Kenya – The Journey to Lake Turkana

August 17, 2011

Northern Kenya is a pretty wild, remote region and the public transport is whatever you can get. On the morning of July 30th at Moyale on the Ethiopian border, I was a little delayed organising my transport due to the activities of my companions and had to take a late, less desirable option for seven hour trip to Marsabit; on top of a cow truck. Why anyone would want to export 10 cows from there to Nairobi (a 24 hour trip) and why anyone would want to sit 4m up on the bars that support the canvas cover (sans cover), both remain a mystery to me, but I did it, though only to Marsabit, on what must rate as one of the worst international highways in the world. Until quite recently, cross-border cattle rustling and general banditry discouraged the movement of most tourists on this route, even in the truck convoys that plied the dusty, rocky, rutted road. In the last couple of years security his improved markedly and the trucks now travel individually again, along with the odd intrepid foreign traveller. The ride cost me 1,500 Kenyan Shillings ($22). I forgot to check the vehicle before I gave the infuriating, hyperactive tout my money and he refused to return it when I refused to ride. Already there were ten others on top trying to squeeze onto a flat space near the front above the cab. In only one location an old car tire tube had been rigged up with rope to form a kind of suspended nest on which I was to sit, but while I was dithering a fat-arsed local lady hauled herself onto it and I had to fight to retain the remaining one-third throughout the trip, facing backwards and clutching the heavy daypack containing my computer and other valuables so it wouldn’t fall into the cow pit below. The other punters were braced for the departure on the bars of the truck shell and I quickly saw why as the truck rolled into action, swaying and jarring wildly from the get go.

We shot off downhill like there were no brakes. Even though I was sat on the suspended inner tube, I instinctually gripped the bars for dear life; a real white-knuckle ride. The other, practiced passengers seemed to be able to handle the repeated slamming of metal into flesh as we battered relentlessly across rocky sections. We passed through desiccated looking, untidy forest. Many of the trees were leafless, suffering from the effects of the widespread drought in east Africa. We passed Samburu and Borana herdsmen leading trains of camels and goats. Gradually conditions became even more dry; sandy scrub and rocky outcrops. A mating pair of ostriches wheeled around and ran into the desert to escape our high velocity assault, tails flapping a fandango. After a few hours we entered the shattered lava fields of the Galgalu desert; sharp, dark rocks and fine, red sand extended dead flat to the horizon. It looked just like the picures returned by the Mars Rover. We stopped to assist a break down. A regularly scheduled bus trundled past at half our speed with calm if bored looking passengers. When we resumed some guy stole my little seat. I was on the bars. It was really scary. I thought I would be pitched off. I clung to the spare tire for dear life until I finally got the guy to move by yelling at him hysterically.

Meanwhile the poor cows were even worse off, sliding en mass with each erratic change of speed. Some were ‘downers’ and the others fell over them. They stood on each other and mauled with their hooves. Wayward horns caught on the thick flaps of loose skin under their necks. One was crushed in the corner and half its horn broke off. Blood poured out. A crazy guy was employed as a wrangler to keep them in order. His job was dangerous with them sliding everywhere. He yanked their tails and twisted them by their horns to get them to move into better position, swinging across the bars like a chimpanzee. Half way through the trip the cows were exhausted, probably dehydrated, and one by one they collapsed, eyes rolling back deliriously. One swallowed its tongue so its lower jaw was cruelly tied around with rope and suspended from the wall to prevent all movement. It was better for them to lie down though, even in chaotic piles. The wrangler could sit contentedly on their listless bodies and chew his chat.

The latter part of the journey passed through a very dusty area. The truck sucked the billowing clouds back across my side of the vehicle until my nostrils were clogged up with brown goo. The land became more dramatic. There were many strange volcanic cones and huge craters. We ascended through these to the relative lushness around Marsabit where I was off-loaded. Most off the passengers had another 8 hours of the same to Isiolo then 8 more on asphalt to Nairobi. I figured the abattoir would have an easy job as the cows would be dead already. I’ve seldom been so happy to sit on the dusty ground and just breathe.

Due to new regulations, walking in the fog-watered forest at Marsabit with its’ elephants and buffalos had been prohibited, so next day I just trundled around town casually and ended up at church with a girl. I hadn’t been to church for maybe twenty years. The service was pleasant with lots of singing from the sweetly harmonic female choir though the guitarist left a lot to be desired. The service on TV during my breakfast off omelette and greasy chapattis had more resembled a pop concert than any church I’ve attended. Maybe I could get into religion in Kenya.

My next plan was to cut west to Loyangalani on Lake Turkana; not a well-travelled route but going to remote Turkana, the Jade Sea, was a dream for me and I was determined to get there. It took me two days and a lot of hustling in the hot, windy, dusty streets to get a ride. Three Polish guys were paying extortionate money for a Toyota Landcruiser. I opted instead for the promise of a truck in the morning but it didn’t materialise.  It was all for the best though. On the second day, with several hours of assistance from a local college student, we came up with some possibilities and the first one came to fruition. I set off in the back of a jeep transporting a Loyangalani councilman back from his monthly shopping trip. One of his assistants and I were in the canvas-shelled back on parallel padded benches with the shopping and two big, stinking jerry cans of petrol. We had to keep the canvas half-open and soon floury dust was just pouring in like a choking avalanche. We were covered. Oddly, I became black and my companion became white. We could lie on the benches though, and I almost fell asleep despite the usual  jarring motion that made you feel like a James Bond martini. We stopped at one desolate little town, all fences and prefab corrugated houses, where some palaeontologists were camped out, looking very sunburned. There were two more brief stops at small El-Molo and Turkana tribal settlements. The villagers crowded around the back of the jeep providing good photo ops of their beaming faces, sumptuous, Masai-style, beaded necklaces and extraordinary, shell-shaped, metal earrings.

