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Getting about in Kenya


A matatu or share taxi, KenyaOn the way, Tanya told us she'd arranged a four day safari in the Masai Mara. I was relieved it was finally booked but disappointed it wasn't longer. But, as we weaved in and around huge gouges in the road, narrowly avoiding oncoming traffic, I began to realise my aspirations were unrealistic. You can spend hours poring over a map (as I did before I left) but, until you see the terrain of a country and its infrastructure, you can't possibly appreciate the time it takes to cover a short distance. Even the best roads in Africa are often mud tracks and full of potholes. Many times I wished I could hop on a donkey or a camel for a smoother ride... (travelogue continued below review table)

Private and public transport options available within Kenya:

Mode

Description

Buses

Buses run regularly between most cities and towns. They have fixed routes and schedules. Fares are cheap and paid to the conductor. Tickets should be kept until the end of the journey - to avoid being charged again! It's advisable to avoid peak hours as buses can become very crowded. Buses also operate across the borders to Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia.

Matatus  

Kenya's most colourful mode of public transport is the minibus or matatu. It is notorious for its loud music, breakneck speed and getting you there in more than one piece. Conditions are often cramped and uncomfortable. When you think it's impossible to pick up any more passengers, the driver will squeeze in another. The upside is - you can't fall over. However, in 2004, new regulations were introduced governing the safety of matatus. Standing was banned and seat belts and speed governors became compulsory. Though they operate on set routes, they can be flagged down anywhere along the road. Likewise, you can disembark anywhere. The fare used to be 3 Ksh (tatu means three, hence matatu) and although prices have inflated in recent years, it's reasonably priced. The matatu is such an intrinsic part of Kenya's culture, it deserves further discussion. There are three types of matatu and, if you have a long journey ahead, it's advisable to be discerning about which one you board!

The mainstream matatu - playing 70s-90s music at a 'moderate' volume - for the average commuter.

Halleluja, praise the Lord! for the Mississippi matatu - daubed with 'Jesus Loves You' slogans inside and out - its gospel music fills the air, providing ideal transport for those who forgot to pray before they boarded. (Religious or not, you'll be begging for God's mercy by the end of the journey)

Finally, there's the mutton matatu - for the cool, the fashion-conscious and the hard-of-hearing. Chart music blasts from the speakers, reverberating off the graffiti paintwork through your seat - if you're lucky enough to get one. A shrewd dress-to-kill policy can lower the price considerably!

Taxis

Taxis cannot be hailed on the street. They must be booked, but hotels and restaurants will happily order them. Dial-a-Cab, Jatco and Kenatco run fleets of taxis which can carry up to seven passengers. Three-wheel auto rickshaws - some decorated with faces and tails! - are an uncomfortable but cheap and entertaining option. Long-distance taxi services operate between the capital Nairobi and Mombasa and Nakuru. Some taxis are not metered so, to avoid being conned, a price must be agreed before departure. A 10 per cent tip is customary.

Car hire

Many local car hire firms offer self-drive and chauffeur-driven vehicles - from saloon cars to Range Rovers - but they're expensive and rates (particularly mileage charges) vary. Due to poor road conditions, 4WDs are strongly encouraged and a must during the rainy season.

Rail

Kenya Railways Corporation runs passenger trains between Mombasa and Nairobi. Trains generally depart in the evening and arrive the following morning. Journey time is approximately 14 hours. For a timetable or information on other routes, including Nairobi-Kisumu, contact: KRC, PO Box 30121, Nairobi, Kenya. Tel: (20) 221 211

Air taxis

Most game parks have airstrips, allowing light aircraft to drop passengers a close and convenient distance from their safari lodges and campsites. Air taxis are ideal for zipping from one resort or game park to another. They cut travelling time considerably and are a safer method of transport in Kenya.


Even the primates have more sense than to tackle the 'roads'; they have a very novel way to cross. While we were kangarooing along in our car, families of monkeys and baboons shimmied up telegraph poles and performed trapeze acts along overhead telephone wires and cables crossing the road. I could swear I saw one stick two hairy fingers up at us as we cautiously trundled along below.


By the time we got home, I was thankful we'd left the safari organisation to Tanya. Instead of driving an hour back to Mombasa airport, taking a flight to Nairobi and braving several hours of treacherous tracks to one or more of Kenya national parks and game reserves (as I'd naively hoped) Tanya had arranged an air-taxi from Diani Beach to fly us direct to the Masai Mara - and got a good deal for it. This saved us so much in time and money and was due in part to Tanya's position (head teacher of the local school) which, unlike England, makes her a valuable pillar of the community and, thus, highly regarded. The other reason for the good deal was clearly down to me and my exceptional charm, though I've no proof of this and I wasn't there at the time of booking.
 

Driving in Kenya is a hair-raising experience. Those accustomed to the roads know exactly where each pothole is located and have time to negotiate it. However, this invariably means pulling out in front of oncoming traffic to avoid one - like it's the lesser of two evils! Anyway, who needs an excuse to drive like a maniac? Kenyans certainly don't. They indicate left and turn right, overtake on the inside, outside, underside... It's hardly surprising though if you understand how Kenya operates. I was recently told that Kenyans begin and end their driving test in the police station. Driving test fees are relatively expensive, but approximately $15 of this goes to the police. Backhanders are a way of life in Kenya - not just encouraged, but rigorously demanded. If the police pull you over because your indicator isn't working, be prepared to put your hand in your pocket. You might consider it safer to walk? Think again. Roadside pedestrians need to be on the alert too. Drivers frequently use the verge to transform the single lane into a dual carriageway!
 

There is one very novel aspect to travelling by road in Kenya that would be unforgivable not to mention, and that's the Kenyan petrol (gas) station. Pump attendants are now a thing of the past in most developed countries but in Kenya they're all over your vehicle like a rash. They can't do enough for you! While one sees to your fuel, another washes the whole car and soaks the guy who's down on his knees checking your air! It should be exported - the whole package! Tanya laughed at my reaction, especially when I suggested we leave a tip. "No - it's normal here! Part of the service," she said. That may well be, I thought, but so is waitressing and I've handed over many an undeserved gratuity to those far less deserving. We drove away, glimmering in the sunlight.
Read on.....


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Have you been to Kenya? Is there a wildlife park or lodge that you would recommend? Write a review here about your 'big five' safari holiday and tell others about your experience - good or bad. Perhaps you know of an excellent budget campsite - or a luxury lodge that should be avoided! Otherwise, feel free to post a question. Let's share our Kenya safari wildlife experiences...

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