Cover photo courtesy of Dee White.
By: Judy S. Blackstock
My last trip to Kenya was in 2003. I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to go back. Life changes, reality sets in and aging keeps on coming.
Maybe that was the keynote for me–if I don’t go now, when will I go?
On November 15, 2017, I flew off alone for a whirlwind twelve day trip which started in Nairobi and ended with a visit to Fisi (hyena) Camp located near the Talek Gate in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. Unlike my other trips, I had no set itinerary and no reserved lodges.
Francis Mbuthia Muchiri, the driver on my previous three visits, invited me to stay with his family in Nyeri. Although retired now, his son Bernard works as a driver for a safari company, so I contracted with Bernard for his services and a vehicle.
My time at Fisi Camp in the Mara was short-only a day and half, after ten hours travel from Nyeri. It was Thanksgiving afternoon when I reached Mary, a Research Assistant, on her cell phone and made arrangements to visit the next day after our six hour game drive.
During that drive I saw cheetah, male lions and a lioness, giraffe, warthog, zebra, eland, wildebeest, topi, hyena, elephant, hippo, and at least 20 bird species.
We made it back to our camp, the Mara Simba Lodge, had lunch and a short rest before driving to Fisi Camp.
I first learned of Fisi Camp four years ago I when wrote a Knoxzine article (Getting the Last Laugh in Africa, Oct 2, 2014) about Knoxvillian Dee White and her involvement with the Michigan State University Hyena Research Project. https://www.facebook.com/MaraHyenas
Dee was one of the first female zookeepers in the United States, and her serendipitous reunion with Dr.Kay Holekamp produced this unusual and fulfilling work in her retirement.
While in the Masai Mare, I had hoped to observe the research assistants, Mary and Leah, performing their field work, but that didn’t work out. (The research assistants are in charge of the daily camp operation when Dr. Kay and Dee are not in the country.) Instead, I presented them with Oreos and M&Ms plus ADT t-shirts for the entire camp. The sweets were an immediate hit.
Mary and Leah are enthusiastic about their exhausting work, and they love the hyenas. When their research year ends, they will either continue their education or pursue other field work. Meanwhile, their daily work includes several hours of daily animal observation, photographing, identifying, and writing any new information about the hyenas. They also maintain the physical camp with the help of the Masai staff. The camp consists of a primitive main living room and work tent, and separate tents for the kitchen, shower, bathroom, and sleeping quarters.
Shortly after returning home, I interviewed Dee White about a few camp details.
I loved visiting Fisi Camp and meeting some of the staff. I know you have great admiration for Joseph, the camp cook. The kitchen is very basic and there is limited refrigeration.
What kind of meals is he able to fix?
Joseph is an excellent cook. Number 1 on everyone’s list of comfort food is tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. His mac and cheese is another favorite. We occasionally get meat and he has mastered the art of making hamburgers complete with buns and french fries. Since meat is a rare treat, he specializes in dishes made with rice, beans, lentils,and local veggies.
He excels at baking–white or whole wheat bread, chapati and french bread. And with so many fresh vegetables, he can make any variety of salsa for enchiladas. For breakfast he prepares fruit salad of fresh bananas, pineapple, oranges, mango,and kiwi. We love his cheesy egg casseroles, toad in the hole, crepes with Nutella and breakfast burritos.
I noticed solar panels along the camp path. How much power do they provide? What other options do you have?
When the panels are very clean and the sun is shining we have enough to run one light in each sleeping tent for a short time as well as power the pump that provides shower water for the research assistants and camp staff. (Kay and I just use sun showers hung from a tree.) When the sun is not cooperating, phones and torches and headlamps are mostly charged in the cars as we drive on “obs”.
We can usually centrifuge the blood samples we take when we tranquilize a hyena, and we can often, but not always, run the very tiny fridge during the sunlight hours. It has to be turned off as soon as the sun goes down. We usually can’t keep anything cold but we can slow down the spoilage rate a bit.
Dee, this is not easy work. Fisi Camp is one step up from primitive camping. You are there for several months at a time. What are the hard parts of your job?
It varies from year to year. The year that camp flooded was devastating. We lost almost everything and it took us a over a month of very hard work to rebuild. Kay and I had to rewire the entire camp. Everyone worked from dawn til dark, and during the first few weeks we had little food or water. We all got sick and I lost about 20 pounds.
When it gets very hot, there is no air conditioning, no fans, no rivers or lakes safe to jump into to cool off. You just sweat.During the long rains, you can’t get dry, your feet get all wrinkled and white and there is no way to dry your clothes and at night it gets cold.
Emotionally the year the clans lost so many dominant females after they ate poisoned carcasses was very difficult. Not only did animals we knew and loved die a very painful death but their cubs (all but one) slowly starved to death at the dens waiting for Mom’s who never came home.
Just getting there is a challenge. There are no direct flights from the states so it is at least two nine hour flights, with layovers and once there you have a six to eight hour drive over roads that get worse and worse as you leave Nairobi.
And the easy to love parts?
The animals! Not just the ones we watch during our official observations, but living with so many animals is such an honor. The bush baby and the genet who come to the lab tent at night to try and snag some scraps, the amazing birds who line up in the morning to try and steal a tiny bits of fruit, the dik diks who live in camp, the hyrax who screams at night right outside of my tent, even the baboons who regularly raid my tent and steal my toothpaste not to mention the hippos, lions, leopards, hyenas, and buffalo who use our paths to get to the river all make life in camp exciting and rewarding and wonderful. The cobras, mambas, and siafu (army ants) keep us on our toes and encounters with them are the basis for good stories and sometimes legends.
Sitting around the campfire at night with a glass of wine and listening to the night sounds. Living and working with very bright young people, fascinating scientists, and with the kind and hardworking Masai who keep us healthy and safe and who teach us so much has been a gift beyond price. It is all good.
To learn more about daily camp life on the hyena project, visit Judy S. Blackstock’s blog.
(c) Knoxzine, 2019.