© David E. Moon, 2014  All rights reserved
 

The Trip North

The next morning, we picked up our vehicle and headed north. I looked for the old camp ground but could not find it. I thought that it was gone, or perhaps I was too busy dodging the immense potholes that seemed to have grown in 17 years, but in truth, my memory had failed me. It was not just off the Uhuru highway, but rather east of the highway on Limuru Road. I had difficulty getting my bearings. Much of what had been unfenced pasture or savannah was urban/suburban sprawl. The condition of the roads surprised me. I had remembered a well- maintained, sealed road. It was now cratered with potholes and speeds of greater than 40 kilometres an hour were difficult for long stretches and for shorter stretches, 20 kilometres and hour was excessive. I believe that originally the roads had been built with aid money but that there had been no provision for maintenance with the termination of aid. The cost of maintaining a sealed road was much higher than a gravel surface and was beyond the means of the government. The road was probably in worse shape than it had been before the aid program. As we  reached the first viewpoint of the Great Rift Valley, we stopped and were assaulted by young souvenir vendors. We bought a copy of the ceramic snake box; it was more than twice the price; and did not work nearly as well, but it would have pleasant memories attached and the vendors now left us alone. It was the tail end of the long rains and from the viewpoint, lush green farmlands stretched across the uplands and upper terrace of the rift valley. Small, tidy, well kept, tin-roofed shanties and yards were reminiscent of old share-cropper cabins in the southern US. Lake Naivasha was no longer the sleepy little village of my memory, maybe it never had been. I was unable to find the Marina Club. Lakes of the rift valley can fluctuate widely; the club may have been flooded, left high and dry as the lake fell, replaced, or perhaps my memory had simply failed me again. We drove down the south side of the lake. Most of the lake shore was still natural, but resorts and camps had proliferated. Unfortunately, we could find none that offered camp pitches for our own tent. Disappointed, we had lunch at the Jolly Cafe in Naivasha and headed north to Lake Baringo.

Lake Baringo

We arrived in the late afternoon and found our way to Robert’s camp. Surrounded by beautifully manicured, lush green grass and protected from the sun by large shade trees, the camp offered a few small bandas (small, one room, thatched roofed huts) and space to pitch a tent. We chose a lovely shade tree and pitched the tent within a few metres of the lake shore. It was dusk by this time, and we walked over to the Lake Baringo Club for a gin and tonic and an upscale but uninspiring dinner. After dinner we walked back to camp. The cool still air carried the fragrance of frangipani, and the light of the moon, not quite bright enough to be sure of what we might step on, was enough to find our tent. About midnight, strange grunting sounds, from just outside filtered through the tent walls. It sounded like a very large pig, and if I listened carefully I could hear heavy footsteps on the grass. Unzipping the tent, the light of the moon was just enough to distinguish a large dark shape, swaying back and forth about six metres from the tent. It could only be a hippopotamus. In fact, as we later realized, the manicured lawns were kept short cropped by the resident herd of hippopotamus. I called to Sheila to see them but refrained from telling her that hippo were considered unpredictable, aggressive, and have been known to make unprovoked attacks on people. The next morning treated us to a spectacular sunrise and revealed our visitors from the night before. They had retreated to the lake and were now watching us, only the tops of their heads and backs visible above the water, their ears spinning in opposite directions like tiny toy windmills, eyes rolling, and noses twitching as they kept watch.

 A Window on Old Africa

After breakfast, we drove back south towards Lake Bogoria. Looking down from the highland, the broad, flat valley floor looked inhospitable and devoid of habitation. Descending the steep scarp face, we emerged onto the hauntingly beautiful parkland savannah of the valley floor. Tall flat topped acacias cast a pleasant filigree of shadow on the scattered thorn bushes and sparse yellowing grass that emerged in tufts from the red earth. I expected to find semi-nomadic pastoralists, so I was not surprised to see widely scattered clusters of wattle or wattle-and-daub, thatch-roofed buildings. Each cluster appeared to be a family compound and to have a small herd of cattle and goats, but we saw no cultivated crops. Despite its picturesque beauty, life looked harsh and tenuous. It felt as though we were looking through a window onto pre-colonial Africa. As we passed these settlements, the people who emerged to stare at us looked healthy. They wore cast-off western clothing, but the children did not have the distended bellies characteristic of malnutrition; the adults looked fit, and the cattle and goats looked sleek and healthy. I suspected that this may have been because it was the end of the wet season, or perhaps it had been some time since the last drought. Whatever the reason, the picturesque landscape and settlements evoked romantic images of early explorers trekking across the savannah in their khaki cottons and pith helments, gun bearers and a long train of African luggage bearers trailing behind. Despite the romantic image, I feared for the future of the people. While not as hostile as the area around Lake Turkana, the land was marginal, even for grazing, and a major drought would be devastating.

