A Travellerspoint blog

September 2015

Maralal - Naivasha - Nairobi - Brussels - London - Bristol

A long journey and a long day

overcast 23 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day eight of our Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations.

What a difference a cool room makes! I slept like a log last night! Yet again I have the alarm set early, this time so that I can catch the animals coming to the waterhole at dawn.

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I don't have long to wait. Even before the sun is up they slowly and silently appear out of the bush, kicking up the dust as they go. Initially one by one, including little ones; then a large dazzle (yes, that is what a group of zebras are called) arrives, sauntering out of the woods as if they don't have a care in the world.

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The early morning mist, the parading zebra, the dust swirling around their hooves: it's a magical scene. I feel very honoured to be part of this – what a fabulous way to spend my last morning in Kenya.

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The zebra take their time filling their bellies with the cool water, keeping a constant eye out for predators.

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Occasionally something spooks them.

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Then the sun comes out and bathes the scene in a golden glow, transforming it from being magical to a truly extraordinary enchanted world! This change in light, however, signals the time for the zebra to once again return to the bush.

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The sun also brings out a couple of vervet monkeys, a skittish jackal, a few impala and some guinea fowl.

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Leaving Maralal Lodge, we are lucky enough to encounter more animals on our way through the sanctuary – eland, impala and some more zebra.

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At Maralal Town we hit tarmac again for the first time in six days! Luxury!

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The excitement is short-lived, however, a mere 200 metres or so before we are back on the usual gravel track.

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After a while once again return to relative 'civilisation', as we pass several private ranches, run by white settlers who cater to the luxury market. Behind barbed wire fences we spot gazelles, giraffes, buffalo and zebra. This is the canned safari experience for rich westerners.

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The baboons, though, are no snobs and come and go as they please.

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Having forgotten to take our malaria tablets this morning, we swallow them with some water mid-morning in the car; an action I soon come to regret when my stomach starts bubbling. Ugh!

For some reason, today's journey does not seem so exciting as all the previous ones. It must be my mindset – I am expecting it to be boring and merely a way of getting back to the airport for our flight home. Our itinerary has nothing in it for today. Snap out of it girl!

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The shadows created by wandering sheep on the road amuses me for a while. I know, I know: little things for little minds and all that. Just humour me will ya?

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Suddenly something catches my eye. A motorcyclist has stopped in the road, gesticulating frantically towards the crops in the nearby field. Then I see the reason for his agitation: a large herd of 20+ wild elephants grazing happily by the side of the road.

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He looks so cute and innocent doesn't he? You wouldn't believe the sort of destruction he and his family can, and do, cause.

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Often elephants and people overlap in their use of habitats and thus come into conflicts, with negative consequences for both parties. Elephants, in their search for pastures and water, engage in extensive seasonal migrations often including moving through farmland causing large-scale damage. In this area where most people rely on subsistence farming, an elephant wiping out fences and crops is likely to have have devastating effects on the families and their livelihood.

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The elephants are agitated and the motorcyclist is nervous. A Samburu herder is looking on from a safe distance on top of a nearby hill.

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We daren't stop. Driving on slowly, we deliberately rev the engine loudly and sound the horn, in the hope that the elephants will move on.

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Eventually the animals - at least thoseh nearest the road - retreat to a safer distance and we can cautiously pass, with the vulnerable motorcyclist using our vehicle as a shield between himself and the massive beasts.

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After three hours' driving this morning we reach Rumuruti and a proper sealed road. For good this time, all the way to Nairobi. Welcome back to civilisation.

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One of the first things we see is a prison, with the inmates milling around outside doing hard labour – or at least some gardening. We pass by way too quickly for me to even snap one of my 'famous' covert pictures from inside the car, but the scene is like something out of a cartoon, with the prisoners all wearing striped 'pyjamas' and matching hats - a bit like this:

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From Rumuruti the road climbs the escarpment to a height of 2000m. This is where the police come to do their high altitude training and we see many police trucks and uniformed officers.

Continuing on to Nyahururu, we find it to be a 'proper' town, with shops, petrol station, banks and a traffic jam! Welcome back to civilisation.

All along the side of the road as we leave the town are stalls selling vegetables, and John fills a huge sack with a variety of greens ready to send to his family who live near Lake Victoria.

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For lunch we stop at a service station near Naivasha, and not before time: my bubbling stomach has turned into a volcano and I rush off the find the 'facilities'. Much to my delight, there are western sit-down toilets in cubicles with locking doors, a seat on the toilet bowl, a sink with running water and even soap and toilet paper! Pure luxury! Welcome back to civilisation.

John recommends the Indian fast food restaurant in the complex, which suits us fine.

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Chicken and chips, chicken jalfrezi, vegetable biriyani, vegetable thali

Much to David's delight - no, make that absolute ecstasy - they even sell South African cider! Welcome back to civilisation!

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We see a number of white people here, the first we've seen since leaving Samburu six days ago. Most of them are white settlers, not tourists, as this is a favourite hang-out for ex-pats. Welcome back to civilisation.

John, knowing that we are interested in bird watching, asks if we would like to take a boat trip on Lake Naivasha and visit Crescent Island. It sure beats spending that time hanging about in the airport, so we gladly accept.

Lake Naivasha

At the docks we wrangle with the boat operators to let Abdi come with us out on the lake. They insist only authorised guides are allowed to accompany tourists in the boats.
“He is not a guide, he is a tourist” I stand firm.
“But he has a Kenyan ID” they argue.
“He is a Kenyan tourist from North Horr” I protest, truthfully: Abdi's 'guiding' duties finished in Loiyangalani, but he decided to come with us to Nairobi anyway, and visit a friend there.

Eventually they relent. It is Abdi's first visit to Lake Naivasha and he is very nervous about the boat as he can't swim. As a strong swimmer myself, I promise to save him if he falls in. With that, we all go out to look for birds.

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And birds we see! This is a true bird watcher's paradise - Naivasha is known as a world class birding destination with over 400 species of birds recorded.

Following years of drought and sinking water levels, in 2011 WWF got involved to help the fragile ecosystem around the lake recover and all the people it supports in terms of agriculture and fishing amongst other things. It seems they have been very successful, as the water level is now the highest it's been for a number of years, with evidence of many semi-submerged trees along the shore.

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Before we even leave the shoreline, I spot a number of birds.

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Great White Egret

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Grey Heron

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Hadada Ibis and Glossy Ibis

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African Black Kite - beautifully camouflaged

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The Giant Kingfisher is of great excitement to us both!

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The very ugly Marabou Stork

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Pink Backed Pelican

As we make our way out onto the lake, we scatter huge flocks of Red Knobbed Coots – I have never seen so many coots in one place before.

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There is even an albino coot in amongst all his black mates.

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The submerged trees are home to a huge number of cormorants too.

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They are mostly the Great Cormorant, but we also see a few Long Tailed Cormorants.

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The high water level means large areas of flooded ground, rich with fish and shallow enough for wading. The fish community in the lake has been highly variable over the years, influenced by changes in climate, fishing effort and the introduction of invasive species. These days the carp, introduced to the lake in 2001, is by far the most common species caught. Fishing provides jobs and income as well as being an important source of protein for local communities.

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I love these guys wearing tops made from cement bags!

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Anyway, back to a few more bird pictures:

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Cattle Egret

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Yellow Billed Stork

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Little Egret

Lake Naivasha is also home to a sizeable population of hippos, with some 1,000 of them estimated to live in the lake.

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Although hippos may look cute and friendly, they are one animal you definitely do not want to cross: hippos are responsible for more human fatalities in Africa than any other large animal.

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Although not bloodthirsty like big cat predators, hippos are easily frightened and can be extremely aggressive, especially males defending their territories as well as females protecting their babies.

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Hippos can run at speeds of over 20 miles an hour and are built like tanks – you certainly wouldn't want to get in the way of one of these! Most deaths by hippo are caused by being trampled to death, although they also sometimes overturn boats, drowning their victims.

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Hippos consume over 100 pounds of vegetation per day.

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They seem to coexist with the fishermen when in water, and once they are on land, most of the lake is fenced in, so hippo deaths in and around Lake Naivasha are rare apparently.

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I think it's amazing how people just go about their daily life as if these were just sheep grazing, not Africa's greatest killers!

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We cruise out to Crescent Island, which is a private game park and is said to have the country's highest concentration of animals per acre, with wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, gazelle, impala and waterbuck.

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By now my stomach is like a cauldron, and I dare not risk leaving the boat at the island, so I let David and Abdi go off with the local guide, also called David, while I do some more bird watching.

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African Spoonbill

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Squacco Heron

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Great White Pelican

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Little Grebe

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Red Billed Teal

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Spur Winged Lapwing

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Pied Kingfisher

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African Jacana

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Black Winged Stilt

We pick up the boys from the island and Abdi comes back quite excited about his short walking safari. David is a little more nonchalant: “There was nothing much there that we haven't seen elsewhere” he reflects.

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Anyway, this is what I missed:

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Before we return to the jetty, we spend some time watching fish eagles doing what fish eagles do best: fishing.

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This sees the end of our sightseeing program in Kenya – for this time. Now all that remains is the final stages of our long journey home.

First we have to climb up the Mau Escarpment to make our way to Nairobi. Due to resurfacing roadworks, it's a long, slow slog, but the views over the Great Rift valley are not bad, despite the mist.

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At the best viewpoints the ubiquitous souvenir stalls have sprung up, selling sheepskin hats of all things.

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On the outskirts of Nairobi we pass the infamous Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, and the largest urban slum in Africa, with an estimated population of over one million people.

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This is the depressing info on Kibera according to Wikipedia:
Most of Kibera slum residents live in extreme poverty, earning less than $1.00 per day. Unemployment rates are high. Persons living with HIV in the slum are many, as are AIDS cases. Cases of assault and rape are common. There are few schools, and most people cannot afford an education for their children. Clean water is scarce and therefore diseases caused by related poor hygiene are prevalent. A great majority of people living in the slum lack access to medical care.

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Check out more facts about Kibera here.

By now I am getting quite desperate for a toilet again, and am not happy to see another traffic jam! I am, however, very impressed with the local agent that Undiscovered Destinations have used on this trip. The Africa Journeys' manager, Wycliffe, who picked us up at the airport (which seems like weeks ago but it has only in fact been eight days) joins us for the last few miles before the airport to ensure we are happy with the trip and answer any queries or complaints. I am delighted to assure him that we cannot fault any aspect of the trip whatsoever! The journey, the sights, the people, the safari, the food, the accommodation... it has all exceeded our expectations. We'll be back!

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The flight is full, including a huge crowd of Somalian refugees on their way to a new home in the US, sponsored by IOM. Many are understandably frightened, and they are very subdued as we all gather in the gate lounge.

Still suffering with an upset tummy, I am feeling decidedly ill by this time, so much so that I am contemplating requesting a wheelchair to board the plane. Somehow I manage to make it to my aircraft seat before I throw up. David rings the bell for assistance from the crew, and gets a very curt reply when he asks for a glass of water: “You can get it yourself from the back”. Noticing that I have my eyes closed and am leaning back in the chair, she continues acerbically: “but I see you are somewhat stuck, so I will get it for you. This time” When she returns with the water, I am in the midst of emptying the contents of my stomach into the sick bag. Her attitude completely changes: “Oh dear.... are you OK? If you need anything else just press the button a couple of times, that way we'll know it's urgent”. I am just about to answer: "How about you learn the meaning of customer service instead" but (probably fortunately) I started heaving again at that very moment.

Having endured three screaming kids on the way out, we are rather concerned to see at least a dozen young children among the refugees, but not a sound is heard from them all through the eight hour night flight. I wish the same could be said for the American group. They really hit the pinnacle of stereotypicalness (a new word to add to 'Grete's Dictionary') when one girl exclaims as we are exiting the plane in Brussels: “Do they speak Spanish here?”

By the time we open our front door, it has been 34 hours since we left Maralal Lodge. It's been a loooong day!

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to settle my upset tummy (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke.

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Cheers and welcome home

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:32 Archived in Kenya Tagged landscapes lakes animals boats travel elephants holiday kenya hippo roadtrip equator lake_naivasha naivasha bird_watching undiscovered_destinations great_rift_valley Comments (0)

Loiyangalani - Maralal

Revelationary!

sunny 23 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day seven of our Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations.

We set off early this morning, just as the sun is rising.

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And so begins our long journey back to Nairobi.

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For the first 45 minutes we follow the shores of the lake, which really brings home to us just how enormous the lake is! You can see from the map below that the distance we covered in those 45 minutes is tiny compared with the size of the lake!

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On our right is the glistening life-giving water of the Jade Sea, on the left a sea of hot lava rocks of death as can been seen in the photo which shows the road we have just come along.

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The stones fascinate me. Huge piles, as if someone has come along with enormous tipper trucks full of the things and just deposited them here. Quite surreal.

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What's even more amazing is that right in the middle of these huge piles of rock, a tree will manage to break through, stretching its branches towards to light and the sun. Isn't nature wonderful?

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Or some fluffy grasses.

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The light is glorious this morning, with the magical glow of the early morning sun peeping over the horizon, casting a golden hue over the entire scene. It's already blazingly hot.

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Instead of posting pictures, for a change I will share a quick movie – a whole day's driving in 47 seconds as the road goes from the fiery rocks around the lake, through soft sand, compacted washboard effect (affectionately known as 'African massage'), then climbing up through the hills with more and more vegetation appearing along the side of the road:

We even spot a few animals and birds along the side of the road, such as these dik diks and a kori bustard. A small herd of zebra graze in amongst the acacia trees and the odd hornbill flutters about.

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We come across several groups of cattle herders, but I am warned not to take any photos as they are all heavily armed. I shoot a couple from the inside of the car anyway. OK, maybe the use of the word “shoot” wasn't my best choice under these circumstances...

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Before we left Loiyangalani, we filled all our empty water bottles from the spring there, and we hand these out through the car window to the tribes-people we pass along the way. Carrying large amounts of water while they walk all day with their herds is not practical, so they rely of the generosity of passing motorists for water.

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John finds a safe place to make a 'bush-stop' for a quick pee.

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The car is filthy and the local kids yesterday were amusing themselves with writing in the dirt.

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While we are strecthing our legs Abdi suddenly spots something – or more likely someone - on the horizon and becomes agitated. “Let's go!” he urges so we pile back into the car and zoom off.

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This area is supposed to be a 'buffer zone' between the Samburu and Turkana tribes, a sort of safe no man's land, but it seems a few (armed) Samburu nomads have encroached onto this land with their cattle, which is seen as bad news. The Samburu have a fierce reputation and are mistrusted by other tribes.

