We arrived late in the afternoon and settled in for the night for what we knew could be a stressful day the next day: we had to get our visas for Sudan and all reports we'd heard about this were that it wasn't easy to do...worse still, parts of the south of the country and the Darfur region were on a knife-edge pending a political referendum in January. The UN were rumoured to be everywhere.
To get the Sudanese visas we all had to go to our respective Embassies and get a 'letter of invitation' from them; essentially confirming our identity, guaranteeing proper conduct in their country and politely requesting safe transit. More or less what a passport (costing over 100GBP) should be able to do for you, right? That's what we thought too but apparently a passport isn't good enough. This was a bit of a ballbreaker as found out the next morning...
We all piled into various taxis and shuttle buses to take us to our Embassies. Jen, Jules (Kiwi turned Brit), Berbs, Laraldo and I got dropped off at the uber-secure British Embassy. After by-passing the bomb guys with their massive dental mirrors (for seeing under cars), leaving all accessories and bits and pieces with the security guard at reception, going through a metal detector and then being frisked, we finally strolled over to the passport enquiries office. After a short wait, the woman there broke the news to us that the letter we needed to get the Sudanese visa would cost us 65GBP (100USD). Yep, our own country charging us a fortune for a single piece of A4 paper (albeit embossed with the Embassy logo) even though we all had perfectly good passports. 'Thems the breaks', I guess. As we've heard many people say on this side of the continent when something doesn't go to plan: "T.I.A." or "This is Africa." What could we do but pay it? At least the woman behind the desk was kind enough to photocopy all of our documents for us...saving us at least a few pennies.
|Should you wish to try and save some pennies by forging (not advised) the 'letter of invitation', this is what one from the British Embassy looked like. Good luck with the Embassy stamp and embossed paper!|
After about an hour or two here we were done so we went to a nearby shopping mall for some grub and to check out the rumoured cinema and what was on. Inception? Aces. We'd heard a lot about this one so were keen to come back and watch it that evening. Back at Karen Camp, all the various groups of nationalities ambled back in dribs and drabs...some with stories like ours (the Kiwis had to pay about 40USD and didn't actually have an Embassy in Kenya so went to the office of some random guy who acted as Honorary consulate or something like that) but it seems like us Brits got screwed over the most. I think the Gab (Italian), Big Bad Ron (Dutch) and Pat (Aussie on a Swiss passport) got theirs for free...or as good as free. Can't remember for the Saffers and Aussies but if you need to know drop me a line and I'll ask them.
The evening came and went – as did Inception (best ending to a film, ever?) and the next morning we were off to the Sudanese Embassy. We'd all filled out two copies of the usual forms, had our yellow fever certificates photocopied (just in case), our original letters from our Embassies as well as photocopies (again, just in case), photocopies of bank statements and/or bank cards (not needed in the end), passport photocopies and passport-sized photos....phew!!!
We were all getting our relevant bits of paperwork out of our lockers when Mr Homeless discovered that he was 900USD short. F*CK!! If you've been reading the previous entries you'd know that we've been having issues with money "going missing" for the last month. First Laraldo in Zanzibar (200USD approx.), then Matt, Kerry and Sonya the day before Serengeti (combined total of about 6-700USD) then Big Bad Ron (400USD) when we broke down in Kenya just before visiting the Ugandan gorillas. This sucks. Somebody is still playing silly buggers.
|A typical private investigator|
In the words of Freddie Mercury, "The show must go on." Despite the big pile of B.S. that had been dropped on us that morning, we still had to sort out the visas. A handful of us took off to the Sudanese Embassy and dropped everything off before wondering about 800 metres down the road to check out 'Wildebeest Camp.' We were all happy enough with the facilities at Karen Camp but were forking out between 150 – 300 Kenyan Shillings per person every time we wanted to go anywhere (i.e. to the Embassies or town centre). Wildebeest was much closer into town (a mere 5 minute walk from the aforementioned shopping mall) and we'd read nothing but good reviews about the place on TripAdvisor.
So we scoped the place out; the rooms were clean and tidy, the en-suite lodge-style tents were immaculate, the garden and lawn were well-kept and the atmosphere was relaxed and homely. After positive feedback from some current residents our decision was made. Lara, Son, Ish, Big Ron and I were all going to spend just one more night at Karen Camp and the rest of the week at Wildebeest.
|The lodge-style safari tents at Wildebeest.|
|Inside the tents were immaculate (until we moved in of course).|
|That's right - an en suite tent.|
|The spacious lawn (usually green but had just been 'treated' with compost). Perfect for frisbee.|
By the end of the afternoon, we'd jumped in a 'matati' (very cheap local mini-bus that works on a very loose timetable) and soon found ourselves chilling outside the bar back at Karen Camp where the rest of the tribe had also congregated. We were even joined by two new passengers – Hendrik and Robert aka The Saffer Bros – who we'd already got to know back at Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda. The boys were putting together a braii South African style but we couldn't get too excited about it as we had more important business to sort out: the thief and the P.I.
