Mount Kenya

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Mt. Kenya (5,200m), the second highest mountain in Africa after Mt. Kilimanjaro (5,900m) could be seen from some parts of the Muguga road on a very clear day as if inviting us for a visit. It was a rugged mountain with snow and three main peaks: Batian (5,199m), Nelion (5,188m) and Lenana (4,985m). They are named after Mbatian (a Maasai Medicine Man), Nelieng, his brother, and Lenana, one his sons.

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In 1849 Krapf found the mountain, located a few km south of the equator, following a similar story of the finding of Kilimanjaro described earlier. It was Krapf who gave the mountain the name “Kenya”, likely to derive from the words KirinyagaKirenyaa and Kiinyaa which mean “God’s resting place” in the language of three of the main ethnic groups that live around the mountain: Kikuyu, Embu and Kamba respectively. The mountain gave the country its name.

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Mount Kenya surged approximately three million years after the formation of the East African rift valley and it has suffered the impact of erosion resulting in what we see today: weather-beaten slopes, valleys and shrinking glaciers. Mount Kenya is the main water catchment area for two large rivers in Kenya: the Tana, the largest Kenyan river and the Ewaso Nyiro than runs north through very dry country.

The vegetation in Mt. Kenya changes with altitude. Around the base of the mountain we saw fertile farmland extending as far as you could see and I recall the amazing horticultural wealth of the Murang’a market where, among an enormous amount of horticultural produce, I have seen the largest cabbages! Unfortunately, althogh necessary, it was clear that the agriculture frontier was gradually encroaching the forests.

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The nature of the forests found in Mt. Kenya depend on rainfall and whether they grow in the south- or north-facing slopes. Above the forest there is a wide band of almost pure bamboo and above it we find the timberline forest with smaller trees. The heathland (wet) and chaparral (dry) zones start at about three thousand metres. The former, located in the wetter part has giant heathers while the latter is found in the drier areas and it consists mainly of grasses.

As we continue our virtual climb, the temperature fluctuations increase to extremes and the air’s oxygen decreases and we enter into the most known place of the mountain: the Afro-alpine zone, an area with several endemic plant species such as giant groundsels (senecios) and giant lobelias. After this there are glaciers and rock in the areas that the latter had retreated and no vegetation is present there.

Not being climbers or hikers we had a limited interest in mountains and preferred to spend our time in the more manageable lower grasslands of Kenya. However, we decided to give it go.

During our first visit to Mt. Kenya we entered through the west of the mountain, through the Naro Moru gate, one of the busiest. Although we intended to camp near the gate, we decided to go up the mountain on a exploratory trip through a road that got progressively worse until we reached a point where the kombi’s torque and the altitude became even and there we stopped. It was already late so we decided to spend the night in the car, cold and wet, not appreciating the beauty of the place.

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Icy stream.

The following day we managed to turn the car around in the mud and descended to more manageable roads where we had some joy by watching the vegetation and views of the peaks that, luckily, were uncovered that day. We returned to Nairobi and we promised ourselves to come back.

We did return another year. This time we followed a different route on the eastern side through the Chogoria gate that led to our bungalow at the Meru Mt. Kenya Lodge. It was freezing but luckily there was hot water although the firewood was wet and to make a fire was quite a job. It soon became misty and we could not see anything around us, apart from the buffaloes that apparently found the bungalows a protection against predators!

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Avoiding a tree recently pulled down by elephants on the way to Mt. Kenya.

The following morning the buffaloes had gone and the mist lifted so we decided to go for a guided hike to Lake Ellis and suffered the effects of altitude and cold. This was the country where “Icy Mike” an elephant that lived (and died) at 4,400m, an unusual event as it demands very high energy consumption, not typical of elephants and that is still unexplained.

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Lake Ellis.

Like the first, the second visit was not a great success and it was the end of our attempts at ‘enjoying’ the mountain. We left early and got to Nairobi in time to go to the Fox Drive In cinema to enjoy a good movie and an Indian dinner and, later, a hot shower and a rest. We decided that we had done enough and that from then on we would watch Mt. Kenya from a distance and enjoy it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spot the beast 62

Today I needed to go to the garden and, as usual, I went for my Crocs shoes. When I tried to slip my left foot inside I found some resistance and I was surprised and amused to find a best inside. See if you can identify it…

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I know that it is not a very good picture but otherwise you would get it too fast!

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I am sure that you have guessed what it was:

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Understandably it wanted out of my shoe in a hurry! Soon it was released back to where it come from.

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I believe it was an African common toad or guttural toad (Sclerophrys gutturalis) of widespread distribution in Zimbabwe.

Luckily it was not a scorpion or worse!

Lake Nakuru [1]

Being 160 km from Nairobi made Lake Nakuru a favourite weekend escapade as it was well known for its prolific bird life. Unfortunately but at the same time inevitable, the strongly alkaline 62 km2 lake was an island inside farmland and its borders were clearly under pressure from the rural dwellers next door as well as from the town of Nakuru looming nearby and threatening this true bird paradise with its effluent. However, at the time of our visits the park offered unique birding opportunities.

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A view of the lake from one of the viewpoints.

The explanation of why there are soda lakes is geological. Rift valley volcanoes spewed alkaline ashes rich in sodium carbonate that the rainwater carried to the lakes. Those without drainage allowed the sodium to accumulate and the water became alkaline. All alkaline lakes are near a volcano: Lake Natron (Tanzania) and Lake Magadi (Kenya) are near Shombole and Olorgesailie respectively, lake Elmenteita near Eburu crater, lake Nakuru near Menengai crater and lake Bogoria near the Laikipia volcanic escarpment.

 

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Approaching the lake shore.

Lake Nakuru National Park, including the lake itself, has 188 km2 and it was created to protect the soda lake that gives it its name and that lies in the center of the Rift Valley following the arrival of more than 1.5 million of flamingos to the lake in 1960. In 1961 the famous American bird artist and author Roger Tory Peterson called the massed flamingos on the lake “the world’s greatest ornithological spectacle” and this prompted the authorities to declare it a National Park in 1963, mainly as a bird sanctuary.

Clearly the flamingoes, both the lesser flamingoes (Phoenicoparrus minor) and the greater ones (Phoenicopterus roseus) were still the main attraction at the time of our visits and they alone justified the trip although the park had an amazing bird wealth as well as several interesting mammal and plant species. The lesser flamingo, by far the most numerous, had dark pink plumage as well as a magenta beak with a black tip. The greater flamingo was larger and had a pink bill and a whitish-pink plumage.

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Mabel watching the flamingoes.

From afar and from the various viewpoints that surrounded the lake they could be seen as a wide pink ring enclosing the lake’s water and flying over the water continuously changing positions. Approaching the shore the ring would start vibrating and soon transformed itself in tens of thousands of birds feeding, displaying, fighting, taking-off, landing, being attacked by predators from both land (baboons and hyenas) and air (birds of prey of all sorts).

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Lesser flamingoes.

