As the pilot announced our approach towards Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, I instinctively tried to plot out the lights underneath on the map in my head and find my way home. It used to be somewhat easy, but now the sprawling city had spread an unrecognizable disarray of lights well past the airport in all directions. Plotting anything anywhere was futile, it had just been too long, and too many infrastructure projects had reshaped the old mind-map since the last time I was in Kenya.
My nostalgia for the city I knew was strangely layered with a curiosity for this unfamiliar city as our uber driver excitedly described all the new bypasses and skyscrapers that I did not know of. There were hints of recognition as I could point out a few unchanged landmarks along the way, but the city has grown a few storeys taller. We were going to stay at our close family friends, Makarand Uncle and Savita Aunty’s, place in Nairobi. We had planned a trip to Masai Mara, hoped to make our way to Mombasa and looked forward to seeing some old friends while in town.
We spent the weekend in town, visiting some places I knew, and driving around most I didn’t. Shweta was interested in visiting the Mboga Market, a farmers’ market for produce that is set up by the city park, and the Masai Market, a curio market that sets up at different places throughout the week. The Mboga Market was somewhat unchanged, the wooden stalls with tarp roofs pitched alongside the narrow dusty roads that had, as they so often do, turned to a gooey sticky mess after the previous days rains. The wares were arranged in a jigsaw of interlocking fruits and vegetables, with beans piled high as a few ladies shelled them. Hawkers struck up conversation with potential customers in Swahili, English, other Kenyan dialects, a variety of Indian languages and in Chinese – a reflection of the changing demographic of their potential customers. Sticking up between the black tarp, were more recent, and likely temporary, additions of bright red and white umbrellas. These were provided as a courtesy of the local candidate for Parliament. Elections were a few weeks away, and as is the case in every democracy everywhere, the once-every-five-years wooing of the electorate was underway, hot and heavy. The old market had burnt down, and the city council had demanded the sellers to vacate. There had been protests and boycotts, and then finally an agreement was reached. The government has promised an upgraded market, with a permanent structure at the site of the old Mboga Market next door. Whether the problems and subsequent resolution have to do with the elections, or with the prime-real-estate location of the market, is anyone’s guess.
The following day we went to YaYa Center, which used to be the sole high-rise in the neighborhood, but which now was almost indiscernible. The Masai Market was setup in the parking lot, and unlike the Mboga Market, had a solid asphalt base. The stalls were setup in a similar wood and tarp fashion, with the wares being neatly arranged on the floor. A lot of “seeing is free” chants were being heard amongst the crowds of tourists, which were sure to be followed by the price-list, discounted-price-list, special-only-for-you-price-list, I’m-losing-money-on-this-sale-price-list, and so on. Bargaining, as annoying as it seems (especially to those of us not blessed with the art), is a social lubricant and in some ways almost an expectation. The buy-sell split can reach comedic levels with the seller expecting hundreds of US Dollars and the buyer offering a few Kenyan Shillings.
Another reason for being in Nairobi was to have an opportunity to show Shweta the place I grew up in. Most of that was spent with nostalgic heartache and disbelief of how things have changed in a few years (15 to be fair)! We did have the opportunity to taste Kenyan favorites like Poussin chicken, plain and masala chips, and mogo (Cassava) at more or less familiar places.
After spending a few days in Nairobi, we set off for Masai Mara. It was the beginning of the great migration and we were hoping to catch a glimpse. The combi (minivan) picked us up in the morning. We were sharing a ride with three Dutch ladies, a mother and two daughters, so we made introductions and small talk on our way towards the Great Rift Valley. After the turn off for Narok, we stop at the Valley viewpoint to take in the magnificent views of the eastern escarpment. The Valley drops off quite suddenly into a vast plain below, and from that vantage point we could see the town of Mai-Mahiu, the old satellite station and Mt. Longonot. The road into the valley is a narrow winding path, hugging the ridges as it descends at a comfortably shallow angle. This road consistently has heavy goods traffic, making progress slow as large trucks crawl up and down the windy roads bearing heavy loads. From Mai-Mahiu, we continued on past the volcanic Mt. Longonot and the satellite station to Narok, after a quick refuelling stop we were back on the road, which after a few more kilometers had turned to gravel. We drove on a diversion where the main road was littered with immobile and unmanned construction equipment. A new road was under development here, which was evidence of more electoral grease.
