Today, the 26th of November, we woke to the first autumn frost, though by the time I was dressed and out in the garden, it was melting fast. Not a cloud to be seen. There was a moment, too, when the sky was a perfect shade of lavender. Who knew it could do that in Much Wenlock! The last time I saw such as sky I was at Hunter’s Lodge in Makindu, Kenya. Nor was it only the atmosphere making earth magic. Over the fence in the guerrilla garden the crab apple tree was also emitting its own extraordinary radiance: each miniature apple aglow, if slightly tearful. In fact before posting the first photo I had to desaturate it a touch. Even so, it’s still a glow worth popping in your heart or head space to light up gloomy days.
23 February 1994
This morning when I peered over our balcony rail I could see a pair of well-polished black boots and the shiny black barrel of a rifle propped against the veranda wall of the room below us. A wildlife ranger come to hunt the reptile. I wandered down for a word and found not one, but two young men, both smartly kitted out in Kenya Wildlife Service uniforms. I asked them if they had come for the crocodile.
Probably because I was a mzungu and therefore presumed fervent in my desire to protect absolutely all wild creatures no matter how inconvenient or deadly their presence may be to the locals, their response was defensive. They were clearly expecting an argument: “Crocodiles are very dangerous,” said one. “The manager is very worried about his staff and their children. It will have to be killed.”
I did not disagree, but told them I had seen it a number of times. “And weren’t you frightened?” I said I wasn’t. They seemed so surprised I did not like to tell them I had also been running around after it trying to take a photograph. It would have sounded most foolhardy and eccentric after what they had said. I left them to their watch, wondering who would get a shot first, me or the rangers. I hoped it would be me.
As I sat up on my balcony I was convinced that they would have no luck that morning. I had only seen the crocodile after lunch. Anyway, it did not matter. Soon there was much chattering down below. Rose the chambermaid had arrived and was doing her level best to distract the rangers from their quest. She did so for a good hour or more. Nor was it idle chitchat, although there was much laughter. From the snatches of conversation that were in English. I gathered that she was conducting an evangelical crusade; she had a captive audience and, as a born again Christian, more than enough zeal to win a hearing from even the most obdurate of unbelievers. And not only was she extremely eloquent, but she was also very handsome. Already she was broaching the subject of the sort of man she would marry. A smart young woman.
16 March 1994
As has become the habit, we collected Dorothy from Pangani en route for Kiboko. There had been rain in the night and the gaping potholes in the roads of the estate’s shopping centre were now red-mud lakes. The women vegetable sellers sat along the broken pavements, in front of them their produce – neat pyramids of tomatoes, red-skinned onions, mangoes, small pink potatoes. A girl stared at us from the clinic doorway; the pile of refuse on the corner of Dorothy’s road sweltered in the humid atmosphere.
The drive from Pangani followed the network of ring roads that take you to the south side of the city without hitting the centre. It was hair-raising. We dodged matatus that either pulled up or pulled out in front of us without warning, sometimes barely a hair’s breadth of leeway, all over-laden with passengers and luggage. Then we nearly collided with a man pushing a wide handcart that lurched along the broken tarmac on wobbling wheels. The sea of traffic swept round the large walled island that serves Kariokor Market (the place for kiondos, the local sisal shoulder bags, and used truck tyres), and on into Haile Selassie, the heartland of the tea and coffee trade. Here humanity and motor vehicles jostle for space and it is all push and shove beneath the looming post-war warehouses of ‘the cup that cheers’.
As we headed out of town on the Mombasa highway we were soon aware of a strong police presence, an armed officer stationed under every roadside thorn tree; near the airport approach road the flags were flying. Later, we discovered that President Moi was expected to pass that way. He was scheduled to meet the arriving Sudanese President, General Omar Hussan Al-Bashir. Out along a ridgeway, and leaving Nairobi’s industrial concrete wasteland behind, strode a young Maasai herdsman, red shuka shawl draped over his shoulder. Ahead of him trailed a file of motley coloured cattle, their pied shades a smaller variation of the white and grey and black clouds that swelled on the skyline behind them. Africa’s two worlds.
