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East African Wedding – Part Two

We stood outside the hotel at 0900, with our bags by our sides, waiting for Pious and Gospel to collect us. Marvellous names! Pious and Gospel were two of the bride’s cousins, who had generously agreed to pick up the British contingent and drive us up-country.

It had been decided that we would stop en-route at Thika, so 40km (25 miles) to enable us to stretch our legs, and to enjoy the scenery. 

Some of my British readers of a more mature age group, may remember the TV series in the early 1980s, “The Flame Trees of Thika”, which was based upon the autobiographical novel of the same name, written by Elspeth Huxley. She was raised on a coffee plantation in this part of what was then known as Colonial British East Africa.

Thika lies northeast of Nairobi, and sits pretty much astride the main A2 highway.

Standing in the morning sunshine, we were enjoying the remains of our breakfast coffee, and chatting quietly amongst ourselves. The relative peace was suddenly destroyed, by the sound of straining car engines and grinding gearboxes heralding the arrival of our transport.

My heart sunk, as I looked at the two MoT[1] failures that pulled up in a swirl of dust and grey exhaust smoke.

Our transport…although this one is in much better condition

I glanced at SWMBO, and we shared a conspiratorial look, as she shot me a smile. “Oh, well”, I thought. “In for a penny, in for a pound.”

By this time, Pious and Gospel had opened the boots of their respective cars, and were now greeting us, with much smiling, shaking of hands and slapping of backs. They boke spoke excellent English, which they proudly explained they learnt in school.

Like most of the local Kenyans that we had met, they were happy, generous, and deeply religious, hence their names.

SWMBO and I gingerly climbed into the back of the battered old Datsun[2] Cherry, and the lads jumped into Gospel’s old Datsun 120Y, and with a mechanical groan, Pious started the thing up, crashed the transmission into gear, and we lurched off down the relatively well-maintained tarmac road.

I knew that it was relatively well-maintained tarmac, as I could clearly see it through the very large hole in the footwell, where the floor had rusted out over time.

It was a tribute to Datsun’s design engineers that the car was still driveable in such a hostile environment.

We continued to motor north, and we chatted amiably with Pious, who drove at a steady 55 miles per hour, regardless of the road surface, camber, or bends. The car therefore rattled, banged, jolted, and lurched alarmingly and we were soon pulling a rooster-tail of dust and smoke.

I had to supress the urge to giggle, as I didn’t want to offend Pious, who was obviously very proud of owning a car. He had a job at one of the coffee bean processing plants locally, and his brother Gospel worked in the plantation as a supervisor.

I admired them both greatly for their pride, joie de vivre and happiness.

We eventually arrived in the town of Thika about an hour and a half later. The journey wouldn’t normally have taken so long, but Gospel needed to stop his car every five miles or so and top up the radiator with water from an old Coke bottle. Pious also stopped to lend moral support, mainly in the form of laughing, and clapping him on the back, and everyone seemed happy to potter our way north in a very gentlemanly fashion.

I had heard of the Flame Trees of Thika, and was a little deflated to see only a light scattering of the bright red blooms locally. I asked Pious if there were places to see the Flame trees, and he laughed, explaining that the trees only came into bloom in the spring, and that we were a week or two early.

The Flame Tree – Fantastic!

It didn’t really matter, as Pious had excitedly explained during the journey that they would be taking us to see the Chania Falls.

The Chania Falls are truly beautiful, and the smell of fresh oxygenated water purged the dust and car fumes from my head. We wandered up and down, taking in the splendour of it, finally sitting on some convenient rocks to enjoy nature at its best.

The Chania Falls.

Eventually, we decided that we should press on, up into the foothills to our destination, as we needed to get there for three o’clock for the wedding.

I glanced at my watch. It was already almost 1100, and we still had a couple of hours to drive.

We boarded the cars, and re-commenced our drive northwest, towards the Aberdare Range, to the tiny village where Njambi’s family lived.

The Aberdare Range from the Highway…

As we left the main highways, I looked down onto the road beneath my feet as it changed… first to broken tarmac, which gave way to old concrete, and finally, red earth. We were also climbing steadily – the Aberdare Range has an average elevation of 11,480 feet (3,500 metres), and it was noticeably cooler.