About half-way between Narok and Mara, the combi started protesting with a continuous hissing sound. This caused our driver and guide considerable, but manageable, concern. Upon inspection, the cooling system had decided to leak. Our driver was certain we would make it to the camp, however a few more kilometers down the road the protest started sounding decidedly more violent. We pulled over to give the car a chance to calm down a bit. The Dutch family was a bit worried, what with us being in the middle of nowhere, but we assured them that this sort of thing was not uncommon. As we waited for a few minutes, a passing combi stopped to check on us. The two drivers had a briefing and concluded that the best course of action would be for the new guy to give us a lift while our original driver would attempt a repair. Thus, without much further delay, we arrived at our Enchoro Wildlife Camp in a combi that we did not leave Nairobi with. The camp is a very minimal, budget-friendly, tented camp right outside the national park.
In the evening, miraculously, our Nairobi driver actually showed up for our game drive. The hissing sound had been replaced with an intermittent warning beep, but our driver assured us that this was not a problem. We set off on our drive through the Oloolaimutia gate. Masai ladies in multicolored clothing were lined up outside the gate to sell necklaces, earrings, keychains and Shuka (traditional fabric) to the passing tourists, taking advantage of everyone stopping at the gate to finish paperwork. We were immediately welcomed by a group of wildebeest, impalas, gazelles and zebras. A short drive through a valley between two short hills had us amongst a group of vehicles, their occupants intently staring into the bushes by the foothills. A few whispered inquiries revealed that a rhino had been spotted here earlier. We too began intently staring, trying to morph the various vegetation and shadows into a large black horned herbivore. There was some movement in the distance, but even at the highest zoom in our very budget camera, we could only make out a small brownish antelope. Our driver confirmed it was an eland, from the impala family, and so after a few more minutes we moved on. The evening drive was a short one, once again limited by the sunset. We saw plenty of the usual suspects – mongoose and baboon, vultures and marobou storks. We came across two cheetahs lazing in the setting sun by an ant hill over-run by bushes. One was completely knocked out, probably had a particularly heavy lunch, while the other gazed about not concerning itself with any of the vehicles around. There was one 4WD that had gone off-road and managed to creep up right by the cheetahs. This sort of behaviour used to be allowed in the park but is now banned as it causes severe damage to the grassland. This vehicle, it turned out, was a research vehicle that specifically studied cheetahs. A little further down the road was a lioness lying on top of a rock. She also had no concern for the tourists, and did not so much as pop her head up. The only thing visible to us was the outline of her head and belly from behind the rock. On this rock, we did spot a chameleon that had oddly colored itself red and blue – not much of a camouflage, but very beautiful nonetheless. After swinging past an especially filthy looking and smelling hippo pool, it was time to head back to the camp.
We woke up to head out on our all-day game drive that would take us through a large part of the park down to the Mara river, where, if we were lucky, we could witness a wildebeest crossing. The day started off by following the previous evenings route and welcoming committee. Today however we had a few debutantes: bushbucks, topi and heartbeast and a tower of giraffes greeted us along our way down. The plains were lush green, dotted with flat-topped trees and a variety of fauna grazing, and dawdled a scene as iconic as the Savannah itself. In the distance, marching in single file, looking like ants coming down the anthill, a parade was underway. From afar, we could not make out what animal it was and assumed it to be wildebeest. However, on approaching the queue that stretched til the horizon, we found it to be buffalo, acting as parade floats for the oxpeckers feasting on their backs. On the other side, the plains were covered in wildebeest arranged in a sparse and in an unorganized polka dot pattern against the yellow grass. Along our way, we got news on the radio and diverted towards a small group of cars, that had besieged a pair of bushes. Underneath, in the inadequate shade provided by the sparse bush, lay a pride of lions. There were four in plain sight, alert with their heads high keeping a lookout and at least two more hidden deeper in the thicket, seemingly taking a late-morning nap. No matter how many lions one sees, the excitement never seems to subside.
