Kenya Safari and beyond
A classic safari, then into the lesser known parts of Kenya; the historic coast and the northern arid areas.
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A safari - a must in Kenya
To western eyes, Kenya is a tourist destination; a tourist destination primarily for safaris; the wildebeest, the lions, the elephants, all the big stuff that makes natural history TV viewing. Beyond that, it has a reputation as a seaside resort; lazing on a beach along the gorgeous Indian Ocean. It’s all true, with plenty of packages set up for a few days of safari followed by a few days on the beach.
For the solo backpacker it offers this and more. The safaris are easily accessible and a fraction of the cost when bought from a tour company. I was prepared to miss the beach angle. Sunbathing alone on a beach is not for the solo backpacker, although I might have made use of the exotic snorkelling and diving options.
I arrived in Nairobi with no plans, yet the following day was off on a safari. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I need a little digression on Nairobi.
As this was one of my more recent trips, well into my retirement I booked a hotel from the UK, the cheapest in the guide book. Having read the horror stories about Nairobi, I also asked the hotel to pick me up from the airport. All this went well, despite dire warning from my guide book about the city.
The hotel was some way outside the city centre in what appeared to be affluent suburbs. From the main road, the taxi entered a gated area. A guard on duty checked the destination and we were allowed in. The hotel itself was inside a high perimeter fence with a steel gate, a bell and intercom. Despite this it was all very homely with a sense of warmth from staff who clearly understood the needs of backpackers. One such need was for a safari, and immediately after checking in I was offered a number of options. In truth the choice was between a four day and a five day. At little more than the cost of a few nights in a hotel I felt it could hardly go wrong.
Things didn’t go wrong. I had imagined that we would get glimpses of lions and elephants whereas we were close up watching the lions gnawing at a fresh kill, and elephants wandering alarmingly close. The final day at Lake Nakuru was a little less dramatic as the lake is low resulting in fewer flamingos than we had expected. Accommodation likewise was outstanding, with a tent to myself with toilet and hot shower.
The Kenyan Coast
After the safari, the other great draw of Kenya is its beaches; not likely to be relished by the over 60s solo backpacker. Avoiding the highly developed southern beaches I headed off to the northern coasts. As a British citizen unloved by Islamic fundamentalists, I was advised not to go beyond Malindi . Although it is some way from the Somalia border, tensions are high as a result of Kenyan involvement in attempts to stabilise its neighbour.
I have to confess to flying from Nairobi as the price was reasonable. And it was easy. Malindi is a delightful town; relaxed after the worrying reputation of Nairobi.
Malindi is the seaport where Vasco Da Gama set off off towards India in the 15th century. Remains of the Portuguese colonisation are scattered around the town. Although Vasco Da Gama’s pillar is a little underwhelming, there is a delightful thatched church reputedly erected by him and known to have been visited by St Francis Xavier. But Malindi is fundamentally a seaside town with a mix of fishing and local Kenyan tourism.
Scattered along the coast a series of ruins reminds us that the African coast was a highly developed centre for trade long before the arrival of European colonisation. Easy transport along the coast by fast matutus running between the main centres makes these ruins accessible. (A matutu is a passenger minibus.) One memorable city is that of Gede, a medieval Swahili town, with its ruined palaces, mosques and town houses. Unlike manicured western archaeological site, you can wander freely ‘discovering’ little gems of ruins seemingly lost in the forests. Nearby is Mnarindi with its well preserved mosques and carved inscriptions.
The coastal town of Kilifi is a draw to backpackers with one particularly delightful backpacker lodge, a little out of town but a great place to relax. Here you can find a local motor bike rider to take out to the wild coast or find a peaceful area to hike.
It’s hard not to be enthralled by Mombassa. It’s not for its historic site, although Jesus Fort is quite an attraction, but for its rich trading past reflected in the faces of the local people. Although little is known of its early history, it was a significant port in the Indian Ocean trade routes. As a result, the early inhabitants the Thenashara Taifa (Twelve Nations), a Swahili clan are now blended with peoples of India, Arabia, and of course Africa. To the brief visitor such as me, this is intriguing, but beneath the surface there are ethnic and religious tensions held in check by a tight security grip. Like much of the coast Mombassa, most of the population is Muslim.
