25th February 2013

The ultimate treasure hunt to Tassia

After the rather intense crossing from Ethiopia into Kenya, I was in great need of a chill-out time for general recuperation of body and soul. Some friends of mine, who I had seen just after New Year back in the UK, had strongly suggested that if I was passing through Kenya, I absolutely must head to a remote but utterly unique and beautiful lodge called Tassia. They had just made a trip there for a week or two and were so full of enthusiasm for it, I knew I just had to go. From the very beginning my journey to Tassia felt a little bit like a passage to Narnia - there is no mobile or Internet reception there, so making contact with Martin or Antonia, the managers there, took a little while as I later discovered they had to climb a “magic tree” a short walk away from the lodge in order to pick up reception to the outside world. Eventually though, Martin was able to pick up my messages and rang me back to talk me through the directions to Tassia, which were amongst the most exotic I’ve ever heard (“once you get to the school with the blue corrugated roof, head down the track through the forest but watch out for elephant and make lots of noise if you do see one, they can be very dangerous if startled”).

I set off from Nanyuki for Tassia at about 1.30pm and headed north for the small town of Timau, just after which I was meant to be looking out for a small bridge and then a turning to the left on a murram track. However as I was just passing through the far side of Timau, I was flagged down by a policeman at one of Kenya’s frustratingly ubiquitous road-blocks (apparently the police are up against some punchy targets to bring in 20million “bob” a week any which way they can before the upcoming elections on 4th March, so on-the-spot fines for phantom violations are becoming increasingly common). “Please pull aside, Sir”, the portly policeman commanded. I pulled over and yanked down my goggles. “actually”, I corrected with a grin, “I’m a woman!”. The policeman burst out laughing and asked me where I had come from and where I was going. After these formalities were dealt with, the policeman invited me to take his number, saying “I can see you are a very brave and beautiful woman, oh yes, we could go for some tea in Nanyuki?”. I politely declined, suggesting that where I was going had no mobile reception anyway so a phone call would be impossible. The policeman only half joked that he was very offended, which I tried to laugh off but all the same felt slightly uncomfortable. Eventually once I felt I had successfully blustered my way out of the situation, I gave him a firm farewell and sped off (within the legal limits of course) down the road. Unfortunately I had been so keen to put some distance between myself and PC Amorous that I failed to spot the tiny bridge that signalled my turning ahead and instead blasted a good 15km down the road before I concluded I had gone too far and made an about turn. I had ridden back almost as far as Timau when I spotted the correct turning and headed off right down this gravel road. Unfortunately at the side of this track, another police car was parked up and flashed its headlights at me. Assuming it was my uniformed friend, I nodded but kept riding on down the track, eager to be on my way.

Alas after less than a minute, a quick check in my wing mirrors alerted me to the police car speeding up behind me, flashing its headlights repeatedly, a huge cloud of dust billowing out behind it. With a heavy sigh, I pulled over and the police car did the same. To my surprise however, the man who stepped out of the car was a different individual to the one in Timau - this one was decked out in extensive police regalia with several colours, presumably representing a high level of authority, pinned to his beige suit. “passport please”, he commanded. I handed it over. The next 15 minutes was spent with the man officiously flicking through each and every page of my passport, verifying every place and date with me for some unknown reason, quizzing me with the likes of, “you were in Addis on 4th February, correct?”, while I remained sitting on my motorbike trying to support its heavy weight against the strong cross-winds that had just began to rage across the plain. It was a battle to keep her upright particularly given the full tank of petrol and weighty load of luggage on the back that seemed to be acting as a large sail. I was struggling to contain my increasing impatience at this pointless delay but eventually once the contents of the entire passport had been verified, I was allowed to continue on my journey.

