Nairobi, Kenya Beware the Leopard

After a day recovering from our safari, Andy and I took the overnight train to Nairobi to explore its many wonders. We requested separate adjoining rooms instead of a single compartment. I knew this was possible from taking the train down to Mombasa, and that the Monday train was unlikely to be full. So for a combined expenditure of about $54, we had one quarter of an entire train car.

The next morning, we checked into the same Catholic mission I’d stumbled into on my last visit. We spent the afternoon fruitlessly trying to make our way to the giraffe sanctuary outside of town.

On the subjest of Kenyan public transit: the country is held together by thousands of old, beaten-up vans called matatus. They carry a maximum of 14 people, or 28 if you count the small child sitting on every passenger’s lap. There’s always a young guy hanging out the door – let’s call him the conductor – who shouts out destinations and takes your money when you get in. Prices start at about $0.25.

Most matatus have a general route, but they pretty much just go wherever the passengers want to go. There’s a strange alchemy to how the driver chooses his route, somehow processing all the various drop-offs into a path of greatest efficiency. There is little discussion between the driver and the conductor, and the first few times I assumed I was never going to reach my destination, but experience has shown they know exactly what they’re doing. So matatus are great, except they’re made for people half the size of the average Kenyan, and the indigenous body odor can literally knock you out.

Another feature of matatus is their pop-art decoration. Van owners seem fascinated with painting random English phrases and obscure movie titles on the fronts and backs of their vehicles. So aside from conventional messages like “Jesus Saves” and “Britney Spears”, you might also see the title of the Tim Roth, Tupac Shakur buddy picture, “Gridlock’d,” or the mid-period Steve Martin comedy, “L.A. Story.”

Evidently, Steve Martin has more Kenyan street credibility than we’ve all been led to assume.

The giraffe sanctuary was in a suburb called Karen, named after novelist Karen Blixen, who wrote “Out of Africa” after living here for many years. This of course suggests that, had I been a distinguished colonist of many decades past, there would now be a Nairobi suburb called Matt.

The Nairobi matatu system is a little more regimented than the rest of the country; it actually has route numbers. Unfortunately, there are no route maps posted anywhere. You just have to know. So after spending the day reading the sides of passing matatus, we gave up and went to the grocery store to stock up for our hike the next day.

And here begins our tale: the day hike up Longonot Crater, conceived by Andy and I as a dry run for Kilimanjaro next week, and a test of our preparedness.

We woke up at the buttcrack of dawn, had a woefully insufficient breakfast at the mission’s dining hall, then walked into the city hoping to quickly find our way to the mountain. We had resolved, from the previous day’s failure, that trying to find a matatu out of Nairobi was a bad idea, but we could use them to get back since all matatus outside of Nairobi are invariably leading back to Nairobi.

We began taking quotes from taxi drivers and the initial responses were grim. For the 57 kilometer ride, one driver asked for 20,000 shillings – about $250, or maybe half the value of the car he was driving. This led us back to the matatu option, specifically the dense cluster of long-range matatus packed into the northeast corner of the city. This region is said to be the most dangerous part of the most crime-ridden city in Africa.

There were matatus heading to every town in the country, many of them farther along on the same road to Longonot and costing less than 1/100th the price we’d been quoted by the cab driver. But invariably, when we asked to be dropped off at Longonot, we were pointed to some other matatu.

This went on for a long while, and was made more difficult by several street kids with somewhat terrifying facial scars literally hanging from our arms and grabbing at our bags. In frustration, I tried one last cab driver and discovered the miracle solution: find a guy who speaks little English and has no idea where we want him to take us but would very much like us in his cab. I said “Longonot Mountain” to him five times and watched him nod obliviously. Then I showed him a map and pointed clearly to our destination. This elicited more nodding. He named his price at a very reasonable 2000 shillings and we were on our way – to where was yet unclear, but we were just glad to be getting out of that area.

He took us to a town called Maginat – or something like that, I can’t remember. It was about 40 minutes in the right general direction, but still very far from the mountain. Suspecting from the start that something was wrong, Andy paid close attention to the signs and tried to keep us on track. It was, however, hopeless. And anyway, I was kind of lazily resigned to the likelihood that he would take us to the wrong place and we’d sort it out once we got there. Sitting in the car, we finally managed to communicate where we wanted to go and he replied that we would have to pay him more money to get there. Andy didn’t like this at all. Pounding our fingers on the map, we pointed out that we had been clear about our destination and he had messed it up. I knew this wasn’t going to get us very far, so I offered to buy him 500 shillings worth of gas if he would take us there for the same price. He agreed.