Mombassa to Nairobi
Train, bus or plane are the options for this journey between two of the major centres of Kenya. A daylight bus journey seemed the best option, with the warning of a train journey of between eight and 24 hours. (This may well now be out of date, given the fanfare surrounding a new express service.)
The journey was claimed to take eight hours, organised by companies with exotic names like Modern Coast Oxygen or Oceans travel. Still feeling a little nervous about Nairobi, especially the area of River Road where I was staying, I aimed to arrive during daylight hours. I duly booked a ticket for the 8.30 a.m. bus, but I was not unduly surprised when it arrived at the bus stop one hour late. All went well, with a good road and a fast bus, until with a loud clattering at the back of the bus we slewed across the road. A puncture. We pulled over and the wheel was removed. I assumed the spare wheel would materialise, but we waited while the driver and some of the passengers waved at passing trucks. The sun beat down and we did our best to keep in the shade of a solitary tree. It was only when a passing truck stopped that I realised that the problem was the lack of a spare tyre. This is Africa and those of us brought up in the affluent west have to be aware that a spare tyre is a luxury. If a wheel is serviceable, it has to be on a vehicle and in use. As a spare, it’s unused and wastes valuable luggage space. After refitting a tyre, as equally bald as the one it replaced, we set out, arriving in Nairobi on a dark and rainy night. I did not relish the walk from the bus stop to my hotel. As a backpacker you are at your most vulnerable with your full pack and day sack. But this is Africa; what it lacks in commodities like new tyres, it makes up for in the generosity of its people.
“Where’s your hotel?” asked one of my fellow passengers. When I explained, I was relieved with the reply.
“My friend and I will walk with you”.
And so they did. Escorted by two burly young men, I arrived safely at my hotel. I should add that in the time I spent on the infamous River Road I exercised considerable caution, but I suffered no problems and soon got known by matutu drivers and mobile phone shop assistants alike. As in travelling anywhere, safety is enhanced by engaging with local people; something easiest to do when travelling alone.
To the north - via Maralal
In truth, the north what I was after, and I set my heart on Lake Turkana. I’m sure it was quite irrational, but gave me a useful target. As we all know, it’s not the arrival, but the journey. Isn’t that the whole point of backpacking? It was clearly not going to be easy. Each matutu driver suggested a different route and the guide book suggested any route would be difficult without hiring a 4WD vehicle.
My do-it-yourself enthusiasm took a shot in the arm after an abortive attempt to hire a guide for my journey. On the safari I had met a young Canadian who had used the services of a tour operator to schedule his journey from Uganda and across Kenya. I met the tour operator to discuss my proposals. He suggested a guide who could facilitate the more tricky northern parts of the journey. The price seemed reasonable as did the guide, at least when I met him prior to setting out. I paid a small deposit which was to enable the guide to pay for the first day of the journey. The following morning I waited at the hotel. The guide arrived late, and slightly dishevelled. We set off in a taxi to pick up a metatu. We had only gone a few yards when, feeling a little insecure about the man I thought it might be helpful to clarify the position agreed with his boss.
‘You do have the money for the taxi?’
‘I thought you were paying for that.’ came the reply.
‘Stop’, I said to the taxi driver.
Fortunately we had only gone a few yards.
‘Where is the deposit I gave your boss?’
It became clear that the guide was drunk. We walked back to the hotel. Initially he seemed to be feeling that talking about his exploits of the night before would do as an alternative to going to Lake Turkana. As he sobered up, he realised that this was cutting no ice with me and set about begging forgiveness. Somewhat bizarrely he expected us to continue the journey. I persuaded him that the only hope he had of working for his boss again was to apologise to him, and to remain with me until the boss returned with my deposit. After the guide had entertained both myself and the hotel staff for an hour or so, the boss returned and refunded me.
Undeterred, I set off on a route via the town of Maralal, convinced now that I would be best served travelling alone. The journey involved a matutu to Nanyuki then a bus for the rest of the journey. The first part was fast and furious. Being one of the last passengers to get a seat, I suffered the extreme discomfort of the back seat sandwiched between somewhat overweight women.
