Swimming, Pneumonia and all things Kenya

Our flight to Kenya should have been a real pleasure, less than a third full, not too long and full of Virgin Atlantic’s usual customer care. Unfortunately I was still suffering the effects of a cold, so I found an empty row of seats and tried my best to will away the time, feeling rather sorry for myself.

Warm clean air and a host of smiling locals greeted us on arrival and we were relieved to see all our kit approaching on the back of a wee tractor. Why is it that I only ever have airport issues in the UK?

Tired, yet happy to be there, we loaded our shiny Dropzones onto the ancient yet reliable 4×4. Lexi, our driver, chatted about all things Kenya while we headed north. About an hour out of Nairobi we stopped to scout a couple of 60 footers and although they looked good to go, we settled for a local beer and some food, probably the wise choice as we were still feeling the effects of 24 hours travelling.

As a slight tangent to the tale, let me tell you about travelling in Kenya. Whilst taking in the sights or searching for rivers there is no escaping the Kenyan transport network which feels like something out of a Roald Dahl book. The areas in which travel is encouraged, they certainly cannot all be called roads, have varying degrees of surface and markings. Signs are a rare pleasure and in general roads seem to be more of a guideline than a rule, with as much travel happening off them as on them. Livestock and road workers wander about, oblivious to traffic and the motorways the Chinese are constructing, presumably in return for some natural resources. The undoubted king of this playground is the Matatu, a minibus-come taxi, driven in a fashion that creates feelings of awe and terror. Despite all this, and not playing down the obvious danger you are in whenever travelling, I found the whole experience rather enjoyable. The surreal nature of it all is surprisingly calming and in the end, it’s more like enjoying a fairground attraction then travelling.

About four hours after landing we made it to the Sagana campsite on the banks of the river Tana. Still feeling pretty rough I would have settled for an afternoon in bed, especially considering I had managed to tuck two pillows (thats how I roll!) into my kayak. But we were talked into a nice gentle warm up on a short section or river that finished back at the campsite…

The first thought I had when hitting the water was one of power. The river was still relatively narrow and calm, yet the volume and power were a world apart from the Scottish ditches we usually bash. Ibra, our guide, lead us down some pleasantly bouncy grade two and then eddied us out above a pretty considerable horizon line. Feeling well off my game and weakened by what I was now calling “man flu” I was pretty apprehensive. Ibra assured me it was a simple grade 3 and that the line was “just over there, I will be fine”… yet the rising mist and thunderous noise did not fill me with much confidence. Sitting behind an island in mid stream, not far from the lip, there was nothing for it and I had to follow my mates as they disappeared. Some choice words crossed my mind as I reached the lip and eyed the rapid before me. Couple of big hits and I was looking at the African sky, just long enough to enjoy the vibrant blue, before being engulfed in warm, murky brown water. Several roll attempts, some stopper time and I was swimming. The river, after having its way with me, was sporting enough to deposit me on some rocks just upstream of a large recirculating eddy where it was kind enough to put the rest of my kit, including my shoes. Back in the saddle, and entirely convinced this would not be the gentle warm up I had hoped, we continued downstream.

Feeling decidedly delicate I made a couple of tactical portages whilst James, Ian and Ibra lapped up the stunning and near continuous rapids that this river had to offer. Slides, drops, holes, waves…simple big volume brilliance. I watched enviously as they enjoyed the main events. If Kenyan boating didn’t get any better than this the trip still would have been worth it. As we cruised into the camp at the bottom of the run I was pleased to have survived and, feeling pretty sketchy, headed for bed, feeling less elated than my paddling partners who had so enjoyed the stretch. Was I just being a bit soft or did I really have manflu? Well maybe not manflu (thats pretty serious), but the following day I was in hospital with pneumonia… No more paddling for my trip the doctor insisted! I translated that to mean one day reading Harry Potter and second playing shuttle bunny before heading back to enjoy the Tana that had got the better of me on day one. Feeling better, due mainly to a lot of drugs, we went out and nailed the glorious rapids it had to offer. What a river and just the start of many more as our Kenyan exploration continued…