Surprisingly the two flamingo species do not breed in Nakuru and they are only there to feed, their numbers largely determined by food availability and this, in turn, depends chiefly on rainfall. If conditions are not right they move to other rift valley lakes, notably Bogoria.

The lesser flamingoes feed almost exclusively on the free-floating algae that grow only in alkaline water. These algae, known as Spirulina, had grown over thousands of years and the millions of flamingoes that feed on them are the final result. With their heads upside-down, their tongues pump the water that gets filtered in their specially modified spongy beaks trapping the algae. To thrive they need about 150g of food per day, that had been calculated to be a total of 150 metric tons per day to feed the more than a million birds that constituted the Kenya bird colony!

The greater flamingo, much less numerous, fed on shrimps and small fishes and they were present in most lakes, including sometimes in the freshwater ones.

For some visitors the lake was as beautiful as treacherous. The road around the lake was an innocent looking track made of volcanic ash and soda that, although it was dry, it was in fact very soft and muddy below. Some motorists ignored the warning signs and their car wheels would break through the thin crust and sink. They would then find themselves helplessly buried in soft and sticky ash and it was not unusual to find abandoned cars waiting for the park authorities to be able to enter with a tractor to recover them!

Although we admired the flamingoes, the great white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus) were our favorites. Their numbers estimated at nine thousand, they stayed apart from the flamingoes and mainly grouped at the southern end of the lake at the appropriately named Pelican Corner where, in a horse shoe formation dipping their heads in unison they would feed on Alcolapia grahami, an alkaline-tolerant fish very close to the Tilapia species. The group surrounded and gradually forced fish into shallow and warmer water, flapping wings and plunging bills to catch them along the way.

But it was flying that they were truly astonishing. When the air’s temperature started to increase they would take off and, like the vultures do, find the right upward-moving thermals and climb until they reached the right altitude and then they would move on like a squadron of bomber planes, hardly beating their wings towards other lakes such as to Naivasha to the south. Although they can be seen as ugly on land, they are one of the most graceful birds I have seen flying!

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Bird life was so prolific and abundant (more than 450 species of birds had been recorded at the time we were there) that a challenge we aimed for when we felt active enough was to get up early in the morning and return for “brunch” having spotted one hundred different species! Perhaps because we were not “true” birdwatchers we never achieved this goal but it was not rare to arrive at 80 species and above every time we attempted it!

Lake Nakuru is very picturesque as it is surrounded by several volcanoes: to the north is Menengai crater, northeast the Bahati hills, east by the Lion hill, south by the Eburu crater and west by the Mau escarpment. The road around the park was a great way of seeing the lake and its many features as well as seeing how close the farmers were on the other side of the fence!

It was a long drive to complete the circuit as the lake has a surface of 62 km2. The road went through rocky hills and our favourite were the Baboon cliffs that, in addition to the strong hyrax urine smell, offered great views across the lake. It was from there that we watched the pelicans fishing and flying.

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Defassa waterbuck in Nakuru.

Defassa waterbuck predominated in the areas of high grass and hippos were present in the northeastern corner of the lake where the alkalinity of the water was lower because of the entry of fresh water from the Njoro river and other springs. There was a small pod of hippopotamus living in that area. Nakuru was also a good place to see Bohor reedbuck and black and white Colobus monkeys.

Rotschild’s giraffes were successfully reintroduced in the late 70s and a rhino sanctuary was started in 1987 that was managed by our friend Jock, the one that we had met in Naivasha earlier. Unfortunately, despite several invitations, we never visited it as we were getting ready to move from Kenya at the time the sanctuary started.

The absence of lions and the few buffalo present made the park safe for limited walking and, although spotted hyenas would visit your camp nightly, they never troubled us and, over the several years we visited the park, we only saw a leopard once from the car while driving after sunset.

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Some of the few buffalo we spotted in Nakuru.

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We always camped near the main entrance at a grassy campsite under the shade of very large yellow bark acacias (Vachellia xanthophloea) in the company of the beautiful black and white colobus monkeys as well as the less pleasant visits of vervet monkeys and baboons. The place provided great freshness and I recall spending long hours writing scientific papers there while Mabel put up with me walking about the camp always finding entertainment and finding interesting things to watch.

When our Uruguayan lady friends Elcira and Marta came to visit us in Kenya as part of their life-long world-trotting, Nakuru was the place we took them camping, precisely because of its safety and the spectacular sight of the thousands of flamingoes and other birdlife. It was a great success and we spend a long time watching the flamingo antics [2].

Nakuru has diverse vegetation including woodlands with sedge marshes, dry and seasonally flooded grasslands, and various types of dry wood and scrubland that occupy the land between the lake waters and the escarpment and ridges. Of note are the patches of large yellow bark acacia woodlands as well as the nicest Euphorbia candelabrum forest near the Lion Hill Camp.

 

[1] The meaning of Nakuru: “the place of the waterbuck”; “the place where the cows won’t eat”; “the dusty place”, “the shifting place”; “the place of smoke”; “the place of the dust devils” See: https://archive.org/stream/cbarchive_101865_meaningofthenamenakuru1960/XXIII_No.7__104__303_1960_Kirby_djvu.txt

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/09/08/the-joys-of-camping/

Lake Naivasha

We went to lake Naivasha often as it was an easy weekend out of Nairobi and I still have vivid memories from those visits.

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View of the lake.

Usually we drove down the rift valley wall, passed the catholic chapel built by the Italian WWII prisoners after 50 km, then the junction to Narok and the Maasai Mara (B3). Further we found Mt. Longonot, the volcano on the left and kept driving, already seeing the shiny blue lake in the distance framed by fertile cultivated farmland with the spectacular backdrop of the Mau escarpment.

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Lake Naivasha in the distance on the left behind which is the Mau escarpment.

Gustav Fischer, a German naturalist, found the lake it 1883, while heading north and before the then hostile Maasai found his expedition and forced him to turn back! However, the Europeans kept coming and, after Joseph Thomson arrived, the colonization of the area followed.

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A few kilometres ahead we would drive through the small town of Naivasha and soon we were at the lake. Although sometimes we stopped at the upmarket Lake Naivasha hotel or the Safariland lodge for a refreshment, a bite or simply to soak-up under the shade of their Yellow-barked acacias (Vachellia xanthophloea) [1] or Fever trees. The latter name given by the first pioneers when they blamed them for catching malaria well before the role of mosquitoes in its transmission was known!

Usually we kept driving by the lake to our final destination, the modest Fisherman’s Camp up in a dry hill where at first we “camped” with our rather basic gear under the scanty shade and thorny company of the candelabra trees (Euphorbia spp.)! It was while driving towards this camp that Mabel spotted the “antelope up the tree” [2].

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Our early camp! Note the use of the car seat and absence of chairs that did not dampen our enthusiasm.

