Spotted!

Spotted – 3

Maasailand in general and the Transmara area beyond were a great source of new things for us in Kenya. Spotting red clad Maasai, carrying their traditional weapons, walking about everywhere took a while to get used to! In addition, there were plenty of wild animals to be seen not to mention the beautiful landscape that was all new to us at the time.

Intona Ranch was sited at the heart of the Transmara. The unfenced farm [1] of eight hundred hectares was -I believe- a gift of the Maasai to Joe Murumbi (see Joe Zazarte Murumbi in References) as a recognition for his service to Kenya (he was the son of a Maasai mother). The farm was a green park by the Migori River where riverine forest was present and where we used to go in the evenings to watch the flocks of Silvery-cheeked hornbills (Bycanistes brevis) returning to their favourite roosting perches.

The Migori River (in flood).
The fig tree that marked the entrance to Intona Ranch.

Scattered clumps of forest, many associated with very large termite mounds, with plenty of rare orchids speckled the landscape. This green oasis was maintained by rains that fell most afternoons due to the proximity of Lake Victoria. Apart from keeping the vegetation going, the evening storms produced the most striking sunsets that would turn red when the grass fires were raging around.

Part of Intona ranch.

The Transmara could be seen as an extension at a slightly higher altitude of the famous Maasai Mara Game Reserve and therefore the farm was inhabited by all species present in the reserve. There were also some “specials” like the Giant Forest Hogs (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) that also inhabited the Migori River area and the African Blue flycatcher (Elminia longicauda) that was found throughout the area to name just two. At the farm there were a family of resident cheetah that we often saw as well as lion and leopard that we sometimes heard.

One of Intona’s cheetah resting.

In the Transmara, the Maasai coexisted with the wild animals, not only by herds of harmless antelope and zebra but also migrating elephants and buffalo, in addition to the large predators, including numerous hyena that were seen and heard every night.

In sum, the ranch was like a dream come true for nature lovers as it was really a game park where Joe bred a few heads of cattle. I was truly lucky to work there and enjoy his hospitality for several years!

If the above was not sufficiently stunning, the house that Joe and Sheila had built there was, to put it mildly, unexpected and it took a while to get used to its presence once you had spotted it! We were used to people building amazing houses in Kenya such as the Djinn Palace [2] in the shores of Lake Naivasha (now a hotel) or the uninhabited Italian Villa [3] neat Thika that our friend Paul discovered and we explored.

One can only imagine the work involved in building such a large place in a remote location following the very high standards that Joe and Sheila must have placed for the architects to follow. Although I came to know the house well, I never counted the number of rooms it had but thirty-five rooms are mentioned by the press [4].

The front of Murumbi’s house at Intona.

There was even a small chapel and it was only recently that, through his close friend Alan Donovan, I learnt of its origin. He wrote: “Joe and Sheila loved their dogs (I can confirm that, Ed.). One of the dogs had nearly died and Joe had vowed to build a chapel if he survived. When the dog was retrieved from death’s jaw, the chapel was duly built for the staff at the ranch. The priest was called to bless the new chapel” [5]

What I can say is that the very large and white house was built following the style found at the coast of the Indian Ocean and its outside doors had probably come from Lamu. It had all necessary items to enjoy life such as a large swimming pool, a couple of patios of different styles and verandahs strategically sited to catch the sun or shade at different times of the day. The roof was high and the rooms were very large, much more than I had seen until then!

In the seventies, Joe and Alan Donovan created African Heritage, a fine antique collecting entreprise that yielded some unique artifacts and became Africa’s first art gallery in Nairobi and pioneered the retail of art and craft [6]. Joe and Sheila had their main house in Muthaiga, an exclusive neighbourhood in Nairobi where they kept most of their art but a lot of these spilled over to the Transmara.

At the Intona house there were several works of art both, African and European. Among the latter there were several large oil paintings by some of the Dutch Masters (I was told). African art was all over, and this included Lamu chairs, different masks and an old trunk with an amazing lock. One of my favourites was what a called a Juju man [7]. This fierce-looking carving was parked in the hall until one day it disappeared. Later I learnt that my friend Alan had helped Joe to carry it to the UK where it was sold.

The sitting room.

