Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Kenya 2011: Masai melodrama

If you randomly stopped 10 people on the street and asked them to describe "native Africans," you would probably hear something about spears, brightly-colored robes, people who can jump high into the air, and cattle-herders. All of these are characteristics of the Masai, who, whether we know it are not, probably form the mental image that a majority of us conjure up when we think of African tribespeople:

(Two Masai warriors on a rocky outlook. One neat thing about the Masai is that almost all of them still wear their traditional robes/blankets--not to put on a show for the tourists, but just because that's what they prefer. If you are standing on a promontory, you can easily spot them miles in the distance because the reds and oranges of the blankets are so much brighter than anything else in the scenery.)

The Masai are known for being fierce warriors, using their ubiquitous spears to attack rival tribes and wild animals alike; in the past, each young warrior was expected to kill a lion in order to prove his manliness and worth (current lion population numbers now make this nearly impossible, though apparently some of the less conservation-minded individuals still attempt the feat).

From the moment we had arrived at our Masai-run campground the night before, we were being watched over by locals, albeit often at a distance. This was partly due to the fact that they wanted to keep us safe from wild animal attacks in the middle of the night, since that wouldn't be very good for repeat business. Likewise, it was possible that we posed a threat to the wildlife from whom they made their money. However, it is also true that neighboring Masai tribes do still fight with each other, and on the off chance that any violence might erupt during our visit, they wanted to stay close to us.

Although that sounds unnerving, I never once felt threatened or frightened, and the Masai were nothing but gracious and friendly throughout our entire visit. However, our more experienced and knowledgeable drivers were definitely edgier during our stay on Masai land; having lived in Kenya their entire lives and visited Masai areas previously, they were more aware of the possibilities than the rest of us were. Most of our visit was organized and led by one Masai in particular, named Niksun (pronounced "Nixon"). When around us, he was particularly un-threatening, with an almost permanent smile on his face and a propensity to break into song and dance at any moment. Niksun was one of the biggest hams I have ever met. He was often accompanied by his half brother, whose name sounded like "Cindy," though I'm sure it was spelled differently (his full name was actually "Cindy-song"). The two of them shared the same mother but different fathers, due to a custom among the Masai whereby men in the same age class are allowed to share each other's wives; when one warrior wants to visit another's spouse, he simply puts his spear outside the door of the woman in question so that her husband will know not to enter and interrupt any private activities. Masai families, as a consequence, are full of half-siblings that are recognized as such without any stigma. This sounds rather remarkably liberal until you think about it from the perspective of the wives, who have absolutely no say in the matter; Masai women are treated notoriously poorly, despite the fact that it is their handiwork (on jewelry and fabrics) that brings in a good portion of all income made from tourists.

On our 11th day in Kenya, we rose early so that Niksun and his brother could take us on a walking tour of Masai land. We had to drive about 45 minutes to get to our destination, which was part of an area occupied by Niksun's tribe. On the way, we had a remarkable view of the sunrise, which was probably the most spectacular one I have ever seen. You could actually watch the sun inching up above the horizon bit by bit. I wanted to grab my camera to take a video of the whole process, but I just couldn't tear my eyes away until it was over, after the sun had suddenly burst away from the horizon in a little explosion of light:

(A Kenyan sunrise. My husband later informed me that Africa is infamous for its spectacular solar activity. I can see why.)

The Masai, like most agrarian and herding people, had been up for quite a while before sunrise, and by the time we arrived many of them had gathered at the creek and nearby hot spring in order to do laundry and take a bath. Niksun was excited to take us down to the water's edge so that we could feel how hot the springs were; as we rounded the corner we ran into a mostly-naked Masai herder rushing back into his undies. Obviously word hadn't gotten around to everyone that there would be visitors on this morning.

The remainder of the walk took us across fairly open land, which is why we had arisen so early--there was no shade to be found under the open, sunny skies, and we wanted to be done with the walk before it got too miserably hot. We were supposed to separate into two groups: One that would take a "short" walk and one that would take a "long" walk, though neither of those distances was precisely defined. It turned out that both walks were fairly lengthy, since our Masai guides stopped every few steps in order to do some sort of demonstration or another. Sometimes it was singing, other times dancing, at one point there was a bow and arrow shooting contest, and later in the morning they arranged a traditional "warrior training" exercise for the males to perform while the females looked on and, presumably, swooned in admiration.

As you can probably discern from my tone, I was not loving the guided tour. I think it is admirable for a people to find a way to earn money from tourists in order to help preserve their otherwise traditional way of life, but I do not think it is necessary to completely sell out. Niksun and his brother were going a little overboard in their performance, and I thought that it seemed pretty fake. Since I am not that familiar with the "real" Masai culture, I couldn't make a full comparison between what we were seeing and what was more traditional. What I could do was imagine how I would feel if I went to a reservation in the US and saw similar behavior from Native Americans--another group renowned for being fierce, stern, and proud. Say what you will about Native American casinos, at least the people owning and operating them still have some dignity, which was definitely lacking from our Masai guides. It is also possible to learn something about Native American culture by, say, visiting a powwow. Even Jamie Oliver--as big an outsider as you can imagine--was able to learn about traditional Navajo ways when he visited tribal elders during his food tour of the US. During our visit with the Masai, on the other hand, we saw much but learned very little; our guides were extremely good at being evasive and providing answers that didn't really answer anything at all. It was, in many ways, disappointing.

On the up side, I spent much of the walk talking to Enoch, one of the two Kenyan biologists who accompanied us during our travels. Though not Masai himself, Enoch had grown up in a village not far from Masai land. In the past, he had worked extensively with the Masai in order to find out more about the ins and outs of their culture in an effort to develop practical conservation and management plans that allowed them to preserve their traditions while also facilitating conservation in Masai areas. Enoch was incredibly knowledgeable about the Masai and about the complexities they face in daily life--as cattle herders no longer able to drive their herds along old routes to historic grazing areas, as warriors and lion-hunters asked to be peaceful and preserve the same species that are attacking their cows and, occasionally, their tribespeople. I learned far more from Enoch than I was able to glean from either of our guides.

(The students watching a performance by Niksun and his brother.)

Of course, any walk in Kenya inevitably involves some good birds, and we did add a few species to the trip list. The best avian encounter occurred when I was standing up on a ridge with only two other people, the rest of the group having wandered off with the guides. A black-chested snake-eagle crested the ridge above us and glided down over where we were standing and then on into the valley below. For a good 30 seconds, it was practically at our eye level; we could not only see its plumage but also get an idea of its sleek, deadly power. One amazing thing about Kenya, from a birder's perspective, is the steady supply of large, dramatic birds of prey; it was possible to have an encounter like this nearly every day. Towards the end of the walk, we circled around a small pool of water near the hot spring. Not only were there herons at the water's edge, but also five hammerkops:

(Unfortunately, this awesome picture of a hammerkop is not mine. Thanks to http://dic.academic.ru/dic.nsf/ruwiki/250030 for the image.)

I had only ever seen these birds before in a zoo, so I'd not even realized that they were wading birds at all. It was great to see them in the wild, and learn a little of their life history to boot.

We arrived back at the camp in time for lunch, which was absolutely awesome. Someone had gotten a bag of enormous (= melon-sized) avocados, so the chefs had made a huge bowl of what was, essentially, guacamole (that most traditional of African dishes). This accompanied crunchy fried potatoes (kind of like French fries made from whole new potatoes) and a tropical salad. It was some of the best food we'd had in a while, and we all gorged ourselves until we felt ill. Unfortunately, I soon realized that my upset stomach was not as a result of too much food, but my endless mysterious illness, which was rearing its ugly head again. I was so nauseous that I ended up skipping the second planned activity of the day, a visit to a Masai village to find out the more domestic details of the locals' way of life. Many of the instructors were dreading this particular outing, since the ones during previous years had not always gone well--they were an extension of the cheesy tour we'd had that morning, with the addition of salespeople ferociously hawking Masai products.

