a night at the thousand-star hotel
As the drive back to Nairobi from the Matthews Mountains would have consumed an entire day, we decided to break up the travel, spending a night by the shores of the Nanyuki River in one of Kenya’s uniquest lodgings.
Before he opened the Nanyuki River Camel Camp a dozen years ago, Chris Field, a British expat who has called East Africa home for the better part of the last half century, worked for decades with FARM-Africa, an NGO that tried to help Kenya’s northern pastoralist tribes become more self-reliant in food acquisition. Living with camel-owning nomads and roaming the country’s semiarid northern lands, Chris also started raising camels and adopted the nomad lifestyle.
He says that the best change he made was jettisoning his tent, which could not withstand the extreme wind and blazing sun of northern Kenya, in favor of a traditional nomad dwelling, which not only proved to be more durable and provided better insulation against temperature extremes, but could also be easily taken apart and transported on the backs of two camels. When he left FARM-Africa and settled down in Nanyuki, marrying an ethnic Somali Kenyan woman, he decided to bring a bit of pastoralist culture with him.
Arriving late in the afternoon, we walked with Chris to the Somali huts where we would be spending the night. Made from woven palm mats attached to tightly-lashed wooden frames, the huts, which had been transported from North Eastern Province where Kenya’s ethnic Somalis live, were surprisingly cozy. While the novelty of spending a night in a traditional Somali hut was certainly appealing, it was the opportunity to spend an evening listening to Chris’s stories that made the experience truly memorable.
As night descended on the camel camp, Chris invited us to his “thousand-star hotel” — an Arab-style dinner that had been set up on a low, long table flanked by cushy mats under the open sky. As we dug into the camel meat and various delicious sides, Chris shared a bit of his long, colorful life with us, only pausing to chew his own food when we asked questions. After dinner we moved to a campfire where Chris continued to regale us with stories about the time he spent researching wildlife in Uganda, his stint as a pilot of a small, private bush airline, and the many camel treks he did through the remote, sun-scorched terrain of northern Kenya.
The next morning, before loading up the car for the drive to Nairobi, we headed out on a camel ride. According to Chris, camel-riding originated in the Arabian peninsula where camels were used in lieu of horses during warfare. In those countries to which camels spread after the Arabian wars people are used to riding camels. In places like Somalia and northern Kenya, where camels spread before they were used as instruments of war, people simply rely on them as beasts of burden.
Despite the name, Chris does not keep his camels at the camel camp. Rather, they had to be walked the 50 kilometers from the ranch where they are raised by a couple of Samburu camel-herders. Chris dropped us off on a desolate stretch of land some kilometers north of Nanyuki where the camel-herders awaited. The ride itself was fairly uneventful, but to get back to the camp we had to return along the main road that connects Nanyuki to the Laikipia plateau. The four of us must have cut a pretty ridiculous image riding camelback along the tarmac road with our herdsmen goading the camels along to prevent them from stopping every five feet to munch on the prickly pears alongside the road. What seemed ever more ridiculous is that the main road was so potholed that the cars that drove by largely avoided the tarmac, bumping along the dirt shoulder while we calmly rode in the middle of the poorly-paved road.