After this week, it seems I have become the go-to Field Trip chaperone; not an unwelcome role, but one that certainly is far more stressful than anticipated. A few weeks back I took a large group of students to Nairobi for a Middle School Model United Nations Conference at the United Nations Offices in Nairobi, Headquarters for the United Nations Environmental Program. The trip was fantastic, as were (most) of the kids, and I will be sure to post about it soon. Soon thereafter, I was asked to accompany the Year 4 class down to Shimba Hills, a small National Park a short ferry and bus ride away, as part of their Biodiversity Unit. I had wanted to make it down to the park since I had been here but the chance had never presented itself, until now.
I have very limited interaction with the Junior School. The most time I have ever spent there was during Orientation and during an International Baccalaureate workshop I attended two weekends back. I see the aftermath of their students during lunchtime, and it is truly a sight to behold. The crows eat like kings from the ample scraps the kids leave behind, and us senior school teachers have to sit strategically to avoid their spilled sauces and juice. I also once taught a year one class for a single lesson and the kids were remarkable attentive and inquisitive. So I had seen the messy side of these junior school creatures as well as the well-behaved side, I had no idea which side would win out on an overnight field trip but I was soon to find out.
By the time we left at 9 am, we had already had one kid vomit and at least two parents in tears at sending away their babies for the first time; an inauspicious start if I have ever seen one. My seatmate was a young boy, around ten I would say, named Ahmed. I could not have asked for better company for the ride down. It was his first time crossing the ferry down to the South Coast and he was remarkably calm, more so than I think I would have been at his age, about driving a massive automobile onto a glorified metal raft and floating into the middle of a river. He also had an admirable curiosity and read every sign, boat inscription and advertisement that he could pass his eyes over. We have elections coming up in early March for a number of positions, most notably President, and political signs have sprung up everywhere. The ferry is a prime location for propaganda as about 100,000 people use it everyday, not an insignificant group of potential voters. Ahmed was apparently up on the times as he kept rattling off jingles from Hassan Joho’s campaign for Governor of Coast Province. I let him borrow my sunglasses for the ride down and he definitely pulled them off better than I could.
Once we crossed the ferry, as if Ahmed was not enough to keep the ride interesting, the rest of the year fours broke out into song. Their playlist was mainly recent popular music and they all knew the repetitive choruses by heart. The rest of song, not so much. Hearing a bunch of young kids belt out songs they know and love is an incredibly amusing experience, especially when said songs are by Nicki Minaj, Justin Beiber and Taylor Swift. Even more entertaining, and potentially troubling, is hearing them sing lyrics they either do not understand or just seem wildly inappropriate for the age group. It will be a while before I forget their innocent rendition of “I’m Sexy and I Know It,” or “I got a hangover, woah-oah, I drank too much for sure.” Kids.
Before too many “are we there yet”s, we made it to the beautiful Shimba Hills. Shimba is home to the last population of Sable Antelope in Kenya as well as to many elephant, giraffe and other rather tame creatures, all in all a great place to take a young group of kids.
A rather apt simile to describe a loud, constant noise in an otherwise quiet place would be “like a bus of forty fourth graders in an intimate game park setting.” I learned a lot about the nine and ten year old age groups on this trip. Most importantly, if you ever want to see wildlife, do not bring them on a wildlife-focused trip with you. Secondly, they don’t have conversations like you and I. Conversation is a skill that develops over a timespan that seems to be longer than ten years. I observed many a time what passed as conversation though. One student begins to speak about an animal, photo, food object, etc. The next student, unable to contain their excitement about how they feel about said topic, begins to speak on it as well, but with no engagement with the other student’s line of thought. The next student does the same, but this time louder so as to have his/her opinion heard. Before long, you have a magnificent cacophony of prepubescent voices filling the previously tranquil air, and dispersing any wild creature in a two-kilometer radius. I gained a considerable amount of respect for Junior School teachers on this trip.
The Gateway to Shimba Hills
The closest we were able to get to any animals
We headed immediately for Sheldrick Falls in Shimba , a place that I was told I needed to visit, so I was very pleased it happened to be on our itinerary. We all piled out of the buses, donned our swimming attire and gathered at the top of a hill to begin our descent to the falls. Because of a reasonable chance of encountering elephants in the bush by the falls, the park requires you hire a guide, fully armed with an elephant rifle. I should have told him how effective a deterrent our kids could be.
I took up the rear on the trek down to help with the dawdlers. Many of the students brought their flip-flops, so slips we frequent. It is easy to forget how small these young students are too and how much physical exertion a few kilometer walk can be for them. After some encouragement and literal handholding, we all made it down safe and sound.
The falls themselves were majestic: two cascades of translucent water in a lush, verdant clearing. The students quickly shed their layers and ran screaming into the cool water. The walk down had been oppressively hot and the refreshing torrent was a delight for the kids. They splashed about the rocks, frolicked through the spray and immersed themselves in the pool the water had created. We were running low on water so the guide encouraged us to fill up from the falls. I was hesitant at first, my inner Wilderness First Responder was urging caution, but my thirst overwhelmed my reservations. I have yet to see if I will pay for that decision.
