Welcome to muscle beach

Most of us go on holiday to relax, but political correspondent Steve Richards chose to flee Westminster for a fitness camp in Kenya
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The Independent Travel

Don't all of us dream of coming back from holiday fitter and more beautiful? At the start of most holidays I resolve to use the leisure time in order to work on my very slightly flawed physique. I buy holiday accessories to do the job: some new sports gear, expensive toiletries which promise to tone and refine all parts of my anatomy, and a couple of magazines at the airport, normally Men's Health and Running.

Don't all of us dream of coming back from holiday fitter and more beautiful? At the start of most holidays I resolve to use the leisure time in order to work on my very slightly flawed physique. I buy holiday accessories to do the job: some new sports gear, expensive toiletries which promise to tone and refine all parts of my anatomy, and a couple of magazines at the airport, normally Men's Health and Running.

For all sorts of reasons, the holiday passes by in shapeless inactivity. Instead I drink and eat more than usual, having decided that it is too hot for jogging and that the heat rules out altogether the possibility of other aerobic exertions. The valuable time passes. I know it is passing and feel guilty about the way it is slipping away over a glass or two of chilled white wine. At the end of most holidays I resolve to get fit when I return home. That is when I will do it. I really will. When I get home.

The fortnight on the Kenyan coast was altogether different: there was no choice in the matter. On the internet, I found a Kenyan company called Wildfitness whose promised that: "Amongst stunning and diverse environments we focus on strength, endurance, speed and power, flexibility, motor fitness, exercise adherence".

The leitmotif of the holiday is roughly this: we hammer ourselves at work and then flog our bodies in the gym, remote from nature and all the benefits of the open air. Machines and bodies do not go together - better to use the natural environment, trees, forests, lakes and rivers, and to tone and stretch our bodies in the way in which animals naturally do. It sounds slightly bonkers, but as someone who regularly runs and swims on Hampstead Heath, I was already half converted.

The setting for this was Baraka House, a spacious private house with gardens leading directly on to a beautiful and almost deserted beach. The house was set a discreet distance away from the small village of Watamu, and a 90-minute drive from Mombasa airport. For the fortnight there were the three of us: my partner Barbara, myself and our 14-year-old son Jake. Five others joined us, four from London and one from Amsterdam. Each of us feared that the others would be earnest in their athleticism. In fact none of us was earnest or, it has to be said, especially athletic. All of us "fessed up" early on to a liking for wine, good food, chocolate and coffee, often at the same sitting. We laughed a lot and did our awkward, breathless best with the activities. But it would not have mattered if the group had varied from an Olympic gold medallist to someone bordering on the obese. One of the outstanding qualities of those responsible for Wildfitness is that all abilities are catered for. For example, the best runner in our group was accompanied by David, a local Kenyan who was so perfectly in shape that he could win a marathon without breaking into a sweat. Indeed the British fitness aspirants, including the fittest, coped with David's prowess only by fantasising that he had gone into a terrible decline during our fortnight. "We are worried about David," we would wheeze breathlessly. "He seems to have put on a lot of weight over the last few days."

In fairness I should add that we were all worried at first that we would not be up to it and would collapse somewhere in the Kenyan forest, never to be seen again. When we realised it was not going to be like that we admitted our pathetic fears. Seven of us greeted the last arrival by performing press-ups on the drive and shouting confidently: "1,000... 1,001... 1,002...". The eighth and final guest viewed this scene with horror, all her fears confirmed. When she realised it was a joke she laughed with relief, rather than joy.

