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Out of Africa

Leaving Lake Paradise. Photo by Chris Fletcher.

It rained again last night for the third night in a row, an indication that the “little rains,” as they are called, have begun. It is time to leave.

I saw Pete yesterday afternoon. He’d come to the Tribe Hotel where I am staying to pick up the gear he’d left when we began the trek to Lake Paradise. It was a little awkward seeing each other. I’d cut out early from his friend’s camp in Samburu and now he was canceling his reservation, which I’d made, at Tribe and staying on with the Douglas-Hamiltons in Nairobi. Neither one of us really knew what to say to the other.

“We good?” he asked me as he grabbed his gear.


“You sure?”

I shrugged. “It was a mistake to go to Elephant Watch Camp,” I said. That could have started our argument all over again but he let it go. I was glad he did.

All I’d done since I’d gotten back to Nairobi was sleep. But I was still tired. I thought about going to the Maasai Market and buying gifts to bring home but couldn’t bring enough enthusiasm to the mission to make it happen. Besides, I didn’t really want to spend the afternoon haggling with Nairobi Maasai over badly carved wooden elephants and beaded bracelets. I didn’t want any of that stuff anyway. And I knew that just being at the market would depress me. It didn’t have anything to do with Kenya. Not really. I’d seen Kenya. I’d gotten her red dirt thick into my hair and under my nails so that even now when I showered it flowed like blood down the drain. Her smoky scent was in my nostrils, the sounds of her night noises filled my head. What did I need with tourist trinkets?

I slept in the afternoon and then I got up and took a long, hot shower and dressed and went down to the bar and ordered a whisky but there was a large screen TV next to the bar and a soccer game on and I didn’t want to sit there and listen to people cheer and the non-stop prattling of the announcers so I took my drink and went outside by the pool, which was empty, and sat in a wicker chair, slowly sipping my drink and taking deep breaths of the cool, smoky air.

After awhile I went into the restaurant and asked for a table and the hostess, who was tall and lean and very attractive, asked me if someone was joining me and when I said no, she frowned and said, “I’m sorry.” I wasn’t. It was my last night in Kenya, my last night in Africa, and the last thing I wanted to do was make small talk with someone, even if it was someone I liked. What I wanted to do was exactly what I was doing: To sit at a small table in a corner of the restaurant and order a second whisky and not look at the menu, not think, just let the thick, moist air wash and the white noise of the restaurant wash over me and not think of anything. Not think of anything at all.

I ordered dinner—I can’t even tell you what—and a bottle of South African Shiraz and took my time over dinner, not thinking about the food, whether it was good or not or if I was enjoying it, just eating it and sipping my wine and trying hard not to think of what it was like to sleep under the stars at Lake Paradise or hear the cough of the leopard in the cliffs above us or the sound, felt in your chest, of a herd of buffalos running out of the forest, or the copper taste of fear when you come up a rise on a trail and an elephant is standing just yards away from you or the taste of Julius’ camp pancakes when the cold is still in your bones or how really wonderful a whisky tastes at the end of the day when you’re hot and tired and sweaty and you’ve spent all day stalking wildlife in a cloud forest.

I tried very, very hard not to think of any of this. And then I paid my bill and, a little wobbly, went back to my room and slept soundly until the desk clerk called me at 4:15 to wake me and tell me that a car would be waiting for me at five to take me to the airport. I showered, packed, paid my bill, and a few hours later I was on the Virgin flight headed for London, Africa behind me, almost as if it had all just been a dream.


A long slog to Nairobi

The Cottar family home in Nairobi. Photo by David Lansing.

The drive to Nairobi was hot and dusty. Our trusted Land Cruiser, which had done so well in getting us to Lake Paradise, seemed as tired as we were. On the long uphill climbs we crawled along at 20mph or less. At first Calvin thought it was just the weight of the trailer we were pulling and the grade, but when we stopped in Nanyuki for lunch, he had Eddie take a look at things and it was decided that the fuel pump was clogged. Probably from the nasty gas we had to buy in Marsabit before heading south.

