Sidai, Gelai, Piyaya
The darkness is coming in fast and the road we’ve been following hasn’t been driven in months and the influx of the rain season has turned it into a gully. I’ve been bush-bashing and now I’m walking in-front of the car with my brother driving pushing through grass that’s above my head to get to higher ground. Its wet and all of us are hoping we can get to the big Acacia trees where we’ll set up camp.
Feeling liberated- I head off with my headlamp to collect firewood while my brother, father and cousin set up the tents. A couple matches and the flickering flames leap up the rungs of Commiphora kindling getting bigger and lighting heavier Acacia sticks. Meanwhile we’ve opened the fridge and the first gushes of cold liquid on the backs of our throats are heavenly. The slight anxiety to get camp up in the dark fades and my cousin’s first night under the southern hemisphere’s constellations is not in anyway typical. I apologize but the feeling is juxtaposed by his enthusiasm and as we lay out cushions next to the fire. I hear sighs of satisfaction.
The next morning, I coax another flame from the coals and heat water for coffee. Everything tastes so good in the bush. We pack camp and head off on a walk. Fresh elephant tracks pass nearby camp, but none of us heard them. The bush is alive and the rains have invigorated growth- birds are courting as are plants with their glorious flowers.
We decide to head to Sidai camp, where we should have slept last night had we not detoured and stopped too long to watch magnificent kudu, the long-necked gerenuk, giraffe, and gazelle stare at us. The road is not a road, but in the morning light we find our way, over rolling crystalline granite hills- I could go on the whole day, but I realize that we have arrived at a good stopping point. Nestled into Oldonyo Sidai (Mountain of Goodness) is a hunting camp. Built with local materials, it’sluxurious backdrop offers our heads a resting point on the large cushions in the open dining room. An old plow blade is acts as a bird bath and our bird list increases in 2’s, 3’s and 5’s. Male whydah’s display their extended tails, and emerald spotted wood doves and laughing doves chase the waxbills and sunbirds away.
At around 4, I get restless, it’s hot and I’m on holiday, but the bush is too vibrant for me to lie still. I wrangle the others- all feeling the same and we head off to look for elephant, and then do a night drive back. We find the elephants, and watch until its nearly too dark to get back to the road, then drive back, spotlight leading, illuminating nightjars, genets, and lesser galagoes that leap 10 feet from branch to branch. They leave scents along their paths and its said they can accurately execute a 3m jump on a pitch-black night by their keen sense of smell.
We sleep well and in the morning rise to the dawn, still and quiet. I load the rifle and we head off on a walk. There is a sand river I’d like to explore and we follow an old game trail. A lion has passed before us, and we can smell elephant and see where they have fed that night. The sun gets hot and we find ourselves walking the sand river. It’s a bit too warm to see much game, but the dikdik and giraffe don’t know that. That night we drive the sand river again, and on returning to camp use the spotlight to pick up jackals, and a great reward- a White-faced scops owl. Its been 7 years since I’ve seen one.
It’s so nice to be off any schedule, and the next morning it’s a late start. We arrive at a junction. Two roads diverge, one is graded, the other is just a track. The GPS shows that the track should take us around the north of Gelai mountain to the east shores of Lake Natron. We take the track. Like all the roads we’ve been on it hasn’t been driven in a while. We engage four-wheel drive, in some places we follow the little arrow on the GPS that changes direction if you leave the track. We can’t see the road, in other places its obvious, sometimes we have to dig the banks to climb out, other times it’s a low-range crawl. Our driving is distracted by beautiful straight-horned oryx, that gallop off. Occasionally giraffe stick their necks above the acacia scrub and watch us pass. I wonder what they think.
Around the north of Gelai the land becomes rocky and my cousin calls it a moonscape. Kiti cha mungu (God’s stool), otherwise known as a small hill. My father and cousin talk of Arizona, the Sonora desert. I don’t know if they have termite mounds there. We stop at one that must be nearly 30ft high. The rocks get bigger and it seems each gully leading off Gelai has carried with it rocks as big as basketballs across the road and down to the lake. We can’t drive the edge of the shore because at the base of each gully is a spring that softens the shoreline.
Oldonyo Lengai appears in the distance. We are headed towards its base but tonight we will sleep under the stars again, on the shores of the lake. We stop, set up camp, the sun has sapped us of energy, but we are rejuvenated by the shining grass flowers, the dark mountains, the reflection of Shompole, Masonik, and the Rift wall in the lake. Flamingos add pink, and the springs are all surrounded by dark green sedge. Grants and giraffe wander down to drink from the springs. That night we sit shirtless under the stars, sipping beers and listening to my father sing on his guitar. My cousin adds his songs as does my brother- such peace.
Too many things happen the next day to write about. The silent morning, the sunrise over Gelai, skinny-dipping in hot-springs- a dose of the daily amenities no luxury lodge could imitate. We drive south and cross the top of the lakebed. Alkaline salt flats that mirage, with zebra in the foreground. We head up the escarpment and climb, and climb and climb to the top where we have lunch and look out across our morning’s journey. We push on, across the Ngata Salei plain to the base of the Sonjo mountains passed their settlement; agriculturalists who have been in the area since long before any Maasai. The mountain pass we climb is flanked by cycads. Old plants that once fed dinosaurs. The temperature drops and the trees are lush- less adapted to desert conditions. The birds are also more colorful and soon we are seeing Augur Buzzards again; a bird identical to North America’s Red-tailed Hawk.
By 4 we are at the edge of the short grass plains that vitalize the migrating wildebeest. High in phosphorous and calcium the seemingly fragile grasses support lactating wildebeest. The plains are also full of zebra, the stallions fighting for their harems, and to my father’s amazement there are herds of nearly 500 eland. Most people only read about these congregations at the beginning of the rains. We stop and scan with binoculars before heading down into a woodland to the camp. Familiar smiling faces of the camp crew greet us with cold washcloths and ice tea. Our first hot showers it seems in ages are lifted into the bucket showers.
We sleep again, this time to the chorus of zebra and hyenas. The lions are silent tonight. The next three days we rise before dawn, coffee brought in French-presses to the tent door. We head off and find beautiful coffee spots on rocks or under trees eat breakfast and enjoy the wild. One day we drive to the Sanjan Gorge that cuts through the Gol mountains. They are 500 million years old I’m told- as old as the oldest mountains and once higher than the Himalayas. We find fossils and stone tools in eroded volcanic ash soil and finally hike down the steep banks of the gorge as two Black Eagles fly out from below us rising on updrafts. It is breathtaking. The water has carved natural slides in the rock but its too low to swim. Instead we lay in the brown water refreshed.
That evening is our last and we drive across the plains- it has rained while we were in the gorge and it seems that the wildebeest numbers are increasing. They must sense it before it rains. There is no need to use the road and the few land marks triangulate where camp is. The next day we head home. It will be the 8th day out and we have yet to see another tourist. The vehicles we have seen can be counted on our hands. 45km south I know we will cross the Olduvai Gorge and with it we’ll meet the masses. Our days have been filled with rich events, many I know I find difficult to describe. I have skipped parts of the some of the days- even highlights like the sand boa, a very rare find, or the Tree of Life standing out in the plains.