Camping

Salty dust [1]

In the 1980’s Amboseli National Park (established in 1974 as a National Park but already a park from 1948) was the most popular among all the Kenya parks. This was probably because it was relatively near Nairobi, despite the corrugated road to get to it, and it offered abundant quality accommodation. The latter I cannot confirm as we always camped there! Tourist packages included an Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks circuit, as there is a road that joins them. The result was that travel companies would take tourists in large numbers and we found it rather crowded, particularly around the lodges and the swamp area.

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Despite its popularity, the park was still beautiful mainly because of Kilimanjaro that in a clear day offered an amazing view . With its 5,895 metres summit it truly showed itself with its well known peaks Kibo (the flat one) and Mawenzi (the rugged one) above the cloud cover creating a really special atmosphere [2].

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Elephants and buffalo were plentiful and there were still black rhinos that could occasionally found browsing on the scarce trees and bushes, unaware of their sad but approaching extermination.

In 1982, David Western wrote: “…The Amboseli population, at a low of eight animals in 1977, had only two breeding males and three mature females. Given such low numbers and localized populations it is inevitable that the black rhino will, like the white rhino, have to be managed in many cases as a national or even international herd…” [3]

It was the park’s flatness and its scarce vegetation, together with the abundance of prey species, that made it an ideal place to find large predators such as lions and spotted hyenas, although they were already decreasing in numbers.

The abundance of Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles also made Amboseli a great place to spot the already scarce cheetah and, if you were lucky as we were, to watch them hunting.

Although not considered among the great cats for anatomical reasons [4] these are very interesting and exciting animals to watch. Relying on speed to catch their prey, they are forced to hunt during the day so that they can see where they step while running -for short bursts- at a maximum speed of 100 to 120 km per hour! An injury could have severe consequences to the animal that can cause its death due to starvation! It is this behaviour that exposes cheetah to tourism interference and often leads to them getting disturbed by over-eager drivers.

Although we witnessed a few chases, we only managed to observe a couple that ended with a successful capture and kill of a Thomson’s gazelle. Several times we watched them loosing their prey during the chase when the latter in desperation entered terrain that was too rough for the cheetah or when the latter took a tumble at speed!

Even if the hunt was successful, the cheetah requires about a quarter of an hour of rest before it can start eating and, although their instinct directs them to consume the hindquarters (the richest part of the animal) during this recovery time cheetah are very vulnerable to larger predators -particularly spotted hyenas- to snatch its prey forcing it to hunt again!

Although we saw cheetah defending their prey against a single hyena by bristling and increasing their size dramatically, most of the time we watched while a pack of hyenas harassed them away from their freshly killed prey.

I will not attempt to describe a cheetah hunt as this has been done many times and through different media during hundreds of years. Instead of of that, as pictures I dare recommending my favourite sequence that, despite its age, is still one of the best I have seen (except seeing it live, of course). It is a Survival documentary called “Two in the Bush” filmed by Alan and Joan Root. Although the film (link below) is worth watching in its entirety, the cheetah sequence starts at the 15:32 minutes mark when the Roots are seen driving on the plains. It is important to bear in that the movie was filmed in the 1980’s with cameras that were not those we have today.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8NzgBqOgJY

We did not attempt to emulate the Roots in filming the hunt but we were lucky enough to take a few shots of the action but the only good ones were those we took after the hund ended when we were lucky that a combination of positioning and camera zoom worked miracles, at least for our standards!

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We visited Amboseli several times over the years and eventually we got to know it quite well. Already at that time it was showing sigs of severe erosion, particularly during the dry season and we thought that it should be closed to the public for several years to allow it to recover. The park was so degraded by 1991 that the New York Times published an article highlighting its poor status [5]. Since then, a number of initiatives to manage the park have been initiated although I do not know about their degree of success.

To enter Amboseli you crossed the lake that gives the park its name, a usually dry ash lake and the first place where we saw both dust devils and mirages, the latter framed by Kilimanjaro.

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Funnily the lake was occasionally flooded! During these times it became a quagmire that took some driving to negotiate.

