Echo Of Time Past ~ Hunter’s Lodge, Kiboko

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I’ve not done an Old Africa post of a while, and this photo is rather the worse for wear. But perhaps that is fitting in all sorts of ways.

I also thought I’d post an excerpt from our 1990’s travels in Kenya – an account written not long after my arrival in 1992. During the eight years we lived there, we had many sojourns at Hunter’s Lodge on the Nairobi – Mombasa highway. Graham was overseeing a research project at the nearby field station and had to make regular visits. The Lodge had been built by great white hunter, John Hunter, around the late ‘50s – early ‘60s – his retirement home after a long career of game control, grand safaris and general  rhino and elephant slaughter.  He saw no irony in choosing a spot that had once been his favourite place for watching elephant at a sunset waterhole on the Kiboko River. He dammed the stream to make an ornamental garden lake for his guests’ pleasure. And instead of elephant, the place attracted a marvellous array of birds. The soundtrack here, then, is endless weaver bird chatter in the papyrus, and the clatter of stork beaks up in the fever trees. Oh yes, and the nonstop whine of crickets…

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Monday 17th February, my two bags packed once more and Graham’s few belongings assembled, we set off for Kiboko. Although it was still early morning, the sun was already beginning to scorch my arm through the open car window; sweat trickled down my spine. But I was pleased to be on the move again; and Graham, who was watching me from the side-lines – to see how I would react to a new land, confined himself to saying that he hoped I would like the lodge where we would be staying for a few days.

I imagine I will, but at that moment it was not my main concern. I was excited at the prospect of my first safari. Too opulent a term for us perhaps, conjuring up an entourage of well-provisioned trucks each manned with a local African guide and tracker, bullish Europeans in khaki shorts, legs the colour of seasoned olive wood above long woollen socks, bush-hatted and safari-jacketed, a powerful rifle to hand to fend off attacks by a raging buffalo. But no, there was none of this; just a couple of bags and a few supplies for the field station in the boot of a modest Peugeot saloon. And anyway, in Swahili safari simply means journey, and so it was the journey itself that I was looking forward to, even if it only involved a few hours’ drive down the Nairobi-Mombasa highway.

We left the city by the same route I had come from the airport two days earlier. Now I could take it in with a more focused eye: the newspaper and magazine sellers out in force, and stepping between the traffic with all the ease of those who have taken up walking the plank for a living and survived to tell and retell the tale; the avenues of yellow blossomed acacias; the screens of puce pink bougainvillea; palm trees; throngs of citizens everywhere, waiting, milling, buying, selling, chatting, reading, walking; the welter of city centre multi-storey office blocks in as many styles, from oriental chic to Dallas smoked glass; the air heavy with dust and oily exhaust fumes and the smell of roasting maize cobs.

And as we head south out of Nairobi, through the flatlands of the industrial zone you feel that you could be leaving any city anywhere in the developed world. There is a Slumberworld bed centre, another for well-known names in bathroom and sanitary ware, a detergent factory, a Toyota showroom, a cut-price cash-and-carry warehouse, builders’ yards, air freight offices, the outposts of many a multi-national company, all neat brick buildings flying their corporate banners behind well-tended and irrigated flower beds.

At this point, you can only just glimpse the plains beyond. It is easy to think you are on familiar territory: the industrial estate, a modern major thoroughfare with white lines, UK road signs, traffic police operating speed traps, Esso service stations, driving on the left. The British-born may believe too quickly that they know all the rules, the received codes of behaviour that pertain here. After all, it did used to be “ours”; you would expect some sense of familiarity.

Or would you? The British of old empire days were not overly concerned about establishing decent infrastructure in the countries they colonized (“standards” maybe) beyond building railways to ferry their administrators and export their hard-won commodities, or erecting imposing edifices that represented the institutions of law and taxation used to control indigenous peoples, who though in their own land, found that it was no longer theirs. And so, having built the Uganda Railway across Kenya Colony, the British seem to have fallen short when it came to road building. For much of their sixty-year stay, the road between Nairobi and Mombasa port was three hundred miles of gut-twisting dirt corrugations that, if you were lucky, took a day and more to traverse. It was only on the last lap of occupation in the 1960s that the tarmac was laid, reducing journey time to a mere seven or eight hours.

And so quite quickly I see that we should not set too much store by apparent similarities, and the seeming familiar artefacts. The things that we British recognise now in Kenya are not necessarily the issue of what we left behind. Or, if there are remnants of our abandoned institutions, then it does not follow that they have exactly the same meaning or function for modern Kenyans. Therefore, lest they lead us astray or cause us to make wrong assumptions, we should ignore their supposed messages altogether; think of them as laying a false trail, for this is Africa and, as the locals would often tell us, anything can happen here.

It soon becomes apparent, too, that when the highway itself was being built, every effort was made to ensure that the ‘surface’ went as far as possible. There is only a thin skin, a makeshift causeway to hold the bush at bay. And while some stretches have been recently upgraded, for the most part it is rag-edged and pot-holed and, south of Nairobi, gives way altogether to a several mile detour on dirt road.

