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  • Writer's pictureSimon Rushby

Kenya 2019

Elephants at Amboseli, in the shadow of Kilimanjaro

After six weeks in Indonesia and five in the USA, my final work trip of an eventful 2019 was five weeks in Kenya, and my first experience of the wonderful Kenyan people was a friendly driver named Charles who was waiting for me at the airport and took me through the southern part of Nairobi into the centre and the Norfolk hotel. This was a beautiful hotel, surrounded by very obvious and strict security but with a long history and many famous guests - it was a favourite haunt of Hemingway’s and one could imagine him feeling right at home. Decor was perhaps a little colonial with vintage machinery sitting on display in beautifully landscaped gardens. The bar and lounge area were very comfortable with two decent restaurants.

At the Norfolk Hotel, Nairobi

My first day was a free day and I started it with a meeting with the director of the Kenya Conservatoire of Music over the road from the hotel. Then I walked to a nearby market and browsed the stalls, constantly hounded by stall holders trying to get me to buy things. It was intense but never intimidating and I picked up some interesting things. In the afternoon I attended a concert of African vocal music by a choir called Pambo Africa in the national theatre, right next to the hotel. It was excellent and at the end several of the audience got up and danced on stage with them.

Work in the first week was at two schools and at the conservatoire. Drives to the schools were slow due to Nairobi's notorious traffic but it was interesting to see the differing landscape of Nairobi from verdant hillsides to dirty, dusty slum areas. The schools themselves were welcoming and friendly, and it was wonderful to see such joyous and varied music making going on in both of them.

At the end of my first week I caught a Kenya airways flight to Mombasa (just an hour’s flight but the road trip would have been 8 hours) and stayed for a few days at a resort hotel while I worked in the town. The hotel came with resident monkeys (who invaded your room if you left your door open) and parrots, and plenty of space to wander amongst the coconut palms. Weather in Mombasa was much warmer and humid than Nairobi but there was a breeze off the Indian ocean. The beach had white sand and the sea was uncannily warm - but of course the minute I left the confines of the hotel for a walk on the beach I was accompanied by an ever-increasing entourage of people selling everything from bracelets and boat trips to camel rides.

Camel rides on the beach in Mombasa

Though I was working my fellow guests were holidaymakers - mainly British, South African, German or Kenyan though it were out of season so the hotel was fairly quiet. Work started at a small private music school set up by a local singing teacher who had converted the ground floor of his house into a studio teaching space. The next day I was at a large academy run by a company that also ran hospitals, schools, private care homes and even banks.

Beautiful beach at Mombasa

I got a flight back to Nairobi on a Tuesday afternoon and spent two hours making the half hour journey back to the Norfolk hotel from Nairobi Airport. Nairobi traffic was its usual awful self. The police were stationed at roundabouts, where the traffic lights were switched off and the traffic held at each junction for a long time, allowing hawkers and beggars lots of opportunity to walk down the middle of the streets plying their wares or asking for money, accompanied by blind relatives or amputees in wheelchairs. It was a vivid reminder of the huge amount of poverty in this city sitting alongside the wealthy and super-rich who had properties in greener suburbs surrounded by high walls, barbed wire and 24-hour security guards. Nairobi was definitely a city of extremes. But if I did need to buy something from the comfort of the car, the street sellers had everything from water, nuts and bananas to knives, colouring books, hats, sunglasses and full length evening gowns. I saw one guy trying to sell a 6-foot tall coat stand.

One night I attended a rehearsal of the Nairobi Orchestra - an amateur community orchestra made up of local music teachers (a mix of Kenyans and ex-pats) and conducted by visiting conductors. They were tackling some tricky repertoire - Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain and a Brahms Piano Concerto, with a Ugandan conductor and soloist. The standard was very good and I was sorry that I was not able to go to their concert.

Through the owner of the company that was organising all my transport in Kenya I arranged a weekend safari for myself and a colleague at Amboseli National Park - in the Sentrim lodges, which though good quality were quite cheap for a single night as they were trying to sell off unused rooms. Our guide and driver Philip duly turned up at the Nairobi hotel on Saturday morning in a minivan with a raisable roof - perfect for game drives but quite bumpy, noisy and uncomfortable for the 4-hour drive to Amboseli, the last hour of which was on a dirt road. Philip described it as a ‘free massage’.

The drive South and then West to Amboseli - which is a National Park right at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro on the Tanzania border - took us through countless small towns where shacks and run-down shops lined each side of the road and the shopkeepers came running out carrying armfuls of fruit and bottles of water to sell to the car and truck drivers on the main Nairobi - Mombasa route. Mombasa is Kenya’s biggest port and the line of trucks on both sides of the single carriageway road was endless, so cars and vans like ours ran the guantlet of diving in and out of the oncoming traffic to get past them. It all seemed to work very well and nobody objected to being cut up or having to slam the brakes on - it’s just part of Kenyan driving. In one particular traffic jam quite a number of cars left the road and drove through a neighbouring field, sending cows and goats running in all directions.

As we got onto the dirt road to Amboseli we could see Kilimanjaro poking through the clouds - over 5500 metres high with lots of snow on top. We also started to pass numerous Maasai villages with huts dotted around and youngsters herding animals at the side of the road, all stopping to watch and wave at us.

