As told by a Flight Centre Travel Expert.
The red stony terrain crunches under my feet.
This is a strange landscape. I struggle for words to describe what stretches, for kilometres, before me. Dark, black, ominous, folded, formed, rounded, fissioned and tortured.
It all looks quite surreal and somewhat alien. And here is where it comes to a sudden end - the blackness of the solidified lava flow, contacting the terracotta Martian foothills of an ancient volcano …. right in front of me.
In my mind’s eye, as my gaze follows the steep remnants of a massive volcano, I can clearly see how the active Nabiyotum volcano might have looked at night. The golden-red glow of molten rock slowly rolling with its weight; steam and vapours blocking the view of the African night stars.
This is not what I imagined when I planned a visit to Kenya.
As I embarked on a self-drive through the country, I had no idea how ancient and prehistoric the foundations of Kenya really are. That the fertile open plains of the abundant wildlife reserves are fed by volcanic soils and today’s tribes have their roots in early Neolithic hominids.
I also had no idea that the diverse landscapes of the Great Rift Valley are alive, active and changing - nor how stunning it all is.
Climbing up the desolate, rocky silent crater, one is rewarded with glorious views of the perfectly rounded gigantic Nabiyotum bowl, its extensive lava flow and one of the world’s most beautiful lakes, Lake Turkana. A few days ago, I didn’t think that the experience of Central Island, made up of three active volcanoes, with views of aptly named Crocodile, Tilapia and Flamingo lakes could be surpassed.
Kenya is surprising.
Afterall, Central Island lakes are the breeding grounds of the largest concentration of Nile crocodiles in the world.
And indeed, here, as in many other regions along Turkana Lake, you can get close to dense flocks of bright pink flamingos.
The entire trip around Kenya has been nothing short of fascinating.
Soon after the arrival in Nairobi, I found myself exploring the dense, ferned tropical Kakamega forests. Even climbing to a viewpoint of its extensive canopy.
These are the remnants of the wet and ancient Congolian forests that once spanned the continent. Tree, bird and animal species are unique to these ecosystems. This is a biological treasure-trove that has barely been studied, yet no less than 9 species of bird that can only be found here, have been identified.
From there, it is a good idea to head to Mount Elgon, a secret gem that deserves a few nights' stay. The area is renowned for its blanket of wildflowers during certain months of the year. Although it is small, it consists of very stark, contrasting habitats which include savannah, montane forest, woodland, and alpine moorlands. The rich, pristine montane forest hides numerous pyroclastic (volcanic) caves. Some, such as Makingeny Cave, are guarded by a veil of mist as tall, thin waterfalls plunge at their entrances. One large one, called Kitum Cave, is particularly interesting. It is here that elephants enter the cave in the dead of night to gouge chucks of salty rock from the roof and walls, which they lick and chew.
It's not only the diversity of the landscapes that warrants a couple of days.
It is to acclimatise before the incredible and highly-recommended walk up the extinct shield volcano, Mount Elgon itself. The Koitobos Peak has an elevation of about 4 300m and adjusting your bodies to the new altitude can make the hike easier.
Another small park that captivated my heart was the Saiwa Swamp National Park. Several wooden viewpoint structures and walkways that criss-crossed the wetland allows you a glimpse of the Sitatunga Antelope that lives on the marshlands. Of course Kenya is not only rich in natural and geological wonder.
The story of its people is equally intriguing.
Heading North from the Saiwa Swamp National Park, one can find a destination of political importance. Here the cells of prisoners, including a future Kenyan president, who fought for independence, are well-preserved and maintained at the Kapenguria Museum
This is just one of many museums that teach the histories, cultures and traditions of people throughout Kenya. There are also many opportunities to view rock paintings and petroglyphs (art scratched into the rock surface). Kenya is known to paleontologists as a hotbed of archeological finds. A few years ago, 3.3 Million year-old tools were found along Lake Turkana. This essentially meant that they pre-date the earliest Homo genus by about 700 000 years! A visit to the Kariandusi museum will show displays of thousands of early man tools.
As the journey continued north the landscape changed from thick vegetation, through windy, hilly green escarpments to sandy grasslands spotted with umbrella thorn trees.
There, strangely, I found a pillar, a monolith of sorts, standing perpendicular to the grey gravel ground. Lying before it is the cast metal statue of Turkana Boy - the oldest almost full human remains which date back 1.6 Million years.
The desert-remoteness gets more intense. Roads become gravel, then sand. You might see tribesmen herding camels. There are locations of petrified (fossilised) trees. An impressive 2 Million year-old fossil of a tortoise that spans about 4 times the size of today’s largest tortoise, can be seen at Koobi Fora. It is one of three fossils, the others being of a crocodile and an elephant.
Now, as I sit and reminisce about the Kenyan experience thus far, at the edge of geothermal springs gurgling out of the ground, the noisy flamingos sifting through sediment only a few meters away; the trip far south to Masai Mara is getting ever more exciting.
Magnificent Masai Mara
Knowing now of the supreme natural blessings that accompany the intense richness of the landscape, the Masai Mara can only be as mind-blowing as the reputation that precedes it.
The reports of lions that are so well-fed that they just lie on the ground digesting their food all day and of so many antelope that they look like colonies of ants wherever the eye can see, must be true. The Masai Mara has one of the highest lion densities in the world and over 2 Million wildebeest, zebra and Thompson's Gazelle migrate annually. Even relatively small reserves on my trip through Kenya have afforded me incredible sightings of large elephant and buffalo herds, zebra, giraffe, warthog, hyena, leopard, monkeys, baboons and a multitude of small mammals. Certainly a 1 500 square kilometre National Reserve that borders the renowned Serengeti will deliver one of the best animal safari experiences in the world.
Kenya is unique and special. It is extreme and intense. But what stood out, as I marvel, mesmerised before yet another unusual sight, is that above all else, Kenya is not what I expected. The Great Rift Valley is far, far greater than that. It is a moving land of lakes, volcanoes, deserts and once-in-a-lifetime experiences - my mind will always be intrigued and my heart always wanting to go back and explore more.
Don’t take my word for it, though, you MUST experience it for yourself. Speak to a Travel Expert like me and open your eyes to a whole new world of discovery in the place they call Magical Kenya!