And even though it is not a busy road by European standards, it is one of Africa’s major transport routes, the main users being massively laden freight lorries hauling their own weight and the same again in trailers hitched on behind. Bales of iron rods from the Mombasa rolling mills; crates of Tusker beer; petrol in rusty tankers as battered and misshapen as badly squeezed toothpaste tubes; cargoes of maize; transporters filled with new white Japanese cars. That their drivers think they will ever make it to Uganda far to the north, or to Zambia way down south through Tanzania, or even to the next market pull-off twenty miles away often seems to be an act of supreme faith. Many of course do not survive the test, but are pulled off the road, the cabs bowed to the ground like broken-winded beasts, their drivers sprawled out asleep between the wheels to avoid the sun’s glare while waiting for rescue or inspiration.

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Much of the first hour out of Nairobi was thus spent leap-frogging trucks, and it should be said that African lorry drivers are very courteous, using their right indicator if it is not safe for you to overtake, the left when it is. Once past, I would watch them in the wing mirror, grinding along slowly in our wake, their exhausts billowing out evil-smelling clouds that lingered in black fog banks for many yards behind. But we were out in open country now, to the west the pale grasslands of the Athi Plains extending and merging into the distant blue horizon, to the east and south the land falling away into thorn scrub valleys, undulating hills and blazing outcrops of red igneous rock.

There were problems of perception here as well. The landscapes which the road bisects are on too vast a scale to fit a single frame; to absorb. Always too much foreground, so that the mind switches off and dismisses the whole as featureless bush: thorn scrub followed by thorn scrub, stretching as far as the eye can see, across plains that are scarcely interrupted by the scatter of old volcanic peaks – which would be impressive, if only you could find some sense of proportion.

That is one perspective. Another might be to take heart at the sight of so much space, to acknowledge the inherent grandeur of mile after mile of untamed, uncultivated, unbuilt-on land that yields only sporadic evidence of human activity beyond the margins of the road. Yet a third might be to wonder at the apparent absurdity of driving down a main road along with Mercedes, Land Cruisers and BMWs and seeing ostriches loping away beneath the spans of power lines beside the highway, or to pass by a large farm field fenced off against the bush, and to realize that in amongst the well-contained herd of grazing domestic cattle are also Thompson’s Gazelle and hartebeest.

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Nearly three hours out of Nairobi and we are bowling across the lowland plains, through the large dusty market settlements of Sultan Hamud and Emali. It is much hotter down here and the tarmac, straight and undulating before us, at one moment fragments into a heat haze and in the next, reforms, only to fragment again with each successive horizon. The bush now presses in against the bare dirt verges; it seethes with insect call; a callous thrust of sharp-tempered thorns. Yet not wholly impenetrable for this is Maasai country and, through occasional breaches in the bush, I could see baked terracotta drovers’ trails, worn and smoothed, season to season, by hoof and heel. We begin to see Maasai herders at the roadside too, men draped in their distinctive tartan shuka shawls. Always red.

Lads hare past on bicycles, the shawls now red capes caught up in the breeze and their cattle prods poised in hand as if heart-fired charioteers on the charge. And then there are the women, striding out along the track, tall and self-possessed; handsome heads shaved and dressed with strings of small coloured beads whose blues and greens mean God, and heaven and peace.

But as for us, we were by now hot and wet and dusty; our clothes welded to our backs. As we passed beneath an arch of tall fever trees, the first shade on the road in a hundred miles, we realized the urgent need for coolness; to stop being bounced and shaken and broiled. Only a little further. It was the next stand of fever trees that was to become our landmark over succeeding months. Here the Akamba woodcarvers have their stalls; here is a large petrol station with a cafe that sells bottles of chilled mineral water (the percolated snows of Kilimanjaro, or so the label suggests). This is Kiboko. And this is where we turn off the road for Hunter’s Lodge.

 

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A misty, mysterious Kilimanjaro pushes through the clouds. Its appearances are usually fleeting, caught here from the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, where the road descends to the lowland plains of Ukambani.

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The pool at Hunter’s Lodge – a bird-watcher’s paradise; or just plain paradise. I spent hours just watching.

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It became a ritual. So you might call afternoon tea on the bar terrace a libation. We were usually accompanied by the resident peacock who liked to steal the sugar if he got the chance. The tea tasted sulphurous from the local volcanic spring water, and the milk needed sieving because it was delivered daily by the Maasai, and the hotel staff subjected it to heavy boiling before serving. Even so, we always looked forward to it – the interlude before twilight and the firefly fly-past over the pool, and the prelude to supper and a chilled Tusker beer.

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Paula at Thursday’s Special prompted this post with her December ‘pick a word’. So here we have aquatic echoes, an amiable Graham with chai libation, and a misty mountain protrusion. Cheers, Paula! Please visit her for further sources of inspiration.

