The Nguruman Escarpment

My earlier post on lake Magadi [1] brought to my memory the only trip I made to the Nguruman escarpment. I traveled there with Robin after a few years in Kenya, on a collaborative work with the Tsetse Programme of the ICIPE that was working on the control of tsetse flies and trypanosomosis [2].

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Maasai boys with their sheep and goats on one of the Magadi causeways.

The Nguruman Escarpment forms the western boundary of Kenya’s Rift Valley to the south near the border with Tanzania. The trip from Nairobi to Nguruman went through the green foothills of the Ngong Hills followed by a long descent to the semiarid plains on the floor of the Great Rift Valley, crossing Lake Magadi in a westerly direction.

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Lake Magadi.

After leaving the lake area there was a rather endless drive through dusty, rough and undulated dirt and very dusty tracks crossing very arid terrain.

As you finally approach its foothills about 60km after the lake, the vegetation changed and mango and pawpaw trees and other vegetables and fruits appeared thanks to some water available from the Entasopia and Ewaso Ng’iro Rivers that, coming from the Mau Escarpment, flow along the base of the Nguruman hills to end at Lake Natron in Tanzania.

The Nguruman -as this rather remote area is usually known- was inhabited by the Maasai and, as usual, they shared it with game. The pastoralists understood the benefits of controlling tsetse flies and welcomed the project to their land. As the main principle of the ICIPE was to avoid the use of pesticides, our entomologist colleagues were introducing odour-baited traps to control the population of the tsetse fly (Glossina pallidipes) in an area of 100km sq., groundbreaking work at the time.

The drive to get to the project area required some special arrangements. Because of the heat, it was impossible to drive with closed windows in a non air-conditioned car as our Series III Land Rover was. Very soon the white car bonnet would acquire a shade of gray because of the tsetse flies and very soon they would start getting inside!

So, while the driver focused on avoiding the frequent and challenging road hazards, the passenger in the front seat did not just seat there looking pretty: his/her job was to destroy flies, particularly those landing on the driver! This was a very specialized job. If you were too careful, the fly would survive but hitting too hard could startle the driver with unknown consequences. In addition the victim could start thinking that old scores were being settled by the procedure and retaliate…

The project was also original in that the Maasai themselves made their own tsetse-catching traps with project support. At the time of our visit one hundred of them, baited with acetone and cow urine [3], had been placed in woodland areas where this fly species aggregate during the dry season. The traps were checked monthly for maintenance.

Our visit was during the early stages of the work but towards the end of their intervention they managed a reduction of 98–99% relative to the number 3 km outside the project suppression zone. So, at the time of our visit this was still not known and the work had a feverish intensity and enthusiasm.

Our job was a minor one and consisted in identifying the ticks present on the Maasai livestock in order to complete the parasite spectrum affecting the animals. So, we spent a couple of days collecting ticks from cattle, sheep and goats to later identify them in the laboratory.

Apart from some ICIPE support staff, the project employed and collaborated with a substantial number of Maasai villagers. In particular I recall a young Maasai teenager that has just undergone the “Emuratta” (circumcision) when we visited and he was working still clad in his dark tunic with the accompanying head-dress made of stuffed birds hunted with blunt arrows as it is traditional. He also carried his bow and arrows with him all the time to shoot any unaware birds to add to his collection. He had become the main nexus with the Maasai community as he was good in English.

Over the couple of nights we camped there, we listened to interesting stories. We learnt that traps suffered from animal damage and also from theft so they required frequent checking to make sure that they were operating to their full effect. The “trap rounds” were done by car as much as possible but walking was also involved and, often these resulted in meeting dangerous game.

It was not the lions that were most feared but buffalo. These animals, particularly the old and lone males also known as “Black Death” can be extremely dangerous, and it is believed that they are responsible for killing more big game hunters than any other animal in Africa so extreme care was taken and the Maasai usually accompanied the technicians for protection or at least “early warning” so that a suitable tree to climb could be found! We saw some rather wild-looking buffalo bulls but always -luckily- from the safety of the car.

The soil in the Rift Valley has a great content of volcanic ash and it is common to drive through it in several places in Kenya. However, nothing prepares you for the driving at Nguruman. The abundant and very fine ash behaves like water and in some places it can be over 50cm deep. The car made waves of dust and in deep areas 4WD was needed to go through while the ash splashed the windscreen covering it and impeding vision unless the wipers were full on. You would breath and eat lots of dust while you wished it was raining although this would only bring a different challenge!

We heard lion roaring in the distance every night but we were extra safe camping in the heart of a Maasai community as predators kept their distance. So, to see lions you needed to drive quite a distance towards the Loita hills and then the Maasai Mara but that was not the purpose of our trip.

I do remember a story one of the project drivers told us while seating by the fire enjoying a Tusker beer. Some time back, when the project was still an idea, he was driving through the Nguruman woodlands when he caught a glimpse of red near the road. He went to investigate and found a piece of Shuka, the Maasai traditional tunic. Nearby he spotted its owner, dead and showing signs of having been mauled by a lion.