There was much game to be spotted on the Kapiti Plains. Thompson’s gazelle were grazing so closely to the road that at first I thought they were goats. Then, beyond a stretch of whistling thorns I spotted the head and neck of a giraffe. The rest of it was lost from view. It was striding out along a gully that ran parallel to the highway. Soon we were passing several more elegant necks and heads, all south-bound. And then at last, a hundred yards from the road, a gathering of eighteen fully emerged giraffes; as many as we had ever seen at one time and with the russet hides of the reticulated variety that we had not seen before. When giraffes move with intent like this – the loping gait – they seem to dance to rhythms that only they can sense, but you long to join in with. Alongside were kongoni and ostrich too, and we were not even in the park.
Down on the lowland plains the skies were grey. The wasted maize crop from the December planting still clung to the crusty soil, rows of skeleton stems. On some of the plots men were out with ox teams ploughing in the aborted effort. The long rains were expected, and soon it would be time to take another turn of the roulette wheel and sow the seed for the next maize crop.
At lunchtime Hunter’s Lodge simmered gently in the heat. Even the weavers were subdued. As we drew up in the car park we noticed a small overland truck parked right down at the pool edge, the travellers’ washing lines strung out between two acacias and bowed down with wet T-shirts. Out in the water, wading thigh deep were two young Akamba boys, wielding their fishing rods and casting their lines as they went. We had never seen anyone in the water before and we knew then the wildlife rangers had been successful and the crocodile killed.
The afternoon was sultry and I sprawled on the bed and slept. Later Joyce called in with some fresh towels. She told me she had just come back after two months leave at her home in Kibwezi. This small township is about half an hour’s drive south from Kiboko, but if you have to depend on a matatu for a lift, then it is too far and too expensive for her to travel to work each day. And so her husband, who works for the forestry department, lives at Kibwezi with their oldest boy who has just started school there, and Joyce lives with her three year old son in a single room of the staff quarters at Hunter’s Lodge. Sometimes her husband comes to visit at weekends. When I said that it must be hard to live separately like this, she laughed and did not seem to think so.
Before bed that night we went down to the terrace bar for a soda. Only the manager and the barman were there. It was as if we were stepping onto an empty stage after the play was done. Yet there was still a sense of drama. The empty white bentwood chairs on the empty lawn glowed faintly at the edges of the light cast by two lamps hitched up in the acacias. Across the pool, fever tree branches reached out from the darkness. A lone firefly winked on its steady course over black waters. A bush baby cackled, piercing the soundscape of cricket and frog call. Up above, the sky seemed to be bursting with every star in the universe. On the northern horizon the sheet lightning flickered, fitful bursts of a failing element. Against the stars we could just make out the ghosts of bats’ wings as they wafted silently. It was the sort of night you swear you will never forget, but always do.
The fundi is still at work across the pool, carefully placing the grey fluted tiles on the summerhouse roof. He has a radio on – Congolese rumba rhythms issue faintly. Today there are two young women at work in the garden. One is raking up the dead grass. She wears a turquoise blouse over her kanga wrap and her hair is braided into corded rows from forehead to nape. The other girl barrows the debris away to a far corner of the property. Her hair is close cropped and she has on a brown and orange kanga. Flashes of vivid colour on a parchment-pale landscape; cobalt blue darts of the greyhooded kingfisher as it sweeps the lodge lawn for insects.
It is only 10 a. m. and already it is hot. The girls work slowly, pausing often to exchange a few words. The air is spiced with the scent of the tiny sun-baked acacia leaves that fall in drifts; the chatter of weavers is overlain by the more intense whine of insects. This is how I remembered Hunter’s Lodge all the time I was in Zambia; this was how it was on the day I first came here, two years ago.
copyright 2018 Tish Farrell
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
When I ran away to Africa in February 1992, Hunter’s Lodge at Kiboko was the first place Graham took me to. Then it was a run-down safari lodge, developed in the 1960s-70s from the erstwhile home of great white hunter, John Hunter. We were told the place had had its heyday back then. Asian and expatriate European families would drive out from Nairobi to spend the weekend there and also, before the nearby highway was paved, it was a very welcome place to break the red-dusty, hour-on-hour, gut-wrenching drive from Nairobi to the Mombasa coast.
