I am the least spur of the moment person and often berate myself for being totally adventure-shy. So when a good friend suggested last Friday, that we gather up our youngest daughters and go away for one night – the following morning, laced with a level of inward panic, I said yes. Swung by the fact that my 11 year old said, ‘Mum, I think that this would be good for both of us’. Oh, and my friend offered to drive, which was a pretty major bonus.
Lake Magadi is within an easy 2-2.5 hour reach of Nairobi (depending on how long it takes to get out of the city) and the tarmac road down there is pretty good (in the past it has been shocking). I had only been to Lake Magadi once years ago when I decided to surprise my husband to go and watch his Rhino Charge motoring event. My husband didn’t know we were coming, the kids were very young and we didn’t find one other until after dark (at which point, we hadn’t even pitched our tent), but that’s another story.
On this occasion, my camping savvy friend, perhaps reading a hint of hesitation on my part, suggested we stay at Lake Magadi Tented Camp. The good news is that tents are already set up and meals can be purchased at the Lake Magadi Sports Club (so packing was pretty simple). Even better news, the tents were air conditioned! So far so brilliant, however, when paying 5,000 Kenya shillings for accommodation (cost of a shared tent for me and my daughter) a certain amount of managing expectations is necessary. The tents were slightly oddly laid out facing each other inside a fenced off area some distance from the lake. I believe that the fence was there to protect campers from baboons, but it did resemble something of a prison camp or army barracks. Not that I am complaining though. The tents were furnished with 2 super comfortable beds, en suite bathroom and Magadi is boiling hot, so the quiet air conditioning unit was not much short of a miracle.
But first the drive down. We popped in to Olorgesaille gorge where, in the 1940s, Mary Leaky found a sort of hand axe factory (or loads of hand axes) dating back to early man (100,000-200,000 years ago). It was a furnace like temperature when we arrived at 1pm, so we requested the shortened tour of the excavation sites and enjoyed our picnic in a shady banda afterwards, grateful for a hot breeze while wondering how the heck present day archaeologists manage the heat. Of course I couldn’t avoid the ‘shop’ run by local masai ladies and picked up a bead covered Ostrich egg, which I then had to juggle around the car for the rest of the weekend.
Arriving at Lake Magadi, which lies in a valley, was stunning. Yes, the landscape is dominated by the very industrial salt works but there’s something time-stood-still about it and the skies are huge and reflected in the still water of the lake. We were given a friendly greeting on one of many causeways by a smart security guard wearing dark glasses and couldn’t believe how hot it was outside. We found our way quickly to the Lake Magadi Sports Club, a colonial era building with high ceilings and were delighted to find a swimming pool. Being a Saturday afternoon, the club was rammed and quite noisy with music blaring from very large speakers but that didn’t matter. Again, everyone was friendly. Once we ‘checked-in’ to our tents about a half a kilometre along the road, we went back to the club for a swim.
In the evening we took a half hour drive to the hot springs, in convoy with the Travelling Telescope crew, who were off to set up camp there to watch stars all night and witness a very special meteor shower. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the springs but when we arrived, that part of the lake was more like a wide estuary with certain points where you could see hot water bubbling. There’s a small area of deep water where you can dip. The water was properly boiling, like the hottest bath you can imagine. My legs went pink and I had to steel myself to get into the water (apparently the saline water is very beneficial to your skin – so it had to be done) – but when I got out I had that my bath was too hot dizzy feeling. The sunset there was spectacular and the kids had loads of fun slipping around on the algae covered stones around the edge of the pool. On the way home in the dark, we gave a lift to a Masai whose English was good. He said he had only been to Nairobi once to sell cows, and that time he was nearly arrested for riding on the back of a truck with his cattle.
Dinner at the club was a touch soulless but not bad at all. Very friendly service and the club house is clean and well looked after under the watchful eye of Julius, who seemed to be in charge. We opted to pay for accommodation only and had our meals a la carte rather than do a half board option which includes a buffet. We then asked for a bonfire near the tent, as we’d brought marshmallows. Another Masai, nickname Sunguru or rabbit on account of his forward facing teeth, helped us with this. Again, he was fascinating too. He told us about how he walks down to Tanzania to sell herbal medicines in exchange for goats. It’s a 2 week walk. All was going pretty well until, just before lights out, my friend’s daughter found a small scorpion in her mum’s bed. Not an ideal precursor for a peaceful night’s sleep. My daughter and I slept well, only the air conditioning was so cold that I had to turn it off in the end. Not your usual camping complaint is it? #myairconditioningistoocold
The next morning we headed back to the hot springs. When we arrived there was a huge bus load of students from Mount Kenya University and one girl fainted after she had been in the springs. Sadly the students had a 2km walk back to their bus (but the lady who fainted got a lift on a passing motorbike). After more paddling and splashing in the very hot water, we headed back to the club for breakfast. On Sunday morning the club was fabulously quiet and this time we had the pool to ourselves. It’s a bit of a shame that the club grounds are a bit squeezed and have a high fence around them. There’s no view of the lake from the club but apparently more tents are planned down by the water’s edge, so that will be good (especially if they are air conditioned too!).
On Sunday we wrenched ourselves away from the club at around 4pm (by which time it was busy again with school kids swimming, families etc) and managed to do another lake drive, this time beyond the salt works and over various causeways to see another part of the lake and some distant flamingos. In some places, the lake was dark pink from algae. We were grabbed by our Masai guide, Toican (who hangs at the bus stop), who acted as our guide whilst waving in a slightly superior fashion to all of his masai friends who passed by begging a lift. (My daughter thought Toican might have been showing off). By this stage I was a bit twitchy about getting home after dark and worrying that we might get a puncture on the way home (always the optimist), but my friend who was driving was totally unfazed and we got home safely and quickly in just a couple of hours.
On the drive back, all up hill, you get a vivid idea of what a high altitude Nairobi is situated at. So in July and August when we are cloud covered and chilly, I might just pop back down to Lake Magadi to warm up. And chat to a few Masai.