Safari

Accounts on trips done, safari preparations, sand driving, mud driving, tips and travel-related issues.

A short trip to Ngorongoro – Contributed

Kenya and Tanzania – February 1988

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

The trip in a few words.

Itinerary

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

Participants

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

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

 The trip in detail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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View of a big pond at the bottom of the crater

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

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

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

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

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

11-TzCraterAegyptianGeese88Egyptian geese feeding and resting near a pool

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

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

14-TZNgorongoroZebras88 copyZebras grazing the abundant grass near the tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19-TZManyaraSprings88 copyManyara Springs, near the entrance…

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

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

22-TZManyaraLake88 copyManyara Lake with flamingoes in the far…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25-TZManyaraMorningBuffalos88mumBuffalo!

26 TzManyaraSunset88-3A beautiful African scene at sunset

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

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

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

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

THE END

PinkShade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mad buffalo?

We were on a game drive following the Shingwedzi River towards the Kanniedod dam in the Kruger National Park on 5 October 2017. About four km after leaving the Shingwedzi rest camp we spotted a group of lions feeding on a greater kudu that appeared to have been killed earlier that morning. It was 08:30 hours.

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Lionesses at the kill seen through the branches on the other side of the river.

There were ten lions, two adult males, on one young male and seven adult females. They were feeding on the opposite bank of the river. Although the latter was open sand banks with scattered bushes, our visibility was rather limited by the dense vegetation on our side. As we were alone -a rare occurrence- we drove up and down the river trying to get a good view. All we managed to find was a rather narrow gap in the vegetation and from there we watched. 

At exactly 08:45 hours (we know the exact times because of the pictures’ information) four lionesses were feeding on the kill while the remaining members of the pride were nearby, either a few metres away or up on the river bank. We also noted that there were three adult buffalo about 50 metres towards the right of the lions. They were not grazing, just watching them.

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The lionesses feeding and already alert by the buffalo presence.

Suddenly, one of the buffalo rushed towards the lions at speed and charged the group scattering them in all directions.

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The first charge.

Through the dust I saw the buffalo head-butting something on the ground and my first thought was that it had got one of the lions! However, as the situation became clearer, I could see that it was in fact violently thrashing the greater kudu carcass!

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The buffalo clobbered the carcass for a few seconds while the lions run away and then stopped and watched the buffalo. A second buffalo arrived to the scene but it did not join the first at the carcass.

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Then, the third buffalo appeared and the trio stood at the site for a while before moving off to the other side of the carcass to a distance of about 30 metres.

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Two minutes later the lions started to come back and resumed feeding, still being watched by the buffalo, now from the left of the pictures.

Once the buffalo cleared off, the lions returned to the kill and fed for about half an hour.

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Then, when everything appeared quiet, a second buffalo charge took place!

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This time the buffalo seemed satisfied scattering the lions and it did not interfere with the carcass.

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After this second interaction the three buffalo turned their attention towards the various lions and proceeded to chase them and flash them out from the various locations they chose to hide.

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After about one hour of this confrontation one of the lionesses moved off and walked about two hundred metres towards a pool in the river and, after drinking its fill, hid herself under some bushes, clearly fed up with the buffalo!

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By about 11:00 hours the contest was over and the buffalo moved away leaving the lions undisturbed either singly or in small groups at various places along the river. When we returned before sunset a group of lions was resting on the riverbed but the buffalo were no longer in the area and, by the following morning. there were no signs of the lions or the carcass but some buffalo were still in the area.

We always learn from these kind of observations and I believe that there are a few issues of interest. The first is that at no time the lions attempted to confront or retaliate against the buffalo despite the size of the pride. This is probably explained either by not being hungry (as they had fed on the grater kudu) and/or being aware that the strong buffalo were a dangerous prey.

The second is the clear and understandable adverse reaction of the buffalo against the lions that they perceive as a danger and did not wish to have in their territory.

The most puzzling observation relates to the buffalo behaviour towards the carcass. It is possible that, unable to retaliate against the lions, the buffalo’s anger was expressed against what they perceived as associated with the predators. Of course we cannot rule out that some other reason sight- or smell-related triggered this conduct. 

Perhaps readers with more experience on animal behaviour would like to comment on this and put forward a better explanation?

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A general view of the area where the observations took place. The kill was towards the left of the picture.

