Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Between a Buffalo and an Elephant

I love going into Kenya’s national parks. I enjoy being able to escape the city for the wide open spaces. And the variety of scenery: From the grassy plains of Nairobi National Park; to the barren beauty of Samburu with its mountain ranges, and the Ewaso Nyiro river, lined with doum palms, meandering its way through; the flat, bareness of Amboseli with its backdrop of the majestic Mt Kilimanjaro; the vastness of bushy Tsavo; and Nakuru Park, with the lake as its central point (though currently minus its pink fringe of flamingos, for which it’s famed)…..

Giant lobelia dot the moorland landscape of the Aberdares National Park
A couple of weekends ago, I was in the Aberdares National Park with some friends. This again is so different. Densely forested in the lower sections, then rising to bamboo forest, and above that moorland reminiscent of Scotland, with cascading waterfalls, and the peaks of the mountains themselves still rising above. As well as the scenery of course, there’s the wildlife. And the emphasis here is on ‘wild’. One of the things that I was aware of from early on living here, was the lack of instruction as to what to do when you come face to face with something big. I’m not talking zebra, or even giraffe (though they’re clearly very tall), but rather the sort of beast that carries with it the kind of weight that when combined with a bit of force, could do serious damage to a vehicle – elephants, rhinos, buffalo, hippo…. Thus far, I’ve not had any close encounters, though I did once have a rhino seemingly give chase. Respect of course is the name of the game. And applying wisdom. If there’s a herd of elephants, I wouldn’t  go driving through the middle of them, especially if there are young.

On our trip to the Aberdares, we found ourselves between a rock and a hard place, or more accurately in this instance, between 3 very mean-looking buffalo, and a herd of 10 elephants, including young. And it was getting dark. And my petrol gauge was rather closer to empty than I’m generally comfortable with. We’d just come through a very muddy section of the ‘road’, the car slipping and sliding, and at times going sideways! The buffalo were standing separately at the side of the road, clearly aware of our passing by. Something in their eyes said that they weren’t feeling particularly amiable towards us. A little bit further on, a group of ellies were having a fine old time in some mud, just at the side of the road. We waited a respectable distance back, and in time, they moved on, again clearly aware of our presence, and also clearly in no hurry. However, their moving on was in a forwards direction, rather than sideways. They kept to the road! About 30-40 minutes later, we’d advanced maybe 100 metres, if that. One of the buffalo eventually wandered by, keeping a distance from us, and a rather larger distance from the elephants, going through the bush. We unfortunately couldn’t follow his example!
That's not a happy looking buffalo!
What to do?
  • Sit and wait? I was aware that once it was dark, we wouldn’t be able to see the elephants very well, and could find ourselves rather closer to them than we’d choose to be.
  • Race by? Given that some were actually on the rather narrow track, this really wasn’t an option. Elephants have a fairly wide girth!
  • Hoot at them? Probably not a good idea…..
  • Skirt around them? There really was nowhere to skirt, without risking getting stuck in mud and / or undergrowth.
The herd of elephants enjoying the mud
In the end, we chose to turn around (which took something like an 11-point turn on this narrow track, with ditches on either side), make our way back through the mud patch (involving a manouevre where we were caught in a rut at the edge of the road, the side of the car in contact with the grass verge (thankfully, there were no rocks there)), and take a track to another gate which we’d seen. We had no clue where it would take us, nor the state of the road en route, but it seemed the better option. And we did eventually make it, after 3 crossings of an incredibly rickety wooden bridge, an encounter with a closed electric fence, a closed barrier, and another 11-point turn, (not necessarily in that order!)……

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