Nairobi and Safari

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Entering Nairobi
I had been very fortunate not having had much rain at all throughout my journey in Africa. The first time I remember being caught out was entering Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon when a heavy cloudburst drenched me and turned the red hard packed dirt into slime. I look back on it in retrospect smiling at the timing – what would be ideal conditions to enter a completely disorganised and confusing West African capital? What about in the pouring rain, at 5.30pm on a Friday evening? And throw in for good measure having no idea where I was going to find accommodation.

Now I was approaching Nairobi, one of THE most chaotic, sprawling, and congested cities in Africa. A steady drizzle had settled in making the road surface, presently dirt as a new road was under construction, treacherously slippery – the (no longer) hard shoulder a no go area – and the serious traffic started from twenty kilometres out. A steady stream of heavy trucks and vans from Mombassa on the coast were edging along this the busiest artery in the country. I had a vague idea my destination, Lavington, was a western suburb of the city, which meant traversing the city centre. Oh, and by this time it was 5.30pm. The radiator fan was working fulltime.

After about an hour of this I was entering the city. At traffic lights I asked the well dressed driver of a Mercedes, in his thirties, shaved head, open necked shirt and business suit, to point me in the direction of Lavington. “I’m going that direction,” he smiled back. “Follow me.”

What followed was a forty five minute car chase through the jammed roads of Nairobi, the Mercedes continuously weaving and threading its way into any possible gaps in attempts to progress, me in its wake trying to follow on my heavily loaded bike through the wet, rush hour city. Eventually, two hours after entering the outskirts, I found myself in the quiet and secure compound of Jungle Junction, a favoured stopping place among overland bikers on the Cape to Cairo route.

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Jungle Junction
JJ’s is owned by Cristof, a German married with his family, living in Africa eighteen years... and a BMW trained bike mechanic. Cris was a great source of advice and information, obviously on bikes, but also on Kenya, having travelled much of the country, including having biked solo up both sides of the remote Lake Turkana. He was also a charming and interesting host. Laughing and joking in French with a Belgium couple pausing on their way north in a Land Rover, he would switch his attention to me explaining with a wry smile why it would be easier to get a Sudan visa in Ethiopia rather than pay the extortionate ‘facilitation fee’ demanded by a certain official in the Nairobi embassy, and then chat in Swahili with his staff about some chore or other.

In his time Cris had also spent nearly ten years “in the aid business” in Africa, leaving him with quite a jaundiced view of NGO’S to say the least. “Ok, one of the biggest problems here is overpopulation,” he sighed. “And what is the West doing? Pumping resources into health care, keeping more people alive and living longer. The land can’t support all these people! Take all the aid away!”

As the only serious BMW trained mechanic between Paris and Pretoria, I was surprised BMW didn’t support his presence here. He needed a diagnostic machine, prohibitively expensive, that I would have thought BMW, in their own interests, would have helped him with. His experience was in demand – not only from us overland bikers passing through, but also obviously from more local needs. The following week he was to travel across to Uganda where the Queen was to visit the next Commonwealth meeting, and where a fleet of BMW cars were being lined up for the visiting dignitaries. Cris was to fit some kind of bullet proofing protection to the vehicles, and presumably was being handsomely rewarded.

When the necessary expertise is hard to find, the money can be good. “I got a call from Guerba – it’s a few years back now, when the Overland trucks were still crossing the Congo – asking me to help out. The driver had just ‘given up’ and left the truck and passengers sitting in Kisingani, on the Congo river,” he laughed. “They agreed to pay me £10,000 to get the truck out of there and over to Nairobi. With or without the passengers. When I arrived I told the passengers we were leaving at 4am the next morning. They weren’t too happy about that, saying they usually left at six. ‘Well I’ll see you when you catch up with me,’ I told them, ‘as I’ll probably be stuck in the mud before long.’ Of course they came with.” He grinned. “That was a mucky business getting the truck out. And slow. But I got it here.”

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He has a great setup – camping in the garden with the use of the bathroom, kitchen and living area in the house. And his workshop, where we were able to do some maintenance on our bikes. A metal support on Rene’s expensive Ohlins shock absorber had actually sheered. Fortunately he had a flight booked back to Cape Town to visit his girlfriend (“After two months of rain in Tanzania and Uganda – no fun – my enthusiasm is low. I need a recharge of my batteries”) and was planning to bring the shock to the Ohlins agent there for repair or replacement. It was less than a year old so was still under guarantee.

