Thursday, 16 December 2010

CAPE TOWN Dec 16th
This is the last entry I will make, unless something out of the ordinary happens today, which, given the cloud, is unlikely. Phyllida and the children arrive tomorrow and then my sabbatical becomes a holiday. There will be lots of reflection time in due course but this African experience has convinced me, a) of the essential good nature of the vast majority of humanity b) of the amount I have to be grateful for in the way the cards have fallen in my life c) that I do quite like my wife and children, whatever their ambivalent reaction to me d) that English winters are rubbish and e) of the diminishing scale of the world. Those sentiments are in no particular order and represent the ones that are uppermost in my mind. There will be other deeper and longer term personal convictions, I am sure but I am still not 100% certain of what they will be.
The beaches on the west of the peninsula, which I recced on Tuesday, are superb. The teenagers favour ‘beach 1,2,3 or 4’. These are local abbreviations for Clifton, which has 4 smallish but extremely attractive sandy inlets at the foot of Table Mountain. It seems that is where it is good to be seen and where the happening people hang out. South of that, Camps Bay is also a lovely strip of sand but the one I liked most was Llandudno, the next one south before Hout Bay. It was sunny and warm. The sea is deep blue and inviting. And freezing. I had thought that as a hardened Brit I would find the cold refreshing but it was, in reality, downright painful in the tenderest places. This makes a wet suit a necessity if the waves are to be enjoyed and I didn’t have one. It was also windy enough on the beach for the sand to become quite irritating. It blew into every conceivable nook and cranny and made the lying in the sun quite painful at times. But I coped. Manfully.
Yesterday’s entertainment was at the races. Kenilworth racecourse is the sort of place that usually only ever features in the UK if all other meetings are off, including the all-weather. The whole affair seems to be conducted at two levels. On the one hand there is a convivial, bar-hugging, scotch and soda drinking collection of local well-dressed owners and trainers and on the other is the largely black, pretty scruffy, form-studying punter. The two do not interact but occupy much the same sort of space because there is no entry fee and no restriction on which parts of the course are accessible to whom. There is a seeming lack of desire to fleece the racegoer, which is apparent not just in the free entry but also in the regular prices for drinks and food and the nominal charge for a racecard. Yet despite this, when I arrived 20 minutes before the first race, I increased the attendance by 20%. It did fill up a bit but the crowd was never more than 300. It strikes me that there is a real opportunity for a Greebly Grabitall to do the same job that has been done to British racing where it is £20 entry, £4 for a bottled lager, £5 minimum for gristle pie and soggy chips and a racecard containing £3 of information that is available for much less in the Racing Post. Maybe that way people will be conned into thinking there is something worth going to and the gate will increase accordingly.  Anyhow, I wagered 10 Rand per race for 7 races and two winners ( one at 6-1 ) paid for the entire event.
I have enjoyed Africa in a quite different way to the USA. Over there it was about landscape and, wherever possible, meeting local people. Here, given that I have scrounged hospitality shamelessly wherever I have gone, it has been more about being a guest that does not blot his copybook, being deferential and nice to as many people as possible and generally oohing and aahing about how lucky everyone is to live where they do and to enjoy the lifestyles they enjoy. I have had much less choice in the people I have met and if I have a regret it is that I have not spent a bit more time with the less privileged. The most illuminating spell, by a distance, was in Watamu and the trips to local fishing villages. The most humbling was at the Starehe Boys and Girls Centres and the attitude of the students. The most jaw-dropping was the outlook from the Stoep at Malelane. The most relaxed is where I am now - and the view is only less jaw-dropping because it is one I knew about. Gilgil was also very relaxed and was the most useful in the Wellington context. Hopewell will probably be the most useful for improving my teaching. Nairobi featured the kindness of the Taylors. My memories will be of unstinting and generous hospitality, the very different landscapes, the constant richness and variety of colour, the flora and fauna, the noises and sounds, the smells, the taxis, the cyclists and the dust. Above all I am even more firmly convinced that places are all about people. The context may be defined by the physical geography but the essential feeling and spirit of any location is entirely a function of a combination of history and human geography. I have been extraordinarily lucky to be where I have been when I have been.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

CAPE TOWN Dec 14th
It has been quite refreshing and relaxing in the absence of any fixed agenda.  It turns out that Charterhouse are here on tour and were at Bishop’s today, so John and I spent a couple of hours on Sunday  watching them get well and truly slogged. They had, I suppose, just come from the coldest English November of all time but it was a fairly ordinary performance. They were at Wynberg yesterday and were almost equally spineless in the hour we were there in the morning. The home coaches loved it, of course. It gave them full opportunity to be as disparaging about English cricket as possible, with the weedy public schools coming in for particular opprobrium. There are no Jacques Kallis cricket scholars at our schools ( Wynberg has 4-5 named in honour of its most well-known old boy ), which is always conveniently forgotten. It was especially odd, therefore, to be actively supporting Harrow for the first time when we moved across to Bishop’s yesterday afternoon and good for the old country that Harrow won comfortably.
We drove to Spier for lunch on Sunday. This is a vineyard with additional activities for the family and it has a very good, outdoor, eat-all-you-can for £20 braai. It was warm, it was sheltered from the wind, the food was plentiful, if almost entirely designed for the carnivore and it was fun to be in the company of the Knights. It will undoubtedly be somewhere we will all visit when we get the chance.
The most surreal experience was attending a service of nine lessons and carols at a packed church in Kenilworth on Sunday evening. Nobody was wearing a sweater, the doors and windows were wide open, many of the punters had brought bottled water and we were singing songs about midwinter and cold. When it comes to it, the whole business of being in a warm place on Christmas Day itself will probably not be that difficult to manage but all the attendant paraphernalia ( trees, decorations, lights etc ) seems a little out of context.
I was at Matthew Pearce’s house for supper last night, being an additional guest at what was principally a get together of his in-laws. He was at Wellington in 1994 as a gap-student and has been over a few times since. His career in journalism took him into broadcasting and he has just landed the job as the number one rugby commentator following on from Hugh Bladen, the SA equivalent of Bill McClaren. Matthew was 100% the same bloke as I remember, with an easy charm and a way of relating experiences that is self-deferential and inclusive. There was one lapse into Zafferdom when we talked about the Rugby World Cup next year, which he is convinced South Africa will win. Otherwise it was really good to spend more time than I usually do, i.e. not just a quick pint, with him.
 I was, as ever, the recipient of lots of advice from the assembled company, not least as to the merits of buying a property in Cape Town and spending November to March here once I have retired. Property is the only thing that seems to be less pricey here than in the UK. They were all quite surprised when I suggested this. Accepted wisdom is that Europeans all make a killing when they come out which may have been true 2-3 years ago, when there were 15 Rand to the £, but is not so much now that the exchange rate is down to 10.8. Anyhow, I have a feeling that idea will be just another in the list of nice ideas I have accumulated these past few months, none of which will ever see the light of reality. It is so enervating, though, to have the mental space to have ideas and if nothing else, that will be one hugely beneficial long term spin-off of my time away.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

