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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Safari Njema (Safe Travels)

This past summer I had to take many driving trips in the US and it highlighted for me how I feel about driving in Kenya vs. the States. Driving in the States is so easy and enjoyable compared to driving in Kenya.  As someone who doesn’t really love being in cars, has no appreciation for the machine itself, and has some driving anxiety, I don’t really appreciate the driving experience at home or in Kenya. I do like to travel and enjoy being able to see the scenery wherever I am, so it is a bit of a conflict. In Kenya,  the conflict persists because not only does driving into the unknown often cause a sense of unease,  there’s also sometimes  the physical discomfort of having your teeth practically bounced out of your head or your head racked on the ceiling of the car. Yes,  driving on some of the unpaved  roads here is both good and bad because there are so many opportunities to experience Kenya in a way one normally would not.
On trips in the US, I always go prepared, which is essential for any trip, but frankly, the level of preparedness is all relative. In the states, for instance, you can have a roadside emergency card, like AAA and feel confident that that will work. Also you can get maps that are accurate, or mostly, and you now can, of course, use GPS if you are smart enough to have it (which I am not apparently!).  The nice thing also in the US is that there are roadside stops where you can take a break, stretch your legs, go to the bathroom, and look at a large wall  map (yes, I like maps). Of course, from my perspective, there is way too much garbage on the side of the road and very little variety; too many fast food joints, cheap hotels, lighted up byways, and big billboards, making the highway driving rather unappealing from an aesthetic perspective. But, honestly, the highway system in the US is a wonder and makes long drives so easy. The signage, the lane delineations, the shoulders,  the safety aspects, like guardrails and warning signs, the lighting,  the roadside stops, the convenient coffee and food, hotels and parks; all of these make for such simple driving, you can almost do it with your eyes closed !
I recently had  a hairraising trip home from Montreal by myself after dropping Jeannette there in August. It was not supposed to be a difficult drive because Windsor, Ontario, where the international bridge is, is a straight shot from Montreal on one road. However, I had a heck of a time finding a hotel and ended up driving sort of incessantly, getting more and more frantic and I felt I was in an Alfred Hitchcock movie as I couldn’t see anything except the car in front of me. Unlike in the US, not every town in Ontario has a selection of hotels off the highway, it turns out. And bless those Canadians, their exits are not even very well lit up. It’s actually really  dark in Ontario at night! And their signage is different too….since they are not promoting many businesses off the highway, there are not a million signs forewarning you when a hotel or restaurant is coming up. They do have these roadside “oasis” things, that have a coffee shop, a Tim Horton’s, and bathrooms (they are also LEED certified which is remarkable), but they are not that frequent and there are no hotels at those stops. So, needless to say, I ended up driving and driving and driving into the night, getting more and more tired, a little freaked out, and finally, when I got to Windsor, where the international bridge is, I stopped, thinking I would find a hotel. However, turns out there was a big baseball tournament and a lot of construction too, making access to the city a bit confusing, at 2 am.   After checking probably 6 more hotels, and finding no rooms available, I got directions to cross the bridge, got quite lost looking for it again, and then  I  ended up driving to Dearborn, MI and getting a hotel there. 13 hours later! Not my idea of a fun day or drive but I did learn a valuable lesson or two. I’m just glad I didn’t run into any moose on the road as the many  signs were forewarning me!
I recently returned to Kenya and was immediately immersed into the world of driving again because Michael picked me up in Nairobi and the following day we drove the 6 hours back to Eldoret. One never knows what one is going to find upon the roads here, but fortunately we had good luck and the highway which is in much better shape than it was 2 years ago, was actually somewhat clear.
Then, last weekend, Michael and I took a drive  to the Masai Mara, a large nature preserve in Kenya, bordering Tanzania. We have a small older Rav 4 with 4 wheel drive which we have fixed up and it runs pretty well. I call it the “blue bomb.” Michael has a penchant for taking the road less travelled, or the back way, partly because it’s “part of the adventure” but also because we  see and run into interesting things/people.  However, instinctively, by now, we should know that this is not always a great idea. We left Naivasha, where we had camped on Thursday night, and headed to Narok, which is sort of the gateway to the Masai Mara, by back road. We were told that the road was “ok” and that with our 4 wheel drive, there should be no worries (hakuna matata!). Well…suffice it to say it was not anything like driving on a back road at home. Not even in Brown Co, where the signage is not all that good. First of all, the road was really not built for cars and this we deduced after we noted that we were probably the only vehicle on the road…everyone else was on a small motorbike, much better able to maneuver on this very rutted, very bumpy track. There was no shoulder, and of course no signs or bathrooms or rest stops. We did have snacks with us, and plenty of water. Fortunately, we had 2 large bottles of water because the car began overheating as we climbed up and up into the hills. On the plus side, it was a beautiful region, covered in small farms and huge wheat fields, and something we would never have seen had we taken the main road. We stopped multiple times to let the radiator cool off so we drew a fair amount of attention from passersby and were continuously reassured by people on the road that where we were going was, in fact, quite far.
