Travelling independently using public transport
(together with my wife)
TERM: 8.12.2006 - 8.1.2007
ROUTE: Nairobi - Kakamega forest - Lake Bogoria NP - Lake Nakuru NP - Naivasha lake (Hell's Gate NP, Crater Lake) - Mt. Kenya NP trek (Chogoria up, Sirimon down) - Watamu (Gede ruins, Mida Creek, Arabuko-Sokoke NP) - Mombasa - Nairobi
seems to be a rather widespread opinion that it is almost unavoidable to
use services of some travel company for travelling around Kenya and
visiting those fabulous Kenyan national parks full of wildlife. In fact,
this is not really true and it is not any more difficult or even costly
to get round Kenya independently on one's own, than it is, say, in Asia or South
America. To make up for that rather biased perception I have prepared
this rather detailed trip report that should demonstrate that it is
indeed possible to visit and see Kenya without being travelled around and
spending a fortune.
1. We flew to Nairobi and back with the SN Brussels Airlines via Brussels: both flights were OK and on time, leg space available was above average, and the airline did not request us to pay for tickets long before actual flying date as it now become other major airlines favourite nuisance (rather strangely, all four movies shown on African flights were fairy tales ??).
2. In Kenya we have used almost only public transport, both buses and matatus (exceptions being renting whole matatus for short trips with the aim to get quickly to some national parks). Travelling was easy, cheap, and quite safe - this holds even for matatus, which owing to new regulations and in contrary to past times kept speed and number of passengers on a reasonable level (we have never experienced any esp. dangerous driving). Matatus are good for short travels, they are quick, run frequently but are more expensive, often leave only when full and make frequent stops. Buses are better for longer distances and especially good when it is possible to book them in advance. There is no extra charge for luggage (sometimes they try to ask you to pay for the third seat but do not let them wangle you, it is just a common scam). A problem to be encountered mainly in bigger cities is some pushing from touts trying to get you to their buses/matatus - sometimes it is difficult to tell which of the offers is the best for you but the differences would not be too big anyway. Another problem is that you may get overcharged on some routes (on others conductors are very honest) - generally this practice becomes more frequent the more to the east you get. When booking buses for two, check seats distribution (booking offices use a chart of the bus seats to note booking) - many buses has three seats on the right side with rather insufficient width (and many Kenyans are quite overweight).
Accommodation: We have used budget hotels with rooms up to about US$10 - for this money you get a small room for two with your own bathroom (called "self-contained room" in Kenya), often with hot water and sometimes with a breakfast; sometimes we camped. A Kenyan double room has two well-separated beds (whatever it tells about Kenyan family life) that can be easily moved side by side; sometimes we also used a single room with one wide bed (but check its width before taking the room, sometimes it would not sleep two). Always ask about breakfast - sometimes it is included even in places where you would not expect it (breakfast means a small tea pot, one fried egg, one sausage, two slices of bread, some fruit, margarine, and jam); if using a room with single bed, you will also get just single breakfast. Hot water was (surprisingly for me) almost always available (of course with exception of hot coast areas) - typically it was that scary through-flow heater mounted before the spray (I am always surprised not to be killed by it), sometimes there was a boiler and then water was not always available. A functioning fan is a necessity in the low-lying areas, esp. on the coast (in Watamu we often experienced power breaks and the heat became unbearable very quickly). I have found Kenyan beds surprisingly short (and I have just an average 176 cm) and it was rather difficult to avoid leaning against the mosquito net. The beds were almost always fitted with a mosquito net but often with quite a few holes - we used our own. Quite often ahead payment for room was flatly requested.
Food: Food is no Kenyan attraction. We have used cheap restaurants and some street stall food; sometime we have prepared food using our camping stove. Food available in cheap restaurants (called "hotel" or "cafe") and street stalls (called "kiosk") is almost always based on meat and is not really fresh (it is prepared in the morning and - hopefully - kept warm throughout the day with some kind of heater); vegetarian food is very limited (we are not vegetarians but when in tropical areas we prefer to resort to vegetarian food to avoid problems). Everywhere you can get chips, rice, and chapati; and there is always that tasteless ugali. Beans are available very often, typically boiled, sometimes fried - not bad. Besides, they serve something called vegetables which are chopped leaves similar to spinach - no treat if you ask me (when asked they call it "greens"). Very often they add some sort of fresh vegetables (salad) to just about anything and we had great difficulties to explain to them that we are avoiding eating uncooked vegetables. In some places, esp. more touristy, you may have a chance to negotiate something beyond the menu (I often tried to make them to fry over the beans or vegetables boiled before) but often they fail to carry it out as agreed anyway. Interestingly, in the cheapest places they seemed to not understand meaning of a tip and when I gave them something above the price they looked surprised or even offended (??!).
Money: We used a debit card in ATMs with no problem at all (MasterCard). There were many banks with ATMs - we used Barclay's Bank that had ATMs accepting both MasterCard and VISA cards with a withdrawal limit up to Ksh40000. When leaving we had some small Kenya money left (shops in Nairobi airport had prices only in US$ and used an outrageous exchange rate !!) and I have been very positively surprised by an exchange bureau on the Nairobi airport (behind check-in) which changed my US$4-worth Kenya money with no commission and a very favourable exchange rate.
Timing: The timing of our trip was forced on by external reasons (job and family constraints) but it has shown to be a rather lucky choice. We have found ourselves in Kenya just after the rather typical short-rain period and it was quite interesting to see Africa green (before I was in Africa always well into the dry period, which is generally good for watching animals converging to restricted water sources, and it made me think that Africa is mainly yellow). The roads were already dry enough to travel anywhere and it was not yet so hot on the coast. The Christmas and New Year time has brought some troubles with sometimes rather full buses, increased prices for buses and accommodation, and especially high booking of hotels on the coast - still, the public transport run as always and even some small shops were open.
Safety and pestering: We have found Kenya quite safe and friendly. With normal precautions nobody should have problems in any reasonable place (not talking about Nairobi slums) and during reasonable time of a day (not talking about Nairobi in middle night). We have not felt threatened nowhere but one small street Nairobi (Taveta Rd.), where my wife suddenly found an alien hand in her pocket; even Mombasa felt OK. You do get approached by children, sometimes with their mother, asking for money sometimes quite flatly or even aggressively (please, never give money or anything to these people - your momentary money solve nothing and it makes them believe that begging is a way how to live instead of finding some sustainable way; South-Asian countries are an example that there is a self-sustaining way out for even the poorest parts of the world).
