Memoirs

Episodes of my life in Africa.

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].

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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.

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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]

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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]

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Maasai children looking after livestock.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Intona fun

There were a few years of work at Intona where we achieved some good scientific results. We managed to immunise cattle against theileriosis, the main cattle killer in the region and this resulted in keeping animals under relaxed tick control regimens as opposed to applying toxic chemicals two times per week as it was formerly done!

 

The trials required hard work not only for Alan and me but for the herdsmen that had the day to day responsibility of keeping activities going all the time. Although the work was demanding, we also found time for entertainment. We often went to the Migori River to try our luck at fishing although neither the Maasai nor the Kikuyu (or me) like to eat fish so we maintained a strict catch and release approach. In “Memories – A fishing trip” I described the most dramatic of these fishing outings but there were many others.

We also had some other fun that included the already described spear throwing (Javelin throwing), game driving and also walking around the farm. A great tour was the drive towards the back of Intona where you would meet the Migori river. This was one of the boundaries of the ranch. In that general area a large herd of buffalo grazed in the meadows before getting into the riverine woodlands to spend the night.

This herd was resident in the ranch and, to my amazement and concern, the cattle herd would intermingle with them while grazing! This buffalo herd did not show any aggressive behaviour towards our animals or the keepers, although the latter paid them great respect and kept a wide berth. When it was time for the cattle to start their return walk to the safety of the kraal/boma they would separate from the buffalo and start their walk following the loud whistling of the herdsmen.

By the river it was always enjoyable to spot the silvery-cheeked hornbills, large birds with large bony beaks flying over the river returning to their sleeping tree after foraging in the forest. The Transmara also had a special bird called the African blue flycatcher (Elminia longicauda), greyish below but bright blue on its dorsal part, including its head that has a small crest. Watching it its colour fluctuates with the light between blue and cyan, a magnificent sight. It also has the habit of constantly fanning its tail in a very attractive fashion. Although a common resident at Intona, it was a rare bird, always worth finding.

Walking about would take a purpose when Robin was around! He and Janet, his late wife, were very keen in collecting orchids from the tree islands. Because of the old and aggressive male buffalo that lurked inside the tree islands this was a rather risky endeavour, as we needed to enter the forest in search of the plants as well as climbing the trees to get them. Luckily, one of the young herders would do that for us!

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The tree islands where we looked for orchids.

When Joe learnt that we were going to do this, he designated his gardener as our “angel guardian” and ordered him to march with us carrying a fire siren to scare the buffalo away from the places we would visit. I always felt sorry for the poor man, as the contraption was a rather large metal frame with the siren mounted on it, looking like a large hand-cranked blacksmith’s bellows.

It was immediately apparent that the gardener knew what he was doing the moment he started turning its large handle. The pneumatic siren would then respond gradually with a grave sound that, after the machine gained momentum and the handle increased its speed, will get into a full loud siren, just like the old fire engines used to do before the new more ‘innovative” multi-tone electronic ones were introduced.

Luckily, we did not find buffalo during the few times we pursued this rather hazardous sport with a rather meagre floral reward. However, I still remember my neck hairs standing up when we heard crashing noises coming from the wooded islands preceding the sudden appearance of animals scared to death! In particular the very scared warthogs would rush out of their siesta places or burrows. A particularly hairy encounter took place when a large male came straight at us luckily veering off at the last second. A very lucky escape as these animals carry large tusks and can produce severe injuries.

Intona also hosted smaller animals and these were usually found at night. Although mongooses and hyenas were usually seen, there were others like genets, bush babies and African hares among others. To see the hares dazzled at the car lights reminded me that in Uruguay we would shoot them or even catch them while they remained stunned. We would later pickle them and enjoy their tasty meat. So, I decided that night “hare-catching” was worth a try.

I then managed to sell the idea to my companions, the herdsmen, as a different (and potentially tasty) way of spending our free time! “If we drive out after dinner, we may be able to kill a few hares” I said to my herdsmen and I added “The trick is that you dazzle them with the car lights and then you get out of the vehicle and walk slowly and silently in the dark towards them until you get close enough to grab them”. I assured them that they would be good eating as well!

The idea was accepted but the reply included that we should take one of the Maasai herdsmen as he would be the only one capable of finding the way back to camp after a while driving cross-country on the ranch! So we did and that is how Thomas also came on that venture as well as the fishing trip above.

Eventually the team assembled a moonless Saturday evening and we set off armed with “rungus“[1] to stun the unlucky hares. We started after dinner and drove slowly searching for either the hares themselves or eyes in the darkness. It was soon apparent that looking for “eyes” was a fruitless exercise as the latter belonged to a number of different animals but no hares were detected.

Like this we bumped into topis, zebras, impalas, hyenas and white-tailed mongooses, among other beasts. It was clear that we would have to bump into them and hope that they would be dazzled by our headlamps!

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Impala like this were among the eyes we saw.

After a while, a suitable hare was spotted and eventually it stopped its run and looked at us. The “hare-catchers” jumped out as planned while I kept the car with the beam pointed at the hare. Despite our efforts, the hare must have caught movements in the dark and soon took off. The empty-handed catchers returned to the car and we continued our search until another hare was dazzled and off they jumped again. This time one of them went too close to the beam and his shadow interfered with the hare that also took off.

The hunt was proving more difficult than I anticipated so I decided to join the hunters for the next hare. It did not take too long to appear. I left the car running with the lights on and the four of us, two from each side, started stalking the prospective victim. I had my eyes on the hare so, when I heard a shout that I did not understand I was surprised and even more so when Mark, one of the hunters, rushed by me screaming “buffalo!, buffalo!” I did not wait and rushed to the car as fast as I could.

Thomas, the first to see the buffalo and responsible for the first screams, beat us to the car by a good margin and, luckily managed to open the back door fast, in time for all of us to jump in seconds later, ending up in a pile of hard-breathing bodies, still with the door open. Gradually we managed to talk and we all burst out laughing, releasing our fear while Mark explained that they have bumped on a few buffalo that, luckily and equally scared, run away!

I never saw anything and, as soon as we were able to move, we unanimously decided to abandon our hare chasing and return to the camp under Thomas’ guidance that, despite the encounter, still retained his bearings! It was when I turned the car around that the buffalo came to view. It was no other than the resident herd and we were lucky that we did not encounter the few large males that were also in the ranch.

The unanimous comments of the car occupants was that they were all in favour of continuing with their “hareless” diet of ugale (white maize polenta) and cabbage!

 

[1] In Ki-Swahili, a wooden club with a thick end, similar to the knobkerrie of South Africa.

Traveling to Intona

While in Kenya in the 80s, periodic trips to the Transmara were required to run the tick and tick-borne disease fieldwork. At the beginning we took turns with Alan (Alan Sidney Young) for visiting the area but gradually -as I learnt the ropes- he delegated the work to me. As a consequence -not at all undesirable- my trips became more frequent and I found myself driving to Intona every two or three weeks, depending on my other commitments at Muguga.

We needed to personally check the on-going field work and to collect the data gathered on a daily basis by our herdsmen that we would later analyse when back at Muguga. Luckily we also had a veterinarian on the ranch that Joe [1] had employed before I arrived. His name was Kiza and he was a refugee from Uganda that really helped a great deal with our work and he would radio us if there were any issues that needed our presence and, in that case, either Alan or myself would travel to the ranch to deal with them.

Equally important was to replace our field workers as we had a roster that we needed to maintain. In particular the Kikuyu workers found their stay among the Maasai rather trying and they were always ready to go home! After a while I realised that the trip to Maasailand was almost taken as a trip to a foreign country by them, used to stay in the highlands and to cultivate their land. As the trip to Intona progressed, their conversation became less animated! The reverse was also true, they became happier as we got closer to their home area, particularly the moment the Kikuyu escarpment came into view on the eastern wall of the Rift valley.

The trip would start in the early morning from Tigoni (later on from Nairobi) via Muguga where I would collect the herdsmen on duty for the period. Then there were two obligatory stops: at the local market near Muguga for them to buy vegetables, mainly humongous cabbages to prepare the ugale “relish” [1]. Cabbages would keep well and they were very popular. The next stop would be to load fuel at the junction with the main road (Nairobi-Kampala). Only then we were ready to go.

During the rainy season we would follow the tarmac through Nakuru, Kericho and Kisii to Kilgoris and then to Intona. Only the last 40km were dirt but passable most of the time. This way would offer superb views of the Rift Valley and its lakes (Naivasha, Elementaita and Nakuru) as well as its volcanoes (Longonot and Suswa).

We would also cross the large and tidy tea plantations of Kericho where we would normally brake the journey to stay at the colonial Kericho Tea Hotel. Need I say that the tea was probably the best I have ever drunk.

