• Friday, January 09th, 2009

In the last installment of “Rogue Elephant Gone Wild”—

Echoes ring down the halls of the Serena Hotel, the three girls high-pitched voices on a ninety-degree decibel. The following morning we boarded a Cessna Caravan (the suburban of the skies) and arrived none the worse for the wear at a remote airstrip. At one point, a giraffe gracefully out-skirted us on the dirt runway making for an interesting landing. Bill Winters says that, landing on the dirt strip is one of the difficulties of running a safari operation because of the plethora of seemingly unaware four-legged creatures. Two Toyota Land-cruisers (custom modified chasse’s) await our landing, not only to make sure the runway is clear, but also to ferry us to our tented campsite.

The Campsite

We all piled into two surprisingly comfortable Land Cruisers and bumped our way to the first tented camp down the dirt road.

The entire Kenyan staff greeted us with the traditional “Jambo” or hello. We could see about seven different sized tents spread about the grassy field. Abassi, our personal staff member proudly showed us our well-appointed spacious insect-proof tent. The queen-sized bed with plush, colorful fluffy comforter, lamps at either end takes up most of the canvassed room. A bright batik animal print hangs on the wall opposite the bed. Nice touch, I’ve never been in a tent with a wall hanging. The raggedy tent we own sports several small holes which make easy access for all sorts of flying creatures.

Our bathroom is basic, two large enamel bowls supported by matching tables and a pitcher full of water to fill each bowl. The “toilet” and shower are shrouded behind two curtains. Thank goodness, we have a toilet seat propped on a stand over a large hole lovingly dug by Abassi. (Always a good camper, I’m fully prepared to “squat” for a week.) He instructed us to use the spade to cover our “movements”; the shovel is conveniently located in the mound of dirt near the “toilet.” An upgrade from an outhouse with spiders. I could not force myself to ask what types of creatures lurked in the spidery recesses of the curtain covered toilet room.

The shower is pure ingenuity, a platform of wooden slats make up the floor, although I noticed with some trepidation that the width between the slats leaves plenty of room for a snake to slither through. A chain and a faucet hang through a hole in the canvas-structured ceiling. “Just let me know when you want to take a shower and I get you hot water.” Says Abassi. I make a mental note to find out exactly how far Abassi has to lug my bucket of hot water after first cooking it over the fire. Abassi demonstrates operation of the shower as he pulls the chain and the hot water spills forth from a 5-gallon bucket. Military showers (five minutes) may be a problem for the girls.

The Mess Hall
The dining tent is set off to the side of camp, conveniently close to the staff cooking station. I fully expect to come home ten pounds heavier than when I left. Having reviewed the website before the trip I looked forward to meals such as fresh mushroom soup with a hint of sherry and wild boar stew. Surely the pig in the anticipated delectable stew died of old age, leaving grandpigs in her wake.

We will be dining four freaking times a day—but not to worry, I’m already losing weight—a happy side effect from Malarone, the medication suggested by the Travel Clinic at The University of Washington. As a side note, I asked Abassi if he had contracted malaria. He said, “All the time, but I just go to the clinic and get the pills.” Hmmm, this gives me pause about my dream of living in a safari tent for months at a time while watching the occasional gangly-gaited giraffe as it parades in front of me, and accompanied by the bone-chilling roar of far distant lions. I must say the wild animal symphony is pleasant compared to the kids when they are being—well—kids.

Camp Activities
The boys endlessly amused themselves by leaving their “movements” in the girl’s toilet. Recall that, after one finishes using the facilities, a spade full of dirt completes the “flush” system. They left their remains in their Uncle Greg’s toilet and did not “flush.” I just don’t understand the joy that they get from this but there you have it. Later, a loud scream echoes through the camp which tells me that Greg managed to reciprocate in kind.

The girls find endless joy in torturing the boys, they throw things at the tent, sing endless, tuneless, songs of “row, row, row your boat.” The chorus, of “shut up”, “no, you shut up, you moron” and so on scared every single animal away from our campsite. Eventually even the kids succumb to the heat and lay exhausted on their beds, and all is quiet in the campsite for a few hours in the afternoon.

