Private homepage – Hans-Georg Michna
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A personal travel report from Kenya in May 2015
Last change: 2015-06-08 – Copyright © 2015-2017 Hans-Georg Michna
Click on the small pictures to see them enlarged, usually to 800 x 600 pixels.
Times are given in local Kenyan time in 24 h format (without "am" or "pm"), i.e. 0:00 to 23:59.
All photos are subject to copyright ©. If you want to reuse any photo, send me an email asking for permission, and I may send you the full-size photo, usually 3,264 x 2,448 pixels (8 Megapixels). These photos bear the copyright © 2015-2017 Hans-Georg Michna.
EXIF times in these pictures should carry proper time and time zone information. Kenya time is UTC + 3 h.
[I use my latest camera—a Fujifilm HS50EXR. Most photographs in this travel report are reduced to 800 x 600 pixels and JPEG-compressed with medium strength to make them more palatable for the web.]
My Kenyan phone number, active this year from May 1st through May 30th, is +254724662096, good for SMS and calls, but the better ways to reach me are Hangouts, TextSecure, Threema, and email.
My travelling checklist in michna.com/kenya.htm#Preparations (German version michna.com/kenia.htm#Reisevorbereitungen) is, as always, my means of packing without fear of forgetting anything important. As usual, the packing and other preparations take at least a full day of concentrated work, because they cover an immense number of small things and details. Without the checklist I'd be lost.
KLM, Air France, and Kenya Airways on their flights to Nairobi currently allow two pieces of check-in luggage of up to 23 kg each in the economy class. KLM also has a pretty good and informative web site and a reasonably good smartphone app (click here for the Android version), allowing ticket purchase, online check-in, and seat selection, now also for the flights operated by Kenya Airways. It has worked well last year.
Our flight went exceedingly well. No problems whatsoever, except for a little delay in Amsterdam, most of which we had made up until Nairobi, probably with the help of favorable winds over Europe. At times we were flying at a speed of 1050 km/h. I like KLM.
Munich – Amsterdam – Nairobi
I peeped into the movie "Jupiter Ascending", then decided that I would watch it in the home cinema after my return, and skipped to a funny Indian movie about a female private detective that started out well, but then became an endless stretch, so I eventually gave up. I enjoyed my noise-cancelling headset and can recommend something like this to every traveller.
We arrived in Nairobi, and the driver, whom we had sent an SMS from Amsterdam already about our orderly departure, was there with a big sign with my name and that of the car hire company, Concorde Car Hire & Safaris.
The weather was cool, no more than 23°C, and rainy. Judging from the puddles it must have rained not long before our arrival.
The driver had come with "our" car, a white Suzuki Maruti Gypsy, the same type of car we had used for many years until our previous car hire company gave up and shut down. Concorde seems to be the only car hire company that still offers this type of car, but we have several other types of car in our view, mainly the Toyota RAV 4, the Suzuki Escudo, and a few other small off-road vehicles from Mitsubishi and others.
He took us to the Aero Club of East Africa, where we met a friend whom I had promised a smartphone. She would otherwise have to wait until we returned from our northern circuit, but she was too eager and impatient, so she came to the Aero Club to take possession of the phone as soon as possible.
We sat at the bar and in the restaurant and did the initial setup of the phone while having a few drinks she sponsored.
Eventually we went to bed and slept well, but a little bit too short.
The next morning the same driver with the same car came to collect us from the breakfast table at 7:45. We first went to the nearby supermarket to empty their ATM. At first the ATM did not work, which always sends shivers down my spine, but fortunately it recovered on its own, and I could draw 4 times KSh 40,000 from it. A lot of paper bank notes, but altogether still not enough for our first trip, so I would have to use my credit card early on.
Then we went to the Concorde Car Hire & Safaris office in Nairobi Westlands near the Sarit shopping mall and did the paperwork and the payment. We paid them directly in euro cash.
Our Suzuki Maruti Gypsy
A few things needed to be fixed on the car. One headlight was weak, for example. But generally the car made a good impression.
Another friend, who lives near Westlands and who should also get a smartphone, came there to collect it. He is a techie, so I did not have to help him to set up the phone.
This year's plan was different from previous years, because two friends in Samburu were both about to leave Kenya and we wanted to meet them before they left. Therefore we did not have the usual day in Nairobi for preparations. Instead we tried to leave Nairobi as soon as possible and drive our usual northern route in reverse direction.
Nairobi – Samburu – Baringo – Nakuru – Nairobi
We drove out of Nairobi, guided by Google Navigation over a network of new Chinese-built, mostly elevated roads, then on the new freeway towards Thika, and on via Karatina and Naro Moru to Nanyuki, a drive of over 200 km that took us about 4 hours.
We had the choice of spending the night in either Nanyuki or the farther Isiolo. Before reaching Nanyuki town we passed by the civil airport (as opposed to the big military airport on the northwestern side of Nanyuki) and stopped there, because we always stop at the airport restaurant "Barney's". That little restaurant is a treat. Don't miss it, if you ever get there.
For various reasons we decided to stay in Nanyuki and chose the best hotel in town, the Kongoni. It turned out to be very good for a remote African place, but also not exactly cheap.
The next morning we had a good breakfast, then we drove back into Nanyuki (the Kongoni is just outside the town on the northern side) to get more money from the Barclays ATM there and to find a nano-to-standard SIM adapter or at least an abandoned SIM card from which we could have made one. I had forgotten that my German SIM card is of nano size, but I needed it to control my credit card, because my bank suddenly required me to enter an enabling code, which they send as an SMS to my German mobile phone number. But my internet connection was through the Kenyan SIM card.
This was yet another example that forgetting even a very minor thing at home when you travel can have inordinately bigger consequences.
We failed on both accounts. The ATM did not work at all, as the guard sitting next to it immediately told us, and of course nobody in Isiolo had ever heard of a nano-SIM adapter. Also nobody had a left-over SIM card. I decided that I would have to build the adapter myself from a piece of cardboard later and feared that this would be difficult. (In the end it turned out to be easy.)
So we drove off toward Isiolo, a drive where, traffic permitting, you could roll down the slope of Mt. Kenya for about 50 km with the engine switched off. Being more careful and having to avoid a few motorcycles, we managed only 30 km without engine. It nicely compensates for the extra fuel we had needed to climb the foot of the mountain on our way to Nanyuki. And, of course, the temperature rose while we coasted down, so we opened the windows and I rolled up my sleeves.
We had decided that we would drive through the nature reserve (officially the unpleasantly named Samburu Game Reserve—game being a word for hunted animals), so we turned left in Archer's Post and entered through that Gate.
The slower, but nicer way through the Buffalo Springs reserve on the southern side of the big Ewaso Ngiro river was still impossible because the bridge near Samburu Lodge was still not repaired years after the big flood had destroyed it.
We saw a group of about 20 giraffes and took photos and a GPS reading for the Reticulated Giraffe Project. A little further we saw another four and did the same.
