FIRST SAFARI IN KENYA 1964
or
THE GATE TO FREEDOM

 

Early in December, 1963, I received an invitation for an interview with the Bamburi Portland Cement Co. in Kenya. The invitation was extended to my wife, Ljiljana, and me to arrive in Mombasa on January 3rd, 1964, to return to Khartoum on January 9th. I had to take care to arrange the flight to fit in with the school's Christmas holidays. I was lecturing for the third consecutive year at the Khartoum Technical Institute, under contract with the Ministry of Education of the Sudan. It was essential to me to attend this meeting as I expected a contract with the Cement Works at Mombasa after leaving the Sudan. It was supposed to be the crucial turning point in my career, as well as to solve the uncertain future for my family.

 

It was necessary to carry out all the arrangements in absolute secrecy. Under no circumstances must Yugoslav authorities in Khartoum have any knowledge of the real purpose of my travel to Kenya. Thus we were telling everybody, including to our daughter, Vesna (9+), that we are going to spend our Christmas holidays in Kenya. We would go on a few safaris, starting at Nairobi, with the final schedule still to be agreed upon on arrival. This news caused quite a lot of criticism within the Yugoslav community, as it was obvious that I could not afford such expenses in view of my income in the Sudan.

 

Our good Lebanese friend, Gaston, took us to the airport early in the morning of December 31. He was joining us on the first part of our trip to Kenya, taking a short break from his managerial duties with Swissair in Khartoum. We booked our flights through his office, as it was the best option for secrecy. We took off from Khartoum at 5:25 a.m. on a BOAC flight and landed after about two and half hours at Nairobi. We were quite excited, flying together for the first time, enjoying a perfect on-flight breakfast. We almost forgot our worries in Khartoum with regard to our unfriendly Yugoslav compatriots. We would take care of all the malicious gossip after our return. For a while I had put aside the thoughts about the importance of the meeting that would take place in Mombasa. It was fairly tricky to keep that secret from Vesna, but she was so excited about "going on a safari" that she paid little attention to anything else.

 

About half an hour before landing in Nairobi, the captain told the passengers that we would shortly cross the equator. All those who were to cross it for the first time were warned that they might feel a slight bump. Of course, nothing happened, but Vesna's expectation was as great as when she received the Certificate of the Equator's first crossing shortly afterwards. The landing was a little bit bumpy because of a thick layer of clouds over Nairobi.

 

It was almost 11 a.m. when we got into our room in the Brunner Hotel. It was of the old British colonial style, having wide verandas within the inner courtyard, and large rooms with high ceilings and fans turning slowly. Soon after we settled, we hurried out to find an agent to book a safari visiting the Amboseli Game Reserve. After the safari was fixed for the next day, January 1, there was still enough time to tour the center of Nairobi.

 

The wide avenues offered a lot of window-shopping for both girls. Ljiljana was concentrating on the variety of goods and their prices, mentally converting and comparing them with those back in Khartoum. Vesna looked for shops where toys and books were displayed, deciding what she could buy from her pocket money when we returned from the safari. Nairobi had impressed us with the boulevards rimmed with multi-color bushes of bougainvilleas and other flowers between the wide lanes. There were a few parks with tall trees. The ultra-violet sun rays seemed to be rather strong for us in Nairobi, probably due to the clear and unpolluted air, compared to the one with suspended fine dust in Khartoum. Nairobi is situated on a plateau at about 1.700m ASL with an average temperature of 25ºC and a moist climate of about 70% humidity. Certainly it was for us a considerable change of climate.

 

We met a number of Europeans and Indians, but far fewer than Kenyans or Africans, mingling in the crowds on boardwalks. Most of the shops were owned and/or run by the Indians, who mostly employed family members to deal with the customers. Ljiljana soon found that she had to change her bargaining tactics from Khartoum, being more clever and artful, and taking more time for the hard bargaining, that had to include some cunning if need be.

 

That night we celebrated the New Year as Gaston's guests at the Mayfair Hotel, on the city's outskirts. About two-thirds of the celebrants were of Indian origin and Europeans were in the minority. The musicians played fine tunes and the crowd danced a lot. We enjoyed watching the young Indian couples dancing, with the women in their traditional saris. We danced some of the slower dances, but just watched several modern dances we did not know. We left the party shortly after midnight but had to wait for the taxi until a strong downpour stopped. 

 

Next morning soon after the breakfast, a driver with a Mercedes 190D came to take us to the Amboseli Park. The driver was a Kikuyu and spoke good English, so Ljiljana and Vesna took the opportunity to barrage him with a flood of questions. The first 40 miles driving was on a tarmac road up to Athi River, where we turned south onto an earthen road called "murram". It was not too bad driving on that hard and dry earthen surface, but cars whirled up clouds of dust. However, when the surface gets wet due to rains, it becomes rather slippery and the road quickly turns into a quagmire.
 

The countryside was green, with mostly cultivated fields or orchards or pasture lands around the first driving leg. Kajiado region is mostly inhabited by the Masai tribe, who graze their large cattle herds on the Olobolidi Plain at the approach of Amboseli. Later, we turned off to the left, coming to the Amboseli Game Reserve soon after.

 

At this access road to Amboseli, we saw the first animals, like antelopes and gnus. We passed several Morans, who are the young Masai warriors whose skin was painted ocher. They covered their naked bodies with only a red cloak, brandishing a long spear in one hand and holding a club or long knife in the other one. I wanted to take pictures of them but they asked quite a lot of money for the privilege. Our Kikuyu driver warned me not to do it, so we drove on. I tried taking photos through the rear window, but the two Morans run so fast behind us that their naked bodies showed up under the cloaks. As they were getting closer, wielding spears, our driver had to speed up to avoid any damages to the car.


A group of Masai warriors wrapping their naked bodies in a red cloak only

 

Kikuyu spoke derisively about the Masai's' way of life in keeping large cattle herds but not eating their meat at all. Masai use their cows for the milk, which is mixed with blood, ash, and urine. Then this mixture is stored in a leather gourd for drinking later. The blood is drawn from the cattle's neck veins. Adding ash and urine to the mixture of blood and milk prevents its coagulation and keeps it from fermenting.

 

After about half an hour drive on a narrow, curvy, and sloping road, we descended onto a plain of the dried-out salt Lake Amboseli. Soon after our arrival at the Old Tukai Lodge, we were shown to the tents erected close to an acacia tree grove where we were to rest for one night. A shiver passed down my spine, thinking about being protected by only a thin canvas. We were in the middle of a wilderness, with elephants and other large animals (including lions) roaming free.

 

The Kilimanjaro was in clouds, but one could anticipate its large mass, not being too far away. Our tent was large enough to accommodate three beds and a table and comfortable chairs. The floor was covered with straw-mats meticulously clean. Through an open flap in the rear, there was a service compartment containing a wash basin with several water-filled buckets nearby. A chemical toilet and a shower booth ended in the free rear side of the tent. The whole arrangement was simple and practicable for a one-night stay in this wilderness.

 

Lunch was served in a pergola with only a canvas cover. There was a long table with benches for some dozen of visitors, with several sitting already. The courses were served by skilled Kenyan attendants, and hungry as we were, the food was tasteful and plentiful. The whole gathering seemed to be excited, looking forward to the first outing in the afternoon.

 

After a short rest, we got in our Mercedes and drove off to circumnavigate the salt lake, looking for lions and other animals staying somewhere there. Our driver drove at a relatively high speed across the dried-up but thin surface, moving with short left-right swings to pass over to grassy or ferny spots. Losing speed would result in being stopped by the muddy, soft layer below the thin dry stratum. At last we came to a large bush where a huge lion rested, panting in the heat after gorging upon an open-bellied gnu carcass next to him. Flies had their pleasure too, but the smell was appalling. We took pictures in a hurry, but amazingly, the lion didn't move at all, despite the car being only a few meters from him.



The lion with his prey of a wildebeest aka gnu

 

Our driver missed the right path out of Amboseli Lake on the way to the drier Lengurumani plain, closer to the foot of Kibo Peak on Kilimanjaro. After a few hundred meters, the car came to an abrupt stop, settling axle-deep in plastic mud. There was no chance of moving the car under its own power from this quagmire. The ranger who accompanied us walked towards an oncoming Jeep to warn it, so it stopped at a safe distance. A rope was stretched out to our car and the Jeep started pulling us at low power. Before long, it too sank into the soft layer and was stuck firmly like us. Yet another heavier car got closer, but sank into sludge the moment it stopped some hundred meters away from us.

At last, a powerful Land Rover closed in and stopped on a slight rise. It winched out all three of the stranded vehicles. About two dozen visitors gathered around, watching the four rangers controlling the operation. Everyone cheered each time a car was on safe turf again. The male visitors got out of the cars, whereas the women and children stayed inside. They were laughing and shouting at us to help push a car out of this slush, and probably because we were splashed with mud all over too.

