Photos From The Old Africa Album

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After I had posted the Kenya diary excerpt yesterday (see previous post), I found I could do passable scans from one of our old albums. So here are the photos of ‘A Day At The Nairobi Races’  – two 6WordSaturday titles for one then.

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Members of the Police Anti-Stock Theft Unit from Kenya’s Northern District – completing the race that never was.

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The real racing begins which reminds of an even more historical account of the Nairobi races.

In 1931 Evelyn Waugh arrived in Kenya during Race Week which was by then a colonial institution. I gather it took place between Christmas and New Year when the smart-set settlers left their upcountry farms and headed for town. Every night was party night at the Muthaiga Club. Here are some excerpts from Waugh’s day out at the races from Remote People:

I found myself involved in a luncheon party. We went on together to the Races. Someone gave me a cardboard disc to wear in my button-hole; someone else, called Raymond, introduced me to a bookie and told me which horses to back. None of them won…

Someone took me to a marquee where we drank champagne. When I wanted to pay for a round the barman gave me a little piece of paper to sign and a cigar.

We went back to Muthaiga and drank champagne out of a silver cup which someone had won.

Someone said, ‘You mustn’t think Kenya is always like this.’

And some sixty years on to 1994 when these photos were taken…

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The Steward’s Enclosure. The colours of the day were red and white, and the lady in the red and white hat won ‘best outfit’.

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The Chief Steward

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But when it comes to the old colonial residue, one key thing has  obviously changed. In 1963 Kenya won independence from Britain. But here’s the catch. As colonial private interest dwindled, so came the invasion of the multi-nationals. The American corporation Del Monte was one of the first. They took over Kenya Canners and the Thika pineapple plant. Another big investor was the Anglo-African giant Lonrho, here sponsoring the races.  This entity started out in 1909 as the London and Rhodesian Mining Company. During the ‘60s Lonrho bought up British firms throughout Kenya including the Standard newspaper, farms, distributors, wattle estates, and a large vehicle importer*. During the ‘90s Lonrho also owned some of the country’s most prestigious tourist hotels including The Ark, the Norfolk Hotel and the Mount Kenya Safari Club. There’s a postscript to this later.

Now back to the album:

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The Kenya Air Force Band waiting for their next stint between the races

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The main grandstand

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And for the children – donkey cart rides, face painting and Mr. Magic

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Postscript: from the Standard newspaper 15 May 2005

John Kamau reports:

Nairobi — The once politically-connected Lonrho Plc has finally called it a day in Kenya after selling its last five prime properties to Saudi-billionaire, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

In what may be one of the largest take-overs in Kenya in recent history, Kingdom Hotel Investments, owned by Alwaleed, on Wednesday took over the historic Norfolk Hotel, Mount Kenya Safari Club, Aberdare Country Club, The Ark and Mara Safari Club. Alwaleed also owns the famous London Savoy.

All of which prompts me to ask who actually does own Kenya these days?

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Six Word Saturday  Please pop over to Debbie’s at Travel With Intent. She has posted some fabulous shots of the Forth Bridge – another example of how historical constructs can long endure, some far more useful than others.

 

*Charles Hornsby 2013 Kenya: A History Since Independence

The Way We Were ~ More From The Kenya Diary

Greater love hath no man than he who spent hours and days, and more hours and days transcribing this writer’s Kenya journal. Prior to transcription, and due to various computer glitches, it existed only on reams of faded, flimsy print-out paper. It was just about scannable, which was tiresome enough to complete, but the end result then required hours of copy editing. So thank you Graham.

And for those who don’t know the background to this, from January 1992 to January 2000, Graham aka the Farrell Team Leader, was working out in Africa on various British aid agricultural projects. The first year we were largely itinerant, travelling up and down the Mombasa highway between Nairobi, Kiboko, Taita and Mombasa.

Graham was working on a project to control Larger Grain Borer, a voracious grain-decimating beetle introduced to Africa in a consignment of US food aid. The actual home of this pest is Central America, and Graham had spent some time studying its behaviour in Mexico. He was then employed on a short-term consultancy project by the Natural Resources Institute in Kent, and thence despatched to Kenya.

His main base was the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute in Nairobi, but there was also a field station a hundred miles south at Kiboko, where the Kenyan project staff worked. When Graham had to make a visit, we stayed at Hunter’s Lodge, once the home of big white hunter, John Hunter, and later (in the ‘60s) developed into a small tourist hotel. The place had its heyday around this time, or until the horrendous dirt road to Mombasa was tarred, and coast- or city-bound travellers no longer broke their journeys at Hunter’s Lodge.

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In our day it was unusual to find any other overnight guests there, although there were plenty of staff, the waiters always smartly turned out in black trousers, white shirts and red bow ties, and ever in attendance in case anyone turned up.

Much of 1993 was then spent in Lusaka, Zambia. Graham was attached to the European Union Delegation, contracted there to organise the distribution of food aid during a period of prolonged drought. But at the end of that year we returned to Nairobi, in the first instance, to close down the Larger Grain Borer project at Kiboko, but later to run a crop protection project which involved British and Kenyan scientists working in partnership with smallholder farmers to overcome various crop and livestock problems. And here we stayed until the start of 2000 when the British Government closed the project down.

While we lived in Nairobi we were housed in a British High Commission house, which also came with Sam, our house steward. He lived with his family in a cottage at the bottom of the garden, but as we never had enough for him to do, he only worked mornings. His actual home was in Western Kenya where he owned three very small smallholdings in different places. Then there was Patrick, our day guard, also provided by the BHC. He never had much guarding to do either, so Graham paid him to look after the garden which he did with impeccable diligence. His home was also in Western Kenya, where his wife and children lived on his own smallholding. Sam told me Patrick had deployed his earnings from guarding and gardening on the building of a good stone house for his parents and was currently building one for himself. He was also paying for his children’s education. While he was working in Nairobi, which was 11 months of the year, he rented a room in one of Nairobi’s slums.

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The following extract gives a few glimpses of expatriate Nairobi life and those cultural events that owe more than a little to the country’s British colonial past.

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29 August 1994

Months have passed and no journal entries. In June we went home to England for three weeks. It was cold and windy and time was gobbled up visiting family and storming the shops. Then came the weeks of adjusting again to Nairobi living. It seemed very strange that, after all our days and miles of travelling, the only news Sam had when we got back was that the avocado tree had finished fruiting. Otherwise, everything was as we had left it.

And to root myself in once more, I took to gardening. Another effort to get the better of the over-shaded vegetable plot; flower beds cleared for tomatoes and herbs; a new plot excavated under my office window; seeds sown and the ever vigilant Patrick following up with the watering can at dawn and at dusk.

In July we went to the Ngong Racecourse for the Concourse d’ Elegance,  one of Nairobi’s annual multicultural events. It is a specialist car rally wherein owners show off their vintage vehicles including aged safari trucks (one of which had ‘starred ‘in  Out of Africa), wartime jeeps, a venerable Mini, period Peugeots, Alfa Romeos, Mercedes, Volvos and a red E-type Jaguar.

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Car owners from the Asian community were dressed up as maharajahs and Arabian Nights grand viziers, the Europeans in more peculiar costumes – a woman dressed as a large black spider, one chap in full Viking gear. There was an overall atmosphere of the English Village Fete. The Kenya Society for the Protection of Animals laid on donkey cart rides around the race course grounds; Mr Magic was doing tricks for the children; the East African Ladies group had a charity cake stall. There were welly-wanging contests, face painting, remote control model car races, hotdog stands and Lyons ice-cream carts.

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The racecourse itself is a picturesque colonial relic. Stands of gum trees, the tiered main grandstand creeper-covered and housing a shady restaurant, and nearby the race steward’s offices, the Jockey Club members’ precincts, the collecting ring sheltered by mature trees.

We thought we’d like to see what the place was like on race day, so a week  or so later we turned up for the Lonrho races. Kenyans take their racing seriously and the whole ground was humming with activity. The ‘old colonial’ set were very high profile, chaps in their grey plaid racing suits, members’ tickets dangling from lapels, their ‘good ladies’ in Ascot frocks and hats to match. In fact the woman who won the best outfit contest truly looked as if she was anticipating entry to the Royal Enclosure. At such times you can only blink: the British abroad – what are they thinking?

