Author: bushsnob

Cannibals!

I already described hippos competing with crocodiles to eat their impala prey at Masuma dam in Hwange National Park [1] and this observation was part of a comprehensive publication on the transmission of anthrax among hippo populations [2].

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Hippos trying to get an impala carcass away from the crocs.

The 2018-19 rainy season in Zimbabwe was very poor and Hwange National Park was no exception receiving much less than its 576 mm yearly average. So, during a visit in mid-September 2019 the park was very dry and several of the pans were drying or already dry.

This situation was also severely affecting some of the dams that require pumping to keep an acceptable water level. Both Nyamandhlovu and Masuma dam pumps were hardly able to cope with evaporation and elephants’ thirst despite working full time.

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Only one hippo was seen at Masuma of the usual number of about sixteen individuals that we had seen during earlier visits. We believe that the missing hippos had moved to Mandavu reservoir, a much larger water body situated 15km away.

So, we went to visit Mandavu and noted a large number of hippos still there as there was plenty of water. While observing the hippos we noted a dead one floating close to the shore opposite to the picnic site and, as expected, there were a number of crocodiles surrounding it.

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Hippos and crocodiles around the dead hippo carcass. Credit: Julio A. de Castro.

There were also a few hippos and they were feeding on their dead relative!

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Hippo feeding on the carcass. Credit: Julio J. de Castro.

Joe Dudley has mentioned to me that he believes that hippos are not able to open up a carcass and that they depend on natural fermentation or on other carnivores to do so in order for them to feed. It is likely that the crocodiles had eaten part of the carcass and the hippos were taking their share. The hippos were seen pushing the carcass and submerging to later emerge chewing and swallowing.

After about one hour the wind started blowing the carcass towards the centre of the lake and the hippos did not pursue it, staying at the opposite shore with their pod.

This is not the first report of hippo cannibalism [3] but the present observation adds the Mandavu reservoir to other areas in Africa where this phenomenon has been reported.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/

[2] Dudley, J. P., Hang’Ombe, B. M., Leendertz, F. H., Dorward, L. J., de Castro, J., Subalusky, A. L. and Clauss, M. (2016), Carnivory in the common hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius: implications for the ecology and epidemiology of anthrax in African landscapes. Mammal Review 46 (2016): 191-203.

[3] Dorward LJ (2015) New record of cannibalism in the common hippo, Hippopotamus amphibius (Linnaeus, 1758). African Journal of Ecology 53: 385–387.

 

NOTE: This post has been adapted from the following publication: de Castro JJ, de Castro M, de Castro JA, and Ruiz Teixidor P. 2019. Hippo cannibalism. Biodiversity Observations 10.14:1-3. https://journals.uct.ac.za/index.php/BO/article/view/828

 

 

 

Siesta with a Tataupa Tinamou

Like every year we spend a few summer months of the Southern hemisphere at our small farm in the region known as “El Gallinato” in Salta Province, Argentina [1]. The area belongs to the Yungas ecosystem that is still rich in vegetation and wildlife.

There are over 216 species of birds that inhabit or have been seen in the area of our farm and we are lucky to have some real special birds, some of them even come to feed at our bird table. Unfortunately we cannot boast the presence of hummingbirds in large numbers although they do live and we see them often. However, there are other interesting species of larger size.

Being here only during a few months does not enable us to observe all possible birds and we are away during the dry winter months when there is less vegetation and the birds become more obvious.

This year has been especially good for some of the birds at our farm. Among these, the rather abundant plush-crested jays (Cyanocorax chrysops) adds lots of colour to our front garden where they congregate to feed on the cracked maize and seeds we offer.

We had also a good sighting of the elusive and colourful cream-backed woodpecker (Campephilus leucopogon).

The large dusky-legged guans (Penelope obscura), however, are the real attraction at the moment as, somehow, they have decided to come close to the house and they also  starting feeding on the bird tables for the first time since we bought the farm about 13 years ago.

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Our neighbour, himself an ornithologist, mentioned that this winter there had been two families that raised their young around our farms and they have decided to stay around.

We had over the years watched toucans (Ramphastos toco) a couple of times before. Our quince (Cydonia spp.) and kaki (Diospyros kaki) trees had produced a god crop of fruits the latter appear irresistible to toucans. So, three of them have been busy finishing all the kakis at a really fast rate and there will be nothing left very soon. Luckily, we are not kaki fans!

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Today, while entering the house after taking some of the above pictures, I saw something scurrying under a table. At first I thought it to be a rat or a guinea pig although the latter rarely enter houses. I followed it and it was a running like a dwarf version of a New Zealand kiwi.

It entered the house and I lost it. Thinking that it would go out the way it came in, I left it alone and forgot it. We had lunch and I went for my siesta a very civilized activity, essential at my age and in tropical situations.

This particular siesta ended up abruptly when I woke up startled by an unfamiliar noise. The bird visitor was flying about my siesta quarters, trying to leave through closed windows! I got up fast and managed to net it and keep it quiet while Mabel was calling our neighbor for identification purposes before release.

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Tataupa tinamou. My siesta foe. Credit: Dreamstime.com.

The small beast, the size of a partridge, was a Tataupá Tinamou (Crypturellus tataupa) a bird that prefers to walk or run rather than fly but that it had been seen around frequently.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2014/12/30/at-the-foothills-of-the-andes/

Camel safari [1]

While in Kenya we always wanted to explore the north on a camel safari but the cost was an important deterrent so we left Kenya for Ethiopia in 1988 without achieving this goal. However, two years later, while on our way to a new job in Zambia, we stopped in Kenya for a while and decided to join forces with our friend Susan and to go for it.

She knew a company [2] that organized these activities and made the bookings for the three of us. A couple of days before we were to depart, some unavoidable work commitment cropped up and Susan were unable to go. She volunteered her very good friend Gai to come with us. We had met Gai a couple of times while visiting Susan during our earlier Kenya days. Although we did not know each other that well we agreed to travel together.

We drove Susan’s car to Rumuruti and from there we were taken to the company’s base camp where the journey was due to start. The idea was to travel for four days along the Milgis River and then get picked-up by a car and taken to Rumuruti to spend the night, collect our car and return to Nairobi the following day.

