Africa Fridays: walk, don’t run

Because I haven’t been riding and therefore lack horse-oriented content, let’s talk about AFRICA again!

IMG_4990Sunrise at elephant dam

The conservancy where I lived/worked/researched in Kenya required that all patrons and visitors and researchers be contained in their vehicles at all times when not inside one of the human enclosures.  That is to say, if you weren’t inside one of the highly trafficked areas near the various tented camps or the research camp or offices, and within the meager electric fence that helped deter some animals from entering those areas, you were not to be on foot.  This was for both visitor and animal safety — they don’t want people accidentally being gored by a buffalo trying to take a selfie and they don’t want animals unnecessarily stressed out by humans walking around them (and also why Kristen Bell and Dax Shephard were recently fined on their safari, and why I don’t love their video a lot — I could have done without the giraffe chasing).  I can tell you for a fact that the wildlife in Kenya viewed vehicles as blase but a human walking within eyeshot was an immediate threat.  When visitors were caught out of their vehicles they were fined heavily (and I personally took great joy in reporting them as well as telling them to get the fuck back into their vehicles).

Researchers were allowed to work on foot but had to pay an armed guard to accompany them.  The guard operated more as an extra pair of eyes than any kind of defensive protection, but most of my friends had stories of when their guard had to tell them to skidaddle back to the car or had to fire their weapon.  I was the one exception.


Because I needed to be on foot every day and would be in close proximity to the chimpanzee enclosure (20 feet of electrified fences to keep the chimps in), I was allowed to work alone on foot.  There were a few reasons for this.  The area around the chimp sanctuary was relatively heavily trafficked by conservancy staff, both humans and vehicles, therefore there were fewer animals in that area than in the more desolate areas of the conservancy.  Also, the gigantic fence on one side of me would mean that at least one of my sides was covered.  And the manpower needed for someone to attend me for a full day every day was ridiculous.  So I was given permission to walk alone — except for the chimps, of course.

Obviously my friends, the chimp keepers and other staff, took some time to teach me how to safely walk in the bush.  You always have to keep one eye and ear on the bush around you — no headphones and no napping!  Look out for buffalo most of all, of all the big five (grouped together because they were the most dangerous to hunt due to their predilection to attack humans: buffalo, rhino, elephant, lion, leopard) they were the most common and most likely to charge me on the ground.  Not too bad on their own, very bad in groups.  Climb a tree (not much use, I couldn’t get more than 10-12 feet into one of the acacia there, and they were covered in thorns) or hide in the middle of a bush and hope they forget about you.  If an elephant smells you, run downhill or into the bushes — their eyesight isn’t good.  Same for rhinos.  But otherwise?  Walk proudly, and never run.  Because when a lion or leopard sees you running, you are already prey.  (Actually, if you see the leopard, you are fucked already.)

IMG_6823angela playing with her (maybe) daddy

One day I was sitting near the building that the chimps had formerly slept in observing a few of the chimps.  The chimps had only recently moved to a newer building (about 400m down the fenceline), and this building was reserved as a quarantine.  It was just before lunch time, and I was just watching three chimps, so I’d be clocking off soon.  I was applying sunscreen.  And then one of the female chimps started to scream — no warning.  She went from grooming the alpha male to screaming a blood curdling scream, and standing bipedally.  She was staring behind me, and this was in no way normal, so I knew there was something there.

I stood up slowly and turned around.  And there she was, standing on the road about 40 meters behind me.  A lioness.

IMG_9540I’m so playful! Why don’t you play with me?!

When I stood up the lioness slipped into a nearby bush.  Humans are predators to lions too, after all.  My heart was pounding in my ears.

I discarded the things I had been holding and carried my backpack over to the outbuilding that serviced this house — it had previously been used to store food and medication, held a large radios and a small bathroom.  The building was about 12-14 feet high and had a tree next to it, so I could climb up onto the roof if I needed to.  I checked the doors to the radio room and food storage but they were firmly locked.  I stashed my backpack under one of the benches so that I wouldn’t be encumbered by it if I needed to climb.  I had a cell phone on me, and I had service — this is literally the first time in the telling of this story that I wonder why I didn’t call someone to pick me up.

sweetwatershelpful diagram of my situation

I waited on the patio of the outbuilding for fifteen minutes, or maybe 25.  The chimp who had alerted me to the lioness’s presence had stopped screaming after a few minutes, and now four chimps were sitting on the fenceline staring out into the bush curiously.  I had to do something — I couldn’t hide on the patio of this building all day.  I decided that it was time to walk to my car, which was parked at the new building about 400 meters away.

I picked up my backpack and secured it tightly to my body.  Usually I would carry my binoculars and camera slung across my body, but in this case I put everything into my backpack and made sure I didn’t have to worry about it.  I remember debating in my mind if I should bring the backpack or leave it, and I don’t remember exactly why I decided to bring it, but I think I rationalized that if I needed to I could drop the pack on my way.  I put my hat on and started walking slowly to my car.

this scene in Jurassic park

Looking down the fence line toward the new chimp house was like that scene in Jurassic Park where Dr. Ellie Sattler has to cross the velociraptor-infested forest to get back inside the safety of the main visitor’s center.  I knew there was a lioness out there — but I didn’t know where she had gone.

So I walked.  With my heart thundering in my ears and every nerve in my body screaming RUN or HIDE or SHIT YOURSELF.  I kept breathing really deeply, and I didn’t see a single animal as I walked to my car.  I ran the last ten feet and leaped in.


The walk probably took me five minutes, and another few minutes to drive back to the place where I had been observing the chimps.  By the time I got back every chimp in the group had congregated there, and were all but one were watching the road carefully.  I drove back to the research center and promptly told all of my friends the story, and they appreciated the Jurassic Park analogy immensely.

So remember — always walk proudly.  And have some sympathy then your horse poops himself in fear — I have intimate knowledge of what it feels like to need to do that.


12 thoughts on “Africa Fridays: walk, don’t run”

  1. I was totally thinking that we hadn’t had an Africa story in a bit and that I wanted to harass you about it. This is SO cool, and completely terrifying. I second what L said!


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