As I left the office, I saw a huge black cloud descend over Nairobi. Yes, perfectly timed for Friday rush hour. Now I am not sure whether Nairobian’s handling of rain has ever come up in a previous blog posting. But the basic point is, Nairobians do not handle rain. Traffic, which you think could not get any worse, does. And so it is against this backdrop that I decided to take my first long distance matatu ride in Kenya.
Here are the pluses and minuses of long distance matatu rides:
- Positive: Its cheap (I paid €4 for what turned out to be a 4 hour ride)
- Negative: Matatus are speed constrained in Nairobi due to the traffic. This is not the case once they get out.
- Positive: You can get a matatu directly to nearly anywhere from Nairobi.
- Negative: There are still 14 seats – and now you are squished for a much more substantial period of time.
Being the last person to board the matatu, I got the worst seat in the whole van (middle front row), as there is no leg room (yes, even for people with short legs like myself). Further to that, the lady next to me was carrying a huge sack of yams. Usually, such large luggage would command you to buy an extra seat. But this lady seemed to think that using three quarters of mine was sufficient. The man next to me evidently did not have a good day at work. And I was soaked as I had missed making it into the matatu by a full 2 mins before it started to pour.
However, thankfully, there seems to be a silent code of comfortableness associated with riding a matatu. This code dictates that you are able to assume any position to make your ride more comfortable, and no one will tell you off. So that is how grumpy man found himself leaning against my shoulder and women’s yam bag became my footrest at the points where I had to get the blood circulating again in my feet. The same code dictates that when old man in the back left corner of the matatu decides to use the opportunity of a traffic jam to get out of the matatu to relieve himself at the side of the road, you still have to wait for him once the traffic starts moving again (and due to his seating position the logistics getting him in and out of the matatu were quite intricate).
Fast forward 4 hours and I am in Nanyuki (with only very little blood circulation in my legs), which is in central Kenya at the foot of Mount Kenya. I came for the weekend to visit my friend and to see the mountain. Unfortunately, due to thick cloud cover, this was the view I got of the mountain over the whole weekend:
(yes, supposedly Africa’s second highest mountain is right there)
However, insetad we decided to drive to Northern Kenya and go to Samburu National Park. We stopped on the way in a town called Isiolo for a breakfast of fried eggs and mandazi (a Kenyan type of donut).
Samburu National Park is famous as it was the home of Elsa the lioness (Born Free was one of my favourite films as a child):
That National Park is very different from other national parks I have been to so far due to its incredible landscape:
As we arrived at the national park, we decided that we would take a guide with us, in particular to track lions. The lady at the entrance of the park told us that all the rangers seemed to be out, but she said that she could call around and see if she could find whether any one who was free. And lo and behold, two phone calls later Jacob walked out and we all piled into the car and were set to go on safari.
Now, looking back at the situation there were signs that we should have evidently taken more seriously. It started off with my friend, who is an avid bird watcher, pointing at some birds, which make up part of the stunning bird population in Samburu, and asking Jacob what they were. Jacob informed us that they were birds. Well, clearly. When we asked him to elaborate slightly, he told us that he was on training and had not got to that part of the course yet. We forgave him and drove on.
He then redeemed himself by “seeing” elephants on the horizon and so we drove towards that direction and indeed there were elephants. Seeing elephants in the wild is absolutely phenomenal:
We later found out that you are guaranteed to see elephants in that particular spot, so retrospectively it is quite probable that Jacob did not “see” anything.
Either way we drove on, Jacob frequently texting on the phone and speaking to his friends, whilst, we were taking in Samburu’s amazing animal life. Samburu has a very particular collection of animals, including a super stripy zebra:
Like other national parks, Samburu also has its collection of giraffes. Another friend asked Jacob which type of giraffe it was. Jacob replied “Its a giraffe.” Genius. So my friend proceeded to explain that there are three types of giraffe in Kenya and she wanted to know which one it was. Apparently Jacob had not reached that part of his training yet either. (For those interested, the Giraffe in Samburu National Park are Reticulated Giraffe):
At this point we were becoming very suspect of whether Jacob was indeed attending his ranger lessons. This was further compounded when he was not able to tell us how to differentiate between a male and a female waterbuck. However, the final straw came, when I was driving and stuck in the mud (yup, my first offroad driving experience). So whilst I was trying to remember what I had been taught about those situations during my driving training (at this point I would like to thank the OEAMTC for their Fahrsicherheitstraining course), I was slipping and sliding towards a big stone. So we asked Jacob if he could move the stone out of the way. He agreed and got out of the car into the mud. In flip-flops. Now I am not sure the last time you saw a ranger in flip-flops, but to us this was very strange. I managed to safely manoeuvre the car out of the mud (big pat on the back for myself) and we decided to go back to the entrance to see whether we could get another ranger, as Jacob was evidently not interested, and we had not seen any lions yet.
When we got back to the entrance, we went to complain that Jacob did not seem to know anything but also he did not seem interested. At this point, the oh so helpful lady informed us that we had been driving around for the past four hours with the tea boy. Yes, that is correct. They could not find another ranger, so they gave the tea boy a coat and sent him with us, thinking we would not be able to tell the difference.
We then did get a real ranger, Josephat. He was clad in hat, coat and with a rifle AND (as a moral of the story, if you want to avoid having the tea boy as your ranger), he was wearing boots.
Josephat was great. Really informative. But unfortunately, it was now too late in the day to see the lions (although I am sure if we had Joesphat with us from the time we started the safari, we would have). However, instead of seeing lions, we instead saw what was the highlight for me: the mating dance of the resident Somali Ostriches:
My friend described the scene with the ostriches and their puffed out chests and plumes “like going to a club in Naiorbi.” I agree – its amazing how the animal kingdom is so similar in so many ways.
The next day we spent in Nanyuki. What struck me straight away about Nanyuki was that it is the probably the place with the highest concentration of obnoxiously loud Churches. I was woken up at 7am by pastors from four churches in the vicinity, shouting into their megaphones, competing with each other for their congregations attention. There was a lot of mention of hell and damnation. Now, I feel that it is slightly unfair to a congregation that has got up early on a Sunday morning and is being shouted at to be threatened with damnation for their sins. I feel their efforts should provide them with eternal salvation. But that is just me.
We spent lunch and the afternoon at the art centre and trust in Nanyuki, which is a beautiful and serene place. The Lily Pond has some resident artists but also displays wonderful art from artists around the region. And it gains its name from the amazingly beautiful Lily Pond at the back.
This is definitely a secret tip, as it is too new to be featured in the lastest edition of Lonely Planet. Therefore I would definitely recommend it if you ever go to Central Kenya.
As a last anecdote to the end of my trip I take you to the equator, which runs through Nanyuki.
(Unfortunately we were there on the 20th of March a day before the spring equinox and therefore were not able to test out whether on the 21st of March you do not have a shadow on the equator. Perhaps I will make a trip for the autumnal equinox to test this theory. Watch this space.)
At the sign, there are a lot of curio shops and people looking for business of course. And so a woman came up to us and asked whether we would like to see the water experiment. I politely declined and said that I had already seen it being done on the equator in the Uganda. She looked at me, very surprised, and asked “Uganda has an equator as well?” So I explained to her that, yes indeed it did and that in fact the equator went around the world. Probably the next tourists will now receive that insightful piece of information as part of their introduction to the equator.
Note: The full album of photos from this trip posted on my Facebook. If you would like the link, please let me know and I will send it on to you.