Memoirs

Episodes of my life in Africa.

The Kenya coast

The next visit following our train journey ended up at Diani beach, south of Mombasa. We stayed at a tented camp right on the beach called Nomad’s Tented camp. The only place we could afford. It was only a weekend with little time and I found the tents at the camp too hot although the sea had a truly wonderful temperature for my taste.

I must confess that beaches are not my seen as I was soon sticky and full of sand as well as bored of too much resting! Sea food was good and this somehow compensated for the rest. As expected, however, Mabel loved it so I knew that we would come back often!

The coast of Kenya has been somehow separated from the mainland by the nyika, a Swahili word meaning bush or perhaps dry bush to explain better what you find over hundreds of kilometres between this area and the Kenya highlands to the west. Not surprisingly then, before the Lunatic Express was built, the coast looked east beyond the Indian Ocean and traded with the Arabs for slaves and ivory and with India for spices.

Luckily we managed to visit most of the areas south of Malindi as well as the island of Lamu further north. So it was that over the following years we discovered a new and different Kenya, tropical and hot with nice beaches of warm waters and with a hitherto unknown world for us: the coral reef.

What we knew at the time as the Kenya Coast Province was replaced in 2013 by four counties from north to south: Lamu, Tana River, Kilifi and Kwale. Irrespective of the political arrangement there are 1,420 km of Indian Ocean shores, enough to get lost.

We started from Mombasa, the most important town. It developed in an area where there was a gap in the reef barrier that enabled ships to anchor in deep waters. It still is the main harbour of the country known as Kilindini or “place of deep water”.

Mombasa is a colorful city where several races, cultures and religions coexist in apparent harmony in a warm and tropical environment. We only got a superficial knowledge of the place and drove under the four elephant tusks or Moi avenue, the city’s hallmark.

Moi avenue.

We visited its fascinating, smelly and noisy market and Fort Jesus, an imposing defense structure with 2.4m thick walls with “re-entrant” angles. The latter make every face protected by crossfire and very difficult to storm. Despite this, the fort changed hands repeatedly over time!

Mombasa’s Fort Jesus.
The sea from Fort Jesus.
Fort Jesus.

We also spent time at the old harbour where we were lucky to see still being used and where we saw a number of fishing boats as well as several dhows anchored there. It was during that occasion that we spotted Nawalilkher and Tusitiri (see:  https://bushsnob.com/2017/01/29/two-dhows/).

A dhow.

After that first approach to the south coast we learnt about the beauties of the northern coast so we decided to explore it and discovered the “local Airbnb” of those times in the shape of Kenya Villas that had a number of beach houses to rent at Watamu. This area became our base from the first time we stayed there as we greatly enjoyed it and visited it often getting to know the nicest houses.

One of the houses we rented at Watamu.

The arrangements were on a self-catering basis but most houses came with a cook and maids that pampered you, as usual. The best feature of staying there was the service of fresh sea produce that was delivered to your door everyday. Delicious fresh snapper fish, live crabs and lobsters at reasonable prices that allowed you to enjoy these delicacies, usually beyond us. Fish in coconut sauce and lobster thermidor were included in our home menu during those visits.

There was however a few hazards even if you did not get robbed as happened to a friend of us in one of these houses. Coconut falling sounds silly but to get hit by one of these weighing 1.4 kg falling from 20 metres can cause a major injury [1]. This was, all things considered, a risk worth taking as- if you survived and got the coconut, its juice was one of the most refreshing drinks I have drunk.

Apart from milk, coconut palms provide coastal communities with coconut shells for various utensils, oil, leaves for the makuti roofs in the shape of tiles, wood for housing and coconut flesh for eating either raw, dried or toasted.

While in Watamu, a small fishing town, we often traveled to Malindi, 23 km north, a town with a strong Italian influence where we had more shopping options. It was also attractive for its good pasta and pizzas and even -despite the heat- ice-creams. It was loaded with tourists, mostly from Italy that flew in charters directly to the coast, a practice that has now been reduced because of security concerns.

Malindi was where Vasco da Gama picked up his pilot to navigate with the monsoon winds to India. Both Malindi and Watamu offered lots of exotic food and local specialities such as halwa, a sticky and sweet dessert made of brown sugar, ghee (clarified butter), rose water, and cardamom sometimes garnished with pistachio, almond slithers and sometimes toasted sesame seeds that we always bought at the local markets, risking a severe increase in our calories count!

It was true that the beaches were great but the biggest discovery for us was the coral reef, one of the richest ecosystems of animal origin in the planet with thousands of colors and shapes. The Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve protected the coral gardens. Although some were further off into the ocean, there were coral gardens a few hundred metres from our rented house!

These were home to hundreds of coral and fish species and other life forms too many to describe. Although we never saw turtles, manta rays or whale sharks, they did exist there and proof of that is the manta ray that “flew” over a friend’s boat while he was fishing for the pot at the Watamu lagoon!

In addition, our friend Ken hobby was the coral reef fish and, for years, he towed his wife Betty on a car inner tube behind him as he swam along the reef in search of fish![3]. He was a very good source of information on what to look for and where.

These true gardens could be enjoyed by walking from the beach during the low tide, renting a glass-bottom boat from one of the hotels there, snorkeling or diving. Usually during most mornings the tide was low and this enabled us to explore the reef, either from the comfort of a glass-bottom boat or by the more energy-consuming snorkeling while swimming slowly over the reef.

Although there were a few fish to be avoided such as the stone, scorpion (lion) and jelly fish, the view compensated for the risk that was low if you were careful not to touch anything.

Immersed in this new world we lost all sense of time and space and often floated a long way from the coast and we had a laborious return although with no great risks as we had good life belts and there were no strong currents there. The problem was the sun as no sun block would keep you covered for such a long time!

We wore a t-shirt and a life jacket that took care of your back but not the legs and I paid the price the first time when in the afternoon post-snorkeling I could hardly walk as the back of my legs were badly burnt and in the evening I could not bend my legs. There it was when I learnt why people at the coast wear kikoys wrapped around their waist as this lessens your burns rubbing against tighter clothing.

We continued exploring the coral reef during every visit but during the periods of high tide, while Mabel enjoyed the sand, sea and sun I started to get bored, as usual in any beach. So, after a while of looking for entertainment I hatched the idea of windsurfing and, with my Muguga colleague Robin, we decided to buy one on a 50:50 basis and keep it at the coast with some friends of his.

Luckily the windsurfing equipment came with a manual so I studied it and immediately went for a try as it seemed simple. About four hours later I came back to the house bleeding from several cuts inflicted by the coral as well as a few bruises and loudly declared that I will offer my share of the artifact for sale from that day, not exactly in those words though.

Mabel kept quiet while I ranted freely and simply told me that my problem had an easy solution: to go for lessons at the nearby Turtle Bay hotel where there was bound to be someone teaching how to do windsurf! I must admit that out of pride I pretended to dismiss the idea but that same afternoon, while the tide was up and the wind blew, I walked to the hotel and booked an intensive course for the next day!

I was happy to see that the teaching was on a windsurf simulator on firm ground and that soon I was able to master the technique’s basics and then I was told to go back and attempt to stand on the table minus the sail so I spent time gettin on it and falling until I was too tired to go on.

The following day, as indicated, I went for my final lesson with my windsurfer and I was fitted with a new much smaller sail and then I saw some sea action. With a smaller sail things were easier and eventually I was ready to go around the turtle rock at the bay and return to be given the green light to sail on my own!

It was in this way that windsurfing entertained me from then on while Mabel enjoyed the beach in peace.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_by_coconut

[2]See: Bock, K. (1978). A guide to the common Reef Fishes of the Western Indian Ocean. Mcmillan Press Ltd., London & Basingstoke.