 

We arrived in the morning and already the camp showed great activity as the camels, really huge when you stand next to them, were being loaded. Dromedaries are the tallest of the three species of camel and adults can reach 1.7 to 2 m at the shoulder and weigh between 300 and 600 kg.

While the beasts complained loudly while their loads were tighten we were given a brief on what to expect and other useful information for the trip. With us was a group of four Europeans that kept very much for themselves, and a British couple that, as expected, was very polite!

We learnt that the idea was to walk or ride for a few hours each morning, have a lunch break and a rest and continue for another two to three hours until we arrived to the next camp that would have been organized ahead of time. We would stay there the night and the exercise repeated for the remaining days. It all sounded very civilized and we were ready to start.

There was a senior guide and a number of camp hands, most of them Samburu that, although did not speak great English we could communicate with our basic Swahili. However, we were very pleased to see that Gai was very good at it, the fruit of her many years of work as a teacher in Baringo. In any case, they were all nice and helpful so the atmosphere was positive and we started to get on well with Gai and it became clear that we would enjoy our time together.

Observing the camels being organized, we noted that they played different roles. Immediately we started making our own groups. That is how we defined camping camels (carrying tents, chairs, tables, etc.), riding camels, first aid and laggards camel (to mend blisters and pick up strugglers, just like in the cycling races!), bad camel (called Sungura [3]) and food and bar camel. The latter Gai and I attempted to follow, not because of being hungry, but the longer legged beast was always moving faster than us so we could only catch up with it at the end of the day when we did our best to lighten its liquid cargo.

Daily, the camping and bar camels would go ahead to set up the next camp while the others would stay with us and we were careful to keep our distance from Sungura that showed its bad temper at all times and repeatedly attempted to chew us, particularly Gai that, for some reason, became its preferred target!

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Sungura makes sure to be heard!

 

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A view of the camels ahead of us.

Our relations with the other travellers were going well until we discovered that the European contingent, of the kind that attach their flags to their rucksacks, had borrowed our sunblock cream without asking! This was an offence that gave us ammo to criticize them whenever the opportunity allowed. From then on we kept our suntan cream under tight control so that it would last until the end of the safari.

After a couple of days walking in Samburu country where we found numerous cattle, sheep and goat flocks, we detected that one of the members of the European group was showing clear signs of crotch rash (inner thigh rash) and walking was becoming increasingly difficult for him. We decided that camel riding would alleviate his predicament and had a go at it.

Apart from intimidating prospective predators (and riders!) by its share size and strength, camels can defend themselves very well and have a number of ways of doing so, apart from their unpleasant screaming and grunting. They can stamp their feet, kick in all directions with the four legs, bite, belch and spit so to mount on one is not something to be taken lightly.

After you overcome your ancestral fears -but always thinking, “why am I doing this?” you approach a lying down camel making sure that it was not Sungura. The beast looks inoffensive enough and with the help of the herder you take your seat in the middle of the one hump. You have a precarious siting arrangement as in front of you there is the neck and head and behind is the camel abrupt end so you need to hold on.

Once you are firmly wedged on your riding saddle the action starts by the beast standing up. This is a most traumatic event as it first stretches its back legs and, suddenly you are in danger of killing yourself by falling over its head. Before you fall, luckily, the beast stretches its front legs and up comes its massive head that misses yours narrowly and, if you are still on, you find yourself very high from the ground and in great danger of a serious fall.

I had grim misgivings about driving my camel as I was sure it would end bad for me. Luckily the handler would hold the reins and walk you following the path. The ride is very comfortable as your backside is well pampered and the animal’s gait is really pleasant, more so than horses. The position affords you a great view of the countryside over the surrounding bushes and I must admit that I enjoyed the ride.

Unfortunately this only lasted for a few minutes as my beast, perhaps sensing my dislike or because I was heavy, decided that it had enough of me and it started to walk closer and closer to the abundant thorn bushes. Then, despite the efforts of the handler, the inevitable happened and my naked legs got painfully rubbed against thorns.

That was enough for me and I immediately asked to be spared from such a torture as I would have ended without skin in my legs if I would have continued. Relieved, I descended from the beast while promising myself never to do this again

Gai suffered a similar experience and we both compared our scratches later while trying to clean and disinfect them. Mabel, as usual and to our annoyance, enjoyed the ride tremendously looking as if she had done this her entire life! She spent about an hour traveling by camel and spotting birds and animals that we were not able to see from our lower position and finished looking as fresh as ever!

Unfortunately the camel ride did not help the European rash sufferer and, from a distance we witnessed a Europeans-only meeting with the lame guy as the centre of attention. Although at the time we did not know what the outcome of the meeting was, the answer became clear when the following morning the Europeans were evacuated. Probably walking in the heat was too much for them to bear coming from a place near the North Pole!

Our party got reduced to five and we were happy that there would be more resources (read food and drinks) to be shared among the “survivors”.

Every evening at the end of the day we would arrive at our flying camp that had been set up at some chosen location by the river that never disappointed. The camping chairs were set up overlooking the flowing water where we enjoyed sundowners after our hot bucket showers.

That was the time for talking and to compare notes with the only remaining companions, the British couple. We learnt that he had been very successful with a lighting company in the UK and that he had sold part of it and, retired, were doing the best to enjoy life.

While we talked and drank, dinner was being prepared. It was simple but tasty and to be eaten under a the stars while the camels lied down and chewed their cud and the herders got ready to settle for the night among the beasts. After dinner we also settled down in the tents already assembled for an early night.

The day before our departure, after a good English breakfast, we walked for a few kilometres until we stopped for lunch at a place with a great view of the river below us. We could appreciate the palms that fringed the Milgis margins and we could also see a few animals in the distance, particularly giraffes and greater kudu.

The final camp was a more permanent affair composed of simple reed huts fitted with mosquito nets where all our bedding was already prepared for us. I decided to go for a shower but before starting, I spotted that the two people usually in charge of the showers, were seated together looking at something and brandishing a Samburu “seme” [4].

Curious, I approached them and although we had communications difficulties they showed me laughing that they were trying to repair something that on more close inspection happened to be a wristwatch! Quite sure about the outcome of the operation I left them to it and went on to enjoy my shower.