Great Rift Valley

The Great Rift Valley is a name given to the continuous geographic trench, approximately 6,000 km in length, that runs from northern Jordan Rift Valley in Asia to Mozambique in South Eastern Africa. The valley is bordered by escarpments to the east and west, with the floor broken by volcanoes, some still active. The valley floor also contains a series of lakes, of which Turkana is one, but with the surroundings being reasonably flat there, the scenery is not as dramatic and well... 'valley-like'... as it is here.

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Maralal Safari Lodge

As we pull up outside this, our very last lodge on our Kenya trip, it looks deserted. At all the other places of accommodation so far, a small army of workers have magically appeared, ready to take our luggage, hand us a welcome drink or a damp face cloth, or merely to welcome us to the lodge. Not here.

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The reception is empty. No one. No bell to ring. We call out: “Anybody home?” several times before someone eventually saunters in. He looks confused as to why we are here. “You should be expecting us...” we volunteer. Despite turning the pages of his register, he appears unable to find our booking. After more page turning, John hands over the voucher for tonight's accommodation. Still nothing.

Several uncomfortable minutes later, a young Aussie girl appears, and she seems to have a bit more oomph about her. She goes over to the reception and she too peers into 'the book'. Finally David spots our name in the register. That's a relief.

As we fill out the obligatory registration form, the owner of the lodge arrives and walks through the lobby to the office behind the reception, trying his very best - successfully - to avoid eye contact with us, before again disappearing.

The key to our room is handed over and someone is instructed to carry our bags. “Aren't you going to give a briefing?” asks John. The guy on reception looks perplexed: “Briefing...?” “You know, telling them where the restaurant is, what time lunch is, what happens next... that sort of thing.” John replies sarcastically with thinly veiled exasperation. The guy has obviously never come across such a suggestion before and says simply: “You go to room, have shower and then you have lunch” “And where is the restaurant?” I enquire. This is beginning to get a little tiresome.

Despite the totally underwhelming and disheartening first impressions, I find myself uttering little exclamations of joy as we make our way to the room. The pathway is arched with brightly coloured bougainvillea, there are flowers and trees in the gardens, even a swimming pool, and everything looks so green and fresh. Not at all like the dry dusty North.

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The rooms consist of little wooden cottages dotted around the gently sloping grounds, each one with a balcony overlooking the valley behind. With its in-room fireplace and all that wood, it reminds me of a European ski chalet. While not in any way luxurious, this place has lovely rustic charm and is just up our alley.

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After freshening up and relieving ourselves of the dust from the journey here, we make our way to the restaurant for some lunch. We see the owner again on the way, and this time he is full of joviality: “Are you the Howards?” Ah, fame at last! As in previous places, we are the only people staying, so I guess we are the Howards...

Having already mostly redeemed itself by the delightful cottages and grounds, the lodge has now gone right up in my estimation: the restaurant has an outside terrace overlooking a waterhole, complete with zebra!

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The lodge is located inside the National Sanctuary of the same name, and overlooks the only permanent water in the park, hence why wild animals congregate here. I really did not expect to be doing any more game viewing on this trip, I thought Maralal was going to be just a convenient overnight stop on our journey back to Nairobi. What a lovely revelation this is turning out to be!

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It may be a minor point, but a pleasure all the same: being able to order what we want for lunch rather than just having whatever happens to be available. It's the first menu we've seen since leaving Samburu five days ago.

While we wait for the food to be served, we get yet another delightful surprise: finding that the lodge doubles as an animal orphanage! Maralal Lodge is owned and operated by Africaility; a non-profit operation run to raise funds for the protection of endangered species.

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The charity work includes employment of game rangers to counter poachers; the rescuing of orphaned animals, and the ongoing establishment of a wildlife orphanage. Kira, the Australian girl, brings us another enchanting experience: one of the inhabitants, a baby wild pig names Gus. I am not sure who is most content when Gus snuggles up to my neck. Not to mention that he has incredibly soft ears. Aww! This place gets better and better!

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The burgers come sans rolls. Just two burgers on a plate with a heap of fried onion. David calls the waitress over: “Should this not come with rolls?” “I'll check” she says and goes off to the kitchen. “We have run out of rolls” she explains when she returns, “but you can have some sliced bread...”

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My loaded chips are great.

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We have almost finished our meal when one of the staff come running: “Would you like to feed the bushbuck?” Two injured bucks were rescued, brought back to health and released, but they come back most days to be fed. They have just turned up in reception (and they obviously got a better welcome than we did). The waitress babysits our food, protecting it from the marauding vervet monkeys, while we go and see the old deer.

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OK, my initial let down has been fully redressed and more! This place rocks!

As we are finishing lunch, the bushbuck wander down to the terrace to take a closer look, to see if we have left them anything.

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The pièce de résistance is yet to come: we are asked if we would like to go and see the cheetah. Cheetah?

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If you can imagine my pleasure at finding the camp is run as an animal orphanage, then I am sure you can picture my excitement at discovering they have rescued two young cheetahs which are kept at the lodge.

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Lesoro and Neten came to Maralal Lodge via Kenya Wildlife Service. The male is about six months old and is still thoroughly wild, hence his Samburu name 'Lesoro', which means 'Of the Wild'. The female is named 'Neten' ('The Fast One') and is probably around a year old. They are kept in an enclosure in the grounds until a larger and more permanent home can be found for them.

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So, the camp is gorgeous, it is run as an animal orphanage and they have two young cheetahs – can it get any better? Oh yes it can! “Would you like go in to feed them?” The guard hasn't even finished his sentence before I answer a resounding “YES PLEASE!”

My exhilaration knows no bounds! Waiting for my turn to get close to this gorgeous cat, I am an agitated, euphoric mess. Jumping up and down with excitement (figuratively speaking of course, as the only real jumping I am capable of is 'jumping to conclusions'), I am literally shaking with the thrill of it all...... and yes, it really is all that!

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Still on a tremendous high, we spend the rest of the afternoon on the terrace, with a drink, watching the comings and goings at the waterhole. What a great day this has been!

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Black Faced Vervet Monkey who sadly had to have his hand aputated.

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Impala

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Black Faced Vervet Monkey at the waterhole

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The warthogs arrive.

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Red Cheeked Cordon Bleu

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Brown Babbler

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Grévy's Zebra

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Lizard

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Northern Black Flycatcher

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Grévy's Zebra

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Grévy's Zebra

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Superb Starling

This is the ultimate lazy man's safari. Sit back in the bar with a drink and let the safari come to you!

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Red Billed Oxpeckers

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Squirrel

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Impala

Despite being scared off earlier by my mobile phone which emits a loud quacking duck noise when receiving a text, the warthogs come back and bring the whole family!

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Impala

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Impala

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Speckled Pigeon

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Brimstone Serin

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Red Eyed Dove

Things you learn while travelling # 2,663,187
Black Faced Vervet Monkeys have bright turquoise scrotum!
I have seen - and photographed - these monkeys numerous times in the past, in several different locations; how come I have never noticed their blue balls before?

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It's not as if you can exactly miss them!

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Speckled Mousebird

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Heuglin's Robin Chat

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Northern Black Flycatcher

It is only when the light fades that we reluctantly tear ourselves away from this gem of a place to go and have a shower and get changed.

For dinner we treat ourselves to a decent bottle of wine and sit talking to Jack, the proprietor of Maralal Lodge for a while.

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Beef stew with chapati

Jack explains all the animals that can be found here in the park, from aardvark to zorilla! I cannot believe my luck when less than half an hour later I shine my torch into the undergrowth, and see two eyes staring back at me. Both David and I look at the owner of the eyes. For half a second or so, he stares back at us, then runs. OMG! We just saw a zorilla! That really is the icing on the cake at this wonderful place!

The staff build us a camp fire, and we bring out the marshmallows, much to the delight of Kira!

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As this is our last night in Kenya, we have packed the toasting forks at the bottom of our bags, so we ask the staff if they have anything suitable. Some sticks are quickly fashioned into make-shift forks, and we teach the Africans about the delight of toasted marshmallows!

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to bring me back down to earth from my cloud nine (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed.

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Cheers and welcome to Maralal

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Posted by Grete Howard 12:32 Archived in Kenya Comments (1)

Lake Turkana

People of the lake

sunny 40 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day six of our Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations.

The wind certainly kept us awake in the night, rustling through the palms, banging tree branches against each other, sending the wind generator mental, knocking over chairs and making our mosquito nets billow out away from the beds. But it definitely helped keep the temperature down: I even had to cover my legs with the blanket at one stage!

Travelling overland down through Africa in a Land Rover has always been my dream, but one that I have never been brave enough to set into action, nor have the circumstances been right. I am now beginning to feel we are getting too old for it – I am therefore quite surprised when I meet Andrea, an Italian photographer and the occupant of the overland truck, this morning: he has at least ten years on us, maybe even fifteen! They have driven all down through Africa from Italy and are now on their way back home again. In broken English he asks John for directions to Sibiloi as his Sat Nav is “kaput”. We get our map out and explain as best as we can: 20 kilometres north, turn left, then left and left again. Seems simple enough, but his English is extremely limited. I cannot help to wonder how much his lack of English is a hindrance in his travels – not many people speak Italian in this part of the world! They scoff at the offer of taking a local chap as a guide and confidently set off on their own.

We are off to the lakeside this morning, starting early to avoid the heat of the day. Seducing and mesmerising in its simple beauty, the conflict between the abrupt and severe surroundings against the dazzling and dreamy water of the lake makes it all the more beguiling.

The Jade Sea

Originally named Lake Rudolph in 1888 by two Austrian explorers, in 1975 the lake was renamed Turkana after the local tribe who inhabit this area. It is also known as the Jade Sea because of the colourful, ever-changing reflections that decorate its surface – which you can't always appreciate fully from ground level.

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I would have loved to have been able to take a sightseeing flight over it for photography, but as that is not an option, you'll have to make do with some images from google:

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The colour comes from algae that rise to the surface in calm weather.

El Molo Tribe

The lake is a source of life for some of Kenya’s most remote tribes, including the El Molo people who live in just two small villages on the south-eastern shores of Lake Turkana. We are visiting one of them this morning.

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I am guessing our escort and facilitator Abdi is some sort of 'royalty' or high caste within the local society, as after speaking with the village chief, it was agreed that Abdi should be called Number One, while the local chief would be referred to as Number Two.

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Number Two shows us around his village and explains about their culture.

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The name El Molo comes from the Samburu expression loo molo onsikirri which means 'the people who eat fish'. Also known as gurapau, 'people of the lake', they are the smallest indigenous tribe in Kenya – in numbers, not stature - with around 10 true members left (only one in the village we visit) out of approximately 1000 inhabitants; the rest being of combined Samburu and Turkana bloodlines though intermarriage.

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As a result of their almost constant suffering from other tribes over the years, they prefer to remain cut-off from much of the world, maintaining a very traditional life eking out an existence from fishing.

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Hunting/Fishing and Diet
When the El Molo originally migrated down into this area from Ethiopia around 1000 BC, they found the land to be too arid to sustain their livestock, so they abandoned agriculture in favour of fishing.

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The El Molo have no access to fresh water, and as they do not engage in agriculture; they survive on fish alone, turning to the alkaline lake for their drinking water. According to Wikipedia, the water is “potable, but not palatable”, yet later in the same article it is claimed that it “is more alkaline than seawater”. Either way. I fail to understand how people can survive on a constant diet of fish and salty water.

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When fishing, the El Molo use number of different implements depending on the circumstances: spears; harpoons; fishing rods made from the roots of an acacia with doum-palm fibre and a forged iron point or hook; or nets made from doum-palm fibre.

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The fishermen brave the waves, winds and swells of Lake Turkana in traditional boats crudely made from doum-palm logs held together with rope. Modern boats would be too difficult to maintain and are rarely available anyway, due to their expense. Imagine the skill required to ride this into the waves of the lake and chase after crocodile or hippo - then kill them with a hand held harpoon! These days, however, they mostly fish for catfish, Nile perch, tilapia or Solomon fish.

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The catch is either roasted immediately or preserved for eating later by sun-drying it on mats on the ground or the roofs of the huts.

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Every part of the fish is utilised, including all the innards.

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Housing
The El Molo live in lakeside homes made from the little vegetation this volcanic wasteland has to offer – straw and palm leaves are woven together by the women to create little igloo-shaped huts.

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People
It is thought that the singular and exclusive diet (high in protein but lacking in fruit, vegetables and carbohydrates), along with drinking the salty lake water, is to blame for the high incidence of ill health and genetic defects amongst this group – blindness, bow legs, and early death. I also guess with so few members of a tribe, inbreeding is inevitable, adding to the genetic deterioration. In addition, every few years cholera outbreaks run rampant through the village causing the demise of the very old and the very young. In a society where reaching the age of 40 is considered 'old', their spartan lifestyle has taken a toll on their appearance way beyond their years.

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Seats
Men often carry stools, known as ekicholong, which are used as simple chairs. They also double as headrests or pillows, keeping the head elevated from the sand, and protecting ceremonial head decorations from being damaged when they lie down. I remember seeing these in a museum in Ghana some years ago and thinking how uncomfortable they look but it's the first time I have actually seen one in use.

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Journey to extinction
There are calls from human rights groups and environmentalists for the government to step in to provide much needed medical and sanitary facilities, secure funding for a fresh water drinking source and save the community from the impacts of climate change, as they fear the ethnic group is on a journey to extinction if nothing is done.

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Thirty years ago an anthropologist who visited the El Molo wrote, "I felt as if I'd stumbled on a race that had survived simply because time had forgotten to finish them off." Very little has changed since then.

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Counting my lucky stars
Spending time amongst these people and seeing how they barely eke a living in such a hostile and inhospitable environment, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of appreciation for the privileged life I was born into, and gratitude for the hardships I have not had to face. I humbly admire their resilience in the constant uphill battle against adversity and the mercilessly grim terrain as they cling steadfastly to their somewhat tenuous existence. Having adapted to their surrounding environment, their simple code of life is built on survival: eating, sleeping and reproducing.

We are One
Being with these indigenous tribes with their seemingly naïve purity and primordial lifestyles, I feel like I have been transported to a bygone era, the Africa of long ago. Despite enormous disparities between our lifestyles and prosperity, I sense a strong connection – we may have lives that are poles apart, but we are still the same - and I find myself wondering: "What are their dreams for the future?" Not the all-encompassing future popularly written about by environmentalists and social reformers, but the more tangible, everyday, personal circumstances of tomorrow or this evening. Fun, laughter, love, appreciation, family, friendship, food... we surely share the same emotions and desires?

