North of Naro Moru, the A2 runs across the yellow-and-grey downs, scattered with stands of tall blue gums, roamed by cattle and overflown by brilliant roller birds, before dropping to NANYUKI, the gateway to Laikipia and parts of northern Kenya. You might be forgiven for expecting something momentous to take place at the equator, just south of town. There’s a sprouting of curio shops and signs (“This sign is on the Equator”) and even an “Equator Professor” who claims to demonstrate the Coriolis effect of the earth’s rotation using a bucket of water and a matchstick (aided by sleight of hand). In the northern hemisphere a large body of still water in a perfectly formed vessel would gurgle through a plug hole anticlockwise, whereas in the southern hemisphere it would flow clockwise – though in practice the direction of flow is controlled by the operator because the Coriolis effect is too tiny to have an impact, especially anywhere near the equator itself where the effect is zero. The demonstration is free; the “certificate” comes for a fee.
Nanyuki has the dual distinction of being Kenya’s air-force town and playing host to the British Army’s training and operations centre. And although in recent decades it has taken in thousands of refugees, escaping from rural poverty and ethnic violence, it remains very much a country town in atmosphere, and an oddly charming one.
A wide, tree-lined main street and the mild climate lent by its 2000m altitude bestow an unfamiliar, cool spaciousness that seems to reinforce its colonial character. Yet the town is becoming popular with foreign and Kenyan investors, and real-estate prices have doubled in recent years. The town’s modern Nakumatt supermarket and assorted new coffee shops and restaurants are a sign of things to come.
The first party of settlers arrived in the district in 1907 to find “several old Maasai manyattas, a great deal of game and nothing else”. Nanyuki is still something of a settlers’ town and European locals are always around. The animals, sadly, are not. Although you may see a few grazers on the plains, the vast herds of zebra that once roamed the banks of the Ngare Nanyuki (Maasai for “Red River”) were decimated by hunters seeking hides, by others seeking meat (particularly during World War II, when eighty thousand Italian prisoners of war were fed a pound of meat each day), but most of all by ranchers protecting their pastures.