To Bedele, loaded

To get petrol for a journey in a war economy was not just filling up at a petrol station. It required the application for petrol coupons and getting them through a heavy government bureaucratic process as these were treated like golden sovereign coins by the Ministry of Agriculture’s administration.

Once that was achieved, a travel permit was necessary. Personal details were passed to the administration and that took a couple of days to be processed. Finally a small paper written in Amharic with a few stamps and signatures was given to me and we were ready to go.

Before departure, we were warned of a dangerous behaviour of pedestrians in some areas of Ethiopia where people would cross the road in front of your car at full speed apparently for no reason and, apparently, wishing to kill themselves. However, the real motive was the belief that thesepeople were closely followed by some kind of “evil spirit” and by the tight crossing the spirit would get ran over and therefore the person would be cleansed. Another extra precaution to be taken for the journey to the little known.

We loaded our Hilux pick-up and departed early in the morning as I knew that the journey was a long one. The cats in their double travel box were placed on the back seat and it left little space for anything else apart from a few clothes bags and the cool box with our lunch and drinks.

The back was also packed chock-a-block with all the rest of our essentials. These included fridge and cooker as well as food stuff to last us for a month, cutlery and crockery, camp beds, bedding, camping chairs, music centre and other essentials that were required to spend a couple of months until the rest of our belongings arrived. We also took a couple of water jerry cans and, during the journey, made up a list of items we still needed but that we were not sure to find in Bedele.

We selected a Saturday for our journey and realized, too late, that it was a bad choice as Saturdays were market days and there were lots of people moving about, particularly on the road we were using. Although the large crowds thinned somehow as we left Addis, they reappeared whenever we approached some of the populated areas such as Wolkite, Woliso and, further on, Jimma.

The road to Bedele, near Addis.

The trip followed the main road west of Addis, a rather busy and new road for us so our progress was slow. This was not helped by the habit of people to walk on the road –as seen in India- and the number of livestock that was free ranging. Of interest were some moving grass mounds that turned out to be donkeys heavily loaded with teff straw and grass to feed the abundant and free ranging livestock. There were many and they did not seem to obey orders very well, forcing us to hoot very frequently and take evasive action.

Loading!
Near Bedele.

The landscape was rather denuded from trees and the fields were being planted with teff (Eragrostis tef) the main crop of Ethiopia from which the injera I described earlier is made of. Farmers were busy planting and lots of them were seen on the fields. Then in a field we saw a circle of about twenty adult people crouching holding hands in a circle. We slowed down and, to our surprise, we witnessed our first and only communal defecation we have ever seen! Whether this is a common occurrence or something rare I cannot say!

The Ethiopian revolution was celebrated with colourful arches spanning the length of the road. These were rather substantial near Addis but they started to diminish in hierarchy as we moved on and, although approaching Jimma they revived, again, from there to Bedele these were almost absent or rather poor efforts that suggested to me that the revolution was not a priority in the interior.

Passing through Wolkite, on the way to Bedele.
Some of the beautiful large houses at Wolkite.

We arrived to Jimma late afternoon and decided to spend the night there at one of the few hotels available, I believe that it was called the Jimma Hotel. It was a rather basic facility but suitable for our needed rest. Dinner had a rather limited menu that consisted of chicken and chips or spaghetti with tomato sauce. We chose the latter, a clear consequence of the years of Italian occupation of parts of Ethiopia. We were the only commensals so the waiters literally fought to serve us and you needed to be careful as they would take away items from your table before you had finished with them!

Unfortunately, the pasta was not memorable but, tired and hungry, we were somehow satisfied and decided to retire early. On arrival to our room, Mabel remembered that she was told that the beds in some of these hotels had more wildlife than the countriside! So, apart from bringing the cats to our rooms, we slept inside our sleeping bags not before she attacked all invisible creepy crawlies with a white insecticide powder from our FAO medical kit that I hoped it was not DDT! In any case, it must have been effective as we slept like logs, hopefully not because of its fumes.

Mabel controlling insects by physical means!

The following morning, after a simple breakfast, we had a tour of Jimma, looking for fuel that was severely rationed. Eventually we arrived at one petrol station that took our Government fuel coupons and we left the asphalt to take the 140 km of the rather rough road to Bedele that would become familiar to us.

We drove for about two hours through farmland and then the landscape became forested and I knew that we were close to Bedele. We crossed true forests of large and ancient flat top acacias (Vachellia abyssinica) and we could see the coffee bushes thriving under their shade. We were arriving to the true origin of the arabica coffee!

After our afternoon arrival we needed to present ourselves to the political authority of Bedele to who we handed over our travel permit. The man examined our paper carefully and, after a while, he declared “your wife is not included in the permit and I need to ‘capture’ her and keep her at the police station”. I reacted strongly explaining that we were coming to live at Bedele and to work for the United Nations. The man seemed unimpressed by my arguments and remained unmoved, clearly full of his own importance!

Becoming rather worried I left Mabel with the political guy and drove to the veterinary laboratory to explain the situation to the Director who was really mortified by the situation and, immediately, came to our rescue. Luckily, after a short discussion (in Amharic), the Director announced that we could go with him and that we would go to the police the following day and inform them of our arrival.

We thanked the political administrator profusely for his understanding and left with the Director who took us to our bungalow and left us to unpack and organize our house before nightfall.

As agreed, the following morning I visited the police station accompanied by the Director and the Administrator of the laboratory. There we met with the political delegate of the previous day. A protracted discussion followed and, eventually, the Director (who was the only person that spoke English) explained to me the outcome.

The meeting had decided that Mabel’s omission from the Travel Permit was a serious mistake but also that we were allowed to stay. I was recommended to make sure in future that we were both included in our travel permits. I agreed wholeheartedly knowing full well that it was an impossible task but I was happy that I could now focus on my work.

Ethiopia arrival

After my mission in Bedele I accepted the FAO offer, not without trying, fruitlessly, to negotiate a better contract with my employer, the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), a last ditch attempt to stay in Kenya.

So, it was just a matter of a few weeks before this new life experience would start. I would travel to Rome for a two-week briefing session in order to get information on the technical approaches as well as the more boring administrative procedures as well as to finalize my contractual arrangements.

In Nairobi, I gradually disengaged from my activities with regret as our work in northern Kenya on the selection of cattle for tick resistance was going well. Mabel resigned to her position at the Commercial Office of the Argentinian Embassy and was now in charge of our own administrative arrangements regarding our future life “out in the sticks”. She started by having meetings with our architect friend who, kindly, drew a house plan following which she ordered the needed appliances and the additional and tailor-made furniture to complement what we had bought for our Nairobi flat. She also put together a “camping pack” that would be sent immediately so that we could have the essentials to live in Bedele until our main shipment arrived. Mabel would also organize the latter while I was briefing in Rome.

We decided to take our two cats with us as we were rather attached to them. Both were neutered when we got them, Inky, a talkative Siamese female and Tigger, a lazy and rather fat marmalade. They got on well as long as the latter did not challenge the authority of the smaller but tougher Siamese. They required a number of health certificates to enter Ethiopia and this also took some of Mabel’s time. The animals also needed to be carried in a cage of certain dimensions that needed to be made as the current plastic ones were not available in Kenya at the time.

It all sounds complicated, but we were young and enthusiastic at that time!

The next task was to order a personal vehicle and we chose a short wheelbase Land Cruiser (short ambulance type) that we ordered through the United Nations system. It would arrive in Assab (then still an Ethiopian port in the Red Sea) with an approximate delivery time of three months. Luckily, keeping in touch with the Veterinary and Economics Unit of the University of Reading (where I was a student in 1981), yielded more fruits. I followed their advice and ordered the latest available laptop, the revolutionary Zenith ZWL-183-92 with one 3.5-inch floppy disk drive of 720KB and an amazing hard disk drive with a capacity of 10MB! This was the latest in portable computers at the time and I was very pleased to get one although I paid the equivalent of the best laptop of today!

I already had some experience of briefings in Rome but this time it was more comprehensive and time-consuming. I learnt that the project I would be leading was funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and that I would need to have close contacts with them, apart from the Government of Ethiopia and the FAO. I also learnt about how to keep accounts and how and when to submit them as well as when and how to write the various kinds of reports required.

The briefing done; it was an Alitalia flight that took me to Addis Ababa (Addis). The moment I landed I realized that Mengistu’s communism was much farther from Moi’s capitalism than the physical distance that separated Nairobi from Addis. Bole International airport was really a military base used by civilian planes. Military planes and camouflaged “machinery” parked there were certainly not for agriculture development! There were armed soldiers all over and the natural good natured Kenyan welcome was totally absent. “Not a good start” I thought and had a shade of regret at having left Kenya.

Gratefully, finding people waiting for me at the airport lifted my spirit. The atmosphere was not only tense at the airport but throughout Addis, and I learnt that a curfew was in place in Addis between 23:00 and 06:00 hours. I realized that it would demand considerable adjustment to enjoy our new country. Two years could be a long time if you did not like the place.

