Summer 2009: Kenya
Jack B Wootton (05-09) James McPherson Young (07-09) James Henderson (01-09)
During our final year at Merchiston we (Jack Wootton, James Young and James Henderson) started to plan an adventure to Africa. We had been reading about Kenya's numerouson-going environmental problems, focusing on deforestation and in particular that of the Mau forest. The deforestation is causing irreversible effects to the eco-system of the area and also has a negative impact on agriculture and is even threatening its viability as a tourist destination. All of this threatens the life of the local residents who are simply not educated in sustainable development. Jack Wootton, a Kenyan resident, had the enlightened idea that the three of us travel out to Kenya and do something about it, and maybe have a bit of fun at the same time. Although it was clear that it was an impossible task to prevent deforestation in its entirety, we thought it would be a noble deed if we could try and educate native Kenyans in how to live off the forest without destroying it. Wootton also had contacts in the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) head office in Nairobi.So our first step was to contact them to see how we could help. They were delighted that we had taken the initiative to get in touch with them, and were great as they gave us a real motivation to do the task and were very helpful in suggestions of how to attract funding for the expedition. Although best of all, they provided us with an invaluable tool of how to actually help. UNEP has developed a series of short educational films that are designed to attempt to educate natives on how to live sustainably and preserve the land for future generations in their particular region of the country. UNEP were more than happy to give us these films so that we could show them to the respective communities we would be passing through, including those in the Mau Forrest. Despite producing these films, it is a huge and expensive task to broadcast them to numerous remote communities across the country, and our offer to do just that(even to a relatively small number of communities) was greatly appreciated.
Planning for a trip of this scale was a greater task than once imagined. After calculating that our route would need to be at least 'x' miles long with flights, food, a car and accommodation all to think about, it was clear that we needed to get some support with funding the expedition. We wrote to several charities and funds, but with little luck. There was a general consensus that money wasn't available for individual trips, and that they would only support muchlarger scale operations. After a month of hard work trying to organise the trip during January exams, we began to get disheartened as it looked like we weren't going to be able to secure enough funding to get to Africa. But then we heard about the travel awards that Merchiston were offering, and it sounded as if we would fit the bill perfectly. We were very generously awarded the Bill Wilson memorial prize that instantly lifted our spirits. It really opened up a plethora of opportunities for us, and we began adding miles onto our journey to reach the villages that would benefit the most from a short lesson on sustainability. After some budgeting, it looked like we could be out there for a month if we camped most of the time. We booked our flights, concentrated on exams and waited.
Arriving in Nairobi was a strange feeling, I remember it being distinctly colder than I had expected; it is winter there during our summer, which was fortunate for us as we would be spending hours outdoors. There was a lot to do before we could set off from Nairobi. Wootton had a Classic Range Rover which was great as an off road vehicle which was essential for what we were doing. We spent a good week making repairs and minor changes to the car, sorting out supplies and finalising our route. It was a hectic few days, but we were kindly put up by the Wootton's who made us feel very much at home. It was a really interesting experience getting to know Nairobi. The Wootton's taught us some of the local language so that we could attemptto blend in, and between all the chaotic planning and setting up bank accounts,Wootton's dad managed to take us on some cultural trips around Nairobi.
With the car in top condition andpacked full of water, petrol, spares, tools, food, ropes, tents, and video equipment we departed on a typically chilly Nairobi morning. Despite knowing we wereleaving the comforts of Nairobi and it's Muthagia Club behind us, we were all anxious, not to mention excited, about the dusty adventure that lay before us. The crude tarmac roads soon deteriorated eventually became nothing more than mere dirt tracks. We had truly left the sprawling city and were now in the heart of 'real' Africa. We headedsouthwest towards the Massi Mara, which is a National 'game' Park on the border with Tanzania. Our first stop was Narok, the last major town before the Tanzanian border. Upon arrivalin the frontier town we brimmed the fuel tanks, knowing full well it would be a while before we came across another petrol station, before heading to the local school. We spoke with the headmaster and he was very happy for us to talk to the pupils;we took the whole school out of class for an hour for a brief discussion prior to us showing our relevant UNEP film to the pupils and even some of theteachers. The class seemed excited to see us, but perhaps it was more the fact that they were getting time off school! We on the other hand were all pretty nervous, and as they settled down we began preparing the presentation. The whole school listened intently. It was really good to see kids that were eager to learn,and at the end of the film we took a few questions and answered them as best we couldbefore continuing with on our journey with the hope of finding a campsite before nightfall. By talking to small groups of people in as many towns and villages as we could, our hope was that they would talk to friends and family about the subject. Thus spread knowledge and awareness about good practice and the environment in local communities in order to try and prevent the rapid deforestation and its negative affects on communities across the country.
