Historical

Episodes of African history connected to wildlife or guides, hunters, explorers

Safari Rally

Soon after our arrival we heard about the Safari Rally, one of the yearly attractions that Kenya had to offer and that had been going since 1953 as the East African Safari Rally and as the Safari Rally from 1974, a few years before the breaking up of the East African Community.

Although we could not watch the race on our arrival in 1981 we learnt that the Kenyans Shekhar Mehta and Mike Doughty won it. The pair seemed unbeatable, as they had already won in 1979 and 1980.

By 1982 we had our car and we decided to follow the rally with daily trips to a couple of places near Nairobi as well as watch the cars arrive in Nairobi at the end of the rally. We studied the route of the three stages and selected areas near Kajiado and in the Kinangop plateau.

Without experience on watching races of this kind, we thought it wise to leave early to find a good and safe spot. We also carried our safari chairs and food and water to last us for the whole day. The rally was held when the long rains were meant to begin so you either had a dry or a wet rally. It was dry that year so our concern with potential mud traps did not came up until in later editions!

We learned a few things about the rally that first time. Seeking some excitement we searched for a place where we could see the cars coming from far and that, close by, would offer a bend or a culvert that they needed to do some exciting turning or a nice jump.

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A good and safe vantage point to watch the rally.

As we were in the selected area early, we had sufficient time to drive for a while until we perched on a high slope that offered a great view where we set up our camp and waited. Gradually the place started to fill up with other visitors in cars but also of people on foot coming from the surrounding areas. The latter really enjoyed seeing and hearing the powerful cars driving past as, in those areas there was no much traffic otherwise. I was also amazed that there were no accidents as people, unaware of the danger, placed themselves in large numbers in exposed spots, very close to the cars!

We waited for a couple of hours and then the crowd -quite a sizeable one by then- started to stir and soon we could also see the dust plume far away. The first car was coming so I prepared myself to take my first “speed priority” shot at a fast moving car from a good spot, near the road.

As the dust got close we could actually see the numerous and very strong lights that they carried and I had no doubt that the car coming was from the rally so I shot and got covered in dust at the same time! To add insult to injury, after the event I realized that it was a support car! Another lesson learnt: support cars look just like the real ones minus a number on the door!

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The dust of Altonen’s support car!

Eventually we watched the “real thing” or rather the first one of the race because, after the first car drove past, a succession followed in hot pursuit and the dust cloud got fed by each one of them and spectators’ visibility was severely reduced. I could not believe how the drivers could see the road, leaving alone trying to overtake! I took some poor pictures. Luckily, once the aces past, gaps between cars increased while speed decreased so we could actually see some of the cars!

Once most of the cars passed we could initiate our return home. We thought we had breathed and eaten dust but there was much more to come while driving home among a convoy of motorists doing the same. There were still some of the slowest cars coming and this added an extra touch of adventure to our trip.

Finally, the duo Mehta-Doughty won for a fourth time that year but our hearts were with Robert Collinge and Mike Fraser that were racing in a “normal” Range Rover! After a gallant race where they had all sorts of problems (I believe they hit a cow and lost their bonnet) but still they managed to arrive in 6th. place, a great achievement, still remembered in rally circles.

1982 north kinangop safari rally collinge's r rover

The Collinge and Fraser’s Range Rover minus bonet going for the finish line.

Apart from the big rally teams, individual entries were also present and they relied on friends for repairs and to bring fuel and spares to strategic places in order to continue with the race! For those private participants just to arrive was a great achievement and we witnessed scenes charged with emotion when the crew of a private participant embraced celebrating their arrival at the end of the third stage, regardless of the position, with true sport spirit.

We did follow the rally in subsequent years but nothing compared to the first one in 1982 and we eventually stopped but not before having a test of a wet rally in 1985 where things dramatically changed as cars did not cover you in dust but in mud and water! A video below illustrates the point.

Credit: vipersan1 from Youtube.

During that rally we also learnt that it was one thing to drive through a muddy road before the cars passed and another very different and frustrating to try and return home with our kombi VW. We got stuck a few times! Things were not made any easier when some clever Kenyans started to “improve” existing potholes both lengthwise and in depth so that, once you fell in “their” mud trap, they would push you out for a small fee! African entrepreneurship at its best!

 

Windsurfing with hippos

As you will learn later, I took up windsurfing during our holidays at the Kenyan coast but I never got beyond the beginner’s level, basically due to lack of practice.

There are two fresh water lakes in the Kenya Rift Valley, Naivasha and Baringo. The former is a weekend destination for many people in Nairobi that we use to call “water babies”. The lake was not a reserve and it was open to people to sail and fish at will while staying in the various luxury hotels spread along its shores [1].

Lake Baringo is much further away to the dry north and to get there requires quite an effort and it is not really suitable for a weekend break. We visited it sometimes as a stopover when heading for other destinations and perhaps twice as our final destination.

Lake Baringo has an area of 130 square kilometres and the Molo, Perkerra and Ol Arabel Rivers are the rivers that feed it. It has no known outlet but it is believed that its water seeps through the bottom into some underground current where it finds an impermeable layer. There are over 470 species of birds there, occasionally including migrating greater flamingos as well as a Goliath heronry located on a rocky islet known as Gibraltar that is an amazing sight!

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Island camp.

The lake was believed to bee free from Schistosoma parasites and also that its crocodilian inhabitants, because they were not disturbed, also did not bothered swimmers and sailors. The hippos, however, were “normal” and it was advised to give them a wide berth, as there were quite a number, particularly near the shores. Despite this potential danger the local Njemps fishermen moved about the lake in tiny boats and rowed with some special paddles that they fitted in their hands!

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Young Njemp rowing in the lake.

We always camped at Robert’s Camp and we spent time walking and driving around the lake in search of some of the rare birds that were present there. One occasion we shared the camp with some colleagues from Muguga that were keen on sailing and they had also brought their windsurfing gear.

They insisted that I borrowed it to have a go. I put forward the excuse of the low temperature of the water trying not to mention my concern for the hippos and, to a lesser extent, the crocs but they insisted.

I had seen the abundant hippos present at the lake and pointed this out to them but they convinced me that, as far as they knew, there had never been an accident with either hippos or crocs. Seeking consolation in the way the Njemps fishermen move around the lake, I thought that the windsurfing table must have been at least twice the size of their boats and, therefore offer more protection in case of an attack.

So I bit the bullet and ventured into the lake! It all went well starting in the open water, far from the shore and eventually my friends, seeing that I would manage on my own, went on sailing, faster than me and soon I was forgotten by all!

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Preparing to start.

After about an hour of sport, not being really used to it, I got tired and decided to head back to our camp. This meant coming closer to shore where the hippos were! Luckily I managed to sail in the right direction and eventually I got within a short distance from our camp. Now I needed to get there! This was easier said than done.

Between me and the camp there was a shallower area that could only be negotiated through a narrow canal and there, in the middle of it, a pod of hippos were doing whatever hippos do when they are inside the water as a family!

I was in a tight spot and quite concerned! I decided to do an exploratory approach to the beasts to see how they would react to my presence and then stop. I did so at about twenty metres from them and they replied with some grunting but nothing else happened. I took this as a half-hearted warning to the semi-naked human that was approaching them.

The situation was becoming tricky but in what I now regard as a foolish (but rather courageous) move, decided to go for it and gathered speed, trying to keep to the side of the channel where I saw no hippos.

Although I thought I was going fast, I am sure I would have been dead meat if the hippos wished to go for me. Luckily, they only watched me pass and snubbed me by showing me their fat rear ends! Eventually I managed to hit the coast at full speed and felt very relieved.

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Going for it.

When my colleagues returned to collect the table I was already relaxed and kept the incident of the hippos to myself.

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Evening at lake Baringo.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/11/23/lake-naivasha/

Mount Kenya

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Mt. Kenya (5,200m), the second highest mountain in Africa after Mt. Kilimanjaro (5,900m) could be seen from some parts of the Muguga road on a very clear day as if inviting us for a visit. It was a rugged mountain with snow and three main peaks: Batian (5,199m), Nelion (5,188m) and Lenana (4,985m). They are named after Mbatian (a Maasai Medicine Man), Nelieng, his brother, and Lenana, one his sons.

