Mount Marsabit

Finally, we have reached Mt Marsabit! We stop at the tiny Marsabit town, which to us feels like the most modern city in the world. The small guesthouse has electricity, hot shower and a bed (even if it is from the colonial days) and the local restaurant we go to has dengu (green grams) and chapatti (local bread) with small avocado and tomato… the best meal we had since we left Nairobi. And you do not have to fetch water and firewood to cook it yourself, you can buy it over a counter! Amazing!

Mt Marsabit (1707m) is also of volcanic origin. In fact, more than 80 small volcanic cones DSC01561surround this giant in the desert. Inside the forest, found above 1300m, there are two beautiful crater lakes, surrounded by wildlife. Elephants, buffalos, Grevy’s zebra (the one with thinner stripes only found in northern Kenya and Ethiopia), bushbuck, lions and leopards, giraffes and even rhinos once used to live around these lakes. However, illegal hunting has taken most of the wildlife in this isolated National Park, short of rangers in an area where most people own a gun because of the tribal conflict (try to kill a rhino or elephant with a spear, much more complicated than with a gun, believe me). Elephant numbers have been recovering the past few years, but it is very unlikely rhinos will ever be seen here again.

My grandfather used to see the rhinos grazing near the stream which used to flow next to our farm’, says Harrison Lerapo, a Rendile agro-pastoralist living in Songa, a small village on the eastern slopes of the mountain. Not only the rhinos have long disappeared, but even the stream is gone. ‘Now, it only flows during the long rains (October-December), not even during the short ones (March-May)Things have changed a lot here’, continues Harrison, ‘when Harrisson_Songa1I was a young child the mist was thick and it was present every day until lunchtime, but now, you can only find mist during the rains’. Changes in the rainfall patterns are reported all over northern Kenya, but changes in fog are another issue, probably a bigger one, in these mountains. Fog is a source of water in montane forests as tree leaves and moss trap the water of the mist. Fog also reduces evaporation and keeps the whole forest cooler and more humid. But now fog is a rare visitor. ‘We have a proverb in our language that says that the sun rises twice a day in Mt Marsabit: once when it raises at 6 am, and once at 12 pm when you can actually see the sun as the mist is leaving. But our proverb has no meaning any more’ sadly states Harrison.

Near Songa village there is the beautiful Milimani waterfall. We went with him to see it, and collect a water sample, and surprisingly, it was nearly dry. ‘I have never seen this stream Harrisson_Songa3dry. This was our last flowing stream. This is a terrible sign… I should discuss it with the elders later’, tell us Harrison. Droughts are a major problem here. This forest is the only source of permanent water in more than 200km in any direction. And the sole source of evergreen pasture… for wild animals like the elephants, but also for the goats and cows of these pastoralists, and for humans. The fact that it keeps drying more and more is definitely, not a good sign. We return to the village quietly, everyone lost in his own thoughts… what is the future of this beautiful forest? Will the lakes we visited also dry up? In fact, they already dried up  during major drought events, like that of 2009…when Aida came here for the first time to take mud samples of the lakes with her professor, and instead of a mud, they only found dust. Dust and many displaced pastoralists from the surrounding lowlands, cueing for food aid in town as all their animals had died. Terrible. Life is so volatile here…

Mt Marsabit, like the other two mountains we studied, has its own endemic chameleon called Trioceros marsabitensis. It also has an endemic tree called Nteroni (Rinorea convallarioides subsp. marsabitensis), abundant in some parts of the forest. The tree (unfortunately for itself but luckily for the pastoralists) is very tasty for cows, and it is cut in great numbers during droughts. Therefore, it is also endangered and disappearing. ‘We have tried to plant it together with NEMA, but it refuses to grow outside the forest’ says Harrison. Harrisson_Songa2Things look grimmer for this forest. Being more accessible (less steep and lower in altitude) and in an area more populated near the county capital Marsabit town, challenges are many. And the customary law of the Samburu does not apply in this mountain inhabited by five different tribes: Rendile and few Samburu in the south-west, Borana, Gabbra and Burgi in the north-east. Farming is more common around this mountain, because of the rich volcanic soils and the gentle slopes. ‘We used to blame each other (one tribe blames another) for the degradation in the forest, but things are changing’. Even KWS, the institution in charge of the National Park, now involves the communities in management decisions. ‘We will fence parts of the forest to reduce human wildlife conflict (elephants destroying crops), but only in areas where village elders have agreed’ says a KWS manager.

Three mountains in three weeks. Three forest islands in the desert…similar but still different, each with its own amazing features and at the same its own challenges… droughts being the ever present threat in all of them. We have learned and experienced so much…from the stunning sunsets over Lake Turkana to the breath-taking 25m tree climb of our Samburu guide to collect honey …from the exiting glimpse of three elephants in the forest to the miserable view of the dry Milimani waterfall… from the exhausting climb uphill in Nyiro to the welcoming tea breaks with the friendly herders; their children scared DSC01547to see a muzungu (white man)… we feel very fortunate to have been given a chance to live all these experiences. Now, it is time to pack, and go back to Nairobi. Time to share our findings with our partnrs, make the reports and start editing the film… First, we will have to fix the tyre (fourth time already) and sort out the lock at the back door, or we will be stopped by the police in Nairobi because we drive with a rope holding our back door now…luckily, the car and weather behaved well this time! Hope it is the same until Nairobi, about 500km away from here…


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