Jambo Bwana Phreds,
Kenya came next on my African Stage, but due to certain circumstances, I felt that I shortchanged the country a little.
Originally, Kenya was to be my starting point in Africa, and I was going to begin on the Indian coast, ride up to the historic coastal town of Lamu, and then turn inland to see some of the game parks in the southeast of the country. However, adding Ethiopia to the route completely messed up that plan. Now I would have to enter the country from the north, through an area which did not look very touring-friendly, and, due to time constraints, head directly south, past or through Nairobi, to the Tanzanian border. I still wanted to see Lamu, but getting there from the north would have required considerable rough travel, and about another two weeks, and I just didn’t have that much time available. So, the first painful decision to cut something out of the route came in Kenya. At least the new route would take me past Mt. Kenya, a World Heritage Site, and that would make up for missing Lamu, a similarly listed place, or so I thought.
August is said to be the dry season in Kenya, and though it didn’t really rain while I was there, it was cloudy and cool most of the time, with the exception of one or two days, on which I would have preferred some clouds. The population there is at a moderately high level, but very unevenly distributed, so there are large areas that are still quite isolated. Everyone is very polite and friendly and, being once occupied by Britain, English is widely spoken, though Kiswahili is the most common language. And, happily, the sometimes annoying greeting from Ethiopia, “Where are you go?” was now replaced with the much more appealing, “Hello, how are you?” Having been a popular tourist destination for many years, most of the populated areas contain most of the usual tourist amenities, in an African-sort-of-way, at least, though the costs associated with travel are still relatively modest. However, I was a bit surprised at the wide disparity in the modes of living between the people in the modern cites and those in more traditional areas. That gap may be among the widest I’ve seen so far, a fact that became apparent right from the start.
For a couple of weeks I had been anxious to reach Kenya, where I assumed that I could get some decent food. It took a bit longer than that, in reality. At the Ethiopia-Kenya border there is a town called Moyale on the Ethiopian side, and another with the same name on the Kenyan side. Reaching the border in the early evening on a Saturday, I had just enough time to cross that day, in spite of the rather slow Ethiopian immigration officer, who had a little trouble reading the English script in my passport. From that point on, I will no longer need to deal with alphabets other than the one I’m writing with now, which will be nice. A couple of days earlier I asked a Kenyan man I met in a restaurant which “Moyale” was the larger town and was told that the Kenyan one was. With that in mind, I was happy to make it across that night, so I could clean up and feed up a little.
Of course, the information I was given was completely inaccurate, an occurrence that is disturbingly frequent in Africa. While the Ethiopian Moyale was a substantial town, by local standards, at least, with a couple of decent-looking places to stay, several shops, and some good produce stands, the Kenyan Moyale, was a comparative backwater. The only place I could find to stay was quite dingy, with no water, and the only food available was “basic” to say the least. The reason for this became painfully apparent over the next few days. For while there is a relatively good road that reaches the Ethiopian Moyale from the north, the one that connects the Kenyan Moyale to the cities to the south is a disaster. Consequently, most of the supplies for the Kenyan Moyale are brought in from Ethiopia, and, with the usual taxes and customs issues, that means not much arrives there from either direction. My map showed about 500 kilometers of gravel road south from Moyale, so I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but, of course, just how tough it would be would depend on the current surface conditions. I asked a few people as I approached the border, and received responses ranging from “It’s ok,” to “The worst road I’ve ever seen.” Not much help there. In addition, I was also told that there was a risk of “bandits” in that area and so I should not go that way. That was, of course, completely ridiculous, as the few people that I met along the way were all quite friendly.
There is only one real town, Marsabit, along the rough part of the route, about halfway down. As the road passed through an arid region, which was mostly flat and lower in elevation than the rest of interior East Africa, around 800 meters in most places, I still had hopes of reaching Marsabit in two days. However, now running behind schedule after Ethiopia, I couldn’t afford the time to take a whole day off there as I’d planned. The best I could hope for was a much-needed opportunity to clean up a little. Actually, the first day went pretty well, as the road was not too bad at all, and I managed to get about halfway, stopping just shy of the tiny settlement of Turbi. Happily, with such a thin population in the region, it was pleasantly easy to camp, comparable to Outback Australia. Of course, the local people kept asking if I was afraid of wild animals when doing so, which was a bit of a goofy concern I thought.
