Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The man eaters of Tsavo

A little bit of Kenyan history for you which I learned enroute to Tsavo National Park last weekend:

In March 1898 the British started building a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya. The project was led by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson. During the next nine months of construction, two maneless male Tsavo lions stalked the campsite, dragging Indian workers from their tents at night and devouring them. Crews tried to scare off the lions and built campfires and bomas of thorn fences around their camp for protection to keep the maneaters out, to no avail. The lions crawled through the thorn fences.

After the new attacks, hundreds of workers fled from Tsavo, halting construction on the bridge. Patterson set traps and tried several times to ambush the lions at night from a tree. After repeated unsuccessful endeavors, he shot the first lion on December 9, 1898. Three weeks later, the second lion was found and killed. The first lion killed measured nine feet, eight inches (3 m) from nose to tip of tail. It took eight men to carry the carcass back to camp. The construction crew returned and completed the bridge in February 1899. The exact number of people killed by the lions is unclear. Over the course of his life, Patterson gave several figures, once claiming that there were 135 victims.

I have learned to be aware of abrupt movements in the wild (including Nairobi). The animals which you are viewing are shy and watchful. They have a habit of evading you when you least expect it. When bending down to reach for your camera, the animal has slipped out of view and skipped into the high marsh away from voyeuristic eyes. The stillness of their movements has a noble quality. We humans have lost the ability to be still, domestic animals too have lost this ability.

The elephant matriach has mastered the art of stillness, moving to the top of the herd and then stopping completly still to watch her human stalkers. The herd behind her, imitate every movement, trusting her movements and waiting in stillness to anticipate her next move. Movements are repeated over and over, a rhythmical tempo that blends in with the sights and smells of the landscape.

I was in awe of the majestic stilness of these great beasts, moving and stopping, moving and stopping across our path, reacting with stillness to our abrupt movements and the sound of the engine. They may not see very well but can certainly hear the slighest sound, even our whispers.We continued talking so as to keep the disrupted equilibrium going.When we spoke in whispers, the elephants stopped as if confused by our silence.

On our return to Lion's Bluff camp, we spotted two lionesses and seven cubs, on the path. The lionesses slowly moved aside while the cubs cowered in the high grass, staring at us while we stared at them.

And there were others; prancing dik dik, the Oryx, mongoose,and the sad sight of a dead elephant sprawled near the path, possibly due to drought, the corpse left alone without a vulture in sight...

One feels like a novice in the wild, the rules of the wild do not register easily for me. I grew up on a farm but even then, the only predator animal to be found was a lonesome bull, lurking in a field full of cows, and one would have to really upset it in order to get a reaction. I live by the safari rule- do not get out of the car and perhaps a survival strategy- throw myself into a thorn bush if chased by a wild cat or run up a tree, if there are trees nearby.

My friend, understands the rhythm of Africa. He has fallen in with the wind, and the colours and smells of the landscape. He has fallen into the tempo of the wild where stillness and movements are repeated over and over. There is much to be learned from the silence and stillness of the wild

as karen Blixen wrote in 1937

when you have caught the rhythm of Africa, you find it is the same in all her music

Friday, June 3, 2011

Navigating Nairobi in a small yellow car

It took a long time to find the right car; months of bargaining, mechanical examinations and bullshit. Poor Saed, my mechanic, examined about 20 Rav4s from November last year till Feb this year. Papers were not in order, bits were missing from the engine, one car had different registration details to the details mentioned in the log book-stolen in other words

Anyway, now that I have my lovely car, I am learning to drive on pot holed roads without rules or regulations. No traffic police nor signs nor traffic lights. I am learning the hard way.

The post office in Karen lost my Irish driving licence, which I had sent home to be transferred into an international licence-never never try to do things the right way in Kenya, it only leads to more trouble!

So I decided to sit the Kenyan driving test. How hard can it be, I thought to myself. I had seen how others drive in this city-not great. At night,some people don't bother to turn on their lights and on Fri and Saturday night, most people are drunk and swinging wildly across the road.
One night, when driving on a highway to Thika, a car was driving on the wrong side of the road with no lights! So you could say, that some drivers appear to be drunk, or stoned or both..hard to tell really but there is something wrong with the way people drive here

Anyway, the driving test was in Karen. I got there early because I am a Mzungu and I always forget that none else believes in punctuality. The police man had already assembled some hopefuls.

You will not be be able to bribe anyone here, he says.

I started laughing-no bribes at a Kenyan police station. Was I in the right place?

I managed to get in line after the speech and in I went to the police station, to be tested on British signs which are actually not displayed on any roads I have seen since I moved here 2 years ago.

A cattle sign
cows crossing, I answered eagerly

I had seen Masai warriors taking their cows for a walk on Bagathi road but there wasn't a sign there.

There were several other signs which I did not recognise. This was not going very well

A railway sign- we have them in Ireland but there is only one train that leaves Nairobi for the coast and that isnt anywhere near Karen

Next came the toy car test. He placed a fisher price car in front of me and asked me to drive around a toy roundabout and park ahead of a car he pointed to.

So thinking I was in Kenya, I drove the toy car the reckless way, overtaking on the roundabout and swerving in front of the parked car

There were no matatus on the toy roundabout so rather an easy task, I thought

no- you have failed

Can I get in a real car and show you what I can do?
I have been driving in Ireland for 10 years with no penalty points (only a few parking tickets and and well, that court appearance)

No- you have failed. You need to take some lessons and come back again

How embarrassing- noone fails a Kenyan driving test but I had.

NowI am driving on my Irish licence and with few police on the road, its no problem

Driving around Nairobi, I have noticed how Kenyans like to drive-crazily

On a real actual roundabout, there are traffic lights which do not work . The red light can mean go and the green light, stop so best ignore them.

No-one gives way to the right on roundabouts, so you find yourself stopping halfway as others push past you and then beep at you, because you happen to be following rules of the road

I drive through pedestrian crossings - spotted 2 some time back. If a pedestrian puts a foot on road to signal intent at crossing, it could be swept away

Flashing lights here seems to signal the drivers intent to cross right in front of you. In his way, he is saying 'I'm coming'.

Beeping the horn is reserved for me, I love using it, also the Italian gesture for 'whats your problem'- hand cupped and waved up and down. Some yelling inside the confines of your own car lets off some steam too.

Never leave a space between you and next car unless you want matatus squeezing you up against the missing pavements.

Bigger cars like pushing in front of smaller ones so if you drive a small car, beware. Its survival of the fittest here!

Its a tiresome adventure everytime you get in your car, the wild west..

.and filling up at a petrol station is also amusing.

There is no self service so you sit there and watch carefully as the petrol cap is taken off and hopefully put on again before handing money out the window. A friend of mine had her petrol cap stolen because she was not watching carefully. Damn, you can't relax even there.

Most cars overtake on the left so watch out. Matatus overtake on the left, right, or drive through you. They enjoy driving on footpaths when there is a jam. Its funny to watch but not for the pedestrians who compliantly move away into the flower beds for safety. They don't even appear disgruntled, everyday life here

The traffic police are usually found right outside the station as they have few cars.

On the way to Kilifi airport last weekend, my taxi was stopped by that rare policeman who has left the station in search of money or food for the day.

nina ngoja uje unipe chai

meaning I am waiting for you to return and give me tea

Always a stomach reference here, money related directly to what it feeds

We all laughed at his brazen shameless request and drove on.

Anyway, that's all for now on my adventures in my little yellow car..more later