A Travellerspoint blog

Kenya

How a leopard can kill your enthusiasm

sunny

It was whilst watching the leopard that I realised that I hated the Masai Mara.

With the news that I probably wouldn't be able to finally leave Nairobi until late July or early August (another 6-8weeks or so), i was not necessarily the happiest of campers for a while. But the news that I would have to return about weekly for that period did at least mean that I could attempt to do other things for 4 or 5days a week between hospital appointments. And with that, i pretty much got out of Nairobi as fast as my legs could carry me, or more relevantly, as fast as the Nairobbery traffic would allow. Which is how I ended up in the Masai Mara.

When we first arrived in Nairobi and before I had given in and gone to hospital, we had arranged to do a 4day-3night trip to the Masai Mara and Lake Nakuru. It soon became apparent that i wouldn't be able to go but Maaret headed off anyway on the first of her blatant abandonments of me, and seemed to have enjoyed her trip. And so on hearing the news that I had a few days before i needed to be back being violated by medical 'professionals', for want of any better ideas I had inquired if the same trip – or any other – would be possible. 24hours later, i was in the Masai Mara.

To be honest, i was happy just being somewhere which was not Nairobi and would have happily settled on stopping in the first random town we passed through. But the Masai Mara? Great, I thought, despite my normal impeccable timing which mean't that i was ahead of the famed wildebeest migration by barely 3weeks. After getting to camp, we – two English guys just out of university, and a really cool Rwandan/Tanzanian-German couple, plus our enthusiastic if quiet driver/guide Joseph – headed out on an evening game drive. And it was pretty good. We saw an assortment of 'normal' animals – a couple of giraffe, zebra, assorted antelopes, non-migratory wildebeest, and buffalo – before spotting a couple of lions away on the hill and later coming across 3 cheetah taking in the late afternoon sun. It was whilst we were watching that I first started to wonder: we had been informed of the cheetahs over the radio, and 6 or 7 other vehicles were in attendance. But I didn't pay too much attention.

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The rest of the drive consisted of us trying to help out 2 vehicles who got stuck (as all were 2wheel drive minibuses, it was the old fashioned way: we all got out to push and get covered in wheel spin-mud), then getting lucky and seeing 2lions walk past us close by in the twilight, stalking a large group of buffalo – and a third coming out of trees a few hundred metres away - before we then got well and truly stuck. And so, in deep mud in the increasingly pitch black and less than 500m from where we had seen lions hunting, we all had to get out and push. And push some more. And then a final time. And then sit in dark bus for ages awaiting somebody to come and pull us out. By the time we finally got back, we were almost 2hours late, and had spent most of our time either stuck, or helping somebody who was stuck.

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Top, one of the pride of lions lazing in the grass, part of the herd of buffalo, and a happy couple - male and female buffalo – staring at us

The following day was an all-dayer. It started well: barely 30minutes in, and we came across a pride of lions (at least 8 male lions, spread through the bushes, two of whom were enjoying a small buffalo snack) who we watched for a while. We then passed through a large herd of buffalo – who were nonchalantly enjoying the grass and sun barely 500m away from the resting lions. I must admit that I hope that I never piss off a buffalo, as if one of them charges you (or your vehicle or house), it won't end prettily. We then spent several hours driving through the rolling savanna, seeing pretty much nothing except for the occasional elephant: in one 90minute period, in one of the most densely populated game parks in the world we saw not a single animal (excepting humans). We also got stuck once, had to help other stuck vehicles twice and 30minutes were spent futiley (i'm pretty sure that isn't a word, but I like it anyway) searching for a black rhino that was rumoured to be around.

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After a short deviation into Tanzania (the Masai Mara is part of the Serengeti, separated only by the political border which is of no real relevance in the park) we reached the Masai river and had lunch, before taking a bit of a wander nearby through a more furtile animal area: zebra, masai giraffe, assorted antelope, some mongooses (mongeese?) and in the distance in the river, a number of hippo. Then, it was back through the empty savanna for a few hours, with variety again supplied by the occasional elephant, breakdown and other minivans getting stuck.