Wearily moving around he noted that the grass and bushes around the spot showed signs of a great fight. Eventually, a few metres farther he found a speared young male lion, also dead. Two dead braves were all that remained to show for the long-term enmity between Maasai and lions!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/09/10/lake-magadi/

[2] Dransfield, R., Brightwell, R., Kyorku, C. & Williams, B. (1990). Control of tsetse fly (Diptera: Glossinidae) populations using traps at Nguruman, south-west Kenya. Bulletin of Entomological Research 80: 265 – 276.

[3] Buffalo urine was also used if available.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A vet in Maasai land

“… Engai (the Maasai God – Ed) had three children to whom he gave three gifts. The first received an arrow to make his living by hunting, the second a hoe to dig the land and grow crops, and the third a stick to use in herding cattle. This third son, whose name was Natero Kop, was the father of the Maasai, who have since that time been the proud keepers of cattle.” [1]

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When I arrived to work at Intona Ranch, I did not know much about the Maasai, apart from having seen them walking in Nairobi with their unmistakable attire and, later, during my first trip to Intona with Alan. At the time, Billy Konchellah was about twenty years old and getting ready to become a world sport idol by winning the 800 metres world title twice (1987 and 1991) and becoming, I guess, the most famous Kilgoris-born citizen.

Later, as I traveled to and from the Transmara I got to know the Maasai better. As soon as they learnt that I was a “Daktari wa mifugo” [2], my prestige among them instantly improved and, as soon as I arrived to Intona they would bring any sick animal they would have.

As I mentioned before, Intona was given to Joe Murumbi, the son of a Maasai lady, as homage for his distinguished career in Kenya politics. He was a father figure in the area and he had many visitors, many of them Maasai. Most came by foot and on the way to the main house they all stopped to look at the cattle, their main interest. In particular they spend an inordinate amount of time observing the nice-looking Boran cattle a novelty we brought into Intona from Northern Kenya for our trials and I already narrated what happened to some of the latter when some unscrupulous Maasai liked them too much! [3]

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I also visited their dwellings known as manyattas [4] when called to check sick animals and I still feel the dung smoke in my nostrils at entering a dark manyatta for a visit. With no other ventilation than the entrance door, there was dense smoke as we sat down to talk while sharing a gourd of milk with the house owners. Occasionally I also participated in some of their ceremonies when my presence in Intona coincided with them.

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I inherited a strong dislike of flies from my father who fought a lifelong war against flies. He always had a fly swatter at hand but when he did not, he would catch them with one hand by placing it open and about 20cm from the fly and then sweeping it fast to catch it. He would then kill it by throwing it against the floor! I inherited this ability and became as good as him!

As flies bred freely in the cattle dung around the manyattas they were extremely abundant and annoying. As I did not have a swatter I defended myself by catching them with my hand to the amusement of my hosts that just ignored them or used a fly whisk to scare them away. So, on a lighter note I am proud to say that I had ample opportunity to demonstrate my fly-catching skills in Maasailand and once, with one move of my hand, I caught twenty-seven of the pests! This feat, regrettably, did not enter the Guinness and, frankly, it was more a consequence of the amount of flies rather than my skills!

The Maasai are well known for their ancient enmity with lion -that yesteryear they would kill to reach adulthood- as well as for drinking the blood of their cattle on special circumstances. However, what I remember them for was their amazing relationship with their cattle and how much they love them and cared for them. Regardless of the number of animals owned, each one has a name and ancestry and rarely they would part from them.

One of their tales says that at the beginning of time the Maasai did not own any cattle and that one day God called Maasinta, the first Maasai, and asked him to build a large enclosure. One the latter was completed God said that the early the following day he would fill it with something called cattle and Maasinta must stay very silent. In anticipation, Maasinta went to the enclosure and waited. Suddenly there was loud thunder and cattle of all shapes and colours started to descend.

Although Maasinta just managed to keep silent, his Dorobo [5] companion woke up with the commotion and when he saw what was happening he proffered a loud cry. Thinking that Maasinta had shrieked, God stopped the flow of cattle and asked Maasinta if all the cattle that he had given him were not enough so he would stop sending anymore and this is the reason that the Maasai love cattle so much!

As I mentioned before, they brought animals for me to examine. Although sometimes I could get to a diagnostic and recommend a treatment, others they brought animals that, regardless of how much I checked them, I could not find anything wrong with them. When I told them so, usually a discussion ensued during which the owner (through an interpreter, usually Tommi, my Maasai herdsman) would protest bitterly as he claimed that the animal was not well and eventually he would leave shaking its head and rather upset at how little I knew!

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Maasai and JC with Land Rover

The author (centre and starting to loose hair!) with Maasai visitors.

Almost invariably the same farmer would bring the same animal back the following day with a clear clinical case of acute diarrhea, pneumonia or trypanosomosis that required immediate attention. I would then treat the animal and a happy Maasai would leave with his animal after reminding me that it was the same animal of the day before! Luckily not many came and I was not embarrassed very often!

I spent many hours with them just watching our cattle in Intona and through Tommi I got an insight of what they were saying. In short, they would note every detail of each animal and comment about it. Some liked the absence of horns of the Boran animals while others argued against it!

The coat colours were also discussed hotly. Our Boran were predominantly brown and, while some thought that this was a good colour, others preferred others such as white, black or barred. The arguments prolonged for a time I did not have so I needed to excuse myself and continue with my work while they continued arguing for a long while longer, the same way we would do while watching a sports cars show!

