Savage Experience

Posted On 17th January 2016
The word ‘Savage’ could have various meanings depending on usage. It could well be a proper noun; a person’s name or if used as an adjective, according to the Collins English Dictionary, imply wild or untamed. This grammar lesson was necessitated by a recent experience revolving around the word. Kenya is a known world over as a great tourist destination boasting amazing scenery, flora and fauna. Few ever add to this list, amazing rivers. Welcome Mark Savage who wears among other hats adventurer, bio-technologist, expedition guide and pilot. It is the eighties as this lover of the outdoors scours the country from a bird’s eye view when for the umpteenth time he is drawn like a hawk to a mouse to the natural waters specifically the winding Tana River. He cannot help but be drawn to the more than a thousand kilometer long phenomenon whose headsprings can be traced to the slopes of the Mount Kenya and Aberdare ranges. To the East of these mountains, the tributaries join forces menacingly cutting through harsh terrain first in powerful torrents then in a slow flow that empties silt rich chocolate waters into to the Indian Ocean at the Ungwana (Formosa) Bay in Kipini. When he came to ground, Savage’s next move resonated Poet’s Ralph Waldo Emerson words “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” In true keeping to his name and nature, Savage set to Kayaking on the river and after his maiden row he was instantly hooked. Like a child discovering his new playground, he sought out the river’s challenging rapids and soon enough the activity became part of his calendar. Friends would join him as would tourists keen on spicing their Kenyan experience with a little adrenaline rush.

One and a half hours on Thika road from the capital saw me arrive at Savage Wilderness camp at Riandira situated between Makutano and Sagana. This is the spot Savage chose to base what today is arguably one of Africa’s top rated adventure camps. My first impression of the camp almost made me think I was in the wrong place. Expecting a camp setting with tents littered in a bush, fire holes with dying embers, strewn utensils from campers and basically a mess I was instead greeted by well kept lawns, orderly staff; basically the exact opposite (forgive the overuse of the term ‘basically’ I am but Kenyan). Right next to Sagana River was a solitary tent; my board for the night. Once settled, the lovely Mercy Mwaura who had had helped me check in offered to indulge me in the orientation of the camp which I gladly obliged. First was the bar, curio shop, equipment store, Kitchen, and open dining area before we crossed the neat suspension bridge made by Savage himself over to where recently completed accommodation stands. Close to the bridge is the camps newest activity; zip lining. The zip line essentially is a steel cable suspended above the ground and the running across River Tana. A player attached to a safety line is required to make the daring adrenaline packed cross allowing for the admiration of nature from a different point of view.

 Quelling my curiosity Mercy explained that being an adventure camp, residents rarely opt to stay at base. Activities begin after breakfast ending before dusk when the camp like a timed alarm comes alive. Except for the kitchen and maintenance staff and the five resident dogs, who stay put, the rest of the staff who impressively coordinate as family as I would later observe double up as certified guides in the wide array of activities the camp offers including water activities and mountain biking. Even my contact, the gracious soft to the eye Christine, whom everyone calls Shortie, is an ardent rock climber. The canines are a distinct feature of the place especially the Freddy, a twelve year old female German shepherd dog who in keeping with the camp’s endurance theme evades the grim reapers scythe despite age bending her to a limp. Accommodation in the form of tents and bunk houses is comfortable yet not over the top allowing for the outdoors feel. Crossing back, we were met by the now retired yet agile seeming Savage with his son James who now runs the camp. All great products emanate from intense passion and the duo’s camp is a testament. Solidifying this point is how the camp has manages to effectively harness natural energy for daily use. Solar energy ensures hot bathing water while kinetic energy from the river’s flow is harnessed and turned into electricity. Forget the physics; the whole device is also true to fashion, Savage’s own creation. 

As the sun set so did the campers troop back to camp. Soon, the quiet broke as the exhausted hungry lot yet visibly excited lot gathered in the dining area for dinner. Serving was done by queuing reminiscent of my high school experience which in my opinion was commendable as it enhanced the ‘family feel’ also given a boost by the fact that the guides did the serving. The camp’s menu from breakfast through to dinner is carefully thought out ensuring that lost energy is replenished. This in essence means that no junk food is served. Oat porridge broke my fast the following morning as I eagerly awaited the day long programme out in the river. White water rafting requires a minimum of four so I would I would be sharing the experience students from Peponi school. As we awaited their arrival, I joined the crew in setting up the expedition’s equipment. This involved physically inflating the rafts, an exerting experience which explained why the guides are so trim. We would be going out in four rafts which when sufficiently puffed up were loaded onto a hitched trailer. When the team arrived, routine briefing was carried out gaily in true Savage wilderness fashion thanks to Michael Bell. When done, we hit the road heading as if to Sagana but took a branch back to the river several kilometers upstream. On the banks, quick offloading and prepped in safety gear followed by a simulation of the rafting commands ensured the eager team was on the slow flowing murky Sagana waters. Slow only at the starting point for soon enough the rafts were picking speed requiring more aligning paddling than paddling for speed. Andreas Rembling our guide did a fabulous job at calming our wits as he shouted prompts at us laced with infectious humour. Now, this funny guy has a thing for dare devil adrenalin packed antics running the hard to miss jump cage contraption hovering sixty meters back at camp right above the river.   

Seating upfront, the best of view of the river was guaranteed but so was the brunt of the rapids. Things were rather smooth allowing me to drift away to the banks where weaver birds who have woven homes on the twigs hanging over the river like Andreas’ cage made me wonder how the hatchlings take their maiden flight with imminent death by drowning should they fall, flowing below. My daze was broken as Andreas started on his commands with heightened fervour. We crashed into the first rapid with ensuing excited screams renting the air. Incredible feeling with the water whitening as we splashed through and for a few tense seconds, I believe my heart stopped. When we resurfaced, one oarswoman had been thrown overboard but in amazing vigour, she held onto the raft and was soon heaved back in. I was not as lucky as we hit the fish-eye rapid. Not quick to obey the commands, I felt my body part from the raft and as momentary panic grabbed me, I was in deep. Fighting for dear life with the life jacket coming in handy, my head was soon above the water. At least I managed to obey one command not losing of my oar. Swimming to the banks and I could not help envy my mates as they tried a manoeuvre on the rapid attempting to go against it. When I was eventually recued, our guide was kind enough to allow me a try at the rapid. We failed but no words explain the experience. More mad fun would follow as the entire group was asked to row to the banks, disembark followed by a dive back into the river to float through a crashing rapid face up-feet first to the waiting rafts downstream.  Another neat manouver, which grasped me, was when we shifted our weight to the back of the raft causing the front to raise so up high that the raft nears a flip. We did manage the manoeuvre gracefully avoiding the flip. The floated past the mission waterfall, a spectacular vision yet dangerous seeming where for safety reasons, Andreas explained only experienced kayakers are allowed. When the water flow lessened, those who wished were allowed into the water swimming alongside the rafts. The four hours in the river an   unforgettable experience when we finally docked and in team spirit carried our gear to the store.

Visitors to Savage Wilderness camp have the choice of community service at the nearby Riandira School which the owners are passionate about. The savages have also been working with the community to build a similar suspension bridge across the river but as I learnt even with the joining cable wasting in the store, the project has stalled for the last two years as residents have not kept their end of the bargain to complete construction of the support pillar. Hopefully, on my next visit for kayaking and the ultimate jump of death activities both on my bucket list, the bridge that will greatly ease movement for the local residents will be in use.