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And then there was the leopard.

Almost back at camp, and close to where we had seen the lions the previous evening there was a bit of a commotion. At first we thought it was just a lion or two (we could see one wandering in the distance), but then word came over the radio of a leopard. At first we saw nothing, but then an occasional waving tail and the leopard climbed into a tree. To begin with, people kept a respectable distance. But then, with more vehicles arriving every minute, we all started to close in, driving off road and destroying the vegetation in the quest for the best view. By the time it climbed out of the tree 8 or 9 minutes later and started walking towards the long grass a couple of hundred metres away, the poor animal was pretty much surrounded. It more or less had to pick his way through the hoardes of watching minibuses.

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The leopard

By the time it crossed the road and headed into the longer grass (and an area where no driving was allowed, to aid recovery), there were 8 minibuses within about 5metres of the poor animal, and no fewer than 37 vehicles nearby watching it, with a dozen or so others in view rushing to the scene. Though i admit that I was happy (and lucky) to see a leopard and to get such a good view, I hated myself – and all of them – for being so intrusive and not letting the poor animal have some kind of privacy. The problem, i realised was a combination of the radio linkage between all the vans, and also the terrain: lots of gently rolling grassland and only limited areas of higher vegetation means that you have a pretty good visibility, and it is easy to spot other minibuses, especially when there are more than one stopped and thus see where something has been spotted, and so go and investigate.

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The leopard crossing the path, and (below) some of the minibuses surrounding it

My mood was not helped that evening by the sighting of several herds of cows being grazed illegally by the Masai warriors (they are not allowed to graze them in the inner part of the park), and then the constant hard nosed sell-sell-sell by the Masai villagers back at camp (as well as certain, erm, personal comfort issues that I had). The following morning we went on an early game drive, but by then my heart was really not in it. We saw some hyena attacking the remains of an elephant we were told had died 3months previously, a lioness, and some normal animals before I spotted 3lions lying in the grass off to one side. Joseph brought us up close, and for a few minutes were the only ones nearby, but inevitably, he had made the call and a couple of minutes later there were a dozen buses all around and more converging by the minute. Two cheetahs we came upon shortly afterwards were treated the same way, and pretty much chased away into the bushes: by then, the others in our bus were also pleading with Joseph to leave the poor animals alone and so we pealed off and slowly and without incident made our way back for breakfast.

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A couple of shots from the final morning's game drive

Leaving the Mara, it was an odd feeling. It was undoubtedly a beautiful place, although not quite as I had expected. And there had been some undoubted highlights: the pride of lions on day 2, and seeing the leopard – the first i had ever seen. But the constant hard-sell by the Masai people, and especially, the shame and almost anger I felt for being so intrusive (even though I knew I was part of the problem) to the poor leopard and then the 2 cheetahs more than outweighed that, and I was definitely happy to leave.

One of the worlds great game reserves and tourist attractions it undoubtedly is, but sadly i don't think it will be somewhere that I will look back with great fondness.

Posted by Gelli 01:25 Archived in Kenya Tagged animal Comments (4)

Matatu's rule OK. Or something like that

Life in Nairobi just goes on and on, with predictable monotony. Transport in much of the world, especially the developing world, is always, erm, fun? Not necessarily for the first timer and novice traveler, but you adapt to the local styles and customs pretty rapidly. Nairobi is no different.

Traffic in Nairobi is the stuff of legend. Basically, if you don't want to get stuck in traffic jams, you must travel between about 3:13 and 4:07am on the last Monday of every month or move somewhere more remote. Like Western Australia. Attempting to move at any other time is laughable, and even thinking about possibly considering travel between about 06:30 – 10:00 or 16:30 and 20:00 means you are pretty much doomed. It's quicker to crawl. And probably safer. Experience has taught me to plan ahead so that if i have an appointment, at, say Thursday at 9am, I know that I need to be in a taxi by roughly Tuesday, to ensure that I stand a fighting chance of making it on time.

