Weather Goes Rogue In Kenya
Kenya 10 – 27/06/2012
Thank you officers, for letting us in. The 20th African border penetrated by a vehicle carrying no Carnet and the first Romanians around Africa. Get all the details on how to skip CpD here. 50 bucks paid for 30 days of man and 20 for 30 days of bike. ‘You’re not afraid of wild animals?’ said the customs officer. ‘No, dude, I’m the Romanian Mowgli’ I said to myself. But there was no time for that, sun was about to set in 40 minutes and we were in the proximity of Tsavo National park, roamed by elephants and lions. We claimed the first flat empty spot, and dang, we had a bedroom. Four Kenyan ladies stopped to giggle at the strange squatters. Pauline had curly extensions and cute dimples, Ruth didn’t speak much English, Janet couldn’t stop laughing and Beatrice was sporting a pink shirt and a cracking smile. ‘Do you want to come to my house?’ she offered. We looked at each other – you know, staying with locals is what we love best in this adventure. But we were too tired to be the village superstars that night. Our camp was already set on the best surface possible. And it would be pitch dark within minutes. ‘Is it far’, asked Ana. ‘It’s just there’, the girls pointed to the nearby shrubbery. ‘And you could wash your body’. Now, how could we refuse that? We packed, and off we went: Ana on foot with the chatty gang, me on the motorbike. For the 2,5 km to Beatrice’s compound the giggling didn’t stop. To the surprised villagers we kept being introduced as ‘visitors’. Look what a lovely spot we had in Timbila village, on the river Lumi. Our hosts told us that elephants and even lions come often close to the compound, but hakuna matata, they will use pots and pans to make the big noise and scare the beast away.
28 years old Beatrice is from Mombasa. Her traditional name is Mwanaidi. She is a busy housewife, but also a trader, buying hoho (bell peppers) from farmers and selling them on the market. She has 2 daughters: Eunice (8) and Faith (3). Now she is on birth control, as are her best friends. Beatrice cooked the kenyan staple kitere (also spelled ghitere), which is maize and beans. After dinner she fetched us a bucket of water for shower. We lingered a while longer watching ‘Kenya’s Got Talent’. It felt awesome to be there. As the night before we had mentioned that we liked chapati, in the morning Beatrice organized a chapati workshop for breakfast.
Bea’s husband, Gadiel was born on a bed of banana leaves, which inspired his mother to also name him Madundu (which means banana leaves). He turned out to be the village chief deputy, so he insisted on taking a photo in his official uniform.
Imagine we had to deal with dozens of people like him in Zaire, Cameroon, Nigeria. Uniforms, guns, spiked barriers inspire fear, but many of these people must have been like Gadiel, honest, God fearing, simple family men. In this chiefdom (Taveta), as in many other parts of Kenya (and Africa as well), the deputies struggle with staggering HIV levels, poor school attendance and ever dwindling buffer zone between wildlife and human settlements. Also many villagers tend to favor the traditional marriage (to avoid dowry) which allows several sex partners, making birth and AIDS control almost impossible.
In their compound, our kenyan friends have electricity, TV, laptop, even a dongle to connect to the internet. We downloaded the pics to their PC, also printed out a couple. After more chai maziwa (spiced tea with milk) we regretfully said our good byes and got back in the saddle. We needed to be in Nairobi asap, to sort out the dreaded Ethiopia visa.
Not long ago, we had spent days riding similar roads in Mozambique. Deep red dust covered the narrow stretch of land cut across an impossibly green forest.
Soon enough we left the last huts behind. Game was the only thing that could slow our pace down, but it remained elusive.
Only when we hit tarmac we spotted the first wildlife: zebras grazing in the debris of human consumerism.
Tsavo National Park is transited by Kenya’s busiest road: Mombasa Highway. One constant stream of trucks, transporting goods from the coast to half a dozen countries. There was only one option to both drive and live, so we stayed on it for only 50 km. An abandoned building caught our attention, so we stopped to explore a bit.
The concrete structure well executed, solid details, interesting spatial design – this once busy restaurant must have been a welcome stop for travelers in the middle of nowhere. Probably in the heydays of this place wildlife was still around.
