Week 3 – Nairobi/Nanyuki/Samburu (September 13 – September 16)

I spend 2 days in Nairobi before the stirrings of boredom begin to return. The wifi is appreciated, not so much the scalding-or-cold shower and aggravating cat allergies. Saturday is spent catching up on emails and social media and freaking out over the delightful finale of Hannibal until late in the night. On Sunday afternoon, Santiago’s friend and classmate, Lauren, arrives from Uganda to spend a week in Kenya for the purpose of extending her visa in a way that doesn’t involve complicated paperwork. A 29-year-old well-travelled Peace Corps veteran and natural resources masters student, recently equipped with the convenience of a Furiosa haircut, Lauren makes for an insightful and refreshing conversationalist after my own heart. You can read her agroforestry research and travel blog here. That evening, we watch the Lion King, and I find that I am suddenly able to identify many of the animals down to species, such as the vulturine guinea-fowl, vervet monkey, reticulated giraffe, and oryx.

Monday, Santiago and I take a trip downtown to the Immigration office so that he can look into getting a visa extension, while Lauren Matatu’s her way to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to visit the baby elephants. Our trip to the embassy goes by surprisingly fast, the extension process requiring little more than a simple form, ksh2000, and 20 minutes. We leave the building, pleasantly satisfied, and discuss our options as we loiter outside the building until we are ushered away by some suspicious policemen. Finally, we decide to go directly to the meeting point – the cozy but rather high-end Savanna Café – and have a coffee while waiting for Lauren. After an hour at the café spent reading and chatting, Santiago makes a few calls and we decide to spend the rest of the week in Nanyuki to provide Lauren with the option of visiting the Samburu and Ol Pejeta reserves. We return home and meet Lauren there, pack everything up, and leave by early-afternoon in a private matatu for Nanyuki.

Nanyuki is an unassuming hub, a small market city that also acts as the base for the British army and Kenyan Air Force, and therefore accommodates a sizeable mzungu population who find within it safety and sanctuary. Santiago occupies a small apartment in a gated complex, little more than two rooms and a hallway bisected by a bathroom and kitchen. The typical clutter of the bachelor pad is ever-present, as are several bags of rotted groceries that appear to have been left unattended while Santiago was in Nairobi. Nevertheless, we go shopping for food for the next few days at the local Nakumatt supermarket, and I prepare a dinner of Thai-style Tom Kha and rice, delivering the most flavorful dish any of us have had in a while. Most Kenyan food is nutritious, but largely bland – it consists primarily of starchy bases like rice, potatoes, plantain, arrowroot, or cassava, stewed vegetables, and meat. The staple Kenyan meals are centered around ugali (boiled maize-meal), chapati (fried wheat-flour tortillas), or rice. I often find myself missing the flavorful and varied dishes of Southeast Asia. We move aside much of the clutter to make room for the extra mattress laid down in the limited space of the living/dining room beside the compact fridge, and use my sleeping bag and a spare wool blanket for cover. Despite the rock-hard pillow and intermittent hum of the fridge, I sleep well.

The following morning, a Tuesday, we awake and depart for Archer’s Gate by 6:30am, arriving within 2 hours. This little

From L to R, Apin, Santiago, me, and Francis
From L to R, Apin, Santiago, me, and Francis

rural town, largely occupying a niche as the entry hub to Samburu National Reserve, is the project site for Santiago’s project advisor, Brett, who has worked in this area for about 5 years primarily in community-development. His young assistant and driver, Apin, is tall and slender as are most Samburu, and dressed in a yellow button-up and slacks combination. At the gas station, we fill up and pick up another local acquaintance of Santiago and Apin, Francis, a good-natured and sociable Samburu who acts as our guide. We all pile into the battered and aging 5-seater green car, Lauren and I sandwiching Francis between us in the back, and trundle into the park.

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Reticulated giraffe

It is a little past 9am by the time we enter the park, and largely quiet. This is not the best wildlife-viewing time, as the dry park is battered by the hot rays of the mid-morning sun, but the roads at least are bereft of tourists. Francis opens up the   roof hatch of the little van, hopping up to sit on the cab while Lauren and I stand up and look around for wildlife. We see the usual impala, ostrich, warthog, dik-dik, elephants, and Grant’s gazelle, along with surprisingly large herds of Grevy’s Zebra, reticulated giraffe, and oryx who have flocked to the park with the increased water level in the Ewaso river, which has risen from damp mud during my last visit to a steady stream along the edges of the riverbed. We break under the shade of the lush greenery by the riverbed, and we try to visit Save the Elephants but the crowd of vehicles suggests a meeting going on, so we rest instead at the Samburu lodge, a very beautifully managed (and incredibly high-end) safari lodge along the riverbed. The beer is, of course, 3 times its normal cost, so only Santiago indulges.

