Lutale scraps

Bruno invited me to eat at Lutale a few times but there are two that were rather unforgettable. As a necessary background to the story, he had taught his cook Mr. Tembo the art of preparing Belgian fries and, I must say, the cook knew what he was doing. For those of you willing to try them, the perfect fries are made by double frying the potatoes. First, they are cooked at lower heat, then left to cool down, and, just before serving, they are fried again at a much higher temperature. The resulting potatoes are perfect: golden brown, dry and crispy outside and soft inside.

Giuseppe and I happened to be at Lutale together and Bruno invited us to have roasted chicken for lunch, so we obliged, and we were at the table without a minute wasted. Bruno started our get together by announcing that there had been a delay obtaining the chicken! He had “ordered” one from the village, but it had not arrived yet.

However, he added that Mr. Tembo would be bringing fried potatoes and mayonnaise for us to start eating. When they came, the fries were truly delicious and being hungry, the first instalment did not last very long. Luckily Mr. Tembo soon brought more. After the third potato delivery, the chicken was still absent and probably some boys were running after it in the bush! Luckily, the chips kept arriving so we kept ging for them.

After about an hour waiting we were full of chips, and then we heard a loud squawk that announced the arrival of our future lunch, still alive and well! At that time, we unanimously decided that our intended victim could live another day and we re-focused on the delicious fries. I cannot guess the amount of potatoes Mr. Tembo processed but I am sure that we went through a few kilogrammes. As protein-free diets go, it was a great success!

Another time Bruno invited me for dinner at a time when I was helping him with some of the work. I went to his house eager to try the fries again and this time Bruno was keen to announce that the menu was complete and almost ready.

Soon a smiling Mr. Tembo appeared with a large smoking tray that he placed on the table. My eyes immediately focused on the fries and my mouth watered when I confirmed that they looked as well as before! However, it immediately dried up when I saw the protein part of the dish. It had four legs and the size of a small rabbit! “We are having a cane rat for lunch” Bruno announced proudly although I could sense a touch of sarcasm in the tone of his voice.

I had eaten different animals in Latin America and in Africa before but never a large rat! However, I immediately recalled that our Zambian workers could jump out of a moving car whenever they saw one of these beasts on the road so I thought that it should be good and that was what Bruno was saying when I refocused on our meal.

The meat was white with a taste close to a roasted piglet, and I must say that its combination with the fries made it one of the best bush meals I have had. Mr. Tembo brought back a tray where only bones remained!

Traveling to Lutale had its moments too. Of the two drivers, I preferred Mr. Chewe for the bush as he knew the area and had good mechanical knowledge. The problem was that he drove with his eyes squinting and I usually joked with visitors that he knew the place so well that he could drive with his eyes closed! Mr. Chewe liked to hear this but always tokd me that it was not true.

He had them well open a day when, in the dirt road getting close to Lutale, a snake started to cross the road in front of the car. It moved extremely fast but not fast enough. By the time we got to it, it occupied the whole width of the road! The snake, that I am sure was a black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) was moving from right to left and when we run over it, almost all of it had moved across. However, when it felt the wheels, it rose high, almost vertically.

A black mamba is really grey. Its name is due to the dark blue/black colour insde its mouth. Credit:TimVickers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I saw the head coming towards us but the speed of the events was such that I could not react fast enough and only watched it striking the outside mirror, a few centimetres from my arm. A lucky scape that enabled me to continue with my life! I was so shaken that I did not even feel sorry for the snake that, after the incident, we saw continuing its trip through the dry thicket. It was the only black mamba I saw in Zambia.

The dam at Lutale was an important feature for the village life as it offered permanent water as well as relief from the heat. Somehow Bruno had acquired a “banana” boat (dugout) that he kept moored near his house. I am sure he kept for a reason that was not solely to enjoy himself by inviting guests to climb on it and then pushing them gently into the dam while they desperately tried to keep the boat from tipping over!

There were large catfish in the dam and the locals were after them. A fisherman myself, I spent some time watching them. The technique they used was as simple as effective. It consisted of a 5-litre can from which a line and a large hook would be tied and baited with a chunk of chicken or any other animal protein available.

The cans were thrown into the dam and then followed in their floating across the dam until they started to bobble, indicating that a fish was feeding. When it got hooked, the can would start to travel and that was the time when the fishermen would go either on foot or in their dugout canoes to pick up their prey. A very ingenious way of fishing in closed water areas.

Monze

The project’s theileriosis immunization work took place in the Monze area of the Southern Province of Zambia. So, Monze became one of my most visited places while in Zambia. Usually, I stayed at the New Monze hotel that offered very basic facilities but warm people that made up for this shortcoming. After Giuseppe and Anders arrived and found houses, I stayed with them whenever they had room for me.

Apart from our rather weird evening at the New Monze [1] the hotel only had a trickle of water coming out of its taps and, although morning ablutions were possible as water accumulated overnight, bathing was another story (it had no showers). So, I left the tap open for the whole day and by the evening I had collected sufficient water to have a (cold) bath (better than no bath!).

Another attraction of the hotel was a bar/disco that functioned next to the hotel and that, particularly on weekends, was “the place” to be in Monze. Although I did not frequent it very often, on occasions I would get an invitation to enjoy a Mosi beer there. It was at that time that I observed the customers of the bar to order not one beer but a crate! They would then carry it with them, place it under their chair and enjoy its contents with the results that you can imagine!

Beer was indeed an important part of Zambian life (as in other African countries as well) and I always thought that there would be severe riots if the beer trucks were not able to deliver their cargo to the various destinations around the contry!

Our activities took place in Hufwa, an area, about twenty kilometres from Monze. The place was chosen because the farmers there were suffering severe losses from theileriosis. The calf mortality was such that there were not enough to keep the cattle numbers going! As in other countries affected by theileriosis, as a last resort, they would cauterize the swollen lymph nodes of their cattle in an attempt at saving them.

An animal showing a healing cauterized lymph node. (Picture by Giuseppe).

The approach we used was not a conventional vaccination, but a process known as the “infection and treatment” method. You would inject a small (calibrated) dose of the live parasite and, at the same time, a drug (tetracycline) that would control the multiplication of the Theileria parasite allowing the immunity to take hold. The result, after about a month, was a protected animal!

