Tuesday, March 15, 2011

In praise of Western Kenya

I’ve mentioned in prior posts that we live in one of the least visited parts of one of the most visited countries in Africa.  Busia has a lot more in common with its neighboring Ugandan border city of the same name than any of the windswept savannas normally associated with Kenya.   We’re an 8 hours drive on questionable roads to the capital city and therefore far removed from pre-packaged tourist itinerary.  

All of this means that when we take weekend trips from Busia, to places of near equal beauty to the coast or Masai Mara, we’re relatively alone.  And this means our excursions are cheaper and less crowded and, more importantly, that we can harbor that pathetic and misguided but inescapable ex-pat/backpacker fantasy of being relative pioneers.

There are some jewels out here in terms of natural beauty and cultural interest, but they take a bit of work to find (perhaps making them seem to shine brighter on arrival).

A few weeks ago, we went to this lakeside haunt (Safari Village, Mbita) in which we relaxed with a smattering of other travelers to the exotic grunting of nearby hippos and enjoyed tranquil boat rides to bird-filled islands, local fishing villages and remote beaches.     
The view from our hut
Sun setting over lake Victoria
 But to get to this far flung paradise, you have to brave a 2 hour matatu ride from Kisumu down crappy roads, then take a rickety, slowly-leaking boat 45 minutes to the peninsula in the lake.  From here you have to hunt down and board a motorbike the remaining 5 km to the resort.  If you’re lucky you can find a car. 
Riding for 45 minutes in a slowly sinking boat is even more fun with 2 year old screaming "No boat!" This elicited funny looks from the local moms whose kids are entirely unfazed and wondering what all the fuss is about.  Not sure why I'm smiling.
So, I don’t imagine an influx of tour buses any time soon.  

Then last weekend we drove what googlemaps said was 2.5 hours, (translation: 5 hours of anxiously dodging crater-sized potholes and playing chicken with oncoming long haul petrol tankers driven by kamikaze truckers) to the national park surrounding Kenya’s second highest mountain peak – Mt. Elgon.   You actually can’t get there by public transportation and if you arrange a car, it had better be 4 wheel drive or you risk getting stuck.  

There were four bandas in our section of the park. We filled two of them and the other remained unused.  We woke to zebras, bushbuck and dozens of baboons merely meters away from our bandas, took hikes to these dark and bat-filled caves marked with thousands of scratches from area elephants nightly eating salt deposits; and, while taking in an overlook expanse, a giraffe nonchalantly ambled past us.  Sure beats sitting in a jeep snapping telephoto shots of distant elephants while the jeep behind you waits its turn.  There are horses to ride and 169 square kilometers to explore and only a handful of other visitors.
This is the scene we woke to
And then these guys joined us
And this fellow joined us on our hike
I love/hate how infrequently these oases are visited.  Of course, the more popular a site is, the less “special” it is.  We all know those people who  prefer keep these locations relatively secret lest they become “overrun” and somehow “spoiled.”  

But I’m sure the park rangers would rather be occupied with toting around tourists than warding off poachers (their main activity), and I know more tourism brings with it shillings, jobs and infrastructure, all of which greatly benefit the local community (who could sure use all three).  All these things are unequivocally more important than inspiring a feeling of daring and superiority among a few intrepid travelers.  So, maybe the greater good is more feet on the Mt. Elgon trails and more eyes on the Mbita hippos.  

But we all know that a poorly managed transformation to a tourist hub can exact a huge toll on the environment and indigenous way of life.  While this is somewhat mitigated by a movement towards more socially conscious eco-tourism, the whims of tourists are capricious.  So, if an area’s economy becomes dominated by the tourist dollar and then the tourists up and migrate for bigger game, bluer shores or splashier hotels in another area, the place might be worse off than it started.  

Who knows?  It’s one of those tired development debates rehashed frequently on blogs and in classrooms.  It seems that, if well managed, tourism can be a development boon.  But if the economy becomes too dependent on tourism alone, it risk becoming precariously vulnerable.  

For the time being I’ll do my small part by treading lightly, dropping some shillings and telling like-minded travelers (like both of my readers) about places like Mt. Elgon and Mbita. 

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