The Ethiopian dynasty started in the 2nd century BC and together with Rome, China and Persia, the Aksum Empire was regarded as one of the four great world powers of the 3rd century BC. Additionally, Ethiopia and Liberia were the only African countries that were never colonized and that retained their sovereignty as recognized independent countries. Ethiopia was also one of only four African members of the League of Nations.

This history forged a nation of proud people. Apparently, or so they told me themselves, when God created mankind it prepared its clay model and put it in the oven to bake. Unsure of what he was doing he removed before it was ready and thus the white race was created. Aware of this, when he baked the second model, he left it too long with the consequence that it got over-cooked and created the black race. It was only during his third attempt that God got the timing right and created people of the right colour: the Ethiopians!

Mengistu Haile Mariam had overthrown Haile Selassie in September 1974 and he had masterminded the Ethiopian Red Terror of 1977–1978 that killed hundreds of political opponents and secure him in power. From 1987 he had been the President of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the country we had arrived to. It was a country undergoing a civil war with the province of Eritrea that had separatist intentions. This would be our first experience at living in a country at war and ruled by a ruthless leader!

I returned to the Ghion hotel to started work while waiting for Mabel that, together with our cats, was arriving from Nairobi in a couple of days. I negotiated with the hotel to be able to keep the cats (in the toilet!) and proceeded with introductory meetings and project reviews to prepare for the work that was expected.

Eventually Mabel arrived and she took over the arrangements for the trip to Bedele as there was pressure for me to move there as early as possible. She also kept the cats under control as agreed and made sure that they did not got lostin Addis. Commercial cat food as we now see all over was non-existent and we had to do with cooking rice and some meat for them, courtesy of the hotel.

We walked in Addis to get a feel for the place and noted a few new things. First, the white and blue taxis most of which were Lada (like the Fiat 124) and very numerous, as well as the shoe-polishers that congregated around the public offices. At that time, we were told that the “Bedele people” meaning Jan and Janni (our Dutch colleagues) always stayed at another hotel called Harambe so we moved there and this hotel became our centre of operations from then on although it had some shortcomings as I will describe later.

Addis from the window of our room at the Harambe hotel after a heavy hailstorm.

Although the name of the hotel meant freedom in Ki-Swahili it did not go well with the atmosphere in the country at the time. However, being a commonly used word in Kenya, at least the name reminded us that we were still in East Africa! The change also meant a repeat of the negotiation of our cats’ stay while we prepared our trip to Bedele. The negotiations were tougher than in the Ghion but eventually we reached an agreement, they could stay for free, provided that they remained inside our room. Although we got the permission, this time without the option of a garden as we were several floors up.

At the Harambe we eventually met Jan, the other FAO worker with who we would be sharing our stay in Bedele. He was coming to Addis at regular intervals to get food and other issues related to his project work. We compared notes and I appreciated his advice but also decided that I would keep an open mind and see by myself how the stay there would be and handle it accordingly.

Although I immediately got a project car, we decided to walk as I needed a few days to “adjust” to driving on the right-hand side of the road. We did walk a lot as it was very safe to do so despite the overwhelming attention we got from the multitude of beggars that will constantly surround you and follow you all the time in the streets, particularly near the hotel areas.

Poverty in Addis at the time was extreme, a lasting consequence of the most severe famine that affected Ethiopia from 1983 to 1985. This sad event took the lives of 1.2 million people, internally displaced 2.5 million and left 0.4 million as refugees and 0.2 million orphans. The beggars were so insistent that, as soon as you were spotted leaving your hotel on foot, they will swarm around you asking for food but also holding you from your arms and clothes.

The situation almost invariably developed in the appearance of a youngster that would take it upon himself to chase beggars off by brandishing a stick, hoping to get a tip from you! At first, we refused such service but soon we noted that it was impossible to stop it so a boy self-appointed himself as our guard and he will wait for us outside the hotel and join us as soon as he spotted us.

Although the majority of the people dressed either in European or traditional Ethiopian clothes, we noted that many men worn kaki or blue uniforms (Kaunda suit type). These were Government workers although, interestingly, women did not wear uniforms or at least we did not see them.

A few men dressed in darker blue suits with a “Mao-style” collar. These were the senior political authorities that were clearly feared. We were always treated with the outmost courtesy, but it was clear that we were dealing with people belonging to a proud nation and proud themselves almost to the point of arrogance.

Looking for sources of food to take to Bedele, we realized that markets were our main hope although private shops were in evidence in the Kazanchis area, near the hotel, where there were private shops, particularly one that we called “Solomon’s” that was a well stocked and expensive store where we could get what we needed.

The humongous “Mercato” was also an option that we explored and immediately realized that it would be a good choice for the future but not for the present as it was an unknown area for us, and hygiene was not top of the agenda. In fact, Mabel made a mental note to return to it wearing rubber boots!

Both, Kazanchis and Mercato offered amazing jewellery shops that never failed to call our attention, particularly the gold and silver trinkets. Among the latter, the variety of crosses to be worn as pendants was incredible. We decided to leave those more superfluous items for later and to focus on accumulating the necessary items to survive in Bedele.

Ethiopians are very proud of their traditions and they like to share them with you. Among these, food, drink and dance are important. So, before too long we were invited to dine at one of the traditional restaurants in Addis Ababa: the Addis Ababa Restaurant, on the road to Sidist Kilo from St. George Church. In Addis the location of places was described as street numbers were not used.

This restaurant was a large and popular place with lots of tables and little light, served by women clad in traditional dress and where our hosts guided us through the menu as it was all new to us.

Ethiopian cuisine [1] mainly involves spicy vegetable and meat dishes, usually in the form of a stew known as “wot” (or wat) served on “injera“, a large rounded and flat pancake-like sour bread of about half a metre in diameter and accompanied with rolled strips of injera of about 10 cm width. Injera is made of “teff” (Eragrostis tef) an annual grass native to the northern Ethiopian Highlands, similar to millet and quinoa but with a tiny seed of less than 1 mm diameter. Teff is thought to have originated in Ethiopia between 4000 and 1000 BC. It grows in harsh environments ranging from very dry to waterlogged soil and its best production takes place at about 2000m altitude. The grain is rich in minerals and has a has a high protein content with an excellent amino acid composition.

Injera oven. The dough is poured under the top cover.

We sat around what looked like a small hut replica made of straw, colourful and tightly woven. We were informed that this was a “mesob“, where our food would be placed. I could not help wondering how this would happen with such a shape. Once seated, the appearance of a basin of water and soap for handwashing anticipated the importance of our hands for eating and, watching our hosts, the right hand was the one to be used. If we needed more information to confirm our suspicions, there was no cutlery!

The mesob now “topless” to show where the food is placed.

While we waited for the food to arrive, we sought some advice on eating techniques, but, before we got an answer, food arrived on a large tray, a very short time after ordering. The top of the mesob was then removed and the food placed on the flat top that had been hidden below. It was spectacular: a large rounded tray covered in injera with a several mounds of different foods, smelling of spices and steaming. “This is doro wot ” said Ibrahim pointing at a large portion in the centre with some obvious chicken eggs in it.

We learnt that several kinds of “wot” exist, depending on the area, ingredient availability, etc. The most common being the chicken stew we got known as “doro wot“. In poorer places where there are no chickens “doro fanta” (doro: chicken; fanta: instead of) was served. It contains the egg, but the meat is mutton, a cheaper substitute. This, I would learn later, was the staple food in Bedele.

They had also brought “kitfo” and “kocho”. The former is a dish of minced raw beef, marinated in “mitmita” (powdered seasoning mix orange red in colour that generally contains ground African bird’s eye chili peppers, Ethiopian cardamom, cloves, and salt). Kitfo cooked lightly rare is known as “kitfo leb leb“, that became our favourite. Kitfo goes with Kocho a grey paste prepared from chopped and grated Ensete [2] pulp that I believe is buried for a while to mature.

We were informed that the way food was presented was mainly for tourists as traditionally such dishes would not be served together very often.

We watched the Ethiopians cutting small pieces of injera with which they would envelop the stew and any suitable side dishes and then placed it in their mouths. A simple procedure in the able hands of our hosts but full of failures and accidents in ours, accompanied of some polite remarks on how to improve and even laughter from those Ethiopians that had a Latin influence from Cuba. The best help came in the shape of a “goorsha“, an expression of friendship through which a person would strip off a piece of injera, roll food in it and then place it in the other person’s mouth. Although the procedure took us by surprise, we truly appreciated it.

