Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Postcard Africa

Flicking back through older posts I realise I have never done a post dedicated purely to African wildlife in all its forms. Of course this is one of the main things that is triggered in one's mind at the mention of the continent and for this blog I want to unashamedly brag about some of the cool stuff I've seen this past week. If you are sitting in the Northern hemisphere feeling cold and looking out on grey, I'm sorry for you, but if you willing, I will let you on a little African sunshine drenched wilderness. 
This past week I have been travelling around Kenya's "South Coast" which means everywhere south of Mombasa. Its an area I know hardly anything about and have only visited once before and I am here with my neighbour Dawn and a guy from her church called Jeremiah. There's no rational explanation for the trip or  the accompaniment other than it was worth coming and to see a new place. One area we visited is known as the Shimba Hills which rise up just inland up to 450m above sea level. Compared to the sticky hot coast they are that tiny bit cooler and fresher which is an amazing release and because they force all that hot sticky air up they have the highest rainfall on the Kenyan Coast giving them a thick blanket of forest which is almost like a rainforest. It also the best place on the coast to have a bit of the safari experience, with herds of elephant, buffalo, impala and even a few giraffe knocking about. The dramatic hills, with a patchwork of thick forest and savannah, look over towards the sparkling sea and Tanzania in the distance. At the moment with all the rain we have been getting, it is like a green jewel floating on misty clouds from below. Apologies for the soppy metaphors, in most places people are just exaggerating and trying to talk up their experience with these boring phrases, but this was the real deal. It really really was breath takingely beautiful. 
Below are some photos of animals I saw with the Kenyan safari guide code-name. They use these names to tell one another where animals are to show their guests, but are a little bit too cool for school to call them by their real names.  
Tortoise no. 1
Elephant - Maskio (ears)
Giraffe - Shingo mrefu (long neck)

Warthog - Nairobi express
Pygmy Kingfisher
Buffalo - Ng'ombe (cows)
After the game drive we wanted to do a hike down to a place called Shedrick Falls, which was a 2km hike through the jungle to a stunning waterfall. It was a really perfect little walk except for the fact that we had to go with a KWS guard in case the elephants mauled us, and seeing as he only wanted to go once a day, all the other people in the park came at the same time. This basically meant that there was a group of 15 Wazungu all trooping through the jungle as a pack, and as about 8 of them were a group of friends from South London all gossiping and making noise, it ensured we saw absolutely no wildlife on the way down. However it was quite satisfying watching them sweat on the way back up, puffing and wheezing, with red necks and drenched shirts. You have to spend time with Mother Africa before you can survive her! At the waterfall itself Jeremiah and I stood under the tumbling water and embraced the elements.

Kenyan Health and Safety

The other place we visited was (of course) a marine park. All three of us loooooove snorkelling (which is about the only major thing we have in common), so a trip to Kisite marine national park was a must. The park is slightly off-shore with most of the coral areas surrounding a small uninhabited island about 5 miles off shore near the Tanzanian border. We stayed there for 3 days and took the 1 hour boat ride out to the island twice. It has the best coral reef in the whole of Kenya by a long way and it was just stunning to behold. On the second day I felt like I had finally seen the reef I had always dreamed off complete with shelves of table Acropora stacked on top of one another and super abundance and size of fish patrolling around. On the second day I saw a couple of fish that had been on my wanted list for some time, namely the Palette surgeonfish, which is what Dory from "Finding Nemo" was based on and the Regal Angelfish, the most beautiful of this already very beautiful fish group. I also saw a turtle and a juvenile Oriental sweetlips with its 60s lava lamp patterns, which is a species my fish book and the internet says is not supposed to be in East Africa, but I have found it 3 times now! The colour and vibrancy of the life on the reef was outstanding. I could have stayed there forever and not got bored. 
Blue-line snapper
Juvenile Oriental Sweetlips
Palette Surgeonfish (Dory)
Smooth Grouper

