To the Plains

After days of physical conditioning and orienteering classes, practicing with maps and compasses to find their way, it was time to test the students’ abilities. Our next challenge was in the bush:  a flat landscape flanked by Tsavo and Amboseli Game Reserves.

Cape Buffalo

Recently, one of the school employees had speared a lion near the school grounds after three lions killed one of his cows. Cape buffalo were not uncommon, and elephants roamed the slopes of Kilimanjaro. To check for problem animals and see the region, a few of us temps climbed into the Land Rover and drove north out of camp, onto the plains.

The dry grasses, prickly bushes and flat-topped Acacia trees were home to hundreds of game animals and thousands of ungulates, such as gazelles and impalas. Usually we followed a visible track, but occasionally darted off to check out a suspicious lion-sized bush. Lions will occupy hunting territories and defend them from other lions. But we found none. Nor did we see other dangerous animals like Cape Buffalo, elephants, or rhinos. John had assured us that the ungulates we did see would not be a problem, so we returned, confident our students would be safe.

Each patrol would walk a different zigzag route, competing to see which patrol could best finish the assigned tasks. To avoid our influence, each of the instructors would monitor a patrol not their own. On the morning my half of the camp departed, I had my last meeting with Faru patrol, and wished them good luck.

I climbed into the transport truck to join a new patrol. We rumbled and bumped down the dusty road, squinting into the breeze of our motion. When we stopped half an hour later, so did the breeze. The warm mid-morning hinted at the heat to come. Dropping to the ground, we grabbed our day packs and checked our water.

John gave the patrol the clue to their first control point and drove off. Under the shade of one of the few trees, students gathered to lay out their maps. I stood back. They read the clue, marked the map, calculated the compass reading, set their compasses, and marched off into the bush.

Lilac Breasted Roller

I trailed behind them, picking my way carefully past dry brush with three-inch thorns, thickets of bushes and clumps of trees. Though we saw no dangerous animals, we watched in awe as herds of striped zebras, slender-necked, honey-colored gazelles, and a few grunting wildebeests grazed past us. A large male was usually on watch for each herd. Sometimes the nearest animals would take a step or two away from us, but casually, as if they were going to do that anyway. Near a herd of zebras, we infringed on their comfort zone, and the male snorted a warning. The nearest ones jerked their heads, trotted off a short way and resumed grazing.

The students did a great job. At each control point they had to look for a tree, a rock or a hole in the ground to find a can with the next set of directions. The bush was very flat with few physical points of reference except, of course, Mount Kilimanjaro to the southwest. They had to be fairly accurate with their compass directions or they would spend fruitless time looking under the wrong tree or rock. Since not many of these existed, the exercise proved easier than I had anticipated. Only later did I discover it was not so easy for other patrols.

I was enjoying a lovely walk among the animals and birds, happily tagging along behind the able students, wondering when I might be called upon for something, when they stopped. With the map central to their deliberations, they pointed ahead to something, and then back to the map. More pointing and animated discussion. Finally, a girl walked back to where I waited.

“Please, madam. May I ask a question?” she said respectfully.

I nodded.

“We have calculated the direction we need to go but there is a problem. If we follow our compass course, we will be walking through a family of giraffes that are grazing on the trees ahead. We will do that if you tell us it is our only choice, but we are certain that if we go around them, we will be able to resume the line on the other side of the trees.”

I walked forward until I could see the giraffe family. They stood, heads high, in a thicket of acacias, agile lips grasping the leafy branchlets and munching quietly, all except the large male, who watched us closely. The baby, too short for the trees, wove its way through the legs of the adults, returning to mama for a suck. I thought the giraffes would just move if the students approached, but since the baby might influence their reaction, I told the girls to go around.

Giraffe family

At last I felt useful.

I walked from the shade of one tree to another. Heat radiated off the sun-baked dirt but the temperature, in the 80’s, was not unpleasant. It was the warm end of the rainy season. Termites fascinate me, so I detoured to peek down a tall mound. The lateritic clay of the plains dries so hard the local people use it on the floors of their huts. It polishes smooth as tile. Peering inside the mound, I was disappointed that I couldn’t see past the first few feet in the dark, and my flashlight was in my overnight pack at the camp. No termites were on the mound, no surprise because, in my lab, they always built mud tunnels to get from one place to another avoiding the desiccating sun.

I felt safe in the dry grass, over my head at times but not thick enough to hide a large animal. Night would be different when the predators hunted.

