26 January 2011

Tsavo in a Taxi (Dec 2005)

It had seemed a reasonably straightforward idea at the time, in October. Rather than buy four tickets to fly from Nairobi to Lamu in the peak season, hire one vehicle (because they are always ‘vehicles’ and never cars) and drive. So I had left my trusted taxi driver Samuel with such instructions when I left in October, and felt sorted about it. By the time I was back for Christmas, things had turned a little more interesting: According to Samuel, hiring a van would have been very expensive indeed and also a bit uncomfortable – who wants to do that long drive in a matatu, after all? Hiring a proper four-wheel drive would have extortionately expensive as it was, well, high season. I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of why Samuel hadn’t done the booking in early November, but it was too late anyway. As we were planning to leave on Thursday, and it was Monday already, I took him up on his offer to use his car. A typical white station wagon with the yellow Nairobi taxi stripes on the side. Four women plus a guitar plus luggage.

One woman was then, with sufficient drama, taken off the passenger list: We had meant to pick up Denise from Nairobi airport on the way out to Lamu on Thursday morning, but for an afternoon, it looked like she might not be able to join us at all: Darfour airport, in eastern Sudan, had been summarily, and at very short notice, closed ‘for maintenance’, never mind the scheduled flights. Eventually, her travel agent had worked unspeakable magic and found her a flight out to Mombasa, and then managed to book the missing leg to Lamu for the next day. At the same time, I sent a text to Lorna and Mine: ‘Fancy coming to Lamu with us? Plenty of space in the house’.

It took them less than a day to agree, and they brought two new important additions: Their green-white Landrover as an additional car, and the suggestions to not follow Mombasa Road all the way to the coast, but to take the scenic route through Tsavo National Park. A bit longer to drive, but far more fun, said Mine, who should know.

On Mombasa Road
So we set off on Thursday morning, a bit later than planned, but with coffee in flasks, sandwich material, chocolate cookies, and two cars. Lorna and Mine in the Landrover, with Gillian in the back, and Kechil and myself and her guitar in Samuel’s taxi. Mombasa Road out of Nairobi goes past the turnoff for Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and is a little shabby at first – not outright potholed, but uneven, and it’s difficult to go very fast. It leads through the industrial area, dry and dirty, with rusty buildings. As the city peters out, the trucks both old and new, but all big, remain constant in both directions, a steady stream back and forth from Mombasa seaport. The landscape keeps changing slowly, dry areas, flat areas, hills at the sides, some dry-ish low vegetation. After a while, the road turns smooth and fast – thanks to EU financing, as we read from the signs. Small settlements at the roadside are often clearly geared at travellers and in particular truck drivers – and create a paint-by-numbers network of the transmission of HIV/AIDS throughout the country.


After gunning down a near perfect road for miles, the bliss reaches its end – the road hasn’t been finished all the way to Mombasa, and we need to go sideways on a much bumpier older road, with less space for the big trucks, whilst the proper road is still being extended.

Then we lose the Landrover. We’re in the wrong place and wait too long and they have passed us by, so once we’ve figured out where everyone is, we race off to catch up with them at the gate. The landscape is emptier and wider as we turn off the road to the left to Tsavo National Park gate. The guys at the gate have a look at Samuel’s car and tell us it should be ok: it has been dry for a long time. We have a picnic as we won’t be allowed to get out of the car once inside the park. We shouldn’t, in any case. Sometimes it can’t be avoided. As, for example, when Samuel’s tire goes flat just a few kilometres into the park. Brilliant, I think – we’ve only just started. With Lorna’s help, the tyre is exchanged quickly for an even more fragile one, with its profile nearly run down smoothly. I try not to worry because there’s really no point now, and on top of that, I can’t even change a tyre to save my life. But what do we do when the next one goes? There’s very little traffic in the park, and after a while, we’re out of mobile phone network coverage, too.

Through Tsavo
I soon stop thinking about this, though. Tsavo is spacious, and the earth changes from deep amber to white and yellow sand. A range of hills (large hills? small mountains?) to our left, all seemingly cut off straight at the top. Before it a river snakes its way through the park, and on its banks, despite the low water levels, vegetation is green and lush, with large palm trees swaying.


The roads are graded, but well maintained and relatively easy to drive. What grows on both sides is dry and thin. When entering the park, Mine had warned us that Tsavo elephants were notoriously bad-tempered – according to her, they charge without warning, at the drop of a hat (an elephant hat, presumably). And they mean it: they *will* follow you. I believe that it might take a few moments for an elephant to get going, given their huge mass, but don’t know how fast they can get, and certainly am not keen to test this in a Nairobi taxi. On a graded road. With the spare tyre on.

It’s in the middle of the day and scorching hot, so most animals must have decided to hide away and wait it out. A few of the usual jumpy things around – dik dik, tiny antelopes, lovely chunky larger waterbuck – and a few elephants. When we were coming down a road to a bend, we see three elephants ahead of us crossing the roads from the bush on the left into the bush on the right. We stop the car to figure out whether more were going to follow, and as the bushes on the left have stopped moving, decide to move forward carefully – just to stare a buffalo in the face. Now elephants may be bad-tempered and have a short fuse in Tsavo, but buffaloes are knows as stupid and aggressive pretty much everywhere. We pull the car back a few metres, take a deep breath, and then decide to give it a go again. All wildlife has duly disappeared into the bushes and leaves us to pass through. Bit giddy, though!

The entire drive through Tsavo is nearly 100km to Sala Gate – through the heat and dust, on rattling graded roads. The landscape opens up as the mountain ranges eases off, and the river, snaking away irregularly at some distance from the road, remains the guiding green thread through the park. We stop occasionally to catch a better glimpse of the few animals, and apparently I missed out on a group of giraffes right at the end of the road, when I was getting sleepy – but saw a family of bush pigs, tails up straight like antennae in a very un-pig-like fashion, scoot across the road.

