23 February 2017

Kenya 2

The Palace of Wisdom......

Saturday, April 10th

Christopher drives us into Nairobi for the train, and we just make it to the top of the Kenyatta Conference Centre Tower for a quick drink and a glimpse of a splendid sunset.  Mt Kenya is just visible to one side, and Kilimanjaro to the other, and tumbling storm clouds blaze in the declining sun.

The train, The Lunatic Express[i], is ready for us, and we only have two companions in the compartment – Italian brothers going for some spear-fishing and sun.

Michael and I have beer and then a substantial roast lamb supper in the dining car at 9.30, for fifty shillings[ii]: starched linen napkins, silver service and fine crockery.  As much as you can eat, and very tasty.  Over the door a sign: No liquor served after 10.00pm except in case of illness…..

Sunday, April 11th

Early morning up and watching interminable thorn scrub rumble past.  A light breakfast and a slow run in to Mombasa, the last few of 530 kilometres, descending over 1,600 metres to sea level.  The station is not far from the Manor Hotel, built in 1901.  It is Easter Sunday and since our rooms aren’t ready yet we attend the Anglican Cathedral unchanged and unwashed.

Not long after, having spruced up a bit, we settle for Lobster Thermidor and two bottles of French Graves for Easter Lunch, followed by a siesta.  Then we walk down to Fort Jesus, the sight in Mombasa.  Italian design, but Portuguese for much of its history.  An impressive bastion, rising out of the coral of the island, with a bloody past and an evocative present.

Monday, April 12th

A very hot day.  A walk before breakfast, discovering the cemetery, where there are some puzzling dates on English Servicemen’s graves – some wartime, but others between the wars.  The heat?

Later we take the Likoni[iii] Ferry and then walk down to Shelly Beach[iv], which is a little disappointing.  With the tide out, the reef encloses little here but shallow pools and so swimming is difficult.  Also there is a terrific storm on the horizon, so we take refuge in the Shelly Beach Hotel Bar for a while until the rain passes.

*     *     *     *     *

My diary splutters to a halt here, red with sunburn and mosquito bites. I remember buying colourful kikoys and kangas in the bazaar, one of which I am sitting on right now; and wandering around the old town of Mombasa, which I now believe is sadly run down (it was hardly spic and span back then!)  We took the train back to Nairobi, then, having said our goodbyes to Flying Doctors and other friends, with a last G & T under the pepper trees we flew home (to Rome). 

I do not remember feeling at risk at any time during this trip, either in the north or at the sea.  Perhaps I was naïve, though things may well have changed. The following was posted online by the US State Department on January 13th 2017 (by the Obama Administration):

The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens to avoid travel to the border area between Somalia and Kenya because of threats by the terrorist group al-Shabaab.  U.S. citizens should also be aware of potential terrorist threats and the high risk of crime throughout the country. 

This replaces the Travel Warning dated June 30, 2016.

For your safety:
  • Avoid travel in the northeastern Kenyan counties of Mandera, Wajir and Garissa, the coastal counties of Tana River and Lamu in their entirety, all areas north of Malindi in Kilifi County, and the Nairobi neighborhood of Eastleigh.
  • In Mombasa, the U.S. Embassy recommends U.S. citizens visit Old Town only during daylight hours, and avoid using the Likoni ferry due to safety concerns.
In 2016, terrorist attacks involving shootings, grenades, or other explosive devices resulted in 122 fatalities. The bulk of these incidents occurred in Wajir, Garissa, Lamu and Mandera counties. Potential terrorist threats remain in Kenya, including within the Nairobi area, along the coast, and within the northeastern region of the country.

Terrorist targets have included Kenyan and foreign government sites, police stations and vehicles, hotels, public transportation and other infrastructure targets, nightclubs and bars, religious and academic institutions, and shopping areas. On September 11, 2016, press accounts noted that three women purportedly attacked a police station in Mombasa with knives and petrol bombs, wounding two Kenyan police officers.
The next month, on October 27, 2016, an assailant with a knife attacked a police officer guarding the U.S. Embassy compound.