To save time, because we were already late, we drove past the lodge and crossed the whole nature reserve in one go. Because of recent rains the road—or rather, the track—was impassable in several points, forcing us to take detours and using more time than we had anticipated. Just before the exit gate I saw that all car tracks went to the right, so we also turned right, expecting a detour to a higher-up river crossing. But we drove on and on and eventually became unsure of whether we were just driving somewhere else, so we turned back and tried the normal river crossing.
Sure enough, it was impassable, so we had to turn back again and drive the detour for a third time, and, sure enough, just a few meters beyond our previous turn-back point there was the upper river crossing, which was dry and well drivable. But all this took time.
West Gate was unmanned and open, so we simply drove through and went on to find Shivani's new camp that we had never seen before, because it did not exist last year. Shivani is a lion researcher with whom we have a long-standing connection.
My planning had been a bit poor. I believed that I knew where the new camp was, but I did not know the way there. The area has no mobile phone coverage, so we could not call her. Since it was not very far from her old camp, I drove to the old camp first. There I spotted a car track, leading exactly in the direction to the new camp. I drove on and came to a wide, dry riverbed. Two Samburu men were on the other side, so we crossed the dry river and asked them for the way to Shivani's camp.
They had two machines there. We later found out that one was a generator and the other a pump. Their purpose was to pump water from a borehole up to Shivani's new camp.
One of the two wanted to go there anyway, so we took him in and asked him for directions. He spoke neither English nor Kiswahili, so communication was mainly through gestures, but it worked. We had to drive away from our destination and all the way back to the main road. A little further along the (unpaved) road there was another turn-off which led directly to Shivani's new camp. Our coordinates of the camp were incorrect, so we would have found it difficult to find the camp anyway without help. Next time it will be much easier.
We finally drove into the camp and were astonished about the much more elaborate structures Shivani had erected. A nice stone house contained a large dinging room, a spacious kitchen, and smaller storage rooms.
We were invited for lunch and ate good, vegetarian food, nice vegetables with boiled rice. Then we went for a walk around the camp.
Shivani's own tent was on top of the hill with a wonderful view down onto the nearby river, and it had a shower and a toilet.
There was a large solar panel array, connected to some high-tech power electronics. This allows her to run a fridge-freezer combination, which is a huge advantage out there in the wild.
Next to it there is a parabolic antenna, providing internet access to the camp through a Wi-Fi network. The difference to her previous, very minimalistic camp site could not have been bigger.
Unfortunately we did not have any more time, and neither did she, as she was packing for her departure the next day. So we drove back at 16:00 to be sure to reach the lodge in time, even if we had a flat tire along the way.
This time the way was shorter, because we did not have to make the detour to the old camp and we already knew where we had to avoid impassable points, guided by our previously recorded GPS track.
West Gate was still unmanned and open, so we drove right through and reached Samburu Lodge shortly before 18:00. We checked into our room, one with a terrace right on the river bank, and went for dinner with John, the giraffe researcher.
After the never-ending activities and short sleep times of the last days we could, for the first time during this vacation, sleep as long as we wanted, which we did.
After a late, but good breakfast I went out into the field with John and the film crew who were doing a documentary on John's Reticulated Giraffe Project for some last filming before the crew was to leave for Nairobi.
The two segments to be filmed were a "hero shot", where the hero (John) stands on a rock, overlooking the landscape, and is filmed from a quadcopter drone, a DJI Inspire 1, circling him, and the ascent to the rock of the four project participants.
Filming with a drone
We saw lots of elephants, sometimes blocking our way. Apparently many elephants have entered the nature reserve over the last year, since poaching has been reduced with stronger punishment and other measures.
In the afternoon I finally began to work on this travel report, because I knew that some people were waiting for it.
Around dinner time I took these night photos in and near the lodge:
Genet cat; crocodiles
After breakfast we went on our first drive into the reserve for the sole purpose of watching animals and the wonderful landscape.
After photographing giraffes for John (take photos and take a GPS reading) we were rewarded by seeing not one, but two of the elusive leopards only a few hundred meters apart. Both were moving on the ground. Both were wary and looked tired, but did not go on their sleeping trees, as they normally do during the day.
Leopards are loners. Apart from mother and child they meet each other only for two ultimate purposes—to fight or to mate. We concluded that the two leopards were aware of each other and did not dare to sleep in the immediate vicinity of a potentially deadly enemy. But I don't know leopards well enough to be sure whether this is just a layman's figment of imagination.
Grant's gazelles; secretary bird
In the afternoon we had a very good look at John's technical equipment, some of which contained very new inventions, about which I expect to hear and see more in the future.
John recommended that we take a look at the broken bridge when we would drive out in the afternoon, which we did.
The bridge has been rebuilt!
Nobody had told us before, but we would not have had the time to drive through Buffalo Springs anyway, so it was not too late. But we immediately drove across the bridge and drove along the river on the other side, enjoying the different perspective and the beautiful landscape.
The car tracks were partly overgrown, but I still had them on my navigation apps and could find them easily. Apparently the bridge has been rebuilt very recently, because we saw only very few tire tracks.
We saw elephants and some antelopes before we returned to the bridge. We saw a troupe of baboons cross the bridge. For them it must have been a relief to suddenly be able again to roam another large territory.
After breakfast we drove out to see some animals and, of course, the lush, green landscape. We saw a large flock of vulture-headed guinea fowls, gerenuks, impalas, quite a few elephants, and almost a leopard mother with her two cubs. We saw her home, but not the leopards themselves, who had disappeared between rocks just before we arrived at the scene. You can't have everything.
We drove back along the river.
Heron and crocodile
In the afternoon we wanted to drive out again, this time with one of the lodge employees, but at 16:00 a small thunderstorm was approaching the lodge. So we called off the drive. After that the thunderstorm more or less dissolved itself and shed only very few thinly spread raindrops.
Consequently we reestablished the drive plan for 17:00 and drove out without any further threat of rain.
Before we went far, we found two cheetahs more or less right in front of the lodge.
Cheetahs and a Kori bustard (lat.: Ardeotis kori, deutsch: Riesentrappe)
We spent the rest of the daylight with the two cheetahs, with elephants, Grant's gazelles, impalas and the Kori bustard.
We were now finally sufficiently regenerated to actually do an early-morning drive, so we drove out in the morning sun before breakfast and saw various gazelles, antelopes, elephants and others. A few photos:
Oryx antelope; secretary bird
We woke up before dawn and set out for the longest drive from Samburu to Baringo via Samburu West Gate – west of Wamba – Lodungokwe – Kisima – Mugie – Churo – Tangulbei – Loruk. The entire distance we drove was 291 km, the average speed was 26.6 km/h. We could shift into fifth gear and drive 70 km/h only about two times on the entire day. Most of the faster stretches were driven at around 50 km/h in fourth gear, but a lot of the difficult parts had to be driven at little more than walking speed.
I drove out at 6:07 at the beginning of dawn. The road from West Gate to the main road from Archer's Post to Wamba had been redone relatively recently and could be driven much faster than a few years ago.
The road from Wamba to Lodungokwe
When I say "road" here, do not imagine a paved road as you are probably used to. These are gravel roads, often interrupted by very stony stretches, corrugation, mud holes, and other kinds of surface that makes you slow down to walking speed. Not a single part of our journey was on any paved road, except for the last bit from Loruk to Baringo, but even that part was laced with potholes, so I could not drive fast.
I drove the entire 11 hours without any break, except to stop and talk to some people. In Lodungokwe I stopped and asked for Anastasia Wangui (see the 2004 travel report). I knew already that she at moved elsewhere, but to my surprise I met her sister, about whose existence I had never known and who still lives there. I left some information and drove on.
I drove relatively fast and tried to keep up the speed without overstressing the car or our nerves.
In the afternoon it began to rain. I drove more than one hour in mostly heavy rain. The road changed into a river in some ploaces, but the rough design of the road turned out to be mostly waterproof, so we never got stuck anywhere. But driving became even more difficult and even slower, because the road became slippery and because every puddle could be a deep, but now invisible pothole.
Shortly before our destination the rain turned light and eventually stopped. In the late afternoon, at 17:05, we finally reached Baringo.
This road must have been better, because in earlier years we had driven it, albeit in the opposite direction, in 10 hours or less.
We had moved into a banda (a round stone hut in this case), visited friends in Baringo, but otherwise did not do much, except meeting more friends and recovering from the previous day.
The Lake Baringo water level had risen even further than what we had seen last year, but it had receded somewhat recently. The Lodge and large parts of Roberts' Camp are still under water.
We drove from Baringo to Marigat to visit more friends. This short distance took an hour, because the originally paved road had decayed such that cars drove next to the road wherever they could. Why build a road when it ends up being worse than if nothing had been built?
Fortunately the rest of the road to Nakuru was much better, and we could drive most of that part at around 70 km/h.
A motorcycle carrying charcoal
Along the way we again crossed the equator, and I finally took the opportunity to visit my nearby geocache, the first that has ever been put on the equator. It is also exactly on the eastern 36° meridian, so nowadays one would call this a "confluence". But in those days it was, and still is today, a virtual geocache that I had marked on a nearby tree, but the latest reports and photos from other geocachers indicated that that tree had been felled, so I needed a new marker and a new description.
We found that the track I had used the last time I had been there was impassable due to a high water level in the river I had to cross. But the new vector maps I currently use on my phone showed a small, unpaved country road on the eastern side of the river that we could reach by driving south past Mogotio, where the main road bridges over the river, and then back north on that road.
Past the equator the road turns exactly east. The entire area around the geocache is a huge sisal plantation. We drove into it, talked to a guard on the border of another sisal farm, and homed in on the geocache in a kind of spiral fashion.
I don't want to describe our path too precisely, to keep it as a little adventure, but suffice it to say that it lies directly on the eastern side of a canal, running roughly NNW to SSE, and that we found one fairly direct path to the point that was too muddy for us to try and another, more circumspect one that can be driven even if it has rained recently. In any case it is possible to drive right up to the 0° North/South, 36° East point, so you don't even have to walk to get there, except for the last dozen steps.
I took a few photos to document the new situation. Then we turned back towards Mogotio and continued. Altogether we had crossed the equator 5 times on that trip, not counting the numerous times I stepped from the southern hemisphere into the northern and back while I walked around the geocache.
In Nakuru we checked in at the Nuru Palace Hotel, the fundamental Christian place that serves no alcohol. Unfortunately we found quality lapses that will make us check the nearby hotels when we come the next time.
For example, the door to our room lacked the latch, so to close it, we had to lock it. Worse, it was almost impossible to close the tap over the washing basin. And one of the two beds made terrible noises when somebody lay in it and moved. That was later repaired by tightening some screws, but the bed never got really quiet.
On the next day we had breakfast in the hotel restaurant, then drove to the lake for a day in the nature reserve.
The lake level had also risen so far that the former entrance gate had to be relocated. Since most tracks near the former lake shore were under water, driving around the lake was difficult and much less pleasant than before, because much of the driving was in the forest and some along the outer fence.
Also one of the security guards told me that we should turn left when hitting the main track, athough we were also told that it was still possible to drive all around the lake.
Turning left meant that we had to drive along the eastern shore of the lake, which we had not originally wanted. So the advice was conflicting and crucial information was not given.
We later learned that to drive all around the lake it was necessary to drive relatively far to the south to cross the river that flows through the park, and drivers without our experience could easily find it difficult to navigate the western side because of several detours. Unfortunately the guard never asked us whether we knew the park well, but instead simply pointed us toward the easier side.
We drove to Lake Nakuru Lodge and had a drink, looked at the lodge, checked their prices, then drove on to find our way around the lake. Some photos:
One of the famous Rothschild giraffes of Nakuru
Tortoise; young waterbuck
Lake Nakuru seen from the Baboon Cliff lookout
As you can see below, the thousands of flamingos that used to line the southern shore were no longer there. We saw only a few flamingos, pelicans, cormorants, and spoonbills (Platalea alba).
Birds of Lake Nakuru; White-breasted cormorant (lat.: Phalacrocorax lucidus, deutsch: Weißbrustkormoran)
We did, however, see lots of buffalos, gazelles, antelopes including the massive eland, zebras, Rothschild giraffes, and the few white rhinos that had been introduced here.
I never liked Nakuru National Park much, mostly because of its complete fencing, its small size, and its unnatural vegetation, possibly caused by the lack of elephants, and must say that it is currently even less attractive for me and probably not worth the $80 entrance fee per person. I will consider bypassing it next year, like I had done in years before.
We drove out of Nakuru town after breakfast. The road to Nairobi is mostly very good, except the last bit through the outskirts of Nairobi, which has thinly spread potholes. The part from the Mai Mahiu turn-off to Nairobi is a freeway-like, four-lane road.
As we were passing within 200 m of our new car hire company in Westlands, we used the occasion to go there to have a few bits repaired, like one brake light and the latches for the roof hatch. At the same time we wanted to test another car type, a Suzuki Escudo, so we left them the Suzuki Maruty Gypsy that had to reliably transported us through the remote areas, and jumped into the Escudo with its automatic transmission and its air conditioning. Although it is also a four-wheel-drive, its owner thinks that the Gypsy is a better car for real off-road driving, along with some other subtle advantages.
We took the Escudo to Tsavo and Amboseli, where there would be rough-road, but no real off-road driving, and planned to switch back to the Gypsy for our last trip, the one to Masai Mara.
It was a funny feeling to drive a modern, automatic gear-shift car through Nairobi. I had never done this before. But it felt good, and the air-conditioning kept us cool.
