Saturday, January 07, 2017


JJ is heading into Nanyuki for provisions and we can’t resist tagging along. As soon as the car swings through the gate manned by armed guards we’re in another world. The vegetation is still lush but the shacks, sticks held together by mud and thatch appear. We drive along the track, dipping in and out of ruts deepened by the rains, swerving around big rocks that have toppled on to the terracotta road. Small kids race to the edge of the road to wave, their palms held out flat. They shout out “howareyou?” and “sweets?” Little flocks of goats weave in and out of the bushes in the shoulder of the road followed by a young boy with a stick. The fifteen metres from the centre of the track is owned by the state and is therefore grazed by everyone with an animal but without a plot of land. As we approach Nanyuki, the Kenya National Highways Authority has marked all structures that encroach on the limits with a giant red X. Once the X appears owners are given two weeks to dismantle the building before the bulldozer levels it for a proposed road. The wooden shacks disappear but the skeletons of cinder block structures pepper the route.

We are heading southwest, slowly climbing onto the skirts of Mount Kenya. We drive by vast greenhouses full of roses and vegetables that will be shipped to Europe. As we ascend, the bush changes to conifers. The track turns into pavement, dotted with the occasional and unmarked speed bump. People take it upon themselves to build them at a spot where someone has died. According to JJ, these misguided attempts to prevent a recurrence in fact lead to all sorts of other accidents as drivers come upon the new and unexpected bump at full speed. His car, like most vehicles in Kenya, is fitted with a speed controller which whistles as you approach 80km/h. If you ignore the warning and continue to accelerate the engine cuts out. JJ says it makes for interesting overtaking as you find yourself in a lane of oncoming traffic in a vehicle with a motor that has just stopped.

We watch a pair of trucks a few hundred metres apart come at us at a clip with their high beams on. They are chockablock with khat, JJ explains. The trucks are carrying huge bags of the leaves, nature’s natural amphetamine, to Nairobi to be flown out to market. Only legal in a few countries, Kenya among them, the leaves lose their potency as they age so there is an obvious urgency in getting them swiftly to market. JJ tells us the headlights indicate to all in their path that they are on the move and that the vehicle will stop for nothing on its way to market. All the law enforcement on route know (and are presumably compensated) to look the other way as the driver drives like a bat out of hell no matter what gets in the way.

As we approach Nanyuki, the traffic picks up. Flimsy plastic bags are caught on every twig, in every bush and tree. There is almost more plastic than soil. Trucks laden with piles of straw that double the height of the vehicle look incredibly tippy. You have to be careful what you ask for, says JJ, when you buy a truckful of something in Kenya the truck will be delivered as full as it can possibly be. We pass carts being pulled by donkeys and hundreds of boda bodas, the little 250cc motorcycles that are Kenya’s taxis. Decorated in crocheted doilies and painted in vibrant colours, the drivers ply the countryside’s every little track and will ferry you and a companion or a goat for the equivalent of 50 cents. We watch a tour bus drive by filled with students on a class trip. The top of the bus is piled high with forty green mattresses tied down with coir rope. The threatening clouds have us hoping the kids won’t be sleeping on soaking mattresses tonight.

A little sign on the side of the road tells us we are crossing the equator — Nanyuki, Equator, 6389 ft. My first time in the southern hemisphere! The edges of the road are soon crowded with a string of five foot wide stands cobbled together with scraps of wood. Someone sits in the back behind baskets heaped with pyramids of potatoes, bunches of bananas hanging from the rafters, huge avocado and mango, carrots and tomatoes, cabbage. The other side of the road is full of squat, concrete shops. Men loll outside, some grinding bits of metal, painting four poster beds, putting the finishing touches on crooked little sheds.

Nanyuki in colonial days, JJ tells us, used to be lovely lines of buildings on avenues laid out for a view of Mount Kenya. It has grown exponentially in recent years, with shacks of corrugated metal & mismatched planks stretching out in all directions. Downtown is abustle with people going about their business. Ladies in long skirts and heels hustle to work, men sit in clutches at sidewalk stands, sorting out khat leaves and heaping it into bags.

We pull up to a brand new shopping mall. The guards at the gate of the parking lot scan the bottom of the car with mirrors looking for bombs. Entering the mall we are scanned with metal detectors and patted down for guns. It all brought back the horrific images of the 2013 shooting in Nairobi’s Westgate mall. The storefronts are brand spanking new and could easily blend into any mall in the world but half of the spaces are vacant. The grocery store is a weird mix of products from everywhere, the clientele mostly white europeans clutching lists — maybe shopping for provisions for their safari outfits. There is a young man in uniform at the end of every aisle. I couldn’t tell whether they were there to watch or to help clients.

On the way home JJ stops at one of the roadside veggie stands and picks up some mangoes, a bunch of mini bananas and a dozen avocado. The vendors jump up to the side of the car to bring us what we need. JJ barters, gently, in Swahili and we watch the vendors scramble to make change.

In the evening we head to a river on the other side of the property for sundowners. The kids jump off rocks into the water and we drink stiff gin & tonics. As we were settling in, a foursome of elephants come lumbering over the hill, obviously heading to the river for an evening drink. The mother, her two calves and a young male stood back and watched us for a while, trunks held aloft to pick up our scent. Eventually the mother and the two little ones ambled down, staying as far away from us as they could. The young male didn’t have the courage. We stood in awe, watching them pick their way across, stepping daintily on rocks in the riverbed and fishing their trunks in for a drink. While we watched, a herd of cows came over the ridge heading toward us. John, our guide, whistled softly to get the attention of the cowherd to indicate the presence of the elephants. The young men sprinted to the front of the herd, waving his stick overhead to try to turn them around. It's a good thing he managed, John said afterward, as the elephant would have charged the cows and sent them flying into the air like juggling balls with her tusks.

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