Reflections over the field course

What’s left to say about this extraordinary field course? When I arrived at my apartment in Helsinki, the first thing I enjoyed was a glass of crystal clear water straight from the tap. I almost got drunk on water. After I almost drained Lake Päijänne I took a shower and tried to get rid of the dust layer that had covered my body for two weeks. Then came the food. I enjoyed the food at the research station, but I’m also happy going back to my meat-free diet.

While I’m chewing on my lettuce I miss the happy faces in the kitchen at the research station. Two days I had to stay at the research station and try to convince my stomach that I’m attempting to survive Africa and during those days, we (the sick people) were taken care of by the lovely staff. I cannot thank them enough for making our stay magnificent.

Thinking back to everything we did during the field course, a few things pop up in my mind. The first trip to Ngangao rain forest was super cool. For forest people like the Finns, I think many of us will remember that gigantic 50-metre high tree, or the view from the (almost) top of the mountain.

A nice size tree in a forest. Picture taken by Marisofia Nurmi.

Another thing I’ve been remembering is the football match we had against a local football team. It was fun playing, especially in the swamp part of the football field. During the second half it started raining. Quite a lot. Like a lot a lot. That just intensified the game and before we knew it the game was over and the result was a friendly tie.

Team before the rain started. Photo taken by Julia Viertola.

All in all our trip was one to remember. I think I speak for all of us when I say that it was really nice getting to know people that study different fields of geography and also making friends that have started studying way before and after you have. It was unique to get to know the professors, university staff and research station staff. There is a need for a big thank you to all of the before mentioned people (and trees) for making our trip truly outstanding. Thanks.

Blog post writer Emil saying hello to his little friend. Photo taken by Marisofia Nurmi. Puppy taken by Emil.

Long road home (with KLM)

The journey back home started already yesterday morning and all-day drive on dusty Mombasa highway and continues today. I was part of team KLM and our flight took off from Nairobi just around midnight. Before that some were enjoying the lounge experience and some doing last-minute souvenir shopping at the airport. The flight to Amsterdam was eight hours long and we were warned of strong turbulence which did occur. The flight passed while talking about the highlights of the course, viewing the dumbest pictures, enjoying drinks and sleeping. After the Kenyan countryside, where air-con is a term unknown, I caught a runny nose from the air-conditioning on board.

After landing to Amsterdam at 6.10 AM our group slip into even smaller parts. Half were flying home around 9 AM and Sanna, Toni and myself stayed back to enjoy Amsterdam until 2 PM. Sanna and Toni spent a laid back morning on Schiphol Airport while I took the train to Amsterdam Centraal to explore a bit. By my arrival to the city, it was still pitch-dark and quite. I strolled around in the city that was about to wake up and was feeling cold after African heat. I strolled along canals, past Bloemenmarkt and beautiful churches and enjoying a second and third breakfast (first one was on the plane). It was great to finally have good coffee and mobile data handy at every corner. I wanted to visit Amsterdam cheese museum but they weren’t open early enough and also decided to just admire Anne Frank Huis from outside.

After a couple of hours of wandering around, it was time to head back to the airport and this time to home. So, I took a train towards Bruxelles and alighted at Schiphol. At that point, I passed the 6th security control in 24 hours. While we were waiting to board our flight, the earlier KML group had already landed and some were enjoying cold-smoked salmon on rye bread. 

The last three musketeers standing on our flight were all tired and I slept most of the flight. Finland welcomed us with an extremely foggy hug (seriously, you couldn’t see the ground at all before landing) and freezing rain. Everything worked smoothly although the weather was a bit of a shock. When they were checking tickets on P train two stops after Helsinki-Vantaa, I felt like I was home. I went to the convenience store around my place and bought two packets of rye bread and Geisha Cappuccino chocolate bar (delicious!) and spent the rest of the day doing laundry, showering and enjoying fresh bed sheets.

Finding the way back home

The bus was filled with tired students, somewhat happy to be returning home. The atmosphere was certainly bittersweet, since looking back it had overall been a very successfull two weeks on the field course. We felt ourselves rich with our newly gained experiences and memories.

We were blessed with final strays of sunlight before we would have to return back to the darker days of Finland. Enjoying the amazing views and even better company, our field course was finally going to end. Though not before spending a full day in the bus traveling, and having a lunch at the same Sikhi temple in Makindu, that we had visited also on our way to Taita in the beginning of the trip.

