Safari Ants, Baggy Pants & Elephants: A Kenyan Odyssey

by Susie Kelly

PUBLICATION DATE: 6 JUNE 2017

More than 40 years after leaving Kenya, Susie unexpectedly finds herself returning for a safari organised by an old friend.

 

With her husband Terry she sets off for a holiday touring the game reserves, but what she finds far exceeds her expectations. In this her seventh travelogue, she takes readers from five star hotels to luxury tents in the wilderness, and to poverty in Nairobi's slums, describing a journey of joy, excitement, discovery, nostalgia, of new friendships and encounters of the very close kind with Kenya’s majestic wildlife. Forgotten memories come flooding back as she revisits the scenes of her childhood and adolescence, so movingly portrayed in her popular memoir I Wish I Could Say I Was Sorrymany of them changed beyond recognition.

 

Written in her characteristic laid back style, this is a travel tale that will appeal to all those readers who have enjoyed Susie's previous books, as well as anybody who has lived in, or dreams of visiting, Kenya, the magical land Susie still thinks of as ‘home’.

  

'It does something to you, this infinite space, so tranquil on the surface, yet so teeming with life. You feel at once insignificant and amazing, just for being here. I wanted to hold out my arms and gather it all in, hold it pressed to my heart, never let it go. I wanted to lay it softly between sheets of tissue and put it in a drawer to be brought out and stroked every day. I wanted to bottle it in a crystal jar and place it on a sunny window sill to be forever in my sight. This magnificent, beautiful country, birthplace of mankind, owner of my heart. '  Susie Kelly

Print ISBN: 9780995473577

Paperback B Format

Ebook: Kindle, ePub, PDF

 

Chapter One

Speak Swahili: Jambo - Hello

 

2014 was an uneventful year for us until November, when two things happened almost simultaneously.

The first thing that happened was that I was invited to the nearby town of Charroux to meet two ladies who were organising a literary festival to be held the following year. We chatted over delicate French patisserie and fancy pots of tea that were served accompanied by egg-timers to ensure optimum brewing time, and an hour later I had accepted their proposal that I should become the patron of the Charroux Literary Festival. It was rather exciting, as I had never previously been a patron of anything, and I was delighted to be involved in bringing the literary spotlight to this quaint historic little town.

The second thing that happened was the following morning when I received an email from my longest-standing friend, Vivien, owner of AsYouLikeItSafaris in Kenya. It read:

“You and Terry are coming on a safari next year. I am sending a copy of your itinerary in a separate email.”

My immediate reaction was that she was joking, that it was some kind of meme where you send friends a spoof email. I sent a smiley icon in reply.

Later that day the itinerary arrived. It covered seventeen days and included stays in five of Kenya’s greatest wildlife reserves and two of its most exclusive clubs. We would be travelling with a group from the 95th Bomb Group Memorial Foundation, people keeping alive and honouring those whose had been involved in the air campaign over central Europe during WWII.

It sounded idyllic but was completely out of the question, not least because it conflicted with the literary festival dates.

Over the next month I wrote explaining all the reasons we would not be able to go, which Vivien airily brushed aside as mere excuses, including my commitment to the festival.

“They will manage perfectly well without you,” she declared. “You’re only the patron, not a guest speaker or organiser.” That put me in my place.

Terry shared my reaction that we couldn’t go. There was the expense, the question of having our animals cared for, the fact that our property was for sale and the impracticality of flying thousands of miles to do something we had never considered doing.

But like a dripping tap Vivien kept chipping away, brushing aside all our ifs and buts. She is and has always been the most positive person I know. There is nothing that cannot be accomplished if you put your mind to it.

The organisers of the literary festival were insistent that we should not miss an opportunity that would probably never come our way again, thus proving Vivien’s point. :)

By January we were beginning to weaken and by March I’d booked our flights.

 

Chapter Two

Speak Swahili: Habari? - How are you?

 

Once we had decided to go everything ran like clockwork with a few clicks of a mouse.

I applied for our Kenya visas on-line and was able to download them twelve hours later.

Through Trusted Housesitters I found a couple who would come to look after the animals while we were away.