The first race was something of a novelty event being a camel race. The beasts and riders came from the anti-stock-theft police patrol in the remote north. There were four contestants, the riders in  bright racing colours. But the camels weren’t too lively and it took some time to cajole them to the starting line. And even after the gong  had been rung, it was hard to tell if the race had started. Every spectator head was craned, gazing across the course for signs of activity. Time passed. It was thus the biggest excitement when the first camel hove into view. He finally jogged  fast enough to reach the finish line, his rider waving not only arms but also legs to celebrate their mutual victory. It was hard to imagine that these camels ever caught up with any cattle-thieving bandits.

Then the serious racing began, most of the horses from wazungu stud farms up in the Rift Valley, and their riders so slender-limbed and tiny, I wondered if  the race horse owners employed their jockeys from the Okiek community,  the last of Kenya’s original indigenous inhabitants of slight-statured hunters. We sat in the grandstand for a while, watched the Kenyan Air Force band marching on the course between races, listened to the commentator who sounded to be the very same man who serves at every English agricultural show and sporting event wherever it is on the globe, looked at the Kenyan mamas in their elaborate kitenge costumes, had our ears blasted as two Air Force buglers dashed up into the grandstand to trumpet the start of the race,  admired the fine looking Kenyan rider, whose task it is to lead the mounted jockeys to the starting gate,  he sporting his  English hunting pink jacket and tight white breeches – yet another of Nairobi’s cross-cultural phenomena that challenge perceptions at every turn. It was all so absorbing that we didn’t even get round to placing any bets.

Our next trip to the racecourse was in early August, to another extraordinary multicultural event. This time to the Royal Ballet performing their specially created programme in aid of Kenyan conservation, Dances for Elephants. The week’s performances were aimed at raising funds for various Kenyan wildlife projects – rhino surveillance, Grevy’s zebra surveys, elephant monitoring, conservation education in Maasailand. It was the brainchild Royal Ballet Mistress, Rosalind Eyre and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, wife of Dr Ian Douglas-Hamilton, Kenya’s resident elephant expert.

Performances were laid on at several venues: at the racecourse, at the Lake Naivasha home of the Douglas-Hamiltons (complete with picnic hampers), at the Windsor Country Club and at the residence of the British High Commissioner, Sir Kieran Prendergast. Local businesses sponsored tickets so cohorts of Nairobi school children could go to the racecourse matinee and have their first ballet experience.  A congratulatory telegram also arrived from HRH The Prince of Wales, wherein he praised the sixteen dancers’ efforts and generosity in giving up their time. He also said he wished he could be with us, which we could not fail to doubt as we had recently read newspaper reports of another “Diana” scandal looming back in the UK.

We arrived in the racecourse at sundown, and again found the place was thronging.  It was a clear evening and I wondered if anyone had warned the dancers how chilly Nairobi was in August.

The audience was well catered for though. There was a tent serving hot drinks and hotdogs as well as a bar. We had come prepared with our own flask of cocoa, cushions and wraps. The grandstand was mostly filled with members of the diplomatic community and Kenyan professionals from the companies that had sponsored the event, but we could sit where we wanted among the concrete benches of the grandstand. The Jockey Club members’ padded seats comprised “The Circle” for which people had paid 3,000 shillings a ticket instead of our 700  bob. We settled down on Vitafoam sponge mats on the front row.

The stage was ingenious – two flatbed trucks parked tail to tail. Cranes rearing up behind each cab supported the roof and stage light tracking. Either side were the enormous speakers of the sound system that had been donated to the cause by Lufthansa. The racecourse and its stands of gum trees lay to their back and, as the sun disappeared behind them, black kites wheeled overhead,  mewing and on the lookout for abandoned hotdogs.

At dusk the dancing began – excerpts from the whimsical ballet ‘Still Life at the Penguin Cafe’, opening with the zebra dance, “White Mischief”. It could not have been more surreal, of itself and also because there was the stage backdrop of the African plains with the real African sky behind it, and real African ‘sound effects’  of cricket and frog call.