With so much art around, the house resembled a true museum but my interest was mainly in the library composed of two adjoining rooms with roof to floor and wall to wall bookshelves that held a treasure in books I had not seen before. It was rummaging through this true treasure that I spent most of the free time I had, mainly after sunset.

The library had windows to the front of the house where a large telescope pointed to the clear night skies of the Transmara. At first glance it revealed memorabilia of Joe’s political life, including various decorations and many pictures of Joe with other political players of the time. I remember pictures of him with Jomo Kenyatta, Haile Selassie and Julius Nyerere to mention those I can still “see” today.

Once I assimilated the memorabilia I focused on the books. These were mainly dealing with Africana, and they included most first editions of all major books published on Africa and, particularly, on Kenya, a list too long to be mentioned here and one that I now do not recall that well but many were antiques. However, having spent many hours delving through books with and without Joe, I still remember author proofs that had been sent to him for comments prior to their publication by various famous authors.

I vividly remember the evening that, despite his mobility problems [8], Joe invited me to the library “I wish to show you some special things” he said as I followed him to the library. He headed straight to one of the bookshelves located on the left wall and pulled out a large shallow drawer. It contained postal stamps! Joe became very enthusiastic and started to show me his collection.

He showed me the first stamp produced by Kenya Uganda and Tanzania in 1935 during the times of King George V. He had the complete set of Kenya stamps that included all first day issues as well as loose stamps. He then opened another drawer where he removed several Penny Black specimens, the first stamp issued in the UK in 1840 and all the ones that followed it up to the present date. He was extremely pleased with his collections!

Joe Murumbi in his library. Credit: https://www.the-star.co.ke/

Joe donated all his books and documents, numbering several thousands, to the Kenya nation. Among these are more than six thousand books published before the 1900s, and a rare original manuscript from David Livingstone. His books occupy the Joe Murumbi Gallery, a large area in the ground floor of the Kenya National Archives library. He also donated his African stamp collections, believed to be the most important in the world, after the Queen of England’s collection!

Sadly, Joe died in 1990 and Sheila in 2000. A Memorial Garden at the Nairobi City Park was established by the Murumbi Trust where, fortunately, they are both kept to be remembered as they deserve.

As for the magnificent house, before departing from Kenya I failed to convince the Director of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology to negotiate for it to become a training centre. Regretfully, the house started to deteriorate after Joe’s death and it is now, I believe, a subject of a legal wrangling. After severl years of neglect the house is now almost a ruin from which all movable fittings have been taken and most of it is overgrown by vegetation. A sad end to a beautiful place that I first “spotted” in 1981.

Credit of the three photos above: https://www.kenyans.co.ke/news/40142-former-vps-2000-acre-luxury-home-sorry-state-photos

[1] An old plow track was all that demarcated the ranch.

[2] “During the colonial era, “The Djinn Palace” was “where things usually were very lively” for the Happy Valley set, according to Ulf Aschan.[7] It was built for Ramsay-Hill’s wife, Molly (née Edith Mildred Maude; 1893–1939), who had an affair with and later married Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll“. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oserian (Seen on 4 July 2021).

[3] What we called the “Italian Villa” was abandoned, complete with underwater illuminated pool, bath on the top of the roof from where the view of the Yatta plateau was amazing and its own cells where we were told by the caretaker that employees were locked as punishment. I read somewhere that its rich owner tried to surprise his fiancée that was driving a convertible along the Mombasa Road with a low flight past and killed her by accident. I have been searching for info on this villa and its history but, so far, fruitlessly.

[4], [5] and [8] See: https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/entertainment/lifestyle/2001259735/vice-presidents-mansion-now-home-to-wild-animals and https://www.kenyans.co.ke/news/40142-former-vps-2000-acre-luxury-home-sorry-state-photos Consulted on 28 June 2021.

[6] See: https://africanheritagehouse.info/portfolio-item/murumbi-legacy/ and https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/alan-donovan-my-journey-through-african-art-and-culture-african-heritage-house/jwLyrn0e9lfwJg?hl=en – Both consulted on 28 June 2021 for more information.

[7] We used this name meaning “magic man” as we thought it had some supernatural power. I googled and learnt that it was Nkondi, one of the mystical statuettes made by the Kongo people of the Congo region and considered aggressive. The name means hunter and they are believed to hunt down and attack wrong-doers, witches, or enemies.

