Challenges of backpacking Northern Kenya

Many are the times people see my travel stories, read about my experiences and perceive that all trips are smooth sailing. I assure you, when backpacking and especially solo, many are the times so many unexpected experiences add flavour to a trip, both good and bad. In this case, I will share my challenges from my first ever solo, backpacking expedition in Kenya-my country.

What inspired my first, solo, backpacking expedition in Kenya you may wonder?

Well, curiosity and a moment of insanity may be to blame I believe. Most people who know or have heard of Northern Kenya have the perception that the area is dry, undeveloped and is a security threat to all due to the numerous insecurity cases ranging from cattle rustling to deadly inter community/clan clashes. One may thus wonder, why, of all places , I chose this area. Well, it is only after one of my foreign readers queried on the safety of solo, female backpackers travelling in Kenya that it hit me, I didn’t actually know, as I had never travelled solo in Kenya. My conscience wouldn’t be clear if I responded with a generic response as all my articles and information are about my actual, personal experiences. My brain thus conjured this amazing albeit insane plan that I should attempt to backpack via public means, solo, overland from Nairobi to Lake Turkana in Loiyangalani. I figured, if I successfully completed this expedition to the harshest of areas in Kenya, it would be a great gauge/dip stick on the rest of Kenya and I would demystify Northern Kenya while at it.  This trip eventually  ended up being an adventure that covered about 1200km, took about two weeks and officially ranks highly in my most memorable travel experiences. More on this on links at the bottom of the page.

The below are thus the challenges faced in no specific order:

1:Lack of information

This trip was more like making a jigsaw puzzle without actually having a picture of what it’s final look would be. The respective jigsaw pieces were also not together, I would have to find the pieces and complete the puzzle as I went. There was zero/no information on how one could travel as a solo, backpacker, overland, via public means from Nairobi to Loiyangalani. All the information was about chartered flights (way beyond my budget at the time), or via organized tour trips (not an option at the time). Instead of scaring me out of the idea, this actually seemed to heighten my curiosity and wish to venture into the unknown. Hopefully, I could be like Christopher Colombus, discovering destinations and thus thereafter provide information that Google and other internet platforms could use to help others after. The most I got after some serious research was how to travel from Nairobi to Maralal town in Samburu County about 265km -via public service vehicles called matatus-thanks google :-). Well, that was better than nothing and I figured, once there, the locals would perhaps assist on how to progress there after. 

2.Fear…fear….fear

Trust you me, even as I planned, anticipated and eventually ventured on thus trip, fear was my companion at most times. I was worried about what could happen, I imagined coming face to face with  insecurity instances like banditry, community clashes, being harassed and especially sexually harassed, getting lost and lost forever at that. I was afraid of the unknown, where to sleep, where to go, how to get there among others. However, at the end of my trip, I realized that the fear in my head was just that, mental fear- a figment of my imagination. Nothing bad happened and most people were so nice and friendly to me on the road. We got transport and accommodation in the most unlikely of ways and made lifelong friends along the way. Sometimes, as Nike would say, “Just do it”, you don’t need to have it all figured out, venture out, step out, take the first step, leave your comfort zone and let the world expose itself to you. However, believe you me, I never mentioned I was scared to those around me, I never showed fear, I never spoke fear  I behaved and acted oh so confident that I believe I should have won an Oscar award-there are times like these, keep the fear away from the public eye 🙂 I also, almost desperately wanted to successfully complete the mission and fear wasn’t going to be allowed to stop me.

3.Stereotyping:

Back packing isn’t the norm for Kenyans or even generally for Africans. Then top that with being a female, Kenyan, solo back packer/traveller. I met people who couldn’t understand why I would leave the capital city, to travel to one of the remotest areas in Kenya-just for the passion of it. Some believed there was a sinister motive to the travel with some actually sharing their thoughts on the same. I remember one lady at a shop I had stopped to ask for information on which way to proceed once we arrived in Maralal town and she inquired why I wanted to travel there. After I responded for travel sake, her response followed without her even batting an eyelid, ” Wasichana wenye huenda huko ni wasichana wanaenda na wanaume wazungu ama wazee”  which translated from Kiswahili means, ” the girls who travel there are those who are travelling with male foreigners or old men as their sugar daddies” (Ouch). Never let such negative perceptions stop you, I dont. I know myself and my reasons for the travel and that should be enough.

