Nasty Tourists, Overbookings and poisonous Snakes - My Kenya Adventure

Published 24.07.2017

Preamble: Some of my Kenya adventures may sound bizarre or exaggerated. Rest assured that my memory still serves me pretty well, despite my advanced age ;-). Everything, as described below, is true and not invented. From today`s perspective, some of the stories sound even unreal to me. My apologies again for the poor quality of the images ... and the white socks (all this happened in the 80s). Happy reading!

You may have read about my first adventures as a tour guide in Spain and (former) Yugoslavia. I then spent the winter season on the island of Gran Canaria/Spain where I was working in the office of the TUI agency, making hotel reservations, verifying invoices and scheduling transfers. I worked normal business hours and spent my siestas (long lunch breaks) at a pool. In the evening I enjoyed playing tennis and on Saturday, I took a "guagua" (that`s how they call a bus) to Las Palmas to do what I loved most those days – CLUBBING! I usually returned shortly before sunrise and spent my Sundays sleeping … in my apartment and later on the beach (with a few swims in between, of course).

Photo: Adios Las Palmas!

Kenya – here I come!

I was supposed to also stay there during the summer season but shortly before its beginning, I got a call from headquarters: "Would you like to spend the summer season escorting round trips in Kenya?" Africa? Kenya? Me? Sure thing. I accepted and everything went pretty fast. I kissed the Canary Islands goodbye and went to Mallorca, to attend a seminar where they taught us useful things such as comparing the time before leaving a bus. Two days of intense (but useless) learning, followed by a very short stay at home. The day of my departure to Mombasa/Kenya I got a tooth pulled out in the morning, in the evening I was sitting on a Condor flight, trying to calm down my swollen cheek. Things you just do when you are very young. The next morning I was in Africa for the first time in my very young life. Lots of chaos at the airport, heat and humidity and that smell of the tropics – KHL was ready for his African adventure!

Photo: A new language to learn (sadly I only remember a few words...)!

Cottage six and a big unknown Insect

The first meeting with my boss "Ernesto" wasn`t that good – we did not like each other at all. Apart from that, he did not have great news for me: "Unfortunately, a colleague has fallen sick, so you have to escort your first round trip next week." What? I did not have a clue about the country and TUI clients who had booked the "Land und Leute"-Tour (“The country and its people”) had paid a lot of money for it. "Tomorrow you will go to Nairobi, so you know at least a little part of the tour before your guests will arrive." Lovely. I unpacked my stuff at the Reef Hotel, a nice 4-star property on the North Coast of Mombasa where "cottage 6" became my sort of home for the whole season. The next day I was sitting on the night train to Nairobi, Kenya`s capital. I remember that the train was very comfortable, with a very nice dining service with a British touch (no wonder, Kenya was a British colony until 1963). I also remember that distinguished British lady having dinner in front of me. She could not see what I saw – a huge insect was sitting on her back while she was eating. Welcome to the tropics! Ah – that little beast disappeared after a while and the lady kept eating without having seen it. Good for her!

Photo: The Reef Hotel was not bad at all - and located right on the Indian Ocean!

Red elephants and a "Saturday Night Fever" without KHL

In Nairobi, I had a quick tour, met the guys of the agency and had a look at the Serena Hotel where my guests were supposed to stay. I took a flight back to Mombasa and one day later I stood at Mombasa International Airport, waiting for (I believe) 12 guests to arrive. The good thing was that my little bus did not have a microphone so I did not have to talk too much. I also decided to be frank and open to the clients, telling them that I had to replace a colleague who had fallen sick. I was lucky – all of my first guests were nice and easy people. Relief! So here we go on our one-week trip … from the airport right to Tsavo National Park with the famous red elephants (they turn red when they roll on the red soil). The first stopover was the Taita Hills Lodge, a beautiful property (Hilton in those days) with stilt houses close to a water hole where wild animals (zebras, elephants, warthogs … just to name a few) came by to have a drink. From there, the tour went on to Nairobi and – hooray! – KHL knew at least that place and could point out the way to the washrooms in the hotel when being asked. The evening in Nairobi was the only one where dinner was NOT included, so the guests – and I – were on their own. I will get back to that later. Quick anecdote from Taita Hills: a few weeks after my arrival a new club opened up in Mombasa and EVERYONE went, except KHL. I was stuck in Taita Hills, waiting for a new group. I tried everything to get to Mombasa for the evening and to return to Taita (a 2-hour drive) but nothing worked. I was devastated – no Saturday night fever in Mombasa ;-).