Thus, some of the others regarded me with jealousy as I retreated to the Simba to rest up for a while. I awoke from my nap after a couple of hours and relocated to my porch, from which I could watch woodpeckers and barbets hunting for insects in the grass. I also encountered a small lizard of some sort who obviously was living under my porch. One of the other instructors who had also stayed behind came to join me, and we sat and chatted until the students came back. According to their descriptions, the visit to the village had gone quite well; they'd been greeted with some traditional dancing and other ceremonial displays, and most of them had the face paint to prove it. One of the girls had bought an entire Masai ensemble so that she could wear it to a fancy dress party after her return to the UK; another had permanently swapped scarves with one of the Masai warriors, which was jokingly (?) referred to as an informal marriage (there was an awful lot of talk about marriages during this period of our trip, and I could never quite tell where "joke" merged into "reality"). I was glad to hear that the visit had gone so well, but I was also happy to have sat it out--I was really starting to feel drained by all the stomach problems.

In fact, even though I'd had quite a long nap in the middle of the day, I had a pretty early night again. First, I chatted with the other instructors for a while in the bar, where we watched the students dancing with the Masai guides to hip-hop music; it would be difficult to think of a more incongruous image than that clash (or lack thereof) of very different cultures. Before heading to bed, I took a brief stroll around the campsite to look for bush babies, which many of the students had spotted the night before:
(A bush baby in a rare daytime sighting. Thanks to http://www.treknature.com/gallery/Africa/Botswana/photo26082.htm for the photo.)

These little nocturnal tree-loving mammals can be spotted by their eye-shine; even from 100 m away I could see their glowing orange embers up in the canopy. The two I found were sitting in the branches happily munching away at leaves. One of the other instructors later spotted them in the midst of relocating to another tree; apparently they hopped along the ground like little kangaroos. Just another of the weird and wonderful things to be found all over Kenya.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Kenya 2011: From mountain to Mara

I happened to wake up relatively early on the morning after our trip to Mount Kenya. Except for the cooks bustling around in the kitchen area, and the baboons making their constant racket in the treetops, the camp was fairly still and quiet. I decided to be indulgent and treat myself to my second hot shower in two days--water temperature was dependent on how many other people were simultaneously draining the resources of the hot water tank (which, incidentally, was heated 24-7 by a live fire that was built up from whole logs that were dragged over by camp staff). Since I didn't know what our living quarters would be like at the next camp (fewer showers? more showers? a private residence?!), I figured I'd take advantage of the fact that I had the entire bathroom to myself. Not surprisingly, I found that it was much more comfortable to take a dawn shower in hot water than in the normal tepid-to-cold temperature with which I had been making do.

Unfortunately, that was the high point of the next several hours of my day. When it came time to pile into the vans and begin our long day on the road, I was assigned to a bus group with not one, but two sick students. Both of them had been dealing with some sort of stomach bug for pretty much the entire trip. One of them was on the mend, but still wanted to be positioned next to a bus door in case she needed to make a quick exit. The other was still fairly under the weather, and asked (demanded) that she sit up front next to the driver in order to minimize stomach trauma and help prevent any embarrassing illness-related accidents. Now, I am not a heartless person, but I was feeling a bit unwell myself, and on top of this I get carsick. I was incredibly displeased to find myself stuck in the middle seat in the middle of the van, where there was quite a lot of swaying and very little leg room. All the other instructors told me I should just tell the sick students to suck it up, and take the front seat for myself, but on the off chance that someone might end up vomiting (or worse) inside the bus, I did not want to be responsible.

Needless to say, I was very glad when we finally stopped for lunch, so I could get out and stretch my legs. Yet again, we had pulled over to a curio shop, and I did a bit of browsing while waiting for lunch to be prepared (I was still looking, in vain, for one of the little warthog carvings that I'd stupidly passed up at the first curio shop we'd visited). I stumbled across a beautiful pair of serving spoons that I ended up paying way too much for; I managed to bargain the guy down a little bit, but not nearly enough. I knew I was being taken advantage of, but I wanted the spoons and I just wasn't feeling well enough to haggle more intensely, so I gave in. Part of the reason I was asked to pay so much was that the store owners claimed the spoons were made from ebony, which they weren't--and it's a good thing, since ebony has been extremely over-harvested. It is a common technique among African artisans to craft things from lighter woods, then use boot polish and ash to color them so they can be passed off as ebony. Most of the time, you can be fairly certain that the black wooden trinkets you're buying are fakes. I have since proven the fake-ness of my spoons by (inadvertently) scrubbing off a bit of black while wiping them off, revealing their inner whiteness.

Late in the afternoon, we made a second stop to withdraw cash and buy groceries before entering the virtual remoteness of the Masai Mara (remote, that is, if you are looking for an ATM, but not if you are looking for a cell phone signal, oddly enough). We were dropped off at a curio shop where we could use the toilet, but then we walked down the street to visit the bank and grocery store. This was the first time we had been allowed to walk around a Kenyan town freely--normally we drove everywhere. Not only were we not driving, but we also were permitted to splinter up into smaller groups, rather than walking in a huge, safe herd of people. I had become so used to having protection around me at all times, either in the form of vehicles or people, that I almost felt naked strolling down the sidewalk. It was nice to feel that we had a bit of freedom--that is, until we were spotted by the local trinket salespeople. They descended upon us ravenously, like a flock of pigeons who have located a cache of bread crumbs left out in the park. It turned out that we were very tasty bread crumbs. The salespeople were mostly hawking jewelry--the beaded bracelets and necklaces for which the Masai are famous (they are strangely similar to the handiwork of Native American bead artisans). The amazing thing was how ridiculously cheap things were--easily a tenth the price of similar products that we'd seen previously in the curio shops. Students started buying like it was their job--I saw people walk away wearing three, four, five new pieces of jewelry. In their defense, not only was the jewelry ridiculously cheap (each piece no more than 1-2 pounds given the exchange rate), but it was also difficult to keep the salespeople away from you. Even if you did cave in and purchase something, they would immediately try to get you to buy something more, or they would rotate around so that as soon as one salesperson was gone, another was up in your face. I won't quite say that it was harassment, but it was definitely close. There was constantly a handful of jewelry being thrust in your face, with someone saying "This one?" or "Over here!" If you did manage to find a bit space for a moment, there was inevitably someone lingering nearby, watching you, ready to recapture your attention with an "I'm over here!" or "Here I am!" as though you'd accidentally wandered off and were trying to find your way back. It was intense.

Although we briefly lost some of the salespeople as we walked up to the grocery store--the streets were too crowded for them to hound us all the way there--they did eventually manage to find us and resume their efforts. Outside the grocery store, one of the male sellers inquired about how many cows it would take to purchase one of our students as a wife. I am fairly certain that the conversation was all in jest, but I think all of us wondered if maybe, just maybe, he was serious. Our group leader gently steered the discussion away from the specifics of the student's bride price to the generalities of marriage among the Masai. We found out a typical bride price (20-50 cows, a bit less than the 200 our group leader said our student would cost), how the price was paid, how long it took, and other interesting and surprising details about Masai weddings (such as, for instance, that it is permissible to live together as husband and wife even before the entire bride price has been paid, as long as there has been a "down payment," and additional payments are made in installments).

When we arrived at our campsite an hour later, there appeared to be an intense storm rolling in behind us, so we hurried to get tents up before the deluge hit. The ground was covered with huge acacia thorns, some of which were 2-3 inches long; more than one student sustained a foot injury in the rush to wrangle the tents into place.

