Sunday, January 17, 2010

[Mayank] See you down by Ol' Pej

Yesterday, the powers that be decided to give me a 30-year old Land Rover (with a new diesel engine), some graduate student passengers, and permission to go off-road "judiciously" in the Ol' Pejeta Conservancy. Qing and I were to watch and photograph the zebras for our projects, and Maria, Monda, Khairi, and Jenni were along for the ride, and to see lions.

It was a fantastic drive from Mpala Ranch to Ol' Pejeta, cruising along at 40 km/h on dirt road and 60 km/h on brief stretches of tarmac. The Land Rover lived up to its reputation, sliding around the road admirably, with a very sticky 3rd gear. All around us, zebras and cattle and giraffes scurried out of the way.

We got to Ol' Pejeta and the guard recognized me from our previous daily excursions. We stopped at our customary location just past the gate to prepare for the day's data collection. People got on top of the car, zoom lenses were polished and poised, notebooks were set under fresh ballpoint pens...and the car refused to start.

It was interesting to note that just two days earlier, we had stopped about a hundred meters away to watch a group of three lions feast on a freshly hunted warthog.

We tried the ignition again. We cursed. We tried pushing the car in reverse. We tried pushing the car in first gear. We cursed some more. We looked at the engine. Nothing would start the car, and only curious gazelle passed us by.

It took about 3 hours for us to radio for help and the Ol' Pejeta mechanic to arrive. Turns out the fuel pump was clogged, some connections were loose, and there was no way in hell that we could have fixed it ourselves . The mechanic flushed out the fuel system of the 30 year old Land Rover with the retrofitted diesel engine, piece by piece, under the blazing sun, while my passengers and I got a little delirious under the sun. It was about 2:30 p.m. before we were on our way, which seemed to be a bit late for catching the zebras at their best.

On the plus side, we got a tip from Patrick at the visitor's center that a group of lions had just been spotted about 6 minutes away from where we were. We set off towards the beasties immediately, and would have completely missed them if Maria (sitting on the roof) hadn't spotted them. Four beautiful lionesses! Fortunately, a dirt track lead right up to them, and it was far enough off the main dirt track that tourist vehicles sped right by without seeing us. It was just us and the four lionesses.

My project involves zebras, and I have tons and tons of photographs of them. I'm almost starting to recognize them by stripes, and I sometimes see stripes when I close my eyes (a side effect of staring at them through a 300mm zoom lens for 6 days). It's fantastic to drive around the savannah, Tusker beer is quite nice, and the food at Mpala is very good. Giraffes are nice to look at, and brilliantly colored starlings steal food from our open-air breakfast every morning. We saw a pack of wild dogs hunting an impala the other day, and the visitor's center at Ol' Pejeta has a pet rhino called Max.  Nothing, however, quite compares to staring at a lioness in the wild at five meters, sitting in a car that has just broken down a few hours ago.


  1. Is 300mm enough, did you bring longer, would you have wanted longer?

  2. It was ideal for my purposes because it was cheap (about $180 without a stabilizer). Sure, a nice 400mm with a stabilizer would have been nice, but it would also raise the minimum requirements for using my zebra ID system, and would be expensive to replace once (probably not "if") stolen. The current system, for example, uses cheap point-and-shoots.