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UNDER THE

BLAZING SUN

BY

ABDUL GAFFAR

 

19th December, 1966

 

The Country was rough and broken, with short stunted vegetation and poor volcanic soil. The track twisted away across the shaggy contours of whitened wind swept rocks that had been furrowed and creased by the endless sun and the lonely, rustling, scorching wind that raced like a tinge of flame across the land, coating us with a layer of white dust. This was the beginning of the four-day hike in the Longonot, the Hell's Gate and Lake Naivasha region.

 

A little earlier we had left the Longonot Railway Station which is situated in the foothills of Mount Longonot in the great eastern arm of the Rift Valley.

 

We had left the station and followed the car track towards Mt. Longonot. The area on our right, immediately behind the station, had been cultivated. The state of crops, maize and posho, revealed the futility of cultivating the area. The maize plants, short and stunted, had dried due to excessive heat and lack of rain. Posho plants could hardly be seen, being overridden by hardier scrubland plants.

 

On our left towered the gigantic Longonot mountain, an extinct volcano, 9,111 feet, the exterior of which is interesting and typical; the lava having formed a great number of small ravines, each separated from the other by a rounded hummock.

 

Longonot is a Masai word meaning "it of the valleys", being so called because of the serrated ridges of solidified lava which fan out from its summit like the spokes of a wheel.

 

Eruption of lava may have taken place in very recent times some probably over 100 years ago. This has been confirmed by a very old Masai tribesman who had seen its activities.

 

The track became more and more dusty. We plodded along heavily through this dust ridden track, often sinking ankle deep. Following this winding track, we rounded a small hillock thickly covered with vegetation and came to a deep gully, varying in width and depth at various places.

 

Just before we crossed the gully where it shallowed considerably. We saw a herd of antelopes which bounded across a small clearing and disappeared in the bush beyond. Here we also saw a colourful wood-pecker busily pecking away at the stem of a small acacia. Leaving the tapping noises of

the bird behind we advanced and further ahead we found a small skull probably of a small rodent.

 

As we approached the end of the car track, we saw a lone giraffe which ambled off into the bush. From here was a long, slow climb. The ground was rough and crumbly. The track twisted and wound, clinging to the mountain in a tortuous tenacity. Each step kicked up a small cloud of dust.

Our shadows cast by the mid-day sun lumbered around our feet. Up and up, step by step, foot by foot, along a track which was a weary scree of deep dust, we eventually reached the first half of the mountain, tired, perspiring and breathing heavily.

 

As we were resting, we were suddenly startled by a loud rustling in the bush. A large handsome Kudu with magnificent spiral horns and white body stripes bounded out of the bush in all its majesty and disappeared over the ridge.

 

We set off again and after a small straight stretch, the track suddenly became very steep. Sunlight blazed upon us. Hot air hung heavily. The bodies sweated; shoulders ached under the weight of the ruck-sacs; legs worked like mechanical robots; hot track burnt our feet, but undaunted, we continued, and breasted the rim. It had been a gruelling climb.

 

The crater looked like a witch's cauldron, the sides being deep precipitous and near vertical. The bed of the crater is uneven, comprising huge jagged lumps of lava rocks and dense bush. The view towards North-West was superb.

                                                                     L to R: Shiraz Janmohd, Nandlal, Gaffar

 

In front and it seemed miles below us, Lake Naivasha gleamed in the sun. Its many lagoons bounded by papyrus were faintly outlined. Towards the North could be seen one of Kenya's earliest and largest sisal plantations, the outlines of the huge plantations, could be seen tracing geometric-pattern in the plains which stretched away to the east, dotted with flat pan-cakes of lava.

 

On the northern slopes of Longonot is a small parasitic cone. The serrated ridges on the mountain side appeared to be shallow gullies from the base, were now found to be valleys, sometimes hundreds of feet deep, separated by knife-edge ridges of lava rock. The ridges were covered with dense scrub.

 

Locating a suitable site, we pitched the tents and as we began to prepare a meal, we first saw the steam-jet. A long thin column of smoke issued from a fissure in the cliff face in the North-West part of the crater. The steam-jet was visible until darkness enveloped us.  After the meal, we sat by the fire, warming ourselves after which we retired for the night.

 

 

20th December, 1966

We were up quite early. Plenty of birds were out. We were fortunate to see a pair of beautiful Hawks. These birds prey on small mammals, birds and reptiles. They build their nests loosely of sticks in trees or on shelves of rocks.

After a quick breakfast, we packed and scrambled and slid down the mountain. It was a great fun and a quick passage down the mountain.

