I am not claiming that I experience an acute sense of awareness either to reality or some state of elevated artistic appreciation at 5:45 in the morning, but let me continue. The past two mornings, though not spectacular to speak of, have stuck in my mind.
March 30th and we have made it down the High Road and entered Happy Zebra territory. I am driving a small Suski manual transmission vehicle. This vehicle has a short enough wheel base to ensure you spend some quality time up off of your seat as you bounce from one destination to the next. As I drive one hand is dedicated to steering, shifting, and general control of the vehicle. The other hand and about 95% of my conscious attention floats a full open top mug of coffee with a mix of diligence and desperation. The road is slicked with just enough mud that the loose tail end of the Susuki does not allow much opportunity for drinking my coffee. Somewhat predisposed with my commuting frustrations I am abruptly brought out of my sulking condition at the sight of a large yellow mass of fur. Usually if a large yellowish furry mass if forced upon me in a drowsy state it means my dog, Gunnison, has decided I have slept long enough. (Ok this may be a stretch...but remotely similar?)
Yesterday the yellowish fur belonged to a male lion sacked out in the middle of the road. Given little actual choice, but not wishing otherwise, I slowed the vehicle to a stop about 15m from the lion and I think you could say we shared a moment. You know the kind, similar to most of those drowsy encounters we have around coffee pots and in break rooms in offices and on commutes…a few cups down and complete thoughts begin to form and it looks like we’ll at least make it until lunch. Soon the sun broke, my coffee was nearing its end and the lion had stood to leave. As he walked off the road the lion let out bellowing roar (I had no idea you could feel that in your chest when so close by) and I agreed it was time to part…things to do places to be. But as I drove off I was already anticipating the next time we might share a causal drink; I am hoping an evening beer.
Today it is March 31 and I am the passenger instead of the driver. Maybe because I was relieved of the responsibility of driving the car, or maybe with this freedom and two available hands I was able to achieve a more caffeinated state by 6:15am…either way I felt more aware today then yesterday. Cast in the mist evaporating off the river and recently flooded swamp that makes up the lowland part of North territory, I could not see much beyond the hood of our vehicle. This morning what I saw would impress upon me less than what I would smell.
Carried on the droplets of aerosolized water came an unforgettably familiar smell dating to summers of my past. Half a world away I could only imagine John Deere, a milk parlor, Holsteins, and a dairy farm tucked neatly into a valley of the Appalachian Mountains. The catalyst carrying me back to the Reunioun was the smell of bovids; here African Buffalo, and there milk cows but indiscernible to the nose. Though I enjoyed the comfort of these memories, I wonder…starting the day now as late as 5:30am, have I grown soft with some age. If I recall milking is underway by 4am.
I had no intention of continuing on with today’s events but then again I also did not invite the lions to camp this evening. To start evening obs were canceled because of rain. I began to read “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” by Dr. Robert Sapolsky. The book opens with some generalizations about stress responses and how humans and other animals are well adapted to deal with acute stressors. Sapolsky continues by addressing relationships of the ever more common human (particularly westernized) diseases and stress…the luxury to worry chronically?
This being said, I had begun reading this afternoon/evening as a last resort. Caught up in complications of my dead computer batter, cloud cover (limiting solar power), and the camp confining rain I was left with nothing but time. So I began to worry about emailing edits back to co-authors on a manuscript we are writing, the small but ever growing pile of data transcriptions I wanted to type, and a number of other equally trivial personal business matters I wanted to cross off my list. Not long after reading through Sapolsky’s opening text I was beginning to feel all too familiar with the over activated allostatic compensation which in time would likely be the death of me. But at last relief.
Sometime after 5pm, what started as distant roars was moving increasingly closer to camp. Around this time I saw a group of impala out on the breakfast plain (the grass plain which we view from our lab tent) were becoming noticeably aware. I would soon learn that the worries of these Impala were sufficiently more justified than my own anticipatory anxiety caused by laptop failure.
