The first day of walking was no gentle warm up. A nine hour march at Maasai walking speed (that’s like running speed for anyone else) to the highest point of the Loita hills. How high is that I hear you ask? Well, that rather seems to depend on who you ask. I’ve seen and heard everything from 2100m, which seems a little low, to 2600m, though Patrick, our local guide, claims it’s 2400m. Whatever it’s nothing particularly high but it was an exciting walk all the same.
Scenically the Loita Hills are a world away from the acacia speckled grasslands of the Mara region. These hills roll gently upwards and are lush, green and almost European looking. We started walking through grass meadow valleys grazed by big brown cows and past small fields of maize and potato. Generally the Maasai don’t grow crops and consider such work below them (though this is changing) but up here in Loita they’ve been small scale farming for a long time. Another notable difference between the Loita Maasai and the Maasai down by the Mara reserve is that though in many ways it’s more traditional up here very few of the men dress traditionally (with women it’s more common). I don’t think I saw a single traditionally dressed man all day. I’m also told that people up here are generally better educated than down by the Mara area though I have no way of knowing if that’s really true.
After leaving the villages we entered the Forest of the Lost Child where legend says a young girl vanished while walking with her family’s cattle and nobody ever found any trace of her. This was almost jungle with big old growth trees and increasingly dense undergrowth. And there were animals. Lots of large animals. Everywhere were signs of buffalo: the pathways they use, the flattened bushes where they had slept, footprints and buffalo dung. This made this part of the walk pretty nerve wracking as bumping into a buffalo at such close quarters would have been bad news indeed and Patrick said this was a common occurrence. We also saw clues of passing elephants which was interesting because two years ago when I was last here I was told that elephants had been almost poached out, but now it seems that the locals have decided they want the wildlife (and that the poachers were mainly Tanzanian anyway) and the poaching has largely stopped and the elephants are returning in ever greater numbers.
Soon we were using machetes to hack through the by now very dense undergrowth and as I worried about a buffalo or elephant encounter in this environment I saw Patrick and Josphat bent over looking at something on the ground. A footprint. A lion footprint. A lion footprint that they deduced was no more than a few minutes old. Oh great. Here we were in vegetation so thick I couldn’t see more than a metre or so ahead and now I was told that not just was there the danger of being trampled by an elephant or a buffalo but that I might now become lunch for a lion.
As it was it wasn’t elephant, buffalo or lion that nearly proved our undoing. Patrick was leading the way as we finally crested the ridge onto the granite and grass summit of the mountain when he stopped to point out a klipspringer on the rocks ahead of us. As he said this he put one foot forward and almost onto the snake. I saw it and shouted a warning and then, being quite fond of snakes, I leapt forward to try and catch what I thought was a small python. Meanwhile Josphat, on hearing the word “snake” screamed like a little girl and ran away and Patrick realising that I didn’t know as much about snakes as I liked to think grabbed my hand and pulled it away just as the snake turned its head around and revealed itself to be not a python but a deadly puff adder.
After that close encounter though we were rewarded with a view from the summit down hundreds of almost sheer metres to the Rift Valley soda lakes of Magadi (Kenya) and Natron (Tanzania). We were now at the highest point in the Loita Hills and it was time to turn around and head westward for a month to the far side of the Masai Mara.