It was all a good wheeze but I saw little outside the compound and the restaurants at night. Fortunately my host, Russ, decided to get me out a couple of times. I had met up with a scientist from the adjoining International Potato Center (did you know one existed?) and she was organising a picnic on Mount Longonot, a volcano in the rift valley about 30 miles from Nairobi.
Russ picked me up from the institute and we headed to his house in Langata. Unlike the huge heavily guarded villas of the surrounding suburb, Russ lived quietly and unassumingly in a small house surrounded by trees. His prized possession in the house was his home brewery ( he was a connoisseur of beer and whenever you met him you had to bring a bottle of bitter along). Russ Kruska was a man I respected a great deal in the field of GIS. He had been working out there several years and was probably the best example of someone who could make GIS work in developing countries. He never compromised standards in his work just because he was in an underdeveloped country, and was a great thinker about information. He was well ahead of most GIS academics and software providers in talking of metadata years before most people were in the game. He saw the importance of metadata; recording the sources and derivations of your datasets inside the dataset itself because he was giving data to all and sundry across the continent and he did not want it misused or him misquoted. He also had a quiet determination. Very much at ease with himself, he was quiet but not shy, preferring to hear others before pontificating. I saw him very angry once at one of his bosses, but even through the gritted teeth he kept most of his external composure. Despite the high standards he set for himself and his work, he also understood the limitations of working with computers in Africa, especially in the early 1990’s. Instead of trying to get his staff to reach unobtainable goals in one go, he pieced his work programme together in such a way that his staff, while understanding something of the bigger picture, had achievable goals and standards to hit at. It is something which I have taken to heart in a lot of the work I have done since, and despair at so many projects, consultants, department managers and politicians who expect a country with little institutional and technical capacity to leap to a US or European system in one step.
We met up with the gang heading out to Longonot and drove along the well made highway NW towards Nakuru. One of the best roads in the country, it was because it allowed President Moi to have a smooth trip from his country residence into town. We passed through the pine forest on top of the ridge and then over the lip. The huge East African Ridge splitting Africa apart was in front. As the two plates which make up Africa divide, two huge rifts are cracking the continent up; the western one containing deep lakes like Tanganyika, the right hand one largely dry, but the forceful opening has caused conic volcanoes to sprout up along its route. Longonot is one of the most perfect of these, rising at a uniform angle and covered in a light green carpet of Acacia, at least that is how it appears at a distance. Up close the acacia is full of vicious thorns guarded by equally vicious ants who if the bush is tapped even lightly, will emerge spraying their formic acid at the unseen attacker.
We had to climb with an armed guard, unfortunately there are too many robberies in Kenyan parks to allow complete safety, but it was a privilege to be able to walk through the Kenyan countryside without being surrounded by a vehicle. Giraffe are the worst threat from the bigger animals, although that does not stop the possibility of scorpion, snake or other insect from causing a lot of discomfort. The view from the rim was spectacular, the inside of the cone is also heavily vegetated but in a few places there were rock faces and here and there a vent in the rock was betrayed by hot steam rising up. To the outsider, a perfect African scene. The ridge to the right with its pine forests was just visible in the haze, to the west more jagged mountains (towards the infamous Devil’s Gate National Park) blocked our view, and to the north and south a string of other volcanoes, different eruptions shown by blobs of hardened lava, each a different shade, one on top of another. To our north a vivid blue lake; Naivasha, had a couple of small motor boats buzzing around. We weren’t sure we could see any of the flamingos in the water but the area of pink we did see was from one of the many flower farms in the valley, the blooms being cut, frozen and shipped overnight by air to markets in Europe; all cheaper than if done back home. In the dry heat we basked and ate fresh potato salad and ice cold drinks, biscuits and cake, fruit of all sorts. The perfect picnic.