Day 271: Taking Old Man to 'Cave of Elephants' (Part 1)
Flaming Trees spotted the landscape as we drove to Mount Elgon. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.
AN OLD man standing at the crossroads waves me down.
Moses stands seven-feet tall with an erect posture, white hair, baggy dress pants, suit jacket and horn-rimmed glasses. He's the father of Ann, who grew up in the family house hidden in the shadow of Mount Elgon. Back in Nairobi, the die was given eight option of where I was to first explore in Kenya once Rafiki, my little DT175 motorcycle, was up and running. It landed on a five: Mount Elgon.
Last night, perched on a stool in Lebanon Bar and Restaurant, Ann drew a map of where to meet with her father so he could show me around. Sitting next to me was my Couch Surfing host Geoffrey. He owns the bar and manages the school Ann teaches at during the day. In the evening, she bartends to supplement her school salary of 80 dollars a month.
Another beer appears in front of me, this one is from Geoffrey's friend, a Kenyan middle-distance runner who has been going back and forth between Kenya and Japan. Though I was allowed to buy Geoffrey a beer earlier, after explaining it was an American custom, he isn't letting me pay for anything else.
“You're my guest. It's Kenyan custom to take care of everything for you,” he explained.
Ann, with a sharp jaw line and snappy gestures, leaned forward and explained the map to me, jotting down Moses' number so I can call when I'm near.
Ann draws me a map. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Despite the clarity of the map and directions, I sailed by an airport landing strip that marked my my first turnoff. I u-turned, and then took the wrong turnoff, but was finally pointed down one rough dirt road by locals to Index, where Moses was waiting.
“I've been waiting for awhile,” Moses says, not with the impatience of an America, but with the tonality of someone pointing out that the sky is a particular shade of blue today.
“Sorry, I got lost a couple of times.”
Moses is one of four old men standing on the dirt corner near an green e-mpassa shack. He introduces me to the rest of them. The three of them, as well as Moses, are all pastors.
Maybe that's what Ann said at the bar last night. I thought she'd said he was a real bastard in her 1920s flapper tone, but she probably said he was a pastor. Lord knows what she actually said when it came to him being a drunk; I probably miss heard that as well.
Rafiki is too loaded down with luggage for me to give Moses a ride to his place. So, one of the pastors with a piki piki, a motorbike, offers to give him a lift down the road.
The side road we end up on is thick with mud from the rain last night. Rafiki's back tire slips and slides, squirming like a happy pig who's forgotten that he was supposed to be going to the market. My arms and back start to tire from keeping the bike up right, my forearms quickly fatiguing.
We make it.
Moses property consists of a small brick bungalow and a square mud hut planted on a small, grassy plot of land. Out front, there's a young banana tree plantation.
Moses lives in a modest, welcoming home with his wife. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The living room of the two-room house is cluttered with furniture, all draped in white lace. Moses' wife, whose name I don't catch, comes in from the darkness of the back room. The full sun of the day pours through the front door and windows, lighting the front room.
I shake his wife's hand, mimicking her as her left hand gently touches her the inside of her elbow as we shake. She's an old woman, weathered, head wrapped in a scarf, eyes sharp.
Moses' neighbor, Monoo, joins us in the living room as tea is poured.
“The pastor would like to say a prayer,” Moses says.
Standing in a loose circle behind coffee tables, we bow our heads.
The pastor's words come out fast, rhythmic, yet falling short of song. He speaks in Swahili. Moses and his wife, make sharp, close-mouthed sounds of affirmation in unison as the pastor fall into a call and response section of the prayer.
“Amen,” we all say together.
“Authorities always want to know what some is doing here, especially a muzungu,” Monoo says in perfect, international English. “Everyone sees a muzungu come and knows where he stays and who he talks to. They want to know why.”
I tell them that I'm a journalist. Though it's bending the truth, it's the truth I've settled on while in Africa; it wields enough respect and isn't a lie. I tell them that I freelance, though I've never sold a story to anyone. I don't mention the drone.
“What visa do you have?” He asks.
“I'm just on a tourist visa.”
“Oh, okay. You can show them that.”
