Camel safaris, canoes and chameleons

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The Independent Online

I Had heard about the Kakamega Forest but there was no detail in the few guidebooks then available, which referred to an "ornithologist's delight" in a manner which usually means the author hasn't been there. Fortunately I had a bicycle and, having reached the town of Kakamega, roughly worked out where the forest was.

Late that night I was in the thick of it, staying in the tiny Forest Rest House, surrounded by jungle noises. I spent two days traipsing the shadowy paths, accompanied by a ranger, who pointed out monkeys, birds, leopard footprints, medicinal flowers, poisonous plants and swivel-eyed chameleons.


In Kalokol, near Lake Turkana, in the far northern desert, I stayed at Kalokol Tours Lodge and Hotel, a grand name for a humble establishment. The shack is overrun with wannabe guides, water supplies are erratic and the pit latrines a severe test of self-control. The owner offers camel safaris on condition that you must buy a camel and then resell it, usually at half the price you paid. Rooms are about pounds 2.50.


I first visited Kenya's southernmost town, the tranquil coastal backwater of Vanga, in 1985, because it wasn't described in any book. A man called Jungly picked me up soon after I arrived, for a few shillings, paddled me around the mangroves in his canoe, spent the evening with me drinking beer, then took me back to the house he shared with his wife. In the morning, I said goodbye, promising to write.

Eleven years later I returned to Vanga where nothing seemed to have changed. A man came loping down the street in a fluorescent windcheater. "You never wrote to me," he said by way of greeting. It was Jungly and he wasn't smiling.


I envisaged Treetops to be an elaborate tree house, deep in primeval forest, encircled by noisy, nocturnal wildlife. It turns out to be a cramped hotel, planted firmly on the ground, marooned in a narrow salient of the Aberdare National Park and all but surrounded by Kikuyu farms, with a main road running by just a couple of miles away. The large area in front of the lodge is a scoured dustbowl.


I blame the enthusiasm of some hearty New Zealanders from the Mount Kenya Youth Hostel who led me astray when I should have known better. Together, we climbed by car and on foot from the YH at 6,000ft to the main summit rendezvous of Mackinder's Camp at 14,500ft in one day. I was cold, nauseous and numb with tiredness. The next morning we set off for the top, Point Lenana, at over 17,000ft - or rather they set off and I followed at an increasingly alarming distance. At midday I passed glaciers and a snow- crusted lake. Then noticed I wasn't interested.


Machakos is one of Kenya's premier craft-making centres, and also a place well off the regular tourist trails. My eye was caught by a huge goatskin-covered drum, the bowl-shaped instrument normally converted to use as a table in mediocre Kenyan hotels. I managed to buy it for about pounds 7 and even got it home intact. It was only after it had been in the front room a couple of months that we began to notice moths. I caught one and sent it to the Natural History Museum who told me I had an infestation of East African moth.


Songa kidogo. "Budge up a little". If you plan to travel in Kenya's cheapest, most crowded public transport - minibuses and pickups known as matatus - you can use this phrase to get a seat.


A beautiful set of figures, representing elders of the Kamba tribe, just inches high and carved by a man called Simon, who inscribed his name on the backside of one of them.

Richard Trillo is the author of `The Rough Guide to Kenya' (pounds 11.99). Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter `Rough News', which is published three times a year by Rough Guides, 1 Mercer St, London WC2H 9QJ. A free `Rough Guide' goes to the first three new subscribers each week.


Getting there

Flight deals to Kenya include pounds 323 with Trailfinders (0171 938 3939).

Getting about

l Kalokol, near the shore of Lake Turkana, is a long, two-day journey by bus (pounds 1O) or by rented Suzuki jeep (pounds 400/week) from Nairobi.

l Kakamega forest is a day west of Nairobi.

l Vanga is four hours' drive south of Mombasa.

l Treetops is three hours' drive north of Nairobi and can only be visited by pre-arrangement (from pounds 1OO nightly: Block Hotels (254 02 540 780).

l Mount Kenya (four hours north of Nairobi) can be climbed privately, with a local guide, or as an organised tour setting out from Nairobi (from pounds 250 for five days).

l Machakos is less than one hour's drive east of Nairobi.

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