Down With Buffalo – Kenya 2004

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November 2nd 2004



Now this was a day to remember, for both the right and wrong reasons, but mostly for the wrong reasons.

The day started well and early as usual. Here I was in the Masai Mara in Kenya with some friends I had met in Alaska and India. We were the last remaining souls from an Exodus tour group. The rest of the group had departed a day earlier but we still had three great days to see all we could.

First thing in the morning we came across the Kicheche Lion Pride. Now I could be wrong and no doubt am, but there are about 20 lions in this pride including at least nine cubs. We had watched them until sunset the previous evening and were surprised to find them again playing in the plains. Lions are my favourite cat as they’re so incredibly social and a joy to watch. The young cubs play roughly together as they practice their hunting and stalking skills. The lionesses keep a careful watch for dangers and the occasional naughty cub.

The pride soon grew bored of their play and/or annoyed with us watching them and retreated into the nearby bush where we could no longer see them. We headed off in a new direction only to find two young cubs (about 2 months old) and their mother. It was again a special pleasure as we had seen these cubs the previous day and thought ourselves incredibly lucky then. Small cubs such as these are not yet integrated with the rest of the pride as they’re too young and susceptible to attack. The mothers take care of them separately for about another month during which time the other lionesses allow the kills to be shared amongst them all.

These cubs quickly left the open plains for the safety of the bushes and again we were left wandering. Not for long though. Literally a hundred metres away we found yet another lioness with at least three tiny cubs less than two weeks old. At this stage they would have only recently opened their eyes and started to walk. It’s great to see them at this age and everyone is excited of course but there were already too many vehicles around stressing the cubs so we decided to leave rather than add to the chaos.

Donna, Ruud and Penny were keen to watch the cheetahs as they hadn’t eaten and would be keen to hunt for their next meal. Seeing a kill was never high on my list of things to do but I loved seeing the cheetahs and as seeing a kill seemed highly unlikely I didn’t object to watching them. The first four cheetahs we saw were Honey and her three cubs. They were hungry but didn’t look like hunting as they rested on a small mound. We left them and eventually continued on. Our luck was still with us as we spotted the pregnant Kike of Big Cat Diary fame (I’ve never seen the show but I’m now well aware of it). Kike is known to climb vehicles to use them as higher vantage points for her hunting endeavours and this was no exception. Kike hopped onto our bonnet, paying no attention to us as she scoured the plains. Far away a Thompson’s gazelle was spotted with a baby and Kike went for the kill. We never saw the speed of this cheetah as it was a pretty easy kill for her. It was an unusual event to see and not at all enjoyable for me. Cheetah, like most cats I’m sure, employ a technique of strangulation to kill their prey but the baby thomi was alive for a while as Kike started to crush her skull and eat it alive. Sounds gruesome I know and it was. I was in tears as I heard the cries of the thomi knowing full well that if Kike didn’t eat she too would die along with her unborn cubs. It doesn’t make it any easier to see.

Lunch by the bank of the Mara River to watch a possible wildebeest crossing was sombre for me. Nothing was happening and feeling hot, bothered and needing a visit to the toilet I asked our guide Julius if I could get out and walk around. Though not common, there are places in the Mara where it must be ok to get out and be at least a little bit safe as we had stopped for lunch breaks before. I was unaware if this could be such a place. At first Julius’ reply was no as it was too dangerous but after scouting around he called me out of the vehicle. I walked about 20 metres to him and took in some of the beautiful view of the river down below where hippos and a crocodile rested.

The rest of this story is a bit blurry but I remember Julius about to hand me 2000 Kenyan Shillings as two days earlier I had paid to get our two punctures fixed (more on that if you continue to read past this day). At this point I must have seen something in Julius’ eyes that prompted me to turn around or perhaps I was already facing that way … I can’t remember but what I saw was terrifying – a lone bull buffalo. Each time we had asked the question “What is the most dangerous animal in the Mara?”, the answer from our Masai hosts was always “the lone bull buffalo” and now here I was closer than 10 metres to one.

There was no time to react as he immediately charged us. Julius had told us two days earlier when we had some other troubles, don’t run unless he was running. As the buffalo ran towards us Julius pushed me and ran towards the vehicle. I tried to run after him but was off balance after being pushed and fell to the ground. For a second I stayed low in the long grass as I saw the buffalo veer towards Julius. There was no chance to run to the vehicle. It was too far away and now the buffalo was between us. I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t stay where I was so I stood up and ran as fast as I could to an old broken tree near where we had first seen the buffalo.

