Adventures in Kenya: Visiting the Hot Zone of Kitum Cave

Article Published in Perceptive Travel Online Magazine, December 2019

Story and photos by Mark Aspelin

Near the Kenya-Uganda border lies the infamous Kitum Cave, home to bats, elephants, and perhaps a devastating virus.

“Gene felt a prickling sensation on his scalp. The paths of Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal had crossed at only one place on earth, and that was inside Kitum Cave. What had they done in the cave? What had they found in there? What had they touched? What had they breathed? What lived in Kitum Cave?” – Excerpt from the book The Hot Zone; The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus by Richard Preston

While I working as a conservation biologist in the western highlands of Kenya in the late ’90s, one of the local members of the community suggested that I visit Kitum Cave, an interesting place where animals such as elephants “mine” salt from the walls of the cave by using their tusks to break off pieces of the cave and eat it. I’d never heard of the place, and it sounded pretty cool, so I said, “Sounds great—let’s go!”

The next day, three of us drove towards the border of Uganda and entered Mount Elgon National Park, home of Kitum cave. One member of our group was a community leader responsible for managing a variety of crane and wetland conservation efforts in the community around Saiwa Swamp National Park.

We pick up our assigned armed guards to escort us to the cave.
We pick up our assigned armed guards to escort us to the cave.

The second was a local priest I had never met before. He had two PhDs, one in religion and one in ancient languages such as Sumerian and Aramaic. He also led efforts to bring clothes and other donated goods directly from Europe so that he could distribute them to people in need. This approach helped avoid the middleman, which often came in the form of corrupt government officials who required bribes or outright stole the donated items to sell. It was not uncommon to see donated good being sold on the streets for a profit rather than distributed to the intended communities in need.

The third member of the group was me, the clueless guy that didn’t know what he was doing.

Upon entering Mount Elgon National Park, we were informed that we were not allowed to travel alone in the Park because of concerns about our safety due to wildlife. Instead, we were assigned not one, but two armed guards to pile into our small vehicle and escort us to the cave.

After a short, cramped drive, we parked at the Kitum Cave trailhead and were ready to begin our hike.

It was a relatively short walk with some nice scenery…and an occasional pile of elephant dung to add to the ambiance.

Hiking along the trail to Kitum Cave in Mt. Elgon National Park, Kenya
Hiking along the trail to Kitum Cave in Mt. Elgon National Park, Kenya

And as we rounded a corner, we finally spotted Kitum Cave.

Our first glimpse of the entrance to Kitum Cave
Our first glimpse of the entrance to Kitum Cave

First Tour Stop, a Deadly Virus Zone

Little did I know at the time that Kitum Cave was infamous for reasons that would have prevented me from ever considering this trip. I learned later that it was believed to be a possible source of the Marburg Virus, a virus similar to Ebola. I consider that to be an important little nugget of information to have prior to considering a day trip to explore a cave!

Apparently, two people had been killed by Marburg virus and the one thing that they both had in common was a visit to Kitum Cave. In 1980, a 56-year old Frenchman named Charles Monet explored the cave. Seven days later, the virus took its gruesome toll on him as the poor man bled out of all his orifices and died soon after entering a hospital in Nairobi.

Seven years later, a young Danish boy (named Peter Cardinal in Richard Preston’s book, The Hot Zone) contracted Marburg after visiting Kitum Cave. He was eventually taken to Nairobi Hospital (the same hospital as Charles Monet) where the child died.

After the two deaths, a joint U.S. and Kenyan research investigation was formed in attempt to find Marburg Virus in Kitum Cave. The cave was closed to the public while researchers donned the highest level of protective gear as they scoured the cave walls, sampled bat and elephant poop, and captured a variety of bats, birds, and insects. According to locals that I later spoke with, they also kept cages with monkeys in the back of the cave to see if they would contract the virus. Despite these efforts, the team was not successful in locating the virus. So, a few years before my visit, the cave was opened back up to the public.Instead of wearing a Biosafety Level 4 protective body suit and respirator, I entered the cave looking like this:

Mark's "personal protective equipment" for the Kitum Cave exploration.
Mark’s “personal protective equipment” for the Kitum Cave exploration.

