Of Honey Collectors and Elephant Trails
by Christy Ihlo -- June 15th, 2012
Buddy leaned against the doorframe and casually asked me, “You want to ride along in the truck this afternoon? We’re doing an anti-poaching patrol with the visiting WCS game scouts.” “Absolutely!” And I hurriedly collected my things, dumped them rather unceremoniously into my room and headed for the truck. We started heading towards the village, the wind whipping through my hair. The ride was a bit like a roller coaster – but for real (and without the loops of course)! The windshield was down and the top was off. We rumbled along the dirt path guided by Buddy’s expert driving skills on these roads. We wound our way south of Loibor Siret into an area I had yet to see. I kept my eyes peeled for wildlife and didn’t have to wait long – we got cut off by three ostriches! They ran right in front of the truck. You don’t really realize how big they are until they are right in front of you. One of the guys told a story about riding a motorcycle on these roads at 120 km/hr and being outpaced by an ostrich – they can run that fast! We stopped at a water hole and I took the opportunity to avail myself of the local ladies room (i.e. bush, or in this case, termite mound to duck behind).
Once we started again, we realized we picked up a hitchhiker at some point– a really unique looking praying mantis. It was very ornate…never seen anything quite like it. We passed by giraffe, kudu, impala, dik diks, and even a few dwarf mongoose. Some of the trees had blue and black flags hanging from them. Buddy explained that those contain a tsetse fly attractant and are supposed to render them sterile. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be working. Buddy then decided to check out the condition of some of the waterholes (mostly all dry, attesting to the lack of rain this year) and we stumbled upon two honey collectors with the day’s bounty. Some of the guys hopped out and Buddy handed me a piece of freshly collected honeycomb, dripping with syrupy goodness. They were collecting from two different bees – big bees and small bees (I don’t know the species, but that is how they are described here). I never thought honey could taste that different! The honey from the big bees was sweeter, and smoky from the fires they used to smoke the bees out. The honey from the little bees however, was much more tangy, almost fermented in taste. They joined us in the truck and we drove to their camp – a circle of thorny vines surrounding a partially fallen tree. They had been collecting for about ten days and had several five gallon buckets to take into the village. We loaded the buckets onto the truck, I unloaded the hitchhiking praying mantis onto a bush, and we continued onward, planning to drop them off in the subvillage of Kangala. At this point, we were really out in the middle of nowhere. We passed another group of giraffes who just stared as we passed by and a family of vervets playing in a tree (Vervets are a type of primate – woo hoo! My second primate sighting!) As we drove along, Buddy mentioned that the “road” we were following was really an old elephant trail through the brush. I was a little enamored to think we were traversing the same ground that the great pachyderms pounded upon not long ago! We continued on through the bush, I thought, towards Kangala, until I realized some of the chatter around me was rather lively discussion on the appropriate direction of travel. Hazard of driving without roads I suppose! Buddy was about to turn around when he rather abruptly stopped and jumped out of the truck, inspecting a tire that had indeed gone flat. No worries though! The guys jumped out and changed the tire in no time really. They decided on a direction and Buddy headed down another elephant trail through the bush. This one however, was a little less enchanting. It was not quite as clear as the other and we all plastered ourselves as low as we could to avoid tree limbs, including Buddy! “What’s the big deal?” you may be thinking. “I’ve been slapped around by a few trees before…it’s not that bad!” Well, I submit that you probably have not been slapped around by African trees. African trees are angry trees – full of spines and spikes and thorns and needles and claws. Even seemingly benign branches whack you in the ribcage when you’re not looking (probably I have a mark from that one!). We all breathed a collective sigh of relief as we emerged onto a more formal road. The light was fading fast and the stars began to twinkle as we rumbled on the final leg of our journey. We dropped off the honey collectors at their boma (with significantly less honey in tow I might add) and finally headed towards Noloholo under a blanket of stars and Milky Way swirls. I listened to the chatter of Swahili around me, recognizing a word here and there, thinking of all the sights I had seen, and wondering just what tomorrow will bring.