Violent and sometimes fatal crimes, including armed carjackings, muggings, home invasions and burglaries, and kidnappings can occur at any time. U.S. citizens and U.S. Embassy employees have been victims of such crimes in the past.

The British Government Foreign Travel Advice, updated on January 31st 2017 but still current on February 19th, had similar advice:

There is a heightened threat of terrorist attacks in Nairobi and the coast and resort areas of Mombasa and Malindi. The Inspector General of the Kenyan Police has called on the public to adopt a higher level of vigilance and report any suspicious people or activity straight away. See Terrorism.

In May and June 2016 political protests in Kisumu turned violent. Further political protests in Nairobi, Kisumu and other parts of Kenya may occur in the lead up to August 2017 elections. You should take care in public places where people gather, and exercise a heightened level of vigilance. Monitor local and international media and keep up to date with this travel advice by subscribing to email alerts.

In 1980, only two years before our visit, the Norfolk hotel in Nairobi was bombed, killing 20 people and injuring 87.  When we were in Nairobi in 1982, I noted that many of the villas near the Ngong Hills had armed guards on their gates.  In February 1984 the Wagalla massacre was a massacre of ethnic Somalis by Kenyan security forces in Wajir County, Kenya. The Wagalla massacre took place at the Wagalla Airstrip. The facility is situated approximately 15 km (9 mi) west of the county capital of Wajir in the North Eastern Province, a region primarily inhabited by ethnic Somalis. Kenyan troops had descended on the area to reportedly help diffuse clan-related conflict. However, according to eye-witness testimony, about 5,000 Somali men were then taken to an airstrip and prevented from accessing water and food for five days before being executed by Kenyan soldiers.  In 1998, the US embassy in Nairobi was bombed, with 213 fatalities. In 2002 the Paradise hotel in Mombasa was bombed with 13 deaths (and at the same time two commercial jets were targeted with rockets). In 2013, the militant group Al-Shabaab killed 67 people at Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall.

There have also been numerous lesser attacks, but is Kenya less safe now than it ever was?  Is the world a worse place now than it used to be? Alternative facts, such as Trump's claim that the US murder rate is higher than it has ever been, can be clearly and cleanly disproved.  The biggest changes between the Kenya I experienced and now are probably, firstly, that everyone, from children in thorn huts to fishermen on the beach, will have at least one mobile phone; and, secondly, where my warriors in the bush had spears, many of them will now have guns, thoughtfully provided by arms manufacturers, some of whom are smiling in their luxury homes at this very moment.

But there are other factors in safety, apart from the global threat of terrorism. Malaria is making a comeback, with some of the ‘traditional’ prophylactics no longer having the desired effect; and, just in case you were thinking of following in my footsteps, you will find that the Lake Baringo Club is, at the time of writing, closed, due to floods…..  

The road of excess may lead to the palace of wisdom, but when (if) you get there, the palace may be closed!

...for we never know what is enough until we know what is more than enough

William Blake

If ever they remembered their life in this world it was as one remembers a dream.

C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

[i] The Nairobi-Mombasa railway was then a section of the line from Uganda to the Indian Ocean, built at the end of the 19th century by the British.  At the time of my visit it was still a viable route, though perhaps clothed in a certain decadence. It took twelve hours each way, but now can be fourteen hours or more….. Some time after, not because of, our usage, the line was closed for a lengthy refurbishment, though later reports hardly corroborated this.

The line, which is narrow gauge, has been hit by accident. In 1993, 114 people died when a train bound for Mombasa drove into a river, the tracks having been washed away by rain. In 1999, 32 passengers perished when the brakes on another train failed and it derailed.

A few years ago I listened to a programme on the radio about the Lunatic Line -  so called because of the costs in building it and because of the deaths that resulted from the construction. The story is a complex one: imperial aspiration and inefficiency and corruption.  Once it employed 48,000 people, now it has less than 4,000 employees.  Once it was like a prestigious civil service; now it is a strange vestige of its former self, upstaged by air transport, air-conditioned 4 x 4s and even long-distance buses.