We reached the lake just after sunset. The land was completely barren and rocky but the shining water was beautiful. Dropping me off at a campsite in town the driver kindly told me I didn’t need to pay him. The campsite (and much of the town of about one thousand exotic, desert-hardened souls) was an oasis of wind-rustled palms and acacias. Actually it was continuously blowing a gale. There was an endless supply of hot spring water providing perhaps the most satisfying shower I have ever taken. Inspecting the side of one of the two over-landing 4x4s parked in the camp, I realised I had shared a hotel with the one young English couple two months previously in Gonder, Ethiopia. We shared our mutual surprise and settled down to some well-deserved lukewarm beer. The traditional accommodation was in well-constructed, dome-shaped huts made of a light wooden frame and woven palm leaves with partial windows for ventilation. They were very comfortable and I enjoyed a long, mosquito-free sleep.

Turkana Country

August 17, 2011

Loyongalani lies on the southeast shore of Lake Turkana, a beautiful, narrow body of water that extends south 250 km from just above the Ethiopian border. The surrounding deserts and mountains are as harsh as they come but are home to nomadic, cattle herding Turkana people and the El-Molo who live off the resources of the lake. The widespread east African drought has driven many Turkana up onto the forested slopes of Mount Kalal which looms long and high to the east of the town.  Aid convoys were recently sent to the area though the worst of the drought in Kenya affects the same tribal peoples in the east near Somalia. I didn’t see much evidence of the drought during my brief stay except for a lack of meat; I had to eat a lot of bean stew. About 1,000 souls are resident in Loyangalani but like many north Kenyan towns it has a huge catchment area as a service centre to many more. Maost live in traditional wood and palm leaf dome houses as did I at an eminently pleasant, hot-spring oasis campsite, set under shady trees. The lake is in the Rift Valley and has a violent volcanic history. All around are bulbous ridges of pillow lava which erupted beneath the once much more elevated waters.  It was a starkly beautiful place. The sky at night was super-luminous with the Milky Way arching in all its intricacy from Sagittarius to Cassiopeia.

I took it easy the first day after my long journey; of course it was really hot during the day anyway. Fortunately August is the cool season. In the afternoon I ended up at a bar (indistinguishable from the other buildings) where people were enjoying warm beer, chewing chat (even here) and downing cheap XXX proof gin. The old guys were getting wasted on the gin; initially very friendly and inquisitive, speaking English, they were soon slurring and drooling. One El-Molo man wore his earrings made from the ribs of a hippopotamus; one he had killed himself. Hippo hunting involves one chap swimming in the water with a harpoon and spearing the beast while others follow on the line in a support boat like whalers. Needless to say it is an extremely hazardous activity. The lake is full of crocodiles and anyway the hippo is often said to be the most dangerous animal in Africa. In recent times the hippos have got sick of it and retreated to the north curtailing that particular tradition. I made friends with a local nurse named Terry and with her friend Elsa (a fish trader; Turkana fish are exported nationwide) we went to the lake for sunset. It was a lovely scene with the long pointed fishing boats docked at the beach. One boat was named Manchester United. Is there no escape from English Premier League football in this world?

On day two I took the guy from my campsite as a guide and headed out to the El-Molo village 8km to the north. Part of the way was on the international track that runs all the way to Omorate in Ethiopia, passing through outlying patches of palm and acacia oasis. Even some of the acacias seemed to be on death’s door from the drought; hibernating perhaps. We then crossed a baking, multi-coloured rockscape somewhat reminiscent of Death Valley. Trudging across sand with a gale blowing in our faces like a titanic hair-dryer it was fairly exhausting. I found out that Terry used to do this hike daily to get to school. At the village of standard dome huts we met the English speaking chief and quenched our thirst. Luckily for us, a government project pipes in water from springs near town to a chlorinated storage tank but the El-Molo still prefer the slightly brackish, fluorine-laden lake water. Though the lake is virtually free of industrial contaminants, the minerals cause health problems and stain El-Molo teeth a bloody red. Some kids in the village also suffer from rickets; a result of their piscine mono-diet. These problems caused their numbers to drop to a desperately low 99 some years ago. Though they have now bounced back to around 4,000 through tribal inter-marriage and pumping out the sprogs, they are still the smallest recognised tribe in Kenya. It was great just wandering around taking photos of drying fish, boats and kids playing in the water. This was a wonderfully remote place and I felt privileged to be there. I took a refreshingly cool, shallow bath too, gingerly watching for crocodiles which, apparently, don’t like to hang out near villages. I had paid the chief a standard, rather high, 1,000 KS ($15) visitation fee and could take as many photos as I wanted. This was unusual. Dealing with the Turkana, Samburu and Masai photographically can be very expensive; $3 a pop! Much higher than the tribes in Ethiopia who wanted about 20c. The extraordinarily photogenic warriors of these tribes have been known to smash the cameras of tourists who try to snap them on the sly. After consuming a tasty boiled tilapia courtesy of the chief’s wife, we headed back. The wind had switched and was against us again. On the way in we passed the tiny air strip. An oil prospecting plane was preparing for take-off. The existence of a considerable petroleum reserve has already been confirmed under and around the lake. Good luck Turkana, you’ll need it.

