The Northern Dazzle

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It is said that the road to heaven is narrow, and if you have ever found yourself on that slender Nanyuki-Isiolo highway, then you might have been on the path to a kind of heaven. Depending on how you look at it. If you are the kind of person who likes the serenity of the countryside, away fro the heaving breathing pulse of the city, then Timau’s beauty is something biblical. But you really do not need to be a believer to appreciate that wistful cherub of a stretch. I do not know how far it goes and if I knew that side of the country well enough, I would explain it to you with names of towns and centers.

This is how I recall it: At first, there is an endless vastness of orangey fields of drying wheat on the left, and then green fields on the right. Past the green fields, Mount Kenya rises. Crowned with specks of white hair and a peak pointing into the sky, she looks like an old woman trying to reach for something at the top of a cabinet. In between these two fields is the highway. Split in the middle by dots of yellow lines. It cuts across, rising and falling like a singer’s voice, running way ahead of you, leading your eyes to the blue hills yonder. As your car tries to catch up with the winding road, a distinct smell is pushed into the windows of the car, and for a moment there, you look at one another in suspicion, wondering who is doing what. It is not a smell of someone disagreeing with his breakfast. It is almost chemical. Something pungent. That is how the canola plantations announce their arrival. And when you lay your hands on them, it will be difficult to believe that something so beautiful can bear such a scent. Perhaps it adds to the poetry of the place. The kind of shocking poesy realization that a gorgeous lady can also burp. You know it is possible, but it never hits you that she is also a mortal human being whose gut is not immune to excess gas.

I would wax lyrical about the canola plantations. About how they splash colour onto the Meru plains like it is some sort of Indian festival. How the jungle green and egg yolk yellow of their flowers contrast so sharply, each colour eager for attention, each so convincing to the eye, both so damn sweet to look at, you can feel your cornea getting cavities.  I would say we stopped our driver for a moment, Peter Size10 (the photographer) and I, yet none of us bothered to take out or DSLRs. We just stared and shook our heads and made threats about how we would take some killer shots of this landscape, and saw none of that talk through. I would say all that, but I thought it would be easier if I just showed you.

Down that road, after about 30 minutes, David Kimiti (our driver for the day, who also moonlights sometimes as the Head of Science and Research at Lewa Conservancy) slowed down almost to a halt, then turned the nose of the car to the left. At the gate was a sign written Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, and at its foot, white skulls of animals whose luck ran out too soon.

The first time I received an email asking me to come here and participate in counting zebras and giraffes, I stared at the email and then thought to myself, “why would anyone even think that I would be interested in this? This is white people stuff.” Do not get me wrong, I love going on game drives whenever I can catch one. You drive around for an hour, observing wild animals, wondering what they think of us humans, and then thereafter comes the most important part; sundowners. You drive up a hill at sunset with a Land Rover, perch yourselves on stones – drinks in hand – and admire God’s architecture.

But counting animals? Going out into the wilderness, driving off-road, looking for a specific breed of zebras and giraffes? Aaaaai. “For what?” I thought to myself. “I mean, it is sad that they are endangered and all, but why would they need me to go and take part?” I had not answered these questions to myself by the time the day of the trip came around. Certainty, however, has never been what I need to embark on anything, because then, where is the adventure in that? Those questions would answer themselves huko mbele.  At the end of the day, I had a free schedule and a free road trip. What would it hurt?

Inside a brown paper bag are a T-shirt, and two pamphlets. Before you set out for the Great Grevy’s Rally, you have already been read the riot act. First, they make you sign an indemnity release form. Standard procedure at any conservancy you visit. By signing on the dotted line, you understand that if ever something was to happen to you in the jungle, then shauri yako. Meaning that if you ever find yourself in the valley of the shadow of death, face to face with the Kings and Queens of the jungle, well, all you can do is trust in the Lord and fear no evil. That, and also try to make sure that you can run faster than at least one person, because as the katiba of the wilderness dictates; to survive a predatory attack, you do not need to be the fastest animal, you only need to be faster than one person.

That is not to say that you are on your own. No. Otherwise I would have packed up and gone back to Nairobi. You will be in the company of trained professionals. People who have studied animal behavior and know how not to end up as some huge cat’s four o’clock KDF.

They tell you what you are looking for. Grevy’s Zebras and Reticulated Giraffes. Until that moment, you had no idea that there were different kinds of giraffes or zebras. In your head, si a zebra is just a zebra? Those animals who have never decided whether they are black with white stripes or white with black stripes. But apparently, there are two types. The Plain Zebra is the one we are used to. But they are not ‘plain’ in the sense of those unremarkable jokes that Facebookers are known to steal from Twitter. Uh-uh. Plain as in the opposite of Highlands. It mostly inhabits the plains. Get it? It is also called Burchell’s Zebra, and is known for being short and generally fatter. To say that they were painted with a broad brush would not be a lie. Not just because they are very common, but also because they have notoriously thick stripes. If you have ever seen a Zebra, you have most likely seen a Plain Zebra.

