Above: The dinosaur at Kitale Museum. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published: 9 February 2019
The Maasai of old called it Ol Doinyo Ilgoon which morphed into Mount Elgon that frames the town of Kitale. By a stretch of imagination, the Maasai saw its shape as that of a woman’s breast.
Our first stop is at Kitale Golf Club under the modern bypass that takes you to Kakamega Rainforest and further to Lake Victoria. We’ve driven in from Eldama Ravine that is one of the most picturesque roads through a patch of dense highland forest and the red-orange flowers of the Erythrina abyssinica splashed under the bluest of skies.
This was once an infamous route as slave traders marched the chained slaves from the heart of Africa through Uganda.
One of the stops on the slave route was the present day Kitale Club, founded in 1924 and the golf course opened in 1926. For years there was an iron bar where the slaves were shackled before they were marched through Eldama Ravine and to the coast to be shipped out.
Kitale – or Quitale as it was known then – became a much-favoured European settlement after the 1920s when the British army arrived to settle after World War 2. It was then wild country with buffaloes and lions roaming everywhere. The Maasai used the area to graze their cattle.
One of the settlers was Colonel Hugh Stoneham.
“He was a bit of a recluse,” recalls Richard Barnley born and bred in Kitale. He recalls as a child meeting the Colonel. Stoneham settled in Kitale and continued with his collection of all things wild and wonderful, which according to one account, he had begun as a five-year old.
Surrounded by things like the 24-million-year old Elgon, the long range of Cheranganis and the fascinating Kakamega Rainforest, Stoneham had found his Mecca.
In 1924, The Stoneham Museum was opened showcasing creatures that the ordinary likes of me might never see in the wild. I’m at Kitale Museum that now houses his collection of things like the potto, the pangolin, flying squirrel and insects including butterflies that are increasingly rare.
On the high walls inside the present museum that was built with funds he willed to the government (including his collection and a small public library) are animals that roamed Quitale like buffaloes, hartebeest and dainty oribi that is the logo of the neighbouring golf club – but no longer there.
Reading a travel blog by Hilary Munro, she writes – ‘In 1919, my grandfather came as a young Assistant District Commissioner, in a cart drawn by oxen from Londiani, 100 miles away (160km). It took him three weeks… there being only a track through it (present day Kitale) … No buildings or life at all except innumerable game.’
Things moved fast from then with Kitale on a fast track to urbanization. In 1926, the train line opened and in 1928 the Prince of Wales came to a regimental dinner and dance for Armistice Day staying two nights in a special train.
Stepping out of the museum, we’re on the nature trail that’s cool with a stream flowing through it – unfortunately it’s smelly with trash flowing in it. Crossing over many rickety bridges, the trail needs some work.
Outside, Kitale is busy with traffic and people and old colonial architecture being replaced by modern high-rise buildings.
Another fascinating private museum is Treasures of Africa by John Wilson, a Scotsman, who arrived in Uganda in 1949. Now in his 90s, he’s still at work. The rich collection is of everything about the Karimojong in Uganda who are Nilotic and related to the Turkana. They share a common border with Kenya’s Mount Elgon and Pokot area. His plant collection is equally fascinating with many described by him for the first time like Caralluma wilsonii and the Aloe wilsonii including the rare and endemic Aloe elgonica that he discovered on Mount Elgon.
Nairobi to Kitale is 400 KM on a good tarmac road.