Destination Kenya - article

Ever since watching Tarzan as a child I have wanted to visit Africa. To me, even at the innocent age of eight I appreciated the romance and beauty of the landscape and wildlife, as well as the resplendent pad and lifestyle Mr and Mrs Greystoke had carved out for themselves. I wanted to experience the splendours of Africa for myself and perhaps reconnoitre a nice retirement spot for my very own tree house with accompanying plunge pool and detachable roof; or was that Swiss Family Robinson?

As my wife Liza and I touched down in Mombasa airport I braced myself for the onslaught of porters and cab drivers that would be poised outside, ready to ambush my fleshy western wallet. I - quite unfairly - have this paranoia every time I land in a foreign country that everyone is out to cheat me, rob me or take me hostage. Fortunately this bizarre affliction usually passes once I've had my first incident free interaction with one of the locals.

I'm not really a people person, that's why I like writing after all. So new, foreign people are particularly challenging for me; smiling and nodding inanely is generally my stock response. However the Kenyan people seem to have an easy way about them, almost Caribbean in their mellow demeanour. As our coach swung its way through the streets of Mombasa it seemed to me that the city looked abandoned, but not for the lack of people. Broken signs hung from cracked, dusty walls and tiles clung to roofs at jaunty angles. As a tourist I had the luxury of thinking that it gave the place character, although I'm not sure the inhabitants would share this sentiment. My preconceived notions of Kenya were already starting to be challenged and I'd barely stepped foot on its parched, red soil. Gangs of topless, toiling men were lacquered with sweat as they pushed large creaking wagons through the streets, transporting their loads with maniacal urgency. No donkeys here.

Mombasa is not only an ancient port, it is also an island. It's separated by a few hundred metres of water from the expanse of Africa beyond. As we joined the mainland and broke free of the captivating mayhem of Mombasa there was a definite change in society. It got even poorer. The crumbling stone of the city was replaced with rusting corrugated sheets and the dangling signs were now handwritten. Again, I could admire the rustic beauty of it all, but then I didn't have to live in a shack that was smaller than many 4x4's. It occurred to me that we had been travelling for an hour and a half and I hadn't seen a single building I would be prepared to live or work in. Strange that, I thought, isn't Kenya a tourist hot spot? Where's all the money gone?

Finally we bounced up the coastal road towards our resort. The dishevelled tarmac was more hole than pot. Some of the fissures were so capacious that the coach had to weave cautiously between them at walking pace. Checking in at the hotel reception was like being given the keys to a different world. The complex was resplendent and festooned with myriad plants, including aloe vera, ferns, the ubiquitous palms and my favourite, the baobab. Baobabs are like giant bonsai trees, misshapen and intricate, with their huge trunks out of proportion to their branches. The trunks are so large that they are sometimes used as part of a building's structure. Indeed our hotel spa was bolted onto the side of one.

After being led through this lush little corner of Kenya and deposited at our quaint, thatched little maisonette we proceeded to freshen up. With the air con cranked up I laid naked, spread-eagled and rejoicing in the luxuriance of the cold cloak of air that sucked every last drop of sweat and moisture from my clammy body. It was at this moment of intoxicating serenity that my dear wife took it upon herself to collapse to the floor of the bathroom with a sickening wail as she proceeded to indulge in an epileptic fit. I scuttled into the bathroom with my mind flashing up all the gruesome possibilities a fall in a bathroom can lead to. Perhaps a compacted skull, a twisted kneecap or a toilet brush through the temple, who knows. A quick assessment established she had bounced off the side of the sink with her cheek, but she looked surprisingly well considering. Once the fit had passed I carried her over to the bed and we both eventually drifted off into a lavish sleep.

We were awakened by the receptionist calling to check if everything was OK as we had missed our arrival briefing. Upon hearing the extravagant reasoning behind our absence the receptionist proceeded to drench us in a deluge of customer service. Within minutes we had a doctor at our door with an entourage of hotel staff bearing tidings of a free spa treatment for Liza to ease the pains and strains of the fit. The purity of intention and the charm of execution were intensely touching. You can teach customer service, but you can't teach someone to care and what was profoundly clear is that Liza was being cared for.

