Monday, 14 July 2014

THE YEAR OF EL NIÑO

The rains got us by surprise as they were not due until mid march, but again it was a welcome sign to both wildlife and to the barren land. The Park was completely dry and the only green leaf was not fit for consumption by animal, insect or bird. 

The wells of Roka on the Tiva River were dry and every living, water drinking animal was concentrated on the Kijito wind pump near the ranger post in Ndiandasa. We had a full platoon of rangers stationed here who patrolled the Tiva River all the way to the Kokani Bridge on the Garsen/Hola road. 

They had fly camps on the Umbi and Mkomwe hills. They also maintained two-man reporting posts in the Orma community centers of Kone and Assa. The Gallana River which was 50 miles south of the Tiva was at its lowest and water was below the surface at some sandy stretches. The most vulnerable within the wildlife species were the old and the young, and they died every day on the long, lonely paths between feeds and water.

It had not rained for many months in Tsavo such that the once yellow grasses had turned brown, then black before they finally withered and were reduced to powder. The nights were cold but we dreaded day break for heat of the day was unbearable to all living things. It was therefore a relief to us all when those clouds gathered, first in slow lazy circles but later into storms which blew in winds preceding the torrential rains. It rained for four days non stop and we were caught off guard. We were not prepared as the Gallana River soared to levels never witnessed before.

The seasonal Tiva River extended its width by ten folds and the Ndiandasa patrol base was completely submerged. The quick thinking of an NCO saved the lives of twenty rangers stationed at the camp by sounding a stand -to alert in the middle of the second night and ordering everybody to vacate camp and to cross the Tiva River while they could. They would have been swept away if they had waited for sunrise. They had no vehicle but they managed to walk for 45 miles to their platoon HQ situated in Ithumba. It took them two horrifying days in the relentless rain and the flooded streams on their path.

The northern part of Tsavo East was a wild frontier even to us rangers but we  were always prepared for rainy seasons by stocking our supplies such as food stuffs , fuel for both planes and vehicles and other necessities at all patrol bases in anticipation of floods, but this time we were caught napping and totally unprepared . Our only luck was that it was month-end and most rangers were on pay parade in Voi. There was only one crossing on the Galana River near Luggards falls which was treacherous during the rainy season and the few who had tried to cross it never lived to tell their tales. Six of our rangers who refused to listen to reason and attempted to cross the raging flow in the late 90s have never been found to date and have since been declared missing in action. The only other route to these parts was via Kibwezi through the Kitui road. A very long route but the most sensible alternative.

I was the security warden for the Tsavo East National Park and Daniel Woodley was the Park pilot and we took off from Voi airstrip seven days after the onset of the rains, first to try to establish communication with field teams who have been off air since the on set of the rains, and secondly to asses the extent of damage on infrastructure. We were up for a very short period before it started raining again but what we saw deepened our frustrations though we managed to raise Kone and the gallana ranch units who reported that they had flat radio batteries due to lack of sunshine on their solar chargers. We managed to land safely in Voi but we remained anchored for a whole agonizing week full of relentless rain.

We were in a hopeless situation and our greatest frustration was that we were totally cut off from ranger bases in the volatile north and the fact that we did not know how they were fairing on. The pilot and i would try to be airborne every time it stopped raining but we would almost all the time turn back to land due to storms. We got a break one day where we flew for a whole hour uninterrupted and we made it to Mfupa ya ndovu, Koito , up to Huri plains then south through Emusaya, grenade valley and into the rhino ranges of Ashaka , Punda milia and the Sobo rock before we sped down to the safety of Voi air strip.

That evening we held an 'O' group with the other security officers and we decided that we had no other open course left to us but to use the Cessna 180 plane to patrol and take care of the protected area. A new 11 kilogram machine gun had previously been introduced to the service but we were shy in using it due to its weight and the ugly fact that the gun was prone to stoppages. We had noticed this set back when the gun was first introduced to us in Manyani during firing tests, but we were silenced by our senior officers who informed us that we had no option of refusing to take the weapon and the fact that the HQ had already bought it.

It was an MG3, chain fed with detachable barrels, a very heavy monster, and the biggest challenge was the fact that we were expected to carry it along as a section support weapon, and the truth that it was shoved down our unwilling throats made it unpopular to the field units. We had to tag along an extra barrel simply because they turned red hot during successive firing such that we had to change them every time one gave the gun a continuous squeeze on the trigger. This was an extra and unacceptable setback that we had to contend with but in time we learned that we could save the barrel from jamming if we gave the trigger short busts of up to ten rounds each. This was the weapon we decided to take along in our plane during patrols and it proved very useful.


Daniel the pilot would have the door removed on the right hand side of the 180 Cessna plane, and I was strapped to the back seat behind him holding the machine gun facing the open door. We attached a cord to the butt and secured it to the seat and the tripods were also connected to the foot step outside the plane. The pilot would then fly till he sees cattle herds or any suspicious activity where he would circle and then he would advice me if I was needed to release a volley. Our main aim was to warn the herders and potential poachers that though foot patrols were reduced to minimal due to flooded rivers, we were still in control and that the plane was just as good as a section patrol. This strategy worked very well for us in that we did not find any poached elephant for the entire El Nino period which was over six months.

One day, I Lost grip of the gun during flight and it would have fallen off the plane if it were not for the attachment on the butt. It was routine that every evening we met all Park officers at the officers Mess to brief them on the days patrol and to plan for the next day. This always translates to beer drinking. That particular evening we over did the ritual such that we woke with a monster sized hangover and throbbing headache.

We took off and headed north as planned and I started shooting as signaled by the serpent holding the controls only that this time my mind and all my reflexes were kind of slow and I completely forgot to give the gun short busts as always and this led to a stoppage. I shouted to the pilot over the engine noise to level the plane so that I could clear the stoppage but the crazy Mzungu kept on circling and my already sleeping mind went into a spin and luckily my unstable mid section gave in to pressure and I released its hot contents through the open door only to be blown right back into the plane. 

The pilot was not aware of the drama behind him until the fumes of stale undigested beer hit him and that forced him to level off before turning to look at my convulsing body leaning over the open door and the machine gun swinging outside the plane, hanging by the single Manila cord attached to the rear seat. It was a sorry sight, a horrifying episode that the crazy pilot who happened to be the son of the legendary Bill Woodley would continue to describe in different versions to every Tom and listening Mary every time he came to the Mess. It took me some minutes to come back to the world of the living and I did not have strength to work on the weapon, but I dragged it into the plane and signaled for the home run. I could hear the dammed pilot chuckling but for the first time since we met some few years earlier, he did not ask questions and we flew without talking till we landed in Voi.

The El Niño lasted a record six months, but it helped change the Tsavo vegetation. We saw a rebirth of some indigenous shrubs which had completely disappeared. We in the security management team devised great ideas back then on wildlife protection such as the formation of the camel patrol team who managed to reach the Orma villages of Waldena , inyali and Kalalani which were deep in the Tana River wilderness and which were the breeding grounds for the elephant poachers of northern Tsavo. This helped to completely stop elephant poaching in the Tsavos. We learned to bond well with our troops during the tough months and the daily evening 'o' group brought us officers closer together.
The months I spent with Capt Dan Woodley ignited in me a burning desire and interest to fly. Finally in 1998 I enrolled at the CMC flying school in Wilson Airport and attained a Private Pilot License (PPL). 


1 comment:

  1. Great memories indeed......I cant wait to hear your passion of flying grew inside you until you became one of the finest Kenya wildlife Pilots of the times!Keep them coming sir! I read all your memories!

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