Memoirs

Episodes of my life in Africa.

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)

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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.

IMG_5312 copy

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.

Rift valley from Kinangop

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.

lorry on naiv road...

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.

rift valley picnic 1

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!

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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!

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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.

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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).

 

 

Ostrich eggs

The Athi plains, adjacent to the Nairobi National Park (NNP), was another area we visited on weekends. The place was sprinkled with Maasai manyattas and the sound of cowbells accompanied the movement of their herds while grazing. It was open grassland where giraffes, wildebeests and Thomson’s gazelles would be usually found. Occasionally we would spot small flocks of ostriches intermingling with the herbivores.

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A Maasai manyatta.

Being rather obvious, ostriches could not hide very long from taxonomists and as early as 1758 Linnaeus had already labelled them as Struthio camelus. More than one hundred years later, more detailed observations followed and it was realized that Kenya hosted two different ostriches: the Maasai ostrich (S. c. massaicus) with a pink neck and its cousin, the Somali ostrich with a grey-blue neck. As the latter dwells in North-eastern Kenya, in the Athi plains we saw the Maasai sub-species.

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A male Maasai ostrich (S. c. massaicus).

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Somali ostrich (S. molybdophanes) photographed in the Samburu Reserve.

By luck one day while driving cross-country with our friend Paul enjoying the views and looking for a picnic spot our route was interrupted by a deep ravine. We needed to follow it for a while to find a crossing point when, lo and behold, at the bottom of it we spotted a female ostrich sitting on a nest and surrounded by eggs.

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The female sitting on her eggs. The “rejected” eggs are seen surrounding her.

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Judging by the couple dozen eggs or so that were not covered, we assumed that she had plenty more under her. As those outside would inevitably rot after the incubation was completed a maximum of forty days later, we decided that, once the adults and chicks moved off, we would collect some of the left over eggs that would be dead by then for emptying as we judged that there were enough to be shared with the Egyptian vultures and other possible predators.

Before I go on with the story, it has been reported [1] that, in general, wild ostriches lay their eggs in communal nests. Up to seven hens lay up to thirteen eggs each in the same shallow nest in the ground. Apparently, the “major” hen guards and later incubates the nest, helped by the male. As the female can only cover about twenty eggs the surplus eggs are moved out about 1one to two metres from the nest where they perish. But this is not all, the senior hen apparently recognizes her own eggs and keeps them!

Not having GPS technology at our disposal, we fixed the place as per the trees available and decided to have a look a couple of weeks later.

Somehow we forgot about the incubating hen but Paul did not and he visited the nest after a week and confirmed that the female and the eggs were still there. The following weekend, my wife and I decided to attempt finding the nest again. Surprisingly (we are not very good at bush driving!) we found what we thought was the right ravine but there was no trace of the female.

As usual, doubting that this was the right place we drove further along the donga until eventually we found the nest. Lots of broken shells were proof of a good hatching that we estimated in more than fifteen young! At the periphery of the nest, only a few eggs remained still intact and, as planned, we collected them (six in total) and took them home, hoping that they would not break “en route”!

A couple of days later Paul came to visit and told us that he had bad news: although he had found the nest, all the eggs had gone! So, he believed that someone had been there before us. After a good laugh, we showed him the eggs. Pleased, he recovered his normal good humour and mentioned that he will organize a garden “Ostrich egg blowing event”. He will invite a few common friends.

Somehow, prior to the event Paul managed to get a portable dentist drill that- he believed- would had been perfect for the job. So, when the day came, we went to his house carrying the eggs.

Paul and I (the veterinarians) were excited about the egg emptying exercise. Other friends (including all the ladies) were indifferent and focused on getting comfortable in the veranda to enjoy their sundowners and socialize! Only Timothy, our artist friend, decided to join us and immediately took possession of “his egg”. As Paul and I were used to strong odours, we did not think much of the exercise. I am not sure why Timothy was so keen on it and it remains a question up to today!

I am sure that you are all familiar with hydrogen sulphide (H2S) the gas responsible for the smell of the very few rotten eggs you find these days of “modern” farming and expiry dates. I had cleaned many bird eggs in my youth (including rhea ones) so I was fully aware of the risks! The technique I used consisted in drilling holes at both ends and -when the eggs are still liquid- blow through one hole to force the egg contents to come out through the other one. Not so easy with a large ostrich egg!

