Friday, February 6, 2015

Kenya travel: Getting around

Coming to Kenya? Don't expect to get anywhere fast.

Nairobi, where you're likely to start your visit, is home to some of the most appalling traffic on the planet. It's distressingly common for traffic to come to a complete halt and nothing move for five minutes or more. 

When my family arrived recently, our introduction to Nairobi unfortunately coincided with rush hour and it took 90 minutes to reach our destination. When we left, however, we did so at 4:30 a.m., and the reverse trip to the airport took just 25 minutes.  Sadly, even mid-day looks a lot like rush hour.

It's not just the delays that makes Nairobi traffic notable, it's the chaotic nature. Drivers cut and weave without regard to any sort of traffic rules (are there any?). Accidents are avoided by inches. Throughout all this, pedestrians are cutting through traffic to cross the street. Men pull or push carts overloaded with goods. Vendors selling newspapers or bags of oranges go from car window to window peddling their items.

Throughout it all, the noxious odor of exhaust permeates everything (air pollution control is not a priority in Kenya).

We didn't see a working traffic light anywhere during our 10-day stay in Kenya, though I've heard that there are some. It might not make any difference. According to an article in a Nairobi paper, few Kenyans find any need to stop at a red light.

"In Nairobi," the article said, "if a car dared to stop at a red light while the way was clear, the cars behind would lay on their horns until their ears bleed."

Part of the city's problem is that all major highways crossing Kenya go right through the heart of Nairobi (it's as if to cross the United States, all vehicles had to go through downtown Chicago). Nairobi desperately needs a ring road.

Traffic in Mombasa, Kenya's second largest city, is not quite as bad as Nairobi, but only by a slight degree.

Outside Kenya's cities, the traffic does ease, but then you'll find other issues, such as speed bumps and animals on the road.

Every town along the highway, no matter how small, is accompanied by two to six speed bumps, forcing drivers to slow. At other times, your way will be blocked by herds of cattle, sheep or goats crossing the road.

And then there's the roads themselves. Holes large enough to swallow a tire are common.  And if you're going on safari,  prepare to spend an hour or two on bone-rattling rock and dirt roads our tour guide called it  "The African Massage"  just to reach the entrance to some of the national parks.

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