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A Maasai-led hike in northern Tanzania

A hike that traces valleys, plains, mountain ridges – and the history of humankind.

Story by Kendall Hill

Photography by Tanveer Badal

Zebras and wildebeests are the only witnesses as we set out at dawn across a volcano-ringed plain towards a halo of pink on the horizon. Flamingos, hundreds and thousands of them – in the peak dry season there are millions – are nesting and feeding in the soda waters of Lake Natron in northern Tanzania. But stalking them is like trying to catch a rainbow. Both are optical illusions. When we move, they move, luring us ever closer to the lake until our bare feet leave imprints in the sticky black shore.

Not far from here – roughly halfway between where I am and the

Ol Doinyo Lengai mountain that dominates the southern skyline – lies

a well-preserved patch of about 400 human footprints left somewhere

between 6000 and 19,000 years ago. A little further south, at Olduvai

Gorge, more footprints discovered in 1978 prove that our ancestors were already walking upright some 3.6 million years ago.

The blood-red waters of Lake Natron, which extend over more than 50 kilometres of the Great Rift Valley – the so-called “cradle of humanity” – are the fiercely spectacular starting point of Leonotis Adventures’ Footsteps of Mankind trek ( My four-day itinerary will trace ancient human pathways along this torrid valley, up the escarpment of the Gregory Rift to the Salei Plains and into the Gol Mountains. It’s a testing walk that leaves me bone-tired by each day’s end. There is no contact with the outside world – no phone reception, no internet, no news and no mirrors (a blessing in disguise). Strip away life’s distractions and you’re free to ponder the fundamentals. Who are we? Where did we come from?

Led by Maasai tribesmen, this journey is cleverly designed to answer those questions. A howling dust storm greets our arrival at Lake Natron Camp after the six-hour drive from Nairobi in Kenya. It’s quite the welcome to this blasted landscape studded with impressively active volcanoes and a vast lake that’s toxic to all but a few very specialised species including flamingos and intrepid humans. The solar-powered camp offers unexpected comforts given the setting. Its 10 spacious tents feature ensuite bathrooms and designer furniture fashioned from recycled roadside plastics. There’s a restaurant and bar, a recently added spa and a swimming hole – fed by freshwater springs that bubble up from 600-million-year-old bedrock – that’s equipped with hammocks and the odd giraffe.

For all the camp’s amenities, Kenyan-born owner Åke Lindstrom – whose grandfather was farm manager for Out of Africa author Karen Blixen – is careful to pre-warn guests about how raw and formidable this region is. The heat and dust can feel insufferable;

thorns and biting bugs are a frequent nuisance. But that’s also kind of the point. “We want people to get out of their comfort zone and slowly slip into being somewhere different,” he says.

I’m here for two nights, ample time to acclimatise and explor the unexpected charms of this alien, other-worldly land. One morning our group of five visits the nearby Maasai village of Engare Sero.

It’s home to most of the camp staff and community-led projects backed by Leonotis, including a medical clinic and a thriving organic garden where the Rift Valley’s surprisingly rich soils produce everything from avocados to superfoods such as moringa and chaya.

We explore the steep-walled Engare Sero gorge, navigating narrow basalt ledges to reach an oasis of terraced waterholes crowned with palms and figs. Plunging into rapids beneath a cascading waterfall is a delirious treat in the heart of the desert.

And in the golden glow of late afternoon, we scale a hill for shimmering views of lake and mountains before emerging onto the salt flats to find staff roasting goat over a fire. As the sun slips behind the escarpment, we relax on mats and cushions, gnawing juicy ribs and drinking G&Ts – with lemons picked from the village farm – when a chorus of cries and ululations rends the air. Ten Maasai women in colourful shuka cloth, beaded collars and fez-shaped hats crest a rise and file onto the flats chanting, swaying and smiling brightly. The women – all camp employees – have walked seven kilometres from the village for this joyous twilight performance. They sing a song of welcome to us, a song of thanks to Lindstrom and a prayer to their god. Squadrons of flamingos flap overhead, their calls like a goose with a kazoo.

At sunrise the next day we transfer by Landcruiser to the base of the escarpment where our hike begins in earnest. Led by assistant camp manager Lanjoo Kakanyi and Lindstrom, we have a rocky, five-kilometre ascent ahead of us to conquer the rift wall before emerging onto the greater Serengeti plains, famous for their multitudes of migratory mammals.