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Wrist watch fixing…

Eventually, after a very enjoyable four days it was time to return and we were taken to Rumuruti, our starting point, where we spent the night at the Laikipia Country Club (founded in 1926) where Gai barely slept as the hyraxes screamed on the roof of her cottage all night! We did not hear a thing and slept through.

It was a great experience not only because the walk was very enjoyable but also because we became friends with Gai, a friendship that lasts until today.

 

[1] Although I refer to them as “camels” in fact the animals that accompanied us were dromedaries or one humped camels (Camelus dromedarius).

[2] Nowadays called Wild Frontiers Safaris that also runs the Milgis Trust, see: https://www.milgistrust.com/

[3] The KiSwahili word “Sungura” in English means rabbit.

[4] A “seme” or “simi” is a Maasai word to describe a short sword with a leaf-shaped blade and a relatively rounded tip.

To the cradle of mankind – The return

Someplace in the Chalbi desert

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The vastness of the area.

Too soon the time to leave Koobi Fora arrived and we headed back to Nairobi. Luckily we would still visit a couple of unknown and hopefully interesting places. We planned a different route that would take us across the Chalbi desert to Marsabit National Park and then to Nairobi, via Archer’s Post and Isiolo and the start of the asphalt.

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A stop on the way.

The road was very rough and, after a while we started having punctures, first in the trailer, then Paul’s car had two more and, finally, we had one. We were in a tight spot as we had no more spares and from then on, we would need to disassemble them to patch the inner tubes, a hard job with large wheels such as those of the Land Rover, particularly pumping them back to the needed pressure!

We continued our journey and after a while got to a vast expanse of cracked red soil where soon became the only feature we saw. We had arrived to the Chalbi desert, a little known desert outside Kenia. We planned to cross it assuming that we would be able to follow the wheel marks from earlier vehicles as we carried no electronic orientation devices then. Despite following a few tracks that, luckily, soon ended nowhere, we managed to get to a promising track although we did not find anyone to consult!

We were still crossing the Chalbi when dusk caught up with us. We then decided to leave the main track to get the full desert experience while be less conspicuous to potential unwanted visitors. The evening was very warm and there was not a drop of wind and just nothing apart from reddish sand as far as we could see, except for a lone zebra skull. It was a totally new experience.

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The redness of the Chalbi desert with the lake behind.

We did not bother to set up tents and judged that no mosquitoes would be alive there so we just slept on our camp beds, after a tinned dinner. The biggest disappointment of the day, apart from having to change four wheels, was that our watermelons kept on the roof racks for a night like this, were rotten and we could not enjoy them after having saved them for days! Laying on our beds, we witnesses one of the most incredible skies we have ever seen and we watched it mesmerized until sleep defeated us.

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The cracked earth of the Chalbi desert.

The following morning, the discovery of our fifth another puncture, this time in the trailer delayed us for about an hour while we did the repair. Although we still had no spares, we trusted -rightly this time- that we would get to our next destination without another puncture. We managed to negotiate the Chalbi successfully and soon we found ourselves back at a track that we believed looked respectable enough to take us to the Marsabit mountain and its homonymous National Park.

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On the way to Marsabit.

Our spirits soared when we saw spotted the outline of a large mountain in the distance that could only be Marsabit. It was and, as we approached it, we could see its green hue becoming sharper after every kilometre we traveled. We were soon climbing and the green vegetation was quite a novelty after spending almost a week without seen much in terms of trees! So, we entered Marsabit National Park and went straight to the Park Headquarters to leave our tires to get mended and then to a nearby hotel for a cold drink, just refraining ourselves from rolling on the lush green grass of the garden!

The mountain was a true oasis with a large forested area where elephants dwelled. In particular it had been the home of one of the most famous elephants known, Ahmed, the King of Marsabit that carried very large tusks that prompted President Jomo Kenyatta in 1970 to declare it a national treasure and was given special protection against poachers in the form of 24 hours custody by two hunters.

By the time of our visit Ahmed was dead (it died in 1974) but his fame was still very much alive and we were familiar with its shape and tusks from its monument at the Kenya National Museum in Nairobi. Ahmed was a loner and quite evasive and the stories about him became mythical after several years. It is said that when it died at the age of 55, the King was leaning against a tree, resting on his tusks.

Marsabit was a great stop and we explored its lush green forest and lakes without seeing any of Ahmed’s offspring but getting refreshed by its greenness before embarking on the final leg of our journey. We had still about 260 km of very corrugated road in front of us before we would get to the better road at Isiolo.

To Nairobi

Refreshed after so much greenery and with the full complement of fuel and repaired tires, we started our descent from Marsabit on the wide and corrugated road army-built that would eventually see us through to Isiolo. After a while we reached flat ground and we started meeting a succession of truly large herds of cattle moving north, we imagined towards Marsabit in search of greener pastures. There were thousands of animals being herded by nomadic people, probably Rendile.

After about 100 kilometres we passed Laisamis, a small settlement with a Catholic church dedicated to St George and continued our journey south with us leading the way. The driving on such corrugated road with a trailer was a new experience for us and a rather hard one as the trailer was still very heavy.

All went well for a long while until suddenly the trailer violently veered to the right forcing me to correct to the left to keep the car on the road and from then on I lost control and the next thing I remember is that we abandoned the road and started a mad race through broken terrain and thorn bushes until the car came to a halt by getting lodged into a low and very thorny acacia where we rested luckily still on our four wheels with the trailer at a right angle.

We, luckily managed to miss the deep “dongas” that crisscrossed the bush but we were lodges so deep inside the bush that we were not able to open the car doors. Luckily help, in the shape of Paul and his brother arrived soon and hacked the branches enabling us to get out of the car. “I saw a large cloud of dust and then you were gone” Paul said adding “I am glad that you managed to keep things on their wheels”. I replied that I had done nothing to achieve this as I have had no time to do anything once I lost control!

Regardless of how the despiste? took place it was a lucky one and, after quite a lot of maneuvering, we managed to get back on the road and resumed our trip with no obvious damage to the car or the trailer.

This time Paul went in front and we both drove carefully, having realized that things can go wrong in just a fraction of a second. The remaining 100 km passed very slowly but, eventually, we approached the familiar settlement of Archer’s Post.