At first after about 15 minutes, the gravel track took me into a small village, then turned off through farmlands along rutty tracks to a break in some fencing. Following the instructions to “pass through the fencing and under the elephant wire, past the small red-brick gatehouse and across the ranch”, I was struck by the vastness and beauty of the rolling plains, though all the while growing slightly nervous, worrying that I had taken each fork and deviation in the track correctly and was still heading the right way. The area was becoming more and more remote and there seemed to be no-one around. Fortunately though I eventually arrived at the gates as described and continued onwards towards “the school with the blue corrugated roof”. Here the track began to deteriorate significantly into a rocky downhill slalom of dirt, rut and stone, which I crossed without incident but questioned again if indeed I could be on the right track. Soon enough though to my great excitement, I spotted the school with its unmistakable bright blue roof and proceeded down the track towards the forest. Just as I was reflecting how much fun I was having on this real life treasure hunt, right there up ahead, standing on the deep red dirt track with its head half buried in a particularly juicy tree was an enormous, lone elephant. “wow, wow, wow!!!”, I cried to Donkey, this was the first wild elephant I had ever seen! We both wanted to stay and watch it for as long as possible, but then remembered Martin’s advice and so, putting aside my weighty feelings of regret, honked the horn and revved the engine to make as much noise as possible. After repeating this action a few times, the elephant stopped ripping away at the tree with its trunk and, chewing its way through a large mouthful of leaves, slowly lumbered its way off into the forest. Donkey and I both watched it go with sorry hearts, but remembering we were still on a mission, proceeded on down the dirt track, deeper into the forest.

After dodging and weaving around the enormous clods of elephant poo which littered the path in every direction, eventually the forest cleared out into a few little settlements of wood houses and rutty pathways splitting off in many directions. After a few false tracks, we spotted the landmark we were looking for and headed off down a small track to the right, down a steep path into another forest. Here the dirt track descended into much deeper rock and rut, which was tricky to interpret given the dappled sunlight, my tinted goggles and also my tinted windscreen, but fortunately with a bit of a scramble, we made it to the bottom, around a few dozy looking cattle and across a small stream. Here my instructions read that I was now only 9km along this track from the lodge - the home run, fantastic! It was by now about 3.30pm, I was beginning to feel hungry having somehow missed lunch and couldn’t wait to get to Tassia. I was nearly there!

Just ahead of the stream that I had just crossed was a steep hill made up of 3 sections of hard packed dirt, sprinkled with a top layer of grit and interspersed with fairly deep ruts of loose stone. I wagered that either of the two outermost sections looked like my best bet and plumped for the left hand one. Clicking Suzi into first gear, I proceeded up the climb but half way up felt uncomfortable with what had transpired to be a fairly steep camber on this left hand bank, so decided to cross over to the middle section. This momentary decision took only a second or two but this hesitation cost me a lack of precious momentum. As I attempted to throttle on up the hill, Suzi struggled to keep going, lost grip and BANG, down we went rather hard across the ruts, petrol spilling out of the tank’s breather hose all over Donkeys legs as well as my sat nav.

“Balls!” I yelled as I struggled free of Suzi’s heavy frame, realising immediately what a high price I would have to pay for this schoolgirl error of offroading. In a classic case of hope over experience, I attempted there and then to see if I could lift Suzi back to an upright position, but despite my best efforts she didn’t shift an inch. More expletives spilled forth from my mouth as I accepted
that the only way of shifting her was going to be to strip her of all the luggage - she was far too heavy to move as she was. All the effort of lifting had left me boiling hot, so once I’d swivelled the breather hose around to reduce the stream of fuel, I hiked to the top of the hill, dumped my helmet and jacket in a heap and marched back to my collapsed bike.

Removing my luggage was no easy process as its all “soft” luggage and therefore strapped and tied together
onto my bike in a reasonably intricate fashion. I managed to untie the tapes on the exposed side of my bike without difficulty, but struggled to access the tapes on the underside, so concluded I was going to have to lift her a little, wedge something underneath and then try to untie the straps. Looking around for a good prop, I grabbed the large cylindrical yellow pack that I use to store my tent, sleeping kit etc, and with all my strength hauled suzi up as much as possible so that I could knee the pack under her tank. The weight of the bike was enormous but I knew I just had to lift her, so with a thousand shocking varieties of adult language and appalling straining noises that even Navratilova couldn’t have topped, I managed to lift suzi enough to prop her onto the pack. With a bit of fiddling, I successfully freed all the luggage and with huge exertion, carried all my bags to the top of the hill.

I really was hot by this point and feeling thirsty, but after a few drags at my camelbak I realised my water supply was running dangerously low. Not a great problem to have. I cursed my own stupidity at having not packed enough emergency water and starting to feel a bit of panic creeping in, returned down the hill to my bike. Bending my knees beside her, with another torrent of unladylike noises I lifted suzi back to an upright position on this steep hill and then tried to keep her upright, holding onto her rear rack as I crossed over to her left hand side ready to mount up. Alas the ground underfoot was rather loose and with another skid, this time on my part, I lost balance and down we both went once again with a loud bang. Yet more expletives were launched forth and taking a moment to look around me, desperate for any salvation, I realised how entirely on my own I was - there was no sight or sound of another human at all (quite a strange experience), I had no mobile reception and I realised that there was only one person that would get me out of this situation, so I had better get a grip and get myself out of here. With another huge effort I lifted Suzi upright and slowly, slowly, began to inch her backwards down the hill right to the bottom - no easy job given her dead weight but in time we got to the bottom and I breathed a short sigh of relief. It had now been about 40 minutes or so since the original fall and I took a moment to acknowledge the progress. I was getting through this but I wasn’t out of the woods yet. I still had to climb that hill again.

