The truth about ‘that’ night in Nairobi
So when we were on our travels there were some things that happened which we didn’t feel were appropriate to include in our blog; until now. Because now that we are safely back in the fold and families can see for themselves that we are still in one piece we can admit that things were sometimes more serious than we let on. One particular incident we glossed over, was on 20th October we were in a huge armed robbery in Nairobi, when 6 men armed with assault rifles, handguns and machetes broke into our compound and Nairobi lived up to its pseudonym, Nairobbery, in spectacular fashion.
It had been another hectic day in Nairobi, navigating the heavy traffic travelling between embassies to obtain our visas for onward travel. We arrived back at our campsite, Jungle Junction, late afternoon exhausted but elated that our visas for Sudan and Ethiopia had been granted. Our Austrian friends who were camping close by had also had success so we enjoyed a few beers together to celebrate our hard-earned visas. A few more people had arrived during the day, an older, slightly crazy German guy who had been travelling alone in his camper and 4 Japanese tourists who were going on Safari the following day. They’d set up their dome tents within the small, hedged garden close the main house, whilst ourselves and the Austrians were parked out in the main grassy area of the walled compound. As we shared drinks with the Austrians we discovered that an armed robbery had taken place only a week before and although we felt unnerved by the news, it was too late it in the evening to move on and realistically the risk of it happening again so soon were relatively low. However, just to be cautious we decided to move our car from the centre of the paddock and tuck up next to the hedge at the end of a row of 4×4 vehicles which had been recently left to go into storage, at least there we didn’t stand out as much if robbers did decide to return. We laughed off our nervousness, but deep down we both realised that despite the seemingly safe and leafy suburb that the new campsite was in, apart from the wall there was not much security to speak of.
We said goodnight to our friends and headed off to bed. The nights in Nairobi are very unrestful. A modern, slick city by day soon takes on a dark and sinister feel at night. In a place where every home is protected by high levels of security and guard dogs, the night air is filled with the sounds of thousands of dogs barking interspersed, not to mention intermittent gun fire! I remembered reading about the ‘Twilight barking’ in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, but this was closer to hell than Disney! Around 1.30am, we were woken by shouting from within our campsite followed quickly by loud bangs and gunshots. I sat up, heart pounding, frantically looking out of the tent window to see if I could see what was happening. As I looked towards the main building I could make out the dark silhouettes of 6 men armed men running round the building. A wave of fear swept over me and the blood drained from my face. I grabbed hold of Rich who was next to me straining to try and see out of the window on my side. ‘’What can you see, what’s going on?” he said. I turned to look at him ‘’It’s happening again, we’re being robbed’ I replied. Hearts in our mouths we sat deathly still in our tent, not daring to move, not daring to speak, not daring to barely breath as we watched the events unfold in front of us.
From our rooftop tent hidden in the shadows, we watched as the robbers forced their way into the first building, kicking the door in and ransacking the office, before using a metal bar to force open the campervan of the unfortunate German who was parked just in front of the office. The German was pulled from his van and beaten before tied up face down on the floor. The commotion had also woken the other guests and without thinking the Japanese tourists, camping by the house, turned on torches to try and see what was happening. The light only bought attention to them and within seconds the armed men were over at their tents, slicing through the flimsy material of their small dome tents with machetes to pull out the terrified tourists. With guns held to their heads the Japanese were forced to handover everything they had – which was a hefty bounty for the thieves of ipads, ipods, phones and cash. The terrified tourists were roughed up and thrown to the floor where they were threatened at gunpoint and tied up, ironically with their own ipod cables. All the time, Rich and I were only metres away praying that a scanning flashlight from one of the intruders would not reveal that we were there too. By this point, fear had turned into pure adrenalin and we contemplated trying to make a run for it, but in an open compound with little cover, there really wasn’t anywhere to run too. So we waited; trapped in our tent, on the roof of our car and unable to reach our phone we couldn’t even summon any help. Already 90minutes had passed since the robbers had first entered the property.
With the focus now on the Japanese tourists, the old German decided he would try and make a break for it, managing to free himself from his restraints and starting to run down the driveway. He didn’t get far as he was quickly spotted by 2 of the men who gave chase. They ran out of our view, all we could here was the German yelling as the 2 men closed in on him and then suddenly a single gunshot was fired and everything went quiet. We lay in the darkness of our tent, our hearts pounding so hard we were sure they could hear us but we were convinced the German had just been murdered. The silence was followed by fleeting footsteps, and we believe at this point that the group divided and those who satisfied with their booty from the Japanese left over the back wall, whilst those who had yet to take anything worth their while remained within the compound walls. We lay in the darkness, not even daring to look through the window anymore, trying to work out which direction the footsteps were heading in and how many were still left. With the main building ransacked and the other guests robbed, there was only one place left for the robbers to check and we knew it would only be a matter of moments before we were found. Sure enough, the footsteps soon started in our direction and we could hear as the men began to try the door handles of the parked cars next to us.
