If you read my last post, you’ll know that I’ve been on the road updating the northern section of Rough Guide to Kenya. It’s been one heck of a journey, through the most varied landscapes and wide-ranging of accommodation options. You can read about the beginning of my trip in Laikipia here.
After Laikipia, I ventured further north on to the wild and colourful town of Maralal before scaling a sheer rock (and quickly coming all the way back down again). Here’s the story of the stretch from Maralal to South Horr…
Two hours up the terrible ‘tarmac’ road from Laikipia we reached Maralal. We’d managed to pick up a puncture on the way, which was kindly pointed out to us by a passing Samburu herdsman, but after a stop at the basic petrol station in town (consisting predominately of a pump and some scattered tyres lying around) it was quickly fixed for only 300 shillings (about £1.50). Our arrival at the petrol station gleaned lots of attention from passing locals, all keen to help fix the tyre in return for a small tip.
Maralal itself is dusty, red, wild and colourful. Shops selling spare car parts, water and snacks and Mpesa top ups (mobile phone currency) fill the streets, along with a good smattering of lodges and cafés. I dipped my head into the Hard Rock Café, with its pink luminous signpost, for a mosey over the menu and a bite to eat. Like most places in the north, the only things actually available were beans, rice and cabbage. Still, flavoured with tomato and garlic it was pretty tasty.
Maralal is home predominately to the Samburu people who dress fantastically. Wrapped in colourful patterned fabrics, multi-coloured beaded jewellery and all adorning the same black rubber sandals, I gazed in awe as hundreds of locals lined up to pick up their weekly old person’s pay from the council building. Even the younger crowd, who choose to wear modern clothes – a bemusing amount of Arsenal football shirts, for instance – still tend to incorporate a little of their traditional attire into their outfit, even if it’s just a couple of Samburu bracelets.
Accommodation: I stayed at Maral Safari Lodge, a slightly odd place on the outskirts of town. The lodge has recently undergone a makeover and although the ski-chalet style rooms are a bit dodgily-decorated and dark inside they would probably be fun with a group. Having the whole gigantic thing to myself with the four beds and velvet floral bedding felt a bit much though…
The most disappointing thing about Maralal Safari Lodge was the welcome. On arrival, the receptionist just sort of looked at me and didn’t say hello, and I wandered around for a while before finding someone that could help me. I was introduced to the manager, a British man who took over the lodge to run it as a charity – not a bad idea as the money from the lodge now all goes back into conservation for the park where it’s located – but he too is a bit of a vague and strange person. That said, the food was great, and the restaurant staff were very friendly.
THE DRIVE TO SOUTH HORR
The next morning I had a meeting booked with the Guyo, the Police Chief in Maralal to check on the security of the roads going north. A big bear of a man, he was kind and helpful, and continued to check in with me every day of the trip to make sure I had safely arrived at each next stop on my journey in the north. Security is still an important concern for those wanting to adventure in the north, with some occurrences of banditry reported (i.e armed locals stopping you along the road and ‘relieving you of all your possessions’ as one man put it). “They don’t usually kill people,” said Guyo, which was reassuring.
For the most part, fighting taking place in the north is between the different tribal groups and not aimed at tourists. We tried to be as informed as possible about security on the roads heading north, and had a safe trip up to our next stop in South Horr… with only one hiccup on the way.
We were due to spend the night at Desert Rose, a luxury lodge carved into the cliff face among the spectacular mountain range south of South Horr. The drive to Desert Rose is particularly challenging and takes at least 5-6 hours from Maralal. A decent 4×4 and even better driver are required to scale the sheer rocky road to reach the lodge. I was making the journey with Amos, a Samburu man who lives in Maralal and his brother Sammi in what he assured me was an excellent 4×4 (and was actually a dodgy old Toyota pickup truck). But, with little other option I went ahead. ‘At least we won’t attract much attention in this old banger’ I thought.
I checked all the usual things on the car before we left – oil, petrol, tyre quality, two spare tyres etc. It wasn’t until we were broken down, hanging precariously on the steep rocky road to Desert Rose that I realised something else was missing. “Amos, does this car have a hand break?!” I squeaked, as his brother jumped out of the car to shove a couple of rocks behind the wheels. “Handbreak?” He replied. “…No!” With that, the car lurched back into life and rolled a couple of feet back down the hill before he caught the clutch and propelled us forward.
Exhausted from all the excitement, we finally arrived at the lodge about 5pm to find they weren’t expecting us and didn’t have any food. We were totally in the middle of nowhere, about two hours from the next town. We decided to quickly get back on the road and continue on to South Horr. So, back down the rocky cliff face we went.
I couldn’t believe the situation, but as we drove back through the mountain range and the setting sun cast a golden glow over the rocks around us it was hard to care very much about anything else in the world but how beautiful everything looked.
Accommodation: Eventually, in the dark, we found our accommodation for the night – the Samburu Sports Centre and Guest Lodge in South Horr. Again, it was a bit of a frosty welcome, but once we’d sorted rooms and payment our hosts warmed up and cooked us a delicious dinner of rice, potatoes and cabbage. The accommodation was simple and pretty grubby, but we were so exhausted we were just glad to have somewhere to lie down. I slept in a small banda (round mud hut with straw roof) with turquoise crusty walls, a smattering of bugs and some questionable-looking bedding. There were showers (the sort that you come out of feeling more dirty) and toilets that don’t bear talking about. As a plus point, the resident big fluffy Alsatian dog called Bear came and put his head on my knee for an ear rub.
The next day we were up early for the hot and rocky drive to Lake Turkana, but not before a spectacular few interactions with the people of South Horr…