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My Africa Diaries: Nashipai’s Big Adventure

There’s one particular story about my Africa trip that I’ve been saving. I’ve described in previous posts my 3-day safari to the Maasai Mara – but I’ve not yet discussed the events of the final morning prior to our return to Nairobi. (If you’re just joining us, read this post for a recap of our time with the Maasai and an explanation of my Maasai name ‘Nashipai’ and this post for a recap of our safari game drives.)

Now that the Maasai Mara wildlife reserve charges a full day’s fees regardless of how long you visit, it doesn’t make much sense to do partial day game drives if you can help it. We arranged our schedule to allow two full day game drives, leaving our first day for the aforementioned visit to the village and the last morning for some sort of leisure activity.

Our Maasai guides told us that most of the campers who stay at that community camp go on a guided wilderness hike up to a nearby ridge that overlooks a large portion of the reserve. Longtime readers of this blog may remember my catastrophic knee injury of 2010 – two surgeries and 2 years of PT later, I’ve regained nearly all of my flexibility but still have some arthritis and nerve sensitivity. Thus, being hours from the nearest urban hospital I was a bit nervous about hiking in the African bush. I warned my group and guides that I’d possibly need to opt out of the hike (with accompaniment) if it got too steep. And yet, the only way I recovered was by pushing myself (I was dancing onstage within 9 weeks of the original surgery) so I wanted to try.

As was now usual for our mornings at camp, we were up and out of the tent by 6:30 AM for a 7AM start. (It was not hard to be up that early, given that we were awakened at around 5AM by the roar of a lion on the reserve.) The sun was low and yet intense as we began to make our way into the forest near the camp. Our party consisted of two Maasai warrior guides, replete with their red Maasai garb, clubs, swords and spears; my coworker Kendra and I; along with Daniel, a Canadian grad student who was our third camp companion.

On a side note, I’ll fully admit to looking a bit ridiculous in comparison to my fellow hikers. As you may know, I sometimes make Snow White look pale, so several hours in the sunny Kenyan wilderness meant covering up. Khaki bug pants, khaki long sleeved shirt, khaki sun hat, and a pink athletic top made me look something like a Jane Goodall Barbie doll. I’m sure I looked like a ghost from a distance. But at least I wasn’t a sunburned ghost. 😉

The walk became steep quickly, and was slow going. The warriors stopped frequently to show us various features of the forest. They pointed out specific useful trees – the sandpaper tree, whose leaves were used as sandpaper (well named, there) and another tree whose leaves were the forest equivalent of toilet paper (I later gave those trees a reasonably wide berth.) Speaking of feces, poop is an important indicator in the forest, particularly when large animals may be nearby. Our guides pointed out several different types of poop, from cow poop (we’ve all seen THAT in America) to gazelle and dikdik poop. Nearby, one of the guides picked up a dried lump of straw and muck about the size of a loaf of bread. “This is dried elephant dung. It’s good for kindling.” Makes sense, since it’s mostly dry straw.

We continued our walk. A few more minutes in, one of our guides pointed out a series of broken trees and tree branches. “This looks like the work of a elephant,” he said – and I was glad that the elephant dung we saw earlier was so dried, making it seem that the elephant that caused this accidental destruction was long gone.

Time is hard to track in the wilderness, at least for those of us who don’t get there frequently and are already massively jetlagged. I’d say another 10-15 minutes later, our guides indicated some trampled grass and branches underneath some trees. “That looks like some elephants may have slept here recently, even maybe last night.” Time confused or not, I knew that it was still before 8 in the morning, which meant (by my standards) it was still practically last night. We also noted a smaller set of large footprints that our guides said could very well have been a baby elephant. Kendra and I exchanged quizzical looks, but our guides were unfazed and continued onwards.

Shortly afterwards, we encountered a clearing with long, deep crevices carved up the hill. Apparently, these were created by the movement of large herds of cattle up the hill during recent droughts, when there was no longer any viable plant matter in the lowlands. Each of the crevices was deep, sometimes a foot or deeper, and ran quite a ways up the hill. And in one of the crevices a bit further up the hill was a massive, steaming pile of fresh dung. I didn’t even need our guides to tell us what had left that dung, with flies buzzing energetically about it. Only an elephant (or a dinosaur, which Occam’s Razor ruled out fairly quickly) could poop like that.

As our guides pointed out the elephant droppings, I took a moment to assess the path we were about to take – to my dismay, the hill seemed to run at a nearly 90 degree angle from where we were standing. Given the signs of local wildlife, I didn’t want to put myself in a compromising position on terrain that was too tough for my old injury. I mentioned this to the group, and we resolved that one of the guides would stay on the flatlands with me, while the rest of the group finished the last leg of the upwards hike and came back down to meet us afterwards. This seemed like the safest approach, and we parted ways.

My now-personal Maasai guide Leonard continued at a leisurely pace with me, pointing out more local plant life along the way. At this point we continued parallel to the hill. We stopped to admire a fragrant tree that Leonard said warriors used as a natural form of deodorant on hikes, and gathered bunches of leaves from it.

