Been There, Done That… Nairobi, Kenya

I have had the good fortune to travel all over the world—for both business and pleasure, not that those are mutually exclusive. This blog is about my unique experiences around the globe. It is not intended as a paean to the wonders of the locales themselves, as there already exist volumes that more than do justice to the magnificence of virtually every corner of this earth.  Here, I simply recount small, personal moments of surprise, embarrassment, stupidity, excitement, fear, heroics, and other stuff like that.

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Nairobi, Kenya…December 1993. Sande and I had been living in London for just over a year when we decided to embark on the first of what would be many holiday adventures beyond Europe. Over the coming years, these would include the faraway wonders of China, India, South Africa, Mongolia, Nepal, Morocco, Russia, and Oman, among others. The fact that we started in Africa—or frankly, that we started at all—is noteworthy given that Sande’s idea of a “travel adventure” was being in a hotel without hairdryers and my previous experience with “roughing it” was to leave Boy Scout camp several days early with a bad case of stomach cramps owing to my inability to cross the threshold of the odious outhouse, much less take a seat inside. (Thousand leggers crawling, flies swarming, bats hanging, and the smell—ugh!) Nonetheless, at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning 1993, Sande and I landed in Nairobi to go “On Safari.”

Over the next twelve days, we would track big game in Samburu, straddle the equator atop Mt. Kenya, camp on the vast plains of the Masai Mara, and snorkel in the Indian Ocean off the coastal town of Mombasa—a town we were quite fortunate to reach alive! But that is a New Year’s Eve story.

First, we had to manage our way through a Christmas Week complete with Salvation Army bands, a pissed-off bull elephant, an unimaginable number of wildebeest and zebra drawing great crowds of big cat predators (this, thanks to extreme drought conditions having delayed the annual migration of the herds to coincide with our visit—thank you, Mother Nature), and stress-fractured femurs (Sande’s) that turned beyond-bumpy safari drives into a literal hell-on-wheels for my lovely bride. Trooper that she is, Sande’s only complaint was that I bitched and moaned about her gimpiness more than she did. (It wasn’t until we returned to London that her “sore leg” was properly diagnosed and treated. Didn’t I, the outhouse wimp, feel bad then for having badgered her to “toughen up” in the Masai Mara!)

By 5 a.m. on Christmas morning, Sande and I had been transported to our luxury hotel where we would catch several hours of one eye-open sleep…this owing to Sande’s concern that the multiple cans of complimentary cockroach spray were there for a reason. After our nap, a room upgrade, and calls home to wish our families Merry Christmas and torture ourselves with visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads, we set off for Christmas lunch, Nairobi-style. Cheese sandwiches and warm cokes served on an outdoor patio while a Salvation Army Band, handsomely attired in dress whites, played Christmas music. Apparently already well on our way to African acclimatization, we enjoyed the heck out of it.

Sande was adjusting nicely to being called “mama.” (The next twelve days would invariably begin with the breakfast query, Papa want coffee; mama want tea?) Our Swahili lessons were going well, save for Sande’s occasional sleepy confusion of Jambo (hello) with Gumbo. And we were both excited to know that, early the next morning, we would fly 250 miles north to the Samburu Game Reserve to experience the wild.

Sande is not a good flyer, but for some strange reason she finds it comforting to be in a small plane where you can actually see the pilot, at least until he lets go of the steering wheel, turns around, and starts pointing out the sights. It was, nonetheless, a magnificent flight, low enough to almost feel the endlessly open land below, dotted with occasional scrub-covered hillsides, and ending on a strip of gravel in the middle of an arid nowhere.  That is where we met Philip, our game driver for this part of the journey. A truly refined gentleman, who had worked for the same touring company for fifteen years and driven global celebrities (Richard Burton) and former Presidents (Jimmy Carter), Philip still managed to convey a childlike awe for each game drive…perfect for the big awestruck kids that Sande and I were.