Each evening our ragtag group emerged from our separate tents wearing fresh hand laundered safari clothing. The staff washes our clothing each day excepting the women’s “smalls” or underwear. I prided myself on my ability to take a military shower however I nicked every surface of my skin in my hurry to shave. I emerged from the shower most times looking like I had been in a battle with a wily fox. So, I’m very thankful for my long pants, which keep the possible mosquitoes at bay. It looks as though my niece Madison is having a few problems with the time management in her shower by her soap encrusted long locks.

Our communication with the outside world is via SAT phone, which suffices just fine, only later, did we learn that one of guides had a computer in his tent. We are therefore up to date on the ongoing election strife and tribal battles in Kenya. The incumbent will not accept defeat even though he lost by 300,000 votes. He claims the winner “stacked” his votes. The common thinking at our campsite says there is quite a bit of “stacking” on both sides.

Last night Conner walked out of the mess tent and thoughtfully contemplated the stars. Kids have way too many activities going on in the United States, perhaps he is happy to have some peace and quiet. “What’s going on Conner?” I say. “The jeep is too far away for me to retrieve my IPod.” Sigh—he wants to be plugged into something. “Conner, the jeep is only 100 feet away, do you want me to walk with you?” “Mom, there are lions out there, I AM NOT going home in a body bag.” I am sure that at some point in his life, my son’s over active imagination will serve him well . . .

In our final installment, elephants, chimps and a leopard take the stage.

Our first destination was reserve, next we stopped for two days at Sasaab which was a small open air hotel. Our final stay was Meru National Park, we skipped the Masai Mara due to strife in Nairobi.

Jambo (hello), from SaSaab, SaSaab is named after the local shrub in this area. This is a small hotel which was built to support the Samburu tribe here at the park. The hotel contributes to the tribe and the upkeep of the park in exchange for using the land. It is a win win situation. There are over six hundred families living here in the westgate community conservancy on the Ngutuk Ongiron Ranch and 3500 members.

This evening we hiked along the Ewaaso Nyiro river, some of us rode the camels, which was quite an experience. I personally do not care for camels, not only do they have bad breath but they have big teeth which are adept at snapping. It is an awkward ride at best and that is if you manage to not fall off while the camel heaves itself to its feet. There are crocs along the river, fortunately we do not see any. Our guide has a large A K 47, I only know this because my son pointed it out. The guide is very casual with his weapon, half the time the firing end is pointing at us as it is slung across his shoulder. Apparently he is not worried about lions, buffulo or rhino. I am doing enough worrying for all of us.

While here at SaSaab, we visited the Samburu village. Our guide, Robinson, yes named after the famous Robinson Corusoe. Robinson gave us a brief rundown of the Samburu culture and told us to ask questions and take pictures, the tribes people expect this.

The very small kids (goats and children) were quietly observing us. The children were barely old enough to walk and wore only shirts. To my mind, this was an ingenious way to potty train. Robinson told us that the round huts which were made of elephant manure and solidified with elephant urine. Acacia and Senegal branches formed the structure of the hut which consisted of thee room. Once inside I saw that goat hides covered the floors and walls. Most of the cooking is done inside the hut, I would guess it would get a bit smokey inside as there was no hole in the roof. The samburu have virtually no possessions, I saw several backpacks hanging on the walls, these contained each family members worldly goods. The tribe moves several times a year in order to find good grazing for the cattle.

I misunderstood Robinson when he said the “kids” were kept in the very small huts outside the huts. I actually peered inside one, only to find that the “kids” were a baby goats. Fortuantely I did not say anything to Robinson about the childrens living situations.

One more thing about the Samburu people. After the days chores are finished (by the women only), it is time to relax and enjoy the evenings activites.

“Jambo, fellow tribe member what do you want to do tonight?”
“Well, we could listen to the one hundred year old man tell one of his stories or we could sing and dance.”
“Yes, I think I will jump the highest tonight, you just watch me jump straight up and down.”
“Well, you are sure to impress one of the many females that watch us, perhaps she will be one of your wives?”

