My Love Tana River

My Love Tana River

My Love Tana River

By / Rivers / Friday, 13 July 2018 09:05

Taking a speedboat up the river delta one could feel a bright day, with that tarry heat you get on the Kenyan coast. The waters at the mouth of the river were turned to chocolate by sediment. The banks are vividescent offering a thickness of life, so many flowers, and so many insects, some of the channels are narrow as canals, still as pond water, covered with lilies.

All about is the fulvous flashing of weaver birds leaving their nests and gemlike blue kingfishers. We clambered out to an uninhabited island and ate under a sausage tree, squatting on the haunches against the circling ants and rotting fruit. We felt we were finally had a real taste of Africa, which matched my memory of the Tarzan films.

Being the longest in Kenya, it seeps from the moors of Aberdare Ranges gathers snowmelt coursing off mount Kenya and wends through Somali herders before emptying into the Indian ocean about 1000km later. It’s a modest river, never wide or deep. Few Kenyans have seen it or thought much about it. It flows through a few hardscrabble towns.

The line between paradise and purgatory on the Kenyan and Somali coast is tissue-thin, when your thirst is slaked, the birdsong is paradisal. When there is not enough water or the water is from a shallow well and brackish, the intensity of life becomes menacing. On our trip to Somalia, we swam ashore and spent a night and morning without water. Even that was enough to make my lips crack and my kidneys ache. Income is always enough to set you apart; on the Tana we could afford a boat, fuel and bottled water, the people and wildlife, the dirt, thorns and drama of the pitch black nights felt like time travel, but with hydration and torches we were always on the side of paradise.

  On our Christmas trip, we were met at the seaside village of kipping and taken upriver to a community lodge called Mulikeni. The tide was coming in behind like a bow wave. The river was stopped by the sea and the mud banks, mangrove tendrils and crab holes were soon covered with water. As we arced around the hippos at a distance snorted and swung towards the boat, agitated while on the riverbank flocks of gases, ibises and egrets shot into the air.

A boardwalk of mango-wood planking led through the swamp from the river. The swamp was infested with mosquitoes. You had to keep moving. Sometimes we had to run headlong. Yet the black mud floor was dark and beautiful to make want to pause. In some places the mud was smooth as bronze, in others it had been ploughed by elephants and buffalo or pricked by a leopard. It was a littered with baboon turds, studded with bright seeds and shaped like Mr. Whippy ice-creams.

On the ocean side, was a path that led through the bush to a deserted beach that curled along Ungwana bay. The contrast with the swamp was extreme and vitalizing. The beach had a breeze and no mosquitoes. It stretched out of sight without any settlement or sign of any people at all.

In its own way however, the beach lay gaping at the mercy of the human world. The high water mark was a line of jetsam from the passing ships and the pirate vessels and there were middens of beer bottles and flip-flop, carried all the way from Thailand. Eels with led on washed-up fish, crabs moved uninterrupted in metropolitan number. There were tracks of turtles and terns hovered against a pastel-colored sky. Nature locked in their endless dance.

When Tana River is high and slapping, sweeping away cattle, inundating some smallholdings, there is a surpassing weight of crocodiles in it. They slip in from the submerged mangroves. Nile crocodiles; common across Africa, but on the Tana they had a different color from the crocodiles we had seen elsewhere, a color that eludes words-corps like white- green on the banks, unmoving, but in the muddy waters alive, muscular and greasy as a rolling sickness.

They were most numerous where the channels in the delta met. You could feel them slapping against the bottom of the boat. When I absently skimmed my hand on the water, a crocodile rose and snapped the snap sounding more like a pop, and it narrowly missed. Along the edges of the river, one can sit watching bulldozers trundle to the edge of the Tana.


Benedict Nyabira

Benedict Nyabira

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