The Last Wilderness
Story and photographs courtesy of Nana Grosse-Woodley (PART I)
In the cold and windy pre-dawn hours when you are still in the phase of really deep sleep, constant and penetrating screams drag you out of your vivid dreams. Reaching for your watch it shows 5:30am. It is the yellow-necked and crested Francolins announcing and celebrating the beginning of yet another day in Tsavo.
Just as the sun begins to rise and the hill behind you is still covered in mist, the white-headed Buffalo Weaver is trying his best to persuade you to come out of your tent, by sitting right in front of it and singing his song. And the Drongo, sitting on a branch just next to the tent, is imitating the Starlings’ song. Looking at him closer, he is actually hopping up and down whilst singing, as if to show what great effort he is undergoing to imitate other birds’ songs.
When you finally give in and leave the tent, the Buffalo Weaver is right there, sitting by your feet and looking at you with his head slightly tilted to the side, asking for bird seeds, which he will defend vigorously – in good old Buffalo fashion – against any other birds.
On the way to the mess tent, the little Drongo will bomb-dive your back to catch the flies that are sitting on your shirt enjoying the wind shade. And then – on a clear day – you can see Kilimanjaro’s peaks majestically showing above the Yatta Plateau.
Sitting by the campfire, it is still so cold, that you almost want to put on a sweater, but then you only have to think about the hot temperatures ahead to opt for enjoying the cold for as long as it lasts. As you are sipping your hot cup of coffee, the sun is slowly climbing above the hill and you can feel it warming your skin.
The colors change into warmer and brighter shades. Slowly, slowly more birds are flying in, landing by the birdbath, picking a few seeds and loudly announcing their presence – the Starlings always being the last ones, as if they were too vain to show themselves in the cold light not reflecting their colors appropriately.
There are no other noises to be heard than those of Nature.
No man made noise is polluting the atmosphere.
You are in Ithumba, Northern Area of Tsavo East National Park. An area of 9000 sq km., separated from so-called civilization to the west by the 270 km long Yatta Plateau, split from the southern Park by the Galana River, and wild to the East due to its harshness.
It is Kamba country, always has been, as no one else seems to be tough and strong enough to live here.
Ithumba is the Kamba word for "clay" referring to the soil coming from Ithumba hill, used for making clay pots. Nevertheless, the Kamba never settled at the hill itself, as they believe, that there are bad spirits living here. And, in fact, at times you can hear those spirits raging from up the hill. It is the noise of an angry dragon spitting fire, or translated into our world and language, the noise of a skyscraper collapsing; but either way, it is a noise, that you will never ever forget again once you have heard and experienced it.
Whether it is the bad spirits or just the wind roaring through a big gap in the rocks on top of the hill or whether the wind is that spirit – who knows.
Now, what to do with this beautiful day?
So many options, but so little as the sun will soon start preparing for her best show with all her strength, getting so hot that we will have to surrender into the shade of the mess tent. You will have no choice, but to render yourself to the Kamba-frame-of-mind and to give in to that overwhelming lethargic feeling. There is absolutely no way of fighting it. The only way to pull through this time of day, without a serious sense of humor failure, is to sit back enjoying it for what it is, whilst the sweat is running down your skin. Soon the sweat bees and Tsetse flies will arrive as well, testing your patience to the very limits….
If we get going early in the morning, while it is still cool, we could go for a walk along the Tiva River. Enjoy the impression of being the very first person walking along its banks with Doum Palms moving in the wind. Meandering through the deep and wet sand, alongside old trees exposing their long roots all the way down the riverbank into water and holding the humongous Hammerkops’ nests.
Following the river, is a constant flow of anxiety, as with every bend, you do not know, what you will encounter this time, but at the same time you are too curious to turn back! Whether it is just going to be the prettiest white beach-sand bank, that you have ever seen, or whether you will suddenly find yourself amidst a whole herd of Buffalos, that came down for a quick drink.
Watching out for all those numerous hoof and paw prints left in the damp sand, you will suddenly realise, that the apparent peace is false, that the area is actually teaming with animals. Even if you do not often see them "personally," they are there in their thousands and not only the friendly and pretty ones… The reputation of the Tiva Lions is well known – the hardiest and most aggressive, forever hungry and most skilled to bring down even difficult and large prey such as buffalo; the typical image of man-eaters; the mane-less, pale grey and not very attractive nor trust-worthy looking lions. The ones that watch you from their hideouts, whilst you don’t even know that they are there.
There is an outline of something rather large in the sand, just on the other side. Approaching it, it turns out to be the outline of a huge lion that had been resting here. Lying in proper cat manner – the front legs stretched out forward and the back legs comfortably lying to one side.
