Camping & Caving At Chyulu

Before this trip, the last time I went camping with Nature Kenya is December 2016 when we went to Samburu. This is mostly due to 2017 being the year I was at my lowest- financially. My travel diary was dry. But thank God I’m not broke now. 🙂 During the Madaraka Day long weekend, I joined fellow travel junkies on a trip to Chyulu Hills.

Author at Chuylu Hills.
Coming at ya straight outta Chuylu! (Photo by Neville)

I was really looking forward to this one because i) I’d never been to Chyulu and ii) I needed time away from my regular schedule, I was weighed down by stress about something. Well, the travel day arrived and I was all set to leave. I called a bodaboda (motorcycle) rider who had agreed to pick me early morning and guess what- he hung up on me! Then he texted me the number of another rider. How casually do service providers treat customers in this country? Sigh.

Sausage tree with fruits.
The odd- looking Sausage tree at Chyulu.

Anyway, the other rider showed up and warned me about walking on our neighbourhood roads at that hour (6 am). He was preaching to the converted since I had been attacked by a knife- wielding thug last year, and I told him as much. The memories are still vivid thus I avoid walking alone early morning/ late evening. Imagine there are people whose first duty of the day is to rob pedestrians…we live in a sick world.

Dead trees in Lake Naivasha, Kenya.
Dead trees in Lake Naivasha.

After a series of connecting matatus  I finally got to the museum with a few minutes to spare. Almost everyone had boarded the truck. We were given a short brief about the trip, made sure everyone had arrived then we left. Since we were using Mombasa Road, I intended to take a nap. I like being awake on new routes so I can mark places I’ve not been to, then taking naps when on familiar routes. But I couldn’t sleep at all. There’s a project I had been working on but despite all my efforts, I seemed to be stuck at the same place. Something I’d wanted to do for so long, and now that I had the opportunity I worked on it hard. Yet doors were closing in my face at every turn.

SGR train passing through Makueni County.
SGR train passing through Makueni County.

I struggle with worry a lot, when I don’t know how things will turn out and I have no control over the situation. To take my mind off the anxious thoughts, I read the What on Earth am I Here For?  booklet by Rick Warren. It addresses the issue of our identity and purpose. Some hours later we stopped at a petrol station somewhere in Machakos County. There were a couple of acacia trees covered in Egrets. They were on every branch! It seems the birds were using the acacias as a breeding site.

Interesting landscape on the way to Chyulu.
Interesting landscape on the way to Chyulu.

Shortly we were on the road again. As we crossed countries the landscape became more hilly. The ground was carpeted in acres upon acres of pretty white flowers- unfortunately they are harmful. The notorious Ipomea weed chokes grass, depriving livestock of vegetation to graze on. I had read about it in the paper some time before the trip. Farmers are at a loss about how to handle it since the seeds spread rapidly with the wind.

Ipomea weeds in flower.
Carpet of Ipomea weeds (foreground).

We stopped at Hunter’s Lodge for lunch. The beauty of the structures impressed me, until the point when I learnt that it’s built right along a wildlife migration corridor. This raises a lot of ethical questions. Humans interfere with wildlife habitats then complain about human-wildlife conflict (insert eye-roll). There’s a platform at this lodge where visitors stand to watch elephants quenching thirst at the stream, whose water comes from Chyulu Hills many kilometers away.

Elephant-viewing platform at Hunter's Lodge.
Elephant-viewing platform at Hunter’s Lodge.

As we took lunch our discussion drifted to the sad situation at Lake Naivasha. Pollution by hotels, illegal fishing, rising water levels that have chased away flamingos and a host of other problems spell doom for this natural resource- unless serious urgent measures are taken. Soon we were back on the road and after what seemed like eternity, arrived at Kibwezi where the right turn to the Park is.

Huge baobab and tiny goats.
Huge baobab and tiny goats (left).

Towering baobabs dotted both sides of the road, as Morning Glory flowers covered the ground. Our bumpy ride was interrupted by the sighting of a lone elephant bull. He seemed enraged as we took pictures of him munching away. If not for the electric fence, he might have charged at us! The elephant also had bullet holes in its ears. Sometimes in addition to shooting in the air, rangers shoot elephants in the ears to scar them away. Another sad effect of humans moving into wildlife habitats.

Lone elephant bull in Kibwezi, Kenya.
The lone elephant bull enjoying his lunch.

We continued with the bumpy ride as the sun baked us mercilessly. It was a relief when we arrived at Chyulu Hills National Park gate. The process of clearing with gate staff took forever. The foreigners among us had a hard time paying their fees since the mobile network was low (they were using Mpesa). We got out of the truck and chatted as we waited for the payment to go through. As soon as that was done we resumed the journey.

Path from the Chyulu Hills National Park gate.
Path from the Park gate to the campsite.