 

                                                     L to R: Gaffar, Shiraz, Mahinder

From the base, we set off in the North-West direction. The track was soft, powdery dust flanked by thick grey bushes. At places our feet sank ankle deep reducing our pace considerably. Huge pylons bearing electricity transmission cables were far away on our right and extremely in the back-ground towered the lush Aberdares. Longonot towered on our left, still cold and dreary. The shimmering waters of the Lake Naivasha, with its sparkling iridescence now came in sight in front of us but miles away.

 

Day was still young and we walked at a fast pace along a track that ran parallel to a barbed wire fence. Straight across the dreary brown expanse it ran, a track some hundred yards wide, carved out by the sharp hooves of Masai cattle. The track turned off towards the North at the base of a cliff, high, dark and black as soot, full of small crevices, fissures and out­cropping rocks, looking sinister and uninviting.

 

Along the base of the cliff we walked. The grass became plentiful, the track softer and uncomfortable to walk on. Occasionally, we encountered a giant Euphorbia, its candelabra like arms curling upwards like a warning sentinel.

 

The sloping track took us down in the valley. Here were signs of overgrazing by the Masai cattle. The veterinary and medical departments of the Government have reduced enormously the diseases which attacked the cattle. The result has been inevitable and unprecedented increase of stock population with consequent overcrowding

 

Going ahead we reached a bore hole where we saw first of the Masai and his herd of cattle. The moran walked with an easy gait, his head held upright. The mysterious beauty he possessed was probably inherited from his ancestors, black men who migrated South by unknown routes, unknown centuries ago.

 

Having replenished our water supply, we went on our way, which ran straight for miles. Sun blazed upon us. Mile upon mile under the pitiless sun which appeared as a huge flaming ball in the sky, we crawled.

 

On all sides lay the arid waste of sparse grass and bush. The hot, powdery track burnt our feet. Here and there was a bare shoulder of rock, a stunted acacia or a Euphorbia with its spines gleaming frostily. Mile upon mile, the sameness of the landscape became soul-sickening.

 

About 1.00 p.m. we stopped near some rocks for lunch. The lips were dry and beginning to crack; eyes smarted as drops of sweat trickled in and the bodies smelt of stale sweat.

 

Spreading a ground sheet, we flopped down listlessly. Lying against the ruck-sac, I watched the cloudless sky. As the lunch was being prepared, the air was suddenly filled with ominous thundering. We jerked out of the doldrums and sat up. What I saw petrified me. A huge cloud of dust accompanied by thundering and drumming was headed our way, growing louder and louder every minute. It was no sound of a storm and yet a vast mighty roaring. Wide eyed we stared, an unexplainable fear chilling us at this strange phenomenon. We stood there, paralysed and rooted to the ground. "W.. W .. What is it?" Somebody stammered. "Blast if I.. .... cattle' •• I yelled, "get out of the way!"

 

I grabbed my ruck-sac and scrambled into the rocks as the wave of crescendo went past blotting out everything in dust. The earth seemed to shake beneath me. Dust shifted in my eyes and ears, choked my throat and I gasped for every breath, fighting to avoid suffocation.

 

How long I lay in the rocks, I do not know. The sense of time was lost. It did not matter now. The dust cleared and I stood up. A sudden fear gripped me. Where were the others? I yelled for them in a voice which sounded hoarse and fear-laden. One by one they crawled out of the rocks, much to

my relief, too shaken to say anything.

 

Our lunch was scattered in four directions, the groundsheet was torn to smithereens and two water bottles knocked so out of shape that they did not-look anything like bottles.

 

We sat there, under the blazing sun and motionless air, our throats parched, bodies caked in sweat and dust. The blistering heat did not matter, neither did food and water. The only thing that mattered was that we were in one piece.

 

We sat there in a peculiar silence for a long time; no body felt like talking. I stirred myself, and, flinging the ruck sac on my back, set off. The others soon fell in behind me.

 

Far in the distance we saw a herd of Zebra which vanished in the shimmering haze of the afternoon heat. Occasionally we came across small antelopes and once a few guinea fowls. The monotony of the track was broken when we entered into a region of thick scrub. Gradually the path turned into a narrow track, and the scrubland into a forest of cactus and acacias. Following the winding track, through the lava boulders, we broke into a clearing, at the far end of which were some buildings. On reaching there, it turned out to be the Longonot Farm School. Here we replenished our water supplies, took a quick wash and then set off to the Youth Hostel.

 

The road was dusty and stony. The road crawled past gradually. We passed a chicken farm; a couple of herds of cattle; some horses; cattle egress....... We were at the end of our tethers. The blistered feet refused to work, the body ached, the eyes quailed as rays of the sun shone directly into them.  It was a relief when we eventually reached the Youth Hostel at about 6.00 p.m.

 

 
 

 

21st December, 1966

 

Immediately after breakfast we left for the Hell's Gate (Njorowa Gorge) the prehistoric outlet for the lakes which once filled the valley floor. We turned off the main road about a mile away from the hostel. The track is literally sprinkled with black volcanic ashes. Walking at a fast pace, where the track allowed, we reached a cleft in a hill, leading into the Hell's Gate.

 

The towering cliffs stand majestically in the scorching heat of the sun, guarding the entrance to one of the most impressive spots in Kenya. The cliffs rise sheer for many hundreds of feet. The walls are highly stratified with rocks of varying colours.

 

Here we met a Masai woman with a child on her back and a gourd in her hand. Her head was clean shaven since it is their tribal custom for all men and women except the morans to clean shave their heads.

 

The area ahead was dotted with low acacia and plenty of grass. The base of the cliffs is strewn with large boulders. The cliffs house the huge Lammergeyers, a very rare bird.

 

Going through the cleft, we came to the Fischer's Tower (Devil's tooth), a strange pyramid in the haunting Masai legend of the homesick bride. The tower, dark and forbidding, is a giant plug of intrusive commendite from which, it is believed, stone-age man hewed blocks for making his implements. All round are high, spectacular cliffs.

 

Leaving the Fischer's Tower, we took a short cut to go further in. We moved through 'an apparently unending area of brown sun dried earth, cracked and fissured by the fierce heat and covered for the most part by short curly grass which was the colour of hay, needing only rain to transform it into a carpet of green. No trees, save an occasional thicket of stunted bushes were to be seen. Now and then we came across a squat acacia tree, gnarled and faded brown, growing grotesquely out from beneath a low boulder.

 

There was no shelter from the terrific heat, except when we stood against a hot rock. There was no relief from heat that filled every corner and crevice. There was only the sun and the dust; the hard backed earth beneath and the blistering sun above. And the wind if it came at all, would be a hot blast of air. The hot volcanic ashes made the walking difficult and unbearable. We tried to walk on stumps of grass but it only added to the agony of our blistered feet. It was nearing mid-day when we approached the prehistoric water-falls, dropping sheer hundreds of feet and almost vertical. We had our lunch here.

 

Soon we were on our feet. Movement was slow on our way back. We rested and sat in the shades of huge boulders, which were hot and dry. Going slowly and listlessly across the great contours of dark, baked rocks, marked and gouged by time, wind and sun, we traced our steps to the Youth Hostel, glad to get out of "Hell's" fiery furnace.

 

From the Hostel. we hiked down the road to the Marina Club where we camped for the third night, reaching there at about 6.30 p.m. After supper we settled down for the night amid the croaking of frogs and one of us had troublesome time, swatting mosquitoes which seemed to have chosen him

as their "supper".

 

                               

22nd December, 1966

 

We left for the Crescent Island after the warden at the Marina Club had given us a letter of introduction to enable us to go on to the island which is a private property.

 

Naivasha in Masai language EN-AIPOSHA means "That which tosses to and fro". Lake Naivasha, most beautiful of Kenya's Rift Valley lakes is a bird watcher's paradise. It is some 12 miles North to South and 9 miles East to West. With its subsidiary lakes, Naivasha covers an area of about 50 square miles of a great floating banks of feathery headed papyrus, a maze of channels, half-hidden lagoons, vast expanse of blue water lilies and an abundance of bird life. Its ease of access and many forms of relaxation available bird watching, water skiing, yachting and fishing makes it something special in Kenya.

 

We followed a track through a damp forest of tall acacias. The rich greenery here was a relief to the eyes after three days in scrubland. The air was cool and all around we could hear chirping of birds.

 

From the edge of the lake a narrow track led to the island. On both sides were papyrus reeds and blue lilies. There was a variety of birds in the water. Reaching the island we made for the highest point.

 

From here we had a magnificent view. The shimmering waters were gleaming in the sunlight, colourful birds skimming over water and motor-boats chugging away in the bay. It was an impressive and beautiful spot.

 

From here we went down to the jetty where we sat for a while observing birds. Among the most fascinating birds to watch was the Jacana, running nimbly over the water lilies. This has earned them the name 'Lily Trotters'.

 

We traced our steps back to the Marina Club and after thanking the warden, we headed for Naivasha where we ended the hike.

 

 

 

 

 

FOOTNOTE:

14 years have passed since this hike. A lot has changed. Foot hills of Mt. Longonot have been settled and a thriving community is growing around the Longonot Railway Station. Game has gone from the mountain and though I have frequently gone to the mountain during the last five years, I have seen no game save a rare sight of a small antelope or so and certainly not a Kudu. The sight of the magnificent specimen I saw on the mountain on a hot dusty afternoon nearly 14 years ago remains etched in my memory.

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