Nairobi’s Quirkiest Guesthouse

DSTV’s greatest gift – with the exception of its extensive coverage of the Premier League – is its broadcast of an array of interior design and home improvement programmes. I’ve spent many happy weekends binge-watching ‘Grand Designs’, captivated by the posh charm of presenter Kevin McCloud as he tours the UK documenting the country’s most ambitious self-building projects.

Once I’ve had my fill of extravagant houses, I often turn over to ‘George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces’, which documents more affordable, but equally inspirational small-scale builds. Of the many episodes I’ve watched, two in particular stand out, and they both involve the conversion of old buses into some form of accommodation.

In one episode, a farmer converted a double-decker coach into a luxury mobile hotel called ‘Bedroam’, with 18 Japanese-style sleeping pods. In the other, a carpenter transformed a decommissioned 1982 West Midlands double-decker bus into a quaint guesthouse, which now sits rooted in a wooded area in the English countryside. Both projects are symptomatic of the increasing popularity in the UK of ‘glamping’ (glamorous camping), but are also the products of highly imaginative and ambitious individuals.

A very similar project was taken on by an equally imaginative individual here in Nairobi. Nestled under a large bombax tree on the outskirts of Karen is the Brandy Bus – an old green and cream double-decker bus that has been converted into a cosy living space. The project was the brainchild of owner Karen Fraser, an upcycling and small space living enthusiast who saw the opportunity to create, as she puts it, her ‘tiny dream home’. Karen now lives abroad, but rents the bus out as an unusual guesthouse.

She told me that the bus was manufactured in England, and shipped to Kenya before Independence. It was operated by the Kenya Bus Service in Likoni in the 1950s, and was then acquired by her friend’s grandfather, who kept it unused in his backyard for over 30 years. When he passed away, Karen brought the bus to her family home before it could be twisted into scrap metal.

There’s a picture of the bus in it’s original form in the guide for guests in the bus’s ‘living room’ – and the transformation is remarkable. Its rusty, faded exterior was repaired and given a new coat of paint, and its roof protected from the elements with sheets of mabati.

The bus has been positioned on a concrete slab at the base of the magnificent bombax tree, with a small patio at its entrance lined by ferns and various other potted plants. As the bus sits at the bottom of the garden in the home of Karen’s parents, it’s also surrounded by a large lawn with flowering trees and shrubs.

George Clarke himself would be proud of the interior, and the clever use of original fittings means there’s no getting away from the fact that you’re on a bus. A small, colourfully-tiled step leads into what was once the open platform at the back of the bus, and another step to the left leads into the living-cum-dining-cum-kitchen area.

The living area here consists of two couches with Masai blankets, which convert into single beds with mosquito nets. Beyond this is a comfortable armchair, and further up there are stools under a long breakfast table looking out into the garden.

Though guests have to bring their own food, the kitchen comes fully stocked with cooking utensils and crockery, a two-ringed gas burner, a microwave, and even a Cookswell jiko – although this has to be requested beforehand. There’s water and milk in the fridge, and tea, coffee and a range of condiments on the shelf.

The one bathroom on the bus is by the main entrance on the lower deck. As space is limited, it was built as an extension to the bus, and its open windows and views of the garden give the shower a refreshing outdoor feel.

Up a narrow set of stairs on the upper deck are the ‘bedrooms’ – two double beds separated by a curtain. In each section are splashes of earthy browns and reds, in the carpets and in the easy chairs. Karen also managed to squeeze in a couple of bookshelves, bedside tables and lamps.

The bus draws its character from its quirky décor: patterned baskets, trinkets, vinyl records and African proverbs strewn across its walls. There are also plenty of clues to its history, including a sign by the entrance that says ‘Hatari, usijaribu kupanda bus wakati inasonga’, which means ‘Danger, do not climb on the bus while it’s moving’, as well as the word ‘Likoni’ in large letters above the driver’s cabin.

The outside seating area on the patio is warmed by two chimeneas built into the wall, and it provides a great spot for sundowners and long evenings listening to hyraxes shrieking in the surrounding trees.

The bus sleeps a maximum of six people comfortably, and is ideal for Nairobians in need of a convenient, but very unique, weekend escape. Search for The Brandy Bus on www.airbnb.com for more info.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation