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


The road from the Range Station to Kiboko


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.”


Kilimanjaro caught from the Mombasa highway just south of Kiboko


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.


Hunter’s Lodge, Kiboko


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.

Graham and peacock 1992

Afternoon tea with the sugar-stealing peacock


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.

The bridge

The bridge to the vegetable shamba


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.


Graham's team at Kiboko Lab - the last day

Kiboko lab and staff


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.


Looking toward the Lodge dining room


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.


Caught red-handed, a vervet raider eating our bananas


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



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.

Scan-130429-0155 (3)

Esther at her stall with son, Tom


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…


Letter from Kathleen Collins Howell, illustrator and best friend

Daily Prompt: on the road

© 2013 Tish Farrell

Letters from Lusaka Part 1

Notes from an aid nomad’s life in Zambia

Cairo Road - looking north

October 1992 and I’m expecting to start a new life in Medway, Kent, but instead I find we are off to Lusaka. It is hard to take in. I am barely back in England after nine months in Kenya where we lived out of a Land Rover, plying the Mombasa Highway. My heart is still in the Ngong Hills, the knuckle-shaped peaks that were my last view of East Africa before the plane rose through the clouds and headed for London via Bahrain. In that moment I find myself weeping for the loss of the Ngongs, recognising, with a twinge of shame, I would never weep like this for my homeland.  

Due to ticket problems I have to travel back to the UK alone. G will follow the day after. When we say goodbye at Nairobi airport there is no inkling of another overseas contract. Yet two days later when we meet up in England, the first thing G says is: how would you like to go to Zambia?

Zambia, I echo blankly. How would I know if I want to go there? But with barely a pause, I say yes; I’m up for it. I’ll find out later if I’m going to like the place. Besides, whatever happens, it’s bound to be interesting.

When we tell friends and family where we are going, they also look blank. Zambia, they say. What did it used to be? It is only months afterwards that I see how loaded is this seemingly simple question, how unfathomable the answer. What indeed did Zambia used to be – before it was Northern Rhodesia – before David Livingstone passed through it in search of lost souls and the Nile’s source, and claimed the falls known as Mosi oa Tunya (The Smoke that Thunders) for Queen Victoria; before the south’s Zulu Wars that pushed many displaced communities across the Zambezi?

We’re expected to leave within the month, but due to various administrative foul-ups, this stretches to two. It gives us time to unpack our Kenya life, catch up on dental work, have the jabs we have not already had, say hello and goodbye to relatives, and to get married. This last event takes place briefly before a handful of guests in a Bridgnorth building society office where the registrar has occasional premises. Our little marriage party finds itself queuing for attention alongside Friday morning withdrawers and depositors. It all seems fittingly bizarre for a life that no longer fits the norm.

At this point I am still no wiser about our destination. In these pre-Google days there is little time for research. To my annoyance, too, I find there are no handy books on Zambia, not in the public library, nor in the bookshops. By the time we come to leave, we have only the sparse Foreign Office briefing notes to go on. They speak of the climate and the kind of clothing we will need, and of the possibility of having to take a driving test if we want to drive in Zambia. No clear picture of the country emerges. I am becoming increasingly irritated at the lack of information, as well as at my own ignorance. How can I, an English woman, not know a thing about a land that Britain ruled and exploited for over sixty years, a land we only quitted in 1964 while I was in still at school? Why wasn’t it on the curriculum along with Cicero and Chekhov? How can the existence of a former protectorate pass so swiftly from the protecting nation’s consciousness? How can it become so very unimportant?

Then suddenly it’s too late for righteous indignation; it’s all down to family farewells, and wondering if the right things have been packed, when there is no way of knowing what the right things should be. Of necessity, it becomes a matter of travelling hopefully and telling ourselves that the contract is for ten months only. And ten months isn’t long, is it?


So, November 1992 and we fly into Lusaka with the rains. It seems like a good omen – to arrive with rain. There has been severe drought over southern Africa for at least a year. Crops have blown to dust, rivers run to sand, and the granaries lie empty. In remote districts, we later learn, villagers have been surviving on a diet of wild mangoes. To add to their misery, the wildlife is hungry too. In one district villagers have been barricading themselves into their homes. The local lions have developed a taste for canine flesh and are breaking down house doors at night in order to snatch the dogs from the midst of their terrified human families.

