Under the shadow of Kilimanjaro

I am sure that when I went to Kenya in 1981, my knowledge of this mountain was less than what the German missionaries and explorers Johannes Rebmann and Ludwig Krapf knew when in1848 they caught the first glimpse of what was then known locally as ‘Kilimansharo’ a mountain that was “higher than the clouds and capped in silver”.

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The accepted knowledge at the time was that ice and snow did not occur in the equator so the explorers initially failed to realise the significance of their find. However, Rebmann -clearly unconvinced- explored its vecinity and eventually wrote in his diary: “…This morning we discerned the Mountains of Jagga more distinctly than ever; and about ten o’clock I fancied I saw a dazzlingly white cloud. My Guide called the white which I saw merely ‘Beredi,’ cold; it was perfectly clear to me, however, that it could be nothing else but snow…”

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He published his observations in 1849 but the scientific community did not accept them until later on. About 40 years later, the “Kilimanjaro Elephant” believed to have been killed in 1898 was found with tusks that weighed 108 and 102kg, the heaviest in history. Each were over 3m long and 70cm in circumference at the base. They were eventually bought by the British Museum of Natural History in 1932.

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An ornate carved doorway in Zanzibar, with an enormous pair of elephant’s tusks leaning against it. Photograph by A.R.P. de Lord, ca.1900. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

Much later, Ernest Heminway made the mountain more popular when he wrote his well known novel “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” that he opens mentioning another altitude find: a frozen leopard.

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It was when in Kenya that I became aware of the existence of the mountain somewhere in the rift valley until one very clear morning, while traveling from Muguga to Nairobi, I actually saw its silver shadow far in the horizon and I realized that it did exist and that it was not that far away!

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At that time I also learnt that in the late 1800’s Queen Victoria gave her German grandson Wilhelm by changing the Kenya-Tanzania border for Kilimanjaro to be in Tanzania! Only recently, while reading history for this blog, I learnt that the border was a consequence of negotiations and that the story is not true.

 

If I knew little of Kilimanjaro I knew even less about its surrounding area and the wealth of interesting cultures and beautiful areas that it contained on both sides of the Kenya-Tanzania border. Although unfortunately at the time the border was closed as a consequence of the end of the East African Community that linked Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, we could still enjoy the Kenyan side and explore its parks, mainly Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks.

I will tell you some anecdotes of our visits to these areas around the mountain in the next posts. Just in case you are interested beyond what I mentioned here, the video below from Alan and Jane Root, despite being “aged”, is worth watching.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibfoSYwK4MY

 

Dust

This year Masuma dam offered an amazing spectacle because of the very dry conditions that prevail in Hwange National Park at the moment. There was a continuous flow of animals coming to drink at the shrinking waterhole despite its constant water pumping that could not match evaporation and what hundreds of animals needed to drink.

As described in the previous post the elephants were the stars of the show but there were other visitors, not less interesting such as impala, giraffe, zebra, greater kudu, warthogs, baboons, jackals and some buffalo. Among the latter there was a male that looked in very poor condition that we predicted that it would not last too long and that ended up as a lion meal two days later.

After watching the lions feeding on the buffalo we returned to Masuma to continue with our “comfortable” viewing from our camp as the water is very close to it. We were -as usual- focussing on the comings and goings of the elephants when we noted a large brown cloud rising far away, in the direction of Mandavu reservoir.

One afternoon we were enjoying game viewing from our platform at Masuma when we spotted dust in the horizon.

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We thought that more elephant family groups were arriving but the dust turned into a large cloud and we realized that a large herd was indeed coming. But we were wrong, there were not elephants but a very large herd of buffalo! Hundreds and hundreds of them coming to drink at Masuma.

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We had seen very large numbers of buffalo during previous visits at Mandavu reservoir and probably this was the same herd forced to move in search of grazing.

It was an amazing site as buffalo, usually respectful of elephants just bulldozed their way through by the pressure of their large numbers and took over the entire water body! It was interesting to see that the elephants were forced to wait this time.DSC_0769 copyIMG_6763 copyIMG_6748 copy

After about an hour, when the afternoon was turning to dusk, they slowly moved off in in the direction of the Shumba picnic site and the other animal’s wait was over. The herd went slowly, probably in search of grazing and hoping to drink  at Shumba where there was abundant water still.

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Pictures by Julio A and Mabel de Castro, Patricia Ruiz Teixidor and the bushsnob.

Elephants!

As I mentioned in the earlier post Hwange National Park is going through a severe drought and some of the classical water points where wild animals usually drink are shrinking and drying up.

The hippos at Masuma (except a lone one that is there part-time) are gone, probably to Mandavu reservoir, a walk of about 18 km, not a great distance for a hippo. However, although it is unlikely that such large water body would dry up, grass availability remains the limitant and grazers such as hippos and buffaloes may be the ones to suffer most.

As for the elephants, they were congregating in large numbers at Masuma dam and Dom pan -the areas we saw-  and drinking 24/7 as it is now said. Nyamandhlovu and Masuma dams’ water levels were low and getting lower. Although usually most elephants prefer to drink from the water inlet to get the clean and fresh water, there was no room for everybody there and mostly the large individuals managed to hold their ground there. The majority were forced to drink the muddy water from other areas of the dams, a thing they would not do under normal circumstances.

