February 18, 2018

You know those experiences? The ones that truly stick out in your personal life playback, the ones that were truly unique, truly unforgettable, truly memorable?

Of course you do. I’ve found that experiences like that happen very infrequently (makes sense – how else could something be so special?). Once every couple of years, maybe. Once a year, if you lead a truly spectacular life. But twice in one week? That’s unheard of.

I thought my first week in Kenya was an incredible beginning to three months in Africa. And it was. But a part of me foolishly thought that because it was so incredible it would be difficult to beat. Boy, was I wrong. Week #2 has just been a barrage of crazy moments and amazing experiences that I should have expected, but never could have, from a semester in Africa.

On Tuesday we visited the renowned Ol Jogi Conservancy to learn about efforts to reinvigorate the rhino population that humans have so thoughtlessly destroyed. My mixed feelings about conservancies were not remedied by my visit, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another time. I had expected to see only rhinos, but instead we were first introduced to some of the other conservancy residents: a lion named “Sir”, a pack of wild dogs, and a cheetah named “Tsavo”, all unable to survive in their native habitat due to factors like injuries, loss of parent, etc. (but rest assured, all were very happy).

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Tsavo and Sir

Ever since a young age I’ve been in love with cheetahs (“Duma” in Kiswahili), so seeing one so close (despite, strictly speaking, not being wild) was truly a heartstopping moment for me. But the main attraction was of course, the rhinos. We had come to the conservancy to learn not just about efforts to regrow their population, but also the vectors (flies and ticks) that rain disease and parasites on the species. The goal was to sample some of those vectors from an Ol Jogi rhino. For the second week in a row, I began to question my sanity. What kind of idiot attempts to grab a tick or a fly from off a giant animal with two horns? If that’s not a recipe for disaster I’m not sure what is. I fully expected to spend the afternoon hiding behind the safari van while our fearless (or insane?) teacher waved a fly-catching net around a rhino’s ear and tried not to piss it off too much.

Instead we met Avi, the blind rhino. He came rumbling down the road towards us and, after a couple soft taps, immediately laid down in front of us and began enjoying a multitude of belly rubs from the entire class. It was adorable, and amazing to see such a legendary and endangered creature be so trustworthy around a group of humans. We did somehow manage to collect our flies and ticks despite the enormous distraction.


Avi the blind rhino

Eventually it was time for Avi to eat, so we moved on. Little did I know that we were heading towards one of those unforgettable experiences I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Because if you thought petting a sweet blind rhino was nice, try giving a baby rhino a mud bath. Never in my wildest dreams did I think such an opportunity was even possible – and it was just as cool as you’d expect. Little Meimei (I use the word lightly, she probably weighed half a ton) spent the afternoon gently nudging every person in the immediate vicinity with her horn while making the cutest squeaking noises. When it was time to receive her bath, she plopped down in a puddle of mud and went straight to rhino heaven as we lathered sludge all over her sides. It was one of those moments when we all couldn’t stop thinking, “I can’t believe this is actually happening right now.” Our time with Meimei ended far too quickly, but I found solace in knowing that such a beautiful animal will in a few years return to her natural home. Hopefully by then the savannah will be a safer place for species like rhino.


Meimei in mud bath bliss

Just a little side note – most of the rhinos at Ol Jogi are wild. Being blind, Avi would never survive outside the conservancy. Meimei lost her mom at a young age so she requires artificial maternal care, but the goal is to recondition her to one day be released back into the African Savannah.

My second truly unforgettable experience occurred just two days later, when our group traveled to the Mt. Kenya National Park for a day of hiking. I expected it would be quite the trek – the high altitude makes everything harder. But I did not expect it to be the most difficult physical activity I had ever done in my life. I spent the latter half of the hike in total agony; my legs screaming from extreme soreness and my face screaming from extreme sunburn. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure how something so painful was simultaneously so much fun. In total we climbed 12 miles, including almost a mile of elevation gain, to a view of Mt. Kenya’s two highest points: Batian and Nelion (both 17,000+ feet high). Words cannot describe the feeling of immense accomplishment we all felt when we finally collapsed at our destination, or the incredible beauty of the rolling clouds in front the peaks. But hey, that’s what photos are for, right?

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Tomorrow I head to western Kenya for a week in the Kakamega Rainforest, before another week and a half in Amboseli National Park. Wifi will be scarce, if there’s any, so it may be a couple weeks before my next blog post. Whenever that is, I’m sure I’ll have some more awesome stories to share. Like last week I’ll again leave you with a photo of Mt. Kenya’s majestic peak – this time from a slightly closer vantage point:

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One of the many Lobivia Cacti that bask in Mt. Kenya