Arriving in Kenya was like a breath of fresh air. Not being in possession of a Carnet de Passages, we had anticipated encountering problems at the border crossing at Suam and were pleasantly surprised when the revenue authority employees were happy to use the same temporary import document that we had obtained when entering Uganda. Having just come from countries where high population densities and poor subsistence farming techniques have stripped the land of its natural vegetation, it was a relief to be surrounded by bushveld again. Even more of a relief would be felt when we arrived at our accommodation for the night, an old farmhouse located in Kitale. Run by a British ex-pat, we were informed that roast chicken and ice cream would feature in the dinner service, thus putting our days of eating kapenta in Uganda firmly behind us.
Overland Kenya – Birding on Lake Baringo
Our drive to Lake Baringo would take us through the running capital of Kenya, a region that offers the world’s best long distance marathon runners the perfect training combination of high altitude and rolling hills. While I have dabbled in a few half marathons, Gary is an exceptional athlete and has completed many of South Africa’s toughest road and trail races. Whatever our talent, as runners we have an abundance of admiration for the top professionals of this sport and found it somewhat surreal to be driving past groups of runners training together or heading back towards camps with bright Nike branding along the perimeter fences. Following in the footsteps of Adharanand Finn, author of “Running With the Kenyans”, we chuckled as we came across a few Mzungus trying desperately, but in vain, to keep up with their long-legged companions.
We decided on Roberts Camp at Lake Baringo and catching sight of a large Fish Eagle’s nest in front of the camp on our arrival, we knew that we had picked a good spot. If we were ever going to be converted into avid birders, this was the place as bird life here is abundant. Being a conservancy, fishing on the lake by locals is regulated and hippos and crocs are free to roam without being threatened. Our days would begin early with a fresh pot of coffee while we watched the sunrise peep over the mountain ridge, painting the sky in pastel purples, pinks and oranges. Leaving the female Fish Eagle to tend to the chicks, the male would venture off in search of some alone time and breakfast for the brood while all around us a variety of different kingfishers and cranes plucked fish and insects from the waters.
At night we were lulled to sleep by the snorting grunts of hippos and had been told that our campsite was a favourite nocturnal munching ground for the resident pod, but despite our best efforts we could never catch sight of them. Severely underestimating their navy-seal-like capabilities of sneaking up from the waters edge without being heard, we would awake in the morning perplexed to hear from a Dutch overlander who spent his nights enthusiastically bird watching, that the hippos had completely surrounded our tent.
The Jade Sea
Our drive up to Lake Turkana would be as much about the journey as it would be about the destination. The new highway heading north into Ethiopia makes it possible for travellers to reach the lake in one day, however, electing to take the route which winds its way through the mountains and valleys of the Samburu region meant that we were in for a four day adventure. Deciding to get a head start on the leg from Nanyuki up to the town of Maralal located on the Loroghi Plateau, we left in the early afternoon and drove through a dry landscape dotted with camels and shimmering with mirages set against the blue mountains towards which we were heading. At sunset we pulled off of the road and spent our first night bush camping near a ranger station in the Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy. Nestled in the dark mountains we were treated to the most spectacular starlit sky. Hard pressed to find a black patch that wasn’t pierced with a brilliant sparkle, we decided to keep the fly cover off of our tent and went to sleep beneath our own planaterium.
The next stretch of our journey up to the Yare Camel Club located in Maralal would have Jimny traversing long stretches of “corrugated iron” dirt tracks and climbing rocky mountain slopes so that we could have the pleasure of gazing out over the Suguta Valley. Arriving in the early afternoon, we set up camp, refueled and set off in search of lunch, although the last restaurant that we expected to find was a local “Hard Rock” cafe. While wolfing down traditionally prepared vegetables and what we strongly suspect was goat along with an ice cold coke, our contentment was temporarily put on hold as we laid down our cutlery, mesmerised by a group of Samburu women who entered the restaurant in search of a drink of water. Along our route we had caught brief glimpses of Samburu men and women in the distance, but this was our first opportunity to really take them in.
