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Zulu 2

EYES IN THE WORLD

I am a musician and refugee advocate living in Africa. I like to put myself into novel situations then write about them.

I’ve spent the last few days visiting the Kenyan branch of the Dyer family, who live on a ranch fifty miles North of Mount Kenya. Over the course of what I can only describe as the best vacation ever, I’ve been on horse rides, plane rides, and game drives. I’ve been sleeping in my cousin[1] Michael’s guest accommodation—a cozy, rock-walled cottage with a thatched roof. Michael’s compound sits on a hill overlooking the horse stables and ranch headquarters, beyond which extend golden plains, rolling hills, and finally, the icy peaks of Mount Kenya. Although still a commercial cattle operation, the ranch is best known as a wildlife conservancy that attracts visitors from around the world. Elephant, Grevy zebra, Patas monkey, buffalo, lion, leopard, hyena, wild dog, gazelle, and giraffe roam freely and in safety across the ranch’s 30,000 acres. Recently, the ranch introduced twenty-odd black rhino into the fold.  These severely endangered animals, coveted by the ignorant for their supposedly aphrodisiac horn, require exceptional conservation measures. All the animals are tagged and have their ears clipped for identification. Scores of men—some armed with assault rifles—patrol the property, ensuring that the rhino stay out of harm’s way. Some rhino even have their horns sawed off to dissuade poachers. 

I very much enjoyed the game drives, but they left me wanting for more. Watching animals from a vehicle feels uncomfortably similar to watching animals on television. The tourist can direct the vehicle to approach a variety of animals and locations, much in the same way he or she might change the channel. And, just like when watching television, the tourist sits in complete safety on a comfortable seat, is not exercising, and is not connecting with nature in a meaningful way. So I asked Michael if there would be an opportunity to experience the bush on foot, and to learn from an experienced tracker the way to navigate this complex, beautiful, and potentially dangerous environment. Michael suggested that I accompany a team of Masai scouts on their daily rhino patrol—a suggestion that I eagerly accepted.

I awoke with the sun, took a hearty breakfast, and just after seven I was bouncing over a dirt road in a land rover in search of Zulu Two, the team that I would accompany for their daily rounds. Eventually, I spotted two men in green uniforms standing on a hill overlooking a vast plain of dried grass. The driver took me up the hill, where I alighted and met my new companions. I had each of them repeat their names twice, but I still couldn’t understand them—each was a multi syllable name containing “p” and “t” separated by amorphous vowels. They settled on calling me John. They asked me if I spoke Swahili, and I answered: “Kidogo.” I asked if they spoke English. Kidogo. I asked whether we would be looking for specific rhinos, and they answered: “Black Rhinos.” I explained that each one had a number, and asked again if we were going to track a specific individual, and again, they answered: “Black Rhinos.” I abandoned my attempts at conversation, and followed my guides down the hill and across the plain in silence.

 

We climbed up a steep hill that overlooked yet another expanse of grassland.  I was shockingly out of breath, and did my best to hide it. Thankfully, the hilltop connected to a ridge that rose gradually to another, distant hilltop, which allowed me to recover slightly. Along the way, the guides noticed me snapping a picture of a kori bustard, the heaviest flying bird on the planet, and one of them told me: “Kodo,” the bird’s Masai name.  When we reached the second hilltop, the men stopped and asked me if I could see the rhino. Before us, grassland slopped downwards for three quarters of a mile before rising gradually to a line of trees two or three miles off to the Southwest.  Every hundred yards or so was a dark green bush. I could not see the rhino.  I asked my companions where it was, and one of them answered: “Next to the green tree.” I used the guides’ binoculars but could still not see anything; they motioned for us to keep moving. We continued to walk down the slope, and once we started upwards again, I noticed a small gray shape meandering in the space between the trees—it was the rhino.