Perhaps it was the anxiety of getting back or maybe he just forgot but Paul entered Archer’s Post quite fast and forgot that there were a few respectable bumps to slow the traffic down. He hit the first bump and, realizing that there was a second one, he tried to brake but still hit the second one rather fast with disastrous consequences.

Now it was our time to watch events from the rear and witnessed how, after hitting the first bump the u-bolts the hold the back axle to the car’s body went and the wheels were bouncing rather than turning. The second bump completed the damage by dislodging the axle completely and the car stopped with one rear wheel under the car and the other one behind at a right angle to the car!

We pushed the car to the side of the road knowing that we have finally found some serious trouble and, with the high-lift jack, attempted to lift the car and bring the axle to its original location. Among the tons of spares we had new u-bolts but, although we brought the axle back, we needed to lift the body and for that we needed a bottle jack that we did not carry with us!

Refusing to believe that we could not repair the car we wrestled with it fruitlessly for about an hour under the curious gaze of members of the public and having declined help from an African gentleman wearing a blue overall, probably a mechanic. We decided that we should borrow the essential jack from the Catholic Mission nearby but we went there and, being the end of the year holidays, no one could assist us.

Empty-handed and crestfallen we returned to the car to find that the ladies we had left behind, showing their practical approach, had discussed our situation with the gentleman with the overalls who had assured them that he fix the car. Beaten, we concurred and negotiated for assistance with him.

Once we agreed, the gentleman disappeared and returned with just three tools: the bottle jack, one large spanner and a long steel tube. We looked at each other with Paul and shook our heads. However, we decided to wait and see. It was immediately obvious that the man was indeed a bush mechanic and he knew what he was doing.

After removing the broken u-bolts with his spanner he lifted the body of the car with the jack and he used the steel tube as a lever to gradually align the axle until the new u-bolts could be fitted! So, after about an hour we were on the road again not without thanking the bush mechanic profusely and settling our account well beyond our earlier agreement.

Mobile again but unable to reach Nairobi on the day we decided to spend the night in Samburu National Park so we got to one of the camps near the entrance. We had a very pleasant surprise as our good friends François, Genevieve and her mother Paula were camping there and we joined them at their camp in Samburu to enjoy some of their fresh food and to share our tins with them!

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The survivors and friends at the end of the journey in Samburu Mational Park. From left to right: Francois, Paul. Else, Paul’s brother, Bushsnob, Genevieve, Mabel and Paula.

It was the 31 December 1986 and we started the New Year in the bush before continuing home the next day, this time with a smooth drive all the way to Nairobi.

 

 

 

At the cradle of mankind

We saw the camp way before we got there and, involuntarily speeded up to finally arrive and have a break in our journey. Our entrance was far from a triumphal one. We got to the camp near the shore of the lake where the track suddenly changed into deep sand and we got buried as our car was not able to pull the trailer in the sand. Despite unhooking it, it would not bulge and, worse still, when Paul tried to help, he got also stuck.

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Stuck on arrival at Koobi Fora.

Too tired to dig them out we decided to leave them for later when the day was cooler. So, we walked to the camp and did a few trips bringing our luggage. Luckily messages sent to the camp via the National Museum of Kenya had arrived and they were waiting us so our bandas were ready and very well equipped and comfortable so we could have a shower and relax during the rest of the day.

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Relaxing at camp.

Later on we decided to tackle the cars, more out of embarrassment than real need.

With the help of a few camp hands, we succeeded and we were ready to re-enter the camp now as a proper expedition, after a quick wash in the lake to freshen up. While digging our cars we learnt that the Koobi Fora sand spit was the best area for fishing and we had decided to try our luck the following morning and, with this in mind we had an early night as we were rather tired after a busy day.

Early the following morning we assembled the boat and a party ventured into the lake, heading for the sand spit as advised. The idea was to do trolling with our largest lures in search of Nile Perch or Tiger Fish as we had done in Lake Victoria, hoping to catch some sizeable fish.

We knew that the lake had a large population of crocodiles, some of them truly humongous, and that some of the lake dwellers hunted them [1]. Crocodiles were not new for us so, as usual we kept an eye for them but did not worry too much.

The sight that waited for us at the sand spit was as unexpected as frightening. The people at the camp had omitted that the place was the parking area where the they enyoyed their daily sunbathing. The whole length of the spit, between two and three hundred metres, was “green” with crocodiles.

In view of this unexpected and rather perturbing find, we decided to keep our distance from the area and fish some good distance away. As we approached the spit the crocodiles started sliding into the water, an even more unsettling situation as now we could not see them!

Despite this, we stuck to our plan and fished, perhaps at a greater distance from the sand as previously thought. We trolled along the spit and, every time we passed, the crocodiles -clearly with large mouths but small brains- kept jumping into the water only to climb back again on the sandy spit once we had passed! We trolled the whole morning but only caught a couple of small Nile perch and one Tiger fish. We were not impressed and decided to come back in the afternoon.

The lake has no outlet and water levels are kept by a delicate combination of the river waters, volcanic springs, rain (if it ever falls!) and evaporation. We noted that the water was a bit cloudier in this area, probably due to the entry of the Omo river from the north and we thought that this interfered with the fish seeing our lures. A good excuse for our failure!

The afternoon fishing, again, did not live up to our expectations and we only had a couple of bites but the fish got away. Busy fishing somehow we forgot the rather predictable crocs an we nearly came to grief when the boat shuddered violently and unexpectedly! A fraction of a second later, looking back we saw a commotion in the water and a large crocodile turned and showed itself clearly! The beast, I believe as shaken as us, crash-dived and disappeared.

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Sunset view of the sand spit and one of its occupants…

Luckily we did not hear any hissing so we assumed that the rubber dinghy was intact and, to our great relief, we saw no obvious damage. However, the crash shook us badly and, unanimously, decided that we had fished enough and that it was time to return to land doubting whether we hit the crocodile by chance or it came towards us with bad intentions or just got too close while having a look.

The crash with the crocodile rather than our rather poor fishing anecdotes dominated our conversation during and after the trip and, at the time, we did not of any one that had had a similar experience although today a few can be seen in YouTube.

