It was 9 pm when we arrived at the Reception desk of the Fairview hotel in Nairobi. They could find no record of our booking – and I overheard them telling someone who had just rolled up on the off-chance that the hotel was full, and there were no rooms available. Things weren’t looking good. If we had to transfer to another hotel, we had no telephone number to contact Reuben, our guide and driver for the coming week, who was to pick us up from the Fairview the following morning.
I had taken all the email correspondence with me – as well as the bank transfer slip, showing that not only had we booked with the hotel’s agent, but we had also paid for it in full – for that night as well as a second night a week later, plus an airport transfer the morning after that for our flight to Dar es Salaam.
The staff at the hotel were very sympathetic – but whereas our payment had been sent to the booking agent, nothing had been forwarded to the hotel. No payment, no room … Fortunately, in all the documentation there was a cell-phone number for the hapless Martin Mureithi, who had mis-managed the whole thing and he was soon dangling at the end of a phone line. Figuratively speaking. His excuse was that he’d been: [delete any or none of the following, as appropriate] ill/away/inefficient/indolent/incompetent, but would come to the hotel at 8:30 the next morning to explain everything and sort things out.
The hotel managed to pluck a room out of nowhere. We weren’t asking any questions and certainly didn’t mention the person who had just been turned away – but we would have to pay for the room [again] and then be reimbursed by Martin. This we agreed to do. What choice did we have?
Martin did indeed turn up the following morning – late, and with not much more of an explanation (in fact, none at all) but couldn’t reimburse us then and there because the company’s accountant wasn’t due in until 11 am, by which time we would be well on our way to the Rift Valley Lakes. Martin would bring our refund when we returned for our second night’s stay the following week … Trust him … he’d be waiting for us at the hotel – and of course he’d bring the money in dollars, not Kenyan shillings …
The next morning found us energetically toiling along the dusty, rocky, uneven path in Longonot National Park and no, I didn’t make it as far as the crater rim, let alone walk round it … and heavy rain put paid to any further activities for the day.
For the following day we agreed a gentle walk at Crater Lake. We hiked round the rim of the crater – and if that doesn’t sound like a gentle walk, that’s because it wasn’t. Apparently Reuben’s definition of ‘gentle’ was a little different from ours. In the treetops far below us we could see black and white colobus monkeys playing and feeding. Up where we were zebras gazed at us curiously before trotting off, dung-beetles were busily at work in fresh buffalo dung and we found a strange pinkish-mauve mantis hiding under a leaf. But we did have a splendid view over the dark green lake and we could see the buffaloes (safely far off) on the surrounding plains.
Reuben took us for a game drive through Hell’s Gate National Park. It’s particularly scenic: rolling swathes of golden grasses studded with buffaloes, zebras, giraffes and impalas and russet coloured cliffs where vultures nest. Hyraxes scuttle among the rocks below a column of basalt rock that folk legend would have us believe is a Maasai maiden turned to stone. Rather less fancifully, it’s named Fischer’s Rock after a German explorer whose party came to a very bad end there in the late 19th century at the hands of the Maasai.
We descended on foot into the gorges that give the park its name, Hell’s Gate. We scrambled along the lesser gorge, a narrow defile with sides dramatically sculpted by wind and rain; we clambered over large boulders that blocked our way but eventually we came to a dead end and had to retrace our steps back to the main gorge. We washed the dust from our hands in surprisingly hot water spurting from the bank and then climbed back up to ‘ground’ level’.
We strolled among the herbivores on the land next to the Yacht Club at Lake Naivasha – now that’s a gentle walk. Predators are rare, although not quite unheard of, in the area and the animals grazed unconcerned. A male impala kept a wary eye on us – there were females with young in his herd and he was being protective; waterbuck gazed at us impassively; giraffes were leisurely feeding on leaves; the zebras and wildebeest ignored us – until I sat down. This was obviously very unusual behaviour as far as the animals were concerned and they all turned to stare at the sight of a tourist sitting down with elbows braced on knees to steady a long lens …
From the nearby treetops came the scream of fish eagles and we heard the caa-ing of sacred ibis as they flew overhead. Love-birds with those wibbly-wobbly eyes rustled in the foliage of the bushes. Nearer the shores of the lake fire-finches hopped about under low branches. We saw five pied kingfishers on the look-out for a meal as they sat perched on a small dead tree at the edge of the lake. Other king-fishers, including giant ones, sat atop masts at the Yacht Club.
We went for a boat trip around the lake. Small herons darted among the reeds. Cormorants scudded across the water, legs pumping hard till they achieved lift-off; others sat with wings held out to dry and warm. Our shutter-fingers went into overdrive as we tried to get that ‘definitive’ shot of a fish-eagle snatching a fish from the lake – even if it was a baited one tossed by our boatman. The trick is to insert a piece of bamboo into the fish so it will float – this won’t harm the bird as it doesn’t eat the fish whole but tears strips off. That works for the bait … as for getting the bird in the frame and in focus, keeping the horizon more or less level and firing the shutter before the bird flies off again, presenting you with a view of its tail-feathers – well, that’s a different matter entirely.
We drove north to Lake Elementeita to a lake fringed with spoonbills, storks and the first of the flamingos – and we dived into a restaurant just as the heavens opened. In the Rift Valley the heavens had been opening with disconcerting regularity at lunch time or shortly after, which rather put a dampener on the afternoon’s activities. (For ‘dampener’ read ‘total washout’.) This was lunch with a difference, however: a whole goat’s leg roasted over charcoal – 2 kg of meat just for the three of us. Pieces were chopped/hacked/sliced off at our table onto a tray for us to dip into salt and eat with our fingers – and the bones were left as well for us to gnaw. This feast was accompanied by ugali – a huge lump of white stodge made from maize flour – and it’s just as tasteless as you might expect from that list of ingredients. Reuben demolished the lot in record time – he loves it – but for us they managed to rustle up some chips. After the meal a waitress came round with a tin of soap-paste and a jug of hot water and a bowl – and we felt like five-star guests!
As soon as the park gates opened at Nakuru National Park we were driving in. We breakfasted beside the lake where the flamingos formed a deep pink edging; they were constantly on the move with gawky grace: feeding, performing their ablutions, preening their feathers, strutting, stretching those enormous pink wings edged with black, flying in, flying off.
Early morning and the animals were feeling frisky. As we watched two zebras nuzzled, canoodled, chased, reared and almost mounted – but they were only flirting. Didn’t even take their pyjamas off. A large male baboon didn’t bother with foreplay though – just strode over to a female sitting a little way apart from a family group, had his wicked way with her and then strode off again. Slam, bam, thank you ma’am! The rhinos didn’t get amorous until the afternoon – and that was a doomed attempt. She just wasn’t interested.
Further round the lake we came across a flotilla of pelicans fishing in synchrony. As co-ordinated as any corps de ballet they moved as one, changing direction, ducking their heads under, turning round, ruffling up their feathers, ducking their heads under again … all in one effortless fluid motion. In the trees above, cormorants nested. Buffaloes, many with egrets perched on their backs, stood knee deep in the water, placidly munching.
Perhaps it didn’t have the drama of the Mara, but nevertheless it was a special week in the Rift Valley …
And was Martin waiting for us on our return to Nairobi?
We phoned him. Three times. Eventually he breezed in to the hotel lobby – with Kenyan shillings. No problem he said, they would change them at the Reception desk. Oh no they wouldn’t … whereas the desk could change foreign currency into shillings, they wouldn’t do it the other way round. Martin was despatched to the bank … and eventually I received the right amount – in dollars – in my hot little hand.
And then it was on to Tanzania for the next part of our trip …