After a number of holiday plans had fallen through, and with just three weeks until Christmas, I was not looking forward to the prospect of a quiet Christmas in Swaziland. Then, suddenly, I came across Plan D – joining British friends Becky and Alice for Christmas in Kenya. Fortunately, cheap flights were still available, probably thanks to a recent increase in violence in the country. Unfortunately, accommodation was not, but thanks to some fortuitous meetings with expats and intense google action, we managed to make our last booking with three days to spare.
22 December, 2012: Johannesburg to Nairobi
The holiday started off in a fairly typical fashion: Racing through the airport, and jumping over barriers, in a fit of panic.
The first cause of panic came on our way to the airport, when we were trying to find the off-site long-term parking. If you’ve ever tried to navigate your way through the streets of Johannesburg when your GPS fails and you have no other map, you might understand our anxiety. After driving around for 45 minutes, we were rapidly running out of time, so dropped Alice off to join the check-in queue, while Becky and I continued on our mission with the help of some great directions from airport staff.
The second cause of panic came when, after an hour and a half of waiting, RwandAir advised the 50-odd passengers still in the queue that the flight had been overbooked and no more tickets would be issued. Whether it was through their good looks, their persuasive words, or by the grace / pity of God, the attendant (secretly) managed to make two seats available for my friends. Only catch was that they had 10 minutes to get through customs before the scheduled departure.
They made it. Their bags didn’t.
Meanwhile, because I had booked my trip separately from them, I was flying on Kenya Air who, by contrast, had a stress-free computerised self check-in system with queue-less baggage drop, and was flying direct. This meant that I was left with plenty of time, at both ends, to enjoy a coffee and peruse the duty-free.
22-23 December, 2012: Nairobi
In Nairobi, we were greeted by a driver and taken to a Chantal’s family’s house in Ngong on the outskirts of the city. Chantal is a Belgian-born, Rwandan-raised, Swaziland-living expat and one of those people who I fortuitously only discovered a week earlier had a family (with spare beds) in Kenya. Here we spent the next two nights, meeting her family, visiting downtown Ngong, and waiting for the saga of the missing luggage to unfold, which went something like this:
9:00am “We have found your luggage. Come and pick it up”. I don’t think so – please deliver it.
10:00am “The luggage is with the driver and is being delivered to you”. Great!
11:00am “The luggage is with the driver and is being delivered to you”. So where is he?
1:00pm “The luggage is with the driver and is being delivered to you”. He’s taking his sweet time.
3:00pm “Our records show your luggage has been delivered”. Um….no it hasn’t.
4:00pm “Oh wait, our records are wrong. We have no idea where your luggage is. Here is a new reference number”. Seriously?
5:00pm “We don’t know where your luggage is”. It contains all my medication.
7:00pm “We still can’t locate your luggage”. I have nothing but the clothes I’m wearing.
9:00pm “We still can’t locate your luggage”. I am leaving for the Masai Mara at 6am.
11:00pm “Your luggage is not in Kigali or Nairobi”. So it’s in Johannesburg?
5:00am next morning. “Your luggage is not in Johannesburg. Maybe Dubai?” TIA.
24-26 December, 2012: Masai Mara
The day started super early in order to meet our driver and stop by the 24-hour supermarket for Becky and Alice to pick up some clothes for the next three days in the Masai Mara. Once on the road, though, it was a beautiful drive, heading down the hill into the vastness of the Rift Valley, which was interrupted only by the Masai folk herding their livestock, the sight of bright Masai cloths hanging out to dry, and young Alice stopping to pee behind an acacia tree (emerging a few minutes later with broken flip-flops in hand and feet covered in mud).
We did our first safari into the Mara National Park that afternoon. Apart from the usual impala and zebra, we were also privy to herds of wildebeest and buffalo, spotted the strange-looking Secretary bird, had an up-close encounter with a giraffe as it sauntered past our vehicle, watched a lioness with her cubs, and got a glimpse of a cheetah hiding in grass in the distance. Perhaps the most interesting animal, though, was one I least expected: the safari van. In its natural habitat, the safari van usually prefers to travel alone along designated routes. However, once it sees signs of the herd congregating, it will quickly prick up its aerial in search of the Big 5. When a scent is found, the safari vans, almost in unison, will turn and race towards the prey, bypassing designated routes in favour of more direct cross-country terrain, in order to be first in line for the shot. The vans are usually considered harmless, except when harbouring a group of drunk, smoking Russians.
Never-the-less, we were happy to be there. We headed back to camp with the sun setting behind the acacias and the rain coming in, forming a rainbow above our destination: the Mara Sidai Tented Camp.
On Christmas morning we ventured out for a day-long safari, and it wasn’t long before we got to unwrap our first Christmas present: a 1 year-old leopard tucking into breakfast.
