Early in the morning, it’s freezing cold at Mpala Research Centre’s famous Hippo pool.
But that is not enough to deter Joe Irura and Fred Kiboko. Joe is dangling on a radio mast overlooking the hippo pool.
The mast is studded with cameras, neatly tucked wires and semispherical devices pointing in all directions. Below the mast is a white box covered in a camouflage net, similar to those in Vietnamese movies.
Curious hippos rear their heads to have a look at the strangers. But these are not strangers to this area. Satisfied that these people are no threat, the residents submerge back.
‘’Hand me the ratchet,’’ Joe says to his companion, one Fred Kiboko, who is busy looking at some readings inside a white box. I later learn that this box is called a transmitter box.
Kiboko reaches up with a grunt and hands over the tool to his comrade.
‘’All looks good up here,’’ Joe says to Kiboko.
‘’The river cams may need more power.’’ He continues, one hand gripping the mast and the other pointing at the batteries.
Somehow, they read each other’s mind and Kiboko unmounts one car battery as Joe steps down from the mast.
‘’Can you take that to the car?’’ Joe says to me with a grin.
‘’How hard can it be,’’ I say to myself as I bend over to pick the car battery.
I lift the thing and I swear I heard something crack in my person. Of course, I can’t show signs of strain to the pair watching me wrestle the battery to a waiting Suzuki about thirty meters away.
I feel my blood flowing again upon putting the battery in the Suzuki.
Joe chuckles at my misery as he starts the car. He leaves Kiboko finishing up on the Hippo pool cameras, and we drive off to another site upstream.
This time the mast is less complex than the previous one.
Joe gets off the car, and whisks the 30kg battery like a LEGO cube and walks towards the rudimental mast.
With a lot of dexterity, he mounts the new battery to the mast, playing around with the wires.
‘’Argh!’’ He retorts, smacking his head to chase away a nagging fly and proceeds.
He then scales up to the mast like a monkey and adjusts a white dish towards another mast up a hill using one eye for pinpoint accuracy.
It is now almost midday. The Laikipia sun seems hell-bent on roasting us alive.
We drive off to the Hippo pool to pick Kiboko. Joe disembarks the Suzuki and goes to chat with Kiboko. I stay in the car adjusting my camera settings.
I look out the window and see the pair discuss as they point up a hill upstream.
The two then proceed towards the car.
‘’What now?’’ I ask.
‘’We need to go up there,’’ Joe says, pointing to a hill behind us.
‘’But we need a ranger, It’s too dangerous.’’ He continues.
We drive back to Mpala Research Centre and a friendly ranger joins us in the car.
I sit facing the ranger, who has his rifle tucked between his laps, he seems lost in thoughts as the car rocks on the dusty road.
We reach a rocky hill overlooking the vast beige – green Laikipia landscape.
The ranger is the first to alight and scans the bushy surrounding.
‘’Kuko sawa.’’ He says, tossing not-so-old elephant dung.
Joe and Kiboko disembark the car and proceed to the mast overlooking Mpala. I follow on cautiously.
I look down at the rocky slope and it’s almost vertical! I step back.
I watch Joe and Kiboko scale the mast fearlessly and tilt the white dishes.
‘’That should do it!’’ Joe says as the two steps down the green mast.
The two-scale down the mast and proceed to the office.
It is now around 2 pm.
Back at the office, we are welcomed by Anne Mukoma’s comment; ‘’The cameras are back to live! Good job!’’
Anne then hunches back to her screen, which is streaming the famous hippo in real-time.
‘’Si nilikuambia, sisi ni wale wanoma!’’ (I told you we’re the tough ones!) Joe brags to Anne as he settles behind his desk.
Joe’s desk is strewn with all kinds of tech gadgets, two laptops, one of which has it’s back open.
It’s a wonder how he does it!
Written by Ken Gitau