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A disappointing ending

I took this photo of elephant skulls outside Iain's research center as the two old bulls inside clashed. Photo by David Lansing.

Last night at dinner I told Pete that I was going to leave Elephant Watch Camp in the morning. Calvin and the boys arrived last night, having driven down from Lake Paradise, and there was just something here that wasn’t sitting right with me so I thought it best to move on. Pete was supposed to drive back to Nairobi with us but since he wasn’t ready to go, he’s had a conversation with Iain and will now hitch a ride back with him on his plane in two days. Pete has been up in the air with Iain before and knows it’s risky business, but he’s very close to the Douglas-Hamiltons and doesn’t get to see them very often and is loathe to cut his visit short, even if it means having to hold his breath while Iain flies them to Nairobi. (I mentioned before that Iain has a less than stellar history flying planes but didn’t mention that the current Cessna he pilots was given to him by the late Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands after Iain collided with a zebra several years ago; the zebra obviously got the worst of it, but Iain’s plane was destroyed as well.)

Frankly, things just haven’t gone right since the moment we arrived here. I’m turned off by Iain’s sanctimonious arrogance and disgusted with the legions of mini-vans scampering around Samburu chasing the wildlife. It’s just not what I expected. And every time we’ve tried to get a jump on the masses with an early start there’s been some sort of a delay that’s forced us to either abandon plans or get a late start. I feel like we’re simply not able to do or see what it is we’ve come here for. So best, I think, to leave.

But our departure this morning turned out to be overly complicated. The idea was to leave at the break of day and maybe do a little game-viewing on our way out of Samburu, but first we had to wait for the Douglas-Hamiltons to come down for breakfast, which wasn’t until after eight, and then Iain insisted that we pop over to the Save the Elephants research camp a few klicks downriver. Which would have been fine if that’s what had happened. Instead, both Iain and Calvin rather hijacked the morning by getting into a long, protracted argument about wildlife conservation and hunting. It was interesting for about the first 15 or 20 minutes but then these two bull elephants just started stomping the ground and trumpeting as loudly as they could while the rest of us sat around waiting for the test for dominance to end. It was a silly contest and I think both Iain and Calvin realized that. Calvin was never going to get Iain to say that he thought hunting should play a role in managing Kenya’s wildlife, and Iain was never going to get Calvin to agree that the hunting ban had, at the very least, saved the elephants. It was like a debate between a devout Muslim and a born again Christian over whether a mosque should be built at Ground Zero in New York.

After about an hour of the two slamming their tusks into each other, I finally got up and walked out of the research center and went for a walk along the river. I was as angry and upset as the vervets had been the day before at the baboons. I was angry that this visit to Elephant Watch Camp had gone so wrong and I was upset that I had allowed Pete to twist my arm into shortening other parts of our itinerary to come here. It had been a mistake. And I wasn’t sure he realized his role in all of it.

Leaving the Elephant Watch Camp in Samburu. Photo by David Lansing.

Finally, sometime around noon, the two bulls exhausted themselves in battle and broke it off. We all made our farewells and thanks with lots of insincere handshakes and waves as we pulled away from camp. As we bounced over the dusty road, Calvin half-apologized, admitting that there was nothing to be gained from his argument with Iain. “He means well,” he said, “and we both want the same thing. We just come at the solution from different angles.”

I tried to get over my anger but it wasn’t easy. It sat on my shoulders pressing down on me like the weight of some very large, dark animal. As an exercise, I started thinking of all the things that had been wonderful about Kenya up until our stop in Samburu. Spending an afternoon watching cheetah hunts; flying over the Mara and witnessing the astonishing wildebeest migration; a morning with the elephants at Sarara; my first view late in the afternoon of Lake Paradise. It has been an astonishing trip and, I told myself, it was silly to let all this nonsense at Elephant Watch Camp ruin it. I had very little time left in Africa. It would be a long, hideous drive to Nairobi and then a couple of days there before heading back to London. I needed to enjoy these last few days. Still, I couldn’t help but feels a sadness inside of me and a feeling that the trip was all but over.


The monkey wars

Vervet monkeys groom each other after the war. Photos by David Lansing.

War has broken out between the baboons and the monkeys at Elephant Watch Camp. Yesterday morning at breakfast I noticed dozens and dozens of baboons moving downriver along the south bank of the Ewaso Ngiro River, marching in single file, one after the other, the way an army troop might move if they were positioning themselves for battle.

The vervets, with their little round faces and long ratty tails, picking acacia pods in the trees overhead of our camp, seemed nervous and upset. They made little squeaking noises and danced from limb to limb looking anxiously across the river.

Baboons gathering along the river. Photo by David Lansing.

The baboons appear to be a nomadic troop, opportunists who, like the shiftas that trouble this area, look for a weakness in local defenses, steal what they can, and then move on. They are quite shifty and know how to act in concert, like con men; if you’re eating out in the bush, one baboon will slowly approach you and if you are foolish enough to get up to shoo him away, two or three other baboons will come out of nowhere to quickly steal whatever you’ve left behind.