It was early evening when a grey-haired, slightly portly character strolled into the patio area with his gumshoe suit barely concealing the gun nestled in his holster. He looked like he should have his own crime show from the late 80's (that eventually gets shown two decades later on British mid-week afternoon tv). Seriously, the guy was like Jessica Fletcher, Petrocelli, Quincy M.E., Dr Mark Sloan (Dyke Van Dick's character in Diagnosis: Murder...that's right, I said Dyke Van Dick) and Ironside all rolled into one ('cept the Ironside wheelchair of course). Chris gave us the introduction. It went something like:
"Guys, I'd like you to meet my security contact I've told you about. He's studied criminology and forensic psychology, has worked with Special Forces in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, works with Interpol and does Private Investigating for thrills. His name..." (You'll love this.)
Amazing. He must already have one of those shows with a name like that, right??? His business card confirmed both his name and his credentials (think I still have it somewhere) and soon he was interviewing all of us one-by-one. The 'interview/interrogation' was nothing too sinister - in fact, like a lot of things in my life, it was over within a couple of minutes – but you got the sense that this guy really knew what he was doing. At the end of the night, he gave Chris his thoughts and Chris rounded us all up for a bollocking/warning. They had an idea who it was, but couldn't prove anything and thus, couldn't tell us. An open invitation was given for the thief to "fack awf" (in Aussie speak) and the lock on the truck was changed so that nobody could do a runner over night. We all went to bed in a sombre mood and woke up the next day half-expecting our gang to be minus one...but no. The thief remained in our midst anonymously...and to this day, still does.
For those that are keeping record, the rundown of mishaps and adventures on this trip goes something like this:
- Tent-slashing thieves in Morocco (whilst we were still asleep inside them).
- Police detention in Mauritania (to "save us from the Al Qaeda")
- 66% of passengers getting malaria in Ghana/Nigeria.
- Being caught in the middle of riots in northern Nigeria.
- The truck getting stuck in a subterranean river in Cameroon.
- Jigger fleas popping out of our toes in Angola and Namibia.
- Elephants raiding our camp in Zambia...
- ...and now we can add "interrogated by Interpol in Kenya" to that résumé.
|The stunning main building at Wildebeest - where the amazing chefs worked their magic.|
One night we all arranged to meet Jen & Jules (who had also opted to leave Karen Camp and were staying at another hotel/hostel in town) at "Habesha" – a traditional Ethiopian restaurant. There were seven of us at Wildebeest (Kirsten, Ish, Lara, Son, Ronald, another traveller whose name I've forgotten, maybe Miriam? and I) and as we couldn't get two taxis, one guy promised to drop half of us off and return for the others. Lara, Kirsten, Ish and I were on the first run and we hadn't got two minutes out of Wildebeest camp when we met a police checkpoint on a main road. Plenty of other cars were being stopped so it all looked pretty routine. The cop spoke to our driver, checked his papers than nonchalantly asked for our passports (in a few of the African countries we'd been through you need to have your passport or some form of ID on you at all times)...
...on this occasion, we didn't have ours.
After explaining this to the cop he simply said "well you have to come to prison with me". The response from us was nervous laughter and disbelief. We then told the guy the usual "don't be ridiculous", "we're only about 800 yards from where we're staying" , "we don't even need our passports"...but he was arrogantly steadfast.
"C'mon officer, you're not being fair! We just want to meet our friends at a restaurant."
"The only restaurant you'll be going to is the one at the prison."
F.F.S!!! As tempers began to flare and voices got louder I hushed everybody and asked calmly and politely if I could get out and speak to the officer. I can't tolerate moaning, raising voices and gesticulating at times like this. It only helps to make matters worse. Besides, T.I.A. and who knew what could have happened.
I stepped out and walked to the back of the car where the cop already had a big smile and a gleam in his eye. As I approached he said something along the lines of "this is what I like to see, a man who can talk business". We both knew what this meant. I asked him what he wanted and, after sending the taxi driver back into the car (up until now he had been stood with the cop) he said "maybe you give me something...some kind of present so I can eat."
Maybe I should have got his name and details and called his bluff and actually gone to the station or prison. Maybe I should have sworn at him and lost my temper...but we just wanted to meet our friends for some food - I couldn't be arsed with fighting the usual African corruption at the expense of a good evening. Besides, 5USD was enough to get him off our backs and send us on our way. A small price to pay. As the crook diminished in size in the rearview mirror, my inner-DJ was sifting through the archives thinking about an appropriate song to play if I had the means. Let's just say it was by the controversial gangster rap group, N.W.A.