The funny thing is you really have to be careful who you ask here for directions or travel  information. For one, many people don’t drive so they don’t really understand distances. In fact, most people will tell you that the road is good and that wherever you are headed is far. Very reassuring, except that usually the road is not good and where you are going is not very far, kilometers-wise, but seems far, because  with public transport, there is a lot of waiting around and the vehicles are not in good shape, and the roads are terribly bumpy so they take a long time to get through! So, it really does not pay to ask. It was a lovely dad, at first, but soon enough we could see large billowing rain clouds forming and feel that the light rains were about to begin. The road got a bit better and there was more truck and car traffic, as we got closer to Narok, and then it started raining.  Because of the rain, it became very  slick and sticky. A bit of a cross between peanut butter and molasses with a deep dark rich hue. Since I was wearing sandals and knew I would not be very helpful if we did get stuck,  I found myself “praying” that we wouldn’t.  Thankfully, my hubbie, Michael “let’s take the back way” Greven, is a great driver and was able to get us all the way to Narok safely. There,  we found a mechanic who happened to have the fan that we needed for our Toyota. Not only that, we were able to convince him to give us a good price rather than the price for “ wazungus” so we did not end up paying an arm and a leg for it. Soon, we were on our way to the Mara , happy in the knowledge that our vehicle would not overheat again.
We spent a lovely day in the Mara the next day, seeing lots of wild animals and enjoying what is simply one of the most beautiful places on earth. The Masai Mara Reserve is surrounded by conservancies and we continued our day long drive into the next conservancy, having decided to go out of the western side and drive again through the countryside towards Eldoret.  Instead of staying the night on the conservancy, we left around 5 pm, thinking we would find a place to camp or a small hotel nearby the gate. We also needed fuel at that point and we were told by the people at the gate that we could find fuel nearby. Not so. In fact, we drove on this dirt road for about 5 kilometers after exiting the gate only to be surrounded by small Maasai villages and the only other thing on the road were herds of cows and their shepherds. It was a nice enough road, aside from all the cows that we had to drive behind, but then, as it began climbing, it became more and more bumpy. Nightfall was approaching and there was nary a guest house or campsite in view. I was becoming a bit anxious but didn’t say anything because I knew my super driver would take offense and/or just reassure me that we would find something soon.
We began to wonder where we were and if we had missed a turn. We had a map but it was difficult to say if we were on the road to the big main road, which we were seeking. The map has different colored lines, like most road maps, but they don’t really seem to indicate anything specific. Finally, we started seeing a few signs for campgrounds and then a few safari vehicles, one of which we stopped. Noone seemed to have heard of the town that we were heading to in our search for fuel. It definitely could have been our pronunciation, or it could have been that these people were driving from Nairobi and weren’t that familiar with the small villages either. The safari vehicle driver got out, wearing a big friendly smile, happy to help us. His English was good and he indicated that we should take the next  left and continue straight on that  road as it was a short cut to the big road, in 35 kilometers, he reassured us.  He was very confident seeming,  especially when  he said it was a good road. So, we bombed on up the hill; the road was more stone than dirt and I personally was fearful for the underside of our vehicle. There were many holes, ditches, gulleys, and large puddles filled with black water,  which were a bit difficult to traverse, but MG did it. We commented a few times how pleased we were that we had gotten the car fixed in Narok, as this driving would have been killer on our radiator.
We got up onto a rise above the Masai Mara just as the sun was setting and we stopped to check the level of moisture in a particularly difficult passage. I was amazed by the surrounding beauty and at the same time wondering where in the heck we were gonna end up! We continued on driving driving driving, plunging over large pot holes, through mucky puddles and narrowing passageways, where there was no one around. I said to Michael, “ well, we could probably set up a tent around here and just sleep rather than driving at night. “ I’m not sure he heard me because he did not respond and then a couple of minutes later I saw an extremely large warthog by the side of the road and thought, “well, actually, camping out in the open maybe isn't such a great idea!”  So we kept on. And on. And on. It definitely was not 35 kms and even MG was exhausted and frazzled by the stress of driving in such conditions and with little fuel, not knowing where we were going to find any. 

Once we got a bit closer to the town where the big road supposedly was, there were people all over the place too…bicycles, children, people carrying stuff, motorbikes, etc. And it was pitch dark. Not even the little shops on the side of the road had any lighting.   We were startled several times by people hawking vegetables in the dark and found ourselves wishing the roadside was wider at each turn. We did finally find the main road, took it to the next small town and got some fuel, then on about 12 more kms on another pitch dark but fortunately paved road to a bigger town that actually had a real hotel and a cold beer for the driver! So, another lesson learned….driving at night here  is not easy nor is it safe especially when you don’t know where you are and you can’t be sure to get help! No AAA here for sure. We do have plans for many more driving trips over the next 8

in the hills above the Rift Valley

no getting around this guy as he was slippin' and slidin'

first down truck we saw

Masai village

sunset over the Mara

tea fields near Nandi Hills

months, so learning this lesson now is important and we definitely will be better at planning our overnight stays so we don’t have to sleep with the warthogs or in any other unsavory or unsafe situations.

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