Photo: A visitor at the Taita Hills Lodge - a lovely warthog!

Masai Dances and a Python Skin on a Clothing Line

Next stop further up North: Mayer`s Ranch in the Rift Valley – beautiful property in a breathtaking green landscape, where British tea was served after the performance of Masai warriors in their little village. I had to get used to the smell of that tribe – they put a mix of blood, milk and cow dung on their skin. Flies were constantly around them, so I never got too close to these people. Many of them were beautiful – tall and athletic people with nice faces. The richness of a Masai is measured by the quantity of cows they own. They get their blood by shooting a spear into the neck of the cows (without killing them) and let the blood flow into a calabash. My clients enjoyed watching their performances (dances, no blood harvesting…) and gave them the expected tip. Mrs. Mayer was one of those typical British ladies living in Kenya, I thought of her when I was watching the movie "Out of Africa" years later. I always enjoyed the distinguished tea time at her farm – on one trip I was a bit shocked to see a python skin on a clothing line. Did charming Mrs. Mayer have another (secret) lucrative business? I will get back to snakes later.

Photo: Masai performance at the Mayer`s Ranch

Talking about the Masai – here is a little side story. One of my colleagues based in Mombasa (working as a representative in some hotels), a slightly overweight lady who had her best years behind her, had a Masai boyfriend. Renate was a pretty wealthy lady (in those days you could make a lot of money in Kenya…) with heavy jewelry on her arms and fingers. To cut a long story short – the young Masai moved into her house and when good old Renate turned on a hairdryer, he just escaped from the house. Obviously, he had never seen (and heard) a hair dryer before, poor guy! Later I heard that Renate married him and I am sure she had more funny experiences with her exotic husband. She also made it into the German media. May God bless Renate and her Masai!

Lake Nakuru on day 4. A soda-filled lake in Kenya`s Rift Valley, which is home to thousands of pink flamingos. We watched this spectacular scenery from far. Some guests clapped their hands to make the flamingos fly – the sky turned pink, just awesome. The Lake Nakuru Lodge had its little problems, above all overbookings in high season. The manager was always nice, a bit on purpose. He needed me to avoid major complaints. And my colleague and I once helped him when the lodge was hopelessly overbooked. We agreed to stay in a little place in Nakuru and asked for a bottle of nice wine as compensation. It is needless to say that we got it. The manager was just happy that he could accommodate all guests in his lodge. On one trip, my mom came with me. She was pretty impressed since she found a rather big spider in her cabin and during the night, they turned off the generator, which means no light. Is this romantic or rather scary? I got used to it.

Tea, Coffee and a Hotel in the Trees

Next stop: Kericho. Not really a spectacular city but with endless tea fields on the hills. Every week when I arrived with my guests, a young guy welcomed us, held a few tea leaves under my nose and said: "This is tea." Can you believe I heard this for half a year, almost every week? Someone like me, who was never a tea drinker. Anyways, I will never forget how a tea crop looks like. My clients (and I) learned EVERYTHING about this plant. Luckily we also visited coffee farms to learn how that dark brown drink is produced. I was more interested in that.

A real highlight of the tour was the famous Treetops Hotel – well, let`s call it an accommodation in the trees. Guests had to leave most of their luggage in a place before going up to the Treetops. I liked the story of Queen Elizabeth when she was actually still a princess. She stayed at the Treetops when she got the message that her father had passed away – so that was the time when she knew she would become the Queen (and hard to believe that she is still doing that cool job…). Everything was so small in that place. In the evening, dinner was served at a long table and the food was rolling over it so the waiters did not have to make their way to every guest – lots of fun! The Treetops has a nice rooftop where afternoon tea and cakes (here we go again, Britain!) were served. It would have been very relaxing had the aggressive baboons not been there. As much as I love animals, these creatures with their red asses did not really belong to my favorites. They came to steal cake but not only that, one guest lost his camera to a baboon. I am sure that monkey took photos of the tourists!

