Stories

 

Kenya


From the 18th of February to the 26th of March, 2016

For the first time, I was about to step on the African continent. A land and a way of life I pictured to be brut but rich. More than ever, I was ready to discover this amazing part of the world.

With over two weeks to kill before the container arrival, we decided to enjoy the coastal area with a first stop in Mtwapa, a pretty boring dusty village, apparently favoured by german sex tourists. Further north, Watamu is a touristy area where mostly Italians are spending their holidays in all-inclusive resorts. The coast of Kenya is influenced by the mix of Arabs and Africans giving birth to the Swahili culture stretching from Somalia to the north of Tanzania. A few kilometers away from Watamu, the Gede ruins is one of the most important Swahili historical site of the coast. The remains of the trading village dating from the 12th century are hidden in a beautiful forest with centuries old baobabs. Mosques, palaces and tombs are nowadays the playground of a monkey gang. In the surrounding forest, we had a glimpse of some golden rumped elephant shrew running away from us. This miniature elephant (approx. 25 cm) appears to be extremely shy.

    

Packed in a matatu (shared mini-van, the most popular mode of public transport), we made our way back to Mombasa. The old town, Fort Jesus (built during portuguese times) and the abandoned houses falling in pieces are nowadays part of the Muslim quarter. An interesting architectural and cultural mix. After nearly 3 weeks backpacking, it was about time we would get Hyundi back. Solomon, our agent in Mombasa port took care of the logistical and administration part of the process. Finally we were called to the container opening and the customs inspection before to find our freedom back. At dawn, we took the ferry to the southern mainland and reached Tiwi beach. It was only the following morning that we discovered this little piece of paradise. Beach, palm trees, azure lagoon and monkey for our entertainment. What else could we ask for...?

    

In order to avoid the Mombasa traffic, we decided to drive through the Shimba hills. 100 kilometers of dirt road in typical rural kenya before reaching the Mombasa-Nairobi highway. Along the road, women and girls were balancing water containers on their heads while men were busy preparing the fields for the next seedling. By the look of the locals while crossing some villages, we could tell that cars were not the most common way of transport.

Due to a mechanical issue, we decided to spend the night near Voi in order to visit a mechanic on Monday morning. Located at the border of Tsavo West National Park, we camped at the Red Elephant Lodge overlooking the national park. As we arrived, three elephants covered in red mud walked past us on their way to a water pond. Further away, dozens of elephants were grazing in the savannah. Such a peaceful place. In the morning, impalas, antelopes and elephants grazed a few meters away from us. Some bandits ran from one hiding point to the next while watching their backs, as if they had just committed a crime. Baboons of course ... What an amazing moment!

    

After spending the morning at the mechanic, we made our way to the Taita Hills. Within a few kilometers, the landscape became greener and the vegetation denser. Terrace agriculture covered the valleys and the mountains slopes. Being short of time to find a safe and quite place before dark, we decided to camp roadside near some houses. A woman walking past stopped in amazement of our gasoline stove. She invited me to come over to her house in order to discover her way of living and meet her family. Her step-parents were honored to have a muzungu (foreigner) at home. To my eyes, they appear to live in an extremely basic environment. While introducing me to his cow giving them daily milk and a donkey to carry the water from the river, I could see how proud he was from his heritage. On my way back, I discovered a group of kids hanging around the van and some drunken guys on the lookout for an extra bottle of whisky. In the morning, the children came back with their siblings who missed the evening show...

      

As if overtaking on the Mombasa-Nairobi highway wasn't risky enough, driving on the left side of the road with a European car (left hand drive) required some teamwork. As we gained more and more altitude climbing the nairobian highlands, Hyundi behaved more and more sluggish. At our campsite in Nairobi, Raphael tried to find the cause of the problem, but the situation worsens. There was no more fuel reaching the engine and therefore Hyundi wouldn't even start anymore. Chris, the campsite owner (and mechanic) helped us rebooting the system, but it was only after we changed the diesel filter that the issue seemed to be solved.

At the foot of Mount Kenya, kilometers of wheat fields are owned by white Kenians (mainly british originated) while the locals are left with the roadsides and less accessible pieces of land. On a dirt road leading to a national park, some kids jumped in front of our car and started to make a little dance. Looking into their eyes, I saw desperation. While traveling in poor countries I am often time facing begging street kids and I always find it hard to know what to do. Giving them money would only encourage them to ask for more and therefore increasing their vulnerability and the chances of someone taking advantage of them. At the same time, how can one feel comfortable letting a kid starve to death knowing a lunch meal in a hoteli (local canteen) cost only 50 cents when you are about to pay 70 USD to enter the national park ? Sadly, this is one of the country's contradiction.

    

At a cross road, someone pointed out to the steam and drizzle coming out of the hood. The cooling system was boiling and we had already lost 4 liters of coolant. After letting the engine cool down overnight, we managed to drive to Meru (30 km away) making regular stops to prevent overheating. The thermostat was dead and the cooling water wouldn't circulate anymore. The bad news was, that we would probably not be able to find a replacement. But the mechanic affirmed that we could simply remove it and the system would permanently be cooling. Euh, why did we invent thermostat then?