I will write more about the Suzuki Escudo in an extra chapter at the end of this travel report.
Due to unforeseen circumstances we ended up in the Fairview Hotel, rather than the Aero Club of East Africa. This is the place where I spent my first night in Africa and quite a few thereafter, so it was a nostalgic experience.
However, the Fairview was a good compromise between good enough and not too expensive before. Meanwhile it has been improved and extended a great deal and is now one of the top hotels in town, quite recommendable, but also anything but cheap. We paid close to €200 for a double room, which is normally outside our price range when there are cheaper alternatives.
At least we gained a choice between several differently styled restaurants in the hotel compound, fast Wi-Fi, a mosquito-screened room, and a functional bathroom.
There are still some subtle quality lapses, but altogether this is a fine choice for the upper middle class tourist from a rich country.
I had two important tasks, one an appointment with a doctor to perform a medical test for my Kenyan pilot license, and the other to take the result to the KCAA (Kenya Civil Aviation Authority) and fill in all the paperwork needed to renew my license.
The first one went smoothly, and I drove through the southern half of Nairobi and out towards the international airport where the KCAA office is. That took more than an hour because of a congested turn-off that led to at least two of the four south-going lanes of the freeway-like 8-lane road being blocked and the rest being filled with a traffic jam several kilometers long, because the remaining two lanes were insufficient to carry the traffic at any decent speed.
I arrived at the KCAA office 10 minutes before their lunch break and found the office still open, but with insufficient time to wait for me to fill the forms before they would go away for lunch. However, the lady told me that since very recently there is a KCAA licensing office on Wilson Airport.
That was a cool surprise. I decided on the spot that it would be much more convenient to drive back immediately and arrive at the Wilson Airport office in time for their reopening after the lunch break. I might even have time to check into the Aero Club of East Africa and then drive across the airport to their office.
As it turned out, the way back took even longer than the way to the international airport. There was a traffic jam on the highway, and I had the choice of creeping along the highway or drive a shortcut through narrow streets. I decided for the latter, but it turned out to be no faster, perhaps even worse. I made a mental note that I would follow Google's advice the next time and just drive where Google Navigation tells me to.
When I arrived at Wilson Airport and found the new office, they had already reopened after their lunch break and speedily processed my application after I had filled in the forms and provided the required documentation.
We checked into the Aero Club and got our favorite room, spacious and quiet, with its roof allegedly repaired that had let raindrops through to the canopy above our bed. It was not raining at the time, but at least one rainshower during the night was likely, so we would know soon enough.
When we sat in the club's restaurant for an early dinner, the electricity failed, and the huge generator block nearby sprang into life. Unfortunately, that generator powers the airport facilities, but not the club, so no light, no Wi-Fi, no charging of computers or smartphones. But we already had our food, so we could not really complain.
After some time the electricity came back, only to fail again later, as I sat at the computer writing this travel report, so I could write, but not upload. Eventually I did it after the power returned.
After breakfast we drove out of the Aero Club at 9:00 and, with the help of Google Navigation, found the only real good shortcut to the Mombasa Road, leaving the typical morning traffic jam behind.
Traffic was initially dense with lots of trucks, but thinned out more and more after Athi River. The road is excellent all the way.
Nairobi – Tsavo West – Amboseli – Nairobi
We reached Mtito Andei around 14:00 and went into a restaurant to have a drink (guava juice, one of my favorites) and a little food (mandazi, also one of my favorites). Then we turned off Mombasa Road and entered the Tsavo West nature reservation.
We tested Google Navigation inside the park, and it worked to some extent. We would have found our destination with it, but I would not recommend relying on it in its current state. Instead I switched to the Locus app with its excellent vector map and my own track and waypoint collection (published on my web site).
It anyway worked only because we had calculated the route while still having an internet connection. But large parts of Tsavo, particularly the southeastern part of Tsavo West where we were going to, has no mobile phone coverage at all.
Consequently I add this risk factor when having to decide whether to navigate an obstacle or turn back, because it can be quite unpleasant to get stuck in a huge area where there is no car traffic, but where there are lions that carry the stigma of not always respecting humans. The Tsavo lions are infamously known for tagging people on bicycles, for example.
Tsavo West was very green. There has obviously been quite a bit of rain. Whe saw greater kudus on two occasions, one oryx antelope, impalas and dikdik along the way. The kudus and the oryx were very shy and immediately ran away, which is typical at least for the kudus.
We crossed the airfield at the Kilaguni Lodge and reached the Kitani Severin Safari Camp at 16:40. The German manager, whom we had met in recent years already, greeted us and was happy to get some guests. Photos of the accommodation:
A "suite" in the Severin Safari Camp
This tented lodge has high standards and is a true pleasure. I can particularly recommend it for its excellent food (the manager is a learned cook) and for the quality of the entire technical side of the lodge, like its perfectly clean swimming pool. For example, the water taps in the bathrooms of the tents are of the ceramic kind (like I have back home, they never drip and are always perfectly easy to open and close in a quarter or half a revolution), something I have not seen in other lodges and hotels in Kenya.
After a delicious breakfast with fresh mango and other niceties we drove over to the nearby Mzima Springs (40 min slow driving), which we never miss when we are here. The sweetwater lake chain, fed by an enormous spring that comes out of the volcanic rocks, has clear water, so we could see the fish and the bottom of the lake. We watched the fish from the underwater viewpoint for a while, then sat at the next viewpoint and observed the second lake for a while, watching a darter, a kind of cormorant, diving for fish. A hippo's head appeared at the surface for a while, and a crocodile slowly crossed the lake from our side to the opposite one.
The brawling of the water, coming down from the first lake to the second over a rocky rapid, made everything else appear particularly quiet, so we enjoyed a little complacent rest under the huge strangler fig tree at the second viewpoint.
Driving back along a little detour we tried to spot animals. We saw giraffes twice, a bull and a mother with child. There was one oryx antelope and a few small groups of impalas. Generally the density of animals in Tsavo has always been low, and with the lush, green vegetation and the widespread availability of water after the recent rains these animals have spread out even farther, so Tsavo is not exactly the primary destination for wildlife safaris.
Add to this the now quite high entrance fee of $75 per adult per 24 hours and it becomes clear why we were the only guests at the safari camp. In my view, Amboseli with $80 is a better value, so it seems to me that Tsavo is mispriced. We had already changed our plans from three to only two nights in Tsavo, and I am pretty sure that other tourists and travel offices could easily come to similar conclusions.
This is a pity. If KWS would price Tsavo at half the price of Amboseli, it would make a wonderful entry point to spend a night or two after arriving in Kenya and before continuing to Amboseli. But as things are, many tourists could bypass Tsavo.
Lunch in the camp was another delight, and we decided to spend the whole afternoon in the camp, swimming in the pool, having a massage, or just doing nothing (or writing this travel report). This was actually the first real off-time since we arrived in Kenya. Perhaps we should do this more often.
