On Thursday, mid-morning, Lauren and I walk out of the wifi café above the Nakumatt and meet with Sarah, Noreen and Wallace in the silver KWS Nissan pickup. I go to a local computer services shop to print and photocopy copies of my transect forms for the field officers in Samburu while Sarah and Noreen go shopping in the Nakumatt for groceries for the week in the bush. By 11am we are off towards the Meibae conservancy!
We stop briefly in Isiolo at the vegetable market to pick up a few tomatoes and bananas, and while walking back to the car with Noreen I hear someone call out to her, “Hey, you have a white person!” I find it rather more offensive to be regarded as someone’s dog than objectified by a lewd comment.
We stop shortly for lunch in at a local fly-ridden restaurant and continue to Archer’s Gate before turning off the tarmac onto a dirt road. From there, it is almost 4 hours to our camp in the Meibae conservancy. The drive along the poorly-maintained road is as dusty as it is bumpy, but the views are spectacular. We cross through a valley of jagged, rocky outcrops and mountains covered in dry shrubbery and acacia, up and around through scraggly acacia woodland and bare peach-colored soil interspersed by tufted dry grass. The only color comes from the green palm fronds that sprout multi-fingered like hands from the ground, and the invasive succulent grasses growing from ankle to waist height and outcompeting any native shrubs. The sun begins to set behind us, splashing the horizon in purples, oranges, and pinks just as we arrive at the camp.
The Meibae camp is surprisingly nice! The office/kitchen building has recently been completed and made available; the kitchen is ready and fully stocked, but the office is bare save for a rusty metal table and several posters of cheetahs torn from the ACK 2015 calendar and taped on the walls. Numerous (#) large camping tents are strewn amidst the thorny acacia under dark green shade tarps, comfortably rooming two people each with plenty of extra space. Two thin mattresses and a plush pillow are provided for me to tuck under my sleeping bag, ensuring a comfortable night. The single manyatta-style bathroom is similar to the one in Salama, with a space for the shower on one side and the pit-style toilet on the other.
We make a quick dinner of chopped onions and cabbage with ugali after unpacking and eat on the table outside, as it is much warmer in the evenings here than in Salama. We are lucky to meet the resident porcupine Rocky, who trundles along to snack on the discarded cabbage beside the office.
The following morning, we awake and leave for a walking patrol with local staff member and Samburu ilmorran Lentaam. He is quiet, lean, and young but knowledgeable about wildlife and listens attentively as I explain my research aims. Despite the remoteness, we see little more than a few dik-dik and gerenuks because of the dry conditions. Hyena tracks are ever-present, however. I can tell that the settlement forms will not be as extensively used out here due largely to the rural nature of the area – manyatta “villages” are interspersed to within several kilometers distance from each other.
We return from the short patrol rather early in time for a late breakfast and chai, and spend most of the morning working on the tents, whose support ropes have begun to dry and fray in the sun. We replace the ropes and duck-tape some holes in the rain tarps in anticipation of future wind and rain. No sooner have we finished eating lunch, the storm clouds begin rolling in and shower down on the camp. We put out as many basins as we can to collect the rainwater. The rains are so refreshing that Santiago and I spend a few minutes outside getting soaked and cleaning the grit and dust from our skin and clothes. We retreat back into the office with the others and spend a few hours reading and trying to keep the water from dripping out of the windows and down the inner walls. By late afternoon, the rains abide and we dry off within minutes. Wallace tries to fashion a gutter system on the rocky outcrop behind the office to harvest into one of the larger storage containers, but the skies quickly clear for the day.
That evening, we are visited by two porcupines and a genet over dinner. I retreat early to bed with stomach cramps, but am suddenly roused by what sounds like a heavy stream of water and abruptly turns to the approaching clatter of stampeding hooves. The sound passes, like a herd of donkey or zebra, and I clamber out of the tent and shout to the others still gathered around the table to find out what it was. As it turns out, it had simply been a herd of galloping donkeys. We were all rather surprised to discover them out so late, and wondered aloud whether they had been chased by hyenas. Feeling better, I stay up and play a few rounds of cards with Sarah, Noreen, Santiago and Wallace, teaching them the pulse-rousing games of slapjack and spoons which they immediately take to.
That night, our peaceful sleep is interrupted by a scream.
The next morning, we go on patrol by 7am with Lentaam again, walking from the camp down to the riverbed. Along the way, we rather suddenly discover these small, bright scarlet beetle-like insects with six pointed legs and a fat, wrinkled, velvety body like an over-gorged tick, which looked on the dusty ground like droplets of blood. They merit a few minutes of observation before we continue. The riparian area around the river is fertile and lush, with green-leaved trees butting through red-brown sandy soil. The upstream area of the river is surrounded by rocky outcrops and white boulders. With the rains, the river has gathered a steady flow of silty brown water, and we plan to return later in the day to gather water for washing dishes and showering. As the sun begins to rise, the heat arrives with it. Temperatures well in excess of 90 degrees, with little relief in the warm breeze, I am forced to adopt layers to keep from frying under the sun.
