Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Kenya Calling – Flight to Kwenia

Even to the most seasoned true-born Kenyans and Kenyan safari experts, when I admit I am Kwenia bound shortly, each one of them express complete incomprehension about the place or its significance. This confirms that I am indeed up to something unique, remote, and therefore fascinating; something exactly up my alley. But then as my friend and host Sandy confirms, to do anything with the person, in whose company I am heading for Kwenia, is bound to be up my alley.

This trip happened only due to an enigma, a phenomenon and one of the most fascinating persons I have ever met outside of the mountains – Simon Thomsett. Sandy introduced me to Simon on the very first day of my arrival and there was an immediate bonding between us. I would be putting up a separate post on Simon, for he and his life deserve not only a mere post but a full length book, which I might write in the future. As of now this post is about our trip to Kwenia and my apprenticeship under Simon, who is arguably today the world’s most knowledgeable and experienced authority on East African raptors. Obviously this post is dedicated to Simon; Simon here’s to you my friend! Hoping to see you soon and do more such intriguing trips with you one day.

Simon is as impulsive and footloose as I, perhaps even more so and it is almost impossible for him to know or to predict where he would be the next day. He knows my keenness to accompany him on a field trip; so I get less than 10 hrs notice to pack my bag and go with him to Kwenia to study the cliffs and vultures and the raptors that the area abound. I have packed my bags for month-long extreme expeditions in less time than that, so I am ready for action in a jiffy. I have no idea what’s going to happen, where we are going, what I am even supposed to do. So I pack in my tent, some bit of food, water and my inborn curiosity to seek the unknown. It’s a privilege, as Sandy affirms; just to be with Simon alone on a trip like this. He is literally the Tenzing Norgay of the raptor world.

Next morning Simon picks me up in his Land Rover, which is so severely battered and ancient (both the front doors are tied with hemp ropes to the frame) that I firmly belief it runs more on Simon’s will power than any other fuel. As we speed off into the awakening dawn, winds blowing on our face and the ruddy glow of the sun growing every minute, Simon tells me briefly about the place.

Kwenia is primarily a cliff running nearly 36 km long that has an amazingly diverse raptor population. This place is not known except to very few people and Simon had discovered it nearly 25 years ago and has been exploring and recording the raptor population since then. He opines that the area (around 15,000 hectares) should be converted into a community owned conservancy so as not to lose the wild life and the raptor population. He wants my opinion on that as well; to explore possible sites for lodges and huts to promote tourism as means of revenue. There are scattered tribal villages beneath and around the cliff, many of whom Simon knows closely.

So we stutter and sputter in his rickety Land Rover and climb the Ngong hills then go down the other side. It’s an interesting winding valley, arid and dotted with bush covered mountain cliffs. But for the early sun I would have enjoyed the place. After around three hrs we turn off from the main road that continues towards Lake Magadi, and take to a dirt road reaching a place where the soil has been completely eroded and muddied by recent rain. This kind of African mud is strange, it can stay dry for the entire year and then only after a little shower it can utterly flood and overflow, making it totally unusable by a vehicle, even for a Land Rover.

So we back off, retrace our path on the main road and then take to another dirt road that Simon hopes would take us to the area, of which he has only the foggiest of idea. Simon is completely crazy and adventurous like me and as I can see quite comfortable and confident in losing ways. So we go and lose our way, then meet local Maasai people, get some obscure directions, and by which time, sun has begin to set. After some more floundering, even Simon throws the towel and we simply drive off into the jungle and camp under the moonlight. Simon literally dismantles the vehicle in order to get out food and set up the kitchen at the back. The night is comfortably warm and hair-blowing windy. I struggle to pitch my flimsy tent while he gets the gas going. Soon my tent is up but tottering under the wind and our pasta is done. Simon disappears within his rooftop tent while I walk around a bit and then retire to my tent on ground.

Next day we start off early, following directions of yesterday, through huge boulder littered grounds and impossibly sinking marshy lands with high brown grasses that reach far above our car roof, in a direction that Simon is confident would take us to Kwenia. I have no idea how he even manages to keep the steering wheel under control and the vehicle from getting stuck. My respect for him grows in leaps and bounds as we progress through the grassland literally opening up a new path like a bulldozer, where none existed before. It is strange to see hutments and solitary tribal encampments scattered far and wide around on the hills. They are completely nomadic and simply park where they find sustenance for the cattle.

We finally get to a Maasai village, where we are immediately surrounded by the villagers, who accuse us of stealing and killing the raptors. Simon talks to them in their local dialect while I simply shine my smile around, not comprehending even a single word exchanged. As time flies by, more people gather around and I sense some amount of hostility in their body language. Simon shows them his KMS card and his credentials, tells them about his friends in the area and finally the situation is defused. One of the village elders then decides to take a lift with us to look for his cattle. We then leave the village with the elder sitting on the roof with his bare feet dangling that hit my head once too often for comfort but I keep my mouth shut.

