Dear Reader, I am not an outdoorsy person but I am environmentally inclined. I also do enjoy the occasional alcohol and roast meat fiesta. And so, several years ago, when I was still young and vibrant, a group of friends invited me for a visit to Aberdare and Meru National Parks on the Madaraka day weekend and I obliged them.
Let me start from the beginning. Alice Briggs is an American. She came to Nairobi to do some research on her Masters Degree thesis which is public health related. After, a three months’ stay collecting data, analysing it and generally doing what researchers do, her time in Kenya was nearing its end. She realised that she had not seen some of the best parts of our country. She had not seen the much talked about wildlife and had actually not been outside of Nairobi.
Her host, Mariam who was my neighbour at Hekima Estate, was happy to take her to some of the nearer parks as we only had a three-day weekend. To make the road trip more lively, Mariam invited a few of us to join in. There was Mariam’s boyfriend Charles, Charles’ cousin Owen, Mariam’s friends Lisa and Amani and myself, the environmental oriented one.
A seven seater landcruiser was hired and very early on Friday morning, we were ready to go. We took off at about 6:30 am. It was a three-hour drive to Aberdares National Park and we hoped to get there by at least 10 am so that we could spend the better part of the day enjoying the game drive. As we loaded the vehicle, I noticed that some of the suitcases were quite large and heavy. As a regular traveller, I always pack light and for a three day trip I did not need to pack so much.
Anyway, I did not comment on the heavy luggage but sat silently at the back enjoying the scenery. We moved from Hekima Estate, through the central business district and then hit Thika Superhighway. I was seated next to Alice and tried to be a tour guide, explaining the various titbits, sights and landscapes to her as we moved along.
As we approached Thika Town, Charles who was driving, declared that he needed a bathroom break and several others too were in need of a break. We therefore exited the highway into Thika town and drove to a fuelling station which had a bar, restaurant, convenience store and clean bathrooms. It was about 7:15 am.
We all went to the bathroom and then returned to find Owen checking the tyre pressure. He confirmed that the tyres were good to go and as we climbed into the vehicle Lisa sighed and said, “This is a long exhausting trip, I need a drink!”
We had only been on the road for 45 minutes!
Charles suggested that they check what was in stock in the convenience store.
“But they won’t sell alcohol to you now,” Mariam reminded him. “Remember Mututho Laws. Sale of alcohol starts at 10am.”
“I have something in my bag,” Amani said. “Me too Owen chimed in.”
Amani proceeded to open her oversized suitcase and I was shocked to see that the entire thing was filled with alcoholic beverages of all brands and sizes.
“Wow, you have really stocked up,” Lisa said gleefully.
“You never know with these national parks,” Amani said. “You may not find any bars in there. Plus, these are duty free. A friend of a friend knows somebody who has access to AFCO.”
Dear Reader, AFCO is the Defence Forces Canteen Organisation. Don’t ask me why an “A” and not a “D” at the beginning of the acronym.
We each grabbed something to drink. I must confess, dear reader, that I was not left behind and entered the vehicle with two cans of Apple Cider. I am more of a wine drinker but felt it inappropriate to be drinking wine at 7:15 in the morning!
So we jumped into the vehicle, alcohol in hand (including the driver). We re-joined the highway and were soon on our merry way. We cruised past Delmonte Pineapple Plantation, with the acres and acres of spiny pineapple leaves poking menacingly at the blue sky, and then past Kenol Trading Centre which was already bustling with activity and on to Sagana. I continued my tour guiding, pointing out the interesting sites along the way; the Chania Falls, for example, the Makuyu Golf Club, River Sagana and Sagana Shrine.
The alcohol was taking effect and our tongues were loosened. We joked and laughed along the way as we drove past Makutano Junction, Kiangwaci Shopping Centre and then to Kibingoti Shopping Centre with the market women already running after vehicles with their tantalisingly fresh bananas, tomatoes and avocados.
Alice was interested in visiting the curio shops at Kibingoti to get some souvenirs for her family and friends. Of course, the bathroom was already calling due to the amount of imbibing we had done, and nobody objected to the stop. As we moved among the curiosities, someone quickly remembered that we had not breakfasted due to the early start and hunger pangs were hitting hard. It was half past eight in the morning.
The Africana Curio Shop had a restaurant and we sat down to enjoy a sumptuous breakfast of omelette, boiled nduma and mixed tea. It was a bit chilly and Owen said he needed something hotter than tea to drive away the chill. We were all in agreement and the restaurant owner was happy to make a sale. We ordered a round of alcoholic drinks and proceeded to spend an hour drinking, joking and laughing. Alice ended up purchasing some jewellery made out of cow horn (it was really beautiful and the craftsmanship superb) and a soapstone carving of an elephant.
We hit the road at about half past nine and I noted that we were already an hour behind schedule. I requested that we reduce out stops otherwise we would reach the park at high noon and the animals would have disappeared into their dens and other shady places to escape the sunshine.
My advice was well taken but before we jumped into our seats, we revisited Amani’s suitcase. Drinks in hand again, we drove forward past Kibirigwi and half an hour later, we were at Karatina town. We unanimously agreed on a bathroom stop. This time we did not dally but quickly visited the bathroom, visited Amani’s suitcase and were back in our seats. By 10:15am we were on the road headed to Nyeri. I pointed to Alice the junction to Tumutumu Girls’ High School where many of our older female leaders from central Kenya, including Mama Lucy Kibaki, attended school. Though chilly, the sky was clear and I pointed to the right where you could see Mount Kenya. As usual, the mountain stood tall and majestic with its snowy white caps contrasting the grey rocks that led up to the mountain peaks and blended into the clear blue skies.
