Historical sites’ tourism potential still unexploited

The breathtaking view from Sagalla Hills near Voi where a Royal Air Force plane went down during World War II. [XN Iraki, Standard]

Sagalla Hills near Voi looks like any other hills until you discover they hold a big secret.

It is the graveyard of a Sunderland plane owned by the Royal Air Force which crashed here during World War II.

The plane, which had four turboprop engines, was on a training mission one misty morning when it hit the hillside in 1944.

Last month, some friends and I went looking for the plane on our way from battlefields of WWI in Taita Taveta.

A long winding road takes you from the bottom of the hill to the top. To our surprise, the top is very wet, a big contrast to the surrounding area.

The seclusion of the place and its beauty compares favourably with Machu Picchu in Peru.  Even the terracing resembles Machu Pichu. For all the years, I have driven past this hill to and from Mombasa, I never thought the top of the hill was this breathtaking. Joseph Mwandilo, who lives near Sagalla Primary School, took us to see the crash site.

He quickly reminded us it was mistier when the plane went down; effects of global warming perhaps?

The plane crash site is now overgrown and nothing of the wreckage remains.

Mwandilo’s 100-year-old mum remembers the plane crash. Another old man we met on the way also recalls it like it was just yesterday.

“We heard a loud bang like thunder. We reported to the chief who called in the Government officials,” recalls the old man. Chiefs then had a big say in almost all matters.  

It seems the bodies were removed but the wreckage lay there until a few years ago when suddenly there was a spike in demand for scrap metal. 

Mwandilo says scrap metal dealers descended on the plane and dismantled it with gusto. And just like that, a piece of history was all gone.

Historical heritage

Locals say dealers came from as far as the Mt Kenya region. 

The Government did not stop cannibalisation of the plane, locals told me.

Mr Mwandilo sent me a photo of a 50 calibre he shell got from the crash site before the dealers descended on it.

It had the numbers RA 1941 50 CALZ at the bottom. The plane was armed with 59 calibre browning machineguns on either side of its body.

It’s amazing how short-termism can be a threat to historical heritage. Throughout Kenya, several artefacts have been sold as scrap metal.

It is not clear why there was a sudden demand for scrap metal in the early 2000s.

I recall sufurias, old padlocks, wheelbarrows and anything metallic disappearing at night.

Some suggest, albeit without evidence that such metal fired up the Chinese industrial growth. The demand for scrap metal was probably fuelled by rising metal prices.

Did scrap dealers know this?

Whatever the truth, Sunderland plane is gone, sold as scrap metal; heritage and history sold for a song.

Yet there is something surreal and magical in seeing an old piece of a 75-year-old plane.

Imagine such a plane in an engineering school to showcase how far we have come technologically? 

There are other wreckages of such planes in the Aberdares and other parts of the country. 

Think of it. If Tesla were to get its way, the internal combustion engine in your car would be a 100-year-old artefact.

Such is the reality of technological progress. 

As we progress, we need to leave technological landmarks for future generations. Did you keep the rotary phone? Did you keep your first mobile phone?

Where is Kenya’s first presidential limousine? 

The Sunderland plane should have made its way to the museum or at least had the site secured.

How many more artefacts have been sold away? Do you have any relic of world wars?

The cannibalisation of this old plane shows the extent men and women are willing to go to make money in a “small economy”. And they can spot rare opportunities. While history enthusiasts see an old plane as an artefact to be preserved, “hustlers” see it as money.

But all is not lost. The story of the plane and its mission can be made part of the battlefield’s tourism circuit in Taita Taveta.

Sarova Hotel has taken the lead.  

Attract visitors

The citizens of Taita Taveta might wonder why someone can go looking for a plane that crashed in 1944. 

It has historical and economic value. How old are the Egyptian pyramids or Machu Pichu? The story behind these sites creates value and attracts visitors.

Who was on the plane? What were they doing around Voi? What caused the crash? Where are the descendants of the deceased? Can you imagine their grandchildren pointing out: “This is where my grandfather died in 1944 in service of the empire?” 

We have talked too much about the Big Five. Historical sites are the next big thing in tourism. Let us start with Sagalla Hills crash site. 

Every county has such historical sites, not necessarily involving war.

Think out loudly: as Kenyans become affluent, they will have time and money to seek exotic places and experiences. Why not make some money from that?

- The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi

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