(A distant view of the campsite and its lethal acacias. When we first arrived, I was peering up into the branches in search of birds, when I happened to spot two giant bats snuggling together while hanging upside-down from the branches. I didn't realize it, but we had some serious bat-lovers in our group; they came over and determined that these specimens were yellow winged bats. They were quite hefty animals, with impressively large ears. I was proud of myself for spotting them, especially since they earned me some serious kudos.)

In addition to having space for tents, the campsite also had seven or eight cabins, which were assigned to the instructors and the two sick students. From the outside, the cabins didn't look like much, but looks were definitely deceiving. When I approached mine, the "Simba," here is what I saw:

("Simba" cabin. It's actually a permanent tent made from thick canvas. It is situated on a cement platform in back and a wooden porch in front; there is a second layer of waterproof canvas forming a canopy over top the roof of the tent. The green squares in the wall are all mesh windows and look in to the bedroom/living room; the white part at the back is the wall to the private toilet/shower area.)

But when I opened the flaps to go inside, I found a hardwood floor, Persian-style rugs, and regular furniture. Best of all, there was even a private bathroom, so I had my own toilet and shower area, complete with hot water (!):

(The inside of my tent/cabin. I slept in the bed on the right so I could take advantage of the mosquito netting, though I did not encounter any blood-suckers the entire time we were in the Mara. However, I did encounter some sort of mystery mammal, which I did not see in the flesh but whose presence I inferred by the gifts it left me in between the sheets of my bed--some poo samples and a nice little nest of shed fur. I decided to sleep in my sleeping bag on top of the comforter.)

(A view into the private bathroom, which was separated from the main living area by a flap that could be raised or lowered.)

As soon as I saw the Simba, I knew it would prove to be the nicest place that I stayed in during the entire trip in Kenya. It was a real shame that it was one of only two places where I would be without my husband, since it would have been fun to enjoy the luxury together (also, much more comfortable in comparison to the other places where we had to share space). I took a small wander around outside my front door, looking at the birds off my porch and enjoying the view as the dramatic weather rolled in:

(In the field behind the fence, we could see wildebeest and several types of antelopes. In the middle of the night some of the other students and I heard some snuffling outside our tents, which we suspect may have been aardvarks, whose scrapes had been found in the vicinity. We also heart some dramatic yipping/howling sounds from hyenas and possibly also jackals.)

Because we'd arrived at the camp relatively late in the day, dinner would be a long time coming, since the cooks needed to unpack all their supplies before beginning the preparations. By 7 PM or so, I was already feeling exhausted and I knew there was no way I could manage to wait until dinner (which ended up being ready at around 11:30 PM). On top of the sleepiness, I was also still dealing with the mystery stomach illness; I had managed to nibble on my usual Snickers bar earlier in the day, but that was about it. Rather than force myself to stay up for a cooked meal I knew I would only peck at, I decided to treat myself to a little evening in. I grabbed a cup of tea from the kitchen tent, put some music on my iPod, whipped out my novel, and lay in bed eating crackers with peanut butter. Not very exciting, but certainly an improvement over being scrunched up in the van, riding down a bumpy road, as I had been all day. Even better was going to sleep around 8:30 or 9 and getting a full 8 hours of sleep before our early morning the following day.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Kenya 2011: Mount Kenya

In the run-up to our trip to Kenya, I had a few moments when I wondered whether I would be able to deal with the physical difficulties of the country. After all, I get car sick, I get migraines, I feel terrible if I don't get a full night of sleep, and I have a sensitive stomach. Over our first week or so, though, I'd managed to avoid any signs of carsickness, I hadn't gotten any bad headaches, my body had adjusted fairly well to our extremely early mornings and long days; my stomach was playing up a little, but not too much. I seemed poised to make it out of the country unscathed. However, there was one hurdle that I had not yet leaped: Mount Kenya.

By the time we made our way to Mount Kenya, the outing had achieved almost mythic proportions. My husband and his students had gone up the mountain on their second day in the country, before they had become acclimated to the high elevation. As a result, their hike was difficult, to say the least. All of their moaning and groaning made our students quite wary, and I will admit that I felt a little nervous, myself. After all, both my back and knees are chronically sore as a result of my track & field days, and my usual form of exercise is a 3-mile walk along a fairly flat track. I wasn't sure how--or even whether--I would endure a 25-km (15 mile) hike up a mountain, carrying a heavy bag along the way. But I am nothing if not stubborn, and a small (masochistic) part of me was looking forward to the challenge.

The outing required a very early morning because we wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to make the long trek. We were up at 5 in order to reach the gates by 7:30, which enabled us to see a lovely view of the distant mountain as the sun was rising:

(The day's first rays hit Mount Kenya, poetically dubbed, by my husband, "the nipple of Kenya.")

Originally, I had intended to play it safe and walk towards the middle or back of the group; I figured if I parceled out my energy throughout the day, I would be less likely to crash and burn. Unfortunately, whether by chance or design, I found myself surrounded by all the other instructors; we obviously needed to redistribute ourselves in order to give all students access to a faculty member. So, I sucked it up and picked up my pace, huffing and puffing up the hills until I got to the front of the pack. As I was walking in overdrive, I did find myself quite out of breath and dreading each turn of the bend, lest it bring me to another ascent. After a while, though, as we settled into a consistent pace, the going became much easier. Just as I used to find a rhythm when I was running a race, I found a nice, calm pattern of breathing and timed it to my footsteps; after a while, I became rather mesmerized by my own percussion. It's just as well that I was distracted, since there weren't really too many animals to see. We could hear them all around us--birds and monkeys and tree frogs, particularly--but only occasionally did we see anything darting amongst the branches.

As we walked, we were constantly avoiding buffalo droppings, some of which were quite fresh. There were a couple times when we encountered much smaller poo. Our guide assured us that these were all leopard deposits, which caused much excitement amongst the students; they were desperate to have a cat sighting, but had hitherto been eluded. Speaking of our guide, he was exactly what you would expect for a person who walks up a mountain on almost a daily basis--terse, wiry, no-nonsense; he almost seemed like a character out of a movie. Like many of our local guides, he was astonishingly good at identifying things after catching only the briefest glimpse or hearing the shortest snippet of vocalization. He was obviously used to dealing with people who tried to hike up the mountain even though it was a little too physically demanding for them; he was constantly waving everyone back behind him so that we couldn't exceed his pace, and he often encouraged people to keep drinking water in order to prevent dehydration.

One of the things I was most worried about was altitude sickness; I'm so sensitive to all sorts of environmental and climatic changes that I figured there was no way I could avoid it. Symptoms of altitude sickness vary, but include dizziness, headache, nausea, and tingling in the extremities (from lack of oxygen). To my surprise, I did not experience any of these problems at any point in the day. It wasn't until our ride home that I heard someone mention that she'd suffered from pins and needles in her fingers; other than that, most of our students seemed to have weathered the elevation quite well.

Our day was split into two parts. The first was the walk up to the Met(eorological) Station, at just over 3000 m, and the second was a post-lunch walk up to the vertical bog at approximately 3500 m. We found ourselves arriving at the Met Station sooner than we expected, and after having suffered much less physical pain than we'd all been anticipating. I think we all felt pretty proud of ourselves for not only surviving the trip, but also doing so in good spirits. Unsurprisingly, we had a long round of photos at the Met Station sign, since everyone wanted evidence of their successful physical exertions:

(The obligatory group photo at the Met Station sign. I am on the far left. You can tell from my posture that I'm feeling pretty proud of myself. Obviously, this was taken before the second part of the hike, after which I was a bit more droopy.)

