Three days at Ol Ari Nyiro, Laikipia
Munir Virani— 26 January 2011 — in East Africa Project Share
I wasn’t sure what to expect when David Waters (also known as Maji) invited me up to Ol Ari Nyiro Conservancy on the western edge of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. Maji is a long-time friend of mine, both of us having played cricket together for one of Kenya’s finest clubs as well as having toured India in 1988. Maji is currently involved with the task of helping to further develop Ol Ari Nyiro at an education and scientific level that will hopefully see this massive 100,000 acres of untouched Africa remain the way it is. Ol Ari Nyiro belongs to the legendary Kuki Gallmann, an Italian writer and poet who has written several books about her life in wild Africa. Her most famous one – “I dreamed of Africa” has inspired many writers and travelers to write about and visit Kenya.
Having received a lot of media attention about The Peregrine Fund’s work on major declines in vulture populations in the Masai Mara National Reserve, I was eager to look at raptors and other avian scavenger communities in northern Kenya, and therefore jumped at the opportunity to visit Ol Ari Nyiro. The drive there was scenic with some unique landscape particularly of mighty Aberdare Mountains in central Kenya. We saw a number of Augur Buzzards and Black Shouldered Kites and as we entered the gate and drove towards our camp, we saw an African Fish Eagle perched on a tree over looking a beautiful dam. Unlike the tame eagles of Lake Naivasha, this particular bird took off immediately it saw our approaching vehicle. I was surprised to see that the vegetation was dense Leleshwe bush (Tarchonanthus camphoratus), a camphor type indigenous tree of which the leaves have the most amazing aroma. In the distance, a car was approaching us. It was Kuki Gallmann. I got out of the car and shook hands with her and she said, “I am really glad that you could make it, please feel very welcome here.” Her greeting was warm and genuine and I immediately felt very comfortable with her. Her silver hair shone against the afternoon sun and her eyes sparkled. She then asked me “Do you have a GPS”? I immediately said yes and went to the car to get it. “Apparently an elephant hasn’t moved much in four days, it has a radio-collar; can you help us locate it?” she asked. “Absolutely,” I responded. After I told her where the elephant was (about 2.5 Km from us), she immediately sent a team of rangers there and it turned out to be an injured elephant and that the vet from Kenya Wildlife Service was flying in to assist. “Poaching is a serious problem here,” she continued. “Last year we had 62 elephant carcasses and not a single vulture.” I was stunned!
The camp where we stayed was rustic and aesthetically simple. It had a feel of wild Africa that was difficult to experience in some of Kenya’s other wilderness areas that swarm with tourist minivans. Harriers flew above us and the camp was teeming with spectacular birdlife. That evening we drove an hour towards McKenna Hills, where Kuki had invited us for dinner. It was a magical place (Kuki said “you have said the right words” when she asked me what I thought about the place). The sun was going down and in the distance over the Rift Valley edge, I could see Lake Baringo where I have spent many a day counting and documenting numbers of African Fish Eagles. The evening dinner was sumptuous and I felt like I was in some royal chambers in the wild. We had pasta and stir-fry paneer (cottage cheese). It was indeed a pleasure and a privilege to have had dinner with Kuki (“Please you must call me Kuki and dispense with formalities” she told me earlier when I addressed her as Mrs Gallmann). “I own a huge chunk of Africa” she told me and I want it to stay this way for many generations to come. We owe it to mankind and to the environment”. “We need you to help us keep it this way”, she continued. I was enthralled by her persona, knowledge, enthusiasm and most of all her energy to fight for the preservation of her land. She had a powerful presence but spoke with grace, elegance and humility.
That evening, driving back with Maji to our camp was fascinating. We came across elephants, nightjars, a genet cat, and a Heuglin’s plover. The following morning we were up at the crack of dawn and went for a walk near one of the dams. Bernard Cheruyiot Soi (pictured above) was one of the guides who took us for a walk. Bernard was partly funded by The Peregrine Fund for his Masters degree where he worked on owl and other bird communities in the sacred Kaya forests of the Kenyan coast. It was really gratifying to see Bernard in full song and really enjoying his new position as one of Kuki’s naturalists. We trekked for about three hours and saw a myriad of bird life, not to mention fresh tracks of lions and buffalo. We observed numerous Pallid Harriers, mainly juveniles and females, plus a Gabar Goshawk, and congregations of Black Shouldered Kites.
After lunch, Maji and I were invited to Kuki’s food programme. Since January 16th 2009, twice weekly without fail, Kuki has been feeding over 200 children from the Pokot, Samburu and Turkana tribes living outside Ol Ari Nyiro. Because this area is prone to serious drought and is terribly overgrazed, these are extremely underprivileged and starving children. So far she estimates that over 45,000 children have been fed. It was quite an experience watching these children, some with the most amazing faces and expressions. I watched a four-year old boy drink three tubs of millet porridge and eat two loaves of bread. But what amazed me even more was to watch Kuki interact with the children - hugging and greeting them. They felt connected to her at a different level, something that touched my heart. I watched Maji, too, distribute clothing that he had brought up from Nairobi. A Kestrel flew over and, by instinct, I raised my binoculars to watch it, but from the corner of my eye couldn’t stop myself from seeing the happiness of the children after they were full. They began dancing and performing acrobatics. Maji had informed me, that Kuki had transformed many people’s lives. A poacher she apprehended many years ago was now reformed and became one of the best acrobats for a troop that she provided training for. The Kestrel flew off with a lizard in its talons and I soaked in the experience of watching at least 100 children singing with delight at having eaten a wholesome meal.
On our return the following day, Maji and I discussed numerous ideas about some possible raptor and education work at Ol Ari Nyiro. All in all, a great visit with fond memories. I shall certainly return to explore the gorges and riverine forests of this untouched tract of Africa.
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