This blog is called the Road to Turkana as it culminates my travels and experiences through Kenya over the past few months. I took the road less travelled, starting with a journey to the west province of Kisumu on Lake Victoria, heading next to the southeastern part of the country on the border of Tanzania where I came face to face with extraordinary mammals and the awe-inspiring Mount Kilimanjaro, and finishing with the long dusty road up north to Lake Turkana. The diversity I saw in vegetation, animals and culture is enough to satisfy the soul for now. I also had the privilege of attending a traditional Kikuyu Dowry Ceremony where I indulged in delicious traditional food and dance. I'm saving the rest of my travels through Kenya when my niece comes to visit next month. The plan for that journey is to see the Big 5 at the famous Maasai Mara, touch our toes in the Indian Ocean off the white sand beaches of Diani on the coast, and breathe in the greenery of the Aberdares Mountain Range. Stay tuned as I'm sure the next blog post will feature some exciting photos!
Kisumu, Kakamega and Kericho
I turned 27 on April 28th and started my 28th year around the sun. I decided to do a solo trip out west and visit Kisumu province to celebrate. The Easy Coach bus leaves from Nairobi and gets you to Kisumu town in just 9 hours. Albeit a little bumpy, the drive was quite pleasant. A little confusion at the bus stage in Nairobi as I've been extensively practicing my Kiswahili but forgot that the Swahili clock goes by the sun, i.e. 9PM is actually 3PM (sa tatu), but I still managed to catch it before it departed! My co-workers friend met me in Kisumu which was convenient, and I appreciated the company as one should never spend their birthday alone. After a chai and chapo breakfast we made our way for Ruma National Park, only to get there after 2.5 hours of driving and be told that the park was flooded. Don't worry, no animals were harmed, but the roads were definitely not drivable with our little 2wd. The rains this year have been prolonged, leaving much of the area around Lake Victoria flooded. On our way back to Kisumu we made a brief stop at the brightly coloured port town of Homa Bay. Fisherman were bringing in their fresh catfish and mounds of tiny omena which the women were spreading out on grated tables to dry in the sun. The vibes of Homa Bay reminded me of a laid back Carribean island. The fish was delicious too, served with steaming ugali and sukuma wiki (greens).
We drove back from Homa Bay along the winding roads with Lake Victoria always present in our left peripherals. The hot drive wet the appetite for a boat ride on Lake Victoria. The water looks quite dirty, but rest assured the rainy season has provoked the mud to rise from the bottom, giving it that brown colour. The hippos don't seem to mind however, as they happily stay under water for minutes before popping those little eyes and ears up above the surface.
As you may know from my previous blogs, I've grown an affinity for taking photos of birds so naturally I was obsessed with snapping these little yellow weavers who had taken over the trees along the shores of Lake Victoria. They are so interesting because they build their nests by hanging upside down mid-flight in the air and attaching little pieces of grass to form their heavenly burrow.
The evening ended with a beer on the lake shore. My new friends from Kisumu took me out Signature Night club where I celebrated my birthday Kenyan style. They bought me a delicious cake with bright pink icing which they proceeded to use as decorative make-up for my face. As per tradition, I walked around, all cake-faced, and served the club guests with a little bite. This experience showed me how it doesn't take much to make someone feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside. The times when I've felt the happiest and most fulfilled are when I've had a strong sense of belonging, belonging to something that's bigger than myself, that my presence mattered, and that, gave me purpose.
The next day we drove out to Kakamega. A small town which is known for it's famous 'Crying Stone' and the remnants of the once vast Kakamega Forest. Only 1/10th of this tropical rainforest remains due to deforestation for coffee plantations and land. The forest is split into North and South parts, with the north being under the supervision of the Kenya Forest National Rserve and the south being managed by the Kenya Forest Reserve. From my discussions with locals, this has caused confusion in the past, as both entities have different approaches for management although the end goal should be the same - to preserve this precious place. It is home to at least 9 bird species not found anywhere else in Kenya like the Great Blue Turaco and the black-and-white-casqued hornbill. Primates frequent the area too, like the blue monkey and vervet monkey, which I was lucky to spot at the Rondo Retreat, a beautiful garden worth visiting even if you're like me and can't afford to spend the night!
This trip ended with my solo matatu ride to Kericho Town. This was actually the most down to earth place I have visited in all of East Africa. Not once was I called out for being a mzungu (foreigner). Either they are very used to tourists, or they are super chilled out from picking tea leaves, or they saw me as an equal rather than someone of privilege. I shared mtumbo intestine sausage with the locals (I know it sounds gross but can be quite delightful when prepared properly), and I toured the green tea fields and reflected on where my life has taken me over the past 27 years. Oh, and naturally I drank my fair share of chai (tea) and mursik (sour milk).
The following month found me in a Toyota RAV 4 with a couple friends on our way to Amboseli National Park, the place of dreams. Amboseli is famous for its first-class views of the mighty Mount Kilimanjaro. You can imagine how disappointed we were halfway through the first day when the clouds were hovering so densely that not even the outline of this massive mountain could be made out. We focused our efforts instead on tracking down animals in the tall grasses. We hired a park ranger to assist us in the vehicle, and Peter ended up being one of the best guides we've ever had. We saw antelope, water buffalo, a pride of lions, herds of zebra, warthogs, flamingos, ostrich, monkeys, many interesting birds like the 'bastard' bird (if we heard correctly) and a hyena! Here's some of my favourite animal shots:
We were driving down the road and out of no where this huge male elephant popped out. He was throwing dust on himself, likely to cool down from the strong heat of the sun. Male elephants are often found alone, whereas the females never stray too far from the herd.