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Island of Ghosts
El Molo practice a traditional religion centred on the worship of Waaq, with shrines known as gantes. The shrines are located on an island known as the 'Island of Ghosts' or 'Island of No Return'. Legend tells the story of how the tribes people would retreat to this island when being attacked and use huge piles of catfish to barricade themselves in. The spiny fish bones would ensure raiders were unable to reach the villagers.

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We take a boat out to the island – thankfully a much bigger, motorised boat than the ones the locals use when fishing.

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There are four shrines (which look curiously like the huts the people live in on the mainland) on the island, each with a different function:

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The first hut is a shrine where barren women spend time with a village elder to receive blessings in order to conceive. Today there are baby goats inside...

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Next is the place where sacrifices are made and ceremonies are held to ensure good luck while hunting hippos, although following Kenya's anti-poaching laws, hippos are now officially off the menu. The El Molo's hunting prowess, especially with regard to the ferocious and murderous hippo (hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal – apart from the mosquito), have earned them a reputation for bravery among other Kenyan tribes. During the ceremony – known as ngwere – songs and dances pay tribute to ancestors and the young warriors have their bodies whipped and slashed before being sent out on the hippo hunt!

The third hut is reserved for female circumcision. The practice is outlawed in Kenya, and the hut appears dilapidated. While in the west we have an absolute abhorrence towards what we call Female Genital Mutilation, the general feeling on the subject here is much more ambivalent and complex. Although ingrained in their culture, some girls feel it is an outdated and barbaric practice and they are glad it is now outlawed; while others are more philosophical. As one girl we spoke to said: “the circumcision is all the girls here have, that is purely for them. Everything else in society is about the men - women are rated somewhere below the goats - and this ceremony is the only time in their lives they are the main and most important character.” While I can see the rationale behind this theory, I can think of way better ways of making a young girl feel special and valued!

The last shrine is dedicated to the sick, used as an isolation unit or a place to make requests for protection against diseases.

Birding
While David and Number Two go hiking to the top of the hill on the island, I do some birdwatching with Abdi.

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Crested Lark

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Little Egret

During March and April, Lake Turkana is a major stopover point on the flight routes of migratory birds on the journey back north to their European summer homes. The area also has many local residents, with up to 350 species recorded, including pink backed pelicans and flamingoes who thrive in the brackish water, supported by plankton masses in the lake.

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Slender Billed Gull

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Pink Backed Pelican

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Egyptian Goose

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Grey Headed Gull

While not a true twitcher, more of a dude; I am a lister and am happy to announce 103 trip ticks so far, of which 27 are lifers.

Roughly translated from 'bird watching speak' to plain English, this means that “I am a keen birder but a novice and more into the photography aspect rather than serious study. I do, however, like to keep a list of birds seen in the wild, and I have identified 103 different species so far on this trip, 27 of which are new to me”.

See more English twitcher vocabulary here.

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Spur Winged Lapwing

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Long Tailed Cormorant

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Kittlitz' Plover

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Ringed Plover

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Common Sandpiper

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Long Tailed Cormorant

From the island we spot the Landrover carrying the two Italians driving along the shore of the lake, which is somewhat strange as they left Loiyangalani long before us!

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As we say goodbye to the El Molo village, we give a lift back to town to three girls. One of them is nine months pregnant. She was intending to walk to Loiyangalani, some 20 kilometres away (in this 40 °C heat), in order to try and find a truck which would hopefully be able to take her the six hour drive to Maralal to the maternity hospital. It's a hard life.

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When she gets out of the car in town, I slip her some money “for the baby”, which reduces her to tears. Through Abdi she thanks me and asks my name – she is so grateful she wants to name her baby after me! I feel very humbled and honoured so I cry too. To me it is not a huge amount of money, but I am later told that it is probably the largest sum of cash she is ever likely to have and is equivalent to a week's wage of a skilled worker. I guess that would be the same in relative terms as a stranger giving me £500.

Back at the lodge we are told the Italians got very lost this morning, having not listened to – or understood – the bit about driving 20 kilometres north before turning left. They effectively drove around in a circle and ended up back at Palm Shade Camp where they changed their mind and sheepishly hired a local guide to show them the way.

It is at times like this that I am grateful we have our trusty driver John.

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John bought some some fresh fish in the El Molo village this morning, which the lodge chef cooked up for him and served it with ugali, the staple starch in East Africa. Made into a porridge-like consistency, using millet, maize of sorghum flour, ugali is eaten by rolling a small amount into a ball with your hand, creating an indent for scooping up the sauce. We have come across this in various guises throughout Africa. It is bland but filling. For someone (that someone being me) who has such a low boredom level that I dislike having the same meal two days running, I cannot imagine this being my complete diet. Every. Day. Day in. Day out. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. Only intersperced with some salty water. My heart sinks and my tastebuds go on strike at the mere thought of it!

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Turkana Tribe

After lunch John suggests we visit the local Turkana tribe to see if we can negotiate for the women to don their 'skins' and dance for us. David is somewhat taken aback by Abdi's question while he is conferring with the ladies: “How many women do you want?”

Well....

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While Abdi puts the finishing touches on the deal, the children crowd around the car: shaking our hands, touching our skin and practising their English: “How are you?” “What's your name?”

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Goat or cow skins are tanned, carefully sewn together and adorned with beads and ostrich egg shells. The skins are worn by both men and women on special occasions such as the annual Turkana Cultural Festival where many different tribes from the region come together to show off their outfits and traditional dances. Today these ladies are putting on a private performance just for us.

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Livestock is the core of Turkana culture with goats, camels, donkeys and zebu being the primary herd stock. Livestock functions not only as a milk and meat producers, but also as form of currency used for bride-price negotiations and dowries. A large herd is a sign of wealth, so it is not surprising that the songs and dances of the Turkana culture are a means of boasting about their prized cattle reflecting the economic life of the tribe.

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Dances are held during a variety of special occasions such as giving thanks after the rains or a successful cattle raid; the birth of a child or a marriage and so on. As well as when the Howards visit of course.

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Love this woman's earrings: key-rings and beer-can ring-pulls seem to feature heavily.

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The women seem to be having a lot of fun; and even John joins in the festivities.

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The audience too are enjoying themselves.

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No, this is not the result of some bloody sacrifice thankfully, just a custom to smear oil followed by ochre on your body for decorative purposes.

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Time is moving on, shadows are becoming long, the sun is getting low, and we are getting thirsty. It's time to go for a sundowner. And what better place than by the shores of Lake Turkana.

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The three boys that made my journey special: David, John and Abdi

As we wait for the sun to make its daily journey behind the mountains, I play around with my cameras, my 'models', different lenses, white balance and aperture/shutter speed settings.

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It is not until this evening, with the background being a single, plain colour, that I realise just what a curse dust is for a photographer and what a toll it has taken on my camera! The amount of dirt that has managed to get in to it and settled on the sensor is quite phenomenal! Thank goodness for in-camera sensor cleaning!

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to relieve a nagging headache (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed. Cheers and welcome to Lake Turkana.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:41 Archived in Kenya Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises lakes people children birds boats desert travel village holiday africa hot kenya roadtrip dust tribes turkana undiscovered_destinations northern_kenya laketurkana loiyangalani el_molo Comments (2)

North Horr - Loiyangalani

It is good to have an end to journey towards but in the end it is the journey that matters

sunny 40 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day five of our Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations.

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Finding it hard to sleep at 38 °C, I wake several times in the night. From outside the room I can hear loud meowing and moreover the sound of buzzing around the mosquito net: both hoping to get inside. As with elsewhere in North Kenya on this trip, it is totally, utterly pitch black. Eventually my bladder wins the battle of wills, and I get up to use the loo, swinging my legs over the side of the bed as I grab my torch from the bedside table. There is something soft against my legs! I gasp audibly and switch the torch on. In the beam I can see a pair of eyes staring back me. I gasp once more, and my heart begins to beat faster – until I realise the cat has somehow managed to get into the room during the night. We have another cuddle for a while, before the kitty is once again shown the door.

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Managing to catch a few more hours of sleep, I get up early to see the sand grouse which fly over North Horr every morning just after sunrise on their way from the local waterhole. For the best part of half an hour, the sky is filled with birds: there must be thousands of them! What an amazing sight!

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When we've just finished eating a hearty breakfast of beans, tomatoes, onions and bread, Sister Annicia brings us freshly made mandazi, a very common local food, not dissimilar to a doughnut. They are popular in this part of East Africa, as they can be eaten in accompaniment with many things. They are usually made in the morning or the night before, eaten with breakfast, then re-heated in the evening for dinner.

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We pick up Abdi who has spent the night with his family in town, and almost immediately drop him off again at the other end of the town as he needs to go and check on his mother-in-law. She was bitten by a scorpion yesterday, and despite suffering badly, she is too afraid to take any 'modern medicine', relying instead on natural remedies. Abdi worries for her.

North Horr is built around a waterhole, as are all the towns and villages in this area. Again we find literally hundreds of camels waiting to be watered. I had no idea there were so many camels in Kenya, it is not an animal I associate with this country!

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Compared with yesterday, today's journey is fairly short, but again with changing road surfaces and a vast emptiness of bare but beautiful scenery.

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Gas

We pass through a village called Gas, a stark reminder to appreciate what we've got back home: homes with temperature regulators, electricity with lights during the hours of darkness, comfortable beds, refrigerators with cool drinks, taps with clean water, supermarkets with a huge variety of food, telephones, television, internet, washing machine, cooker, shower, access to doctors, dentists and medicines but to mention a few of the necessities we take for granted. None of those are afforded to the inhabitants of this village. I cannot even begin to fathom how people live under these conditions.

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With the help of EU money, public latrines have been installed in this and many other settlements in the region. A small but very important comfort which helps keep diseases at bay as well as assisting privacy, modesty and safety.

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'Pocket Tree'

Affectionately known locally as the 'Pocket Tree', the mutually beneficial relationship between the acacia tree and ants is what you might call symbiosis: an affiliation between two parties which is advantageous to both.

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The tree provides food for the ants in the form of nectar as well as hollow thorns which they use as nests. The ants return this favour by protecting the plants against being eaten by much larger animals.

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I am constantly left with the question: “What do the animals find to eat in this area?”

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Turkana Herders

She is nine or ten years old and is never likely to know any other life. Her home is the dry boulder-strewn semi-desert of the Turkana region and she spends her days watching her family's animals, 'protecting' them from cattle rustlers and wild animals such as the hyena. Her older brother carries a home made spear. For 100 Ksh (around US$1) she is willing to forget about the 'evil eye' of the camera, and let me photograph her.

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This is her 'workplace'. Day in, day out. At temperatures around 40 °C most days. What a life!

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Just contemplating the simple act of walking on these boulders brings my ankles out in a nervous quiver.

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From chatting to her brother, Abdi establishes approximately where their village is, and John goes 'off piste' to search it out, making tracks where no tracks existed before.

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We see camels in the distance and head that way.

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The village remains elusive, but from a viewpoint on a ridge, we spot a number of Gabbra digging a well. Abdi goes to talk with them to see if they will let me take pictures. From where we are sitting, still inside the car, discussions do not appear to be going well, things get a little heated, negotiations break down and we make a hasty departure. Photography didn't happen this time (boohoo), but here is an explanation of the famous Gabbra Singling Wells:

Singing wells

It's not the wells themselves that sing, of course, it's the people tending to them. In an age-old tradition local Gabbra herders bring their animals to drink and to fetch water for themselves and their cattle. The wells are deep, with crude steps cut into the walls: each ledge holds a young boy, part of a human chain to haul up precious water from the depths of the earth. Rudimentary tin cans and leaky leather buckets hoisted by long frayed ropes are passed from person to person, hand to hand, one by one. It's a laborious task. And all the while they sing. From each well comes a distinctive, simple song, each family's ballad being different to the next one.

It is undoubtedly a joyful way of making the drudgery seem less of a tiresome slog, with the tempo of the music defining the rhythm of the action much in the same way as we would rock along to music in the gym back home. Except this is not a first world artificially-constructed exercise machine, this is a way of life, a daily slog and an absolute necessity for survival.

The singing also has another, more important, purpose: with so many animals and their handlers in one place, confusion is the order of the day, cattle mingling aimlessly here and there. However, over time the animals have learned to recognise 'their' song and subsequently head to the correct well to be watered. Now that is a great connection between man and beast!

This Youtube clip gives you an idea of the wells.

In our rush to get away from the uncomfortably hostile atmosphere at the Gabbra wells and back to the 'main road', we follow a well trodden footpath. As you do.

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After getting a little stuck in some soft sand, John locks the front wheels to engage the four wheel drive. I am surprised that this is the first time he has felt the need to use the car as a 4x4. Impressive!

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Lake Turkana

As we reach the crest of the ridge, the jade waters of Turkana opens up before our eyes, the iridescent colours of the lake dramatically counterbalancing the black and almost lifeless surrounds. Like a resplendent jewel, the glistening waters are almost bewitching with their vivid shades of turquoise and blue.

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After days of monochrome landscapes seeing the sparkling lake, twinkling like little fairy lights at Christmas; we can be forgiven for thinking we have stumbled upon a mirage.

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At a length of 300 km in North-South direction and a width of 50 km, Lake Turkana is the largest alkaline lake in the world, the worlds largest permanent desert lake and the largest lake in Kenya. It has a longer shoreline than Kenya's entire Indian Ocean coast and is also the most northerly of the Great Rift Valley lakes.

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Larger than Warwickshire, about the same size as the US state of Delaware, and just slightly smaller than Luxembourg; standing on the sandy shore of Lake Turkana and looking out across the water it is hard to believe this is not an ocean. In fact, talking about size, and putting it all into perspective, Lake Turkana is 38 times as large as Samburu National Park which we visited a few days ago.

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Loiyangalani

On a journey that can be best described a punishing, this is probably the toughest stretch of 'road' we have encountered so far.

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Of course we could have just flown in and saved ourselves the last few backbreaking, bone-rattling, bum-bruising, spine-jarrings days; but the saying “getting there is half the fun” has never been more appropriate. The overland journey to reach Lake Turkana has been an ambitious, adventurous and arduous expedition, challenging and demanding at times, punishing and exhausting, but that is all part of the allure. It has been a compelling, engaging and thought-provoking odyssey through what can only be described as a 'living ethnological museum'; to a remote, exotic and far flung destination well off the beaten path - and it's by no means over yet.

