George Abert – Thoughts & Observations

Notes from an interesting life

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

A Day Trip to Agra

leave a comment »


A Few Words about this updated WordPress Site

Originally this site was setup to serve as the blog for what was briefly known as The Seagrove Institute for Spiritual Awareness. That initiative didn’t last very long and was replaced with stories about my life as an expat dependent growing up in Africa. After I ran out of stories from those years in Africa the blog remained dormant for several years.

But, at the request of one of my readers, I’m back. I’ve renamed the site to encompass stories from other times in my life and observations that I think worth sharing. After learning that a life-long friend’s got Stage IV throat cancer, I decided to tell some stories before I too succumbed.

This first story, one which coincides with my early years in Africa, takes place in India. Because that day trip was itself a small part of a much grander trip, accounts from the rest of the voyage have been included.


A Day Trip to Agra.

The year was 1962. My family had been living in Africa then for almost four years where father was stationed with the US State Department. As was the custom in those days, families got home leave for three months every two years. Our first home leave brought us home in the summer. This home leave was delayed and lengthened so that we could be home for Christmas. We left in late September and returned in January. Normally we would have flown up to Rome on Ethiopian Airlines and transferred to some US airline to fly back home crossing the Atlantic. Since none of us had ever been east of Africa, father decided to take us back home the long way flying from west to east. So, after arriving in Rome, we transferred to Pan American Airlines to take us across Asia and the Pacific. Pan American had two flights which circumnavigated the globe using Douglas DC-8s that both originated and ended in New York. One took the westward route, the other the eastward route. They were designated flights “1” and “2”. I don’t remember which number designation our flight was, just that it flew from west to east.

The first stop after leaving Rome was Karachi, Pakistan. We spent a day there, long enough to learn that Karachi was hot and dusty. We drove through an area where there were a number of large government buildings that dated from the time when Pakistan was part of India and the British Empire. Beyond that I recall very little except that working class men wore especially long khaki shirts which now seem a variation of the kanduras Gulf State Arabs wear.

The second leg of our journey took us from Karachi to New Delhi, India. Although we could have, rather than hop on the Pan American flight, we used Pakistani International Airlines instead. The aircraft was a Vickers Viscount, a turboprop that featured especially large oval windows which afforded incredible views of the countryside between the two cities. The flight lasted about three hours. When we arrived in New Delhi we were met by an embassy car and the Council General’s wife. For three days we would be guests of the Council General.

On our first full day in India, the Council General’s wife took us on a tour of both New Delhi and “Old” Delhi. While in New Delhi, we saw more grand buildings that dated from the time when India was part of the British Empire. Although similar in appearance to edifices that serve the same general purpose in the UK, their design suggests a Moghul influence. Then it was on to “Old” Delhi and the bazaars where I was treated to a tailor-made shirt. Once I selected the material and “cut”, the tailors immediately set about to rough-stitch it up for an initial fitting. On our third and final day in India, we went back to pick up the finished shirt after a quick final fitting. I recall, upon our return home noticing that the tailors inserted several dozen pins into that shirt before handing over the finished product. Ii was dark blue and I may have worn it twice.

On our second full day in India we hired a taxi for the day trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It was a black Hindustan Ambassador manufactured in an Indian government-owned factory. Its design was based on a 1940s English design that hadn’t the slightest hint of air conditioning. Well, not exactly true, the four windows in the doors could be rolled down, but that let in flies.

The route to Agra took us through what seemed like endless dusty crowded chaos. I doubt the taxi ever got up to cruising speed for more than a kilometer. It was stop and go while weaving through thongs of agricultural workers the entire trip. But, in accordance with tradition, we stopped at a garden inn at around 11:00 am to take tea. Quite the respite from the chaos we’d been witness to. The palatial main structure appeared to have been built by the British late in the Nineteenth Century. It had a large terraced garden that featured a series of shaded outdoor seating areas. Peacocks roamed about. We were led to an agreeable seating area where waiters, attired in heavily starched white uniforms, served us tea and biscuits.

After tea, our trip to Agra resumed and after a brief drive, we arrived in Agra.

While in Agra we made three stops. The first was to the Taj Mahal. Upon entering the grounds, we were obliged to pay a nominal entry fee. From there we walked to one of the entry doors where we were obliged to remove our shoes and don a pair of sandals. The building was magnificent! It was clad in cut white stone that had been decorated with countless smaller brightly colored stones. Samples were on sale at the curio shops that surrounded the grounds. Pictured are a pair of drink coasters made in the same manner as was the Taj Mahal’s cladding by descendants of the original craftsmen.