Traffic lights are ignore so routinely that they are basically used solely as for urban decoration, yet traffic police are always out in force, especially directing traffic at traffic lights and roundabouts: the two places where they shouldn't have to.

Taxis are everywhere, but like in Zambia seem to charge extortionate fares compared to the average local wages. Even though I know how much i should be paying (the local fare), and refuse to pay extra, I am still paying quite allot and it rapidly adds up. Taxi drivers also seem to possess no memory: On one occasion, I went to ask a driver how much to home from the hospital and he said 900. That would be a daft enough price in itself (400 is my normal fee, or 500 if it is at rush hour), but it was even more ludicrous because the same driver had taken me home for 400 for the previous 2days, and still thought he could bullsh1t his way to more than doubling the fare. The number of justifications for silly fares I have heard are beyond counting. And this is by no means uncommon.

But it is Matatu's - basically Nissan minibuses with people hanging out of the open door shouting – which are the bedrock of the local transport system and are amongst the most colourful and decorated that I have come across anywhere in the world: personalised, I suppose, is the nice way of describing them. And they are basically death traps: In the last week have been in 3matatu crashes (and 2 taxi crashes) – none desperately serious once the shouting, fighting, knife waving and recriminations had passed – and seen several more. Personally, as that averages out at about once a week in Kenya, I figure i'm actually ahead of the game right now.

Matatus are driven in a style more associated with blind people in dodgems, and at speeds ranging between 'holy-shit that is rapid' and 'Warp 7', with absolutely no regard for anything even vaguely resembling traffic rules and rules of the road. Anything goes – including driving the wrong way up one way streets and at full pelt along footpaths – and by law, it seems, every Matatu has to have at least 15dents, a door/boot which doesn't shut, and a few bits which are broken: lights, brakes, steering. That sort of thing.

But this is actually fairly standard across much of Africa and elsewhere. In fact, Nairobi's matatu's are positively luxurious compared to many others: they stop collecting passengers when the seats are full, don't have extra fold down seats (though admittedly there are normally 2 or 3 guys who stand hanging out of the open doorway) and even have TV screens. I have certain routines worked out and certain small rules that I follow when traveling, and the very fact that the TV screens are actually almost universally in decent condition – and work, showing music videos at high volume – remains both a marvel to me and has led to one of my patented rules of travel (insert drum roll here):

Never board a matatu that you can hear (or feel, for those who's sub-woofers have yet to explode) before you can see it.

Sounds simple, eh?

And to be fair it, is both simple and effective. It is possibly a fairly sensible sounding rule at the best of times, and I know of many people who can't stand such matatus simply because they are just so damned loud. But personally, it is a rule which i stumbled on with alarming rapidity after an incident in the early and sicker days of my Nairobi Hospital saga when I made the intriguing – if not altogether welcome – discovery that at certain levels, the pitch/tone of the bass and total noise projected could cause me fairly instant discomfort and require very rapid unplanned, erm, comfort breaks...

Or, to put it another way, in my sicker moments matatus with bass at the right resonate frequency caused me to sh1t myself.

Posted by Gelli 03:07 Archived in Kenya Tagged transportation Comments (1)

Yup, stuck back in Nairobi

overcast

And so it is that I'm back in Nairobi. And for pretty much the first time since I left Portland, actually alone. This is quite strange. By nature - and history – I am a solo traveler, but this trip has seen me with constant companions, and baring 36hours or so around Walvisbaai I have not been alone. Which in itself is also quite strange: Maaret is now back in London or somewhere, but the 3months or so we have traveled together is the longest continuous period I have ever traveled with somebody in my life. Virtually all the rest of the people who have been part of my trip so far have also left Africa, or at least, are not in places where I will see them again soon. Even the other long term resident at the hostel here, Andrew, a cheery English guy, has just left: He's off to Angola to be a pilot, as you do.