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At first we camped at the now called Amboseli campsite but the lack of adequate shade prompted us to seek other places. We then found the palm tree campsite that our friend Paul also used when staying at the park. Although lacking ablution facilities, this was a shady and cool camp, ideal to rest during the hot time of the day and even to have a short nap before embarking on a late afternoon game drive.

Being rather secluded and with small camping areas it had the advantage of not being frequented by the overland trucks that were beginning to be common at the time and that immediately crowded the limited space and facilities available at the other campsites. We soon learnt the reasons for this seclusion…

While Paul was investigating a rinderpest outbreak we took the opportunity to join him a couple of times at the palm tree campsite where he was staying with his camp hand Tobias as usual. He was a great help at the camp as well as producing some good food, particularly in the evening when we were tired after driving all day. However, the English breakfast was his “special” and this prompted Paul’s say of “with such breakfast, who needs to think about cooking later” in reply to our criticism to the rest of the English cuisine!

After dinner we usually made an inventory of the birds seen during the day as well as planning where we would go on the morrow. That night, however, Paul was starting to tell us about what had happened to him earlier at that camp when, suddenly, we started hearing people shouting!

We stopped talking and listened. After a few seconds we clearly heard a loud and frantic scream: “elephant!” that got repeated until finally we heard a desperate “help us, elephant!” Without hesitating Paul and Tobias grabbed their torches and ran towards the source of the voices. I followed.

We did not have a lot of ground to cover, perhaps one hundred metres, when we came to the next camping spot, a clearing in the bush where the drama was unfolding. There were tents and a Land Rover with three terror-stricken occupants in the back, two men and a woman rather scantily clothed. Outside there was a large elephant holding the roof rack and vigorously shaking the car as much as its springs would allow and, in so doing, badly shaking the people inside!

We then realized that the elephant had stepped and flattened an aluminium camera case and scattered camera(s) and lenses on the fine dust. Luckily, as soon as we shone the torches on the intruder, it took off tail up, aware of its guilt, crashing into the low palm trees to the relief of the vehicle occupants and mine when I saw it running in the opposite direction rather than charging!

After helping the “victims” to collect their dusty gear and their wits, we reassured them that the elephant would not come back as it got quite a fright, not being sure of this ourselves as it was unusual that elephants would attempt to raid a camp in Kenya. After we saw that our neighbours were as calm as the situation allowed, we returned to our camp.

After commenting the incident with the rest of the campers it was Paul’s turn to return to its interrupted story that, funnily enough, also dealt with elephants! He told us that one night he was woken up by some noise outside the tent. Through the door he realized that there were elephants outside and then he felt a rush of hot air in his face, coming from one of the visitors. It was trying to get to the food he had in the tent. Quite alarmed, he tried to get out through the other tent exit that went to his “kitchen” area only to find it blocked by a white elephant that blocked his way. The intruder had managed to break a sac of flour and it was enjoying it!

In the meantime, another pachyderm was busy trying to get at Tobias’ tent where some dirty pots and pans were kept to be cleaned the following morning. His smaller tent was lifted from the ground and Tobias got very frightened and -according to the storyteller- proffered such screams that he managed to scare the animals away, saving the day! After that achievement Tobias rushed to the Land Rover where he spent the rest of that night! (Something I would also have done! – Bushsnob)

It was then apparent that the campsite was a rather uninhabited one in virtue of its naughty elephantine visitors that have become used to get food from campers and the news had spread prompting campers -except us!- to stay away. As it is inevitable in these cases, the camp was closed soon after and, possibly, the elephants destroyed as wild animals always pay for being fed by people who do not realize the consequences of their actions.

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I always wonder if some of these were the culprits!

 

[1] The English meaning of the Maa word Amboseli.

[2] There is apparently a third peak called Shira that I learnt about when writing this post! See: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Kilimanjaro (Consulted on 19/10/19).

[3] Western, D. (1982). Patterns of depletion in a Kenya rhino population and the conservation implications. Biological Conservation, 24: 147-156.