Our second stop was to the curio shop that may, if memory serves, have been located in the main entry building. While there we purchased the photo album pictured above and the two drink coasters pictures below.


I’m not sure but I think our third stop was to the Jahangiri Mahal, known as Agra’s main fort. From there we climbed back into the trusty Hindustan Ambassador for the return trip to New Delhi. Along the way we stopped briefly for a light lunch and refreshments.

On our final day in India, we returned to “Old” Delhi to pick up my tailored shirt and to purchase some brass furniture that was packaged and sent to our home in Africa. That night we flew from India on Pan American Airlines to Bangkok.

We stopped briefly in Bangkok, long enough to leave the aircraft for about an hour so the ground crew could tidy things up. While on the ground we were confined to an open pavilion surrounded by an open paddock. It was hot, perhaps as high as 45 degrees Celsius. There large aggressive ants. We were served refreshments. Then it was back on the plane for the next leg of our journey to Hong Kong.

We stayed in Hong Kong three days. Our hotel, the Merlin Palace was located in Kowloon within a few blocks of the Tong City. Since Hong Kong’s return to the PRC, both the Merlin and the Tong City have been demolished. While there my father and I walked over to the entry to the Tong City. It was guarded by two soldiers of the Queens Gurkha Guard and a British officer. The other thing my father and I did was get fitted for tailor made suits. Although it’s possible to get these stitched up in as little as 24 hours, ours took a little longer. My suit was cur in a blue surge. On our last day there we hired a custom-made junk ordered by some rich guy in California to take us to a floating restaurant on the far side of the island. Except for that junk trip, it rained the entire time we were in Hon Kong. One day, I don’t remember which, we took the ferry over to the main island and hired a taxi to take us up to Victoria Peak.

Our next stop, again for three days, was Tokyo where we were guests of the US Council General and his wife. I remember Tokyo as being cold, gray and crowded. At one point the Council General’s wife took us to Tokyo Tower where we were afforded panoramic views from the main observation deck. As we were walking about on that deck, a kimono clad grandmother offered her unexpired pay binoculars to look through. The Council General’s wife helped ne say “Thank you” in Japanese.

The next leg of our journey took us to Honolulu where we went through customs. Our stay there was brief, perhaps no longer than an hour. From there it was on to Los Angeles where we were to have stayed for just long enough to visit Disney Land. Shortly after we awoke the next morning we hired a cab to take us out to Disney Land, I don’t remember much. I was excited to drive the go-carts. At one point we went into a restaurant/store that was chuck fill of Disney Parks Merchandise. I ordered a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. And, as if on cue, I succumbed to a head cold. The hotel called a doctor to check me out. He asked my dad to keep us in Los Angeles for an additional day so that my head cold would pass fearing that additional air travel so soon might aggravate things.

The final leg of our flight took us to Appleton, Wisconsin. We were to have landed in Green Bay but an early snow obliged the pilots to divert to Appleton. We had to hire a taxi to take us to Green Bay. We gave a ride to one of the other passengers, an Indian engineer that had never been the US before. He’d also never seen snow before.

Upon our return to our US home town, we rented a cottage by the lake and I was enrolled in school with the same kids I’d been with in kindergarten. I got to and from school by bus and recall thinking during the Cuban Missile Crisis that we might all die. Christmas with the extended family was grand.


Written by GW Abert

December 27, 2018 at 08:21

Posted in Uncategorized

Bud’s Tree House

with 4 comments


Bud’s Tree House was in a tree not too dissimilar from this.

While my family resided in Nairobi we befriended another American family who hailed from Texas. I’ve written about this family previously in other posts. They had a son who was a couple years my senior with whom I shared some adventures. Once we attempted to climb Kilimanjaro and another time we were lucky not to be eaten alive by swarming safari ants.

Bud built a tree house way up in a very tall tree. The house his family rented was on a large plot that was situated on the side of a very steep river valley. Unlike the valley the river was tiny, little more than a nasty grey stream of slow moving puss-like liquid that smelled like a sewage treatment plant. Not all of Africa’s rivers are as the Nile.

