Kenya: Lake Naivasha & Nairobi

9th February - 1st March 2002


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It was about midday by the time I left Naro Moru, bound for Lake Naivasha. I had hoped to have left earlier as I had quite a few connections to make. I was once again bypassing Nairobi and retracing my route back to Nakuru taking the first matatu as far as Nyeri before changing at the small but hectic taxi park for another matatu to Nakuru via Nyahururu. After spending so much time at the Mt Kenya hostel it felt strange to be travelling on the road again; it was almost like beginning a new journey. The trip was uneventful as I sped past the plains around Nyahururu, which were still parched at the end of the dry season. The descent back down the Laikipia Escarpment was dramatic with stunning views across the valley below. The road wound steeply down the escarpment, the crash barriers on the side of the road with too many gaps in them for comfort, the twisted, mangled metal being the last testament of someone's fatal driving error.

I waited about an hour or so in Nakuru for a local bus to Naivasha. It was late afternoon by the time I arrived in the small, rather uninteresting town of Naivasha to make my last connection to Fisherman's Camp on the shores of Lake Naivasha. The matatu was absolutely packed, but as we sped along Moi South Lake Road I managed to glimpse my first two giraffes by the side of the road. I shouted out, "Twiga!" and pointed, much to the amusement of the other passengers. This made the journey for me, they were the animal I really wanted to see while I was in Africa; I hoped that during my short stay at the lake I would see more.

The lake is the centre of Kenya's flower growing industry; giant greenhouses and plantations line both sides of the road. This has unfortunately had a detrimental effect on the lake and it's wildlife, with pollution from pesticides, fertiliser and herbicides running off the flower plantations into the lake killing a lot of the fish and in turn reducing the number of birds feeding on the lake. The lake is one of the rift valleys fresh water lakes and along with Lake Nakuru and Lake Elmenteita used to form one large lake, which filled this basin, the waters flowing south through Ol Njorowa Gorge (Hells Gate Gorge) to the soda lakes of Magadi and Natron in the south. Europeans settled in this area of the valley during the 1930's and the lake served as Nairobi's airport between 1937 and 1950 with flying boats arriving on their four-day flight from Southampton. Passengers came ashore at the Lake Naivasha Hotel, now the Lake Naivasha Country Club and from there were bussed to Nairobi.

The sun had just set by the time I had arrived at Fisherman's Camp and it was getting dark fast. Fisherman's Camp looked idyllic, being on the shores of the lake, the whole camp shaded by huge acacia trees. I had arrived too late though and the bunkhouse was fully booked (by the British Army on yet more manoeuvres) and the bandas by the lakeshore were slightly over my budget at KSH800 a night. The owner suggested I try the Top Camp where the bandas were only KSH400 a night, a price more suited to my budget. The Top Camp was on the other side of Moi South Lake Road opposite Fisherman's Camp, and as its name suggests was on top of a hill. I hiked up a path, now in the dark until I reached the top of the hill, breaking out into a sweat in the process and found a small collection of bandas looking out across the lake. The bandas were perfect, situated amongst euphorbia trees and surrounded by geraniums growing to the size of bushes. Each banda also had a veranda with table and chairs and a view out across the lake looking over the top of the acacia trees below, which shaded Fisherman's Camp.

I only had one full day to spend at Lake Naivasha and decided to spend it hiking at Hell's Gate national park. The next day I took a matatu back along the road towards Naivasha town and was dropped at the turn off for the national park. From here it was a 2km walk to the main Elsa Gate. Hell's Gate is the only national park in Kenya where you can walk or cycle freely without taking a park ranger with you. Most people rent bicycles for the day but I decided that hiking would be an ideal opportunity to keep myself in peak fitness for my upcoming treks in Tanzania over the next three weeks. The park is set in an area of intense volcanic activity. The volcano Mt Longonot 2,886m, looms over the park to the east and is thought to have last erupted about one hundred years ago. Fine volcanic ash covers Hell's Gate Park. In the west of the park is the extinct volcano of Ol Karia where steam seeps through the ancient lava flows. This natural heat has been harnessed by a geothermal power station, tapping the steam from 360m below the surface to provide 15% of Kenya's electricity.

