From the Highlands of Kenya to Lake Victoria

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Mt Kenya

After our travels in Northern Kenya we are going to spend a week or so in the Central Highlands of Kenya and then travel west across the Rift Valley and onward to the Ugandan border. First though we need to pass through the highlands and continue on to Nairobi for some repairs that have come about from all the jolting around on the roads in the north. On the way we make an overnight stop at a trout farm not far from Mt Kenya. It has a restaurant, various types of accommodation and a small area grassy area for camping. From the main road it is about 8km along a dirt road with a ford across a small creek at the end. Perhaps because of the distance from the main road and Nairobi, or insufficient marketing, there is just one couple finishing a late lunch when we arrive and no other guests for the rest of the time we are there. It is a shame as it is a beautiful spot and the food and the service are excellent. The staff are extremely friendly and dressed very formally. They certainly make sure we enjoy our stay.

One of the highlights is seeing the Black & White Colobus Monkeys in the trees next to our camp. They have long black and white fur with long white tails and white ringed faces. They travel through the high tree tops and leap from branch to branch. There is also one Blue Monkey (Sykes Monkey) which lives in the area and he approaches also, apparently it is unusual for the two types to be in the same area and they have a bit of a territorial dispute.

This close to Mt Kenya we are more than 2,200 metres in altitude so it is no surprise that it is a very chilly night. We can expect more cold weather when we are staying in this area after our repairs so the four of us have booked a week in two houses through Air BnB. The bookings commence in just under a week so we hope that will give us plenty of time to finish our work in Nairobi.

Back in Nairobi our repairs consist of reattaching the awning and replacing some latches on the canopy. The tasks get organised in the next few days but not completed. We can’t find new latches anywhere in Nairobi and have to ship some from South Africa and they will arrive the next week. We sit around waiting for several days while we wait to arrange the work on the awning and eventually make a booking to have the work completed the next week. It will mean an extra trip back to Nairobi for Paul but it is the best arrangement we can make. While we are waiting we take a trip into town to get a new Temporary Import Permit (TIP) for our car and to visit Basharia Street, the area previously filled with Indian Traders and still lined with fascinating stores to explore and a great place to pick up some new Kikois. For lunch we call into the Thorn Tree cafe at the New Stanley Hotel, a place Paul used to call into for coffee when he lived in Nairobi. Since the early 1900s, the New Stanley Hotel has been known as a traditional meeting place for those going on safari  in Kenya and messages would be left attached to the original tree. There is a more formal message board next to the tree now.

Meanwhile Jared and Jen are busy completing their own repairs on their trailer. They manage to get most of the parts and work their way through their list. Their new brake assembly also needs to be shipped from South Africa but should arrive before Paul has to return so he can collect it at the same time. Paul and I end up being ready to leave Nairobi one day early and Jared and Jen eventually leave two days later than planned. Guess that is what we can expect from making plans.

Its difficult to find a nice camping spot north of Nairobi that will suit Paul and I for a night so we check other accommodation and find a great deal on a room in the Misty Mountain Resort near Mt Kenya and not far from where we will be staying for the following few nights. Its such a good deal in fact that the staff have never heard of a room being so cheap. It appears a mistake has been made but as we have a confirmed booking we end up with a wonderful room and some brief views of Mt Kenya in the morning when the clouds clear as a bonus.

The tip of Mt Kenya peeks above the clouds

Our first home stay is for three nights in a place called Cammplot just out of Naro Moru and less than 10km from Misty Mountain Resort. We arrive early while the place is still being cleaned but that is no problem and we are made welcome by Karanja who manages the house. As we are shown around the house we begin to wish we had this place booked for longer. It is perfect! Downstairs is a big open space living and dining area with an open fire in the centre. Behind is well equipped kitchen at one end and a double bedroom and a bathroom at the other end. In front is a huge deck with a dining table and chairs as well as two couches around another open fire place plus more seating. In front is grass leading down to a small ldam and then a rise covered in bush beyond and eventually the cloud covered slopes of Mt Kenya. Upstairs are two more large bedrooms with ensuites, the main is huge with two walk in robes and a seating area and best of all a huge window which will give us views of the mountain from our bed … when the clouds clear.