Regal Angelfish

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Oh Africa

There's something about this country that just gets my writing juices going. I've been in UK for a month and while I had a great time there was nothing that grabbed me to sit and write it down. Three days back in Kenya and I already need to write the tales and things I've seen.
Yesterday I set off from Nairobi on the day bus down to Watamu. It has been raining a lot here in the past month and the bush is the greenest I've ever seen it. All the way through Ukambani was like a shamrock, which I've never seen before (see the post from Ukambani in Nov 2011). At one point looking down flowing    creek, shaded by a tunnel of flowering trees with yellow weavers darting between the branches I thought I'd arrived in the Garden of Eden, before a strong bump reminded me that I was still on the Mombasa highway.
We were making great time and had Tudor Creek near Mombasa in our sights by 3:30 and then ... Jam! Lorries and buses and cars backed up as far as the eye could see and not even creeping forward. Complete standstill. Our bus stood still in the hot humid coastal air and the temperature started to rise and you know its hot when the Africans start sweating, shifting and fanning one another. In particular there was one mama sitting opposite me, who actually inspired this blog post, who started stripping off. Before my eyes the shirt was unbuttoned and the bra pulled off in sweaty contempt. However this wasn't enough for this aggravated matriach, she stood threateningly with her breasts bare and pointed at the bus conductor, "Weh! When I bought my ticket in Busia they told me I would be in Malindi by 3pm, what is the time now and where are we? I will never travel with Modern Coast again!" The poor conductor tried to convince her it was the jam and there was nothing Modern Coast or their associates could do, but she was not convinced. She sat glowering, flapping her open shirt wings like threatened bird trying to frighten predators away.
So next time you are on the bus or the tube, just think what you are missing. :-)

Friday, October 12, 2012

Injun Country

This rather long story is an account of the week I spent in Northern deserts of Kenya with my good friend Nicholas Lekalaile.

I've been on the road for two days now and apparently there's a little more to come. I decided to travel with Nicholas, our night-watch man (askari), to his home area in Rendille land far to the north of Isiolo, the alleged edge of civilisation, to see his family and this unique area.
Yesterday we left the clean organised world of Lavington, a wealthy suburb of Nairobi, and took a matatu to Eastleigh, the major Somali and generally Northern neighbourhood of Nairobi, to get a bus onwards. In the squalor of little stalls, dirt roads and Nairobi jam, we sat in the corner of a depot garage where, rather than finding a bus we seemed to gather a small concentration of Rendille who were catching up on the news of jobs or home, although I really don't know because I can't understand anything of their Cushitic tongue!
Eventually Niko prised away, mostly due to my persistence I expect, to go find a vehicle to carry us north. I felt if we didn't go soon I would loose all my nerve for the epic adventure ahead. We left Eastleigh and set out on the Thika highway, a 3-lane motorway built by the Chinese, probably as a part of their bizarre plan to link Lamu with Juba and making Isiolo a major transit town. Last time I did this route it was still being built and it took several hours on rutted side roads instead of this quick glide in the beautiful highlands beyond. The Kenyan Highlands are like the Garden of Eden. Rich dark red soil bursts forth every fruit and vegetable one could want and as you drive through the patchwork of small gardens it is a beautiful sight to behold. One can understand why some Kikuyus a superiority complex when you compare this area to their neighbours.
Three hours later we arrived at Nanyuki, at the foot of Mount Kenya, straddling the equator. This beautiful colonial town feels like the last homely house as described in the Hobbit. We drove through the final stretch of stunning farm land at the base of Mt. Kenya and then started our descent to the hot dry plains below, a drop so great my ears popped and my water bottle was crushed with the pressure change. At the bottom we reached Isiolo, a dusty dirty town full of various Northern groups complete with Arabs, Borani and Somali all shouting and spitting in a scene rather reminscent of Tattoine. In a mere 50 miles from Nanyuki to Isiolo we had passed a major boundary, leaving the green Bantu lands behind and entering the Northern realm of the nomad.
For four further hours we drove north seeing very little other than bush and a stunning sunset behind the Matthew's range as we zoomed along the pristine new tarmaced road bound for Ethiopia. Finally we arrived in the place where I now write, a dusty little wild-west trading post on the road, complete with gin bottles everywhere, but unlike the wild-west filled with beaded tribes-people. Niko is out on the road trying to find a bus to take us the on the last short stretch into the bush to his home.
Dusty travel

