Saturday, February 19, 2011

Kenya Calling - Game of Game Count











Sandy sashays in one evening, planting a light tap on my head as I try to focus my Nikon on a green tipped sunbird; ‘Game for a game count!’ She states, ‘This Sunday at the Nairobi National Park.’ I nod my consent without taking my eye from the view-finder though I don’t have the foggiest idea what she is babbling about. When Sandy suggests something, she usually means that that’s what I got to do; and I trust her judgment to the ‘T’. ‘Do carry extra battery and memory card for your camera.’ Sandy parts with a parting shot. Sound advice, if I know of one, I mumble and wrap up the day with few quick shots of the moribund sun.

Sunday dawns and Sandy and I wake up with the dawn, in the twilight. We jump into a 1950 Buick (or whatever it is that rattles and puffs from every joint) and cut through the morning chill towards Nairobi National Park. It’s still dark when we reach the gate and find that we are the only soul around. The gates are shut, the office is shut, the guardroom is empty and even the animals are quiet. Sandy checks her calendar and confirms that we are on the right day, date and at the right place at the right time. Whatever, I mumble; Kenya and Kenyans (like Indians) are not really synonymous with punctuality. I stretch my limbs inside the contraption that goes by the name of a car, and take up position to relax.


Minutes roll into an hour and suddenly a convoy arrives in a tizzy. The convoy is led by a peculiar looking Land Rover, out of which jumps a woman entrapped in jeans and a man of considerable girth and altitude. All the other vehicles pop open their doors and out jumps all the occupants and they all gather around the earlier pair. Sandy joins the crowd milling around the woman in jeans, who now has a paper in her hand as she addresses the crowd while stabbing the air around her face wildly with her index finger. I sit inside the car and observe the scene through the rolled down window. In a while Sandy peels off and beckons me to step out. I do so while grabbing my water bottle and snack pack. The Nikon dangles around my neck.

Sandy introduces; this is Paula, this is Satya, this is Dom, etc. etc. We shake hands and I realize that we are going in that curious looking Land Rover with Paula and her brother Dom (short for Dominique). We jump in, even as the eastern sky begins to turn pink, and the vehicle speeds off through the Nairobi National Park gate throwing a cloud of dust in our wake. Dom is at the wheels, Paula is the navigator, though she thrusts the GPS at me, while Sandy and I take up the rear seat that is crowded with several suspicious objects that I guess are part and parcel of wildlife professionals.

Paula explains the rudiments of ‘game count’ and how I could be useful. For the game count the entire National Park is divided into several sectors depicted by alphabets and numbers. Then all the volunteers for the game count are divided into smaller groups, each group is then allocated a particular sector and that group is supposed to stay within that sector and count whatever animals are sighted. We have a list to help us which all birds and animals need to be counted. Not all animals are worthy of counting or keeping record. At the end of the day we are supposed to hand over the count to the authorities and then it gets slightly muddled as to what they do with the count figures. Then Paula divides our work. Dom is the driver and he has to glue his eyes to the road and the sides in that order. Paula and I would be the spotters (she has no idea that I have no idea what I am supposed to look out for and even if I did spot something I wouldn’t know what it is I am looking at). Sandy with her legible writing would be the one to chronicle the record and would be the additional spotter on standby. In addition Paula would record the sounds and sights for her podcast and radio shows. Between us we have three cameras, all Nikon as I observe. So Sandy grabs a paper and her pencil, Paula grabs her camera and recording machine, I grab the front seat backrest and Dom floors the pedal.

As we careen and rattle along with all the inanimate occupants of the car, Sandy does the introduction. Dr Paula Kahumbu in her regular avatar is one of East Africa’s leading authorities on wildlife, conservation and all things green and clean. She is the Chair of FONNAP (Friends of Nairobi National Park http://fonnap.wordpress.com/ ), part of Wildlife Direct and heads Kenya Land Conservation Trust. She is also a bestselling author and a widely acknowledged and recognized face around the world. While her brother Dom is a social entrepreneur, develops and spreads renewable sources of energy, attempting to empower the poor. As it is I am completely out of my elements and I realize that I am with some really serious people and decide for once to keep my mouth and mind inactive rather than interactive.

No sooner do we start going down the dirt road the sun breaks the horizon. We halt to click few shots. I keep the windows down to catch the cool breeze on my face. Paula consults her map and we take to the road that would take us to our designated sector. A little later a lion’s roar fills up the air. Excitedly I grab my camera and am ready to spring out. No one goes out, it’s not permitted, Paula growls. Soon enough I spot a lone lioness through the savanna. She arches her back and gives us only a cursory look. She is my first big predator in the wild and I am excited enough to forget about the black contraption dangling around my neck. Then from the other side waltzes another lioness that saunters slowly right on our intended path. She is rather close and Dom kills the car. Paula has her microphone jutting out of the window; I by then have the camera do its job, while Sandy scribbles furiously. Not bad, I murmur, less than five minutes in and two lionesses; perhaps out on morning jog or something.

The lionesses eventually disappear and we speed on. Paula meanwhile rattles that our designated sector is one of the most difficult ones to cover since the ground is hilly and rocky and complicated. Dom nods and remains silent. We drive on along a narrow rivulet that Paula states marks the boundary of the park and across the river is her house. We are not far from the city and I can now see the city buildings and other human induced abominations on the northern horizon forming an ugly background to the wilderness around. Nairobi National Park (NNP) is supposedly the only of its kind in the world where one can experience such wilderness so near to a major city. In fact it is inside the city.

At a particular place Paula claims that we are now on our turf and we can now do whatever we want to; almost. Getting out of the car isn’t an option; though we can now leave the track and go off-road (this is permitted only for game count). So off we go straight at a group of black animals that stare at us lazily. African Cape Buffalos, Paula continues. One of the most dangerous animals in Africa she affirms. Really, I ponder, as I gaze at the serene creatures grazing peacefully, munching cuds and even allowing few funny looking birds to ride on their backs. As we go deeper into the savannah we discover more of the buffalos. We count more than 70 at one go. We linger around with Dom maneuvering to give us the perfect angles till one particular buffalo decides to take more interest in us than necessary and we opt to leave them alone. I also learn to tell between the buffalo sexes.

We turn west and continue on a slow and bumpy ride. Suddenly through the brown grass I sight something brown, big and shiny. Lion, I ululate excitedly, proud to have spotted them before my more experienced companions. Elands, Paula says and laughs her head off. Her humor is well justified if you know what elands are. The herd is big but scattered across a large area. It’s difficult to count and we must not count the same beast twice, which is a difficult proposition since they all look identical in every possible way. Then comes a group of Grant’s Gazelles and this one I can identify correctly. I get an appreciative glance from my friends. Grant’s gazelles are easy to distinguish due to the white patch on their back that rides above the tail. They are frisky and perky animals, rarely standing still so it’s hard to count them. But four pair of eyes does the trick. They number more than 100. Meanwhile in a grassy patch we sight a funny looking bird that refuses to fly. It waddles along the ground in a clumsy manner. We sight five of them. Hartlaub’s Bustard I am told. I notice Sandy dipping into her list to check if it needs to be recorded.

Next we encounter another herd of elands and this time too I think they are lions, much to the amusement of all so I pretend that was intentional just to make them smile. We come across few young ones and female kind. Suddenly Dom cries out excitedly and lo and behold a tiny black backed jackal saunters by. We follow the smart fellow till it disappears into a thick thorny bush. It must have its burrow there, Paula says. We drive on and halt close to a fat funny looking animal that is resting beneath the shadow of a tree. It closely resembles something people eat. Warthog, I am told. I get few clear shots and the fat round creature walks away cutting our path in the front. We like him but he doesn’t reciprocate; and we speed on. Shortly we sight a Thomson’s gazelle herd and again I correctly identify them. For my efforts I receive respectful glances from my friends. I remain silent about the fact that it was a fluke. The Thomson’s are followed by another group of elands and this time I don’t even bother to open my mouth. I pretend to study the ground.

The car rattles and prattles and so does everyone till we literally drive into a zebra herd that is scattered on either side of our track. Common zebra, I am told even as I keep my Nikon busy. We stop close to some of them. There are quite a few babies as well nuzzling close to their mothers. I puzzle at the stripes, if they are black over white or white over black. We count above 150. Sandy scribbles on furiously. Then Paula’s radio crackles (or was it her mobile!) and we learn that a group of rhinos have been sighted not far, though the area is not under our jurisdiction. I am the guest of honor and I wish to see the rhinos, so we change tack and head into another direction. Only a quick look, ok, Paula cautions. I am ok, I nod. We cross a ranger’s hut and then the track dips down and then up and around a small pond where a grey crowned crane and a grey heron meditate next to the water.