Karanja lives nearby and arranges for firewood when we request it and sets the fire but otherwise we are left on our own to enjoy the space and the peace. Paul commandeers the downstairs bedroom to work on his photos and as it is the first place we have had access to a washing machine for ages I wash several loads the easy way. Hand wringing sheets and towels sure is a pain. I also get some writing done and get to sort through my photos. We hardly use the inside living area because the deck space is so good that even on chilly evenings the fire and a light rug keep us toasty.

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Cammplot

We are here for three days but unfortunately Jen and Jared miss the first two days as their repairs take longer than they hoped and they can only join us for the last evening. Shortly after they arrive in the early afternoon the clouds completely clear off Mt Kenya and we have absolutely fabulous views. We had been seeing bits of the mountain but these views are magnificent. Overnight and in the morning the clouds are still dispersed so we enjoy mountain views from our bedroom.

Kenya

Mt Kenya

After a relaxed morning and early lunch we set off for our next home stay. It is at the top of the Aberdare National Park in a home called Mokima House. We have high hopes for the house as it is on the border of the National Park and the reviews are very positive but it can’t live up to our expectations … we have been spoilt by Cammplot. The house is far more enclosed so we have no views from inside and to reach the boundary fence from the house we need to walk down a muddy track lined with stinging nettles. A family and a chef live on the property and it appears most guests have meals provided but we want to do our own catering and have to pay an additional charge for the use of the kitchen. In addition when we first arrive there seems to be people hovering around all the time and we start to feel a little claustrophobic. Luckily things improve after the initial period. We are pretty much left to do our own thing and the kitchen fee includes washing up so we have no dishes to do for the four days of our stay, that’s a bonus. Everyone is very friendly and we leave feeling far more positive than when we arrived.

On our second day we take a trip into the nearby town of Nyeri. On the way we stop at Nyeri Hill coffee farm and purchase some delicious coffee for our onward travels. In town we head for the Nyeri Club. Paul used to visit here when he lived in Kenya as his father played cricket against their team. At that time the club house looked out over a golf course then a race track and the cricket ground was in the bowl below surrounded by a ring of hills. Now the race track and the cricket ground have been taken over by the expanding town and the golf course is reduced in size but there is still a very pleasant view from the club house and we enjoy lunch under the umbrellas in the sunshine.

After lunch we brave the hectic streets to find a supermarket and butcher for some supplies then visit the Outspan Hotel on the edge of town. This is an old colonial hotel and still retains an aged splendour.

As well as looking around the hotel we have afternoon refreshments on the lawn and then visit Paxtu cottage, the final home of Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout Association. It is now a museum for the scouting movement and contains photos and memorabilia of Lord and Lady Baden-Powell and scarves donated by scouts or ex-scouts who have visited from all around the world.

Paul has to return to Nairobi the following day to have the awning reattached and leaves at 4.00am in an effort to get through town before the morning traffic jam. Unfortunately it is the day Barak Obama is visiting town so the traffic is even more snarled than usual and it takes an extra couple of hours to get through. As the job had all been measured he hoped it would be completed in the day and he would get back to us the same day. Unfortunately it didn’t go as smoothly as planned and he has to stay overnight and a good part of the next day before finally getting away in the afternoon and reaching us in the early evening. In the meantime Jen, Jared and I have a relaxed couple of days, there is a bit of writing and they have to go out to collect their coffee from the farm but as it is overcast most if the time it is a great opportunity for some reading.

After leaving Mokima House our next drive takes us through the high country north of the Aberdare Range then down into the Rift Valley. The high country is green and very pretty to drive through and trucks are minimal so it is a pleasant drive. As soon as we drop down into the Rift Valley the temperature rises and it is decidedly hot as we pass through the crowded town of Nakuru and then cools again as we begin climbing up to the Njoro area. Here we are staying on Kembu Farm, a working farm with a camping area and several other accommodation choices including the house Beryl Markham lived in which was on a nearby farm and which was transported to this location.