And of course, this is why we are going to Zambia; famine is taking us there. G has been seconded from the Natural Resources Institute in Kent to the E. U. Delegation in Lusaka to supervise the distribution of European Union food aid to starving Zambians. The country’s then new President, Frederick Chiluba, tells the Head of Delegation that he does not trust his ministers to do the job. The consignments of maize meal and cooking oil must therefore be distributed through church missions and the Red Cross. Zambia is a big country, the size of France and the Low Countries combined. G will be in charge of logistics: checking the contents of grain stores, getting trucks on the road and ensuring that loads reach their intended destination. His boss at NRI is sure he is fitted for the task, although he has never done anything like it before.

Food aid consignment 4

Food aid awaiting distribution in a Zambian warehouse.


In Kenya, as a crop storage specialist, he had been dealing with another kind of food crisis – the spread of a voracious pest that gobbles up maize – the Larger Grain Borer. This beetle is a native of South and Central America, and (ironically) came to Africa in the 1980s in a food aid consignment from the United States. It has no natural predators in its new homeland and, across a continent where maize is many peoples’ staple crop, it also has all the food it can eat. If a grain store is infested you can hear the jaws of these tiny creatures gnawing the cobs to dust. In Zambia we find the beetles are already there too, spreading out into villages along the line of the Tazara Railway that links land-locked Zambia to the port of Dar es Salaam. The Chinese built the line in the 1970s to provide Zambia with an external trade route through Tanzania after Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Southern Rhodesia cut the country off from all points south. Now the Tanzam is a handy vector for crop pests and thus, through such unintended consequences, is the frequent folly of donor good intention compounded. It is the sort of thing that happens in African countries all the time. It makes us question then (as we will do many times over the next few years) the ethics of our presence on the continent.


That November morning, then, as we make our descent through grey skies into Lusaka International Airport, I note only how flat and tamed the landscape looks: large square fields of European-owned ranches (Lonrho, for one, is a big player here); service roads and farm buildings laid out in orderly grid patterns. It is also very green and looks more like France than the Africa I have come to know. I suppose I feel a little disappointed. It is bush country that I have fallen in love with, the smell of it triggering some ancient genetic memory that tells me that such landscapes mean home.

Once down on the tarmac, and as a matter of courtesy so we will not get wet in this welcome downpour, a bus arrives to ferry us the short distance to the low white terminal building. Our fellow travellers are European businessmen, each shouldering his laptop bag. By contrast, a tall African in a well-cut suit emerges from the First Class cabin wielding only a shiny new golf club. It seems utterly incongruous, as if he has just stepped out of a London taxi after visiting a golfing shop rather than flying half way across the world. It crosses my mind that I like his style.

By now I am both jet-lagged and deeply anxious about the forthcoming immigration process. Still fresh in my mind is the stony-faced inscrutability of Kenyan officialdom when I twice visited the notorious Nyayo House immigration department to extend my three-month travel visa; I recall the hours left in limbo, sitting amongst distressed Somalis and Ethiopians, all trying to secure sanctuary away from troubled homelands. But suddenly I see it’s not going to be like this. The officers, as they take their seats at the immigration desks are all smart young women. They are laughing and chatting and, when we hand them our passports and paperwork, they are still smiling, and at us.

Next we have our first, but fleeting taste of the diplomatic life, as G’s new boss steps up and introduces himself. His name is Bernard. He is French, frenetic and instantly engaging. He whisks away our paperwork and deals with it in minutes. There is then a worrying delay before we can claim our bags. Bernard tells us that British Airways on this route are well known for leaving cases behind in London. Finally, though, we have our luggage and are propelled into Bernard’s Peugeot, Bernard talking non-stop. He apologises for his poor English, saying that this is his first posting to an English-speaking country. Mauretania and Madagascar were his previous postings. Worryingly, he adds that he hopes we will speak some French. Beside me, looking wan, G winces; he does not fly well. He can barely speak. When he does, it is to utter a customary response in KiSwahili. I’m beginning to feel hysterical.

Soon, though, all smooths out as we cruise along the Great East Road into Lusaka. There is little traffic (not like Nairobi), and the place has a small-town provincial air – wide streets lined with jacarandas shedding mauve petals and acacias with russet coloured flowers, red-roofed villas. We pass the turn to the University of Zambia, the entrance to Lusaka’s agricultural show ground. The side walks are filled with people walking – young men in loose shirts and smart front-pleated pants striding out, country women in ankle-length chitenge wraps, city girls in high heels and sleekly cut frocks, and who seem to flow along the street. There are roadside stalls selling garden surplus – mangoes, tomatoes, okra, spinach.

