Monday, December 14, 2009

Up the creek: Google Map Directions in Kenya


Google is huge and rapacious. Of course. But I often love what they do. Google Earth is a fabulous tool and Google Maps and Street View astonishing. But when launching the new Google Maps Directions service for Kenya, perhaps they forgot about the Likoni "ferry" – the roll-on, roll-off lumps of rotting iron that link Mombasa Island with Kenya's south coast, and Tanzania.

If you use Google Map Directions to find a route from Bamburi (North Coast) to Diani Beach (South Coast), Google suggests you drive off into the bush, via Kinango and Kwale. This takes you round the back of the maze of creeks behind Mombasa island. Picturesque in parts, but very, very rough. Google says "about 2 hours 13 mins". I'd say "allow a day". And then curiously, the directions give up, just minutes from Diani Beach, as if exhausted, leaving you driving back up the hill again towards Kwale. The proper route goes straight across Mombasa Island, over the ferry, and down the coast highway. When the traffic is quiet, early in the morning (and if you're lucky with the ferry timings), you can get from Bamburi to Diani Beach in just over an hour.

Mad directions like these are teething troubles: give this two or three years to bed down and most of Kenya will be very navigable on Google Maps. Already the level of detail is impressive.

I'm wondering about Google Street View in Kenya, though. Is that going to work?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Richard Leakey interview


I've just been tweeted this superb interview by the always stimulating Paula Kahumbu (@paulakahumbu), CEO of Wildlife Direct, and now I see it's two years old. But it's so well crafted and delivered, and such a compelling and fascinating piece, that it's highly recommended viewing. Leakey's theory of the empathetic biped (Homo sapiens), that he expounds in the clip on p.5, is one I've never heard before. I find the idea that humans became human because one leg out of action means the whole creature is out of action – and therefore has to be looked after – just wonderful. As a thinker and a deliverer, Leakey is in a class of his own.

He makes great wine, too. And like so much else in his life, they said it couldn't be done.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"Racist" hotel chain that turns locals away has changed its mind


African Safari Club, the downmarket hotel chain and tour operator, long associated with bad labour relations and terrible customer satisfaction, has finally caved in to shareholder pressure and opened the doors of its all-inclusives to locals. Previously, local people were not only not encouraged to visit ASC hotels in Kenya, but sometimes actively ejected from them. And guests were all but barred physically from leaving the hotel compounds to spend some money in the local community. For every satisfied ASC guest, there seems to have been at least one who as a result of his or her experience would never go to Kenya again.

Marketing the group to locals now is an insult to the host community.

If African Safari Club wanted to demonstrate its interest in the local market, it would:

1) start treating its local staff and suppliers according to international minimum standards. (If the company operated like it does in Kenya in the UK, it would be permanently fighting court orders and legal challenges by suppliers and staff.)

2) Then, it might want to plough some of its profits into a marketing campaign for a relaunched African Safari Club dedicated to fair trade and responsible tourism.

If it doesn't do that, the corrrosive effects of the negative PR from thousands of aggrieved customers, staff and suppliers is sure to ultimately bring the company down.

Photos: African Safari Club's deserted Crocodile Camp, outside Sala Gate, Tsavo East National Park Dec 2008 © Richard Trillo

Revisioning Kenya with words

A powerful piece of performance poetry from a student journalist, Ahmed Kassim Abdi, is reported in the East African, in an eloquent piece by Shalini Gidoomal (14 Sept 2009), attending Revisioning Kenya, a forum looking at how Kenya can "rise from the ashes". They almost tried to take the mic away after he spoke the first line:

"I hear voices in my head.

It's like a multiple personality disorder...where there is nothing but confusion; mixed sounds...all these many, many, many different voices...

Mixed up voices.....

All confused. In my head......

Just like those of our Grand Coalition, who's muddled noise has become a sickness, whose voices disturbs the nation's heart.

I'm a pastoralist, not a terrorist,

Optimist, never pessimist

Creative and innovative, camel and cows my provision,

I'm now in a disorganised house like the tower of Babel, multiple personality, another sad story

I hear desperate multiple voices, I know not why

Abdi! Kenya is burning

Abdi! Nakumatt is burning

Abdi! extra judicial killings

Abdi! I'm starving

I slept, still multiple voices insist!

Abdi! again!"