CAPE TOWN Dec 11th
It is not altogether surprising that I have been through a small dose of food poisoning/general stomach upset. What is remarkable, given the generally animal-infested, insect-ridden, dusty-floored and water-infected places I have stayed so far ( with apologies to Jakkalsbessie, the Taylors and the Boyd-Moss family ) is that it has not occurred before. It is a bit of an irony that I have copped it at the cleanest, neatest, tidiest, least animal-infested location I have stayed in, which also comes with the purest tapwater.
It may well have been the snack I had at Simonstown. This came as I was returning from a recce of the penguin colony at Boulders Bay, which I reached via Hout Bay, on the Atlantic coast and the road over Chapman’s Peak to Fishhoek on the Indian Ocean side of the Cape Peninsula. This is a drive of spectacular  scenery, as cliffs drop to the sea and mist rolls in over the Atlantic. Much of the time the mist is below the level of the road. That side of the peninsula was at least sheltered from the gale force wind that is a regular feature of life here at this time of year. It is a bit two-edged. On the sheltered Atlantic side, it is sunny but the water is freezing. On the windward Indian Ocean side, the water is warmer but the wind is a major issue. Boulders Bay was a bit of a tourist trap but I guess the family will have to go there, by which time it will be more overrun.
The evening would have been brilliant had I not been feeling so unsteady. Jessica and John are mad-keen (?obsessive?) about their bikes and Jessica had ten lady cyclists, plus a few spouses, to supper. They represented most of a team which had recently completed a 200km road-race. I liked them very much, from the larger-than-life Rinda, the leader, to Debbie, who was probably the senior partner. I talked most to a couple, with the easily remembered names of Janet and John, who had come out here from Southport in 1972 and stayed. I would have got round everyone but was feeling migrainey and very stomachy by about 9.00 and retired, which was a shame, since this would have been the opportunity to meet more local people at one sitting than I have met in total thus far.
By yesterday, I was feeling sufficiently recovered to play golf at Steenberg, a course that features holes strategically placed between vineyards and houses. The wind howled, again, but fortunately my golf stood up, for the first nine holes anyway. One of my opponents was a friend of John’s, Francois, who would back himself to do almost anything if he felt he had a 30% chance of success John, whom I partnered, was excellent at tempting him to drive greens downwind and to go for ridiculous carries into it. So we won.
All the Knight children were home yesterday, for the first time. Hannah has just finished Metric ( SA A-Levels ) and been away partying for a week with friends. Supper with them all in evidence was very reminiscent of what suppers are like on the rare occasions all of us sit down. Lots of genial stick given to Mum and Dad by teenage offspring. Mine will have competition when they turn up.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

I am writing this from the stoep of John and Jessica Knight’s house in Claremont, a suburb in the south of Cape Town.  Ahead of me the lawn slopes gently from left to right. Below the lawn is the tennis court, complete with floodlights, and swimming pool. It is mid-morning and already the air is warm and the sun is strong. A large oak tree provides the shade that African residents crave and those like me, for whom any sun is good sun, avoid. The single dominant presence, however, is Table Mountain.  The green lower slopes of Kirstenbosch contrast with the grey crags of vertical rock leading up to the summit plateau.  In the evening, the setting sun creates a rich pink hue on the exposed rock surfaces. It is magnificent and something not even hardened Capetonians, like John and Jessica, take for granted or cease to appreciate.
Having the use of the car that Hannah, aged 18 and their eldest, is using to learn to drive, enabled me to go into the centre of the city yesterday. There were a couple of things I needed to do and so my first road trip was to the busy and very cosmopolitan centre of Cape Town. It is quite different from Port Elizabeth. There, the shops are clearly catering for a less wealthy market and the effect is to make it look like the seedier end of Reading’s CBD. Here, there are major international brands and the architecture is much prouder and more 21st century. The driving experience was mostly straightforward but I did find the constant sounding of horns a little off-putting. I am always convinced that the sound of a car-horn is directed at me but when there are 2-3 going at the same time it is like being attacked from all sides. The most frequent cause of the hooting is the fact that the car in front is not moving forward. It seems not to matter that in front of that car is a red light or a queue of buses.
I drove back to Claremont via the coast road, above Clifton and Camps Bay which then swings inland and around Table Mountain above the city. What a stunning drive it is. It is a little like what I imagine the Grand Corniche in Monte Carlo to be like. Mountains inland and settlements dropping away to the sea, each with ridiculously beautiful sandy beaches separated by rocky outcrops.
It is, by some distance, the most picturesque city I have ever visited and I would be interested where it would come in a poll to determine the most beautiful city in the world. I am already wishing I had made up my mind to return here in February, as a supporter of the Wellington College cricket team, during their tour in half-term.
John teaches at Bishop’s and had arranged a tour of the school for me in the morning. Melvyn Wallis- Brown, who is 70 and taught at the school for 42 years, was my guide. He is totally sold out to the place and nowhere in South Africa has better facilities, better staff, better results ( sporting and academic ), better cultural achievements or better old boys. According to him. I was impressed, even so. The place looks lovely ( colonial Cape Gothic? ), with brilliant white buildings and perfectly manicured grass areas. I was there at the equivalent time of year to our end of Summer Term, which meant that things were definitely winding down. All activities and no lessons with lots of paper aeroplanes and planks and ropes and shark-infested custard.
I am going to do as little as possible for the next week. No point in having been in Africa for a month if the family are not envious of my sun tan when they arrive.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

After almost five weeks it finally happened. I took myself off for a walk along Hopewell’s perimeter fence in order to get close to the cheetah that has made one particular area its home. It wasn’t much of a movement but the instant I was aware of it I froze. There must be a very deep-seated primeval trigger that makes humans react as I did, with a mixture of fear and loathing. There, two feet away on the side of the track was a snake, slithering silently into the long grass. It was fat, grey with yellow bands and not at all concerned with me, which was just as well as it was identified later by Francois as a puff adder. A bite from one of these is potentially fatal, although to receive one usually means that the snake has been stepped on as it is not aggressive and has an extremely slow strike. So I am told, because I did not hang around to find out. Luckily I was wearing brown shorts.
It was a bonus to spend a bit more time with Bruce Little and his family over the weekend. Bruce has a small share in Hopewell and is employed as the on site manager and resident wildlife fundi. When there are guests ( which has not been very often in 2010 ), he is at their disposal for the time they are on the reserve. He is another of the tall, good-looking, charming, personable and immensely self-sufficient types I have met so often over the past month. The sort that makes me feel instantly like a beta-male and precipitates, on my part, over ambition to demonstrate my intellectual credentials, in the absence of anything else which can compete. Cate, his wife, and the three children entertained me very well on Sunday and Monday evenings. This was no mean feat considering they were in the process of moving all their clobber from the house I have stayed in to another, a few hundred metres away, and still only 80% finished, over the weekend. They live in Grahamstown during the week and spend weekends and holidays at Hopewell. Bruce has recently taken a cut in salary of 50% and now works 12 days a month at Hopewell. His other source of income is the creation of bronze sculptures of African animals. He has something of an international reputation for this and is coming to London to show his work at the Cork St Gallery in May. Inevitably the whole family were hospitality personified and seemed genuinely keen for me to spend time with them, whatever the hidden reality may have been.
The Eastern Cape is an alluring place. The countryside and the community are the twin attractions, there being space to live, people with whom to enjoy it and always at a beguilingly languid pace. I got the impression that once you are ‘in’ you are well in and part of a highly supportive and cohesive group.
What a contrast is the centre of Port Elizabeth, where I spent 45 minutes while Francois did a couple of things before he dropped me at the airport. It is grimy, full of people, 99% of whom are black and, I felt, not especially welcoming. I am sure it was not intentional but there were not many smiles in my direction, which is in total contrast to my experiences in similar situations in Kenya.
I am looking forward to Cape Town. Everyone says it is a brilliant place. John has put a car at my disposal and I will be able to case the joint before the family arrive next week. It is very much R and R for the next few days before the grand tour kicks off in a fortnight

