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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Africa 101

Glenn and I have a grading system for Africa based on ease of travel, amenities and the friendliness of the locals. South Africa earned preschool status while Namibia garnered a kindergarten rating. We figured Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo to be somewhere around a PhD. and Masters respectively…just to give you an idea of scale. South Africa is set up for travelers, it boasts restaurants and hotels a plenty, the BazzBus will take you pretty much anywhere you want to go along the southern coast and the ability to communicate (given you speak English) with all but the most hard core Afrikaners and a few rural Zululanders is a definite plus. Easy. A novice traveler could do it.

The further north we drive, the more advanced our education becomes (literally and figuratively). Mozambique is a gorgeous country - on the cusp of a growing tourist industry (thwarted by a long standing civil war, but it’s safe for the time being) - but the reserve of the people, lack of infrastructure in the north and our inability to speak Portuguese earned it a fifth grade rating despite the ease of travel along the southern beaches.

The further north we go, the more challenging the exams. Now we are advancing to high school. It has been a quick transition in only 10 months, but we’re ready for it, or at least we thought we were ready for it. We received our first real life test a couple of days ago as we were heading north toward Lake Turkana in northwestern Kenya. After 6 ½ hours of bumping slowly down a badly pitted and pocked dirt road we came across another traveler heading to Maralal, the halfway point between where we started and the lake. The driver of the other car pulled up alongside of us and asked if we were ok. Did I say we were driving slowly? We were driving very, very slowly. He told us that we might want to pick up the pace a bit in order to make it to camp before dark. “You don’t want to be driving in these parts after dark…” he continued talking but all we heard were: shiftas, bandits and AK 47s. A Shifta is a displaced Somali pirate for lack of a better description.

A quick google search of Shifta + Lake Turkana revealed this little tidbit. According to Frommer's Guide, northwestern Kenya is: 

"Remote, untamed, untamable -- the heat-drenched deserts that stretch north toward the Ethiopian border are rough and inhospitable. The roads north of dusty Maralal and Archer's Post -- considered by most to be Kenya's final frontiers -- represent instability, danger, and unpredictable trouble. Whether it's the shifta bandits; the harsh, sudden climate; or the savage pitted roads, this is a part of the world not to be taken lightly. Nor is it necessarily the Kenya of postcards and tourist brochures. Despite its patches of magnificence -- well-watered oases, densely vegetated wildlife preserves, and the immense green-tinged shock of water that is Lake Turkana -- Kenyans themselves remain immensely wary of this far-flung zone. Although the goal is often to reach Turkana, the world's largest desert lake -- splendidly isolated and surrounded by volcanic hills, lava flows, fierce winds, and a formidable mix of hardy tribespeople -- there's plenty of interest along the way, particularly for anyone searching for an alternative look at paradise. Here, in the deserts, topographical contrasts are all the more striking, and images of human survival will burn deeply into your memory. The going can be extremely tough, but there's adventure to be had along the way; which is why the north is a popular overland safari circuit favored by rough 'n' ready backpackers."

Within a minute we had flipped the car around and were speeding back to where we had just been. Fast. It was scary. We didn’t do our research. Despite feeling rather travel savvy at this point, we are still in high school; we think we know everything but we don’t.

Writing you from the safety of Thompson’s Falls Lodge,

For more photos from Thompson Falls check out:

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