Friends

The Kombi falls

I will be unfair if I would not say a few words about our VW Kombi. It seems that these days these vehicles still attract quite a lot of attention among car lovers. Although I never saw it in this light at the time we had it, they dominated the minibus market and most of the Kenya safari companies used them. Then VW came up with a new model that was not as good for rough roads as their back doors became undone and needed to be welded to keep them shut! Very soon afterwards the Japanese minibuses replaced them.

m mara kombi

A young-looking Bushsnob posing with the kombi after driving through a muddy Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

The Kombi had, like any vehicle, good and bad features. My first concern was safety, as I had never driven a car with the engine at the back and I felt rather vulnerable in case of an accident, particularly the way driving in Kenya was in those days! I also needed to fit seat belts, surprisingly absent in a UN vehicle! Its lack of 4WD was another rather serious drawback and I recall several instances of getting stuck in places that a 4WD would not even have skidded!

l naiv july 82 after being stuck

My wife (red shirt) and our friend Aurora resting after pushing the kombi out of the sand at Naivasha. July 1982.

One particularly bad instance was at Amboseli National Park when, trying to approach the swamp to get a better view of an elephant, we ended up into soft black cotton soil. This kind of mud sticks to your wheels filling their threads so your tyres soon become smooth! Fed-up of fruitlessly attempting to get the car unstuck I placed our BBQ grid under one of the wheels to see if I could get some better grip. It was good and bad. We got out of the spot but the grid got somehow ejected with such force into the thicket surrounding the swamp that we never found it again and had to cook our chicken on a stick that night!

Tsavo W stuck with paul rossiter

Stuck again! This time on a rainy day at Tsavo West National Park. My wife -with the raincoat- and Paul lifting and digging to place the spare under the wheel to get some grip.

It also had the rare ability of losing traction and stopping while driving slowly over a gully or when crossing a culvert diagonally as its chassis somehow would get twisted leaving one wheel in the air spinning hopelessly! In order for the car to move again it needed the assistance of one passenger to stand on the back fender and sometimes to jump in order for the offending wheel to grip and the car to move. While this was not a great problem, imagine doing it on a ditch full of muddy water!

Snapping the clutch cable was another “Kombi special”. As you can imagine, this cable needed to transmit my left foot’s instructions for quite a distance before it reached its destination so it was a weak feature and one that left us stranded. Luckily only once. Eventually, apart from learning to fit a new cable and carrying a spare, I learnt to operate without the clutch thanks to Joseph, one of the Muguga herdsmen that taught me how to start it and drive it without a clutch! I would engage second gear and then start the engine. The car will shudder, shake and jump forward until it got going. After a while you could change gears upwards if you knew the right speed. Changing downwards was not easy so stalling at stop signs was unavoidable! Although not a long-term solution, it would get you back home or to the mechanic.

On the side of its virtues, it had great ground clearance, a reliable engine that never had a problem despite its mileage and, being two of us, it also had lots of space to carry supplies and materials for my work as well as to take all of our gear on safari (and that is a lot and increasing!). Removing the second seat we could sleep inside if the circumstances so demanded. Its sliding door made for great game watching; particularly driving around lakes (with the door facing the lakeshore, of course) enabled superb birding.

I drove the car intensely between Tigoni, Nairobi and Muguga during the week and all over Kenya during the weekends. That particular morning I had come to Ranjini´s house to bring her some vegetables that I got for her in the Limuru market, close to Tigoni. The clutch cable had snapped while entering her house but then there was worse to come…

Ranjini worked as a scientist with the then Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development of the British Government attached to the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) in Muguga where she also lived. We had met while sharing accommodation at Muguga House, KARI´s visitors hostel [1].

“Clutchless” I crawled into her garden and did a jerk-stop. Although I carried a spare cable and I woud have been able to fix it then, it was not a short exercise as its calibration took a while and I needed to get back home. Further, we had plans to travel far in a couple of days so it needed proper fixing. So, having given Ranjini her shopping I assured her that I would be fine and left her rather worried by means of another jerk-start departure.

With my mind focussed on keeping the car going I forgot to fasten my seatbelt, an essential precaution when driving in Kenya. I was going very slowly down Ranjini’ s driveway when I decided to buckle up. I had never noticed that particular pine tree but I am sure that it had been there for many years and not moved much so it was not the guilty party! Neither had I seen its protuberant roots reaching towards the driveway. I still did not that day, I only felt them!

Everybody know that buckling up in movement is not recommended. It requires a few seconds of focusing your mind on the belt as well as some handless driving. A lot can happen over those few seconds. I remember feeling the left wheel rising over the roots and, as I tried to break, the car shuddered, stalled and stopped. However, in a bewildering feat, it gradually started to tilt towards mi side. My surprise quickly turned to panic and then resignation: the car was falling on me in slow motion.