We walked confidently towards the rhino until we were around three hundred yards away.  At that point, one of the guides kicked up some dust in order to determine the precise direction of the wind.  The wind was blowing at an angle vaguely perpendicular to the line between rhino and us, from right to left. We walked towards the left, gradually closing the distance until the guides motioned for me to be silent. We approached to around one hundred and fifty yards, and the guards whispered that we could go no further. I had previously approached within thirty feet of a rhino while in a vehicle, but in the present moment I had never felt closer to one. It browsed around serenely, unaware of our presence. But had it caught our sent or heard us, it would have charged, rendering us helpless. There were no vehicles to take us to safety, no structures to run into, and no trees to climb. The guides used a small booklet to determine the rhino’s identity based on its ear markings. It was number twenty, a cranky old male.

As we moved away, the wind shifted slightly. Number twenty caught our scent, raised his head in a defensive posture, and began rapidly pivoting in an attempt to pinpoint our location. Luckily, we were far enough away so that he could not locate us. As we walked back up the hill, he continued to bounce around in his defensive dance. By the time we reached the top of the hill, colloquially known as Baboon rock, number twenty had ambled over to the shade of a bush and fallen asleep. I asked the guides about the sixteen-inch sticks ending in metal stumps that they carried in their hands. They told me they were for beating wild dogs. When I asked whether they were for beating away lion too, they just grinned. I asked this because, on the way to Baboon Rock, we spotted among the hyena tracks those of a lone lioness that had prowled the area sometime before our passage.

On the rocks above us, the baboon were just waking up and a few of them scuttled about. We received information from the radio trackers at headquarter that two rhinos, numbered twelve and twenty-two, were in the Barini[2] sector, a little further to the West. So we climbed the adjacent Barini hill, and scanned the surrounding area for rhino. Before us lay a wide a valley with a reservoir at the bottom where a heard of zebra were drinking. A herd of five elephants were feeding in the brush between the reservoir and us. The far side of the valley was grassland that rose gradually to a quarry crowned by a steep hill covered in brush. It was too dangerous to simply walk down into the valley without knowing exactly where the rhino might be hiding, so we kept scanning—in vain.

Eventually, a man on a dirt bike joined us on the hilltop. His bike was fitted with radio equipment that allowed him to track the rhinos’ transponder signals. After introducing himself to me, Wilson informed us that both twelve and twenty-two were somewhere above the quarry. Wilson road off, and the guides and I descended into the brush. The wind was carrying our scent away from the elephant herd, which was now a few hundred yards to our right.  I have never heard elephant making the sound that television and movies ascribe to them. Instead of the trumpeting that one might expect, elephant tend to scream in a particularly horrifying manner. It is difficult to describe, so I will direct the curious reader to the internet to find a recording of the elephant’s disconcerting call.  It took only one of these calls, emerging from somewhere in the brush, to fill me with pressing anxiety. Thus, it was with relief that we exited the brush, leaving the elephant behind.

We walked past the reservoir and began climbing towards the quarry. We were at the Southwestern limit of the Borana ranch, beyond which extended community lands.  We walked along a path with an electric fence on the left, and the wind blowing towards us from the dense brush to our right. After a quarter hour of climbing, we began to move into the brush to begin our search for the rhino. We had gone only a few dozen yards when one of the guides suddenly motioned for me to stop. “Buffalo,” he said, pointing to a thicket seventy yards away. At first, I couldn’t see anything, but the buffalo, which were lying in the shade, eventually materialized. These are some of the most aggressive animals around, so we retreated to the fence to continue our climb.  Had I been alone, I would have walked right into a very unpleasant situation.

The slope leveled off and we found ourselves on the edge of a bowl. Our side was thick brush, while the other was a prairie that rose gradually towards the quarry. We stood next to large tree, with a wooden trunk and cactus branches, calledEuphorbium Candellabrum—a bizarre, yet common sight in East Africa. There, the guides received a radio call from a spotter on the hill above us indicating that the rhino was within fifty yards of the tree.  Walking as quietly as we could, we cautiously entered the thicket. The guides picked up the rhino’s tracks, and we followed them to the underside of a bush, where it was evident that a large animal had previously been resting. The scratch marks and bent and broken twigs indicated that the rhino had moved further up into the brush.