Each day was structured with a sweeping imagination as we ran, swam and stretched ourselves, literally and metaphorically, in spectacular scenery. But this holiday was much more than taking part in some breathless exercises in the sunshine overlooking the Indian Ocean, although that would be quite a lot in itself. The participants were encouraged to reflect on posture, flexibility, nutritional values and coping with stress. These different exercises, physical and mental, were inter-connected: exercise helps to relieve stress. We exercise better when we feel less stressed. Becoming more flexible enables us to exercise for longer and more effectively. Acquiring flexibility is a valuable exercise in itself. These were not generalised banalities barked at us by insensitive boot-camp commanders, but the basis of some fascinating talks given by the leading personal trainers for our fortnight. Dr Jacob Nell was a trained chiropractor. He moved with such animal grace there were times when we expected him to defy gravity and fly, an inspiration to his more awkwardly shaped guests. He was also an acupuncturist, offering a solution to muscle strain that involved inserting a series of needles into the offending leg and passing an electric current through them.

As one of the group observed: "Jacob is probably the fittest man in the world." The other main personal trainer, Gareth Monger, was a former soldier who combined more conventional training techniques with such humour and sensitivity that my 14-year-old son now runs much faster and further partly as a result of a long one-to-one session.

We would start early each day to avoid the heat. The Wildfitness equivalent of an alarm call was Jackson, the night patrolman, calling at each of our rooms at 6am with the gently delivered instruction: "Good Morning... Wake Up... time to get up." By 6.30am the eight of us would be gently stretching, either in a forest in preparation for the run or down by the sheltered area near the house where yoga and boxercise (a session with a Swiss Ball), would be under way. These regular sessions would be interspersed with excursions of surreal beauty, as if we were taking part in scenes from an Iris Murdoch novel or, at moments of absurdity, Monty Python's Flying Circus. We floated down a mangrove swamp on inner-tubes heading for the open sea, ran up sand dunes on a vast, deserted beach, spent an evening in the local village for some African dancing, in which, to our amazement, we became bemused participants as well as spectators. We passed a family of baboons as we jogged along a track in the Arabuko-Sokoke forest, the largest remaining forest on Africa's east coast. Looking up from contorted yoga positions we saw Sykes monkeys watching us with beady eyes, in trees just feet away. At the end of each day as the sun set we would stretch for at least half an hour on the roof of the house.

As we learnt, stretching is an art form. There are a seemingly infinite number of possible stretches, and there is no better place to learn the techniques than on a roof overlooking the sea and a vast sky spectacularly coloured by the vanishing sun.

Those who wished to walk around the running routes were accompanied, and were not made to feel the poorer for it. The same care was applied to all the activities. It is a highly labour-intensive operation. We soon realised that with the chefs, the trainers and others, there were more staff than the eight of us who were on the holiday seeking to get fit, wildly fit.

One day we left early to head for the dunes, travelling the last part in a 4x4 over the sand, watched disdainfully by the camels who gave the impression that they thought we were rather odd. Perhaps that is because we were rather odd, in our running gear rather than more familiar beach clothes.

On arrival one of our party decided to have a quick fag. Normally he smoked safely away from the fitness seekers and the already super fit. There were expressions of good-humoured disapproval, but the real punishment for the smoker came when the exercise began. After another warm-up we jogged slowly over to the bottom of the sand dune. Its peak was barely visible, or that is how it seemed to us as we contemplated a speedy ascent. We each started at slightly different times.

The first attempt was fairly easy. I am good at hills. The view at the top made it all seem worthwhile, with the sea in one direction and the forest in the other. The second time was not too bad either. Nor was the third. After that it was a struggle, this running up a hill on sand. I managed a seventh ascent, fantasising about the weight loss that this exercise in itself would produce. On the eighth lap I assumed that I would acquire the body of an athlete as a result of this single ascent. It was sheer bloody agony. Could I do a ninth? Not a hope in hell. One of our group managed 11, a record for this season we were told. But then he had the body of an athlete to start with.

Copious amounts of water and fresh lime juice were provided immediately before we all headed for a breakfast on the beach, home-made bread, fruit, eggs and bacon. We had the vast beach to ourselves. If this had been Spain we would not have been able to move for bodies. As it was we had the space to move rather too much, what with running up sand dunes, our warm-ups and warm-downs. Later we went for a long swim in the sea, which was so warm it was like swimming in a bath. The temperature made it much easier for even the slowest swimmers like me to keep going. And I kept going. After all, I wanted a body of an athlete by the end of all of this.

