Coffees and teas in hand, my class began begrudgingly settling in for a morning of paper writing. Though only 9 am, the Kenyan sun was already fiercely beating down, and we sought relief under the open-air tent that had been serving as both dining hall and classroom for the past week. A gentle breeze made the canvas roof flap, and we lazily leaned back in our seats, reveling in the burst of cool air. Our writing was frequently punctuated by glances toward the riverbank, hoping that another elephant or waterbuck would wander by, as they often did.
All of a sudden, our professor jogged by and barked “wild dogs!” as he moved in the direction of the vans. We slammed our laptops shut, grabbed our cameras and binoculars, and followed after him, leaving our mugs of coffee and tea forgotten. We jumped in the vans as our professor honked the horn to hurry the latecomers. A minute later we were roaring out of the camp, clutching on to anything we could grab to steady ourselves as the vans bumped and rocked their way down the rock-ridden road.
Our drivers turned off-road, weaving the vehicles between trees and bushes, screechingly brushing up against thorns as they went. My classmates and I popped up the roofs of the vans—a common feature of vans used for safari driving in the area—so that we could stand and see better. Even though we had students eagerly searching in every direction, there were no wild dogs to be seen.
Suddenly, I noticed the students in the other van gesticulating wildly. We looked in the direction they were pointing and glimpsed what we had been searching for—a pack of wild dogs. While still somewhat active, they seemed to be settling in after a long night of hunting. Most of them were sleeping, curled up in the shade. Some rolled around in the grass, tongues lolling to the side and tails wagging. Although their ears were abnormally large and pointed, they didn’t otherwise seem that different from dogs back home. Our Kenyan classmate began telling us stories of how vicious wild dogs can be. Although I believed him, it was hard to imagine these dogs doing such things when they were lying so docilely in the grass.
I, along with everyone else, pulled out my camera and began snapping pictures. After a few shots, however, I put my camera down and just observed these amazing animals. My camera, though high-quality, would only be able to capture ordinary details—like the dogs’ posture and coloring. It would never be able to capture the sense of wonder and awe I was experiencing at being so close to such an amazing and relatively rare species. The only way I would truly be able to relive this moment in the future via pictures would require being fully immersed in the present moment; that was only achievable when I wasn’t looking out at the dogs from behind the lens of a camera.
After just sitting and watching for half an hour, our professor brought us back to reality by reminding us that we had a paper due later that day. We groaned and sat back in our seats as the vans roared back to life, heading for the road. I couldn’t resist turning around to catch one last glimpse of the dogs as we pulled further away and they disappeared from view. What was supposed to have been a typical morning full of schoolwork had turned into one of the coolest experiences of the trip. I felt incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to see these amazing animals, especially since they are considered endangered. Even at the Mpala Research Centre and Conservancy where my class was staying, sightings of wild dogs were uncommon. We all felt how fortunate we had been to be in the right place at the right time to see these dogs, for whom the future is so uncertain.
~Maggie Kent '16
© 2014 Princeton Traveler