Sunday is fairly restful – we leave the camp by half-past 7am after an early breakfast to meet a field officer conducting his transect in the Mpassion area of Meibei. He has been having trouble with following the data collection procedures, so we go through and explain the research requirements with him again. I train him in the use of a compass as one was never supplied to him and so he has not been collecting this information. As we walk around, I notice many of the bare trees have begun to bloom with little white flowers, announcing the coming rains, and brilliant pink desert roses stand out amidst the arid brush.
The Samburu field officers are younger and have not worked with ACK as long, so I spot several differences from the Salama staff. As educated Samburu, these field officers have the advantage of speaking Swahili and English, while retaining their bush education in track and species identification. They are generally younger – most of them still ilmorran – and are able to complete their patrols and transects much quicker than the Salama staff, if somewhat less thoroughly.
After dropping him off near his village and returning to camp, we lunch and relax for the afternoon, pausing only to fix a few tents that have nearly been blown away by a particularly rough gust of wind. Most of the field staff return to the river with a specialist to fix the broken pipe.
When we arise on Monday, it is still dark. Santiago, distinctly not a morning person, decides to sleep in, so the rest of us leave the camp without breakfast or tea promptly at 6am to meet with Sol in the Lpus area for his transect. Two of the Meibei rangers from the camp nearby pile into the back of our truck, Lentaam with them, and we pick up a beautiful young Samburu mother and her baby to drop off by Sol’s shop. The sunrise is startling, and blankets the rocky horizon in saffron orange.
We meet Sol around 7am, and begin the transect fifteen minutes ahead of the 7:30am starting time. We quickly diverge off the main dirt road and begin walking through the bush. The terrain is relatively flat, but still we trudge through the acacia that cling and tear at our clothes, leaping over cracked gorges in the ground. Sol is young, educated, and energetic, but speeds through the transect and takes less time to peruse for tracks. We do discover beautiful, fresh cheetah tracks, however. Nearing the end of the transect, we discover the indiscernible tracks of two running carnivores. After completing the transect a couple dozen meters further, we backtrack and decide to follow the tracks to see if our carnivores had left better tracks, or were victorious in their hunt. The tracks distinctly doglike so I get overexcited when Sol suggests the possibility of African wild dog. We walk for several hundred meters before we lose the tracks in a sandy, dry riverbed and
thick bush. Lentaam and Sol eventually conclude they were likely cheetah – judging by the length of stride and clear
indentations of nails in the soil. All in all, we walked nearly 10k that morning, and arrive back at the camp in time for lunch. The remainder of the day is quiet. Sarah, Noreen and I make chapati from scratch with cabbage and beans, and we finish the evening with ghost stories around the fire.
Tuesday morning, Sarah, Wallace, Noreen and I go for a walking patrol to the river and back – about 6.3k – before returning for a breakfast of butter-fried ugali and leftover chapati with chai. At the river, we were lucky to see a Goliath Heron – a huge red-purple bird – and bustard on the rocks. We jumped from boulder to sandbed to rock up the river until we found tracks that looked suspiciously like a large monitor lizard or small crocodile, and heard a splash ahead, and turned back. Most tracks were hyena and dingo today, but we saw many dik-dik. The remainder of the afternoon is quiet and spent working, dozing, and reading.
On Wednesday morning, Noreen, Wallaca and I walk a nearby transect with Lentaam. Sarah and Santiago have decided to sleep in and stay behind to work. It’s a fairly straight walk, and quiet save for a few dik-diks, gerenuk, and a hare until we get near the end of the transect. Lentaam suddenly freezes and raises a hand, and we all stop. He gestures forward, and points out a few moving silhouettes in the distance, just slightly to the right of the transect. I can’t stifle a gasp and smile as I see a hyena, back legs slightly depressed, loping into the bush. Another stops by a bush and I don’t see it until it moves its head. We see a third lope off, and a few minutes later, a jackal retreat as we begin to approach, and Wallace points out the many crows gathered in that area, suggesting that a carcass may be near. We diverge maybe 40 meters off the transect, and indeed we see a goat carcass, well stripped, lying beneath a thorny acacia.