It was time for a full service on my bike – change oil; fuel, oil and air filter; spark plug; and check the valve clearance (which to my surprise still didn’t need adjustment after 33,000 kms in Africa), which I was able to do in comfort at JJ’s. I also replaced the 16 tooth with a 15 tooth drive sprocket to lower the gearing. A few weeks later Rene returned from South Africa with a new chain and rear sprocket for me which I fitted.

Four Road Warriors
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Along with mine, three other tents decorated the rain sodden garden of JJ’s. Big, bearded Ben with the permanent grin, a telecom technician for eight years in Northern Ireland, was on his way home after telling his mother two years earlier he was “off for a spin to Italy” on his KTM 640. He’d continued heading east across Asia, America and was now on his way north through Africa on the final leg.

Rene, a gentle natured Canadian in his late thirties, after two years travelling through the Americas, was similarly on his way north
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from Cape Town, intending on shipping his bike from Djibouti to Yemen and Asia, to continue his planned seven year trip around the world. Rene was on a 2002 BMW F650 Dakar like mine.

Completing this band of two wheeled warriors at JJ’s was Earnest (pictured left) from Cape Town, who’d left his home town five months and 10,000 kms previously on his bicycle for Cairo. Us motorcyclists gave him respect. Though in his late forties, heavily bearded Earnest, understandably given the difference in riding practices, was in the best shape of all of us.

The ‘Nairobi Handshake’
Ben (not his real name) had been a few weeks in Nairobi and at about midnight after we watched Ireland narrowly beat Georgia in the Rugby World Cup, he dragged us along to one of his favourite haunts, Gypsies. We weren’t there long before realising that the friendliness and attention we were getting from the girls wasn’t because of our good looks. In fact it was verging on sexual harrassment! One brazen young lady by way of introduction dropped her hand to give me, what I was laughingly told later, a ‘Nairobi handshake’ – guaranteed to focus your attention (“Oh, hello. Nice to meet you too”). Politeness and humour only seemed to be an encouragement. (“How do I tell you I’m not interested in you? Can you help me here?”).

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I carried an image in my mind of a story Ben had told us of one night in Zambia, where he went home with a woman he’d met in a bar. “So we arrive into her one roomed shack, where her sister and kid were in the bed. Even though I was half cut, when I saw her pull a basin from under the bed, squat over it, and pull her torn black and red knickers aside, I lost all passion. But I had to spend the rest of the night there – it was a dicey part of town - until I could get a taxi in the morning!”

After a few too many beers, and before the alcohol weakened my resolve under the constant suggestive looks and ouvertures (yes, its tough), myself and Rene made our excuses and left, abandoning the other two at their table of admirers. At the post mortem the next day droll Earnest, hungover, off-handedly came out with the memorable line “I was lucky. Mine passed out in the taxi!”
It was interesting to meet Rene, not least as he was on the same year model bike as mine, but also as I had come across his website in my research and preparations for the trip, finding it useful. He had spent time researching the various modifications available for his F650 Dakar and after two years in South America had updated his comments on the usefulness of those extras.

Like myself Rene too travelled with an Apple iBook (same bike, Touratech tanks and panniers, helmet (Arai Tour-X), laptop, camera (Sony H9), and own website – who was copying who here!) but there the similarities ended. Rene was impressively thorough. He kept a spreadsheet on his spending - updated daily - divided into categories such as petrol, food, visas, internet, and… beer! There are times when I’d prefer not to know how much I (over)spent the previous night. Every morning at 6am Rene would detail his previous day’s spending, and could look back and tell me exactly what his expenses were per week, and per country. We found we spent approximately the same – I tried to limit my cash withdrawals from the ATM to about €400-500 a month which covered everything including petrol and visas, the two largest expense items.

Kenya Entry Procedures
Entering Tanzania on an Irish passport I hadn’t needed a visa. Disappointingly in Kenya I did - $50 - a change which had only been introduced a few weeks previously! (I had no real quibble – I’m sure Kenyans have a much harder time trying to visit Ireland.) At the Kenyan border the Customs also tried to collect a further $20 ‘road tax’ to which I objected. OK I was told, if I was exiting the country within seven days, my entry was then considered a ‘transit’. I opted for that. If however, I was informed sternly, I overstayed, I would be charged the full road tax plus a penalty of $1 for every day over. (Exiting the country over a month later I was stamped out with a friendly wave and no mention of it.) As for road insurance – I told the insurance agent trying to sell his policy that I had purchased Comesa insurance in Dar es Salaam which covers me for the next few countries I’d be travelling through. “But you also need to buy local insurance,” he persisted. I wasn’t going to fall for that one.

