12 – 30 January 2013
After a slightly hairy moment at a police checkpoint whilst still on the Ethiopian side of the border (they were asking where the part of the carnet that had been kept in Omorate was), we were on our way to Kenya. As there’s no official border we had to take our GPS’s word for it and took a photo at the border line as it appeared on the screen. At first there wasn’t a noticeable difference between the two countries – the huts were very similar, as were the tribal outfits. What did become apparent after a few hours of driving though was how few people there were compared to anywhere we’d been in Ethiopia.
After registering ourselves with a very jolly policeman at the station in Ileret we went to find our first wild camping spot by Lake Turkana. As we’d been warned there were crocodiles in the lake we decided to keep a safe distance from the shore, but it was a beautiful spot and we were rewarded with a fabulous sunset and sunrise the next morning.
Over the next few days we weren’t disappointed with the variety in the terrain that the route threw at us, with sand, mud, volcanic rock, dry riverbed crossings, corrugation and potholes. We averaged between 15-20kmph and drove approx 120km per day for the first four days. Very slow going. Luckily by taking it easy and not trying to out-speed the corrugation, the worst that happened to any of the three cars was James and Anna losing a front wheel arch in a muddy river bank. Admittedly not great for them, but it could have been a lot worse. We were very lucky that it hadn’t rained for three days prior to us getting there because we could see that the route would have been incredibly difficult, if not impossible, had it been wet.
The route was indeed very scenic, with the jade coloured lake to one side and changing landscape on the other. We could drive for hours without seeing another person, but when we did it was generally colourful tribes people. Amongst others, we saw the Turkana and Samburu tribes. The women wear countless colourful beads around their necks/shoulders, with the men in equally colourful beads and shiny necklaces around their necks or chests, sometimes with feathered sparkly headdresses. It’s not often that it’s the men that are more elaborately dressed than the women!
Along the way we wild camped by the lake twice, then stayed at camping spots at the Kenya Wildlife Service camp inside Sibiloi National Park (where we were greeted in the morning by grazing zebra) and a lovely camp/lodge at South Horr. Despite the relative solitude compared to Ethiopia we were soon joined by local villagers when we did wild camp. However the majority of the time, they sat a short distance away and seemed more interested in observing what strange objects and contraptions we had than anything else.
When we got to South Horr we met a couple of guys who are running a project to establish a wind farm up by the lake (something that should do very well with an average daily wind speed of 70kmph!). They’ve been travelling the roads from Nairobi to Turkana at least once a month for the last few years, so were able to give us some very useful information on the safest route to take from there. However we were warned that the corrugation got worse before we reached that now-elusive thing called tarmac. They weren’t wrong. By this fifth day of bad roads (more really as the last few days in Ethiopia weren’t great either) we were all starting to remember differently when it was that we were meant to be getting to the good road and then pretty much gave up on us ever seeing tarmac again. So when we finally did see the change in road surface, we couldn’t quite believe how shiney and new it looked: with painted lines, crash barriers and everything. We could now understand people getting out and kissing it, so that’s exactly what we did! What turned out to be even more spectacular was seeing elephants grazing at the side of said road about half an hour after joining it. Amazing.
After a night in Isiolo we were Nairobi-bound and this was the day that marked us crossing over the Equator. When we got there we did the obligatory water test on either side and got a certificate for Charlie to commemorate his first time in the Southern Hemisphere.
When we got to Nairobi it was a huge contrast to what we’d seen of the rest of Kenya and was definitely the most developed city we’d been in since Europe. We headed to Jungle Junction (JJ’s) to set up camp and were quite surprised by how many other overlanders and vehicles were there (some being stored for owners for future journeys). Even better, we discovered that Laura and Dale were there, having last seen them in Aswan. Unfortunately they’d been having car trouble which is why we’d caught them up, but it was great to see them again and shoot the breeze.
We ended up staying in Nairobi for nine nights – a few longer than expected – but it was nice to be able to catch up on chores, maintenance on Charlie, emails, washing, the blog, shopping etc without rushing – and we even made it to the cinema on our last day. It was particularly nice to have a large supermarket only around 1km away and such a novelty to have such a wide choice of goods available to us!
On our second day there we went out to the elephant sanctuary where for an hour each day they allow visitors to pay to watch the baby elephants have their mud bath. It was fun to watch them slipping and sliding around in the mud pools and spraying themselves, and us, with dirt. Then, not having had our fill of close encounters with animals for the day, we went out to the giraffe sanctuary and waited patiently for our turn to feed them pellets. The raised viewing platform there allows you to get face-to-face with the giraffes – a pretty awesome experience – although they will soon get fed up and walk off if there isn’t a constant supply of goodies being offered to them. To complete our touristy day in the capital we went for dinner at the infamous Carnivore restaurant. There were a plethora of meats on skewers brought around, but the most exotic things they on the menu were crocodile and ostrich, the restaurant losing its USP (unique selling point in case this is just “marketing speak”) when serving game in Kenya was banned. We had a nice evening, but we’re not convinced it’s worth the money. Perhaps it says something that from the whole meal we probably enjoyed the vegetables the most!
