Kenya’s Southern Rift Valley

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Take-off from Lake Magadi

After a week in Nairobi we are keen to escape from the hustle and bustle of this bustling city and return to the bush. We head south out of town toward Lake Magadi to begin our exploration of Kenya’s Rift Valley. We’re travelling with Jared and Jen while we explore more of Kenya and then we expect to head into Uganda with them as well before we need to go our separate ways.

The Rift Valley is an enormous trench which stretches from the Red Sea all the way to Mozambique. Lake Magadi lies just north of the Tanzanian border and is the most mineral rich of of the Rift Valley’s soda lakes. It is almost entirely covered by a thick encrustation of soda that supports colonies of flamingos and gives the landscape a bizarre lunar appearance.

The first section of our drive is through the sprawling suburbs and towns which surround Nairobi but eventually we leave the congestion behind and reach the open bush and begin descending into the Rift Valley. The bitumen road takes us all the way to Magadi Town which is a company town for the Magadi Soda Company. We could camp near here but we choose to head further on to a bush camp on the southern edge of the lake. Water levels in the lake are high and the normal track to the camping area is partly under water and not advised unless we have a guide so we get directions to travel further inland and bypass the tricky sections.

Our directions were to turn off the main track onto the ‘dusty track’ and they sure were’t kidding. In sections deep bull dust swirls up and over the bonnet and windscreen and the track wanders around with plenty of side tracks to pick our way through. The scenery is dramatic and the track far longer than we expected but even though it is dusty we enjoy the drive.

At the end of the track we reach the lake and it sure looks desolate and at first glance it is uninviting.

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Desolation

A group of Masai women and children are sitting under a shelter a little way from the water. They are obviously waiting for tourists to sell their bead work and curios to. Jared and Paul head off for a walk to see if they can find a suitable place to camp. They return successful and we drive around a small rise to a spot where we have an expansive view of a different section of the lake in one direction and a mountain range rising behind us. There is no shade around but we position our vehicles so our awnings overlap and we are soon settled down enjoying the peace and the view.

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Solitude at Lake Magadi

Greater and Lesser Flamingoes, pelicans and other shore birds brave the mineral rich waters and we see ripples from the fish which have adapted to survive in these waters. Not far away water bubbles up in hot springs. We could bathe in the springs and they are reputedly very good for muscles and health but it’s almost 40 degrees out of the water and hotter in so we stick to our shade.

We stay two nights in this splendid isolation, only broken by a few vehicles passing and by the expected visit from the local Masai. They stay for a while and then when they realise they won’t get any more sales they leave. They are particularly fascinated by Jared and Jen’s trailer, the open kitchen probably looks like a shop and one of the women is intrigued by Jen’s long hair.

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Masai children attempting to sell beads

Its the weekend and a few other campers and sightseers pass us on their way to the hot springs. They have driven the other ‘wet’ track, usually with a guide, and we are assured we can make it back to Magadi town without any problems. It will save us returning the much longer and dustier track so we decide to give it a go.

We follow the track as it leads us around the edge of the lake and pass close to several other groups of flamingoes.

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Flamingoes feeding

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Flamingoes Feeding

The track suddenly heads straight into the lake and we think we will have to backtrack but Jen finds a side track leading straight up a hill. After a steep climb we reach a magnificent view point where we have a panoramic view over the lake. Splashes of pink are clusters of thousands of flamingoes. At times large groups will take to the air and move to another section of the lake to graze on the algae.

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Flamingoes in Flight over Lake Magadi

We can see the track descend and cross a section of land below us, then cross what looks like a muddy section and then disappear as the water reaches the dry land. We’re having our breakfast here so we aren’t in a hurry and while we are enjoying the views we see a couple of vehicles appear around a point with wheels on one side of the vehicle in the water and the other on what looks like firm ground and the muddy patches appear easy and firm so we should have no problems. We hope.

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Magadi Viewpoint

It all turns out easier than it looks although we’ll certainly be getting the underside of the car cleaned as soon as possible to get rid of the soda which has been splashed over everything.

