I’ve recounted this story to friends a few times over the years, so I thought I’d get around to writing it up. This is from way back in 1982, pre-dating my time as a photographer by many years, and before I trained as marine biologist. I was 25 years old at the time, and had just quit my job as a salvage diver in Mombasa. I had a small amount of money saved, and a couple of months before I was due to start university in Newcastle, England, so I packed a tent and sleeping bag into my rucksack and set off to explore a little of Northern Kenya. From Mombasa I hitched to Nairobi, some 300 miles northwest. I found a cheap hotel for a couple of nights and pondered my next move. I had initially been keen to visit Meru Reserve, as I knew of its long association with Joy and George Adamson; indeed, that was where both Elsa, the lioness of Born Free, was buried and the ashes of Joy Adamson scattered. However, at that time Meru was plagued by gangs of poachers and there had been a spate of attacks on tourists by armed groups; AK47s being all too common amongst poachers and Shifta (a term used interchangeably for both bandits and Somali resistance fighters) due to decades of conflict between Kenyan Government forces and ethnic Somalis in the Northern Frontier District, as it was known. George Adamson himself would be shot dead by such a group some seven years later. I considered trying to get to Kora, where I knew George worked the Tony Fitzjohn at that time, but Kora was not open to the general public and without one’s own transport there was no easy way to get there. Simply walking in was not an option. After some deliberation I decided to head further north to Samburu National Park. Samburu was mostly semi-arid and within it was found animals I had never seen before, in particular Grevy’s zebra and gerenuk, the strange long-necked gazelle. My plans were quite hazy, but I hoped I could get transport close enough to walk in, then hitch a ride around inside the reserve on one of the tourist vehicles. I headed to Machakos Bus Station in central Nairobi, where buses heading to all parts of the country could be found. Machakos Bus Station, at that time, was a cauldron of mayhem. Large numbers of buses parked chaotically, surrounded by shouting, jostling crowds, street vendors, ticket touts, con artists and pickpockets. Impossible amounts of luggage were hurled on to bus roofs, whilst people boarded. Carrying my rucksack in front to me so I could keep the side pockets in view as I squeezed through the crowd, I eventually found my bus, purchased my ticket and boarded. I was off to Isiolo, some 9 hours’ bus ride to the north, and the end of the line for buses.

Isiolo, back then, had something of a frontier town feel about it. One wide, dirt road of ran through it. Originating in Nairobi, it ran all the way to Moyale on the Ethiopian border. Archers Post, a Samburu village, lay 22 miles further on up the road. From there I reckoned I could walk the 14 miles to the game lodge and tent campsite. However, getting to Archers Post was not simply a question of jumping on a bus or hitching a ride. North of Isiolo, up to the Ethiopian border, was considered bandit country. A combination of drought, food insecurity, overspill from conflicts in Ethiopia and Somalia, simmering bitterness from the Shifta Wars a decade earlier, centuries old tribal conflicts and cattle rustling, coupled with the easy availability of guns, made for a dangerous mix. Consequently, no buses operated north of Isiolo, the only scheduled transport was truck convoys with military escorts. These passed through early morning every three or four days, so my only option was to wait. My hotel room was hot and airless; a concrete cube with a small window looking out onto the main street and a broken down bed I inspected carefully for unwelcome invertebrate cohabitants. Out back there was a small courtyard where beer was served until the small hours. There wasn’t a great deal to do in Isiolo. I wandered the main street, peering in shops full of dusty tins with faded labels. Fresh fruit or vegetables seemed a rarity. I washed down bread and margarine, or chapatis and boiled eggs, with black Nescafe coffee. I watched local girls of school age passing carrying sacks of charcoal on their heads. Unlike near the coast I had not seen any significant charcoal burning fires when travelling to Isiolo, and trees were stunted and sparse, so God knows how far an area had to be scavenged to collect the wood to fill these sacks.  Charcoal was the main fuel for cooking, and selling charcoal often the last resort of the destitute.  That it is damaging to the environment is a poor argument to someone for whom it is the only way to ward off starvation.

Isiolo, Kenya. 1980s. two girls carry sacks of charcoal to sell. www.colinmunrophotography.com
Young Samburu girls carrying sacks of charcoal on their heads, Isiolo,

I was befriended by a young local man who offered to show me around, telling me there was a camel market happening in town.  I was keen to see the market but wary of being scammed or suddenly hit for a large ‘guides fee’, my experiences of such approaches in Nairobi and Mombasa having made me cautious and cynical.   The camel market, down a few alleyways which opened up to some large pens, was the first time I had ever seen camels close up, so definitely worth it.  My cynicism proved completely unfounded, my guide refusing all payment afterwards, leaving me feeling quite ashamed.  The young man (who’s name I confess I have forgotten) was a local teacher who simply wanted to be helpful whilst have an opportunity to practice his English. Mzungus (white people) were not common in Isiolo then (I seemed to be the only one around at that time) and so he approached me.

