Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Journey to the center of the earth

We had another long weekend away last week. Sarah had a work retreat from Wednesday afternoon to Friday afternoon at a hotel in Nyeri, which is a town north of Nairobi in the area among the game parks of Mt. Kenya, the country’s tallest mountain and Africa’s second highest after Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. One night of Sarah’s stay during her retreat was at the world-famous Tree Tops hotel (so I didn’t see it or go there), where a young Princess Elizabeth was staying in 1952 and was awaken in the middle of the night to be told that her father back at home had died and now she was the queen. The hotel is a four-story wooden structure with a watering hole in front. You’re supposed to feel like you’re in a tree house high above the animals when you stay there – rustic luxury, I might call it.

Lexi and I drove up on Friday afternoon with the wife of Sarah’s boss. We took a route on country roads for about half the trip, and the countryside was beautiful – many rolling hills in parts – although the roads were quite muddy and dirty, which detracted from the scenery somewhat. We met Sarah at the main hotel where they stayed so we could stay through the rest of the weekend with her and explore the area. The hotel where we stayed is a sister hotel in a grouping with Tree Tops, so it, the Outspan, is supposedly a luxury hotel catering to game park visitors as well. The Outspan isn’t actually in any public or private game parks (unlike Tree Tops, which you can’t actually drive to yourself with your own car) but is near a few of them. It's in a lovely setting with beautiful gardens around it. But I wasn’t impressed with our hotel at all as a luxury hotel. The service in the restaurant for breakfast one morning was very bad (Tree Tops residents are bused over, and I think they were a little overwhelmed, although the woman putting silverware at the table next to ours didn’t care to look over to see we were lacking it too and waiting for it to eat the food in front of us; that’s how brainless some people here are); there was no hot water to really speak of on our first morning; and the food didn’t have much variety or sophistication. Even at remote game parks where we’ve stayed, they’ve done a much better job with the food, given how much harder it must be to get there. The rooms are enormous with a very large bedroom area and, semi-divided from that, a sitting area. The bedroom area has a fireplace that you can have them come light a fire in, which we requested the first night, but they were so late that I got angry at their poor service with that as well. The rooms are sparsely furnished as well, with no carpeting or area rugs on the floor at all, so during this time of year, when it’s winter and the rainy season, it is quite cold in the rooms. The fire helps a bit, but there was always a chill that we couldn’t escape. Throughout the hotel, they’re trying to retain much of the colonial charm of the place, so the dining room and bar areas are very charming, and you feel like you’re in an old colonial game lodge.

Friday night we had dinner with the rest of the staff from Sarah’s office who were there at the hotel for the retreat. They all stayed through the night on Friday, and nearly everyone left on Saturday morning. That morning, we visited one of the rooms of the hotel that used to be part of the cottage where the man who founded the Boy Scout movement used to live. It’s not really a museum but a room dedicated to him and his wife. There is all sorts of Boy and Girl Scout memorabilia from all over the world covering nearly every inch of this small room. It’s kind of a pilgrimage site that boys and girls still visit and bring a scarf from their club’s Scouting uniform to leave there.

In the afternoon we drove a half hour or so out of town to visit a private game reserve that is known for its breeding of black rhinos. You can drive your own vehicle into the park. We spotted a large handful of rhinos during our couple of hours in the park as well as a large group of beautiful giraffe (the reticulated variety, for those of you who have visited us and have learned the useful skill of telling the species of giraffe apart), lots of warthogs, some waterbuck, zebras, lots of antelope-type animals, and some Cape buffalo. Rhinos are not in every game park in Africa, so seeing them is a treat and hard in some places. We had to be out of the park by 6:00, and it was getting dark by 5:30, also becuase rain clouds were forming. None of the dirt roads in the park are sign posted, so we didn't know exactly which way it was back to the main gate. We started to get nervous about getting lost and getting trapped inside the park, but we found we were headed in the right direction and got out in time.

Sunday morning after checking out of the hotel, we drove farther up north to another major town that sits right on the equator. There’s nothing else worth visiting in this town but the stop at the equator. There’s an aging sign there marking the spot and a grouping of many souvenir stalls. Under the sign we were met by a man who gave us a demonstration using a pitcher of water and a bowl with a pinhole in the bottom of how water flows in opposite directions down a drain in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. One cannot merely stand just on one side of the imaginary line to observe this phenomenon, however. We had to go about 60 meters on both sides of the line to see the water swirl first in clockwise then counter-clockwise directions. It’s true, it’s real, it really does that! We took a few pictures, one of each of us straddling the line, with one foot in each of the Northern and Southern hemispheres. I had fun jumping back and forth a few times over the line.

Then we headed home. The landscapes we drove through we quite varied. The area near the equator town was very flat, even though we thought we were still in the mountainous areas, and it was quite dry, not getting any of the rain that was in the area. As we returned to the area where we stayed, which was at a higher altitude, it was wet and drizzly, and parts were hilly. Again, we’re in sort of Kenya’s winter, more specifically the rainy season, and these days the temperatures are much cooler. So in the higher hilly areas where we were, it was cloudy and damp and drizzly for much of the time, and the dampness just makes the coolness even colder. At home at night, after the sun has been down for a few hours, it’s quite cool, and we get into a very cold bed and try to warm up quickly. We have our thick comforter on the bed these days. Mind you, it doesn’t get as cold in the “winter” here as it does in the U.S., and Kenyans don’t even have central heating in any of their homes or buildings. But it’s warm enough during the rest of the year that it gets hot in houses, so there are permanent vents to the outside, which nobody really closes up in the rainy season, so this tends to let in cold air from the outside. But what we’re even noticing is that our house tends to trap the night’s cold air during the day, so once the morning wears on, it’s actually colder in the house than it is outside these days.

Anyway, on our way home, we stopped at the Blue Posts Hotel in Thika, a famous colonial-era way station. They have a lovely buffet there on the weekends within earshot of two waterfalls. We took my parents there for lunch when they visited.

It was another lovely outing, but then again, we really haven’t had any trips that have turned out to be disasters. As long as it’s seeing a new place, we always have a good time.