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The Last Day

Some of my family and friends have asked why I have not contributed to my blog for months. The answer is that when the raptor expedition was over there was very little to report upon.

I began this blog about the time I had frequent armed attacks on my reclusive house and raptor rehab facility in Athi. I wrote of its inevitable closure, the loss of employment, the translocation of those few raptors I had remaining, Rosy ‘s eye operations and starting an expedition with Laila to cover the whole of Africa in search of raptors. While the expedition was the fulfillment of a personal dream is was not without merit in its own right. We fell just short of our target and concede that our original goal was too ambitious for our limited resources. To have done it justice we should have spent 2-3 years and had a hefty budget. Raptors are never easy and the continent is huge and challenging, especially the central forests and northern deserts. In relinquish these aspirations I realize that the concept is important and we remain with extremely poor knowledge of raptors in a vast area of the continent. We are now working on the book!

I would not have missed what we did for the world. We achieved more than I knew at the time which I am only now appreciating. The ups and downs, the all too frequent breakdowns and the freedom of being “on the road” with the unknown ahead are all good memories. I regret that I was unable to do this many years ago instead of being insular in thought and patriotic without cause. I now measure Kenya against a new, more critical yardstick. I can now stand and defend my view about Johannesburg, Etosha, Penguins, the Kalahari, Puku, the Zambezi, Lake Malawi, Luangua, Pale Chanting Goshawks and the Serengeti. Not only do I have bragging rights at cocktail parties but inside I am different.

Being “back” without work, a house, eagles, dogs or wildlife is to live without purpose and direction. While we were wrapping up the trip I dreaded this situation so much that it soured the last section. I did the drab town campsites, the hiding on the side of the road as night fell and looking after houses while the owners were away. I did stay in Tsavo and the Mara as it was one of the cheapest solutions and had an interesting time helping a South African group capture and mark Ground Horn Bills in the Mara. I also spent time up Ol Donyo Laro in southern Kenya trying to release a daft Lammergeyer. I painted illustrations for our book whenever I could but in general I wished to keep a low profile until I had something secure and constructive to say and do. I had the desire to hide rather than impose, which is inverse to logic, self-destructive but predictable. Tentative jobs did not materialize. I was low in spirit and while I remained active in some conservation and raptor related issues I could see no way to earn a living. Then in the last few weeks I have found a job looking after a small conservancy and lodge. To my surprise I feel much better and can think ahead for the first time in months.

Now empowered I feel moved to end off the intrepid “Raptor Expedition” with one last entry. It was a particularly sublime moment for me.

Laila and I were traveling through Tsavo East in Kenya on our way from Sokoke Forest on the coast. We had driven through Sala Gate on the far eastern side if the park and I, like most rational people had made a mess of the park fee payment by assuming one could pay at the gate. After all was sorted, we experienced once again a section of the park that is much underrated. The Galana River had on its banks a short green ‘golf course’ of vegetation, in contrast to the then barren dust of this drought-ridden landscape. Towering Doum Palms and trees lined its edge and within these there were a large number of raptor nests. Wildlife here was abundant and diverse.

Laila was in her element taking pictures of Bateleurs, Tawnies and African Hawk Eagles. We watched a Fish Eagle land on the bank, look into a pool near it and then with a skip and a jump it plopped onto a fish which it later delivered onto its nest. Laila had remembered a pair of Wahlberg’s Eagles from last year, and to these we made a special pilgrimage. The male was a unique bird, half pale morph and half normal morph and I had to promise to return again to get them in better light.

To complete our park entry fee process we had to drive clear across the park (over 70km) and spent the next few days near Voi.

The moments I wish to share happened during what turned out to be our last full day of safari on the “Raptor Expedition” that has seen us traverse much of southern and eastern Africa. In fulfilling my promise to return to Sala to take pictures of the Wahlberg’s on its nest in good light meant that we were to be caught out by the setting sun. We chose a campsite on the banks of the Galana. I brought the old Range Rover to a stop on the sand beneath a Doum Palm grove. As the sun settled over the baked land I walked to the riverside and sat under the palms on the sand facing the cooling wind. It had been a long trip and I was tired. I was grateful to lie back and reminisce about our trip. It got dark too quickly while I watched sickle-winged Palms Swifts and tiny bats busy themselves with beginning and ending their day and night shifts. I walked back to the car in twilight to make dinner, an uninspired pasta something, and then went back to look at the near full moon rise right down the middle of the avenue of palms and reflect off the river. On looking back at my old car I saw Laila, her face lit by the cold glow of the computer screen, downloading the innumerable pictures of the day. It seemed to take her hours.

Late that night my inner night-watchman that keeps guard in the sub-conscious, nudged me awake to the hushed sound of elephant. I stepped out of my tent and saw the group approach smoothly on silent feet to stand with sub-sonic rumblings beneath three burnt Doum Palms less than 30m away. They were unaware of my presence as I was down wind and in deep shadow, but I could see their outline well against the night sky. Then one scratched itself on the palm and from its rough hide I saw a neon bright glow leap across its vertical length. With each rub of its side the tiny crystals of quartz scrapping against the sooty bark of the burnt palm produced sparks, that combined gave off enough luminosity to highlight the faces and ears of the others near it. It was at first so surprising that I thought it artificial. I looked around in panic in case it was someone with a flash light…something far more threatening than elephant! It was when it was immediately followed by the slight smell of cordite that I realized what was happening. Then one took a few steps forward and I had to speak gently to them. Not overly alarmed, but surprised they all stood still, scanned the sky with up-raised trunks and with a disapproving shake of their heads they moved off down to the river to continue their journey.