Driving into foreign lands, prepare for strange customs and stranger sign-posts
The town goes by the lyrical name of Loitokitok and looks southwards from Kenya over the back of Tanzania’s majestic Kilimanjaro. When Kilimanjaro can be seen, that is.
We weren’t here for the climb. Or for the view. A friend was building a lodge outside nearby Amboseli and wanted us to choose the exact piece of Africa on which it should stand. We should contact Diana on arrival, he had said. She was well connected and would provide the necessary information.
We approached Loitokitok and two things happened. The mountain poked its head through the cloud and my cellphone rang to announce that my colleague had been stopped at the border for importing a vehicle into Kenya without permission. Things had become heated. He was threatened with arrest.
Colleague had told Customs that I was on my way. Customs was now threatening to arrest us both. I approached the border gingerly, keeping the engine running and the door open as I went in to negotiate.
The little man was implacable, delusional and ranting with rage. The border was closed for the day and Colleague wasn’t to be allowed in or out of Kenya. All logic had been abandoned until we persuaded a rusty-haired independent arbiter from Immigration to allow Colleague a night-pass into Kenya.
It was blowing a gale and a light drizzle was settling on Loitokitok.
The poison dwarf impounded the first vehicle, pending an Interpol investigation into alleged vehicle-smuggling. I rushed to the other vehicle before he could snatch that; the others ran to catch up and we sped into Kenya, like the fugitives we had become.
Diana, when we called her, turned out to be a pre-school teacher with no obvious influence over the Kenyan Secret Service and no idea where we could camp for the night.
Then a sign rose out of the gathering fog: Kilimanjaro Guest House.
Four attempts at directions later, we stood in front of an impressive gate, shouting “Hodi! Hodi!”, Swahili for “Hi, here we are, politely making a noise, in the hope that you will hear us and let us in!” Eventually an askari heaved open the gate.
The rooms were full but we gave up flapping our tents in the wind, opting instead to sleep on the dusty floor of the conference room – an open-sided barn with star-gazing sized holes in the roof, through which the rain settled on our sleeping bags.
Customs had recovered the next day. He declared Interpol satisfied and let the bakkie leave, but charged a penalty in rental for parking at the border all night.
We found Diana at a petrol station and headed out into the bundu to unearth Sammy, our Maasai guide.
Sammy was twice the height of any of us and needed two blankets to ensure his modesty. He clanked with chains, beads, earrings and spears and had to fold double to get into the front seat of the vehicle.
We pulled off the road. Sammy signalled with his fingers: left a bit, right a touch, left, round that rock, past that shrub, through miles of seemingly identical bush. He signalled a stop at a tiny stone. “This is the corner of the property,” he said, unwinding himself from the vehicle.
Behind him, an umbrella-thorn stood silhouetted against the sky. Ahead loomed snow-crowned Kilimanjaro. To the right stood Amboseli. It was African perfection.
The ideal spot for a lodge.
As long as Sammy’s there to lead the way to that all-important tiny stone and the border officials stay off the funny stuff for long enough to let the clients in.