After paying the inflated park fees to enter the Mara (unfortunately little of this money finds its way to conservation; as it is intended) wekept our eyes peeled for game as we drove deeper into the reserve looking for a suitable campsite. By sunset we had exited the Mara and were in 'dead mans land' betweenthe Kenyan and Tanzanian Borders. It had been hours since we had seen a fellow human being as we were simply driving through the bush, not even following the rudimentary dirt roads that existed within the park. We eventually decided to stop and set up camp next to a potential lions den with the hope of seeing one or more of the beasts close up. After pitching the tents and collecting wood for a campfire, we watched the end of a spectacular African sunset whist sipping on an ice cold Tusker Lager (courtesy of the fridge in the car).After the 'sun downer' we decided to go on a night game drive. The night is a great time to spot game as you can catch animals eyes with the beam of light from aspotlight, and after a rather disappointing game spotting day (with not much wildlife except zebras being spotted) we set off back towards the Mara with the hope of spotting something, although not before noting the GPS co-ordinates of our ad-hock campsite. With the sun gonethe bush was completely still as we drove off road, one of us sitting on the roof with an industrial spotlight to illuminate any pitfalls in the way ahead that the headlights may fail to detect. As we drove under trees we were on guard for animals, especially leopards, coming down from above. After having some beers and a bit of a laugh in the car, we decided to head back to camp. However due to the blanket darkness of the night, this proved rather treacherous. We had crossed a gorge earlier that night, and although we knew our route (we had a GPS), we couldn't seem to get back across the other side. The temperature was now dropping and it was beginning to get cold. Our main problem was that the GPS was directing us back to the campsite through a very rocky section that we did not remember driving over earlier in the evening. Driving over large sharp boulders that are partially hidden by tall 'savannah grass' is very treacherous, especially at night. Tyres can easily be sliced by their sharp edges, or worse crippling damage can be caused to various parts of the car if they come into contact with a rock, even at low speeds. After making almost no progress over the best part of half an hour, we decided that somebody would have to get out of the car and guide the driver through the rocky patch.Henderson bravely volunteered for the task, and armed with a spotlight and machete(to cut away shrub and fend off any advancing predators) guided us through the darkness. Eventually the spread of rocks thinned out and we could make decent progress back towards camp that was still a fair few miles away. Upon reaching the gorge that we crossed earlier, we discovered that we were not at the same point along the gorge as we were earlier, and that to cross it here would be impossible. The only option was to drive parallel to the gorge until we came across a point that was possible to cross - although this in itself proved rather difficult as the density of vegetation increased significantly the further we drove. Out came the machete. Finally we decided to try and cross a section of gorge that we thought was just possible. It proved to be a treacherous to crossing and it took us several attempts to pass. Eventually, with Henderson and Young navigating Wootton through steep near vertical drops and subsiding banks, wemanagedtocautiously manoeuvre the car through the passage.
From the other side of the gorge it was easy progress back to camp, and upon arrival we decided to cook some supper before bed. However the tranquillity was short lived as we spotted two beams of light shaking independently of each other, suggesting that they were not the headlights of a vehicle. These beams of light turned out to be from the torches of two Tanzanian border guards. The guards duly informed us that we had strayed "well" into Tanzania and that we were to be detained for illegal immigration, as we obviously did not have relevant papers to show that we were in the country legally. Although it is perfectly legal to be in 'dead mans land' where we though we were and stressed this fact to the border officials, they were adamant we were 5km into Tanzania. We thought this to be absurd and consulted the GPS, obtaining co-ordinates; accurate to 100m before plotting them onto a map.We discovered that we were a mere 0.6km into the Republic of Tanzania. Despite the border officials' clams of 5km being exaggerated, we were ultimately guilty of illegal immigration. Our pleas of ignorance and promises to exit the country immediately fell upon death ears and we were ordered, at gunpoint, to pack up and be escorted to a detention centre. After hastily packing up camp and hiding all mobile telephones, video equipment and cameras (the official's wanted to confiscate these - although we told them we had none) we got in the car, as instructed. Before Wootton had time to even start the engine, the guards demanded a lift. Wootton responded with "Even if we are in your country, this vehicle is private property and you are not permitted to enter it without a warrant" this was not taken well and he was promptly ejected from the drivers seat, again at gun point, but not before removing the ignition key from the ignition barrel and hiding it in his boxers. After giving the apology the guards wanted, they changed their tactic. It was decided that both Henderson and Young would be walked at gunpoint to the detention centre whilst Wootton drove behind them, illuminating their path with piercing headlights. It was a long, cold walk in the bush, with the illusive detention centre being located several miles away.Upon arrival to this concrete hut, Henderson and Young were swiftly thrown in and locked up. Wootton was ordered to remain in the vehicle. Wootton then proceeded to apologise for his behaviour and invite the most senior official into the car, provided there was no gun present, to discuss a 'settlement' for our release; about 45 minutes later (and the entire contents of Wootton's wallet now in the guards' pocket being the equivalent of 50 Pounds Sterling in Kenyan Shillings) we were released by some now very friendly guards indeed. We were even offered the cell to sleep in for the night or to camp "anywhere in Tanzania" where we would be protected if we chose to do so. Politely, we declined this offer and drove back to Kenyan soil where Kenyan officials who had been watching some of the incident from afar welcomed us back.
