21 February 1994
To Kiboko again.
We left Mbabane Road at about ten and headed for Pangani to to pick up Dorothy, Graham’s assistant. She had been on a trip home, and travelled back to Nairobi on the overnight bus from Kisumu, a five-hour trip. She was feeling rough, so could Mr. Farrell please pick her up from home instead of her coming into the office?
And Pangani, a Nairobi estate just off the Thika by-pass, is a pretty rough place to live these days. The avenues of Asian-style art deco bungalows are sadly dilapidated, the stuccoed walls infested by a black blight and their lawns sacrificed to piles of rubble and rubbish and broken vehicles.
Dorothy tells me she has to hide her handbag when she gets off the bus from work, or else be threatened by knife-wielding street boys. “Can you believe it, Tish?”
She has a flat in a small grey concrete apartment block. It looks a little run down, standing in a rough dirt compound with a washing line, behind a very battered corrugated iron gate. There is a wooden food kiosk integral with the front perimeter wall and Dorothy was leaning against the counter chatting to the mama who runs it when we arrived. She had all her bags to hand though, and by ten thirty we were leaving Nairobi behind. Beyond the ugly grey block-built compound of the Persil factory, the Athi Plains floated in a pale gold and blue haze.
There had been a week of unexpected rains. Neither the tail end of the short rains, nor the start of the long rains, announced the KBC weatherman. Do NOT start planting yet! Here and there the coarse grassland had sprouted new growth and many of the acacias through upland Ukambani were again white with catkin blossom. Here too the young men were out in force along the roadside, and with outspread arms urged us to stop and buy their produce – rosy pomegranates and boxes of small green papaya.
But down on the lowland plains through Sultan Hamud and Emali there was a sorry sight: acres of maize, stunted and browning and with no hope of a crop. And barely two months since we had seen the Akamba families out on their rich red plots, hoeing the rows of luxuriant seedlings, a hive of busy optimism. Now it was a wasteland, the earth dry and hard. Soon the hoped for crop would be little more than tissue paper leaves, a brittle rasping in the plains wind.
As we bumped up the drive to Hunter’s Lodge there was the usual sense of relief at arriving. And as usual the lodge slumbered in its habitual green study. The sun shone down on the red pantiled roof of the guest rooms and a large wooden key fob hung from the keyhole of every bedroom door. There were no other guests.
In the car park the black-barked acacias that are susceptible to the ravages of enormous staghorn beetles were in flower and the air was filled with the scent of orange blossom. We struggled with our bags, baskets and boxes to our upstairs room and quickly retreated to the veranda.
“Turn down the wild life” says Graham. In a nearby thorn tree six superb starlings, all flashes of electric blue and russet, were in the midst of a frenzied exchange. The air was fizzing with insect call. The endless twittering of the nest-building golden weavers welded to the audio mesh of neurotic intent. As counterpoint there was the occasional judder and crash of a truck leaving Kiboko, the kroo-kroo of pink doves, the wailing bark of the shamba dog guarding the vegetable plot, a loud splash from the pied kingfisher as it broke the still surface of the pool. Graham was right. It was all much too loud.
Out on the bar terrace John greeted us warmly. He had been on leave back in Maasailand and we had not seen him for a while. I asked him how his family was. He said everything was fine with them. There had been three days of rain and now the cattle had grass once more. The Maasai who had migrated into his area in search of water had returned to their own land. Yes, everything was fine now. I said I had heard that many Maasai were on the verge of starvation in Kajiado. John replied that things had been bad for them.
We wake early at Hunter’s Lodge, just before dawn when the raucous clamour of large and hungry heron chicks pierces the consciousness and the Nairobi-bound lorries begin to rumble through our dreams. The night shift of piping frogs and resonating bugs suddenly gives over to a new day of weaver bird business. Barely is the sky paling and already the little canary-coloured birds are hard pressed by the procreational imperative: find papyrus reed, strip frond, take to building site, weave loop, pull knots tight, make nest the very best, get a mate. But if all should go horribly wrong – foundation stems shaky, neighbourhood unsuitable, overall structure suspect, then there is a ruthless reversal: unpick the stitches, shred the globe, start all over again in another location. A visiting tsetse fly expert told me that the male weaver may build as many as twenty nests in the course of the breeding season, all to try and please his mate.
In the early morning the pool is as clear as glass, the golden limbs of the fever tree closely replicated in a watery medium. Now is the time of the kingfishers. The blue jewelled pygmy skims low over its surface with the resolution of a tiny heat-seeking missile; its cousin the giant, on the other hand, prefers an approach from the vertical, and plummets out of an overhanging branch with all the delicacy of a large rock. The technique is effective though and he emerges with a silvery fish, only to be pursued the length of the pool and back by his medium sized cousin the pied. Meanwhile, looking on from a branch of peachy flowered thevetia, is the greyhooded kingfisher, complaining loudly to all and sundry with the stridency of a disturbed blackbird’s alarm call. Then he too is gone, in a flurry of cobalt blue on black.