General impression: Though the systems how the things are organized in Kenya are sometimes difficult to understand you can always manage; things may be little more difficult there in Africa than other parts of the world but Kenya is probably better than Tanzania or Southern Africa in this respect (my feeling but it might have been just coincidental). There are surprisingly many people that offer you advice and even help without expecting to be paid - of course there are quite a few touts too, but even them, when they understand that they get nothing from you, will give you basic directions to follow on free of charge. Do not let yourself to be travelled around by a travel agency. We were watching their vans zipping by with "mzungus" (white people) staring out as to a zoo cage. Travelling with a travel agency means you have no contact with real Kenya and Kenyans and it is a great loss. Kenya is quite friendly and definitely interesting.
We have spent two days in the Isecheno area of the Kakamega forest and enjoyed it quite a lot. Kakamega forest is the only example of true rainforest in Kenya and so it offers rather unique experience (the same forest used to cover all West Africa), it is quite nice and definitely worth visiting. Northern part of the forest has been newly declared the Kakamega Forest National Park and so it has become necessary to pay the US$20 daily entry fee; the only accommodation there is quite expensive too (it is within the Park and very basic only). The southern part of the forest can be still visited free of charge and accommodation is much cheaper there too - we have visited only the southern part. It is said that the forest northern part has been less affected by human influences and the forest there is supposed to be mostly primary - yet, I have seen some well-founded-looking reports claiming that all the Kakamega forest has been logged heavily some 100 years ago. Anyway, even in the south we have found some real good parts of the forest with huge trees. The forest is full with butterflies and monkeys can be seen frequently there, there are also some birds up in the canopy but difficult to see clearly. The forest is in a rather high altitude (some 1600 m a.s.l.) and so both temperature and humidity is quite tolerable, esp. at night; yet, due to the altitude, those usual spectacular bromeliads covering trees in low-level rainforests are replaced with ferns and lichens. Naturally, the forest is open for hiking and so you need no safari company or a car to see it in full. Also - or rather because of it, there are not so many visitors there and so you are not bumping to other tourists all the time.
Forest visit tips: When reaching Isecheno you will surely be contacted by a guide from the local organization KEEP, they ask fixed price of Ksh300 per person per walk (walk duration does not matter, surprisingly) - they do know the forest, names of the plants and animals, and are esp. good to point you some birds you would easily overlook; otherwise they keep talking about medicinal and other local uses of various plants (fine, if you are interested); also they offer night walks with flashlight for some Ksh400 per person per walk (but we saw nothing on our walk, it is a question of luck - our hike happened to be followed by a rarther heavy rain). There are some areas where you could have difficulties to go to alone as there are lots of crisscrossing trails there, e.g. so-called "Isecheno B" primary (allegedly) forest. Other hikes can be easily done on your own (which we always prefer) - we very much recommend the Yala-river loop trail; its trailhead with a proper sign is on the main road to Kabsabet just behind the Rondo Retreat, it takes at least half a day to get back to the road (if you succeed to stay on the proper Trail you should get back via the very garden of the Rondo Retreat, awfully up-scale resort), take a compass to make sure you get back to the road as there are some forks to negotiate with no signs to help you. Another place we recommend is the Lirhanda Hill lookout point which is a rather steep hill protruding above the forest canopy and thus offering very interesting views (it is recommended to go there for sunrise which we were too lazy to do), the trail to it starts to the right (south) from the main road to Kabsabet some 1 or 2 km behind the Rondo Retreat and it takes about 2 hours to get there from the Forest Rest House.
1. To get to Kakamega forest from Nairobi we have contacted Hotel Greton (in Nairobi - see corresponding part of this report) and asked them to book for us the tickets from Nairobi to Kakamega town on a bus of the Akamba company for morning next day after our arrival - they did it for us and we were glad for it as the bus was fully booked when we came to the booking office. The price was Ksh850 per person. Unfortunately, the bus had some problem and left 2.5 hour late and got to Kakamega at about 20:00. Thus we have been stuck at Kakamega town and have to look for a hotel there - not so easy as Kakamega was a typical small Kenyan town with almost no light at night; we have been lucky to stumble over the Jionee Guest House (Cannon Awori St.) which might easily be the best hotel in the town centre close to the Akamba bus depot - paid Ksh700 for a reasonable single room with a bathroom.
2. Next morning we found that it would probably take forever to get to Isecheno using public transport (i.e. first taking matatu to Shinyalu after this matatu gets full, and then renting local bicycle taxi called "bodaboda" - actually two of them for each of us, one for oneself and another one for the backpack). There was, of course, no taxi available in the morning (it would be an option in the evening if it was not for the bus delay) and so we retreated to hiring a whole matatu to get us there quickly (we managed to haggle its price down to Ksh1200). To get out of the Forest Rest House we also arranged with conductor of this matatu to come for us for the same price two days later and he carried it through punctually on time. I am sure you can save money on transfers to the forest and back but I do not think it would be worth it.
Accommodation: Forest Rest House at Isecheno, pleasant wooden house on stilts, reasonable rooms with two beds and bathroom attached, Ksh250 per person (if I remember correctly ?), no electricity (very dirty kerosene lamp for lighting - bring a flashlight). Nice cool place, full of forest sounds at night, from the terrace you can watch many monkeys hanging around during a day (they are probably fed there to be attracted).
Food: Practically no food or drinking water available at Isecheno (there is one kiosk there where you could have some basic meal prepared - ugali with "greens" - and buy some highly overpriced water. The best is to bring all provisions needed for your stay from Kakamega town (another reason to arrange for your own trans; it helps to have cooking equipment.Go back to the top
Lake Bogoria NP
We have spent just about one day in the Lake Bogoria National Park but found it quite nice and interesting. Lake Bogoria is one of the Rift Valley soda lakes and it is famous for some volcanic phenomena (geysers and fumaroles) and a big flock of flamingos staying there. The vegetation there is mainly the thorn bush but there is also some acacia and fig forest there. Specialty of this Park is that you are allowed into it on foot or bicycle, i.e. you can see it without a safari company or a car. Once again, there are not so many visitors there and you can easily have the Park for yourself - we have met just two locals quite surprised of seeing us. We have rented bicycles and gone all the way from the Loboi Gate to the Fig Tree Camp and back - it was rather tiring due to the distance and heat but very enjoyable, we have seen some animals (of course flamingos but also hyraxes, zebras, gazelles, baboons, dick-dicks). The acacia and fig forest on the south side of the lake is very nice and worth the effort of getting there. The geysers and fumaroles are OK too, but nothing special if you have seen Yelowstone or Island before.