The dry weather route to Intona would take us North through Uplands and then we would start winding down the Kikuyu escarpment, pass the small Catholic church built by the Italian prisoners of WWII to continue until we branched off towards Narok. We then traversed the Great Rift Valley from East to West. In those days the savanna was dotted with antelopes and the only signs of human presence were a few small shambas [2] at the start of the road and, a few km further on, a satellite station with its giant white mushrooms.

The road skirted the lava flows from the dormant Longonot and Suswa volcanic cones and then we would climb the opposite wall of the valley where, a few km later we would get into Narok. The latter was, as expected, a predominantly Maasai town and it was the last large town on the way to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve and beyond, where we were going. We usually re-fuelled and bought the last needed items there before continuing our journey

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Going out of Narok. Maasai cattle drinks at the dam while the traffic goes by. Note the red VW kombi, the dominant minibus at the time.

Out of Narok we would follow the road past Aitong –where the early trials against theileriosis were carried out by Matt and co-workers before my arrival- and continue skirting the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, effectively the northern continuation of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, until we reached the Mara River bridge. If time allowed we would go on, otherwise there was a nice camping spot by the Mara River, next to the Mara Buffalo Camp (prior to the bridge)  where we would spend the night under canvas.

While I camped, the workers would stay at the Drivers’ accommodation at the Camp, courtesy of its Swiss Manager that would let us use it. I usually invited the workers to come to my camp in the evening for a drink and noted that there were always an extra pair of people that would come with them.

The first time this happened I thought that they were taking advantage of my hospitality and I was surprised as I did not expect this from them. I was immediately proven wrong when, as soon as they arrived to my camp, the two “escorts” would turn around and return to the lodge only to return to fetch the workers one hour later. When I asked why two people came I was told that they feared the animals too much so that they would not walk alone in the dark under any circumstances!

The Mara River is the main natural barrier for the migration of wildebeest and zebra in the Maasai Mara/Serengeti ecological system. It ends its course at Lake Victoria with an approximate length of 400km after its origin in the Mau Escarpment in Kenya.

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Mara river in the Maasai Mara and inhabitants.

The river is the main water source for the large population of grazing animals both wild and domestic as it always carries water, despite its flow getting reduced in the dry season. More recently (after our departure) changes in land use that have caused decreased vegetation cover are triggering a faster run-off of rainwater and flooding has become more common, particularly in large parts of the Tanzanian Mara basin.

For the journey I never drove anything but a Series III Long Wheel Base Land Rover (the two door van type) and these were hard to ride but truly unbreakable. Despite traveling alone most of the time, I never broke down over the many years I did this trip. After a few journeys, I got to know the people at Kichwa Tembo Camp (Elephant’s Head in Ki-Swahili), one of the camps close to the Mara River bridge, and they were very kind repairing the occasional punctures that were my only concern!

After crossing the Mara River where there was usually a Maasai cattle traffic jam and, during the wildebeest season quite a number of wildebeest as well (both alive and drowned at the river), we climbed the Oloololo escarpment and, once at the top, we had a compulsory stop to take in the magnificent view.

Below us was the Mara triangle where the green ribbon of the Mara River could be clearly seen snaking its way towards lake Victoria. When the wildebeest were in the Mara the savannah was dotted with thousands of wildebeests and zebras walking in long lines as far as the eye could see. The scene of the poster of “Out of Africa” was filmed from the Oloololo escarpment, looking at the Mara Triangle below.

m mara and olooloolo cropped

The Mara river with the Oloololo escarpment at the back, seen from the air.

As we still had some way to go, we moved on on the now flat top of the Oloololo escarpment. After a few km the road would pass through wheat fields. This unexpected sight was the result of some Maasai communities that had leased their land to commercial farmers. Once we passed the wheat the road became a track that with great luck it would be dry and rough but more often wet.

mara wheat harvesting

Harvesting wheat in land leased from the Maasai.

The area was waterlogged and driving was through sticky mud. The car wheels would get into two parallel from where you could not deviate! So, while you kept the car crawling in second gear you hoped that no one would be coming from the opposite direction as the crossing would invariably end with one (or both) stuck!

stuck going to intona from kilgoris copy

Stuck on the way to the red hill on a Land Rover station wagon that I rarely used and about to use the spare to lift the car from the muddy hole.

It was on one of these wet drives that we met a Peugeot 504 [3] buried and, after lots of digging, pushing and pulling, we managed to get it going. Unfortunately while doing this we got stuck! I looked at the occupants of the Peugeot for their solidarity but all I saw was their backs and, oblivious to our requests of help, they ignored us and drove off leaving us to dig ourselves out for quite some time and therefore to arrive very late to Nairobi.

Further on the road had another infamous section: the red hill. As its name indicates it was a steep climb over a red muddy hill with a smooth and innocent-looking surface that when you were on it it was like driving on a gigantic soap. The car, despite the 4×4 would skid the way it felt like and all you could do was to hope that it would stop before going down over the side that looked like the end not only of that journeys but of all journeys! To go very slowly and to stop as soon as the car started to skid was the only way to negotiate it but it was not easy and required total focus.

If you were successful over the swamps and the red hill then you were almost there as, from then on, the road would be firm and you would arrive to Lolgorien. This was a small village where the German Technical Cooperation Agency (GTZ) had its veterinary project in support of the Government of Kenya. It was there that Gerhardt, a veterinarian, and Anne Marie, a laboratory technician, worked.

Past collaboration between them and Alan on the epidemiology of the cattle diseases in the Kilae area nearby, that gave Alan the idea of immunise cattle against theileriosis and brought him to Intona ranch.

moll kilai lab t mara showing changaa cans! copy 2

Gerhardt and Anne Marie bush lab. An amazing place in its simplicity and efficiency.

Gerhardt and Anne Marie successfully ran several interesting activities in support to the Maasai communities and they had an amazing field laboratory where they had all essential equipment, operated by generator and or batteries, as there was no electricity there at the time. It was a revelation for me to see how advanced work could be done under really basic conditions [4].

After passing Lolgorien the road did not offer great challenges but it was important to arrive at Intona before dark. Wild and domestic animals were very numerous while driving through the Maasai Mara and still plentiful once you travel through the Transmara and it was still common to find both Maasai livestock and herds of zebra, wildebeest and gazelles on the road! As the area was wooded, their presence was more hazardous as they would appear suddenly in front of the car!

It was during one of these occasions that we came across a herd of sheep and goats that suddenly decided that the grass was greener across the road. As much as I tried to avoid them, I knocked the last sheep when, suddenly it changed its small mind and decided to turn back! The herdboy in charge run away fast before we could talk to him. Tommi (himself a Maasai) laughed and said that he must have been truly scared and run to inform his father so we waited while the animal laid motionless in the  middle of the road.

As predicted, Soon his father appeared with a grave expression, followed by the boy a distance behind. A discussion between Tommi and the sheep owner followed and I was eventually informed that I was asked to pay a large sum to compensate for the loss while Tommi advised me not to accept it. I shook my head vigorously and the negotiations continued and things were heating up when, as suddenly as unexpectedly, the sheep moved, stood up, shook his head and run into the bushes to join its mates! We were all taken aback by the development and we burst out laughing at the situation to the clear relief of the boy, the responsible of the sheep! We agreed to only compensate the owner for small injuries and left fast in case the animal fell again not to get up!

The area around Intona had a high number of people injured in encounters with wild animals. Although the rivalry between the Maasai and lions may have accounted for some, buffalo caused the great majority. It was therefore not uncommon that, having motorised transport, we would be asked to take some injured person to the nearest hospital. In addition, cattle rustling was quite common and the Police (Anti Stock Theft Unit) were a tough lot and two or three times I needed to carry prisoners and even dead rustlers (corpses).

Back to the trip. After Lolgorien we would eventually cross the Migori River that flows in a south-westerly direction from south-west Mau joining the Kuja River in Central Kadem and ends in lake Victoria. On a lucky day, turning the bend before the bridge you could watch a family of the rare Giant Forest Hogs (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) grazing in the meadows by the water edge. They were mostly indifferent to the car and allowed us to have a good look before they slowly retreated into the riverine bush.

A few km further we would get to the large fig tree that indicated the entrance to Intona Ranch and soon cross the one plough furrow that was all that indicated its boundary! It was a full day drive but not all was over as I still needed to set up camp, have a shower, dinner and then get good sleep to recover from the long journey to be up the following morning at the crack of dawn to work with our cattle.

intona fig tree marking entrance to ranch cropped.jpg

The Intona fig tree.

Intona was under the influence of Lake Victoria and it usually rained in late afternoon. This was preceded by the most spectacular cloud formations and amazingly beautiful sunsets when the sun would go down through the cracks of enormous cloud formations. The drama would even increase when the burning of the land, prior to the rains, would take place. This would stain the sky with a red tinge that would give the landscape an eerie appearance, as the reddish sun rays would filter through the forest. If you were lucky, you could spot a flock of the large Silvery-cheeked hornbills returning to their roosting places by the Migori River.

The return journey would start as early as possible, after finishing the work with the cattle, always done during the early morning to enable them to go out grazing with the rest of the herd. There were two reasons for an early departure: avoid the afternoon rains while still on the dirt roads, either in the Transmara or in the Maasai Mara as well as to arrive in Kikuyuland before dark.

Coming back intona with Benson and J Ndungu copy

Coming back from Intona we take a rest after reaching the Oloololo escarpment. The muddy waterbag hanging from the mirror tells the story of the journey.

The herdsmen that were due to go home did not need to be reminded and they were ready well before departure time as they missed their places and families. The ones that remained looked rather gloomy and, although I reassured them that I will return in two weeks, their moods remained somber until our leaving.

Mid afternoon would normally find us refuelling at Narok and, without wasting time, go on and cross the Rift valley. As the trip progressed the herdsmen would become more talkative and the moment that the Kikuyu escarpment came into view, they became excited and happy and they would start talking and laughing among themselves, no doubts planning their stay with their families.

Eventually we would climb the escarpment and enter in what was then still known as the “Kikuyu Reserve” to deliver the herdsmen to their homes. This was a long and tortuous drive through dirt roads to find their houses and, eventually when I was alone, the way out! As I am not too good at bearings, this would often take the wrong turn and get lost in the increasing darkness, delaying my return even more!

Although I never had a problem driving through the area, I recall an opportunity when I was driven by one of the ICIPE drivers that refused to drive inside it. He was from the Luo ethnic group, traditional enemies of the Kikuyus. He asked me to leave him at a shop on the main road and I drove, delivered the herdsmen and fetch him for him to drive me back!

 

[1] Ugali, a polenta-like dish-  is the main food in Kenya and other African countries. Maize flour is used and prepared using boiling water to form a semi-solid paste, served with a meat stew and/or vegetables known as relish.

[2] Shamba in East Africa is any field used for growing crops. (https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/shamba)

[3] At the time, a 504 was “the car” to have in Africa and it was commonly known as “Simba” (lion in Ki-Swahili) for its symbol in the front grille.

[4] Known sarcastically among us as “ILRAD 2” comparing it with the International Laboratory for Animal Diseases of those days, a multi-million USD state of the art institute based in Kabete, Kenya.

 

 

 

 

 

Family planning

It was during the already described picnic in the Rift Valley[1] that I first came across the Maasai method of birth control in sheep!

You will recall that when we arrived to the tree we had selected, it was already “booked” by Maasai boy herders and their sheep and goats. We eventually managed to get a tree for our picnic albeit reeking of sheep and goats urine and covered in faecal pellets!

Picnic Narok rd copy

The occupied trees…

It was during our negotiations with the herders that I noticed that a ram was actively pursuing a ewe that was clearly on heat. After a while the female accepted the male and the ram mounted her. At that time I realized that the latter was wearing a leather apron that -like a reverse chastity belt of medieval times- stayed between its penis and the ewe’s vagina, frustrating the act!

Maasai Birth control picnic tree rd to Narok

Earlier I have pondered on how the Maasai and other pastoralists synchronised their lambing to happen at the right time when the flocks included males and females grazing together. My conclusion was that it was due to the ewes not going on heat until the right time. To see this rather clever contraceptive method gave me another reason for the animals having their lambs at the right time.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/09/30/picnic-in-the-rift-valley/

A short trip to Ngorongoro – Contributed

Kenya and Tanzania – February 1988

1-TZBorderPainting88mumBeautiful and promising wall-painting in a petrol station at the Kenya-Tanzania border!

The trip in a few words.

Itinerary

Nairobi City (Kenya) – Ngorongoro Crater (Tanzania) – Manyara Lake (Tanzania) – Nairobi City (Kenya)

Participants

[1] 4WD – driver; [2] Xray – wife and game spotter – in Land Rover; [3] ScoutSpirit – driver; [4] PinkShade – partner and story teller; [5] Khanga – mum of PinkShade – in Isuzu Trooper.

2-NbiDepSafariNgoro88The team getting ready, early in the morning, around the Land Rover (PinkShade missing)

 The trip in detail.

Saturday, 20th of February – Towards the mythical crater – Getting in the mood and freezing!

In two cars, on a beautiful Saturday morning, we left Nairobi for Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara. A light spirit invaded me as we set off. Initially nothing special to mention, except for the very good road conditions up to Namanga, on the border between Kenya and Tanzania.

After passing through the Kenyan and Tanzanian border posts we were on our way to Arusha. The landscape was quite green despite the dry-area type of vegetation. We tried to spot Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru, but the clouds were totally hiding the mountains, not as usual just the top.

For lunch, we stopped in Arusha, briefly visited the Mount Meru Lodge, and refuelled. We eventually found ourselves on the road to Babati and Dodoma. It started to rain, so we rushed to Makuyuni on a zig-zag-track mixed with some parts of the old road – roadworks in progress!

Along that road we encountered some young Maasaï boys. They were dressed in black khangas over their shoulders and around their waists, their faces painted with white clay. Huge ostriches feathers were held on the back of their heads with headbands. They seemed to appear from nowhere, walking in small groups, an impressive and beautiful sight. I had never been lucky enough to see these young, newly circumcised boys in Kenya [6].

3-TZTowardsCrater88mum-1A cultivated area on a wide plateau, before the entrance gate

At Makuyuni, we turned right, towards the lake and the crater. The traditional Maasai became scarce, and after the climbing above Manyara Lake we saw almost nobody, but that was the start of the collective cultivation: a vast plateau stretching out as far as the eye could see, all broken up into long and wide rectangular shapes. It might be a good thing for Tanzania, but it is a very disappointing landscape for those who wish to discover the wilderness.

We passed the entrance to Ngorongoro Conservation Area [7] and started the long climb to the rim of the crater, which peaks at something like 2,600 m. As we passed the gate we started drinking the usual mate [8]. From the viewpoint, the inside of the crater was striking and everybody was surprised as it somehow didn’t match what each of us had imagined. We all agreed that it was much better than our expectations, quite GORGEOUS in fact.

Friends had described the crater to me so, I expected it to be small, crowded, with animals standing shoulder to shoulder. I had been told that it was much like a zoo and that I might be disappointed. Thank God, it wasn’t like that at all! It was big but not too big, just the right size to be impressive, but still on a human scale! We spotted buffalos and some patches of other undetermined beasts, but they did not cover the whole crater floor like a wall-to-wall-carpet. We wanted to go down immediately to see it all from close, but, as it was late we chose instead to rush to the campsite because it was getting dark.

4-TZviewInsideCrater88mumFirst view coming up the outer rim of the crater… almost at dusk

 The “Simba” campsite wasn’t that easy to find. We spent one hour driving around the crater looking for it and arrived at 8 PM on the dot; the temperature was already freezing. There was a lot of soft and thick grass for our comfort, and a lot of cold and rough wind for our misery! We then forgot about it all, and after unloading the cars, we started to cook as soon as possible. Of course the gas-cooker wouldn’t stay alight with such a wind, so we settled it on the grass in between a few crates, to keep it away from the thick grass. After the meal, we felt warm again for about 10 minutes, but started to freeze again very soon. So we disappeared into our tents, and inside our sleeping-bags.

5-TZNgorongoroCampTree88 copyThe Simba campsite as we discovered it on the next morning…

 Sunday, 21st of February – Visiting the garden of Gods – Getting down the rim and enjoying!

I froze at the beginning of the night, Scout Spirit froze a tiny bit in the morning, and Khanga froze the whole night! X-Ray sweated the whole night and 4WD was apparently alright! I was told later that Khanga didn’t get the sleeping-bag that was meant for her. Obviously X-ray got it!

Anyway, the sun came up and heated our tents and surrounds, but three of us (no names!) stayed in their beds. That is why we were very late going down into the crater. Well, not only that, we also lost some time by having two punctures on the way out of the campsite. This brought us to the Park’s garage or workshop. We had to go there anyway to meet the warden and ask permission to go down without a guide.

6-TZCrater10Lions88mumThe pride of lions that 4WD and then Khanga spotted…

 At 11 AM or so, we descended from the rim to the bottom of that old volcano and by the time 4WD stopped, he already had spotted ten lions! He didn’t tell us where just to tease us. And it took us nearly a quarter of an hour to find out what it was. Khanga spotted some funny beige things, many of them, and thanks to her we saw the lions that 4WD was talking about.