This is not meant to ridicule the Samburu people, it is a statement about joy derived from simple things like dancing and singing. There are no cell phones here, there are no poorly behaved children. These are people who walk two hours for the privilage to vote for the next president, these are people who consider it an honor to be picked to receive an education. It certainly gives one pause to consider these things.

Meru National Park

We have now been charged by bull elephants no less than three times. I am sitting in the jeep, but a jeep is no match for the size and strength of an elephant. You just never know with elephants, the teenage elephants are kicked out of their heard when they start to challenge mama. I cannot help but think there is some wisdom to this in the animal kingdom, Lord knows how many times I have wanted to kick out my teenagers. However, unlike the teenage elephants, I am not sure how they would fend for themselves. You always know when you come across a bull, first of all, they have no friends, well maybe a few other cantankerous older elephants but they basically wander Kenya knocking over trees and making pests of themselves. The matriarchs head up the families and keep the peace. DO NOT get between a mother and her calf, never a good idea unless you want to, as Conner says, go home in a body bag.

Here in Meru it is unusually green which means that the animals do not need to stay in this park for water. They can wander everywhere as water is plentiful, an unusual occurance in the summer. The guides are disappointed, we do not know any better and are perfectly happy.

The other jeep was scared full on today when they came across a bull elephant. He ran straight at them from thirty feet away, maybe he had an elephant issue but clearly the jeep was on HIS territory. The guide calmly told his four passengers; “Do not move”. Craig later told me that there was no doubting the meaning in his voice.

The crabby elephant ran at them with his head down and his trunk swinging, dust was billowing around him. My cousin, Greg continued to take pictures, perhaps he was thinking of immortalizing the “death by elephant” attack. The elephant just as suddenly stopped, maybe a car length in front of the jeep. Craig was in the front seat and asked to be taken back to camp to change his pants.

as evening was settling in, we were peacefully driving back to camp when an elephant crossed the road in front of us, she was followed by her baby. We let them pass while I admire the picturesque scene. I contemplate a photo, it is growing dark. Something loud begins to move outside my window. I turn on my video camera…useless it is pictch dark now. Suddenly, an extremely loud trumpeting sound and more crashing of trees and bushes. I video tape the floor as I am so scared that I drop the camera and hop in the guides lap, but the elephant’s angry trumpeting comes through loud and clear.
The next morning in the jeep we experienced yet another crabby elephant. Once again, he was a male loner, ostrisized by his herd. He looked up and did not like what he saw, four people staring at him from a small crushable cubicle, the cubicle making noise in the unnaturally quiet enrinment. He begain stomping and trumpeting and trotted a few feet within the jeep. He stood at his tallest and raisest his trunk in order to look even taller. He had us beat by a country mile, he wins, he is the tallest. Now go home elephant, oh yes, you are home, we are the intruders. We very silently watch and wait for him to leave.

I have finally mastered the “military” shower, I no longer go to dinner with soap in my hair, although I cannot say the same for my neice. My son prefers to blend in with the animals and embrasses his “natural’ smell, his odor does not please the rest of us. His poor brother shares his tent and insisits of zipping it up tight every night, not a whiff of air gets into that tent so as to keep out all animals, slithering, crawling or slinking.

We are eating 5 meals a day, at some point I convince myself that this is a good thing. Never mind that these are three large meals and two heavy snacks. The Kenyans, like the English, go in for heavy tea. You know, scones, cakes, small sandwiches, the works. My pants are beginning to feel a bit tight, I would like to blame this on the dryer but as I have seen my clothes drying on bushes, I fear I will not be able to use this excuse.

I have notices that one of our guides is a jack of all trades and a master of all trades. I cannot understand how one man has accomplished so much in his life. When I questioned him about this, he said he really has only had about three careers. I wonder which career it was that trained him to ease himself into a anethistised leopards cage and then drag said leopard out of the cage…all 160 lbs of leopard. The game keepers on staff were too nervous to do this task. When questioned about this, the guide said; “well, I could see that noone wanted to do the job, so I just did it.” What a refreshing attitude, I am wondering if he could come home with me and do all of the jobs that I don’t want to do. I refrain from asking him this question as I do not believe that washing windows would be challenging enough for him.

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