The buffalo wasn’t chasing me. I knew he had followed Julius and I now knew that this was Julius’ intention and the reason for pushing me in the first place. The last thing I saw was Julius on the ground and the buffalo closing in.

I climbed up the tree as high as it would allow in such a quick burst. I had a good hold and was safe for the moment but down below I could hear Julius screaming. It was frightening. I couldn’t see anything because of the long grass and the tree but I knew Julius was being hurt.

It was probably about this time I noticed something else was wrong. I was being bitten or so I thought until I looked slightly down the tree at chest level and noticed bees coming out of a small hole. It was too late, they were stinging me by now. I could still hear Julius’ screams below and I nowhere to go. The bees continued to sting me. In the hot weather I was wearing only shorts and t-shirt. My arms and legs were scratched and bruised from the fall and scurry up the tree. But now things were becoming more dire. As Julius punched the buffalo several times in the nose (probably only making him madder), I was being stung repeatedly on my legs, arms, neck and face. I lifted my t-shirt over my head to try and protect my face but was then being stung on my torso. It was unbearable. I broke off a twig and tried to plug the hole from which they were coming but this no doubt just incensed them as much as Julius’ punches had the buffalo. I knew this but I just needed some relief.

By this point, the bees were all around me. I didn’t know what had happened to Julius or the buffalo. I yelled for help.

Julius had managed to free himself from the buffalo by thrusting his fingers through its nostrils (or something like that). The buffalo looked around and unable to see me, ran off somewhere.

Julius’ first thought was to get back to the vehicle but when he found I wasn’t there he yelled out for me. I heard his voice but didn’t hear what he said or his predicament. I called out that I was in a tree being stung by bees. I remember him telling me I could come down and come back to the vehicle. Relieved, I dropped down and raced to him as quick as I could. He hugged me but I was still being swarmed by bees. Unaware of where the buffalo was, we raced back to the vehicle and proceeded to rid me of the bees.

Julius had been gorged in the shin. Severe enough but not too bad. Donna, Ruud and Penny proceeded to swat bees away. Ruud was stung for his trouble and we jumped in the vehicle.

Poor Donna, Ruud and Penny had been in the vehicle all this time. They recalled snippets of the event. I’m not sure if they saw the buffalo from their vantage, but they saw me fall / get pushed over and run. They didn’t see me up the tree and couldn’t see what was happening to Julius. They too could only hear his screams. They thought of using the radio to call for help and of driving the vehicle towards us but it must have all been over so quickly that they didn’t have time to do any of these things.

Julius’ leg wasn’t bleeding too much but the wound was deep. He strapped it up with a scarf, we breathed deeply once or twice before heading back to camp. We continued driving for over an hour. I was worried that Julius was ok, but to be perfectly honest I was more worried about having a reaction to the bee stings. In my life I had never before been stung and I knew if I reacted adversely it would be dangerous. Fortunately I didn’t react but neither did I feel too great with more than 10 stings (maybe as many as 20) for my trouble.

It was a long drive back to camp and by halfway into the journey we had stopped looking so worriedly at eachother to make sure we were all ok and made a joke or two. When we arrived Julius was taken straight to a clinic for stitches and I was left to tend my own wounds.

That night, as I lay in bed inside our tent, my two tent buddies sound asleep, I heard noises outside. I thought it was hippos, I heard a lion roar but that was too far away. In the morning I discovered that it was buffalo in the camp. One of them had charged a night guard. Perhaps it was better not to know!

You can laugh now as aside from bruises, scratches and stings I’m ok. Julius was a life saver and he is ok too. I can see a lighter side of this tale … just … and I’ll happily plan another trip to Africa.

— End of November 2nd —

Aside from the buffalo, most of the trip was grand. It started off a bit rough with Emirates stuffing up three out of four flights for my vegan meals. I thought I’d have nothing more than a story based on injuries suffered on the plane, like getting hit in the leg with the food trolley and knocking my head in the bathroom as I tried to turn around or something similar … but I’m sure my buffalo story is juicy enough.

So now I’ll go back to the start of the trip for those of you who have managed to read to this point.

On arrival in Nairobi it was as spooky as my last visit although my hotel this time was much nicer. In fact, I thought it was quite ritzy and probably had a star or three to its name. I slept for as many hours as you can in 24 and was excited about meeting up again with friends from Alaska and India. We hugged and drove on to Nakuru where we saw the renowned spectacle of millions of flamingos on the lake. Back in ’97 there were hardly any of them so I was owed one or more. We also saw loads of rhinos, giraffes, zebras and a few hyenas.

