We asked Jackson Biko, one of Kenya’s rising writing talents, to show us around a few of his favourite haunts. His five stories take us from the beaches of Lake Victoria to the shores of the Indian Ocean, and to a few places in between.
he locals call it a boat, but it’s not really a boat. It’s a canoe. It’s a faded blue contraption that points to the sky at both ends. It can hold about 15 passengers, but now I can count about 22. I’m anxious, to put it mildly. I’m in the canoe because I missed the ferry. I missed the ferry because I ignorantly assumed that there was no way the ferries here would keep time. Mbita Ferry Ltd, which transports about 1000 passengers daily between Mbita and Luanda Kotieno, clearly means business.
For now I sit forlornly next to a young man noisily chewing on sugarcane. This is a journey that will be marked by loud chatter amongst the passengers and the robotic sounds of a very withered old man scooping water from the flooding canoe. This leaking boat doesn’t seem to distress anyone but me. Not even the goat.
An hour later the canoe grinds into Mbita Beach. From here it’s a 15-minute jaunt to Rusinga Island across the causeway on the back of a bodaboda (bicycle-taxi). Rusinga Island is not very big – 16km from end to end, and 5km wide at its thickest point. It’s easily the forgotten child of Kenya’s tourism family, which is a shame because of its uniqueness. A must-see is the fishing village of Kolunga Beach. Although facing vast challenges, like poverty and HIV, it offers a glimpse of the lives of resilient fishermen who live off of the lake. They fish in the darkness, spending their days sleeping and fixing their boats. There are a few vibandas (kiosks) in the village where the Luo serve fried fish and ugali for a pittance. Here you’ll learn to eat fish with your hands.
Rusinga Island is also the home to the Tom Mboya Mausoleum, the final resting place of one of Kenya’s most celebrated politicians – he was felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1969. Tom Mboya represents more than a fallen hero for the Luo, he symbolises a lost dream, a chance for one of their own to lead Kenya. His mausoleum has become a shrine to many.
Hire a boat and head out to Takawiri Island, with its deserted white-sand beaches and swaying palms – it’s an image straight out of a postcard. While there, fish, frolic at the beach and swim naked. It’s primal. If you are into birds, skirt by Bird Island on your way back – 369 species have been recorded here. It’s a protected area, though, so you can’t step onto the island. If you happen to be staying at the Rusinga Island Lodge, have dinner at their awe-inspiring jetty. There you’ll see the fishermen’s lights out on the lake, blinking like a city afloat. The men’s voices are ghoulishly carried to shore by the evening breeze.
Sometimes men resort to unnecessary antics to prove a point, like who is fitter, stronger or faster. It was on this premise that my friend and I hired mountain bikes at Fisherman’s Camp in Naivasha and set off for an ‘epic’ race up to Crater Lake, some 12km away. At times we barrelled blissfully down hills. At others we wheezed up through Maasai hamlets and across the dusty, scorched landscape that typifies the area. It was a great way to gauge our physical fitness, but also to see Naivasha from the seat of a bicycle. And Crater Lake, with its green waters and flocks of flamingos, is lovely, really. It was the one place we actually broke up our journey – we rested with beers on the lawn of the Crater Lake Lodge. Surrounding the lake is a game sanctuary that is riddled with trails and dotted with giraffe, zebra and other plains game, not to mention over 150 species of birds. It’s a brilliant afternoon outing.
Later in the evening (after my defeat) we carried our drinks from our lodge at Elementaita to the foot of the Sleeping Moran (a hill resembling a sleeping Maasai) and imbibed while lazing about in the hot springs under the starlit skies. During the day these piping hot waters are used by the Maasai for their medicinal properties. Along the shores of Lake Elementaita you will also find boys selling accessories made from ostrich feathers – buy them and build Kenya. Build local enterprise.