Park visit tips: First of all, be warned that by decision of the local Baringo county the Park fee is not US$20 quoted on the KWS site but Ksh2000 (about US$30) - there was no way to do anything about the price but to slip into the Park without paying (of course, rangers are lazy and hardly ever venture to the Park but the area around the Loboi gate is quite easily controlled). Through our hotel we have rented two local China-made bicycles and used them to explore the Park - these bicycles were terribly heavy and the rented ones were in pretty bad shape but they did the service. Officially, one is allowed on foot and bicycle just as far as Hot Springs, i.e. about halfway south along the lake, but I was not so stupid to ask and the rangers could not be bothered. We simply took our bicycles all the way south, left them there (the road became too much for those wrecked bikes we had), and went on foot along the nice forest road up to the Fig Tree Camp - it was about 50 km or so both way. Up to the Hot Springs there was a tarmac road (well, mostly), then it was a dirt road but OK for any bikes all the way to Acacia Camp - from there it was better to walk so bring a chain to lock the bikes there. There are two springs with quite clear water near the Fig Tree Camp, one just after forking from the main road and the other in the Camp itself, so bring water purifying tablets to save yourself from carrying water for all day. If going on foot or bicycle do not be surprised that any wildlife would flee from you much sooner than if travelling in a car.
1. There was no direct transport between Kakamega and Lake Bogoria. We went step by step by three matatus along the route Kakamega - Eldoret - Kabarnet - Marigat. It was easy, somebody always directs you to the next vehicle and it never took too much time to fill it so it could set off; still, it took a good part of the day to make it.
2. For the last 20+ kilometres from Marigat to Loboi we once again resorted to hiring our own transport as the place looked quite deserted except for frequent matatus running from Nakuru to Baringo and back. After some negotiation with local touts we ended paying some Ksh800 for a safari van to take us to Loboi (the van then also served as a regular matatu for locals along the way). Allegedly, there should be matatus running from Marigat to Loboi in the evening and other way in the morning but I would not bet on it - when we were leaving the matatu did not come (allegedly it had been hired for other route) and we had got a ride with a car from our hotel for Ksh200 per person. You can also try hitch a ride to Loboi from the fork on the main route (about 2 km south of Marigat) but we have seen hardly any traffic on that side road.
Accommodation: Zakayos Hotel (phone: 0722153582, firstname.lastname@example.org), a rather small room with two beds, fan (quite needed there), and bathroom attached, Ksh600 per day. Reasonable place run by a friendly and rather ambitious young owner trying to establish his hotel (while his only local rival, the Papyrus Inn, is out of business for reconstruction - very slow one from what we have seen). I can recommend the place without hesitation - the owner tried to arrange whatever we asked for and had not been too pushy when offering other services (he arranged rental of the two bicycles from locals for Ksh350 each per day and a ride by hotel car to Marigat).
Food: There is a small restaurant attached to the Zakayos Hotel with quite a good chef willing to prepare meal according to your request, I can recommend it but remember to haggle for the price of meals. Next to the Park gate there is also a kiosk, bar and small restaurant.
Lake Nakuru NP
We have done a half-day game drive in the Lake Nakuru National Park and found it very good and rewarding. The Park includes grassy areas, thorn bush, acacia forest, and the lake itself (another of the Rift Valley soda lakes). The Park hosts usual variety of African animals, both herbivorous and carnivorous, with the exception of missing elephants (when introduced they would likely eat all vegetation there quite quickly); local speciality is a great number of rhinoceroses. The Park is not too big and completely fenced and you are quite guaranteed to see majority of the plentiful wildlife living there within a half-day game drive. This half-day game drive gives you quite complete idea what all the safaris are about while not spending too much money.
Park visit tips: The Park is one of top Kenyan parks with entry fee of US$40 per person per day; it can be visited only in a car and is open from 6:00 to 19:00. We arranged our game drive with a travel agency in the Nakuru town adjoining the Park - there are several agencies in Nakuru and it is good to shop around to get the best deal. We have chosen the Spoonbill Tours & Safaris and had no complaints - we paid Ksh5000 for a jeep (small 3-seater with a roof which could be opened) which we had for ourselves from 12:30 to 19:00; the price included the park fee for us two and car entry fee; our driver/guide knew the Park well and succeeded to show us all the featured animals like rhinoceroses, buffalos, zebras, gazelles, giraffes, warthogs, and baboons, and also local trade-mark tree-climbing lions and even a leopard (a really nice one). The Spoonbill Tours & Safaris resides in the Carnation Hotel (email@example.com) and is owned by a very businesslike man named Gibson - he is quite tough businessman but very effective - we have signed for our game drive at about 12:00 and he was able to organize the car in half an hour. We have also contacted two other travel agencies: the Pega Tours & Travel Agency offered slightly cheaper drive (Ksh4500) in a typical safari van with open roof - looked OK but they could not organize the drive on a short notice; the Crater Travel looked rather bad - rather uninterested, asked slightly more, incapable of any quick action. Though it is generally recommended to do the game drives in the morning we have opted for an afternoon drive and found it a good decision as we have still seen all usual animals and not so many other cars (others seemed to follow the recommendation).
Transport: Matatu from Marigat to Nakuru - easy, goes very frequently.
Accommodation: Carnation Hotel, single room with a bed wide enough for two with bathroom attached for Ksh700 with a single breakfast; room was nothing special but OK for one night (we have checked the Mount Sinai Hotel first and found it cheaper but rather unattractive).
Food: There is a lot of restaurants in Nakuru, many has a menu with quite promisingly looking offers. We had time just for one lunch in the restaurant at the ground floor of the Mount Sinai Hotel, food was quite good.