The Lunatic Express

Our first journey to Mombasa was not by car but by train. We took the train that run everyday leaving Nairobi at 19:00hs and arriving at Mombasa the following morning at 06:00hs. We were advised to buy First Class tickets as these gave you access to a sleeping coach.

The Ugandan railway was born in the late 19th century, when European countries were engaged in the “scramble for Africa” and the British were worried about German expansionism in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and French interests in Sudan. It was an imperative undertaking for Britain (to keep its interests in Egypt) to have access to the source of the Nile, Lake Victoria.

Connecting Britain’s territories on the Kenyan coast to the shore of lake Victoria in Uganda by rail was considered the solution. The project created such a clamour in the British Parliament that it ended up known as the “Lunatic Line”, a name given to it by Charles Miller, who wrote its history [1].

However it was Henry Labouchère, writer and politician, that in 1896 attacked the then Foreign Minister Curzon’s backing of the idea with a satirical poem that called the project “a lunatic line” [2]

A train on bridge of the Uganda Railway leading from Mombassa to Nairobi; insert in lower right-hand corner shows the train at Mau Summit. Credit: United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division.

Despite dissidence the British government marched on with the plans, and sent Sir George Whitehouse to build the railway. Work on the one-metre gauge railway commenced in the port of Mombasa in May 1896 and thousands of workers were recruited from India to start construction on the railway and all the materials, from sleepers to steam engines, were brought from Britain.

Soon the Lunatic express ran into severe trouble such as the lack of water at Tatu and the man-eating lions that threatened to halt construction at Tsavo. However, five million pounds (today £ 660 million) and about 2,500 dead workers later, in 1901 the railway line arrived to Kisumu (then Port Florence) in the shores of Lake Victoria.

The building of the railway was an amazing feat of engineering that succeeded in joining the British protectorate of Mombasa to the colony of Uganda, uniting the disparate ethnic groups in between and consolidated a country today known as Kenya!

The train gained a “romantic” fame with the early settlers and visitors alike as migration to Kenya was promoted in Britain with the hope that the commercial traffic that this would create would pay back such a high investment.

A poster promoting the Uganda Railway. Picture taken by bushsnob from a copy of the poster acquired in Kenya at the tme of the journey.
Theodore Roosevelt and traveling companions mount the observation platform of the Uganda Railway. Credit: Wikimedia, Public domain.

Luckily, when we got to the Nairobi Railway Station with its grey arches and the Nairobi sign hardly legible, the railway’s cost was not remembered and the man-eaters were not interfering with the running of the train. We soon found our names written on cards attached to the outside of our carriage and we boarded.

Locomotive with fuel tanks in Kampala. Credit: Iwoelbern / Public domain.

The old brown-leather padded carriages were very clean and the seats comfortable. After settling in we waited for the train to move but before this happened, the in the Sleeping car assistant came to check our tickets and to ask us if we wished to have dinner at 21:30hs or at 22:30hs.

As we were feeling hungry we chose the first shift and a few minutes afterwards we heard the whistles of the Stationmaster and the loud horn of the train while we felt the pull of the locomotive and heard the steadily increasing chugging sound and then we were moving!

Slowly we moved through the station and then gradually away from it and, still slowly, through the outskirts where most people ignored us but some returned our greetings and some children shouted “muzungu!, muzungu!”[3] at us. Gradually it gathered some more speed and the the clickety-clackety sound of the wheels passing over the fish plates that join the rails started to become more frequent and we were on our way, faster now!

After a while it was time to move to the dining car and we were impressed by its neatness and luxury. The car was lined with brown-red leather and old fans gently turned moving the air inside the carriage.

Clearly dinner was a serious affair. Waiters, wearing fezzes and white gloves helped us to find our table and be seated at our reserved places. The first course of the three-course menu was immediately brought. It was a hot soup that would be followed by fish and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and potatoes. Dessert was fruit crumble with excellent custard sauce.

We declined the freshly brewed Kenya coffee offer for fear of not being able to sleep. All dishes and drinks were served on crockery embossed with the logo of the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation, which had been defunct since 1977 but that were still in use!

Dinner over, as new commensals were arriving, we left, satisfied with our meal. We arrived at our cabin to find it transformed into a bedroom with immaculate starched sheets and pillows monogrammed with the same East African Railways logo. The change was such that I went out to check if we were in the right cabin!

Mabel slept soundly but I had difficulties as my bed was placed across the track so to say and every time that the train changed speed I would roll backwards and forwards and I feared falling until its speed stabilized again. The whistle sound and the brakes’ hiss and screech when the train slowed down did not add to my comfort either!

So, although the train was great from the historical and glamour sides, it was not a sleep coach for me. Lucky Mabel woke up just before we entered Mombasa!

The early morning arrival in hot and sticky Mombasa, coming from the rather cold and cloudy Nairobi, was like a miracle that truly brought me back to the early days of the train. The station was like a beehive with people vying with each other to get our luggage and offering you tropical fruits and all sorts of other goods! It was clearly a station with special character.

Once outside the station, the light was unbelievable and we needed to spend sometime adjusting to it to be able to find our transport that would take us to our hotel where I could have a “morning siesta” to recover my lost sleep while Mabel enjoyed the Mombasa markets under the tropical heat.

Unfortunately, after our time in Kenya, the railways service from Nairobi and Mombasa gradually deteriorated [4] and started running increasing delays and it could take the train 24 hours to do the journey we did in less than 12. Often the train would breakdown in truly dark areas or, if lucky, you could be stranded at Voi or other stations until repairs could be carried out. Although it still had a romantic touch, it was wearing thinner and it was just a question of time until its final journey.

When a new train known as the “Madaraka Express” started to be built by the Chinese, the fate of the Lunatic Express was sealed and it has then been replaced for a train that now takes 4.5 hours to get to Mombasa.

The train started to operate in May 2017 but, as the Lunatic Express it has also been the target of severe criticism due to its high cost of £2.5 billion, Kenya’s most expensive infrastructure project since independence [5] and comparatively even more expensive that the Lunatic line!

We have no desire to take the new train but prefer to still remember that we were lucky to taste the last voyages of what was one of the classic trips the world had to offer.

Footnotes

[1] Miller, C. The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism. Head of Zeus Editor. Kindle edition. Originally published by Futura; First Thus edition (1977).

[2]
What it will cost no words can express; 
What is its object no brain can suppose; 
Where it will start from no one can guess;
Where it is going to nobody knows;
What is the use of it none can conjecture;
What it will carry none can define... 
And in spite of George Curzon's superior lecture,
"It is clearly naught but a lunatic line."
See: https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2001241674/end-of-road-for-first-railway-that-defined-kenya-s-history

[3] White person in Ki-Swahili.

[4] For a recent (2016) description of the Lunatic express deterioration see https://www.1843magazine.com/features/the-lunatic-express

[5] The end of the lunatic express: https://www.emirates.com/zw/english/open-skies/6336316/the-lunatic-express-is-no-longer

Fishing in Kenya

In the 19th. century, the United Kingdom started distinguishing two kinds of fishing: freshwater game fishing that includes salmonids (salmon, trout and char) usually caught using fly-fishing and coarse (rough) fishing that refers to angling for freshwater fish inhabiting warmer and stiller waters (rough fish), except the salmonids, caught by other techniques. It was believed that only game fish made as good eating.

Not being British, I regard this as an academic issue but I am not interested in fly-fishing, having tried it, so I -proudly- fall under the coarse fisherman class. This condition gives me a license to fish anywhere and I am happy with that!

Several of my friends and colleagues in Muguga, Matt, Robin and Paul, were fly-fishers although the latter enjoyed coarse fishing as well and I have already narrated our exploits in Corrientes[1], the Mara River[2] and in Naivasha[3] to name a few.

The fact that I did not do fly-fishing did not stop me from accompanying my friends when they invited me to go to the trout-fishing spots around Nairobi, the Aberdares and to the Sasamua dam.  Although Matt invited me to go fishing for trout, I never made it with him. I did go with Robin but this river fishing was unexceptional, apart from some unexpected encounter with the odd elephant in the thicket!