Hey, at least I had a flashlight.

The cave is about 700 feet deep into the side of Mount Elgon, and we proceeded to go deep enough into the cave, deep enough to require the use of our flashlights.

After about 30 minutes of exploring the cave, we climbed back in the car and ascended the road to an overlook on Mount Elgon where we could enjoy a nice view of Uganda.

The Hot Zone Connection

After our enjoyable day trip, I was dropped back off at my tent at Sirikwa Safaris. That is where things got a bit more interesting. The owner of Sirikwa Safaris, Jane Barnley, asked how the trip was and told me about a relatively new book published two years prior that I might be interested in since it mentions Kitum Cave. “Sounds interesting, what book is that?”

Inside the entrance of Kitum Cave
Inside the entrance of Kitum Cave

That’s when Jane pulled a copy of The Hot Zone from her bookshelf, handed it to me, and proceeded to give me a quick overview of the key points—featuring gruesome deaths and the belief that Kitum cave was a possible source of the Ebola or Marburg virus.

“What?!” I was stunned. She then went on to explain that Peter Cardinal (the boy from the book) had started feeling sick on the very couch that we were standing next to before he was evacuated by helicopter.

I was a bit surprised to hear this news, putting it mildly, and was thinking to myself, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before the trip?” I retired to my tent and used a headlamp to stay up most of the night while I devoured the pages of the book.

Then things started to get even more interesting.

The Illness Begins

A few days later, I started feeling ill. Something was off. I was experiencing weird symptoms that included muscle spasms in my chest, near my heart, so that it looked like my skin was bubbling, but it was not in synch with my heartbeat. I was getting concerned, and my recent reading of The Hot Zone didn’t put my mind at ease.

I decided to visit a local doctor who was originally from India but trained in England. He ran the most efficient urgent care clinic I have ever been to in my life. The staff included one person at the front desk and him. That’s it. I walked in and explained my symptoms to the woman at the front desk while she jotted down some notes on a small piece of paper. The doctor entered the room, she handed him the slip of paper, and we stepped back into another room. The doctor asked more questions, drew some of my blood, put it on a slide, and looked at it under a microscope that he had in the back of the room.

He spun his chair around and told me that everything looked okay from the perspective of the normal cast of characters such as malaria and cholera. It was probably just a virus that I picked up from the local food or water. I paid cash at the front desk and that was it. A process that would have taken months in the U.S. for the doctor visit, lab work, lab results, claims submission, claims adjudication, and final payment had all been completed in about thirty minutes and cost me about $20.

View of Uganda from Mt. Elgon National Park
View of Uganda from Mt. Elgon National Park

Over the following week, my symptoms worsened though, and I ended up going to Nairobi National Hospital, the same place where Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal had been taken (and died). After more tests, the doctor couldn’t figure out the cause, but he gave me a prescription that would help clear my body of any parasites to see if that would help. It didn’t.

I eventually caught a flight to see a tropical medicine specialist in Cape Town, South Africa. By that time, the window for Marburg destruction had passed, so thankfully I could at least cross that option off the list. The doctor narrowed it down to a family of viruses that can cause muscle spasms of the intercostal muscles, among other symptoms. He said it wasn’t worth spending more time and money to attempt to figure out which type of virus I had because there was nothing that could be done about it regardless.

In the end, I decided to return to the U.S. and recuperate at my parents’ house in Colorado Springs. After about six months of clean living, while I worked temp jobs to pay the bills, I finally felt back to normal again.

Thankfully, I’m happy to report that I only have one thing in common with Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal: each of us visited Kitum Cave.

Crossing Into Togo: The Difference a Line in the Sand Can Make

Crossing the border from Ghana to Togo and back.