We have spent about two and half days in the area of Lake Naivasha and found it very relaxing, diverse, and interesting - also visited the Crater Lake Game Sanctuary and the Hell's Gate National Park. Lake Naivasha itself is freshwater and so quite different from the soda lakes - one can observe there e.g. pelicans and hippos. We have rented bicycles and explored around the lake.
Crater Lake visit tips: We have spent a day going by bicycle to the Crater Lake Game Sanctuary, hiking there, and then returning by bicycle again. The Sanctuary is not a national park and so admission there is much cheaper (several hundred Ksh, have forgotten how much). The Sanctuary consists of a small soda lake at the bottom of an old volcano surrounded by a private game reserve. Around the lake there are several trails which you can explore yourself on foot; the trails lead along the crater rim offering views of broad surroundings and through the forest encircling the lake. It is quite nice to spent half a day wandering around - we have seen some flamingoes on the lake, and colobus monkeys and some birds in the forest. There is a small resort on the lake bank but the guests seemed to be too lazy to venture too far; it was surprisingly difficult to find the rim trail start - it was quite overgrown and visibly not much used. It is about 20 km to get there from the Fisherman's Camp along the road, first paved and then unpaved, and it takes a good day trip to go there and back by bicycle (you can get a ride in matatu even with a bicycle as far as the Kongoni village, some 17 km from Fisherman's Camp). The Kongoni village itself is quite interesting example of an African village rather off civilization. The land next the road on the lake shore is mostly private (and forbidden to enter) but there are still some properties for sale there where you can get to the lake and observe the life there.
Hell's Gate NP visit tips: We have spent a day bicycling around the Hell's Gate National Park; it can be visited on foot or bicycle and is open from 6:00 to 19:00, daily entry fee is US$20 per person and Ksh100 per bicycle. The Park features some volcanic phenomena, cliffs and gorges, and includes also some areas of grassland and thorn bush. There is one main trail connecting the Elsa Gate and the Central Tower, and also some backcountry trails - we went the longer way along the Twiga Circuit and Buffalo Circuit to the Central Tower and saw some zebra and eland antelopes along the way. Bicycling has shown to be rather tough there as there was a thick layer of dust all along the roads which made it almost impossible to go both uphill and downhill. The worst was the condition of the main direct road from the Elsa Gate to Central Tower - the road was slightly downhill from the Elsa Gate and we gave up the original plan to go other way back (as planned) and escaped from the Central Tower along the paved roads leading to the Ol Karia Gate (but be warned, the part of the Park from the Central Tower to the Ol Karia Gate is no "national park" due to heavy exploitation of volcanic heat by a geothermal project consisting of kilometres of pipelines all around). After the experience I would recommend to give up on bicycles and go on foot (to the Elsa Gate you can get by matatu) - I would suggest to take Twiga Circuit along the Ol Dubai Camp and Buffalo Circuit to the Central Tower and from there return back to the Elsa Gate along the main direct road. Allow whole day for the trip and take a lot of water as it is quite hot there. Near the Central Tower there is an entrance to some gorges where you can walk down and take a side trip under high cliffs.
1. Frequent matatus run from Nakuru to Naivasha town and from Naivasha town along the south lakeshore up to Kongoni.
2. Bicycles can be rented at many places along the lake shore - we rented ours at the Fish Eagle Inn for Ksh400 each per day, the bikes were reasonable good mountain bicycles.
Accommodation: Fish Eagle Inn (firstname.lastname@example.org), camped at their campsite on the lake shore for three nights in our own tent, had access to shower with hot water from a boiler (in the evening water ran out quickly), paid Ksh220 per person per night (last night Ksh200 after complaining about unavailable hot water). The Fish Eagle Inn campsite offers the same as the neighbouring Fisherman's Camp for about the same price - we have chosen it as it also offered an access to hotel facilities including swimming pool (never used it anyway) and because it was more empty and quiet when we arrived; yet, on our third day a sort of local christian youth camp arrived and it ruined things out for us (kids have obviously never encountered hot water before and they made sure there was none available any time along the day) and there were also some local golden youth drunkars making a lot of noise - it is question of luck which of the two camps is better but I would pick the Fisherman's next time. The nights there were pleasantly cool and mostly quiet - one could hear hippos grazing just behind the security fence on the lake shore.
Food: There are several shops and some restaurants in a neighbouring village (more just a crossroad on the main road); we ate at the bar/restaurant on the southeast corner where they have been able to prepare some custom-made vegetarian food.
We have done a five-day trek in the Mount Kenya National Park without using any guides or porters, going up along the Chogoria route and down along the Sirimon route and sleeping in our own tent - we have chosen the Chogoria route for ascent as it was the best for acclimatization and the Chogoria-Sirimon routes as they were supposed to be the best regarding the landscape, vegetation and wildlife. We had no intention to climb any of the Mt. Kenya summits - our only goal was to see the unique landscape and vegetation of the Park. There are several vegetation zones on Mt. Kenya - of them the heath zone and esp. the alpine zone feature unique plants endemic to the African high mountains, namely lobelias and groundsels. The trek was a highlight of our Kenya trip and our definite advice would be not to skip it when in Kenya - yet allow enough time for proper acclimatization, otherwise it would be more a struggle than a joy (the safe rate of ascent is not to sleep more than 500 m higher than previous night when not used to the given altitude from before).
Day 1. We started from Chogoria village at about 9:30 - there had been some touts there offering guiding and portering but they had not been too pushy and even offered some free advices when convinced that we were not going to give them any job. It took us whole day of slow continuous climbing along the dirt road to reach the Park gate next to the Meru Mt. Kenya Lodge (3000 m a.s.l.). The initial 6-km walk to the Park boundary led through rather nice farmland with tea and other crop fields, then we were passing trough mountain rainforest (lots of rather big trees overgrown with ferns at first and then with moss and lichen) and in the end trough bamboo forest (strange atmosphere full of cracking noise) - nice hike allowing to meet and enjoy the forest. It was rather long, tough day but manageable after previous acclimatization in the highlands (Kakamega has the altitude of 1800 m, Nakuru and Naivasha 1900 m a.s.l.). Camped at a very good campsite next the Park ranger's office.