In the evening I started putting out word for a ride south to Maralal. I wanted to catch the famous camel derby there. A fabulously frenetic and colourful affair by all accounts, the derby attracts professional camel riders from many countries and there is a race for amateurs too. I fancied I might even give it a go. Transport was very thin on the ground judging from my initial inquiries but around 11 pm, as I was about to get my well-earned rest,  it was announced that there was a vehicle going from the next door camp. It was a big, reinforced Toyota Landcruiser driven by a white Kenyan called Greg (I guess his family survived the Mau Mau rebellion) with two young English buddies who had come to run a sponsored marathon to raise money for a nature reserve at Greg’s home, Lake Baringo. They then had somehow got the job of hauling a large boat from Nairobi to the lake (three days) which they piloted up north for use of the oil boys.  Having just driven back down the lake for eight hours they would continue another eight to Maralal through the night, after dinner. Luckily Greg was like a man-machine and an impeccable driver and the vehicle like a tank. Sat on the high seat in the back with another hitcher, the ride was exhilarating and by 4 am, bloody cold but otherwise fairly comfy. Dawn rose over savannah.  I think we broke all records blasting through the night across all imaginable road hazards to arrive in the allotted eight hours. Having departed from Death Valley, early morning saw us in upstate New York, excepting the dress of the cowherds, such is the variety of Kenyan landscape. Maralal is set in high hills and full of big trees and pasture. The people are a mix of Turkana and Samburu. Unfortunately, as soon as we alighted for breakfast we found out that the camel derby had been postponed for two weeks!

I arranged to visit a Samburu wedding next day and rose at 5.30 am to catch the ritual slaughter of the bull, but my guide didn’t show. He turned up at 10 am. His sister had gone into labour during the night. We headed out to catch the dancing only to find the wedding had also been postponed! I wasn’t having much luck. We toured around the outlying village as an alternative. Many photogenic families invited us in. Everyone was very friendly, and quite poor, but they wanted to give me presents. In return I offered to print up their family portraits. We drank camel milk which tasted just like semi-skimmed cow milk. Camel meat is also good. I tried it in Egypt. Women were collecting muddy water from a hole dug in the dry river bed, for cooking and drinking. They allow the sediment to settle first, of course, but with the amount of livestock resident in the area this practice has to be bad. Some of the houses were seriously infested with flies. You’d think people would figure to remove cow dung from their compounds but I guess they just get used to it. These dark Samburu houses were not airy like the Turkana and El-Molo but square and sealed with dung and full of smoke. The Samburu are mad for chewing tobacco, starting off their kids at around ten years old. I tried it and was pleasantly surprised. They get enough smoke from the fireplace to obviate the need to smoke tobacco. We had bought stacks of the stuff along with salt and snuff as gifts for the wedding. Snuff is also popular in southern Ethiopia. It just hurts. Another cultural practice (among all these northern tribes) is to knock their children’s lower front teeth out. Isn’t having a biting surface for your incisors a good idea? At least they don’t practice cliterodectomy, as do Kenya’s dominant Kikuyu tribe (though decreasingly). Who comes up with this stuff? There are so many irrational traditions in the wor

I wanted to help someone out, other than with the usual small change. I was presented daily the hardships of poverty while enjoying the great luxury of long term travel but I am not very receptive to tourist-specific begging like Im a walking cash machine. A girl in one family we spent time with struck me as a really nice person and I ended up contributing about half the fees for her last year of high school (they finish at 16). This was about $45 but makes a huge difference to the family who then wanted me to marry her. I tried to explain they would send me to prison if I took her home which they probably thought was very strange. Anyway, I would need to buy cows. Having done a bit, I could proceed guilt alleviated, through subsequent i poverty stricken neighbourhoods.


[slickr-flickr type=”landscape” tag=”Kenya1″ thumbnail_size=”original” size=”large”]


Mount Kenya

August 17, 2011

Mount Kenya, the second highest peak in Africa, is a dramatic extinct volcano located about 150 km north of Nairobi and a mere smidgen south of the equator. It has been eroded down by glaciers, which have recently all but melted away, to a still dizzying height of 5,199 m, though only the secondary peak called Lenana at 4,985 m is achievable without technical climbing gear. The mountain is sacred to the Kikiyu tribe who are the politically dominant tribe in the Kenya. They sometimes still align their houses towards the peak and offer up the circumcised foreskins of their teenage boys to the mountain. I’m not sure what they do with the excised clitorises of their young girls; throw them in a lake perhaps.  Maybe on account of this adoration, the mountain gods seem to greatly favour ithyphallic vegetation on the upper slopes.

I arrived from the north having overnighted in Isiolo where we finally reached the blessed tarmac. From there it was just a couple of hours to Nanyuki passing from drought withered badlands up into the well-watered central highlands with fields of fat maize. I was greeted on arrival by a couple of reps for a trekking company and after discussions over lunch elected to take their $600, 5-day all-inclusive package. Whilst hardly cheap this was at the lower end of the price spectrum and compares to $1,500 for the six days to climb up Kilimanjaro which is much more crowded and probably less beautiful. It’s the park fees that get you and they have all shot up recently. Since publication of my guide book in 2009 Mt Kenya has gone from $20 to $55 per day, Masai Mara from $50 to $85. Pretty outrageous prices if you ask me, especially given the poor accommodation and services provided. Although contractual specifications seemed a little too fluid, the company turned out solid enough, and I ended up in the company of an affable Austrian couple, three porters, a cook and a guide. Mohammed the boss was also around, and he seemed like a decent bloke, having started as a guide himself and now providing 60 jobs to job-starved locals. The porters receive $15 per day; decent in these parts.

