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Kenya: Peter Elliott


In Kenya, well-known NZ actor Peter Elliott comes face to face with orphaned elephants, black-maned lions, and grinding destitution and poverty.

Day One: Nairobi
It's very polluted, crowded too, and every car, van and truck belches noxious diesel fumes in phenomenal amounts. I hoped for an African smell but it's just dust and diesel smoke. I forgot to pack shampoo - hair filthy - not happy. My pack stinks of cat's pee, Robyn Malcolm?s fault and she remains unforgiven. The plan is to view the slum area. My 1970s taxi breaks down, with only one wheel steering properly, hanks of wire pulling windows up and door handles that would have defied Houdini. I had to get out and push it over a speed hump. After admonitions to stay in the cab, this seemed foolhardy but was seen with tremendous amusement by those around me. Kibera slum is what Elizabethan England must have been like. Gorges of effluent run from every shack, shelter and lean-to -- hundreds and thousands of them. A man with blood red eyes asked if I could help as he'd just been in a house fire and his family and been burnt to death last night. Someone whisked me off saying he?d set it himself, mad on drugs. Raised with racial expectations and no ability to process what is happening, I fully expect they will just rob me and kill me for my watch and camera. The hardest thing is trying to understand why they do not. I meet with humour, smiles, warmth and healthy interest in my doings. Panic slowly subsides and I meet Anne and her five children. She makes me welcome, shares her home and her daughters sing me a song. Emotionally and physically, I cannot imagine life like this.

Day Two: Nairobi
Start with a trip to Giraffe Manor where I feed and pat some enormous Rothschild's giraffes then spend some wonderful hours at the David Sheldrick Trust with baby elephants ( www.daphnesheldrick.com). One loved me up in most charming way, blowing draughts of hot moist elephant breath into my right ear. They played and cavorted and rushed back to their companion-keepers as needy as toddlers and twice as cute. I am told that Toma will remember me in 20 years time after smelling me and playing with me just the once. Amazing.

Day Three: Safari in Amboseli
I'm off on safari and it's not before time. I am ready for a bit of countryside and beauty. Stopping at the last town before the park the touts and hawkers descend on me in force and I manage to handle them without giving in to outrageous prices. I see Thompson's and Grant's gazelle, wildebeest, zebras, giraffes, elephants... An exceptional travel day with many new sights and sounds and some goodly hills and possible paragliding sites.

Day Four: Amboseli
What a night. At midnight I awake to the sound of scrabbling, scratching and sniffing at the flap of the tent. I am instantly very awake but not for that reason. It is apparent that my bowel has turned into a curling serpent and is having death throes, everything I ever ate is coming down the track and it is not stopping for wildlife. I lie there anticipating being torn limb from limb lying in a sleeping bag full of steaming excrement. Grabbing my torch and unzipping the tent, there is nothing there. Nowhere. Camp is silent. I dash across dust and brush to the world's most heinous toilet, squat amongst the detritus of bad Western aim and let the world fall out of my bottom. Eleven more times I make this trip. I take everything medical in my pack. Do a game drive nervous as hell as in the reserves you are not allowed off the truck and there is no toilet aboard. A Maasai warrior helps me erect my tent and then requires 350 shillings for the privilege. I thought he just wanted to help a sick man!

Day Five: Namanga
A full night's sleep. Bliss. I have some reserves of resistance again. Attempt tiny bits of food. Morning of game viewing and in the early afternoon arrive at the Maasai tribal village just outside of Namanga. Set up campsite and wait for the evening performance by the young Maasai warriors. It is dark and a solid campfire is roaring when, out of the dark, a low flickering light approaches accompanied by some murmured chanting and the boys or warriors slowly appear in the firelight. They jump and sing and tell tales of their ancestry. Unfortunately at the end I am bought forward as the ritual f**kwit and made to jump and sing and join in with them. I did my best and have to keep at it until nearly dying of exhaustion. I am damn pleased to be able to retain bowel control through these exertions.

Day Six: Mt Kenya
Driving through the Mt Kenya highlands, coffee-growing areas, I see bush, wetlands and lush tropical-looking foliage. Crossing the Great Rift Valley, I really began to get a grasp of the sheer enormity of Africa. The campsite has grass and trees and could be any old camping ground in the South Island. Hot water for the first time in a week but best of all -- sit-down toilets! They have a lake and I ask if I can fish. I sit on the jetty and catch eight glorious inches of wiggling lake carp. Crap fish but at least I got one.

Day Seven: Samburu
At every town the level of plastic pollution markedly increases. The sides of the roads and nearby paddocks are littered with the detritus of a million shredded plastic shopping bags that flap from wire, press against walls, windows, rocks and trees. At Samburu, we drive straight into a magnificent herds of elephants, so close we can smell their breath and skin. One huge bull elephant is intrigued by us and turns towards the truck, the sides of which are open, and slowly moves forward. He keeps coming to within eight or ten feet when Nebert, the truck driver, realises what is happening, slams the truck into gear, thrashing the diesel into life. He explains the elephant can just reach in and take someone out of the truck with his trunk and there is no way to stop it happening. The warnings continue: don't leave the campsite alone or at night, don't go near the river bank, do not sit alone under the trees... Crocodiles will probably come into the campsite at night -- zip up the tents! Leopards will cough and may check out the camp too. Elephants will pass to drink at the river but not to worry, they think the tents are rocks and won't trample them! I wonder absently, just before I go to sleep - why are the guides sleeping in the truck, with doors and roll-down windows and a roof, while I'm at ground level under filmy negligee nylon?!