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The countryside around here is very reminiscent of downland in southern England. It rolls, the valley sides are steep and wooded, the valley floors are wide and do not contain rivers, and the hilltops have been cleared and converted to grazing land. Sitting on the stoep of the house I am staying in and looking over the valley it dominates reminds me of the north facing view from the stands at Goodwood or the Ridgeway above Wantage. The underlying geology is definitely not chalk, however, but something like a porous sandstone. Yes, I know.
The main differences are in the human traces. The visible housing has green corrugated iron on the roof and is either single-storey, brick and large or single-storey, concrete and small. The former is occupied by the farmers, white, and the latter by the farm workers, black. The roads on the valley sides are not dark tarmac but light grey dirt. Wind driven water pumps, like those on the livestock stations of outback Australia, stand alongside large water bowsers. Vehicles are either pick-up trucks or 4WD jeeps. Properties are all surrounded by high electric fences and, although not visible, protected by the biggest and fiercest dogs imaginable, which spend their entire lives outside.
So far I have not seen enough to have a definite view and the people I am with have all been wealthy and white. It is impossible not to be aware of the differences, even so. One of the squirearchy at the INDALO meeting said something which I found interesting. 16 years on it is no longer valid simply to play the apartheid card to account for those differences, when so much of the investment and promotion since then has been in the interests of those ‘previously disadvantaged’. It is a bit like the Brown administration blaming the years of Conservative government of the 80s and 90s for their problems. This is probably completely wrong but my feeling is that there were expectations of immediate change, which did not and could not happen, a skill vacuum, based on lack of experience and, in some cases, education amongst those who were thrust into official positions and a misunderstanding that somehow the goodies would fall out of the sky without very much being done by the individual to earn them.
What is also interesting and positive is that the future might easily be different. I have seen more smartly dressed black 20-30s than in any other age group. This generation seems not to have so much of the sullenness of those who suffered under apartheid and is ambitious and keen to move on. Groups of black school students in Alexandria and Malelane seem to be very similar in their demeanour to those in the UK. The Sandton shopping mall had many black Saturday shoppers from the under 30s, most of whom were doing what under 30s do in London, browsing the clothing, mobile phone and music outlets.
It will be interesting to see how many of these views I still hold on January 6th. I came here last as a 17 year old in 1974 and was not old enough to make any lasting impressions, save one. It has not changed in the intervening 36 years and it is this. If you are not South African, you don’t understand and your views are erroneous, so please do not bore me with them.
 I won’t.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Thursday, i.e. two days ago, was one of the more interesting days I have had since I have been away. I went as an observer to the meeting of INDALO, the central organisation for all the game reserves in this part of South Africa.
The discussions covered a range of items, some of wider interest, most not. I learnt much. Rhino poaching is flourishing, with over 300 poached this year in South Africa.                I knew it was on the rise but I had no idea it was on this sort of scale. Poachers are highly organised. They fly a helicopter in by night, use night-sights to take the rhino out, cut the horn off and fly off again, all in 20 minutes. The problem has got much worse, so the exclusively white game reserve owners told me, since the law allowing those whose property was being trespassed to shoot first and ask questions later was rescinded in 1995 ( i.e. when the government changed ). There are highly organised gangs operating, usually with bribed accomplices on the inside.
I also learnt that all the game reserves are going through the mill at the moment. Demand is right down and cash flow is a real issue. Most have been going 10-12 years. They took a while to get going, but boomed in 2007-8. Owners then borrowed to expand but have been clattered by recession. What I see at Hopewell is not just a local problem, obviously.
As ever, the most enlightening element was to talk to the 20 or so people there. There were some fascinating old established Eastern Cape families. Clearly if your surname is Gush or Howarth or Fowlds or Hart, you own part of what was once a vast tract of land owned by your great grandfather, now split between the male descendants. These families are the equivalent of the local squirearchy and links go back generations. The Sidbury Club, where the meeting was held, is the focus of weekend social activity and membership opens doors and establishes contacts of immense mutual significance. Representatives of these families, who own the reserves, dominated the meeting and there were also some younger reserve managers, like Francois, in attendance. This constituency said little in the meeting but was much more forthcoming over a few beers and a braai after formal proceedings had finished.
It is in conversation, and once a couple of glasses have been taken, that statements of opinion become less inhibited. Opinion here almost always distils into something to do with race. It is the elephant in every room. A really nice young couple, trying to make ends meet on a reduced salary at a small reserve which has been pared to the bone, were very persuasive in their argument that black workers were better off on farms when apartheid was in place than they are now. Everyone was united in the problems of drunkenness and theft they face with their black labourers. Most took sideswipes at the incompetence and corruption of black administrators and politicians. All, I think, secretly hanker after the days when to be white guaranteed wealth and a position in society, even if it is recognised that it could not have continued.
Being in this part of the Eastern Cape is like being in an institution. Lots of support and friendship but with it an inability to be able to fart and not have someone twenty miles away know you have done so within the hour. There are some very, very nice people but quite how they maintain sanity is a mystery. I guess it is what you are used to and exactly the same is probably said about the job I do in the place I do it. Wellington still seems a million miles away, incidentally, even though I am now into the second half of the Africa leg.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

It is not all unfolding quite as I had envisaged, which is not to say that I am anything other than very content. Francois is allowing me to go with him wherever he goes and he has been brilliant at taking me roundabout routes in order to include points of interest. Francois, his Dad and his brother all have farms in the vicinity and we have visited all three at different stages in the past 48 hours.
The main job has been dismantling the steel frame of a large shed, 30mx10m in area and 8-15m high. The actual dismantlers are the farm ‘boys’. These are local African blokes, who work on the reserve as labourers with varying degrees of skill. The metal framework of the shed was held together by large bolts, all of which had to be cut using a steel cutter. Fine. Except the bloke doing the cutting was either perched at the top of a ladder being held by his mate or sitting astride a sloping 10 cm wide steel girder. Both positions were over 10m above ground level. No hard hats, no harnesses, no carabineers and in a gusty wind. Francois, plus the provider of the crane, along with the provider of the cutter and oxy-acetylene torch had important roles. This was to smoke several fags, offer technical advice, discuss the Springbok victory over England at the weekend, hoot with mirth at any joke and drive the trucks. All in Afrikaans. You can understand how much I had to offer to all this.
Francois knows everyone in the area, inevitably, and the dismantling company is run by a friend who is doing it on the cheap because Francois helped him out with his swimming pool construction a couple of weeks back. The shed has been a casualty of the new management ( too untidy an item to occupy any position on an exclusive game reserve ). Francois was asked if he could get rid of it. Providentially, his Dad needs a new shed for hay storage on his dairy farm. So the whole frame is being transported 5km to its new home tomorrow. Dad pays for the labour and transport and gets a shed for 25% of what he would otherwise have paid for it. Dad now owes Francois a favour. And so on.
There has also been the need to pump water into the water holes for the animals. It has been very dry for a while in the area. The pumps all work on diesel, which was running low. This necessitated a trip into Alexandria to fill the 15 litre cans. Alexandria is signposted all over the area from some distance away. I had visions of a thriving small town, at very least. Wrong. Crowthorne is bigger and has more shops. The only reason Alexandria was full of people was that it was the first day of the month and, therefore, pay had gone in the night before. The queues for cash machines stretched down the road. Francois says it will have been drunk by Christmas. He reckons ( HIV apart ) it is the most important factor holding the average black South African back from genuine improved living standards. He also remarked that the farm boys frequently turn up legless.
Perched on a ladder, with a metal cutter, with no safety attachment and banjaxed? Whilst I admire the skill, it doesn’t make for a long and happy retirement.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

I flew here on the SA equivalent of Squeezyjet, except that the seats were both more comfortable and allocated. I am spending a week at the Hopewell Game Reserve, which Chris Oliver, one of the friendly parents at Wellington had a major share in until recently. This is about 5km inland, 80km east of Port Elizabeth and 30km west of Alexandria. My purpose is not so much to see animals, although that is always a bonus, as to develop a greater understanding of the sort of issues that such enterprises are designed to address.
My hosts are Tania and Francois de Villiers and I am basically shadowing Francois as he works. He is Afrikaans first language but that is not obvious and he has been very generous in allowing me to ride shotgun as he tours the reserve in his 4x4. The reserve has any number of ‘bok’. Bushbok, buntebok, eland, impala, waterbuck, hartebeest and others I have forgotten. It also has zebra, giraffe rhino and elephant.  At the top end is a pair of cheetah. Evidently this part of the world is full of such small concerns but many are game ‘farms’, as distinct from ‘reserves’. Their origins are interesting. Back in the 60s and 70s the game had been shot out of the cattle and sheep ranches which dominated the region. These were low productivity outfits, with some grazing in amongst a whole lot more bush and game animals were viewed as pests. The growth of the international game viewing and trophy hunting market in the 1980s caused a change of approach. Instead of eking a living out of cattle, farmers fenced off areas and stocked them with grazing game animals. The upshot is that there is now far more game in the Eastern Cape than there ever has been. It is not altruism that has caused this so much as pure economics. Tourists pay £2500 for a luxury week at a private reserve. Hunters pay £1000 to shoot a waterbuck bull and will want a different species on each of the 7 days they stay.  If the land yields more cash for keeping threatened animal species ( exempt from the hunter’s bullet, if not the poacher’s ), then that is the pragmatic solution. The farms rear game, provide for the hunters and sell surplus animals. The reserves buy the game and cater for the voyeurs.
Through no particular fault of anyone’s, there is not, actually, that much for me to do. Francois is about to leave the reserve, as a result of the new owner’s views, which differ markedly from Chris Oliver’s. The existing co-owner, Bruce Little, is moving from the house I am staying in to another one on the reserve, which is in the process of being extended. He is living at his main domicile in Grahamstown while all this is happening. There are no paying guests here until 2011 and the future planner suggests there won’t be many of those either. So I am going to take some walks on the land outside the reserve, do some cooking, as I am self-catering and read some books. It will be a slow week but at least it will be a warm one. News of snow and freezing conditions in the UK does much to make me feel I am in the right place.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