 

Season’s Greetings

All the best from one of the most beautiful countries on earth where we are lucky to live for one half of each year. Enjoy the view…

 

Felicidades desde una de los países más hermosos donde tenemos la suerte de vivir por la mitad de cada año! Disfruten de los paisajes…

 

Surfing heron!

Someone made a positive comment in YouTube about this video I took in Mana Pools and I looked at it again and liked it!!!

Hope you enjoy it also.

Anecdotes with a friend

I will not tire repeating that Alan Young was the principal driving force behind the research on Theileriosis in Africa and I still regret its untimely passing in 1995 that resulted in a crippling blow to our progress in the understanding and controlling the disease in Africa.

Apart from being very intelligent, Alan was a “hands on” researcher that enjoyed fieldwork and a good laugh. During the few years we shared in Kenya there were a number of great working moments and achievements as well as some amusing ones. As this is not a scientific blog, I will share with you some of the latter that I still remember.

Although he was always writing and publishing scientific papers and work was his passion, Alan still managed field trips and he loved to visit Intona. As I described before it was Alan who brought me to the ranch in the Transmara for the first time after my first trip to Mbita Point with Matt [1].

Alan inspecting the cattle at Intona ranch.

I needed his expertise to protect cattle against Theileriosis so I could stop applying acaricides to them for my trial. He was always busy following up immunized animals, a procedure that required many hours behind a microscope checking lymph and blood smears to detect early signs of the disease and take appropriate action.

Luckily, we had a cohort of well-drilled KEVRI and ICIPE technicians that would stay at Intona monitoring the cattle as well as the tick work I was involved. Some of them were the protagonists of some incidents that I believe are worth narrating.

During one of my first trips from Muguga to Intona with Alan and the herdsmen, in particular a very funny one called Ben, we left Muguga at about 09:00hs. Not a very early start but the herdsmen needed to wait for the Government’s cashier to give them their per diem for the days they would be in the bush. This meant that we needed to stop on the way to get their provisions for the entire spell that they would be out.

So, after getting cooking oil, ugali [2] and cabbages, we stopped to fill-up the car at the main Nairobi to Kampala road. Alan dealt with the fuel, I did nothing but walk about while the herdsmen went off to get paraffin for cooking.

After a while we were ready to depart. While Alan waited for the change from the cashier I got in the car and noted a rather overwhelming paraffin smell. Thinking that one of the herdsmen containers was still dirty in the outside I kept quiet thinking that it would soon dry up and the smell would stop.

Alan came in and he immediately detected the strong fumes and asked the herdsmen at the back of the Land Rover to check their paraffin containers. They both replied that all was in order so we moved on with our windows open. However, as the stink continued, Alan decided to stop about a kilometer further to have a look. He was not amused when he found that Ben was clinging to his plastic paraffin can. Alan noted that he was trying to block a leak with his finger! It was necessary to return to the petrol station to get a new container before the journey resumed! Luckily, over the long journey we shared a great laugh with Ben over the issue.

Once my work started at Intona I was there often and regularly to manage the tick trials I was running. Kiza, the resident veterinarian at the ranch, supervised Alan’s work but also looked after the numerous Murumbi’s pet dogs that kept him very busy. The arrangement with the cattle was that Kiza would radio Alan in case of any complication was detected.

So, during one of my stays at Intona, Alan turned up to deal with some abnormal cattle temperature readings. I was at a particular busy time and did not know what was taking place so here I reconstruct the story from the various participants.

The monitoring of cattle immunized against Theileriosis included recording daily body temperatures and taking blood and lymph node smears to check for parasites in both tissues. There was a book where these findings were recorded daily.

At that particular time, John, one of the hard working KEVRI staff, was in charge of monitoring the cattle. Immediately upon arrival Alan asked for the book where the daily cattle temperatures were recorded and started to go through it with Kiza and John himself. The issue was that, for the last four or five days there were some unusual temperature readings, different from the earlier trend. The experienced Alan smelled a rat so he asked John to repeat the temperature checking for that day to compare with those in the book and see if he could detect anything.

After the request, an inordinate amount of time elapsed before John started checking the animals and, eventually, he came to reveal that all the thermometers had broken and that, over the days in question, he had taken “temperature estimates” of the animals based on how they felt to the touch under the tail area!