[8] Joe was recovering from a stroke that he had suffered sometime before I met him.

Spotted! – 2

As I mentioned before, my work in the Transmara in Kenya took me often through Narok when the weather was dry and I could drive through the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, up the Oloololo escarpment and then through the wheat fields and Lolgorien to Intona Ranch.

During the rains, however, the Maasai Mara would become muddy but still passable but the road on top of the Oloololo escarpment would be deep mud first and then there was the infamous soapy red hill where the journey ended -at least for a while- for many!

Benson, Joseph and the Bushsnob resting after going through the water-logged Lolgorian road.

Those wet days I would travel through tarmac via Kericho until reaching Kilgoris and from then to Intona through a muddy but shorter route that, usually, we could negotiate, but not always without trouble.

Stuck during one of the few ocassions that I was driven to Intona (with visitors) via Kilgoris.

Narok was a classical “border” town in the sense that it was the last stop before you entered into the “wilderness” beyond. It was in Narok where you re-fueled and bought your last essential supplies for you and your workers. The latter would go for the needed vegetables (read cabbage) as well as meat to last them for the two weeks spell they would spend at the ranch.

In addition, malaria was feared but they often did not get the chloroquine to protect them from it so we needed to get them from the pharmacy in town that happened to be next door to the butchery named “Jamaica”. Although the chemist was well identified, its neon sign was “interesting”. It read “Madawa” and “Duka la dawa” which mean drugs and pharmacy in Ki-Swahili.

Clearly, there was not enough room for the sign to be placed vertically so an ingenious electrician has placed on its side! Although I never seen it in its full glory during the night, I would have loved to have seen the face of the Hoechst general manager when he/she saw it for the first time. The sign is probably no longer there after all these years neither is Hoechst that is now part of Sanofi-Aventis.

Kilgoris also offered an interesting sign that was the meeting place in the Transmara when, with my boss Matt, I met Alan for my first visit to Intona Ranch [1]. Our rendezvous was the “Kilgoris Nylon Night Club” that, I must confess, I never saw its inside although I would have stayed there in case of breaking down as there were few other offers for accommodation in the place.

Judging by the disproportionate and (to me) unfortunate increase in the number of lodges and camps in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve that went from less than ten in the 80’s to a staggering 118 today [2], this night club is probably now a resort belonging to one of the major international hotel groups. Although the name of a few possible owners come to mind, I leave it there!

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

[2] See: https://www.booking.com – Consulted on 6 June 2021.

Spotted!

The Covid 19 outbreak has kept us at home for quite a while by now and this has severely limited our travel routine. Although we think that this will change in a few months, this forced immobility has limited the opportunities of finding new “beasts” to be spotted to keep readers engaged while I continue writing posts on our life events.

Checking for pictures for my Zambian stories I found a folder where I keep unusual sights or events that we have witnessed over the years in the various parts of the world where we have been fortunate to live and work. Despite the abundance of similar material in social media nowadays, I still believe these are worth writing about.

The observations belong to different cultures and languages so, I will attempt translation when necessary, hoping that I will not miss their meaning. A handful of them may be improper to some and I apologize for these in advance.

I encourage you to comment and, if willing and interested, to send me your “Spotted!” for me to placed them in the blog with due credit to the originator.

While I keep writing my memoirs on Zambia, I hope that these short posts, like the “Spot the beast” (that will resume when I find material) will keep you entertained.

Spotted! – 1

If you look carefully, despite the bad photograph (a picture of an old print taken by my father from a long way away), you would just be able to see a speck in the middle of the picture, well beyond the reeds. It was my Land Rover well inside the River Plate. Although I have already written about this event, I chose it to start this new series of “Spotted!” as it was a consequence of my own foolishness that was already present in the 1970’s!

The speck in the background is the semi-submerged Land Rover then there is open water and in the forefront an extensive area of water covered with bulrushes.
The speck in the background is the semi-submerged Land Rover then there is open water and in the forefront an extensive area of water covered with bulrushes.

I thought it suitable to start with a deed of my own so I feel better when I show you what others have done.

If you are interested in the story, search for https://bushsnob.com/2015/03/30/an-amphibious-land-rover/ and enjoy it in this blog.