Last month, we set out as a family to hike Ololokwe, the sacred desert mountain. We drove north through the haze that is prevalent in the dusty landscapes of Northern Kenya; it obscures the distant mountains, causing them to slowly loom into view as you close in on them. Eventually a huge and rugged cliff face emerged, and tall, sharp lines came into view as we approached Ololokwe. This desert mountain towers over the landscape and justifies its role as a sacred place for the Samburu people.
Ololokwe doesn’t stand alone. Two smaller mountains connect to it forming a horseshoe around a valley with one entrance. This place is called Sabache – named after the clasp of the Samburu woman’s necklace and a symbol of beauty in their culture. Sabache is also the name of the camp where we stayed before making the ascent and seeing for ourselves this magical place.
A steep hike awaited us and soon we were sweating as the sound of birdsong and the occasional sign of larger animals greeted us. The vegetation slowly changed around us as we made our way higher, becoming less thorny and more mountainous, signaling to us that this is no ordinary mountain in the desert. Cycads grow in abundance; they are among the oldest living species of plant and are unique in their appearance, with dark green, spiky leaves and fronds for branches. Soon after, we saw cedar and olive trees, their branches hanging with Old Man’s Beard, and ferns and aloes growing about their roots.
We finally reached the plateau with stunning views of the Northern Frontier District and a cooler breeze off the sky. A drink of water replenished us and then we continued through large open pastures with small stands of olive and cedar. We crossed the occasional stream of water, fed from springs and giving life to the animals and plants. The landscape was so different from the arid desert thousands of feet below.
We walked until we reached a forest of taller trees, majestic and proud, some long dead but still standing tall. Among the trees in the forest, we saw more cycads but these were much bigger than what we had seen before. The trunks of these plants are taller than people and look like pillars with royal crowns of green. Some have fallen under their own weight, having grown for so long in soft earth with shallow roots. We set up our camp in the cool shade of this beautiful forest.
A quick exploration of the area took us to a large clearing with a stream running over rocks to form pools, the occasional plant emerging through the rock, and many birds enjoying this oasis in the sky. The clear, sweet water ran over the rocks and the edge of the cliff. We spent a lazy afternoon exploring the mountain and enjoying the views, taking photographs, and watching birds. After an early dinner we retired to our beds with the serene atmosphere lulling us to sleep.
The hike down was much easier than the way up, however one has to be careful not to slip on the steep slopes. More bird life entertained us as we headed down the mountain as well as the odd shout from our guides, which we could hear echo off the surrounding rock faces. We eventually arrived at the bottom of the mountain, greeted by Samburu women leading donkeys to fetch water at a well near the lodge.
We were almost reluctant to leave the mountain, however, more exciting adventures awaited us at out next destination, Shaba.
Written by: Sibastian Belcher
photography by: Simon Belcher