On a thin thorny branch next to the track swings a fluffy bird with black top and white breast and a throaty chatter. We speed on and even before the dust on the bird settles down in our wake I learn its name – long tailed fiscal. The rhinos are still not visible but the other game vehicles carrying tourists are. We join the crowd and find four black rhinos chomping merrily away. I am told they are called ‘black’ not because they are black though they nearly are but to distinguish them from their South African cousins which are called ‘white’ which they certainly aren’t since ‘white’ is an offshoot or rather distortion of ‘wide’ or ‘wyde’ which the natives meant for these rhinos due to their wide mouths, which are wider than those of the ‘black’. Not everything on terra firma is logical, so I nod my head in agreement and complete confusion in that order. But as I recall at this moment it could have been completely the other way round – I think they were ‘white’ (which are not really white) rhinos that we saw that day and not black as I claim to have. Though I am well out of Kenya and the continent my confusion continues unabated. This is my disclaimer so don’t hunt me down if you don’t see black rhinos in NNP. For sure you will see them in Lewa further north.

Rhinos are among the most well protected animals in the world since the horns are highly valued in East Asia for reasons that are unreal and mythical and they are also sought after in the middle-east to make dagger scabbards, etc. In Kenya, I learn, hunting is illegal and all wildlife, even if they live beneath your porch, belong to the government.

Rhinos are very docile and of such good temper that totally bellies their dimensions and looks. They rarely charge and when they do under extreme provocation (since they are also lazy like me), they always charge in a straight line. They will not veer no matter what, even if there’s an armored tank right on their path. So if you are ever chased by one (the probability of which is less than one in a million) all you got to do is run straight for few meters to get the beast follow your path and then take a sharp turn to any direction you fancy except the one that will take you right into the horn of the rhino. The rhino will continue charging in a straight line while you can take pictures from the wings.

Rhino episode soon comes to a conclusion since the rhinos do nothing except continue munching. We trace back our path and find the heron and the crane still meditating. Hartebeasts, white bellied bustards, reedbucks (these are rather rare) and waterbucks wave at us as we approach our sector. It is late afternoon by then. We soon end our game count tour, having covered the sector in a manner best possible. Along with counting we also clean up the entire sector and the park along our path of all plastics, tins and other things tourists chuck out of their windows. By the end of the day Paula’s car resembles more like the municipality garbage truck. I wonder why anyone would wish to throw things inside the park! Though trash picking isn’t exactly my vocation I like the activity and volunteer each time to jump out of the car, since under no other circumstances am I allowed to step out.

I am always lost so no one is surprised to learn that I have no idea where I am and where they are, despite the GPS in my hand making funny noises. We stop at a view point around a water body. Dom and I race ahead out of the car, both wishing to escape the heat. The water body turns out to be an offshoot of the city river. I am eager to look for crocs as they are known to be in the vicinity. Dom points out a grey looking mound poking out of the water, I zip down with my camera to find a mould of earth though it could easily pass for the prying eyes of a croc – no minus point for Dom there. Even I was fooled by it, and as you already know what an authority I am on such matters! We climb up back on the bank and walk ahead. Some of the tree tops house vulture nests and I shoot some of them with my camera (what did you think?).

We meet Paula and Sandy on a bridge bridging the river where three women are washing clothes. They are chattering with a pair of Masaai boys. Paula does the introduction and I shake hands with Nixon and his friend. They are out grazing their cows. Nixon seems to know Paula well. He tells us that despite prohibitions why he and his friend must graze cattles inside the national park. I like Nixon and his pot belly and his grin and his constant chatter. It’s nigh impossible to stop his verbal deluge. We go ahead to another bend in the river where I see a pair of crocs floating silently. They look harmless and vegetarian; and I am wrong on both counts Paula insists and offers that I am free to try out. I might be a fool but not imbecile and I opt to stay out of the water; after all I am a poor swimmer.

We return to the car park, engage in some harmless photo-shoots and tomfoolery. I pose with several primate skulls; after all I would be joining them soon. We then drive out of the park, meeting other volunteers en route and outside. With official engagements soon over, and the day well on its way towards the evening, we depart for another engagement of delicate proportion that promises to be a gourmet delight; but that’s an adventure that has no bearing on the present one.

As the national park recedes I try to recall the animals I had sighted or the volume of information that Paula and Dom had shared with me on Kenya, wildlife, and even life in general. I realized I had learned a lot in those few hours and had been privy to a world I was alien to. My African Safari was well on its way and it was the beginning of a new set of adventures. I looked around at my three companions and felt with a sense of pride that I was in good hands, as good as it can ever get. With that thought merrily on my mind, I wriggle closer to the window and let the wind ruffle the imaginary hair on my sparsely haired head.

P.S. It took a threat to life from a well meaning friend for me to write this post