The first European to document this area was the German naturalist and explorer, Gustav Fischer in 1883. He gave his name to a high volcanic plug, which rises 25m from the valley floor, Fischer's Tower. This is the first sign of the volcanic activity you see as you enter the park. I hiked along the main trail, which winds through Hell's Gate Gorge, steep escarpments and cliffs on either side. On the plain between the cliffs were huge herds of zebra, Thomson gazelle, Grant's gazelle plus a few warthogs; this was the first time I had seen zebra. It felt strange to be hiking across this plain, through the gorge, covered in dry grass and shrub with herds of zebra crossing the track in front of me. It took me about three hours to reach the ranger post at the head of the Lower Gorge (Ol Njorowa), where I met a Danish couple I had met the previous night at the restaurant and bar at Fisherman's Camp. They had taken the easier option and cycled through the park, although they said it was not that easy cycling through the soft volcanic ash.

I was hot and exhausted and stopped for a while at the rangers post with the Danish couple where the rangers sold some welcome cold sodas. Once we all felt fully refreshed we hiked down into the lower gorge. There is another volcanic tower here known as the Central Tower, which roughly marks the start of the gorge. The start of the gorge is fairly shallow, but quickly becomes steep and after we only walked a short distance down into the gorge the sheer cliffs rose up either side of us. A small trickle of water flowed along the floor of the gorge. The gorge is prone to flash floods and my small guide booklet, which I bought at the visitors centre at the Elsa gate, warns you to keep an eye on the weather. When there is a torrential downpour in the surrounding hills water can race through the gorge sweeping all vegetation, gravel and even huge boulders before it. I presume that this water is also capable of sweeping away the unwary tourist too. The thunder rumbling in the distance didn't do much to put me at ease. About ten minutes walk down the gorge we reached the junction of the side gorge, which stretched about 3/4km to the west past the central tower.

This gorge was absolutely stunning; the water-eroded walls are so narrow in places that they almost block out the sky above. It reminded me a lot of the famous Siq, the gorge that leads into the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. After following the many twists and turns of the gorge, including scrambling over a few large boulders we reached the dramatic end. We stood at the bottom of a huge plunge pool, the dry river flowing down over a cliff and into the gorge. I could only imagine the power of the water as it cascaded down into the gorge, the only evidence before me being the circular carving of the plunge pool. We retraced our steps back to the main gorge. On the way we had a fantastic view of the Central Tower, dominating the view down the gorge. The tower was formed the same way as Fischer's Tower, by semi-molten lava being forced through a fissure in the rock and cooling and solidifying as it extruded. Scattering the floor of the gorge were lumps of Obsidian, a jet-black almost glasslike rock that is formed by the rapid cooling of molten lava.

We continued down along the main gorge, which became deeper and deeper. The stream that ran along the sandy, gravel floor was slowly becoming more than just a trickle as more and more water began to pour from the rocks around us leaving a trail of green algae down the cliff faces. As we didn't have a guide I think we took a wrong turn and instead of scrambling down some steep, wet rocks carved by the water, we took a safer looking path that slowly led us up and out of the gorge. We should have reached some hot springs and steam vents but we failed to find them and instead turned back and retraced our steps back to the head of the gorge.

After stopping at the rangers post again to drink more cold sodas we began our long trip back out of the park. The Danish couple quickly disappeared along the track on their bicycles while I plodded on through the afternoon heat and dust. The thunder I heard rumbling in the distance never really reached the park but on the way back a few welcome drops of rain fell from the sky cooling me down for a while. As I walked back I saw in the distance a lone giraffe heading towards me; I hoped I would see a giraffe today and now here one was walking past me just off the track in the grass. We both walked stopping now and then as we neared each other; myself to take photos while the giraffe peered down at me.

Finally I reached Fischer's Tower near the Elsa gate where I met up with the Danish couple again who were resting at some picnic tables. I stopped to rest, but in the distance I spotted a large troop of baboons approaching us fast. We quickly packed up the snacks we were eating as the first baboons bounded up to the tables. We stood back on the road watching the baboons as they took over the picnic tables and climbed up Fischer's Tower, the perfect acrobats. I began my last tiring walk out of the park and along the 2km dirt road to the main road from where I hailed a passing matatu to drop me back at Top Camp. I returned to my banda and collapsed onto my bed and fell asleep before my head hit the pillow; I was totally exhausted from the heat and the distance I had hiked. It was dark when I awoke and I stumbled back down the hill to the bar and restaurant at Fisherman's Camp. The food there was really good, both nights I had the fillet steak, which really was fillet steak that just melted in my mouth, a far cry from usual African beef that made your jaw ache as you tried to chew it before finally giving up and swallowing it whole.