Reading this, I can hear that "pin-drop silence" that Gidoomal refers to after the audience heard Abdi's first line.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The weather in Kenya

People regularly ask about the weather in Kenya, and webcams seem a pretty good way of seeing what it's like. There's one in the Ngong Hills, just outside Nairobi that refreshes every ten minutes: But Pinewood Village, down on Diani Beach, has a very lively webcam, basically a jolty live video feed. It's been very sunny most of the day. Does anyone know of any others?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tsavo West's drought

As seen in the BBC Wildest Dreams prgramme recently, Tsavo West National Park is in the grip of a crippling drought, as is much of Kenya at the moment. Kenya's bloated government doesn't have a lot of spare change for people (several cases of starvation have been reported in Rift Valley), let alone animals, so it looks like the Kenya Wildlife Service's hay-feeding programme has stopped. And there's probably another six weeks to wait before Tsavo gets any rain.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Superb bargain at Meru National Park


The Kinna bandas at Meru National Park are gems in the wilderness. Not only do they have incongruously large rooms, decent beds with bedding, new nets, and clean showers and toilets, but the site has its own, pristine swimming pool. In the middle of Meru National Park, which, ten years ago, was all but abandoned, this was a sight to behold. The bandas are looked after by Jackson, who also cares for Ndusi, the orphaned giraffe. Watch out for her feet - one step to the right or left and yours would be mincemeat. A fantastic place – I wish I could have stayed here longer. The bandas cost $70 a night each, or $80 in the high season.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Diamond Beach Village, Manda Island


If you want to be in the Lamu area, but not in Lamu town, nor in the increasingly over-developed and over-the-top atmosphere of Shela, then staying just across the creek, in this rustic little beach resort, is an affordable way to do it. Diamond Beach is on the southern arm of Manda island (the island where Lamu's airstrip is located), and it's the nicest of several small property developments. Tuned into the local mood and utterly relaxing – all sandy toes, wooden boards and horizontal living –  it has simple self-contained bandas with good nets and decent bathrooms, and a delightfully wacky treehouse in a baobab. Ecological principles and a superb beachfront location, just 10 minutes in their boat from Lamu town, or for that matter from Peponi, add up to a very fine place to stay. They have evening electricity and pride themselves on really good food. It's £60 ($100) per night for two, including breakfast, which in this location, with this level of comfort, convenience and general blissfulness, is a snip.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Camp Carnelly's at Lake Naivasha


I thought this place was delightful. It's got a fresh, bright feel about it, which is slightly lacking at the neighbouring Fisherman's Camp (though Fisherman's does have the form, and great shade from its big fever trees – the photo of the lakeshore was taken from there). Carnelly's is a breakaway republic really, after a family feud. Long may both camps prosper. They're certainly both a good deal nicer than Crayfish Camp and more relaxing than Fish Eagle Inn.

Camp Carnelly’s (tel 0722/260749 or 0722/329465). Funky offshoot of Fisherman’s Camp, with 4-person, en-suite bandas for Ksh5000, twin rooms Ksh1600, dorm bunks Ksh600 per person and camping Ksh400 per person. The welcoming and convivial ambiance here, with a relaxing bar-dining area decked in cushions, is serious competition for Fisherman’s Camp next door among the independent and overland crowd. The bar-restaurant does slightly unusual things like smoothies, Camembert samosas and beef wraps.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Naiberi River Campsite

The owner of this unusual campsite and cabins is Raj Shah - a really congenial host who works in Eldoret (family run the Ken-Knit factory in town), but who likes nothing better than chilling by his bar, in his restaurant, with his guests. It's a lovely place, highly recommended. Try to spend a couple of nights here.

This is from Chapter 4, Western Kenya:
If you arrived in Eldoret early enough in the day, there’s a very worthwhile base outside town, Naiberi River Campsite & Resort (Tel 053/2062916 or 0722/686512; lifts available from town if you call ahead), a very popular stop for independent overlanders and tour trucks heading for Uganda. This has a fine scenic location above the small Naiberi River, with comfortable, en-suite cabin-style rooms (Ksh3600 for two, B&B), as well as dorm accommodation (Ksh1000 per person with good, shared showers and toilets) and camping (Ksh400 per person). The centrepiece is a sprawling and enjoyable pub-restaurant built into the hillside, incorporating streams and waterfalls, a central fireplace and the remains of what are said to be Sirikwa holes. The Nepali chef cooks up excellent, sizzling, hot-plate dishes and a variety of other meals, and there’s a congenial bar with DSTV. It’s a delightfully relaxing place to hang out for a day or two, the hilly grounds leading down to the river, and a sparkling (if chilly) swimming pool making it hard to tear yourself away. Facilities include slightly pricey Internet access (Ksh10/min). If you drive here, take the turning (east, on the B54 towards Kaptagat), at the Petro gas station 3km southeast of Eldoret town centre on the Nairobi road. From the Petro junction, drive 15.3km and Naiberi is on your left.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Castle Forest Lodge


