TRAVEL : Drover's return

Kim Hartley is a man with an ecological mission. Since 1984 he has been herding camels from Kenya to the arid Masai lands of Tanzania. Jeremy James explains why
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A PAIR of hyenas skirted the edge of the camp during the night; suddenly all the camels were on their feet. One of the Masai shouted, torches flashed, stones were thrown, feet beat across the bush. The hyenas shrunk back into the blackness, cicadas thrummed into the void and the slow rhythm of the African night returned.

I woke at the morning star to the sound of Lodo, one of the Masai drovers, noisily scraping the remains of last night's supper off the bottom of a saucepan. He was making an incredible din. Hassan and the other drovers - three Masai, two Somali and a Turkhana - were squatting in front of the fire, chatting and slurping noisily on a shared mug of camel's milk. Morani the camp-hand, who had been snoring all night, swore at them at the top of his voice to keep quiet. Nothing changed. Pretending to sleep with this racket going on was impossible, especially when lying tangled in my blanket on a collapsed Lilo underneath a "wait-a-bit" shrub - a mimosa covered with hooked thorns.

I sat up. The sun was sliding across the hill to our right, lighting the brown granite rocks. Somewhere in the growing light, a francolin hen was fussing; from elsewhere came the melodic bloop-bloop of another bird, and a whirling call like a buzzard. A flock of superb starlings, cousins to their dowdier English counterparts, swooped in a squabbling metalic sheen. Then the weaver birds started, with all the high orchestration of a brilliant Kenyan dawn.

The flies were getting busy. I hadn't heard the camels being released from their stockade, but they were moving quietly around the camp, fawn as lions, grazing the crests of the thorn bushes. These animals were bound for Masailand, Tanzania, 85 of them in all - 32 of them pregnant. We were taking them to replace the Masai cattle which had been lost through starvation because of the recent proliferation of dense, arid bush. Elephant and giraffe had hitherto kept the bush in check, but since they had been poached out of existence, the bush had thickened and smothered huge tracts of grassland. Where there is no grass, cattle die - and quite a few species of wildlife, come to that. Cattle cannot utilise bush, but camels can, because they are high grazers.

Kim Hartley, leader of this drove, whose camels these were, was already on his feet giving instructions about the course we were to follow that day - a distance of some 25 miles to our next night's stop-over, an arbitrary point lying to the south-east, in the general direction of Oldonyo Orok - his camp near Namanga, hard on the Kenyan-Tanzanian border. Here the camels would wait before their export and import licences were issued. Kim and his eight drovers had already driven these camels 200 miles on foot from Nanyuki, in up-country Kenya. I had just joined them.

This was not the first drove to make the journey; it was the third. The first time, in 1984, Kim and his 79-year-old father had herded 12 camels from north-eastern Kenya to Tanzania, to live in the parched bush for a year, produce their milk and breathe new life into the grasslands. The Hartleys foot-slogged to the border, then met trouble trying to get the necessary licences. Kim was told at the Ministry of Livestock that he was in the wrong building and ought to be submitting his application for export to the Ministry of Wildlife; camels, they argued, were exotic. Not so, Kim retorted; camels were domestic. Then they were the unproductive domestic bringers of drought, the ministry countered. Kim pointed out that the camel is actually an eco-friendly animal. Because of its grazing habits, it stimulates grassland - just like the elephant and the giraffe - rather than suppressing it. Camels can boost a pastoral economy, since they produce up to four times as much milk as a cow. Moreover, their milk is more nutritious, is rich in vitamin C, and lasts longer. Unlike cattle, camels can graze 70km or more away from water; even then, they will drink the brackish stuff at which other animals turn up their noses. Far from being harbingers of drought, they are a boon to any arid or semi-arid zone's agricultural system. Camels are good animals to handle, too. They are quicker to learn than horses and a lot more malleable than cows.

When Kim finally obtained his licences, he and his father drove their camels into Tanzania. There they met resistance from the Masai, who had not seen camels before; they called them oloworru - wild beasts - believing them to be crosses between lions and giraffes, and they came at them with spears. When refused permission to drink at one well, the Hartleys walked their beasts 40 miles to the next. Then the Masai began to ask questions. That year they had watched the animals get fat on bush alone, and had seen what they yielded. Children came to Kim with bowls: "And for the hungry," he quotes from the Koran, "Allah has provided the she-camel that they may drink of her milk." Now the Masai are saying a man with cows is not a man at all, but a man with camels is. This is strong stuff coming from a people who believe that, on the first day of creation, Ngai (God) gave all the world's cattle to their keeping.