The Theileria parasites being injected.
Tetracycline being injected.

Not surprisingly, when the Government with our support offered to immunize their calves, the demand went beyond our expectations and we received requests from many other areas that we could not attend because our funds were limited. Most villages in Hufwa were willing to immunize their young animals and, before we could start we held several meetings with the cattle owners to organize the work.

Early mornings in Zambia can be quite cold.

Villages were grouped by area, asked to build cattle holding pens and given a time and date to bring their animals to the newly build holding facilities. Most villages complied and the work went usually smoothly. Despite this, I recall a “rebel” village that refused to come and, when we arrived to do the work, there was still a gap in the pen where that village was meant to do the building! [2]

The newly built crushpen holding the cattle.

Government veterinarians, supported by Giuseppe and Anders worked hard and soon they have covered most of the population of the area and we started to monitor the health of the immunized cattle while all newly born calves were immunized once they reached the right age. The results were very promising and, after a couple of years, there was an important increase in the cattle population, although the animals were still suffering from other diseases.

Giuseppe was the first to come to live in Monze and rented a house in town while, later, Anders found a house in the outskirts of the city. His house had a bit of land and he kept chickens and turkeys for meat and eggs as he liked to eat fresh food. Giuseppe, like any good Italian (including my wife), was a great cook and, of course, he brought with him lots of pasta, tomato sauce and other Italian specialties to “survive” in the bush.

Although house security in Monze was better than in Lusaka, there were some robberies taking place, so he recruited a night watchman that, as most do, went to sleep immediately after the house activities stopped. Giuseppe was very tolerant of this until one day that we were returning from dining at a friend’s house, quite late at night.

As usual, Giuseppe hooted at the gate and waited for it to be opened. When this did not happened after he hooted three or four times, an upset Giuseppe decided to investigate and he climbed his house perimeter fence to go inside. As we stayed outside, we could not see the events but only heard what happened. “Mr. Mishet, Mr. Mishet” called Giuseppe while looking for the man, while we thought we heard someone snoring!

After some silence, we heard someone muttering an unclear answer coming from someone that just wakes up and then more from Giuseppe “you were sleeping” followed by a more clear negative reply! Eventually Mr. Mishet, sleep walked to the gate and opened it for us to enter. The following morning, Mishet had already left by the time we got up so, by the time he returned in the evening, Giuseppe had cooled down and he only gave Mr. Mishet a reprimand that worked for a while.

As expected with a watchman that did not stay alert, eventually the house was broken during one of Giuseppe’s absences. Luckily, he was keeping his valuables well-hidden, and the robbers only took small items such as food from the fridge, stationery and other small items. When Giuseppe went to report the incident at the police station, his hopes of the robbers being caught were rapidly dashed when he recognized one of his favourite pens being used by the policeman to write the robbery report! He did not say anything, finished the report, got his copy and walked home to continue with his life.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2021/03/28/reinforcements-arrive/

[2] After the first year of immunizing cattle in the area, seeing that most of the calves survived, the Headman of that village came to plead with us to immunize their animals. We did.

Lutale

As I already mentioned, we worked at two sites in Zambia: Lutale in Central Province where we did our long-term tick impact studies and Monze in Southern Province where we immunized cattle against East Coast fever (theileriosis). Lots of interesting things took place during that time, and I will attempt to describe some of them ones.

I was more involved with the work on ticks at Lutale as this was my field. Luckily, I needed to take care of Lutale on my own for only a few weeks as the new Associate Professional Officer (Bruno) arrived. He gradually took over the activities there leaving me time to coordinate the two components of our project. Then, I could visit both sites if necessary.

However, as it usually happens, once I managed to get things organized and going smoothly, another development emerged to complicate my life again. The FAO Representative (FAOR) suffered severe medical problems and he could not continue performing his duties. I was given this additional responsibility that added another office to manage increasing the time I spent indoors. My time for field work was regrettably reduced until the new FAOR arrived, about one year later.

Lutale was a populated rural area located in Mumbwa District, Central Province. For some reason that I ignore, the area was chosen to establish a field station devoted to the research on tsetse and trypanosomiasis years before my arrival. Later it became a regional training centre for middle-level tsetse and trypanosomiasis control. That was its situation when I arrived and our tick project had been placed there by Rupert, our predecessor, that had started the work about three years earlier.

The Lutale field station. The steps to the left of the pick-up took you to an open air office on top of a hill!

Lutale was under the authority of Chief Chibuluma that lived nearby, and our project was well integrated into the local rural setting as we employed people from the village to help with our activities. Although we sold the milk our cows produced milk in Mumbwa, the villagers had priority and got milk every day. The village also had meat when we slaughtered our surplus animals.

Chief Chibuluma at one of the parties.

The aim of the work was to determine the impact of cattle under local conditions. Fortunately, water was not a problem as there was a dam that had water all year round. Grazing was another issue as it was very poor during the dry season, particularly towards the end. The scarcity of grass, even straw, forced the cattle to eat the thatched roofs of our office buildings. Although this is amusing now, it was an issue at the time as we always feared that our animals would starve. A lesser problem was that re-thatching was needed every year!

We had a very good rapport with Chief Chibuluma and his family and we even employed a couple of his sons to work with us. The Chief had a very good rapport with Bruno and he also enjoyed my visits as I would sometimes bring some whisky that we enjoyed together sitting under the thick shade of a mango tree at his house while his family went about their business.

Unfortunately, he had some problem with his legs and could not walk very well. However, this did not stop him from moving as he had developed an inventive but also amusing way to overcome this difficulty. As the rugged terrain was not suited for a wheelchair (that would surely have ended up stuck in a culvert during the dry season or in the mud during the rains), he moved about by bicycle. However, he did not pedal but was pushed around by one of his teenage sons while he happily drove to his destination!

Bruno was a hands-on person and he built his own house at the station, close to the dam. The building progressed fast and soon he had a very good house, complete with a living area (sitting room, bedrooms, kitchen, and toilet) as well as an office/laboratory. The place had plenty of hot water virtue of a Tanganyika boiler as well.

Soon his wife Dominique arrived and, like us, they also had their children born in Zambia, the very blond Tiffany and Collette that had an African village early childhood that unfortunately they do not remember! As soon as they were able to walk, they intermingled with the local children, and it was nice to see them playing, totally oblivious of any racial hang-ups.

