Into Africa

I first travelled to Kenya in September 1987 and have returned a great many times. I think that it is fair to say that I fell in love with the country on that first journey. I have a lot to say about Kenya and how its changed over the last 30-odd years but that is probably for another book. This series of stories is supposed to be concerned with events that have had a major influence on the trajectory of my life, and Kenya should feature in that set. Kenya in 1987 was a one-party state, the Kenyan African National Union (KANU) was in power as it had been since independence in 1963. Daniel Arap Moi had taken over as President when Jomo Kenyatta died in 1978. Kenya was to remain a one party state until 1992 when Moi was forced by foreign aid donors to allow multi-party elections. But KANU won the first two of these elections by exploiting tribal divisions which are rife in Kenya with its 40 or so different tribal groups.

Kenya was only the second country outside the UK that I had visited (the only other one being Austria), and the journey there was my first experience of an intercontinental plane trip. In 1987 it was still possible to smoke on planes (this seems crazy from the perspective of 2020) and the atmosphere was always quite thick with tobacco smoke. Sitting cramped in an economy class seat for the eight hour flight it is always difficult to sleep, but on this occasion I was very excited and so sleep was in even shorter supply than usual. Jomo Kenyatta airport outside Nairobi is one of the world’s highest airports and the air is very thin. This meant that aircraft had to avoid taking off and landing when it was hot (making the air density even lower), and so we arrived in the early morning. JK airport didn’t have any fancy airbridges in those days and you had to disembark down a set of stairs that were wheeled up to the aircraft doors and then get a bus across the tarmac into the ramshackle airport. There was the usual chaos as passengers hauled their luggage out of the overhead compartments, got in each other’s way and gradually filed off the plane and down the steps to the tarmac.

Jomo Kenyatta Airport

I remember vividly the moment that I got to the aircraft’s door. The cool of the air-conditioned interior was replaced by the heat of an equatorial sun, and that first breath of African air. Such a characteristic smell that has always since then reminded me of Kenya; a mixture of charcoal burning, of spices from somewhere, of putrefaction and sweat. And so dry, even the air felt desiccated. I felt so happy just to be there. Since then Kenya has given me a lot; I fell in love there, I had my heart broken there, I have met many people in Kenya and made many friends, but also lost many people, I have been a witness to the country’s development and growth. They say that a trip to Africa either results in many subsequent trips or none, you either love the continent or hate it. I have always loved it. There are two major incidents from that first trip in 1987 that stand out as key to my own future, one positive and one less so, and I will describe both in this chapter.

A skinny thing in Kora National Reserve in October 1987

The trip to Kenya in 1987 was a University of Bristol expedition led by Charles Bishop and his friend Simon Roper which was organised to visit and conducted research in Kora National Reserve. For those who do not know, Kora was the place where George Adamson (of Born Free fame) lived and where he looked after and rehabilitated lions that for one reason or another could not look after themselves. But George was incidental to our trip. What we had not known before leaving the UK was that this part of Kenya was overrun by Shifta (Somali bandits) who were the main source of the elephant poaching in that part of Kenya. This poaching was rife in the late 1980s, and bound up with issues of sovereignty over the entire eastern part of East Africa. What we also did not know was that there was at least some degree of collusion between the local members of the Wildlife Conservation Management Department (later to be replaced by the much more efficient Kenya Wildlife Service which was founded in 1990 by Richard Leakey). This all added up to Kora being a highly dangerous place for a bunch of naive young scientists out in the bush for the first time in their lives. It was these Shifta that were to kill George Adamson almost exactly two years after we were there. For the relatively short time we were in Kora we would regularly find dead elephants, and the reserve was overrun by the goats and camels of Somali pastoralists (at least some of which we could see were being moved around by WCMD trucks).

Charles sleeping at George Adamson’s camp with one of the lions for company.

Unknown to us this state of affairs had finally stirred the leadership of WCMD into taking action and they planned an aggressive campaign in the area to push back the Shifta. To do this they had to get rid of this annoying student expedition, and so after just a couple of weeks we were given notice to quit the reserve. We retreated to Nairobi, the expedition that we had spent so much time organising and paying for was over. The expedition – ‘Arid Lands Research’ – was led by Charles and Simon, as well as myself the expedition consisted of Kath Pyke and my brother, Jeremy. The evening of the day after we arrived back in Nairobi the other three members of the expedition were called individually into see Charles and Simon. We were each told that the expedition was over that we were now on our own. We would not have access to any of the expedition’s funds and were expected to get out of the accommodation that had been arranged for us in a couple of days. To say that this was a shock would be a gross understatement. After imparting this news, Charles and Simon disappeared, and we never saw either of them again.