The true highlight was to visit their manyattas to look at their cattle. The best time to do this was in the late afternoons when the cattle returned from the day grazing to the safety of the thorny enclosure to spend the night away from four- and two-legged predators.

It will all start by greeting the owners that were usually delighted and proud to host us when they learnt that we had come to see their animals. After a while of talking with the herders you would start hearing bells in the distance that some emblematic member of the herd such as a preferred ox or cow would wear around their necks.

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Maasai children looking after livestock.

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Maasai cattle highway.

The first bellowing indicated that the herd was close and soon you could smell them well before their arrival. They soon appeared among the dust in the dry season or stopping to get the last mouthfuls of juicy grass during the rains. The animals were of many colours but sometimes they reflected the preference of their owner and a colour would predominate. The stripped and grey ones were spectacular, particularly the latter when heavily branded.

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There were also different horn shapes and sizes, from the rather large ox horns to the rather unusual “scurred” horns only attached by the skin that moved loosely as the animal walkscattle magadi... back road ngong copy

Keeping on the side, not to interfere with this daily ritual, I watched as the docile animals entered the enclosure under the careful scrutiny of the owners -both men and women- that apart from the sheer pleasure of seeing their favourite animals- checked for signs of trouble (the same I would miss when consulted!).

They will follow the progress of those that were sick, check for any newly-born calves, usually carried by the herdsmen as they were not able to walk at the speed of the adults. After all was checked the time would come for closing the thorn-bush gate and start with comments and praise of some particular animals that are special to the owners.

Gradually and gently the animals started finding their resting places inside the kraal and soon they would lay down to rest and chew their cud and eventually spend the night protected from lions and other predators that surely would look for a come to have a look for a chink in the manyatta’s armour to snatch the unaware animal.

These were among the best moments I spent in Kenya. I really felt fulfilled, realizing that I had come a long way from my former cattle work in Uruguay. I still long to return!

According to their oral history, the Maasai originated from the lower Nile valley north of Lake Turkana (Northwest Kenya) and began migrating south around the 15th century, arriving in a long trunk of land stretching from what is now northern Kenya to what is now central Tanzania between the 17th and late 18th century.

The Maasai are among the best known Africans internationally due to their residence near the many game parks of the African Great Rift Valley, and their distinctive customs and dress. There is even a theory that because their hair arrangements mimic the Roman helmets and that they wear a “toga-like” attire and a short assegai resembling the Roman sword, they had some Roman influence from some lost legions from Egypt.

While I worked in the Transmara, I met two of the people that were studying several aspects of the Maasai culture.

Fr. Frans Mol used to spend time at his Mission near Lolgorian where I found him and had a chance to talk to him, albeit briefly. I learnt that he had a great liking for the Maasai people and that he had been working as a missionary for the Mill Hill Church(?) for over 20 years at the time I met him [6].

He was fluent in the “Maa” language and got to know their cultural ways. Although he preached Christianity in several Maasai districts (Kajiado, Transmara, Laikipia and Narok), he also devoted his time to put his knowledge on paper and wrote a few books on the Maasai [7].”

Another character I knew that had great experience on the Maasai ways was a lady known in the Maasai Mara as Jacqueline. At the time we met her close to the Oloololo escarpment, in July 1982, she introduced herself as a French anthropologist that had come to the area to study the Maasai, fell in love with one of them and stayed behind.

Later on I learnt that she was Jacqueline Roumeguère-Eberhardt and that she had occupied important positions of research in France and carried out groundbreaking investigations in Southern Africa on the Venda, Tsonga, Shona, Lozi, Bushmen, apart from her on-going studies on the Maasai.

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Before her death in 2006 Jaqueline amassed a wealth of knowledge on the people she studied and she produced many scientific papers, books and films in both English and French and interestingly she was involved in an interesting event when in 1978 she caused lots of excitement among the anthropologist community by claiming that she had found hominid that dwelled in thick Kenyan forests. She called them “X” and documented a number of encounters with them by Kenyans. Although she wrote a book about this discovery [8]. However, her finding was doubted by scientists and she failed to lead an expedition to find them and they were not seen again!

In her obituary [9] published by the … it says: ‘ …Despite their cultural differences – and the presence of eight other wives – Jacqueline Roumeguere-Eberhardt claimed that she and her husband got along famously: “Every time I’m with him I learn something new about human nature and problem solving,” she told an interviewer. All the same, standards had to be maintained, and, while living the life of a tribeswoman, she never went out without applying her red Chanel lipstick and nail polish.’

Although I am not able to say anything about the first issue, I can confirm that she was always elegantly dressed and looking great when we met her in the Maasai Mara bush although I cannot swear about the make of the lipstick!

 

[1] Ole Saitoti, T. and Beckwith, C. (1986). Maasai. Elm Tree Books/Hamish Hamilton Ltd. Eds. 276p.

[2] Veterinarian in Ki-Swahili.

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2014/07/19/the-cattle-are-gone/

[4] “Manyatta is the name always used for these Maasai villages, but the correct term is “engang.” Manyattas were built especially for the warriors with their mothers and girl-friends while the engang was the family dwelling.” From: Ole Saitoti, T. and Beckwith, C. (1986..). Maasai. Elm Tree Books/Hamish Hamilton Ltd. Eds. 276p. I use manyatta as this is the word I used at the time of the story.