Once I had clicked suzi back into neutral and managed to get her running again (she always takes a bit of time after she’s been dropped, it’s her way of registering her disapproval I think), I decided the best thing to do would be to walk the route I intended to take this time - I had no intention of re-running this ordeal again so I had to plan my line properly. After a good few minutes of walking, staring and analysing from both the bottom and the top of the hill, I had worked out the best line and it was time to attack. Reminding myself to breathe, I went for it and with my heart pounding, made it right to the top of the hill in one go - success!! Flushed with achievement but by now totally knackered, I loaded her luggage back up and shutting down very much onto “survival” mode, proceeded on what I hoped was the last few easy k’s to the lodge.

Unfortunately the track only got worse after that. After another spill on a sandy/gritty steep downhill section a kilometre or so on with me landing heavily on some rocks, I decided that it was time to abandon my luggage - there was so much weight over my back wheel that it was locking up incredibly easily and given it was now 5.30pm, I didn’t have much daylight or strength left to risk continuing like this. Dumping all of my luggage and jacket in a bush, I considered for a moment that there was a chance I’d never see my stuff again, so I took out my money and passport but left the rest where it was - there was nothing in there that ultimately couldn’t be replaced. The bottom line was that the elephant poo was still all over the tracks so they must be close - if I fell again and the bike or I became seriously damaged, I would be left defenceless to a rather exotic death by trampling, which would make for an exciting headstone but an abrupt end to my trip. Suffice to say that my mindset for such a decision was a fairly “end of tether” one and at this moment I don’t think Donkey will mind if I reveal that he shed a few tears. He had tried singing a few rousing lines of our emergency tune, Monty Python’s classic “always look on the bright side of life” but hadn’t managed it as far as the third line without collapsing into a sobbing heap and howling that he wanted to go home. We were in something of a mess and I was nearly all out of energy, strength and most worryingly, water. I felt increasingly desperate but this was no time for self-pity - we had to keep going. Hauling the bike up once again (now with a cracked wing mirror) was a horror job, pulling badly at my dodgy shoulder that I’d managed to partially dislocate 6 months ago, but with a huge effort I mounted up again and kept going onwards down the track.

We skidded and scrambled our way for the next few kilometres and suddenly emerged out of the thickly wooded downhill track into a brief opening, revealing a truly stunning viewpoint across a dense and vast basin covered in acacia trees and vegetation as far as the eye could see. Donkey and I both sat there for a moment in our bruised and scratched state spellbound by the view, it was breathtaking. Soon enough though we set off on our way once again - it was now nearing 6pm and with only 30 minutes left until nightfall, we needed to keep going.

Much as I would love to say that we made it to Tassia after that last fall without incident, this was not the case. Within 10 minutes of setting off, Suzi stalled on a steep downhill covered in loose dirt and grit and for the umpteenth time that day, we fell down hard and my elbow was quite deeply grazed on the rough ground. “no!” I yelled through gritted teeth as I lay pinned there in the dirt. With some effort I squirmed free of the bike and immediately went to lift her, but this time she wouldn’t shift an inch. Even though she had been relieved of all the luggage, she had landed front end first downhill, so the weight of the full petrol tank was working against me. I stopped for a moment, feeling panic starting to set in. I had nothing left to give but I couldn’t give up. I went to lift the bike again, but just as before she barely move an inch. I took a deep breath and tried again - this time I managed to shift her a few centimetres but achieved no-where near an upright position and had to set her back down again. I felt thoroughly beaten and as I sat there in a heap, battered, bleeding, bruised and exhausted, I weighed up my options. The light was really beginning to fade, I was on my own, I had no water or food beyond emergency Werthers Originals and I was stuck in bushland, surrounded by large animals that wouldn’t think twice about killing me. I couldn’t give up but attempt after attempt at lifting the bike was still getting me nowhere. The situation was looking bleak.

