So much for being clean again…
Norbert, our Tanzanian field assistant, always laughs when I come in from the field covered in mud. He takes pictures each time, telling me that “when I write my book” I need to publish these photos to show people that “to get PhD, you must be THIS much mud!”
Getting to know the mud of Serengeti has been the major hurdle of my wet season. The mud out here comes, I have discovered, in many different treacherous flavors. Surprisingly, you can get a car through the largest puddles by plowing straight through the middle, but the edges of these small lakes (that you might, say, drive on to go *around* the seemingly-impassible body of water) are death-traps. Silty pale sand on the road is often a sign of stickiness and tall grass can hide all manner of trouble. If the sun happens to bake the right kind of crust on the road after a rainfall, solid ground can collapse right out from under your wheels: as I discovered the other evening, under you go. I had been driving out to an area of the park called Barafu when my journey ground to a halt in two feet of thick mud.
Often, with the right amount of tenacity, you call bully your way through the mud. Locking the wheels, jacking up the car, throwing spare tires and dead trees and rocks and whatever else you can find under your floundering tires sometimes works. If you’re in the right areas at the right time of day, passing tour cars often go out of their way to help you out (a favor I try and return at every possible convenience, building up karma for the next big stick). This particular situation, however, was neither the right place nor the right time. It was early evening, and I was miles and miles away from Serengeti Central. Asking for help this late and this far from our field crew would have been irresponsible and, fortunately, unnecessary — I had been heading out camping that evening to start with, and always keep the car stocked with emergency supplies (sleeping bag, snacks, and, of course, a bottle of Safari Lager).
While it was still light, I tried to make it the kilometer or two to a nearby kopje, hoping that somewhere along the route my cellphone reception would kick in and I could at least send out some coordinates for a tow the next morning. No dice: the sun quickly began to set and I had to beat a hasty retreat to the car. Making the best of an inconvenient situation, I popped the top off of a beer and crawled up onto the hood to watch as the sun drift below the horizon. I almost spilled half that beer down my front when, with a roar, a lion emerged from the grass less than two meters away from where I was sitting.
She was a lone female, a bit scrawny and mangy (I was pretty sure I recognized her from earlier on in the day). Stepping onto the road, she sauntered over to the car, roaring every few steps. Was she calling for the rest of her pride? I couldn’t see or hear any others, and the lioness circled the Land Rover only once before continuing down the road. Clutching my beer, I experienced an emotion I have felt only once before, diving with great white sharks: knowing that you’re safe (probably), in your cage or in your car, but also understanding that you’re out in a predator’s natural habitat – and that those predators know you’re there. I can only think to describe it as an overwhelming sense of respect tinged with adrenaline, followed by an aftertaste of awe and thankfulness when the predator finally passes you by.
Needless to say, as soon as the lioness was a fair distance away, I scooted quickly back inside the car and may have even rolled the windows up a bit. I could hear her roaring for the next hour or so, and based on the footprints in the mud surrounding my Land Rover the next morning, she came back once or twice to check up on me.
On a lighter note, I’d like to make a special shout-out to the six-tour car cavalcade of young university men that took time out of their safari the next morning to drag me out and feed me chocolate bars (perhaps have to get stuck more often…?)
##### Today’s post is a continuation of last week’s adventure, written by Patrik Dousa. #####
When we left off the story from last week, all of us in the Serengeti team were out deep in the sour tern range of the Serengeti trying to free a land rover from thick mud. All we accomplished was securing the range rover even deeper in the mud. From 1/4 of the wheel being submerged to a half, with the bumper touching the ground. Good going. A beautiful sunset was going to occur in an hour or so and the last place to be at that point was in the middle of a hazardous plain with a large pride of lions waking up for their nighttime prowls.
The lions are still watching us from their mesas to the north and Ali is figuring out the next move. I thought it was a clear decision. Leave. Now. Have I described to you the fortitude and diligence of a lion researcher? A job that requires you to spend most of your time in the dry plains with the only the basic minimum requirements to sustain you doesn’t attract individuals who give up too easily. No, Ali and George see the sunken rover as a challenge that must be faced. We aren’t leaving, not without a fight.
Just then a tourist vehicle pulls up along a road about a half-mile from our area on the other side of the uncrossable mud plains. The guide is in the process taking them back home to one of the southern lodges and apparently decided to stop, having spied the magnificent example of male lion that was observing our vehicle. The new arrival attracted King Simba’s attention and the powerful elegant beast starts walking towards the tourists. I can see their excitement mount through my binoculars — this moment is going to be the highlight of their trip. George and Ali are laboring through shovelfuls of the thickest, reddest, peatiest mud you can imagine and only a short distance away, well-scrubbed observers are preparing themselves for the the apex of their Serengeti experience. Such is life.
I see a bold cub follow his master lion and play around his feet incurring his wrath for a moment. The king playfully swats back and raises his head to the heavens letting out an immense roar to the delight of the tourists. The greatest show on earth — with our little car-trouble side-show of going on right in the background. “Who are those crazy people back there?” they must have asked their guide. “Well, they’re professionals, so they must know what their doing.” the guide is certain to have responded.