My immediate thought was to try to stop it by sticking my hands through the window but -luckily for me- events happened faster than my thoughts and a thump followed by a shower of spanners, driving licence, car book, nuts and bolts and all things that one carries in a car’s shelf fell on me! The Kombi was now securely resting on its right side and only the door separated me from the ground that I could touch as my window was down.

It was an upset Bushsnob that emerged through the passenger’s window! Once outside I could contemplate my sublimely stupid achievement and promised myself never to try the seat belt trick while driving again. To say that I was also embarrassed when I walked back to Ranjini’s house is an understatement. She had just sent me off and closed the front door and I there I was again! I am sure that she thought I had forgotten something. When I told her what had happened, her expression changed dramatically! “Are you all right?” she asked with genuine concern. I told her that I was fine and invited her to come and have a look at my masterpiece!

We walked to the beginning of the driveway and we had a clear vision of the Kombi peacefully resting on its side! She gasped and while she recovered, I asked her if Njuguna, her gardener, was around. She immediately called him. He came and joined the unbelieving crowd expressing his regrets.

“Njuguna, please give me a hand to put it up again” I said estimating that most of the weight should be on the underside and therefore not too difficult to bring the car back to its normal position. Looking somehow doubtful he came along. Although I did not look at Ranjini, I am sure that her expression had changed to amusement! I could not blame her.

The effort required to put the car upright again was easier than I thought and the car bounced on its wheels as it got upright again. Apart from a broken side mirror and a few small dents and scratches on the side, the car was in good condition and driveable. I thanked Njuguna, said farewell to Ranjini, buckled-up, jerk-started it and drove off, still upset at my stupidity.

It was only weeks after the event, after I had replaced the mirror and got the dents painted that I could see the funny side of this rather freakish accident that even today I find rather incredible. I regret not having a picture of the car and the faces of my rescuers when they saw it to show it to you. It was all memorable and -in retrospect- quite funny!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/kenya-muguga1/

 

 

 

Unpredicted friends and unforgettable dates

The morning of Saturday 17 July 1982 (I remember this day well!) we got up early to pack our car with camping gear for a safari to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. We had booked the Sand River campsite for a couple of nights.

We were about ready to go when, totally unexpectedly, someone walked into our front garden! It was a messenger from the Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation coming to deliver a telegramme, the first we had ever received! As we had no working telephone in the house (and cellular phones were not yet invented!) a telegramme was almost the ultimate in urgent communications. Being far from home, it also carried a dose of dread as it could carry bad news from home. So, with wonder as well as some trepidation I read it, trying to prepare for the worst.

Its contents were surprising and shocking but good! It read: “We arrive tomorrow” and it was signed by two of our best friends: Nazar and Aurora. That was that, not even a date! We were thrilled that they had finally decided to come to Kenya. We knew they were travelling to Piediluco, Italy to accompany their son Juan José that was rowing at the 1982 World Rowing Junior Championships representing Uruguay and we had insisted that they extended their journey to visit us although we knew that this would be very difficult for them!

Our initial elation turned into mild panic when the fact that they could be at the Jomo Kenyatta International airport (JKIA) at the time of reading the telegramme sunked in! Expecting the worse we immediately drove to JKIA as we knew that most flights from Europe would arrive by mid morning. We were on a rather blind chase and during our journey we did a lot of speculation, not only about their arrival but also on contingency planning regarding our planned safari.

Our fears that they had arrived the day before and were stranded at the airport unable to communicate were unfounded and perhaps exaggerated as a thorough examination of the arrival area gave no results. Unable to get any passenger information from the possible airlines we decided to stay put and wait. After about an hour or so, a few flights from Europe arrived within thirty minutes. We crossed our fingers and, eventually, we were rewarded when our friends emerged looking dazzled at what they were seeing around them but otherwise unaware of our earlier dilemma and very happy to see us.

It was an emotional reunion and, after an exchange of the usual family news, I casually announced that we were aware of their long journey but that we were off to the Maasai Mara, leaving as soon as possible. As expected (they had no real choice!) they gallantly accepted the invitation and, after passing by our house to finish our packing, we set off with their luggage still unopened!

Nazar, had a tiring trip, and he was also suffering from a gut complaint. His time during the journey to the Maasai Mara was spent drinking abundant amounts of warm cola and going into episodes of slumber until, by the time we got to Aitong, a few hours later, he started to talk nonsense with me, a sure sign of his slow recovery. Aurora, on the contrary, was wide awake and did not miss detail, asking questions all the time and gaining in excitement as we moved from Nairobi to the Kikuyu escarpment, the breathtaking Rift Valley views, Narok and beyond into the great green plains of the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem.

Because of our late departure, I drove non-stop and despite the rough road, we managed to get to the gate in time to get to the Sand river camp by the Mara river at dusk. Without delay we started unpacking and finished setting up camp using our car headlamps, as was the norm with us then.