Of course, you don’t go on an expedition like this without at least two of every crucial piece of equipment and Calvin had brought an extra fuel pump so while the rest of us ate burgers at Bernard’s in the Nanyuki Airport, Eddie spent an hour or so doing repair work. When we started up again, the car was running much better. “I should have done that hours ago,” Calvin said.

Initially we’d hoped to arrive into Nairobi around sunset but because of all the delays getting out of Samburu, that wasn’t going to happen. Calvin thought we’d be lucky to arrive by midnight. Which added to our anxiety. You don’t really want to be driving into or around Nairobi late at night.

Since we were getting into town a couple of days earlier than expected, I didn’t have a hotel reservation. Calvin graciously offered to let me stay over in their guest cottage at their compound in the Karen neighborhood. We were silent for a long time and then we talked non-stop for hours driving through the highlands south of Mt. Kenya until about an hour or so out of Nairobi when Calvin said I’d have to excuse him as he needed to get into his “Nairobi driving mode,” and then we didn’t talk at all as he fought and bulled his way through the dense Nairobi traffic as if he were a Formula One driver trying to gain the lead with just a few laps left.

It was dangerous and frightening and all you could do was let yourself go, knowing you had no control over anything that might happen, and be amazed at how he was able to out-maneuver mini-vans and buses and trucks and all the smaller, lighter, faster cars that, sometimes, he just pushed off the road in order to take control where two lanes became one or we fought to enter a round-about.

Shortly before midnight we pulled up to the metal gates in front of his compound just down the road from the old Karen Blixen farm, for which the neighborhood is named, and a small window in the gate was pulled back so that the night watchman could see who was there and we were let inside. His wife Lou, who has long worked for the United Nations as a negotiator and was just back from a mission to Sudan, was up waiting for us. We had a cold dinner of chicken and potato salad and a Tusker and then Calvin showed me to the cottage in the back. It was cold and damp, having rained earlier in the evening, and the cottage, which had been shut up for awhile, smelled stale and slightly moldy. An old fridge in the kitchen made such a rattle that I unplugged it. And then I pulled back the bedspread and fell into bed, not even bothering to undress, and for almost 12 hours slept dreamlessly for the first time since I’d come to Africa.


From Nairobi to Tanzania

Chris Mahoney, waiting for us at the Aero Club of East Africa. Photo by David Lansing.

So this is how it starts: Inching our way slowly through pre-dawn traffic in Nairobi, the radio station in the car broadcasting a Kenyan version of an early-drive show with two DJs pimping a free Safaricom cell phone to the caller with the best story about why it is sometimes necessary to cheat on your wife or girlfriend, as a way to gain their respect, as our Kikuyu driver quietly, efficiently, stealthily ignores all road rules, as do all Kenya drivers, elbowing his way through a roundabout, inventing a new lane on the dirt path where women, piled high with plastic containers, walk unconcerned.

Ahead of us, an overloaded matatu, the ubiquitous 14-seater Nissan minivans that are to Nairobi what the Tube is to London, stops in the middle of a two-lane road to drop off a woman carrying a cage with several chickens in it. Four young men want in the matatu but there is no room so they hang on to bumpers and running boards, looking back dispassionately at our black Audi as we pass.

Matatu is Swahili for “three people” but I have no idea how these rolling deathboxes got that name since there is never fewer than a dozen people, their sweaty bodies jammed shoulder to shoulder, knee to butt, in them. The current Transport Minister of Kenya, Amos Kimunya, announced last month that he is fazing matatus out. “You should be ready for this so that when the time comes you do not say your livelihood has been taken away,” he warned the matatu industry, but no one believes him. What, after all, would replace them?

Nairobi has the worst traffic congestion in the world. Hands down.

It takes us almost 90 minutes to travel from our hotel, just blocks from the U.S. Embassy, to the Wilson Airport which is exactly 14.5 km, or less than 9 miles, away. If we had jogged there, doing an easy 10 mph, we would have beaten the car. And not had to listen to early morning callers explain why cheating on their girlfriends was a good thing. As we pull up to the famed Aero Club of East Africa, where we are meeting our pilot, our driver tells us we are very, very lucky that we got here before 7 a.m.