As we climbed the last plateau before the escarpments of the Rift Valley, to the 1660 m altitude where Nairobi is situated, air begun to cool off. In the astonishingly modern capital of Kenya and economic centre of East Africa we hit the afternoon traffic jam. In a way we had a deja vu, remembering Lagos, but this was a clean, disciplined, far less congested version of the Nigerian metropolis. The Maasai name for the city was Enkare Nairobi, which means ‘cold water’. Once nothing more than a swamp, Nairobi became a necessary base camp for the british engineers and their african and indian workers, who were busy building the railway. Even if the Equator is a few hundreds of kays away, the weather is never pleasant. We arrived with winter, so it was very cold, averaging 14-15 degrees. But Nairobi winters are dry. If only we should be that lucky… With the climate changing all over the world, rains have become less predictable, so we had them falling almost on a daily basis. Believe us, camping on wet mud and grass and shivering in the tent is not fun. Our pep: this cute chameleon we nicknamed Pinocchio
If in over one year we had barely met 7 teams of travelers, of which all but two were already home, in Nairobi we suddenly were in over-lander’s world. The compound we were staying in was choking with cars, trucks and bikes, the shared spaces busy with backpackers and even a Japanese nomad musician. Yusuke backpacked all the way to Kenya, where he decided to buy a bicycle. His songs about what he had encountered on the road provided us with fresh inspiration for our own quest.
One of his songs about Mongolia pretty much describes how we feel:
‘Walk/ Walk everywhere/ Until the air/ Is New
And you reach the other side’
We had to deal with the bike
The gear lever I had manufactured in Mozambique from a chinese scooter was still in great shape
And sort our Ethiopia and Sudan visas. Thanks to the Sudanese embassy that requested a letter from our own embassy, we met the wonderfully gracious and friendly people who work at the Romanian mission.
We couldn’t thank enough for all the support, good advice, care and awesome food. Check out the Romanian braai.
The visas proved to be less tricky that expected. We had an interview with the Ethiopian consul who was persuaded by our Congo extravaganza; a few days later we had the stickers in our passports. As always, you win some, you lose some, so while driving in the city we had our first flat tyre in over 50,000 km!
Geoffrey, a biker who has been following our story on advrider, invited us for a Kenyan feast. A good meal means here ‘nyama choma’, which is swahili for ‘meat on the fire’.
Look what this guy was chopping for our party of seven:
Let’s say that it was not all meat: there was some fried banana and cabbage involved as well
Our eclectic gang (us, Geoffrey, Jack, Andrew, Kaizer and Joe) debated everything from arts to politics. Kenya is rapidly growing into a powerhouse that bears less and less resemblance to its less developed African neighbors.
Joe Barasa is a self-taught illustrator, currently working for Shujaaz.FM, a monthly comic book written in sheng (the contemporary slang language of Kenyan youth). Shujaaz means ‘heroes’ in Kiswahili. It is a series of stories shared on different media platforms: a 32 page comic book published online and printed monthly in the Saturday Nation newspaper, Kenya’s biggest publication; also broadcasted via daily FM radio programmes on more than 17 FM radio stations around Kenya. The agenda of this pioneering magazine is to feed the young generation with information and empowering ideas, to motivate them to become proactive and responsible within their communities.
We had to leave Nairobi, come rain come shine. It had rained all day and all night before our departure, we were chilled to the bone, tent, mattresses, sleeping bag all wet or damp, so we had to dry them a bit before setting off. We didn’t go too far though because of a second flat tyre.
Minutes after I managed to solve that, rain started again. Soon it was pouring cold waters, and we were driving on the famous stretch that should offer 360 vistas over the Rift Valley. We couldn’t see squat, so why stop in the downpour to try to take photos of grey fog and whatever else was there with a broken camera that doesn’t focus properly? We hold on to our horses and endured the torture. In Naivasha the rain had become a more merciful drizzle, so we stopped in front of a shack for hot tea and andazi. I think that tea must have saved us from a serious case of hypothermia. We pitched on the shores of the lake, where all night we could hear the hippos grunting and grass-munching, their chunky bodies barely visible from the swampy field.
This was no Congo, so riding for days with cold water in our boots was out of the question. We decided to cut our visit even shorter, and because there was a bit of sunshine, stopped to see the flamingo colony that inhabits lake Naivasha
You’d be wrong to believe this is some kind of pristine wildlife heaven. Lake Naivasha, one of the few fresh water lakes in the Rift Valley, is an environmental disaster. A huge flower farming operation has long been established around the lake, pumping waters and spilling all sort of hazardous chemicals back into the habitat of endangered birds. Some years the water levels in Naivasha have been so low that one could walk for 150 meters from the shore. The flamingo colony is a shadow of its former past. Unfortunately the flower industry is flourishing, and when it’ll be finished with Naivasha, it’ll find another lake to deplete. It’s a strange thing to think about when buying roses in Europe, isn’t it?