I couldn’t resist the temptation of trying to cross the border into Togo.  My friend Paul (after just finishing a Peace Corps gig in Liberia) was a good sport and agreed to join met.  Togo is one of those faraway places that many people in the United States have never even heard of.  I knew where Togo was on a world map, I knew that the capital was Lomé, and I had heard of the 2010 attack on the Togo national soccer team bus as it drove through Angola, resulting in three dead and nine wounded.  Being a soccer fanatic, I was also familiar with the Togolese player Emmanuel Adebayor.  But that about covers the extent of my prior knowledge of Togo.

Togo is a narrow country that is wedged between Ghana and Benin.  It has a population of about 7 million people, with 1.5 million people living in and around the capital and largest city, Lomé.  Lomé is located on the Gulf of Guinea.

Paul and I met our driver at 7:30am at our hotel in Accra.  It took about 3.5 hours to drive from Accra to Aflao – the busy border town where we needed to leave our driver and proceed on foot into Togo.  Of course, we first had to deal with customs, and that had the potential to be a difficult proposition given our situation.  Why?  Because we did not have multiple entry visas for Ghana.  We were able to secure a visa from the Togolese embassy in Accra, but we did not have time to secure a multiple entry visa for Ghana.  In other words, we could get into Togo, but we had no visa to get us back into Ghana. 

We decided to roll the dice and give it a try.  Both of us had spent time in different parts of Africa and found that almost anything is negotiable in Africa … for the right price.  We walked into the customs office at the Ghana-Togo border, explained what we wanted to do, and then we waited.  A long time.  Finally, we were invited into the office of the customs officer to discuss the possibility of securing a visa for us to get back into Ghana if we cross the border into Togo.  The officer explained the difficulty of getting a visa on such short notice, and finally said that he could arrange for us to receive an “emergency visa” for the price of US$150 each.  Cash of course.  That was a deal breaker for us and we explained that it was too much money.  After further consideration, the customs officer revised his approach and said that he would give us a tourist visa for US$50 each, instead of an emergency visa.  We agreed.  The only catch was that we would need to find this officer again once we were ready to cross back into Ghana.  Feeling lucky?  Well, we must have felt lucky because we said ok. 

Two minutes later, we were walking across the line the separates Ghana from Togo. 

There were two major changes from Ghana that we noticed immediately.  First, English was now useless.  In Togo, you speak French.   Thankfully, I studied French for quite a few years and had lived in a French-speaking part of Switzerland for a short time.  More importantly, I actually still remembered enough French to get by.  It is not pretty, but its enough to get around. 

The second major change that we noticed … motorcycles.  A lot of them.  In Ghana, motorcycles are banned, but in Togo, pas de problème!

Here are a few photos of Lomé.

Beach soccer anyone?  Apparently not today.

Lunch at Le Galion – a very French restaurant that appeared to be popular with expats from France.

I opted for entrecôte and pommes frites (peppersteak and fries) … still feeling lucky.

We spent the day exploring Lomé, with a good chunk of it dealing with a “diabetic” guy who needed money for an insulin shot.  This was a new one to add to the long list of scams that I have encountered in different parts of the world.  However, I have to say it was a very convincing performance.  We both bought into it at first.  We walked with the man while he went to a police station to ask where there was a Pharmacy that was open today.  Next we walked into the Pharmacy where he bought a “temporary insulin” shot that would keep him going for a few hours until he was able to get enough money to buy better insulin shots that would keep him going for the next few days.  He grabbed the temporary insulin syringe from the pharmacist, stuck it in his side, and injected the insulin.  Like I said, this was not your average scam.  So then we started reaching for our wallets to buy him the shots that he would need to keep him going for awhile…thinking that $10 should cover anything that he would need.  The pharmacist said a number in French, but I assumed that I wasn’t understanding properly because it sounded like a big number.  He punched the keys on a calculator and showed it to us.  The total cost would be 124,131 West African CFA Franc.  We borrowed the calculator to convert the number from West African CFA Francs to US Dollars, and then our jaws dropped.  US$250. 

