March 9, 2010 – The old man made a face, lathered the tip of his left fingers with saliva and quickly splayed them onto the hide surface before crashing his right hand on the massive drum with a loud THUD!
BOOM… and then again in a third beat BOOM! The bass-full sound reverberated in my spirit and sucked me right in. Those who’ve seen it before were transfixed, while the rest of us were hypnotised by the novelty.
Welcome to the Taita Hills Wildlife Conservancy, the old man’s smile seems to say. And he proceeded to lead his three percussionists (also) with saliva-laced fingers on drums into a thunderous celebration. BOOM! The energy in their movements and cheerful dancers in ill fitting hides spoke of a love for their land.
These affections were evidenced by the large numbers that turned out to plant more than 100,000 trees, with seedlings donated by Sarova, on a 25 hectare piece of land fenced to nurture the seedlings by keeping the traffic out.
The Conservancy is largely dry, with vast savannah grassland and pockets of shrubs converging as you weave up the numerous hills whose beauty beckons softly.
It sits on the migratory corridor for wildlife between the Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks. Abdulaziz of the Friends of Tsavo says proudly that it has the largest diversity of flora and fauna in the country.
I would know. The wind blew in my face as I stood looking at the sun set on a slight slope on Kudu Point. The staff of Sarova Taita Hills had lit a fire so that the smoke could chase away the bees that wanted a taste of the champagne.
Unfortunately, those (bees) that came for a sip of the sparkly in my hand fell in love with my perfume (or something) and just wouldn’t leave me alone. The rest of the Capital FM crew that had arrived at the Hill first were not interested in the buzzers – they were more drawn to the infamous drummers who had let their energy trickle away with the sun.
They were singing softly as the old man – still smiling – toyed with the Marimba; clanging wooden sticks with rubber tips on strips of wood to match the rhythm of the jungle; the mood of the quieting sun and dying winds, and the pulse of the night-life brimming underneath.
I was impressed that the whole time, I had not heard anything that didn’t sound like Taita music. It was the not your conventional “jambo bwana” tour. I was bemused by the strong beats that paralleled luhya isukuti and began to wonder just how much of Kenya we were actually missing with popular commercial tourism.
Our hosts broke my reverie and invited me to some chicken at the buffet table. I asked Abdulaziz whether I would get to hear any Mariah Carey and he laughed. It’s like a big family, he tells me. Friends of Tsavo works with the local community to preserve the biodiversity, and culture is a big part of it, he explains.
The old man and his crew are part of this drive. They even know others in their village who provide Sarova hotels with the necessary groceries and man-power in their establishments.
Sarova has two hotels in the sanctuary. Sarova Salt Lick Game Lodge and Sarova Taita Hills each have a unique charm that draws you to your surroundings. The former is created in stilt-like fashion with 106 rooms split by the foyer, restaurant and balcony overlooking the Salt Lick.
Since Capital FM broadcasts in Taita I was pleased to find a couple of fans there who listen to our Newsbeat. I doubt whether that would have influenced the quality of the food though!
The same standards applied at Sarova Taita Hills. The quiet splendour in the air translated to the food and the pool and even the lizards (that I tried to stay away from) blended into the background.
The three days we were there went by so fast. It’s been a few days since I came back but I can still feel the Taita pulse. The old man still smiles at me. The memory of his drum and saliva antics keep calling me back. I love Kenya!