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Although not exactly 'undiscovered', this region is certainly an extraordinary, intriguing and rarely-visited corner of the world.

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Some things are always better retrospectively, however, as someone once said: "An adventure is never an adventure when it's happening. Challenging experiences need time to ferment, and an adventure is simply physical and emotional discomfort recollected in tranquillity".

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Palm Shade Camp

The camp consists of a cluster of mud huts with straw roofs, all shaded by doum palms in this delightfully green oasis of calm and serenity. I love it!

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Having devoured what little information I could find on line prior to leaving home, I had read good reviews about this camp's clean but shared long drop toilets so I get a huge surprise when I enter our little cottage: we have a more classic style brick building with our own western style en suite bathroom! Yay!

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Our room is next to the bar, and as soon as we've checked in, John arranges for a couple of chairs and a table to be brought to our terrace followed by ice cold drinks. Bonus!

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Again we are the only ones staying here, and the service is exceptional. Nothing is too much trouble.

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The camp is beautifully natural, with an unpretentious, laid back feel to it, including hammocks (although this one appears a little too high...?)

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Today the heat has finally got to me: I have zero energy. I collapse for the rest of the day under the mosquito net in the room like a lazy lion (one of John's favourite sayings). The temperature is still in the high 30s (centigrade) and I have a restless sleep with many odd dreams.

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By the time I wake up and brave the outside world, an overland truck has turned up. We are no longer alone, but they are camping and self catering, so our paths never actually cross.

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After dinner we sit outside gazing at the stars for a while, which is about the extent of the night-life here. Suits me!

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to give me much needed energy (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed. What more could a girl want? Stars, rum and a head torch. Life is good.

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In order to relieve the stifling heat inside the room, we lift all the curtains away from the windows, exposing the net-covered grills to let the wind pass through the cottage during the night. And boy is it windy!

Wind

This region is well known for its turbulent air which is caused by the fact that the lake heats and cools slower than the surrounding landmass. This creates extremely strong on- and off-shore winds, with sudden, violent storms making frequent appearances.

Initially we both agreed the breeze permanently rustling through the palms was a charming feature, cooling the air and giving us some respite from the searing heat. However, what starts as an inviting breath of fresh air, soon turns into an unparalleled wildness with ferocious gusts lashing through the camp, thrashing anything not secured, hurling it in every direction like an electric whisk in a furnace.

The wind is unrelenting.

Posted by Grete Howard 08:42 Archived in Kenya Tagged africa kenya roadtrip turkana northhorr laketurkana loiyangalani Comments (1)

Marsabit - Chalbi - North Horr

♪♫♪ I've been through the desert in a truck with no name...♫♪♫

sunny 50 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day four of our Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destination.

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Some time during the night, I wake up to use the toilet - boy is it dark! There are a lot of wilderness noises, although I can't make out what any of them are. I try peeking through the curtains to see if there are any elephants on our balcony, but no such luck.

The alarm is set for 06:00 so that I can watch the sunrise over the lake. It is still not light when I get up, and certainly no sunrise: the crater is swathed in a thick atmospheric mist!

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For a while I sit outside and listen as the jungle wakes up. From the eerie stillness of pre-dawn, to the air coming alive with sound: birds chirping, eagles screeching, baboons barking and buffalo squelching through the boggy grass. With no human sound whatsoever, I feel at one with nature.

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Egyptian Geese

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Bateleur Eagle

As day takes over from night the mist descends further into the crater and for a while I can barely see the lake. A few birds flit around the bushes and buffalo graze by the lake. But no elephants.

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Black Headed Heron

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Buffalo

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Rufous Chatterer

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Parrot Billed Sparrow

The breakfast waiter tells us there are elephant footprints and droppings in the grounds from a nocturnal visit, but the elephant has gone. Hmph!

I order one sausage and a Spanish omelette. David asks for omelette, two sausages and beans. I get two sausages, David gets one sausage. No beans. With so many people staying it must be hard to get the orders right. Ha!

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When we are half way through the meal, David's beans arrive. Note the luminous ketchup on David's omelette!

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Filled up with sausages, beans and chapatis (!), we are ready for another adventure-packed day.

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David looks fed up as well as filled up!

As he takes our money for last night's drinks, the manager insists: “You need security for North Horr. Many bandits. You need gun.” Sigh. Here we go again... How to make foreign visitors feel safe. Not.

John, having spent the night in town, arrives with the car and we bid farewell to Marsabit National Park and the cool air, with our fleeces firmly packed in the bottom of our bags. All the staff turn out on the front porch of the lodge to wave us off. Such lovely people.

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Goodbye Marsabit!

In Marsabit Town we pick up our (non-armed) guard. The instantly likeable Abdi is a quiet man of slight build and gentle nature who is going to be our facilitator and translator on the journey across the desert to Loyiangalani.

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The jumbled nondescript town of Marsabit, with a population of around 5,000, is a dishevelled outpost of urban civilisation in the vast surrounding desert.

Urban civilisation African style, that is.

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Old plastic bags never die, they just hang around in the 'Marsabit Plastic Bag Cemetery'.

As soon as we exit the town, we leave the sealed highway and relative civilisation behind, for quite a while this time.

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Initially the surroundings are dreary and uninspiring as we head for Chalbi Desert on empty gravel tracks. This is the main road to Lake Turkana.

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After many miles we meet our first vehicle: a truck carrying dried fish from Lake Turkana. We can smell it before we see it!

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Despite the rocky track, John manages to get quite some speed up on these roads while I try to hang out of the window to take photos of the surroundings. After three bumps on my head from the window frame and the second bash on my cheek by the camera, I give that idea up and just hold the camera out of window, point it in the general direction and press the shutter button, hoping for the best. While not exactly artistic, it gives me a few record shots from today's long journey.

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Throughout the morning, the under-wheel surface changes from almost-smooth concrete sections, to shifting soft sand, to hard compacted dirt rutted into a bone-rattling washboard effect.

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We hit traffic congestion, Chalbi-style: we follow another vehicle for a while and eat their dust!

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While there is a (sort of) cooling breeze created by having all the car windows open, the relentless sun is inflating the already smouldering heat of the desert making it 'somewhat warm'!

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After about an hour David pipes up: “Are we nearly there yet?” The saying obviously doesn't translate well, and the joke falls on stony ground. Well, there's plenty of that here!

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This is a sea of red hot lava rocks: large boulders everywhere, fiery rocks of death. Apparently a previous tourist asked John: “who put all these stones here?”

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Uneven doesn't even begin to describe the surface. We bounce and bump along in this cocktail shaker they call a Landcruiser, crumbling and crunching on the ridged and jerky track. This is not the 'Rocky Road of my dreams.

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The stones give way to compacted sand.

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Here in the desert wilderness there are no road marking, no street signs, no landmarks. You have to know your way. Do we turn left or right at this 'junction'? Having driven this route more times than he cares to remember, John fortunately knows the way.

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Ahead of us lies a vast expanse of ... nothing.

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The sinister ocean of volcanic sand and lava rocks commands respect and yet seduces with its own brand of beauty and harmony. It is a seemingly extraterrestrial landscape where only the toughest species survive. Looking carefully we see that far from being devoid of all life, the flat and far reaching desert floor is in fact home to a rich habitat with an abundance of plants that have adapted to the harsh environment here, overcoming a life of thirst and deprivation.

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Amazingly, herds of impala, baboons and ostriches make their home in this forbidding environment.

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More traffic! It is now over an hour since the last vehicle we met on this road.

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For a while we waltz our way along in the soft sand, sliding around like little ballerinas on ice.

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We come across a number of livestock carcasses scattered by the side of the road as a result of an accident a couple of weeks ago. The driver, travelling at night from Lake Turkana, fell asleep. At least 70 animals and one person died in the carnage. Not much is left of the dead animals now: vultures and other carrion-eaters will no doubt have had a feast, and maybe even local nomads.

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Mirage
I get extremely excited when we spot our very first mirage. A naturally occurring optical phenomenon caused by light rays bending to produce a displaced image of distant objects, desert mirages are often mistaken for water reflections implying the presence of an oasis.

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Here comes the technical stuff, pay attention now!

Cold air is denser than warm air and, therefore, has a greater refractive index. As light travels at a shallow angle along a boundary between air of different temperature, the light rays bend towards the colder air. If the air near the ground is warmer than that higher up, the light ray bends upward, effectively being totally reflected just above the ground.

Once the rays reach the viewer’s eye, the visual cortex interprets it as if it traces back along a perfectly straight "line of sight". However, this line is at a tangent to the path the ray takes at the point it reaches the eye. The result is that an "inferior image" of the sky above appears on the ground. The viewer may incorrectly interpret this sight as water that is reflecting the sky, which is, to the brain, a more reasonable and common occurrence.

Thank you Wikipedia

Maikona Village

As we near the village of Maikona, the only settlement we've seen this morning, the scenery changes and the vegetation becomes more abundant. Straw huts appear on the horizon, goats graze on whatever little food they can find and camels are kept in thorny enclosures.

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The local Gabbra people believe that being photographed will take their blood away, so I merely snap a few photos from a safe distance inside the car, hiding my lens from their sight. The scenes are so photogenic and I am itching to walk around with my camera at the well with all those camels, goats, people and cattle. But I believe in respecting the local culture as much as I can so I shall just have to keep the images on the 'memory card in my mind'.

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For miles and miles and miles and miles (you get the picture?), the track and surrounding terrain is just loose sand. The car acts as a whisk and the sand gets everywhere. I eat dust, I breathe dust, I feel dust, I blink dust, I hear dust. I am dust.

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After a while we pass another small oasis, complete with goats. Some of these people walk for days from their village to get to a well, and can often been seen carrying water in bright yellow jerry-cans on the back of donkeys.

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Ostriches wait in the wings for their turn at the waterhole. There is a distinct pecking order at the wells, and not just for animals: many a tribal dispute has started over watering rights and escalated into violent clashes.

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Chalbi Desert

A huge area of virtually flat desert, Chalbi is an endless wasteland of clay and white salt, where the horizon dissolves into a mirage.

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The name 'Chalbi' comes from the local Gabbra language, and means 'bare and salty'. This is one of the hottest and most arid regions in Kenya, a barren salty pan surrounded by volcanic craters and lava flows. Long ago this was in fact part of a lake and even now, during periods of particularly heavy rainfall, large areas flood. Being such a flat area, expansive shallows of standing water and mud form, causing the desert crossing to become impossible. Today, however, the pan is an immense spread of salty, cracked earth.

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The desert is restless and unpredictable, nothing is constant. Even the road is transitional: when John came this way three weeks ago, the track took a different route across the desert to where it is today, making for challenging navigation!

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The temperature in the car is stifling. Having the windows open is akin to being assaulted by an industrial strength fan heater with a sandblaster attachment. Keeping the windows closed is not an option.

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Having read horror stories on the internet before we left home about how the temperatures regularly reach a blistering 60 °C here, I am grateful the thermometer shows 'only' 51 °C ! It is feverishly hot with the brutal sun relentlessly blazing down on the already scorched and bleak ground, cremating it further to a despairing sizzle.

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In the midst of this dystopia*, a young boy herds his cattle to the waterhole, which is likely to be at least a day's walk away.

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*dystopia (dis-toh-PEE-ah) — an imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror. The opposite of utopia.

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The top layer of the salty earth is caked to a crusty skin, much like you'd find on snow after rain, making a delightful crunch as you step on it! Gabbras nomads collect salt here, which they then sell in Marsabit.

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Dual carriageway! Because...? There is so little traffic here that if you are unlucky enough to break down, you may end up having to spend the night here as it could be a day or two before help, in the shape of the next vehicle, comes along.

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Thankfully we didn't break down. John, David and Abdi are just having a bit of fun.

Today we actually do meet another vehicle during the crossing of the desert! The truck initially appears as an unrecognisable mirage on the dusty horizon.

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The stark and austere beauty about this bare and desolate landscape captivates me, despite not being at all like the romantic images conjured up by common (mis)conceptions of what a desert should look like.

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Abdi and Grete

Another oasis, more camels. I don't think we have ever seen so many camels together in one place.

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Followed by another mirage. Or is it a fata morgana?

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Kalacha Dida
These goats are not a mirage, but signal the start of civilisation. We are now on the edge of Kalacha Dida, an oasis surrounded by doum palms offering a shady haven from the hot and intense sun. This is a true oasis with a natural spring. Herders bring their camels, cattle, donkeys and goats from all around – often several days' walk - to water their livestock here.

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This region is one of the poorest in the country, with the poverty level measured at 92%. The main causes of the poverty are: low agricultural production due to harsh climatic conditions, frequent and severe droughts, inadequate water supplies, lack of reliable and lucrative market for livestock products, few employment opportunities, over dependency on relief food and livestock economy, underutilised resources, illiteracy, poor infrastructures that are hardly maintained, insecurity and conflicts, which of course include ethnic clashes and cattle rustling. There is not much going for the region then.

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The presence of a permanent water source attracts wild animals too, such as these impala. Following a prolonged drought this year, most shallow wells (which are the main water source in the area), have dried up, and the few that have remained cannot cope with the increased demand.

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Although our itinerary states that we are spending the night here, in a camp overlooking the Kalacha Oasis, we will be continuing for another hour to North Horr. Previous clients found the facilities at this camp less than adequate, so John sourced alternative accommodation elsewhere. In this region there isn't a great deal of choice, so I am sure that was quite a challenge!

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The camels look bemused as we drive by, briefly suspending their grazing to stare at the passing mzungu (white foreigners).

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Camels
Called the 'ships of the desert', camels are a sign of wealth and status and a must-have animal in this region - they help the nomadic peoples move, transport goods and fetch water. A camel can be loaned or given to other Gabbra families in this, a reciprocal society, with future favours being expected. Camels also provide most of the meat the Gabbra eat, as well as milk during the dry season. The camel has an almost sacred status for the Gabbra, and selling camels or their by-products to outsiders is taboo.

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This region of Northern Kenya is the most barren and desolate area we have ever been to, which is quite a claim to fame considering all the travel we have done and the places we've been over the years.

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The track beyond Kalacha initially traverses glaringly white salt pans before hitting soft dunes of shifting sand and continuing amidst clumps of lifeless palm trees pretending that they hide a refreshing oasis.

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Adorned with 50 shades of brown, and its severe and sombre beauty, Chalbi Desert is spellbinding in a bleak and dismal way. An absolute highlight of this trip for sure!

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North Horr

Built around a natural oasis, 'town' is a gross exaggeration for this vague agglomeration of grass- or mud-huts and tin shacks; sprinkled with a few permanent concrete structures. With the smaller, outlying settlements, North Horr number around 5,000 inhabitants.