We set up the drill and lined our eggs very professionally on a table, at the other end of the veranda, as far away from the other guests as possible and Paul, claiming to be an expert on the dentist drill, started boring the first one with Timothy in attendance, holding his egg. The drill worked faster than anticipated and the egg eruption caught us (and the other guests albeit far) totally off guard!

The three of us failed to move away from the effects of the explosion as fast as the other guests that, luckily unharmed but proffering very bad words, swiftly trooped into the house and locked all openings to the veranda! We, the unsung heroes stayed put, covered by stinking egg gunk to complete the operation that involved repeating the process on four more eggs and then blow through them to empty them! Timothy had gone paler than his usual self and instants later started to retch while still holding to his egg with both hands.

“I think we will be better off on the grass” I said. Paul agreed and found an extension cable to plug the drill. We decided to use a garden hose to flush rather than blow the eggs contents so we went in search of the garden hose. As we walked in the garden we heard a noise and soon enough we met the retching Timothy seated on the grass while chipping at his egg with an awl. “Timothy”, Paul said, “do you want to prove something?” Amazingly, Timothy did not or could not reply but continued struggling.

We were about to finish washing our eggs clean when we heard a thud and heard loud swearing followed by more retching. Timothy had unplugged his egg! We helped him cleaning it. We had completed our job!

While carrying the eggs back to the house we got under proper illumination and we could only laugh at our condition while having a summary wash. The smell was so strong that we clearly did not understand it in its full intensity until we tried to enter the house. We found it locked and its occupants would only talk to us through locked doors or windows accompanied by rather rude sign language. Lengthy negotiations ensued. We protested that it was too cold to wash outside but our pleading was totally ignored so we had to agree and suffer the cold water. Finally under pressure we agreed to their demands that we would have a thorough wash with the hose outside and only then we would be allowed to enter the house straight to the bathroom while the guests moved to the kitchen for the duration of our showers!

We heard the door unlocking and someone said “You can come in now but straight to the shower, please” . We obeyed and, half naked, we went in under the scrutiny (and laughter) of the others. There was a small incident when Timothy was asked to leave his egg outside and he refused at first but, eventually he relented. We were then given towels and some of Paul’s clean clothes to wear for the evening.

Although we showered intensely and made use of Paul’s favourite perfumes, the smell was tough to remove so, although we were given the all clear  to dine, the three of us were eventually seated on a table away from the clean guests in a kind of “smell quarantine”.

The operation resulted in three eggs for us (for having collected them), two for Paul and one for Timothy (for his brave behaviour and also because we could not have taken the egg away from him!). The eggs still exist and are sitting on some special stands we eventually got made in Zambia for them. They look nice and do not smell at all now.

[1] Bertram, B.C. R. (1979). Ostriches recognise their own eggs and discard others. Nature 279, 233–234.

Spot the beast 48

Trying to find pictures to illustrate the coming posts on our Kenya days I found this rather old and rare gem for you to look at. It is easy.

m mara leop 3

I posted the image more for its rarity than for its difficulty. This young leopard was spotted near the Mara Buffalo Camp in the mid eighties. I still remember that the camp manager told me where to find the mother and the two cubs. This is one of the cubs in the cave they used to inhabit. Luckily they stayed there for a while and we managed to see them several times.

The first picture above was taken from a distance. It shows a relaxed leopard that, the moment we got closer, became more alert.

m mara leop 2

m mara leop 1

The pictures are poor but I believe worth it.

Nairobi National Park (1981-8)

In the eighties, when we [1] lived in Kenya, many people regarded the Nairobi National Park (NNP) as a large zoo next to Nairobi. I must admit that for a while I belonged to this group. I did not think that to see the Jomo Kenyatta Conference Centre (the tallest building then) from the park was a nice sight.

After a couple of years, again Paul, luckily convinced me of its value and I realized what a great privilege it was to have such a large area of wilderness a few minutes drive from our houses! So, following his advice, we bought a one-year pass to the park. The pass was stuck on our Land Rover windscreen and it enabled the car (and its occupants) to visit the NPP as many times as we wished!

It soon became one of our favourite places to visit! We also brought lots of people [2] there. Often we would collect our guests from the airport and drive through the park (in through the East Gate and out through the Main Gate). During the drive across the East African plains guests had a chance of encountering a number of interesting animals only hours after arrival.