Even though I was feeling fairly peppy during our hike, I could tell that my tummy troubles were lingering. I had almost no appetite, but because we were doing such strenuous physical exercise, I forced myself to eat a regular lunch--the last thing I wanted was to faint from low blood sugar while I was 7 miles away from the main gate. The best part of lunch was when I sneaked away from the group and did a little birding on my own. I found a huge group of montane white-eyes foraging amongst the branches, as well as some remarkable little wren-like birds called Hunter's cisticolas, darting in and out of the undergrowth and making much more noise than you would think possible for something so small.

The second stage of the hike was immediately more difficult than the first stage, and it probably didn't help that we were all walking with full stomachs. Not only was the climb steeper, but we were also at such a higher elevation that the lower oxygen level was more evident. It was much harder to find that nice breathing rhythm from the first stage, since it was constantly getting faster and more labored.

The whole point of this second part of the journey was to see the transition areas between different habitat types. It was amazing how quickly the habitat around us was changing; the lush montane forest was being replaced by the open, rocky bog, and it seemed as though every few steps we took moved us through another zone of plant species that weren't found anywhere else except in that narrow band of elevation around the mountain. All our concentration was required to scramble up the prominent boulders, and conversations slowly started to ebb as everyone focused all their energy on making the difficult climb. Almost all the students decided to participate in the walk from the Met Station to the bog; at that point, a smaller group budded off to really push it to the limit and head up to the next transition zone, between the bog and the alpine habitat. Pretty soon that group splintered, also, until only about a half dozen people were left. Because I am too stubborn to give up in the face of a challenge, I was one of those crazy half dozen people. The physical effort required was immense--it was like walking up an endless staircase, with higher and steeper steps than any you have ever encountered in real life. I could hear nothing else except my own gasping breaths; I was breathing in for every single footstep. I kept my eyes down on my feet, not only because I couldn't bear to see how much more climbing awaited me, but also because I knew that if I slipped I just wouldn't have the energy or the speed to prevent myself from getting hurt.

The whole time we were climbing, I couldn't help but reminisce on my days as a runner, because track and cross country races were the only frame of reference I had for such an intense physical effort. Climbing up through the vertical bog on Mount Kenya was more strenuous than the hardest, longest, worse race I ever ran--harder even than the last 20 m of the half-marathon I ran, when I had to finish the race by forcing my exhausted body up a ramp. The most difficult aspect was definitely the lack of oxygen--I could feel my throat and lungs burning, though I will admit that it was strangely pleasurable to feel my heart beating so sturdily and emphatically (I was glad to find out I am not so out of shape after all!). After a while, though, the muscles in my calves were sore from all the rock climbing. But, just when I thought I couldn't manage another step, we finally arrived at the rocky outcropping we'd selected as our destination. Our reward for the effort was a sense of satisfaction and, of course, the view:

(The few, the proud, the idiots who set the day's elevation record. Also present were one of the other instructors, as well as the person taking this photograph--the only other female who lasted to the top. So, of approximately 50-some people, 8 made it all the way.)

During the last 5-10 minutes of our climb, a light mist had started falling. It felt quite nice given how hot we were, but it was strange to have experienced such a shift in weather--it had been sunny and hot when we left the Met Station, but now that we were farther up the mountain, it was cool and raining. Even higher up the mountain, the precipitation was falling in the form of snow; by the time we left at the end of the day, there were white peaks where previously there had been none. Off in the distance, a serious thunderstorm was brewing, and after we saw two massive forks of lightning streak through the sky and touch down on a neighboring peak (not much higher than our own), we thought it was a good time to head back down.

As physically demanding as the walk up the mountain was, the walk down far exceeded it--for me, at least. My old-lady knees work okay during an ascent, but during a descent they scream in displeasure. In order to try to ease their pain, I started doing strange things with my gait, tiring my calf muscles and leading to quite a bit of shakiness in my lower legs. Luckily, the worst of the downward hike was the initial bit through the boulders of the vertical bog; once we hit the Met Station, it was much gentler and more comfortable for me. There seemed to be a widespread feeling of good cheer after we returned from the bog, with people feeling buoyed by the success of their endeavors. Unfortunately, our celebrations were a bit premature, as we still had several more miles to walk before we reached the park gates. Little by little, it got quieter as people just started focusing on reaching the finish line. I was definitely back in my zone; by the time we arrived at the sign indicating that we only had 3 km left, I was ahead of almost everyone else. I couldn't wait to get back to the buses. I was so ready to stop walking. I didn't even want to sit; I just didn't want to have to keep moving. Little blisters were forming between my big toe and first little toe, and I wanted the pain to end. Even though I was still feeling nauseous, I couldn't stop daydreaming about food--risotto with ham and peas, cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza, fries, fettucine alfredo...basically, all the unhealthy things I usually never eat. They all sounded delicious. My body was screaming for calories.

At some point, eventually, we crested a rise from which we could see the buildings at the gate, and I felt my heart lift. When I finally walked through the gate, I couldn't resist doing a little arm pump in the air to celebrate my victory. And then I grabbed a seat on the nearest bus so I could hurry up and get back to my tent and collapse.

Actually, I didn't collapse. What I did do was lie on my back for a few minutes, then run to the showers to take advantage of the hot water before everyone else came back and stole it. After that, shockingly enough, I decided to take a bit of a stroll around the campsite and shoot some pictures. I wanted to document the wild poinsettia, which looked very different from the ones on sale at the grocery store during the holiday season:

(Poinsettia originally comes from Mexico, so who knows what it was doing in Kenya.)

I nearly had a heart attack when a large male baboon came bursting out of the bushes in front of me while I was taking photographs. Just when you let your guard down, Kenya throws a little surprise at you to keep you on your toes.

I also wandered over to the lodge to take a picture of their replica of Mount Kenya:

(Non-life-size replica of Mount Kenya in front of the lodge. I couldn't quite pinpoint where I'd climbed to during the day.)

I went back to the lodge later for our pub quiz night. The students broke up into groups and had to answer various biologically-oriented questions. The competition was fierce, even though we had not yet identified the prize (in fact, I still don't know what the winners received). Although there was a lot of boisterousness at the beginning of the evening, the long day eventually caught up with everyone. It wasn't long before we all started limping home for some much-needed rest.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Kenya 2011: Solio Reserve

During my flight to Kenya, while I was browsing through the in-flight magazine, I noticed that a Kenyan lodge, Solio, had been listed as one of the most luxurious places to stay when visiting Africa. Imagine my surprise when I later referred to our itinerary and noticed that we would be visiting Solio--albeit not as lodgers (I doubt the University of Exeter would have been willing to pay the $600 or so required per person per night), but as day trippers.

We left camp early so we could take the long back entrance to Solio, which is not only a lodge but also the most famous rhino preserve in the country. In fact, the land upon which Solio stood had originally been set aside solely for the purpose of providing protected space for African wildlife; the lodge was only added within the last year or so in order to give the preserve a means of income for keeping their conservation efforts going. Thus, while we were hoping to see a few rhinos during our visit, our main purpose was to go and chat with the managers about how they balanced conservation and capitalism.

The benefit of taking the long back entrance was that it passed through miles of completely open grassland, spotted by the occasional lonely tree or line of fencing; we also periodically passed herds of cattle, which were another money-making part of the Solio enterprise. The habitat was perfect for open-country bird species, such as lapwings, bustards, secretary birds, and kestrels. The down side of taking the back entrance was that, to get there, we passed over the worst--meaning bumpiest and most pothole-y--roads we had yet encountered. It was a huge relief to finally get to the gate that let us into the reserve and its much nicer, flatter dirt roads. In some cases, the relief was literal, since we also had the chance to stop off and use an outhouse before our long drive commenced.

