Close encounters with animals

I just got back from a week in Rwanda (more on that later!), during which I missed Robbie’s birthday. Knowing this ahead of time, Robbie and I decided to do a special weekend camp-out beforehand, just the two of us. To talk about guy stuff like turning 10 and responsibility and God and girls and being a man. We called it our “manventure”, and had no idea how appropriate that term would be.

Just the previous weekend I had gone camping with Tim and a bunch of other AIM guys at the annual men’s camping retreat. The same retreat that I wrote about a year ago in “Camping with Hippos“. So, I thought I had the whole “camping in the wilds of Africa” all figured out. We were going to go to Hell’s Gate National Park, near lake Naivasha, and camp out in the wild, do some hiking, rock climbing, cook our food over a fire, and have a memorable weekend that would hopefully stay in our memories forever. Boy, will it ever!

Hell's Gate, rain clouds brewing

Hell's Gate, rain clouds brewing

Robbie and I arrived at Hell’s Gate (about a 1.5 hour drive from Nairobi) around 3pm as the rain clouds were starting to form. As we paid our admission and entered the park and found our campsite, it was starting to rain. The campsite was up a steep, volcanic silt road, situated on the edge of a cliff overlooking much of the park. From there we could see Fischer’s tower, a two hundred foot high lava plug left over from a volcano. We could also hear steam vents several miles away, and were literally surrounded by animals: zebras, buffalo, gazelle, giraffe, warthogs.

After the rain subsided, Robbie and I decided to let the ground dry a little before setting up our tent and that it would be a good idea to scramble up the cliff about 10 minutes to the crest and catch the view from there. The view was magnificent, and I decided to grab a quick photo of Robbie overlooking the park. As Robbie stood on that precipice, I walked a short distance to the adjacent precipice where I could get a good framing for the photo.

the African Cape Buffalo

the African Cape Buffalo

As I stood there taking Robbie’s photo, I had a terrible sensation of something running up behind me. I spun around and caught sight of a 1000-1500 lb cape buffalo, one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, charging me, maybe 15 feet away and running at a mean gallop.

I didn’t have time to think, it was pure instinct at that point, absolutely no conscious decision-making abilities. The only thing that my body could do was shout/scream a shout of surprise/terror. Again, totally sub-conscious, it just happened. But it seemed to have been loud enough that it temporarily startled the beast. He stopped for a second, his huge curled horns tipping side to side as he pondered his next move. A second’s pause, then he charged at me again. Now remember, I am standing on the edge of a cliff, with my back to the cliff and my front to a buffalo that is about to gore me. Again, nothing but instinct: a startled shout erupts from deep within my bowels and comes out of my mouth sounding something not totally unlike a roar. Loud enough to startle the buffalo and stop him for another second.

That second was all I needed. I jumped off the precipice I was on, to a small ledge below and turned and shouted to Robbie (who had been watching the whole time), “Run!”. Robbie and I both scrambled back down the cliff as fast as we could, and didn’t look back until we were about half way down and we realized we weren’t being followed.

Robbie: “Dad, don’t ever ever do that again!”
Me: “No kidding! You think we should call mom and tell her?”
Robbie: “Nah”

We had a good laugh at ourselves as we set up our tent. Hours later as we were trying to light a fire to cook our supper I was still shaken. I started rehearsing in my mind how to tell this story to Lesa and Tim in a way that would be entertaining, and thinking this would be the most exciting part of our weekend. Not yet!

As we tried to cook our supper over a fire in a light drizzle, the sunlight faded fast. On the equator, you have 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of nighttime every day of the year. It doesn’t vary much from summer to winter, and when the sun sets or rises, it does so very quickly, unlike the US where it can last for a couple hours in the summer months. It starts getting dark here around 6:30, and by 7:00 is pretty much nighttime.

By the time we started eating it was 7:30, and as the drizzle was putting out the fire I noticed how dark it was everywhere we looked. I’ve never camped in total seclusion like that before, where there is no streetlights, car lights, campfires, or city in the distance. I realized that we were probably the only people in the park right now, and all the animals we saw earlier, including the buffalo, were still here, out there in the darkness somewhere, maybe just out of reach of the flashlight we kept sweeping around in a slow circle. Animal noises surrounded us on all sides. Unlike the previous weekend’s camping experience, there were no guards and no fence of any sort separating us from them.

