KENYA and TANZANIA 1993
Leaving Uganda before war breaks out (in my last story), we cross into Kenya, heading for Lake Nakuru.
After a couple of days on the road we close in on our destination, camping up in a crater near Nakuru town. The approach to our home for the night is a ponderous one, up a steep dirt track. In fact, our progress is so snail-like that a kid jumps onto the back step of our truck and catches a ride to the top. He repays us by busily chopping wood and helping us make a fire.
As the night envelops us, the clouds dump a deluge of water on us and we scurry to find shelter. We ask our little helper where he lives and how he is going to get back home. But his knowledge of the English language suddenly seems to have dried up. It appears he is reluctant to leave.
We crack open the Swahili phrase book and try and cobble together an appropriate question. “Does your mother know where you are?” we ask. No response. “When are you going to go home?” Nada.
Maybe our Swahili doesn’t pass muster. Or maybe he just doesn’t want to go.
We hand him a blanket and he makes a bed for himself on the truck’s safari seat, above the cab.
When we awake the next morning he is already up, chopping wood.
In the pink
After breakfast, we leave our new friend behind, hoping that he does have a home to go to.
Abandoning our truck at the entrance to Lake Nakuru National Park (foreign-registered vehicles are not allowed into Kenyan game reserves), ten of us cram into a Land Rover and venture in.
We quickly spy a tower of giraffe in the distance and trundle over to them. We watch entranced as they stretch their long necks up, like Inspector Gadget, to gorge on leaves from the luscious acacia trees that are found here.
Lake Nakuru, of course, is renowned for its flamingos – 2 million of them, or thereabouts. As we approach the lake a mass of pink stretches out before us, like an ethereal sunset reflecting in the water; one that is making a deafening honking noise, though. They are so densely packed that individual birds are indistinguishable until we reach the shoreline.
They prance, preen and perform that trick that is beyond most humans – standing on one leg. Occasionally one lifts off into the air and settles down a few yards away in a welcome, newly found space.
The water, naturally, attracts a host of other wildlife in sizeable numbers, including gazelle, impala, waterbuck and buffalo.
As we drive around the lake, we discover two lionesses basking drowsily in the sun. It was fair to assume they had recently dined out – a herd of gazelle grazing close by are seemingly unperturbed by their presence; the lions themselves show no interest in their neighbours.
As we watch the lions, our driver-guide announces: “We’re not supposed to go off-road, but we’ll try our luck.”
He turns off the track and bumps over the grass, stopping within a few yards of them. One begins to show an interest in this strange metal beast that has plonked itself in her eyeline, then she yawns and rolls over. Clearly, it’s siesta time and we’ve interrupted her topping up her tan by the pool. I look around for the cocktail gazelle, but she is nowhere to be seen.
Leaving our lionesses to sleep, we motor on, pulling up as we spot rhino in the trees (under them, not up them) – a rare sighting, according to our guide.
Two of them – great big hulks of rippling flesh – snuffling around. Given they are some distance from us, our guide allows us out of the vehicle to take photos. In hindsight, I’m not sure that was the wisest policy (and it certainly wouldn’t occur these days). To be fair, he did warn us that if they turned towards us to get back in the vehicle – and quickly.
As if on cue, they do. We fling ourselves back in faster than you can say “rhino, dead ahead”, but they aren’t interested in us. They’re just looking for fresh grass.
Then cool as you like, our fearless guide gets out of the car, saying: “I’ll try and get them to charge at me – make sure you get good photos.”
We must have had a look of disbelief on our faces. “It’s OK, I can run faster than them,” he reassures us.
He walks slowly towards them, shouting and clapping his hands. But they ignore him. No doubt muttering to themselves: “Check out this idiot.”
We carry on with a more traditional game drive – i.e. inside the vehicle – passing large herds of zebra and even witnessing some impala locking horns in a battle for supremacy.
As we head towards the exit, it starts to rain and the track quickly turns to mud – our vehicle sliding all over the place; at one point we go right off the road and become stuck in the quagmire.
The driver laughs his head off. To say he is a character is an understatement.
After eventually making it out, we reunite with our truck and set off in the direction of Nairobi – and a welcome feast at the legendary Carnivore restaurant.
We leave the bedlam of Nairobi and its then notorious Green Bar (that’s a story all on its own) behind, en route for the Ngorongoro Crater.
Unfortunately our weekend trip to Tanzania coincides with Kenya’s Super Cup football final in Nairobi and, though very tempted to go, I reason with myself that I had come here to see a different type of game. It was a heated debate, mind.
As we approach the Tanzanian border we encounter herds of zebra and ostrich and even have to pull up sharply as giraffe lollop across the road in front of us. I know we have zebra crossings, but this took it to a whole new level.
We cross the border and camp up with the majestic Kilimanjaro as a backdrop. That night, I share my mozzie net with a gecko, who, however hard I try I cannot catch, and resign myself to having a house guest. Unfortunately, it was the type of annoying visitor who gets up far too early and bangs around – or, in this case, scurries around the inside of my net.