Just as I was about to resign myself to a gory death, sitting there in the dirt I suddenly heard the unmistakable sound of motorcycle engine. Donkey and I both sat upright, not quite daring to believe our ears. “Toot the horn!!” he squealed, which I did with gusto. To our enormous relief within a few moments, a bike appeared around the corner and with a cheery wave, the rider pulled up next to us, removed his goggles and introduced himself as Martin. We were saved!!

Martin disappeared off to collect my abandoned luggage and returned, leading the way to Tassia, which in the end took less than a 5 minute scramble. It was just wonderful to have arrived at last. After being greeted by several of the staff, all dressed in the traditional red cloaks of the Mokogodo Maasai, Martin poured me a blissfully cold beer and led me to my room. I was in for a wonderful treat. This was no “room” in the traditional sense, but a truly extraordinary space with walls crafted from swamp mud, with doorways framed by the most beautiful exposed dead wood branches found in the local area and with a high ceiling weaved out of dried rushes. As someone who has always fantasised about sleeping in treetops, this room was the most luxurious dream come true, not least because one side of the room opened straight out onto a rocky outcrop overlooking that vast, lush green basin of trees, giving the room that incredible feeling of being some kind of eagles nest. I was in heaven and almost speechless. I turned to Martin. “well this is quite an upgrade on my tent!”, I declared with a grin. Martin laughed and left me to freshen up a bit before supper in an hours time. I was supposed to be having a shower but I just couldn’t bring myself to get on with it, I was so blown away by where I was. The room contained about 5 different, wonderful choices of seating arrangement for me to choose from, but in that moment I just wanted to just be as close to nature as possible, so I took a cushion, scrambled out onto the rocks and sat there in the almost darkness hugging my knees and just listening to the incredible sporadic roar of the beasts down there in the wilderness below me. With an occasional breeze blowing through my hair, it just felt so good to be alive and to be there in that moment, in Africa. It had been a real struggle to get there but my goodness had it been worth every bit of blood, sweat and tears.

Eventually I forced myself away from the crag, cleaned myself up and headed up to the similarly stunning bar/dining area for supper. There I met the lovely Antonia as well as the couple’s dog, a charming pointer called Mole who definitely thinks he’s a human. As we settled around for a most delicious supper of cheese souffle (what a treat, I hadn’t seen cheese in many weeks!) and “bitings”, I learnt more about the lodge. It’s a relatively unique concept in that it is actually owned by the local Mokogodo Maasai people and run by Martin and Antonia alongside this selection of Maasai staff, with a large portion of the profits being ploughed back into the local community. Martin and Antonia are both hugely aware of the importance of conservation and sustainability, and so run a series of projects ranging from anti-erosion, tree protection and a local women’s beadwork group in order to enhance the community in as thoughtful and long-term a manner as possible.

Next morning I woke up to the spectacular sight of a blazing orange sunrise flooding the horizon and enjoyed the delicious tea that was brought to my room by the lovely Lucy on my favourite rocky crag. I could have sat there for hours, staring at the moving and varied real-life Where’s Wally scene before me, trying to spot the elephant behind the roars or the monkeys behind the screeches, but it was soon time for a wonderful breakfast of exotic fruit, yoghurt and muesli (again, delicous treats i’d not seen in weeks), fresh coffee, jungle juice and a cooked plate too (I was truly in heaven, especially after my diet of pasta and “emergency biscuits” of the last few weeks). Afterwards I was invited to have a deep tissue massage by Lucy, which I gratefully accepted! My arms, shoulders and lower back were all in severe need of some TLC after the saga of the previous day and Lucy was an expert. As Lucy set up her table, she said to me “when Antonia told me that you were coming here all the way from England on your motorcycle, I thought “it can’t be possible, I can’t believe it’s true until I see her”, but then when you arrived yesterday I was so happy, I thought you were an angel. Now I think anything is possible, maybe a woman can even fly to the moon!”. I was really touched by Lucy’s words but also incredibly grateful that she hadn’t heard any of the dreadful language that had poured forth from me on the way to Tassia the previous day - certainly not the sort of vocabulary I’d expect any angel to come out with!