But this was just starters. An hour later we were handed an even bigger present as we spotted a cheetah in the grass with three cubs off in the distance. After half an hour, it was like all our Christmas’ had come at once, when we witnessed the fastest animal on land stalk and hunt a herd of Thompson Gazelle. As the cheetah grabbed a gazelle and pulled it down, the safari van erupted into hugs and whispered cheers of “Merry Christmas”. It was all a little emotional, really. As if things couldn’t get any better, we stayed and watched as the cheetah called out to her three four-month old cubs, which came bounding through the grass a few minutes later to join their panting, exhausted mother for a Christmas feast.
After that rare and amazing spectacle, we weren’t sure if Christmas could get any better until we came across a pride of lions, including 3 one-year-old cubs, a couple of lionesses and three Granddaddies drinking at a waterhole. They had just finished their Christmas lunch of wildebeest, which the vultures were now enjoying the remains of.
Christmas Day in the Masai Mara continued to impress as we came across a baby elephant and its mother crossing the road in front of us, ears flapping (which I’m fairly certain means something along the lines of “attack”).
We stopped for lunch at the Mara River where hippos were out sunbaking, before heading back to camp to visit a nearby Masai village. At the village, we were entertained with Masai dancing, fire-making and a tour of a masai hut. While the colours are amazing and the culture fascinating, the cow-poo covered grounds, vege-free diet, and ignorance of basic health certainly left a lot to be desired. I think the poor Masais had their work cut out for them, with Becky’s and my incessant questioning.
After our luck on Christmas Day, I doubted our last, early morning, safari drive would be able to impress. I’m happy to admit it when I’m wrong. We were unfortunate to just miss out on seeing a pride of lions making an unsuccessful attempt to catch some Topi for breakfast. However, we were fortunate enough to come across one of the rarest animals in the park, and in Africa – the black Rhino. Seeing this little fella also meant we had completed our sighting of the Big 5, an achievement that not many can claim. Completely satisfied we made the 5-hour trek back to the Hotel Kipepeo in Nairobi.
Then it happened: 5 days after landing in Kenya, 5 days wearing the same clothes, 5 days without toiletries or medication, 5 days of endless phone calls and emails, my friends’ bags were finally located and delivered. It seems they had been sitting in Johannesburg airport the whole time. To celebrate, we headed out to Carnivore – the biggest restaurant in Nairobi and the restaurant that would (hopefully) put an end to the illusion that I’m a vegetarian. That night, I restricted myself to just 10 types of meat dishes: chicken gizzards, spare ribs, roast lamb, roast chicken, roast turkey, rack of lamb, crocodile, ostrich meat balls, roast ostrich, and bull’s balls (yep, I thought he was joking too, but he wasn’t). I washed it down with delicious pineapple pie and tree tomato sorbet, which left me waddling out the door bent over in pain.
27 December, 2012 – 2 January, 2013: Diani
After Christmas in the bush, we were up at 4am to catch an early flight to Mombasa for New Year’s by the sea. We were greeted by the rush of equatorial heat as we exited the plane, and then spent the rest of the morning taking a taxi, ferry, two matatus (public buses) and walking to get to Diani, a coastal town south of Mombasa.
Our accommodation for the week was South Coast Backpackers, a newly-opened backpackers managed (I use the term loosely) by young Frenchies hoping to extend their carefree backpacker lifestyle for as long as possible. Needless to say, the next six nights were not particularly conducive to sleeping, both on account of the heat and on account of Peace Corps behaving badly. Facing their first peak season, the new managers had managed to book in 70 people where only 38 beds were available. Our introduction also consisted of a run-down of the armed robbery that had occurred the previous week, but we were told not to worry, they had now burnt the bushland opposite to remove hiding spaces and had also hired an extra night-time guard, who would protect us with his bow and arrow. Despite this, the backpackers had a funky setting with a pool, for which I was very grateful over the next few days.
Of course, none of this helped poor old Becky who, after the disaster of the lost luggage, was now facing her next test: Mumps. Refusing to spend her holidays inside, we spent most days lounging down by the beach instead but, of course, TIA, so even this was not without its challenges. While the “Beach Boys” were nowhere near as bad as people made them out to be, their obsession with my rasta and offers of joints and Bob Marley paraphernalia did wear a little thin, while the offer to “share their penis” with Becky did not go down well, either. Alice, however, seemed too polite to shake them off and, I’m sure, left behind a few broken hearts by the end of the week.
Despite this, the beach became our sanctuary as we managed to find a nice little refuge at Mafadoo’s where we would spend our days lounging under palm trees, doing the odd bit of beach yoga, and every-so-often wandering into the azure ocean for a quick cool down. Mafadoo’s, it seems, was also the hub for Euro kitesurfers, and it wasn’t long before I got the urge to get out and join them. Not having kited for a while, and with the onshore winds and new environment, I felt it best that I sign up for a supervised lesson and iron out some of my kiting creases. After doing one run, the instructor said he couldn’t fault me, so instead directed his attentions to the other student. An hour later the wind dropped, and with just five minutes of kiting for €40, that was by far the most expensive confidence boost ever.