We have a grassy area to camp with some shade but also open areas for solar power, hot showers (most of the time) and although there are two overland buses in the camp the travellers are quiet. A semi tame duiker wanders in a bushy section of the property and our camp site overlooks fields filled with dairy cows. The nights turn very cool and the open fire in the bar is welcome.

After two nights we move on toward the border. We travel through the high country surrounding Kericho where the hills are covered in tea plantations then down to Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria. A short drive south of the town is Dunga Hill Camp. Here we find a small area for camping right on the edge of the lake and on the hill behind is a bar and restaurant filled with locals enjoying a balmy Sunday afternoon. We join the crowd for a drink while we watch the sunset and later have our dinner delivered to camp, pretty good service. Paul is fighting off a cold and we stay three nights before we leave. From Kisimu it is an easy drive to Busia and the border post into Uganda. We’ll spend around a month or a little more in Uganda then Jared and Jen will travel south into Ruanda and we will return to Kenya so than we can head north to Ethiopia.

Northern Kenya, “No More Stuckings”

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Low Hills surrounding Lake Turkana

Northern Kenya is remote and rugged and we are looking forward to the scenery and the different tribes and having some adventures in the bush. Together with Jared and Jen we’ve planned a loop across the top of Lake Baringo to Maralal then up to Lake Turkana, across the Chalbi Desert and down to Marsabit, then further south to the northern side of Mt Kenya. Well that’s our plan anyway, we’ll just have to see how it unfolds.

The road across the top of Lake Baringo is generally in good condition with some rough patches and a few muddy spots, and lots of great scenery. As we get some elevation above the lake we can appreciate how big it is. Our boat trip covered just a tiny fraction of the western shoreline. The hills are covered in green trees and shrubs after the rainy season and we spot a few duikers, zebra and eland. There are a few villages along the way but it’s relatively sparsely populated.

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North of Lake Baringo

After a few hours we reach Maralal where we hope to find a supermarket but we have to settle for a few vegetables and some eggs and some diesel. We fill our fuel tanks as well as our jerry cans because we may not find reliable fuel for quite a while.

It’s mid afternoon and we’re planning to stop at a community camp in the mountains north of Maralal which has fantastic views. We need to travel 23km up the main road towards Lake Turkana then 10km on a side road. We start climbing into the hills almost as soon as we leave town and we are still on the main road when we encounter our first section of thick soft mud. It looks tricky but both vehicles manage to make it through although the Toyota tyres slide more than we’d like.

We reach the turn to the community camp and ask about the road conditions. No problems with our 4WD vehicles we are told so we head toward the camp. It’s not long before we strike a tricky patch with a narrow section on top of a ridge and holes on either side of the road. Jared gets through with no problems but our tyres let us down and the left rear of the Toyota slides into a deep hole and we are left hanging with our front right tyre about a metre above the road. For a moment I think we are about to tip but it felt worse than it actually was. This is a bit more adventure than I appreciate!

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Oops – now we have to get out of this hole

Travelling in convoy pays off as it proves to be reasonably simple to hook our winch to Jared and Jen’s vehicle and haul ourselves out. We continue down the road and see a long stretch of mud down the hill from us. Time to give up the idea of the community camp, now the tricky bit is for Jared to turn the Jeep and trailer around. The Jeep ends up sideways across the road and the trailer at a sharp angle after one of the trailer wheels slid down a slope and with no room to manoeuvre to straighten up. Some digging and the use of Maxtrax and shuffling back and forth finally gets it sorted and we can get moving again. Once again we are impressed with the capabilities of “Snort” as Jen and Jared call their heavily modified Jeep.

By now it is getting late in the afternoon and we have no idea where we are going to stay for the night. One of the Samburu men who has been watching us approaches Jen and introduces himself and offers us a ‘special camp site’ not far away. After chatting for a short while Jared brings Jack over to us. The special camp is actually on a stretch of grass in front of the boma (compound) where he and his wife and daughters, his brother and family and his father, Alexander, live. We accept the offer and Jack rides with Jared and Jen to show us the way.