As the women settled themselves, we realised that there were at least three generations amongst them, from older ladies with lines etched across their faces to vibrant youngsters, they were all strikingly beautiful dressed in their traditional garments and jewelry. We had read that a Samburu woman receives necklaces from her admirers before she is married off and if that is the case, one old granny amongst the group must have been a real stunner in her day. However, as graceful and elegant as the Samburu might outwardly appear, they are a hard people, their mannerisms seeming to mirror the hostile environment from which they have carved a life for themselves. It is arguably their hard fought resistance towards colonial influence that has allowed them to hold on to and preserve their culture and as such, it was somewhat understandable that our interaction with the tribe over the next few days would not be the friendliest. Never returning a smile or a wave, photographing a Samburu involved a lot of bravery on our part as most of our requests were aggressively turned down leaving us desperately desiring a long range camera lense. If the Samburu women had the ability to intimidate us, one can only imagine the effect of the Samburu men. Most of the young Moran warriors that we drove past were peacefully attending to their goats, but their lean forms, traditional dress and accompanying weapons seemed to suggest that they were merely waiting for the opportunity to wage war against a neighbouring tribe over grazing rights and cattle rustling, an event that is not uncommon in this area. Needless to say, we never did work up the courage to photograph a Samburu Moran.
The following day we set out on the next leg of our journey which would have Jimny tackling the worst road conditions that we had encountered on our trip. Tracks for Africa described the road as “bad rocky gravel”, a euphemism for “absolutely buggered”. We passed two land cruisers that had broken down and been abandoned like old skeletons on the roadside, a disturbing reminder of the fact that if anything goes wrong with your vehicle out here you might be waiting a long while for assistance. Gradually as we dropped down from the Loroghi Plateau, the harsh terrain gave way to open stretches of flat grasslands. It is here, where there are no vehicles or villages in sight for hours at a time, that you experience a feeling of absolute freedom.
After a long day of driving we arrived at a camp in the Samburu village of South Horr and laid our heads upon Jimny’s dashboard, offering our boy our eternal gratitude for being such a capable and fantastic vehicle. A lot of risk accompanies our decisions to venture to these remote areas, driving beautiful but difficult routes that may leave one feeling a bit vulnerable at times. As overlanders our experiences are shaped by the performance of the vehicle that facilitates our ability to travel. Time and again, Jimny proves himself to be an absolute champion.
A new day and the last leg of our journey that would hopefully end at our most northerly destination, Lake Turkana. A few kilometers after leaving South Horr, we were granted a reprieve when the dirt track transformed into a smoothly graded road that joins the main highway to a wind farm located in this area. While we were finally able to stretch Jimny’s legs and break the 20km/h speed that we had been averaging, this road wouldn’t last long, soon transforming back into a rocky track of shattered lava fields that eventually lead over a rise where the emerald waters lay before us. In stark contrast to the barren, burnt orange landscape, the body of water has earned its nickname as “the Jade Sea”. The presence of the wind farm was a warning of the gusts that blow through this region and trying to climb out of Jimny at Loyangalani without having one of his doors come unhinged was a challenge.
After organising a local boat and crew for a morning spent fly fishing on the lake, it was this same wind that persuaded our boat captain to turn back to shore shortly after leaving the safety of the bay. Like the Samburu, Turkana, and El Molo tribes that inhabit this region, the lake is unique and unlike anything that we have seen on our travels, a beautiful but harsh environment. It was with this thought in mind that we opted for the short and sweet route down the highway back to Nanyuki.