We didn’t do much on Friday other than observe the free wildlife show from Dave’s veranda, or stoep as it is known here. This included a visit from a rhino and two local crocs finishing off a waterbuck that had probably been washed down river by Wednesday’s rain. I cooked quite a decent curry in the evening but all three of us were tired enough to retire not much after 9.00. Maybe the local leopard will put in an appearance when the family are there in January.
Dave dropped me at the airport on his way home. I am staying at the same guest house we will all use in January and it is a real find. It is bed and breakfast but the proprietor has the view that he is personally responsible for the client’s welfare and could not be kinder or more attentive. There is good wi-fi, the rooms are immaculate and all that it lacks is the main satellite sports channel. It is also very handy for the airport, unlike most of the hotels which are either right next door or 20 km away in the city centre.
There is, in addition, a bar/pub a few hundred metres away, in which I spent most of yesterday afternoon watching England being physically battered by the Springboks. That was bad enough but the bar was full of large Afrikaaners and their wives, which made it worse. I am amazed at the total involvement in the game of the women. They know it well and are much more raucous in their support than the blokes. They are also very doll-like in appearance.  All make-up, blouse and hairdo. Maybe that is how their men like them but is all a bit artificial, if you ask me. I would like to say that I got talking interestingly to some locals but the truth is that it is very tricky. Of all the English speaking people of the world ( even if it is their second language ) the Afrikaaner is the one I find most trouble with. There is such limited common ground and where it does occur, i.e. in sport, the unshakeable view is that South Africa is the best at everything, even when the statistics don’t support it. Sentences are short. Adjectives are few. Development of opinion is limited. Opinions are strongly held. Conversation does not flow. The ‘beeah’ or ‘rrrum and coke’ does. And everyone, male and female, seems to chain smoke. It is allowed in bars and most people who go there include fags in their list of personal items. I smelt appalling when I got back and it reminded me of how it was pre 2007 in the UK.
I took the advice of Ronnie, the proprietor, and went to the Sandton Shopping Mall today, via the Gautrain. This is a rapid transit rail link from the airport to the centre and very efficient and inexpensive it is too. There is a 40ft bronze statue of Nelson Mandela at the entrance and the mall itself is bigger than anything I have ever experienced. I was surprised that much of the merchandise is more costly than in the UK. A child’s replica football shirt is £80, for instance, as opposed to £35-40. Another surprise was the quality of service I received from smiling, intelligent and thoughtful black Africans when looking into the options for buying a cheap mobile phone. It paints the average store operative in the UK in a most unfavourable comparative light. I am very taken with the natural mixing of racial types, although the wealth does not appear, as yet, to have been evenly divided.
Having said all that, I would not want to live here at all. Walls and security gates surround every home. Big, hairy, salivating dogs bark from behind them. Nobody walks anywhere and yet, the Gautrain apart, there is no public transport to speak of that is safe for the tourist to use. It is humid at this time of year and can be uncomfortably so. I’m glad to be away tomorrow.