48 thoughts on “Echo Of Time Past ~ Hunter’s Lodge, Kiboko

  1. What a compelling fascinating story. It made me long to go back to Africa. I was there in 1980 travelling overland for four months from Johannesburg to London, so only passing through really, and yet it remains indelibly imprinted in my memories as one of the most extraordinary times of my youth. You brought it alive again, but in a more detailed way than could have ever possibly experienced. Wonderful. Thank you.
    Alison

  2. What a wonderful experience. The local beer in Vanuatu was also Tusker – I wonder whether someone from Kenya came and set it up. I could feel from your description how cooling Hunter’s Lodge must have been after the heat of the road. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Praise indeed, Ian – you old Africa hand, you. There were definitely times, as you know very well, when extra company is most welcome. I think that road is carved in my brain. A bit overgrown now though. There was talk of it becoming a dual carriageway. Not sure what’s happened about that.

  3. Wonderful post, Tish….I have never been to Africa, but I believe your words have captured a sense of place, I could ‘see’ in my mind’s eye the endless landscape, the bush, the makeshift road, those lumbering trucks

  4. What a writer you are! What a journey I just took along the highway to the lodge. The depth of your thought about and knowledge of this new place is inspiring. You people the road so specifically, and also document your response to the heat. Was that a direct transcript from your journal? Makes my travel journals look like a shopping list. And then of course there’s the evocative power of exotic words: fever trees, weaver birds, papyrus. The photos are wonderful too. You make a miracle of a challenge. I never realise what you’re up to till the appendix. Strange reading this looking out on a white lcityscape.

    1. Hello Meg. I’m almost sure this particular piece documenting arrival was mostly written a few months afterwards when we had been posted to Zambia. I didn’t have much to do there except think and host intestinal parasites. So a lot of post-processing, and re-running the Mombasa Road Movie in my head.

  5. Totally beguiling, Tish. I was mesmerised. Astounded at the amount of activity in the bush where I expected nothing but… bush! The young charioteers. This country captured you heart and soul, didn’t it? The results are thrilling. 🙂

    1. You’ve seen right through me, Jo. I have been ensnared ever since. I do appreciate your thoughtful words, and am most proud to be found ‘thrilling’ writing-wise. You’ve spurred me on: way-haaaaay. Thank you.

      1. Most of the times we stayed there over the years there was rarely anyone else but us. The Lodge and staff seemed to have lives of their own, and a daily routine that hardly seemed to include guests. The waiters were always immaculately turned out in white shirts and bow ties, except for one who had problems with his feet and wore tartan slippers with his ensemble. In the morning the Maasai mamas would arrive at the back door with the milk delivery. And then out of the blue you would find another guest had arrived – an Israeli water engineer or an English tsetse fly expert, and one time the Intermediate Technology NGO out of Nairobi held a seminar there. That raised numbers to about 20. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere so extraordinarily beguiling.

  6. Well, if my post fails to inspire, this one will not! You said the photo is worse for tear, but it is a splendid photo that seems to belong to an old book about Africa. I wonder how one can find another inspiration after leaving this enchanting place.

    1. You have put your finger on it, Paula. Leaving was indeed hard, but then the place is still simmering away in some fiction I’m slowly concocting. You’ve reminded me it’s time I returned to it. It won’t write itself. Thank you 🙂

  7. Really curious to know what sulphurous tea ☕️ tastes like – but I do know sulphur has many perks for physical ailments – so maybe even if the taste was not the best – it could have had other perks at the cellular level – and that is likely thinking way too much ( and I wondered how nutrient dense the milk was being placed fresh like that too, but then if they boiled….)
    Ok – last comment about the tea is that photo – I enjoyed all of the scenery in each photo – but the cup and stainless steel (?) pots and blue really matched the mood you wrote about.
    Great take on the pick a word…..

    1. Yes sulphur may well have lots of valuable uses, Yvette, but the tea did not taste too good overall. Come to think of it, it was smoky too, because the Maasai clean out their containers with ashes. Also probably good for one – a bit of charcoal thrown in 🙂

      1. I’m sure they did, Yvette, but I didn’t know about those v.useful kinds of things back then. Had a lot of Big Pharma inputs while overseas – before I started realizing they weren’t quite all they were cracked up to be 🙂

  8. You bring the journey alive with your descriptive prose. I was with you in the back of that Peugeot, feeling very travel sick as we bumped along in the sticky heat. I was very happy to reach the lodge and have a tusker beer, though in reality I have never tasted one. One thing I missed immensely on arriving back to live in England were those night noises – the crickets especially. And the heavy warm air like a cloak around your shoulders. Africa never leaves you does it?

  9. “the shawls now red capes caught up in the breeze and their cattle prods poised in hand as if heart-fired charioteers on the charge”

    Pick up that pen and put it in print Tish! – the colours of the photos are an evocative match to your spellbinding writing – so many sights and sounds – a nosegay of nostalgia

  10. What an amazing post! I love this blast from the past, your writing is so vivid I feel like I’m there. You are so lucky to have made these notes/journal entries when you were there – it must be such a pleasure to look back on.

    1. Thank you for this very nice comment. And you are right. I’m so glad I kept a journal, which I’m not usually very good at doing. You always think you’ll remember, but you don’t.

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