[4] The word “Cheetah” is derived from the Hindi word “Chita” meaning “spotted one”. The Cheetah is the fastest land animal reaching speeds of 45 – 70 mph. Cheetahs have also been known to swim, although they do not like to. “…The Cheetah is not one of the Great Cats, because it does not have a floating Hyoid bone in its neck it can not roar, therefore it is a Lesser Cat…” See: https://bigcatrescue.org/cheetah-facts/?amp (consulted 16/10/19)

[5] See: https://www.nytimes.com/1991/05/19/travel/an-african-park-in-peril.html (consulted 16/10/19)

 

 

 

 

Dust

This year Masuma dam offered an amazing spectacle because of the very dry conditions that prevail in Hwange National Park at the moment. There was a continuous flow of animals coming to drink at the shrinking waterhole despite its constant water pumping that could not match evaporation and what hundreds of animals needed to drink.

As described in the previous post the elephants were the stars of the show but there were other visitors, not less interesting such as impala, giraffe, zebra, greater kudu, warthogs, baboons, jackals and some buffalo. Among the latter there was a male that looked in very poor condition that we predicted that it would not last too long and that ended up as a lion meal two days later.

After watching the lions feeding on the buffalo we returned to Masuma to continue with our “comfortable” viewing from our camp as the water is very close to it. We were -as usual- focussing on the comings and goings of the elephants when we noted a large brown cloud rising far away, in the direction of Mandavu reservoir.

One afternoon we were enjoying game viewing from our platform at Masuma when we spotted dust in the horizon.

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We thought that more elephant family groups were arriving but the dust turned into a large cloud and we realized that a large herd was indeed coming. But we were wrong, there were not elephants but a very large herd of buffalo! Hundreds and hundreds of them coming to drink at Masuma.

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We had seen very large numbers of buffalo during previous visits at Mandavu reservoir and probably this was the same herd forced to move in search of grazing.

It was an amazing site as buffalo, usually respectful of elephants just bulldozed their way through by the pressure of their large numbers and took over the entire water body! It was interesting to see that the elephants were forced to wait this time.DSC_0769 copyIMG_6763 copyIMG_6748 copy

After about an hour, when the afternoon was turning to dusk, they slowly moved off in in the direction of the Shumba picnic site and the other animal’s wait was over. The herd went slowly, probably in search of grazing and hoping to drink  at Shumba where there was abundant water still.

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Pictures by Julio A and Mabel de Castro, Patricia Ruiz Teixidor and the bushsnob.

A visit

On 8 September 2019 [1] I wrote in this blog: “…By far the biggest nuisance that awaits the camper in Africa is the monkeys both vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) and baboons (Papio spp.). Although the latter can be rather destructive to tents and other gear, the former can be a real menace when it comes to steal your food. They are the masters of opportunism and surprise and a distraction of a few seconds is enough for them to strike…”

A week after these words were written, we were -again- put to the test with baboons. This time while camping at Masuma dam picnic site in Hwange National Park. As the picnic sites are now practically unfenced, usually, the attendant warns you about any “special” visitor you need to watch for. We were therefore informed of the well-known honey badgers that are a permanent feature there but baboons were not mentioned.

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A view of the camp at sunset.

We had seen baboons in previous occasions and they had always been “civilized” towards us. This time they were also present at the water edge drinking and scouting the area for any easy prey they could get but we did not pay much attention to them except when one caught a dove and ate it!

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Baboons drinking in the morning.

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A baboon plucking a dove caught at the dam’s edge.

It was on the third day that the visitor came. As every morning we were enjoying our camp breakfast while commenting on what we had seen as well as our plans for the day. We have heard lions nearby and were discussing where to look for them while Mabel -the best eyes among us- was at the hide trying to spot them.

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Aggression at sunset. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

We were seated at our table, my son and his girlfriend in front of me. I was facing the camp’s area that borders with the thicket when this event that may have lasted five seconds took place. I had just prepared my bowl of cereal and fruits and was about to start eating when a movement in the bush in front of me caught my eye. A large baboon was running full speed straight at me and it kept coming!

Before I had time to warn my companions the brute had already jumped on the table, tipping it and scaring all of us, badly. While this took place and all items on the table flew in all directions I just sat there unable to move! The only thing I managed to do was to threaten the beast now looking at me in the eyes with my dessert spoon! [2]

Then it jumped off the table, I threw him my plate of cereal while I felt heat in my legs while my spilled coffee wetted them. The visit was gone in a flash and, luckily, it left us unscathed but shaken. Mabel returned to the camp after hearing the commotion and she found us re-gathering our wits and our various utensils that were scattered all over the floor. It took a while for her to believe what had happened.

