When we rant and rave about “the Authorities”, and bemoan the plight of Africa’s wildlife, we often forget what it used to be like. Here’s a press cutting I’ve dug out from over thirty years ago, from Kenya’s now defunct Langata Chronicle. It was different then – but was it really better?
I never win raffles. I dutifully fork out twenty shilling notes when required and forget about the tickets. On the odd occasion when I’m there for the draw I no longer even experience any expectant thrill as I study the coloured tickets laid out before me.
I merely put a pleased grin on my face while watching others gleefully go up to gather their goodies.
This time, to my utter astonishment, my ticket number matched the first one out of the box. I returned to my seat clutching an envelope. Two flights… twenty-four hours’ full board… two game drives.
We apprehensively eyed the tiny aeroplane through the plate-glass window which was slashed with rain. There was another, slightly bigger aeroplane, a little further away, but I knew ours was that minute piece of fragile machinery. It was.
Our pilot breezed in casually and dumped her bag behind her seat. We entered tentatively and strapped ourselves in. The rain had abated but the runway looked horribly wet. She turned the ignition, the engine groaned, and died.
“Sorry.” She smiled brightly. “We’ll have to take the other one.”
All out again. My nerves could not stand another build-up, and it was with a slightly more fatalistic outlook that I took my seat in the second tiny craft. What a start.
We had last been to Amboseli eighteen years ago. Then there was dense bush with tall fever trees, and a veritable forest the other side of the swamp. Now – desolation. Utter nothingness, except for clouds of dust and endless plains of sand dotted with rotting tree trunks. Tufts of withered bush harboured the occasional skeleton of a zebra or the rotting carcase of a Masai steer.
Now we were tourists, pure and simple – though thankfully with a mini-bus all to ourselves for the duration. We were herded into the lodge and issued with our room keys, then we sought out the lounge for a pre-lunch drink. Strangers wandered in and out; Japanese, American, German, French; nary a familiar Kenyan among us. They had dazed looks on their faces. No wonder. One American gentleman told us that he’d been to three or four game parks before this one (he couldn’t remember the names of the last one; was it Meru – or Samburu? No matter). Another was heard to announce to all and sundry: “I never want to go on that road again.” We privately blessed our aeroplane.
Then came the big moment of the trip: the Merry Matatu Marathon – alias game drive – which was an experience and an education all its own.
At first I was sober enough. We wandered alone beside the swamp and watched some sleepy vultures and surprised the odd elephant; buffalo could be seen wading through the mud, and many multi-coloured water fowl pecked round the edges. Then our driver spied the merry throng. Shimmering in the distance, a circle of white roof-hatched vehicles appeared to float in a mirage of water. We sped up in a bumpy cloud of dust and ground to a halt at the end of the line.
There they were: two cheetah busily devouring a fresh kill, while a third lay replete to one side. The tourists in the nearby bus were whirring away on their sophisticated apparatus through the roof hatch. Others sat patiently inside, blank looks on their faces, handkerchiefs held up to their noses. We even saw one with a gas mask on: he had heeded a warning about dust.
After conversations with several other drivers, ours revved up and we were away across the desolate plain in company with others. Occasionally we would stop to exchange information with one coming the other way, and roar off again in renewed eagerness. The news was accurate. Emerging out the shimmering horizon another group of bright white vehicles meandered haphazardly through a placid herd of elephant cows with tiny calves.
As we were about to overtake one stationary bus, I shouted to our driver to stop. Just in time. A lioness, followed by two half-grown cubs, was ambling forward and crossed only two yards in front of us. It was difficult taking a photograph without a piece of another vehicle to spoil the picture.
Then three rhino walked casually out of the bush, and – oh bliss – I snapped them with an elephant in the background and no other cars. In the same moment we turned to watch the lion cubs cavorting round a tree stump. It was wonderful. But we were not allowed to savour it for long.
There was a competition to see who could get the closest for the longest. The animals would head one way, then find it barred by a line of competing matatus, only to have the same thing happen again and again.
Early the following morning we insisted on going it alone, and actually managed to restrain our driver from edging forward to block off a group of buffalo heading our way. It was all very peaceful and natural – until another busload found us.
We dallied alone after others had given up over a cheetah which was wandering towards a far piece of swamp. We were rewarded ten minutes later when it unaccountably turned and sauntered majestically back towards us, crossing over so very close. But the bush telegraph is amazing, and there were soon several vehicles in the area again.
A bit later a couple of lionesses actually walked towards our lone bus and plonked themselves down within touching distance – as if to say “at your service!” We had them to ourselves for at least two minutes.
All too soon it was time to go back to an enormous breakfast at the lodge, then onto the airstrip to meet our flight back home. The thin strip of tarmac looked incongruous in the desert. We drew up to the lone stone shed which housed the single official’s table. We waited, and waited… and waited. But this was Kenya. Eventually our tiny craft arrived to speed us back to civilisation.
I can now say with full assurance that it is far safer and more pleasant up in the clouds with the heavens around you than down in the confined chaos of Kenya’s roads. I shall never be sure about raffles again, though. You just never know.