Moses jumps in with a question about my full name.
“Isaac Stone Simon...” Before I get my whole last name out he cuts me off.
“Are you a Muslim?” he asks with a bit of uncertainty about who he has allowed into his home.
“What? No. Simonelli is an Italian name. So my great, great grandfather on my Dad's side was Italian, but we're all basically American at this point: some German, some English, some of who knows what else mixed in there.”
The conversation moves on, finally landing on what Moses and I are going to do today.
A man who has lived for so long so close to the shadow of the ancient volcanic mountain of Elgon must of a mind full of the region's secrets. On the drive here, I fantasized about him knowing some side entrance to the park to dodge the expensive fees, of him knowing some small caves of wonders that no traveler every sees, of him knowing where to go and what to do.
“What do you want to do today?” he asks.
“Ummm... Whatever you think is best,” I say, caught off-guard by the question. I presumed he had a plan, as he did know I was coming.
It's decided that we'll go to a nearby hill, where there's a lovely view of the surrounding countryside. Afterward, we'll head to Mount Elgon National Park.
“My work starts now,” Moses says. “I think people in America will be very interested in this. Do you have mud huts with thatch roofs in America?”
Moses leads me out of the yard past a few banana trees to a round hut that's falling into decay. We spend a couple minutes looking at the structure, mostly out of politeness, as I've seen hundreds of mud huts since starting Dice Travels, and plenty before then.
“Young man, let us go if you are ready,” Moses says, striding back to the bike. “How old are you?”
“31, still young.”
“Not so young,” he says, as if my age is the wrong one.
The Old Man lets out a little whoop as Rafiki skids in the mud. I've yet to crash within the first several meters of the mud, but things aren't looking promising.
“I think it's better I ride with the pastor,” Moses says, getting of my Yamaha and climbing onto the Chinese piki piki behind me.
Back a the Index crossroads, Moses climbs onto Rafiki.
The Old Man is sitting close to me. I can feel his thighs squeezing my hips a little. It's the sort of thing I love to lean back into if it was a lovely lady behind me. However, with a 72-year-old man, I have to remind myself that the lanky, ex-soldier has probably done his best to fold up all seven feet of himself onto my little bike.
It's only 11am. However, wanting to maximize the experience at the national park, we decided to skip going to the hill for a view.
The dirt, gravel, rocky road isn't too bad, but the Old Man is tense on the back of the bike. Our moments in the mud at the start-out did little to bestow confidence in my abilities. For a moment, I worry about crashing and him breaking a hip.
We cut through fields, dark brown, freshly plowed. A scattering of Flame Trees dot the rolling hills, their twisted branches holding aloft hundreds of deep orange blossoms against the bright blue sky. This area, the most fertile in the country, was once known as the White Highlands, as colonial farmers pushed locals up into the mountains and deep into the jungles. We pass by low, dark green coffee shrubs, then healthy green pasture for grazing.
The flame trees caught my imagination. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
At this point, I'm not sure why I've brought Moses along with me. If we're only going to the main park entrance, I could find it myself, and enjoy the ride there a great deal more. I moan inside thinking about him hitting me up for a payment, a guiding fee, when in reality I'm the one taking him somewhere. The way I see it, the park entrance would be easy enough to find and there's no intrinsic value in coming as two instead of one.
We get closer. Mount Elgon, though formed by a volcano 24 million years ago, is not the most impressive or daunting of land masses to catch on the horizon. From this side, it gives of the impression of a giant, swollen hill rather than something that deserves the title of mountain.
There are zebras at the entrance, so the park has that going for it. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Zebras are grazing in a big field on the far side of the gate to the national park when we arrive. Because I'm an American, it costs about 2,700 Shilling to get in, another 1,500 Shilling for the required guide and then 300 Shilling for a local ticket for Moses.
“So what can I do, since I only have a day?” I ask the woman behind the counter. She waves over William, one of the guides who works at the park. It turns out there's camping in the park for 2,000 Shilling. If I hadn't dumped my stuff at Moses' house and taken him with me to the park, I'd consider camping. However, that's no longer an option I can consult the dice about.