Now, however, there is a $13.8bn rail project, which began last December, designed to link Kenya’s Indian Ocean port of Mombasa to the capital Nairobi, then on to Uganda. It is part of a package of deals signed between Kenya and China in 2013…..

The existing narrow-gauge railway was built by the British at the turn of last century and was nicknamed the Lunatic Express, in part because workers constructing it were eaten by lions. The old line does not cut through Nairobi’s game park but it does pierce the Tsavo national park.

Kenya signals high-speed trains to replace 'lunatic line' era

The standard-gauge line will be built in a fairly remote stretch of the park and Leakey said it was unlikely it would have any impact on the number of visitors to one of Nairobi’s top attractions.

[ii] In 2011, a first class ticket (including bedding and dinner) from Nairobi to Mombasa cost 3,660 shillings:  a third class ticket was 460 shillings….. I don't recall what our tickets cost in 1982, but if dinner for two was 50 shillings, I doubt if the ticket was much more than twice that.....

[iii] In late 1997 six policemen were killed when local raiders armed with traditional weapons and guns rampaged through Likoni. A police station and outpost were destroyed, along with market stalls and offices. Many non-local Kenyans were either killed or maimed, as the raiders targeted the Luo, Luhya, Kamba and Kikuyu communities. In unrest that followed an inquiry into this incident it is estimated that 10 policemen and 37 others were killed.

[iv] In 2011 Liz T, from London, posted a warning on Trip Advisor about Shelly Beach. She and two companions were robbed of everything and risked their lives when they innocently went there to swim and sunbathe. She also mentions an Italian tourist who was slashed across his upper body by a thief who took his camera. Liz T reports that the place never recovered from the 1997 riots which is why it was deserted and why hotels there were derelict or for sale.

Mmmmm.... Fings really ain't wot they used to be.....

I mean, a lion used to be respected,
Used to be able to eat a couple of railway workers for breakfast...

And now?

It's just cameras,
And mud....

The Palace, Mombasa - the end of the road .....

18 February 2017


The road, to excess….

As things are, memories have become important to me, and not just to me.  The wonder of recall is something we sometimes take for granted.  However, every so often something pops up from the dust, and makes you realise how great it is to be able to look back at past experience….. 

Some thirty-five years ago I ventured up to the badlands of Northern Kenya: Ethiopia on one side, South Sudan (the southern part of Sudan, as was) to the north-west and Uganda to the west.  Looking into the sunset, I felt a kind of giddiness, realising that it was thousands of miles of arid thorn-scape to the Atlantic.  This is now dangerous country, not only because of the unrest in Sudan, but also because gun-carrying tribesmen feud between each other and show little respect for law or order.

I found myself in this wilderness due to an unusual set of circumstances, which in short derived from the fact that a girl friend’s father and uncle ran the Flying Doctor Service out of Nairobi.  The friend’s parents lived in the Ngong Hills (Remember Karen BlixenOut of Africa?) and their next door neighbour, Dick Hedges, ran safaris.  He had a client in an American botanist who wanted to do some research in Northern Kenya.  Dick wanted to make up a party, so, along with my colleague Michael, I was persuaded by extremely low rates to accompany Larry and his wife Sharon on a journey through these wilds of Africa…. 

What follows are extracts from the diary I kept, and some of the pictures I took at the time.

*     *     *      *      *

Saturday, April 3rd

Woke to a crimson strip of dawn in the east, 30,000 feet up, somewhere over the Sudan or Ethiopia.  Soon to cross the Blue Nile.

Five minutes early touching down…. Cloudy and cool; no immediate smash on the head from the sun.  First time ever south of the equator.

Our host easy to identify, waiting nervously. Simon the cook and Francis the gardener out to welcome us with the dogs.  Pepper trees and a view of the Ngong Hills.