[5] Hunter-gatherer groups of Kenya and Tanzania associated with the Maasai.

[6] Father Moll retired at 70 on 3 December 2002 after working 44 years in Kenya.

[7] Some of the books are: Maa, a dictionary of the Maasai language and folklore: English-Maasai (1978); Lessons in Maa: a grammar of Maasai language (1995) and Maasai language & culture: Dictionary (1996).

[8] Roumeguère-Eberhardt, J. (1984). Les hominidés non identifiés des forêts d’Afrique. Robert Laffont Ed.

[9] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1518217/Jacqueline-Roumeguere-Eberhardt.html Consulted on 27 May 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spot the beast 57

See if you can spot this one. Please, do not look too much if you fail to find it in a few seconds…

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This one is really a different “Spot” as it is quite clear that we have a terrapin in front of us. However, have a good look at it.

I did not notice anything strange until my son, said “look at the terrapin doing Yoga”!

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It was rather hot in Roma so the beast was sunning one leg at a time at leisure!

Intona fun

There were a few years of work at Intona where we achieved some good scientific results. We managed to immunise cattle against theileriosis, the main cattle killer in the region and this resulted in keeping animals under relaxed tick control regimens as opposed to applying toxic chemicals two times per week as it was formerly done!

 

The trials required hard work not only for Alan and me but for the herdsmen that had the day to day responsibility of keeping activities going all the time. Although the work was demanding, we also found time for entertainment. We often went to the Migori River to try our luck at fishing although neither the Maasai nor the Kikuyu (or me) like to eat fish so we maintained a strict catch and release approach. In “Memories – A fishing trip” I described the most dramatic of these fishing outings but there were many others.

We also had some other fun that included the already described spear throwing (Javelin throwing), game driving and also walking around the farm. A great tour was the drive towards the back of Intona where you would meet the Migori river. This was one of the boundaries of the ranch. In that general area a large herd of buffalo grazed in the meadows before getting into the riverine woodlands to spend the night.

This herd was resident in the ranch and, to my amazement and concern, the cattle herd would intermingle with them while grazing! This buffalo herd did not show any aggressive behaviour towards our animals or the keepers, although the latter paid them great respect and kept a wide berth. When it was time for the cattle to start their return walk to the safety of the kraal/boma they would separate from the buffalo and start their walk following the loud whistling of the herdsmen.

By the river it was always enjoyable to spot the silvery-cheeked hornbills, large birds with large bony beaks flying over the river returning to their sleeping tree after foraging in the forest. The Transmara also had a special bird called the African blue flycatcher (Elminia longicauda), greyish below but bright blue on its dorsal part, including its head that has a small crest. Watching it its colour fluctuates with the light between blue and cyan, a magnificent sight. It also has the habit of constantly fanning its tail in a very attractive fashion. Although a common resident at Intona, it was a rare bird, always worth finding.

Walking about would take a purpose when Robin was around! He and Janet, his late wife, were very keen in collecting orchids from the tree islands. Because of the old and aggressive male buffalo that lurked inside the tree islands this was a rather risky endeavour, as we needed to enter the forest in search of the plants as well as climbing the trees to get them. Luckily, one of the young herders would do that for us!

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The tree islands where we looked for orchids.

When Joe learnt that we were going to do this, he designated his gardener as our “angel guardian” and ordered him to march with us carrying a fire siren to scare the buffalo away from the places we would visit. I always felt sorry for the poor man, as the contraption was a rather large metal frame with the siren mounted on it, looking like a large hand-cranked blacksmith’s bellows.

It was immediately apparent that the gardener knew what he was doing the moment he started turning its large handle. The pneumatic siren would then respond gradually with a grave sound that, after the machine gained momentum and the handle increased its speed, will get into a full loud siren, just like the old fire engines used to do before the new more ‘innovative” multi-tone electronic ones were introduced.

Luckily, we did not find buffalo during the few times we pursued this rather hazardous sport with a rather meagre floral reward. However, I still remember my neck hairs standing up when we heard crashing noises coming from the wooded islands preceding the sudden appearance of animals scared to death! In particular the very scared warthogs would rush out of their siesta places or burrows. A particularly hairy encounter took place when a large male came straight at us luckily veering off at the last second. A very lucky escape as these animals carry large tusks and can produce severe injuries.

Intona also hosted smaller animals and these were usually found at night. Although mongooses and hyenas were usually seen, there were others like genets, bush babies and African hares among others. To see the hares dazzled at the car lights reminded me that in Uruguay we would shoot them or even catch them while they remained stunned. We would later pickle them and enjoy their tasty meat. So, I decided that night “hare-catching” was worth a try.

I then managed to sell the idea to my companions, the herdsmen, as a different (and potentially tasty) way of spending our free time! “If we drive out after dinner, we may be able to kill a few hares” I said to my herdsmen and I added “The trick is that you dazzle them with the car lights and then you get out of the vehicle and walk slowly and silently in the dark towards them until you get close enough to grab them”. I assured them that they would be good eating as well!

The idea was accepted but the reply included that we should take one of the Maasai herdsmen as he would be the only one capable of finding the way back to camp after a while driving cross-country on the ranch! So we did and that is how Thomas also came on that venture as well as the fishing trip above.

