Sunday, January 22, 2012

Luck and a Holiday

I've generally been known to be quite extroverted. I talk to people because everyone is so fascinating a store of full of stories, experiences and views. As a result of talking to anyone and everyone I have more cool coincidences and serendipitous events than most people or at least it seems that way. Last week was a prime example; while on the other side of the creek around New Year's I found a small but beautifully decorated guest-house. The owners were shocked to see that I'd swam across and invited me for a drink. We chatted and I mentioned about my project and then went home. A week later they called me saying would I come over to meet their son Jay, who was interested in the work. I could have easily said no, I have lots to do and what does this meeting matter really, but instead I went. They collected me in a kayak and we paddled over the creek to the coral area. We had a nice snorkel and Jay was impressed. After they cooked me a delicious fish meal for lunch and we chatted about the work. Papu, the owner of the guest-house, said towards the end of the meal, “Well we'd like to help in anyway we can, perhaps we can throw a boat your way?” Just like that! Before long I'd said my thanks and goodbyes and set off from the beach in a gorgeous yellow sports kayak, they're lending me until March. Moral of the story, talk to everyone because you never know where it will end up!
I've been staying on the small island of Wasini near the border with Tanzania. It's a small undeveloped coral rag outcrop in the Indian Ocean, where 100% of the population are strict muslims. I'm staying at a volunteer centre of Global Vision International (GVI) a gap year company who focus on conservation and community work. I needed some time away from Mwamba and Watamu as it was getting a little claustrophobic, so I wanted to explore the South Coast. I met the manager and a few staff of GVI at the conference in Mombasa in October and decided to check it out.
Most of the volunteers at GVI are young guys who've only arrived in Africa for the first time a week ago. Having chats with them is fun because it reminds me of home, but also its good because its nice to see how much I've grown in the past year. I'm the only person at A Rocha not born in Kenya and hence having to learn how to deal with things my colleagues are used to and often feeling quite ignorant. Hanging around with these volunteers makes me see how much I've learnt.
The reefs near Wasini are supposed to be the best in Kenya, which was a major pull here. Since I started the marine research in Watamu I felt a slight disappointment the whole time that I don't know what a pristine reef looks like. I had a lot of expectations for the reef here! I went to Kisite Park yesterday which was supposed to be the big moment. When I jumped in the water it was great, but I wasn't overwhelmed. It was really nice, for sure, but the not stunning experience I had built it up to be. It was quite encouraging really because there are some areas in Watamu I would say are comparable to the reef in Kisite. The fish were great too, big marbled grouper and really high butterfly fish diversity, which is a clear indicator of coral health. Its also encouraging because the park is well off-shore on a remote island and as result is well protected.
The community here on the island are quite different to what I'm used to elsewhere in Kenya. I think its a combination of being relatively unused to seeing Wazungu, being strict muslims and living on a small island which they never leave. I definitely noticed some characteristics that reminded me of Scilly! A general suspicion and hostility to outsiders must be something islands do to people! With many people on the island though it didn't take long to break through this veneer, especially when I introduced myself by my African name, Charo. Here's a few photos from an afternoon walk into the village. A little girl stopped me as I entered the village, saw my camera and demanded a photo.
Standing to attention for the photo

Like an alarm had gone off, several other children emerged and also wanted photos too.

I stopped by the local cafe for a cup of sweet ginger tea and chapattis.

Mama Rama cooks her perfectly circular chapattis over a wood three block stove in the corner and keeps her tea warm in thermos flasks.

She is the centre of the village and a social hub, for which her raw joyous laughter and welcoming personality are perfect.

