Ben Lerwill traverses Kenya’s Great Rift Valley the hard way
On the third night, we sleep under the stars, close to a river. The evening is cool but comfortable, a far remove from the thumping heat of the daytime. We’re flanked on both sides by green wooded hills, and when we arrive for the evening, local villagers approach us; friendly but curious to know what we’re doing. When I lie down, I listen to the drift of the current until it becomes white noise. It feels good to lie back and stare up at the night sky. I’m not yet halfway through the week’s walk, but my legs are tired.
It’s taking us a full seven days to trek from one side of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley to the other, but traveling any faster would seem wrong. This is, after all, somewhere that knows all about the gradual passage of time. The valley, which stretches all the way from the Middle East to Mozambique, was formed between eight and 30 million years ago. Close to where we’re walking, hominid skeletons have been found that date back seven million years. Partly because of this, it gets called the Cradle of Humankind.
It was the region’s chief game warden, William Kimosop, who recently came up with the idea of the 88-mile Trans Rift Trail across the valley floor. It passes through a magnificently scenic spread of leafy hills, mud-and-thatch villages and flamingo-thronged lakes. We’re six hours’ drive west from Nairobi. Despite the area’s natural beauty, few tourists make it out here, so there’s a strong community focus to the trail. It makes use of local guides, local food and local campsites. And yes, it’s tiring, but it’s also a joy.
The wildlife along the way ranges from zebra and impala to hornbills and marabou stork, just as the landscape varies from dry cactus scrub to lush hillside coffee plantations. What really defines the walk, however, are the remote rural communities living here in the valley. Barely an hour passes without a shout from the bush of ‘chamgei!’, the catch-all greeting in the local Kalenjin dialect. At various points, goatherds, water-carriers and honey-gatherers all share the trail with us. It’s an area that, despite its expanse and heat-baked stillness, feels lived in.
Towards the end of the trek, we climb the Tugen Hills to reach a campsite known as the Queen’s Camp. The name comes from the fact that the current British Queen — then Princess Elizabeth — was due to spend a night here in the 1950s. She was unexpectedly recalled to the UK so never came, but it’s not hard to see why the hilltop was deemed fit for royalty. The views tumble away on both sides, across rippling green foothills and family smallholdings. In the distance, wisps of smoke from unseen charcoal kilns curl into a blue African sky. I look back at the high escarpment where we started, and feel glad that I’m crossing the valley the hard way.
East Africa Eco Adventures: www.eaea.co.ke