The convoy arrived before dawn, which meant being packed and waiting on the street outside my hotel around 5.30am.  The convoy, around ten heavily laden Mitsubishi-Fuso trucks, rolled up just before 6am, grinding to a halt in the middle of the road.  I picked up my rucksack and joined the dozen or so others hoping grab a lift.  In the darkness we shouted up to those already on top, and they shouted down to us.  I took off my rucksack and held it high; hands reaching down to grab it.  I then climbed up onto the roof of the cab, and from there onto the back of the truck, joining the eight or nine fellow travellers already up there.  The main cargo, whatever it was, lay under a steel frame supported tarpaulin that projected some five to six feet above the height of the cab; the tarp secured by ropes.  On top of this various items, my rucksack, the belongings of my fellow travellers plus a spare wheel, were held rather precariously either squeezed under the securing ropes or tied on to them with whatever bits or rope or cord was available.  Directly behind the cab, about four foot above it, was a small platform, no more than three foot wide. This was where we travellers all sat.  I squeezed in beside my new companions, sitting with my knees drawn up under my chin. With one hand I found a bit of rope to hang on to.  The soldiers escorting us finished stretching their legs and climbed back into their trucks. As the dawn broke the engines roared into life, gears crashed and our convoy headed north.

The road north of Isiolo was simply hard packed dirt surrounded by a sea of sand and rocks.  Up on top we swayed from side to side like sailors in rigging, at times I was prevented from falling more by the pressure of bodies either side of me than by my grip on the rope. Drifting sand would partially obscure the road at times. At one point our driver lost concentration and we veered off the road, lurching violently as he tried to avoid rocks, trees and termite hills.  There were points at which both wheels on the right hand side went airborne, and I was convinced the truck was about to end up on its side. After about 80 metres of rodeo ride we regained the relative security of the road.  The road stretched arrow straight in front of us, with Ololokwe mountain dominating the horizon, rising out of the surrounding flatlands. Either side stretched sand with occasional acacias. Nothing moved except the occasional camel herd. Very quickly my position became pretty uncomfortable. There was only one other place to sit. Directly in front was a metal crate, bolted to the front of the trailer headboard directly above the cab.  This contained a few plastic bags and 5 gallon drums of oil, all loosely tied together.  Sitting alone on top of these was a young lad, maybe 13 or 14 years old.  The crate rattled like hell, and there was no side protection to prevent you falling, but at least there was room to move.  I inched my way forward to join him.  Mohammed, his name I learned, was shy and quiet.  Questions were answered with one word replies.  He was travelling alone, and did not seem entirely sure where he was going.  I hoped there would be someone meeting him.  We arrived at Archers Post in under an hour.  This was one street of wooden buildings with corrugated iron roofs. There was also a sign pointing the way to Samburu lodge. I untied my rucksack, climbed down and waived to my goodbye to my temporary companions.  Shouldering the pack I set off.

travelling on a truck roof from Isiolo to samburu 1982
Mohammed, my young travelling companion, on the roof of our truck on route to Archer’s Post.

The road to Samburu Lodge was pretty clear.  A few huts lined the road on the outskirts of Archers Post, and as I passed one or two Samburu women or children would watch with mild curiosity.  Some would call out or respond to greetings ‘hello’ or ‘jambo’ or sometimes ‘kejua’.  I paid a few shillings to take a photograph of one girl carry a young child, who was dressed in particularly fine looking traditional costume.

Samburu girl with child 1982
A Samburu girl with a young child, just outside Archer’s Post

As I trudged on the huts petered out, and soon I was alone. The sun climbed higher and the air shimmered in the heat.  The only sound was my boots scuffing though the dirt.  My pack felt like it had doubled in weight. After maybe a couple of hours I heard a vehicle in the distance. I turned to see a Land Rover heading towards me, a trail of dust billowing like smoke behind it. It was my lucky day!  As it drew level it slowed and skidded to a halt.  The driver wore a priest’s dog collar and cassock; the passengers were four or five nuns. The driver leaned across the passenger seat to talk to me.  In my head I thought If he’s going to ask where I’m headed that’s pretty damn obvious. But no, instead, in a strong Italian accent he half shouted “You cannot walk here. There are lions. It is dangerous!’  With that unhelpful warning he rammed the Land Rover into gear and left me standing dumbfound in a cloud of dust.  I stared at the back of the slowly disappearing Land Rover, and the nuns in the back returned my gaze expressionlessly.  It took me a minute to fully comprehend what had just happened. A priest had just stopped to warn me that I was in danger by walking, and then had just driven away leaving me to walk.  Was he expecting me to call a taxi? I wasn’t particularly concerned about lions (maybe youthful bravado) but I was very hot and tired and had a long way still to walk.  The Catholic Church had established missions throughout Northern Kenya. Archers Post Catholic Mission had had been established in the early 1960s by Italian Consolata Fathers, and continued to be run by Consolata priests and Franciscan nuns.  Strong evangelists, they built schools, medical centres and installed water pumps …and of course they brought Catholicism to the pastoralists and nomads, Samburu, Turkana and Gabra, partially displacing there traditional religions. 