E C Delegation

EU Delegation, Lusaka


And I am just thinking that I can cope with this when we swing into the grounds of the five-star Pomodzi Hotel, and Bernard’s car is instantly lassoed in chains whose ends the hotel porter quickly padlocks to an adjacent post. I have never seen nor imagined anything like this. Bernard explains that this is a necessary procedure even though it will only take a few minutes to escort us to reception. I see that other guests’ cars are similarly chained. It is then that my one sure piece of Zambia information surfaces. All along we have been ignoring it, that in that year of 1992 the country has a big security problem. Some months later the reasons for this become clear, but for now I am struggling to absorb this apparent evidence of an expected car-jacking – in broad daylight, and in such orderly and upmarket surroundings. I gaze, bemused, at the tail-coated porter who is now ushering us into the hotel foyer. After the humid warmth of outside, the hotel is frigid with air conditioning. The reception area is cavernous, all grey-white marble. A trolley appears and our cases are stacked upon it. They look shamefully shabby in these austerely smart surroundings. The porter politely motions me towards a comfortable armchair while G registers. This always takes ages, and by now it is lunchtime and I am hungry and yet too tired to want to eat. Then suddenly there are Englishmen everywhere. They seem to issue as one from the lift.

“Hello. I’m David…Peter…Tim…Paul…Alan. We’ve not been introduced but…”

As welcoming committees go, it is well meant but too much, and I wonder if I’m responding sensibly. They turn out to be G’s fellow consultants from the Natural Resources Institute, out on short-term missions relating to crop storage and food security. They include G’s head of section, the man who seconded him to the E.U. Delegation. He’s just off to Zimbabwe, and hardly have we reached our room than the phone rings, and G is summoned to an impromptu meeting and a trip round a Lusaka grain store that has flooded, none of which has anything to do with his present posting. He goes off looking terrible while I collapse on the bed, trying to come to terms with my new surroundings.

Here we are back in Africa, back in the so-called developing world, here to help deal with a food crisis. Yet now I find myself in a room that has more of comfort and opulence than I’m used to in England. There is a huge colour television that shows American and British world service programmes. There is a telephone by the bed and another beside the lavatory. The ivory tiled bathroom has abundant hot, clean water and piles of soft white towels. The flask of drinking water is chilled. We have our own veranda. The room service menu offers club sandwiches, burgers and steaks. A polite notice on the writing desk requests guests not to tempt the staff by leaving their valuables unattended.

This is a hotel designed not so much for travellers and tourists, but to cater for the expectations of international entrepreneurs. Its luxury is hard to reconcile with the hardship that G has been brought here to relieve. This is only the first of the multiple contradictions that we will encounter over the next ten months. We learn not to dwell on them, and so become part of the contradictions.


Now in Lusaka, we find ourselves dropped into a diplomatic no-man’s-land. Although G works for a British government institution and has been deployed by them on official business, neither the EU nor the British High Commission want to altogether acknowledge our presence in the country. We gather that the BHC has some bee in its bonnet about the cost of air-lifting us back to the UK in the event of some great ill befalling us. This is a puzzling response when all G asks for is some anti-malarial pills. They are not keen to give us any, since this establishes responsibility.

There is also a problem about finding us somewhere to live, this despite the fact that both missions have their own staff accommodation. We have been sent out with a stash of travellers’ cheques to pay for ten months’ rent and to buy a car, but house rents in Lusaka are twice the allowance we have been given. A Delegation secretary, a white Zambian, takes pity on us and directs us to a small company compound of eight houses where local Zambian Europeans and Asians live.

There is one house vacant, and we can just about afford it. The accommodation is very lowly by diplomatic standards, and full of dog-haired furniture, but we still manage to upset BHC consular etiquette because the compound has a swimming pool. Only officials of the higher orders may be allocated houses with pools. BHC staff kindly let us know of our gaff at social functions, although we wonder what it has to do with them since they were so unwilling to acknowledge our existence. Clearly the swimming pool has got under somebody’s skin.

Sable Road - our house by the pool 2

Home on the Sable Road compound.


Then, when we are among EU Delegation officials and their white Zambian staff, we are constantly regaled with tales of car-jackings, house break-ins, muggings and murder. At his house, Bernard has been newly issued with a gun and a short-wave radio to summon security in case of attacks by the locals. We presume that we are not important enough to warrant this scale of protection. When, after some weeks, I return to Zambian Immigration to renew my passport, and once more am treated with only good-hearted African courtesy, I consider switching my nationality to Zambian.

To be continued… Daily Prompt: Rolling Stone

© 2013 Tish Farrell