Sarara Camp, Kenya: The singing wells of the Samburu

Dust. Heat. The dull jangle of cow bells. The bleating of goats. The braying of donkeys. The bark of a dog. And beneath it all, steady, rhythmic, almost hypnotic: the singing of a dozen Samburu warriors, serenading their cattle, calling them to their wells to drink.

It's a spellbinding scene, ancient, almost Biblical. 

"We've been here doing this since time began," says one of the tribe's junior elders, Malakai, looking on. "Nothing has changed. This is our tradition. This is our way."

He gazes out at the dry riverbed, at the dust billowing up underfoot, at the clusters of animals and near-naked people. "We are a pastoral people. Without our cows, we do not have life. It has always been like this."

Inside the hand-dug wells dotting the landscape, a muscular young man in each balances on a rock ledge hewn into the interior mud walls, and bends down to scoop water from the well in a metal tin. Then he passes it upwards to the next warrior on a higher ledge who pours it into a wooden trough on the lip of the well, at which thirsty cattle gather to drink. 

All the while, they sing their own family song, over and over, summoning their cattle to their well. Their cattle seem to recognise which is their song, know which well to make for and peel off from the herd to nuzzle at their own owners' trough. When they're finished, they move off to make way for the next set to nuzzle in.

During drought times, there can be as many as seven men in each well, passing the water from the depths of the water table up and up and up some more. Some are draped in traditional cloth; others are naked. All are adorned with elaborate bead necklaces, earrings and headpieces to hold back their long black hair. Many have small mirrors attached to bead belts – all the better to admire themselves in. 

These are the famed "singing wells" of the Samburu people, a scene in a remote area of northern Kenya that has remained unchanged for centuries – and which they are determined will remain for many more. While visitors are permitted, there are strict protocols in place, which include never any photographs. These images are so sacred, they must remain in the memory only, or passed on by word.

"We are a very proud people," Malakai says. "Many have walked 20 kilometres to reach here and they are singing a lullaby to get their cows to drink and drink. They won't get any more water till they come back in two days' time, so we must make sure they drink as much as they can."

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At that, Malakai crouches down on the riverbed, and starts singing his own family's song. Our conversation is obviously over.

We are in the vast 3500sq km wildlife conservancy of Namunyak by the Mathews Range mountains, and this is one of the most incredible sights I've ever seen – and series of lullabies I've ever heard. It's all the more special that so few people in the world have ever been here to experience it, as the Samburu continue to sing to soothe their cattle and keep the wild leopard who also drink here away.

By morning, this land belongs to them and their animals. By afternoon and night, it's the domain of leopard, lion, elephant, giraffe, wild dog, hyena and every variety of antelope.

Later, I visit a Samburu village, venture inside one of their small mud, cow dung and stick huts, stiflingly low and with a real fire smoking inside, with the only conceivable gesture towards modernity a few little portable solar panels for charging mobile phones. 

I play with some children, watched by others plainly terrified of me. I'm so entranced, I walk straight into the evil thorns of an acacia tree branch and spend the next hour mopping at the scratches on my face. 

But that appears the biggest danger of the whole experience. "You must be more careful," chides Malakai. "You must walk with your eyes open."

For me, however, the accommodation is rather more luxurious than that of the locals. In 1997, the first small private lodge, Sarara Camp, was built from fallen trees and local stone on a natural slab of granite rock overlooking nearly a million acres of wilderness, and run on sustainable lines. There's a spectacular pool to the slab's edge, looking down on the waterhole where elephants regularly drink, while guests stay in six luxury tents. 

Activities include game drives, bird-watching, hiking, bush dinners, viewing wildlife from the hide, helicopter trips to nearby Lake Turkana, going out on bush ponies and camping out overnight. 

And, of course, a visit to those singing wells, one of the modern-day wonders of ancient Africa.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

sarara.co

GETTING THERE

South African Airways flies to Nairobi via Perth and Johannesburg (flysaa.com) and Safarilink flies direct from Nairobi to Sarara at Namunyak (flysafarilink.com).

STAYING THERE

Sarara Camp has six luxury tents, all with stunning views of the mountains and nearby waterhole. Solar panels produce the camp's electricity and fresh spring water is gravity-fed from the mountains and passed through a UV-filtration system. Organic produce is harvested from the kitchen garden, and from local farmers. From $US777 per person per night in a double room. Book via The Classic Safari Company: phone (02) 9327 0666; see classicsafaricompany.com.au

Sue Williams travelled courtesy of The Classic Safari Company and South African Airways. 

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