We enjoyed our last breakfast in the open-air dining terrace of the Severin Safari Camp, then we drove off in the direction of the Chyulu Gate, which we had to pass before 14:25, our entrance time two days ago. Officially there is a convoy at 14:00, but this is no longer taken very seriously, particularly when we contributed the only car to the convoy. Still the guy at the gate got his German-made rifle and jumped into our car, ostensibly to guard us.
The gate was not functioning. We kept our smart card, not knowing what to do with it. The guy spoke English in a way that reminded me of a completely drunk person, so I could not understand most of what he said.
We drove off around 14:00 and took our time to navigate the partly very stony track. At around 14:45 we reached a road barrier where our guard jumped off. The rangers there took our smart card and muttered that we had overstayed our 48 hours by a couple of minutes. We protested, and they gave in and called their manager to allow us to depart without paying for another 24 hours, because obviously we could not know in advance that the gate had been relocated a week ago. They also told us that they will sent a message to all lodges, explaining the moved gate.
The new gate location, S 2° 51.714', E 37° 55.250', will be in the downloadable GPX files on my web site, as soon as I get to merging the new data with the data of the last years.
We drove on and caught a rain shower, which was good, because it washed off most of the dust from our car, but driving became a bit more difficult and slower. But we soon overtook the shower and came out in clear sky and sunshine.
We soon arrived at the Amboseli Sopa lodge, formerly the Kilimanjaro Buffalo lodge, whose airfield was still out of order and may never become serviceable again. We asked for the (lower) residents' rate, but the people were reluctant to offer it, because they apparently had to send copies of our identifying papers to the remote management, and our papers did not clearly prove that we were residents.
The whole idea of two different rates seems questionable to me, because if they can make a profit on lower residents' rates, then economic thinking dictates that it is profitable for them to agree to the residents' rate if the potential client otherwise drives on to the next lodge. That is why we always ask for the residents' rate, if there is one.
Fortunately I had inspected another lodge last year, which is located just a few kilometers outside Kimana Gate of Amboseli. It is the AA Lodge, a huge compound with many small houses and tents and all amenities from dining room to bar, open-air restaurant, swimming pool, conference rooms and even a library.
Their prices were much better, and they did not have the distinction between residents' and non-residents' rates. We paid KSh10,000 ($104 or €92) for a "cottage", a little house with a little garden, one spacious room with two beds, toilet and shower.
This lodge is a hidden gem. Very nearly everything was perfect, the people were friendly, even the Wi-Fi worked, and our cottage had something I had never seen in any lodge before, not even the most expensive ones known to me—a multiple-socket extender whose sockets were universal, so our German plugs fitted just as well as any other I know of.
Apparently a lot of thought and money had been put into the construction of this large lodge with an apparent capacity of way over hundred guests, so it seemed strange and sad to me that we were the only guests. When we came in, the whole lodge was powered up, and we saw that quite a few people worked there, including the kitchen staff, the barman, the room servants, several gardeners and more.
The food was good, apart from the always overspiced and too hot soup, but that is typical for most Kenyan restaurants I know, so I will not seriously complain.
The water in the room was heated by a solar installation on top of each house or tent, so the warm water was available almost instantly. The beds were very good, the mosquito nets worked, but in theory we should not need them, because the rooms were perfectly mosquito-proof with wire gauze windows on most sides. Only the door had a gap at the bottom.
I don't know whether mosquitos fly so close to the ground or whether somebody had recently left the door open, but we had two mosquitos in the room, one of which turned up inside my mosquito net, forcing me to use a glass and a piece of paper to catch it, before I could find peaceful sleep.
But this can happen in almost all lodges, so it is not a complaint about this particular one. I can recommend the AA Lodge unreservedly as a moderately priced, high-quality lodge.
After a good breakfast, a stroll around the lodge, and a bit of writing we left the AA Lodge and drove the remaining few kilometers to Amboseli's Kimana Gate. There we had to pay an entrance fee of $480 ($80 times two adults times three nights), which is about as much as we pay for the accommodation. It effectively doubles the price of our stay.
After we drove through the gate, we passed huge herds of sheep, goats, and cattle, along with some herders and a bunch of children walking around inside the nature reserve. The number of domesticated large mammals we saw is certainly much higher than the number of wild large mammals we saw and will see in the reserve. This makes it doubly difficult for me to pay the high entrance fee, when it is so drastically demonstrated to me that little value is put on the protection of nature. We drove on and later saw cattle roam the nature reserve without any herder nearby. I can only guess that, when a lion kills one of these roaming cattle, somebody will try to claim compensation.
I must admit that I would probably bypass Amboseli, or at least drastically shorten the times of my stay, if it were not for my connection to the Amboseli Elephant Research Project (AERP), for which I worked and whose members have become friends.
But while I am here, I might as well make the best of it. We moved into Ol Tukai Lodge after successfully negotiating residents' rate and had a fine lunch on its open-air terrace.
After settling into our luxurious room, we drove out in the late afternoon and found two lions at a kill. Many vultures were already sitting on nearby trees and in the grass near the lions, but the lions defended their food effectively.
Vultures on a tree, waiting for their chance to eat; marabou stork (lat.: Leptoptilos crumenifer) and white-backed vulture (lat. Gyps africanus, deutsch: Weißrückengeier)
Then an elephant family group came and accidentally walked directly towards the lions. When they noticed the lions, they stopped and made threats against the lions, but these stood their ground.
The elephants stayed there for about half an hour, looking as if they were trying to stare down the lions. Then they moved on in their typical synchronous fashion, i.e. they all turned at once and walked away, likely commanded by their matriarch, who typically makes such decisions.
Our morning drive led us to elephants in the swamp and quite a few hippos outside the swamp, walking about and eating grass in broad daylight. Hippos do that when they feel safe, otherwise they stay in the water during the day and graze only at night.
We saw gazelles, quite a few gnus (wildebeest) and various other animals. We could not get close enough to take good photographs and the sky was overcast, so the light was not great either, hence no photos this time.
We passed by the Amboseli Serena lodge and filled our tank at their petrol station. Their accommmodation prices are even higher than those of Ol Tukai Lodge. We took a drink there, chatted with some people from an American tour group, then left for lunch in our lodge.
In the afternoon we visited the AERP research camp and chatted with the crew.
In the morning the mountain was clear of clouds, so we took some photos of the landscape with the mountain while driving all around the swamp on the northern side.
Crowned cranes in front of Kilimanjaro; hippos in front of Kilimanjaro
Some animals could be found around the swamp, particularly a rare and photogenic reedbuck.
Hippos, grey heron, reedbuck
In the afternoon we drove out again, this time finding an elephant family group.
We left after breakfast and tried to drive through the dry Lake Amboseli, because it is much smoother and also much faster than using the stony track around it.
