Above: Dry lower slopes of Mathews Range

From the archives: 6 September 2013

Published: in The East African Nation newspaper

Part 1 of 3

September 1887. Count Teleki and Captain Ludwig von Hoehnel left Ngong near what is today Nairobi to trek across northern Kenya in search of a huge lake. The local Samburu called it Empasso Narok (the black lake), Teleki renamed it Lake Rudolf in honour of his friend the Austrian prince and in independent Kenya, it became known as Lake Turkana after the people who live around it.

On Mathews Range between dry lower slope and the high forest- copyright rupi mangat
On Mathews Range between dry lower slope and the high forest- copyright Rupi Mangat.

Enroute, Teleki diverted to Lake Baringo while Hoehnel went in search of another lake called Lorian. He didn’t find the lake but instead came across a mountain range the local Samburu called Ol-doinyo Lenkiyieu. As for Lake Lorian he learned from the hunter-gathers called the Wadorobo, there was no lake but a swamp that the Uaso Nyiro River emptied its floodwaters during the rains.

126 years later, l accompany Dr Luca Borghesio into the mountain range that Count Teleki renamed The General Mathews Chain – now called Mathews Range – in honour of General Lloyd Mathews in Zanzibar who had helped Teleki’s expedition enormously. Ol-doinyo Lenkiyeu was their first geographical discovery and the count saw it fit to rename it after the general – who incidentally never saw the mountain range.

Dr Borghesio, a biologist and an associate researcher with the National Museums of Kenya has been studying mountain forests including globally threatened species of birds for the last two decades in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia. His knowledge of the highland forests is extensive having carried out research in the many massifs of northern Kenya such as Mount Kulal, the Karisia Hills, Mount Marsabit and in the southeast, the Taita Hills.

towering trees of Mathews Range - copyright rupi mangat
Towering trees of Mathews Range – copyright Rupi Mangat.

Interested in forest dynamics, Borghesio’s  monitoring the mountain forests of the Mathews Range intent on carrying out a long term study on changes and drivers of change in forests because as he puts it, the complexities of forest get more intriguing. He’s been recording data in Mathew’s Range for six years because with no access roads beyond the forest at 5000 feet and little touched by the human hand, it’s one of the most intact forests left in Kenya – virtually an island forest in the desert.

endemic cycads by Ngeng River - Mathews Range - copyright rupi mangat
Endemic cycads by Ngeng River – Mathews Range – copyright Rupi Mangat.

Stretching 80 kilometers by 10 to 15 kilometers in width, Mathews Range is a collection of four massifs in the vicinity of the more famous Samburu National Reserve and the iconic loaf-shaped mountain Ol Lolokowe. The southern end boasts the highest peak Warges at 8,000 feet high above the town of Wamba on the plains. The lower ranges dotted by the homesteads of the pastoral Samburu and little villages are hot and arid dominated by thorny acacias, dry luggas and patches of red bare earth of overgrazed land. The contrast in landscape is fascinating when it changes to the high forest glades – 300 square kilometers in size layered in different types of forest belts with different species of trees. The dizzying heights of Croton megalocarpus and other hardwoods skyrocketing 30 meters above make the mind boggle, yet the higher zone nearer the peaks boast of much taller and fatter trees. Ice-cold crystal clear water gushes down Ngeng River the only permanent river in a 100 kilometer radius. An assortment of birds makes it a fascinating journey for bird watchers with close to 350 species recorded here.

The stretch of Mathews range. Copyright Rupi Mangat
The stretch of Mathews range. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Strolling through one of the plots marked for monitoring with mist nets strung across, Borghesio points to the endemic cycad, Encephalarctos tegulaneus on Mathews Range dubbed the ‘living fossil’ for this ancient plants can withstand fire and growing barely five millimeters a year, a 15-foot- cycad could easily be several hundreds of years old. The Mathews Range also boasts of the only species of cactus indigenous to Africa – Rhipsalis baccifera – and in a departure from the normal cactus, this one grows like an epiphyte on the higher branches of trees.

How to get to Mathews Range

The new tarnac road to the north past Samburu and the Mt Lolokowe - the bread-shaped iconic mt of the north.
2013 – The new tarnac road to the north past Samburu and the Mt Lolokowe – the bread-shaped iconic mt of the north. Copyright Rup Mangat

From Nairobi drve to Nanyuki and onwards via Isiolo to the turning to Wamba – it’s about 7 hours drive.

Luxury lodge to camp in: Kitich Camp

On a budget: Camp in Namunyak Conservancy: For bookings and further information call the NRT tourism hotline on +254 (0) 701 295 357 or email tourism@nrt-kenya.org.