Back on the main road we continue for a couple of kilometres and are then confronted with another stretch of mud with a truck stuck in the middle and what turns out to be seven trucks backed up on the road behind them. Luckily there is a narrow and only slightly muddy track off to one side that we can use to get past the stuck truck and then we weave between other trucks to reach a patch of grass on the other side of the road which is to be our camp site for the night.

We level up our vehicles and set up our camp under the watchful eyes of Jack, his father and brother and assorted other family members and also several of the armed guards, carrying assorted semi-automatic weapons, who are providing security for the stranded trucks and their cargoes. This used to be a fairly quiet stretch of road but a wind farm has been built in the north near Lake Turkana and the Chinese are presently constructing the power line through this area to carry the power to Nairobi. A fire is lit for us, at this altitude it is decidedly chilly, and we sit around and share drinks with Jack and Alexander. Other family members and the guards also wander in and out of the area and we feel uncomfortable about bringing out food for just us and don’t have enough to share around so we settle for making a snack at bed time and having a picnic in bed. Its been a long day.

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Sunrise from Jack’s Place

In the morning a tractor trundles down the road and pulls the stuck truck out and the remainder of the trucks follow. Most build up their momentum and get through the muddy patch without incident but one can’t make it and they get pushed out by a grader. Jen and Paul go with Jack to meet his grandfather who is reportedly 117 years old and to take some family photos. Finally we are ready to continue our journey. We ask about the road ahead of us and are told that there is an easy drive with no more muddy patches and we should have “no more stuckings”.

We are driving to Lake Turkana today and it is a great drive with ever-changing scenery. We start on the top of the Loroghi Plateau with views to the valleys on either side of us then begin our descent. We start to see odd groups of camels as well as the usual cattle and goats. A bus thunders toward us with some of the passengers on top of the bus, we figure the driver wants most of the road so we pull over to let him pass.

The views at the top of the final descent to the plains cause us to pause and enjoy the broad vistas below.

As we cross the plain we see tree-studded grasslands which eventually turn drier and the vegetation turns from green to brown. Camel herds increase and the numbers of cattle decrease as the country becomes drier. The drive, with several stops to take photos of the scenery, is interrupted by a short lunch stop on the side of the road. We pass over dry riverbeds and through a couple of towns, Baragoi and the interesting South Horr, as well as several dusty villages.

Finally we start to see the blades of the new windmills emerging above the low hills. A report I read said there were to be 365 turbines which we initially doubt but as we drive further we wonder whether the number is in fact higher. When the power line is completed this energy will provide one third of Kenya’s power needs. As we leave the area with the wind farms Lake Turkana spreads before us. It is huge and glistening in the afternoon sun. Islands are dotted around and we can’t see the other shore.

We slowly descend to the lake on a very rocky road, here the country is covered in roundish rocks, mostly red but some patches are black. If we could wait here until the sun was lower in the sky the colours would be amazing but we have another half an hour or so to reach our destination for the night so we need to keep going.

We are starting to see some of the local people by now. There are several tribes living in this area, Turkana and Samburu, Gabbra, Rendille and El Molo, and the huts we see are round, igloo shaped dwellings made from branches and grasses and what ever other materials can be found. Goats and camels are grazing on the very little feed available and often people stand on the side of the road asking for fresh water. There is no shortage of water with the lake close by but although it is technically safe to drink it is extremely unpalatable due to the high concentration of minerals in it.

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Huts on the edge of Lake Turkana

The road travels along the edge of the lake and we travel up a crest and a large number of the round huts are spread before us, we have reached the town of Loyangalani. It is the main town on the lake, in fact it is the only town with just a few villages scattered in other places. Many of the buildings are the round huts and there are some cement buildings with a few places to stay.

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Loyangalani

We’ve planned to stay at a ‘resort’ in town but we follow a bus inside the grounds and it disgorges more than 40 people who are going to be staying here. It appears as though they are here for a conference or something else although the trip seems to have been too much for one young guy as he appears to be passed out on the side of the entrance road. Its crowded and noisy and the camping area doesn’t appeal so we search for alternatives.