The time here in Wasini has been a mix of reading, snorkelling and relaxing in tropical paradise. Its been a really great time away. I head back to Watamu tomorrow ready to get into fieldwork, but just before then I think I'll go for one last wallow in the turquoise lagoon :-).
Lone fisherman surveys his kingdom

Local kids washing one of the GVI volunteer's hair in the lagoon

View from the GVI camp

Cliffs at the north end of the island get the full force of Oceanic waves

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Peace on earth and elephants to all men

As I wrote this I was lying in the top of an enormous baobab tree in Arabuko-Sokoke forest on New Year's Day.
To celebrate the new year and get a bit of time to myself I've hiked out here to camp in the old tree platform A Rocha built. It was a beautiful walk, but slightly nerve racking as the were tons of fresh elephant droppings and footprints on the way!
Christmas and New Year passed in quite an exciting, but not particularly restful way. Mum and Dad came for 10 days over Christmas and we managed to fit in a lot! We had a great two day safari in Tsavo East, an enormous area of wilderness west of here. We saw tons of game from elephants, zebra, giraffe and a peek or a lion in the distance. On Christmas Eve we came into the forest with my old friend David Ngala who gave us a top notch tout. We saw everything we wanted from the Golden-rumped Elephant-shrew to the Sokoke Scops Owl. We even saw an Ele, but he got a bit close for comfort and I thought he was about to charge the car and we would never see Christmas day. Luckily he turned off just before reaching the car! David is really a legend forest guide. We stopped at the side of the track at one point and he merely said, “I know there are scops owl around here, wait a moment.” Ten minutes later he returned and we followed him into the trees until he said, “Stop!” and pointed straight up into the canopy of a tree. Sure enough, nestled in the branches, was the well camouflaged and smallest owl in Africa. It was really very special for me seeing as I spent so much time in the forest doing research with David, but never seen one before. The whole tour was my favourite day while Mum and Dad were here.
Christmas Day Dad and I went on a morning snorkel to the larder where you often see a lot of large predatory fish. We saw some lovely shoals of sweetlips and snapper and interestingly a 50 strong congregation of butterflyfish. As we zoomed along the palm lined, sun-drenched road on a motorbike back to Mwamba I couldn't help feeling a sense of great achievement that I had somehow landed myself in such a luxurious and beautiful place. Christmas Day was hot even by Kenyan standards, but luckily we were having dinner at Roni and Colin's so all we did was lie under a tree and be fed a delicious chicken braai.
It was really sad to see Mum and Dad go on the 27th and it made me quite homesick. Since then all the days have been blurred into lots of snorkelling and hanging out with guests. I swam south of Mida Creek twice, which is actually quite hard as a rapid rip current flows out of the creek to sea. I semi-rode the current, swimming perpendicular to it and popped out the other side and further out to sea. This brought me to a really beautiful area of coral, which I discovered while Bob was here and is now one of my study sites. One of the times I swam to the Southern Coast of Mida, which is much more remote than Watamu and quite undeveloped. It was so utterly peaceful over that side, no buildings, no people and wise empty beaches. The solitude of it was just delicious. Solitude is not a word in the African dictionary and they don't understand the concept. Francis thought the only reason I was coming to the forest alone today was to pray! Because of that culture and how busy Mwamba is anyway, I crave that solitude and am going to try to get away more and more.
Last night, New Year's eve, was lovely. I brought meat for all the guests at Mwamba and grilled it for a traditional Nyama Choma and bonfire celebration for New Year. At midnight we ran into the sea and played with the sparkling phosphorescence in the water. What a magical way to start the year.

9pm that night
Oh my gosh! Elephants everywhere! I started making a fire around 7o'clock about 50m from the tree in a clearing and suddenly there was a crack. Sure enough about 20m away there was an elephant. I crouched low in the grass and hoped it hadn't seen me, but the wind was behind me and must have smelt me. It came closer and closer until I ran for it through the bushes and up the tree. It didn't chase, but did amble over and stare at me in the tree for a while. When I finally had the courage I ran back to the clearing to get the wood and cooking stuff and made a fire at the base of the tree. The whole time and even as I write this a herd of elephants are trumpeting and roaring in the swamp. Both amazing and terrifying!

Male Impala in the distance

Big bull elephant challenging our car in Arabuko-Sokoke!

Christmas dinner

Mum and Dad visiting my friend Francis' house

Sokoke Scops Owl
Awesome coral near Whale Island