The rest of the day was passed in gentle relaxation, chatting to the lovely Maasai man Amos about elephant and giraffe as well as the Maasai culture, then heading off at 5pm for a “bush walk” with local expert, Michael, another Maasai man. On arrival at my room, Michael issued me with a set of binoculars and introduced me to the armed guard who was to accompany us on our walk in case of any rogue beasts. We set off at a decent pace down into the valley, the long grasses scratching at my legs and vicious burrs sticking to my sandals, prickling my feet. It didn’t matter though, I loved being this close to the real African bush and feeling a bit like Livingstone or Stanley, hacking through the wilderness in pursuit of the extraordinary. Michael really brought this trip to life, showing me all kinds of things I would never have noticed or known on my own - the way that Weaver birds always build their nests on the West side of a tree, acting as a useful compass to any disorientated Maasai wanderer. He also showed me the “toothbrush” tree, whose twigs can be cut and a section of bark peeled back and chewed given the natural anti-bacterial agents that their stem contains. Michael also pointed out the sorrowful tune of the “boo boo” bird to me. The Maasai believe that the bird is singing in mourning, “my father, my mother is dead, boo boo, boo boo” and when I listened again, what previously had sounded like any old bird song suddenly sounded incredibly sad, it really did sound like it was grieving - the poor bird, I felt heartbroken for it! Michael seemed to find my compassion amusing though and walked on to show me some elephant tracks in the ground. “Now which way was this elephant walking?” he asked me. I looked and wasn’t really sure, so made a guess. Michael shook his head. “no”, he replied, “there must always be a reason. I show you. The elephant was moving in this direction” he said, pointing away from us, “and I can tell this because you see the print is deeper in the direction the elephant was walking, because they put the most pressure on the front of their feet just before they push off the print”. Michael then tested me on a couple of other prints and this time I got them all right! “very good”, Michael encouraged, “soon you can take your own bush walks!” he suggested, much to my amusement.

We were just about to track back towards Tassia when suddenly the armed guard flung out his arm towards us and Michael stopped dead in his tracks in front of me. “Elephant up ahead” he whispered. Looking over his shoulder I could see a lone, bull Elephant not 100 metres from us hidden amongst some trees. He looked enormous. Michael kicked some dirt up to the air and I watched it sail away in the wind towards the elephant. Michael looked up at me. “We are in a bad position because we are upwind of the elephant. That means he can catch our smell very soon. We must try to move around and downwind very quickly otherwise he will spot us and become very angry.” Grabbing my wrist, he pulled me gently but firmly with him as he swiftly made his way along a path and up a ridge, turning back every so often to check the Elephant’s position. My heart was pounding, right on the edge of extreme excitement and fear, until eventually we had made it back onto the main track and at a good distance from the beast in question. “OK, now it is safe” said Michael, bringing some water out of his rucksack for us all to drink. Just at that moment when I was taking my first sip, the peace was broken by the incredibly loud trumpeting call of that lone bull, a sound that reverberated right to the core of my being and sent a most primal feeling of fear and trepidation through me. Frozen to the spot, staring at our armed guard, my eyebrows shot up to the sky in awe and amazement, causing both the guard and Michael to laugh heartily. “It’s ok!” he said, “we are very safe here!”. I had to laugh too, this was definitely one of the best adventures I’d ever had!

The three nights I spent at Tassia were just incredible and more than once I reflected to myself that if for some unknown reason my adventure had to stop right there, I would have left satisfied, because at Tassia I had seen the Africa that is truly so hard to find - that pure, rugged, unspoilt and untamed natural world free from all the gates, electric fences, weirdly manicured lawns and colonial throwbacks that most lodges seem to embrace that only serve as unnecessary blocks and barriers to the intense, raw beauty of the real, African savannah. I think what Tassia proves is that these lodges work best when they work in conjunction, not confrontation with their natural world and the communities (both animal and human) that co-exist in them. For me, Tassia combined the truly luxurious with a genuine warmth, hospitality and thoughtfulness that was extraordinary and I can’t thank Martin, Antonia and all the staff enough for my wonderful stay - it was very special and I can’t recommend it enough. I should also perhaps add that most guests who stay there either fly into Tassia’s nearby airstrip or use one of the other tracks to the lodge, navigated by an experienced driver, so in no way was my extreme odyssey a necessary rite of passage for every guest at Tassia! You know what though, even though that trip felt like it nearly killed me, in a perverse kind of a way it’s exactly what I came to Africa for and the best part is I’m still here to tell the tale. After all, how many people can really say they once ended up stranded in the African bush alone on a motorcycle, resigned to grisly death by the Big 5?

Thank you, Tassia!

Tassia’s website can be found at: www.tassiasafaris.com