Either side of the road to nowhere, Part 1

12/11/12

Driving down Mombasa road on a Monday afternoon, or any afternoon for that matter, is much like a personal game of Death Race 2000, only it’s real.

The cacophony of sights, sounds and smells  makes the long journey ever interesting…. God is Real!, God Can Set You Free, Hakuna Matata emblazoned across the rear ends of the buses (in all shapes and sizes) leave you with a sense of the inevitable brought home all the more by the reckless abandon with which the drivers hurtle past on blind summits and closing corners you find on every stretch of the ‘new’ road.

The black smoke belched from the City Hoppa buses, supported by the same from the matatus as the shiny new SUVs fly past with the devil may care attitude only found in someone sure of their religious piety and right to live, only adds to the felling of melodrama.

The colours of the buses are matched, even surpassed, by the shacks at the side of the road selling everything from tomatoes, red onions and mangoes to salad spoons, Maasai busts and various incarnations of the wildlife you search for on safari in the game reserves.

Stopping for a cup of coffee brings its own challenges with the negotiations necessary to avoid buying more salad spoons, busts and animals as the shosho parades her grandchild, beautiful, wide eyed and shabbily dressed before the mzungos, hoping to make good on our pervading sense of pity, responsibility or shame while we order a drink to quench the thirst on our journey to paradise.

After the main road the dusty tracks in the game reserve seem positively calm in comparison. Of course you need to carry out the ritual of entering the park before that, waiting 15 minutes as the burly woman enters your details on the computer to produce you with your Kenyan Wildlife Service temporary resident cards which are duly loaded with the credit for your stay only to be charged, 10 yards further on, from the same cards, for the same amount,by a surly KWS representative at the park gate… It’s the Kenyan economy at its best and something which will be repeated at the Mombasa ferry later in this trip. Unnecessary bureaucracy created to allow 2-3 jobs where one would suffice. It keeps the people happy and, as long as you’ve been here more than a few hours, you know it’s the Kenyan way; poli poli.

Inside the park the Sun is beginning to set and you drive along the dusty, corrugated roads as close to the 40kph speed limit as possible to make the lodge before the curfew sets in. Even here, in this reserve of all that is wild the Kenyan drivers still have their way; a white pickup hurtles past with a clutch of grinning Kenyans in the open back (no doubt on their way to a shift at one of the lodges) leaving you spluttering in their dusty wake as you head towards the oasis of calm in this most serene of surroundings.

Entering the gates you feel the pressure lift, there’s an air of calm over the whole place, the staff are smiling, awaiting you with warm, scented towels to wipe away the stress of 250kms of Mombasa Road and a fruit cocktail to clean the dust from your throat as you prepare for the ordeal of booking in.

Yet it does’t come to that. As you walk through the leaf gilded archway entrance into the vaulted hallway of the lodge all the troubles of the journey wash away… Before you lies a private valley, all of your own, stretching out to Mt Kilimanjaro (Kili to her friends) in the distance. The sunlight lingers, tentatively, on her shoulders as you stand there, awe struck, speechless, in this land of wonder. The hours of watching all your mirrors, at once, while negotiating the speed bumps, pot holes and suicidal drivers fall away as you stand there, staring at something framed for a blockbuster movie, full of child like wonder and the concierge walks over, hands you a registration card, advises you that your rooms are ready and says “Karibu Tsavo”…
13/11/12

The light crawls across the valley as you sit on the balcony eating breakfast, the mist evaporates leaving the hues of blue and grey to be washed away in the flood of burnt red and green as the Sun exerts her power over this land of wonder.

Driving out of the lodge the day ahead already seems like a boys own story with tales of yesterday’s sighting of lion, cheetah and leopard ringing loud in your ears. Within minutes every rock is turning its shaggy maned head to look at you from behind the acacia trees and the boulders are raising their trunks to blast out indignation at your interruption of the lands natural slumber. It doesn’t matter that you see nothing; it’s the expectation, the anticipation, it grabs you the second you’re behind the wheel and holds you, tightly, until you return, exhausted, to the restful recluse of the lodge to regain your composure ready for the next run out later in the day.

The sheer scale of it all is breathtaking. Africa’s highest mountain seems to fade away and hide behind the lava peaks of the reserve, the sky arching blue above it all seems to reach higher than in any other corner of the world. The horizon is broader and further away than even that of the widest ocean and the blanket of green and red; it goes on for ever.

Waterbuck, elephant, baboons, dik dik, Thompson gazelle, impala, guinea fowl and lizards make up the quota for today’s sightseeing and it’s more than enough. The excitement’s in the journey itself, heading off the beaten track to follow the tree laden river bed in case the ever elusive leopard decides to deign us with it’s presence, driving down Rhino Valley on the off chance that the lion and leopard spotted yesterday have decided to follow the same schedule and allow us the pleasure of their company. Every twist and turn brings a new air of expectance and with it the excitement of what might be.

It’s all too much. Even the cool, calm invitation of the swimming pool isn’t enough to prevent an afternoon snooze and, before you know it, the chance of another drive is past for the day. Back on the balcony the sun heads off behind Kili again and you’re fighting off the Scorpion King’s hordes while you enjoy a cool drink before dinner.

14/11/12

As last night’s reports of lion and cheetah ring in your ears you head off as soon as the sun rises to search for more of the ‘Big 5’. A slightly different route to the Rhino Circuit today brings its own wonder as you pass from the dusty roads to the black, crunchy, paths of the lava plain. The moisture in the air belies the fact that, at 0650hrs, it’s already passing 24 degrees under a clear blue sky. Descending into the valley you see a huddle of white safari buses in the near distance and head off in their general direction. You won’t reach them in time, there’s something to distract you at every turn. On this occasion it’s the

lone giraffe stubbornly refusing to give way on the road as he helps himself to the sweetest greens at the top of the acacia overarching the road ahead. Behind him the zebra idle around the low shrubs, helping themselves to their fill before it becomes too hot to even think of searching for food.

Further sightings of safari buses and conversations with their drivers fail to produce the goods and the leopard, lion and cheetah evade us all for another drive. He was there though, the leopard that is, we could all hear him, but he wouldn’t move into sight; remaining instead behind the low fallen tree, laughing at even the ‘real’ tourists in their elevated position out of the top of the safari buses. Even the elephant trunk sized lenses couldn’t see through that foliage!

Miscalculating the distance a little you hurtle back along the other half of the Rhino Circuit to the lodge only to round a corner and be confronted with a bull elephant making his way across the road ahead. The redness of the wildlife here is in complete contrast to that found in the other reserves; washing themselves in the dust and mud from the Tsavo plains leaves them a bright burnt ochre in colour, even the ostriches are black and red in colour.

Heading out to Mzima Springs after lunch gives the opportunity to stretch your legs as you walk along the path to the cool, shaded calm of the hippo pools. Hippo, smiling with contentment, bask in the waters while a fish eagle wait for its unsuspecting prey on the branch overhanging the waters. The crocodiles glide from edge to edge of the lower pool waiting for some poor monkey to venture down to water’s edge for a drink… It doesn’t happen at least not while we were watching.

The Rhino Reserve poses it’s own challenges. 70+ square kilometres of tree shrouded park land with visibility of a few metres before the dense foliage hides all before you. Excursions to the watering holes show tantalising evidence of the day’s visitors, footprints, droppings, the smell of urine where animals have marked their territory. Yet even a detour along a now unused portion of the track yields no return… With the fuel gauge heading South (quickly!) it’s time to head back to the scorpions, watering hole and excellent cuisine at the lodge. A mostly uneventful, yet wholly rewarding day, has passed.

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