The trees that grew on the valley sides were really tall, at least 150 feet in height. But with the exception of the top most thirty or forty feet, their branches had all been cut off by servants who removed them for use as firewood. The servants typically only cooked one thing, a ubiquitous concoction of dense white cornmeal commonly called Posho (or in some circles Ugali). They were thoughtful enough to cut the branches off about a foot or so from the trunks so that they could utilize the stubs that remained to climb up to remove the branches that remained still higher up.

These stubs were adequate to allow Bud access to the canopy foliage as well. So, over a period of a couple months, Bud managed to set himself up with some rather nice digs atop an especially tall tree. It was way the hell up there, the base of that tree’s canopy at least 100 feet above ground. The tree house had several levels with the lowest perhaps ten or fifteen feet up into the canopy. There was an intermediate level a few feet above the lower level and an observation deck set amongst the topmost branches that Bud had trimmed to accommodate it. The various components, odd bits of lumber, a few bent nails and old rope, were more-or-less attached to the tree with some, though minimal, vigor. None of these levels were, well, level, as most had a decidedly unnerving slope to contend with. I don’t know if she was aware of it or not but Bud had managed to requisition some smaller pieces of the family’s furniture to take up there as well. He even jury rigged a block and pulley setup which allowed him to bring up supplies for extended stays.

I think we’d only known each other for a few weeks when he first spoke of his treetop abode. Naturally as soon as I learned of it I had to check it out. I had no idea what I was getting myself in for.

We walked from the house down the valley side to get to the tree’s base. The first few feet up that tree were pretty easy but then, once up about fifteen or twenty feet, the lack of foliage made the height daunting. About halfway up it got really difficult to keep climbing but Bud encouraged me by warning me not to look down. As long as I kept my focus on climbing things were OK. Eventually I got to the foliage where climbing got easier as there was more things to grab onto.

And then I looked down!

It seemed as though we were up about a mile. I spent a couple hours up there checking out the different levels and admiring the view from Bud’s “Observation Deck”. The intermediate level was equipped with a canvas canopy to protect Bud from rain. He had a small bookcase up there which contained a few of his most favored titles. There were some eating utensils and a small kerosene lamp. It was great!

And then it was time to descend!

It was really hard to descend without looking down and Bud had to talk me down the whole way. When we finally made it back to the ground our fathers and about half a dozen servants were waiting. Boy was that a relief!

But then, as nightfall approached, we came up with a truly brilliant idea: “Let’s spend the night up there!”

Awesome! Spending the night atop a really tall tree obliges some logistical preparation. Bud’s mother fixed us some sandwiches and we filled a couple canteens with water. We scrounged around and managed to locate a couple old sleeping bags. Bud’s father let us borrow his binoculars. Once assembled we set about to getting all that stuff up the tree. Bud scurried up and manned the block and tackle while I stayed below to secure things into a makeshift net. After a few minutes all was where it was supposed to be.

Except me!

Now it was my turn to go up that tree. It was a little easier this time because I was somewhat more familiar with layout to the branches and by that time the sun was already setting. I had to hurry because the sun sets really fast at the Equator. When I finally got to the top it was almost dark.

We talked story for a while and marveled at the night sky from the deck. We ate the sandwiches and drank some water. Then it was bedtime, time to roll the sleeping bags out on that deck. There was barely enough room for one sleeping bag let alone two, and if you rolled the wrong way you risked falling off into the night. No matter, after talking story for what seemed like a long time we descended into a deep slumber.

I awoke a few times and recall being somewhat disoriented until I remembered that I was in a tree but then realized that I had to relieve myself from atop that tree, an action not contemplated during the rigorous planning exercise that preceded our adventure. So, after some thought and trepidation, I decided to just relieve myself harmlessly into the night! Ha! Good thing it was only a No. 1 as I’d no idea how to handle a No. 2 from such dizzying heights!

The last time I awoke the sun had already risen and it was time to descend and return to the house for one of Bud’s mother’s excellent breakfasts. This time getting down was made somewhat more difficult because the branches were wet with the morning’s dew.

I never went up that tree again. I wonder if any remnants of Bud’s treehouse still remain after all the interceding decades.

Written by GW Abert

September 6, 2015 at 15:14

Posted in Uncategorized

The Queen Mum’s Visit

leave a comment »


For the entire time my family resided in Kenya it, along with the rest of East Africa, was a British Colony and part of the Commonwealth. A Union Jack flew over Government House and the realm was ruled by a colonial governor. Shortly after we left to take up residence in Rhodesia in 1962, Kenya, though still part of the Commonwealth, become an independent country. Since it’s often in the news and I know a lot of people who either live there or have relatives who do, it must be doing rather well.

