It has been said that one should never return after a gap of many years to re-visit old haunts because they will inevitably have changed, causing disillusionment. This was true to a certain extent when J-M and D, my two teenage children, and I visited Kenya in 1987. They had never seen the country where I was born, and which I had left nearly twenty years before, but despite the obvious differences which I noticed, they took it all as a first hand experience and this helped me to focus on the positive elements.
Staying with friends for a few days in the Nairobi suburbs to acclimatise, mentally and physically, we all three had to get used to coping with life in a modern city. However we were glad to escape from the constant threat of crime and the consequential counter measures: houses protected by high fencing; armed guards with dogs patrolling around the house at night; elaborate alarm systems; driving with all doors locked, windows shut and handbag chained to the handbrake; as well as the usual awareness of pickpockets and petty thieves. Bribery and backhanders were the norm for procuring official documents, and in avoiding paying huge traffic fines on trumped up charges – all par for the course in many countries, but a far cry from what we were used to. We were glad to start off on a safari with our friends to the Masai Mara.
The rough dirt roads, made from gritty murram, were so corrugated that at the end of that day’s journey we were literally rocking and rolling as if we were suffering from delirium tremens! This was nothing to do with Pierre’s driving – he had vast experience gained from coping all his life with the varied terrain, including having competed successfully in the (International) East African Safari Rally on several occasions.
Our first incident occurred on the way into the Game Park when we were stopped by an agitated and highly-excited lorryload of workers from the nearby Research Station saying that a party of tourists ahead was being held up by a group of angry Masai herdsmen, one of whose cattle had been hit by the tourists’ vehicle. They asked us to fetch the police. As we had, incredibly, just passed the only Police Post for many miles around, we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and sped back to summon aid. After much excitement at our request, and much argument as to whether or not guns would be needed, a posse of police eventually set out. Needless to say that by the time they had reached the scene, all that was left to mark the incident was a pile of shattered windscreen glass in the middle of the road. Luckily no blood! Of the tourists and herdsmen there was no sign.
What next, we wondered? We didn’t have long to wait, for several days later we were spending the night at Leopard Lookout, a specially constructed mini Treetops overlooking a waterhole, with bait hanging up in a nearby tree to attract leopard. The five of us were taken to the hide just before dark and given a sumptuous four course dinner – with wine – and then encouraged to spend the evening/night watching for a variety of visiting animals under strategically-placed spotlights. (Owing to a double booking of accommodation at Cottar’s, we were offered this treat free of charge for our last night!) Soon after arrival, our driver/guide abandoned us in order to fetch the cook and the food. Darkness fell as it does almost instantaneously in the tropics (there’s no twilight), and we slowly became aware of an ominous glow above the surrounding bush, and the menacing crackling sound of a wildfire. The wind seemed to be sending it straight towards us. What should we do? No point yelling for help, we had no transport, and we obviously couldn’t run away.
Praying that the guide and the cook would return very soon, we counted the intervening minutes until the lights of the Land Rover could be seen heading towards us. Rescue. But no! Again we were abandoned by the guide in order that he could summon help from the game scouts from the big, main Lodge to help put out the fire. According to the cook, who carried on regardless serving our dinner, the fire was not quite as close as we had imagined, but would pose a real threat if not extinguished. Luckily for us all the wind changed direction and we were out of danger. End of drama. The rest of the evening was at least enlivened by watching in fascination as an endless variety of animals appeared on stage below us at the salt lick. Although no leopards appeared, I in particular was entranced at the sight of a lone genet (a species of small, spotted, nocturnal cat) as I had never seen one in the wild, though had brought up two kittens many years before.
The Mara certainly lived up to expectations, and on our early morning and evening excursions around the vast Park we travelled along tracks when at times we were more than relieved to have an experienced driver, such as when the engine of our trusty Peugeot cut out whilst crossing a particularly deep watercourse and had to be dried out. Most of the common animals were easily spotted and duly photographed, including stately giraffe, cheetah, warthogs, jackal, hippo, and crocodile. The highlight was the spotting of elephant, rhino, buffalo and lion (four of the ‘big five’).