Actually there was no bus, we were to get a car and arrive when possible. There was a Mzungu lady arrive unexpectedly in town, who Niko said is from Korr. He had said there was a missionary couple in Korr and evidently here was one of them! I asked nicely if we could get a ride and she obliged. We piles into the back of the small pickup with dozens of other people going that way. We stripped across the desert seeing some ostrich and gazelle on the way until we reached Korr at last, dusty and hot. On the way I was chatting to a guy who told me I was lucky because I had managed to get a ride only 1 day after arriving, he had been waiting 5 days for a passage! What is Niko leading me into?
 On arrival here the missionary lady Lynn led me to the house, opened a small guest room and put my stuff inside. Am I staying here then? First thing is figure out is I can ever leave this place! Lynn said she would call around to find out when a ride was going out, so Niko and I went into town to find out where is wife is. I followed him around town for a few hours, not able to talk to most people, just sitting and looking at this little town. Sadly to my surprise it is starting to look like any other area of Kenya with little shops selling Blue-band, a couple of Piki's zooming around and lots of plastic lying on the ground. Everyone down country says this place is off the edge the world, but evidently those places are hard to find these days.

The real bush
I'm now sitting in the small house of Nicholas' mother. Yesterday we set off for his wife's house in a Gob' about 5 km from town. On the way through Korr we stopped in the general store while Nicholas greeted dozens of people from being away so long. We sat in the shop for a while and eventually he said, “wait here five minutes, I'm going to get shoes”. Half an hour later he returned with no shoes and just the explanation, “too many people!”. He sent his wife who had arrived by this point and sat a while longer. Periodically the shopkeeper grabbed a small packet of tea and sugar and handed them to people coming through the shop. Eventually I realised that Nicholas was buying them for gifts. Now that he was a big man with a job in the South, it is expected that he gives gifts. He ran up a bill of 2000 shillings and completely finished his money, poor guy!
In the shop

Niko and his beautiful wife

His wife's Gob' was only a short distance from Korr, but as soon as we left Korr it felt like the wilderness tribal experience I had built up in my mind. It was difficult to say what was so enchanting, maybe the delicate elven faces adorned with so many colours or maybe the enormity of the desert, but whatever it was it was fascinating just to sit and watch.
Almost home

Cooking tea
A typical Rendille house is a domed bivouac made by bending sticks and covering them with animal skins, cardboard boxes and anything else they can find. The roof is 4ft high so can't stand but its comfortable enough to lie or sit. The doorway makes a short recessed corridor about 4 ft long meaning the inside has a semicircle space and two alcoves, one for storage and one for cooking. Cooking inside is necessary because the harsh desert winds would blow any fire away, but it makes the homes smoky and hot.
Nicholas spent most of the time telling stories to his numerous friends and family who hadn't seen for 9 months, while I watched or read. In the evening we headed out for a little walk around the area and as we waled across a dried river bed we spotted two Moran about 100ft away. Moran are the warriors of their community from the time they are circumcised during mass circumcision events every 12 years until they marry they must walk throughout the country with livestock finding good grazing and defending their territory. They are richly adorned with beads across their ritually scarred cheasts and wear feathers above their heads. They were rather frightening to behold and a reminder that this is an untamed land.
On the road
In the morning we set off on the 25km walk to his mum's gob' near a small trading centre called Namerai in the Ndoto mountains. I mostly enjoyed the walk, except towards the last hour when temperatures were well over 30 degrees and I was desperate for water. Arriving we were greeting by the dozens of overjoyed people I was now getting used to. With no phone signal to call ahead and plan, your loved ones just wake up as normal then suddenly you've arrived back it makes for much more jubilant greetings. Nicholas, now well acquainted with my camera and guitar starts showing off his magic tricks and living up to his expectation of being an accomplished man of the world. I let him pretend. Its much more fun watching them gaze lovingly at him as he beats discordantly on my guitar than if I was showing off. Besides its all he's got now his money is finished!