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Here is a version of what we saw out on the Ngong Racecourse on a chilly Kenyan night (best viewed full screen):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jh0TPvus7r4

Unnerving ~ Being Judged By A Sheep

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It had never occurred to me until last week that sheep might have opinions. Being brought up within the purlieus of a Cheshire farm and on a picture book diet that included many iterations of Little Bo Beep, I knew they could be wayward. Also a close confrontation with a lamb in my formative years was the source of one of my first big life lessons: disillusionment.

That is to say, it was the moment when I found out for myself that things aren’t always what they seem. This revelation was unexpectedly visited upon me around the age of two. I had tottered determinedly across the field near our house, intent on grabbing a lamb. I had not encountered one at close quarters before, and I was spurred on by a sense of eager expectation that I still recall. Capturing one took a little time, but oh, woe. Where was the warm, cuddly creature I had imagined it to be? What was this clammy, rubbery thing I had grasped so firmly by the neck ? I was not impressed, and quickly abandoned the enterprise, feeling very let down. There was also some inkling, for which I had no words at the time, that I had been somehow  set up by my parents. Didn’t they know how lambs actually felt?

Then last Wednesday, after a good tramp around the Wenlock countryside the tables were turned: I found myself the object of ovine scrutiny.  I stared back, fully expecting the sheep to shy away as they usually do, but no, it went on giving me ‘the look’. In fact it gave me the distinct impression it was not impressed by what it saw. I felt quite self-conscious. Hmph, I muttered. Who’d’ve thought it, being made to feel sheepish by a sheep; clearly more to them than meets the eye. And so followed another important, if belated life lesson, and one of the hardest to grasp: do not be quick to judge. Or even better, Mrs. Farrell: do not judge at all, lest the boot ends up on the other foot.

On the other hand, perhaps the Wenlock sheep somehow divined a closet lamb strangler when it saw one.

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

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.

A Peculiar Pursuit? Listening In On Star Land

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It was a frequent and rather sinister feature of my childhood: Sunday afternoon drives around the Cheshire lanes. Always winter. Flat fields empty of their dairy herds. Neat hedges and the metal railed fences typical of this county. Then the sudden glimpse of it – the great grey dish in the sky: the disturbing scaffold-like armature that held it aloft – sometimes the dish tilted one way; other times in quite another position. So that the first sight of it across the flatlands would always be a shock to the system. Science Fiction in action then. Scenes I remember only in black and white.

But if the sight of it aroused feelings of vague anxiety, as a five-year-old I was also quick to register the awe and excitement in my parents’ voices. It might be worrying to me but, I concluded, this monstrous machine was clearly ‘a good thing’.

This, the Jodrell Bank steerable radio telescope, had only just been completed. It was the largest in the world back in 1957 – the dish 250 feet (76 metres) in diameter. Sir Bernard Lovell – a radio astronomer at Manchester University – was its creator. He had worked on the development of radar during World War 2, and now wanted to study cosmic rays. The gun turret parts of two British warships were apparently re-purposed to drive the telescope.

It became operational in time for the launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957. This was the world’s first artificial satellite launched by the Soviet Union. My parents were very excited about this too. While Jodrell Bank tracked the path of Sputnik’s booster rockets, my parents were staying up into the small hours, standing in the garden of Love Lane House, Sputnik spotting. They saw it too, and got their names in the local paper. Whizzy spinning sputniks on strings were, for some time to come, the toys to have. I received several. Cardboard ones came free in Cornflakes packets. In fact Sputnik was a frequently uttered word in our house. Perhaps it’s what predisposed me to want to learn Russian a decade later.

In 1966 the Soviet Union actually asked Jodrell Bank to track their Luna 9 moon lander spacecraft. Thus it would seem that the Cold War had its lukewarm moments, although relations were not so well fostered afterwards when the British Press got hold of, and published the Jodrell Bank photos ahead of the Russians giving their permission.