They were then and still are given to driving on the wrong (left) side of the road. Although this doesn’t seem to be an issue in Kenya, I suspect that driving on the left side of the road may not be optimal given that drivers in India seem to have a difficult time adhering to any one side of the road long enough to garner an advantage. So much for thousands of years of civilization.

Back to Kenya…

Since there were no foreign community schools, my parents enrolled me in Nairobi Primary School. Because the British school system is somewhat more advanced than the US system I was obliged to be tutored over the Christmas-New Year’s holiday to catch up with my classmates. There was a compounding factor. The school year in Kenya coincided with the calendar year. So, even though I’d just started the second grade in a US school months earlier, the school year in Kenya ended just weeks after our arrival. Fortunately, unlike now, I was a quick study.

Most of my classmates were the sons and daughters of British expats who had been lured to the colonies by the prospect of inexpensive land and otherwise attractive businesses opportunities. By all appearances, most were doing rather well, far better than they would have been doing had they remained in the then still excessively socialistic UK.

School started promptly around 7:00 AM and concluded at 1:00 PM. There was a lot of emphasis on sports. In keeping with tradition, everything stopped for Elevenses (tea at 11:00 AM) when we were served tea and oversized slices of bread spread with butter and Marmite (nasty salt-laden concoction derived from an extract of yeast).

Just as was the case in the UK, things were subject to a discipline and order that was enforced with tennis shoes and cane switches. If you got out of hand the schoolmasters could whack your backside with a tennis shoe. If you were especially unruly they could ramp up the severity of the punishment by whacking your backside up to six times with a cane switch, a ritual commonly referred to as “Getting Sixies”.

Things were reasonably British, so much so that members of the royal family were given to visit from time to time. These visits occurred with some regularity. In fact the current reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, while still a princess, visited Kenya in 1952 and while staying at “Treetops” learned that her father, King George VI, had passed. So most were not surprised to learn when the Headmaster announced that we were all destined to greet Her Majesty the Queen Mother the following week.

When the appointed day arrived, shortly after arriving to school, we were marched by class to a fleet of busses that had been commandeered to transport us to the Nairobi Trade Fair grounds where we would see and hear Her Majesty from a grassy field. The trip didn’t take very long. Shortly after leaving school the busses turned onto Ngong Road for the two to three mile trip to the grounds. Once there we were ushered by class to sit cross-legged on the grass. When we first arrived the sun had some ways to go before reaching its zenith. If memory serves, I think our school may have been one of the first to arrive so we had to wait for almost an hour before all the other students had assembled, long enough for the sun to ascend high enough for it to be hot, so hot that some kids started to faint.

There were kids from every school for miles around Nairobi. There were kids from primary and secondary schools. There were kids from the European schools as well as the Indian and African schools. All told, there were thousands in attendance. And there in that field we all waited patiently for Her Majesty to arrive. And all the while we’re being baked to crisps.

After what seemed like an eternity, some school master stepped up to the dais to announce that the Queen Mother’s entourage was running a “bit Late’ and commanded us to exercise additional patience and keep the ruckus to a minimum. I think this may have happened more than once.

Eventually the royal entourage turned into the grounds and we were commanded to stand up and cheer Her Majesty’s arrival. This noisy pandemonium went on for quite some time as it took a long time for the Queen Mother to get from her car to the dais. And then, as she approached the microphone, somebody called us all into action by yelling out “Three Cheers for the Queen Mum!” Hip hip hooray, etc., etc. or so it went.

Finally, after those in attendance quieted down sufficiently, the Queen Mum spoke. She didn’t have much to say and from where I was standing, she was difficult to hear. I seem to recall that she thanked us all for being there and expressed hope that we’d all do well in school. Then there was another round of “Three Cheers” after which she and her entourage left the dais. The whole address lasted no more than two minutes. I don’t remember for sure, but I suspect we may have sung “God Save the Queen” while she was there.

And once she left it was time for us to return to our schools.

That was not the last time that my life was touched by the royals. About a year after seeing the Queen Mum, the Queen gave birth to Price Andrew, the Duke of York. And then, about four years later, while my family resided in Rhodesia, the Queen gave birth to Price Edward, the Earl of Wessex, an event of sufficient magnitude that the day was declared a school holiday. Yea! No school!