4.Don’t do it

Well, some of the people I told my plan told me “Don’t do it”. That place is not safe, you are a girl, bad things could happen, you could be robbed, kidnapped, raped, lost, married by force among others.  Yes, I agree, any of the above can happen, could have happened and can happen anywhere in the world, but in my case, they didnt. I always say, take all the safety measures you would as a female traveler anywhere in the world.  Don’t trust anyone-but you may accord them benefit of doubt. Do not put yourself in a compromising situation, avoid dingy routes, always be on high alert, ask for help, let people know where you have gone whether its the hotel you are staying at or your hosts and never ignore your conscience or gut instinct when it warns you among others. Also, do not let other people change your dreams, plans, decisions- that should be your prerogative. Listen at times to what people say, comment or share and make the final wisest decision.

5.Transportation

Where do I begin on all the unconventional modes of transport I took. First, in Nairobi, I was to get my matatu/minivan from a bus stop in down town  in a place called Nyamakima. I didn’t know the place well and thus ended up getting lost as I tried to locate it. One thereafter disembarks in a town called Nyahururu to then get another “matatu ” to Maralal town. Two, before arriving in Maralal, I stopped over in a small town called Suguta Marmar that is about one and a half hours from Maralal town for a few days. 

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From Suguta Marmar, I then had to board a lorry/truck to get to Maralal town. Imagine, being squeezed at the back of a lorry/ truck that only had two benches acting as seats thus people also had to stand and travelling on a road that is  rocky, rough and dusty. 

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The ride from Maralal town to Baragoi was a large minivan that was overloaded with some passengers actually sitting at the roof top where luggage is tied. Did I mention this section of the road we had armed security personnel on board for security? From Baragoi to Loiyangalani I had to plead and negotiate with a lorry driver to allow me to hitch hike his almost full cargo lorry/truck even though it meant sitting atop it, at the back as there was no space in the front compartment.  I practically roasted in the sun, the dust covered me like a second skin and the bumpy ride whilst balancing my body upon the railings are experiences I will never forget. I had always said hitchhiking was a no no, never ever option, well, at that moment, I do not think the driver had ever met a determined hitchhiker and negotiator like me-I had to travel in it as there are no Public Service vehicles from that point on. Never say never.

Sitting on top of the world-best view ever

6.Strength of a woman:

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As we moved from one town to another,  the cultural differences from my own stared at me in the face. I have grown up in an environment where even as women we speak our minds, we pursue our dreams, we share duties with the males among others. Here, the women in my view do the bulk of the job, they are wives, mothers, home makers-literally(they are the ones who physically build the homes), they milk the cattle and goats, they cook, they walk kilometers to fetch water and food, walk several other kilometers to fetch firewood, polygamy is the norm, girl child education isn’t appreciated and female genital mutilation though illegal still happens. The men on the other hand seemed to have a more relaxed lifestyle, they  would take the cattle out to graze and/or sit under trees catching up on stories. 

7.Interaction

In these areas, the men and women don’t interact as freely as we do in the major towns.The women keep to themselves and the same of the men unless family or friends.This irked me for some time because I like to interact with all people as that’s the only way to learn more about the place and the cultures. There was one incident where whilst visiting the villages, one of the homesteads we were hanging out with some ladies revealed the disparity. The son of one of the ladies who is a moran/initiate/warrior returned home and as soon as he entered, all off us hurriedly left the homestead compound without a moments notice. It is only later I was explained to that it is taboo for females including his mother and sisters to see a Moran eating.Thus as a lady,  keep your distance from the men unless you have one who is your friend who can then introduce you to the others. 

8.Remain Neutral:

In this area, I had to  always remind my opinionated self  that I was the minority, I was the outsider.Thus, as I listened to varying versions of stories from the different communities , I learnt to hold my tongue and remain neutral. Safest bet is to always remain neutral, never take sides, be a friend to all and an enemy to none.

9.Language Barrier

IMG_20140703_134316_editDolled up like a Samburu lady-Suguta Marmar

This area being remote, not too many people speak Kiswahili let alone English. Kenya has 42 tribes, thus one cannot learn all the languages. As I enjoyed making friends and somewhat assimilating with the various cultures, body language was the main means of communication in some instances. Well, this should never worry you, I  always break the ice with a smile and use body language and actions to communicate. If you can, find a local who also speaks Kiswahili or English and they can act as your translator which would enrich your experience.

Accessorized like a true Turkana lady-.Baragoi
10.Stares:

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A visitor will always be a visitor regardless of how much you try to blend in. Thus, the people would stare, talk in hushed tones as we passed them, others viewed us with suspicion and others out rightly came and asked  what we were doing there. Do not worry, all these are normal and once they realized I had no ill intention, they integrated me or just left me alone.

