Border Crossing - Sand River
Leaving Tanzania through the closed border crossing between the Serengeti and the Mara was not a problem, as the senior customs official at Park HQ at Seronera had written a letter on our behalf. However, we had no such letter at the Kenyan entry point, and when we got there we found only a police post - no customs or immigration staff. We managed to secure a stamp in our Carnet, but as for visas and passport stamps, these would have to be acquired in Nairobi. Thus we were technically illegal aliens for a day or so, but thankfully this was no difficulty. On arrival at Nairobi the next day, we could not make the main immigration point at Neri House on Kenyatta St as it closed at 1530, thus we went to the international airport. Once there, we explained that we crossed at Sand River and there did not appear to be any problem with this. Airport immigration staff stamped our passports immediately.
The Tanzanian border post was 12 km or so from the Sand River that denotes the physical border between Kenya and Tanzania. Either side of the river were large herds of migrating wildebeest and associated ungulates. Whether they had chosen this crossing point as there was little water in the river is unknown, so on this occasion we did not witness any dramatic crossings. But in the eastern Mara, columns of wildebeest herds stretched for miles, which was quite a sight.
The vegetation in the Mara was quite different from that of the Serengeti, more rolling hills and grasslands - explained by the constant rainfall and the higher elevation. There are numerous luxury lodges throughout the Mara and we called into the oldest (Keerokot) for refreshments. On the lawns they had a mature warthog (called Lamb Chop!), who was very friendly- behaving a bit like an oversized dog.
We headed west through the southern half of the Masai Mara, via the hippo pools and the Mara River. Further north, was came across two dozen or more safari vehicles crammed on to a small bank, crowding to see a few hapless wildebeest cross the river, with the waiting crocs and hippo to liven up proceedings. Compared to the Serengeti, this was a shock. There are so many mass tourist, zebra painted Kombi vans herding around a sighting, it spoils the beauty of the place. The animals were not daft, they were playing their usual extended waiting game, so we did not stop.
The roads in the Mara can be quite tricky, especially after rain and we found a few damp spots near the rivers. Camping is possible at each Park gate and we were heading for the Ololuo Gate, which is the most western.
Although the density of animals was not quite the same as further south, and the majority of migrating animals were in the eastern half of the park, there was still a wide variety in the west. As we drove to the park gate we spotted a serval, a sleek, small cat with a beautifully distinctive coat. A very shy animal, as soon as the camera was brought to bear, it disappeared into the long grasses.
Camping at the gate was not as we had imagined. The gate house was a new structure, manned by park staff and the camping was literally on the grass beside the building. The toilet facilities were welcome, but the endless passing safari traffic was somewhat irritating. We felt was much photographed as the park animals!
As we transited back through the park, to exit towards Narok, we saw a hunting cheetah. It was quite a sight, but sadly the chase was always just over the hillcrest, preventing quality viewing or photographs. We were able to watch for a while, but the safari hordes descended on the animal like vultures, causing her disturbance, so she called off her chase.
We were told the Narok road is better than the western access road, which was true up to a point. The track out from the park is OK, and it eventually becomes a fine tarmac road. But around Narok the tar disintegrates and is in quite poor condition. Climbing the rift escarpment before Nairobi was quite dramatic. Nairobi traffic is an absolute nightmare!
A Massive Thank You
Whilst in Nairobi, we were staying with some friends, David and Sonja, whom we cannot thank enough. Not only were we hosted royally; through Davidís organisation we were able to assemble an excellent itinerary whilst in Kenya, facilitate flights back to UK (Adrian had to be in UK for the final week in July) sort Daph's growing list of minor ailments, and catch up on our emails/communications. On the day we planned to leave and head for Richard Bonhamís place in the Chuylu Hills, Daph's clutch failed. It appeared that we had lost all our clutch fluid (Daph has an hydraulic clutch), though to this day we do not know where the fluid went - as there was no evidence of it underneath Daph, and her performance was fine the previous day. Though of course this delayed us, as we eventually had to fit a new clutch, we were extremely glad it had happened at David and Sonja's rather than in some remote area. We ended up at CMC Motors (for speed), whom efficiently replaced the clutch plate, master and slave clutch cylinders (the clutch fluid had leaked into the bell housing, causing slippage on the clutch plate) and the rear half shafts were also replaced (due to 'backlash').