We drove to the park-gate under unseasonably grey skies and commenced our march up a rough road through tropical montaine rainforest. There was plenty elephant and buffalo dung around, and white-bibbed colobus monkeys. As we ascended the forest thinned out into skinny bamboo and then flower spangled moors until we reached Old Moses camp at 3,300m. There was a lot of birdlife around. Mountain chat, which looks like a robin without a red breast, must be one of the friendliest birds in the world. It hops along the trail just in front of hikers and flits from branch to branch giving an incessant call like a chattering sine wave. It also like to hop into your accommodation in search of treats. There were sunbirds too, which look like big, dark emerald hummingbirds, probing for nectar on bulbous flowers. Rain came heavy on arrival. Dinner was well received and tasty and we slept early in bunk dorms.

Next day we hiked up through drizzle past a self-recording weather station that was located in mistiest spot on the mountain, continuously recording the bad news. It was very boggy underfoot and I soon realised there was a hole in my shoe. We crossed a couple of deep valleys and on over the moors which bore increasingly exotic plants. It was really too bad about the weather; we were missing fantastic views of the peaks. We moved into giant lobelia forest, similar to that which I saw in the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia but there are three kinds here thriving at 4,000m. All the rocks were full of enormous crystals of feldspar, pyroxene and hornblende (excuse my geo-babble; I have to do something to prove I actually studied the subject). After a final tiring climb during which the altitude started to hit home we came to Shipton camp at 4,200m; quite similar to Moses but well-cold and boasting a fabulous location right below the peaks which were, of course, lost in the cloud. A Canadian couple were kind enough to let me dry myself at their charcoal burner, since the management company was obviously too tight to provide any kind of heating, even though it gets too minus ten on a cold, clear night. Luckily, since there was nothing to do later, we had good conversation about politics, aid and economics. There was Brian, a 61 year old builder who makes luxury houses for Chelsea footballers and his son Max, aged 9 who later made it to the summit. Outside it was now sleeting and I was asleep by 8 PM. Only the crazy French group decided to do the 2 am start to see the non-existent sunrise and they neglected to pack until the wee hours waking everyone up in the process.

I got an altitude headache during the night and was a bit concerned about my condition but after breakfast and considerable deliberation we opted to climb to the Lenana summit in the morning. I set off with my Austrian compatriots. It was a steep, rocky trail leading through a narrow canyon and onto the shoulder of the peak where the plants ended barring some hardy ice covered marigolds. Light snow began to fall. My guide Silas and I went ahead and trudged up onto the increasingly exposed and scrambly bastions of rock where the wind had sculpted the snow into radial ice diamonds.  Just below the summit we saw fleeting glimpses of blue sky but then it closed in again. We had been climbing for two or three hours. Lenana was the highest peak I had ever ‘bagged’ though in the Himalayas I had been 400 m higher, at Everest base camp. My fingertips became numb and painful from the altitude and after the obligatory photo posing with the summit flag we headed down the other side, holding the installed cable for safety. Soon we came down to Austrian camp, a large hut with beds. An English guy was working there as a summit guide doing his second two-week stint, awaiting the arrival of a large group of secondary school kids. I’d seen other groups of teens; hardy souls to do this for school work. I don’t think training in the Peak District of England would really prepare them for it. Coming around the back of Lenana to the sheltered side of the mountain the clouds opened up to reveal some of what we had been missing. Lofty crags, sharp arête ridges and pinnacles of rock ringing an immense glacial bowl of scree and dotted with green tarn lakes. Beyond the land descended to the south in an amalgam of ruddy brown, greens and yellows towards possible views of far distant Kilimanjaro above the underlying clouds. We passed the site of a small plane crash in 2003 marked by a plaque. Three generations of English aristocracy from two families, ten in all, had died. My guide had been at Austrian camp that day and was one of the first on the scene, which was littered with body parts, he said. We then passed back into the fog. The descent was steep, punctuated by more perched tarns like something from a Yes album cover until we passed through the lobelia forest to Shipton. In the afternoon the cloud threatened to clear, with partial views of the summit ringed by jagged stone teeth, but by evening it had decided to snow instead.

Finally, at dawn the majestic mountain was revealed, lit by the rising sun and towering monumentally over the camp as luminous cloud swirled around. All around us were sharp peaks and bluffs coming slowly in and out of view. The Austrians had elected to go back the way we came due to altitude sickness, so Silas and I headed out alone. It was a hard slog back up the valley that we had descended the previous day to get to the ridge top and Chogoria trailhead. Point Lenana was bathed in sunlight above. On the far side dark clouds brooded and swelled in contrast with the stunning, snow-reflected sun. We proceeded down through snow covered lobelias to the magnificent cliff-lined pass to the Gorges Valley, but below that it was nearly all grey mist. After a long trek across the moors we made it to Mount Kenya Lodge at 2,900 m where we were treated to a lukewarm shower and a cozy fireplace.

