Friday 8 May 2020

Tana river trips

Almost forty years ago I was between safaris and ran into a Dutch friend and neighbour in Karen, Nairobi. He said he hadn't seen me for a while and I said I'd been on safari. He immediately replied "We are setting off on a six-week safari next week - would you consider coming along?" :-)

He explained that he was in charge of a project sponsored by the Dutch government to collect enough data to make a computer model of the Tana river so they could calculate the effects of irrigation pumping and hydro-electric projects.

He showed me the brand new LandRover LWB wagon they had flown out from the UK. It had an immense roof-rack with supporting pillars down the outside of the shell to the undercarriage! I asked why they had added this. "We carry two 50kg 'bombs' on top - they have spring-loaded doors under them and when we throw them in the river these doors snap shut on the bottom and we get riverbed samples".

"Wow!" I replied. "So what have you done to uprate your suspension?" He said they had done nothing - and why did I ask? I said if he had that amount of weight up that high and went around a corner the vehicle would fall over. "Yes it did!" he answered!

Pieter and his team had already collected data down as far as Kora so we started there (after visiting George). We drove south from Kora, crossed the river at Garissa and refuelled. I had tricked out my 1968 ex-army LandRover which had long-range tanks under the front seats - with two 5-gallon cans inside the extended front bumper and bullbars and seven (!) more cans across the roof (!) then we had two 50 gallon drums in the back (!). After taking almost an hour with a very slow pump we had almost 200 gallons of petrol on board. I couldn't resist asking the (very bored) petrol pump attendant who had done the job - "Do you think we will make it to Sankuri?" - (15km) - he sighed, spat, shrugged and said, laconically, "Maybe!" 

We then headed north (15km) to Sankuri on the other bank. We were given accommodation here, in what was then a very small village with a police post and a water-pumping station. As the sun went down Pieter was sitting outside our hut working with a (very precious) Ordnance Survey map. I was walking towards him when one of the policemen started playing the National anthem on a trumpet and another policeman lowered the flag. I naturally stopped to watch and then looked aghast as two policemen came running over and started to pull Pieter away. I asked what they were doing and they said he had committed a serious crime by not standing for the anthem! I sprang to his defence and explained that because the wind had just got up he had to hold down the maps - "which we were personally trusted with by the president" so they didn't blow away and get damaged. Fortunately, any mention of the president was a powerful argument and he was released. The fact that the “President’s Award Scheme” (another story!) was emblazoned on my Landrover also helped!

The next day we drove up to a point opposite Kora to start taking measurements. Pieter had a theodolite and his Dutch friend was to hold a red and white pole in several places across the river - which was less than waist deep here. As we pulled up we could see a huge croc sunbathing on a sandbank in the middle of the river. Pieter checked it with his instruments and declared it was at least 6m long. We had hired a local boatsman with a dugout canoe in Sankuri and he was going to travel downstream with us from there but Pieter decided that he would be useful here so the pole-holder could sit in the canoe to be safe from crocodiles. As it was near lunchtime he asked me to drive back to Sankuri, load the canoe into the back of my landrover and bring it back. I set off and found the guy who was happy to comply - but shook his head when I pointed at my 4x4. "Too heavy" he said - and when I tried to lift the end of the dugout I realised it was thoroughly "waterlogged" and weighed what felt like a ton! Being young and resourceful I remembered seeing a Bedford 4x4 lorry in the police station so I went to ask if they would help us (as we knew the president!) They were very, very keen - but had no diesel fuel to use. I knew it would take too long to drive to Garissa (we had over 300l of fuel but both our vehicles were petrol) - but then one of the policemen told me the water pumping station had diesel "but they don't like us". I went and played my "friends-of-Moi" card again and liberated a jerrycan full. The police were ecstatic and got their jungle fatigues on, came down and lifted the canoe into their truck and we drove triumphantly back to Pieter. We pulled up and they carried the canoe down to the water. The boatsman then stepped into the river and waded across to the other side, splashing the water with his paddle. We watched open-mouthed and when he got back asked him what he was doing. "I am checking that the stream is deep enough for my boat to cross!" We asked why he had been splashing his paddle - "To keep the crocodiles away"!!!

On our third safari we took along a microlight aircraft to complete a photo-mosiac of the delta area of the river. All attempts to complete this had failed because clouds would form so often. Even when the crew on the ground reported the sky was clear it would cloud over again before the photo-plane could reach the site. In this photo we had just crossed the river using a ford created by the army below a broken bridge. We were the first vehicle to cross in a week!


  1. I love the image of holding down the maps - "which we were personally trusted with by the president." What a great riposte!

    1. It was one of the very few moments in my life (usually i think of the “right” response ten minutes later) when I came up with the right words at the right time!!