This was undoubtedly the most violent experience we have had with a baboon during all our camping years. Although the baboon was clearly after food, it was a stark reminder that we are dealing with dangerous animals while we stay in the bush.

It is likely that campers had fed the baboons earlier as it usually happens but perhaps the rather severe drought prevalent in the area at the moment has pushed them to the limit. All I can say is that from that morning our breakfasts were “breakveryfasts” while constantly keeping an eye on our surroundings.

 

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

[2] My later version that I have hit the beast on the nose with my spoon and saved the day may not be very credible giving the circumstances of the event… It did good to my ego though!

Hyena bubblegum

There are four hyena species: the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) has the widest distribution and lives in North and East Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, the aardwolf (Proteles cristata) is an insectivorous mammal, native to East and Southern Africa and rarely seen.

The Brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea) is found in Namibia, Botswana, western and southern Zimbabwe[1], southern Mozambique and South Africa. It is currently the rarest species of hyena.

The spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) also known as the laughing hyena is found in Sub-Saharan Africa. They were extremely abundant in the Kenya bush, more so than the smaller striped variety. The latter we only encountered rarely but we got to “know” their spotted cousins quite well!

Hyenas in general have a bad reputation as the villains of the bush, considered as mean and dirty scavengers and even their sexuality has been doubted accusing them of being hermaphrodites! Hyenas are scavengers and as such the play an essential role consuming dead animals, particularly with their ability of cracking hard bones. They are also superb hunters and often lions feed from animals killed by spotted hyenas!

A hyena performing its carrion-eater role.

I have watched them hunting wildebeest and Thomson’s gazelles in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve and admire their ability to select the prey and run after it through the vast herds without losing it and taking turns to chase their selected prey until they tire it, immobilize it and kill it. No kill, except perhaps a cheetah kill, is carried out in a “clinical” way and, admittedly hyenas tend to tear their victims apart, a gruesome sight but part of nature.

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Hyena chase. One of the mos dramatic events in the bush.

They are highly intelligent, social animals that can be dangerous to humans as they can weigh up to 90 kg and are armed with large teeth capable of crushing bones. Their jaws have a bite force of 1100 psi, stronger than both lion (650 psi) and tiger (1050 psi) [2]. In all our years camping, we have always treated them with great respect and, although we hear them almost every night and have had them real close, we have never had a problem with them.

Camping anywhere in Kenya you were likely to hear the unmistakable whoop call of hyenas after dark. They walk through the bush and they pass near camps in search of food and they also “check” dustbins, not only at campsites but also in human dwellings. As an aside, the best known example of hyenas coming close to humans takes place at Harar in Ethiopia (See: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/2079781.stm) and more recently, spotted hyenas are getting closer to Addis Ababa suburbs (https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26294631) the same way that foxes inhabit London (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/shortcuts/2013/feb/11/urban-foxes-fact-fiction).

Although we have heard their laugh, the most heard is the whoop call repeated a few times while moving about in the dark at a prudent distance from your camp. They rarely enter the circle of light of a campsite while you are there but they can come close once you get inside your tent and switch the lights off.

Crocuta_crocuta_whoop_notation copy By Johnston, Harry Hamilton, Sir, 1858-1927 - The Uganda protectorate, Public Domain, https-::commons.wikimedia.org:w:index.php?curid=23401588

The spotted hyena call. Credit: Crocuta_crocuta_whoop_notation copy By Johnston, Harry Hamilton, Sir, 1858-1927 – The Uganda protectorate, Public Domain, https-//commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23401588

As I mentioned earlier I used to camp at Intona and it was there that I had hyenas every night and learnt to be careful with them. I immediately learnt not to leave anything edible (including my shoes) outside for the night as there were several animals keeping an eye on me!

The first time I camped there, sometime after I went to bed I could hear something sniffing all around the tent and realized that I was being checked for edible stuff! I calmed down when I realized that it was only a white tailed mongoose. However, the following morning both my butter and sufferier (saucepan in Ki-Swahili) were gone! Although I never found the former, careful search revealed a discarded alluminium bubblegum ball lying on the grass some distance away from the camp, a show of the hyenas’ jaw power! I learnt not to leave my utensils outside!

