Africa: Zimbabwe & Kenya
||Nov. 27 - Dec. 3, 1987|
The only photo of me in Zimbabwe, at the airport in Harare.
I spent 1987 going to school in Canberra, Australia, and at the end of the year, when it was time to return back to the United States, I took the "scenic" route instead of just flying from Sydney to Los Angeles. As far back as six months prior to this journey I had begun researching everything, in order to line up visas and things like that. I was set on passing through Africa, which blew my mind. Here I am, just 20, going to Africa! I eventually settled on an itinerary that would take me from Sydney to Perth to Harare (Zimbabwe) to Nairobi (Kenya) to Frankfurt (Germany) then to New York. I left Australia on November 27, 1987, saying goodbye to my pals. It had been a great year, but it was time to go.
The flight to Perth took about 4 hours, then another 3 or 4 hours of waiting before the big leg, the 10-hour journey across the Indian Ocean. This was on a giant Qantas 747, and they had a television screen that showed the exterior weather conditions, how fast we were going, a rough route of where we were (this was before GPS was as fancy as it is today) and our approximate time until we got there. It helped pass the time. Most passengers seemed to be heading to South Africa. The guy next to me was, to Johannesburg. This was when South Africa still had apartheid, so the other African nations shunned South Africa. South African citizens were not allowed inside other African nations. He mentioned there would be 18 hours before his flight to Johannesburg would take off. As we were headed to Harare, I asked him what all the South Africans were supposed to do during the layover. Apparently they'd all be segregated into a lounge, with basic seats, but nothing beyond that ... for 18 hours. Bummer for him.
By the time we landed in Harare, it had been close to 20 hours since I'd left Sydney and I was utterly exhausted. My flight to Nairobi did not leave until the next morning, so I'd be here about 12 hours. The pilots didn't quite "stick" the landing: we bounced and wobbled a little, perhaps the only time I've ever been truly scared on a flight. When we rolled to the disembarkation point, everyone clapped. Me too. It was dark and late, and we all exited. I ran to the money exchange window, literally first in line. I got enough Zimbabwean currency to last me the night, then the guy threw a fit when he saw the line behind me. I was in Africa!
I boarded a bus that drove us into Harare proper. The city was known as Salisbury until 1980, when Zimbabwe won independence from Great Britain. There was still a vestigial British Colonial look to the city. The bus took us to a huge ugly hotel, where I and another guy shared a taxi since we'd be staying at the local youth hostel. In my tiredness I left my personal bag in the taxi when we arrived at the hostel but the taxi driver was an honest man and reminded me to grab it. That would have been horrible: all my money, passport and tickets were there. By now I'd not slept in over a day. But the hostel was a dump, and I didn't sleep very well here either. It was populated by scraggly European types doing their big Africa trek thing. Concerned about theft, I wrapped my bag and gunny-sack around my legs and basically slept like an alert cat. So I got maybe 4 hours of sleep.
The next morning I needed to get back to the airport. I had not eaten or drank a thing since arriving, and one look at the one toilet at the hostel suggested I hold out a bit more. A taxi took me back into Harare, and I had a small breakfast in town before reboarding the plane. Then we just sat there. Finally, some guy just comes running up, dressed casually, plops into the pilot's seat and takes off! Gosh, I thought, I hope he's really a pilot. He was. So long Zimbabwe!
The flight to Nairobi took about 3 hours as I recall. I don't remember much afterwards except that Nairobi's airport was fairly modern looking and much better than Harare's. Next thing I know I'm at the Youth Hostel in Nairobi, a bit west of the main part of downtown. Downtown Nairobi is big buildings, then there is parkland, then the suburbs, so to speak. I know we were on or close to "Roger Bunche" Road. So I'm in Nairobi ... what to do? I didn't have any major plans. I wanted to go see lions and things like that. That, and stay out of trouble.
First night there I'm in my bunk in a small room shared by me and two others. The guy below me was from Kenya, while the other guy was from Nigeria and was studying at the nearby Dental School. The Nigerian was well-spoken, clean-cut and well-dressed. He was Christian, too, and relentless in trying to convert me (and everyone else) which grew old very fast. The other Kenyan was generally cool and kept to himself. I don't recall what his story was.
In bed the following morning, I feel a tug at my hair and when I awake there's a monster freaking rat tugging at my hair! I sat up and freaked out for a moment, then got pissed, so I took my pillow, and hit it square at an angle, knocking him off my bed. I hoped to cream him into one of the walls, but instead he flew right into my open backpack!!! It was very early and everyone was asleep. I just got up and went into the open veranda "public" area, and came off my adrenaline high. I still had to go get the rat from my pack, so I grabbed the pack, took it outisde, and from the bottom dumped everything ... including the rat, who hit the ground and went running into a hole. I immediately covered the hole with some nearby bricks. I had no bites on me, so far as I could tell. When I told my bunkmates, they didn't seem too fazed. Neither did the hostel owner. Rats in beds ... what's the big deal they probably wonder. Silly American they think.
I was out of there that day. I had plans: go to Tsavo National Park, about 200 miles east of Nairobi down on the plains. I walked into town and got a ticket for the bus to Mombasa. However, I wanted off in a town called Voi. I picked it because it was nearest to Tsavo National Park. The following illustrates how naive I was at this time: I assumed there would be an entrance station, visitor's center, tour busses, or at least the African versions thereof. Nothing. Voi was a tiny ramshackle town, and I was the only white boy there, and I was constantly being confronted by locals who couldn't believe there eyes. I realized real fast I had made a big mistake. Actually, no one gave me trouble, but I knew that I wasn't going to be seeing anything inside Tsavo this way. But still, this was quite a culture shock for me.
