by Helen Langat
You know how when you are starting on a road trip everything is tight? It’s Friday morning of that long weekend and you are worried about the time, and your luggage, whether you carried enough underwear and who is coming along. The taut excitement that fills the air when everyone finally congregates at the meeting point lingers- and all of you seem like “OK” people.
The Serena Caravan started much in the same fashion. First there was the introductions where you you say your name like you are meeting your in-laws at a ruracio; all shy and abashed with a smile that is too big to look remotely normal. The plan is Tanzania (our well behaved neighbour that carries out elections just as a democracy should- go figure). Plan is Lake Manyara in Tanzania- about 120 kms from Arusha because there happens to be a Serena Hotel property there that is right smack on the edge of a cliff with an infinity pool that dips off into the horizon- but we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here.
We’re driving down to Namanga, feeling each other out by talking about political tidbits much like testing out hors’ d’ oeuvres at a party- not really knowing what we were going to get- a delicious feta cheese samosa or some raw tuna on a square of dry bread. At this stage they all went by their pseudonyms: the dreadlocked feminist, the careful thinker, the samburu slinger, mwarabu wa Mombasa, Mr. Ears to the ground and the lovely hat snatcher.
As soon as we got to the border- Vodafone sent all of us a message, welcoming us to Tanzania. I must say we we felt a bit abandoned by Safaricom.
At Arusha a smiling man rushed forward and introduced himself. “Hello, I’m David. You are?” The Country sales Manager of Serena in Tanzania. How friendly were these people? Spiro the driver set us off- chatting lightly and glancing over once in a while through the rear view mirror. The Samburu Slinger- the Kenyan version of David- kept calling the poor driver Sparrow and Squirrel at the clear irritation of the man who would keep correcting him. It’s Spiro! S-P-I-R-O.
We drove across Tanzania on the straightest smoothest roads- yellow lines on the outside and a dotted white line traversing the middle- this craziness came from the Germans, David would tell us later on. We drove and saw sights that belonged on a postcard. A young maasai boy- pointing at the oncoming rain clouds and pleading to the calf in his care to get off its legs and move! It was time to get home. An odd giraffe or two feeding on the “fever tree’ against the backdrop of the titanic Western wall of the rift-valley.
Soon we were at the Lake Manyara, Serena Lodge. Mustafa the lodge manager and Musa were at hand to welcome us. The men with the plan: a 15 year veteran hotelier and a Kenyan expat read “expert” showed us to the hot towels and fresh juice and the rooms. Twin bedrooms set in a manyatta type stand alone hut- four in a building: pure luxury.
The escarpment. I cannot adequately describe to you the beauty of that little patch of Tanzania. I can sure try though.
You’re by the bar- having just ordered your gin and tonic- you look at the smiling face of the bartender briefly as you say ‘thank you’. And then you look out into the valley. The sun casts a orange hue on the earth- and the waters of the Lake reflect an array of dusty pink and browns and blacks. Everything is still down below- the forest snakes away from the Lake- becoming denser and thicker the further your eyes travel. The town of Mto wa Mbu comes alive slowly- flourescent lights only adding more character to the valley. A place where elephants and Maasai lived together-where there were gatherings at hippo lake and Arsenal vs. Chelesea matches at mabati bars. A valley hidden away, accessible only by road and airstrip- The makings of yet another ‘Karibu Tanzania’ post card.
Yesterday we had enough to drink. Mr. Ear on the Ground told us about everything- he knew the machinations that ran Nairobi. Mswahili wa Mombasa was trying to quit smoking- with a cigarette in between his lips and a wry smile on his face. This morning we had breakfast at the lip of the cliff. Champagne, naturally, and an assortment of treats before we went out on the nature walk. By the way- the crepes were to die for: the crepes and the orange peel marmalade and the mixed tea. That and the eggs-any-way-you-like.
I’ll call the nature guide Crocodile Dundee. He was the truth. Now, I don’t typically sign up to walk as leisure. Where I come from, walking is something you run away form as soon as you receive your first salo. It’s cool to say stuff like.
“I’m just stuck in traffic- in my car” as the caption to an Instagram selfie. Or “ These matatu’s. I don’t even remember what it’s like inside one.” Having used a matatu only last week. Walking is just not fun.
Crocodile Dundee made it fun. He would stop at a solitary shrub and call it but its scientific name. Genus, Species, Phylum- he would ask you to share your knowledge:
‘My lovely young lady here can please tell me what animal you think produced this dung.’
The dung looks familiar- like you went to high school together and then it transferred. It looks like you would cross paths in a long hallway and awkwardly stare at each other wondering what was the right distance apart to start saying hi. It look like a sheep did it honestly. And then you venture:
‘I would say it would be a sheep-like animal, because the dung is shaped like pellets?’ you feel like you’re in class five seeking approval from your teacher. And by jove, he gives it to you!