There's no place like home

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

An uphill battle with a dodgy leg

Oh the joy of discovery! The past week I went on  some fairly epic swims through the park in order to start filling the blanks of where we have yet to survey. In the process I've seen some epic sights including a sea-grass bank with several turtles all feeding in the same area and new coral areas I've not visited before teeming with snapper, sweetlips and barracuda. Steadily I'm peeling back the unknown areas and finding hidden worlds of beauty.
Sadly though the world around me is as hostile as ever. The Daily Nation reported this morning that natural gas has been stuck off the coast of Malindi only 60km from the reef. Who knows what sediments and chemicals this will throw into local waters killing coral and impact it will have on climate change and future coral bleaching. Yet most of the meals in my life have been cooked on gas, so what can I say really? I guess what worries me the most is the lack of conservation ethic in Kenya and poor attention to detail, which will make accidents more likely.
This past week I had a Kenyan volunteer assisting with the marine programme, who I asked to look at the conservation of sand dunes in East Africa and find out what studies have been done. His report concluded, that we should plant sand dunes with exotic tree species to increase the productivity of that habitat. I was horrified by the lack of understanding about conservation, but even more I felt quite vulnerable when I explained "A Rocha's" view on conservation. In order to help him understand I tried to get it to basics saying that we believe that natural systems are the goal we should aim for, not "improved" or altered for economic extraction. On this simple level I felt the conclusion was quite shaky and in reality it is. A Rocha may want to see natural systems, but maybe the Kenyan people want money and productivity. Who is correct? Am I just a rich kid, free from serious economic worries, enjoying nature as a luxury most people cannot afford?
Of course I don't believe this view in reality and recognise that people cannot live from eating money. A Rocha and other conservation organisations have shown that environmental degradation usually hits the poor the hardest and it is the poor that need conservation principals the most. However, the attitudes which govern decisions while drilling for gas to those decisions about sand dune conservation are very real and something one must be aware of working in this context. There are many people who simply don't understand why anyone should care about the sea. I have an uphill battle to fight.
Newly discovered patch reef I have dubbed "Round Reef"
Currently I am fighting that battle with a nasty Staphylococcus infection in my left leg, which makes walking painful, often flares up in fever through my whole body and is definitely keeping me out of the water. This morning the ASSETS volunteer, Furaha (which means Happy), came to the breakfast table and said, "Come I've heated the water, let me wash you." She took me by the arm as I limped to the laundry buildings where she nursed my illness with a care and attention I have never before received. She took a stick from the undergrowth and carefully cracked out some splinters from the heartwood. She used these to scrap away the infected pus surface, then proceeded to gently squeeze the red inflamed area of the gooey white substance within. The entire time she never shied from the disgusting nature of the task and always with intense attention to minimise pain caused and pausing when her patient was wimpishly flinching. She then cleaned the wound and carefully added salt which she infused into the area with a single drop of water deftly placed from her little finger. She then finally blew onto the are removing heat and ache of the raw, but treated illness. You may wonder why bother telling this story, but for me it was the attentive care I have received (apart perhaps from Mum's magic beds when I was a kid) and it was a privileged insight into one of the many complex finely tuned skills African children learn in the village, but which are so rarely recognised in modern society. Thank you Furaha, you have made me happy today.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


So many times I've wanted to write over the past couple of weeks since being back in Kenya, but its amazing how quickly business swamps you time and writing is too exhausting at the end of the day. Of course writing in the moment is always better, because yesterday's story is coloured by today's events. Hopefully you'll forgive the telling of these storeys from this perspective and I'll try and pull back the feelings and sights as vividly as I can.
The second week of Olympics was when I first got back to Kenya and there was a lot of excitement about running and how many medals Kenya should win. Otherwise many things were the same as when I left just a few months ago. While reflecting on this and watching Rudisha from Kenya win the gold in the 1600m after an afternoon of snorkelling, I remembered where I was when I first heard London had won the Olympic bid 7 years previously. I was sitting at a bus stop in Wolverhampton during the summer after finishing school and getting ready for 6th form college, excited by the possibilities of a new college and growing up. While thinking about London getting the Olympics in 2012, it felt like the Olympic committee were really playing a risky game planning so far ahead. By 2012 the UK might be in anarchy, or London be flooded or invaded by aliend. Where would I be in 2012? That was a scary thought. I'd have finished Uni, even though sitting at the bus stop I hadn't even gone to college yet. Would I be wearing a suit like dad? If you had told me I would be studying coral reefs in Kenya, I would have felt like I'd won the lottery. I'm sure that was the dream even back then.
I've had many moments like this since being back, of being struck by what a great situation I am in. However there have been a lot of nerves as well. Can I survive for 3 years so far away from my native country and culture? This isn't a gap year any more, this is a serious commitment to a place and a way of life, with restrictions as well as opportunities. How will I live without Cadbury's!?
Currently every day seems to confirm why I do belong here though. Last week the ASSETS camp happened. This is for kids being supported by Arabuko-Sokoke Schools and Eco-Tourism Scheme (ASSETS) to come and do some environmental education and also experience things they may never have had the opportunity for before. For example, most of the kids, although living a maximum of 30 miles from the sea, have never been in it and so the one day we took them to the reef to experience that whole world. It was an immense privilege, I felt, to help someone gently into the water and have trust you completely as we guided them around in buoyancy rings. All the kids had a great time even if they only saw one or two fish when they were brave enough to put their heads in the water! On the way back we stopped on a shallow sand bar which was only waist deep to play in the water. It was a really idyllic scene of joy and beauty; wonderful young people playing and laughing, bathed in sunshine and warm turquoise waters and I had helped produce that scene. I really do have a role to play and skills to be used here. Often the detail and challenges can be stressful, but I need to remember why I'm here and what I'm good at. Too often I can let immediate circumstances drag me down and failure crush my spirit, without seeing the wider view of what is being achieved and how much joy there is on the way. Of course, living in tropical paradise is always a bonus which never wears off.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Benjo in Brazil

