We were quickly allowed to exit Tanzania into the no man’s land before Kenya. The queue before the Kenyan customs post was short, and soon we were sitting on chairs before a uniformed custom’s official. Vision and mission statements for customs and immigration were prominently displayed and we were required to fill in a form, pose for a photo and have the identity page of our passports scanned. As the senior man (well, oldest) in our party I was called ‘Pappa’ and treated with respect. The official may have said ‘Welcome to Kenya’ but he handled all members of our team quickly and professionally.
Soon we were in Kenya, a place famed for its history as a British colony, the Mau Mau insurrection and Karen Blixon and many other writers. At our last stop, in a splendid lodge near a vast lake, we found a serious shop with many books about Kenya. I purchased Kuki Gallmann’s I dreamed of Africa a hard copy of which we had seen in the viewing platform of a previous lodge. This is a moving book that suffers only by the (one assumes) excessive alleged talent and generosity of its references to Kuki’s friends, with only one exception. As a schoolgirl in Italy she failed to get a mark for an essay set for her class on how they envisioned their life in 20 years. The teacher said her imagined life in Africa was ‘totally absurd’. You must have some feasible desire for the future, Kuki was told, ‘Like being a … teacher, or a doctor, a mother, perhaps a writer’.
I was irresistibly reminded of the teacher in year 12 who asked ‘Who wants to apply for a Commonwealth scholarship?’ After all the guns had raised their hand, so did I. ‘You, Jonson’, Mr Baldwin said. ‘Don’t waste our time’. He was either unsuited to be a teacher or a master psychologist. I insisted on being added to the list and much to everyone’s surprise won an offer which I turned down on the grounds I already had a job.
Also like me, the young Kuki suffered a grievous accident requiring months of treatment that left her with a severe handicap that was remedied only much later with prolonged surgery. (My handicap was largely psychological and was only partly remedied by my first career in the mighty RBA.)
We drove on, pleased to be in Kenya, a place markedly more prosperous than Tanzania. We asked our splendid guide, Joshua by name, why Kenya was so much better off. ‘After independence, Tanzania was socialist and we were free enterprise’, he said, a reply that would have made Milton Friedman smile. Apart from roads in the bush, that were marginally better than those in Kenya, everything one saw was bigger and better and looked more prosperous than we had observed in socialist Tanzania. We saw many fine buildings and housing estates, roads near the main towns and big cities were crowded with cars and trucks and in Nairobi we experienced a traffic jam as bad as that near the MCG on Grand Final day.
Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of poverty in Kenya and it is no first world paradise. Beggars abound, unemployment is high and minimum wages are so low that many people with jobs rely on tips to provide for their families – a feature Milton might also have approved of. One often sees angry black faces of men waving trinkets for sale as the Toyota Land Cruiser speeds past.
Soon of course we hit the game parks. The animals were just as splendid as those in Tanzania, if not so plentiful. We saw the usual set of scary or simply delightful wildlife. The giraffes were a different tribe, with long white ‘stockings’ and rather different markings than those in Tanzania, but possibly better performers. On one occasion we saw a group of around 20 including many cute youngsters and two adolescent males rubbing necks in a graceful performance right before our eyes. Quite often a large giraffe would stop to look at us intently, as older giraffes seem often to do.
Late one afternoon, two leopards were engaged in a mating ritual in a tree. Sadly, fading light meant we failed to observe the denouement, but it was another highlight. Earlier we had seen eight lions basking on a large rock, resting before a night of hunting. The same day we saw two grown lions resting while two cubs ran about chasing each other. When the grown-ups began to hunt, the cubs walked along well behind, without any more playing.
