Bush stories and anecdotes

The heart of the blog, where I present observations, accounts, funny stories, etc.

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.

m mara ...hyena chasing thomson gazelle

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.

m mara sick giraffe...

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

Camping Intona... copy 3

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!

amboseli

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.

m mara puff adder in sand river camp the day hyena stole coolbox

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!

16-TzCampsiteNgoro88-2

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!

Buff group with egrets NNP copy

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.

DSCN3918 11.23.28 AM copy

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.

DSCN6504 copy 2

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.

camping...

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.

DSCN9981 6.57.00 PM copy

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.

m mara rhino and calf...-001 8.55.16 AM 8.56.48 AM

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

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!

lion male number 1 Cottars with PMcC copy.jpeg copy

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!

DSC_6291.1 copy

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.

Rinderpest_1896-CN

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.

m mara air wbeest migration

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!

hyena

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/

 

 

A brave camping attempt

Although I had camped once before in Bogoria with Richard and Philip [1] our first attempt at spending a couple of nights under canvas took place at the Sand River campsite in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. This pioneer effort took place way before I knew I would be working at Intona ranch in the Transmara, something that would require lots of driving through the Reserve as well as camping for many years.

We were still staying at Muguga House then and we hatched the idea together with Kevin, a young forester that was had arrived to work a short time at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) a sister organization of the Kenya Veterinary Research Institute, both of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI).

Aware that his time in Kenya was limited, Kevin wished to visit the well-known Maasai Mara before returning to the UK so he was the main promoter of the idea. He managed to convince our friend Ranjini to come as well so we created a four-person team for this rather new undertaking.

Kevin did most of the footwork for the trip, Ranjini borrowed some stuff from other colleagues and I borrowed a large and strong tent from our laboratory in Muguga. We rented the 4WD car we could afford and ended up with a Subaru van. Unfortunately, we could not pack lots of things in it so our safari lacked a few essentials we have learnt to love over the years we have spent camping in comfort.

We did not have a table, chairs or mattresses. Luckily we were able to borrow four sleeping bags, basic cooking utensils, cutlery and crockery and, wisely, the ladies decided to stuff four pillows (borrowed from Muguga House!) at the last minute! The rest, we thought, would be overlooked by our enthusiasm and excitement at camping in the open surrounded by wild animals!

The trip started on a Friday morning traveling about 30 km in the wrong direction as we needed to catch a matatu (packed public minibus) to Nairobi to get the car only to go back to Muguga to load it and start our journey. Kevin drove all the way as I had not driven a right hand drive car yet.

Although he drove rather fast to get to our destination before closing time, the trip went well. We got a bit of a scare when, trying to save petrol, he switched the engine off during a long descent and both the power steering and the brakes stopped working! Luckily this only lasted a few seconds until the engine re-started and all functions returned to normality! After a rather long journey, we arrived to the Maasai Mara rather late but luckily we managed to get in before the closing time and reached the Sand River campsite rather late.

Although we all had assembled tents before, putting up the large tent for the first time in the dark was a bigger challenge than we had anticipated. There was a lot of trial and error and, after our best combined effort we were very pleased when we managed to get something with a V shape erected that served the purpose for us to rest our tired bones after a quick supper.

camping ranjini kevin

From left to right: Ranjini, Kevin and Mabel (kneeling down) and a good tent badly assembled!

That night we herd grunting noises very close to our tent. Although we were sleepy and tired the situation demanded some discussion as, at times, the situation became rather nerve-wrecking with the grunts coming from an animal or animals very close to the tent! After a while we unanimously decided that buffaloes were responsible for the noise, as we had seen them nearby earlier on. Today I believe that we all knew which animal was responsible but that we took the decision for our own peace of mind and refuse to accept that there were lions inspecting our camp!

Lion grunts

Despite the nervous start of the night we slept through and, luckily, we were in a good enough shape in the morning. When we saw the way our tent looked, we had a good laugh and decided that it was worth spending some time reassembling it to manage to close its zips fully! We finally managed to get it more or less in shape and to close it.

We decided that it was time to explore the area searching, as any first comers to the Maasai Mara, for lions. However, before departing we walked to the dry river bed to check for spoor. The overwhelming lion spoor we saw left us in no doubt of the kind of night visitors we had.