Later, in concert with US surveillance, the telescope was used to monitor Soviet spy satellites. And yes, in between spying activities, there was also some serious scientific research – time spent observing those esoteric out-of-space entities – pulsars, quasars and gravitational lenses. And please expect no further explanations of these matters. My studied viewings of the TV programmes by the very excellent theoretical physicist Professor Jim Al-Kalili have left no residue of knowledge in my brain cells, or at least none that I am aware of.

Today, the Lovell telescope has been joined by several others on the site – all part of Manchester University’s Jodrell Bank Centre of Astrophysics. It has a visitor centre, and all manner of exciting things going on there. This photo, by the way, was captured by chance last year when I happened to look out of the window of the Manchester to Crewe train. A veritable blast from the past then, but this time in full colour. I still find it worrying though – that great grey dish eavesdropping on space.

And before I go, there’s also a literary connection with Jodrell Bank. As a pre-teen I was a huge fan of Cheshire children’s writer Alan Garner, and in particular of his 1960s titles The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its sequel The Moon of Gomrath. Garner didn’t think much of the first book, and it was only in 2012 that the third volume of the originally planned trilogy was published. But then Boneland is not for children. It is a fusion of science, prehistory, fantasy and psychotherapy whereby Colin of the first two books is now a professor at Jodrell Bank, trying to resolve the loss of his twin, Susan, and the loss of his memory. It’s a haunting work with many layers. Perhaps, like me, Alan Garner found Lovell’s Telescope a disturbing sight on the Cheshire Plain, raising more questions than the ones it was intended to answer.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

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For more Thursday’s Special posts please visit Paula at Lost in Translation. She asks us to pick a word from the following: Pursuit, Veneration, Effervescent, Personal, Peculiar. And then post a photo or photos. I think I’ve scored the 3 ‘p’s’ in this post plus a bit of veneration for Alan Garner.

Tales From The Walled Garden

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No, this is not the Tish Farrell ancestral pile, although my young aunt (standing) and my grandfather do look very much at home here. They are in the garden of Redhurst Manor, Surrey, where my grandfather, Charles Ashford was head gardener during the 1920s and ‘30s. My Aunt Evelyn was born in the gardener’s cottage on the estate, so you could say, in a way, that Redhurst  was their domain – at least for a time. Grandfather certainly ruled the garden and the men who worked under him. He was fastidious in his gardening discipline, and much else besides, and expected the same from others; a true Victorian then.

And given his sense of propriety, I think one can be pretty sure that this particular Ashford family gathering, with Grandmother Alice Ashford (nee Eaton) sitting so comfortably on the lawn (she’s the one in the dark frock, busily chatting) would not have been happening if the Major and his lady had been within.

When I was editing this photograph, I thought about cropping off a good deal of that velvet smooth lawn. But then I thought, no. The fine state of it was down to Grandfather and his team with the horse-drawn mower. I also know that  when Evelyn was small her mother used to smack her legs for rolling down that bank and getting her Sunday silk frock all green and grassy. Not the sort of the thing the very proper young lady in the photo would be doing.  She was very tall for her age, so was probably only fifteen or sixteen when captured here.

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I gathered from family stories that Grandfather’s employer was an Anglo-Irish cavalry man who had been burned out of his home in Ireland during the troubles. He had another house up in Yorkshire, where he and his wife would often go.

Sometimes Grandfather accompanied them if they were going up for the shooting season. He had the reputation for being a fine shot. Even so, however you look at it, this was a  most uncommon situation: a gentleman inviting his head gardener to a shooting party. My mother always said the Major’s lady was rather keen on Charles Ashford, and would invite him into her boudoir when he came to present her with the first peaches from the hot house. She would be dressed only in her silk negligee, reclining invitingly on a chaise. Mother could have made this up of course. In any case, Charles Ashford would have chosen not to notice such a state of shocking déshabillé in the presence of a member of the outdoor staff. 

All the same, I do know he would take her sprigs of winter jasmine, arranged in little silver vases provided for him by Johnny the Butler, and selected specially by Grandfather from Johnny’s Butler’s Pantry. I also have a postcard sent to Grandfather in early March 1937, after he had left Redhurst and the Major moved permanently to Yorkshire. A touch of Lady Chatterly light?