Day Eight: Samburu
One of our first big game occasions occurs with the sighting of a leopard stalking a bird about 150 metres from our campsite. He misses and sits there, looking exactly like a house-cat -- slightly sheepish that he had missed the target -- and then slinks off into the underbrush beside the camp. Retire to Samburu Lodge where I swim, do furtive clothes washing and snaffle a brief lie-down on the loungers.

Day Nine: Lake Nakuru
Arrive at Nakuru, Kenya's fourth largest city, about the size of Hamilton, and witness a prison truck go past a roundabout where we had stopped. Like a scene from Auschwitz, there must have been 200 men packed into that crate with mesh sides. Their faces pressed against the wire with the sheer crush, many bleeding and others clearly collapsed and unconscious. I think to be at the centre of that crush of men would have been a death sentence. Appalling.

Day Ten: Lake Nakuru
Breathtakingly beautiful. Bright warm, golden morning sun on iridescent green trees, framed against a glinting blue lake, fringe-rimmed by a million and a half pink flamingos. Busy with morning wildlife -- monkeys, gazelle and elephants. I spend a good 80 minutes in the company of a huge black-maned lion and his retinue of three lionesses and their cubs. They are about 50 or 60 metres distant at the start but they take no notice of vehicles at all. As the boy moves over to be with his family, we are not 20 feet away. Drive home elated through Euphorbia forest and watch as pelicans and vultures do takeoffs and landings in military phalanxes overhead. Enchanted by the day but missing the family dreadfully tonight. Show all who can be got at the photo of family to appropriate oohs and ahhs.

Day Eleven: Lake Bogoria
A trip to Lake Bogoria - the scenic geyser land. Bored, not much to recommend it. Feeling very tired and very heartsick for family. I have an early night.

Day Twelve: Naivasha
Really beautiful -- the lake is very large and looks full of fish. Naivasha is home to a vast business empire, feeding primarily off the water source of the lake. Thousands of acres of hothouse sheds raise roes for the Dutch markets in Amsterdam, they send planeloads fresh each day for the Europeans, but the industry is using so much water that the lake levels are dropping constantly. It is here that I see prosperity amongst the local populace for the first time -- schools, cars, shops and supermarkets that stock brand-name products.

Day Thirteen: Naivasha
Going out to cavort amongst the hippos on a small wooden punt seems less than clearly thought through. The dear old boatsman suggests that if we get too close the hippos will charge us, which they duly do. Like enormous underwater sofas, they swoosh up to the surface, propelled off the bottom with their trunk-like legs churning faster than our outboard. Spend a thoroughly charming afternoon at the Elsamere Conservation Centre, Joy Adamson's home for many years. They lay on the most gorgeous afternoon tea spread I have ever seen ( www.elsatrust.org ). Cakes and loaves and biscuits and cheesecakes and iced treats and lashings of real cream. Fabulous. The Colobus monkeys are terrific fun to watch until they decide they want your plate of goodies.

Day Fourteen: Masai Mara
It's the largest park in Africa and we drive nearly all day to get there. The big new fear in this part of Africa? Tsetse flies. If they land on you and bite you: sleeping sickness! Got some good worrying going in the Landrover as I flick and watch hawkishly for fly movements.

Day Fifteen: Masai Mara
Go on an all-day hunt for cheetahs to no avail, but do see where, in two day's time, the great wildebeest migration will take place. One and a half million Wildebeest cross where I stand and the river is full of predators, like taxi drivers at an airport, ranks and ranks of crocodiles waiting. It has been two weeks and I feel I have barely scratched the surface of Africa and yet it has scratched beneath mine very successfully. The dichotomies bewilder me and defy my attempts to rationalise them and find a way for them to sit with me -- the sheer profusion, colour and vibrancy of life, alongside the same death. The pollution and beauty, the care and hatred, the wealth and sheer grinding destitution, the staggering array of diseases. And everywhere the numbers of people needing and wanting hope, possibility, a future.

Day Sixteen: Masai Mara and Nairobi
Up at 5am to go ballooning over the Mara with Transworld Balloon Safaris. The huge burners start pre-dawn and the beast begins inflating. The flames flare and I think my hair is on fire it is so hot, but slowly we ascend into a glorious gold and purple sunrise. We get caught in down draughts and updraughts and crosswinds and turbulence and I know exactly what each thing is as it happens. I also know instinctively what to do to fix it and how long it will take. My paragliding training comes into it's own and I have the most fantastic flight even though I see almost nothing in the way of game. The Landrover that has bourne me over 2,000 kilometres of the worst road known to man finally says get f**ked and plays dead for a few hours with a shagged and seized bearing, but it finally gets me back to Nairobi's Hotel Boulevard to a happy night of bathing and eating well.


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