Here are our experiences on a Kenya safari in late January, focused on how the current political problems affect safari-goers.
Jan 19 KLM flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi, ~50-60% full a day after the Wed – Friday demonstrations. A KLM agent tells us they are allowing people to switch Kenya flights to other KLM routes with no penalty and many are choosing to do this. There are ~20-30 sign-carrying safari guides meeting clients at airport, which I understand is far fewer than normal for this time of year.
We booked our trip with an upscale company specializing in photo tours and had requested a guide used to working with long-lens photographers who knew birds well so we could ID all the species we shot (the primary photo target was cats, but we usually pick up 50-80 bonus bird photos along the way).
The guide we were originally assigned came with high recommendations from someone I knew who had worked with him on a photo safari, but at the airport we learned this guide was not available and we were met by a different guide, someone who was an expert birder (a birding tour had cancelled so he was available), but as we learned someone with little experience working with serious photographers. He turned out OK, but was not really what we had hoped for.
At the end of the trip we learned that the original guide asked out of the safari because he was unable to get some orphans he cared for into school because of the political Troubles, so this was the first direct effect of the political situation on us.
We stayed at the Nairobi Serena first night and the drive from the airport was uneventful. Security agents checked for bombs under the vehicle at the Serena entrance, which was a bit disconcerting.
A Serena clerk said ~100 rooms were vacant due to cancellations. Few white tourists were in evidence, but many Africans wearing suits, apparently including diplomats in town to help work on a political solution to “The Troubles”.
Jan 20 – drive Nairobi –> Naivasha –> Nakuru –> Baringo. Roads are very crowded with big trucks carrying goods from Mombassa to Uganda and Rwanda. Very dusty, very dirty air with exhaust fumes, many people passing by taking risks and forcing oncoming traffic to slow down or pull off the road. At times it feels like we are auditioning for a Mad Max movie but the driver says this is ‘normal traffic’. My throat is burning after an hour of breathing diesel fumes and I get a wicked throat infection that lasts a week.
Navaisha, where our guide lives, seems quiet. Nakuru seems tense. We try to bypass a large convoy of double-wide trucks by going thru downtown Nakuru but get stuck in heavy Sunday traffic. See a couple of gathering/camping places which were covered with signs for Raila Odinga, the losing candidate in the election, with most of the signs torn down and reposted. Lots of trash in Nakuru, it looks like public services have been spotty. It feels a bit edgy.
Arrive at Baringo, where we are the only guests at a 20 tent ‘luxury tented-camp’. We are there primarily to photograph Fish eagles. The manager tells us business dropped off precipitously after “The Troubles”, with almost everyone canceling. After we leave he has a couple of zero-client days, then a group of 15 (8 tents) is coming, then ten days with zero clients. He is getting cancellations for as far out as August and September.
Flat tire # 1 as we reach Baringo. Our guide had heard rumors of problems between the two main local tribes and “outsiders” but we see none of this and things seem calm (this is a lightly populated rural area). The guide points out that he hears many rumors of problems but when he gets to a place it is always quiet, indicating the whole deal is over-blown and driven by false rumors.
Jan 22 – leave Baringo, suffer flat tire # 2. We are driving to Nakuru and staying two nights at a lodge inside the park. As we are driving thru downtown Nakuru we have flat tire # 3 (!!!) and have to change it while parked illegally on a main street. The jeep is quickly surrounded by gawkers and one very pushy beggar who keeps hassling me for money, I thought I was going to have to shove him in the chest to get him to back off as he pressed against me but eventually he got the message that I was really ticked at him and wasn’t going to pay him. Traffic cop almost gives us a ticket for parking illegally but the guide talks her out of it. Finally we are thru Nakuru and to the park. Glad to see the exit sign in our rear-view mirror.
Our lodge at Nakuru fills 15 rooms one night, 18 the next (out of 70).
The guide keeps telling us The Troubles are over, that the sides are negotiating and that things are quiet over Kenya. We meet a lady from Wisconsin at the lodge who had been on the KLM fight with us and just came from the Masai Mara. She says she was part of a large tour group but everyone but four cancelled. She tells us it was tense passing thru Narok (on our way to Mara) and, according to her, a group staying at her lodge in the Mara said they needed a police escort to pass thru Narok on a demonstration day, and the police had to fire in the air to drive off protestors who approached them aggressively. I’m starting to think our guide is giving us the mushroom treatment (keep ‘em in the dark and feed ‘em manure).
