The rumors preceded the Captain's official announcement by a matter of a few hours. The USS Camden was heading for shore leave in Mombasa, Kenya. The tour of the Western Pacific, called a WesPac, was turning out much better than the previous one had. Central America had been at war with itself and Iran had stirred up things up in the Persian Gulf, stranding us at sea for months on end, but that's another story. Mark Blankenfield and I were standing on the deck of the 06 level in the bright sunlight of the Indian Ocean doing maintenance on the NATO Seasparrow radar transmitter when the Captain took to the airwaves with the news. Mark was taller than me, with spiked sandy blond hair that accentuated the sharp lines of his jaw and nose. He had always reminded me of a young Stan Laurel of the Laurel and Hardy comedy duo. After the WesPac we would become roommates in an apartment in downtown Seattle.
We were both pretty excited by the Captain's news; not that we were going to Africa, we really didn't care where we moored, we just couldn't wait to be walking on something other than steel all day. Dan Stevens poked his head out of the signal shack on the deck below us to ask what we thought. All it took was a look across the vast empty ocean, dotted with Navy ships to get an answer. I asked if he had ever been to Africa. He hadn't but he said he was ready for an adventure, and suggested that we check out the ship's library after work. Mark and I agreed. Dan was the old salt of the group. He was my height but his girth suggested he spent a little more time in the chow line than I did. His cheeks puffed out above his graying beard and mustache. He had entered the Navy to avoid being drafted to Vietnam. They accepted him despite showing up at the physical high on acid. His buddy was not deemed fit for service as he blew a fart in the face of the doctor performing the “bend and spread 'em” check.
After dinner we checked to see what movie was playing in the crew lounge before heading off to the library. It was Star Wars again but, someone had lost the CinemaScope lens so the image was stretched lengthwise and smooshed in from the sides. I had already watched it once that way and deemed it unwatchable a second time. We continued on to the library across the hall from the lounge. We passed the ship's store on the right, the post office and Master At Arms shack on the left during the twenty five foot trek to the library. It was approximately ten feet square and consisted mostly of books donated by sailors. I assume others had been donated by libraries or other organizations. Consequently, the timeliness and quality of information was scant.
We knew we would have four or five days in Africa and vowed to make the most of it. Dan came across information about Mount Kenya in an encyclopedia. The location seemed a possible feat and we made an immediate decision that it would be our goal. We were going to climb Mount Kenya. Further reading revealed that Mount Kenya was the stronghold of the Mau Mau terrorists in the 1950s when they attempted to gain the country's independence from Britain. We all looked at each other and shrugged. How cool was that, I thought.
We continued to make blind plans based upon maps in the atlas and what limited information we could gather. Our initial plan was to get to Nairobi, but Mombasa was on the coast and Nairobi was located 500 miles inland. We decided we would catch a train there as soon as we could when we got off the ship. Once in Nairobi...well, we hadn't got that far in the planning. As the days closed in on our arrival date, we received flyers offering tours ranging from single day excursions to four and five day safaris. Our resolve did not waiver. We vowed that we did not want to be stuck on a stuffy bus, bounding through the desert, and getting the same speeches as everyone else. We were going on an adventure and that was that. The day before arrival a Kenyan representative was flown out to the ship to speak to us on the fantail, the wide open helicopter pad at the rear of the ship. He told us of the local customs and what to expect. He also handed out flyers with various useful Swahili words and phrases.
The light ripples of the water's surface sparkled like a sea of diamonds the morning of our arrival. Looking toward the horizon we had to take the Quartermaster's word that we were near land. I always found it a little odd that, once you lost sight of land, you could be four thousand miles from anything just as easy as you could be twenty. The crew always performed their duties with a little extra zeal during the days leading up to port arrival. Everyone was also on their best behavior. No one wanted to screw anything up, resulting in having to stay on board an extra moment while the opportunity to be on land existed.
