The Ark

So here’s one more story about the last few days in Kenya. Kayla and I left Mpala with the undergraduates at the end of August and on our way to Nairobi we all stayed at this incredibly fancy game lodge in the middle of Aberdare National Park. It’s aptly named “The Ark” and gave us quite an interesting look at how most people experience Kenya and the “African safari.” It was lavish and faux-rustic and plush quite beyond our imagination, even relative to the extremely nice conditions at Mpala. Unfortunately our stay only lasted about 24 surreal hours, most of which being cloudy and rainy so I didn’t get many pictures. Actually, to be honest, by the time we left Mpala I was so exhausted I spent most of my time at the Ark sleeping, but we did get to do a bit of wandering around and experiencing this very different style of African adventure.

Though plush beds with hot water bottles put in them during dinnertime and comfortable sofas next to fireplaces looking out on animal salt licks through huge floor to ceiling windows certainly has its appeal, I think I still prefer bumping across the savanna driving a 30 year old land rover in chase of the perfect sunset vista.

Here are a few pictures from the Ark. Note, I did have to get the nice shot of the Ark from the promotional website. We never got good enough weather to take the same shot.

The only picture that might need explaining is of Kayla standing in the wildlife bunker, a stone fort for on the ground, super close wildlife viewing. Pretty awesome!





Final Mpala Wrap-up

Hello Everyone,

I’m back in the states, and I apologize that it’s been a while since my last posting. Shortly after that entry we were joined at Mpala by 15 undergraduates from the University of Michigan, two professors, and their families. Kayla, Walker and I moved with the students to another location without power, let alone internet, and our time became completely consumed by the day to day logistical planning of making a field course happen. Let me fill you in a bit on the goings on.

The plan for August was to help our professors introduce these 15 undergraduates to the many ins and outs of being a field researcher in East Africa. The students were participating in a course described enigmatically as “Conservation and Sustainability Challenges in East Africa” which if you think of it can pertain to almost anything you could think of to study. This flexibility turned out to be perfect because we had a gloriously diverse array of students majoring in everything from film to engineering to economics to judaic studies, all with a common interest in the environment.

Our goal really was to give them some hands on experience with the kinds of work we’d been doing and give them a really broad sense of research currently happening at Mpala and opportunities for other research that could be happening in the future. Our major criteria for success was that we delivered all 15 students safely to the Nairobi airport at the end of the month, along the way I think they had a bit of fun and learned quite a lot – bonus!

Here’s a look at where we were living. Instead of the main research facility we stayed at “River Camp,” A tented camp about a 10 minute drive from the primary research station and nestled right up next to a beautiful river, the Uaso Nyiro. We had beautiful canvas tents all overlooking the river, we went to sleep each night with the babble of the water and the (pleasantly) distant whoop of the hyena.

As you can see, I had a front porch, a lantern, and if you can look really closely a double bed with a padded velvet, tigerprint headboard… classy…Here’s proof… the director was really embarrassed when I mentioned it to her…

she had asked the staff to have it taken away but I think they thought it was funny too. Unfortunately I suspect I was the last to ever sleep in that bed, at least at Mpala.

Here’s a picture of our common areas: the dining tent/classroom and a fantastic fire pit which was an amazing spot to just sit, talk and enjoy a campfire late at night.

Among the different class activities I took the students out one day to get a good look at the ants living on the acacia trees that I was working on. Our goal was to investigate the different levels of aggression each of the four species of ant displayed in response to different stimuli simulating herbivory but an elephant. We had a lot of fun shaking trees and counting ants. Or at least, I had fun watching the students shake trees and count ants.

Other highlights were hiking to the top of Mukenya, the highest point at Mpala. That’s where the title picture was taken, but don’t worry, the beard is gone now! We saw some amazing animals with the undergraduates too: we all saw a lion together and several of them went out on a single night drive and saw both a pair of lions, a leopard and a bunch of hyena! Unbelievable! It was impossible to really tell them how lucky they had been. Here are a few other wildlife photos.