Needless to say, we didn’t sleep terribly well that night, but we didn’t have any encounters with animals. We woke up around 6am with the sun, and had a couple more laughs about our experience with the buffalo before trying to get a fire lit to cook our breakfast.

After about 30 minutes of messing with the fire, I finally had it hot enough to start the sausages cooking in the frying pan. As we sat there, mouths watering, waiting for them to finish cooking, I had that sensation again of something rapidly approaching me from behind.

I spun around, and with another started shout of surprise, came face to face with a huge baboon jumping up onto the picnic table immediately behind me. The shout startled him as well, and he grabbed our tupperware container with a half-dozen uncooked eggs and took off.

Robbie, watching baboon eat our trash

Robbie, watching baboon eat our trash

At this point, I’m thinking 3 things:
1. We have several friends here who have been seriously hurt by baboons. They are not scared of people, and have sharp teeth and mean dispositions. The baboons, that is, not our friends.
2. He’s just a baboon. How tough can he be?
3. I’m really hungry and he just stole half our breakfast

So, I grab a burning stick out of the fire and take off after him, yelling and banging the stick on the table and the ground as I pursue him. I can tell he’s not scared of me. He also doesn’t want to get hit by the stick. I raise the stick, he takes a step back. Then he takes a step forward, testing me. I make a louder noise and more threating gesture. He drops the eggs and takes 2 steps back. I grab the eggs back as he runs back to the campfire where Robbie has grabbed a stick as well.

The baboon grabs our trash bag from the previous night and runs about 10 feet away. For the next few minutes he eats the aluminum foil we cooked our food in, as I grab all the food off the picnic table and put it in the car. That’s when I noticed the muddy handprints on the outside of the car doors. And the inside.

You see, I didn’t lock the car that night as I didn’t see the need. I didn’t know baboons could open cars. I didn’t know they were smart enough to let themselves in, rummage around, then let themselves out and carefully/quietly close the door behind them.

About the time I finished putting the food in the car (and locking it this time!) the baboon finished eating our trash. I thought Robbie and I could sit around the fire, forks in hand, and eat the sausage right out of the pan. I figured the two of us could keep the baboon away. So, the baboon runs over to our tent. Our friends’ tent, to be exact, who had lent it to us for the weekend. A really nice tent.

The baboon grips the tent wall with both hands and prepares to rip it open looking for food (there wasn’t anything in the tent). Here I have a difficult decision to make: eat the sausage or save the tent. I decide it would be better to go without breakfast than to have to buy my friends a new tent. I take off after the baboon with my stick again.

He runs away from me, in a big circle, back to the campfire where Robbie is waiting with his stick. “Let him have the sausage!” I yell back to Robbie. The baboon jumps up on the fire grate, shouts briefly in pain, and grabs 4 sausages out of the pan and crams them into his mouth. I run back over to the fire, grab the remaining 4 sausages and chuck them away from our campsite, buying myself enough time to hurriedly tear the tent down and cram it into the trunk of the car. Robbie and I decided to evacuate the campsite sans breakfast as the baboon starts barking into the distance (calling in reinforcements, we assumed).

Robbie, on our walk through the gorge later that day

Robbie, on our walk through the gorge later that day

So, that is the tale of our manventure. A right-of-passage of sorts, and a 10th birthday Robbie and I will never forget!


  1. Well, what an adventure for you both…we’ll just keep this one from Grandma Pat:)

  2. Oh, I laughed, I cried, I screeched too, and I totally could picture you roaring at the wild animals. Sneaky little baboons and scary cape buffalo! Glad you’re both ok! I wanna hear Robbie tell the story….

  3. This is the best ever!

  4. You are a nut! I would have needed new laundry after the water buffalo, and would not have slept a wink. Bears in Alaska kept us on our toes, but this sounds much much more sketchy. Robbies is pretty brave too – when it circled around and he was at the campfire by himself he showed good courage. What a great man-weekend and I am glad nobody got seriously killed.

  5. That’s a great story! Wish I was there. Now I know to lock my door if I ever go to Africa!

  6. Andy –
    One time when we were staying at Buffalo Springs, the baboons unzipped our tent, chewed all the chewing gum that our short termer had just brought for our kids, politely leaving all the wrappers on the floor – sucked the toothpaste out of the tubes – and then left – zipping the tent behind! When we returned, I thought that somehow the kids had gotten in – but they were with us and…



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