To the credit of our students, this was one of the only occasions that I ever heard anyone actually complain about the facilities (or lack thereof) in Kenya. It's true that this particular outhouse was pretty unpleasant--it was completely made of wood, including the rickety slats over the hole in the ground, and the entire thing was leaning at about a 15-degree angle; the slant was so severe that the door could no longer close, giving the user a lovely pastoral view of the fields beyond. Despite all this, the major complaint among the students was the smell, which they thought was rather severe. Maybe my bladder was so insistent that I no longer cared, or maybe my olfactory equipment had already been permanently damaged by all the other outhouses we'd already visited, but I didn't think this particular toilet was any worse than the others we'd had to use previously. In any case, when we made another toilet stop later in the drive, most students showed a marked preference for simply squatting behind a bush, and I'm not sure I can totally blame them.

After several days of only adding a few new species to my bird list, Solio was a breath of fresh air. One of the most spectacular sights was a group of 20 or so lesser kestrels sitting together on a row of fencing. Usually rather solitary birds during their breeding season in Europe, these guys were happy to keep each other's company while wintering in Africa. Seeing one kestrel is always a treat, as they are such beautiful little birds; seeing almost two dozen together was priceless:

(Companionable lesser kestrels. Not only is this not my photo, but it is also not even taken in Kenya--we didn't see too many power lines where we were--but it illustrates a minor version of the kind of spectacle we saw in Solio. Thanks to http://planetearth.nerc.ac.uk/news/story.aspx?id=864 for the photo.)

Another incredible sighting was secretary birds; we saw both sexes, together and individually. The first time we ran across one, we had pulled up behind another bus that had stopped so everyone could investigate something off in the distance. We couldn't figure out what people were looking at. One of my students finally noticed a distant figure and said "What's that?! It's an animal that looks like a person...but it isn't!" The rest of us thought this was a pretty ridiculous description, but then when we finally found what she was looking at, we all had to agree; it was an animal that walked very similarly to a human, but was too skinny and horizontal to be one:

(Female secretary bird; if it were a male, it would have black plumes sticking up off the back of the head. Unfortunately, while we could see these well through the binoculars, we were way too far off to take any good pictures. Thanks to http://photos.igougo.com/pictures-photos-p569554-SECRETARY_BIRD.html for this photo.)

These guys are amazingly tall (up to 4 feet), and their movements can sometimes be surprisingly human. After this encounter, every tallish thing we saw in the distance was immediately suspected of being another secretary bird. In some cases, these sightings turned out to be cranes, storks, or herons; in other cases, they were people working out in the field, or even just fence posts.

By the time we finally entered the main part of the reserve--which was obvious because of all the fences and armed guards needed to keep poachers away from the rhinos--we were speeding along in order to make up time; we'd spent so many hours looking at birds that we were in danger of missing the rhinos, who were less active during the hottest part of the day. Shortly after we passed through our second (or third? there were so many) set of protective gates, the habitat became more rhino-friendly; there were large patches of trees and shrubs where browsers like the black rhino could find leaves to munch on, in addition to areas of grass that provided plenty of food for grazers like the white rhino. Almost immediately, we spotted individuals of both species, sending our drivers into a flurry of ridiculous activity. Even calm Peter suddenly tore off through the grassland in an effort to get close to the rhinos before they took off. Because we were driving off-track, I was terrified that we'd fall into a hole and break an axle (as has happened before on previous Kenya trips); it didn't even occur to me until later that we were also possibly trampling over all sorts of other animals in our haste, including snakes and birds and any other thing unlucky enough to be between us and the rhinos.

To be honest, I wasn't all that impressed by the sight of the rhinos, even though I know how rare they are (particularly the black rhinos). Again, I couldn't help but compare the experience to previous visits to zoos and wild animal parks, especially a recent experience I'd had at The Wilds in Ohio, where I'd fed a captive-reared rhino by hand and gotten the chance to touch its rough, dry hide. Since all the original Solio rhinos are imported, it's actually a fairly accurate comparison to make. When Solio was established as a reserve, it was ranch land devoted solely to domestic herds. All current game species were reintroduced there after the land was set aside for conservation purposes; black rhinos were imported all the way from South Africa, since overhunting in Kenya had demolished their local population numbers. The animals at Solio are more successful at breeding than elsewhere; the reserve now hosts several hundred individuals, a number that is much higher than the carrying capacity of the land. However, Solio periodically provides rhinos to other parks and reserves, and shortly after our visit they were scheduled to relocate many animals, thus easing the burden on the local habitat.

I was much more impressed by our fleeting view of a crowned eagle. This massive bird is the biggest eagle in Kenya, which is how we were able to identify it. All we saw of it was its tail and its massive talons grasping the branch on which it sat; soon after we trained our binoculars on its perch, it took off and flew low over the horizon, out of view. It was a shame we didn't get to see more, because it's a truly impressive animal; however, just a glimpse of its bulk was enough to make you feel awed.

Also awesome was the Solio lodge itself. We made our way there in order to have a Q&A with the manager, who takes care of the business aspects of Solio, and the game warden, who really is more of a security guard than a biologist. We sat around the lodge for about a half hour before the manager and warden showed up, giving us ample opportunity to enjoy the deck, the hammock, cold Cokes at the bar, and a couple of cranes who came up to eat at the bird feeder:

(Two grey crowned cranes eating seed off the rock table. They were pretty much completely unafraid of the 50 or so students sitting 15 feet away, furiously snapping photographs. Their crowns make them look a little goofy, but they move with incredible grace; it's a captivating sight. I only wish we could have been around when they were performing their courtship dances.)

I also liked the artwork in the lobby:

(Who knew dung beetles could look so classy?)

When the manager and warden arrived, they were very calm and gracious as students asked them all sorts of "hard" questions--most of them seemed to have made a decision beforehand that there was something not quite right about the reserve, so they wanted to catch the Solio people out in a lie. This was a judgmental attitude that I noticed throughout the trip and found very tiresome after a while. The students had a weird mixture of complete naivete and absolute cynicism, so that at the same time they thought they could come up with a perfect solution for all conservation problems, they also believed that all current seemingly perfect solutions were driven by darker designs. I'm sure this is true in some cases, but the students' unerring disbelief could be infuriating. In the case of Solio, at least, it seemed as though the people in charge were trying very hard to BE green while also MAKING green--which, after all, is a necessity for continuing to pay for everything that keeps the rhinos safe. We learned that a single rhino horn is worth about $75,000, which translates into an amount of Kenyan shillings that could keep an entire family fed for many, many years. It's no wonder that desperate people are willing to risk prison and even death in the off chance that they might get their hands on this precious commodity; the Solio team has to constantly think of new ways to improve and enhance their defenses.

What I found unbelievable was the layout of the guest quarters. The lodge was surrounded by separate buildings ("cottages") for guests, of whom only 12 could stay at any given time. Each cottage faced in the same direction as the Solio patio--out over an expanse of grassland where zebras, giraffes, antelope, and occasionally rhinos would come to graze. It was, unquestionably, a lovely view. However, guests' ability to see this view 24-7 was facilitated by having one entire side of the cottage made out of sheet glass; the bathroom, bedroom, and living room were all completely open on one side:

(The exterior of a Solio cottage. Thanks to http://www.thesafaricollection.com/gallery.aspx?property_id=1405 for the picture.)

I'm sure all Solio staff were instructed to never walk around to that side of the cottage, but even so, if I were a guest, I'm not sure I could ever relax enough to sleep or pee, knowing that at any time someone could wander into my yard and see everything I was doing. Then again, I don't make nearly enough money to stay in Solio for even just one night; maybe the people who can afford the experience are so used to paparazzi that they are used to such invasions of privacy.

