Many Shades of Grey in Africa

Hwange - waterhole and elephants 3

Grey days in Africa can be incredibly dull. It is a strange effect: as if the light has been sucked out, but without it actually turning dark. This photo was taken around noon on a July day – Southern Africa’s winter. The sky weighed down in a way that was almost palpable; like walking through a Welsh sea mist, except it was dry; or as if you were looking at the world through gauze.

We had driven down from Lusaka in Zambia to spend a couple of weeks exploring Zimbabwe. The objective was to meet up with two Kiwi friends who were flying into Harare, and take them sightseeing before heading with them (via Victoria Falls) back to our house in Lusaka. The day this photo was taken we had just spent the night in one of the guest bungalows in Hwange National Park, and assembled a picnic of sorts in the Park shop.

Hwange Park has metalled roads which detracts somewhat from the notion of wild Africa, and so whenever a dirt track presented itself we took it.  Even so, we saw very little game apart from some kudu. It was mostly dry bush, and more dry bush, which soon grew rather boring. In the end we pulled up by the dwindling waterhole in the photo, and ate our lunch.

The waterhole had been empty when we arrived, and then quite suddenly, as is usually the way with elephants, this small family group appeared. The photo looks like a water colour, or a colour plate in a vintage travel book. I only had my little Olympus Trip, and I often had it on the wrong setting. But the other thing about elephants (and I think this image captures it) is that even when you are there, and can see them with your own two eyes, and are close enough to catch a whiff of their musky hides, it is still hard to believe in them. They come and go like mirages, walking always on the tiptoes, their heels supported by fatty pads that deaden the sound of their footfalls. It is thus very easy to be sneaked up on by an elephant.

Of course if they’ve decided to do a little tree felling, since they like to clear land to encourage their favourite grass to grow, or are seeing off some deemed intruder, then you hear them alright. Indeed, there is nothing quite so alarming as a trumpeting matriarch, clearing a waterhole of potential threats to the family’s infants. On this day, though, all was dreamy peacefulness, and concluded surreally enough in the Game Reserve Hotel at Dete where we were the only guests, and the only food on the menu were pieces of very tough meat  that took an hour to chew.

Hwange National Park - elephant in the bush 6

The next day, though, we woke to a new kind of dream – golden sun through a mist of coal dust that hangs like a heat haze over the vast Hwange Coal Field. And so we quickly turned our noses from the industrial smog and headed for the border and Victoria Falls.

Hwange - smog over the coalfields

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

For more shades of grey please visit Ailsa at Where’s My Backpack

A little blurred on the road to Lunga Lunga


And blurred is often how we felt after driving down the Nairobi-Mombasa highway to Tiwi on Mombasa’s south coast. We used to spend Christmas down there. It was a three hundred mile trip, descending from the air-conditioned high plains of Nairobi to the  wet-hot steaminess of the coastal strip.  On a good day it would take around five hours. Other times we’d break the journey, staying at Tsavo Inn or Taita Hills. Sometimes the road was hardly there at all, washed out by December rains.  You never knew until you got there. The final leg of the trip also always involved the infamous Likoni Ferry  that carries traffic from Mombasa Island to the southern mainland.

To catch it, you first had to drive through Mombasa, negotiating mad matatu drivers and throngs of push-cart guys, shunting impossibly huge loads of cooking oil, coconuts, pineapples, coca cola. Then came the broiling wait for the ferry. If you timed it badly, the traffic tailed back into town.  Being tetchy Brits who do not bear overheatedness well, we did not welcome being sitting ducks for all the street traders, despite the fact that roasted cashew nuts were a favourite. Grumpy old us.

But then, when we found ourselves close enough to the head of queue to see the in-coming ferry, it was all change. Suddenly the excitement hit. This place was Africa with bells and whistles, and in every sense. All of life swarmed by as the ferry spilled out its trucks, multi-coloured matatus and crowds and crowds of humanity. The burst of colours under the tropic sun set the brain afire – the women in their vibrant kanga wraps, men in kanzus and embroidered kofia caps, the youth sporting the rich world’s recycled tee-shirts with every imaginable corporate slogan draped from skinny shoulders.

There was always a frisson of anxiety as we boarded. Would we make it to the other side? After all, the ferry had been known to cut loose and drift off towards the Indian Ocean. But no. It never happened to us.

