The sign reads ‘natural swimming pool’ and points into the middle of the wilderness. We’re in Buffalo Springs National Reserve, one of the triad of northern reserves that also contains Shaba and Samburu. Swimming pools, natural or otherwise, seem unlikely in this searing-hot desert region. We’re surrounded by groves of doum palm, droves of Beisa oryx, drifts of reticulated giraffe and a ring of purple mountains, one of which is Ololokwe, the sacred mountain of the Samburu people. The massive coronet of purple-tinged mountains glowers down on the little reserve and the heat shimmers. But, as the old British military adage has it, ‘time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted’ so we set off for the mythical swimming pool.
We don’t have far to go.
There’s a wide swathe of marshland, emerald green and sparkling: it’s one of the many ‘springs’ in which this small (131sq kms) but beautiful land abounds. Beyond the spring there’s a rough circular stonewall about waist height. Behind the wall lies a deep pool. The water is diamond-clear and shines with an otherworldly amethyst blue. A toe in the water reveals it to be bathwater in temperature.
The temptation to jump in is overwhelming.
‘It’s a bomb site,’ says our guide. We gape. ‘From World War II,’ he continues. ‘It was 1940 and a squadron of Italian fighter planes were flying back to Ethiopia. They looked down and saw a huge herd of buffalo drinking from this spring. They mistook the buffalo for the tents of the British, who were advancing towards the Ethiopian border, so they dropped a bomb on them’. He regards the huge rocky basin with placid unconcern, ‘and this is what’s left,’ he finishes.
It’s a strange story, but research reveals it to be true. In one of the least-known encounters of the Second World War, Italian Dictator, Benito Mussolini, had declared war on Britain and was attempting to seize what was then British Kenya and Tanganyika for an Italian empire that he declared would be even larger than the Roman Empire. He had 93,000 troops, 232 aircraft and 200 armoured vehicles and tanks. The British had 19,000 troops, six vintage aircraft with only one serviceable carburettor between them, a couple of homemade armoured cars and no artillery. Surprisingly, the British won. The buffalos were collateral damage.
Back at the pool, peace reigns. Six reticulated giraffe stroll past and look us over questioningly. A pair of Canada geese flies in honking loudly and potter in the swamp, a herd of Beisa oryx graze in the near distance, and a train of warthogs trots past with their tails baton-stiff. It’s a gorgeously surreal spot but it’s entirely devoid of shade, so we move on.