I can’t speak for you but the Queen Mum always seemed like a nice lady to me.

Written by GW Abert

August 23, 2015 at 14:21

Posted in Uncategorized

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

leave a comment »


In early 1964 father was ordered to move his operation from Salisbury to Cairo. Since he entered the Foreign Service, he’d been assigned to administer capital projects to upgrade diplomatic facilities throughout Africa. This had been ongoing since the early fifties. When first assigned, he was one of eight Foreign Service officers so tasked. In 1964, with much of the work complete, he was the only one left.

As there wasn’t room within the Embassy compound, office space was leased in a building immediately adjacent thereto. Father employed two people, the twin sister of one of the Embassy administrative aides to serve as receptionist and a local architect. From the office windows we could see into the compound below. To the south was the Embassy building proper set in a lush garden, appropriate since that part of Cairo is named “Garden City”. At the east end of the compound was an ornate palatial residence that housed the USIS Library (during the year we resided in Egypt students would be incited to burn it down). Immediately to our east was the Marine guard quarters that were hard not to notice since the Marines were given to loudly playing volley ball at what seemed like all hours of the day (and night).

That summer was noteworthy as it was the last one I experienced before my hormones decided to kick in. That was the summer I became a teenager. The year or so before males enter puberty is perhaps the last time we get to have some control over our mental faculties. Once the hormones kick in reason is shut out of the mix and things become much more complicated.

As it was summer, I was not yet in school. Later that year I would enter the eighth grade in Cairo American College. But for the time being, it was summer and since I’d little to do, I helped out in father’s office. Basically this obliged me to periodically fetch the mail from the communications suite and purchase the occasional hot dog from the Embassy canteen. I learned to hand draft and was set to work making ink on Mylar tracings of embassy and consulate plans.

The communications suite itself was strictly off limits as within it was an array of secretive communications gear. There was a wall of lockers that served the same function as would a bank of post office boxes. I would simply go down the hall to the locker assigned, insert the key and retrieve whatever had been placed within. Though there was at least one daily world brief, none of this stuff was classified. Whenever something classified did arrive, a card was placed in the locker that obliged father to come down and sign for whatever it was in person. This didn’t happen often.

But there was an interesting stretch of days when there were several world briefs. That was during the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. As was usually the case, I ventured down to the Embassy around 10:00 AM. There was the usual pile of teletype messages neatly arranged within a folder held shut by a piece of string wrapped around two plastic buttons. There were few envelopes and the latest copy of “ENR” (Engineering News Report). What set this bundle of messages apart was its thickness. Once the folder was opened it became apparent why. The daily world brief, normally a page of two in length, was at least ten pages long. It was that long because if gave a detailed account of what had happened earlier that day in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Over the next three days, these briefs were replaced by what seemed like hourly SITREPs (Situation Reports). Most of us recall what happened. A US Navy cruiser named the Turner Joy, on patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin, reported that it was under attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Most of are also now aware that there may have been little substance to the basis for the “Incident”. Some speculate that LBJ wanted to show himself to be more hawkish so that he could win the November election. At that time however, the story told by that series of SITREPs was to me quite riveting. In retrospect I’d have to say that the story these SITREPs told was just a bit too tidy to not be told according to some prewritten script. But at the time, it seemed as though the “Good Guys” had been tested and had prevailed.

Collatio Tomi

Since first posting this, something occurred to me. On the second morning there were numerous SITREPs, perhaps one an hour. I remember that in at least two of them it was reported that flotillas of North Vietnamese torpedo boats were launched in what were alleged to be attacks on the Turner Joy. When this happened weapons were deployed to destroy the boats. Except for a few that managed to return to port towing other disabled boats, all were reported sunk.

There are other similar maritime patterns. When fishing fleets put out to sea they often do so in what could appear to a radar operator miles out at sea as a flotilla of torpedo boats. What if the first of these flotillas was actually a fishing fleet? That might explain why the first flotilla seemed to put up so little resistance. When a second flotilla put out to sea it reportedly attempted to assist the first flotilla. That second flotilla was also engaged and most of its vessels sunk. Perhaps the second flotilla was sent out to rescue those stricken from the first flotilla and no hostile actions was intended? Since most were sunk and most of the crew members now departed, we’ll probably never know. I wonder if the official US record still describes these flotillas as torpedo boats.