Photo: Souvenirs, souvenirs...

Being late in Nairobi and surviving an attempted Coup

After the Masai, the flamingos, tea and coffee the tour continued back to Nairobi, called "the green city in the sun". It was the only real city on our tour so I was always happy to return. Nairobi has a very pleasant climate and even in those days, it was rather cosmopolitan. With the time, I had a nice circle of international friends. We enjoyed theater plays, dinners in great restaurants and a few parties. I had some time during the trip since my guests were on their own during our stays. And sometimes I spent my week off in Nairobi rather than in Mombasa. So far, so good. On a few occasions, I even did not return to our hotel in the evening but only in the morning. This was, of course, not official but isn`t it nice to do something from time to time which does not respect the rules? All would have been well if I had not overslept one time. When I woke up at my friends` house, it was already the time for the bus to depart. Oh my gosh! I rushed to the hotel where my guests were already waiting. I invented weird stories about an urgent dentist visit. I remember a nice older lady (actually from Düsseldorf) who asked me with a wink if I had had breakfast. She was so nice to get me something from the buffet before we left. For the rest of the tour, I tried not to think about this.

Photo: Chaotic tours - and in between performance of a Kikuyu dancer

The second incident was way more dramatic though. I was again at my friends` house when I woke up in the morning and heard a noise outside, including shots. We turned on the radio and learned that an attempted coup had just happened. Nairobi was in a state of emergency and there was no way for me to return to our hotel. I was in big trouble. We called the hotel to find out that my guests were ok. Some of them obviously helped the many injured people. Luckily for me, the Kenyan government was able to end the coup rather fast, a few people were killed and the whole country was shaken. It was all about fights against the major tribes (Kenya has 95 different ones if I remember correctly). I returned to the hotel after two days, invented another story to justify my absence (this time it was a different group, of course) and we continued the tour through a country where you met armed policemen everywhere – no fun at all. And this was not the only incident during this tour – everything happened at the same time and I don`t know how I survived that week.

Chicken in the bus … and on the Plate!

During the coup, our bus driver had run away, he was just scared. No one knew where he was. So I called the agency to ask for another driver. The guy showed up a bit later and we continued the trip. The driver was ok, but not the bus. One day later, it got slower and slower until it stopped completely. And imagine, there were no cell phones, the Internet was still light years away and we even did not have a radio on the coaches. All that to say that I always had to find a telephone booth, which was not that easy in a country like Kenya. Anyways, I managed to call the agency and they promised to send another bus. We continued with our slow one and after a few hours, I was more than happy when I saw a Pollman`s bus coming its way. I even did not doubt this was not ours – it must have been our replacement! Both vehicles stopped and the other driver did not look too happy. I asked my clients to just move their luggage to the other bus when a nice blond lady came back to tell me that there were live chicken in the luggage space. Chicken? Oh no! I found out that this was not the bus supposed to pick us up but I did not want to let it go either. So we managed to put all the luggage on the second bus (the blond lady kept shouting "don`t kill the chicken" which did not happen…) and moved on to the Taita Hills Lodge, the last stop of this unfortunate trip. One of the guests joked that they had used three drivers and three buses but only one tour guide … me! So funny. In the evening, dinner was served at Taita Hills and guess what was on the menu … chicken! Bon appétit.

Geckoes, tennis and mosquitoes

This legendary tour was one of five that I did in a row, with hardly any time off in between. I think I lost a few pounds during that time and enjoyed my time off in cottage 6 at the Reef Hotel. Little geckoes were running on the walls and ceilings – I liked the idea of them eating the insects. My only concern was they could fall from the ceiling right into my bed. Luckily, this never happened.

