07-Mar-2006 -- Continued from 0 37E.
A Safari for the 21st Century, where an imaginary point - and not the leopard, lion, elephant, buffalo, or rhino - is the trophy status symbol of choice.
"Safari" is the Swahili word for "journey". Rather than a "Big Five" game hunt, with either gun or camera, in our high tech age, what could be more appropriate than an epic journey to "bag" a new Confluence?
Arrival: the last kilometer
My watch showed local time as 5:50 p.m. and I knew sunset was less than an hour away. Back to the north towards Nairobi, the sky was ominously dark with the long overdue, much anticipated, life-giving rain clouds, with which Kenya had been blessed ever since our arrival a week earlier. To the west, high clouds were now obscuring the sun, which in any case was just dropping below the Losuaate Hills. The day's best picture taking light was long gone.
Yet what had started out as a simple reconnoitering trip for a more serious attempt the following morning was now only 300 meters from success. With our vehicle already a kilometer behind us at a dirt road dead end, I picked up my hiking pace, putting distance between the other members of our party. Making my way through one final small field and back into a heavy cover of acacia and "Not-so-fast" clothes-catching bushes, crestfallen, I realized, in spite of all the spectacular scenery we had passed reaching this point, the views from this confluence point were going to be dull, dull, dull... But within a few more meters it was time to go into the confluence dance, made challenging by proximity to a large thorny bush, and as my companions arrived, the GPS finally registered 00.000 minutes both south and east. After coming a third of the way around the globe, we recorded our first Confluence in the southern or eastern hemispheres...
Planning our safari
For most of the past quarter century, my wife's brother and sister-in-law have been encouraging us to come to Africa for a visit. Finally, both Cynthia and I were able to carve out three weeks, which seemed a bare minimum amount of time to get to know this amazing country. We left the itinerary in Bob's hands, but I was insistent the schedule must include time to tackle one of Kenya's 40 undocumented confluence points.
Two of the four points closest to the capital had already been recorded, but by the time we flew into Nairobi, Bob had identified a couple of other good candidates. He was more than happy to lend us a 4-WD vehicle and arrange a driver, so we had the freedom to head out on our own while he and Candace were busy with the work week.
However, our initial jaunt would be by plane for a two-night stay at Governor's Camp in the Masai Mara Reserve (where we were able to see all the afore mentioned Big 5 within a short 24 hours!). On our first weekend in Kenya, our relatives took us north to Aberdares National Park, where at 3000+ meters, in several layers of clothing, we sat before our cabin's fireplace, listening to sleet on the roof while we studied maps and guide books and made confluence plans. While still in the U.S., I had searched with little luck for a detailed Kenya map. When Bob produced 1:50,000 topographic sheets printed by the Survey of Kenya 1974, I thought we were home free. But as Candace pointed out, in their experience, Kenya maps were more of a "suggestion" than an accurate representation of reality on paper, even when they were new 30 years ago. By our Sunday evening return to Nairobi, we had settled on our target.
A road less traveled: Beyond Magadi to the Nguruman Escarpment
2 degrees South 36 degrees East is located about 12 km north of Lake Natron and the Tanzanian border. The point is about 3.5 km west of the edge of the Nguruman Escarpment. From atop the escarpment one can look across the Ewasa Ngiro river valley (actually becoming the Engare Ngiro Swamp before it reaches Lake Natron) to the southeast, to Shompole Mountain (1567 meters tall, about 800 meters higher than the escarpment) which dominates the local landscape. The topo maps indicated a dirt road on the plain east of the point swung south of 2S and then curved west and north up onto the escarpment. Reaching 2S from the south we would then have a 3 km walk west to 36E. At least that was the rough plan. Our local driver Athuman Mohammed Salim was able to arrange his schedule to accompany us on our two-day expedition, and early Tuesday morning we headed south through the growing Nairobi traffic.
One appeal of this Confluence was the possibility of several interesting stops along the way from Nairobi, mainly Olorgesailie and Lake Magadi off highway C58. C58 from Nairobi is in good condition to the town of Magadi (the Masai word for "soda"), although there is very little traffic on it after Kiserian. Our first stop was Olorgesailie Prehistoric Site, 1.4 km off C58 and the largest archeological site in Kenya (21 ha). Discovered in 1919 by geologist J.W. Gregory, the site was later excavated by Kenya's most famous archeologists, Mary and Louis Leakey. Here were discovered the fossilized remains of prehistoric animals, some gigantic compared to their modern descendents. Important archeological finds made by the Leakeys in the 1940s also included hand axes and stone tools thought to have been made about half a million years ago. Covered open-air structures and a raised wooden boardwalk enable these finds to be exhibited where they were discovered.