Written by GW Abert

June 22, 2015 at 16:27

Posted in Uncategorized

Ginger Ale?

with 3 comments


This story ought to be at the end of my Africa tales since we were residing in Egypt at the time but there’s no need to start at the beginning. It’s very short. It’s raining here which means that there’s precious little Internet connectivity so there may not be enough time in a session to upload anything longer.

We’d been living in Egypt for almost a year when father got word that he was supposed to meet with another US diplomat on a ship that was scheduled to traverse the Suez Canal. The afternoon prior to the meeting we drove from Cairo to Port Said to await the ship’s arrival.

The next day we could make out the ship from the balcony of the hotel where we spent the night. As the harbor master flagged them in, the awaiting ships moved up to form the next convoy. Once settled in, it was possible for those ashore and those aboard to transfer via a harbor lighter. We took the lighter to reach the ship.

It was an English vessel although I cannot remember its name. Given the large number of Union Castle vessels then serving the east coast of Africa, I’d venture to guess that it was of that line. Once aboard we were ushered to vast sitting room within which was a lavishly stocked bar. The individual that father was to meet with appeared soon thereafter.

While there we ordered drinks and possible a bite to eat. Something impressed father about the ginger ale they served and he asked if he might purchase a case. “Certainly sir!” came the response. As we left the vessel, under father’s arm was tucked a case containing 24 small cans of Schweppes ginger ale.

Upon return to Cairo some of the cans were placed in the refrigerator to cool. Then, after waiting an appropriate period, we had some. We have ginger ale in the US but not like this. In fact the US version of Schweppes isn’t the same as the English variety. It wasn’t uncommon for kids to drink ginger ale in the US, but I suspect that kids in the UK didn’t consume the version produced there.

First off, it really had a punch! There was no doubting that you were drinking something that had some serious ginger in it. And one other thing: there was far less sugar. In short the US version was and continues to be light on the ginger and heavy on the sugar.

Written by GW Abert

April 20, 2015 at 08:31

Posted in Uncategorized

British East Africa – Travels and Safaris

leave a comment »

Almost from the beginning of our two and half years in Nairobi, my family embarked on several journeys and at least two safaris. Eventually I’ll expand on a few of these but shall here endeavor to provide a brief summary of those I still remember (it’s been over fifty years!).


The Great Rift Valley

I think one of the first trips we took was to the east escarpment into the Great Rift Valley. On this first trip we were guests of a family from Texas. This was not a long trip and if memory serves, it took place in a single day. The route to the escarpment took us through some lush landscape locally termed the highlands. One of the towns on the route was amusingly named Gil-Gil, then not much more than a trading post. The highlands were favored for dairy farming and herds of cows could be seen in the lush country side. The lush landscape quickly gave way to a dry scrub once we reached the escarpment. About half-way down the escarpment we paid a courtesy visit to an agricultural mission then run by an apple farmer who hailed from Southwestern Michigan. I think that he was already in his seventies at the time and we were visit that mission once more before leaving Kenya. A few years after that, while back stateside, we visited this same man at his Michigan apple orchard.



What I recall was the second trip was to the neighboring colony of Tanganyika (now Tanzania) to visit Mt. Kilimanjaro. As was the case with our trip to the escarpment, we traveled with the family from Texas. This time we traveled in two cars and due to the distances involved were obliged to spend the night in a hotel located at a high-enough altitude to be within a lush rain forest. If memory serves, it was named the Kibo Hotel. The mountain rests on a high plateau at around 7,000 feet above sea level and rises to an altitude of around 19,000 feet. That makes Kilimanjaro stand out as unlike most other mountains it’s not part of a mountain chain and isn’t surrounded by foothills. Although somewhat distant from Nairobi, Kilimanjaro can be seen from Nairobi for just a few minutes after sunrise before it clouds over. As one climbs up Kilimanjaro, the vegetation transitions from dry scrub at the base to a dense rain forest (remember the clouds?) that starts at around 11,000 feet. These days I’m told that most of the rain forest has been cleared to make way for coffee production. As one climbs higher in altitude, the transition mimics what would happen were one to travel to higher latitudes. The rain forest gives way to a middle latitude deciduous forest and then to a pine forest. Eventually this pine forest transitions to alpine scrub and finally to an alpine desert. As I write, there’s still snow on Kilimanjaro but it’s predicted to be gone within a decade.

Unbeknownst to our parents, on the morning of second day my friend Bud (aged 9 or 10 and armed with a loaded Leica 1 35mm camera) and I (aged 7) summarily decided to climb Kilimanjaro. We simply left the hotel grounds and proceeded to walk in what we presumed to be up along the paved roadway towards the summit. After about a mile or so it occurred to us that this ascent would take far longer than we’d bargained for and turned back. During this attempt at the summit we never left the rain forest, but recall that Bud managed to take some memorable photographs of the rain forest.

The Game Parks

There were quite a few of these and my father managed to get us to see many of them. The names I remember are Amboseli, Lake Nakuru, Marsabit (up in the NFD), Mount Kenya, Nairobi National Park, Tsavo and the Ngorongoro Crater. Due to its close proximity to Nairobi, we visited the Nairobi National Park numerous times. I vaguely remember visiting all of these parks. I recall that the trips to Amboseli, Lake Nakuru, Tsavo and the Ngorongoro Crater took several days and obliged us to stay in bush hotels. There was also the famed Treetops Lodge which I wasn’t old enough to visit.


We traveled to Marsabit twice. Marsabit is located so far from Nairobi in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District (NFD) that it obliged us to go on Safari. Then and now this area is somewhat lawless and quite undeveloped. In those days there weren’t any hotels and with the exception of a vacation cabin located on the slopes of a small mountain, there were no accommodations whatsoever. On these Safaris we were accompanied by a USAID family stationed in Nairobi and used the Consulate’s MWR Safari setup that included two Jeeps and a tent. One of the Jeeps was one of those cab-over-engine pickup trucks that was fitted with a small slide in camper. On the road the men were obliged to sleep in a tent while the women enjoyed the relative comforts of the camper. As there were packs of hyenas roaming around, it was best to stay in the camper or the tent and keep a campfire going to avoid being summarily dismembered.


As I just noted, the area was quite lawless. Somali bandits roamed the region as the border between Somalia and Kenya wasn’t clearly marked or enforced. If these bandits encountered a group on Safari they were known to be inclined to rob them blind. More recently they’re inclined to capture entire groups and hold them for ransom. As a precaution, in the afternoon of the first day, we were obliged to stop on the way north at a King’s African Rifles Fort to take on protection in the form of a giant King’s African Rifleman. They always assigned one of the largest guys they had. These guys were at least six foot six in height and likely weighed in at well over 200 lbs. They were always impeccably attired in khaki uniforms and carried massive Enfield 303 rifles. They always looked awake and alert and never seemed to be in need of a bath although they usually smelled like onions. They never spoke unless spoken to and ate whatever we fed them.

The NFD is basically a barren steppe interspersed with a swath of craters and a small mountain named Mt. Marsabit. Wild camels, typically not encountered elsewhere in Kenya, are usually the first game anyone sees although there are the usual vast herds of gazelles, wildebeests and other less well known antelope species. Mt. Marsabit is high enough to catch rainfall and hence covered by a middle-latitude deciduous forest. While there we stayed in a large log cabin covered by clouds. One of the peculiar things I remember was the way the builders protected if from termites: they simply applied a heavy coat of varnish over all the logs. They had apparently done this after the logs were already infested as there were a few dead termites encased in what at the time of their demise was unhardened varnish, their heads and mandibles still protruding halfway out of the holes they’d bored.

We stayed in that log cabin on both of our trips up to the NFD. During the second visit it rained and although this presented no problems on the mountain, we were surprised when we ascended to the plains below to encounter a vast sea where there had been a desert steppe the day prior. It was amazing as for as far as the eye could see, from horizon to horizon, there was water. We had to turn around and spend another night up that mountain.

Ngorongoro Crater

I don’t remember much about the Ngorongoro Crater except that there was a great deal of game including lions. For some reason the game there seemed unusually healthy. The lions were obviously well fed, huge and not the least bit concerned with our intrusion into their realm. Although it was rare for visitors to other game parks to see lions, they were easy to find in the Ngorongoro Crater.

Tsavo and Amboseli

These are both massive game parks which took us at least two days to visit each. In addition to all the gazelles and wildebeests, there were herds of elephants and giraffes. We encountered Rhinos and saw Hippos near the watering holes. We may have seen a pride of lions and the occasional leopard. Cheetahs were not an uncommon sight. As a rule, with the exception of packs of hyenas, the predatory creatures are far fewer in number than the herbivores they prey upon.