Shower, gin and chat.  Mrs xxx very kind, sitting on terrace in tropical garden watching the birds, including Fiscal Shrikes, Paradise Flycatchers, Hartlaub’s Turaco, and more.  Fine.

Trip downtown to the renowned Norfolk Hotel, bombed by Al Fatah in 1980, but once again one of the most fashionable places in Nairobi.  We meet K, looking splendid, who introduces gazelle-eyed S in a long blue dress and bare feet.  We hop in a mini and are taken to their home for coffee and an encounter with a young man with stone blue eyes and a silver ear-ring.

Later we tour the CBD, the Kenyatta memorial and visit the Club (with its crown bowling green speckled with bright white ladies and gents behaving with colonial decorum) then back out to Langata and our hosts, just in time for a G & T as the sun went down, roast Kenyan beef for supper, then Fundador and Manila cigars, and a good night’s sleep.

Sunday 4th April

Breakfast at seven, then Dick takes us to Wilson airport.  The immaculate Abercrombie Dick is there to fly us to Loiyangalani.  Bright morning, but much cloud.  We climb away toward the rift valley.  Having hastily swallowed a couple of powerful travel pills I fall asleep at intervals, but shouldn’t have bothered with the pills for the flight is fine.  I spend half the two hours trying to hold my eyes open to watch the giraffe and big game below us.

Abercrombie Dick and his flying machine

Almost too soon Lake Turkana (née Rudolf) heaves into view.  Jim, our driver, is on the airstrip to meet us, and we climb into the Land Cruiser.  It is hot, but I didn’t expect it to be necessary to drive the two minutes to the camp.  Anyway Sam, an Indian from Nairobi, greets us cheerfully and we are provided with tea and biscuits.

The camp is beautifully clean; palm-roofed huts shelter tents and there’s a dining area, wash block, and an old army marquee which serves as a bar.  All is palm shaded, and grassy, and milk weed grows among the acacias.  The lake glitters in the near distance and the mountains of the western rift valley shimmer beyond that.

After lunch of spag bol with cole slaw and Daddy’s sauce we walk to the Oasis fishing camp.  This is a scruffy settlement, with a mixture of peoples (Samburu, Turkana, Rendille and El Molo) and styles of dwelling (palm, reed or grass huts, and stronger foursquare shacks).  Children in tatters, vests, shorts, shifts and cloths, come up and say Hello!  One little boy speaks a perfectly formed English.

Older men lie on the ground, their heads on wooden rests, or they sit in the shade, or stand, or squat….  All are mixed in ornament, in dress, in facial features.

Straggly thorn trees and palms offer shade, a stream and a tap provide water; on one side there is the lake, on the other the mountains.  Not heaven, but not absolute hell.

We get in the Toyota, and burn off towards the north.  Roads are not what everyone might expect here though they are generally passable. Our vehicle is tough, and Jim a good driver, and also, thankfully, a trained mechanic.

We reach a valley the head of which has two springs.  One is a filthy pothole, where natives drink to be purged.  The water here gives you diarrhoea.  Then you go over to the other one, where the hot soda water cures you.  I try this one, though the others don’t like the look of the scum.  It tastes like Andrew’s Liver Salts, only less fizzy!

Next stop is the El Molo village, which is on the lake shore.  These are poor fishing people and their miserable collection of palm shelters is surrounded by the bones and heads of Nile Perch – huge fish which can reach up to 400 lbs – with crows and a Fish Eagle scavenging.

There are only a few hundred of these people left, and this is the only village which is exclusively theirs.  The chief is a fine, tall man, with a peaked cap.  He collects a toll of 20 shillings from every camera-carrying tourist…..  The people do not all seem so happy about this arrangement, and it must be degrading to have to act as anthropological mannequins all the time, but the children love it and they chatter and play and examine my white, hairy legs while I snap away extravagantly….

Before we return we swim in the lake, apprehensive about crocodiles (they can grow to thirty feet here) but cooled by the water, which is alkaline and soapy.

Back at the camp for a beef curry supper and cold beer.  There is a strong wind blowing from the mountains and the palm trees are rustled and torn by this.  It is surprisingly noisy, but at least it takes away the heat and the flies.

After supper a boy from the village meets us to take us to the traditional dancing.  By moonlight we sit on stones as he explains the Samburu circumcision rites.  But then it gets late, and the dancing hasn’t started.  The boy asks for money, to fund his dream course of study, and we walk back to our camp beds, under the noisy wind…..

Monday, April 5th

Breakfast at seven.   We leave for Mt Kulal, 2,285 metres above sea level and 50 kms to the east, at 7.45.  Women, herdsmen and children salute and smile.  Cormorants and pelicans patrol the lake shore.  The sky is cloudy and cool.

From time to time, cattle block the road.  It is rough until we are out of the lake valley (which has dropped 250 feet in 2000 years) then we speed along with commiphora and thorn trees around us.

Then we turn a corner and we are into unknown territory, even to Jim.  Acacia trees become more common and euphorbia and other dry plants dot the brown landscape.  The rock is mainly basalt here with strange outcrops like piles of neolithic bricks stand out from the plains.  This is where the SAS are trained.....

Our guide, Langachar, spots some oryx, so we drive cross country to get closer.  Silver grey, with black markings and long upright twisted horns, they move off, gracefully.  We also see gerenuk, usually in pairs; slender, beautiful creatures, sometimes up on their slim hind legs, their front legs in the trees.  Also Grant’s gazelle, rather like fallow deer, delicate…..

The landscape is dry and hard.  We keep on, on a tolerable track towards the UNESCO weather station. Then we move on into the forest, but the track becomes too slippery to progress, so we picnic on the edge overlooking the plain and the lake, our camp glittering in the far distance.

On the long way back we see baboons, and many birds, including Somali Ostrich, Fish Eagle, and various hawks – Montagu’s Harrier, Verreaux’s Eagle, Harrier-Hawks, Black Kites, and a Chanting Goshawk (I was told it was a Pale… but think it may have been an Eastern?)

Tuesday, April 6th

Early to the fishing station for Larry to gather some samples to test for diets,  then off south along the lake.  Cormorants, pelicans and a Goliath Heron fishing at the water’s edge; an Abdim’s Stork, a Sacred Ibis and numbers of Crested Larks.

We pass into a long, shallow valley, where we see Ostrich, Grant’s Gazelle, Oryx and Gerenuk.  Then on through sandy lands with lots of bird life, such as White Bellied Go-Way Birds, White-Headed Buffalo Weavers, Drongos, Shrikes and Bee-Eaters.

Eventually the mountains rise on either side, green-flanked granite monsters, and we arrive in jungly Kurungu, a small camp, with about ten bandas around a clearing, a cookhouse and bar, all tree-shaded and nicely kept, sheltered by the two walls of mountains.

After refreshments we walk up the stream.  A tall, imposing Samburu with a menacing spear appears.  We do not speak his language, but he takes command in a stately way.  It crosses my mind that he could easily murder me and wear my camera lenses as ornaments, but actually I am not that bothered…..

He indicates his manyatta in the thorn bush, and he cheerfully greets a woman who is tending goats in a thicket, then we reach the river and by deep pools some children and women catch up with us and crowd around, touching us and laughing.  A packet of chewing gum sees them off.

Our warrior leads us up river to a pool where I have a refreshing dip, and then he leads us through the bush.  At one point he stands to attention and for the huge sum of ten shillings he allows us to photograph him.  We then find ourselves at his manyatta where all the women and children have been eagerly awaiting us.  Low huts of sticks, skins stretched on thorns, acacia trees and thorn thickets around. 

Wednesday, April 7th

First stop, South Horr, for bananas.  Lovely country and the weather is good.  We see game on the way, including two dainty Klipspringers on the rocks.  They seem almost lichen coloured.

The country unfolds in a plain, the endless cotton wool cloud sky rolls over it, distant blue mountains rise like waves over the horizon.  The plains are grassy savannah.  Little villages appear here and there, with herds of camel and goats in evidence.  These are Turkana people, I am told, which is to say they have camels…..

On our way we also see Zebra and Grant’s Gazelle, and Ostrich.  The bird life is interesting, and one good spot is a Rufous-crowned Roller, which perches by the road side long enough for us to study his deep blue flight feathers.

The landscape’s vastness is impressive.  At one point we drop a little to a flat billiard table plain.  At another place we look down into the Rift Valley, and then shortly before arriving at Maralal we take a side track to a viewpoint from which the rift valley drops at least 1,000 feet (a guess) almost sheer to savannah and acacia below.

The Maralal Safari Lodge is a slightly sullen collection of cabins, beautifully laid out in parkland.  The bar looks out onto a waterhole where zebra, impala and warthogs (grazing comically on their knees) congregate.  Running over these beasts like brightly clothed acrobats are Oxpeckers, or tickbirds, cleaning the hides.  A bird table just outside the dining room window is sparkling with Superb Starlings, Weaver Birds, Red Cheeked Cordonbleus (etc!)

In the evening we watch humans in the bar and buffalo at the water-hole.  Interestingly the zebra and impala disappear as fifty or so buffalo come ambling, army-like, slowly and methodically, through the trees at dusk.  Then, when each buffalo has drunk enough by turn, they retire and slowly the zebra return.

The people are in fact no less interesting, and Michael and I fantasise about a safari park where the animals all sit in the lodge, with gazelles as waiters, a gerenuk as barman, a couple of buffalo as doormen, zebras in safari suits and dark glasses sitting around sipping G & Ts through straws, while various different nationality tourists hang around the water-hole and a small table, examining each other for lice, or stretching out in the shade of the trees.

The tourists here are, apart from us, the wealthier type.  Some Italians dominate the scene with their smart African guests, the paterfamilias smoking in a safari suit, the beautiful girls, the young men uneasy but relatively self-assured…..  The French, the Swiss, the Germans and the curious Kenyan/British group (Mrs Bourgeoise with two children and ageing boyfriend) and the real Kenyans, whites and black, all make a colourful floor show….

Michael, Jim and I see the night out over port and beer by a flaming log fire, then ultimately a spear-bearing watchman escorts us to our cabin….

Thursday, April 8th

A hammering on the door brings me cursing to my senses at six am, in the dark.  A quick fumble into warm clothes and we’re off with the Bourgeoise’s (that really is what she signed in as) and the white Kenyan boy – escorted by a couple of locals and a shotgun -  in the Land Cruiser.

We reach a substantial, though cramped, stone hide, and whisper and tiptoe in as dawn is breaking.  To start with there’s nothing to see but vultures and an eagle, and a couple of crows, all taking turns to tear at the carcasses of two goats, tethered high in the trees.

Then there’s a sighting down on the rocks.  A female Leopard with a cub.  But I cannot see.  The hide is turned the wrong way.  Much waiting and studying of vultures and she’s seen again on the rocks.  This time I pick her out, through field glasses.  Seemingly green and elegant, a big, spotted pussy cat.  She stalks off.

Then the male appears.  We see him approach the foot of the baited tree, nose around a lot, then exit again.  Then he is back, and, without more ado, he springs up the tree to the goat in about three perfect bounds.  Poise and balance, power and grace.  We watch him do this twice, and then, famished ourselves, we creep away, hungry for goat…..

Later, we drive through savannah and then, near to Baringo, the country becomes much greener and we enter termite country.  The red earth is thrown up into cathedral spires at intervals where these highly organised creatures have settled.

There is a sense of civilisation creeping in as the trip nears its end.  It’s less of an adventure now, more a luxurious excursion as we pull into the Baringo Club.   Lots of cottages, a main block and a swimming pool by the lake side, all set in beautifully kept gardens.  It is expensive, the kind of place I would never go on my own, but through Dick Hedges we have a very good deal, so we go along with it.

We each have a cottage, with beds draped in mosquito nets.  In the afternoon we relax by the pool while a tropical storm blasts across the lake.  The bird life is glorious -  Bee Eaters abound – and it is very peaceful, and beautiful, with palms, bamboo, bougainvillea and frangipane decorating the garden. The lake is reed-fringed on this side and mountain lined on the other.

After our supper, a group of Moran (young Maasai) sing and dance as a full moon rises over the lake. Then, after drinks on the verandah we stroll to our cabins.  A grunting sound is heard, which turns out to be from Hippopotami in the reeds.  They are at the bottom of the garden, browsing in the grasses with the moonlight shining on their backs.  As we approach gingerly, with torches, there is a roaring and gurgling, crashing and splashing, as they retreat into the waters.

Friday, April 9th

For some reason I agreed to jog with Larry down to the village at 6.00 am, so tea is brought, and I emerge from my mosquito net into the most glorious sunrise over the lake.  Larry and I jog off down the road, Jambo!-ing and Habari!-ing everyone.  The local people are very entertained by this absurd Laurel and Hardy spectacle, though in fact it is quite enjoyable.

Larry’s legs do not quite match his stories of not being in trim because I haven’t done it for a week, but we make it to the village, and walk on the shore, then are driven back by the flies.  We break into a trot again by the village, so as to save face, and salute the cheering crowds around the shacks in regal style.

After a gross breakfast, we set out for Baragoi, fabled soda lake of the Flamingos.  On the way we see Crested Cranes, Secretary Birds, Hartebeest, Gazelle, Ostrich, Bustards and Oryx.  Then we descend to the Lake National Park, and drive along the rough track.  The sides of the valley are steep and it is hot.  The water appears green, and it is mainly these algae that attract the Flamingo, seen standing by the hundred at first, in the shallows.

Then we come to a place where the shore of the lake is flat and grassy and there are hot springs.  Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Flamingos wade here in the scum and steam.  It is an impressive sight, though it is interesting that these Flamingo are not very pink (which depends on the amount of carotene in their diet) and unfortunately we don’t see them all take flight together, which would have been awesome.

We move on, the length of the lake, then out of the park and eventually back onto decent road and down to Nakuru, where we see a town for the first time in a week, fill up with diesel, and take meat pies and beer in the Stag’s Head Hotel, which has definitely seen better days, as have the waiters’ uniforms.

From then on it is tarmac, some older and worse than the murram that we have travelled on hitherto.  Up out of the rift, into different country, then down to Nairobi where we deposit Larry and Sharon with fond farewells, and take Jim for a beer at the Thorn Tree.  It is raining slightly and is quite cool.  Eventually we return to Langata, where Christopher and Elizabeth seem pleased to see us, and it is all over…..

*     *     *     *     *

Looking back, I was lucky – or privileged if you prefer – and had a great time.  And if it all ends tomorrow, I can hardly claim I had a dull or featureless life!  In fact, one way of looking at it is that even if the past is another country, it wasn’t a bad one!  Fact is, one way or another, I can remember it.  Which is a privilege not everyone has…..

You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road

8 February 2017

Avalon Sunset - the shining levels

And did those feet?

“Let's go forward into this fight in the spirit of William Blake: I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall the sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land.”  The words of a committed cry for Brexit?  No way.....

In 1945 Clement Attlee encouraged the voters of the United Kingdom to choose him over Winston Churchill (who mentioned the Gestapo in connection with a potential Labour leadership) not from a blind adherence to little England, but with a passionate view of a welfare state that would flourish at peace with its neighbours. 

And William Blake, who speculated on the visit of Jesus of Nazareth with his great-uncle, tin-trader Joseph of Arimathea, to Cornwall and Somerset, would not have recognised the term Euro-sceptic (a bit of a Neo Romantic, our Bill)……

...Won't you meet me down by Avalon
In the summertime in England
In the Church of St. John...
Did you ever hear about Jesus walkin'
Jesus walkin' down by Avalon?

