A good place to have a picnic lunch is Bissadi Falls, just 45 minutes along the southern Tiva road to Ndiendasa.
Standing on top of Bissadi, looking down into the dry and sandy Tiva River gorge, the atmosphere seems peaceful and hopeful.
The rocks of the falls show their different colours, shades and forms, almost like a painting. There are little pools of water at the base of the rocks, which are frequented by huge flocks of Quelea and Sandgrouse, who come and go for miles and miles, just to collect that tiny little bit of water in their chest feathers to take back to their chicks.
But, making your way down into the gorge, you suddenly find yourself feeling very small, being closed in and surrounded by the high rock walls. There is no breeze down here whatsoever. And there is a certain smell of decay in the air. Instead of walking on white sand, as you initially imagined, you are treading on millions of fish bones. The little water pools turn out to be death traps for thousands of catfish – that is the cause for the smell!
Carrying on and going around the rock wall, there is an old Buffalo carcass lying in the middle of the riverbed – most likely killed by Tiva lions.. And, inside the carcass is a striped Hyena, trying to tear the last, already bone-dry bits of meat, or rather sinew, off the carcass. But then, it seems to give up on this effort and instead walks over to investigate one of the little water pools – nose and front paws in. But not for long, with one big jump and all four legs in the air, it leaps back out and – as it seems in high disgust – trots off, for good this time! Did the catfish manage to scare it off by nibbling on its feet?
This place seems to be the definition of hell, everything evolves death, topped by the extreme heat with no shade anywhere near. Bissadi certainly has that spooky and eerie atmosphere about it.
Don’t miss Sheldrick’s Blind, also known as Therekana Blind. Located directly above one of the very scarce water springs on the eastern side of the Yatta Plateau. The blind was built by David Sheldrick (1919-1977), Tsavo East’s indefatigable warden between 1949 and 1976, as a retreat and get-away from the inevitable stresses of a job involving the management of so vast and inhospitable an area. Therekana is an old sturdy concrete bunker with a view that is something out of this world! Overlooking the never-ending vastness of untouched wilderness (at least it seems like that from here) as far as you can see. The dry surroundings are broken up by this little green oasis encircling the spring with lush and generous vegetation.
You can hear the occasional bark from a bushbuck, whilst watching and enjoying the plentiful four-legged visitors coming here for a drink, all night long. You might even see Wild Dog, whistling and yelping away down in the valley, coming closer ever so slowly in their investigative and curious manner.
The road to the Blind is quite rough and lined on either side by such thick vegetation, that you could start feeling claustrophobic and insecure. Travelling along these roads, forced to go slowly, a certain intimidation will set in, as you cannot help but realise the fact, that you, as a human being, are just such a tiny small part of Nature, and the most fragile one of the lot! A drive along here teaches you an enormous respect for Nature and a very healthy understanding, that we do not quite rule the world, no matter how hard we try – some areas we will never conquer!
A journey to Kone
We can learn more about the art of human survival in this area – and pay the Orma a visit, who seem to be a forgotten people. At the end of a two and a half hours drive from Ithumba, along the Tiva Delta edge, over murram and black cotton, passing low silver thorn bush, you will get to Kone, just where the Tiva River exits the park.
The Orma’s life entirely evolves around the well-being of their livestock. They originally came from Ethiopia in the 15th century. Being Pastoralists, they are constantly on the move to find areas of fresh grazing and water for their animals. The village consists of very simple huts made of grass mats, easy to pack up and move at any time, very much like the Turkana’s hut system.
The women, dressed in their colourful cloth, look stunningly beautiful with the same charm of Somali women. The men in long Kikois have features similar to vain and arrogant looking Somali men – smart at all times, no matter what. Even during the hardest times, the worst of the dry seasons, an Orma man might be taking nothing else but a pink plastic hair comb stuck in to his curls along on his travels.
The cattle, immune to numerous livestock diseases, are healthy looking and fat. The goats are the sweetest tasting and most tender ones in Kenya.
As Kone is waterless, the Orma have dug wells into the riverbed to get water for themselves and their livestock. These wells are up to 15 metres, or to put it into another, more practical way of measurement – a row of 6 to 8 men deep. Buckets get thrown down to the base of the well, filled by the one man at the bottom and then passed back up – from man to man – to the top, and back down again. At the top, the water is poured into a hollowed out log, which acts as the drinking trough for the livestock. There are 3 or 4 buckets on the go the whole time, whilst the cattle are patiently lining up. The Orma talk to their cattle, calling them by name, there is no pushing or jumping the queue, every animal tolerantly waits for its turn.
One of these wells seems to be different, as it is never used by the people or their livestock and has little steps carved into its wall, all the way down to the bottom The Orma have built this particular one just for the thirsty birds, no one else uses it, except for the Pigeons and Sand grouse. The Pigeons parachute down to the water, enjoy their drink, and then start climbing back up along the ladder, fluttering with all their strength from one step to the next, resting in between, until they finally reach the top and can take to flight again.
During the dry season, when the wells cannot sustain all of the people and livestock, the younger men and women leave Kone with the foraging cattle, moving to other places with permanent water. Walking from water to grazing and back to water again. Their final destination is the Tana River Delta, a distance of 200 km, or a 3 days walk, as the Orma measure distances by the days it takes them to get there.
Sometimes, they leave Kone too late and as a result, loose as much livestock as family members on the way! Some get gradually weaker from day to day with dehydration and exhaustion, until they are not able to keep up anymore and simply get left behind…
The elderly men and women stay behind at Kone together with the milking cows, living on the well’s water. But even here, survival is not guaranteed. The wells are dug into sand, without any support, and with the sand getting drier and drier, they collapse every dry season again, burying the men alive under 15 metres of sand…
A visit to Kone will not just imprint itself with beautiful and exotic pictures onto your mind, but also with the thought of how people can exist like this, year in, year out for a lifetime. It catapults your own life back into perspective, all man-made problems and daily complaints become rather insignificant compared to the Orma’s struggle of survival. You will leave Kone much richer.