I also accompanied Paul a couple of times, including the weekend when we tried his car[4]. He used to go often to the Sasamua dam where, according to the connoisseurs, some truly large trout lived. On one of these occasions, after fishing from the dam wall without success, we boarded the rubber dinghy to fish in the open water. It was drizzling and I tried to persuade him otherwise but he was looking forward to try his newly acquired folding grapnel anchor.

As expected, the fishing was bad and we got soaked but the anchor did work, too well. It got hold of the bottom of the lake immediately but, when we tried to retrieve it, it got stuck and the second rope to pull it from the front snapped so that was  fool-proof anchor that operated with two ropes, one to fold it and one to retrieve it. An interesting contraption.

A folding grapnel anchor.

To his credit, Paul kept going to the Sasamua, despite the odds and, eventually while fishing on his own he caught a rainbow trout that came very close to the Kenya record! It is the largest trout I have seen in the flesh! He was, justifiably, very pleased with his trout. Not only he got a fibreglass cast made but also he kept it in the freezer to show it to his friends! It was eventually eaten at one of his birthdays.

For an attempt at true coarse fishing we traveled to Lake Victoria in search of the introduced Nile Perch (Lates niloticus), one of the largest freshwater fish, it can reach a length of 2 m and weigh up to 200kg! We were aware that the latter were difficult to get but our hopes were high.

Nile Perch was introduced in Lake Victoria in the 1950s. Its introduction was ecologically disruptive and the subject is well known[5]. However, we were not going there in a “damage assessment” mission but to try and get some out of the water!

Nile perch drawing. Credit: Nile_perch Attrib- Boulenger, George Albert; Loat, L. [Public domain].

Working at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), I could arrange accommodation at the institute’s research station (the same that was being built when I visited with my boss Matt years earlier), and we booked it for a weekend when rain was not expected.

Rusinga island seen from Mbita point.

We prepared the strongest tackle we had and took Paul’s rubber dinghy to have our own fishing experience. We left Nairobi early and after a long drive through Nakuru and Kericho, we got to our accommodation quite late and tired but looking forward to the next morning.

The start was the pumping of the boat by the lakeshore. This was a true public event and we were not short of volunteers to step on the pump and get the boat ready. We explained the onlookers of all sexes and ages that we were going to fish Nile perch or in their Luo language, mbuta. This caused quite a lot of excitement and anticipation for our return with the fish. People in Kenya were very hopeful!

The boat ready, we left the beach, taking great care not to enter the water as Schistosomiasis (also known as Bilharzia) was known to be a problem in this area. We sailed towards the east part of Rusinga island, where I was meant to work according to the original plan of FAO! Being a less populated area we thought that the fishing would be good. We decided to troll at about 100m from the shore using our largest lures.

We fished the whole day apart from a break for lunch and a rest and returned to Mbita Point empty-handed before sunset. We did not get a single fish bite and the anxious crowd that waited for our fish were rather crestfallen and soon left while we pulled the boat out to a safe location.

Alarmed and disappointed, we discussed the situation over dinner and following Mabel’s down to earth advice, decided that, despite our intention to do the fishing ourselves, we should swallow our pride and consult some “experts”. We knew that a new company was starting to bring sport fishermen from the Maasai Mara by plane and we decided that meeting them was advisable as our fishing time was running out.

The following day, after finding our the whereabouts of the fishing company, we boated straight to their camp. Luckily they had no clients that weekend so all guides were present at camp and they kindly gave us some useful advice that I still remember: “Fish by trolling near the white rocks” and added “you will find the rocks easily and these are the best spots”.

We had boated past these rocks that had been “whitewashed” by the guano of countless cormorants stopping there to sun themselves after fishing. We realized that the Nile perch would also feed on the same fish, coming from the deep.

Clearly these rocks were the obvious places and we had overlooked them! We wasted no time and as fast as the small engine could take us, we did a beeline to the first rocks. Luckily it was a Saturday and a market day so, although the canoes were there, the fishermen were at the market and the lake was empty.

We caught a small Nile perch on our very first troll! Although it was not of spectacular proportions, it was a Nile perch.

One of the first Nile perch I caught.
Mabel and her fish with others on the bottom right.

By lunchtime we had all landed fish and returned to shore to weigh them at the fishing camp and we gave them some to thank them for the information given to us. They were very happy as fish is the main item of their diet.

Thanking them again, we re-started our fishing and trolled near some other rocks where we caught a few larger fish, closer to the “real thing” although we did not have a balance to ascertain their weights.

We also tried our luck to fish them from the shore and Paul managed to hook one, although -luckily-not too large as to bring it in would not have been easy with the tackle he had.

This time our return to Mbita Point was very different as we came with fish that we gave to the waiting crowd that were immediately cut up and shared. Our mood had also changed and we slept dreaming with our catches!

The following day, during our long return journey we had lots to talk about!

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

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2017/02/05/camping-in-kenya-mara-river-fishing/

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

[4] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/01/21/simbas-bush-baptism/

[5] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nile_perch#Lake_Victoria_introduction

Camel safari [1]

While in Kenya we always wanted to explore the north on a camel safari but the cost was an important deterrent so we left Kenya for Ethiopia in 1988 without achieving this goal. However, two years later, while on our way to a new job in Zambia, we stopped in Kenya for a while and decided to join forces with our friend Susan and to go for it.

She knew a company [2] that organized these activities and made the bookings for the three of us. A couple of days before we were to depart, some unavoidable work commitment cropped up and Susan were unable to go. She volunteered her very good friend Gai to come with us. We had met Gai a couple of times while visiting Susan during our earlier Kenya days. Although we did not know each other that well we agreed to travel together.

We drove Susan’s car to Rumuruti and from there we were taken to the company’s base camp where the journey was due to start. The idea was to travel for four days along the Milgis River and then get picked-up by a car and taken to Rumuruti to spend the night, collect our car and return to Nairobi the following day.

 

We arrived in the morning and already the camp showed great activity as the camels, really huge when you stand next to them, were being loaded. Dromedaries are the tallest of the three species of camel and adults can reach 1.7 to 2 m at the shoulder and weigh between 300 and 600 kg.

While the beasts complained loudly while their loads were tighten we were given a brief on what to expect and other useful information for the trip. With us was a group of four Europeans that kept very much for themselves, and a British couple that, as expected, was very polite!

We learnt that the idea was to walk or ride for a few hours each morning, have a lunch break and a rest and continue for another two to three hours until we arrived to the next camp that would have been organized ahead of time. We would stay there the night and the exercise repeated for the remaining days. It all sounded very civilized and we were ready to start.

There was a senior guide and a number of camp hands, most of them Samburu that, although did not speak great English we could communicate with our basic Swahili. However, we were very pleased to see that Gai was very good at it, the fruit of her many years of work as a teacher in Baringo. In any case, they were all nice and helpful so the atmosphere was positive and we started to get on well with Gai and it became clear that we would enjoy our time together.

Observing the camels being organized, we noted that they played different roles. Immediately we started making our own groups. That is how we defined camping camels (carrying tents, chairs, tables, etc.), riding camels, first aid and laggards camel (to mend blisters and pick up strugglers, just like in the cycling races!), bad camel (called Sungura [3]) and food and bar camel. The latter Gai and I attempted to follow, not because of being hungry, but the longer legged beast was always moving faster than us so we could only catch up with it at the end of the day when we did our best to lighten its liquid cargo.

Daily, the camping and bar camels would go ahead to set up the next camp while the others would stay with us and we were careful to keep our distance from Sungura that showed its bad temper at all times and repeatedly attempted to chew us, particularly Gai that, for some reason, became its preferred target!

camel safari 4

Sungura makes sure to be heard!