Eventually the team assembled a moonless Saturday evening and we set off armed with “rungus“[1] to stun the unlucky hares. We started after dinner and drove slowly searching for either the hares themselves or eyes in the darkness. It was soon apparent that looking for “eyes” was a fruitless exercise as the latter belonged to a number of different animals but no hares were detected.

Like this we bumped into topis, zebras, impalas, hyenas and white-tailed mongooses, among other beasts. It was clear that we would have to bump into them and hope that they would be dazzled by our headlamps!

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Impala like this were among the eyes we saw.

After a while, a suitable hare was spotted and eventually it stopped its run and looked at us. The “hare-catchers” jumped out as planned while I kept the car with the beam pointed at the hare. Despite our efforts, the hare must have caught movements in the dark and soon took off. The empty-handed catchers returned to the car and we continued our search until another hare was dazzled and off they jumped again. This time one of them went too close to the beam and his shadow interfered with the hare that also took off.

The hunt was proving more difficult than I anticipated so I decided to join the hunters for the next hare. It did not take too long to appear. I left the car running with the lights on and the four of us, two from each side, started stalking the prospective victim. I had my eyes on the hare so, when I heard a shout that I did not understand I was surprised and even more so when Mark, one of the hunters, rushed by me screaming “buffalo!, buffalo!” I did not wait and rushed to the car as fast as I could.

Thomas, the first to see the buffalo and responsible for the first screams, beat us to the car by a good margin and, luckily managed to open the back door fast, in time for all of us to jump in seconds later, ending up in a pile of hard-breathing bodies, still with the door open. Gradually we managed to talk and we all burst out laughing, releasing our fear while Mark explained that they have bumped on a few buffalo that, luckily and equally scared, run away!

I never saw anything and, as soon as we were able to move, we unanimously decided to abandon our hare chasing and return to the camp under Thomas’ guidance that, despite the encounter, still retained his bearings! It was when I turned the car around that the buffalo came to view. It was no other than the resident herd and we were lucky that we did not encounter the few large males that were also in the ranch.

The unanimous comments of the car occupants was that they were all in favour of continuing with their “hareless” diet of ugale (white maize polenta) and cabbage!

 

[1] In Ki-Swahili, a wooden club with a thick end, similar to the knobkerrie of South Africa.

Traveling to Intona

While in Kenya in the 80s, periodic trips to the Transmara were required to run the tick and tick-borne disease fieldwork. At the beginning we took turns with Alan (Alan Sidney Young) for visiting the area but gradually -as I learnt the ropes- he delegated the work to me. As a consequence -not at all undesirable- my trips became more frequent and I found myself driving to Intona every two or three weeks, depending on my other commitments at Muguga.

We needed to personally check the on-going field work and to collect the data gathered on a daily basis by our herdsmen that we would later analyse when back at Muguga. Luckily we also had a veterinarian on the ranch that Joe [1] had employed before I arrived. His name was Kiza and he was a refugee from Uganda that really helped a great deal with our work and he would radio us if there were any issues that needed our presence and, in that case, either Alan or myself would travel to the ranch to deal with them.

Equally important was to replace our field workers as we had a roster that we needed to maintain. In particular the Kikuyu workers found their stay among the Maasai rather trying and they were always ready to go home! After a while I realised that the trip to Maasailand was almost taken as a trip to a foreign country by them, used to stay in the highlands and to cultivate their land. As the trip to Intona progressed, their conversation became less animated! The reverse was also true, they became happier as we got closer to their home area, particularly the moment the Kikuyu escarpment came into view on the eastern wall of the Rift valley.

The trip would start in the early morning from Tigoni (later on from Nairobi) via Muguga where I would collect the herdsmen on duty for the period. Then there were two obligatory stops: at the local market near Muguga for them to buy vegetables, mainly humongous cabbages to prepare the ugale “relish” [1]. Cabbages would keep well and they were very popular. The next stop would be to load fuel at the junction with the main road (Nairobi-Kampala). Only then we were ready to go.

During the rainy season we would follow the tarmac through Nakuru, Kericho and Kisii to Kilgoris and then to Intona. Only the last 40km were dirt but passable most of the time. This way would offer superb views of the Rift Valley and its lakes (Naivasha, Elementaita and Nakuru) as well as its volcanoes (Longonot and Suswa).

We would also cross the large and tidy tea plantations of Kericho where we would normally brake the journey to stay at the colonial Kericho Tea Hotel. Need I say that the tea was probably the best I have ever drunk.

The dry weather route to Intona would take us North through Uplands and then we would start winding down the Kikuyu escarpment, pass the small Catholic church built by the Italian prisoners of WWII to continue until we branched off towards Narok. We then traversed the Great Rift Valley from East to West. In those days the savanna was dotted with antelopes and the only signs of human presence were a few small shambas [2] at the start of the road and, a few km further on, a satellite station with its giant white mushrooms.

The road skirted the lava flows from the dormant Longonot and Suswa volcanic cones and then we would climb the opposite wall of the valley where, a few km later we would get into Narok. The latter was, as expected, a predominantly Maasai town and it was the last large town on the way to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve and beyond, where we were going. We usually re-fuelled and bought the last needed items there before continuing our journey

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Going out of Narok. Maasai cattle drinks at the dam while the traffic goes by. Note the red VW kombi, the dominant minibus at the time.