Outside Sala Gate, we turn left after three kilometres for the Crocodile Camp where Samuel hopes to have the whole in his tyre sealed. This takes its time and is done while the rest of us sit on the Landrover in the staff quarters, watching chicken roam around, and the camp staff sitting on their doorstep watch us sit on the Landrover.


It’s late in the afternoon, and everyone is a little too mellow to expend much energy, but we know that we really should get going – even now, it is already unlikely that we’ll reach Malindi in daylight, and we have not even made any bookings for accommodation, a concern, as the coast is booked solid over the holidays. Another headache is that we initially planned to do the drive – without Tsavo – in one day, but haven’t been able to get in touch with Wildebeest, the place we have booked in Lamu. I am a bit freaked out that they will give the two ‘penthouses’ away if we don’t turn up as announced. I had earlier sent several texts back and forth with Mwangi, asking him to get us a different phone number for Wildebeest. But for now, there isn’t even any mobile phone network, so I can’t check whether he had any luck.

Sala Gate to Malindi
The road outside Sala Gate towards Malindi is really no better than the road inside the park and I feel a little uneasy when I realise that we will have to drive a major bit in the dark – is that a good idea? But there’s no choice. Lorna and Mine are speeding away, in what I take as an effort to get through the dark as quickly as possible, which does not make me feel any easier. Even though Samuel pushes his taxi to the limit to keep up with them, sometimes we can only just see their taillights disappear over yet another hilly top. Kechil and I frantically, tensely concentrate with him, and flinch every time a particularly big piece of rock hits the bottom of the car. We flinch a lot. There are a great many big stones on this road. And this is not a car particularly suited for this road, with ridges that makes it look like a giant washboard, and breakneck speed doesn’t help matters. Sometimes, the car literally surfs and glides on the raised sandy ridge in the middle of the road. I take a quick look at my phone, but we are still out of network coverage, and so I can’t tell the girls to slow down. But eventually, I get the chance to ask them myself: After more than an hour of a mad, tense race, we see the Landrover waiting for us at the roadside. In the dark, at a roadside in the middle of absolutely nowhere, that is. We may have passed the odd sign of a settlement off the road, but this still clearly qualifies as the middle of nowhere. Mine looks at us: ‘We’re finished’. It turns out that they’ve run out of petrol, and that was the reason for their speeding – trying to get as far as possible with the last drops.

So this is a bit of a crisis situation. We’re trapped in the embodiment of Africa’s ‘infrastructure constraints’: rudimentary road, no power, no street lights, no telecommunications. Well, a tiny bar on my phone display, on and off. Five women, one sturdy taxi driver, two cars full with things, darkness falling rapidly. This doesn’t look good at all. Gillian, first time ever in Kenya, in Africa, has no sense of fear, but the rest of us are getting very uneasy.

In the middle of nowhere does have a connection to the world: a matatu passes us by, but they can’t offer any help – what we are looking for is a pipe to suck some petrol out of Samuel’s taxi and put it into the Landrover, which, unsurprisingly, they don’t carry. And then, our guardian angel arrives. And he looked like Osama bin Laden – slight, bearded, skull cap, friendly eyes. More specifically, he came with this father, his two sons, and some farm workers in a pick-up truck. As soon as they had heard about our problem, they made it their own and did not relent until they had practically tucked us into our overnight accommodation: Mahadi – the Osama-bin-Laden lookalike – decides to take his car and Lorna (and Gillian, who bounces along like a puppy in search of an adventure) to the next village to see if they can buy some fuel from generators, and he leaves his father, the two boys and one of his staff with the rest of us. Samuel, in the meantime, shoots off in the other direction to see if he can find a pipe.

The rest of us just have to wait. Mine chats with mzee, Mahadi’s father, about his farm and the drought, and I decide to feed the kids with chocolate cookies. They only speak Swahili, but chocolate cookies are universal. And so we wait and wait and wait. When three slightly drunk young guys turn up and start eyeing the Landrover and the luggage, we are again reminded how easily this could have gone wrong, and are grateful that mzee engages them in a conversation and distracts them for long enough until Mahadi, Lorna and Gillian reappear – with fuel! According to Lorna, Mahadi had walked from house to house, and negotiated with everyone, and then even refused to be reimbursed for the money he spent. We’re amazed, and speechless with gratitude and relief. Just as we’re filling the fuel into the Landrover, Samuel reappears with a piece of pipe so that we can top the Landrover up some more.

Then Mahadi tells us to follow him – he’d guide us to the nearest petrol station on edge of Malindi. This is still quite a bit of a drive, but never has a petrol station looked so beautiful and welcoming to me! Of course we also still don’t have any idea where we could sleep, so he recommends Ozzie’s, furnishing us with directions, and then we waive his little group off with cheers and intense gratitude. However, that was not yet the end of it: Malindi is not very big, but of course we can’t find Ozzie’s, and stop at a small food place to ask for directions – just to run straight into Mahadi again who was buying fries for his sons. In the end, they lead us all the way to Ozzie’s where we are welcomed by a tall Muslim gentleman with a long robe, a skullcap – and a distinctly camp demeanour. Had he swooshed a feather boa over his shoulder, I would not have blinked. He hands us the keys for two rooms with flourish and tell us to use the bathrooms and showers on all floors. ‘If anyone complains, tell them I told you to!’.

Last activity that night? Shower and a stroll to a beachfront restaurant to wash out the adrenaline with a big double vodka and some food. It’s the title of Kate Adie’s (most excellent) book, but I’ll borrow it here: the kindness of strangers. It’s been an amazing gift at the end of an amazing drive.

And we did make it to Lamu eventually.


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