Passing a solitary and forlorn-looking roadside shop, both cars pulled over. Gospel needed to refill his water bottles, we needed a drink as well, and more importantly, I needed a pee. Returning to the cars, we started off, and all was well for about three miles, when Pious’s car suddenly started making some alarming noises from under the bonnet, and the smell of very hot oil permeated the cabin.

Gospel’s car was already out of sight, disappeared round the bend and probably halfway up the steep and winding hill that we were ascending.

Pious brought the car to a stop on the edge of the road, and opened the bonnet. Looking into the engine bay, we could see tendrils of vapour coming from the oil filler and dipstick, and steam was hissing from the radiator cap. Not good!

Pious clearly had limited knowledge of the mechanical working of his car, so I took over.

Pulling the dipstick from its port, I could see that the engine was almost totally devoid of lubricant.

Turning to Pious, I said “Do you have any spare oil?”

He looked at me blankly.

“It needs more oil, or it will seize up completely”

I saw the understanding on his face, and he explained that there was a garage in the next village, about a mile away, just over the crest of the hill that we were climbing.

Looking at the still smoking car, I doubted that it would make it the required mile, especially if it were carrying both SWMBO and I, and our hand luggage, so I told Pious to let it cool for ten minutes, and then he should get it to the garage. I stuffed a wad of shillings into his hand, despite his protests, and SWMBO and I started trudging up the hill.

Within 100 yards, I was wheezing like a Victorian steam locomotive. The air was so thin, and I was already drenched in sweat, despite the temperature being only 20°C.

SWMBO was also enjoying the same level of discomfort. I suspect that hefting a flight crew cabin bag behind me didn’t help too much.

Five minutes later, we could hear the old Datsun grinding laboriously up the road, and it passed us, belching smoke, exhaust, and red dust. It vanished around the bend, and we continued to plod very slowly up the steepening slope.

A few minutes later, I could hear another vehicle approaching us from behind. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw a very old, split windscreen VW Camper van come round the bend.

A VW Kombi Camper van, similar to the one that rescued us…

It passed us, slowed, and pulled to the side.

An elderly, grey haired local man hurled open the nearside passenger door, and yelled, “Where you goin’, man?”

I briefly explained our predicament, and he roared with laughter, and waved us into the passenger compartment of the old minibus.

We climbed aboard, and I pulled the doors shut and took a seat. Our new friend chatted to us constantly as we drove sedately up the rutted highway. When I say chatted, I really mean bellowed.

I don’t think it occurred to him to change gear, and the engine was howling in protest at being abused so badly. He must have picked up on my thoughts, as he slammed the old van into second gear, and we were jerked against the seat backs as he dropped the clutch heavily. 

The VW Kombi was made in VW’s Wolfsburg factory, after being designed by Dutchman Ben Pon. As a utility van, they were immortalised by the counterculture of the 1960s, when the minibus version became the vehicle of choice for young hippies all over the globe.

This one somehow survived in East Africa, and whilst rusty and clearly worn out, was still providing stalwart service over some of the roughest roads on the planet.

Five minutes later, we crested the hill, and followed the winding track into the small village, where, as expected, stood a garage.

Standing outside, under the corrugated iron roof, was Pious’s Datsun, with the bonnet open.

Thanking our good Samaritan profusely, we climbed out into the sunshine, and walked over to Pious with our bags.

Pious greeted us warmly, and explained that the engine was okay, and that the mechanic had just finished filling it. He looked sheepishly at the one-gallon oil can that stood in silent testimony as to the amount of oil that wasn’t in the engine.

We piled our bags back into the boot, and with a cheerful wave to the mechanic, Pious gunned the engine, and we pulled away, now lagging Gospel by a good half hour.

After a good distance, we swung left into a farm track, and looking out of the window, I could see a vast coffee plantation. Way off in the distance, I could see some farm buildings, and a large metal storage facility.

The car shook and rattled as we drove up the ever-narrowing farm track, eventually coming to a stop outside a very small, single storey building, constructed of breeze block.

Tiny, and made out of Breeze block….

Shutting down the engine, Pious grinned, and said “Welcome”

We thanked him, and got out of the car, which was now ticking like a cheap alarm clock as it cooled down.

