My adventure in Kenya is my most memorable to date.
I knew that I’d have an incredible adventure in Kenya, but I really did not expect so many crazy, intense, and miraculous experiences. It was my first time venturing into Africa and into the complete unknown. As an animal lover and environmentalist, I was thrilled to not only witness such spectacular creatures living in their natural habitat, but I had an opportunity to help them, too. When Yellow Zebra Safaris graciously launched a blogger competition to win a luxury Tanzania safari, I knew that I had to share my stories about enchanting Kenya. After all, this isn’t only my favourite trip, but one that gave me the confidence to face new challenges and follow my passions.
Before my trip to Kenya, I’d never really travelled on my own before. I’d either taken holidays with Justin, friends, or family. Even though I met a small group of energetic women abroad, I didn’t know anyone or the situations I’d encounter. I was a little bit scared, I’m not going to lie. However, I really wanted to travel overseas to help endangered animals, and this desire overpowered my fearful emotions or moments of self-doubt. I’m going to share why this was the best trip of my life, through all of the exhilarating adventures and scary incidents.
Visiting Kenya (and Africa!) for the first time, I was in awe of everything. On the ride from Nairobi to Soysambu Conservancy, the wildlife preserve where I volunteered, I made our drivers stop the car because I saw a zebra at the side of the road. They laughed out loud. “You’re going to be seeing a lot more zebras where we’re headed.” I was amazed by this one, solitary zebra, even though it was akin to someone pulling the car over to gaze at a squirrel back home. Soon enough, I grew accustomed to watching herds of galloping zebras on a daily basis. Approximately 5000 zebra live at Soysambu.
Naturally, the best aspect of volunteering in Kenya was the volunteer experience itself. There were a couple of key projects to work on: tracking the endangered Rothschild giraffes that lived at the wildlife conservancy and taking part in anti-poaching activities.
Volunteer Work: Rothschild Giraffes
90 Rothschild giraffes live at Soysambu, which is approximately 10% of the total population in the world. On giraffe monitoring days, we ventured out with a guide to the areas where they typically roamed to track their locations, movements, and population. My role as photographer was to snap pictures of the giraffes to identify and track each individual. This isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Every giraffe in the world has different markings, much like a fingerprint. I had to capture images of both the right and left sides of their bodies for identification purposes. On many occasions, I took a picture of one side of the giraffe and patiently waited to capture the other side of its body. It’s not as easy as waiting for a giraffe to turn around and walk the opposite way. When it was appropriate, we drove around in a circle, attempting to view the other side of the giraffe. When we returned to the office with hundreds of giraffe photos, we’d scour through huge binders of pictures to determine which ones we saw wandering about.
Over several giraffe monitoring sessions and hundreds of photographs, we successfully identified 40 giraffes and discovered several new baby giraffes. I provided the conservancy with high quality pictures for their records. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to name one of the newly discovered baby giraffes. This one was so young that he still had his umbilical cord attached. I named the giraffe after Justin, and my apologies go out to this giraffe if he ended up being a girl (we can always go with Justina or Justice instead!).
One highlight of this giraffe monitoring project was tracking one that was slowly turning white, affectionately known as Moses. I had no idea at the time that Moses is the only known giraffe in the world to be slowly turning white. When I returned home, my pictures of Moses were integral for a scientific study and published in an article in New Scientist and BBC Earth!
Volunteer Work: Combating Poaching
While the giraffe monitoring project was rewarding, there wasn’t anything quite comparable to our hands-on work to combat poaching. Sadly, poachers frequent this 40,000 acre property, scattering twisted up bits of wire fencing in an effort to trap the animals. Animals of all varieties could easily get tripped up and caught in the loops of wire. Later, the poachers return for their kills. Our team wandered around sections of the property, scouring each location for wire snares. We managed to fill up the back of our truck with piles upon piles of wire. For each snare that we removed, it potentially meant that one life was saved.
Daily Life at Soysambu
Volunteering with animals in Africa certainly topped the list of reasons why this was the best trip ever. In addition, I really enjoyed my daily life and routines at Soysambu Conservancy. Every day was a safari. When we drove across the land from the office, around Lake Elementita, and to our living quarters, we saw an impressive array of wildlife. There were zebra, giraffes, baboons, flamingos, warthogs, waterbucks, hyenas, and more. I didn’t even know that some of these animals existed until I saw them with my own eyes. One advantage of working on a wildlife conservation project in Africa is seeing a lot of amazing animals!
At the end of the day, nothing quite compared to savouring a delicious cup of coffee after dinner, watching the sun go down. The cottages where we stayed were right on the conservancy property, so it wasn’t uncommon to watch the zebra or waterbuck wander into the backyard. The sunsets in Kenya were some of the most brilliant ones I’ve seen in my life. There’s something very special about African sunsets.
While volunteering in Kenya, I learned to expect the unexpected. Even though I was there to help their ongoing conservation work, there were surprises along the way that added to the magic of the trip.
Sleeping in a Treehouse
On one evening, we were treated to the unique and memorable experience of sleeping up in a treehouse in the middle of the conservancy. Each treehouse had one bed and I had mine all to myself. Armed with flashlights, we stuck together as we walked to our treetop abodes, just in case there were animals lurking in the bushes.
Sleeping in a treehouse in Africa is something I’ll never forget. First, I’m not sure how much sleeping I actually did; I was a bit frightened. Every noise I heard in the night made my imagination run wild. Perhaps it was because we spent the night in treehouses after my intense animal encounter (I’ll get to that momentarily). I heard the cries of hyenas echoing through the night. There were the sounds of footsteps below, but I had no idea what creature was hiding in the shroud of darkness. Something was rustling up against my tree, which was likely the sound of a buffalo tackling an itch. Visions of leopards leaping into my treehouse at night crept into my mind.
