Richard gets a perverse enjoyment from putting the frighteners into his guests. We’re about to embark on a drive into Mt Elgon national park, and already I’m wishing we weren’t.
“Make sure your kids don’t have any cuts or grazes,” he says. Why, I ask. With a glint in his eye, he says, “Ebola!”
He’s exaggerating for effect, but he’s got a point. In the shadow of Mt Elgon is Kitum Cave, where lurks the Marburg virus, the lesser sister to Ebola, but no less deadly.
Thirty odd years ago, a Danish boy contracted the virus after some amateur excavations, but it might as well have been yesterday the way I’m feeling.
It’s the first rest day of our five-day road trip after a lengthy slog from Nairobi with my elderly parents, husband and two toddlers crammed into the car.Road trips are great for the solo traveller, and adventurous pairs, but I feel vaguely uneasy about embarking on one with two young children and wonder how they – and we – will cope.
When we get to the cave, I shrug off my fears. One would have to venture deep into this cave, alive with bats, to have even the remotest chance of getting Marburg from where it’s thought to be found – in bat guano.
I remind myself that hundreds of school children come here every year with no ill effects.
Then Anna, my youngest, bounds delightedly into the cave, promptly falls over and eats a mouthful of dirt. Elephants come here at night to lick salt, and their dung is everywhere. I silently pray it is just dung, not something more sinister.
Marburg leaves my mind as we explore the park, driving through beautiful, dense woodland up into the moorland above, ignoring the trail leading to the mountain.
We see little wildlife – except for some bushbuck and dik dik – but having the park to ourselves is sufficient reward.Back at Barnley’s, the homely guesthouse that Richard Barnley runs with his mother, our host asks us about our day. I mention we went beyond the steps into the cave.
His eyes widen. I mention Anna’s fall. He puts a hand over his eyes. I tell him Anna ate some dirt.
His head sinks into his hands. A moment later, he hands me a tattered copy of Hot Zone, a sensationalised account of the hunt for the source of Ebola and Marburg. I read into the early hours, and sleep fitfully.
The next morning, we hit the road early for Saiwa swamp, the home of the Sitatunga antelope. We discuss our host on the way.
“Well, he’s reasonably tolerant of children,” my husband says. “I’d say he’s reasonably tolerant of guests,” my father replies.
Despite his outwardly sardonic manner, Richard has shown himself remarkably tolerant to two small children who turned his farmhouse upside down, and fed his family’s much-loved soft toy to the dog.
A down-to-earth white Kenyan, he has an incredible knowledge of a complex and fascinating region that he is more than willing to share.
We reach Saiwa as dawn breaks. Kenya’s smallest national park is only 3 kilometres squared in size, and wreathed in mist, the swamp looks enchanting.
We set off in search of the Sitatunga, distinctive for the faint white stripes across its back. Dotted around the park are look-out treehouses, and we clamber up some rickety steps at lookout number four to get a good view of the antelope.
A bawling toddler, roused too early, oddly doesn’t scare them off.
Within a few hours, we’re back on the road, heading towards Kakamega. It’s a four-hour drive, and we’re three days into our road trip.
For most of the way, we stay on the tarmac, before cutting off onto a beautiful dirt road that takes us through small villages and towards the Kakamega forest.
The fuel light starts blinking and I pull into a pump in the next village. My husband enquires whether it’s good fuel.
“Yes,” smiles the man pouring in diesel from a drum. “We siphon it off the main pipeline.”
Fuelled up, we arrive at Rondo Retreat, an unexpected haven of American-style clapboard cottages with full-length verandas.
The children, let loose, race around the huge, lush grounds.
We rise early for our bird walk, for what else does one do in Kakamega, famed for its abundance of birdlife, not least the Blue
Turaco. With the forest thickly canopied, and the birds well-camouflaged, it soon becomes apparent that you don’t so much see the birds, but hear them.
We invent our own descriptions of their calls. “That’s a deep-throated chuckle,” my husband suggests of the Joyful greenbul.
The Red-tailed bristle bill emits a strangely tuneful descending scale, the Scaly-breasted illadopsis a piercing whistle. “How would you describe that,” I ask of the Black-faced rufous warbler. “A whirr?” my husband suggests.
The African thrush has us all confused. Timothy, our guide, tells us it is adept in mimicry, commanding as many as 50 different calls.
In the heat of the day, we climb a small hill, overlooking the vast Kakamega forest, the last remaining chunk of equatorial rainforest that once stretched all the way across Africa.
Rosie, my four-year-old, has a tantrum on the way up and refuses to go on. Parenting styles come in to play here. “Leave her, she’ll follow,” my mother says. “I can’t,” I wail.
Pretty soon we all wish we were back at the ranch. Day four, and we’re back on the road again, this time heading for Kericho.
As it approaches lunchtime, we idly start looking for somewhere to stop, and pull in at the romantic-sounding Tea Planter’s Inn, before quickly pulling out again.
My husband drags out a vague memory of a place around here called the Nandi Bears Club. We’re in luck, it serves lunch. But we feel like we’re gate-crashing a Sunday garden party: the white community is holding a tennis tournament, and we’re quickly surrounded by sweaty joviality.
We leave Nandi Hills, and wind through stunning scenery. This is Western Kenya at its finest. Cornfields, tea plantations, views as far as the eye can see. The only vehicles we pass are tractors piled high with crops.
It becomes a game – points for a Massey Ferguson, but nothing for a Ford, which seems pretty popular in these parts.
Rolling into Kericho Tea Hotel, I feel a pang of disappointment. I’d imagined a plantation hotel among vibrant green fields of tea, but this has a utilitarian feel to it.
Nevertheless, the new manager, Edgar, is full of exciting ideas for restoring the hotel to its former glory. I linger in the foyer, and run my fingers over peeling memorabilia on the walls.
A staff member tells us how once it was the place to stay. But the “old men” who own it, the employee says, let it go.
It’s time to head back to Nairobi. The mood falters around Naivasha, when we find the first place we try for a late lunch has closed down.
After driving around for forty minutes trying to find somewhere close but suitable, we end up on the lawn at the Lake Naivasha Country Club.
“I don’t know why we didn’t just come here first,” my father mutters. Monkeys clamber around the garden, and steal Anna’s orange. I sigh. It’s meltdown time again.