Ethiopia Part 9, The Bull Jumping Ceremony

“Bull Jumping” Hamer Tribe, Ethiopia 2018

Imagine this. You have driven for three hours through the African Bush from a remote dusty village in the southwestern corner of Ethiopia, along twisting dirt tracks and across dry creek beds, and then for a further 45 minutes on a roughly cut track through the bush, which is not a road or a track at all but merely a clearing either side of a footpath along which no other vehicle has yet travelled. It is so fresh that the exposed stumps of trees and bushes are going to cause havoc with your tyres, and you have no hope of spotting or avoiding them all. You’re not sure where you are going but your guide says ‘it’s all good’ …

You are here in the Southern Omo Valley in a remote corner of Africa to witness a pre-nuptial ceremony in which a young man earns the right to marry the woman of his parents choice by running naked across the backs of a line of nine bulls and doing this four times after a day of celebration, dancing, drinking and traditional rituals. It is called the ‘Bull Jumping Ceremony’ but it turns out to be so much more than that!

You may have read about the Southern Omo Valley tribes of Ethiopia and possibly seen some of the documentaries and photographic essays that have brought a broader audience than anthropologists to these unique cultures. There are more than twenty tribes living in this remote south-west region of Ethiopia, an area which has only relatively recently become accessible to tourists, and then only with a guide, and often an armed guard.

Having made your way here from halfway around the world you need to work out how you can make the most of your visit. The small towns of Jinka and Turmi serve as ‘jump off’ points to explore the region so you make your way to Turmi, a small, hot and dusty village with very little infrastructure but it is close to the Hamer villages. There is a small hut in town which serves as the ‘office’ / ‘gathering place’ for the local guides, so finding a guide is quite easy. The people in Turmi have already figured out that the ‘Ferengi’ (foreigners) have lots of money and they sometimes stage manage visits to nearby anvillages and their ceremonies but you aren’t really interested in joining the dozens of tourists that are also in town and you are quite prepared to get off the beaten track.

This is our challenge and we are very excited to be here for our last great adventure before we leave Ethiopia. We have set up camp in Turmi for a few days and we are here to see ‘The Bull Jumping’ but other than that we have no idea what to expect. We talk to a guide and he says that he knows of two ceremonies that will be taking place the next day. One is fairly close to town but the other is some way out and we will be the only ‘Ferengi’ there.

We agree to leave around lunchtime the next day and assume we will be back around sunset. We anticipate joining our new friends, Thomas and Igna for dinner back in Turmi at 7pm, who arrived later in the day having spent two days on the road from Jinka, where it only took us one day. But then they are travelling on a tandem bicycle!

We leave Turmi with high expectations but, as it turns out, we didn’t really know what we had signed up for. Our guide is crammed into the front of our Landcruiser with us and we wind our way between several villages before we leave the dirt road and pick our way along the newly cut bush track. Eventually, we reach a group of boys under a tree and we park in the shade. Our guide says we have to walk a short way so I grab my camera bag and we follow him for about ten minutes along a path that leads down to a river bed. There are crowds of people down here and we stand off to one side taking it all in while our guide talks to the villagers.

We are introduced to the young man who will be ‘jumping the bulls’ today and we can see that he is quite nervous.

The Central Character

A group of women leave the river bed, dancing and running, and climb the slopes up to a cleared area near the village huts where we find crowds of people sitting together on the ground under low shelters. We are invited to sit with them.

The women continue dancing and the noise is tremendous when they pass. The stamping of feet, the jangle of the many bells around their legs and ankles, the singing and the blowing of horns are almost deafening.

As they dance the dust rises and swirls in the light of the afternoon sun … a symphony of colour and light and noise.

The smells and taste of sorghum beer, and the local coffee, both of which are being brewed in large calabashes over small fires all add to the vibrancy of the scene.

All of our senses are assailed by this onslaught and it is a struggle to take it all in.