There was a lot of work at Lutale to keep our observations going. We were comparing three different tick control methods on cattle liveweight gain and milk production as well as keeping records of the tick burdens of each animal. Milking and weighing the animals was rather straightforward but tick counts demanded intensive work that usually lasted a whole morning or even the entire day, depending on the number of ticks present.

All cows were milked daily, and the production recorded for each cow. Further, once a month all cows were inoculated with the hormone oxytocin. This produced milk let-down and a measurement of total daily milk production was hence achieved. Milk and surplus meat and live cattle sales made a profit that we re-invested in the project (paying salaries, repairing the project facilities and other expenses).

Our main way of disposing our surplus cattle was not slaughtering them but selling them live through a yearly auction. This had gone on for a few years and it had become an event that the farmers around the area waited to happen. Apart from the Lutale people, farmers as far as Mumbwa and Namwala would come to get animals as our auctions were based on the weight of the animals sold. In addition, as none of us were auctioneers, we decided to do it through secret bidding by issuing the buyers with “bidding papers” for them to place their offers.

Auction days were busy but also fun as they allowed us to meet with the local farmers and listen to their experiences and challenges. People would arrive early, and we were kept active making sure that the cattle were displayed in order. We invited the administrator of the Ministry of Agriculture to audit the procedure and to help us handling the money and depositing it in the bank.

Once the sales were completed it was time to open the bids and call the “winning” farmers to pay so that we issued them with a receipt so that they could take the animal(s) away. As the Kwacha was rather devalued at the time, we usually ended up with an inordinate amount of paper notes that were eventually spread on a table and painstakingly (but as fast as we could) counted. The work usually ended after sunset!

Not all was tick work at Lutale, there was some medical and detective activities as well as fun. Because we had vehicles, we often functioned as improvised ambulances taken patients to the Mumbwa hospital. Although most women had their babies at home, there were difficult births that required our help, almost always late at night!

A large herd of cattle is tempting, and we had a few incidents of rustling. I recalled one where we lost six of our experimental cows, a fact that could have seriously affected the results of our study. Hoping that they had not yet been slaughtered, we launched a rather desperate search, together with the police.

We drove many kilometres around Lutale without any luck and then we decided to extend our search towards Namwala through a very bad road looking for them until we eventually spotted them in a field. As usual the culprits were not found but we did not care as we had “saved”!

As for the fun, once a year we would organize a large party for the whole village for which we would slaughter a steer (we had a few reserved for such occasions) and brought chibuku [1] for the people to “refresh” themselves. We would get the brew in Lusaka and carry several hundred litres in the back of a truck from where it would be dispensed in rather large “glasses” [2]. This usually ended up with quite a number of invitees getting drunk and falling sleep around the bush as it happens in these kinds of occasions.

Mabel and I participated in a couple of parties where, together with Chief Chibuluma, Bruno and other project staff we were the “guests of honour”. In one occasion we took our daughter Flori and she stole the show. It is well known that Africans are extremely kind to children and a white baby was a novelty and people were extremely curious about her. Before we realized they took her away from Mabel! She was then passed around so that everybody could see and touch her. She seemed to enjoy the process that lasted for quite a while!

[1] Chibuku is a beer made of sorghum with an alcohol content that when fresh is low (0.5%) but that increases as the brew ferments reaching 3-4.5%. Brownish in colour, it is not filtered and therefore it contains quite a bit of solid stuff, and it needs to be shaken before drinking.

[2] Two to five-litre containers cut across the top keeping the handles.

Car robbery!

I have already described our misfortune regarding our first car in Zambia (see: https://bushsnob.com/2021/04/03/bad-motoring-start/) and now comes the end of the story.

I have already mentioned that at the time we were there, Lusaka was rather insecure. The situation did not spare us.

It happened when Mabel, heavily pregnant with our son, accompanied by our daughter Flori (about one year old) were returning home after a shopping trip. As usual, on arrival to our gate she stopped the car and hooted, waiting for Lemek (the gardener) to open it. While she waited, two men approached the car and, pointing a gun at her, asked her to give them the car.

Despite her initial shock, Mabel managed to lock the doors and, showing great courage, told them to go away! Unfortunately, as expected, the robbers not only did not move but became increasingly aggressive, so she decided to give them the car as they were becoming violent and threatening to shoot her. It was at that time that Lemek opened the gate and closed it immediately, fearing that they would go inside and attempt to steal one of the cars parked inside or even to break into our house.

So, Mabel was on her own with the robbers! While agreeing to hand over the car, she unstrapped Flori from her child seat and left the car while pleading with the robbers (to no avail) to allow her to take her handbag and even her shopping!

So, the moment she opened the door she was grabbed by the arm and pulled out with the gun still aimed at her. Luckily, she was not injured physically but it took her a while to recover from the scare that she experienced.

So it was that our car that had started its life giving us problems disappeared from our lives and left us with the money of the insurance. Luckily, we managed to find a replacement very fast. It was another Land Cruiser and, despite being older, it was much more comfortable. We soon forgot the stolen car and enjoyed our “new” one with which we did most of our travel until we departed [1].

Our replacement car during a trip to Namibia in 1992.

The robbery was still fresh in our minds when a copycat one took place about ten days later. This time the victim was our colleague and friend Giuseppe. Unfortunately, he was being driven by Mr. Mutale and the latter tried to resist the attackers. He was punched on the nose by the robbers but, luckily, nothing else happened, considering that robbers were rather rough on the local people. This time it was Giuseppe that got traumatized and needed to get through the insurance claiming process and to get a replacement car.

After that spell, we tightened the security measures at the house and, fortunately, no more cars were taken! Although shocking at the time, it was a small price to pay for two armed robberies!

[1] We left Zambia for Italy, so it was with great regret that I sold the car. A young Italian bought it and also got attached to it. When he was transferred to Kenya a couple of years later, he took the car with him and enjoyed for a few more years.

Spot the beast 81

Winter is not the best season to spot beasts at our farm in Salta, Argentina. Today was, however, an exception and we came across this beast that I would like you to spot and then I will give you more details about it.