We drove many kilometres through the bush, got lost a few times and, finally to our delight, we found a couple of sleeping lions. Although the objects of our desire hardly moved, they made our day!

Maasai Mara lions

Our first lions.

Again, we returned to our camp very late after our drive to prepare supper. Unfortunately, while we were cooking we heard Ranjini saying that she had just lost her contact lenses in the grass, just outside the tent while trying to clean them. We postponed supper and all joined efforts in search of the tiny lenses in twilight. After a while, luckily, Mabel’s eyes came to the rescue and she, miraculously, found both of them stuck to some blade of grass!

That evening we also heard our first hyena call and we could also herd lions roaring in the distance. Our British friends knew both sounds from the BBC documentaries. We believed them.

Hyenas calling.

Lion roar

That night the grunting took place inside the tent and it was equally disturbing to everybody except me, the cause of the noise. My snoring was such that both Ranjini and Kevin were planning to wake me up (or worse!) when we had a partial tent collapse that solved the problem as we all woke up and my roaring, apparently, ceased!

Although this first camping was very basic and limited in what we saw, it wetted our appetite for the bush and showed that there was a lot to explore in Kenya and that you did not need to pay a fortune to do it. We promised ourselves that, as soon as our finances allowed it, we would get camping equipment and start going out to enjoy beautiful Kenya.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/02/22/pink-bogoria/

 

 

 

Uncomfortable tick

Working with certain ticks can be dangerous. As an example, it is possible to contract the severe Crimean-Congo Haemorraghic fever while working with its vector Hyalomma spp. Luckily, most of the work we carried out at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) dealt with the Brown Ear tick (Rhipicephalus appendiculatus), vector of Theileriosis, the most important and deadly cattle tick-borne disease found in Africa but not known to transmit diseases to humans. Over the many years my colleagues and I worked with this tick, we never had an instance of sickness that we could attribute to them.

R a on ear high resol

Heavy infestation of Rhipicephalus appendiculatus on a calf ear.

Ixodid (hard) ticks such as the Brown Ear tick bite but do not sting. They do not bite like other insects either but rather they attach themselves in a usually painless way so that you do not know about them until sometime later. Argasid (soft) ticks do bite, feed and go away to their resting place to come back and feed again after digesting the blood meal.

Argasids' lesions copy

The Argasid ticks (Ornitodhoros, Argas, etc.) shown will bite, feed and detach. Ixodid ticks (Rhipicephalus, Hyalomma, Amblyomma, etc.) need to attach to the host prior to feeding).

Although we did not get any disease signs, we did experience tick bites very often. We got ticks on while walking in the field and during our laboratory work during which we needed to handle them very often.

Although the adult ticks did not attach readily to us, the nymphs and larvae did. Their preferred body regions were areas where there was hair such as neck, armpits and genital area but the larvae picked while walking on the grass would mainly stay on your ankles (pepper ticks). Eventually I became hypersensitive to their bites that produce me intense itching that makes me scratch their bites intensely and often breaking my skin!

 

Counting immature ticks was a normal procedure for our work and -at the time- the procedure consisted in placing them on a white smooth table where immediately they would start moving. Being attracted by CO2 they would aim for you straight away and you needed to work very fast to be able to catch them -with an inverted tube- before they would get at you. Unfortunately and rather inevitably a few would break through your defences, fell on your lap or crawled up your arms with the consequence that later you would find them attached to you in the various places mentioned above!

Although, as I mentioned above, adult ticks generally did not attach to you, there were exceptions with certain species that caused the unfortunate incident that happened to a visiting colleague.

After a day of fieldwork counting and collecting ticks from local domestic animals in the Mbita Point area [1], we came back to our bungalow for a deserved shower before our dinner. I noted that John (not his real name) was walking with his legs slightly separated as if suffering from nappy rash but I attributed to the many hours we spent kneeling down searching for ticks and -with some effort- refrained from making any rude remarks!

It was only after the shower that he came to me and, very seriously, told me that he had a problem. This took me by surprise but nothing prepared me for what would come next. “I have a tick attached to me and I cannot remove it!” and, before I could comment he added, “because it is in a place that I cannot reach” and then added “do you think you can pull it out?”