Convoy of trucks arriving Archers Post 1982
Our convoy arrives at Archer’s Post.

I trudged on and, fortuitously, was not eaten by lions. I was however, very hot, tired and dehydrated when I finally reached Samburu Lodge late afternoon. I walked past the lodge to the small clearing designated as a camping site and pitched my tent.  After a quick wash and drinking a lot of water I cooked some food, crawled on top of my sleeping bag and fell fast asleep.

The following morning I awoke around dawn, gritty eyed and parched.  The heat of the sun very quickly makes lying inside a small tent intolerable. The campsite had maybe seven or eight tents in it. Needless to say my little A frame tent was much smaller than anything else there.  People were up and about, finishing breakfast and packing gear away into campervans.  As I walked to the toilet block I passed an American girl carrying a loaf of bread towards her van.  I saw a large shape barrelling towards her on the periphery of my vision.  I turned in time to hear a loud shriek.  A big male olive baboon ripped the loaf out of her grasp as he rushed past.  The girl was shocked, but unhurt.  That should have been a pretty clear warning to me; I wasn’t paying attention.   I knew I needed to try and find some transport around the park fairly soon, but walking past the lodge the previous day I had spotted a swimming pool.  I had time for one quick, 30 second dip first, I told myself.  Grabbing a towel and shorts I walked around to the pool, changed, had a quick shower and dived into gloriously cool water. One lap became two, two laps became three, three became four.  Finally I forced myself out of the pool and as I did so the smell of fresh, real coffee hit me.  It was being served right at the pools edge.  After existing on tinned Nescafe powder for days my willpower weakened.  Almost an hour later I returned to the campsite.  The other tents were gone, as were all the minibuses and campervans.  Of course! Everyone headed off early morning for the best sightings of game.  I looked around  – where was my tent? Just then a baboon ran past me waving a kikoi like a flag.  One of my kikois.  The contents of my tent were strewn over half the campsite and around twenty baboons were running around the campsite, greatly excited, some carrying trophies from their pillaging.  Anger rose in me and I picked a handful of small stones and started hurling them at the baboons, walking towards them shouting expletives.  The baboons appeared remarkably good at knowing exactly how far I could throw a stone with any accuracy, and from just outside that radius they glared back, forming a rough semi-circle around me.  At that point I started to calm down. I realised there was no-one else around and that getting into a confrontation with a large group of baboons armed only with a handful of pebbles and a coarse vocabulary was probably not a smart move.  Keeping a watchful eye on the baboons I walked back to where my tent had been pitched. The tent itself was flattened. A long gash in the cotton material had exposed everything inside.  My ex-army down sleeping bag had also been ripped open. Feathers lay everywhere. The little food I had: a small loaf of sliced bread, margarine and some cheese, had been devoured.  Even the carton of tea bags. Almost every individual teabag had been ripped open, spilling tea leaves around the tent to mingle with the feather down.  My passport, that I had carefully hidden inside my sleeping bag, lay exposed on the top of the sleeping bag. I picked it up.  Clearly some baboon had decided it was probably some exotic fruit I had brought. The blue outer cover had been picked away at and peeled back in numerous strips, exposing the card beneath, and the edges chewed.  The front cover appeared as it had several passes through a farm threshing machine. Incredibly, all the inside pages remained intact.   My tent had a gash along the side around three feet across. My sleeping also had one large hole through which down feathers were spilling.  Clearly I couldn’t camp with a tent and sleeping bag in this condition, apart from the fact I no longer had any food.  I packed my belongings back in to my rucksack and walked back to the lodge.  I needed to get back to Isiolo, but I couldn’t simply walk back to Archers Post then wait for a truck, that could be days.  Fortunately I found someone in the lodge who was driving to Isiolo that afternoon, who kindly offered me a lift.

Olive baboon destroy my tent
Baboons rummage through the remains of my tent

By the time I was dropped off in Isiolo I was in a despondent mood. I checked in at my old hotel, to find that my previous room was not available. I was offered what looked like a small prison cell bordering the courtyard at the back. Still feeling fairly dispirited after my plans had gone so spectacularly wrong, I decided I was going to go back to Nairobi. From there I would rethink my plans about where to head. 

