Once When We Were In Africa At The Foot Of The Ngong Hills…

In December 1993 we returned to Kenya after nearly a year spent in Lusaka, Zambia (Graham had been overseeing the distribution of European Union food aid during a period of extreme drought in southern Africa). For much of the preceding year he had been in Kenya working with a team controlling Larger Grain Borer, a crop pest introduced to Africa in consignments of U.S. food aid. (Short-term emergency assistance can too often lead to unintended long-term chronic consequences). The reason for returning to Kenya was to wind down the LGB project. Predator beetles had been bred and released in affected areas; it was time to let them do their work and leave Kenyan scientists to monitor progress. We were thus not expecting to be in Kenya long, but somehow that ‘not long’ stretched to January 2000. For some of those years I kept a journal. Here is the first entry:

Sunday 19 December 1993

Our first trip out to the Nairobi National Park since our arrival back in Kenya. We had thought of it often while we were away. Of stately giraffes. Yellowing plains beneath the hazy blue of the Ngong Hills (the four peaks  said to be the knuckles of a giant’s clenched  fist). Groves of fever trees along the Athi River.

Now we have returned well prepared with map, camera, binoculars and a picnic. But as we pull into the main entrance on Langata Road we see that there have been changes since our last visit: the stand of  tall eucalyptus trees that lined the approach have been felled, and their ground carved up, exposing the red raw earth of a building site. It looks as if a new wildlife service administration block is nearing completion. We had heard about Richard Leakey’s large loans from the World Bank: this must be one of the newly funded enterprises. But at the entry gate little has changed ; there are still negotiations over the size of the Land Rover and its appropriate tariff and much accompanying paperwork. It is worth it though. As residents, a day’s pass costs us a mere two pounds thirty pence.

Once through the main gate we drive slowly through open woodland and dense shrubby undergrowth. Judder over the sleeping policemen meant to slow you down because it is quite likely that a giraffe will step into the roadway here. Even on to the asphalt. And the presence of a tarmacked road in a game park always takes me by surprise. But in this instance it was probably laid for the benefit of dignitaries going to the famous ivory burning ceremony in 1989. It took place just a kilometre or so within the park, a big show involving President Daniel arap Moi setting light to the retrieved tusks of nearly 2,000 poached elephants, an act intended to demonstrate Kenya’s commitment to conservation. There is a monument to mark the event and a picnic site where you may get out of your car and  feel the grasslands wind on your face. The Athi Plains stretch out below.

But it is not a wilderness view by any means; perhaps even challenges the sincerity of the grandiose ivory burning gesture. To the north, where a hundred years before there were only empty plains, city high-rises glint in the sun. Directly behind the wire fencing of park boundary there are more recent developments: grey-stone apartment blocks whose half-built elevations have all the charm of a post-war bomb site. Then as we turn towards the plains a large passenger jet takes off from nearby Jomo Kenyatta airport and soars into the blue above us. It seems an unlikely spot for game watching.

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But just as we are turning on to the dirt road, a blue Land Cruiser approaches and pulls up beside us. The driver is English. His accompanying family look red-faced and querulous. He, though, is excited.  “There’s a lion back there guarding its kill. Just follow the track. There’s a group of four trees. He’s under the one nearest the road.” He pauses. A wrinkle of doubt. He has clearly had a hard morning with cross children. “If you’re interested?” He adds, half query, half-throwaway remark.

We are. We drive off – full of hope. Will the lion still be there?

We drive slowly, scouring a landscape dotted with low bushes, hoping the four stunted thorns will make themselves obvious in this terrain of few landmarks. They do. A stone’s throw from the track lie the remains of a large antelope. But there is no sign of the lion. Any other time we would have driven on, but being forewarned we pause for a better look.

The antelope is lying in the shadow of the little tree. We scan the scene with binoculars. Nothing. But just then a mighty tail flicks up above the grass. Graham turns off the car engine, and in the next moment up comes a mighty head to go with the tail. He fixes us. Yellow eyes. Yellow mane. Then his head flops back into the grass and once more he is invisible. We wait and decide to eat our sandwiches – pastrami and horseradish. Perhaps the lion catches a scent of them for suddenly he is on his feet. He is massive. He is staring at us. He is heading our way. A frisson of fear, despite the sheltering Land Rover. But no. He has merely risen for a stretch. Then he returns to his tree and sits down with his back to us,  a posture that reminds me of the yellow labrador I once owned. The similarity is, of course, misleading. Then down he flops. An occasional tail twitch, a momentary fix of an eye, a large yellow lion stretched out in a clump of bright yellow daisies. We leave him in peace and drive on.

