Our early evening flight from Heathrow landed in Nairobi at 4.30 in the morning; with little sleep and a 3 am breakfast the slow walk through passport control, visas and luggage collection to a still dark pavement outside the airport building where an enthusiastic guide greeted us was a blur. It seemed that the compulsory pre-purchase of an online visa was not compulsory at all, and everyone purchasing it at the airport meant we had to work our way through at a slow crawl which matched our lethargy. We were fingerprinted on entry which calls in to question the security and use of this data demanded of travellers on their journeys around the world. It was an inconspicuous start; as even with the best will in the world I compounded the anger of custom officers with my inadvertent choice of the wrong queue by failing to satisfy the fingerprint pad, finally it accepted my muddled offering and they thankfully waved me through.
Nairobi was hot, even at such an early hour, and the fleece I had been forced to wear because it would not fit into the small holdall that was all that was permitted on safari multiplied the heat’s effect. It was Africa though, and our group had all the enthusiasm of a school trip, and even a few bites to the legs did not deflate our enthusiasm. We climbed aboard the truck that was to be our home for the next ten days to travel the short distance to a hotel for breakfast, briefing and freshen up before our adventure began.
It was a Sunday morning so a Nairobi of quiet streets and little commercial activity emerged with dawn from the darkness. Our guide Erellah spoke with pride of his country’s capital stressing its rapidly increasing population and subsequent economic strength. He could live here because of his position with the travel company, and he very much saw this move there from his village as an upwardly mobile and positive step.
Nairobi, founded in 1899 in what was then British East Africa, is named after the now heavily polluted river that runs through it, and became the capital of an independent Kenya in 1963.It is a massive business hub and a physical manifestation of the entrepreneurial backbone of the Kenyan people. Our tour leader Erellah spoke of this driven nature; where time is for the taking and not wasting, which explained the sometimes abrupt, direct and quick fired questioning we experienced as we journeyed through Kenya.
The Nairobi streets were broad avenues; lined with buildings synonymous with the modernist style of the 1930s, renewed in the minimalist and daring concrete and glass dominated designs of the 1950s.Between these beautiful buildings that uncomfortably suggested colonial influence was a flurry of new builds driven, as we were later to hear repeated many times during our travels, by Chinese investment.
Advertising boards displayed familiar names but with a more naïve and less sophisticated approach which was refreshing, as was the evidence of a thriving manufacturing base often suffocated by the dominant of service industries in Britain.
The Indian owned hotel, worn but well built, had more than a whiff of colonial about it and stood behind security guards and gates. Our 15$ breakfast was an unwelcome wakeup call, but that and the chance to freshen up with teeth cleaning followed by repellent spraying, saw us on the truck, briefed and enthusiastic, ready to begin our adventure.
As we left the centre the wide roads continued, but the buildings diminished in stature and began to be replaced by corrugated steel; the streets busier by necessity as extensions of these smaller “houses”. The first of the many cows, goats and donkeys that we were to see on our travels began to appear and the amount of rubbish on the streets grew. Erellah spoke of Kenya’s waste management issues, and told us that just that week the Government had passed a blanket ban on plastic bags. We passed a busy market where the intensity of the human interaction and noise was overwhelming; the bus took a collective intake of breath as the tyres seemed to skin the toes and noses of stubborn street traders who continued their business without a glance in our direction as their stalls appeared to disappear beneath our wheels.
Climbing out of the city a view from the truck window took time to sink in and then was gone leaving only shock and a need for an explanation. A line of people stood their feet balanced on the kerb edge apparently waiting for a bus all silent and staring. The picture pans out and between you and them is a woman face down on the road not moving; from her head blood flows in a river stretching away behind her. It is there for a moment, and then like all the other vehicles it is behind us, our guide unaware and unresponsive to our cries. We suddenly speak in unfinished sentences that fade in disbelief and then sink into numbness; an incomprehensible vision etched in our minds; someone’s loved one dead on the road and we drove by.
We were heading west into the Great African Rift Valley for an overnight stop before our first game drive in Nakuru National Park. The Great African Rift Valley is a fracture in the earth’s surface that forms a large basin surrounded by steep sides; this fracture in the earth’s surface stretches 3,500 km from the Red Sea to Mozambique and is argued by some to be the birthplace of humankind. We stopped at a hazardous viewpoint with vehicles passing close by to look down into the Rift Valley; our eyes taking some time to find perspective and scale in this vast expanse. Enjoying the view with us was a large dog, one of many we were to see over the next two weeks, and all very similar: usually sandy brown in colour and standing about as high as a Doberman with more muscle or maybe less flesh depending on how well they were fed.
Continuing to drive we passed a steady procession of goats, cows and donkeys with our route passing between towns and villages. Sometimes dwellings had sprung up at a major crossing with a row of corrugated shacks covering every need from haircuts to “butchery”; a slightly unnerving alternative name for a butcher and often inexplicably combined with a hotel. All these shacks had colourful, vivid signs that contrasted with their makeshift appearance and the attention paid to the displays of produce within. Stopping at a crossroads was an excuse for traders to descend upon us, and bananas, grilled corn and charcoal were some of the items purchased this way. There was also a random police presence along the roads; immaculately dressed in brilliant white these officers unnerved our guide and team, and when they talked about the web of regulations that by their complexity it was hard not to fall foul of you could understand their trepidation.
Approaching the town of Nakuru the truck was forced to detour around a new construction project: a new flyover was emerging from the dust. The formality of contra-flow or health and safety were not in evidence, and we simply drove around the construction work crisscrossing whatever areas we needed to re-join the road or avoid back jolting ruts or potholes. The project like many others in Kenya is funded and managed by the Chinese, with hotels being built to accommodate those employed on the project for China. Our guide jokes about the quality, and even to our untrained eyes the depth of the tarmac and amounts of concrete look on the sparse side and not long lasting.
Nakuru is our first introduction to the persistence of the Kenyan commercial drive. We visit the supermarket in Nakuru while our cook does the shopping. We will get used to the armed guards on the entrance, but struggle with being told that even here it is expected that you barter, despite all the produce being labelled clearly with a price. Our truck engine is still running but items are still being thrust through the window with assurances that they are exactly what we need. Told to bargain we are immediately at a disadvantage. Undeterred by our polite refusals they continue to not take offence at our lack of interest, and then suddenly we are leaving with maps and postcards that we are sure we insisted that we did not need.
Just outside Nakuru the road continued to climb to Kembu Farm
and our campsite for the first night; set in lush green fields with a fresher climate we could have been in the Cotswolds or Home Counties. After a late lunch, a walk around the farm introduced us to the first animal sightings of our safari holiday: black and white Friesian cows identical to those we had left in the field next to our home in Britain. There were also race horses, Labradors and Jack Russell terriers in this beautiful spot, and in the evening with a drink by the fire we learnt about the area and the challenges it creates for the people who live there.
Two locals based in Kenya but from India ran a farm nearby that grew cut flowers for British supermarkets. After just five years the soil exhausted they were developing the use of hydroponics, growing plants without soil, and struggling with the area’s lack of water and the competing demands made upon it. Along with the owners of Kembu Farm, they had spent the day supporting local communities whose farm land had been invaded by elephants; the differing needs of the farmers and wildlife is a constant juggling act and far more complicated than they seem from a distance. The farm is also committed to supporting its employees with fair wages and good housing, and aim to empower the local women by sponsoring a knitting project based on the farm.
Before retiring to bed in our tents on the farm lawn there was time for another of the many new experiences encountered on our first full day in Kenya; the long drop toilet. Fifty foot deep you were well on the way back to your tent before any deposits you had made were reaching the bottom!