Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Ovens! (and a rare find)

The solar ovens are finished!  We spent all morning working on them (and got a few cuts and sunburns in the process), but we finally got them up and working.  “Jua kali” is an adjective in Swahili which translates literally as “hot sun”; there’s no great translation for its actual meaning in English, but basically it describes something that’s improvised or jerry-rigged and highly sketchy yet functional (often made by people working under the ‘hot sun’).  Our ovens are very jua kali.  From the flimsy tin-foil/duct tape/plywood top to the messily caulked seal on the glass to the numerous bent nails in the base to the poorly fitting input and exhaust pipes, the ovens show a lot of character, but they are done and that is exciting.


To celebrate our miraculous feat of engineering we went out on an afternoon game drive.  All the normal characters were there (impala, dik-dik, some giraffes, and even a brief glimpse of a hyena) but the really exciting sight we caught on our way back, when Josephine spotted a nest hidden behind a bush about twenty feet from the road.  We jumped out of the car to take a look, and found…  a Grevy’s Zebra egg! 


Grevy’s are a rare zebra species found only in the semi-arid savannah environment of the Laikipia plateau.  While platypuses and echidna are thought to have always laid eggs, Grevy’s are the only known example in the mammal order of a species undergoing eutherian regression (occasionally switching from live birth to egg laying).  The switch is usually triggered by extreme environmental conditions (such as the current drought) when resources are so scarce that pregnant mares can’t afford to carry foals to term.  Laying eggs frees the mothers to migrate farther in search of food for themselves and their (soon to be hatched) young.  There’s a really great description (as well as many cute baby zebra pictures) here.  Check it out!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Adventures in Engineering

Things are moving along quite quickly here in Kenya – so quickly in fact that I realize we’re close to ending our third course and I have yet to write one word about it.  This is partly not my fault:  this course, entitled “Global Technology”, ended up being rather short due to various time constraints – in total we’re spending only 15 days – a bit over 2 weeks.  This also means that each of those days needs to be jam-packed with lectures, labs readings and assignments, so it’s been quite busy.

Our lecture / reading material has spanned the range from talking about the IMF and World Bank and how they affect development, to discussing the technical specifications, cultural acceptance, financial limits and practical implementation of specific technologies (clay-based water filters, solar ovens, foam-panel housing, solar panels, etc.), to examining the important physical properties of materials and how and why these materials fracture (and what can be done to prevent it).

However the large majority of our days are not spent in the classroom, but outside in the “lab”.  To ground all of the theoretical discussions (and have a bit of fun), we’ve been working on some small-scale, handmade, very practical projects (cue photos).

For our first project we took a mixture of two different clay-based soils from Mpala, mixed it with gathered straw, and molded and dried bricks with different straw percentages.  We’re now testing the bricks for thermal insulation and heat storage properties to determine which would make the best building material for low-cost housing.

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Our second project involved heat treating bamboo and designing, machining, and wiring our own lamps:

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In addition to the passive solar techniques we explored with the mud bricks, we also did some observations/calculations/small experiments with solar panels, including checking out some of Mpala’s own arrays:

IMG_2318Our most delicious experiment to date involved using a solar drier built by an engineer here named John (who used to work for Cascade Designs and was the principal designer of this).  The oven was for drying grass/dung samples for researchers, but we decided to check out its effects on mangos, bananas, papayas, and tomatoes:

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The results were so good that we decided to take up solar driers/ovens as our final project.  We went to Nanyuki today to buy all of the materials, and spent 5 hours this afternoon working to put it all together using hammers, nails, saws, screws, chisels, planes, files, and a power drill (our only power tool).  They’re not quite done yet, but we should finish them tomorrow!  When we do we’ll start performing experiments to determine how various factors affect temperature variations and drying effectiveness, all of which will involve drying and eating more fruit ;) (I can’t wait…).