We continued on our journey westwards, stopping at Keekorok Airstrip for a break, and to look at the curio stalls laid out by the roadside. This was followed by a long drive through yellower grasslands while passing by an array of antelope, a solo elephant way in the distance and a solitary jackal hiding under a tree. A pair of ostriches were noisily and incessantly chasing each other with an elaborate display of wing flapping – this was some sort of mating ritual, where the two males were figuring out which one was the dominant one. The landscape a little further on was littered with wildebeast carcasses, and the treetops were lined with evil-looking vultures in their oversized overcoats. Before driving down to the river, our driver decided to take us up to a nearby hill to get a birds-eye view over the plains. As we got out of the car, we were immediately in awe of the marching bands in black before us. In all directions, and in a disciplined single line, several herds were moving across the plains, exploring their new neighborhood for the season.
Down by the riverside, we were amazed by the population of a different kind of animal – cars. The entire bank was lined with cars, waiting to catch a glimpse of one of the herds crossing the river. We must have seen over 60 cars staring at the river. In the distance we saw a herd of nervous wildebeest, who didn’t seem to enjoy the prospect of crossing the river with so many unfamiliar beings staring them down. There was a smaller group of wildebeest closer to the river bank and so, the scene was set: a few crocodiles were in the water, a scouting group of four wildebeast were inspecting the deep grooves in the ground running from the upper banks to the water level. Beyond our view, the vehicles had left a clear path for the crossing animals to use, and there was mostly silence, other than the odd car coming in or moving in the hope of a better vantage point. And so, we waited. There were discussions about when to have our packed lunch, and it was mostly a unanimous decision to just huddle here, eat and wait. Then, as suddenly as nothing was happening, something happened. A group of wildebeest decided that it was time, and began crossing. The crossing of the Mara River is not at all what one would call graceful. Wild panic is the mode the animals are in, as they helplessly slide down one side of the bank throwing up a dust storm, gallop and bob across the river’s current, muddying the already brown waters. They continue to slip and slide and grapple amateurishly up the other bank creating an even more challenging surface for those following behind them. This panic is to avoid being eaten by predators that may or may not be present during the crossing. In this case they were present but on some sort of low-gnu diet, as not a single crocodile bothered to flinch. The crossing operates on a strictly to-each-his-own basis, with almost no help for the younger animals. Several gnu tumbled and fell into the water while getting in, or couldn’t find a good footing and slid backwards on the way out. Eventually the entire group made it across with no fatalities, but most likely a few injuries.
After the river, we headed back towards the camp. We caught another pride of lions on our drive who were busy sunbathing, and taking the afternoon off. All of them congregated under some shrubs for their siestas. At one point, we saw a particularly fresh looking/smelling wildebeast carcass that was acting as a buffet for a group of rowdy vultures. The birds were literally burying their entire heads up to their necks in the dead animal to pull out entrails to feast on. There were fights, about who ate what and how much, and a cacophony of screeches and squawks. One overzealous bird calculated his descent flight path in such a manner as to have maximum momentum to clear a path while landing directly onto the late wildebeast. As the afternoon wore down, we stopped under the shade of a lonesome tree to stretch our legs. After the break it was a straight drive back to the camp to rest before leaving for Nairobi in the morning.
After spending a few more days in Nairobi, mostly meeting friends and overeating, we were off to Mombasa. Although we wanted take the newly installed train, the ticket buying process was such an ordeal that we decided to take a night bus there, and defer the train for the way back. I was glad to see that amongst all the changes in town, at least River Road had somehow managed to keep its raw, noisy, bustling and overstimulating charm. This street is the city’s bus station for both long-distance and local matatus, but is only two-ish lanes wide with five-ish lanes worth of traffic. Makarand Uncle and Savita Aunty kindly offered to drop us off in the madness and helped us find the bus office, which was bustling with vendors and guides even in the dark. The ride to Mombasa was uneventful, and we as arrived in the morning in the middle of town.