Later on, when things settled down, over a beer Alan narrated the event to me and he was very amused to the point that he coined the term “John’s finger test” to describe what had happened! Although we never quite knew about the real procedure employed by John, we had a good laugh and both his working mates and us forever teased John about this incident.

This anecdote of a time when we were applying identification ear tags to cattle at Muguga confirms that I was not the only one that had difficulties to understand Alan. We were using new ear tags and noted that we had forgotten the special pen to write on them known as the Magic marker as it would write on plastic and the paint would last long.

So, Alan asked one of the older workers called Ernest to bring it. After about twenty minutes Ernest had not yet returned although the office was quite near. Alan and I were getting anxious and wondering what happened as this was a routine procedure and we needed to get on with more important work.

When I was about to go and check we saw Ernest walking very slowly towards us trying not to spill the water from a plastic washbowl. We looked at each other fearing some “cock-up”; the term we normally used for these eventualities. Alan echoed my thoughts when he asked Ernest “why did you bring this if we asked you for the magic marker?” “Oh”, Ernest replied, “I thought you wanted “maji moto”, KiSwahili for hot water. The delay was now clear and he rushed to get the pen while we both burst out laughing.

After a few years I completed my FAO assignment but remained in Kenya as a scientist with the ICIPE and my collaboration with Alan continued although my work had shifted to cattle resistance to tick infestations. I continued visiting Intona with a new experiment that required the building of a special paddock.

It was very important that the wild animals were kept out and the cattle inside the paddock for the trial to succeed. We were not only dealing with African buffalo that were common at the ranch but also with elephants that at times would literally walk through Intona and we knew that they would not be stopped by a normal fence!

Building the paddock.

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The paddock being used.

So, Alan had the idea of setting up a strong paddock with an electric fence. Alan was traveling frequently to the USA at the time and brought a couple of solar powered electric fence units capable of delivering 11,000 Volts pulses of very low amperage (safe as high Amps are the ones that could kill you) but the high Voltage will “only” hurt you!

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The Solar-powered units for the fencing.

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The solar powered electric fence unit installed in a protective box.

 

The day came to connect the fence so that the trial could start. We needed to confirm that the solar-charged batteries were delivering the correct electricity current according to the manual. For that purpose the equipment came with a very fancy tester that Alan would use. We had left the unit charging from the day before as advised by the makers.

Although it rained most afternoons, because of the influence of Lake Victoria, there was sunshine from sunrise to about 17:00 hs, enough for charging the batteries. So, Alan, the herdsmen and myself, after listening to the pulse clicks at the unit, went to the fence to finally test its power.

Alan applied the terminals to the wire and, before I go on, I must tell you that what took place happened very fast so I may have missed some details as I was looking at the reading in the tester. I believe that first there were some sparks but in any case, the tester disappeared from my field of vision together with Alan that proffered a rude epithet while being thrown back from the fence and falling on his bump!

“Pole sana”[3] said the herdsman and I also muttered a rather useless “oh, sorry!” Alan sat on the ground, rubbing his right hand that was still holding the charred remains of the tester! Our concern about his wellbeing evaporated the moment that Alan burst out laughing and we all relaxed learning that he was still his usual self even after the shock!

Probably the rain that fell the day before had had some impact in the transmission of the electricity pulses that, somehow, got to Alan and not to the tester. From that day on we assumed that the fence was powerful enough and no further checks were ever performed again for lack of volunteers and a tester!

While performing field trips with Alan he kindly lent me his Land Rover as part of our collaboration until some years later ICIPE finally decided to buy a similar one for our work.

Alan’s car was heavily used, as we not only traveled to Intona but also Busia and Laikipia to name the most common ones. Although I never noticed it, years later during a visit while I was already out of Kenya, I managed to meet with some of our former herdsmen who as one of the events they remembered was that we had been carrying Chang’aa, an illegal drink! I was astonished when they explained me how it happened.

Alan’s Series III Land Rover had two jerry cans fitted at the front of the car. As we considered carrying petrol there too dangerous in case of an accident we kept the cans empty and, frankly, we forgot about them.

Chang’aa, also known in various languages as kali, kill-me-quick, Kisumu whisky, maai-matheru, machozi-ya-simba and others, was (and still is) the name given to distilled spirits in Kenya and the manufacture, commerce, consumption or possession of it was, at the time, illegal and punishable with heavy fines and even up to two years in prison! [4].