One of the most amazing things during our field course would be the different kinds of animal encounters. How astounding was it to casually pass by zebras or elephants while driving on a highway, like we did again on the way back to Nairobi.

As we drove on, the landscape began to fill with more villages, people and bigger infrastructure. With the first signs of the airport we knew we would have to part ways.

The Qatar and KLM groups would be going to different terminals and the course officially ended. While we hugged goodbyes it still didn’t stop us from meeting once more after the security check.

After having had rather expensive airport meals, we boarded and started our journeys. Our Qatar group towards Doha.

During the flight, while most of us were sleeping the whole time, the rumour says that one of us was engaging with other passengers about intriguing topics of life.

Having spent over a week in a place where hot water was scarce, best nightlife company were the moths and infrastructure very different, felt the Airport of Doha overly fancy and out of this world.

While our trip came to an end, it didn’t stop us from enjoying each others company to the fullest in every opportunity. Would it be by playing cards, doing a stretch between flights, dancing or making cartwheels at the gates.

While we returned home, it felt like a piece of us was left behind (like the flip-flops on the picture above).

Maybe in the future we would have the opportunity to return to Kenya once more.


Planting a memory


The last morning began like the previous ones – with a good breakfast. After enjoying our breakfast, we went to the research station’s lovely backyard to plant the Guava tree Petri had got as a gift from us the previous evening during the course party. Petri gave a short but meaningful speech before the tree planting, thanking Robert, our minibus driver, and us assistants who got to be the ones to plant the Guava tree.

As a response to Petri’s talk, Robert also gave a small speech to all of us seemingly from his heart. After the planting, the station foreman Mwadime gave his delightful speech as well. Overall, the atmosphere was relaxed, and everyone seemed to be thankful for their experiences.

Robert, our driver for this course, during his speech.
Mwadime speaking.
Planting the tree.

There is a tradition of planting trees in the research station in a memory of events and people. This tree is meant to be a long-lasting memory of us students and this field course to Petri and the station staff. I certainly hope that this tree will grow as large as the tree planted next to it. At least for now it looks well!

Petri showing the bigger tree planted before in the station’s backyard.
The newly planted Guava tree.

The students who got to leave for Finland had packed their belongings and were getting ready for their long drive back to Nairobi. Me and Christa were going to stay due to our own fieldwork for our theses.

Because of the long drive ahead of them, the students about to leave were doing a fun group exercise to stretch. Then it was time for them and Petri, Enrico, and Gonzalo to say their goodbyes, head to the minibus, and drive out of the station’s gate.

Getting prepared for the drive.
Loading the roof of the bus.

I got to plan my following week of TLS fieldwork to be done in Taita Hills Wildlife Sanctuary with Eduardo and Matheus, while Christa was doing her fieldwork in Ngangao forest.

For me, the excitement of being in Taita Hills did not fade during our remaining days there!



All photos: Hanna Hirvonen



Last day in Taita Hills

Final day in the research station started with Terrestrial Laser Scanning practice run by Dr. Eduardo Maeda and Dr. Matheus Nunes together with professors and lectures from Taita-Taveta University. We were supposed to go to Ngerenyi campus in Taita Hills but due to heavy rains in the last few days it was decided that it was too difficult for the bus to climb due to terrible road conditions. Instead of the campus, we went to a nearby field to complete the excercise by scanning the fig trees canopy.

Eduardo demonstrating the use of TLS-sensor
Student starting the sensor.

The actual laser scanning of the canopy was made by Riegl VZ-400i sensor. The sensor makes point cloud data of the surrounding 360 degrees area. Addition to that, the mounted camera also makes a 360 panorama from the same spot. After a quick setup we laser scanned and took pictures of the tree from 5 different spots which were later combined into a single point cloud. Lastly, we took a “group-photo” with the laser scanner. 

Last day ended with traditional ending party at the station which consisted of delicious Prof. Di Minin’s pizza, dinner and some special dance shows. During the party we were accompanied by the MP of the Taita Hills, mr. Danson Mwashako Mwakuwona from the Kenyan Parliament. After a delicious meal, students gave the station a gift in a form of Guava-tree which was then planted the following day on the station grounds. After that it was time for some performances. Night consisted of Dirlandaa (with modified lyrics and accompanying dance), some more traditional African dancing, Brazilian samba and Letkajenkka.

A fitting end to an amazing field course!