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In 1849 Krapf found the mountain, located a few km south of the equator, following a similar story of the finding of Kilimanjaro described earlier. It was Krapf who gave the mountain the name “Kenya”, likely to derive from the words KirinyagaKirenyaa and Kiinyaa which mean “God’s resting place” in the language of three of the main ethnic groups that live around the mountain: Kikuyu, Embu and Kamba respectively. The mountain gave the country its name.

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Mount Kenya surged approximately three million years after the formation of the East African rift valley and it has suffered the impact of erosion resulting in what we see today: weather-beaten slopes, valleys and shrinking glaciers. Mount Kenya is the main water catchment area for two large rivers in Kenya: the Tana, the largest Kenyan river and the Ewaso Nyiro than runs north through very dry country.

The vegetation in Mt. Kenya changes with altitude. Around the base of the mountain we saw fertile farmland extending as far as you could see and I recall the amazing horticultural wealth of the Murang’a market where, among an enormous amount of horticultural produce, I have seen the largest cabbages! Unfortunately, althogh necessary, it was clear that the agriculture frontier was gradually encroaching the forests.

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The nature of the forests found in Mt. Kenya depend on rainfall and whether they grow in the south- or north-facing slopes. Above the forest there is a wide band of almost pure bamboo and above it we find the timberline forest with smaller trees. The heathland (wet) and chaparral (dry) zones start at about three thousand metres. The former, located in the wetter part has giant heathers while the latter is found in the drier areas and it consists mainly of grasses.

As we continue our virtual climb, the temperature fluctuations increase to extremes and the air’s oxygen decreases and we enter into the most known place of the mountain: the Afro-alpine zone, an area with several endemic plant species such as giant groundsels (senecios) and giant lobelias. After this there are glaciers and rock in the areas that the latter had retreated and no vegetation is present there.

Not being climbers or hikers we had a limited interest in mountains and preferred to spend our time in the more manageable lower grasslands of Kenya. However, we decided to give it go.

During our first visit to Mt. Kenya we entered through the west of the mountain, through the Naro Moru gate, one of the busiest. Although we intended to camp near the gate, we decided to go up the mountain on a exploratory trip through a road that got progressively worse until we reached a point where the kombi’s torque and the altitude became even and there we stopped. It was already late so we decided to spend the night in the car, cold and wet, not appreciating the beauty of the place.

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Icy stream.

The following day we managed to turn the car around in the mud and descended to more manageable roads where we had some joy by watching the vegetation and views of the peaks that, luckily, were uncovered that day. We returned to Nairobi and we promised ourselves to come back.

We did return another year. This time we followed a different route on the eastern side through the Chogoria gate that led to our bungalow at the Meru Mt. Kenya Lodge. It was freezing but luckily there was hot water although the firewood was wet and to make a fire was quite a job. It soon became misty and we could not see anything around us, apart from the buffaloes that apparently found the bungalows a protection against predators!

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Avoiding a tree recently pulled down by elephants on the way to Mt. Kenya.

The following morning the buffaloes had gone and the mist lifted so we decided to go for a guided hike to Lake Ellis and suffered the effects of altitude and cold. This was the country where “Icy Mike” an elephant that lived (and died) at 4,400m, an unusual event as it demands very high energy consumption, not typical of elephants and that is still unexplained.

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Lake Ellis.

Like the first, the second visit was not a great success and it was the end of our attempts at ‘enjoying’ the mountain. We left early and got to Nairobi in time to go to the Fox Drive In cinema to enjoy a good movie and an Indian dinner and, later, a hot shower and a rest. We decided that we had done enough and that from then on we would watch Mt. Kenya from a distance and enjoy it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lake Naivasha

We went to lake Naivasha often as it was an easy weekend out of Nairobi and I still have vivid memories from those visits.

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View of the lake.

Usually we drove down the rift valley wall, passed the catholic chapel built by the Italian WWII prisoners after 50 km, then the junction to Narok and the Maasai Mara (B3). Further we found Mt. Longonot, the volcano on the left and kept driving, already seeing the shiny blue lake in the distance framed by fertile cultivated farmland with the spectacular backdrop of the Mau escarpment.

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Lake Naivasha in the distance on the left behind which is the Mau escarpment.

Gustav Fischer, a German naturalist, found the lake it 1883, while heading north and before the then hostile Maasai found his expedition and forced him to turn back! However, the Europeans kept coming and, after Joseph Thomson arrived, the colonization of the area followed.

lake naivasha

A few kilometres ahead we would drive through the small town of Naivasha and soon we were at the lake. Although sometimes we stopped at the upmarket Lake Naivasha hotel or the Safariland lodge for a refreshment, a bite or simply to soak-up under the shade of their Yellow-barked acacias (Vachellia xanthophloea) [1] or Fever trees. The latter name given by the first pioneers when they blamed them for catching malaria well before the role of mosquitoes in its transmission was known!

Usually we kept driving by the lake to our final destination, the modest Fisherman’s Camp up in a dry hill where at first we “camped” with our rather basic gear under the scanty shade and thorny company of the candelabra trees (Euphorbia spp.)! It was while driving towards this camp that Mabel spotted the “antelope up the tree” [2].

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Our early camp! Note the use of the car seat and absence of chairs that did not dampen our enthusiasm.

After our first rather tentative and exploratory visits, we got to know the area better and participated in a number of activities, many of which with our friend Paul that had a rubber dinghy, an ideal vehicle to explore the lake. It goes without saying that fishing was one of the main activities we practiced at the lake that had been seeded with black bass (Micropterus salmoides) and that it was “crocodile-free”.

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Our first fishing attempt fn a rowing boat from Fisherman’s camp.

These adult black bass feed on crayfish, small fish and frogs and we caught them with a variety of lures and spoons and every fisherman has its favourite. I was not a great bass fisherman and did not find them good fighters compared with the Dorado (Salminus spp.) I used to catch in Uruguay before our Kenya days. Despite this I never refused an invitation to fish and we had great fun doing it. Paul, conversely, was good at fishing in general and had no difficulties getting bass also.

I lacked practice with my casting that very often ended up with my lure entangled in the shore reeds, a feat that I maintain even today and my family expects it from me when we go out to fish! It was during one of these “failed” casts that my green frog-like lure landed on land, even beyond the reeds.

As usual Paul started to make a rude comment but before he could complete it, a long green snake went for my plastic frog! Startled, I pulled and recovered it while we laughed at the incident. I then re-casted to the same spot and, again, the snake attacked it for a second time. This time I was ready so, to avoid hooking the aggressor, I withdrew the lure and continued casting to a different spot.

Although usually we did not catch many bass, sometimes we did and, after a while, we looked for some added entertainment and threw some fish to the very common fish eagles to catch. These birds were usually perched at more or less regular intervals along the lakeshore, in their territories.

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After our best day fishing in Naivasha.

They position themselves high up the trees and there are always watching, not only for fish but also any movement in the water or potential prey of any kind. So, throwing a fish overboard almost instantly called their attention, and before it had moved too far, the eagle will come and take it. This was great fun to watch and we decided to photograph it for posterity!

The idea was to get one eagle at the exact moment that it grabbed the fish with its talons or while lifting it from the water! Easier said than done. I was chosen as the photographer and Mabel and Paul were the observers that would tell me when to shoot as, with my eye in the viewfinder, I could not see very well the eagle approaching.

We used a lot of fish and, needless to say, after several tries I have dozens of pictures of a floating fish or water splashing. The best I could manage is one with a brown blob on the left that was an eagle’s tail! After that attempt, we abandoned the idea and decided to eat the fish!

On one of these fishing trips we witnessed a Fish Eagle attack a Goliath Heron while it was flying a few metres from us. I do not know the reasons for the aggression but the result was unusual. The attack took the heron by surprise and in its effort to avoid the attacker it dived but, being too near the lake surface, it crash-landed on the water rather awkwardly.

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A Goliath heron in flight. The world’s largest living heron with a height of 120–152 cm and a wingspan of 185–230 cm.