To find the beast above is very difficult so I put a close-up to help you seeing it better:

I am quite sure that you have now find it. it is a Rococo toad (Rhinella schneideri) [1] that Mabel unearthed while shifting a pile of sand to build a carport at our farm. Luckily it was alive and unharmed but amazingly flaccid, clearly hibernating.

A cleaner toad for you to see better.
“Side B” of the toad.

This rococo had buried itself at the start of the winter, probably in mid May as the winter started early this year and it will resurface when the warmer temperatures arrive in September/October. We re-buried it as well as we could and marked the site so that we can watch it emerging when the first warm days arrive.

The following short videos give more details of the find and the condition of the toad.

These are the pictures of an active toad found in the back patio of our farmhouse earlier this year that I used to illustrate my earlier post on this animal (see [1]). Apart from its rather impressive size, I find its clear eyes truly amazing.

IMG_4163 copy

IMG_4169 copy

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/03/04/rococo/ for more info.

Spotted – 3

Maasailand in general and the Transmara area beyond were a great source of new things for us in Kenya. Spotting red clad Maasai, carrying their traditional weapons, walking about everywhere took a while to get used to! In addition, there were plenty of wild animals to be seen not to mention the beautiful landscape that was all new to us at the time.

Intona Ranch was sited at the heart of the Transmara. The unfenced farm [1] of eight hundred hectares was -I believe- a gift of the Maasai to Joe Murumbi (see Joe Zazarte Murumbi in References) as a recognition for his service to Kenya (he was the son of a Maasai mother). The farm was a green park by the Migori River where riverine forest was present and where we used to go in the evenings to watch the flocks of Silvery-cheeked hornbills (Bycanistes brevis) returning to their favourite roosting perches.

The Migori River (in flood).
The fig tree that marked the entrance to Intona Ranch.

Scattered clumps of forest, many associated with very large termite mounds, with plenty of rare orchids speckled the landscape. This green oasis was maintained by rains that fell most afternoons due to the proximity of Lake Victoria. Apart from keeping the vegetation going, the evening storms produced the most striking sunsets that would turn red when the grass fires were raging around.

Part of Intona ranch.

The Transmara could be seen as an extension at a slightly higher altitude of the famous Maasai Mara Game Reserve and therefore the farm was inhabited by all species present in the reserve. There were also some “specials” like the Giant Forest Hogs (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) that also inhabited the Migori River area and the African Blue flycatcher (Elminia longicauda) that was found throughout the area to name just two. At the farm there were a family of resident cheetah that we often saw as well as lion and leopard that we sometimes heard.

One of Intona’s cheetah resting.

In the Transmara, the Maasai coexisted with the wild animals, not only by herds of harmless antelope and zebra but also migrating elephants and buffalo, in addition to the large predators, including numerous hyena that were seen and heard every night.

In sum, the ranch was like a dream come true for nature lovers as it was really a game park where Joe bred a few heads of cattle. I was truly lucky to work there and enjoy his hospitality for several years!

If the above was not sufficiently stunning, the house that Joe and Sheila had built there was, to put it mildly, unexpected and it took a while to get used to its presence once you had spotted it! We were used to people building amazing houses in Kenya such as the Djinn Palace [2] in the shores of Lake Naivasha (now a hotel) or the uninhabited Italian Villa [3] neat Thika that our friend Paul discovered and we explored.

One can only imagine the work involved in building such a large place in a remote location following the very high standards that Joe and Sheila must have placed for the architects to follow. Although I came to know the house well, I never counted the number of rooms it had but thirty-five rooms are mentioned by the press [4].

The front of Murumbi’s house at Intona.

There was even a small chapel and it was only recently that, through his close friend Alan Donovan, I learnt of its origin. He wrote: “Joe and Sheila loved their dogs (I can confirm that, Ed.). One of the dogs had nearly died and Joe had vowed to build a chapel if he survived. When the dog was retrieved from death’s jaw, the chapel was duly built for the staff at the ranch. The priest was called to bless the new chapel” [5]

What I can say is that the very large and white house was built following the style found at the coast of the Indian Ocean and its outside doors had probably come from Lamu. It had all necessary items to enjoy life such as a large swimming pool, a couple of patios of different styles and verandahs strategically sited to catch the sun or shade at different times of the day. The roof was high and the rooms were very large, much more than I had seen until then!

In the seventies, Joe and Alan Donovan created African Heritage, a fine antique collecting entreprise that yielded some unique artifacts and became Africa’s first art gallery in Nairobi and pioneered the retail of art and craft [6]. Joe and Sheila had their main house in Muthaiga, an exclusive neighbourhood in Nairobi where they kept most of their art but a lot of these spilled over to the Transmara.

At the Intona house there were several works of art both, African and European. Among the latter there were several large oil paintings by some of the Dutch Masters (I was told). African art was all over, and this included Lamu chairs, different masks and an old trunk with an amazing lock. One of my favourites was what a called a Juju man [7]. This fierce-looking carving was parked in the hall until one day it disappeared. Later I learnt that my friend Alan had helped Joe to carry it to the UK where it was sold.

The sitting room.

With so much art around, the house resembled a true museum but my interest was mainly in the library composed of two adjoining rooms with roof to floor and wall to wall bookshelves that held a treasure in books I had not seen before. It was rummaging through this true treasure that I spent most of the free time I had, mainly after sunset.

The library had windows to the front of the house where a large telescope pointed to the clear night skies of the Transmara. At first glance it revealed memorabilia of Joe’s political life, including various decorations and many pictures of Joe with other political players of the time. I remember pictures of him with Jomo Kenyatta, Haile Selassie and Julius Nyerere to mention those I can still “see” today.

Once I assimilated the memorabilia I focused on the books. These were mainly dealing with Africana, and they included most first editions of all major books published on Africa and, particularly, on Kenya, a list too long to be mentioned here and one that I now do not recall that well but many were antiques. However, having spent many hours delving through books with and without Joe, I still remember author proofs that had been sent to him for comments prior to their publication by various famous authors.

I vividly remember the evening that, despite his mobility problems [8], Joe invited me to the library “I wish to show you some special things” he said as I followed him to the library. He headed straight to one of the bookshelves located on the left wall and pulled out a large shallow drawer. It contained postal stamps! Joe became very enthusiastic and started to show me his collection.

