Monday, August 16, 2010

The Aberdares

I took the long week-end and went up to the Aberdares to escape the smog and traffic of Nairobi. The range is a short matatu ride north of Nairobi, adjacent to the town of Nyeri, in the Central Highlands. This region is the homeland of the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest ethnic group, and holds the country's richest farming lands. It was also at the heart of the Mau Mau war.

The ride up was crowded but quiet. I made small talk for a while with the man beside me who was returning home from business in the city, and was eager to return to the slower pace of life in Nyeri. He asked me where I was from, and I said the U.S. He asked where, and I said California. 'Oh, near Virginia', he nodded, and I agreed that from a galactic perspective the two were more or less on top of each other.

In Nyeri I found a driver to get to the park. Walking, unfortunately, is highly restricted in the Aberdares (my guide said that he's seen four people killed), and I quickly saw why when, on the way to a staging point, driving up through the forest, we found ourselves quite suddenly in the midst of a herd of buffalo. We had the element of surprise, and they scattered up both sides of the bank to regroup and glare down at us. As we scooted off, the driver reached out the window and flipped them off (bold, considering that they could have flipped the Toyota Corolla over had they been so inclined), and one of them gave us a look that reminded me of nothing so much of a particular Labour Party election poster. You're required to hire an armed ranger to take you trekking longer distances in the park, but they're expensive, and often plead illness, fatigue, etc, to get out of going--understandable, as it's no walk in the park, and as they're probably afraid you'll get munched by a lion and then sue them from its lower intestine.

I camped the first night at a KWS ranger station, a series of tin rondevals surrounded by electric fences and posts. At night the ranger and guide retreated into the headquarters, leaving the poor stupid mzungu in a tent near the fence line, along which I could hear the snorting of some large animal all night. The second night the camp was on the moor, and when I emerged into the cold, still-dark morning, I turned round to come face to face with a hyaena on the other side of the tent. They're bigger up close and in person (we'd seen some in the distance while crossing the moor on foot the previous day), but after a moment, it turned and made its ungainly way up a bank into the heather. I was just happy it hadn't been a lion, or else my bowels would likely have performed some embarrassingly untoward action. As I finished putting up the tent I noticed the guide, David, smoothing out some large, round paw prints. I jokingly asked him what they were and he improvised--'Bushbuck'. 'And that?' I asked him later, pointing to a massive pile of dung that the uninitiated might have imagined was an elephant's deposit. 'An impala?' 'Exactly', he replied, impressed, no doubt, by my quick grasp of bush craft.

The moor on the Aberdares looks like a cross between Dartmoor and Point Reyes, with the endless, gloomy reach of the former and the diversity of flora and concomitant rich smells of the latter. It meets the forest without any intervening vegetation, making it look as though the two had reached only a very uneasy accord as to which reigned over the wet soil. It is a beautiful landscape, by turns foreboding and inviting, but startlingly dangerous at times. Stopping off at a lonely station on the moor for a camping permit, we talked to the caretaker for a moment. 'I pray to God every day that I stay alive out here', he said, shaking his head. 'Some days, if I've seen a lion on the moor, I don't even open the door'.

During the Mau Mau war, the forest was bombed very heavily by the RAF (irritating the game department to no end...the warden, Hale, griped about the trigger-happy soldiers), as a result of which "elephant, rhino, buffalo have been driven out unto the plains below, often in a confounded condition", damaging shambas and having to be destroyed (KW 15/16, 1951-6). Like many of his contemporaries, Hale referred to the Mau Mau fighters as "bandits"--whether through ignorance or denial, many white Kenyans and British administrators refused to see the political character of Mau Mau.

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