business with a side of pleasure
In the morning, a thick, billowing mist blanketed the densely forested slopes of Mt. Marsabit, the extinct shield volcano that lends its name to one of Kenya’s largest and most sparsely populated counties. The soupy fog completely enveloped the rustic cabins of Marsabit Lodge, obscuring from view the picturesque clearing on which it sits. The tepid early morning light struggled to fight its way through the brume, but still managed to rouse D from his deep Sunday morning slumber, the first night of real rest he had enjoyed in a week during which consecutive 12-hour workdays melded into a continuous, frantic rush of last-minute pre-election preparations.
We both volunteered to serve as observers for Kenya’s first presidential election under its new constitution. S was assigned to cover a county in western Kenya. Because D had organized a work trip to Kenya’s remote northern lands in December, the election team decided to send him to Marsabit, a grueling ten-hour drive from Nairobi.
By mid-morning, strong gusts of wind had dispersed the fog and were busy wreaking havoc on the dusty streets of Marsabit Town. The residents of this sleepy, forgotten part of northern Kenya wrapped their multi-colored shawls tighter and shielded their eyes from the dust clouds as they went about their business, attending open-air church meetings or stocking up at the Sunday market in anticipation of the elections. D and his companions criss-crossed the unmarked, bumpy roads, searching out the ramshackle primary schools that would serve as polling centers for Monday’s vote.
The day’s work complete and Monday’s route mapped out, D turned the convoy back to the lodge, which is located ten minutes inside one of Kenya’s hardest to access national parks. In December, there had been no time for exploring. D had glimpsed a handful of buffalo in the swamp grass beneath the lodge when he arrived in the evening and saw half a dozen hyenas in the road on the way back out early the following morning. With a free afternoon this time around, D did not need his arm twisted when his Kenyan colleague suggested a game drive.
The lodge manager spoke of another clearing deeper in the forest, called Paradise, and swore it would stun and amaze anyone who set eyes on it. The road wound its way lazily through the woods, descending precipitously and then ascending again up the steep, rocky hillsides. After 45 minutes, during which no animal deigned to show itself, D’s companions started wondering aloud if the drive was worth it. At last, the path crested one final time, bringing the car to the edge of a precipice.
There was a sign marking a viewpoint, the first indicator that this patch of wilderness actually belonged to a national park. A troupe of baboons had set up shop by the stone marker, but they scattered as the car pulled up and would not return, despite the driver’s best attempts to lure them out of the bush with an apple. The view really was magnificent. Whereas the lodge sits on a clearing made by a small, dried-up lake, Paradise is a full-blown crater. D found himself looking several hundred feet down a sheer cliff that encircled the lush basin, at the bottom of which a shallow lake persisted.
Two KWS rangers materialized out of the woods and pointed out the carcass of a baby buffalo that had been killed by lions inside the crater the previous day. They indicated the path to descend into the crater, but asked the driver to steer clear of the buffalo remains so as not to disturb the lions.
In addition to the baboons, the only mammalian denizens that had shown themselves during this game drive, Marsabit is also home to many unique bird species. However, D’s companions were utterly indifferent to the birds and he decided not to antagonize them by stopping the car at every flutter of wings. Even without the animals, the drive to Paradise was exceptionally pleasant, and a welcome respite before Monday’s hectic runaround.