As we are leaving the lodge at Nakuru the desk clerk calls the driver back to take care of one more charge for several hundred shillings … the driver ate his meals with us and paid for all the water but one night he missed dinner when he was getting tires repaired in Nakuru and we paid for the water. The clerk told the driver he still owed for this water and he paid, then got back into the jeep. A hundred yards down the road he groused about it to us, saying the clerk should have told him earlier. I mentioned that we had paid for this and showed him the receipt, so he checked the ‘receipt’ the clerk had foisted on him … no room number and a scribbled unrecognizable signature … I showed him our receipts, all with our room number and a clear signature. He drove back and showed this to the clerk, who said he had made a mistake and refunded the money. The driver said this is a common scam the clerks run.
We ran into one more scam later when the official in charge of collecting fees for a park entrance wanted the driver to pay for all days but get tickets for one less day than he paid for, with a promise that he would not be checked that day. The official would sell the day pass to someone else for a discount and split the money with the driver. Our driver passed on this ‘offer’, to the chagrin of the clerk. Whether this is commonplace or a result of the economic hard times I cannot say, but it cheats the parks of a portion of their fees.
Jan 24 – leave Nakuru on our way to the Mara. The entire drive we see only one other safari vehicle, which we flag over to inquire about conditions in Narok (“Not bad”, we are told). We learn there is fuel in Narok but no bottled water so we buy more water in Navaisha.
In Narok we see burnt marks on the road in and out of town where the protestors piled and burned tire barricades to block traffic. A large supermarket is burned out (our guide tells us it was owned by a Kikuyu and that’s why it was burned, the local tribes resent the Kikuyu economic influence and want them out) and several burned down houses are seen near the road, homes of people who belonged to the wrong tribe and are now dead or refugees.
We stop near a restaurant and curio stand to eat our picnic lunches in Narok. The manager tells us this is the first day they have opened after The Troubles and they have no other customers. We see no other safari jeeps passing thru Narok. A young man in a red T-shirt with ODM written on it (ODM is the group that lost the disputed election) glares at us in apparent anger (our guide is a Kikuyu, the ‘winning’ tribe) but does not approach.
When my wife has to go the bathroom at the gas station the women’s is out of order and locked. The door to the men’s room has been kicked in during the demonstrations and the toilet bowl is plugged with feces about half-way up the bowl but there are no other options so I stand guard at the broken door while she uses this filthy toilet, which reeks of urine.
In a driving rainstorm we arrive late afternoon at our next stop, Mara Intrepids. This luxury tented camp has 30 tents and because of its near-ideal location they are still running 60-70% full, helped by a 10-tent group of USA photographers on a photo tour, which arrives a day after us.
At Intrepids we hear of more troubles in Nakuru (one guy said they had to detour around the town to avoid problems, and says further fighting there has led to 47 deaths … this is the only mention we heard of this and I have no way of knowing if it was true or not).
On a game drive we come across a jeep driven by managers of a small tented camp and our driver knows them so they stop to chat. They have zero clients and except for an upcoming tour group have zero scheduled. They are driving around the Mara doing an informal survey of lodges and camps and it is bleak … Keekorok Lodge has 3 rooms filled, another lodge has 6 rooms booked, most of the smaller tented camps have zero clients and a mobile tented camp in the area is closing temporarily due to lack of business.
Near the end of our five-night stay at Intrepids another arriving tourist tells us of ‘fighting’ in Naivasha, where our guide lives with his wife and two young sons. Our guide has been telling us all along that all is calm, but now he tells us that Kikuyus from outside Naivasha have come to town and are taking revenge on other tribes for atrocities committed against Kikuyu in towns where Kikuyu are minorities. He checks on his wife and kids twice daily and feels they are OK because they are in the majority tribe in Naivasha but obviously he is uncomfortable being away from them. Again, he said nothing of this until we heard it from another tourist, then he verified it. We wonder what else we are not being told.
Our guide also mentions that the root cause of The Troubles is that other tribes are jealous of the Kikuyu, who are very smart and industrious. As he explains it, a Kikuyu can go to Kisumu and learn the fishing business and help them export fish, or go to Mobassa and learn export-import, or even to Narok and learn to be a cattle rancher ‘as good as the Maasai’, and the other tribes resent this. He singles out the Luo as being particularly sneaky and untrustworthy but of course the leader of the opposition is Luo. (The flip side of this, told to me by a non-Kikuyu, is that the other tribes feel the Kikuyu seized most of the land left by the white settlers after independence and that they use their influence in the government to get permits and ministry support to expand economically into areas traditionally controlled by other tribes. Understanding these opposing views tribes apparently have of each other provides insight into the root causes of The Troubles.)