After our first rather tentative and exploratory visits, we got to know the area better and participated in a number of activities, many of which with our friend Paul that had a rubber dinghy, an ideal vehicle to explore the lake. It goes without saying that fishing was one of the main activities we practiced at the lake that had been seeded with black bass (Micropterus salmoides) and that it was “crocodile-free”.

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Our first fishing attempt fn a rowing boat from Fisherman’s camp.

These adult black bass feed on crayfish, small fish and frogs and we caught them with a variety of lures and spoons and every fisherman has its favourite. I was not a great bass fisherman and did not find them good fighters compared with the Dorado (Salminus spp.) I used to catch in Uruguay before our Kenya days. Despite this I never refused an invitation to fish and we had great fun doing it. Paul, conversely, was good at fishing in general and had no difficulties getting bass also.

I lacked practice with my casting that very often ended up with my lure entangled in the shore reeds, a feat that I maintain even today and my family expects it from me when we go out to fish! It was during one of these “failed” casts that my green frog-like lure landed on land, even beyond the reeds.

As usual Paul started to make a rude comment but before he could complete it, a long green snake went for my plastic frog! Startled, I pulled and recovered it while we laughed at the incident. I then re-casted to the same spot and, again, the snake attacked it for a second time. This time I was ready so, to avoid hooking the aggressor, I withdrew the lure and continued casting to a different spot.

Although usually we did not catch many bass, sometimes we did and, after a while, we looked for some added entertainment and threw some fish to the very common fish eagles to catch. These birds were usually perched at more or less regular intervals along the lakeshore, in their territories.

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After our best day fishing in Naivasha.

They position themselves high up the trees and there are always watching, not only for fish but also any movement in the water or potential prey of any kind. So, throwing a fish overboard almost instantly called their attention, and before it had moved too far, the eagle will come and take it. This was great fun to watch and we decided to photograph it for posterity!

The idea was to get one eagle at the exact moment that it grabbed the fish with its talons or while lifting it from the water! Easier said than done. I was chosen as the photographer and Mabel and Paul were the observers that would tell me when to shoot as, with my eye in the viewfinder, I could not see very well the eagle approaching.

We used a lot of fish and, needless to say, after several tries I have dozens of pictures of a floating fish or water splashing. The best I could manage is one with a brown blob on the left that was an eagle’s tail! After that attempt, we abandoned the idea and decided to eat the fish!

On one of these fishing trips we witnessed a Fish Eagle attack a Goliath Heron while it was flying a few metres from us. I do not know the reasons for the aggression but the result was unusual. The attack took the heron by surprise and in its effort to avoid the attacker it dived but, being too near the lake surface, it crash-landed on the water rather awkwardly.

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A Goliath heron in flight. The world’s largest living heron with a height of 120–152 cm and a wingspan of 185–230 cm.

Herons, unlike ducks and geese are waders and not built for take offs from water. Worse still, it was totally soaked. So it floated there for a while like a “goliath crested grebe”. Luckily the eagle lost interest and there were no crocodiles at the lake so, once it recovered its wits, it swam rather fast considering its long legs! It soon reached the shore and it just stood there among the papyrus, drying itself with extended wings!

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Elsamere.

Some time later we discovered Elsamere, a beautiful house by the lake shore that belonged to Joy Adamson, hence named after the famous Elsa the lioness. It was run by the Elsa Foundation after Joy’s sad demise a few years earlier. Because of our work we were admitted there and it was very affordable. It was a wonderful experience to stay in such a nice house where Joy had lived. In addition, the personnel really pampered us and served very good food. As a curiosity, Elsamere was next to the Djinn (Gin!) Palace, made “famous” by the Happy Valley crowd years before our arrival [3].

Jock Dawson [4] had been recently designated Honorary Game Warden of Naivasha and lived with his wife Enid very near Elsamere where they had some magnificent Spotted Eagle Owls in their garden. Through Paul we got to know them and spent time in their very interesting company and joined him on a number of activities related with his work as Game Warden.

At Elsamere there were still some animals from the time of Joy Adamson, most notably the Black and White Colobus monkeys that -unusually- would come down from the trees to visit us and feed in the lawn. It was great to see them often and to approach them closely as they were used to human presence. We had great views of females with tiny (woolly white) babies!

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Enid, Mabel and Jock watching the black and white colobus’ antics.

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A colobus mother and baby.

Apart from the monkeys there was also an orphan Zebra, once a baby, that was now a fully-grown animal that maintained its playful nature without realizing its size. So its favourite trick was to surprise guests and try to bite them -soetimes with success-  or engage them in “zebra-play”. Not surprisingly, the decision was taken to relocate it to Nakuru National Park.

The operation was simple as the zebra was easy to catch by the people that fed it daily so we soon ended up with a sedated and tied-up zebra in the back of a Land Rover with Jock at the wheel and Paul and I at the back, with the rather large zebra. It all went well until about half of the journey when our cargo started to wake up as it was under mild sedation.

There was no much room left at the back so when it became more and more restless we asked Jock to go faster but the Land Rover would not cooperate and we were forced to manhandle the zebra to keep it down until we reached our destination! Once there, we rushed out of the car, lucky to have avoided being kicked to death!

At some stage in Elsamere there were American scientists studying animal behaviour and one day they returned with the news that they had seen a lame zebra in one of the areas they were studying. The leg was quite swollen and Jock suspected that it had been snared.

Off we went to have a look and confirmed that it was indeed a wire that was embedded on the foreleg, just above the hoof and the decision was taken to dart the zebra to remove it.

We left the car so that Jock and Paul would do the chasing and darting and re-joined them to help holding the animal while the wire was removed. The animal recovered quite quickly.

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The zebra being restrained with Mabel approaching.

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Posing before the action.

Naivasha was also known for its flower plantations and thousands of carnations were exported by plane to the European market every week but Naivasha also had buffalo and they are herbivorous and enjoyed carnations! So, Jock had received a complaint from a farm nearby that they had suffered a “visit” by a few buffalo that were busy chomping the flowers that were meant for Europe!

Under the circumstances, the only thing that could be done was to destroy the intruders with the hope that the rest would move away to the uninhabited bush higher up in the hills.

That is how I participated in my only African hunt ever as part of a group of curious onlookers that followed the hunters at a prudent distance. Although I did not care for the hunt, it gave the great opportunity to see how the trackers worked while following their quarry. We walked up and down the dry hills for a couple of hours until the order came to stay still and quiet. We then heard a few shots and two of the offending buffalo had been killed and their meat would be shared among the workers of the carnation estate and other nearby villagers.

Our exploring of the lake took us on the road that goes around it, first climbing ridges to get to a small lake separated from the main body of water called, very originally, the Small lake! In this place, away from visitors, hippos abounded among the papyrus and under the shade of a dense yellow-bark acacia forest. It was here that the Great White Pelicans were also found.

Following the lake shore towards the north, we discovered an area that was more remote with abundant game as well as where the Maasai grazed their cattle, often organized into group ranches [5].

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A Maasai group ranch.