Herons, unlike ducks and geese are waders and not built for take offs from water. Worse still, it was totally soaked. So it floated there for a while like a “goliath crested grebe”. Luckily the eagle lost interest and there were no crocodiles at the lake so, once it recovered its wits, it swam rather fast considering its long legs! It soon reached the shore and it just stood there among the papyrus, drying itself with extended wings!

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Elsamere.

Some time later we discovered Elsamere, a beautiful house by the lake shore that belonged to Joy Adamson, hence named after the famous Elsa the lioness. It was run by the Elsa Foundation after Joy’s sad demise a few years earlier. Because of our work we were admitted there and it was very affordable. It was a wonderful experience to stay in such a nice house where Joy had lived. In addition, the personnel really pampered us and served very good food. As a curiosity, Elsamere was next to the Djinn (Gin!) Palace, made “famous” by the Happy Valley crowd years before our arrival [3].

Jock Dawson [4] had been recently designated Honorary Game Warden of Naivasha and lived with his wife Enid very near Elsamere where they had some magnificent Spotted Eagle Owls in their garden. Through Paul we got to know them and spent time in their very interesting company and joined him on a number of activities related with his work as Game Warden.

At Elsamere there were still some animals from the time of Joy Adamson, most notably the Black and White Colobus monkeys that -unusually- would come down from the trees to visit us and feed in the lawn. It was great to see them often and to approach them closely as they were used to human presence. We had great views of females with tiny (woolly white) babies!

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Enid, Mabel and Jock watching the black and white colobus’ antics.

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A colobus mother and baby.

Apart from the monkeys there was also an orphan Zebra, once a baby, that was now a fully-grown animal that maintained its playful nature without realizing its size. So its favourite trick was to surprise guests and try to bite them -soetimes with success-  or engage them in “zebra-play”. Not surprisingly, the decision was taken to relocate it to Nakuru National Park.

The operation was simple as the zebra was easy to catch by the people that fed it daily so we soon ended up with a sedated and tied-up zebra in the back of a Land Rover with Jock at the wheel and Paul and I at the back, with the rather large zebra. It all went well until about half of the journey when our cargo started to wake up as it was under mild sedation.

There was no much room left at the back so when it became more and more restless we asked Jock to go faster but the Land Rover would not cooperate and we were forced to manhandle the zebra to keep it down until we reached our destination! Once there, we rushed out of the car, lucky to have avoided being kicked to death!

At some stage in Elsamere there were American scientists studying animal behaviour and one day they returned with the news that they had seen a lame zebra in one of the areas they were studying. The leg was quite swollen and Jock suspected that it had been snared.

Off we went to have a look and confirmed that it was indeed a wire that was embedded on the foreleg, just above the hoof and the decision was taken to dart the zebra to remove it.

We left the car so that Jock and Paul would do the chasing and darting and re-joined them to help holding the animal while the wire was removed. The animal recovered quite quickly.

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The zebra being restrained with Mabel approaching.

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Posing before the action.

Naivasha was also known for its flower plantations and thousands of carnations were exported by plane to the European market every week but Naivasha also had buffalo and they are herbivorous and enjoyed carnations! So, Jock had received a complaint from a farm nearby that they had suffered a “visit” by a few buffalo that were busy chomping the flowers that were meant for Europe!

Under the circumstances, the only thing that could be done was to destroy the intruders with the hope that the rest would move away to the uninhabited bush higher up in the hills.

That is how I participated in my only African hunt ever as part of a group of curious onlookers that followed the hunters at a prudent distance. Although I did not care for the hunt, it gave the great opportunity to see how the trackers worked while following their quarry. We walked up and down the dry hills for a couple of hours until the order came to stay still and quiet. We then heard a few shots and two of the offending buffalo had been killed and their meat would be shared among the workers of the carnation estate and other nearby villagers.

Our exploring of the lake took us on the road that goes around it, first climbing ridges to get to a small lake separated from the main body of water called, very originally, the Small lake! In this place, away from visitors, hippos abounded among the papyrus and under the shade of a dense yellow-bark acacia forest. It was here that the Great White Pelicans were also found.

Following the lake shore towards the north, we discovered an area that was more remote with abundant game as well as where the Maasai grazed their cattle, often organized into group ranches [5].

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A Maasai group ranch.

We were in posession of a secret. We had been told that there was a Secret lake in the area and that to reach it we needed to enter through an unmarked farm gate! Eventually we found the entrance and went in. We followed a very narrow track uphill and, suddenly, below us we saw a small crater full of water the colour of pea soup.

The lake was fringed by large yellow-barked acacia trees and it seemed to be fed by rain water although the existence of springs could not be ruled out.

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naivasha secret lakeA steep walk down the crater, following a track made by the Maasai when taking their animals down to the lake allowed you to reach the water edge. The Maasai were known to bring their cattle to this little lake as, apparently, its mineral-reach water would do them good, a fact corroborated by Tommi, the Maasai herdsman that worked with me at Intona. He came from this area and he knew of the existence of the lake and the curative properties of its water [6].

We did go all the way round the lake once but this had little more to offer and we decided that we better continued frequenting Elsamere and its surrounding area where we enjoyed our closeness to nature with comfort.

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Small farmers in the rift valley on the way to Naivasha.

 

[1] Former Acacia xanthophloea.

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2014/08/24/green-eyes-in-the-wild-2/

[3] A classic book about the Happy Valley era was written by James Fox: White Mischief. Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition 320p. The book was made into a movie of the same title by Sony Pictures in 2011.

[4] A well-known professional hunter who transformed himself into a respected conservationist after Kenya banned hunting in 1977, and -after his time in Naivasha- headed the Rhino Rescue Trust in Nakuru. Unknown to me at the time but of interest is that Jock inherited the only gun that belonged to Dennis Finch-Hatton, Karen Blixen’s lover. After Jock’s death in 2004 his son took the gun, minus the case, to the UK. For the specialized, the gun was a .450 3 1/4″ Nitro Express by Charles Lancaster. John Ormiston (a UK gun trader) bought a case with the initials D F-H (Dennis Finch-Hatton) and looked for its missing contents for years until he bought the gun in 2009 to for £ 27,000 at an auction in the UK. For more details see: https://www.africahunting.com/threads/the-450-double-rifle-of-dennis-finch-hatton.40240/

[5] Group ranches are defined as a livestock production system where a group of people jointly hold title to land, maintain agreed herd sizes, and own livestock individually but herd them together. Boundaries are demarcated and members are registered. See: http://www.focusonland.com/countries/rise-and-fall-of-group-ranches-in-kenya/

[6] Today the Crater lake is a game sanctuary where you are charged a fee to enter and there are walking paths and camping sites near it.

 

 

 

Suswa caves

The rift valley owes its existence to humongous volcanic upheaval that my mind cannot even start to imagine as we can only see the effects of this conflagration millions of years after it happened. Among the consequences that we see today are the several volcanoes that are scattered throughout its extension.

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Mt. Suswa from the distance.

Two are close from Nairobi: Longonot and Suswa. The latter lies south of Longonot and about 50 km northwest of Nairobi. We did not visit Longonot as it implied leaving the car unattended and a long walk to the rim of the caldera. However, we did visit Suswa in several occasions as it could be reached after about two relaxed hours of a picturesque drive from Nairobi. Together with lake Magadi, it was an ideal day out although the road was rough!

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On the way to the Suswa volcano.

The drive took us through Maasai country and there were large herds of cattle grazing on the way and around the volcano with its almost 100 km2 caldera that has a large cone towards the southern part. We saw a few giraffe, Thomson’s gazelle, zebra and hyena spoor although we never saw one.

It seems that Suswa erupted violently during the Pleistocene and this created a unique double crater with an inner crater surrounding a large block of rock. There have been more recent eruptions, perhaps one hundred years back that have expelled lava from side vents as the remaining lava flows still denuded from vegetation show.

At the time we believed that there was no water inside the caldera so we never went down and we did not see animals down despite is luring greenery.

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A view of the crater.