Celebrating Christmas on Mount Kenya
The town of Nanyuki is overflowing with ex-pats, from travellers and volunteers to lodge employees and commercial farmers. Coming from the dry, dusty and hot Samburu region, the cooler climate and abundance of Christmas decorations and carols playing in all the shops were most welcome, inspiring us to give Jimny a Christmas makeover, complete with tinsel and his own Christmas tree. Until this point of our overland Kenya adventure, we had been left with no option but to purchase our meat at local butcheries, where the standard of refrigeration and hygiene, while well beneath that which we would usually be comfortable with, was thankfully a far cry from a carcass hanging in a tree at the roadside. Regardless, I always remained in the car when Gary went about purchasing braai meat which he kept referring to as “Kenyan beef”. While there can be no excuse for my gullibility, the butchery in Nanyuki gave Gary the opportunity to come clean and inform me that for the last few weeks I had been enjoying goat. My retribution would take the form of having Gary pay for a hearty supply of chocolate and biscuits to see me through the festive season. Having also stocked up on mince pies and pork chops to substitute for a Christmas gammon, we celebrated Christmas Day trout fishing in the mountain streams of Mount Kenya. As we were sharing the camp at Castle Forest Lodge with an Indian family of about sixty members all of whom were eager to partake in the holiday celebrations, it wasn’t long before our traditional Christmas took on a Bollywood flavour and we were invited over to share in a feast of spicy homemade pizza and Indian dancing.
While on the topic of Christmas, it is noteworthy to mention the plight of the East African donkey, the beast of burden that features so predominantly in our Christmas tales. Along our trip we have unfortunately witnessed the hardship and mistreatment suffered by the donkey which pulled at our heartstrings. Having heard about the UK organisation, the Donkey Protection Trust, we even joked about running an “adopt a donkey” campaign whereby donkeys are retired to good homes, left to live out their remaining years in ease and comfort. Driving along we came across a number of billboards depicting healthy looking donkeys on the outskirts of a large complex. Straining our eyes, our hearts lifted as we thought we had read the words “donkey santuary”. Of course this is Africa and on closer inspection we saw that the complex was in fact labeled a “donkey slaughterhouse”, further confirmed by the stench in the surrounding area. Built by the Chinese, reports indicate that the donkeys are subjected to inhumane methods of slaughter, their meat and skins then being exported from Kenya and Tanzania for medicinal purposes.
Hello the House! – The Karen Blixen Museum
Aware that Nairobi has come to also be known as “Nai-robbery”, we wasted no time in heading for Karen Camp located in the serene suburb of Karen on the outskirts of the city, home to large estates and beautiful old colonial houses. Of course this suburb was once the sprawling farm of Karen Blixen and while Gary perhaps didn’t quite share my level of enthusiasm, our first stop was a visit to the Baroness’ old farmhouse, which is now a museum in her honour. I come from a family of women who have a great affinity for the love story that is “Out of Africa” and we’ve all watched Meryl Streep and Robert Redford grace the screen about a dozen times. Approaching the building, everything is just as you’d expect it to be having seen the film which incorporated outside shots of the original farmhouse.
The entry fee includes a guided tour through the farmhouse which is furnished with most of the Baroness’ furniture and belongings that have been returned to the museum, giving the house an authentic feel. Having spent nine months sharing a tent together, we were amused by the sleeping arrangements which, in keeping with the times, allowed the Baroness the peace and privacy of a separate room to her husband and thereafter to Denys Finch Hatton. Even more amusing was the hidden door that linked the two bedrooms allowing for a discreet midnight rondevue. The old farm equipment and coffee mill machinery are still in tact and many hours can be spent roaming the grounds, delighting in the history of a story that illustrated not only the love of two individuals, but a love of Africa herself.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
Nestled on the outskirts of the Nairobi National Park, you’ll find the home of infant elephants rescued from areas throughout Kenya after their mothers have fallen victim to poachers, local farmers or drought. If you are like us and have a soft spot for ellies, this visit should come with a warning that your heart would have well and truly melted by the end of your visit with these little sweethearts.