We visited a local school (in the Ngong Hills), which had been built through support from the British Army and volunteers, to see how the pupils were developing and to take some supplies and gifts from British schools.
Many of the 300 pupils walk for 2 hours to reach the school, which starts at 7.30am. They are given a meal at lunchtime, in part due to a food aid programme, but as yet there was no water supply in the village or school. The head teacher, a Maasai, explained that the community had raised some funds and had built a water tank, and they hoped the borehole would be sunk in the next few months. We were struck by how happy the pupils were and how enthusiastically they took to their lessons - even maths!
David and Daphne Sheldrick set up an orphanage in Nairobi, mainly for elephants, though there are currently rhino there as well. It took many years to get the milk formula right, and much heartbreak. There were five baby elephants when we visited. The keepers are rotated in order to prevent any calf becoming dependent on one person (in case that person leaves) and they sleep with the babies in order to provide security. Baby elephants need emotional support just as much as physical support, and if they are not happy then they will not thrive. Those that we saw all appeared to be enjoying life, and were behaving very cheekily to their keepers. They have a successful rehabilitation programme, reintroducing young adults to the wild in Tsavo. Not only do the British Army supply milk substitutes (flown in by British Airways) to the elephants, keen observers will notice the BA cabin blanket warming the elephant in the picture!
Following our mechanical problems, David and Sonja asked us if we would like to join them in Lamu for 4 days, as one of the couples who had booked had dropped out at the last minute. We decided to go for a little rest and relaxation, and were very glad that we did. Lamu reminded us of our trip to Zanzibar, though Lamu is a far more relaxed, intimate and friendly place. The annual dhow race on our second day is an island event, to which everyone came out to watch.
Lamu Island lies on Kenya's coast, just 2 degrees below the equator. There has been human settlement in this area for around a thousand years. The buildings in the centre of Lamu date from the 1700s, and there is evidence of earlier settlements in the surrounding area.
The traders in Lamu exported mangroves, oil seeds, grains, ivory, cowries and tortoise shell. The dhows brought back oriental silks, spices and porcelin from Arabia and India. We found blue and white porcelin on the beach at Shela. The Sultan of Oman built the fort in around 1820. The town declined towards the close of the last century. The people of Lamu are Muslim, and most of the women wear the veil, or bui bui, in public. We were very careful to ensure that we were properly dressed when we left the hotel to visit the town.
As in Zanzibar, many of the houses have large carved doors. The mosques in Lamu do not have minarets, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between these buildings and private houses. Many of the buildings have distinctive coral walls - coral reefs protect the island from the Indian oceans, and the material is used for buildings as it is porous, but very hard.
We had a tour round Lamu, and had the opportunity to look round one of the houses. Outside the front door there were two bench seats, where people could meet without entering the house. One of the reasons for this was to provide a place where men could meet without entering the house (they were not supposed to mix with women, who would have been inside the house). Beyond the carved wooden door there was a large courtyard with a tree which was taller than the building itself. The accommodation was arranged on 4 floors, the fourth being a rooftop area. There was a well in the courtyard, and a bath and sit down toilet, and a plunge pool in addition. From the age of 7, brothers and sisters had to be separated, and so there were 3 galleries for sleeping - on one side the boys, in the middle the parents and on the other the girls. There were carved wall niches in the galleries, where various possessions were both stored and displayed. In times gone by, the Arabs used to keep catfish in their baths so they would eat any mosquito larvae and thus act as early antimalarial agents.
There are no cars on Lamu, and the people are very gentle - the island has not been spoilt by tourism - this was one of the differences we noticed between Lamu and Zanzibar. Wherever we walked people greeted us, but did not push their services on us. The atmosphere was pleasant, and we felt safe walking in the evening. We stayed in the Kijani House Hotel, overlooking the entrance to Shela harbour. The rooms were well appointed and clean, and the food on the set menu was superb.
At low tide, an amazing beach is left. An Italian Count has built a striking, yet incongrent mock castle on the edge of Shela village, much to the disquiet of the locals, for an astonishing sum, little of which has benefited the community.
Aberdare National Park
On the edge of the rift valley, around 100km from Nairobi, the Aberdare National Park is described as 'the most exciting of Kenya's parks' due to its intrinsic beauty and the wide diversity of flora and fauna within a variety of habitats. The western slopes of the range are principally part of the Rift wall, affording steep slopes not conducive for game, although the moorlands possess stunning waterfalls and views. The lower and warmer 'Treetops salient' still has steeply-sloped forest ridges with fast flowing trout streams, but this area is stocked with wildlife, many specific to the Aberdares. The water run-off from the mountains (and Mount Kenya) is critical for the provision of drinking water for Nairobi.