Except for elephants, the park would offer all other animals that you wished to see in Africa. As far as I recall, although we saw a Serval cat we never spotted a single leopard there over the many years we stayed in Kenya. However, there was much compensation, as you will see.

As mentioned earlier in this blog [3] it was the first “field visit” I did with my late former boss Matt. In addition to visiting it with Paul, we also went there very often with Luis, another good safari companion from Argentina with a passion for bird photography. With him we also shared a few rather late (some very late!) departures from the park after having overstayed watching some interesting event! I must add that the rangers were very kind to us and finally accepted our obvious excuses such as an engine malfunction or a puncture! We never slept inside the park!

NBO Nat Park with Matt vultures

My first kill as seen it in the NNP when I first went there with my former boss, the late Matt.

Normally, the best predator-prey interactions start taking place when you are told to leave the place so, overstaying was the only way that we were capable of watching lion hunting while the light faded and eventually night fell. Although it often got too late to watch the complete act, we were lucky to see some interesting things. Excuses related to engine malfunction and punctures worked for a few times. However, as the rangers started to know us, they tolerated our tardiness!

Luckily, there were also interesting happenings during daytime. It was at NNP that we had our first encounters with black rhinos that were not hard to find once we learnt where their favourite browsing spots were.

Rhino Amboseli dusty copy

The now rare black rhino as seen in Amboseli National Park.

Late mornings were also interesting as the resident cheetahs would be looking for their favourite prey, the Thomson’s Gazelles. With patience, we were privileged to observe them hunting at speed in front of our eyes!

There is nothing like visiting a place frequently to get a good idea of where the potential for action was.

Hippo Pools was not only attractive due to the resident hippo and the sightings of the rare African Finfoot (Podica senegalensis) but also because you could leave your vehicle and walk along the river, although this exposed you to some close encounters with naughty Vervet Monkeys and Baboons. Although now it seems funny, I still vividly recall my first visit when stupidly (to be mild with myself) I was carrying some bananas as snacks and, after no more than two steps a rather large baboon surprised me and easily took all the bananas before I could even feel scared of the surprise assault by my primate cousin.

Tsavo W baboon best copy

Often we enjoyed a few picnics at the main viewpoint followed by short siestas overlooking the Leopard cliffs or the Athi River towards the South of the park. As it was hot, often the windows or sliding door of the kombi would be open. This was the usual procedure until I stopped. It happened one day that my wife was not reading in the front of the car as usual but she was watching the leopard cliffs some distance away from the car.

That day I did not wake up normally but something interfered with my slumber. On guard, I stayed quiet but I could hear noises inside the car and smell something strong! Immediately I realized that a few baboons surrounded me! The moment I moved and shouted at them, mayhem followed! They all tried to get out through the open window at the same time with the consequence that I witnessed a short baboon exit jam! Eventually, after a lot of jumping, screaming and scratching they escaped but not before leaving behind the consequences of their fright… and some of my money went into a good car wash!

In two instances we saw lions hunting warthogs. The first one was as soon as we entered the park through the East Gate. A lioness was clearly hunting on the road and as she started scurrying we saw a warthog running for its life a few metres ahead. We stopped to watch as the lioness was closing in on the fast running hog. The moment the lioness was about to grab it she tripped and fell heavily on her back while a very scared warthog disappeared in the tall grass! As events unfolded too fast for me, I only managed a bad picture of the lioness after she sat on her haunches to see the warthog run away!

nnp lioness missed wharthog cropped.jpg

A bad picture of the lioness looking at the warthog after her fall.

The second time the warthog was not lucky and, from the main viewpoint, we watched a lioness stalk its prey near the small dam. She caught it and killed it fast and then she left it so we managed to get quite close and -through the binoculars and camera zooms- see the teeth holes she made on the animal’s neck. Before the hyenas could find the warthog she returned with her two young cubs.

Another, more personal, encounter with a lioness took place under very different circumstances. At the time we lived in Tigoni, about 35km away from Nairobi and, as my wife worked in the city, everyday after work I came from Muguga to collect her to go back to Tigoni. The day in question there was an important donor reception at Duduville, the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology HQ located in Kasarani. It was clearly too far to go back home to change our clothes, get back for the function and home again at night so I hatched a clever plan: after picking up my wife we would drive to the NNP to kill time and change into our formal clothes there.