Though attitudes towards the camel are changing, the shift is not straightforward. On the last few days of the drove, we passed through a village that was divided against itself. Here the people had bought the land around and resented the camels' presence; they didn't want them trespassing on their newly acquired possession. These were the Masai who had abandoned their shukas (their traditional dress), adopted western clothing and western principles of profit and land ownership. Yet their village headman was more conservative and regarded land ownership as a meaningless concept. Here, the division facing these people became clear: cultural oblivion, or preservation of an old and well-tested tradition - even if that meant adopting a new animal to sustain it, and a new mythology to underpin the old.

The headman took to our camels and became our guide, showing us through the labyrinth of owned property, back out into open Masai country. Here he looked much more at home, with his shuka and his dignity intact. He knew the place where Kim was heading, and went with him in the Jeep; we were left to follow his tracks on foot, to the site of the camp on the border - Oldonyo Orok, the Black Mountain, a few miles short of Namanga.

As we approached the mountain it stubbornly hung in mist, its rocky head disappearing into cloud. There was no telling its size. Not as big as Kilimanjaro, far from it, but somehow holding all its grandeur. We had been following Kim's Jeep-tracks since sun-up, and now everyone was excited - the Masai drovers especially so, because this was home territory for them and they were setting the pace. The sun was high and hot, and we ran pretty much all the way, the Masai loping lightly - lean, cool and athletic in their red shukas and shining skin, a constant pleasure to the eye - and I, filthy and sweating in holed shorts and dust-grimed shirt, the wrong shape and the wrong colour.

As we approached the mountain, Lodo pointed to a small ridge up above us - Kim's camp. We hit it late afternoon. I had wondered what it would be like: a hut, perhaps, with a bath maybe? But no. Kim's camp is no flat, well-tended marshalling of military tents with red-fezed lackeys silver- salvering and offering glasses of gin. Kim's camp is a two-tent - an old two-tent - affair, crammed in among the thorns and camels and anthills, with two Tilley lamps flickering out their last drops of kerosene through mantles of flying insects.

Later, in the fluttering gloom of his bug-crawling canvas, we sank a Tusker beer or two to celebrate the end of the drove - at least for me. Then he quietly expressed his concern about how he was going to keep this project running. Though he has had some financial help - mainly from the Australian High Commission in Kenya, from Farm Africa, Heifer International and one or two local charities - the cost is borne by his father's Colonial Service pension and his own slim wallet. For him there is no financial return, no salary, but he has no desire to gain from it. He is driven by an extraordinary personal vision, and by that old-fashioned but often overlooked creed, the farmer's creed - to return to the land that which is good for it, and to its people that which benefits them.

Kim gestured to the plain beneath the distant peak of Mount Meru, where his family had once ranched. He told me something I might have guessed of him, about a manyatta, a Masai homestead across the border where a group of women have formed a self-help co-operative. These women have lost everything: homes gone, husbands hit the bottle, cattle dead. This group will be the first recipient of three camels, free, gratis, from Kim, to help them start again.

That night, I couldn't sleep. Maybe it was the sound of the Masai singing their new songs about camels, or listening to the Somali drovers describe the camel's footprints across the Milky Way. Perhaps it was the thrill of having actually been on this drove, and experienced their enthusiasm for it. Maybe it was because this was my last night in Kenya. This is home country to me, the place where I was born and grew up; I was loath to leave it again. I wanted to stay with Kim and his camels, and stick with his high-minded ideals to keep the range open.

I promised Kim that, somehow, I would try to raise funds for his project. I would do everything I could to get that old Jeep of his patched up again, to raise cash for more stock, to throw in my lot with him. Above all I wanted to help him retain the integrity of the great savannahs - for the Masai and their camels, the elephant and the giraffe, the children and their bowls.

! Funds for this project are currently being raised by the charity Care for The Wild. Write to them at 1 Ashfolds, Horsham Road, Rusper, West Sussex RH12 4QX, or telephone 01293 871596.


GETTING THERE: Fares to Nairobi start at pounds 400 return. Jeremy James used tailor-made specialist Terry Jones Travel (01694 723000).

INFORMATION: Tanzania Tourist Office (0171-407 0566). A visa must be obtained from the Tanzania High Commission (0171-499 8951).