 

camel safari 5 copy 2

A view of the camels ahead of us.

Our relations with the other travellers were going well until we discovered that the European contingent, of the kind that attach their flags to their rucksacks, had borrowed our sunblock cream without asking! This was an offence that gave us ammo to criticize them whenever the opportunity allowed. From then on we kept our suntan cream under tight control so that it would last until the end of the safari.

After a couple of days walking in Samburu country where we found numerous cattle, sheep and goat flocks, we detected that one of the members of the European group was showing clear signs of crotch rash (inner thigh rash) and walking was becoming increasingly difficult for him. We decided that camel riding would alleviate his predicament and had a go at it.

Apart from intimidating prospective predators (and riders!) by its share size and strength, camels can defend themselves very well and have a number of ways of doing so, apart from their unpleasant screaming and grunting. They can stamp their feet, kick in all directions with the four legs, bite, belch and spit so to mount on one is not something to be taken lightly.

After you overcome your ancestral fears -but always thinking, “why am I doing this?” you approach a lying down camel making sure that it was not Sungura. The beast looks inoffensive enough and with the help of the herder you take your seat in the middle of the one hump. You have a precarious siting arrangement as in front of you there is the neck and head and behind is the camel abrupt end so you need to hold on.

Once you are firmly wedged on your riding saddle the action starts by the beast standing up. This is a most traumatic event as it first stretches its back legs and, suddenly you are in danger of killing yourself by falling over its head. Before you fall, luckily, the beast stretches its front legs and up comes its massive head that misses yours narrowly and, if you are still on, you find yourself very high from the ground and in great danger of a serious fall.

I had grim misgivings about driving my camel as I was sure it would end bad for me. Luckily the handler would hold the reins and walk you following the path. The ride is very comfortable as your backside is well pampered and the animal’s gait is really pleasant, more so than horses. The position affords you a great view of the countryside over the surrounding bushes and I must admit that I enjoyed the ride.

Unfortunately this only lasted for a few minutes as my beast, perhaps sensing my dislike or because I was heavy, decided that it had enough of me and it started to walk closer and closer to the abundant thorn bushes. Then, despite the efforts of the handler, the inevitable happened and my naked legs got painfully rubbed against thorns.

That was enough for me and I immediately asked to be spared from such a torture as I would have ended without skin in my legs if I would have continued. Relieved, I descended from the beast while promising myself never to do this again

Gai suffered a similar experience and we both compared our scratches later while trying to clean and disinfect them. Mabel, as usual and to our annoyance, enjoyed the ride tremendously looking as if she had done this her entire life! She spent about an hour traveling by camel and spotting birds and animals that we were not able to see from our lower position and finished looking as fresh as ever!

Unfortunately the camel ride did not help the European rash sufferer and, from a distance we witnessed a Europeans-only meeting with the lame guy as the centre of attention. Although at the time we did not know what the outcome of the meeting was, the answer became clear when the following morning the Europeans were evacuated. Probably walking in the heat was too much for them to bear coming from a place near the North Pole!

Our party got reduced to five and we were happy that there would be more resources (read food and drinks) to be shared among the “survivors”.

Every evening at the end of the day we would arrive at our flying camp that had been set up at some chosen location by the river that never disappointed. The camping chairs were set up overlooking the flowing water where we enjoyed sundowners after our hot bucket showers.

That was the time for talking and to compare notes with the only remaining companions, the British couple. We learnt that he had been very successful with a lighting company in the UK and that he had sold part of it and, retired, were doing the best to enjoy life.

While we talked and drank, dinner was being prepared. It was simple but tasty and to be eaten under a the stars while the camels lied down and chewed their cud and the herders got ready to settle for the night among the beasts. After dinner we also settled down in the tents already assembled for an early night.

The day before our departure, after a good English breakfast, we walked for a few kilometres until we stopped for lunch at a place with a great view of the river below us. We could appreciate the palms that fringed the Milgis margins and we could also see a few animals in the distance, particularly giraffes and greater kudu.

The final camp was a more permanent affair composed of simple reed huts fitted with mosquito nets where all our bedding was already prepared for us. I decided to go for a shower but before starting, I spotted that the two people usually in charge of the showers, were seated together looking at something and brandishing a Samburu “seme” [4].

Curious, I approached them and although we had communications difficulties they showed me laughing that they were trying to repair something that on more close inspection happened to be a wristwatch! Quite sure about the outcome of the operation I left them to it and went on to enjoy my shower.

cam saf watching repair with panga while shower water copy

Wrist watch fixing…

Eventually, after a very enjoyable four days it was time to return and we were taken to Rumuruti, our starting point, where we spent the night at the Laikipia Country Club (founded in 1926) where Gai barely slept as the hyraxes screamed on the roof of her cottage all night! We did not hear a thing and slept through.

It was a great experience not only because the walk was very enjoyable but also because we became friends with Gai, a friendship that lasts until today.

 

[1] Although I refer to them as “camels” in fact the animals that accompanied us were dromedaries or one humped camels (Camelus dromedarius).

[2] Nowadays called Wild Frontiers Safaris that also runs the Milgis Trust, see: https://www.milgistrust.com/

[3] The KiSwahili word “Sungura” in English means rabbit.

[4] A “seme” or “simi” is a Maasai word to describe a short sword with a leaf-shaped blade and a relatively rounded tip.

To the cradle of mankind – The return

Someplace in the Chalbi desert

turkana safari chalbi desert...

The vastness of the area.

Too soon the time to leave Koobi Fora arrived and we headed back to Nairobi. Luckily we would still visit a couple of unknown and hopefully interesting places. We planned a different route that would take us across the Chalbi desert to Marsabit National Park and then to Nairobi, via Archer’s Post and Isiolo and the start of the asphalt.

Turkana safari Land Rovers copy

A stop on the way.

The road was very rough and, after a while we started having punctures, first in the trailer, then Paul’s car had two more and, finally, we had one. We were in a tight spot as we had no more spares and from then on, we would need to disassemble them to patch the inner tubes, a hard job with large wheels such as those of the Land Rover, particularly pumping them back to the needed pressure!

We continued our journey and after a while got to a vast expanse of cracked red soil where soon became the only feature we saw. We had arrived to the Chalbi desert, a little known desert outside Kenia. We planned to cross it assuming that we would be able to follow the wheel marks from earlier vehicles as we carried no electronic orientation devices then. Despite following a few tracks that, luckily, soon ended nowhere, we managed to get to a promising track although we did not find anyone to consult!

We were still crossing the Chalbi when dusk caught up with us. We then decided to leave the main track to get the full desert experience while be less conspicuous to potential unwanted visitors. The evening was very warm and there was not a drop of wind and just nothing apart from reddish sand as far as we could see, except for a lone zebra skull. It was a totally new experience.

Turkana Chalbi desert with skull copy 2

The redness of the Chalbi desert with the lake behind.

We did not bother to set up tents and judged that no mosquitoes would be alive there so we just slept on our camp beds, after a tinned dinner. The biggest disappointment of the day, apart from having to change four wheels, was that our watermelons kept on the roof racks for a night like this, were rotten and we could not enjoy them after having saved them for days! Laying on our beds, we witnesses one of the most incredible skies we have ever seen and we watched it mesmerized until sleep defeated us.

turkana safari chalbi desert 1...

The cracked earth of the Chalbi desert.

The following morning, the discovery of our fifth another puncture, this time in the trailer delayed us for about an hour while we did the repair. Although we still had no spares, we trusted -rightly this time- that we would get to our next destination without another puncture. We managed to negotiate the Chalbi successfully and soon we found ourselves back at a track that we believed looked respectable enough to take us to the Marsabit mountain and its homonymous National Park.

turkana safari 2

On the way to Marsabit.