He showed me the first stamp produced by Kenya Uganda and Tanzania in 1935 during the times of King George V. He had the complete set of Kenya stamps that included all first day issues as well as loose stamps. He then opened another drawer where he removed several Penny Black specimens, the first stamp issued in the UK in 1840 and all the ones that followed it up to the present date. He was extremely pleased with his collections!

Joe Murumbi in his library. Credit: https://www.the-star.co.ke/

Joe donated all his books and documents, numbering several thousands, to the Kenya nation. Among these are more than six thousand books published before the 1900s, and a rare original manuscript from David Livingstone. His books occupy the Joe Murumbi Gallery, a large area in the ground floor of the Kenya National Archives library. He also donated his African stamp collections, believed to be the most important in the world, after the Queen of England’s collection!

Sadly, Joe died in 1990 and Sheila in 2000. A Memorial Garden at the Nairobi City Park was established by the Murumbi Trust where, fortunately, they are both kept to be remembered as they deserve.

As for the magnificent house, before departing from Kenya I failed to convince the Director of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology to negotiate for it to become a training centre. Regretfully, the house started to deteriorate after Joe’s death and it is now, I believe, a subject of a legal wrangling. After severl years of neglect the house is now almost a ruin from which all movable fittings have been taken and most of it is overgrown by vegetation. A sad end to a beautiful place that I first “spotted” in 1981.

Credit of the three photos above: https://www.kenyans.co.ke/news/40142-former-vps-2000-acre-luxury-home-sorry-state-photos

[1] An old plow track was all that demarcated the ranch.

[2] “During the colonial era, “The Djinn Palace” was “where things usually were very lively” for the Happy Valley set, according to Ulf Aschan.[7] It was built for Ramsay-Hill’s wife, Molly (née Edith Mildred Maude; 1893–1939), who had an affair with and later married Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll“. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oserian (Seen on 4 July 2021).

[3] What we called the “Italian Villa” was abandoned, complete with underwater illuminated pool, bath on the top of the roof from where the view of the Yatta plateau was amazing and its own cells where we were told by the caretaker that employees were locked as punishment. I read somewhere that its rich owner tried to surprise his fiancée that was driving a convertible along the Mombasa Road with a low flight past and killed her by accident. I have been searching for info on this villa and its history but, so far, fruitlessly.

[4], [5] and [8] See: https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/entertainment/lifestyle/2001259735/vice-presidents-mansion-now-home-to-wild-animals and https://www.kenyans.co.ke/news/40142-former-vps-2000-acre-luxury-home-sorry-state-photos Consulted on 28 June 2021.

[6] See: https://africanheritagehouse.info/portfolio-item/murumbi-legacy/ and https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/alan-donovan-my-journey-through-african-art-and-culture-african-heritage-house/jwLyrn0e9lfwJg?hl=en – Both consulted on 28 June 2021 for more information.

[7] We used this name meaning “magic man” as we thought it had some supernatural power. I googled and learnt that it was Nkondi, one of the mystical statuettes made by the Kongo people of the Congo region and considered aggressive. The name means hunter and they are believed to hunt down and attack wrong-doers, witches, or enemies.

[8] Joe was recovering from a stroke that he had suffered sometime before I met him.

The Chongwe confluence revisited

Mauro, my father-in-law that went with us to Lufupa in the Kafue National Park, loved fishing so we thought it would be a good idea to take him to the Chongwe confluence, after our earlier interesting fishing trip with our friend Chris [1]. Apart from fishing, he was also keen on camping, and, after all, we had acquired a rubber dinghy and we were also eager to use it again on a fishing trip.

So, to make the outing worthwhile, I took a Friday off so that we could spend an extra day in the bush. In addition to Mauro the group included Flori (at the time six months old) and Annie. The two latter members would sleep at the back of the car, just in case.

By the time of the trip, we were familiar with the road, not only from the trip with Chris but also because we had visited the Gwabi [2] Fishing camp in the shores of the Kafue River and spent a couple of weekends fishing there. The camp allowed you to launch your boat and, after a few kilometres down the Kafue River you could reach the Zambezi River and enjoy its quiet beauty.

This time, as with Chris, we left the road leading to Gwabi and turned towards Chiawa, crossed the Kafue river in the men-operated pontoon and continued to the Chongwe, hoping to remember the way but certain that, as long as we kept the Zambezi river on our right, the Chongwe River would block our route and there would be the camping area.

The going was slow as the road after the pontoon had deteriorated and presented us with a few ditches that were challenging but that we managed to cross to the amazement of Mauro that was not used to rough riding! We got to the camp in late afternoon. The grass at the campsite was -again- very tall and, although we could hear the river, we could not see it! Conversely, we could clearly see the elephant family that was busy feeding on the trees surrounding the camping area. The latter were very tolerant of our presence, and they gradually moved away a few metres. In that way we coexisted for as long as we were there.

Once Mauro recovered from the proximity of the elephants and the grunting of the hippos nearby we cut the grass until we had a good area for camp, and set up our tents. We finished just before darkness and, as we had carried our dinner cooked from home, I told Mauro that it was now time to try some evening fishing while dinner was made ready.

Carefully, we walked to the shore through the tall grass and arrived at the river that was, conveniently, clear of grass and offered a good area to fish from. We placed some large chunks of meat on our hooks, casted close to the shore and waited for the action to start.

While fishing with Chris, I had learnt that, apart from tiger fish, the Zambian rivers also harboured other predatory fish, among them the Vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis), a kind of catfish that could reach truly large sizes. The largest Vundu recorded reached 55kg [3] but there could be references of larger ones but I did not find them.

A small Vundu recently caught at Kariba, Zimbabwe.

Enthusiastic, I explained to Mauro what we were after, comparing the Vundu to fish that occur in the River Plate so that he could get the idea. He immediately shared my excitement. After a few more minutes Mabel called us for supper. Our hunger was stronger than our will to fish so, we secured the rods and put the “line out” alarms and joined the rest of the party to get some food.

We had not been at the table more than five minutes when we heard the unmistakable “zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz” of one of the reels that indicated that a fish was taking line fast.