So it resulted that the guilty herdsmen would buy Chang’aa in the field, place it in the jerry cans and “import it” under the cover of our work to Nairobi where they would, I imagine, sell it for a handsome profit!

So, without our knowledge, our Land Rover (and us!) was used as a “mule” in the rather clever operation! I never had the chance to comment this with Alan as I learnt about it after his passing so I am not sure that he ever found out about it.

Alan and I shared the passion for soccer. While this should not surprise you in my case, as I come from Uruguay but for someone from Northern Ireland, not a great soccer nation, it was remarkable at least in my book. We shared our soccer interest with Walter, the then Director of KEVRI, Muguga, and this was a frequent topic during our many morning tea breaks at the Institute. Walter was the Chairman of one of the main teams in Kenya, AFC Leopards, but also followed football worldwide.

In 1989, living and working in Ethiopia, I attended one of the FAO Expert Consultations on Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases in Rome where I met Alan and, during the meeting, we learnt that there was a football match the coming Sunday. The meeting was ending on Friday so we agreed that, return flights to Africa permitting, a soccer match of the Serie A League was a must.

Because I could speak some Italian I dealt with the organization of the outing once both checked that our flights would leave on the Sunday night. So, I confirmed that Lazio, one of the two teams from Rome, was playing Fiorentina (from Florence). The game would take place at the Stadio Olimpico, the main arena in Roma built for the 1960 Summer Olympic Games.

I still remember that it was Sunday 21 May 1989 when, before lunchtime we left the Sant’ Anselmo hotel in the Aventino area of Rome and walked to the bus stop as advised by my Roman contacts. The bus was empty as the stop was the start of the line and, seated, we were soon on our way. About half way a crowd of Lazio tifosi (fans) dressed for the occasion and carrying lots of flags and banners filled the bus. They were many and about half of them were left behind when the doors were closed!

We were really packed, almost worse than in a Kenya minibus! Surrounded by people dressed in their team’s pale blue shirts I felt like going to a match where the “celeste” (pale blue) of Uruguay was playing! After a while the tifosi started to jump all together and to move sideways… We look at each other in disbelief and grabbed whatever handle we could, as the danger of the bus toppling sideways was a real one!

Feeling like survivors, we were the last leaving the bus. It was about an hour earlier and it was filling fast. We approached the usual ticket sale points and they were all closed, except for the really expensive ones. We were in trouble, as we had not planned for such expenditure! Far from giving up, we looked for a quiet corner and counted our cash realizing that it would be either soccer or lunch! Luckily we already had the return bus tickets.

Without hesitating we agreed to skip lunch so two starved and penniless people entered the grand stand that afternoon! The attraction for me was that Rubén Sosa, a Uruguayan that had a distinguished career as a fast attacker with a great goal scoring ability and exact passing. He is considered by many as one of the best soccer players Uruguay has produced in the second half of the 20th Century!

The match was even and entertaining until early in the second half Lazio was awarded a penalty that Sosa converted into a goal and Lazio won. The people in the stadium went wild and, when he was replaced at the 89th minute, got a standing ovation (that included us!). We were really happy and the occasion gave me good ammo to tease Alan in the future about my South American origins!

 

[1] https://bushsnob.com/2015/06/01/intona-ranch1/

[2] KiSwahili for white maize flower, the staple food in Kenya.

[3] “Sorry” or “very sorry” in KiSwahili means

[4] Kenyalaw.org/kl/fileadmin/pdfdownloads/…/Changaa_Prohibition__Cap_70_.doc Consulted on 25/11/2018.

The wild Shoebill stork chase – The videos

As there was some technical issue with the videos that illustrated the earlier post, I attach them here with a short explanation about each one.

 

This video shows how the going was when things were relatively easy. Nevertheless, my admiration goes to Lola that managed to record the moment while she kept walking!

 

While she filmed her steps, that is how the rest of us were doing!

 

Walking on floating vegetation. A view of the situation when the going got tough.

 

Finally observing the nest!

 

Preparations for the Bushsnob to jump a ditch on the way back and his great jump!

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!

 

 

 

 

Secret insect life at Bangweulu

Often, apparently insignificant details reveal interesting facts when sometime is spent following them up. This was -again- the case while camping at the Nsobe campsite at the Bangweulu wetlands during our prelude to attempting to find the Shoebill storks.

