Wednesday, August 28, 2013

To Get a Liter of Water...

This afternoon, we went out to collect a sample of river water from one of our sites. This was a fairly simple task we were fitting in at the end of a long day, and we expected it to take about 30 minutes. At this site, there is a small track you can drive down, but at some point, you have to park and walk several hundred meters through the bush. We were fortunate to be escorted by a Mara Conservancy ranger named Julius, who is an excellent ranger with whom we have worked before.

As we were walking through the fairly open shrubland, Geemi and Julius suddenly stopped and crouched down. Feeling blind to whatever was in front of us, I stopped and crouched down, too, waiting for an explanation. Julius had spotted a hippo wallowing in a small, mud pit about 75 m ahead of us. I have no idea how he saw this, as I couldn't see the hippo even after it was pointed out to me! These rangers aren't just invaluable because they're armed-- they also have amazing eyesight and an incredible sense of wildlife and the bush.

Hippos are the most dangerous when they're on land, and you get between them and the water, which is exactly where we were heading. I was ready to turn around and call it quits for the day, but Julius strategically threw a branch just towards where the hippo was basking. It was just enough to startle the hippo without hitting it, but the hippo stood up a bit angry and confused, and we held our breaths as we waited to see which way it would run. Fortunately, he headed away from the direction the branch had come from; however, he only went about 20 m before stopping. A bit hesitantly following Julius's lead, we continued to follow up from behind, with Julius throwing branches at strategic intervals, and the hippo gradually moving along, until he finally returned back to the river.

This was about 5:30, so all the hippos are in the river and a bit alert at this time, as it's right before they come out to feed for the night. Hippos are notoriously territorial, and we could hear the ripple effect of this lone hippo returning to the river through the calls and grunts of other hippo groups up and down the river. As we headed to our normal river entry point, which follows a hippo trail down the 7 m tall riverbank, all the hippos were now spread out evenly between access points, and all the males seemed a bit flustered and argumentative. Just standing on the bank, they were bluff charging us, snorting, diving and re-surfacing, and generally acting very unwelcoming.

Again, I was ready to turn back for the car, but Julius carefully walked along the bank, looking for a break in the ranks of hippos. Finding a spot safely nestled between two different family groups, he suggested we could safely approach the river there. Geemi and I went down, and he quickly took a water sample while I recorded readings from one of our water quality meters. Just as I was noting the final reading, Geemi said, "Amanda, a large hippo!" Suffice to say, that reading was unintelligible in my notebook. I jumped back and saw a large momma hippo surface about 15 m in front of us with the smallest baby hippo I have ever seen. Mothers and their babies will often go a bit away from the family group to protect their young ones from larger, dominant males, and we had unintentionally disrupted this mother's nursery. I quickly re-wrote the last reading in better hand-writing, and we walked back up the bank to the higher and safer ground.

As we walked back towards the car, we were all on high alert after our close encounter with the wallowing hippo, but feeling a bit relaxed about being done with the river. We were about 100 m from the car, but still in dense shrubland, when I heard the sound of breaking branches, coming not just from a single point, but from a wide swath. I motioned to Julius, and he said unconvincingly, "It's just branches." But there was no wind blowing, and I had only heard this type of sound from one other thing... elephants.

Elephants will break branches as they are walking through a forest to feed on leaves at the tops of the trees, and maybe for other reasons I don't know, but this sound was coming quickly, like a large herd running towards us. Just as I was processing the possibility that a herd of elephants was running towards us, Geemi, who is normally a bit more calm about animal encounters than I am, said, "Animals!" with a sense of alarm I have never before heard in his voice, and took off running. I could see Julius had had the same realization, and had also taken off running, although a bit more strategically, watching the direction of the noise and holding his gun at the ready. All I could think was, "Stay close to Julius!," and I took off running too.

As I dodged through the bushland, I tried to think through our options... the car was too far to run to, and it was through a clearing. As highly as I think of Julius, I wasn't sure one armed ranger was going to stop a herd of elephants. To our left was a steep drop to the river full of unwelcoming hippos. We were surrounded by small, bushy trees that you could never climb, and were shorter than an elephant anyway. Who the hell gets trampled by a herd of elephants?

All of a sudden, Julius stopped running and seemed totally calm. "It's just wildebeest," he said. My heart was racing like a herd of elephants by that point. "Are you sure?", I asked, interested in more evidence that I no longer need to fear for my life. But he was sure, and even though I couldn't see or hear anything to support his claims, I knew he must be right. I'm telling you, these guys are good! We all had a little laugh about the "herd of elephants" scare, got in the car and drove out of the bush to a clearing where a small herd of wildebeest were milling around, looking just as startled by us as we had been by them.

Geemi placed our hard-won liter of river water in the cooler, looked over at me, and exercised the perfect use of a new English word I have been teaching him. "Epic?" he asked. "Epic!" I replied.
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