We had two days in Mombasa and decided to spend the first day exploring the city center and markets. After completing the check-in formalities and taking a much-needed shower, we headed out to catch a matatu into town. Matatus have also seen developments over the last couple of years. The number of passengers matches that of the seats, the music is turned down and the entire experience is, well, a little mellow. They are still painted and decorated in an extremely flamboyant display of disparate yet oddly thematic pop culture references. The markets in Mombasa are a mish-mash of small hawkers, stalls and storefronts along tiny alleyways. We walked around, haggled for prices, had lunch at a small restaurant, and made our way slowly to Fort Jesus. The Fort has alternated ownership several times throughout its existence. It was Portugese to begin with but was captured and recaptured several times by the Omani, Portuguese, British, Swahili states and Mombasa itself. The current iterations of the fort seems to have been captured by the Omanis again via a sponsorship deal for the exhibit within. The fortress itself is now a mix between the older preserved parts with a few newer buildings within holding the exhibit. A row of canons neatly guard the ghosts of the past. When we were there, a student group was visiting, which made for entertaining people-watching as well (not sponsored by the Omanis).
The next day was spent on the beach. We walked along north beach for quite some time. At one end of the beach we noticed several tiny holes in the sand, all occupied by crabs. In the evening, when the tide started coming in, the crabs slowly popped their heads out carefully scanning the surrounding areas, then slowly raised their bodies out. If the coast was clear – pun completely intentional – they would scurry out into the waves as they came in and then rush right back to their holes. They looked like children trying to get their feet wet in the water and running back scared as the waves came in. We started making our way back when the tide began turning. The high-tide covered the entire beachfront and we had to sneak into someone’s backyard and make our way to the road on the other side. After one failed attempt, we had no choice unless we wanted to get completely soaked.
In the morning, we set out early to make our way to the train station. Riding the brand new train back to Nairobi, with the real possibility of making it back in a mere 4.5hrs was an exciting prospect. We had trekked out to the Mombasa Terminus, on the outskirts of the city, on the day of our arrival to secure the elusive tickets that had to be booked at least 3 days in advance. This morning we once again trekked out to board the train. The new terminal is a beautiful building; the surroundings have been completely transformed by a terraced garden, which though not yet complete, has great potential. The train tracks of the brand new Standard Guage Rail (SGR) make their way out from under the bridge that serves as the link into town. The project is to also add a new roadlink to the city, which is still under construction. We completed the security check and were asked to sit in a waiting area. The whole process was smooth, somewhat ceremonial, and ostensibly inspired by the airline industry rather than traditional railways. The train rolled into the platform and we were asked to board: families, first class then second class. The platform was lined with stewards and stewardesses in smart crisp Kenya Railways uniforms, ready to assist everyone find their coaches. The train itself, with its orange, yellow and white livery, was sparkling clean with comfortable diner-like seats, even in our second-class coaches. Once the train was loaded up, the crew did a final inspection followed by a safety briefing, and robotically tucked away absolutely any (!) luggage straps that were dangling from the luggage carriers above. This was definitely a different sort of train ride.
The train slowly pushed off from the platform and slowly made its way westwards through palm trees and more evidence of new construction. The coach was fitted with an information display panel that read out temperature, time and most critically the speed. This train can reach speeds of up to 100km/h. This excelled in comparison to the archaic colonial era dinosaur that was previously an option, running on a tiny-guage, which would reach double-digits on a good day, and need decimals on a bad one. As the journey went into the more unpopulated areas the gauge slowly but surely actually started reaching the three digit mark. As we passed Voi, the landscape was inundated with Baobab trees as far as the eyes could see. We entered Tsavo National Park and even saw some elephants and giraffes along the fence. The famed Mombasa-Nairobi train ride had kept its promise of wildlife even in this newer version. The new tracks having been laid closer to the highway, and the general increase in human population and decline in the wild one, meant that this project had not suffered the “Ghost and the Darkness” casualties of the past.
The train slowly crept into Nairobi Terminus at Syokimau, once again on the outskirts of town. This terminus had contributed some of the lights to my confusing landing at the airport. The new terminal is connected to the old one via a train link from the old line. It seemed as though the smaller gauge train had maintained its relevance in this small connection. We completed the final leg of our journey traveling through the industrial areas and a slum of Nairobi and arrived into Nairobi Train Station without any issues.
With that, my journey down a somewhat unfamiliar memory lane had come to an end. We were heading to our next stop in London. Growing up here, we were sold on visions of a developed nation: Kenya 2020. The politicians selling the idea, may or may not have done anything to push the agenda, but the deadlines kept moving with time. There was Kenya 2030, 2050 and so on. As the reality of this finally seems to be under way, at least in its physical manifestation, the heart romanticizes the simpler, older, and most importantly, familiar, times of the past.