Sweet Sixteen

Today was a long day out in the field. I completed three transects in the morning and early afternoon, working until 4:00 when I ran out of wire for the tree tags. (don’t worry I’ve found some more and will be back at it tomorrow). But because the day ended a little earlier than I had anticipated I asked my field assistant (and driver) to bring the car to the old grass airstrip near his house so I could teach myself to drive.

It was an excellent trial by fire moment, I either had to learn to drive the car so I could get it back over the rough terrain to the parking lot or fail, walk back with my tail between my legs and ask someone to drive my car back for me. This I deemed unacceptable.

As the field assistant started walking back to his house I hopped into the drivers seat and all of a sudden realized I was pretty lost. Everything’s on the wrong side and the gear stick is monstrous. After one or two false starts miraculously I got the car to start moving! The field assistant gave me the thumbs up which I enthusiastically returned and then promptly dumped the clutch.

Things continued this way for a couple of minutes. He’d keep walking a little further away but turn as if to wonder if he’d made the right choice leaving me alone with the car. I would motion enthusiastically to him not to worry even as I continued to start and stop like some long outdated amusement park ride. I attracted a good number of children watching and shouting excitedly from a distance as well. As you might suspect this didn’t really help matters.

Finally I got things going and started a few doughnuts around the airstrip. I started and stopped. Reversed and went forward. Everything was great! I even found a hill to practice a few times on. After about 20 minutes of driving I decided I was ready to face the children and the drive back to camp. The children ran to meet the car and ran alongside for a little ways shouting who knows what in swahili. I’m sure they were making fun of the crazy white guy who doesn’t know how to drive but I preferred to pretend that I was driving in a parade. I gave them some very cheery waves and didn’t stall once!

Well, to really cut my teeth on the open road I decided to go on a night drive with two friends. All in all it was distinctly a success. I was a bit nervous actually having people in the car, and I hadn’t really considered that it’d be significantly more difficult to drive in the night time than in the day time worrying about elephants you can’t see walking out in front of your car (and I thought moose were bad) let alone divining where the gears were in complete darkness. But we made it there and back again without any injuries so I’m content. I managed some tricky off-road three point turns, stopping on a hill, reversing for long distances without rear lights and relying on the e-brake to get started without sliding into ditches. I’m going to start doing as much driving as I can to really get my practicing in so hopefully I’ll be proficient before too long.

It was such a good feeling to be able to jump in the car and get out and away from the camp and not rely on drivers to get you there. It was a total refresher of the on the “open road” thrill from way back when, getting my driver’s license, 8 years ago, a couple months after my 16th birthday.

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