Last post from somewhere that's not in Kenya I promise! I'm flying back this weekend.
As some of you may know I've been in Brazil with my little brother for a wonderful month of travelling and visiting an A Rocha Brazil (sort-of) project in northern Brazil. We spent an intial week in Rio, followed by a week in the state of Bahia to the north, two weeks on the nose of Brazil near Joao Pessoa and back for a final week in Rio. This entry is a bit of spider's walk of different stories and thoughts while we were there and  actually gives a much better idea of how we saw Brazil than a chronological activity report could give I think.
In many ways Rio is the post-card image that people imagine with crazy mountains, skyscrapers and beach bums. Its a huge city and there's loads of wealth around, so its not exactly a budget destination (excellent prior research on my part, oops). We found an awesome little hostel near Copacabana, up a hill towards the jungle, which eventually takes over the steep slopes of Rio's geology. As you leave the flat areas near the beach and enter the favelas the roads become more broken and the faces become more African. Arriving in the favela of Babilonia late on a Thursday night the street was full of people with live samba music and dancing, quite an incredible welcome.
In many places we went we were welcomed strongly, perhaps not with music and activity, but with enormous acts generosity and acceptance as we travelled around. In Joao Pessoa Hernani and Maru (connected with A Rocha), welcomed us into their house for two weeks, in a busy period of transition and change on their organic coconut farm. During that time they took us to great beaches, did activities with us and made sure that we went home knowing the best of that time we were with them. While there we went to a capoeira class in the local village to the farm, and again there everyone was so glad to see us, not in an overpowering awkward way, just in a simple acceptance and joy. The mestre gave us a free CD of his music and kept the class going for an extra hour so we could enjoy it to the full (also meaning our muscles wouldn't allow us to walk for two days afterwards!)
Hernani and Maru