I organised travel and health insurance, book our flights and train tickets and bought our luggage without moving from my desk.

How did people manage before the advent of mobile phones, internet and email? Those long safaris with porters carrying fridges, sofas and cocktail cabinets, tents and collapsible baths, crates of gin and cooking utensils. Imagine the logistics of things even as simple as organising when and where to meet, and how to get in touch if anything didn’t go according to schedule, when the only means of communication were handwritten letters or telegrams.

It was surprising how quickly time shot by. When we’d first begun talking about the trip, it had been nine months away. Now the days flew past, and I began to get unspeakably anxious that something would go wrong, because I had come to realise how very much I wanted to get back to the country where I had spent nearly twenty years and some of the very best days of my life. When I had left more than forty years ago, it was due to personal circumstances, and even after living in France for over twenty years, in my heart Kenya will always be ‘home.’

Our house-sitters arrived several weeks before our departure to give us all time to make sure that the arrangement would suit everybody, including the dogs.

I made lists and more lists of what we needed to take with us, trying to keep everything to a minimum as I’ve always been a ‘travel light’ person, happy with a couple of pairs of jeans and a few tops, sufficient underwear and something to read. However I hadn’t been very well for the last year, and the medication I was taking caused my weight to fluctuate rather dramatically. I never knew what size I’d wake up from one day to the next, and rather than pack too many clothes or garments that may be too small, I opted for clothes that may be too large.

We had been asked to take gifts for Kenyan children, and had stocked up with clothing, games and educational material. By the time we had added hygiene products, a hair dryer and a laptop, our Kindles, notebooks and mobile phones we each had a bulging suitcase and a full backpack that left no room for our cameras. I had only recently taken an interest in photography but was not at all relishing the prospect of lugging around a DSLR that was as big as and weighed as much as a house brick and a lens as long as my arm and weighing as much as a breeze block, so I had bought a small Olympus mirrorless camera tiny enough to fit in a pocket and powerful enough to deliver stunning photos. Terry had been so impressed that he had also abandoned his house brick and bought a model like mine.

Three days before our departure we were thrown into panic when one of our house sitters was unwell and announced that they might have to leave. I started searching Trusted Housesitters for a replacement, and whisked the patient off to our doctor, who immediately sent us to a specialist. It was half a day of my time that was needed elsewhere to finalise our arrangements, and pumped my blood pressure up to its limit, but the specialist found nothing more serious than dehydration and told the patient to drink more water.

 

Why I worked myself up so much about the packing I have no idea, but I emptied, rearranged and repacked everything at least twice daily in the final days before we left. On the morning I meticulously re-packed yet again, ticked off every item on my lists, zipped up the bags confident that we had everything we needed, and Terry loaded them in the boot of Mike and Jenny’s car, our kind friends who had volunteered to drive us to the station to catch our train to Paris.

 

Chapter Three

Speak Swahili: Asante - Thank you

 

At the station I dug around in my backpack for my make-up bag before I remembered that I’d put it in the suitcase, which I proceeded to unpack. Oddly, the make-up bag was not there, so I must have moved it to the backpack. After I’d emptied that as well 

people were now staring as piles of clothes were building up on the seats  it wasn’t there either. Then I recalled that just before we left I’d touched up my mascara, and I could clearly see the bag sitting on the side of the basin in our bathroom at home. So much for all that careful packing. Now I had no make-up, but that shouldn’t be a problem; there’d be an opportunity to buy some at the airport. Then my heart lurched. Where was my essential medication? I broke out in a sweat as I recalled putting all the tablets and capsules into the make-up bag.

There was no time to go home, and no way to buy any more without a prescription. I’d probably die. Well, not really. That was me being a drama queen. I could possibly survive without them for three weeks; but maybe not. There are certain drugs that I have to take daily in order to keep ticking over smoothly.

I shoved all the stuff back into the bags and dug around in the pocket of my backpack for my Kindle. My fingers connected with something that rustled. There were the strips of tablets.Yes! I’d saved my own life.