That afternoon, after resting, we decided to have a swim in the beach shallows where we had seen people bathing earlier. While we were washing ourselves at dusk we detected a circle of red eyes at a distance and we withdrew rather fast from the water, ending our wash with buckets of water, quite away from the lakeshore!

Before we left Koobi Fora, we had a walk along the sand spit and, although we did not find any new hominids to make us famous, we saw the crocodiles from a different angle and we realized their true sizes and were rather impressed despite having seen many during our bush life. We also found lion footprints and decided that the wiser move would be to return to camp where we were informed that there was a lioness that “specialized” in hunting crocodiles.

That afternoon we packed our cars and got ready to start our return to Nairobi after a rather exciting time at the camp.

 

[1] Graham, A. and Beard, P. (1990). Eyelids of Morning: Mingled Destinies of Crocodiles and Men. Chronicle Books. 260p.

 

To the cradle of mankind – Getting there

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The area we traveled. Attribution: Rudyologist [CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Day 1 – Nairobi to Maralal

Not intimidated by the amount of stuff packed in and on the cars as well as on the trailer and full of enthusiasm we left Nairobi via Nyahururu with Maralal as our destination for the first night. A drive of over 350 km of which, about half would be done on tarmac, the last good road we would enjoy until our return to Isiolo.

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Paul coming with the trailer when things were still going well.

Slowly we left Nairobi and drove along the eastern wall of the rift valley towards the north and soon passed some of the landmarks we knew well, Mt. Longonot and Lake Naivasha. We passed Nakuru and reached Nyahururu from where we headed across the Laikipia plateau towards Rumuruti on a good dirt road. Once we passed the latter, the road narrowed as it started to climb towards the 1,965m of Maralal, unknown territory for us. Our excitement grew and things started to happen!

The combination of a heavy trailer being towed uphill in a hot climate started to take its toll and Paul’s Land Rover’s engine started to heat up. When I saw him flashing lights at us we stopped and, after seeing the situation, decided to wait for the car to cool down and then see what to do as we could not see anything obviously wrong. This happened about 30 minutes later and we decided to resume the journey.

After a few kilometres Paul stopped again and it was clear that the problem needed a more radical solution in order to -at least- reach Maralal. We could not lighten the trailer so we decided that we should tow it. Although our car was shorter, it was much newer and we hoped that it would be better able to withstand the effort.

Luckily the car put up with the extra burden and that is how I acquired the responsibility of pulling the rather large trailer all the way not just to Maralal but to Koobi Fora and back to Nairobi, learning on the job! The first thing I quickly got to terms with was that my driving style needed to change if we were to survive! Every time we braked, we could feel the trailer’s inertia pushing us and slow us down by severe jerks when we needed to accelerate. Gradually I got the hand of it and made good progress, all things considered.

Quite late that day we reached Maralal late and we set up camp with the aid of the car lights at the Catholic Mission. It was very cold and through the mist we caught a glimpse of the very old and somehow decaying cedar trees (Juniperus procera). This cedar is known as African pencil cedar, obviously from which pencils can be made. These trees were part of the highland mist forest, indigenous to Maralal mountain.

All the cedars were decorated with Old Man’s Beard or Spanish Moss (Usnea spp.) an epiphyte or plant that grows on another but not as a parasite. The area was renown for been forested by these species but there were not many left, at least around the area we were.

Although leopards were common, we did not see any while we spent a cold night and we were ready to go as soon as we felt strong the following morning.

Day 2 – Under Mt. Kulal

The following day we continued towards the southern shores of the lake. The road went down until we reached flat ground. On the way we turned into a small track sign-posted “World’s View” or a similar name. We were curious to see what it was but soon our curiosity turned into impatience, as the road was endless. We stopped and discussed our situation but decided to go to the bitter end rather than to turn around.

The long drive was worth its length and every shake we experienced not to mention the inhaled dust for, at the end of it, we were contemplating the southern tip of Lake Turkana, bright green against which rather recent volcanic cones were prominent. Southern Island could be seen far off towards the north as well. We were all speechless for a while and I believe that we were far too impressed to take pictures as I could not find any!

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Once we filled our eyes and minds with such an unforgettable view it was time to move on as we still have some kilometres to drive before arriving to our next stop by the shores of the lake. We retraced our route and eventually we got back to the main track, with the image of what we had just seen fresh in our minds.

The road turned to rough and sharp volcanic rock while we crawled towards the lake and, somehow, we went over a small hill avoiding large black boulders and we got to the lake. We left its shore on our left and continued on the black track that turned inland through dry bush for quite a distance until we could see a large mountain that we -correctly- assumed to be Mount Kulal.

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Shade booked by Turkana sheep and goats. No room for us!

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A Grevy zebra, a “special” of Northern Kenya.

With its 2,300m Mount Kulal dominated the landscape and we could just see its two peaks but in order to see its evergreen forest where cedar trees and lammergeyers are supposed to be found we needed a much closer approach that was not part of our itinerary.

Eventually the track turned left towards the lake and, again, we got to its shores in mid afternoon. We were still south from Loyangalani and there were sandy beaches. Tired we stopped to contemplate the lake and soon a group of Turkana came to greet us and to watch us from a distance. It was very hot so we had a quick swim -after checking for crocs- and then started preparing our camp.

It seemed that Mt. Kulal acted as bellows blowing very hot air towards the lake but we were prepared to protect ourselves from it. Or so we thought… As rehearsed in Nairobi our cars were parked parallel to the lake at about 10m from each other and then, once the tarpaulin was dug up from the depths of the trailer, we proceeded to assemble it.

We immediately realized the difference between setting it up in windless Nairobi as compared with the true hot gale coming from Mt. Kulal. After quite an effort from all five of us, we managed to tied it to the two vehicles and create a shelter although the wind was still passing under it and through the sides. I am sure the Turkana members of the public watching us had a good laugh about the antics of the bunch of “mzungu” [1] trying to get blown away into the lake instead of settling down!

We soon realized that we could not achieve the expected results and, as light was fading, with our pathetic wind breaker flapping loudly and constantly, we proceeded to organize our camp. However, after a few minutes we heard a ripping noise and our tarpaulin became a gigantic green flag flapping in the wind, held to only one of the cars.

