Kenya’ Feel It? (2): First Night by the River
posted more than a month ago
The first thing that greeted us in Mpala Wildlife Conservancy was the gigantic buffalo skull on top of the welcome sign at the entrance. It was more exhilarating than frightening. After over twenty hours of transit from America and six painful hours of sitting in a poorly-ventilated car, we were finally here – the wild side of Kenya.
Mpala is an unfenced savanna landscape where ranching is allowed but managed at low density. Wild animals enter and exit freely, making it part of a much bigger ecosystem. Because of the co-existence of livestock and wildlife and the variety of habitats encompassed in the vast space, Mpala is an interesting place to a lot of ecology researchers. This is also why my nine classmates and I decided to leave our beautiful campus in New Jersey for three months.
We got off at the one-and-only campsite near the major river of the area, and by near, I mean the campsite was literally just a few steps away from the riverside. We gathered at the communal tent for a briefing. Then we were assigned to our sleeping tents. I was so eager to see my new home, but the wheels of my suitcase were so stuck in the grassy soil of the campsite’s ground that it was impossible to run or even walk normally. After some tiring dragging, I made it there.
Ooh, what a view. The muddy river was flowing calmly and steadily at a low level from the right to the left, carrying the sediments from upstream. Lining the riverbank were several giant Fever Trees that just looked so stereotypically tropical, so much so that it was as if monkeys would hop off from their branches to bathe in the river at any given second. Further away from the trees on the other side of the river was a meadow covered with pale brown grass and sparse trees that appeared significantly less green than those closer to the river. The whole picture was by no means spectacular or even beautiful, but it was so real and natural. It just screamed “African,” so loudly that it was almost unbelievable.
I stood there, holding my camera while looking around to spot a wild animal because really, what animal wouldn’t come out to show itself in such an African environment? After some 5 minutes of painstaking scanning, I finally saw one – a duck chilling in the river – in fact, it was so far away that it might not even be a duck. All I could say was it was a waterfowl since it was submerged in water. I tried to take some pictures of it, but the lens of my little Lumix didn’t allow me to magnify the alleged duck to more than the size of a grain in my picture. Seriously, this was all I saw? Where did all the animals go?
Soon it was 5:30pm. There was no power there whatsoever, so past sunset a lot of things would be impossible to do, such as taking a shower – unless you are a fan of showering in an unfamiliar place in absolute darkness. To take a shower, I first needed to fetch water that was heated by the campsite workers using firewood. Then I would carry the water to a nearby thatch-roofed hut where the shower cubicles were located. Each cubicle was equipped with an empty bucket hooked to the ceiling in a pulley system. I would pour the water in, pull the bucket up until it was overhead, stand in and turn the handle of the dispenser attached to the bottom of the bucket to start the shower. The fixed amount of water meant that shower time was limited. It was really a constant competition. Am I going to wash away all the soap before the water shuts down on me? Intense.
By 7 o’clock, we finished our first dinner at the campsite. The only sources of light were the two kerosene lanterns on the table and the headlamps we had been told to be extremely important to bring from home. It was also cold. Nights on the tropical savanna, contrary to my previous ignorant expectation, were indeed pretty chilly. I had to wear a hoodie not to get sick from the cool temperature. The biggest concern we had, though, was the nightly creatures lurking around. Although there were fences around the campsite that kept big things like elephants, lions or buffalos away, small things like hares, bushbabies and snakes could still enter the area (when I first heard the name “bushbaby”, I was like “…like the baby of a bush?” It turned out to be a lemur-like mammal that lives in tree canopies and makes calls that sound like babies’ cries). Paranoid about any moving things that may exist in the campsite other than humans, I kept shining my headlamp in all directions when I was walking to the bathroom to brush my teeth.
Everything was good – until I saw something glowing in the bushes not far away. It was two greenish dots that were very close to the ground, and they weren’t moving. What could they be? Nothing was supposed to emit light in the middle of the road like this…
Then I started freaking out.
THOSE ARE EYES. CATS’ EYES GLOW IN DARKNESS. HOLY COW IT MUST BE A LION. IT MUST BE A LION.
Quickly I shone my headlamp over, and I saw a cute little hare munching some grass.
At the moment of revelation, I did feel really dumb.
On that note, my first night in the safari was concluded. I had yet to see an African mammal (no, hares didn’t count); the night was chilly; and showering was a battle. With no internet but food coma and jetlag, I went to bed soon after I brushed my teeth, so as the rest of the crew. It was 7:30pm.
It was the earliest I had ever went to bed, and it was a glorious sleep. I guess that wasn't a bad preparation for the first field day that we were going to have on the next day?