Our visit to Solio lasted until mid-afternoon, at which point we made our long and bumpy way back home. I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in my tent, reading and checking in with my husband to see how his trip was going. I still wasn't feeling incredibly well, and had skipped yet another meal or two. By this point, I could tell that I had begun to lose weight as a consequence of the inedible cuisine and my own lack of appetite. I was feeling extremely grateful for the moment of inspiration that had prompted me to buy those Snickers bars in Naivasha; they had been my main source of fuel over the past couple days. I knew I would have to force myself to eat the next day, though, since I would need some calories in order to give me the energy to walk up Mount Kenya.

Later in the evening, we all trekked to the campsite lodge, where our trip leader had arranged for a local traditional dance group to come perform for us. I am not sure exactly what I was expecting, but I certainly did not anticipate seeing a fire-eater or dancing animals included in the act:

(The comedic part of the act--this guy was the biggest ham but he was also quite entertaining, and very talented. His body was nothing but lean muscle from all the contorting and balancing that he did. In addition to the fire-swallowing, he also did a routine where he balanced an empty bottle (or two) on a stick held in his mouth; he then replaced the bottle with a soccer ball.)

(A strange part of the evening during which the dancers came in wearing animal suits--a gorilla, another ape of some sort, an elephant, and an ostrich. They then grabbed audience members to dance with them; that was a recurring theme of the performance.)

Although these parts of the evening were perhaps the most memorable, the most notable were the bits where the group actually performed traditional songs and dances. The voice of the lead singer was absolutely amazing--captivating and crystal clear. It was difficult not to tap your feet to the rhythmic portions of the performance. As it turned out, much more than foot-tapping was encouraged--while the performers had periodically grabbed audience members to participate in their numbers, all of us were required to join in on the last song, which was a "circle dance" (kind of like a conga line looped around on itself). Almost everyone was reluctant when they first stood up, but by the end of the night people were laughing as they wiggled and stamped around. It was a good warm-up for the physical activity on schedule for the following day.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Kenya 2011: From Lake Naivasha to Mount Kenya

When I awoke on our seventh day in Kenya, I knew I had definitely crossed over from "mildly unwell" to "definitely sick," but I couldn't really pinpoint what was wrong with me. It felt vaguely like a migraine, except with more of the side effects than the headache itself. All I knew was that I could barely stand the thought of eating, let alone the actual act. Thus began several days of meal-skipping.

Nevertheless, when we stopped at the grocery store in Naivasha on our way out of town, I did run in and stock up on various supplies, including several bottles of Coke (to combat car sickness, should it become an issue), many Snickers bars (because even when you have no appetite, you have to give your body something to run on), tissues (my Western allergy pill wasn't enough to combat everything that Kenya was throwing at me), and toilet paper (because I'd had no idea just how few of our destinations would actually supply their own, causing my roll to quickly vanish!). We also swung by the bank in order to visit the ATM one last time before we entered no-man's-land. Outside, there was a Kenyan soldier carrying, in a very obvious manner, a very large gun. This was not the first time I'd seen armed patrolmen up close--they're all over the place in France, for instance, and they were quite prominent in some US airports shortly after 9/11--but it was the first time that it had ever given me pause. I'm not sure why it felt different here, but it definitely made me feel vulnerable to walk past him in order to visit the ATM; the irony is that he was stationed there to protect people like me, since any locals with burglary on their mind would be sure to pay attention to a white foreigner.

Soon enough, we were on our way again, driving towards a part of Kenya that contained habitat unlike any we'd previously been through. Shortly after we left Naivasha, we began climbing to higher elevations, into the fertile, wet, forest-covered mountains. At first I thought I must be seeing things, because I recognized some of the trees as cypresses and others as eucalyptus species, none of which are native to Kenya. It turned out that, though we were in a recognized/protected park area, there were also plots of land set aside to raise cash crops--such as timber. Another important cash crop in the area was tea:

(Kenyan tea plantation, as seen from our speeding bus.)

I know that Kenyan tea plantations have a terrible reputation (for paying workers ridiculously small sums of money for outrageous amounts of work), and I also know that introduced, agricultural crops are never as "good" for the environment as endemic species, but still I found the plantations quite beautiful to look at. That turned out to be a good attitude, given how many miles of them we passed through. The really amazing thing was when we'd pass workers out in the fields and see them meticulously harvesting leaves by hand, them tossing them into enormous baskets suspended behind their backs by leather straps wound around their foreheads. It is an indelible image for a tea drinker (or, at least, should be) and will ensure that I appreciate every single cup of tea that I brew from here on out. It also will ensure that I buy fair trade products, so that at least I can rest easier knowing that the local workers were paid a little bit more for their efforts on my behalf.

As we passed through this amazingly verdant mountain region, our new bus driver, Peter--we'd swapped buses that morning--pointed out all sorts of things he thought we'd find interesting. At first he was mainly concentrating on plants and animals, but after I started asking questions about culture, he also identified people, places, and practices. For instance, as we slowly made our way across a set of train tracks, I asked him why I had yet to see any trains running. He said that the trains in our region were not for passengers, but for goats, and that they only ran every once in a while. When they did, goatherds would load animals onto the train so that they could be shipped to markets in distant towns. The butchers there would slaughter the goats one by one, keeping the rest in a little herd out back until they needed new products to sell in their stores. I also learned about what kinds of animals the locals hunted for food (it's illegal to hunt many things, but of course that doesn't always stop people), and local names for plants. When we passed through a large market area, Peter explained how people without cars could get from distant villages into town in order to sell produce like pineapples, bananas, and mangoes (they take buses, and tie their boxes of fruit on top). At one point we passed someone driving along in a donkey cart, and Peter asked if anyone did that where I came from. I told him that almost nobody did anymore, but that there was a group of people called the Amish who were famous for doing everything without electricity, and who used carts/carriages pulled by horses or oxen. Peter was unfamiliar with "oxen"--it didn't occur to me that it was an uncommon animal in those parts. He also said that the Amish must only be found in small "villages." It was only then that I really thought about how amazing some of our Western towns and cities might be to people who were used to thinking on the scale of "villages" (Nairobi has approximately 3 million people, but it's the largest city in East Africa--the "towns" you pass through on a daily basis are much, much smaller than the typical Western equivalent).

Having Peter as our driver was great. Not only was he friendly and knowledgeable, but he also refrained from driving like a maniac. He was pretty much the exact opposite of our former bus driver, Joel. Joel may have been a fan of the Cleveland Indians, but that was pretty much the only good thing I could say about him. He constantly drove as though we had a gun shot victim in the back seat whose life depended on our getting to a hospital extremely quickly. He couldn't stand being behind anybody on the road, so we were always weaving in and out of lanes in order to pass slower vehicles. Joel also despised--despised--dust. I don't know how any African can hate dust and manage to not go crazy, because it is absolutely unavoidable. All the same, Joel did everything in his power to avoid exposure to dust. First and foremost, he tried always to be the first person to leave a place, so that he wouldn't have to drive behind someone and the dust they had kicked up from the road. This meant that we were sometimes barely able to look at certain animals before we were speeding off again. Secondly, he was constantly closing the windows--not just his window, but other people's windows--using the electronic controls. This wouldn't have been so bad if we'd had air conditioning, or if we weren't sitting in a metal box on wheels. I would rather be dusty than get heat stroke any day, but Joel didn't see things my way. There were also several times where we nearly hit animals--cows, goats, sheep, dogs--that didn't get out of the road quickly enough as Joel passed by. This includes animals that were in the middle of making an organized, shepherd-controlled crossing. Joel just laid on the horn and pressed down the accelerator, while the rest of us clutched our seats, squeezed our eyes shut, and tried not to get too miserably carsick. You can see why I was so relieved to make Peter's acquaintance.

