Some more gnus about our trip

Since we started our trip we have been in contact with another South African couple Arno and Elise, who have been travelling up Africa, having left at roughly the same time as us. We had made tentative plans to meet somewhere, but as neither of us really have any deadlines other than finishing the trip around “Decemberish” we weren’t sure when or if it would happen. They thought we were still in Ethiopia, we thought they were still in Tanzania, and when we arrived for a stopover in Jungle Junction in Nairobi before heading on to the Masai Mara they had their tent set up, the braai was about to be lit, and Elize was making rusks. After greeting each other like long lost friends we settled down for a night of stories, ice-cold beer, boeries and taking it in turns to tell the Jungle Junction dogs to “Voetsek” when they came round to beg for food. There isn’t a dog in the world that does not understand that word. “Voetsek” does not mean “Good Dog”.

Arno and Elize were also heading to the Masai Mara, so we all agreed that 8 eyes are better than 4 when it comes to seeing if you can spot a wildebeest during the great migration and decided to go together.

Another couple from Namibia were also at the campsite with a spectacular Land Cruiser kitted out with everything you can imagine, including a vice welded onto the bull bar, internal air compressor with connections on the front and back bumpers, a device that monitors your tyres and warns you when one goes below a certain pressure, a shower with built-in heater and shower curtain… The tour of our “Really Useful Boxes” didn’t take quite as long. As Arno and Elize had made plans to meet up with him later to go through Turkana into Ethiopia, he kindly lent us some walkie talkies so that we could be in contact should one of us see one of the elusive wildebeest.

We have revolved all our plans around being able to be in Kenya or Tanzania to see the great migration. We have also held back on a number of other treats to be able to afford the park fees. Having watched plenty of documentaries by David Attenborough et al we had extremely high expectations. What the documentaries don’t show you is the state of the roads that the extremely high fees don’t maintain. They also don’t show you minibuses loaded with people racing through the park to tick each animal off – the more you see the bigger the tip for the driver. The one lion we saw was literally chased around the park by about 20 cars. We saw a long line of minibuses racing off later on, all trying to get to see a rhino. This is not “being on a safari”. It is a really expensive zoo without cages. Having said that, the Masai Mara is spectacular – the scenery is as we imaged with the endless skies you can only see in Africa. Yet again we have a bunch of photos in an incredible place that just don’t do it justice! We also got to see one or two wildebeest. No amount of documentaries could have prepared us for the sheer spectacle. It was definitely the gnicest work of gnature in the gname reserve.

At the Masai river we waited for a river crossing where the gnus swim through a gauntlet of crocs, strong currents and the risk of being trampled by other gnus. This wasn’t the first crossing, and there was carnage all along the river – carcasses wedged between rocks, or drifting down the river, completely ignored by the satisfied smiling crocs that had gorged themselves previously like the romans in Asterix in Switzerland, shouting “the stick the stick” as they dropped their gnu into the Massai fondue. The vultures and Maribou Storks had hit the jackpot, floating down the river with their prizes, almost too heavy to fly. You would think that after eating so much they would stop, but they just carrion.

Unfortunately we were parked next to a fleet of minibuses, as if in a taxi rank. Some of the tourists were having a snooze, others were playing on their phones, and I imagine some were sitting there bored out of their minds while tweeting “I’m at the Masai Mara in Kenya, going to get so wasted tonight LOL”. I hate people (close family and friends and all readers of this blog excluded of course).

So was the Masai Mara worth the expense and hordes of minibuses? Yes, although migration aside, go to any South African game reserve and you will see more, with less cars, and there will actually be some evidence that the money you pay is being used for something other than causing gout and obesity in officials and politicians.

After a roaring campfire and more stories with Arno and Elize we said our goodbyes and went on to the next stop, via miles and miles of tea estates. Kakamega forest – with a name like that how can you go to Kenya and skip it. Unfortunately after joking about the first thing I was going to do when I got there I ended up hopping from one foot to the next while I waited for a handwritten receipt where the numbers had to be written down in English as well as numerically and the description became “Two people visiting the Kakamega forest in a car or is that a 4×4 and let me write down some more stuff even though I can see you have something far more urgent to do.”

We had a great day walking through the forest with an extremely knowledgeable guide who taught us about the medicines, birds and animals from the forest, as well as showing us a tree that was hit with a stick, resonating like a drum and in the past used to call people from around the forest when there was important news.

I know a lot of people’s hearts will pump custard for me when I say that doing a trip like this can be exhausting and you need a break from it every now and then, but after a month of touring Kenya we spent a couple of days relaxing at a lodge called Neiberi River Lodge, a few kilometres outside of Eldoret, camping next to a river. The first thing we were told was that several years ago Bill Gates spent a night there. We were also shown the bungalow he stayed at with a plaque on the wall to confirm this. He was there for one night but his entourage and security were apparently there for about a month before he came to make sure everything was ok.