To be safe, we went back to Wildebeest, told the others about our plight and all got our passport photocopies. When we finally made it to Habesha it didn't take long for everybody to forget about the bad start to the night: The food there was excellent, as was the new experience of eating 'injera' – we initially thought that the strange rolled up stuff that they presented us with was actually a plate full of warm towels like the ones you got on aeroplane journeys. (As you'll find out from our upcoming Ethiopia entry, our love of injera soon faded.)
The days were filled with card games, reading, sunning and shooting the breeze with whoever was around. Lara and Ish found time to go and watch "Eat, Pray, Love" (Julia Roberts rom-com vom) at the cinema and Son and Kirsten went to do some kissing and necking (see Son's blog entry here) at the Giraffe Centre. Sometimes Alan (co-owner) would go into the garden late-afternoon with a big of scrap meat and just throw the pieces in the air for about 15 mins...the nearby black kites appreciated this and swooped down into the grounds in droves trying to get fed. Really cool to watch.
For those that didn't know, the Nairobi suburb of Karen is named after 'Karen Blixen' (of "Out of Africa" fame, the book that inspired the Academy-Award winning film with Robert Redford and Meryl Streep in) and there was a Karen Blixen Coffee House and Museum near her former home. I'm was a bit disappointed to not getting around to see it but (and I hate to say it) I spent a lot of time (too much, maybe) bringing the blog up-to-speed. On numerous occasions, I have regretted the fact that we're doing this blog...a few people on the truck (plus others we've met along the way) have likened it to being at school and bringing your homework on holiday with you over the summer holidays. The speed, reliability and availability of internet connections on this continent can be very trying on your patience. If you're thinking about doing a trip like this and are keen to do a blog, you should keep this in mind. But it's more of an observation than a complaint...I've babbled on in previous entries about how technology has slowly and inadvertently taken away the romantic aspect of African travel.
|Our days at Wildebeest were filled with card games, reading, sunning and shooting the breeze with whoever was around.|
|This shy little fella was a permanent resident at Wildebeest and could often be seen wondering the grounds.|
During the week, I did pop into the Sudan Embassy to pick up the group's passports which, hopefully, would have all got the Sudan Visa stamped in them. Names were spelt wrong and back-to-front and dates were all over the place (Gab's visa was valid for 0 months until I pointed it out and had it changed!) but we had the visas nonetheless!! Nobody had been denied. The next morning we stopped by Karen Camp to return all the other passengers' passports and it was there that we met Allison and Spencer Harvey (both teachers from Darwin, Australia) and Rob Dark – an Aussie pathologist making a living taking the piss out of the British in England. These three, plus Saffer Brothers Episodes 1 and 2, completed the quintet of new passengers we were picking up in Nairobi.
By the time we were ready for the road again, Marjane had returned from his one month respite in Australia and we had all moved our stuff into Roxy – the new Ruby! She was a whole lotta woman; bigger than her older sister and looking fully-equipped to look after our troop of misfits. It was Monday 18th October and before we took off northwards for Ethiopia, we all gathered around Ruby for a goodbye photo.
|We get our first preview of Roxy (cream) as she sits next to Ruby (white).|
|The gang's all here to say goodbye to Ruby.|
The road to the Ethiopian border was one of the worst we'd encountered: bumpy, dirty and with hardly a soul around - everybody was hiding from the heat which must have been in the late 30's (Centigrade/Celsius that is). There were some cool moments along the way though: Choosing every toilet stop to play keepy-up with a football (soccer ball) in the middle of the deserted road; stopping off at a crater and then there was the bush-camp where Gabs joined Berbs and me on one of our missions into the undergrowth in the night only to come out running scared from what we thought was a leopard in a tree ("The eyes were huge! It had to be something big! It was up in the tree so must have been a leopard"). Five minutes later, we returned with reinforcements: the sticks, machetes and extra men we'd brought back (Berbs, Kyle, Pat, Saffers 1 & 2) gave us enough courage to get closer to the where the beast lay...it was eerily still when we saw the giant red eyes again. "Flash the torch!" somebody whispered. So we did so and discovered...to our horror...that we'd run scared from a bush-baby.
We ran scared from this bush-baby all the way to the Ethiopian border. We're so Maasai warrior it hurts.
|On the road again - through northern Kenya and on to Ethiopia.|
|Laraldo with the crater behind her.|
|A game of keepy-ups in the middle of the spookily quiet road.|