And it is hard to register such sightings. Are they real? Here we are out on a Sunday morning drive. We have just picked up the newspapers from the street vendor, driven past crowds of citizens on their way to church, are barely beyond the city limits. We are not at the zoo, nor in a contained English safari park. The animals that browse and hunt here are wild; they come of their own accord. For although the boundaries with the city are well fenced, there is still an open corridor to the south-west which allows the game access to and from the Maasai Mara. And as we push on along the dirt road we see Maasai giraffes with their lacy butterfly markings, strung out along a low gully, peacefully browsing the short-rains greenery of the acacias. And behind them, towering on the skyline, the garish blue and red construction of the Carnivore restaurant’s water splash.


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It puts you in a quandary. Part of you yearns to recreate the illusion of out-of-town wilderness,. Perhaps a planting of quick growing gum trees to screen the areas of urban spread. But then, despite their commonplaceness here, eucalyptus are not natives, and they might just suck the plains dry of their precious moisture. Some indigenous forest trees then. But they would take longer to establish. Would have to be fenced off from the foraging herbivores until they reached maturity. And anyway, how could you possibly blot out the airport and the cement works?

Leave it as it is then; an ungainly halfway house between the natural world and city living. As outsiders we would rather see the plains teeming with wildlife and no ugly signs of human enterprise and industrial development. But it is too late for that. And besides, who are we to complain? Our empire-building forebears had their chance to manage well and wisely this land of plenty. And for the most part they ignored both the needs of its wildlife and, more particularly, the needs of its indigenous peoples.

So no, we have no room to criticise.

All we can do today is be grateful that we can drive out to the Athi Plains in our car and see a lion, or watch the quiet grazing of wildebeest, gazelle, eland, kongoni, zebra and know too that there is always a chance that we may just spot a family of cheetahs out hunting, or come upon a reclusive rhinoceros browsing quietly. But that within an hour we can be back inside the well-tamed confines of our suburban Nairobi garden, drinking a cup of tea. But perhaps it seems too convenient, too small a challenge; almost as “easy” as the early white settlers had it, when they looked out of the newly installed drawing room windows to find a pride of lions stretched out on the veranda.

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell


36 thoughts on “Once When We Were In Africa At The Foot Of The Ngong Hills…

    1. That’s a big question. Certainly the developed nations have done, and are doing a lot of mucking about in other people’s countries. It’s mostly self-serving tinkering too.

    1. Many thanks, Ian. Doubt if you have the time to see what’s been going on there today – Raila Odinga has had a public swearing in as the Alternative President. Huge crowds in Uhuru Park. Huge anti-personnel tank jobs parked along the streets – I seem to remember they were a gift from the Brits some time in the late ’90s, along with special crowd control training also courtesy of our police force.

  1. Sigh… beautiful writing Tish. I am so glad you kept a diary of those times, I felt as though I was alongside you in the Land-rover. It must have been incredible living in Nairobi then. Though perhaps not so much now.

    1. Thanks very much, Jude. I think things have changed a great deal since we were there – the advent of digital technology for one thing. The Moi years were a bit scary – looking back.

    1. I think the problem arises when a donor nation requisitions supplies from another nation before dispatching it to where it is needed. Larger Grain Borers are also very sneaky and small and so it’s difficult to spot them when they’ve bored into a maize cob.

    1. It’s fascinating stuff, and I think Kenya’s palaeontology team is still going strong and making discoveries. Leakey’s wife Maeve was in charge of things when we were in Kenya.

  2. Wonderful writing. Wonderful images. Wonderful reflections. And what a wonderful experience. I especially like the sense you create of a normal Sunday morning erupting into something extraordinary. I’m curious too. Was your journal this polished at the time? Or polished later? And why did you not keep a journal for some of those years?