Friday, 26 November 2010

I am staying in something as near to perfection as it gets. Dave Carr is Gareth’s father. Gareth is i/c hockey at Wellington and a member of the SA national side. I wrote to Dave, at Gareth’s suggestion, very much on the off chance that he might be up at his house on the Crocodile River when I was around. Not only has he put himself out to be here now, but he is also going to have the family to stay for 3 nights in January before we go home. Gareth said the house overlooked a river and said it had enough room for us. What I hadn’t expected was the reality. The house is very large, with several en suite bedrooms. The river flows, literally, below the garden. The river valley is like the M1 for birdlife. Hippo muck about in it. Buffalo feed in the valley. A small elephant family came down to drink and cool off a few hundred yards away on Tuesday. As we enjoyed a glass of wine in the evening on Monday, two rhino were spotted on the far bank, picked out by the light which illuminates it after dark.
It thundered and rained heavily on Tuesday night and it was still pouring when we left for the Kruger at 4.30 a.m. The gates open at 5.30 and the very best time to see animals is first thing in the morning. Dave had arranged for us to drive into the middle of the park on Wednesday, stay overnight in one of the camps and to drive back via a different route on Thursday. Speed limits, strictly enforced, are 50kph on tarmac and 40 kph on dirt. It means that the distances covered are not huge but the time to drive 300 km, with stops for animal spotting is about 12 hours. We actually saw everything that we would have wanted to see with the exception of cheetah. We came across three wet lions very early in the piece and saw a pride in the far distance at the end of the day but did not see them other than on those occasions. We had to wait until late on Thursday for a leopard sighting, too far away for a camera shot but very good in the binoculars. I was especially pleased to see a few wild dogs for the first time. Elephant and rhino were relatively frequent and, of course so were impala, zebra and wildebeest, about which everyone becomes quite blasé. The rain did stop at mid-morning on Wednesday but it has been wet for a few weeks, which means the water is widespread enough to render the waterholes an optional extra to the animals. The game is not quite so concentrated as a consequence. The best time to come would be at the end of the dry season in September. I have a feeling that the family will see a bit less, given the rains which occur for the next 10 weeks in this area. Bush-time is get up at 4.15, on the road by 4.45 and bed at 8.00. It will present quite a challenge to the kids when they come, as will the longer spells that are necessary between bits of excitement when an animal is in view.
There is a good system in place for lunch. The main camps have tables with places to cook next to them. These are empty rings, into which a gas canister is inserted and above which a tray for cooking can be placed. We enjoyed a good solid brunch at 10.30 on each of the two days and had a braai ( SA for bbq ) in the evening.
What The Kruger isn’t  is the experience I remember from Tanzania/Kenya. The game is spread over a wider area and the numbers are not so great. Sightings are less frequent, partly because the bush is thicker than the Serengeti grassland. There is also an element of luck in seeing things. Ten minutes either side of our arrival at the point we saw the leopard and we would have missed it.
Dave basically drove for 2 days and was also instrumental in spotting game, which was a performance of great stamina. He is hospitable to a fault, generous and anxious to make me feel at home. It is becoming a recurrent theme.
My apprehension was justified. Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is not full of clarity with information about departures. I went to what I thought was the waiting area for Gate 14 and was there for an hour. I was sure I was in the right place because it was full of what I assumed were white South Africans. 20 minutes before departure, nothing much seemed to be happening. Thanks to my experience at Dallas in September, I asked someone wearing a uniform what to do. He pointed me to an exit from the lounge I was in, which was also a coffee shop, where a sign, invisible to me from where I had been sitting pointed to Gate 14. Fortunately it all happened in enough time to prevent panic and the remainder of the journey, to Nelspruit, just south-west of The Kruger National Park, was as uneventful as travel ever can be.
I am still reflecting on the Kenyan experience. I don’t really know enough about it to know which of the versions to take with me. The white Kenyans, who say that as long as black people run the country a combination of corruption and incompetence will prevent real development, or the black Kenyans at Starehe, full of optimism and hope for the future and pride in their country. The white people enjoy an immense quality of life. This is principally because staff are employed to clean, cook, wash, drive, protect and, with small children, to nanny. Rob Boyd-Moss has not washed an item of crockery, cutlery or clothing for 30 years. He has a large house, with attached cottage in Karen, the most exclusive location in the country. His children were privately educated in Kenya and then South Africa. He is a member of 2 golf clubs. He and Debs both drive 4x4 vehicles and holiday in ther Masai Mara or Watamu with the family. Debs owns 7 horses and employs the staff to feed, water and tack  them. This makes them sound fantastically wealthy. It isn’t the case. It is , quite simply, that the cost of living is such that these things are accessible to anyone at management level who is prepared to work hard.
The Kenyan people are deeply religious ( well, the womenfolk are, anyway ) and immensely cheerful as their default setting. These are huge qualities. I would love to see the economy growing even faster and for the persistent numbers below the poverty line to become a thing of the past. If only there was less risk of losing everything to a bent politician/businessman I would be investing because the resource base, much of which is untapped, is vast.
Anyhow,it has been a real privilege for me to spend so much time in such close proximity to this part of Africa. I shall be very interested to compare it to the south of the continent, where I am now, watching the sun set over the Crocodile River, beer in hand and with the hippo snorting in the water below.
NAIROBI Nov 21st
I enjoyed Pembroke. There is a real community feel about it and it has lots of elements of ‘Africanness’ that makes it quite different from its British counterparts. Common Entrance, whilst still the most important end goal, is not quite the overriding focus of attention it can be in the UK. This helps to promote a slightly more old-fashioned emphasis on activity. This helps to foster a spirit of independence which, together with the resilience needed by a child of 7 years old to take on boarding school life, means that the end product has much to offer. It seems slightly strange to have been wearing my prep school hat again but there is a market here, even if small, and it is one that Wellington has never really tapped. As Debs Boyd-Moss says, there is a larger prep school constituency in Kenya on IAPS than there is in Scotland.
I was Rob’s guest in a fourball at Gilgil Golf Club this morning. Our opponents were a magnificent example of old white Kenya, on the one hand, and a more businessy/globally aware example of the current breed on the other. Rick, the older, was politically incorrect, not averse to a quiet word whilst I was addressing the ball and hilariously and expletively critical of his own efforts when it was warranted, which was quite often. It will be interesting meeting the son of Chris Outram, the younger of the opposing pair, when he plays against Adam at rackets for Cheltenham.
The golf course is a nine-hole affair with asphalt ‘browns’ as opposed to greens. I sank a putt of fully 40 feet on the first hole, much to my astonishment and general mirth/expletive. Thereafter I found it impossible to judge the pace and felt as if I was putting through standing water. It was a highly entertaining experience, even so, and, with the obligatory caddies, not the slog it would have been on what was a very warm morning. Gilgil is over 2000m up so there was the added boost of 20 yards extra per shot.
Rob drove me back to Nairobi in the afternoon for my final stop at the Taylors. I have come to like Joss enormously and I hope I can do something to repay the debt of kindness I owe him. He is quite an influential bloke in Kenya, from what others have told me. He and Charlie’s generosity has been greatly appreciated and their advice about the way it is in Kenya has saved me from several otherwise embarrassing moments.
It feels strange to be flying south tomorrow and, as ever, I am full of butterflies about it. A mixture of apprehension, based both on my propensity to forget items and fears regarding incompetent baggage handlers, and excitement..It is a feeling I have all too rarely these days.
GILGIL Nov 20th
After a useful morning on the internet at Starehe, I was driven over to the Taylors in the afternoon. It took about 2 hours to travel the 15 or so miles to Karen. It was unbelievable. One broken down lorry and two fairly minor sets of roadworks caused successive unavoidable tailbacks. There are some signs of construction of new roads, including an M25 type affair but I suspect it will need a bit more than that to sort it out. Nairobi simply has not been able to maintain the level of infrastructure that is needed to cope with the huge increase in car ownership that has occurred over the last decade.
I had a couple of hours at the Taylors and met Charlotte ( ‘Charlie’ ), Joss’s wife. She turns out to be a very good friend of Debs Boyd-Moss, Robin’s wife and the headmistress of Pembroke House, my next stop. Rob picked me up towards the end of the afternoon. He spends the week on a sisal farm two hours south-east of Nairobi and drives up to Gilgil, virtually past the Taylor’s door, every Friday. The drive is not something he enjoys and he has just bought a light aircraft which will cut down the journey time considerably. We worked out that the last time we met was at the county ground at Northampton in about 1984.
There was a gathering of lots of Pembroke people at Gilgil Club. It is an exeat weekend with a parents morning followed by Sports Day on the Saturday, after which the children will go home with their parents until Sunday evening. The parents all come up on the Friday night and either stay at the club or with friends in the vicinity. Gilgil Club is a legacy of the colonial period, all drinks on chit, lots of well-sunned locals and everyone, seemingly, knowing everyone else. I chatted to a few and enjoyed the company of a couple of them, in particular. Debs had publicized the fact that I was around in their weekly newsletter and there are several parents who are considering Britain for their post 13 education.
I am so grateful to Rob and Debs for having me to stay for two days. It is the way that the ex-pats do it here but, even so, they regard their homes as hotels and it is continues to remind me of my many deficiencies in that area.

Friday, 19 November 2010

NAIROBI Nov 18th
What an extraordinary day. I was ushered into the office of the Director Emeritus at 8.30a.m., who turned out to be Joseph Gikubu, the only one of the three founders still alive. He gave me his totally undivided attention for 10 minutes and could not have been more welcoming. I then had half an hour with Matthew Kiriyaki, the current Director. What a nice bloke he is. Both of them explained the school’s roots, outlined the fact that the values they began with are still every bit as important now as they were in 1959 and expressed their gratitude to me as a representative of a school that funds three of their boys. They were almost gushing in their welcome but it could not have been more genuine.
I was then driven over to the Girls Centre, about 10 miles north of the city. This is only in its 6th year. The Director, Margaret Wanjobi proceeded to look after me personally for the next two hours. She is an absolute livewire and has succeeded in pushing projects through that, left to the planners, would still be just drawings. The school runs in exactly the same way as the Boys, with teachers being employed almost exclusively to teach. Extra-curricular activities are run by the girls wherever possible. The school was a farm until 2005 and it is still very productive. It is now the girls who do the farming and the produce forms the basis of their daily food intake. New classrooms, laboratories and accommodation blocks have all been built in the last 4 years. They do not look like they are new, with their unfinished breeze-block and girder exteriors, and by British standards they are fairly raw inside. It is the equivalent of luxury here, however and the girls are immensely proud to be part of it. I spent some time with the three funded by Wellington, which was fascinating. They are all village girls for whom Starehe has given a way out of a life of early marriage, farming and child-bearing. One wants to be a lawyer, one a medic and one an academic. It was impossible not to feel a bit lumpy when they thanked me in turn, in rehearsed speeches, for the opportunity that Wellington is helping them to experience.
I came back to a post lunch meeting with Alphonse. I pumped him with questions. He gets very little discipline that comes as far as him. Most boys don’t break the rules because they are so aware of their privileged position and anxious to live up to it. The House Captains keep everything in check and are as happy to tell one of their peers to do up his shoelaces as one of the first years. Adults only get involved in serious pastoral issues involving non-school issues. The weekly Baraza, or parliament, is a forum where any child of whatever age, can air anything that is troubling them. The absolute rule is that what is said should not influence the way the child is treated once Baraza is over. Baraza is attended by prefects and senior staff, who only answer questions addressed specifically to them. Rooms in the houses are known as ‘cubes’ and house 4 students, once from each of the years in the school. There is an adult attached to each house but their role is almost entirely nominal. The younger boys strive to conform at first and to demonstrate positive initiative once they have settled. It sounds Utopian and it must be as near to it as it gets. The ideals of our public schools are similar but the outsourcing of day-to-day school issues to the students has foundered on the rocks of self-interest, self-indulgence and the knowledge that, if it comes to it, Dad’s bank balance will come to the rescue.
As we were drawing to a close, Matthew asked me if I would like to join him for assembly. This is a daily event at 4.00 and Matthew insisted I sat on the stage next to him. Thursday assembly, so I was informed, is a hymn practice for the weekend chapel service. The regular boy leader has finished his exams and left school, so Alphonse was in charge. He sang a decent solo version of ‘Be thou my guardian and my guide’, which the rest of the school did not know well. We were then encouraged to join in and by verse four it was not too bad. Alphonse was not happy with the 3rd year, however. He made them stand on their own to sing verse one and when that was still unsatisfactory told them they would be back in the assembly hall, after supper, to sing it until they did so properly. Imagine a Wellington prefect telling all the Lower Sixth to front up for extra Congregational Practice. We then had a second year lead the school in a rendition of ‘Stand up, stand up for Jesus’, which was enthusiastically taken up by everyone else. Then, in my honour, the entire school sang the school song, after which Matthew asked me to say a few words. I simply stated that if I am half as welcoming to others as the Kenyan people in general and Starehe in particular have been to me, it would come over as being very generous.
Matthew then asked me to follow him out of the hall to the grass quadrangle outside. The students filed noiselessly out of assembly for roll-call, each year group occupying a different side of the quad. Inspection of appearance followed, carried out by the various captains. Those who did not pass did varying numbers of press-ups, in full view of the entire school, on the grass in front of their line-up spot. Finally, the school flag was lowered to the accompaniment of bugles.
It works here and does so in spades. Interestingly, the view of all the pupils and staff I have talked with is that with a new constitution ratified a year ago, with a leader who is publically anti-corruption and, thus far, clean privately and with the will and support of the people, Kenya is more positively placed now than at any stage since independence. With a future generation influenced by the old girls and boys of Starehe, it must stand a fighting chance.
I am writing this to the background strains of a brass band, without harmonies and sounding tinny, as only colonial bands can, playing Silent Night and Mary’s Boy Child with full oompahs. Totally incongruous.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