Tempers were also hot and trumpeting and squealing day and night were heard. At one stage thee was some brawl that ended up with a loud crack when one of the elephants had a tusk embedded in its rump that cracked when the victim tried to move away! After a night of intense elephant traffic we found a dead young elephant near the water although we do not know how it died.

So, there was drama at the dams and pans but there was also great fun with the youngsters as usual and I just wish to show you a few pictures and videos of the action so that you can get an idea of what took place.

Videos and pictures were taken by my son Julio A., his girlfriend Patricia and myself.

Arrival

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The dust can be seen for several minutes before the thirsty animals arrive.

Drinking

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A youngster frolicking and drinking.

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Not able to use its trunk yet a baby uses its mouth!

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And then it gets the real treat from its mother!

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The amazing trunks in action.

Bathing

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Preparing the water for a mud bath!

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Mud sprinkling.

Powdering

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Hanging around

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Scratching

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Itchy belly!

When tempers flare

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A young calf scatters smaller animals before drinking.

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A tusk wound. The result of a hard push that broke the tusk of the aggressor.

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A funny moment!

Although pictures show some of the action, I also present you with a few videos to show you the atmosphere at the water holes.

First Masuma dam:

Then my son did a time lapse one evening:

 

The next two videos were taken at Dom pan, near Hwange Main camp to show the elephant numbers present there at the time (September 2019).

I really enjoy the start of the video with the arrival of the first group and the noises of the elephants.

 

A visit

On 8 September 2019 [1] I wrote in this blog: “…By far the biggest nuisance that awaits the camper in Africa is the monkeys both vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) and baboons (Papio spp.). Although the latter can be rather destructive to tents and other gear, the former can be a real menace when it comes to steal your food. They are the masters of opportunism and surprise and a distraction of a few seconds is enough for them to strike…”

A week after these words were written, we were -again- put to the test with baboons. This time while camping at Masuma dam picnic site in Hwange National Park. As the picnic sites are now practically unfenced, usually, the attendant warns you about any “special” visitor you need to watch for. We were therefore informed of the well-known honey badgers that are a permanent feature there but baboons were not mentioned.

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A view of the camp at sunset.

We had seen baboons in previous occasions and they had always been “civilized” towards us. This time they were also present at the water edge drinking and scouting the area for any easy prey they could get but we did not pay much attention to them except when one caught a dove and ate it!

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Baboons drinking in the morning.

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A baboon plucking a dove caught at the dam’s edge.

It was on the third day that the visitor came. As every morning we were enjoying our camp breakfast while commenting on what we had seen as well as our plans for the day. We have heard lions nearby and were discussing where to look for them while Mabel -the best eyes among us- was at the hide trying to spot them.

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Aggression at sunset. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

We were seated at our table, my son and his girlfriend in front of me. I was facing the camp’s area that borders with the thicket when this event that may have lasted five seconds took place. I had just prepared my bowl of cereal and fruits and was about to start eating when a movement in the bush in front of me caught my eye. A large baboon was running full speed straight at me and it kept coming!

Before I had time to warn my companions the brute had already jumped on the table, tipping it and scaring all of us, badly. While this took place and all items on the table flew in all directions I just sat there unable to move! The only thing I managed to do was to threaten the beast now looking at me in the eyes with my dessert spoon! [2]

Then it jumped off the table, I threw him my plate of cereal while I felt heat in my legs while my spilled coffee wetted them. The visit was gone in a flash and, luckily, it left us unscathed but shaken. Mabel returned to the camp after hearing the commotion and she found us re-gathering our wits and our various utensils that were scattered all over the floor. It took a while for her to believe what had happened.

This was undoubtedly the most violent experience we have had with a baboon during all our camping years. Although the baboon was clearly after food, it was a stark reminder that we are dealing with dangerous animals while we stay in the bush.

It is likely that campers had fed the baboons earlier as it usually happens but perhaps the rather severe drought prevalent in the area at the moment has pushed them to the limit. All I can say is that from that morning our breakfasts were “breakveryfasts” while constantly keeping an eye on our surroundings.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/09/08/the-joys-of-camping/

[2] My later version that I have hit the beast on the nose with my spoon and saved the day may not be very credible giving the circumstances of the event… It did good to my ego though!

Beyond our means

Our son and girlfriend gave us a totally unexpected and amazing present: two nights at the Victoria Falls Hotel, an unheard of luxury for our usual camping standards! So, before continuing to camp at Hwange National Park we took the “colonial plunge”. However, we had a small problem: as the booking was a surprise, we were not prepared to face such serious and traditional establishment!

Our start could not have been more promising as the Head Concierge (Duly Chitimbire) received us as VIPs by the main entrance and then everything worked out very smoothly until we were comfortably settled in our room, located a few steps from the Larry Norton Gallery on the ground floor. We had visited the place to commemorate the birth of our son in 1991, a few years after David Livingstone found Mosi-oa-Tunya (smoke that thunders) in 1855 and stayed in that same area of the hotel.

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The VIP reception.

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Entrance to the Larry Norton gallery.

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The stairway to the upper floor.