Our spirits soared when we saw spotted the outline of a large mountain in the distance that could only be Marsabit. It was and, as we approached it, we could see its green hue becoming sharper after every kilometre we traveled. We were soon climbing and the green vegetation was quite a novelty after spending almost a week without seen much in terms of trees! So, we entered Marsabit National Park and went straight to the Park Headquarters to leave our tires to get mended and then to a nearby hotel for a cold drink, just refraining ourselves from rolling on the lush green grass of the garden!

The mountain was a true oasis with a large forested area where elephants dwelled. In particular it had been the home of one of the most famous elephants known, Ahmed, the King of Marsabit that carried very large tusks that prompted President Jomo Kenyatta in 1970 to declare it a national treasure and was given special protection against poachers in the form of 24 hours custody by two hunters.

By the time of our visit Ahmed was dead (it died in 1974) but his fame was still very much alive and we were familiar with its shape and tusks from its monument at the Kenya National Museum in Nairobi. Ahmed was a loner and quite evasive and the stories about him became mythical after several years. It is said that when it died at the age of 55, the King was leaning against a tree, resting on his tusks.

Marsabit was a great stop and we explored its lush green forest and lakes without seeing any of Ahmed’s offspring but getting refreshed by its greenness before embarking on the final leg of our journey. We had still about 260 km of very corrugated road in front of us before we would get to the better road at Isiolo.

To Nairobi

Refreshed after so much greenery and with the full complement of fuel and repaired tires, we started our descent from Marsabit on the wide and corrugated road army-built that would eventually see us through to Isiolo. After a while we reached flat ground and we started meeting a succession of truly large herds of cattle moving north, we imagined towards Marsabit in search of greener pastures. There were thousands of animals being herded by nomadic people, probably Rendile.

After about 100 kilometres we passed Laisamis, a small settlement with a Catholic church dedicated to St George and continued our journey south with us leading the way. The driving on such corrugated road with a trailer was a new experience for us and a rather hard one as the trailer was still very heavy.

All went well for a long while until suddenly the trailer violently veered to the right forcing me to correct to the left to keep the car on the road and from then on I lost control and the next thing I remember is that we abandoned the road and started a mad race through broken terrain and thorn bushes until the car came to a halt by getting lodged into a low and very thorny acacia where we rested luckily still on our four wheels with the trailer at a right angle.

We, luckily managed to miss the deep “dongas” that crisscrossed the bush but we were lodges so deep inside the bush that we were not able to open the car doors. Luckily help, in the shape of Paul and his brother arrived soon and hacked the branches enabling us to get out of the car. “I saw a large cloud of dust and then you were gone” Paul said adding “I am glad that you managed to keep things on their wheels”. I replied that I had done nothing to achieve this as I have had no time to do anything once I lost control!

Regardless of how the despiste? took place it was a lucky one and, after quite a lot of maneuvering, we managed to get back on the road and resumed our trip with no obvious damage to the car or the trailer.

This time Paul went in front and we both drove carefully, having realized that things can go wrong in just a fraction of a second. The remaining 100 km passed very slowly but, eventually, we approached the familiar settlement of Archer’s Post.

Perhaps it was the anxiety of getting back or maybe he just forgot but Paul entered Archer’s Post quite fast and forgot that there were a few respectable bumps to slow the traffic down. He hit the first bump and, realizing that there was a second one, he tried to brake but still hit the second one rather fast with disastrous consequences.

Now it was our time to watch events from the rear and witnessed how, after hitting the first bump the u-bolts the hold the back axle to the car’s body went and the wheels were bouncing rather than turning. The second bump completed the damage by dislodging the axle completely and the car stopped with one rear wheel under the car and the other one behind at a right angle to the car!

We pushed the car to the side of the road knowing that we have finally found some serious trouble and, with the high-lift jack, attempted to lift the car and bring the axle to its original location. Among the tons of spares we had new u-bolts but, although we brought the axle back, we needed to lift the body and for that we needed a bottle jack that we did not carry with us!

Refusing to believe that we could not repair the car we wrestled with it fruitlessly for about an hour under the curious gaze of members of the public and having declined help from an African gentleman wearing a blue overall, probably a mechanic. We decided that we should borrow the essential jack from the Catholic Mission nearby but we went there and, being the end of the year holidays, no one could assist us.

Empty-handed and crestfallen we returned to the car to find that the ladies we had left behind, showing their practical approach, had discussed our situation with the gentleman with the overalls who had assured them that he fix the car. Beaten, we concurred and negotiated for assistance with him.

Once we agreed, the gentleman disappeared and returned with just three tools: the bottle jack, one large spanner and a long steel tube. We looked at each other with Paul and shook our heads. However, we decided to wait and see. It was immediately obvious that the man was indeed a bush mechanic and he knew what he was doing.

After removing the broken u-bolts with his spanner he lifted the body of the car with the jack and he used the steel tube as a lever to gradually align the axle until the new u-bolts could be fitted! So, after about an hour we were on the road again not without thanking the bush mechanic profusely and settling our account well beyond our earlier agreement.

Mobile again but unable to reach Nairobi on the day we decided to spend the night in Samburu National Park so we got to one of the camps near the entrance. We had a very pleasant surprise as our good friends François, Genevieve and her mother Paula were camping there and we joined them at their camp in Samburu to enjoy some of their fresh food and to share our tins with them!

SamburuTousNY87 copy

The survivors and friends at the end of the journey in Samburu Mational Park. From left to right: Francois, Paul. Else, Paul’s brother, Bushsnob, Genevieve, Mabel and Paula.

It was the 31 December 1986 and we started the New Year in the bush before continuing home the next day, this time with a smooth drive all the way to Nairobi.

 

 

 

At the cradle of mankind

We saw the camp way before we got there and, involuntarily speeded up to finally arrive and have a break in our journey. Our entrance was far from a triumphal one. We got to the camp near the shore of the lake where the track suddenly changed into deep sand and we got buried as our car was not able to pull the trailer in the sand. Despite unhooking it, it would not bulge and, worse still, when Paul tried to help, he got also stuck.

Turkana safari Land Rovers jc and pr copy

Stuck on arrival at Koobi Fora.

Too tired to dig them out we decided to leave them for later when the day was cooler. So, we walked to the camp and did a few trips bringing our luggage. Luckily messages sent to the camp via the National Museum of Kenya had arrived and they were waiting us so our bandas were ready and very well equipped and comfortable so we could have a shower and relax during the rest of the day.

turkana koobi fora

Relaxing at camp.

Later on we decided to tackle the cars, more out of embarrassment than real need.

With the help of a few camp hands, we succeeded and we were ready to re-enter the camp now as a proper expedition, after a quick wash in the lake to freshen up. While digging our cars we learnt that the Koobi Fora sand spit was the best area for fishing and we had decided to try our luck the following morning and, with this in mind we had an early night as we were rather tired after a busy day.

Early the following morning we assembled the boat and a party ventured into the lake, heading for the sand spit as advised. The idea was to do trolling with our largest lures in search of Nile Perch or Tiger Fish as we had done in Lake Victoria, hoping to catch some sizeable fish.

We knew that the lake had a large population of crocodiles, some of them truly humongous, and that some of the lake dwellers hunted them [1]. Crocodiles were not new for us so, as usual we kept an eye for them but did not worry too much.

The sight that waited for us at the sand spit was as unexpected as frightening. The people at the camp had omitted that the place was the parking area where the they enyoyed their daily sunbathing. The whole length of the spit, between two and three hundred metres, was “green” with crocodiles.

In view of this unexpected and rather perturbing find, we decided to keep our distance from the area and fish some good distance away. As we approached the spit the crocodiles started sliding into the water, an even more unsettling situation as now we could not see them!

Despite this, we stuck to our plan and fished, perhaps at a greater distance from the sand as previously thought. We trolled along the spit and, every time we passed, the crocodiles -clearly with large mouths but small brains- kept jumping into the water only to climb back again on the sandy spit once we had passed! We trolled the whole morning but only caught a couple of small Nile perch and one Tiger fish. We were not impressed and decided to come back in the afternoon.

The lake has no outlet and water levels are kept by a delicate combination of the river waters, volcanic springs, rain (if it ever falls!) and evaporation. We noted that the water was a bit cloudier in this area, probably due to the entry of the Omo river from the north and we thought that this interfered with the fish seeing our lures. A good excuse for our failure!

The afternoon fishing, again, did not live up to our expectations and we only had a couple of bites but the fish got away. Busy fishing somehow we forgot the rather predictable crocs an we nearly came to grief when the boat shuddered violently and unexpectedly! A fraction of a second later, looking back we saw a commotion in the water and a large crocodile turned and showed itself clearly! The beast, I believe as shaken as us, crash-dived and disappeared.

turkana sunset in k fora croc.jpg

Sunset view of the sand spit and one of its occupants…

Luckily we did not hear any hissing so we assumed that the rubber dinghy was intact and, to our great relief, we saw no obvious damage. However, the crash shook us badly and, unanimously, decided that we had fished enough and that it was time to return to land doubting whether we hit the crocodile by chance or it came towards us with bad intentions or just got too close while having a look.

The crash with the crocodile rather than our rather poor fishing anecdotes dominated our conversation during and after the trip and, at the time, we did not of any one that had had a similar experience although today a few can be seen in YouTube.

That afternoon, after resting, we decided to have a swim in the beach shallows where we had seen people bathing earlier. While we were washing ourselves at dusk we detected a circle of red eyes at a distance and we withdrew rather fast from the water, ending our wash with buckets of water, quite away from the lakeshore!

Before we left Koobi Fora, we had a walk along the sand spit and, although we did not find any new hominids to make us famous, we saw the crocodiles from a different angle and we realized their true sizes and were rather impressed despite having seen many during our bush life. We also found lion footprints and decided that the wiser move would be to return to camp where we were informed that there was a lioness that “specialized” in hunting crocodiles.

That afternoon we packed our cars and got ready to start our return to Nairobi after a rather exciting time at the camp.

 

[1] Graham, A. and Beard, P. (1990). Eyelids of Morning: Mingled Destinies of Crocodiles and Men. Chronicle Books. 260p.

 

To the cradle of mankind – Getting there

Lake_Turkana_vicinity

The area we traveled. Attribution: Rudyologist [CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Day 1 – Nairobi to Maralal

Not intimidated by the amount of stuff packed in and on the cars as well as on the trailer and full of enthusiasm we left Nairobi via Nyahururu with Maralal as our destination for the first night. A drive of over 350 km of which, about half would be done on tarmac, the last good road we would enjoy until our return to Isiolo.

Turkana safari Land Rover PR dust copy

Paul coming with the trailer when things were still going well.

Slowly we left Nairobi and drove along the eastern wall of the rift valley towards the north and soon passed some of the landmarks we knew well, Mt. Longonot and Lake Naivasha. We passed Nakuru and reached Nyahururu from where we headed across the Laikipia plateau towards Rumuruti on a good dirt road. Once we passed the latter, the road narrowed as it started to climb towards the 1,965m of Maralal, unknown territory for us. Our excitement grew and things started to happen!

The combination of a heavy trailer being towed uphill in a hot climate started to take its toll and Paul’s Land Rover’s engine started to heat up. When I saw him flashing lights at us we stopped and, after seeing the situation, decided to wait for the car to cool down and then see what to do as we could not see anything obviously wrong. This happened about 30 minutes later and we decided to resume the journey.

After a few kilometres Paul stopped again and it was clear that the problem needed a more radical solution in order to -at least- reach Maralal. We could not lighten the trailer so we decided that we should tow it. Although our car was shorter, it was much newer and we hoped that it would be better able to withstand the effort.

Luckily the car put up with the extra burden and that is how I acquired the responsibility of pulling the rather large trailer all the way not just to Maralal but to Koobi Fora and back to Nairobi, learning on the job! The first thing I quickly got to terms with was that my driving style needed to change if we were to survive! Every time we braked, we could feel the trailer’s inertia pushing us and slow us down by severe jerks when we needed to accelerate. Gradually I got the hand of it and made good progress, all things considered.

Quite late that day we reached Maralal late and we set up camp with the aid of the car lights at the Catholic Mission. It was very cold and through the mist we caught a glimpse of the very old and somehow decaying cedar trees (Juniperus procera). This cedar is known as African pencil cedar, obviously from which pencils can be made. These trees were part of the highland mist forest, indigenous to Maralal mountain.

All the cedars were decorated with Old Man’s Beard or Spanish Moss (Usnea spp.) an epiphyte or plant that grows on another but not as a parasite. The area was renown for been forested by these species but there were not many left, at least around the area we were.

Although leopards were common, we did not see any while we spent a cold night and we were ready to go as soon as we felt strong the following morning.

Day 2 – Under Mt. Kulal

The following day we continued towards the southern shores of the lake. The road went down until we reached flat ground. On the way we turned into a small track sign-posted “World’s View” or a similar name. We were curious to see what it was but soon our curiosity turned into impatience, as the road was endless. We stopped and discussed our situation but decided to go to the bitter end rather than to turn around.

The long drive was worth its length and every shake we experienced not to mention the inhaled dust for, at the end of it, we were contemplating the southern tip of Lake Turkana, bright green against which rather recent volcanic cones were prominent. Southern Island could be seen far off towards the north as well. We were all speechless for a while and I believe that we were far too impressed to take pictures as I could not find any!

Embed from Getty Images

Once we filled our eyes and minds with such an unforgettable view it was time to move on as we still have some kilometres to drive before arriving to our next stop by the shores of the lake. We retraced our route and eventually we got back to the main track, with the image of what we had just seen fresh in our minds.

The road turned to rough and sharp volcanic rock while we crawled towards the lake and, somehow, we went over a small hill avoiding large black boulders and we got to the lake. We left its shore on our left and continued on the black track that turned inland through dry bush for quite a distance until we could see a large mountain that we -correctly- assumed to be Mount Kulal.

turkana safari 4

Shade booked by Turkana sheep and goats. No room for us!

turkana safari gravy zebra

A Grevy zebra, a “special” of Northern Kenya.

With its 2,300m Mount Kulal dominated the landscape and we could just see its two peaks but in order to see its evergreen forest where cedar trees and lammergeyers are supposed to be found we needed a much closer approach that was not part of our itinerary.

Eventually the track turned left towards the lake and, again, we got to its shores in mid afternoon. We were still south from Loyangalani and there were sandy beaches. Tired we stopped to contemplate the lake and soon a group of Turkana came to greet us and to watch us from a distance. It was very hot so we had a quick swim -after checking for crocs- and then started preparing our camp.

It seemed that Mt. Kulal acted as bellows blowing very hot air towards the lake but we were prepared to protect ourselves from it. Or so we thought… As rehearsed in Nairobi our cars were parked parallel to the lake at about 10m from each other and then, once the tarpaulin was dug up from the depths of the trailer, we proceeded to assemble it.

We immediately realized the difference between setting it up in windless Nairobi as compared with the true hot gale coming from Mt. Kulal. After quite an effort from all five of us, we managed to tied it to the two vehicles and create a shelter although the wind was still passing under it and through the sides. I am sure the Turkana members of the public watching us had a good laugh about the antics of the bunch of “mzungu” [1] trying to get blown away into the lake instead of settling down!

We soon realized that we could not achieve the expected results and, as light was fading, with our pathetic wind breaker flapping loudly and constantly, we proceeded to organize our camp. However, after a few minutes we heard a ripping noise and our tarpaulin became a gigantic green flag flapping in the wind, held to only one of the cars.

We decided to untie it before it flew into the lake and drove the cars together across the wind and use them as a shelter. I am sure the Turkana visitors approved of that! Unfortunately camping was still difficult and, at some stage, following a particularly strong wind attack, all our light stuff including chairs and clothes flew off towards the lake, followed behind by our complete fire together with our pans, including their contents!

turkana safari camping kulal area 2

After the struggle, the tarpaulin became our floor!

In view of the crisis, we had a tinned dinner and did not bother to put tents up but slept under the stars behind our cars putting up with the occasional gust of wind as it was a hot night. I still remember that I had difficulties to go to sleep as my hair (quite long then) kept hitting me on the face and eventually I needed to wear a cap to be able to stop it from bothering me! After that I managed some sleep.

Day 3 – Dry river-bed in Sibiloi National Park

Luckily, the following morning was windless and we could enjoy a very needed English breakfast. After short walks in the beach it was time to move on to cover the approximate 200 kilometers we had plan for the day.

We drove north and, somewhere after Loyangalani while driving close to the lake, we encountered a solitary mzungu walking in the opposite direction. He stopped us. He was a young man with severe sunburnt that just managed to ask for water despite his mouth being very dry and his tongue rather swollen. We gave him some of our water and filled his water bottle and, as soon as he got the water, without saying a word, he just walked off, ignoring our offers for help!

Still thinking about what this lone walker would have been doing there, we followed the road that at this point moved inland and then run parallel to the lake. After quite a long drive we go to the entrance of the Sibiloi National Park, created in 1973 for the protection of paleontology sites and wildlife. It is 1,570 km2 of semi-desert habitat and plains bordered by volcanic hills, including Mount Sibiloi.

Migrant waterfowl stop here and many of the more than 350 species of aquatic and terrestrial birds found at Lake Turkana can be spotted here together with zebras, Grant gazelles, lions, leopards, striped hyenas, Beisa Oryx, greater kudu, cheetahs and northern topi. Sibiloi is also a crocodile breeding area and the Turkana, the Gabra and the Dassanach ethnic groups surround it.

turkana safari 1 2

Mabel at the entrance of the Sibiloi National Park.

After entering the park we stopped briefly to look at the rests of a petrified forest and, in the afternoon, we got to a dry river bed where we decided to go against the manual and risk the unlikely flush flood camping there on it as it offered a nice and soft sandy bottom, quite a change from our rocky and thorny surroundings and, most importantly, it offered a pleasant windless environment!

There we spent a rather pleasant night, again under the stars, as the temperature was still hot. The following morning, after another excellent breakfast, we broke camp and left for the next few kilometres that remained before getting to Koobi Fora.

 

[1] A term used in Kenya to refer to white people.

 

 

 

 

To the cradle of mankind – Background and preparations

Koobi Fora takes its name from a ridge located on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana in the territory of the nomadic Gabbra people and within the Sibiloi National Park. In Gabbra, Koobi Fora means a place of the commiphora and the source of myrrh [1].

The ridge contains mainly Pliocene/Pleistocene sediments (clay, silt and sand stones) that have conserved fossils of terrestrial mammals, including early hominid species.

In 1967 Richard Leakey’s flight to the Omo region the pilot flew over lake Turkana to avoid a thunderstorm. Although he expected the Koobi Fora area to be volcanic rock, he spotted sediments and later, during another visit by land, he saw tools and fossils that led him to establish the Koobi Fora Base Camp on a large sand spit projecting into the lake near the ridge.

Lake_turkana Credit NASA

Lake turkana in Northern Kenya from a satellite. Credit: NASA.

In 1969 Leakey’s team found a cranium of Paranthropus boisei that created great enthusiasm. Three years later the skull of Homo rudolfensis (KNM ER 1470) was uncovered and after another three years a Homo erectus skull was found. (KNM ER 3733) and a second -intact- one in 1978 (KNM ER 3883). Leakey wrote a number of books on the subject of the evolution of man that made him world famous [2].

Leakey’s books were very popular at the time we were in Kenya and reading them was probably what hatched the idea of a safari to the area to see where the fossils had been found as an excuse to explore the area of lake Turkana, immortalized in the book “Journey to the Jade Sea” [3].

Lake Turkana, a brackish soda lake, is found in Northern Kenya where its 48 km of width, extends for 256 km from north to south in the border with Ethiopia. Volcanoes surround the green lake. Some like Nabiyotum Crater in Southern island are truly beautiful but there are several in the southern part of the lake where the Kerio and Turkwel Rivers enter it with fresh water.

turkana safari 5

Some of the beautiful volcanic cones at the lake.

The lava flows surrounding the lake are often too hot to touch, the winds blow with gale force and the beautifully green lake was home to nomadic ethnic groups such as the Turkana and El Molo and it also offered -apparently- good fishing as well as a very large population of very large crocodiles!

We knew that the lake was rich in crocodiles (estimated at 22 thousand), fish, bird life and scenery, particularly its stark volcanic hills and still rather untouched by “civilization” so that Turkana fishermen did not need clothes! Count Teleki “discovered” it in 1888 describing it as with “beautiful water… clear as crystal…” but the name he chose, Lake Rudolf, is no longer in use.

The lake offered, therefore, a number of interesting challenges that we could not resist. Three factors influenced our decision, two were related to our friend Paul who, at the time was befriending Else, a lady working at the National Museums of Kenya and the visit of his brother from the UK. Through Else we got the green light to visit Koobi Fora so, the preparations for the trip could begin.

The third concerned to both Paul and I and it was the apparently amazing fishing that you could have in Lake Turkana as no one knew why Nile Perch there reached 90kg and over and the tiger fish fought so much!

We agreed that we would travel in tour two Land Rovers but when we estimated the amount of food, water and gear we would need, we despaired, as, although both cars had roof carriers, they would be too overloaded to withstand the expected rough journey. We were stuck!

However, Paul found a solution in the shape of a disused trailer that was at Muguga that he could use and that, importantly, it had the same tires than our cars. It was a long metal contraption looking (and being!) very heavy but it was our only option so we took it from the yard where old cars were kept for a sale that never took place, and towed to Paul’s house, our temporary centre of operations.

The journey would take several days and the planned itinerary would take us through Maralal, South Horr. Loyangalani, North Horr, Koobi Fora, Chalbi desert, Marsabit, Samburu and, finally, Nairobi

We were fortunate that Paul had a small gas fridge that would enable us to carry some perishable food for a few days although we added, apart from the normal cool boxes with normal ice packs, one with dry ice to be opened after a few days during the journey.

Mabel and Else developed the menus and food and they got involved in careful calculations so that we had enough eggs and bacon, cooking oil and fresh and preserved fruits as we were not sure of how much we could get on the way.

Luckily Mabel had by then accumulated good camping experience and we relied on her to do the planning. As time was very long and the area very hot, she decided to place our “last” fresh stuff in the dry ice cool box to be opened on day five. After these final supplies were over, it would be tinned food.

Apart from having the Land Rovers in the best condition possible according to their ages, Paul and I dealt with fuel and other car essentials as well as the necessary camping and fishing gear. We prepared our tents, sleeping gear, camping chairs and tables, making sure that all necessary bits and pieces were there, including mallets and spades as well as some charcoal for the areas where no firewood was obtainable.

The safari stuff mountain grew by the day and the inclusion of the fishing gear did not help. As this was considered as one of the highlights of the trip the rubber dinghy was added, together with engine and petrol. Aware that the lake harboured large fish such as Nile Perch and Tiger fish we took heavy fishing gear, hoping that it would be enough for the expected fish fights.

We also needed to carry sufficient water and fuel. Although we would be able to find both on the way, we settled for 80 litres of petrol. As far as water was concerned we only took 40 litres as the water of the lake was considered as mildly alkaline and drinkable in an emergency.

We took four spare wheels, as we could share them and we also collected what we thought was a rather comprehensive set of tools and a rather large assortment of essential spares that included everything we thought our cars might need during the estimated 3,200 km of the return journey, without counting local travel.