As there are no other paw marks than the ones of this lion, it probably was a male. The head had been resting on the cool sand, but something must have got his attention, may be even annoyed him, as the tail has been slashing from side to side with enough strength to leave rather deep marks. How long ago? Was it us disturbing him? Where is he now? Is he just up the bank in that dense thorn bush watching us?
It can easily happen, that you are walking along and suddenly get growled at, although you have not seen anything move – it is a lioness, hidden in the thick vegetation with her cubs; but at least she gave a warning and allowed us to back off cautiously!
You might also be lucky enough to experience that amazing sight of Elephants digging in the riverbed for water. Watching a big Elephant cow digging and finally enjoying a drink, then, there is something else moving underneath her – it is her calf that has been there all along, but had been completely hidden, as the hole is so deep, that it had swallowed the entire calf.
Apart from being the absolute bird paradise, there also is a sacred Kamba site on the Tiva, at Mukoka, hidden in a little Tamarind tree forest.
The old Wakamba-Wazee are well known for their special powers and witchcraft throughout the world. This is one of the sites they have used for centuries.
The old men come here, from all directions and from far away, to meet for their sacred gatherings, celebrating their traditional rituals, such as persuading the rains to break, and also to give sacrifices.
Or we could climb Kiasa Hill, located along the Lugards – Ithumba road, an hour’s drive from camp.
"Kiasa" in Wakamba means "the big one, that stands on its own" and it does do its name full justice being a huge hill standing out for miles.
With hardly any vegetation on it, it is a bare and smooth rock formation.
Next to Kiasa is an old and rusty VW Bus with "Air France" written on it.
Rumors have it, that back in the good old adventurous days, an Air France flight crew decided to go on Safari in the Northern Area. Six very pretty stewardesses, their two flight captains and a driver, neither one of them had ever been to this area before.
As they were driving along and passing Kiasa, they were ambushed by Shifta (bandits), who appeared out of nowhere. They must have been shot up, as the bullet holes are still visible at the back of the bus. When the next human being came across this scene, there was no one to be found, no sign of people whatsoever, not even bodies. No one ever saw or heard of them again.
Rumor has it that some time later, in a far-off village almost at the Somali border, a whole generation of light-skinned children appeared…! But this has never been verified.
At the foot of Kiasa is an old waterhole, which is fed by the rock catchments area – a foot high wall around the base of Kiasa, collecting the rainwater running down the rock. If we are lucky, there might still be enough water in it for a quick bath to wash off the sweat.
Getting to the top of the hill, is hard and sweaty work, but you will be rewarded with a spectacular view over the vastness of the area. Standing on top of Kiasa’s rather narrow ridge, feels like being on top of the world! To the West, you are looking onto the Yatta Plateau, almost appearing small from up here! To all the other sides you are overlooking miles and miles of everything – the wilderness of the Northern Area with all its beauty, as far as your eyes can see. And, what your eyes can reach, is still only a tiny section of the entire area. For people, who are scared of heights, the view from that particular top of the world might be just a little bit too overwhelming…
Or we can make our way up Ithumba hill, which always manages to deceive keen climbers. Being on the ground, Ithumba does not look too high and difficult to climb, but wait, the climb is full of surprises! Through vegetation so thick, that it seems impenetrable, and over so many loose rocks with probably more than one Puff Adder resting underneath them, that every step has to be chosen very carefully, and the climb, in addition, turns out to be much steeper than initially thought.
Just before reaching the summit, you are walking, or should I rather say tiptoeing, through a whole forest of Sansevieria. Standing as tall as a man and as thick as a man’s arm!
All the bigger the reward when you finally reach the top. There are the most beautiful flowers, Baobab, Tamarind and Terminalia trees in such abundance that you wonder how they got up there in the first place, and how they can grow on just rock surface.
Sitting on a rock, all the way up at the top, next to a Baobab tree, the Baboons, who always seem to pick the most scenic and comfortable spots, start barking, announcing and giving away the intruders.
It is an entirely different world up there; completely detached from everything else, a world on its own – pure peace and undisturbed wilderness.
Looking down into the various little valleys around the base of Ithumba, all with their individual Flora-jungles, even the hundreds-of-years-old Baobab Giants look like little bonsais from here.
If you then cup your hands behind your ears and direct your hearing straight into one of those valleys, the noises of Nature present themselves unmuffled – the Weaver’s chattering, the Baboon’s bark, the Guinea fowl’s metallic rattling, the Cricket’s chirping, the Francolin’s squeal, the Bushbuck’s bark, the Dove’s cooing, the Dik Dik’s whistle, the Parrot’s screeching, and may be even an Elephant’s trumpeting.
These noises become so intense, that you start feeling dizzy and overwhelmed; realising that your surrounding is absolutely packed with life and it is actually you, who is the intruder.