This Week in Africa…Kenya-Part 2 (Sept/Oct 2019)

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With our new friends, Lemi & Victor.

After a peaceful night in Hurri Hills, the northernmost point of our African adventure, we woke up to a stunning landscape. We enjoyed a coffee while gazing at the remnant volcanoes surrounding us then got ready to begin the drive south….Oh right, we had a busted radiator fan.

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You may recall from Kenya – Part 1 that the day before arriving to this beautiful, desolate place in far north Kenya, we were attacked…by a rock that broke all the blades of the radiator fan. Fortunately it was cool outside. Unfortunately we had to drive 50 mi (80 km) on a dirt road before reaching the main road and then drive 70 more miles (112 km) to get to the first sizeable town.  

The road down the hill was really just a dirt track for motos which explained why the two motos we passed seemed super shocked we were there. We slowly made our way down the rocky track constantly checking Wily’s temperature gauge and being extra careful not to hit any more rocks. Finally at the bottom of the hill, we drove through flat desert, passing a few locals herding camels across the barren, dusty landscape, presumably to somewhere with water and vegetation many miles away. It’s always amazing to see people living in such harsh environments.  

After 4 hours, and only 50 miles, we finally hit the pavement. Whoa! The new tarmac of the two-lane road felt like heaven. We got to the town of Marsabit an hour later and were amazed we’d made it the whole 120 mi (193 km) without overheating! We had the radiator fan replaced, had some other minor, rock-related damage repaired, and in two days were on the road again. 

As we continued south, the landscape became more beautiful. We drove through more rocky desert but the mountains started coming into view in the distance. After the end of a long driving day, we bush camped behind a very cute cafe. The manager not only let us use the cafe bathroom, she also let us sit in the cafe for hours and use the wifi. And besides all of this and it being free, we could see the peaks of Mount Kenya from our roof-top tent!

We’d hoped to do a 4-day hike to summit Mount Kenya, the highest mountain in Kenya and the second-highest in Africa (after Kilimanjaro) but the weather didn’t cooperate. During the two days we were in the area, the entire region was covered by storm clouds which completely engulfed Mount Kenya each afternoon. Oh well, next time. Instead, we drove through the Borana Wildlife Conservancy to visit the Nikijabe Overlook. Sitting on a rock jetting out over the valley, we looked back over the desert we’d passed through the days before. It was stunning! And while driving through the conservancy lands, we had a free safari and saw rhinos…a mother and her baby. So cool!

After a last, longing gaze at Mount Kenya, we continued the road, crossing the equator (again) and driving back into the Rift Valley to Mount Longonot National Park. We did an awesome hike around the rim of the huge Longonot Crater and ended the day at Lake Naivasha where we watched the sunset with hippos and fish eagles.

We then drove to Nairobi. We likely would have avoided this busy capitol city but since we wanted to stay in Kenya longer, we had to go to the Kenyan Revenue Office to extend the temporary import permit allowing Wily to stay in the country. It was a simple but frustratingly-slow process but after a few hours of forms and waiting, we got the extension. 

From Nairobi, we continued south to explore the area along the Tanzanian border. The road along the border was super corrugated and the savannah was dry but it was cool to be in another sparsely-populated, seemingly remote area. At the end of the day, we found a wild camp between the bushes. While watching the sunset over the distant mountains, we wondered “are there lions here?”

Within minutes of parking, we saw a guy walking towards us, seemingly out of nowhere. Lemi, a young Maasai herder, welcomed us warmly and invited us to camp on his land. We spent the evening with him and his brother Victor. There were five or six other herders in this group, all of whom came over to say hello, but only the brothers spoke English. They proudly showed us their cattle corralled in temporary pens made from interwoven branches and explained that they had to be penned each night to protect them from lions (that answered that question). Victor then told us the story behind the large, scarification on Lemi’s upper arm. It was the badge of a warrior. He’d killed a lion, by himself and with a spear. The brothers told us the story of the hunt, emphasizing the lion had been killed only because it killed one of their cows, and once a lion kills a cow, it will return for more. After the hunt, they had a ceremony honoring the lion. According to Victor, Lemi became a celebrity afterwards and was (and still is) sought after by all the local ladies.  

Before saying farewell the next morning, we shared breakfast (fresh cow’s milk and some pieces of freshly-cooked beef from the brothers and coffee and fresh fruit from us) and shared more stories. Similar to our experience with Victor and Dennis, the Maasai brothers we’d met a few weeks earlier (see Kenya – Part 1), spending time with Lemi and Victor and learning more about the Maasai culture was a really special and amazing experience.  

We then drove along the northern fenceline just outside Amboseli National Park. Besides the giraffes, gazelles, and zebras we saw during our free safari, we got our first views of Mount Kilimanjaro! We could only see a bit of the top peeking out from above the clouds but it was cool to get a glimpse of Africa’s highest peak. Along the road, we also met a Maasai woman selling jewelry. She was wrapped in colorful fabrics and wore layers of beaded necklaces, bracelets and earrings. While talking to her, I got the chance to get a close look at this beautifully adorned woman. We bought some bracelets and we continued to the main road.   