We made it almost through half the dry lake when we saw open water in front of us. We had to give up and turn towards the main track. At least this helped us part of the way.
We soon reached Meshenani Gate, took on a female hitchhiker with her two small children, and drove north towards Namanga. The track was stony and in large parts corrugated badly enough to make us drive at 15 km/h. I found it strange that the road builders built parts of the track in very good condition, but interspersed with many very bad parts. Why not build good quality the whole way?
We reached Namanga and had our tire pressure checked and pumped up. Our rear wheels were a bit low on pressure.
Along the Namanga – Bissil – Kajiado – Athi River road we visited some friends who offered us a nice lunch and some good information. They also answered my question about alternative roads to southwest Nairobi with a hint at the Isinya – Nairobi Orly airfield – Kiserian – Ongata Rongai – Nairobi Langata road that I had tried a few years ago in part.
We tried that road, but apart from the first and last few kilometers it was not good and forced us to drive very slowly or off the road because of too many potholes. Altogether, including a bad traffic jam on the last 4 km, it took us 3 hours, probably more than we would have needed for the Athi River – Mombasa Road route.
We arrived after dark and chatted with a bunch of interesting people, mostly pilots, in the Aero Club's bar.
This day was filled with small things to do, for example collecting my renewed pilot license, which did not go smoothly at first, but was successful in the end. In the afternoon we visited Cynthia Moss, the founder of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, who had just moved to a beautiful house with a wonderful large garden. We found her in good spirits, happy that most of the work of moving was behind her.
In the evening we went to the Aero Club's bar again and met some more interesting people, among them somebody who had been a ranger in Kenya for many years. He opened my eyes to some of the causes and effects that occur in and around nature reserves.
We had meanwhile decided that we wanted to keep the Suzuki Escudo for our last trip, to Masai Mara, as well, so we asked the car hire company about it. They agreed, so we could simply keep the car. Since it had no problems warranting a visit to the workshop, we also skipped visiting them while we were in Nairobi, particularly because crossing Narobi from south to north and back on a weekday can take almost half the day.
We woke up at 6:00, half an hour earlier than planned, and decided to take a quick breakfast and drive out as soon as possible, because the road to Masai Mara has always been very time-consuming.
On a weekday the Nairobi road traffic is always catastrophic, so we never considered driving the normal way through the city, which might have taken us two hours or longer. Instead I had planned to drive around the city on the southeastern side, on streets we had used before.
I did, however, consult Google Navigation and found that the recommendation was a new road called Southern Bypass. I had seen its construction from the air last year or the year before and gladly decided to try it.
It branches off from the Langata Road outbound (no traffic jam in that direction), not far from Wilson Airport, where we started. And it turned out to be a four-lane freeway, perfectly comparable to a German autobahn. This cut quite a bit of time from our schedule. We reached the road to Nakuru in no time, which is also a four-lane, freeway-like road, albeit with irregular potholes. We reached Mai Mahiu, the town where we turn off towards the west, in only 1:30 h, an absolute record.
I filled the tank, for the unlikely case that there would be no fuel in Narok.
Nairobi – Masai Mara – Nairobi
After Mai Mahiu, as we crossed the Great Rift Valley on a near-perfect road with few potholes, while driving through a little road village on the foot of the Mt. Suswa volcano, some young men pointed at our car and waved that we should stop. We ignored them, but stopped a little distance later to look whether we could spot any problem. While we did that, one man on a motorcycle came after us and explained that smoke or steam had been emanating from underneath our car. He pointed at the cooling water hoses and said that the engine was overheating and that the hose would soon burst. He told us to drive back to the village's petrol station where they could repair our car.
A minute later another man appeared with a plastic container with water. At that time the situation became too suspicious for me, particularly since similar tricks had been used for many years along the Nakuru road, and I drove away.
After climbing out the first step of the western Rift Valley side, more young men, some with motorcycles stood next to the road and again pointed at our car and waved. I stopped and asked them what they wanted. Sure enough, they also mentioned smoke coming from our car, but since we had just climbed a steep hill and neither saw nor smelled anything, I said, "There is no smoke" and drove on.
To be absolutely sure, I later jumped out of the car and had Mausi make a U-turn and drive by me at 50 km/h while I stood in the ditch next to the road, to have a very good view of the underside of the car. Almost needless to say, there was no trace of steam or smoke or any other conspicuous things. We finally concluded that the Suswa motorcycle gang at best wanted to make us part with some money for a completely unnecessary "repair" and at worst to make us part with all our belongings or even the car itself.
At the next police check we told the police the story, but I am almost certain that the police would do nothing to stop the gang.
As a general rule, when people in Kenya point at your car and try to make you stop because of an apparent technical problem, do not stop. The Nakuru road trick was that children made you stop, then quickly poured oil over your wheel before you got out of the car, then directed you to a nearby workshop for the necessary "repair".
We reached Narok, the last city along our route, in good time and stopped briefly for another topping up of the tank, a little snack, and a visit to the toilet. Then we drove on.
A short distance later the paved road ends and leads to a rather horrible gravel road with irregular unevenness, on which you can drive fast only if it does not matter much to you whether the car breaks down. Another problem is the dust clouds thrown up by oncoming or overtaking cars. For most of the distance we were lucky to have the wind blow from our side, so we did not have to breathe the dust. However, we could not drive off the road where that was possible and better than the road itself, because of the dust. We tried for a short time, but gave up.
Speed varied between 15 km/h for the rough parts and a little faster on the few stretches that were a bit smoother. So the last 100 km took about as long as the much longer distance before.
My earlier GPS tracks showed me where we could leave the road and drive on smaller tracks on the side. These short stretches brought a little relief from the otherwise relentless shaking and rattling.
Eventually we reached Sekenani Gate and found that the administration had changed the rules and now worked through a computerized system resembling that used by KWS (the Kenya Wildlife Service), albeit without smart cards. Unfortunately they had also tightened the rules such that we now fall into the most expensive price class and had to pay $70 for each 24 h inside the nature reserve, similar to the KWS parks.
I paid only for one day, because we wanted more time to come up with ways to reduce the price, then drove through the reserve to our favorite lodge, Fig Tree Camp.
After we had passed the gate, the car suddenly emitted loud banging and knocking noises and feelings from the bottom, so I first thought that something holding the exhaust muffler had broken off and that we might soon lose something from the car.
So we kept to the main track to avoid getting stuck somewhere in the bush and slowly and carefully continued. Instead of driving to the normal parking on this side of Talek River and crossing into the lodge over the pedestrian bridge, we turned right and left the Masai Mara reserve to enter the lodge from the northern side where their car workshop is. The fact that the lodge is on the northern shore of Talek River, and thus outside the reserve, opened up opportunities to save money on the entrance fees, because we do not need continuous access to the reserve.