Nowadays Isiolo has a impressively titled ‘International Airport’, with a brand new terminal building and tarmac runway. At the time of writing it doesn’t tend to get much international traffic. In fact no scheduled commercial flights arrive there. Costing a reputed three billion Kenyan shillings, it has, so far, turned out to be one of the many grand, but ill-conceived, projects that Africa so often falls prey to. Nothing like this existed back in 1982. There was, however, a small airfield a little under a kilometre from where I was staying, and I’d heard that a few times a week flights left from there to Nairobi, early in the morning.  The flights were supposedly carrying miraa to Nairobi from farms nearby.  Miraa, known in other parts of East Africa as khat or qat is a stimulant widely consumed throughout Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia.  The shoots or leaves are chewed, producing a feeling of mild euphoria, increased alertness and suppressing appetite.  Matatu and truck drivers, often working crazy long hours, can frequently be seen with a bundle of shoots or leaves, chewing continuously.  The problem for both the consumer and the supplier is that the psychoactive effect of the plant fades rapidly once it is harvested, so it needs to be delivered to market fast.  Pickup trucks could often be seen driving at breakneck speeds loaded with large bundles of leaves and stems, wrapped in banana leaves, as they head to Nairobi or other population centres.  Whilst banned in the USA, UK and much of the West, miraa is legally grown and consumed by millions throughout East Africa. That being said the organisations that control its supply are often described as ‘mafia-like cartels’. Now the idea of turning up and hitching a lift on an airplane may seem rather bizarre in the highly regulated, bureaucratic world we live in today, but back then, in parts of Africa, it was not that uncommon.   So I took a walk to the airfield just before sunset.  There was the plane, a small, single-engined Cessna 172 or similar, parked on the runway, with a couple of crew nearby.  Yes, this plane was leaving at 6am tomorrow morning. A lift? Why not?  Just be here 20 minutes beforehand.  Elated at my good fortune I walked back to the hotel.  I searched out the night duty manager and told him I needed an early morning call at 5am sharp.  I stressed this was very important. ‘No problem’ I was informed with a big smile. I then retired to my airless, gloomy room, dug a needle and bobbin of cotton thread out of a rucksack pocket, and began the chore of repairing my tent and sleeping bag.  Around 9pm the task was completed and I settled down for an early night.  There were a few tables and chairs in the small courtyard outside my room, and some locals (I assume) were having a beer or three. As the evening progressed, and more beer was consumed, more people turned up and the revelry became louder, and louder.  At some time after midnight the large wooden gates of the courtyard were opened, and a Land Rover drove in, occupying about 50% of the total courtyard area.  The Land Rover arrived, lights blazing, with more beer and a ‘boombox’ cassette tape player blasting out benga and Afro-Cuban rumba tunes over the clatter of the vehicle’s engine.  The party hit overdrive. I eventually drifted off to sleep around 3am, with the music still playing, albeit at a lower volume. 

I awoke with a start.  Switching my torch on I glanced at my watch. Five forty am. Shit! I leaped out of bed, dressed in under a minute, grabbed my rucksack and headed out through the courtyard, passing the now silent Land Rover and tables strewn with empty beer bottles.  As the approaching dawn began to lighten the sky in the East I alternately ran and marched towards the airfield.  As I got closer I could clearly here the sound of an engine warming up.  I ran as fast as I could with a pack across uneven ground.  Around 300 metres from the airfield then engine tone changed and increased in intensity.  I watched in the semi-darkness as the plane sped across the runway, lifted off, and turned south towards Nairobi.  I trudged slowly back to my hotel, tired and angry.  Once back I dropped my pack in my room and went straight to the duty manager’s office.  Hammering loudly on the door I demanded to know what had happened to my early morning call.  No response came from behind the locked door, just an almost imperceptible giggle.  I considered the futility and ridiculousness of my rage and returned to my room to sleep. After a couple of hours rest I woke feeling a bit better about the World.  So, I had lost a day repairing my tent and sleeping bag, and lost a bit of food.  It wasn’t catastrophic.  Heading back to Nairobi was perhaps an overreaction, especially now it would involve a long bus ride.  At the same time walking back into Samburu didn’t fill me with enthusiasm.  Maybe there were other alternatives.

Fine Art Landscape and Wildlife Prints

If you enjoyed this story why not check out my other blogs. I write about travel, the environment, marine biology, diving and wildlife. You may also want to check out my photographic prints. These can be viewed on my main site www.colinmunrophotography.com and include landscapes from around the World, people of the World, marine life and other wildlife. The prints are only available through my website, each one individual processed and made to order. This includes fine art giclee prints, limited edition prints and canvas wraps. I use only the best, carefully selected print houses employing the finest papers and printing processes to ensure image fidelity and longevity.

fine art wildlife and landscape prints for sale. Colin Munro Photography www.colinmunrophotography.com
A sample of my fine art prints for sale