Kenya Travels

London and Paris, in order to induce their civil servants to go work in the colonies, created for those amenable to the idea a grand quality of life. A minor clerk from the post office in Manchester received upon arrival in Tanganyika (or Kenya) a villa with a garden and swimming pool, cars, servants, holidays in Europe, etc. Members of the colonial bureaucracy lived truly magnificently. And now, between one and the next, the inhabitants of the colony receive their independence. They take over the colonial state in an unaltered form. They even take great care not to alter anything, because such a state offers fantastic privileges, which its new administrators naturally do not wish to renounce. The colonial origins of the African state - a state wherein the civil servant received remuneration beyond all measure and reason - ensured that in independent Africa, the struggle for power instantly assumed an extremely fierce and ruthless character. All at once, in the blink of an eye, a new ruling class arises - a bureaucratic bourgeoisie that creates nothing, produces nothing, but merely governs the society and reaps the benefits.
- Ryszard Kapuscinski - The Shadow of the Sun

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Kenyan Politics
We were in the build up to an election campaign in the country. In the decades after Jomo Kenyatta led the country to independence in the sixties, corruption took a more and more dominating role in politics, resulting in the withdrawal of most international aid in the seventies and eighties under the notorious regime of Daniel Arap Moi. Today, he is reputed to be Africa’s wealthiest individual.

“Its like this,” sighed one ex-pat explaining the continuing frustration of corruption in Kenyan politics. “The people vote first for one of their own. From their tribe. Good or bad, they believe ‘he’s one of us.’ And he will look after them. It is accepted that a politician will use his position to look after his family, extended family, community, and constituency. In that order. And what’s more,” he continued, “there is little sense of national identity in this country because it is made up of so many different tribes – some with traditional rivalries that go back centuries. So who is the politician who is acting for the benefit of his country?”

Moi’s successor and present incumbent is President Kibaki, admired by many for confronting the endemic corruption, and who has presided over a period of relative stability and a recent growth in the economy. However his credibility, and his campaign, had been seriously damaged by the support given him by the Kenyatta and Moi families. “This is seen by a much better informed public now as consolidating family dynasties, protecting themselves from further investigation and prosecution,” I was told by a local guide who filled me in on the evolving situation.

Kibaki’s challenger is the populist Raila Odinga from the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) whose supporters are identified with the colour orange - orange banners, caps and t-shirts evident in many parts of the country. A few people I spoke with in the Eldoret and Kisumu region – his power base – spoke excitedly about their man, how he had broken away from the ‘old guard’ and promised a new beginning for Kenyan politics taking it away from the tribalism and corruption many voters associated it with. Though this message of ‘a new beginning’ is hardly a novel one in democratic elections all around the world, what couldn’t be denied was the enthusiasm and optimism around this man Raila that was going to shake up the system.

Our Ancestors
After overnighting in the dusty town of Gilgil four hours west of Nairobi, a short ride brought me to the site of the celebrated Dr Louis Leakey’s first archaeological excavations back in the 1920’s. In the field of Archaeology Louis, and his wife Mary, are legends, responsible for unearthing major archaeological finds in East Africa in the early part of the century.
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Significant discoveries were continued by their son Richard, who became director of the Kenya National Museum, and subsequently an influential conservationist. (Two other sons, Phillip who became a politician and Jonathan are also very involved in Kenya’s heritage.)

It was enthralling to see the stone tools where they were found in excavated pits ‘in situ’. The fairly basic museum in a wooden shed helpfully illustrated three phases of the evolution of man.

- Astrolopicus’ is the precursor to man from 3 million years ago, three examples of which have been found in Africa – one in South Africa, another in Tanzania, and the third more well known, ‘Lucy’ in Ethiopia. Large jaws indicated the diet of chewing plants.

- Next on the chain was
‘Homo Habilis’, or ‘Handyman’ – 1.5 million to 600,000 years ago. He fashioned a wide range of tools, particularly for digging the ground and for skinning animals. ‘Homo erectus’ though co-existing with his cousin ‘Habilis’ for a time had a larger brain and was more developed, using obsidian, or volcanic glass, for sharp cutting tools and axeheads.

- ‘Erectus’ had fire which enabled him to migrate north and survive in the cooler climate of Europe. While there he evolved into a ‘Neanderthal’. Which brings us to… “Homo Sapiens’ three hundred thousand years ago.

The excavation site is on the edge of the Rift Valley. The Rift Valley is understood to be the result of the African continent attempting to separate in two but failing, leaving a fissure or rupture running from Jordan in the Middle East down the Red Sea, through Ethiopia and the Great Lakes in Kenya and Tanzania terminating in Mozambique.

From this site of a pre-historic ‘stone tool factory’, tunnels into the white clay cliffs opposite could be seen, remains of quarrying for white clay, sediment from millennia of crustacean deposits on the floor of the lake, which had now shifted leaving the white clay exposed. It was now being mined for use in water filters.

After fifty kms of very bad rough road made all the worse from the heavy truck traffic throwing up a fog of dust – we were on the main road west from Nairobi towards Uganda – I arrived in the busy city of Nakuru. The market area was jammed with vendors, shoppers and porters pushing carts, making it very slow going trying to move through (despite my very loud exhaust which usually has the desired effect of clearing the way). There seemed to be a strong Muslim feel about the area, the pervasive muezzin call from the mosques calling the faithful to prayer, skull caps and robes on many men and the chador – the black cloak and veil for women covering all but the eyes – much in evidence.

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After arriving at Kembu Campsite, near N’joro about an hour away, I took a stroll, across the railway line and up through fields of golden wheat waist high ready for harvest. Stripping an ear to chew, the grains tasted deliciously nutty. Stands of maize rose three metres high. The landscape of rolling fields of wheat with the Rift escarpment as a backdrop in the distance was quite extraordinary how it resembled the English countryside (above).

Marveling at the bucolic scene, I noticed four lads running through the fields in my direction accompanied by a few wild looking dogs. I looked around for a lump of wood or rock in case it was needed. However it wasn’t me they were after, they were tracking an antelope they told me pausing to catch their breath. It brought me back sharply to where I was – Africa.

Kembu Campsite
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That evening I was invited over for dinner by Simon and Tamara, a lovely Swiss couple, traveling in a Land Rover. We had met in Nairobi and discovered we had both come down the West coast of Africa about the same time. They too were hoping to travel across North Africa on their way home, and we compared notes on the practicalities of obtaining a Libyan transit visa.

A Dragoman Overland truck had pulled in earlier and I chatted with Zoe, the trip leader, enjoying her quick wit and humour, and giving her full marks for her role. She did have a local cook and also an experienced guide with her, but did all the driving, and organizing, herself - typically the responsibility is shared with a co-driver. She was quite new to the game and I had to smile at the lengths she went to looking after the passengers, hoping they appreciated her efforts. (None of that mollycoddling in my time...) There was one candidate for getting burned out too quickly.

The ‘Colonials’
The beautifully tended, lush campsite was owned by Andrew and Sue Nightingale of British descent. Andrew, a stout, fair haired, talkative man in his mid thirties, and Sue his friendly wife, a stout, fair haired, talkative woman in her thirties lived next to the campsite with their fair haired, bright, confident children. The house, in Andrew’s family four generations (Sue was brought up in Uganda) was a replica Home Counties solid, stone farmhouse – black gabled, thatch roof, outbuildings enclosing the courtyard, surrounded by groves of willows and a carefully tended garden. The stables - sleek coated, handsome looking black horses could be seen being put through their paces - were down the lane.

Defiantly declaring their Kenyan nationality, the Nightingales had eschewed the chance to opt for a valued UK passport. Most ‘white Kenyans’ I was told held onto their British citizenship “just in case”, but as Andrew affirmed, “I couldn’t live in England – this is my home, this is where I was brought up. I don’t feel British.” A brave commitment. The family farm had been under threat of being ‘redistributed’ when in the seventies Jomo Kenyatta’s wife had it ‘gazetted’. Things didn’t look good but they took their case to the courts where fortunately for them they got a reputable judge to rule in their favour and the threat passed.

There is an image of old colonial Kenya I was curious about, did it still exist? Was there a separate 'colonials culture'? Were there still vast tracts of this fertile land, and bush, in settler’s hands? After independence in the sixties, the British government financed loans to local communities to assist them buy land owned by the white settlers. Most settlers sold up and got out. Those white Kenyans remaining in the country live with varying degrees of insecurity about what could happen to their farms, depending on the level of stability in the country.

Lord Delamere
Two family names associated with the colonial period that didn’t leave were Barclay and Delamere, who between them owned a vast amount of Kenya, and still do. I had ridden past part of Delamere’s estate in the richly fertile Naivasha region, their farm shop on the main road - the family name broadcasted boldly by a number of road signs on the approach - advertising fresh dairy produce. The present Lord Delamere, in his forties and a controversial figure in Kenyan society, was at the time in prison on a second murder charge.

I was filled in on the background by an ex-pat. “The first murder was a Kenya Wildlife Service officer investigating him for poaching. Delamere shot him, claiming the man was trespassing on his land.” He was imprisoned. The Kenyan government however were in an awkward position with the British government, who were not happy at one of their peers in prison. Delamere was released, which in turn caused an outcry from the press and the public. “An Inquiry was promised in six months, with the hope that would take some of the pressure off. I imagine the government were hoping the controversy would just blow over.” He smiled. “Then Delamere shot a second man! Claimed he was aiming for the dog, but shot the poacher dead instead.”

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…and ex-pat Brits
Invited into the courtyard for tea - strong, Andrew proudly declaring the milk “fresh and unpasteurised, straight from the cow” - I was introduced to an elderly couple, relations of Andrew visiting from England, here as part of their research into a book on the background of some of the two thousand donors to Kew Gardens over the centuries. A little later we were joined by two other English couples visiting for the weekend. The husbands were respectively Headmaster and Science master at St Andrews, an exclusive boarding school nearby.

I couldn't get past the smiling chit chat of the headmaster, a former Actuary, who perhaps because of the responsibility of his present position was accustomed to limited expressions of opinions or frankness. (Or maybe he wasn’t that interested in engaging with just ‘a motorcyclist’, Irish at that. Puzzled at this absence of curiosity - I’m so fascinating – I remembered afterwards his former profession, accepting that maybe he wasn’t so comfortable in social situations. Or maybe he just wasn’t feeling well?) It would have been interesting to hear him talk of his experience running an elite school in an ex-colony. I did learn the majority of the pupils were African or Indian, obviously from well-off families, the few whites offspring from colonials who remained on in the country, or diplomats’ kids.

The other teacher, a square shouldered forty year old, was a civil engineer before admirably changing course a few years back to become a teacher, taking quite a drop in salary. Robert was the Science master and was asking interested questions on my journey. Despite his initial English reticence – and presumably careful in the company of the headmaster – he in turn opened up a little about life as an ex-pat. He and his wife came out to Kenya after applying for and accepting his present position. It could have been anywhere else in the world. I gathered they were a little frustrated at their sheltered existence living in the house provided in the secure school grounds. “We get out and visit people some weekends, but I can’t say I know much of the country. Or how people live.” I understood from some comments he didn’t see this as a long term thing, preferring the idea of moving on to another country.

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Lake Turkana options
From my research into routes north to Ethiopia I understood Lake Turkana is both magnificent in its desolate landscape inhabited only by a few small tribes, and also quite inaccessible without large reserves of fuel, food and water – and a serious rough terrain capable vehicle. It is a four or five day expedition and, I had been informed, would need enough fuel for 1200 kms. My fuel range with the Touratech auxiliary tanks is about 900 kms on good roads at a steady speed. This terrain would be in turn rocky and sandy reducing progress down to first and second gears, doubling fuel consumption. The other problem was, traveling solo there was a serious risk if the bike had a problem, or if I got injured. It was a long way to walk for help!

I was strongly drawn to the idea of getting into Ethiopia via this little traveled route, and was investigating any possible options of doing it on my own. Andrew Nightingale had just spent six months in the area west of the lake as a liaison person with an Italian film company, shooting a film based on the experiences of an Eritrean girl soldier. (They were aiming to have the film released in February 2008 for the international month of the Child Soldier).

We poured over my maps discussing different options. The obvious one was to progress up the east side of the lake from Marilal through the settlements of South Horr and Loyangaleni and follow the lake shore north where there were tracks. However there was no fuel and little else in the way of supplies. The only way I could attempt this route was in the company of a 4x4 going the same way which could carry spare fuel and water for me. The other option which Andrew came up with and which excited me was to ride to the western side of the lake on an established road over the Marich Pass to Lokichar and Lodwal – on the road to Juba in southern Sudan - before cutting in to the lake shore to the settlement of Kalakol. From there it should be possible to put the bike on a Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) supply motor boat to cross the lake to Sibiloi, or possibly negotiate a price up to the head of the lake in Ethiopia. This appealed mainly because it meant I could do it solo. The down side was the unknowns – was there a boat willing to take me; how far up the lake would it go; and crucially – was it affordable. It could be two days on the lake, and that’s a lot of fuel, particularly in a place where it is at a premium. I was looking at at least a few hundred euro, so could only consider it if I could split the cost with another motorcyclist. Hmmm, how to find another overland motorcyclist interested in the Lake Turkana route!

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River Crossings
Heading north from Nakuru on a sealed road, the landscape became more mountainous and wilder. After the market village of Marigat, a section of road was washed away and the diversion a few hundred metres through the bush brought me to a fast flowing river, not too serious at about ten metres across, and a metre deep. Having encountered quite a bit of this in the Congo and Angola I was becoming a little more accustomed to the task of getting 300 kgs of bike and luggage across bodies of water – rivers or just flooded mud tracks. The practice had been if it was in any way deep or the river bed wasn’t clearly visible, to would walk it first feeling a way with my feet. In this way the depth could be checked, and any unpleasant surprises avoided such as a deep dip, or awkward boulders. Then it was a matter of walking the bike across in first gear, finger ready on the ‘Kill’ switch in case it fell over.

The air intake is about waist high on the Dakar, anything up to that depth is fine, but if the intake is submerged, THAT is bad news if the engine is running, as the water is sucked into the combusting cylinder. Hence the importance of killing the engine quickly if it is going under. A friend told me of an experience when his BMW was not only submerged, but washed away from him while attempting to cross a flooded river in Ethiopia. Managing to salvage it with a few locals a little further downstream, he was amazingly able to start it again! A great tribute to BMW’s then new EFI (Electronic Fuel Injection) unit.

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Lake Baringo
Part of the Rift Valley system of lakes strung along down the continent, Lake Baringo has a pink colour when first glimpsed from a distance, due to the concentration of minerals in the water remaining after centuries of evaporation. (Making coffee from the campsite water it was a while before I realised it wasn’t my aging coffee grounds that gave it the unpleasant salty taste!)

“Yeah, Lake Baringo has fallen a bit in popularity over the years,” explained Mark Archer, an Irishman, who managed the property. “It used to be
the place for weekend visits from Nairobi. See that island,” he squinted into the evening sun. “A friend of mine has an exclusive lodge over there that used to be booked out every weekend. Now its struggling. For the last few years they’ve butchered that main road which means it’s a real trek to get here.”

Set right on the lakeshore, mine was the only tent in the beautiful Roberts Camp. With some dismay I spotted a crocodile lying immobile twenty metres away at the water's edge, its eyes ominously vigilant. With an alarmingly swift movement, it slipped quickly into the lake when I very noisily made an approach. That night, watching Ireland lose their final World Cup match against France with Mark on his satellite TV, he got up to call in his dog. "I've lost two dogs this year already to the crocs," he mentioned off hand." Later, asleep in my tent I was awakened by the snuffling sound of a hippo tearing at some grass next to me. I had been warned it wasn't a good idea to leave the tent at night!

The water seemed at an unusually high level, lapping up to the edge of Mark’s house. His boat was actually tied onto the verandah. “I might have to evacuate the house if the level gets any higher,” he remarked with a worried look. “The seasons have been all over the place. For years the lake levels were that low the flamingos stopped coming, moving down the road to Lake Naivasha instead. Now with constant rain this year it’s getting too high!” Central and East Africa had experienced the effects of this weather pattern with floods causing major disruption. In neighboring Uganda roads, particularly in the north of the country, had been destroyed, bridges washed away and fields inundated.

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A boat ride on the lake at dawn was a memorable experience. Although not a bird watcher, even I couldn’t but be impressed with the variety pointed out by the expert guide. Pods of hippos wallowed in the reedy shallows. A fish eagle swooped magnificently to scoop up with his claws a fish from the surface (above). We came across a local fisherman in his one man canoe made of balsa, an extremely light wood, paddling with a small pad strapped on each hand.

Cork to Kenya
After renting out rehearsal studios in Dublin, then building up his Auctioneers business in Youghal, Mark had upped sticks a few years ago, bought an old Land Cruiser in Cape Town and headed north into the African interior with his wife and five kids and no particular plan. “We really didn’t know what we were letting ourselves in for,” he laughed. “It was tough at times, all of us crammed into the one car with our possessions. But it was an exciting time. A great experience.” Ending up in Kenya, he worked at a few things until three years ago taking over the management of this campsite in Lake Baringo. “I had no plans to settle here, its just how things worked out. And I’ve got very fond of it. I think I’m here for the longer term,” he smiled looking across the magnificent vista of the lake surrounded by mountains in the distance.

It was clear Mark was content here and it wasn’t difficult to understand why. I found myself wondering if this is a place
I could settle in. Pointing towards the east, Mark indicated a strip of green each side of the course of a river flowing into the lake. The shore was surprisingly barren in contrast. “The land is really fertile but it can’t be irrigated by the lake water which is too rich in minerals. It would burn any growth.” Mark was farming a little maize in that green belt, along with his friend and neighbor Jonathan Leakey, from the illustrious family.

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Mark told me of some other interesting projects he was involved in. He had formed a company with his accountant, “a switched on guy”, who’s brother held a Kenyan prospecting licence – at one time handed out to nearly anyone who applied, but now nearly impossible to get. As well as that, he and the accountant had teamed up with a well connected Sudanese entomologist(!) who happened to hold a prospecting licence for an area in South Sudan. Their company had attracted the interest of an Irish prospecting outfit, and they were now “all set to go ahead.” Oh, and another little enterprise was a transport company. They had bought a truck with the intention of running it to Juba in South Sudan. Mark was keen for a report from me on the road conditions in the north of Uganda, where I was intending to visit, as an alternative to the regular route, much corrugated, via Lodwar and the western Turkana basin to Juba.

An African 'Moment'
We were sitting with legs dangling over an escarpment, where Mark liked to come for a sundowner – we had a couple of Tuskers with us. In the evening light I couldn’t help but be drawn to the setting. This totally fitted an Africa of the imagination. Yellow glows from cooking fires were now visible below us near the lakeshore, the only sign of human presence in this elemental landscape of no fences – this warm earth, scrubby, parched and inhospitable which barely supported the herds of goats, neck bells tinkling, brought in to the ‘bomas’ every night against predators. A sheer rock cliff soared up behind, evidence of the Earth’s attempt at parting itself, its separated Siamese twin thirty miles across the basin.

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How to explain this vague sense of recognition? No that’s too strong, rather… the slightest shadow - a faint trace - of familiarity, of comfort? The theory that all humanity on some level shares a basic consciousness, or certainly a shared primordial memory, wasn’t difficult to accept. This was one of those occasional transcendental 'moments' of being part of where I was.