Lake Bogoria

Unlike Lakes Baringo and Naivasha, Lake Bogoria is a sodic lake. We arrived in the full heat of the day. The only sign of life was a large flock of pink flamingos shim- mering through heat waves rising from the mud flat between us and the lake. We left the car and walked across the wide mud/salt flat towards the water. A honking, grunting clamour and the reek of flamingo excre- ment rose from the blanket of pink. The shallow water was covered with a thin scum of algae and feathers and was streaked with excrement, but the flamingos happily waded back and forth, beaks straining plankton from the water. Despite the heat and the smell, it was a stunning sight. The lake sits on the floor of the Rift Valley and shows evidence of tectonic activity. It is slowly but measurably widening as the continent splits apart. About halfway down the lake, sulphurous hotsprings and geysers bubbled and hissed to surface giving a sense that the earth’s crust is about to split apart and release magma from below.  A few weaver bird nests, the occasional raptor, and giant termite mounds were the only other signs of life. The road unexpectedly ended at the south end of the lake, and we had to retrace our route back to the highway. Somewhere between Lake Bogoria and Lake Nakuru, we came upon a sign marking the equator. To our embarrassment, we had not noticed it on the way north. We stopped for pictures and stepped from the northern to southern hemisphere and back. The novelty lasted for a few seconds. Continuing south, we drove through extensive sisal plantations. The sisal plant (a member of the agave family) is a succulent, can store water against drought, and is well suited to the seasonal rains of Kenya. Despite the popularity of synthetic fibres such as nylon and polypropylene as replacements for natural fibre, there is still a continuing market for sisal fibre in rope, cordage, carpets, sacking, et cetera and it is finding popularity in specialty papers and fabrics.

Lake Nakuru

Our return route took us past Lake Nakuru National Park and a short diversion took us through a lush, rolling, forested landscape. Ver- vet monkeys wandered beside the track and an occasional waterbuck would start and dart across the road. The forest gave way to large grassy openings around the lake. Small herds of grazing water- buck ignored us as we passed, flamingos waded in the shallows, pelicans fished, Mara- bou storks and gulls scavenged on the shoreline, and Ibis hunted in the shallows. Small groups of warthogs kneeled in the grass, grazing or rooting for bulbs, tubers, or roots. I accidentally hit the horn and they bolted for cover, their short tails sticking straight in the air. With their long curving tusks, wide snout, facial horns, and bristle hair, they are a formidable, rather ugly looking beast, but trotting off, tails erect they are kind of cute. We would have liked to spend another day, but park regulations prohibited camping or walking in the park, and we needed to return the vehicle to Nairobi or suffer a late fee and possibly lose our reservation for the replacement vehicle.

The Terminal Hotel

Back in Nairobi, we looked for accommodation a little cheaper than the Ambassadeur Hotel. The low-end accommodation along River Road was a little too low, our vehicle and my age would be too tempting for the local muggers and car thieves. We managed to find the Terminal Hotel at about one quarter the cost of the Ambassadeur. It was hardly grand. The small, harshly lit lobby contained a counter, a key box, and a telephone, and the room was hard pressed to contain the two single beds and a chair, but it was spotless and had en suite plumbing and hot water. The hotel employed a guard to watch the front entrance and any guest vehicles parked on the street. The evening was warm and pleasant, but I felt a little ill-at-ease walking back to the hotel from dinner. We were away from River Road, but the streets were nearly empty and our hotel did feel the need to hire a guard. With its increasing modernity and rural migrants, Nairobi had lost its air of pleasant security for people on the streets at night. The sight of our guard at the hotel was reassuring, but I was surprised by his heavy coat and woollen earflap cap on what we thought was a pleasantly warm evening.
Lush crop land and a shanty home.
A magnificent sunrise over Lake Bogoria revealed our visitors of the previous night.
© David E. Moon, 2014  All rights reserved
 