I took a hotel in town, an awful room above the local bar. The bed was filthy. I wondered if this room was used more for *ahem* by the people down at the bar, maybe on an hourly basis? Whatever. Before dawn the next morning I got my stuff together and decided to just get my sorry butt back to Nairobi. But it was a Sunday and there'd be no busses today. So I walked two miles along the road to the main Nairobi-Mombasa highway, and stuck out my hand. Within minutes I was picked up by a trucker named John, and his co-hort whose name I do not recall.
(It was not until many many years later, like about 20 years later, that I realized that my walking in the open rangeland to the highway had put me in danger, since the land was crawling with lions, baboons and other creatures that could tear apart a human in no time. I should have remembered I was in Africa.)
The journey back to Nairobi proved to be one of the most amazing experiences in my life. It took nine hours to cover the 200 miles. The truck was under-powered, and way overloaded. Plus, the whole way into Nairobi is uphill. John and his pal spoke no English and I spoke about four words of Swahili. We communicated by pointing and grimacing. We would rumble along at 20 m.p.h. We stopped in a few towns along the way. John treated me to a lunch of meat strips of some kind, a whole platefull, but I could barely eat two or three before being full. John, skinny as a rail, ate the rest. At one point in this town I had to dodge a huge herd of sheep being herded by a Maasai Tribesman, in their colorful garb and beads. We also had to stop at military checkpoints. That turned out to be no problem. And finally, we were back in Nairobi. Wow, what a day, seriously! I said goodbye to my pals as best I could, then just stood there in town, deciding what to do. Well, I needed a place to stay, and that hostel I was at, with the big rat, was nearby, so I decided to go back there, and wouldn't you know, I was put back in the same room as I was in before. This time, no rat.
Most of the remaining days I made daily walks into downtown Nairobi, about a mile each way. Alas, I was easily identified as a tourist, and often was approached by guys trying to get me to go on various tour busses to various places, most of which I had no interest. I did make a day trip to a giant market, located within a big building that looked like an old hangar or warehouse. In a couple cases I would look at some item, then walk away, then the shop owner would chase me down to haggle, like in the Monty Python movie Life of Brian. They haggled down to such low prices that I actually did buy some items: wood carvings, etc. It was neat stuff but I've long since lost the items or they've busted. But I got my $4 worth, I guess.
In one instance two young guys, about 15 years of age, tried to get me to buy some weird "bracelets" made of giraffe hair. When I'd say not interested, they'd change their tone and ask if I wanted something or other than sounded like the Kenyan slang for marijuana. Hell no! I'm not taking any chances to get my butt thrown into a Kenyan jail. Most of the time I'd have to shoo the kids away, one after another. The other highlight was the Maasai, who came to market in their amazingly colorful dress and jewelry. And they're tall, too! Many of them were taller than me, and I'm 6 ft 4 in.
I still wanted to see lions and other African animals. By now, I knew the routine. I walked into downtown Nairobi into the tour bus district. There, I deliberately looked dazed, looking up at the tall buildings, looking lost. In no time, some guy came up to me and gave me a deal for a four-hour tour of nearby Nairobi National Park.
The park is not far from the city. Being in Africa, all they needed to do was erect some fencing and bam, they have a national park. In the minivan was a family from France, decked out in their khakis like real "explorers". The driver was a Kenyan. The top of the minivan would open so one could take unobstructed photographs.
The French guy had all sorts of high-end photography equipment and he took a long time to get everything just right. Meanwhile, the driver is saying something in Swahili which I presumed to translate roughly as "hurry up". I'm thinking he feared that an animal could leap into the van. I suppose it has happened before. Anyway, the French guy would yammer back in French, and then go about setting all his camera equipment up. This went on for most of the tour. Fortunately. no animals leapt in.
We did see lions, baboons, giraffes, all sorts of gazelle-type animals, and in a pond, some gigantic tortoises. It was worth the $10 (equivalent) that I spent for this experience. I also got to view mighty Mount Kilimanjaro. Even though the peak is south in Tanzania, it rises so high, fully three miles above the plains, that it is mesmerizing. What an amazing sight. In time, we returned to Nairobi and me to my hostel.
For the remaining few days, I just laid low, walked around town and enjoyed the vibe. The hostel featured all sorts of interesting characters from all over the world. Many were doing the multi-month Africa tour, staying in the bush for weeks at a time. They had some crazy stories.
Finally, my time was up, and I left Nairobi for Germany. Even the few hours at the airport were interesting. Our flight left at 2 a.m., but customs closed at 10 p.m., so I had to be there early to clear customs, then wait at the gate for our flight. Most people on the flight were Americans (this was a Pan-Am flight. Remember Pan-Am?). A lot had been in Africa doing "safaris". Too many of them had that grating east-coast accent.
When I got bored waiting, I walked to the only other gate that had people waiting for a flight. This one was going to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Everyone, naturally, looked Saudi. Lots of robes, men with beards, some in business suits, and so on. It was fascinating. A whole different world. Finally, we left Nairobi. The flight was rough due to storms and at one point, we almost were forced to land in Khartoum, Sudan. We made it to Athens, which wasn't on the docket. I guess we needed to get gas. We were late getting into Frankfurt.
(Where are the photos? I took tons but can't find them. They may be lost forever. Bummer.....)