11.Insecurity

This area  is not the safest of places  with cases of cattle rustling, inter community clashes and  banditry being prevalent. I choose to write about it not to frighten anyone but to prepare you psychologically if you choose to travel the same route-knowledge is power. I listened to stories of cattle raids and intercommunity clashes, I saw young men walking around with guns and trust me, my heart would beat so hard I was almost sure I would faint from fear.  Even as some hitchhiked our vehicle and dropped off along the way, or waved t the vehicle from a distance, I tried my best not to stare at them, tried to be inconspicuous, I didn’t want them to notice I even existed. It was great that we didn’t have any incidences, some just waved , some just boarded and disembarked when they arrived at their location that soon it seemed so normal. The best advice I would give is not to panic and to refrain from taking pictures of the armed men as you might spook them.

12.Poverty and Hardship

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This area is super hot and dry thus food is scarce, water is scarce, trees are scarce, transport is scarce, the general area -rockboulders and lots of sand and all provide a harsh environment to live in. People have to walk several kilometers and at times days to access some basic needs. I kept asking myself and I am still doing the same, how do these people survive here? 

However, even with the challenges, this trip was super amazing, exciting, cultural integration, educational, life-changing and out right off the road most travelled. I was happy to respond via personal experience that yes, it is safe for solo, female, travellers to backpack safely in Kenya. Click at the below links for more in-depth information of the nitty gritties of the whole journey.
https://wangechigitahi.wordpress.com/2014/09/16/backpacking-northern-kenya/ https://wangechigitahi.wordpress.com/2014/09/15/samburu-county/ https://wangechigitahi.wordpress.com/2014/09/15/baragoi/ https://wangechigitahi.wordpress.com/2014/09/16/loiyangalani/

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56 thoughts on “Challenges of backpacking Northern Kenya

  1. Thank you for all the amazing information on Kenya, especially this post here. We often hear so much about the successes of a trip, which really are wonderful, but to get some first-hand insight into the challenges is even more encouraging, I think.

    It sounds like the biggest hurdle you came up against were your own preconceived fears. I guess that’s usually how the story goes. The only thing stopping us from doing anything is our own trepidation. Way to overcome them; it’s truly inspiring to see. 🙂

    • It is my pleasure…I am happy you enjoyed it.
      Yep,I can assure you, challenges will always be there but more often than not you find that You are your biggest hindrance.So,start working at overcoming yourself somewhat and the rest will sort itself.As you have read,overcoming the challenges made the trip more thrilling and successful and so worth it.

  2. Pingback: Backpacking Northern Kenya | Wangechi Gitahi

  3. Hello Wangechi, me and my three friends all girls are planning to undertake this trip torn between the lorry travel and tourist style are you able to advise us?

  4. Yey….clap…clap..clap..prepare yourself for the trip of your life…which ever way you opt..Let me do my homework on the current security situation and advise..that should easily guide your decision..woop woop…

  5. Great work Wangechi..Keep up. Remember to always trust in the lord and you will conqure this fear. May God richly bless your endeavors.

  6. My husband once traveled to loiyangalani and came back with these stories of traveling in a lorry with goats and of course a back ache and I thought he was exaggerating.!! After reading this interesting and informative piece I can now believe his ‘tales’!!

  7. Very knowledgeable, thank you for doing that, and sharing with us; I only hope that one day I get to experience it myself. Thanks again and God bless you.

    • Hey Kenny,thanks for reading up and the message.You can pull this off or a similar trip if you put your mind to it.If you need help planning it,let me know,I will assist.God bless you too..

  8. Woooow!!this is so inspiring and challenging…backpackin is nw definitly on the top five of my bucketlist…uv singlehandedly awoken my spirit of adventure….thanks soo much!!

    • Hey..you are welcome…woop woop..happy to have inspired and challenged thee..lets now convert that into action. Holla if you need help and lets ensure you finally tick backpacking off your list once done..

  9. Must say you are one courageous girl. I enjoyed learning about that part of our country through your experience, tho im not sure I have the guts yet to make that trip 🙂

  10. Very precise and to the point. Traveling kenya in your eyes, what a trip!! I can’t wait to actually go by lorry. lol

  11. Wow! Truly inspirational. One question though: where did you sleep? Most people (especially ladies) I know wouldn’t dare get out of their comfort zones like this… Kudos

  12. Awesome review on many things we take for granted in the other parts of the Kenya that most of as have not travelled to. Love the way you express it in perfect words.

  13. Good good read, while I enjoyed reading and got very very envious of your travel encounters, going thru it makes me tempted to say two things “My kinda girl” is one, secondly, “these aren’t challenges, the topic should read “Opportunities of” or “Exploring the” or “Adventures in” KENYA’s OUTBACK!!! and sign off with I WAS THERE…BEL’EE DAT!

  14. Very nice read. I would love to bagpack and hitchhike across kenya , it’s quite the beautiful creation this country of ours!!

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