Around 12:30, we decide to return to our original resting spot along the riverbed for lunch, and find it occupied by a small horde of baboons. Not to be deterred, we unpacked our food and began laying out a picnic blanket beside a large tree. Out of the corner of my eyes, I see a large baboon dart behind the tree, and suddenly he appears on the other side and snatches the bag of apples right from under my feet with a hiss! Lauren and I cry foul, startled by the audacity, and our Samburu friends shriek with laughter. The two of them begin chasing after the baboon for several minutes, shouting and flanking the thieving monkey. Santiago simply snaps away with his camera, and returns with several worthy images. I am torn between encouraging them and warning them of potential bites, but I trust that the two are largely more accustomed to baboon behavior than I. To everyone’s surprise, Apin returns triumphant with the bag of apples, only two of them pierced by the baboon’s fangs and saliva. Lauren and I retreat inside the car for lunch, nibbling at tomatoes, avocado, and cheese while the boys stand on guard outside with sticks. Santiago makes do with a bag of Oreos for lunch, while the Samburu boys, typically, finish off only a carton of milk.

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Three lions eating an impala carcass

We leave the baboons to their newly-acquired territory and make our way along the river in search of the rumored lions supposedly in the area. We turn a bushy corner and abruptly find ourselves face-to-face with three lions feasting on the remains of an impala carcass! A fourth lioness watches us approach from the opposite side of the trail, and we cautiously drive between her and the others for a closer look, stopping within feet – still on the road – of the dining lions. Keeping a close eye around us for a potential ambush predator lurking around, Lauren, Santiago, and I – in nervous excitement – squash together through the roof hatch and snap away pictures at the fine-dining experience. While difficult to tell at first, we realize there are two males in the small pride – the famous “maneless” lions of Samburu adapted to the exceedingly hot and dry climate of the region. The lions find little interest in us despite the proximity, well-sated by their ample meal and accustomed to the gape of tourists in safari vehicles. It is a humbling experience, watching these powerful predators tear up the sizeable antelope with blood and flies adorning their faces. We leave the lions to their meal as the car begins to fry, and slowly make our way back to Archer’s Post. The road back is incredible rocky and bumpy, and the rather deplorable suspension on our fondly-named “bush-car” jostles everyone like ragdolls against the walls of the car with the promise of extensive bruising.

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Isiolo-bound Matatu

We arrive at Archer’s gate a little after 2:30pm and pay the entrance fee upon our exit of the park – luckily afforded the student fee of only $40 rather than $70 – and split ksh2000 to Apin for car gas. A half-day safari of $45 is comparatively cheap, all things considered. We snag a local matatu rather than pay for a private driver to return to Nanyuki, and only have to wait 30 minutes or so before it fills and makes for Isiolo. Local tunes and American rap squeal through small speakers taped to the roof of the car. The 14-seater matatu is a new experience for me, and while not particularly comfortable, makes for a memorable trip. In Isiolo, we easily find another matatu bound for Nanyuki, except there is only room for one more person. Of course, rather than guide us to another bus, the drivers instruct the clients in the back to move a bit and I squish myself between two women, my full backpack and a little five-year-old girl occupying my lap. A wooden board is set between two seats across the aisle to seat Lauren, and Santiago occupies the last remaining open seat. The two hour ride is, predictably, less than comfortable. Only five minutes out of the Isiolo station, our matatu abruptly pulls over and begins to back up opposite traffic. Unsurprisingly, we suddenly hear a loud thunk and stop. The driver gets out to check on the bicyclist we hit but who seems thankfully unhurt, and after a few minutes we slide back onto the road in our original direction.

The remainder of the trip is, thankfully, uneventful. The landscape becomes startlingly similar to Europe at one point – with hilly fields of golden wheat bisected by corridors of trees and tree plantations. We roll into Nanyuki a little after 6pm and fight off a few matatu drivers trying to drag us to their Nairobi-bound buses. A quick rest at the apartment, and we go out for dinner at a local Indian, the flavorful meal eagerly devoured, and grab a cold Tusker beer at a nearby pub.

The remainder of our resting week is less exciting. I spend Wednesday morning in a café-restaurant above the Nakumatt to take advantage of the wifi while Lauren and Santiago make a more expensive trip to visit Ol Pejeta. After receiving vague directions from a Nakumatt security officer, I drop off my laptop and valuables at the apartment and walk to the market on the edge of town. The open-air Wednesday market is a colorful affair, with locals selling a variety of fruits and vegetables on plastic sheeting on the ground or in crudely built wooden stalls under waxy roofing sheets. I purchase a few bananas for ksh20 and a fourth of a peeled and cut pineapple for ksh10 as my lunch, and wander through the stalls. Avocados as large as ostrich eggs and cabbages the size of basketballs are piled in the stalls beside heaps of bananas, zucchini, passionfruit, green peppers, dried fish, chilies, green lemons, plantain, papaya, pineapple, and mango. Middle-aged women sit on the ground or in plastic chairs beside their wares, batting off flies and gesturing toward the freshest fruit. The fresh food market gives way to white bags heaped with grains, lentils, rice, and beans, and then to piles of second-hand clothes and shoes peddled by loud men who beckon to passerby clients with calls of “Wewe!” and “Mia moja!”

The market makes for a nice walk, and I return to the apartment to rest, with little else to do as I wait for Lauren and Santiago to return from Ol Pejete in the afternoon. We make a quick dinner of vegetable curry rice and plan over the phone with Sarah to meet around 10am for the drive to Meibei.

Overall, I feel rather satisfied with spending the week here, rather than loitering about aimlessly in Nairobi. It’s not in Nairobi that you’d see feeding lions, after all!

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