Last day, with the Austrian paid jeep-taxi cancelled, we had no choice but to hike 30 km to Chogoria town passing from bamboo to rainforest to coffee and tea plantations. I wanted to do this anyway just to get my moneys’ worth but the road was a mud canal and full of the slippiest clay I ever encountered. After 10 km a jeep passed, en route to rendezvous with an Aussie girl and her crew behind us. The driver said there were elephants below. After ten minutes, we found them; two females and a calf at about 150 m. I was quite happy about this but not so Silas. I didn’t know quite how dangerous elephants can be, particularly these forest elephants, and even more so protective mothers. The will happily chase you down, smash you to a pulp and pull a tree down over your corpse for good measure. The porters are very scared to walk this route. Now he tells me. There was no way past and grazing elephants are in no hurry at all. We were saved by the returning jeep driver, who basically had no choice but to take us. Even passing in the jeep they were nervous and hammered on the roof to move the beasts, which sidled off into the forest. We rode all the way down, sliding on the clay uncontrollably like a toboggan and getting stuck. I could understand why the drivers charge $120 for a pick up.

It took a couple of minibuses to get back to Nanyuki, where Silas and I hopped on a motorbike to the equator. Here, an astute young man demonstrated the Coriolis force with a punctured bucket. Indeed, when you walk 20 m to the north, the little effluent vortex spins anticlockwise. 20 m to the south and it is reversed. Amazing! It seems like you might do yourself some damage if you stood astride the equator for too long.


August 26, 2011

It’s a local cliché to call Nairobi Nairobbery but I think it’s quite funny, since it didn’t happen. Being robbed I mean. The most dangerous city in Africa, somebody figured, beats out Lagos and Johannesburg, themselves estimably worthy candidates, for the top slot in shootings, car-jackings, muggings and other unspecified violent crimes. Most of the trouble is concentrated in the poverty stricken suburbs, however and my impression of the city, housed in a decent downtown hotel, was quite pleasant. The central business district is fairly thronging in the daytime, notably with legions of bootilicious office girls. The vibe resembles Kenya generally for its easy-going approachability. It’s clean, modern and moderately congested, as opposed to terribly congested, except the bus station which is out of control congested and excepting the buses it doesn’t stink. The shops are numerous and well-stocked, standing in complete contrast to the dearth of commercial development in Ethiopia. Later at night the workers clear out and the streets become like implacable stretches of ocean isolating warmly lit islands of irrepressible revelry. The clubs are good and whoop it up every night, though I didn’t personally test this statement to the full. But this is Africa, and so, in order to find a pleasant space to enjoy an evening out I had to dodge a barrage of prostitutes who wanted to be instant, hand-tugging buddies. Still, their conversation is sometimes quite enjoyable and there are a fair number of gorgeous beings who you wish somehow didn’t feel the necessity to do what they do so you could feel good about chatting them up. I arrived Saturday which was fairly mental. At Simmers we enjoyed a Congolese band called Rumba Japan (?!) who played good, Afro-skewed Latin music on a shoddy sound system. Like sound reproduction the third world over, nobody seemed to care about distortion and feedback. I think it was the mikes. The vocals came over like a wall of hard fuzz. The guitar work was lovely, high and clean with a bubbling cadence as befits a band and from the Congo. Taking local advice to avoid criminal mishap I took a taxi 300m from Simmers to New Florida (‘The Madhouse’) which is housed in a huge UFO supported on a single central pillar, and then later another 300m back to my hotel.  One of the drivers told me the street cops take money from the muggers to clear off so that the muggers can do their dirty work. That must be a new low in police corruption. As you can imagine, taxis are a seller’s market. Sunday most of the shops were shut. I couldn’t find a good book or do much else so I ended up at Simmers again. I asked some students how many times they had faced violent crime in their however many few years enjoying Nairobi nightlife. Twice. I decided not to take 300m taxis on main streets again and walked home. Nobody stuck a knife to my stomach and demanded my wallet. I was so happy. I didn’t use a taxi again but I was always back reasonably early.

Especially in Nairobi, Kenyans speak great English. It is the county’s second official language after Swahili but they must be doing something right in the schools. Kenyans tend to annunciate English almost too clearly despite the thickly pleasant accent. Syllables are all defined and they don’t (i.e. do not) use contractions which sounds very funny like the local shopkeeper is an upper class intellectual (which is as may be; loads of people go to university but there are no jobs). They also use funny idioms that would sound dated or peculiar coming from the mouth of a native speaker. In reference to the Kenyan Shilling people ask for 10 bob just like my grandparents would before decimalisation. Getting on a ridiculously crowded matatu minibus they say ‘squeeze your bum in there’.  It’s all rather endearingly British. Kenyans are also avid newspaper readers. Kenya has a healthily free but (like ours) ineffectual press and the natives lap up the bad news about corruption and environmental degradation. It’s something to do. One headline, continuing the story of several days, was about how MPs had brazenly created a new magic loophole to circumvent growing public pressure to make them actually pay income tax. That sort of coverage doesn’t seem to matter in the end. They won’t pay.

