Kenya’s Northern Wasteland

I had a rough start in Kenya. The northern part of the country consists of barren desert where only scrub brush or thorny bushes can survive. It was blistering hot and the road was, alternately, sand, dirt, rocks, washboard, and occasionally, smooth packed dirt. For three days I struggled over this awful road, barely making 50 km/day and feeling absolutely exhausted. At first I could not figure out why. The road was flat, the sun was hot, but not as hot as western China, and the road was not as bad as many I have been on (Bolivia and Kyrgyzstan were much worse). Yet I was so tired I stopped for lunch one day and had to lie down in the cafe; I was too weak to get up. I finally realized I had a bad case of diarrhea. It was one of those that leaves you weak and fatigued. I had a few bouts of it in South America, where I had to lie in bed for a whole day.

Here is one of my campsites in the bush.

Finally, after 150 km I gave up. I had to hitch a ride to the next town, Marsabit, 100 km away. I arrived at noon, got a cheap room, took a shower and collapsed on the bed. I slept for six hours.

It was dry in Marsabit. Kenya has two rainy seasons, the long rain, usually March-May, and the short rain, November-December. Well last year the short rain didn’t come, so there is a water shortage in the north. People must line up for hours to buy water at government-sponsored water sites in Marsabit like the one shown here:

Marsabit is a wild, dusty, colorful place. There’s a mix of Muslim, traditional tribespeople, and Kenyans from various areas travelling through. Here is a typical street in Marsabit.

People sell their wares from wheelbarrows. At night the town is dark. Very few places have electricity from generators so walking around is dangerous. If you aren’t careful you may step into a big hole.

The Tribes of Kenya

There are more thsan 45 tribal groups in Kenya, although distinctions between many of them are becoming increasingly blurred, largely as a result of migration to the cities and encroaching Western cultural values. Many smaller tribes have come under the umbrella of larger ones to gain protection in intertribal disputes.

The tribe is still the most important aspect of a Kenyan’s identity. Upon meeting a fellow Kenyan, the first question asked is, “what tribe do you come from?”

The political violence that ravaged parts of Kenya last year was incited by the two main politicians. The President, Mwai Kibaki, is a Kikuyu while his main rival, Raila Odinga is a Luo. After the disputed elections in December, 2007, the two tribes attacked each other, with tacit approval of the politicians (in fact, poor kids were paid by the politicians to burn down the houses of their rival’s supporters). Twelve hundred people died and more than 300,000 had to flee their homes. Not a single person has been prosecuted for the crimes.

But not all tribal violence is political. In the north, where I was, the Borana tribe frequently clashes with the Rendille (pronounced ren-dee’-ley) tribe. In fact, while I was there, three Rendille were killed by some Borana and their cattle stolen. The police tracked the Borana thieves and killed five of them.

Curious about how the traditional tribes lived, I hired an interpreter and visited a local village of Rendille and Samburu people. The Samburu have integrated with the Rendille and dress the same although they speak a different languages. Here are some photos.

I saw these guys walking around town and my first thought was, “Oh they must be going to a masquerade party.” They looked really cool. They are called warriors and they do look the part.

Some of the women in the Samburu village.

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The kids run around and play in the dirt. Look at these babies. Flies congregate around their mouths and eyes, drinking the liquid.

Another Samburu warrior we passed on the road.

I spent a night in one of Kenya’s Nature Reserves. These are protected areas where the big game can live more or less peacefully. I had a nice campsite all to myself. It was quiet and serene, except for the baboons who raided the area while I was away on a little hike. Fortunately they did not figure out how to unzip my tent and get my food. I was a little worried, though, when I told some locals I was camping there. They said, “you are camping alone? Aren’t you afraid?” I hate when people say that. My usual response is, “ no, but should I be?” Apparently poachers sometimes roam the park. There are also leopards which could be dangerous if they catch you around after dark.

But the rangers did not seem concerned that I was alone so I figured it should be OK. I found a nice spot on Lake Paradise where I could observe several elephants and a few dozen cape buffalo feeding around the lake (just a pond, actually, as  everything is drying up.) Here is a shot of the campsite.

I hiked around and got some good photos of a bull elephant that I followed around.

He almost got too close, though. After a half hour I left the elephant and tried to sneak up on the buffalo, but they kept their distance. As I was concentrating on them the elephant, now hidden by brush, kept coming closer. I could not see him but I heard him grazing. Suddenly he stepped out on a trail right in front of me and started walking directly toward me, about 30 feet away. I tried to remember if elephants have a temper or not. Would they charge a human? I decided not to find out. I turned and scampered back up the trail.

That night I had a brief scare again. I had gotten up in the middle of the night to take a leak. It was pitch dark as I wandered several feet from the tent. Just then I heard a low growl, unmistakably the sound of a big cat. I figured it must be a leopard, and it was very close. I freaked out and ran back in my tent. But I still had to go, so I grabbed my flashlight, prepared to zap the thing in the eyes with a beam of light, but I must have scared it away since I heard nothing more.

Here is another visitor who dropped by. Some kind of bat. They are creepy the way the crawl around.

As I said, there were several baboons messing around my campsite. Here is one crossing the road in front of me. I tried to get closer but the things are skittish.

I am still making my way south to Nairobi. See the map for my location and planned route. Next post I will have more interesting desert stories (I almost died) and some great photos of Rendille people in their traditional villages.

6 thoughts on “Kenya’s Northern Wasteland

  1. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr February 7, 2009 / 1:50 pm

    Kev, I am left breathless. This trek is more amazing every time I read it.

    I hope you get to connect with Greg Snell in Nairobi. I think he sent you an e-mail with his phone number.

    May I suggest a simple solution to your “nighttime problem?” Keep a bottle in your tent. Better than running around in the dark stumbling on who knows what.

    Again, contrasting with the drabness of the area is the beautiful and colorful clothes of the tribespeople. Also, those warriors look fit and well-fed and don’t look very fearsome. In fact, their mien is, well, almost delicate.

  2. DAD February 8, 2009 / 2:00 am

    do ypu still have your pepper spray??

  3. Katrina February 8, 2009 / 7:43 am

    3 words:

    please come home.

  4. Alissa Nembhard February 27, 2009 / 7:00 pm

    That bat is so scary and big. Kev, your trip is more interesting each time i read it, and i laugh a few times at how you write and think

  5. Kim March 22, 2009 / 12:07 pm

    You’re crazy…like a fox. Good 4 u. I am enjoying your travels so much that I feel I now don’t have to go. I’ve been there through your eyes.

    I shared your site with one of my students who has shown interest. Though, I think BIG. This definitely something that should be in some sort of format to share with the masses…we talk lata.

    Take care of yourself…pepper spray…hahaha! Dads know best. Smile.

  6. JoJo March 29, 2009 / 2:26 am

    So, like, big cats attack people right? I mean couldn’t he just claw his way through your tent? I know he could, but do they maybe not know that it is as simple as pie to get to you? Anyway. to think I’m petrified by the spiders in my house. Man.

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