Having suffered various tick invasions to my privacy, I immediately imagined where the invader was and -albeit unwillingly- agreed to do it. So it was that I ended up with my naked colleague spreadeagled on a bed!

I will omit further details of the intervention except to say that I did lock the door as I suddenly realised that the excuse “I was looking for a tick” if found rummaging my friends privates to a visitor would not be very credible! Fortunately, no one disturbed the procedure!

It was good that the trespasser was an adult female that had already started to engorge and it was easy to find and to remove it intact by turning it upside down before pulling it out. At that time I did not possess my “tick remover” tool that was sent to me as a present from the manufacturers.

IMG_4519 copy 2

A “tick remover”. Please note that I neither recommend or do not recommend this product that i have never used.

Leaving mouthparts’ fragments embedded in the skin could have still caused further discomfort in such delicate body region! We were both very relieved with the outcome and celebrated the de-ticking with a couple of beers over dinner.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/03/26/kenya-friends-and-foes1/ and https://bushsnob.com/2015/04/04/chicken-a-la-rusinga1/

Vundu fishing in Kariba

Introduction

My brother and I have fished together many times over the years. Our shared passion started when we were still very young and fished in the River Plate and tributaries and extended to the present expedition in search of the vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis) in lake Kariba.

We have fished in several places of the Paraná and Uruguay rivers on a catch and release basis. We have been very fortunate to catch a few of the two most coveted fish: the dorado (Salminus maxillosus) and the surubí (Pseudoplatystoma corruscans). My wife and I had our first experience fishing for dorado in Paso de la Patria, Corrientes in the 80s[1] and have fished more fish in the Corrientes province with my brother afterwards, always on a catch and release basis. Accompanied by my son and I, my brother caught a large surubí at Ita Ibate that is still the family record to be broken!

Ita Ibate surubi de AC copy

Holding the surubí estimated by the local guide to be around 40kg.

We have also fished in the upper Amazon tributaries in Bolivia and earlier in Zimbabwe in Kanyemba where we caught the also sought after tiger fish (Hydrocynus vittatus). Despite this, the vundu has remained elusive for my brother although my daughter and I managed a few as described earlier [2]. This, together with tales of gigantic specimens, became intolerable so we went there to try our luck!

Before I go on I need to be honest up front, my brother Agustín is a fisherman with unlimited patience and a passion to get things out of the water. I am not patient and therefore only function when the fish, preferably large ones, are biting. However, I enjoy his company and we have good laughs together and as a late great fisherman of Paso de la Patria, Don Luis Shultz, always said ” the worst day fishing is better than the best day working”.

Preparations

Still following earlier advice from my wife’s dentist and our own experience mentioned above, again we hired a boat to sail lake Kariba up to the Ume River like the last time. On this occasion, in view of the fuel situation in Zimbabwe, we decided to go for a smaller houseboat so we hired the “Harmony”, a cruiser, for a week.

IMG_3116 copy

The Harmony, our home for one week.

Apart from booking the boat, getting food and water to last us for the whole period was the priority. We also needed bait. This consisted of dry kapenta (Limnothrissa miodon), earthworms [3], ox heart and liver and more exotically: green soap! The latter was a favourite of the vundu and my wife secured a couple of bars from the local supermarket just in case. The soap was so stinky that, after a few days, we needed to wrap it tight to avoid its stench pervading all over the garage. Needless to say that it traveled -together with the earthworms- on the roof rack!

PHOTO-2019-06-21-16-41-52 copy

The stinky green soap bars.

Days before the expedition we secured some extra hooks, sinkers, steel trace and line just in case. We were going after large fish and did not wish to fail due to lack of equipment! That prove to be a good precaution as we will see. So, finally all was ready and with the car packed we went.

0 IMG_2960 copy

Loading the car.

The trip

We left Harare at the unacceptable time of 03:30am. This early start was needed to be able to board our cruiser at 09:00am in Kariba Breezes harbour. After an uneventful trip we arrived in good time and met our supplier of drinks (mainly water) and our crew: Message, the captain and fishing guide, Eddie, the deckhand, cleaner and helper and Smart, the cook.