Day 2. With the aim to ensure proper acclimatization we did not climbed just to the normally used campsite at the roadhead (3300 m a.s.l.) but continued on to Lake Ellis (3500 m a.s.l.). The original plan was to fork from the main trail and go along a side trail directly to Lake Ellis, but right after the short-rain season the trails became overegrown and we missed the side trail and reached unexpectedly the roadhead campsite - from there we used a compass and found our way to the lake trough grassland along round ridges. The hike took a good part of the day. We were passing through zone of small and giant heathers at first and then reached the alpine zone with short grasses and first tree groundsels (some of them just have been in flowers - very nice). Yet, as for Lake Ellis itself we have not found it especially scenic. Camped next to the lake on a rather rough surface full of grass clusters.
Day 3. We went southwest along usually well visible trail till reaching the main trail and then continued up along it to the Minto's Hut (4300 m a.s.l.). We were passing through the alpine zone with short grasses, occasional low heathers and lots of groundsels and lobelias. We were getting higher above the plateau surrounding the Meru Mt. Kenya Lodge and had nice views down and around. Unfortunately, at the end of the day some heavy clouds gathered and it started raining for the first time on our trek; the rain became rather heavy and we reached the camp in a thick fog. Camped next a small lake near the hut on barren surface among huge grass clusters. The rain continued with interruptions all the night.
Day 4. We started up in an occasional drizzle and thick fog, visibility was mostly very low, and before we got to the highest point of our trek at Simba Col (4620 m a.s.l.) touches of snow appeared. Fortunately our route was relatively straightforward and we could also follow footprints of some people coming down from their sunrise excursions to Point Lenana; it would have been quite difficult to go along any other trail - the fork to the Austrian hut and Naro Moru route was indicated but we did not notice any other of the forks sketched in our map, not even the fork to the Point Lenana summit. This part was mostly barren with no vegetation and we were glad to start down along the Sirimon route; almost right below Simba Col first lobelias and then also groundsels started to appear again, and lots of hyraxes too (they have been rather scarce along the Chogoria route); the rain stopped as well. We went down along a broad and nice valley rather densely overgown with lobelias and groundsels, past the Shipton's hut and camp. At the point where the trail started to traverse to the right over the ridge (at some some 3800 m a.s.l.) we camped on the deposit on the bank of a stream. Once again there were some showers of rain during the night and in the morning we could see snow lying up on the mountain (so we had been lucky to get over just before it came).
Day 5. We went steadily down all the way to just ahead of the Park boundary near Sirimon village. The clearly visible trail went through heathers first to the ridge and then down along a broad swampy plateau to the Old Moses hut. From there we went down along a dirt road going down along a ridge trough rainforest - rounded valleys and slopes on the road sides gave us some views of distant trees and forest canopy, we also saw quite a few birds. We reached the Park gate at about 16:00 just shortly after start of heavy tropical rainstorm, only to find that the Park ranger's office deserted - we had to wait for about 1.5 hours for a ranger to show up and sign us off (she was explaining shamelessly that it was too cold for her to work and so she went to sleep to nearby barracks ??!). After that we passed about half of the 4 km remaining to the park boundary and found a campsite in the forest.
Park visit tips: The Park fees are US$70 per person per first three days and US$20 per person per each additional day - the fee paid is set along the 24-hour base, starting from the time of payment indicated on the ticket (check correctness of the record), there is no fee for camping; it is possible to pay just the initial minimum 3-day fee when entering the Park and pay the rest when leaving - better take advantage of this possibility as nobody is going to give you anything back if you are leaving sooner than expected. When going up along the Chogoria route the Park gate and the fee payment place (next to the Meru Mt. Kenya Lodge) is about 29 km and 1500 m up from Chogoria village (the place you arrive to by public transport) while the Park boundary is just 6 km from there; many people rent a jeep for this trip and so even if you walk you can always say to the ranger there that you have arrived on car and thus save yourself paying the fee for a whole day in the Park (we arrived at 19:00 and had that time noted on the tickets while passing the Park boundary at about 11:00) - on other routes this distance between the Park boundary and gate is much shorter. Parties of two are a minimum on the mountain and so if you are alone you are requested to hire a guide; everybody going in has to sign in at the gate and indicate his/her general plan - if not leaving at around the expected time the search is started (better do not try to slip out without paying the remaining fee as there are rumours of thorough searches for the culprits who had been chased all the way to Nairobi and rewarded with a very heavy penalty to pay for the search). Rather interestingly, all the guidebooks maintain that the eastern and southern slopes of Mt. Kenya are much more humid than the northern and western slopes but we have witnessed a complete opposite - the Chogoria route was rather dry with water available usually just in lakes, the Sirimon route was quite humid and often even swampy and there was no shortage of water almost anywhere along it.
Our original plan regarding our Mt. Kenya trek was to get to some town with hotels near the mountain, leave our spare
things there, ascent along the Chogoria route, descent along the Naro Moru route, collect our stuff, and leave for the coast via Nairobu - for this itinerary it looked the best to make our base at Embu, which was about in the middle of the connecting road between the trailheads of the planned Chogoria and Naro Moru routes. Yet, after some discussion with locals at
the Chogoria village we changed our plan and decided to descent along the recommended Sirimon
route (and we never regretted that decision) - still, when leaving the Park along the Sirimon
route, it would be actually much more convenient to make our base at
1. There was naturally no direct transport going all the way from Lake Naivasha to Embu and so we had to put up with few changes. First leg of the transfer was obvious and easy and we took one of the frequent matatus leaving from the crossroad near the Fish Eagle Inn for Naivasha town. To get to Embu (or Meru) from there we could either go back to Nakuru and take a direct matatu from there, or go trough Nairobi and Thika. There were lots of touts in Naivasha and it appeared quite difficult to find the best way - in the end we opted for a just-leaving matatu which - as they kept assuring us - was going directly to Thika; sure as hell, it went just to Nairobi and we were hearded to another matatu going for Thika, meaning that we were stucked in the Nairobi notorious traffic jams twice. From Thika there was then no problem to get another matatu for Embu (or Meru). After experiencing all that I now believe that we should have gone back to Nakuru and got that direct matatu from there to Embu and Meru (it would go by a completely different way via Nyahururu, so we would be spared of Nairobi zoo and even saw some new parts of Kenya). Other better option would be to take matatu from Naivasha to Nairobi and from there a direct matatu to Embu and Meru. Anyway, even the way we took was feasible and we got to Embu around 16:00.
