Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hakuna Matata

We had a nice introduction to Kenya, one of the powerhouses of African tourism. The immigration officer on the border between Ethiopia and Kenya was very friendly and taught us some Swahili and gave us some advice on travelling in Kenya. This positive start was soon counter-balanced by Moyale being possibly the most typical example of a border town this side of Tijuana! Guys chewing chat sat around the filthy hotels prone and unable and it was impossible to find any useful information on how to get out of the town! In fact the only way out was south towards Isiolo. Possibly the most infamous road on the trip from Cairo to Cape Town this road sends shivers down the spine of overlanders, many of whom loose their shocks enroute. Our only option was on the back of a truck full of sacks of beans, along with about 100 other people. We had heard stories of trucks turning over so we were happy to be so well weighed down! Not only is the road known for its poor, bordering on non-existent condition (there is no tarmac between Moyale and Isiolo) but it is also the territory of many bandits, which live on looting trucks passing through. The trip should take around 8 hours to Marsabit and then a further 9 hours to Isiolo. We were lucky in that our truck did it in that exact time, and we rolled into Isiolo at 3am the next morning.

Isiolo was nothing more than a place to stop and recuperate before heading on via Nanyuki to Naro Moro, at the base of Mount Kenya. Not only is Mt Kenya famous for being the second highest in Africa but also for being a cheap alternative to Kilamanjaro and Meru for trekking. Or at least it was. In our first encounter with KWS (Kenyan Wildlife Services) we realised that in January they had increased the fee from $15 per day to $55 per day, which is quite an increase! It still pales in comparison to the $1000 you would need to climb Kili, but still it put it out of our budget. Instead we relaxed in solitude at the campsite at the Mt Kenya hostel and contented ourselves with views of Mt Kenya from below.

Fully rested we headed to Nairobi, hoping just to pass through. Who is afraid of big bad Nairobi? We were actually, I mean, its not called Nairobbery for nothing! In the end we found that it was not so bad as the hype, that we were able to wander around without being robbed, raped and murdered. We ended up stopping over in Nairobi three times, and each time was fine. However on our first night we did get back to our hotel before 6pm and soon after heard two violent fights and gunshots from our room!

The next leg of our journey was to visit the Swahili homeland along the coast of Kenya. Frustratingly, the road between two of East Africa's biggest cities, Nairobi and Mombasa, was probably the worst road in Kenya but we got there eventually. Next time, and with a bigger wallet I am going to take the old Rift Valley railway that still operates with full service between the two cities. The history of Mombasa is like the history of Swahili in microcosm, a melting pot of African, Asian and Arabic cultures, with smatterings of Portuguese and British colonial influences thrown in fir good measure. Just Fort Jesus (which we didn't enter due to the also exorbitant entrance fees) managed to change hands between the Kenyans, Omanis, Portuguese and British during its operating history. The old town surrounding the fort revealed similar examples of this chequered past. We heard stories of anti-Western sentiment and Osama Bin Laden graffiti but all we received was a warm and friendly welcome. All in all it was one of my highlights of Kenya. I have to say as well that it is amazing how much one man has influenced millions of peoples opinion of 'the West'. Since his historic election victory the sheer presence of Obama has turned everything around. No longer are Americans treated as some sort of pariahs, with both locals and fellow travellers alike turning away from them. They are now being welcomed everywhere. At the same time in the UK we are electing far-right anti-social fascist scum like the BNP and the UKIP ('the BNP in blazers'). Now who is going to be shunned?

Just as beautiful is the old Swahili town on the island of Lamu, 6 hours north of Mombasa. Because this road is another hotspot for bandits we had a military escort on our bus for part of the journey. The island is half an hours boat trip through the mangroves. Another beautiful old Islamic Swahili town this is a seaside resort with a difference. Here the beaches take a back seat to the old town and cups of steaming milky tea and thick mango juices take the place of cold beers. We took the almost compulsory dhow trip through the mangroves. Although the trip was quite scary, the wind was high and we passed an overturned dhow on the way, it was a nice day, we went fishing but only Monika caught anything so she had to share her catch with us (Along from Korea, Neil from the Philippines and I) as we had barbequed fish on Manda beach for lunch. Lamu was so quiet and serene that we spend several days there, in a state of almost total inertia. On one of our last nights we indulged in a deluxe meal of fresh grilled fish with such a plethora of side dishes I was at a loss as to which to eat next.

Which brings me to the subject of Kenyan food. Almost every country we enter I fear the worst. Since my introduction to African food in Ghana I am very pessimistic about the offerings. Kenya has been just as impressive as almost all the African countries I have visited since Ghana. Chapatis, fish and chips (with salt and vinegar), fried chicken, sausages, all manner of egg dishes and a smattering of Indian cuisine all washed down with strong, milky chai or, away from the coast, refreshing Tusker lager means that I never once had to try the national dish,Ugali, a meal pulp that resembles the worst of African cooking!

