The Chyulus: Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa

I had heard so much about the enigmatic Chyulu Hills, but only from a few people ‘in the know’.

The Chyulus are among the world’s youngest volcanic hills; some of the range is still considered active. The Shetani lava flow is so recent that stories of the eruption are still passed down by descendants of the area’s 19th century inhabitants. Earlier lava flows are now occupied by maturing woodlands, whose roots penetrate the crevasses to eke out a living. Some of these flows formed lava tubes, leaving behind a labyrinth of cave systems. ‘Leviathan’, in the National Park, is one of the longest lava caves on the planet.

The soils on the slopes are so young and porous that there is no permanent surface water in the area. Most water seeps down into aquifers and underground rivers, joining water from Mount Kilimanjaro to feed the Mzima Springs and Athi/Galana River. So the Chyulus are a vital water tower – especially for the coast.

Most creatures get moisture from their food, or rely on the dew and mist found on the higher slopes. It’s this mist that sustains the Chyulu’s beautiful forests. Cut off from other forests, a number of endemic arthropods have been discovered. And there are isolated populations of forest species such as Colobus monkeys and even Giant Forest hogs.

Despite less prolific game-viewing than in neighbouring parks, the area still has good wildlife, and it plays a vital role as a dispersal area for animals from Amboseli and Tsavo West. The ranches are used as a migratory corridor or wet-season feeding grounds.

I was lucky to stay at the region’s two best lodges, Ol Donyo on Mbirikani and then Campi ya Kanzi on Kuku. Both group ranches are around 280,000 acres and they feature some pioneering conservation projects, supported, in part, by the lodge guests’ conservation fees.

On Mbirikani, the Big Life Foundation (www.biglife.org) runs efficient community development and anti-poaching operations in the wider ecosystem. They are directly involved with the protection of Kenya’s last, truly wild, rhinos. The Foundation’s director, Richard Bonham, received the Prince William Lifetime Achievement Award for Conservation in Africa last year.

On Kuku, the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust (www.maasaiwilderness.org) employs over 250 people in capacities ranging from anti-poaching to teaching and healthcare. The Trust’s chairman, Samson Parashina, received the UNEP Champions of the Earth award in 2012.

Both organisations are set up so that the communities directly benefit from the wildlife, through employment, sustainable infrastructure development and education. There are plans for holistic grazing and REDD+ Carbon Credit schemes.

While the Maasai have traditionally lived in harmony with nature, burgeoning human populations and dwindling wildlife have forced a number of cultural revolutions. Both Big Life and MWCT approach issues such as human-wildlife conflict and traditional lion-killing in similar ways. Predators used to be killed in retaliation for livestock losses, including with poisons that had catastrophic effects on the entire ecosystem. Therefore, ‘predator compensation’ schemes have been set up. While considered controversial by some conservationists, these schemes are tightly monitored so that only genuine claims are successful. Well protected livestock with vigilant herders and proper boma fences are less likely to be killed, and will receive higher compensation than claims arising from careless losses.

Ol Donyo Lodge is set spectacularly in Acacia thickets at the edge of a vast plain that seems to run all the way to Kilimanjaro. Each room features a rooftop ‘star-bed’ which can be set up on a clear night for ultimate romantics. Plunge pools and its Relais & Chateaux status also give the lodge its deserved reputation. Guests have many options for activities, ranging from game-drives, cycling, horse-riding, day trips to Tsavo and Amboseli, joining Big Life operations, community visits, and the highly recommended hikes to the caves, in forests or around the lodge in search of elephants. Find out more on http://www.greatplainsconservation.com.

Campi ya Kanzi offers almost all the same activities, with a similar range of stunning habitats. However, the lodge is designed very differently, with an ‘old-school’ safari atmosphere and canvas rooms. This camp is famous for being one of the most awarded for eco-credentials. On top of its role in support of the MWCT, it runs entirely off solar power and harvests all but its drinking water from a rainwater catchment scheme. A lot of its fresh food is grown on site and then deliciously served as Italian cuisine – an Italian family, the Belpietros, run it with the community. Find out more on http://www.maasai.com.

Both lodges can be reached by road, or by air from Wilson Airport. If you are feeling more adventurous and are on a tighter budget you can visit the KWS Chyulu Hills National Park. You will need to be entirely self-sufficient and have a 4×4 to explore most of it. The vistas are amazing and rangers should be able to escort you into ‘Leviathan’ and the forests if pre-arranged.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation