Above: At the train tunnel Fort Ternan. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Published: The East African magazine,  Nation media: 15-21 Jan 2022

We’re travelling back into time at 14 million years ago at the home of the ancient ape called the Kenyapithecus, unearthed by the famous first family of fossil finders in Kenya, Louis and Mary Leakey. “It was in 1961,” tells John Kiprui Langat, the guard at Fort Ternan prehistoric site sandwiched between Kericho and Kisumu.

The stone cairn of Nandi warriors from 1904 at Fort Ternan Prehistoric Site. Copyright Rupi Mangat

The young Langat offers to double up us our guide at the picturesque ancient site on a hill, nestled in coffee farms and local homesteads overlooking the tiny town of Fort Ternan. In the distance looms the volcano of Tinderet and the long stretch of the Nandi Hills. On a very clear day, Africa’s largest lake aka Nam Lolwe or Victoria shimmers 50 kilometres west.

Fort Ternan is the only-known home of the Kenyapithecus wickerii, an ancestor of the modern human. Langat reels off the evolutionary lineage that leads to the Homo sapien that’s us, the ‘thinking human’.

Langat leads us higher up the hill to a flat grass patch that was excavated by the Leakey team that brought out the 10 million year old elephant and rhino fossils and the Kenyapithecus.

“The elephant was a four-tusked woolly mammoth,” continues this amazing guard. “This means that at the time Fort Ternan was a very cold place and a thick forest.” The ape fossils prove the forest scenario. The ancient rhino was a shorter version of the modern mega-herbivore. Our guide Langat then leads us to the simple rooms housing the ancient fossils like that of our woolly four-tusked elephant.

By now we’re a group of about ten, joined in by Nashon Cheruiyot, a nurse at Litein and his four siblings from Kericho.

“These are plant fossil,” reveals Langat. “This is one of the Euphorbia abyssinica or the desert candle’. The original name of Fort Ternan is Kapkures named after it.”

History Unravels

Standing outside, a long bridge shimmers under the midday heat. “It was the longest bridge in East Africa. I can take you there if you like,” says our guide. The longest modern-day bridge is in Egypt.

Walking the ‘longest bridge’ built in 1903 at Fort Ternan. Copyright Rupi Mangat

A mound of stones catches our eye. It is a cairn with the remains of the Nandi warriors killed during a revolution led by the Nandi chief, Koitalel arap Samoie. It was the Nandi resistance to their land being taken for the ‘iron snake’ or the Uganda Railway from Mombasa to Kisumu and into Uganda constructed between 1896 and 1901 by Indian labourers commissioned by the British. The Nandi chief was killed in cold blood in Nandi Hills in 1905 where his remains lie – except for his head – at the museum dedicated to him in Nandi Hills town. The chief’s skull is still with the British.

We troop back into the cars with our man Langat giving us exciting tales of Ternan.

Fort Ternan was named after Major Ternan, the engineer who in charge of ‘the longest steel bridge in East ‘(at the time) and a tunnel through a hill for the steam locomotives – both engineering feats. But during the Nandi rebellion, Major Ternan was killed in 1904 and the town named after him. A few minutes’ drive from the prehistoric site we stop at a’cave’.

Colonial Cave

“These are the original coffee bushes planted by the white people,” continues Langat as we drive down the hill leading to an armoury built in the hill in the 1939, again by the white settlers, including a nearby airstrip at the time which gives the town its name, Kendege.

The Colonial Cave with family and friends. John Langat in red shirt. Copyright Rupi Mangat

The tunnel, hidden from view is nicknamed the Colonial Cave. The group crawls into it and returns shortly because it’s pitch dark and needs a powerful torch to proceed through 150 metres. The white settlers went to great lengths to secure their weapons, burying them in a hole in the cave.

Done with the cave, we’re on to the recently tarmac road and on to the tunnel built in 1903.

In Tunnel Town

1903 inscripted on tunnel in Fort Ternan. Copyright Rupi Mangat

It’s named after the tunnel with the year 1903 engraved on both ends with a patina of moss and lichen on them. Constructed 119 years ago by the Indian laborious like my great grandfather , without the use of any electrical machinery, it’s solid. 178 metres long with a high-domed ceiling, it’s cool and dim as we stroll from one end to the other and back, admiring the workmanship. Every few metres there’s a notch in the wall.

“Step inside,” invites Langat.

The notches, high and wide for an adult to stand in, are for pedestrians to step safely aside while the train chugs past. The most amazing thing about the notches is that they absorb all the sound, allowing the train to silently pass by without bursting the person’s eardrum.   

Our next stop is the longest bridge in East Africa at the time it was built in 1903.

East Africa’s Longest Bridge (until recently)

The ‘longest railway bridge’ built in 1903 at Fort Ternan. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Driving under the steel bridge columns that look like Eiffel Towers, it seems impossible to reach the bridge so high in the air until Langat guides us to the side of the steep hill. Once up there, everything below looks miniature size. The wooden sleepers are bolted tight on the iron track. Metal bars on either side allow pedestrians to safely walk the bridge, its length painted on it – 268.4 metres. Stepping on to it, we walk along the pedestrian’s pavement to the opposite end and back to make half a kilometre. By today’s standard, it’s a fraction of the 2,785 metre long Athi Super Bridge constructed in 2015 on the standard gauge railway.

On reaching the middle, what looked like a fat river now appears like a thin stream with the women doing laundry and fat old sausage trees bearing the fruit so essential for the local brew. It’s the Sereng River on its way to the lake. It’s a breath-taking half-kilometre walk overlooking the hills and valleys of Fort Ternan.

Our last surprise of the day is the hot water springs in a forest glade hidden from view. The village path winds its way down through rock boulders and giant figs. There’s a place for women and one for men. The village dames are enjoying their evening spa, surprised at our presence. The water is hot and tempting but the sun soon to set.

We must return to Fort Ternan for a day at the natural springs on River Lulu, buy the local coffee freshly ground at Kipkelion and discover more local sites.

Fact File

Fort Ternan is 50 kms from Kisumu and the same from Kericho. It’s sugar-cane, tea and coffee area.

With a few more days, explore Nandi Hills, Tinderet, Koru and the African great lake city of Kisumu.

Kenya Railways now operates the line. You can do a rail journey, hopping on and off at the stations en route to discover Kenya.

There are many affordable hotels to stay – around Fort Ternan there’s Kwesios House and Koru Country Club soon to open.

Contact John Langat: johnlangat230@gmal.com or 0784 743253