I had one deadline to meet on this trip that was fast approaching; a friend of mine, Gerald, was flying into Dar es Salaam on the 2nd March to join me for three weeks in Tanzania to do some trekking. Today was Wednesday and 2nd March was on Saturday. When I originally planned this trip I had expected to have been on the coast of Kenya at Mombassa by now; from there Dar es Salaam would only be a few hours bus ride south along the coast. Instead I now had to get to Nairobi and take a bus direct to Dar es Salaam on Friday, which would take over twelve hours. I had heard many stories, mostly of the horror type, about Nairobi. At first these stories scared me and I dreaded the day I would finally have to travel to the city. But as time passed and I heard more and more of these stories I began to get fascinated by the place and by today I couldn't wait until I arrived in the city. Before I stood alongside the road to hitch a ride from a passing matatu to Naivasha I asked a nearby hawker what his one top tip for surviving Nairobi would be. He told me to get the matatu to drop me off somewhere in the city before arriving at the matatu station downtown and to take a taxi from there to a hotel. Apparently, according to all the stories I had heard, the matatu station was home for every mugger, robber, thief, drug dealer and conman in Kenya. So this sounded like good advice to me and was something I hadn't thought of before. Thanking this anonymous hawker for the advice I crossed the road and was shortly in the back of a matatu and on my way to Nairobi.

I had to wait a couple of hours or so at the matatu park in Naivasha for the Nairobi bound matatu to fill up. The matatu park was very small, more of a lay-by at a junction in the centre of the town. I kept thinking I had made the wrong decision when every half hour a Kenya Bus went past me bound for Nairobi, leaving a trail of dust behind it. I had all ready paid my fare so I sat by the side of the road watching the street life, the hawkers and touts chasing every matatu that pulled up in town. Finally rain stopped play and I took shelter in the matatu until the last seat was filled and we began the approximate 100km journey to Nairobi, or as the locals called it Nairobbery.

I took the anonymous hawkers advice from Lake Naivasha and asked the driver to drop me at Westlands, a suburb a few kilometres northeast of the city centre. I climbed, or rather was squeezed out of the matatu, completely unnoticed by any robbers or conmen. The only person who spotted me was a taxi driver who took me safely to the Youth Hostel on Ralph Bunche Road, about 1.5km west of downtown. The fare was KSH400, which I thought was a bit expensive but it was late afternoon and the traffic was all snarled up through the city. The hostel was in a nice part of town, just around the corner from the Nairobi Hospital. The staff were very helpful and friendly and I made myself at home for a couple of nights in a four bed dormitory. I had only Thursday as a full day in the city; I planned to book my bus ticket to Dar es Salaam first thing in the morning. The staff at the hostel recommended the Akamba bus company as a safe and reliable company, which also had an early morning departure. Most busses appeared to do the Nairobi - Dar es Salaam route overnight, which sounded like just asking for trouble to me. The locals told me that the Tawfiq bus company had had its licence withdrawn after a spate of deadly crashes over the last few months. Allegedly, according to the rumours doing the rounds of Nairobi, they had killed 700 passengers. I booked my ticket with Akamba.

Despite all the negative stories I had heard about the city, during my short stay I actually liked the place. If it weren't for the problem of crime and general lawlessness that characterises the city, I would have liked to stay longer and explored the city in more detail. Unfortunately I had my 2nd March deadline to reach Dar es Salaam. The city is very green with trees growing alongside most of the roads. The western side of the downtown area is demarcated by the Uhuru Highway and a number of parks, Central Park, Uhuru Park and the golf course. The parks make a striking contrast to the compact downtown area where there is a great mix of architecture from tall, modern, glass office blocks to old colonial era buildings with grand facades. Uhuru Park is infamous for its muggers, so I decided not to spend a few hours relaxing in the pleasant looking gardens. I was advised not to walk through the park or Kenyatta Avenue after dark to return back to the hostel; taking a taxi was a good insurance policy.