What followed was one of the most intense rides ever. The road was quite uneven. The truck swayed so much that we thought it would tip over. Everything was shaking- the seats, our luggage, and even our self-esteem. This went on for more than an hour! Tsetse flies decided to add to the drama. They flew into the truck and wasted no time biting us. Darkness was setting in and someone joked that we might never reach the campsite- we should just set up by the road and wait for daylight.

Landscape at Chyulu Hills.
Breathtaking hilly landsacpes…

By the time we arrived at the Kisula Campsite, it was dark. First duty was pitching tents as our chef prepared supper. Unlike in Magadi where I was squeezed in a 2- man tent with 3 people, this time I had a 4-man tent all to myself. 🙂 Tea was served soon after, then soup and finally the main meal. This took away the disappointment of the campsite, which had overgrown grass, no running water and no proper washrooms. There were 2 measly cubicles invaded by wasps and Agama lizards. One of the cubicle’s doors had fallen right off. You don’t want to know what we did for toilet situations… Come on KWS, you must do better on this one!

Campsite at Chyulu, Kenya.
A section of the campsite.

The night was cold since it had drizzled when we arrived. This was actually good since the Chyulu area gets very hot- the rain provided cool conditions for our hike the next day. Breakfast was a serious mouthwatering affair. Toast, pancakes, boiled eggs, sausages, cake, biscuits and fruits along with tea & coffee. Hats off to the chef. He never disappoints. After this power breakfast we set off to hike some of the hills. Our guide told us to prepare for the possibility of rain due to the high altitude.

Hiker with hills in the background.
Look at those clouds at the summit…

We passed through a mini forest then grassland. At some point the grass was at shoulder height. The stones here are very rough, formed by volcanic activity years ago. We thought we’d trek for a few minutes, get to the foot of the hills then begin climbing. But there was no direct route to the base of the hills! The path went around a zone of thicket to get to the hills. After more than an hour of trudging this animal trail while fighting with prickly grass, most of us decided to turn back. We were already tired before starting the actual hike, the remaining distance would take more than 3 hours, and we still had Kisula Caves to explore before sunset.

Hikers in grassland.
Trekking through prickly, tall grass…

I would have loved to join the 3 dudes who continued hiking but they moved too fast and my body wasn’t ready for such a pace. Back to camp we went, this time leisurely. We took some snacks as we removed prickly grass seeds from our shoes and socks. Shortly after, lunch was served. We ate to our fill then prepared to go caving. Thankfully the caves were right at the campsite. Kisula Caves were formed naturally during volcanic eruptions, as lava and hot air sought an escape route from Chyulu Hills. The network of caves goes for more than 121 Km. How cool!

Hikers on animal trails.
Animal trail overgrown with vegetation.

We went down the entrance to one set of caves and the eerie beauty struck us right away. Patterns formed by lava on the ceiling and sides of the caves are some of nature’s best art you’ll ever see. Going further in, we lit flashlights to see the way. At some point the cave narrowed into a crawl space so we turned back. We entered the second passage, going down the mouth of the cave lined with sharp volcanic rocks.

Author in a cave.
Light at the top of the tunnel…(photo by fellow camper).

The walls of the cave were curved as if by construction machines, but it was done by lava. Imagine the force needed to curve rock! Carefully, we walked into the cave, at times going on all fours. The sharp rocks had no mercy on us. To experience the magnificence of the place, we switched off all the lights and stayed quiet. The only sound was water dripping from the ceiling. It was creepy! You couldn’t even see your hands in front of your face. If you got lost here, you’d never be found.

Author in cave.
Looking into the abyss. (Photo by Peter).

We returned to camp, rested as we waited for supper. I had a massive headache that was reinforced by fighting tsetse flies as I tried to shower. That is officially THE WORST camping shower I’ve had so far, taking the trophy from Magadi. I took a nap and woke up just as a campfire had been lit. We took supper, exchanged stories and played a few games before most people went to sleep. By then it was only 9.30. Too early for my bedtime so I stayed chatting with some campers. The moon decided to show off for the few of us left by the fire. Chyulu is amazing for stargazing- you see the constellations so clearly.

Entrance to Kisula caves.
Entrance to one of the caves.

The night was cold like Naivasha, but soon morning was here. Breakfast was heavy and most delicious. One of the highlights of this trip was definitely the food. We cleared up the campsite, packed our bags and got ready to leave. Hundreds of butterflies showed off their pretty colours. A Hartlaub’s Turaco called from its hideout in the forest. We boarded the truck and went on the bumpy road, leaving the breathtaking hills behind. It was an amazing trip except for the condition of the campsite- KWS needs to pull up their socks. Hopefully I’ll get to actually hike the hills next time…

Hikers at Chyulu Hills, Kenya.
Can you attempt walking in such tough terrain?
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