Anne Hilborn

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In my blog I ramble on about various aspects of cheetahs and doing fieldwork that interest me. There is the occasional tangent about academia, but mostly it is cheetah pictures.


By Anne Hilborn, Apr 17 2016 08:22PM

March 2014

Rain is the source of life. For 7 months of the year the Serengeti is dry, brown, dusty, the animals look pinched and bony, and we worry about the whether 10,000L of rain water will see us through to the next rains. Two of the years I have been here, the rains didn’t come until February, and it got desperate for everyone. Rain at the end of the dry season ranks up there with bacon as one of the world’s magical smells. With rain comes green grass, and with green grass comes the migration. 1-2 million wildebeest, zebra, and gazelles head out to the short grass plains to have their young. The place springs into life. Suddenly there are flowers and careening dung beetles everywhere. Parts of the Serengeti look like paradise on earth. For my first 2 years here, I rejoiced with everyone else in the rains. Then came the rainy season of 2006-2007. Starting in December it rained and rained. Soils became saturated, roads became churned up mud holes, gulleys became impossible to cross, and getting around became much more difficult. The soils vary a lot in Serengeti. The hard pan of the short grass plains in the south and east of the park make for easy driving and little chance of getting stuck. However the soft sucking soils of the woodlands, long, and medium grass plains are a nightmare when wet. In the wet season most of the cheetahs are on the short grass plains. However Seronera is surrounded by soft soil, and one needs to get from there to and from the short grass plains. Every day the calculation of looking for cheetahs was very much complicated by considerations of where I could and couldn’t drive, and how to cross the gulleys to get to where I needed to go. Instead of the mornings being filled with the possibility of finding lots of cheetahs, they were filled with white knuckle driving through sloppy mud, filled with desperate prayers that I wouldn’t grind the bottom of the car against the high point of an erosion gulley masquerading as a road, that I wouldn’t hit a huge hole and lose precious momentum when powering through a vast expanse of soaked soil, or that I wouldn’t slide into a muddy ditch. All of this might have made for fun added adventure, but the killer was that I wasn’t finding cheetahs. The places I could go were not the places they wanted to be. Months went by without me making my quota. The last half of every month was an increasingly desperate search for unseen cheetahs, and attempts to go to new places in hopes they would be there. Instead I got stuck.

Getting stuck in 2011

And stuck again. Getting unstuck involves a lot of jacking up the car, a lot of groveling and digging in mud, and A LOT of wood. Wood to put under the jack so it doesn’t sink into the mud. Wood to put under each tire to give them traction. Wood to fill the huge hole your tires are in to lift the body of the car off of the ground. It is exhausting dirty work, and every time I put my whole weight on the lever to jack the car up I remembered stories of the handle flying off and breaking jaws. When I stuck my whole upper body under the car to dig out the differential, I heard my boss’s words about cars falling off of jacks and crushing people. Sometimes I managed to get myself out, and sometimes I had to call for help. While people are willing to help, it is a pain and time consuming, and there was always the possibility I’d get stuck somewhere out of radio and cell phone range. All in all, that wet season has given me a deep wariness of mud.

Laura Simpson jacks up the car to try to get us unstuck, 2011

Thus whenever I see or hear rain, I don’t automatically rejoice, instead I get nervous about the conditions of the roads. For the first 10 days I was here, it hadn’t rained much and things were getting dusty. However the third week of February, I was down at Ndutu at the southern edge of the park. Ndutu is a magical land of cheetahs, wildebeest, and a lodge I can stay at that has showers, cold drinks, and pork chops. It had locally rained quite a bit during the day, which turned the road into a slalom, and I’d resurrected long unused mud driving skills (keep it in second gear, gun it through the really wet bits, don’t over compensate with steering when you spin out, and try to avoid the trees). That night when the heavens opened and it rained 86 mm, despite being in a dry comfy bed with a belly full of lamb chops, I was awake with the familiar knot in the stomach, wondering about the state of the road across the plains. My car has a lot of great features, but at the moment mud readiness is not one of them. While I have a working jack (always helpful) all I have to put under the tires are 2 measly sand ladders. I scoured cheetah house for boards, but not one could I find. This lack of preparedness makes me very nervous. There are two roads out of Ndutu. One heads northish to Naabi Gate which is the official entry to Serengeti. The other road heads south towards the NCA. Both meet up with the main road, but if you are heading to Naabi, the southern route adds about 30 km. However the southern road is on hard pan for most of the way, while I have learned that the northern road is a treacherous combination of muddy ruts that are really hard to get out of, and sudden massive hyena holes. Some of the most stressful driving of my life has been on that road in sloppy mud. Deciding that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, I headed home via the southern route, making a trip that usually takes an hour and 45 minutes over 3 hours long. But I didn’t get stuck.

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