Published Nation newspaper Saturday magazine 28 Jan 2017

Above – Pools in the Ndoto mountains
Copyright Maya Mangat

Walking in the Ndoto mountains
Walking in the Ndoto mountains Copyright Maya Mangat

Enormous tortilis acacias spread their canopy over the beautiful Salato campsite that is a business venture for the local Samburu women of Ngurunit in the Ndoto Mountains. Straddling the banks of the Ngurunit River, it’s cool and we plan to hike upstream into the mountains where water chutes and fresh pools of water are.

Up in the Ndoto mountains
Up in the Ndoto mountains Copyright Maya Mangat

Across the road a cluster of tents is the base for the newly appointed Samburu county rangers and l pop in to ask if there’s anything new to look out for.

“We have lots of wildlife in the forests of the mountains,” tells Henry Lekuyie the ranger. “But the animals are very shy.

“We have leopards, elephants, buffalo and even the African wild dog,” he states.

While we’re chatting, a ranger retrieves a skull of a Greater kudu intact with its long spiralling horns that the Rendille use to blow to announce the new moon. “We found it over there in the mountains,” tells the ranger. “It died of old age.”

“We have many types of antelopes like kudu and gazelles,” tell the rangers at which point l hand a copy of Komba, the wildlife magazine published by the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya. “Oh, we even have this antelope,” states another ranger.

At this point, l look at him in complete shock.

“You have this antelope here?” l ask.

“Yes. Very many. Hundreds. They drink at the dam and they are very easy to see.”

The antelope in question is the very rare hirola – Africa’s most endangered antelope of which an estimated 500 remain in the world – a sharp decrease from 15,000 in 1996. The hirola are found in north Kenya and around the banks of the Tana Delta at Ishaqbini. This is far out of their rangeland – but if the rangers are so sure, we could be discovering a new population that seems to have gone unnoticed even in this day and age.

The excitement is too much now.

My heart is beating faster, all plans to spend a leisurely day up in the mountain chutes are abandoned but the youngsters carry on. Instead l convince the Lemunyete’s that this could be an amazing find – so new to science. And the animal isn’t even far to look for.

And we take off, driving through the red-earth dusty road lined with thorny acacias and pockmarked with fresh dung of the elephants that are in the vicinity, passing the many mountain massifs and all the time under the watchful gaze of the iconic Poi.

And suddenly our man points, “Look, there they are. Two of them.”

He dashes out of the door and stands by the thorn scrub pointing to the animals.

I can see them okay – but even without binoculars l can tell they are not the hirola!

“Those?” l ask a little dumbfounded for the gerenuk is completely different in looks and size to the hirola.

The gerenuk is a fairly common antelope of the drylands, easily recognised from its long neck and hence the local name for it, Swala twiga or the giraffe-necked antelope. Its’ speciality is browsing standing on its hind legs – that no other antelope does – on mid-level scrub and trees that are out of reach of shorter antelope and the very tall giraffe.

I look at the two men – one young, one old and give them the benefit of doubt – the young one is perhaps too new while the old one has failing eye-sight.

We nevertheless walk for a few minutes and see a few more gerenuk and a gorgeous flock of Golden-breasted starlings.

Ndoto mountains at night
Ndoto mountains at night with the planet Venua and the moon Copyright Maya Mangat

Back at Ngurunit, the Salato women prepare their woven baskets for the market that reaches far beyond to the United States. Traditionally woven as milk baskets by the Rendille women from the shoots of the doum palm and sealed with colostrum that is the first milk of the female camel after birth, it’s a skill that the Samburu women have learned as a way to empower themselves. In the ensuing years since the 1990s when they were dependent on their men for household rations, they can now afford to support themselves and the children – and through another project supported by Heifer International own camels that once was the domain of the men.

At the start of the day, herdsmen lead hundreds of camel to the water pans, the camel bells ranting the air glock, glock, glock. An animal revered by the desert people, the camels spread their legs and lower their necks to drink their fill which they store for days – but not in their humps which are fat-filled for leaner times. Meanwhile the cows are taken far away in search of green pasture leaving the village fly-free.

Fact File

Past Samburu National Reserve, Ngurunit is 233km north of Archer’s Post.

Camp at Salato Women’s campsite –

Explore the mountain chutes, and climb the mountains including Mt Poi (6,700ft), a technical climber’s dream – with its sheer 2,600ft face. Continue to Lake Turkana via Ilaut and South Horr.

Drive back – many options – via North Horr, the Chalbi desert to Marsabit passing Samburu and Isiolo.

Or via Baragoi to Maralal.