I guess the best way to write about what I have been up to for the last 2 months is to give you a few anecdotes and another ‘day in the Lifan’, but first I reckon I’d better give a v quick summary of where I have been and what they (we?) do here. There is a little video thing as well, but a bigger and better one coming soon to computers near you.
Borana is a privately owned wildlife conservancy, tourist lodge and cattle ranch. As you can imagine combining all three of these on one property takes a huge amount of relationship management between the local communities, the guests, the wildlife itself and wildlife protection organisations such as the KWS (the Kenya Wildlife Service). At 32,000 acres there is unbelievable habitat here for all types of game and for those who come to the lodge - it is a private Safari destination from heaven. All the profits on Borana (Cattle and Lodge) go to the conservancy. Rhinos as it turns out are very very expensive children... Try putting 20 kids through private school. At the same time. And at a school that they never leave. And where extra money has to be spent on protecting them from being shot. Yep, costly. My £12000 suddenly looking like more of a donation in the church collection than a really useful amount! Will have to do something really spectacular next....
Borana has 19 translocated Black Rhinos all are electronically tagged (apart form number 21 who is my favourite. Young, feisty, untagged male...) so they can be located every day and then sufficiently guarded at night.
I have been here to learn; to learn about lodge management, conservation, human-wildlife conflict and anything else I can pick up, a Kenyan ranch internship, sort of. Boy have I learnt -it has been fantastic. I have mostly been in the conservancy and not the lodge which is exactly what I wanted, my guest schmoozing skills are already pretty decent (“Bicycle?? Did someone mention bicycles?? No? Well I have a story about one anyway....”) and there is only so much learning you can do on that front!
Right, instead of just describing it all, here comes a day in the life and then my night on deployment guarding the Rhinos from poachers, a bit on my social life and a couple of inevitably hairy moments. I am very aware that this blog won’t be as enthralling nor funny as my cycling blogs! It is hard to be desperately sarcastic when you are permanently in a great mood! Sorry.
5.30am: Wake up in my little cottage (right next to Michael and Nicky’s – the owners- house), get dressed and put on my Borana Conservancy Jacket then get into Michaels very hardy Landrover and head out into the dark.
5.45am: Start driving out on the extremely rough and rocky roads (would have been bicycle hell!) to wherever I dropped off the boys (i.e. Romeo 3 of 4) the previous evening for their night time deployment. This is usually where the Rhinos are either in a high concentration or they are close to the boundary. Usually both.
6.10am: Find the boys, unloading their guns behind some bushes as the sun is rising: “Abari Asabuhi!!” ((Phonetic spelling I am sure of) ‘good morning’). “Good night??”, “Bariddi Sana” – Very cold. As always. Drive them back to HQ by 6.30am (always with a stunning sunrise and Mt Kenya in the background), on the way using my telemetry kit to locate the local rhinos to that area whilst the boys radio in their locations to Bravo Lima- head tracker. Drop the lads off at base, sometimes have chai with them and then go and doze on my bed for 40 minutes.
8.20am: Delicious breakfast with Michael and Nicky. One of the lodge cooks has been temporarily moved over here, I am eating like a king.
9.30am: Go down to the office to help Sam (Conservation Officer) get some close up photographs of the Rhinos ear notches so that I can make a Rhino ID card folder for the lodge vehicles in order to help the guests can get more involved in the conservancy.
This rhino stalking is awesome fun; we radio Zulu 7-zone 7, and ask where numbers sita(6) and her calf are. “Are nane (8) and tissa (10) in the same area?” “NDio” “sawa sawa, asante.” We then head to that area and stalk the rhinos, just as you would stalk a stag. Into the wind and silent. You want to be above them as they tend to charge down hills if they run away (or towards you). Very exciting and with the added excitement that if they charge you, you are, essentially, toast. Much more fun to do things on foot! Every time I see the rhinos so close up I feel so proud that I’ve done my little bit, they are absolutely incredible. So ancient and prehistoric, yet also so athletic and clever. If we let these animals vainish from the wild the world would be a worse place – and we would feel, I hope, extremely guilty for letting it happen.
1.00pm: Back to M and N’s house for more delicious food.
2.00pm: If I’m lucky go on a flight with Michael in his little plane, perhaps go on a drive and set up a camera trap, some office work (game number analysis), go and test the fence voltage, brand some cattle, go down to the local communities with Michael to pretend I understand Kiswahili conversations about cattle grazing, go paragliding, help set up the training camp (the guys here, are trained by an ex SAS serviceman. He is excellent, and a lot of the money I raised goes to v important training programs like this), try and track the extremely rare Painted dog, go down to the tannery and make some sporrans, lead the Lewa Marathon by bicycle, find some cheetahs, shoot (pretty well I have to be honest) military rifles and revolvers at the training camp, pick up a fresh pig for the lodge. Or read my Indian revision Tiger books if there is nothing to do- unfortunately, where I am usually best (manual labouring) there are already plenty of workers (somewhere like Borana employs a huge amount of local people) so finding a bit of fencing work to do for example is quite tricky as there are already about 6 guys doing that job! I am usually used as a driver. Which I love.