The Trip North

The next morning, we picked up our vehicle and headed north. I looked for the old camp ground but could not find it. I thought that it was gone, or perhaps I was too busy dodging the immense potholes that seemed to have grown in 17 years, but in truth, my memory had failed me. It was not just off the Uhuru highway, but rather east of the highway on Limuru Road. I had difficulty getting my bearings. Much of what had been unfenced pasture or savannah was urban/suburban sprawl. The condition of the roads surprised me. I had remembered a well-maintained, sealed road. It was now cratered with potholes and speeds of greater than 40 kilometres an hour were difficult for long stretches and for shorter stretches, 20 kilometres and hour was excessive. I believe that originally the roads had been built with aid money but that there had been no provision for maintenance with the termination of aid. The cost of maintaining a sealed road was much higher than a gravel surface and was beyond the means of the government. The road was probably in worse shape than it had been before the aid program. As we  reached the first viewpoint of the Great Rift Valley, we stopped and were assaulted by young souvenir vendors. We bought a copy of the ceramic snake box; it was more than twice the price; and did not work nearly as well, but it would have pleasant memories attached and the vendors now left us alone. It was the tail end of the long rains and from the viewpoint, lush green farmlands stretched across the uplands and upper terrace of the rift valley. Small, tidy, well kept, tin-roofed shanties and yards were reminiscent of old share-cropper cabins in the southern US. Lake Naivasha was no longer the sleepy little village of my memory, maybe it never had been. I was unable to find the Marina Club. Lakes of the rift valley can fluctuate widely; the club may have been flooded, left high and dry as the lake fell, replaced, or perhaps my memory had simply failed me again. We drove down the south side of the lake. Most of the lake shore was still natural, but resorts and camps had proliferated. Unfortunately, we could find none that offered camp pitches for our own tent. Disappointed, we had lunch at the Jolly Cafe in Naivasha and headed north to Lake Baringo.

Lake Baringo

We arrived in the late afternoon and found our way to Robert’s camp. Surrounded by beautifully manicured, lush green grass and protected from the sun by large shade trees, the camp offered a few small bandas (small, one room, thatched roofed huts) and space to pitch a tent. We chose a lovely shade tree and pitched the tent within a few metres of the lake shore. It was dusk by this time, and we walked over to the Lake Baringo Club for a gin and tonic and an upscale but uninspiring dinner. After dinner we walked back to camp. The cool still air carried the fragrance of frangipani, and the light of the moon, not quite bright enough to be sure of what we might step on, was enough to find our tent. About midnight, strange grunting sounds, from just outside filtered through the tent walls. It sounded like a very large pig, and if I listened carefully I could hear heavy footsteps on the grass. Unzipping the tent, the light of the moon was just enough to distinguish a large dark shape, swaying back and forth about six metres from the tent. It could only be a hippopotamus. In fact, as we later realized, the manicured lawns were kept short cropped by the resident herd of hippopotamus. I called to Sheila to see them but refrained from telling her that hippo were considered unpredictable, aggressive, and have been known to make unprovoked attacks on people. The next morning treated us to a spectacular sunrise and revealed our visitors from the night before. They had retreated to the lake and were now watching us, only the tops of their heads and backs visible above the water, their ears spinning in opposite directions like tiny toy windmills, eyes rolling, and noses twitching as they kept watch.

 A Window on Old Africa

After breakfast, we drove back south towards Lake Bogoria. Looking down from the highland, the broad, flat valley floor looked inhospitable and devoid of habitation. Descending the steep scarp face, we emerged onto the hauntingly beautiful parkland savannah of the valley floor. Tall flat topped acacias cast a pleasant filigree of shadow on the scattered thorn bushes and sparse yellowing grass that emerged in tufts from the red earth. I expected to find semi-nomadic pastoralists, so I was not surprised to see widely scattered clusters of wattle or wattle-and-daub, thatch- roofed buildings. Each cluster appeared to be a family compound and to have a small herd of cattle and goats, but we saw no cultivated crops. Despite its picturesque beauty, life looked harsh and tenuous. It felt as though we were looking through a window onto pre- colonial Africa. As we passed these settlements, the people who emerged to stare at us looked healthy. They wore cast-off western clothing, but the children did not have the distended bellies characteristic of malnutrition; the adults looked fit, and the cattle and goats looked sleek and healthy. I suspected that this may have been because it was the end of the wet season, or perhaps it had been some time since the last drought. Whatever the reason, the picturesque landscape and settlements evoked romantic images of early explorers trekking across the savannah in their khaki cottons and pith helments, gun bearers and a long train of African luggage bearers trailing behind. Despite the romantic image, I feared for the future of the people. While not as hostile as the area around Lake Turkana, the land was marginal, even for grazing, and a major drought would be devastating.