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The streets appear deserted: we see very few people out and about in the searing heat of the day. And who can blame them?

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Looking at these dwellings as we make our way through town, I reflect on the fact that inside each and every one of those homes there is one or more person(s) whose life revolves around them in the same way as my life revolves around me. The enormity of this extraordinary perception is overwhelming: fantastic, mystifying, scary and magical, all at the same time. Or as some youngsters of today might say: “That's mental!”

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Catholic Mission
Our home for the night is the Catholic Mission in North Horr where we are greeted warmly by Father John. Aimed at visiting missionaries, rather than foreign tourists, the room is nevertheless comfortable with an en suite bathroom.

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The key to our room

Skin caked with dirt and grime; hair matted into a knotted, twisted tangle by grit and dust whipped up by the prevailing wind; I take my filthy self straight to the bathroom. Having a shower has never felt so good! Although the temptation to stand under the deliciously cool water for hours is almost overwhelming, I am mindful of the fact that water is a scarce commodity around here. My modest effort at preserving water by turning it off while soaping / shampooing and back on again for rinsing, makes me feel a little less guilty about the fact that this is a luxury that most of the local population may never experience.

With the temperature nudging 40 °C, we find a spot in the shade, with a cooling breeze, while John goes off to hire a local woman to cook the food we brought with us from Samburu.

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Father John returns and his next sentence comes as a huge surprise: “Would you like a beer?” Resisting the temptation to answer: “Is the Pope Catholic?”, we are even more delighted when the drinks arrive cold! The situation strikes us as rather surreal: sitting in a Catholic Mission in an oasis in the middle of a desert in Africa, drinking cold beer.

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We amuse ourselves watching the birds come to drink from the outside tap while we wait for the food.

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House Sparrow

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Common Bulbul

A young lad comes over and introduces himself and his two sisters, suggesting that we go with him to the hospital across the road, where we can photograph his sick brother (really?) and of course give a donation. We decline, but he is pretty insistent. When father John re-appears, the three youngsters scamper. “What did he want?” he asks suspiciously. “No, no, no” says Father John when I tell him, “Don't go with him, he is a bit risky”.

The food arrives, and very nice it is too – a mixture of potatoes, carrots, cabbage and corned beef, served with spaghetti. Known to his mates as 'Chilli Boy', John has brought his own bottle of chilli sauce to liven up the dish. He is delighted when we both concur that we too like our food spicy.

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Time for a siesta, although sleeping at 40 °C is proving a little tricky.

Ruso Sand Dune

The people of North Horr are very proud of their one and only sand dune, and 'everyone' from Father John, Sister Annicia and indeed our very own guide Abdi (whose home-town this is) insist that we must see it at sunset, so after our 'refreshing' siesta, we head out into the desert.

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Surprisingly, the scenery here is vastly different to that of the Chalbi Desert.

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I love the way the low sun casts magical shadows over the tiny 'dunes' formed behind tufts of grass by the shifting sand and wind. At first glance the grass looks like trees and the whole image could almost have been one taken from a high vantage point overlooking a large area of desert. It is not.

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Then we see it, looming ahead. The 'famous' Ruso Sand Dune.

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This is a traditional, classic sand dune: a crescent shaped, ridged mound created by the wind.

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Rising from the otherwise course, flat desert floor, it almost looks out of place: like someone has taken a huge bag of fine sand and tipped it out here, waiting for the wind to sculpt it.

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Ruso is longer and less steep on the windward side where the sand is pushed up the dune, and the boys climb to the top, leaving their footprints on the otherwise pristine slope.

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This is a favourite spot to take the village children for a day out, so I am surprised to find we are the only ones here. Then the realisation hits me that 99.99% of the people in the village do not have access to any sort of motorised transport, and as the dune is around 12km outside town, an outing would have to be planned carefully.

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Ever-shifting sand dunes often have a negative impact on humans when they encroach on settlements. Movement occurs when small sand particles skip along the ground like a bouncing ball, colliding with others, in a knock-on effect known as creeping. Dunes move at different speeds depending on the strength of the winds. In a major dust storm, it may move tens of metres at a time!

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I leave my own footprints as a wander around the lowers lopes of the dune, walking further and further away in an effort to try and get a picture without my shadow in it.

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Like an over-excited kid, Abdi jumps off the 'slip-face', the shorter and steeper side in lee of the wind.

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The low sun makes for long shadows, with the ridged dunes creating beautiful patterns in nature.

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Not wanting to be driving through the desert after dark, we make our way back to North Horr and the Catholic Mission just as the sun is setting.

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As we sit under the starry sky, drinking cold Tusker beer and eating delicious spicy lentils, we have to pinch ourselves to make sure this is real. What an amazing adventure we are having!

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After dinner sister Annicia invites us to see their home, which is relatively luxurious, with a huge courtyard in which they grow their own vegetables, plus well-furnished living quarters. As my flash gun blew up a couple of days ago, I only have my mobile phone to take pictures, so I apologise for the poor quality!

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We play with the cats for a while, then say goodnight to Sister Annica and Sister Maggie.

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to help me sleep in this heat (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed. John placed our Diet Cokes in the Mission's fridge when we arrived, so they are lovely and cold now.

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Cheers and welcome to North Horr.

large_Reasons_wh..rink_No_245.jpgAs soon as we open the door to our room, the cat slips in. We play and cuddle for a while, until it is time for bed, when I let it out into the courtyard of the mission.

As the temperature is still 35 °C, we leave the curtains open to let some breeze through the iron grills, and fall asleep to the sound of Midnight Mass in the church.

Posted by Grete Howard 09:27 Archived in Kenya Tagged desert church kenya catholic marsabit northhorr chalbi catholicmission Comments (1)

Samburu - Marsabit

Cool!

sunny 25 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day three of our private Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations. I can't believe it is only our third day here - we've had so many adventures already!

Another noisy night with the monkeys tap-dancing on the roof and the unmistakable warning barks of the baboons followed by the low growl of a leopard. Oh the joys of the bush! At least it was cooler in the night – the temperature dropped to 28 °C inside the cabin. Not exactly cool, but an improvement on the 33 °C the night before.

Breakfast is taken in the company of a troop of baboons, foraging through the grounds. The baboons are foraging, not us. The waiter makes small talk, asking us where we are heading to next. “Marsabit and then across the Chalbi Desert to North Horr and Lake Turkana” we explain. His face takes on a worried expression. “I hope you are taking an armed guard” he says forebodingly. We shrug and finish our eggs.

Checking out at Reception leads to the same question about our onward destination, followed by another sombre warning about having armed protection. Feeling a little unsettled, I ask John about it. He confirms that we are indeed taking an escort, but no, he won't be armed. “If you are attacked by bandits and they can see you are carrying guns, what's the first thing they will do?” John asks. “They will eliminate the armed guy” he reasons. Fair point.

As we load the car, John points out the elephant pug marks right next to the vehicle. So that's where he was in the night! Apparently he is still within the grounds, but we don't see hide nor hair of him as we say our final goodbye to Sentrim Samburu Safari Camp this morning.

To reach the main road we have to drive right the way through the national park, so we get a game drive thrown in too! What a bonus!

And what's the first animal we see? A gerenuk on its hind legs, the one remaining thing on my safari wish-list. Another bonus! There's been quite a few bonuses on this trip already – having stated to John that “my main interest in Samburu is to see the gerenuk, anything else is a bonus”.

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A dull 'thump', followed by a furious hissing sound suggests a puncture. Great – that's all we need now! A national park full of wild animals including all three big cats and the start of a long journey across the wild northern frontier of Kenya: this is not a good time for a flat tyre.

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While John assesses the damage and puts the spare wheel on, we keep a close eye out for predators as well as birds. Fortunately no man-eating animals were seen, just birds.

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Blue Naped Mousebird

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Augur Buzzard

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White Browed Sparrow Weaver

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Secretary Bird

You will be pleased to know that no hunting took place on our safari in Samburu and the only shooting I did was with a camera lens. No lions (named Cecil or otherwise) were hurt in the making of this blog.

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A Dik Dik and an elephant later, and we are out of the park and back on the paved roads again.

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For now.

While the lovely level surface of the sealed road may make for a smoother ride with less dust, it also means John can drive faster. And 'faster' means the audible speed-limit warning on the vehicle is activated. It starts as an intermittent 'beep' and ends up as an annoying high-pitched whine. John turns the music up to drown out the noise.

The road is so smooth in fact that both David and I drift straight off to sleep, having endured mostly sleepless nights so far on this trip. However, our new-found comfort doesn't last long and soon the tarmac gives way to gravel, sand and dust yet again.

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A new road is being constructed in this area: the proposal is that one day the entire stretch of the TransAfrica Highway between Nairobi and the border with Ethiopia at Moyale in the north will be paved. Until then we have to put up with road works, gravel tracks, diversions and heavy vehicles throwing up clouds of dust.

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Dirt tracks merge with pristine new surfaces, but how long will they stay in such immaculate condition with the heavy seasonal rains and huge trucks that ply this highway? Today traffic is minimal.

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The new road is not merely creating an improved transport infrastructure, it is also helping to reduce crime in the region in a roundabout sort of way. During the construction work, contractors are sinking bore holes along the side of the road to increase the number of available watering holes for animals and people, thus decreasing the struggle for water and the ensuing deadly conflicts.

John tells us how not so long ago you would see many, many herders along the side of the road carrying guns; whereas these days, unarmed young boys usually tend to the cattle, with the armed elders overlooking the scene from a nearby high point, ready to step in if necessary. A great leap forward, but cattle rustling is in the blood of these people, so it is unlikely to ever be completely abolished.

Cattle rustling
The pastorialist people here in the north place such a high value on cattle that they often raid other tribes to acquire more animals. This was traditionally not seen as theft, more like a cultural sport and is still considered a perfectly acceptable traditional custom. The difference today is that the raids are becoming increasingly militarised and more and more warriors rely on firearms, with devastating effects. After a prolonged drought, there are more people than ever with guns, ammunition and little else; as the newspaper clipping below shows.

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The journey to reach water can be long and arduous for both man and beast, and often animals (and even sometimes the people) don't make it. The circle of life means a dead donkey becomes a good food source for vultures and other carrion-eating carnivores.

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Once they reach a watering hole, their strife is not over. Often there are already many other people and animals waiting in line to fill their bellies and jerry-cans with clean water. In the picture immediately below you may just be able to make out the guns the men are carrying in order to protect their livestock and themselves from would-be bandits.

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The scenery is constantly changing the further north we travel, from the verdant vegetation around Ewaso Ng'iro River in Samburu, to the dusty edge of the Chalbi Desert near Marsabit. Dust devils, creating impressive mini-tornadoes. Stark barren scenery. The ever-present red sand that covers everything: the road, the plants, the car, us.....

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Especially if we don't remember to close the windows when we meet or overtake another vehicle.

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As the road starts to climb the lower slopes of Mount Marsabit, the air gradually becomes cooler and the vegetation more green and luxuriant. The roads, however, appear even worse if that's at all possible. Just outside the town of the same name, we pick up a rough track which takes us to Marsabit National Park and Ahmed Gate.

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Marsabit National park

Meaning 'place of cold', this surprisingly cool and green oasis soars refreshingly above the hot and inhospitable plains. A true desert oasis, the park encompasses three crater lakes that are the only permanent surface water in this otherwise desolate region. Further moisture is generated by mist forming on the hillsides as the rising hot desert air cools overnight, thus creating a micro-climate. Large tracts of indigenous forests have established as a result, accommodating a wide variety of wildlife. The downside to this is that the thick vegetation and heavy creeper-swathed jungle makes game viewing challenging.

Ahmed, The King of Marsabit
For over 50 years, Marsabit National Park was patrolled by a very famous elephant called Ahmed who was known as the 'King of Marsabit' because of the size of his tusks - the largest ever recorded. In 1970 Kenya's president issued a mandate to place the large elephant under 24-hour protection. Never before or since has this occurred in Kenya, making Ahmed the only elephant to be declared a living monument.

For four years the gentle giant was guarded against poachers day and night by two wardens, until 1974 when he died of natural causes aged 55. His body was found resting majestically on his famous tusks, half leaning against a tree. Ahmed is now honoured by a life-sized statue in the grounds of the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi.

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I am hoping to catch a glimpse of one of Ahmed's descendants later.

A challenging road takes us up through the thick forest, past the lodge where we are staying tonight. All the staff are out on the front porch, happily expecting us to drive in. When we don't, their expressions turn to that of puzzlement, and they wave at us frantically! We merely wave back and continue on our way.

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Matsabit Lodge

Gof Sokorte Guda – Lake Paradise
We head ever higher, bouncing our way on rudimentary tracks through the dense forest, until we reach a viewing area overlooking an extinct volcano.

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Marsabit National park has a number of volcanic craters known locally as gofs. At the bottom of the one of the largest of these crater, Gof Sokorte Guda, lies Lake Paradise.

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Bordered by scenic forest, the area around the lake is famous for its range of birds and diversity of butterfly species. The lake, which forms a natural amphitheatre measuring more than 1 km across, is also a refuge for the rare Lammergeier Vulture, one of 52 different birds of prey found here. Today we only see a few zebra, a number of sacred ibis and a hamerkop.

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Sacred Ibis

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Grévy's Zebra

Marsabit is also something of a snake sanctuary, said to be home to some very large cobras. Unfortunately (some may say fortunately), we don't see any snakes either. And there are no elephants, large-tusked or otherwise, up here. Maybe later.

It's the surface of the lake that captivates me, however, with its artist's palette of surreal colours and outer-worldly patterns of nature. It's like I have entered different world and am looking down on another dimension.

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Beyond the leafy slopes of Mount Marsabit and the lush crater of Gof Sokorte Guda we see the flat and arid Chalbi Desert which we will be crossing as part of tomorrow's adventure.

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Making our way back down to the lodge again, we hear a worrying knocking sound coming from the car. Not more problems?

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Marsabit Lodge
One of Kenya’s older game lodges, dating back to 1974, Marsabit Lodge is set on the the inner slopes of another volcanic crater, Gof Sokorte Dika. After being mostly closed for years, the lodge has apparently had a facelift and now provides rudimentary comfort and excellent service.

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View of the crater lake from the lodge

On arrival we are greeted by smiling staff with a welcome drink and a cool, damp towel. What a pleasing sight that is! My face is covered in red dust and I warn them that the cloth will get dirty. Very dirty. “No problem, that's what it is for” is their reassuring reply.