Dirlandaa in the evening party

Darius the inventor

The day consisted of visit to sisal plantation, Darius’ farm and football match against local youth team. The preparation for the football match started already on the first bus ride of the day. Listening to the plans about who is playing which spot, some of us thought that there is no way this is just an easy peasy lemon squeezy -kind of game.

Our first stop of the day was Sisal Estate, one of the biggest sisal plantations of the world. We got a thorough talk about sisal production and processing by mr. Anthony, the manager of the estate. Sisal estate is roughly 130 km2 and it employs 2000 workers. There is even a village within the estate, where the workers’ families live, including school, health clinic etc. We walked through the factory and saw the whole process from plant leaves to processed and packed product, ready to leave to Mombasa harbor. It was interesting to see the machinery and how much the production demands human power. One

interesting point was that up to 80% of the actual plant goes to waste during  processing. We got to see the waste field and we were told about the plans of starting to produce bio-energy from the waste. We hope all the best for this project!

Sisal leaves ready to get processed in the factory
Sisal plants

Our next stop was Darius’ farm close to Wundanyi village. He works at the Research station, but he is also an amazing farmer who is not afraid to take advantage of new technology and solves problems with his own inventions. Darius’ family was warmly welcoming, and right at the front yard he could present us his cattle and the whole process of making bio-gas from the waste of the cattle. The yard looked like a scientist’s laboratory. We also had a tour on his fields which consisted of maize, 23 different varieties of bananas, sugar cane, passion fruit and pumpkins. He even gets so much bananas, that he can sell them to others. We got to taste passion fruits and bananas and they were the best.

Darius showing how he feeds his cattle

After the tour we arrived back to the research station quite early at 4 pm. People started to get ready for the football match. Around 5 pm we went to the game field and were a bit shocked how crowdy it was. We didn’t have enough players, so we got two local players in our team. The game was exciting and intense. During the second halftime it started raining, but that did not stop the game. After all the game ended 1 -1.

Our football team

Relaxing Safari Day

We started off our safari day with an early 6 AM breakfast. Finally, all of us on sick leave could attend this laid-back activity, yay! We drove to Sarova Taita Hills Game Lodge where Robert the ranger hopped on our bus and so our safari begun. We drove through the privately own Taita Hills Wildlife Sanctuary and continued to the community based LUMO Community Wildlife Sanctuary which is much larger. We could see that LUMO had less undergrowth than the private sanctuary due to the amount of grazing that is being practiced by the community.

A giraffe family having lunch. Photo by Kiia Eerikäinen.

We saw many exotic birds (such as secretarybird and superb starling) which were especially exciting for the bird enthusiasts of our crew. We saw giraffes eating leaves, baboons crossing the road with cute baby baboons on their backs and a huge buffalo herd staring at us in the eye. We also saw many other animals, e.g. kongonis, impalas, an ostrich and a 40-50 year old elephant, according to Robert. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to see any big cats. We saw quite a few termite mounds, active and non-active ones. Prof. Pellikka explained that the active mounds indicate a healthy environment and that their numbers have been declining in the region.

Red elephants get their color from the red laterite soil. Photo by Kiia Eerikäinen.
Baboons checking us out. Photo by Toni Ruikkala.

The ride to Lions bluff was a pretty bumpy one. When we got to the top, a beautiful view of the great surrounding savanna opened up. We then ate lunch at the buffet and even got pasta after a long time of eating only local traditional food. After lunch we continued our safari and stopped by a biodiversity recovery project which focuses on planting trees at the sanctuary.

Superb starling. Photo by Kiia Eerikäinen.

After a “rough” day on safari, we had a pool party at the sanctuary hotel where we enjoyed some drinks and played water polo. Not too shabby!

Rise and shine – Kasigau

Holy moly what a hike we had! Our original plan was to go up and down by the easy way to Mt. Kasigau but it changed during our breakfast to an interesting and not so easy climb up and slightly easier way down. Even though the way up was long and hard, it was all worth it.

During our hike we learned a lot about nature of Kasigau, its rich vegetation and animals. We even saw a python (at least most of us saw, the ones who weren’t too scared to go and look to the bushes). On the way up we were able to see how the different forrest zones changed and we marked them up to our GPS. One memorable moment for all of us was to climb up on a waterfall while trying to get rid of the safari ants. Clearing up to you, if safari ant bites you, you do not want to experience the same thing again. So when you hear someone yelling “ANTS”, you know what to do: RUN!