In Nyahururu, we were generously hosted by the Saint Pauls Ngaindeithia church. Paul, the priest, first insisted on hosting us in one of the guest room but after discovering our comfortable house on wheel, he accepted to let us sleep in our car. In Kenya, not only the wild life is being hunted. Barely out of the car to admire the Thompson Falls, we got caught by locals on the lookout for customers. A woman : "When your are finished, come see my shop, it's free!" A man : "look at my chameleons!" A Masai : "a photo?"It was rather difficult to enjoy the show on our own!

    

Since our arrival in Kenya, we decided to slow our pace. 3-4 hours driving per day, which means 100-150 kilometers. A goal which we could hardly reach. The roads were challenging us as much as Hyundi. Today we had a short journey in perspective. Seventy kilometers, about 2 hours to Nakuru. Halfway, when forced to break hard to avoid a particularly deep pothole, we were alarmed by a sharp metallic bang. After losing a brake pad in Oman, the brake disc has gone into pieces! At this very moment, James, a friend we met the day before at the church recognized us while overtaking us. And as coincidence wanted it to be, he turned out to be a car guy! At the speed of a tortoise, we drove the 25 kilometers to Naivasha. James escorted us to a mechanic and took the situation in hand. With the broken disk as a sample, he went from one shop to the other while we stayed with the vehicle. In our misfortune, we were lucky enough to be in the second city of Kenya, increasing our chances to find a new disk and maybe even a new thermostat. But for the latter we had to wait over the week-end. It was 7:30pm when we left the garage and once more we reached the camp after nightfall, totally exhausted !

Due to the water level rise, most of the flamingoes fled the lake Nakuru shore. In addition, the hot springs are now sunken under water. Instead of visiting the national park, we spent a few days in the area, enjoying the cooler climate of the Merengai Crater overlooking the city and the lake. While driving on the terrible dirt road leading to the viewpoint, we encountered a new mechanical issue. The first gear couldn't be engaged anymore and there was a new suspicious noise coming from the breaks. Here we were with our fifth visit to a mechanic in less than 2 weeks the car is in Kenya. Luckily, it was just some rubber bushings to be changed on the gearbox levers and the wheel hub to be tighten. It was probably not tightened enough by the last mechanic in UAE... By the same occasion, we found the new thermostat and installed it ourselves. Will we finally be able to drive a few kilometers without having to visit a mechanic?

    

At lake Baringo, we stayed at a camping located by the shore of the lake. Dead trees standing in the water are showing how much the water level has risen. A few meters away from the shore, a few hippos were spying on us before hiding underwater. Crocodiles were enjoying their sunbath while the local kids were having fun in the water. The monkeys were waiting for the right moment to steal a snack from our kitchen. This place is also a bird's paradise. Some kind of toucans enjoyed looking at their reflection in the car mirrors. A fish eagle and his youngster were enjoying the view from their high perched nest while huge marabous were inspecting the horizon from the dead trees. We went out on a boat trip to have a closer look of the crocodiles as well as birds such as cormorants, different types of kingfishers, herons, and more. On an island, we discovered the boiling water of a hot spring coming out of the ground. Up before sunrise, we had the nice surprise to see the hippos taking care of the loans a few meters away from the van. As soon as the moon light gave way to the first sign of daylight, they silently disappeared into the lake waters.

On our way to the Ugandan border, we crossed a few mountains. At an elevation of 2200 meters, the entrance of the Iten village was marked by a banner "Welcome to the home of Champions". This is where the famous Kenyan marathonians are emerging. At 10 a.m., a few groups reached the village out of breath. Running, is their hope for a better life. Yesterday 35km, today 15km and tomorrow sprints. A training program mentored by retired athletes. Witnessing such hope and determination in their eyes was really touching.

    

About 20 kilometers before the border, the tarmac gave way to a dirt road leading through a remote rural area. The traditional mud huts took over more and more. We spent our last night in Kenya at the border police station, with the officers and their families, surrounded by some chickens, goats, donkeys and dogs.

After the easiness and the freedom which Oman offered, it took me a few days adjusting to the African rhythm. The first two week without vehicle and therefore having to negotiate hard for hotel rooms, restaurants and local transports were particularly exhausting. Having a bunch of touts fighting over pretty much each cent we spent was really annoying. But all this hassle vanished as soon as we gained our freedom back by having our own vehicle. Apart from the touristy area, the people were very friendly and happy to have a chat without necessarily having any financial interest in us. The level of English spoken in Kenya definitely helped. From the youngest to the oldest, from the rural to the metropolitan areas, everyone speaks English! Here, the ones doing business are the women. Men are only good to spend the money in booze... After the lack of contact with women and kids in Oman, I was happy to deal with my siblings again. As bargaining is part of the tradition, it is always done with a smile and some fun. Security wise, we never felt in danger but by precaution, we listened to locals and other overlanders and mostly stayed in camping or secured area. Landscapes were way more varied than I expected. Actually I was picturing the country to be mostly dry, but I was fare from reality. Landscapes are often times very green, with trees, bush or swamps. They are very lucky to have a fertile soil allowing them to grow cereals, fruits and vegetables. For over a month, I eat an incredible amount of mangoes, avocados and pineapples.

Click here to read the following story about our journey in amazing Uganda.

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