Sunday, June 15, 2008

African Adventure: Our journey to Lamu via rain and bus, and what a journey. (May 6-7)

Current Location: Lamu Island, Kenya. Highlights: A train journey from a time long past and bus ride with army escort into bandit territory.
Upcoming: Our edventures on Lamu, Flamingos on L. Bogoria, and a week in the bush with Masai worriers (hopefully).

We decided to take the train and bus to get to the Island of Lamu on the northern Kenyan coast, as we wanted to experience this type of African transport which can be an edventure in itself! We bought our train ticket at Nairobi train station to reserve a second class place earlier in the day as the journey is overnight and departs at 7 pm sharp! We decided to splash out (2100 KSH = about US$30) and go second class as you get an evening meal, breakfast, and a sleeping berth, 4 to a carriage. (We will probably go third class on the way back to Nairobi at the bargain price of 350 KSH (about US$5.70), which includes only a seat!) We arrived at the station around 6.30 pm and were greeted by a very polite gentleman in a brilliantly clean white starched uniform. "What?", I thought, "am I really
in Nairobi?" He then directed us towards the name board so we could find our names and see in which carriage and compartment we had been placed. "Wow" I thought, "this is amazing". This really started to have the feel and ambiance of something from a long since past era. So off we went to our carriage, and introduced ourselves to our two other carriage traveling companions: a Dutch backpacker off to Mombassa, and a Nairobi businessman who was going to a meeting in Mombassa. The carriage was really cool, again a complete blast from the past with heavy chrome fittings, a small sink with running water, large bench seats, and hardwood framed windows.

The train departed on time and off we went. In about 15 mins another chap in a clean pressed white uniform came in to inspect our tickets and take our meal and bedding vouchers. In about another 15 mins, another white uniformed guy came down the narrow corridor outside our compartment dinging the chimes of a xylophone which was the signal that we should go to the dinning car for dinner. The small tables were neatly set with china, glasses, metal cutlery, and cotton napkins. We took our seats and in an instant we were waited on by a crew of staff all in well ironed white uniforms who served us our first course of soup from silver plated soup terrenes. Then main course of beef stew with veggies, or battered fish with rice was again served from silver platted platters, and we were showed various beverages such as wine, beer, and soft drinks. Desert was
followed by coffee or tea served from silver plated pots. I was loving every minute of this decadence. It really felt like I was warped back in time and was off to the beach for a holiday! The delicious dinner "experience" served by the incredibly friendly staff was over with all too soon and we returned back to our compartment where our beds had already been made up. Clean cotton sheets covered a thick mattress over an already comfortable bench seat. With all four of us neatly tucked in, we turned off the light, locked the door, and went to sleep to the "da, da, da, da.........da, da, da, da" and rocking motion of the train.

The train actually goes right through Tsavo Park, the actual park where the man eating lions made famous by the film "Ghost and the Darkness" lived, killed, and terrorized many of the people who built the actual bridge the train goes over. Do you think I used too many "actuals" in the preceding sentence? But we didn't get to the see the bridge or any wildlife as it was too dark.

We awoke the next morning to the sound of the steward with his xylophone and knew to head off to the dining car for breakfast. In the same style as dinner, we ate a delicious breakfast of eggs, sausage, toast, and coffee (or tea). Upon our return to the compartment the bedding was all cleared away and we enjoyed the view out of the window (although raining) for the remaining hour or so of our journey to Mombassa. I have to say again that I thoroughly enjoyed the train journey and would recommend it to anyone. While its defiantly NOT the Orient Express (which my parents just traveled on as a treat from us "kids"), its defiantly an experience and I had a total blast.

We left Mombassa train station and found a rather nasty run down hotel (Glory Hotel) a short walk for the station for 500 KSH (US$7.50) which included a basic breakfast. We set about our usual routine of making sure the room was secure, checking all windows, all bars at the windows, and alternate ways to enter the room, left out luggage, locked the room with two padlocks we carried (not the one supplied by the hotel) and left to book our bus ticket to the ferry dock over to the Lamu Island several hundred kilometers up the coast. We spent most of the rest of the day writing and sending e-mail. I received a whole bunch of questions from school children which took about 4 hours to answer!

The bus left at 7 am the next morning (ticket cost was 400 KSH, about US$6 on TSS). The first stretch of road to Malindi, about 160km was fine, tarred with the usual set of potholes. From Malindi north the road deteriorated, and in places was so bad that the traffic just left the road and drove on tracks through the brush. Since it had been raining, a number of the buses and larger trucks were stuck in the mud and several tractors were pulling them free. We made it through most of these off-road sections just fine. At some point we picked up three armed army guys. Apparently this stretch of road was notorious in the past for attacks on buses by
Somalian bandits who crossed the border south into Kenya. But this has not happened in years and the armed escort makes everyone feel safer. The deteriorated tarred road turned into a very poor dirt road which ended at the ferry terminal to the Island of Lamu with several stops at villages. The bus journey was also an experience, with chickens, two people for every seat, and loads of poorly wrapped luggage along the isles. This journey took us about 10 hours, but it can take up to 3 days when the roads are very poor after heavy rains.

The ferry was just a small wooden diesel powered sailing dhow onto which was crammed far too many people that I am sure would have violated every safety standard in just about every western country. But the journey over to Lamu only took about 40 mins on clam waters and cost just 30 KSH (about 50 US cents). Once we stepped off the ferry onto the Island of Lamu, we really did hit a time warp back several centuries to a land influenced by 14th century Arabs, 16th century Portuguese, 19th century Sultans from Oman, and then the British Empire, where the women, locally called "ninjas", are dressed in black with only their eyes showing and the men
wear wraps like skirts, and there are no cars, only donkeys and sailing dhows! So tune in to the next thrilling episode to see how we cope with obnoxious beach-boys, take a three day journey in a sailing dhow, a donkey ride across the Island, and become immersed in the Swahili culture.

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