Lentaam points out that the carcass looks like it may have originally been killed by a cheetah judging from the eating style. Much of the body meat has been removed, but the bones are still intact, while hyenas would have eaten the bones and meat together. We look around the carcass for telltale cheetah tracks but find none, though the substrate is hard and not ideal for clear tracks. We find the actual kill site where the stomach was ripped out (some innards and the grassy cud-like stomach contents lay on the ground beside a patch of earth dyed dark with dry blood) about 20 meters from the carcass, and drag marks suggest the hunter had moved the goat somewhere less conspicuous to enjoy the meal. It is fascinating what stories tracks and nature can retell hours after an incident, the small subtleties it indicates!
We walk back to the transect and continue. Lentaam suddenly gestures again and crouches behind an acacia tree. We follow suit, crouched and watching the horizon. I suddenly spot it – a small, striped dog-like creature with large ears – maybe 100 meters from us. I fish out my binoculars from my backpack and get a great look at a striped hyena for the first time! It is a beautiful creature, the sandy pelt traversed by clear vertical black stripes. As we are still and downwind, it trots towards us until it is but 50 meters away. It stops suddenly, head raised towards us, and darts back in the direction it had come from. I barely manage to close my gaping mouth, whispering “wow” for the fifth time or so, and a few seconds later the hyena lopes around to our left, a few dozen meters further this time, before it disappears into the bush behind us. We stand after a few seconds, Lentaam watching us with amusement as Noreen and I grin excitedly at each other. As Noreen puts it, with our luck, we should expect to see a cheetah come tomorrow.
I help Sarah enter the field officer’s patrol data in excel through most of the afternoon, and around 4pm Wallace, Sarah, Noreen, Santiago and I walk down to the river in our flip-flops, carrying with us only a change of clothes and some laundry. The shortcut we take to get to the river- over rocky outcrops following a dry, sandy streambed – is so precarious in my elevated Veera flip-flops that I decide to take them off and clamber over the steep rocks barefoot. Inevitably, right as we get to the river, I manage to step on and lodge a sizeable thorn in my foot. Sarah and I try unsuccessfully to guide it out with an acacia needle, and eventually I decide to let it soak in the river as I wash.
Sarah, Noreen and I wait for a group of five ilmorran to finish bathing at a rocky bend of the river. We take their place, out of sight of Santiago and Wallace, and strip down to our undergarments to wash. I truly felt like I was getting the real Kenyan experience out of my internship, down to washing and scrubbing myself and my clothes in the ankle-deep river with a bar of semi-biodegradable soap and some river sand. By the time we finish bathing and dress, the sun is already hovering over the horizon. Wallace leads us to a series of leopard tracks in the sand, flanked by numerous fresh hyena tracks well-preserved in the soft riverbed mud. We hike back – well, I limp back after failing to remove the thorn again – and arrive back at camp a little after sunset.
On Thursday morning, Sarah, Wallace, Noreen and wake up promptly at 6 for a quick breakfast of chai and yesterday’s leftover rice and beans. Before we leave for today’s transect, I try once again to coax out the thorn from my foot with my Perigord knife. Unsuccessful, Lentaam kindly offers to remove it with an acacia thorn, and spends several agonizing minutes loosening it out of my foot. That taken care of, we leave to meet the other two field officers – Moses and Learkeri – at the school Moses volunteers at. From there we walk through the bush and along the main road with Wallace driving the car up to meet us near the end. The transect is uneventful aside from a few hyena and jackal tracks and some gerenuk – then again, the 6 of us aren’t exactly quiet as we trudge through the bush, chatting and glancing around. Sarah and I soon realize, as we see Lentaam attempting to find the bearing on a group of goats while facing the completely opposite direction, that some of the field officers will need some training on the use of compasses at the meeting tomorrow. Sarah reveals that not all of the officers have had compasses – some use monoculars, some don’t even have anything to record bearing yet – as many used to use the GPS compass to determine angle/bearing but discrepancies and error in the GPS compass caused Mary to suggest they all use regular compasses or monoculars. Sarah and I spend a few minutes explaining how to use a compass properly to the three field officers, but we will surely go over it again tomorrow.