For a completely different experience – a journey through "Baobab Valley" for those who take pleasure in being in the company of these mysterious "Up-side-down"-Elders. One prehistoric "Giant Cabbage" next to the other. Each one showing a different character as to how they are growing, their forms and shapes so different and individual.
There is the "Ambitious-One", which has grown tall in a dead straight way with hardly any branches, just taller than the others.
The "Indecisive-One" growing a bit into all directions with lots of branches, but not really gaining height that way.
The "Lazy-One", who is just there as a huge lump, but not spreading branches or aiming for height at all.
Then the ones that look as if they were wrapped in silver velvet, or those with craters and faces in their bark, each telling their own individual story.
Driving through this valley, feels like entering a fairy-tale world!
Look closely at the Baobabs, as some are bearers of mysterious messages.
In the 1940’s, one of Tsavo’s pioneering wardens, my father-in-law, Bill Woodley (1929-1995) was still covering "his" country by foot! He used to walk the entire way from the Northern Area/Ithumba to Voi, a good 150 km – just to collect his salary!
One day, on one of his marathon journeys, he rested during the mid-day heat in the shade of an old Baobab. As he was looking up the tree, searching for patterns in the bark, he saw something like an engraving on the Giant. At a closer look, it turned out to be someone’s initials with the date of carving them into this tree, which was the 12th of August 1924. Strangely enough, the day Bill Woodley discovered these initials, was exactly to the day 20 years later!
And in an area, where there is one Baobab next to the other, all offering some shade to rest under, but he happened to pick that particular one! He never found out whose initials they were, nor did her ever find that baobab again even though he left his own initials and date on the tree.
Near Umbi, just on the boundary of the park, another Baobab is used as a message board. The tree is holding a small metal plate, which has been punctured by a nail to combine numerous little holes to words. The message says: "For Mr. M. K. – Do Not Fire". Underneath it, an old ripped and greasy rag-something that probably once upon a time was supposed to be a piece of clothing – is dangling from a branch of the tree – almost fulfilling the task of intimidating any passer-by. Who is M. K.? Who put the sign there – as it is still way in the park – and for what reason? So many questions to all these mysteries….
There are so many more enjoyable and adventurous alternatives to spend time in this vast area. However, any of the options will require some forethought and careful planning! The described destinations are just a tiny fraction of the uncountable amount of attractions and secrets of this last wilderness area of Kenya.
But, either way, the days should not go by without an appropriate celebration of the sun setting, a "good-bye" festivity in honour of the sun going to sleep.
At the side of Ithumba hill is a special place to do exactly that. Sitting on a rock, big enough to fit 6 people, but more romantic for just 2.
Here you find yourself in the company of a camel, which is resting and looks straight down onto the plains that seem to be protected against and separated from the rest of the world by the Yatta Plateau.
This camel is a formation of rocks, a spitting image! It looks like an eternity ago, this used to be the playground of a giant’s child, who was quite artistic and had a fondness for camels….
The sun starts to disappear behind the Yatta, colouring everything in those soft shades and leaving a fire-coloured sky. The orange-bellied Parrots are settling in for the night onto their Baobab with their usual screechy noise. The francolins come gliding in like parachutes, the Slate-coloured Boubou is calling, as well as the laughing Dove and the Guinea fowls.
The noises of the day slowly subside as the nightshift takes over, announced by the ringing from the Scops Owl, quickly joined by the call from the Pearl Spotted Owlet. It is nightfall and time to go back to camp for an ice-cold shower and a warm beer next to the campfire, enjoying the noises of the African night underneath the biggest and brightest canopy of stars.
Besides the undisturbed beauty of this area, it also has a lot of mysterious aspects to it, which forever make you feel slightly wary. Many places have a strange atmosphere about them, as if you are being watched or you are just not on your own. A bit like stepping into an old abandoned and haunted castle.
The Northern Area is a magical corner, but it also has its other sides, which should never be underestimated. As soon as you feel too comfortable and euphoric about being here, it very quickly puts you back into your place. Getting pestered by Tsetse Flies and Sweat Bees, being the lesser of the evils – a Scorpion or Centipede finding its way to some part of your skin is painful enough. What about a red Spitting Cobra or even a Black Mamba appearing from somewhere, crossing your path?
The area is so vast, hot and dry, that a simple brake-down with the car, or just a flat tyre and no spare, can easily turn into a very serious and dangerous scenario. The area is beautiful to those who know it and respect it, but it is not kind, nor forgiving to fools!
The best bushmen have got lost and died here. The most experienced Wardens and Rangers have been stuck for weeks on end, crazed with thirst. Somali bandits have killed each other for the last drop of water. The oldest bull Elephants living in this area, have waited too long to move back to permanent water – and died en route. 27 adult Rhinos died of thirst at the Tiva, just because they could not dig down deep enough to get to water. 28 people have drowned over the last years trying to cross flooded rivers by car. 178 poachers have been killed, and 20 Rangers lost their lives in these battles.
Maybe now, one realizes, how tough these Wakamba tribesmen must be to be able to live here as they have done for centuries. It is very challenging for a game warden to fight their honey hunting in the park, the timber cutting and charcoal burning, their setting snares and hunting from tree houses or with packs of dogs, all illegal activities in a National Park. They definitely do have that one advantage – being tough as nails in that impenetrable bush!
You may be cursing this area by the time you depart. But when it comes to actually packing and leaving, the Northern Area will turn out to be one of those special places, where, upon departure, you will leave a piece of your heart behind, always longing to come back!
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