So i'm now the sole guest in an empty hostel, and wondering what to do next. I haven't really been well for over 6weeks now, and it's almost 4weeks since i started my continuing liaisons with the staff at Nairobi Hospital, and even more continuous fights to avoid being conned by the taxi drivers outside it. I now greet the staff at the pharmacy, coffee shop and newspaper seller by name, and they respond with similar familiarity. This is rarely a good sign.

I estimate that I have now been seen by 41 different doctors and specialists. I have given enough blood to keep a small ship afloat, and enough stool to sink that same ship (yes i know its disgusting. But i'm still working on the pretty well proven assumption that nobody of relevance ever reads this sh1t anyway, and those that do should expect what is coming). I have been tested for more diseases and problems than I can remember – including some i'm pretty sure were eradicated 60+ years ago - and been poked, prodded, scanned and violated in many different ways (I am as yet still unable to sit down after the last such violation: That was 2 days ago), and been given enough medication to fill a small pharmacy: At one point my breakfast was a couple of pieces of toast, 2 glasses of liquid medicine and 14 pills.

The fact that pretty much none of that has made the slightest difference and nobody as yet has actually got the faintest idea exactly what is wrong with me should probably worry me allot more than it actually does. Possibly if I understood a bit more about what the medical professionals were talking about i might be more worried, but I'm actually now starting to find it a bit funny. There is nothing i can really do, and I am definitely better than I was after I had been in the hospital for 2weeks and I don't seem to be getting any worse, which for me is good enough to be going on with. About all the doctors can confirm and seem to agree on is that I don't have stomach cancer, my elbow is not broken, and I am probably not pregnant.

Which basically means that as for now, i remain stuck in Nairobi. I have come to the conclusion that there is no point in my leaving until i am diagnosed &/or up to at least 80% of my normal health: I have no specific appointments or time frames anymore, so I may as well stay here and get fixed. Without the faintest idea how long I will be here. So if anybody happens to be coming to Nairobi at some point before September 2013-ish, come and say hello!

Posted by Gelli 22:49 Archived in Kenya Tagged health_and_medicine Comments (0)

Life and death in Nairobbery

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In a previous warbling, I noted just how much I was looking forward to Nairobi, and my expectations of the city. I am happy to report that Nairobi has exceeded that. After 2.5weeks of pretty much been stuck between the confines of a heavily fortified hostel toilet and a hospital, I finally felt able to risk a trip into the city. Sick or not, i had chores to attend to and medicine's to collect. The day went pretty smoothly, though I was utterly shattered by the end, the product of barely having done any exercise for some time. But I was never quite caught out on comfort break requirements, achieved pretty much everything i needed to and finally got to see some of the city. By day, at least, Nairobi is fine. To me it felt more European than African, at least in the central core, (though I couldn't explain why) and was pleasant enough.

But it was when I risked a trip to the Ethiopian embassy – more out of future curiosity and a desire to actually get some exercise for the first time in ages than any pressing need – that i started to think that perhaps the Nairobi that I have long heard of was not in fact a myth. Maybe 500m before the embassy i was walking along a suburban road, when a man comes staggering towards me. I assume he is drunk. But when he is maybe 20metres away, he just collapses in a heap on the floor with foam coming from the mouth. My first thought was a horribly cynical and paranoid one: perhaps this is just a ruse for an unsuspecting pick-pocket to go for me whilst I try and help. But I quickly get past that. The foaming is just too realistic.

I stand for maybe a second, whilst looking around and seeing that the other 15 or so pedestrians – and 3 security guards at gates, who are all closer to the man than I - within sight are all ignoring the event. I don't have a Kenyan phone to hand so I start to approach to see if I can help. Barely 2 steps later, a smartly dressed woman in her 50's grabs my arm and says strictly “No. stay well clear.” And drags me across the road. As we start to cross to the other side of the road, two men calmly walk up to the prone body, frisk him, take his wallet and shoes and walk off. Still nobody is batting an eyelid, except that one of the security guards looks strongly at me until he catches my eye, and makes a swift gesture indicating that I should just keep going and ignore the man. I can't quite believe what is going on, but with people making it obvious they don't think I should even try and help, I don't really see what I can achieve so simply carry on my way, slightly perturbed.