The lion’s roar triggered a slow migration of the lionesses and their cubs from the low mesas to the area closer to the tourist vehicle where the male lion had settled. As the single file procession began, we felt a wave of relief since the pride was now headed away from our rover. A few more attempts to drag out the stuck vehicle failed. By now the sun is steadily growing larger and more rosy as it begins its decent. The sky eventually reaches the particular hue that Ali reads as our signal to leave.
We secured the vehicle and took all the valuables and began a slow retreat back thinking, “please don’t get stuck” on repeat until we got back on the main road. The pink sun blossomed into a deep red bloom that backlit the acacia tree line creating the beautiful silhouetted postcard image that the Serengeti is so well know for. The mood in the car was impervious to these romantic supplications. Exhausted and temporarily defeated, the crew made the long journey back toward the research house.
Being the visitor who expended the least amount of sweat that day, I suggested that we stop at the local canteen Seronera and that I’d treat everyone to a chicken and rice dinner and a Stoney Tangawizi (the extra spicy ginger ale that is everybody’s favorite drink in Tanzania). This turned out to be a very cost effective way to turn the sour mood sweet — just a few bucks per plate and brew to get everyone back to their happy place. Soon the team was back to the bantering with the locals and planning tomorrow’s adventure. That was my last night at the Serengeti, the next day I was back on the road to Arusha. Ali messaged me later and mentioned that they were able to round up a crew to go back and successfully drag out the rover the next day. This did not surprise me since I had well learned: you can’t keep a lion research team down for long.
Stuck. Surrounded by lions. Please come.
This is not a text message that you’d necessarily expect to get on your cell phone…unless you work as a lion researcher in the Serengeti like Ali does. Receiving this text in the early afternoon, she takes the news in stride as a necessary task that needed to be finished before dark. I on the other hand, as a visitor, am charged up and nonplussed with the drama of it all. George, one of the field research assistants on a lion tracking expedition, obviously needs help and pronto, so we are on our way out within a few minutes. In the wild Serengeti, a few minutes can separate success from tragedy — the research team has an exceptional awareness of this and also the discipline to do what it needs to be done in a methodical and prompt manner as Ali is demonstrating to me at this moment.
We track George and his land rover down just like we do lions. Each rover is outfitted with the same tracking unit that is on the collar of each radio-tracked lioness. So we chase the rover’s signature signal deep into the southern range, driving on the dirt roads as fast as we can safely afford. As the day draws towards a close, the animals become restless. Elephants trumpet in the distance. A serval — a beautiful African wild cat one doesn’t see everyday– trots across the road and disappears in the brush. Normally such a sighting would warrant an immediate stop, but not today.
Finally, we go as far as the roads can take us and we must venture in the unmarked grassy plains that are a minefield of axle-breaking holes and mud-traps. Driving off road is risky business in the daytime –as George was just reminded of — and completely a fool’s errand in the nighttime. Ali looks for the tell-tale signs in grass patch coloration that indicate a possible hole as she swerves deftly through the treacherous terrain in a labored crawl.
Finally on the horizon, we sight George and his rover axle deep in a seemingly stable area. The dry cracked surface, however, masks a vast mud hole created by the recent rains. This is the worst kind of environmental trap that even a seasoned veteran like George can fall prey too. With a lighthearted smile that belies any frustration, George explains how he tracked a pride of lions into this area and was surprised by the sudden drop into the mud. Luckily, our rover remains in the solid area just short of George’s rover. We check the area and see that the lions have moved off to a series of small mesas to the north. It’s safe enough to exit the vehicles as long as one of us keeps a 360 degree lookout.
Our cellphones at that point record no bars, so as Ali readies a tow line, she inquires how George was able to get a message out.
The calm exterior and wry banter of every lion researcher I’ve met is always the counterpoint to the fierce passion and iron discipline at their core. George is all smiles and laughs a bit as he recounts the sinking feeling he had when he saw that he had no bars on his cellphone and lions surrounding three sides of the vehicle. A thickly maned adult male lion stood watch right outside the drivers side as if he sensed George’s desperation.
A good scientist, when faced with a problem, puts together an experiment to test its boundaries. Perhaps the cell phone could be made to transmit somehow? As George raised his hand up and out of the vehicle he noticed to a single bar flicker on and off. This observation made him hatch a plan that he reflected on as he eyed the attentive dark-maned sentinel waiting outside along with the multiple groups of lionesses and cubs surrounding him.
The day was not going to get any longer so George, did exactly what he contemplated: he composed his terse message on his phone, climbed out the window onto the roof rack, and jumped up several times pressing the send key until the signal caught and the phone indicated the message was sent. Then he waited for the animals realize that he was still out of their range and relax back down to their lazy poses and before slipping back into the car to await rescue.
By the end of the story, the tow cable is fastened and mud traction ladders are in position under the rear wheels of the rover. Ali is ready to begin the first effort to pull the car. The gears lock in, the engine strains, the wheels spin, and…Georges car slips off of the ladders and deeper into the mud.
To be continued…