NAIROBI Nov 17th
I was both sad and glad to leave Watamu. Sad, because I have had a very enjoyable, fruitful and educational time there. Glad because it means moving on. Changes of scene are really positive experiences at the moment.
I am staggered with what has been achieved by the Local Ocean Trust, or LOT ( as the Watamu Turtle Watch has been rebranded ). As Nicky says, what started as two old bats with bees in their bonnet has become an increasingly important voice in the conservation process. Over 5500 turtles have been released from fishing nets, the Kenyan Wildlife Service comes to LOT for advice ( even if it is often ignored ), prospective developers of beachfront sites in turtle breeding areas elsewhere are communicating in increasing numbers and several groups with similar interests are using LOT as a working paradigm. Yesterday, some highly respected elders from local fishing villages were at the centre for a meeting. In Britain, it would probably have been a case of welcoming them before telling them what the conservation work is all about and requesting their support. In Kenya it works differently and the meeting was all about how fishing traditions have been maintained and developed down the years. At no stage did anyone connected with LOT make any suggestions or requests. It was simply the first part of what will be a prolonged consultation and was very much a listening affair. It may not be for several months, by which time the people at the LOT will have gained trust and mutual respect, that the elders themselves will probably raise the subject of how they can help. A similar series of gatherings with the senior active fishermen is the next stage. The ultimate aim is sustainable use of the huge resources available, rather than the current position, which is to the detriment of marine life populations, unique coastal habitats and, ultimately, local livelihoods. Good on ‘em.
I changed into long trousers and had a sweater handy for my arrival back in Nairobi. It was a sunny 27°C so I was immediately reaching for the cold water bottle. I was met by Margaret from Starehe’s sponsorship office and driven to the boys centre via the city centre and ridiculous traffic.
Starehe was begun just over 50 years ago as a centre for Nairobi street children, abandoned by their parents. Geoffrey Griffin had been one of the young local white officers charged with supervising detention centres for Mau-Mau youth during the rebellion in the mid 50s. He had seen the potential in many of those for whom he was responsible. When detention ended, the youngsters were turned out on to the streets. Griffin set up Youth Clubs in Nairobi to provide activities. One of the clubs developed into a residential centre at Starehe. The original 17 street boys were housed in two tin huts, provided with basic education and encouraged to adopt a philosophy of independent living. There are now nearly 1000 boys at Starehe, 70% of whom are on total scholarships, from all over Kenya. It is always 1st or 2nd in the national exam league table. I am intrigued to discover how it all works, with minimal adult input, except in the classroom. I am housed in the guest cottage, in the heart of the campus and have just had supper brought to me on a tray by Shadrach, the assistant cook, who presumably plies his trade over a fiery furnace. I am going to meet up with Alphonse, the school captain, tomorrow. I have loads of questions to ask but will probably funk any about how parents select their children’s names.
WATAMU Nov 16th
My last full day in Watamu was spent cleaning turtle tanks and giving two of the turtles a sea bath. In taking it all in, once again, I am perfectly able to see how a European, with cash, would find this an entirely agreeable way of life. Satellite TV helps. The acceptance of the fact that you will employ a cook, cleaner and gardener also contributes to the lifestyle. The absolute selling point is the environment and climate. To wake up to the sound of breaking waves on a tropical beach consisting of pure white sand, even if it is covered in seaweed at this time of year, is worth a huge amount that money cannot buy. It is warm, sometimes too warm in the evenings and hot in the middle of the day. How much better is that than cold and damp, even so? Having said all that, it is probably a young person’s game. Children over the age of 13 almost have to be educated in another country, it is no place to be sick or elderly, driving is distinctly hazardous and friendships have to be conducted over long distances.
Nicky took me and another friend a few miles inland, where there is the last patch of unspoilt coastal rag forest, yesterday evening. We sipped a beer and watched while a family of elephants meandered down to a nearby water hole. They are magnificent creatures and it is very easy to project many human-like qualities on to them. They were led by a boisterous young male, all trunk and trousers, while the aunts and other siblings proceeded more cautiously. Mum brought up the rear, keeping them all in sight and drinking only once she had made certain there were no hidden dangers. As ever, their very existence is threatened by the encroachment of humans into their territory. What they have represents only a fraction of their original range, which extended right inland to Tsavo, about 120 miles west. They now have this ever-diminishing 400 sq mile area, which is fenced to keep them away from human populations but does not stop human populations bothering them.
I will not see Giovanni again, as he is off somewhere on business tomorrow. His is a fascinating background. He asked me to guess his African birthplace and I got nowhere near Addis Ababa. I should have. He is 67, born in 1943, when Abyssinia was still an Italian colony. His parents, living in Bologna, were amongst those encouraged by Mussolini to move to the land of new opportunity and did so in 1936. After the war and the loss of Abyssinia and Somaliland, his parents moved to Uganda. Giovanni went to school in Kampala and to university in Cape Town. All his family moved out in 1970, when Idi Amin became too much for them and Giovanni established a highly successful advertising company in Kenya. He ran this until he sold the company to Saatchi and Saatchi. It is a huge mix of national experiences but Giovanni is still staunchly Italian, despite having never lived there and sounding for all the world like a regular English speaking South African. Somehow Africa and Giovanni, and Nicky for that matter, are made for each other and vice versa. I suppose that, more than anything, determines the way the dice rolls when coming up with answers to the sort of questions I alluded to earlier. I like Kenya but I’m not made for it.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