Malabo Resort is a kilometre or so north of the town and while the accommodation is mainly in round huts (bandas) they also offer some camping. The camping area is OK but for only a little more, after Paul completes his negotiations, we can stay in the bandas (with ensuite) and still do our own catering or we can use the restaurant/bar which is perched up the hillside with a cooling breeze in the evening and views of the lake. Easy choice especially as this is can be a very windy place with 60km/h winds very common.

The road to Lake Turkana, while not the roughest road we have been on, has taken its toll. One end of our awning parted with our vehicle and it is now strapped to the roof rack on the Jeep and we already had one latch on the canopy break and a couple more have now failed. Jared and Jen’s trailer has had serious issues with the suspension and brakes and some of the rivets have given way causing dust problems inside. Jared is able to do some repairs over the next couple of days and we can repair one catch and shift some of the catches to minimise our problems but other repairs will have to wait until we reach a much bigger town, probably Nairobi.

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Snort and pet at Malabo Resort

We spend three nights at Malabo Resort and loved the friendliness of all of the people there. We ate in the restaurant on two nights and, because it is hot, they water down the dirt to cut the dust and we have a special couch out in the open for pre-dinner drinks while the sun sets and a table nearby for our meal. The meals aren’t always exactly what we ordered but they are delicious, and cheap.

We had planned to travel across the Chalbi desert from here to Marsabit, a sizeable town which sits on the main road between Nairobi and Ethiopia, but the road crossing the Chalbi is flooded. What is it about us and deserts? They are frequently very wet when Paul and I are in the area. Instead we need to travel around the north of the main part of the desert through the towns of North Horr and Kalacha which turns out to be a great leg to our trip.

Some people could conceivably find this type of country flat and boring but we are all delighted with the variety we see and the huge open vistas. Mirages shimmer and tease with the appearance of water.

Camels were common south of Loyangalani but now they are in far greater numbers. As we approach North Horr we reach a palm fringed oasis with hundreds of camels at the water. They take fright when they hear and see us and charge away but are settled by their herders so we can pass. Its an extremely photogenic spot but they don’t appreciate photography so we have to settle for a couple of surreptitious snaps as we pass.

We’re stopping in Kalacha for the night and have the name of a promising sounding camp just south of the town on the edge of an oasis. We follow the track through the town to the oasis where we check with some locals. When we are told it is closed we ask about alternatives and are told we can stay at the Catholic church in the town. Once we are there we have the option of camping if we really want to or staying in rooms for the same price. We’re grateful for the welcome and the rooms in this heat and find shady spots to shelter for the rest of the afternoon.

In the morning we take a tour of the church. Its an Orthodox Ethiopian Church and really worth a visit. As well as the building there is an outdoor area where it appears most services are held. Trees and branches provide shade for the simple wooden benches and pulpit and a low wall sets the boundaries without impeding any cool breeze. Inside the church the walls have comic book like paintings illustrating scenes from the bible. Guess its something to look at if you get bored with the service.

Another great drive the next day takes us across the plains and up into the hills. Along the way we see the flat depression which is the heart of the Chalbi Desert. Its easy to see that any rain in the area would settle there and any more than the average rainfall could take a while to drain away or evaporate. In contrast the country we travel through between the oases is a dry and desolate land. Camels and possibly goats  are probably the only livestock able to survive out here.

Finally the road starts to climb and we reach the town of Marsabit. It is typical of country towns, tiny side streets and people everywhere. Once again the supermarket shown on our maps can’t be found but there are plenty of stalls and some ATMs. Just past the town we take a side road to Henry’s camp. Its far enough from the highway to shield us from the traffic noise and is a good overnight stop.

From Marsabit it is only 250km to the border with Ethiopia and more than twice that to Nairobi. Big cities are not our favourite place but we have more Kenyan exploration to do and we need to complete our repairs so Nairobi it has to be. The start of the journey provides more stunning vistas as we look down onto the plains we have been travelling across and we pass ranges with fascinating rocky formations. Tribal people dressed in traditional clothing still appear in the dusty towns we pass through.

The road goes past or through several nature reserves or conservancies but by then the land is greener and the vegetation much thicker so we don’t spot any wildlife as we pass. By the time we have passed Archer’s Post and reached Isiolo we are leaving the northern parts of the country behind. Time for new adventures.