Leaves in hand, a few minutes later, we heard the discordant sound of frantic shouting in Maasai from the hill. I of course didn’t speak Maasai (a few key phrases of Swahili only), so I had to wait as my guide strained to make out the second shouted phrase.
Once Leonard comprehended the content of the yelling, he turned to me with wide eyes, and in the most Doctor Who moment I may ever experience in real life, he bellowed, “RUN!”

A great deal happened in the few moments after that urgent warning. I instantly began running in the same direction Leonard did, without question. I am grateful my questioning nature did not interfere with blossoming survival instincts. As I began to run, the questioning nature kicked in while in motion, as I breathlessly asked “Why?” Of course, if you’ve been following the clear foreshadowing that had been dogging us the entire hike, the response I got was, “ELEPHANT!!!”

Armed with this new knowledge, time seemed to expand as I realized that we were now running for our lives. I mused, in a fraction of a second, how strange this turn of events was. That a year ago, my odds of dying or maiming by elephant trampling were essentially zero percent – how on earth had we gotten to this point, where it was an entirely likely and immediate threat to my life?

As we continued to run, we encountered that same set of crevasses a bit further down the hill. I observed the crevasses and was about to avoid them – when I was distracted by the SIGHT OF THE ACTUAL ELEPHANT as it stepped out from behind some trees. Now we’ve gone from “hypothetical threat of elephant” to “I am the closest human being to one of the largest land mammals on the planet and I don’t know what its next move will be.” I’m bad at estimating distances, especially when my veins are essentially running on pure adrenaline, but it was perhaps between 50 and 100 meters away. (I use meters since we were not in America and thus not bidden to our old fashioned measurements.)

Of course, this all was entirely too much for my brain to process, and overrode my “avoiding ditch” thought process – so I proceeded to trip on one of the gashes in the terrain. Thankfully, I’ve watched a hell of a lot of Star Trek away missions as part of my work on Where No Man Has Gone Before, so some survivalist part of my brain turned it into a barrel roll (a hard one, but still), enabling me to get up immediately, swipe my hat and bandana off the ground, and assess the situation. At this point, the elephant was not charging but could of course decide to do so. My guide motioned for us to continue running silently in what we perceived was a downwind direction. I knew that I would not run fast enough if left to my own devices, so I lurched forward and grabbed onto his arm with a death grip and we ran, physically connected, in a zig zag until the brush became too dense to stay 2 abreast. As we ran, acacia thorns scraped at our limbs, and I found myself quite glad I was so unreasonably covered up.

After running what was probably over a kilometer or two, we came to a rest in a clearing with our backs to some protection facing the direction the elephant was last seen. As we stopped to catch our breath (or rather, I caught mine as Maasai are in much better physical shape), in the relative silence of the wilderness – Leonard’s cell phone rang. Of course, he had set his ring tone as a recording of himself singing the warrior song from the village, so “cell phone ringing” in this context was a creepily disembodied and slightly tinny “OnnnoNNONNNonnnnnnn” chant. Had I not still been full of survival adrenaline, I would have burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of the scene.

Naturally, the caller was the other guide up on the hillside. They had gotten up a few stories and looked back to find us, but spotted an elephant between us and them. They were calling to make sure we were OK once we had disappeared from view. What we could not have known, because we did not look back (yay survival instinct!) was that something – whether it was our initial yelling exchanges, a guardian angel, my guide’s traditional Maasai garb (which is known to threaten elephants) or perhaps the fact that I probably looked like a ghost or perhaps vampire to the elephant – one of those, or a combination of them, scared the elephant so it ran in the opposite direction.

My guide and I stayed mostly in place, keeping a vigilant eye out as we waited for the rest of the group to join us. Every once in a while they’d check in by cell phone. We watched some other animals – distant zebras and dikdiks – from a distance but I was a bit skittish about them (“Warthogs? Will they attack us?”). I also noticed my first live dung beetle, working happily on its tiny pungent snowball of poop. Our discussions turned to a comparison of marriage customs in our countries, finding and using aloe plants, recovery from injuries (turns out my guide had been injured by an elephant before…) and whether I as an American danced frequently (of all of the American stereotypes in the world I didn’t anticipate that being one, but it could be worse!)

As we sat, I noticed that my elbows and right thigh stung a little. I couldn’t investigate the leg, but I pulled back my sleeve to discover that the barrel roll had been at high enough velocity to give me scrapes inside my clothing. That should also be a big endorsement for the sturdy nature of REI’s offerings, since the clothes were stained but otherwise unharmed. (I did look as if a makeup artist for Jurassic Park had attacked the right side of my body with plains dust and grass stains.) Of course, if you know me you know I had bandages in my bag, which I had carried through this whole adventure, and I covered those scrapes until I could get to my antiseptic back at camp.

