I don't blame people for staring as I imagine it was probably a uncommon sight In Nairobi to see a group of Americans cram into an open truck, bundled up in blankets and sweat shirts, and start playing 90’s rap music at lovely 6am. Far from the seat belted roofed school buses I’m used to, the unimog has a truck bed with a metal frame covered in canvas that rolls up on the sides and back exposing the two benches that run down the middle of it to the spectacular view, chilly air, and dusty roads.
From the moment I sat down on the hard wooden seat, my world was transformed. After two hours of driving the buildings were replaced with mountains and the occasional villages, the highways with pot hole lined dirt roads, and the people with wildlife.
The first stop was Mugie Ranch, a Rhino Sanctuary that was home to a diverse array of wildlife. It felt like I woke up and drove into every movie/book/fantasy you’ve ever heard or seen about Africa. Toilets and running water disappeared, my room became a tent, my bed a sleeping bag, the dining room consisted of stools around a bonfire, and the kitchen was a tarp wrapped around long wooden stakes driven into the ground. There is a sense of complete submission almost immediately. Everything is out of your control, and things go wrong so often it feels right, so you just allow yourself the freedom to let go and laugh because it’s all there is to do really.
We went on game drives and had lectures daily while we were there, reading at least two scientific papers a day as well as maintaining daily field notebooks. It was not as rigid as it sounds though, there were always circumstances that changed everything.
One afternoon, Julie approached us grinning and said “Lecture is canceled, we found the lions.” We piled into the cars and sped off road through bushes with Frank, the primary wildlife biologist there, hanging half his body out the window with a tracker to locate the collared individuals. We slowed down by a larger shrub which was shading two females sprawled out underneath of it. As impressive as they were, the scene was pretty uneventful, and we left after a few pictures. They went to take another trip back out to show the professors that hadn’t been to see them yet, and, since they had room and none of the other students wanted to come, I hopped back in to go take in the animals once again. This time, though, the trucks scared the lions out of the den. We found them a few kilometers away, in a field, under one lonely tree, with a male. We crept up slowly, getting close enough that I could see the hairs in his mane waving in the wind. I was in awe. So much so that I didn’t realize that I hadn’t been breathing until I started to feel a bit faint and finally exhaled.
Later that night we went on a night game drive. I sat on the roof of the range rover with a couple other students and we drove into the big open darkness. We saw little except for a pack of hyenas with a fresh kill. Most of the time I spent with my head facing upward, trying to take in the sheer size of the sky. There is something about the sky there, something that makes I feel so much larger. I tilted my head back just in time to catch a shooting star and thought, “This, this feeling, this is why I’m here.”