Out of Narok we would follow the road past Aitong –where the early trials against theileriosis were carried out by Matt and co-workers before my arrival- and continue skirting the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, effectively the northern continuation of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, until we reached the Mara River bridge. If time allowed we would go on, otherwise there was a nice camping spot by the Mara River, next to the Mara Buffalo Camp (prior to the bridge)  where we would spend the night under canvas.

While I camped, the workers would stay at the Drivers’ accommodation at the Camp, courtesy of its Swiss Manager that would let us use it. I usually invited the workers to come to my camp in the evening for a drink and noted that there were always an extra pair of people that would come with them.

The first time this happened I thought that they were taking advantage of my hospitality and I was surprised as I did not expect this from them. I was immediately proven wrong when, as soon as they arrived to my camp, the two “escorts” would turn around and return to the lodge only to return to fetch the workers one hour later. When I asked why two people came I was told that they feared the animals too much so that they would not walk alone in the dark under any circumstances!

The Mara River is the main natural barrier for the migration of wildebeest and zebra in the Maasai Mara/Serengeti ecological system. It ends its course at Lake Victoria with an approximate length of 400km after its origin in the Mau Escarpment in Kenya.

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Mara river in the Maasai Mara and inhabitants.

The river is the main water source for the large population of grazing animals both wild and domestic as it always carries water, despite its flow getting reduced in the dry season. More recently (after our departure) changes in land use that have caused decreased vegetation cover are triggering a faster run-off of rainwater and flooding has become more common, particularly in large parts of the Tanzanian Mara basin.

For the journey I never drove anything but a Series III Long Wheel Base Land Rover (the two door van type) and these were hard to ride but truly unbreakable. Despite traveling alone most of the time, I never broke down over the many years I did this trip. After a few journeys, I got to know the people at Kichwa Tembo Camp (Elephant’s Head in Ki-Swahili), one of the camps close to the Mara River bridge, and they were very kind repairing the occasional punctures that were my only concern!

After crossing the Mara River where there was usually a Maasai cattle traffic jam and, during the wildebeest season quite a number of wildebeest as well (both alive and drowned at the river), we climbed the Oloololo escarpment and, once at the top, we had a compulsory stop to take in the magnificent view.

Below us was the Mara triangle where the green ribbon of the Mara River could be clearly seen snaking its way towards lake Victoria. When the wildebeest were in the Mara the savannah was dotted with thousands of wildebeests and zebras walking in long lines as far as the eye could see. The scene of the poster of “Out of Africa” was filmed from the Oloololo escarpment, looking at the Mara Triangle below.

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The Mara river with the Oloololo escarpment at the back, seen from the air.

As we still had some way to go, we moved on on the now flat top of the Oloololo escarpment. After a few km the road would pass through wheat fields. This unexpected sight was the result of some Maasai communities that had leased their land to commercial farmers. Once we passed the wheat the road became a track that with great luck it would be dry and rough but more often wet.

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Harvesting wheat in land leased from the Maasai.

The area was waterlogged and driving was through sticky mud. The car wheels would get into two parallel from where you could not deviate! So, while you kept the car crawling in second gear you hoped that no one would be coming from the opposite direction as the crossing would invariably end with one (or both) stuck!

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Stuck on the way to the red hill on a Land Rover station wagon that I rarely used and about to use the spare to lift the car from the muddy hole.

It was on one of these wet drives that we met a Peugeot 504 [3] buried and, after lots of digging, pushing and pulling, we managed to get it going. Unfortunately while doing this we got stuck! I looked at the occupants of the Peugeot for their solidarity but all I saw was their backs and, oblivious to our requests of help, they ignored us and drove off leaving us to dig ourselves out for quite some time and therefore to arrive very late to Nairobi.

Further on the road had another infamous section: the red hill. As its name indicates it was a steep climb over a red muddy hill with a smooth and innocent-looking surface that when you were on it it was like driving on a gigantic soap. The car, despite the 4×4 would skid the way it felt like and all you could do was to hope that it would stop before going down over the side that looked like the end not only of that journeys but of all journeys! To go very slowly and to stop as soon as the car started to skid was the only way to negotiate it but it was not easy and required total focus.

If you were successful over the swamps and the red hill then you were almost there as, from then on, the road would be firm and you would arrive to Lolgorien. This was a small village where the German Technical Cooperation Agency (GTZ) had its veterinary project in support of the Government of Kenya. It was there that Gerhardt, a veterinarian, and Anne Marie, a laboratory technician, worked.

Past collaboration between them and Alan on the epidemiology of the cattle diseases in the Kilae area nearby, that gave Alan the idea of immunise cattle against theileriosis and brought him to Intona ranch.

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Gerhardt and Anne Marie bush lab. An amazing place in its simplicity and efficiency.

Gerhardt and Anne Marie successfully ran several interesting activities in support to the Maasai communities and they had an amazing field laboratory where they had all essential equipment, operated by generator and or batteries, as there was no electricity there at the time. It was a revelation for me to see how advanced work could be done under really basic conditions [4].

