Memoirs

Episodes of my life in Africa.

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!

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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.

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).

 

 

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.

Manyatta copy

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.

ostrich male copy

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

Somali male ostrich Samb np copy

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.

ostrich female copy

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

ostrich female 1 cropped.. copy

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.

Simba’s Bush Baptism

By 1985 we had saved enough money to be able to buy a new vehicle. At the time in Kenya –and in Africa in general- the only car to buy was a “Simba” (lion in kiSwahili) for its lion logo: a Peugeot 504.

Simba's twin brother:sister? Mendizabal Tsavo copy

Our 504 arrived later. It was a great car. Here we are at Tsavo West National Park with friends. Photo by Bushsnob

We agreed with our friend Paul that we both will order similar cars to get a discount that we did not in the end! For some reason his arrived first and it was a very excited Paul that turned up that Friday afternoon in his Simba with exactly 34 km on the clock to invite us to a safari to the Sasumua dam for the following day. This dam, located on the Sasumua stream, supplied water to Nairobi and it had been stocked with rainbow trout during the colonial times. Some very large trout were still being caught, although rarely  at the time. However, Paul did not lose hope of landing one of them [1].

The dam was located in the South Kinangop highlands where the scarcity of oxygen and the almost constant drizzle seemed to combine to lower the ambient temperature to almost unacceptable levels for us. It was, however, ideal weather for people of Northern Europe and Paul, being British did not mind it! My wife and I were not very keen on trout fishing but Paul explained that the idea was to test the new car going the “back way”. He did not specify the details but mentioned that we would stay in a Government of Kenya forestry lodge, close to the dam. Aware by now of his “innovative” ideas, we readily agreed.

We already had some experience at the dam with Paul and his Avon rubber dinghy. We had gone there earlier in search of trout and also to test a new anchor that Paul had brought from the UK. The anchor, he said, was specially designed to take a great grip at the bottom. Although we did not fish anything, we confirmed that the anchor was indeed very effective. Somehow the thinner “release” rope broke and eventually we needed to cut the anchor rope in order to be able to return home from our firm anchorage in the centre of the dam! But let me go back to the present story…

We left early the next morning, ready for the back road trip, the cold weather and the fishing. The back road was, I believe the Thika Gatura road, probably quite rough even today. To make matters worse we realised that there has been quite heavy rain in the area the night before. However, we decided to go on. From the junction to Karangi the road became quite narrow and soon it was just a narrow path. However, this was the right road, according to the map (and our wishful thinking!).

After a few kilometres driving through a slippery but still passable track we met a mud hole of about fifty metres in diametre where clearly a herd of elephants had wallowed probably the night before and their tracks entering and leaving the mud pool and going into the forest could clearly be seen. We stop to evaluate the obstacle and to take a critical decision. Careful scouting revealed that there was no elephant threat but also no way round it.

I am not sure why but we (Paul and myself) agreed that we could cross it. My wife, as usually outnumbered, was resigned to her fate! We agreed that all we needed to do was to reverse for a good distance and enter the mud hole fast enough so that our inertia would carry us to the opposite side. We were almost sure that the car would grip sufficiently dry ground to enable us to go through.

We reversed for about 150 metres and came rather fast –maybe too fast- so that we went a bit deeper than wished on first contact with the mud but, luckily, the car nose lifted above the mud and the car continued its movement towards the other shore. I believe that there was an element of buoyancy in this manoeuvre that Peugeot was not aware of… Whatever the reason, we crossed, just, and we were able to move on. “Oh, Oh” said Paul, “the speedometer stopped working!” Although this was bad news for a new car, it was not surprising after what we had gone through and, as it was of no relevance for our present situation, it was largely ignored after a couple of brief polite comments.

Encouraged by our success we moved on as going back was no longer an option! We continued our advance on the muddy track that was now cutting through thick forest. After a few kilometres we came to a bend and a junction and deep truck ruts appeared. Despite Paul being a good driver, soon the car’s belly was resting on the road and our back wheels could not turn anymore. To make matters more entertaining, it started to drizzle!

I hate getting my head wet and I could not find my hat! So getting wet we inspected the situation. It was bad! Jacking it up was not an option as 504s did not have good jacks and the latter, instead of lifting the car, would have become buried in the mud.The only possible solution would be to push the car back, and then again gather speed while my wife and pushed it forward hoping that it would gather enough speed to go through the muddy spot. But first we needed to unstuck the car and push it backwards! That took some doing as we had no shovel, but eventually it moved to the relief of our “wet selves”!

Paul -after all he was the owner of the creature- decided to go for it and my wife and I positioned ourselves in a place we calculated some extra push would be needed. Paul came fast and we joined our energies to the car’s to no avail. After a short meeting we concluded that the only chance was for my wife to drive and Paul and I to push. This had a small drawback: she had not driven very often and -in addition- she was not familiar with this particular vehicle. As there was no time for her to learn more and we were properly stuck, we had no choice. We explained the expected move to my wife and positioning the car for her, we placed ourselves to wait for our turn to push the moment she passed by.

Before I go on, I have some relevant additional information. I have always had a weight problem and only a few years ago I managed to get on top of it. However, at the time of this safari I was trying to lose weight through the Scarsdale diet. After five days I had lost a couple of kilogrammes but I was feeling a bit weak. That Saturday was day six and the menu recommended the consumption of as much fruit salad as you wished with coffee/Tea/diet Soda/water. Only dinner -if we were ever to have it- would bring some “real” food in the shape of roast turkey or chicken!

Kindly -and luckily- my wife had prepared a very large bowl of fruit salad and I tacked into it trying to increase my sugar level for the push. While I added energy to my weakened body, Paul explained my wife again what she needed to do. When the instructions and my refuelling were complete we were ready to go.

My wife, following the instructions, started the car and soon engaged second gear coming flat out towards us, clearly barely controlling the car and with a scary look on her face! Luckily, with the wheels well into the furrows there was little to deviate from! When the car started to slow down both Paul and myself pushed as hard as we could and, to our relief, it came unstuck! We had a brief instant of joy before we realized that the car did not stop and continued on its way, leaving us behind! We jumped and gesticulated wildly for my wife to stop until, finally, it stopped when it got lodged in a nearby bush. My wife got out visibly shaken and upset so we refrained from any comments. I collapsed in a mixture of exhaustion and mirth.

After a while, Paul -visibly pleased that we were unstuck- inspected his no longer new car for any additional damage while my wife and I sat nearby. She was trying to recover from her nerve-wrecking experience and I was tacking into the fruit salad bowl in search of sustenance! Eventually Paul announced that the car was fine and that we should move on as we were now after lunch and -according to his “GPS-less” calculations we still had a long way in front of us.

We moved on but things were still not looking good as we entered a forest concession and there were more ruts and mud ahead. As expected, after a few kilometres of what I would define as “heroic driving” by Paul, the car’s belly started touching the road and eventually it accumulated lots of mud underneath until it became hopelessly stuck, sitting on its belly! This time no amount of fruit salad consumption would have helped, as the situation was really hopeless. We were on a tight spot and the rain continued to soften the red mud!

While busy discussing our rather desperate situation, my wife interrupted us and told us to be quiet. “I can hear an engine”, she said. I could not but -as usual- she was correct and after a while we could all hear it. It was a slow revs engine and a long way away. However an engine meant a possible pull and -while waiting for it- we decided to open a Tusker beer to celebrate our luck and wait for the help coming.

The old red tractor arrived slowly pulling a trailer loaded with logs and puffing blue smoke. We did not need to say anything to his elderly driver. We were blocking his way anyway! Quietly, he unhooked the trailer and manoeuvred the tractor in front of the car. He then tied a wire to its underside from the three-point linkage and started to pull gently until the car moved. While Paul sat in the car my wife and I jumped on the tractor. The pull lasted for about ten kilometres until we reached a point where the forest estate ended and with it the groovy road. The old man untied us and assured that we should be fine from there to Sasumua. He turned back while we could not thank him enough!

We set off gingerly and managed to cover quite a distance through a now more populated area. The rain had been heavier heree so this time we just got stuck in mud. I had finished my fruit salad and did not have any strength left so I went for some solid food knowing that my Scarsdale gain –or rather loss- was going down the drain. Luckily this time there was people nearby and we managed to walk ,still under the rain, to a small village where we explained our predicament.

As usual they listened attentively and respectfully and eventually informed us that they had charged Safari rally drivers KShs 1000 to get them out and that this was their fee. We tried to explain that we were not rally drivers but fishermen but we only managed a small discount! We did manage to agree that payment would be the moment we were clear of the obstacle. The push was a formality as all able men from the small village came and we were out and also out of pocket at the same time.

