Samburu County and the Camel Derby at Maralal
Ever thought you could enter a camel race and win $230 and to top it off watch a marriage ceremony of the Samburu people?
Maralal, in the Samburu county of Kenya, was named so for the shiny tin roofs of the White settlers. Picture a charming little town of many shops, hotels, restaurants and colourful markets. It certainly is not a western film set that Clint Eastwood would appear in, as mentioned in the Lonely Planet. It was a dusty little place, much like any other Kenyan town in the dry season and I imagine a very muddy place in the rainy reason. It has a climate of hot days and cool nights due to its altitude and the surrounding hills are lush and green providing excellent views of the nearby landscape. And is host to one of the most fun events of anywhere in Kenya, the camel derby!
The amateur riders were understandably nervous when they mounted the notoriously bad mannered, groaning and spitting camels before the race. It’s a long way to fall from these camels and as the race began two people did indeed fall off and were dragged to the side by the crowd as other camels trampled over them. The 11km race started at the Yare Club, looped through the town of Maralal and back to the starting point.
There were handlers and plenty of children with sticks trying to make each camel actually run around the circuit. Many of the camels had their own ideas about where they were going and one even sat down in a cactus bush with rider Debjeet Sen still on its back! Needless to say his camel took well over an hour to complete the race.
The winner Kie Riedel, squatted above the saddle for a full 38 minutes before nearly collapsing due to the heat and exhaustion whilst being interviewed by the Kenyan news teams about her success. She had no idea she had won 20,000 Kenyan Shillings, lots of traditional bead work and a very gaudy trophy.
The riders of the 42 km professional race were not much more competent, with one rider dismounting then using a motorbike and its horn to herd his camel towards the finish line. Apparently this was within the rules, so I suggest to Kie Riedel, conquer the professional race next year, although you may need to buy a camel.
Many other events took place over the weekend, including running, triathlon (running, cycling and camel riding) and the marriage ceremony (although I think it was more of a courting dance as I’m unsure they were actually married). This is the major event of the year for the Samburu tribe, held normally over one weekend in the month of August and naturally they had organised one of the courting dances to take place over this weekend. The Samburu people split from the Maassi people a few centuries ago and still have a very similar language, clothing and cultural traditions. The tradition of finding wives is done by the men chanting and jumping as high as possible to show strength to the women. The women in turn watch, admire and then hold the hand of the man they wish to be married to, they do not pick on facial beauty, but on strength, power and stamina. One man can have many wives, but he must treat each equally, providing each a house and food.
This was the highlight of the weekend, the colours, the chanting, the smell of ochre covering the hair and bodies of the Samburu people, the fact that this really wasn’t a tourist event, but for the locals and many surrounding tribes. Turkana, Pokot, Rendille, Samburu and even the smallest tribe with only 49 members, El Molo were all present and on the Saturday night wearing their unique garments showed their individual dances and songs.
At the Yare Camel Club there were plenty of tents for drinking and eating goat and chicken. There were also many stalls showing individual crafts from each tribal area, including an interesting blacksmith who apparently also carries out the boy’s circumcisions. The Samburu tribe disappointingly still believe female circumcision is a must, however from talking to my friend and Samburu born tour guide, Nicholas Dida, hopefully this tradition is starting to change and is starting to become a less important factor when marrying a woman.
For a side trip you can also drive one and half hours North on the Baragori road up to Losiolo for a beautiful panoramic view of the Sugata Valley. Hiking is also available in this valley, taking a few days but you need to carry all your supplies and camping gear. Tour guide Nicholas Dida is more than happy to guide you and will inform you of many important facts about the surrounding area.
Driving to Maralal is no easy task, especially in the rainy season, the road from Nyahururu gets progressively worse, is unpaved and a 4 x 4 is a must. However with a skilled off road driver it can turn out to be a lot of fun, watching petrol tankers and large lorries getting stuck along the way. Let’s just say that opening a nice bottle of Tusker in Maralal is almost guaranteed to explode over you, due to the journey it has taken!
If there is one event in Kenya that I recommend anyone to experience, this is it. There is no show for the tourists, it is just that exciting; watching, hearing and smelling a very traditional culture.
Tour Guide Nicholas Dida: helpful, friendly and an amazing source of information
Mobile Number: +254713421517 (you can also find him on Facebook and couch surfing)
Yare Camel Camp (3km from town): for Accommodation, food and activities. (and it hosts the camel derby)
Accommodation: $35 for triple room
Entry to camel derby: you can register the morning of the derby at the Yare Camel Camp
Entrance fee $70 (expensive but think about the winnings and only 16 people entered the amateur this year)