Published Saturday Magazine, Nation newspaper 10 February 2018
A narrow gorge slits the earth below the smooth black road surrounded by the massifs of the Elgeyo-Marakwet that winds its way up to Iten the home of champions who have dominated the stage of world-class runners.
Down at the gorge, it’s a different set of athletes stealing the show – a group of dare-devil divers jumping off the high cliffs into the deep gorge – at some point a drop of up to 100 feet. It’s not for the faint-hearted.
Anybody driving fast can miss this spot on the map. Stopping by the side of the road, the men materialize. Dressed in worn-out T-shirts and shorts, they don’t give the picture of dare-devil divers.
Grey stone boulders dramatically vanish where the gorge opens and the Kerio flows. The men introduce themselves and we agree on the fee for the performance – a series of jumps and dives by the five men. To add more drama to the show, the men point to a shadow in the water that reveals a motionless crocodile by the wall of the gorge shading itself from the burning sun.
Then show begins.
Spread out on the stone-clad earth, in a series of fast sprints across the rocks, the young men jump into the jade waters of Kerio River. It’s a jaw-dropping performance.
From the bottom of the gorge, they surface and run up the steep rock-faced wall in seconds to lead us across the road to the next series of jumps over the iron bridge straddling the gorge. In split-second turns, every one of the men jump – the loud splash on impact echoing in the valley – and the show is over.
“I started jumping off the cliffs when l was a boy fishing for mudfish here,” tells Festus Kiplimo. At 11 years old it was a fun thing to do – at first jumping of the lower cliffs and then climbing higher and higher over the years to become so confident as to add a variety of jumps like summersaults and back dives.
“We practice daily,” continues the lean man with sinewy muscles. “You have to be a very good swimmer to tackle the strong current. When you touch the water, you have to be streamlined like a skydiver to enter the water and avoid injury.”
These are dangerous dives – from that height it is like hitting a stone wall and can be fatal for the novice. Practice means everything and for these divers who now call themselves Kerio Divers and Entertainers their ultimate dream is to join the Kenya Navy.
Finished with the acrobatic show of the day we stroll a few steps over the gorge to the simple thatched banda to savour the mangoes in season. Mariam Chelimo serves us fresh fruit salad and intrigues us further with legends of the Kalenjin people.
“In the old days, the Tugen stole the cows of the Keiyo,” begins the woman. “When they reached the gorge, the Keyio were behind them. The Tugen tried to jump over the gorge with the stolen cattle but many, many young warriors died in the raging water.
“So,” she continues, “a whole age-set was wiped out and since then amongst the Tugen this age set is no more.”
From the bottom of the valley our next point is up the winding road to Iten past Tambach where the former President Moi was once a teacher and on to the top of the escarpment at Iten – the home of champions.
The change in temperature is dramatic – at the bottom it’s boiling hot and at the top it’s beautifully cool. Long-legged lean runners run this way and that way on the rough paths along the roads of the world-famous town for high-altitude training where athletes like David Rudisha, Mo Farah, Paula Radcliff, Aspen Kiprop, Edna Kiplagat and many record-breakers regularly train.
“There’s no place like this,” says Chiara Raso at the High Altitude Training Centre founded by Lornah Kiplagat – Kenya’s multiple world champion – nearly 20 years ago. Raso is from the Alps in Italy who won the gold medal in 2006 in mountain skiing. She’s accompanying a team of Italian athletes amongst them the 100-kilometer ultra-marathoner Matteo Simone Vivian.
“Iten has everything for runners,” she enthuses. “It’s got the warm weather, high altitude and endless dirt tracks that make the leg muscles stronger and avoids injuries.
“It’s the home of champions where everybody respects you because you are a runner.”
Nairobi to Iten on Kenya’s west side is 350 kilometers.
Places to visit: Rimoi National Reserve, Kamnarok National Reserve, Kamirini Stadium