4.30pm: Head down to HQ for evening deployments. I am welcomed by chorus’ of the affectionate or friendly mocking (either or both, I’m not quite sure) “Ascari 23!! Number 23! Salaama, Abari A geoni. Mzuri Sana? Iko Sawa?” whilst I reply “Abari Ascari?!”- “How soldiers?!”, I’m not so good at languages you see. But it rhymes. Sam and Kiupe (commander), have analysed the rhinos positions called in by all the Zulu’s (day scouts) and will have accordingly placed three of the Romeos in the most vulnerable places. Anywhere Rhino’s might be poached. Of the 22 soldiers, they are split into four groups (Romeo 1-4), one remains at HQ on standby for the night, the other three are on patrol in the bush all night, waiting for action.
I can’t express how impressed I have been with the guys here, all the way along my bike ride I was often depressed by what seemed like a very poor work ethic and a lack of pride in peoples work. Here, the guys take what they do seriously, they are very proud and they are excellent soldiers. This, in my opinion comes mainly down to a couple of things. The amount of money invested in them and their training and the fact that Sam and Michael (both white) are excellent people; they are always working harder than anyone, setting an example and spending time with their men, conservation is more to do with people management than animal management! The way I have learned most whilst being here is just by trying to spend as much time with Michael as possible and watching the way he operates. I hope he won’t be reading this...
The result of the soldiers training = No poaching incidents on Borana yet.
5.00pm: Drive out with a Romeo group to an Area (I had to learn the names of different parts of the property, fast! That onto of the names of people at both the lodge, HQ, the house, along with Kiswahili, was very tricky indeed) leave them hiding behind some bushes and head home again, sometimes taking myself on a little game drive as the sun is setting.
7.00pm: Supper time, either with Michael and Nicky or I drive over to the lodge to help schmooze on guests. Hannah and Finlay the incredibly nice couple running it, I think are pretty bored of telling the story of how they met, so I come in with a host of boring anecdotes but with enough self assuredness to pretend I don’t realise I am boring!
“SIERRA TANGO. DELTA KILO. SIERRA TANGO, DELTA KILO. UKO SAWA.” ROMEO CHARLIE - ASCARI NUMBA 23 ON DEPLOYMENT.
I met the lads at HQ at 4.30 as usual, although this time not to drive them out to their night post - but to join them. They were delighted to see that ‘Ascari Numba 23’ was dressed in military gear, had his rucksack packed and wasn’t in his jeans and Tottenham shirt, it’s on. “You are ready”, I kept hearing. Bloody exciting – my training was over, I was no longer David Webb.
I was out with Romeo 4 and heading to Oukouta, the northern boundary. Rhinos 16,17,3 and 21 in the surrounding area. There were only three (rather than 4 or 5) of us seeing as it was a small moon, when the moon is at its fullest is when poaching is most likely to happen and when it is dark is a good opportunity for the guys to take their ‘off’. From the car we could see a herd of elephant very near where we were spending the night. Exciting stuff. Once we were out and the guys had cocked their rifles - Michael drove off, we stay crouched behind bushes until the vehicle has gone. We then find a base in the bush (a bush) to leave our stuff (spare jackets, sleeping bags etc.) and make a patrol of the area. Always walking apart, we covered a few different zones, radioed in our GPS coordinates to HQ in case we had a contact and needed back up. Had a comms check which I called in “This is Romeo 4, TuKo Sawa” (We are OK). Unfortunately our thermal imaging kit ran out of battery almost immediately, press ups in the morning. Whenever something fundamental like this goes wrong, press-ups the punishment.
One of the best things about the evening was that I got a proper chat with some of the guys, well proper as in long – we still find it quite hard to communicate, my Kiswahili is coming on ‘polé polé’. I speak to and see the guys every day in the mornings and evenings but this gave us a chance to actually try and talk about some slightly more interesting things. First, about the fact that it is always green in my country “NO!” (Rain and cold doesn’t shock the guys, only that it’s always green). Second we talked about cattle and thanks to modern technology I showed some photos on my phone of Highland cattle and Belted Galloways, that had us in hysterics (all the while on full alert , obviously.) Finally as the sun was losing all its light (silence/no phone/no smoking when it gets dark) we talked about the word Mzungu. This word haunted my bicycle trip and I began to resent being called it even though it was most often affectionate. Lorré confirmed that it was affectionate but also conceded that if I called him Black Man the whole time it would upset him. It was, although limited by language, a great chat for me. It helped me understand but also for once felt like I was understood. Put that demon behind me.
