Taken for Granted (Not any more)

I was flicking through the channels on the TV…

Something I usually avoid like the plague is awards programmes and those sycophantic documentaries about Royals or stars. Imagine my surprise then, when I plumped for ‘Prince William‘s Passion: New Father, New Hope’ the other night.

I was interested in this for a couple of reasons; firstly he had just announced he was leaving the military to concentrate on his personal interests which I wanted to hear about, and secondly it was about Africa, where I live (albeit with a short time left).

There were several aspects of the programme I liked, not least the fact that William himself seemed so ‘human’. There was more than that, however. I recognised both people and places in the programme having lived here in Kenya for over two years now.

And that’s what struck me the most. I was sitting there, dumbstruck at the views being shown on the screen in front of me without once thinking that I drive through that very countryside every day.

View from Kilaguni Lodge

View from Kilaguni Lodge, to the South

Over the last few weeks I have driven from Nairobi North up the Rift Valley and back at least twice a week, coming to rest in the shadow of Mt Kenya. And I haven’t even given it a second glance.

How can you drive along the Southern edge of the Aberdares and not feel you’re somewhere special? Drifting past the banana and maize plantations with Kenyans working away, or through the garishly primary and secondary coloured villages with their breize block equivalents of Western Frontiers towns and villages, balconies draped with laundry over the shopfronts proudly proclaiming the wares inside in handwritten Crown paint signs is an experience in itself, even without considering the backdrop to those usually mundane sights.

Then you head onto the plains up to Ol Pejeta and Laikipia with a landscape and sky so vast you realise, finally, just how small a part of everything you are.

Yes, there was a deeper message to the programme, that of the Tusk Conservation Awards awarded by the Tusk Trust of which Prince William is the Patron. I was humbled by those featured in the programme, and hold those whom I’ve met in a new light. I’d love to have the money to devote my time to a conservation project (and believe me you need it) but I’ve resigned myself to being an onlooker to the fantastic work the likes of Mount Kenya Trust, Ol Pejeta and Lewa Conservancy do. Some of the best experiences I’ve had in Kenya have been those where I was touching distance from one of the ‘Big Five’, especially the rhino and elephant. (Not so much the buffalo, they smell awful!)

Walking with Rhino

Wallking with Rhino in Kenya

When I have guests over and we go on safari, I always self drive. I’m often asked if I get bored? How could I! Every day, even in the same area, it’s different. Four days in the Maasai Mara and you’d see four completely different landscapes and have four completely different experiences… Bored? Never. Complacent? I didn’t think so.

I drove up to Mt Kenya this morning with new eyes. The Sun was rising as I headed North from Nairobi through Thika, past Nyeri and up towards the mountain. The colours seemed fresher, the sunlight brighter and even when the clouds came in they couldn’t diminish my newly re-discovered wonder at this land before me.

I’m going to take my camera with me everywhere I go in these last few weeks of my time here. Especially on my safaris each of the next two weekends… I need to capture some more of these memories before I go.

Oh, and here’s one for HRH ;o)

A cheetah relaxing!

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.

Willy Wonka, the Sheriff, a Mzunga and the self destructive rock star…

Time is a dangerous thing, especially when you have plenty of it to yourself. If you’re anything like me you tend to spend it thinking, and that’s a dangerous pastime, especially when you’re in the process of going through one of the biggest periods of upheaval in your life, as I am.

There’s a number of things going on just now; I’ve moved to a new continent, my family are following in a week or so, I’ve started a new job (which appears to be shaping up to be one of the most challenging of my life) and I’m coming to terms (slowly) with what was perhaps both the easiest and, increasingly as the days go, one of the hardest decisions to come to terms with that I have had to make.

The moving continent thing, though quite a huge undertaking, is something I’ve considered on more than one occasion and,having finally taken the plunge, I’m cracking on with it. In the early nineties I nearly emigrated to Kenya after spending some time there on holiday/safari. They wouldn’t take me at the time as there was a huge drive on employing the populace and that’s as it should be. Then, slightly later in the nineties I had the opportunity to move to Austin, Texas to continue working for Motorola when they summarily dispatched most of the business managers in the Scottish (or was it European?) offices of their empire. Sense prevailed at that time, or at least my partners did. She’s now my wife, and we’re happily married with 3 great children, so it was obviously the right choice. I’ve since considered Canada, New Zealand and Kenya again but they all fell by the wayside for some reason or other, until this year.

I was back in Nakuru, Kenya in Feb of this year and met some great people who I discussed emigration with and the lifestyle of ‘residents’ (as opposed to Nationals) and they advised caution, but I was still very, very interested… Fate took a casting vote on my decision a couple of months later when, quite by chance, I discovered a new post had opened up in my job as the IT Manager in Kenya for 2 years. To say I jumped at the chance would be a gross understatement.

Having had a few weeks here in Nairobi on my own while I wait for my family to arrive I’ve been able to ‘get my feet under the table‘ at work and begin to get to grips with the oddities of life in an African country… ‘Kenyan time’ for instance. It’s a fluid concept to say the least and any deadline, meeting or schedule must be taken with the equivalent of the Dead Sea rather than the usual pinch of salt.