We also saw very far away a big black-maned lion walking across the plain. We watched him for some time, a very nice sight, in fact majestic. After a while, I realized that he looked quite thin and I wished we could have seen him better because I wasn’t sure that he was alright. We had with us a rough map of the crater, quickly drawn by the warden when we were at the office and we discovered that we could do a circuit. So we left for the North-East.

That itinerary gave us great pleasure as there were a lot of ponds along the track. This meant we saw many water birds and amongst them, a few of the famous Abdim’s storks. We saw three more male lions on the bank of a big pond, beautiful black-maned lions. We spotted a lot of Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelles, and zebras and wildebeest. As we wished to eat our picnic, we spotted a hill that we thought would provide us with a perfect view. On climbing the slope, we encountered the biggest herd of buffaloes we’ve ever seen. They were drinking around a waterhole, surrounded by hundreds of cattle-egrets, ibises and crowned-cranes.

7-TZCrater3BMLions88mum-2Three black-maned lions lying by a small pond

8-TzCraterYellowTerOrchid88-JJYellow orchid found on the hill (4WD’s picture)

9-TZNgorongoroLake88 copy

View of a big pond at the bottom of the crater

As we sat down, we noticed a male ostrich guiding his seven chicks along the foot of the hill. The buffalos had already finished drinking and moved off quickly. As 4WD threw his bone (from a chicken) away, a kite dived to fetch it, but missed! ScoutSpirit and 4WD played with him for a while, throwing the bone in the air again and again. After several misses, the kite managed and left, obviously exhausted, with the bone in his claws as a trophy. After that, we continued our game-drive around the top of the hill where we saw fantastic flowers such as red hibiscus and yellow orchids in the high grass. We reached a point where we had a view over the eastern side of the foothill, and a herd of elephants appeared, great! Not far from there, we came across another lion on a sandy shore and another elephant, standing alone in some low bushes. All that from that one hill. What a lucky and happy time!

From there we zigzagged between the shore of Lake Magadi and small tributaries where some spotted hyenas were lying and rolling in the mud, as disgraceful as usual! One golden jackal passed by and as we went East, and lost sight of 4WD’s Land Rover, we nearly drove over two sleeping rhinos. We waited there for 4WD and X-Ray to join us but they had spotted some maybe– cheetah, so they were waiting for us to come [9]! In the end, we all met up to watch the rhinos for a while.

A little bit further on were two more rhinos, and lots of wildebeest and eland. Scout Spirit thought that he spotted some tiny bat-eared foxes and Khanga pointed out two lion-cubs. We curved downwards to the West to join the track climbing out of the crater. The light was splendid, just GORGEOUS of course! I don’t know what was spotted and then lost, but the point is that we used this very stop to start the mate. Khanga became friends with a small Bustard. She could approach it so closely that she shot a picture with her 35 mm and it came out quite nicely. After that, we were able to get quite close to some hippos, another fantastic view.

In the late afternoon the lake and the mountains were covered by a gentle yellow light. There were plenty of water birds, mostly Egyptian geese and ibises. To the West, the yellow fever trees were also brightly illuminated and as we drove through them we met some elephants again. It was a pretty magical time! But while we were surrounded by magic we realized that some of our suspension leaf-springs were broken! We had to get to a garage so we started to climb up the rim very slowly, staring down at the crater, beautiful in the last sunrays. We went through a thick forest with lianas and then along a rocky track with wonderful flowers and plants on all sides.

10-TZCraterBustard88mum-2The famous bustard, good friend of Khanga!

11-TzCraterAegyptianGeese88Egyptian geese feeding and resting near a pool

12-TZCraterYellowFever88mum-2bThe big yellow fever trees (acacias) in the evening light

13-TZNgorongoroCrater88 copyYellow fever trees near a spring and crater’s rim

14-TZNgorongoroZebras88 copyZebras grazing the abundant grass near the tree

15-TZCraterUp88mum copyA mythical view climbing up the rim of the crater – much faded picture alas

We reached the garage where we had to collect the tyres at night, but now needed to also ask for repair of those leaf-springs! It was of course too late for any repair to be done, but the tyres were mended and after some discussion about prices, we went away with what they called a “good price” which they agreed to because we had picked up some words –essentially numbers– of their excellent Tanzanian Kiswahili.

After that, in the dark, we drove pole-pole [10] to the campsite and started to prepare our meal. It was quite late again. But the ascari [11] had already prepared a really huge fire for the evening and we were better off than the day before with such a wonderful source of heat combined with the calories from our dinner. On top of everything, the wind finally dropped and we felt much warmer and more comfortable than the previous night.

Monday, 22nd of February – Such a tough transition – Getting out of bed roasting and boiling!

On that night, nobody froze, maybe somebody sweated, maybe somebody snored? But we didn’t really want to know about that. Soon after a glorious breakfast, 4WD and ScoutSpirit went to the garage and Khanga, X-Ray and I stayed at the campsite, cleaning and packing up. We also got slightly burnt while talking in the sun in our swimming suits at an altitude of 2,600 m! When 4WD and ScoutSpirit came back with the car repaired, we packed up both cars and left. It was too late to think about a way back through the Serengeti [12]. So we decided to go to Manyara for a game-drive and the night.

16-TzCampsiteNgoro88-2At the campsite after breakfast.. 

We were still on the rim at around 2 PM. We had a particularly unpleasant picnic lunch there because we had chosen the spot quite badly. First of all, there were no trees to offer shelter, and the grass and bushes were high enough to hide the great view. Then, hundreds of biting flies invaded the place, a total nuisance! On top of that, the Land Rover got stuck trying to climb over the ditch towards the picnic spot. It was then pulled out by the Trooper (polite return for the help received in Shaba [13]).

After this not-so-brilliant rest we rushed down the slope towards the park gate. Just after the gate, as the forest ends, we found migratory European storks, impressive clouds of them, hundreds in the sky and hundreds on the ground, for a total estimated at about 3 thousand! We felt a deep emotion gazing at this extraordinary meeting and thought that some of them might even come not far from our home back in Europe!

We reached Manyara at 5 PM, just in time for the traditional mate! Once out of the car, we were very surprised by the heat. We went for information and for the usual entrance and camping fees and then we rushed for a late game drive, hoping secretly for a view of some of those lions hanging from the trees, the speciality of Manyara National Park [15)! But none were to be seen. Instead we saw lots of baboons in the forest and then water birds and hippos near the river. Not much more to see except a jackal, a few zebras and antelopes. This seemed rather dull after the diversity and abundance of wildlife in the crater, but the sight of hippos in the shallow pool was tremendous. As usual we had to hurry out of the Park as it was closing down. Again the mild yellow light of evening was so enjoyable…

17-TZTowardsManyara88mum-2On the dirt road towards Manyara…

18-TZboard88-JJ copyImportant sign board to read at our arrival… (4WD’s picture)

19-TZManyaraSprings88 copyManyara Springs, near the entrance…

20-TZManyaraMabel88 copyPinkShade and X-ray watching the hippos…

21-TZManyaraHyppo&all88mumAt dusk at Hippo Pool, so quiet!

22-TZManyaraLake88 copyManyara Lake with flamingoes in the far…

Baboons were occupying most of the campsite, so we had to choose within what was left! Again the meal arrived somehow late, but everybody was happy and much refreshed by a cold shower. It didn’t take time before we were all feeling very hot again as the temperature was quite high. The heat put us in a sleepy mood and helped us to go to bed early.

23-TZManyaraFrançois88mum copyScoutSpirit preparing the camp fire to cook our meal

Tuesday, 23rd of February – If only it could never end – Getting back near the farewell!

The baboons seemed to quarrel all night and none of us had a good nights sleep! This may help you to understand why these safaris are so tiring. It is not the travelling on bumpy roads in the heat and dust, looking for the right track and avoiding the ditches, pools or rocks, or trying to stay in the middle of the road when it is slippery like black-cotton mud. It is not the buying, preparing, cooking, packing of food, water and other survival supplies or doing the washing up, not even the setting up of the tents and sleeping attire. It is simply and basically the lack of sleep! And you would think, when people say they haven’t slept, that it was because of some exciting events or noises, the sight of lion’s footprints around their tents or the roaring of them in the neighbourhood or the belly rumbling of an elephant nearby. But you never ever think, nobody dares to say it as it is, that it is because of cold weather, hot weather, shouting baboons or persistent mosquitoes. Yes, these are the most common reasons for sleepless nights in the bush! Remember this clearly.

