“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??