Week 6 – Salama (October 6 – October 10)

I have omitted the week spent in Nairobi, as it was fairly uneventful and irrelevant to my research. It was a week spent alternatively resting and scrubbing the Samburu dust from under every nail under a hot shower. I learned to take the local matatus by myself to get downtown and meet Noreen – once to go birding at the Nairobi National Museum, and a second time to lunch downtown and watch Mad Max: Fury Road in IMAX. During my down-time, I read, wrote, and entered Samburu transect forms on excel from the last few months. By Friday I was down with a cold, and spent the weekend tucked in bed while Sarah nurtured me with ginger-lemon-honey tea as I binge-watched The Pacific and Mr. Robot on my laptop (both fabulous shows featuring Rami Malek at his best, might I add).

On Tuesday morning, we plan to leave Nairobi for Salama to meet with the ever-elusive Mr. Michael Mbithi, who has finally gotten back to us and made an appointment. We pile our bags and groceries in the back of the truck, and Ginger comes with us this time around, nestled comfortably in the back seat. Traffic is dreadful, and the one-hour drive to his ranch takes almost three. We finally meet along a dirt road not far from the office, swarming out of the car to stretch our legs and greet him. Michael is a large, round-faced, bespectacled man who speaks clear English. His young son glances at us, unimpressed, from the land-rover and returns to scrolling through the photographs on his huge DSLR. Michael suggests we stop at the picnic-spot at the top of the hill to talk. We obediently follow, and he stops a few times to point out tracks and wildlife along the road. We get out at one point to see fresh, clear lion tracks along the dusty road. It is my first time seeing the tracks – I have seen lions in person, but the tracks are enormous!

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Lion track, with my hand for size comparison

Michael’s ranch is quite large, and fairly wild; the brush is thick and grows wild, and we see a surprising amount of wildlife roaming close to the road including zebra, giraffe, gazelle, eland, and wildebeest. Michael reveals that there are two local male lions inhabiting his ranch. We stop at the flattened hill summit which overlooks the arid, increasingly settled Machakos country. The landscape beneath us is fairly bare, a sprawling straw-yellow dotted with gray-green acacia. The picnic spot is little more than a few concrete benches and table and a fire-pit under leafing trees. It is also, apparently, a popular latrine site for numerous carnivores, particularly cheetah, judging from the number of droppings on and around the benches. We sit on the benches, avoiding the scat, and begin to discuss what we need from Michael.

My interest in the Athi-Kapiti area was that it is a large, commercial ranching site, relatively wild and unsettled but frequented by grazing animals during the day. This gave the site a different land-use type from the other two sites (Salama and Meibae), which could be analyzed as a variable affecting carnivore landscape use. Michael, despite his frustrating initial communication failures, appears interested in having his land involved in my research project – he has worked with ACK previously, having even set transects in multiple areas. However, he only has one available and experienced field officer available, and for this aIMG_2058rea to count as a separate land-use variable, I need at least three blocks (12 transects) to measure against Salama and Samburu. He promises to look for two other field guides and get back to us by the end of the month so that we may begin training as soon as possible and start official data collection by November or December. Feeling both dubious and hopeful that it may yet work out, we part ways and drive back to the Salama camp along the rugged dirt roads of the ranch.

The following morning, we awaken unhurriedly, breakfast in the kitchen, and spend most of the morning repairing the wire fence around the camp.IMG_2066 Much of the wooden supports have been eaten or weakened by termites and need to be replaced, or areas of the wire-link fence have been distorted or cut by sneaky neighbors to allow goats in to graze. It is tough work on the fingers, but satisfying once completed. It begins to sprinkle just as we finish, and we retreat into the office for lunch. The remainder of the day is fairly quiet, until the evening when both Sarah and I are suddenly stricken with a bad stomach bug and retreat to bed rapidly. The night is listless and sleepless for me – I’ve feel as though I’ve never had such a bad case of the runs in my life!

The following day, we are both feeling somewhat better, though I am poorly rested, and we arrange for a rain-check with Pius for the patrol since we both feel the need to rest for the day. Still recovering from my earlier cold, this additional stress on my body leaves me frustrated and fatigued. By mid-morning, Sarah, Noreen and I go out for a 5km walk from the camp to and along the highway to record highway mortalities. We find the crushed and rotting corpses of one honey badger and two dogs, and numerous curiously empty hedgehog backs, spines still attached and drawn together into a hollow cup like a sea urchin. We return in time for lunch, and I spend most of the remaining day entering patrol data on excel, reading, and napping in my tent.

On Friday morning, Noreen and I go for a morning walking patrol with Pius from the campsite up into the Ulu conservancy. Because of the dense settlement and high early-morning human activity (mostly shoat grazing), we see little wildlife and few tracks, but get excellent views of the valley from atop the forested hill. The afternoon is quiet, and by IMG_2078evening we begin emptying the water tank so we may clean it tomorrow. While Sarah and Noreen fill buckets of water from the water tank to dump into 100-gallon containers in the storage shed, I play housewife and prepare dinner. We fill one tank by nightfall, and plan to finish tomorrow.

Saturday is spent largely on the water tank. In expectation of heavy El Niño rains, we clear the gutters and plan to clean the water tank. Much of Kenya, at this point, is strongly anticipating and relying on the forecast of a heavy short-rain season due to the El Niño phenomenon, particularly in the north where rainfall has been sparse, and in the agricultural areas where people are plowing their fields and planting flood-resistant crops. The Salama field camp, unlike Samburu, relies on rain to supply cooking and cleaning water for the field season. The gutters set up along the roof of the office flow down into the huge, 3500 liter tank, providing relatively clean water for us to use.

In the morning, we finish filling the second container, but the water tank is still half-way full. We call over the landlady, Agnes – who earlier mentioned a worry that she only had enough water for 10 days in anticipation of the rains – and she fills up several of her five-gallon water containers. Still, some water is left over, and after filling up every bucket and container we have on site, we are forced to drain the rest.

To expedite the process, I decide to begin working on the tank early. Sarah sets up a ladder against the tank, and I climb up. The opening above the tank is about forearm-length in diameter, and when I splash down, I am at eye-level with the opening. The inside of the tank is somewhat humid

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The water tank

and smells earthy and musty, and the water is still about ankle-deep. The water is relatively clear, but there is a thick layer of brown-black grime at the bottom, and the sides are covered in dead insects, dry leaves, and grime. I begin by scooping out the water and handing it up to Sarah – sitting on the top of the tank – to dump over the sides. As the water level descends, and my bucket begins to scrape against the floor of the tank, the water turns a murky black. I change to using a pitcher when the bucket becomes too large to pick up a significant amount of water for its size.

When I’ve scooped out as much as I could of the water, Sarah hands me a sponge and a dishrag, and a quarter of a bucket of clean water, and I scrub the top and sides of the tank vigorously. Once relatively clean, I use the dishrag to scrub and sweep up the earthy black grime from the bottom of the tank – mostly decayed leaves and insects. I send up the bucket a few times for new, clean water as it quickly turns brown after a few wrings of the rag. By the time I’ve finished, the tank looks much cleaner and whiter than it did upon my arrival, and I am duly satisfied. Getting out takes a few buckets for support, and some neglected upper body strength. We close the tank, and Agnes will open and realign the gutter pipes when the rains arrive.

We celebrate by making chapati and lentils for dinner, and play several rounds of cards before heading to bed. Though quiet and short, our visit to Salama was fairly productive in fixing up the camp for the start of the rains. We head back to Nairobi tomorrow!

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Noreen standing in one of the local Salama dams, dry before the rains
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