Monday, February 22, 2010

My first foray into the wild

To get to Ruaha National Park, we had to first get to the closest town Iringa, where my wife had rented a place. We went to Iringa from Morogoro (the University town) by bus, a 6 hour journey. Mid-way, the bus made its regular stop at the 'Al-Jazeera' restaurant. It was most likely a tribute to the Al-Jazeera TV channel, because unlike the US, the Al-Jazeera channel has a very good image in Tanzania, probably as good as the BBC has in the rest of the world. And rightly so, because from what I have seen so far, the Al-Jazeera English channel seems quite balanced in its news coverage. Unfortunately, in the US, the very words Al-Jazeera have negative connotations probably because of the way, the US news media have covered the stories of Al-Qaeeda sending their videos to Al-Jazeera. But all that not withstanding, I sincerely believe that Fox and CNN should take a leaf out of Al-Jazeera's news coverage and actually cover news instead of mostly having individuals (or commentators as they prefer to call them) mouth their own extreme opinions.

The next day we set off to the Ruaha National Park, accompanied by my wife's research assistants DE (a masters student from the US), AP referred to as Mzee (pronounced M-zay, a retired parks game warden and walking encyclopedia on all flora ,fauna and everything related to the bush ) and NK (driver/cook). We packed the back of the pickup with stuff needed for all the days that we were spending at the field site. Enroute to the park, we stopped at the closest village and bought tomatoes, onions and a pair of goat legs. Contrary to popular opinion, the goat legs were fine without refrigeration and we had goat for 2 days without anyone getting sick.

We reached the camp site at about 4 pm and set up our tents right next to the Ruaha river at the public campsites. Usually our team is all alone there but this time there was just one other elderly tourist couple camping about 50 metres away from us. The sun was about to set and some baboons were playing in the drying river in the small pockets of water left. Some impala and zebra were having their last fill of water before the onset of night. Soon the sun set and the nocturnal creatures started becoming more vocal. I heard something that I thought resembled the zipper of a tent. I was corrected by Mzee that it was a hyaena. By this time, the baboons had retired to their trees and were continuing their chatter up there. The hippo in the pool close by kept snorting every now and then. Far-off some elephants trumpeted. And then there was the unmistakable grunt of a lion. 2 lions. Each of them patrolling his territory and answering each other's grunts to keep the other away from his area. They kept grunting for a while with a few breaks in between to catch their breaths. It felt really close but I did not want to ask Mzee how close they were because I did not want to seem cowardly on my first day in the bush. First impressions stick.

That night, I kept waking up every hour or so, which is very unlike me. Usually when I go to sleep, I am as good as dead till the morning. I told myself I was jetlagged but I honestly feel that it was due to the fact that I was still unaccustomed to the nocturnal sounds of the jungle and every new sound woke me up. At about 3 am or so, I heard some rustling in the bush right behind us and then the footsteps of a big animal, a few feet away from our tent. I was absolutely certain it was a lion. I turned my head to see if my wife was awake. She was. She looked at me, smiled and put a finger on her lips asking me to be abolutely quiet and still. I had a small knife with me which I am sure would have been completely useless even if a stuffed toy had attacked us, but it provided me some comfort. The animal waited outside our tents for a while, moving back and forth. By this time, my body started to get stiff and I really wanted to move my muscles a bit. Of course as luck would have it, I had taken off my shirt before sleeping due to the heat and the rubbery mattress from REI that we were sleeping on had small depressions (like a golf ball), on which inevitably a vacuum had formed in some of the depressions due to my sweaty torso. As soon as I moved hardly half an inch, some of the depressions made a popping sound and I froze. My wife looked at me in irritation. I abandoned the idea of moving my body and let my sore muscles get even stiffer. My legs felt like they were losing sensation. I really wanted to uncross them. It is funny how these things work. In a normal situation, my legs would never be sore. Thankfully, whatever the animal was, it walked around for a few more minutes and then finally left. I decided right then that no matter how hot it was, I would always wear a shirt at night before going to sleep in the tent.

Very soon dawn scattered away the night and all kinds of birds had started their morning songs. This defintely has to be the best way for anyone to wake up. No more alarm clocks for me, just set a White-browed Coucal next to my bed.

In the morning, I asked my wife what she thought our animal visitor at night was and she seemed to think it was either a hippo or an elephant. I don't know why she did not think it was a lion. I really wanted to believe it was a lion. But when you think about it, all 3 animals would have been as dangerous as the next. The next few nights at Ruaha, I heard the same sounds of baboons, hyaenas, lions, elephants, hippos etc. But I went back to my old sleeping habits of going dead for the night. I guess I must have grown accustomed to the sounds of the jungle.