In the time we spent there – and it was pretty much our second home during that year, and again at the end of 1993 (the Kiboko field station where Graham’s team of Kenyan researchers were monitoring methods of Larger Grain Borer control was just next door) – we were always surprised if we arrived at the Lodge to find someone else staying there.
To me it seemed like an oasis, and indeed John Hunter had meant to be one. He had once known the spot as a popular elephants’ watering hole on the Kiboko River, and so had decided to dam the watercourse to create a small lake to attract bird life. This was the place he had chosen to end his days after a life’s-work of ivory hunting, celebrity safari running, and game control work for the colonial game department.
He was a speak-his-mind Scotsman who had been among the earliest arrivals of white settlers in what was then the British East Africa Protectorate (later Kenya Colony). In the 1920s and ‘30s he hunted with the likes of Denys Finch Hatton and Bror Blixen who considered him an elder statesman in all matters of stalking and bush-craft. On his own admission, he had cleared the Kiboko-Makindu location of over 1,000 rhino. He had also helped rid the area of its elephant population – this to protect colonial sisal and orange plantations and the farm plots of the local Akamba people in the native reserve further north. In his day, the colonial ambition was to develop the agricultural potential of East Africa to help pay for the very expensive railway the British government had built from Mombasa to Lake Victoria (built 1895-1901). Ideas about game conservation did not begin to take hold until 1948, and even then some colonial administrators were still likely to see Kenya as their personal hunting ground.
Hunter’s Lodge, then, was a place of many resonances, currents and undercurrents, many I only unravelled later; am still unravelling.
Our day there began with breakfast at 7 am in the dining room with the surprising ‘ogival’? doors front and back, presumably part of the original Hunter home. By that time the weaver birds in their papyrus clumps were at full chirp, the storks in their fever tree roosts honking and bill clattering, the pied kingfishers taking up diving positions. By then, too, the vervet monkeys would be eyeing up their options: our veranda door carelessly left ajar, the possibility of later pickings in our room should access prove feasible?
In the dining room where we rarely saw anyone but Reuben, the old Akamba waiter, who unfailingly asked us if we would have eggs with our breakfast. We never did, and only realised very much later that every day we had stayed there, we had been charged for a full three course English breakfast. Usually we had wheat flakes with milk that had been boiled. We learned to take a plastic tea strainer with us to sieve out the skin. The milk was delivered by local Maasai women, who would arrive at the kitchen door in all their red and beaded regalia. The tea always had a sulphurous taste from the local spring water. The boiled milk didn’t help much.
Graham left for work at 7.30 and for the next five hours till he returned for lunch (chips or cheese sandwiches) I wrote, read, wandered the garden, and watched. Time there was like a waking reverie, a guided meditation, never being anywhere but ‘in the moment’. Since few guests came, the hotel staff had a routine that did not involve providing hospitality. I watched the daily comings and goings of the garden workers – the sweeping, mowing, the tending of the vegetable shamba. I’d hear the bell that summoned all the staff to their tea-break, leaving no one at all around.
Sometimes I chatted with Joyce the chambermaid. I also watched the goings-on at the bungalow across the pool, said to be the home of a local politician. And I learned to identify many local birds. There were said to be over 200 species in the vicinity. One day a lone pelican dropped in. That was a surprise. Sometimes the giant kingfisher would perch on the thorn tree by our room. Then there were the tiny malachite kingfishers – brilliant little jewels of birds. The greyhooded kingfisher was the one I saw most often.
