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Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Splendors of Kenya

Since we are soon going to leave Kenya, we wanted to share some of the more positive aspects of what we have experienced here. We have been here for 2 ½ years now and have had the opportunity to travel quite a bit.  We've been all the way south west to Lake Victoria, the second largest lake in the world (after Lake Superior), west to the border with Uganda, south through the savanna and east to the coast, then north of Nairobi through the Central highlands, and up to the Samburu lands. There is still more to see, unbelievably, and we may get another chance to go further north, but at this point we feel we've had a good taste of this vast and interesting land.
Travel here, the way that we do it, by driving ourselves, is a bit exhausting because the roads are not always in great shape. There is only one true “main drag” through the country, running from the coast to Kampala, Uganda, and it is in much better shape than it used to be, but it is full of large lorries, many of which are old and in uncertain condition. The flow of traffic is totally dependent on the lorries which means it could be flowing really well, or it could be backed up for hours.  There aren’t many road rules here, which might be fun for driving, but for me, as the passenger, it is exhausting and nerve-wracking.  Aside from the main road, the others are usually quite bumpy as they are worn out and full of potholes.
We camp, as well, so our experiences have been quite different than they would be if we were paying for a driver and staying in fancy lodges. We feel, as we do at home, that camping is a great way to be “in” the parks and to be surrounded by the natural beauty that is Kenya. Anyway, it’s a full body experience, travelling our way! Certainly not the way all who come here would choose to travel and there are many options for ways to do it!
Our goal is generally to experience the natural world as it is supposed to be. Like everywhere that humans live, the natural environment is always affected by their incursion, and that is true in Kenya as well. Truly nothing has gone unchanged here over the centuries. Although the majority of the people are still farmers, herders and pastoralists, their lifestyles affect the habitats of the indigenous animals both because of human/wildlife conflict and erosion caused by pasturing cows as well as the building of fences and dams and ponds, etc.  Despite the intrusion of humans and the reality of habitats changing, there is still a lot of natural beauty that to the untrained eye seems rather amazing and unfettered.
Kenya is as big as France, and very diverse. It has a biological diversity that competes with only a few other places in the world, with over 1200 species of birds, many hundreds of species of mammals, reptiles and trees. The flowers and flowering trees are quite spectacular and colorful as well, and draw many birds and pollinators. There is also a large diversity of pollinator insects, which we have been made aware of by our association with our friend Dr. Dino Martins, Phd Biology. Pollinators are his area of interest, so we have learned that there is huge diversity of butterflies, bees, dragon flies, and just “plain old” flies. ( The sizes, shapes and colors of insects, birds, flowers and trees is an ongoing thrill for us. It would take years to become well versed in all of these creatures, but as novices, it is quite fun to try to get to know them and we fancy ourselves birdwatchers now.  Most of Kenya is rural and there are loads of parks and reserves and conservancies, so it is not hard to “get out in nature”. Once you leave the city, you are out in it, and you are struck immediately by the natural wonders here.
We live in a city which is situated at an altitude of almost 8000 ft. near the Great Rift Valley. The Great Rift Valley is one of the earth’s incredible geographical phenomenon, running all the way from the Middle East to Botswana, in southern Africa. The upheaval that occurred millions of years ago and created the Rift Valley also created many of the volcanoes which dot East Africa.
Looking out over the Rift Valley is striking because of its enormity and breadth. The Great Rift Valley is  approximately 6000 feet long and several thousand feet deep. It’s breathtakingly beautiful both because of its grandeur and also because you know what you are seeing at is only a small segment.  You can drive down in it and experience a dramatically different environment than what is up on the escarpments. We have done this several times and have seen new and different micro-climates and habitats along the way each time.
The most notable aspect of the  Rift Valley in Kenya, from North to South, is the presence of several large lakes at the bottom of the valley. Some of them have interesting chemical makeups, like salty or alkaline, making them home to specific birds and animals who prefer that environment. Flamingoes, for one, apparently eat an algae that is found in the alkaline lakes and aren’t really seen much elsewhere. The environment in the valley has changed quite a bit due to many rains and erosion up on the hillsides. There is one lake, Naivasha, which we have visited frequently, which has natural springs feeding into it and therefore is freshwater mostly.  As appealing as the water sometimes looks here, it is not a good idea to get in, as there are hippos, crocs and lots of other little parasites in them. 
Unfortunately, the British, while they were here for over a hundred years, and the Kenyans because of their need  for fuel, have deforested much of Kenya. You can see far and wide over the valley, and there are small farms coating all the sides of the escarpments which stand out over it like great rocky mountains. There are trees now, because there has been an effort to reforest, but most of them are young and not indigenous. (