Nothing quite compares with seeing wildlife up close and personal in its element, whether from a convertible mini-van or our room at the Samburu Lodge. Standing on the porch-like deck off our stilt-elevated room, not more than six or seven feet above ground, we looked directly down onto the broad leathery backs of several massive crocodiles—easily twelve feet long and weighing who knows how much—kicking back on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River. While on the deck itself, we were regularly visited by two sweet-faced little monkeys, undoubtedly anxious to see what snacks we may have carried out from the mini-bar. Best of all, on our very first morning, I woke just in time to see a family of elephants walking trunk-to-tail on the far side of the river. Bliss!

An hour later, on our first official “game drive,” we had a more personal meeting with a bull elephant who was not humored that we were on “his road.” I don’t care how big and powerful your mini-van is, it is no match for a teen-aged, multi-ton male elephant feeling his oats and spreading his ears. Philip wisely engaged reverse.

Game drives are fabulous as they occur at dawn and sunset, thus tweaking one’s appetite for breakfast and dinner, and allowing midday snoozing poolside. It’s a lifestyle I could readily adopt for the duration. One day, however, we filled our midday with a “shopping excursion.”

Setting off from the Lodge by camel (without question a hideously uncomfortable way to travel), we struck out for the untamed brush behind three young Samburu tribesmen carrying spears. A half hour later, we arrived at a stand of trees under which sat three more tribesmen—clearly the sales staff—each offering beads, chokers and other African baubles. I was so happy to get off the damn camel that I actually bought some stuff!

Meanwhile, Sande was being quizzed by the spear boys about how much I paid for her! Swahili tradition generally requires the gifting of at least a cow to the girl’s family before marriage is possible. Thus, the boys were quite surprised to learn that no livestock was exchanged before our betrothal. (If those guys knew how much more than a cow Sande had cost me in our five years of marriage to that point, they’d have appreciated what a good deal a heifer was! But I digress.)

I always assumed that standing on the equator would be among the hottest places on earth. But when you’re doing it at an altitude of 17,000 feet, it’s actually a bit nippy. After a couple days in Samburu, we had been driven two plus hours south to the Mount Kenya Safari Club, which straddles the equator atop Africa’s second largest mountain. For almost fifty years, the Club (and it really was one) had been attracting the rich and famous, owing to its establishment by the great American actor, William Holden, and his rich and famous friends. Sande and I were, of course, neither rich nor famous, so we spent just one night there—a luxurious if lung-tugging night. To get from our villa to the main house for dinner required a short walk up a sloping grade of perfectly landscaped lawn. You would be surprised how taxing such a simple walk can be at 17,000 feet above sea level. Well worth it though. Besides, our next overnight accommodations would be considerably more rustic.

The next morning, we flew to the Masai. The plane held maybe sixteen passengers all going to different camps there, so we would make several stops…Sande’s and mine being the last. This flight was, without question, the most fascinating of my life!

There are no runways in the Masai, just dirt strips that seemed to be covered by thousands of ant colonies, or so it looked from on high. As the plane descended, those ants took on greater definition until it was apparent that they were, in fact, herds of migrating zebra, buffalo and wildebeest. It was also apparent that we could not land unless they moved. Making that happen required a unique choreography of man and machine.

First, the plane literally buzzes the landing strip just feet above the animals’ heads, which does effectively disperse the herds. This, however, must be immediately followed by the frantic efforts of “ground control,” as several Masai tribesmen wave their spear-gripping arms and generally flail around like men possessed in an effort to keep the herds from re-establishing runway dominance before the plane can turn and prepare for its actual landing. More than one flyover was usually required for the herds to get the message. It was really a very cool experience!

As for the Masai itself, it is a place like no other I have ever been. The magnificence of truly endless expanses of open land in every direction is something that no static shot, however perfectly composed, can do justice. And the wildlife…it would be pointless for me to attempt to catalog and wax poetic about the beauty, brutality, majesty, familial pride, hierarchical respect, and awesome power we observed there.  Suffice it to say that after many game drives over several days, we knew we were intruding and, much as we loved every moment of the experience, a part of us also wished we could leave these splendid creatures alone.