Around 5.30 Graham would return from work, and we’d go to the pool terrace for tea. At some stage we were usually joined by the Lodge’s disconsolate peacock (its mate had been eaten by a python). The bird invariably tried to eat the sugar. Later we would return to the terrace for supper – Tusker beer, steak and chips. There was never much choice. If we were lucky, John the Maasai barman would be on duty. He was always very charming, and always had an awful lot to say on pretty much any topic.
And now here’s an excerpt from the Kenya Diary, written on our return to Kenya after 9 months in Zambia. It includes a far from usual occurrence at Hunter’s Lodge:
20 December 1993
Monday morning and we are off to Kiboko again, out on the dusty Mombasa highway, dodging lorries and potholes, heading for the southern plains. We remark upon the vistas of unaccustomed lushness as we leave Nairobi behind. There have been good rains, and the wooded slopes of upland Ukambani beyond the Machakos turn, are as green as we have ever seen them. And even down on the semi-arid flatlands of low-lying Sultan Hamud and Emali the dark ochre soils seem bloated with wholesome moisture and the promise of a good maize crop.
The locals clearly think so too, for they are out in the fields in force, husbands, wives, grandmothers, children all busy weeding the leafy, foot high seedlings; some guiding a pair of yoked oxen and earthing up the new crop so as to husband every drop of rain, a rich man with a tractor preparing his acres. It is a hive of industry, the bright primary coloured cottons of the women’s kangas and headscarves against the brown and green striking up impressions of carnival optimism.
And for my part I long to thrust my hands into that warm humus-smelling soil and plant out lusty seedlings of courgettes and broad beans, crisp lettuce and cherry tomatoes. I picture a healthy crop of vegetables lying newly plucked in my basket; savour their freshness. But it is only a pipe dream. For it is scarcely so easy, especially here where expected rains may fail and in a few days the hard-nurtured crop be burned to a crisp and blown away with the parched soil. And so as we pass by, we wish them good fortune and good rains, these hard-working hopeful smallholder farmers.
South of Emali the farm fields give way to low thorn scrub. In our previous 1992 trips we had only ever seen it as thickets of thorny shafts and barbs. But now the spikes and spines have burst into luscious greenery, a wrap of verdant baize on every scaly twig, and a delicate flowering of ivory catkins, of golden mimosa pompoms and pink and yellow lanterns that yield a heady scent of orange blossom. From time to time their perfume is drawn in through our open windows and makes a change from the more usual blasts of truck fumes. And amongst all the fresh new greenery, forging its way up through the low trees and shrubs are spires of purple wild flowers and on the open grassland carpets of Parma-violet mauve and forget-me-not blue.
It is just past midday and overhead the sky is as perfect as the glaze on eggshell china. The sun burns. Our journey takes less than two hours, even with all the trucks, but when we turn off the highway at the Akamba woodcarvers stalls at Kiboko and negotiate the roughly made up drive to Hunter’s Lodge, see the low white building with its red pantiled roof and flagstaff standing in the shady garden, there is always a sense of relief, a release of barely held breath. It always seems too like a home-coming, though goodness knows why for there is rarely anyone there to greet us unless Joyce is on duty or John the Maasai is about. Usually we just get the key and tumble into our room with all our belongings and collapse on the brown candlewick-covered bed. Listen to the seamless twittering of golden weavers, the raucous calls of marabou storks and herons way up in the rafters of the fever trees.
We picnic on the veranda. There is so much to watch, the endless high-tension cycle of hunting, prowling, stalking, making a kill, keeping alive, courting, mating, rearing, being hunted – ripples across the pool. After lunch Graham goes off to the field station. I doze within the green cocoon, mesmerised by strands of reflected light until the sun begins to slip through the trees. And suddenly, at the day’s end there is a flurry of heightened purpose amongst the bird-life: swifts, swallows and martins duck and dive over the water in a frenzied pursuit of insects; three bright white and black pied kingfishers fly fast and low over the green surface; the russet speckled giant kingfisher, the size of a young rook and with a beak like a pile driver, plummets from a nearby acacia into the pool, exploding the glare with a mighty crash; there is a flight past of sacred ibis; the eerie hkaa, hkaa hkaa-ing of their cousins the hadadas; and in the fading light a tiny crimson-bibbed and azure helmeted sunbird pierces the trumpet flowers of the thevetia and sips up the nectar concealed within.