Stay tuned!

I think this bit about Tsavo and Amboseli marks a good end point for this installment. I’m not sure what will serve as the next installment’s focus but I’ve a hankering to discuss the trip to Mombasa and Malindi.

Written by GW Abert

March 22, 2015 at 12:22

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with

Fearsome Siafu

with 2 comments


Fearsome Siafu

Here follows a short story with postscript:

The snakes in Kenya were to be feared. The post briefing book, intended as a guide for Foreign Service Officers newly assigned to what was then a Consulate and likely written by some clueless wag down at Foggy Bottom, devoted an entire chapter to the snakes but not a single paragraph to the ants, or Siafu as the natives refer to them. Yet the Siafu were far more fearsome than the snakes. A native once told me that whenever you encounter wild animals including carnivores running in the same direction in the bush, you’d best do the same because that could only mean one thing: the Siafu were about to go on safari. Something in the last of the monsoon rains sets off the safari and whatever it is, it’s carried in the air and prompts nests across the land to all go on safari at the same time. When on safari, the Siafu eat everything in their path.

I was spending the night with a friend whose family rented a house in a deep river valley out towards the area where all the pyrethrum plantations used to be north of Nairobi just past the Prince of Wales High School. We’d decided to rough it and camp out in the back yard which sloped down to a tiny nasty gray stream. We had no problem setting up the pup tent and then managed to squeeze into it. Then the rains came. The tent wasn’t waterproof, a condition further compromised by the fact that our sleeping bags were touching the draped canvas. No choice; we had to retreat to my friend’s bedroom.

The next day we awoke to terrible ruckus and the smell of smoke. What had happened? Once we got up it was hard not to notice that all the sugar ants that had nests around the house were active running about trying to retrieve as many crumbs as they could from the floors, tables and cabinets.

Then we ventured to the dining room window which afforded us a view of the entire back yard. The servants were busy digging a trench all the way around the house and filling it with kerosene which they set alight. The chickens were out of their kier covered with what appeared to be red mud and seemed engrossed with eating something they were finding in abundance on the ground at their feet.

That wasn’t mud on those chickens; no, they were covered with red ants, Siafu. As they ate to their hearts content, the Siafu covered their bodies and burrowed deep in under their feathers. Then, chicken by chicken, the collected ants, as if acting on cue, all bit into the chicken at once. The chickens put up one heck of a fuss and even tried flying away but being flightless, failed. Within seconds they were killed by the combined grasp of thousands of little red pinchers. Within a few minutes the chickens were little more than a bloody mush seething under the weight of thousands of ants.

If we had managed to stay in that tent, the chickens’ fate would have been ours as well.

Postscript: The friend whose house I stayed that night was named Bud and he was a US citizen. His family came from Texas where his father had been part owner of a small chain of pharmacies. As there was some tort issue regarding that partnership, my friend’s father moved the family to Kenya to evade civil proceedings initiated by another partner still residing in Texas. That partner had somehow managed to get his tort case transferred to a Crown Civil Court in Kenya. I remember when his legal team managed to move the court to rule that he could take possession of many of the family’s assets and belongings. One afternoon his traumatized mother called my mother to report that court-appointed officers came to the house and confiscated their car and several other items of value.

Up until that point I’d never encountered anyone like Bud’s mother. She was a real Southerner whose family had been plantation owners for generations before the Civil War. Despite the traumas of the Civil War, her family had managed to retain some of their former status. She was the product of a society that held finishing schools and debutant balls with some regard. She was the first person to introduce me to delicacies such as lemon meringue pie piled high with inches upon inches of meringue billows. She also baked a killer rhubarb pie but that’s the stuff for another story. Whenever you visited, she would promptly bring out a massive pitcher of iced tea, a quite uncommon form of hospitality in what was then British East Africa. And then there was the Southern Fried Chicken…

My family lived in Kenya from 1958 until sometime in 1962. I didn’t see Bud again until the summer of 1967 when he passed through Washington, where we lived at the time, on his way to Carbondale to attend university. Except for that visit I never saw him again. I recall that he was obliged to enter into the Air Force ROTC program in order to pay for his tuition. I assume that he eventually accepted a commission and served as an Air Force officer.

And to think, he could have been eaten alive by the Siafu.

Written by GW Abert

March 8, 2015 at 11:10

Posted in Africa, Uncategorized