Too Close for Comfort


Elleni Stephanou, Local Intern

Date Published

3:43AM Sunday morning and I awake from a very strange dream. As custom, I reach for my phone to write down some keywords that will trigger a memory of the dream once I wake so that I can write it down. This is not odd for me. What is odd is that I am not the only one awake. I hear voices encircling my tent; voices, the patter of rain, and the roar of a very angry river. ‘Please don’t come wake me up’, I think to myself, ‘please don’t come wake me up’… footsteps near my tent then disappear. I exhale relief and find another comfortable position in bed, telling myself to relax.

‘Hodi?’ Comes a voice directly outside my tent. I pause. Was I, in my paranoia, making up voices?

‘Hodi, hodi?’Again the voice.

‘Ni nini?’ (What is it?) I ask, language coming slowly to my sleepy mind.

‘Maji. Maji!’

The word I most dreaded, ‘water’, sliced through the rain and the roar, unmistakable.

‘Sawa.’(Okay.) I replied. What more could I say?

I sat up cursing under my breath and reaching for my head torch. How much time did I have? What should I pack? How high was the river? Questions raced through me as I quickly clothed. My common sense reached for jeans and my boots as the rest of me began to switch on. Looking around my tent I thought ‘what’s important? What’s expensive?’ I picked up my penknife and put it in my pocket; my phone in the other. Then I reached for my laptop and camera bag before grabbing my raincoat and running outside.

Outside was pitch black but for the one spot of light from my head torch. I ran through the rain toward the eating area and placed my bags in the shelter. Here I found Gilbert and Chris. Chris chuckled, possibly at my terrified expression, and apologised for the events. Gilbert had two sentences for me that 4AM; ‘the water is too high. Be ready to run.’

Now, I do not know if this is a joke that Gilbert has, because he said this continuously throughout the morning even once the immediate threat of flooding had passed, but in that moment, it shook me to the core as I realised how much potential danger we were all in. I said I was ready.

Chris looked at my two bags and asked ‘That’s everything?’Rather confused I asked if I should go pack the rest of my things. ‘Yes, but hurry,’ came my response. Once back in my tent I looked at all my things; my stacks of clothes, my outdated mammal and bird book (1963!), my novels, and all my food! Again I asked myself ‘what’s important? What’s expensive?’But I realised that I wouldn’t miss any of it. Not really. Yes, I liked that t-shirt, and that Ribena really helped me through the hot afternoons. But honestly, nothing screamed ‘pack me!’ like my laptop and camera had. Is that sad? No time to ponder I remembered and began to shove everything into my bags. Literally everything made its way, even things out of separately packed boxes ended up in my bag, the adrenaline aiding in closing the bursting zips. Back pack on, I reached for my duffle bag, and with one last scan of the tent I dashed out into the rain again.

I packed all my things in the upstairs section of the office and then we congregated together for a few moments. Gilbert looked at his watch and said ‘Ni 5am, hebu tengeneza chai!’(It’s 5am, Let’s make tea!) the laugh that ensued released much of the rising tension as we ran out to help with the rest of the camp. For the next 3hours we carried mattresses and blankets, moved beds, rolled up tents, packed cars; moved anything and everything out of the path of water should it continue rising. At about 8AM we went to the bridge to see the level the water had reached from somewhere we hadn’t been monitoring closely. It was unbelievable. Waves almost crashing over the edge of the bridge as the rush of water barely fit beneath it. The water surrounded the opposite, broken end making the bridge jut out then fall to nothing like a headland in an angry sea storm.

A silence drawn by a primordial hunger and a state of shock befell the camp as we returned and had our morning tea with bread and Stevens rather misplaced, but delicious, French toast treats. After this we got news from Elephant Watch, water was almost in their kitchen! A new urgency hit us and we began again to pack all the things that had fallen behind, we packed the tents on higher ground, and carried beds, mattresses, blankets and shelves up the hill; stopping only to glance at the river in awe.

At about 9:30AM one of the trees that was now flooded fell victim to the rivers onslaught and was carried from view in a matter of seconds! With everything packed, we sat in the vehicles waiting. Evacuation was the last task. Only if the water rose further would it be necessary. So we waited. Some of us were lucky enough to doze in the cars or near the kitchen; others stood watch, communicating continuously with other camps.

‘I think it’s going down now.’ Gilbert tells Shifra having just got off the phone with Elephant Watch who had said the water had receded. Looking at the waters edge he estimated it having already moved a ‘step’ back. We all went to have a look for our selves and then slumped back in our seats, tension beginning to dissipate, the effects of adrenaline beginning to wear off, as an all-consuming fatigue beginning to creep into us all.

Though only a threat of flooding, the camp reacted incredibly, every hand ready to help and every one in good spirits despite the ungodly wake up call and continual effort needed in camp. I have only ever felt so prepared for a crisis once before, (when there were earth tremors in our farm house in Tigoni and our evacuation plan was practised down to who would pick up which bag before jumping out the window to safety.) and so would like to thank the entire STE team for making me feel safe when my body felt so strongly otherwise.

I can only hope that this scare is the extent to which we will have to endure this rainy season, and that no more sleepless nights follow in camp!