Thank you for reading thecheers.org's Travel articles.

KENYA - What more do you want?

 article about KENYA - What more do you want?
2005-05-24 05:53:13
All right, let's get it out in the open right from the start – I'm biased. I love Kenya, and I love Kenyans. In fact, if I ever meet the member of the American Embassy security staff who wrote an entry for an information website for potential expatriates which started with the words: "Most Kenyans smell and they can't speak English," I'll … well, he's probably bigger and tougher than me, so let's just leave it at that vague, uncommitted elision.

Said embassy drone and I obviously live in different countries. The Kenya I know is not really paradise on earth – except when it is. It is a place about which it is difficult to feel indifferent – I have known people who hated it from their first breath of its air when the aircraft doors opened. I was quite the opposite. Coming back into JKIA, and taking that first sniff of a scent that is not particularly identifiable, but very particularly Kenyan, is always a real delight. Having said that, I sometimes hate it for the same reasons that I love it. So this is going to be a relatively unfocussed ramble around my entirely personal feelings about the place. If you disagree, tough; go and get a job at the American Embassy.

The introduction to the guide book my sister brought out with her the first time she came to visit me a few years ago, started with the words: "Kenya is a country of contrasts." Although that particular book was wrong about many things, that opening statement is certainly true – it packs a lot of country into what is a relatively small piece of land. A tropical coast on the Indian Ocean, white sands fringed with palm trees; a stretch of harsh red desert that seems to go on forever; temperate green forests – and that's just what you pass through driving from Mombasa to Nairobi. Beautiful high grasslands, snow-capped mountains, harsh volcanic desert, savanna, tropical rainforest (if only a small one), rich cultivated farmland, some of the most stunningly beautiful lakes in the world, and the Great Rift Valley – what more do you want?

The villages, towns and cities range from the rudest of rude mud huts to the most modern of mirrored-glass skyscrapers. Some parts are as developed as anywhere in the western/northern world (it's easier to find an internet café here than it was in Nottingham in the UK, where we spent last summer), and some are undeveloped to a startling degree. Like so many cities in the developing world there is only a short journey from a lavish, air-conditioned apartment (US$2,000 a month and security tighter than the UN compound in Gigiri), to a shack made from old packing crates, sitting on a patch of mud with an open sewer running past the door.

It's a developing country. It's got a long way to go. It's getting there. Only an idiot would try to deny that Kenya is a country with problems. The new government has not brought the fundamental change that many hoped it would – maybe it will take the next one to do that. However, despite the restrictions being placed on it by other countries (we all know who I mean) investment is up, and there is a sense that things can get better, even if they haven't yet. The new Kenya Tourism Development Corporation is working hard to develop and promote tourism, a valuable source of revenue for Kenya, already regaining a lot of ground after several very lean years.

It's a country with a brief, but utterly fascinating history. And it is, despite the protests of many Kenyans, inevitably a history of colonial development. What can upset a lot of people is the fact that the British government didn't even want the place. The history of the country is, in large measure, the history of the railway. This left Mombasa in 1896, stopped long enough to found Nairobi in 1899 (and even Nairobi was built in the wrong place; I have a really good story about that, but it's totally meaningless to anyone who doesn't know Kenya – and, like all really good stories, risks giving offence if told in the wrong company), and reached the lake at Kisumu in 1901. The railway itself was built to get to Uganda as quickly as possible – and the British government didn't want Uganda either. What they did want was control of the source of the Nile, and they wanted it before the Germans could get too close. This is possibly the only time in history that the Germans didn't get their towels down at the side of an expanse of water before the British.



Uganda, and the East Africa Protectorate, later Kenya Colony, grew up along with the railway almost by accident. Fascinating people like Lord Delamere and Ewart Grogan, along with thousands of other tough settlers, were amongst those who took the chance offered to develop a ‘white man's country' in the lush, fertile and, at the time (and refusing to get drawn on current land-ownership disputes), sparsely inhabited central highlands. Nothing is ever that simple of course – I can only recommend that you read one of the many histories of the country to get the full story.

As a generalised statement, Kenyans really are extremely friendly. Yes, some of them are out to rip you off – but ever been to London during the tourist season? There are, like everywhere else, far more decent people than there are bad.

