Monday, November 2, 2009

Our OK Adventure

Yesterday evening Nancy, Vaughn, Jane, Chris and I returned to Mapaki after our trip to Outamba-Kilimi National Park (known as OK for short). The trip was definitely interesting. Unfortunately, although we saw hippo and elephant tracks, and the place where the hippos go to eat grass, we did not see any actual hippos or elephants. The elephants are very rare and you’re unlikely to see one, but most people who visit see hippos, and seeing the hippos was really the main reason for making the trip. However, because it is still raining quite a bit, and this is right at the end of the rainy season, the river was very high. Apparently the hippos stay inland when the water is high like that. I was very disappointed as I really, really wanted to see the hippos, but what can you do. On the bright side, we did see lots of monkeys, which was pretty cool, and we saw some huge trees and other interesting vegetation, some neat birds, and lots of insects (of course!).

The facilities at OK are basic – as the guidebook we have says, “serious BYO territory”. We brought all our own food and water with us, and arranged for someone there to do the cooking for Le 2,000/meal. The cabins are equipped with bed nets and keep the rain out, but not much else (for example, we found little lizards in our bed when we arrived). The toilets are pit toilets (BYO toilet paper too :-). There is a water tank that provides water through a spout for a shower, but unfortunately it was broken. Three days without a shower wouldn’t have been too big a deal, but on the drive up we all got incredibly dusty from road dust coming in the windows. Without being able to really wash properly, we pretty much just stayed dirty until we got home again.

We arrived in the late afternoon of the first day and just hung out, attempted to clean up a bit from the dust, ate supper and went to bed early. The next morning we did the hippo canoe ride. I enjoyed being out on the river, even though we didn’t see the hippos. It was about a 20 or 25 minute paddle downstream to their usual spot. When we didn’t see them, we got out of the canoes and walked a hippo trail (there's a photo of hippo footprints in my photo album,, if you're curious). We were slightly worried we might run into a hippo on the trail (apparently they are most dangerous on land and can run up to 45km/hr in short bursts), but we didn’t. And I’m sure our guides would not have taken us on that path if they didn’t think it was safe. The paddle back to camp took about an hour and was quite hard work as we were going upstream.

In the afternoon, Chris, Jane and I went on the “elephant safari” jungle walk. Talk about bushwhacking! A lot of the trail was through incredibly high elephant grass and our guide hacked his way through with a machete. I made the mistake of wearing sandals instead of sneakers (I was worried about there being a lot of mud), so my feet got a bit scratched up. We did see some elephant tracks, and the view from the elephant platform was pretty nice, but no actual animal sightings. Our guide pointed out the border with Guinea, which we could see from the platform.

After those two adventures, we were pretty tired and went to bed early the second night. In the morning we got up and headed for home by 9 am. We didn’t arrive in Mapaki though until about 8 pm, so it made for a long day. Why did it take us 11 hours to get back you ask? Well, we ran out of fuel. Our driver (we went in the Chief's vehicle so were with his driver), MO had misjudged how much fuel it would take us to get there and back. He actually didn’t really know where we were going, which I didn’t realise until he stopped to ask for directions on the way there! Anyways, we had enough fuel to get back to Kamakwie (26 km from the park – took us almost 2 hours to drive, including the ferry crossing), but not to get all the way back to Makeni. We had seen fuel stations in Kamakwie on our way up so thought we could refuel there. Unfortunately, there was no diesel anywhere to be had in the city. We visited the Chief of that area (Sella Limba Chiefdom), and he made a few calls for us, but there was no diesel anywhere. We had to wait for some to be brought from Makeni for us. 5 hours later, we were on the road again, leaving Kamakwie around 4 pm and arriving in Mapaki around 8 pm. Needless to say, we were pretty tired. We all learned a valuable lesson though – always start a journey in this country with a full tank of gas!

I think I would likely go back to OK while I’m here if I have the opportunity as I’d still like to see a hippo in the wild. The main thing that would be a deterrent in going back is the journey. Unfortunately, the road to the park is extremely bad on some stretches. To give you an idea, the distance from Makeni to OK is about 110 km, and it took us about 5 hours to drive there, including only one short stop in Kamakwie for a cold drink on the way there. I have a few pictures in my photo album of the road – some samples of some of the huge potholes we drove through. The worst stretch is actually the first 30 km or so of the road, from Makeni to Pendembu. This is a main route into the north of the province, but like the majority of the country’s roads, it is unpaved. In the rainy season (now) the roads are especially bad. We drove through some potholes the size of the car. The potholes are a problem for a few reasons – not only do they slow you down quite a bit, but they are full of water, so you’re never sure how deep the water is, or what might be underneath. I have friend that flooded their engine driving through one of these pothole puddles because the “puddle” came up over the hood of their car!! Luckily we were in the Chief’s jeep, which is in pretty good shape. We had a minor scare when the car didn’t start right away the morning we left OK, but it started with a push start, and was ok after that.

It was quite the journey overall, and I’m very happy to be back home in Mapaki! I'm looking forward to sharing some twinning letters I've received from schools in Canada with schools here this week.

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