This is boyfriend's favorite Africa story. No, he hasn't heard them all, and I don't know if I'd ever have the time to tell him every one, but this is the story of all the stories I have had the time to tell him that he asks me to repeat to his friends.
We (and when I say "we" I mean all the students in my group, all 23 of us - 5 boys, 18 girls, and our professors Okello, Tome, and Kiringe, as well as staff including but not limited to: Little Paul, Big Paul, Salaash, Maraka, Kioko, Charles, James, Maasai Askaris whose names I cannot spell, Fred and KWS guards armed with AK-47's for protection against wildlife). Anyways, we were in Tsavo on safari, and it was the first real safari we had taken. Sure, we had been on jaunts outside of our fenced camp, but never on a real and true safari, camping in a campsite in tents, exposed to the elements. It was exhilirating just imagining the adventure.
When we arrived, I saw how incredibly different Tsavo was from most of the other parts of Kenya I had seen. It was hot, which wasn't really anything new, but the heat felt different. Perhaps it was the elevation or the fact that my first impressions had been gathered while standing atop a massive lava flow with the sun beating down on me, heating the black rock with its intense rays. Tsavo seemed barren to me at first, the vegetation was low and scrubby and mostly brown. There were nice rolling hills in the distance that were green and lush - the Chyulus, which is where any water found in Tsavo originates, but they were far away and I was trapped in a drab red-brown park full of dust. As the days slipped by though, I began to see that Tsavo was brimming with life, it's own unique ecosystem toiling away as it had been for hundreds of years under the African sun. Our early morning jaunts revealed giraffe families feeding in close bundles, mother and father and 7 foot baby in between, already tall enough to reach the delicate brances of the acacia trees. Birds filled the air in Tsavo, and I may have recorded more species there than I did at any other park. If you drove slowly, lesser kudu would come out of the bush just long enough to let you catch a glimpse of them, their beautiful white striped tawny coats shining in the light and their graceful spiraling horns above still heads that watched your every move before running into the the undergrowth again. Looking back, I realize how magical that place really is, how I underestimated it when I was there, used to the brash showiness of the elephants in Amboseli, the hundreds of animals that dotted the plain there carelessly grazing and ignoring cars full of people with telephoto lenses. Tsavo animals were more wary of human having been subjected to decades of poaching. The elephants did not stand in the open road, they hid, tucked away carefully in thick acacia stands, hesitant to show their hulking frames, unsure if the humans before them would wield cameras or guns. This made every glimpse of wildlife in that park a gift. If we had not been so observant, we would have missed it altogether.
Wildlife, as you can imagine, often strayed into the camp. We had a leopard tortoise come charging through on his thick and stubby tortoise legs. This was a treat because we had not had the chance to see any interesting african reptiles (snakes were killed on sight, poisonous or not, and the geckos and skinks around camp were interesting enough but too fast to catch and observe) and we picked the turtle up and had a good look at him before sending him on his way.
It is easy to see why animals would wander into our camp - it was hardly more than a clear flat space in a vast expanse of wilderness. The bathrooms faced a thick and dark stand of scrubby trees, just tall enough to conceal an elephant and just thick enough to conceal a lion. This made me nervous every time I went to the bathroom, since of course, the ladies side was at such an angle that it was closer to the vegetation. The bathroom itself was no prize, just a cement pad with drains in the floor (for when the toilets were clogged, no doubt) and two badly/rarely working toilets. Most of the time, I held me pee until we were somewhere with flush toilets or peed while doing fieldwork - we'd pee directly in front or in back of the car on the open road, which sounds terribly immodest, but really wasn't at all. At night if one had to use the bathroom, we had to signal an askari (guard) to our tent with a flashlight and he would come over with a gun or a spear, escort you to the pee pee, wait outside, and walk you back when you were done. It was just divine, especially if you had to do a number 2, to know that someone was right on the other side of the cheap corrugated tin barrier, listening to you shit. Plus, there were the geckos that lined the bathroom walls and ceiling - they have such big eyes, I honestly used to wonder if they were watching me go.