As we were lay out the mooring lines on the deck the eastern shoreline of Africa slowly rose into view. The Camden was a supply ship and somehow, the weapons department to which I was assigned, was under the auspices of the deck department. I always assumed that the Admirals figured that a ship filled with eleven million gallons of fuel and fifty-two thousand tons of ammunition didn't stand much of a chance in an actual combat situation. Our real worth was better spent pulling ropes.
I thought it curious as we neared shore that there were no booms or industrial equipment associated with a ship's replenishment, only green vegetation as far as the eye could see. A tug scooted across the closing expanse toward us. The gangway was lowered and the Harbor Captain climbed aboard to guide the ship along the final leg of the journey. I was still puzzled as we got closer to land that I could not see any concrete piers. I eventually noticed a small gap in the vegetation large enough to navigate. I was not the only one curious as to our predicament. The entire crew was pointing and chatting, wondering what lay ahead. The ship entered the narrow gap, which seemed barely wide enough for the one hundred foot plus width of the ship. While not discussed, I wondered how the hell we were going to get out of there. We traveled for what seemed like miles through the mangrove lined shores until a clearing finally opened up ahead of us. We were all a bit surprised as the rear of the ship suddenly began to shift to the left. We were turning around. The pilot had actually spun the eight hundred foot ship completely around in the bay and parked it with the skill of a stuntman spinning a car to a stop between two other parked cars. Over went the ropes to the awaiting ground crew and, in no time at all, the ship sat motionless in the water, butted up against the low concrete slab that served as a pier.
I surveyed the surroundings as our crew continued making figure eights with the mooring lines around and across the thigh high cylindrical tubes, or bollards as they're called, sticking up from the deck. The ship towered over the crumbling concrete pier. The usual railroad style cranes were replaced by rusted diesel powered construction cranes.
As usual, the deck hands and rope handlers were the last ones to leave the ship. We watched as the rest of the crew lined up on the deck as the gangway dropped into position on the quarterdeck. The deck was clear by the time the three of us departed the ship. We hopped into one of the awaiting jeeps for the three quarter mile trip to town. The jeeps resembled the jeepneys of the Philippines without the lavish decoration. Save the windshield, the vehicles had no windows. The human cargo entered via stairs in an opening at the back. The interior resembled a small paddy wagon. The six or seven occupants on each side sat knee to knee until someone rapped on the side to be let out. I remember many a night of heavy drinking in Subic City standing on the stairs and pissing out the back as the vehicle bounded through the twisting Philippine countryside, but that's another story.
It just so happened that the gentleman that had boarded the ship the previous day was on the the same jeep. We told him what we were doing and he applauded our efforts. We felt the need to ask about the Mau Maus though. He laughed as if we were silly school children and assured us that we would be perfectly safe in his country. He pointed us in the direction of the train station as we unloaded and wished us a good time. We grabbed or back packs and headed out. By that time it was late in the day and the setting sun illuminated the dusty streets and concrete structures with a bright orange glow.
Out of pure dumb luck, we found out that the only train of the day would be departing within the next two hours. It was explained to us earlier that there is no real sense of timing in Kenya. Things happen, eventually. We purchased three one-way, sleeper car tickets to Nairobi with little thought of how we were going to get back. The train ride takes about fourteen hours and we didn't want to have to sleep in chairs the entire trip. Besides, the whole thing was only $35. We spent more money on beer during the train ride than we did on the tickets. The sleeper cars were what one would expect them to be: two opposing leather seats that folded down into beds and two more above that folded out from the wall. It was as if we had been transported into a 1940s noir film. I expected to see guys walking by dressed in black suits and fedoras, pistols held waist high in front of them running down the hallway. There was a button by the door that would summon a bellman. We wore that button out placing beer orders until finally no one came. It was about midnight so Dan went to see what the problem was. When he got to the bar car it was dark and deserted. He found the bellman asleep on the floor behind the bar. He talked the man into selling us a final six pack and promised not to bother him again.
Morning announced itself with a bright beam through the large unshaded window. Low lying acacia trees dotted the sparse, dry, light brown earth. Off in distance we saw the unmistakable forms of giraffes roaming about. Skyscrapers could clearly be seen beyond them. We would later find out that the train crosses the Nairobi National Park.
We had just finished cleaning up as the train pulled into the station. Departing, we set out to find a police officer to ask where the embassy was, thinking they would know were it was and point us in the right direction. Fifteen minutes later we were standing on the steps of an official looking building in the heart of the city; the same building that would eventually be blown up in 1998 by Osama bin Laden. We entered the reception area looking very out of place. People in three piece suits were moving in and out around us. Marines stood at attention on both sides of the room. In walked the three of us in t-shirts and shorts. The conversation that followed was quite awkward as well. It went something like:
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, we're American sailors and we want to go to Mount Kenya.”
“Well, we don't know where we're going or how to get there.”
“Hmmm, hold on.”
A few minutes later we were greeted by a blonde haired, blue-eyed girl in her mid twenties that could have been the twin sister of the actress Patsy Kensit. It was love at first sight, at least on my part. We signed in and she took us up the elevator to an unassuming office near the top of the building. She and another gentleman began talking about the situation and how they could help. They said that was one of the reasons they were there for but people rarely availed themselves of the embassy unless they were in trouble. They set us up with an embassy driver who was instructed to take us to a travel agent. The agent was informed of our arrival and that we were to be given full embassy discounts.
We told the agent what we wanted to do. She set us up for two nights at the Naro Moru River Lodge at the base of Mount Kenya. We also rented a white Suzuki jeep for the journey. The driver dropped us off at the rental agency, we thanked him, and were on our way. The map we had was somewhat better than one you see on a place mat at your local diner, but not quite as good as a map of the star's homes.
It didn't take long for the dusty roads and urban landscape to replace the concrete and glass of the modern city. We wound our way up and out of the city on one of the only roads north. Driving on the left side of the road made navigation a little more complicated as well. Dan volunteered to drive and Mark and I took brief turns mid-way through the trip. I found the outskirts of Nairobi quite beautiful and green. Rows of coffee trees lined the hillsides in all directions, surrounded by thatched huts. The coffee plantations eventually gave way to flat, scruffy plains. The map steered us wrong only once, resulting in a dead end. We could see the road we wanted to be on but were separated from it by a large ditch. We looked at it, looked at each other, and looked down at the jeep. Dan put it in gear and a minute later we were on our way again.
We drove past what appeared to be an open air market at some point and decided to turn around to check it out. We garnered a few stares as we were the only white people there. We didn't find anything we couldn't live without among the local crafts. As we were preparing to leave, an ancient woman saw us moving in her direction and bolted around her table. She started swinging her cane at us and shouting what I assume were Swahili obscenities at us. Not wanting to cause a scene, we did not hesitate to leave.
The next hour was rather uneventful, traveling in a near straight line north. We barely saw another vehicle during that portion of the trip. In the distance we noticed a gathering in and around the road. As we got closer we noticed that it was a group of men in some sort of military garb. Even closer inspection revealed that they had sub-machine guns draped over their shoulders, hanging waist high. Two men stood in front of the car as a third came to the driver's window and asked for all of our passports. We handed him our military IDs. He took and examined them, turning to talk to his counterparts. As he did so, the business end of his gun was pointed about six inches from the temple of Dan's head. We said nothing. About thirty seconds later he handed our IDs back to us and they let us pass. This happened one more time before we reached our destination.
The lodge was nestled into a wooded hillside, a stream babbled along the side. I remember wondering why the Kenyans chose to build and farm on inclines while all of the flat land remained relatively undeveloped. Mount Kenya loomed in the distance, sloping upward, leveling out near the top, two peaks finally spiking upward at the center. We had no idea how far we would get in one day but we were hell-bent to go as far as humanly possible. The rest of the evening was uneventful. The lodge had a pub so we sat and drank until it closed at 10. None of us were tired but, judging from the surrounding darkness of the countryside, we decided to turn in. I briefly read the bible; that put me out.
We awoke early and, after a hearty breakfast, continued our journey. From Naro Moru it is a straight shot to the mountain on the only road available. The jeep ascended the slowly pitched road to the park ranger station. The elevation of the lodge was 6500 feet; I would estimate the ranger station at 1000 feet higher than that. We had to park and walk from that point forward. It was explained that there was a base camp at 10,000 feet, and another at 11,000 feet for those wanting to ascend higher. Also, if we encountered any elephants, just pick up a rock and throw it; they would disperse.
The ranger station sat at the transition of brush to forest and a dirt road led the way up the side of the mountain from that point on. With no backpacks, no rations, no hiking shoes, no nothing, armed only with sneakers and the hopes of finding a rock, we headed up the mountain. It didn't take long to hear rustling in the surrounding forest. Wails and screams of various animals could be heard in the distance. We also started spotting the largest cow pies I have ever seen. They were approximately fourteen inches across and six inches high. We assumed that they must have been elephant droppings. Luckily, we did not have the good fortune to encounter one of the beasts.
Eventually we entered the terrain dominated by bamboo. We came upon two Australian men with large back packs. Introductions were traded. They remarked that they could hear a waterfall somewhere down the embankment into the bamboo forest. We listened and heard it too. As a group, we decided to investigate and down the side of the hill we went. We continued quite a way down but the sound got no louder and we eventually decided to abandon the effort. That was the first time I turned to look back up to our starting point. I could see nothing but bamboo and a steep vertical climb. The Aussies were obviously in shape. Dan, Mark, and I looked at each other, gave an Oh, Shit, and began to climb. The day before that we had been at sea level. We found ourselves having to climb up a slope at approximately 8,500 feet twenty-four hours later. About half way up I was beginning to get concerned that the side trip may take longer than we had anticipated. One of the Aussies grabbed my hand and dragged me up another fifty feet or so until I could see daylight over the ledge. We all had a good laugh when we got to the road.
Continuing up, the bamboo gave way to what appeared to be a thick, green wooded area resembling a rain forest. Spider and colobus monkeys scampered from limb to limb around us. The bright blue, cloudless sky began to darken. We soon found ourselves in a thick fog and it began to sprinkle lightly. We were grateful for the cooling effect of the mist and rain.
We reached the camp at the 10,000 foot mark within a couple hours; it was basically an empty log cabin. We didn't know what to expect so we weren't disappointed. The relief of the rain was short lived as we all started to get cold. We decided to continue upward. It could have not been more than 300 feet or so vertically when an odd thing happened: Dan's neck and arms turned bright red, almost purple. He told me to look at my arms; they were the same as his. He also said my neck was red as well. The others were unaffected. We both began laughing hysterically and uncontrollably as if we had smoked a pound of marijuana. The others suggested that we head back down. By the time we reached the camp again the effects had worn off and we were back to normal; cold, but normal.
We continued back down the mountain to the ranger station. We opted not to get side tracked on the return trip. Fog and rain gave way to the sun. Back at the ranger station we offered the Aussies a ride back to Naro Moru and they accepted. About half way beck we noticed an old wooden sign hammered into the ground. It had the word “Bar” printed on it. An arrow on the sign pointed off to a smaller road on the right. We were back to the flat terrain of the plains, and the only structure we could see was a small building standing about a mile down the road. I don't think we even discussed whether or not to go. Dan just turned the jeep and pointed it in the direction of the building.
We arrived at a solitary concrete structure. The windows were holes in the walls. Boards, suspended by hinges, served as shutters. They were lifted up and pinned horizontally, exposing the interior to the elements. A dark black man stood at the back, leaning on a low wall that served as a bar. There were four tables, two under the holes in the wall and two under the solid left wall. We entered and sat at a table with the view of the mountain.
We traded travel stories with the Aussies but the conversation mostly focused on the curious mural on the solid wall above the tables on the left. The painting had obviously been commissioned by a local folk artisan. It made up of four panels, each consisting of an an outdoor feast. A large black pot was placed in the middle of each scene. The activity surrounding it was dominated by cutting off various human body parts. One depicted legs and arms being cut off. Another displayed a headless torso and a woman stirring the pot. We didn't inquire as to the origin of the mural, but one of us was keen to keep an eye on the man behind the bar at all times. After four or five rounds of Tusker Lager we decided to continue back to the lodge.
We said our goodbyes to the Aussies and watched as they took off, walking north, the direction opposite Nairobi. We cleaned up in the room and decided to finish the day in the lodge pub. Much to our surprise and delight there were three American college girls there. They were on a walkabout as the Aussies were but were on their way to Nairobi. They asked if they could hitch a ride in the morning. We mentioned that we had a small jeep but, if they didn't mind getting up close and personal they could hop in. We three spent the rest of the night drinking and they spent the rest of the night laughing at us. I would say “with us” but I know better.
The trip back to Nairobi was cramped but uneventful. We knew we would find a way to get all of us in there. It had been four months since we had seen a real live American girl, and we were not going to let a little thing like space restrictions get in the way of spending time with them. They said goodbye and thank you at the car rental agency. We stopped back in to the travel agency to retrieve our plane tickets for Mombasa that evening. The agent mentioned that the lodge had called and that one of their towels was missing. We all denied the charge. Dan later admitted to me that he had taken one.
We had about three hours to kill before we needed to be at the airport so we decided to explore the city and buy coffee beans to take back to the ship. We stopped at an outdoor cafe for a beer and asked the waiter where we could procure coffee in bulk. He kindly drew us a map to the market. In following it, we were taken from the chrome and marble of the business district to the back alley markets. Fruit, vegetables, fish, and all manner of household supplies were on display in the small boarded shacks that lined the streets. One of us spotted a hand painted sign on a sea foam green concrete building that displayed Kahawa, the Swahili word for coffee.
All manner of beans in large drums surrounded us as we walked through the small warehouse. It was then that we realized we had forgotten one small point: how were we going to get it back to the ship? We eventually decided to jettison the contents of our backpacks into a trash barrel. Shirts, shorts, skivvies, all just dumped out. We sized the packs up and eventually discovered that we could comfortably fit ten kilos (about twenty-two pounds) in each of them. Two of us got Kenyan brand and one got a backpack full of Sumatran. We found out later that one cup of the Sumatran coffee would keep you awake for an entire mid-watch, and then some. We regretted not getting more.
Mission accomplished, we headed to the airport to continue drinking. The look given to us by the inspectors at security was priceless. Three Americans traveling through Kenya with nothing but backpacks full of coffee beans.
It was early evening when we arrived in Mombasa. A cab dropped us in the center of town where we found a place with a patio to continue drinking. You could tell the excitement was winding down for others on the ship as well. The place was about half full and the prostitutes outnumbered the patrons by about two to one. Six or seven beers later Mark and I paid the bar fines for two girls and retired to awaiting rooms behind the bar. Dan, being the proper married man, decided to get some air and walk back to the ship.
The prostitute I chose was not necessarily attractive. At the time I didn't particularly care. I just wanted to get laid before heading back to sea. The room she led me to was small, with a single opening in the concrete wall serving as a window. A ratted piece of linen draped across the hole. She lit a few candles and a mosquito coil. It was obvious by the lack of furnishings that there was no electricity. The room served one purpose only. Mark and I met up at the bar an hour later for a few final rounds of beer before walking back to the ship.
Dan was mugged on his way back to the ship by a man with a knife. He took all of Dan's money and his camera. The coffee beans were safe. Speaking of coffee, there was also one other unforeseen wrinkle in the acquisition. We were were well underway when we opened the backpacks to brew the first pot. We stood there with sixty pounds of coffee beans and no coffee grinder. Being resourceful, we grabbed one of Mark's two pound workout weights and an overturned battle station helmet. We spent many subsequent night taking turns grinding coffee in the helmet and playing cards. Dan's wife eventually sent us a grinder but it was a hand crank model and more novelty than utility.
I awoke a few days later to a burning sensation down in the nether regions. Come to find out, coffee wasn't the only souvenir that I had brought back from Kenya. It was off to the medic for another shot of penicillin and to contemplate the next port of call..
© Copyright 2016 Robert Fontaine. All rights reserved.