Not that the monkeys are much better. They’re also quite accomplished thieves. Yesterday morning a Samburu came by my tent shortly after dawn with a tray with tea and fruit and rolls. I was still lazing in bed and told him to just leave it on the table outside my zipped up tent but he wouldn’t do it. Said the monkeys would steal it the minute he put it down. And even if I took the tray into my zipped up tent, they might have a go at it if I walked away to take a shower or go to the loo. “They will unzip your tent,” the Samburu told me. “They are very clever, these monkeys.”

Anyway, sometime during the night there was a battle royal between the nomadic troop of baboons and the resident vervets. The sounds of battle echoed across the camp throughout the night. It sounded horrific. When I woke up this morning I half expected to see the baboons, which are much larger than the vervets and have such awful canine teeth, triumphantly marching around the camp, but there were none to be seen. The vervets were sitting in the branches of the large sausage tree in front of the mess tent, grooming each other and munching on pods in the trees. Evidently they’d survived last night’s battle. But I have a feeling the war isn’t over.


A fight for lions

A view of the Ewaso Ngiro with clustered minivans fighting to view the lions. Photos by David Lansing.

We were driving along the banks of the Ewaso Ngiro River very late in the afternoon. The sun had already fallen behind the hills and the air was suffused with a golden duskiness that put an ethereal sheen on the water so that it looked like a river of gold. A troop of baboons marched across the far bank, the totos riding on their mother’s backs. Several egrets stood in the shallows just yards away from the raised heads of crocodiles.

We had maybe half an hour of light left before it would be too dark to see anything but Simeon was on a mission. He’d heard from another guide that a pair of lions was roaming along the riverbanks somewhere around here and he was trying to find them. At a point that stretched out into the river where it made a sharp right turn, he stopped the Toyota and got out the binoculars, scanning the banks downriver.

Lions along the Ewaso Ngiro. Photo by David Lansing.

“Lion,” he said. “Two of them.” They were sitting in brush on a raw bank of the river that had been eroded during the flood in March, serenely gazing out on the scene before them. They didn’t look to be hunting. Just catching the last rays of the sun and enjoying the passing of the river.

Simeon gunned the Toyota and we hurried over the rutted river road, the vehicle bouncing and jostling us about as he sped through potholes and over rocks. About fifty yards short of where we’d seen the lions we came to a Y in the road. Coming up one part of the Y towards us was a white mini-van with five or six tourists in it. They’d also either seen or heard about the lion sighting. Simeon floored the Toyota, trying to cut off the mini-van before we both reached the point where the two roads merged into one, but the other driver was quicker and pulled ahead of us.

Within minutes there were two, then three, then four other game lodge mini-vans, all headed for the same destination. By the time we got to where the road ended at the river’s edge, there were six different vehicles all pushed up against each other, heads sticking out of open roofs, cameras clicking away. Simeon tried to maneuver the Toyota off-road so that we might have an unimpeded view of the lions, but every time he shifted position, one or two of the other vehicles did as well. Everyone was trying to get in the front of the pack, as close to the lions as possible. It was ridiculous. It felt like we were all a pack of hyenas, snapping and nipping at each other. Here we’d made a special trip to come to Samburu because Pete was afraid that the Masai Mara would be touristy and full of mini-vans and it hadn’t been the Mara where we had freeway jams of mini-vans but in Samburu.

We told Simeon to forget about jostling with the other vehicles and to move on. We backed out from the river and drove further down the road to a high point that looked back at where we’d been. The two lions, annoyed by all the activity, had left their restful perch over the river and were slowly ambling along the banks upriver, away from the vehicles. We stayed just long enough for Pete to shoot some photos of the beautiful golden river at sunset and the clusterfuck of vehicles gathered along the banks.

It made me realize how fortunate we’d been on this trip. We’d traveled from the Tanzania border almost all the way to Lake Turkana and this was the first time we’d been out game viewing where we actually had to hassle with other mini-vans and tourists. Everywhere else we’d been, from Cottars 1920s Safari Camp to Sarara to Lake Paradise, we’d practically had the place to ourselves. We’d been spoiled. But it just goes to show you that when you come to Africa, you need to due your research. Or you’ll end up fighting a dozen mini-vans to get a look at a couple of lions. And that takes all the pleasure out of the experience.


Rebuilding Elephant Watch Camp

My tent room at Elephant Watch Camp. Photos by David Lansing.

I have given short shrift to Oria Douglas-Hamilton (nee Rocco), the other half of the Save the Elephants/Elephant Watch Camp team. Oria grew up along the shores of Lake Naivasha where, of course, the wildlife filmmaker Joan Root lived and was murdered five years ago this January. As Oria writes of herself, in the early ‘70s she had “a whirlwind courtship carried on via small aircraft and irregular messages” with Iain before the two married and moved to Lake Manyara in Tanzania where Iain was studying elephants.