From the start we realized that we were lucky with Message and Eddie but faced some difficulties with the cook. The latter was used to cooking for the local fishermen and we had brought ingredients for Mediterranean cooking! Therefore it is not difficult to imagine that Mabel, being Italian, needed to closely supervise the food preparation and, although she kept a close eye on the action, we still suffered a few small cooking tragedies!

The lake was, as usual, a beautiful blue and, although we have seen it and navigated it a few times before, still very impressive. The Kariba dam was built between 1955 and 1959 by an Italian company that poured one million cubic metres of cement into it.

IMG_4734 copyWith its 617m of length, 13m of width and 128m of height. It has always amazed me that such small barrier can create a lake of 280 km long with an average width of 18km (widest 32km) and two thousand km of shoreline! Its deepest point is 120m but it is also very shallow in some areas so the average depth, if of any use to know, is 18m.

When the dam stopped the waters of the Zambezi, animals got trapped in islands that were going to get submerged so an operation called “Noah” was launched headed by Rupert Fotherhill, a well known conservationist. Today Fotherhill island in the lake remembers him that sadly passed away in May 1975[4].

Enough of data and history and back to the story.

The fishing

We left the harbour with a farewell organized by the resident hippos and navigated for about five hours. We stopped beyond Elephant Point as it was not possible to reach the Ume river with good visibility that day. We fished there but had no luck. The same bad luck stayed with us during the couple of nights spent at the Ume river, although we had a couple of bites (suspected by vundu) that we missed and we had to be happy with a couple of small bream (Oreochromis spp.) that we kept for the pot and tasted great!

Fishing in the African rivers is never boring, even if the fish do not bite. Apart from the abundant birdlife that can always surprise you as we will see below, the abundant hippo population is always keeping you “entertained”. Either you watch their water antiques and interactions while letting you know that they are there or outside when sunning themselves when you discover the very small babies that you miss in the water when they travel in the backs of their mums.

In addition, apart from the usual antelopes, there is always the possibility of seeing some of the large predators and the certainty that elephants will turn up and also keep you amused.

Disappointed after having fished at the Ume river we decided to move off the following day. That night we decided to leave two rods baited with green soap from the stern of the house boat with the hope that we would get some fish during the night. We set the reels with their alarms with the idea that we would hear the fish taking the bait and running. Although we tried to stay long, very soon, tired after a whole day under the sun, we forgot about the rods and retired to bed rather early.

Although neither we nor the crew heard anything that night, both rods had fish on them the next morning and we were very excited! It was immediately clear that we were on large fish as the rubber tie that held my rod had been cut by the fish pulling! Sadly, our lines had also become entangled in the many submerged trees and we could not see what we had as both lines needed to be cut!

So, that morning we went out fishing seeking revenge but, again, we drew blanks but my brother continued fishing from the houseboat after lunch and his efforts were rewarded with a vundu. It was a very small one but at least it was good to confirm that vundu were not yet extinct!

IMG_0499 copy

Agustín’s first vundu.

This small success, together with the night episode, was sufficient to prompt us to stay fishing that night. Needless to say that our enthusiasm gradually waned and by 01:00am, in the absence of fish activity, we gave up as a result of a combination of feeling cold and sleepy!

Following our lack of success during our night fishing, in consultation with Message, we decided to depart from the Ume area after lunch as we would still try to catch something in the morning. Message was sure that we would catch what we were after at Elephant point so, after yet another luckless morning we departed at midday of day four.

Once moored safely at our new location we resumed our fishing. The water was very calm but we saw lots of dry trees in our new location as the water of the lake was very low. Although we joked that with less water the fish would be more concentrated, the hidden trunks were a menace to our lines.

We decided to go all out and put all our rods out with different baits to care for all possible tastes! After a while I had a fish on the green soap that I missed by striking it too early and taking the soap away from its mouth (apparently). It was a good start and a while later I had another strong run. This time I waited but stroked too hard and broke the line, causing great hilarity all round as I nearly fell backwards out of the boat! It seemed that Message had been right, there were some interesting fish at Elephant point.

