Kenya | 10 Secret Places
by: Philip Briggs
Kenya, people will tell you, is too touristy. Backpackers whose experience of the country is limited to a bus ride from Nairobi to one or other border will inform you that they dashed through because Kenya is, y'know, too touristy. In game lodges from the Serengeti south to the Okavango you'll meet upmarket safari-goers who have never been to Kenya and say they never will because it's, well, far too touristy.
The thing is - and I say this in the spirit of genuine bemusement rather than wilful contrariness - that after spending a total of nine months travelling in Kenya between 1986 and 2000, I have not the faintest idea what the 'too touristy' brigade are on about.
Fair enough, if you book a week-long charter package at a hotel on Diani or Nyali Beach (the main tourist drags on Kenya's 500-odd km coastline), you'll be exposed to the sort of overcrowding you might encounter on the Costa del Sol in midwinter. In my experience, Kenya is a country as fascinating as any in Africa.
Its most prominent attractions do receive a fair amount of tourist traffic, but no more so than would any other reasonably stable country with a half-decent tourist infrastructure. But because it is so geographically and culturally varied, Kenya also boasts a remarkable array of worthwhile sites that are accessible, affordable - and utterly off any beaten tourist track. Kenya, without doubt, can offer a travel experience as adventurous and un-touristy as you want it to be.
Here are exhibits one to ten for the defence:
Chalbi Desert & Turkana
Turn left at Marsabit, keep driving until there are no trees within sight, and you're in the Chalbi Desert, a vast flat nothingness which is occasionally transformed into a shallow seasonal lake. This land of endless mirages and salt flats somewhat bizarrely drops at its western rim to the base of the Rift Valley and the infinitely mysterious Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake.
Turkana is not only visually compelling - deep green waters hemmed in by an apocalyptic moonscape of extinct volcanoes and naked flows - but its hinterland also provides home to an eclectic mix of staunch traditionalists - the Turkana, Gabbra, Samburu and El Molo peoples. More perhaps than anywhere in modern Africa, visiting Turkana feels like leaving the 21st century behind.
To anybody whose interest in wildlife extends beyond the plains game, this vast western forest close to the town of Kakamega is unconditionally recommended.
In addition to offering great primate viewing (abundant black-and-white Colobus and, with a spotlight, a good chance of picking out the nocturnal sloth-like Potto), this is arguably Kenya's most alluring destination for butterfly and bird enthusiasts, with some 320 bird species, 30 of which occur at the eastern extent of their range.
Despite its atmospheric (and inexpensive) accommodation, and ease of access, Kakamega remains almost wholly neglected by the tourist industry and independent travellers alike.
You've just booked that Diani beach package? Don't panic, because less than an hour's drive away lies one of the country's least visited and most scenic game reserves, Shimba Hills. True, predator sightings at Shimba aren't comparable with those at the Masai Mara, but large herds of tuskers still roam the lush green hills, while mud-stained buffalo and sable antelope (the latter wiped out elsewhere in Kenya) can be taken for granted.
A tantalising list of coastal forest birds is headed by the sought-after Green-headed oriole. For those who want to do it in luxury, a superb Treetops-style lodge - ringed by coastal forest, reverberating with bird calls - provides a playground for red coastal squirrels by day and bushbabies by night. Or you can camp in a forest glade, sipping a sundowner as you gloat in the direction of the distant outline of coastal Diani.
The upper slopes of this isolated forested massif, surrounded on all sides by the arid badlands characteristic of northern Kenya, are protected in a national park studded with crater lakes. Further afield, the area is scattered with 'singing wells', named for the local Borena custom of singing while several dozen of them form a queue by the steep walls to pass along buckets of water one by one.
Miles from any beaten tourist track, Marsabit is serviced by what must be the country's quietest game lodge, with a fine location above a forest-fringed crater lake teeming with birds and visited daily by elephants.
Gedi Ruins and Sokoke Forest
North of Mombasa, within walking distance of Watamu's immaculate beach, the jungle-clad Gedi Ruins consist of the extensive remnants of one of the many medieval Swahili city-states which once studded the East African coast. The stuff of Lost City fantasies, Gedi is overhung with an aura of mystery that is amplified when you realise its existence went unrecorded in any contemporary document.
An added attraction of Gedi is the opportunity to glimpse the localised golden-rumped Elephant shrew bouncing daftly along the forest paths, while the adjacent Sokoke forest provides sanctuary to the rare Ader's duiker and endemic Clarke's weaver and Sokoke scops owl.
Africa's largest body of water, Lake Victoria, is divided between Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, with only the Ugandan portion receiving much in the way of tourism. The main Kenyan port, Kisumu, is a sizeable, friendly city and useful base for ferry trips to places such as Kendu Bay (crater lake with resident flamingos), Rusinga Island (birthplace and mausoleum of the assassinated politician Tom Mboya) and, pictured, Homa Bay (travel for its own sake, but why not?).
With a vehicle, the remote Ruma National Park, home to unusual species such as Rothschild's giraffe and Kenya's only Roan antelope, beckons. So, too, does the Thimlich Ohinga enclosure, a ruined medieval city reminiscent of Great Zimbabwe. For anglers, birders and misanthropists, the highly regarded and utterly exclusive Mfangano Island Camp on the eponymous island is the region's one upmarket retreat.
Two hours' south of Nairobi along a decent surfaced road, yet epochs away in mood, Olorgasailie is one of East Africa's most important early hoately rustic and cheap (bring a sleeping bag), with hyaenas and lions providing a lively nocturnal soundtrack.
Siawa Swamp National Park
Kenya's smallest national park forms an obvious extension to a trip to Kakamega. Consisting of an area of swamp overlooked by wooden viewing platforms and enclosed by riparian forest, this is one of the best places in Africa to see the semi-aquatic Sitatunga antelope and white-bearded De Brazza's monkey, along with several other primates. Top birding, too (look out for the bright purple Ross's turaco) and a secluded camp site you're almost certain to have all to yourself.
Characteristic small-town Kenya, the emphatically un-touristy centre of Kericho lies at the economic heart of the country's tea-growing region. Kericho is of interest more as a gateway to the west than as a destination in its own right, though the drive up from the Rift Valley is scintillating, and the close-by Chagaik Arboretum (an enclave of tropical jungle surrounded by orderly tea plantations) is a reliable spot for Colobus monkeys and forest birds.
The rickety old Tea Hotel on the edge of town is an irresistible low-key, low-cost colonial hangover; the local bars, as in all small towns, are as good a place as any to meet Kenyans working outside the tourist industry. For curio-hunters, nearby Kisii, famed for its soapstone carvings, is worth a diversion.
The largest island in the Lamu archipelago, easily reached by ferry from the absorbing Swahili town of Lamu, Pate was formerly an important city-state and Islamic centre. Today it supports some of East Africa's remotest, least-visited and most fascinating settlements - none more so than Pate town itself, a tiny maze of winding alleys and three-storey homes which rises like a misplaced city centre from the surrounding mangroves, palms and crumbling walls of the synonymous medieval town.
There is no electricity in Pate, no alcohol, and just one informal guesthouse. Expect to be led by hand to admire the recently installed public telephone on an hourly basis, and for any unfamiliar device - camera, binoculars - to attract hordes of merry children yelling 'Telephone, telephone!' The most bizarre and time-warped settlement in East Africa? Without a doubt. Rather wonderful, too.
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