Western Kenya & Uganda: Kericho, Kakamega & Jinja

Today I have returned to Kitengela. Sophie and I have been travelling for the past six days, we have seen and done so much, both been ill, crossed a border and got a new stamp in our passports, and are now very tired after the adventure.

On Friday 6th we travelled from Kitengela to Kericho, the tea capital of Africa. Kenya is the world’s 3rd largest producer of tea, after India and Sri Lanka, and is the biggest exporter of tea to Britain. We took the matatu to Nairobi, then found our way from the rail station to Dubois Road only getting a bit lost, and got a ‘Prestige’ shuttle matatu to Kericho. A shuttle is much more comfortable than an ordinary matatu, as there are 10 instead of 14 seats, and each seat is paid for so there is only supposed to be one body per seat. So everyone has a lot more room! Coming into Kericho we could see these brilliant rolling, bright bright green tea plantations, spreading over the hills in all directions. One thing very noticeable about travelling west was that Kenya became lush and green, as we entered fertile highlands and left behind the arid plains.

We didn’t realise that Kericho was a request stop, so Sophie and I were out of town and merrily on our way to Kisumu before we noticed and told the matatu boy and were offloaded from the shuttle, taken across the road and put onto another matatu headed back into Kericho. Sophie said, “Let’s not tell anyone about this”, as it wasn’t the most promising start to our Great Lone Adventure into the Unknown by Ourselves, but it was quite amusing. We walked through the town (which is quite small) and managed to find the Saiga Lodge, the place we wanted to stay at. It was impressive we found it since we didn’t know the town at all and none of the roads are labelled. The Saiga Lodge is pretty big, has four storeys of rooms hidden behind run-down shop fronts. The Lodge has a dilapidated Mediterranean feel, apart from the strange smell. I discovered what this smell was later on when we were coming back from dinner, and I saw the cleaners emptying the toilets into the ground floor courtyard. When I pointed this out, Sophie said she wished I hadn’t told her! The Lodge was great though and our floor was fine, in Titanic-style elitism the better class rooms are on the upper floors. There is a courtyard in the centre (where the toilets are emptied!) and then the rooms above are all connected across the courtyard by balconies and strangely sloping bridges. Our room had 2 beds, mosquito nets (without many holes, for a change!) and its own bathroom; the other rooms across the courtyard on our floor had no self-contained bathrooms and people staying there have to wash and shave on the balcony corridor. Our room was about 4 pound 50 for each of us so it is hard to imagine staying in a room for much cheaper, but many many African people do. For dinner we tried to follow my Rough Guide’s recommendation of where to eat in Kericho, but the Sunshine Hotel doesn’t appear to exist, so we went to a completely separate establishment, confusingly called The New Sunshine Hotel, which did exist. I had fish ‘fillet’ and chips.

Matatus, on the road
Matatus, on the road

The next day we went to the Tea Hotel, which was absolutely beautiful. It is like an English country estate, and though I normally hate them in Britain, this one in Kericho really reminded me of home and after a few weeks in Africa it was just fantastic to go there. The gardens are lovely and very well kept but all the relics of colonialism have decayed, making it feel like a colonial ghost town. The tennis courts, children’s swings and slide, and swimming pool, have all corroded and sit unused as memories of the past. The gardens and the tea fields beyond are very much alive though. We found a guide called Cosmos and he gave us a tour of the plantation belonging to the hotel, and then we went to the patio to drink sweet Kenyan tea, made from the plantation we had just walked through.

In the afternoon we moved on to Kakamega, changing matatus in Kisumu, to head north rather than continue west. The road was extremely poor here, and it was a very bumpy ride, I hit my head several times and it was painful. We crossed the Equator at some point during this journey but unfortunately there was no marker to indicate where. By the time we arrived in Kakamega town we were too tired and battered from the matatu ride to haggle for the taxi ride and ended up paying about 9 pound to get to Ischeno in the Kakamega Forest. The Forest Rest House stands on 2metre high stilts, in the midst of the rainforest. There is no electricity; the Rest House itself has an ingenious system for a running water supply, but the surrounding ‘bandas’ – small, thatched round houses – only have long drop toilets. We stayed in the Rest House and were pleasantly surprised to find our room had beds! The Rough Guide had told us that there would only be blankets and pillows. I wandered around outside while Sophie went to bed because she was ill. I met a guide called Patrick, who told me about the huge black bees that are so large they look like tiny hummingbirds, and have a poisonous sting that can make a man’s hand swell up.
We arranged with some locals to have a cooked dinner, and we ate it in a large, low thatched round-house, made of mud and sticks. It was like dining in the bronze age! The food was rice, potatoes and a green ‘vegetable’ that looked and tasted exactly like grass! After dinner we went back to our room in the complete darkness, although somebody had lit a kerosene lamp for us once we got inside the room. The sounds of the rainforest get very loud at night, there is a continuous buzzing and calling of animals, birds and insects, and no light at all, but I liked it.
Before dawn, about 5 am, I was woken by a very strange calling. I couldn’t tell whether it was a deep-voiced bird cawing, or a leopard roaring, or something else. But all the leopards have been killed in Kakamega, so it couldn’t be that. Once there was light, I went outside to the balcony and could see Colobus monkeys and grey (called “blue”) monkeys leaping around in the trees, and crashing through the branches, so realised the sound I heard before dawn must have been them calling to each other.