Fellow passengers seemed a little sombre until the ice was broken as a result of my request to stop at the side of the road. As is always the case when I make this request, the entire vehicle immediately disgorges in what appears for many, desperation. The men relieve themselves on the side of the road often with little attempt to hide their manliness, while the women go in search of the largest bush. After a few initial grumbles at the break in the journey, the men in particular express their gratitude. I fear there is some sort of deference to the high status driver.
The incident broke the ice and after clarifying with a fellow passenger that ‘Hey white man’ should really be ‘Hey John’, the usual matatu questioning erupted. In essence this was.
‘What on earth are you doing going to Maralal? Where do you come from? Where is your wife? ’.
The change to the bus at Nanyuki involved a two hour wait in which my matatu driver insisted he shows me a delightful waterfall and a place to eat. In fairness the waterfall lived up to the promise and the food exceeded it, being a traditional beef BBQ …. sumptuous.
The social mix on the bus to Maralal had a rather different feel to it than the earlier matutu. These people were not dressed to go shopping but more, as I discovered later, to cope with a constant pall of dust. The road is a partly completed surfaced road; partly being the operative word. Much of the journey involved an unsurfaced rutted road running alongside a partly constructed new highway. Each time the bus climbed the bank onto the new road I felt that this could be it, tarmac all the way. It was not to be and Maralal hailed into view after nightfall.
In Maralal I investigated the route to Lake Turkana. I drew a blank, suffering the great disadvantage of solo travel. Other than waiting days for a lift, the only way seemed to be to hire a 4WD and that needs a group of people.
All was not lost. Maralal itself is a charming town and with few visitors it is very welcoming of strangers. There may have been few visitors when I was there, seemingly, just a Russian couple, but I understand the town is host to a frenetic international camel derby. I had chatted on the bus with a project coordinator from Nairobi. She was working with the villages surrounding Maralal, attempting to develop greater diversity in agricultural production. Her projects involved simple greenhouses to grow a variety of healthy foodstuffs such as tomatoes in the agricultural communities in the area, together with support in parenthood. This is work being carried out by World Vision. To find out more follow the link at the bottom of this section
On another I set out on a walk to a hill outside of the town.
Maralal was my first introduction to the Samburu people.
Second attempt Turkana
Looking at the bigger picture it seemed clear that the most significant road north would be that which connects through to Ethiopia through the border town of Moyale. I soon found a Matutu which headed north along this road to the town of Isioli. This was a dream; a surfaced road the whole way, followed by an easy to find hotel, clean, Wi-Fi and good food.
My luck was in. Over breakfast I got chatting to an American missionary. He and his daughter were visiting a church which his organisation was sponsoring. Would I care to visit with them?
We set out north with a jeep driver and a churchman from Nairobi, initially along the main road to Archer’s Post. It seemed odd that this small community had retained its old colonial name, until I noticed British army trucks passing through. Nearby is an army training base.
It was Sunday and we seemed to have arrived at Sunday school. The children were dressed in their very best.
A village church
We moved on out onto a rough track leading through scrubland until we reached a more traditional village. The only major structure was a small corrugated iron building, which judging by the singing, was the church.
In these more remote areas, the traditions of the Samburu become more apparent. The most striking of which is the wearing of elaborate beaded collars. These vary in colour, size, and the number of rings. Each aspect has significance in relation to the marital status.
I began the search for Turkana again; starting to wonder why it was so important to me. Marsabit and the surrounding area clearly had a lot to offer. After trailing around after various taxi drivers it became clear that a 4WD was a must, and that very few people are looking to share one. I then heard that there is now a bus to Loyangalani. A new service has recently been started, although nobody seemed to know the whereabouts of the bus station, frequency or timing. But my hopes were up and my search continued with added vigour. Were it not for the arrival of a bus near the relevant filling station I would never have recognised the shack as the bus ticket office.
‘Is this the bus to Loyangalani?’ I asked. ‘That’s the one’ came the reply.
‘When does it leave?’
‘Three o’clock’. The time was now 4.30. ‘And arrive?’ ‘Some time in the morning’.
Despite my earlier assertions, there are times when my age takes a toll on my attitude. Experience suggested a journey interrupted by blocked carburettor, as experienced in the Sahara, running out of fuel as on the Karakorum Highway, or more immediately a burst tyre without a spare.