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Yep, I was certainly one filthy girl and that is just from my face!

We go to the room to freshen up further before lunch. We are the only guests here at Marsabit Lodge, and there are at least a dozen staff serving us in one way or another.

Lunch is chicken, spinach, potatoes and rice with a mutton stew served inexplicably in a separate bowl. It may be simple fare, but the grilled chicken is one of the tastiest I have ever had!

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Rono, the lodge's facilities manager, informs us that the “generator is sick and has gone to town for repair. We don't know when it will be back”. OK. Of course no generator means no shower. Oh well, what does it matter if we are dirty for a few more hours? This is a holiday after all!

John goes off to Marsabit Town to get the tyre repaired and the knocking noise checked out, leaving us with another unexpected afternoon at leisure. We ask at the lodge if there are any walks available, but are told that “it is too dangerous in the national park”, so we spend the afternoon on the terrace drinking coffee (and beer), watching the birds and animals who come to drink at the waterhole and feast on the fresh grass surrounding it.

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Baboons, buffalo and bushbuck

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Black Headed Heron

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Common Fiscal Shrike

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Buffalo

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Reichenow's Weaver (female)

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Rufous Chatterers

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Baboons

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Common Bulbul

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Bushbuck

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African Harrier Hawk

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Juvenile Common Fiscal Shrike

But no elephants. Maybe later. “They come at 6 o'clock” the waiter informs us.

As soon as Rono lets us know the generator is back, we go to the room to take a shower. Afterwards we sit on our private balcony which also overlooks the gof.

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Buffalo at the lake

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Common Fiscal Shrike feasting on a banana

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Black headed heron

No elephants here either.

Half an hour later the lodge's security guard just 'happens' to walk by to tell us not to go out on the balcony after dark as often the buffalo and elephants come right up to the lodge at night; raising my hopes of seeing the famous long-tusked elephants later.

When he asks where we are going from here, my heart sinks a little. “You have security with you? With gun?” he asks. “We have an escort” we reply diplomatically. “With gun?” he persists. We try to sidestep the question: “Our driver is arranging it all.....” Thankfully he changes the subject and enquires if we would like a drink. Good man.

This is the life: comfy chairs, camera/binoculars in one hand and a Tusker in the other while watching the birds and animals. We even seem to have room service - no need to move from the verandah.

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A bushbuck strolls by.

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A couple of Tawny Eagles soar overhead.

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A lone buffalo.

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But no elephants.

“Is spaghetti, chapati and beef OK for dinner?” asks the waiter as he swings by to ensure we are OK for drinks. I muse about what would happen if we said “no”, as I expect that is all they have available in the kitchen.

A large flock of Egyptian Geese take off and skim the surface of the water for a few moments before returning to the same place they just left.

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6 o'clock comes and goes, with no sign of the famous elephants. “Maybe later” says the waiter who brings our third beer (or is that the fourth?) “After dinner”.

As the light fades, more bushbuck appear, the geese settle down for the night and the lake glistens with a wonderful golden glow despite there being no sunset to speak of. As the sun goes down, the air is beginning to feel refreshingly cooler. We are delighted to have to dig out our fleeces and layer up as the temperature plummets. If only we could harness and bottle up this night-time chill for the coming days in the desert.

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Time for spaghetti, chapati and beef methinks.

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Spaghetti, chapati and beef. Beef? It looks like chicken to me...

An unusual combination, but certainly not unpleasant. We get the feeling they really struggled to put something together for us. The chicken on the plate confuses me initially; until the beef arrives in a separate bowl.

The security guard catches us as we leave the table to take coffee on the terrace: “You must take guard to North Horr. I come with you. I have gun” We suggest he talks with John in the morning; and go outside to look for those elephants.

No elephants. It must have been their night off. Oh well.

The stars are out in force this evening though, with the Milky Way looking particularly radiant.

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The glow in the bottom left hand corner is the bright lights of Marsabit!

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Milky Way

The romance of standing under a star lit sky with the man I love is totally wasted on us: while I fiddle with ISO settings, adjust the shutter speeds, change the aperture on my camera and count down the seconds for the timer; David enjoys a drink in the comfort of the bar. Sigh. The loneliness of the long exposure photographer.

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So that we will not be attacked by those pesky elephants (what elephants?), the security guard walks us back to the room. As he bids us goodnight, he asks what time we would like the generator on until. Now that is really personal service.

The bed feels nice and cosy, with a light fluffy quilt and no mosquito net to get tangled up in.

Purely for medicinal reasons: to keep me warm at this cold altitude (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed despite the large sign in reception stating: "No food and drink allowed other than that bought in the lodge". What a rebel I am!

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Cheers and welcome to Marsabit

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:35 Archived in Kenya Tagged animals birds elephants safari kenya roadtrip dust marsabit transafricanhighway Comments (0)

Samburu

Animals and people of the Samburu region

sunny 35 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day two of our private Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations

Having taken our weekly dose of Lariam yesterday (malaria prophylaxis), I had a number of horrible dreams in the night. At one stage I woke up screaming for David to release me from a fishing net which was dragged me under water and I was convinced I was drowning. In reality my foot was tangled up in the mosquito net. Panic over, but after being mostly awake through yet another night (I've only had around six hours sleep in total over the last three nights), I am feeling a little weary this morning when the alarm goes off at 05:30.

We are greeted by the sun gently creating a warm glow reflecting in the river as we go for a coffee before an early game drive. The air is already warm and the sun is not yet above the horizon.

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I ask the askari (tribal security guard) about the noise I heard in the night which sounded like a cat. “That is a cat” he replies with a wry grin. There was I hoping for some exotic animal. Oh well.

Setting off on a game drive before the day has completely broken, we head straight to the place where we saw the dead donkey last night – the kill has been moved, but there is still no sign of the predator. We also return to the spot we supposedly saw a leopard yesterday, but still nothing.

Beisa Oryx
The third of our Samburu Special Five appears this morning - the East African oryx, also known as the beisa, a species of antelope similar to the gemsbok, which lives in this arid semi-desert area. One of the more unusual attributes of the beisa is its ability to store water by raising its body temperatures in order to avoid perspiration.

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In the distance we can see a number of vultures and eagles circling above a bush, and guessing there has been a kill, John heads that way.

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Tawny Eagle

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African White Backed Vulture

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Tawny Eagle

He is right. A young male cheetah saunters out from the undergrowth as we approach, then joins his two brothers in the shade for a bonding session.

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If you look carefully, you can see the blood on the side of his face and forelegs from having just eaten.

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"Let me clean that up for you"

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With the big cats out of the way, the birds of prey feast on the remains of the kill.

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Tawny Eagle

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African White Backed Vulture

We have the cheetahs to ourselves for a good 20 minutes, but after John has radioed the other drivers, up to 25 vehicles turn up, so we leave them to it and move on in search of the next animal encounter.

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Vulturine Guineafowl

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Vulturine Guineafowl

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Warthogs

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Warthogs

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We startle a hare

Somali Ostrich
The Somali ostrich is native to south-eastern Ethiopia, across most of Somalia, Djibouti and northern Kenya. Though generally similar to other ostriches, the skin of the neck and thighs of the Somali ostrich is grey-blue (rather than pinkish), becoming bright blue on the male during the mating season. The neck lacks a typical broad white ring, and the tail feathers are white.

I am not sure I could tell the difference without seeing them side by side, so I take the experts' word for it.

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Somali Ostrich - number four of the Samburu Special Five

Another congregation of safari vehicles draws us to the side of an escarpment. Facing into the sun, with the hillside being in the shade and a lot of dust hanging in the air, it is hard to pick anything out. For a while I am just looking at stones.

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Then I see it: a leopard! (with thanks to Photoshop for helping to make it a much clearer picture post-processing)

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She jumps up on a rock, then slopes off into the undergrowth.

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For ages all I can see is rock (again), with the occasional movement of a tail behind the shrubs. Then she re-appears – or maybe she was there all along and I just didn't see her.

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As she moves in and out of our sight, I become aware that there is not just one leopard, but TWO.

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After playing with her cub for a while, they both settle down, curled up on the rocky hillside.

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They remain out of sight for quite some time, and we are just starting to drive off when they re-appear and begin to climb up the rock-face.

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We stay and watch them until they have climbed all the way to the top and disappear into the bush once more. What an amazing encounter! This really is the best leopard sighting ever for us! With all the excitement, I offer no apologies for the number of photos of these cute little kitties I have posted here.

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Time for some other animals:

Grévy's Zebra - the last of the Samburu Special Five
Now considered endangered, it is believed that a mere 2,500 specimens of the Grévy's zebra remain in the wild; against some 750,000 of their most widespread zebra cousins, the Plains Zebra.

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Named after Jules Grévy, then president of France, who was given one by the government of Abyssinia in the 1880s, the Grévy inhabits just parts of Northern Kenya with some isolated populations in Ethiopia.

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From Wikipedia

If you thought a zebra was a zebra (or a horse in pyjamas as my friend Lyn calls them), you'd be wrong. The three species (there is a Mountain Zebra as well) are very different: while the Plains and Mountain zebras resemble horses, the Grévy’s zebra is much more like its close relative, the 'wild ass'. Compared with the other zebras, the Grévy is taller and has larger ears. The main difference, however, is in the stripes as shown below:

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(This illustrative poster was seen (and photographed) in the grounds of Marwell Wildlife)

On the subject of stripes – each zebra's pattern is unique, in much the same way our fingerprints are. While zebra stripes are dazzlingly striking to the human eye (and camera – I love photographing zebras!), the big cat predators view the world in black and white only, so those stripes are excellent camouflage in the tall grass!

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So, the eternal question – are zebras white with black stripes or black with white stripes? The answer to this question comes down to perspective. Many zoologists would say that a zebra is white because its stripes end towards the belly and the belly is mostly white. Others would say that a zebra is black because if you shaved all the fur off a zebra the skin is mostly black. Not that I have any intention of shaving a zebra...

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So, we have now managed to see the Samburu Special Five: the Beisa Oryx, the long necked Gerenuk, Reticulated Giraffe, Somali Ostrich and Grévy's Zebra. Result!

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There is much more to Samburu National Reserve than just the Special Five of course.

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Let sleeping lions be

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Impala

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White Browed Sparrow Weaver

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Red Billed Hornbill

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Eastern Chanting Goshawk with kill

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Elephants

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Reichard's Seedeater

Suddenly a grinding noise starts to appear from underneath the car, sounding like sand caught in the brake drums. We stop and John gets out, checking all around the car. There is nothing obvious. What is obvious is that being outside the car while surrounded by wild animals (I can still see the elephants nearby) is risky business. David and I keep a close eye out for any predators.

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I somehow don't think this Lilac Breasted Roller posts any threat to John's safety though.

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David gets in the driver's seat and revs the engine while John listens out for the sound from the back, front, left side, right side, underneath.....

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Not being able to find anything particularly amiss, we continue on our way, keeping an ear out for the disturbing sound, which worryingly appears and disappears intermittently. Not a good sign for the off-the beaten-path thousand-mile-journey ahead.

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I am surprised about the relative small size of the oryx: for some reason I imagined it to be bigger than the zebra, more like the size of an eland.

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Crowned Lapwing

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The tiny Dik Dik

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Black Faced Sandgrouse

Surrounded by birds and animals of the African bush, we stop for a while and enjoy a late breakfast which we brought with us as a picnic box from the lodge.

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Superb Starling

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White Headed Buffalo Weaver

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Warthogs

I love the way these guys hold their tails straight up when they run. So cute! That is if you can actually call a warthog cute. I have to admit they have the sort of face only a mother can love.

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White Browed Sparrow Weaver

Dust
The dry season may be good for watching the animals, but it is bad for the dust, which gets into everything: the car, my nose, eyes, mouth, the camera, my clothes, skin, bags... maybe even the drum brakes?

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Gerenuk

I would dearly love to see a gerenuk stretching its long neck and eating from the top of one of these bushes, as they do, but this one doesn't seem to want oblige, however long we hang around.

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Baby Oryx

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D'Arnaud's Barbet

Ethnic Groups

One of the primary focuses of this tour is ethnology, concentrating on the minority groups who live in the north west region of Kenya: learning about their lifestyle, their customs, their culture, their modus vivendi.

The people of Kenya are an eclectic mix, with some 70 or so different tribes, each with its own unique culture. Which ethnic group you belong is still the most important factor in social, work, business and political life. Political parties, for example, are largely based on tribe and less on ideology.

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Samburu

In this region, the main group we encounter is the Samburu, who inhabit a large area in the north of the country. Leaving the national park behind, we head for a small manyatta (village) near Archer's Post. John negotiates a price for us to visit their village, which also includes being able to take photographs. I am particularly interested in that aspect as sneaking covert shots of the locals is a definite no-no in this region, and I have been itching to take pictures of the colourful people I have seen as we have been driving through the villages.

The Samburu, also known as the 'Butterfly Tribe' for the bright colours they adorn themselves with, are enchantingly distinctive and mysteriously remote, having maintained the authenticity of their culture by guarding their ancient customs and traditional existence proudly, largely defying modern trends. Migrating from Sudan in the 15th century and settling in this area, the Samburu were not particularly affected by British colonial rule as the British did not find their land useful or attractive.

We are assigned a guide called Lende, although he says we can call him Simon. Lende speaks good English after having studied at university in Nairobi - paid for by Pontac Productions after he starred in the German movie 'The White Masai' which was set and filmed in this area. However, he didn't like the bright lights of the city, preferring to come back here to Samburu country and live with his family in their manyatta.

The Samburu are semi-nomadic pastoralists who herd mainly cattle but also keep sheep, goats and camels; moving them from one place to another in search of fresh pasture and water. Each time they move, they build temporary huts from tree branches, mud, cow dung and grass in compounds called manyattas, in which they live; keeping their cattle in corrals fenced by thorny branches as can be seen on the right in the picture below.

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The entire compound is surrounded by a barrier made from thorny bushes. The number of entrance gates in this fence denotes the number of married couples who reside within the manyatta: each family have their own gate through which they bring their cattle back each night to keep safe from predators.

When the rainy season comes (it has not rained for four months now), they have bits of plastic which they weave in to the roof over the top of the huts to keep them dry inside. The interior consists of three rooms: a bedroom for the parents and another in which the children sleep; with cow skins used as mattresses. The third room is the kitchen. I really can't imagine how hot and claustrophobic that would be: some of the smaller huts are barely five feet tall, and the temperature outside is 35 °C. Crouching over a fire in such a tiny room at those sorts of temperatures, not to mention all the smoke...

