The Great Lake Robbery

4 06 2009

Naivasha

                   “I have this strange craving for a salad…”     (Lake Naivasha, Kenya)

Being a city boy subjected to constant noise, I relish the near that comes in the wilderness. There’s a magic to hearing nothing more than the rustle of trees and the trill of cicadas or crickets or of staring at the heavens and catching a glimpse of infinity. It’s that escape from the constant sensory assault of everyday life that’s always one of the most rewarding aspects of travel, but sometimes the things that go bump in the night tend to go bump in a way that put even cities to shame!

 Lake Naivasha is a serene spot in the Great Rift Valley. With a comfortable climate and the blue waters of the lake as a backdrop, Naivasha became a popular spot with Kenya’s Happy Valley white settlers. The lake’s shorelines are filled with swaying reeds while the lapping waters gently nudge at moored boats and rickety wooden jetties. Hippos wallow from the heat and come ashore to dine on the grasses at night. The surrounding plains are full of antelope and gazelles while the trees are filled with colobus monkeys and hundreds of colourful birds. Naivasha is a delicious escape from the heat and dust of safari.

After dinner and a campfire chat, we retired for the night. We were pitched on a large tree-shaded lawn with the lake at one end and farmland on either side. Serenaded by snorting hippos, I fell asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.

The noise began just after 2am. I awoke with a violent start to the sound of a man shouting. He was very agitated and closeby. I lay on my back staring into the darkness of my tent. The shouting continued and was soon accompanied by shrill blasts on a whistle…and then more shouts. I could hear people running and soon the performance escalated into an absolute cacophony as though the world had exploded. Vehicles started racing around, their horns blasting.

Clearly, we were under siege.

Lying flat on my stomach I inched towards my tent flap and silently undid the zipper. I was about to poke out my head when pounding feet raced through our campsite and around our tents chased by more shouts. The vehicles continued to roar around, the shouts and whistles and footfalls increased. I quietly dressed and once again edged to the flaps and poked out my head.

All was silent. Everything was dark. I eased myself out and, staying low to the ground, continued my survey. Even in the eerie half-light of a waxing moon, everything was still. There was no sign of the earlier turmoil and drama. Confused, I used the opportunity to visit the toilets, carefully watching as I went…but still nothing. After completing my inspection I returned to my tent and fell fast asleep.

The next morning we all gathered for breakfast and the obvious topic of conversation was the night’s entertainment. Our guide joined us over a mug of hot tea.

“Asparagus thieves,” he explained as though it was the most normal event in the world. “The night watchman on the farm saw someone in the fields and blew his whistle. All the pickers raced out to protect their livelihood. They chased them with the farm truck and they ran off through our campsite.”

“Happens all the time.”

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

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Things That Go Bang in the Night

24 04 2009

 arusha-1-mw

“I love the sound of firecrackers in the morning, it’s the sound of victory!”   (Mt. Meru, Arusha, Tanzania)

 

 

Night is always the most dangerous time in Africa. It’s when lions and leopard hunt, when hyenas and jackals forage and villagers barricade themselves and their livestock behind acacia thorn and stay safely inside their huts. It’s at night when every sound makes hearts palpitate, when campers lie in their tents wide-eyed and sleepless and when spear-toting warriors patrol campsites to fend off dangerous trespassers. But sometimes, it’s the guards themselves that cause the biggest frights.

 

Arriving back in Arusha, Tanzania after several weeks on safari, we found our campsite on the outskirts of town guarded by several soldiers in fatigues with automatic rifles. They smiled happily and raised the gate as we drove in, before resuming their posts. As there’d been no such security when we’d stayed in the same spot two weeks earlier, we couldn’t help but wonder if there’d been a coup while we were off in the wilds…or anything else similarly dramatic.

 

After setting up our tents and relishing long-awaited showers, we headed to the rustic bar for a cold beverage. It wasn’t long before someone asked the bartender what the army was doing at the gates.

 

“Someone tried to rob the campsite last week,” he explained non-chalantly, pouring from a bottle of Konyagi. “The owner heard them and came running out with a rifle. There was a scuffle and the owner and one of the robbers was shot. The police arrested the owner, but they’re worried that the robber’s friends will come back for revenge.” He shrugged and went to the other end of the bar while we stared at each other in shock.