We were in posession of a secret. We had been told that there was a Secret lake in the area and that to reach it we needed to enter through an unmarked farm gate! Eventually we found the entrance and went in. We followed a very narrow track uphill and, suddenly, below us we saw a small crater full of water the colour of pea soup.

The lake was fringed by large yellow-barked acacia trees and it seemed to be fed by rain water although the existence of springs could not be ruled out.

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naivasha secret lakeA steep walk down the crater, following a track made by the Maasai when taking their animals down to the lake allowed you to reach the water edge. The Maasai were known to bring their cattle to this little lake as, apparently, its mineral-reach water would do them good, a fact corroborated by Tommi, the Maasai herdsman that worked with me at Intona. He came from this area and he knew of the existence of the lake and the curative properties of its water [6].

We did go all the way round the lake once but this had little more to offer and we decided that we better continued frequenting Elsamere and its surrounding area where we enjoyed our closeness to nature with comfort.

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Small farmers in the rift valley on the way to Naivasha.

 

[1] Former Acacia xanthophloea.

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2014/08/24/green-eyes-in-the-wild-2/

[3] A classic book about the Happy Valley era was written by James Fox: White Mischief. Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition 320p. The book was made into a movie of the same title by Sony Pictures in 2011.

[4] A well-known professional hunter who transformed himself into a respected conservationist after Kenya banned hunting in 1977, and -after his time in Naivasha- headed the Rhino Rescue Trust in Nakuru. Unknown to me at the time but of interest is that Jock inherited the only gun that belonged to Dennis Finch-Hatton, Karen Blixen’s lover. After Jock’s death in 2004 his son took the gun, minus the case, to the UK. For the specialized, the gun was a .450 3 1/4″ Nitro Express by Charles Lancaster. John Ormiston (a UK gun trader) bought a case with the initials D F-H (Dennis Finch-Hatton) and looked for its missing contents for years until he bought the gun in 2009 to for £ 27,000 at an auction in the UK. For more details see: https://www.africahunting.com/threads/the-450-double-rifle-of-dennis-finch-hatton.40240/

[5] Group ranches are defined as a livestock production system where a group of people jointly hold title to land, maintain agreed herd sizes, and own livestock individually but herd them together. Boundaries are demarcated and members are registered. See: http://www.focusonland.com/countries/rise-and-fall-of-group-ranches-in-kenya/

[6] Today the Crater lake is a game sanctuary where you are charged a fee to enter and there are walking paths and camping sites near it.

 

 

 

Spot the beast 61

We are having a slow start of the rainy season this year but, searching among my pictures, I found this ones that show a beast of some sort from one of Nature’s kingdoms…

See if you can spot it!

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Here it is. As you have realized by now, it is not a giant fern sprouting but a chameleon digging its egg-laying hole with the rolled tail out!

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This is the culprit laying, darker after the effort.

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Suswa caves

The rift valley owes its existence to humongous volcanic upheaval that my mind cannot even start to imagine as we can only see the effects of this conflagration millions of years after it happened. Among the consequences that we see today are the several volcanoes that are scattered throughout its extension.

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Mt. Suswa from the distance.

Two are close from Nairobi: Longonot and Suswa. The latter lies south of Longonot and about 50 km northwest of Nairobi. We did not visit Longonot as it implied leaving the car unattended and a long walk to the rim of the caldera. However, we did visit Suswa in several occasions as it could be reached after about two relaxed hours of a picturesque drive from Nairobi. Together with lake Magadi, it was an ideal day out although the road was rough!

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On the way to the Suswa volcano.

The drive took us through Maasai country and there were large herds of cattle grazing on the way and around the volcano with its almost 100 km2 caldera that has a large cone towards the southern part. We saw a few giraffe, Thomson’s gazelle, zebra and hyena spoor although we never saw one.

It seems that Suswa erupted violently during the Pleistocene and this created a unique double crater with an inner crater surrounding a large block of rock. There have been more recent eruptions, perhaps one hundred years back that have expelled lava from side vents as the remaining lava flows still denuded from vegetation show.

At the time we believed that there was no water inside the caldera so we never went down and we did not see animals down despite is luring greenery.

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A view of the crater.

The volcanic activity had contributed to another interesting feature: caves. These were large and they could be reached through several entrances, some easy to find and others hidden among the rocks and vegetation. While searching for the openings, great care was needed not to fall through one of the hidden holes as cows sometimes did.

There were also some rock ledges with clear signs of earlier human habitation as well as indications that these may have been used by predators, probably hyenas.

Once you entered in the caves the atmosphere became cooler and humid and some light filtered through cracks on the roof of the caves or in places where this had collapsed over time (the very same holes you and the cows needed to avoid while walking there!).

The caves had different levels of caverns and passages created by the volcanic activity and the more superficial ones are relatively easy to access if you have torches and do not suffer from claustrophobia or scared of the dark. Some were clearly enormous lava bubbles while others were like rounded tubes of rock.

We explored those caves with some natural light as our torches at that time were not up to the task of cave exploration. There was one exception when we visited the cave with Paul that had a very powerful torch that helped us to enter the darkness for a limited period as the battery had a rather short life!

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A view of one of the caves with a collapsed roof.

During that visit we managed to enter a very large cave and walked into a large vestibule with a tall ceiling and what felt like sandy floor. The roof had rock formations with various tones of red and brown and we also saw some stalactites. The air reeked of bat pee and excrement and we soon detected the “culprits”.

Our attention was immediately called by what seemed a trembling of the walls that were no other thing that a huge number of bats hanging on. We decided to leave them alone and shone the torch on the floor and then we made another discovery!

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A pseudoscorpion.Credit: Kaldari [CC0]. Wikimedia Commons.

On the bat guano, tiny creatures scurried around. As I had never seen these before I collected some and, later, I identified them as pseudoscorpions, rather small tailless scorpions of 2-5 mm which were probably feeding on dead bats. There are today over one hundred species recorded from Kenya [1].

At some point we realized that we were sharing the air with thousands of bats and the thought of inhaling nasty pathogens spurred our departure, perhaps unjustifiably but wisely! I believe the bats were free-tailed bats of the Otomops genus, probably Harrison’s large-eared giant mastiff bat (Otomops harrisoni) only described as a new species in 2015, well after our visit. These insectivorous bats are considered vulnerable by IUCN in view of the increased disturbance to the caves they inhabit.

Several movies were filmed in Kenya at the time we were there. Apart from good ones such as “Out of Africa” there were others that left a lot to be desired. Among these was “Sheena Queen of the Jungle”, starred by the then well known Tanya Roberts, the blond of the original Charlie’s Angels.

Part of the movie was filmed in the Suswa caves and I recall that a couple of Muguga colleagues that attempted to smuggle themselves into the location of the filming to peep on Ms. Roberts, were ignominiously discovered and expelled by the security guards!

The movie, released by Columbia Pictures in 1984, is truly bad from the very start that shows Sheena galloping through an open plain on a horse painted black and white! Unfortunately, to film such a bad movie the film company left lots of debris behind showing great contempt for nature.