We were also able to catch up with a friend of Karen’s, Annabel, while we were in the city. She has been living in Nairobi with her husband and two children for just over a year now and, very conveniently, only live a few streets away from JJ’s. They have a lovely house with a nice big garden which, amongst other things has banana, avocado and mango trees growing in it. A bit different from what you can grow back in the UK! They treated us to a lovely home-cooked meal and it was great to catch up and hear more about their life there. We’re only sorry we didn’t have a chance to spend more time with them.
We both met and said goodbye to many people while at JJ’s. It really is a hub for travellers and a great place to stay and we were able to get some great tips from those that are travelling north – it’s fantastic as everyone’s always so happy to share their experiences and information. We must give particular mention our mate Omar, an Egyptian biker/charmer who’s done this journey more than a few times now. We were originally meant to meet up with him in Alexandria after making contact with him on an overlanders’ forum and finally got to spend some time with him in Nairobi.
Having delayed our departure by a couple of nights we were finally back on the road, heading to the Maasai Mara. We were very excited to be visiting our first game park of the trip and especially at the prospect of seeing big cats. When we arrived an English couple we’d met at JJ’s recommended a guide both they and Anna and James had used called Edward. Although we’d originally intended to go without one, we’re glad we had him as he knew all the right places to look for certain animals. We were also very lucky as a couple of days before we’d arrived a pride of lions had killed a hippo, something that’s quite rare. This meant there was at least one spot we were guaranteed to see cats.
The Maasai Mara was, without a doubt, an incredible experience and in some ways quite surreal as we couldn’t quite believe we were actually seeing what we were seeing. In just one day we saw dik dik, impala, Thomson’s gazelle, Grant’s gazelle, topi, eland, warthog, baboons, spotted hyena, black-backed jackal, Cape buffalo, zebra, hippos, giraffe, elephants, lions and cheetah. We can’t really pick out one thing that stood out above the rest as it was all fantastic. Obviously the big cats were amazing – we felt so lucky to see so many mature males and other lions together feasting away, then going for a snooze before going back for more. We also really enjoyed the hippo pool. There must have been at least 20 hippos of different ages all squeezed into one small area (quite a feat when you consider the size of them) and it was highly amusing seeing their heads pop up, check us out and then bob straight under again – a lot of the time only their nostrils broke the surface, so it was a pool of water and nostrils and the sound of a lot of hot air! Generally it was just so nice to see all the animals in their natural habitat, grazing away and not really paying us much attention at all. We also put Charlie’s winch to the test after a car tipped over trying a nasty river crossing. A bit of excitement for the day and it was nice to be able to help out.
On our second day we did a game drive in the morning and, despite it starting off slowly, we managed to see pretty much all the same animals as the day before. We then went to one of the Massai villages for a tour. First off we were treated to a demonstration of their warrior dance. It was so much fun to watch: after marching and chanting two warriors compete against each other to see who can jump the highest. Traditionally the warrior that wins has the pick of the women. Karen was not-so-secretly pleased that Marcello’s jumping skills weren’t quite up to Maasai standards!
We were also taken on a tour of the village and had some of the traditions of Maasai culture explained to us, including a demonstration of how they start a fire with wood, a sword and elephant dung. It is still part of their custom to drink cattle (or sometimes goat) blood as part of their diet, as is both male and female circumcision, although female circumcision, thankfully, is becoming less common. Another initiation that is still practiced is that of lion hunting, which is when the men become warriors. Due to the decline in lion numbers there’s no longer solo lion hunting, but a group of men go out and hunt the lions together. The first to spear or stab the lion gets the mane as a trophy, the second gets the tail.
It was a great experience visiting the village and hearing and seeing more about the Maasai people. Those we met were very friendly and full of smiles and jokes. There’s no doubt that the modern world is having an impact on their way of life, but from what we could see this was not as negative as what we’d experienced with the Mursi. Perhaps being in an area that’s had Western visitors for so long has something to do with this … or perhaps it’s just due to different cultures?
After a fantastic couple of days in the Mara, we set off towards the Ugandan border. The road out of the reserve was pretty awful, so it was slow going, however we were rewarded with views of hundreds of zebra on the plains. Then, even better, we saw a big herd of giraffes running across the road in front of us. We couldn’t believe how many there were and it was great to see the youngsters alongside the adults. For a long time afterwards all we could really say was: “Wow, that was amazing!”.
On our way to the border we stopped for the night in Kericho, it’s obviously a tea-growing area as we saw countless tea plantations either side of the road (including some owned by Unilever, aka PG Tips). We then headed to the crossing at Busia as we’d heard that it was the quieter of the crossing points. The crossing process was pretty quick and smooth, the only sticking point being on the Ugandan side where they tried to get us to take additional insurance despite ours being valid throughout Africa. However after a while they obviously realised we weren’t going to back down, so they let us go on our way. Our first stop was Jinja where we were looking forward to a spot of whitewater rafting. But more on this in our next post…