‘Now, can we have a hand clap for this young lady over here! This young lady really seems like she knows about nature. She is very right…” And you would smile- embarrassed yet proud. And he would explain that it was from a dik dik. And how dik diks have one mate for the whole of their lives- and how they are the best survivors. You feel attached to the dik dik now- and to the little five: the ant lion, the leopard tortoise., the elephant beetle, the buffalo weaver and the elephant shrew.
After the walk- Samburu Slinger always bounding down portions of the cliff like a veteran mountain goat- we walked up to an archery field. You have never seen Nairobians in their element until you put a recurve bow and a sheath of arrows on their side. Robin Hood had nothing on us. The hotel offers a bunch of activities like a jogging track, the infinity pool, archery, watercolour painting, football, spa and gamedrives. I must mention the waiter asking us for our drink orders whist we were sitting in the pool later on. Drinking a glass of chardonnay overlooking the rift valley- backs cooled by the water- skies a clear 33 degrees blue- now that is relaxing.
Next on the agenda was a game drive scheduled for 3.45. That happened to be the most memorable part of the trip- Spiro picked us up from reception and drove us to the National Park. Although it is on the smaller side- compared to other hundreds of thousands of square kms of park Tanzania has to offer- Lake Manyara National Park is famous for tree climbing lions, affable monkey families that fight and tussle and groom and hug (it was like watching a Mexican soap), Hippo Lake and many other animals that make the patch of heaven their home.
Having drinks straight from the cooler whilst watching Zebras trot right in front of your van like they’re in a Vogue Africa photo shoot will be your life when you go to Serena. You will also start thinking of how round a Zebra’s backside is- and declare that the rounder the rumps belong to the females- and Spiro will tell you that you are admiring a male Zebra’s backside. And you won’t really know how to feel about that.
Bush dinner with nyama choma and a decadent chocolate cake for dinner. It’s almost like a mythical story. Like you’ve gone out on an adventure and come across a friendly village that decides to hold a feast for you and your fellow weary travellers. The full on Goat-on-skewer-roasting-over-an-open-fire experience in the romantically lit clearing in the bush, with a fire going in the center. Then there was Geldart the Chef.
Geldart reminds me of Hagrid and Jeff Koinange and Poseidon put together. A jolly giant that tells you:
Karibu sana, ladies and gentlemen- I hope we’re all enjoying our meals today- there’s enough meat for everyone. Go on- fill your belly. Ho ho ho.
The jolly giant with an impeccable palate who runs the Manyara Kitchen like a well oiled machine. I really enjoyed their Cream of Aubergine soup- Some fresh aubergine, sauteed in diced onions and butter- light seasoning and a little whir in a blender- scrumptious. (And eggplant isn’t the most popular vegetable, by the way. Geldart made the shy, nerdy vegetable go out to the auditions and sing its little eggplant heart out.)
I want to have an important meeting in an air conditioned space with theatre facilities and plush carpeting- that also happens to be a tent. I feel like that would make me more productive in the long run- and bring out my inner survivalist. Mustafa showed us to their conference facilities- and even gave us a little peek of where the legendary Agwambo (Sir) had his breakfasts when he stayed there- a little private nook overlooking the valley floor.
We we’re on our way back – we hit the road at about nine and headed for Lake Duluti Serena- where we had a brisk (but delicious) lunch.
Imagine a colonial chalet by a lake that is embroidered by jungle green brush and forest. This chalet used to be a farmhouse- and has now been elegantly re-purposed for use as business hotel 15 minutes from Arusha City Centre. All rooms have a view of the lake and are built for a working individual looking to get pampered whilst still living within a busy town. The stuffed peppers and nyama choma roasted turkey- the naan bread dipped in a bit of the lamb stew were the shining stars of the meal.
Their food makes you think: All this, for me? Much unlike lots of hotel buffets- Lake Duluti really breathes life in the food they prepare- you feel like they were thoughtful about what their guest would enjoy.
The great thing about this whole Tanzania plan is that Serena offers packages- you can have a weekend a way for about Khs 37000 all inclusive, all you have to do is show up. They also do Air packages that make a lot of sense for the pocket- especially for those people planning a romantic getaway with the significant other. In no uncertain terms: You should propose, and you should do it at Lake Manyara.
In no time we we’re back in Namanga- and on the way to the city through Kajiado the clouds made quite a performance. Rows and rows of silver encrusted pillows hung in the sky like someone with a very big brush had painted them on the blue canvas. The villages that we passed and the men and women going about their lives in such a picturesque setting made me yearn for a simpler time. The Samburu slinger talked about “What if Nairobi was here,” The cautious thinker and I agreed quietly.
The possibility does exists, however, that you can taste a little of this beautiful life away from the city, on one weekend where you are willing to escape with a bunch of strangers to another country. There is a high chance, however, that the group of strangers will return as friends.
Image Credit: Mwirigi Flickr