The volcanic activity had contributed to another interesting feature: caves. These were large and they could be reached through several entrances, some easy to find and others hidden among the rocks and vegetation. While searching for the openings, great care was needed not to fall through one of the hidden holes as cows sometimes did.

There were also some rock ledges with clear signs of earlier human habitation as well as indications that these may have been used by predators, probably hyenas.

Once you entered in the caves the atmosphere became cooler and humid and some light filtered through cracks on the roof of the caves or in places where this had collapsed over time (the very same holes you and the cows needed to avoid while walking there!).

The caves had different levels of caverns and passages created by the volcanic activity and the more superficial ones are relatively easy to access if you have torches and do not suffer from claustrophobia or scared of the dark. Some were clearly enormous lava bubbles while others were like rounded tubes of rock.

We explored those caves with some natural light as our torches at that time were not up to the task of cave exploration. There was one exception when we visited the cave with Paul that had a very powerful torch that helped us to enter the darkness for a limited period as the battery had a rather short life!

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A view of one of the caves with a collapsed roof.

During that visit we managed to enter a very large cave and walked into a large vestibule with a tall ceiling and what felt like sandy floor. The roof had rock formations with various tones of red and brown and we also saw some stalactites. The air reeked of bat pee and excrement and we soon detected the “culprits”.

Our attention was immediately called by what seemed a trembling of the walls that were no other thing that a huge number of bats hanging on. We decided to leave them alone and shone the torch on the floor and then we made another discovery!

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A pseudoscorpion.Credit: Kaldari [CC0]. Wikimedia Commons.

On the bat guano, tiny creatures scurried around. As I had never seen these before I collected some and, later, I identified them as pseudoscorpions, rather small tailless scorpions of 2-5 mm which were probably feeding on dead bats. There are today over one hundred species recorded from Kenya [1].

At some point we realized that we were sharing the air with thousands of bats and the thought of inhaling nasty pathogens spurred our departure, perhaps unjustifiably but wisely! I believe the bats were free-tailed bats of the Otomops genus, probably Harrison’s large-eared giant mastiff bat (Otomops harrisoni) only described as a new species in 2015, well after our visit. These insectivorous bats are considered vulnerable by IUCN in view of the increased disturbance to the caves they inhabit.

Several movies were filmed in Kenya at the time we were there. Apart from good ones such as “Out of Africa” there were others that left a lot to be desired. Among these was “Sheena Queen of the Jungle”, starred by the then well known Tanya Roberts, the blond of the original Charlie’s Angels.

Part of the movie was filmed in the Suswa caves and I recall that a couple of Muguga colleagues that attempted to smuggle themselves into the location of the filming to peep on Ms. Roberts, were ignominiously discovered and expelled by the security guards!

The movie, released by Columbia Pictures in 1984, is truly bad from the very start that shows Sheena galloping through an open plain on a horse painted black and white! Unfortunately, to film such a bad movie the film company left lots of debris behind showing great contempt for nature.

The movie was -justifiably in my view- nominated for the worst picture, actress, director, screenplay and musical score at the 5th. Golden Raspberry Awards in 1985 and astonishingly, it did not win any! [2]

suswa caves

As the movie required some rocks falling on the bad guys (pushed by several wild animals such as rhinos!) polystyrene rocks were left behind in the caves, together with a wooden structure where the cameras were placed.

Luckily, the Cave Exploration Group of East Africa members removed the debris that had been left behind.

 

[1] See: http://museum.wa.gov.au/catalogues-beta/pseudoscorpions

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/5th_Golden_Raspberry_Awards

 

 

Pythons and social life

We first met Jim and Silvana during our first trip to Magadi [1] where they were part of the ILRAD [2] group that invited us. After that I visited him frequently at ILRAD as he was always ready to receive me and to talk. He always gave me sound advice during my early career days for what I am grateful.

Our friendship grew and at some stage he invited us to his birthday party at his house in ILRAD. The latter had a beautiful campus, similar to that of some American universities and the houses were scattered in it but not too far from each other. As Jim and Silvana were a popular couple, the party was attended by lots of people, most of them unknown to us at the time.

It was midnight and the party was at its best, dancing away to good and loud music. Suddenly, I noted some interruption to the dancing and I spotted a gentleman, cladded in pajamas that was walking fast towards the music source and, without saying anything, it lowered its volume almost to make it inaudible. After this, he turned around and walked out the same way he had come muttering something like “I need my sleep”!

The dancing stopped not only because we were feeling surprised and amused but also because the music had died! Jim reacted immediately and, totally unconcerned, he went back to the music player and raised the volume to the maximum -louder than before- and asked us to continue dancing. There were no more interruptions and we had a great party!

The “intruder” was, as expected, one of Jim’s neighbours, an administrative manager, to who our friends -as it was customary at ILRAD- had informed about the party and even invite, together with his wife! It took a few months for the relationship to improve to the levels prior to the party!

Jim and I shared a liking for snakes, a taste that our wives did not share. He wished to keep a pet python but it was difficult to get one as there were no pet shops. We then decided that we needed to go on a “snake-catching safari” sometime, knowing full well that snakes are very elusive animals and that the chances of finding one while actually looking for it was almost zero! So, the snake-catching safari become something like a running joke between us.

One day, when Silvana was in Italy visiting her family we decided that we had waited long enough for the outing and a Sunday morning we departed for the lake Naivasha area. Mabel joined us, despite her strong dislike of snakes of any kind. We decided to walk around the lake and focus our search by following a dry river bed that headed for the Hell’s Gate area.

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A view of the area we chose for our snake catching safari.

After enjoying the walk for about two hours we stopped for lunch. While eating we discussed our plans for the afternoon and decided to continue walking for a while longer and keep checking near some small water pools where we reasoned that a thirsty snake would come to drink! Although Jim was equipped to catch a snake, it was all rather light-hearted.

We arrived to an area where the river had carved a deep ravine that offered some shade and, suddenly I saw Jim running while shouting “there is a snake there!” We followed him and then saw a shinny and small snake resting in a wet part of the ravine. Jim was on it immediately and caught it with his tongs.

Truly unbelievably Jim had found the python! Admittedly it was a very small one but it was a recently moulted African rock python (Python sebae). Jim was extremely pleased while I helped him to bag it. The snake was accommodated in a large terrarium and well looked after as Jim cherished the snake!

He kept the python several years while it grew in size and I often included looking at the snake during my visits to ILRAD. After a while he needed to increase the size of the terrarium and, eventually, the snake grew to such a size that it required to be transported to an empty room in one of the laboratories where it became a great attraction until it was donated, I believe, to the Kenya Museum snake display!

Apart from catching a snake, we continue socializing together and it was with Jim and Silvana that a rather forgettable incident where I exceeded my alcohol tolerance limit took place, although there were attenuating circumstances…

It happened after a long and tiring return trip driving all the way from Intona Ranch with my boss Matt during which we got badly delayed by torrential rain at the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. Eventually, with Matt walking through the mud and water in front of the car guiding me through we managed to negotiate the worst patches of the road and eventually got back to Nairobi although later than planned.

Because of the delay, we were forced to come straight to a reception organized by a chemical company to welcome another Paul, their Technical Director from their “mother” company in the UK. Later on, he would become the Director of ICIPE’s Tick Programme and, therefore, my boss!

The company was an important player regarding ticks and tick-borne diseases so Matt considered essential to attend so we did, straight from the bush! I can still hear him chooek-chooeking around in his water-saturated shoes while walking around meeting people, as usual without a care in the world, wearing his usual green cardigan and laughing!

I was very thirsty and needed a drink so I picked a glass of a cocktail offered to me, sweet and refreshing. I repeated the dose a couple of times more. Less than an hour later I noted a slight weakness in the knees that, at first I attributed to the long drive. However, the situation got worse and realized that the nice drink was a bit of an alcoholic time bomb so I stopped and went for water (what I should have done from the start). Although I was not a teetotaler, I normally did not (and still do not) drink much alcohol. However, after such a long and waterless drive I was very thirsty.

