After five long hours of driving in the rocky bumpy desert, only scattered by few Acacia
trees, ostrich and gerenuk (the weird long-neck antelope of northern Kenya), our final destination appears like a mirage: Mt Nyiro and Mt Kulal, sleeping giants in these desolate empty landscape. We will start with the highest, Mt Nyiro, 2752 m. This is a climb of 2000 m uphill, following a small footpath too steep for cars, motorbikes or donkeys. It will take two days, and lots of sweat as we need to carry everything with us: camping gear, food, filming and scientific equipment…
While standing at its base, it is hard to believe that this giant of gneiss and granite can have any forest on top. But there is forest, bamboo and even green grass, for the cows to eat. As you climb the vegetation changes dramatically. From few scattered Acacia and beautiful desert rose trees, one gets into the thick bush at mid altitudes with many spiny plants, which turns into dry Cedar (Juniperus procera) forest at around 1900 m. Above 2300 m, the forest is dominated by huge individuals of Podocarpus sp. and Faurea saligna, and at the top there is elfin forest (forest with short trees with twisted stems and lots of moss because of the strong wind and mist).
Mt Nyiro is populated by Samburu pastoralists, most of which remain semi-nomadic. During the rainy season, when there is pasture and water in the lowlands, they live there with their cows and goats. During the dry season, they climb the mountain to take advantage of the small grasslands on top, and occasionally, feed their animals with a few trees their cows like to eat. Their homes are small huts made with few branches, lianas and goat skin. They have few possessions, and they mainly live on milk, blood and occasionally maize flour (ugali), like they used to do generations ago. There is no electricity or running water. Little access to health care or education. They are on their own.
These incredible peoples completely depend on their forest for their livelihoods. For water, pasture, firewood, building materials, medicine, even for wild fruits and honey which considerably diversify their milk/blood/meat based diet. One of their favorite trees is the Cedar tree, which has strong durable wood for construction and has a nice smell. It is used for making spoons for cooking, among others. The Samburu believe that a mountain without Cedar is not a mountain (only high mountains have it).
The Cedar tree, like the Podocarpus or Faurea, which often are over one meter diameter, can be exploited for timber, and they have been intensively harvested in many parts of East Africa. Fortunately, in Mt Nyiro, because of its
remote location and steepness (no vehicle can access the forest), these trees have been naturally protected, making this a unique ‘fairy tale’ forest view. Indeed, this beautiful forest provides habitat for several endangered plant and animal species, and it is home to the endemic Mt Nyiro chameleon called Kinyongia asheorum, found only in this mountain in the whole world!
Living up here is a constant challenge. Lmelina Lmooli, a Samburu pastoralist with two wives and five children, struggles every day. His family lives not too far from the town in the lowland, where milk can be exchanged for maize flour. He and his two brother in-law move up and down with the cattle looking for the best pasture. Lmelina is also a bee-keeper: he has 25 hand-made hives placed on top of several Cedar trees. He visits them every four months and sells the honey in town, which helps him with his finances. He is very skilled and independent from modern technology… to collect the honey, he lit a fire using two sticks (yes, like our ancestors used to do) and climbs the tree barefoot with no rope, to collect the precious honey. Unbelievable? He says he has to be brave and ingenious as he has a family to feed. Such a humble friendly character…
Apart from leopards and lions killing cows, these peoples have to deal with two more challenges: the vagaries of climate (major drought events becoming more common in northern Kenya) and cattle rustling. Located at the border with the Turkana ethnic group, the Samburu often get their cows stolen by them (or go and steal Turkana’s cows), in a tribal never-ending conflict… which gets worse during drought events, when there are few cows around. Fortunately for us, there have been no deathly attacks the past few weeks, although last time Aida was here 11 Samburu died in a cow-stealing ambuscade by the Turkana, in one of the villages we spend a night.
Being in this forest and meeting these peoples is a surreal experience… Like travelling though time and space… especially, because of the constant mist and coldness… one cannot believe this forest is located next to one of the driest and hottest deserts in the world. When you are given the chance to glimpse the lowlands from the top, among the clouds…the views are stunning… there are no words for it.