That has been one of my favourite things about being here at Borana, I have gotten to know a local community as a colleague, a friend, as Ivan, as Evans, as Iwan, as Romeo 4 Charlie, as Delta Kilo (to be honest – no one has called me that but I have been pushing it), as Ascari Numba 23, as 23, as Driver Numba 1, but most importantly not as - Mzungu. We get on like friends here and I have got to know everyone. The problem with cycling was that I was a passing face to so many, I didn’t get a chance to chat to anyone for longer than an hour or two. I was bound to get annoyed by the constant objectification but it had as much to do with the way I was travelling as the people who shouted at me. Such a pleasure getting to know everyone here.
After sundown we got quiet. I was looking at the stars (must have seen over 20 shooting ones through the night), listening out of suspicious noises or lights – the odd Boda Boda (motorcycle taxi) buzzing in the distance. I think I must have dozed off by midnight but woke at regular intervals through the night to find at least one of the guys alert and ready for action, a real shame not having the night vision working as we could hear the game rustling around us and the Hyenas screaming. I had been told that if a contact was made I had to run in the opposite direction (I obviously was having secret fantasies of saving the day, injuring a poacher and trapping them with my Leatherman and a gun I had taken from one of my injured comrades), these men are out here kill. It is a war. Capturing poachers in the dark, when they are armed (and they are all armed), is almost impossible and any other method will eventually lead to their escape. I really was on the front line. The strange thing is, and I am ready for you all to judge me here, I am totally fine with this method. I want these guys gone and I think, morally I have no problem with it. If they are going to take the risks, they will be shot. There are wars all over the planet over many different things; I truly believe our planet’s wildlife is worth this sort of protection and action, a war worth fighting.
At 5.30 it’s getting a little lighter, speaking of lighters we are allowed a ciggie. We start walking back to the road, passing an unseen Rhino (they sound like horses when they blow through their lips) that during the night must have been very close to us – at least we were in the right place! Found Michael, and drove back to HQ. We all had chai together and all the other lads who were posted elsewhere were congratulating me and asking how it went. “Numba 23! Bariddi Sana??” All they wanted to know really was how cold I found it... Stunned that I was wearing g only one pair of trousers- you should see the amount of layers these guys wear! Not used to the Hebrides eh??
DAIRY EXTRACTS OF A KENYAN SOCIALIVE (ARRIVAN WITH IVAN): BORANA LODGE, KISIMA POLO CLUB, TIMAU SPORTS CLUB, SIRAI HOUSE.
18.06.14 – Borana Lodge
Went over for a big one at the lodge last night – first time I’ve been drunk in 4 months(!!) Hannah, Finlay and Izzy were there. Plus Amory, Ben (Finlay’s Mum’s Boyfriend) and a couple of others. Great fun and really nice to know there are such a fun crowd of young folk around. I thought I was going to be completely shut off from civilisation up here, turns out there are plenty around who want to have a bit of fun. Ended up being sick in my loo (tequila and Tabasco shots = painful throat...), doing deployments at 5.30 – hell, then going for a flight with Michael that evening whilst trying to pretend I wasn’t hangover:
Michael through the intercom “How’re you feeling Ivan? Some people get a little sick when the first go up in a small plane like this”.
Ivan through sick stopping clenched teeth: “No! Fine. What a beautiful view.” Don’t be sick, don’t be sick, don’t be sick.
11.07.14 – Kisima Polo Club
One of the strangest things about hanging out in a white Kenyan society is how English everyone seems. The South Africans, Namibians, Botswanans, Zambians and Zimbabweans I met were all so African. The Tanzanian and Kenyan white people I have met still play polo every weekend! This is not a criticism, but just relatively interesting. Everyone sounds as posh as I do, and have been at school at Gordonstoun, Bryanston and even Ampleforth. A very unusual feeling!
Last night, we (the Borana young possy) headed up to Kisima the nearby farm and polo club for the after polo party. As I walked into the polo hall I felt like I was 11 years old heading into the village hall for a party (of the kilt and rugby shirt variety, but English), so English quaint and village hally. Bizarre! Unfortunately any lady I may have fancied was either related to everyone in the room, was going out with someone in the room or had gone out recently with one of the guys in the room. Not an easy crowd to infiltrate. My dance moves were slightly inhibited by the fact that Michael and Nicky my bosses/hosts were there, I feel awkward enough dancing in front of Mum and Dad let alone my employers. Great fun none the less and a small glimpse into a hidden part of Kenyan society. Ended up passing out in the back of our car.
