In 2017 I traveled to Kenya resolved to visit a place I had dreamed of for over 60 years.
My love for Kenya began when I was twelve years old. A book, with a cloth cover of zebra stripes, stood out in the family bookcase–I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson. This true story of Martin and Osa Johnson, a young couple from Kansas, who travel to exotic lands to film headhunters and wild animals, captured my imagination. Next I read Four Years in Paradise, in which Osa Johnson vividly described their lives in a permanent camp beside Lake Paradise, near the town of Marsabit, Kenya, in the 1920s.
On my 54th birthday my children surprised me with a Kenyan safari. I fell in love with the country and after returning home started researching parks and reserves for a return trip. I asked about visiting the site of the Johnsons’ camp, but was told it was unsafe to travel to Marsabit National Park.
Almost twenty years later, the area had calmed down down and I decided on one more safari to explore this long held dream. I called Mbuthia, my driver on my previous tours, to plan my journey. I first met Francis Mbuthia Muchri when he drove the van carrying six women, all of us on our first trip to Africa.
An excellent driver, he also excelled in spotting and identifying birds. On a day long drive from Samburu to Amboseli he taught us the words to “Jambo Bwana” and we learned that he was a Kikuyu, one of the largest of the 42 tribes in Kenya, long known as crop growers. I kept in touch with him after I returned home and through him met Irene Mugambi, his cousin who was also a safari guide. With their help I planned my next two trips to Kenya and each one was a special adventure.
Mbuthia retired several years ago, but his son, Bernad Ndegwa, followed in his father’s footsteps and now drives for a touring company while studying to become a guide. I asked if he would take me to Marsabit and he replied enthusiastically, “Hakuna Matata!” Plans were made for an eight day safari which would take me to Nyeri, Marsabit and Maasai Mara. I flew out of Knoxville on November 15, 1917.
Mbuthhia and Bernad met me in Nairobi and from there we drove to their home in Nyeri. On my 2001 trip we stopped here on our way to Samburu and had tea with his family. One of the highlights of this trip was staying with them for two days, giving me a chance to meet the whole family while enjoying Kenyan hospitality. The news of a visitor spread quickly and neighbors shyly approached to say hello to the first white person to visit in the Mucheri home.
Mbuthia’s wife, Catherine, did everything possible to make me feel comfortable. With my very limited knowledge of Swahili and her limited knowledge of English, our attempts to converse caused a great deal of laughter between us.
She is an excellent cook, using her wood oven, paraffin heater, or gas burner. Fresh cabbage, carrots and tomatoes, from her garden or a vendor, are turned into delicious soups, well seasoned with cumin, garlic and coriander. I feasted on goat stew and, in return, they got a taste of country ham and grits. No one liked the salty ham, but the grits were close enough to their ugali (cornmeal mush) to be eaten.
Trying to be a considerate guest, I said I would wash my own clothes. Catherine did let me make a stab at the chore, but her efficiency soon took over. After all, she also needed to milk the goats and start preparing the next meal.
When she did sit down, it was often to listen to a religious speaker on the t.v. Both she and Mbuthia are hooked on an Indian soap opera, dubbed in the Kikuyu dialect! Their granddaughter, Abi, loves American cartoon shows, and the news was watched by any adults who happen to be in the house.
Early on November 18, 2017, Mbuthia, Bernad, and I set out for Lake Paradise. The route took us through familiar territory, past Mount Kenya, with a stop for tea at Mountain View Curio Shop outside Nanyuki. Mbuthia and Solomon, the owner, are longtime friends. Solomon was puzzled as to why I wanted to go to Marsabit since there was no longer good animal viewing. After I told him my story, he said, “O.K., from now on I will call you Miss Marsabit.”
For the eight hour drive from Mbuthia’s home we had good paved roads. Now, at the entrance to the park, we switched to a one lane dirt road, winding through the forest.
Marsabit National Park is located in northern Kenya, halfway between Mount Kenya and the Ethiopian border. We entered at the Ahmed Gate, named for Kenya’s most famous elephant who was born and lived in the park until his death at age 55.
Cresting a hill we looked down on Marsabit Lodge, a plain and simple hotel next to Crater Lake. This was home for the next two nights.
Marsabit Lodge is the Motel 6 of all the places I have stayed in Kenya. My accommodations were adequate and clean and safe without any luxury. We were the only people staying the first night, and that happened to be the night the cook got stuck in town. The manager took his place in the kitchen and served unknown fried chicken parts with greens. It improved after that. My only complaint was the Nescafeˊ coffee.
The security guard at the lodge was Jarso Godana, a member of the Gabbra (camel herders) tribe. He guided us everywhere, rifle slung over his shoulder, very often checking his cell phone. I never saw him talk on it, and a cell phone seemed out of context for the setting, but 85% of Keyans have one. He told me he had 3 daughters in school; education is very important to Kenyans and they take it seriously.
The terrain of Marsabit National Park is closer to the Smoky Mountains than any other land I have seen in Kenya. So I wasn’t disappointed that the only mammals I saw were bushbuck and impala hiding in the forest and Cape buffalo grazing near the lodge. Elephants are still seen around the edges of Crater Lake, but not during our visit.
Lake Paradise is another six miles past the lodge. To get there you have to use a four wheel vehicle and it was the roughest road I have ever traveled. It took an hour of careful maneuvering on Bernad‘s part (with help from Jarso and Mbuthia) to get there.
We drove down to the lake and walked part of its edge. I was awed by the thought that my footprints were surely covering the invisible marks left by the former inhabitants. I had made it.
Hamerkop and Egyptian geese were in the water and African fish eagles soared overhead. Lots of familiar cattle egrets were around also. Marsabit is a birding paradise with over 490 avian species.
As we walked, I received botany lessons from my guides. Jarso pulled up a plant growing close to the ground and explained that the root is chewed and mixed with saliva to fight the flu. Mbuthia showed me one that rhinos like to eat, commenting that if such plant growth could be encouraged, Marsabit’s isolation might provide the safety needed to help this endangered species. The plant is also used to make a yellow dye.
That evening I sat on the porch outside my room and heard the haunting Islamic call to prayer floating over the hills from the town of Marsabit. As darkness fell I heard a hyena roar —not laughing or yipping, but roaring. With the generators turned off at sunset, the lodge is very dark, but the darkness brings out the beauty of thousands of stars in the clear sky.
I thought of having walked where Osa Johnson had once energetically made a flourishing home for herself and Martin. All visible traces are gone now, but the spirit of the land is still present, waiting for the next chapter of its life.
On my fourth trip to Kenya, I found that, again, the reality was better than the dream.