongo antelope, which lives here), I meet forest director Patrick Kitta. First established in 1932, Eburu was threatened by overgrazing and timber stripping a decade ago (“it was nearly finished,” he tells me).
A partnership with groups like Rhino Ark transformed the situation. Fences were put up to ward against illegal logging, and villagers were educated about the forest’s role in ensuring their water supply. “About 7,000 people in the area now benefit from a healthy forest,” Kitta says.
Just past the gate, where I spot loose obsidian glittering from the dirt road, we begin our walk through knee-high grass, down to where steam seeps out of a ramble of red volcanic boulders, just shy of a sunken crater grazed by cows. “Natural sauna,” John says, fanning himself in the hot vapors.
We then head into a deeper canopy of green. And green is good in often arid Kenya. It’s the “ultimate accolade a person can give land,” Binyavanga Wainaina writes in his superb memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place. “Green is scarce, green is fertility.”
A sudden rustle in a tall Vernonia tree leads to a glimpse of what look to be acrobatic skunks. “Colobus monkeys,” John says of the black-and-white primates. Soon I feel a sharpness: It’s a prick from a stinging nettle that has pierced my pants. I learn to spot the barbed rim of the bush’s leaves, clinging path-side, and swerve to avoid them.
John soon stops. “Boubou bird, listen.” He offers a syncopated whistle, beginning with a low steady note, then rising into two quarter notes. He does this a few times, then after awhile the same melody (one of seven “duets” it sings) is returned by the tropical boubou. Just like those mockingjays from the Hunger Games movies.
On we walk. I catch myself trying to gauge time, and chide myself for not staying present. I ask John how he does it—being out so many days in the bush. What does he think about? “I just listen and look,” he says. “There are a lot of birds you can see only here. I want to see what they’re up to.”
Since our escapade running from ants, I’ve been on the watch for details—I find tiny flowers with purple, blue, and white petals I hadn’t noticed in the grass around my boots and pick out the scent of lemongrass from the rich stew of forest’s overlapping smells. It’s then John brings me out of my thoughts.
“We’re almost there.”
I realize I don’t know where we’re headed. Only that it doesn’t matter anymore.