 The only true swath of virgin Rainforest still in western Kenya is the 90 sq. mile  Kakamega Rainforest, which is not so far away, and which we have visited a few times. This much smaller than the original swathe of rainforest has been protected since the 1930’s and offers a verdant and lush selection of  giant hardwoods, long swinging vines and many ferns in the undergrowth. It is home to plenty of unusual and  lovely  birds and monkeys and has a humid pungent smell unlike anywhere else we’ve visited here.  Our favorite monkeys  are the Colubus, which from a distance look like flying skunks because they have a white shawl of fur which covers their otherwise black back and flies out behind them as they jump from limb to limb. They wake up the rainforest at dawn with a lot of hooting and hollering which is both spooky and exciting.
 Another spectacular phenomenon in the western part of Kenya, is Mt. Elgon, the second tallest peak in Kenya, at 13500 ft. Kenya’s mountains were once volcanoes so the landscape around them is quite different due to the climate, soil and elevation. The plants are not any I’ve seen anywhere else in what is called   Afro-alpine moorland.   It hosts many interesting and even bizarre  plants, including succulents and trees that look like giant cacti. It looks as if Dr. Seuss was there for a visit helping plan it out! The peak itself is preceded by a caldera, considered by National Geographic as one of the 150 most beautiful sites in the world.   Although you can walk into it, that would be another large hike, so you walk the rim to the peak, enjoying the view along the way. The whole area is covered with large boulders which one must assume were blown out of the caldera at some point. Although not always easy to get to when it’s been raining, Mt. Elgon National Park is one of our favorites and also has many animals and caves to see. We have even seen forest elephants, a much smaller version of the savannah elephants, which was a terrific surprise. They migrate across the park and into Uganda and back again and we luckily got a little view of them wandering into the woods.
During  our travels through the valley we have been amazed both at how dry that particular savannah is and also how many people live there. It is not an easy life, for certain, because the search for water must be ongoing. We are always amazed by the lifestyle and physical challenges that the peoples living in the valley and in other dry areas of Kenya face.  As you come out of the valley, although the elevation is higher and it is cooler, you enter true savannah, which is where one finds most of the big animals for which  East Africa is famous. Elephants, Lions, Water Buffalo, Wildebeest, Giraffes, warthogs, and all the rest live in these huge swaths of land that the Kenyan Wildlife service has set aside for these animals to live and migrate through. Although it doesn’t seem like much, 10% of Kenya’s land is preserved and the animals are protected. Visiting these parks is quite amazing, especially if you are not in an area where there are other tourists. You will inevitably run across large animals. The feeling you get when you see a large land animal in the wild is hard to explain.  It’s a kind of shock and the suspense you feel as you are looking around is indescribable. “La magie” (Magic) is what a French speaking friend called it, and I’d have to agree. The fact that they are comfortable in their environment and doing what they naturally do is both heartwarming and reassuring.
North of Nairobi, is an area called the Central Highlands which is green and lush and home to Mt. Kenya. Mt. Kenya is sacred mountain in the traditions of the Kikuyu. It also is a volcanic mountain and has a beautiful Afro- landscape as well as several peaks, the tallest of which is Battian at 16000 ft. Michael and Liam and Jack who was visiting us found it quite a challenging climb yet fabulously beautiful with many vistas and interesting stone formations. Although on the equator, it was quite cold as they ascended which the Kenyans they were with did not appreciate!  It may be the only truly cold spot in Kenya.
Kenya also has a beautiful coastline, which is dotted with small villages of people from different tribes than anywhere else in the country, mostly eking out a living as fishermen and tour guides now. The coast is lush and tropical and the Indian Ocean is as stunning as any you’ve seen. The colors are unbelievable from striking turquoise blue with white sandy beaches to the sky blue and shining bright green of the coastal trees.  Birds from Europe migrate to Kenya, some staying here and others going further south and often their plumage changes to a bright hue as they are here during breeding season. Thankfully, the coast is somewhat under developed still so it is easy to find remote places to hang out.
The other interesting aspect of Kenya, aside from its natural beauty is the diversity of people. Although there has been a fair amount of mobility of people over the last 100 years, the people in western Kenya are different from the people in Central Kenya who are not the same as the people on the coast or up north. In fact, there are 43 tribes in Kenya and although all of them have been somewhat influenced and affected by trade and cultures from the east and the  west, there are those who still dress traditionally and have traditional customs.
Sometimes, as you drive around in 2015, it’s hard to believe that there are still people here living in situations that seem very primitive, but there they are! Huts, animals, spears, headdresses, and all. I've been with Kenyans in the car and seen young men running through the fields dressed in their special “circumcision ceremony” garb and had the Kenyan we were with say, “look at those Africans!” as if  they no longer recognize themselves in these people.

So interesting and so complex. So wondrous and awe-inspiring. That is what Kenya truly is.

(credit for the majority of photos goes to Liam Greven. Check him out on FB:

Colubus Monkey

Wild dogs in Tsavo West

Vervet Monkey at Hell's Gate

Rhino in Likipia


Mt. Elgon landscape



Wildebeest during migration



Tree in Mt. Elgon National Park

Cave at Mt. Elgon

Colubus and trees at MT. Elgon

Afro-Alpine moorland at Mt. Kenya

Pied Kingfisher

Malachite Kingfisher

East AFrican Cranes

One of many Weaver birds



looking out over Kakamega Rainforest

Masaai homestead

Samburu warriors

Samburu women hitching a ride

Samburus on the road

Rift Valley Escarpments

Rift Valley Tortoise

Kakamega Rainforest


In the Rift Valley

Water Buffalo

Coast of Kenya



Euphorbia next to termite mound

Goliath Heraon

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