After leaving our belongings we started to explore this real museum of Zimbabwe colonial history. We took advantage to visit the various public rooms as staying guests, unlike previous recent visits that we were outside visitors. We admired the main Palm lounge with its incredible dried plant display and the adjoining Bulawayo lounge with its show of historical artefacts and Punch caricatures of important colonial personalities including Cecil Rhodes and Frederick C. Selous, all presided by a painting of King Lobengula above the fireplace.

Our plans to enjoy the opulent seven-course degustation menu and dancing to a live band at the Edwardian-style Livingstone Room (voted the seventh finest Restaurant in the World by The Daily Meal in 2013) were immediately dashed when we read the notice on the door saying “Strictly no safari wear, shorts, sandals or sneakers.” A very quick mental inventory of our luggage (geared for camping) confirmed our poor preparation on this department and saved us some money!

This restaurant is a reminder of the hotel’s glorious past that started in 1904 when it was opened to take care of the personnel of the railways when they arrived at Victoria Falls. At that stage it was a 16-room wood and corrugated iron roof building that has now increased tenfold. Interestingly, steam for the laundry was produced from the boiler of a scrapped locomotive![1]

After WWII a Royal visit took place in 1947 and the party took over the entire hotel, which was not as large as today. At that time the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) started a mail and passenger service from Southampton to the Vaal dam near Johannesburg in South Africa with Solent S45 class flying boats. These great hydroplanes flew at 338 km per hour at low altitude stopping in Sicily, Luxor, Kampala and Victoria Falls [2].

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Details of the Solent planes.

The twice-weekly flights offered an innovative way of traveling and the visitors would land upstream from the falls to spend time at the hotel in a stop that became known as the “Jungle Junction”, hence the name of one of the hotel’s restaurants.

Exploring the garden and admiring the view of the falls and the bridge spanning Zambia and Zimbabwe, located where Rhodes wished so that the falls’ spray would wet the train carriages, took a lot of our time. The humongous mango trees offer abundant shade to the guests and the bushsnob took advantage of the latter to perform his siestas, surrounded by an international crowd!

Although the famous baobab known as the Big Tree is found at Victoria Falls, its hotel colleagues failed to impress the bushsnob.

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Baobab dwarfed by the bushsnob.

However, the large and solitary msasa tree [3] (Brachystegia spiciformis), usually part of the Miombo woodland, estimated to be 200 years old appears as a very impressive frame to the magnificent view of the falls area from the hotel lawn, usually visited by monkeys and warthogs as well as Hadada ibises.

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Flags at half-mast at the entrance due to the death of former president Robert Mugabe.

Before visiting the falls, we extended our walk to the hotel’s surrounding area including the Victoria Falls railway station located nearby in the hope of seeing some of the steam trains that are still functioning. As the tracks are easily accessible, we hoped to flatten a few coins by placing them on the rails. We were unlucky as the next train was expected late in the evening when we had a dinner appointment at a traditional restaurant.

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However, a walk revealed a couple of steam engines and old carriages being restored for future use.

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Unfortunately during the walk the bushsnob lost the soles of both walking shoes and this jeopardized the plans of a visit to the falls.

 

The last hope of reaching them was boarding the 1920’s hand-worked rail trolley service that replaced rickshaw rides! Unfortunately, we suffer another blow as it has been out of action since December 1957!

So, we had no other consolation than to join the other guests at the lovely Stanley’s Terrace and order high tea following the British tradition stretching back to the mid-1700s. [4] Luckily, despite its strictly formal beginnings, the affair at the hotel allowed guests dressed for safari and even sole-less! We enjoyed a range of savoury and sweet treats with an excellent Zimbabwean tea served on fine silverware, bone china, and vintage cutlery and crockery whilst relaxing looking forward to our camping experience at Hwange National Park, our familiar treat!

 

[1] It stopped functioning only in 1996!

[2] See: https://www.tothevictoriafalls.com/vfpages/tourism/flyingboats.html

[3] In Shona language.

[4] This is an afternoon meal, usually served between 15-16hs. and served at the dining room table contrary to the ‘afternoon tea’, served in comfort while the guests are on chairs or sofas.

Spot the beast 59

“An insconspicuos species that is easily overlooked during the day…” [1], I present you with this beast for you to find.

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Not difficult to find in the picture but the Double-banded Sandgrouse (Pterocles bicinctus), a lovely bird, is not easily seen as their camouflage blends it with its environment in an amazing way. This bird was sotted slowly crossing the road and moving into the grass by the road.

 

[1] Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa. iPhone and iPad Edition. Version 2.4

 

 

Baboon tragedy

WARNING: Some pictures may be disturbing.

Walking through the extensive gardens of the Victoria Falls Hotel at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe I was enjoying the visit when a group of baboons called my attention as there was something odd going on. I approached as close as I could and watched.

The primates were following one of the individuals that was carrying an object that, at first I could not identify as the animal was rather restless. I then noticed that it was a female showing the vivid red rear end that usually indicated that is on heat. That explained the followers but not her cargo.

After spending time following the animals I saw that she was carrying her dead baby that, by then, had dried and looked like a strip of dried hide. I had observed this kind of behaviour before years back in Kenya.

Most of the time the female would carry the dead offspring with her mouth as this allowed her almost to run and climb.

As the final pictures show, carrying her baby did not stop the female to accept mating with one of the members of the troop.