As planned, we entered the park in late afternoon and we stopped in a discreet area to proceed with our clothes change. While my wife was dressing up in the car, I got out to change my trousers! In the process I moved a short distance from the car with such bad luck that I walked straight towards a lioness that was resting -possibly sleeping-  under the cover of a bush!

We shared the shock of the encounter. Seeing me attempting to fit in my trousers, the lioness took off and it was out of sight in a flash while I, holding my trousers as well as I could, managed to get into the kombi. “What are you doing?” said my wife that, focussing on her make up by means of the rear view mirror, had missed my critical encounter. “Lion” was all I could gasp while trying to recover from the scare. This was the first and last attempt at changing clothes in the NNP.

Among the herbivores, the giraffes were unique as they browsed on the various acacia species present and a number of hourglass trees confirmed their presence.

However, it was the buffalo that were very interesting. I believe that there was one herd of buffalo and the first time we found it we noted that they not only were very tolerant of vehicles but also very curious. Their curiosity reminded me of our steers back in Uruguay. We soon learnt that if we stopped the car and waited they would come very close to inspect our car. Although they never touched it they did smell it and spend quite some time very close to us.

buff nnp 5

This was repeated every time we saw them and it enabled me to observe them at close quarters. During the dry season they carried very heavy tick infestations of the Zebra ticks (Rhipicephalus pulchellus) and the poor creatures used the whistling thorn bushes in an effort to dislodge them.

Buffalo with ticks copy

A close-up to show you the ticks on the margin of the years and eyes of this female buffalo. No wonder they were rubbing against thorn bushes!

So, naturally, whenever we saw the buffalo we did our “buffalo trick” and waited for them to surround us without thinking much. So little we thought about it that when two lady friends from Uruguay came to visit for their first time in Africa, we took them to the NNP after the airport and that time -luckily- we found the buffalo. As a couple of hundred of these rather large and fierce-looking animals started to approach us, nervousness increased and comments started to flow. “What are they doing?”; “Julio, they keep coming”; “This is not dangerous?” and others until they openly showed their alarm and started charging me with “attempted murder”! To their relief, after a short while, I started the engine and the herd moved calmly away while we left them, taking with us two very agitated friends! Many years later they still remembered the experience as one of the most exciting they have ever had in their lives!

Several birds nested in the park and migratory storks and kestrels would visit on their way to their final destinations. Apart from Crowned cranes and Ostriches at least a pair of Secretary Birds, my favourite bird of prey, nested at the NNP. These birds -nowadays quite rare- had built a basic twig platform on a rather low bush. Their location enabled us to see their fledglings being fed and to follow their progress until they were eventually able to join their parents criss-crossing the savannah areas of the park in search for snakes and other prey.

Two rather unlikely finds have remained in my mind up to today. The first one was the sighting of a large carcass on a small hill. Nothing unusual about finding animal remains in a National Park you may rightly think. I would agree with you fully except that the dead animal did not match any of the park wild inhabitants! The remaining hide was uniformly brown with some long hairs. Luckily, despite its decay, the examination of the remaining bones revealed that it was a horse!

At first I tried to convince myself that it was impossible but the find could only be an adult horse! Only later I realized that I had veterinary colleagues that kept riding or polo horses in residential areas bordering the park and, the same way that lions often got out of the park and caused problems for the residents there, I am convinced that a horse somehow entered the park and it was killed.

The second encounter was mentioned in my earlier blog [4]. We came to an area the size of a tennis court looked as if it had been ploughed. Curious we continued driving and scared a couple of lionesses. As things were getting interesting we continued and almost bumped into two massive dead male buffalo. The first thought was that they were killed by lightening but it was the wrong season for this! Again, looking more carefully they were facing each other and, although already decomposed, the position of their horns indicated that they were locked!

locked buffs cropped

We then not only understood the earth scars but started to speculate on the cause of death. The most likely scenario was that they got exhausted from fighting and succumbed to stress combined to lack of water and then the lions found them and took advantage of the situation to fill their bellies! We will never be sure of what happened but it had all the signs of a mighty struggle.

So, these are the few anecdotes I recall from our amazing time we spent at this great place.