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Point Lenana, Squashed Banana

Photos here & here

Saturday morning Josephine and I caught a ride to Nanyuki with our hiking boots on, our sleeping bags packed, and our spirits high. For me the excitement was two-fold – climbing Mt. Kenya, the second highest mountain in Africa, sounded amazing, and doing so with my family who I hadn’t seen for over a month was equally thrilling. We ended up in Nanyuki far ahead of schedule, so Josephine and I spent a few anxious hours waiting and explaining to the countless vendors who approached us with carved wooden animals that we were climbing the mountain today and couldn’t buy anything (best excuse we’ve had so far).

My family arrived pretty much on-time, and after a long bout of hugs and “how are you”s we began finalizing the preparations. This involved 1) taking over half of a restaurant with their piles of luggage and tried to figure out what they needed to bring and what would just be extra weight, and 2) trying desperately to find a bank in Nanyuki that would cash traveler’s checks. After being rejected at four different banks we were starting to panic, but by using two different debit cards and changing all the American money we had to shillings we managed to scrounge together enough. Money issues dealt with we jumped into our transport to the mountain – a mutatu packed to the brim in an authentically Kenyan manner.


We arrived at the gate a little after 1pm, and sat down to a delicious lunch before beginning our journey. The first day’s hike was 9km, 700m vertical gain up a dirt road to Old Moses Hut. It was enjoyable, although compared to the rest of the trip it was a relatively unremarkable trek.


We arrived at the hut at around 6pm, and had enough time to unpack and take in some of the views before eating a deliciously prepared dinner. Staying at the hut were three other travelers who would be heading up the mountain with us – a Canadian sister and brother and an American. They were all very nice, and we chatted for a bit before going to bed.

Our second day began bright and early – we woke at 6:30, ate at 7, and were on our way before 8am. The trail to Shipton’s Camp (16km, 900m vertical gain) was very much a trail, rather than a road, which was a nice change of pace. We played OA games for the first third of our hike, which helped pass the time until we began getting to the more impressive vegetation and views. A few minutes into the hike the peaks of Mt. Kenya disappeared behind the hills, and they stayed put until their dramatic reappearance as we crested an enormous hill at about the halfway point.


The second half of the hike took us through a valley with the most other-worldly vegetation I have ever seen. Enormous lobelia plants dotted the hillside, interspersed with white flowering plants and crazy wiry grasses. All of this was framed by majestic walls on either side and the iconic peaks of Mt. Kenya ahead. It was one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve been on.


Weather to this point had been beautiful, but our luck ran out with about an hour left to go as the dark clouds opened up and began to pour/hail on us. I loved it, but I think this event marked the low point of the trip for the rest of my family.


When we got into camp we were soaked, and as the temperature dropped we had to resort to walking around in tights and sleeping bags to keep from freezing. Popcorn and tea helped with everything though.

The ascent to Point Lenana, the peak of our trip, began the next morning at 2:30am. My parents and brothers had decided that they were content with getting to Shipton’s, so Josephine and I were the only two up for the attempt. We put on our still-wet clothes and marched into the moonlit sub-freezing night. The hike was long and steep (700m gain over a 1-2 kilometers), but we kept up a steady pace and were about 30 minutes ahead of schedule as we neared the summit. We waited in wind protected notch below the summit, and reached the peak with the sunrise, a little after 6am.


The view was absolutely spectacular, with the rising sun slowly illuminating the peaks and valleys and towns around us. We stayed at the summit for 20 minutes or so, enough for my hands and toes to start freezing off, and then began the trek down.


At camp we reunited with the rest of our party, took some group pictures, had breakfast, and were off by 9am, for what would be the most painful part of the trip. Our shortened itinerary left us with one day to hike back down the entire 25km trail, and though it was downhill most of the way, by the end our legs were ready to fall off.


We did all make it down alive, and after many hours of cramped driving to get to the El Karama Lodge we were clean, warm, and asleep in comfortable beds. The next morning I waved goodbye to my family as they left to continue their adventure with a few days of safariing and I went back to Mpala to recover for my next class.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Here comes home!

I’ve been a bad blogger. It’s been a few weeks in a row now that I haven’t met my own 1/week goal - I guess things can get a bit hectic, even in Kenya. I don’t have much time to write this so I’ll keep this short, with the promise that something a bit more substantial is coming in a few days.