Van Morrison - Summertime in England

St Michael's, Glastonbury Tor

Naturally, sceptics will say that the legend of holy feet on the Somerset Levels was just a ploy by Michael Eavis to hype up the Glasto fest, but, hey, anything that gets Dolly Parton on the Pyramid Stage cannot be all wrong….  Post Truth or Alternative Facts?

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

Van Morrison’s 1989 album Avalon Sunset touched, perhaps obliquely, on the links between mysticism and human love, and took in elements of pastoral beauty and personal happiness that stir deep yearnings for peace and harmony.

There's a love that's divine
And it's yours and it's mine
And it shines like the sun
At the end of the day we will give thanks and pray to the One

Van Morrison - Have I told you lately that I love you

Marsh Harrier, hunting over RSPB Ham Wall

Van celebrated birdwatching (not a recurrent theme in popular music) which relates well to my motivation to visit the Avalon Marshes…..

Coming down from Downpatrick
Stopping off at St. John's Point
Out all day birdwatching
And the craic was good

Van Morrison - Coney Island

But it goes beyond.  The imagination does not have to be fed on psychobabble to see Arthur out with a pair of bins and a bottle of mead, Excalibur peacefully scabbarded by his side.  Whoever he was, the legends distort – were the bones discovered in Glastonbury those of him and his unfaithful wife, Guinevere, as well as his lover, Lyonors

Whoever Arthur was, Sword in the Stone or Morte d'Arthur or not, the imagination thrives on stories, and this is fertile ground.....

Black-tailed Godwits, with an escort of Lapwing

Love of the simple is all that I need
I've no time for schism or lovers of greed
Go up to the mountain, go up to the glen
When silence will touch you
And heartbreak will mend.

Van Morrison - I'm Tired Joey Boy

A flock of Wigeon above RSPB Greylake

The Somerset Levels are ancient lands, with human history reaching back 10,000 years….  That's approximately 8,000 years before those feet were even mangered.... 

Yes, for sure, flooding may be a terrific hardship for those who scrape their living from the inundated soils here, but this is not new…..

These are the days of the endless summer
These are the days, the time is now
There is no past, there's only future
There's only here, there's only now

Van Morrison - These Are The Days

I have been out on the Somerset Levels, stepping slowly across the gleaming wetlands, watching the flocks of nervous Wigeon, or restless Godwits.  I’ve ascended Burrow Mump

St Michael's, Burrow Mump

To watch over the shining meadows.  I’ve toiled up Glastonbury Tor, directed by Tiger Balm scented individuals with wispy scarves tied in their hair.  And I have paddled through the wetlands of RSPB Greylake, the Avalon Marshes and Ham Wall in search of birds, common and rare.

Fill my life with gladness
Ease my troubles that's what you do
Fill my life with gladness
Take away my sadness
Ease my troubles that's what you do

Van Morrison - Have I told you lately that I love you

A pair of Canada Geese

And, as the light faded, I have watched the spectacular flight of a million Starlings as they flock down to roost amongst the reeds, spiralling, convoluting and fluttering, but never missing a wingbeat in the beautiful diamond coordination of their molecular bondings.

Every day is different, and on this occasion there are no famous murmurations,  just thousands upon thousands of birds descending from the air to sleep in the comparative safety and companionship of numbers….

And then, in the last vestiges of winter dusk, I look back towards the fifteenth century tower on top of the ancient Tor, and glimpse, for a moment, the purity of the mythical past. 

These are the days by the sparkling river
And His timely grace and the treasured find
This is the love of the one great magician
Turned the water into wine

These are the days now that we must savour
And we must enjoy as we can
These are the days that will last forever
You've got to hold them in your heart.

Van Morrison - These Are The Days

And in the deepening gloom, the spirits of Attlee, and Blake, and Jesus, and Morrison (Van, not, with the greatest respect, Ken) blend into one great murmuration of spiritual uplift…..

And then it’s dark, and there is nothing but the wind among the reeds…..

Laugh, heart, again in the grey twilight,
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.

W B Yeats - Into the Twilight

Or, as another W B appended to his Jerusalem:

Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets

Numbers XI.ch 29.v