The car mechanic impressed me by quickly finding the case of the loud rattling. It was not related to the exhaust, instead a part connecting the front control rod to the left wheel suspension had broken, so the rod kept hitting the underside of the car, making the noises. (I am not sure about the proper names of these parts. The rod connects the left and right wheel suspensions to reduce the leaning of the car in curves and on sideward slopes.)
The people out here are inventive when it comes to repairing things. Since it is virtually impossible to get a spare part like this, the car mechanic welded the broken part together again and put it back in.
After the repair
We are lodge regulars, so many people recognized and greeted us. Among cabins and tents we chose a tent and got the one closest to the hot water boiler, heated with wood, so we would not have to let the water run for a long time until the hot water reached our tent. After this journey we deserved a shower.
A dinner rounded out the day.
At one time in the night the hippos in the Talek River right in front of our tent made a lot of noise, waking us up. I listened to the sounds of the African night for a while, hearing at least one lion and a hyaena across the river, then fell asleep again.
After breakfast I drove out and stayed on the northern side of Talek River. I drove up to a place called double crossing, where one has to cross two rivers to continue. The first river crossing looked too frightening to me to try, because a lot of water came down over big rocks, and I was not sure whether it was too deep for my car.
I waited for a short time, hoping that another car would come and cross, so I could see exactly where it crossed and how deep the water was, but I did not have enough patience and turned back before seeing one.
On my way back I drove down nearer to the river Talek and eventually returned to the lodge. Photos:
Hyaena; eland bull; giraffes; warthog
We stayed in the camp in the afternoon, relaxed, sorted photos, and wrote travel reports. We also devised ways to lower the price for the reserve by using methods that I describe in the travel plan, basically by spending the first, last, or both first and last nights outside a reserve and by taking breaks from the reserve if staying entirely in a lodge that is located outside the reserve, like the Fig Tree Camp or one of the AA Lodges.
We have settled into the regular nature reserve routine. I will not describe every single day. Instead I will show a collection of photos, interspersed with explanations where appropriate. The images carry EXIF tags, so you can still find out when they were taken.
Driving was unusually difficult due to recent rains and new rains every afternoon, evening, or night. Many small river crossings were impassable. Some car tracks were good, others had too many mud holes, so they were risky to drive and required extreme attention, particularly when the high grass obscured the mud holes underneath.
Another factor is that I mostly had a good mobile phone connection, but exactly down in the river valleys, where the risk of getting stuck was the highest, the connection sometimes disappeared, so before deciding whether to cross a difficult spot or turn somewhere else or back I also looked at my mobile phone. Not having a connection was an extra hint not to try a difficult crossing and not to stop the engine. Fortunately I had a mobile phone connection most of the time.
The following two photos come from the northeastern edge of Masai Mara.
Eland bull; eagle
We got into the normal rhythm of a wildlife vacation, early or late morning drives, evening drives, the occasional full-day excursion, and the rest of the waking time eating and drinking, writing travel reports, or just being lazy.
On one of these days we drove south-southeast and found a little dam where I had been already a few days earlier and turned back because of too deep mud. On this day I spotted a large Toyota Land Cruiser, the extended version for 9 passengers, that had got stuck in the mud on the side of the dam. The mud had already dried out somewhat, so I drove over the dam and turned right to get down just before the Land Cruiser. After judging the situation I concluded that I had a chance to pull out the Land Cruiser even with my smaller Suzuki Escudo.
I maneuvered my car in front of the Land Cruiser and used our tow rope to pull. I ordered four of the passengers to sit in my car, then I pulled in the slowest 4-wheel-drive gear. After pulling for approximately one meter, then being unable to pull any further, we let the Land Cruiser roll back and pulled again, gathering a little momentum, and that did it. The little Suzuki Escudo became the hero of the day.
Unfortunately, Maasai herders drive thousands of cattle into the nature reserve every night, even when conditions outside the reserve are as good as they can be. This destroys vast grass areas, as you can see in the following photo.
Buffalo; young female elephant in front of family group; young adult bull
Hyaena; female ostriches
Hippo; cuckoo; silver-backed jackal
Cheetah mother with two cubs
Female ostriches; white-bellied bustard
Hippo going into the water; hippos in the Mara river
Agame; Coke's hartebeest; Maasai giraffes; female ostrich; topis
Approx. 8-years-old lioness; cheetah (mother with two cubs, not in picture)
Black-bellied bustard family; dozing elephant bull
We had planned to test a different route this time. Instead of driving through the nature reserve and leaving it through Sekenani Gate we had already left through Talek Gate yesterday evening, parked the car in the lodge, i.e. outside the reserve, and started our trip from there.
Because we were not perfectly sure about this route we left very early, at 5:40, when it was still totally dark. We had been assured that this route could safely be driven, unless there was a lot of rain and the river crossings became impassable.
So we zoomed in on the map screen and drove through the Talek settlement in the night. At 5:45 we saw the first signs of dawn on the eastern horizon. At 6:15 we could switch off our headlights. By then we had already driven quite a few kilometers, because the track was unexpectedly good. We could drive most of the distance to our first waypoint, the Aitong settlement, at 40 to 50 km/h.
After Aitong we turned right onto the road through Lemek. At first this road was terribly bad and completely stony, so we were back at our low speed between 15 and 20 km/h, but along the way it gradually got better, and in the end we were moving at 30 to 40 km/h.
The result was that this route, though longer, shaved 1½ hours from the time we would have needed through Sekenani Gate and was less dusty as well.
We reached the car hire company's office in Nairobi Westlands already at 12:00 and returned our car. Their driver then took us and our luggage to the Aero Club of East Africa on Wilson Airport, where we spent our last night in Africa this time.
I paid my superfluous Kenya Shillings into my new M-PESA account, which is an east African mobile phone payment, if not decentralized banking, system run by Safaricom, an east African daughter of Vodafone. Every Kenyan I know uses it. By the way, there are a few bitcoin entries into M-PESA, so I expect to pay my next vacation in Kenya by bitcoin, which shaves several percent off the fees and exchange rate spreads of the old banking system.
We woke up just after 4:00 and slowly got up. My smartphone had woken me up a bit earlier, detecting the end of a deep-sleep phase. We had alarms set for 4:25, so we had more than enough time now, but somehow the activities tend to fill the available time.
At 5:00 our taxi was already there, so we loaded our luggage, hopped in and drove off. To my surprise the taxi driver knew a second entry and exit gate of Wilson Airport that I had never seen or heard of and that avoided the U-turn on Langata Road. It also allowed to avoid Langata Road altogether by driving directly to the flyover, a small car bridge over Mombasa Road that allows to join the southbound traffic without an extra U-turn, which we did.
Thus the trip to the international airport took us about half an hour, some of which was used at the two barriers before entering the airport area. The first one was new and served only security services. It had cameras and lighting built into the road, so the security personell can inspect the bottoms of the cars. The second one is for the ticket each car has to pay to enter, essentially a kind of airport tax.