 


The suspicious "Three Musketeers"  from a distance  of some 20m

We turned our attention to the new scenes. After a while we approached a group of three rhinoceros, aka the "Three musketeers". Two of them with very long and spiky front horns turned in a menacing way to our car. Slowly we came as close as 20m so we could take pictures from various positions before the ranger suggested moving away so as not to disturb them any longer. Suddenly our driver stopped some hundred meters from the rhinoceros, saying that one of the front a tire was flat. The men got out to help the driver in changing the wheels. In the meantime, Vesna watched the rhinos and Ljiljana took photos as proof of the dramatic situation we had got into.

 


Everybody is helping to change the tire except the askari and Vesna in the rented Mercedes


The "Musketeers" got interested in us and started approaching cautiously but we got off fast as the job was done barely in time. On the way back to the camp, we saw several herds of Grants and Thompson's gazelles, impalas, hartebeast, and zebras. All of them were moving to the drinking spots on the Simek River that feeds the lake with Kilimanjaro's run-off waters. We also saw several groups of giraffes nibbling on acacia trees, and baboons running around and out of the woods.

 

We were back in the camp at dusk, and had just enough time to "shower" with lukewarm water spraying out from a hosepipe fitted into a canvas bag hanging from some kind of gibbet. The stars were watching from the firmament! It had cooled down and many stars glistened from a dark sky over the natural setting that had become strangely quiet. This was the first time we had experienced the African stillness. It was fully dark when dinner was served under the same canopy as at lunchtime, with canvas walls closed on three sides now. It became rather chilly and the fresh air streamed from the mountain, so we felt fine in the warm clothes we had put on.

 

The entree of boiled maize cobs made the dinner for us, at least, and with smeared on butter it tasted even better. The main courses were typical of an English formal meal and visitors enjoyed the perfectly prepared food. The visitors' spirits were excellent and we exchanged stories of the afternoon. Of course there was a lot of laughing over the miring and pulling out of the vehicles. Also Vesna got her chance to present her notes on the list of animals and their numbers she had marked so meticulously.

 

It was interesting to note how the conversation swelled up and went on between the visitors from various countries like England, France, Italy, Germany, Lebanon, and us from Yugoslavia. A few gas lamps provided the only light in the camp, attracting to them zillions of dudus (insects). Most of the unwary insects got scorched. When the dinner was over, Ljiljana and Vesna went to our tent, using a torch to find their way in the pitch-dark night. Vesna just washed her teeth, took off her top garment and shoes, and crept into her canvas bed. Ljiljana wrapped Vesna in two woolen blankets and closed the mosquito net carefully around the bed.

 

In the meantime, the Chief of Camp, a retired colonel of the British Army, invited the visitors to join him for coffee around a big bonfire. Comfortable canvas armchairs with blankets were arranged in a semicircle around an almost fading bough fire. The visitors sat enjoying the fire's warmth and sipped coffee in the sight of the giant looming shadow of Kilimanjaro in the background. The conversation became somehow muted by the nature's all-encompassing quiet, being broken intermittently by some animal's shriek.

 

The Chief brought out an old gramophone (it looked almost like the one of "His Master's Voice") and put on old shellac records (not LP's!) to play a few Christmas carols and some classical pieces. Some joined in singing, or hummed to the familiar tunes, or just listened, surrounded by an unusual environment on that night of January 1, 1964.

 

At 10 o'clock the party dispersed, looking for tents, and followed by a swarm of dudus attracted by the torches' beams. Very soon the camp quieted down and one could hear only the voices of Africa at night from unknown distances. For a while I wondered how the thin canvas could prevent any predatory animal from getting into the tent, closed only with zippers on both front sides. Nonetheless, I was soon fast asleep.



Ready for the morning sightseeing tour with Kilimanjaro Mountain looming in background

A voice calling politely, "Your tea, sir!" brought me back to my senses. Still drowsy, I got up and slowly unzipped the front wings, trying to remember where we were. In front of the tent stood a steward holding a large tray, who said: "Good morning to you, sir. Dawn will be soon. Kilimanjaro is cloud free! May I put the tray on the small table?" I was a little stunned by a tall dark man dressed in white, whose eyes and teeth gleamed against a dull gray background. With some protests, my girls got up and got dressed quickly to be able to observe the day's spectacle.

 

Other visitors came out of their tents too and cameras were put in position to record a beautiful morning. Now we could see the mighty Kilimanjaro, still in a misty haze, and its higher peak, Kibo. On the green meadows below the mountain slopes paraded numbers of long-necked giraffes, many antelopes grazed or dashed to and fro, joined by some zebras.