What were we to do now? Jeremy opted for an immediate return to the UK, he had only come as the expedition’s mechanic and without the need to keep vehicles rolling he had no motivation to stay. Kath and I wanted to stay but needed to find a reason to do so, we were keen to have something to show for the efforts that we had put into the expedition, but with no funds except the personal money that we had brought with us this would be challenging. But we were helped by the fact that we had met the legendary Chum van Someren.

Chum (aka Digin, aka G.R. Cunningham van Someren) and his son Ian walking in the garden of his house in Karen in 1989. Sadly, both Chum and Ian are now dead.

Chum lived out in Karen on the outskirts of Nairobi and knew everyone in the world of natural history in Kenya and was a wonderfully generous with his time and expertise. Kath and I just descended on him and his wife, Ellinor, we poured out our story and asked him for his help. Within a few hours he had suggested, not one but three possible options. And these were not theoretical, he had contacted the people involved and set us up with appointments for the rest of the week. In the event Kath and I ended up conducting a project for Cecilia Gichuki of the National Musuem of Kenya in the foothills of the Aberdares.

This period demonstrated to me very clearly that trust is not something that should be given easily. We had been comprehensively betrayed by Charles and Simon, I am sure they thought this was the only way to carry on themselves. But they treated us very badly. On the other hand, someone who we had known for a short time had gone a very long way out of his way to help us.

I said at the beginning that there were two key events of this first trip to Kenya, and so there were, with the second being far more positive. Kath and I decided to spend our Christmas trekking on Mount Kenya, we stopped the project in the Aberdares and were collected by Cecilia and taken back to Nairobi. I needed to buy some new shoes as the ones I had brought with me had worn out after three months in the field. We had so little money in those days and the only thing I could afford was a pair of plimsolls, so I embarked upon this trek in footwear that were better suited for a school gym. Also due to the fact that we had almost no money we travelled up to Naro Moru – the point where the conventional trekking route begins – by matatu (for those who do not know matatus are the public buses of East Africa, garishly coloured, decorated with outlandish slogans, packed with people, goods and animals). The journey to Naro Moru required three buses, one from Nairobi to Nakuru, another from Nakuru to Nyeri and then a small local one to get the last stage to Naro Moru.

In 1987 Naro Moru was a small town on the road between Nyeri and Nanuki, it had a market that seemed to run constantly and a small cluster of houses. Over the years that followed I became very fond of this little town and spent a lot of time there. But on this first visit we rather wearily got out of the cramped vehicle, fetched our backpacks off the roof and crossed the main road to walk the short distance to the Mount Kenya Youth Hostel. Late in the afternoon the mountain was covered in cloud and may as well have not been there. We trudged to the hostel and camped for the night. next morning though it was a different story. The clouds cleared through the night (as they almost always do) and there in front of us was the perfect mountain, silhouetted against a clear blue sky.

My first glimpse of Mount Kenya, late December 1987. The perfect mountain.

Kath and I walked all the way that day from the youth hostel to Mackinder’s Camp at the head of the Telekii Valley. This walk is supposed to be broken down into three stages, normally you wouldn’t even walk from Naro Moru, you would get a ride on the Naro Moru River Lodge’s big four wheel drive overland truck. But we were virtually penniless and so we walked, like people do on this continent. It was a long walk, a very long walk. We got to Mackinder’s camp as it was getting dark. Having travelled three day’s worth of the trek in a single day we had a rest day at Mackinder’s, which I spent wandering around the area just looking at what I could find, not really looking for anything in particular.

Mount Kenya from MacKinder’s Camp in the Telekii Valley (the camp is where the radio arial is at the bottom of the picture).

But what I found would change the course of the next three years for me and maybe the rest of my life. I found a sunbird, not just a sunbird, lots of beautiful scarlet-tufted malachite sunbirds. There in the bright sunshine just a few metres away such a spectacular bird. I sat and watched them.

A male scarlet-tufted malachite sunbird.

The rest of the trek passed, but this hour or so at the base of Mount Kenya remained clearly lodged in my mind. What I did not know is that Professor Nick Davies of the University of Cambridge had already written to me inviting me to come to visit him in Cambridge with a view to competing for a PhD studentship. That letter was lying unopened at my parent’s house while I was watching sunbirds over Christmas. I found it when I got back to the UK. Kath and I decided to call it quits early in the New Year of 1988, and flew back to London. I took Nick up on his invitation and somehow talked myself into getting a studentship at the University of Cambridge and when Nick asked ‘what do you want to work on?’, the answer was, of course, to go back to Mount Kenya and try to understand something about what those beautiful birds were doing. He just agreed and we set up the project and I spent most of the next three years spending half my time in genteel Cambridge and the other half at 4,500m in the alpine zone of Mount Kenya.

MacKinder’s Valley where I conducted field work on Scarlet-tufted Malachite Sunbirds from 1989 to 1991, returning in 1997.