One night we all got back to camp late because most of our cars had been bogged down in the mud. We started preparations for dinner, and my friend N mentioned she had to pee. I had to take a quick one myself, and I glanced across camp to the bathroom block. It was still well enough lit that we could see across camp so I figured we could just go there together and we'd be fine. I grabbed my trusty red maglite just in case, and as we got closer to the bathrooms we decided to go the men's side because it was "safer." There was only one toilet in there (the men peed into a hole) so I went first cause I thought N wanted privacy, in case she had a stomach issue, because we all had them at one time or another. I stepped outside, and realized that dusk had quickly become night. "Great" I thought, "I'm in the one place in camp I really shouldn't be in the dark, fabulous." I clicked on my maglite and did a sweep of the bush. Nothing, clear. I then turned to my left to give the deserted campsites a sweet. There, in the beam of my maglite, were two yellow, glowing eyes. I felt my heart leap up into my stomach. I grabbed the flimsy screen door of the bathroom, sprang in, and slammed it behind me, pushing the tiny lock into place as if that would protect us from the man-eating lions!!! I could tell immediately that I had interuppted N mid-unpleasant bathroom experience. "NNNNNN" I whispered. "What? WHAT?" she said in this tone that was like 'oh my god you caught me mid diarrhea I'm so embarrassed but you're clearly freaking out now what is WRONG?' "N", I said, 'there is an animal out there. I saw it with the maglite. It's got YELLOW EYES" "Ok, ok" she said, emerging from the doorless stall, ''ok." We opened the door a crack and I swept my light into the vast darkness, and once again, two yellow eyes glowed in the night. "Shit!" N said and closed the door. We crept over to a small window in the cement wall. I stuck my flashlight out of it, looking for someone close by. "Little Paul! Little Paul!" I hissed. Paul looked around confused for a moment, then sauntered over to the door of the men's bathroom. We opened it and yanked him in by the sleeve. You can only imagine the great embarrasment this caused him. Paul was youngish, maybe 23 or 24, and had a handsome baby face and was embarrassed by everything - he was probably the most modest Kenyan I ever met (barring religious fanatics and Kenyans practicing Islam). He once talked to me while I was doing laundry, saw that I had underwear in my bucket, turned two shades darker and scurried away. The fact that he was alone with two girls in a men's bathroom was pretty much the worse place he could imagined at that moment. "What?" he said softly. "Paul" I said, towering over his small frame "Paul, there is something out there, in the night, with yellow eyes. It's low to the ground but it could be a hyena, or a predatory cat or something and we are just trapped here!"He must've sensed the urgency combined with sheer spaz in my voice, because he grabbed my flashlight and stepped outside. He started sweeping the area I had pointed to, and sure enough, the flashlight once again found those two glowing yellow eyes. "There! There it is!" I said in a screaming whisper. Paul squinted at it for a moment, then cocked his head slightly. He widened the beam of light slightly and adjusted his grip on the flashlight to illuminate the animal. He grinned. "Ah-Lee-zuhn. It ees a Bun-ni Rabbeet" I stared at a 3 foot tall hare in front of me, contentedly chewing small blades of grass, turning its head every so often, its eyes picking up the beam of light. "Wow" I breathed, mortified yet amazed at the sheer enormity of the african jack rabbit. "Alrighty then, let's go." N said.
Paul walked us back to camp and began gesticulating and speaking in wild Swahili. I stood there with my arms cross as the staff playfully taunted - "Ahleezon, you afraid of a leetle bunny? ahahahahahhaahhaah" I looked at them with my arms crossed, "I thought it was something else!" I said defending myself, or trying to. "No Ahleezon, this was just a bunny!!" "Yeah" I said, holding my arm out to waistlevel, "but at least it was a MAD HUGE RABBIT!" Peals of laughter echoed through the empty african night.