We decided to untie it before it flew into the lake and drove the cars together across the wind and use them as a shelter. I am sure the Turkana visitors approved of that! Unfortunately camping was still difficult and, at some stage, following a particularly strong wind attack, all our light stuff including chairs and clothes flew off towards the lake, followed behind by our complete fire together with our pans, including their contents!

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After the struggle, the tarpaulin became our floor!

In view of the crisis, we had a tinned dinner and did not bother to put tents up but slept under the stars behind our cars putting up with the occasional gust of wind as it was a hot night. I still remember that I had difficulties to go to sleep as my hair (quite long then) kept hitting me on the face and eventually I needed to wear a cap to be able to stop it from bothering me! After that I managed some sleep.

Day 3 – Dry river-bed in Sibiloi National Park

Luckily, the following morning was windless and we could enjoy a very needed English breakfast. After short walks in the beach it was time to move on to cover the approximate 200 kilometers we had plan for the day.

We drove north and, somewhere after Loyangalani while driving close to the lake, we encountered a solitary mzungu walking in the opposite direction. He stopped us. He was a young man with severe sunburnt that just managed to ask for water despite his mouth being very dry and his tongue rather swollen. We gave him some of our water and filled his water bottle and, as soon as he got the water, without saying a word, he just walked off, ignoring our offers for help!

Still thinking about what this lone walker would have been doing there, we followed the road that at this point moved inland and then run parallel to the lake. After quite a long drive we go to the entrance of the Sibiloi National Park, created in 1973 for the protection of paleontology sites and wildlife. It is 1,570 km2 of semi-desert habitat and plains bordered by volcanic hills, including Mount Sibiloi.

Migrant waterfowl stop here and many of the more than 350 species of aquatic and terrestrial birds found at Lake Turkana can be spotted here together with zebras, Grant gazelles, lions, leopards, striped hyenas, Beisa Oryx, greater kudu, cheetahs and northern topi. Sibiloi is also a crocodile breeding area and the Turkana, the Gabra and the Dassanach ethnic groups surround it.

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Mabel at the entrance of the Sibiloi National Park.

After entering the park we stopped briefly to look at the rests of a petrified forest and, in the afternoon, we got to a dry river bed where we decided to go against the manual and risk the unlikely flush flood camping there on it as it offered a nice and soft sandy bottom, quite a change from our rocky and thorny surroundings and, most importantly, it offered a pleasant windless environment!

There we spent a rather pleasant night, again under the stars, as the temperature was still hot. The following morning, after another excellent breakfast, we broke camp and left for the next few kilometres that remained before getting to Koobi Fora.

 

[1] A term used in Kenya to refer to white people.

 

 

 

 

To the cradle of mankind – Background and preparations

Koobi Fora takes its name from a ridge located on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana in the territory of the nomadic Gabbra people and within the Sibiloi National Park. In Gabbra, Koobi Fora means a place of the commiphora and the source of myrrh [1].

The ridge contains mainly Pliocene/Pleistocene sediments (clay, silt and sand stones) that have conserved fossils of terrestrial mammals, including early hominid species.

In 1967 Richard Leakey’s flight to the Omo region the pilot flew over lake Turkana to avoid a thunderstorm. Although he expected the Koobi Fora area to be volcanic rock, he spotted sediments and later, during another visit by land, he saw tools and fossils that led him to establish the Koobi Fora Base Camp on a large sand spit projecting into the lake near the ridge.

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Lake turkana in Northern Kenya from a satellite. Credit: NASA.

In 1969 Leakey’s team found a cranium of Paranthropus boisei that created great enthusiasm. Three years later the skull of Homo rudolfensis (KNM ER 1470) was uncovered and after another three years a Homo erectus skull was found. (KNM ER 3733) and a second -intact- one in 1978 (KNM ER 3883). Leakey wrote a number of books on the subject of the evolution of man that made him world famous [2].

Leakey’s books were very popular at the time we were in Kenya and reading them was probably what hatched the idea of a safari to the area to see where the fossils had been found as an excuse to explore the area of lake Turkana, immortalized in the book “Journey to the Jade Sea” [3].

Lake Turkana, a brackish soda lake, is found in Northern Kenya where its 48 km of width, extends for 256 km from north to south in the border with Ethiopia. Volcanoes surround the green lake. Some like Nabiyotum Crater in Southern island are truly beautiful but there are several in the southern part of the lake where the Kerio and Turkwel Rivers enter it with fresh water.

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Some of the beautiful volcanic cones at the lake.

The lava flows surrounding the lake are often too hot to touch, the winds blow with gale force and the beautifully green lake was home to nomadic ethnic groups such as the Turkana and El Molo and it also offered -apparently- good fishing as well as a very large population of very large crocodiles!

We knew that the lake was rich in crocodiles (estimated at 22 thousand), fish, bird life and scenery, particularly its stark volcanic hills and still rather untouched by “civilization” so that Turkana fishermen did not need clothes! Count Teleki “discovered” it in 1888 describing it as with “beautiful water… clear as crystal…” but the name he chose, Lake Rudolf, is no longer in use.

The lake offered, therefore, a number of interesting challenges that we could not resist. Three factors influenced our decision, two were related to our friend Paul who, at the time was befriending Else, a lady working at the National Museums of Kenya and the visit of his brother from the UK. Through Else we got the green light to visit Koobi Fora so, the preparations for the trip could begin.

The third concerned to both Paul and I and it was the apparently amazing fishing that you could have in Lake Turkana as no one knew why Nile Perch there reached 90kg and over and the tiger fish fought so much!

We agreed that we would travel in tour two Land Rovers but when we estimated the amount of food, water and gear we would need, we despaired, as, although both cars had roof carriers, they would be too overloaded to withstand the expected rough journey. We were stuck!

However, Paul found a solution in the shape of a disused trailer that was at Muguga that he could use and that, importantly, it had the same tires than our cars. It was a long metal contraption looking (and being!) very heavy but it was our only option so we took it from the yard where old cars were kept for a sale that never took place, and towed to Paul’s house, our temporary centre of operations.

The journey would take several days and the planned itinerary would take us through Maralal, South Horr. Loyangalani, North Horr, Koobi Fora, Chalbi desert, Marsabit, Samburu and, finally, Nairobi

We were fortunate that Paul had a small gas fridge that would enable us to carry some perishable food for a few days although we added, apart from the normal cool boxes with normal ice packs, one with dry ice to be opened after a few days during the journey.

