Kenya: The road less travelled

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Kenya is not usually the first destination you’d choose for a self-drive safari. So when wildlife photojournalists Steve and Ann Toon decided to tour its wildlife reserves in a restored but rusting 1970s Toyota Land Cruiser, it was sure to be an epic adventure…  

Ol Pejeta is the largest sanctuary for black rhino in East Africa

Ol Pejeta is the largest sanctuary for black rhino in East Africa (Photo by Steve and Ann Toon)

This article was published in Issue 65 (Winter 2013/14)

It’s raining carrots. Several kilos of the veg are lashing the windscreen with ugly thumps and there’s a screech from up top. “Stop!” Barney (you have to give a vehicle of this vintage and character a name) comes to an abrupt halt. Now it’s not only carrots that are raining down: a startled Kenyan game ranger is tumbling unceremoniously from the top of our classic 1970s Toyota Land Cruiser. This is not going according to plan…

Blame the aardvarks. Admittedly we’re novices at the wheel of a charmer of a 4WD like this, but even an experienced off-road driver couldn’t have seen one of their cavernous old burrows lying in wait for us in this thick grass. We’ve hit it hard, bruising our host and upending the healthy snacks we’ve brought as a treat for one of the rarest animals on the planet.

We’re on a three-week safari in Kenya, but have decided to break with the customary fly-in or guided tradition and go self-drive instead, in the hope of seeing something more of the country as well as keeping a lid on costs.

From traffic-choked Nairobi, through verdant rural villages, on roads fringed with makeshift market stalls, through the Great Rift Valley, making our own road across sand to the Chyulu Hills, in and among the Amboseli elephants, driving past cattle-herders, giraffes and a man on a motorbike with a two-seater sofa strapped to the back… we want to savour the journey, not just our destination.

Our mode of transport is even more unorthodox – a rugged but rusting veteran of the bush that runs like a lame gazelle on tar but has the heart of a lion off-road, complete with pop-top, real leather seat covers and leaking windows. This is the only time we’ve been on safari when the tourists regularly break off their big game photography to turn their cameras on us. Nearly everyone we meet has fond memories of a vehicle like this that they want to share, or simply shakes their head in total disbelief that we’d even contemplate a trip to the Mara in this clapped-out version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Today we’re driving Barney into the massive bush enclosure that’s now home to some very special rhinos. We’re delivering carrots to four of the last seven remaining northern white rhinos on earth. These massive animals were translocated here from a zoo in the Czech Republic in a last-ditch attempt to see whether, once back on African soil and pampered with round-the-clock care, armed guards and organic vegetables, they might breed again; thereby offering this near extinct rhino subspecies one last hope of survival.

The colossal white rhino bull – dehorned to reduce the risk of poaching – ignores us completely, greedily tucking into his slightly less than pristine titbits. We watch in awe and hope the carrots we’ve ferried in to him are just the aphrodisiac this impressive guy needs.

The conservancy providing a home for these endangered rhinos is Ol Pejeta in Laikipia – an unspoiled and scenic wilderness area with all Big Five present. With Mount Kenya as a backdrop, Ol Pejeta is well-known as a sanctuary for wild rhinos, housing the largest population of black rhinos in East Africa.

We’ve only been here 24 hours and have already notched up excellent sightings of this notoriously elusive and shy creature. (If for some reason you don’t strike lucky you can get close to a tame blind bull called Baracka, on duty at the visitor centre playing ambassador for his species. His lack of sight means he can’t safely be released back into the wild.)

Add our brilliant black rhino viewing to the lioness and tiny cub we crossed paths with on our very first game drive and you get an idea of the easy and rich wildlife sightings to be had here. It was amusing to see how the timid and solitary little cub slipped under mom’s belly for reassurance when the two got closer to our vehicle.

Ol Pejeta also provides sanctuary to another species you won’t set eyes on elsewhere in the country: the chimpanzee. Those finding refuge in the facility here, established in partnership with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and The Jane Goodall Institute, have either been orphaned or abused.

When we stop by, carer Joseph Maiyo is feeding them overripe avocados for lunch. The wily bunch are attracting Joseph’s attention by clapping loudly, and keep us and our cameras at the ready by chucking the licked-clean avo stones back at us. We can’t blame them: their individual stories are heartbreaking, but at least they seem to have found a safe haven here to live out their days.

Later that evening, when we’re sitting round the fire of our private, unfenced camping spot by the river, listening anxiously to the distant grunting of hippos, we’re suddenly quite envious of Ol Pejeta’s special residents and the greenery in their diet. We’d give anything right now for a bit of grated carrot or one of those soft avocados to liven up our canned corned beef.

We’re not only camping on this trip – we’ll also be staying in safari lodges, from mid-range to top-end – but having our own camping-equipped vehicle means we can sample the thrill of bivouacking in the bush like this whenever there’s a chance.

After a short stay at Lewa – another jewel in Laikipia’s crown, where we have more thrilling black rhino sightings and encounter our first Grevy’s zebra (complete with pop-art stripes) – we swap our canvas home for homemade canapés and comfy beds at nearby Borana game ranch. This luxury lodge perches on a cliff-edge above hills that spill out into the distance like unfurled antique maps. Elephants coming to drink at the waterway down below are the size of miniature chess pieces.

During our stay guests at dinner are still buzzing following the afternoon’s lion sighting and the excitement of the tame genets that are prowling above in the rafters of the lounge. But when we go out next morning with Sam Taylor, Borana’s chief conservation officer, he’s more excited about the arrival of the first black rhinos on the reserve from neighbouring Lewa and Lake Nakuru National Park.

