Tag Archives: Tembea Kenya

Mutiny in Mombasa

Holidays were magical when we were children. Then they grew progressively duller as we began to rebel against the subtle pressure to do something ‘special’ and fun and slowly the holiday traditions began to disappear. We stopped trying to pretend that we care, and eventually it got to a point where  ‘staying home and doing nothing’ on the big days became a bizarre mark of honor.

Obligation sucks the joy out of everything.

Due to a series of unfortunate events over the holidays, once again, this year, I found myself staring down a lonely Christmas. This time though, I saw it for what it was- a double edged sword- either a pity party for one, or an opportunity to do whatever I wanted with my time, free from expectations. So I went online, hoping to find a sweet little deal that would whisk me away to a magical place far far away, if only for a moment.

As luck would have it, I found a really great package deal for two nights in Mombasa, mostly- inclusive. It was really good. Like too good to be true. And when something seems too good to be true, it usually isn’t. But they promised snorkeling and camping, and if everything else went to shit, at least I could remember that I was in the ocean, if only for a little while.

So I paid up and packed my bags and soon enough, we left Nairobi at 4.30 am sharp in our gigantic overland truck, destination somewhere in the South Coast. (Where all the rich people are?)

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Home for the next few days

Once in a while,  I enjoy long road trips. I like drifting in and out of conciseness. I love watching the landscape change, and when that gets boring, reading a book and then just staring out into the distance, completely zoned out. Mindlessness can be meditation.

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My surrogate family

We stopped at Mtito for lunch. At 11.15 am because after that there would be nothing but the endless scrublands of Ukambani, the SGR and the occasional wild animal until we got to Voi.

It was all fun and games until we got to the ferry to cross over to the South Coast. The traffic stretched for kilometers and kilometers and was barely moving. We sat there for four hours, inching slowly towards the front of the queue.

If you continue at this rate it will take Kenya 1 000 years to develop.

Japanese guy dragged along by his daughter and family

Of course it was a hot mess. Cars were jumping the queue, facilitating this service with an unknown amount of money passed on to the gatekeepers. On the left, thousands of pedestrians were waiting to board the ferry.  Apparently during peak season, at least one million passengers make the crossing, each round trip. You have to wonder, where the hell are all these people going to?

A massive truck from Botswana caused a commotion because it got stuck and very well could have caused a horrific accident. All the while, unintentionally ironic messages about safety and wearing life jackets on the ferry were playing on a huge LCD screen on the right on loop.

At this point all I could think was, it is surprising that any of us live past 30 in this sorry excuse of a country.

Eventually we crossed over, and only had a few more hundred kilometers to go. We pushed on in the darkness, past Diani and other places until, finally, finally, we got to our destination. Shimoni. And more specifically, the Kisite Mpunguti campsite managed by KWS.

I can only use ‘managed’ in the loosest way possible. Managed means near total darkness and abandoned looking shelters with no identifiable purpose. Managed means only two sockets in the entire campsite. It means chaos and inconvenience for those with more delicate sensibilities and crushing disappointment for those with fantasies about hot showers and decent toilets.

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The next morning, we had mahamris and tea. I only mention this because there was no coffee. Not even a single sachet of Nescafe which I would have paid good money for. But the chai rangi was amazing. Black sugary tea infused with cardamom, all served up by Moha and his crew of hardbodies, who, to be honest, looked more like gang bangers than chefs. But then again, he confessed that it was actually his wife and daughter who fed us, which made a lot more sense.

Finally we set off to the sea. The sun was out, we got onto our boat and headed out to the marine park.

Sailing in the ocean is amazing. The breeze feels great, the sun looks great, the sea looks great and you can’t really worry about anything. It makes you feel aireeeey.