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Clothing
Brightly coloured traditional cloths, called shukas, wrapped loosely around their bodies, are worn by both men and women. The most colourful costumes are reserved for the moran – the warriors – who also keep their long hair in braids. Not sure where the warriors are today as all the men we see wear their hair short, or tied up in a kind of hairnet - or maybe that is their braided hair in the nets?

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Jewellery
While the elaborate beaded necklaces and intricate jewellery the women wear may look beautiful, they are much more than mere decoration - the colours and patterns indicate the girl's status and wealth: red necklaces for unmarried women which is changed to multicoloured once they have wed. The shape and colour of the necklaces are deeply symbolic too: the rise of the concentric circle is indicative of the volcanic cones in Samburu country, green represents fresh grass for the cattle, blue denotes the desert skies, red is an emblem of life giving blood, and black is illustrative of the colour of their skin.

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Single young men also adorn themselves with necklaces, but once they marry the jewellery is passed down to a younger brother or cousin.

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The first part of the initiation rite of passage for a young boy - “first pain” as Lende calls it – is the extraction of the bottom middle tooth. The boy must not cry, flinch or even blink; if he does he will bring shame on himself and his family, become ostracised from the village or possibly even stoned to death.

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Mancala
Said to date back to 1400BC, this board game is found in towns and villages all over Africa, the Middle East and beyond. The rules of mancala are complex and vary from region to region and sometimes even game to game, but the aim is to 'steal' all your opponents pieces.

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Dances
In true tourist style, the people of the village perform a couple of short (thankfully) dances for us, including the traditional 'jumping' by the men. Kenya's iconic image of a jumping warrior is not only part of the dance, but also illustrates to all how gifted each man is. The jumps, known as adumu, are part of a number of rituals that make up the the ceremony in which the junior warriors, or morani, graduate to the ranks of manhood.

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Children
The village care for a number of orphaned children whose parents have been killed by lions and other predators while out in the bush tending to their animals. The children perform for us by reciting the alphabet and numbers in English; followed by the ubiquitous request for sponsorship. David performs for the children (and confuses them) by reeling off the alphabet backwards.

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Fire
To me, the most interesting part of the whole experience at the manyatta, is the demonstration of how they make fire. Here is how to do it in case you want to have a go at home:

First take a stick with small dents hollowed out. Fill one of the dents with some sand for friction and a very small amount of dry grass.

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Find some zebra or elephant dung as this is better than cow droppings for dryness and ease of burning. Separate the dung by hand into fine particles.

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Using a long stick with a rounded end, rub your hands together as rapidly as you can.

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Keep going until you see smoke. Where there is smoke, there is fire.

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Empty the glowing embers onto your dung and carefully blow on it. Pile up more dung and grass to create a proper flame.

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Voilà! You now have fire!

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In this short video you can see the whole process:

The Samburu make fire twice a day, morning and evening, and usually just one person will start the fire and others will come here to collect some for their own kitchen.

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Saying goodbye to the Samburu villagers, we make our way back towards the park again, only to find the road completely blocked by a carefully placed roll of barbed wire. Fearing it to be a trap by some of the renowned 'bandits' of the area , John is not willing to take a chance so goes back for reinforcements.

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Making sure the local car complete with an armed guard goes in front of us to investigate, John cautiously keeps well back when they get out of the vehicle to remove the road block. I sneak a couple of photos covertly from the back seat of the moving car hoping no-one will notice, but as you can see, they are pretty blurry and of low quality. I am sure they help convey the jittery atmosphere though.

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A tense few minutes for sure, but no 'bandits' appear; we breathe a large sigh of relief and go on our way for more game viewing.

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A 'Tower of Giraffes' - yes, that is the collective noun for giraffes.

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Beisa Oryx

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Elephants

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Check out those ears!

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Grévy's Zebra

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African harrier Hawk

Having now seen all the Samburu Special Five, I have set John another challenge: I want to see the gerenuk in its typical pose on its hind legs eating leaves from the top of a bush. This is the best he could do, as the antelope jumps down as soon as we move in for a better view.

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We return to the lodge with the rest of the day at unexpected leisure – John needs to go back to Archer's Post to get a mechanic to investigate the noise coming from the car before the long, remote journey over the next few days. Sounds a very good plan to me.

After a lovely lunch of fish in sauce and beef casserole, we chill with a drink in the grounds of the lodge. Yesterday we were six people for dinner in the restaurant but this morning two people moved on, leaving just us and two German birdwatching gents as the remaining guests.

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We have the swimming pool all to ourselves this afternoon apart from a red headed agama lizard sunning himself on the stone wall.

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Our free afternoon goes something like this:
Eat
Drink
Swim
Drink
Sleep
Bird watching
Drink
Pack
Shower
Drink
Eat
Drink
Sleep

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Superb Starlings

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African Silverbill

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David looking for birds - of the feathered variety

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Yellow Spotted Petronia

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Red Winged Starling

The black faced vervet monkeys amuse us for ages with their shenanigans: running around on the roof of the chalet next door (I heard them on our roof in the night too), balancing on the bannisters and jumping into the hammock, swinging around for a while, then repeating the whole thing. They seem to be having such a lot of fun!

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As we are enjoying a pre-dinner drink (in the dark) on our little balcony, one of the askari guards – armed with a spear – comes to tell us not to walk alone to dinner as there is an elephant in the camp. Although the lodge is surrounded by an electric fence, it is still possible to enter the grounds from the river front. Providing the elephant is peaceful and not causing any problems, they would rather let it go about its business than upset it. Makes sense.

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John joins us for dinner and explains how the noise we heard from the car was the prop shaft bearing. Unfortunately they didn't have the required part in the small town of Archer's Post, so he had to go all the way back to Isiolo to make sure the car is in tip top condition and ready for the journey across the northern wasteland of Kenya. He has only just got back!

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As a treat, we enjoy a very nice South African wine with dinner tonight, and just as I have taken a photo of David with the bottle, my flash gun gives out an angry sizzling sound, a puff of smoke and a strong smell of burning. Oh dear.That's the end of my flash photography on this trip.

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The firepit has been stoked up this evening in order to keep the rogue elephant away from the restaurant.

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After dinner we toast marshmallows while we finish off the wine. Everyone packs toasting forks and marshmallows when they go on holiday, right?

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Photo using my mobile phone

Ever since our visit visit to the continent in 1986, I have been captivated by the African sky. Rarely do you see so many stars anywhere, largely as a result of very little light pollution. The sky appears to me so much bigger in Africa than it does back home, and I can sit and gaze at it for hours. I make a feeble attempt at astrophotography tonight, but there is too much light in the camp, and too many trees around for it to be successful.

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to help me sleep through the terrible nightmares (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed.

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Cheers and welcome (back) to Samburu.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:05 Archived in Kenya Tagged animals birds village africa safari zebra cheetah kenya lions leopard samburu manyatta barsaloi beisa Comments (1)

Nairobi - Equator - Isiolo - Samburu

Crossing the Equator - it's all a matter of latitude

35 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day one of our private Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations.

After last night's safety paranoia, the surroundings look peaceful and tranquil this morning as we explore the hotel grounds and load up the car for the great adventure that lies ahead of us.

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An early start to some great birding:

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African Harrier-Hawk

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Streaky Serin

I would have loved to have had some more time to take advantage of the hotel's facilities, but as always there are places to go, things to see.

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It feels good to be on African soil once more, a continent I fell in love with many visits ago and which still touches my heart and soul like no other - that's why, 30 years and 25 visits later, I keep coming back for more.

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Africa, often referred to as the “Dark Continent”, is inherently misunderstood by most westerners and consistently misrepresented by the mainstream global media. Mysterious, complex and enigmatic, there is so much more to Africa than meets the eye.

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#TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou

Today we set out to explore some of Africa's many secrets and hidden wonders, on a voyage along roads less travelled.

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Let's go!

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Heading out of town on the main TransAfrican highway going north, we encounter a number of police check points, each with a vicious 'home-made' stinger across the road. At some they make us stop so that they can check John's papers; at others they just wave us through.

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Wide load on the highway:

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Our first stop is the obligatory curio-shop. The toilets are nice and clean, and the artwork they sell is of high quality. We rarely buy souvenirs, but I do have a weakness for traditional masks, of which I have a wall full at home. I am tempted by an unusual carved set of two 'masks' (maybe not traditional, but beautiful all the same), and manage to negotiate an acceptable price. That'll be my shopping for the week!

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My living room wall at home, full of masks from all over the world!

Crossing the Equator

The Equator is an 'imaginary line' around the middle of the earth, dividing it into two: the northern and southern hemisphere.

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The above picture is dedicated to a friend's daughter who, after having been taught about the Equator at school, excitedly ran home to tell her mum about the 'imaginary lion' running around the centre of the earth.

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The Equator dissects Kenya some 90 miles north of Nairobi.

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Crossing from one hemisphere to another is theoretically painless and unremarkable, indiscernible even. However, always looking to exploit a money-making opportunity, souvenirs stalls have been set up next to the signs which attract camera-wielding tourists and notorious selfie-takers: YOU ARE NOW CROSSING THE EQUATOR

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Coriolis effect
You may have heard about the water going down the plug hole clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anticlockwise in the southern hemisphere, and drains straight down on the equator?

David, our guide, uses a bowl with a strategically placed hole in its bottom, a jug of water and a couple of matchsticks to demonstrate the effect. It does indeed seem that the water changes direction just 20 metres either side of the equator.

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So what causes this? It is something called the Coriolis effect, which is a result of the rotation of the Earth and the inertia of the mass experiencing the effect. This force causes moving objects (including ocean currents, wind patterns and hurricanes) on the surface of the Earth to be deflected to the right in the northern Hemisphere and to the left in the south.

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So far so good.

However, it grieves me to say that according to scientists, the effect the Coriolis force has on a bowl of water is much too small to actually see, especially so close to the equator; and may be better explained by the conservation of angular momentum: any rotation around the drain hole that is initially present will accelerate as water moves inward.

In other words, the person carrying out the demonstration gently encourages the water to travel in the suitable direction by carefully angling the stream of liquid or the placement of the object.

I feel quite disappointed and truly deflated; rather like a child who has just discovered that Santa is not real.

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Please say it is not so!

I study the movements of the guide. I look at the direction of the spiralling water coming out of the bowl as well as the way the matchsticks move. I even try to shake the bowl to make the matchsticks move in a different direction. They don't. Call me gullible, but I still want to believe the effect is true, and if not: this guy is good, damn good!

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After the demonstration and the presentation of a certificate, we are obliged to visit one of the many shops. For fairness, visitors are taken to a numbered shop in turn – one vehicle to number 28, next car to number 29 and so on. Having already done all my shopping for the trip earlier this morning, we do our duty by browsing the allocated store, but despite calls to have a "closer look", we return to the car empty-handed.

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The Birminghum Cool Shop!

A few miles later we stop at a road side stall to buy some vegetables for the evening at North Horr in four nights' time. The accommodation there doesn't offer meals, so we have to bring our own food. Ingredients are more readily available, and offer greater variety, here than they do further north, so now is the time to stock up on fresh stuff.

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John chooses a courgette for our dinner

In this heat, these green tomatoes should ripen to a beautiful red by the time we need them.

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As we head further north, the scenery becomes more and more rural, the countryside filled with pastorialists toiling the soil in age-old fashion.

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Isiolo

The town of Isiolo apparently has a newly acquired status as a 'resort city' (billed as 'the new Dubai'), as part of Kenya's 'Vision 2030' plan. The design is for Isiolo to become a tourist centre to include casinos, hotels, upmarket retail outlets, a modern airport and transport facilities. This brings up a burning question: “why?” The answer lies in the pipeline that brings crude oil from the fields in South Sudan to the ports on the Kenyan coast. With the area's reputation for lawlessness, I guess the government felt it prudent to consolidate the surroundings politically and offer some hope for the future to its inhabitants in order to protect their 'black gold'. John points out the site of the new international airport as we pass.

Wikitravel isn't too optimistic about the town: “Isiolo is the 'last stop' before travelling off the paved road to the towns of Marsabit and Moyale in northern Kenya. Be very aware that Isiolo is not the safest place on earth, and if you are on your own, hire somebody to protect you from the thugs.”

Reading the local news I can see their point...

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Oh, and there is apparently a cholera epidemic here – thankfully we made sure that our inoculations were up-to-date before we left home.

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Isiolo is the north-east’s most important town and a frontier town in every respect, separating the sedate south from the wild, wild north; inhabited by a rendezvous of AK47s and their uniformed owners. Having been rigorously warned by Wycliffe last night not to take pictures of people in the north without asking first, I resist the urge to photograph the gun-toting locals. Probably a wise move.

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I am beginning to be grateful we are merely passing through, although to be fair, we do not notice even the slightest amount of tension or hint of danger. What is noticeable is that the town is inhabited by a larger percentage of Muslims than further south, which is evident by the presence of several mosques and the attire of the people.

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Isiolo is the last big town on our journey, so we stock up with diesel, as do several other safari vehicles on their way to Samburu. In order to ensure the tank is filled to the brim, the vans are either shaken as the fuel goes in; or put up on a one sided ramp to make the most of every available centimetre in the tank.

Fuel (as well as a number of other items) can be paid for by phone using a branch-less banking service known as M-Pesa. Each till has its own number and you dial in from your mobile to make payment. In an area where banks are few and far between, this is a great idea!

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The land is flat, dry and fairly barren here, and the cattle we saw further south is replaced by camels, while straw huts take over from tinned-roofed mud shacks.

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At the side of the road I spot a number of Rendille nomads carrying their entire lives – including the materials to rebuild their huts – on donkeys as they migrate from one place to another. The scene is colourful, exotic and picturesque, and I am itching to take photos, but John's earlier warning resonates in my mind: “People here are not photo friendly, be careful! Don't even snap from a moving car as they might come after us and there are a lot of armed bandits here.” OK then.

Archer's Post

Disappointed we don't get the same level of welcome as President Kenyatta did when he came to Archer's Post earlier this year. Don't they know who we are?

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The Howards have arrived!

Safari time!

We are now entering the wilderness and heading for the verdant bush; ready to come face to face with Africa’s storybook animals. The route to the Jade Sea just happens to be taking us close to one of Kenya's finest wildlife reserves (as you do), so it would be rude not to 'pop in' for some game viewing.