Moses and Learkeri join us in the truck to ride back to camp – as the walk from their respective areas is quite far from the base camp – and we pick up two Samburu women (one with a child strapped to her back with a Kanga) for drop off at the shops along the road to our camp, pushing Noreen, Sarah and I into the back of the pickup. We bump and trundle along, the three of us narrowly avoiding the thorny, outstretched branches of roadside acacia, back to camp. Lunch is prepared by Sarah and the ilmorran, who prepare getheri (a mix of beans and maize with chopped tomatoes and onion), a lentil and cabbage stew, and purple ugali fortified with crushed —- seeds, which, according to the Samburu, makes the children and warriors strong enough to fight off a pack of hyenas.
The hot afternoon is quiet, and in the evening Sarah, Noreen and I prepare chapati for breakfast tomorrow morning, and then fry up the last of our cabbage to eat for dinner with ugali. Half-way through boiling the ugali, the gas stove runs empty, and so we ask the ilmorran to prepare the fireplace so we may cook the ugali over the fire. Moses volunteers and cooks up a pot-full of ugali – by now, all of the field officers have arrived and are settled around the fire or helping to wash dishes.
Dinner is a cheerful, communal affaire, followed by a few rounds of Spoons, Bullshit, and Go-fish with Moses and Learkeri. Watching ilmorran play card games is hilarious – spoons became a competition between the girls (Sarah, Noreen and I) and the men (Moses, Learkeri, and Wallace), and go-fish was clearly an old favorite.
On Friday morning, Noreen and I awake around 7am to go birding before the start of the staff meeting at 8:30am. We walk around for a little while, managing to identify a few new species including Pygmy Batis, Common Bulbul, and Ring-Necked dove, but the bush is surprisingly quiet. We enjoy a breakfast of chai and chapati (which I slather with half-melted honey for a sweet treat) before gathering inside the office for the staff meeting. The field officers report recent carnivore sightings, conflicts, and other issues of interest before Santiago and I explain our studies and requirements. As most of the Samburu have few opportunities to use English in Meibei, most of the meeting and conversation is conducted in Swahili, and our instructions occasionally have to be translated and explained. After concluding the meeting, we all gather outside and I lead them up the rocky outcrop behind the office to practice compass bearings. Compass use is fairly new for the Meibei team compared to the Salama crew, and several of them are missing a compass entirely. Sarah and I instruct the field officers and we practice taking the bearing of a few landmarks in the distance with a handful of extra compasses. Once everyone is satisfactorily refreshed, we practice estimating distance – something which the lot of them are distinctly better at than compass bearing (Soulh even likes to joke that he is a human rangefinder).
The remainder of the day is quiet and restful, and we leave early the following morning to get back to Nairobi before nightfall. Breakfast is water and a cup of juice. The four hours along a bumpy dirt road is hard on our bladders, and twice we have to take a pit-stop just along that road. We stop in Archer’s Post for a quick breakfast of chapati and chai, and continue uninhibited until Nanyuki. We drop Santiago off – who plans to stay in Nanyuki until we next return to Samburu – and shop at the local Nakumatt for groceries in Nairobi and a quick lunch. We arrive in Nairobi well before dusk, and bid goodbye to Wallace and Noreen who return to their respective homes in the city.
All in all, Samburu is definitely my favorite of the two sites – the untamed wilderness, remoteness, and sprawling arid landscape is magnificent in its own right. The Samburu people and field officers are kindly and eager, and I very much look forward to returning in about a month’s time.