Tuesday, 12 April 2011
I predict a riot
Kenya, Lake Naivasha and Masai Mara
We went to the Masai Mara and saw lions and elephants and giraffes and hippos and blah blah blah. Who really wants to read about game driving? Well tough, I don’t want to write about it, watch a David Attenborough documentary. Wild life trumps wildlife every time in my book so I shall tell you of how we escaped from a riot.
I should clarify my terms somewhat. When I say ‘riot’ I mean ‘protest going on riot’, but there’s never been a catchy song title of ‘I predict a protest going on riot’ (not even by the nice young men in Coldplay), so you’ll excuse the hyperbole. When I say ‘escape’ I mean ‘bribe an enterprising mob so we could gun the Land Cruiser across a swollen river bed, up the mud bank on the other side, and not get rocks hurled through our windows, dragged out of the truck, beaten and robbed’. Given this context I’m comfortable with using the term ‘escape’ without guilt.
We were on our way back from the Masai Mara (big sky, majestic plains, flagrant violation of animal-vehicle distance rules by the local drivers) after the aforementioned game driving, halfway back to Lake Naivasha (hippos, camping), our base for this little jolly around south west Kenya. As we drew close to Narok, a small town supporting the tourist industry along the only westbound thoroughfare to the Masai Mara, traffic was backing up, with coaches and trucks parked up by the side of the road. One of the many advantages of being in a Land Cruiser is the ability to use the laissez faire attitude to lane control in Africa and as we weaved our way past the stationary vehicles and down into the centre of Narok we discovered that no, this wasn’t rush hour, this was a protest. It transpired that the heavy rains had flooded the town the previous night, washing away buildings and (according to unsubstantiated reports) a baby. This was a protest to the local council about the lack of adequate drainage, with a rhetoric of anti-corruption layered on top, obviously.
I turned to
James Bond’s harder sister Helen to check she was okay and could tell that she’d already mentally scribbled one word across her internal risk assessment form: whatever. ‘I’m hungry’ she said. So as she and our two delightful travelling companions, Fran and Anna, got busy behind the heavily tinted rear windows making an impromptu lunch, Tim (more of whom later) and I turned to each other in the front seats with raised eyebrows. ‘The drunk guys will be about soon’ he said. ‘Yep’, I replied, insightfully. Clearly our own mental risk assessments forms had been similar. Mine read: angry people + booze + ineffectual army presence x mzungus = trouble. I was surprised to see a troupe of young Italians in matching t-shirts dive out of nearby minivans and head directly into the throng, followed by several camera crews. I figure they were teams on some kind of gap year yoof reality TV show. Never saw them again. I reckon that if you’re after some high-end shoulder mounted camera equipment then Narok market might be a good place to grab a bargain. They might even throw in an only-slightly-soiled t-shirt.
The army started to move in on a truck, only to be rocked into retreat by the protestors, whilst the riot police were sheltering in a nearby café with looks that said ‘we’re not paid enough to deal with this shit’. Then the protestors started to burn the road. Yes, that’s right; they dug the road up, covered it in petrol and set it alight. It was at this moment I realised that if I had to write a job spec for the ideal Africa overland tour leader it would read: Needed – a well-educated ex Royal Marine and biker gang member to lead overland trips through Africa, must be experienced in unpredictable conditions, erudite, diplomatic and great company. A quiet but indisputable ability to handle both oneself and booze preferred. Tim fits this bill. ‘Let’s get the fuck out of dodge’ he said.
Weaving our way back up the hill and out of town we were flagged down by two chancers urgently pointing over to a field. Through the crack in the lowered window they explained to Tim that we could cross the river bed and use the back road to pass the town. Now, chaotic as these situations may be, there will always be someone smart enough to capitalise on the chaos and profit from providing a solution. If you want to make gazillions, have no scruples, don’t mind living in a gated and heavily guarded compound, and have an ambivalent attitude to how your neck is connected to your head get into ‘reconstruction’. Or if you live in a small African town that’s gridlocked by a protest and full of mzungus in 4x4s wanting to get home, get a group of your mates together, stand on either side of a swollen river, and charge an illicit toll for safe passage. My immediate reaction to this shameless shake-down was ‘screw you’. And that’s why I’d be dead if I lived in Africa, because my 0.01% reactions would simply not fly here. Fortunately, Tim is not an idiot like me and immediately figured out that not paying the bribe on one side of the river would lead to the other side being blocked as we crossed, punctuated by a rock through the windscreen. One needed only to see the tourist minivan fishtailing on the muddy bank, spewing black smoke as the clutch gradually burnt out, and with the faces of scared witless tourists peering helplessly out of the windows to know that getting stuck was no fun. Tim’s reaction; ‘that driver’s a fucking knobhead’. He and I get on. (Illustrative aside: Tim, Helen and I were sitting around a dinner table near another large group of overlanders from a different company. Their tour leader, an utterly unlikeable Afrikaans woman, asked them to each introduce themselves and share with the group their favourite animal, which they dutifully and dully did. I turned to Tim and said ‘just so you know, if you ever ask me to do that I will kill you’. Tim’s reply: ‘if I ever ask you to do that I’ll kill myself’. Like I say, we get on).
Anyway, back to the great escape…Bribe paid, tourist minibus temporarily out of the way, and the diff lock on the Land Cruiser engaged Tim revved the engine and gently suggested we might want to hold on to something. It lasted no more than five seconds, it was relatively un-dramatic, it involved only one brief fishtail, and it was, without question, the most exciting thing I’ve done since stepping off the plane in Nairobi two months ago. Three quarters of the way up the opposite bank I involuntarily let out a guttural ‘GO ON TIM!’ And go on he did. With just the tiniest trace of air as we popped over the upper rim of the river bank he gunned the truck away from the vigilante with the rock who hadn’t got the message that we’d already paid for safe passage, and pausing only to switch the diff lock off, we had indeed got the fuck out of Dodge.Read the news media version of events here. I prefer my version. They weren't there man, THEY WEREN'T THERE!