Africa!

Katy and I London My flights this time took me from Anchorage to Seattle to London to Nairobi. I had roughly 21 hours of flight time with a whopping 27.5 hours of layover time. 5 of those were in Seattle, so my niece Katy came to visit me in the airport while I waited. The rest of the layover hours were spent in London. My friend Cathy, who lives there, met me at Piccadilly Square and took me on a great walking tour. I got to spend a good 7-8 hours with her and her husband before heading to my hotel to catch some sleep before heading on to Kenya.

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Langata Giraffe Centre I got in to Nairobi well ahead of my actual expedition start date so had a whole day to spend by myself, seeing the sights and getting caught up on my sleep. After getting settled in to my hotel, Charles, the taxi driver who picked me up at the airport, gave me a tour of the city: I went to the elephant orphanage, the giraffe center, and several other really cool places.

main building mens building The official rendezvous was at 7:00 AM the following morning. Since most everybody who signed up for the expedition received an Earthwatch T-shirt prior to leaving, it was easy to spot most of our fellow volunteers. We were all chatting excitedly in the lobby, with all our gear gathered nearby, when the bus came to take us to the airport. It took about 2 hours in a very small airplane before we finally arrived in Wamba where we were greeted by the scientists & students who lead the expedition. We all piled in to the Land Rovers and headed off down the road to the Research Station where we would spend the next two weeks.
The Earthwatch Institute Center for Drylands Research in Wamba was a lot nicer than I expected. It’s a gated compound with several buildings for staff, volunteers, and researchers. Our meals were cooked for us by a wonderful group of people, we had several armed guards to keep us safe, and the scientists & students were all very welcoming and friendly.

groupshot breakfast There were 8 volunteers this time: Crispin (UK), Paul (Finland), Hussein (Egypt), Me (USA), Kay (USA), Jan (UK), Heike (Germany), and Ann (USA). We also had two Principal Investigators: Dr. Paul Okemo (Medicinal Plants) and Dr. Paul Mworia (Grevy’s zebra). They were supported by several students: Mariita (Medicinal Plants), Steve (Medicinal Plants), Hassan (Grevy’s zebra) and Mutiga (Grevy’s zebra). Staff include: Damaris (camp coordinator), Paul (cook), Janet (cook), Pablo (guard) and Idi (guard), as well as several others whose name I did not catch.

transect expedition members The majority of our first day at camp was spent getting briefed on the project. Introductions were made and the tasks expected of us were explained. The volunteers were broken into two teams and the basics were outlined. There was a lot of information to go over, so this took us well into the evening.
The team I was put on started working on Medicinal Plants the next day. We would drive out to a different location each day and do Transects. This means we’d find our starting point and shoot a 100-meter line off in a random direction (North, South, East, or West). From that, we’d create five 10-meter square sections, alternating to the left or the right of that main line. Within each 10-meter square we’d do a survey of any medicinal plants we found, documenting the names, frequency, and distribution of each. We started out doing only 4 that first day, but by the end of our week we got so good at it we could do 10.

Samburu District driving hazard The places we went to: Nkoroni, Ngutuk, Namunyak, Nglai West, Nglai East, Barsalinga, and Lodungokwe.

Some medicinal plants we found: Ltepes, Ldepe, Lturkan, Lpupoi, Lekulopani, Ltitikole, Ngalayoi, Iti, Letomia, Larosoro, Silapani, Serichwei, Nderikesi, Chakwai, Raraiti, and Tepherosia.

Working on the Medicinal Plant Project meant staying out all day in the 100-degree temperature and not getting to see any animals, so it wasn’t everybody’s favorite. I enjoyed it the most, however, because I felt that I contributed the most during my vacation.

elephant giraffes The following week we switched gears, so my team finally got to work on the Grevy’s zebra project. This was a much better on for viewing animals, since that is one of their main objectives: find out how much competition the zebra has for food & habitat. We saw everything from elephants and giraffes to gazelles, ostrich & wart hogs. And it was much nicer temperature-wise since we were never allowed out of the vehicle so was always in the shade.

expedition members expedition members Each day on this project we’d do something entirely different from the other days, so we never really got good at anything. One day we drove around and documented all the animals we saw, recording our location with GPS and then getting a distance & bearing on them so we could determine their exact location relative to ours. The next day each volunteer paired up with a local guide and sent off to walk a 4-kilometer line to record all the animals we saw along the way. After that we worked with Mutiga on his bite survey. For this, we located a herd of zebra and observed them eating. Then we walked over to where they were eating (thereby displacing the herd, of course) and tried to determine exactly what they were eating and in what amounts. It was all very confusing, I have to say – but the scientists involved seemed to be happy, and I guess that’s a volunteer’s main objective.

road bunk A typical day at camp: I’d wake up at 5:00 to the sounds of the cook & staff getting breakfast ready. We all gathered to eat around 6:30 or 7:00, depending on that days schedule. We’d head out from camp usually by 8:00 to complete the day’s task. Lunch was a brown-bag affair taken with us that morning and eaten around 1:00 in the shade of some trees somewhere. We’d continue working till around 4:00 that afternoon and get back to camp by 5:00, which would give us plenty of time to relax and/or shower. They would sound the dinner horn at 7:00, and we’d all squeeze ourselves up to the table for our meal. 8:00 would find us all in the workroom entering in all the data we’d collected and telling the other team all about what we’d seen or done that day. I am not a night owl, so most nights would find me in bed by 10:00 – but sometimes the stars were just too inviting, and I’d find myself outside long after the generator got turned off for the night.

taking photo expedition members We did get a free day in the middle of all this work. Of course being out in the middle of nowhere doesn’t exactly lend itself to a lot of entertainment. We chose to go for a hike up the hill behind our camp, followed by a walk into Wamba to get a feel for the local culture. I don’t have any photos of Wamba because it’s impolite to take pictures of people unless you ask them first, and it’s nearly impossible to take a picture in town without getting people in it, so I just didn’t.

Samburu headdress On our last day there we got to have a bit more interaction with the locals in that we got a tour of their hospital where the Medicinal Plants project has set up a lab to do the initial testing, and to one of their primary schools where we got to speak to a 7th-grade class (125 students). Best of all, we got invited to a dance! This really was just an excuse for the locals to get together, but we got to participate as well. The Kenyans are a beautiful people – I was very impressed.


Spending 13 days in very close proximity to my team of 4 created quite a bond between us, so saying goodbye at the end was a bit emotional. I’m hoping to keep in touch with everybody via email, and maybe even arrange a visit with them in the near future.

Africa!