Care to keep edible stuff inside the car helped to keep a truce between us and our night visitors, including the hyenas. However, mistakes from our part had bad consequences. This is what happened while camping at the Sand River campsite in the Maasai Mara when, in the middle of the night we heard loud noises and noted that our cool box (left out by mistake) was being carried away!

With Mark, one of my herdsmen, we ran some distance searching with torches and found an untouched frozen chicken, still wrapped from the supermarket, lying on the sandy river bed! We followed the noise and the trail of bacon rashes, milk cartons and soda and beer bottles until we caught a glimpse of the offending hyena that was carrying the rather large cool box in its mouth!

Fortunately, when we shone our torches at it, the box was dropped and the intruder took off! The chewed cool box, minus one handle (used to carry it by the intruder), was still useful for that trip after a good wash but the deep teeth holes it had were too many and it was discarded after returning to Nairobi.

Sometimes hyenas call your attention when busy doing their own business, not necessarily associated with your presence. I recall a couple of incidents while camping at the Mara Buffalo Camp in the Maasai Mara.

One night, after dinner Mabel and I were getting ready to retire to our tent when we started hearing hyenas laughing and a loud squealing coming from the Mara river area, some distance from our camp. We assumed that a warthog was caught and it was responsible for such a loud noise so we jumped in the car and went to investigate.

When we approached the source of the crying we realized that whatever it was, was on the other side of the river so we decided that it was not worth pursuing our investigation. We were turning around to get back when we heard the loud trumpeting of an elephant approaching. Soon, a very agitated cow elephant made an appearance running up and down on our side of the riverbank without paying any attention to us.

We shone the torches to the area where the trouble was and through the bushes saw a small elephant being kept at bay by several hyenas. Clearly the situation of the youngster was getting more desperate by the minute and so was our anxiety growing! Eventually, the female elephant found a suitable place, jumped into the water and crossed the river. It surprised the hyenas that it chased all over the place and reunited with its calf. The hyenas stayed around for a while still laughing loudly but the elephants were soon gone and so did we after such a good ending for an exciting evening entertainment!

The next incident, I am afraid, does not have a good ending. We were arriving from Nairobi following a road near the Mara river towards our usual camp site next to the Mara Buffalo Camp when we noticed a sitting giraffe. Unusually it was still seated when we approached it and it did not get up. Clearly it was sick or wounded and not in good shape. Aware of the predator numbers that were in the area we decided that we would come back later in the afternoon to investigate.

We heard them before we saw them. A pack of about 30 hyenas were laughing while feasting on the freshly killed giraffe. It was a true pandemonium as the hyenas -probably from several clans- competed for a place at the large carcass that was literally swarming with hyenas. Mesmerized we watched until the day light allowed and then with the car lights until a good amount of the giraffe had gone and returned to camp feeling sorry for the unfortunate victim.

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The sick giraffe as we saw it in the morning.

The following morning, just before departing for Intona ranch, we returned to the place and only found a few scattered broken bones and a few vultures searching for some remains that the hyenas had left behind.

 

[1] A surprise to me was to learn that this species also occures in the Mana Pools National Park area, reported by Seymour-Smith, J.L. and Loveridge, A. J. (2015). Mana Pools National Park Predator Survey. Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.

[2] See: https://themysteriousworld.com/most-powerful-animal-bites/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The joys of camping

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Mabel with some company while camping in the Transmara.

As my work at Intona ranch in the Transmara took me through the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, I was often taking visitors with me to the bush. There were those related to my work and friends that came for the fun of it. The former included technical colleagues and representatives from our funding agencies. The latter were of great importance and often they flew directly to Intona or to an airstrip near a camp called Kitchwa Tembo in the reserve, a kind of luxury camping. I would then collect them and I was careful to take them at least on one game drive before climbing the Oloololo escarpment towards Intona. I am not sure if the donors appreciated my work or the time spent on safari but the end result was that we were always well funded!

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Traveling through the Amboseli National Park.

Travel to the bush for pleasure is not everyone’s game. Some of our friends never came, others came once and a few repeated the experience. Fear of wild animals and/or creepy crawlies, lack of ablution facilities, sleeping on the hard ground and cooking with smoke were some of the excuses put forward to decline our invitation.

