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Chapter 13

UP FROM THE COAST.

Nairobi is situated at the far edge of the great Athi Plains and just below a range of hills. It might about as well have been anywhere else, and perhaps better a few miles back in the higher country. Whether the funny little narrow-gauge railroad exists for Nairobi, or Nairobi for the railroad, it would be difficult to say. Between Mombasa and this interior placed-to-order town, certainly, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, either in passengers or freight, to justify building the line. That distance is, if I remember it correctly, about three hundred and twenty miles. A dozen or so names of stations appear on the map. These are water tanks, telegraph stations, or small groups of tents in which dwell black labourers--on the railroad.

The way climbs out from the tropical steaming coast belt to and across the high scrub desert, and then through lower rounded hills to the plains. On the desert is only dense thorn brush--and a possibility that the newcomer, if he looks very closely, may to his excitement see his first game in Africa. This is a stray duiker or so, tiny grass antelopes a foot high. Also in this land is thirst; so that alongside the locomotives, as they struggle up grade, in bad seasons, run natives to catch precious drops.[5] An impalpable red dust sifts through and into everything. When a man descends at Voi for dinner he finds his fellow-travellers have changed complexion. The pale clerk from indoor Mombasa has put on a fine healthy sunburn; and the company in general present a rich out-of-doors bloom. A chance dab with a white napkin comes away like fresh paint, however.

You clamber back into the compartment, with its latticed sun shades and its smoked glass windows; you let down the narrow canvas bunk; you unfold your rug, and settle yourself for repose. It is a difficult matter. Everything you touch is gritty. The air is close and stifling, like the smoke-charged air of a tunnel. If you try to open a window you are suffocated with more of the red dust. At last you fall into a doze; to awaken nearly frozen! The train has climbed into what is, after weeks of the tropics, comparative cold; and if you have not been warned to carry wraps, you are in danger of pneumonia.

The gray dawn comes, and shortly, in the sudden tropical fashion, the full light. You look out on a wide smiling grass country, with dips and swales, and brushy river bottoms, and long slopes and hills thrusting up in masses from down below the horizon, and singly here and there in the immensities nearer at hand. The train winds and doubles on itself up the gentle slopes and across the imperceptibly rising plains. But the interest is not in these wide prospects, beautiful and smiling as they may be, but in the game. It is everywhere. Far in the distance the herds twinkle, half guessed in the shimmer of the bottom lands or dotting the sides of the hills. Nearer at hand it stares as the train rumbles and sways laboriously past. Occasionally it even becomes necessary to whistle aside some impertinent kongoni that has placed himself between the metals! The newcomer has but a theoretical knowledge at best of all these animals; and he is intensely interested in identifying the various species. The hartebeeste and the wildebeeste he learns quickly enough, and of course the zebra and the giraffe are unmistakable; but the smaller gazelles are legitimate subjects for discussion. The wonder of the extraordinary abundance of these wild animals mounts as the hours slip by. At the stops for water or for orders the passengers gather from their different compartments to detail excitedly to each other what they have seen. There is always an honest superenthusiast who believes he has seen rhinoceroses, lions, or leopards. He is looked upon with envy by the credulous, and with exasperation by all others.

So the little train puffs and tugs along. Suddenly it happens on a barbed wire fence, and immediately after enters the town of Nairobi. The game has persisted right up to that barbed wire fence.

The station platform is thronged with a heterogeneous multitude of people. The hands of a dozen raggetty black boys are stretched out for luggage. The newcomer sees with delight a savage with a tin can in his stretched ear lobe; another with a set of wooden skewers set fanwise around the edge of the ear; he catches a glimpse of a beautiful naked creature very proud, very decorated with beads and heavy polished wire. Then he is ravished away by the friend, or agent, or hotel representative who has met him, and hurried out through the gates between the impassive and dignified Sikh sentries to the cab. I believe nobody but the newcomer ever rides in the cab; and then but once, from the station to the hotel. After that he uses rickshaws. In fact it is probable that the cab is maintained for the sole purpose of giving the newcomer a grand and impressive entrance. This brief fleeting quarter hour of glory is unique and passes. It is like crossing the Line, or the first kiss, something that in its nature cannot be repeated.

The cab was once a noble vehicle, compounded of opulent curves, with a very high driver's box in front, a little let-down bench, and a deep, luxurious, shell-shaped back seat, reclining in which one received the adulation of the populace. That was in its youth. Now in its age the varnish is gone; the upholstery of the back seat frayed; the upholstery of the small seat lacking utterly, so that one sits on bare boards. In place of two dignifiedly spirited fat white horses, it is drawn by two very small mules in a semi-detached position far ahead. And how it rattles!

Between the station and the hotel at Nairobi is a long straight wide well-made street, nearly a mile long, and bordered by a double row of young eucalyptus. These latter have changed the main street of Nairobi from the sunbaked array of galvanized houses described by travellers of a half dozen years back to a thoroughfare of great charm. The iron houses and stores are now in a shaded background; and the attention is freed to concentrate on the vivid colouring, the incessant movement, the great interest of the people moving to and fro. When I left Nairobi the authorities were considering the removal of these trees, because one row of them had been planted slightly within the legal limits of the street. What they could interfere with in a practically horseless town I cannot imagine, but I trust this stupidity gave way to second thought.

The cab rattles and careers up the length of the street, scattering rickshaws and pedestrians from before its triumphant path. To the left opens a wide street of little booths under iron awnings, hung with gay colour and glittering things. The street is thronged from side to side with natives of all sorts. It whirls past, and shortly after the cab dashes inside a fence and draws up before the low stone-built, wide-verandahed hotel.

FOOTNOTES:

[5] The Government does much nowadays by means of tank cars.


Stewart Edward White

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