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Monday, 9 July 2012

Life in Camp Tsavo, Kenya




COUNTRY: Kenya
PROGRAM: GapBreak
PROJECT: Community & Conservation
WRITTEN BY: Bronte Anthony

Our last two weeks spent in Tsavo have come and gone, and it's seemingly difficult to realise that our first month in Kenya has passed. And we're still alive and well!

Departing Muhaka was a sad affair, and as we drove away in our huge safari style vehicle, we waved goodbye to the smiling faces of our crew members. It is comforting to know we will be back there toward the end of our three month stay, nonetheless it was still a bit emotional. The truck was incredibly packed, and we were all squashed sitting together on benches that lined the truck sides and faced inward, while our assortment of bags and backpacks commandeered the aisle, eliminating any possibility of legroom. It was rather a cozy situation we endured for the six hour journey to Tsavo, to say the least.

Passing through Mombasa again, we soon exchanged the busy city for a main highway, which lead us past our new African landscape made up of mud huts situated amongst sharp, pointy and scraggly trees, drowning in the red dirt that inhabits this part of Africa. Turning into Rukinga Ranch meant we became totally immersed in this dead forrest. Everyone was now peering intently out the sides of the truck, looking for any signs of animal life, and we spied elephants! Needless to say, there was much squealing and screaming (which we had to learn to suppress now that we were sharing our space with the wild, yet surprisingly shy, African animals), and our excitement continued until the elephant tusk-esque gates of Camp Tsavo were in sight.

It really was an amazing camp, perhaps it was the sheer size of the place which gave off this spectacular aura. From the outset, it looked like a cluster of huts in the middle of nowhere, however once our new crew members (the energetic project helper, Peter, and project manager, Steve) and head leader (Sammy K - instantly identified by his beaded belt proclaiming his name in colorful letters) gave us a tour of camp, we noticed much more. Surrounded by an electric fence, this camp housed an office and 'bar' hut, equipped with a fridge stocked up on soft drink and Tuskers (the local African beer) available for purchase. From the communal eating hut, there were various paved pathways leading to either the revealing bathrooms with their billowing shower curtains, or our round bedroom bandas filled with large wooden bunk beds, or the kitchen building which was situated on the other side of camp, meaning that we had quite a trek from the eating area with our dirty dishes. In addition, there was a fire pit, a greenhouse and tree nursery, a laundry hut with a washing line, a small football field, and an education centre (displaying animal skulls and jars of preserved reptiles and amphibians).

Our schedule for the two weeks in Tsavo was quite varied, made up of project work in Sasenyi and Bugutta Primary Schools, Sanctuary Maintenance, Waterhole and Wildlife Monitoring, a number of recreational activities and a Safari (of course).

Everyday we would have to travel from Camp to our designated work, thankfully however the truck trip would rarely seem tedious (excluding the constant breakdowns provided by an Indiana jones style truck about 50 years old). One could look out and see an umbrella thorn tree, or a baobab tree, or some baboons plotting from afar, or a mountain in the distance, or a herd of zebras, or a few antelope bounding by.

Our work in the Sasenyi Primary School involved mixing concrete and plastering the walls of an unfinished classroom, as well as teaching classes if we desired. There were about 600 children in the school, dressed in their pale pink uniforms, all eager to learn and be educated.

It was primarily thanks to Camps International that the school had buildings, although it wasn't easy to fathom that this school was one of the best (academically) in the region, especially when all of the factors were taken into account, for example:
- the 5-7km walk most children have to make to school each day (starting at 6am)
- the lack of water they can drink whilst at school (even though there were water tanks, these are useless without rainfall, and apparently it has not been a good rainy season)
- the absence of any form of food that the Upper Class children can eat each day (as a result of the lack of water, the school cannot provide a small bowl of porridge to all the students at this time, however they could in the past. Now they supply the nursery and younger children with a a spoonful of corn flour mixed with water. Nonetheless, if some of the older children are more fortunate, they can bring one packed meal from home, however they have to move away from the crowd to eat it)
- the packed classrooms which would no doubt affect their learning environment
- the blocked toilet situation (although Camps were in the middle of creating a dedicated ladies loo for those girls at their time of the month. Normally they would miss a whole week of school and stay home because of this)
- the state of the classroom buildings (most of which weren't too bad, annoyingly though, there were a couple that the government began to construct, before ceasing all funding. One building has sat, hardly finished, for two years, whilst other older standing classrooms never had proper floors or roofs, therefore allowing for leaks when it does rain)

Our project work of Sanctary Maintentance (or 'Sano Maino' as Sarah dubbed it) started with a session of digging trenches, which would act as drainage from a waterhole nearby. Shovels and hoes in hand, we endured our first three hours of digging and dust. Much dust. We learnt very quickly that finishing work as an orange creature was inevitable. Most of our work following this consisted of hacking trees and slashing the dry grass that had overgrown onto the roads within the Ranch.

