20 Years A Travel Writer – Rupi Mangat

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As an avid traveller, it was thrilling to talk to a veteran travel writer whose columns in the Saturday Nation Newspaper have inspired me since I was in high school. She is widely known as the African Trotter  and her blog is testimony to the epic adventures she’s been writing about for the last two decades. Without further ado, the wildlife conservationist and travel enthusiast, Rupi Mangat.

How did you take an interest in travel writing 20 years ago before it became the trend to be a travel blogger?

I love space, l love beauty – ever since l was a child.  And even then, landscapes intrigued me – forests, rivers, animals – the interaction between life and spaces.

My childhood memories are of being on the road with my parents. My father would keep my brother and l awake, looking out of the window and l was awed by everything l saw. He’s a consummate insurance guy still very active with clients all over the country – Kisumu, Vihiga, Kibos, Chemelil.

Chemelil

Sugarcane along the Nandi Hills in Chemelil

I started volunteering with the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya (wildlife and environment conservation school NGO established in 1968) in 1990.  It was going through a financial crisis and Komba, the wildlife magazine for teenagers was floundering. I had a day job but since l’m really not cut out for corporate world or main stream,  I managed to get fired. Nevertheless, the only one l have stuck at, is with The Wildlife Clubs of Kenya.

With a magazine to produce, l had to write and as l was writing, I noticed that there were no local writers writing on local travel. So l began writing to ‘Dear Editor, l would like to submit this article on…’. One year later, in March 1998, Mundia Muchiri the founding editor of Saturday magazine called in the days when the telephones rang loud and clear. He asked me to write and the rest is history.

 

Most Kenyans stereotype the life of a travel writer as smooth sailing, problem-free and colorful. Would you agree?

Of course, it can be all that; if l had that kind of money l’d be booking fantastic holidays – just pay and get on board (but l’d get bored). Nonetheless, package tours are great if you’re working with limited time for travel.

But for some of us, it’s a life style, it’s about learning, never-ending curiosity, it’s like turning pages in a book ; you can’t stop.

When l first started writing for Saturday, Mundia’s brief was for leisure outings for families around Nairobi because safaris then were looked at as expensive affairs since you needed a four-wheel drive, lodges etc. and it was foreigners. So, l told him that it was not like that and went about on matatus and buses and eventually got noticed.

So now it’s a bit easier with many people in the industry willing to support me if l’m in the negbourhood with a room. Reaching some destinations can be challenging but if you want to see it, to be there, you just have to go by whatever means. For instance on my next safari to Gombe to look for chimpanzees in the wild, I will be on local buses.

 

What are some of the notable cultural differences you’ve encountered in your African trotting?

Not many cultural differences; maybe the most is when people earlier remarked  ‘You’re a woman’ or ‘l thought you were a man’ when l turned up at their doorstep. Travelling alone was looked upon as a man’s thing.

On a one-to-one basis, we’re all the same. When l’m somewhere, l go with the flow…it’s not about me but about the people l meet, the stuff l see, the food I eat…

Sure, we have amazing cultural diversity in Kenya. For instance the Merille in the north to the Swahili on the coast, from the highland Pokot to the Taita on the mist mountains of Taita; the Watta, Orma and Pokomo of the Tana Delta to the Kikuyu of central Kenya and the Luos and Luhyas in Western – we’re more than 40 diverse peoples –and each with a unique aspect that makes them so. I’m fascinated by the Mijikenda because of their history and how they became custodians of the sacred Kaya forests – so everyone has a story to tell.

 

What have been your 3 favourite destinations in Kenya and why?

There are countless – the whole of Kenya and you’re forcing me to choose three? Ok.

Todonyang – it’s a few kilometers south of the Kenya-Ethiopian border by the Lapurr mountains on the shores of Turkana – west side. It’s remote, fantastic landscape and people – there’s the lake to sail on, there are the mountains to wander into and lonely mountain pools to swim in– and it’s so basic.

Ngurunit in the Ndoto Mountains – a Samburu village on the base of the mountains that have crystal clear water running from the mountains – again great landscapes, people and wildlife and remote.

Local fishers’ canoes on Mida Creek Watamu

Local fishers’ canoes on Mida Creek Watamu

The ocean – l’m a water person – anything along the coast from Kiunga on the Kenya-Somali border south – and it’s fascinating because of the history of the East African Coast from 2000 years ago. And then the sea-life – whales, sharks, dolphins, sting rays being recorded by NGOs like Watamu Marine Association and others.

 

From the travel stories on your blog, you are keen on wildlife conservation. What’s the greatest success story in your efforts to protect endangered species such as the cheetah?

I wish there was a ‘greatest success story’ but I guess raising awareness is the single most important thing. When l first got to hear about the illegal pet trade in animals like cheetahs, Grey Parrots and the great apes, l was (still am) really disgusted by it. And the fact that they have to be taken as infants and most die when being smuggled in the cruellest manner and then you have people who think they are doing these animals a favour by bringing them up as pets! Then there’s social media like Instagram where people post pictures of themselves with a cheetah or chimpanzee like the socialite Paris Hilton making it look so cool. It’s disgusting.

Wild Cheetah cubs with their mother in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya Picture copyright Karl-Andreas Wollert

Wild Cheetah cubs with their mother in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya Picture copyright Karl-Andreas Wollert

And most people behave like this because they are ignorant of the fact that wild animals need their wild spaces to live in –they have evolved over millennia to survive in certain niches. Living in cages – think of yourself in one and you will get the picture of how bad it is! Moreover, for every infant captured, the mother or the whole group has to be killed as is the case of the Great apes.

 

What’s that one bad experience you had whilst travelling to the point that you almost packed your bags?

No, really – only l can’t stand places built on wetlands, or on spots they shouldn’t be – so l try to keep away from them especially if they are new. We have to respect the spaces that are gazetted and protected. Otherwise, we’re going to have nothing left of the wild world to be awed by. It will be just a very boring, uniform world full of people, buildings, and all that.

That’s not to say, l’m against development or comfort. It’s just that it’s important that we respect the environment around us, treat the Earth like a home and not one big dustbin to handle all that we throw out.

Elephant Crossing (Copyright Limo Elisha)

Elephant Crossing (Copyright Limo Elisha)

In Africa we are at a great spot not to make the mistakes of the ‘developed’ world as we now have the best technologies, science and research to guide us forward but sadly we’re not taking advantage of that.

Any advice for emerging travel bloggers?

Be passionate – it’s what drives you.

Be curious – spread awareness, give it your voice to make your readers aware.

The worst travel blogs are about just frivolous travel and glossy pics.

You can read more of Rupi’s adventures on her website https://rupitheafricantrotter.wordpress.com/.

Images Copyright Rupi Mangat unless otherwise stated.

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