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Beware the buffalo of Kenya’s Loita Hills

Zebras are not Kenya’s scariest animals. Smaller than the average horse, these docile beasts do little except munch grass and look stripy. But when four of them hurtle towards you at breakneck speed, they are up there with lions, hippos and crocodiles as something to be avoided close up.

Surely that's not a scary zebra

I had come for a two-day hike into the Loita Hills, deep in the Maasai rangelands that stretch from southern Kenya into Tanzania. Raphael, a Kenyan friend, had suggested I join him and his hiking group to escape the chaos of Nairobi and experience the country’s incredible wildlife first hand on a walking safari. But there was a sense of embarrassment among us that the first animals we saw had sent us dashing behind bushes and trees – had we really been so startled by a few zebras? Everyone laughed about the incident. Everyone except our Maasai guide, Kamangu; his expression was sombre. “We must be careful … we do not know what they were running from” he said, leaning on his stick and scanning the surroundings. Such are the risks of exploring Kenya’s wilder corners on foot.

The animal-spotting had started on the five-hour drive from Nairobi. We passed thousands of rose-pink flamingos on Lake Magadi, and further on saw a family of warthogs hiding behind some ostriches. Wildlife was just one of the attractions that brought us out to one of Kenya’s remoter corners. Another, as Raphael assured me, was that we would ‘get off the beaten track’. He wasn’t wrong; the tarmac ran out at Magadi, and after that our 4 x 4 lurched and shuddered over rocks, potholes and dry riverbeds, with no tracks in sight, beaten or otherwise. On the plus side, the inhospitable terrain meant that there were no other vehicles about, so we could enjoy the animals we spotted without the noise of other tour groups speeding over to share our find – a common grumble about safaris in the popular game parks.

We arrived at the Maasai village of Nguruman mid-morning, and headed for the Entasopia Falls guesthouse. Nguruman is establishing itself as a trekking base, and this new development has been set up to cater for the slowly increasing trickle of visitors. The guesthouse had several clean and comfortable rooms complete with showers, beds and Maasai decorations on the walls. It also had a restaurant and bar, and we were just in time for a late breakfast of local coffee and fresh fruit – mangos, papaya and bananas, all picked from their garden that morning.

The midday heat in southern Kenya reaches a few degrees above ‘stifling’, and the proverbial list of mad dogs and Englishmen can be extended to include Kenyans. Raphael and his friends were keen to get going, so in temperatures topping 40°C, we set off through the village. The locals were sensibly resting under trees or market stalls, and we stocked up on last-minute supplies – biscuits, sweets and water – without being pressured into buying lots of tourist souvenirs. Another advantage of stepping off Kenya’s tourist trail.

Beyond the village, the Nguruman escarpment on the outer edge of the Loita Hills rose steeply before us, and the size of the task ahead was clear. Our zebra encounter occurred about halfway up the 1300-metre climb to the top, and I was already drowning in sweat by that point. The path followed the line of the slope almost directly – no muscle-sparing zigzags around here. Fortunately, we were going pole, pole – slowly, slowly – with the many water breaks providing excellent opportunities to take in the incredible views. The expanse of the Great Rift Valley stretched out for miles below us, blurring with the haze of the horizon. Small clusters of huts marked the Maasai farms, their dark timber and tin roofs standing out against the red-brown soil. Dust storms swirled about between the sparse fragments of forest, and the salt pans around Lake Magadi sparkled in the distance. It was tempting to stay there all day, but the climb wasn’t getting any smaller.

Near the top, a family of Maasai herders greeted us cheerfully as they scampered down the hill, their vibrant shukas standing out against the sandy yellows and browns that colour the escarpment. As they hurried past us, I noted that none of them had so much as a bead of perspiration. They’re heading downhill, I reassured myself, trying to ignore the t-shirt clinging to my back.

One final push and we reached the plateau. It was no small relief to reach our campsite, a small riverside clearing in the welcome shade of the forest. Backpacks crashed to the ground, and water was glugged greedily. The shade of the forest was deliciously cool after the heat of the climb and – joy of joys – a 10-metre waterfall crashed into a large pool just below us. My fellow hikers started searching for their cameras, but the spectacular setting – a lush patch of trees and creepers – for once made little impression as I scurried down the rocks to splash about under the cool waters. No gel, no sponge, no rubber duck, but without doubt the most revitalising shower of my life.

Kenyans hike in style. From the depths of his backpack, Raphael withdrew freshly ground coffee and South African chardonnay – still cool despite the day’s heat. As the temperatures dropped, birdsong filled the forest and we relaxed around the campfire, sharing food, wine and stories. It was at this point Kamangu decided to tell us about the buffalo that roam around the Loita Hills.

“The males here are very wild, especially the young ones. They wander about at night”, he said, as stars started to twinkle through the canopy. “Don’t go near them” he added, somewhat unnecessarily.

The aim of the trip was to get closer to nature, but was this a bit too close? I looked over at the canvas of my tent, flapping loudly in the gentle breeze, and tried to determine whether it was strong enough to withstand a young male buffalo. Meanwhile Kamangu was warming to his subject.

“If you see one straight ahead and it runs into the bushes, it’s time to worry – they circle back and attack from the side.” So, young males with ambushing skills are the ones to really avoid. He looked around the now silent group. “We will light a fire at either end of the clearing – that will keep them away”. I smiled at him, grateful for this reassurance. He smiled back. “But we must watch out for snakes – there are a lot in the trees here”.

The night passed snakeless and buffalo-free, and next morning the logs in the fire were still hot enough to heat water for more coffee. Our plan for the second day was to walk along the plateau and descend further along the escarpment. My backpack was noticeably lighter, with most of my five litres of water now gone, so it looked like the going would be easier. The shade of the plateau forest was a relief, and the higher ground provided a new perspective on panoramas of the stunning Rift Valley.

The wildlife was more abundant in the forest, too, particularly birdlife. One repetitive chirp sounded out above the chorus of calls. I asked Kamangu what it was. “Oxpecker” he replied. “That means there are buffalo nearby”. If it was an act put on for our benefit, it was certainly a good one – he didn’t let up for a second.

As we headed down the escarpment, the forest gave way to rows of crops in terraced fields, then sheep and goats penned in by thick acacia fences. Just outside Nguruman, children ran up, took one look at me and ran off laughing and calling to their friends. Raphael explained that a white face was still something of a rarity in this undeveloped region, and the children wanted to make sure no one missed out on this hilarious sight.

Hot, but decidedly less sweaty than on the ascent, we wandered through the village and straight back to Entasopia Falls, where we flopped in the large chairs in the garden. Without being asked, the owner brought over a tray of Tusker beers – cooled by the ingenious electricity-free fridge, which uses water evaporation to extract heat from the container – which we downed quickly while waiting for lunch. Soon enough, steaming pots appeared full of rice, chapattis, beans and nyama choma, Kenya’s signature dish of barbequed goat. The others went straight for the goat while I filled up on beans under some curious gazes – vegetarians are treated with a mix of pity and bewilderment in Kenya.

Kamangu, finally relaxing after his guiding duties were over, asked us if we had enjoyed the hike. He encouraged us to return: “Next time, we will hike further through the Loita Hills and into the Masai Mara – the scenery there is even more beautiful”. His suggestion was greeted enthusiastically – the mere prospect of hiking in the world’s best-known nature reserve was tantalising. He smiled again. “Of course, out there buffalo are the least of your worries …”

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