Food was rather spicy and some of it rather hot, so we needed to drink a lot. Although a number of excellent local beers and some wines existed, local brews were very popular. “Katikala” and “araki” are inexpensive local spirits that are very strong and illegal but that night we tried “Tej, a rather potent honey wine with an alcohol content that ranges from 7 to 11 %. and another local drink: “Tella“, a home-brewed beer with a smoky flavour due to the addition of bread darkened by baking and the use of a fermentation vessel which has been smoked by inversion over smouldering wood. Tella had a lower alcohol content, between 2-4%. Both tej and tella were good, provided that clean water was used in their preparation. Later on, during our stay we would, sometimes, suffer the consequences of the use of unclean water…

Regarding the work, I attended several meetings with my organization’s representative, UNDP and the Veterinary Department. It was clear that the work was behind schedule and very urgent reporting was essential in order for UNDP to release the funds needed for the work to continue. This meant that my work baptism was to spend long days with Ibrahim, the Director of the Bedele Laboratory writing various reports on a project I did not yet know! The assistance of the Director was invaluable, so we managed to persuade UNDP to release the funds. Despite this, it was evident that the project was already considered as a “problem” by UNDP, a fame that remained till the end!

After a week in the Harambe hotel we learnt that our accelerated shipment including camp beds, bedding, crockery and other essential stuff had arrived so we could now travel to Bedele carrying not only the cats but all the gear that would enable us to camp in our bungalow until our larger consignment arrived.

Enquiries on our main shipment with the rest of our personal effects (also handled by the government’s cargo company) revealed an undetermined delay and, worse news, I was informed that I needed my own arrangements to take the stuff to Bedele as they did not offer that service. Luckily, another FAO project had a lorry that was authorized to take it all the way to Bedele.

Finally the time for our journey to Bedele arrived but I noted that the planned date did not match the one my colleagues referred to. Eventually I understood that the Ethiopian (Ge’ez) calendar was based on the older Alexandrian or Coptic calendar and it was about seven years behind ours. The year had twelve months of 30 days each plus five days (six days on leap years), which comprise a thirteenth month. Finally, we agreed on a departure date and agreed to get a conversion calendar. This was, fortunately, easy to buy and it became indispensable as also all official correspondence was not only in Amharic but dated following the Ge’ez calendar!

Before leaving, we got our Government petrol coupons (as petrol was rationed) and our travel permit that I was (again) unable to read, started with the title የጉዞ ፈቃድ (Tavel Permit) and all the rest! We loaded the car with our camping gear, food to last us for a month, our two cats and the following morning we headed west where, if all went well, we would spend two years of our lives.

[1] As an example I point you out to  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Cuisine_of_Ethiopia but many pages cover the issue.

[2] Ensete ventricosum, known as false banana.

To Ethiopia!

As mentioned earlier [1] it was 1987 and we were still enjoying our work and life in Kenya. However, it was becoming evident that our modest savings would never secure our future, so we started looking for better opportunities. Regrettably, we could not find suitable work in Kenya, otherwise we would probably still be residing there today!

In mid 1988 a great opportunity with FAO appeared in Ethiopia at a place called Bedele of which neither we nor most of our friends had ever heard of before. Most but not all. Jim [2] however, had and immediately told me that Bedele was in western Ethiopia and also that it was “out in the sticks”, not a very encouraging start!

Later on I learnt that Andy, a tick expert from Zimbabwe -working in Nairobi- had just been in Ethiopia for a consultancy that included a short visit to Bedele itself. He confirmed that it was far from Addis Ababa and rather remote, but an interesting place where not much work on ticks and tickborne diseases had been done although the need for it was there.

When I asked him about the living conditions, he mentioned that he had stayed at the station where I was going to live -if I accepted the offer- for two years and mentioned that the area was very beautiful. “Do the bungalows have a garden” I asked, “the whole of Ethiopia will be your back garden!” was his reply. That left me rather concerned!

As the need for my services was rather urgent, before accepting the long-term position and while we prepared to leave Kenya, I offered to travel to Bedele to familiarize myself and to supervise the on-going work. I also carried the “Family terms of reference” that included the evaluation of our future accommodation, availability of supplies and other critical issues to survive in a remote place. Regarding the house, I was to draw a plan that, back in Nairobi, would be submitted to an architect friend so that we could take the relevant furniture and appliances.

So it was that I arrived at Bole airport in Addis Ababa on a two-week consultancy mission. The change between Kenya and Ethiopia was very dramatic as I was entering a country where a civil war had been raging from September 1974 when the Marxist Derg removed Emperor Haile Selassie from power and Eritrea had started fighting for its independence.

Bole looked like a military airport being used by civilian flights, mainly Ethiopian Airlines. There was no “yambo” welcome or smiling faces anywhere but armed soldiers with surly faces! I had arrived to my first communist dictatorship led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, a ruthless leader.

Realizing that things would be different I was very happy to be greeted by people from FAO. They took me to the Ghion hotel where I would stay until I traveled to Bedele, a small town in Western Ethiopia where FAO had built a Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory with a focus on trypanosomiasis and tickborne diseases.

So it was that, after the necessary protocol meetings that took a couple of days, I had the necessary travel permit that would allow me to travel to Bedele. The letter was written in Amharic and I could only hope that it gave the right information about my trip as the only thing that I could understand was my name! However, when I realized that the country’s Chief Veterinary Officer and the Director of the Bedele Laboratory were traveling with me, I relaxed.

We left early in the morning and traveled very slowly in a westerly direction. Getting out of Addis Ababa was indeed a complex operation as there was no clear exit road and people used the tarmac to walk to their destinations with their livestock, sharing the road with the motor vehicles. Our speed increased somehow once we left the city as the people numbers decreased for a while (only to increase near every populated area!). Despite this, almost permanent hooting was required in order to advance.

Driving from Addis Ababa to Bedele on a Sunday required patience!
There is a donkey somewhere under the leaves!

The trip took us through rather barren land dominated by teff fields [3] and the occasional trees, very occasional. The latter were really what remained of them after most of their branches had been chopped for fuel and only a green tuft remained, something I had not seen before.

Teff with yellow meskel flowers (Bidens macroptera or pachyloma?) in the forefront of the picture.

Near Jimma, the capital of the large Kaffa province and about 350 km from Addis Ababa, the landscape became greener and trees became more abundant. That coincided with the end of the tarmac and the start of a consolidated but very rough and dusty road, from where we continued towards Bedele, located in the province of Illubabor. We reached Bedele after a long 140 km journey from Jimma and, by the time we got there, presented our travel credentials for clearance by the local member of the Government and found food and accommodation, we were really tired and we slept soundly!

The following morning was cool and sunny and this enabled me to appreciate that Bedele was mainly a one street town set up in a rather well forested area. Bedele, also known and “Buno Bedele” was reputed to be the origin of the coffee and you could easily see the beautiful flat-top acacias with the coffee bushes growing under their shade.

During my visit I learnt that the work was mainly following an already on-going routine that required the collection of ticks from cattle at different locations both to get to know the species and to understand their population dynamics. The study was led by a scientist that had suffered a severe health problem and needed to be evacuated and unfortunately was unable to return.

I realized that I could handle the proposed work and hoped to stimulate other research activities and, hopefully, attract more funding to continue the work beyond the two years planned.

During the visit I met the Ethiopians that would work with me and I was impressed about their dedication as they had kept the work going despite having remained on their own for a few months by now. I accompanied them when they went to their study sites and I realized that Ethiopia was a really special place, difficult but full of new things for me that I judged we would enjoy.

During that time, I also leant that Jan and Janni, a couple from The Netherlands working on trypanosomiasis also lived at the station and we would share our time there although they were on holiday during the time of my visit. Our house was next to theirs and when I saw it I understood fully Andy’s remarks that my garden would be “the whole of Ethiopia”!

Our two-bedroom bungalow, the same as the remaining seven others, had a small kitchen, a sitting area and a toilet that included a shower two bedrooms. I duly measured all rooms and made a floor plan that hoped it would be useful to plan our future house. Supplies, however, looked a more complicated affair. Petrol was rationed and, apart from good coffee, food was available at a basic butchery and the Saturday market. Clearly we needed to prepare for “importing” our foodstuff from Addis Ababa at regular intervals.

Although the work offered both positive and negative aspects, after the visit I judged that the former outweighed the latter and I decided that we should give this new adventure, both professional and personal, a try and our adventures there will be the subject of the following posts.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/09/29/harvesting-from-the-effort1/

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/11/13/pythons-and-social-life/),

[3] Eragrostis tef, native of the Horn of Africa, is a cereal grass with tiny seeds of less than one millimeter of diameter. It is cultivated for its tiny seeds “injera“, a sourdough-risen flatbread is made and also for its straw to feed livestock.

Christmases with lions

I remember at least two year-end holidays spent in the Maasai Mara.

The fact that we camped outside the reserve gave us some liberties and sometimes we returned late to camp. That particular Christmas eve we were ending our game drive and looking forward to our Christmans eve dinner when we bumped on a group of six lionesses walking through the plains, clearly hunting.

As this offered a great opportunity because of the number of game present in the area, I managed to convince Mabel that it was a good idea to follow them for a while to see whether we could watch a kill. She reluctantly agreed.

After following them for a while, darkness fell and we realized that, oh surprise, we were lost again!

Unable to return to camp we decided to continue with our plan and kept following the lionesses and, to avoid interfering with the hunt, we kept the lights of the car off and navigated under increasing darkness until we only had the moonlight. We did switch our lights on sporadically to see where we were going and to avoid losing our quarry.

Suddenly the lionesses started trotting and soon we lost them. My attempt at finding them took us through some stony ground until we came to one where the bottom of our car touched the rocks and we got stuck on rocks!

Getting out of the car to jack it up was not an option so I revved the engine and moved the car backwards and forwards until with a metal tearing noise the Land Rover jerked backwards and we were free.

We were now alone as the lionesses had continued with their hunt and disappeared into the thicket! It was clear that our optimistic project had come to its (natural) end and we had no idea where we were!

Wisely for once, we decided that setting up our small tent and sleep in the open surrounded by lions (and other beasts of the darkness!) was out of the question so the decision was taken to slowly look for a flat piece of land, stop the car and settled down for our Christmas eve night.

Searching the car we found water and a panettone [1] baked by Mabel! We did not wait for midnight to celebrate Christmas but opened our bottle of water and toasted while we cut slices of panettone that we finished. After our improvised dinner we started listening to the lions roaring around us, probably also celebrating a successful hunt that we had just missed to witness. We thought that, after all, it was a good way to spend the night!

Panettone. Credit: Codice1000 at Italian Wikipedia [Public domain]

Things started to lose their glamour when the time came to sleep as we did not carry blankets or sleeping bags with us so it would be a chilly night. I had ceded the front bench of the car to Mabel and I tried to find sleeping room at the back of our short wheel base Land Rover, an impossible task despite throwing out all hard objects through the back door. Despite this, there was still very little room there and, after trying a foetal position and then sitting with my back against the front seat without luck I must have passed out as I woke up with the first light.

But our troubles were not yet over!

It was a lovely Christmas day and we soon realized that we had driven inside the reserve and had spent the night at an area we knew and from where we could see the Mara Serena Lodge.

The Mara Serena lodge.

And then we got our Christmas presents: a female black rhino came walking slowly towards us, followed by a really small calf, very cute and playful. I believe that it had been named “Toto” (child), one of the attractions of the reserve at the time.

A female back rhino and her calf, the same sight that we found in the Maasai Mara on Christmas morning.

Unfortunately for us, with the rhino came the reserve rangers that were guarding it 24/7 and they drove straight at us as we were rather obvious and there was no way that we could have driven into the park to be there at that time in the morning! We told them that we had lost our way the day before and decided to spend the night where we stopped. Luckily, they understood our explanation of how we ended up there and pointed us the way back towards the area we had left our camp.

We wished each other a Merry Christmas and parted our ways, they keeping an eye on the rhinos and we, stiff but happy at the way that Christmas had finally arrived although we did not see our lion hunt.

The following year we decided to have a comfortable Christmas holiday and we started early to save to be able to spend it at Kitchwa Tembo, the tented lodge close to the Mara River bridge where I used to get help with punctures and fuel while traveling up the Oloololo escarpment on my way to Intona ranch.

So, when the time arrived we booked seats in the daily flights between Nairobi and the Maasai Mara that were carried out by means of an Airkenya Douglas DC 3 plane that would take about 45 minutes to complete a journey that by road would take the best of one day!

A Douglas DC3 taking off. Credit- Arpingstone / Public domain

We boarded the plane at Wilson airport and we sat really looking up so when the plain started taxiing I immediately started thinking how could the pilot see the runway looking up! Luckily, once we started our take off the tail came up very rapidly and we became horizontal, and a few seconds later we were noisily airborne.

Our route took us over the Ngong Hills – former home of Karen Blixen, of Out of Africa fame – and then beyond the edge of the Rift Valley, magnificent views. After a while the pilot announced that we were flying at 10,500 feet and drinks were offered. Conversation was difficult as the two engines were quite noisy but it was a small price to pay for our first flight in an antique plane!

We approached the narrow paved strip at Musiara and the strong shiver indicated that we had lowered our landing gear and a smooth touchdown followed. Ten minutes later, after loading more passengers the plane hopped a few kilometres over the river to the Kichwa Tembo strip where, after checking that no animals were on the runway, we landed and boarded open vehicles that took us to our tent.

Walking in camp was “interesting” as a number of old male buffalo resided in the camp, probably seeking protection from lions so we were given a strong warning not to walk alone in the evenings but get one of the “askaris” to accompany us. These were Maasai warriors employed by the camp for this purpose.

Christmas Eve at the camp was quite different from the one we spent the previous year. The festivities started early with loud shouts of “elephant!, elephant!” by the staff while we were getting ready to have a cup of tea before our afternoon game drive. We rushed to a prudent distance and witnessed how a young female elephant and her calf walked among the now empty tables pulling table cloths and spilling crockery all over the garden until, clearly satisfied, they walked away leaving behind a devastated garden.

The incident, we were told, was quite common and the solicitous staff quickly re-assembled the tables and, soon and “elephantless” we could have our tea drinking. Once we finished, we went looking for game. This was a new experience as, for once, I could spend all the time looking for game rather than driving. The friendly guides knew the area and they showed us all the usual game, including elephants, lions and buffalo. We returned at sunset and enjoyed good showers and got ready for dinner.

We ate while waiting for midnight and we were treated to a great singing and dancing show by the camp staff that managed to create a really merry atmosphere, fun to watch and to participate. It was funny to see the staff of the lodge in Maasai costumes dancing around.

Eventually we celebrated Christmas with a glass of champagne and retired to our extremely comfortable tent, escorted by our usual askari that was now himself after having been a great dancer earlier.

Later that night we had high drama as it was obvious that lions also wished to celebrate the Season holidays in style and, apparently, they had gone for a buffalo. We heard the struggle and bellows of the “victim” for quite a while until silence returned and we assumed that the buffalo was a goner.

We anticipated an interesting game drive the following morning prior to our return flight but, although we found a pride of lions, we did not find a dead buffalo so we assumed that the animal -if that was what happened- had managed to escape!

Too soon the time came for our departing flight and we boarded the plane, together with other fellow tourists. Our return trip to Nairobi essentially retraced our outward journey and it was rather spectacular to see our approach to the Rift valley wall that, luckily, we climbed and soon we landed with tires squeaking on the Wilson’s tarmac runway. Our “antique” flight was successfully over.

Unfortunately, in 1992 one of Airkenya’s DC-3 was damaged in a landing accident at Musiara, luckily without any victims. Although that plane was not repaired but rather shipped back piecemeal by road to Nairobi, the service continued until 1997 when the DC3s were replaced by newer planes.

[1] Panettone is an Italian type of sweet bread loaf usually enjoyed for Christmas and New Year in many Latin countries. It required a well processed dough and it contains, among other possibilities, candied fruits, raisins and various nuts. It is served in wedge shapes, vertically cut, accompanied, in Uruguay, with cider, prosecco or champagne.

Baby in trouble

There were lots of topi (Damaliscus lunatus jimela) and kongoni (Alcelaphus buselaphus), also known as hartebeest, roaming the Maasai Mara and they would calf at the same time as the wildebeest so we would see them with their newly born calves while looking for the wildebeests giving birth.

During the course of darting wildebeest we removed snares whenever we saw animals with them.

On one of these occasions we saw a very young kongoni, probably one or two days old that was not only on its own but also very restless. Through the binoculars we saw that it carried an arrow on its forehead! It was most probably a Maasai arrow that was shot from behind the animal and entered the top of the skin of its head going through and it was hanging on its face, bothering him.

As Paul judged the animal too young for darting we decided to catch it to remove the arrow! The idea was to chase it with the car until we were close enough to jump out to grab it and remove the offending weapon. As the car we were driving only had seats at the front, we decided that Mabel (wisely not too interested in our antics!) would stay enjoying the sunshine on some nearby rocks.

We then removed the doors and we were ready for action and started to approach our target slowly. The strategy was to get close to the small calf and then -again- I would jump on it, immobilize it and then remove the arrow. We thought that it would tire fast and enable us to ghrab it.

After a while pursuing it we realized that our “tiring hypothesis” was wrong and the calf had much more energy than we anticipated. We would drive close to it but, just before I could jump on it, it would accelerate again or do a zig-zag movement that would leave us facing in another direction.

We drove an inordinate time, up and down the plain and we were close to get it a few times but it will always avoid us at the last second. drove up and down and passed in front of Mabel a couple of times. Eventually, during one of these turns it entered a rocky area where its mother had gone and we could no longer follow it. So, defeated we returned to collect Mabel.

She was not amused. During our absence she stopped following our fruitless activity not to place herself under the sun but to keep an eye on some lions that she had spotted some distance away so she remained very still to avoid attracting their attention. She had tried to stopped us while we passed by by shaking her arms and she was not amused when we told her that we thought she was greeting us!

Luckily the lions were full of wildebeest!

Wild rodeo

I mentioned earlier that our friend Paul was working on animal diseases at various places, including the Maasai Mara Game Reserve where he was investigating the epidemiology of Malignant Catarrh fever. Apart from collecting placentas [1] he was also collecting blood samples to ascertain the presence of antibodies against this disease among the wildebeest population.

When I had time on my way to Intona ranch via the Maasai Mara or over weekends we joined him to spend time together enjoying the bush, which also included enjoying helping him with his work!

Taking a blood sample while Mabel looks on.

Clearly, to bleed the animals there was the need to immobilize them and this was done by firing a dart that in fact was a flying metal syringe that, on impact with the animal, would have a tiny detonation that would push the anesthetic into the animal. Although interesting, the procedure had risks as an accidental inoculation to a human was life-threatening and a syringe loaded with the antidote was prepared every time we went out.

The effect of the immobilizing drug was very fast and the animal would lie down within a few minutes. During that time, we needed to follow the animal until it started to slow down and finally stopped and became recumbent. Then, there was no need for much holding, as it did not struggle.

After finishing the work and removing the dart, we would apply a gentian violet spray to help with the healing of the small wound as well as to alert us that the animal had already been captured. Then we would inject the antidote intravenously and we literally jumped back as the animal will immediately recover, stand-up and move off as if nothing had happened! This was essential when darting animals in a place notorious for its large predators that were always on the prowl.

Although I had a chance to dart a few animals, I mostly drove as the work needed a two-person team to be performed. I needed to learn how to drive in order to come within “shooting” distance of the animals. You needed to come obliquely as not to start them and then stop the car to allow the shooter to do the job. Breaking a branch or even a twig was sufficient to have to start all over again!

A dart placed at the right spot.

The shoulder was your target. Being in the centre of the animal you would still hit the neck if it went back or the flank if it happened to go forward. Although this sounds simple, sometimes the dart would go over or under the animal or it would jump and the dart would miss it. A missed shot meant an interruption of the work until the dart -usually half-buried in the grass- was recovered. Project resources were limited and a dart was costly. Luckily they had a coloured flight stabilizers that helped locating them.

Although the work proceeded smoothly, there was one instance when things did not go as planned.

At a time that most of the wildebeest had traveled to the Serengeti, there was a need to get some samples despite the low number of animals present. The work involved a lot of searching until individual animals were found and then approached for them to be darted.

After a lot of hard work we managed to dart one adult male that we processed fast to continue looking for others. We covered a lot of bush but found that the animals were particularly jittery and difficult to approach. Eventually we got a female and continued trying to the last one for the day.

During mid-afternoon we found another male, we darted it and started to follow it waiting for it to go down. After a while -surprised- we saw that it would not go down as expected. We followed it and then when it turned we saw the gentian violet spray we had left on it when we had darted earlier!

Clearly, the animal was still under the influence of the antidote and the new dose of tranquilizer would only slow it down but it was not enough for it to lie down. We were in a fix as we could not leave it in that condition and more tranquilizing drug was not advisable.

Desperate situations demand desperate solutions so I volunteer to ambush it by hiding behind a bush while Paul drove it towards me. I thought it would require the same effort as holding a young steer, something I had done this before so I estimated it doable. After all, I only needed to hold it for a sufficiently long time to allow Paul to come and help me, overpower it and remove the dart.

We found a suitable area with woodlands on both sides and I hid behind some bushes with some rocks behind me (to prevent unwanted visitors surprising me) and waited. Although I did not see the car, I heard it coming closer so I got ready for the animal to walk in front of me and then jump to get it.

To my surprise, before I could move, quite a large head (much larger than I expected) was sniffing me! Despite my surprise I reacted by grabbing the animal’s neck hoping to keep it still. As I started being dragged over the plains of the Maasai Mara I realized that I had underestimated the strength of a male wildebeest, even a drugged one!

I soon lost my footing and remained hanging from my embrace of its rather muscular neck. The neck of a wildebeest from a car window is one thing but to actually try to span it with your arms while the creature runs, although groggy, is another one.  

After about three leaps, my grip slackened and I ended up grabbing one of its front legs. My hold was rather short-lived as I was now under the beast being dragged, stepped on and knocking me against all ground irregularities. I let it go and stayedlying on the ground recovering from the ill treatment received.

I was not really hurt but a bit knocked and soon recovered and sat-up to wait for Paul while removing a few thorns from my arms and legs. Paul took a while to come as he was laughing so much at the scene! I understood his mirth as it must have been quite a funny act to watch!

Despite what I thought it was a brave attempt, the problem remained. The wildebeest was still groggy and vulnerable and it carried a valuable dart! We needed another plan as the animal was trotting just a few metres from us. So, plan B was hatched that would involve my cattle-lassoing skills I had acquired in Uruguay.

With the car’s towing rope I improvised my lasso and placed myself between the front of the car and the bull bar where I could keep in place while I could use both hands as I could not use a lasso with only one. I was a bit unstable on my perch but decided that it will have to do. As a precaution I tied the end of the improvised lasso to the bull bar.

As soon as the car approached the beast I threw my improvised lasso until, after the third or fourth try, I managed to get it from the horns. That was not my idea as I aimed for the neck but it will have to do. Seen that the lasso was firm I signalled Paul to slow down and stop. The animal continued trotting as far as the rope allowed it and then, gradually, we pulled it to bring it close and finally managed to extricate the dart, spray it again (this time on the other side as well) and, with some difficulty but with the aid of a wire, remove the lasso from its horns.

A rather dishevelled bushsnob posing with the exhausted wildebeest, waiting until it recovered fully.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/09/01/learning-to-camp-among-the-wildebeest/

Paris-Maasai Mara

The title does not refer -luckily- to a new extravagant car rally but a tale of a French couple, friends of Paul, who arrived from Paris in the morning and that same night they were camping in the Maasai Mara, after driving all the way from Nairobi!

By chance, we arrived that same afternoon and found them looking rather bewildered after enduring not only the overnight flight but, the long rough ride afterwards following Paul’s rather ambitious programme! The camp this time was a few km downstream from the Mara Buffalo Camp -where we usually camped- and only a faint track led to it. It was a nice place, the Mara river very close and the Oloololo escarpment, the same I climbed every time I needed to go to Intona, at the back.

Paul was busy with his field work, so we came at the right time for him and we agreed to take care of the French contingent the following morning. In any case, they managed to speak some English and we knew some French words from our high school so we were sure that we would understand each other as, after all, both our languages branched off from Latin.

We waited to start our morning drive until the French were ready, which was earlier than I expected. So, soon after sunrise we set off hoping, as usual, that we would be lucky with our game drive. The wildebeest migration was in full swing and I planned to drive in the general direction of Governors Camp and be back for lunch.

By then we knew how to enter into the reserve through the “back door” and also, through Paul, we also knew the general area where the wildebeest were grazing at that time. Finding the wildebeest increased the chances of meeting large predators, particularly lions and that is what most first time visitors to the Maasai Mara wish to see.

The drive was slow as everything was new for our guests and we needed to stop for them to take snapshots of most animals that for us were rather commonplace but we understood how they felt and happily obliged. After a while we spotted the first wildebeest and soon we could see the expected large herds. We stopped to take the view in and continued driving slowly, following the woodland’s margins where the cats could be hiding.

After going for about an hour Mabel spotted a lioness. We were lucky and we stopped to watch it and to take a few more pictures. The lioness was quite active and obviously hunting so we joined her in watching the wildebeest stopping the car at a prudent distance and searching for more lions that we suspected should be around.

The lioness watching the wildebeests.

We whispered to our visitors what we thought it may happen next and we waited. After a few minutes she stood up and, undetected, walked towards the grazing wildebeest and hid in long grass, still looking towards the wildebeests. We kept scanning the surrounding area and soon we caught a glimpse of another lioness some distance away.

It seemed that the lions were coming from several directions, preparing an ambush. We calculated where the hunt could take place and slowly drove towards it still leaving a wide berth for the animals to move without interference. We switched off the engine and stopped, being the only witnesses of what was happening.

We did not have to wait too long before the what it was a peaceful scene transformed itself into a chaotic one when suddenly the bush burst with wildebeest running in all directions around us and some of them nearly bumped our car in their zest to run away! Luckily there was no dust and we spotted five or six lionesses chasing wildebeests.

Some followed wildebeests that had run into the woodlands but a couple of them run in the open. Soon we heard the agonic bleats of a wildebeest and I drove straight to the area while I heard shouts of “oh là là”, “quelle chance!” and other expressions of amazement by our Gallic visitors.

We were also excited as to watch a hunt is not an everyday event, even in the Maasai Mara, and we watched as two lionesses were busy suffocating a wildebeest by a hold in its throat while other lions, that had chased other wildebeests and failed, were trotting towards the ongoing kill. Soon, not only the females we had seen earlier but the whole pride, including adult males and young of different ages, were vying for position at the carcass and as often happens, started licking the dying animal and even feeding.

After a few minutes a couple of cars arrived but we were well placed and we spent about an hour watching the lions feast in all detail. As usual, fights broke out when the dominance of some individuals was challenged and the stronger took “the lion share”! We watched the scene mesmerized for a long while until the meat starting to run out.

