Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Return from the Bush

Well all, I have arrived once again back to the land of electricity, people, and running water which we call civilization.  I have had the time of my life.  I have learned more than I thought possible and gained new perspectives on economics, tourism, politics, and Kenya itself.  My health remains good, although I did have a short bout with an intestinal bug during the month.  But now I have returned to Nairobi where I will stay and rest a few days.  Then I’m off for Kampala, Uganda.  I will be in Uganda for the next 3 and ½ months and I should be returning home on the 21st of December, just in time for Christmas.
However, that is yet to come and a lot will happen between now and then.  The last month however, has left me with more memories, stories, and pictures than I can possibly show or tell.  This was my fear when I left the internet behind for a month.  Nevertheless, I will do my best to relate a few of my experiences from the last 28 day field guiding course in Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.
The morning of August 4th I met the other three members of my group: one British middle-school science teacher who wants to open a Wildlife Preserve in Sri Lanka, one Dutch Biology undergrad, one British woman (born in Kenya) who seems to have travelled everywhere and now works in Zanzibar, and me.  I thought it would be an interesting group and we didn’t disappoint.  We arrived the afternoon of the 4th at our camp in Lewa to find Michael, the camp manager, waiting for us.  I thought it was going to be sleeping in tents on the hard earth for a month.  No such luck.  Michael had single beds build in the largest camping tents I have ever seen; a luxurious stay if I say so myself.  That night, we met the rest of the crew over steak dinner prepared by Frank, a professional chef and one of the most politically incorrect men I have ever known.  Mohammad was his assistant and Richard was the cleaning/maintenance man.  (After two weeks, there came a time when I took a picture of Richard sitting in a chair reading a newspaper.  This may not sound exciting, but the reason I took the picture was that it was the first time since arriving that we had seen him sit down and not working.  He is actually the most motivated worker I ever met.  Our instructor Mark joked that he was going to stuff Richard into his suitcase and smuggle him home to South Africa.) 
Anyway, our instructor Mark was there waiting for us and we began our studies the next day.  We would wake at 5:00am, study for awhile, and then leave camp around 6:30 for a walk in the bush.  We would return to camp about 9:00 for breakfast.  At 10:30 we had a lecture (ranging from Animal Behavior to botany to the weather patterns of Kenya and South Africa) which usually lasted till about 12:30.  We had some free time then, usually spent studying or reading, before lunch at 2:00pm.  By three, we were back in the field until dark, around 6:30.  Dinner was at 7 with a few beers, some after-dinner hanging out, then early to bed around 9 or 10 in order to make it up again the following morning. 
In the field we would either walk or drive.  When walking, we studied more in depth, especially the trees and birds.  When we drove, we could get a lot further and usually find more of the elusive mammals.  However, we didn’t always have to go far to find big mammals.  Nearly every morning of the trip, we woke up around 5:30 to find Elvis and Mawingu munching just outside our camp fence.  They are a black rhino mother-and-son pair whose territory encompasses our campsite.  One morning, we stood along the fence and Elvis came to within three feet of us. 
Not long into the trip, we were all beginning to get the hang of guiding the group.  Each of us took turns practicing the drives, teaching as if we were guiding for real.  However, one night, we heard there was a lion chilling down the road a ways, but it was down the road we weren’t supposed to go on (certain areas of the reserve were reserved for those “bloody-rich-buggers” who were paying $800 a night).  So, Mark decided it might be better to ask for forgiveness than permission, so he drove us down the road anyway.  We found the lion, an old male alone, just watching the sun set.  He seemed so calm, exactly as I imagined he would, waiting for the moment where it would be necessary to become “king” again.  It seemed to me that he had been king long enough and was now on his way out.  We watched him for a bit before heading back towards camp.  On the way though, we found the elephant heard.  We parked about 10 meters from a young bull, maybe 5 to 10 years old.  Relatively small compared to other males (he was still the size of our truck), he had a bit of a napoleon complex growing in his young bones.  He continued eating until he was about 15 feet from us, and then decided he didn’t really appreciate our presence.  He decided to prove he was just as tough as daddy and started to mock charge the truck.  He seemed to enjoy coming at us, shaking his head, backing of for a while, then coming again.  I don’t think he had any real intention of ever really coming after us; he just wanted us to take him seriously, much like every adolescent.  It was one of the sweetest encounters of the trip.