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Baboons wasted no time in “compensating” for the loss!

Hyena bubblegum

There are four hyena species: the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) has the widest distribution and lives in North and East Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, the aardwolf (Proteles cristata) is an insectivorous mammal, native to East and Southern Africa and rarely seen.

The Brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea) is found in Namibia, Botswana, western and southern Zimbabwe[1], southern Mozambique and South Africa. It is currently the rarest species of hyena.

The spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) also known as the laughing hyena is found in Sub-Saharan Africa. They were extremely abundant in the Kenya bush, more so than the smaller striped variety. The latter we only encountered rarely but we got to “know” their spotted cousins quite well!

Hyenas in general have a bad reputation as the villains of the bush, considered as mean and dirty scavengers and even their sexuality has been doubted accusing them of being hermaphrodites! Hyenas are scavengers and as such the play an essential role consuming dead animals, particularly with their ability of cracking hard bones. They are also superb hunters and often lions feed from animals killed by spotted hyenas!

A hyena performing its carrion-eater role.

I have watched them hunting wildebeest and Thomson’s gazelles in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve and admire their ability to select the prey and run after it through the vast herds without losing it and taking turns to chase their selected prey until they tire it, immobilize it and kill it. No kill, except perhaps a cheetah kill, is carried out in a “clinical” way and, admittedly hyenas tend to tear their victims apart, a gruesome sight but part of nature.

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Hyena chase. One of the mos dramatic events in the bush.

They are highly intelligent, social animals that can be dangerous to humans as they can weigh up to 90 kg and are armed with large teeth capable of crushing bones. Their jaws have a bite force of 1100 psi, stronger than both lion (650 psi) and tiger (1050 psi) [2]. In all our years camping, we have always treated them with great respect and, although we hear them almost every night and have had them real close, we have never had a problem with them.

Camping anywhere in Kenya you were likely to hear the unmistakable whoop call of hyenas after dark. They walk through the bush and they pass near camps in search of food and they also “check” dustbins, not only at campsites but also in human dwellings. As an aside, the best known example of hyenas coming close to humans takes place at Harar in Ethiopia (See: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/2079781.stm) and more recently, spotted hyenas are getting closer to Addis Ababa suburbs (https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26294631) the same way that foxes inhabit London (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/shortcuts/2013/feb/11/urban-foxes-fact-fiction).

Although we have heard their laugh, the most heard is the whoop call repeated a few times while moving about in the dark at a prudent distance from your camp. They rarely enter the circle of light of a campsite while you are there but they can come close once you get inside your tent and switch the lights off.

Crocuta_crocuta_whoop_notation copy By Johnston, Harry Hamilton, Sir, 1858-1927 - The Uganda protectorate, Public Domain, https-::commons.wikimedia.org:w:index.php?curid=23401588

The spotted hyena call. Credit: Crocuta_crocuta_whoop_notation copy By Johnston, Harry Hamilton, Sir, 1858-1927 – The Uganda protectorate, Public Domain, https-//commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23401588

As I mentioned earlier I used to camp at Intona and it was there that I had hyenas every night and learnt to be careful with them. I immediately learnt not to leave anything edible (including my shoes) outside for the night as there were several animals keeping an eye on me!

The first time I camped there, sometime after I went to bed I could hear something sniffing all around the tent and realized that I was being checked for edible stuff! I calmed down when I realized that it was only a white tailed mongoose. However, the following morning both my butter and sufferier (saucepan in Ki-Swahili) were gone! Although I never found the former, careful search revealed a discarded alluminium bubblegum ball lying on the grass some distance away from the camp, a show of the hyenas’ jaw power! I learnt not to leave my utensils outside!

Care to keep edible stuff inside the car helped to keep a truce between us and our night visitors, including the hyenas. However, mistakes from our part had bad consequences. This is what happened while camping at the Sand River campsite in the Maasai Mara when, in the middle of the night we heard loud noises and noted that our cool box (left out by mistake) was being carried away!

With Mark, one of my herdsmen, we ran some distance searching with torches and found an untouched frozen chicken, still wrapped from the supermarket, lying on the sandy river bed! We followed the noise and the trail of bacon rashes, milk cartons and soda and beer bottles until we caught a glimpse of the offending hyena that was carrying the rather large cool box in its mouth!

Fortunately, when we shone our torches at it, the box was dropped and the intruder took off! The chewed cool box, minus one handle (used to carry it by the intruder), was still useful for that trip after a good wash but the deep teeth holes it had were too many and it was discarded after returning to Nairobi.

Sometimes hyenas call your attention when busy doing their own business, not necessarily associated with your presence. I recall a couple of incidents while camping at the Mara Buffalo Camp in the Maasai Mara.

One night, after dinner Mabel and I were getting ready to retire to our tent when we started hearing hyenas laughing and a loud squealing coming from the Mara river area, some distance from our camp. We assumed that a warthog was caught and it was responsible for such a loud noise so we jumped in the car and went to investigate.

When we approached the source of the crying we realized that whatever it was, was on the other side of the river so we decided that it was not worth pursuing our investigation. We were turning around to get back when we heard the loud trumpeting of an elephant approaching. Soon, a very agitated cow elephant made an appearance running up and down on our side of the riverbank without paying any attention to us.