During my week off, I jogged on the beach, went for a swim, relaxed and played tennis. Since this usually happened in the evening, I always wore Long pants to protect myself from mosquitoes. Yes, Kenya was (and is) a place where malaria is pretty widespread. I took the prophylaxis for weeks (not really a good idea because of the heavy side effects…) until I saw colleagues catching this terrible disease despite having taken the pills. I immediately stopped my intake of the pills. Thank God, I never caught any disease during my time in Kenya.

Photo: My well-deserved week off after five tours in a row...

Wild, Wild Animals

That`s why most people visit Kenya. And that`s one of the reasons why I love this country so much. During my long stay, I saw almost all the species you can find in Kenya. The "big five" (buffalo, elephant, rhino, leopard - the hardest one to see, and lion), of course. Lots of different kinds of antelopes, hippos, hartebeest, crocodiles, vultures, crowned cranes and my favorites, the gracious giraffes. These animals are so beautiful. I will never forget to see a herd of them at sunset with the skyline of Nairobi in the background … so beautiful. Thanks to their height, even lions hardly have a chance to kill them … only when a giraffe is bending down when drinking water. Then predators can jump on her neck to kill her. Luckily, I have never seen it. Hunting (by humans!) was not permitted in Kenya in those days. I cannot believe people kill these animals to get a trophy – or to gain a powder from the horn of rhino, which is supposed to have the same effect as Viagra (as Asians believe) – how stupid is that! Rhinos are close to extinction. What a pity, these creatures are so interesting and of great antiquity (vegetarians, by the way). Wouldn`t it be awful if our grandchildren would not have a chance to see them in their natural habitat?

Photo: Et voilà - the Lion King himself!

Cobra, Mamba and Co.

Oh well, they also belong to the fauna of Kenya, of course. Luckily, I did not see them too often. Most of them are as scared of us as we are scared of them, with a few exceptions. The most fearless one is the puffadder, a pretty thick snake that does not move when you approach it (contrary to most other snakes who can feel the vibration of the ground if someone comes). It just stays where it is so that you can easily jump on it. This is not so recommendable since this creature is very poisonous, you can die within 30 minutes after a bite. Dear Mr. Burrows, a nice English gentleman directing the Taita Hills Lodge, recommended to always wearing boots when getting out in the bush. Fortunately, I never had an encounter with those lovely puffadders. I once spotted a king cobra. It was dozing in the sun when we drove down to the Mayer`s Ranch (the place with the charming old lady and the python skin on the clothing line…). The driver shouted "COBRA" and all the guest jumped to the front of the car – by that time the cobra (possibly 2 m long) had escaped into the bush. Since I was sitting in the front I could see it. On another occasion, we were much closer to a snake. At Tsavo National Park, there is one spot where it is tolerated (not allowed) to get off the bus and walk a little path, which leads to a pool where you can usually watch hippos (very nice, by the way). On our way (with 10 people or so behind me), a green mamba was crossing our path but again, it escaped very fast. I continued to lead my group to the pool without saying a word. I told them about the encounter when we were back on the bus and some faces turned as green as the mamba ;-).

Photo: I have to admit that I took this photo a few years later in Sri Lanka - very rare you get that close to mating snakes. My driver got very nervous when he watched me taking the picture.

Crazy Drivers and wild Stories

Our tour “Land und Leute” (The country and the people) was the only one with an escort and a driver. All other tours run by TUI/Pollman`s just had a driver, no guide. Thus it was not always easy to be accepted by the driver. They were used to drive at their pace, even when clients asked to slow down in order to take photos and/or watch out for wildlife. On some tours, I was constantly arguing with the driver to slow down. Others were great though. I remember one guy who used to tell strange stories. He assumed to have seen a python of 100 m length. His other story was about a special kind of cobra that could turn a stone into a diamond when it crawled over it. I thought he was joking, but his serious face told me something else. My guests asked me to tell him to stop these stories.

Photo: Driver Omar and Frau Schranz, a very nice guest from Austria (her niece wrote me the letter below and sent this photo - danke!)