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Having foregone the opportunity to visit the Serengeti and Ngorogoro National Parks in Tanzania as they were beyond my budget, I signed up for a three day, two night deal to the Masai Mara in Kenya with Gametrackers, a safari company in Nairobi that had been recommended to me. The price of $300 all in I thought was justifiable.

The half day it took to get there was not so pleasant – most of the dirt road being severely weathered and potholed. Our vehicle was not unlike the open side overland trucks I used to drive, and as we were jolted and bumped around in the back I accepted that I was paying for my sins those years bouncing my passengers around in the back uncaringly.

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The passengers were quite diverse – first to announce herself was the extroverted large Canadian working in Nairobi, with her large visiting parents. In a brave but somewhat unsuccessful attempt to get all us strangers ‘bonding’, we were asked to introduce ourselves. There were two plump Czech girls with bright pink flesh from overexposure to the equatorial sun. And a mother and daughter from Israel - the very feminine, serene daughter Mai with an exquisite porcelain complexion, great figure and entrancing cleavage, who had just finished her spell in the army (her boyfriend was serving in the Golan Heights). A Polish couple in their fifties, keeping largely to themselves, were like a professional production crew – he, lean and wiry, had a serious battery of cameras, lenses and tripod and she, heavyset and authoritative, would direct him, instructing away in Polish down the truck, as to what to shoot. Each of the three days he had something different on his head – first a bush hat with the sides rolled up, the next a backwards baseball cap with ear flaps turned up, and the final day the coup de grace, an ‘urban chic’ red bandana.

David, a chirpy lad in his mid twenties from the North of England, had recently started with Diageo the multinational drinks company, and had just arrived in the country from Britain, a few days early for a training course so he could visit the Masai Mara. Having spent some time at the brewery in Nigeria he told me the strong Guinness there, 7.9%, was in fact closest to the original recipe from Arthur. I asked him was it my imagination that in neighboring Cameroon the Guinness tasted a tiny bit sweeter (though just as strong!) than Nigeria. I wasn’t imagining it, and he confirmed every brewery was slightly different. Stopped at the side of the road, the cook had prepared lunch for us. “I was warned
under no circumstances to eat salad here,” grinned David sheepishly as he tucked into the tasty pasta salad. “And its only my first day in the country!” On the return, stopped at a huge tourist trap craft market in the middle of nowhere, he paid $3 for a 50c bar of Cadburys (“It wouldn’t cost that much in Piccadilly Circus!”) which he then claimed “tasted funny”. I was reminded of a dodgy bar of Nestles on a train in Mozambique.

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Masai Mara
The visit to the Masai Mara was in my books a great success. Though it may come across to some less a wilderness and more a huge unfenced theme park or zoo, what we witnessed was a broad range of African wildlife living fairly close I imagine to their natural habitat.

Browsing my scrawled diary the scenes come back to me: an extended family of a dozen elephants lumbering in slow motion across the yellow grassed plains, shifting their great bulk along in a ponderous – though it looked slow they made steady progress - but strangely rhythmic gait... Clicking away from the safety of the truck at the angry lone buffalo eyeballing us with intent... Getting out and picking our way along the bank of the Mara river (the Tanzanian border) under the hot sun, hippos and a crocodile basking on the far bank, a pervading putrid stench hanging in the air. A closer look at the river revealed bloated bodies of decomposing wildebeest caught in various grotesque positions on rocks, rapids and branches in the current – drowned in the attempted annual migration... Watching a single male lion, powerfully built with fine mane, in a steady lope across the plain, before settling in the part shade of a bare tree and rock...
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Yes, and of course the wildebeest – there are millions of them – who at this time of year migrate south to the Serengeti in Tanzania which borders the Masai Mara. Spread all over the plains, in herds of thousands, when spooked they would bolt, swinging their big bushy, horned heads down and around towards the direction of flight and gallop off hind legs kicking up, moving all together like a wave, before just as quickly settling to graze once more.

