Nasty Tourists and poisonous Snakes - My Kenya Adventure

How I survived a season as tour guide in Kenya – and why I fell in love with this Country

KHL

KHL

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From Spain to Kenya

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 accurate and not invented. From today's perspective, some of the stories sound even unreal to me. My apologies again for the low 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 Canary Island of Gran Canaria/Spain, where I was working in the office of the TUI agency. In that role, I was making hotel reservations, verifying invoices, and scheduling transfers. I conducted regular business hours and spent my siestas (long lunch breaks) at a pool. In the evening, I enjoyed playing tennis. On Saturday, I took a "guagua" (that's how they call a bus) to Las Palmas, the island´s capital city, 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. 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. I then spent a few days at home in Germany. On 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. 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 arrive." Lovely. I unpacked my stuff at the Reef Hotel, a pleasant 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 lovely dining service with a British touch (no wonder, Kenya was a British colony until 1963). I also remember a distinguished British lady having dinner in front of me. She could not see what I saw – a colossal 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 seeing 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 friendly and easy people. Relief! 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.  Wild animals (zebras, elephants, warthogs -just to name a few) came by to 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 hotel's washrooms when being asked. The evening in Nairobi was the only one without dinner as part of the program, so the guests – and I – were on their own. I will get back to that later. A 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 they served British tea 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 always around them, so I never got too close to these people. Many of them were beautiful – tall and athletic people with beautiful faces. Masais measure their richness by the number of cows they own. They get their blood by shooting a spear into the cows' neck  (without killing them) and letting 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

A Masai Story and pink Flamingos

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. He had never seen (and heard) a hairdryer before, poor guy! Later I heard that Renate married him, and I am sure she had more fun experiences with her exotic husband. She also made it into the German media. May God bless Renate and her Masai! (Note: A few weeks ago, I have learned that Renate has passed away in early 2020, very sad).


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 hotel manager was friendly, a bit on purpose since he needed me to avoid significant 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 excellent 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 impressed since she found a giant 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 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 always remember how a tea crop looks. My clients (and I) learned EVERYTHING about this plant. Luckily we also visited coffee farms to understand how they produce that dark brown drink. I was more interested in that.


A real highlight of the tour was the famous Treetops Hotel – well, let's call it 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 still a princess. She stayed at the Treetops when she got the message that her father had passed away. That was when Elizabeth knew she would become the Queen (and hard to believe that she is still doing that steady job). Everything was so small in that place. In the evening, they served dinner at a long table. 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 beautiful rooftop where you could enjoy afternoon tea and cakes (here we go again, Britain!). 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 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 the 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 trip, so I was always happy to return. Nairobi has a pleasant climate, and even in those days, it was relatively cosmopolitan. With time, I had a beautiful 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 stay. And sometimes, I spent my week off in Nairobi rather than in Mombasa. So far, so good. On a few occasions, I did not return to our hotel in the evening but only in the morning. That was not official, but isn't it nice to do something from time to time that 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 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 friendly 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

An attempted Coup

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 helped many injured people. Luckily for me, the Kenyan government was able to end the coup relatively fast. A few people were killed, and the whole country got shaken up. 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). We continued the tour through a country where you met armed police officers 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 altogether. 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. That was not 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. 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 just to move their luggage to the other bus when a nice blond lady came back to tell me that there was 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. 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). We 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 lost a few pounds during that time and enjoyed my time off in cottage six at the Reef Hotel on the North coast of Mombasa. 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 top 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 precaution for weeks (not a good idea because of the side effects) until I saw colleagues catching this terrible disease despite having taken the pills. I immediately stopped my intake of the tablets. 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 extended 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). Many 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 at sunset with Nairobi's skyline in the background - so cute. 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 the rhino. Some people believe that it has the same effect as Viagra. How stupid is that! Rhinos are close to extinction. What a pity, these creatures are so exciting 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 quickly jump on it. That 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 guests 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 part, I could see it. On another occasion, we were much closer to a snake. At Tsavo National Park, there is one spot where they tolerate (not allow) to get off the bus and walk a little path. That leads to a pool where you can usually watch hippos (charming, by the way). On our way (with ten 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 trips 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 to take photos and watch out for wildlife. On some tours, I was always 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 information 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 ask 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 challenging. Most of them took it for granted to see all kinds of animals, which was not the case. Every week was different – after all, Kenya is not a zoo (thank God!). Some people (retired teachers in particular) had prepared themselves so well that they knew everything about Kenya's paleontological history (and that is indeed very interesting). They kept arguing and asking and forced me never to stop reading about the country's history, people, cultures, nature, and wildlife. I have to admit, though, I also liked these challenges. Another issue was smoking on the bus (can you believe it, in those days smoking was not a considerable discussion). I remember that nice older lady from Düsseldorf (who brought me some breakfast items from the buffet when I was late). She was heavily smoking on 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. 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. They did not listen to 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. I was asking myself how 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 a friend with a family from Munich, and we are still in contact after all these years. And yes, I got a 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 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 relationship ended, and I decided to go back to Germany and then to any destination 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 at that moment, I felt that I was ready 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. That place is 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 likable person. He annoyed me with always 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 impaired driver had to look for another place. So the Hungarian and I 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 fascinated by that creature and grateful for the entertainment – rather than listening to that older 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.
 

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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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