Well, anyhow, in spite of that short night, we woke up as early as possible in order to go and look for those famous lions and enjoy the dawn. We covered the entire length of the Park, up to Maji moto [16], number two. We saw nothing special except an unusual sunrise on the mountain’s slope on our right hand-side. Around us, there were very big baobabs, herds of gazelles, many giraffe and even some hippos out of the water grazing peacefully. It looked like the beginning of the world, a magnificent and quiet world, just before the baboons and the men took their place in the evolution!

At the hot spring (Maji moto), a ground hornbill greeted us from a big rock and flew away noisily. It was 9 AM and we were sweating like hell. I guess that is why the place is called “hot springs” since there was, by that time, no water really springing there!

24-TzManyaraHornbill88-JJA ground hornbill taking off (4WD’s picture)

25-TZManyaraMorningBuffalos88mumBuffalo!

26 TzManyaraSunset88-3A beautiful African scene at sunset

27-TZnearMtMeru88mum-3A clear Mount Meru, appearing on our way back!

Well, as we had to reach Nairobi on the same day, we quickly turned back towards the campsite for a big brunch. Yet it was a nostalgic meal as is every last moment before packing and leaving a nice place. We were interrupted in our nostalgic mood as we noticed that the baboons, probably wanting to show us disapproval for camping there, had jumped on our tents, and had opened one of our boxes and spread everything around with their dirty hands and feet. We really didn’t approve of their idea of using our tents as trampolines, especially our brand new one which looks now and forever “used”, much used! Near 11 AM we were all ready, the Land Rover had even been washed! So we moved off on our return journey.

This was such a clear day that we felt absolutely sorry to leave. We headed for Arusha where we hoped to acquire some meerschaum-pipes and khangas. [17] After some circuits around the town –roadworks still in progress, we arrived at the very place where the shops were. A man was selling raspberries, a treat that is not to be found everywhere! When we had enough of hanging around, losing the others, looking for them, finding them again, we took off for Namanga where we had to stop for the customs and police checks.

Once on the Kenyan side, we went for a drink and stayed until dark because we couldn’t bring ourselves to end this safari. We all knew that it was most probably the last safari of this kind together as 4WD and X-Ray would leave Kenya for Ethiopia very soon. But ScoutSpirit and PinkShade planned to go and visit them there [18]. Anyway, the prospect of not living in the same country anymore was a bit hard to overcome. That is how we ended up in the Maharajah’s restaurant on Muindi Mbingu Street, in Nairobi, hungry and speechless. But despite our continuous efforts to appear cheerful, we were all half-asleep over our excellent dishes. We were sure that that night we would fall asleep very fast, and baboons could have danced on our bellies, or shouted in our ears, none of us would have noticed them.

THE END

PinkShade

[1] 4WD (four-wheel drive): as he can make his way through everywhere and possibly through every situation. 4WD is an ancient nickname of the well-known today’s Bushsnob!

[2] X-ray: as she has a very accurate eyesight and the ability to spot before anybody any living creature for miles around in the bush!

[3] ScoutSpirit: as he is so calm and well organized that you could always count on him to provide what you did not bring or to have some spare place in his boot to host your things even If very heavily loaded!

[4] PinkShade: as she used to wear particular sunglasses that makes you see everything pinkish and also because she tried very hard to see the positive things although sometimes very anxious in that period of her life!

[5] Khanga: as she is very keen on this typical East African cloth, and passionate for the birds of the same name (guinea-fowls)!

[6] More information on Maasaï circumcision under “Upset Maasaï” by BushSnob, in this blog (link : https://bushsnob.com/2016/07/16/upset-maasai/)

[7] NCA: “the jewel in Ngorongoro’s crown is a deep, volcanic crater, the largest unflooded and unbroken caldera in the world. About 20 km across, 600m deep and 300 km2 in area, the Ngorongoro Crater is a breathtaking natural wonder (Wikipedia + NCA’s official website = http://www.ngorongorocrater.org/).

[8] Mate: see “Swiss-Uruguayan Eastern Safari Rally” by Pinkshade, in this blog (link : https://bushsnob.com/2014/09/24/swiss-uruguayan-easter-safari-rally-kenya-16th-to-20th-april-1987/)

[9] There were no cell-phones in those days. We had to guess what to do!

[10] Words in italic are Kiswahili terms that we adopted as we found them more expressive or poetical than ours. Pole-pole means slowly, cautiously.

[11] Ascari is a Kiswahili word for a security guard.

[12] And through “Olduvai Gorge”, an interesting archaeological and paleontological site where the famous Leakey family made important discoveries.

[13] See “Easter Safari Rally” by Pinkshade, in this blog (see above)

[14] Dudus are the equivalent of troublesome insects or pests in Kiswahili!

[15] MNP: “the Park is a “Man and Biosphere Conservation Area” since 1981 and consists of 330 km2 of arid land, forest, and a soda-lake which covers as much as 200 km2 of land during the wet season but is nearly non-existent during the dry season. Its name comes from a plant called Emanyara by the Maasai (Euphorbia tirucalli) used for hedges to protect the cattle” (Wikipedia + MNP’s website = http://www.tanzaniaparks.go.tz/).

[16] Maji moto literally means “hot water” and usually indicates some hot springs.

[17] A khanga is a typical East African cloth (150 cm wide by 110 cm long) made out of light and colourful fabric, with a border all around, a symbol in the middle and bearing a Kiswahili saying. A post on Pinkshade’s mother Khangas’ collection is being prepared on those beautiful pieces of East African culture.

[18] A future safari to Ethiopia, to be read soon in this blog, hopefully!

 

The wild Shoebill stork chase

“… I dreamed of seeing a Shoebill. … a unique bird in Africa … It is a trophy bird for birdwatchers, and seeing it had been a dream since my youth. … With a guide who knew the Shoebill and a driver who knew the mud, we set out in an open-topped vehicle to the limit of where the swamp tolerated cars. There we searched out and watched a Shoebill. And what a show bill!  Vernon R.L. Head (2015). The Search for the Rarest Bird in the World. Signal Books Ltd.

The second part of our Zambian safari was the Bangweulu Wetlands where we would attempt to find the mythical Shoebill storks (Balaeniceps rex). So, after deciding to return to Kasanka to see the bats again [1] we moved north.

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The red dots show Nkondo and Nsobe further north. The brown area is the Bangweulu wetlands management area.

We had a hint of what expected us: our navigators showed a journey of 120km to Nsobe to take 7.5 hours! The going will be slow so again so, on 8 October, we left early again. After only a few kilometres of asphalt we took the turning for the Bangweulu Wetlands at Chitambo. This dirt track, surprisingly for me, traversed well-populated areas. However, judging by the enthusiasm with which the children in particular greeted us and by the rather dangerous evasive maneuvers taken by cyclists at our approach, cars with tourists were not common. In fact we only met two of them returning from the wetlands.

While at Kasanka we had learnt that -as we suspected- we were too late to have a real chance of finding Shoebill storks as the water was low and the birds had moved north where there was still water and food. Nests would now be empty as most fledglings had matured and moved off. So, I thought, “finding our trophy bird would be rather impossible” but kept these negative thoughts to myself while trying to find a Plan B such as visiting a new area, watching other water birds and the herds of Black Lechwe that inhabit the wetlands.

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A more detailed map. I added a black dot where we left the car and a star where the nest was expected to be.

While planning this leg of the journey we learnt that camping on Shoebill Island was not possible so we had booked the Nsobe Campsite, a community-managed camp that we considered adequate for our purposes. The drive (see map above) took us past Lake Waka Waka and Nakapalayo until we eventually got to the Nkondo Headquarters and entrance gate. From there we continued in a northwesterly direction through Mwelushi and Muwele until we got to Nsobe.

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The Nsobe campsite was quite basic. However, soon after arriving, the camp attendants brought us water and firewood and indicated to us that there was a flush toilet and shower nearby. The latter was to be shared among the various campers. This would have been a challenge if there would have been other campers but, luckily, we were alone. The latter also enabled us to pick what we thought was the best site and there we gladly assembled our camp under the shade.

The campsite was located in the area where the tree islands ended and the vast flat and endless expanse of dry wetlands, crisscrossed by dykes and channels started.

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Very soon after setting up camp we rushed off to the Chikuni Visitors Centre, a further five kilometres north where we were to meet Brighton, our own Shoebill guide that Frank had contacted earlier. Being on the ground he would know whether we had chances of finding Shoebills.

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Meeting with Brighton and planning our next move.

Luckily the bush mail system had worked and not only he was there, waiting for us, but there was also a photocopy of our booking indicating that we had paid in advance to avoid any possible problems!

We learnt that our information from Kasanka was true: most Shoebills had indeed moved north and it would be difficult to see them. Our hearts sunk. However, he knew of one nest that still had a young stork. Our hearts leaped. But this was in a hunting area that we could not enter! The sinking feeling again!