The following morning (day five) we hooked a couple of fish that we also lost as they would go around submerged trees causing the lines to snap. The situation was getting desperate when, luckily, Agustín hooked a vundu that ran towards a treeless area and, eventually, was brought in. It weighed 6.5kg and it was returned to the lake to continue growing! That was something after the effort we had put in so far and it was celebrated that evening with some whisky on the rocks.

During day six, while I was busy losing hooks, sinkers and line for various reasons, my brother caught another fish that at 11.6 kg was quite decent and, although still far from our expectations, made as (and mainly him) very happy. Of course Agustín still claims that my balance was faulty and that the fish must have weighed about 15kg but I ignored his comments as I used my luggage balance and it has worked well for many years! The new fish provided another good excuse to give our bottle of whisky another hard time!

vundu3

Agustín with the 11,6 kg vundu.

That day, while my brother was busy fishing and I entertained myself losing gear, my attention was called when I herd loud honking coming from a sand bank about 60m from us. Through the binoculars I saw that two Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiaca) were having a fight. This was not the usual confrontation in which posturing and threatening displays end with the withdrawal of one of the contenders. The fight had gone physical!

They were holding each other by their heads while strongly hitting each other with their wings. Several other geese had formed a crowd around them (no doubt cheering their favourite wrestler) honking madly.  Just before the scuffle broke up, a Fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) swooped down towards the fighters and, when I thought it would take one of them, it changed course at the last second and flew off to a perch nearby, unnoticed by the furious fighting geese.

About a couple of minutes later the contenders separated and, one of them flew off very close to the water. This was spotted by the eagle that attacked it again at full speed forcing the flying goose to crash into the water to avoid the killing talons of the eagle that did not made contact. At that point I thought that the goose was a goner and waited for the predator to return. Surprisingly, the eagle did not press the attack and flew off!

The final drama

It is mandatory that the last night on the lake is spent near the harbour at Kariba town as the boats must be back by mid morning. That s the time to re-fuel and settle all expenses with the suppliers. Usually that night is spent at a rather nondescript area called Antelope island where we had not fished anything before.

This time we discussed with Message whether it would be another place where we could stop where we could still have a chance of getting large fish. He proposed to go to the Sampakaruma island. As the name sounded quite exotic, we instantly agreed to go there.

We arrived at Sampakaruma late afternoon and went for our last attempt at catching a vundu. It was not to be although I had a good pull that eventually lost, nothing unusual in this trip. So it was time to return to Kariba the following morning but we still decided to leave two rods from our tender boat to see if we could catch anything at dusk and leave them until after dinner when we agreed that we would pack our gear and end our fishing.

Fed up with losing equipment I decided to leave my reel brake rather tight so that the fish could not take much line in case it decided to take the bait. This in my mind would avoid it running far and getting entangled in the submerged trees. Satisfied, I went to have my shower to prepare for the last dinner on board.

The rest of the team planned to take their showers in the morning so they preferred to sit at the table to enjoy a sundowner. However, their relaxation was abruptly interrupted by an ear-splitting noise coming from the stern of the boat. It sounded as if another boat had crashed against us so all able seamen and women, except me that was enjoying my shower, ran towards the stern.

“Julio!, Julio!” I heard my wife calling “come quick, something happened at the tender boat!” and added “they are there trying to see what is happening!”. I put my clothes without drying myself and run to join the rest of the team, rather confused at the news.

“Your rod is gone” were the words my brother greeted me before I reached the tender boat. When I could look at the scene I saw Message and Eddie illuminating the boat and the water. The rod had indeed gone and so it had the rod holder, hence the loud noise herd.

P1000617 copy

The first view of the place where the rod was. The outline of the holder and screw holes are clearly seen.

I saw that Message and Eddie were busy assembling a few hooks together to rake the bottom of the lake in the nearby area to see if they could hook the line.

P1000612 copy

P1000625 copy

Message and Eddie attempting to recover the rod.

All efforts were futile and the rod and reel were gone forever! A suitable end to my constant losing of gear!

Speculation immediately started on whether the responsible for the damage was a very large vundu or perhaps a hungry crocodile. As you can guess, the discussion of the cause of the rod departure is still being hotly debated and it will be for a few years to come as it could have been either of the two suspects.