The next day things went rapidly downhill, figuratively, that is. Turbi was just a handful of structures, like most of the settlements in the region, with only one place to get water, drinks, and some basic food. The latter was always the same in the area; a couple of chapatis and meat. Like Ethiopia, the fare was simply called “meat,” but this time you would be informed what it was, and it was always goat. That always made me think of a macabre alternate title for Neil’s book, namely, “The lead goat veered off....and ended up in my breakfast bowl.” Nevertheless, after a modest meal, I continued south, and it was not long before things turned bad. The road soon entered the Dida Galgalu desert and while roads across deserts are often good, this one was a nightmare. The area is actually a broad, flat volcanic valley, strewn with solidified lava rocks where little vegetation can survive. The few people who live there are nomadic camel herders. Their camels, not usually used as pack animals as they were in Ethiopia, are solid and healthy-looking, apparently somehow finding enough forage in the bleak surroundings. The people’s dwellings, however, are less attractive. I’ve seen a wide variety of traditional-built homes by now, and I usually find them rather appealing. These were not quite so, consisting of simple hemispherical domes, made from bent wooden poles, onto which mats of dried vegetation, skins, or sometimes old plastic grain sacks, were draped.
The road was painfully slow and it seemed as if it’s construction was based the following plan: take a bulldozer and scrape away all of the big, loose rocks and whatever grass may be on the land surface, then go back and spread down a bunch of new big, loose rocks to replace the old ones. By mid afternoon I was only about 35% of the way to Marsabit, and I was just about out of water and food. Because of that I made the aggravating decision to abandon the ride for the day, and I took a lift to town from a passing truck, the only one I had seen all morning going in my direction. I really hated doing that while the bike was still functional, but I could not afford to fall behind at that point, and running out of water would of course be a big problem, as that was one of the two sunny days and it was getting quite hot.
As it turned out Marsabit would not really have been a good place to take a day off in any case. The nice shower I had been hoping for did not come to pass, as the drought currently affecting the horn of Africa region was in force there too, and the town’s water supply was shut off. On the other hand, I finally began to see evidence of food being brought up from the south. The shops in town had fruit juice, large bottles of sodas, biscuits that actually tasted pretty good, and a few chocolates, and the outdoor market had some delicious carrots and mangoes (for some reason Africa seems to produce the world’s best carrots, and the mangoes are darn good too.) On top of that the restaurant where I stayed made a fair plate as well. All of that helped a lot, but I was not out of it yet.
I had been told that after Marsabit, the road was better, and in some ways it was. It was wider and the big rocks were gone. Of course, in place of that it was corrugated ALL the way. There are few things less appealing than riding over a corrugated road all day long. One of those is doing so for two and a half days. At least there were a couple of small settlements spaced out at just about the right distances where I could get drinks and biscuits (the tasteless ones again.) The one redeeming event of this whole section was my first encounter with some of the classic African wildlife. Early in the morning, just as I was stopping to repair a flat, I heard some “clomp, clomp, clomp” sounds coming from the bushes. These were much louder clomps than those made by cattle or camels, so I knew that something good was in the area. In a moment I could see the heads of a few giraffe bobbing up and down in the trees. I was pretty close, so they disappeared rather quickly. Giraffe are my favorite of all of the African animals and it seemed appropriate that I saw them first. They acknowledged my appreciation by appearing again, crossing the road about 40 meters ahead of where I was standing. There were six of them of various ages, and they were gracious enough to pose for a few photos as they crossed. I was rather pleased and thrilled with that event, for while I would see plenty of wildlife later on, doing so when you’re out on your own, and it isn’t expected, is always special.