Although the arrival of a few spotted hyenas and black-backed jackals was interesting, we resumed our drive I thought “after this, what else can we find that is more exciting?” but continued searching hoping that the visitors, that 48 hours earlier were in busy Paris had arrived for the first time in África and watched what some people that live there for years never manages to find!

We realized that lunchtime had passed unnoticed and we, unanimously, decided that we were not hungry so we agreed to drive following the Mara River to get to the hippo pools that were not too far. There we spent time observing hippos and the huge crocodiles that shared the pools with them. Judging by their girth, the latter were benefitting from the wildebeest presence and their frequent river crossings.

Engrossed watching animals we did not notice that a storm had gathered and we were somehow surprised to note the first raindrops. After a while the sight of the pools were obscured by the rain. Although it was a welcome thunderstorm, I knew that the kombi, although with a good clearance, did not have 4WD and therefore it was not a mud-wise vehicle. So, I took the decision to return to camp before it was too late, strongly suspecting that it was too late already!

I knew that the roads would soon be very sticky and as it started to get dark, I regretted that we have not paid more attention to the time and the weather. We moved a few kilometres back still under the rain and there was a lot of thunder and lightening. Things were not getting any better.

Rapidly, the road became a quagmire that forced me to gradually slow down to avoid skidding off it. Eventually I was forced to engage second and first gear as the going became laborious and I knew by previous experience that we were in trouble. We continued, just, and eventually the black cotton soil stopped us while the rain did not show signs to stop.

A quick and rather wet inspection revealed that one of the back wheels was stuck while the other spun uselessly. Under heavy rain I got one of the French to stand on the fender to get the wheel to grip while Mabel and the French lady pushed. I moved at full throttle with the French guy hanging on for dear life and splattering the “pushers” with black mud until I reached a drier, higher spot. I waited for the helpers to clean up and get back in the car to resume our journey. Luckily it was not too cold.

We continued to move on, push, wait and go again for a while and we managed a few more kilometres before we were stuck again and now, it was dark and we needed the car lights to see the road. I noted that our friends were not so excited leaving the car to push in the dark! Their fears were justified and now the “m” word started to be heard very frequently!

Somehow, we had enough adrenaline to keep us going and I managed to get the car up to a good speed, more than it was prudent but necessary to keep our momentum. At that time, we met a line of wildebeest on the road and I needed to slow down to avoid a head-on collision. I managed to avoid all of them but one. This particular beast came running from the side and hit us with one of its horns, leaving a deep dent all along the kombi, a scar that remained there from then on as a reminder of that trip!

Luckily, the rain decreased and the risk of getting stuck diminished but we realized that we were lost! Being dark did not help to find our bearings (we are hopeless at finding places, anyway) as we had passed a number of bush tracks any of which could have been the correct one. Then we realized that the storm was now our best ally. Every time that there was lightning we could see Oloololo escarpment and we knew that it ran parallel to the Mara river and that the camp was close to the river!

So we drove in that general direction, hoping to come to some known terrain, a difficult thing at night. Then, Mabel spotted a beam of light in the sky that we could not read at first but then Mabel speculated that it was Paul with his strong torch trying to pinpoint the camp for us.

We decided that a light meant human inhabitants so, without any arguments, we headed for the light. At some stage we recognized the track that led to our camp and we arrived a few minutes later, soaked wet, muddy and very tired.

After washing ourselves as well as we could and getting dry clothes, we met for a quick dinner heated under the tent’s flysheet as the rain was still falling on and off. Paul had heard an engine and thinking that we could be the only ones driving at night, decided to shine the torch saving us from an otherwise sure night in the bush.

As we had all gone through a lot over the last 12 hours and we started to mix languages, we decided that a camp bed was needed and we retired to our tents, still under the rain. Fortunately, our tents have kept the rain outside so soon we fell sleep with the memories of the day still fresh in our minds.

Regrettably we needed to return to Nairobi the following morning but not before sharing a good breakfast with Paul and his friends during which, well rested and calmer we re-lived our experiences, and we agreed that we had lived through a very lucky day indeed.

Green sea

I thought we were fortunate when the decision was taken for me to work at Intona ranch in the Transmara as this would enable us to frequently drive through the fringes of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, the northern extension of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and the jewel of the Kenya wildlife areas.

In fact, I had no idea of the joy that this decision would bring to our lives, something we only came to understand later on and even now the great memories of our time there still linger.

To be able to soak up the immensity of its grass plains during the various seasons was indeed a privilege. We swallowed dust traveling during the dry season on roads that, when the wet season arrived, you would be skidding all over even applying the best wheel control possible! We camped in the open with no fences many times in different places and enjoyed lots of different experiences over the years, some of them I did not do today. It was there where we started to learn “the ways of the bush” with our friend Paul [1].

Even considering that we were not strictly inside the reserve most of the time, the wild animals took the centre stage as you could not fail to find them, even if you wished to! [2] At its most empty the Maasai Mara plains would be dotted with Thomson’s gazelles, zebras, topis, kongonis and the resident wildebeests. As a good friend put it while looking mainly at the herd of Thomson’s gazelle: “they look shoals of tropical fish”.

The elephants and buffaloes were always making an appearance and of course, the lions -our favourite predators- were present, first as random finds and later less so when we knew their territories and places they favoured. The spotted hyenas could be counted in dozens and they were very common and we frankly took them for granted and never looked for them as they were always there!

But when the wildebeest and zebra migration arrived from the Serengeti, the plains were so full of animals that it was even difficult to drive because of the animal density! You would also hear them all the time as they were everywhere, always on the move, even while having their young. Sights and sounds difficult to imagine (and to forget!) unless you have been there!

Apart from their main migration Serengeti-Maasai Mara, they had “mini migrations” within the Maasai Mara. Often, we thought that their motives were to look for fresh grass, but we came to realize that they followed hints we could not get, and we often thought that they were playing a game of follow the leader!

During those times of abundance predators somehow became more obvious and numerous as many would come in pursuing the migration. In particular the packs of spotted hyenas would be seen very often as well as lions, now not only the prides we were somehow familiar with but other nomadic individuals that came and went with the migration.

Gnus at sunrise

We spent hundreds of hours watching lions, searching for leopards, waiting for cheetah to go for the chase, trying to second-guess packs of spotted hyena while chasing their prey or watching the hippo antics at the several pools in the Mara River, while keeping an eye for the opportunistic crocodile to take the unaware drinker.

m mara rhino and calf...-001 8.55.16 AM 8.56.48 AM
Some of the few black rhinos we encountered in Kenya. These were at Amboseli National Park.
m mara baloon 1.jpg

Visiting this wildlife paradise also offered the chance of seeing the Maasai pastoralists walking on the various tracks, red specks in the vast distances, apparently oblivious to the myriads of animals surrounding them, their full attention on the welfare of their own animals.

As expected, over the years we lived through many events, luckily nothing that went wrong could not be righted and that was a very important condition to enjoy our experiences. I will try to narrate to you some of the anecdotes that took place during that time that I still remember so many years later.

I already described my journey to the Transmara that included passing through the periphery of the reserve [3]. There was a tar road from Nairobi to Narok, the Maasai capital and the last town to load fuel and any last minute items you forgot, although the choice was not that great. There was, however, a chemist and a restaurant where you could have “nyama choma” (roasted beef) with ugali (maize meal) easily and fast or, if you were feeling picky, the more elaborate chicken and chips (oil-soaked) for which you needed to wait quite a while longer. Your commensals would be mainly Maasai that were only too happy to have you with them after having deposited their spears and “rungus” (wooden throwing clubs or batons) nearby.

We never stayed there longer than a couple of hours and, usually we would drive through after refuelling. The stop at the petrol station was, at first, nothing out of the ordinary. However, later on we started noticing that the minibuses also stopped there, and, during the pause, they offloaded their passengers. The wealthy among the latter took their safari to Kenya very seriously and dressed better than the real hunters with clothes from famous brands!

The road from Narok until you reached the Maasai Mara Game Reserve proper was about 130 km, depending where in the reserve you would go. The first 85 km to Aitong were rough, dusty and corrugated but never muddy as it was a well consolidated road. But it will hammer your suspension severely.

A series II Land Rover we saw there holds our most extreme record of suspension destruction we have seen. It was returning to Narok with still about 20 km to go and it came towards us zigzagging badly. We moved off the road and stopped to let it pass. It was crawling to get back to Narok with the front spring leaves (on both sides!) sticking up the front of the car, as high as the bonnet, I believe soon to come out with unknown consequences, its crew looking rather anxious!

From Aitong you followed straight on through a smaller track, gentler on your car but dusty most of the time and muddy during the rains. Luckily, either when going there for work in the strong LWB panel van Land Rovers or in our kombi first and then our SWB Land Rover, we never broke down and had only punctures and mud-related delays.

narok town and maasai cattle copy
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.

During the first three or four years the VW kombis were the kings of the tourist minibuses and there were hundreds of them moving people to and from Nairobi so spares and service were available all over. Incredibly, later, VW introduced a new model and it was immediately apparent that it had a few shortcomings. Its large back doors kept opening and even bending so the owners resorted to welding them all around to avoid the problem with the result that loading them became a challenge!