The next day we held court at Sarova Lion Hill Lodge in Lake Nakuru National Park. Our aim was to sight lions on the prowl, but that came to nought. We did spot one sleeping under a tree, and I remember waiting patiently for him to get up, but he didn’t. The large herd of buffalo were certainly a livelier bunch, though –you might even call them a bit aggressive and moody at times. When it came to the behaviour of the park’s rhinos it was certainly a black-and-white case, with the hook-lipped browsers outmoving their sedately wide-mouthed counterparts. We had a chance to drive up to the picnic site where, with the park and the flamingo-lined lake spread out before us, we roasted some nyama choma on the spit and watched the sunset. The view of the sun melting away in fiery hues of orange and red reaffirms God’s dexterity as the ultimate artist. It’s believed that Mzee Jomo Kenyatta would often go to the same picnic site and spend time enjoying nature.
Aberdare National Park
Aberdare National Park isn’t as fêted as Amboseli or the Mara, but it is one of the most gorgeous places to visit. The park stretches across 767 square kilometres of the Aberdare Mountains and is riven with deep ravines and forested slopes. It is home to leopard, elephant, giant forest hog, Sykes monkey and black rhino. It’s also where you’ll find Karuru Falls, one of the highest and most gorgeous waterfalls in the region. It plunges down in three stages, the first of which is a mighty 117m drop. After a subsequent fall of 25m, the battered water cascades down a final 130m before casually continuing on its way downstream.
I once stayed at a small cabin in the thick of the Aberdares called Sapper Hut. It’s not a place for people who can’t stand silence or isolation, but its so very Robin Crusoe-like (if he ever went to the bush that is). The two-roomed cabin faces a waterfall and sits next to a small river that is ripe with trout. I roasted my catch over a fire and washed it down with some whisky, which also kept away the cold. As you’d expect from a remote hideaway, getting there can be treacherous – the path swallows 4WD vehicles when it rains. Should it not be a bit of an adventure? After all that’s what safaris are all about.
The park is not just about wilderness and wildlife though – it has some historical importance too. During the Mau Mau uprising against the British in the 1950s the Aberdare Mountains became a refuge for freedom fighters, and their crucial Kimathi ‘Post Office’ still stands here. Far from a post office in a literal sense, this cog in their communication wheel was actually a rather prominent mugumo tree. Messages for key players in the rebellion were posted up between the thick curling trunks of this monstrous tree, away from colonial eyes. Messengers would know exactly where in the tree to find or place a message for each particular leader.
Visiting the ‘Post Office’ is still possible, and after much driving around with my game ranger we found it. Although the exact age of its hulking limbs can only be guessed by the park’s wardens, nobody is in doubt of the role it played in Kenya’s struggle for independence.
Nairobi, like most cities, is divided. There is an invisible line that cuts through the city, separating both social and economic strata. It runs along Moi Avenue, from the railway station right up to Nairobi’s central police station. If you head west of this line you’ll enter neighbourhoods that are home to the burgeoning middle-class, and if you continue further afield you’ll progress through the areas that house the prosperous and lastly reach the enclaves of the super-wealthy. The heart of the city, where the economic and cultural cogs of Nairobi turn, is however found on the other side of that imaginary line. Immediately to its east is a different Nairobi, one marked by the toiling area known as Wananchi, a smorgasbord of heaving matatus, yelling touts and dark dives that serve warm beer and local music. Further east, Nairobi breathes. Heavily and colourfully.
Straddling this economic divide is Ranalo Foods, a popular local eatery known to residents simply as Osewe (the name of the owner). The restaurant serves an array of traditional foods like ugali (made from millet, cassava and maize flour), alia (dried meat) and fish, either smoked, fried or cooked with coconut – it is a culinary riot. During most weekend afternoons and nights a band is on hand to pelt out some rumba music. I suggest you buy a bottle of Tusker, sit in the corner and enjoy. When you’re done eating, dangle a toothpick from your mouth and you’ll fit right in.