Across the water the Akamba fundis make an early start on the politician’s summerhouse. It proceeds slowly and the tap-tapping as the new grey tiles are fixed in place on the octagonal roof punctuates the weaver chatter.
Somewhere in the depths of the acacia wood resound the fluting notes of the golden oriole. Bright gold on black, it is a bird that is rarely seen. At least I have not seen one since we were last in Kenya. But the echo of its call haunts the memory long afterwards.
As usual Graham left for work well before eight. I lingered over my breakfast in the empty dining room, empty that is except for the young waiter who lurked behind the old upright piano and seem fixed by my every manoeuvre. In the end I asked him for another pot of tea to give him something more positive to do.
As I was eating my toast a troop of vervet monkeys came into the garden. It is really their garden – the parked vehicles, the crazy golf course and the seesaw provided solely for them to play on. There were several very small infants among them and they were leaping excitedly round the branches of a low bush, exactly like children in a bouncy castle. Next they romped across the sparse lawn, bowling each other into soft balls.
After breakfast I walked across to get a better look at these tiny leaping monkeys, and then it became obvious that two of the smallest were twins. They looked at me with curiosity, black beads on little pansy faces, barely an inch and a half across. But mother was wary and she gathered them up hurriedly, one tucked under her belly, the other grasped in the crook of her arm, then nimbly sprinted up into a thorn tree. There she indecorously shoved another monkey aside so that she could take up the best vantage point along the main bough.
She had not retreated too far, just enough to be out of reach and now she watched me closely, clasping her twins tightly all the while. But one offspring was not at all keen on all this mother-hugging confinement and he slipped from her grasp, ended up hanging upside-down from the branch. Mother tried vainly to retrieve him by pressing up on his head with a soft leather palm. He squawked his disapproval at such overbearing maternal interference and hung on fiercely. But mother was not to be outfaced. She handed the good nestling child to a neighbour and with both paws hoicked up the disobedient one. Now the twins well and truly sorted.
Half an hour later the troop appeared below our balcony. They were chewing on dried banana skins. Some swung up into a young fever tree that was hung with weaver nests. Slender fingers reached inside a grass globe, explored the soft mossy shelf for a tiny delicate blue egg, and tore the nest from its moorings. All that weaver bird effort wasted in a second’s mischief. The weavers were distraught and set up a clamour. If it was not vervet monkeys, it was thieving shrikes. So much tension here in the endless eat-be-eaten cycle. The pool is not the peaceful resort that the casual human glance suggests. It is a battle ground where innumerable insects, fish, birds, mammals struggle second by second for a chance to reproduce.
And now of course, there was also the crocodile to consider. It turned out that others (besides Peter Giles and me) had now seen it. Sometime in January its lurking presence had at last impinged on the consciousness of the locals. Now they believed in it, and as a consequence its days were numbered. John told us the wildlife rangers had been called in to despatch it, but so far they had been unlucky. I supposed its existence was not exactly an asset in a hotel garden. And crocodiles had had a bad press during the prevailing drought. Their usual fish diet diminished by the shrinking rivers, they were resorting instead to attacking farm stock and had even taken children who had gone to fetch water. Furthermore, they were well known to be mixed up in the nefarious activities of witches, especially those operating along the Tana River who would commandeer the crocodiles at night and, bestriding their scaly backs, use than as their means of private transport for crossing the dark waters. Much more macho than a broomstick, if not so wide-ranging in their application.
In the early afternoon, after Graham had returned to the field station, I was in my usual spot on our room balcony, reading. The flash of white plumage of a lone sacred ibis suddenly distracted me. It flew in and alighted beside the pool just below me. I watched it move along the lawn edge, entranced by the rhythm of its silent probing, the slender curved bill piercing the ground for hidden grubs. On the bank, a yard or so in front of it was another bird, a shy night heron, stalking insects. It was bothered by the presence of the ibis, not caring to be followed. I picked up the binoculars for a better look at them and suddenly realised that in my sights, between bird and bird and seemingly staring right at me, was a pair of lacklustre reptilian eyes. The crocodile! It was moored right at the water’s edge and I wondered how long it had been there without my noticing it.
This time I would get a photograph. I stole down the steps and tiptoed across the grass. But at the very moment when I had composed the frame, getting the crocodile’s full length glinting in sunlit waters, was about be press the button, it spotted me and hurled itself across the pool for the cover of the reed bed, churning up clouds of sulphur-smelling mud as it went. Gone. I cursed my clumsiness.
But that night Graham got his chance to see it too. We were sitting on the balcony playing Scrabble. The sun had almost disappeared and the pool looked grey and cold. A breeze was whipping the usually still surface into glinting corrugations. As Graham considered his verbal manipulations I stared at the ripples. And there it was, over by the reed bed where I had seen it disappear earlier. All that could be seen was the top of his knotty snout; waiting, waiting for his prey in darkening waters, a fragment of floating bark.
…to be continued.
copyright 2018 Tish Farrell