The children run around under everyone’s feet, as do the goats. One baby goat scratches around one of the fires and a small child removes it before it gets burned.

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The smaller children are very keen to have their photos taken.

Occasionally one of the men asks if we are ok and offers us more coffee or sorghum beer. Otherwise, we are left to our own devices and to sit on our cattle hide happy to observe.

This man is carrying his own seat

The celebrations can last two or three days and during this time a number of different activities take place.

We are directed back down to the river bed where people are regathering. First up the men use some pigments, black, ochre and white, to paint their faces. Our guide paints Julie’s face.

Our guide tells us that ‘The Whipping’ is about to take place. We are not sure if we have heard him properly and we have no idea what is going to be whipped. A few people gather slender branches from some of the bushes and strip the leaves from them. During all of this, the women continue dancing and singing and blowing their small horns. Different things are happening all over the place.

Then ‘The Whipping’ starts. The women encourage each other and, through dance, singing and blowing their small horns, demand to be whipped. Their backs carry the scars from past ceremonies. Several of the men are reticent but the more senior men seem to accept the responsibility more readily. The women obviously want to be whipped and they show no sign of pain. Apparently, they later rub things into the wounds on their backs to promote scarification. Several men refuse to carry out the whipping and some of the younger girls contemplate it but then back down. Both men and women seem free to participate or not as they wish. The men select a branch that is most flexible.

The young boys and girls are taking a keen interest in proceedings, picturing themselves as more active participants in the future.

Later in the afternoon, a large number of people arrive from other villages and they are welcomed, offered some space under the shelters and given some sorghum beer.

Some of the men have coated their skin with oil and charcoal so that it shines. When they arrive they are given the best places to sit and plied with sorghum beer. These men will play a central role during the bull jumping.

The whole affair is a moving festival of activity from the river bed to the village and back again and then over to a clearing where the bull jumping takes place.

A group of men take themselves off to one side and start to dance. A few of the men step into the semi-circle formed by the other men and start to dance. They all set up an amazing syncopated beat with their feet and clapping with their hands. The men inside the semi-circle jump in unison with the rhythm of the beat they are creating.

As sunset approaches the mass of people moves up a slight rise to a level area. We are told that the cattle are coming. They arrive and are immediately surrounded by the dancing groups of women who are making a tremendous noise. They move in and out of the bunches of cattle, pushing and shoving and generally confusing the cattle. This goes on for some time until the cattle are befuddled and bemused. That seems to be their intent because the cattle become a lot more malleable and stop trying to escape from the surrounding ring of people.

Trepidation

The young man who is the central character in this ceremony wanders between the cattle contemplating what is to come. There seems to be a distinct look of trepidation on his face.

The oiled young men now move in and start to line up the bulls in preparation for the central event. They grab horns and tails and drag them into position. It is now well after sunset and the light is fading fast. A shout and the young man is up and running lightly across the backs of the bulls. Once across he drops to the ground and turns to repeat the effort three more times.

“Bull Jumping” Hamer Tribe, Ethiopia 2018

So very quickly, it is all over and we need to get back to the car. By the time we reach it the light has gone completely. Our guide is walking around the car with a torch and he draws our attention to one of the tyres which is completely flat. There’s nothing for it but we have to get it changed, which we do and we start the slow journey back through the darkness.

We haven’t gone far before Julie says that she can hear something. It is a warm night and we have all the windows open. She can hear air escaping and we have a second puncture and this tyre is slowly deflating. I decide that it can wait until we get to some more even ground so we can get a jack under the car. We still have a couple of four-wheel drive spots to get through though.

Eventually, we get back to a semi-decent track and change the tyre and we can head back to Turmi. We reach there a little before 8pm and unfortunately, we have missed our dinner date so we have dinner on our own, our senses still reeling from the intensity of the afternoon.

When we left the celebrations looked set to continue well into the night and will last through the next day. Each village only holds one bull jumping ceremony per year so they obviously make the most of it.

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.

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.