19.07.14 – Timau Sports Club
A very similar set up to Kisima, a hall next to a polo ground. Again felt a little like an outsider but making slow progress. People beginning to recognise me now. Met a girl who went to Columbus and lived in Dublin – she wanted me to list all my Colombus friends – needless to say I found her bloody annoying and pretended to go and have a pee...
05.08.14 – Sirai House
Went up to Sirai, one of the most stunning places. Built by an English investor on Borana and the funds Borana made to build/sell it are used to go to the conservancy. A mind-blowing place. Much easier for me to get into it (find it easier with people over from Blighty) and had a great time. Yet again passing out in the back of the car, alone. (Edit: not alone, with Finlay)
One evening on deployment I was doing a dummy drop (pretending to drop the guys off so if any poachers that are spying will be decoyed. Then dropping the guys in another place altogether) and we had all got out of the car and were milling around chatting.
Me: “Where is number 20? Why do none of the Rhino’s ever go on that hill –Gaitumo Koubwa?”
Lads: “I no know, but they no like it!”
Me: “20 is in this area now isn’t he? This is his territory?”
Having just said this, Mishak grabbed my arm: “shhh shhh, come. CAR!”,
So without knowing what was going on we ran back the 10 meters to the car and hid behind it. Only 15 meters away in the thick bush I saw number 20 sloping off, we had been bloody close. Heart was pounding as we all retreated to the relative safety of being inside the landrover, laughing away.
My favourite part of this excursion was Mishak’s choice of english as we drove away;
“We so lucky that was numba Ishirini not numba inné. Numba Inee very angry, numba Ishirini very polite.” (I know Kiswahili numbers 1-29. Impressed? No? Oh.)
Such a nice phrase. What a polite rhino.
After my night on deployment, Lorré (None of my Kiswahili spellings nor these acute accents are legit, just the easiest way of spelling...) was so disgusted I hadn’t seen a cheetah yet. He was determined to show me one the following day. Before he became a Borana soldier he was a Borana scout (and before that a Borana goat Herder - a lot of the guys first came here as shepherds or cattle men and work their way up. Another excellent aspect of the system here.) and claimed to be the best.
My phone rang at about 9 “Evans come! Cheetah! Bring Cam-e-ra!!” (He had heard on the radio where they were) I ran down to headquarters with my camouflage jacket and we walked out. Lorré with his rifle me feeling slightly unprepared. Mount Kenya was fully visible that day, she usually at this time of year after about 8.30 puts her ‘skirt on’ and is covered in cloud. A stunning day. After half an hour’s walking we came over the top of the Gaitumo Kubwa hill –getting quite warm now. Within seconds Lorré had spotted the cheetahs moving to the sound of frightened guinea fowl 100 yards below us.
We slowly stalked them and had just spotted them again about 30 meters away when we accidentally frightened a Duiker (little deer) right out of the bush in front of us. Oh oh. Poor Duiker, out of the frying pan into the five hungry Cheetah cubs. Within seconds we had watched a cheetah kill, it was awesome although I felt a little guilty. Lorré telling me to “have no fear” we walked closer where the cubs were playing with the half dead Duiker. We must have got about 10 meters away with Mum and Dad hissing and growling at us as they paced back and forth. “Have no fear”. Easier said than done! After a 5 minute amazing standoff with the cheetahs we peeled off to let them eat their lunch. A very special sight, all on foot. The remarkable thing really is that I really didn’t feel afraid at all, my full trust in Lorré and as I know from horses and cattle, animals sense fear.. Keep calm and carry on, and they respect you. Mostly...
Hairy Number 3:
Michael had two guests staying one evening, both very important in international conservation. The perfect chance for me to do a bit of networking... Something I have never been very good at. We went out looking for some Rhinos and for a general drive around the property. I was standing in the open top back of the Land Rover, the two guests sitting and Michael driving. Pretty quickly we found number 14 having some supper as the sun began to fade. Driving pretty close to this particularly grumpy Rhino - 14 made a charge for the car. Bloody exciting, Michael rolled the car forward (engine off) and Ti (as in Tiberius not as in the men who say Ni), my best friend here - Michael’s Golden Retriever gave a bit of a bark. 14 checked himself and stood about 15 meters away sniffing the air, tossing his head and stamping the ground. Suddenly he started charging again, I was right on the back and he was heading straight for me, I didn’t think Michael could see from the driver’s seat and the engine still wasn’t running...
Sadly I broke first, a slightly wailing yelp of “Michaeeeeel” leapt from my mouth before I could steel myself. Just as the Rhino stopped (about 8 meters away) and Michael started moving forward, always in control. Everyone found it very amusing and my hardy image and potential networking had taken a serious blow. “This guys a puss – Rhinos can’t jump!” Embarrassing.