 

“So,” someone finally said after an uncomfortable silence, “we’re staying at a campsite guarded by police in army gear carrying AK-47s in case the friends of a shot burglar come back to shoot the whole place up in revenge for their friend’s injuries???”

 

“Yeah, pretty much.”

 

“Right, I’ll have another beer.”

 

After dinner we headed for our tents expecting to be awakened by gunfire. Alas, at the usual hour the beer I had consumed to help me forget that I was sleeping in the middle of the O.K. Corral bid me to visit the toilet. I shuffled into the cool darkness and walked towards the cinder block building that was dimly lit by a single naked light blub. As I approached the building I heard a loud noise and peered nervously into the shadows.

 

There, slumped in a tyre-swing hanging from a tree was one of our police guards, fast asleep. His head lolled on his chest, he snored noisily, his rifle lay across his legs with his finger on the trigger. I tip-toed past terrified that I would make a noise and be felled by a startled burst of automatic rifle fire.

 

Safely inside, I heaved a sigh of relief. Business done, I headed to the doorway and glanced across at the swing. Our sentinel was still asleep and still snoring. Legs shaking, I held my breath, and tip-toed back past him, all the while daring not to breathe less a particularly loud exhalation suddenly woke the marksman.

 

I dived into the tent and threw myself flatly to the ground. The rest of the night passed uneventfully, but I realised that I’d sooner walk past a pride of starving lions or an amorous bull elephant in the night than again venture past a sleeping, possibly trigger-happy policeman with a machine-gun!

 

 

Photo and post by:   Simon Vaughan © 2009 





Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 37

25 11 2008

Never ignore a guinea fowl.

 

The Okaukuejo campsite in Namibia’s Etosha National Park is unique in that the visitors are fenced in and the wildlife runs free. Trenches, walls and high fences surround the campsite on all sides with benches and mini-grandstands lining the perimeter allowing campers to view the floodlit waterholes and arid wilderness beyond.

 

Late one afternoon we had strolled to the benches for a few hours of game-viewing at the neighbouring waterhole. There was no shade and we sheltered beneath the inadequate brims of our hats and jealously guarded our water bottles. A steady parade of zebras and giraffe, elephant and antelope sauntered to the hole for a quick drink before wandering back onto the sun-parched plains. After a short while, the parade petered out and apart from two turtles half-submerged in the murky green water and a few guinea fowl hastily trotting past in the background, there was nothing in sight.

 

Despite the unrelenting heat, we continued our stakeout. The turtles remained motionless while more guinea fowl raced past. Initially in ones and twos, the fat little flightless birds were now racing past in packs like water-balloons rolling down a slope. In little clusters they sped past on short legs, wobbling as they speed-waddled in a mass fowl exodus.

 

We watched the display with bemused smirks. We half expected to see a herd of marauding elephants suddenly materialise from the scrub, or even Wile E Coyote with acme anvil in hand. The feathery stampede provided excellent entertainment for ages…until the reason for their mass migration became apparent.

 

With a mighty gust, the hot wind suddenly roared and carried with it half of Etosha’s sand. The air boiled with the browns and ambers of the stinging grit and we soon found ourselves hunched against the mightiest of mighty dust storms. It was the sort of apocalypse that had besieged Lawrence and from which the Tasmanian Devil had emerged. We turned our backs to the onslaught, but the particles whipped around and blasted our faces. We pulled our mouths and noses deep inside the collars of our t-shirts, pushed our sunglasses closer to our eyes, pulled our hats down as low as possible and attempted our escape.

 

The suffocating dust had turned day to night and we groped our way back across the compound in what we assumed was the direction of our camp, tripping over tent pegs and rock-lined pathways with each step. Although confident we were headed in the right direction, we instead reached the perimeter on the far side and had to double-back. The dust was now choking and the wind stronger than ever. The sand bit at all exposed skin while we attempted to protect our eyes and breathe through the filter of our shirts. Eventually, like wayward desert nomads, we stumbled back to our camp and clambered into the kitchen block, quickly closing the door behind us.

 

The storm banged at the windows and sent a tide of sand slithering across the tiled floor. It continued for perhaps an hour as we remained entranced by the menacing blast that buffeted the windows.  Though my ears remained clogged by the sand, over the roar of the merciless elements I detected another sound…a rising and ebbing song…a taunting melody…a high-pitched warble…as though several hundred porkie little guinea fowl were mocking those of us who had earlier laughed at their migration.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan