Sunday, July 21

Sundowner on the ridge

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Just over an hour and twenty minutes later with the terracotta roofs of the Castle on the ridge in my sights, I hit the soft black cotton soil, roiled by recent rains. I had been told that if I had my wheels in high speed four wheel drive, that would suffice and having never used the low speed setting, continued to slip and slide until I came off the rutting made by other vehicles. The wheels spun in the soft clay silted on the road’s edges, digging me deeper. A deep breath, a little reverse and sideways manoeuvring got me incredulously out of trouble.

Phew. The air up here is clear, the light sharp and the colours saturated. I’m visiting Deborah Thiele for lunch at the house she shares with Thiemo Ebersberger, her partner and their dogs.

I drive through an avenue that cuts through a coppice of whistling thorn, up to the house, then circumvent the house that is surrounded by land rovers.

There’s nothing foolhardy about a trip for lunch out of the big city, it can take an hour or more to get to the other side of Nairobi and people do that car journey everyday. I opted to go from Rongai through Kiserian town, after which, the road becomes scenic. Turned left onto the rough road at Kona Baridi, recognisable only because it is a high U bend, a cold corner where the strong wind never ceases and now I’m up here in the midst of striking beauty.

Deborah and Thiemo are the overland experts, taking intrepid travellers across the continent by road. As we look around the buildings, Deborah tells me Thiemo is building a vehicle in a workshop not far away – for a safari leaving for Livingstone, Zambia soon. He has built these properties himself as well. He’s of German origin – does that explain it at all? Deborah is Australian and has a community development background. Which explains their offering of community service trips that involve solar power, clean water, school facilities and animal conservation efforts. They also run the pack for a purpose initiative that asks travellers to save a little space in their luggage to carry medical supplies which they can donate to rural clinics.

We walk down to the cave, a room set into the sheltered side of the cliff. It’s a quirky nook, with a natural pool and book shelf formed into the creviced rock wall. Sliding glass takes you out onto a small deck. Here, the rift valley peaks into the Ngong hills that sweep away to the side with a great sunken plain below, stretching away into the sky. We are on a ridge that has become known as the Champagne Ridge, in Kajiado, a land once known to the Maasai as Olpurapurana or a round elevation. Out there, is also the Olorgesailie prehistoric site where excavations continue.

We walk round to Fawlty Towers, a bouganvillea and morning glory swamped column with it’s ingenious tree-house ladder and swinging day bed complete with book shelf and writing table. Through the horizontal slit window, covered with a canvas blind, the mists have cleared and the extinct volcano is in view, the sun beating upon it.

The Castle sleeps six, the living area designed for adults who want to mingle with enough space to get away from each other as well. Because of the landscape, Deborah tells me this is used by meeting groups and not really suitable for families.

The dogs who’ve been following us, crash out as we chat before lunch. She’s a good cook, effortlessly whipping up a simple but delicious lunch of fish with a potato and bean salad. There’s a large table in the open plan living space, that will sit ten with ease. A whisky room adjoins the main dining area and I can see that this couple are used to entertaining on this remote hill.

“People come through here every weekend, so it’s not lonely”, she tells me. I’ve escaped just for a few hours from the claustrophobia of the city and it’s a delightful release of tension.

As we sit out on the terrace by mud covered boots and the remains of last night’s fireplace, the sun is still out. When it starts to rain, I know I must get going, there’s no time for tea. And I’m so glad I do, as one hour later the roads are surging streams.

But even as I make my way through the pelting rain, with Deborah’s advice to keep in the road’s ruts, I have to put the car in low speed four wheel drive as the wheels veer this way and that in the currents that flow between them. I am perplexed and surprised to see small saloon cars trying to get through, and pass one that has been abandoned, it’s wheels thickly coated in the black cotton clay. A couple of pick up trucks, wet people covered in hoods in the back, go past me. But now, we have to give way to just one car going through the middle of the road at a time. By the time I get to Ngong town – taking the alternative leg of this round trip – on either side of the road, people skip and wade through the gushing flood.

From ten kilometres an hour, we are now doing twenty, traffic lights swirling like propellers in the rain. As I crawl into Karen, now dark and damp, I am relieved and think that in developed countries some of these roads would be deemed impassible. But I am warm – with the idea of the couple that Thiemo and Deborah make, how they turn hospitality in adverse conditions into a glamorous adventure. ridgecastle/


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