The following day we did some extensive game viewing and spotted most of the 'Big Five' as well as some other interesting creatures. We spent the next night firmly in the middle of 'dead mans land' safe from potential prosecution and awoke early to drive to Naivasha via some of the Mau Forest.
We decided that it would only be fair that we took a first hand look at some of the damage being done in this region. The views here were spectacular with wide stretches of greenery and beautiful forest; however, it was disappointing to find patches that had been completely removed or burnt to a cinder, with felling on-going seemingly year round. This brief insight gave us more authority in what we were speaking to localsabout, and it was interesting talking to locals in the Mau area to get their views on the forest.
The rest of the drive to Naivasha was without incident except for one particularly bad section of road, where it took 5 hours to drive 20miles! This simply meant we missed dinner at Wootton's grandmothers house just a few miles South of lake Naivasha. The following day, after replenishing some of our supplies and re-fuelling we drove north to lake Baringo. The change in scenery during this drive is very impressive. As we approached and crossed the equator into the northern hemisphere where it was now 'summer' and very hot indeed. The dusty, barren and desolate countryside reflected this. Taking the final corner and seeing lake baring itself was almost like a mirage and truly welcoming. We set up camp at a conventional 'camp site' and chatted to many other travellersover some gin and tonics well into the night.and watched, by moonlight; hippos emerge from the water to graze freely on the lush grass within the campsite. (is there a way of saying this without it sounding like a gay erotic novel?) It was very pleasant indeed, however we could only afford to spend one night there, as there were many more places to get to and time was limited.
Driving up the Lerochi Plateau the following day, the views over lake Baringo from above were fantastic. We stopped for a barbeque lunch by the side of alittle travelled dirt road (shown as a A-road on an up-to-date road map) wherenatives swamped us intrigued by our cooking and hopeful for some money. We saw little benefit in simply giving away cash that would, unfortunately most probably cause fight and end up being spent on cheap alcohol (a very serious problem in Kenya).We took the opportunity to talk to the locals about their local environment and intriguing them further by showing a short film afterwards). We did not have any set campsite planed for that night and were hoping to simply find a suitable point come nightfall. Eventually we ended up inLaikipia and camped by a river at a spot known to locals as 'crocodilepoint' (one of many 'crocodile points' in the country) the views were fantastic and the place was incredibly remote. The next day we set off but only after a taking a refreshing swim and 'bath' in 'crocodile point'. We headed fortheSamburu National Game Reserve. As we were located about 90miles due west of the Reserve, we decided to try and enter the Reserve via the infamous 'west gate'. Typically most tourists will enter the Reserve through the better-patrolledSamburuNational Park that borders the Reserve to the east, and can be easily accessed via the 'Meru - Moyale highway'. There is no highway west of the park/Reserve, where we were and, as we later discovered not even a most basic road. After driving through various deserted and burned out villages found on very rudimentary and little travelled dirt tracks we concluded that we were well and truly lost in the war torn region surrounding the town of Isiolo. At some point in the mid afternoon we came across a small white building with the familiar blue and yellow European Union flag painted on it. We decided to stop by the building to see if anybody was there and ask for directions. As we pulled up and a man emerged from within with magazine cartridges on a belt around his waist, despite this, we asked if he knew where the west gate was, although Wootton had the car very ready for a quick escape if necessary. We still have no idea what that building is/was there for, although we are confident the EU didn't fund it to be a munitions store. Unsurprisingly though, he did not have any idea where the gate was, and did not seem to even know about the mere existence of the National Reserve. This was a little strange as we were only about 8miles from the gate. We knew this because we had the GPS co-ordinates of the gate and, as the crow flies, it was 8miles from us. Eventually we attempted 'dead reckoning' to get to the gate. However this proved to be no easy feat, and despite being so close, driving 8 miles