More impressive than seeing a plaque with the words “Bill Gates stayed here once upon a time” was meeting Freddie – the guy who manages the fire pit in the lodge’s restaurant. A sane person does not use his bare hands to pick up coals and burning logs to move them around the fire. Freddie does, and not by juggling the coals in the fumbling hot-potato style of an under 12 D-team cricket player. When he went home at the end of the night he kept repeating that he was going to have another one for the road and then laughing hysterically, so I think the question “How does he pick up fire with his hands without feeling any pain?” was answered.

Next stop Uganda.

Aberdare, Tsavo East and Lamu

While in Gilgil Tim took us to Nakuru for our first proper tourism in Kenya – a place called Nakumatt. Walking around Nakumatt, Jules was stopped by somebody who asked her if she was lost. Her response was she hadn’t seen anything so wonderful for a while and she was trying to take it all in. Nakumatt is like Carrefour if you are in Europe, Sainsbury’s if you are in the UK and Pick ‘n Pay if you are in South Africa. If none of these names mean anything to you, then I guess you are probably in Ethiopia and I will enlighten you – a shop with trolleys to help you carry very important groceries like cheese, bacon, avocados, milk, wine and beer. They even sell boerewors (traditional South African sausage that was invented as a slightly stronger cure than bacon for the dreaded disease of vegetarianism. If boerewors fails then you can try the broader spectrum biltong, which can also soften the effects of rugby loss).

We gate-crashed Mikhaila’s end-of-term safari supper party for the teachers and gap students. Fortunately the last stop was Mikhaila’s house so at 1:00am, when things were still relatively civilised Granny and Gramps were able to Ninja Bomb our way into our tent. Unfortunately the last stop was Mikhaila’s house. Most drunkards are unable to keep up with a guy who can run a half marathon in 1.5 hours. In a similar vein, a guy who can run a half marathon in 1.5 hours is generally unable to keep up with most drunkards, but he tried to valliantly. Needless to say, the couch we were expecting to spend the next day lying on watching movies while we nursed our hangovers resembled the main site of the Mau Mau uprising.

We visited Lake Naivasha, staying at a lovely campsite called Carnellys Camp. This had amazing birds, great scenery and cold beer, so we forced ourselves to stay an extra night before heading on to Nairobi. On the way to Nairobi we drove through an “Animal Passage”, a road where you have to drive carefully because animals are passing through. It isn’t often that you get to see giraffe, warthog, zebras, jackal and various antelope on a normal road.

We spent a couple of nights in Nairobi at a campsite called Jungle Junction, where people on trips like this invariably end up to swap war stories, compare notes and get into Land Rover vs Toyota debates. They have a mechanic on site and we got him to sort out the klunk sound with the suspension. After half an hour he came back with a “Do you want the good news or the bad news?”

“What’s the good news?”

“You don’t drive a Land Rover (pause for laughter and effect). There is no bad news, something just needed to be tightened.” If only that was always the case.

As much as we would love to visit all the game parks, the fees for people from outside of East Africa are extortionate, so we have had to try and balance the “Trip of a lifetime; You only live once; You can always earn more money” mentality with common sense. We spent a night in the Aberdare National Park, driving through a rain forest loaded with Buffalo and Elephant that suddenly appear through the trees and just as suddenly disappear. That night we camped in a clearing with four buffaloes and a waterbuck.

The trip from Nairobi to Mombasa is not one for the faint-hearted. Although not full of potholes, it is full of arseholes who drive like they are on pot. It is regarded as one of the most dangerous roads in the country due to hundreds of deaths that have occurred and is definitely the worst road Jules and I have been on, including all roads in Istanbul and Cairo – people overtaking five trucks at a time on a blind corner, with idiots behind them doing the same. A common occurrence is a slingshot overtaking manoeuvre where you overtake somebody and as you get back into your lane the guy overtaking behind you continues past you. If you hesitate because you can’t see if it is safe you will have 5 cars behind you overtaking at once, all using the power of guesswork to stay alive.

We stopped at Tsavo East, a spectacular game park with loads of red elephants coloured from the sand, including one with the biggest tusk I have seen on a live elephant – magnificent! We camped in a public campsite with no fences and Jules is convinced there was a lion below us in the night. I slept through all sorts of animal noises, so the experience was wasted on me. The next morning we saw a couple of young male lions hunting some warthogs. This was especially tense because we had 45 minutes left in the park before we had to pay for another day. They slowly stalked their prey with incredible grace, the warthogs completely oblivious, noses to the ground. We alternated between watching the lions, watching the warthogs and watching the clock. Long story short the lions got lazy, one of them not even bothering to chase the warthogs, the warthogs got away and we made it out in time.

