Above: Paragliders on Elgeyo Marakwet escarpment getting ready to take off.
Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published: Saturday magazine, Nation newspaper 17 February 2018
The sun appears from the eastern sky over the Tugen Hills with the valley straddled between it and the Elgeyo-Marakwet escarpment. A strong wind brews and a group of paragliders ready themselves for the skies.
The first one spreads his paraglider on the grass. The wind lifts the canopy and the glider is over the shelf of the ridge. From that height he’s has an eagle’s eye-view of the Kerio River winding its way in the dry plains to flow into Lake Turkana. A patch of water reveals Lake Kamnarok that’s an ox-bow lake that separated from the river. The river forms the boundary between Rimoi National Reserve and Kamnarok.
The group on the ground – fellow paragliders watch the one in the air – anticipating the winds. Another lifts off and vanishes from view. It looks like a lot of fun with those that are earth-bound cheering their mates on.
“We’ve been coming to Kenya for six years,” tells Fabio Anzovino. “We come in January because this is one of the best places in the world to fly. The wind is good for long distance flying.”
The lean flier from Italy has been paragliding for 15 years all over the world, organizing trips for keen gliders.
When l ask how long they stay up or how far they can fly like a bird, l’m awed. “You can stay up all day,” he replies.
In January 2017, Leone Antonio Pascal flew 275 kilometers from Iten to claim the record in Kenya.
The turbulence however on this day is strong and ten minutes later the first of the paragliders returns landing on the helipad with the massif parachute shrouding him. Soon all of them are down and we return to the lodge perched on the escarpment – Kerio View.
“It’s not an easy place to fly because of the turbulence,” continues Anzovino settling down to breakfast. The floor-to-ceiling windows offer stunning panoramas of Kerio Valley, allowing the full light of the sun in and at night the spectrum of the full sky.
“We have to select clients carefully,” states the paraglider. “They have to be experienced. They can fly over Cheranganis along the ridge and it just depends on the pilot’s skill and the weather conditions.”
From Iten in Kenya where the paragliding calendar begins in January, other popular places are Morocco in March and the Himalayas in October with Europe fitting in the rest.
When l ask him what it is like to be up there, his eyes light up. “It’s the freedom. You are alone without any care in the world. It’s direct contact with nature and you’re flying with the eagles.”
Despite the freedom in the air, he also reveals the reality. Mentally it’s a tough sport if you want to stay up for hours.
It’s also expensive. At this point the group has funded two local youngsters from the escarpment to learn the sport. But any thoughts of competitions in Kenya are still a few years away because of the expense and the safety back-up such as rescue helicopters and personnel required.
Done with breakfast with the paragliders, l’m joined by John Williams who arrived as a young man many decades ago serving as the headmaster of Iten Boys School, famous for churning out sporting stars.
Looking out at the valley, he explains the lay of the land. “That’s a 50-kilometer shelf,” he says pointing to the flat plateau between the top of the escarpment and the plains of Kerio Valley. “That’s where Tambach is and in the colonial days, the district headquarters.
“It has the most beautiful climate and that’s why it was chosen as the headquarters. While the highlands were too cold and the plains too hot, the shelf was perfect.”
As chairman of North Rift Tourism, he’s keen for us to explore more of Elgeyo-Marakwet and sketches a map in my note book that takes us from Iten to the bottom of the valley on the new murrum road.
Exploring Elgeyo-Marakwet is proving to be exciting and the journey continues.
Check in at KerioView – great lodge perched on the escarpment from where you can explore Iten including the famous stadium Kamarin, the forests along the ridge, drive down the new escarpment road from Singore forest to the valley and turn to Arror or Rimoi National Reserve.