The road from the Range Station to Kiboko
I can pretty much bank on it. Once you have been in Africa you will never be the same. Nowhere else will you feel so alive, or so in love, or so entranced or indeed, afraid. In the physical sense, your blood and guts may well bear traces of the diseases and parasites you encounter there for years to come. Certainly the psyche will be forever afflicted by acute withdrawal symptoms, the loss of sensation, the no-longer-state of being always in the present – the only way to live back there.
In elemental ways too, standing, for instance, in East Africa’s Rift Valley, you could well find yourself confronting your genetic heritage for the very first time: the dazzling revelation that this is the land where your ancestors stood up on their apes’ hind legs and marched onwards to the age of technological development that we like to call civilization. It is the moment that you understand that you and this landmass are intimately connected through every pore, cell and bone.
And the reason I can say this, daring such unbridled presumption, is because it happened to me, and to G, and to all who know us and visited us there. Africa gets under your skin and, to quote a dear old friend “up your nose and into your soul.”
Kilimanjaro caught from the Mombasa highway just south of Kiboko
For me the journey into Africa began, with auspicious timing, on the 14th February 1992. This was the day I ran away – to Kenya to be precise, leaving home, possessions, accountant spouse and several labradors in order to travel with a roving entomologist who had no home, no possessions – neither in Africa nor in England. He had recently been in Mexico researching the habits of the Larger Grain Borer (LGB), a small maize-eating beetle that ravages stored crops. Before this he had worked for two years in Tabora, Tanzania, as a volunteer Agricultural Extension worker, also advising farmers about LGB. (See earlier post On Kenya’s Farms)
In the 1980s this pest had arrived in Africa (where it has no known natural predators), introduced on consignments of food aid from the Americas. In 1992, then, G was on a new LGB mission: to monitor the beetle’s spread from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast to Nairobi in the Kenya’s central highlands. For the next nine months we would lead a nomadic life, travelling up and down the Mombasa highway, which back then was little more than a ribbon of ragged tarmac running through the bush.
The road was fraught with dangers – from gargantuan potholes to car-jackers lurking in the thorn scrub. There were also successions of stranded trucks left where you least expected them, and the possibility of some belligerent buffalo insisting on a standoff in the middle of the highway; and then there were policemen flagging us down for lifts, or to give us speeding tickets when we had not been speeding.
Hunter’s Lodge, Kiboko
During these nine months we stayed in roadside hotels, safari lodges, beach cottages, a Danish development workers’ guesthouse, and, best of all, at Hunter’s Lodge where we were usually to be found for three or four days each week. This one-time home and small hotel was begun by Great White Hunter, John Hunter, at a small place called Kiboko, some hundred miles south of Nairobi. The place had once been a regular resort for expatriates taking a weekend break from the capital, or a convenient overnight stop en route for Mombasa beach. This was in the days when the road was still an un-metalled cart track, and it took all day to get there (needless to say, covered head to toe in red plains’ dust). The coast was a further 200 mile-drive, including the long stretch of desolate Taru thorn scrub south of Voi.
Kiboko, then, was in every way an oasis. John Hunter had long had his eye on the location before he moved there in his retirement in 1958. He had arrived in British East Africa in 1908 in the wake of the first European settlers, and made a career of clearing unwanted game: first lions from the Uganda railway that ran nearby and later, on behalf of the colonial game department, elephant from settler farms, and marauding hyena from the African native reserves.
He also ran private safaris for counts and maharajas, and therefore rubbed shoulders with the likes of Karen Blixen’s white hunter husband, Bror Blixen, and her lover, Denys Finch Hatton (Out of Africa). In his time, Hunter was personally responsible for despatching over 1,400 elephants, and nearly as many rhinoceros. Local myth had it that Hunter gave up repairing the hotel sign which a vengeful rhino was intent on flattening. Besides, in those days, everyone who was anyone knew where Hunter’s Lodge was.
Afternoon tea with the sugar-stealing peacock
The reason Hunter chose Kiboko to settle was because it had fresh water: a volcanic spring, and the only one for miles around. In the old days he had often watched elephant coming there at sundown to drink. He, however, set about damming the stream to make a small lake, this surrounded by a grove of graceful fever trees and wild figs. Given the general aridity of the surrounding bush country, it truly is a beautiful place, a resort not only for human travellers, but for some three hundred species of bird. When we were there, there was also talk that a leopard haunted the upper reaches of the pool, but we never saw it: only baboons and vervet monkeys, a bushbaby and a monitor lizard.
The bridge to the vegetable shamba
And the reason that we often stayed there was because the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute had a small research station and laboratory just behind the lodge. On starting his job, Graham was gravely entrusted with a key to the back garden gate, so that at 7.30 am he could walk to work, and then walk back again for lunch at noon. The lab employed a dozen technicians, all working on the LGB project.
Kiboko lab and staff
In 1992 Hunter’s Lodge rarely had many overnight guests. Sometimes G’s boss would be stay; sometimes a travelling salesman; sometimes an aid worker or two. Once, an Intermediate Technology N.G.O held a two-day seminar there. Once, a large group of Nairobi Asians came for a weekend party. The main trade, however, comprised passing travellers who dropped in throughout the day for snacks and drinks. These were served by smart bow-tied waiters on the bar terrace where you would be stalked by a bedraggled peacock, which sorely depressed since its mate had been swallowed by a python, sought pleasure in raiding the sugar bowl whenever it had the chance. It was a sad old bird.