Know-it-All and other Guests

Oh well, the dear guests. In more than six months, you get to know all kinds of people. There were very nice and interesting ones, nerve-racking and – to a lesser extent – impertinent people. Being with them from breakfast until dinner could be tough. Most of them took it for granted to see all kind of animals, which, of course, was not the case. Every week was different – after all, Kenya is not a zoo (thank God!). Some people (retired teachers in particular) were so well prepared that they knew everything about the paleontological history of Kenya (and that is indeed very interesting). They kept arguing and asking and forced me to never stop reading about the country`s history, its people, cultures, nature and wildlife. I have to admit though that I also liked these challenges. Another issue was smoking in the bus (can you believe it, in those days smoking was not a big discussion). I remember that nice older lady from Düsseldorf (the one who brought me some breakfast items from the buffet when I was late…) was heavily smoking in the bus which resulted in a battle with a younger couple sitting behind her. The guy threatened to vomit on her neck if she went on. In order to avoid that, I reached the agreement with them that the lady only smoked outside.

On another tour, two old ladies decided to walk from our hotel in Nairobi (situated close to a park) to downtown in the evening, despite my warnings. And unfortunately, it was no surprise that they got robbed – jewelry, money, handbags. So I spent the next morning at a police station while the other guests were waiting for our departure. I have never seen an office with such a pile of papers and I was asking myself how on earth they could find anything (remember – NO computers!) The problem could not be fixed, of course, so the two ladies had to sort this out with their insurance in Germany. Other guests were so friendly that they sent me thank-you letters and little gifts from Germany. I even became friend with a family from Munich and we are still in contact after all these years. And yes, I got a nice tip after almost every trip – at least something but nothing compared to the money that my colleagues were making in the hotels.

Photo: A lovely letter from an Austrian client - found this in a very old box...

Despite all the challenges, I was fascinated by Kenya with all its spectacular nature and wildlife. And I loved the people. I always treated them with respect and they were so grateful for it. I had a great social life, including a liaison. So at one stage I really planned to stay there for a longer time. I even had a job offer from a local safari company. However, sometimes life turns a different direction. My relation ended and I decided to go back to Germany and then to any destination where the company would send me. So I took the plane back to Germany in late October. We took off in Mombasa and flew over Tsavo - I could still see the wide open spaces from above before the clouds closed the sight. Yes, I had tears in my eyes with so many memories, good and bad ones. And in that moment I felt that I was prepared for life – I could not imagine anything that could knock me out of my shoes anymore. Ahsante sana, Kenya – thank you so much.

Photo: This photo was taken in Masai Mara, a few years later...

A few years later I returned to the country to contract hotels. I visited the coasts of Mombasa and went on an excursion to the fabulous Masai Mara Reserve, probably the best site to watch a wide array of wildlife (if you come at the right time). I just want to close this blog with a story from that time. The operator I was working for had two hotels in Malindi under contract. I never liked the place, the beaches were not as good as those close to Mombasa and the hotels were pretty cheap in those days. One of them was managed by an old Hungarian guy, not the most likeable person. He annoyed me with constantly praising his “wonderful hotel” (needless to say that I had a different opinion). One day he invited me for lunch after our negotiations. I asked him if my driver could join and he said NO. I was speechless. The poor driver had to look for another place. So the Hungarian and myself were the only people in the restaurant with a long buffet. He kept talking and talking and I had a look at the buffet when I recognized a monitor lizard (probably 1 m long) made his way right to the food. I was so fascinated by that creature and grateful for the entertainment – rather than listening to that old man. He did not see the lizard at all and I decided to protect the animal by not saying anything. After a while, the reptile left the restaurant and no one but myself had noticed it. Mr. Menyhart, a former hunter, died of malaria a few years later.

Here ends my Kenyan adventure. Another season followed in Tunisia before I decided to go back to Germany. A new chapter of my career was about to begin.

Photo: I loved these little guys called rocky hyrax - cute!

Photo: Pussycats African style!

Photo: This is not the python Mrs. Mayer had on her clothing line ;-)! - Photo was taken in Thailand, shortly before my stay in Kenya (with my mom)

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