And most breathtaking of all, the truck roaring across bumpy, untracked ground - an armed park warden on board had given us permission - to where the guide had caught sight of three cheetahs chasing an unseen prey. (The georgeous) Mai generously pushed her binoculars into my hands and I saw the classic chase, three cheetahs flashing through the grass being turned one way then another before easing up, the quarry having made its escape. When we arrived on the scene, these lean, delicate looking cats went padding past ignoring our presence, tongues lolling out panting from the exertion, and slumped down in the shade of a thicket. Cheetahs, the fastest animal on earth at over 100kph, can only keep up that effort over short distances and are successful only one out of five attempts.

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The constant presence of other safari vehicles – Land Cruisers, or more usually mini vans with raised roof allowing the passengers to stand and photograph the animals - reminded you we weren't in the wilderness, this was a major international tourist destination. The second afternoon we came upon a cluster of these vehicles, which of course sent out a visual signal to every other vehicle in sight including ours, to get on over here for something special. From the fringe of the circus we spotted what the focus of attention was - a lion and lioness lying together. What we tourists didn't know, and the guides did, was that about every ten or fifteen minutes the lions would mate. As the female prostrated herself announcing her readiness, the male, aroused, slowly got up to make his move. With that twenty Land Cruisers and minivans gunned their engines and leapt forward, jockeying for a front row seat. Nobly our driver resisted, abiding by the Park directive not to drive off the track. For less than twenty seconds it was a photo frenzy and then it was all over. I imagine there were many happy snappers reminding themselves to tip their guide well at the end of that day.

Which seemed to be the reason visitors were here. And despite my thrill at being in the African bush – I felt so comfortable, was ‘present’ in the wide open, bone dry brush stretching to low hills on the horizon; the heat diminishing in the late afternoon releasing faint smells of smoke, dung, earth - I too found myself caught up with the desire to capture something of it on camera. Impossible of course, and no doubt looking at the whole thing as a series of missed or captured photo opportunities determines the experience of being there. An older American woman on the truck unbelievably didn’t have a camera. She hadn’t lost or mistakenly left it anywhere, she had elected to come without one and smiled reassuringly when we protested (even slightly patronisingly) at this astonishing approach to visiting the Masai Mara. It was only towards the end of the three days, though delighted with this my first attempt at the clichéd area of wildlife photography, I began to understand her position.

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Ireland Out
The weekend I was ‘on safari’, Ireland were to play their deciding third pool game in the World Cup against France. It was an anxious time approaching the weekend as I desperately searched for somewhere that could record the match (would I have to cancel the safari?). I visited an Irish bar in the Karen area, they couldn’t record it, but met Emma there who gave me the phone number for DSTV, the satellite company broadcasting the game. Coincidentally, the man giving me directions outside another bar was a neighbor of the Irish Consul in Nairobi. I subsequently arranged to have the match recorded by the Irish consulate AND by a very understanding and cooperative Reuben on the other end of the phoneline in DSTV.

On my return from the Masai Mara, Cris inadvertently let it slip that we’d lost the game, and Googling the after match reports I was then too disheartened to go to the trouble of following up on my recording efforts. One consolation was that I wasn’t in Ireland, where there would be no escaping the sense of anguish and hair pulling, blame and retribution in the media after our great expectations. Another was that I hadn’t gone to the trouble another Irishman had gone to – Cris told me that in mid safari, this guy had driven the six hours back to Nairobi on the Friday evening, watched the game then driven back to join his wife, arriving early the next morning to continue the safari.

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On Guide Books
Another consolation was that while visiting the Irish bar in Karen, Simon, a Brit living in Canada had generously given me his Kenya Lonely Planet as he was returning home in a few days. He wouldn’t accept any payment ("No, you're very welcome. I just think Ireland is great!") It was the first Lonely Planet guidebook I had possessed – having had a strong resistance to them. My critiscisms were many – too trite and not enough background information; creating a well trammeled LP ‘circuit’ of accommodation, bar and restaurant options; relied upon as a ‘bible’ by many travelers with blinkers (a guide book, no matter how thorough, can only scratch the surface of a country. I myself am a strong believer in researching a country while visiting it, believing that adds so much depth, a wider experience, than a position of ignorance. But slavish dedication to the guidebook can act as a substitute for actually experiencing travel, which involves that exciting element of discovery and surprise.) I have to admit also to being irked by years of passengers whining “The Lonely Planet says…” – which in fairness is not the fault of LP! In fact none of the above objections are the fault of LP, they’re just writing for a market. And each guidebook is written by a different author, with his or her tastes and preferences. Anyway, a long way round to admitting that I was impressed with the Kenya LP, realising it’s enthusiastically written, well researched, and entertaining. It made me excited about travel in Kenya.

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