As the footsteps approached us, we had already gone beyond fear and we both fell into a surreal state of calm. It wasn’t a matter of being scared anymore, this was about survival and we were both mentally preparing ourselves for what was about to happen. We had no way of defending ourselves, we didn’t have a gun, our pepper spray was locked in the car along with our maglite (truncheon) torch. The game was up and we would just have to do whatever they wanted in order to survive. The men reached our car and we could hear their hushed voices as they tried the door handles, then probably confused by the sight of the rooftent and unsure if anyone was in it, they began to rock the car from side to side to try and scare us out. We didn’t move. One of the men then climbed up onto the back of the car to try and pull the gas bottle from its holder, Rich sat up slowly and looked through the meshed window straight at the masked robber, who was only centimetres away. The robber, too busy trying to remove the gas bottle had not noticed that he was almost face to face with Richard. Frustrated that he couldn’t remove the gas bottle, he then fired a gunshot right next to the car, the sharp cracking sound of the bullet echoed around the compound. We held each other tightly as we felt his weight on the ladder, putting first one foot, then second onto the bottom rung. I closed my eyes as I waited for the outside zip to be pulled up, but just as his hand found the zip a number of gunshots were suddenly fired at entrance to the compound.
There was a lot of confusion as gunshots rang out and the gates opened to allow a vehicle through. We were not sure who had just arrived, whether it was police or more robbers but we knew that someone was still at the foot of our ladder. As the vehicle came up the driveway we could hear many more people running around accompanied by more gunshots. We stayed down, worried we would be caught in the crossfire, it was like something out of the Wild West. It only lasted for a few minutes, but those minutes felt like forever. As the situation calmed we could hear the other guests talking again and realised that it was the police afterall. At 4am, nearly 2.5hrs after the robbery began, we were finally able to climb down from our tent, feeling shocked and shaken by what had just happened and feeling incredibly lucky that we had just survived completely unscathed and with all our belongings. At the foot of our ladder lay a discarded rope that was no doubt intended for tying us up. It sent shivers down my spine to realise just how close we’d been. We walked round to find the other guests, relieved to see that the German had not been shot after all, our Austrian friends were fine and none of the other guests had suffered serious injuries. As is the way in Africa, once the police had ‘’cleared the scene’’ they did not hang about to collect statements or provide further security reassurance and left. In Africa, you can’t rely on the police the way you can in the western world. But I guess in our case, something was better than nothing and we were glad that they eventually turned up! We helped the Japanese tourists pick up their remaining belongings, they had lost pretty much everything and despite have only arrived the day before, they were all keen to head home on the first available flight. We gathered everyone together inside the main building, too frightened to go back outside and so we decided to wait out the night there. Unbelievably the robbers returned about an hour later (different ones, the same ones? I don’t know) trying to force their way through the gate but fortunately with everyone awake, we were able to scare them off by turning all the lights on, shining torches towards the gate and generally making a racket. The sun took an agonisingly long time to rise, it had been the longest night of our lives. We decided not to risk another night at JJ’s, and moved to a much more secure campsite. As we arrived at Wildebeest, we could not have been happier to see the high walls, electric fences and security guards that surrounded the beautiful eco-camp. The fantastic Aussie owners immediately put us at ease, and It allowed us some time to recuperate from the ordeal and mentally prepare ourselves for the ongoing journey through Africa. Its true though, if it doesn’t kill you, it only makes you stronger!
So looking back on things, would we have done things differently? Probably not. Ultimately we were just very unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, which is the same where ever you are in the world. I haven’t heard of any other overlanders getting caught up in anything like this.
Before the trip people asked us if we would carry a gun? The answer is still no. If you carry a gun, you have to be prepared to use it and know how to use it well! The moment a gun is pulled out, things will escalate immediately into a life threatening situation.
Would we go back to Nairobi? Honestly, only if we had too! Cities are not great places in Africa and we would always try and limit the amount of time we spent in them, unfortunately if you have to get visas en route it is unavoidable. However as long as you’re sensible most people are fine! For us, out of all the countries that we visited, Kenya was certainly the most unsettled, which isn’t something we weren’t expecting. There is a lot of underlying tension between tribes, ethnicities and religious groups – but again, we were there when Westgate had not long happened and our particular experience made us a lot more sensitive than we otherwise would have been. It’s still a beautiful country, with so much to offer but it’s certainly a country where extra caution needs to be taken.