We were fortunate to be staying at the private Rhino Retreat, a 3 bedroom cottage (built by British Royal Engineers in 1993 as an aid project) secluded in the hills above the Ark and controlled by the 'Rhino Art' charity. Rhino Ark is a fund raising initiative to benefit the local communities around the Aberdares, through fence and forest management, and the creation of wildlife sanctuaries - notably for the rhino as its name suggests (the charity has a website - www.rhinoark.org). The Retreat has its own waterhole, with an almost constant stream of animals, in particular 3 bull elephants, herds of buffalo and bushbuck.
We were unsurprised when one bull elephant charged the drinking buffalo, who were sharing the waterhole. He lowered his head and tusks in the charge, but at the last minute, he raised his head so as not to gore the buffalo. Interestingly, the buffalo did not run far, appeared unperturbed and kept trying to come back to drink.
We visited the Ark; inside it looks like a ship, with decks and small cabins. At one end there is a balcony (on the B deck) overlooking a large waterhole which is lit up at night. The restaurant overlooks the waterhole on the lower of the 3 decks. Interestingly there was a hanging table on which food was being put out for the birds to eat. Many of the guests were waiting with their cameras to take pictures as the birds ate. We noted that in Botswana feeding animals, fish or birds has now been forbidden in the parks!
During most of our game drives, the low cloud and mist (a frustrating feature throughout our stay) precluded major game sightings, yet we were lucky enough to see several colobus monkeys, although at some distance. Unfortunately we did not see any rhino on this visit, or the renound 'bongo' or sitatunga - maybe next time! We had a wonderfully peaceful couple of days, as it was especially good to be able to watch elephants so closely.
Aberdare Country Club
As we left the Retreat, again in the clouds and mist, we headed north to Nanyuki, passing en-route the Aberdares Country Club. The attractive house and grounds afford an excellent view across the Laikipia plains below.
At last we are on the equator - this means we are half way to the UK! The equator is marked across the road just below Nanyuki, and has numerous craft stalls with the ever-present persistent youths demanding your money - it's not a place to dally!
Mount Kenya Safari Club
We decided to spoil ourselves with some serious indulgence at Mount Kenya Safari Club (MKSC), an exclusive country club, run by the Lonrho chain, situated on the equator, on the lower slopes of Mount Kenya itself. The club is reported to been established by a Texan Oil baron, a Swiss millionaire and film star William Holden. There is certainly a colonial feel to the place, with stunning views over the mountain, manicured lawns and gardens (complete with the 'Millennium Maze' - a copy of Hampton Court Maze!) and ornamental ponds. For the sportsmen, there is the full range of tennis, bowling, a golf course, a heated swimming pool (on the equator!) and horse riding facilities - not to mention trips up the mountain.
Attached to the MKSC is an Animal Orphanage, which is linked to the William Holden Wildlife Foundation nearby (the Foundation educates young Kenyans on their country's flora and fauna). Young James took us around and introduced us to the elusive Bongo, more colobus monkeys, white (wide-mouthed, square lipped) rhino and the pigmy hippo (this last animal from Liberia!). There was a giant tortoise which was 140 years old and expected to live for another 160 years. We also saw a suni, which is a fairly rare antelope the size of a hare. The suni is being bred in the orphanage in order to repopulate the slopes of Mount Kenya.
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy
We were very privileged to have an invite to stay at Lewa Downs, a private game ranch that has become a leading light within eco-tourism circles. On 10 Aug, Rory Bremner (the British comedian), a long time supporter of Lewa, wrote a very positive article for the Daily Telegraph travel supplement, extolling the Lewa community projects and the wildlife protection at Lewa. We can only echo Rory's fine words, for within the first 5-10 minutes of our game drive, we had seen both black and white rhino, elephant, scores of ungulates, including the Grevy's zebra and Masai giraffe. Within the swamp area, we saw our first sitatunga.
