Anne Hilborn

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Fieldwork 2014

Mud and Holes.





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.  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.  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.



March 21, 2014

Getting stuck

A couple of weeks ago I got my first puncture.  It happened in a fairly good place, on a dry track, on my way back to the house.  It took me quite a while to change the tire, but I got it done.  The next day I took the flat tire to the garage to get fixed.  I planned to drop it off and pick it up the next day when it was fixed.  However when I was walking away the guy called me back.  He had poured water over the tire to find the leak.  He showed me the 5 or 6 small leaks in the top of the tire, and proclaimed that the tubeless tire was done, utterly done.  This left me with only one spare tire.  However I kept the dead tire on the back of car.  I did occasionally wonder why I didn’t take it off of the car, but assumed it was just because I was lazy.  However I got my answer a couple of days ago as I was driving across country from Zebra kopjes to Soit Le Montonyi.  I hit a massive hole, and as what usually happened, the front tire bounced through on momentum, but when the back tire fell in, the car tilted and stuck.  Sighing I got out and surveyed the situation.  The back left wheel hung in the air in a very large hole.  Theoretically this is a easy situation to get out of.  You jack up the car, put something in the hole to support the tire, lower the car, and drive off.  I had two pieces of wood in the back of the car, 2 sandladders bolted to the roof rack and 2  spare tires.  A working jack and a shovel.  Pretty well prepared.  I jacked up the car and with rather misguided optimism, slipped the smaller piece of wood under the tire, in hopes that would be enough.  I was started letting the jack down when I realized I had made two mistakes.  The first was not putting a rock underneath the front tire and the second jacking off the body of the car and not the tire holders.  This meant that when I jacked up the back of the car, the car tilted forward a little bit.  This put the jack at an angle where the body of the jack was tight up against the back door.  As the car was lowered down, the top of the jack scraped up the door.  Scraped paint didn’t bother me too much, but the jack was heading towards the handle of the door, and if I kept lowering the car, it would hit the handle and tear it off.   Hmmm.  I tried to think if there was something I could wedge between the jack and the door to protect the handle.  But there was no space to wedge anything in between.  So the only other thing to do was the put enough stuff underneath the tire to lift it up enough so that I wouldn’t have to lower the car so much before it could take its own weight.  I took the spare tire off the car and rolled it down the hole.   Cleverly I hadn’t removed the other piece of wood and the shovel from under the sleeping platform before jacking up the car.  Which meant that they were uttterly out of reach, as I was unable to open the back door, it being firmly held shut by the jack.  Cursing myself, I got down a sandladder and wedged it under the car’s tire.  With the spare tire, sandladder and the piece of wood  in the hole, I decided to try driving out.   Holding my breath, I lowered the car, and just as the jack got to the handle, the car carried its own weight and the jack dropped out.  With a exhalation of relief I got into the car and tried to drive out without success.  I put it into low range, and with a roar the car jerked out of the hole.  Thank God.  Now I needed to put everything back, which took a while.  The whole area was covered in bushes with tiny little thorns, and my legs were thoroughly scratched to hell from scrabbling around.  The jack had done a number on the back door, the handle no longer worked, and the door wouldn’t stay closed.  I had to tie a piece of rope from the inner handle of the back door to the handle above one of the passenger door to keep it shut.  Sweaty, tired and irritated, I drove directly to the nearest track and trundled home.  So that is why I carry theoretically useless crap in the back of the car, you never know when you have to stick it down a hole.  Two days later I am still tweezing thorns out of my legs.



Getting very stuck in 2009

Sandladders come into play.

Tying the back door shut

Yep, Laura and I  needed rescuing that time.

Well the jack has shagged the back  door  quite throughly.

I am sure one piece of wood will do the trick.

That doesn't look too bad...

Oh wait, this hole is big enough to swallow my spare tire.

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