Sunday, 22 August 2010


This weekend, I took a trip with friends to the Great Rift Valley. The Rift Valley has been on my list for some time. It’s famous for national parks, game drives, spectacular views and some of the world’s most famous archeological sites with early Cro-Magnon fossils (including the famous Olduvai Gorge). The Kenyan Rift Valley is also a politically charged area: it was a hotbed of violence during the last Presidential election and was the only area firmly opposed to the new Constitution in this month's referendum.

But this weekend was all about the animals. Our trip included two mini-safaris: a walking safari on Crescent Island and a game drive in Nakuru National Park.

I had never done a walking safari before, but it was a cool experience. Crescent Island has no predators, so it’s safe to walk around and track down animals on foot. There are giraffes, hippos, zebras, a number of gazelle-like things, wildebeest and water buffalo.

The main advantage of a walking safari is that you can approach the animals on foot and generally interact with (read: harass) the various creatures. The highlight of the harassment was chasing a giraffe, some wildebeest and a small group of zebra. I learned that every animal there can run twice as fast as a sprinting human. I’m glad we’re not early Cro-Magnon hunters anymore. Or gatherers, for that matter. Here, tracking the animals:

On Saturday night we stayed at Maili Saba Tented Camp, a luxurious facility whose accommodation only loosely qualifies as “camping.” Instead of sleeping in normal tents on lumpy ground, Maili Saba is equipped with permanent luxury tents on platforms that contain large, comfortable beds covered with fresh white linens. Each tent has its own porch, hot shower and clean toilet, plus electric lighting installed into converted kerosene lanterns. The Camp is perched on the edge of a bluff overlooking the valley, so the views are spectacular.

As people who read my Ghana posts will know, I am currently migrating from the hostels-and-backpack phase of my life into the budget-hotels-and-rolling-luggage phase of my life. I guess I’m simply willing to pay a little more for the nicer touches.

After breakfast, we left with our guide to Nakuru National Park. Nakuru is one of two “premium parks” run by Kenya Wildlife Services, meaning that the animals are more interesting and the prices are higher. Nakuru is particularly famous for its abundant bird life and the presence of both black rhinos and the rarer white rhinos. I am not an ornithophile, but the birds at Nakuru were terrific: foul vulture-like Marabou Storks, giant flocks of flamingos and other exotic avian life whose names I’ve already forgotten (the Red-Crested Groundbill, maybe?)

Morning is the best time to visit the park since the predators feed then. We didn’t see any kills, but we did watch a pack of hyenas trying to isolate a baby water buffalo from the pack. They were unsuccessful; several adult buffalo managed to chase them away. While all this was going on, the larger animals, such as the adult rhinos, seemed completely unfazed. As long as you’re not the weakest, I guess you’re ok. An unfazed rhino:

While we were watching the hyenas we came across a rare white rhino. There are fewer than sixty in the whole park, so it was a great find. At one point, we saw a white rhino and black rhino – both adult males – facing each other across a distance of about 75 yards and slowly closing the gap. Although adult males from different species occasionally attack each other, these two decided to be gentlemanly; the white rhino turned around and lay down by the road:

The most hair-raising experience of the weekend was not, however, a close encounter with wildlife; it was a run-in with a disgruntled tanker driver. Halfway back to Nairobi, a large white tanker swerved in front of our van and braked sharply, trying to force us off the road. When the tanker pulled onto the shoulder, our driver dodged around it and kept driving. All of us muttered something about crazy Kenyan drivers, including our driver. It’s true: Kenyan drivers are dangerous, with recklessness roughly proportional to vehicle size. So the tanker’s erratic swerving didn’t really shock us.

Ten minutes later and many miles down the road, as we were rounding a highway on-ramp, the same white tanker tried to force us off the road again. This time was worse than the first: he nearly clipped us, forcing our van to swerve right onto the shoulder. With the oncoming traffic, the on-ramp was so tight that we were trapped behind the tanker and had to pull over and stop. Our guide, Boniface, was very mad at this point and decided to sort things out. He marched up to the cabin of the tanker and started yelling at the guy.

This went on for a few minutes. The shouting match attracted the attention of a police officer who pulled over. He probably saw a chance to investigate possible wrongdoing and discover bribe-taking opportunities (known locally as “eating”).

The tanker driver was yelling in Swahili that our driver had hit his tanker and caused a dent in the side. Our driver pointed out that our van had no dents and that the tanker must have been mistaken, which was definitely true. I think that the tanker driver was probably looking to pin the blame for his dent on someone and force them to pay the cost of repairs. Before long, the two drivers were soon screaming at each other, with the policeman yelling and gesturing his baton menacingly at both of them.

I decided to step in at this point. I walked up to the officer and told him in my best Swahili that the other man had tried to run us off the road twice but that I was absolutely certain that we hadn’t hit the tanker.

The tanker driver looked like he would have hit me if the policeman wasn’t there, but things seemed to turn around in our favor. The policeman got very loud at this point and told the tanker driver that he was trying to hit our van “like it was full of luggage” and that “he was trying to kill people like animals.” The officer told us we could leave, just before grabbing the other driver by the arm and taking him behind the tanker. I’m not sure what happened at this point, but I think that the tanker driver probably regretted his decision to try and knock us off the road.

As we pulled away, I noticed English writing on the back of the tanker: “WARNING: Caustic Soda. DANGEROUS.” I guess it was a closer call than I realized.

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