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Safari in Kenya

by Greer Illingworth (JD '10),

With days here running out, it was time to squeeze in one final trip. The rest of the Pepperdine students finished a week before Micheline and I in the Criminal Court, so the two of us ended up breaking out on our own. The original plan was to go guerilla tracking in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (just as an aside: when a country calls itself "democratic" that usually means they are far from it). That idea was quickly thrown out, however, when renewed fighting between the government and rebel forces broke out and the Uganda-Congo border was closed.

So, last week, Micheline and I scrambled to figure out an alternative plan and eventually decided upon going to Kenya, specifically Tsavo National Park. Relatively speaking, Kenya has been one of the most stable and prosperous of the African nations. Last December, though, a contentious Presidential election sparked protests among competing political parties that escalated into violence, leading to over 1,000 deaths and the displacement of over 350,000 people. Much of the economy was shut down and travelers were kept out. Thankfully, a peace agreement was brokered before things got too out of hand and today the country is getting back to normal.

The first stop on the trip was in Kenya's capital city of Nairobi. Going in, I wasn't too excited about having to stop off here, but trip logistics required it. From Nairobi, Micheline and I would catch a passenger train directly into Tsavo. I was apprehensive because Nairobi is known for being a bit wild-west. In fact, there are so many robberies in the city that it is now infamously referred to as "Nai-robbery." When we arrived, though, I was pleasantly surprised to find a very friendly, clean, and developed city. The people went out of their way to help and direct us. We found the Kenyan's eager to convince us that it is safe in Kenya and we certainly experienced a warm welcome.

After spending the day in the city, Micheline and I caught the train onto Tsavo. It is one of the few remaining passenger railways in Africa and departs from an old station reminiscent of the colonial days. The train actually left on time, a rarity here, and arrived to Tsavo at 5:00AM, two hours earlier than expected. So, we had to sit and wait those two hours at Tsavo's remote train station in the middle of the national park. Not all was bad, however, because the sunrise was fantastic and we got to explore a little bit around the area. Eventually, our ride showed up and took us to the lodge we would stay. We got settled and a little later walked down to a watering hole to watch all kinds of animals drink or cool off in the afternoon heat. Dozens of elephants came by, water buffalo, waterbuck, hyrax, baboons, and all kinds of reptiles.

Then in the evening, we were able arrange for a local man to drive us deep into the park to go on a game drive. Tsavo is unique for the male lions that inhabit the area. Most male lions in Africa sleep throughout the day and the women do the hunting, but here the males are they far bigger, active, vicious, and curiously lack manes. On the drive we came across a pride stalking zebra and then one hiding amidst savannah grass with the setting sun as the backdrop. It was very ominous to look out into the golden waist high savannah and suddenly spot two piercing eyes staring right towards you.

Above all else, the lions of Tsavo are well-known for an occurrence that took place in 1898. During construction of a railway bridge for the British owned Uganda Railways, two male lions unleashed a reign of terror on the local workers that has never been equaled in scope nor fully explained by science. For three months, the two lions broke through thorn barriers around the camps, out-smarted arranged traps, side stepped carefully planned ambushes, and consistently killed a handful of workers a night. The attacks escalated as time went on and became more daring, sometimes occurring in the middle of the day. On one occasion, a lion jumped up and tore a worker off a donkey as he was riding. The lion did not leave a mark on or even attempting to take down the donkey. They directly targeted humans. The nights were filled with the sound of crunching bones and cries of pain as the lions ate workers near the camp.

Col. John Patterson, the Irish engineer hired to oversee the bridges construction faced the challenge of killing the lions and maintaining authority against the increasingly hostile workers, many of whom were convinced that the lions were ancient tribal chiefs punishing them for helping the British build the railroad. The situation got so bad that the entire work force refused to do anymore and construction came to a complete halt. With his reputation and livelihood at stake, Patterson, an experienced tiger hunter from prior service in India, went out into the bush to hunt down the lions. After an arduous few months, that nearly cost him his life, Patterson finally got them both . Each lion was documented at over nine feet long from nose to tip of tail and eight men were required to carry them back to the camp. Estimates place the number killed by the two lions during their reign of terror at 180.

Micheline and I stayed over at a lodge on the site where Patterson lived through the fiasco and were taken on a tour of the area. We saw the bridge. The spot Patterson killed the first lion,
and the location the lions took the victims each night. Today, at the same spot, you can see piles upon piles of rocks marking the remains of these workers.

This final stop concluded our trip and we headed back to Kampala. The train ride, though, turned into an adventure when three trains in front of us derailed. It ended up taking twelve hours for us to go about 120 miles. We spent most of the day stopped beside a remote town that was about as rural as you can imagine. Eventually, we arrived back from Kenya with three more full days to finish our work in the archives, tie up loose ends, and say our goodbyes.