Kakanyi sports a brightly checked shuka tied like a toga and the essential Maasai accessories of walking stick, ol alem sword and beaded belt (embellished with the words “In God We Trust”). He is an engaging cultural interpreter, explaining how the Maasai god, Engai, lives inside the sacred mountain that shadows our journey. When they need something – rain, babies, more cows – the Maasai make offerings at the base of the volcano and pray. “We are all under Engai,” says Kakanyi. “He is in the mountain. He is in our heart, in the trees, in the creatures.”

It’s the end of a long dry season. The rains are due any day but in the meantime, we share the track with a constant convoy of herders shifting goats, cattle and fat-tailed sheep down to the valley to graze and drink, and women driving donkeys laden with plastic drums to fetch fresh water. I’m constantly reminded that while, for me, this trek

is recreation, for them it is survival.

All morning the air rings with the sounds of bells, clattering hoofs and the polyphonic whistling of herders. We exchange greetings with passing Maasai clad in vibrant purples and reds. Three hours later our group emerges onto the roof of the rift for a late breakfast – French toast, pancakes, fruit, eggs and beef-bacon – under an umbrella acacia, with infinite views over the Salei Plains of north-western Serengeti.

It’s a two-hour drive across these roadless grasslands, past zebras, ostriches and fleet-footed Thomson’s gazelles, to reach the Gol Mountains. Our mobile campsite at Sanjan Gorge has been erected in a natural amphitheatre at the base of these mountains – a favourite roosting site for Rüppell’s griffon vultures that patrol the skies overhead in their dozens. The camp is extraordinarily well-equipped, a bivouac of five large tents with doona-topped beds facing east over acacia woodlands.

Staff have also erected three toilets, two shower tents and a campaign-style fold-out bar. In such a remote location the simplest pleasures feel like the greatest luxuries. Chilled welcome towels scented with eucalyptus to wipe away the dust and sweat. A hot shower. An iced cocktail. A nourishing dinner – hearty butternut pumpkin soup, fried tilapia, roasted pineapple – eaten under a half moon and a beaming Jupiter.

Whisky nightcaps beside the campfire, laughing with new friends. A sense of wild freedom I haven’t felt since I camped out as a teenager. Hyenas whoop and holler through the night. Just before sunrise, I unzip my tent to see giraffes and volcanoes silhouetted against a rose- gold sky. A good omen for today’s 14-kilometre trek over the mountains.

We trace the northern rim of the gorge along a rising path lined with wild sisal, desert rose and lofty pencil cactus. Multi-coloured rocks flecked with mica make the track sparkle beneath our boots. The trail we’re following is prehistoric, “used before people were people, before Homo sapiens”, says Lindstrom.

This gorge and the plains above it have always been a place where humans could find water, shelter and food. Hence the stone tool fragments we keep finding at our feet.

It’s an arduous slog but all the more rewarding to arrive on the outskirts of Piyaya village for a shady picnic of pasta, vegetables and toasted sandwiches. Cold beers optional. Afterwards, a visit to the weekly livestock market to ponder the finer points of goat trading – “They’re like your current account for everyday payments, while cows

are your investments,” explains Lindstrom – and the aesthetics of stretched and beaded Maasai earlobes.

At Piyaya Camp, set high on a granite ridge that bisects a grassy plain thick with wildebeest during the January-March migration (but quite bare during my stay), our terraced tents look across to the mountains we’ve just conquered. We clamber down the ridge face to view rock art, gather on its crest for sundowners, dine under the stars on good food, wine and conversation, and embark on a morning excursion to a nearby riverbed where we find fossils strewn everywhere.

The final morning’s outing to the Olduvai Gorge Museum is the neat, logical bow that ties up the tour. The gorge itself is unimpressive – a mess of mullock heaps and modest peaks – but this is one of the world’s foremost archaeological sites. Its fossils chart a chain of evolution from the 3.6-million-year-old Laetoli footprints and the oldest stone

tools ever uncovered to the arrival of Homo sapiens a relatively recent 300,000 years ago.

I came on this walk ostensibly to learn about Maasai culture but inevitably given the labours along the way, I’ve also learnt a bit about myself. About my limits, my strength and my ability to find beauty and exhilaration in sometimes challenging circumstances. It’s more or less what Lindstrom hoped when he conceived the trek. “It is a really big

journey,” he acknowledges, “but if it was too refined and you were just going from lodge to lodge... I think people would miss the point. When things are rawer then you do get a bit of a connection. People will get different things from this experience but at the very least, what I would hope they get is a little bit of a connection with themselves.”

Story by Kendall Hill

Photography by Tanveer Badal

For more information on these properties and activities, contact Penny Hooper


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