Firelight above the River
In the Central Highlands of Kenya
(1999) A cool breeze is blowing through the darkness. Smoke from the fire is tossed about before deciding where to remain and the flickering light dances on everyone’s faces in time to the rhythms of the wind. Arranged on large sitting-pillows in a semicircle around the fire, the students and several new friends are chatting, staring into the fire, breaking into short bursts of laughter. Behind them, several lanterns placed here and there sweep out small circles of illuminated detail- a picture on the wall, a hewn log post, a Samburu artifact. Just beyond the fire, beyond where the stone floor gives way to a small wood deck, and far below our perch on the side of this gorge, we can hear the steady rush of the Ewaso Nyiro river. My eyes sweep up the narrow hewn posts into the log rafters lashed together supporting a large thatch roof, only barely apparent in the low light of the lanterns and the fire. Then pointing my eyes out into the darkness, I imagine the creeping leopard, drinking at the riverbank, the silent crocodile, or a family of baboons. The entire front of this hut is exposed, open to the breezes and the sunrises, to the song of the river, the plunging and flittering of birds, and the expanses of the African bush.
My gaze swings back to a partially lit face in front of me. A lantern is glowing behind two wine glasses, its reflection is squashed in the curves at the neck of the wine bottle. Beyond, off to the left behind Kerri, are the fire and the students, beyond them is the river and the bush. We are seated at the dinner table, in this half-structure, by lantern light and surrounded by the cool night air, discussing plans for the days to come. She has assigned a Samburu guide, Gabriel, to take us out on camel safari and several walking safaris. We have come north, to this camp on the Ewaso river, after meeting Kerri over lunch at the Douglas-Hamilton place the day before, and after a bone-jarring, teeth-rattling 6hour drive.
While trekking around in the low brush, over hills and rocks, we will see game shuffling about in herds, flying above in aerial hunt, or filing along to and from the river waters. We will break off a small piece of special twig to chew- a Samburu toothbrush, and learn how to make potions for curing backaches and stomachaches. We will peer downwards, hunched over, studying animal tracks, and gaze broadly upward, from the top of some escarpment, taking in the majesty of the open spaces.
From atop the slow, trudging camels several of us will be tossed back and forth, swaying in the sheepskin saddles, while others walk beside and in front of the train, studying tracks and plants along the way. As always, Matt and I are shuttering our way through roll after roll of slides, twisting and zooming for the perfect shot. The hot sun is noticeable from a seat on the camels or walking alongside, more so than from inside the safari van we had in the Maasai Mara.
Visiting a new friend from the neighboring ranch, we will travel to a Samburu village, meet the people and stoop to enter the small manyattas. We will visit with a 36-hour old baby in the pitch darkness of a manyatta, choking on the smoke from a claustrophobic fire, and shoot slide after slide in the single shaft of African sunlight that pierces the blackness inside. The baby and nanny will model for us, their colorful red clothes in the smoky shaft of light offset by a weathered old black face and a chubby smooth young one. Afterwards, our friend Julia will be kind enough to give us cool drinks and offer a jump in her spectacular pool overlooking the miles and miles of bush.
We will be sleeping under a thatched roof and inside three walls, lulled by the steady sound of the river, the tips of our noses kissed by the coolness of the exposed night air. The students and Matt will pile onto one large mattress in the mess hut, next to the fire, like so many boys at a backyard sleepover, while I take the opportunity to spend some time alone. The log furniture, stone floor, heavy blankets, and rustic construction of these magnificent huts reminds me of my home in Colorado, and I will sleep better here, to the song of the river and in the snap of the night breeze, than I have in months. The Samburu guides begin milling about before 6am, their toothy smiles complementing the bright red clothes they wear.
For now, looking over at the boys, watching them squawk about their adventures to our visitors from the neighboring ranch, with their firelit faces, and with Miriam quietly smiling at their buffoonery, I can only imagine the things to come. I am simply relieved that we have subverted the drudgery of going back to Nairobi, that we have a plan to fill more days of the Vimy’s chronic delay. And so, returning my glance to Kerri telling me about the days to come, I pull in a deep breath, feel the sharp coolness of it, allowing my eyes to blink shut for a split moment, and let the weariness of the hard travel wash away down river.