“So geographers in Afric-maps,
With savage pictures fill their gaps,
And o’er uninhabitable downs,
Place elephants for want of towns.”
The gameparks in Kenya are grand. I enjoyed several of them while visiting dear friends stationed in Nairobi. It was wonderful to have use of a vehicle and driver thanks to them. However I wasn’t there long enough to develop many stories. There was one that is worthy of note. Nairobi National Park is just seven kilometers from the city. You can see skyscrapers. They had to put up a fence on the city side. Surprisingly it has a wide variety of animals, some like chetahs I had not seen in West Africa. It is a beautiful thing to watch a chetah run. I happened to be in Nairobi at the time of the annual animal census in which my friend Paul and a friend of his, both Foreign Service Officers, regularly participated. They invited me to go along, but the lady who ran the thing was a class conscious Brit. There were still colonial remnants in Kenya and apparently the gamepark census was one of the them. The participants had to be vetted by her. Paul solved this problem by introducing me as Doctor Branson. “Yes, yes, delighted to have you aboard Dr. Branson.” It was a fun day. No doubt the gameparks of East Africa were where to go for a tourist in those days. They had more animals and were far better organized. However the rough and tumble gameparks of West Africa, where I had the great fortune to spend significant time, had their own charms. I mean who gets the chance to live in a gamepark for months on end, an obscure little park to be sure, but quite beautiful in its way. There was an unpolished beauty in those less traveled environs.
My first visit to a gamepark occurred before I was officially a Peace Corps Volunteer. Peace Corps has a trick. They don’t count training or vacations as time served. They put me on a plane to Africa in July, 1975 and officially mustered me out in December of 1978. They credited me with three years of service. Not that I’m complaining, it was a great experience. Just before my fellow wells project recruits and I finished our on-the-job training, we took a trip to southern Chad, the city of Sarh, to a small project spin off where one or two of us would be posted. Manda gamepark is just north of Sarh and on the main road. We decided to camp out there and go into Sarh the next day. In the park they had a raised platform for such purposes. Fortunately the park didn’t have any big cats. We arrived just before dusk and barely had time to set up camp before dark. Extremely excited, when the night animal sounds started up a strange feyness overcame us. We grabbed flashlights and ran out into the elephant grass looking for animals. The park had elephants, hippos, buffalo, and poisonous snakes, among others, stumbling upon any of which could be fatal. Hippos come out of the river at night to graze and are particularly dangerous. Perhaps God does look after fools or the noise we made drove everything away, anyway we didn’t find anything. The next day herds of antelope leaped the road in front of us as we drove around the park, and a buffalo even gave the door of one of our two Land Rovers a head thump. Very satisfying that.
As a PCV my gamepark experience was limited to a visit or two to Manda when I was stationed in Sarh for some months. However while drilling wells in the north, on rare occasions we would run across gazelles, warthogs, jackals, and majestic roan antelopes (antelope cheval in French), among others. A few wild animals like monkeys and lizards were ubiquitous. Interestingly our Chadian counterparts used one word “laham” (Chadian Arabic for meat) to describe any edible animal we encountered. Even though our counterparts save one were not Muslim, a few of the Muslim dietary restrictions had become more or less generalized in Chad, with the notable exception of pork which they ate with gusto. They refused to eat carrion eaters like shellfish, not that dry Chad had a lot of shellfish, and animals that had hands like monkeys or even appendages that vaguely resembled hands. One of the night guards at the Peace Corps Office did a favor for an Air France pilot. The pilot repaid him with a bucket of shrimp, a rare and expensive treat in Chad. The guard approached me with bucket in hand and explained that he hadn’t wanted to hurt the pilot’s feelings, but he couldn’t possibly eat those creepy little things. He asked me rather doubtfully if nasaras (white people) really ate them. I recalled the old line about it being a brave man who first ate an oyster. In my best Lewis Carroll Walrus voice, I replied: “Yes, yes, indeed we do, as disgusting as that may seem. My good man, I will gladly take them off your hands. I mean what are friends for?”
In the spring of 1979 everything changed for me. While working on contract for USAID Chad civil disturbances broke out. My experiences in Chad are covered elsewhere. After a few weeks, with the airport closed and bridges blocked, I was assigned to northern Cameroon to provide logistical support to the US Embassy in N’Djamena, chiefly transportation of personnel. My expenses were covered generously. I could have stayed anywhere I wanted between Maroua and the Cameroonian border directly across the Chari River from N’Djamena. There were three nice hotels in Maroua and one at Waza, the big gamepark between Maroua and N’Djamena. Over a period of roughly five months I tried them all out from time to time. I enjoyed the amenities they had to offer, hot showers, AC, excellent meals. However after years of simple food as a PCV, I appeciated rich French restaurant cuisine more as a sometime thing, not everyday fare. From my visits to France, probably the average Frenchman feels the same way. They don’t eat like that everyday either.