We continue on to Arusha, where we leave the truck at some bloke’s house and pile into Land Rovers for the start of a three-and-a-half-hour hell trip at breakneck speeds over very potholey dirt track, eventually coming to rest on the Crater’s rim. We pitch tents near to the entrance and retire, ready to be the first into the Ngorongoro – or the “big hole” – at sunrise.
As dawn breaks, we tip over the edge and down some 600m into the 20km-wide volcanic caldera, which lies on the eastern tip of the Serengeti. A guaranteed game-viewing environment, given that once an animal makes its way in there the steep slopes make it nigh on impossible for it to leave again.
This 260 sq km green basin is home to some 25,000 animals. Our first encounter, however, is human – spear-carrying Maasai tending to their grazing cattle. Rather them than me. “What are you doing? There’s lions in here you know,” I want to scream.
The great wildebeest herds had already departed for greener pastures, but a few stragglers are dotted around, along with hundreds of zebra. Hiding in the long grass are a rhino and her calf, who, perhaps spooked by our close proximity, suddenly break cover and run out into the open and away.
We pause close to two lionesses lounging by the edge of a lake; one resting her head on her paw, the other flat out. Their only movement coming when one pushes herself up on to her feet, pads about five steps and then flops down again in a panting heap. I guess she is a trifle hot.
We leave them to it, stumbling across a lion pride lying in wait in tall grass. A lookout sits upright, slightly away from the others – who remain prone – scouting the area for possible targets, but her efforts come to nothing; the rest of the family are uninterested in exerting any energy at this juncture.
This theatre of dream sightings never fails to deliver. Each track taken brings a new best sighting of the morning, culminating with a huge, somewhat irate, elephant charging towards us, bellowing, her trunk raised and ears flapping. Our driver takes his leave with great haste, leaving the matriarch floundering in his wake.
We rest up in a ‘safe’ area for lunch. As we munch, we look up to see hawks circling above us, like vultures waiting to feed on our remains. Several swoop down to steal bread out of unsuspecting hands.
On returning to Arusha, we dine out in a backstreet Indian restaurant. It was the ultimate cook-to-order place. Indeed, the chicken was so fresh that it was still running around the backyard when we sat down.
A welcome two weeks of R & R follows – before our overland truck journey continues south – and four of us head to the island of Lamu.
Following a 45-minute journey standing wedged in at a peculiar angle while blaring music pumps into our brains – the joys of how a matatu journey used to be – we catch an overnight bus to Malindi; a mode of transport that has two speeds – very fast and stationary. From there we transfer to the Lamu bus – a relatively short five-hour journey up the coast.
Even back then, unfortunately, there were Somalian bandits operating in this region of Kenya, and each bus heading that way employed the services of an armed guard. I can only hope that one day others can travel safely to this wondrous part of Kenya and enjoy its idyllic way of life, even if just for a few days. (Note: currently, if you intend to travel to Lamu, you are advised to do so by air and not by road.)
After 17 hours of non-stop travel we reach the ferry ‘terminal’, where three local lads take us under their wing and negotiate us on to the boat while pitching the benefits of renting a private house from them. Again, we travel in rather cramped conditions – there’s always room for one more, no matter what the transport.
The house comes with a house boy to attend to all our cleaning needs and a roof terrace that overlooks the pub – so you can see when it hots up and wander over – and the beautifully clear Indian Ocean.
Once ensconced in our house, we pop over to the local, Petley’s, where we tuck into a few Tuskers while being thoroughly entertained by Dominic, a very drunk Kenyan university lecturer, who regales us with his stories and his encyclopedic knowledge of British politics.
Occasionally, he breaks into song. Perhaps song is stretching the point – more a caterwaul. Fortunately, he only knows two lines of whatever ditty it is: “I’m so lonely, like a soldier in Vietnam”. Unfortunately he keeps singing them over and over again.
Petley’s attracts an eclectic clientele, from business people to locals partial to one more than is needed, to hippies wearing sarongs, to Rastafarians with bleached dreads – and as for the people on the dance floor…
The next day we are ready for some serious beach time, except we awake to torrential rain. Typical, we finally arrive in paradise and paradise is on holiday.
Luckily, it clears up in the afternoon and we take a leisurely stroll up to the beach: a 30-minute walk from town, an intriguing labyrinth of narrow, winding streets, lined with little shops selling tie-dye clothing and crafts – and donkeys.
The beach itself is 12km of pristine white sand and, better still, it’s near- deserted. We swim in the gloriously warm water and the dirt of five months travel across the continent oozes out of us.
On another day in paradise, we take a fishing trip on a dhow. Three young lads sail us through the calm coastal waters and out into the Indian Ocean. We head out much further than we are expecting – about 2km – before stopping to fish. The swell, though, is big and a couple of us spend more time leaning over the side exchanging fluids with the sea than fishing. We retreat back into calmer water, but our fishing proves unsuccessful to say the least – one tiddler between us. Fortunately, the crew reel in seven reasonably sized snapper and lunch is sorted.
Moring up on Manda Beach, on an opposite island, the crew build a fire and cook over open flames – freshly caught fish at its scrumptious best.
As we head back to Lamu, the wind picks up and we have to lean to one side to keep us afloat as the boat speeds along, virtually horizontal.
After we level out, the lads beat out an intoxicating rhythm with just a lump of wood and a plastic container.
This is the life.
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