We had enough time on the airport. We had already checked in by smartphone, using the KLM app, and printed the check-in documentation on a computer in the Aero Club. We then used the automatic check-in machines on the airport to have our boarding cards printed for both flights from Nairobi to Amsterdam and from Amsterdam to Munich.
If the flight is operated by KLM, one can usually print the boarding cards "at home", but in this case the flight was on a Kenya Airways plane, and the integration of the booking systems was apparently not 100% perfect yet.
But it was already better than last year, because this time I was able to choose our seats for the Kenya Airways flight through the KLM smartphone app or presumably also on their web site or on that of Kenya Airways. I re-checked our boarding cards and my seat choices had indeed made it from KLM to Kenya Airways.
One should think that such a simple data transfer should pose no problem for modern computers, but my experience is that systems designed and created by large companies are much more clumsy and inflexible than any computer programmer would assume who has not worked in such companies and seen the awkwardness for themselves.
We went to the baggage drop-off counter, through immigration, and were at the gate almost 1½ hours before departure. This left us enough time to write some last messages on our Safaricom (Kenyan) SIM cards before losing the internet connection in the plane.
The aeroplane was a fairly new Boeing 777-300ER, which was a delight to fly in, quiet and relatively spacious. This flight was not full, so most passengers used only one or two seats of the three in any seat group.
I was particularly impressed by the entertainment system, which had larger, brighter, and higher-resolution screens than older aeroplanes and was easy to use by the remote or by touch screen. Every viewer could choose from 40 movies and could pause, fast-reverse and fast-forward at different speeds.
I had already seen some of the movies, while some others were already in my home cinema pipeline, so I watched two not-so-well-known movies.
Even more impressed I was by getting Wi-Fi on board. I found that only late into the flight and tested it briefly, but had I known this earlier, I would gladly have paid for it, if only to have used the internet in an airliner for the first time in my life. These were the prices:
1 Hour HotSpot Pass Sky US$ 11.95 3 Hour HotSpot Pass Sky US$ 16.95 24 Hour HotSpot Pass Sky US$ 21.95
The food was as good as it gets in airliners' economy class, so I thought to myself that Kenya Airways may have become a world-class airline already.
We flew over Lodwar in northern Kenya, then Khartoum, then along the river Nile, which we could see very well from the air. We crossed the Mediterranean, passed to the west of Athens, southwest of Sarajevo, east of Zagreb, over Maribor, southwest of Graz, over Passau, over Münster to Amsterdam.
Nairobi – Amsterdam – Munich
The plane first climbed to 34,000 ft, later to 36,000 ft, then to 38,000 ft, as it got lighter. We cruised at around 860 km/h ground speed, mostly with a light headwind component, and covered the 6,800 km to Amsterdam in about 8½ hours, which includes the departure and approach detours and slowdowns.
Amsterdam Schiphol airport was as fast and efficient as ever, except for the free Wi-Fi, which did not work for me at all and was obviously defective. I have had that before.
Our connecting flight in a Fokker 70 left on time and was fast. Our son collected us from Munich airport. I drove home and drove faster than I had driven in the whole month in Kenya, where we never drove faster than 80 km/h. It felt too fast.
I would like to spend more time in Kenya. This is currently not possible, but perhaps I will find a way one day.
I began to think about the consequences of having an automatic transmission in an off-road 4-wheel-drive vehicle. It has its advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that it is easier to swing backward and forward to get out of a soft spot where the wheels have sunk in, because you can switch between backward and forward almost instantly while with a manual transmission you have to step on the clutch, change gears, then release the clutch to find the point where the wheels get the desired force. This is far too slow to do swinging in both directions, so with a manual transmission you can only use one gear, either forward or reverse, to swing in one direction and step on the clutch to let the car roll back on its own for another swing.
On the other hand there are certain things that cannot be done well with a typical automatic transmission that uses a liquid torque converter, as most do, including our Suzuki Escudo. At slow speeds it is like driving with a slipping clutch, something I always recommend strongly against when, for example, driving through a deep mud hole or over big rocks. The reason is, if there is an obstacle in the mud, like a big stone or piece of wood, the wheel will bump against it and stop. If you have a slow gear engaged and the clutch fully released, the car will climb over it.
The same problem occurs with rock climbing. A wheel could get stuck between rocks, and there you need the full force of the engine to maintain forward movement. Once the car stops, you lose its momentum, so crawling out is that more difficult. I would not like to do rock climbing with a torque converter anywhere between the engine and the wheels.
That said, automatic transmission is certainly acceptable for light off-road driving, like we do in Kenya. You just have to consider that certain difficult paths are navigable with manual gear shift, but not with an automatic transmission including a torque converter.
The Suzuki Escudo alleviates this problem somewhat with its quite short first of four forward gears. With its additional 4-Low setting it can develop quite high forces on the wheels, so a not too difficult situation on rocks may still be doable with it. But ultimately the fact remains that the torque converter takes some of the control away that you would otherwise have over the driving forces on the wheels.
In retrospect the Suzuki Escudo turned out not to be quite so good at off-road driving as the venerable Suzuki Maruti Gypsy, partly because it was heavier, partly because the tire profile was more of a compromise between road and off-road driving, and partly because its bottom clearance was a bit lower than that of the Gypsy. The difference was not great, but I had to be a bit more careful and shunned certain risks, so I turned back a bit more often when a river crossing looked difficult and risky than I would have done with the Gypsy. With the large number of mud hole problems this May I also tried to reduce each single risk even further, because getting stuck is no fun out in the wild.
Another shortcoming of our Escudo was that it lacked the roof hatch of the Gypsy. This makes it difficult or impossible to see animals lying in the high grass more than 10 m away from the car.
One particular advantage of our Suzuki Escudo was demonstrated when we got into an area deep into Masai Mara where we encountered a smallish kind of Tsetse flies. We had to close all windows and try to chase out those that were already in the car. In that situation you have the choice between a heat stroke in the high-noon sun or being eaten alive by the flies, but the Escudo has air conditioning. So we could leisurely roll along with the air conditioning set to a lowly 24°C while studying the interesting flies that were gathering by the dozens on the outside of our windows.
I have to admit that a few made it in and we gathered a few bites, but I do not want to imagine being there without the protection of the car. No wonder even the wild animals tend to shun areas with high Tsetse fly density. Fortunately these flies are only found in certain small areas, usually valleys with water. Drive a few kilometers and you find none.
All in all we were quite happy with this Suzuki Escudo and will probably prefer it (or a similar car like the Toyota RAV 4) over the Suzuki Maruti Gypsy for most or all of our future Kenya safaris in spite of its slightly higher price.
If in this text you find any typos, orthographic errors (even small ones), ungrammatical sentences, wrong or illogical information (like wrong names of birds), if you want me to write more details about something in particular, or if you want one of the photos in full resolution, please click on the email sign below and write to me. Many thanks!
Copyright © 2015-2017 Hans-Georg Michna.
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