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Swimming at the marine park was bliss. It wasn’t like the other park up in the North Coast. The water was deep. And there were so many fish. I couldn’t identify any of them, and our guides only knew the names of a few. But still, it was fantastic, seeing thousands of tiny fish darting about in big shoals, and a few solo ones near the bottom just chilling and taking it slow. The corals too were gorgeous, although many of them are still dull and lifeless because they haven’t regenerated after the havoc wreaked by the last el nino- and other factors, re global warming.

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Open waters

I swam out far and kept going farther, enjoying the total silence under the sea and drinking it all in.  Eventually the tide started coming in so they dragged us back onto the boat, destination Wasini Island for lunch.

We went in and had more coconut rice, tiny pieces of red snapper and more seaweed. I asked for a bigger piece of fish and I was told

Hapana, utamalizia wengine!!


I could live with the baby portions, but not the payment of  700 shillings for a feast of sea food that clearly never materialized. Daylight robbery right there.

We walked through the island and it was your typical backwater village. Many of the windows had no glass or screen and we could see the dark interiors. Raggedy washing hanging on the lines. Groups of teenagers hanging around tuck shops. It felt a little desolate. And invasive.

Wasini island made me sad. It reminded me of how badly our government wastes peoples’ lives and just how on our own we are out here.  In this country, where we are taxed and taxed and then taxed some more and we  barely have anything to show for it.

There is nothing romantic about poverty.

We went back to shore and dropped by the Shimoni caves. As our really enthusiastic guide told us, the Shimoni site is the only visible part of a network of underground caves that were used to transport captives from the interior to sail to the slave markets of Zanzibar.


Caves are spooky and full of bats

They were maintained by Arab slavers who grew rich from ivory and human cargo. Then he showed us some brutal looking metal hooks on the walls that were used to chain rebellious slaves for a violent beating as a warning to the rest.

Today they are managed by a community group and entrance fees are used to pay fees and buy medicine for the local dispensary.

Back at camp, discontent was brewing. The sad lunch had left a bad taste in peoples’ mouths and if I know something, it’s that you never mess with food (and over charge for it). Bad food makes people catch major feelings. People have rioted and countries have been brought down because of food related issues. (Hello Arab Spring)

We packed up and headed back to Mombasa, waited another couple of hours on the road to board the ferry, drank amazing tangawizi coffee by the roadside and shacked up in some dump of a hotel in downtown Mombasa.

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Off-guard moments with my friendly strangers

The next day, the plan was to go to Fort Jesus and then hang out at the beach and leave for Nairobi at 6.00pm.

While we were taking pictures at the Fort and learning about the plague, poisoned wells and Portuguese graffiti, our facilitator materialized and said that we had to leave for Nairobi at that very moment because the truck was not authorized to travel at night. He was quite flustered and nearly hysterical about the whole thing.


Now the other thing that you don’t mess with is people and their children. We had families in the group who had young children, and most of them had woken up ready to go swimming. Many of them were even dressed for it and I am sure that they patiently endured Fort Jesus because it was simply a prequel to the real (swimming pool) treat that would surely come afterwards.

Before we knew it, there was a stand off. No leaving Mombasa before the kids get to swim. The facilitators were full of threats and bluster. But we had heard the call of our leader and we were not budging.


It all came spilling out. The food. Oh the terrible food and the squat toilets at that waste of a campsite. Back to the food again. Me helpfully pointing out the fact that they couldn’t really claim surprise because they knew about the truck’s travel restrictions.

Lines were drawn. We weren’t going nowhere.

Eventually we reached a compromise. We drove to a campsite by the beach and pitched tent. They made one last effort to get us to pay for the extra night.

But we had smelt blood and moved in for the kill. We would pay 20% and they would pay 80% for their fuckery. That translated into about 300 shillings per person.


There was no greater feeling than the sweet, sweet taste of victory. The kids got to go swimming, the rest of us with no responsibilities headed to the beach for one more glorious day by the ocean. The sky was bluer than blue and the beers were chilled just right. There was a sense of camaraderie because we had fought and won the battle together.

And for one more night we could forget about our cares and live in the moment.