Mid-way through the day, we stopped at a curio shop to eat our packed lunches and do a bit of shopping. Usually, these sorts of shops take cash only, but I noticed that this one took credit cards. Thus, I decided to pick out souvenirs while I had the opportunity to pay for them all on plastic. The place was enormous, filled with carvings, jewelry, fabrics, masks, bowls--the standard fare that we'd soon be seeing in all the curio shops where we stopped. As I wandered up and down the aisles, I soon realized that I was being followed. I tried to ignore my "tail," but eventually he started talking to me and I couldn't play deaf forever. What you soon realize after arriving in Kenya is that all white people are assumed to have money; because all the locals want that money, it is absolutely impossible to get by unnoticed. The whole time I was there, I kept wondering how white Kenyans go about their daily lives without being driven crazy by people mistaking them for tourists. In any case, my pursuer was one of the shopping assistants scattered throughout the store. At first he just made small talk, asking where I was from and what we were doing there, but then he started telling me all about the various wares that I was looking at. Initially I found it very disturbing to have someone up in my face while I was trying to shop--I have always hated being accosted by salespeople--but after a while I started to find it interesting. He knew what all the things were made of, what region they'd come from, and what their local names were, so in a way it was kind of useful. Also, it was such a big shop that you could easily pass by something that you wanted, without even noticing it; rather than wander aimlessly, I could ask to be taken to something. I was very surprised to find that I was actually enjoying myself.

(Beadwork calla lily. Earlier in the day, we'd passed several calla lilies growing by the side of the road, so I thought this would be a nice reminder of the journey. Also, it goes perfectly in one of the new vases my husband and I got as a wedding present.)

(My little hippo carving. I liked how he looked partially submerged. My only regret was that I did not also buy the warthog carving that I found at this curio shop. I thought I might have the chance to buy one elsewhere, but I was wrong--this was the only place we encountered that sold carvings of more "unusual" species. Now I know what to keep an eye out for next year!)

Eventually, once I'd picked out a slew of things for myself and other people back home, I was ready to check out. This was the moment I'd been dreading, since I knew that I was going to be quoted an absolutely ridiculous total that I was then supposed to haggle down to a more reasonable amount. I had never haggled before; I felt very uncomfortable at even the idea of doing it. All the Kenyan veterans had given me advice beforehand: Go into the deal with a clear idea of what you feel is reasonable to pay, start bidding at about half of that, and let it go up from there. However, the price that I was quoted on this occasion was, from the beginning, almost exactly what I thought was fair--I was buying four fabrics, a beadwork flower, a bracelet, and a small animal carving, all of which I could probably have had for about 8,000-10,000 shillings. I knew that I could have paid that tiny amount for the purchase, but I felt that it was worth about 16,000--if I were buying in the West, that's what I would have expected to pay. A part of me wanted to be a cheapskate and save as much money as I could, but another part of me thought, "You've got the money, 16,000 would be a fair price, and you're way better off than the shopkeepers and artisans, so just give them what you can." So when I was asked to pay 17,500, I was caught off-guard by how close it was to my mental limit; I asked the salesman to bring it down to 16,000, he returned with 16,500, and we called it a deal. All in all, I'd done a pretty abysmal job of haggling, but at least I'd given it a try. I was proud of myself for stepping out of my comfort zone. And, just as importantly, at least I didn't feel cheated by the whole transaction.

After a couple more hours of driving, we finally reached our camp at the base of Mount Kenya. Our first order of business was to set up our tents while it was still light out. I had a small one-person tent, so it wasn't long before I was finished moving in and ready to do a bit of birding around the campsite.

(Our campsite at the base of Mount Kenya. My tent is the beige and grey one in the middle of the shot; the pink mug on the cement bench around the tree is mine--I was making myself right at home.)

I didn't have to go far--about 20 feet away from my tent was a fence, just beyond which was a sharp slope down to a small creek (or tiny river--I'm not sure which). Predictably, this wet habitat had attracted several species of birds, all of whom were flitting about the highest branches of the trees, picking off insects and sucking nectar from flowers. There was also a raucous baboon troop running from one bank to the next, using a fallen log as a bridge. They liked to stay near the camp because they could plunder discarded food from the rubbish pile:

(Baboon rummaging amongst the rubbish.)

There were also some colobus monkeys, looking for all the world like gigantic, tree-climbing skunks. Later on in the evening, we knew we would encounter another interesting species for the first time--the tree hyrax. We had already seen rock hyraxes in Hell's Gate; they look similar to groundhogs (but are actually related to elephants, despite all appearance to the contrary). Their close relatives, tree hyraxes, are pretty much what you would expect--groundhog-looking animals that hang around in trees instead of rocks. Only a couple people ever actually saw them, tracking them down by pointing flashlights in the trees until they located hyrax eyeshine; however, absolutely everyone heard them. As soon as the sun goes down, the males begin vocal performances that last pretty much all night, though they are loudest just after dusk and just before dawn. The introduction sounds like a rusty gate or door being slowly opened, and I think it may be made during an intake of breath; the major part of the performance is definitely an exhalation, a loud shriek that sounds kind of like a screaming child or a stuck pig. I would imagine that it would be quite terrifying if you were unprepared for it, but we had all been warned. My husband and his students had stayed at this campsite prior to joining us at Lake Naivasha, and several people complained that they weren't able to sleep very well because of all the hyrax ruckus. However, I was beginning to droop after our incredibly long drive and my full day of battling the mystery illness. We were then forced to wait until 9 PM to eat dinner (not that I ate much). By the time I'd finished my food, I was so tired that I would have slept soundly even if a hyrax had climbed into my tent with me (which, thankfully, one didn't).

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Kenya 2011: Hell's Gate

On our next Kenyan walkabout, our day began even earlier, but our destination was much closer to home. For the first (and only) time during our visit, our morning drive lasted less than half an hour. We arrived at the Hell's Gate gate before the sun had fully risen, and in the murky morning light we were greeted with this sign:

(Confidence-inspiring sign at the entrance to Hell's Gate National Park.)

We saw several versions of this sort of sign during our time in Kenya; they ensure that you never grow complacent about sharing your space with (potentially) deadly creatures.

We had several goals during our trip to Hell's Gate. The first, and most basic, was to walk from one side of the park to the other in order to enjoy the wildlife. The second was to give the students a chance to conduct a population survey so that they could gain experience with the technique. The third was to "test drive," so to speak, the physical fitness of the students in order to get an idea of how they would fare when we made the much longer, more vertical, and higher-elevation trek up Mt. Kenya a couple days later.

In order to prepare the students for the wildlife survey, we first had to teach them the basic techniques, then explain what the goals and protocols were for the day's efforts. We did all this by the side of the road under a fairly spectacular sunrise over quite dramatic terrain:

(Students awaiting their herbivore sampling instructions at Hell's Gate.)

Needless to say, it was not easy to concentrate on what the instructors were saying. Luckily, I didn't need to do any lecturing, myself, so I was able to spend my time identifying three new bird species to add to my trip list. Looking back, I would say that this day marked the turning point of my birding in Kenya. By this point, we'd spent almost a week in the country and I'd flipped through my entire bird book several times each day; I was finally feeling a bit more acquainted with the different avian families, what they looked like, and where they might be found. When I identified the Hell's Gate species--two wheatears and one canary, for the record--I was feeling much more confident in my assessments, and didn't feel the need to double-check with someone else. This was a very good stage to reach, as it made birdwatching during the rest of the trip much more fun (and successful).

