The Long Way Home: Caitlin’s perspective

Although we had one more mini-safari left on our way out of the Masai Mara, a clear shift in mindset had occurred during the night before our final day in Kenya. As much as everyone had enjoyed our journey around the country, I think most people were ready to get back to the comforts of home–fresh veggies, warm showers, clean clothes, reliable electricity, Internet (those, at least, were my main items of interest).

First we had to break camp and pack up, which we did fairly early in the morning even though our flight didn’t leave from Nairobi until just before midnight. On paper, we would have a ridiculous amount of time to hang out in the airport, but in reality it turned out to be a good thing that we got rolling so early in the day. Since I was staying in a banda, I didn’t have to worry about pulling down or packing up a tent; this gave me a bit of spare time for some last-minute birding. At the beginning of the morning, a red-chested cuckoo outside my window acted as a lovely natural alarm clock; I finished the morning with a bright blue woodland kingfisher watching over as I locked up and left my little hut (until next year!).

(Woodland kingfisher perched over the river outside my door)

Throughout the trip, students always stayed in the same minibuses, while staff gradually made the rounds. On our final day, we cycled back around to the buses we’d been in on our trip from the airport, giving us a nice sense of circularity and completion. My driver was Simon, who was always quite calm and cautious; this turned out to be a very good thing given the quality of the roads that we had to traverse to get out of the Mara. Although we’d originally planned to drive through the park one last time, we ended up changing our route at the last minute. Our new course took us through areas that are inhabited by a good deal of wildlife, but which also have a more obvious human presence. Despite our close proximity to people, we saw all the usual suspects plus a few species that few of us had previously encountered–including ground-hornbills, which I hadn’t seen since the 2011 trip.

(Southern ground-hornbills, photographed in 2011 near one of the lodges in the Masai Mara. This year’s birds were nearly impossible to photograph since they were hiding in the long grass on a hillside; all we could really see were the tops of their heads and their bills–better than nothing!)

We also got a good look at some yellow-billed oxpeckers feeding on the backs of buffalo. I saw both species of oxpecker in 2011 but didn’t manage to see any yellow-billeds at all last year. This time around I saw nearly equal numbers of the two varieties, plus I even saw some juvenile (less colorful) oxpeckers learning feeding techniques from their parents. It’s amazing how different the same ecosystem can be from one year to the next.

(A yellow-billed oxpecker. Actually, both types of oxpeckers have red on their bills; the yellow-billed birds have yellow at the base and red at the tip, whereas the red-billed birds have only red.)

After an hour or so, we switched from safari mode into travel mode, and picked up a little more speed in the hopes of getting to our lunch stop in Mai Mahiu at a decent hour. When I say “speed,” though, what I really mean is that we went as fast as we could on a road that was nothing but a series of potholes and boulders of various sizes. It was the same road we had used to access the Mara a few days previously, but somehow it seemed much worse on our trip out–potentially because we weren’t high on the excitement of going to see elephants and cheetahs and other new species. We continued to pass many interesting animals as we drove, but everyone had put their binoculars and cameras away and had set their sights on the airport. My biggest regret of the trip was that I allowed us to drive past two secretary birds without stopping for a photograph. We had seen several of these animals during our safaris, but had never before been so close to them. However, since everyone else was either asleep or seemingly uninterested, I didn’t want to disturb the peace.

Our driver estimated that it would take us about 2 hours to get to our restaurant, but in the end it took nearly 4–approximately 2.5 of the bumpiest and most uncomfortable hours imaginable across Masai land, and then another 1.5 on the highway; we didn’t eat “lunch” until almost 4:30 PM. One of the reasons we reached Mai Mahiu so late was that we stopped briefly in Narok to have a toilet break and do one last round of souvenir shopping. As in previous years, we stopped at a shop that has some really interesting, well-made, and unique things, but that also charges ridiculous amounts of money for them. Even the drinks and snacks were more expensive than anywhere else we visited. Of course, this was the place where I finally found the souvenir that I have been wanting since my very first trip to Kenya: a carved warthog. I really love warthogs, and I had no idea during my first visit that they would be so difficult to find in souvenir shops (apparently people don’t find them attractive enough!). I have been regretting my decision not to buy one at the first shop we visited back in 2011. The shopkeeper in Narok wanted to charge 3500 shillings for the carving that I picked out, but I am not that fond of warthogs. Luckily, I was able to get her to agree to 1000, which was all that I had left in my wallet.

After shopping and lunch, all we had left was to head back up the escarpment, make our way through Nairobi, and get to the airport. It was not a difficult journey, but it was a long and tedious one. We were hot, tired, dusty, and sore from all the driving. We had thought we’d be arriving at the airport around 4 PM, but the hours just kept dragging on, and we didn’t get there until around 8 PM. Finally, though, we managed to unload our gear from the vehicles, stick it all on trolleys, get it into the airport, and check in. We still had about 3.5 hours before our flight left, which gave us plenty of time to relax, have drinks, and (in my case) explore the airport bookstores for useful field identification guides.

The flight was about as fun as any 8-hour flight can be. Before leaving Kenya, we had received word that weather in the UK was becoming treacherous; however, we had no issues landing at Heathrow. This was decidedly not the case later that day or the following morning, so the timing of our trip could not have been more perfect. It was quite a shock to our systems to walk out into London’s freezing cold temperatures; many people had to root around in their bags to find extra layers (and shoes to exchange for flip-flops). Our buses took a wrong turn when entering the airport to retrieve us, leaving us shivering on the sidewalk for longer than we would have preferred. We nearly left behind several  students who went back inside to warm up and buy hot beverages; luckily some of their friends raised the alarm, and we were able to circle back around and pick them up.

The drivers were very anxious to hit the road as quickly as possible, because they knew that we would be driving into this:

These conditions are nothing to sniff at, but they don’t seem that treacherous to someone like me, who has often driven through the mountains in the middle of a blizzard. British drivers, though, are not used to this sort of thing, and our chauffeurs were right to be worried not just about the conditions on the road, but also the crazy things that inexperienced drivers might do while panicking about the weather.

The snow also caused a stir among our students because several of them had never seen it firsthand. They were quite anxious to have the opportunity to take pictures and, more importantly, go play in it. When we finally stopped for a restroom and meal break after a few hours on the road, they were some of the first people off the bus:

(Five of our most tropical students enjoy playing in the snow)

There were snow angels to make and, of course, snowball fights to be had:

They were lucky that we stopped when we did, because the snow continued to thin as we got closer to Cornwall. By the time we crossed the Tamar, all we were left with was good old-fashioned Cornish rain to welcome us home.

It’s always good to get back after two weeks on the road, but the return is bittersweet–and not just because of the difference in climate. Kenya is a beautiful and exciting place, and we are lucky to have the chance to visit it each year. Luckily for those who are experiencing Africa withdrawal, the course is not yet over even though the field trip is: Next week brings the poster session, at which students will give presentations on conservation issues that they learned about during the course (both in the field and by doing extra reading on the side); there is also an upcoming test, though I imagine that most people won’t find that quite as fun.

Amazingly enough, we’re also already at work planning next year’s course. We’ve been brainstorming about new activities and destinations that can help make the trip even more educational. Stay tuned to hear more about those in the coming months, and to find out more about the wildlife and conservation issues we learned about this year!