We shone the torches to the area where the trouble was and through the bushes saw a small elephant being kept at bay by several hyenas. Clearly the situation of the youngster was getting more desperate by the minute and so was our anxiety growing! Eventually, the female elephant found a suitable place, jumped into the water and crossed the river. It surprised the hyenas that it chased all over the place and reunited with its calf. The hyenas stayed around for a while still laughing loudly but the elephants were soon gone and so did we after such a good ending for an exciting evening entertainment!

The next incident, I am afraid, does not have a good ending. We were arriving from Nairobi following a road near the Mara river towards our usual camp site next to the Mara Buffalo Camp when we noticed a sitting giraffe. Unusually it was still seated when we approached it and it did not get up. Clearly it was sick or wounded and not in good shape. Aware of the predator numbers that were in the area we decided that we would come back later in the afternoon to investigate.

We heard them before we saw them. A pack of about 30 hyenas were laughing while feasting on the freshly killed giraffe. It was a true pandemonium as the hyenas -probably from several clans- competed for a place at the large carcass that was literally swarming with hyenas. Mesmerized we watched until the day light allowed and then with the car lights until a good amount of the giraffe had gone and returned to camp feeling sorry for the unfortunate victim.

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The sick giraffe as we saw it in the morning.

The following morning, just before departing for Intona ranch, we returned to the place and only found a few scattered broken bones and a few vultures searching for some remains that the hyenas had left behind.

 

[1] A surprise to me was to learn that this species also occures in the Mana Pools National Park area, reported by Seymour-Smith, J.L. and Loveridge, A. J. (2015). Mana Pools National Park Predator Survey. Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.

[2] See: https://themysteriousworld.com/most-powerful-animal-bites/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The joys of camping

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Mabel with some company while camping in the Transmara.

As my work at Intona ranch in the Transmara took me through the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, I was often taking visitors with me to the bush. There were those related to my work and friends that came for the fun of it. The former included technical colleagues and representatives from our funding agencies. The latter were of great importance and often they flew directly to Intona or to an airstrip near a camp called Kitchwa Tembo in the reserve, a kind of luxury camping. I would then collect them and I was careful to take them at least on one game drive before climbing the Oloololo escarpment towards Intona. I am not sure if the donors appreciated my work or the time spent on safari but the end result was that we were always well funded!

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Traveling through the Amboseli National Park.

Travel to the bush for pleasure is not everyone’s game. Some of our friends never came, others came once and a few repeated the experience. Fear of wild animals and/or creepy crawlies, lack of ablution facilities, sleeping on the hard ground and cooking with smoke were some of the excuses put forward to decline our invitation.

As much as I tried to convince them that a tent was a safe place to spend the night among wild creatures of all sorts, that nearby lodges offered luxurious toilets, that we did have a gas stove that avoided getting smoked out and mattresses to soften the ground, they still did not come.

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A recently moulted puff adder, one of the few snakes that you may encounter while camping.

However, not all my preaching fell on deaf ears and we did find a few good companions. Ranjini, with who we shared our very first camp in the Maasai Mara, often joined us and the same did Luis (Mabel’s boss). Ranjini was very accommodating and enthusiastic. Further, she had an unfounded faith in our skills when it came to negotiate difficulties. However, she enjoyed joining us and we had a few memorable trips to Northern Kenya with her. This included a memorable visit to Mt. Elgon when she inadvertently closed the tap of our car’s second petrol tank, an episode that had me a couple of hours frantically trying to determine why no petrol would reach the carburetor!

Luis was very keen on bird photography and a lover of large campfires “to keep the beasts away” as he put it despite my arguments to the contrary, not based on ecological grounds but rather that the fires advertised our position to both two- and four-legged potential visitors. He was an assiduous companion with who we shared many bush moments, including a lunch break in the Maasai Mara interrupted by a kind tour operator that came to tell us that we were sitting below a cliff from which a leopard was lazily contemplating us! Luckily the wise animal abstained from disturbing three feeding apes!

Later on came Genevieve and François with who we also shared a few adventurous trips (https://bushsnob.com/2019/02/28/a-short-trip-to-ngorongoro-contributed/) and a few other trips in Kenya and beyond. I still laugh when I remember François’ anger with his Isuzu Trooper that would often let him down! It was with them that we had our only experience at -unwisely- camping only under our mosquito nets at Shaba Game Reserve. Although we survived it, we did not repeat it!

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Camping in the Ngorongoro with Francois, Geneviève and Paula (her mother). Picture by G. Mery.

Of course, the very few visitors we had from Uruguay had no option but to come with us whether they liked camping or not. I described one of the experiences already (https://bushsnob.com/2016/04/25/unpredicted-friends-and-unforgettable-dates/) and this was also the case of my father’s cousin Marta and her friend Elcira, both retired, that also came for a visit. Having good retirement conditions they traveled all over the world and, somehow, we managed to convince them to visit us in Kenya! Although they traveled on their own to the Kenya coast, later on they joined us in trips to Nakuru and Tsavo National Parks as well as our frequent detours into the Nairobi National Park.