2. When going to trailhead of the Chogoria route, i.e. the Chogoria village, it was easy to get there from Embu as there are frequent matatus running along the route from Embu to Meru where the Chogoria village is a stop in about the middle (so it would be as easy to get there from Meru). When going up the mountain, it is possible to hire a jeep at the Chogoria village and got a ride all the way to the Meru Mt. Kenya Lodge (but be warned that it would not be do you any good regarding acclimatization).
3. When descending along the Sirimon route, you may be lucky to find a car available at the Old Moses hut (or phone for one), which can take you down from the mountain. We of course walk all the way to the trailhed nd to get back from there we first had to take a matatu to Meru (quite frequent as well) and from there then another matatu to Embu.
4. Another good reason for our choosing Embu as a base was that there were direct buses running from there to Mombasa, as our next goal was the coast (still, these buses actually originated at Meru). There were about four different companies serving the route from Embu (Meru) to Mombasa, all the buses were going overnight. After some exploration we chose the company named Autobus which used big Scania buses that we considered better for an overnight travel on Kenyan potholed roads - price was Ksh1000 per person, the bus was supposed to leave at 19:30 (yet due to heavy rain arrived and left about an hour late) and got to its Mombasa office at 7:30 (a rather unpleasant surprise was that the bus, which was serving as a cargo truck and had a huge pile of sacks on its roof, after its arrival to Mombasa went first to the city market to unload its cargo which took about an hour from 6:30, and only after that continued to its terminal).
1. Kwiremia Rest House at Embu (right in the city center on the corner of Mama Ngina and Kubukubu Rd.), a reasonable room with two beds, attached bathroom and hot water shower, only Ksh400 per day. Very friendly place where there was no problem to leave our spare stuff at their office for no fee - when we arrived six days later we had no problem to collect it again. As we were leaving the same evening after coming back from the trek we hired just a single room (for Ksh250 per night) for several hours to repack and get a shower after our trek - they might have been willing to give us a further discount but we did not ask for that as we liked the place and were grateful for their proper looking after our stuff. Before finding the Kwiremia Rest House we checked the Eden Guesthouse recommended in our LP Guide but their rooms were small and with shared bathroom only and they even asked for a fee Ksh100 per day to store our stuff.
2. When trekking on Mt. Kenya we slept in our own tent - it was OK, the cold at night had not been too bad even for our tent built rather for a good ventilation in the tropics than for high mountains with temperature droping close to zero. By Park regulation, it is allowed to camp just about anywhere on the mountain but it is not always easy to find a good place to camp especially on the Chogoria route where availability of water is limited to known camps and high lying lakes. Besides the overpriced Meru Mt. Kenya Lodge there is no accomodation on the Chogoria route. Rather different situation is on the Sirimon route where there are three huts well spread along the route and run by a private company; the huts are supposed to be well equipped and offering - for reputedly still reasonable rate - some rooms and beds in dormitories (but we have never tried them).
1. There is quite a few restaurants in Embu and some of them offer even one or two vegetarian dishes. We have eaten at the restaurants of both the Morning Glory Hotel and the Highway Court Hotel and were reasonably satisfied; the former one was slightly better and even offered a take-away packaging (we used it for our overnight bus trip and it was OK too). Embu apeared to be surprisingly lively and well organized town - it has that authentic feel of the town rarely visited by tourists and we quite liked it.
2. On the mountain we used our own camping stove and it was quite necessary especially on the Chogoria route. Of course, you may get some food on the Meru Mt. Kenya Lodge and the lodges along the Sirimon route but I am sure it would not be cheap.
We have spent nine days a Watamu and its vicinity and mostly had a good time - besides enjoying the sea we have visited the Gede ruins, Mida creek, and Arabuko-Sokoke National Park.
Watamu village tips: Watamu village comprises two different parts - developing, rather unfriendly resort area and still surviving original fishing village; both parts have quite different feel. The place is slowly being overrun by package tourists (but they typically stay at their resorts and beaches) and especially by rather wealthy expatriates who built their villas all along the coast (for some reason mostly Italians). These expatriates behave as if they own all the village including the locals and try to revive the life of long-past colonists setting the life norms there - you can see all the typical signs: elderly white ladies trailing behind their black servant laden with groceries, pensioners fighting the time with very substantially younger local partners, and especially general atmosphere of rudeness and disrespect to any local customs - quite disgusting and depressive spectacle; and this kind of visitors naturally attracts the worst of the locals who are especially pushy and quite rude when not getting what they want, i.e. your money. But do not let yourself to be driven away by all this - just next but separated, as though by an invisible border, there still survives a lively fishing village with friendly locals going about their normal life; you can see fishermen seeing about their small dhows and returning from the sea every evening with big fish, and their wives taking care about their households - they do not bother you when you walk by and do not try to overcharge you for everything. Concentrate on this friendly part and ignore the other and you will have a good time.
Watamu sea and marine-life tips:
There is a barrier reef all along the coast around Watamu not too far
from the shore, corals there are alive and nice and attract a lot of
fish. Several kilometers long stretch of the shelf to the south from
Watamu up to the Mida creek estuary composes the Watamu Marine Natonal Park where
you are supposed to pay a daily entry fee of US$10 per person whenever
you take a look under the water surface (swimming is free); yet,
the shelf directly in front the village and up north is out of the Park
boundaries and completely free. There are three beaches near Watamu,
from north to south: Watamu Beach, Blue Bay, and Turtle Bay.
The difference between low and high tides at Watamu is more than three
meters (there are two cycles of low and high tides during the day) and
the currents are quite strong in the time of the quickest tide changes and so you
need to give care to them - it is very usefull to get a tide table
and plan your time (try to find it on the internet or ask at the Park
office or any of the resorts). Seawater temperature is quite pleasant
and it is quite possible to swim for an hour or two without getting
1. Swimming: At the low tide it is rather difficult to enjoy swimming at the Watamu Beach (long walk to the sea on top of sharp dead corals) and Blue Bay (virtually without water), it is better at the Turtle Bay and OK to the south of it. Be carefull just after the high tide as the seaward current is quite strong.