We ran towards the shore, I grabbed the rod and pulled to try to hook the culprit. My effort made no difference and the “zzzzzzzzzzzzz” continued so I increased the drag but it made only small difference and still I was losing line. Soon all the line would had gone out and break. Mauro was as shocked and as impotent as I was and we were both getting ready for the final jerk that would mean a broken rod or a cut line when, suddenly, almost at the end of the line, it stopped. Relieved, I tried to reel in some line to have some in reserve in case another run would come. The line did not move. “Mauro, we have a really huge vundu. Please bring the torch to see where the line is” I said while holding the tense rod.

Light on the line revealed that it was nearly horizontal! The fish had stopped at a considerable distance from us and I suspected that the line had got caught on a submerged tree. Further manipulations, including the trick of pulling the line and suddenly releasing it failed to solve the problem. We pulled the line as much as we thought it prudent with no results and, eventually, we decided to leave it until the morning and go with the boat to try to recover the fish. We finished dinner during which the fish became the only topic of conversation.

After dinner, while sitting by the fire the speculation continued about the size of the fish and how we were going to tackle it the following day until, we were silenced by the unmistakable call of a leopard [4] very close to us! We were explaining Mauro that there was a leopard close when the hyenas added their own calls, adding theirs to the leopard’s.

Postponing our bedtime we hastily moved to the car to go and have a look. Although we saw hyenas, we failed to see the leopard and we returned to camp. While Mabel and Annie were putting Flori to sleep and Mauro aranged his tent, I opened my copy of “Fishes of Kariba” by Dale Kenmuir in pages 84-85 (I had opened the book a few times there so it always opened there!) and I re-read the description of theVundu behaviour “…powerful fighters and if not using the current to assist them will often ‘hole up’ somewhere. Hence you need a stout road and heavy breaking strain line to land one. Common baits are blue-mottled soup, liver, ox-heart, fish fillet, or bird entrails…try the Zambezi … (if not required for eating, please throw them back!)”. Convinced that we definitely have one holed up somewhere, I went to sleep trying to develop a plan to recover it.

The following morning started with the checking of the rod but the line had been cut during the night so we did not know what was at the end of it. After putting new line in the reel it was time to assemble the boat. We needed to pump its air tanks with a foot pump and install the floorboards, engine, etc. After about an hour we finally started our day of boating in the Zambezi with a full crew.

We spent the day trying to fish but sightseeing in the Zambezi was our first priority. We enjoyed cruising slowly through the river trying to avoid getting stranded on the frequent and shallow sand banks. We watched crocodiles in the water or basking in the sandy shores, their mouths opened releasing heat. We also spotted a few male buffalo enjoying the freshness of the shallows and seeking relief from the itching of the many parasites they usually carry.

The stars of the show, however, were the hippos. We came across a number of large pods engaged in their social activities and announcing their presence grunting from a distance so that we could avoid them without problems. We respected them greatly after an experience we had with a large male in lake Naivasha (Kenya). We were boating in a shallow part of the lake when a lone hippo appeared out of the blue and charged us. We had a very narrow escape pushing the boat to a deeper part before it caught up with us! We remembered this incident every time we saw hippos! However, if watched from a prudent distance, they are very entertaining.

We did not only watch animals but also attempted to fish but with not much success. We only had one good strike and, following Murphy’s Law, it happened while I was passing a cup of tea to Mauro and this interfered with the right response so the fish jumped and got away expelling the lure some distance away, luckily in the opposite direction from our boat.

We got back to camp in the afternoon, with time to start a fire and be better prepared for our second attempt at catching the -so far- elusive Vundu, a much talked about subject during the day! Again, we used sizeable chunks of beef well secured in our hooks. When we were satisfied with our preparations, I threw the first line at about 20 metres from the shore.

As soon as the meat hit the water, something stirred the water nearby and started moving. Then I saw more movement and about five greenish heads with long snouts converging towards my line! I reeled in frantically, trying to bring in the meat before the crocodiles grabbed it and run, trying to avoid a repeat of the events of the previous night! Clearly, the crocs were faster than the Vundu and the mistery of the night before was cleared: a croc had taken the meat, swam away, and stopped to eat it on one of the small islands that dotted the river nearby.

We abandoned night fishing as it would have been only good to fatten the crocs while Mauro was still shockedwith the concept of fishing with crocodiles. After a while we shared a good laugh with Mabel that, for a while, let us know that our fishing reputation had been dented.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2021/05/05/the-chongwe-confluence/

[2] I was informed at the camp that a “gwabi” in the local language means an area where the river gets wider and the current reverses creating a swirl where -apparently- fish like to be.

[3] See: https://www.fishbase.se/Summary/SpeciesSummary.php?ID=2319&AT=vundu Consulted on 27 June 2021.

[4] A leopard call closely resembles the sound of a hand saw cutting a log and, as the lion roar, it is unmistakable.

Kafue National Park (KNP)

With an area of 22,400 square kilometres the KNP is the largest in Zambia, 35% of all the area devoted to parks in the country and the fifth in size in the whole of Africa. It started in 1920 as a Game Reserve as an effort to protect the then dwindling wild animal population.

Map of the KNP. Credit: Nanzhila Safari Camp.

In 1950 it was declared a National Park named after the river basin where most of its land is found. It was only gazetted as such in 1972, the year that the construction of the Itezhi-tezhi dam started. In 1957 Norman Carr [1] was appointed its first Wildlife Warden, post that he will keep until 1960. His appointment coincided with the finalization of most of the eleven accommodation facilities of the park namely Ngoma, Nanzhila, Kalala, Itumbi, Chunga, Mapunga, Lufupa, Moshi, Treetops, Lushimba and Ndulumina.

The KNP hosted most of the animals found in Southern Africa [2] but it was not a place where you expected, in general, to find high densities of game because of the size of the park. To make matters worse, at the time we were in Zambia, the Angolan rebels had almost exterminated the game in the mid-eighties and carried the meat, ivory and other animal parts west from Zambia. The Park was not very popular with tourists in contrast with other options such as the South Luangwa National park and others.

We visited the KNP a few times, spending sometime in the southern part of the park, closer to Lusaka, visiting the Itezhi-tezhi area where we did some boating and stayed a couple of times, mainly when we wished to get out of Lusaka to a place relatively close to it. However, the area was popular and did not offer lots of game so we did not visited it very often.