During our afternoon safari we were lucky to stumble upon these female lions trying to find shade amongst the grass. Only 200m away from this sighting we saw a couple get out of their vehicle and change seats. Our ranger gave them an earful about getting out of the car, which serves as a good reminder for anyone planning to do a safari. Remember, these animals are dangerous and they are hungry. You never know what may be lurking behind the corner so NEVER get out of the car. Unless it's an emergency, like the situation we found ourselves in. We ended up with a flat tire and had to change our wheel in the park. Lukcily, Peter had a rifle with him so we felt a little more protected!
The flat tire actually ended up being a blessing in disguise. Our schedule was set back which meant we landed at the final destination and viewpoint just as the sun was beginning to set. As you can see in the pictures above, the clouds had finally began to move and we got a glimpse of the tip of Kili. We were even luckier at sundown as the clouds almost entirely moved away, exposing the magnificence of this sacred mountain on a stunning sunset backdrop. By the time we were leaving the park, it was pitch black and we still had 40km to drive back to the gate! We meandered very cautiously as we didn't want to risk another flat tire. Nighttime is when the animals are most active as they don't have to bear the extreme heat from the sun and can hunt with ease. As we drove along we bumped into a hippo entirely out of water and two female lions with their seven cubs! This was an incredibly rare sighting! As they say, everything happens for a reason and the universe definitely provided for us that night with these amazing animal sightings and unobstructed views of the milk way.
Kikuyu Dowry Ceremony - Nyandarua
We were invited to attend the Ruacio (Kikuyu Dowry Ceremony) of one of our dairy trader partners from LishaBora. Even though it started 4 hours late, it was definitely worth the wait. As we learned, this is indeed a process, one which never ends in fact. This was the third ceremony for this couple and it may take many years before all promised dowries are complete. However, each ceremony is a great opportunity for community members to get together and support the prosperity of the couple and enjoy good food and music.
The Lake Turkana Cultural Festival
Lake Turkana was a high priority on my list of places to Kenya. It's a place where harsh environmental factors, tribal tribulations and vast cultural diversity of people play into political issues. Oil has been found on the Western shores of the Lake and extraction is ongoing. I was interested in seeing the oil extraction sights but we didn't drive near any of them. There has been news of uprising by the locals who have not seen any benefit to date from these oil explorations, and likely never will.
I joined a safari group with Gametrackers whom I'd highly recommend to anyone looking for a guided safari in Kenya. Daniel was an amazing guide and a big shout out to our fantastic cooks and drivers who took extremely good care of us. We were a group of 13 from Kenya, America, Germany, Slovenia, the Netherlands, Chile, England and Canada. It was a very long journey to Loiyangalani on the Eastern shores of Lake Turkana. Day one was a 9 hour drive from Nairobi to our first stop in Samburu National Reserve. We pitched our tents on a beautiful river which is filled with crocodiles and made some of us a little uneasy. The next day was another 9 hour drive to Loiyangalani. We drove past vast fields of over 100 wind turbines, a project financed by the Dutch government, which is scheduled to start generating power early next year. When we turned the corner to catch our first glimpse of Lake Turkana, I was momentarily incapacitated by its genuine beauty. The sparkling Jade Sea has already lost 10m of it's depth over the past 15 years, and is expected to reduce further with the completion of a hydro dam project in Ethiopia. It also is embezzled with an active volcano that has been shot in several Hollywood films.
The first day of the festival was a bit boring with majority of the time being used for political speeches. The most exciting part of the day was our visit to the El Molo village, which is also the smallest tribe in Kenya. They live right on the shores of Lake Turkana and have several interesting traditional customs. For a boy to transition into manhood, he must live in isolation on the nearby island accessible only by boat and hunt and kill either a crocodile or hippo living in the lake. On this island they have special sacred huts set up for various ailments. One where they perform male circumcision after successfully hunting their trophy kill, another for spiritual healing for couples unable to conceive (which has had very successful results in bearing offspring), another for women who are menstruating and the fourth and final hut for healing of the elderly and sick.
The second day of the festival started with a visit to the Desert Museum. It provided some insight into the unique cultural customs and traditions of each tribe, including celebratory garments, jewelry and ornaments for spiritual purposes, cooking and hunting. After the museum we spent the rest of the time at the festival, engaging with the locals, watching their beautiful performances of song and dance, admiring their colourful garments and trying their local delicacies like barley beer. We finished the day with a swim in Lake Turkana, listening to soulful African music, sipping on wine and watching the sun set on the horizon.
The Lake Turkana Festival started in 2008 with a mission of promoting peace and reconciliation amongst the different ethnic communities residing in the area. It also provides an opportunity for Kenyan's and Expats alike to immerse themselves in and learn about these colourful cultures. This video captures a glimpse into the cultural dance and dress of some of the 14 tribes of Marsabit County including El Molo (smallest tribe in Kenya), Rendille, Samburu, Turkana, Dassanatch, Gabra, Borana, Konso, Sakuye, Garee, Waata, Burji and Somali. Lake Turkana, or the "Jade Sea" is the birthplace of humanity and of significant cultural diversity. Oil explorations have begun in the area, with little benefit seen for the community to date. Their main source of industry is tourism as the desert climate is difficult for harvest. Tilapia has been introduced in the lake, although has never been a staple in their diet which consists primarily of meat. Elderly citizens suffer from bone density loss and deformation due to overexposure of fluorides and chlorides consumed from unfiltered water from Lake Turkana. Awareness must be raised for the harsh conditions, lack of food and water that consumes the region. Oil exploration will likely exasperate these conditions if these communities voices are ignored.