2. Exploring during low tide: Around the low-tide time the sea retracts substantially and leave behind large areas of very shallow water and some tidal pools. It is quite interesting to wander around and observe there the marine life at close range. You can see star fish, sea cucumbers, all kinds of small fish and even occasional moray eels (there are at least two families of moray eels staying permanently at certain holes on the southern side of the Turtle Bay - local touts will show you these places in their effort to get you sign for their snorkelling trips).
3. Snorkelling: There are several places to go - usual way is to be taken by boat for a fee straight to some good spot (hopefully) but it puts you at the mercy of boatsmen which are difficult to control. There are organized snorkelling trips to the place called Coral Gardens in the Watamu Marine NP which put together as many people as possible to the so called "glass-bottom" boats (normal motor boats with a very small and ridiculously untransparent glass plate at their bottom) - you can join either by signing in in any of the local resorts (for a fixed fee) or try to haggle a better price (not too easy) with one of many touts approaching you on the Turtle Bay beach; the price includes a Park fee and you get some 1.5 hour of snorkelling (of course, for a rather high fee you can get a trip all by yourself and about anywhere). The other, less passive way is to hire a local fisherman and get to the reef on a "dhow", the local sailing boat - you probably get a better price and a sailing trip on the dhow is nice experience by itself. We haggled about the first option but gave up after finding it overpriced and over-organized; then we settled for the second option and went to a reef outside the Park - this way we have actually found a rather good spot for snorkelling quite close to the shore where we could swim to straight from the beach. You can find this spot just south of the two small islets northernmost from the Watamu Beach - just walk there along the exposed beach prior to the low tide and swim straight to the sea; a quite large coral-garden area with small coral pillars and coral boulders is not more than about hundred meters from the shore and not too deep, you can find there several different kinds of coral and observe lots of various fish. Also those famous Coral Gardens in the Watamu Marine NP can be visited without a boat, by simply swimming there from the beach - it is a large 2-km long strip about 200 to 300 meters from the shore south the Turtle Bay starting just opposite the huge rock standing on the beach; there are usually some boats full of snorkellers hanging about there; the Coral Gardens again consist in coral pillars and coral boulders but these are little bigger and also the fish living there are bigger - especially big coral fish you can see at the spot marked by a bunch of buoys about 300 meters from the shore (shoal of fish living there is often feeded by snorkellers and the fish venture right to your nose). When going there on your own you can also avoid paying the Park fee - it is highly unlikely any ranger would bother to check along beaches and if he comes you can always pay him. Another good spot for snorkelling is inside the Blue Bay just in front of the huge rock in the bay entry during the high tide; the Bay is rather shallow and you do not see much fish there but there is this small area where a bunch of fish lives including a lion fish, grouper, and big moray eel - we were visiting them every day and they were always in the same place and let us come very close. The usual visibility in the sea is some 10 meters if the sea is calm but can drop very considerably after a storm (even distant) - so if you arrive at good conditions do not waste much time and hit the water. When snorkelling, do not forget to take at least a T-shirt and better also trousers as it is very easy to get thoroughly sunburnt.
4. Diving: There are four diving centers at Watamu all attached to the local resorts. The prices for diving trips are quite high there in comparison to what I have encountered in South Asia or the Caribbean; all the centers generally accept walk-in divers but as they are focused on resident divers they typically ask lots of money for equipment rental. I did a 2-dive trip with the Upinde Diving Center attached to the Aquarius Resort for EUR70 including equipment rental cost and that was the cheapest deal to get at Watamu (their equipment looked OK but my 2-nd stage was slightly leaking which cut both my dives by about 15 minutes - very annoying !!). The dives were OK but nothing special - the corals there are in a relatively good shape (mostly hard, almost no soft corals there) and you can see usual variety of reef fish and some scarcer creatures too (seen e.g. turtle, stone fish, big moray). Considering the cost I would say that diving at Watamu is not really worth it.
Gede ruins visit tips: We have spent half a day wandering around the ruins of the long deserted Swahili town of Gede. The ruins themselves are not too exciting but they are located within the forest and the visit is quite interesting - lots of baobabs there and you can watch some monkeys and lots of nice butterflies; the fee is Ksh400 per person (if I remember correctly). The ruins are just next a little village of Gede which is interesting by itself - being just 10 minutes by matatu from Watamu it is a typical African poor village without any visible influence of tourist hordes dwelling so close to it.
Mida Creek visit tips: We went for a short trip to the Mida Creek, actually a sea gulf featuring a lush mangove forest. It is rather interesting place where you can observe lots of waterfowl. We got to its shore along a trail branching from the main Mombasa-Malindi road but you can see it just as well just next to the road going south from the Watamu village.
Arabuko-Sokoke NP visit tips: We have spent just about an hour in the Arabuko-Sokoke National Park, which can be visited on foot or bicycle and the daily entry fee should be US$20 per person - yet, we have just ventured in along one of many roads passing through it and accessible from the main Mombasa-Malindi road, while avoiding payment of the fee. The Park features a large area of the coastal forest which we had not found especially spectacular after seeing the rainforest in Kakamega or on Mt. Kenya - the trees there were not too tall and we did not see almost any wildlife.
Transport: It was fairly easy to get to Watamu from Mombasa and back. The Autobus bus from Embu to Mombasa terminated on Abdel Nasser Rd., a main Mombasa hub of cheaper bus companies, and we almost immediately got seats on a Tahmeed Coach bus heading for Malindi for Ksh200 per person; there are several companies serving that route. We got off at Gede junction, several kilometres before Malindi, and took a matatu from there to Watamu for Ksh40 (they run very frequently). When going back, take first a matatu from Watamu to Gede junction; from there to Mombasa you can either take another matatu or flag down any of the passing buses (more comfortable option).