As -aware of the differences- the landscape reminded me somehow of that of Intona Ranch in the Transmara of Kenya in the 80’s [1], I decided to look at some of the tree islands surrounding the one we were camping at. The similarities ended as these, although around termite mounds, were composed of different trees.

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The Bushsnob walking about in the Bwngweulu wetlands looking at the tree islands.

In one of the bushes nearby I observed that some leaves were yellow while others were just their normal shape and green. A better look showed that the yellow parts were in fact an enlarged part of the leaf itself. I thought it was probably a viral or fungal infection but, in any case, I collected a few for opening up as I was curious.

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Close-up of the malformation (gall).

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Similar lesions of Thryps infestation. Credit: Mr Thrips (Talk | contribs). [2]

I cut them lengthwise and found some tiny insects inside the galls!

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The capsules opened lengthwise to show their contents.

Luckily I had with me a “super macro’ lens given to me by my son (he likes gadgets!). This lens is applied to the cellphone camera and give you enlarged macro pictures like the ones I showed in from our bat house in Salta, Argentina [3].

Through the camera I could see an adult (black) insect, several white eggs and what looked like larvae or nymphs of the black insect walking about. In addition there was a large white insect that I assumed to be the female lying eggs according to its pulsating movement under the macro lens.

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Adult (black) with nymphs and eggs.

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Eggs and a nymph (reddish abdomen).

As I had no clue of what these could be, on return to Zimbabwe I resorted to the very helpful Plant Protection Research Institute of the National Research Council of South Africa as they had helped me in the past with insect identification and information. As usual, the reply came the next day and it was very revealing!

The host plant was identified as probably a Water berry tree belonging to the Syzygium (Family: Myrtaceae). It is likely to be Syzygium cordatum but I am not sure. In any case, the “leaf roll” or gall was the plant’s response to a kind of insect known as Thryps (Order: Thysanoptera), of which I have not heard before but later learnt that are important agriculture pests!

Adult Thryps have sucking mouthparts that cause damage by feeding on a plant’s fluids. The leaves respond curling tightly inwards developing the capsule I found. This structure protects the immature Thryps to develop and eventually disperse.

What I thought was an egg-laying female seems, according to the South African colleagues, a Hover fly larvae predating on the Thryps so there was also some drama going on in the dark!

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The suspected female was apparently a Hover fly larvae possibly predating on the Thryps.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/06/01/intona-ranch1/

[2] From https://thrips.info/wiki/Thrips_and_galls. Thryps and galls by Laurence Mound, CSIRO Ecosystems Sciences, Canberra.

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2017/04/02/homely-bats/

 

Acknowledgement: Elizabeth Globbelaar and Michael Stiller of the Plant Protection Research Institute of the National Research Council of South Africa provided not only identification of plant and insects but also great information without which this post would not have been written.

Bat-less in Kasanka?

It was a rather long trip to Kasanka National Park in Zambia so, departing from Harare on 3 October, we decided to break it in lake Kariba as we anticipated an easier border crossing there. As expected the frontier was quiet and soon we were settled at our hotel in Siavonga in Zambia from where we admired lake Kariba and, later in the evening, saw the Kapenta (Limnothrissa miodon) fishing boats leave from the Siavonga harbour next door.

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Our hotel at Siavonga. Pic by Mabel de Castro.

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A Kapenta fishing boat slides through the calm waters of lake Karibaat dawn. Pic by Mabel de Castro.

We spent the next day traveling to Lusaka and then getting the car filled not only with fuel but also with all needed food and drinks as the journey to Kasanka would start rather early the following day to beat the morning traffic rush, following friends’ advice. I must say that Lusaka has changed greatly since our stay there in the early 90’s and the traffic today is rather chaotic so it seemed like a good idea.

I am sure that, under normal circumstances, an early departure would have worked. However, on the 5 October 2018 someone decided to transport two large boats to Bangweulu by road, also starting the journey early to beat the traffic! This slowly moving roadblock happened to be in front of us and, added to the on-going road works (it seemed that all the roundabouts of Lusaka were being re-built simultaneously!), created an almost impossible and impassable situation!

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Another view of the boat lorries. Lots of wheels mean heavy weight I guess? Pic by Mabel de Castro.

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The “Times of Zambia” reporting on the problems caused by abnormal trucks such as the ones we encountered.