Luckily, before too long, Mabel came to collect me with clean clothes to go for the next social activity that I had totally forgotten. We had arranged to go for dinner to the “El Patio” restaurant with Jim and Silvana. This was a Spanish-style restaurant that we all liked.

Although my situation had not improved, we drove to the restaurant and, we ordered paella for four with some Spanish wine that I did not touch, staying with water.

I am not sure if it was the sight and smell of the Paella or the heat inside the restaurant or a combination of both that tilted the balance against my alcohol metabolism and I started feeling increasingly worse so, without touching my food, I decided to leave the table and go out seeking fresh air and that was a mistake as -apparently- oxygen increases your blood alcohol levels and makes you drunk!

I now felt really bad and needed to find a secluded spot in the garden to be sick and then, my condition improved, sat in the car to wait for Mabel.

I insisted that I could drive despite the protestations of my wife. However, when I was unable to reverse the kombi from the parking place, I conceded defeat, moved to the passenger seat and allowed myself to be driven the long way to Tigoni by her. Apparently during the whole journey I moaned and groaned until at some stage I passed out and, frankly do not remember if I slept in the car or I managed to walk into the house!

Afterwards, the “El Patio safari” replaced the “snake catching safari” as our running joke!

 

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

[2] International Laboratory for Research in Animal Diseases (today International Livestock Research Institute).

Tsavo West National Park

A large male leopard was the first animal we saw when we entered Tsavo West National Park for th first time. This immediately placed this park among the top in Kenya, even before we saw anything else! After that, we visited it many times as it was relatively close to Nairobi and ideal for a weekend escapade. It never disappointed us as, apart from fewer tourists than Amboseli, Tsavo West had a number of attractions, all of them framed by some of the most magnificent scenery I have seen in Africa.

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Although we camped at first, we soon discovered the Kenya Wildlife Services self-catering lodges in Ngulia and Kitani. The latter became our favourite: cheap and quiet. It was simple but roomy, well located and with a great verandah. In addition the bungalows were close the Poacher’s lookout a great place to take in the immensity of the park and with great morning views of Kilimanjaro. We stayed there most of the times we visited.

Tsavo West map

Map of Tsavo West showing the places mentioned in the post. Kitani at the bottom with Mzima Springs nearby and Chaimu volcano near the scenic Rhino valley.

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The area around Kitani at dawn.

Although, compared with the Maasai Mara and Amboseli, Tsavo appeared as devoid of animals, gradually you learnt to find them and it was one of the best places to see lesser kudu, klipspringers, fringe-eared oryx and gerenuk, apart from the expected large game.

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A sleepy lioness pondering where to go!

The exception being black rhinos that had by then already disappeared. In addition, it was a bird paradise and, during the rains, although some of the roads were treacherous, the flower blossom was stunning!

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Getting stuck with the kombi was not too hard and this happened sometimes when the rains were heavier than usual. I recall when, in desperation, I dug under the spinning wheel and placed our BBQ grill to get some grip! The result was disastrous as the grill was ejected far into the bush and we did not have barbeques that time! But these were exceptional days and usually the roads were dry red dust as it did not rain that much.

Tsavo W stuck with paul rossiter

The red soil turned to mud in the waterholes and gave elephants and buffalo an interesting look that blended them well with the surrounding redness of the area.

Tsavo West was not only large but lots of it was very broken terrain, product of the intense volcanic activity that the area suffered eons ago. More than sixty species of mammals, four hundred species of birds and one thousand plant species are found at Tsavo.

Of interest is that to the north of the Mombasa road the park, being drier, belongs to the Somali type of environment while the South is of the Maasai type. The result of this was that species that are normally separated by hundreds of kilometres such as the Somali (Struthio [camelus] molybdophanes) and the common ostriches (Struthio camelus) are both found there [1]

Our favourite view, apart from Kilimanjaro were the Chyulu hills and the Shetani lava flow, one of the first things you see when you enter through the Chyulu gate. Shetani means ‘devil’ in Kiswahili and it was named by the locals when they first saw fire erupting and flowing on the ground some five hundred years ago, as they believed that it was the devil himself emerging from the earth! The Shetani black lava flow is 8 km long, 1.6 km wide and 5 meters deep.

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The Chyulu hills as seen from the road to Kitani.

The Chyulu hills are also the source of the water for one of the best-known features of Tsavo West: Mzima springs. The hills are composed of volcanic lava rock and ash, which is too porous to allow rivers to form. Instead, rain and mist penetrate through the rock, and may spend many years at an underground “lake” before emerging fifty kilometres away at the springs.

We went to the Chyulus and camped in one of the hundreds of small volcanoes, where the only track we found took us. At the time there was nothing there and we not only needed to cut the grass to make our camp site but also to carry all the necessary water as, although misty and wet in the mornings, there was no surface water. Although we had great views from there, wild animals were scarce and we did not enter the Shetani caves, not for fear of the hyenas that are believed to dwell on them, but for lack of proper lights to do so.

While on the subject of volcanoes, the last major eruption is believed to have taken place around two hundred years ago and, apart from some of the still black hills at the Chyulus, there is another black cone at Tsavo West itself: Chaimu, also of relative recent origin.

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The view from the Chaimu cone.

Coming from Uruguay where the highest peak is just over five hundred metres, we had never set our feet on a volcano, leave alone a recent one! By then our knowledge of vulcanology was zilch as we had only seen Sicily’s Mt. Etna from the plane! It was extremely interesting to see how the lava had solidified forming long black ribbons of rock that could be extremely sharp and hard and so fresh that there was only incipient vegetation.

Walking on the cone was rather dangerous as the floor was not stable and you were likely to slip and fall on razor sharp rocks. Despite this and the warning sign that you could meet dangerous inhabitants while climbing, our friend Luis managed to persuade us to go for it. I must say that we did enjoy the steep walk and the views from the top and that we only saw scattered hyena dung but did not meet any dangerous animals.

The first we heard of Mzima springs was through a couple from Britain: Ken and Betty that were at Muguga with us and with who we later shared a couple of outings. They had been walking towards the springs when they came face to face with a lioness. Luckily they did not run but stood their ground until the lioness moved off. Then they managed to slowly retrace their steps and, once they reached the safety of the parking area and still shaken, they mentioned their encounter to the Game ranger on duty. “Oh, there are usually two of them!” was the reply! Our friends did not return to see the springs that day!

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So, it was with that story fresh in our minds that we first visited Mzima Springs. We got the “all clear” from the ranger on duty and followed the same footpath that Ken and Betty had followed. Although we never came across any lions that first time we had difficulties with rather vicious monkeys, both baboons and vervets and, somehow, Mabel was surrounded by them and had to use her binoculars to defend herself and come out of a tight spot!

The path to the springs was indeed lionesses-free and what we found amazed us as few places had so far. The walk took us through the usual red dryness of the area and then, suddenly, we were surrounded by lush vegetation while the noise of running water became more audible.

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Hippos at the top pool.

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Mabel about to find something!

Eventually we got to an area where you could see several springs gushing out of the volcanic rock that produced crystal clear and cold water. The various water channels gradually converges following a gentle slope and some way down formed the first of the pools. The water there was still crystal clear and we could actually see the hippos under water while crocodiles sunning themselves in the shores.

Amazingly 227,000 cubic metres of water gush daily from the various springs. The water had been filtered during its 40 kilometres traveled underground from the Chyulus. The Mzima waters start running as a stream and then get blocked by solidified lava, disappear underground two kilometres downstream and resurfaces again to later join the Tsavo river that, in turn, it reaches the Galana River. Since 1966 the springs’ water supplies the coastal city of Mombasa.

In this true oasis the fever trees were spectacular and full of weaver nests to the point that the branches seemed not to be able to support them all. There were also fruiting trees such as date and raffia palms, waterberries (Syzygium cordatum) and fig trees grew near the water, their submerged roots absorbing nutrients to be transformed into fruits that fed the various primates and birds. We spotted vervet monkeys, baboons the rare Sykes monkeys (Cercopithecus albogularis) while hearing the calls of the fish eagles and seeing flashes of colour as the various kingfishers darted from their perches to the pool and back.