Talking of good food, the all-you-can-eat ‘best of a feast’ at Carnivore might be a cliché but it is still great for those willing to try out game meat. I recommend the ostrich balls, but also feel free to try out crocodile and camel meat. While you are there order a dawa cocktail (vodka, lime, crushed ice) – its Swahili name translates as ‘medicine’ or ‘magic potion’. Nobody makes a better dawa than Carnivore. And if you happen to be in town on the first Friday of the month, Carnivore normally throws a mean rumba fiesta for an entrance fee of Ksh 300 (£2). But if rumba isn’t your cuppa, visit the nightclub Florida 2000 (aka F2) along Koinange Street. It has been going strong since God was a boy, and for good reasons – the music is great, and so is the crowd.
With food, drink and evening entertainment taken care of, a little shopping should be in order. The best things to come out of Nairobi are beaded ornaments – there is nothing better to say that you have been in Kenya. The popular Maasai open-air markets are the ideal locations to make a purchase, but you have to know where to find them as they are located in different locations each day of the week: Westgate Shopping Mall, Westlands area, on Tuesday; Capital Centre, Mombasa Road, on Wednesday; Junction Shopping Mall, Ngong Road, on Thursday; The Village Market mall, Gigiri, on Friday; the High Court Parking lot, Nairobi city centre, on Saturday; and Yaya Centre Nairobi, Upper Hill Estate, on Sunday.
With your beads tucked away, it’s time to explore further. Sitting at the edge of the city is the African Heritage House, a unique building that holds an impressive collection of original works of art and tribal sculptures from all parts of Africa, as well as authentic artefacts from the people of Kenya. You will learn more about African art here than anywhere else in Kenya.
There is a man in Lamu called Satan. Yes, like the prince of darkness. He doesn’t know why he was named Satan, but that is not half as important as what he does know – Lamu Island. He has seen every nook and cranny, and he is awfully handy to have around: he negotiates dhow rides, points you to the best seafood restaurants, and explains the island’s history. Satan is a man with his ear to the ground.
So it was with Satan that I travelled along the less beaten paths of Lamu. That’s to say we avoided the usual visitor hotspots. Instead we pointed our motorboat away from the old town ready for exploration.
First, we found ourselves on Manda Island at Takwa, a village abandoned in the 17th century. The ruins – now surrounded and overshadowed by baobab trees – give you a glimpse into the old Swahili culture.
We then visited the village of Kipungani, which is just 2km from Kizingoni Beach. It’s an enchanting place where men spend their days building traditional dhows and women make mkeka (traditional coconut mats). Our lunch – a Swahili meal of rice and fish cooked in coconut oil – was had under a palm tree. That afternoon was spent at the mangrove-lined creek of Kizingoni, where Kikuyu farmers are engaged in subsistence farming.
While on Manda I learned that Frank from Lamu House throws a mean Sunday lunch on the island. It is a popular shindig marked by an afternoon of African music, delectable food and good wine – my experience was no exception. The crowd ate together at the beach, with many swimming afterwards to beat the afternoon heat. That evening I retired into Banana House on Shela Island, a quaint garden lodge where the Zen-enthusiast owner Monika trains her guests how to breathe.
There are countless more ways to see Lamu and the rest of Kenya, but only if you raise your eyes from your guidebook and interact with the locals.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com), Safarilink (www.flysafarilink.com) and other local airlines combine to link Nairobi with Lamu, Kisumu (for Rusinga Island) and Naivasha (for Lake Naivasha, Lake Nakuru and the Aberdares). Aberdare National Park can also be reached by chartered flights to Nyeri or Mweiga.
When to visit:
Rusinga Island: The climate is pleasant all year round.
Rift Valley: There is no bad time to visit Naivasha or Lake Nakuru National Park.
Aberdare National Park: May to October is the best period to visit.
Lamu Island: Best visited in the cooler months of July and August, or from late November through March.
Most visitors require a visa to visit Kenya.
Single-entry tourist visas are available upon entry for US$50.
Lonely Planet Kenya (8th ed, June 2012) by Anthony Ham et al is a great accompaniment to any Kenya trip.
Find out more:
Kenya Tourist Board (www.magicalkenya.com)
This article was published in Issue 61 (Winter 2012/13)