If you are going to come, pack a lot of patience … learn to relax – things will get done eventually (well, at the coast it can take eventually plus five minutes). It's not London, or New York; nor even Akron, or Colchester. Haraka haraka haina baraka, as they say around here.

There are so many places to write about that it's difficult to know where to start. Certain places are fixed in my heart for a variety of reasons. Obviously, one has to talk about the wild places at the heart of the country – the places where the hugeness of Africa can make one feel utterly insignificant. Places that I have found almost impossible to photograph, and even more impossible to forget. As I sit here I can, if I close my eyes, still clearly visualize my first view of Lake Turkana (the ‘Jade Sea') – a sight that took my breath away and eased every bone and joint aching from three hard day's driving. Get away from the towns, out into the open, and the vastness of the Kenyan sky can smack you stupid.

There are also more specific places: The Naro Moro River Lodge, with its tranquility, huge fireplaces, great food, and not forgetting the views of Mount Kenya; the Delamere Terrace at the Norfolk Hotel (absolutely the place for Saturday morning coffee when in Nairobi, my dear, and 100 years old last Christmas Day); the Jolly Roger in Karen, because my daughter likes to play on the peddle cars and the pirate ship; the Grand Kimwa in Kisumu, because it's just such a great place; Roasters, on Thika Road – just because. Sometimes I don't even know what the reason is: what actually is the appeal of the bar of The White Rhino in Nyeri?

Obviously the game parks and reserves are what many people come to Kenya to see. You can visit these on your own if you are feeling adventurous, or you can go with one of the innumerable safari companies. With these you pretty much get what you pay for. There are private game reserves and ranches that offer ‘eco-tours' for up to US$500 a night; safari companies that offer top-of-the-range, individualised tours, with a personal driver for the long-wheel-based Landrovers and a cook, that will make you feel that you are back in the good old days (mind you, if you can afford these people you are probably used to that feeling); and there are companies with one rickety Nissan mini-bus and a couple of ex-army tents. If you are not traveling with a company that sorts everything out for you (one of the best Nairobi based companies that will cover everything from slobbing out on Indian Ocean beaches, to all the game parks, to climbing Mount Kenya, is called Somak), then you have to exercise caution before committing yourself – check more than one company. One definite word of advice is to ignore all of the men who hang around outside The Stanley hotel, in the middle of Nairobi, clutching grubby leaflets.

A nice little driving circuit I sometimes do at a weekend, which gives a good little introduction to the country, is to leave Nairobi on a Friday afternoon and head north towards Nakuru. Friday night is spent at Lake Elementaita Lodge - a beautiful building converted from an old colonial farmhouse built by Lord Delamere's brother-in-law – wonderful views, and actually a good place to spend a few days unwinding.

After a morning in the Nakuru National Park (lots of flamingo on the lake if you're lucky) turn up the hill towards Gilgil at Nakuru (take the road to the left of the Kunste Hotel, which does nice lunches, but is a bit run down). The drive to Nyahururu is beautiful, winding up into the hills – and, if you believe the signs, you cross the equator into the northern hemisphere twice.



Saturday night can be spent at Thompson Falls Lodge – nice big fireplaces for when it's cold (this is the highest town in the country), good, if basic food, and a nice friendly bar. Oh, and the waterfall. Or you can skip the park, have lunch at Nyahururu, and head on straight through to Nyeri. You drive past the long hump of the Aberdare Mountains with Mount Kenya straight ahead of you most of the way. The Outspan is the poshest hotel, but I usually stay at The White Rhino – I really do have no idea why. It's not really just because it's cheap – I just like the way it is genteelly shabby, and the liveliness of the bar at weekends. This was the place, in 1957 (I think, my pal at KBL hasn't got back to me yet), where the first African was allowed to buy and drink a bottle of beer made by Kenya Breweries. He had to have a letter from his employer, identifying him as a ‘native of good character'. Nyeri is pretty quiet, but has the grave of Baden-Powell who founded the Scouting movement (there's a small museum in the Outspan Hotel, in the cottage where B-P spent his last days). Sunday allows a leisurely drive back to Nairobi, stopping for lunch at Blue Posts in Thika – go for the help-yourself buffet. They have two waterfalls there, and the inevitable craft village. A half-hour diversion can take you to Fourteen Falls, lovely when you get there, but signposting is all but non-existent.