Even so, the final glide up the mainland slipway always seemed a minor miracle. We’re here! And here was Likoni market – throbbing with rhumba rhythms, and hooting-whistling matatu crews. Ramshackle stalls line the road – hoteli, hair salons, tailors’, fruit and veg sellers, Chinese multi-coloured enamel ware and plastics. There are smells of steaming market waste, hot mandazi donuts, joss sticks, cheap perfume, diesel and dust.


The foot passengers poured around us. We crawled through the melee. Until – at  last – the open road – the long straight causeway that runs south through Kwale District to  Lunga Lunga, the last town in Kenya before the Tanzanian border.

This road is lined with coconut plantations, the palms all leaning with the sea breeze.  Cattle graze beneath baobabs and kapok trees. There are guest houses, and small-holdings, schools and tiny mosques. The homes have corrugated iron or palm thatch makuti roofs. The walls are coral rag or wattle and daub. Verandahs feature. There are more trading centres, curio carvers, furniture makers, general stores, charcoal sellers, second hand clothes, kangas flying in the breeze like flags.



We never went as far as Lunga Lunga. Tiwi was far enough. To arrive at Maweni, the little beach village perched above the Indian Ocean, to immerse in clear waters, and finally unblur with bottle of Tusker beer – bliss.

dawn on Tiwi with dugout - Copy


copyright 2015 Tish Farrell


Lamu Dreaming


…to sleep, to dream…

Anyone who has seen my post on The Swahili will know that I’ve had Lamu on my mind. The island lies off Kenya’s northern coast, and its Stone Town is one of the best preserved Swahili settlements, lived in for the last 700 years.  We went there one Christmas, flying out of Nairobi in a small plane that let you watch the ground all the way there. This was comforting in some ways, but in others not: the bush country east of the capital is arid and little inhabited except by wildlife, and the coast hinterland, then as now, too often the haunt of Shifta (Somali bandits). Yet there was one especially striking moment that at once distracted me from other anxieties. It was the sight as we flew over the Tana River Delta and saw the red earth of the Kenya Highlands flowing out into the sea like blood: the country’s life force pumping away. It looked like a shark attack of epic proportions. I was glad when we touched down on Manda Island and our only concern was to catch the same ferry to Lamu as our luggage.



A storm blew up as we chugged across the strait in a Lamu fishing dhow. We tourists huddled under the awning to keep dry as the world turned steely grey. Our captain though, out in the rain, simply secured his hat and looked resolutely to shore. The rain did not last, and by the time we had put into Shela  harbour, the coral rag walls of the houses were steaming; scents of jasmine and frangipani filling the air. As we followed our guide up a sandy path from the shore, I remembered it was Christmas Eve. It seemed we had stepped into a dream.


The hotel was also a dream for someone as nosy as Nosy-Writer. It occupied an old merchant’s house in the centre of the village, and best of all our room was up in the palm thatch with the whole top floor at our disposal. Not only that, most of the walls were open to the elements and overlooked the village. Sadly it seems, the place no longer exists, so perhaps I really did dream it.


Shela village square from our room with many views. In the foreground is a  stack of the coral rag building blocks from which  most of the houses are built. The spreading thorn tree was the place where the donkeys were parked until needed for transport.


On Christmas Day we bumped into Azrael who sold us the most delicious, freshly cooked, fish samosas – a local speciality.


The only problem with our room’s open-plan arrangement was that not only could I see into people’s kitchens, gardens and bedrooms,  but we could hear everything too. It made for nights of fractured sleep – radios playing, pots clattering, cats yowling, but mostly hee-hawing donkeys, Lamu’s equivalent of night-sounding car alarms. Then just as you were drifting back to sleep, the dawn call to morning prayer would begin, the sacred strains of Allahu akbar (God is greatest) winding through my faithless semi-consciousness. It was a disorientating start to Christmas Day. Yet later on, when we set off on the two-mile beach hike between Shela and Lamu town, from every quarter the locals greeted us – Happy Christmas, Happy Christmas. There was no stinting on hospitality, and that extended to the plentiful provision of nice things to lie down on, and what with the steamy tropical heat by day, and the wakeful nights, these were more than welcome.

Lala salama, as they say in KiSwahili – sleep peacefully.



© 2013 Tish Farrell