Back on the pavement, we took a stretch break. As we got started again, we heard a horrible noise. The radiator fan blades had broken again. We hadn’t hit any rocks or any huge potholes so why would it break? And, this fan was only a week old! WTF?! We’d planned to head to the coast but now had to return to Nairobi. We picked up the pieces of the broken fan and continued, confident that like before, we could drive some distance with just stubs left on the fan. Not this time. After less than an hour, the engine overheated. After letting it cool, we continued the 120 mi (192 km) back to Nairobi with the windows down and the heater on full blast. It was f—ing hot (Africa hot). 

In Nairobi, we got another new radiator fan (apparently the previous one was crap), got new shocks, and hit the road. This time we went north to Lamu. 

Given its proximity to Somalia and the ongoing political and social unrest in that country, there were conflicting reports regarding the safety of driving to this part of northern Kenya. Thankfully the number of reports saying it was safe out-numbered the reports saying otherwise, so we went. And we’re so glad we did. 

Lamu City is a small, predominantly Muslim town located on the tropical island of Lamu. The town is known for its maze of narrow alleyways, absence of cars, interesting architecture and laid back attitude. Lamu Old Town is inscribed on the World Heritage List as “the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa.” The town dates back to the 12th century and due to its history in trading gold, spices, and slaves, is a melting pot of different cultures with Arabic, Persian, Indian, European, and Swahili traditions on display in the town’s Architecture [1]. 

After arriving to the small, busy dock, we crammed ourselves into a wooden boat loaded with locals and cargo. During the 35-minute ride, we met Mohamed and became fast friends. That evening, he took us around town. He was like the mayor of Lamu; everyone knew and loved him. And I can see why. He had a sweet demeanor and a genuine smile. He toured us through the narrow streets to some of his favorite food stands and treated us to dinner: a mixed plate of veggie, bean and rice dishes for me and a plate of chips and fresh fish for Mathieu. It was a great first night in Lamu. 

The next day, Mohamed took us to his sister’s house for lunch. Maimuna was known for her cooking. We were greeted warmly by her, her kids, her brother, his wife and their kids. We  chatted for a bit, then sat down to eat. Maimuna prepared a traditional lunch of fried fish, rice, potato curry, cooked greens, pap (maize porridge), and fresh banana and watermelon. They put a tablecloth on the floor and laid all the dishes down. We sat cross-legged around the food and ate with our hands. It was delicious and messy and wonderful. It was so cool that this family who didn’t know us welcomed us so warmly into their home. By the time we left, we were absolutely stuffed (they kept insisting we eat more) and we were friends.

We spent the rest of the afternoon with Mohamed touring through the maze of narrow streets, trying to avoid being run over by donkeys (cars are prohibited on the island), then walking to Shela Beach on the southern end of the island. Despite the gray weather, the beach was stunning: white sand, clear blue water, huge sand dunes, and no development for miles except an old historic fort.   

While in Lamu, Mathieu and I also explored by ourselves, walking along the waterfront lined with wooden fishing boats and dhows (traditional sailing vessels), through the central market piled with colorful produce, past some of the town’s 23 mosques, and visiting some of the small shops where we bought some beautiful, colorful fabrics. We also admired the intricately carved doors of the old stone houses. These carvings, a very important aspect of Swahili architecture, tell the story of the rich history of trade that once flourished between the Indian, Arabian and East African coast [2]. While many were neglected, they were still spectacular. Along with being amazed by the historic wood doors, we were constantly amazed by the people. They were so warm and welcoming. Nearly everyone we crossed on the narrow streets said hello and smiled. There was such a wonderful atmosphere that we stayed a day longer just to bask in the warmth of this lovely place.   

After four days, it was time to move on. I was a bit anxious during the boat ride back to the mainland. We’d left Wily at the dock with a random guy who said he was a guard. But the truck was there, as was the guard, and all was good. We then drove back the way we’d come, driving through the lush, rolling hills dotted with coconut and pineapple trees. On the way to Lamu, we saw a very cool chameleon, who changed from mottled brown to bright green within minutes, and now on the way back, we saw giraffes. It never gets old! 

On our way south to cross into Tanzania, we drove through Tsavo West National Park. Since the national road to the border goes through the park, we had a free safari! We saw some familiar friends: giraffe, buffalo, zebra, hartebeest, etc… and met a new friend…a monitor lizard. This was a first for us both. We watched him for a long time until he finally ran under the truck and to the other side of the road. He was so cool to see! As we continued south through the park, we also Mount Kilimanjaro again. This time, the top was engulfed in clouds but we could see the massive base of the volcanic cone. It was a great end to our Kenyan adventure.

I’ll let the pictures and videos illustrate the beauty of the landscapes and people of Kenya.

Enjoy!

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