Welcome to Samburu County – Maralal

Last weekend, I was invited to spend a few days in Maralal. The spelling is MaraLAL, and not MaraRAL, as would be kinder on the tongue. I consider visiting a place like that a once in a lifetime opportunity because even though Maralal is about 350 km from Nairobi, it’s not exactly the kind of  place that you can go for a weekend barbecue. It’s not the kind of place you go to unless you have serious business there or you are one of those die hard tourists determined to go off the beaten path. And off the beaten path it is.

Nonetheless, Maralal is beautiful. And it is a special kind of place. The kind of Kenya we hear about on the news but can hardly conceptualize. The kind of place that foreign film crews visit to make a slice of ‘Africa’ documentaries that irritate urban Africans with digital tv. The kind of place where little girls and boys don’t swat at the flies covering their eyes and noses. The kind of place where brightly dressed morans saunter into town without anyone batting an eye.



Heading to Maralal is cutting a line right up to Kenya’s center. From Nairobi, you drive upwards to the rift valley. Past the donkeys in Limuru and the mysterious plantations in Kijabe. Past the hysteria of Soko Mjinga and past the panoramic views at the Rift Valley View Point. Mount Suswa on your left, passenger cars and trailer trucks acting out video games on the winding road before you. You bypass Naivasha town and push ahead into Nyahururu.

You go further still and slowly the fertile hills so coveted by colonial farmers ( now little patches where thousands of Kenyans were resettled after independence, payable in installments and demarcated by redwood ciders) give way to Laikipia’s ranches and acacia trees.

Rumuruti marks the end of ‘Kenya Kenya’ and marks the beginning of what I call ‘greater Kenya’. Even before independence, that settlement marked the spot where the road abruptly shifted from the deep greens of the Rift valley and took a sharp turn into the seemingly hostile, parched pastoral lands. Where, like the colonialists before them, the Kenya government is reluctant to venture into.

The wild.

Not much has changed because just after Rumuruti town, the tarmac gives way to what is still technically a road, but really isn’t. It’s not gravel, or murram or even plain old sand. It’s hard, jagged rocks poking out from the ground and daring you to ruin your engine’s suspension. At this point, you have covered half of the journey in 2 hours. The remainder could take 4 or 5.



Now the lushness of the Rift Valley gives way to the dryness of the scrub lands. The maize plantations become less frequent and the agroforestry approved trees give way to acacias and thorny bushes. Soon the tin roofed houses give way to thatch and then to nothing at all.

The people disappear. In front of you and behind of you, is nothing but grass and the road stretching endlessly before you.

You spot a man with a herd of white cows. Where did he come from and where is he going? Because there is nothing in sight except for the road. And in the far distance, low undulating hills.

At the back of your mind, you worry. Because the Morans are now called bandits. Because now, livestock market days means that gangs of young men slinging AK47s can jump in front of your lone vehicle and bundle you out.  Because police men dare not wander out that far. And even when they do, they go in peace to negotiate with the Samburu elders. To beg them to ask their troops of thirsty young men to leave innocent tourists alone.

But you drive on. On and on; even here, reckless matatu drivers speed by in garrish minivans – the only difference is that theirs have massive ground clearance and lorry tires.

You wonder, who’s ancestors consciously decided to settle in these wastelands?

There are only two towns between the long forgotten Rumuruti and the promise of Maralal. Suguta and Kisima. Calling them towns would be generous. Like calling Nairobi a megapolis. Both are nothing more than a few shops on each side of the road. Mpesa is here though. As is coca cola and plastic bags.

Kisima is 38 kilometers from Maralal. But it will take another hour and a half. By now the scrubland ceases to be exciting. Sure you spotted a few antelope, maybe some giraffes and possibly the dark outlines of elephant herds in the far distance. At this point all you want is food and rest. And for the moment of when you will be finally be released from the rattling vehicle. Your back hurts and your legs are stiff. There hasn’t been a single petrol station or kiosk in sight for the last hundreds of kilometers.

