The 'Wells by Night'

The ‘Wells by Night’

We visited the wells in the late afternoon, and found that other animals visited there too. The water levels THIS year are abnormally high, which means that life is not too arduous for a few months, unless of course there is a drought.

We sat quietly at the edge of the thicket watching the riverbed, and the night crept in like a mist. Suddenly there were shapes and shadows darkening and moving…all from the other side. Several small herds of cow elephants and their calves emerged from the tall treeline and made their way into the river bed, straight to the wells. The cows and older animals knew exactly how to deal with these flimsy, but spikey barriers. They grasped the bare ends of the branches and pulled them out of the way, and once clear, stepped forward and drank deep and long from the wells……with great hollow, gushing sounds. Water dribbled down their dusty, wrinkled chins and they seemed to savour each trunkful, pausing, before extending their elastic noses once again.

Once they had drunk they stood around, ears slightly raised and trunks resting on the sandy beach between their oval toenails, and gradually wandered off up the bank and out of sight. They were wary and listened for any strange noises. A young bull stood and gazed in our direction for some time before moving away. Some of the youngsters tussled and wrestled with each other briefly, before silently disappearing too.

We sat spellbound by the silent cameos we had watched. Hardly a sound had been made.

A shifty shape came nosing down and I used my binoculars to follow a spotted hyena walk with watchful eyes to a well that had been ‘opened’ by the elephants. The hyena quartered the area carefully before dropping down a few feet to drink. We sat silently…quiet observers spellbound by this scene. A genet, small and lithe appeared and foraged amongst the few stalks of plant life along the edge of the bank, before it too crossed over and disappeared from our sight.

We sat for a short while longer before ruining the magic by starting the engine, and we returned to camp.

Elephant herds at the wells.

Elephant herds at the wells.


Sarara; Mathews Range

The “Singing Wells”. Part 2. Witnessed!

The men sing to their livestock.

Each herd of cows, camels, sheep and goats, and donkeys too of course recognise their ‘Masters’ Voice’. They wait patiently for their herdsman to select who is going to go first to drink. When the herdsman hears it is his turn he selects twelve or so animals and lets them go.  They go straight to their ‘home’ well. They don’t wander around and get in the way of other herds also being summoned, but follow the voice they know means ‘water’. When that group is finished they will return to their herd and others will go.

The ‘voice’ comes from the man at the top of the well, who is taking the bucket that has come from the man or men below him, scooped and filled from way down, and carefully but speedily passed up the human chain to the surface, where in a sing-song, lilting but strong voice it is poured into the wooden trough.  The cattle jostle and drink. The herdsman sings to his animals. He tells them he loves them, they are his special beasts, they will bring him great fortune, babies and perhaps another wife to share his burden, they have fine skins, beautiful colours that outshine his neighbours animals, they don’t get sick and have proud horns and he will protect them from lions and hyenas! He looks at each animal, watches it drink as he pours the water into the trough, and notes how much each drinks, and more importantly any animal that is missing or taking too much water as well. They are his charges and he knows them all.

Each cohort of cows and smaller beasts are watered like this every second day, so a man will split his herds so that they all drink but not at the same time or the same day. The burden is huge on a small Samburu family, so they share to survive.

No photography is allowed at this special place, but the story from our visit is not yet over.

Sometimes when the water is not so low, a few of the old elephant bulls, the ‘old’ bulls who have witnessed many years of drought and plenty will come to the wells at this time as well.  They just appear amidst the clouds of pale dust, their ivory giving then away amongst the melee, they move like ghostly ships, slow and ponderous, and determined.  They will approach a well where the water is a few feet down, still within reach of their trunks and with a flick of their powerful trunks, remove the protective branches and drink deep from the waters. They will choose a well without a person in it, but frequently right amongst the stock and tribesmen, and each respects the other. No fuss is made or expected. Water is the currency of life. The bulls drink their fill and move off just as quietly, the tribesmen watch with solemn eyes, their beaded head dresses and arm bands bright against their dark skins, the younger ones smiling and talking quietly…even they marvel at this amazing and unique spectacle of an age long trust. The cattle and other livestock are not afraid, but jostle and push with undiminished fervour.