However, I am about to reveal a different explanation, fruit of careful thinking that considered the local mythology, the history of the lake and the location where the incident took place.  

The Tonga ethnic group that lives in the Zambezi valley believe that a River God known as Nyami Nyami lives in Lake Kariba. It is a serpent-like creature of very large proportions, so long that no one dares to guess his length. The dam separated Nyami Nyami from his wife and this has angered him. He has  remonstrated in the past by causing severe floods and even some earth tremors. 

IMG_4735 copy

Nyami Nyami and the dam.

Apparently, when Nyami Nyami passes the water stains red and Chief Sampakaruma saw him on two occasions many, many years ago, but the River god has been in hiding since the white men arrived.

I believe that what happened to my rod was nothing to do with a vundu or a crocodile but that it was the River god remonstrating against us being there trying to remove its creatures from the lake! After all I am sure it was in this area of the lake that Chief Sampakaruma saw Nyami Nyami and I swear that I saw the water turning red towards the end of that day. Although it may have been the effect of the dying rays of the sun on the still lake, I am convinced that Nyami Nyami was around!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/01/28/a-fishing-expedition/

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/01/15/vundu/

[3] Amusingly earthworm sellers have different names for them while they advertise them on the road. “Puffadder worms”, “Black mamba worms”, “Men worms” and “Worms of note” are some of the names that come to mind.

[4] See: https://www.nytimes.com/1975/05/28/archives/rupert-fothergill-is-dead-at-62-led-rescue-of-animals-in-africa.html; https://www.safaribookings.com/blog/operation-noah-rescue-of-the-kariba-wildlife; http://operationnoah.blogspot.com/ There is also a book: Robins, E & Legge, R. (1959). Animal Dunkirk: the Story of Lake Kariba and ” Operation Noah, ” the Greatest Animal Rescue Since the Ark. Jenkins publisher. 188p.

 

Boswell’s genes

Three years back I wrote a post about a really iconic elephant in Mana Pools known as Boswell [1]. At the time I mentioned its ability to reach heights that other elephants (and even giraffes if they would exist in Mana Pools) cannot by stretching and standing on its hind legs. I showed a rather bad set of pictures that I took on an island in the middle of the Zambezi river and regretted that the animal did not “perform” closer to us.

pict0021-copy

Undoubtedly Boswell is the best known of Mana Pools’ elephants and it one of the classic sights of the park.

My brother Agustín and his wife Gloria had visited us in Zimbabwe in the late 90s and, to our delight, they decided to come back this year. As we had taken them to Hwange National Park and Victoria Falls in their previous visit, we decided this time to visit Mana Pools for game viewing and Kariba to attempt to fish for vundu.

In the previous visit we failed to find any lions at Hwange despite our great efforts so one of the goals at Mana was to find wild lions. Fortunately we achieved this goal and spent sometime watching them. As lions are normally sleeping and these were not the exception, we soon decided to move on and return later to see if they decide to be more active.

P1000424 copy.jpg

Luckily, after a while in the distance we saw the unmistakable shape of Boswell and we noted that it was slowly walking towards the river and we happened to be on its path. We placed the vehicle in a discrete spot not to interfere and waited for its arrival. Luckily we were alone! Boswell was accompanied by a few more elephants, two adult but younger males, a couple of females with babies and a young male.

P1000305 copy

Boswell.

Mana Pools was extremely dry as last year’s rains had largely failed so there was little greenery apart from the large trees. Further, the preferred food for the Mana elephants, the pods of the Apple-ring acacia (Faidherbia albida), we not yet mature so we were curious to see what would Boswell do.

As usual the very relaxed group came really close and when they were under a Sausage tree (Kigelia africana) Boswell started to lift its trunk clearly sizing it up.  Clearly satisfied with what it saw it started to stretch, arched its back and it was on its hind legs trying to secure a good grip on a branch! I desperately grabbed the camera and shot while it remained standing. After sometime we heard a mighty crack and down the elephant came with a huge piece of the tree!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Boswell starting eating the large branch while keeping the young males away by a combination of aggressive gestures, vocalisations and, with the too daring, pushing and shoving and some trumpeting as well. It did not liked to be disturbed during its meal! Conversely, he did allow the young females some bites and did not mind if the youngster came really close to him to feed, the latter often getting between its legs!