The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (LWC) was set up in 1995, by the Craig family. In order to protect the wildlife, the 45,000 acre area has a perimeter fence, with one monitored entrance to allow for seasonal migratory movements to the northern frontier regions. The LWC has more than 25% of the world population of Grevy's zebra, 32 black rhino and 34 white rhino, which are monitored on a daily basis. There are various animal research projects taking place, and the information gained from these will influence future animal management throughout Kenya. LWC is also supporting community development projects where profits are returned to the community. In order to control poaching, LWC works together with the Kenya Wildlife Service. It aims to develop the preservation of wildlife together with the local communities, integrating conservation with the prosperity of these communities, and educating the people in the preservation of indigenous wild animals. Lewa has an excellent website at www.lewa.org.
Lake Baringo, situated beneath the Laikipia escarpment, is the northernmost lake within the rift valley, and is freshwater, thus has crocodile and hippo. We stayed at Roberts Camp on the banks of Lake Baringo. There were toilets and hot showers, and a restaurant, where we ate that evening. It was very hot, in fact almost stifling during the night. There was an island in the middle of the lake, with a camp, and there are boat trips for people wishing to visit the island.
On our way to Nakuru we visited the second northern rift valley lake (formerly known as Lake Hannington), which is in a national park. Due to the soda content, the lake attracts thousands of flamingoes.
There were numerous hot springs and streams around Lake Bogoria, and a strong sulphurous smell. The water was boiling as it emerged from the ground, and it was difficult to get near enough to take pictures. We drove along the edge of the lake to Fig Tree Campsite, where we ate our lunch, then went cross country to Lake Nakuru National Park.
Lake Nakuru is renowned for the 2 million or so flamingoes which give the lake a pink tinge when seen from above. The view from Baboon Cliffs provides a wonderful panorama over the lake.
Lake Nakuru is an established National Park, with a wide variety of game, notable black and white rhino, which are protected. Interestingly, a number of lions had to be culled within the park due to overpopulation, which led to lions attacking rangers.
Nakuru is only 140km northwest of Nairobi, but due to the roads this journey takes over 3 hours. We camped at the southernmost campsite, beside Makalia Falls. Facilities were basic, but the location was very pleasant, with impala grazing nearby. The following day, we returned to Nairobi, visiting en route Lake Naivasha, and driving up the rift valley escarpment with its stunning views (which cannot be fully appreciated due to the manic drivers on the main road).
For our final push north, we travelled up the Rift Valley near Nyahururu (which used to be Thompson Falls and offers a splendid view down the rift valley) and onto Maralal, via Rumuruti. Rumuruti denotes the start of the barren northern Kenya and also the start of the gravel road. Our original intention was to cross into Ethiopia via Banya Fort (on the eastern side of Lake Turkana), but local advice suggested this would not be too clever due to current situation in the Sudan. This was a shame as Sibiloi NP in the area of Banya Fort is where Richard Leakey found a wealth of archaeological evidence of man's existence in the area dating back 3.4 thousand years ago.
The road north from Rumuruti was dusty but in good condition, and we arrived at Maralal from Nairobi (Yare Safari Campsite) just before dark. The area is well known for camel safaris and the annual camel race, although sadly no sponsor could be found for 2002. We were told the campsite and bar was a lively place, but not so on this occasion - the only thing missing in Maralal was the tumble weed rolling down the street. Still, the following day we refuelled and headed north for Loyangalani, on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana. Shortly before Baragoi, the scenery changed as we dropped off a pine clad mountainous ridge down to a lunar landscape of solidified lava rocks on the desert floor. Although Loyangalani is not a long way, the track is poor, very rocky and demands care in areas. Even so we dislodged the rear brake disk guard on Daph - not serious in a functional manner, but removal essential as the high pitched squeal of grinding metal on the wheel rim was too much to bear.
South Horr is a thriving Samburu community, where the warriors continue proudly wearing their traditional dress. South Horr represents the theoretical dividing line between Samburu and Turkana grazing areas - theoretical as even today there are physical tribal disputes over land. We also saw numerous camel herds, a number of dik diks and the gerenuk, which had for us up to now been a mythical creature in safari guidebooks. The gerenuk is an ungulate, with a distinctive long neck and pointy ears (the Spock of the 'grazer' world!) that has a greater grazing reach than a Giraffe! Grevy's zebra are also supposed to be found here, but their numbers are declining due to competition over grazing land with domestic animals and we failed to see any.