We went on a guided walk through the forest with Patrick, and saw lots of huge trees with buttress roots, rainforest toads, some butterflies, and climbed a viewing platform to see out across the lowland canopy. Patrick also showed us some plants that are medicinal, and since we both had/have colds, he gave us the remedy for that, although he is not allowed to encourage us to eat it. It was a kind of green catkin, we tried it and it was very bitter.
When we came back from the walk, I spent a couple of hours watching and videoing the monkeys in the trees. We could watch them very easily from the balcony of the Rest House. Then we got a taxi to the matatu stage in Khavega, and travelled back to Kisumu, where we stayed overnight in a horrible hostel. The next day we had the worst matatu journey ever to Busia, the border town. We were offloaded onto different matatus four times by conductors trying to cram more and more people onto fewer and fewer seats. I ended up sitting in a gap, balanced on the edge of one man’s seat, and being supported on the other side because of being jammed in against a very large woman. By the time we reached Busia and the Ugandan border, I was feeling very achey and unwell. The border itself was another fiasco, as we had to pay 50 US dollars for a visa, which is twice the price of a Kenyan one, and I didn’t have any dollars so had to change Kenyan shillings and got the worst exchange rate ever known to man. As if this wasn’t painful enough there were lots of people harassing us, trying to ‘help’ us with the immigration forms and then charging us for their services. We took 2 bicycle taxis down the road from the Kenyan side, through no-man’s land, into Uganda. I tried to get money out at a Barclays ATM on the Ugandan side, and my debit card got eaten. I was not to know at this point that the day we crossed into Uganda was a particular day when virtually no foreign cards were working in any ATMs, right across Uganda. I managed to get my card back, but it took forever and I was very worried. Having no money and feeling terrible I even found it hard to get excited by the baboons we saw by the roadside as we got onto a matatu headed for Jinja. Once in Jinja Sophie had to pay for everything. We took motorbike taxis – ‘boda bodas’ – to a bank where we hoped my card might work, but it didn’t. From there we walked to the hotel, which made me feel a lot better as we walked down to the area near the lake and it is incredibly, indescribably beautiful. None of the photos we have will do it justice. The hotel we were looking for no longer exists, but we just headed on to another one, called the Hotel Triangle. Our room had incredible views out over Lake Victoria. We ate in the restaurant downstairs looking out over the water while the sun was setting. There are lots and lots of bats that live in the palm trees beside the lake, and eat fish.

Nile boat

The next day we hired a boat and guide and went to see the source of the Nile, which isn’t very far from the hotel. It was a great thing to see but we’d hoped the trip would last a little longer, and once again we suspected we had paid too much. After we got back we wandered around the lakeside strip a little but it started pouring with heavy tropical rain. I enjoyed the rain as it had been so hot, it was refreshing, but Sophie wasn’t a fan. We had a reviving drink on the balcony and then it was my turn to take to my bed in illness while Sophie went into town and came back later on a boda boda. After initially being terrified of taking a boda boda on unsafe roads, I now enjoy them, and Sophie does too. It is quite exhilarating to think “Am I going to survive this journey?” and every time you do survive, your confidence and enjoyment increases! I was still completely penniless because the ATMs were working the second day in Jinja, but then I couldn’t for the life of me remember my pincode. But my awesome brother is sorting that out at home, and Sophie is rescuing me here. Hopefully by the weekend I should have access to some money.
The next day we left Jinja, and this time had booked an Akamba coach to take us back to Kericho, in order to avoid the terrible debacle of the border and the matatu changes through Busia. It was all very civil on the way back: the immigration forms were handed out on the coach, and then everyone got off the bus and queued up for the visa desk. It was easy to ignore everyone offering their ‘help’ the second time around, because we knew what the procedure was. The only minor difficulty was that the bus drove off somewhere after dropping us on the Ugandan side, and we had to find it again somewhere in the car park on the Kenyan side. But overall it was so very much easier, and if I cross a border again, say to Tanzania, on this trip, I will definitely do it by coach, and not matatu. The past 2 days we have spent just travelling back; staying overnight in Kericho rather than Kisumu, because we preferred it.

Tomorrow is my last day at Korrompoi Primary School, and then I am leaving the house in Kitengela to head off on my own. The sun will set soon so I am going home, but I’ve asked Sophie to get me some of our favourite lollipops when she left earlier, so though I’m very very tired, I know the lollipops will revive me when I get back! Plus it’s been a great trip but is good to be back, where I have clean clothes and can shave and not have to go anywhere to find food. The past week we’ve mostly been eating one meal a day, sleeping in a different place each night (except for Jinja), and I look and smell like a tramp!

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