My new patrol was the first and only one to reach Camp One before the 3:30 deadline. We had been told there would be extra water and a snack for us, but all we found was a heap of rolled canvas tents with a note from John saying not to put them up until he arrived. Thirst made me cranky, and I would have loved a Wright’s biscuit or two, but the students took it in stride. We each found a spot of shade, made ourselves comfortable, chatted or napped. Another patrol arrived an hour later, and by the time John showed up at 5:45 p.m., all four patrols were waiting.

The tardy patrols lost marks, and I was disappointed when Faru patrol dragged in last of all. John had stressed that we were not leaders for our patrols, but were only there to convey information. Still, I felt close to them and was a little disappointed. I should have been happy they found the camp that day.

Faru Patrol

Three instructors who’d been unable to hike climbed out John’s Land Rover. I was annoyed and a little sanctimonious that they hadn’t been out in the bush with the rest of us. Neila was still in camp with the other patrols, so I didn’t even have her to share my complaints. Shirkers. Lollygaggers. I even made up a few names, but I knew I was just generally crabby. And John irritated me as well, not leaving the water and snack he had promised with the pile of tents. We could have used the afternoon to set up camp, and I resented the wasted time. We instructors unrolled our tent while the girls worked on theirs, and by the time we were pounding stakes, the light was almost gone.

The next day, the other half of the school was to follow in our footsteps. That was the plan, but in the bush, chaos reigned.

In the morning, my half of the group gathered around John, who stood at the bottom of the tallest tree to give us a demonstration of how to rig up for abseiling, known in the U.S. as repelling, the descent of rock climbing.

Here’s how it went:  at the top of a cliff and using the now familiar harness, you tie yourself to a rope secured to a rock or tree, the safety line which is held your belayer. You wrap a second rope through your crotch, up your back, and over your shoulder. A teammate gets set to pay out the safety line — as opposed to reeling it in on belay. When ready, you turn away from the edge, and take one thrilling step backwards into space to start sliding down the rope.

How do you control the descent?  You let out the rope with your hand, pulling back to create more friction, and slow the descent, or forward to drop faster. If you’re comfortable with plunging earthward on a skinny string, you can take giant strides down the cliff face, but the heat from the friction will slow the most daring.

But I was unable to watch the abseilers and took the truck back to the main camp. My period had started unexpectedly, probably due to our time at the higher altitude, which hopefully accounted for my frustration of the previous night. For a few hours I did laundry, gathered supplies and waited for a vehicle. Finally, I got word that a truck was departing soon for Camp One.


The camp was still deserted when we arrived, so we helped unload the truck.  The pile of equipment was for the second four patrols that would arrive there in the afternoon. There were no snacks for them, either. The driver was going back to the school and told us John would come by to pick us up and take us to Camp Two.

Two hours later, John appeared.  I was hot, thirsty and steaming. He had been searching for two patrols from the first group that had not found the abseiling rock and were not at Camp Two, either. We waited to see if they might show up where we were, and at 5:30 most of them dragged in. One patrol had lost three of their members. Two patrols in the second half of the school had arrived as well, but the other two were still in the bush.

We called, whistled and yelled for the missing students without response. A number of us had to get to Camp Two, and John only had the Land Rover for us and the gear he needed to move. We piled the gear and our packs in the vehicle. I walked the students in the direction of the second camp, which was not too far away as the crow flies. John unloaded, then shuttled us to Camp Two and left again to search for the missing students.

In the morning, we learned that the last two patrols finally did show up at Camp One, but in spite of calls, whistles and searches, our three missing students spent the night in the bush. They were actually not far from that camp, which they found the next morning. Luckily, no lions, elephants, rhinos, or hyenas found them.

Faru Patrol Waiting for the Stragglers

I wondered why John was not more concerned. Perhaps our scouting of the area had assured him that the girls were safe. Perhaps, had they not found the camp on their own, we might have been mustered to rescue them. As it was, my half of the camp set off for the school after breakfast while we instructors waited for a lift, which arrived later in the day. Had I known it would be a long wait, I could have enjoyed the respite or walked with the girls.

All in all, I was enjoying the Outward Bound experience but was disappointed with John’s leadership. He certainly did not share any reasoning for his actions, just told us what to do and that was it. I reasoned that it was the girls who were learning leadership skills that perhaps I was just a cipher, unworthy of his detailed attention. I assumed there was a lot I didn’t know that he did, and hoped the rest of the course would not be such a struggle. I just hoped I wouldn’t be ejected for my own incompetence.

To the top or to Climbing Kilimanjaro