Nairobi is a very new city and only really came into existence with the building of the Mombasa to Uganda railway during the late 19th century, previously it was just a watering hole used by the Maasai. Nairobi is about halfway between Mombasa and Uganda and made a useful base to pause before the railway line was pushed up into the highlands. Nairobi became a tent city for the thousands of mostly Indian labourers who worked on the construction of the railway, as well as home for the British settlers who were overseeing the work. By 1905 Nairobi succeeded Mombasa as the capital of the British East Africa protectorate. Today Nairobi is a modern city with gleaming office blocks downtown, upmarket shopping centres, smartly dressed people, most of the men wearing business suits and ties. The city also reaches the other extreme with huge slums around the suburbs and a large poverty stricken population. It is now the largest city between Cairo and Johannesburg with a population of over 1.5 million.

I took security advice from the locals and went out into the city with only enough money in my pocket for what I needed that day; watches, jewellery, money belts, day packs were all safely locked up at the hostel. I felt confident and ready to do battle. I took taxis into the city and after purchasing my bus ticket to Dar es Salaam went to the National Museum. I would highly recommend a visit to the museum. They have a very good guide service, which is free; I took a guide to show me around the exhibits who proved to be very knowledgeable and greatly increased my enjoyment of the museum. There were three main exhibits; a very extensive fossil collection showing the origins of humans, a huge bird gallery with almost 900 stuffed specimens from around Kenya and the most fascinating exhibition was the Peoples of Kenya portraits by Joy Adamson. Joy Adamson painted an extensive collection of portraits depicting the various local tribal people and their traditional cultures, which make an almost unique anthropology record.

In a courtyard between the main museum building and an annexe is a life-size fibreglass elephant. This is a replica of Kenya's most famous elephant, which was given a 24-hour Presidential guard to protect it from poachers. It's tusks were enormous and would have been highly prized by poachers. The elephant eventually died of old age and not at the hands of poachers. Taxidermists tried to preserve the elephant but failed, hence the fibreglass replica. My guide showed me into the annexe where there was a display of photographs of the building of the railway line and the Asian immigrants who came to the country. Shut off in a corner of the annexe behind some wooden screens was a large object draped in dusty sackcloth. The guide led me behind the screens where the skeleton of this famous elephant stood, looking rather neglected and unwanted; the tusks were absolutely huge. Apparently this is the downfall of the male elephant, their tusks never stop growing and eventually they get so big the elephant cannot feed itself. They also only have seven sets of teeth and when the last pair wear out the elephant again starves and dies, unable to chew its food.

Opposite the museum is the Nairobi snake park. I had some more time to kill so after having a good lunch at the museum cafeteria, I went to scare myself at the snake park. There were also some crocodiles too. I asked the lady at the ticket office what time they feed the crocs, she said on Thursday. Today was Thursday, I asked if I could watch but she said that they only feed them after the park has closed. I haggled for a while but she wouldn't let me back in that evening to watch the spectacle; it was worth a try.

My first evening I ate at the small restaurant at the youth hostel, the food was not that good so on my second night I decided to venture out to find something a little more appetising. I ended up at the Sagret Hotel, a short walk north along Ralph Bunche Road, where they had a large outdoor bar serving nyama choma. Nyama choma is a bit of an institution in Kenya and the neighbouring countries and the bar at the Sagret was excellent. It was like walking into a butchers shop; on the counter was a pile of meat, various parts of different animals. I chose a goat's leg and it was thrown onto the smoking barbecue and half an hour later it arrived on my table served with a plate of chips. I washed it down with three bottles of Tusker beer and left that evening very happy and satisfied.

I woke up early the following morning to catch my bus to Dar es Salaam. The taxi I had arranged to pick me up at 06.00 that morning outside the hostel didn't show up, so I walked back towards the Sagret where I found a few taxis parked up; taxis don't cruise the streets looking for business in Nairobi because fuel is too expensive. My taxi was an old black London cab, which seemed very much out of place driving into downtown Nairobi. The Akamba bus office is on Lagos Street and when I arrived at 06.30 the place was a hive of activity, the street lined with buses heading to all points in Kenya plus a few international buses going to Kampala and my destination Dar es Salaam. The bus was only about a third full when it departed at 07.00 and made its way through the crowded city centre, out through the suburbs and on past the airport and south along the road towards the border town of Namanga.

My journey through Africa continued in Tanzania.

Continue reading this journey: A deadline to reach Dar es Salaam