As much as I tried to convince them that a tent was a safe place to spend the night among wild creatures of all sorts, that nearby lodges offered luxurious toilets, that we did have a gas stove that avoided getting smoked out and mattresses to soften the ground, they still did not come.

m mara puff adder in sand river camp the day hyena stole coolbox

A recently moulted puff adder, one of the few snakes that you may encounter while camping.

However, not all my preaching fell on deaf ears and we did find a few good companions. Ranjini, with who we shared our very first camp in the Maasai Mara, often joined us and the same did Luis (Mabel’s boss). Ranjini was very accommodating and enthusiastic. Further, she had an unfounded faith in our skills when it came to negotiate difficulties. However, she enjoyed joining us and we had a few memorable trips to Northern Kenya with her. This included a memorable visit to Mt. Elgon when she inadvertently closed the tap of our car’s second petrol tank, an episode that had me a couple of hours frantically trying to determine why no petrol would reach the carburetor!

Luis was very keen on bird photography and a lover of large campfires “to keep the beasts away” as he put it despite my arguments to the contrary, not based on ecological grounds but rather that the fires advertised our position to both two- and four-legged potential visitors. He was an assiduous companion with who we shared many bush moments, including a lunch break in the Maasai Mara interrupted by a kind tour operator that came to tell us that we were sitting below a cliff from which a leopard was lazily contemplating us! Luckily the wise animal abstained from disturbing three feeding apes!

Later on came Genevieve and François with who we also shared a few adventurous trips (https://bushsnob.com/2019/02/28/a-short-trip-to-ngorongoro-contributed/) and a few other trips in Kenya and beyond. I still laugh when I remember François’ anger with his Isuzu Trooper that would often let him down! It was with them that we had our only experience at -unwisely- camping only under our mosquito nets at Shaba Game Reserve. Although we survived it, we did not repeat it!

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Camping in the Ngorongoro with Francois, Geneviève and Paula (her mother). Picture by G. Mery.

Of course, the very few visitors we had from Uruguay had no option but to come with us whether they liked camping or not. I described one of the experiences already (https://bushsnob.com/2016/04/25/unpredicted-friends-and-unforgettable-dates/) and this was also the case of my father’s cousin Marta and her friend Elcira, both retired, that also came for a visit. Having good retirement conditions they traveled all over the world and, somehow, we managed to convince them to visit us in Kenya! Although they traveled on their own to the Kenya coast, later on they joined us in trips to Nakuru and Tsavo National Parks as well as our frequent detours into the Nairobi National Park.

They were great examples of adaptable people. Marta agreed to travel seated on a camping chair tied with rope and elastic hook ties at the back of our SWB Land Rover as only three people could travel in the front. She braved the trips to both Nakuru and Tsavo sitting on canvas and she enjoyed every minute of them.

I still recall a few moments we shared such as the overt emotion they showed when, on their first morning at the Kitani bandas, they had a surprise crystal clear view of mount Kilimanjaro! Unfortunately their pleasure was offset that same evening by a serious scare when we were seating at the verandah after dinner trying to identify the different night noises while shining our torch at the various visitors such as genets, mongooses and hyenas. All of a sudden we heard a very loud and close elephant scream that made them slide their chairs back, stand up and attempt to run to their bedroom! A rather understandable response to something that also scared us and -eventually- ended in great laughter.

At Nairobi National Park we found a herd of buffalo and, aware of the curiosity of these animals, I stopped the car and told them to keep quiet to allow the buffaloes to approach. When they were almost touching the car, Marta could not hold her excitement anymore and said loudly “you want to kill us!” That caused a buffalo stampede and I started laughing but she was not amused!

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The buffalo herd at Nairobi National Park.

At Nakuru National Park, one of the safest camping places at the time, we set them up in separate tents to spend the night with some privacy only to discover that they emerged from the same tent the following morning saying that they felt safer being together as they heard too many animals outside!

Camping was a strong experience for Sara, Ernesto and their two kids, some of the rare Uruguayans living in Nairobi. We took them to the Maasai Mara for a weekend and stayed at the Mara Research Station, where, being a scientist, you could camp for free. It was the rainy season and the grass was rather long at the camping area so we spent sometime cutting the grass before we could set up our camp.