I found out that American fellow traveller Mark was also in Nairobi. He loaned me enough cash to complete our trip in Omo, Ethiopia after Seble cleaned me out and ran back to her family. We met at the Thorn Tree Restaurant, an historic spot under the Stanley Hotel which inspired Lonely Planet’s online Thorn Tree forum. He got dinner again, over-priced for the quality and we moved on to The Intercontinental Hotel so he could gamble. Mark loves to gamble. He’s partially disabled and living off a medical lawsuit. I’m not sure how much he spent to do it but he won a $5,000 jackpot at a casino in Senegal. There is no shortage of casinos in Nairobi where the Nairobbery epithet applies just as well as in the streets outside. Casinos are the only places in Nairobi where you can smoke. They must have a special (mafia) dispensation. You can’t light up in your hotel or any public building or even in the street without risking a $500 fine. Reputedly there are designated smoking areas but I never saw one. Eat your heart out California. Anyway, in the casino the inevitable Chinese contingent was turning the air blue as they obsessed over their chips. There were a few Indians (who own most of the shops) and fat Kenyans. These guys were laying out stacks of roulette chips that resembled the downtown tower blocks they probably have shares in. Nobody was winning. The casino was literally raking it in. The local guys running the tables were bloody geniuses, especially to somebody as gambling-naïve as me. Lightning-fast they took all the chips and corrected any mis-bets and made clarifications while the ball rolled around the wheel always just beating out gravity to the conclusion. And what was weird, the staff were friendly. African friendly. Smiling and relaxed. Not like in Vegas where I feel I’m going to get taken to the backroom for a good knifing if I accidentally step out of line, like by taking a photo (which was not allowed for ‘security reason’s.) The hotel lobby was full of shit art and elaborate window graphics persuading the bloated tourists who stay in such a sterile 5-star joint to part with some tiny fragment of their daily budget for the benefit of starving children up in Turkana. They must have done a very speedy and no doubt expensive job to produce those in time to catch the famine wave. Well, everybody is doing their bit. ‘Kenyans for Kenya.’ It’s all over TV and you can automatically donate your supermarket change. Not to minimise the gravity of the situation but I didn’t actually encounter anyone remotely starving up in Turkana. There is a shortage of goat meat but plenty beans and porridge as far as I could see. But then I probably didn’t see much. The papers say one million cattle have died in the east of the country and the drought has cost of $650 million.

I went out to visit the orphan elephant and giraffe breeding centres on the edge of Nairobi National Park which is surrounded by suburbs and filled with real wild animals. The elephant organisation rescues little baby jumbos  from wells, water pipe cleaning ports, injury, abandonment and poachers snares and with much tender loving care raises them into fine, rehabilitated wild elephants. It was feeding time with very big milk bottles. The keepers have to sleep with them just like mama would. Years later, when the elephants have been incorporated into the flexible ranks of pachyderm society, they will walk back many miles to find their surrogate parents if they get in serious trouble. Not too dim those elephants. My favourite, though, was Maxwell the blind black rhino. Rhinos are poorly sighted at the best of times but this one can’t see the end of his own horn. The centre has adopted him for life; they just don’t have the facilities for the disabled in the Kenyan bush. He was a very impressive beast for a four-year old. An unscrupulous minibus conductor then let me off in a dumb place directing me to what turned out to be a 5 km cross-country hike passing through the unmapped suburban territory of seminary students and trainee missionaries. It took gumption but I made it. At the giraffe centre, started by the son of a Scottish earl named Jock, Diane, a Rothschild giraffe was taking treats and giving those so inclined kisses with her foot-long blue tongue. The tourists stood on the second floor giggling and freaking out as her massive, bushy-lashed face came swinging toward them.  She seemed to be on good terms with the warthog which was running around at her feet. And the lion shall lie with the lamb. Weird but nice. I watched a video there on the destruction wreaked by both tourists (and their drivers) and local tribes around Masai Mara. I will be going there soon to do my bit, armed with a new Sony HX-100 hybrid camera with a 30x optical zoom. Buying that was the nearest I came to getting robbed in Kenya’s capital.

(A Little Bit of) The Rift Valley

August 26, 2011

Since I had got to Mount Kenya almost two weeks previously the weather had been cloudy and cool. Setting off north up the Rift Valley from Nairobi was more of the same. Fog and overcast. The valley is pretty high, around 2,000m, so I guess that’s why it felt so cool. July and August are what they call ‘winter’ in East Africa but should be clear. The Rift Valley is only 3 million years old or something but it’s huge, stretching a third of the length of this massive continent (remembering European maps are designed to shrink the tropics). It’s visible from the moon and has caused the formation of the Sahara desert. There are a series of lakes throughout its length, some soda, some fresh and each with unique characteristics. I saw some rift lakes in southern Ethiopia and Lake Turkana also formed within its catchment. First on my trajectory was Lake Naivasha. It’s only a couple of hours from the capital. I jumped on a second matatu at Naivasha town to take me around the lake to the various ‘campsites’. Phoning them, I found the were all offensively charging around 4,000 Ks ($45) for a basic room or banda bamboo hut thing because it was the weekend, but fortunately I was directed to the YMCA camp at 800 Ks for a large, round, thatched hut. En route I was pretty sure the guy sitting next to me was feeling around in my jacket pocket (which was empty). He wasn’t big and I almost had it out with him but ended up just obviously glaring. That was the first bad experience like that I’ve had in Africa. The only other time in my travels, excepting when I had everything ripped off in Greece, was when I similarly found the hand of a young Tibetan monk going walkabout. But it’s very hard to be sure enough to accuse someone. I had dinner at one of the over-priced tourist camps. It was the kind of place where you can hear the TV, bad techno and a Hollywood movie all playing simultaneously if you sit in the right spot. I was glad I was at the Y where the only annoyance was hordes of yelling kids there for football practice. Mind you, they were still there in the morning, yelling again at 6am. Most of the camps have lakeside access. Though it is all rather limited by marsh, you can walk down and view numerous storks, pelicans, fish eagles and other birds as well as hippos, possibly. Maribou storks are prevalent. They are truly unpleasant with scabrous faces and the gait of a Dickensian undertaker. Genuinely sinister. Hence Irvin Welsh’s brilliant, if tangential book ‘The Maribou Stork Nightmares’.