Naivasha was the next stop on route to Elsamere (Born Free) for high tea and overnight accommodation. Here I had the fright of my life (or so I thought at the time) when I went back to the room to be confronted by hippos mowing the lawn (eating) nearby. I raced to the room and yelled for Donna to come out. It was funny enough, interesting enough, spooky enough.

After two nights on the road it was time to head back to Nairobi. From Wilson airport we flew to Mara Safari Camp airstrip and then proceeded to drive to Kicheche Mara Camp (www.kicheche.com). Along the way we stopped to see lions mating which I hadn’t seen before but would see again several times.

Kicheche Mara Camp is fantastic. Luxury tents, fantastic food, wonderful hosts, great location, sensational guides and vehicles. I highly recommend the place and I’m sure Andy and Sonja would love to have you visit.

Each morning we would get up early, often before 5am (as you do on holiday) to look for leopards, lions and cheetahs. You don’t have to get up early but that’s when all the action takes place. Later in the day it’s too hot and the cats aren’t up to much.

During our days in the Mara we hopped around into different vehicles with different drivers but no more fun was had than when we drove around as “The Coven”. Poor Julius had to deal with us but it surely wasn’t too hard as he was always well fed by the tuck bag and our enthusiasm and cheerful spirit never relented. What a fantastic group of women you all are and can you just imagine if for any of those days we were together we could have had Paul in the vehicle with us. I’m not sure any of us would have survived!

On our last drive as part of the Exodus tour group and travelling as “The Coven”, we suffered a puncture. Cruelly, it was at a crucial moment as we crossed a gorge on route to a leopard sighting. The offending tyre was flat in less than a minute and efforts to quickly change it were hampered by a muddy boggy surface. The jack wouldn’t stay upright and the vehicle toppled over before eventually teamwork got us through. Julius held the jack steady whilst Emma and I thrust the wheel on the vehicle before it could fall again. Donna, Penny and Kate were no doubt spotting for Leopards and other predators whilst shouting encouragement.

In the end we arrived too late for the leopard sighting but decided to wait around to see if he would emerge again from the bushes. We got up before 5am for this and we were determined to see leopard. Rather than going back to camp to farewell the group we (rather foolishly in hindsight) stayed back at the gorge to wait and see.

An hour or so later, still no luck so off for a drive we went to see what we could see, planning on returning to the leopard sighting a little while later. By this time our luck must have completely run out. At a routine toilet stop we suffered another puncture when we weren’t even moving. The air just started hissing out at the same time as I was taking a toilet break on the other side of the vehicle. Needless to say, my wonderful friends thought it was me making the sounds until they discovered the far worse predicament we were in. Not to mention I had a huge fright!

No spare, out of radio contact and out in the Mara! We drove as quickly as we could to a nearby camp but we didn’t make it far enough before the tyre was completely flat.

Julius surveyed (you must certainly be feeling sorry for him by now) the situation, couldn’t contact anyone by radio or phone, determined it was too dangerous to walk, so decided all we could do was drive on the rim. We probably got about 10 metres further on that theory before the rim broke. Just moments before we were told it was too dangerous to walk and now we were told we had to. The words “stay in the vehicle” come to mind and why we didn’t is unclear. We packed all our belongings and set off on a long detour around some elephants and giraffe. It wasn’t long before I indignantly fell over in the mud probably because I was watching out for predators instead of watching where I was going.

We walked with great haste. It was dangerous and we didn’t want to be out there any longer than we had to. Was it half an hour? I’m not sure, but soon enough we were delightedly picked up by a vehicle and transferred to Intrepid Safari Camp. A bit more plush than our camp, it had a pool (no water), a nice bar and tv, the sounds of which confused us as we thought we could hear lions nearby but it was just a nature show.

The last day in the Mara was uneventful. We searched for Honey (Cheetah mum with three big cubs) and the Kicheche Pride lions but found neither. We did find a few new cubs from a pride I didn’t know but as mum didn’t look happy I was very happy to depart without incident given the extraordinary adventures of the past few days.

All this happened in less than two weeks which would make it the most eventful two weeks in my life! Some of it I never wish to repeat but some of it I would do again tomorrow. I’ll miss old friends and new yet again and will soon enough get busy organising another trip somewhere.

I had every intention of writing of my trip to the Great Barrier Reef back in September as well but I think this is enough. Suffice to say it was a lot safer and the only problem was getting into an undersized wetsuit for diving!