Kenya is renowned for its spectacular landscapes, incredible wildlife and fascinating culture. Yet, getting off the beaten track to a lesser travelled corner of this vast and varied country makes for a truly unforgettable adventure. Africa expert, Sebastian, confirms why the wilderness of Loita Hills, northeast of the Masai Mara, is the ultimate destination for a safari with a difference in eastern Africa.
What do people picture when they think of Kenya? Well, of course, the colourfully dressed warriors and numerous prides of lion on the Masai Mara, the sweeping plains of Amboseli overlooking the majestic peak of Mt Kilimanjaro and the pristine golden sands of Diani Beach. And whilst these are all valid contenders, only too few would cast a thought to the Loita Hills.
Overlooking the Great Rift Valley and covered in dense equatorial forest, the Loita Hills are undoubtedly one of Kenya’s best kept secrets. This true wilderness, located roughly 100km to the east of the Masai Mara, is protected solely by its people and offers immense biodiversity, acting as an equally important migration point for many of the wildebeest, elephant and predators that safari goers flock to see in the Mara. The only organised trips into the Hills are organised by Maasai Walking Trails, who offer guided walks with the Maasai themselves. Many different routes are available and each tour is tailored to the guests’ preferences. Whilst there, my colleague Harry and I were fortunate enough to do an abridged version of the hike.
We started off in the Mara itself at the lesser known Speke’s Camp, which sits on its own private concession on the Olare Orok river between the main reserve and the Olare Orok conservancy. The camp is rustic, homely and authentic and teeming with game. On our first night, we were treated to a pride of seven lioness battling it out with a clan of hyena over some resident buffaloes. We were particularly enamoured with the large spotted genet who come to the dinner table for its share.
We set off early the next morning and followed a long road heading out of the Mara towards its more arid east. Our guide Lakopian, took us to a lunch spot in a place called Narowsa, just as we entered the Loita Forest, or Forest of the Lost Child. A short drive later, we reached a clearing within the forest called Empurputia at around 1700m above sea level. We were greeted by the cries of an augur buzzard and the guttural croak of colobus monkeys as our walk through the forest began, accompanied by a small herd of donkeys helping us with our bags and a new crew of local Loita Maasai guides. As we traversed the forest and walked barefoot across its valley streams, we were completely undisturbed by anything besides the occasional clinking of Maasai cattle bells and their young herders. These boys had not yet been initiated as warriors and would therefore bow their heads as a sign of respect as their elders (our guides) walked past. We were told to place our hands on their heads as they bowed and say “supa” – much to the bewilderment of both parties.
Eventually we came to a small clearing in the forest where a tented camp had been set up for us. We found to our surprise that the clearing was also being used as part of an initiation process for some local Morani warriors, who had apparently never encountered mzungus (white men) before. They were just as surprised to see us as we were to see them, dressed in their traditional cloaks and multicoloured beads. The young Morani venture out into the wild to find a suitable location for their initiation before heading back to their village to inform the elders of their chosen site. They then commence a period of three months living in the bush and learning how to become a warrior, feeding solely on meat, milk and herbs, creating shields from buffalo skin and head dresses from lion manes. Harry and I were awed by this tradition as we compared to it our own initiations into manhood of awkward school discos and squeaky adolescent voices.
After a quick bucket shower, we enjoyed a light dinner by firelight, to the harmonic chorus of the painted reed frogs, the whooping of hyena and the grass chomping of a nearby hippo. I soon settled down for the night to a distinctly less wild sound – the faint murmurs of a sleeping colleague.
We were awoken early the next morning by the hartlaub’s turacos in the canopy, with their rasping laugh, and found evidence that not only had a jackal been outside our tent as we slept, but also a seemingly silent herd of buffalo wandering through the camp. We were quickly roused by a cooked breakfast and began our day’s trek into the Hills. The evergreen forests of Loita immediately brought me back to my days as a guide up on Malawi’s Nyika plateau – an equally overlooked and breath-taking area for long hikes in an untouched wilderness. We tried to resist disrupting the evidence left behind by resident porcupines and were quite puzzled by how elephants managed to fit through the dense vegetation without leaving much more than some tracks and the odd pile of dung. The forest flora was just as captivating as the fauna – the wild wisteria, whose white flowers bloom in November, grow distinctive fruits that looked worryingly similar to a certain appendage of our trusty pack donkeys but, according to our guide Patrick, don’t taste nearly as good.
We became increasingly reliant on the walking sticks our guides had carved out for us as the terrain became steeper and steeper but we eventually reached highest point of the climb. At 2000m, we overlooked a luscious green valley below that subsequently overlooked the Rift Valley itself. The alarm calls of olive baboons thwarted our attempt of having a peaceful lunch but also prompted us to head on to our ultimate destination for the day, Olasur Falls. The Falls stand at 150m tall and provide a cooling oasis for weary travellers – maybe a bit too cooling for some, as Harry would find out when diving straight in.
Our break at the Falls would soon be disturbed by a small bachelor group of male buffalo, otherwise known as dagga boys, who had come for some refreshment. It got slightly hairy for a few moments but we had full trust in our guides as they grunted and manoeuvred in a way that kept the notoriously grumpy dagga boys at bay. However, we knew that this diversion wouldn’t hold them for long so we took the hint and moved on.
After a more relaxed hike back to River Camp, we once again settled for the evening around the fire and reflected on the day’s events, as well as the realisation of how tragically short our time in the Loita Hills had been. The next morning, we would exit the forest the way we had entered it two days previously. Patrick once again shared his local knowledge with us by explaining the origin of the name ‘Forest of the Lost Child’. He told the story of two young sisters who had been searching for berries to bring back to their mother. Failing to find any ripe berries, the younger sister was so ashamed that she ran back into the forest in a final attempt to retrieve some but was never found again. However tempted we were to spend a few more days in the forest, that story acted as good enough persuasion otherwise – it is a dense and treacherous environment, which is exactly what made it so enchanting. The Loita Hills may not be a destination that immediately springs to mind when considering Kenya, but having experienced it for myself, I would argue it is time to reconsider.