Above: Maralal Camel Derby by Weldon Kennedy

Published: 2007 Saturday Magazine, Nation

Maralal’s one of those really interesting towns in the outback, a frontier perched in a valley near a great fault line that happens to be the Great Rift Valley with a stunning view of the deep gorge that on a windy day can sweep a skinny person off the edge and into the deep sink.  It’s also a town that’s the headquarters of the Samburu, cousins of the Maasai and in modern history, where Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was under restriction order after his compulsory confinement in Lodwar where he had been for two years short of elevan days.  Maralal became known as the half way house between Lodwar and Nairobi, where Kenyatta and his young family stayed from 4 April to August 14 1961 before they were flown to Nairobi.  The house is a museum, aptly called the Jomo Kenyatta House.

Kenyatta House in Maralal

Maralal started life as a trading post, much like Archer’s Post near Samburu Game Reserve, where the pastoral Samburu and the Rendille traded with the Somali.  Then came some intrepid ‘Mzungus’ attracted by the big game and largely unexplored territory.  “If you ask any of the old wazees around here, they will show you this tree as the starting point of Maralal,” points Rosalie Faull who runs walking and donkey safaris around the area.  The huge old tree full of leaf is the Ekebergia Capensis, of the old forests.  That was around the beginning of last century.  The tree, so fat of girth and tough of wood, really ought to be designated as a national monument.

Ekebergia capensis.- Wikimedia Commons commons.wikimedia.org

We arrive in Maralal in the middle of the night.  It’s only a 350-kilometre stretch from Nairobi but the road that is a main vein to the north and beyond has never seen tarmac beyond Rumuruti.  It’s a mess with the late rains.  Cars and trucks stick fast in the black cotton soil, ruining the already battered murram road.  Day turns into night as we inch our way into Maralal for the International Camel Derby.  A herd of elephants appear out of the darkness of the night caught in the glare of the car lights.  Silhouettes of the waterbuck stand in a pool of spring water.  By the time we drive into Yare, the lodge cum camping ground for intrepid travelers, it’s too late to choose a camel for the weekends jamboree of camel racing.

Now if anyone’s seen or been on a camel, will learn very fast that the ‘ship of the desert’ has no desire whatsoever to race in a competition.  They are full of attitude, happy to chew cud like crazy and send rumbles emanating from the belly, up the lanky neck and out through the mouth…’grahhh, grughhhhhh, gruguuu, grahhh’.

Maralal Camel Derby by Weldon Kennedy

Nevertheless, the riders choose their camels in the morning – the smarter ones asking for tips from handlers on what makes a good racing camel.  Yare is set in a very picturesque spot lined by the beautiful Kirisia hills and glades of open space.

Zebras keep the lawns of Maralal neatly trimmed – nobody seems to mind the striped ‘donkey’ as it wanders around town, much of which was a game sanctuary until recently.

The great race begins – that’s for the amateurs – a little late but what’s time in the wilds of Africa.  It takes a lot of patience and persuasion to get some of the camels to line up for the race and they are flagged off.

The camel derby started in the early 1990s has become a fixture in the Maralal calendar as a fun way of fundraising, promoting Maralal as a tourist destination and supporting the local economy.

Amidst the cry or command of the ‘tuk,tuk’ of the camel handlers, depending on whether the camel’s doing what the handler wants it to do or not, the camels run a’ comic.  Their physique just doesn’t lend them to anything to do with words like ‘svelte, supreme grace, sophisticated or finesse’.

But the nice thing about this supreme lord of the desert – and it deserves the title – is that as a rider you don’t need any experience whatsoever to have ridden on a camel before.

“It’s a priceless event,” enthuses Mindy Nissenberg one of the Peace Corps volunteers in the country who with her colleague Adam Diehl endure a 37-hour consecutive bus and matatu ride from Mokowe near Lamu to Maralal to participate in the derby.

For Adam teaching in Faza on Pate Island, it’s a status symbol. “How many people in the world can say they rode in an international camel derby?” he asks.

“It draws people because of its uniqueness and it’s for a cause,” adds on Matt Priest their colleague teaching near Machinery in Kibwezi.  “It’s a real Kenyan event.”

“The Rotary Maralal International Camel Derby is a charity event.  This year the theme is ‘Racing for Water and Education’ the two priorities in the area,” explains Laura Lemunyete the organizing secretary of the camel derby.

It’s been a fun weekend of lots of laughs and thrills at the camel racing – it may not have the appeal of the more upper class snobbery or sophistication of horse racing but it’s got a lot of camel camaraderie.

Useful Camel Contacts

In a place where life is dictated by the seasons, we discover a clear river, gleaming mountains and amazing chutes in Ngurunit that is 200 km north of Maralal at a campsite that belongs to the Salato Women’s group. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Get to Maralal for next year’s Camel derby or just go to Maralal if you like being off-the-beaten track.

Contact Laura Lemunyete of Ngurunit who works with the Samburu-Rendille women weavers to explore the amazing northern desert land. It’s still operating in 2019!