All afternoon, across the pool, the local fundi has been working on the new summerhouse in the garden of the Akamba politician’s bungalow. It is octagonal, open-sided with a low wall and a conical tiled roof supported on slender round columns. It will be lovely when it is done. Other men have been cutting the grass with pangas; their hearts were not in it though and they made small progress, but than what is the hurry? The sun is hot, there is always tomorrow and anyway the owner of the house rarely comes. There is a diversion too. Five Maasai women call round to speak with one of the men; all with shaved heads, all shoulders draped in red cotton shawls of identical shade. They lay down their heavy loads at the garden gate, plastic bottles of water, which they have been carrying on slender backs supported by a leather head-strap. They stop for a while chatting, a cluster of exotic birds, then take up their burdens once more and set off in single file along the track that skirts the garden and strikes out into the bush.
Meanwhile I sit in my own private box, watching the pageant unfold, watching as the setting sun casts a low glow through the (earlier) shadowy recesses of the acacia wood so that it takes on all the seeming insubstantial qualities of a back-lit drop from the set of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But instead of Cobweb and Mustard Seed, a small troop of baboons takes the stage, swings up through the branches, the low light dancing off the coarse hairs of tawny coats. I watch them for a few minutes, while they try to make up their minds whether a raid on the politician’s garden is a viable proposition. Then there is the low rumble of a Land Rover as it comes to rest in the gravel car park below our room. Graham is back. It is time for the interval and a pot of strong Hunter’s Lodge tea out on the terrace by the crook-backed bridge.
It’s true. I’ve seen it. There really is a crocodile in the Hunter’s Lodge pool; a touch of melodrama and a real-life villain for the piece. Peter Giles (Graham’s former boss) thought he had spotted one, but no one really believed him.
I was busy writing a letter, out on the veranda. Beyond its shade the lawn and pool were full-lit by afternoon sun. It was hot and sultry out there and I was glad of the breeze that funnelled through the open stable doors of our room and out to where I was sitting.
Suddenly there was a commotion of weaver chatter on the branches of the young thorn tree where they were busy building nests. The little tree was right at the water’s edge. I scanned it for incident. Nothing unusual there, but there was in the pool below it. Just off the clipped lawn and heading in an easterly direction cruised the snout, head and shoulders of a partially submerged crocodile. Not massive by any means but perhaps a good four feet long. My heart pounded with thrill of it as I rushed and fumbled for the camera. It had taken me eighteen months to finally convince Graham of the existence of the giant kingfisher, and only then by showing him the beast in action; he was hardly going to believe in the reptile sighting without some sort of proof. I hurried out of our room, down the open staircase, past a chambermaid occupied with the task of sweeping up the unremitting cascade of leaf and twig from the acacias. Round the end of the building where the remnant fairway sign announces ‘hole number 3, 43 yards’, across the sloping turfy lawn (more cautiously now) and down to the water’s edge, camera at the ready.
But there was not a sign of him. Completely disappeared. I patrolled the lawn edge, walked round to the terrace and stood out on the crooked bridge for several minutes and scanned the waters with binoculars. He had gone, submerged, made wary perhaps by the sudden rash of visitors who were now laughing and shouting out in the gardens. I returned to my veranda and was so engrossed in seeking out the disappearing crocodile that I did not at first notice the vervet monkey who had crept into the bedroom over the stable door. But I caught sight of him on his way out. He was making off with half a loaf (tomorrow’s lunch) tucked under his arm. And just to add insult to injury, it turned out that the wretched little creature did not even really like bread. A few minutes later I saw it abandoned, impaled on a branch of the acacia tree outside the veranda.
