Watering the cattle — a morning walk with the Maasai

Engaruka

We set off well before sunrise to reach Chief Marias’ enkang in the Engaruka region in time to follow the morani on their morning cattle drive to the river. On this early morning of late December, the sky was behind a layer of still, gray clouds that hung close to ground as if weighted down by the rain they never let go of. The sun would soon burn off the cloud layer and by midday it would be scorching hot. But the rainy season was definitely on its way and the previously arid earth had started to sprout and speckle the red dust with green tufts. Most of the cattle were held by morani up among the hills that lie beneath the rift escarpment, where lush vegetation had been triggered by the recent rainfall. The few  cattle that were left in the enkang were brought to the river together with a large number of goats and sheep and a half-dozen donkeys carrying empty water containers.

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Time to go! Are you coming? We are heading out on our 2 hour walk to the river. The sheep and cattle know the way.

As we started our hike up the gentle incline, the clouds slowly lifted and we could just barely make out the escarpment as a hazy wall beyond the blue hills we were heading towards. We carried nothing but water and sunscreen. Oltwati and his brothers carried their sticks and traditional spears to fend off any predators that might attack the cattle. No, we didn’t see any lions out here on the rift valley plateau, but later that night we saw a band of spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) loping off into the darkness.

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Somewhere behind the hills there is a river.

To the north, on our right-hand side as we walked towards the escarpment, we had the cone of Kerimasi. Behind it, hidden from view, was Ol Doinyo Lengai, a live volcano and sacred mountain of the Maasai. Due east, behind us, was the other demarcation of the Engaruka valley, and far beyond that lie Mount Meru and Mount Kilimanjaro.

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Looking back east towards the enkang. Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru behind the horizon.

Closer to the foothills, we reached fresh pasture among acacia shrubs. The heavy morning dew gave the grass a silvery shine in the diffuse, cloud-filtered sunlight. The animals entered grazing mode, moving with a slow, continuous pace towards the river.

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Big M and Oltwati. They both like Zlatan.
On the way back from the river, each one of the donkeys will be loaded up with fifty liters of water.

We had time to play, testing each other’s toys. Taking pictures is fun! Hold still now…

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Trade, trade: you get the camera, I get the spear…

And showing the warrior skills that make a moran! Very impressive precision handling of the spear.

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See the lion over there?

The little river had a good current, bringing cold and surprisingly clear water down from the escarpment watershed. We sat beneath the trees on the river bank and cooled our feet in the stream, while the cattle milled about downstream quickly making the river a thick slurry of erosion deposits.

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Little M counting in the sheep as they roll down the bank to the river.

After the walk we went back to the enkang and then onwards down to the rainwater catchment dam on the valley floor. Sharp sunlight and big open space. A small grove of acacia trees offered a bit of welcome shade. Chief Marias explained how they had built the dam and their plans for further improvements to be able to direct massive floods into secondary overflow dams, thereby avoiding another breakthrough of the wall, which had ruined the dam a few years ago. Now everything was working nicely again, making it possible to hold water past the rainy season and well into the dry period.

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Big M heading for the shade under the lone acacias by the dam. Dad’s old desert cap from A16 can only help so much from the burning sun.

Quoting Lonely Planet: “…a desolate, otherworldly beauty and incomparable feeling of space and ancientness.” Yes, our experience was definitely along those lines.

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View towards the escarpment. Rains of late have ushered in the rainy season and started to fill the catchment dam.

For a full day, we shared the life of our Maasai friends. M & M got exposure to the very different conditions that the kids in this enkang are growing up under. Do you really need a lot of toys to be able to play and have fun? That’s something to think about back home.

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