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Leafing through lessons

Once symbolic of the romance of exotic locales, a tree growing in downtown Nairobi is losing its role as a travelers' landmark.

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[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]

By ALAN LITTELL
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 2, 2002


Editor's note: Almost nine months after the Sept. 11 attacks, we are entering the traditional summer vacation season. In today's section, articles consider travel for its rewards such as the lure of the exotic, the chance to learn about others, the simple yet profound change of place.

NAIROBI, Kenya -- In the center of Nairobi stands a tree with a smooth yellow bark and a canopy of fernlike leaves. Botanists call the tree acacia xanthophloea. Because it grows for the most part where malaria-bearing mosquitoes breed, people throughout East Africa matter-of-factly refer to it as a "fever tree."

What makes the existence in Nairobi of acacia xanthophloea so unusual is that this particular variety of African thorn tree likes plenty of water and fresh air. Nairobi has enough water, but its air is corrosive with exhaust fumes.

A day's journey to the south, however, in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater, a 10-mile earthen bowl filled with zebra and wildebeest, I have seen forests of fever trees. The air here is clear and sweet. When the afternoon sun touches the crater's rim, the trees glow a deep chrome yellow, as if lit by an inner fire.

I have seen these lovely trees along streams edged with papyrus in the vast savanna known as the Serengeti.

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[Photo: Caroline Littell]
The acacia, or fever tree, dots the endless plains of the Serengeti savanna, which stretches from Tanzania into Kenya.

Far up the dusty track that serves as the main road west through the Serengeti, I have seen the carcass of an impala fawn draped like a tattered rug across the limb of a fever tree, where a leopard had dragged it, safe from scavengers.

Once, in the scorched yellow-gray veld of the central Serengeti, I watched a young lioness rise from the shade of a fever tree watered by a nearby stream. A few yards upwind from her, a Thomson's gazelle trotted down to the stream to drink.

Fine-boned and tawny coated, tail twitching like a metronome, the Tommie is the most appealing creature of the African wilds.
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[Photo: Caroline Littell]
A member of the Masai tribes, who herd their cattle through western Kenya.

But the lioness had small appreciation for aesthetics. She was a player in an old drama. The lioness, stalking, furrowed the tall grass. Suddenly she lunged, then sauntered back to the fever tree with the bloodied gazelle grasped in her jaws.

Elsewhere in East Africa, the fever tree I remember so well is in the dirty air of Kenya's high-rise capital and is hemmed in by metal and glass. It occupies an open-air courtyard in front of the Stanley Hotel, on Kimathi Street.

The courtyard serves as a sidewalk cafe. A popular rendezvous, the Thorn Tree Cafe is as widely known in Nairobi as the Cafe de la Paix is in Paris.

I liked to come here on a hot afternoon and sit at one of the round tables in the shade of a green-and-white metal umbrella, with the larger shade of the fever tree -- it climbs about nine stories, almost level with the hotel's roof -- dappling the tiled floor.

Sipping a glass of Tusker beer, I enjoyed looking out through the shimmering haze to a thoroughfare of rushing cars and open-windowed buses. Ramshackle pickup trucks swayed alarmingly under the weight of standing passengers. Across the street, women draped in bright cotton khanga wandered into or out of the Uchumi Supermarket.

But I especially liked watching the young campers just in from the bush. Their getup and appearance were redolent of adventure. They were streaked with sweat and wore dirt-stained shorts and scarred boots. The equatorial sun had reddened their knees.

They traveled in pairs, conversing in English, German, Dutch or French. Many of them, I knew, had hitchhiked or driven their own Land Rovers from the southeast, from the great game reserve at Tsavo. They would have come up the hot tarmac from Voi and Mtito Andei along the plateau that skirts the Nyiri Desert.

Others had journeyed from the gritty and gullied terrain of Amboseli, several hundred square miles of volcanic ash that lies at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. They would have risen at dawn -- when the mountain's frozen cap gleams with a pale, rosy light unobscured by cloud -- and taken the straight road from Namanga, on the Tanzanian border, through Kajiado and the Kapiti Plains. Masai pastoralists, hair smeared with fat and ochre, prod cattle along this road.

Some of the campers had rambled in from the Mara, in the west, an extension of the Serengeti. And a few had come from Kikuyu country in the north, where green hills planted in coffee surge to the crags of Mount Kenya.

Turning into the hotel cafe, the campers invariably strode to the tree.

Mounted in a square around its trunk are bulletin boards holding scraps of note paper under a latticework of elastic tape. Occasionally, the campers would pluck a message from the rack. Then they either hurried off, or, if the communication lacked urgency, they slipped off their packs, fell into a chair and beseeched the waiter for a brace of Tuskers.

For so long as old Nairobi hands can remember, the fever tree in front of the Stanley Hotel has doubled as a poste restante, a place where mail was left, either for its recipient to find or for some traveler to carry along.

Before Kenya had reliable mail service, a letter addressed to an upcountry white farmer, say, in Thika or Gilgil, would have been pinned to the tree. A traveler heading in that direction would have carried the missive -- perhaps weeks or months later -- to its destination.

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[Photo: Caroline Littell]
Downtown Nairobi, the heart of the Kenyan capital, where a fever tree grows despite urban pollution.

Nowadays, Kenya's postal system works just fine. Letters mailed in Nairobi can reasonably be expected to reach Gilgil or Thika, or even more distant Malindi or Mombasa, on the Indian Ocean, in two or three days. The sort of notes still found on the fever tree are to and from travelers of no fixed domicile.

For some reason, most of the messages are in English. Unsealed, they are there for anyone to read, and they have become a minor tourist attraction.

Some of the messages are elegies to youth and freedom, hinting at loss:

"Interested to see if this odd address is genuine. Life is quiet. Time collapsing in on itself, but it's free and people are helpful. See you next term."

Some sound a note of bravado. They suggest an easy familiarity with the African continent and with its exotic place names. Implicit in their texts is nostalgia for an irrecoverable past -- for a white man's colonial Africa, for Africa as playground:

"We're going up to Lodwar for the weekend, then to the Mara, then to the coast."

"Looking for a lift to Isiolo, Wadir or Mandera."

"Leaving Nairobi tomorrow for Arusha; unfortunately can't wait any longer as there's a chance Sean may be able to catch a flight to Lusaka."

"I'm at the Igbal Hotel but heading north in a day or two to see the Samburu, then back to Nairobi in a week."

"Looking for riders to Uganda willing to climb the Rwenzoris."

Some messages disquiet. In the banality of their phrasing, in their lack of embellishment, they have the quality of a failing voice. They play on our emotions like the brittle strands of memory; we seem to have heard, or read, them before. Signifying illness or death, they seek a son or a daughter adrift on the empty plains of East Africa:

"Please call dad."

In the old days, runners would have been dispatched to the cardinal points of the compass with copies of the appeal held aloft in cleft sticks. Now there are no runners. For messages such as these, the only possibility of succor is the fever tree on Kimathi Street.

Alan Littell is a freelance writer living in Alfred, N.Y.


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