Gospel’s car was already parked up, and we were shown into the tiny house.

The house only appeared to have two rooms; a bedroom and the room that we were in, which was crammed with people. Having only two small windows, it was very warm, and despite the breeze, was stuffy.

I looked around, and spotted the lads squeezed up into a corner of the floor, so we picked our way over the congested floor and squatted down with them.

Pious and Gospel came over to sit with us, carrying four large glasses filled with water. I was wondering if it was fresh water, and whether I should discretely pop a purifying tablet in it, when Gospel proudly told me that it was fresh spring water, as they had a pump in the garden.

Cautiously, I took a sip, and was surprised. Cold and with a pleasant flavour – not like the fluoridated treated water at home.

Pious leaned over, and whispered to me that most of the family spoke no English, and he would attempt to translate as and when needed. That was just as well, as my Kikuyu wasn’t up to much.

I had learnt the basic greeting “Ní Atía” and thank you (Ní Ngatho) but that was my limit.

In due course, the door opened, and Duncan appeared, wearing a brightly coloured ceremonial robe, and he walked slowly into the middle of the room. The packed room immediately fell silent.

Golden shafts of sunlight penetrating through the corrugated steel roof and simple awnings over the windows illuminated him as if he were a celestial being.

A soft click as the door to the bedroom opened, and Njambi appeared, looking quite radiant in a white gown.

Standing next to Duncan, they awaited as the minister came forward.

I was surprised to see that he was a Christian minister. That struck me as odd, as many of the guests spoke no English.   8 million Kenyans speak Kikuyu, and we were slap bang in the middle of Kikuyu territory.

And so it was, that we witnessed our friend marry his beautiful bride, in a tiny little cottage high up in the remoteness of the Aberdare Range.

The foothills of the Aberdare Range, Kenya

After the simple ceremony, all the guests went into the tiny garden, where the bride’s family had laid out a simple buffet of chicken and local foods.

SWMBO and I had several silent conversations with the family and guests, mainly with much signing, gesturing and laughter.

I personally enjoyed a silent, yet very rewarding conversation with the bride’s mother, who was clearly delighted that we had come. I managed to compliment her on her cooking – the chicken was delicious and had been coated with some subtle spices, and the vegetables and salad were full of flavour.

I even received a hug!

Eventually, the shadows started lengthening, and Pious and Gospel appeared at our shoulders, murmuring that we should be setting off for our hotel.

It was as well that we were leaving, as the house had no electrical power, and no lighting except for that of oil lamps. These lovely, gentle people had virtually nothing in the way of the creature comforts that are deemed as essential in the so-called developed world. No TV, cell phones, washing machines or even a refrigerator.

However, they were all happy. Proud, kind, decent. Maybe we were missing a trick, surrounding ourselves with material possessions.

Saying our goodbyes, we left, and our two cars clattered off down the track, into the African dusk, heading back to the road that would take us to our hotel.

We were staying at the Green Hills Hotel, some 15 miles (25km) from the village, and looking out of the car windows into the gathering gloom, we could see miles of coffee plantations.

Coffee Plantation, Aberdare Range, Kenya

Looking up, we could see millions of sparkling pinpricks of light – shards of celestial glass, strewn across the black velvet tablecloth of space.

The Green Hills Hotel

Green Hills Hotel had only been opened thirty or so years before, so was relatively new, but the area in which it was located was the setting of the infamous unsolved murder of Josslyn Hay, the Earl of Errol, an expatriate Brit living in the area.

Later, the murder was dramatised in the 1987 film White Mischief.

Having settled into our room, we enjoyed a late supper, and drinks out in the grounds, listening to the sounds of the creatures of the night as they scurried around in the bushes.

Back in our room, we fell asleep to the rhythmic pulse of our ceiling fan, wafting the African night over us.

Waking up early, I decided to go for a walk around the place whilst SWMBO was still dozing, so pulling on my shorts and a bush shirt, and my boots, I made my way quietly out of the room, into the covered walkway. I enjoyed a half hour of wandering, returning to the room via the restaurant so that I could take a steaming mug of finest Kenyan coffee to SWMBO, to ease her gently into the final day of our holiday.

Having packed our hold baggage the night before, it was a fairly quick process to just finalise things, and then head for breakfast.