Clearly, our situation was not good. However, as usual, Brighton would try to arrange a car to pick us up and take us to the area the following day. This required a walk across the river from Shoebill Island to meet the car. He sent cellphone and written messages to Nkondo Headquarters hoping to get the necessary authorization for both the proposed journey and the car we needed. He hoped that we would have an answer that same afternoon and he will contact us.

In the meantime we decided that an exploratory visit to Shoebill Island was in order. We drove through the airstrip on a very dusty road. At the island we found a large lodge overlooking a swampy area that still had water. The lodge was about to re-open and the prices we were given made us lose interest rather rapidly!

We then focused on the swamp and spotted a good flock of Large white pelicans, Knob bill ducks and Woolly neck storks parked on the opposite shore. Beyond them the Black lechwe were there in numbers and they seemed to be quite used to being watched. We saw a few herds grazing about and my mind started thinking about predators. Later I learnt that hyenas and jackals were the main carnivores in the area and we saw a couple of side striped jackals near our camp and the typical white hyena dung at several locations but they remained hidden.

Back at camp we fruitlessly waited for Brighton’s arrival so, before nightfall, we drove back to Chikuni to learn that the trip was off, as Brighton had not had any news from Nkondo. While Lola and Frank arranged to go for a walk with Brighton early the following morning, we decided to stay at camp and, later, drive around exploring the area.

After all activities were completed, at the end of the day it was time for our final and crucial encounter with Brighton to decide the fate of our Shoebill adventure as we were departing the day after. The news he had was somehow promising. The hunters were lifting their camp the following day and there was a chance -albeit slim- for us. It all depended on obtaining the agreement of the Management Area authorities at Nkondo and to get a vehicle to take us to the area.

Forever hopeful, we agreed to shorten our stay at Nsobe and departed very early the morning of the 10 October to reach Nkondo in time to get permission to go to the hunting area, book the car and obtain permission to camp near Nkondo once our Shoebill trip was completed. It was a very tight programme but still feasible, just!

We arrived at Nkondo at about 08:30hs and Brighton’s plan met with an initial “nyet”. However, the female contingent of the team somehow managed to twist the arm of management (all male) and, after a radio call to confirm that the hunters were leaving and no shooting was taking place, we were given the green light.

The ladies also negotiated for a car to take us there and a place to spend the night! I do not know how they managed this as I stayed away from the “talks”.

So, we now had a guide who knew where the Shoebill was and a driver who knew the mud! However, the details of what was in front of us had not been revealed and were still sketchy.

I was not at all aware about the number of hours drive to get to the place where the car would be “abandoned” and our walking would start. I did not know the distance to be walked and when I asked Peter (our driver) how long we needed to drive to get to the start of the walk he told me “three hours” and later on told Lola that it would be “five hours”.

Although I was uneasy, I decided to trust Brighton’s judgment and come to conclusions later.

We left our cars at Nkondo where we would camp for that night after our return and climbed on a rather new open vehicle. As soon as we could (09:00hs) we were on the road and took the turning to the Makanga Hunting Camp (see map above). The drive took us through some villages,  then across woodlands,  areas of dried up wetlands with interesting termite mound formations and finally to the endless dry plains. We did not see anything much during the five hours it took us to get to the end of the car ride.

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After driving for about four hours we left our track to cut across the plains. Brighton wisely decided to enter this point in his GPS as the Black Lechwe skull that indicated the “junction” could be overlooked on the way back. Luckily Frank knew how to manage the GPS as none of the others -including Brighton- knew!

The final few kilometres were driven across the plains and, every now and then we needed to cross the dikes that the fishing communities had built over generations. It was not possible to cross them as they were too high and were adjacent to water-filled channels. Luckily Peter knew a trick or two and looked for a termite mound, included in the dyke, and we used its smoother surface to climb over and across!

Thus, after crossing at least half a dozen dykes (and ditches), the ground became too soft for the car and at about 14:00hs we stopped (see grey circle in the map above) and got ready to walk the rest of the way.

What follows now is an account of our “walk”. The narrative has benefitted from contributions from the three other team members although the final responsibility for what I say is mine. Lola -the only one in a condition to do so at the time- illustrated the walk and, in addition, she managed to exasperate me as you will see!

Before going on, however, I must warn you that SOME OF THE PICTURES AND OR VIDEOS THAT YOU WILL SEE BELOW MAY NOT BE FOR SENSITIVE READERS…

Before I go fully into the march, the Bangweulu wetlands project is working hard to protect the Shoebills from predation [1]. The idea is that when members of the fishing community find a nest they report it to the Management Area and they are given the responsibility of “looking after their nest” for 120 days in exchange for a stipend. In this case, the nest had been found on 23 September.

We then learnt that we were going to meet Emmanuel, the fisherman responsible for that nest and he would come with us. So, we did our final checks on hats, water, cameras, etc., leaving unnecessary items with Peter in the car.

We started well enough, walking over grassy but dry terrain. This lasted for a few hundred metres and then for the next kilometre we traversed a swamp that soon became wet and then our feet were inside water basically for the rest of the walk. As we were not able to walk barefoot like Brighton and the fishermen, our shoes became the key tools for the job.

Fortunately my wife Mabel and I were wearing walking sneakers rather than heavy boots. However, soon my feet started to slip inside the shoes and this did not help my normally poor equilibrium so I announced that I planned to fall repeatedly while trying to remember to tighten the shoestrings as soon as we stopped.

After a while we entered an area where the water increased and the mud became softer and deeper. We were in fact walking over floating vegetation! As the going deteriorated Brighton, trying to keep us cheerful, pointed at a mound in front of us saying that it was the island where we would meet Emmanuel! All I could see was more swamp…  I pushed on.

Eventually, after about five hundred metres, we reached Emmanuel’s island where he lived with his family. “Terra firme at last” I thought while using the short respite to wash my hands, drink water and adjust my shoes. At that time I heard Brighton announced that from there on we would follow a river. We set off again and two more fishermen joined us soon. One of them offered me a rather heavy stick that I accepted gladly as I usually carry one in my walks.

This one resembled a primitive crozier that I found useless and continued to blunder for a few more steps until one of the fishermen told me to place the forked end down to avoid it sinking! Lola later confessed that I reminded her of Moses dividing the mud! I did not feel like that at all.

Watching the fishermen (always in front of me of course) I had plenty of time to realize that the trick was both not to wear shoes and to walk fast stepping on firm mud clumps before starting to sink. Regrettably, imitating their gait was not on as I weighed twice as much (and was already sinking the moment I stepped on the clumps) and I was wearing shoes so I could only admire their ability!

Not all of us had the same degree of difficulty as we had different ages, weights and physical (and mental?) conditions. Apart from Mabel, even Frank (coming from a dyke country) also had problems. Conversely, Lola could follow the fishermen successfully and then became almost as annoying as the biting flies! She would go in the front of the file with the fishermen and then wait for us to catch us in all sorts of miserable conditions. Not happy with that she would loudly claim to be a Jacana and be able to walk over the mud rather than into it like the rest of us!

I will give you some details of my mud (mad?) walking if what I was doing can be called that. The routine was that I took a few good steps and, when all seemed to be going great, one of my feet would find a soft spot and start sinking. Instinctively I attempted to keep the vertical by moving the other foot, while trying to raise the stuck one. Unfortunately, the second foot would also sink triggering a weird sideways dance that often ended with a soft landing on the mud or water!

If I would not had been tired and suffering from severe tachycardia, I would have laughed at my situation as each misstep was accompanied by gallant attempts by the fishermen to grab me and lift me up, an impossible task for people weighing half my weight! Declining their kind offers I gradually managed to remove my buried limbs and stood up to resume my endless stagger.

After a while, we were too worn-out even to talk and all our energies were focused on removing our legs from deep mud and sinking holes, apparently made by water mongooses. On occasions you would step on a harmless looking puddle and you would go down to your groin in watery mud.

 

As we moved on, resting stoppages became more and more frequent. I took these pauses not only to recover my breath but also to give a few minutes to my muscles (and battered feet) to regain their shapes and tone while waiting for my racing heart to regain the usual rhythm of a retiree!

As we progressed towards our feathered objective my thoughts were not cheerful. They focused on the walk back (as we could not afford to book a helicopter to lift us all to safety!), negotiating the liquid mud and dykes in twilight, the five-hour drive back to Nkondo and the setting up the tent in the dark.