On the third day past Marsabit, I expected to finally break through onto the paved road and eventually reach the large town of Meru, where I had planned a day off. My map showed the gravel ending at the settlement of Archer’s Post, and after a slow 45 kilometers, I arrived there just before lunchtime. Of course, the map was wrong and though there may have been a section of sealed road south from there decades ago, now there was just more corrugated gravel. I was completely despondent, as I had been so looking forward to reaching the good road. Nevertheless, I gave it a go. However, after an hour I was only 6 or 7 kilometers along and most of my water, which I had just topped off in Archer’s Post, was gone. I could have given up part of my day off and stopped short of Meru, but I really didn’t want to do that. So, I gave in again, and rode over the rest of the gravel section on the back of a truck carrying a load of dirt, to the town of Isiolo, where the paved road actually did begin. Frustrating, once again, but probably a reasonable decision, as from there the climb up into the foothills of Mt. Kenya was much longer than I had guessed. Because of that it was nearly dusk when I finally reached the town, but not without more wildlife encounters, namely several colubus monkeys and a few elephants.
Meru is one of a handful of relatively large towns on the road which circles Mt. Kenya, and so there were enough good services there to get me back in shape again, especially that shower that I’d been needing for 7 days. I didn’t plan on doing much while there, but I’d hoped to get a good look at Mt. Kenya and it’s foothills which are now green and forested (in places, at least) due to the higher altitude. Unfortunately, that 5,200-m peak remained stubbornly hidden behind clouds the entire time. I even tried to get a taxi to take me to the edge of the forest on its slopes so could walk around there for a while, but I couldn’t quite get the point of that request across, so I never actually saw the mountain or its environs. Too bad.
I had two days to get to Nairobi from Meru, which should have been just enough. However, in a shocking reversal from the usual situation, the actual distance from Meru to Embu, the next big town on the way, was 100 kilometers, instead of 154, as my map had indicated. I couldn’t figure that out, as it wasn’t a simple misprint, since all of the intermediate distances were wrong too. In addition, another source said that the distance was 140 km. There was no way that I rode more than 100 km that day, so I’m sure I was correct. Wow, if only maps were always wrong in my favor! I could have gone farther and shortened the next day’s ride, but I’d didn’t expect to find a good place to camp, and I decided I deserved another light day in any case, so I stayed in Embu that night. The only notable event along the way was another crossing of the equator, my first by bike (two others were at sea). That was made apparent by a somewhat faded and rusty sign that had halfway fallen over, which announced the line. It felt good to be back where I belong, in the Southern Hemisphere, again.
Originally, I had planned on bypassing Nairobi, as I usually do with big cities, but I changed my mind in this case, on the theory that I could finally get some good food there. The ride in was ok until the last 40 km, or so, when the traffic picked up substantially, and the road narrowed. In fact, it seemed quite a bit like riding into a large American city, except with few signs to aid in navigation. Not particularly pleasant, but nothing I haven’t dealt with many times before. Eventually, I found my way into the city center, located a decent place to stay, and took another day off. Nairobi is ok, not nearly as chaotic or dangerous as the guidebooks would have you believe. In fact it is a quite modern city, with good supermarkets and restaurants, which were all I cared about anyway. It was still cloudy and cool, so there wasn’t too much point in doing any sightseeing, instead, during my single day there I believe I consumed the equivalent of five meals.
With only one day left for Kenya, I had just a long, fairly uneventful ride down to the Tanzanian border, at Namanga, left to go. The road out of the city to the southeast, and past the airport, was very narrow and filled with fast-moving busses for the first 50 km, until turning south, when things quieted down quite a bit. The area towards the border flattens out a little and dries out again as well, becoming the savanna that is home to the nomadic, cattle-herding Maasai people. Like the nomads in the north, many Maasai continue to dress in traditional clothing, and adorn themselves with numerous dangly beaded necklaces and other jewelry. Their clothing usually includes a bright red, or red-blue patterned, cloak, so that when seen from a great distance across the plains, they can be easily identified. However, like most of the rural people in East Africa, they do not like to have their picture taken (except after receiving a large sum of money,) and I got intensely scolded by a village man after violating that custom on one occasion. Oops. In any case I reached the border at nightfall, for once covering a longer distance than I had expected, which was good.
Kenya had many interesting sights and was pleasant in several other ways. However, with only 9 days in the country, and less than ideal weather much of the time, I felt like I missed a lot too. That’s they way it goes sometimes, I suppose.
The Tour of Gondwana
May 02005 - Oct 02007