The area around Naivasha is still home to a fairly healthy population of antelopes, warthogs and zebras. We spent the rest of the day – that was mostly dry – crossing several times the Equator
Lake Elementeita, another soda lake of the Rift, and another desolate sight, once home to a vast colony of flamingos
A last nyama choma, with a side of kenyegi (mashed potatoes with spinach and corn)
As we reached Mt. Kenya, the weather turned rogue once again
There was no way we could stop in Nanyuki, as planned. We pushed thru the night, to escape the highlands and the rain, until we arrived in a village where people had congregated to watch a kung fu movie in the only tea’n doughnut joint. Miraculously, by the river we found an unfinished lodge where the owner allowed us to camp for free. There were no facilities, the toilets were appalling, but the people were extremely friendly, putting up toilet paper for us in the loos. And because the place was still under construction, we were alone under a clear sky.
With no rain after two weeks of it, smiles started rolling, happiness unjammed and we were feeling A-OK. Who cared we were heading towards East Africa’s worst road? For the moment we were rolling on chinese tarmac, filling up on cheap tea and more doughnuts, enjoying the treat that lasted even 140 km after Isiolo.
While a bunch of vultures enjoyed their lunch we stopped to snack as well. Mongooses were creeping up from everywhere.
Probably killed by a speeding car, the anteater had been professionally butchered in search of the best bits
As we entered the land of the colorful Samburu people, the asphalt ended, and the rattling begun. This has been described as the overlander’s nightmare and for travelers who do only the East route it must be so. Corrugations are profuse and so dense that even at low speed you can feel every bit in you motorbike suffer.
The scenery is superb: mountains creep beyond the veld that progressively becomes a horizonless desert. A handful of mud and dung huts of the nomads who inhabit this hostile environment. Many people came running, asking for water or money. We barely had half a liter left to sheer between us two, so there was not enough to spare. We felt terribly guilty, but we absolutely had to arrive in Marsabit that afternoon, as we planned to continue west, across the Chalbi desert, to Maykona. Once in Marsabit we stopped briefly for tea and the usual doughnuts. But as soon as we left town, the road deteriorated so much, that we started to question the entire plan.
We remembered the dramatic report of tsiklonaut from the Turkana route and this was starting to look more and more like what he described. The best stretches were relatively hard, but so corrugated that we could feel our bodies splintering to molecules. The rest of the road was an unpredictable carousel of loose gravel and rocks. Sometimes we would find ourselves suddenly riding on soft sand, then on our absolute favorite, something that could be best described as a swamp of boulders. A hot dry wind kept blowing across the veld that barely allowed a shadow.
30 km and we were spent. With our current speed we we unlikely to arrive in Maykona before night, we were going to visit to somebody there. But that meant that to go to Ethiopia, we would have to do this 75 km of pure hell again, on top before the Marsabit to Moyale ride. Was is all worth it?
Once our brain cells cooled down a bit; we could think more clearly
So the night found us back in Marsabit, camping in the compound of the Catholic Technical Highschool, and dining on kenyagi with our generous host, father Francisc. After watching together venezuelan telenovelas, we said good night, only to reunite for tea in the early hours of the next day.
The Marsabit to Moyale failed to live up to the terror. It went down like that:
Of course we didn’t stop to take pics on the worst parts, which were quite similar to the Chalbi road. Loose rocks or a deep layer of gravel mixed with sand, but the really rough parts only last for about 50 km. The Chinese – almost ousted from this project – are back working on the road as we are writing this. Some stretches have been leveled and you want to take all the deviations to spare your vehicle and yourself a lot of trouble. Of course that you have to be on the ball, looking out for those moats and potholes, careful to spot a shadow for a ditch.
We encountered vast herds of camels and sheep and many Borana nomads
At a very reasonable 2 p.m. we were in the congested little town of Moyale. Now my bike now had been there, rode that and lived to tell the tale. As we had stopped many times to drink water, and once to snack, we estimate to have crossed the 250 km in 6,5 hours. Of course it isn’t as relaxing as it looks, but it is definitely not as bad as they say.
But if after suffering cold rains and a baking desert we had been arrogant enough to believe the hard part was over, soon we would regret it. We were heading to the highlands of Ethiopia, where the wet season was just peaking.