through shrubbery and untouched bush is no easy feat. We came across numerous valleys, and no doubt if we continued we would come across many more obstacles that would make progress very very slow, meaning we would most certainly not arrive before nightfall and may even end up stuck.Considering where we were and after spotting numerous empty bullet cartridges on the ground we decided this was unwise. Turning back and joining the dirt track we had been following earlier was a wiser choice we decided, but with low petrolsupplies and diminishing light, our only option was to try and drive to Isiolo itself and join the 'Meru-Moyale' highway that would allow us to enter the Reserve in the conventional fashion. However even finding our way to Isiolo on the mess of sprawling dirt tracks was not easy. As nightfall began we were becoming rather anxious, as it was simply not safe to camp anywhere in the region outside of the patrolled Reserve/Park. To add to this, we were beginning to run dangerously low on Petrol, despite carrying reserve fuel. We had not been anywhere near a petrol station for since leaving Naivasha (3 days earlier) and driving for upwards of 10 a day for the pervious two days and approaching 12 hours of continues driving looking for the west gate was taking its toll. By luck we stumbled upon a GSU (General Service Unit) outpost at about 8pm (GSU is Kenya's equivalent of the UK's 'Special Branch') and were posted to the region by the central government in an attempt to restore law and order. They were simply shocked to see us there at all, let alone at night and suggested we camp within their outpost for the night for our personal security. At this point our main concern was our dwindling fuel supplies, and despite their generous offer we asked if we could buy any petrol to continue to Isiolo. Unfortunately all their vehicles were diesel Land Rovers and they had no petrol whatsoever, however they were very useful in providing detailed directions to Isiolo. We roughly calculated that we would have enough fuel to reach Isiolo and an extra 20miles of range, so providing we didn't get badly lost we could make it. Despite there being no guarantee that we would even be able to buy petrol once in Isiolo, this was our best bet. We drove on.
Arriving in Isolo with almost no fuel at 10pm on a Friday night was not pleasant. The locals made it very clear that we were not welcome, our car was spat at and we received plenty of verbal abuse from the inebriated residents, some even yielding guns amoungst other weapons. We stumbled across the familiar sight of a Shell petrol station - although it was closed due to it being so late at night. 'Fortunately' for us the 'Meru-Isiolo highway' is rife with arms and drugs smugglers as it runs relatively close to Somalia, which is where the majority of illegal weapons enter Kenya. This was, in this instance 'fortunate' because it meant there was a large police presence on the highway both day and night, so using the last of our fuel we drove down the highway until we reached a police roadblock. The central government post police and other security officials to the region, from stable regions of the country, and as a result they were very friendly and after explaining our problem escorted us to the petrol stations attendants house who kindly opened the petrol station for us so we could fill up and get to the park for at least some of the night. We really were relieved. It was an easy and relatively short drive on a new tarmac road to the Parks conventional 'east gate' although upon arrival, just short of midnight the gate was closed. After making some substantial noise, the game ranger stumbled wearily out of his cabin and let us in. Finally, after 17 hours of driving we had almost arrived. Unsurprisingly though, we were knackered and couldn't face setting up camp, so we went to an upmarket resort and bargained with the manager to give us a discounted room for the night after explaining what had happened. We are very grateful to him for obliging and giving us a 'bottom of the range' room and buffet breakfast for a fraction of the usual price. Much to our joy, we were able to make use of the laundry and shower facilities and spent the following day, after a scrumptious and effort-free breakfast, game driving within the park. The next day we set off for Nairobi, avery long drive, although made easier by staying to the main roads. We stopped off in Isiolo and Meru to talk to two schools and the district hospital about our concerns over the Kenyan treatment of the environment before passing by Mount Kenya, Africa's second highest peak. It was a spectacular sight, its snowy peak reaching far into the clouds and we stopped here briefly before getting to Nairobi just before nightfall.