Next day I rented a mountain bike and set off for Hell’s Gate National Park just up the way. This park is very unusual in that you can walk or cycle through it. There are (usually) no lions or elephants so I guess that’s why. There are cheetahs but I figured I could outrun them. Finally, it was sunny and warm and a very pleasant trip through cliff-bounded savannah. I saw warthogs, Thomson’s gazelles, impala, zebra, a couple of giraffe and one female ostrich, many of which were bounding across the plain to escape harassing cyclists who were cutting cross-country for the photo shoot. At the far side of the park you can walk down into the lower gorge where wind and water have sculpted some beautiful formations and pure obsidian is falling out of the cliffs. The whole area is a palaeo-vulcanologists dream. Boiling water still pours down the rock face. The gorge walk was tricky and fun, involving some climbing. What I couldn’t understand was the number of locals doing it in Sunday best, especially as it was Saturday, and huge school outings with the girls all in their blue uniforms getting covered in muck and causing 20-minute tailbacks at the narrow points. I popped by a Maasai village on the way back up which was kind of a dump, with everyone in T-shits and shorts and squat round huts coated with dung. The last part of the trip was through the western half of the park which has almost entirely been given over to Chinese funded hydro-thermal power development. There is a plethora of stations with roaring steam vents, gargantuan pipes, massive manifolds, a menagerie of machinery and electricity pylons going every which way. Numerous huge drill rigs are adding to the chaos with new test bores. So much for conservation. It certainly lived up to the Hell’s Gate moniker. Well, when it comes to electric power, you have to pick your poison and possibly make a pact with the devil.

Since I have been back on the solitary rural evening routine, the books I picked up in Nairobi are proving their worth as essential travel accoutrements. A fascinating biography of influential Scottish psychotherapist R.D. Laing, by his son, has been riveting but best is Geldof in Africa; travel notes by Sir Bob himself. I think we are kindred spirits, only he has his knighthood already, wanker.  Hey, I bought ‘Tonic for the Troops’ when punk was still fashionable.  He writes and takes photos like me, though better, and his perceptive freestyle rambles and vignettes ranging from horror and indignation to a hilarious sense of the ridiculous capture wonderfully the strange but familiar, insecure, aggravating , inspiring, life-affirming experience that is Africa. He gets under Africa’s skin, into the soil, as the place does to the spirit of the receptive traveller. I’d highly recommend his book.  I really ought to read some African writers. There is no shortage.

The end of my northward push was Nakuru town and the fabulous national park of the same name centred on a soda lake and boasting a large rhino population. Unfortunately, at $75 for just the entrance I balked at this idea and instead went to visit Lake Elementiata (also saline) by way of the lovely old lodge there. This area is not gazetted and I only had to pay $5 conservation fee to the local organisation that is promoting its protection. Fair enough. The staff agreed to look after my stuff while I walked down to the lake below. The first part of the walk is plagued by myriad hordes of screaming flies that follow at the back of your head waiting for you to sweat so they can lick your salt. Now I know why the Maasai can run so fast. The setting was beautiful with wide plains, stately acacia forest and old volcanoes around the lake. Best off all I found my main objective, flocks of pink flamingos. Not in vast profusion but at least they were there, along with many storks, pelicans and umpteen other bird species. I made full use of my new super zoom camera. The weather was great, like a hot British summer’s day. I dug it. After getting my fill of birds and lunch at the lodge I jumped another matatu to Nakuru town for the night.

Unfortunately, due to a paucity of research on my part I couldn’t get the ride from Nakuru straight to Narok which serves as gateway to Maasai Mara game reserve, and had to retreat back the way I came. This was not too far but required three matatus and by the time I was on the last I was really sick of the bus station touts running at me en masse, grabbing me, yelling at me, trying their hand to overcharge me and being generally rude. The last ride plugged west from the Rift Valley deep into the lands of the Maasai. Suddenly, earlobes became pendulous, copiously beaded loops. Red plaid blankets and heavy wooden hunting clubs sprang into fashion.  The land stretched out to distant horizons and dried significantly with billowing topsoil, wilting corn and herds of cattle under dust-blue skies. On the greener upland plateau, the corn (maize) harvest was in full swing using of tractors and combine harvesters; the first such machinery I had seen in use in Africa. I arrived at Narok thoroughly irritated by the blaring distorted radio on the matatu and told the first guy I saw, who inquired if I was headed to the Mara, to stuff it. Funnily enough, he later became my guide.

The Maasai and the Mara

August 26, 2011

About ten minutes after I told him to stuff it at the bus station, thinking he was a matatu tout, Kerema turned up at my lunch restaurant and gave me the information I needed. He then offered his guide services. Said he has been circumcised and killed a lion. Proper Maasai. Young. Though I did not confirm anything because his price was too high we soon got on the big truck-mounted bus to Maasai Mara Game Reserve. I hoped his plan was good. It was a change of location. I’d never really seen this transport before; basically a bus shell mounted on a long flatbed lorry designed to handle the badly pot-holed road from Narok to the park. With an extra guy squeezed on the back seat and the two sitting by me falling asleep I was crushed against the window frame as we bounced and banged down the road. The thundery skies were releasing their load sporadically across the land which was flat and full of a variety of bizarre, thorny, flowering shrubs and trees. It poured and soon there was a sheet flood flowing everywhere including across the road. The leaky window frame was ejecting gobs of muddy water on me as the bus vibrated violently through the deluge. It was a relief to arrive at Sekanani village next to the main park entrance where the rain abated.

