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Mt Kulal Beautifully Dominates Lake Turkana’s Eastern Horizon.

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This weekend we all have fun as we enjoy the glamour associated with the Fourth Turkana Tourism and Cultural Festival at the Ekalees Cultural Centre in Lodwar. But just before I left the area, I noticed from a distance and spectacular mountain range, a virgin landscape and maybe the source of the life in the semi arid region.

Mt Kulal dominates Lake Turkana’s eastern horizon and its forested volcanic flanks offer some serious hiking possibilities. This fertile lost world in the middle of the desert is home to some unique creatures, including the Mt Kulal chameleon, a beautiful lizard first recorded in 2003. It’s secluded from civilization and my guess is it will take years to document all the living species in this unique ecosystem.

If you pass by Arapal, be sure to whistle a tune at the singing wells where the Samburu gather water and sure you headed for a hike and I better throw a word of caution, that no matter what the local guides tell you, trekking to the summit from Loyangalani in a day isn’t feasible. However a several days trips could see you scale the big beautiful mountains with the help of local tour guide and donkeys at a small fee to carry your gear, or you can part with considerable sums of cash (KSh30,000 to KSh40,000) for a lift up Mt Kulal to the villages of Arapal or Gatab. From there you can head for the summit and spend a long day (eight to 10 hours) hiking back down to the base of the mountain.

The Mount Kulal forests aid in holding water and delivering it to the villages on and around the mountain. Water is delivered by springs in the forest and on the shoulders of the mountain, as well as by seasonal and constant springs at the base of the mountain. Up to a dozen springs and water holes are known on the mountain alone. Intact forests at all levels, from the mist and cloud forests at the summit, through the villages of Gatab, Oltorop, Larashi and Arabal, to the Acacia forests on the shoulders of the mountain, aid in retention and absorption of the often short and intense rains and in preventing rapid runoff. Rapid runoff can cause not only soil erosion and loss of vegetative cover, but also loss of livestock and human life through serious flooding downstream.

The rich volcanic soils that are increasingly used for agriculture to complement traditional herding practices are not the only important geological feature of Mount Kulal. The ancient lava flows filter and conduct water to springs throughout the region. Loyangalani Spring provides year-round freshwater on the eastern shore of the salty Lake Turkana and has become the key to the largest settlement in the region. Loyangalani was originally established as a trading and administrative centre based on proximity to the spring and remains reliant on it for all its freshwater. It now serves as a base for the small amount of ecotourism in the reserve. The Oasis Lodge, outside the centre of Loyangalani but close to the origin of Loyangalani Spring, was the first business established purely for tourism in the region and has first access to water from the springs.

In that 5 years accommodations have been on the rise around Mt Kulal and there are now many camps and lodges in the region. Oasis Lodge remains the premier eco­tourism lodge. In addition, numerous other seasonal springs rise near lava-strewn streambeds or in the middle of lava fields. These are important watering holes for humans and for the animals on which they depend for their livelihoods.

Mount Kulal forest provides many resources to communities living on the mountain as well as those living at lower altitudes. The forest is the main source of building material, fuel wood and medicine for local inhabitants. The deep gorges are used by morans, young Samburu warriors, as training and hiding grounds. Samburu villagers report the historical use of numerous caves, gorges and even cavernous fig-tree trunks as refuges during raids and prolonged battles with neighbouring pastoralists.

The forest products used most often are poles for construction of local houses. Samburu houses in the villages of Mount Kulal take one of two forms. Mud and pole structures built with tree trunks can last decades, especially with regular maintenance of mud walls and metal roofs. More traditional homes use smaller branches that are buried in the ground and bent into a dome to form the main structure of the house. This structure is then thatched with grass and brush and now preferably roofed with plastic. These homes may last only a few years and it is not unusual for a compound to have several constructions of varying ages. Smaller twigs (e.g. of Lippia sp. and Lantana sp.) for reinforcing the mud walls may be obtained from bushland near the village rather than from the forest.

Probably used at an equal rate is deadwood for fuelwood. Local administrative officials attempt to enforce conservation laws established during more active management of the reserve, which limit cutting of living trees for fuelwood in the forests on the mountain. However, cutting of brush or trees in the forested areas outside the core zone and the lowlands of the reserve seems to be unregulated. Fuelwood here is vital most of the year because of the cool climate and high humidity. Woodfuel (fuelwood and charcoal) is the main energy source, but charcoal is made on a small scale, mainly for local consumption. According to one resident of Gatab, some households collect as much as 40 to 50 kg of fuelwood daily, although this is probably an extreme upper limit.

Most surveyed residents verified that the forest is a rich source of local and traditional medicines, although it is difficult to quantify the amounts collected. As this information was received from non-specialists, it is safe to assume that many if not most households collect these products periodically. Since they are available to all in the nearby forest, they are not actively traded or exchanged in markets. Some plants are used in soup, mainly by moran, to prevent diseases, while women add certain plants to the milk given to children to fortify them. Both Clerodendrum myricoides and Boerhavia coccinea are planted in homesteads for their medicinal value.

During prolonged droughts people bring their animals into the forests to forage. Branches, usually of olive trees, are cut to feed the animals. During extreme droughts, animals also browse most other plants in the forest. The extent and effect of grazing in the forest is not yet known. Signs of cut branches and occasionally small trees are visible in the forest. Selective use of preferred species may warrant study to determine the effect of decreased biodiversity of forest species. Provision of water is the most important service provided by the forest for local villages. A number of springs now have impoundments to collect water for piping by gravity flow to holding tanks that serve local communities around the mountain.

Make sure to stop a few times to get out and walk. I couldn’t believe the size of the trees and we took a group picture at the base of one of the most impressive specimens. Eventually, we emerged from the forest and joined another path that took us to the village of Arapal, home to a smaller Samburu community. We visited with a few of our businesses in the village. Before I got back in the vehicle, I took a last deep breath of the cool mountain air.  Ahead of us was the Falam, a notorious desert that we would have to cross in order to reach the village of Karg areas where the life seems to turn back to modern world.

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