The movie was -justifiably in my view- nominated for the worst picture, actress, director, screenplay and musical score at the 5th. Golden Raspberry Awards in 1985 and astonishingly, it did not win any! [2]

suswa caves

As the movie required some rocks falling on the bad guys (pushed by several wild animals such as rhinos!) polystyrene rocks were left behind in the caves, together with a wooden structure where the cameras were placed.

Luckily, the Cave Exploration Group of East Africa members removed the debris that had been left behind.

 

[1] See: http://museum.wa.gov.au/catalogues-beta/pseudoscorpions

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/5th_Golden_Raspberry_Awards

 

 

Pythons and social life

We first met Jim and Silvana during our first trip to Magadi [1] where they were part of the ILRAD [2] group that invited us. After that I visited him frequently at ILRAD as he was always ready to receive me and to talk. He always gave me sound advice during my early career days for what I am grateful.

Our friendship grew and at some stage he invited us to his birthday party at his house in ILRAD. The latter had a beautiful campus, similar to that of some American universities and the houses were scattered in it but not too far from each other. As Jim and Silvana were a popular couple, the party was attended by lots of people, most of them unknown to us at the time.

It was midnight and the party was at its best, dancing away to good and loud music. Suddenly, I noted some interruption to the dancing and I spotted a gentleman, cladded in pajamas that was walking fast towards the music source and, without saying anything, it lowered its volume almost to make it inaudible. After this, he turned around and walked out the same way he had come muttering something like “I need my sleep”!

The dancing stopped not only because we were feeling surprised and amused but also because the music had died! Jim reacted immediately and, totally unconcerned, he went back to the music player and raised the volume to the maximum -louder than before- and asked us to continue dancing. There were no more interruptions and we had a great party!

The “intruder” was, as expected, one of Jim’s neighbours, an administrative manager, to who our friends -as it was customary at ILRAD- had informed about the party and even invite, together with his wife! It took a few months for the relationship to improve to the levels prior to the party!

Jim and I shared a liking for snakes, a taste that our wives did not share. He wished to keep a pet python but it was difficult to get one as there were no pet shops. We then decided that we needed to go on a “snake-catching safari” sometime, knowing full well that snakes are very elusive animals and that the chances of finding one while actually looking for it was almost zero! So, the snake-catching safari become something like a running joke between us.

One day, when Silvana was in Italy visiting her family we decided that we had waited long enough for the outing and a Sunday morning we departed for the lake Naivasha area. Mabel joined us, despite her strong dislike of snakes of any kind. We decided to walk around the lake and focus our search by following a dry river bed that headed for the Hell’s Gate area.

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A view of the area we chose for our snake catching safari.

After enjoying the walk for about two hours we stopped for lunch. While eating we discussed our plans for the afternoon and decided to continue walking for a while longer and keep checking near some small water pools where we reasoned that a thirsty snake would come to drink! Although Jim was equipped to catch a snake, it was all rather light-hearted.

We arrived to an area where the river had carved a deep ravine that offered some shade and, suddenly I saw Jim running while shouting “there is a snake there!” We followed him and then saw a shinny and small snake resting in a wet part of the ravine. Jim was on it immediately and caught it with his tongs.

Truly unbelievably Jim had found the python! Admittedly it was a very small one but it was a recently moulted African rock python (Python sebae). Jim was extremely pleased while I helped him to bag it. The snake was accommodated in a large terrarium and well looked after as Jim cherished the snake!

He kept the python several years while it grew in size and I often included looking at the snake during my visits to ILRAD. After a while he needed to increase the size of the terrarium and, eventually, the snake grew to such a size that it required to be transported to an empty room in one of the laboratories where it became a great attraction until it was donated, I believe, to the Kenya Museum snake display!

Apart from catching a snake, we continue socializing together and it was with Jim and Silvana that a rather forgettable incident where I exceeded my alcohol tolerance limit took place, although there were attenuating circumstances…

It happened after a long and tiring return trip driving all the way from Intona Ranch with my boss Matt during which we got badly delayed by torrential rain at the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. Eventually, with Matt walking through the mud and water in front of the car guiding me through we managed to negotiate the worst patches of the road and eventually got back to Nairobi although later than planned.

Because of the delay, we were forced to come straight to a reception organized by a chemical company to welcome another Paul, their Technical Director from their “mother” company in the UK. Later on, he would become the Director of ICIPE’s Tick Programme and, therefore, my boss!

The company was an important player regarding ticks and tick-borne diseases so Matt considered essential to attend so we did, straight from the bush! I can still hear him chooek-chooeking around in his water-saturated shoes while walking around meeting people, as usual without a care in the world, wearing his usual green cardigan and laughing!

I was very thirsty and needed a drink so I picked a glass of a cocktail offered to me, sweet and refreshing. I repeated the dose a couple of times more. Less than an hour later I noted a slight weakness in the knees that, at first I attributed to the long drive. However, the situation got worse and realized that the nice drink was a bit of an alcoholic time bomb so I stopped and went for water (what I should have done from the start). Although I was not a teetotaler, I normally did not (and still do not) drink much alcohol. However, after such a long and waterless drive I was very thirsty.

Luckily, before too long, Mabel came to collect me with clean clothes to go for the next social activity that I had totally forgotten. We had arranged to go for dinner to the “El Patio” restaurant with Jim and Silvana. This was a Spanish-style restaurant that we all liked.

Although my situation had not improved, we drove to the restaurant and, we ordered paella for four with some Spanish wine that I did not touch, staying with water.

I am not sure if it was the sight and smell of the Paella or the heat inside the restaurant or a combination of both that tilted the balance against my alcohol metabolism and I started feeling increasingly worse so, without touching my food, I decided to leave the table and go out seeking fresh air and that was a mistake as -apparently- oxygen increases your blood alcohol levels and makes you drunk!

I now felt really bad and needed to find a secluded spot in the garden to be sick and then, my condition improved, sat in the car to wait for Mabel.

I insisted that I could drive despite the protestations of my wife. However, when I was unable to reverse the kombi from the parking place, I conceded defeat, moved to the passenger seat and allowed myself to be driven the long way to Tigoni by her. Apparently during the whole journey I moaned and groaned until at some stage I passed out and, frankly do not remember if I slept in the car or I managed to walk into the house!

Afterwards, the “El Patio safari” replaced the “snake catching safari” as our running joke!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/09/10/lake-magadi/

[2] International Laboratory for Research in Animal Diseases (today International Livestock Research Institute).

Tsavo West National Park

A large male leopard was the first animal we saw when we entered Tsavo West National Park for th first time. This immediately placed this park among the top in Kenya, even before we saw anything else! After that, we visited it many times as it was relatively close to Nairobi and ideal for a weekend escapade. It never disappointed us as, apart from fewer tourists than Amboseli, Tsavo West had a number of attractions, all of them framed by some of the most magnificent scenery I have seen in Africa.