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Tricky exit from Lake Magadi

From Lake Magadi we are heading further up the Rift Valley. There are no main roads and the quickest way would be to follow the main road back to the outskirts of Nairobi then head out again on the next main road. We’re not keen to do that so we decide to follow tracks up the valley as we have been told they are dry enough to traverse. We backtrack to the start of the dirt tracks and then set out to travel about 100 km or less of tracks before we reach bitumen again.

Well the advice that the tracks were dry enough to get through was correct but last wet season was unusually wet and there has been heaps of damage to the track so we are often taking rough side tracks to get around the sections of bad erosion. Progress is slow, very slow, and when we see locals we frequently ask for information on the track ahead. Eventually  we get through without getting stuck anywhere but its late afternoon when we finally reach the bitumen road.

The place we thought we might camp is too far to reach and Jen finds an alternative which sounds good on Lake Oloiden which is a small lake next to the much larger and busier Lake Naivasha. We might be on bitumen but there are lots of slow moving trucks and it is getting dark and drizzling then raining for much of the drive so we are very glad to arrive at the camp. We find some level spots by the water then retire to the bar to enjoy the warmth of a fire while we have a refreshing drink and wait for our meal to arrive.

In the morning we enjoy our prime spots by the water.

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Tranquil camp at Lake Oloiden

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Breakfast in Style

Paul is out early and catches the birds fishing as the mist rises.

Pelicans float by then move into formation to herd fish to the shallow water where they are easy to catch but the locals use nets for their catch. A Hammerkop stalks the shore in front of us in search of a feed and naughty monkeys play on the slides.

After a leisurely start we pack to move to our next camp. On our way back around the bottom of Lake Oloiden and Lake Navaisha, before we get to the clutter of camps and kilometres of flower tunnels, we pass through a stretch of Nature Reserve which lines both sides of the road. Giraffe peer at us through the trees or graze up the hillside and zebra enjoy the green grass as well.

We’re tossing up whether to stay at Lake Bogoria or the nearby Lake Baringo (or both). Its mostly bitumen though so it will be a far simpler drive then yesterday. First stop is up the highway to the town of Naivasha. They have a good supermarket and we never pass up the opportunity to keep our supplies stocked up when we can and best of all they have a car wash so we can get the Magadi soda off our vehicles.

At Nakuru we leave the highway, and the trucks, behind and travel north. We take a side dirt road toward Lake Bogoria checking first that the road is open. We are assured by the first few people we ask that it is and we continue. Checking our GPS we stop as we pass the equator, time to send a message. While we are stopped we are told that this road to the lake is in fact closed and we need to return to the bitumen road and reach the lake from the north.

We cross back to the southern hemisphere, return to the main road then travel north to cross the equator again, this time there is an official sign so we need photos. By the time we reach the northern road to Lake Bogoria we are in fact closer to Lake Baringo so we decide to travel straight there and if we want to we can return to Lake Bogoria for a day trip.

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Crossing the Equator

Robert’s Camp is right beside the waters of Lake Baringo, much closer than it used to be actually as the water levels of the lake rose several years ago as a result of a seismic shift. Luckily the Thirsty Goat Bar and Restaurant escaped the waters and its a great place the relax in the late afternoon to enjoy the views of the water and the many birds in the area and to check for hippos grazing on the abundant grasses in the water.

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The Thirsty Goat Bar & Restaurant, Lake Baringo

Our camp site is a grassy area nearby and is a comfortable base for our stay, so comfortable in fact that we keep extending and eventually stay for five nights.

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Roberts Camp, Lake Baringo

A friendly hornbill who we name Rufus in homage to one of the friendly, and always hungry, dogs at Jungle Junction keeps us company and is always around when we are eating. We’re on the lookout for monkeys as always but they only visit the area a couple of times. Superb Starlings flash their iridescent wings as they hop around the camp.

Our first sighting of some of the many hippos who live in the lake is on our first evening. A strong wind is blowing across the lake and waves are lapping on the grass in front of the bar. In the bobbing waves hippos are feeding on the grasses, its always great to watch them. One morning I am up early and the sky is coloured with its pre-sunrise pinks and reflecting the colour into the water around the hippos. We have been warned to take a torch if we are up during the night, although the moonlight is usually all the illumination we need, as hippos come onto the grass to feed and sure enough we look out the window of our roof top tent one night to see three hippos munching happily on the green grass, very cool!

