Located 3 hours North of Nanyuki, Ol Gaboli might as well be in its own little time capsule; a hot, dry snow globe. After the first hour the tarmac road deserts us, after another the electric fences of conservancies and ranches appear to drip away like the sweat you are soaking into your seat. By the third hour all signs of modern Kenya seem to disappear and the endless silent labyrinth of thorny acacia bushes, featureless but for gigantic icebergs of rock sailing through the boiling land, consumes all directions. Consistent phone signal is lost with the tarmac and with that lack of “connectivity”, the contrast with our complex lives feels complete. You breathe in the dusty air and believe you understand this simple land; it’s hot, it’s dry, it’s thorny. First impressions often seem to be a more accurate view of the observer than what he or she is seeing, I can’t imagine what mine says about a guy with eyes from Scotland. Unraveling my simple assumptions into the complex contrasts that exist around Ol Gaboli, a land full of life and noise, silence and unpredictability has been an eye opening joy. What a perfect place to bring a group of teenage students...
‘Ol Gaboli’ is Masai for ‘fig tree’ and, by coincidence, a perfect specimen resides and towers over the 6 banda community lodge, reaching 20 meters tall it rests beside the Ewaso Nyiro River that slowly flows behind and its branches reach far with Vervet monkeys jumping between its fingers. Ol Gaboli is special, not just as an oasis of shade and comfort but this basic lodge is Sub-Saharan Africa’s only tourism facility owned by an all-women’s pastoralist group. We would base the first and last night in the bandas surrounding the Ol Gaboli tree and from there, spend a night at two mobile camps carrying on our back our daily needs with camels carrying most of the rest. We would spend the week trekking between camps at the speed of our camels, participating in fun activities like bead making, biking, climbing and a continuous safari. Importantly we would also be constructing a predator proof enclosure for the local community livestock and understanding the differences in concepts of time for its historically nomadic people.
The first full day's undertaking for my group was bead making/biking and boma building. The calm and colourful bead making with the local, beautifully beaded, Samburu women shaded under the giant fig tree was a peaceful way to start. The boys were just as engaged as the girls, something we were told Samburu men would not do. The similarities of expressive personal jewellery between the Samburu and our international students was easy to translate, even if the instruction for this type was mostly non-verbal. After an hour many of the students ended with colorful rings or a, smaller, colorful ring shaped trinket.
The boma (enclosure), sponsored by RVA, that the ISK students would be constructing with a tall mesh fence, higher than traditional bomas (which certain predators can jump over), would reduce the chance of predatory attacks on the local’s goats at night, an attack on the local folks’ livelihood. Hopefully with this tall fenced enclosure, pastoralists can have more successful years and reduce the possibility of human-wildlife conflict. That is all well and good but first we had to build it - and being able to count our collective boma building expertise on one finger and already slightly behind schedule, I was a wee bit apprehensive.
I was quick to learn that ISK students could be pretty tough, tougher than the ground they were about to break. Admittedly the first pick and shovels hitting the hard earth did bring up disappointed faces but we soon got into the swing and rhythm of it. Smacks, cracks, and laughter breakdown the quiet as the ISK Boma Construction Team get quickly underway digging 50cm deep holes, inserting the posts and refilling it with dirt and stones to make a solid pillar. There is definitely a prosperous future for a few ISK students as fence builders! After hours of sweaty work it was time to leave. We had planted all posts and later the other group would finish by attaching the fence. Once we said our goodbyes to some new young friends, we walked towards the setting sun and our next camp - proud of our successful start.The next day deep in Laikipia we were beginning to understand the rhythm of the expedition - the pattern of contrast: silence and noise; motion and stillness; desert and oasis; hot and slightly less hot.
This day’s main adventure would be a camel safari through the thick bush to our next camp. After loading up our camels with water we begin moving, while focusing on not getting impaled by the ghostly 3 inch nails attached to every surface by some malicious Maker and the place felt deserted of wildlife. Sammy, our community liaison, began by showing us how the local pastoralists work and live - we met one of his nephew's with an hour old kid goat, climbed a tree to see the vacant bee hives and brushed our teeth with aptly named "toothbrush bush". We learned the intelligent ways people here are able to live off this dry wild land. Our camel guides then taught us to read the land for passing animal signs and quickly the abundant evidence of wildlife appeared before us: Zebra rolling marks; elephant chewing gum; leopard prints; snake skins and mongoose holes - swiftly our investigative fluency increases but as there is so much to observe, we sync into a quiet, observant walk.
