Thursday, February 5, 2009

I should have been a cowboy

In my travels over the past several years I have found two of the best ways to really get to know a place to is travel on foot and to get your information from the locals, rather than a tourist destination. One goal of my research, and the Hyena Research Project in general, is to understand the local ecosystem as thoroughly as possible and answer questions associated with the ecology of the park. There is no substitute for first hand information, especially from people that have lived in the area their entire life. I would classify someone that can walk 20 kilometers in the dark, much of the time without a flashlight on, as someone that really knows the lay of the land. For this reason, I asked some of the local Maasai cow herders if I could accompany them herding cattle one night. I also thought it would be a sweet adventure, so this certainly was not a purely scientific expedition.

The night of February 4th, a local herder stopped by to meet me and we walked to join his fellow cowboys. The herders said the herd we were tending that night was 500 cows, but I would estimate it was closer to 250. We had seven real Maasai herders and one mzungu (white guy) wannabe herder for the job. Four other Maasai acquaintances of mine actually showed up to see if I was actually going to go through with my plan. They said hello, laughed a bit at my unusual attire (sunglasses, backpack, no jacket, lack of a spear, etc...) then headed back to their manyatta.

The cattle herd

Three of the seven cowboys for the night (there is eight if you count me, but I was quite useless except for having several flashlights)

For the past two weeks it has rained nearly everyday and I expected this night would be no exception. Soon after we began, it was clear we were in for rain. The worst of the rain was to the West and to the Southeast, but we got out share. By 7:05 we had our first bullfight of the night. Two of the dominant bulls in the herd locked horns and set the tone for the night. A young cowboy told me the black bull was his father's and the white bull was another manyatta. We crowded around to watch the fights with much excitement. It looked to me like Andrew's bull was getting the best of Fred's, but Fred insisted his bull was the bravest. This was later verified, as this large bull continued to throw his weight around the entire night. At one point nearly driving another bull to the ground.

My inexperience in cattle herding in the Mara first became apparent when I stuck my herding stick down into a termite mound. I have heard many stories of people eating termites and I was thinking of having a snack. I let go of the stick and it dropped nearly one meter into the hole! I thought I had lost my herding stick for a second. A few laughs from the crew and we were moving again.

Bullfight #1 between two heavyweights

Rain looming on the horizon

Around 9pm, we had our first talk of lions in the area. As a rookie in the cattle herding game, I would not have noticed, but Fred told me that when the cattle stop grazing and sniff the ground or the air, they have probably caught the scent of a lion. In this case, a group of cattle was sniffing the ground, so the herders went to inspect. The grass was matted down and they managed to find a hair they said was from a lion. The cattle remained wary and at one point there was commotion on the right side of the herd. Most of the herders took off running towards the commotion thinking a lion may be attacking, but it turned out to be another battle of the bulls. Crisis averted. The cows continued to pick up the scent of lions and I was told at one point there were probably lions in the bushes nearby, but they never materialized.

At 11:30pm, the cattle were showing signs of fatigue, so it was time to rest. We rested in the wet grass for a little over an hour. Most of the cattle did the same. It was getting cold by this point, so some of the herders used each other to conserve body heat. Around 12:30am we were moving again the sky broke open again and soaked anything that may have dried in the previous two hours. My shoes were soaked and it felt like there was a tack stuck in my toe, but most of the guys were expecting me to not make it through the night, so I kept this to myself and trudged on, still in good spirits. I had realized early in the night that it felt warmer when I was near a large part of the herd. The body heat generated by these large mammals pushed a wave of warm air in front of them, followed closely by a smell common to any barn or ranch I have been to in the states.

Earlier in the evening, between the thunderstorms, the moon had illuminated the landscape. The latest rains had blotted the moon out of the sky and its almost totally dark and I was at times clueless as to our location. Some of these guys had been herding cattle since they were 4 years old, so they could have found there way with their eyes closed. On a couple of occasions I did actually see them walking slowly with their eyes closed. We found one guy sleeping standing up. He was totally out, but still standing straight up, which amazed me. One of the herders was about 10 years old and he was given the most difficult duty of bringing up the rear and chasing the stray cows back into the group. I stayed with one of the senior guys while he walked ahead to look for lions, buffalo, elephants or whatever might be lurking in the darkness. After verifying there was no danger, he would often lay down for a little snooze. I refrained from napping because I had heard that cowboys occasionally get left behind when the herd moves on while they are asleep. My eyes were closed a couple times, but I would debate whether it was sleep or not.

Cowboys dozing in the wet grass with their spears and cattle nearby

By 4am, the cattle were apparently full. Many of them were just walking or standing and not grazing, which apparently means they have eaten their fill. I was happy to hear this, since this meant we would be moving towards home at a faster pace. My foot was throbbing and there was not a dry spot on my body, so the thought of a warm bed was attractive. We had walked about 13 kilometers by this point, but we had about 4 more kilometers to walk yet, and most of the distance had become one large puddle during the night.

We slipped and slid towards the manyattas where the cattle and herders lived and warm chai and fresh milk straight from the cow awaited, but when we got close, the cell phones began ringing and news came that the Talek River was too high to cross. Three of the herders then split with the group and walked me back to camp. The others waited at the river's edge for the water to subside. Back in camp, the group settled in for warm chai. The first drink most of the herders had had since leaving their manyattas more that 12 hours and 17 kilometers ago. Not only do they not bring water for the night, they don't bring food. After carrying my backpack the entire night and having my shoulders ache, I have decided that not carrying food or water may be a good idea. Around 7am the herders headed back to the cattle and I headed to bed. After plucking a few ticks from myself and tearing at several siafu (biting ants) out of my legs and arms, I was ready for sleep after being awake for more than 24 straight hours.

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