The African Soul of Kenya. A Travel Journal
By Kathy Evans
It was probably the quickest and most painless experience I have ever experienced in a travel agent. No time constraints, no flight restrictions and no accommodation to book.
God only knows where I would be laying my head for the next few months, a thought only to be had at the end of each day. The idea of travelling to Africa was daunting but also growing on me day by day, due my naivety about the beauty and culture. A challenge for this twenty two year old girl venturing into the unknown, discovering for myself why Africa captures everybody's heart.
Jabs, rucksack, walking boots, first aid kit, sleeping bag, what clothes to take, how on earth I was going to carry all this. I know, put it on your bed and half it, nice theory but it doesn't always work. Another useful tip I learnt is to purchase a fake student card, you get far better deals when buying all these items that you are supposed to need.The day had come, I was flying to Kenya. Friends all came to the airport to wave me off, emotions ran high but in a few months time I would be seeing them all again. Where and how long I would stay in Nairobi I had no idea. Not planning or designing my trip was the best plan I ever made. Travelling is like a game of scrabble; you make it up as you go along.
Nairobi, a city to be taken with caution and I admit to finding it quite daunting at first. It was my first experience of a busy, African city. I felt a bit intimidated to begin with, being one of few white people. Not wanting that comment to sound racist but normally I was used to the ratio being in reverse.
After spending a few days in Nairobi I begun to relax, but you still had to be on your guard, rules were there to be abided by; keep bags close to your person, money carefully hidden, and expensive jewellery not to be worn, basically to try and blend in with the local community. It sounds like travelling within a prison but you soon begin to adjust.
Nairobi didn't inspire beauty but it held character, and there was life around every corner. Children as young as three and four were wandering the streets begging for food or money, elderly gentlemen sat at the side of the road mending garments on their antique "Singer" sewing machines, ladies would be carrying one months washing on their head with a baby strapped to their back, and gentlemen with torn trousers and threadbare jackets would proudly be wearing a pair of shiny shoes.
I had never felt so alive and alert as I was when I set foot on African soil; I was just soaking up everything around me. I now felt relaxed and enjoyed the communication I shared with the locals. Up early again and on another mission to explore new places, every day was a new adventure.
Outside the hostel gate, which was patrolled night and day, I had yet another decision, left or right? A backpacker's day is never easy! I started to walk up the road and couldn't resist buying some mangoes from a little girl sitting on the kerb. I had not yet familiarised myself with the local prices but I bartered as best as I could.
During the course of my walk I managed to collect an ankle full of children. Not being able to consume all the fruit myself, I shared the remainder amongst them. No journey was quick, however short the distance, there was always a conversation to be had or a photo to be taken.
I caught the first bus that arrived at the end of the road, hoping that it would drop me off...somewhere! I forgot my Lonely Planet in the hostel room and I had no idea where I wanted to go, so carefully noting the direction I was going in and the hostel name, I proceeded upon my journey. Just as I was about to ask the driver, in my best pigeon English, in what direction the bus was heading, everyone behind me burst into song. An array of young, harmonious voices encircled me, I guess school had finished!
Welcome to Africa!
I ended up walking down a long, dusty road passing several Coke Cola outlets at the side of the road. Then a bakkie (van) stopped along side of me and a white Kenyan said "Fancy coming to the races". Well, I could either walk down this probable road to nowhere or have drinks and fun at the races. So I hopped into the back of the bakkie, I know, never jump into a stranger's car but I did and had a gut feeling to trust them.
It wasn't Ascot or the Melbourne Cup but it held its own prestige. I soon became to learn the lifestyles and social circles of the ex-pat community and the white Kenyans. I thoroughly enjoyed my unexpected day and after my few small bets, it was time to return to my budget lifestyle. The locals who had picked me up were continuing to get very drunk, so my friend and I eventually found which bus we should get back to the hostel. We made it!
Having launched myself off the top bunk, I decided that today was the day to move on. One week in Nairobi was enough; it was a city after all. I started chatting to a Canadian girl at breakfast and she wanted to travel north that day to Nakuru, so I asked if I could go with. Cup of tea, piece of toast, make a friend and travel on, normally how it works! We went to the main bus station in the city and after queuing for ages we managed to purchase our tickets.
Then came the big wait! Waiting for transport to depart in Africa, I soon realised, was a whole different ball game. Buses do not move unless they are packed, but if you manage to get a seat you certainly do not want to move, otherwise it will be taken within seconds, and the prospect of standing for 5 hours next to chickens or on top of a maize sack was not appealing. At times like these you also wish your rucksack would just disappear, giving you that extra leg room.
I spent most of the journey chatting to a young boy who was travelling back home to see his family. Then the question was asked, "Here is my address will you write to me?" Little did I know that I would be asked this question many more times throughout my African journey. My standard answer in the end was that I had no permanent address in England, this seemed to satisfy them.