After a while, although there was still greenery left on the branch, it moved on leaving part of its bounty behind and, while it started to find another arboreal victim, the followers got busy finishing the spoils.

P1000292 copy

The event was repeated a couple of times slightly further from us and trickier to photograph. As the group continued its placid sojourn towards the water we moved off, very pleased with our luck and trying to explain this to our visitors.

P1000311 copy

Perhaps we had driven five km when we found another elephant, much smaller, also feeding. We then watched in disbelief when it also stretched and stood only on its hind legs! We made a comment to a safari car that was watching the action with us and the driver told us that this particular elephant was known as Harry! We were really lucky and elephants was the conversation at camp that night, despite the visits by vervets, baboons and hyenas!

The following morning, following the tip of a kind tour driver we found a large group of lions at a dry river bed and, after watching them for a while, we continued our game drive. While commenting on the very few greater kudu that we had seen we spotted an elephant standing on two legs. As we saw it from its back we thought it was Boswell again as we could see a radio collar. In fact it was a much smaller male that clearly knew how to look for the tender leaves of the Mana Pools’ trees!

The final act in this saga was yet to unfold when we were about to end the game drive and go back to camp for a well deserved branch. A dust cloud called our attention and we saw two elephant bulls clearly settling some kind of dispute. After a while we saw that one of the contenders gave up and moved off at a speed.

The “victor” stayed put and after a few minutes it decided to look for some food. It was at that time that we saw it well and the large notch on its left ear identified it as “Big V”, another of Mana’s “specials” that we have seen stretching to bet acacia pods before[2].

P1000509 copy

So it was Big V that delivered the final act when it also decided to go for some juicy branch and, lo and behold, before we knew it it was also standing on its hind legs!

We were now really impressed with the Mana Pools elephants and agreed that we have had our quota of elephant stretching while we can happily confirm that Boswell has been able to pass its genes to its heirs that will keep future visitors to Mana Pools amazed at their feeding habits!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2016/08/17/boswell/

[2]: See: https://bushsnob.com/2016/08/31/big-v/

Poor housekeeping

While staying at Muguga House (see: https://bushsnob.com/2015/06/30/life-and-work-in-kenya-muguga1/) I used to upset Richard with my parrot stories from Uruguay. I later regretted having done so when I discovered that he owned an African Grey parrot!

Richard found us a house in Tigoni where we moved after a few months living in Muguga House, once we got our VW kombi to move around. We were neighbours for about one year and we shared time together. So, when Richard’s time to go on annual leave came, we agreed look after his house and, more importantly, its occupants.

tigoni house

The house in Tigoni and our VW kombi, our all terrain vehicle.

Richard was very proud of his collection of African fresh water fish that he kept in tanks all over his sitting room area and, of course, he kept his parrot! The fish required feeding and cleaning and, in addition, the parrot required some entertainment as it was rather neurotic and pull its feathers! Luckily, his housekeeper would take care of the daily chores and all we needed to do was to get the necessary food and, whenever possible, keep the parrot amused by talking to it. This consisted of exchanging the phrase “silly old parrot” and submit to its loud and almost deafening whistling!

As it is customary in these cases, Richard gave us a briefing about some special details needed and also about a last minute addition to his menagerie: a small terrapin that he had found during a walk that also required attention. Although the new beast occupied its own tank and it should have been easy to keep, he was worried that the housekeeper was not familiar with it and asked us to keep a special eye on its welfare.

We listened patiently to all his recommendations and reassured him that all was going to be well so, the following day he left for one month to visit his family in the UK and we added the monitoring of his house to our ongoing activities.

We kept visiting his house daily at first but when we saw that things were going well, we relaxed our visits as we gained more confidence. Very soon there were only a few days for Richard to come back and we were pleased with ourselves as all was still in order. Clearly, we celebrated too early! Two days before Richard’s return his housekeeper, looking sick with worry, came to see us after we returned from work.

