My trip to Lake Magadi in the Rift Valley, was an eye-opening one. Having only been in Kenya a few weeks into my six month stay, the journey out there was my first encounter with the Maasai tribe. The road from Nairobi was basically just one huge pot-hole and we narrowly avoided taking out a number of Maasai passers-by who, justifiably, looked totally bemused as we swerved in their general direction simply to avoid getting a puncture.
With no known Maasais actually hurt during the course of the trip, we made it to the lake where we had to sign in and be assigned a local guide. During the dry season, the lake is almost totally covered by soda and is bright pink in colour, complimented nicely by the thousands of flamingos that hang out there – well, they do whenever Attenborough is in town but I was treated to only a few hundred haggard old ones who weren’t in any fit condition to migrate with the young’uns.
While contemplating ignoring the signs forbidding visitors from walking across the lake on its thick surface of soda (the standard ‘Wet Paint Don’t Touch’ dilemma that always plagues me), up pops our guide. ‘Jambo, I’m Robin, karibu to Magadi. Welcome.’ Ever the polite Brit abroad, I extended my arm and went in for the handshake, ‘Jambo Robin, I’m Debbie.’
Cue the first awkward moment of the day. Robin points out that he is bereft of a right hand and indeed a right arm. He’d suffered an accident working at the Tata Magadi Soda factory and was now earning a living guiding tourists around the shores of the lake. Given that he was wearing a short sleeved shirt, I had no reasonable explanation whatsoever for missing his lack of limb. But it had certainly broken the ice and we were now safe in the knowledge that there could be no further embarrassment between us on the matter of his stump.
Or so we thought.
We drove to the far reaches of the lake where Robin promised I could dip my toe in the hot springs. We met neither man nor beast on our drive and the views were completely other-wordly; when we pulled up by the springs we seemed to have left civilisation long behind.
Magadi is reputedly one of the hottest places in Kenya and by god it was cranked up on this day. It was with no small amount of trepidation that I approached the shallow water as it was sure to be nothing short of a near boiling temperature. As I entered it Robin shouted that I should be careful as it was likely to be very slippery underfoot. I turned to tell him not to worry and was amazed to find that in the minutes it had taken me to walk to the pool, a small pop-up Maasai market had appeared from nowhere and settled right next to our car.
So we weren’t as remote as I’d thought. In fact, we now had an audience – the last thing I needed given what was about to happen.
They watched intrigued as I tippy toed in, taking care to stick to the stepping stones as per Robin’s advice. And yes, it was really, really REALLY hot and I could feel my feet begin to scald. Panicking (and, by now in considerable pain) I attempted to beat a hasty yet dignified retreat from the water.
But clearly, that was never going to happen.
My fast, floundering movements led to me discover quite how slippery the stones were. As I performed the dance of a person doomed to go head first into a boiling cauldron I put my arms out for balance and tried to grasp for whatever might keep me upright.
Had I turned the other way I’d have been within arm’s reach of averting disaster – Robin’s arm, that is. However, I found myself grabbing at the thin air that should have been occupied by his absent limb. The market stall holders were now demonstrating how their feet were in perfect working order by standing up to get a better vantage point of the spectacle.
It seemed to go for minutes, but then … it happened.
I had finally got purchase on something and held on for dear life. Sadly for Robin, it was his stump; little more than a piece of flappy skin hanging down forlornly from the pit of his arm. But, it was all I needed to stabilise me, which was more than could be said for Robin.
This took him totally by surprise and the first he knew of it he was being dragged unceremoniously straight into the scorching hot water while I triumphantly remained on my feet looking down on him.
The Maasais gasped as though they’d just witnessed an amazing safari kill. Not enough that the poor man had a handicap but a tourist found it good sport to torture him.
I don’t know who found it more excruciating; Robin from the boiling water-boarding or me from embarrassment.
To be fair, it was probably him.