Lake Turkana (the Jade Sea) is quite impressive, but the light and shimmer prevented a quality photograph for us. Loyangalani is another semi-forgotten town. The Turkana build low oval rondavals, which lent the village an air of a shanty town. Again our vehicle was mobbed by the people, but this time demanding to know the location of the supply ship? What supply ship (and from where?). There are 2 camps at Loyangalani, the posh Oasis Lodge and El Molo camping, which used to be a lodge, but had long fallen into disrepair. However, the camping rate was very reasonable and a hot shower was possible. Also staying were some researchers from the Nairobi Museum, travelling to North Horr the following day (in a another Land Rover) to study the local diet and identify nutritional rates and disease. For us, the chance to follow someone who knew the way was too good to miss - in deed the driver came from Maralal and was one of Wilfred Thesiger's drivers whilst he lived at Maralal (Thesiger's Kenyan home).
We were glad of a guide to North Horr, for the route was less than obvious and our map coverage on northern Kenya was poor (practically ineffective) and the only waypoint we held was for an eco-lodge at Kalacha, our destination after North Horr. They guided us to the Catholic Mission (and Father Graham from Germany) in North Horr. The church was rather incongruous - it was a massive stone building with a plastic sail-like fascia over its steeple. Father Graham was very hospitable and took in the lost sheep, gave us water and allowed us to make a sketch map of his excellent wall map. He suggested that the crossing of the Chalbi Desert was the better route to Kalacha in preference to the stony track on the map and recommended the desert route onto Marsabit, from where we would have to tackle the dreaded corrugations of the infamous Marsabit-Moyale road the following day, if we wanted to go to Ethiopia.
His advice was spot-on and we loved the Chalbi. The sand crust was firm and the track clearly defined. The heat haze and camels in the distance leant an air of space and enormity. We found Kalacha oasis and village easily, but despite possessing the GPS coords for the eco-lodge, it was so well hidden, not sign-posted and the locals were oblivious to its existence - so much for eco-tourism! Once found, it was a haven amid the harsh surroundings. Our original booking was for almost a week prior to our actual arrival, so when we turned up and said who we were, the face of the local staff lit up - they were obviously relieved to know we were not lost in the desert!
We spoke to a couple just leaving the lodge and travelling around northern Kenya on a motorcycle and despite looking like something from Mad Max, they were charming and very helpful. Having the place to ourselves was so peaceful and relaxing for the few hours, before a young male and female walked out from the edge of the oasis and requested rooms. In fact, there were 3 post-graduate researchers travelling back to Ethiopia, avoiding the Marsabit-Moyale road by travelling across from Loyangalani, NE to Moyale via the Huri mountains, which only left the last 70 km of the main road to complete the journey.
Such an option was too good to pass up, so we invited ourselves along. Stuart, who was running an NGO project on the Ethiopian Wolf in the Bale Mountains, had travelled the route before and had GPS coords for the trip. Alistair had examined competition between grazing domestic and wildlife in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia, and was equally familiar with the environment. Thus we had a very pleasant and steady trip through the twisting tracks of the Huri Mountains and desert scrub and opted to bush camp just short of the main road. This saved us a day's travel and the worst part of the bad road. We arrived at the Ethiopian border at 1030 hrs the following morning (having avoided the military escort from Marsabit). It is true the road is unpleasant, but the final stretch was not really a problem, it was good graded gravel road, dry for us and the corrugations were not that severe. However we were glad to reach the mills of Moyale.
Maps and Directions
We used our 'Illustrated Road Atlas of Africa', the Collins Tourist Map for Kenya and Tanzania, and the Footprint Handbook 2000 for East Africa. Most tar roads were in a poor state, some apalling and the signposting left something to be desired. However the campsites and National Parks were well marked, both to the site, and within. We had available a number of specific park maps, which were excellent.
We thoroughly enjoyed Kenya, especially as we had friends living there who helped us enormously. The people are warm and friendly across the country; being able to follow the migration from Tanzania to Kenya was special; our Lamu excursion an exquisite delight and the privileged safari we enjoyed up-country probably colours our judgement. We have noted the cost of living has increased in East Africa (above that of southern Africa), although the entrance fees into the Game Parks are less. Nairobi is an acquired taste; the pollution is very bad; the traffic awful and there are numerous aid organisations and the UN African HQ based in Nairobi compound the traffic problems, which when added to the fact that Catherine caught pneumonia the day she arrived in Nairobi, it is true to say we preferred the countryside.Top of the Page