I must clarify that we still had our Kenya memories of very large numbers of game in our minds and the KNP appeared as an empty park to us despite it being recovering from the earlier heavy pouching.

We did travel to the northern part of the park as it was not too far from our project area at Lutale in Central Province. We stayed at Ngoma lodge that, at the time offered basic facilities and catering. Luckily, its staff made up for the lack of luxury as they were very friendly and particularly kind to our children. We drove many kilometres through the bush in search of game but our reward were a few elephants that were not very approachable. On a positive note, we found the rare Roan antelope (Hippotragus equinus) and I even managed to get a (bad) picture of a bull!.

Our first sighting of a Roan antelope.

We were non-plussed by the KNP for about a year and we had decided to leave it and devote ourselves to explore other areas. At that time a friend recommended as to visit the Lufupa Camp, situated in the northern sector of the park.

We decided to spend a long weekend there and we were rewarded. The camp, beautifully sighted near the confluence of the Lufupa and Kafue rivers, was an area rich in floodplains, broad-leaved woodland, abundant riverine vegetation and “dambos” [3]. Around Lufupa we saw more wildlife than we had spotted in the rest of the park. Plain game such as zebra, buffalo, greater kudu and impala were present as well as the Roan antelope as mentioned above.

We also saw a few elephants that did not reside there but moved through at times. In addition, bird life was also abundant around the camp with some rare species found there, namely Pel’s fishing owl, African finfoot and Half-collared kingfisher. Despite these plusses, we were happy to learn that Lufupa’s fame was built on its frequent leopard sightings particularly during the night drives organized by the camp.

A lone elephant at the KNP.

Once there and after spending our first day driving around in search of game, we booked a night game drive. We left our young daughter with Annie at camp and we joined “MAP” Patel [4] in search of the elusive leopards, a cat that we had rarely seen during our years and Kenya and never in Ethiopia. We noted that MAP talked little and he seemed to be on a mission: to find leopards. He stood next to the driver with his hunting gun while intensively watching the dark bush. We also noted that he had the ring finger of his right hand missing and I seem to recall that he told us that he had lost it to a leopard on a game drive a while before. No wonder he was so alert!

I remember that first night drive as a long and rather uneventful. We were not yet used to night drives so, we focussed intensively on the illuminated circle of the searchlight and we soon got our eyes tired. In addition, it became cold as time passed and leopards were not easy to spot that night. Luckily, towards the end of the drive and when -being unprepared- we were getting very cold, the other car that had gone out with us radioed to tell MAP of the location of a leopard. We joined them and saw our first “Zambian” leopard that we soon lost when it walked into thick bush.

We enjoyed that first experience at Lufupa and we kept planning to return. This took place during the visit of Mauro, my father-in-law, from Uruguay with who we shared a few trips around Zambia. With him, Flori (daughter) and Annie (nanny) we went to Lufupa for a second time, looking forward to sighting leopards again. We were not disappointed.

During the first day of game viewing we were returning to camp for lunch when one of the drivers stopped us and told us the location of a couple of cheetah. Without hesitation, lunch was postponed and we drove in the direction that we were told, hoping that the cheetah would still be there and that we would find them.

Luckily, Mabel saw them immediately and we had a great time watching them until they decided to disappear in the bush. That evening we booked a night drive. This time we were with a different guide but in radio contact with MAP’s car. As soon as we left the camp, we found two large male lions walking on the road and we stayed with them for a long while as they seemed to be hunting.

We followed the two large males for about five kilometres while they took advantge of the road and marked lots of bushes as it often happens. This was our first experience with lions at very close quarters in an open vehicle at night and I must confess that it was very exciting not only for my father in law but also for us!

When they decided to move out of the road and into the thicket I expected that we would continue our errand but MAP did not have it and he went straight into thick bush after them and we followed. After about half hour the pair entered into an area of thick bush that was too much, even for MAP! Somehow we -miraculously for me- soon were back on the road and again focussed on leopards. We drove for a while until we bumped on a lonely female that we watched until it was time to return to camp as it was getting late and, again, rather cold. That day remains in our memory as the one when we saw the three large cats!

On that trip, for the second night drive we joined MAP himself and he lived up to his reputation. We found six leopards in various spots during the drive. The last one was hunting and MAP decided to wait and see what happened. He stopped the car and switched the search lamp off. Gradually our eyes adjusted to darkness helped by the available moonlight. The leopard was about twenty metres from an impala when we first spotted it and it was completely still.

After waiting for half an hour, the predator had slowly crept forward and it was now at about four metres from the impala. The latter remained totally unaware of the danger and, unbelievably for us, continued grazing and looking the other way. We were getting excited and whispered to each other that the attack would happen any time.

We waited for the attack with bated breath but, amazingly, the leopard kept approaching until its nozzle was almost touching its prey! At that point, the impala either saw it or caught the leopard’s scent and it took off! While relaxing from the tension we were under, we made comments about the incredible sight we have just seen, and MAP explained that this is the way leopards often hunt and the event we witnessed was a rare one as the leopard missed!

The following video illustrates an accelerated but similar situation to what we witnessed that night except that “our” leopard failed to get its prey. Although it shows a kill, I believe that you will take it as a natural ocurrence in the normal predator-prey relationship in real life.

After that night Lufupa was included in our list of best places we ever visited. Regrettably, we did not return to it but plan to do it as soon as we can. The idea is to combine our return with a visit to the Busanga plains, a swampy area fed by the Lufupa river and also located in northern KNP. Busanga was and still is a great area for game viewing. In particular there are large numbers of puku (Kobus vardonii) and red lechwe (Kobus leche) together with many other ungulates. To make the place even more attractive, it is also one of the best areas to witness the epic confrontation between lions and buffalo. We cannot wait for the Covid 19 pandemic to go away!

[1] See:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Carr – Consulted on 16/6/2021.

[2] See: https://www.zambiatourism.com/destinations/national-parks/kafue-national-park/ – Consulted on 16/6/2021.

[3] “A dambo is a class of complex shallow wetlands in central, southern and eastern Africa, particularly in Zambia and Zimbabwe. They are generally found in higher rainfall flat plateau areas and have river-like branching forms which in themselves are not very large, but combined add up to a large area. Dambos have been estimated to comprise 12.5% of the area of Zambia. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dambo (Consulted on 18 June 2021).

