With 2285m, Mt Kulal is the little brother of Mt Nyiro, but it is of volcanic origin. However, climbing it is not a joke. You have to go up 1500 m (instead of 2000), and it only takes one day (not two) but one starts the climb from a lower altitude, in a terribly hot and suffocating village, and during the hike there is no water until the top. After Mt Nyrio, we underestimated this hike, and we arrived to the top extremely tired and dehydrated. In fact, we ended up spending a night 200m from the top, because we were exhausted.
Mt Kulal is quite similar to Mt Nyrio, in terms of vegetation changes, forest, climate and even people. There is also an endemic chameleon here, the Mt Kulal chameleon called Trioceros narraioca, only found in this mountain in the world. The trees are smaller (never more than 50 cm diameter), and the streams are tiny compared with those of Mt Nyiro…but it is much windier.
The clouds and mist cross the rides fast, very fast… and when the curtain of clouds opens, one can see the famous Lake Turkana. This huge salty water body is now condemned to disappearing because the Ethiopians have built large dams for irrigation purposes on the two major rivers feeding this Lake. In an area where evaporation is already higher than amount of the water entering the Lake (that is why it is salty), there is no hope for it. We feel extremely privileged to admire the stunning sunsets over Lake Turkana, few people have been (and will be) that lucky.
In Mt Kulal the situation of the forest is not as good as in Mt Nyiro. This forest is smaller, and some parts are considerably degraded. Trees are not logged, this mountain is also too steep and remote for commercial logging. The issue is drought. Droughts force more and more Samburu pastoralists to climb the mountain to feed their cows. Usually, the small grasslands are enough. But for a number of years, the grasslands dry so much that locals need to turn to the trees. They only cut a few branches of mainly three species, but cows eat seedlings and saplings as they walk to the few wells and streams here. And this will severely affect the future species composition of the forest.
The local communities have recently organised themselves into several forest users groups and plan to restrict cattle grazing to certain parts of the forest so that it can regenerate in other parts. ‘Our forest is as important to us as our cows, without it we would not exist’ says a Samburu elder in Arapal, when we discuss about the future of their forests. ‘We take care of it as our fathers, grand-fathers and ancestors did, and we teach our children to do the same’. Located in such remote areas of the country, government presence here is limited, and they mainly apply customary laws. These laws have worked so far, and now that the challenges are greater than ever before, they try to implement new ones.
Thimothy Lenges, father of four, is one of the Samburu elders here. He started primary school but never finished, because of lack of funds. However, his English is amazing, as is his personality. He experiments with farming using seeds given to him by a friend. This entrepreneur is the first to farm in the northern part of Mt Kulal. He grows maize, beans, carrots, pumpkins, tomatoes and aubergines, even myrrah, a local drug in Kenya. He met
Aida two years ago when she was walking up the mountain and asked her to come and see his farm and explain to him how to cook a strange vegetable he had. It happened to be a pumpkin, and nobody in the village had ever seen (or eaten) one. Since then, they became friends. ‘The volcanic soil is fertile, and if you work hard you can harvest a lot of things’, says Timothy. ‘At least when there is a drought, you can eat the stored maize, while your goats die, one by one. It saved my family twice already’. Farming is still a rare practice among these traditional pastoralists, but things are changing. Some of his neighbours have started growing beans, borrowing seeds from him. Apart from helping reduce hunger during droughts, farming helps diversify their diet, and therefore, improves children’ health.
Although we complain about the wind and the coldness, we know that once we walk down to the lowlands, the heat will hit us hard. There is a long dusty and bumpy drive through the desert until our next destination, Mt Marsabit…let us enjoy these magnificent sunsets one more time…