After passing Lolgorien the road did not offer great challenges but it was important to arrive at Intona before dark. Wild and domestic animals were very numerous while driving through the Maasai Mara and still plentiful once you travel through the Transmara and it was still common to find both Maasai livestock and herds of zebra, wildebeest and gazelles on the road! As the area was wooded, their presence was more hazardous as they would appear suddenly in front of the car!

It was during one of these occasions that we came across a herd of sheep and goats that suddenly decided that the grass was greener across the road. As much as I tried to avoid them, I knocked the last sheep when, suddenly it changed its small mind and decided to turn back! The herdboy in charge run away fast before we could talk to him. Tommi (himself a Maasai) laughed and said that he must have been truly scared and run to inform his father so we waited while the animal laid motionless in the  middle of the road.

As predicted, Soon his father appeared with a grave expression, followed by the boy a distance behind. A discussion between Tommi and the sheep owner followed and I was eventually informed that I was asked to pay a large sum to compensate for the loss while Tommi advised me not to accept it. I shook my head vigorously and the negotiations continued and things were heating up when, as suddenly as unexpectedly, the sheep moved, stood up, shook his head and run into the bushes to join its mates! We were all taken aback by the development and we burst out laughing at the situation to the clear relief of the boy, the responsible of the sheep! We agreed to only compensate the owner for small injuries and left fast in case the animal fell again not to get up!

The area around Intona had a high number of people injured in encounters with wild animals. Although the rivalry between the Maasai and lions may have accounted for some, buffalo caused the great majority. It was therefore not uncommon that, having motorised transport, we would be asked to take some injured person to the nearest hospital. In addition, cattle rustling was quite common and the Police (Anti Stock Theft Unit) were a tough lot and two or three times I needed to carry prisoners and even dead rustlers (corpses).

Back to the trip. After Lolgorien we would eventually cross the Migori River that flows in a south-westerly direction from south-west Mau joining the Kuja River in Central Kadem and ends in lake Victoria. On a lucky day, turning the bend before the bridge you could watch a family of the rare Giant Forest Hogs (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) grazing in the meadows by the water edge. They were mostly indifferent to the car and allowed us to have a good look before they slowly retreated into the riverine bush.

A few km further we would get to the large fig tree that indicated the entrance to Intona Ranch and soon cross the one plough furrow that was all that indicated its boundary! It was a full day drive but not all was over as I still needed to set up camp, have a shower, dinner and then get good sleep to recover from the long journey to be up the following morning at the crack of dawn to work with our cattle.

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The Intona fig tree.

Intona was under the influence of Lake Victoria and it usually rained in late afternoon. This was preceded by the most spectacular cloud formations and amazingly beautiful sunsets when the sun would go down through the cracks of enormous cloud formations. The drama would even increase when the burning of the land, prior to the rains, would take place. This would stain the sky with a red tinge that would give the landscape an eerie appearance, as the reddish sun rays would filter through the forest. If you were lucky, you could spot a flock of the large Silvery-cheeked hornbills returning to their roosting places by the Migori River.

The return journey would start as early as possible, after finishing the work with the cattle, always done during the early morning to enable them to go out grazing with the rest of the herd. There were two reasons for an early departure: avoid the afternoon rains while still on the dirt roads, either in the Transmara or in the Maasai Mara as well as to arrive in Kikuyuland before dark.

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Coming back from Intona we take a rest after reaching the Oloololo escarpment. The muddy waterbag hanging from the mirror tells the story of the journey.

The herdsmen that were due to go home did not need to be reminded and they were ready well before departure time as they missed their places and families. The ones that remained looked rather gloomy and, although I reassured them that I will return in two weeks, their moods remained somber until our leaving.

Mid afternoon would normally find us refuelling at Narok and, without wasting time, go on and cross the Rift valley. As the trip progressed the herdsmen would become more talkative and the moment that the Kikuyu escarpment came into view, they became excited and happy and they would start talking and laughing among themselves, no doubts planning their stay with their families.

Eventually we would climb the escarpment and enter in what was then still known as the “Kikuyu Reserve” to deliver the herdsmen to their homes. This was a long and tortuous drive through dirt roads to find their houses and, eventually when I was alone, the way out! As I am not too good at bearings, this would often take the wrong turn and get lost in the increasing darkness, delaying my return even more!

Although I never had a problem driving through the area, I recall an opportunity when I was driven by one of the ICIPE drivers that refused to drive inside it. He was from the Luo ethnic group, traditional enemies of the Kikuyus. He asked me to leave him at a shop on the main road and I drove, delivered the herdsmen and fetch him for him to drive me back!

 

[1] Ugali, a polenta-like dish-  is the main food in Kenya and other African countries. Maize flour is used and prepared using boiling water to form a semi-solid paste, served with a meat stew and/or vegetables known as relish.

[2] Shamba in East Africa is any field used for growing crops. (https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/shamba)

[3] At the time, a 504 was “the car” to have in Africa and it was commonly known as “Simba” (lion in Ki-Swahili) for its symbol in the front grille.

[4] Known sarcastically among us as “ILRAD 2” comparing it with the International Laboratory for Animal Diseases of those days, a multi-million USD state of the art institute based in Kabete, Kenya.

 

 

 

 

 

Family planning

It was during the already described picnic in the Rift Valley[1] that I first came across the Maasai method of birth control in sheep!