For the most part I chose to stay in Kalamaloue National Park, located just ten or so kilometers from N’Djamena. As a consequence I ate a lot of sardines and crackers, but I could always buy baguettes and basic supplies in nearby Kousseri. The park had one round hut with no electricity and only cold water that the park guards would pump up to barrels on a tower. Actually when the sun had been shining on the barrels all day late afternoon showers weren’t that bad, but morning ones were best avoided. Because I paid my modest fees in cash and stayed so long, I was their cash cow and they treated me like royalty, useful since they weren’t about to question my iffy credentials. The park was so strapped for funds that the guards were issued only three bullets each annually and had to strictly account for them. Kalamaloue was a tiny park as these things go. I’m not sure of the exact measurements, but having walked it I would estimate the size at thirteen thousand acres give or take, which is extremely small by African standards.
My hut had windows without screens or glass, just wooden shutters that you could prop open. The beds had mosquito nets. The hut sat on the only hill in the park and looked out over a plain. I suspected that the hill’s origin was not natural, most probably the result of successive habitation. Not far to one side was a steep decline to a water hole where a large crocodile lived. He would often crawl out on a sandbar to sun with his mouth gaping open. I nicknamed him Walter. We were friends. We played games. I would walk around the top of his hole, and he would sink down with just his eyes showing and stalk me, hoping I would come down for a drink. Toward sunset with the heat retreating somewhat, I would pull out the metal table and chair and sit there looking out over that plain at gazelles, kob antelope, waterbuck, jackals, warthogs, and whatever unusual treat that would choose to show itself that day. As a kid I was a big fan of the TV show Ramar of The Jungle, a show way too politically incorrect to ever be shown again except on youtube. OK I didn’t get to live in a neat treehouse like they did, but this was about as close to a childhood fantasy as it gets. An hour or so before dusk the park’s three guards would go home, leaving just me and the animals. Usually I could manage a glass of wine or perhaps Ricard as the sun drifted downward. Those were moments of profound contentment.
Sometimes for a few days here and there I would share my hut with Joel, a PCV assigned to the gameparks in northern Cameroon. He worked alone, but when I was available I would help out with various projects. This was before Caddy Shack, but anyone who’d met him after seeing that movie would have compared him to the Bill Murray character, the main difference being that Joel wasn’t mentally slow. He had been a grunt in Vietnam and bore the scars. He was awkward socially and half deaf. He was taciturn at times and talked incessantly at others with the loud voice of the hearing impaired. He was best taken in small doses, but he was a really good guy. I liked him.
Joel asked me to walk the park with him while he did an animal inventory. We were unarmed, but Kalamaloue wasn’t supposed to have any of the more dangerous mammals except for the hippos from the river, and they stayed in or near the water during the day. Nevertheless there were dangers on foot, snakes, feral dogs, and such, and it was safer with two people. We walked systematically the grid Joel had developed. At one point we heard frenzied yapping and approached a jackal raising hell at a big bush. We walked around the other side and came face to face with a lion. That was a come to Jesus moment. He was an old male and from his belly it looked like he had just eaten. Lucky us. We backed away slowly. Another time Joel was in the park when a troop of elephants migrated through, a ragtag troop, a mere remnant of the vast numbers of bygone times. Somehow Joel talked me into climbing trees along the likely trails and dropping paint on elephant butts as they passed below. He wanted to document their migration. That lasted until a female became annoyed and made a mock charge toward my tree. At my insistence we called it a day.
I was blessed to be in Kalamaloue during the summer rainy season and able to help Joel with bird counts. Fortunately that could be done from my vehicle. I was pretty good at identifying birds, but Joel was way above my class. We would come across temporary ponds that were chock full of all kinds of birds, some resident but most migratory — spoonbills, crowned cranes, sacred ibis, four or five different duck species, kingfishers, and marabou storks standing like a row of undertakers. Maybe en route we would watch an Abyssinian roller with its electric colors, in tumbling flight one of the most beautiful birds in the world, or possibly spy a majestic African fish eagle. The rainy season in off the beaten path Kalamaloue was one of nature’s great secrets, a once in a lifetime birder’s paradise.
One night by myself at Kalamaloue, sleeping with the shutters propped open, I heard some noise. I picked up my powerful flashlight and illuminated a civet in my hut. Now a civet is about the size of a very large domestic cat or a small raccoon, which it kind of resembles although it is not related. The poor thing panicked and began running around the perimeter of the round hut, which included jumping on my bed and stomach and bringing down my mosquito net. I was afraid to make a sudden move for risk of getting bitten. Rabies shots were no fun in those days. The civet made three round trips total, landing on my belly on every lap. Eventually I gathered my wits about me and turned off the flashlight. Then the critter lost no time figuring out where the exit was and departing out the open window.