Driving on Safari

Driving on Safari

A flying safari with no overland experience isn’t a good enough travel experience.

It’s become more and more popular, today, to fly from game lodge to game lodge in Africa and avoid the sometimes trying overland travel through Africa’s deteriorating cities and towns over some of its horrendous roads. That’s just as bad an idea as sending a kid from boarding school to boarding school, and moving up from suburb to glen to city skyscraper. You can move through life without ever knowing how most people live.

We’re all members of the Family Man on planet earth, and I think it extremely important to at the very least have a glimpse of how most of the world lives. One of the best ways to do this on safari is to drive – at least partially – from place to place.

In Kenya that’s an enormous challenge, since the country’s roads are in such poor condition. I thought it particularly funny this week that following the government’s announced budget where the ministers of various departments were told they could no longer have SUVs, but would have to use more fuel efficient, smaller cars, that there was an outcry from many of them. Some complained that it was beneath them to drive cars that “teenagers drive” while one minister in the government said in absolute irony that a small car wouldn’t do well, “because Kenya’s roads are so bad.”

My family safari began overland. I make a point to leave Nairobi only on Saturday or Sunday, when the traffic is only mildly chaotic. We traveled north past another slum, past the main city prison and then past the huge sports stadium on the outskirts of the city, which not even the poorest Kenyan resents having been built.

It takes a terribly long time to reach anything approaching “country.” Those who had read the book or seen the movie, Flame Trees of Thika, are startled when I tell them we’re approaching this supposedly idyllic country town. All the way to Thika is now urban and slum sprawl.

But shortly thereafter the highlands do present a picture of real beauty. Fortunately, this area has received a decent rainfall. The majority of Kenya hasn’t, but the central highlands look good. The banana and paw-paw trees, the blooming red flame trees and oodles of bougainvillea splashed on hills cut by running streams is a picture to remember.

This was Saturday, the biggest day for the Karatina Kikuyu open-air market. Everyday the market is incredibly colorful, run mostly by big Kikuyu women dressed to the nines, in colorful big poko-dot dresses selling as many varieties and colors of beans as the poko-dots on their dresses. There are stacks of custard apples, oranges, apples, figs, passion fruit. I bought everyone fresh slices of new pineapple that were delicious!

The market has a very small curio section that is mostly Kikuyu baskets often purchased by people in the highlands. They are gorgeous, and Ada, Joannie and a few others bought up the most beautiful ones. Whitney wanted one of the beautifully beaded belts made here, but unfortunately according to the wonderful lady who made it, he had eaten too much and she had none that would fit. She told him to change his diet to lemons and come back when he had shrunk enough!

Interaction with locals, wherever you travel, is an essential ingredient for understanding where you are. Without it, you simply carry your TV screen around the world. The Karatina market was a wonderful way to do this, but even just gazing out the window passing the confusions and blisters of a poorly emerging nation helps, too.

Global warming has given Kenya a patchwork of drought. From Nairobi to Karatina, the country was beautifully green as it should be after the Long Rains. But north of Karatina, including the Aberdare where we ended the day, is suffering a serious drought.

The dedicated staff of the Aberdare Country Club made it wonderful even in the midst of a drought. After we checked into this historic manor, some of the group walked with a guide through the backlands of the estate where there were many giraffe, waterbuck, warthog and impala. The lush grounds of the estate with its endless bougainvillea and mature flowering bushes was still good enough for a variety of beautiful sunbirds.

But even in this most protected of animal habitats I could see distress, particularly among the waterbuck, the first to suffer. It’s now been almost a year since they’ve seen rain.