While the students continued to receive information from the other instructors, I sneaked off to use the toilet, which was a newly-installed flush toilet (!) in a little shack off a dirt track. As I walked, I looked down and noticed some very interesting footprints in the soil: several separate sets of canine feet pointed in the same direction I was going. The only canines likely to be in Hell's Gate were jackals (which are fairly smallish) and hyenas, who were probably the animals responsible for the tracks I was seeing. We hadn't yet seen any hyenas, so the tracks gave me hope that we might run across some during our long walk across the park. I also saw the prints of decent-sized birds, but those probably belonged to guineafowl, which seemed to pop up everywhere we went:

(A flock of guineafowl on the run. When they're moving quickly, they look like 2D cardboard cutouts of birds, rather than actual living animals. They have brilliantly blue heads and beautiful speckled plumage, which the lighting in this picture fails to capture.)

The trip across the park was 7 km (about 4.5 miles), which isn't really that long. When I walk for exercise, I manage about 3 miles an hour, which means that one could easily cross Hell's Gate within 2 hours. Unfortunately, the animal survey slowed things down incredibly--we took almost 5 hours to get to our destination at the far side of the park. This was partly because we encountered many groups of animals that needed counting, but also partly because the students were a little overzealous about being "correct." The quotation marks are there because it is never possible to be certain that you are accurately identifying and counting all animals, but the students were determined to achieve perfection. Crawling along at a snail's pace wouldn't have been so bad if there had been other exciting things to look at, but the park was fairly still and quiet; aside from the large groups of herbivores being counted, there wasn't much abroad. For not the first time during the trip, I heard from the other instructors that the avian diversity, if nothing else, was a bit lacking in comparison to that observed in previous years.

We nearly had an interesting encounter early on when we approached one of the park's big watering holes, to which the animals make daily treks, and around which they congregate in large numbers. A big male buffalo was snacking on the shrubbery on the near side of the waterhole, approximately 100 m off the side of the road. When you are on foot, with nowhere to hide, 100 m is much closer than you'd normally want to be to an animal that large and grumpy. Unfortunately for us, the wind was blowing from the buffalo towards us, meaning that, while he could see us, he was not able to smell us; this perplexed and disturbed him, so he couldn't really relax and, instead, seemed to be inching his way closer to us in an attempt to figure out what was going on. One of the other instructors and I rounded up the nearest students in order to form a single large unit, waited until the buffalo seemed a bit more relaxed, and pressed the pedal to the metal until we were around the bend and out of view. Luckily, as far as the buffalo was concerned, out of sight was out of mind, and we didn't have any further drama.

The one thing that Hell's Gate seemed to have no shortage of--other than blazing sunlight--was baby warthogs. Warthogs, like domestic pigs, have several young at once, and most of the time we saw at least 3 or 4 young trotting around with each set of parents; occasionally, multiple families appeared to combine forces, so we'd spy a couple sets of adults chaperoning an unruly group of the rambunctious youngsters. At one point, we saw a group of warthogs charging out of the trees, surrounded by equally anxious-looking zebras and gazelles. This seemed to be evidence of a nearby leopard, but we could never spot one anywhere (which is pretty standard, as far as leopards are concerned).

Perhaps the most notable feature of Hell's Gate is its dramatic topography, including towering cliff faces. One of these is much beloved by the local vultures, probably because the cliff receives the first rays of sun in the morning and is therefore a great place to sit and warm up before taking first flight. By the time we reached the cliff, most of the vultures had taken off, but a couple were sitting with outstretched wings and enjoying the view; I enjoyed my view, also, since it was the first time I was able to stop and really study the massive birds (my other encounter with them having been a bit of a blur on our way to see the lions). Even if there hadn't been any vultures left on the ledges, we would have known that it was their normal hangout--they'd left plenty of "whitewash" behind to mark their territory.

After what seemed like ages, we finally arrived at the picnic area on the far side of Hell's Gate. One of my colleagues who'd arrived a bit earlier had bought each of the instructors a cold bottle of Coke, and it tasted absolutely wonderful. I'd already eaten all my snacks during my walk, and I was absolutely starving. Those cold, fizzy calories definitely revived me and gave me the energy to begin the second phase of our visit to the park--walking the gorge. My husband's group had opted not to do the gorge walk, as they'd had a terrible time the previous year after serious flooding had made the path practically impassable. Although most of the walk was fine, there were some places that were a bit challenging, to say the least:

(Ascending a makeshift stick ladder. Imagine our dismay when we discovered that this path was not circular, but a dead end--meaning that we'd need to climb back down this rickety contraption.)

Towards the end, there were a couple places where two or more tall, strong guys were required to help hold, guide, or boost the rest of us. It certainly was a good way to become much more familiar with my male students and colleagues.

To be honest, I found the gorge walk to be a bit of a disappointment. We were able to see vents where underground pressure is periodically released (in the form of steam and water), stick our hands in the incredibly hot springs welling up from deep underground, and look up the gorge walls to the impressively high high-water marks. Also, not least of the attractions was a steel ring in one of the boulders, left behind by the crew of one of the Tomb Raider movies that had been shot in the gorge:

(Boldly going where Lara Croft has gone before: walking towards the "Devil's Bedroom" at Hell's Gate National Park.)

As excited as I was to be walking in Angelina Jolie's footsteps, I couldn't help but compare the gorge to other gorges I have walked and found to be much prettier and more engaging (notably, those in my beloved Hocking Hills region back home in Ohio).

As you might expect with a walk through a gorge, we had to descend at the beginning of the hike, then ascend at the end. Unexpectedly, we found ourselves in the midst of a little herd of goats, two of whom popped out of a gap in the rocks ahead of me and proceeded to bound up the path in front of me as though it was flat ground. It made me feel very plodding to proceed in their wake at my much slower pace.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at the picnic site we discovered that our buses had not yet arrived to pick us up and take us home to camp, where a nice warm lunch was waiting. At this point it was almost 2:30 PM, and we had last eaten at 5:30 AM. After 9 hours of walking in the sun, I was absolutely famished (regardless of the recent Coke break). As the hypoglycemia set in, my body began to completely shut down. My doctoral adviser used to call me "the hummingbird" because I was constantly complaining about being hungry and needing a snack, and on this afternoon the metaphor was continued as one of my fellow instructors described me as "going into torpor." Whatever you want to call it, I certainly was not feeling well, and this probably marks the beginning of the mystery malady that was to plague me for the remainder of the trip.

It turned out that there had been a complex bureaucratic issue involving additional paperwork that needed to be completed, as well as (of course) additional fees that needed to be paid, in order to make it possible for our bus drivers to enter the park to come retrieve us. After much pleading and cajoling, we were finally able to finagle entry for our drivers, and then head home. Not surprisingly, I immediately loaded up a massive plate of food and took it back to my banda so I could eat on the porch with my husband, who was deeply absorbed in an iPhone game. Leaving him to continue playing, I headed inside for an incredibly deep, much-needed nap.

I awoke feeling much more positive about life and headed back out to sit and enjoy the last few hours of the evening. As we lounged, a small herd of goats, including a couple of kids, wandered into our front yard area to graze. My husband made very convincing goat noises toward them, piquing the interest of one of the kids. It trotted over in our direction, encouraging my husband to repeat his bleating. In response, the kid put its front hooves up on my husband's leg, just like a puppy working up the courage to jump in someone's lap. Of course, this is the next thing it did, though it soon hopped down and went back to join its herd--but not before I got in a little snuggling, because even if it will be someone's food someday, it was a cute, soft animal, and my animal mothering instincts had kicked in. After my husband performed one last bit of goat mimicry, the kid turned around, ran, then launched itself straight into my husband's lap like an overexcited child. This final stage of the interaction was observed by the shepherdess, who had wandered into view moments before. She burst out laughing at the unexpected and unusual sight of a baby goat clambering up for a cuddle in the lap of a mzungu. I'm glad to know that, wherever my husband and I go, we can always do something to elicit laughter from the locals.