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This picture from the Kruger National Park reminds me of what I saw at the Mara Research Station!

I noted a large number of elephants grazing and browsing some distance away and hoped that they would not come closer but I did not mention them to avoid alarming our friends. I realized later that I made a mistake. As the trip had been long, we had a quick dinner and retired to our tents early. Unfortunately, the elephants -against my hope- decided to approach us. I could hear them all around us pulling the grass and braking branches while their bellies rumbled.

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Elephant feeding overhead in Mana Pools National Park. A similar situation to that in the Mara Research Station.

After a while of listening to the pachyderms I heard Ernesto asking softly “what is that noise?” My reply was, perhaps, not the best “elephants” I said trying to sound confident to calm them down, something I clearly failed to do and I could hear them talking among themselves and hear movements inside the tent. “We are scared!” they said nervously and asked “can we go to the car?” I explained them that they were safer in the tent and that they must not go out, not even to the toilet! Luckily, the elephants soon walked away and they started to relax although I did not enquiry about their ablution needs.

The following morning, they looked very tired and they were not very happy at first until they saw the lovely place we were in and the elephants in the distance when all was forgotten! However, they never completely forgave me as they were convinced that I did it all intentionally! Despite this initial scare, they repeated the experience with us at Tsavo West, a much more sedated outing as there were not so many animals around the camp there.

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From left to right: Luis, Sara, Ernesto, the bushsnob and Mabel camping at Tsavo West. Clearly Luis built the fire!

Camping did put us in close proximity to wild animals, as none of the campsites we frequented were fenced.

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A cute babbon youngster before becoming a camping menace!

By far the biggest nuisance that awaits the camper in Africa is the monkeys both vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) and baboons (Papio spp.). Although the latter can be rather destructive to tents and other gear, the former can be a real menace when it comes to steal your food. They are the masters of opportunism and surprise and a distraction of a few seconds is enough for them to strike.

We suffered many incidents with monkeys. Most of them were annoying but there were also some that were quite amusing. Unseen to you the vervets would be stalking you from the trees above to descend on you while unpacking your car and snatch any item that looks attractive to them. In this way you risk having an eggless or “butterless” camping experience that could leave you quite frustrated!

I have seen people running after monkeys in anger in a futile attempt at recovering their lost food while the thieves eat their booty well beyond their reach! I have thrown all kinds of objects to them in a rage when they had taken items from me but I have never managed to hit one and I have been personally “assaulted” a couple of times. Although I admit that I deserved both, at the time it was not funny. Vervets snatched our lunch bananas from my very hands in the hippo pools at Nairobi National Park and throw back the peels at me and a rather tall baboon took my packet of chips at the Man-eaters fuel station near Tsavo!

Of course the fault does not lie with the monkeys but with the habit by inexperienced campers and/or tourists of feeding them. After that the animals expect food and if they are not given it, they search for it. This gradually turns them into thieves that eventually will need to be destroyed by the parks’ authorities when they become too much of a nuisance!

Apart from monkeys we often had to deal with other possible dangerous visitors to our camps and the possibility of meeting them was directly proportional to their density. For this reason most of the incidents took place in the savannahs of Amboseli National Park and the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, than in the rather dry Tsavo West or Samburu National Parks.

I will deal with the spotted hyenas in a separate post and I will also tell you some experiences we had or learnt of encounters with elephants, in my opinion, the most intelligent animals that you are likely to encounter while camping.

I will also strike the black rhinos off the list as they were already on a severe decline at that time to be a bother to us. In any case, their reputed fame for putting out campfires is -apparently- not true! I heard of this while in Kenya and then saw it when I watched “The Gods Must Be Crazy” movie [1] but it is not a confirmed fact.

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Some of the few black rhinos we encountered in Kenya. These were at Amboseli National Park.

Although the buffalo have a well-deserved reputation as some of the most dangerous of the wild animals, they rarely approached our camp area. However, they can be deadly if found on foot as, particularly the lone males, will attack you without hesitation. People that had gone through the experience (and survived it!) declare that they had no idea how they managed to climb the tree they did and that often they have great difficulties to climb down once the danger is over!