We had a first-hand experience with one of those new models when we were following it at a distance to avoid the dust. At some stage we saw its right back wheel starting to separate from the car! We slowed down expecting a serious accident, but the wheel continued parallel to the car.

We then noted that the wheel had the axle attached to it still and this saved the car from a more serious accident giving it some stability albeit precarious. We hooted and made light signals but the driver did not stop and, eventually wheel and axle went their own way, and the minibus entered the bushes and came to an abrupt stop!

This was the beginning of the end of the VW domination and the start of the Toyota and Nissan era!

But not only the new VW kombis suffered from the “open backdoor syndrome”, we did too! It happened once we were returning from the reserve in our Land Rover and suddenly, we felt a welcome breeze, quite an improvement from what the small windows and front vents provided.

It was not until most of our cargo had gone that we noted that our -rather wide- backdoor was open. Perhaps we had driven two hundred metres like but it was sufficient to offload most of our belongings, including our cool box, tent, chairs, sleeping bags and personal luggage that rested in the middle of the road. Luckily no cars were coming behind us and we managed to pick up all the stuff. We needed a new cool box though!

Unfortunately, during the same journey when perhaps we were in a hurry or more casual than usual, we also lost our double mattress that “flew” from the roof. That was a great loss as it had been specially cut to fit within the roof rack if you wished to sleep in the first floor during hot nights. We only noted its absence after we arrived home and I am sure that there was a happy Maasai couple that slept comfortably from then on!

Another inattention led us through a more interesting situation. While driving during the rainy season, as we were prone to get stuck and also to find people stuck, we always carried a thick jute rope that, depending on its last use, it would be tied up either to the front or the back of the car and rolled up there as it was usually very muddy and also it occupied lots of space inside our short Land Rover.

Somehow, during one of our game drives the rope, that at the time happened to be at the back, became undone and, inadvertently, we were dragging it behind the car. We would have discovered this in due course but as it happened, a third party did it before us!

Lion pride M Mara 6.54.19 AM copy
A lion pride, similar to the playful one.

The pride of lions we found resting around a termite mound, like pussycats do, unusually, started following our car. Things started to unravel when a few seconds later we felt a light jerk and, when we stopped we could see that about four or five cubs and three lionesses had grabbed our rope and were busy trying to kill it while being dragged by us.

Trying to free ourselves, we stopped and re-started but the lions, clearly in a playful mood, still held on! With no other option, as we were not going to get out of the car to chase them off, we continued driving slowly for a while with them behind until they started leaving the rope to return to their friends that had not bothered to leave their resting place.

The abundance of lions offered good opportunities to watch them hunting, either spectacularly chasing their prey or setting up ambushes and waiting for the possible victims to walk past. Sometimes their job was made easy by the victims’ accidental contribution.

One early afternoon we witnessed an unexpected kill while watching one of the large prides resting. Most of the lions were snoozing or just resting under the shade when suddenly we saw that some lionesses stirred and instantly they were fully alert before we knew what was happening.

Scanning the area, we saw a young warthog running towards the lions, unaware of their presence until it found itself among them and, by then, it was too late. Although the lions had eaten, they could not resist a chase and a couple of lionesses went for it. As the warthog was coming at a speed, it managed to avoid the attackers by swerving around them as these animals are very fast on short runs and the lionesses were full of meat.

Unfortunately for the warthog, after managing to cross a rather large pride it almost bumped on a large male lion that all it had to do to catch it was open its mouth! That was the end of an intrepid but careless warthog.

While on the subject of warthogs, we loved them running with their tails up as if having radio aerial to keep in touch with each other! As it sometmes happens, driving through a narrow track we surprised a family of warthogs that crossed in front of us. Unfortunately, one of the piglets (despite having its antenna up!) got separated from the others and started running on the other side of the road trying to reunite with its siblings.

We stopped to let it do it and then we heard a rather loud “swooosh” and saw the huge shape of a Martial Eagle coming straight and fast towards the separated youngster. The eagle hit the piglet with its talons and held on to it while the poor victim squealed and squirmed trying to get away. Then the eagle tried to take off and flew a few metres with its prey but it soon dropped it. The piglet hit the floor running in the direction where we had last seen its family. The eagle did not chase it but I guess that the unlucky warthog could not live too long after such an attack.

The opportunism of the eagle still amazes us. It must have been watching the warthogs either from a nearby tree or flying above them when the incident happened.

It is well known that cheetah -due to the need to see where they step when they reach high speeds- are diurnal hunters. The Maasai Mara offered them perfect ground to reach their top speeds while chasing their favourite prey ther, Thomson’s gazelles. We did find cheetah sometimes and were lucky to witness a couple of chases, one of which ended successfully.

This particular cheetah was a female and, after strangling its prey and resting, it started to emit high pitch calls that were answered by the arrival of two very young cubs that she allowed to play with the dying gazelle and, after a while, the female killed it and started to feed. It ate quite a bit of the hindquarters and only then allowed its cubs to try it although I think they were still too small to eat too much meat.

After a while of watching the trio we noted the approach of a large spotted hyena, clearly attracted by the commotion and the smell of death as it usually happened there. Clearly the hyena was stronger than the cheetah and its cubs were also at risk.

We expected the cheetah to yield and move away as it had eaten a good part of the animal already. It did not happen! Following some signal from their mother, the cubs vanished, and the cheetah stayed to face the intruder. We feared for its life as the hyena was clearly stronger and appeared determined to fight. Amazingly, the cheetah almost doubled its size as it bristled. Then, the new “super cheetah” went for the hyena.

As the hyena did not retreat, a prolonged face-off over the half-eaten gazelle followed but the cheetah would not back down either. Finally the hyena decided that what was left of the prey was not worth it and scampered off. Once alone, the cheetah returned to its normal size again, called its cubs and resumed feeding on the gazelle until most of their hindquarters, its richest part, were gone.

At that time in the Maasai Mara there was good “bush solidarity” and people would exchange information on their sightings. I confess that at first we relied a lot on the tourist vehicles from the various lodges to find game without asking them and by following them at a prudent distance.

As we started to learn our ways we gradually stopped this practice but we kept finding very helpful people that gave us great information. The Manager of the Mara Buffalo Camp was a good example. Apart from letting us camp in the area and use the lodge “facilities”, he was also a good source of information.

Through him we learnt that a female leopard had come to inhabit in a rocky gorge nearby. The animal was, unusually, very relaxed and allowed vehicles to approach her. The Manager, very excited about the find, asked us to follow him to show us where it lived and we obliged. We found it rather easily and from then on “Leopard gorge” as we called it became a constant feature of our trips to Intona ranch as, invariably, we would do the detour that went through the gorge to see if we could spot the leopard.

After a while the leopard disappeared and we did not see it until, a fortuitous encounter with Jonathan Scott at Kichwa Tembo. Exchanging news, he told us that he was following a female leopard with cubs and explained where to find it. “In any case”, he said, “if you miss her, you will spot my car!”

A few days later, we found Jonathan’s green Land Cruiser before we could spot the leopard and then, nearby, we spotted the three leopards. The mother was putting up with her bothersome cubs and their rough play. The cubs were still very young and rather dark, and they enjoyed climbing rocks and trees in a never-ending active mood. I took all the pictures I could and soon run out of film!

After a while we needed to continue our journey to so we went to thank Jonathan for such a great tip. I made a passing comment of how great it was to watch the animals and that I had taken lots of pictures. His reply clearly marked the difference between a real pro and an amateur like me “I did not take any today because the light is not right”. I kept quiet and eventually bought his great book on the leopard [4] to enjoy the pictures I could never had taken but with the nice feeling that we knew both, author and subject!

While on the issue of the rare observation of leopards we did have another close and surprising encounter. With our friend Luis, we had been driving over the plains for a while when we decided to stop for a rest and a bite. So, we parked under a nice tree near a rock ledge and we were eating when an agitated driver of an open safari vehicle came to tell us that we had stopped under a sleeping leopard! We checked and, effectively, it was resting above us. Luckily it had ignored the three large monkeys sitting, eating, drinking and talking below.

So these was a collection of brief observations and experiences we went through during our many visits to the fringes of the Maasai Mara and the reserve itself. More lengthy adventures follow soon.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2017/01/25/camping-in-kenya-maasai-mara-game-reserve/ and related posts.

[2] Southern Africans say, with a tinge of jealousy, that animals seem to be tied to pegs on the ground, so visible they are compared with their game watching in the “jesse”.

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/05/31/traveling-to-intona/

[4] The well-known photographer and author that was based at Kichwa Tembo at the time, working on his books. “The Leopard’s Tale” is about this female leopard. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Scott_(zoologist)

Deep sea fishing

Watamu was one of the best places for deep sea fishing in the African side of the Indian Ocean so, a group of male friends (bushsnob included) decided to travel there a weekend to try our luck, despite the displeasure of the wives that were left behind!