As we come out of the tall grass, we begin to see the dry bed of Lake Kwenia and the cliff that simply seems to run endlessly into the further horizon. We drop the elder at a place and head towards the cliff. The stack of cliffs, row after row, placed by some master craftsman perhaps, takes my breath away. This could easily be a rock climber’s paradise. Though the quality of the rock doesn’t seem too stable from the distance. We park under the shade of the only tree available close to the dirt road. As I eat, Simon points out to me the soaring birds around the cliff; I could identify the generic vultures, raptors, kites and hawks, kestrels and other birds flying in and out of the cliff faces nests. After a quick meal, we start off for some exploration.

I carry my camera with 300 mm lens while Simon shoulders his bazooka launcher sized and shaped 500 mm Canon lens. There’s absolutely no path anywhere so we head for a wall where Simon spies huge deposit of vulture dropping. To reach the bottom of the cliff we wade through forests, rocks and then start climbing very steeply through rotten screes, slipping and sliding, holding and hanging on to grass and branches, getting bruised and cut and bleeding through the thorns and small round fruits that sticks all over my body and itches like crazy.

The face keeps getting steeper as we climb higher. Looking back I see the Kwenia bed falling and fanning all around us below. The vehicle now looks tiny and forlorn under the tree. Simon does a fine job of balancing his heavy lens and following my steps. Finally I lead Simon to one tiny ledge outcrop and then we sit beneath the nests to observe what the birds do. The day is super hot and we have forgotten to carry any water. We watch the majestic birds fly and circle high above us, see them braking by lowering their legs and spreading their wings as they are about to crash into the cliffs. It’s amazing how fast these birds can fly and then how quickly they can come to a halt simply by using their wings and legs as airbrakes much like the ailerons of aircraft. Being right underneath I can see their each and every movement. The air reverberates with their wing-beats and when they approach their nest in full flight it sounds like a small aircraft, and then just when I think it’s going to crash into the cliff, it suddenly stalls and drops quietly, folding the massive wings like a submissive child. And then quiet prevails. The cliff is painted white and look like ice stalagmite formations full of bird droppings.

As the sun sets and my throat literally screams for water, we continue our vigil over the kites hunting and vultures flying in from the direction of Mara where they go each day (a distance of around 200 km) to look for dead carcasses. These vultures can easily fly at 180 kmph. Simon keeps me riveted with his bird stories, facts and figures and tells me about the area, and I begin to feel as if I am doing my PhD.

Simon is amazing, in the short time that I have been with him, I have learnt volumes of information about birds and African wildlife, even though I know that it must be the tiniest tip of the biggest iceberg. I listen to him in complete rapture, discarding my verbosity for once. He would pick up skulls and femurs, droppings and wings and tell me how to judge the weight, sex, age of the bird and I am amazed to learn that all birds are actually descendents of dinosaurs and pigeon is a close relative too. I learn about raptor habitats, why they prefer the cliffs, how they navigate across thousands of miles in search of food and how they return each day to their nests. I learn about their nesting habits, where and when is the best time to observe them and how they are tagged and monitored. Simon promises to teach me some day micro surgery too and DNA analysis.

With the sun now low in the sky, the azure begins to turn crimson and the breeze pleasantly cooler. The misty horizon is dotted with distant hills and the entire cliff face is bathed in the orange glow. Simon and I sit on a ledge and witness the grand spectacle mutely. We still have a long way to descend and have to find a way as well. Reluctantly we tear ourselves from the place and get back to the vehicle well into the darkness. Just like before, we cook, eat and then Simon climbs into his rooftop tent while I find a small clearing nearby and pitch my tent on ground. Night birds lull me to sleep with their shrill cries.

The dawn is brilliant and as planned we start off as early as possible. Today we plan to climb to the top of the cliff and study the nests from above. Simon knows a roundabout way to reach the top, which is to walk for several km beneath the face, climbing gradually and then reaching a gentle slope that would eventually lead us to the top. As we have no climbing gear at all, it isn’t prudent to just go up the cliff anywhere. It is steep and the rock is rather poor and ill placed.

Dwarfed beneath towering cliffs we walk through the bushes with our paraphernalia dangling all over. We decide that if we find some suitable place then we would just shiny up free hand. Simon is a confident rock climber. While I am following him, at a place I find a line that I think is manageable free hand, so I holler to Simon, who prefers to go ahead and find something simpler and shorter. So I tell him that I would meet him at the top and in case I can’t manage it then I would descend and join him up ahead.

I look up at the rock face that seems quite big and smooth but seems to lead into a gully that should take me to the top. But I cannot see the entire route as there are several overhangs in between. I decide to have a go. I have no backpack so controlling the dangling camera is most difficult. I cannot afford to let it strike or bang into any rock and absolutely cannot afford to let it fall. Plus I have a water bottle and few packets of biscuit as well. I stuff everything into my trouser pockets and swing the camera on my back and begin the climb. I have no rock climbing shoe and my hiking shoes begin to scramble on the rock.