Now, we both knew that US$250 was a LOT of money in most of Africa.  That is more money than many families earn in a year.  And of course, it would need to be paid in cash.  Credit card were not accepted at the pharmacy.  Now we didn’t have that kind of cash with us, even if we wanted to pay that much money.  Of course, our friend didn’t hesitate.  Let’s go to an ATM to get some cash.  At this point, Paul and I were very reluctant to continue.  As we walked along the streets, our friend was starting to “feel sick” … must … get … more … insulin … kind of routine.  We were now 99% sure that this was a scam…but that 1% chance of not helping a person in need can sometimes be enough to cave in and give money.  We did go with him to an ATM but thankfully, very few ATMs in Ghana and Togo accept MasterCard (the only credit card that I had with me) so we were not able to withdraw any money even if we wanted to.  We gave our friend a small amount of cash (US$10), wished him well, and hailed a taxi to get out of there.

As for getting back into Ghana, we were lucky…very lucky.  The customs officer who was bribing us … I mean … arranging for our tourist visa back into Ghana, was not in the office when we returned.  He had been called into the street to deal with a fist fight at the border.  We waited for over an hour until finally, an Assistant was able to make contact by cell phone with the customs officer to get the scoop on what to do with us.  The Assistant was directed via cell phone to provide us with a tourist visa.  The Assistant hung up the phone and told us that the total would be 35 Cedi for the two of us.  Cedi is the currency of Ghana.  At the time, 35 Cedi was equivalent to about US$17.  We quickly paid, and eagerly walked back into Ghana before being spotted by the Customs Officer. 

We found our driver, hopped in his car, and made our way back to Accra.

Our Togo adventure was a success … at least in terms of having a memorable experience!   Plus Togo was my 84th country that I have visited…not that I am keeping track.  Ahem.  Ok, I confess.  I am trying to visit over 100 countries, and that is why I end up having some of these crazy travel stories.  It really was a fun trip, though – a lot laughs … particularly after it was over.

Here is a photo that I took on the drive back from Togo to Accra.

Ghana Part 3 – The Streets and Markets of Ghana

Typical scenes while driving from Accra to the Gold Coast (Videos)

Typical scenes while driving from Accra to the Gold Coast (Videos)

While there are plenty of bustling markets and busy roads in Ghana,  thankfully I did not experience as many “white-knuckle” taxi rides or chaotic markets with relentless touts compared to other parts of Africa and India.  Don’t get me wrong, there were still plenty of close calls on the roads of Ghana.  People tend to drive very fast, but they are forced to slow down due to the many speed bumps on the roads.  To make it interesting at night, some vehicles had lights that were very dim and some vehicles didn’t appear to have any lights at all.  There weren’t many animals on the roads … and there were no motorcycles on the road since they are banned.  Just lots of honking cars and trucks, diesel fumes, dust, and smoke from the fires in the villages.  By the time I got back to my room, I was pretty ripe from sweat, smoke, diesel, and dust.

Rest assured, the streets and markets are a feast for your senses if you are visiting from the United States.  These short videos of typical street and market scenes will give you a taste.  

Ghana Part 2 – Slave Castles, Canopy Walkways, and a President’s Funeral

Red and Black 

President John Evans Atta Mills died just before I arrived in Accra.  The people of Ghana were in mourning, and everyone was wearing red and black to signify the occasion for the entire week that I was in Accra.  The funeral was held just down the street from where I was staying.

Ghana is an easy country to visit for many reasons.  For starters, I only had a take two planes from Albuquerque to get there!  It was amazing to hop on a plane in Albuquerque, change planes in Atlanta, and then wake up to find myself in Accra, Ghana.  I found that Accra was a relatively easy and safe city to navigate, and the people we met were terrific.  And to top it all off, English is the official language of Ghana, so it doesn’t get much easier than that!   