We had to stop. This was a photo moment that we could not let pass by. We jumped out of the car, took photographs of ourselves, selfies of ourselves with the mountain in the background and a group selfie with the vehicle in the background. The photos would quickly go up on social media with “hashtag, roadtrip, hashtag Mount Kenya, hashtag weekend with friends, hashtag tembea Kenya.”
Back in the cruiser, it was now 11:15 am!
“No more stops guys,” declared Charles. “We want to see the animals!”
We drove along at a less leisurely speed now, past Banana Leaf, onward past the famous Kagumo Teachers’ College, into Skuta and finally Nyeri town.
It was 11:45 and we needed another bathroom break.
Bathroom break behind us, Mariam suggested that we buy snacks so that we could have a picnic in the park as it was approaching lunch hour.
“Since the possibility of us seeing the wildlife now has greatly diminished,” I said. “I suggest we go ahead and book an overnight stay so that we can go for an evening game drive, instead of coming back to book accommodation in Nyeri town. The Fishing Lodge is amazing and it would be cheaper than the hotels within town. The only catch is that we have to self-cater and so if we are buying food for a lunchtime picnic, then we should also buy something for dinner.”
“Great suggestion,” said Alice. “At least I don’t want to rush my game viewing experience.”
This was a very agreeable group, I must say, and my suggestion was again agreed upon by all but with a slight amendment by Owen.
“Why then don’t we have a nice nyama choma lunch here and then set out to the park at about 2:00pm,” he said. “We can then enjoy the game drive from the gate to the Banda. Since we will have eaten a proper lunch, we don’t have to cook at dinner time. We can do with picnic snacks.”
We agreed and proceeded to The Nyama Ranch for our lunch. Of course my tour guiding had not ended. I pointed out to Alice the sites in Nyeri. Being a colonial town, there were many historical buildings within and on the outskirts of the central business district. I pointed these out, including the Baden Powell-Museum and the old Nyeri Law Courts.
Our lunch order took about an hour and a half to be ready but it was worth it. Lunch was sumptuous! Mixed grill consisting of roast beef, mbuzi choma, roast chicken and roast pork. This was served with roast potatoes and ugali. There was also fried Sukuma wiki and fried cabbage (you must be served with cabbage in Nyeri!) to accompany the mixed grill. By the time we were done eating it was 2:45pm.
We consulted our watches and decided that there was still time to relax. How much wildlife would one want to see anyway before getting bored? A two-hour game drive would suffice. We could leave the Nyama Ranch by 4:30pm, be at the Ark Gate by 5:00pm, and then take a leisurely trip up to the fishing lodge, viewing wildlife and by the time it was dusk, we would be at the lodge. Agreed? Agreed!
I am sure that it is obvious to you Dear Reader that our delicious lunch had to be washed down with our favourite alcoholic beverages. Alice and Mariam went for sweet white wine, Lisa and Amani drank Smirnoff Ice Electric Ginseng, Owen went for gin and tonic and Charles switched from lager to rum and coke. I, of course, settled on red wine. The wine was imported directly from Matzikama region of South Africa. It was smooth to the lips and bold to the tongue. It’s sweet fragrance of sun ripened red grapes crept into my nostrils and mingled with its fruity flavours at the back of my throat, encouraging me to drink some more, and drink I did!
The DJ was playing relaxing music and the drinks were flowing like a waterfall. Before we knew it, it was half past four.
“Time to leave guys,” declared Charles.
“No!” we complained.
“A few more drinks and we will be on our way,”
It was agreed that we had some time since park entry closed at 6pm.
We continued enjoying our drinks and merry-making beyond 6pm. When it became obvious that we could not make it to the park, we decided to go and seek accommodation elsewhere. On our way into Nyeri town, we came across a night club that was packed full of patrons and the music was great.
We joined the revellers and revelled until the sun came up.
Dear Reader, from there the weekend went downhill. We spent the whole of Saturday sleeping off our fatigue and hangovers in a local hotel. When we awoke, it was late afternoon and after eating a late-lunch-cum-early-dinner, spent the whole night Saturday drinking and partying.
Sunday morning arrived finding us fatigued and hangover, again! Our three-day weekend was over and there was not much more we could do. Since we had to travel to Nairobi on that day anyway, we jumped into the vehicle and slept the whole journey back, putting our faith in Charles our driver who was equally exhausted and hangover. (Such are the dangerous lives of the youth, I tell you!)
I am glad to report that we arrived home safely but having not set foot in any national park and having not laid our eyes on a single wildlife species.
“There is always National Geographic,” we consoled ourselves.
All in all, it was a fun weekend!
The point of this winding tale is to illustrate to you that the general idea of rest and relaxation for the average Nairobian is taking alcohol, occasionally eating roast meat, and taking some more alcohol. Nairobians will travel to Mombasa, not to enjoy the white sandy beaches, but to take alcohol. They will go to Lake Naivasha for a weekend stay, not to see the hippos in the lake, but to take alcohol. You should listen to weekend and holiday war stories being told in this city. The amount of fun you had is gauged by the amount of alcohol you took and the intensity of your hangover.
Examine your weekends and how you spend your leisure time and observe how alcohol has permeated our lives and anchored itself as the main recreational activity.