He asked directions from a couple people and we started down a very steep, winding road into the rift valley. We passed increasingly alarming road signs: first warning of curves ahead, then suggesting we test our brakes before going any further, and finally just a skull and crossbones.

The taxi clanked and rattled its way to the bottom, the brakes gushing a stink that said they could take no more.

The remoteness of our location made Andy very uneasy. When our driver stopped to pee, Andy was pretty sure he was going to pull out a gun. A fair enough concern, I suppose, but I felt confident that if he intended to rob us, he would have done it a long time ago. The thing that did make me tense was a few minutes later when we passed a group of guys with a bonfire behind some bushes. They had everything but a neon sign saying “Bandits!” They gave us a friendly wave and we kept going.

I hate feeling like the nervous muzungu who thinks everyone is going to rob him. From my direct experience, Kenyans have been almost entirely warm and friendly. Back in Lamu, my bag spilled open and everything poured out onto the deck of the dhow I’d rented. I was away at the time walking on the beach. The guy watching the boat put everything back in, including my wallet and all its contents, and ran over to tell me about it.

There’s a balance that has to be struck between trusting in the fundamental decency of people and avoiding situations of heightened vulnerability.

Actually, forget fundamental decency, it’s a matter of circumstance. Thieves and conmen generally make their own opportunities; they don’t sit around waiting for tourists to approach them. So I’ve got vastly better chances with the cab driver I picked out than with the guy who comes up to me. It’s highly unlikely he was sitting in his car, sharpening his knife and hoping I’d say hello.

But of course there’s no entirely reliable way of avoiding trouble. We’re all just playing the odds.

It took us another half hour to finally find the entrance to Longonot. We agreed to pay the driver another 500 shillings for his trouble, so the whole ride cost us about $30 – which is probably a lot less than he would have asked had he known where he was going.

It was 11:00am by this point, which I’d figured to be the latest we could possibly get underway if we were going to get back to Nairobi by sundown – when the vampires rise from their coffins and storm the city.

Before we could start up the mountain, we had an hour long walk down a rural dirt road to the entrance. We paid the fees at the gate and found out we would be the only two in the park that day. The ranger told us which way to go (up), then presumably went back to sleep.

I should mention here that the guide book suggested we hire a ranger to escort us up for safety reasons. This didn’t seem to be an option at the ranger station, although truthfully, we forgot to ask.

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Andy was taking the pictures here. I’m still without a camera. So get used to a lot of shots of my ass.

The first hour was rough but uneventful except for a surprise giraffe spotting that caught me way off guard. It is a fundamental truth in life that there are places where you expect to see giraffes – like say zoos, safaris, and the Neverland ranch – and everywhere else you don’t. I suppose it shouldn’t have been too shocking under the circumstances, but it still caused a slight mental hiccup and the realization that we were still very much in the wild, which would later become even more apparent.

Reaching the top caused an even greater “Holy shit” moment. As I mentioned, Longonot is a crater. More to the point, it’s a dormant volcano. When you get to the top of most mountains, you get the thrill of looking over the other side and generally just taking a break for a while before heading back down. But when you get to the top of a volcano, you get to look inside.

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The crater interior is impossibly deep and lush beyond reason. Standing on the rim , you’re a badly executed sneeze away from free-falling into an ecologically isolated forest that belongs nowhere other than Middle Earth. We stood slack-jawed for a few minutes, then started on our way to the real peak on the far side of the rim, which from our vantage point appeared twice as high as the peak we’d already climbed to.

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In the foreground there you can see what the foliage looks like close-up. Nature’s toothpicks. They’ve adapted to discourage large mammals from eating them, and they’re very sharp. This makes the already precarious trail that much more fun.

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Another hour in and the path got extremely steep. We were walking on sand and pebbles, so each step up was half a step down. I brought my heart monitor with me for the sake of curiosity, but it proved to be a pretty useful tool for knowing when to take a break. A few minutes around 180 and it’s time to sit down and breathe. At altitude, I hit that pretty quickly.