The life of a ‘Mzungu‘ is one of huge contrasts. If, like me, you’re still in the employ of a ‘Western’ nation your salary affords you the opportunity to live in a manner well beyond that on the same salary in the UK or some other European country. A beer costs about £1.60 in a pub and, if you buy for the house, it works out about £0.50 for a half litre bottle. Beef is ridiculously cheap, a decent T-Bone, sirloin or fillet will cost £5 at most. And then there’s the matter of security. The carrying of clubs, happy sticks, batons, or machetes (pangas) in vehicles is common practice for ‘whites’, you live n a guarded compound with security on the perimeter gates and walls as well as patrolling your personal residence. There are no-go areas in town, the night clubs, bars, hotels and restaurants all have security with some even being fenced and gated… It takes some getting used to!

Strange as it may sound, it doesn’t even feel odd! During the day I’ve been out for meals, visited businesses etc and at night I’ve done the same. Despite the awareness that there’s a ‘bad element’ it doesn’t feel oppressive, yet. I’ll reserve judgement until the family arrive.

This is only in the city of course, and a very small minority of those who live there. I’ve travelled much of the length and breadth of Kenya over the years and the only trouble I’ve had so far was once, in Nairobi, when I was stupid and flaunted my ‘Western wealth’ which resulted in a mugging… the rest of the time I’ve felt comfortable enough as I would travelling anywhere in Europe.

I can’t wait until the family arrive next week. I want to show them the wonders of this country and help them understand my fascination with it.

The job? Well that’s a different story. At least for now. It’s like being an extra in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! I can see all these opportunities to make the world a wonderful place (as far as my IT world goes anyway), but I’m not able to touch. It’s like a frontier town in the Wild West, things have run rampant since the first settlers set up camp and there’s a desperate need for a Sheriff to bring order to the place before it implodes. The problem is, I’m going to have to play the sheriff and lock a few of the troublemakers before I can enjoy life and make the place a happy one for all and sundry. It’s more than frustrating, it’s annoying, but prudence and not a little experience have made me aware that it’s ‘slowly, slowly, catchy monkey’ :o)

And then there’s the other thing…

Over the last 3 years I’ve had the privilege of being able to make more than one of my life’s ambitions come true. They were quite simple really, but they meant a lot to me and, nearing 40 I had resigned myself to the fact that the opportunity had passed me by… Then I met Pete Harwood and all that changed. In a short time we managed to write more than an album’s worth of what is, in my not so humble opinion, some damned fine rock songs, we played to appreciative audiences in England, Scotland and Wales, we had a #2 single, received an 8/10 review in Rock Hard (the biggest selling metal/rock magazine in Europe), released an EP and a live album. People recognised the name of the band across the country, we were played in pubs in London and elsewhere, on the radio in the UK, Europe and America, and appeared on (albeit local) prime time TV. And then, being the selfish git I have the habit of being, I threw it all away.

I don’t regret my decision, not at all, the opportunity to live and work in Kenya is one I could never have considered turning down, but now, this week in particular, I’m turning into the green eyed monster I had hoped I wouldn’t. You see, I mentioned above that we’d written enough material for an album. We certainly did! We even started recording it but, in a very sensible move, we (and I mean we) decided it would be redundant to release an album of music with a band’s ‘previous singer’ when the band was still very much alive and kicking with a new singer.

And then there’s this coming weekend… In order to get your name out there as a band/artist, there are a couple of avenues open to you; buy the publicity, which usually involves a label or some such binding contract, gig forever across the country, impractical with ‘real’ world jobs and other commitments or, and this is the one, play at decent festivals where you’ll be exposed to a horde of possible new fans. On Friday, at 14:35, Morpheus Rising will do the latter. Appearing on the Classic Rock Society stage at the Cambridge Rock Festival, the lads will fulfil the other of the two ambitions I have outstanding. They’ll play in front of a sizeable audience of rock fans who are there for one reason, to enjoy rock music. And later this year, or early next year, they’ll release the album…

I thought this would be easy. With the chaos of a new life, a new job, a new continent and all that goes with them I thought that what would be going on over last week and the coming weekend would pass me by. Alas, it hasn’t, and I’m torn between conflicting emotions that I find hard to resolve. I’m proud, really proud, that I was involved in everything that led up to this period with the band, the writing, the singing, the recording, the PR, the website and the gigging… and then I’m insanely jealous. In another life I would have been getting up on that stage on Friday and facing (what I hope for them will be) the largest crowd of my performing life.

If you make it to the Haggis Farm Polo Club this weekend I hope you’ll head over to Stage 2 for half past 2 and support what I still believe is one of the most promising rock bands currently playing the ‘circuit’ and if, like me, you won’t be able to for whatever reason then take a pause at that time and, if at all possible, raise a glass and wish them all the best on this, the beginning of something new.

Pete, Gibbo, Andy, Daymo and Si, I wish you all the best and I hope you knock their bloody socks off. I’ll be thinking of you and I hope, somewhere along the way, you’ll tip me a proverbial nod. I’m proud of you guys, of everything we achieved and I wish you all the best this weekend and for the future.