“It will be wonderful to see rhinos here again. They haven’t been around since the 1960s,” he tells us. “Lewa’s running out of space. The rhinos are going to start fighting over territories instead of breeding, so there’s an obligation to offer to take some.”

Looking out over the rugged expanse of land that’s an ideal habitat for black rhino, Sam lists all the extra, and expensive, security measures that have had to be put in place. “Poaching is a serious issue,” he says. “But if you can get rhinos breeding, you can start to negate those losses.”

Fittingly, the next stop on our road trip is at Lake Nakuru National Park, where some of Borana’s first black rhinos come from. We’re hoping our visit will coincide with the arrival of the candy-coloured greater and lesser flamingos that feed on this soda lake in famously vast numbers when conditions are right.

When we pull up at the park gates it’s immediately obvious there’s been flooding. The lake is very high and some parts of the shore road, now underwater or damaged, are completely off-limits. ‘Nakuru’, meaning ‘dusty place’, is a complete misnomer for today at least.

Although it’s frustrating not being able to explore this compact park fully, the high waterline is a bonus – it means we can get closer to the prolific birdlife and game around the shore. Ice cream-coloured pelicans outnumber pink flamingos by about four to one. But what’s not to like about pelicans?

Short but busy game drives are the order of the day and we’re seeing loads of wildlife – until we get our first puncture. Thankfully we’re not far from our lodge and limp back disappointed that we can’t stay out for the last of the light. Buffaloes with egrets tap-dancing on their heads watch disdainfully as we stutter by.

Dealing with a flat tyre is easy. If you’re planning to gird your loins and drive down to the Mara – our next destination – you have to take these sort of technical hitches in your stride. It’s not the distance that’s the problem, nor the confusing signposts incorrectly counting down the remaining kilometres. Rather, it’s the parlous state of the road en route. The slow and careful progress leaves us exhausted, black and blue from all the bounces… and barely still talking to each other.

The ruts in the track are so deep and long it feels like they could swallow a whole herd of elephants, let along a solitary jumbo. Negotiating the best route through is slow and stressful for greenhorns like us, and we arrive at &Beyond’s Kichwa Tembo lodge, our final destination, completely drained.

Thankfully we’re able to park Barney and relax for a few days in our guide’s capable hands. We’re rewarded with a leopard sighting on our very first outing, followed shortly by a pride of well-fed lions out for the count under an acacia tree.

Funnily enough we have the second puncture of our trip during this stay. It happens slap bang in the middle of the annual migration, while we are surrounded by hundreds of grazing wildebeest and three hunting lions. But for once on this trip it’s not our problem to fix. We’re encouraged to take the opportunity to sit back, enjoy a tasty picnic breakfast and leave the guides to get their hands dirty instead.

Would we self-drive again in Kenya? Definitely. Discovering the Kenya that exists between the well-known wildlife destinations made our journey seem more complete. There were so many unexpected experiences that more than made up for the few extra hassles: giving a lift to a couple of Maasai herdsmen we couldn’t communicate with beyond grins; being gridlocked (and lost) in downtown Nairobi for several hours; and the sheer surprise of suddenly driving onto plains dotted with wildebeest as far as our eyes could see.

Reluctantly, however, we’re agreed that for ultimate peace of mind, and to spare our jangled nerves, we probably wouldn’t do it again in an old banger like Barney. But then, never say never.

Barney may have been held together by spot-welding and hope, but, put to the test, this charismatic little warhorse of a Land Cruiser was right at home when the going got tough. Call us sentimental, but
we kind of miss his corroding bodywork…

Our driving advice
Guide books and online forums are crammed with warnings about the risks of driving in Kenya, but with a little confidence and a lot of common sense we found it can be fantastic fun. In our experience:

Roads vary from a few slick Chinese-built modern highways to potholed nightmares where only goat herders use what’s left of the tar, and motor vehicles take their chances driving on the unmade verges. Most major routes are useable if you’re alert, but watch out for the killer speed humps in and around towns and villages: any warning signs or road markings have long since disappeared.

Plan ahead. Don’t rely on having to ask for directions: in remote areas you may struggle to communicate and locals (even policemen) often have limited knowledge of places beyond their immediate home. Road signs generally are in short supply, often absent even at major junctions. You need a good map (we used the Reise 1:950,000), and a handheld GPS might be a good idea. Get directions from lodges before you travel. Some will tell you, for example, the mileage from an obvious landmark to their turn-off.

Local driving standards vary from average to appalling, and you need to expect the worst: drivers who pull out from side roads without looking, overtake on blind bends, cut you up, fail to indicate, or wave you past when it isn’t safe to overtake.

Plan your itinerary to keep daily travel distances short, so you can drive slowly. Where in South Africa we may cover 1000km in a day, in Kenya we wouldn’t plan on more than 250km. Even major routes are often single carriageway and snarled up with slow-moving HGVs.

Absolutely avoid driving at night. This is when many accidents happen.

In central Nairobi there is permanent gridlock. Everyone ignores the traffic lights and give way signs (including the police), and the only way you’ll get out at a junction is to push forward slowly but assertively.

Hire a driver. If you’re still nervous, many rental companies will hire you a driver/guide with your vehicle. Keep your off-roading on the road. Generally game reserves are very easy to self-drive in, but be wary of going off-road (if it’s allowed), especially in muddy conditions. If you’re an inexperienced self-driver, larger reserves like the Mara may be better explored with a local guide or driver, or you can book onto game drives organised by your lodge.

4WD Hire. We borrowed Barney from a friend, but more recent 4WD vehicles can be rented (with or without chauffeur) from several companies, including Europcar (europcar.co.ke) or Safari Drive (safaridrive.co.uk).

Recommended reading: The Rough Guide to Kenya (www.roughguides.com)

 

 

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