As an amateur naturalist, a citizen of the world and an unrepentant lover of travel, I am always ready for a trip. Driving with a friend, I came across an Earthwatch catalog on the floor of her car and began thumbing through it. Earthwatch partners with scientists all over the world and allows volunteers to join a research team, for a fee.
It happened to be New Year’s Day, and though I never make resolutions, the new year invites us all to start fresh. Joining an environmental research team would be just the way to begin.
In the catalog, I found a few expeditions that really grabbed my attention. Over the next few weeks, I mulled the choices and selected a trip to study the maneless (and famously man-eating) lions in southeastern Kenya. Soon, my deposit was in place and my reservations were complete. I’d leave on Aug. 24.
My preparations included watching the terrifying 1996 film “The Ghost and the Darkness” starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas; reading up on our remote destination and the animals we’d live among; and skimming, but discarding,
a thoughtful caveat from the State Department advising against travel in Kenya because of terrorism threats against American interests there. Hey, there is always sufficient reason not to do something bold. Fact is, I was pumped for this trip and committed to going to Africa – come what may.
I filled out half my weight in paperwork for my passport, visa, travel insurance, shots and research team forms. I read “The Lions of Tsavo” by Dr. Bruce Patterson, the lead researcher for the project on which I’d be working. I tried to learn a little Swahili (having already watched “The Lion King” a few dozen times helped more than you’d imagine). I was ready to walk into the bush with three days’ worth of clothes, a little gear and a whole lot of Clif bars.
After a 13-hour flight and a night’s rest, I met the team
at 6:30 a.m. and set out for Satao Rock Camp on Taita Ranch in southeast Kenya, roughly midway between the Tsavo East National Park and the Tanzanian border. The ride takes six hours, but it took us about 10 because our Land Rover broke down six times. We soon learned to expect this sort of thing.
The Taita/Rukinga Ranches consist of 170,000 densely wooded acres in the Taita Hills. The area is classified as a biodiversity hotspot, with many species under threat from human activity and environmental degradation. The future of this area is still very much in question, but there is reason for hope.
The trees are mainly acacia and commifera, which grow to about the height of apple trees. During the dry season, these trees are largely leafless. When the rainy season approaches, they sense the humidity and sprout leaves. Though the ranches are savannah, many large watering holes dot the landscape. When this area was a hunting reserve, the watering holes were created to attract animals, making them much easier to shoot. Today, they’re still a great place to see animals.
Our camp consisted of six canvas tents for the volunteers, two bathrooms with flush toilets and showers, two small buildings for the staff, and a three-walled building called “the restaurant” where we had our meals. The open wall faced a watering hole, which was our main source of entertainment before, during and after meals. There was nearly always an amazing show.
A troop of 30 to 40 yellow baboons would pass by nearly every morning and evening with mothers caring for babies, large males bullying the weak, and kids racing about, wrestling each other, and climbing the small trees surrounding the watering hole. Herds of up to 200 African buffalo would come by for a drink, only to be run off by a couple of large bull elephants. We also saw Grevy’s zebra, impala, warthogs, stork and other animals. The most frequent visitors were elephants who cleared the watering hole of all other animals whenever they arrived. All that separated these animals from our camp was a two-meter-wide row of white, head-sized stones that the staff referred to as a “psychological barrier.” The animals were accustomed to the presence of humans in the camp, so we had the privilege of watching them act as naturally as if we weren’t there.
At night, it was a different story. Animals occasionally crossed the boundary into camp (baboons crossed the line more than occasionally), and the guards had to shoo them away. Drifting off to sleep one night, I was suddenly aware of a low growl that I felt in my chest before I realized I was hearing it. I knew it was elephants, and though I never felt threatened, it wasn’t exactly a lullaby.
From 4 to 8 p.m., we’d go out on a game drive, which meant sitting on the roof of the truck as we drove down dusty dirt roads. The first two hours were always glorious regardless of whether we saw any animals. But when the sun set promptly at 6:30 p.m., the air cooled instantly. We were just south of the equator so it was technically winter, and we got cold fast on that roof.
We’d return to camp just in time to eat another enormous and delicious dinner. Afterward, we’d chat over a cold beer or three and head off to bed for a few hours.
Our night rides started at 3 a.m. on the dot, the coldest part of the night. It took awhile to become fully awake and engaged in our research, but we all managed. It began to warm noticeably at about 5, and by the time the sun rose at 6:30, the sky was clear and it was warm again. We’d arrive back at camp in time for breakfast and begin the cycle again every day for two weeks.
It sounds like a chore, and once or twice it was one, but during those drives we came face to face with mating lions, 6-week-old cubs playing in the low brush, fighting buffalo, scores of animals just minding their own business, and a wounded hyena who was just hours away from death. We weren’t far from where the earliest human fossils were found. For two weeks, we lived in the midst of a world that was essentially unchanged in millennia.
In the field, one volunteer would record with pen and paper the number of animals seen and what they were doing, while another would do the same on a PDA, which uplinked to a satellite that recorded the exact position of the animals. Two volunteers would operate the telemetry equipment used to track the few collared lions, and others would scan the horizon for the 40 or so different species of birds and animals we saw during those trips.
All animal sightings were recorded dutifully, but lions were the focus of everyone’s interest. If one Land Rover spotted a lion, it would immediately radio the other, which would barrel down rutted dirt roads at breakneck speeds to see them. Our best view of the lions came when we happened upon a pair that was mating. We later heard that two cubs resulted from the mating we witnessed. Because of the uncertainty of their survival, cubs aren’t named by the scientists until they are a year old, but the names of some of our very teammates were being considered for these young ones.
Somehow in the midst of our busy schedule we managed to squeeze in Swahili lessons, a day trip to the ancient port city of Mombasa, a visit to the Taita Discovery Center, a trip to a village in the Taita Hills and a tour through a Maasai village. We learned how to make paper from elephant dung, how to make a toothbrush from an acacia branch, and even how to distinguish different animals by the color of their “eye shine” at night.
After a couple of weeks in the bush, we had shed just enough “civilization” to give us a fresh new perspective on life. In fact, our team has kept in almost daily e-mail and telephone contact since we got home and there is talk of a reunion.
Earthwatch trips are expensive, but priceless. I’d recommend them to anyone and have been planning my return to Kenya since shortly after arriving.
My first-ever appearance in a newspaper. I was terrified, but because you can see my teeth, they assumed I was smiling and plastered me on the front page, above the fold.