There were three enormous lorries, frequent on southern African roads, escorted by the respective pick-ups with flashing lights and red flags warning of the hazardous nature (and ridiculous size!) of the cargo being escorted. The one we met first (the last in the convoy) carried two ferryboat cabins side by side while the other two lorries in front of it transported a hull each!

Overtaking was not in the menu as shown by the amount of traffic around us, so we followed this mad procession for about forty-five minutes. Through our walkie-talkies we discussed the situation and possible options until we agreed that we needed to break a few traffic rules if we were to pass them. The opportunity presented itself at one of the road works and we managed to squeeze through some rough terrain and “No Entry’ signs until, the moving boats overtaken, we returned to the now free road.

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Another view of the overtaking manouvre showing the clear road ahead. Pic by Mabel de Castro.

The trip to Kasanka was rather long and uneventful but for our drive next to the interesting “Congo Pedicle” in French la botte du Katanga (Katanga’s boot) that squeezes Zambia into two rather separate areas. The road between Kapiri Mposhi and Serenje touches the southernmost tip of the Pedicle so the Democratic Republic of Congo was in full view. Although we can say that we saw and almost touched the Congo, I am sorry to inform you that it looked just like Zambia…

Of interest, however, is that the Pedicle was the result of colonial negotiations that fought for the control of the mineral wealth of the area. The final word of how long the Pedicle would be was with the King of Italy who drew a north-south line (following a longitude line) where the Luapula River was thought to exit from the Lake Bangweulu swamps! [1] With that rather random action, he left his mark in Africa.

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The map of Zambia showing lake Kariba and Siavonga in the South and Lusaka (large pebble). The kidney shaped seed indicates the Congo Pedicle that divides Zambia into two lobes. The tip of the porcupine quill shows the area where we drove next to the DR Congo. The pear-shaped and red seeds indicate Kasanka NP and the southern part of the Bangweulu swamps, where we were.

We got to Kasanka National Park in the afternoon and camped near the Kasanka River at the Pontoon 2 site. These campsites are very shady and have good ablution facilities. The park is managed jointly by the Zambian Kasanka Trust and the Zambia Department of Parks and Wildlife. The Trust is, in turn, supported by two trusts based in the UK and The Netherlands. Created in 1985 it implements a private-public management model conserving wildlife while supporting the adjacent communities.

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Kasanka cellphone docking station!

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A recent map of the Kasanka National Park showing the Pontoon Campsite and the Fibwe hide.

As the river was next to our tents, every morning we had a good view of Sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekii) and Puku (Kobus vardonii) -both uncommon antelopes- while we also heard hippos in the narrow Kasanka river. All animals were rather shy except for a couple of Bushbuck that daily walked near our camp.

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A female sitatunga at the Pontoon swamp.

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More Puku at the Pontoon area.

An amphibious antelope, the Sitatunga is restricted to wetlands. Although still classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as of “Least concern”, habitat loss threatens its survival. Loss of wetland areas has isolated populations and the burning of large areas of the Bangweulu and Busanga areas placed them under direct threat and reduces their food supply.

The next two days saw us exploring the park where we observed herds of Puku, more Sitatunga and one hippo during a walk. We also continuously heard (more than saw) the three-note call of the Red Chested Cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius) calling all the time from the canopy above our camp, while the swamp next to our camp offered good sightings of water birds and fish eagles, their haunting calls adding to the beauty of the place.

Although hyenas, buffalo and elephants are present in Kasanka, camp life was peaceful but for the biting flies that were a bit of an issue, particularly for Frank that reacted strongly to their bites. As repellents did not work well, apart from covering himself with appropriate clothing, when the “attacks” were intense, he performed a variation of what I believe was a national Dutch wooden clog dancing to -mechanically- get rid of them!

The vegetation at Kasanka deserves a special mention. Briefly, there are [a?] many different habitats in a relatively small area [2]. Along the extensive floodplains and “dambos”[3] sprinkled by termite mounds there are patches of primary miombo woodland with trees up to 20m in height although the norm is much less as it has suffered by past agriculture and/or fire. Where the woodland has been damaged there is secondary miombo and it is here that we find the “musuku” or Wild loquat (Uapaca kirkiana), the main food for the migratory African Straw-coloured Fruit-bats (Eidolon helvum).