The orphanage only opens for an hour a day and once inside, the crew members and elephant handlers gather the tourists around the edge of a perimeter rope enclosing a large area complete with a mud pool that looks like the elephant equivalent of a water theme park. Our excitement and anticipation mounted as the handlers arrived with wheelbarrows containing large milk bottles. It wasn’t long before the first group of babies made their way down to us and judging by their speed, they were well aware of what awaited them. Careening into their handlers who just about managed to maintain their balance while holding up the bottles, the little ones proceeded to gulp down their milk, eyes half closed with satisfaction. Milk finished, they unashamedly voiced their objection when their handlers refused them another bottle and then busied themselves with the dirty job of sliding and rolling around in their mud pool. Many of the little ones are still trying to master control of their trunks which, with a fair level of concentration, they attempted to wrap around branches or use to splash mud over themselves. By this stage we had spent about half an hour with a permanent smile on our faces, making every effort to not jump the rope, plummet into the mud pool and hug an elephant.
Having finally rounded up the little hooligans who were in no hurry to vacate the vicinity, the handlers led them away and round two commenced as the older toddlers made their way down. Arriving at double the speed, the handlers didn’t even attempt to hold up their milk bottles but merely handed them over to be secured in their trunks and allowed the group to feed themselves. Up until this point, the crowd behind the rope had been at a safe distance from the mud that lurked a few meters away, but this position would change drastically after the first elephant began splashing about. Despite receiving two milk bottles each, much entertainment was on offer as a few members of the group, behaving like cheeky children, attempted to outsmart their handlers and sneak their way to the wheelbarrows in order to claim a third bottle.
The handlers are local Kenyans and surprisingly are all men who do a sterling job of treating the elephants with a firm but gentle and kind manner. This may explain why men are used for the job as women would likely fall in love with their adorable charge, giving in to all their desires, showering them with love and affection and allowing them to run amok. We felt deeply saddened when the handlers began to explain how each ellie had come to be there. The cause of their mothers deaths varied from having been shot by poachers to succumbing to drought conditions. We were horrified by the number of orphans who had been rescued from the Samburu region that we had just driven through, where the babies had fallen down open wells or tribesmen farming in the conservation areas had killed the mother to keep the elephants from eating their crops. One of the young females who had suffered numerous spear and knife wounds, had been rescued and hidden by a group of locals after her mother had been killed. Another young male had suffered a bullet wound to his knee and was slowly recovering after receiving surgery. Watching him limp along was heartbreaking, however this little sweetheart certainly isn’t allowing his injury to hold him back and dominated the mud pool along with his buddies. The end goal is to reintroduce these little ones into a natural habitat when they are old enough to join another herd of elephants, cutting off their connection with man and getting back to the business of being an elephant. While their future prospects are bright, as the saying goes “an elephant never forgets” and some will likely carry with them the traumatic and hurtful memories of losing their mothers through such unnecessary violence.
Surviving the Road to Mombasa
Amboseli is a National Park that offers travellers the combination of spectacular views of Mount Kilimanjaro and plenty of elephants. Unfortunately the weather had taken a turn for the worse and we were advised that sightings of the mountain would be unlikely. Given that we had also just had our fair share of elephant encounters at the orphanage, we decided to save some money and continue on our overland Kenya adventure towards Mombasa and up to Kilifi on the coast. Little did we know that we were signing up for a day trip that would age us about ten years. Looking back at our Southern Mozambique blog post, we can’t help but chuckle at our naivety when commenting on the reckless driving of the locals. Drivers in East Africa make Mozambican drivers look like the poster boys for safe and responsible driving. Kenyan drivers are particularly bad and the abundance of dents and scratches visible on their vehicles is evidence of their attitude on the roads. The widely accepted approach of “get out of my way or I will drive into you” often leaves one with few options. Drivers will attempt to overtake a vehicle in front of them even when there is oncoming traffic, forcing other drivers to slam on brakes or swerve off of the road. Even more disconcerting is that large trucks and petrol tankers are often involved in these maneuvers. As if matters couldn’t get worse, the road from Nairobi to Mombasa was under construction so apart from avoiding drivers seemingly determined to collide with Jimny, we had to weave around potholes and detours as well as look out for oddly placed speed bumps. While reading the Daily Nation, a Kenyan newspaper, we came across the quote “Kenya is the only country in the world where a speed bump is erected on a road to reduce accidents and then removed a few days later to reduce accidents”. We couldn’t sum it up better.