Having spent about two weeks in Kenya and not having seen a wild animal we decided it was time to return to the interior. Back in Nairobi we organised, after much deliberation, a 3-day safari to the Masai Mara and Lake Nakuru national parks. At $100 per day it is not a cheap undertaking, although still only 60% of the cost of a Tanzanian safari. Its still a shock, especially when you a reused to $20 per day Asian tours! It was however, worth the money. The Masai Mara can't really be described without slipping into all sorts of clichés so suffice to say we bounced around in a safari van (with a pop-up roof) and spotted all sorts of wildlife lying under acacia trees such as lions, elephants and buffalo (3 of the 'Big 5’' in about an hour) as well as giraffes, ostriches, all sorts of antelope and wildebeest, and squillions of zebra. I was so excited upon spotting my first zebra and then I realised they are more common than cows here and spend most of their time grazing by the side of motorways!

Lake Nakuru was possibly even more beautiful. An alkaline lake populated by about 16,000 flamingos, with marabou storks and pelicans mingled in and white rhino, buffalo and more zebra wandering around the shore. We also saw a jackal and a hyena, two of the more nefarious species on display. I must also add that I was very pleasantly surprised that tourism hasn't had a greater impact, it has been really well managed. Even at Masai Mara the camps appear very low-key from the outside and, whilst Masai village tours are offered, they are not forced, nor are any other 'extras', and there was a marked absence of hawkers, although our van did manage to stop at a souvenir shop enroute both to and from the park!

We arranged to be dropped off from the safari at Lake Naivasha, a freshwater lake with several campsites dotted around its shore. We were lucky enough to be visited by a herd of hippo during the nights, who came to graze on our campsite. I say 'lucky' as there was an electric fence separating our tent from these surprisingly dangerous animals. Close by is Hells Gate national park, the only park in Kenya which you can cycle through, apparently there are no wild cats there. We hired bicycles for the day and set off, cycling under beautiful rock formations and between herds of zebra, antelope, giraffes and buffalos, which apparently aren't dangerous as long as they are in a group. Again we had a run-in with KWS here as the entrance fee to Hells Gate was also increased. A warning to any students attempting to take advantage of the concessionary rate it will only be offered to students under the age of 23, in groups of 10 or more on an organised, official visit. Individual students on holiday will not enjoy the reduced rates. Personally I don't see the point of offering them to non-residents in that case.

And from Naivasha back to Nairobi, again, from where we left for Arusha in Tanzania, where we are now. We had planned to travel through Uganda to Tanzania but we had an email from Stepan as we arrived in Kenya who told us he would meet us in Arusha with his friend Tomas and we could go on safari together. So we changed our plans and headed down into Tanzania. Luckily these three countries in East Africa allow visitors to travel between them on single entry visas as long as we stay with Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania so hopefully we can just go back through Kenya to Uganda and continue through back to Tanzania.

Sometimes Kenya seems to be very developed, especially when you are speeding along a dual-carriageway in the central highlands, with pristine farmland on either side. Inevitably however, just around the corner it will all fall apart and you will be bouncing in and out of pot-holes again. I get the same feeling from reading the Daily Nation, the English-language newspaper that was my source for all the dirt, crime and corruption happening in Kenya. Take the minister who, in response to a new law restricting ministers to cars sized 1.8l or less stated that he 'could not arrive at official functions in a teenagers car'. Or the government and police officials who were intrinsically involed in the post-election violence and yet are being protected by the dragging -heels investigation. Or even the Mungiki, the gangster sect that controls much of the Rift Valley and Central Highlands, with 'red spots' including Nanyuki, Nakuru and Naivasha, the government does nothing, why? There are more connections than anyone wants to know. A young girl was recently shot by police who were using live rounds to disperse street hawkers, she was working as a waitress when she was killed. And every day there are new reports of rape and child abuse, of priests abusing their position, of young men taking their fathers to court to try to gain possession of the land their fathers worked so hard to gain. They don't want to give it up and see the money squandered. Perhaps the most poignant pages in each edition are the funeral notices. Almost half the deaths are explained away as a 'long illness', read AIDS, and the other half as a result of traffic accidents. In the lonely hearts column posters are less cryptic, demanding HIV tests as a must, or openly admitting to being 'HIV+'. After reading the paper one can be left feeling hollow and without hope, however we met some people in Kenya that renewed our faith in humanity. One of them, Orfan, works as a tour guide by day, spends his spare time running an orphanage for street children in Western Kenya and often goes out in the evenings to meet young prostitutes and try to talk them out of their life on the streets. He was lucky to survive the post-election violence last year, managing to run away from a bus in which more than half of the passengers were slaughtered to death. Whilst people like Orfan are still able to help there is hope for everybody.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the high level of tourism, Kenya has left me feeling a little cold. I thoroughly enjoyed travelling in Kenya but I see no reason why I would return. It just doesn't evoke the same blast of sensations as visiting, say Ethiopia, does. We had no bad experiences, just no unique, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Even though the safari was amazing, we still shared it with enough people to dilute the moment.

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