Fun and games at the falls
After an invigorating climb back up, that only necessitated that I carry one girl over my shoulder to the top, we cruised to our lodging for the night at the appropriately named Shimba Lodge. The lodge itself must have been constructed in the early to mid 80’s. It stands on large concrete stilts, covered in a façade of dark painted wood. It emerges from the dense forest like some sort of ominous fortress, albeit one with great hospitality. All of the rooms look out over a large watering hole that dominates one whole side of the hotel. Off to the right, a rickety walkway leads off towards another watering hole where elephants gather, or so we were told, and an elevated perch from which to better observe the larger watering hole.
Kurtz, where are you?
The hotel was devoid of any other guests aside from our ragtag gang, which was probably for the best. We streamed in, distributed rooms and sat for lunch. Most of our animal viewing occurred during our meal times. The animals around the watering hole were used to the bustle of the hotel and our ruckus hardly perturbed them. The big hit was a Fish-Eagle, a regal bird that perched high above the water. The waiters at the hotel would ball up some of the dinner rolls and toss them in the water. The surface roiled with the ravenous feeding frenzy of the fish that inevitably caught the attention of the observant eagle, which then took a graceful, lethal downward arc towards the surface, grasped a wriggling meal and consumed it on its leafy perch. The kids loved it.
The Regal Fish-Eagle
There were also a roaming band of baboons, two of whom I accidentally interrupted during their morning cleaning ritual. They reacted just like someone would when walked in on in the shower, a startled glance, followed by a glare. They then dashed into the woods. Alongside them were five massive monitor lizards. We have one on campus but he is very thin and agile. These lizards were obviously fed well on the scraps left behind by the diners. They were morbidly obese and had a hard time moving around, but, on the plus side, they were rather buoyant and had no trouble in the water.
Well-fed Monitor Lizards
The creatures the kids loved most, and were able to get the closest to, were the bush babies. One of the waiters chopped up some bananas and placed them on an altar-like wooden slab and the critters just swung down from the trees for their evening snack. It seemed to be an established ritual, but that did little to dampen the kid’s excitement. They all pulled chairs around and chattered away loudly about how cool the animals were and soon enough their chatter reached a terminal volume and scared the creatures away. Kids.
Bush Baby, Baby
One of my favorite parts about the trip was seeing how the Junior School teachers dealt with the constant noise and bustle of these younger kids. One teacher, from the second we stepped on the bus at school to the moment we disembarked at school the next day, wore his headphones. Not to say he was removed from the action, quite to the contrary actually, he was engaged and involved with the kids as much as I was. But, every meal, every walk, every ride, he was wearing his bright red headphones and his bright red matching shirt, a good look. I have no idea what he was listening to but I wistfully imagined it was some sort of recorded mantra constantly building up his spirits, “you can do it, embrace the clamor of the children, be one with the mess, night is fast approaching, just hold out a bit longer.” One of the other teachers was sitting at the bar with a full glass and an empty bottle of sprite on hand. After some brief conversation she let on that the sprite bottle was “just for pictures” and that she was downing a Smirnoff Ice. Perfect. It seems they had all figured out their special way to cope.
Dinner was a simple buffet. The kids descended on the tray of French fries like a half starved pack of piranha; their eating habits standing in stark contrast to the graceful feeding of the nearby Fish-Eagles. Once dinner was done, it was bedtime. For many of these kids, it was their first time sleeping away from home. A rumor quickly swept around that “Room 19 was haunted by Shaitan (Satan).” Room 19 just happened to be the biggest room with the best view. I sensed jealousy. Naturally, half of the students then flocked down stairs in a frightened whirlwind, refusing to cross the thresholds of their rooms for fear of unholy retribution. I became the Ghostbuster and grabbed a flashlight and exorcised the demons to the best of my ability, which seemed to do the trick.
Once the kids were dispersed, the animals came out. Baboons and Waterbuck came down to drink from the watering hole. I headed to bed and after such a long day, not even the devil and his minions could have woken me; unless they happened to be in the year 4 class that is.
The next day was a near fruitless game drive aside from a great spotting of a herd of Sable Antelope. Check out those horns! The return drive was quick and we were back before lunch.
I really did enjoy my trip down to Shimba Hills and I gained a whole new respect for our brave junior school staff. This week already I have been greeted numerous times by excited, energetic year 4s from across the Commons and Campus. They maybe aren’t so bad after all.
The next month is looking rather exciting for me. I'm headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to visit my lifelong friend Andrew Speer for a week over the Election Break we have here and then two weeks later my folks come over for some Safari and Beach action. All will be great blog fodder I am sure! Keep checking back. Thanks for reading!
-Muzungu gearing up for a March Break full of friends and family and adventures