The most southerly of the Rift Valley lakes in Kenya, Lake Magadi is rarely visited by tourists because of its remoteness, although with your own transportation it actually is an easy day trip from Nairobi. The most mineral-rich of the soda lakes, Magadi is largely covered by a thick encrustation of soda, formed when the mineral-rich water, pumped up by hot springs from deep underground, evaporates rapidly in the 38 °C temperatures to leave a mineral layer. A soda-extraction factory (the sole reason for the town's existence) 'harvests' this layer, extracting sodium chloride (common salt) and sodium carbonate (soda), which are then carried by train to the port of Mombasa.
Our stay in Magadi was short. After stopping at a security checkpoint at the edge of town to sign in, we drove south along the main street looking for good views of the lake. Only 110 km from Narobi, Magadi's climate is semi-desert, quite different from the capital. Our elevation had decreased over 1200 meters since we left Nairobi, but the temperature felt even warmer than the dozen degrees that could be expected with the lower altitude. We took the causeway west across the main lake, and then a second causeway over Lake Magadi's northwest lagoon. An alternate route around the north end of the lake would have been a less rocky, less steep route; but we would have missed the spectacle of thousands of flamingos who make their home in the highly alkaline water. After we left the lake area, we turned back south for about another 20 km.
We had been able to arrange lodging at the Nguruman field station of an organization dedicated to studying insects in the tropics to help ensure food security and better health for humankind and its livestock (ICIPE also strives to protect the environment, and conserve and make better use of natural resources.). Equally as important as an overnight place to stay, this stop led us to Joseph Saningo, a local Masai who serves as the facility's caretaker. Saningo quickly latched onto our project, studying our maps and pointing out the complexities of local land ownership and management.
Saningo's village is part of the Masai Olkiramatian Group Ranch (he has a 10 km walk to work!). His group ranch is just beginning efforts to attract visitors as an economic tool, but the colorful Masai clothing and jewelry which was a common sight as we drove around, made this glimpse into a very different culture a highpoint of our trip.
Adjoining Olkiramatian to the south is the more ambitious Shompole Conservancy, a joint ecotourism venture between the Masai Shompole group ranch and Art of Ventures, which has established a cattle-and-people-free 14,200 ha wildlife conservancy within the overall 56,654 ha group lands. Opened in 2002, the conservancy has already seen a decrease in poaching, and an increase in the numbers of wildlife (we saw giraffe, zebra, buffalo, elephant, jackal, and wildebeest, among others). The crown jewel of the conservancy is the upscale Shompole Lodge, whose impressive website is certainly worth a look. (I previously called the lodge, as they advertised guided treks into the Ngurumans. When I explained the purpose of my quest, they graciously offered to waive their three day minimum stay requirement, as long as we were willing to pay the daily rate of US-$ 455, based on double occupancy. However, although they weren't exactly sure where 2S 36E was located, they believed the point was located outside the Shompole Conservancy, and was not something to which they could provide access. So we had decided to forego a very luxurious night in the bush.) Saningo assured us he could find the right person to give us access to the Confluence, and in short order we were driving towards the Shompole Conservancy gate.
As luck would have it, just as Saningo and Mohammed began talking with the young rangers, a truck pulled up behind, with one of the passengers being Assistant Chief Peter Siamito of the Pakase Sublocation of the Shompole group ranch. After several individual discussions, the chief determined the Confluence was on Shompole land, but outside the conservancy, and arranged for one of the gate guards to meet us the next morning to accompany us on our hike. I asked Saningo to check if it would be possible to drive to the top of the escarpment now, so we could get an idea of the terrain we would be hiking the next day. Chief Siamito agreed to guide us on this reconnoiter. As we crossed the Pekase River, and climbed up the escarpment, the present road went much further west than the one we had seen on the topo. My GPS soon showed us west of the point, but still heading toward it. The closer we approached, the more involved the chief became, and when we finally ran out of road just a little over a kilometer away, the entire party was eager to abandon the car and strike out overland for the Confluence. Along the way we passed the hut of a tribal elder named Tataa, who has a marvelous view of Shompole Mountain out his front door. After a brief explanation, Tataa was intrigued as well, and with his addition, our safari party grew to six. And so it was we were able to reach the Confluence on a first attempt.
My wife laughed as she realized the rest of the group, from about ten meters distance, was matching my confluence dance step by step, moving back and forth as I moved back and forth, in search of the elusive zeroes! After taking the required photos, I convinced my companions to pose for a group shot: Chief Siamito, Mohammed, Cynthia, Saningo, and Tataa. With daylight fast disappearing, we headed back to the land cruiser. Tataa, now in front leading us back, made much better time on our return to the car then I had done relying on the GPS on the way out.
This confluence hunt turned out to be an amazing adventure, which confirmed good local contacts trump all the best pre-trip planning. My thanks to Chief Siamito, and all the people who gave so generously of their time to help us succeed in documenting this Confluence, and who provided us with some of the most memorable and enjoyable moments of our first trip to Africa!
Continued at 3S 38E.