The road that doesn't end

The road that doesn’t end

How do people survive here?

Subtly, the landscape shifts around you. The odd maize field and fenced yard appears. The first stone houses since Nyahururu begin to materialize. Buildings, too. A girls’ high school. A church. A dispensary. All brand new and presumably courtesy of the Samburu County Government.

Maralal is a typical rural town. There is evidence that the colonial government had a plan for the town. Uniform police houses surround the Maralal Police station. They are now in disrepair, the windows are boarded up and the grass has grown wild. Washing lines run between homes because people still live in them.

There is a petrol station staffed by Somalis and men from Nyeri, all chewing mogoka. Laikipia university proudly proclaims its presence with a campus housed in one building. Equity Bank, KCB, Faulu and KWFT too have laid their stakes here. Apart from World Vision, there are no visible NGOs here.

What else is in Maralal town? Where the government stopped, private developers took over. Rows and rows of tin shacks line the road, selling those brightly colored shukas and blankets so loved by the Samburus. Lots and lots of miraa. A couple of cafes selling milky tea and ‘food food’ and not nyama choma.

Boda bodas, cows and ancient cars with reckless drivers, who no longer care about the damage the brutal roads caused their shock absorbers.

The bus station, with all the accompanying seediness and chaos that bus drivers and conductors carry with them. Hidden in sight are dozens of boarding places where you can get a room for 250 bob a night. But you probably shouldn’t.

A few hundred meters out of town is the Maralal Safari Lodge. It is on 5 square kilometers of land leased from the county government. It is an animal sanctuary where guests can watch eland, zebras, impalas, bush bucks, warthogs and the odd stray cow from the comfort of the lounge.

Unlike other over the top Safari Lodges, they keep it real over there. It has recently been renovated and has shed most of it’s stiff colonial decor. Bright orange lampshades and big, comfortable couches.


The lodge is run by a father daughter team and is host to the kind of characters you would expect to find here. KWS rangers, residents and the odd politician. The conversation too, is fitting of such a place. Nairobi is a distant memory.

Turkanas are becoming a problem, sneaking into Samburu to poach their precious wildlife. Members of parliament gave away gazetted land for private development and now the wildlife corridor is slowly disappearing.  The best way to show your wife that you love her is to give her a good beating every so often.

Kenyatta House is a little three bed roomed property managed by the National Museums of Kenya. It is remarkably well preserved and is Maralal’s long forgotten but biggest claim to fame. During the war for independence, Mzee Jommo Kenyatta spent years in jail – in Lodwar and Kapenguria, which are even more remote than Maralal.

Maralal's legacy

Maralal’s legacy

Jommo Kenyatta had this dial up phone

Jommo Kenyatta had this dial up phone

He spent his last year and a half under house arrest in Maralal. It must have been a big improvement because he finally had the luxury of going to town to fix his shoes. He was given a little bungalow where his wife and daughters (Jane and Christine) could live with him. He could receive groups of friends and associates. Eventually, that little house in Maralal is where the British government negotiated Kenya’s transition into an independent nation. The care taker also claims that Uhuru Kenyatta was likely conceived in that house.

Mattress ya makonge

Mattress ya makonge

Maralal represents an uncomfortable kind of truth for me. It represents the facts and the statistics that we read about but don’t understand; that Kenya is mostly arid and semi- arid, that most of Kenya is rural, that most of Kenya is barely serviced by the government. That our national symbols are less lofty than we like to imagine – miraa, mPesa and trash. And yet, where our governments fail us, we pick up.

I hated leaving Maralal. Not just because of the 8 hour drive ahead, but also because I would miss how I felt in Maralal. I would miss the lack of responsibility and obligation. The feeling of novelty and freedom. Most of all I would miss the wide open spaces. Maralal made me fantasize about living in the wild (but somehow still have access to services and convenience). It made me wish that I could own a property that I could escape to on occasion.