Tag Archives: Mombasa

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.

On the road to Nairobi

The long journey means a sampling of every form of transport there is

A faltering breeze makes no impact on the weighty tropical air. Gazing out over the sand and sipping drinks, it all seems quite simple: we are going to Nairobi. We will take a taxi, then a matatu (minibus taxi), go on foot for a while, followed by a ferry, then a tuk-tuk and finally a train.

We have five hours to travel the 42km from Diani to Mombasa, aiming to arrive, as instructed, two hours before the train’s scheduled departure time. In case it leaves early, we suppose, as is so often the way with African trains.

The taxi is late – a disconcerting start. We set off on foot. Our taxi hurtles past us. Screams to a halt. Showers us with dust. The driver’s name is Davies.

He laughs like a gurgling sink as we try to explain why our president has so many wives and children. We scrunch our suspension-free way to Ukunda, where Davies deposits us in a matatu.

Matatus are unlike our taxis in that the passengers smile and Bob Marley plays loudly in place of kwaito. In every other respect, they are similar. Stinking hot, a whiff of dope, 32 passengers on 16 seats, a conductor hanging out of a door that won’t close, breakneck speeds, roadblock bribes.

We sit buried, rucksacks mercifully blocking our view of the driver’s maniacal swervings, and move only to allow passengers to disembark. One of them showers us with sugar from a punctured bag he is passing out of the window.

The R5 matatu route to the ferry is 454 times cheaper per kilometre than Davies’s road-scraping taxi. And much quicker. The ferry is still free but, from the desperate rush to get aboard, people are obviously worried that the proposed 10c fee might be imposed at any moment.

The throng sweeps us forward, forces the gate open and propels us onto an already-moving ferry. Everyone laughs at this victory over security.

On Mombasa Island, we leap into a tuk-tuk for a rapid ride to the Castle Royal Hotel and a sandwich. A Swahili Louis Armstrong belts out an admirable Hello Dolly, complete with hanky.

Revived, packs on backs and lives in hands, we stride through Mombasa’s dusty side-streets to a fenced compound, dominated by a rusting sign. MOMBASA. We pay $65 for the train. An hour and three quarters sharing the platform with a growing gaggle of passengers, a few dozen chickens, a strolling minstrel who plays Hakuna Matata ad nauseam and seeping sewerage as it drools from the over-full long-drop lavatory pits.

Our compartment has a jammed-shut window, a dysfunctional fan and faulty lights. It is 38C and night is falling as the train pulls out. Evans, the train manager, can’t help with any of our problems but agrees to swap his room for ours.

Dinner is silver-service. No, really. A pallid mushroom soup ladled from a vast tureen; rolls with butter from a silver dish; chicken or beef; the shocking Kenyan equivalent of Spoornet coffee.

Squashed on a narrow bench next to a Somali woman, I sip from a brought-in bottle of wine harboured between my legs. The line of 20 ceiling fans is a motionless monument to a former, grander time. The lights fluctuate with the train speed. A kung-fu movie plays on a plasma screen, for this is Africa.

Linen sheets await – and an unparalleled sleep, rocked by the swaying of the train to awake to an unspeakably disgusting silver-service breakfast, passing through golden-light beautiful rolling grasslands and lovely placid villages. Children wave. Old men in blankets raise their sticks in greeting.

Rarely has faded splendour been so splendid.