Mabel and Else developed the menus and food and they got involved in careful calculations so that we had enough eggs and bacon, cooking oil and fresh and preserved fruits as we were not sure of how much we could get on the way.

Luckily Mabel had by then accumulated good camping experience and we relied on her to do the planning. As time was very long and the area very hot, she decided to place our “last” fresh stuff in the dry ice cool box to be opened on day five. After these final supplies were over, it would be tinned food.

Apart from having the Land Rovers in the best condition possible according to their ages, Paul and I dealt with fuel and other car essentials as well as the necessary camping and fishing gear. We prepared our tents, sleeping gear, camping chairs and tables, making sure that all necessary bits and pieces were there, including mallets and spades as well as some charcoal for the areas where no firewood was obtainable.

The safari stuff mountain grew by the day and the inclusion of the fishing gear did not help. As this was considered as one of the highlights of the trip the rubber dinghy was added, together with engine and petrol. Aware that the lake harboured large fish such as Nile Perch and Tiger fish we took heavy fishing gear, hoping that it would be enough for the expected fish fights.

We also needed to carry sufficient water and fuel. Although we would be able to find both on the way, we settled for 80 litres of petrol. As far as water was concerned we only took 40 litres as the water of the lake was considered as mildly alkaline and drinkable in an emergency.

We took four spare wheels, as we could share them and we also collected what we thought was a rather comprehensive set of tools and a rather large assortment of essential spares that included everything we thought our cars might need during the estimated 3,200 km of the return journey, without counting local travel.

Security reports were essential before venturing into this area and we learnt that it was good at the time although the occasional incursions by bandits known as “Shiftas” could not be predicted. We decided that this was good enough and decided to risk it.

The final moment of truth came when Else got the permit to enter into the Koobi Fora area and use the accommodation that had been built there by Richard Leakey and the National Museums of Kenya. We had then, like Julio Caesar, crossed the Rubicon and there was no way back!

However, there was one more step before we were ready to go. We knew, from the experience of other visitors, that we should expect very strong winds, particularly in the vicinity of Mt. Kulal, the mountain of the winds! We decided that we needed a barrier and we borrowed a rather large and heavy lorry tarpaulin that we intended to use as a wind barrier by tying it between the two cars.

So, the Friday before our departure we decided to have a “Windbreak setting up rehearsal and dinner party” that had more of a party than a rehersal for the setting up of the tarpaulin!

However, afterwards, we felt we could handle the voyage.

 

[1] See: https://www.museums.or.ke/koobi-fora/ consulted on 21/11/19. My addition: Commiphora, is the most species-rich genus of flowering plants in the frankincense and myrrh family,

[2] Origins (with Roger Lewin) (Dutton, 1977); People of the Lake: Mankind and its Beginnings (with Roger Lewin) (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978) and Making of Mankind (Penguin USA, 1981) among others.

[3] Hillaby, J. (1973), Journey to the Jade Sea. Academy Chicago Publishers. 206 p.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wamba sweet tea

It was Paul’s idea to do what he called the Wamba circuit that was really a long drive passing through Wamba town to an area in the bush where we would find a suitable spot to camp and enjoy the vastness of the area, together with its wildlife.

The detail of how we got there escape me now but it was a very long drive from Nairobi past Isiolo and following the road to Marsabit National Park, turning west at Archer’s post on the way to Baragoi and, a while later we got to Wamba, a small town in Samburu County in central Kenya, located to the southwest of the Mathews Range, and northwest of the Samburu National Reserve.

We were thirsty when we got to Wamba and looked for a place where we could get a cold drink as we needed to fix some mechanical issues with the Land Rover. After driving through the town’s dusty roads under the late morning heat we found a place that had fridges and we went in hoping for a cold beer or, if not, even a cold soda could have done! The attendant took the order and came back with the drinks that were at about 40oC as there was no electricity and, as it is common in Africa, the fridges are used as cupboards! We were devastated and refused to drink them!

The waiter then offered us spiced tea and we accepted as at least it was meant to be a hot drink and it was water after all. What came, served in glasses, was probably the best cup of tea that I have ever drunk, an impression probably aided by the circumstances. It was very sweet and it tasted of true clove, cardamom and cinnamon. We drank lots of it and thanked (and tipped) the waiter for such a great tea and we were ready to go.

We drove on through a vast dry and extremely hot area with scattered rocky outcrops. As we had the whole area to ourselves, we chose one of the few places with some sizeable trees for shade and also with our “own” kopje that would also provide some additional shade, we estimated.

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“Aerial view” of our camp.

There we assembled our camp that consisted of the tents and a makeshift shade added to the Land Rover, as we were not planning to drive but to walk. As usual in these places, although one believes to be alone, this is far from true and about thirty minutes after we arrived we already had a “guard” of young Samburu boys standing by our camp with who we were, unfortunately, unable to communicate apart from offering them water and food! They came from an unseen manyatta nearby and they seemed happy to stay with us until just before sunset.

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Mabel under custody!

The following morning we decided to have “an English breakfast with a view” and, not without some difficulty, carried our fried and scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, fried tomatoes, toasts and butter! In addition we carried our thermoses of coffee and tea up “our” hill. Being hot helped to keep our food warm by the time we reached the top and we started eating once we found places to sit.

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“Our” rocky outcrop with Paul at the top.

We had the most magnificent view of the immense bush country extending in all directions below us. After a few attempts, I managed a picture of the three of us with our breakfast that placed us, I am sure, among the early pioneers of the present day selfies!

We were about our second bite when a mighty blast made the kopje shiver and almost took the plates from our hands! Truly shell-shocked we all looked to see if the car had blown up but, luckily, it was still there although our Samburu guards were nowhere to be seen.

Then, we saw a column of dust and smoke about five hundred metres from us and, then another explosion and yet another! Still on the kopje we checked with the binoculars and saw that the bushes were moving! Incredulous, we looked again and realized that camouflaged tanks and other army vehicles were coming through the bush towards us!

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The selfie before breakfast. The troop movement started later in the bush at the back.