[4] Muhammed Ahmed Patel alias ‘MAP’ was an outstanding police officer and commander of the anti-theft squad of Lusaka with a reputation of being a tough and fair cop and a great human being. At the time of our visits to Lufupa Camp, he guided, and he had a reputation of being able to smell leopards. A hero for many, he died in 2012. See: https://www.facebook.com/InMemoryOfMapPatel/?ref=page_internal (Consulted on 17 June 2021).

Hooked! A short fishing story

Often beer and fishing go together although I am not sure that drinking had anything to do with this story that happened to a fishing friend that I will call Phil. He loved to go for tigerfish as many people in Southern Africa do.

Tigerfish are placed by many among the best freshwater game fish in the world, together with salmon, bass, trout and the South American dorado among others [1]. Being one of the top predators of the African rivers, it is always on “hunting mode”, looking for prey, mostly smaller fish although some have been seen catching swallows in flight [2] and probably will also catch swimming birds.

The bushsnob with a tigerfish caught in Zimbabwe.

It is no surprise then that their aggressivity is used to catch them by means of shiny and colourful lures that are either cast and retrieved or trolled behind the boat until they are taken by the fish. When this happens, you react by strongly pulling your rod, hoping to hook it. The latter is very difficult to achieve because the fish has a very bony jaw that resists the sharpest of hooks.

The consequence is that often the fish feels the hook, jumps outside the water, violently shakes its head and dislodges the lure that goes flying, often back to the water where sometimes it attempts to catch it again as soon as it hits the water, apparently indifferent to the hooks! Sometimes, however, it lands on the boat and, rarely it can even hit you as if the fish would aim the lure at you!

So it was that one Friday, not thinking on all of the above, Phil and friends traveled to the Chongwe confluence to spend a weekend in search of tigerfish. They stayed at the same place we were with our friend Chris and on Saturday morning, very early, they were in the water. After a while Phil had a good take and he stroke. The fish reacted jumping out of the water and, as I mentioned, shaking its head managed to dislodge the lure.

That in itself would have been frustrating for Phil but it got worse. Before he could move, the lure came flying straight at him, more precisely to his face. One of the hooks got embedded in his upper lip from where the rather large lure hanged while Phil screamed in pain as lips are very sensitive areas of our bodies.

Being brave and trying not to spoil the fishing for everybody, he held the lure up to avoid it pulling from his lip while a friend carefully cut the line and then detached the lure, leaving only the hook in his lip. A quick check revealed bad news: the hook had gone in beyond the barb. Phil, bravely, tried to pull it out but, as expected, the pain was too much. He decided to leave it in place and put up with the pain to enable his friends to continue fishing.

After a while, the pain was getting worse so they decided to return to camp to attempt to remove it on firm ground. Soon it was clear that the hook would not go back out and the movement only made matters worse. It was then that Phil decided to have a final attempt at removal by pushing it so that it would go through the lip and they could cut it. He nearly fainted with pain and all further attempts were abandone hoping that leaving it alone would decrease the discomfort to tolerable levels.

Soon it became apparent that Phil could not put up with the discomfort any longer and, unanimously, they decided to return to Lusaka to see a doctor that could remove it and end Phil’s misery. Although the journey back was rather tough, the actual removal of the hook took the doctor about ten minutes and Phil did not even end with a scar to show for his predicament!

This rather unusual and rather unpleasant event did not dent Phil’s fishing drive although I believe that he remembers it (as I do) whenever he hooks a tigerfish!

[1] See: https://igfa.org/game-fish-database/ and https://pescariasa.com.br/english/top-13-species-of-freshwater-fish-in-world-sport-fishing/

[2] G. C. O’Brien, F. Jacobs, S. W. Evans, N. J. Smit (2013). First observation of African tigerfish Hydrocynus vittatus predating on barn swallows Hirundo rustica in flight. Fish Biology 84, 263-266.

Spotted! – 2

As I mentioned before, my work in the Transmara in Kenya took me often through Narok when the weather was dry and I could drive through the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, up the Oloololo escarpment and then through the wheat fields and Lolgorien to Intona Ranch.

During the rains, however, the Maasai Mara would become muddy but still passable but the road on top of the Oloololo escarpment would be deep mud first and then there was the infamous soapy red hill where the journey ended -at least for a while- for many!

Benson, Joseph and the Bushsnob resting after going through the water-logged Lolgorian road.

Those wet days I would travel through tarmac via Kericho until reaching Kilgoris and from then to Intona through a muddy but shorter route that, usually, we could negotiate, but not always without trouble.

Stuck during one of the few ocassions that I was driven to Intona (with visitors) via Kilgoris.

Narok was a classical “border” town in the sense that it was the last stop before you entered into the “wilderness” beyond. It was in Narok where you re-fueled and bought your last essential supplies for you and your workers. The latter would go for the needed vegetables (read cabbage) as well as meat to last them for the two weeks spell they would spend at the ranch.

In addition, malaria was feared but they often did not get the chloroquine to protect them from it so we needed to get them from the pharmacy in town that happened to be next door to the butchery named “Jamaica”. Although the chemist was well identified, its neon sign was “interesting”. It read “Madawa” and “Duka la dawa” which mean drugs and pharmacy in Ki-Swahili.

Clearly, there was not enough room for the sign to be placed vertically so an ingenious electrician has placed on its side! Although I never seen it in its full glory during the night, I would have loved to have seen the face of the Hoechst general manager when he/she saw it for the first time. The sign is probably no longer there after all these years neither is Hoechst that is now part of Sanofi-Aventis.

Kilgoris also offered an interesting sign that was the meeting place in the Transmara when, with my boss Matt, I met Alan for my first visit to Intona Ranch [1]. Our rendezvous was the “Kilgoris Nylon Night Club” that, I must confess, I never saw its inside although I would have stayed there in case of breaking down as there were few other offers for accommodation in the place.

Judging by the disproportionate and (to me) unfortunate increase in the number of lodges and camps in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve that went from less than ten in the 80’s to a staggering 118 today [2], this night club is probably now a resort belonging to one of the major international hotel groups. Although the name of a few possible owners come to mind, I leave it there!

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/06/01/intona-ranch1/

[2] See: https://www.booking.com – Consulted on 6 June 2021.