WATAMU Nov 15th
I went to Blue Bay Baptist Church yesterday. It was a tremendous experience. I had spotted that there were two services advertised and, having been warned about the potential length of the average church gathering, thought I would go for the 8.30 option, given there was another at 10.00. It was raining as I walked the 3 kilometres to the church but I was keen to do it the African way and it was not cold. When I arrived, I was shown to a seat amongst 20 or so others, almost entirely youngish, dressed to the nines and female and without another white face in sight. Everything was already going on in Swahili so I simply clapped at the relevant places and sung my own words to the songs. This went on for about half an hour. No books or screens were used, it was all in sensational harmony and accompanied only by a set of drums. There was then a testimony slot and inevitably I was asked if I would contribute. One of the two males present then translated my message of thanks for the welcome and greetings from Crowthorne Baptist Church. This was followed by open prayer, when everyone prays at the same time. I could not tell if it was in strange tongues or Swahili. It started quite quietly, built to something of a frenzy after 5 minutes and then just stopped. I didn’t detect any prearranged signal but there must have been some indication for everyone to fall silent at precisely the same moment.
The sermon, delivered in Swahili, from no notes, by a very young preacher and translated into English entirely for my benefit by the only other male there, came from Revelation 2 and the words to the church at Pergamon.  At least it started there. It went on via several other references and various passionate statements to the conclusion that Satan lives on earth and God in heaven.  There was then a song, during which the children, who had been singing outside, came in, dressed in neat shirts and shorts or party frocks. They were followed by lots of other older people, again almost exclusively female and dressed to the nines.  There were more songs and at 10.15 I decided to call it quits.
I nodded to the bloke who had preached on the way out. He came over to ask me why I was leaving so soon. I replied that I had much enjoyed everything but had to be on my way. By this time we were near the door and he beckoned me outside to where we could hear ourselves speak. It turned out that I had been to the Youth Service, which precedes the main gathering. The real service followed seamlessly and, it was explained, usually finished around 1.00. I was profuse in my apologies but it was a struggle to make good my escape, so anxious was my new friend to prolong the conversation.
In some desperation I asked where it might be possible to leave a small offering, thinking it might help my cause. I was highly amused when the preacher produced an offering bag from behind his back. A couple of hundred Ksh ( about £2.50 to you and me ) meant honour was satisfied on both sides and I was on my way.
I went to Nicky and Giovanni’s for lunch. Giovanni told me that the church service is a real social highlight. They love dressing up, meeting together, exchanging gossip and having a bit of a party. It gives the women time off from domestic duties for the only time in the week. The men will be watching telly and drinking palm wine.
 I’m really glad I went.
WATAMU Nov 14th
It was good to have the opportunity, on Friday, to spend 3-4 hours walking through the mangroves that fringe the creek area inland from Watamu. These are extremely fragile environments, diminishing in extent by the day and are a sort of tropical equivalent of British salt marshes. The purpose was to ascertain the extent to which recent human activity has damaged the mangroves, which are, notionally at least, protected in this area.
I was glad that Kahindi was in charge. I would have become hopelessly lost in the maze of roots and branches but he knows exactly which tracks to take. I was also mildly surprised that the mangroves were teeming neither with reptiles nor insects, contrary to what the movies would have us believe. I didn’t see a leech, was not pestered by mosquitos and apart from some fantastic birds ( including a brilliantly coloured mangrove kingfisher ), there was no other life on show. We were required to wade well over waist deep a couple of times. This meant it was impossible to take any pictures, which was a shame.
It was difficult to determine Kahindi’s reaction. He pointed out some old charcoal works – illegal- and many sites where the mud had been disturbed by fishermen digging for worms. This removes the necessary protective layer from around the mangrove roots, exposes them to tidal currents and results in them being washed away. Not many of these were new, however, so it may be that the rules are being observed at the moment.
He did point out, at a point where we crossed a deepish inlet, the place where his brother-in-law had been swept away and drowned in 2003. This was before he worked for the Turtle Watch when he was a fisherman and they had been digging for bait. His brother-in-law couldn’t swim, the tide had come in unexpectedly fast and high, it was stormy and visibility was poor and it just happened. He was remarkably matter of fact about it. It suggests that such events are relatively commonplace and that there is a greater acceptance of untimely death as a consequence.
Yesterday, Saturday, was a day off for everyone. I spent it at a local hotel where internet coverage is better and by the pool. There is a big sign saying it is for hotel residents only but the assistant manager, a young South African, was fine about it. Simply being white opens any number of doors. He did get two meals and several Tusker lagers out of me, I suppose. Most of those were taken in company with Will ( Australian ) and Bea watching the best England rugby performance since 2003. Interestingly the second most common language at the hotel after English, spoken by ex-pats, South Africans and Brits, is Russian. I got into a sort of conversation with a couple from Moscow who are here for a fortnight with their two girls. The father had heard of Wellington, via a business contact whose son ( name ending in ‘enko’ ) left in 2007. At least I think that is the case. I said it was now fully co-ed and left him a contact for Admissions. Even so, I think it would  be just a bit too cheeky to put in an expense claim for the drink I bought him.

Friday, 12 November 2010

WATAMU Nov 12th
It was slightly a case of after the Lord Mayor’s Show today. Even so, four turtles were released in the morning, which would have been sold for meat and oil a few years back. The five volunteers and Kahindi, who is in charge of the rehabilitation of turtles which have been caught but are in need of treatment, took two of those which are coming up to release out for a ‘sea-bath’ after lunch. This is a bit like taking them for a walk. A line is attached to one of the flippers and they are allowed to swim around the shallower reef water for half an hour or so. The turtle I was supposed to follow is virtually ready to go, a situation confirmed by the fact that it headed straight off for the open sea at a pace I could not even dream of maintaining. Kahindi had it on the lead and he is a very strong swimmer but eventually he was worn out and had to wind the turtle back in. I know I shouldn’t think this but the animal did seem to be very grumpy when it was brought back out and just sat on the beach in a mood. The other turtle swam gently and peacefully around the reef and the three accompanying human swimmers were not unduly extended. It was quite playful on the beach and Kahindi thinks it may need to go back to sea very soon so that it does not become over-dependant on being fed and exercised. Oxbridge entrance question ‘Discuss the assertion that turtles have different personalities’.
Most of the turtles that are returned to the Turtle Watch come from a few fishing villages. These are, oddly, not very close to the shore. We go to pick up those that have come in with the early morning catch, usually entangled in the nets but occasionally beached. Travelling with Fikiri, who is in charge of this, in the official Turtle Watch vehicle, has taken me to places I would not otherwise have visited in a million years. There are many striking images. Inquisitive, colourfully-dressed, sometimes expressionless, often smiling, always grubby and generally welcoming children. Women pounding maize in pairs, hand-washing in groups, walking in stately uprightness carrying impossibly large loads on their heads, preparing vegetables for the pot and singing harmoniously as they do it all. Occasional groups of older men doing as little as possible and younger ones gathered around a few motor bikes. Chickens, of all shapes, sizes and degrees of health grubbing around the houses. Radios blaring a crackly and unrecognisable tune.  Mobile phone numbers charcoaled on the whitewashed parts of walls. It is a genuinely fascinating insight and it is an enormous bonus of the trip to be able to get so close to it.
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Kenya is on a ticking population time bomb, even so. The sheer number of small children seems to be overwhelming. How they will all be fed, housed, watered, educated ( whatever the official figures, I am certain that the literacy rate is below what is quoted ), cared for when sick  and provided with meaningful employment, at a higher standard than at present in 30 years time, is beyond me. I just don’t see that an annual growth rate of over 3%, bearing in mind that a mere 3% is a doubling of the total in 25 years, is sustainable.
 If I am hopeful it is because of people like Kahindi and Fikiri. Their willingness, dedication and industry is remarkable. The ex-pats would also say ‘unusual’. Time alone will tell.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