Then there are the other chaps. The ones we came for. The Grevy’s Zebras. They are taller that the other jamaas. Because they watch what they eat and have Instagram careers to maintain, they are more svelte like athletes. The kind of people who do not eat the yellow parts of eggs, wear Fitbits and are always telling everybody else to use the stairs instead of lifts. The best way to pick them out is their thin stripes. Thin like Mike Ross’ (from Suits) neckties. And because our creator has a strange sense of humour, He put a black stripe running from the dip of their backs all the way to their (there is no better way of putting this) asses. This species of Zebras is the one that is endangered. They used to be kitu 15,000 in the 70s. But for whatever reason, the last Grevy’s Rally census showed less than 2500 of them were remaining.

If you come across the 2018 Safaricom calendar, you’ll notice that this year they are concentrating on wildlife, not the usual iconic poses from everyday Kenyan people in extraordinary situations. Safaricom decided that the change this year in the calendar would focus on their conservation efforts in Kenya – more specifically, in regards to our endangered species. The Grevy’s Zebra was chosen as the species for the month of January, so that this month was dedicated to raising awareness for it under the #ThisIsMyKenya campaign. Which is sort of apt, because January is a very black and white month. No grey areas. You either like it or you don’t. You are either broke or part of the rich gang. And if you are on the dark side of this month, the side where if you walked into a forex bureau the only thing you’d exchange is glances with the cashier, then the weeks also seem as many as the stripes on a Zebra’s hide.

And that is just with the Zebras.

The Grevy Zebra

The Grevy’s Zebra [by Japicha]

There are also the giraffes. I will not spoon-feed you how many species of giraffes exist. Consider that your homework. But I will tell you about one kind. The Reticulated Giraffe. Depending on how you look at him, that skin could look like a maze, or like a brown board with white veins running all over it with no rhyme or reason…or both. Sometimes people call these ones Somali Giraffes. Not because they own strongly scented textile shops in Eastleigh, but because they mostly occupy Northern Kenya.

After breakfast, they put you in the back of a Land Rover. David Kimiti is at the front with the driver. He is the one with some specialized Nikon camera. The way this works is that he is supposed to photograph the right side of these two animals. The right side only (labda because they want to be on the correct side of history). We drive around, shooting these guys, then they feed the images into some thingamabob that can differentiate each animal by their stripes. Apparently, there are no two Zebras or Giraffes with similar stripes. Each is unique. Like fingerprints. That thingamajig is like a BVR kit; picks out each individual and after a few months results are released with the complete count.

There is no supreme court to appeal the results. You accept and move on.

Ndio ujue we human beings are very different, at the end of the trip when we congregated at the Nanyuki Sports Club for a debrief, I heard someone describe this exercise as exciting. Kila nyani na starehe zake, I guess. Because when I think back to it right now, this process of data collection was grueling. Or maybe I am just a city snowflake. But the thing is, driving around in that Lewa microwave, driving offroad where you are thrown around until your back begs for breathing space, struggling to spot Grevy’s zebras and reticulated giraffes (we counted about 150 each of the two days), trying not to piss off a black rhino and constantly shooting…. was not exactly exciting. Sure, it was a different work station from my usual couch on Langata Road, but damn! Now I am sure the people who are reading this and were camping huko on top of sijui Mount Ololokwe are reading this and rolling their eyes so far back they can see their craniums. But I shall not be intimidated! I am spoilt and my cries are valid.

However I am not oblivious of my privilege. We had snacks in the vans and for lunch we had chicken and sandwiches. Cold, yes, but still chicken and sandwiches either way. I kept thinking of the rangers who work here. Those men and women who are always putting their skin in the game. Sometimes literally. When we think of conservation, we think of rich odieros in shorts, safari boots, shirts with many pockets, hairy legs and bowled hats. The people who changed the meaning of the term safari  from journey to going to look at animals using binoculars. Lakini those whose boots are constantly on the ground, those without whom all this wildlife would be long gone, do not always have the pleasure of being pampered with biscuits, bottled water, cold chicken and sandwiches.

So, by the time we had to leave Lewa, I already had my response to that “For what?” question. Why was it so important for me to attend the Great Grevy’s Rally? Well, it is my good deed of the day. Or weekend. As a person who would like to have this resource around long enough to show my kids, then it is also a kind of responsibility to help in keeping them around. That terrible backache that comes after a rough ride in the jungle taking photos is just a pinch in the bigger pains of protecting this future.

And of course there is also the other selfish motive. Like resting at the top of Mlima Tim, a fizzy drink in hand, watching the sun slide off the sky like one raindrop down a window, and reminding myself that some things are beautiful from every point of view.


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  1. Puns! You’ve got them and more. Sarcasm of results and stuff.

    I was looking for that line to the ass but you were too mean with the photo. Or you were zooming into something else. And you are no longer a novice in photography.

  2. But Magunga, I want to see the line that runs from the neck to the ass of the zebra.
    Seriously, you shoulda seen me zooming the pictures trying to look for it.?
    Grant my wish, please

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