By looking back at the mud hole I could not help feeling that we were probably the victims of a mud hole “improved” by the villagers by making it deeper and wider to make an additional income from Safari rally “victims”. I had seen this earlier in Maasailand and I could expect the same or better from the Kikuyu ingenuity to make some extra cash.

We eventually got to the high, cold and wet dam at night. We were very cold and soaked wet but we managed to find the forest huts and, luckily there was dry firewood. Soon we had a roaring fire going and we soon warmed up, ate well and had a good early night sleep.

Fishing the next day was the usually futile affair but somehow made enjoyable by having survived the earlier day’s ordeal. Luckily the return road was good tarmac and asphalt and only then Simba could demonstrate why it was so famous in Africa at the time!

On the positive note for Paul, the speedometer was not working so the car kept being new for quite some time!

 

[1] He eventually land one that was actually close to the Kenya record!

 

 

Vundu!

Tiger fishing is one of the top sports in Southern and Central Africa and Zimbabwe is no exception. We had fished for tiger several times before not only in Zimbabwe but also in Lake Turkana and Tanganyika. Luckily I had caught a few good specimens that we always returned to the water. But, if size matters to you and you wish to display your catch, there is no need to kill your fish as fibre glass models exist that would fit your fish if you take a couple of quick measurements in addition to its weight!

Apart from tiger fishing, many people visit Kariba in search of bream (Tilapia spp.) but relatively few are after vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis). Excluding bull sharks, the vundu is the largest freshwater fish in southern Africa, reaching up to 1.5m in length and 55 kg in weight, quite a large fish for my coarse fishing standards! Interestingly, vundu only live below the Victoria Falls as none have been caught above the falls [1].

My wife’s dentist is one of the few fishermen I have heard of that “specializes” in vundu fishing and the re-telling of the fishing prowess of the dentist (30 to 40kg vundu caught!) had an influence on me when deciding this trip.

So, aware of the family’s love for nature, our daughter’s keenness for the sea, our son’s need for resting as well as my desire to fish for vundu, in mid 2017 we booked a trip in Lake Kariba. Unfortunately our son was not able to join us because of work and a couple of invited friends also declined our offer because of pressing domestic commitments. When it looked that we would be just three on a now rather outsized houseboat, Clara, a friend of Flori (our daughter and part-time Ed.) decided to join us all the way from cold Stockholm, her first trip to Africa, almost straight to the bush (and, after the experience, perhaps the last?).

Our final destination was the Ume river, quite far from Kariba town, the place where houseboats leave from. We were told that to reach those far off places you required a minimum of six nights in the lake. After a long search comparing prices and comfort we had booked a rather spacious houseboat known as O B Joyful. We agreed on a self-catering basis so it was our responsibility to organize all food and drinks to last for the week as well as all needed items regarding fishing.

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The moored house boat.

With a crew of four (Godfrey, the Captain, Warren the cook, Pilot the sub-Captain and Silas, the handyman) we sailed from 2 to 8 of January. They were really first class and pampered us thoroughly.

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Plotting the trip’s course.

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From left to right: Silas, Pilot, Godfrey, Warren and the Bushsnob.

Although we had visited Kariba several times before, it is easy to forget its size and the incredible beauty of its blue water, green islands and grassy flood plains framed by the spectacular and distant hills, a hazy blue in the distance. The abundant birdlife, numerous hippos -both in and out of the water- and the usual elephants complete the general picture. Abundant fish eagles were a constant sight and their wild calls are missed now! In addition, we also watched a couple of fishing ospreys.

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Lake Kariba at Elephant point.

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Kariba sunset.

At night you are immersed in a different world with a star-full sky where with patience you can detect a number of known constellations while listening to the noises of the night, particularly owls, frogs and toads with the occasional lion call and hyena whooping [2].

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We also went of game watching trips.

Luckily Godfrey was keen on fishing and helped us all the way, not only getting us to potentially good vundu spots but also on the bream fishing as well. His patience with worms and fish netting was really remarkable! Luckily, fishing bream became a great entertainment for the whole group while waiting for the vundu to strike and we also had some frequent visitors to keep us busy…

 

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The surprises of fishing in Kariba!

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Flori and elephant returning.

Although we knew that the Ume river was as far as we would go, the rest of the itinerary was open as we decided that we could chose where to spend our time. In addition, there was a factor we did not plan for: the weather! Storms are feared in Kariba and the fact that it was the rainy season added some uncertainty to our planned itinerary. Luckily, although the first two nights were stormy, the weather cleared and we were able to move at will.