Our days in the Masai were loaded with treasured memories. The sun rises huge there and, like a rising theatre curtain, unveils what is truly the greatest show on earth, as the vast plains come to life. That large shadow just past the four-foot high, electrified fence a hundred yards out from our tent turns out to be an elephant pulling at the branches of a lone tree. Those dark shapes climbing over the fence and sprinting through the grass are baboons making (as Sande said) a reverse prison break. And those stick figures with something pointy on their shoulders are camp guards patrolling the grounds with rifles to protect us inmates.

And then there was “Number One.” Each morning on our arrival at the breakfast tent, Sande and I would be welcomed by a tall, young Kenyan with a delightful Master of Ceremonies complex—his dazzling smile made all the more so by the contrast of his whiter-than-white teeth against his coal-black skin. He would ask how we were feeling that morning. We would, of course, offer the standard, if rather generic, response: Just fine, thanks. And how are you? To which, the young man would invariably respond with great theatrical flourish: “Number One!” elongating and elevating the um in “number” to the point where you wondered if he was ever going to complete his response. We loved that guy. To this day, more than twenty years later, Sande and I still fondly recall his greeting to one another when we are feeling particularly chipper.

It was New Year’s Eve morning when we left the Masai Mara to head south to the coastal town of Mombasa on yet another memorable flight…this one because of the flying machine itself…a 1942 Douglas Dakota C-53 Skytrooper, last used in WW II as a troop transport plane. These are the planes whose tails sit on the ground, the nose high in the air, thus making the process of taking one’s seat somewhat akin to mountain climbing. This fifty-year old relic would take us back to Nairobi, where we’d hop another plane to Mombasa, where the “fun” would really begin.

Landing in Mombasa that night at around 11 p.m., we were met by a driver who would take us to our “coastal resort” via a combination of road and ferry. As luck would have it (or not!), we arrived at the ferry (basically a flat barge without side railings) around midnight, just in time for New Year’s reveling to be in full swing. Ours was the only vehicle on the barge…just us in our car and what seemed like hundreds of Kenyan revelers, standing, dancing, banging on the car’s trunk and hood, pointing at us inside, speaking languages we did not understand, and seeming way too interested in encouraging us to step out and join the celebration. Basically, it scared the crap out of us, thanks in no small part to the fact that it seemed to scare the crap out of our driver as well. Given that he was one of them and spoke the language, we figured nothing good could come from our joining the festivities.

Had we known that night what we learned several days later on our return trip to the airport, I suspect Sande and I would have never set foot (or wheels) onto that ferry in the first place. It was only in the brilliance of midday sunlight that we fully appreciated the dangers of that river crossing. The barge itself looked like something Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn had whipped up to escape from Injun Joe; the river was a fast-flowing, muddy-looking, take-no-prisoners quagmire; and life jackets were—well, of course, there weren’t any of those.

In between our two river crossings, we did have some memorable days at the coastal resort in Mombasa, but those were largely memorable for the wrong reasons. By the time we arrived, less than an hour into the New Year of 1994: the resort’s celebratory buffet looked like it had been plundered by Attila the Hun; our room was at the farthest end of the property, thus stressing Sande’s now severely stressed femur to the breaking point; and, the restaurant staff was about as sweet as any human could be, and every bit as incompetent. Finally, there was the snorkeling adventure.

It seemed like a good idea at the time—a small boat excursion to the coral reef, with a trained diver, to observe underwater beauty. Only two problems: 1) we had been forewarned that some of the coral was not only razor sharp but also poisonous; and 2) the diving pro (basically the guy who steered the boat out there, then stayed in it while we paying customers launched ourselves overboard) didn’t bring enough flippers and life jackets. Without flippers, one is not able to power against the current which, at times, seemed to want to throw one into the razor sharp (and poisonous?) coral, which is where the chest and back protection offered by a life jacket would have come in handy. Suffice it to say, I was happy when I was able to climb back into the boat in one piece, as opposed to several.

Despite this last bit about Mombasa’s not-yet-ready-for-primetime coastal resort of twenty years ago, our trip to Kenya was an amazing adventure. And while I feel truly blessed to be able to say that Sande and I have had so many more amazing travel experiences over the years, our time “On Safari & Then Some” remains second to none for its sensory stimulation and flat-out thrills. Or, as our young friend from the Masai would undoubtedly say, it was NUM-ber One!

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