Everyone I talked to about her told me she was her own force of nature and just as much a spitfire as her husband, and I’d have to agree with that. She’s a very strong woman, as one has to be to survive out here and run a successful business (or several of them; in addition to running Elephant Watch Camp, Oria also runs Olerai House and Sirocco House on the shores of Lake Naivasha).

What I have found most amazing during my stay at Elephant Watch Camp is the realization that the whole thing was destroyed back in March and Oria had to rebuilt it from scratch.

From a press release by Save the Elephants on March 4: “Early this morning Save the Elephants research facility and Elephant Watch Safari Camp located in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, were completely destroyed by unexpected flooding of the Ewaso Ngiro River, along with seven other neighbouring lodges. At approximately 5 a.m. this morning, a wall of water akin to a tsunami surged through Elephant Watch Camp, catching tourists and staff unawares and sweeping away tents and facilities. It has been confirmed that camp owner Oria Douglas-Hamilton and guests managed to escape to safety by climbing to higher ground. Several members of staff were trapped in trees until the water subsided later today.”

Painted shower buckets at Elephant Watch Camp. Photo by David Lansing.

Yet here we are and the camp looks wonderful. The photo above shows my room which, like all the rooms, is built around a tree (I have to remember to duck my head when using the loo as a very low branch cuts directly through the entry way). A thatched roof covers a sandy area covered with sisal mats and behind that is the tented bedroom with mosquito netting. What you can’t see behind the netting are the colorful streams of fabric hanging from the ceiling like billowing sails “to celebrate,” as Oria puts it, “the soul of nomads.”

Oria is very insistent that everything be as ecologically green as possible and so there is solar heating of the water and solar electricity and the lights in my tent use rechargeable batteries. Although there’s a river just feet away from the tents, the water is too muddy for anything other than damping down the sandy soil and washing. Drinking water, as well as water for washing and showering, comes from a deep well that was dug for the camp. When you want to take a shower, you let someone know and a bucket of solar-heated hot water is brought to your tent and poured into a colorfully-decorated pail that has a shower nozzle attached to the bottom. No lollygagging here, for when the water is gone, it’s gone. Which can be a real problem if you haven’t gotten all the soap out of your hair. But it certainly makes you appreciate how precious water is in this dry part of the country.


What a cranky elephant can do

Iain and his smashed truck. It took a lickin' but kept on tickin'. Photos by David Lansing.

I just had to run this photo of Iain Douglas-Hamilton standing next to this smashed Toyota pickup. There’s a story here, of course.

An elephant’s life expectancy is about the same as a human’s, and just like us, you can pretty much divide it into three parts. For the first twenty years or so, they are just growing up and trying to figure things out. For the next thirty years, a male elephant is in his breeding prime. And then for another twenty or twenty-five years they grow old and grumpy and die. As Robert Ruark wrote of this stage, “There would come a day when another bull would challenge him and defeat him and drive him off from the herd, and he would then roam about with his own acolytes, growing older and sourer and fuller of malice toward everything. His feet would hurt and his teeth would ache from decay in the mammoth nerve, and ants would crawl up his trunk and drive him mad. He would run amok and trample native shambas and crush in the water holes, and finally somebody from the Game Department would come along and shoot him and take his tusks back to the D.C. in Isiolo.”

So, two researchers from Save the Elephants were out in the field doing their thing when they came upon one of these old, bad-tempered rogue elephants (I think Iain told me it was Pretty Bom Bom, but I can’t remember for sure). Probably his feet hurt and his teeth ached and he was undoubtedly in a foul mood for, without provocation, he  charged the researcher’s Toyota. You see that little crease on the door just to the left of the Save the Elephants logo? Well, that’s where the bull first hit. His tusk glanced off the door and went through the window and came out through the roof. Then he rolled the Toyota.

Pete McBride ready to go look for elephants. Photo by David Lansing.

Amazingly, it landed back on its wheels. But the old fella wasn’t through. He came back for a second charge and this time his tusk went clear through the back seat and came out the middle of the roof. You can see the entry and exit points and all you can think is, My god, those poor people inside the Toyota must have been smashed and bloodied.

But, no, they were not. Miraculously, neither researcher was hurt. And the bull elephant, having spent his anger, marched off.

But here’s the really remarkable thing: After the elephant left, the two quivering researchers wondered how in the world they were going to get back to the research center. Because they were crazy with fear and not thinking clearly, they tried to start the pickup. And it cranked right up. And drove just fine all the way back.

It still works. Iain told me that when they want to freak out Samburu tourists going around in minivans, they’ll crawl into the wrecked pickup and drive it around. “We always get a chuckle out of that,” he says.

So just for fun, I had the photographer, Pete McBride crawl into the Toyota so I could take his picture. It wasn’t easy. He had to carefully slip through the shattered windshield, trying to avoid all the rusty sharp edges of the smashed frame and then fight through all the cobwebs and insect nests. But it made for a great photo.


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