But more surprising than any of this, when Graham arrived back and I told of the crocodile, he was almost as excited as I was; took no convincing at all. When I tackled him over the gross inconsistency of his confidences in my wildlife sightings he told me that of course he believed in the existence of the crocodile; after all it was a corroborative second sighting, wasn’t it? But what about the giant kingfisher, I asked, ruffled. Oh that’s quite different, says he; only you had seen it! I refrain from biting his ankles and we repair to the terrace for afternoon tea.
Later, after dark we return there for a glass of Kenyan beer. We sit in the dim spotlight of a single lamp strung up in the thorn tree. We hear the cackle of bush babies away in the gloom. The fireflies wink on their course across the pool. A rangy cat trots nervously through a pool of light and disappears across the lawn. The young bow-tied barman sorts through his receipts. A waiter sprawls in a garden chair away in the shadows. There are no other customers. We are happy to be here.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
The pool at Hunter’s Lodge – a bird-watcher’s paradise; or just plain paradise. I spent hours just watching.
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.
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.
The poaching of rhinos for their horn is a truly abhorrent trade, and shows humans at their worst, not only in terms of wanton cruelty, but also for their gross stupidity in believing that the horn a) makes a nice macho handle for their dagger, or b) does a single thing for their sexual performance. I do not wish to be sexist, but we are talking of the male of the species here.
However, while we are blaming recent decades of poaching for big game loss, it is worth remembering that some truly monumental decimation took place in countries like Kenya under colonial rule, and by the kind of aristocratic settler who considered East Africa their own personal hunting ground; this to the exclusion of the people whose land it had been for generations, and who then became labelled poachers if they were caught hunting for the pot.
John Hunter, was but one of many white hunters who worked both on his own account as a safari leader, and as a game clearance officer for the government. He began his hunting career around 1910 after quitting his job as a guard on the Mombasa railway. In an article in LIFE magazine 12 July 1952 he begins by saying:
When I first came to Kenya the game covered the plains as far as man could see. I hunted lions where towns now stand, and shot elephants from the engine of the first railroad to cross the country. In the span of my 65 years the jungles have turned to farmland and savage tribes have become factory workers. I have had a little to do with this change myself; for the government employed me to clear dangerous beasts out of areas that were opened to cultivation.This was in a day’s work for me; yet I have always been a sportsman.
John A Hunter(1887 – 1963)
His career tally for elephants killed is 1,400, but when it comes to rhinos, he holds the world record. Over a two-day period he was responsible for 1,000 rhino deaths, the slaughter taking place in the Makindu area of Ukambani, about a hundred miles south of Nairobi. The land, and rather poor land at that, was wanted by the authorities for the resettlement of the Akamba people. But the scale of the killing goes to show how plentiful these animals once were.
When John Hunter came to retire in 1958, it was to the small hotel he had built at Hunter’s Lodge, Makindu. I have written about the place in other posts; we practically lived there in ‘92. The story goes that successive owners had long given up trying to keep the roadside hotel sign upright. Always, the locals said, some avenging rhino would come and flatten it. Whether this was a real or a spirit rhino, no one said, but there were certainly no rhinos in sight when we were there.
Today in Kenya there are several private reserves where small numbers of black and white rhinos live out their lives with round-the-clock ranger-guards. At the time when the top photo was taken, the white rhino concerned inhabited, with several others, a secluded part of a Maasai-owned group ranch. It is hoped that initiatives such as these will keep the species viable, but it is by no means certain. It is anyway a dangerous job for the men in the photo below. These days poachers come well armed with automatic weapons. It takes great bravery and strength of character to protect the world’s wildlife out in the bush. So three cheers for the rangers wherever they are working on this, WORLD RHINO DAY. These men and women deserve all our praise and support. It is only a shame that their diligent protection continues to be needed.
Anti-poaching team in a private reserve in Northern Kenya
copyright 2014 Tish Farrell
For a South African perspective on the state of rhinodom see De Wets Wild, always a blog worth visiting for its wonderful wildlife photos.
And for an Indian view, Sriram Janak’s wonderful blog.
Ailsa’s travel theme: strong for more strong stories