All in all the course was a fantastic experience. It very much whet my appetite for more teaching in the future. It’s become very much a dream of mine to organize and lead a class like this myself… perhaps at Mpala one day.

We left the research center with mixed feelings. I was both extremely excited to get home, see friends and get a bit of a respite from all of the hard work field work and class logistics had taken, but at the same time I knew I was very much going to miss this beautiful place. I have a feeling I’ll be back before too too long though…




While at Baboon cliffs (see previous post for silly pictures of me watching the sunset) we found a snake that had been fairly well eaten by a bird. The bird was gone but the snake was still pretty intact (viscera were missing but the head and body scales were actually in good shape) so we decided to bring it home with us to try to identify. Lucky we did, it ended up being a new species for Mpala! This is a boomslang carcass, as near as we can tell. Boomslangs are pretty famously venomous in South and East Africa. While wikipedia says they aren’t well known for causing human death they’re very well respected/feared here as one of the particularly dangerous venomous snakes. I’m going to have to ask around about this apparent discrepancy. Nonetheless this is a pretty cool arboreal snake with a famous name and a serious reputation. Don’t worry, I don’t anticipate running into any poking around in my trees. Apparently they don’t like the ants hanging out in my acacias. Whew!

New (old) car!

So, Walker and Kayla are off to live in a nearby community for the next week or 10 days. Their adventures will be sufficiently harrowing (at the very least two deep river crossings in the car) that they decided to take “baby” and I’m now renting a new Land Rover. If any of you are land rover enthusiasts and can tell me what year this car was made I’d love to hear. My guess is that it’s pushing 35!

Whatever this car misses in terms of creature comfort (crazy seats, bad shocks, holes in the roof) or safety (No power steering and I don’t think any of the seat belts work) it certainly makes up for in character. For some reason the driver’s seat is tiny, even all the way back the steering wheel hits me mid-thigh, and this is my first experience with pump brakes – Yikes! The first time heading down a steep hill and having the brakes hit the back of the foot-well was quite a heart stopper.

On the upside though it’s a convertible! That turns out to be a huge upside outweighing all of those other ‘endearing quirks.’ I took it out for its first game drive on Sunday and we took off the top to get a bit of air and see the animals around us. Yipee! It was fantastic.

We made somewhat of an interesting discovery on the game drive though… To make driving somewhat more interesting, the speedometer is on the “broken list” in the car. As the gas gauge is affixed right next to it in the dash at a rakish angle, and the needle was firmly set below “E” (who loans a car with no gas in the tank?) I assumed it too was among the instruments that had been consumed by old age. It turns out the gas gauge actually does work… a fact we discovered as we sputtered to a stop deep in the Black Cotton. We were rescued after an hour or so… now I’m going to be a bit more mindful of the gas gauge in the future.

Here’s a quick glimpse inside of the cockpit. Note the red and yellow lollypops. Not quite sure what they do but they look tempting… Among my favorites though is the gas pedal – a bent piece of metal and the light switches that evoke an airplane (or space shuttle?).


Tanglefoot Craziness

I’m really sorry I don’t have a picture to go along with this day and a half’s fiasco! There’s no way I could have though, my hands were such a mess I’d have completely destroyed my camera.

So, the next step in the insect research is to get a sense of the flying insects that can be found around the glades. These’ll be the primary food for my lizards I think so I’m anxious to get a sense of what’s out there. Sampling flying insects is tough… there are lots of methods (I’d be happy to send you a dozen papers on the topic) but my first effort is going to be to use sticky traps.

The idea is to hang very sticky notecards that will trap any insect that happens to bump into them. The stickiness comes from a product called Tanglefoot. I have no idea what combination of chemicals they used but this is the stickiest, gooiest, thickest goop I’ve ever come across. It’s like pine tree sap and honey and molasses all in one. I spread it over these notecards, getting it all over me as well. I seriously doubt if I’ll ever be able to get it out of my pants. It’s really impressively sticky!

Funny though, it has a beautiful caramel color – very much like some kind of candy. It made me think… if this biologist thing doesn’t work out then perhaps a dessert shop… I think I’ll have to invent “Tangletooth Toffee.”