Security reports were essential before venturing into this area and we learnt that it was good at the time although the occasional incursions by bandits known as “Shiftas” could not be predicted. We decided that this was good enough and decided to risk it.

The final moment of truth came when Else got the permit to enter into the Koobi Fora area and use the accommodation that had been built there by Richard Leakey and the National Museums of Kenya. We had then, like Julio Caesar, crossed the Rubicon and there was no way back!

However, there was one more step before we were ready to go. We knew, from the experience of other visitors, that we should expect very strong winds, particularly in the vicinity of Mt. Kulal, the mountain of the winds! We decided that we needed a barrier and we borrowed a rather large and heavy lorry tarpaulin that we intended to use as a wind barrier by tying it between the two cars.

So, the Friday before our departure we decided to have a “Windbreak setting up rehearsal and dinner party” that had more of a party than a rehersal for the setting up of the tarpaulin!

However, afterwards, we felt we could handle the voyage.

 

[1] See: https://www.museums.or.ke/koobi-fora/ consulted on 21/11/19. My addition: Commiphora, is the most species-rich genus of flowering plants in the frankincense and myrrh family,

[2] Origins (with Roger Lewin) (Dutton, 1977); People of the Lake: Mankind and its Beginnings (with Roger Lewin) (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978) and Making of Mankind (Penguin USA, 1981) among others.

[3] Hillaby, J. (1973), Journey to the Jade Sea. Academy Chicago Publishers. 206 p.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wamba sweet tea

It was Paul’s idea to do what he called the Wamba circuit that was really a long drive passing through Wamba town to an area in the bush where we would find a suitable spot to camp and enjoy the vastness of the area, together with its wildlife.

The detail of how we got there escape me now but it was a very long drive from Nairobi past Isiolo and following the road to Marsabit National Park, turning west at Archer’s post on the way to Baragoi and, a while later we got to Wamba, a small town in Samburu County in central Kenya, located to the southwest of the Mathews Range, and northwest of the Samburu National Reserve.

We were thirsty when we got to Wamba and looked for a place where we could get a cold drink as we needed to fix some mechanical issues with the Land Rover. After driving through the town’s dusty roads under the late morning heat we found a place that had fridges and we went in hoping for a cold beer or, if not, even a cold soda could have done! The attendant took the order and came back with the drinks that were at about 40oC as there was no electricity and, as it is common in Africa, the fridges are used as cupboards! We were devastated and refused to drink them!

The waiter then offered us spiced tea and we accepted as at least it was meant to be a hot drink and it was water after all. What came, served in glasses, was probably the best cup of tea that I have ever drunk, an impression probably aided by the circumstances. It was very sweet and it tasted of true clove, cardamom and cinnamon. We drank lots of it and thanked (and tipped) the waiter for such a great tea and we were ready to go.

We drove on through a vast dry and extremely hot area with scattered rocky outcrops. As we had the whole area to ourselves, we chose one of the few places with some sizeable trees for shade and also with our “own” kopje that would also provide some additional shade, we estimated.

Camping Wamba trip with PR copy 2

“Aerial view” of our camp.

There we assembled our camp that consisted of the tents and a makeshift shade added to the Land Rover, as we were not planning to drive but to walk. As usual in these places, although one believes to be alone, this is far from true and about thirty minutes after we arrived we already had a “guard” of young Samburu boys standing by our camp with who we were, unfortunately, unable to communicate apart from offering them water and food! They came from an unseen manyatta nearby and they seemed happy to stay with us until just before sunset.

Camping Wamba trip with PR 1 copy 2

Mabel under custody!

The following morning we decided to have “an English breakfast with a view” and, not without some difficulty, carried our fried and scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, fried tomatoes, toasts and butter! In addition we carried our thermoses of coffee and tea up “our” hill. Being hot helped to keep our food warm by the time we reached the top and we started eating once we found places to sit.

wamba trip

“Our” rocky outcrop with Paul at the top.

We had the most magnificent view of the immense bush country extending in all directions below us. After a few attempts, I managed a picture of the three of us with our breakfast that placed us, I am sure, among the early pioneers of the present day selfies!

We were about our second bite when a mighty blast made the kopje shiver and almost took the plates from our hands! Truly shell-shocked we all looked to see if the car had blown up but, luckily, it was still there although our Samburu guards were nowhere to be seen.

Then, we saw a column of dust and smoke about five hundred metres from us and, then another explosion and yet another! Still on the kopje we checked with the binoculars and saw that the bushes were moving! Incredulous, we looked again and realized that camouflaged tanks and other army vehicles were coming through the bush towards us!

wamba trip 2

The selfie before breakfast. The troop movement started later in the bush at the back.

Our first thought was that Somalia was invading Kenya and we went into a mild panic as the thought of being among the first prisoners of war did not appeal to us. However, as this would be unlikely, we decided to come down from our lookout and finish our now cold breakfast at camp to wait for developments with “a stiff upper lip” as were clearly outnumbered!

We did not have to wait long before a Kenya army Land Rover with soldiers in full combat gear arrived. Clearly they were surprised to find us there but they immediately realized that we were just campers, if a bit out of the ordinary for having chosen that particular area for our holiday!

They politely explained to us that we happened to be in an area that was used for joint Kenya-British army maneuvers and they just wanted to inform us of the situation and tell us that we could stay the night but it would be better for us to vacate the area next day as some live ammo was being used!

We stayed for the rest of the day surrounded by army trucks and infantry marches until it was time to leave, obviously, without having seen much of the area!

We returned to Nairobi through Rumuruti, Nyahururu and Nakuru and later we learnt that the land we camped in belonged to the Kenyan government and it had been used for military training by the Kenya Defence Forces and the British Army for many years.

Working in the Northern Fontier District

After my FAO Fellowship ended and I joined the ICIPE and my work shifted towards the understanding of the resistance that some cattle have against ticks. Some colleagues there were working on a tick vaccine while I was given the task of exploring the natural resistance that is observed among cattle in the field.

At the time there were reports of animals that were refractory to ticks while the opposite also happened, a few animals in the herd carried most of the ticks and culling them was recommended to reduce tick populations in the long term. We needed tp prove this in Kenya, in an area free of Theileriosis as the work demanded to stop the application of chemicals to kill the ticks.

Boran bull Mutara copy

Beautiful Boran bull.

After discussions with colleagues and with the agreement of the Government of Kenya’s veterinary authorities it was agreed that we would focused our work on Mutara Ranch in Laikipia District where the Agricultural Development Corporation had the National Boran Stud. They were prepared to let us work on a group of one hundred young bulls to determine their resistance status.

After the trial preparation period we started with the work that lasted for six months. We got a number of interesting results that confirmed the hypothesis that tick distribution in the herd was normally distributed with a few bulls carrying few and lots of ticks while most were somewhere in between.

mutara

Working. From left to right Mark, Henry, Joseph, Bushsnob, Gitau and the other Henry.

So, we decided to compare our list of best ranked bulls for tick resistance with those of the Farm Manager for physical quality and body built. Our best animals for tick resistance did not match those regarded as best by the Manager! Although this was not what we expected and a disappointment as it was clear that selection would take a longer route than anticipated, the geneticists and statisticians unanimously agreed that the consistency of the results merited continuation[1].

We then entered in collaboration discussions with geneticists from Texas’ A&M University in the United States to expand the work and, with them, planned a series of follow-up trials. Unfortunately, the research group dispersed and myself and another of the collaborators departed from Kenya and the work stopped there.

In addition to doing very interesting work, my regular visits to Mutara gave me a great opportunity to explore some areas of the Northern Frontier District, a fascinating area that I mentioned in my previous post. These safaris follow next!

 

[1] Results of the work are published and those of you with a scientific mind can access the publication. See:https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337857245_Towards_the_selection_of_cattle_for_tick_resistance_in_Africa