Along The Mombasa Road

‘Did we drive the Mombasa Road? No – we tried that at Christmas!’ said a friend, after telling me he had spent Easter at the Coast. ‘It’s in a dreadful state, isn’t it?’

Having just done it myself, I couldn’t but agree. First, there’s all the heavy traffic to deal with along that ugly wasteland to the Machakos turnoff – and then there are all the stony or muddy deviations as they are remaking the road to Sultan Hamud.

After that, the going is smooth all the way to Mombasa, but by then your nerves are shot or your temper is frayed. What makes it even more frustrating is the sight of the guys being persuaded to remove the barriers to the new but unfinished sections – presumably after pocketing ‘kitu kidogo’.

Nevertheless, as I’ve said before – and will no doubt say again – the Mombasa Road must be one of the great drives of the world. No. I mean it. In under 500 kilometres you get an almost full cross-section of the African continent – palm-fringed beaches, coconut plantations, dry bush, wide savannah, and the green of the highlands. From Voi to Nairobi, passing the rugged Taita Hills and the sensuous Chyulus, the changing landscape is kaleidoscopic – never boring.

I won’t forget the first time I did it. In the late 1960s it was, when we came out by a boat that also carried our car. I was very fond of that car…. wish I still had it…. a red Ford Cortina GT. Nice lines, good speed, silky gearshift….

But I am supposed to be talking about the road. It was much more open then, of course. There were long stretches with no buildings – and far fewer vehicles. Having crossed the causeway, climbed up to Mazeras and after Mariakani, the one building I remember was a small mosque, set up on high above the Taru desert.

The section from Mtito Andei almost to Makindu hadn’t yet been tarmacked. In places, the murram was uncomfortably corrugated and there were quite a few washaways to negotiate. But already there were the three best stopping places, conveniently marked then in miles: from Nairobi, Hunters Lodge at 100, Tsavo Inn half way at 150, and Voi petrol station at 200 miles.

Now, there are lots of eateries along the way – most of them for fast snacks and few of quality. I find it very sad that Hunters Lodge and Tsavo Inn are so run down. Hunters Lodge was a great place for a cooked breakfast after a cup of tea and a dawn start from Nairobi. It has that wonderful site by the Kiboko River, with a rustic bridge, and a frenzy of birds.

The birds are still there. But the bridge is almost ready to collapse into the water; the lounges are dilapidated, the toilets are dirty…. Nothing appetising about the place these days.

At Christmas we stopped for lunch at Tsavo Inn at Mtito Andei. It is not in such a bad state as Hunters Lodge, but it has certainly lost its edge – the water in the pool was greenish, the garden was unkempt, the lounges were dowdy, and the chips were of the kind you can only stomach with large dollops of tomato or chilli sauce.

I don’t know who owns these places. And I apologise if, whoever you are, you have plans to rejuvenate them. I hope that is the case.

This Easter, we took a look at a new place – Man Eaters Camp, just off the road at Tsavo Station. It has a good site, beside the Tsavo River. It is ambitious, with 30 ‘fully furnished, en-suite, spacious, luxurious tents’, as the brochure has it. There is the Tsavo River Restaurant, the Simba Mbili Bar, the Rock pool and even massage facilities….

The associations with the story of the two man-eating lions that killed over a hundred railway workers when the construction of Tsavo Bridge was going on here in 1898 – these associations are well played up. The brochure tells how the lions were eventually shot by the Chief Engineer, John Henry Paterson. And there are items of railway bric-a-brac displayed in the lounges.

At Ksh.7,000 per person per night, it is rather overpriced, I think. But if you are passing by at times when you are peckish or just thirsty, it could be well worth the stop.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation