Tamara Britten takes to the little-known trails through the Loita Hills, connecting the Maasai Mara and Lake Magadi and finds unexpected comforts along the way.
Vietnamese spring rolls with peanut dip, fresh Greek salad, homemade hummus and pitta bread. Looking at this elaborate spread, laid out on a fold-out table surrounded by safari chairs on a hill overlooking an emerald valley, I immediately knew this would be an improvement on my usual camping experiences.
The Loita Hills, a range rising up between the Maasai Mara and Magadi, has rarely been written about in tourist publications. But this is an omission. These striking hills are some of the last remaining parts of Kenya that haven’t been partitioned, where you can wander freely for days, clambering up cliffs and plunging into waterfalls on a whim, and camping in secluded spots wherever you choose.
It was in these lovely hills that Jan Grootenhuis established Jan’s Camp back in the 1980s. When Adrian Hughes took over the camp, he quickly realised the potential of the area. Exploring the hills on foot, he was bowled over by it, and so began his Maasai Trails.
When I embarked on the walk, I knew little about the area. The Mara I knew, and Magadi too, but these rolling hills between them were little more than a backdrop to me. This was to change.
Safarilink flew us to the Mara, giving us views of a land that was unusually green after the recent rains. Adrian met us at Siana airstrip and drove us through the southern part of the Mara into the foothills of the Loita Hills. We stopped at a viewpoint where we met the Maasai who were to be our guides for the trip: Lemeria, Panae and Ntiyani. Overwhelmed by the views tumbling from our peak in every direction, I barely noticed the guys setting up lunch with the speed and efficiency of a team of silver service waiters.
While we ate, our guides weighed all the luggage and camping gear so as to distribute it equally among the donkeys that would be our companions along the way.
We set off, striding through open plains surrounded by dense forest, across a valley and through some marshes. Clear blue skies made the green somehow greener, and the sunlight glinted off the patches of water left by the night’s rains. Our guides – ahead of us and behind us – were happy to answer any questions we had on all subjects ranging from the flora we were walking through to their traditions, to what they thought about cows. Cows, of course, feature large in the life of a Maasai.
Adrian’s signature move is to stand, legs astride, arms flung wide, overlooking a broad vista, and proclaim at volume: AFRICA! And walking through the Loitas it’s easy to be stirred by his enthusiasm. This land, unfenced as far as the eye can see, epitomises the vast space of this continent in a way few places now do. Africa spills from the escarpments, unfurls across the plains and fades to mist on the distant horizons.
After wading across the glistening Ol Lasur River, we rounded a corner and entered our camp. Some of the team had beaten us to it and had set up camp. As with the food, attention to detail was extraordinary: a shower tent, discreetly set in a copse, with a branch towel rail, mirrored beauty set hooked to a branch, and shampoo and body wash in a little pocket; beautiful pop-tents set at a discreet distance from each other equipped with bedding and towels; and a soaring fly sheet shading a spacious mess area. The bar was set up, tea and coffee made available, and hot water for those who wanted showers.
While the sun turned pink over our heads and we celebrated this daily event with sundowners, three Morans passed by. After their circumcision and before becoming the guardians of their people, young Maasai are free to wander the area. Theatrically made up, legs painted ochre and foreheads adorned with headdresses, they tossed their plaits and greeted us with magnificent disdain.
A man of indeterminate age, known to our guides simply as Dorobo after his tribe, strolled into camp, knelt at our fire, and demonstrated the making of poison arrows. Squatting by the flames, he carved the arrow, chewing roots and rolling their glue in his hands, slitting feathers and attaching them with goat tendons, and forming the arrowhead with chicken wire and chain link. To my disappointment, he refused to share the recipe for the poison he dabbed on its lethal tip.
The following morning after a breakfast made more dramatic by the mist lying beneath the peaks, we walked to the highest point of the hills – Oltyiani – learning as we did so the story of how the Forest of the Lost Child, through which we walked, got its name. According to legend, two small girls competed to collect ripe berries without opening their eyes. The older child sneaked a peak and won. The younger, dejected when she opened her eyes on her pitiful collection of unripe berries, returned alone to the animal-filled forest to gather more. And was never seen again. “She must have turned into a tree,” our guide said matter-of-factly. “Or a rock.”
As we climbed paths weaving through dense undergrowth, we saw fresh buffalo dung and our Maasai guides told us what we should do if we came face to face with a lone and angry buffalo – essentially fling your backpack away and pin yourself to the ground. “If you have a backpack on your back, the buffalo can slide his horn between you and the bag and toss you into the air. But if you lie flat without a bag, he might not be able to,” our guide told us. The words weren’t reassuring.
Several viewpoints along the ascent gave us a taste of the stunning views that spooled from the peak on all sides when finally we stepped from the forested slopes and emerged into the clearing at the top.
After descending through a less dense section of the forest, we spent the day strolling across verdant plains and gently rolling hills, stopping for lunch at a shaded spot, and ending at a second suddenly sprung campsite, this time in a leafy glade.
Another decadent dinner preceded a night of deep and exhausted sleep in tents furnished with mattresses and solar lamps. After a breakfast of fresh fruits, we skidded down a plunging path from the hills to the blistering flats of Magadi where we were met by the team from Lentorre lodge. Arriving after a short drive at this luxurious lodge was the icing on the cake. We wallowed in our private plunge pools soothing aching limbs, enjoyed a game drive with sightings of herds of zebra and buffalo, sipped our sundowners on a hillock overlooking the plains, and were treated to a surprise visit from a nocturnal aardwolf on our way back into camp. After dinner, we slept the sleep only those who have trekked over the Loitas can.
The writer was a guest of Maasai Trails and African Territories.
Driving from Nairobi to the beginning of the Loita Hills trail takes five or six hours. Or you can fly from Nairobi to Siana Springs, where the team will pick you up for a scenic four-hour drive up to the start of the walk. Two-night trails start from Ksh 35,500 pp, but contact African Territories for a tailored quote. Trails, lasting up to seven-nights, can be arranged.