They were great examples of adaptable people. Marta agreed to travel seated on a camping chair tied with rope and elastic hook ties at the back of our SWB Land Rover as only three people could travel in the front. She braved the trips to both Nakuru and Tsavo sitting on canvas and she enjoyed every minute of them.

I still recall a few moments we shared such as the overt emotion they showed when, on their first morning at the Kitani bandas, they had a surprise crystal clear view of mount Kilimanjaro! Unfortunately their pleasure was offset that same evening by a serious scare when we were seating at the verandah after dinner trying to identify the different night noises while shining our torch at the various visitors such as genets, mongooses and hyenas. All of a sudden we heard a very loud and close elephant scream that made them slide their chairs back, stand up and attempt to run to their bedroom! A rather understandable response to something that also scared us and -eventually- ended in great laughter.

At Nairobi National Park we found a herd of buffalo and, aware of the curiosity of these animals, I stopped the car and told them to keep quiet to allow the buffaloes to approach. When they were almost touching the car, Marta could not hold her excitement anymore and said loudly “you want to kill us!” That caused a buffalo stampede and I started laughing but she was not amused!

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The buffalo herd at Nairobi National Park.

At Nakuru National Park, one of the safest camping places at the time, we set them up in separate tents to spend the night with some privacy only to discover that they emerged from the same tent the following morning saying that they felt safer being together as they heard too many animals outside!

Camping was a strong experience for Sara, Ernesto and their two kids, some of the rare Uruguayans living in Nairobi. We took them to the Maasai Mara for a weekend and stayed at the Mara Research Station, where, being a scientist, you could camp for free. It was the rainy season and the grass was rather long at the camping area so we spent sometime cutting the grass before we could set up our camp.

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This picture from the Kruger National Park reminds me of what I saw at the Mara Research Station!

I noted a large number of elephants grazing and browsing some distance away and hoped that they would not come closer but I did not mention them to avoid alarming our friends. I realized later that I made a mistake. As the trip had been long, we had a quick dinner and retired to our tents early. Unfortunately, the elephants -against my hope- decided to approach us. I could hear them all around us pulling the grass and braking branches while their bellies rumbled.

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Elephant feeding overhead in Mana Pools National Park. A similar situation to that in the Mara Research Station.

After a while of listening to the pachyderms I heard Ernesto asking softly “what is that noise?” My reply was, perhaps, not the best “elephants” I said trying to sound confident to calm them down, something I clearly failed to do and I could hear them talking among themselves and hear movements inside the tent. “We are scared!” they said nervously and asked “can we go to the car?” I explained them that they were safer in the tent and that they must not go out, not even to the toilet! Luckily, the elephants soon walked away and they started to relax although I did not enquiry about their ablution needs.

The following morning, they looked very tired and they were not very happy at first until they saw the lovely place we were in and the elephants in the distance when all was forgotten! However, they never completely forgave me as they were convinced that I did it all intentionally! Despite this initial scare, they repeated the experience with us at Tsavo West, a much more sedated outing as there were not so many animals around the camp there.

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From left to right: Luis, Sara, Ernesto, the bushsnob and Mabel camping at Tsavo West. Clearly Luis built the fire!

Camping did put us in close proximity to wild animals, as none of the campsites we frequented were fenced.

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A cute babbon youngster before becoming a camping menace!

By far the biggest nuisance that awaits the camper in Africa is the monkeys both vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) and baboons (Papio spp.). Although the latter can be rather destructive to tents and other gear, the former can be a real menace when it comes to steal your food. They are the masters of opportunism and surprise and a distraction of a few seconds is enough for them to strike.

We suffered many incidents with monkeys. Most of them were annoying but there were also some that were quite amusing. Unseen to you the vervets would be stalking you from the trees above to descend on you while unpacking your car and snatch any item that looks attractive to them. In this way you risk having an eggless or “butterless” camping experience that could leave you quite frustrated!

I have seen people running after monkeys in anger in a futile attempt at recovering their lost food while the thieves eat their booty well beyond their reach! I have thrown all kinds of objects to them in a rage when they had taken items from me but I have never managed to hit one and I have been personally “assaulted” a couple of times. Although I admit that I deserved both, at the time it was not funny. Vervets snatched our lunch bananas from my very hands in the hippo pools at Nairobi National Park and throw back the peels at me and a rather tall baboon took my packet of chips at the Man-eaters fuel station near Tsavo!

Of course the fault does not lie with the monkeys but with the habit by inexperienced campers and/or tourists of feeding them. After that the animals expect food and if they are not given it, they search for it. This gradually turns them into thieves that eventually will need to be destroyed by the parks’ authorities when they become too much of a nuisance!

Apart from monkeys we often had to deal with other possible dangerous visitors to our camps and the possibility of meeting them was directly proportional to their density. For this reason most of the incidents took place in the savannahs of Amboseli National Park and the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, than in the rather dry Tsavo West or Samburu National Parks.

I will deal with the spotted hyenas in a separate post and I will also tell you some experiences we had or learnt of encounters with elephants, in my opinion, the most intelligent animals that you are likely to encounter while camping.

I will also strike the black rhinos off the list as they were already on a severe decline at that time to be a bother to us. In any case, their reputed fame for putting out campfires is -apparently- not true! I heard of this while in Kenya and then saw it when I watched “The Gods Must Be Crazy” movie [1] but it is not a confirmed fact.