The menu was limited: cheese sandwiches, steak and chips and omelettes. But the cook did prepare an amazing fresh lemon juice made from the lodge garden’s own lemons. It was sour enough to curl your teeth, but extraordinarily sweet too. We also soon took to carrying a plastic tea strainer around with us – to sieve the skin out of the milk, both from the breakfast wheatie flakes, and before we poured it into our tea.
The milk was brought daily by Maasai women and their donkies, and boiled within an inch of its life. Even so, it still tasted of the ash-scrubbed gourds that it was delivered in. This milk, coupled with the sulphurous water from the spring, made afternoon tea a daily strange experience. Only the lack of other things to do when G came home from work at five o’clock made us persist with it. Going for tea on the terrace was, after all, an outing – a different experience from the lunch and supper outing to exactly the same spot, or to the breakfast outing which was to the lodge dining room with its strange ogival doorways.
Looking toward the Lodge dining room
The best pursuit of the day, so long as there had been a calor gas delivery, was at sundown to resort to the shower in our room. The shower fittings went under the manufacturer’s name of Steamy Steamy. After a dusty drive up or down the Mombasa highway, a good Steamy Steamy was the only thing we could think of.
Then by seven when it was quite dark, and we were duly steamed and dressed, the next treat would be to sit on our veranda and wait for the firefly display up and down the garden lake. This was followed by a trip to the bar and a couple of Tusker beers. If John, the young Maasai barman, was on duty, then we were in for some good conversation. He had opinions on everything. The local Akamba waiters would stand about and gaze at him in awe, whether he was talking to us or to them. He told us he owned 150 cattle, and had two wives. He had not wanted to marry a second time, he explained, but his parents had urged him because his mother had kidney disease and needed more household help. He had accepted the situation philosophically.
Once, John offered to take me on the back of his bicycle into the bush to his family’s ‘enkang and to see a female circumcision ceremony. I wished I’d had the guts to accept. He told me his home was only two hours away, as if I would manage the ride over bush tracks quite easily, me who had never ever balanced myself on a bicycle parcel rack.
Caught red-handed, a vervet raider eating our bananas
While G was at work, I wrote letters and read. But mostly I watched. I soon realized that the Lodge was run, not for guests, but for the benefit of its staff. Their daily routine of cleaning and tending went on whether or not there were any guests. The garden staff wore brown overalls. They mowed the lawn, and worked in the vegetable shamba across the lake. Around ten in the morning a bell rang and everyone disappeared for a tea-break. The manager wore a smart khaki Kaunda suit, and marched hither and thither, but to no apparent purpose.
Then there was Joyce, the chambermaid. Her husband worked down at Kibwezi and was a forestry officer. She lived with her two little boys in the staff bandas at the bottom of the garden. On her days off she went home to the family farm. She told me that I should learn Ki-Swahili since it was very easy. I agreed, but only learned a smattering. The hello, how are you: jambo, habari yako?
Between the gentle staff activity, there was only the wildlife to observe, vervet monkeys planning raids on our room, pied kingfishers diving, yellow weavers endlessly weaving, herons clattering their bills in the thorn tree heronry, marabou storks lurking like spectres on the lawn, hadada ibis winking out grubs with their curvy bills. And over all, the high-tension whine of crickets that could drive you mad when you were not feeling well.
One of the features of Kiboko, I soon discovered, was the wood carvers’ stalls opposite the Lodge. Sometimes I took my clothes down to Esther who ran such a stall, and traded them for Akamba carvings. She struck a hard deal, and I was a simpleton when it came to haggling. G was nonetheless impressed since it lightened the contents of my two bags.
Esther at her stall with son, Tom
And so it was that Hunter’s Lodge became a home of sorts. Whichever way we approached it on the Mombasa highway, my eyes would fix on the green grove of fever trees, and my spirits would lift as we turned off the road. There was Steamy Steamy to look forward to, the smoky taste of the tea, Reuben the breakfast waiter who always asked us if we were having eggs though we never did. Only later did we discover that we had paid for a full breakfast in with our room rate. There was the birdlife to watch, and the sleepy routine of the hotel staff to keep tabs on; there were the steaks that our weak teeth found impossible to process, the fireflies and the vervets, and there were the brief African sunsets as the light turned through lavender and orange to black, black night. There was irony too, for it was of course the metalled road that turned Hunter’s Lodge from oasis to backwater, making the coast accessible in a single day: an unintended consequence of progress.
I remember the long nights I lay awake, listening to the whine of insects, the drone of trucks on the Mombasa highway, the hoot of the train on Uganda railway. We are in Africa, I would tell myself. And even when I was there, so very much present in every sense, it still seemed like a dream. Perhaps this land was the original Garden of Eden. When we left it, we took our self-regarding selves to material greatness. Maybe the price for this knowledge was the loss of wisdom. Even now, so many years on, I still travel the road to Kiboko, at least in spirit, and ponder this conundrum. The great safari continues…
Letter from Kathleen Collins Howell, illustrator and best friend
© 2013 Tish Farrell