 

Suddenly, Kibo blazed up in brilliant yellow as the first rays of the sun lit up the horizon. Steadily, full daylight dispersed the haze, offering a magnificent sight of the whole Kilimanjaro Mountain. Amazed by this event, I recalled a small picture of its mighty bulk printed in our school book. Now it was not just a dream, but the reality of being in Africa on our first safari. I would never forget this day that might turn to be crucial to our future.

 


A lonely elephant bull with one rather long task only


Later everybody rushed to the tents to pack belongings and get ready for the early morning cruise at 6:30. Cars dispersed in various directions, looking for animals, avoiding the lake this time. We were looking for elephants and saw several groups of females with offspring. Vesna diligently recorded what animals we came upon, like bush bucks and water bucks, gazelles, and impalas, some warthogs and few jackals, with several groups of baboons scurrying around groves or near woods. At last we came upon a group of four male elephants. The game warden directed us to get closer, bit by bit, to the mightiest of them. The car slowly moved around the group so we could take pictures to our heart's content. When the bull started waggling his mighty ears and lifted his trunk in our direction, the ranger told us it was time to get away fast.

 

Unluckily, the weather worsened and we felt hungry, so at 9 a.m. we went back for breakfast. After 10 o'clock the visitors began their leisurely departure. The sun was gone and clouds gathered, obscuring the peaks of Kilimanjaro from our view. We left the Old Tukai Lodge around 11 o'clock on the same road we had come in the day before. I wondered whether we would ever be able to experience such an awesome sight again.



A group of male elephants of that the middle one has rather long tasks

 

The way back to Nairobi was uneventful. We arrived at our hotel, all of us utterly dog-tired. It was raining, so we decided to rest and sneaked into beds after a good shower. It was the right weather for a good rest after our one-day safari, so we were full asleep quickly that afternoon. We woke up after 6 o'clock but it was still raining, so it cooled down significantly that evening in Nairobi. There was a good restaurant in the hotel and there we found a group of Germans we had met at the Old Tukai Lodge. We enjoyed a fine meal and the company of our new acquaintances.

 

The next day, Gaston left for Khartoum, so we had a free day in Nairobi. It was essential that I get in touch with Mombasa Offices regarding our scheduled arrival there on January 4. After breakfast, we left our hotel and the girls decided to go window-shopping in the vicinity of New Stanley Hotel. There I was to contact the concierge, who told me politely that the Cement Works Head Office had called already. The Work's secretary was astonished that I had not booked in the New Stanley yet, and asked that I call back as soon as I arrived.

 

I learned that a reservation had been made in my name for the third of January. I had to explain to the clerk that we had arrived three days ago and had been on a safari. I asked him to cancel the reservation as we had already booked into another hotel, so there was no point in moving for one night.

 

 Then I asked the clerk to place a call to the Bamburi Works in Mombasa but was told that it might take quite some time to get through. We agreed I should return in the late afternoon to pick up any instructions. So I joined my "shop-cruising" ladies, spending the rest of the morning in sightseeing in the city center. I took pictures of many beautiful bougainvilleas and splendid flowers in some gardens of houses in the back streets.

 

 We decided to spend the early afternoon in a nearby cinema that had a wide screen, perfect for a monumental movie like "Cleopatra". The film lasted almost four hours, and I returned to the New Stanley Hotel just in time to receive the message that had come through. It stated: "You will be expected at Mombasa airport tomorrow. Pick up your tickets at Nairobi airport. Welcome to Mombasa!"

 

The next morning we took a taxi to the airport to catch the morning plane to Mombasa. The aircraft flew past the mighty Kilimanjaro on our right side and Mount Kenya on the left a few moments later. We were met by Mrs. Mandl, the Managing Director's wife, who took us to the best hotel in Mombasa at that time. We felt fine the moment we landed on the coast as it was warmer, although more humid than in Khartoum.

 

The meeting with the managing director went extremely well for us. A firm agreement was reached with the company that I should come to Mombasa as soon as my contract with the Government of Sudan expired. My employment with the private parent company in Switzerland had guaranteed our way to freedom and to a safe existence in the future. We stayed in Mombasa until January 7, and returned to Nairobi late that evening.

 

This time we stayed in the New Stanley Hotel for one night only. The next day we spent shopping, and went to the Corrington museum in the morning. In the afternoon we drove out to visit the Nairobi National Park, where we saw quite a few animals, including several lions. We left for Khartoum at midnight, landing at 3 a.m.

 

Thus ended happily and successfully our first safari in Kenya, with good prospects and promises of more to come.

 


DISCLAIMER : On URL: http://www.cosy.sbg.ac.at/~zzspri/ published pages are originals and authorized by copyright of Zvonko Z. Springer, Salzburg 1999.

Email Zvonko Springer at : zzspri@aon.at