How much we miss out by just turning a tap. How much do our children take for granted, when they run the shower!!

Catch up tomorrow again….! Gavin



The “Singing Wells”. Part 1.

Sarara Camp is THE place to witness a unique and riveting aspect of a culture far removed from the trappings of (oh, dear…what a cliche!) the western world and ‘IPhones, Ipads…I-Everything’. Here the Samburu people, who are a colourful and proud anthropomorphic branch of the better-known Masai, choose to live in a dry, harsh and unforgiving landscape of northern Kenya. Samburuland is north-central Kenya, beyond the Mathews Range of hills where the Sarara river and its’ tributaries trace a line of punctuated greenery across a sandy ochre soil scape. This is a lifeline in most years when the water levels in the river line disappear below the sand beyond the reach of most creatures…except elephants, who are able to follow the water table for a while by digging with broad feet and trunks to a depth of about five feet. At that depth the small calves are doomed to die a desperate death because they cannot reach the turbid liquid with their inexperienced and questing trunks. For all their great aptitude to learn and adapt they have never learnt to transport water to eachother..instead the adults live and the calves suffer and must die. There is no compromise in the bush for the wild.

The Samburu are cattle and livestock people. They love their animals with a protective passion that motivates them to go to extraordinary levels, literally, to save their livestock. They own sheep, goats, donkeys, camels and their most precious asset, zebu x boran cattle. They, like the Masai do not eat wildlife, but only domestic stock. Their livestock are their ‘wealth’ and transport system, food and security in a tough landscape where the weak disappear.

So, the men dig a well.   Male family members share the digging, or friends help each other, because out here nobody survives alone, and helping eachother is a way of life….unlike in many western city societies where that admirable trait has been eroded by migration, distrust and a dog-eat-dog attitude that is sometimes found in those sort of commercial societies.

The well is generally big enough for a man to swing his bucket easily as he scoops the water. So, about six or seven feet in diameter is common. The sides of the well are naturally sandy, and collapse if trodden on by heavy weights (like a thirsty elephant) so the wells vary a bit. To prevent other animals spoiling the well when the water is still within reach of a long trunk (!!) or falling in and spoiling the water with dung and urine, the men cut and lay branches around the edges of the well.

To hold the water, the men select and cut a branch of a tree ( a Commiphora or Cork wood tree), and hew a trough into this branch, which may be up to six feet long….enough for six beasts to drink at the same time! The trough is placed up on the sides of the well, far enough away to prevent the sides collapsing, with the edges of the trough protected by the protective barrier of branches.    The livestock drink during the day, normally at about ten thirty in full daylight when they are safe from predators and also that is when they arrive at the river from their bomas.

There is an important ritual associated with this, to most of us, mundane activity.

The herds are minded by herdsmen, normally younger members of the family….and I add, either girls or boys.  They bring the herds to the vicinity and keep them either in specially built thorn enclosures or feeding just a short distance from the river. Imagine now, for example three hundred head of mixed livestock being held by several different youths in the same vicinity, but kept separate by the herdsmen, some feeding and others in temporary enclosures. The dryness, the heat, the dust and inevitably ‘runaways’ being pursued by stick-wielding herdsmen! Potential chaos….but not so.

When the river has dried and the water levels dropped, in some years at least 16 to 25 feet, the men gather to see whose well is yielding the better volumes of water. Stripped naked, and with passive demeanours and a sense of purpose…they climb down into the well. The well would now be a mere four feet in diameter, all the way down to the water, allowing a man to stand, legs comfortably astride, feet in place in steps cut into the wall, and bend forward to receive the skin bucket from the man below him, and hand it up. Then the Singing starts!

See tomorrows story to find out what happens next!!

Aerial View, Samburu. No grass in September. A dry river of life!

Aerial View, Samburu. No grass in September. A river of life!