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Although we camped at first, we soon discovered the Kenya Wildlife Services self-catering lodges in Ngulia and Kitani. The latter became our favourite: cheap and quiet. It was simple but roomy, well located and with a great verandah. In addition the bungalows were close the Poacher’s lookout a great place to take in the immensity of the park and with great morning views of Kilimanjaro. We stayed there most of the times we visited.

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Map of Tsavo West showing the places mentioned in the post. Kitani at the bottom with Mzima Springs nearby and Chaimu volcano near the scenic Rhino valley.

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The area around Kitani at dawn.

Although, compared with the Maasai Mara and Amboseli, Tsavo appeared as devoid of animals, gradually you learnt to find them and it was one of the best places to see lesser kudu, klipspringers, fringe-eared oryx and gerenuk, apart from the expected large game.

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A sleepy lioness pondering where to go!

The exception being black rhinos that had by then already disappeared. In addition, it was a bird paradise and, during the rains, although some of the roads were treacherous, the flower blossom was stunning!

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Getting stuck with the kombi was not too hard and this happened sometimes when the rains were heavier than usual. I recall when, in desperation, I dug under the spinning wheel and placed our BBQ grill to get some grip! The result was disastrous as the grill was ejected far into the bush and we did not have barbeques that time! But these were exceptional days and usually the roads were dry red dust as it did not rain that much.

Tsavo W stuck with paul rossiter

The red soil turned to mud in the waterholes and gave elephants and buffalo an interesting look that blended them well with the surrounding redness of the area.

Tsavo West was not only large but lots of it was very broken terrain, product of the intense volcanic activity that the area suffered eons ago. More than sixty species of mammals, four hundred species of birds and one thousand plant species are found at Tsavo.

Of interest is that to the north of the Mombasa road the park, being drier, belongs to the Somali type of environment while the South is of the Maasai type. The result of this was that species that are normally separated by hundreds of kilometres such as the Somali (Struthio [camelus] molybdophanes) and the common ostriches (Struthio camelus) are both found there [1]

Our favourite view, apart from Kilimanjaro were the Chyulu hills and the Shetani lava flow, one of the first things you see when you enter through the Chyulu gate. Shetani means ‘devil’ in Kiswahili and it was named by the locals when they first saw fire erupting and flowing on the ground some five hundred years ago, as they believed that it was the devil himself emerging from the earth! The Shetani black lava flow is 8 km long, 1.6 km wide and 5 meters deep.

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The Chyulu hills as seen from the road to Kitani.

The Chyulu hills are also the source of the water for one of the best-known features of Tsavo West: Mzima springs. The hills are composed of volcanic lava rock and ash, which is too porous to allow rivers to form. Instead, rain and mist penetrate through the rock, and may spend many years at an underground “lake” before emerging fifty kilometres away at the springs.

We went to the Chyulus and camped in one of the hundreds of small volcanoes, where the only track we found took us. At the time there was nothing there and we not only needed to cut the grass to make our camp site but also to carry all the necessary water as, although misty and wet in the mornings, there was no surface water. Although we had great views from there, wild animals were scarce and we did not enter the Shetani caves, not for fear of the hyenas that are believed to dwell on them, but for lack of proper lights to do so.

While on the subject of volcanoes, the last major eruption is believed to have taken place around two hundred years ago and, apart from some of the still black hills at the Chyulus, there is another black cone at Tsavo West itself: Chaimu, also of relative recent origin.

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The view from the Chaimu cone.

Coming from Uruguay where the highest peak is just over five hundred metres, we had never set our feet on a volcano, leave alone a recent one! By then our knowledge of vulcanology was zilch as we had only seen Sicily’s Mt. Etna from the plane! It was extremely interesting to see how the lava had solidified forming long black ribbons of rock that could be extremely sharp and hard and so fresh that there was only incipient vegetation.

Walking on the cone was rather dangerous as the floor was not stable and you were likely to slip and fall on razor sharp rocks. Despite this and the warning sign that you could meet dangerous inhabitants while climbing, our friend Luis managed to persuade us to go for it. I must say that we did enjoy the steep walk and the views from the top and that we only saw scattered hyena dung but did not meet any dangerous animals.

The first we heard of Mzima springs was through a couple from Britain: Ken and Betty that were at Muguga with us and with who we later shared a couple of outings. They had been walking towards the springs when they came face to face with a lioness. Luckily they did not run but stood their ground until the lioness moved off. Then they managed to slowly retrace their steps and, once they reached the safety of the parking area and still shaken, they mentioned their encounter to the Game ranger on duty. “Oh, there are usually two of them!” was the reply! Our friends did not return to see the springs that day!

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So, it was with that story fresh in our minds that we first visited Mzima Springs. We got the “all clear” from the ranger on duty and followed the same footpath that Ken and Betty had followed. Although we never came across any lions that first time we had difficulties with rather vicious monkeys, both baboons and vervets and, somehow, Mabel was surrounded by them and had to use her binoculars to defend herself and come out of a tight spot!

The path to the springs was indeed lionesses-free and what we found amazed us as few places had so far. The walk took us through the usual red dryness of the area and then, suddenly, we were surrounded by lush vegetation while the noise of running water became more audible.

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Hippos at the top pool.

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Mabel about to find something!

Eventually we got to an area where you could see several springs gushing out of the volcanic rock that produced crystal clear and cold water. The various water channels gradually converges following a gentle slope and some way down formed the first of the pools. The water there was still crystal clear and we could actually see the hippos under water while crocodiles sunning themselves in the shores.

Amazingly 227,000 cubic metres of water gush daily from the various springs. The water had been filtered during its 40 kilometres traveled underground from the Chyulus. The Mzima waters start running as a stream and then get blocked by solidified lava, disappear underground two kilometres downstream and resurfaces again to later join the Tsavo river that, in turn, it reaches the Galana River. Since 1966 the springs’ water supplies the coastal city of Mombasa.

In this true oasis the fever trees were spectacular and full of weaver nests to the point that the branches seemed not to be able to support them all. There were also fruiting trees such as date and raffia palms, waterberries (Syzygium cordatum) and fig trees grew near the water, their submerged roots absorbing nutrients to be transformed into fruits that fed the various primates and birds. We spotted vervet monkeys, baboons the rare Sykes monkeys (Cercopithecus albogularis) while hearing the calls of the fish eagles and seeing flashes of colour as the various kingfishers darted from their perches to the pool and back.

At the various pools the hippos did their part to sustain the food chain by grazing outside the water and coming back to defecate in it. A number of invertebrates will feed on the dung and these are, in turn, preyed upon by fish and the latter by cormorants and terrapins.

The springs were made famous by Alan and Joan Root documentary “Mzima: Portrait of a Spring” filmed in 1969 and much later Alan directed a Survival Special “Mzima: Haunt of the River horse” in 2003. Below I include a clip of the latter.

