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Best of Africa 2005

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A Proper Walk in the Kenyan Bush
By Tim Cahill   Photograph by Jeff James
Photo: A camel safari in western Kenya
THE AFRICA OF DREAMS: Tim Cahill's camel safari fans out across the Laikipia Plateau in western Kenya.

If there is one last great African journey, this might be it: 160 miles (257.5 kilometers) of wildest Kenya, a trek done in the style of the old explorers, a pack of seriously ornery camels, and one really good cause.

Online Exclusive: Hear Tim Cahill talk about waterless rivers and camel dynamics during his Kenya walk on National Geographic's World Talk >>

[To play MP3 files, you'll need a free media-player software, such as Windows Media Player, RealPlayer, or iTunes. For help with audio files, click here >>]


Six of us, witless Americans, were sitting on plastic chairs in a dusty courtyard in front of a group of 120 African children and adults, who were coming forward one after the other to take a microphone and thank us for coming to Africa, right here, to Makindu, Kenya, and undertaking our "difficult journey" on their behalf. We were, we learned, courageous, if not almost certainly doomed.
 
Joseph Kithome, a man so distinguished he could wear his shiny, iridescent Nehru suit and still look dignified, addressed the crowd in Swahili while Michael Farley, sitting by my side, translated.
 
"This school," Mr. Kithome said, "has no grants and no funding from any government. We depend on contributions. That is why our friends here," he motioned to us, "are walking to raise money for the Makindu Children's Center." The school is actually sort of an orphanage, and most of the children have been left parentless by the AIDS epidemic. Folks back in the United States had made pledges for each mile we would walk or had donated a flat fee, just like any other fund-raising walkathon.
 
Mr. Kithome, a board member of the MCC, said some other things and Michael, who'd gotten me into this in the first place, said, "Now he's talking about how we are going to have to dodge elephants and brave the blazing heat of the barren desert and suffer incredible thirst . . ."
 
"Suffer?"
 
"Walking through the land of the mighty lion," Michael translated, "the treacherous hyena . . ."
 
Mr. Kithome went on in this manner, about the perilous nature of our walk in Kenya's Samburu District, and Michael said, "These are city kids. All they ever see here are baboons and monkeys. This is exciting stuff for them. Mr. Kithome is just providing a little entertainment."
 
And I believed him on this right up until the third day of the actual walk, when the Samburu tribesmen came out of the bush and butchered one of our camels.
 
It took some driving to get up north to the land of rampaging zebras and mighty lions and treacherous hyenas, but the trip itself had started for me over a year ago, when I met Michael Farley in Virginia, where I was giving a speech. Michael, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Makindu, also ran a school for kids at risk in Nanyuki, Kenya. A singularly persuasive man, he suggested I might want to take a long, blistering, potentially lethal walk in Africa. It would be what Kenyans call a "proper walk," one in which survival was not absolutely guaranteed: 16 to 20 miles (26 to 32 kilometers) a day, through desert and thorn scrub and over some elevation, no dillydallying, and it would be done in the name of the MCC. "Adventure for a cause," Michael called it, and he shamed me into this enterprise—the proper walk—which upon reflection appeared proper in several ways.
 
Sometimes the problems of Africa seem overwhelming and insoluble. The continent is ravaged by AIDS and genocidal wars. Corrupt leaders gut the treasuries of governments, better described as kleptocracies, and millions of people live in a condition of gnawing poverty. Children routinely starve to death, and whole societies are dependent on foreign aid, which never seems to alleviate perennial problems. The magnitude and multiplicity of miseries in that plagued continent are not subject to any wholesale fix. Sometimes it seems as if the only reasonable response is utter despair.
 
Or a person could choose a charity or program and work on one small aspect in one small place where it is possible to see tangible evidence of problems solved. That's what was happening in Makindu: The orphans had been taken off the streets, lived in the community, and were well nourished and educated. The MCC was an example of selfless people doing what they could for others. It was a good deal for all involved.
 
I thought about all this in the days it took to drive to our jumping-off point. If our proper walk was "adventure for a cause," the adventure ahead of us was the second, more romantic, face of the continent: a place largely unexplored by outsiders until the past two centuries, a land of fabled exploits—Stanley and Livingstone, Burton and Speke—a continent of snow-clad mountains at the Equator, of immense herds of animals, of societies that continue to fascinate and confound just about everyone else, even their own neighbors. We were headed to an Africa of dreams and fantasy: of Tarzan and She Who Must Be Obeyed.

Will Tim Cahill complete his trek across the Kenyan bush? Find out in the September 2005 issue of Adventure magazine.

Adventure Guide: Kenya
Wildlife may be Kenya's most famous treasure, but it's hardly the only one. The country offers all sorts of African landscapes, from desert to mountain, savanna to white-sand coast, and easy access to each.
 
Safaris: The camel safari taken by the author may not be repeated in 2006, but there might be a similar walk to benefit the Makindu Children's Center—if you can raise $10,000. Contact the organization (www.makindu.org) for details.

If that seems unrealistic, head to Bobong Campsite, 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Maralal, owned by Jasper Evans and his family, to hire a camel and handlers ($13 a day; www.laikipia.org) and trek around Ol Maisor Ranch. Simba East African Safaris (www.simbaeastafricansafari.com) offers 14-day Kenya trips that take in the Maralal Camel Derby and include four days of camel trekking in the Samburu District ($4,250).

Come late summer, Masai Mara Nature Reserve hosts more than a million migrating wildebeests and zebras. Gametrackers Ltd. offers three-day safaris ($165; www.gametrackersafaris.com), while Rekero's secluded camp ($395; www.bush-homes.co.ke) offers front-row seats from their luxe tents near the Mara River.

Though fauna is harder to spot at little-visited Meru National Park, there's plenty hiding among the grasses and forests. Elsa's Kopje lodge ($380; www.chelipeacock.com) has luxury cottages.
 
Trekking and Climbing: At 17,057 feet (5,199 meters), Mount Kenya's glaciated summit is the second highest in Africa. Planet Safari Adventure Limited guides five-day ascents that culminate in a 2:30 a.m. hike to Lenana Point (16,355 feet) to see the rising sun hit Mount Kilimanjaro 200 miles (322 kilometers) to the south ($325; www.planetkenyasafaris.com).
 
Beach and Watersports: Off the east coast of Kenya, the idyllic island of Lamu has some of the prettiest beaches in the Indian Ocean. Stay in the village of Shela at the Peponi Hotel ($210; www.peponi-lamu.com), which offers dhow trips, snorkeling, and the only bar in town.
 
Giving Back: In addition to walking for the MCC (see "Safaris," above), there are many other opportunities to become involved in Kenya's humanitarian efforts. United Kingdom–based i-to-i positions English teachers in-country ($2,195 for six weeks; including room, board, and TEFL certification; www.i-to-i.com). Mombasa-based Interactive Voluntary Development Network places medical professionals ($250 as a flat fee; www.intvolnetorg.org) in rural areas.
 
Getting There: American Airlines has good connections to Nairobi, Kenya's capital ($1,298; through London; www.aa.com). Most outfitters will provide transport from the airport to anywhere in the country. Independent travelers can rent 4WD vehicles from Central Rent-a-Car ($41 a day; www.carhirekenya.com) but be aware: Nairobi is increasingly dirty and unsafe. Don't linger.     
—Jennifer Chin



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