The absolute summit of Longonot is 2777 meters, less than half of Kilimanjaro, and even at that I was feeling the effects of reduced oxygen intake. The peripheral vision in my right eye had shrunk and I started getting a dull headache. We decided to press on with the understanding that I’d speak up the moment it got worse. I’m pretty worried about this with Kilimanjaro. I’ve got altitude sickness pills and lots of ibuprofen. We’ll see what happens.

So we reached the top.

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It was hard. I was tired.

We had the option of going back the way we came, which would have been shorter, or doing the full loop of the rim. The full loop was made a little trickier by the raging brush fire we could see in the distance. It was unclear whether the fire blocked the path, and it was after 2pm by that point. But we are rugged individuals of a manly sort and we pressed on.

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So it turned out the brush fire got pretty goddam close to the path. I mean like pretty much on it.

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It was loud. We could feel the heat on our faces. At one point, while Andy stopped to take a picture, a large bush caught fire and burst in front of him. He seemed less phased by it than I was. We held our bre ath during the smokier bits and ran thro ugh it unscathed.

The next trial came almost immediately after we cleared the smoke. Andy stopped short, looking down at the path.

“Oh God.”
“What?”
“Have you noticed this?”

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Yes folks, fresh paw prints from a very large cat. And they were pointed in the same direction we were going. Consider for a moment the exotic horror of walking on leopard tracks in prime hunting hour with thick bushes all around you. It definitely puts career concerns on the backburner.

Andy wondered aloud whether it was safer to walk in front or in the back, which was really not an issue I wanted to consider. The whole situation put me in a very un-talkative mood.

For every big, dangerous animal, there’s some thing you’re supposed to do if you ever have to confront one. In those tense moments, a jumble of conflicting suggestions swished around in my head. Each one seemed to have some validity. Which would you go with?

1. Show no fear, stand straight and extend your limbs to look bigger and more threatening.
2. Back away slowly, don’t make eye contact but never look away.
3. Run for your life.
4. Curl into a fetal position, protecting face, chest, and stomach.
5. Climb a tree.
6. Stand completely still, wet pants.

Really, any discussion on this is purely academic. Unless you’re Steve Irwin, number 6 is what will happen in any event. I’ve heard both 1 and 2 recommended for big cats. 3 is the kind of thing that probably seems like a good idea at the time but is sure to get you killed. 4 is for bears, but seems like a reasonable reaction to almost any situation. 5 is preposterous unless there happens to be a sturdy oak nearby with low branches. But 6 definitely works best for me.

As it happened, we were not pounced on, though I later found out there are indeed eight leopards living and hunting on Longonot crater (thanks for the heads-up Mr. Park Ranger). We were told they don’t generally attack humans – at least not in daylight, or some non-reassuring qualifier like that – I wasn’t entirely clear.

To be honest, a tiny part of me got a kick out of the suddenly very rational fear of being eaten. Most of me didn’t.

As my altitude issues went away, Andy’s knee problems began. He was a champ about it, but it was obvious that every big step down the mountain was causing him serious pain. This will be another obstacle for Kilimanjaro. Anyway, we made it down alive.

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We collapsed in the ranger’s office, drank bottled sugar-water and took pictures to commemorate how truly awful we looked.

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So the dry run for Kilimanjaro was a success, tempered with some serious concerns. We defeated and humiliated the mountain, but it’s small potatoes compared to what’s ahead.

We hobbled for an hour back to town and, as we’d hoped, immediately caught a matatu back to Nairobi. The sun had just set when we reached the city, so we had to slog our way through a few early bird vampires to reach our hotel.

The next day we took a cab to the giraffe sanctuary. It was neat.

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The entertainment factor of feeding giraffes lasted about ten minutes.

That evening, Andy took off back to Mombasa to visit with Sangeeta and David some more. I’m meeting him there in two days and then we’re off to Tanzania. I stayed in Nairobi in theory so I could go to Lake Nakuru and see rhinos and flamingos, but I read a little about the place and decided it was a lot of work to get there, very expensive, and as I’ve said before I’m kinda done with the whole safari thing. I’ll have to settle for rhinos and flamingos at the Seattle zoo.