In fact, there aren't many options at all. Without a vehicle or the 15,000 Shilling to rent one, it's impossible to make the peak in one day, which would allow us to put one foot in Uganda and one foot in Kenya, as well as jump into the volcanic hot spring. The only plausible option for the day is visiting the Elephant Cave.
William is chattering away, his shortness emphasized by Moses' great height and erect posture.
The extinct shield volcano is the oldest such geological feature in East Africa, covering 3,500 square kilometers and home to an assortment of flora and fauna, he explains.
“What will we see today?” Moses asks.
“Yes, there are animals. If we had three days, we could hike to the very top or take a 4-wheel drive vehicle up there. Up here is where the cabins are. Next time you come, you can stay in the cabins,” William says.
That sinking feeling of bringing a pitchman to a picnic starts to set in. William has not shut up about what we could do if things were different: if there was more time; if there was more money; if there was a car.
“It's okay, I don't need to see the cabins. We've only got today to explore,” I say in an attempt to gently guide him back to his present job.
Ignoring me, William takes us up a path to where the cottages are. They're stout, well-built places. Ignoring his call to come closer in order to peek into a window and look at the bedsheets, I wander toward a few Zebra eating grass in a small clearing among the trees.
“Come look inside,” William says again, indicating a window that gives a full view of one of the bathrooms.
“I'm not staying in a cabin. I really don't need to come look.”
“He doesn't need to see it,” Moses says, backing me up.
I know I'm throwing off William's patter, but I'm paying the man to show me the national park, not to up-sell me.
Striding up the dirt road William and Moses continue to chatter about this and that. Though the country is suffering a sever drought, the forest is thick and lush.
“Why don't you ask any questions?” Moses asks me.
“I don't have any yet.”
It's true. We're surrounded by forest. Low down, running thick along the path, are the spiky leaves and violet blooms of Agather plants, a favorite meal for goats. William is able to identify most of the plants we pass, pointing out the straight trunk of a Thong Tree, whose branches don't start until the crown, then squiggle out, heavy with moss and epiphytes.
“It's my first time coming here,” Moses announces. “To think people come from across the ocean, all the way from America, to see this, and we never visit. They know more about Mount Elgon than we do.”
“I will not forget you. This American man brought me to Mount Elgon,” Moses says to me, for the sake of William. I smile at the thought, even if it's a bit over the top.
“My daughter can't believe we've hiked to the top of Mount Elgon,” Moses says, though we are nowhere close to the top of anything. “I will have to bring her here with my grandchildren. I will tell her that I have a little man who knows everything.”
Up ahead, the path lets out into a tall, golden field of grass, spotted with trees and boulders. On the far side of a creek, four or five Blue Monkeys run out of the sun. There's a flash of something running on our side of the creek. I miss the first one, but catch a glimpse of another. It looks like an over-sized, long-hair skunk.
“What was that?”
“Colobus monkey,” William says.
He must not have seen what I saw. It certainly wasn't some shaggy haired monkey. Whoever heard of a shaggy haired monkey?
Music starts playing from Moses' phone. He answers it, talking loudly as he does so. Between the dense forest and the racket Moses and William make, we're killing our chances of seeing much in the way of wildlife. Hopefully the Elephants at the Elephant Cave will be well adjusted to people and we'll be able to get the drone out to video tape them harvesting salt from the giant gallery.
William starts in again about what we could do if we had more time, which seems to be the only thing he's interested in talking about.
“I'm sorry? Does this suck? Is this a sucky thing to do?” I snap, turning on him.
His hesitant nod is a clear sign he doesn't understand what I'm saying.
“Is this a bad thing that we're doing? If it sucks, then just give me my money back and I'll go do something else,” I say.
“No, this is okay,” He says.
“Okay, good. Please, I'm not coming back. As I keep telling you, I only have today. This is what I have: today, right now, so lets make this the best experience we can. Please.”
Moses rejoins us, unaware of the little spat, which hopefully has refocused William, but not hurt his feelings.
We spot the giant skunks again. This time they are bouncing through the trees to our left. Effortlessly they leap from one branch to another, the leaves sound like rain sticks as they shake. One pauses at a distance, its small monkey face in a mane of black and white hair cautiously watches us.