From Mombasa we drove to Kilifi, camping in the parking lot of a backpackers called Distant Relatives with brilliant showers among tall bamboo trees. Other than that it is a typical backpackers. I enjoy Bob Marley, but I don’t need to have the reggae vibe thing going the whole time. I don’t need a bunch of guys on guitars showing their sensitive side to girls on their gap yah. I don’t need girls on their gap yah volunteering for an NGO and walking around in T-Shirts that say “Challenge Yourself to Change the World” outgooding each other (one NGO we have seen has optimistically been called “A Glimmer of Hope” – Eliminate Poverty, Illuminate Lives). One of the more memorable conversations overheard between the NGO Gap Yah Girls was “Did you hear that the main actor in Glee died?” (What is Glee you might ask? I don’t know either).

“How old was he?”

“Quite old – I think about 28”. I really didn’t need to hear that conversation.

From Kilifi we drove up the coast to Lamu, the land of the French Cowsay, via Watamu and Malindi. “What’s a French Cowsay?” I hear you ask, and I’m really glad you did. Le Moo. We camped in the driveway of a lodge called Barefoot Beach Camp, being charged a reasonable 400 Shillings each to camp there. What we didn’t realise is that they sprinkle gold dust in the fish soup because the next morning we were blind-sided by a sneaky 5,900 Shilling bill for lunch and some beers.

Lamu is an island just off the North Coast. It has only three cars – one for the governor, a tuc-tuc ambulance, and a bakkie for sick donkeys. We left our car on the mainland, trusting that it and everything inside would still be there when we got back and hopped on the ferry. The town is a UNESCO heritage site, although apparently on the verge of irreparable loss and damage due to insufficient management and development pressure. Apart from being quite dirty with loads of donkey poo all over the place, the town is full of character and we saw incredible houses when we went on a tour of the town. The people were generally quite friendly, and with the odd exception the touts and souvenir salesmen generally weren’t too pushy.

We went on a dhow trip to Manda Toto Island to do some fishing and have some lunch. When we got on the boat the captain told us that he had bought some fish in the highly unlikely event of none of us catching anything because fishing is a game and sometimes you win, but sometimes you lose. Jules was the only person to catch a fish (a 3cm long foul-hooked fish is still a fish) but was unable to celebrate because along with rules like “Buffalo”, “No Smugness”, although quite a recent addition, is very much in play. For the unitiated, Buffalo is when you have to drink with your left hand, otherwise you have to down your drink, a house rule that is always in effect. “Buffaloes and Wildebeests” is an optional alternative – alternating drinking hand every half hour.

On the boat trip we were treated to a spectacular lunch of coral fish, coconut rice and curried vegetables cooked in coconut milk, all cooked over a charcoal braai on the boat. To prepare the coconut our chef used the most over-engineered kitchen implement I have ever seen – a carved wooden fold-up chair with a coconut-scraping attachment built into the end.

On the way back from Lamu we were stopped at one of the numerous police check-points on the road. We have heard about the possibility of being subjected to police corruption, but generally they have been quite friendly, and only occasionally want to see things like driving licenses and insurance papers. The police woman at this checkpoint wanted something else. “Where are you coming from?”

“Lamu, but we have driven from London to Kenya”

“Where are you going?”

“Back to Nairobi, then to the Masai Mara”

“Let me look first at myself (Bends over to see that she looks ok in our side mirror). Ok you can go”.

We did the trip from Lamu back to Nairobi over 2 days, stopping again at the backpackers in Kilifi – different sensitive guitarists, same NGO Gap Yah Girls. Early the next morning we donned our brown trousers and left for a marathon 9 hour drive of close shaves, Jules lifting her feet up to brace herself and blocking her ears while breathing in deeply and me dropping the not so occasional expletive and quite probably causing a few expletives.

From here we bankrupt ourselves to hopefully watch some Gnu’s get chomped by Lions and Crocs in the Masai Mara.

Turkana Route Done – Kenya Believe It

In Omorate we bought some diesel on the black market as we still had some Birr left over. This was syphoned from a 44 gallon drum into a watering can and then poured into the beast by the local child labour. We then had our carnets and passports stamped without any real problems (Wendy turned the carnet guy around by offering him a sweet when he started complaining about us all having “Moyale or Omorate” as our point of departure in the carnet instead of just “Omorate”).

To cross the border into Kenya we turned off the main road onto a nondescript dirt road. Soon after that we came across a village with a small school and a man flagging us down for a chat. He was fuming because the car in front hadn’t stopped to talk to him so next time he will take down their details and report them because he is the school headmaster and we must tell them that. Check the worry in my eyes!