Back at camp, Santiago, Wallace, and I search for the donkey carcass we suspect remains after one succumbed to a pack of hyenas last night. Our search is fruitless, until a few local field staff guide us not far from the camp behind the rocky bluff that flanks our office. The smell is the first thing that alerts me to the presence of a fresh carcass – pungent and sickly sweet – followed by the mess of tracks that suggest an obvious struggle between donkey and hyena, freshly overturned dirt beside deep hoof marks and running hyena tracks. The donkey was killed beside a large acacia bush and dragged between the bush and a stone ridge; a maroon patch of blood-soaked soil indicates the kill site, but the young donkey is lying a few feet up from it. It is only partially devoured, the tail and testicles ripped off and half the face has been torn of skin and muscle. One ear has been neatly ripped off and lies a few feet from the carcass. A few organs have been pulled out of the body from the anus and strewn not far from the kill site, but the remainder of the donkey’s body has been largely left alone. According to the field officers, another older donkey carcass was discovered a little further, this one cleanly picked off. We mourn the lack of a trail camera to place near the carcass.
We decide to visit the Saturday market before going to the river. Lentaam, Sayian and another Samburu accompany us to the market, so I clamber in the back of the truck with Sayian as there is no more room in the body to accompany us. The half-hour ride in the back of the truck is bumpy but not so uncomfortable – I am transported back to my time in Thailand last year spent in the back of the WCS truck driving through dirt roads from farm to transect.
The Samburu market is a large and colorful affaire, where the locals gather twice a week to sell a variety of wares transported from the nearest town and socialize with friends and relatives who live too far away to walk over very frequently. Samburu men and women squat in stalls fashioned from cut palm-shaped plants roofed with canvases and sell beads, flour, rice, potatoes, soda, cloth, and various other effects. Aside from this, no produce is sighted, as the Samburu are strictly pastoralist and imported produce would wither in the arid heat of the region within a day. A few trucks are parked on the edge of the market for transporting goods, and one car begins to blast Adam Lambert’s Cuckoo from the radio.
Santiago, Noreen, and I are stunned by the colors! Women walk around in brilliantly colored and pattered kanga cloths with huge beaded necklaces in patterns of black, blue, red, yellow, and white, with copper circlets and chains hanging from their ears. I spot three ilmorran warriors in full décor and can’t resist a gasp. Tall, lean, and impossibly handsome in their colorful attire, I find it nearly as hard to stop staring at them as it is for the locals to stop staring at the two mzungus wandering through their market. The warriors have colorful patterned cloths wrapped around their waists, belted with a strip of leather. Their chests are bare safe for a beaded accessory crossed over their torsos from shoulder to waist in an X. Beaded bracelets adorn their forearms, wrists, and ankles. Their short hair is dyed red with ochre and decorated with a colorful headdress of cloth flowers and spikes lined down the head like a Mohawk. They carry with them their clubs and sticks. Lentaam seems somewhat jealous of our fascination, and promises to wear his full ilmorran attire for us one day as we are unable to take photos within the market in respect of the culture.
After the market, we bump and trundle our way back to the camp and have lunch before piling back into the truck with five 20-liter and two 100-liter empty plastic jugs for holding water, a clunky generator, some plastic pipes, and three extra staff members from the conservancy base a few minutes from the camp. At the river, while the staff work on setting up the generator and connecting the pipes to pump water from the river directly to the base, Wallace, Sarah, Noreen, Santiago and I fill the water jugs one by one, stumbling our way up the hill to deposit our impossibly heavy loads in the car; it takes three of us to carry a half-full 100-liter jug up to the car. Though I had the advantage of endurance during the transect hikes in Salama, I noticed I was clearly out-classed in brute strength by these Kenyan women, who could carry the 20-liter jugs to the car in one hand with barely a sweat while I stumbled and gasped up the hill with my jug supported by both hands and a thigh, a generous portion splashing on my legs.
After this exhausting exertion, we went for a dip in the river, fully clothed. The water only rises mid-calf at its deepest, and is so warm it offers minimal refreshment. We play around for a while until we are all soaked to our undergarments, and then one by one do our laundry using river water and detergent, stringing the wet garments on the acacia bushes in the sun to dry.
We pass the afternoon relaxing on the banks of the river, soaking in the warm, silty water, scrubbing away the dust on our skin only to have it replaced by the silt and gravel of the riverbed, and dry off on sun-warmed rocks. At one point, we all gather around the pipes and generator in an attempt to fix a leaking pipe, without success. By the time we leave, storm clouds have gathered and the sun has begun to descend toward the horizon.
The rain never quite reaches the camp, lingering instead on the edges of the conservancy. We play a few more rounds of cards in the evening – spoons, slapjack, bullshit, and go-fish – and chat around the fire after dinner, visited briefly by our friend the porcupine.