Back in Rio, the generosity we experienced in our hostel, called Chill Hostel in Babilonia, was second to none, so much so we went back for an extra week at the end of our stay. So many times we were given free food and drink, or taken to some incredible place that most tourists wouldn't get to see, such as the party at Alto Vidigal, on our second night being in Brazil. We were told it was one of the best parties in Rio and only happened once a month, so we much go! After Ollie convinced me to fight jet lag and come out we went with people from the hostel and the taxi starting winding higher and higher through a favela near Ipanema and we began to wonder where on earth this party was. At the very top a bar terrace overlooked Ipanema bay and out to sea. It was an unbelievable view and, true to the recommendation, an incredible party. However, when we came out at 5am in the morning the only option was to walk all the way down the hill! Nutters living on improbable mountains.
The next day, after recovering from our hangovers, we went up Sugar Loaf Mountain. The geology in this city is mad. The mountain rises near vertical from sea level to 400m and somehow they built a cable car to the top. As we stood on the top geologist Ollie looked out across the stunning views and said, "I think this mountain is Gneiss", after half a second I replied, "yeah its not bad is it? (weirdo)". As the sun went down over the city and lights began shine, it gave an idea of how big the city was and how it just kept going and going into the distance. There's around 10 million people in Rio (depending how you cut it) and another 14 million in Sao Paulo, not a million miles away. Brazil itself has 200 million people living in what feels like quite an isolated Brazilian world, where everyone is connected by Portuguese and therefore separate from everyone else in South America. Their economic growth is evident everywhere, and just the attitude of consume and construct was fascinating for someone from a stagnant economy. They are doing things their way and don't worry about anyone else. As a result they have some unique foibles, such as turnstiles on buses, drink tickets at bars and paying by weight in restaurants (forget the vegetables and stock up on steak!).
The first week we were in Rio the whole city was buzzing for Rio 20+ conference, a repeat of the seminal World Summit in 1992 for sustainable development and environmental justice. We hadn't planned on getting involved, but it was impossible to avoid the numerous events across the city and the many suited foreign delegates, including meeting President Kibaki's bodyguards at Christ the Redeemer and, believe it or not, Richard Branson when we were walking through Santa Teresa! Little did we know, but the favela we were staying in was a show-case for sustainable growth. Its not clear to me exactly how, but in the first week we were there it was transformed. There's now a tarmac road all the way to the beach, new plastering and white wash and even a flower bed, in just 5 days! They even had a couple painting days where they covered the walls in incredible art work on the road up the hill. Its difficult to know what to think. Of course a nice road and fixed pavements are a good things, but what does this re-beautification tell us about the council's plans from Babilonia and the many favelas like it? On Saturday night there was an enormous samba party and dance off with everyone from the local houses; such an incredible community spirit in this enormous city. It would be a shame if it became converted into yet more apartment blocks like Copacabana below, but money talks and developers want to sell the stunning views that this favela has enjoyed for free for so many years.

Ollie's ex-girlfriend Danni often says that many of my stories just sound like rubbish if I tell them to an average person in the street in England. Ollie and I have laughed at some the crazy things that have happened on the trip and how out of context they sound mad. Here's a few of the best tall tales, with photos to prove their validity!

Jesus and the Armadillo
One day four friends decided to go and see Jesus, so they woke up early and climbed up a mountain covered with thick rainforest to go see him. As they neared the top they found an armadillo, who sneezed in terror when they approached. Sadly when they reached the top of the mountain Jesus was covered in clouds and the friends didn't see him that day. 

Rivers for Life
One sunny day on the beach hundreds of Amazonian tribes people came together all dressed with feathers of all the colours of the forest and painted in their traditional way. They sat in strange groups, often facing the backs of the people in front, sang and chanted. High above a tiny helicopter with a camera revealed their message to the world; Rios para a vida - Rivers for life.

Party on the Steps
In a city far far away there are some steps leading through a neighbourhood on a hill. These steps are no ordinary steps they are decorated with the tiles of every colour in the rainbow and come from over 150 countries around the world. Not only this but they are constantly changing, being removed and replaced by a man, who is often depicted as being pregnant, with an enormous moustache. Every Friday night thousands of young people make a pilgrimage to these steps and the creativity and passion of the pregnant man's masterpiece seeps into them, resulting in one of the greatest parties on earth.

The Pregnant Man

The Pregnant Man

Diamond Mountains
High above a hot dry desert the diamond mountains rise vertically into the sky. The two brothers wandered through the sleepy village at sunrise trying to find somewhere to sleep until they met the Spaniard call Lefty, who led them through the rainforest to his home where they camped. Once they set up camp, they started walking up into the mountains, first up the vertical sides and then horizontal across the top. On the far side of the mountain a small river fell off the side of the mountain to the jungle many hundreds of metres below in a great plume of water which evaporated into smoke before it reached the bottom. After enjoying the views for a while they walked back across and down the diamond mountain to their camp.
Two other friends of Lefty also stayed there and the four sang and talked late into the night; or so it felt, but in fact the tired brothers fell into bed at just 8:15pm! As the sun rose over the mountains and forested valley the next day the campers enjoyed tea and cake before heading into diamond wilderness once more.
They started the day deep under the mountains where water trickled through the billion year old rocks to form crystals, disco-balls and even a portrait of Bob Marley. They then went into the mountain snorkelling in a sapphire lake with hundreds of fish, into a tunnel through the heart of the mountain. Lastly they climbed to the top of a small mountain no bigger than a cube and the sun set over the desert below, they felt quite patriotic.