We are short on gas and cannot buy more at Intrepids because they are not getting full shipments. On our way to our final stop at Kichwa Tembo we stop at Mara Serena to buy gas (they have supplies because their jeeps are not being used as much, they are filling 15-20 rooms per night, mostly tours) but are faced with a 2-hour wait for the generator to kick in so decide to try our luck at Kichwa Tembo (if we can’t top off there we’ll do a game drive back to Serena, about 32 km away).
At Kichwa Tembo we are their first guests in 11 days. This is another nice tented camp, a CCAfrica property with 40 tents. A Micato two-day tour that fills 7 tents also arrives later that day, so the camp is 20% filled (after 10 days with zero business). The clerks tell us there are very few customers coming in February, maybe 3-5 tents filled most days. Many employees are temporarily laid-off.
The second night the driver is very quiet and a little upset after talking to other drivers. Apparently he heard an MP (Member of Parliament) of the opposition party was shot and killed in Eldoret and he fears this could spark more violence, which it soon does. Hours later he tells us this was not a political killing and that the policeman was also a member of one of the opposition tribes. Apparently the MP was boinking the girlfriend of the policeman, which got him shot. No one will riot over that and we learn things calmed down quickly from a boil to a distrustful simmer. Everyone who mentions this incident to us says it’s lucky the policeman was not a Kikuyu or the violence would have been much worse.
We have decided to fly back to Nairobi instead of driving, in part to avoid any potential problems on the roads and in part because the dust and exhaust fumes are so bad that our lungs burn after a short time on the roads once outside the game parks.
At Nairobi we are met at Wilson airport and ferried to the Serena (February 1). The streets of Nairobi seem calm but the Serena is a madhouse as journalists and TV crews are jamming the entrance, trying to push their way in and shouting questions at the staff. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, is inside discussing The Troubles with the losing candidate, Raila Odinga. We are dressed in dirty khakis and seem very out-of-place among all the diplomats wearing blue suits and red power-ties as we shoulder our way thru the entrance and check in.
Ki-Moon, Kofi Annan and Odinga are all staying at the Serena, negotiating a possible settlement. Even more impressive (to me), so is comely CNN reporter Zain Verjee, a native Kenyan who is even foxier in person than on TV when I see her in the lobby. We are told Odinga has to remain here because it is not safe for him to return home without a deal showing some progress.
The driver who ferried us from the airport and the bell-hop both tell us Kenya is fine and there is no fighting, that the “International Press” is sensationalizing the problems, causing tourists to stay away. But we learn the death toll from the riots is approaching 1,000 and several hundred thousand people are displaced from their homes as tribe attacks tribe.
We turn on the TV once inside our room and on BBC the bottom screen crawl reads “Second MP of Kenya’s opposition party killed in Rift Valley violence”. This is apparently the boinker, critical info the BBC omits due to lack of crawl space.
We had a beverage with the safari company owner, who shared his views about the root causes of the current problems. He feels the western tribes have not shared in Kenya’s prosperity because they have been largely disenfranchised in the government. All leaders since independence were either Kikuyu or continued with Kikuyu-centric policies (Moi). Government service is very lucrative and the other tribes feel cut off from the power, patronage and money, thus their outrage when they felt the recent election was stolen from them.
He tells us that 70% of the tourists are from England and that 90% of these have cancelled due to warnings issued by the British tourist officials. If I recall the numbers right, he said 12% of the tourists were from the USA and about 20% of those had cancelled (almost all the tourists we ran in to in the Mara and at Nakuru sported US accents).
Feb 2, Kenya Air flight back to Amsterdam which is an hour late leaving due to ‘mechanical problems’, looks like it’s only 30-40% full, with only two people in the first class cabin. Our Nairobi airport shuttle driver tells us KA says they will begin cutting back on flights soon if business does not improve. Newspaper headlines report a deal has been cut in the Ki-Moon talks we stumbled across at the Serena yesterday and the end of The Troubles is in sight, according to the diplomats and politicians. What the unemployed youths with machetes and matches in the slums think isn’t known. We will see.
My personal opinion is that Kenya is not unsafe for tourists on safari but it feels a bit uncomfortable at times, with shortages possible and a chance of stumbling into demonstrations in the mid-to-larger towns. Political tensions seem to be simmering and another ‘incident’ could quickly bring the simmer to a boil.
If you have a trip scheduled and cannot get out of it financially I would say go, but try to fly between parks. If you have the option of canceling or delaying your trip then you have to weigh the advantages of being there in partially-filled game parks versus any security concerns you might have. Everyone has to make that decision for themselves.
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What it's like to safari in Kenya right now
Here are our experiences on a Kenya safari in late January, focused on how the current political problems affect safari-goers.