Decades ago, the scenic and rugged Elgeyo escarpment was a forbidding area where unwanted members of society were banished to live as they awaited death.
It was a traditional ‘holding’ ground that the outcasts, and barren and unmarried women and men called home after being ejected by their conservative families who saw them as a bad omen.
It was also a burial site.
In the old days, Mzee Yusuf Keitany said, families did not bury their dead in graves, as is the norm today, because they feared death and bodies were dumped in the forest for wild animals and birds of prey devour.
“Because the escarpment, with its dense forest, could be extremely cold and teemed with wild animals, no one inhabited it except people on the verge of death or those that had been banished. The area was cut off completely,” he recollects.
The elderly who were tired of living would ‘voluntarily kill themselves’ by jumping down the sheer cliffs in a cultural ritual referred to as “shew”.
“There were clans that practised shew and the escarpment offered a perfect spot. But times have changed and the area is now a gem in the region,” he notes.
First, the practice of expelling unmarried and barren women to the escarpment has long been abandoned after locals embraced modernity and Christianity.
Second, the escarpment is now a big tourist attraction, beaming with hope, money and value.
“The land that was previously loathed is now a treasure and people who had abandoned it have returned and claimed it. Investors are also buying pieces of it at exorbitant prices and at an alarming rate,” elder Fredrick Chesang offers.
He said the area is increasingly becoming a goldmine with the rush of investors to the awe-inspiring ridge.
“The mad rush to acquire plots on the escarpment has pushed up land prices. On weekends and during holidays many people troop to the area to enjoy the breeze and views of the Kerio Valley. There are several species of monkeys, birds and reptiles for visitors to see,” he says.
The escarpment hosts three-star hotels, including Kerio View and Samich Resort, both near the world-acclaimed athletics town of Iten.
Their guests include the rich and famous in Kenya and tourists from across the world.
Renowned athletes like Lornah Kiplagat and foreigners have built magnificent homes and settled in the area.
The escarpment is also home to the iconic Kamariny stadium, opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1957.
A new sport has also taken the region by storm – paragliding - where ‘pilots’ on gliders run a few metres down the scenic cliffs and soar like eagles.
Hundreds of foreign paragliders flock to the area to practise and compete because of the ridges, which are reputed to have perfect lift.
“Between the months of October and February paragliders flock to the Elgeyo escarpment for the exhilarating sport. The region is conducive to paragliding because the skies are clear with ideal wind speed for the sport and foreign paragliders like to visit the region and practise their paragliding skills,” says local paraglider Peter Kibet.
He explains that the ridge is long with sheer cliffs that offer a cocktail of adrenaline-raising experiences for the pilots.
“The escarpment offers pilots different areas to practise, whether you are a learner, a professional or just to have fun,” he says.
In proof of its changing fortunes, Britons Paula Radcliffe and Mo Farah and many Kenyan athletes honed their racing skills here because of the high altitude.
Even First Lady Margaret Kenyatta, with her Beyond Zero Campaign in 2015, used the scenic escarpment to prepare for the marathons that aims to reduce infant and maternal deaths in Kenya.
These sports and tourism activities have raised the value of land in the area, to the benefit of the locals who once deemed it worthless.
Elgeyo Marakwet Lands, Physical Planning and Environment executive Abraham Barsosio predicts the land prices will keep increasing.
“Ten years ago the price for an acre plot was about Sh100,000 but at the moment the same piece goes for between Sh3 million and Sh5million depending on the location,” he says.
“This has forced us to conduct demarcation to avoid encroachment into the fragile escarpment and prevent unscrupulous people from selling ‘ghost’ land to unsuspecting buyers.”
Mzee Joseph Kwambai says the mad rush for land has also been motivated by the rich cultural heritage of the host community.
“At the crack of dawn, guests at the resorts are treated to the cooing and chirping of birds that perch on indigenous trees. There are also different baboon species on the escarpment,” he says.
The hotels, he says, provide jobs for locals and have improved the general appearance of the region.
The Kerio View Resort, established about two decades ago, was the first of its kind on the escarpment.
The resort, build mainly with wood, offers a scenic view of the escarpment and valley in its enormity as far as the eye can see.
Its owner, Jean-Paul Fourier, says the number of domestic and foreign visitors was increasing but the Covid-19 pandemic has hurt the business.
“A majority of international bookings were cancelled and at some point we closed the establishment. The business is bad compared with the pre-Covid-19 days,” he says.
He says he was motivated to set up the resort by the rich splendour of the escarpment with its flora and fauna and an amusing local cultural heritage.
From the verandahs, a visitor gets a wide picturesque view of the Kerio Valley extending to the Tugen Hills.
Lake Kamnarok, the mighty bends of the Kerio River and Rimoi Game Reserve can also be seen from the resort.
He says this is why he named the resort Kerio View, because patrons get to feel the valley from the comfort of their rooms.
Some 40km south of Kerio View lies Samich Resort, whose management took more than three years to lay the meticulous foundation and lawns because of the rugged terrain. From the valley, an imposing magnificent view of the resort can be seen.
“At dawn, just before the magical spectacle of the rising sun over the escarpments, patrons get the opportunity to view the silhouette of the Mt Kenya and Mt Longonot tops, which gradually fade in the blue horizon as the day breaks,” says Thomas Adega, who was once the resort manager and is now a tour guide.
He says that besides the valley’s scenic opulence, the region is also a cultural attraction accentuated by magnificent waterfalls, drawing local and foreign lodgers.
“Cultural tourists get a chance to taste the traditional delicacies of the community, including mursik (Kalenjin traditional sour milk), boiled and peppered meat, and the community’s special honey beer, commonly known as kipketiin. There are also traditional artefacts and music for visitors,” he says.
He says the region’s cultural, sports, adventure, wildlife, hospitality and ecotourism potential is yet to be fully harnessed.