Tag Archives: Kenya

Glory, Glory, Alleluia

Mombasa’s steaming main drag is almost certain to leave you two pawns short of a chess set

We have hired a car from a firm called Glory. White, boxy, Japanese and short on brakes it is completely without suspension and is fitted with a fuel-gauge stuck just below the three quarter-mark even when the tank is as dry as our ultimate destination in the Nyiri Desert, a hundred and fifty kilometres west.

But first we have to negotiate Mombasa.

Dodging potholes which would swallow a much larger vehicle and weaving northwards towards Kenya’s second city, the sweet smell of spicy samoosas and hand-made crispy cassava chips floats on the heavy air, mingling with the whiff of car fumes and the occasional mild waft of excrement.

The sultry Swahili Coast sports a first world veneer with a culture-blending third world buzz. The Call to Prayer from the Mosque-tops overwhelms the chanting of an angelic throng of chorister children in gleaming-white dust-defying frilly frocks, as we lurch past the domed Anglican Cathedral and the power steering gives out. Above the choir, a banner of welcome to a visiting swami swings from the towering streetlights.

Everywhere is traffic; the ubiquitous, three-wheeled, three-seater tuk-tuks snake agilely in and out of the matatu minibus taxis, the bicycles and even the occasional camel, all vying for space with the endemic shiny black Mercedes of the political glitterati, mounted with booming loudspeakers and sporting electoral posters adorned with the beaming faces of would-be Presidents, Governors and Members of Parliament.

Stalls line pavements and street-corners, here graced with heaps of R30 designer shirts – Lacoste, Polo, even Michael Schumacher – and there with crudely welded pots, pans and skottels. We buy liberally into the shirt collections but resist the cookware and the frequently-touted pirate movies and CDs.

“Hey Rafiki!” calls a voice. “My friend! Do you want a safari?” We don’t. We want a curry and we find one at a coffee shop in the old town. “Hey Rafiki!”. Another voice, outside the restaurant window. “You want a smoke? What you want? I find it for you.”

With all the gravitas we can muster, we tell him truthfully that we are actually looking for a small foldaway chess set to take camping. He slinks off to find one, returning, moments later, with a selection of giant un-packable marble boards with lion-kings, giraffe-queens and every pawn a Thompson’s gazelle. Another colourful set depicts the tribes of Kenya: Maasai monarchs in unlikely marriages with Kikuyu consorts.

A third cheaper but more conventional wooden one has two pawns missing. Our tout tries to palm us off with mismatching gazelle but we resist. He will find the pawns, he says. And off he goes.

We return later to fine one pawn recovered – pawn again, you might say – but the other still Missing in Action. We turn down the set but when we eventually buy a Made-in-China one at an expensive toy shop we find that also to be two pawns short. Always check, mate!

On checking the car again, the road tax has expired. I have had enough traffic for one day so, leaving my companion at the pawn shop, I call a tuk-tuk.

“Take me Glory!” I shout to the bearded driver then, suddenly aware that he might take this as an invitation either to rob me blind or roger me senseless, I promptly add the words “Car Hire!”

He does just that. As I climb out he demands “Fifty bob”. I give him twenty. We may all be merely pawns in the game but the Road to Glory is only a couple of minutes long at the most. Just head for the tusks on Moi Avenue, Mombasa.

The importance of being Stoned

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.

Tribe’s good vibes

More and more South Africans are visiting Kenya for both business and pleasure. In the capital, Chris Harvie discovers the perfect hotel

I have never been against hobnobbing with big businessmen and ambassadors. Even minor royalty. And they all obviously feel quite at home here. After all, Tribe is a world-class establishment geared to top brass in suits – but it is equally comfortable for small change in shorts like me. That’s why it’s so good.

Getting through security at Tribe is like gaining access to Wonderland. You become part of a great illusion. The hotel has 137 rooms and yet you could be forgiven for thinking it had only 30. There’s never a queue at reception. The servers in the restaurant are so genial you feel they’d like nothing better than to shoot the breeze with you all day. The housekeepers are invisible, but your room is always immaculate. And so it goes on.

You are greeted by everyone you meet as if you are the only person staying and it’s your 100th visit. There are other guests around; you see them occasionally as they waft effortlessly through the seemingly endless numbers of lounges, bars and decks. They are always smiling. It’s not surprising.