I thought I'd start posting up some favourite places from recent travels. We really loved Castle Forest Lodge. It's exactly what you hope it will be. It's been in the Rough Guide for a while but I'd hadn't personally visited before - it was included by my Central Highlands researchers on the last three editions, since 1999. Here's the proposed text for the forthcoming 9th edition of the Rough Guide:

A private home built for British royalty before World War I, Castle Forest Lodge nestles in a fragrantly piney forest clearing at 2100m on the southern slopes of the Mount Kenya. Remotely sited, personally managed by its Dutch leaseholder, far from the main road and overlooking a waterhole regularly visited by most of the usual suspects, this is what Treetops might aspire to be if the famous tree-hotel hadn’t already destroyed its environment. Even if you’re simply passing by, there are few nicer ways to spend an afternoon than sitting on the veranda with tea and homemade cakes.

The old house has several modest, comfortable rooms (“King’s Room”, “Queen’s Room”. . .) with camphor-wood floors. In the grounds there are three bungalows each sleeping four, an arc of stylish, individually decorated double and twin cottages with fireplaces, and also the option of DIY camping (Tel: 0721/422908 or 0722/314918 website; $88BB for two, camping $8 per person). They use solar panels for electricity, but most lighting is by kerosene lamp. Good-value meals are available to order and there’s a well-stocked bar. In between sleeping and eating, you can walk in the woods, sit by the waterfalls of the Karute stream (a short walk from the house through beautiful thick forest), fish the stream for trout or take a horse out for a ride.
If you’re keen to try an unusual approach to the summit of Mount Kenya, the seldom-used Kamweti route begins at the road-head, a steep 8km north of Castle Forest. This southern part of the mountain shelters the last remaining wild bongos on Mount Kenya, as researchers’ night-surveillance cameras proved in 2008. The lodge can arrange a hiking trip for you for $120 a day all-inclusive, regardless of the size of the party, via Mackinder’s Camp and Point Lenana, terminating either in Naro Moru (4–6 days) or Chogoria (6–9 days).

Castle Forest Lodge is 40km from Sagana via Kagio. Take the C73, direction Embu. After 18km, reaching Kutus, continue east on the C73 for 400m, then turn left on the tarmac D458 signposted “Castle Forest Lodge 22km”. After 2km, turn left onto an excellent road which eventually becomes a forest track in reasonable condition. En route, 5km before the lodge, you pass the moribund Thiba Fishing Camp.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Lions in Nairobi!

Wonderful news, amid all the crap politics and meanness, Lions (and a leopard) have actually been prowling the streets of Nairobi.

This city can still surprise you!

British Airways staff's least favourite boss

Almost unbelievable suggestion from British Airways' boss Willie Walsh that rather than reducing the payroll by sacking staff, they should take a month's unpaid leave. He can afford to. In the good times, did BA share its profits with staff? So why change the rules when they're making a loss? Why should staff share in that?

A lot of businesses in Kenya struggling to survive last year after the double whammy of the post-election clashes plus the credit crunch bearing down on them, just sacked staff wholesale, or simply closed down or went dormant. The good ones tried alternative solutions. I was really impressed with the Pinewood, on Diani Beach. The manager there, Alnoor Kanji, told me it had been so quiet there was nothing for many staff to do, so he gave some of them extended leave on full pay, with the understanding (contractually or not, I don't know) that they would have to pay back the unworked days at some point in the future. Well, labour relations are altogether less formal and structured in Kenya and most of Kanji's staff on leave would have been looking after their shambas or doing some small trade (which would make working the days off in the future less onerous). It would be good to see businesses in the rich economies being equally creative. As you sow. . .etc.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Mobile blogging

Well, so much for thinking I'd be posting every day while in Kenya. I bought a Safaricom Mobile Office HSDPA USB Modem for my Apple MacBookPro as soon as I arrived last December (Ksh9,999, or a bit less than £100) and it does work, most of the time. You can find reception in the most unlikely places (Maasai Mara?!). But the speeds are cripplingly slow. You pay a minimum of Ksh1000 per month for 300mb of usage. This may not sound much, but it's plenty. Because much of the time I'm struggling to download or send emails at speeds of less 1 kb/sec (ie less than 1mb per 15 mins). Occasionally, as now, the blue light is on and I'm reading a top rate of 50.7kb/sec. But the lovely folks at Safaricom service centres (and they are, universally, extremely smart and helpful) just say that the software isn't fully matched to Macs, so gives unreliable info. So I don't reallly know. I'd be interested to hear of other people's experiences.