At the various pools the hippos did their part to sustain the food chain by grazing outside the water and coming back to defecate in it. A number of invertebrates will feed on the dung and these are, in turn, preyed upon by fish and the latter by cormorants and terrapins.

The springs were made famous by Alan and Joan Root documentary “Mzima: Portrait of a Spring” filmed in 1969 and much later Alan directed a Survival Special “Mzima: Haunt of the River horse” in 2003. Below I include a clip of the latter.

Attribution: Clip 1 of Mzima: Haunt of the River Horse (2001). Filmed by Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone and Directed by Alan Root. Survival Special.

Apart from the hippos Mzima Springs offered water to a variety of animals such as zebra, buffalo, giraffe and various antelopes as well as elephants. It soon became our favourite spot and we spent many hours contemplating it while enjoying its relative freshness compared to the usual heat of the area.

An observation hut to facilitate watching what goes on under water was built in 1969. We spent many hours in it waiting to catch a glimpse of hippos underwater. This was not easy and we ended up watching lots of fish turning around the thick glass with the occasional sighting of terrapins and cormorants.

tsavo w mzima sp

None of these distracted us from our primary objective that remained to spot hippos underwater, the way the Roots had seen and filmed it. Eventually, before we knew all the fish by name!, we managed to have a couple of great sightings in eight years, two every four years of waiting!

However, when it happened, it was such a spectacle that I still remember it vividly. It started when we spotted a moving floating papyrus island that moved. A while later a hippo appeared very close stepping gently and slowly on the bottom of the lake while it passed in front of us and slowly vanished, followed by a few dozen fish!

The second sighting was a female with a young that, again, walked in front of the observation window and, again moved off getting lost in the mud that their passing rose. But not all was sweetnes in the Mzima hippo world.

One occasion we arrived and an agitated ranger warned us that two males were fighting at the top pool and that we should be careful when approaching the area. We heard their splashes and loud gruntings way before we got to the pool so we knew that they were inside the water so we approach them slowly and carefully.

The pool was totally changed as the water was getting muddy because of the stir that the two behemoths had created. It was clear that this was not the usual face off that lasts a while and then one of the opponents leaves the fighting area. They were goring each other ferociously while some other hippos were close to them and it looked to us that it was a fight to the death or at least until one of them was severely injured.

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We watched for a while and left as it was a really bloody afair and not nice to watch particularly if you, like us, liked hippos. However, the following morning we returned to see the results of the fight but the pool has returned to normal. We did not find traces of what had happened and certainly we did not see a dead hippo anywhere so we still do not know what the outcome was.

Unfortunately in 2009, a severe drought killed most hippos at the springs and they were no longer at the top pool when I visited Mzima springs in 2012. Luckily, the large hippo pods that were present downstream were still there and, apparently, thriving.

While planning one of our visits to Tsavo we learnt of a small little camp by the Athi river known as Bushwhackers. In Nairobi we found Mrs. Jane Stanton, its owner, and she gave us valuable information on how to get there following the turn-off at Kibwezi on the Mombasa road.

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Resting at Bushwhackers.

From Jane, who was about to retire after almost 30 years of bush life by then, we learnt that Hugh Stanton came out to Kenya as a small boy in 1907 and started collecting animals for museums. Afterwards they started Bushwhackers as a game trapping camp for museums and zoos and that Martin and Osa Johnson [2] used as their base in the 1930’s while visiting Kenya during their pioneering film-making in Africa.

At first we found the place rather disappointing as, not being a reserve or national park, was being encroached by people and, apart from baboons and vervet monkeys, no other mammals were seen. The exception was, according to Paul, a large male eland that would come down to drink after midnight when things were dead quiet. I never knew where he got that story and we could never confirm it.

We soon realized however that, despite the absence of land mammals, there were still hippos and crocodiles as well as a large numbers of birds and insects that were worth watching and also it offered an entry point to the Athi River and great walks through its sandy bed.

We visited the place often afterwards and we could see, by the photographs that decorated the reception area, that years back it had been an area where large mammals did flourish! Still there were interesting creatures like the angry baby spitting cobra (actually spitting at us!) that we found at the bottom of a river pit and that we rescued despite its anger!

Genets often visited us at night. They managed to squeeze through the chicken wire to get at our food and refuse and they often woke us up when they knocked things in the kitchen of our simple reed-walled bungalows. On one occasion a mother with two tiny replicas of her came earlier than usual and they were a joy to watch

 

[1] See: http://kenyabirdmap.adu.org.za/index.php

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_and_Osa_Johnson#Osa_Johnson’s_The_Big_Game_Hunt

 

Tsavo National Park

Background

After a while being in Kenya we decided to explore the Tsavo National Park. Eventually, after the first rushed trip that gave us a feel for the area, we returned to both Tsavo East and West in several opportunities.

The journey to either of the two park sections was very picturesque as the Mombasa road follows the Athi river with the Yatta plateau, the world’s longest lava flow (290km) that runs along the road and also forms the western boundary of the park. On clear days Kilimanjaro could be seen towards the southwest and then the Chyullu hills (to which I will return later on when dealing with Tsavo West) will make an appearance on the right.

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Kilimanjaro from the distance on a clear afternoon.

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The amazing Chyullu hills with its hundreds of small volcanoes.

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Giraffes by the Mombasa road.

Tsavo National Park was gazetted as a wildlife reserve by the Kenya colonial government in 1949 despite not being the best wildlife area in Kenya but by virtue of being an area of arid scrub too dry for agriculture and, being infested by tsetse flies -vector of trypanosomiasis- also unsuitable for livestock and, largely without human habitation.

David Sheldrick became its first Warden and, apart from dealing with the problem of armed poachers, he developed the original infrastructure of the park while studying the elephants’ behaviour and food needs, and, with his wife, Daphne, rescuing and hand-rearing vulnerable elephants, rhinos and antelopes. After his premature death Daphne established the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in his memory that runs the well-known Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi.

The park occupies 22,812 km² of the 41,000 km² of the original Tsavo ecosystem, 13,747 km² and 9,065 km² for the East and West sections respectively [1]. At its inception it was rich in wild animals with about 45,000 elephants and 8,000 black rhinos. Regrettably, after its creation, pressure from the climate and the surrounding human population interfered with elephant movement and brought about a gradual loss of the woodlands due to the high numbers of elephants and the area was transformed into grasslands, good for other species but less so for browsers like rhino and elephants.

The deeper the white man went into Africa, the faster the life flowed out of it, off the plains and out of the bush…vanishing in acres of trophies and hides and carcasses” wrote Peter Beard in his now classic book “The End Game” that highlighted the Tsavo crisis and that anyone interested in nature should look at and read [1].

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Examining elephant bones with Luis.

So, a severe collapse of the elephant and rhino population followed, particularly the black rhinos. By the time we started going to Tsavo the black rhino had already banished. There were rumours that some had sought refuge in the most remote areas of the park but we never saw any.

I will deal with the two parts of the park separately (starting with Tsavo East) as they both offer their own interesting features.

Tsavo East National Park

Usually we entered the park at the Manyani Gate and travelled through it on our way to the beaches in the Indian Ocean. Sometimes we stayed at the National Parks’ accommodation at the Aruba dam when we were late to complete the traversing of the long distance inside the park.

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A stop for Luis to photograph an interesting bird.

Before you reached the Manyani Gate we travelled through the territory where once the man eaters of Tsavo ruled. Two lions stopped the construction of the railway in the Tsavo River for nine months and killed more than a hundred workers since March 1898. “The Man-eaters of Tsavo” written by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, who was in charge of the work and shot them, is a fascinating read! [2]

In his book Patterson wrote: “. …Two most voracious and insatiable man-eating lions appeared upon the scene, and for over nine months waged an intermittent warfare against the railway and all those connected with it in the vicinity of Tsavo. This culminated in a perfect reign of terror in December 1898, when they actually succeeded in bringing the railway works to a complete standstill for about three weeks… Their methods then became so uncanny, and their man-stalking so well-timed and so certain of success, that the workmen firmly believed that they were not real animals at all, but devils in lions’ shape…”

We came face to face with some of the man-eaters but they presented no danger to us as they had been stuffed with straw for years at the entrance of the Muthaiga Country Club in Nairobi.