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Storm looming. Luckily it did not come our way.

Briefly and for reference, our first night was spent at Changachirere and fishing only produced a few bream. The place was clearly used to spend the first night at the lake by most houseboats so we were about eight boats. Luckily there was still ample space to moor. Following Godfrey’s advice the following morning we sailed towards Elephant point, five hours away. It was a good decision as clouds were gathering but we got there in good time and anchored at a safe spot. The boat was secured not only by tying it to some of the dead trees but also to some sizeable iron spikes that were laboriously hammered into the stony ground for about one metre!

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The houseboat moored at Elephant point.

Safely tied we organized ourselves for the next morning fishing. While Godfrey went to bait an area with the aid of a cattle-licking block (a new gadget for me!), we watched the hippos grazing out of the water and the elephants in the distance.

The next morning we were up early and headed for our baited spot but, well before arrival, we noticed that a rather large boat was fishing at our spot as they had also baited it and had arrived there earlier than us. Crestfallen, we moved off to another spot near our houseboat where there was no baiting but it was a deep channel that offered good possibilities. Godfrey was correct.

As soon as I finished casting my “vundu rods”, I hooked a tiger fish that I managed to land after a few nice jumps and a good fight. It was not large but fun and, as soon as I casted again, another one took the bait and it was also landed, luckily.

Too much -unprecedented- success prompted me to share my luck with Flori as she is a very keen fisherwoman. It only took a few minutes until one of the reels started buzzing and she landed a nice African Sharptooth catfish (Clarias gariepinus).

Things did not end there! As soon as she re-casted, the run that followed was “serious” and we all knew that she was into a good fish. After about ten minutes of reeling in, runs and more reeling in, she finally landed a nice vundu, the first one the family ever caught! As we had forgotten the fish scale, we estimated it to weigh about 12kg or more!

We were thrilled but we were also aware of the time and we needed to stop fishing to be able to sail our way to the Ume river.

Although we were quite close from the Ume, because of its size, our boat needed deep water. This meant that we needed to get back out on the main lake, turn and then enter the mouth of the Ume. Unfortunately, the weather was cloudy and windy so we had a wavy lake. It all went reasonably well going out but, the turning was tricky and we had a few serious shake-ups before we changed direction towards the Ume where we arrived five hours later.

We entered the Ume until we found a good bay where we could moor. The area was no longer open floodplains but hilly with bush and forest that would reach almost to the shore of the lake making game-spotting very difficult. Fishing was also a futile exercise and we unanimously decided that the next day we would spend it back at Elephant Point where not only our fishing had been good but we could also enjoy the landscape and its dwellers.

The following morning we left early and, with better weather now, we got to Elephant point faster and moored near the spot we had been before. Next morning we were fishing again and this time we had some party members going for bream “for the pot” while I was still attempting to catch the elusive vundu. Luckily, after about an hour of watching my companions pulling bream in I had the first strike and, after some work, brought in a vundu that weighed 9kg as this time we had the scale with us. I was moderately impressed…

Fortunately, an hour later I had another run and hooked another fish that gave me a lot of work to bring close to the boat. Eventually I managed to bring it and, while still in the water, we could see that it was a nice size. Suddenly I saw another fish coming towards it and I thought it was its friend! “That is interesting” I thought but Godfrey brought me down to reality when he identified as a crocodile having a look at “my” fish!

Luckily, the croc -smaller than the fish- only came up and then it was gone without damaging the fish and I could recover it whole! The vundu “busted” our balance that would only go to 25 lbs so I assume it to have been about 15kg and I was much more pleased with the achievement this time. Still, it was a far cry from the dentist’s 40kg ones!

All in all, my vundu “thirst” was by now somehow satiated and it was better that way as those were the only two that decided to offer themselves to my rods during the days remaining! I did have a few more bites and runs but missed whatever these were.

Although we did not get more vundu, we still had great fun catching bream and watching birds and mammals all the time. In addition, life on the boat was extremely pleasant and we had a good rest (those who needed) as well as lots of entertainment. Time passed really fast and we needed to return back to Kariba.

It was a great trip that left me still wanting as I realized not only the beauty of the area but also that there are still plenty of vundu lurking in Kariba’s depths and we are already thinking on ways to get them the next time.

 

[1] See http://www.karibahouseboatsafaris.com/vundu-catfish/

[2] We found the iPad app SkyView Lite a useful aid to identify the various celestial objects.