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.

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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…..

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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

1 comment:

  1. Clearly your haven't forgotten these experiences - nor would want to? Was the diary just an aide memoirs? Simon G