If you do this trip the other way around you can stop off for lunch on the Sunday at La Belle Inn at Naivasha. Go for the Fish Masala.

Incidentally, Lake Naivasha makes a nice day out from Nairobi – it's less than an hour away, and you can take the top road and climb high up the Escarpment, and get great views over the Rift Valley. Don't stop at any of the View Points, as the people selling souvenirs will hassle you so much that it spoils the whole experience. Take your life into your hands and just park on the side of the road. There is another road that drops down off the escarpment at Kijabe (heading towards Narok and the Maasai Mara) – a nice fast road if you don't get stuck behind one of the lumbering lorries that use it. As you get to the bottom of the hill, keep a look out on the right for the chapel built by Italian prisoners-of-war (presumably to keep their evenings busy when they weren't building the road itself).

The road around the lake is only tarred halfway, but there is a lovely little spot about ten-minutes past the end of the tarmac where you can get out and walk around a small dead volcano and watch large numbers of very pink flamingo on the very green lake inside the crater – it's imaginatively called Green Crater Lake (hey, sometimes good ideas just aren't there). There is a very exclusive camp site on the edge of the lake. If you continue around the very dusty road to complete the circuit of the lake, you can at least say that you have done it. Elsamere, the last home of Joy Adams, is just before the end of the tarmac section – arrive in time for afternoon tea, and take a due sense of awe and reverence with you.

One very important thing to consider if you are thinking about visiting: do not believe everything the Foreign Office, or your local equivalent, says. Or the UN. Especially not the UN. They live in a rarified world where reality never intrudes. Yes, Kenya is a place where you have to exercise a caution in excess of what you might do at home – but ostentatiously displaying wealth in a country where, despite recent progress and development, many people still try to get by on about US$50 a month, is simply asking for trouble. In terms of a terrorist attack, the possible event that exercises so many thoughts these days, you are definitely more at risk in any European or US city. I think that these people sometimes overstate the problems to simply justify bonuses on their pay.

What are you doing still sitting there? Oh, that? It means hurry-hurry has no blessing..





have your say


more in Travel
The Wintry wiles and whales of Victor Harbor

A wonderful winter holiday wiling and watching whales.

Fear of Flying
Kenya

I'm not afraid of flying . . . I hate landing.

Bratislava and Slovakia

In the summer of 2003, I seized the chance of a personalized invite to Bratislava. Upon arriving at the city's train station from Budapest, I was collected by Tómaš, a Slovakian I had met in Vancouver, who was then toiling as a tech wizard for Orange telecom. On this piping hot day, Tómaš and his high-IQ biologist wife Katrina drove us in a smart new Skoda (the famous Czech car) to an ice cold crystal lake on Bratislava's outskirts. Here, amongst the tolerance of naked or non-naked bathers, we could happily cool ourselves off before proceeding to eat a Slovakian staple, apricot jam-filled dumplings, that were prepared by his mother,.

Pumped in Poland
Kenya

Grey and impoverished, a downtrodden land inhabited by dour cynics. This was my perception of Poland prior to going there.

Circumnavigating an Insane Planet
Kenya

Say what you will about traveling light, it is a sound theory, and one which I usually adhere to, but if you happen to be on an around the world journey, traveling lets say, from Perth on the West Coast of Australia to the United Kingdom up into northern Scotland, then flying across the Atlantic to Toronto and from there down to San Francisco, over to Sydney and finally back home to Perth again, as my wife and I did last year, you will no doubt find that the notion of traveling light is simply not a feasible plan.

thecheers.org

Welcome to TheCheers! We've been around for a long time now, since 2004, publishing articles by people from all over the world. Roughly 300 people from 30 different countries have written for us over the years. Should you want to become a volunteer contributor, be sure to contact us!

Educational resources
Entertainment Blogs
get in touch

You can contact us via The Cheers Facebook page or The Cheers NEW Twitter account.