The Sentrim was very comfortable considering its remote location - rooms were made from a simple rectangle of concrete built up to waist height and a large tented structure erected over the top, with a hard floor and proper plumbed-in bathroom with a water tank precariously perched on top. Public areas like the restaurant and reception even had wifi and everything was semi-open air, which meant permanently having to have mosquito spray on. Food was buffet style and delicious - a lot of it cooked in an open wood-fired oven at the side of the restaurant.

My room/hut at Amboseli National Park

Our first game drive with Philip was on Saturday late afternoon so we could catch the animals coming out in the evening sun, and it didn’t disappoint. Just inside the main gate to the park there were about six elephants standing around, and a little further on large groups of impala, wildebeest, buffalo and zebra as well as dik-diks and monkeys. As we drove we encountered more elephant - large family groups on the move across the vast plains with Kilimanjaro rising up in the background. I was already starting to hear David Attenborough’s narration in my head and the whole thing was hard to believe - particularly as we could stand in the van and poke our heads through the hole in the roof to get 360 degree views. There was also fantastic bird life around the wetland areas and even the weather helped by treating us to a double rainbow against leaden skies.

On the minus side, our battered van was showing signs of giving up. We’d been stopped by the police for a routine check on the way down to Amboseli and Philip couldn’t restart the engine - we assumed it was the battery and the very friendly police guys helped us push-start (after which one of the policewomen proposed to me… “you want a Kenyan wife? It doesn’t matter if you already have a wife. I’ll just be a Kenyan wife”) so I was thinking to myself it wouldn’t be great if that happened inside the game reserve. Sure enough, the van died on us right next to a sleeping herd of buffalo who promptly stood up and turned to look. Luckily there was always another vehicle not far away and as they wouldn’t let us get out of the van (obviously) the various drivers would get together and push us to get us moving again.

This started to happen more and more frequently - the next time not far away from a hippo standing knee deep in a swamp, then right next to a very unimpressed large monkey that was sitting by the side of the road watching it all going on. The final time it happened it was beginning to get dark so we agreed we should ask a nearby land rover to give us a tow back to the hotel. They happily did so, but on pausing to let a large herd of elephant cross the road the tow rope broke as the land rover pulled away, leaving us stranded as it disappeared ahead of us. To make things worse, a young elephant had become separated (by our vehicle) from his mother and the mother was starting to flap her ears and trumpet. For a moment I thought we might be sitting ducks and the atmosphere became eerily quiet and tense. Even the unflappable Philip looked worried. Luckily the calf found his way around us and mother and son tramped off into the dusk, at which time the land rover returned having realised we were no longer attached to them. Not a moment I’d want to repeat.

Next morning I got up at dawn and walked to the edge of the hotel grounds to get some photos of the mountain. I was rewarded with some giraffe which were crossing in front of where I was standing, and all manner of very noisy birdlife overhead - a beautiful scene.

After breakfast Philip announced that he’d commandeered another vehicle (owned by a Maasai man) and we had a second game drive, this time also seeing hyena, warthog and giraffe but sadly no lions - word had it that they had wandered out of the park and judging by the very chilled, relaxed demeanour of the impala and wildebeest I believed it. After the drive we took what was left of our van (the alternator was the culprit) back along the dirt road hoping all the way that it wasn’t going to conk out - it didn’t, and Jimmy (Philip’s boss) met us on the tarmac road with his car and a mechanic that he’d brought along to fix the van, resplendent in long grey lab-coat and carrying a spanner and a new alternator.

As safaris go, we most definitely had an experience. As a bonus, it was really good value and looking at the (mostly) elderly tourists setting off from our Nairobi hotel in their khaki and floppy hats for their safaris I couldn’t help thinking they were paying way more than we did, and not seeing the animals quite so up close and personal.

In the remaining weeks I had some work at a Nairobi primary school full of really happy cheerful kids - it was so much fun to be with them and to see a local primarys at work. There wasn't much in the way of resources - up to 15 students learning on the same violin, for example. I also visited a number of schools on the outskirts of Nairobi, some Kenyan and some International.

My final weekend off included a fantastic day of visits to areas quite close to Nairobi. The Nairobi National Park was about 7 km south of the city, fenced on the city sides but open at the south to allow animals to migrate to the nearby Kitengela plains. Here, after some significant searching, we saw a pride of lions, a single rhinocerous, hippos and a number of other animals, often looking quite strange against the backdrop of high-rise city buildings in the far distance.

Spot the lions..

Much fantastic work is done in Kenya to protect elephants from the illegal ivory trade, and we were lucky to be able to visit the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust next - a rescue and rehabilitation centre for orphan elephants. Baby elephants are raised here before being integrated back in the wild, and we arrived in time to see them being fed and exercised by very attentive and caring keepers.

Feedling a baby elephant at the Sheldrick Trust

A little further out of the city is the Giraffe Centre, established some forty years ago to start a breeding programme for the endangered Rothschild giraffe. Here we were able to get really close to these awesome animals, and even feed them from a specially built raised platform. Next door to this centre is the famous Giraffe Manor hotel, probably the only hotel with visits from the centre's giraffe during meal times. We finished a wonderful day with a late lunch in the district of Karen, named after the Danish author of Out of Africa Karen Blixen.

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