One day we take an early morning (well reasonably early) boat trip onto the lake with our local boat driver and bird expert Louis. We see heaps of birds. Small birds included lots of different types of weaver birds, bee-eaters, sunbirds and kingfishers and jacana.

Waterbirds include a close up view of a family of heron posing in a tree with a backdrop of red cliffs, a cormorant resting on a branch, Egyptian geese and a darter drying his wings. A Hammerkop works on a huge nest built in the fork of a tree. A huge Goliath Heron poses on top of a dead tree near the camp.

Apart from the many birds, Lake Baringo has more than 460 species, we enjoy the scenery as we motor around the lake. The effects of the rising water levels are obvious in the many flooded buildings where most fittings have been removed to be used elsewhere and only the shells remain.

For the highlight of our bird watching we first purchase three small fish from a couple of local fishermen. They are paddling small rafts made from branches laced together with twine and have inserted balsa wood into the fish so they will float on top of the water.

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Fisherman on traditional craft

We then motor to an area of the lake where we can see two fish eagles high in a tree. Louis whistles and the holds a fish high and then tosses it out to float on the top of the water. The fish eagles take off and fly toward us and scoop the fish from the water, magnificent. The process is repeated for the other fish eagle and we watch them disposing of the balsa wood then eating their catch before one of them is lucky enough to get another easy catch.

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African Fish Eagle

With all of our bird watching and relaxing at Robert’s Camp we don’t get around to returning to Lake Bogoria, maybe another time. Now it is time to head north into the remote and rugged area around Lake Turkana and the Chalbi Desert.

Kenya, Amboseli to Nairobi

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Majestic Mt Kiliminjaro

We cross the border out of Tanzania near the Kenyan town of Oloitokitok after driving up the east side of Kiliminjaro. Oloitokitok; it’s a great name and a straightforward crossing but as is usual we still spend a couple of hours at the border. We have a short drive north, stopping in a town to get our new SIM card and data for Kenya sorted out then we turn off the main road toward Amboseli National Park.

Amboseli is one of Kenya’s elite National Parks but unfortunately, like the rest of the elite parks in Kenya and Tanzania, the entry fees for non-residents are exorbitant. Here we would have to pay $80USD per person per day plus a vehicle fee plus $30USD per person per night for camping. We want to spend a couple of days here and rather than pay the national park fees we are camping at a Masai community camp site just outside the park for $10USD per person per night, much closer to our budget. There are no fences around the park and at this time of the year the feed outside the park is good so we have hopes of seeing plenty of game without entering the park. We are also hoping the clouds clear so we get some good views of Mt Kiliminjaro which is just across the nearby border and there is very little to interrupt our view.

This is Masai country and the Kimani Camp is operated by local Masai villagers. One of the locals working at the camp is Risie and as he shows us around the camp he offers to lead us on a walk through the surrounding country so we can see some game and also to visit his village. We agree to a morning walk and an afternoon walk with him the next day and enjoy relaxing under a shady thorn tree for the afternoon and watching the weaver birds build their nests.

The cloud bank covering Kiliminjaro has been thick all day but shortly before sunset the clouds dissipate and suddenly the majestic mountain is clearly visible.

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Mt Kiliminjaro at Sunset

Early next morning we leave camp with Risie and we spend the next two hours walking through the bush and under Thorn Trees. We spot lots of game including giraffe, zebra, warthogs, impala and wildebeest.

We have seen plenty of different types of antelope in our travels in Africa but two species which are new to me but are common throughout East Africa are Thompsons Gazelle and Grants Gazelle. A third new (to me) species are the long necked Gerenuk, they are only found in localised areas and are very shy. They graze by standing on their hind legs and stretching their necks, sort of like mini giraffe but unfortunately they are too wary of us to graze while we are watching.