Lake Bogoria

Unlike Lakes Baringo and Naivasha, Lake Bogoria is a sodic lake. We arrived in the full heat of the day. The only sign of life was a large flock of pink flamingos shimmering through heat waves rising from the mud flat between us and the lake. We left the car and walked across the wide mud/salt flat towards the water. A honking, grunting clamour and the reek of flamingo excrement rose from the blanket of pink. The shallow water was covered with a thin scum of algae and feath- ers and was streaked with excrement, but the flamingos happily waded back and forth, beaks straining plankton from the water. Des- pite the heat and the smell, it was a stunning sight. The lake sits on the floor of the Rift Valley and shows evidence of tectonic activity. It is slowly but measurably widening as the continent splits apart. About halfway down the lake, sulphurous hotsprings and geysers bubbled and hissed to surface giving a sense that the earth’s crust is about to split apart and release magma from below.  A few weaver bird nests, the occasional raptor, and giant termite mounds were the only other signs of life. The road unexpectedly ended at the south end of the lake, and we had to retrace our route back to the highway. Somewhere between Lake Bogoria and Lake Nakuru, we came upon a sign marking the equator. To our embarrassment, we had not noticed it on the way north. We stopped for pictures and stepped from the northern to southern hemisphere and back. The novelty lasted for a few seconds. Continuing south, we drove through extensive sisal plantations. The sisal plant (a member of the agave family) is a succulent, can store water against drought, and is well suited to the seasonal rains of Kenya. Despite the popularity of synthetic fibres such as nylon and polypropylene as replacements for natural fibre, there is still a continuing market for sisal fibre in rope, cordage, carpets, sacking, et cetera and it is finding popularity in specialty papers and fabrics.

Lake Nakuru

Our return route took us past Lake Nakuru National Park and a short diversion took us through a lush, rolling, forested landscape. Vervet monkeys wandered beside the track and an occasional water- buck would start and dart across the road. The forest gave way to large grassy openings around the lake. Small herds of grazing waterbuck ignored us as we passed, flamingos waded in the shallows, pelicans fished, Mara- bou storks and gulls scavenged on the shoreline, and Ibis hunted in the shallows. Small groups of warthogs kneeled in the grass, grazing or rooting for bulbs, tubers, or roots. I accidentally hit the horn and they bolted for cover, their short tails sticking straight in the air. With their long curving tusks, wide snout, facial horns, and bristle hair, they are a formidable, rather ugly look- ing beast, but trotting off, tails erect they are kind of cute. We would have liked to spend another day, but park regulations prohibited camping or walking in the park, and we needed to return the vehicle to Nairobi or suffer a late fee and possibly lose our reservation for the replacement vehicle.

The Terminal Hotel

Back in Nairobi, we looked for accommoda- tion a little cheaper than the Ambassadeur Hotel. The low-end accommodation along River Road was a little too low, our vehicle and my age would be too tempting for the local muggers and car thieves. We managed to find the Terminal Hotel at about one quarter the cost of the Ambassadeur. It was hardly grand. The small, harshly lit lobby contained a counter, a key box, and a telephone, and the room was hard pressed to contain the two single beds and a chair, but it was spotless and had en suite plumbing and hot water. The hotel employed a guard to watch the front entrance and any guest vehicles parked on the street. The evening was warm and pleasant, but I felt a little ill-at-ease walking back to the hotel from dinner. We were away from River Road, but the streets were nearly empty and our hotel did feel the need to hire a guard. With its increasing modernity and rural migrants, Nairobi had lost its air of pleasant security for people on the streets at night. The sight of our guard at the hotel was reassuring, but I was surprised by his heavy coat and woollen earflap cap on what we thought was a pleasantly warm evening.
Lush crop land and a shanty home. A magnificent sunrise over Lake Bogoria revealed our visitors of the previous night. Pastoral family compound, en route to Lake Bogoria. Flamingos, Lake Bogoria Thermal springs, Lake Bogoria Harvesting sisal. Vervet monkies Maribou stork, waterbuck. Wood ibis, gulls, pelicans, flamingos.