Having said goodbye to the young boy, I sat for the rest of the journey looking at the beautiful scenery and wondering when we would arrive at our destination. As the day went on, it got hotter and hotter and sticking your head out the window was to no avail, dust and warm air. There are of course no road signs, the locals just know by various landmarks when it is their stop, a small bush or a rock.
So to the Canadian girl and I had no chance of knowing where we were supposed to disembark, so we tried to communicate to the driver that we needed to be dropped off at this lodge. He nodded and continued driving.
Two hours later we stopped in the middle of nowhere and he turned round and pointed to us to get off. We dubiously said thank you, dragged our bags off and stood at the side of the road. It was hot; we were hungry and couldn't see a lodge for miles. Great! Then we hear the patter of tiny feet behind us and turn around to see some children running towards us. They grabbed our hands and lead us down the road. Then the lodge appeared, nestled behind some trees with a river nearby.
I've never been so glad to see something in all my life. We thanked the children, unfortunately we had no pens or sweets to give them but they seemed content at just being able to help us, I am sure we were not the first and certainly won't be the last.
The lodge was basic but perfect for two or three nights. We were greeted by the owners and settled in to our room/barn that we shared with two Danish people. Evening came and dinner was served, rice and beans and a luke warm beer. Everyone went to bed very early, well, there isn't much to do at night and no electricity but the two Danish people and I stayed up chatting and swapping travelling stories. As soon as we got the typical questions out the way, "How long have you been travelling?" "Where are you going?" etc, then it was fine.
One thing travellers like to say is that they have been travelling for a long time and to pass on their knowledge to the novice traveller. After much spraying of "Doom" and slapping of the legs it was time to crawl under the mosquito net and go to sleep.
The next day I went for a walk with a young boy from the lodge. We travelled up hill, down dale and across bush, by this time I had gained a few more blisters and was wondering how long this walk was going to be. To the young boy it was just another day and a few more miles, they after all walk this every day just to get wood and water. He was laughing at me, smiled and said that we were nearly home.
I saw a river at the bottom of the hill and raced towards it, happy to see water so I could cool down; walking in the midday sun wasn't such a great idea. As I looked up I saw a herd of cows coming towards me, so I sat on a little island in the river and waited for them to pass, they were in a better condition than I had expected.
The next day the Canadian girl and I decided to move on, but the place where we wanted to go, Turkana, was only accessible by a 4x4 vehicle, and one of those we did not have. Then to our delight we saw an overland truck pull in, they had got a flat. We asked if we could get a ride with them, and they said yes, I love it when a plan falls into place.
Before we hit the Great Northern Wilderness we all needed to stock up on our supplies. The market was a hive of activity, I spent most of the time on the top of the truck just observing. Bus drivers loading all the goods on top of the trucks, children rolling tyres along with sticks, women balancing their shopping on their head and the men chatting at the side of the road with a carton of what looked like home brew, lethal I'm sure. It didn't take me long to come to the conclusion that the African women worked a lot harder than the African men.
It was nearly dark, so the overland truck driver said that we were going to camp in the middle of the desert until day break tomorrow when they would then continue the journey. Tents all up, fire lit and now time to have a beer. We all chatted well into the night and laughed and laughed, due to the driver having found a secret stash of local whiskey. Then when the lions, tigers and bears started appearing it was time to crawl my way back to the tent. It took another ten minutes trying to find my way into the tent; zippers just don't do it for me at that time of night.
We only reached the camp site late that afternoon and it was a welcome sight. After having checked into my "suite" with a mosquito net that had more holes in it than a golf course, I went for a swim.
The next day a guide took us to the local school and to see the traditional huts. We saw the crafts that they made and were told what they were used for. The school was a single room that held about 30 pupils. We actually sat in on a class and listened to what was being taught. The children were now finding it hard to concentrate with us "mazungoes" there and were now more interested in us than the teacher. I was surprised at how good their English was, both spoken and written. Their main subjects were English, Swahili (the main language out of many languages spoken in Kenya), agriculture and maths.
Their desire to learn is so great and very inspiring, because they are all hoping of a chance to escape their immediate poverty, get a good job in the future in order to support their family, and hopefully lead a better life than their parents did. It made me think of how lucky I was, and how I took my life for granted. I was also impressed with the school children's smart appearance; English school children could definitely take a leaf out of their book.
The peace and the quiet of the desert was wonderful, only the faint sound of buzzing mosquitoes, not so wonderful, oh they can drive you mad. That night I had a Danish girls foot on my head and a Canadian girl snoring, didn't make for a comfortable night but cheaper than having a room to yourself.
All packed and ready to hit the sand again to continue our journey, destination was Kisumu, near Lake Victoria. Waving goodbye to the local people we made our way across the desert.
Once we reached Kisumu, the Canadian girl and I said our farewells. Always sad to say goodbye when you form new friendships but that's travelling, lots of goodbyes, hellos and friends to be made.
My next stop was Uganda...now that was another adventure for another time...
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