You will recall that when we arrived to the tree we had selected, it was already “booked” by Maasai boy herders and their sheep and goats. We eventually managed to get a tree for our picnic albeit reeking of sheep and goats urine and covered in faecal pellets!

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The occupied trees…

It was during our negotiations with the herders that I noticed that a ram was actively pursuing a ewe that was clearly on heat. After a while the female accepted the male and the ram mounted her. At that time I realized that the latter was wearing a leather apron that -like a reverse chastity belt of medieval times- stayed between its penis and the ewe’s vagina, frustrating the act!

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Earlier I have pondered on how the Maasai and other pastoralists synchronised their lambing to happen at the right time when the flocks included males and females grazing together. My conclusion was that it was due to the ewes not going on heat until the right time. To see this rather clever contraceptive method gave me another reason for the animals having their lambs at the right time.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/09/30/picnic-in-the-rift-valley/

Spot the beast 56

Although it is pretty obvious, it was interesting that it was found by my wife that is not a fan of these beasts. She carefully avoided getting close to it and took the pictures with her cellphone from a distance!

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This small beast, a yarará (Bothrops diporus) measured about 25cm and, according to my wife was quite aggressive… After rolling itself up in the middle of the road, it eventually departed.

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Snakes of this genus (there are a few) are responsible for most fatalities in the Americas. Their venom is hemotoxic and cause severe lesions at the bite site (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bothrops#Behavior)

 

Spot the beast 55

The setting makes spotting this -rather delicate- beast difficult. However, I am sure you will find it…

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Here it is, probably not what you expected? I was pretty sure that you would check the sticks thoroughly and probably (at least at first) miss it.

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It is a rather delicate moth that does not visit us very often.

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Batmask

We bought the mask during a trip to the Chiquitanía region of Bolivia in 2002 while I was posted there. The Chiquitanía is a beautiful part of Bolivia where six churches (San Francisco Javier, Concepción, Santa Ana, San Miguel, San Rafael y San José) built by Jesuit and Franciscan missions in the 18th century have been restored and selected in 1990 as UNESCO World Heritage Sites under the name Jesuit Missions of the Chiquitos.

The mask is used for to the dance of the “macheteros” (machete bearers), a local dance typical of the Beni region of Bolivia and it was acquired because of the insistence of our son.

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Our young daughter posing as a “machetera” wearing her brother’s mask.

After the trip the mask was quickly forgotten joining the vast amount of jumble that we have accumulated over the many traveling years. Eventually the mask ended up hanging in the back verandah of our farm in Salta where it is to be found today. But not for long…

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Noticing that the bat droppings extended beyond the two bat nests my daughter (a bat fan!) and I placed outside the house (see: https://bushsnob.com/2017/04/02/homely-bats/) Mabel checked the mask and, through its mouth, she spotted some fur and requested that I carried out a thorough inspection of the inside as a bat was surely living there!

I did check and found a bat trio sheltering happily in the mask, cozy and away from the rain!

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The bat trio in detail.

Although I am trying to defend them, it seems likely that both mask and occupants may need to move away from the verandah to a more ventilated area where their droppings and other odours would not interfere with our lives.

 

Rescue!

While in Salta I got an invitation to join a group of friends on a fishing trip near a place called Goya, in the mighty Paraná River, the same river where we have spent some great days fishing in the eighties (See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/01/28/a-fishing-expedition/).

This time the fishing was not memorable as there seems that the river is suffering from too much fishing pressure and the large fish are disappearing.

At one stage during the fishing we were traversing a smaller tributary known as the Santa Lucía River when I spotted three large birds of prey circling a floating object. I kept watching their activity from about one hundred metres away and saw that one of them landed in the water and started to peck the object.

I realised that the birds were three Caranchos or Caracara (Caracara plancus) and I was surprised to see one landing in the water. Then, the bird lifted the object in its paws and started to fly away but dropped it. At that time, I saw that what they were mobbing was a smaller bird so we went to have a look.

While moving towards the spot, there was a second attempt at lifting the bird again and, again it was dropped.

Our approach scared the predators and we found the prey to be a Ringed Kingfisher (Megaceryle torquata), a rather unusual target for the Caracaras that, although known as opportunistic, I did not think capable of going for a rather large kingfisher!

When we approached the bird, it swam with the aid of its wings towards us.

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A “rushed” picture of the kingfisher “swimming” towards us seconds before I lifted it.

I lifted the bird, risking its rather strong beak. Soon I managed to close it with a sticking plaster to avoid becoming a victim myself! I checked the bird and, fortunately, it did not show any visible injuries.

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Bushsnob and soaked wet rescued bird with its beak closed by the plaster!

I kept the bird on the boat for about two hours, waiting for it to dry and to keep it from struggling I covered it with my hat, burning my bald head in the process!

Eventually, it got dry and became rather active so I judged that it was as ready for release. As soon as I removed the plaster and held it in my hand for a few seconds, it flew away strongly.

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Waiting for the now dry kingfisher to fly off.

Unfortunately I can only speculate as to how the kingfisher ended in such a tight spot that, surely, would have cost it its life if we would not have come to look. In my view, the most probable scenario is that it was a young and inexperienced bird that had recently left the nest and, being still insecure, made a mistake spotted by the caracaras that took advantage of the situation. However, I could well be wrong.