I was volunteering in the Great Rift Valley, the cradle of humankind. Though our species originated and evolved here, I was reminded that life is savage. Life is fragile. Life is wild.
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One of our duties 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 with its surroundings. The wildlife cannot see you, but you can see them. It’s the perfect place to watch wild birds and roaming predators. You can observe creatures in the wild behaving naturally without being noticed.
Not only was the hide in desperate need of repair, but the path leading to it was completely overgrown. It was in the middle of the bush, in the middle of nowhere. This space was rarely frequented by people. The path to the hide was difficult to navigate, even in a sturdy Land Rover. The path had to be cleared before we could even think about fixing the hide.
Our small group was comprised of our guide, Chege; our driver, Ishmael; and four volunteers: Nora, CEO and Founder of Animal Experience International; Nora’s Mom, Rena; Marilyn, a retiree and world traveler; and myself. After gathering some supplies and tools in the morning, we drove to the start of the path. I had my sturdy work gloves on. I carried a long, metal tool for hacking away at stubborn weeds. There were tons of rocks and weeds covering the path. Our job was to clear as much of this out of the way as possible.
“Watch out when you’re picking up rocks,” Nora warned. “There might be snakes hiding underneath them.”
Once we moved the rocks from that section (thankfully, no snake sightings!), we continued up the path. Chege wandered up ahead while Ishmael kept the vehicle close by. The sun was scorching, even early in the morning. It didn’t take long to work up a sweat.
The blade that I held was heavy and slightly dull. Even still, I chopped away at the tall grass and thick weeds. I swung the blade and barely made a dent into some of these stalks. Chop, chop, chop. I was starting to make some progress. A clump of weeds, nearly my height, came apart from the ground. I tossed them aside into the thick brush on one side of the path.
All of a sudden, I heard a man’s voice. He was screaming. Blood-curdling screams.
I couldn’t tell what he was yelling. It came out completely jumbled. 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.
So, I ran. I ran back to the vehicle as fast as I could. In what seemed like a blur, I found my way back to the car. There were two front seats and a door at the back of the vehicle. This door allowed access to the two benches in the back seat. When I reached for the back door handle, I looked ahead for the first time. I looked to where I had come running from. It was the first time I actually saw what I was running from.
An enraged, 800-pound buffalo was stampeding ahead. It was trying to kill us.
I pulled open the back door as quickly as possible and scrambled to get inside. At the same time, I noticed Marilyn climb into the front seat, and Ishmael was in the other seat. He was permanently affixed to the car horn in an attempt to scare away the buffalo. She was not even phased.
As I clambered to get into the back seat, Nora and Rena were also racing to the car. Nora ran around the right side of the car. Rena jumped on the front hood of the car, but there was nothing for her to grab onto. There was nothing to keep her from falling off. 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 one side of the car, while Nora and Rena hid on the other side. Rena started to climb into the car through the right front door, over top of Ishmael. Nora pushed her mom from one side, and I pulled her into the car from the other side. She never made it fully inside the vehicle. Nora was still outside.
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. 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 still stuck out from the side of the car. Nora dropped to the ground and prepared to roll beneath the car, if the buffalo ventured to her side. The buffalo again rammed the front of the vehicle. Her anger must have died down or she grew tired of us. She wandered back up the path and into the bush.
My heart was pounding. We were safe. My thoughts immediately went to Chege. Where was he? Why hadn’t he emerged?
As it turned out, he was the one who alerted us to the mad buffalo. He walked ahead to check out the territory, in order to keep us safe. He discovered the hiding buffalo. Chege made eye contact with her, from less than two meters 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.
Chege emerged from the bushes and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. He was a little scraped up. But, we were all alive. We all weren’t seriously injured. It was nothing short of a miracle.
As it turned out, I was the only one who didn’t drop my blade. I didn’t even remember that it was in my hand. I just ran.
We left all of the tools behind. It was important that we left the scene as quickly as possible. We were all pretty freaked out. Once we were back in a safe place, we got out of the car to assess the damage. We could clearly see the places where the buffalo had rammed the vehicle. There were large dents from her horns in the side and front of the car. Front lights were broken, and the front radiator was punctured. Thankfully, that was the only damage done. Against an angry buffalo, a human wouldn’t stand a chance.
It took a while for my nerves to calm down. I’m certain that I had nightmares about it. But, I’m so thankful that it didn’t turn out any differently. I walked away with a story to tell about my near death experience in Kenya.
When you’re on a safari in Africa, there’s a reason why you’re not supposed to leave your vehicle. We took the necessary precautions, though in hindsight, volunteering in this way wasn’t a good idea. No one on the conservancy was armed with weapons or prepared to deal with a raging animal.
Thank you so much to our guides who kept us safe at Soysambu Conservancy. Buffaloes might look like giant, horned cows, but they are vicious and deadly predators.