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The expression 'Safari' is derived from a Swahili word, meaning simply 'long journey', although over the years it has taken on a broader meaning, with the dictionary describing it thus:

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Sentrim Samburu Safari Camp

From the gate we head directly to our home for the next two nights: Sentrim Samburu Safari Camp. Located on the shores of Ewaso Ng'iro River, the camp originally consisted of individual safari tents dotted along the riverbank. In 2010 unseasonal and heavy rains created a devastating flash flood which raged downstream, destroying bridges and washing away buildings and tents, scattering furniture and equipment. Sentrim was one of six camps wrecked by the wall of water, which completely demolished the camp, leaving everything covered in a thick layer of mud. Since rebuilt on higher ground and further away from the water, the lodge is now constructed from more permanent material and features individual cottages on concrete platforms with views of the grounds and the river beyond.

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Our room

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View from our balcony

We check in and go for a late lunch, followed by a little siesta.

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Welcome drink

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Glazed pork with rice

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And of course a Tusker

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Siesta on the balcony

Samburu National Reserve

Located just north of the equator in the rain-shadow of Mt. Kenya, the rugged and semi-desert Samburu is a lot drier and hotter than the rest of the Kenyan parks; featuring a mix of wood and grassland interspersed with riverine forest and swamp.

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Samburu National Reserve is relatively small in size compared to the other Kenyan parks, such as Tsavo (which is massive) or even Masai Mara; and minuscule in relation to the Serengeti in Tanzania which has been the destination of choice for our last few safaris: 64km² against 14,763km².

Putting it further into perspective: the area administered by Bristol City Council (our home town) is 110km².

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Samburu Special Five
Most safari-goers – especially first-timers - have their heart set on seeing the 'Big Five', but here in this park the most famous collection of animals to spot is the 'Samburu Special Five'. These are rare species of animals not found in most other East African parks: the long necked gerenuk, Grevy's zebra, reticulated giraffe, Somali ostrich and Beisa oryx.

Having been lucky enough to see the zebra, giraffe, ostrich and oryx back in 1986 when we came to Mount Kenya and Meru National Parks (both of which are in this region), I explained to John that the gerenuk is of particular interest to me on this trip.

When the very first animal we spot on this afternoon's safari is a gerenuk, John dryly comments: “You can go home now then”. I do like a driver with a sense of humour!

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Gerenuk
Looking like something of a cross between an antelope and a giraffe, the long-necked gerenuk is also known as the Waller's gazelle. The name gerenuk comes from the Somali word Garanuug, which is translated as 'giraffe-necked'.

The gerenuk is endemic to the semi-arid areas of North east Africa, from Kenya through to Somalia. The secret to its survival in the harsh conditions of the desert-like terrain, is its ability to go without drinking water, instead obtaining enough moisture from the food it eats.

Entering through the lodge gates directly into the park this afternoon, before us lies the endless plains, stretching out as far as the eye can see: a flat and uniform landscape, speckled with acacia trees. Initially the open savannah is seemingly bereft of any wildlife; then with mounting excitement I pick out a few vulturine guineafowl. Slowly more and more birds and animals come into view and over the next few hours we absorb a string of heart-stirring animal encounters. This is the quintessential Africa of wildlife documentaries, but no matter how many TV programmes you may have watched, nothing prepares you for the real thing.

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Vulturine Guineafowl

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Olive Baboons

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Eastern Yellow Billed Hornbill

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Northern Red Billed Hornbill

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Tawny Eagle

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Blue Naped Mousebird

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Elephant

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African Pygmy Falcon

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White Headed Buffalo Weaver

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Yellow Necked Spurfowl

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Black Faced Vervet Monkey

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Impala

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Dik Dik

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Superb Starling

Reticulated Giraffe

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The reticulated giraffe, also known as the Somali giraffe, is one of nine subspecies of giraffe, and is native to Somalia, southern Ethiopia, and northern Kenya and is one of the Samburu Special Five.

So how does it differ from the more common Masai giraffe?

  • The reticulated is taller than the Masai, especially the males.
  • The reticulated giraffe has lighter brown spots in a polygon shape with straight, smooth sides, while the Masai giraffe has rather unpredictable, very deep brown spots

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  • The reticulated is only found in northern Kenya and Somalia, whereas the Masai is resident in southern Kenya and Tanzania.
  • Sheer numbers – while there is estimated to be just 5,000 reticulated giraffes left in the wild, some 40,000 Masai giraffes roam the African plains.

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Donaldson Smith's Sparrow Weaver

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Common Waterbuck

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Impala

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Gerenuk

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Elephant

John is constantly in contact with other drivers via his CB radio, and gets to hear about a sighting which he wants to check out. In the distance we see a herd of safari vehicles and realise it must be something good.

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We arrive in time to see a lioness out for an evening stroll.

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There are five lions in total, scattered around in the undergrowth.

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Born Free
For those of you who can remember the book and movie 'Born Free', Samburu is one of the two areas in which conservationists Joy and George Adamson raised Elsa the Lioness and later re-introduced her to the wild. The film itself was in fact shot here in the Samburu National Reserve.

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These lionesses could then be descendants of Elsa herself!

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Sign at the entrance gate to the park

Moving on, we come across a kill tucked away under a tree – an oryx partially devoured by a lone lioness.

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On the horizon a black backed jackal eyes the meat hungrily, looking for any opportunity to move in for a meal.

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The moment the lioness starts to walk away, the jackal makes a beeline for the oryx carcass.

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Realising that tomorrow's cold leftovers may be lost to a much smaller rival, the lioness decides to come back to protect her food source.

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The jackal scampers at the mere sight of her, but hangs around in the background for a while hoping for a tasty titbit.

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When the lioness settles down close by her kill to protect it, the jackal slinks off into the bush. For now.

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Kamunyak
Seeing the lioness with the oryx kill brought to mind an unusual story that took place in this park some years ago: the tale of Kamunyak, a lioness with a reputation for adopting orphaned and abandoned young antelopes. Kamunyak (meaning 'Blessed One'), is known to have cared for at least 6 oryx calves, establishing an inconceivable relationship with her unlikely protégés, defying nature and baffling scientists.

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This amazing and bizarre story was told by Saba Douglas-Hamilton in a BBC / Animal Planet documentary called Heart of a Lioness in 2005. I would recommend you watch the incredible film (42 minutes) which is available on YouTube. But I warn you – it does not have a happy ending.

Another congregation of safari vehicles promises a leopard on the hillside in the distance. Apparently. Everyone says there is one there, but no-one seems to have actually seen it. We leave them to it.

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No sooner have we driven away from the leopard traffic jam, John hears word of a cheetah sighting and rushes off. On the way we spot a herd of elephants but decide not to linger in order to prioritise the cats.

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The cat sighting is a false alarm. A wild goose chase. It is now getting quite late, and way past the time we are supposed to have left the park. We head for the lodge but encounter a bit of a road block. Just like the men with guns in Isiolo – you don't argue with these guys!

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A stand-off ensues with a couple of mock charges by the young bull.

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Eventually they disperse and we can be on our way.

Nearby we spot a dead donkey under a bush, most likely killed by a leopard. The leopard doesn't appear to have eaten much, and will probably be back later for more.

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Unfortunately we have to leave – regulations state there must be no driving in the park between 18:30 and 06:00. The time is already 18:50 and we have some way to go to get to our camp. John speeds off on the rocky track with me holding on for dear life. David, however, is fast asleep in the seat, with his head bobbing up and down with the bumps.

Back at the camp we have a refreshing cold shower (when the temperature is 35 °C, a cold shower really is refreshing, trust me!), followed by dinner of Vegetable Spring Rolls with a Dipping Sauce and Chicken Maryland.

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to stop me getting dehydrated in the heat (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed.

Cheers and welcome to Samburu.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:14 Archived in Kenya Tagged landscapes animals birds travel holiday africa safari hot kenya lions equator samburu game_drive undiscovered_destinations safari_vehicle isiolo northern_kenya Comments (1)

London - Brussels - Kigali - Nairobi

The adventure has begun


View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

This long day dogged with delays starts with a 40 minute wait for the bus which is to take us from the car park to London Heathrow. We have plenty of time, so it is not an issue, but it seems to set a precedent for the day - continuing with our flight from London Heathrow being 40 minutes delayed leaving, which makes for a very tight transfer in Brussels.

Once we have touched down in Brussels, we have another delay of ten minutes: sitting in the plane, on the tarmac, waiting to be allocated a gate. The transfer here before the next flight has now become extremely tight. We are finally given a gate and are able to disembark, only to find that the left hand does not know what right hand is doing: although we have a gate, the door connecting the gate to the terminal is firmly locked. Another ten minutes go by before a staff member realises that the tunnel is full of impatient passengers and is then able to find someone with a key. We now have an exceptionally tight transfer.

At the security screening there is a long queue, and we anxiously join the end. Our flight number is called and we are encouraged to queue jump, but the transfer is now exceedingly tight.

Our Nairobi flight leaves from a different terminal to the one we arrived at from London, and the ten minute waiting time for the bus to move us between terminals creates a stressfully tight transfer time. People are now really freaking out – there are quite a few of us from the London to Brussels plane trying to reach the onward flight to Nairobi and the atmosphere is tense.

The six minute walk from the bus drop-off point to the gate seems like an eternity, but we finally make it as the gate is closing. Phew. Having missed connecting flights on several previous occasions, I hate tight transfers at the best of times, and when they are compounded by several delays and total shambles at Brussels airport, it makes for a somewhat fraught experience.

Following the frenzied arrival in Brussels, we can 'relax' for eight hours in a tin can accompanied by a chorus of screaming kids. Oh joy.

A beautiful sunset over Africa and a lightning storm from above helps to make the journey a little more bearable.

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In Nairobi, we are met by Wycliffe from African Journeys, and driver John, who whisk us to our hotel for the night. After the stressful transfer in Brussels and the discomfort of the long haul flight, Hotel Boulevard is an oasis of calm. Coupled with a bad night's sleep last night and a mind-blowingly early start this morning: I feel pooped!

Arriving at midnight, we are simply spending a few hours sleeping here, on our eighth visit to the city they 'affectionately' call Nairobbery. Security measures, including checking the underside of the car as we enter the heavily guarded and fenced-in-to-the-point-of-resembling-a-barricade compound of our hotel, are intended to put our minds at rest. I know it is only a precaution, but it always makes me feel a little jittery, especially knowing the city's reputation.

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Purely for medicinal reasons: to calm my 'frayed nerves' (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed, which we enjoy on the small terrace outside our room.

Cheers and welcome to Nairobi!

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Posted by Grete Howard 08:45 Archived in Kenya Comments (3)

Journey to the Jade Sea

Where to next?


View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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There's a long story behind this trip – isn’t there always with our holidays?

The saga started last autumn when we booked a tour of Eritrea through a British company called Undiscovered Destinations who offer tours to... yes, you guessed it: 'undiscovered' destinations.

To cut a long story, the Eritrea trip was booked for February this year, but despite applying to the Embassy in the middle of November, we did not receive our Eritrean visas in time to be able to take the trip. Having bought a non-refundable, non-transferable flight (separate from the tour in Eritrea), we were unable to reclaim any of that cost: £1800 down the drain. "Gulp!" As for the land arrangements in Africa, we advised Undiscovered Destinations (UD for short, although David cheekily suggested that they should be abbreviated as “UnDis”) that we would like them to hold on to our money until we could pick another ('undiscovered') destination for later in the year.

A few weeks later we had chosen another holiday: travelling to Burundi in September; and accordingly booked a couple more flights. This time the visa application looked straightforward and dependable. Adventure travel, by sheer nature of its name, is however rarely that uncomplicated. What we didn't count on was civil unrest. Mere days after we had booked, the country's president announced he was going to stand for a third term in office, an unconstitutional and unpopular move. His opponents revolted, many people were killed or injured in the violent clashes that ensued, and an excess of 100,000 people fled the country. The Foreign Office changed their travel advice to “Amber Warning” and suggested that “If you don’t have an essential reason to stay in Burundi, you should leave as soon as the opportunity arises to do so safely.”

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OK, so maybe Burundi isn't such a good idea either. Back to square one. I suddenly had a flash of inspiration: perhaps we can use the first leg of the flights we have already booked (London – Nairobi, missing out on the Nairobi – Burundi part) and arrange a trip in Kenya? The theory was good, and UD were able to put together a fabulous itinerary in Kenya to fit in with our flight dates. Reality, unfortunately is rarely so straight forward. Kenya Airways (as most airlines) will not allow you to use just one portion of a flight. By not taking the Nairobi – Burundi section we would be classed as a “no-show” and they would cancel the remainder of the flights. Oh. Although disappointed that my brainwave wasn't going to come to fruition, I guess it is better to find that out at this stage rather than if we try to board the plane in Nairobi for our homeward flight and find we've been bumped off it.

At this point I cannot sing the praises of UD enough: none of this was due to any failing or wrongdoing on their part. Having booked the flights separately, not through them, they could have said “tough luck” when we didn't get the visas for Eritrea; same with the FCO warnings for Burundi. They didn't. They offered us a full refund, or the funds transferred to another tour both times. I really want to travel with this company as their customer service to date has been exceptional; plus they have so many exciting looking destinations in their brochure for future trips. So I took a another deep breath and yet again booked two more flights (this is getting a little repetitive and expensive) so that we can do their Kenya itinerary.

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Once more UD showed what a top-notch company they are: in order to make up for some of the money we lost from the forfeited flights, they very kindly offered us £400 off this trip plus a voucher for a further £400 off any future holidays we book through them. Considering no part of this has been their fault whatsoever, I think that is extraordinarily good customer service.

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Undiscovered Destinations Website in case you want to check them out

So, we now find ourselves preparing for a bespoke trip to Kenya. When most people envisage holidays in Kenya, their first thoughts are usually a safari (been there, done that) or an Indian Ocean beach resort (been there, done that), but not UD. The hint is in their brand name. Here is how they describe this 'pioneering' trip on their website:

“On this trip we venture to the little visited northern regions, an arid land home to a number of different ethnic groups including the Samburu, Gabbra, El Moro and Rendille, all of whom adhere to very traditional and unique ways of life. We explore the haunting Chalbi Desert, an ocean of volcanic sand where only the toughest species survive; and continue to the mighty Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world. Here we find the El Molo, who hunt the hippos and giant crocodiles that they share their home with. This tour offers travellers the chance to explore parts of Kenya which see very few visitors, giving a glimpse into ways of life that have disappeared in most parts of the world.

Having since researched the places we are visiting and read other travellers' blogs about their sojourns in the area, the prospect of this trip fills me with a healthy mix of trepidation, exhilaration, apprehension, and excitement.

Bring it on!

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:46 Archived in Kenya Comments (1)

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