I love everything about roadtrips. The anticipation of visiting someplace new. Quality time in the car with friends. Unexpected detours along the way that always turn into the best stories.

When I found out that I was going on a trip with a team from Karura Community Chapel to visit pastors in Eldoret, 6 hours away in the northwestern part of the beautiful Rift Valley, I was beyond excited. I’ll share more about my experiences there, and the incredible stories I heard in upcoming articles, but for now I’ll give you some very practical information, should you ever have the opportunity to take a trek across Kenya.

Here is your guide of what to pack, and what not to pack, for a Kenyan roadtrip.

OK, so you know the basics: clothes, underwear, and toiletries, but packing light is an essential since space is limited (the seating capacity of our RAV4 magically expanded and contracted as needed, so we could fit 5 to 6 bodies depending on how many friends we picked up in each town). With this in mind, I’ll start with the items you can leave at home on this trip.

What NOT to Pack

1. Don’t pack a map.

Locals are always eager to show you around.

Locals are always eager to show you around.

First of all there are fewer roads in Kenya, and they all have straightforward names. Mombasa Road heads south out of Nairobi toward Mombasa. Thika Road goes to Thika, and so on. So we began our trip on the highway heading North to Eldoret. If there is a questionable junction in the middle of nowhere, you are more likely to find people on the side of the road, rather than signs, to point you in the right direction.

One important tip to be aware of when asking for directions: verify the directions you receive with several different people. Because they live in a shame-based culture, Kenyans will avoid bringing shame to you and to themselves by always answering your questions, even if they don’t know the correct information.

Potatos and cabbage anyone?

Potatos and cabbage anyone?

So even if the men at the junction have no clue which road leads to Eldoret, they will pick one and confidently assure you it is the right one. Unfortunately scenarios like this one led us on at least one unnecessary detour and some minor back-tracking. But at the end of the day, the locals are still your best resource for getting you to your destination.

2. Don’t pack snacks.

Why would you need vacuum-sealed granola bars filled with preservatives when roadside stands offer fresh fruit at rock-bottom prices? 13 oranges for less than $1.50 or 20 mini bananas for a quarter. My favorite snack is a roasted ear of maize with a little chili power and lemon brushed on for flavor. And the customer service is incredible. Anytime you stop your vehicle, men and women flock to your open windows, produce in hand. It’s a much healthier version of a drive-thru, and there is never a line.

3. Don’t pack water.

You'll never go hungry or thirsty with Kenyan hospitality!

You'll never go hungry or thirsty with Kenyan hospitality!

That’s right. I brought a water bottle but never had a chance, or a reason, to fill it. Bottled water is expensive, and drinking tap water is a risk most people don’t want to take.

The solution? For us, we got all the hydration we needed in the form of chai. It’s impossible to stop to visit friends, our primary purpose on this trip, without being offered at least one cup of hot, sugary tea and milk – chai the Kenyan way. My record for this roadtrip was 5 cups in one day. But I’ll admit, we did splurge on some cold sodas for refreshment, too.

4. Finally, Don’t pack a watch.

Just accept the fact that you will be waiting, whether it is a four hour stint waiting for the rental car to show up, or a couple hours of chatting before lunch is ready. If you are a punctual or time-conscious person, leaving your watch at home is the best strategy for freeing yourself to just relax and enjoy your experience.

What to Pack

Now that you have made some room in your bags by knowing what not to pack, here is a list of essentials that will make your life easier on the road. (Don’t worry, none of them take up too much space!)

1. Pack a travel size package of Kleenex.

Gas stations may have great service at the pump (attendants always fill your tank for you), but toilet paper in the bathroom is almost unheard of.

2. Pack an insurance policy.

Overheated engines just a need a little splash of water.

Overheated engines just a need a little splash of water.

I’m not sure this exists in Kenya, but we certainly would have benefited from one.

Cars take a beating on Kenyan highways. Between slamming on the brakes to avoid a pothole or speed bump, quickly accelerating to pass a truck before a curve, and the occasional stretch of off-roading when the actual road is under construction, I’m sure rental cars here have a short lifespan.

The real hazards are the many moving obstacles (other than cars) who vie for road space: sheep, cattle, men on bicycles transporting anything from foam mattresses to crates of soda bottles. Our driver did a great job until the after sundown when we hit a pair of goats…four broken headlights were pretty costly!

3. Pack an I.D. card.

Police like to hang out at roadside checkpoints. Most of the time they wave you on with a lazy gaze, but if they do decide to pull you over, have your I.D. and vehicle registration ready. If not, then your pockets might be a few shillings lighter before you are allowed to proceed with your journey.

Pictures just can't capture these views!

Pictures just can't capture these views!

4. Pack a camera!

Kenya, especially the fertile Rift Valley, has to be one of the most scenic places on earth. We stopped the car and piled out on the shoulder a few times just to soak in the view. Lush, green maize fields carpet the valleys and dormant volcanic mountain ranges. In other places, rolling tea fields melt into dense forests, all under a vast blue sky. Ok, you get the picture…it’s beautiful!

As you can imagine, my adventures on the road to Eldoret and back made for a trip unlike any I’ve taken before. Now the next time you have the opportunity to take such a journey, you will go prepared!

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About the Author: Jessica Shewan is a journalist with World Next Door. She graduated in 2009 from The University of Evansville with a bachelor's degree in History. She loves making new international friends and is passionate about seeing the global church pursue justice and peace!

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Comments

  1. Aaron Elliott said... 

    Reply

    August 10th, 2009 at 9:33 am  

    You are right, the pictures just don’t do it justice!

  2. Rob Yonan said... 

    Reply

    August 10th, 2009 at 4:11 pm  

    reminds me of a similar trip into the mountains north of Nairobi for a funeral, packed into some sort of old SUV, sitting on one of the back bench seats which folded down for storage, but up for adding more people. as long and as uncomfortable as i was (what shocks?) the conversation was worth it all and made the trip fly. i never did look at my watch. thanks Jess!!

  3. Bill Shewan said... 

    Reply

    August 10th, 2009 at 4:34 pm  

    HI Jess! Thanks for the “primer”. I liked the video the best. What a happy group – good friends.

  4. Kerry said... 

    Reply

    August 11th, 2009 at 2:27 pm  

    the first line pulled me in — reminds me of the unnecessary detour that made it take nearly 5 hours to get to fall conference…and the wonderfully nice senior who helped us figure out where to go once we got there. sounds like an adventure! love you Jess!

  5. shelli said... 

    Reply

    August 12th, 2009 at 4:57 pm  

    ahhh, and don’t forget to pack the first aid kit. we got pulled over at a checkpoint in Kenya and all the police cared about was if we had our mandatory first aid kit in the trunk…. hmmm.

  6. grandma Mack said... 

    Reply

    August 19th, 2009 at 3:41 pm  

    My what an enlightening list! Great advice for trips through life in a way. The sounds of Kenya were great too. I loved your “shame-based culture” reference. Be on the alert, we want to see you again. God bless you.

  7. Breanna Sipple said... 

    Reply

    February 22nd, 2011 at 11:49 am  

    This was great, and Rift Valley sounds very beautiful! I remember when I went to Mexico, we took lots of road trips because traveled all the time to many villages, and into the mountains. The longest trip was about 11 hours of driving total, but it was like you said: a lot of quality time with friends while creating some incredible memories. I’m glad you captured your experience with words and photographs, and that you shared these tips.

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