Apart from the beach, our days were mostly centred around food and, in particular, seafood. Each day we’d sample a different restaurant, comparing lobster, crab, prawn and fish dishes, as well as Pina Coladas. It seems 5-star status is no guarantee of quality, as Swahili Beach Resort failed on account of horrendous service, while Nomad’s and Bidi Badu won with their beautifully braaied lobster.
One day we managed to get out and see Kisite Marine Park, near the Tanzanian border. The day trip involved a Dhow boat ride to into the Park, accompanied part of the way by dolphins. We were then dropped by the reefs to snorkel with the current to a nearby island. Admittedly, I was surprised by how beautiful it was – visibility was excellent, the coral was incredibly healthy, the fish were plentiful and varied, and I even managed to spot a couple of turtles. The day finished with seafood lunch on Wasini Island.
In order to honour the reason for the season, we also decided to attend mass at Diani’s Catholic Church. I have to admit, it was hard to get a sense of peace with metal detectors screening everyone who enters and security guards wandering the grounds with AK47s. The energy inside the church, however, made up for it with the priests and attendants dancing and clapping their way up the aisle, accompanied by African drums and amazing singing, all in Swahili of course.
Finally, we also managed to sample a bit of the nightlife. Forty Thieves is, by far, the most popular spot among tourists and despite the mediocrity of their dubstep DJ, I can’t fault a bar where the dance floor is the beach. Of course, we also headed out for New Year’s celebrations, joining 5,000 others for the 6am Beach Party at Safari Beach Hotel. The fact that cars were lining up outside at 6pm was a sure sign that it was going to be a big night. We arrived just in time for the countdown, and spent the rest of the night dodging drunk / drugged people and alternating between the beach and two stages of dance acts before I had to head home at 4am.
2 – 3 January, 2013: Mombasa
After recovering from New Year’s we left Diani and made our way to Mombasa Backpackers, another establishment with far too many young Americans and Germans to make a decent night’s sleep possible. The first day was spent wandering through the backstreets of Mombasa’s Old Town, towards Fort Jesus. Apart from the amazing old buildings, antique stores and mix of muslim and Indian culture, we spent some time at Jahazi, a wonderful respite serving amazing Swahili spiced coffee.
As night started to set, we found a ride home with Kent – a super nice tuk tuk driver who was determined to play tour guide, stopping on busy roads for us to take photos and excitedly taking us to see underneath the bridge (= ugly concrete pillars). The best bit of the trip was when he let me take control of the steering wheel for the final road home. Brave guy.
Lacking sleep the next morning, we got a fix of caffeine at the famous Nairobi Java Coffee House with new friends Lance (US) and Conor (Aus). From there, it was on to Bombolulu, a handicraft workshop employing differently abled Kenyan artisans to create pieces from wood, metal, leather and material, as well as wheelchairs. We left Lance and Conor to make our way to the Tamarind Dhow – the finest dining experience in Kenya. As the restored Dhow made its way down the riverway, we were entertained by live, traditional Kenyan music while being served Dawa (Kenyan cocktail), a seafood platter, mango sorbet and Swazhili coffee. It was all very fancy for me, and well-suited to the likes of King Mswati III who, it appears, also dined there in the past.
Our final Kenyan experience was to come in the form of the first class overnight train from Mombasa to Nairobi – one of the top 10 things to the country. We had booked our tickets and turned up to the station full of anticipation, only to be told that the train had been cancelled…..for another three days. Apart from killing our excitement, this also created a wee bit of a hiccup in that we were due to fly out from Kenya the next day. We madly rushed around to bus stations but buses were all claiming to be full. Finally, again thanks to Becky, we managed to secure three VIP seats (big leather chairs) on a bus leaving at 11pm that night.
With 5 hours to kill, we decided to forego the bus depot waiting room and instead head back into the Old Town to chill at our favourite coffee house. Luck didn’t seem to be on our side, as we arrived at Jahazi to hear that they close at 8pm. My face must have said it all, because five minutes later the waiter came back to say that the Chef would stay behind until 10pm, just for us. Fortunately, we didn’t need to take advantage of his kindness as, around the corner, we found Rozina’s, another extremely helpful Swahili restaurant that also offered to stay open. So, in our final hours in Mombasa when all seemed lost, the kindness of Kenyans led to a lovely evening with lots of laughs and amazingly good food. Hakuna matata.
4 January, 2013: Nairobi and beyond
With our flights not leaving until the evening, we had a full day in Nairobi in which to explore, which we did with the help of Becky’s friend, Cara, and her family. After a much-needed shower and some breakfast at their house in Karen, we headed across town to the Masai Market. Unfortunately, most of the items were cheap reproductions and, thanks to their tourist appeal, also overpriced. However, there were a couple of gems in there and Becky was in her element in finding them. Before we knew it, we found ourselves back at the airport, drinking one last Java coffee before boarding our flights home. Despite the hitches, Kenya left us with a million memories and a longing for more. Asanti sana.