To get to the highest peak of Kasigau it took us 5 hours and to climb down 3,5 hours. The day was cloudy but luckily at the top the sky cleared up for us and showed the Kenian safaris beauty at its best!

If the way up was hard, it was also hard to get down due to slippery muddy paths! We were lucky to only get some minor wounds. Our guide, Emmanuel, told us stories from the World War I and described how Kasigau played an important role on war between Germans and Britons. He showed us couple of trenches. And yes, we blessed the rains down in Africa when it was pouring rain the last 10 minutes of our hike that cleaned us up! When we arrived to the bus, there was a small sisal basket market made just for us by local women. Souvenirs check and hop on to matatu (bus).

Like I told earlier, it was raining. Well, you have never experienced a fear if you haven’t been on a Mombasa highway during a thunderstorm. Thunders were lighting the sky while everyone was holding on their seats when the streets were flooding and horns were honking due to not so safe passes by trucks, Luckily we had Robert the driver, who took us home safely! (Asante Robert)

Hike was an amazing experience so here is a short clip of our amazing day in Kasigau!

Surprise safari

The total sickness rate of our field course is reaching 50 %. Luckily, we are not getting sick at the same time and there were still more or less healty students ready for today’s exercise. We had prepared maps about human-wildlife conflict in Taita area and we were supposed to interview people who know about the subject and after that, go to city of Voi. However, the day didn’t go entirely as planned.

The morning started with a drive to Voi and to the gate of Tsavo national park. Research center of the park is located inside the park and we were supposed to have a meeting with park staff there. We had to wait for two hours before all the byrocracy was done and we had got the permission to visit the research center. While waiting, we saw a climps of the park’s wildlife including baboons, a squirrel, colourfull lizards and birds. We got the permission to interview a park official in the research center but also got a chance to visit the whole Tsavo park for free. So in addition to the interview and conversations in the research center, we were able to experience Tsavo park with our own eyes on a safari.

Sentence of the day was ” a sandstorm in the eye balls” by Arttu. Driving through the dry sandy savannah by car with windows open means sand everywhere, also in the eyes. Luckily, sun glasses protected our eyes from the worst sandstorm.

Savannah landscape in Tsavo park

The day was very succesfull despite of the long waiting in the morning. Interview was helpfull and we learned for example that the amount of wildlife conflict varies between years depending on environmental conditions. Our data that we had used when preparing the maps for the exercise didn’t include things such as illegal farming. To get better results about wildlife conflict using GIS analysis, better data would be needed but the results that we had got were still quite close to the reality.

The safari part was also exiting. We saw dikdiks, a secretary bird, zepras, jackals, elephants and many more. After about 70 km driving in the dry savannah we were covered by the red sand as if we had all got a spray tan. When we finally arrived to the park gate there was nobody to open the gate for us. After a short waiting we got out of the park and head back towards the research station. Driving in the dark Mombasa highway is not our favorite thing since the traffic and the style of driving is not something we have got used to. Interesting and exciting day!

Waiting in the Tsavo park's gate which was locked before we get out of the park.




Adventures in Vuria and the Skull Cave

On Thursday morning we prepared ourselves for an ‘easy’ hike to Vuria, the highest peak in Taita Hills.

Thick fog surrounded us as we started hiking

One of the lovely staff members who was supposed to guide us through the forest, unfortunately couldn’t join us and thus students’ task for the day was to help navigating through the forest to the top.

Map of our route

Our route went through forest and cropland around Vuria Hill to the 2257 meters high peak. Forest in Vuria is gazetted which means it is formally conserved forest managed by Kenya Forest Service. However, it is not a national park as Ngangao forest and thus is not as highly conserved.

Elevation profile of our route to the top of Vuria and down to the Skull Caves

A few Finns at the front decided to take the ‘shorter and steeper’ path, ignoring the advises of our local companion, and it didn’t take long after we noticed that part of the group has already got lost in the forest. Luckily the mobile signal from the tower on the top was strong and soon we managed to get the group together. Using Prof. Pellikka’s umbrella as a machete we managed to get through the jungle. Suddenly the fog disappeared and we found ourselves above the clouds, looking down to surrounding idyllic African savanna opening below the moving clouds.

Our adventure continued in more cultural way, as we visited Taita peoples’ sacred site, the Skull Cave. We were honored to have the opportunity to visit the cave and to take part in rituals and a feast after the visit. Our evening with Taita people continued in cheerful party where Prof. Pellikka and some other students joined in the traditional dances.