By Emily Thorne, IRES 2013
If you have ever had to pull to the side of the freeway at night, get down on your hands and knees, jack up your car and change a tire while trying to avoid being obliterated by passing semi-trucks, then you might be able to relate to my first day in the Mara. Only, instead of a freeway picture a dusty dirt road with grass as tall as your shoulders on either side. Instead of a fully functioning jack picture a broken jack and a few boulders. And instead of passing semi-trucks picture packed-to-the-brim tourist vehicles and add a less than happy herd of elephants separated from you by nothing more than a small patch of trees. Furthermore, imagine that this is not your first flat tire of the day.
It isn’t that I didn’t believe them when they told me we would experience a lot of car troubles here, it’s more that I had no idea how great the definition of “a lot” really was. Properly running vehicles are essential to hyena research as well as life in the Mara. They are our lifelines to the world outside of camp, our only source of transportation to and from the field, and they keep us from getting killed on a daily basis. Without the protection of our vehicles we would be easy targets for lions, hyenas, elephants and various other creatures every time we leave camp. Fieldwork here without a reliable vehicle is impossible. This means our multitude of car troubles is not only inconvenient and frustrating (not to mention expensive) but also detrimental to our work. Since I have been in Kenya our poor cars (and poor crew!) have experienced three flat tires, broken brake lines, a broken brake booster, a cracked gearbox and an engine explosion. I have only been here for ten days.
We have three vehicles here at the Serena camp. It is a good thing we do too since only one or two of them ever seem to be drivable at any given time. Field work in the Mara is just as demanding on the vehicles as it is on the researchers, or maybe even more so. All the roads are dirt roads and even the best of them require some skill to navigate. Our research requires us to utilize cut tracks through the plains and occasionally venture off-road. The tall grass we drive through provides great cover for animals such as hyenas, gazelles and jackals. Unfortunately, however, it also provides great cover for car-busting rocks, mud holes and termite mounds.
I have also noticed that Mother Nature takes no pity on car problems. A few days ago, just after leaving camp for the Serena South clan, Dave, Wes and I smelled something burning. Then we noticed smoke coming from one of the front wheels of the Land Cruiser. The brake had frozen up on us and we weren’t going anywhere. A storm was rolling in and we were several kilometers from camp. After trying to call the other researchers for help and finding that their cell phones were out of service, we waited for a tour vehicle to drive by. Finally, one found us and Wes hitched a ride back to camp to pick up our third car (which was thankfully working at the time) and a couple of mechanics from the nearby lodge. Dave and I waited with the car for what felt like an eternity. Actually, it was less than an hour, but there isn’t much to do when you are stuck out in the bush.
On the bright side, due to the storm rolling in and a fire burning somewhere to the south in Tanzania, we were able to watch the most incredible sunset I have ever seen. My hopes were high that the weather would hold out until the mechanics arrived and fixed the car, but of course that is not how it would play out.
It was pitch black out by the time Wes and the mechanics found us, and just as they pulled up the storm unleashed its fury. Lightning flashed, giving us momentary glimpses of the grassland around us but not of what dangers could be lurking nearby. Thunder rolled so loud that I could feel it in my chest. Rain poured down as if buckets of water were being thrown on us. Within minutes the road was soaking wet, the culverts on either side starting to flood. The mud was so slippery that the Hi-Lift jack the mechanics were using to lift the car kept sliding, causing it to spin. It all seemed simultaneously frightening and comical. As there was nothing I could do to help I sat in the other car with Wes and watched as Dave and the two mechanics did whatever they could to figure out how to fix the wheel.
The whole thing reminded me of a scene from the movie Jurassic Park. All we needed was for a T-Rex to pop up out of the bushes, although an angry buffalo or elephant would have been equally terrifying. Eventually, the mechanics determined that the best course of action would be to remove the brakes entirely from that wheel, drive back to camp, and fix it later. I think Dave noticed I was a bit skeptical about the removing-of-the-brakes idea because he told me not to worry, that the car still had three left. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe.
It wasn’t until after we made it safely back to camp and I excitedly regaled our adventure to the others who responded with an “oh no, not again” instead of my expected “wow, that’s incredible!” that I realized events like this are all too common here in the Mara. As exciting as this evening was, I am hoping that future car troubles will be kept to a minimum so that my short stay here in Serena will consist of exciting research experiences, incredible animal adventures, and lots of fun stories to tell. Stories that don’t involve flat tires and busted brakes that is.