They’ve probably just been back to their rooms and found that, during their brief absence, an invisible housekeeper has snuck in and left a bunch of lilies or a box of chocolates or a bottle of champagne.

Or they’ve just ordered a snack on an island among the interlinking pools and it turned out to be an exquisite piece of sushi. In Nairobi.

Or maybe, curious, they have wandered onto a different sofa-strewn storey, studded with off-beat chandeliers, and found yet another collection of rare and beautiful African, Persian and Indian artefacts.

In many hotels, the friendliness is artificial – and you know it immediately – but here it is obviously genuine. Every member of the staff is a dedicated expert. The bar manager, for example, is an old hand of Nairobi club society. What Mazaar Githegi doesn’t know about the social scene here is not worth knowing. I asked him where to dine. He sent me to a fabulous curry house, Open House in Westlands, and then recommended that I drop into the K1 Klubhouse nearby, where there would be a Smirnoff promotion that night. I did and he was right .

The “Party in the snow – the hottest party in chilling conditions” was a great bash. Free booze, loud music, dancing girls, hundreds of people and, yes, it snowed in Nairobi, albeit artificially.

A few days after my return home, I received an e-mail welcoming me to the Tribe family and hoping I’d be back again. Well, I hope so too.

I am left with so many abiding memories – a spectacular breakfast, an atrium with towering glass and billowing curtains, endless books, fascinating art and stunning style.

But more than anything, I remember a welcoming group of people. The hotel’s GM, Mark Somen, told me their slogan, “One Planet, One Tribe”, referred to a belief that we are all of the Human Tribe, an admirable sentiment.

In truth, though, staying there is like being on a totally different planet. One immeasurably superior to our own.

If you go

Where it is: Tribe: The Village Market, Limuru Road, Gigiri, a suburb north of Nairobi, not far from the famed Muthaiga Country Club, where Karen Blixen had her last dop in Kenya.

Why go there : Because Nairobi is accessible and different, but with a strong feel of home.

What it has: Laid-back class. Spacious rooms, magnificent suites, four boardrooms. A vast mall next door with excellent shops, banks, dozens of restaurants, a cinema and even a bowling alley and foefie-slide. The Maasai Market on Fridays is a massive curio extravaganza.

And the food: The Epic Restaurant: diverse, multi-themed, with visiting international chefs and cunning local twists.

Rates: From $320 (about R2400) per double per night, with breakfast; $280 (about R1870) for single occupancy.

Getting there: SAA and Kenya Airways both fly non-stop daily to Nairobi in just over four hours. Tribe will pick you up from the airport in a limo or you can take a taxi (about 40 minutes).

What there is to see on the way: From the plane, Lake Malawi and Mount Kilimanjaro. From the limo, the vibrant, flower-lined streets and constant traffic of East Africa’s biggest and most exciting city.

Contact: Phone +254207200000; e-mail stay@tribehotel-kenya.com; or visit www.tribe-hotel.com. Tribe is marketed in South Africa by African Pride Hotels (www.africanpridehotels.com).

Visa and Health requirements: No visa is required by SA citizens visiting Kenya. Proof of yellow fever vaccination (Yellow Card) is required by all passengers on re-entry into SA.

LOCAL ATTRACTION: Cool things to do around Nairobi

NAIROBI NATIONAL PARK Well worth a visit. 117sqkm of surprisingly wonderful game-viewing. Also affords some most unusual photo opportunities of animals in front of a line of skyscrapers. www.kws.org

THE KAREN BLIXEN MUSEUM In Karen Road, in the suburb of Karen. You can’t get away from her, of course, but did you really think you’d go to Nairobi and not do some Karen Blixen? This was her house, now preserved as a (very fine) museum. www.museums.or.ke

DAVID SHELDRICK WILDLIFE TRUST A non-profit organisation, reintroducing orphaned elephants and rhinos into the wild. On a plot within the Nairobi National Park. www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org

GIRAFFE CENTRE Protecting rare Rothschild giraffes (if you are lucky, feed and even kiss them). The Gogo bird sanctuary is alongside and offers birding walks. www.giraffecenter.org

Plus walks in the Ngong Hills, a day trip to Lake Naivasha and other Rift Valley lakes or a visit to the Olorgasailie Prehistoric Site. Nairobi also offers numerous museums, galleries and fine restaurants.