Here is a map of Ghana to help you get oriented – not a map that many of us are familiar with in Albuquerque.

I used Accra as a base to explore the Cape Coast and Kakum National Park to the West, and then cross overland into Togo to the East.

Cape Coast Castle

Cape Coast Castle is a World Heritage Site that used to be one of the largest slave-holding sites in the world during the colonial era, just a few hundred years ago.  Slaves were crammed into hot, dark, and oppressive dungeons before crossing the “Gate of No Return” and being stuffed into merchant ships and deported to a life of slave labor.  It is estimated that tens of thousands of slaves were incarcerated in this place over the years. 

We joined one of the group tours.  Our guide took us down to the dungeons and turned off the flashlight.  It was very dark – very difficult to see anything.  The only light and fresh air came from a small porthole high up on the wall.  It was hot and sweaty in the dungeon, and of course this was nothing compared to what the slaves experienced.  They were locked up with about 200 other people in each of the cells.  Since everyone was shackled together, it was not easy to move in the cramped quarters.  People had to defecate, vomit, and sleep where they were.  Food would be thrown to them from above…and it would land in the feces, blood, and vomit. 

Needless to say, it is an intense, depressing, yet very worthwhile stop in Ghana.  Plan on ~2 hours to tour the site, and be sure to go on one of the guided tours.  The experience of descending into those dark dungeons, and then hearing about the deplorable conditions that these poor souls had to endure, is something that will stick with me forever.

Kakum National Park and the Canopy Walkway

Kakum National Park protects one of the most extensive rainforests in Ghana.  It is a good spot for birding (with over 265 species of birds) and it also contains ~100 species of mammals, including forest elephant, giant forest hog, flying squirrels, leopard, spot-nosed monkey, bushbuck, bongo, and duiker.  The main attraction for visitors is the canopy walk – a 1,155 foot-long wood walkway that is suspended by rope and weaves through the forest canopy at a height of 92 – 132 feet above the ground.  If you are scared of heights, then you might want to stick to the trails and skip the canopy walk.  Given that we did not arrive until late morning (well past peak wildlife activity), and it was raining (hey, it’s a rainforest, what do you expect!), we did not see much in the way of wildlife.  But it was still fun to walk along the canopy of the rainforest, and see the excitement in the faces of Ghanaian children walking on the suspended trail – apparently it is a popular field trip for local schools. 

Logistics: It took about 3.5 hours to drive to Kakum National Park from Accra.  Cost: US$30 to do the canopy walk. 

Rest in Peace, President John Evans Atta Mills

Djembe Drumming in Ghana

Djembe Drumming in Ghana, August 2012

In August 2012, I took a trip to Ghana for fun.  Why?  Four reasons. 

1) I had never been to West Africa

2) I had heard good things about Ghana as a place to visit, and there was a chance I could cross the border into Togo or Ivory Coast, depending on the stability of the neighboring countries at the time, and the associated cost and hassle of securing a visa while in Ghana.

3) I have a Djembe drum that was made in Ghana and I thought it would be great to experience djembe drumming from the source.

4) A friend of mind (Paul) just finished a Peace Corps stint in Liberia and was ready for a break in Ghana before returning to the US.

I am glad that I went.  The people were friendly, I felt safe walking the streets of Accra, I was able to cross the border (overland) into Togo without too much trouble, and I came home with a new Djembe drum that was custom carved for my son!

Here is a video of Paul and I test driving some djembe drums…

And then the pros show us how it is really done…

Paul (a banjo player) was eyeing an “African banjo”…you don’t see those everyday.  Moses was happy to give us a demo – here is a video.

Here is the market in Accra where djembe drums are made.

The workshop for custom carving of the drums – Paul ended up buying a drum too.

When the drums were ready to be picked up, the carvers and shop owner gave us an impromptu performance using our new drums … probably to give us a lasting impression of what it is supposed to sound like if we ever get good at playing djembe!  Click on the video below.

And the final product…one for my son Erik and one for Paul.