When I return from the embassy maybe a half hour later, the scene is the same as before – nobody stopping or paying any attention – but for one obvious change: the man now has a blanket over his body and as I approach, is lifted into the back of a van which suddenly appears. Death is not unusual in Africa and people deal with it more frequently than many Westerners, but even so, I couldn't believe the lack of anything resembling curiosity (if you collapse on a pavement in Western Europe, China or much of the rest of the world, you would at least have a crowd of people looking over you in curiosity, even if none are actively trying to help) or even vague attempt to help. I don't know if I am frustrate or saddened more. But the really horrible thing was that I was in no way surprised. Welcome to Africa.

Posted by Gelli 11:38 Archived in Kenya Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Fred world

sunny

There is very little that is as frustrating being stuck somewhere sick when you are away traveling. Though you have the support and sympathy of other travelers and passers by, they are by nature transient people and not around much. You keep having to explain exactly what is wrong, and of course, you are basically stuck. And stuck somewhere not of your own choosing. Whilst I was at least in a decent hostel which was friendly and at least allowed some interaction with others (unlike the hotels and guest houses which had been the norm for the previous few weeks), it was still a hostel in the suburbs of a city I didn't know, and a fairly empty one to boot. My world is pretty much down to the hostel, hospital and taxi's between the two: my every movement is carefully calculated so that I am never far (in distance or time) from my constant current companion, the toilet. I am spending so long around certain toilets, that if I were married (those that know certain episodes from my past: Shut it) it could be used a grounds for divorce.

I like to think that I am a fairly patient person: If it takes you 3days to travel somewhere that you could fly in 3hours, you pretty much have to be. But after a week or so looking at the same walls and wishing there was paint drying that I could watch, and with Maaret briefly back and a cheery Northerner Johnny also onboard, a plan was hatched. And so it was that one Saturday morning, and after some very careful, erm, comfort-stop calculations, we went in search of Giraffe's.

Though not the cheapest, and, to be fair, a fairly limited amount of options and activities to be undertaken, I loved the giraffe park. Even more, I loved the smell of fresh air (and giraffe sh1t, but mostly air) and actually being pretty much anywhere else for the first time in a week.

I like Giraffe's.

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Especially when you get to do things like this:

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And this:

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And whilst, sadly, I was too sick to even contemplate attempting it, of course this:

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....Although Fred, as a gay giraffe, was somewhat disappointed that he didn't receive more attention than he did:

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Happily covered in giraffe slime (Giraffe saliva is possibly the most gunky thing that I have come across since the bad old days of Noel Edmunds gunking people, a memory which oddly persists from TV in my much younger days) and comfort-breaked yet again, we then made a quick beeline to the Nairobi National Park Animal Sanctuary and more comfort break comfort.

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The Animal sanctuary was odd. To be fair, I was increasingly in trouble by this point and so not as focused as I could have been, but for some reason I just found it mildly depressing. Yes, there were animals, and a full range of cats, including things like the Caracol ((XXXX spelling XXXX)) that I have never seen before. But it just didn't seem right. We were able to go into a Cheetah pen for a bit, but later discover that was only because the boss wasn't looking, and would we 'please show our appreciation' to the guards. There was one monkey who did a great Grinch impression, and another who had escaped and amused himself by rattling the outside of the enclosure he had escaped from – to the irritation of the remaining inmates – and taking grass from tourists. But even though it was feeding time, i think the thing that really showed how interested I was in the place was that the animals i spent most time watching, weren't even attractions:

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Yup, I went to an animal sanctuary and spent as much of my time looking at Dung-beetles as anything else. Hmmmm. Still, at least I had made it out of my own miserable enclosure for a few hours. With luck,i may be allowed out on a leash again in a week's time.

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I haven't had a sign picture for some time. This isn't a classic, but it marks the return of a n old favourite of my blogs

Posted by Gelli 07:36 Archived in Kenya Tagged animal Comments (0)

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