Ranger Tom, in his camouflage and galoshes, is a native of Meru, the gorgeous green hills east of Mt. Kenya. He has worked for the Kenya Wildlife Service for almost 15 years, including stints in the famous Tsavo National Park and as an anti-poaching ranger in Laikipia. Tom was our guide and guard as I and some friends travelled to the Aberdares National Park directly north of Nairobi by 5 hours to explore this unique African moorland.
The Aberdares rise unexpectedly out of the Great Rift Valley, the immense tectonic gorge that splits the African continent from Sudan to Tanzania, to a height of nearly 14,000 feet. After miles of dense deciduous forest, a heavy moss-laden thickness broken by rays of sunlight, you emerge into a bizarre landscape unique to this altitude and this latitude: the equatorial alpine, a sort of craggy swamp decorated with strange almost-tropical foliage that blooms only in cold temperatures. Much of it wouldn’t look out of place in a book by Dr. Seuss. The bogs are arduous at best, and sometimes impassable. It is unsurprising that these moorlands were never populated when millions of acres of lush rolling farmland extend in every other direction.
Now this area is protected by Kenya’s finest, the Kenya Wildlife Service, an agency that controls potentially the most lucrative swathes of land in the country, from the Maasai Mara National Reserve to Mt. Kenya National park. A decorated organization, its rangers are often better trained and better equipped than the nation’s police force. Because Kenya’s greatest economic asset may be its wildlife, one of its greatest threats is poaching, and the government takes a strong stance against the activity through the work of the KWS. Many rangers carry guns as they patrol their territory, and although the weapons are ostensibly for defense against rampaging buffalo and the like, the ranger show little restraint in using them on poachers.
After a rough hour up a rocky road that nearly dismantled my little Toyota, my partners (several American students who agreed to join me for this particular expedition) and I alighted with Ranger Tom upon an untrailed and almost untouched landscape. Our goal is find some rumoured rock spires known as the Dragon’s Teeth that another Kenyan guide, an adventurous young man by the name of Reuben, told me about. Unfortunately, none of the game rangers knew what we were asking about, and even the warden, Mr. Cheruiyot, had only a vague idea of where to find them, but Tom agreed to help us try.
As we began to muck our way between the tufts of grass popping up out of the shin-deep mud, I ask tom about his time in the KWS. He told me that he learned to guide during his time in Tsavo, where he would lead bold tourists on walking safaris across a park known for its enormous elephant herds and man-eating lions.
When I asked him about his time fighting poachers and cattle-raiders in Laikipia in northwest Kenya, he was less open. It seemed that fending off humans was a more serious business than lions. I asked him if he’s ever had to kill a poacher. He smiled, winked, and said, “My secret.”
As we trudged through the bog with 30-kg backpacks, tom darted nimbly, almost playfully, from tussock to tussock in his Wellingtons, his only baggage a rifle. Every time I sent a foot deep into the cold mud, I envied his practicality. He laughed at us and said we looked like porters on Mt. Kenya (appropriate).
We found the spires eventually, and Tom watched in fascination as we deciphered a path up the chiseled rocks, fiddling with climbing protection and building anchors. Although we offered to get him up climbing, he passed, stating with some amusement that he was “a very good walker,” and that he preferred to stay on the ground.
Throughout our trek that day, Tom and I reminisced over our various misadventures in the Kenyan wilderness, traded stories of buffalo encounters and getting lost in the bush. As I walked behind him and tried to copy his steps to avoid muddy catastrophe, I distinctly heard him say to himself in a casual, cheerful way, “Good new adventures, good new adventures…”
In a country and continent where ‘doing what you love’ is for most a pipe dream, Ranger Tom is of the rare breed that loves something very simple–exploring the wilderness–and has found a way to do it every day. For all of us stuck in a society where we think we need constant comfort, entertainment, and affirmation, we would do well to see how little is actually need to be truly fulfilled.
At the end of a long day, we bought tom a soda back at the gate, gave him a salute, and were on our way, but not before I took his cell number.
Next time I’m lost, I’ll know who to call.