Okay, so it turns out there is a shaggy-haired monkey out there: the Black-and-white Colobus to be specific. It's an Old World Monkey, which means it still has a ruminant-like digestive system that allow the leaf eaters to occupy unique niches in the ecosystem. Additionally, they're stomachs, which are unable to process ice cream, sandwiches, crisps and other human food, gives them no motive to be little monkey devils, which is vastly different than the lesser apes who run Monkey Town in Thailand.
Farther up, a female bushbuck hesitates before crashing into a forest; a group of baboons grudgingly leave the path to let us pass.
There were a few more animals on the trail toward the Elephant Cave. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
There's a small path, marked with a wooden sign, that points us toward the Elephant Cave.
Moses pounds up the first six steps of the path with exaggerated vigor as he heads to the bathroom. I get comfortable on a stone bench in the shade of one of the trees. We've been hiking for about six kilometers. It's been an easy hike, but it feels nice to rest. Listening to the insects and the breeze in the trees, I close my eyes.
“What? Are you tired?” Moses challenges as he returns from the toilet.
Though I'm fine with continuing, I'm quiet happy sitting where I am.
“No, it's fine, lets go see this cave,” I say.
Moses takes a quick break on the hike. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Up a paved bit of walkway that apparently Westerns complain about, claiming that its unnaturalness is a blemish on the park site, we catch site of the cave mouth. A rock hyrax scrambles from its sunning spot at the base of a large boulder. The cave mouth is mostly obscured by a tiny ridge like an overbite obscuring the gaping mouth of a hungry man.
A shy hyrax scrambles away from us. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“Imagine, this is where our great, great, great grandfathers came and lived,” Moses says.
There are no elephants.
A brown sign is inset into a piece of rock. It explains that archaeological remains found in the cave suggests that it was used by the indigenous Sabot community in the past as a shelter and as a hideout from raiders. It was also a cultural and religious site where circumcisions and prayers were conducted. However, the most interest aspect of the cave is its salt content. Sobot people mined salt from the cave for personal use, as well as for their livestock. For the same reason, large mammals, most notably elephants, visit the site goring and licking the cave walls in search of salt.
Welcome to Kitum Cave. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
There's a steep slope into the enormous cave mouth. On the far side of the small ravine is a well-worn path created by thousands of years of elephants making the trek into the cave.
Reaching out, I cup a handful of water from a trickle of a waterfall dribbling across a section of the entrance. The cold water brings a sparkle to my face, re-energizing me. If I was alone, I'd strip down to my underwear and let the water wake all the pores of my body. Even as it is, I feel miles better.
“The elephants come here at night, but if they smell a human, they won't come,” William explains.
William explains that the elephants avoid humans in this area. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
So there never was going to be elephants. I'd imagined a huge plain with elephants meandering in and out of some colossal cave.
I was wrong.
On the floor of the mouth of the cave, a large, hypnotizing pool of liquid gold spreads out across a miniaturized mud landscape, catching the light of the afternoon sun. William says that it's not a bacteria or algae growth on the surface, but some mineral.
I'm captivated by the golden surface of the water. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“We thought it was sulfur, but it's something else,” he explains.
The minerals sit on the water's surface like gold-infused oil, swirling from the slightest movement of the water. Standing directly above it, among the elephant and buffalo prints, the color disappears completely. However, when I crouch down, it once again catches the light at the right angle and becomes molten gold.
We walk deeper into the cave. The entire floor is a bed of dry, disintegrating elephant shit with pieces of undigested grass carpeting the cave.
The chamber is alive with the sounds of bats, their voices crying out into the dark. Thousands of bats cluster into pods on the ceiling: feet up, heads down, ears swiveling.
Thousands of bats live in the cave. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Farther into the cave, William leading the way with his torch, we stop to examine an extraordinary piece of petrified wood. The log, it's hallowed insides growing strange crystal structures, looks like it was picked up in a flood and then frozen into place by Medusa.