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Some of the few black rhinos we encountered in Kenya. These were at Amboseli National Park.

Although the buffalo have a well-deserved reputation as some of the most dangerous of the wild animals, they rarely approached our camp area. However, they can be deadly if found on foot as, particularly the lone males, will attack you without hesitation. People that had gone through the experience (and survived it!) declare that they had no idea how they managed to climb the tree they did and that often they have great difficulties to climb down once the danger is over!

The experience of hearing lions roaring at dusk and at night is unforgettable as, I believe, it awakens some ancestral fear in us. Near the Mara river area lions were abundant and we got to know the prides that lived there and we were aware that we were camping in their land! One thing is to see lions from the safety of your vehicle and another, rather different, is to know they are “there somewhere” in the dark of the night!

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At night you always think that what is coming is the largest lion you have seen!

We heard lions roaring in various degrees of intensity every night we camped in the Maasai Mara. Sometimes they would roar while there was still daylight, particular when it was over cast. However, most often they called after sunset and we heard their call reverberating loudly against the Oloololo escarpment. The situation often became “interesting” once we had retired to our tent to sleep.

Once in the tent we would hear the lions while reading as we both enjoy this very much. Normally their roaring will be only in the background but at times they would get closer. It was interesting how our feeling of enjoyment at hearing them far off would gradually fade and soon turn into apprehension as they moved near!

At times they would roar real close and we could also hear their breathing! Those were the times when we became really worried but stuck to our belief that the tent would protect us. Despite our apprehension, the lions were walking or running through our camp and paid no attention to us. So, after a few agitated nights we gradually relaxed and became more convinced that we were safe inside the tent and waited for the lions to walk away.

However, it is easy to narrate these experiences now, from the comfort of the armchair but a different thing is to live through them!

Just to illustrate that things can, albeit rarely, go awry, I will narrate a story of what happened to a former wildlife veterinarian that worked in Kenya and left while we were there. He had taken two lady friends camping in the Aberdare National Park. They were already inside the tent, preparing to spend the night when they heard some grunts that were attributed to a duiker. Later, in the early hours of the morning something crashed on their tent and brought part of it down. The vet’s reaction, thinking that an animal had accidentally bumped on their tent was to shout something like “out of here!” while his lady companions were rather terrified. Eventually, through a slit of the tent door he saw a large male lion that, fortunately, got away -roaring- when he shone the torch into its eyes. Although sleeping after such an encounter was difficult, they stuck together and stayed in what remained of the tent until the morning without further ado.

During the evenings we spent together by the campfire Paul told us the story of Hannu (not his real name) a retired and veteran Finnish veterinarian that was studying fluke control in Kenya. Paul had invited him to share his work as he did with me.

Hannu happened to be quite deaf and, because of his age, he needed to pass water a couple of times at night, a hazardous exercise when camping! Aware of the situation Paul kept an eye on him just in case. One night, while Hannu snored, lions started roaring close by. Paul was aware of the fact that Hannu would go out of the tent after midnight so he made an effort to stay awake to stop him if necessary. The lion roaring became quite loud and, suddenly, the veteran sat up in bed and shouted, “that was a lion!” and went back to sleep, forgetting his need to pass water and leaving Paul sleepless for a long while!

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A large hippo enters the water through a well trodden path. Those are the ones to avoid while camping!

Although hippos will normally keep clear of your camp, the fact that many of the camp sites are located near water puts you in close proximity with them and if you sited your tent in the middle of one of their paths you may suffered the nasty experience of one bumping into your tent when walk to their grazing area.

 

[1] See: https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/do-rhinos-put-out-fires.116998/and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gods_Must_Be_Crazy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning to camp among the wildebeest

Sometime after our first enthusiastic attempt at camping in the Maasai Mara [1], I got to know Paul, a virologist working at the Kenya Veterinary Research Institute in Muguga as part of a veterinary team of the then Overseas Development Agency [2]. Paul had been a student of Sir Walter Plowright, one of the discoverers of the vaccine against Rinderpest [3]. Then he was the mainly working with the latter as well as Bovine Malignant Catarrhal fever (BMCF) [4].

At that time he was spending time in the field investigating the epidemiology of BMCF as well as the serious outbreaks of Rinderpest that were still present in East Africa.

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The well known picture of rinderpest in South Africa in 1896. From Wikimedia (Public domain).

Our friendship started by having our lunches together “al fresco” under the Muguga sun and, after a few weeks, he invited me to come with him camping for a few days in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. A while earlier, Paul had received reliable information from the chief game warden that the first few wildebeests -of the hundred of thousands present- were starting to drop their calves. It was early in the year and he needed to get there to get samples of wildebeests’ placentas as part of his studies. As I was still waiting for a decision regarding my work, I readily accepted.

So, we drove to the Maasai Mara in Paul’s series III Land Rover that had a few reinforced parts, including a bulletproof windscreen and a very hard suspension! Paul had permission to camp anywhere in the reserve and he had already selected a spot where he had established his base. During his absences the camp was looked after by his assistant, the do-it-all Tobias, a Kenya Government employee, that always accompanied Paul when camping [5].

