The shrine stands on the Equator, the meeting point of the Northern and Southern hemispheres, while the beacon that marks the upper boundary of the holy grounds is the actual meeting point of the expansive Rift Valley Province and the tiny Central Province. The wooded rocky hill, where the statue of the Virgin Mary is housed in a little hut, has a rich biodiversity, with more than 250 species of insects and over 200 grass species.
The hardy cedar, the African Olea and the leafy Dombea, among other indigenous trees, offer pilgrims protection from the scythe of the hissing evening wind. If your visit is during the wet season, the sweet scent of flowering plants will be like a healing balm. A visitor need not carry any water to this place because a clear stream wells up from the ground right under the statue of the Virgin Mary, purified of all dross by Mother Nature. Many pilgrims in fact carry empty bottles and fill them up at the shrine.
Do not be alarmed if you hear a movement in the tree branches. Families of monkeys have made this sanctuary their home after the trees in their former habitat were felled by charcoal burners. The monkeys and other small creatures remain silent all day long as the pilgrims commune with God at the shrine. One is only likely to be disturbed by the drone of a bee, working to fill your next jar of honey.
But the place comes instantly alive after sunset with the chirping of insects and the movement of nocturnal animals looking forward to another busy stellar night. Down the valley, a cow is mooing for her calf. It’s time for the pilgrim to leave the shrine. No crime has been reported here. But a few years ago a turbaned religious fanatic from the neighbouring Igwamiti settlement descended on the shrine and smashed the statue of the Virgin Mary into smithereens. He was jailed for the mischief.
More than 300,000 pilgrims, including foreigners, have visited the Marian Shrine during the last few years. Most bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in the country have held liturgical celebrations there. Visitors to the sacred place choose to walk along the hilly seven-kilometre murram road from the foot of the hill in the dusty Subukia Town, situated about 40 kilometres from Nakuru.
Tourists travelling from Nyahururu Town, which is only a couple of minutes’ drive away, prefer to stop at the viewpoint along the road that skirts the hill. From viewpoints situated about 2,500 metres above the sea level, a visitor using a powerful pair of binoculars can sample the luscious and beautiful escarpment below and beyond. A tarmac road links Nyahururu and Nakuru towns and visitors can stop at the famous Thomson’s Falls to enjoy the picturesque view. It is simply enthralling.
If you are interested in seismology, it is worth noting that Subukia is prone to minor tremors. The strongest one, which occurred several decades ago, had an intensity of 7.0 on the Richter scale. The earthquake, whose epicentre was in Laikipia, diverted River Subukia underground and interfered with boreholes. There were some tremors in the area around the shrine last year.
However, visitors need not worry about the earth movements during their trip to the sacred site. God is in charge. Some of the pilgrims believe that the water welling up from under the statue of the Virgin Mary has healing powers and this could be the reason why they carry empty bottles on their way to the shrine. The water flows for only a few metres from the statue before disappearing underground, probably to reappear several kilometres down the valley to irrigate lush plantations.
Pilgrims are, however, unwilling to dwell much on the healing powers of the water saying that what mattered were the prayers they say at the shrine. Father Mwaura of Subukia says that pilgrims can visit the shrine any time they wish but they should inform the chaplain in charge of the Village of Mary prior to the visit for any special arrangements.
Christians from Protestant churches also visit the shrine in big numbers for worship sessions that sometimes take several days. Many choose to fast during the pilgrimage, taking only water and dry biscuits. The shrine occupies a five-acre portion of the 200-acre farm owned by the Catholic Church.
The 40 kilometre road from Subukia to Nakuru is all tarmac and visitors need not fear getting stuck in the mud during the wet season or encountering blinding dust during the dry season. From Nyahururu one can drive along the dusty road to Kaheho and make a brief entry into the Aberdare National Park.