It seemed it was an almost once daily service with one bus going back and forth provided it was working. Knowing the bus would set out ‘some time that evening’ and that there would be a place for me, I left saying, ‘Maybe, but don’t wait for me’.
The reliability was just one factor. The thought of a night covered in dust, crammed on a seat with no leg room dented my spirits. I dithered. It was in this state of indecision wandering the town that I noticed a white couple in a rather battered Mercedes 4WD parked on the street. I felt no hesitation in going up to them and engaging them in conversation. Maybe they were tourists too, on their way to Turkana. It turned out that they were long term residents, both American, living a short way out of town. They suggested I visit the next day. They had no plans to visit Turkana, but did have a need to travel to an area near there to collect a broke down vehicle.
The next day I hired a motorbike with driver and we set off in search of their house. This turned out to be a galvanised steel structure with an earth floor set on the edge of the town. She, a vet, and he a research physicist, they were living there with their teenage daughter and adopted disabled local child. I spent the day enjoying their hospitality and hiking in the hill behind the house. I am not sure how one is meant to ‘take care’ in relation to a leopard which had been killing sheep, but I was reassured that it usually hunts at night and does not seem to bother humans.
We came to a deal, if you could call it that, as we clearly gelled. They would bring forward their plans to pick up the truck which was up by North Horr, a little way from Turkana. I would then pay for the fuel to take us to Turkana. For me this seemed perfect! It was.
Unlike many who enjoy travel, my preparation is limited. I had little idea of the nature of the countryside around Lake Turkana. We headed off into a mix of flat expanses of bare rock and scrubland punctuated by the cones of extinct volcanoes. Close to the town, cattle were being herded alongside the road. As we moved deeper into the more arid areas, the only signs of human habitation were herds of camels; herds of around 1,000. These apparently were heading to water holes. After grazing on the scrub for several weeks, they are moved to the water holes to replenish their supplies. As in so many other parts of sub Saharan Africa, water is life’s defining feature. Around the water holes, herds of donkey could be seen heading back to villages carrying yellow plastic barrels of water.
At Lake Turkana and the town of Loyangalani
Nearing the town town of Loyangalani, Lake Turkana came into view. Formerly known as Lake Rudolph, it stretches from Ethiopia 290 Km into Kenya. It’s the largest soda lake in the world, and has a surreal jade colouring. Until recently, Loyangalani stood on the shores of the lake. It is now a good walk away. According to Human Rights Watch, the waters here have receded as much as 1.7 kilometres since late 2014. What proportion of this shrinkage is the result of global warming is debatable. One thing seems certain, the Gibe lll Dam construction in Ethiopia is reducing the flow of the main contributing river system the River Omo. The people of Loyangalani and the other communities dotted around the lake survive by fishing the brackish waters. Survival, given the combination of loss of the lake and drought is in doubt. The priorities assumed in development became all the more clear on my return journey, but I will return to that later.
The town of Loyangalani consists of a small centre of brick block buildings of shops and offices surrounded by a far larger community of families living in dome shaped huts of sticks, many now covered with plastic sheeting. Poverty is clear. Visitors, when I was there consisted of a group of Kenyan film makers, filming the poor state of roads in Kenya, and a group from a British charity involved with the local school. From the latter I discovered an alternative route via what appeared to ab an irregular charter flight to a landing strip.
Wandering on my own, I soon found myself surrounded by groups of small children, then invited into the homes of their parents. What is always so refreshing when travelling in parts of the world where people have so little is the hospitality. There seems almost an inverse correlation with wealth. The less wealth people have, the more they are prepared to give.
A village side trip
I had read of the El Molo tribe, one of Africa’s smallest, living in just two villages north of Loyangalani. This made a pleasant excursion, not least because of the insight it gave me into the mixed tribal and religious ethnicity of the area.
There was little chance of finding a 4WD even if I could afford it. A truck, used to transport dried fish from a barn like building on the lakeside, was one of the few vehicles to be seen. As in so much of the world, the motorbike rules, and there are always young men hanging around ready to make a few dollars.
“OK, I’ll take you” said the motor bike driver. I had been haggling for some time with two drivers over the fare to the village, and had finally reached agreement with the other.