I’m still at the Catholic mission in the same tiny room with the crucifix and the Virgin Mary portrait. Instead of chasing flamingos, I’ve been eating really bland food in the dining hall and catching up on my journal entries, but more often just procrastinating about it.

I got a chance to visit the former site of the US Embassy in Kenya that was blown up by Al Qaeda in 1998. It’s a small park now in the center of the city, near the train station. They charge $0.25 for entry to keep it from becoming…well, like everywhere else in Nairobi. I showed up after closing time, but they let me in – I guess cause I’m American.

They’ve got a plaque in a courtyard with the names of everyone who died in the blast. 224 people, every one but two or three are Kenyan names. They bore our tragedy and we hardly even noticed.

I got accosted today on the street by some guy. When I said I was American, he got excited and told me he was going to study in Philadelphia. He said I seemed considerate and unprejudiced and could he pull me aside and talk to me about my country and blah blah blah. When I asked when he was starting school, he said September, which is interesting considering today’s date. It was also interesting that he was balding and couldn’t have been under 30.

When his initial story started crumbling, he transitioned into being a Sudanese refugee who had walked for 49 days to cross the border, surviving only on berries and watching many of his friends eaten by lions. He was involved in some kind of protest movement against the United Nations and would be shot on sight if the police knew he was in the city.

From there, he segued into getting visas for his family so he could take them to Tanzania, where he would be welcomed and at last find sanctuary. The one little monkey wrench in that plan was that the visas cost 12,000 shillings, and coul d I please help him out.

That’s when I started walking. I knew where he was going with the whole speech, but courtesy and curiosity prevented me from bolting sooner. The way the scam works, I’ve been warned, is the guy says whatever he needs to say to get money out of your pocket. Once he’s got something, anything, fake police appear out of nowhere, surround you, accuse you of helping a known fugitive, and shake you down for everything else you’ve got.

When I walked, the guy got very angry. He said I was pre-judging him and I must have been told something that is wrong. Then he started yelling that I was a racist, which is a weird thing to be called in a place like Nairobi.

Lovely, charming Nairobi.

A recent survey says 37% of residents have been mugged in the last year.

We’re all playing the odds – they’re just a lot worse here.

7 Responses to Nairobi, Kenya Beware the Leopard

  1. Josh

    I read your writeup about Nairobe with interest, having been there myself in the past. Most of my time was spent around the countryside of Kenya, gaping like a moron at all the amazing sights an African safari has to offer. What you say about the random American phrases all over the place is true. I was also surprised at how much Coca Cola advertised in Kenya. There were almost as many Coke ads as there were pictures of the President. The beggars, especially the hordes of small children, were mindblowing to me, as I’d never been out of North America before. Like you, I was also fortunate enough not to have any crime trouble in Nairobe, although one of the drivers for our tour’s safaris was wearing a bandana over his face the entire week as a result of a face-rearranging mugging he received the same day we arrived. The people of Kenya, especially in the smaller cities, can be some of the warmest and happiest people you’ll ever meet. Anyways, thanks for the nostalgia. Your video was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. I, too, have danced in Kenya, although I must admit your dance is better than mine.

  2. martin

    hi am Kenyan student studying in australia. it was interesting looking at my country through a foreigner’s eyes. I have lived here for some days now and looking at the efficient bus & train sytems here, I can understand why our matatus are scary to a mzungu. great though that you had the common sense to avoid the conman. Kenyans are like all other people in the world, most are good and honest, some are crooks, some are just greedy. Its a pity though that tourists, given what they are taken to represent mostly meet the last two cartegoreis. glad though that you did meet some of the latter

  3. The Dude

    Man, I had this Morroccan dude who wouldn’t leave me alone. I’d like to go back and smack him good now.

  4. Lydia

    I really enjoyed reading your journal entry. I am a Kenyan living in the US and to me some of your stories are the stuff I was used to growing up in Nairobi, it was interesting to hear it from another person’s point of view. Glad you did not get conned coz there are lots of people like that. Other than that sounds like you had fun! take care

  5. Victoria

    I just came back from Kenya, but unfortunately, we didn’t have time for the giraffe sanctuary…thanks for the pictures. I spent time with the Maasai for a week. Did you get to jump with the warriors? Now that would be a great video! It’s a lot of fun. I agree with Martin. The people I know there are good, kind people, and this mzungu will definitely be back there in a couple of years.

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