Attribution: Clip 1 of Mzima: Haunt of the River Horse (2001). Filmed by Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone and Directed by Alan Root. Survival Special.

Apart from the hippos Mzima Springs offered water to a variety of animals such as zebra, buffalo, giraffe and various antelopes as well as elephants. It soon became our favourite spot and we spent many hours contemplating it while enjoying its relative freshness compared to the usual heat of the area.

An observation hut to facilitate watching what goes on under water was built in 1969. We spent many hours in it waiting to catch a glimpse of hippos underwater. This was not easy and we ended up watching lots of fish turning around the thick glass with the occasional sighting of terrapins and cormorants.

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None of these distracted us from our primary objective that remained to spot hippos underwater, the way the Roots had seen and filmed it. Eventually, before we knew all the fish by name!, we managed to have a couple of great sightings in eight years, two every four years of waiting!

However, when it happened, it was such a spectacle that I still remember it vividly. It started when we spotted a moving floating papyrus island that moved. A while later a hippo appeared very close stepping gently and slowly on the bottom of the lake while it passed in front of us and slowly vanished, followed by a few dozen fish!

The second sighting was a female with a young that, again, walked in front of the observation window and, again moved off getting lost in the mud that their passing rose. But not all was sweetnes in the Mzima hippo world.

One occasion we arrived and an agitated ranger warned us that two males were fighting at the top pool and that we should be careful when approaching the area. We heard their splashes and loud gruntings way before we got to the pool so we knew that they were inside the water so we approach them slowly and carefully.

The pool was totally changed as the water was getting muddy because of the stir that the two behemoths had created. It was clear that this was not the usual face off that lasts a while and then one of the opponents leaves the fighting area. They were goring each other ferociously while some other hippos were close to them and it looked to us that it was a fight to the death or at least until one of them was severely injured.

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We watched for a while and left as it was a really bloody afair and not nice to watch particularly if you, like us, liked hippos. However, the following morning we returned to see the results of the fight but the pool has returned to normal. We did not find traces of what had happened and certainly we did not see a dead hippo anywhere so we still do not know what the outcome was.

Unfortunately in 2009, a severe drought killed most hippos at the springs and they were no longer at the top pool when I visited Mzima springs in 2012. Luckily, the large hippo pods that were present downstream were still there and, apparently, thriving.

While planning one of our visits to Tsavo we learnt of a small little camp by the Athi river known as Bushwhackers. In Nairobi we found Mrs. Jane Stanton, its owner, and she gave us valuable information on how to get there following the turn-off at Kibwezi on the Mombasa road.

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Resting at Bushwhackers.

From Jane, who was about to retire after almost 30 years of bush life by then, we learnt that Hugh Stanton came out to Kenya as a small boy in 1907 and started collecting animals for museums. Afterwards they started Bushwhackers as a game trapping camp for museums and zoos and that Martin and Osa Johnson [2] used as their base in the 1930’s while visiting Kenya during their pioneering film-making in Africa.

At first we found the place rather disappointing as, not being a reserve or national park, was being encroached by people and, apart from baboons and vervet monkeys, no other mammals were seen. The exception was, according to Paul, a large male eland that would come down to drink after midnight when things were dead quiet. I never knew where he got that story and we could never confirm it.

We soon realized however that, despite the absence of land mammals, there were still hippos and crocodiles as well as a large numbers of birds and insects that were worth watching and also it offered an entry point to the Athi River and great walks through its sandy bed.

We visited the place often afterwards and we could see, by the photographs that decorated the reception area, that years back it had been an area where large mammals did flourish! Still there were interesting creatures like the angry baby spitting cobra (actually spitting at us!) that we found at the bottom of a river pit and that we rescued despite its anger!

Genets often visited us at night. They managed to squeeze through the chicken wire to get at our food and refuse and they often woke us up when they knocked things in the kitchen of our simple reed-walled bungalows. On one occasion a mother with two tiny replicas of her came earlier than usual and they were a joy to watch

 

[1] See: http://kenyabirdmap.adu.org.za/index.php

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_and_Osa_Johnson#Osa_Johnson’s_The_Big_Game_Hunt

 

Rain bird

A few days back we have started hearing the by now familiar ‘wip-wip-weeu’ that the rain bird or red-chested cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius) make endlessly at the time the rains should start in Zimbabwe. But, where have they been since their appearance last year?

 

Before I knew much about bird movement and migration, I often asked myself this question. I recall watching in awe widowbirds displaying in Northern Kenya and asking my friend Paul about their whereabouts during the rest of the year. His reply, was that they would go to the Sudd[1], a huge swampy area located in Sudan.

Sudd_swamp Credit NASA (Public domain)

Sudd Swamp -a Flooded grasslands and savannas ecoregion in South Sudan. To the left the river/wetland Bahr al-Ghazal connecting to Lake No (top). This photograph was taken during the driest time of year—summer rains generally extend from July through September. Taken from space, May 1993. Credit: NASA (Public domain).

So, every time that someone asks me now where a particular bird is when it is not seen, I say that it is in the Sudd, a very convenient reply!

The truth about the rain bird is that they are intra-African migrants that breed in southern Africa between September and March, although most arrive in mid-October and the majority are gone by the end of April.

The rest of the year they reside in Sub-Saharan Africa, in countries of Central, East and West Africa, including the Sudd wetlands in South Sudan!

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Rainbird distribution map. Attribution: BirdLife International (2019) Species factsheet: Cuculus solitarius. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 02/11/2019.

Their preferred habitats are woodlands where they perch high up in the trees. The red-chested cuckoo is usually solitary and it takes on more than a single mate so it is polygamous. Every year they visit our garden where they are occasionally seen while they feed on caterpillars and other insects in the tall msasa trees.

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While in Southern Africa -including Zimbabwe- the rain birds practice brood parasitism by breeding through egg-laying in other bird species nests, some twenty-seven of them! The most common hosts are thrushes and robin-chats and the Cape robin-chat (Cossypha caffra), the Cape wagtail (Motacilla capensis) and the white-throated robin-chat (Cossypha humeralis) are the most popular hosts.

The cuckoo’s resemblance with a small bird of prey (like a sparrow hawk for example) scares the future parents from their nests and the cuckoo female lays the egg that, not always, resembles their hosts’. It is estimated that they lay about twenty eggs scattered in various nests every season. Then it is up to the surrogate family to raise the chick.

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A cape robin feeding an almost fully-grown rain bird. Attribution: Alandmanson [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f4/Piet-my-vrou_%26_cape_robin.jpg. Downloaded from Creative Commons on 2/11/19

A very interesting biological phenomenon helps the cuckoo chick to have a head start from the other chicks in the nest: the female cuckoo literally incubates the egg inside her for 24 hours before laying it! [1] This ensures that the chick will hatch first and eliminate the competition at the nest.

Cuckoos are great travellers, capable of flying enormous distances during their migration and, although the red-chested cuckoo covers less distances than others, it uses the same mechanisms to do so. These navigation skills are genetically passed on to their young. The latter stay behind to complete their development while their parents depart but the new generation are able to fly back north on their own to join their parents!