Everywhere we look the walls are deeply scared. Black streaks, like primitive cave paintings, crisscross the hard clay walls. Each line was wrought into the rock by a tusker. In the far corner, there's a place where the elephants have dug in deep. Not far from the elephant-made alcove are bulges where the rock was too hard for them to access. Eventually, these hard sections will be broken free, falling to the ground, opening up fresh places to mine for salt.
The walls are deeply scarred from elephant tusks. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Closely scanning the cave walls, I find a pocket of glimmering, dark brown crystals like the insides of a geode I would have collected as a child on the banks of Lake Monroe. On the outer rim of the pocket is a long, slender crystal, dark green or black. It's hard to tell in this light, but the long, hexagonal structure appears to be tourmaline. Last time I was in New York, maybe six years ago, my father and I had gone up into the mountains in search of tourmaline. The beauty of hunting semi-precious stones and minerals is that it can be done without too much of a fuss. It has all the thrills of treasure hunting, but also comes with the real possibility of finding something that makes a person's heart sing.
William picks up a couple small samples of tourmaline from the ground and hands them to me. It's incredibly illegal to take anything from a national park, yet I hold the worthless crystals in my palm, not sure if I'll be returning them to the cave. Carefully, I return to scanning the walls, finding more and more secondary mineral deposits. There's tourmaline and then low-grade garnets, perhaps amber as well. I pluck another small crystal from the wall. There could be an incredible amount of valuable mineral deposits in here, but then again, wouldn't someone have capitalized on them before the cave was included in a national park? Even stranger is the fact that I can't recall seeing any crystals showing up in traditional African costumes in the region. Don't all people love shiny things?
My mind is spinning with possibilities. The complexity of the geology in this single place is nearly as mesmerizing as the delicate crystal structures formed in the hard clay. The sign out front explained that the cave is a volcanic tube, yet the soft rock scarred by thousands of years of elephant tusks digging for salt deposits are no igneous. It appears to be a hard clay, which explains the beautiful samples of in sutu petrified wood trunks. It seems that the cave was partially filled by a land slide or some other enormous deposit of fine, mineral rich, water-borne soil. Then, secondary minerals formations were created by hot, mineral-rich water rising up from the volcanic heat below.
The walls are speckled with beautiful secondary minerals. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
As we make our way to the other side of the cave, I pocket the minerals.
William walks ahead of us on the rubble-strewn cave floor, his flashlight angled behind him. I hold my phone, flashlight on, behind my back to light the floor for Moses.
“Come, look here,” William waves Moses and me toward him.
Down a crack is an enormous elephant skull.
“Do you think it will move if you touch it?” Moses jokes.
I crawl down to see.
We find an elephant skull. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Nope. It doesn't move.
We're forced to crouch down a little, wary of bumping our heads, as we climb to the far side of the cave. Here, the walls have not been destroyed by elephant tusks, instead there are dozens of elegant crystal formations. There are large samples of fully-formed crystals. Some have formed into perfect cubes, while others, look the ice that forms on a freezer-burned pork chop. In other spots, dark garnets are scattered among white star bursts of crystals.
“Watch your foot,” William keeps telling me, afraid I'll take a tumble or twist my ankle.
Outside, the cave I'm full. My mind is full, my imagination is full, my soul is full. It was starting to feel like the whole trip to Mount Elgon was a bust. How wrong I was.
I sit down on a rock in the sun near Moses and William after again washing my face in the waterfall.
“You look weak,” Moses says.
“Go fuck yourself Old Man. I'm not going to play some sort of big dig competition with a 72-year-old Kenyan,” I'd have liked to shout at him.
“I'm fine. Finally waking up. That was just so amazing,” I actually say.
It's a few minutes past three. We've got William until 6pm, as I hired him for a half-day. Given that the park closes at 7:30pm, a full day of guiding for twice as much money seemed a bit daft, even for the ranger to have bothered to offer the option.
It kind of feels like Moses and William are ready to start back. However, there's another cave, the one where the Sobot took the salt blocks for their cattle. It's only 1.5km away.
“I'm up for it, if you guys are,” I say, pressing the point.
Moses isn't about to show any weakness.
“It's what you want. You paid,” Moses says.
So, we head down a different path toward the cave.