I believe the camp was located in the Mara triangle but I do not remember its precise location except that it was a very secluded area in a clump of trees. There were two tents, a smaller one for Tobias and a large one that was where Paul stayed. On one end of the tent there was the “sitting room” and kitchen while the other was the field laboratory. As it was a large tent, we were very comfortable. Paul’s pride and joy was his Australian portable gas fridge that enabled him to keep reagents and veterinary drugs as well as food (and a couple of Tuskers) so that he could stay in the field for a few days!

The fact that we were in the middle of the bush with no fences and no other humans nearby was, at first, rather unsettling for me and I put this to Paul. He explained that he had learnt from his own experience and that of other wildlife veterinarians and field workers that animals will normally stay clear of your camp. He added that exceptions did take place but that serious accidents were extremely rare provided you did not interfere with your the wild inhabitants. “It sounds incredible but the tent will protect you against almost all animals” he said and this has been our camping creed ever since and -so far- it has not failed us.

Our task for the few days we were together was to start the collection of tissue samples from wildebeest placentas to attempt to isolate the BMCF virus. With this in mind, by the end of the first day we had located the vast herd of wildebeest and we had prepared the necessary equipment to be ready to start working the following morning before dawn.

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The wildebeest migration from the Oloololo escarpment.

We started our journey in the dark and in twilight we began to drive cross-country across the plains among the wildebeest until we got to our destination: a vantage position on top of a hillock. Once at the top while daylight improved we prepared our observation post by setting up a small table and chairs as well as our binoculars and a telescope.

After some time the sun emerged and bathed the savanna with its yellowish light. What was revealed had already been announced by the intense noise that we were already hearing as thousands of wildebeest bleating, moaning and snorting.

 

We also heard zebras barking and braying as they were also there mixed with the wildebeests, sharing their grazing.

We immediately started watching the animals looking for arched backs and tails held horizontally, signs of a calving animal. It was not an easy job as we needed to scan thousands of animals that were constantly on the move! We had spent a couple of fruitless hours watching the animals with the only satisfaction of feeling the warmth of the sun on our backs. Then I heard Paul shouting, “there is one starting to calf” and added “let’s go”. I followed him having seen nothing!

We drove down our knoll rather fast. While Paul held to the steering wheel I held tight to every bit of the Land Rover that would resemble a handle as we hit stones and ruts that would have destroyed most cars’ suspensions. It was not a careless race but rather that our attention was fixed on not losing our “patient”.

We drove among a sea of animals and, luckily, Paul kept his bearings and eventually we found the animal. Well, in fact there were two as the calf had been born and it was a steaming miniature of its mother already struggling to stand up, drink the vital colostrum and start running to avoid predators.

We waited at a prudent distance until both animals moved away and then we descended on the placenta that was left on the grass. We have found our first placenta and took the necessary samples. We were very happy and celebrated this by taking pictures of the event as well as burying a long stake with a number to indicate the area of collection so that a GPS reading could be taken later.

We returned to our viewing point and continued watching. We waited for a long time without spotting another calving. At some stage we saw a clearing appear among the sea of wildebeests. It became gradually wider resembling the wave a boat makes when going fast on still water and then we saw that a male lion was walking through the vast herd that -amazingly- simply stared at it and just moved the minimum distance from it. “It is better for the wildebeest to know where the lion is!” Paul explained. A sighting that I will not forget!

It was clearly still early in the calving season and that first day we only got a second sample in the afternoon.

The following day, although we did not get the expected storm of births, more females were calving and the collection of samples did not require so much watching from the hill but rather slow driving among the animals looking for calving signs and then to wait for them to release the placenta to collect what we needed.

The next day our work took a competitive turn. As the calving increased, more predators started to appear, particularly the spotted hyenas that in the Maasai Mara are rather abundant so we needed to move fast to beat them to the placentas and even while one of us collected samples, the other kept an eye on hyenas, just in case!

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One of our ‘competitors”!

Sadly, after a few days we needed to return to Muguga to deal with the samples we had collected so we left that true animal paradise and great work and started our drive back through the vast plains of the Maasai Mara to the Kenya highlands where Mugug and Nairobi are located.

Although I was unaware then, the fact that Paul continued to do field work there and that I (often with Mabel) started to work at Intona ranch and needed to drive past the edge of the reserve, gave us ample possibilities to meet and share lots of time in the bush where we continued learning the ways of the bush and contracted the “bush camping disease” from which we still suffer today!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/08/25/a-brave-camping-attempt/

[2] Today’s Department for International Development (DFID).

[3] Following the break-through finding of J. T. Edwards in the 1920s that the infectivity of the rinderpest virus could be attenuated and used to immunize animals for life, in 1956-7 W. Plowright and R. D. Ferris obtained a stable, attenuated, and non-infectious virus, ideal for a vaccine. This was cheap to produce and safe and its use eventually -after lots of very hard work in the laboratory and in the field- led to the global eradication of rinderpest in 2011.

[4] Wildebeests carry a lifelong infection of BMCF but are not affected by the disease that is passed from mother to offspring and shed mostly in the nasal secretions of wildebeest calves under one year old. Wildebeest-associated BMCF is transmitted from wildebeest to cattle normally following the wildebeest calving period.

[5] See: https://bushsnob.com/2017/02/05/camping-in-kenya-mara-river-fishing/