While this was on going, our friends watched, not moving too far from the car, still rather confused with their situation. Our work was cut short, as already in Nairobi they had decided to sleep in the car. Luckily for them, removing the second seat of our loyal VW Kombi was relatively easy so soon they had their nest ready. As soon as we finished with the car arrangements my wife had heated our ready-made dinner brought from home and, although we still had a lot to talk about, we were so exhausted that we went to sleep early.

Camping at the Sand River was ever exciting as there were always plain game in its neighborhood, particularly wildebeest and zebra that, somehow enjoyed crisscrossing the Mara river offering, apparently unnecessary opportunities to their reptilian predators. Their presence also attracted lion and hyena so there were always nocturnal happenings! That night was quieter than expected but still the hyenas came close to camp, their calling amplified by the river. We did not fail to hear lions roaring in various degrees of proximity, above the constant wildebeest snorting and zebra whinnying. Thinking on our friends’ time in the car, we paid the price for our rather busy day and passed out before long.

mmara hyena 2

The following morning, recovered, I got up early as usual and prepared tea and coffee waiting for the other fellow campers to show life signs. My wife emerged eventually but no movement was detected inside the car! A quiet inspection of it showed it to be unscratched. Its windows were totally foggy and I had some concern about whether our friends have had enough oxygen inside there as the car was tightly shut!

My fears were unfounded as, eventually, a hand started to remove the fog from the side window and the smiling faces of our friends showed gradually behind the glass. Eventually they left their protective and damp metal cage to join us for a rather late breakfast and they shared their mate[1].

nazar m mara

Nazar offers a mate to the photographer.

As usual with first time visitors, they have heard nothing the whole night as they had slept like logs! We finally had a chance to finish exchanging pending news at leisure.

Fortunately they were fast to adjust and gradually they became used to our ‘bush ways” joining us on a couple of game drives during which they greatly enjoyed what they saw. The frequent appearances of the imprudent hyenas and the lions roaring were not conducive to us persuading them to abandon their cage the following night and they still preferred their airtight environment to the risks of camping in the bush. We understood them well as it had taken us longer than that to get used to camping “al fresco” surrounded by wild beasts!

nazar y aurora 8.35.44 PM

Our friends relaxing at the Mara Serena lodge.

We returned to Nairobi after two nights. This time they were able to appreciate their surroundings much better, including the always-interesting sight of the Maasai people and their manyattas and livestock and they were delighted with the daylight return journey.

Later on during the week we showed them Nairobi and the wonderful Nairobi National Park and later travelled to Nakuru and Bogoria for a view of the Rift valley, its hot springs and flamingoes. Luckily, they loved the experience but time passed very fast and it was soon time for them to depart, too soon for us!

Their plane left back to Europe at midnight on Saturday 31 July 1982 so we took them to the airport early and made sure that they went through all the departing procedures early until the time came to leave them once they have checked-in to return to Tigoni late at night. Unused to driving at night, we negotiated several road blocks that we thought too many but, as we drove a car with red diplomatic plates, our going was smooth and we got home safely.

The following morning we had arranged with our friend Ranjini to go to the Nairobi National Park so we travelled to Muguga through back-roads to fetch her. Once there she announced that an attempt to overthrow President Moi’s government had taken place at midnight and that there were serious confrontations going on in Nairobi between the Police and students! Apparently, a group of soldiers from the Kenya Air Force had taken over the Voice of Kenya[2] and announced that they had overthrown the government!

moi

A bad picture I took of Moi’s cavalcade before knowing the risks involved!

We thanked Ranjini for the news and quickly turn around heading for home as fast as we could! During the journey we met a large military convoy ready for war heading for Nairobi but we did not know what their stance was at the time! Luckily they ignored us and we, the sole occupants of the road by now, got home safely where we remained -listening to the BBC radio for the latest news- for the following three days until it was confirmed that the attempt had failed[3].

It was lucky that our friends just managed to get away (a while) before the Kenya airspace was closed and that they were over the clouds when all this happened! They remained unaware of their narrow escape until we met them back in Uruguay a year later when they listened to us in disbelief!

 

[1] Traditional South American caffeine-rich infused drink, prepared by steeping dried leaves of yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) in hot water and is served with a metal straw from a shared hollow calabash gourd and shared among drinkers.

[2] From 1989 it became the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.

[3] The coup failed. The Air force pilots that meant to bomb State House dropped their bombs over Mount Kenya and eventually, after ruling Kenya for a few hours, Hezekiah Ochuka, a soldier in the Kenya army, escaped to Tanzania. He was eventually extradited back to Kenya, found guilty at a high profile trial that involved both Oginga Odinga and Raila Odinga, and eventually executed in 1987.