Before I could find more negative thoughts, Brighton’s voice brought me back to the bleak reality “the nest is near that clump of reeds” and that seemed like a good excuse to stop! I looked in the direction that he indicated and I thought I could just make up some taller reeds. I continued walking, now almost on auto pilot: four steps, right leg sinking, pulling right leg up, left leg thinking, falling, fell, start removing right leg, then left leg, stand up, re-start and I was moving again through the deep limb-sucking quagmire!

We were not yet there though as -unknown to us- the fishing channels lurked ahead. These were not very wide and, under normal circumstances, they would have demanded a small jump to clear them. However, when you are not able to start your jump from a firm surface but from a floating island, the exercise becomes a new challenge. At that time it became clear why we had three fishermen with us. They needed to fill the channels with chunks of mud so that we could negotiate them. I did not manage too well…

Eventually we reached our almost impossible target. Suddenly we saw two large storks take off and a few minutes later we arrived at an area of floating vegetation where there was a clearing, lots of dry straw and, in the middle of it there was a motionless grey object: a fledgling Shoebill stork laid on its nest! It was still small, except for its rather oversized bill and its only movement was the blinking of its yellow eye. It was quite sweet in an ugly sort of way!

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As we did not wish to disturb the motionless bird and time was going fast, we started our return after a few minutes contemplation and picture taking (to prove that we had seen it!).

The time was 16:00 hours when we turned around and the same muddy way waited for us…

I will not waste your valuable time describing the return walk. I will just say that -as expected- it was worse: we were more tired, visibility deteriorated gradually and the pulling out of stuck limbs was now accompanied by cramps that locked feet in positions that made their removal from the mud difficult. The stick helped as a support when jumping channels and also to bite it when the cramps set in!

About half an hour too early Brighton started to “see” the car near some palm trees ahead of us. As much as I strained my eyes, I saw nothing! All in all we returned in two hours and, by 18:00hs, we were back on the car after saying farewell to the three fishermen that helped us so much. Our smartphones indicated that we had covered 11.4km of which I reckon ten percent we “walked” and the rest we jumbled through various kinds of mud and holes full of water!

The GPS point taken earlier proved to be invaluable (I am sure Brighton knew this but kept quiet to avoid demoralizing us before the walk!) as it enabled us to find our almost invisible track in the dark. Luckily, having experience on driving in open vehicles we had taken the warmest clothing available and, despite our wet shoes and trousers, we did not feel cold during the seemingly endless return journey.

The rest is not important. We got back at 23:30hs, assembled our tents in the HQs grounds, took a quick shower to remove a small fraction of the sticky mud, grabbed whatever food we could find and I promise you that I was sleep even before my head landed on my pillow!

Unfortunately I woke up sweaty and panicky a few hours later. I have had a nightmare! I was walking in the Bangweulu wetlands with a Jacana in pursuit of a young Shoebill stork! “What a ridiculous dream” I thought and, very relieved; I went back to sleep knowing that often dreams are crazy!

 

[1] We learnt that thwarted attempts at stealing chicks had taken place in the past!

 

 

 

 

Purple rain

Prince explained the meaning of “Purple Rain” as follows: “When there’s blood in the sky – red and blue = purple… purple rain pertains to the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith/god guide you through the purple rain.” [1]

I frankly have no idea if the late Prince ever saw the Harare jacarandas in October but I am sure that they could have inspired him to some lyric description that I am not able to do.

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However, I do not get tired to travel through purple lined avenues and to watch the jacaranda tree in our garden. It is not only the colour and the flower rain that takes place but its perfume and the bees that visit the falling flowers in search of their nectar wealth. So much so that you should not wear flipflops when you wade the stagnant purple rain.

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Looking forward to next year’s purple October…

 

[1] NME.COM. “20 Things You Didn’t Know About Purple Rain”NME.COM. Retrieved 3 May 2016.

 

 

Picnic in the Rift Valley

For months Paul mentioned the idea of going for a picnic to the Rift Valley. He claimed that along the Narok road there were a number of large acacias that would offer the necessary shade while we could not only enjoy watching game but also looking across this vast depression presided by the Longonot and Suswa volcanoes.

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The Great Rift Valley seen from the Kinangop area.

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Mout Longonot.

Eventually we were convinced and one Sunday morning we gathered at Paul’s house to travel to the chosen picnic area. Apart from Paul and us other participants were Timothy and his fiancée Jill and a few other friends that filled Paul’s long-wheel base Land Rover. We were not only humans in it as Timothy (the egg cleaner of my earlier post! [1]) decided to take along his red setter called Bitch despite our advice to the contrary!

So, we took the rather dangerous old Naivasha Rd. down the Kikuyu escarpment and eventually branched off towards Narok. Once at the bottom of the Great Rift Valley we started looking for the appropriate spot.

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An accident along the Kikuyu escarpment near the bottom of the Great Rift Valley. A frequent occurrence then.

After a few km we spotted the “selected” trees and headed for them across the dry savannah where a few Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles stopped browsing to briefly watch us and try -unsuccessfully- to determine our intentions (we were not entirely clear either!) but soon decided to ignore us. As we got closer to the special trees we noted -with some concern- that they had already been booked: flocks of sheep and goats were stationed under all trees we saw!

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The occupied trees…

Aware that coexistence with small ruminants over a picnic would be rather difficult we set off to find the owners of the animals to negotiate with them for one tree. We soon found them nearby as they left one of the trees to meet us. A small committee left the car to meet with them and then, the unexpected struck!

The moment we open the car doors, Bitch took off at full speed! And behind her Timothy also departed trying to stop her shouting “Bitch, stop! Bitch, stop!” to no avail. Bitch had spotted game animals and she would not miss the opportunity to get one!

As we stopped hearing Timothy’s shouting first and then watched his silhouette disappear in the horizon, we decided to focus on our negotiations with a pair of Maasai boys that felt rather intimidated by us!

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After a while the herdboys could not resist their curiosity and the flocks also came in!

Despite our language barrier they soon understood our request and agreed to release one of the trees for us to have our picnic.

Bitch and Timothy quickly forgotten we started to get ourselves comfortable and assembled our temporary “al fresco” banqueting area. As the tree had been used for generations of Maasai livestock it did not only reeked livestock but also its soil was composed by tons of compacted dung! So much for the idea of the shady tree!

Luckily we noted that the shade was starting to cover some of the adjacent grassy area so we placed our table and chairs where we calculated the shade would be as time went by and we were prepared to follow it.

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The picnic area being moved following the shade.

After an exploratory walk in the surrounding area we finally settled down to drinks and some food. The chat was animated and we did wonder about Bitch and Timothy’s whereabouts (for a few seconds!). Luckily, about an hour after lunch we saw a speck on the horizon and a debate started of whether it was Timothy or some other Maasai people. After a while, through the binoculars, we identified Timothy. He eventually arrived, walking slowly and carrying the dog on his arms (not because of love for the dog or because it was injured but because he did not have a leash and he was fed-up with the dog running away every time she spotted a moving animal!)

While we waited for Timothy to recover and while he locked Bitch inside the car, we decided to engage ourselves into some target shooting (some of us still believed then to be “white hunters”!!!). Paul kindly sacrificed an old white enamel plate that we placed on the tree as our target. Then we lined up all chairs so that we would shoot from a similar distance.

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The Bushsnob failing to ht the target watched by female participants already chuckling.

As good gentlemen (?) we started shooting from a short distance to give the ladies an opportunity to hit the plate before we moved farther away and things became more difficult. So, the shooting started. Surprisingly, all the men missed the target and most women except my wife that had rarely handled a gun in her life (but has good eyesight!).

After declaring her winner of the first round -with badly hidden embarrassment- the men took the decision of moving further back in the belief that they would recover from the earlier setback. We all missed again but, when the turn of my wife came, we all heard the “ping” of the lead shot hitting the plate! Beginning to feel uncomfortable with the state of affairs we moved back quite a long distance for the final round.

Do I need to tell you that the only “ping” we heard again came from my wife’s shot? After that the men suddenly lost interest on the shooting and developed a sudden curiosity for birds. The ladies had a good laugh and celebrated among themselves.

So a great picnic day ended leaving us with the memories of Timothy chasing his dog and my wife hitting the bull’s eye every time! The latter event is still remembered today by the participants, almost forty years later!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lake Magadi

The rotten egg smell of the ostrich egg post [1] brought back memories of lake Magadi and its malodourous beauty.

After a few months in Kenya we got to know a few people interested in nature and we connected with them immediately. Most were working around Nairobi (Kenya Agriculture Research Institute, Muguga and the International Laboratory for Research in Animal Diseases, Kabete). We were all agriculture or livestock specialists that shared an interest in nature.

A sunny Sunday we were invited to a day trip to lake Magadi. We knew nothing about the place so, after some enquiries, we learnt that it would be a picnic at the lake and that bird watching would be high in the agenda. We had not done any bird watching as such in our lives so we lacked binoculars, bird books, etc. but we accepted so we could start learning new ways.