Of course, the animals kept to their own routine throughout the night and eventually I must have fallen asleep. I awoke to a chorus of birds chirping as they fluttered in and out of my home. I was grateful for the discomfort because I felt more confident and brave after this experience.
Going on a Night Safari
Have you ever gone on a safari at night? It’s an exciting opportunity. While it might seem counter intuitive as you can’t see much in the dark, you can view a whole new world if you have the right equipment. Many nocturnal creatures were out to play, but our main goal was to find the lions. There were eight lions (six of which were lion cubs) living at Soysambu and they were very difficult to track during the daytime. At night, these lions were active, mostly hunting their prey. With the sounds of squealing pigs blaring through the car’s sound system (yes, this was an effective way to attract their attention!) and an expensive night scope on loan from the British military, we drove around for hours seeking the lions.
Finally, when we were almost ready to give up, we stumbled upon several pairs of eyes in the distance. The two female lions were resting, while the lion cubs were digging at something. It was fascinating to watch them dig and play through the night vision scope. The next day, we drove back to the same spot in the daylight to discover that the lion cubs were digging into a warthog hole. They were likely tormenting some poor warthog down there!
The Terrifying Experience
I never anticipated travelling to Kenya and nearly escaping death.
One of our tasks at Soysambu Conservancy was to fix one of the hides. A hide is a small hut with a thatched roof, covered in dried grasses. It is camouflaged so you can watch the animals unnoticed. Not only was the hide in desperate need of repair, but the path leading to it was completely overgrown. We had to clear the path before repairing the hide.
Our group was in the bush, hacking away at overgrown, stubborn weeds. One of our guides was ahead of the group and the other was behind us, closer to the car. All of a sudden, I heard a man’s voice. He was screaming. Blood-curdling screams. I couldn’t make out what he was yelling. I’m not even sure if it was in English or Swahili. The words didn’t register with me. My first instinct told me to run. Run fast.
I ran back to the vehicle as fast as I could. I threw open the back door as quickly as possible, while glancing back to the path to see exactly what I was running from. An enraged, 800-pound buffalo was stampeding ahead. It was trying to kill us.
As I clambered to get into the back seat, the expedition leader (Nora) and her mother (Rena) were racing back to the car. Nora ran around the right side of the vehicle. Rena jumped on the front hood of the car, but it was not a safe place to be. Thankfully, Nora grabbed her mom and threw her over to her side of the vehicle. It was just in time. The angered buffalo rammed the front of the car, narrowly missing Rena’s leg.
The buffalo paced to the left side of the car, while Nora and Rena hid on the opposite side. Slowly, Rena started to climb into the front seat, over top of the driver who was frantically blaring the horn in an attempt to scare away the buffalo. Nora pushed her mom into the car as I tried to pull her in.
Throughout our previous days at Soysambu Conservancy, we saw many buffaloes lazing around at a distance. They remained clustered together, several buffaloes in one place. Often times, they showed a mild curiosity in us. We snapped photos of them from inside the car. They gazed back, slowly moving ahead, but never anything more. They never showed any signs of aggression. However, in this situation, a lone female buffalo had separated from her herd. She was furious and as it turned out, injured. We had disrupted her and she was venting her frustration.
I looked out the window to the side of the car. Straight ahead, she stood. She charged forward, full speed ahead, at our car.
The car shook and I was silent.
I noticed that in my frenzy, I hadn’t even closed the back door. I grabbed the handle and slammed it shut.
The buffalo backed up again and once more, charged ahead. BAM. A piece of black plastic from the car flew out into the bush. She walked back around to the front of the car. Rena’s legs protruded from the side of the car. Nora dropped to the ground and prepared to roll beneath the car. The buffalo again rammed the front of the vehicle, though her anger died down. Growing tired of us, she wandered back up the path and disappeared into the bush.
My heart was pounding, but we were safe. My thoughts immediately went to our guide, Chege. Where was he? Why hadn’t he emerged?
He was the one who alerted us to the mad buffalo. Chege made eye contact with her from less than a few feet away. As the buffalo charged, his only recourse was to fling himself into a cactus and roll to the ground. Then, he yelled so we would run.
Moments later, Chege emerged from the bushes and we all let out a collective sigh of relief. He was a little scraped up. But, we were all alive. It was nothing short of a miracle.
Why I’d Love to Return to Africa
After that harrowing experience, you might think that I’m crazy for wanting to return to a country or continent where I nearly lost my life. Even with that traumatic tale, travelling to Kenya was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. I followed my passions, I got to witness the most incredible wildlife and nature, I faced many unexpected situations, I overcame fears, and I even escaped death. I’d really never felt so alive. After I returned home, I believed more in myself and had a stronger sense of belonging in the world.
I’m entering into this blogger competition to win a Tanzanian safari with Yellow Zebra Safaris because I want to venture into the unknown once again. I want to wake up in the magnificent country of Tanzania each day with a sense of wonder. Just as I gazed across the Rift Valley to the Sleeping Warrior mountain and beyond, the thought of admiring the scenery of the Serengeti and Mount Kilimanjaro fills my heart with joy. I dream about going on another safari, this time observing elephants and big cats in their natural environment. The Great Migration is a phenomenon that I need to witness at least once in my lifetime. While I enjoyed volunteering and working really hard to benefit the lives of animals on my last trip to Africa, it would be glorious to relax at luxurious spas and tented camps this time around.
Kenya, I quickly fell for you. Beyond your stunning scenery, vast landscapes, and amazing creatures roaming free, I was reminded that life is savage. Life is fragile. Life is wild. I want to discover the wild and the unknown in Tanzania.
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