Touring the Old Trade Routes – The Kenyan and Tanzanian Coast
Our first stop on the Kenyan coast was the town of Kilifi, just north of Mombasa. With an air of opulence, the yachts moored in the river estuary lined with grand holiday homes left us with little doubt that this is a location frequented by Nairobi’s elite. However, the town transforms over New Year when one of the backpackers hosts a party that is said to last for three days. Somewhat tempted to join in the shenanigans we decided to save ourselves the hangover and ended up, ever the boring married couple, at a beautiful Eco camp further north in the mangroves of Mida Creek. It just so happened that a rather humorous American family was staying at the camp too and being staunch democrats, much entertainment could be had around the camp fire in the evenings while we listened to them passionately moan and gripe about their election results, often followed by a debate in which Jacob Zuma and Donald Trump contended for the title of worse president.
If you are interested in history and sociology the East African coastline provides an abundance of ruins and lost coral stone cities to be explored, immersing yourself in a lost world. Given the unrest close to the Somali border, we were advised that a trip to Lamu Island would involve joining an army convoy. Fortunately, a glimpse back in time was just around the corner at the Gede ruins near Watamu. Wandering through a labyrinth of beautifully carved coral stone slabs and arches set against a lush green background, accompanied by resident vervet monkeys and a knowledgeable guide, the old city ruins seemed to breathe life again as he described to us the layout of the palace, mosques and homes. The roots of the Swahili are said to come from an intermingling of Arab traders and local Africans who set themselves up along the coast line and created a life of opulence and comfort. It was fascinating to learn more about the rudimentary, albeit in those times advanced system to facilitate the transport and flow of water throughout the city and seated in the palace court, one would have even enjoyed an airconditioning system whereby bamboo sticks were used to disperse cool mist. Further influence of traders from the West and East can be found in the on-site museum which houses artifacts including Persian sabres, Egyptian glass and exquisite jewelry often incorporating coins from Europe.
Watamu itself is home to a gathering of commercial beach resorts and the presence of Europeans gave the area a feel that we found very similar to the beaches of Zanzibar. Having heard that Malindi further north was even more commercialised, we decided to give it a skip and made our way down towards Mombasa. Given how much we had enjoyed Stone Town, we were disappointed to find that Mombasa’s Old Town is looking more like the poor cousin, somewhat rundown and neglected. Fort Jesus and a number of other tourist attractions were on our radar, however the overpriced entrance fees and aggressive touts soon had us back in the safety of Jimny, munching chipatis and on our way towards Twiga and Diani beach in the south. The beaches in Kenya are truly spectacular and one can understand why the combination of game viewing and exquisite beaches draws many tourists to the country. Our last few days in Kenya were spent strolling along the white sands and cooling off in turquoise waters. Fortunately for us, crossing back into Tanzania would simply mean an extension of the same tropical surroundings, our first stop being Fish Eagle Lodge just south of the border. The lodge is owned and managed by a Zimbabwean family and a real gem in terms of facilities on offer complete, in true Zimbo style, with a mounted tiger fish above the bar. Given the high prices in Tanzania as well as the fact that we had previously traversed every square inch of the country on our way up to Rwanda and Uganda, we breezed through our second visit to Bagamoyo and Dar Es Salam where Gary imposed strict shopping restrictions on me and kept heading south through Kilwa and Mtwara on our way to the Mozambican border.