Some spectacular trees are also found in the remnants of different kind of forests. Among them are the shady Red or African mahogany (Khaya nyasica), African locust bean (Parkia filicoidea), Water berry (Syzygium cordatum) and Quinine tree (Rauvolfia caffra) to name a few. We did enjoy great shade provided by Red mahogany trees at our camp at Pontoon.

Since our first visit in the 90’s Kasanka has become world famous because of its bat migration. The park leaflet claims that ten million bats travel to the park in October-December of each year and Richard Attenborough documented the latter for the BBC in one of his well-known videos [4] and it is truly amazing and well worth watching.

Video credit: BBC.

We climbed the eighteen metres of the Fibwe hide, built on a large African Mahogany tree. From up there we had an uninterrupted view of the Kapabi swamp. Fibwe is best known for offering good sightings of Sitatunga. However, as we had the latter next to our Pontoon campsite, our purpose was different: to check for the arrival of the bats, hoping against hope, as it was too early in October for their arrival!

Although we had great sightings of Schallow’s Turaco and Blue monkeys (Cercopithecus mitis) [4], no bats were on sight and we were rather crestfallen when we climbed down from Fibwe at sunset on the last day of our stay.

After a couple of minutes drive heading for our camp we saw a large cloud of birds. Amazed by the large numbers we stopped to have a better look through our binoculars. We identified swallows but, together with them, we also saw larger birds. Soon we realized that in fact there were bats! We were one of the first to witness the first arrivals of the 2018 migration! We would not leave Kasanka “bat-less”!

Over dinner we discussed that we could shorten our time at the Bangweulu wetlands and have an extra day at Kasanka on our way back to have a good look at the bats as more were expected to arrive everyday from then on. Agreement was immediately reached and we booked an extra night as well as morning and afternoon guided tours to see the bats.

So, after our Bangweulu wetlands sojourn that I will describe later, we came back to Kasanka on the 11 October to observe the bat migration. While discussing the details of our next morning bat watching, our enthusiasm suffered a setback when Ruston -our guide- casually announced “we would depart for the platform next morning at 04:00hs”! We bravely accepted the challenge agreeing to wake up at 03:30hs and, without further ado, we had an early dinner and were in bed by 21:00hs.

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Our early dinner (by Frank) prior to the early morning adventure. Pic by Lola Castro.

The morning started rather tragically for me as I set the alarm clock at 03:00hs rather than 03:30hs to the disapproval of my wife that, unlike me, is not an early bird. Luckily, by the time we reached the BBC platform (similar to the Fibwe and located nearby) things were back to normal.

We already knew that we were all “vertigo-free” people so we climbed to the platform with confidence although it was still dark. We did this with great anticipation and we settled down to wait for the bats while listening to our guide and enjoying a hot cup of coffee. The latter was badly needed as it is amazing how cold you feel in the tropics before sunrise.

We learnt that the bats normally begin to arrive in Kasanka in late October but that this year we were lucky as they were early. Their numbers would build up everyday until, by the last week of November, up to ten million would be crammed into about one hectare of forest (known locally as “mushitu”).

These bats have a wingspan of over one metre and when they roost they look like swarms of honeybees flying in circles until they settle down in a tightly packed mass of bodies hanging from every branch of every tree and even from other bats! Their weight is such that branches break and tragedy ensues as some of the injured get eaten by all sort of predators: crocodiles, monitor lizards, snakes, civet cats and, occasionally, even leopards.

The bats seasonally move hundreds of kilometers, stopping on-route until they reach that relatively small area at Kasanka. Apparently, they congregate here because of the synchronized abundance of fruits, including their favourite: musuku (Wild loquat) but they also feed on the fruits of the Water berry (Syzigium cordatum) and Red milkwood (Mimusops zeyheri).

The millions of bats at Kasanka represent the largest concentration of mammals in Africa with an estimated weight of about three thousand metric tons of fruit bats in one hectare of forest, the greatest concentration of mammalian biomass found on earth.

Everyday the bats leave their roosting area in the evening to find food and they return at dawn to rest in the rather small roosting area. We were about to witness the later while in the afternoon we hoped to see them depart.

While listening to Ruston I could not help feeling sorry for the farmers that dwell near Kasanka and when I made a comment on their difficult situation regarding fruit production, Ruston replied saying that he had never been able to eat a fruit at Kasanka while the bats are there!

