Thursday, 6 September 2012

A Weekend in Kitale

Two months since last post - where has the time gone.  The normalcy I spoke of in the previous post has become high octane!  The past 2 months have seen the arrival of Nick in Kenya, a house move to a new part of the city, and involved numerous "urgent" projects at work which have demanded more of my evening and weekend time than I was expecting.
Nick and I at the wedding around 10.30am.  Wedding started 1pm.
However, in the midst of all the business, Nick and I managed to get away for a long weekend to attend a colleague's wedding in Kitale.

Kitale is a small agricultural town in Western Kenya near Mt Elgon and the Ugandan border, and to get there we would be taking matatu (a cross between what we call a 15 passenger van in the US and a minibus in the UK). It was Nick's first experience travelling across country by matatu which is an experience I think he will be happy to forego for the foreseeable future!

Matatus in Kenya wait until they are full to leave. We were told that the journey to Kitale was about 6 hours (in truth it was 8 hours) so we arrived at the matatu stage (like a bus stop) at 10am to buy our tickets. However, not until 2 hours later had they sold all the seats and we were finally ready to leave at noon.  

The journey was beautiful.  45 minutes after leaving Nairobi on the highway you come to the edge of the Rift Valley and the rest of the journey was inside the Rift Valley - which you should Google to see photos better than ones I could show you!  There are zebras and baboons and donkeys along the whole journey and small farms and huts dotted across the landscape - a nice change from the smog and buildings of Nairobi. We arrived in Kitale at 8pm - much later than anticipated (it currently is pitch dark at around 6.45pm) - but some people on our matatu we spoke to helped us find where we were going which was extremely helpful!

Kitale is a small town and not really on the way to anywhere - except to Mt Elgon, meaning that for such a small and remote town there was an exceptionally high number of mzungus (foreigners) who were staying there for a night prior to trekking or a night after having come back.  Because of the high number of tourists that come through the town, there are actually surprisingly great ammenities - including a proper coffee shop and a restaurant/bar that serves a great collection of Indian, Chinese and Pizza dishes.  For cheap!  In Nairobi eating Kenyan food is very reasonable - you can get a nice plate of chicken, meat or fish with rice and vegetables for around $4 or £2.50. But foreign food is much more expensive.  So we were delighted to randomly find great world food we could afford in a small agricultural town in very rural Kenya.

My colleague's wedding was lovely. I had learned from my previous wedding attendance that Kenyan weddings do not necessarily start on time. So where the invitation said 10am, Nick and I cleverly arrived at 10.20am armed with the Saturday newspaper. We were the very first people to arrive - they were still setting up - and the wedding didn't actually begin until 1pm.  Although there was musical entertainment from a local choir which sang for about an hour (see pictures below).

The choir was a bit tired of waiting too!

Here they go!

Precious, my colleague's new wife, arrives with her parents.

The ceremony was very nice - set outside under enormous trees - and was entirely in Swahili, but I think we got the overall impression that at the end the couple was married!  

Mr and Mrs Evans Yegon

Lunch was served in somewhat chaotic fashion (food appeared to be the primary motivator for many of those attending).  The queue was probably 75 people long when Nick and I joined and the style of queuing is to stand immediately behind those in front of you - so close that you are basically touching them. As the queue was very long, Nick and I stood more side by side to chat to each to each other (rather than me standing directly behind him and staring into his hair for 20 minutes). This however was a mistake, as we were very soon pushed out of the queue and standing next to (but definitely not in) this tightly packed line.  Someone took pity on us and invited us to join a different queue in the wedding party tent - but this was again a mistake as that queue was more than 30 minutes.  Anyway, we ate in the end a nice lunch.  The sky sadly had turned very dark by this point, and we managed to leave about 30 minutes ahead of a down pour.

My work colleagues and newly-weds. 