Seeing the first two lionesses from where I had been reading I moved to the edge of camp for a better view. From my new vantage (between 50-100 yds of where the lions were moving up the hill through the thicket) crouched by a bush I saw another lioness. She also saw me and after making her awareness to my presence known with a stare, she also continued up the hill. A few other lions passed through and occasionally one would roar but otherwise went by making no disturbance. As the roaring faded up over the hill I realized my laptop had lost priority. I think I owe that lioness who took the time to stare at me a ‘thanks’. On the ground removed from the ‘luxury’ of a safari vehicle I had a glimpse of that adaptive stress response Sapolsky described…acute stressor, HPA cascade, allostatic compensation, and realization that oh yeah it is nice to be alive. I am not envious of the impala or zebra etc., but I can appreciate the change in perspective that can only come from encounters with the likes of lions and tigers and bears.
As I said the roaring from x number of lionesses and juvenile lions had trailed off into the night and by around 7:00pm so had my thinking of it. Nearing dinner, Meg the other RA, was making her way down the path to the vehicles. She was on her way to pick up John and Linda (dog trainers working with the Ranger out post starting a program that would use hounds to track poachers in the Mara). Little more than halfway down the path, Meg mentions that I ought to come take a look…
The lions were back, but his time moving silently past the camp shower, the vehicles and a few tents at the east side of camp. Illuminated by head lamps 7 or so pairs of eye shines made their way through our camp and again out of sight.
For dinner we enjoyed a fried feast of somosa and french fries in excess, washed down with warm Tusker (an African lager). John and Linda shared pictures from the day’s poacher camp raid. Poachers (mostly from Tanzania) in pursuit of bush meat use snares and a variety of other tools to catch and kill hippos, zebras, wildebeest and other animals that happen into their traps. Snares are made from steel tire cords (the rubber is burnt off) and the poachers use spears for hippos, as well as bows and arrows (tipped with various toxic plant and cobra venom based concoctions). Once killed bush meat is taken out of sight into a thicket where the poachers camp. The meat is cut off the animal in haste and laid out on leaves to dry before transport…FDA approved fast food.
Well anyway less I further digress. the five poachers apprehended this day were tipped off by a marauding hyena and the careful observations of John and Linda. The hyena must have raided the poacher camp and was seen eating a suspiciously symmetrical, geometric chunk of hippo meat. In short the location of the clepto-hyena lead the rangers to the poacher camp to make the arrest.
Dinner ended and the night was drawing to a close (it was already 8:30-9:00pm). Meg left with our visitors to take them home as I carried the dishes to the kitchen tent. As the car was preparing to leave the driveway, I could not figure out why Moses, Jorgi (camp caretakers) and I were being high beamed in the kitchen tent.
The group of 7-11 lions had silently re-emerged. This time they weaved in and out of the trees and on the paths around the kitchen tent. What struck me was not their numbers or an overt sense of danger or aggression from the lions, but rather their self-invited comfort in our camp. At times only 10m from the tents they readily helped themselves to drinks of water from our buckets and traveled the trails as it though it was the reason why those paths were maintained.
I am no lion expert and have yet only seen a small number of lions. Still compared to the lazy sun bathing kitty cats that have thus been my lion experience, this evenings lions seemed different. This inclination started when I first met the stare of the lioness initially passing by camp earlier that evening. My presumption continued to develop finding some confirmation, or at least exaggeration (product of a naïve mind conditioned by experiences in safe woods full of Bambi and bunnies back in the US) in the activity of the lions last seen around the kitchen tent. Their movements, motivated; their stares, apathetic to our presence; and their proximity, though slightly surreal, undeniable.
Apparently ‘simba’ never comes into tents and knows that people are not food. Still it has been a long time since the buffet of wildebeest last left the Mara. It is not unreasonable to think one might get hungry awaiting the migration’s return.