Wildlife and Waterhole Monitoring would generally take up the rest of our day after Sanctuary Maintenance mornings. We would drive out on the dirt roads and survey the land, recording the number of zebras, antelopes, giraffes, buffalo, elephants and warthogs which would cross our path. Then we would spend hours sitting patiently by waterholes in the big safari truck, waiting anxiously for animals to approach. The elephants were certainly the most incredible to behold. Funnily enough, we saw them so frequently during our stay in Tsavo, that they almost became as ordinary as a household pet (now that is a sentence one cannot construct at home!), especially when they would, irritatingly, destroy the water pipes...our only source of water making it rather difficult to shower. Viewing them from a 20m distance however, and physically seeing their huge bodies lumber together in herds toward a waterhole, is something I'm sure none of us will ever forget. Couple that with an African sun setting in the background, and you have the most picturesque and magical scene.

In our final week, the Camp Kenya crew had organized various activities, including:
- A visit to a Masai Mara village (which was...interesting...to say the least! It was certainly fascinating to observe their way of living, and to join in on a traditional Masai dancing session, however some skepticism couldn't quite be helped when a 500 shilling fee was imposed upon entry to this community situated just off the main highway...oh, and Sarah may have almost been inducted into their tribe, which was rather worrying, to put it mildly)
- A Bush Adventure day, made up of constructing a shelter from locally acquired materials (e.g. tree branches and palm fronds weaved together to make thatching), learning to make fire, and practicing with (their somewhat flimsy) bows and arrows.
- A trek up Mt Kasigau, our local looming mountain we could view from anywhere on the plain-like landscape of the Ranch. At 1628m above sea level, this 'trek' was more like an intense climb. The twisting and turning route we followed was completely immersed in prickly and dead-like bushes, as well as countless rocks and roots. We also had to handle the change in climate and vegetation - starting in the dry, humid scrub, passing through the cool, lush rainforest, and then enduring the steepest, muddiest, most terrifying, haunting climb into the cloud forrest at the peak. It was real climbing, on hands and knees at times, reaching for roots and trees to use as leverage, and avoiding slippery mud infested slopes, cleverly disguised with piles of wet leaves. Upon reaching the summit we realized we chose the only day of the year where by clouds engulfed the peak totally and utterly obscuring our view. As we sat shivering atop the mountain many of us were questioning why we even bothered to make the climb especially when we realized the trip down involved a great deal of mud sliding (including some amusing, yet terrifying, moments where people nearly went sliding over the edge...)

The infamous Safari made up our last day in Tsavo. It was started with an appropriate, but highly unexpected, awakening at 2:30 am, thanks to a local lion roaring just outside the perimeter of the camp, causing our cabin to break out into horrifying hysterics (which may have also involved a few tears of terror when one of us suggested the lion was hiding in the kitchen - which we soon realized to be highly unlikely). At 6:30 am we rugged up and prepared for the 1 hour 15 minute journey to Tsavo East National Park. Once there, we obediently followed the National Park Road, and almost immediately came across a family of antelope grazing naturally. Throughout the day, we observed a wide variety of animals, all of which we had already seen, nonetheless it was still a delight to see them at such close range (especially the adorable baby elephants and serene giraffes). Just as we broke for lunch, rumors arose that a cheetah had been sighted, and so we quickly piled back onto the truck and raced to the small dirt hill, where we spied it lazing in the sun, totally unaware of its audience's cameras snapping away excitedly (that is, until Oliver unexpectedly decided to hop out of the truck, for reasons we could not comprehend). All in all however, there was a general acknowledgement that our Safari day was a wonderful experience, and certainly one we were most privileged to enjoy here in Kenya.

Loads of love from all of us (and sincere apologies on my behalf for this belated blog entry). We will additionally attempt to attach some photographs as soon as we can.

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