We left Nairobi on a Friday afternoon in a rather luxurious car for that time, a Peugeot 604 belonging to one of my friends. As the trip was organized at the last minute, we did not have any bookings for a fishing boat but we were sure to find one ready to take us. We were spending our two nights at the Ocean Sports Club and there were lots of fishermen with boats for rent there.

My friend drove fast -too fast for my taste- but the car responded and we got to Ocean Sports before sunset. Later, at the bar, we managed to find a boat for the next day that would take us fishing. The idea was to fish from 06:00hs to 16:00hs and to share all expenses between the four of us.

So it was that, full of anticipation, we got up before sunrise and drove to the harbour from where our fishing boat operated. To prevent seasickness I took a strong dose of dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) and I was ready to go.

We traveled quite a distance until we did not see land anymore. I was fine as I also avoided looking close to the boat but far away. Although I did not feel seasick, I felt half-sleep because of the drug for a good part of the morning until I started to regain consciousness. Nothing, however, prepared me for the inhaling of the engine fumes at the back of the boat and we soon decided to travel at the front, at least until the fishing started.

Once we reached the right place that I must say looked like any area of the sea we had sailed through, we slowed down and a number of rods with the expected large reels chained to the boat were thrown while we solemnly drew straws to determine the order of the fisherman in the “hot chair”, the one with the best chances of getting strikes.

I had the shortest so if the fishing was bad, I may not even had a chance to fish! However, it was fun to be there anyway. Luckily I was wrong because at some stage we went through a shoal of tuna when all rods had fish in them and chaos followed as they were running in all directions and the lines got badly entangled!

I had one in one of the rods and quickly learnt that in the sea, as compared with a river, there is practically no bottom and the fish can run for many metres aiming for the deep, something that was disconcerting at first but I got used to after a while.

Soon lines broke or needed to be cut and only one of us managed to land a tuna while the crew aptly guided us on what to do in a situation like this and quickly repared the damage as they were clearly used to this kind of incidents.

The ultimate goal of the trip was to catch a large marlin as these beautiful gamefish are known to be present in these waters. We agreed that we would attempt marlin fishing later but before we would try for other species such as falusi (dorado), kingfish, tuna, bonito and barracuda to name a few of the most common. If we were lucky we could catch sailfish but they were not easy.

After a couple of hours fishing my friends had caught their fish, including a sailfish, a truly beautiful fish. By then it was very hot and the situation was not too good as one of my friends was sick on starboard while a member of the crew was suffering from diarrhea and he was occupying the bow. that we, politely, left empty until he recovered.

That was the situation when I started my turn, under a strong sun, sweating and waiting, focused on fishing to avoid seasickness or worse!

After about an hour of nothing happening I saw the unmistakable head of a sailfish with its open bill breaking the surface of the sea towards the back of the boat and I shouted “look, there is a sail…!” but I could finish the sentence as a fish took off with my lure! It was the very sailfish I saw that had taken my lure and I only realized what it was when it jumped entirely outside of the water. (I could not find any pictures of this fishing trip and I failed to embed one from Getty with the new WordPress editor!, sorry).

Sailfish leaping, just thrown the hook, the one that got away. Credit iStock by Getty Images.

The fish fought well, jumping repeatedly and, after about thirty minutes I landed a 37 kg sailfish, the biggest fish I have caught! I would have loved to put it back (as we normally do with all fish) but I was explained that all fish caught would go to a local fishing community that would sell it to the Watamu lodges so I had no option.

Although later we trolled deep seeking to hook a marlin by using a humongous hook with a whole -although small- tuna as a bait, we failed. However, we returned to port with some glory and displaying the fish flags that indicated our catch!

That evening at the bar our fish grew to amazing proportions … We were tired, sunburnt and quite dehydrated so, after a light meal and drinking lots of water and some beer we were ready to go to bed.

The following morning we left for Nairobi, again, at a high speed. too much for me as the car was quite loaded and it was very hot. So we drove until Voi when a red light was noticed but it was ignored by the driver as, apparently, it often appeared often for no apparent reason.

By the time we got near Mtito Andei with still 233 km still to go, the car lost power and we crawled into Mtito Andei where we stopped. Thick blue smoke was coming from the engine compartment and it got worse when we opened the bonnet as the engine was boiling! We waited for it to cool down but it would not start again and we suspected that it had ceased.

We then decided that the car should be left there for it to be recovered the following day and we decided to wait for the next Akamba bus to Nairobi that only appeared when it was already dark. We arrived at Nairobi at midnight and Mabel was not amused with my performance and explanations and it took her a few days to calm down!

Lamu’s baby

Cristina (not her real name) was a Spanish lady that used to come every year to participate in a UN conference and spend a few months in Nairobi. We got to know her through some of Mabel Latin colleagues at work and, somehow, we ended up being invited to her apartment for dinner so that we could meet her baby.

At she was already in her later forties we were puzzled about the baby and it was with some degree of curiosity that we turned up in her house. She greeted us and then said, pointing to a young man of clear Swahili origin “this is Mohammed, my baby!” and then she burst out laughing. It was not rare in Kenya that older European women would develop a relationship with younger men when spending time at the coast but for us it was quite a shock at the time.

During dinner, Mohammed who was from Lamu happened to be a very nice young guy that insisted that we visited Lamu and that he would look after us there.

So, the day came when we decided to travel to Lamu island and we flew on a small plane from Malindi to Manda island where the airport serving the Lamu archipelago is located. The plane flew quite low and followed the coast line over lovely areas on the sea with different shades of blue and green as well as large areas of mangrove forests and what looked like very dry areas inland.

As part of the ticket they put us on a boat and took us across the channel to Lamu itself. Approaching Lamu was already amazing as it slowly it sunk in that this was a different place from anywhere we had been earlier. The buildings on the seafront with their arcades and open verandas provided a visual impression of times past and I thought that the early explorers and adventurers must have faced seen similar sights when they first arrived to the Kenya coast.

Lamu from our “house”.

We landed at the harbour hoping that Mohammed would be there as we had arranged earlier. So when people came to ask what we needed or to offer assistance I said that we were waiting for Mohammed. That was not a clever thing to say as, within a minute we were surrounded by “Mohammeds” offering all sorts of services!

Lamu harbour.

Eventually, after a while, the “true” Mohammed came so, laughing, he welcomed us and took us to the place where we would stay. It was a family house and we were given the first floor with a roofless bedroom that opened into an inner patio surrounded by walls and a toilet with a bucket of water. At that time there were only a handful of hotels in Lamu and most visitors stayed in private houses.

Lamu Old Town is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. Its houses are simple structures built in coral blocks and timber from mangroves with interesting inner patios and elaborately carved wooden doors and furniture.

Swahili chair in Joe Murumbi’s house.

That weekend we explored the place and saw that the old Lamu had maintained not only its architecture but also its social and cultural character. We learnt that it had been there for over 700 years and that it was an important place for Islamic education and Swahili culture.

The streets were very narrow and, apparently, its tortuous arrangement has its origins in Arab traditions of land allocation and urban development but the outstanding features of the town were the doors that were beautifully carved.

Lamu door. Credit: Justin Clements / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0). Not modified. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lamu_door.jpg).

The Lamu doors were well known in Kenya and I had already seen them at various places in Nairobi and, particularly at Intona ranch where Joe Murumbi had built a house following the style of the coastal houses and they had fitted Lamu doors to it. Joe had told me that these doors were the result of artistic influence from various cultures that intermingled at the coast such as Swahili, Arabic, Persian, Indian and European.

Lamu wooden door. Credit: Nite_Owl / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0). Not modified. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lamu_wood_door.jpg

With the exception of a rather new-looking green Land Rover pick-up belonging to the District Commissioner, there were no other cars in Lamu but enough pollution was provided by donkeys that were all over and left their dung and aroma everywhere. Aware of the high donkey traffic and the alleged contamination of the water supply, during a cholera outbreak they decided to introduce the diapers for donkeys. However, the residents did not support the project and it was abandoned.

However, the diaper idea stayed alive and it made a come back 30 years later if Wajir when, in 2016, the authorities forbade the entrance of “diaperless” donkeys into the town [1].

Of course we had some beach time while in Lamu and, declining the offer of moving by donkey, we walked following the coast towards the south to Shela, avoided the expensive Peponi Hotel, and stopped at one of the beaches where we were alone and able to enjoy the warm waters of the Indian Ocean undisturbed.

Mabel and baobab at Lamu.

Being a Muslim town, no alcohol was available (not an issue for us) but we discovered a new drink: lassi! This was the sweet variety based on yogurt, different fruits and what makes it special: spices! The drink is very popular in the Indian sub-continent where several kinds are on offer.

Lamu market.

The following HSBC commercial (that I do not endorse in any way here!) is an excellent example of the discovery of lassi by an outsider!

The time in Lamu was too short and we were soon boarding the plane back carrying a strong impression that we had just been privileged to live a historical experience rather than a holiday and the memories of this trip would last for ever.

[1] See: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36398592

Credit: Justin Clements / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0). Not modified.