The train ride up to Paris was comfortable and uneventful. Our Spanish friend Miguel was living near Paris and we had arranged to meet him at the airport and spend a few hours together, leaving plenty of time to catch our flight. From the platform I spotted him standing waving from the first floor. Terry piled our bags onto a trolley and headed for the lift, telling me to go ahead and wait with Miguel, which I did.

We waited and waited, looking expectantly each time the lift door opened. Time after time it disgorged travellers and trolleys, but it did not disgorge Terry. We looked down onto the platform - and saw him still queuing. There was only one working lift, and it was very small. We waited some more.

Finally the last passengers arrived and the lift was empty, and so was the platform. There was no sign of Terry.

We wandered around to see if we had somehow missed him, but after scouring the whole of the first floor he was nowhere to be seen.

It was more than 20 minutes since we arrived and I was yet again in panic mode. Had he changed his mind, stepped back onto the train with our luggage? Had he been taken ill and carted away? Miguel went up the stairs to search the next floor, while I thought about sending out a message over the announcement system, although whether anything could be heard over the rattling trolleys, rumbling suitcase wheels, shouted telephone conversations, general buzz and confusion seemed doubtful. Suddenly Miguel pointed to Terry another level up, standing looking irritated.

“Where on earth have you been?” he asked, taking the words out my mouth.

He explained that he had pushed the lift button indicating 'Departures' instead of '1'. Logical, but wrong.

At least we were now all together and I suggested we looked for somewhere to have a drink - I felt in need of a nice gin and tonic  - and something to eat. No, said Miguel, you need to go to Terminal 1.

But surely we were already in Terminal 1, I said. No, he replied, this is only the train terminal. We need to get to the plane terminal. We looked in vain for directions, and the sixth person I spoke to pointed us to the shuttle that would take us there. Without Miguel I thought to myself that we would have sat for hours in blissful ignorance at the train terminal and missed our flight.

This is just my opinion, and others may disagree, but I found Charles de Gaulle airport quite hideous and extraordinarily passenger-hostile. I’d travelled through many airports in my life, but never one as disorganised as this.Maybe I was out of practice, but really, it seemed so difficult to find your way around this place. I’m not the only one.

In November 15, 2011, Karrie Jacobs who writes on urban architecture for http://www.travelandleisure.com, described the airport thus: 

 

“It’s not simply non-linear, but anti-linear to the point where no one—least of all passengers—ever knows quite what to expect. In part this is because, unlike most of the world’s major airports, it reflects the vision of a single individual, former Chief Architect of the Aéroports de Paris, Paul Andreu. Now 73, he began work on Terminal 1 at 29. It is very much a young man’s idea of things to come. The main 11-story building is round, constructed from that rugged poured concrete that architects so loved back then, with a doughnut hole at the center.”

 

I could not argue with that. It’s bleak, colourless, unwelcoming, and we couldn’t find anywhere attractive to eat. Like us, Miguel is vegetarian, and we ended up buying a piece of cake each from a snack bar that only served cheese and ham baguettes and weak coffee. However, in good company we enjoyed a couple of hours together while I prepared for another panic attack.

We did not have tickets for the flight. I’d booked them through Expedia at an extraordinary discount - less than one-third of the usual price at that time of year - and all I had was an email confirmation and a debit on our bank account. Expedia’s assurance that the email confirmation was all that was necessary had not entirely satisfied me, and I had opened the printed email so many times to read it that by the time we arrived at the check-in desk it was starting to fall apart.

I handed the crumpled paper across the counter waiting for the puzzled look that it would surely elicit, signalling that I’d been a complete idiot to have been taken in.

The check-in lady squashed it flat, a slight frown on her brow as she began typing into her computer. Unsmiling, she looked up and asked for our passports. Checking to see if we were on the ‘Wanted’ list, I thought gloomily.

She burrowed around in a drawer for a few moments, tapped into her computer again, and then handed back our passports, together with our tickets and a brilliant red-lipstick smile.

“Thank you. You may go through to the departure lounge now. Enjoy your flight with Swiss International Air.” 

Our suitcases glided out of sight. Hopefully they would reach Nairobi at the same time as we did.

 

I could switch off panic mode. We were on our way.

c. Susie Kelly

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