Our second course, the mammal course, ended yesterday with a 3.5 hour essay-based final exam followed once again by sundowners with the professor. I learned more than I ever imagined I would know about mammal physiology, social behavior, mating systems etc. Most of it was fun, although I wouldn’t have missed the multiple hours we spent sitting in a Land Rover waiting to record data on zebras who refused to participate in our experiment. Either way, it definitely feels nice to have a few days off. Our next course is an engineering course on global technology, and I’m very excited for it.

In the meantime I have something else to occupy the next few days. After two hectic weeks of last minute planning and organizing, my family finalized plans to come over here and visit me during spring break (all four of them!). They stayed in Nairobi last night, and this morning I’m going to meet them in Nanyuki and we’re all (+ Josephine) going to start a 3-day trek on Mt. Kenya, the second highest mountain in Africa! It's supposed to be absolutely gorgeous. When we’re done with that they’re going to come down to Mpala and catch a glimpse of my life for the next 6 weeks before heading off to other things. It’s been over a month and a half since I’ve seen them (or anyone else from my normal life), and it will be really nice to have a little taste of home.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Additional Reading

For those of you with lots of free time who want more info on me than this blog can provide, here are a few more watering holes for your enjoyment:

For our last course we had to write two blog entries to go up on WildlifeDirect’s page.
This is the first (about climbing in Bogoria)

this is the second (about ecotourism & poverty). On those pages you will also find Josephine & Sarah’s blog entries, as well as various stories/pictures posted by our professor about the trip.

If you have enough extra time in your life for a whole nother blog (God that’s an awkward phrase to write), here is Sarah’s, one of the two other Princeton students on the trip. Hopefully it doesn’t say anything terrible about me ;-).


  We embarked on our third course last Tuesday, leaving Mpala after only a fleeting reunion and heading to another private conservancy, Lewa. This course, the Natural History of Large Mammals, is taught by Dan Rubenstein, head of the EEB Department, and assisted by an Australian professor named Fiona. In addition to readings and short discussions we’re doing two separate field projects here – the first was to examine the effect of mobile bomas (a cattle ranching technique) by recording and comparing dung and vegetation levels. Our second project, which we began yesterday, involves monitoring zebra and impala to determine how they balance their time between eating and watching for predators/rivals. Though it can be a bit repetitive at times, I’ll take it over lectures or problem sets any day.
  Lewa is a bit larger than Mpala, and has a much more habituated wildlife population. Driving around the roads we constantly see herds of elephants, giraffes, zebra, impala, gazelles, ostriches, etc. Most days I can check my email via a communal computer at ~5pm, and twice this week I’ve watched out the window as a herd of plains zebra comes galloping past the courtyard in front of me. The conservancy runs an upscale ecotourism business, so all minibuses and street cars (called saloon cars here) are banned, and only brown/green land rovers are allowed in. While driving around we’ve passed many fancy green safari trucks with tourists in the back driven by Maasai men in full warrior garb.
  The cabins we’re staying in are beautiful (as always), and are plagued/blessed (depending on your point of view) with a large and assertive population of vervet monkeys. These white-furred, black-faced, blue-balled monkeys romp and play in the trees, tents and clotheslines around the cabins, and are the most charismatic scoundrels you have ever seen. I’ve personally watched them sneak into a tent and come away with a wrapped bar of soap, and just the other day they came through the sunroof of our car and took Fiona’s sunscreen (which was found, full of bite marks, three hours later on the grass outside our cabin).
  Unfortunately I can’t upload pictures during this trip, but rest assured they will be up (including 3 albums from my LAST trip) once I get back. We’re moving from Lewa to Ol Pejeta – another ranch/conservancy – on Wednesday, so perhaps I’ll have better internet there – if not then look for them when we get back to Mpala on the 9th.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Off Again

  I’ve only been back at Mpala for a few days, but this morning we are leaving once again for two weeks to make room for an incoming McGill group. We’re traveling to two other ranches to study large mammal behavior. I’ve been told we should have internet access there (though I’ve realized you never really know with these things), so hopefully I will be able to post more of my adventures in a somewhat timely fashion, as well as finish uploading all of the pictures from my last trip. Wish me luck!