Despite all I had read about Machakos as the golden child of devolution, with a park for the people and rapidly tarmacked roads, my perception of the town had still largely been shaped by distant memories of weekend trips as a youngster. My best friend’s dad used to drive us to the golf club for a quick round on hot Sunday afternoons, back when you still had to rake the greens, or ‘browns’, like you would a bunker. For years I associated Machakos with the dry, dusty greens and fairways of its golf course. But much has changed since then. The greens are now green, and are as well manicured as the flower beds that line the town’s streets.
We settled on Machakos as our excursion of choice last weekend, partly because it’s only an hour’s drive from Nairobi, but also because a friend who owns a farm in Wamunyu raved about the samosas at the T.Tot Hoteli. We were also lured by his tales of the wonder of Kyamwilu Hill, where water defies gravity.
To get to this magical place, we opted for the longer but more scenic route to Machakos via Mathatani Road – left after Maanzoni Lodge and along the Mua Hills. Here, the terraced slopes, maize fields and views out to Lukenya to the west, and Machakos to the east, make for quite a spectacular drive. Kyamwilu is only a couple of kilometres from Kaloleni, towards Machakos – although it’s easy to miss with all the roadwork.
Now, Google told me before I left Nairobi that Kyamwilu is one of hundreds of recognised ‘gravity hills’ around the world – where the layout of the surrounding land produces an optical illusion, making a slight downhill slope appear to be an uphill slope. A common feature of these hills is an obscured horizon, where slanting trees you assume to be perpendicular to the ground offset your visual reference. I was convinced I would spot the illusion at Kyamwilu, but found myself as perplexed as the driver who put his 10 ton lorry in neutral and slowly rolled uphill backwards.
Unconvinced by the laws of physics, we carried on downhill (or uphill?) towards the greenery of Machakos. The town’s location at the base of the Ngelani and Iveti hills inspired an image of a miniature version of Addis Ababa, which tucks into Ethiopia’s central highlands. Small, too, are Machakos’s Maruti Omni matatus, which are a lot less menacing than their equivalents in Nairobi.
A prominent feature of the town these days is the Gelian Hotel, where we chose to stay for the night. The hotel has been open for almost two years now, and is a popular venue for conferences and for weekends away from the city. Alphonse Kioko, the hotel’s chairman, told me that it was established to meet a growing demand for accommodation in Machakos.
‘A few years ago, there weren’t enough hotels in Machakos – people would have to travel as far as Masii, or even Wamunyu to find a decent place to stay. The Gelian Hotel is close enough to Nairobi to provide a convenient location for a conference, but is also just far enough to feel like an escape from the city.’
With the entire second floor taken up by conference and meeting facilities, it was clear from the layout of the hotel that it is well-suited to hosting large events. A variety of events are also held in the hotel’s basement, at ‘Club Euphoria’ – a popular club at weekends.
Alphonse informed me of plans to convert the hotel’s ‘Cloud 9’ terrace on the top floor into an exclusive bar and lounge. For now it’s a communal space with excellent views of the town and the surrounding hills. The view was great, too, from our room on the fifth floor, which faced west towards the Mua Hills, beyond the tower of the Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Cathedral.
The hotel’s main restaurant is on the lobby floor, where they serve a variety of local and international dishes. There are also plenty of options from the Crème Brulee Café by the hotel’s entrance, including a good selection of coffees and pastries. Before heading out to explore the town, we worked off our generous slices of white forest cake in the hotel’s gym and sauna.
As there was still plenty of daylight left, we decided to make the 40-odd kilometre journey to Wamunyu – the birthplace of the modern Kamba woodcarving industry. The tradition stems back to the early 1900s, after Kamba men serving in World War I were introduced to the wood sculpturing techniques of the Makonde ebony carvers of the Tanganyikan coast. Members of the Wamunyu Handcraft Cooperative Society continue the tradition today, and you can visit their workshop and showroom stocked with thousands of skilfully carved wooden sculptures and trinkets.