A land of wild beauty ... and rising crime

Kenya: Security problems have taken their toll on tourism, even in the parks, but the sights are still magnificent and most people still gracious.

November 28, 1999|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

TSAVO EAST NATIONAL PARK, Kenya -- Once, Aruba Dam was a popular spot with tourists to East Africa, but today our dusty white minivan pulls into its nearly deserted campgrounds. There are gaping holes in the thatched roof of a waterside pavilion and paint peels off the door. Our little band stands on the lonely shore of the reservoir, watching herds of elephants and Cape buffalo drinking its shimmering waters.

It will be dark in a couple of hours. So as we pull away, we are joined by a young Kenya Wildlife Service officer armed with an automatic rifle. He is our "askari," Swahili for guard, and a reminder of where all the crowds have gone.

They've been scared off. Kenya's newspapers are full of stories about armed thugs in the cities, bandits in the countryside. The 1997 Lonely Planet travel guide to Africa warns: "Rarely does one come across a country where such lawlessness is so ingrained that it's basically accepted as a part of life." If mugged in Nairobi, the editors advise, don't tell the police. They may wind up picking you clean of whatever else you have. And don't cry out, unless you want blood on your hands. Kenyan crowds will chase down purse-snatchers and stone them to death.

Neither are the national parks entirely safe.

A few days before we came to Tsavo East, three poachers shot and killed a Kenya Wildlife Service ranger in Tsavo West, the park next door. That same week, two suspected bandits armed with an AK-47 assault rifle were gunned down by police forces after a 15-minute firefight. The suspects were said to have planned attacks on tourists near the Masai Mara Game Reserve. Several parks in northern Kenya, especially those near the border with Somalia, are too dangerous to visit.

Security problems have taken their toll. By some estimates, the number of visitors to Kenya's once-popular coastal resorts has plummeted 60 percent. Several hotels have closed. Kenya's already fragile economy has been severely hit: Tourism is its largest single source of foreign currency.

Photographer Doug Kapustin and I flew to Kenya for business, and we weren't sure what to expect. What we found -- in addition to scary headlines -- was magnificent scenery, tropical beaches, lots of wildlife and many gracious people grateful to see us.

I have previously stayed at one or two nice hotels. Few were as comfortable as the Mnarani Club (pronounced "MAHN-ah-RAH-knee"), our hotel in the coastal town of Kilifi. White sand tickled the emerald water of the Indian Ocean, a pool sparkled under coconut palms and $45 a night bought not just a spacious room, but a gourmet dinner and all the local beer -- called Tusker -- we could drink.

Though it was the height of the tourist season, the club was half full. There was no jostling for the delicious pumpkin soup, no shortage of front-row seats for the evening's entertainment by Masai dancers, no waiting for the squash courts. The staff was hard working, but still had plenty of time to chat.

Exercising caution

The Mnarani Club was designed, we were told, to cater to well-heeled continental European visitors. Instead, there were -- besides Kapustin and me -- a few bargain-hunting British and Irish tourists, and a group of Christian missionaries from Missouri. The missionaries had come to convert members of the staunchly animist Giriama, the major tribal group on the Kenyan coast north of Mombasa.

We didn't spend much time in Mombasa, Kenya's major Indian Ocean port. Our guidebooks warned us to stay away from certain stretches of beach, including a place ominously nicknamed "Machete Point." We clambered over the battlements of Fort Jesus, an ancient Portuguese outpost made of huge blocks of volcanic rock, and visited its excellent and nearly deserted museum.

Mombasa's Moi Avenue has felt the effects of the tourism crash. One merchant there ran a jewelry store that sold gold, silver and tanzanite to visitors. But after a bloody crackdown by police on opponents of President Daniel Arap Moi in 1997, the number of wealthy visitors plummeted. The merchant was forced to switch to peddling low-cost clothing to local residents.

When I mentioned that my mother wanted some tanzanite stone, he pulled a tray of the purple gems from under a counter stacked with slacks. I realized I couldn't tell a precious rock from colored glass, and offered him a fraction of his asking price -- figuring that would get me off the hook. He seemed crushed. But when I started to walk out the door he agreed to my price and practically shoved the stone in my hand. (Even if it was fake, I figure, it didn't cost much and my mother would never know the difference.)

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