“The parrot is gone”, he said almost crying and not daring looking at us. As these were really bad news, we sprang to action immediately and walked with him to Richard’s house while we interrogated him on the way. Apparently, the parrot was gone since the morning and, as he could not contact us the poor man lived through agony until we returned in the afternoon. He said that he had looked for the feathered one all over but failed to find it!

richard parrot

A bad picture of the parrot!

We fruitlessly searched the house from top to bottom and found no signs that the bird had been there and the investigation gave us no useful clue on where or how it could have gone out of the house. So our search moved to the rather large and bushy garden, open towards the river that run through the valley below, the same valley where I had my earlier encounter with the “siafu” (See: https://bushsnob.com/2016/04/19/fire-down-below/ ).

We were not very optimistic but continued with our search!

mabel peter tigoni

Searching for the missing feathered one. (Sorry for the bad shot but I was shaking with worry…)

That day darkness came faster than we wished and eventually we found ourselves in darkness without finding it or having a reply to our “silly old parrot” calls directed to the apparently empty bushes! I do not wish to know what anyone that heard us saying that with a parrot accent could have thought! But that is only an afterthought of today as the situation then did not allow for these kind of mental exercise!

After searching for about two hours in the dark we gave up and, with a heavy heart, returned to our house. Clearly a hand-reared parrot used to live in a cage had a very slim chance of making it through the night where we knew mongooses, genets, civets and probably other predators inhabited. We had a somber dinner while we discussed the issue and prepared for the worse, particularly how to break the bad news to Richard that was arriving in two days time!

The following morning we did not go to work and we asked Peter -our housekeeper- to join us in the search. We started looking as soon as there was daylight, admittedly more as a token gesture than with a real hope of finding our -hopefully still feathered- fugitive! While walking towards Richard’s garden, I still kept thinking on how I would break the bad news to him!

We decided that our chances of success would be higher if we separated and each one of us took an area to search while shouting “silly old parrot” again and again! At about mid-morning and after a few hours of walking around in the bush, it was Mabel who heard something and called us. We ran towards her and, as we got closer we heard “silly old parrot” in the inimitable voice of the missing parrot. There it was, perched low from the ground on a small bush, preening itself and removing a few more feathers from its already almost bare belly!

It seemed that the parrot had spent the night at about 60cm from the ground and survived! We soon grabbed it and brought it back to its cage where we left it with renewed recommendations to the keeper. We left for our house, quite relaxed and happy about our find.

Finally, the day of Richard’s return arrived. Still pleased with our parrot success, we went to his house to have the last check on his wildlife and wait for his arrival.

Then the last act of this play unfolded…

All fish looked fine but when I checked the terrapin tank, I saw it rather quiet and unresponsive to the touch! It was dead. This was an unexpected blow as we had seen it the afternoon before looking fine! Rather upset I took it out of the water almost at the same time that we heard Richard’s car arriving!

I was in a tight spot with the terrapin in my hand! Those of you who are familiar with these beasts would know how they smell when alive and you can only start to imagine how they stink when dead! So, I moved fast to the toilet to both dispose of the body and the waft from my hands while Mabel greeted and entertained Richard.

I tried to flush the small reptile about three times unsuccessfully and eventually, in desperation, wrapped in toilet paper and stuffed it in my pocket while, and washed my hands hoping that the soap would do its job.

So, with my best possible smile I emerged from the toiled to greet Richard and to break the news of the terrapin’s demise. Luckily, he took it well and, a few minutes later, after leaving him to settle in his house, I managed to bury it in our garden to close our rather poor experience at housekeeping!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Nguruman Escarpment

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

Maasai Magadi causeway.tif

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

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

magadi 1

Lake Magadi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

[3] Buffalo urine was also used if available.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A vet in Maasai land

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

Maasai Mara bridge going to T Mara copy

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

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

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

Boran heifers earbags Intona 100 nn test copy

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

Manyatta copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

cropped-cropped-t-mara-maasai-treating-their-cattle-kilai.jpg

Maasai and JC with Land Rover

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

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

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

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

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

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

maasai herdboys copy

Maasai children looking after livestock.

Cattle tracks M Mara 1 copy

Maasai cattle highway.

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

maasai-cow-kilai-6-41-13-pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_4476

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

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

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

 

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

[2] Veterinarian in Ki-Swahili.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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