All smiles when they got close, Lentaaya and Lendiki chatted to them, they said hello to me and we all sat down for a while under the trees. They had been upriver to check their cattle and were running back maybe 10 km or more to their village before returning to the cattle later that day, a bit like an office worker popping home for lunch. Fitness might be relative, but my mind wandered to thoughts of the great Kenyan and Ethiopian long-distance runners that seem to win no end of Olympic medals. Suddenly, their athleticism seemed less surprising.
As well as the ubiquitous, razor-sharp bladed spear each carried (and, I was told, could throw with incredible accuracy) every moran I saw in the forest carried a small leather bag. I asked Lentaaya what they carried therein. Apparently it was a small amount of rice. ‘But what do they eat when they are in the forest for several days a long way from their village?’ I asked. ‘Oh, they eat well,’ he said, ‘They milk the cows and mix rice with that or maybe they bleed the cows a little and mix the blood with the milk to drink too. It’s very good’ said Lentaaya.
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Each moran carried another, smaller pouch too. This was seemingly just as vital to them, maybe more so. It was the pouch designed for their mobile phone. No self-respecting moran went anywhere without it … even though mobile phone signals penetrated almost nowhere in the forest. Like their beads – and, thankfully, their potentially lethal spears – the phone was yet another fashion statement. I felt positively under-dressed.
Further on during that same morning’s long walk, Lentaaya suddenly signalled to stop and keep very quiet. I had heard nothing. Pointing upwards to the tree canopy maybe 40 m above, he had spotted a troop of Olive Baboons up in the branches gorging on tree fruits. If Lentaaya hadn’t been with me I doubt I would have noticed them. Because the baboons were so high above I assumed that, if we walked on quietly, they would stay put. I didn’t want to disturb their elevated feasting. But no! Loud, whooping ‘wa-hoo’ calls started high above, the calls were taken up in adjacent trees and within seconds they became a cacophony of sound. It was the Olive Baboon equivalent of ‘let’s get the hell out of here’.
That’s exactly what they did. And at such a speed, it put any fireman’s drop down the fire station pole into the beginner category. These baboons – all sizes from small youngsters to full-grown adults – were dropping down 40-m tree trunks in seconds, their hands grabbing the bark at intervals as they dropped. All around us, baboons were shimmying down; I assumed several must have injured themselves or even perhaps been killed. Each time one of the larger baboons hit the ground, I could feel the vibration under my feet.
But this was everyday life baboon-style. Continually whooping, once on the ground, they all made off in one direction from their scatter of fruit-laden trees, bounced along the ground and forded the stream-like Ngeng River, assembling together as a troop on a flat rock on its far bank. Not one appeared injured. There they gathered together; fathers, mothers and all the children – 30 or 40 of them including some very small youngsters – watching us closely and doing some mutual grooming as if nothing untoward had occurred. It was an amazing, surreal experience that lasted maybe twenty seconds. But what a great twenty seconds it had been.
Almost every night in the forest, similar ‘wa-hoo’ calls from Olive Baboons woke me. The call they make when stressed, a troop sleeping somewhere close to our tents was clearly responding to a predator on the prowl. And a few times I heard a leopard, apparently common in these forests. A kind of grunting bark, not loud, it was clearly enough to spook the baboons. Maybe the leopard wasn’t even contemplating grabbing one – they might well be more interested in killing bushbucks here – but the baboons were agitated by its presence nevertheless. And I had soon become used to the endless, metronome-like calls of the abundant but tiny Yellow-spotted Tree Frogs that started up when darkness fell and ticked away all night long in a surprisingly loud chorus. It was somehow soothing, rather like the soporific effect a ticking clock has on some people.
So the only other sound that woke me a couple of times, apart from the predawn cries of the Fish Eagles, was the almost nightly occurrence of a tree, presumably a small one, being pushed over by an elephant on its night-time wanderings. One particular night, this small-hours tree felling seemed particularly close to our tents; I unzipped the front flap of mine, peered out but could see little. No one else appeared to be moving so I assumed we were perfectly safe and not likely to get trampled on by an elephant or flattened by a large tree limb. I crawled back into my sleeping bag and off to sleep.
I knew there were dangerous predators about but most of the wildlife in these forests was a delight not a worry. I was particularly keen to keep a watch out for interesting birds and mammals every time I went across to the rivulets of the Ngeng River just below our camp to wash or to collect the drinking water I needed to purify before I could consume it. Here, Black Saw-Wings were always flying about, jet black swallow relatives that hunt aerial insects. And baboon droppings were a constant feature of the waterside rocks; presumably like us they came here to wash. They probably watched me a few times from the deep cover of the far riverbank but I could never see them.
The river, in spite of its low flow, was good for kingfishers too; black and white Pied Kingfishers hovering above the surface before plunging in to extract a fish and small, blue and orange Malachite Kingfishers darting past like fighter jets. But the crowning glory of the river was the crow-sized Giant Kingfisher, a speckled black, white and chestnut beauty of a bird I had seen before in South Africa, but then only a glimpse as it flew off. Here there were far better views to be had; perching on a river boulder or on a low slung branch of an overhanging tree to spot fish below. A magnificent sight but yet another creature utterly dependent on enough rain to keep the rivers flowing.