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“Thank you so much for the lovely violets which arrived beautifully fresh. Hope you are all well. T.B.B.”

On the reverse side is this photo of what I assume is T.B.B.’s Yorkshire home. I am touched to think of Grandfather carefully packaging up the first spring violets to send to his former employer. I imagine him wrapping the stems with damp moss, adding swathes of paper to protect the flowers and placing all in a sturdy cardboard box, then taking the parcel to Cranleigh post office.

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Here are my grandparents at around the time the postcard was sent. They are in the garden of their house on Mount Road, Cranleigh. Just look at those delphiniums.  They were Grandfather’s favourites, along  with heleniums. At the manor he had cultivated a big herbaceous border of mixed delphiniums and heleniums, using them to create a stunning screen between the walled kitchen garden and rest of the grounds. Such a planting scheme – spires of blue soaring through the golds, reds and oranges of heleniums, surprises me somehow; it sounds very modern – very nouveau garden designerish.

The kitchen garden was walled on three sides, and about half an acre in size. This was where Grandfather had his command post, and the reason I know this is because one of the treasures inherited from Evelyn were the notes of her talks given to her local gardening club. Charles Ashford was very much a feature. As  a small child she followed him around, taking in everything he did, although he expected her to work too. Here is her description of her father’s work place. It reveals  much about the man:

Imagine that we are standing in the holy of holies, my father’s potting shed. It was not all that large and the space was taken up with deep shelving on three sides of the shed. There was a door into the kitchen yard and another into the garden itself. On the back of one door were three large coat hooks to take the jackets that my father needed and also his green baize apron. On the other door hung his clean alpaca jacket which was worn when he went into the house, a dust coat to be used in the fruit room and his leather pruning apron with its thick, left-handed coarse leather glove sticking out of the pocket. These garments comprised his head gardener’s uniform; there was almost a ritual about putting them on for the various tasks.

My father’s own tools were hung in neat and spotless order on hooks to the left of the garden door. He insisted on clean tools and, after every task, the men had to be sure to wash, and then rub dry on old sacking any tool that had got even the slightest bit dirty. A little spot of oil was rubbed into the spades and trowels and forks until the metal shone. Wooden handles were treated with linseed oil which was thoroughly worked in. Only then could the tools be stored away. That is why, to this day, I am still using a well worn spade and fork that belonged to my father. There have been times when, if in a hurry I have hung my spade up dirty, I have gone scurrying back to give it a ‘a lick and a promise’. I can almost hear my father saying, ‘That won’t do, miss. Dirty tools make bad workmen.’

Reading these notes, I wish I had known him. I only remember meeting him twice. After Grandmother died, he lived with my aunt down in Wiltshire, and we lived miles away in Cheshire. But this next photo suggests that my father at least made one effort to visit him.

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I’m about two years old here, and I’m guessing that this was Grandfather’s eightieth birthday. I have my own distinct  mental snapshot of him. Before lunch he was out in the vegetable garden in his shirt sleeves, sifting the stones from the soil in a big garden riddle. I remember being fascinated by this strange activity. My other snapshot is when he came to stay with us in Cheshire at Love Lane House. It must have been summer for I see him sitting in the sunshine outside the front door, shelling peas into a colander. I remember too, that he bought me a very beautiful little sailing yacht with a coffee coloured hull and ivory sails. I don’t think we had much luck sailing it though.  But although I did not know him, and grew up mostly with my father’s tales of Grandfather’s monumental temper, I do often think of him  -when I’m up at the allotment digging and weeding and seed sowing. I know he would be pleased to see me gardening, but I also know he would have some sharp words to say about my sloppy gardening habits.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

P.S. There will be more walled garden tales to follow

Valentine’s Day Runaway

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Friday February 14 1992 was the day I ran away to Africa. I was finally fleeing a marriage with too many guns in the closet, and much else besides. And I was leaving behind home, possessions, an aged father and three much loved labradors. The springer spaniel, though, I would not miss. The little beast was demented and I wished the husband joy of her.