Now, it was not always the “big-five” we were after.  We were training to become professional safari guides, and there is much more out there than mammals, such as geology, astronomy, insects, reptiles, and birds.  Birds presented a unique challenge to all of us on the course, particularly because there are 1080 species of birds in Kenya.  Over the month, we positively identified 108 birds, probably seeing another 20 or so which we couldn’t identify.  We carried three things on every walk and drive: a notebook, our binoculars, and a bird book.  At one time, we had six different bird books in the truck.  Eventually we moved onto the bird calls (downloaded from Mark’s computer to Itunes).  That is when it really started getting messy.  Pretty soon, I knew around 30 bird calls and at least 50 or 60 by sight.  By week three, everything (that is, all the bird knowledge) just started to mash together until we finally broke down.  One afternoon, we promised eachother we wouldn’t try to find a single bird.  We had had enough of birds for one day.  That afternoon, we found 8 new birds which we had never seen before.  That pretty much sums up our student-bird relationship.  When you go looking for them, you can’t find a single one; when you can’t stand to look at another, 8 new guys show up to introduce themselves.
Two weeks in we were joined by three more former students who just wanted to hang out with us for the second half of the course.  They added a new fire to the camp, but also, they were all women, so it definitely turned the odds against the male-power in the camp.  It all turned out just fine.  We really enjoyed the camaraderie in the camp.
Now, some of you know that I am a really good driver.  However, if you want a new experience, try driving off-road, up a rocky hill, in a stick-shift truck that jams and makes funny engine noises, has no power steering, and then find a bull elephant waiting for you at the top of the hill.  It is not something we do everyday back home in Normal, Illinois.  Actually, I don’t think this experience is common most anywhere.  Better yet, I was driving.  For those of you reading this who are already getting worried, we were trained early in the month how to deal with dangerous encounters and always have an escape route.  The thing that made this spot tricky was that my escape route was in reverse back down the hill into a gorge.  Luckily, the bull was only mildly unimpressed with my driving and our presence on his road.  He was within five feet of my door at one time.  He must have decided, at least momentarily, that we weren’t worth the effort, so he passed us by and as he got out of the way, I took us past and away.  It is among my favorite moments of the trip.     
During the final week of the course, we all took exams.  We had done some exams during the first three weeks, but these were our finals.  We had a 3 hour final exam, a field identification exam, the FGASA (Field Guides Association of Southern Africa) exam (which I didn’t take), and then our assessment.  The exams all went fine.  What made us all most nervous was the assessment.  Either a three hour drive or 90 minute walk, fully guided as if taking newly arrived tourists to the bush.  These “tourists” were to be some of our fellow students and Mark the instructor/assessor.  However, my assessment went well.  I even had a giraffe walk right up to our group, which was quite unexpected (I made sure I paid him off later on that night for his graceful appearance).  All in all, the exams went well and all of us passed the course.  So now, I am a professionally-trained safari guide.  I don’t have a license to use my training, but if ever I decide that I want a career change, I would come back in a heartbeat, no doubt about it.
Sadly, we had to return to our normal lives on the 31st.  Well, I guess that isn’t really true.  The others are all heading home.  I am not exactly living a “normal” live, but screw that.  I am enjoying myself THOROUGHLY, and if that is abnormal, so be it.  I have made it back to Nairobi.  Tomorrow I will take the bus to Kampala and meet up with the SIT group to study for the fall. 
Thank you to everyone again for all your continued prayers for my health.  I was sick again, but I saw another doctor and that seems to have cleared it up for good.  Thank you also for your patience with communications.  I know your world does revolve around me, my blogging, and what I think, so thank you for managing for a month without me. 
In all seriousness, it was a great experience to live without a phone or the internet for a month (I know I cheated to send a few emails from an internet café three weeks through, but that was only because I knew how much you all need me).  I believe that everyone should try going without their phone and email for a week or two, just for fun.  Not only is it good practice for the zombie apocalypse, but also a nice way to remind yourself that there is much more to the world than what can be found on a phone or the internet.  You find yourself sitting around the fire drinking a beer with complete strangers and coming home with friends you feel like you have known your whole life.  It is a great feeling, and one something that everyone should remember often.

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