Before arriving to the Manyani Gate we usually stopped for re-fueling at the Man-eaters’ Motel stop where there was a memorial that commemorated the event. It was precisely there that I had my life-threatening encounter, not with a man-eater lion, but with a huge baboon that snatched my packet of crisps! [3].

Once you turned at the Manyani Gate the road was rather monotonous until you arrived at the Galana river where we usually stopped to look at the Lugard falls where the river passes through volcanic rock, carving a narrow path that had created a series of rapids and falls as the water flows faster. It was named after Frederick Lugard [4], who passed this place on his way to Uganda.

Most of the times we continued following the river towards the coast (a more interesting drive than the usual way via the Mombasa road) but, a couple of times we deviated south towards the Aruba dam, built in 1952 across the Voi River, a reservoir created to provide water to the game and birds. There we spent a few nights during which we found it difficult to sleep because of the noise the elephants made while coming to drink.

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Early group travellers from Germany.

Tsavo East is a good place to see fringed-eared oryx grazing on the open plains. The very shy lesser kudu could also be spotted during the early morning when they were away from the thicket. Rarer still was the finding of the long-necked gerenuk standing on its hind-legs to reach the sparse foliage of trees and bushes in the arid environment.

Although there were still elephants at the time of our visits, they were “diluted” because of the size of the park. For the same reason lions were also difficult to bump into. However, when you did you were in for a surprise as the males were maneless [5] and probably its ancestors were of the man-eating variety!

The “baldness” in these lions is attributed to an adaptation to the thorny vegetation in the park as their hair could interfere with their hunting. As their colleagues in Tsavo West that live in a similar environment have normal manes, I personally believe that their baldness, as in humans, is due to high levels of testosterone that may also explain its aggressive reputation.

 

[1] As a comparison, the Kruger National Park has an area of 19,485 km².

[2] Lt Col. J. H. Patterson in Chapter II of his classic book “The Man-eaters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures”, published by MacMillan and Co. Limited, London in 1919. If you are lazy, you can ruin a good read and watch the 1996 Hollywood-style movie “The Ghost and the Darkness” (Paramount) with Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas.

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2016/06/07/mean-kin/

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Lugard,_1st_Baron_Lugard#Exploration_of_East_Africa

[5] See: https://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/hay-leonas-con-melena-521461839096

 

 

 

 

 

Fossilized

When I wrote the post on Lake Magadi [1], I forgot to include a very interesting place located on route to the lake: Olorgesailie, located about 60km southwest of Nairobi.

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Olorgesailie lodges.

Being almost at the bottom of the rift valley it was hot all year round and often ignored by passers-by heading for Magadi and beyond. We did stop there a few times and even stayed a couple of weekends while I was writing my PhD thesis. as it was a very quiet place.

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Working on my PhD.

The site is in a lake basin that existed there probably between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago (mid Pleistocene). The lake was fed by the long gone Ol Keju Nyiro River, displaced by the then common and dramatic earth movements. While the lake existed it attracted game and hunters and then bones and tools accumulated, got buried and remained there for eons. Somehow they eventually re-surfaced and were found, first by the “discoverer” of the rift valley, J.W. Gregory, in 1919 and later by Louis and Mary Leakey.

The Leakeys, as they are commonly known, started working in the area in 1942 and unearthed crucial evidence on the activities and life of early prehistoric peoples of the Hand axe culture. Because of the fossil wealth it contained, it was declared a small National Monument of about 20 hectares in 1947 to preserve the finds under the care of the National Museum of Kenya.

We had the chance of listening to Mary Leakey talking about her work at Oligosailie and Olduvai. Louis had already passed away by then but we also attending lectures by their son Richard also exposing his finds and ideas about the evolution of man in Africa to which the findings at Oligosailie are very relevant.

Both were lecturers at the Know Kenya Course (now re-named Know Kenya More) that the Kenya Museum Society started running in 1971 and that were going full swing in the 80’s. These series of lectures were a great way for new arrivals to get familiar with the country while getting funds to support projects of this institution in Kenya.

During Mary’s lecture we learnt that at both Olduvai and Olorgesalie heavy accumulation of volcanic ash preserved the famous footsteps in the former and the fossils in the latter. The main producer of ash at Olorgesailie was the now extinct volcano that gives the site its name that with its 1760m dominates the area.

The most important fossils in Olorgesalie were human-made tools and their abnormal accumulation in the area is evidence of early man had their camps. I recall our guide during our tour of the site pointing at tools and the flakes that resulted from their making that truly littered the ground and I seem to recall that Louis Leakey used to make stone tools to practically demonstrate his conclusions at international meetings!

Apart from stones Olorgesalie also had some living attractions. One of the “specials” were the very tame Grey-headed social weavers (Pseudonigrita arnaudi) that nested in the surrounding trees and would come to feed from your hand. It was also one of the few places in Kenya to see Desert roses (Adenium obesum) around the bungalows.

Mabel and weavers.

Desert roses (pink) and other Olorgesailie flowers.

As the area was extremely hot, we walked during the early mornings and evenings and these did not include climbing Mt. Olorgesailie as we are not climbers but to follow the several paths used by the Maasai in the area as there were still a sizeable population of wild herbivores as well as lots of interesting birds.

Apart from the ubiquitous whistling thorns [2], the area is full of another thorny tree known as “wait a bit” [3], a name that describes perfectly its hooked thorns’ ability of stopping you in your tracks. Damage control in these cases indicated reversing to unhook yourself if you could. However, when you were caught jumping or going down a ravine unable to stop the damage to your skin could be rather painful and bloody. Most of the time I ended our walks not only dusty but bleeding from arms and legs. To add insult to my injuries my wife -rather miraculously- ended up dustless and unscathed, a trait she maintains up to date!

It was not rare to find Maasai herdsmen walking their cattle to the scarce watering points located in the area. They would follow the dry riverbeds that crisscrossed the area to find water. It was in one of these dry rivers while driving to get to Olorgesailie that we met a Maasai herdsman at really close quarters.

cattle Magadi rd.tif

The picture that prompted our meeting with the Maasai, seen at the bottom of the picture.

I took a picture of a herd of cattle drinking by the road, something that their owner did not appreciate and, before I knew it, he was inside the back of our kombi where he joined a very close lady friend of ours that happened to be traveling with us at the time. The man was upset and started arguing with me about the picture leaning forward and trying -unsuccessfully- to grab my camera while I was trying to calm him down and explain him that I was taking a picture of the scene and not of himself!

Unfortunately, during the rather protracted exchange he placed himself in front of our friend who, for a while, had an unobstructed view of his rear end until, when more relaxed, even sat on her lap! Eventually the message went through and the Maasai departed to join his animals, I kept my picture and our friend the “views” and the achievement of having a Maasai on her lap! The incident has remained one of our indelible memories of the times we spent together in Kenya.

At the same spot, a couple of years later we had a different encounter. A leopard had just drank at the same waterhole and it was returning to its territory and decided to cross the road. Totally unconcerned by our presence, after staring at us at leisure, proceeded to climb the rocks on the other side of the road before I could even touch my camera! It was one of the very few encounters with leopards we had in Kenya.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2016/05/07/pink-gem-but-smelly/

[2] These plants that I knew as Acacia drepanolabium (now Vachellia drepanolobium) produce swollen hollow thorns inside which several symbiotic species of ants live. The wind blowing over the holed bulbous thorns it creates a clear whistling noise.

[3] Senegalia brevispica

 

 

 

Salty dust [1]

In the 1980’s Amboseli National Park (established in 1974 as a National Park but already a park from 1948) was the most popular among all the Kenya parks. This was probably because it was relatively near Nairobi, despite the corrugated road to get to it, and it offered abundant quality accommodation. The latter I cannot confirm as we always camped there! Tourist packages included an Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks circuit, as there is a road that joins them. The result was that travel companies would take tourists in large numbers and we found it rather crowded, particularly around the lodges and the swamp area.

amboseli 3 enhd

Despite its popularity, the park was still beautiful mainly because of Kilimanjaro that in a clear day offered an amazing view . With its 5,895 metres summit it truly showed itself with its well known peaks Kibo (the flat one) and Mawenzi (the rugged one) above the cloud cover creating a really special atmosphere [2].

amboseli 2

Elephants and buffalo were plentiful and there were still black rhinos that could occasionally found browsing on the scarce trees and bushes, unaware of their sad but approaching extermination.