At the time of departure I had very little money, and I had left a legal aid solicitor to handle my divorce. (With guns in the closet I discovered that such matters are swiftly expedited). When I boarded the airport bus in Wolverhampton bound for Heathrow all I had with me was one canvas grip stuffed with some summer clothes, and a small cabin bag containing paperbacks, my Olympus-trip, a mini cassette player and Joni Mitchell’s Night Ride Home. I also had an Air France ticket to Nairobi and a stash of anti-malaria tablets.

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Long ago at Mzima Springs – the way I was then…

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I was off to be with the man with whom I was smitten, an entomologist working out in Kenya on a three-month contract to control an introduced crop pest, the Larger Grain Borer. I knew little about him, and still less about my destination. Years before, in a frigid Scottish university, I had written a masters thesis on the socio-economic relations between Mbuti hunters and Bantu farmers of the Congo. I had never been to Africa, nor wanted to go there. I had read too much about forest buffaloes, ants and yaws in the Ituri Forest to find the idea appealing. I was not the sort of person who craved adventure or who had travelled much. I was a museum researcher and an armchair anthropologist. When I set off from rural Shropshire on that dank and gloomy day, it was to meet up with the flesh-and-blood man who had sent me the plane ticket. I did not expect to look out of a plane window somewhere over Somalia, and fall in love with a continent.

It was un coup de foudre as the French say. Ludicrous and nerve-shattering. Perhaps I should not have flown Air France, (although with hindsight I have to say it was one of my best flights ever). But as we approached Nairobi the condition only grew worse. It seemed there was a plane jam at Jomo Kenyatta International; the 747 could not land. Instead, it circled and circled Mount Kenya. I could not believe it: this god’s eye view of the vast exploded volcano presented to me again, again, and again. Then, as a final flourish to this extraordinary entrée, we made our descent over the green highlands of Kikuyuland, the smallholder farms so lush from the short rains.

Those landscapes fused onto my retina, bedded in my cerebral cortex, and I was changed.

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My man in Mombasa – the way he was then…

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When I finally met G at the airport, he seemed like a stranger. I noticed that his hair needed cutting and he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt with an oddly tropical look, this when I had only known him in the thick jumpers and anoraks so essential for surviving winter in rural Shropshire. It was a disquieting discovery to see that I did not know him at all in this landscape. As he drove me into the city I gazed out at the plains bush country around the airport, found myself blinking at the crowds and traffic chaos in downtown Nairobi. Someone had turned the colours up: it was all too bright, the road reserves dazzling with pink bougainvillaea, yellow cassia trees; the bright clothes and brown faces, the white smiles. When I arrived at the Jacaranda Hotel in Westlands I was still in tourist mode. I thought I had come to Kenya for a couple of months at most. Neither of us could have guessed that we would not live again in England for another eight years, or that our Africa journey had only just begun. And so yes, to thieve a line from Ms Brontë, and one so apt for this Valentine’s occasion – “Reader, I married him”; I married the man who bought me a plane ticket to Africa. How could I not?

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Kenya’s highland farms in the rains

© 2014 Tish Farrell

Related:

Carnations, Crooks and Colobus at Lake Naivasha

On Kenya’s Farms

No way back from Africa: the road to Hunter’s Lodge

 AILSA’S TRAVEL THEME: ROMANCE

DP CHALLENGE

Weekly Writing Challenge: My funny Valentine for more bloggers’ stories. The ones below especially caught my attention:

Waiting on a Word

Aliabbasali

Words We Women Write

No way back from Africa: the road to Hunter’s Lodge

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The road from the Range Station to Kiboko

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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.”

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Kilimanjaro caught from the Mombasa highway just south of Kiboko

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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.

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Hunter’s Lodge, Kiboko

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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.

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Afternoon tea with the sugar-stealing peacock

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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.

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The bridge to the vegetable shamba

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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.

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Graham's team at Kiboko Lab - the last day

Kiboko lab and staff

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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.

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Looking toward the Lodge dining room

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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.

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Caught red-handed, a vervet raider eating our bananas

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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.

Joyce our chambermaid

Joyce

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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.

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Esther at her stall with son, Tom

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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…

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Letter from Kathleen Collins Howell, illustrator and best friend

Daily Prompt: on the road

© 2013 Tish Farrell