“After that, no good,” he says, taking our luggage out of the trunk. “Hapana m’uzuri.”

Standing in front of the Aero Club, hand in pocket, wearing untied hiking boots coated with the red dust of the Mara, is Chris Mahoney who, for the better part of two months, has received my almost-daily e-mails requesting updates, changes of schedule, additions and deletions to itinerary, and odd questions like What’s the best malaria prophylactic with unflagging cheerfulness and good humor (Sample: When I’d requested, for the ninth or tenth time that he change the itinerary once again, after he’d just spent two weeks arranging for some very tricky stops involving multiple small planes and maybe a helicopter, he immediately e-mailed me back with, “No worries. We’re as flexible as Russian circus gymnasts.”)

So here we are. At the Aero Club of East Africa, on the edge of the Athi Plains, the very place where Beryl Markham, whose photo is in the lobby, smiling beside the debonair figure of Douglas Fairbanks, who she taught how to fly, touched down over and over in preparation for her little jaunt across the Atlantic in her Vega Gull, The Messenger, celebrated in her memoir West With the Night. Now as soon as our aides-de-camp show up, we’ll be off to Cottars 1920s Safari Camp in the Olentoroto Hills bordering Tanzania, a 175 mile flight to the southwest that should take us less time than our ten mile drive to the airport.


Just a song before I go

Okay, tomorrow morning very, very early Pete and I will be given a lift from Tribe to the little Wilson airport where we’ll hook up with two of our colleagues and the four of us will fly down to the Mara where we’ll meet our expedition leader, Calvin Cottar and spend some time at his family lodge, Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp, which I am really excited about.

But before all that, I want to show you this very short video of the kids from the Cura orphanage singing to Pete and me just before we left. I mean, all you have to do is look in the faces of these kids, who are really amazingly happy and well-adjusted (particularly considering that they’ve all lost their parents to HIV/AIDS) to see what a terrific job Moses and the housemothers at Cura are doing.

These little kids really worked their way into Pete’s and my hearts and left both of us with a haunting memory. It’s one of those rare instances where you think you’re going to meet some people and maybe do something nice for them but when you leave you realize that they were the one who gave you a gift—of caring and emphathy and wanting to be a better person. I may be too far gone for that, but I’m going to try. And if, after watching this 30-second video I shot, you get a little tug in your heart, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to succumb to it and sponsor one of these kids. Which you could do by checking out the Cura Orphanage web site here.

I’m just saying.


Bonobos invade the orphanage

Cura orphans, the new fashionistas of Nairobi, get clothing from Bonobos. Photo by David Lansing.

One of Pete’s photography clients is Bonobos, a very cool e-commerce clothing store, primarily for men although they’re now launching a women’s line of clothing as well, whose mission is “to banish the saggy bottom.” I don’t get a nickel or even a free sample from Bonobos, but I do own some of their pants and shorts and can tell you they’re just about the greatest fitting clothes I’ve ever owned.

Anyway, Pete told Brian and Andy, the co-owners of Bonobos, that he was going on an expedition to Africa and that maybe they should give him some of their gear to shoot over there. And they said cool. Then he mentioned, at the last minute, that we were also going to visit an orphanage in Nairobi and they said, Hey, why don’t you take some shirts and shorts to the kids. So he did.

Now, while Bonobos is getting ready to launch of line of women’s clothing, they’re nowhere close (as far as I know) to doing kid’s clothes. So Pete knew going in to this that everything was going to be a little large. Or even a lot large. But, you know what, Moses didn’t care and neither did the kids. They were just thrilled to get the new clothes. Even if the psychedelic board shorts and plaid polo shirts were a little out there compared to their usual uniform of blue-on-gray. Who knows? Maybe these little guys will start a whole new trend in Nairobi fashion.

And if you’re truly concerned about orphans in Nairobi wearing preppy clothing designed by a couple of guys from the Stanford, well just remember that for only $52.80 a month, you could not only clothe but also feed and educate one of these kids. And send him or her your own clothes. And to find out how to do that, check out the Cura Orphanage here.


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