‘But I’ve just agreed a price with him.’ I protested feeling a fight was about to erupt. ‘Ah, but I’m married to a woman in the village, so it would be better you ride with me’ came the reply.
To my surprise, the other agreed. They were clearly good friends; snatching the deal was no problem. What was perhaps strange was that the boy who took me was a Muslim and the other was a Christian in a land where religious tensions are deemed to be high. His wife, by the way, is neither Christian nor Muslim, nor does she belong to his tribe. Such is the mix in this remote northern area of Kenya, well away from the safari parks and the beaches visited by tourists. People seem more interested in survival than the conflicts between religions and ethnic groups. And what a mix it is. The local tribes of Turkani and El Molo are now outnumbered by the Samburu from the wider area, Somalis, escaping the chaos of their country, and Ethiopians from across the border. Most are little affected by modern life. This is particularly true of the indigenous tribes whose only acknowledgement of the western world comes through the vital yellow plastic water containers and torn plastic sheets supplementing the twigs which cover their huts.
Other than the house construction material being of reads, the village appeared little different from those surrounding. To the outside observer the El Molo people seemed little different either. Tribalism is rife throughout Kenya, even in the large westernised cities people will quickly want you to know to which tribe they belong.
Back to Marsabit
The return journey to Marsabit was as fascinating as the outward. Fascinating, more because of the social encounters than the scenery. It appears that the bus company consists of three Somali men and one bus. I found the man who sold the tickets and bought myself a ticket for the next journey from Loyangalani. There was much discussion about whether it would leave tomorrow or the next day, but I was eventually persuaded to be ready the next day at 8.00 am. My arrival set the tone for the trip.
“Why have you come now? We know where you are staying, we’ll send someone to get you.”
“But I’d like the front seat to take photos.”
“No worries, we’re keeping it for you. Go back and have another coffee.”
The bus was manned by all three of the operators. In addition to the passengers, it carried cargo to be dropped off or picked up at various points. Sacks of grain, farming equipment, camel milk, any local produce or any local necessities one could think of. The third crew member in addition to the driver and conductor, dealt with the cargo. His job involved considerable haggling with women who deposited or collected their loads. Almost invariably it was women, and almost invariably they would drive a hard bargain, aided and abetted by their friends, keen to secure a good deal.
Our first stop involved the entire bus disembarking and buying the village’s dried fish. It appeared that fish from Lake Turkana is quite a delicacy, in high demand in the towns. At a later stop we were invaded by women selling camel milk in the ubiquitous grubby yellow plastic bottles. There are times when the need for politeness overwhelms health concerns. The milk was rich and thirst quenching.
My fellow passengers all seemed to be locals from the area. One was the local witch doctor. She maintained a rather austere look, which together with a considerable language barrier meant I failed to gain much about her craft. Fortunately the Somali crew spoke a few words of English and we managed a little communication. As is usual in these situations, most communication however was in the form of offers of biscuits, camel milk or whatever was doing the rounds at the time. One thing was very popular amongst the crew, and that was Khat. This stimulant is found all over the horn of Africa, being particularly common in Ethiopia. (It occupies a similar niche to Coca in South America. In the UK, after many years in which it seemed to have been accepted, it has recently been banned.)
Our journey passed the construction site for an enormous windfarm. One of the features of this area is a virtually constant wind blowing along the valley occupied by the lake, making it a perfect location for a windfarm. At the time it seemed to be nearing completion with 365 wind turbines designed to supply 17% of the county’s current electricity capacity. The construction has created a need for better roads to bring in the huge blades and tower sections. It is this newly created road system that has made the new bus service possible.
Despite the influx of western technology and the potentially enormous wealth brought by the windfarm development, local people live in the same dwellings as in the rest of the area. Just outside the guarded western compound stands a village differing from others only in the greater use of plastic sheeting. Whether the provision of electricity will benefit the locals remains to be seen. But the area is suffering a further, more immediate threat to its way of life. Turkana has been badly hit by a serious drought. The meagre annual rains have failed or arrived late over a number of years. It was only on reflection that I realised that the children sitting on the side of the road with a yellow bottle were asking for water.
Oxfam and a number of other agencies supporting in this area could do with our help. Follow the link below if you wish to find out more.