We spent three days of luxury in Nairobi re-stocking our supplies and carrying out some routine maintenance on the car to ensure it would be ready for the second half of our expedition. It was decided that the second half of our expedition would not involve driving for most of the daylight hours and that we should 'base' ourselves somewhere for a few days. We chose the village of Watamu on the coast. Nether the less it was a long drive from Nairobi that took us through Tsavo East National park where we spent the night to break up the journey and give us ample time to show some more UNEP videos to communities along the way. Tsavo East is a huge National park and does not suffer anywhere near as much from banditry and violence as parts in the the North of the country do. It only took 5 hours to reachTsavo from Nairobi, so after lunch we made a visit to a school in the township of MititoAndei and to an audience in a run down village hall in Voi to show the videos and talk about conservancy as well as answer numerous questions as best we could from very interested and observant locals. After this we entered the park and quickly found a campsite by the Tsavo River. Inside the park we saw plenty of Elephants and Hippo's in amongst the Wildebeest, Buffalo and Zebras.
It was very reassuring to see so much wildlife as the KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) are trying very hard to stem poaching within the country, and this is an impossible task without the communities at large being aware of the problem and doing their own part in stemming the trade. Furthermore, it was great to speak to tourist souvenir shops (of which there are plenty) about how they no longer buy and sell ivory, and to see an understanding that its better for everybody if poaching was stopped. We stressed the point that selling endangered animals ivory and 'coats' was not sustainable, as if there were no more of these creatures around, there would be no tourists to buy them. And in buying, say ivory off poachers, only fuelled the animals demise. We stressed the importance of sustainability, and focused on a joint UNEP and Kenyan government incentive to develop the production of timber figurines and tokens for locals to sell to tourists instead of ivory. It was made clear that timber can be used as a more sustainable (and equally as profitable) natural resource if managed, conserved and replanted properly.
Arriving inWatamuwhere we stayed for one full week enjoying the sun, local fruit and grilled fish and spectacular sandy beaches. It was great to relax and have a solid base after spending so much time on the move. We took relaxed days out to Mombasa (Kenya's 'second' city) and the town of Malindi, where we enjoyed seeing a very different side to the Kenya we had seen previously. The setting was idealistic and we spent several well-deserved days lazing in the sun. After a week of relaxation it was time for Henderson to head home as he had other commitments to attend. Wootton and Young packed up camp and decided to leave the relaxation behind them; journeying due North towards Lamu, an island town which is rumoured to be one of the oldest in Africa. We took a dilapidated boat to the island, leaving the car on the mainland, and spent the night in a noticeably Islamic part of Kenya, with itsnarrow streets and alleyways leading gracefully towards a large waterfront harbour. The next day we rose early and headed on our final leg of the journey back to Nairobi. We decided that we wanted one last adventure, and instead of using the longer (but safer and more conventional) route back down the coastline and joining the 'Mombasa - Nairobi' highway we decided to head further North before heading inland through the town of Garrissa. This area was very barren,remote and unstable with the locals being uncharacteristically; very distasteful to any white men they see. We were stopped at several police checksand warned not to go any further and offered us police escorts to pass more safely through the area if we chose to persist. We decided to continue, though devoid of any escort as it would be faster and we were short on time. Passing through villages the locals were aggressive and shouted insults at us; this was certainly a different Kenya to that of which had welcomed us previously on our trip. Driving since 6am, it had been a long day, and as we travelled deeper into the wilderness on our way home it became clear that we weren't going to have enough fuel to get ourselves back to the safety of Nairobi. Still in dangerous territory, we decided that we needed to stop in the next village to ask the less-than-friendly natives if, by any chance there was any petrol we could buy. After parting with a not insignificant portion of our remaining budget, the natives agreed to help us with a small amount of fuel (poured from rusty oil barrels that were stored wooden shed) and we, albeit tired, safely made it back to our home base of Nairobi just as dusk set in.
Back in the safety and comfort of theWootton's home, we had time to reminisce about all the excitement and adventure that we had managed to cram in to such a small period of time. It was great to be able to bring something to the local communities in Kenya and attempt to educate them on how to live sustainably, something that even our culture and generation is only just starting to get to grips with. Although it was great being able to help and educate some of the local communities in Kenya, what was most surprising was how much we learnt ourselves from the trip. Having to fend for ourselves in several dangerous and even potentially life-threatening and challenging situations definitely gave us all a sense of achievement and maturity that we can only thank the Bill Wilson Memorial fund, RBS and Merchiston Castle School for giving to us. It was certainly an adventure and a great end to three fantastically enjoyable careers at Merchiston.
Written by: Jack B Wootton, James McPherson Young