WATAMU Nov 11th
David Attenborough would have penned a narration something like this..Two months ago a lone female turtle struggled up this beach from the water line to the point at which the vegetation begins. She excavated a deep hole and laid over one hundred eggs in it before covering them with sand and returning, exhausted, to the sea. Since then, the sand has insulated and incubated the eggs at precisely the right temperature. And tonight something very special is about to happen...There would then be a shot of sand moving at the bottom of a depression after which would come the quite breathtakingly thrilling spectacle of the first turtle emerging from the nest, followed soon after by its many brothers and sisters. I have seen a few wonderful wildlife moments but there have been none as magical as this.
The journey to the sea these tiny hatchlings have to make, they must make unaided. Any females that survive until maturity in 25-30 years time, which is probably 1, possibly 2 and in exceptional circumstances 3 of the 100 or so that hatched, will need to have made that journey so that it is indelibly printed in them because it is to this exact spot that she will return. There were plenty of ghost crabs in the vicinity, anxious to avail themselves of free food, but the presence of a dozen or so human spectators was enough to discourage even the bravest of them. Virtually all made it to the sea, negotiating huge piles of seaweed as they did. One or two would not have because they went up the dunes in the wrong direction. I found it quite difficult not to pick them up and put them on the runway we had cleared earlier but we were under strict instructions and they had to be allowed to go.
They are microscopic little things. The size of a hatchling’s shell is about the same as I can make by making an oval shape out of my forefinger and thumb. They float in super-vulnerability until they can learn to dive, which takes a few days, after which they have to avoid a raft of predators and other situations if they are to develop further. It is a high attrition rate and it ensures the strongest gene pool for the future.
I could have written about the villages we visited to collect turtles from fishermen in the morning. I could have written lots about the people staying near to the private beach where the hatching occurred who joined the Turtle Watch people as it did. I could have tried to sketch the total brilliance of the coastline where it is such a privilege to be working.
No way. Today was all about tiny creatures starting an immense journey. They will need all the luck they can get
WATAMU Nov 6th
The flight from Nairobi, on Air 540, was fine save that the plane held 30 passengers at full capacity and was, therefore, shunted around a bit more by the inevitable turbulence. Any comparison with security in the USA or Britain is impossible and hilarious. I went through a door, straight from the pavement, at Nairobi Airport which said departures. A bloke took a cursory look at a print-out of my flight details. There was one scanning machine. I had forgotten to take my computer through separately but it didn’t seem to matter. Malindi Airport was something else. Bags dropped by hand at the door from the tarmac. Nicky Parazzi waiting right by the door to fetch me.  I suppose it was only an internal flight.
We did a couple of things in Malindi before the short drive north to Watamu. Nicky knows everyone, it seems, and has an ease and familiarity with Swahili and the African that I think is unusual. She talked non-stop, which she always has. I am still trying to get my head around the exact function of the Turtle Watch because Nicky’s explanations tend to go the roundabout route. Essentially it is coastal conservation in the widest sense with the turtles as the flagship. I do not think those on site at the Turtle Watch will develop much of a programme for me until Monday. Ideally I would like to accompany anyone who is doing fieldwork with a view to assessing its suitability for a small group of Wellington students. I suspect that much of the work on the impact of agriculture, tourism and climate change on the coastal environment and, especially, water quality, will bear fruit in a longer term than the week any students would have available. So I am going to try to assess the feasibility of a study based more on short term variables in the local ecosystem with a bit of practical/factual assimilation thrown in.
One thing I do appreciate, which I take for granted at home, is ease of travel. I am trying to sort out how to get from Nairobi to Gilgil ( location of Pembroke House prep school ) and back over the weekend of Nov 19-21. There is no train or bus. I am certainly not going to risk a drive, having been taken round the edge of the city at 9.00 this morning and seen matutu buses and taxis in full competition. There is not a flight, as it is only 100 miles. It is a conundrum and I may have to use the services of a driver.
I’m taking it all in at the moment. Much of it looks chaotic but it sort of works, even if it does so at its own leisurely pace. I’m about to switch off the light and will fall asleep to the sound of cicadas and distant dogs, the sweetish smell of warm dust and safe in the knowledge that the two geckos on the wall will deal with any mosquitoes.
WATAMU Nov 7th
I was minding my own business in the Turtle Watch compound, where not very much happens at the weekend, when one of the staff dropped by to ask if I would like to assist in releasing a turtle. A fisherman had brought one in earlier in the morning. The watch will pay a fisherman for the turtle so that they are neither killed on capture nor chucked back into the sea when there is obvious damage to them. This was a huge male and it occupied much of the back of the jeep in which it was transported the short distance to the beach. It took four of us, one at each corner of a harness, to carry it across the beach to the sea. They are proper animals and this one was clearly keen to be returned to its natural environment, given the amount of flapping and flipper-waving that went on as we got closer to the waterline.
Nicks came round, just after I got back. She told me to get ready to go out to lunch with some friends and that I would need a hat and swimming things. I think this would be the first occasion I have travelled to a social event by boat. The venue was about 3km as the crow flies from where Giovanni’s boat is moored ( Giovanni is Nicky’s husband ). It was on the other side of the creek, however, and so it was 45 minutes plus by road. We waded out to the boat, went slowly across quite a shallow reef and moored just off a deserted beach. At the top of the sand dune, a very pleasant couple, Andrew and Errie, have built a beach house. It comprises a roof, an open plan sitting and dining area, no walls and a ladder up to the only bedroom. The view, over lunch, was the Indian Ocean. Andrew is in the business of broking and/or selling boats. His business has expanded significantly on the inland lakes ( Victoria, Tangyanika, Malawi etc..). This is because the trade in small boats on the coast north of Mombasa has almost ceased, thanks to the activities of the Somali pirates. It was a most sociable occasion and Giovanni drove us home in about 5 minutes, so we got quite wet.
I got back to my room at the Turtle Watch to discover that there was a power cut. It didn’t matter that much as there was nothing I particularly needed to do. I did spend half an hour with my fellow volunteers. Amy is from Maine, knows a vast amount about turtles, is about 25, I would guess, and has decided that she is not for settling down just yet. Will is from Sydney and is here with Beatrice, ex-Heathfield. They met when she did a year as a Nottingham University student at the NSW University. I didn’t know such options were possible. They are taking a joint post univ. Gap Year and have come here via some time teaching in a school on the Tanzanian border, some time in the game parks and some time visiting relatives. Beatrice reminds me much of Sarah at that stage and is about as well-versed in the whole idea of travel. They were all very nice to me and duly indulgent of my more antiquated views.
It has, in short, been a truly brilliant day on which I have seen and done things that are totally new to me and on which I have experienced the need to go with Africa’s own unique flow.
WATAMU Nov 10th
There are just so many contrasts in this relatively small area. The most noticeable is that between the hotels and the dwellings immediately beyond their boundaries. One all pools and bars and gin-slings and designer wear, the other mud walls, palm leaf roofs, corrugated iron reinforcement and the nearest clothing that comes to hand. There is the contrast between men and women, too. The men often hanging around in groups, while the women are mostly seen in or near the home with the children doing the domestic work. Young and old is another. The younger men are noisily obvious, tooting their motor-bike horns, hailing their mates and laughing ostentatiously. The older men sit quietly, smoking, talking, drinking tea and appear to be more at ease with themselves. Still further is the dichotomy of the creaking communication system on the one hand and the fact that virtually everyone over the age of 20 possesses a mobile phone on the other. The Kenyan people, with the possible exception of the Masai, who consider themselves superior to all others, are fiercely loyal to their country and their tribe and yet all the males are fanatical supporters of English football teams and the crowds for live games, beamed to small ‘cinemas’, can be huge. Replica football shirts are in huge demand and, had I known this, I could have virtually paid my way round the country with the cheap versions available on European market stalls.
One other striking feature, especially given my observations in the USA, is just how crowded all the roadsides are with pedestrian traffic. Whereas people in the US think nothing of driving a few blocks, here they think nothing of walking a few kilometres, even when the sun is at its zenith. Quite often this will be womenfolk carrying vast loads of shopping/wood/produce on their heads. Men don’t do that, apparently.
I enjoyed my first ride in a tuk-tuk today. Initially the taxi I was going to take to the hotel where, supposedly, internet connection is better turned out to be a motor-bike. It was only a mile and was 80p instead of £1.60 but with all sorts of farewell advice – ‘stay safe’, ‘don’t do anything stupid’, ‘don’t take unnecessary risks’, etc..- ringing in my ears, I felt that the relative safety of the covered conveyance was preferable to a helmetless pillion-ride.
I also shopped for supper. The Watamu supermarket is not badly stocked and the vegetables and fruit are superb. There are some brand names I thought had long since disappeared. Blue Band spread, VIM bathroom cleaner, Tizer, Consulate cigarettes and Mazzola cooking oil. In the process it occurred to me that by degrees I am adopting a vegetarian diet. I did counterbalance that positive health move by buying a small jar of Nescafe, having not had a coffee for 3-4 days.
All in all I was beginning to see how all the ex-pats manage so well. Wonderful climate, lots of in-house service, items in the shops, albeit all at a price and for the wealthy only. Then at 9.00 the lights went out. Which meant the kettle wouldn’t boil for clean water, which means gungy teeth. Yes, a generator will cover this but what a pain. That and corruption and things taking for ever. I guess the grass is always a bit greener.