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THERE are days in the life of a columnist where the brain freezes and the words won’t come. I had one of those days yesterday, emerging from a series of meetings to find the well had run dry. So I committed plagiarism. Well, not really – I plagiarised myself. I received an email from a long lost friend who, on my advice, has just done a trip through Kenya’s Cherangani Hills, and it brought the memories flooding back, and I dug out a piece I wrote for Out There magazine back in 1998. This is a severely edited version:
Kenya is a land of secret places and some of the most spectacular scenery on the African continent. Like the Cherangani Hills. The name, Cherangani Hills, is a misnomer. The “Hills” part of it must have been named by an old colonial with experience in the Himalayas, because these “hills” look like the hill country of Tibet, 3 370m on the summit of Nakugen, the fourth highest peak in Kenya.
Just as the hills are misnamed, so is the main road in: It is called “The Cherangani Highway”. You go up a highway and come down a spiral stair case.
We had come from the lush plains below, the Uasin Gishu plateau, busy farmland settled by a group of South African Trek Boers in 1908. At the height of the depression after the second Anglo-Boer War, thousands of Afrikaners had been dispossessed of their land, and were living in grubby poverty in squatter camps on the fringes of the new urban settlements of the Transvaal. The Eldorado of Kenya promised new breathing space.
Elspeth Huxley described the trek: “To get heavily-loaded wagons up this steep escarpment along the rough, narrow, treacherous track, with inexperienced oxen and in a wet year, was a truly remarkable feat, and only Afrikaners could have performed it...” she wrote in No Easy Way.
Negley Farson, wrote about the trek in his 1947 book, Last Chance In Africa: “It is said that when the Boers first came to this part of Kenya... that they out-spanned at once, saying: ‘Here is a land where our women can breed in space’... years ago I travelled with the Trek Boers, and I know how they love space. It is by far the nicest thing about them: the type of Boer who would in-span and trek on if he even saw the smoke of another man’s fire on the horizon. The country was getting too crowded.
“You get that feeling on the Uasin Gishu to this day. The first Boers trekked the 500 miles up here from the coast, passing over the hump of the Kenya highlands and through green paradises that would have delighted the heart of any Englishman; they even passed up the Great Rift. When you know that a people have done that, you know that they have something in their psychology that is foreign to yours.”
The Boers made their capital at Eldoret, an accidental town. The wagon which brought their heavy safe from Mombasa collapsed here. No amount of Boer muscle would move it. So they built the bank around the safe, then built a church and a town around the bank.
The English settlers made their capital 70km to the north at Kitale, once the central way station for caravans moving to the slave markets of Zanzibar, Kilwa and Lamu. They built the Kitale Club on top of the old slave market.
Negley Farson was charmed by the settlers: “This is the Englishman’s paradise. The Club, with its golf, dancing, the happy-go-lucky chatter over a sundowner in the bar, the happy foregathering of old friends at luncheon on market day ... The gay jauntiness of their lives!”
Above Eldoret and Kitale rise the heights of the Cheranganis. The English settlers who made jolly at the Kitale Club stocked the crystal streams of the Hills with rainbow and brown trout. That’s why we went there. In search of wild trout, because there is little more important in life than wild trout. Perhaps one thing. Wild trout freshly caught cooked on the coals at our camp on the bank of the Morun River. These are wild rivers.
They plunge down a series of stairways that harbour deep pools at the bottom of each landing, the trout are lean and muscular, some of them reach five pounds and more and the fishing is hard and exciting.
You need a tough vehicle in the Hills. And, in places, nerves and brakes of titanium. Some of the descents are seriously terrifying, mixed in with hairpin bends and huge, sheer, empty drop-offs into space just metres from the verge.
The air is thin up here, and the vistas glorious. There are many roads to explore, and a hundred more tracks to hike. This is a lost part of Africa. Go there and weep over the sheer beauty of it all.