Now we only need good rains while we watch the cuckoos until they depart and then we wait for them to announce the rains in 2020.

 

[1] See: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-11401254

Gaboon viper

From the moment I learnt about the existence of the Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica) it entered, together with the Pangolin, in my “Hall of Fame” of animals I would like to see in the wild. I saw it “live” for the first time at a snake park in Tanzania and my interest increased.

Gabon_Viper_P9240109- Picture taken by deror avi on 24th September 2006. [Attribution]. From Wikimedia Commons (2/11/190

It is a species found in the rainforests and savannas of sub-Saharan Africa. Later on, reading about it I realized that it also collects a few gold medals. It is of course highly venomous and the largest member of the genus Bitis. With its record 5 cm fangs it is capable of innoculating the largest volume of venom of any snake! It measures in average between 80–130 cm, with a maximum total length of 175 cm and its body is rather large.

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Gabon_Viper_P9240109- Picture taken by deror avi on 24th September 2006. [Attribution]. From Wikimedia Commons. Downloaded on 2/11/19.

Luckily for us bush walkers they are usually nocturnal, slow moving and placid and are very tolerant, but, if threatened they can side wind and even hiss. As they ambush their prey that can be up to rabbit size, their slowness is not an impediment and they are one of the fastest snakes when they strike!

C.J.P. Ionides (1901-1968), the well known snake catcher of East Africa, would capture them by first touching them lightly on the top of the head with his tongs to test their reactions. Most did not react angrily and he would grasp them from their necks with his hands while supporting their bodies with the other and then bag them where they stayed rather calm!

As I mention Ionides, one of my favourite African historical characters, I should mention that he estimated to having caught a few thousand Gaboon vipers, and he measured the number of black mambas caught in hundreds and the green mambas in thousands. [1].

You would agree with my decision to look for them when, in the late 90s, I learnt that they were present in Zimbabwe as these snakes are rare in southern Africa. Even in Zimbabwe they can only be found in the Honde valley, located in the Eastern Highlands, between the Nyanga Nationl Park and Mozambique, in the Gleanegles forest reserve.

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So, last week we went in search for the Gaboon viper despite the misgivings of Mabel who I managed to convince that there were many orchids there that she could look at while I searched for the snake. Of course she did not believe any of it but still agreed to come!

“…After driving through the beautiful Honde Valley and the Eastern Highlands Tea plantations you arrive at … Aberfoyle Lodge … situated in a very special part of Zimbabwe. With rolling tea plantations, riparian forests and the Nyamkombe river surrounding the lodge, you feel as though you are in an oasis of true serenity…” [2] The description is accurate as you really enter into a “different” Zimbabwe with strong similarities with the Kericho area in Kenya but with much less human presence.

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Tea was established in Zimbabwe in the Chipinge area in the 1920’s and the first tea at Aberfoyle was planted in 1954 and we saw sections of the plantations that have been there from 1960-61. The present Aberfoyle lodge was the Club for the tea estate. Originally planned as an Italian villa, lack of resources and the Zimbabwe civil war changed plans and it was finally built in a simpler way and completed in 1960.

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Our first thoughts were that, although the tea plantations are rather spectacular, lots of trees must have been removed to achieve this! However, reading about how the plantations were done, the damage to the forest was more from tree cutting for fuel for the factory rather than for planting tea. This was not because owners were ecologically minded but because it was cheaper to plant in open areas than to clear the forest.

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Later, the Gleaneagles mountain reserve -located between the tea plantations and the Nyanga National Park- was created to preserve what is left of the forest. In addition to tea, coffee was also planted and most of it removed and there are also pepper plantations and new ones of macadamia trees.

We stayed at the self-catering Hornbill House, part of the Aberfoyle lodge, a house once upon a time occupied by a farm manager and excellently positioned on a hill that offered great views not only of the undulating tea plantations but also of the far off mountains. To the west Mtaka, Kayumba and Dzunzwa peaks and to the east the rugged Tawangwena in Mozambique. They were mostly shrouded in smoke from the frequent bush fires as it was very hot and dry.

As we were new in the area we thought it was a good idea to join guided walks and so we went with the lodge’s birding guide Morgan who did not flinch when I asked to go looking for Gaboon vipers! He only quietly replied: “We will try”.

In fact, we went also looking for birds as the area is renowned for having several unique bird species but we placed a ban on little brown jobs (LBJs).

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Morgan and Mabel looking at a “No LBJ”!

I am quite sure that by now you have realized that, despite the efforts of Morgan and myself, the snake watching trip failed although we covered a few miles looking for it and threading carefully on the leaf-covered floor. I am pretty sure that no snake was to be found, otherwise Mabel would have found it miles before we would have done!

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The forest floor offered excellent camouflage for our target snake!

Luckily, thanks to Morgan’s skills and despite the LBJs ban, we saw a number of very interesting birds apart from Palm-nut vultures (Gypohierax angolensis) that nest near the 9-hole golf course of the lodge. Despite being residents we only saw their nest and the birds very far away like white and black dots.

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Narina’s trogon.

We had better luck in our forst walks. We found a few Narina’s trogon (Apaloderma narina) in several places and also sightings of White-eared barbet (Stactolaema leucotis), Grey cuckooshrike (Coracina caesia), Blue-spotted wood dove (Turtur afer), Blue-mantled creasted flycatcher (Thrococercus cyanomelas), Red-capped robin-chat (Cossypha natalensis), Livingstone’s turaco (Tauraco livingstonii), Red-throated twinspot (Hypargos niveoguttatus), Dark-backed weaver (Ploceus bicolor) and Green-backed woodpecker (Campethera cailliautii).

Two views of a Cardinal woodpecker, pale flycatchers having a bath, Narina’s trogon, and brown-hooded kingfisher.

We also enjoyed finding a number of butterflies along the paths we walked. We saw a few swallowtail butterflies and, thanks to Morgan, we found them congregated by the … River that traverses the tea estate. It was just amazing to watch these beautiful creatures fluttering and sucking up some nutrients at one particular spot. Unforgettable!

 

The visit was very enjoyable despite having failed to achieve its primary objective as we not only saw several bird species for the first time but also because discovered a real gem of an area in this amazing country.

As for the snake failure, it only fuelled my hunger to find it in the wild but, in the meantime, I will invite friends on Sunday to visit the ones at Snakeworld in Harare to see them there and get them out of my system, at least for a few months until we return to the Honde next year!

 

[1] Although rare, two books deal with his life, Margaret Lane’s ” Life with Ionides” written in 1964 and published by Readers Union; Book Club edition and his autobiography “A Hunter’s Story” published in 1966 by W.H. Allen. If found, both are worth reading!

[2] See: https://www.aberfoylelodge.com/

 

Note: This post is not meant as an endorsement of the Aberfoyle lodge and it only contains the opinion of the author who was a paying guest there.