Edinburgh -> London -> Nairobi
After the preceding months of acquiring suitable attire, Yellow Fever shots, Malaria tablets, the whole thing started, not surprisingly, with a very long flight.
First, from Edinburgh down to Heathrow, and from there to Jomo Kenyatta Airport, Nairobi. Ten hours in total. However, it was a nice, big, comfy plane. I spent the journey watching films, staring out the window, reading and snoozing. This was also the first flight I’d ever been on where you can track your progress, including speed and altitude, on a constantly updated map. Given my fascination with maps, this kept me amused for hours.
Eventually, as we flew on through the night, I was looking out at clouds below thinking “That’s Africa under there!” and then later on, when the clouds began to part in places, I was looking down at the dark landscape thinking “That’s Africa!”
We arrived in the morning at Jomo Kenyata Airport. Fortunately, I didn’t melt into a small puddle the very second the cabin doors were opened. Yes, it was hot, but it was a dry heat. The first thing that always tells me that I’m in a different country is the architecture and Kenya was no different. The whole airport, with varying shades of brown, actually reminded me of 70’s Britain in the summer. That similarity continued as we proceeded to the passport control and it was here we got our first taste of Kenyan culture – no rush. We didn’t really have to wait that long to get our papers sorted, but it was an entirely manual process while the queue shuffled slowly along on the brown carpets surrounded by cream-brown walls.
As we got closer to the desk I noticed that there were no real barriers anywhere. From where we stood on the upper floor, it was conceivably possible for someone to simply run down the stairs, across the baggage claim area and out into the street. Assuming one avoided the automatic weapons fire of the guards, of course. Still, it was really nice to see an airport that looked like Edinburgh airport used to before they went nuts dividing everything up with barriers, glass and bars.
Eventually, we joined with the rest of the tour party at baggage claim. At this point it became clear I was not going to be having any holiday romances – I was the youngest person in the group by at least fifteen years. Possibly twenty. Most people in our group seemed to be retired (and/or rich). We boarded a minibus and headed for Nairobi proper.
Unfortunately, none of us took many pictures of the city. The road from the airport drove along the edge of Nairobi National Park, which, from our vantage point, just looked like a big bit of brown scrubland beyond a chainlink fence. It was still memorable to me though, simply because I was still in ‘That’s Africa!’ mode.
As we entered the city proper one thing struck me – there sure were a lot of people walking about. To this day I have never seen a city with more pedestrians. Okay, I haven’t seen many big cities and I’ve never been to, say, New York, but in Nairobi, people walk. I later found out that one of the reason’s for this is that if people want to find work then they have to get up and walk to find it. Strangely, for the number of people walking around, the place never appeared crowded. I can’t explain it. The roads themselves were packed with cars and vans and Matatu (awesomely/gaudily decorated share-taxis) and seemed to operate under the same organic flow principles as lots of mice in a maze: no clear order or direction, but it all seemed to keep going fairly smoothly.
Eventually, once the gate guards had checked under the bus for bombs, we arrived at the front door of the Intercontinental Hotel. There was a group meeting in the foyer for everyone in our tour group. It couldn’t have been that important since I don’t really remember anything about it, except that we were properly introduced to our guide. He was a South African native who had experience travelling all over Africa. Unfortunately, I can’t remember his name (Terry?), but he was a very nice and very helpful man. After that, we had pretty much the whole day to ourselves. The four of us (me, my dad and my uncles) went for a short walk in the nearby city after lunch. There were plenty of shops offering plenty of merchandise. I was half heartedly looking for a good pair of boots, but in the end we just had a bit of a wander. I didn’t buy anything partially because I still hadn’t gotten my head around the exchange rate and partially because I was aware that there is a strong haggling culture in Kenya and, frankly, I can’t be arsed with haggling.
Even though we only spent about half an hour walking around (it really was just a bit of a walk around the block) I can still remember it. The feeling of being in not only a different country, but within a different culture is one of those feelings that fascinates and amazes me. I get it everywhere, even when I visit England. Maybe it’s just me. There’s the initial fear of the unknown; in this case bolstered by warnings about pickpockets and the crime rate in Nairobi or “Nai-robbery” as some folk nickname it. This warning was strangely coupled with the warning not to shout ‘Thief!’ unless you want to witness an impromtu public lynching. However, any fear I had was quickly dismissed as I immersed myself in my exciting new surroundings (while making sure my wallet was secure).
I often associate the different cities I have visited with a specific colour – probably not that uncommon. Edinburgh is Grey, capital ‘G’; a deep, solid, ancient grey. St Petersburg, Florida, is a mix of sea green, tree green and asphalt white. Austin, Texas, by day is tan or bronze, edged with the same asphalt white of Florida; by night, black with warm neon. Birmingham, England, is concrete grey and smog yellow with streaks of brown through it.
Nairobi is a dusty khaki with a deep, soil brown and a lush, verdant green. I remember the dust in the streets, collecting in the cracked pavements most of all. No idea why. Directly opposite the hotel is Uhuru Park. As everywhere else, pedestrians were rampant, but in a way I can’t fully describe, it never felt crowded. We wandered over, looking like lost white people. I stopped and sat down on the little island like area next to the pond while the other three wandered further along the path. Sitting there, playing with the strange species of grass, feeling the dusty soil run through my fingers, looking at the ants and beetles and drawing curious glances from the locals, I truly felt like I was in a different and incredibly exciting land.
As night fell I found myself out beside the hotel pool. Another signal told me that I was somewhere that wasn’t home – it was dark outside and it was warm. We – Dad and uncles and me – enjoyed a chat with the young barman at a little wooden bar that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Hawaii. Then we relaxed on the sun loungers until exhaustion and jet lag finally sent us all to bed.
Going to bed was what I refer to as one of those moments, I’m sure, familiar to many. I wanted to stay up; enjoy the warm air, the pleasant company and the simple fact that I was in Africa. It was a feeling that was to repeated itself every night of the Safari. In the end I went to bed because, not only was I shattered, but I just couldn’t wait the adventure to start properly.