We were creeping through another group of bushes when the guides stopped abruptly. They grinned to each other, and pointed into the brush, some fifteen yards in front of us. Through a gap in the branches, it was just possible to make out the distinctive ears of a rhino, which was presumably sleeping. But as the guides pulled out their identification booklets, I heard a loud snap come from the bush. A cold wave crashed over me and my heart leapt into my throat. I stumbled backwards, ready to run for my life towards the tree—the only place where I might escape the charging Rhino. But no other sounds emerged from the bush; the rhino must have twitched in its sleep. As I had little desire to be so close to an animal that could outrun us with ease, I crept back towards the tree with one guide in tow, as the other completed the identification of number twenty-two, a female.

Number twelve was somewhere around too, but it was nearing midday—time for us to return to the ranch headquarters. We walked up the other, grassy side of the bowl. The slope rose abruptly to the left. In front of us was the quarry, and to the right were the bushes in which the buffalo lay in wait. Now, the wind was wafting our scent directly into the brush, surely alerting the buffalo to our presence, which made that route too dangerous. Even if we had been able to avoid the buffalo, we would still have had to contend with the elephant herd, which was milling around the brush at the bottom of the hill. To avoid these hazards, we descended into the quarry. The quarry seemed to have been created by a number of small streams running down the hill that had cut deeply into the red earth, creating a maze of small canyons. We emerged a few hundred yards later into flat grassland.

The reservoir and the elephants were now behind us, to the South, and Barini Hill rose in the distance to our right. We walked straight through tall, dried grass towards some wooded hills a mile or so away. There, we joined a road that meandered through a valley in which we spotted a half dozen giraffe, eyeing us with curiosity. The road began following a stream, and we soon came upon some fresh elephant dung. Further on, a tree lay across the road. In an effort to deter human presence, cantankerous elephants often put obstacles on roads and paths. We peered into the water, which was particularly murky, indicating that an elephant could have been somewhere upstream. To avoid coming face to face with an elephant displaying such an obvious animosity towards humans, we took an alternate path, which rose out of the valley.

As the ranch headquarters were situated in a relatively wooded area, I expected that, when we exited the valley, we would walk through some trees for a short distance before reaching our destination. Instead, we stood before a sea of grass that stretched far ahead of us, until wooded hills emerged from the horizon far to the North. By this point, my feet were raw and the joints in my legs registered mild jolts of pain with every step. My arms, which I had foolishly left bare, were almost purple, and sore to the touch. Right before leaving in the morning, I borrowed a cap on a whim, in what may have been a life-saving afterthought. I had been drinking water regularly throughout the hike, but noticed that the guides carried none. I was thirsty, but too guilty to drink in front of them. Around half an hour later, I decided to let them share the last of my water—a gesture which I regretted as the interminable walk progressed.

Eventually, the guides walked—and I stumbled—onto an airstrip, which I knew to be within a mile of headquarters. Soon, we were passing through the stables, where the buildings and domesticated animals seemed alien, despite the brevity of my leave from civilization. My guides bade me farewell and went to rest in the security headquarters, while I continued my walk up to Michael’s house. Upon arrival there, I drank copious amounts of water, took off my shoes, and collapsed. After a short rest, I joined Michael’s wife, Nicky, and her stable assistant Lana for a late lunch under a fig tree in the garden. They asked about my walk but I was in no state to adequately relate one of the most vivid and humbling experiences of my life. I provided a disjointed and uninspiring synopsis of the walk, became discouraged, told them it had been a nice time, and resumed my meal in silence.

George Dyer

[1] Here, I use cousin in the loose, African sense. His father was my grandfather’s cousin.

[2] Barini means sea in the local tongue. The area was thus named because of its water reservoir.