When we all reunited and walked back to camp, we were greeted by our driver who asked “Nashipai, how was the hike?” At this point, I was:

  1. Glad to discover I have a nontrivial survival instinct, even at speed as a nonathlete and formerly crippled individual
  2. Cranky that we had not been briefed on survival techniques if elephants were a likely encounter
  3. In mild to moderate pain from the scrapes and bruises up my right side
  4. Past my adventure quota for the year
  5. Anxious to get back to an urban environment as quickly as possible

So I replied a bit brusquely due to all of that internal conflict, “Well, the elephant didn’t trample us, so I suppose that’s a minor victory!” and hurried back to the tent so I could change and clean up.

After our return, we were scheduled to eat a large brunch and then depart in the camp van for the bumpy 5 hour return drive to Nairobi. At the table, our driver admitted that at first he thought I was joking until the guides filled him in on the day’s events.
Apparently such a close encounter had never happened with guests in tow before, and thus I may have gone down in the legends of the camp – Nashipaie’s big elephant adventure.

Some of the other staff members remarked, “Well, you got a great story out of it!” – which, while true and in line with the Kenyan cultural approach to these sorts of things, made me wonder if they’d be saying the same thing if I’d been eaten by a lion or something. Stories are great… unless you can’t tell them because you died living the story.

At some point after returning to camp, I texted my husband, “Remember that time I had to run for my life from an elephant in the African wilderness? Oh wait, that just happened.” To paraphrase his reply, it was relief at my safety and awe at the story. His last note was, “Have a safe ride back to Nairobi and don’t pick up any hitchhikers.” He couldn’t have known that by the time that text came through, a series of events had transpired such that we had left camp but immediately picked up a lady from the village who needed a ride to class in Narok. The day had just got too ridiculous for words, so I replied “Aside from the hitchhiker we already have, I’ll keep that in mind. ;P”

The drive back was stranger than the drive out, which is saying something since you may recall our drive out saw us bear witness to and act as first responders to an accident involving another safari vehicle. But in addition to our hitchhiker, we had the camp owner’s sons in the van – and then had to detour when the owner’s wife’s car broke down in the stifling heat on a dirt road on the way back from a wedding. Full house for most of the drive back. (The owner’s wife was similarly amazed at the elephant story.) And we actually ended up seeing wildebeests, even though they weren’t “in season” – for whatever reason, we encountered a herd somehow trapped in a large cattle pen, in frantic fear being chased around by what appeared to be an 8 year old boy. Right.

My brain overloaded sometime after the wildebeest (again, saying a lot since I’m constantly seeking stimulation) and I slept for several hours in spite of the incredibly loud, bouncy, dusty, hot environment inside the van. When I awoke, we were just hitting the beginning of what became hours of traffic into Nairobi, from prior to the Great Rift Valley. I had never been happier to pull up to a hotel perhaps in all my life. Our overdose of adventure on the safari led my coworker and I to postpone and cancel nearly all of our plans the next day in favor of time spent at the hotel pool and gym (a far more comfortable way to burn calories than say, running through acacia thorns at speed).

One last thing I discovered once my group reunited at the base of the ridge – after warning us, our fellow hikers watched to see if we would be ok (with the elephant between the two groups, help was not really an option.) During that time, our friend Daniel managed to get out his camera and snap a photo – admittedly, a few seconds after the initial encounter due to the process of pulling out the lens. But in this photo you can clearly make out three things, aside from the seemingly neverending wilderness:

Moments after our close encounter with an elephant in the wilderness near the Maasai Mara wildlife reserve
Moments after our close encounter with an elephant in the wilderness near the Maasai Mara wildlife reserve

At left: an actual elephant. At right: two dots; one red, one white. I am the white dot. (Photo credit to Daniel Binette.) Below, followed by a photo of our group (minus the other guide taking the photo), where you can see what we looked like after reuniting post-adventures.

Survived the morning hike, though a bit more closely than originally intended.
Survived the morning hike, though a bit more closely than originally intended.

So I as Nashipai survived my unexpected elephant encounter. Mercifully, there are no lingering effects – the scrapes healed quickly, and two days later we visited the elephant sanctuary so I can profess no lingering deep fear of pachyderms. I’ll be fine with elephants on parade but I’ll be glad of any barriers I can put between us, thank you very much. Or as one would say in Maasai, Ashe Naleng.

Epilogue: So You Want To Follow My Footsteps?
While I enjoyed our safari time and found it to be a good value, I am stopping short of recommending it officially as I didn’t think they did enough to prepare us for the hike we were told was commonplace and put us in mortal danger as a result. Of course, safaris are synonymous with risk, and I’m not openly disrecommending this one either as I think they do good work in the community (and hopefully have learned from this adventure and the feedback we gave them – the rest of the experience was generally good and welcoming.) But if you do choose to use them, make sure you ask for coaching on encounter skills should you decide to take them up on the guided hike included in the camping fees. Probably a good idea wherever you go – the Kenyan approach to safety is not as rigorous as we’ve come to expect elsewhere, so it is your responsibility to decide what’s safe and what’s not for yourself. Take care of yourself and happy adventuring!

We stayed and toured with the Oldarpoi Mara Camp: website here and NYT profile here.