The camels were an intriguing aspect to the trek. Everyone got a chance to ride on the 3 carriage train with a few getting quite attached to one character called Chapati. Some of the students relaxed into the swaying motion of the animals and enjoying the panoramic views - others not quite so much. Feet marching, eyes searching, ears listening – something was around but we were unable to see. You could feel a subdued excitement in the group, an awareness of one's senses and surroundings lost in the trade for cars and cities that has now returned to us.An excited whisper, a smile, a point from our safari guides: a Grevy’s Zebra - how could we have missed it? As it moves, the skeletal illusion of a whole herd materialize from the grey bushes. We wordlessly communicate our peaceful presence but perhaps have interrupted a private conversation they were having. The zebras turn their hind towards us, ready to trot off, then curiously pokes their head out from there large rear ends. Breaking our silence, some students let out a breathy “wow”; others compare them to the plains zebra that have inconspicuously intermixed, and a few think of riding them to water.
It was as the afternoon drew on that we saw the most life: giraffes, gerenuk, dik dik, impala, a cheetah for a lucky three and, of course, the zebras. A lot of students would have already seen such characteristic African wildlife, but this feels different. Lush savannah surrounded by protective electric fences with abundant water for all to drink - this is not. It doesn’t seem logical that so many animals could live here, but here they are: living. Just around the corner and then right in front of you. The ghost-like Grevy Zebras are a reminder that although their numbers are low, in some special places, they are very much free, and silently alive. We continue on quietly, trotting to greener pastures and flowing water, feeling free; Nomadic. Zebradic.
After each day’s activity our camps always had a cool, shimmering promise pulling us in: the dirty, sandy elixir of the Ewaso Nyiro River, freshly manured by upriver hippos - heaven. From the quietly focused days we all felt better letting off steam, clean out our nostrils, and have a good, dirty wallow. Splashing and laughing, the afternoon seems to come alive as the students are released. Looking around, they are washing their feet at the bank; a few bask on rocks like seals; others, floating on blown up inner tubes, race and relax in the flow of the river. In an act of water induced insanity, some girls were heaping mud on each other until completely encased and invisible to us. A skin scrub they said. The cleansing power of the water is obvious and we were lucky to have it, a week earlier this lifeline was a skinny, stagnant stream. But recent rain in the Aberdares brought it back to life.
After an hour of soaking our skin and playing, the rhythm changes and the students start meditatively skimming stones to the tempo of the current, or wordlessly stacking peddles on top of each other - a silent monument to concentration. The noise and motion was a fun relief but this country seems to naturally induce a quiet equilibrium with the land.
On our final day, the two separated groups had mornings involved rock climbing on the side of a colossal bubbly outcrop erupting out of the land for my group, and completing the boma, biking and beading for the group. We all returned to Ol Gaboli excitedly sharing stories of our different exploits only to find out elephants had trampled the Ol Gaboli plumbing system - but the adventure was not over yet. The community had prepared a feast for the final night which started with the slaughter of two goats. The dinner that followed was immense, delicious and enjoyed by all. The effort that the community put into it was incredible. As the sun set and the camp fire burned bright we watched as 50 men, women and children from the local Samburu group bounded into the camp forming a tight, buzzing circle beside the fire and started to dance and sing.
As the dance evolved, they pulled in students to compete in the jumping contest or to hold hands, skip and kicking up dust, making the earth come alive. The atmosphere was intoxicating - the whole spectrum of energy from the week was around us, the silent starry sky above flowing down to the grand Ol Gaboli tree and our camp lit by the fire whose light glitters off the sand in the air, the pulsing chants of the warriors dancing with their shadows in their bright regalia and ISK students inconspicuously mixed in the vast Samburu soup.
We end the night with a few students choosing to sleep out under the stars. The friendships some have made or enriched were reflected upon as people trickle off to the bandas or roll out the sleeping bags under the sky. As we fall asleep, some quietly let out a “wow” as we count the shooting stars, silently alive, streaking across the sky.
I close my eyes and finally feel the cool air on my skin - a last surprise from a land of many.