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Our early morning vigil, waiting for dawn to come and, with it, the bats. Pic by Lola Castro.

After Ruston’s brief we sat silently waiting for the light to increase. During that time I started to ponder how it was known that the bats amounted to 10 million. I concluded that it must have been through a massive release-recapture operation although I doubted that this could be the answer. I was also starting to calculate how much fruit would that bat crowd eat when I was interrupted by Ruston saying that the bats would start arriving to their roosting area below us any time. I made a mental note to find out these facts later [5].

A few minutes elapsed and then the bats started to appear. Soon they congregated in large numbers over their roosting places resembling a swarm of large bees. Photography was almost impossible so we watched and enjoyed the view. As light increased other animals came to view including White-backed vultures nesting in the trees nearby as well as a Ground hornbill perched very high on a dead tree (the highest hornbill I have seen!).

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The perched high above the tree canopy.

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Bats about to roost.

Then all bats settled and it was Lola, very observant as usual, that spotted them resembling bunches of grapes well below us in the mushitu trees. As the bats stopped being the centre of attention, we noticed that a number of birds of prey were stalking them. These included Martial, Crowned and Southern Banded Snake eagles. Although we did not see the latter going for the bats, we watched the Martial eagle made a pass, catching one and flying away with it.

The eagle attack disturbed the bats that took off again and, for a while, they circled their roosting area until they settled down again only to be disturbed seconds later when a Crowned eagle (the most beautiful of African eagles for me) flew straight at the roosting area and perched nearby. Ruston told us that the eagle had its nest close by and he pointed out the young eagle calls to its parent.

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Bats being disturbed by the Crowned eagle.

The eagle, a resident of the area, was in no hurry and, after a couple of passes that kept the bats unsettled it managed to catch one and perched with it in full view albeit far from us. It fed on its prey for a while until it decided that it was time to bring it to its offspring and flew past us to its nest.

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A long distance shot of the Crowned eagle eating a bat.

Time passed really fast and by mid-morning the sun was burning and we were ready to initiate our descent when a group of Crowned hornbills, a trio of Shallow’s and one Ross’ turaco were spotted and intensively watched. Finally, a Blue monkey [5] appeared on a dead tree and we could admire its beautiful bluish grey coat and its rather long tail. After that final moment, it was time to go.

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The bushsnob and wife back from the BBC hide in the morning, after the arrival of the bats. Pic by Lola Castro.

As planned, we returned for more bat watching in the afternoon as the bats depart in their feeding foray at sunset. We climbed up a new viewing platform recently built near the roosting area and we waited.

Nothing happened for quite a while and then we started hearing a slight noise as if water started running through the forest: the bats were starting to move. The water noise increased and, suddenly, the bats took to the skies. Although not millions, we watched tens of thousands bats flying around us before moving to their feeding grounds.

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Great shot of a bat by Frank Rijnders.

Judging for what we saw during the outings in the morning and afternoon where we saw bats in their thousands, I tried -and failed- to imagine what the sight of ten million bats flying at the same time would be like. I concluded that you must see it to get its real dimension but for that we need to return another time later in the year.

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

[2] See: http://www.kasanka.com and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kasanka_National_Park

[3] Dambos are grassy drainage channels and basins with little to no woody vegetation but very palatable grasses. Most woody species grow on exposed termitaria as dambo’s tend to retain water very well. Dambo’s are of a vital importance to grazing mammal species as well as several woodland mammals that choose to graze on the fringes, especially during the dry season (From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kasanka_National_Park).

[4] The rare Blue monkeys live in matrilineal societies as the females stay in their natal groups while males disperse once they reach adulthood.

[5] Numbers of bats were in fact estimated by counting their numbers through a formula based on numbers of bats per binocular fields, time, distance, etc. by Sorensen UG, Halberg K. (2001). Mammoth roost of nonbreeding straw-coloured fruit bat Eidolon helvum (Kerr, 1792) in Zambia. African Journal of Ecology 39: 213–215 (Abstract seen on 22 October 2018).

How much fruit the bats eat per night is staggering though variable depending on how much food it is estimated that they can eat. If we assume that they eat their body weight of 300g, we come to 3 000 metric tons (https://www.myguidezambia.com/travel-articles/kasanka-bats).

We will need two hundred heavy trucks to carry such weight!