Our first thought was that Somalia was invading Kenya and we went into a mild panic as the thought of being among the first prisoners of war did not appeal to us. However, as this would be unlikely, we decided to come down from our lookout and finish our now cold breakfast at camp to wait for developments with “a stiff upper lip” as were clearly outnumbered!

We did not have to wait long before a Kenya army Land Rover with soldiers in full combat gear arrived. Clearly they were surprised to find us there but they immediately realized that we were just campers, if a bit out of the ordinary for having chosen that particular area for our holiday!

They politely explained to us that we happened to be in an area that was used for joint Kenya-British army maneuvers and they just wanted to inform us of the situation and tell us that we could stay the night but it would be better for us to vacate the area next day as some live ammo was being used!

We stayed for the rest of the day surrounded by army trucks and infantry marches until it was time to leave, obviously, without having seen much of the area!

We returned to Nairobi through Rumuruti, Nyahururu and Nakuru and later we learnt that the land we camped in belonged to the Kenyan government and it had been used for military training by the Kenya Defence Forces and the British Army for many years.

Working in the Northern Fontier District

After my FAO Fellowship ended and I joined the ICIPE and my work shifted towards the understanding of the resistance that some cattle have against ticks. Some colleagues there were working on a tick vaccine while I was given the task of exploring the natural resistance that is observed among cattle in the field.

At the time there were reports of animals that were refractory to ticks while the opposite also happened, a few animals in the herd carried most of the ticks and culling them was recommended to reduce tick populations in the long term. We needed tp prove this in Kenya, in an area free of Theileriosis as the work demanded to stop the application of chemicals to kill the ticks.

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Beautiful Boran bull.

After discussions with colleagues and with the agreement of the Government of Kenya’s veterinary authorities it was agreed that we would focused our work on Mutara Ranch in Laikipia District where the Agricultural Development Corporation had the National Boran Stud. They were prepared to let us work on a group of one hundred young bulls to determine their resistance status.

After the trial preparation period we started with the work that lasted for six months. We got a number of interesting results that confirmed the hypothesis that tick distribution in the herd was normally distributed with a few bulls carrying few and lots of ticks while most were somewhere in between.

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Working. From left to right Mark, Henry, Joseph, Bushsnob, Gitau and the other Henry.

So, we decided to compare our list of best ranked bulls for tick resistance with those of the Farm Manager for physical quality and body built. Our best animals for tick resistance did not match those regarded as best by the Manager! Although this was not what we expected and a disappointment as it was clear that selection would take a longer route than anticipated, the geneticists and statisticians unanimously agreed that the consistency of the results merited continuation[1].

We then entered in collaboration discussions with geneticists from Texas’ A&M University in the United States to expand the work and, with them, planned a series of follow-up trials. Unfortunately, the research group dispersed and myself and another of the collaborators departed from Kenya and the work stopped there.

In addition to doing very interesting work, my regular visits to Mutara gave me a great opportunity to explore some areas of the Northern Frontier District, a fascinating area that I mentioned in my previous post. These safaris follow next!

 

[1] Results of the work are published and those of you with a scientific mind can access the publication. See:https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337857245_Towards_the_selection_of_cattle_for_tick_resistance_in_Africa

 

The Northern Frontier District (NFD)

A decision made in 1925 by the British Colonial Office in London turned the NFD of Kenya into a buffer zone, to curb the influence of a southern influx from the horn of Africa of both Muslims from Somalia and Christians from Ethiopia. The buffer zone excluded all European settlements and missionaries.

When Kenya became independent in 1963, the Somali-inhabited areas included in the NFD struggled to unite with the Somali Republic resulting in the detention of its leaders by the Kenya Government. Severe unrest followed known as the “Shifta period”. During this time the area was closed to visitors until the end of the 70’s due to security concerns but, by the time we arrived, it had been open for a couple of years without known incidents.

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Kenya’s agroecological zones showing the predominance of semi-deseric and desertic areas.

The region had a semi-arid and hot desert climate with infrequent rains that vary on a yearly basis. The exception being the extremely fertile southwestern area where the Tana River supplies water to farmers. The NFD was a massive wild area combining small farming communities, huge private ranches, and conservation projects within Samburu and Maasai lands. It extended further north to even wilder lands and deserts with some little known people such as the Turkana and El Molo to name some.

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Samburu manyatta.

This was the country that Wilfred Thesiger trekked while he lived in Kenya [1]. Thesiger, who passed away in 2003, is often referred to as the last of the old-time explorers, having lived a life reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling and Lawrence of Arabia. He lived in Maralal until his final days.

The NFD still offered a real sense of freedom and adventure and the far away northern views of Mount Kenya reminded us that we were far away from home! Wild animals still roamed outside protection areas. Several species of gazelles, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, Somali ostrich and all kinds of predators including hyenas, lions and leopards were still in sizeable numbers and elephants were abundant.

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Ol Olokwe, a dominant feature in the southern part of the NFD.

It is not possible for me to describe all the places that the NFD had to offer to avid visitors like us. We visited a few great places but the privilege of traveling across arid and hot lands inhabited by people that still kept their -for us- amazing traditions while being able to find wild animals anywhere were an irresistible offer.

We had enjoyed visiting the Samburu region protected areas (Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba National Reserves) and enjoyed them as, like Tsavo, these offered a different environment that it was new to us.

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A black-bellied bustard at Samburu.

Luckily, not too long after having visited the NFD I winded down my work at Intona Ranch in the Transmara and started working on the resistance of Boran cattle to ticks at a ranch in Laikipia. This change in the geographic focus enabled us to combine the work with travel in the area.

It was like this that, apart from re-visiting the Samburu region we also traveled to Wamba and the Kerio river valley (see https://bushsnob.com/2019/12/31/spanning-the-kerio-river/) and, later on, organized a safari that included Koobi Fora in the eastern shores of lake Turkana via Maralal, the Chalbi dessert and Marsabit as well as a camel trip along the Milgis River, a beautiful watercourse that winds its way through the Matthew’s Range and the Ndoto mountains.

I will, in the next posts, deal with the places and activities mentioned.

 

[1] Thesiger, W. (1994). My Kenya Days. London: Harper Collins, 224p. He has also written two classic books of travel and exploration, “The Marsh Arabs” and “Arabian Sands,” and a engrossing autobiography, “The Life of My Choice.”