The bikers had gone to watch a bull-jumping ceremony so we made plans to meet up with them just across the border the following day. We camped in a dry river bed along the shore of Lake Turkana and became reality television for a bunch of locals who arrived with little wooden chairs, put them down in the shade of a tree near the cars and then proceeded to watch us, later moving to near our fire area when we started preparing supper. Out came the tables and fold-up chairs, a box wine, stainless steel cups and knives and forks. Wendy made a cabbage salad and Jules and I made a risotto. Chris and Ellen prepared some tilapia they had bought earlier. Jules went back to the car to fetch some salt. She came back from the car. She then put the salt in the pot. Are you bored yet? I’m not surprised. Finally the kids who had come to watch the faranjis lost interest as well and started to play a game of “Throw stones at birds flying past”. A couple of close shaves, but by the end of the game it was birds 1, children 0.

Early the next morning the children from the village were back to watch our morning movements, although unfortunately this was before we could do our morning movements. I tried to distract them so Jules could go for a wee, discovering that binoculars are the most amazing thing ever invented. It didn’t take long for them to work out that trying to look through them from the front blocks the other guy’s view and can lead to a shove from a bigger kid.

Chris (from Chris and Ellen) brought out a chess set and the two of us played an intense game with plenty of spectators while we waited for the bikers. Jules tried to show some of the kids how to do “Biggles” glasses with their hands over their faces (If you don’t know what that is, see guy on left of attached photo – ignore the guy on the right because he was absolutely useless, although his inability to do “Biggles” was extremely funny for the other children, so he was allowed to stay).

The road became incredibly rocky and in some of the steeper parts it was quite tough on the bikes, especially for Chris (from Chris, Archie and Archie) as he was worryingly experiencing a problem with his engine that had supposedly been fixed in Addis. Chris (from Chris and Julie) also had a worrying problem when the gear lever moved backwards and forwards without changing gear. It turns out that our repair in Addis had caused a bigger sounding problem. Fortunately this was easily repairable and we were on our way without causing too much stress.

We had left-over goat pasta, cooked by Archie (from Archie, Archie and Chris), in his signature sauce – Red. Red is bolognaise with garlic (if you have any), onions (if you have any), herbs (if you have any) and tomatoes (if you have any). Failing that you can use tomato paste (our favourite brand can be found in most Ethiopian shops – Chilly Willy).

Jules had a heart attack when she felt something tapping the bottom of her foot while she was eating her goat and Red. Lifting her foot she discovered a hole big enough for the world’s largest, scariest snake, complete with eyes and head belonging to the world’s cutest little mouse.

On the fourth night we camped right next to the lake in Sibiloi National Park, with Hippos, Crocs, Tsesebe and Hyenas all paying us a visit.

In a town called Loyongalani we stayed at a campsite called Palm Shades, moving away from the staple diet of Red or Two-Minute Noodles for lunch to have some jelly with left-over mangos which we had made a couple of nights earlier. The campsite wasn’t too bad, but we were hassled a bit in the village by the usual personal shop assistants. That night we settled down to a night of cards, Ice Cold Beers and Red for supper.

The next day we did a marathon drive to Maralal on the worst road we have ever been on. If a sane person had witnessed this they would have called the car equivalent of Childline and the beast would have ended up in a foster home. On our way to Baragoi in South Horr we saw truck-loads of police with AK-47’s. This was the area we had been most concerned about because of a history of bandit activity. Last year over 30 police officers were killed in an ambush in an operation to recover livestock. Fortunately we made it through without any security issues, although the beast selfishly added a new sound to its repertoire of generally intermittent unfamiliar sounds and smells that conspire to turn our imagination against us. Normally the sound turns out to be something innocuous like jerry cans on the roof rubbing against each other, and the smell is usually from the battered old taxi or truck in front of us, but this sounded like a wheel was going to come off every time we went over a bump.

We stayed at a campsite called Camel Camp, too shattered to even light the huge pile of free firewood the manager had organised for us for a bonfire. The bikers religiously stuck to their diet of Red while Jules and I treated ourselves to goat stew, the only item on offer in the restaurant.

The next day we drove to Gilgil to stay with Julie’s cousin Tim and his girlfriend Mikhaila for a couple of days, being treated by them on our first night to a meal of Spaghetti and Red (“hehe – good joke Chris”, says Mikhaila, “but what you aren’t telling them is that Tim cooked it on his own, and he used loads of ingredients, including Real Beef Mince, something you and Julie haven’t seen since Cairo and it was bloody tasty, and I saw you help yourself to another spoonful later on in the evening when you thought nobody was looking).