We return to camp to rest through the heat of the day and set out again with Risie in the mid afternoon. We didn’t see any elephant on our morning walk and he is hoping he will be able to show us some at a water hole they often visit in the late afternoon although as we are on foot we won’t be able to get too close. On our way we see some more of the same animals we had spotted in the morning although not as many because they are sheltering from the heat. The water hole we are heading for is not far from Risie’s village. This village and several others welcome tourists on tours to fund a local primary school as the government school is some distance away. Risie’s father is the chief of five villages in the area and lives in this village. It comprises five extended families but that is quite a lot of people as men can have multiple wives.

The tour starts with the people coming to the front of the village (Manyatta) to welcome us and they encourage Paul and I to join in the dancing and jumping.

After the welcome dance there is a prayer wishing us safe travels then we are free to wander around the village and to take any photos we like as people go about their daily lives.

 

The village is circular with a thorn fence around the outside of the mud huts, then a walk way before another thorn fence and the centre area is where the cattle and goats are kept at nights. They post guards at night time as lions and hyenas would take the live stock if it were unguarded. Risie and two others show how the men make fire each morning which is then used by all of the villagers.

Risie’s brother shows us through his two room house which includes two sleeping areas for the adults and children and a cooking area as well as storage of their belongings.

The bead work in their body decorations is intricate and colourful and they are keen to show us their work and sell some to raise additional money. It is fantastic work but we really can’t buy and carry much. It is hard to say no to all of them though and we leave with four bracelets.

Traditionally young men, before they are allowed to marry, must spend a period of time as Moran (warriors).

While we are looking around the clouds clear again and we get another great view of Kilimanjaro. The Masai name for the mountain is ‘Oldoinyo Oibor’ which means ‘White Mountain’ which is very apt given its usual appearance.

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Mt Kiliminjaro (Oldoinyo Oibor) from the Masai village

After we make our purchases and say thank you and goodbye, (ashe oolong and ole sere) we continue our quest to find elephants. There are wildebeest and zebra nearby but no elephant in sight at the water hole. We take a look beyond the water hole but the bush is very thick and Risie says that there could be buffalo hidden in there. We would not be able to see them early enough to stay a safe distance so we decide to wait near the water hole for a while to see if the elephants arrive. While we are waiting we watch the wildebeest gallop from one side of the water hole to the other, they certainly aren’t the most intelligent of animals.

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Wildebeest scattering in front of Mt Kiliminjaro

No elephant arrive so we walk back to camp. We may not have seen elephant but we saw lots of other animals and the village tour was very interesting so we are very pleased with the days activities. It was certainly a good decision to stay here.

Nairobi is our next destination, a complete change of pace. The first part of the drive is fine but then we reach the highway between Nairobi and Mombasa and its a shocker. Trucks, trucks, crazy drivers trying to overtake trucks when its not safe and more trucks. And then we reach the traffic congestion which is Nairobi. Luckily we don’t have to go through the centre of town but can skirt along an expressway and we reach our campsite safely.

Last year, shortly after we arrived in Namibia, we met US travellers Jared and Jen and travelled with them most of the the three months we spent in that country. We then headed in different directions as we explored more of southern Africa. Our paths are crossing again and we have arranged to meet up with them in Nairobi and we will travel together again as we explore Kenya and Uganda. They are due into a camp ground called Jungle Junction on the southern side of the city and arrive there a day after us. While not the most atmospheric of camps it does offer a good workshop which Jared uses for a few repairs before we head out of the city and we have quite a few chores and lots of stocking up to do as well.

As well as the chores we manage to do some sight seeing though not as much as we had thought as the traffic is dreadful and the weather usually overcast and sometimes drizzling. Paul grew up in Nairobi not far from where we are staying and we drive past the house the family used to live in. There are now additional houses on the property and the original house is available for short term rent. Its empty at the moment and we get to take a tour so Paul can travel down memory lane and show me some of his history.

The company at the camp site is good, the facilities are fine and it is good to be able to visit real supermarkets with good selections of food but by the time we are ready to leave almost a week has passed and we are glad to get out of the big smoke and head back to the bush where we belong.