The next day we decided to locate the safari tour company that had earned such rapturous approval on a holiday review website. We found the little orange hut just a few yards from the entrance of the resort as expected. Julius and his sister Jamelia run their safari business, JT Tours, by working 7 days a week and 18 hour days. If I was working like that I would struggle to summon up the motivation to shake a customer's hand, let alone offer an uplifting smile and make them feel like they were part of the family. Julius discussed the various safari options in depth and detailed how much importance he put on the satisfaction of his clients. He would only book 4 people on a tour, despite the fact his truck would hold more than twice that number. "If you see a lion out of the right window, how will the people sitting on the left see it if the truck is full", he exclaimed. True words that obviously mean nothing to the fat cats of the UK rail network. This impoverished guy who worked harder than a three breasted prostitute was losing money by not filling his truck with customers, simply because he felt it would undermine his service. I wanted to kiss the little guy. Later, when Julius offered to pay for the taxi to take us to the bank, I was ready to divorce Liza and take a serious look at my sexuality because Julius had shown levels of devotion and dedication that few have ever offered or experienced.

Needless to say we booked the safari and a couple of days later we were rupturing our spinal vertebrae bouncing along an arid dirt track in Amboseli National Park. Our destination was a Masai village in the middle of the park. The way our two wheel drive truck was rattling along the rocky road I wasn't sure we would even make it to the village. Just up ahead I spotted a cloud of amber coloured dust lifting into the baking midday air. A herd of elephants perhaps? As we approached two figures appeared from the haze. They were men and it was clear from their outline that they were Masai; tall slim and elegant with a confident, proud posture. Behind them they were dragging thick thorny branches through the dust, causing the clouds that could be seen far and wide. As they strutted through this land of lions, elephants and leopards their only form of defence was no more than a pointy stick. We were approaching the village now and we could see the purpose of the thorn bushes. All around the camp was a thick wall of them, the only barrier from the maelstrom of wild beasts outside. Although the Masai take these sensible precautions the wildlife that surrounds them holds no fears. Indeed our guide Cirrus had told us that most animals give these indigenous warriors a wide berth. Elephants in Kenya are actually disturbed by the colour red, the signature colour of the Masai. Although elephants are colour blind they can still recognise the shade of the clothing, as well as the smell. Masai warriors are known to spear elephants to demonstrate their strength and bravery.

We entered the village with our two safari companions, Mike and Chris, along with our guide Cirrus. Upon paying our entrance fee of ten pounds per head we were treated to a traditional welcome dance. It seemed the whole village had come to take part, which felt quite an honour considering there were just the four of us. As they filed out in front of us they were chanting in a hypnotising guttural rhythm with all the intricacy and richness in sound of an orchestra. The dance incorporated the men performing their famous po-going leaps, commonly used to display their virility to the attendant women. We were warmly invited to join the dance, to which we agreed with varying levels of vigour. I enthusiastically humiliated myself, launching my stunted little frame into the air with mindless abandon. The blistering heat and the consumption of a few too many buffet dinners ensured my embarrassment was short lived.

We were led round the village and shown inside one of the mud huts. At least I thought it was mud until I was enlightened to its true composition - cow dung. Inside the huts are bewilderingly dark with simple cutlery and pottery scattered over the floor for my clumsy feet to trip over. The only light afforded is through a tiny crack in the wall no bigger than a mobile phone. It was a simple life they were living, hunting their food, building their homes and making and selling tourist artefacts. Speaking to Eric, our Masai guide and the head of the village, it was clear that they were smart both in raw intellect and in the ways of the world. Eric cannily spent most of his time with me having quickly realised that I was the soft touch most likely to buy his spear. "Don't you think it's beautiful, my father made it for me from wood and rocks he collected on Kilimanjiro." A likely story, but a good effort. Eric was astute enough to show me how easy it was to take apart for the flight home.

Despite their renowned intellect many of the tribe stay put and don't try to find a new life in the city. This got me thinking. Is it better to live as the Masai do and take care of yourself, controlling your own destiny; or is it preferable to live in cities working 16 hour shifts for a pittance? Both sets of Kenyans are proud people and have an inner strength that shines through in their posture, voice and smiles, but maybe the Masai have more to smile about.

We left Eric and his village behind and set off to find what I had originally come to Kenya for to see the big game. But as I clutched my new ash tray and admired my new necklace I considered that I may have already seen the stars of the show, the people. So if you do decide to go to Kenya, don't forget to go on a human safari and explore a little deeper into the minds of the Kenyan people. Although the wildlife is spectacular, if you ignore the people then frankly you've only seen half the picture. Wherever I go next I know I will try and be a little less timid and speak to the locals, because this holiday was all the richer for it. As if you need further encouragement, may I tell you that upon our return from the safari Julius handed Liza and me an elegantly carved giraffe and an intricately crafted elephant a thank you for our custom. I proposed to him on the spot!