The village was sprawling and rough and mundanely built. Water was pooling in the square. Maybe too much wear from safari traffic. Drivers parked outside bars by evening. Half the people were traditionally attired Maasai with varying degrees of ear mutilation/enhancement and extravagant beadwork. I was installed at a 300Ks ($3) hotel with no in-room electricity or shower. Just a cubicle next to the toilet (which concealed a seething liquid mass of maggots in the pit). But the room wasn’t dirty and the in-house restaurant was OK trying to vary the meat and maize base for me.  K was able to find a driver or two who might take me on safari for a high ransom which was good because there were no other tourists around to talk to about a ride. They were all in the safari tent camps at five to one hundred times the price of my place. We drank at a bar and were able to ascertain the likely locale of the wildebeest mob, otherwise known as gnus (why don’t we call them gnus anymore?) which were in the latter stages of their migrational swing up through the Mara from the Serengeti lying immediately to the south in Tanzania.

Morning time K and I climbed the hill behind town through snaggy thorn forest to views over much of the big flat Mara hazy distance. On the wide top a mountain goat antelope type eluded us and a herd of gnus came churning up the side. The distant bellow of a lion sounded below and we got along. K says one dumb German got sacked by an elephant last year and one young Maasai cowherd got eaten by a lion. Not too bad considering the proximity, especially for the Maasai. Tourists stay in their vehicles, except the odd German. We met a driver at lunchtime and I agreed to cough up $80 in addition to the equal park fee for a 6-hour game drive in the park next day. Walking again, K drew me to one of the outlying villages for the 1,000Ks treatment. Welcome dances from the highly ornamented men, then the ladies (like birds, much more drab), fire starting with sticks demo, a look inside the house and then to the back compound where apparently every tribesperson had a little bead and wood carving shop. The chief’s son Jackson had been a pleasant host. Something was inexorable about the process and I had to buy a wooden mask that I now have to carry around. In the near outback cow bones littered the land, crushed by hyenas. K talked about his circumcision. I winced. Before all the community, the foreskin is sliced at the base then peeled back and left attached in such a way that a little second tackle is created. The slapping sound during intercourse is appealing apparently. He showed me the thing. It was weird. Horribly the women here also go under the razor blade. The full Monty with sliced off labias and excised clitoris all sown up into a neat little hole much too small to allow passage of a child. Girls are ‘sweeter’ afterwards. Some people thought lobotomy patients were sweeter too. Maybe it won’t be quite compulsory in the future K thought. Wildlife occasionally darted between the bushy copses.

Another driver turned up who we thought was better, with a better vehicle and traded him for the same price. I couldn’t get the first driver to cancel until morning but then he didn’t seem to care. He could unstiff the people he was stiffing to take me alone. The new guy took me out with a couple of pleasant young Londoners. The 4 x 4 proved its worth and so did the drivers experience. Being their sixth outing the guys with me thought it a very quiet morning at first. Then a black rhino was crossing the road. I don’t know if that’s good luck but it’s lucky to see one. Acting on some intelligence we changed plan and headed to a section of the park new to the guys and less driven, around the Talek River. We saw sullen black buffalo. That was two of the big five already. Round the river the fickle gnus were in fairly large abundance and we watched them cross the river. There were no crocodiles, unfortunately. Hardly any water in fact. Gnu are a bit gormless and ungainly with devilish heads and a fast turn of speed. The much wiser zebras mix in with the gnus for cover. A couple of lazy lions lounged around. One gnu who didn’t get away was being done away with just up the way but so far only by vultures and a marabou stork who was in charge trying to disgorge a string of intestine through the dead gnu’s arse. A vulture just went ahead and stuck its whole head up there (see facebook photos). Problem was it was probably a cheetah kill. It hadn’t been opened up and the arse was the only way in. Cheetahs don’t like vultures or maybe it’s the storks that scare them away. Our driver spotted elephant across the plain. Nobody else was there. A family pod of seven or so with the grand bull absent on walkabout. They toddled the new baby along cautiously. We kept our distance. After that the tell-tale traffic brought us to a lion pride of, he counted, seventeen individuals lazing by the bushes. They were completely docile as a cluster of vehicles descended. The only one of the supposed big five remaining to be checked off was leopard but instead we got three cheetah brothers half asleep under a tree. Then down to Hippo Point for hippos in the muddy river. We passed a gaggle of mongooses (or is that mongeese?) sniffing after cobras. A couple of giraffes held sentry on the wide plains on the way back posing against the grazing gnu and gazelle which dotted the gentle green slopes like stones. A pretty successful game drive. I was meant to go out again when the driver was taking the Londoners to the airstrip inside the reserve but he somehow missed me while I was briefly on the toilet I theorise. Later he bought me a beer to compensate. I must admit I realised that though it is wonderful to see all of this wildlife living in the traditional wildlife way it is really a response to the beauty of the land that turns me on. The Mara isn’t all that beautiful. The spaciousness is hypnotising but it doesn’t have good trees or rocks or colours. It occasionally feels like a big farm.

K was pressing me as guides do to do something to emphasise that he was guiding me so I would be obliged to pay him more and so we walked again and almost ran into an elephant just around the traditional village. It stayed in the brush as the sun turned crimson. We met a Moran man; they work as cattle ‘security’ and eat just meat and blood and milk and tree roots. We warned him about the elephant. His ears were… missing. They do a sort of aural analog of female circumcision their own ears it turns out.  Eegad.

There were seven truck buses back to Narok in the morning. They all left between 5 and 6am. Battering down the road again in the dark. Later the land greened toward the west and Lake Victoria. Out of the thorny stuff and into the lush green leafy proliferation that leads to the jungles of Uganda.