 

[1] Every time I reminisce (when we …) about our African past I remember that once I heard that people like us belonged to the “whenwe” tribe. Looking for this now, I learnt that the name was given to the more nostalgic members of the 1980’s arrivals from the then Rhodesia to South Africa. See: https://newint.org/features/1986/01/05/briefly

[2] Apart from friends I did this trick with donors visiting our projects.  I still believe that this “introduction” to the country improved our funding!

[3] Kenya: The Beginnings (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/08/bush-flying/).

[4] Locking of horns (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/locking-of-horns/).

 

 

 

 

 

Collision

The fall of the VW kombi [1] was not the only car mishap I was involved in during my Kenya driving life. There was another more serious one that was not amusing.

It happened one morning that I was driving my brand new Peugeot 504 going to work. I needed to turn right from Fifth Ngong avenue into Jomo Kenyatta avenue, a normally risky move as it meant crossing the traffic to get to the left traffic lane heading towards the city centre.

As usual I waited for a gap and went for it. The moment I entered the large avenue I saw (too late) a small motorbike coming rather fast towards me. I had no time to change anything and in horror I watched the bike and its occupant hit me on my side of the car! Very luckily for him (in retrospect), the rider flew over the bonnet landing heavily on the tarmac on the other side.

Shocked, I helped the rider to get into a passing car to be taken to the hospital while we agreed that I would look after the vehicles and wait for the Police and his brother to collect the bike. While waiting, my landlord drove past and gave me encouragement while recommending me his lawyer as, according to him, he had gone through issues like this a few times! When I told him that I was charged with dangerous driving, in my view a terrible thing, he dismissed it explaining to me that that was the usual charge when there was an injury.

After dealing with the vehicles and the Police I visited the bike rider in hospital and found him, despite having an injured arm, in good spirits and being discharged. He was not only shaken by the experience but also for not having a Driver’s License!

Although the civil details were dealt with between the insurance companies, according to Kenya Law, a court case was set where I needed to appear to hear my case. I had some earlier experience appearing in court as a witness when my cattle feed was stolen [2].

As the date of my meeting with the Kenyan Justice drew nearer I went to see the lawyer my landlord recommended me. His studio was in a rather affluent area of the city. After hearing me for a couple of minutes he dismissed me arguing that he was too busy at the time (probably my case was too small for him!) and he recommended me Dr. Shah [3], an experienced lawyer. I noted that the latter’s office was sited on a less elegant part of Nairobi.

I drove to Dr. Shah’s office and met him that same morning. I explained what had happened and also that the accident had been my fault. He accepted to represent me but he recommended me not to accept the charges and plead “not guilty”. Although I resisted, at the end he convinced me arguing that “no lawyer would represent a guilty person”. I finally gave in and agreed to employ Mr. Shah to represent me. The USD 50 fee seemed reasonable at the time.

As it is normal, the day of my case the Court was brimming with people. Things were to happen in Court No. 2. It was another case of “controlled chaos” a common situation in many places where, despite apparent confusion, things do happen. The room was filled to capacity by about fifty people of all ages and sexes. Facing the public sat the judge, a small lady dressed in a black robe with the rather odd white wig.

My lawyer and I sat next to the bike driver and his own lawyer, both of Indian descent. The lawyers knew each other, of course. While a case was on-going a clerk came to inform us that our case would be the next so we waited in silence for a few more minutes. While waiting I was worried and nervous and I realized that I knew I was guilty despite the lawyer’s argument and also that it was too late to change things!

Eventually our turn came, the charges were read and I was asked to plead. As instructed by my lawyer I said “not guilty”. As soon as I said this I regretted and somehow I felt that the Judge did not like it. She then informed us that the case was adjourned to about two months in the future. That was too much for me as I wished to finish the business.

I asked the Judge to wait a minute and she agreed. I then called my lawyer aside. I told him that his job was terminated. I then returned to my post and asked to talk directly to the judge. She agreed and then I changed my earlier plead to “guilty”. I was not sure that this was possible but she accepted it and passed sentence.

She said that as it was my first offense and that, considering the circumstances of the accident, she would reduce the charge to “careless driving”. She indicated that I needed to pay a fine of about USD 20!

I was very relieved and congratulated myself for changing my mind. I left the room and met my lawyer. Although he was still unhappy, he agreed that the outcome had been good. I paid him what at the end accounted to more than double the fine and went home with a clear conscience!

 

[1] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2017/07/29/the-kombi-falls/

[2] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/cattle-feed-on-wheels/

[3] Not his real name.