    1. Thank you, Meg, for all those glowing words. I have done a quick tidy to shorten sentences here and there, but otherwise this is much as I wrote it. I’m annoyed I didn’t keep a diary when I first arrived in Kenya, but I did write lots of letters which both my aunts kept, bless them. I’m not sure why I stopped the journal either, but it possibly coincided with getting my first Africa children’s books published, and I was writing more fiction. Graham is currently trying to sort out the letters – both hard copies and later computer files. I also started going through the colonial agriculture officers’ reports, which they had at the Kenya Agri Research Institute where Graham worked. A real eye-opener into all manner of things, but it took time. I still have some of the notes. Too much paper all round!

  3. I really appreciate your thoughtful musings, Tish. Things are so seldom black or white, good or evil, and there are all too often unintended and harmful consequences of many things do “for good.” Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be helpful, but thoughtful and helpful is even better. 🙂 I love being able to visit Africa with you through your writings and photos. It’s such a joy.


  4. I am breathless reading of your experience. I have no words. My heart is full of how incredible it must have been – even more so because of the closeness to the city. To go out and see that! The only equivalent I can think of is the mobs of kangaroos and wide variety of parrots that inhabit the bushland in and around Canberra, and a little further away emus and brolgas. But it’s not the same, perhaps because I grew up in Australia so a little of the exoticness had worn off.

    1. I’m so happy you enjoyed this, Alison. Even after all these years I am perhaps still trying to process our Africa sojourn. I’m still thinking through the issues it raised in my head (and heart) for one thing. I hadn’t realised you were Australia-raised. That’s a very important point you make though, about not really ‘seeing’ the wonder of the familiar, or things in your own ‘back yard’.

  5. So beautiful, Tish! You miss it still? As you point out, time won’t have stood still, but weren’t they wonderful experiences to have in your diary? 🙂 🙂

    1. That’s an interesting question, Jo. I’m not sure I miss it exactly. At least not now. For a long time I felt I’d left my soul behind, but even when we were there I was a bit dubious about the expat influences including our own. Nairobi was and probably still is the world centre for every aid agency you can think of, and aid is not delivered without strings attached, often very big and corrosive strings.

  6. Oh, so beautifully written, Tish!! ❤ Brought me right back to this unlikely place to experience the wild! We might well have been at the park almost at the same time…if I remember correctly we visited sometime towards the end of 1993. When I was in Nairobi last time for work in 2016, I did a 4 hour drive there my last day right before going to the airport. Needless to say it was the highlight of my visit. I almost didn't want to wash away the red dust from my face at the airport 🙂

    1. I’m so glad you got a chance to go again in 2016 and that it still gave you a thrill. It is an amazing resource. I don’t know how many locals get to visit these days. They were always very limited by a lack of a vehicle in our time there.

      1. I think that still is the case, but to somewhat lesser degree. I saw quite a few locals, including lots of school kids, there in 2016.

  7. My imagination ran riot as I followed along with you Tish. Such descriptive writing. And thoughtful comments of how civilisation is taking over. Thank goodness for the foresight of past conservationists to save the game parks. Have you been back in recent years to see what it is like now?

    1. Many thanks for the kind words, Pauline 🙂 No, I’ve not been back. Nairobi Park is perhaps the one under most threat of change due its small size compared to the huge reserves, and of course its proximity to the city. There are plans to run a new railway line through it for one thing. The biggest problem is keeping the southern corridor open as smallholder farming spreads. Actually the colonial authorities in Kenya and in the UK were fairly resistant to setting up the parks – and only did so after 50 years of killing hundreds and thousands of game animals in their personal shooting ground – trophy safaris, massive game removal on settler land, ivory poaching by officials who wrote their own game licences, 2 world wars wherein the game was killed for sport and to feed troops. Nairobi was the first park, opened in 1946 after much lobbying by a few people. The colonial office back in London had wanted it as a reserve for trophy shooting. Another interesting fact according to Richard Leakey and David Western when they were heads of Kenya Wildlife Service, is that there is more game outside the parks than in them, and I guess that is still the case. So it’s all very complicated – the human-wildlife interface.

    1. The reserves in Kenya are absolutely huge, not only the national ones, but also smaller ones on private ranches. The Maasai also manage group reserves bordering the national Maasai Mara reserve so extending wildlife corridors. Perhaps the biggest threat to wildlife now apart from ivory poaching (which is serious) is climate change.

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