Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Kenyan Memory

This memory just came back so powerfully to me that I thought I'd write it down!

While I was in Kenya I did my research in Nairobi National Park. I counted game for about six weeks straight, which may sound like torture to a lot of people, but to me was absolutely glorious. We would set out early in the morning, take a lunch break either back at camp or in the park, and then go on for another four or five hours counting zebra, giraffe, rhinocerous, bushbuck, reedbuck, waterbuck, impala, thompson's gazelle, grant's gazelle, warthog, lion, cheetah, kongoni, ostrich, cape buffalo, and wildebeest(phew, remembered them all!). We were always careful to head back to camp just before dusk. One, we weren't allowed to stray from camp after dark because if anything happened to us it was an insurance liability and two, the chance of something happening to us outside the camp after dark is decent since, read list above and add hyena, there are lots of things that could have eaten us.

Our camp bordered the park, but in order to get into the park, you had to drive all the way out to Athi River proper, which was a hideous dirt road, full of potholes and craters. Your boobs spent most of the time smashed against your eyelids and all you could concentrate on was keeping your teeth clenched together so you didn't accidentally bite your tongue. It was on this road, I believe, that we went over a bump so severe that my head was snapped backwards then immediately forwards, resulting in a face plant in the seat in front of me, a slam so hard that it broke my sunglasses across the bridge of my nose and the broken pieces cut my face. The road can't be that long, but it's so wretched that it takes you about 40 minutes to get out to the main road in Athi River. The one good thing about the dirt road is that you can't move too fast on it, and that lets you look at game that's strayed outside the park boundaries. It's not unusual to see giraffe, wildebeest, zebra and gazelles wandering around outside the park, grazing. The predators stay within the boundaries during the day, but at night they venture forth outside the park and used to come right up to the fence. The leopards would agitate the monkeys, and their haunting warning calls would wake us in the middle of the night. Lions would sit right by the gate and make the most amazing sounds, low-pitched and rumbling, not a roar at all, but more like a giant with indegestion.

In order to avoid this road, we had a key to a shortcut. Kenya Wildlife Service had installed a gate on the other side of a creek that divided private land and the park. We were given the key because we weren't day visitors, but researchers who would be spending days on end in the park, and it would only be a hassle to go around to the Cheetah gate every day, several times a day. The short cut chopped our transit time in half. The creek we had to cross was quite small too, the only problem being the very steep hill on the other side that we had to climb in the land cruiser in order to get into the park. Usually when we got to the gate, we'd cross the creek, stop on the other side, and then barrel up the hill. When it got to be April and the rains came, getting up the hill required a running start, and someone would have to cross the creek on foot, climb the hill, open the gate, and wait while cars came full speed across the stream and up the hill. We usually crossed, whether rainy or dry, without incident.

A few times though, we would run into trouble. One morning we all went out, all the research groups, which included botany and ecology groups. The botany group was at the head of the line when Wayne, the driver and professor got on the radio "Lions," he said, "we'll wait, but we ought to go around, it's a female and her kittens, she's liable to get defensive." That was a day we went around. Another time, my friend Otieno was driving. I loved to bother him as much as possible. He would reply in his think Kenyan accent "Why you al-ways ab-huuus-sing me??" Heh heh. Otieno would try to get me back as much as possible for these abuses, and so that day, though the skies were getting dark, he made me get out to open the gate. I said "Otieno, no it's dark, there could be crocs!!" He cackled. "Al-lee-son. You go. Get out. You go. Do it, unless you are too scared, then I will have my friend he-ah, Patrick, I will have him open it." Not wanting to be made a coward and in my constant determination to prove myself equal to our male companions (who were not the most rugged bunch, I will say) I leapt through the open window onto the dusty ground. As I opened the gate, my eye caught movement, and when the animal that was moving came into focus, I realized I wasn't in any danger, yet I still let out a scream. "AHHHHHHHHHHHH!" It was high pitched and girly (UGH!!) and Otieno leapt out of the drivers seat. He looked to the right, looked at me, and bopped me on the head with the flat of his palm. "Hey! It is a lisssard! Jus a lissard! What is wrong with you?!!" I said "Yeah Otieno, but it was a monitor lizard, and it was 6 feet long!!!" "Ha ha,'' he laughed, "he is a baby, you just get back in the car." Though Otieno would make fun of me for four days because of this incident, at least my fellow students focused on the coolness of seeing a monitor lizard...

There was only one time crossing the creek where I was actually nervous. There were three of us, me, Kristen, and Patrick out with our professor, Sinnary, finishing up some game counts. Though it was nearly dark, we decided to use the gate, in order to get us home before darkness really set in. It was even darker than usual by the creek. The sun had started to set, and the thick vegetation and acacias made it hard to see the creek. Sinnary got out of the car to open the gate, saying that he should do it in case there were "animals" around (aka, animals, including lions, on the ground getting a drink, or leopards, in the trees, waiting for an animal drinking to stop paying attention so it could become a meal). I thought "great, the one guy who knows how to drive stick is now out of the car, fabulous." Though I knew the mechanics of driving stick, I had only tried it once, with limited success, and didn't really want to be tested having to drive out of a creek with a mauled professor and a lion on my heels. Sinnary opened the gate without incident though, hopped back in the car, and gunned it to make it through the mud. We crossed the creek and came to a violent halt, the engine dying. "Woah," the three students said when our tires came to a halt and started to bog down. "Well," said Sinnary in his hesitant Sudanese accent, "I think...that...you all...will....have to spend the night here." I could hear the laughter in his words, but couldn't help but wonder how we were going to get out without calling another car from the camp to tow us out. Even then, we'd have to wait 40 minutes or so, and by then it would be dark, and we were basically sitting bait in the middle of the creek. More dangerous would be to leave the car and go on foot. That's the first thing they taught us in Africa - never leave the car! Sinnary glanced over his shoulder. "You really....should...put up....the, ahh...roof hatches now.'' The roof hatches! We scrambled to get them back into place, locking the rubber nubs of the hatches securely into the metal roof latches. "So, uh, what now Sinnary?" I asked. "Well. I guess I will try and put the four wheel drive on." This required getting out of the car and switching a latch on each of the back tires. Though I thought it was dangerous, I figured he was the old hand at it and sat back to watch, my hand fumbling around my field guides, binocs, lenses and cameras for my leatherman, which would offer us little protection, though it was better than nothing. I watched from the backseat for animals, while Kristen and Patrick kept an eye on things. Sinnary waded out through the creek, which by now was knee deep with spring rain, and climbed up the bank to close the gate. He then slid back down to the tires and flipped the switch. With a quick glance over his shoulder, Sin leapt back into the land cruiser, and turned the keys. With some hesitation the engine sprang to life. He gunned the accelerator and we were jolted from creek bed to river bank in about 3 seconds. "HA HA!" Sinnary laughed victoriously. We shot onto the burned grassy plain where the sun was just setting. I turned back to look at the sinister dark hole in the forest from which we had just emerged. I imagined pairs of glowing eyes staring back at mine saying "almost, almost, almost."

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