Aidan Hartley

Wild life | 4 June 2011

Aidan Hartley's Wild life

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Aidan Hartley's Wild life


I had enjoyed a boozy lunch and afternoon in the Men’s Bar of the Muthaiga. I rarely get time off and I was, like the hue of my adored club’s walls, in the pink — and looking forward to a convivial evening out among fascinating people. The call came in just after sundowners. ‘Sorry to interrupt,’ the voice on the line said, ‘but bandits have stolen all your cattle.’ Still in my city clothes, I raced home through the night, keeping myself awake by loudly blaspheming all the way until I reached the farm two hours before dawn.

I cursed my fate. I resolved to give up farming all together. At first light a lion was roaring in the valley and my heart lifted. Our guys had used torches to pick up the tracks. The sun rose. I saw from the prints that these were the same five rustlers who had made off with a neighbour’s 50 steers last month. That day we had pursued them and after many adventures all except one beast had come back. This time, after firing off an AK-47 at the boma, the bandits had stolen a dozen of my best breeding cows — thankfully, a fraction of the herd I thought they had lifted — splitting them from calves that were not more than eight weeks old. I almost wept to think of the babies crying for their mothers, and of our cows, bellowing from the pain of swollen udders.

I could see that one bandit had huge feet. He wore ‘thousand miler’ sandals made from cut-up car tyres. I angrily imagined the showdown I would have with this oversized oaf. And then I imagined him looking back at me, perhaps through his gun sight. What I knew was that the rustlers were Samburus, who organise a man’s life in age sets following cycles of roughly seven years. These chaps were probably from the current warrior age set known as Lepwaketi, which roughly means ‘those useless fellows who walk around making a lot of noise’.

‘I was saddened when I heard about the stealing of your livestock,’ said a phone sms from a Kenyan friend. ‘Kindly receive my condolences. How I wish the Almighty opens ways.’ From then on I was amazed at how my Samburu friends and neighbours rushed to my aid. A large posse soon gathered to help us: elders, warriors in red ochre, police vehicles bristling with rifles.

We entered the high, rolling plains. I became aware that we were surrounded on all sides by multitudes of wildlife: eland, hartebeest, ostriches and different gazelles. I stopped counting the zebra, though they definitely exceeded 4,000. The air echoed with the brays of rutting stallions and the thunder of hooves. Great clouds of dust rose from the herds as they wheeled about like cavalry in a battle.

Our team stayed on the tracks heading straight for the forested hills. Eventually, we arrived in a stretch of country broken up by a meandering river bed and the first Samburu bomas we had encountered since leaving the farm. Here, a delegation of elders appeared and, on the advice of my friends, I found the local chief and ‘gave’ him the tracks we had followed until now. Under local law, since the tracks had entered his area, he was obliged to take over the tracks and return our cattle — or be fined three animals for every one lost. Behind his polite smile I could see he was furious.

I was told to wait at the foot of the hills. The elders and my friends took off into the forest. They vanished overnight, and later I heard they had reached the summit of the rise, where immense, ancient cedar trees dripped in the cold mists. My men heard cows bellowing, but the Samburu elders claimed they were buffalos. ‘Those are ours,’ my men said. Clearly, the elders knew exactly where to find the rustlers, and negotiations continued overnight. In the afternoon of the next day, our cows emerged from the forest and began the long walk home.

‘I am so glad to hear the cows have been found,’ a message said on my phone. ‘I can now eat and drink to my satisfaction. I pray for you so that you regain your moods. Beware that Laikipia is a place that needs perseverance and strength...’

The giant and his Lepwaketi warriors are free to rustle again, and we’ll be waiting. Later, in the numb afterglow of my first bath in days, I replayed events in my mind. We had pursued cattle rustlers across high plains teeming with the largest herds of wildlife left in the world. We had thwarted the bandits and rescued our cattle, who at nightfall were back in the boma suckling their calves. Nobody had been hurt. Life could rarely ever be so good.