Accommodation: We arrived to Watamu at the end of December and so finding a room turned out to be rather difficult. There are three cheap hotels on the main road at Watamu and we have found none of them especially friendly and attractive. At first I got a promise of a room at the Malog Guesthouse but till we arrived there with our luggage (in some 10 minutes) they just gave the room to another guy who probably agreed to pay more (!!?). After that we settled for a room at the Dante hotel (a double room with attached bathroom and fan for Ksh700 per night) but we have not been too happy there - the hotel had rather nice yard but the staff was not too friendly and every-evening power outages were quickly changing the room to a sauna; when we were awaken in the middle of night by a receptionist who rather rudely demanded payment for that night, which she forgot to ask for during the day, we had enough. We moved out of that tourist area to the Marijani resort which was situated at the unspoilt part of the village and we were quite happy there - the resort was offering only rather expensive rooms but they let us camp at its nice garden and provided us with an access to our own bathroom for Ksh400 per night; it was very friendly and secure place (there was a guard at the gate who opened only to people staying there) close to our favourite Watamu Beach and I would like to recommend it as the most pleasant accommodation at Watamu; we could often observe several 20-cm long colorful lizards at our corner of the garden and so we quickly started to think about the Marijani Resort as about "the place where even lizards are friendly".
Food: There is a well equipped and friendly supermaket called Mama Lucy's in the middle of Watamu where you can buy all the supplys. Often, we have eaten at a rather good restaurant called the Roasters just behind the Mama Lucy's supermarket which offered reasonably prices and mostly cooked quite good food - especially fish and some vegetarian food. They were also opened to preparing some custom-made vegetarian food (but sometimes they had problem not to forget to do the changes agreed on).
We have spent two days in Mombasa and found the city interesting and relatively friendly - yet, we have not ventured too far beyond the centre and the Old Town. The Old Town still kept the unique atmosphere of old Swahili seaport and we had a good time there wandering around its narrow tortuous streets.
Transport: see the Watamu section
Accommodation: New People's Hotel, double room with a fan and a bathroom attached for Ksh700 per night; chosen mainly because of its proximity to bus depots on Abdel Nasser Rd. - it was OK and good enough for the price.
Food: There are quite a few of cheap restaurants in Mombasa Old Town and in the adjoining area and many of them can present some sort of a written menu in English. We can recommend the restaurant attached to the Ocean Crown Hotel on Abdel Nasser Rd., nearly opposite to the New People's Hotel, which offers a rather extensive menu and cooks its meals real well.
We have spent two days in Nairobi and found the city a quite dull conglomerate of rather disparate parts without atmosphere and common expression. It does not feel unsafe during a day but it is a good idea to stay alert - at Taveta Rd., a small street between Accra Rd. and Latema Rd., my wife suddenly found an alien hand in her pocket in full daylight. We spent our time wandering around the River Rd. area (lively transport hub) and visited also the centre around Kenyatta Ave and City Hall Way (banks and expensive hotels district) and ventured to the Westlands area too (a would-be American suburb area without any spirit whatsoever). Regarding the last minute shopping (we have been interested mainly in wood carvings) we can recommend the souvenir market at the Westlands area where you will likely be the only shopper and so be able to bargain for a good price; there are some things to buy at the City Market too but it is much more difficult to get a good price there as you have a difficult competition from wealthy package tourist capable to go for the first asking price.
1. There are about ten companies offering bus transport from Mombasa to Nairobi just on Abdel Nasser Rd. - just walk around, compare the asking prices, and try to bargain the price down; the buses are about the same and it is difficult to find any other reliable feature to distinguish the best one. We have chosen the Exciting Coach (no too fitting name) and got the tickets for Ksh650 each. My recommendation is to take a daylight bus as you get a chance to have a look at the scenery and possibly some wildlife at the Tsavo NP, which the road is passing through (we have been lucky to see not only some zebras but also a lioness just trying to hunt down a zebra colt). The journey takes about 9 hours and feels really long.
2. Airport transport: From the airport you can always take a taxi for the price about Ksh1000-1500 depending on the daytime and your bargaining skill; other option is to arrange an airport pick-up deal with some hotel prior coming (we have done that with the Hotel Greton for US$20, i.e. about Ksh1400, and been glad to save some nerves at the beginning of our trip). When going home well-seasoned after your trip you may feel ready for an adventure - then you may consider taking the infamous bus No. 34 - we did that and it was real fun. The bus (run by Nairobi municipal bus company called City Hoppa) leaves from the bus stops in front of Ambassadeur Hotel on Moi Ave - yet, there are many buses leaving from there; if you go on Saturday and esp. Sunday it is a piece of cake - there are several No.-34 buses waiting there empty and you just board the first one and go (nice and easy); the situation is dramatically different on weekdays - there are some six or so very orderly queues standing there leading from nowhere to nowhere; you need to ask people in the queues which one is for your bus No. 34 as there is absolutely no sign. When you solve this puzzle you just go to the end of your queue and wait - in the evening you typically do not get into the first bus No. 34 and probably not even to the second; just move on and wait, there is a bus every half an hour. When you finally get in you are fine (the bus takes only as many passengers as there are seats available for them); it is Ksh40 per person to the airport (when there are two of you with big luggage you are asked to pay for the third seat which is very fair as you really use it) and it takes the bus about an hour to get to the airport in usual Nairobi evening traffic jam.
1. Hotel Greton (email@example.com), double room with a bathroom attached and hot water for US$20 with breakfasts. We used this hotel for the first night of our Kenya trip because of a possibility to contact it by email and their willingness to book for us the Akamba bus tickets from Nairobi to Kakamega (Akamba depot is very close to this hotel); they also offered to pick us up at the airport at midnight for another US$20. The room was OK (although nothing special considering the price) and the bus ticket booking and airport pick-up were carried out as agreed.
2. Nawas Hotel (on the corner of Latema Rd. and River Rd.), single room with a bed wide enough for two, bathroom attached and hot water for Ksh700 per night with a single breakfast; room was nothing special but OK for two nights, no problem with storing our luggage after check-out time. We checked the Iqbal Hotel before and found out that it was closed for good; then we checked the New Kenya Lodge that looked OK but was full.
Food: There is a lot of cheap restaurants in Nairobi; we have been satisfied, both by menu and quality, at the G&R Restaurant at Biashara St. near the City Market, and at the Middland Restaurant (if I still remember the name correctly) at River Rd. near Gaberone Rd.
When preparing for my trips I always gather from the internet all information available and before I go I put it unsorted into separated documents covering each place to be visited and print those out to use them during the trip. I still have the documents prepared for this trip and I can send them to you on request. If anybody is interested please see the information on my Introductory Page.