Mtelo: sacred mountain of the Pokot

Saturday July 6 2019

The ridge between Katugh peak and Mt Mtelo on Sekerr Hills

The ridge between Katugh peak and Mt Mtelo on Sekerr Hills. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT | NMG 

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It’s dark and the sky is blanketed in stars. We’re following John Yaposiwa Ywalasiwa riding his motorcycle up a road through the Sekerr mountains in northwestern Kenya. The area is visited by only a few intrepid travellers.

The road to the eco-lodge has two rail-like tracks cemented on murram. An hour later, we’re driving up one of the peaks facing Mt Mtelo, the sacred mountain of the Pokot people.

Ywalasiwa, the owner of Mtelo View Eco Lodge, welcomes us warmly. It’s almost midnight, but his wife brings out a hot meal of chicken curry, chapatis and tea. It had been a whole day of driving from South Nandi Forest in western Kenya.

The eco-lodge is beautiful. My banda has a spacious bathroom, painted in silver, and an instant hot-water shower.

In the morning, I saw the peak of Mt Mtelo from my banda.

View from the banda facing the peak of Mt Mtelo

View from the banda facing the peak of Mt Mtelo. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT | NMG


The plan was to scale the peak of Mtelo. From my vantage point, it looked incredibly easy. That was until we started walking.

At 6am, in the company of Jagi Gakunju, Timothy Mwinami and Robert Muchungu, and escorted by our local guides, we stepped out of the gates to conquer the summit.

“Take your time. Even if you come back at 10pm, don’t worry,” said Ywalasiwa.

We walked through terraced fields of onions, sugarcane and maize. My three companions vanished into the horizon.

My guide, Alex Dite, and I arrived at the saddle between the peak of Katugh and the rest of the range that peaks at Mtelo. It was midday and we had been hiking for six hours. Hiking in the darkness is not my cup of tea.

So we spent an hour on the saddle surrounded by peaks, with the expanse of the Great Rift Valley below.

A silver streak in the distance was the Moruny river that starts in the Cheranganis and flows to Turkana. Parallel to it is a thin straight line—the tarmac road to Lodwar near the great desert lake.

The saddle is decked in soft green grass. Children attend a nursery school under a tree, and then show off their skills with a football that’s made with bits and pieces of plastic and rags.

Thunder echoes through the hills and white mist races above Mtelo. I wonder why I had not asked everyone to carry tents and sleeping bags so that we could have camped up there.

A Pokot couple reached the saddle and made haste to Mtelo. “We are going there to pray for rain,” said the man. There’s a drought going on and the Pokot people face Mtelo when praying.

Scanning the mountains, I saw that only Mtelo and the peaks are forested. Beyond them, every inch has been cleared within the past decade for farming.

I staggered back to camp in the late afternoon. As dusk fell, the rest of the group came in. They had made it to Mtelo and were elated.

The Bearded Vulture

“When we reached Mtelo, we thought the pair of birds in the sky were the Augur buzzard,” said Muchumu. But on closer inspection with binoculars, they could not believe their eyes.

They were looking at the very rare Lammergeier, or the bearded vulture. To confirm their sighting, the men did a playback—a recording of the birds from an app—and the birds above sounded exactly the same as the recording.

Lammergeiers were, until four decades ago, common everywhere on the mountains in Kenya. They were last seen in the Cheranganis a few years ago.

Today there are only about four pairs in the country. A habit of this bird is that it drops the bones of the carcass from great heights next to the cliffs it lives in. It then swoops down to eat the marrow from the broken bones.

For two days, we enjoyed hiking and meeting the locals. On the drive down, we took in the size of the land that we had driven through in the night.

The Moruny was in full flow, and we passed through the narrow gap between the Cheranganis and the Sekerr range called Maarich Pass.