At the time we did not know it but, after this first expedition, we visited the lake frequently. It was an ideal one-day outing from Nairobi in view of the relative short distance from Nairobi(106km), the picturesque nature of the journey and the wildlife that could be seen both en route and at the lake itself.

Lake Magadi, nested at 580m of altitude is close to Lake Natron in Tanzania and it is located in a volcanic rock fracture in the Rift Valley, itself a gigantic fault that runs for about 6,000km from Lebanon in the North to Mozambique in the South.

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The Great Rift Valley. By USGS (http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/dynamic/East_Africa.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

We left Nairobi early following the lake road that skirted the Ngong hills, a true landmark where Karen Blixen’s farm was located (now her homestead is a museum). The moment you had the Ngong hills on your right, the immensity of the Rift Valley opened up in front of you. A rugged succession of hazy mountains gradually took your eyes to the bottom of the valley and, on a clear day, the amazing view of Kilimanjaro with its snow in the equator will frame the postcard vista.

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The spectacular view of the Rift Valley from the Ngong hills.

From there you started a descent that traversed Maasai country while getting increasingly dry and hot. Manyattas peppered the area and encounters with Maasai going or coming from watering points with their cattle were a common occurrence. I recall our friend Paul -later on- saying that the road would made an ideal cycling trip because of its downhill trajectory towards the lake.

A few km before arriving to the lake, Tony, one of our friends, stopped the car for a bit of exploring. Apparently, during an early visit, they had “discovered” some fossilized elephant remains that he wished to show us. Some of us followed him looking for the bones while others spotted some interesting bird and immediately forgot everything else and focused on the feathered creatures. This was my introduction to the rather focused birdwatchers ethnic group!

We did found the elephant bones. I thought they were rather disappointing but kept the opinion to myself! The stop was good to drink lots of water as the temperature was now well above 30oC and we were still quite a distance from the bottom of the valley and it was not yet lunchtime. Although some of our co-travellers had iced cold water (freezing the jerry cans prior to the journey) we drank ours at ambient temperature (no coolbox yet in that trip!). This became our normal water temperature while on safari, as it would give us independence from fridges and ice.

We continued our trip and, suddenly and surprisingly, we viewed a large flat pink expanse below us. We were looking at the lake and, as it was the dry season, it was almost totally covered in white and pink soda.

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Subsequent visits during wetter times showed a much “lake-like” lake, despite the scarcity of its yearly rains, an average of 470 mm per year [2]. During this time, a thin (less than 1m) layer of brine covers much of the saline pan, but this evaporates rapidly leaving a vast expanse of white and pink salt that cracks to produce large polygons.

We came to the entrance gate already hot and smelling the strong sulfur gases that emanated from the lake and that would be a constant whenever we visited it. The gate was in fact the entrance to the Magadi Soda Company where we registered our arrival. Further on we also re-registered our intended route at the Magadi Police station, a mandatory requirement in case you got lost (we have to pass by again on the way out for our names to be stricken off the register so that a search party was not sent for us).

The lake is saline and alcaline and covers around 100 km2 being in reality a pan. The water precipitates vast quantities of trona (soda ash, also known as sodium carbonate) to a depth of up to 40m. From these large deposits the soda ash is extracted and used mainly in glass-making, chemicals, paper, detergents, and textiles. The Magadi Soda Company (now part of the Tata company) was created in 1911 to exploit this wealth.

Luckily for the company, the trona deposits are recharged mainly by saline hot springs that reach temperatures of up to 86 °C and their exploitation -at least during the early days- did not have a significant impact on these deposits. During our times in Kenya the soda ash was being carried by railway to Kilindini harbour in the Indian Ocean from where it would get exported.

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Only once we found a train leaving the Malawi Soda facility.

The plan of our first trip was to do the “trip around the lake” that started crossing the first causeway with open water and then follow the road until we entered some bush cross-country driving to rejoin the road and return to Magadi town again.

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A basic map of Lake Magadi showing in blue the trip around the lake.

It was during this part of the journey that we came up to our firs giraffe carcass, blocking the way. Its cause of death unknown but already as dried as biltong!

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The dry giraffe.

Lake Magadi hosts a great variety of water birds, including flamingoes, yellow-billed storks, different egrets and herons as well as smaller ones, including the interesting avocets. See [3] for some of the birds that can be found there. I do not recall whether we saw the Chesnut-banded Sandplover or Magadi Plover (Charadrius pallidus venustus), restricted to almost only lakes Natron and Magadi but our friends probably did. If not very spectacular, it was a rather unique little bird that we spotted in subsequent visits.

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A pair of Yellow-billed storks fishing in lake Magadi.

Apart from birds the lake and surrounding area is also home to Wildebeests, Somali Ostriches, Beisa Oryx, Zebra, Grant’s gazelles, Gerenuks and of course Giraffes among other species of herbivores and browsers. But these are not the only interesting animals that inhabit the rather inhospitable lake Magadi!

In its hot springs some special fish find their living despite the high temperature and salinity of the water! Alcolapia grahami a species of the Cichlidae family has adapted to live in this rather harsh environment. It is not the only case as another three species inhabit Lake Natron a few km to the south in Tanzania: Alcolapia alcalica; A. latilabris; and A. ndalalani. Of interest is that there is no overlapping among the species present in each lake.

The now vulnerable A. grahami, most commonly seen in the southern shoreline hot spring pools where the water temperature is less than 45°C, have developed the ability of excreting urea instead of the usual ammonia of the teleost fish as they are not able to diffuse ammonium into such an alkaline media. As they feed on cyanobacteria of high N2 content, this is -apparently- important. They also have the greatest metabolic performance ever recorded in a fish, in the basal range of a small mammal of comparable size [4]. They are also an important indicator organism for global warming.

Coming back to our trip, after our stop for Police registration, we moved on and passed by the company’s brown golf course. It was interesting to see golfers moving about on a brown and grassless course where the holes were places with “browns” and a few dust devils thrown in as well! Since its establishment in 1931 this unique 9-hole course where you drive over donkeys and cows. It does not charge fees and it is open year round!

Maasai Magadi causeway.tif

Maasai boys driving their sheep and goats through one of the lake’s causeways.

It soon became clear that day that lake Magadi is one of the hottest and least hospitable places on earth. The water is undrinkable for humans and animals quench their thirst at selected areas where salt contents are low. We soon run out of water but, luckily, we found a water trough for cattle use on our way back from where we replenish our water and had a badly needed and refreshing wash!

Magadi tony and bock LRs

Stopping for the water trough.

While on the issue of water, years later, while having a picnic under one of the few acacia trees present around the lake, a Maasai elder approached us quietly and asked for some water. Without hesitation, one of our friends gave him a glass that the old man guzzled. Surprising all of us the man spat the water and started to jump while trying to hold his teeth, and shouting what we could understand as “baridi, baridi, baridi sana [5]!”

Without thinking, our friend had given him a glass of water from the frozen water can and the poor man, clearly used to drink water 40 degrees warmer, could not take it! After a few seconds he burst out laughing at the event while water at ambient temperature was supplied to him. This time he enjoyed it and he stayed with us for the rest of the picnic, sharing our food.

After our welcomed encounter with the cattle trough it was time to return to Nairobi. The heat had been intense and we felt really “desiccated” so it was with great relief that we took the road back that now climbed to the coolness of Nairobi where we arrived after night fall.

It was the introduction to one of our favourite weekend outings during the several years we spent in Kenya.

magadi

Magadi landscape 1

Magadi landscape 3

 

[1] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2018/08/17/ostrich-eggs/)

[2] https://en.climate-data.org/location/103801/

[3] Resident birds: Lesser Flamingo, Greater Flamingo, Chestnut-banded Plover, Speckled Pigeon, Eastern Violet-backed Sunbird, Somali Golden-breasted Bunting, Cut-throat Finch, African Mourning Dove, Red-billed Firefinch, Red-billed Quelea, Yellow-spotted Petronia, Chestnut Sparrow, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Slate-coloured Boubou and Blue-naped Mousebird. Fischer’s Sparrowlark, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and Greycapped Sociable-weaver. Visitors; Black-winged Stilt, Little Stint, Little Egret, Grey-headed Gulls, Yellow-billed Stork, Cape Teal, African Spoonbill, Kittlitz’s and Spur-winged Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Common Greenshank and Pied Avocet.

[4] Wood, C. M. et al. Mammalian metabolic rates in the hottest fish on earth. Sci. Rep. 6, 26990; doi: 10.1038/srep26990 (2016).

[5] “Cold, cold, very cold” (In KiSwahili).