Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Flood

The Mara Conservancy ranger told us not to put our tent there...
but things had been going so well on our first camping adventure in the Mara that we didn't give too much credence to his warning.

We started our trip with a visit to our friend, Mark, who manages the Ol Choro Oiryua Conservancy and Rhino Sanctuary. This Maasai group ranchland turned wildlife conservation area is conveniently located near one of our study sites, and has absolutely beautiful scenery. Also, with nice canvas tents to sleep in, and even a bed and mattress in one, this was a gentle introduction to camping for Paul, our driver and field assistant. Although, I did still wake in the middle of the night to some animal rustling around the outside of our tent. This, I thought, is the quintessential African experience, laying in your tent, hearing an animal outside, and not knowing what it might be. The next morning, Mark asked if I had heard the rhino walking round the tents during the night!

The next day, we headed into the reserve and set up our tents for the first time under the big African sky. What a wonderful feeling! Chris and I enjoy camping so much back home, and I didn't know if we would be able to do it here. With no car, no camping equipment and large, man-eating animals roaming around, camping in Africa presented a bit of a challenge!

But we were determined, and with Paul's willing participation, we embarked on a new direction in our travels.

Paul really enjoyed camping, although he did appreciate a few comforts from home, like this solar powered cell phone charger Chris rigged up!

We had lovely weather, a campfire under the stars, good food and drink and no run-ins with wild animals! But trouble was on the horizon...

On our third night, we headed down to the New Mara Bridge, right where the Mara flows across the border from Kenya into Tanzania. This is also on the border between the Maasai Mara Reserve and the Mara Conservancy, two different management agencies for the park, so there is a guard station there. This is a spectacular section of river, and it becomes even more spectacular during the migration. For some reason, many of the wildebeest that die while crossing the Mara float down to this point and then recirculate in stagnant eddies for a while, hesitant to cross back into Tanzania without the rest of the herd. While this makes for a pretty bad smell, it also makes for a huge feast for African White-backed Vultures, Ruppel's Griffin Vultures, Lappet-faced Vultures, Sacred Ibis, Maribou Storks and others, not to mention the gigantic crocodiles!

Unfortunately, it wasn't only the vultures and the crocodiles hanging out in the putrid water. This is also one of the sites where we conduct intensive macroinvertebrate sampling, so we got to spend a couple hours hanging out with the wildebeest carcasses, too! In the picture below, you can see a few of them washed up on the rocks in the background.

As usual, though, we took a lot of precautionary measures, and we were always accompanied by an armed guard, although I think the crocodiles were too full of wildebeest to even think about us! With some ominous clouds on the horizon, the guard brought along his leopard-spotted umbrella.

Just as we finished sampling late in the afternoon, the dark clouds had really begun to gather. "It's going to rain cats and dogs," the guard told us, and I laughed, wondering where he had picked up that saying. As we headed back to the little guard shelter to process our samples, the guard gestured towards our campsite and suggested, for a second time, "You may want to move your tents. When it rains, a river sometimes forms there."

Now, I have a decent amount of camping under my belt, and looking at this flat, arid plain, it didn't look like a river had ever formed there. Plus, we had other things to do than move our tents around, so I figured we'd be alright for this one, little storm. But when the skies finally opened up, it was clear this was no ordinary rainstorm.

I don't know if I've ever seen rain like that in my life! It poured so hard and the wind blew so strongly, that you could barely see across the landscape. But we could see enough to know, when we looked out to check on our tents about 10 minutes into the storm, that one of our tents had collapsed.

Chris and I ran out into the rain to find, to our complete amazement, a river had formed right where our tents were! A 10 foot wide, 1 foot deep and rapidly rising river was rushing right around our tents! It had swept a log into Paul's tent that had caused it to collapse, soaking everything inside with muddy water. We carried his stuff out of the river and then went back to find, also to our amazement, that our tent was still dry (a plug for Coleman tents!). We relocated it to higher ground, and went back to rescue our propane tank and cast iron stove top, that was also being swept away.

It was truly amazing-- within minutes, the whole landscape had come alive with rivers and streams that you never would have imagined would form there. Here's a picture of the river that nearly took our tent right where it flowed into the Mara.

With our gear out of harm's way, we went out to take advantage of this incredible opportunity. We had been taking samples in the river all day long, so now we were able to take samples during and after the storm to learn more about how the river reacts to these large rainfall events.

We were able to get some great data showing how turbidity levels and sediment load rose dramatically, while the concentration of solutes in the water fell.

By the next morning, though, the river was almost back to the levels it had been before the storms. If we hadn't been camping there that night, we never would have known!

Fortunately, Paul was able to sleep inside the guard's shelter for the night, and he was able to laugh about the whole thing. He's even still enthusiastic about camping! All in all, it really was a gift from the river to get to witness this event, even if it did cost us a few tent poles:)

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