The Kenyan government had announced a week before that the Monday following the wedding would be a public holiday (not in honour of my co-worker's wedding, but rather to celebrate Eid).  We happily took the opportunity to extend the trip and spend an extra day in the area exploring. A quick review of our guidebooks led us to deciding to visit Kenya's smallest National Park - Saiwa Swamp. At 3 square kilometers, it is a pedestrian only park which was set up to protect a small water antelope.  To reach the park we needed to take a matatu about 18km and then walk another 7km. The matatu I think was record breaking - we had at one count 29 people inside (well, mostly inside - some were hanging on but kind of outside).  A matatu only has 14 seats.

The 7km walk was lovely - down this long dirt road with farms on either side.  The people we passed were busy with their cows or preparing food - and were absolutely intrigued by these 2 mzungus strolling past their homes.  The children we passed followed us for a long way - walking directly behind us so silently that we would turn to see if they were still there and they would nearly trip over us.  The road went up and down hills and over swamp land and was the greenest lushest walk I have taken in years.

We finally arrived at the park (after having wondered many many times if we were going the right way (7 km down a dirt road is a long way when you don't know for sure).  The guide books had said you could arrange for a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) to take you back to the main road, so when we arrived we asked the ranger and he said he could call someone when we were finished.

There is an antelope in this picture.  Really.

We were the only people there that afternoon.  The park is one of the loveliest gems I have come across in Kenya - and if for some reason you ever find yourself in Kitale take a few hours for a visit.  The park has a large swamp in the middle with a 7km path that goes all the way around it, one bridge that cuts straight across it, and 5 viewing platforms (about 40 feet in the air) where you can sit and have a picnic and look out at the swamp to see the wildlife.  Which is exactly what we did - and as soon as we sat down we spotted a few antelope and watched them peacefully for about an hour.

There is a turning point to this story.  After about an hour it started to rain - just lightly - so we decided to try to get across the swamp to another viewing platform and sit there for a bit.  We started to walk and the rain got heavier, and we walked faster and the rain got heavier still. We finally made it to the platform - this one much much higher, up quite rickety stairs. The rain got heavier and heavier.  There was a canvas covering on the platform, but as the wind picked up the rain was getting in everywhere.  Skip ahead 10 minutes to Nick and I, hoods up and head down, standing in the heaviest rain, hail, and wind storm I have been in up on 50 foot wooden platform.  The wind, rain and hail was so fierce that we couldn't look up or it would slap our faces and it was so loud we couldn't talk to each other.  We stood there, bundled up, for about 15 minutes - absolutely soaking wet and freezing - and then the thunder and lightning started, and was getting closer every minute.  

When the rain had just started, before we knew what was coming!

I remember thinking I wished I had better wilderness training and was trying to decide if standing on a wooden platform was safer or less safe than standing down amongst the trees.  With the thunder and lightening coming closer we decided to try to start the 2 1/2 km walk back to the park entrance.  We very carefully climbed down the stairs - which were now covered in hail - and began walking back.  "Walking back" makes it sound like a Sunday stroll.  It was still pouring and hailing and lightening and thundering and wind was relentless. Not only that, but the path was now covered in standing water up to our ankles - freezing cold standing water.  And I was wearing sandals.  The path also had some very very steep sections, which now contained mini rivers - leaving me the only option to climb up and down them with hands and knees.  

We then started to come across some trees which had blown over during the storm.  At first they were smallish so we could climb over them, but then we came across very very large ones.  One so large that our only option was go out into the swamp in order to get around it.  We continued to trudge through running ice water for 2 kms and finally made it back to the entrance, soaked and freezing (I couldn't feel my feet by this point).  We felt we deserved a medal for our efforts - it was one of the most intense nature situations I have been in (and hope to ever be in!).
The car park was in about a foot of standing water and we deliberated a long time about if a motorcycle would be the safest way to get back to the road or if we should try to find someone with a car to drive us.  We ended up on a motorcycle - and very grateful as about a mile outside of the park a large tree had falled across the road and no car would be making it past that until someone came with a chainsaw!

All in all a great trip - and definitely visit Saiwa Swamp if you get the chance!

Have been on a few field visits the past month and have 2 more coming up in the few weeks so will be writing about that in the near future!

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