In 1982, David Western wrote: “…The Amboseli population, at a low of eight animals in 1977, had only two breeding males and three mature females. Given such low numbers and localized populations it is inevitable that the black rhino will, like the white rhino, have to be managed in many cases as a national or even international herd…” [3]

It was the park’s flatness and its scarce vegetation, together with the abundance of prey species, that made it an ideal place to find large predators such as lions and spotted hyenas, although they were already decreasing in numbers.

The abundance of Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles also made Amboseli a great place to spot the already scarce cheetah and, if you were lucky as we were, to watch them hunting.

Although not considered among the great cats for anatomical reasons [4] these are very interesting and exciting animals to watch. Relying on speed to catch their prey, they are forced to hunt during the day so that they can see where they step while running -for short bursts- at a maximum speed of 100 to 120 km per hour! An injury could have severe consequences to the animal that can cause its death due to starvation! It is this behaviour that exposes cheetah to tourism interference and often leads to them getting disturbed by over-eager drivers.

Although we witnessed a few chases, we only managed to observe a couple that ended with a successful capture and kill of a Thomson’s gazelle. Several times we watched them loosing their prey during the chase when the latter in desperation entered terrain that was too rough for the cheetah or when the latter took a tumble at speed!

Even if the hunt was successful, the cheetah requires about a quarter of an hour of rest before it can start eating and, although their instinct directs them to consume the hindquarters (the richest part of the animal) during this recovery time cheetah are very vulnerable to larger predators -particularly spotted hyenas- to snatch its prey forcing it to hunt again!

Although we saw cheetah defending their prey against a single hyena by bristling and increasing their size dramatically, most of the time we watched while a pack of hyenas harassed them away from their freshly killed prey.

I will not attempt to describe a cheetah hunt as this has been done many times and through different media during hundreds of years. Instead of of that, as pictures I dare recommending my favourite sequence that, despite its age, is still one of the best I have seen (except seeing it live, of course). It is a Survival documentary called “Two in the Bush” filmed by Alan and Joan Root. Although the film (link below) is worth watching in its entirety, the cheetah sequence starts at the 15:32 minutes mark when the Roots are seen driving on the plains. It is important to bear in that the movie was filmed in the 1980’s with cameras that were not those we have today.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8NzgBqOgJY

We did not attempt to emulate the Roots in filming the hunt but we were lucky enough to take a few shots of the action but the only good ones were those we took after the hund ended when we were lucky that a combination of positioning and camera zoom worked miracles, at least for our standards!

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We visited Amboseli several times over the years and eventually we got to know it quite well. Already at that time it was showing sigs of severe erosion, particularly during the dry season and we thought that it should be closed to the public for several years to allow it to recover. The park was so degraded by 1991 that the New York Times published an article highlighting its poor status [5]. Since then, a number of initiatives to manage the park have been initiated although I do not know about their degree of success.

To enter Amboseli you crossed the lake that gives the park its name, a usually dry ash lake and the first place where we saw both dust devils and mirages, the latter framed by Kilimanjaro.

Amboseli dry lake and giraffecopy

Funnily the lake was occasionally flooded! During these times it became a quagmire that took some driving to negotiate.

Land Rover Amboseli flooded lake copy

At first we camped at the now called Amboseli campsite but the lack of adequate shade prompted us to seek other places. We then found the palm tree campsite that our friend Paul also used when staying at the park. Although lacking ablution facilities, this was a shady and cool camp, ideal to rest during the hot time of the day and even to have a short nap before embarking on a late afternoon game drive.

Being rather secluded and with small camping areas it had the advantage of not being frequented by the overland trucks that were beginning to be common at the time and that immediately crowded the limited space and facilities available at the other campsites. We soon learnt the reasons for this seclusion…

While Paul was investigating a rinderpest outbreak we took the opportunity to join him a couple of times at the palm tree campsite where he was staying with his camp hand Tobias as usual. He was a great help at the camp as well as producing some good food, particularly in the evening when we were tired after driving all day. However, the English breakfast was his “special” and this prompted Paul’s say of “with such breakfast, who needs to think about cooking later” in reply to our criticism to the rest of the English cuisine!

After dinner we usually made an inventory of the birds seen during the day as well as planning where we would go on the morrow. That night, however, Paul was starting to tell us about what had happened to him earlier at that camp when, suddenly, we started hearing people shouting!

We stopped talking and listened. After a few seconds we clearly heard a loud and frantic scream: “elephant!” that got repeated until finally we heard a desperate “help us, elephant!” Without hesitating Paul and Tobias grabbed their torches and ran towards the source of the voices. I followed.

We did not have a lot of ground to cover, perhaps one hundred metres, when we came to the next camping spot, a clearing in the bush where the drama was unfolding. There were tents and a Land Rover with three terror-stricken occupants in the back, two men and a woman rather scantily clothed. Outside there was a large elephant holding the roof rack and vigorously shaking the car as much as its springs would allow and, in so doing, badly shaking the people inside!

We then realized that the elephant had stepped and flattened an aluminium camera case and scattered camera(s) and lenses on the fine dust. Luckily, as soon as we shone the torches on the intruder, it took off tail up, aware of its guilt, crashing into the low palm trees to the relief of the vehicle occupants and mine when I saw it running in the opposite direction rather than charging!

After helping the “victims” to collect their dusty gear and their wits, we reassured them that the elephant would not come back as it got quite a fright, not being sure of this ourselves as it was unusual that elephants would attempt to raid a camp in Kenya. After we saw that our neighbours were as calm as the situation allowed, we returned to our camp.

After commenting the incident with the rest of the campers it was Paul’s turn to return to its interrupted story that, funnily enough, also dealt with elephants! He told us that one night he was woken up by some noise outside the tent. Through the door he realized that there were elephants outside and then he felt a rush of hot air in his face, coming from one of the visitors. It was trying to get to the food he had in the tent. Quite alarmed, he tried to get out through the other tent exit that went to his “kitchen” area only to find it blocked by a white elephant that blocked his way. The intruder had managed to break a sac of flour and it was enjoying it!

In the meantime, another pachyderm was busy trying to get at Tobias’ tent where some dirty pots and pans were kept to be cleaned the following morning. His smaller tent was lifted from the ground and Tobias got very frightened and -according to the storyteller- proffered such screams that he managed to scare the animals away, saving the day! After that achievement Tobias rushed to the Land Rover where he spent the rest of that night! (Something I would also have done! – Bushsnob)

It was then apparent that the campsite was a rather uninhabited one in virtue of its naughty elephantine visitors that have become used to get food from campers and the news had spread prompting campers -except us!- to stay away. As it is inevitable in these cases, the camp was closed soon after and, possibly, the elephants destroyed as wild animals always pay for being fed by people who do not realize the consequences of their actions.

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I always wonder if some of these were the culprits!

 

[1] The English meaning of the Maa word Amboseli.

[2] There is apparently a third peak called Shira that I learnt about when writing this post! See: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Kilimanjaro (Consulted on 19/10/19).

[3] Western, D. (1982). Patterns of depletion in a Kenya rhino population and the conservation implications. Biological Conservation, 24: 147-156.

[4] The word “Cheetah” is derived from the Hindi word “Chita” meaning “spotted one”. The Cheetah is the fastest land animal reaching speeds of 45 – 70 mph. Cheetahs have also been known to swim, although they do not like to. “…The Cheetah is not one of the Great Cats, because it does not have a floating Hyoid bone in its neck it can not roar, therefore it is a Lesser Cat…” See: https://bigcatrescue.org/cheetah-facts/?amp (consulted 16/10/19)

[5] See: https://www.nytimes.com/1991/05/19/travel/an-african-park-in-peril.html (consulted 16/10/19)