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Maasai Mara|Amboseli|Tsavo East and West|Laikipia|Samburu, Shaba & Buffalo Springs|Meru

Cultural Safari

The vast majority of Tsavo has long been the home of the Kamba people.

The Kamba have a well developed oral history that clearly defines their origins. The Kamba originate from the plains around Kilimanjaro in Northern Tanzania, where they lived a semi-nomadic existence of herding, hunting and some agriculture. This peaceful existence ended around the end of the 16th Century with the arrival of the Iloikop Maasai, who spread aggressively into this territory, driving the Kamba northwards. They crossed the rocky Chyulu hills and made settlements at Mbooni, in the highlands that would take their name and become known as Ukambani.

The Kamba dispersed and roamed widely over the plains of Tsavo, creating many small settlements. The Kamba were expert hunters and trappers, highly regarded for their archery skills. A large traditional long bow was sometimes employed, held between the feet of a lying archer and fired in a high, accurate curve. More often smaller bows and poison arrows were used, a practice also used by a smaller group of local hunters, the Waliangulu. The heated blades of the arrows would be smeared with a lethal slow acting poison, extracted from the acacanthera plant and blended with the venom sacs of a puff adder.

The Kamba were great elephant hunters and from the late 18th century became involved in the Ivory trade, supplying Swahili merchants on the coast.This trade gave them access to foreign goods, and soon imported copper wire and bright blue calico became part of their already ornate tribal regalia and ornamentation. The Kamba are still known for their accomplished wood carving skills, and are considered Kenya's best carvers.

The Kamba were at this time also very well known for their gifts of prophecy. During the latter 19th Century, the Kamba predicted a time of great and turbulent change ahead.

This rapidly proved true, with the arrival and expansion of the British Colony. There was no greater example of this sudden intrusive change than the arrival of the Railroad during the 1890's. The British saw the creation of a railroad as a vital resource linking the trading ports of the coast with the waters of Lake Victoria. Building such a railroad would give the British full control of the East African Protectorate, allowing them to control the nearby Suez canal and thereby sea access to their Colony in India.

Plans swung rapidly into action in 1896, with engineers faced by the almost impossible task of building a railway from sea level up to around 1800 metres above sea level, over 900 kms of hills, ranges and valleys. Many in Britain saw this as an insane folly masterminded by the Foreign Minister Lord Curzon, costing a massive 5.5 million Pounds (the equivalent of over 500 Million Pounds today). Henry Labouchere a radical political critic, wrote a scathing poem about the project including the verse:

What is the use of it, none can conjecture
What it will carry, there's none can define,
And in spite of George Curzon's superior lecture
It is clearly naught but a lunatic line..


The railway became known as the "Lunatic Line" as the project pushed onwards. The indigenous Kenyans viewed this as something malevolent and utterly alien, calling the railroad the Iron Snake. Local labour was difficult to recruit, and the British began to import workers from their colony in India. Thousands of Gujarati workers were brought to Mombasa to work on the railroad, a move that would have great effect on the future cultural character of Kenya.

The railroad crept forward, finally reaching a major hurdle at the banks of the Tsavo river in 1899. The river required the construction of a major bridge, and designs were made and implemented. Soon after a camp was established on the riverbank some of the Indian labourers began to disappear at night, and so began one of Africa's greatest adventure stories.

It soon became clear that the railway had become the hunting grounds of two man eating lions. They were two huge male lions, their manes stripped bare by the thorns, who repeatedly struck at the camps during the night, dragging men from their tents. The behaviour of these lions remains to this day inexplicable. Humans are by no means an ordinary part of the diet of a lion and maneating usually only occurs when individuals are sick or injured and can only hunt easy prey. But these two lions were both very healthy specimens, and their attacks on the camp so frequent that it seemed unlikely they were actually eating many of their victims.

One of the Railway Engineers, Colonel James Patterson, was an accomplished hunter and set out to shoot the two lions. He found that the lions were possessed of a seemingly supernatural intelligence, able to avoid him and his hunting parties and escape with ease from any trap or ambush. The lions become remarkably bold, entering the camps during the day and killing labourers at will. It was not surprising that a great deal of folkore rapidly sprang up around these events, and many tribes believed these lions to be spirits and ghosts given flesh to drive away the British.

Patterson was repeatedly defeated, and a year later the lions had claimed an incredible 124 lives. The building of the bridge was halted and the workforce to terrified to continue. Finally, after long and persistent effort, Patterson tracked down and shot both of the lions.

He later wrote a best-selling account of the hunt, The Maneaters of Tsavo and 100 years later Hollywood was to turn the story into a sensational and not entirely accurate film. The lions themselves became a permanent exhibit in the Chicago Field Museum.

The railway surged ahead, creating the small outpost of Nairobi before pushing on to Lake Victoria. The great iron snake finally reached the shores of the Lake on the 20th of December 1901, bringing the dream of the Lunatic Line to life.
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