Guy Needham meets Kenya's lion warriors.
"Um, aren't we a little low?" shouted my fellow passenger over the Cessna's engine.
She was right, we were only 50m above the ground and below us impala were scattering everywhere. "No, of course not," I reassured her while quietly enjoying a personal Out of Africa moment as she gripped the armrest.
We were half an hour out from Samburu airstrip in central Kenya, a wee spot on the map just inches above the equator, and the entry point to Samburu National Reserve.
The landing wasn't pleasant. My fellow passenger gave me a pained smile as she tumbled off the plane. Unlike her, I wasn't there to go on safari; it was the guardians of the animals who interested me.
"Super!" came the crisp New England welcome from behind a beige Land Rover.
Strolling towards me was Tina Ramme, a professor in biology who tracks nomadic male lions for six months of the year and lectures at Harvard the other six. (I later learned she was actually saying "su pa", which is "hi" in Samburu language, as opposed to being really happy to meet me.)
Strapping myself in, we bumped our way across the East African wilderness, passing through the reserve — an unexpected safari of elephants, giraffes, baboons and ostriches. Exiting the park, a small plaque caught my eye: "In memory of Elsa, who helped safeguard this game reserve."
"You've heard of Elsa, right?" Tina asked. Elsa the lioness was a young orphaned cub, adopted as a pet by game warden George Adamson and his wife, Joy, in the 1950s. They released her into the wild and their story, Born Free, went on to sell five million books and was turned into an Academy Award-winning film. I nodded affirmatively.
Years on from Elsa, the presence of lions is still a hot topic. While the park is a guarded national reserve, the massive area around it is untamed land where lions and humans have co-existed for centuries, sometimes not so peacefully. Which is where Tina came in.
"No lions have been killed by a Samburu since 2006," she said. Working with the Lion Conservation Fund for the best part of a decade, her speciality is lions who are expelled from a pride — when they threaten the leader — and then become nomadic. But researching nomadic lions is no easy thing.
She realised early on that she needed the help of the moran (warriors) of the Samburu tribe, known for their tracking abilities. The moran are the fearsome face of the Samburu, still traditionally dressed and armed with spears, and now with cellphones. The Lion Warrior project they are part of not only empowers them to track lions, but also helps educate their communities about the wider role conservation has to play in Kenya.
"The moran have so many parallels to nomadic lions," she said. "They both are kicked out of families early in life and can't return for a number of years." She explained that the moran is the second stage of life for the Samburu male — after childhood and before elder — that begins from age 12 to 14. They are circumcised (women are still circumcised, too) and must leave home and join other moran in fending for themselves.
Over the next 15 years, they learn to hunt, kill, protect and live in the bush, and only after that period are they allowed to return to their boma (village), having shown that they are responsible enough to marry and raise a family.
As we arrived at Sabache Ecolodge at the foot of the mountain Ololokwe, I was introduced to my helper, a young moran named Dickson.
The lodge, run by the Samburu community, was far from what I expected. Described as a "traditional African bush camp", my room came complete with handcrafted furniture, stone en suite, solar power and sundowners whenever I wanted them. Mornings started with watching elephants rummage in the riverbed below; days were spent chilling on my own private veranda; and in the evenings the campfire beckoned as dinner was shared with other guests — rock climbers, film crews, tourists and families.
"Do you want to meet the warriors?" asked Dickson. The moran were returning to camp having tracked lions over the previous few days. Once paw prints or other signs are spotted, they can identify the size and age of the animal they're following. When they see the lions, they keep a healthy distance and report their observations to Tina once back at camp.
I took the opportunity to ask them, through Dickson, what their day had involved.
Suddenly, these serious young men become animated, pointing and gesturing down the valley towards the mountain. Dickson explained that three of the nomadic lions had banded together and were hunting in a mini-pack. Seeing this sort of activity was very rare and the moran were obviously proud.
I was invited to join them for a meal. "Ohhhh, a goat. Now that's something special," said Tina, when I told her where I was off to.
I arrived just as lunch was being unloaded from the back of a motorbike. Held down by four warriors the animal bleated into submission, its body still. One of the moran put a knife to the goat's throat, slowly, shallowly, slicing down the skin to part its coat under the neck. A quick nick and then blood started flowing into the pocket of skin that had been created. One by one the moran put their lips to the pool of blood, sucking in the rich redness as the goat slowly died.
The sacrifice wasn't just because of lunch; the moran were contributing to a celebration that was being held that night. The entrails and liver were carefully wrapped and taken to the entrance of the nearby boma. "We are not allowed to eat with our family," explained Titus, another moran, "so this is the closest we get."
My timing could not have been better. Twenty nine days before I arrived there had been a blood moon eclipse where the moon "disappeared". In the customs of the Samburu, the only way to guarantee its return is to sing at it to bring it back. Tonight was the first full moon since the lunar eclipse and I was about to attend "The Moon is Back" party.
The colourful Samburu women were gathered in a group, their bright beads bouncing upwards as they jumped and sang to welcome the moon back. Nearby, elders drank tea while keeping an eye on the excitable children.
Knowing I was a photographer, the women lined up to have their pictures taken. After seeing her portrait, one of them said something in Samburu to the group which got them all laughing. I was told, "She just said that you'd whispered that she was the most beautiful."
The eating started and the celebrations got under way. Taking my leave, I crossed the riverbed on the way back to the lodge.
Under the trees I could make out the Lion Warriors sitting around a fire, finishing the remains of the goat. Away from their family, living the traditions that have kept the Samburu strong, and having their last meal before preparing to track the lions once more.
The Moon was indeed back.
Emirates flies daily from Auckland to Nairobi, via their hub in Dubai, Economy return fares start from $2089. From Nairobi, depart Wilson Airport on Safarilink or Air Kenya to Samburu.
For details on Sabache Ecolodge, go to sabachecamp.com.
For a visa (costing $73), go to evisa.go.ke, at least three months before travel.
Entry to Samburu National Reserve costs $100.
Check the luggage allowance of any small planes you're travelling on in Africa. Most have a 15kg maximum allowance including hand luggage, all to be in soft bags.