So how fit did we get? There were times when we joked that we were not getting fit at all, and perhaps were declining fast. In comparison with the local Kenyans we had a point. Quite often our Wildfitness minibus would drive us to a location and along the route we would pass women effortlessly carrying large vessels of water on their heads for several miles. We would wave pathetically from our fitness van, wondering whether the real purpose of the holiday was to come and watch fit people, envisaging photographs in which we would proclaim proudly: "There's me with a fit person." But then we would arrive at our location and before very long we would be immersed in another challenge, realising very quickly that there was more to this than a scenic trip in a minibus. Indeed that was the fun of it. One moment we would be typical tourists, eating food on a beach or shopping in a Kenyan village, and the next we would be swimming two miles from one side of the nearby Mida Creek to the other.

And did I get that body? Here is a delight and problem. The activities are punctuated by glorious food, so appetising that losing weight becomes an impossible challenge. I am a vegetarian. Most of the others were avid meat-eaters. We were all sated, and they raved about the vegetarian food as well. The emphasis is on quality organic food, the diet being part of the overall holistic approach. At first we all detoxed and acquired a new addiction to raspberry tea. Some of us consumed so much that we ran out of the intoxicating tea bags at one point. We reckoned it was the third bag each evening that had the capacity to send us delirious.

Still, alcohol and coffee were available at all times and towards the end we succumbed. With fickle ruthlessness the raspberry teas were pushed to one side. One of our party gave up smoking for the fortnight and is confident of sticking with it. Another did not even try. He was the one who had a smoke before the run up the sand dunes. The pampering is extended to massages and meditation, and for those that seek it there is even the chance of counselling from Checkie, the mother of Tara Wood, a former biology student who came up with the idea of Wildfitness.

The principles behind Wildfitness are not only worthy but also practical. They can be applied at home once the holiday is over. There is no gym equipment and no machines of any sort. Natural locations - the sea, forest tracks and the beach - are the starting points, not some overbearing rowing machine extracted from a weights room. Jacob meticulously prepared individual exercises for us to take back to England and I suspect that most of us will do at least some of them. We have all resolved to buy Swiss Balls and some of us will sit on them while writing articles.

So this was a holiday that broke the lazy chain. I exercised for two weeks and will continue to do so in Britain. Jake, my teenage son, has been inspired mainly by the two main trainers to alarming new heights of fitness, running faster and longer than me. My partner, Barbara, says, "I feel more balanced and stand up now, instead of lounging on to one hip. I caught myself doing my neck exercise on the Tube, which at least helped to clear a space around me."

We were all sad when we left for the bone-shaking drive to Mombasa airport, but took plenty away with us. This was not a holiday with a beginning and an end, but one that can continue to breathe back home.



British nationals need visas, available in advance from the Kenya High Commission in London (020-7636 2371; www.kenyahighcommission.com) or upon arrival at Mombasa or Nairobi airport. Either way, a passport photograph and a copy of your travel itinerary is required. The fee is £30.


Malaria is a particular threat in Kenya, and immunisations against typhoid, hepatitis A, diphtheria, poliomyelitis and yellow fever are generally advised.

For a full health brief, consult the travel medicine specialists MASTA (09068 224 100, www.masta.org).

The Foreign Office says "Terrorists have demonstrated that they are prepared to deliberately attack Western targets", and that "Muggings and armed attacks can occur at any time, particularly in Nairobi and Mombasa". It also warns "Incidents of armed car-hijackings can occur in any area of the country".


Kenyan Tourist Board (020-7202 6373; www.magicalkenya.com).

Steve Richards flew from Heathrow to Mombasa as a guest of Wentworth Travel (01344 844622; www.wentworthtravel.com). Wildfitness (00 254 1 223 2250; www.wildfitness.com) is a Kenya-based company. Through Wentworth Travel, you can book a nine-day Wildfitness package priced at £2,300, based on two people sharing. This includes flights from London via Nairobi to Mombasa, transfers, full board, training and treatments