As I climb higher, enjoying the smooth movement and transitions from one rock to another, I also begin to realize that soon enough I would cross my point of no return and I wouldn’t be able to reverse the climb down and then would have to find a way to the top, come what may! The wind is chilly but soon I am warm and exhilarated with excitement. The holds are good, but they are far placed and I make bold moves. It is tricky and technical and to do it so high up and exposed completely free, with no room for error surely keeps my adrenalin pumping. Keeping the camera out of harm’s way only adds to the complexity of the climb.

At one place, nearly 2/3rd way up, the chunk of rock on my right hand simply comes off, and I feel that I would now sail off into the air like these birds and crash on ground several hundred feet below. Luckily my left arm by then has locked into a tiny crack and that stone does not fall. So after few huffs and puffs, I emerge out of the gully, mantling the last few moves and sit panting and gasping little on the top. I look down and around but see no signs of Simon.

I go back towards the point where he should be climbing up and call out his name few times till we meet up. We now begin our exploration. Suddenly Simon jumps up like a kid in candy store and flattens himself to the ground, bidding me to do the same. Why he did so and what happened thereafter, must come as a separate post since it is of immense magnitude. So I would skip that part here and get on with the rest.

We walk along the edge of the cliff till we finally find ourselves atop the vulture nests that we had seen from below the previous evening. Simon and I jam ourselves into outgrowing rocks, holding on to branches and roots of trees so as not to topple over and observe the birds from above. It is a majestic sight. The drama is unfolding right below us, almost within touching distance and the vultures seem totally oblivious of our presence. What takes my breath away is the ease with which the vultures just lean out of their nests and spreading their wings glide so effortlessly into the thermals. While taking off and flying out they barely make a whisper. And then they accelerate so suddenly and rapidly like a jet engine. We click pictures by the hundreds. We observe among others a pair of Egyptian vultures seemingly very much in love, since one just keeps following the other. They perch close to me on a tree and then take off again, just soaring and enjoying the blissful morning in each other’s company. It makes me pine for someone too far away.
We also look for an ideal place to construct an observation platform for Simon, from where he can shoot directly into the nests and gather information about the birds. I show him the cracks and crags and we discuss the technicalities, equipment needed, etc.

Among the raptors we see, I recall Mountain and Common Kestrel, Lanner Falcon, African Hawk Eagle, Rüppell’s Griffin Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Tawny Eagle, Chanting Gawshawke and shrike.

Finally it is time for us to return. I reluctantly tear myself from the place and we go down back to the vehicle, the sun now scorching hot so we strip off our shirts and eat some stuff and head off into the communities where Simon has friends. The return journey isn’t much to write about. We follow the trail along the railway track and drive across the entire length of the cliff, spying several illegal and hidden charcoal burning enterprises.

Unbeknownst to me at some point I had transformed from an observer to a participant. The soaring birds had completely enchanted me with their antics and had left me with thirst for more. I am no expert on wildlife and least of all on birds, I still may be cannot identify more than a dozen bird in the wild, but then man induced and created knowledge is not necessary to witness and appreciate what nature has created. A raptor by any other name or no name at all would still inspire the same awe, wonderment and bliss within my heart. I will not be able to differentiate the male from the female but its surreal flight would still leave in its wake my beating heart that would forever wish to join them in the sky.

And for all this I have Simon to thank, for he taught me to walk on ground but look up into the sky. Thank you Simon!


  1. Amazingly vivid post Satya; totally loved it. If you recall I was with you on your Turkana trip. One of the angels, as you would say :-)) I leave it to you to guess which one ;-)You bring alive Kenya even to us who have been living here for years. Great knowing you. When are you coming back? Take care and keep writing xxx

  2. Love the mountains! Your passionate mountains tales are indelibly etched in my memory as though it was only yesterday you gave us your moving talk.For me you are a true earth champion, thank you for the inspiration so that I am able to 'take the risk'

  3. You really do transfer me to another world, S. Totally enchanted by this tale of yours and would love to fly away one day with you to a world unknown.

  4. 2 and a half years later I find your blog and the tale of my elusive brother. You obviously had a great time with him and thanks for writing about it. Each time I visit him he sets me a physically demanding task :)
    Superb photos.

  5. I watched a TV programme this evening in my home in Northern England that Charlie Hamilton -James made;truly opening my eyes as to the huge importance of vultures in east Africa. The tiniest shred of understanding how we humans can destroy is made clear again. Simon Thomsett's amazing dedication is something to give great thanks for. Is there a fund to help preserve these magnificent raptors? The inbalance of this magnificent part of the world is obvious. Thankyou for the inspiration.