As our flight didn’t depart until almost midnight, we had decided that once we had checked out of our rooms at noon, we would relax in the hotel grounds, until our cab would collect us at about 1830.

We whiled away the afternoon chatting with the lads, reading, and, as soon as the sun was sufficiently over the yard arm, (about 3pm) we ordered Gin and Tonics all round, to officially draw our East African break to an end.

The Garden, The Green Hills Hotel. Just time for a large G&T…

Six thirty arrived far too soon, and the minibus cab was already waiting outside when we left the hotel, having paid our bills.

Our cab driver wasn’t the talkative type, so we quietly chatted amongst ourselves in the back as he drove us back down to Thika, and then on to Nairobi.

The airport terminal was quite full, despite the hour, and we patiently queued for check in and passed through security with delay. I think the fact that they spotted my crew tag on my bag helped, and we were waved through immigration swiftly.

Once airside, I felt I could relax a little. I love flying, but the stresses of getting onto the flight always made my stomach churn.

Standby travel is a wonderful privilege, but carries with it the risks of being “bumped” off a flight should a fare-paying passenger need the seat.

Furthermore, at some airports, they operate a policy of not allowing standby staff travellers through to the departures lounge until the check-in has closed, which gives very limited time to get through immigration, security, and out to the gate.

Being bumped is a very real possibility, and it has happened to me before. On a previous flight from Los Angeles, I had stowed my cabin baggage in the overhead, and had been happily quaffing the pre-flight champagne, when I heard a cabin announcement “Would passenger Charlwood please make himself know to the cabin crew”

This could mean one of two things.

I was either being upgraded to first class, or I was being offloaded.

The look on the crew-member’s face as she approached me told me it was the latter.

I was asked to collect my bag, and follow her.  Gloomily, I had followed her up the cabin, and was met at the door by a ground agent, who told me that they needed my seat.

On that occasion, I was lucky, as there was another flight departing an hour later, and it was going to use the same gate, so I was immediately checked in, and later enjoyed my flight, meeting SWMBO in London.

But that night, the universe decided that all four of us would get on the flight, and all of us were able to have Club class seats, so a good result all round.

Night departures are always interesting. Nairobi is extra interesting.

To put this into context, I need to explain a little about aircraft performance.

Aircraft operate more efficiently in denser air. Air density reduces as altitude increases, so the higher the elevation of the airport, the more the aircraft performance is reduced.

The other factor that reduces air density, is temperature. The warmer the temperature, the less dense the atmosphere. In my profession, we refer to such airfields as “hot’n’high”

Many equatorial departures are scheduled for as late in the day as possible, in our case, 23:50. At this time, the local air will have cooled to its lowest, so the aircraft will perform marginally better.

Jomo Kenyatta airport is 5330 feet (1624 metres) above mean sea level, so during summer, when it’s at its warmest, there is double the impact on the aircraft’s performance.

This means that flights may be weight-restricted, and there is less scope for carrying non-revenue standby travellers.

It also means that the aircraft will need a much greater runway length to reach safe flying speed.

Our B747-400 used up a huge amount of Runway 24 which is 4,200m long (13,570 feet, or 2.6 miles) to get airborne, and the ground roll seemed to last forever. Even as an experienced flier, I was starting to get a bit concerned, when finally, I felt the nose lift, and the pounding rumble of the gear reduced, and finally stopped. shortly thereafter, I had the whines and clunks of the gear being retracted.

Eventually, we dipped a wing, and entered a climbing turn, and looking out of my window, I could see the lights of Nairobi slipping away below.

The rest of Africa disappeared into the dark, mysterious night, as we winged our way home.

Footnote: For those of you that would like to see the view from the flight deck during a sunset landing at Nairobi, watch this video clip of a KLM/Martinair B747-400!

[1] MoT – Is a legally required annual roadworthiness inspection of any vehicle over three years old in the UK.

[2] Datsun was the brand under which Nissan cars marketed vehicles into emerging markets such as Africa.

By The Flying Wordsmith

A highly qualified aviation professional who is able to write cogent and professional articles on a wide variety of subjects. Also interested in general articles covering travel, politics, social commentary and prose. Poetry and Lyrics also an interest.

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