Once again there were hippos, baboons, cheeky monkeys, white rhinos, plentiful antelope and zebras, warthogs, buffalos, wilderbeast, hyenas, a single bush hare and many species of birds. Overall, however, there were less animals per square kilometre than in Tanzania, and there was far longer to drive over very rough roads to see them. Young Masai males manned onofficial roadblocks and collected smallish tolls. We were told that the bush roads were the responsibility of local councils, so nothing more needs to be said. We figured the length of trips was due partly the dearth of places to cross the border legally, and partly due to poor planning. In Kenya there were far too many one night stands (referring to accomodation) which meant an early start every day and much packing and unpacking of luggage. There was a logistics expert in our party, and we devised more efficient ways to cover the ground as we raced along tricky bush tracks.
One pleasing aspect of the trip, in both countries, was the number of school kids we saw walking along the side of the road to their schools. All were uniformed and many happily waved as we bounced past. Education is free and compulsory although parents have to pay for the uniforms. In the remote areas there were a surprising number of brightly painted primary schools with kids converging to them along bush tracks in both directions. Inevitably in the bush some children are allocated to tasks like minding the flocks and therefore acquire agricultural knowledge instead of book learning. Pragmatically, the law is not applied with total rigor in these circumstances.
A major point of the trip was to experience the mass migration of animals in search of fresh grass. Joshua warned us that he could not guarantee this experience, but raced around trying hard to find an example at least. Finally he found a spot on the Mara River where mobs of zebra and buffalos appeared to be approaching. We noted the two crocodiles, one a 7 metre monster, that were cruising near the likely crossing point, also a smallish hippo that seemed there to watch the fun.
The zebras and buffalos mingled as they approached the rapidly flowing river but seemed nervous and uncertain. At one point the whole lot seemed likely to depart for a safer crossing, but finally one or two animals jumped in and the mob followed with increasing numbers. Surprisingly, the monster crocodile decided to cruise away just then, so perhaps he’d dined already, or perhaps he did not wish to get trampled to death. In the event, as far as we could tell all the animals made it safely across. There was general cheering from the women, and surpressed disappointment from the two males in the party.
Our final day involved a three hour drive into Nairobi for a meal at the famous Carnivore restaurant. It was surrounded by a high fence with guards to man the single gate. Here there was a vast fire pit surrounded by hundreds of tourists and locals. Attractive waitresses explained the order of events and took orders for drinks while promoting wine rather than (far cheaper) beer. (Tusker beer was our favourite tipple during this part of the trip.) Then men in colourful traditional dress arrived every few minutes with a long skewer or metal hook on which a different variety of roasted meat was hanging. Every variety of standard meat or ribs was presented, and sliced off directly to ones plate with wicked looking knives. One could ask for ‘exotic meat’ which we declined due to a reluctance to ‘eat bambi’.
Within 45 minutes we were well stuffed and begged for an end to proceedings. There was the inevitable shop and signs of major building project within the compound which we were told was to be a multi-story hotel. Carnivore was the nearest thing to a gold mine we saw in Kenya.
At the end of this splendid feast we were delivered in turn to the accommodation of choice in Nairobi, with appropriately warm farewells. We were lucky to be only five in a vehicle that would take seven or eight at a pinch and we formed a close knit group, all Aussies with good senses of humour as it happened plus Joshua who was smart and diligent with 5 out of six children at school or university.
We had chosen to spend our last night in Africa at the Muthaiga Country Club. This is in its own compound on the outskirts of Nairobi. It was built in 1913 and has wonderful old photos, cartoons and paintings, in a glass case the sad front half of a splendid lion shot by a club member, and cartoons that generally make fun of the club members and its guests.
Here one could settle in, drink a fine whisky before dinner, eat like a big game hunter and finish with a soothing brandy, but we were restrained after our big lunch. Dress code is ‘smart casual’ no jeans but no need for a tie.
Next morning we packed after another one night stand and headed for the airport. No problem with luggage this time, a nice business class lounge and two comfortable trips, the first back to Doha and then after a short visit to another lounge on the Qatar flight to Melbourne. Wonderful cabin staff, excellent food and wine and comfortable beds. And no crash landing!
Here is a link to an account of our earlier time in Tanzania.