The experience of hearing lions roaring at dusk and at night is unforgettable as, I believe, it awakens some ancestral fear in us. Near the Mara river area lions were abundant and we got to know the prides that lived there and we were aware that we were camping in their land! One thing is to see lions from the safety of your vehicle and another, rather different, is to know they are “there somewhere” in the dark of the night!

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At night you always think that what is coming is the largest lion you have seen!

We heard lions roaring in various degrees of intensity every night we camped in the Maasai Mara. Sometimes they would roar while there was still daylight, particular when it was over cast. However, most often they called after sunset and we heard their call reverberating loudly against the Oloololo escarpment. The situation often became “interesting” once we had retired to our tent to sleep.

Once in the tent we would hear the lions while reading as we both enjoy this very much. Normally their roaring will be only in the background but at times they would get closer. It was interesting how our feeling of enjoyment at hearing them far off would gradually fade and soon turn into apprehension as they moved near!

At times they would roar real close and we could also hear their breathing! Those were the times when we became really worried but stuck to our belief that the tent would protect us. Despite our apprehension, the lions were walking or running through our camp and paid no attention to us. So, after a few agitated nights we gradually relaxed and became more convinced that we were safe inside the tent and waited for the lions to walk away.

However, it is easy to narrate these experiences now, from the comfort of the armchair but a different thing is to live through them!

Just to illustrate that things can, albeit rarely, go awry, I will narrate a story of what happened to a former wildlife veterinarian that worked in Kenya and left while we were there. He had taken two lady friends camping in the Aberdare National Park. They were already inside the tent, preparing to spend the night when they heard some grunts that were attributed to a duiker. Later, in the early hours of the morning something crashed on their tent and brought part of it down. The vet’s reaction, thinking that an animal had accidentally bumped on their tent was to shout something like “out of here!” while his lady companions were rather terrified. Eventually, through a slit of the tent door he saw a large male lion that, fortunately, got away -roaring- when he shone the torch into its eyes. Although sleeping after such an encounter was difficult, they stuck together and stayed in what remained of the tent until the morning without further ado.

During the evenings we spent together by the campfire Paul told us the story of Hannu (not his real name) a retired and veteran Finnish veterinarian that was studying fluke control in Kenya. Paul had invited him to share his work as he did with me.

Hannu happened to be quite deaf and, because of his age, he needed to pass water a couple of times at night, a hazardous exercise when camping! Aware of the situation Paul kept an eye on him just in case. One night, while Hannu snored, lions started roaring close by. Paul was aware of the fact that Hannu would go out of the tent after midnight so he made an effort to stay awake to stop him if necessary. The lion roaring became quite loud and, suddenly, the veteran sat up in bed and shouted, “that was a lion!” and went back to sleep, forgetting his need to pass water and leaving Paul sleepless for a long while!

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A large hippo enters the water through a well trodden path. Those are the ones to avoid while camping!

Although hippos will normally keep clear of your camp, the fact that many of the camp sites are located near water puts you in close proximity with them and if you sited your tent in the middle of one of their paths you may suffered the nasty experience of one bumping into your tent when walk to their grazing area.

 

[1] See: https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/do-rhinos-put-out-fires.116998/and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gods_Must_Be_Crazy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A brave camping attempt

Although I had camped once before in Bogoria with Richard and Philip [1] our first attempt at spending a couple of nights under canvas took place at the Sand River campsite in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. This pioneer effort took place way before I knew I would be working at Intona ranch in the Transmara, something that would require lots of driving through the Reserve as well as camping for many years.

We were still staying at Muguga House then and we hatched the idea together with Kevin, a young forester that was had arrived to work a short time at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) a sister organization of the Kenya Veterinary Research Institute, both of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI).

Aware that his time in Kenya was limited, Kevin wished to visit the well-known Maasai Mara before returning to the UK so he was the main promoter of the idea. He managed to convince our friend Ranjini to come as well so we created a four-person team for this rather new undertaking.

Kevin did most of the footwork for the trip, Ranjini borrowed some stuff from other colleagues and I borrowed a large and strong tent from our laboratory in Muguga. We rented the 4WD car we could afford and ended up with a Subaru van. Unfortunately, we could not pack lots of things in it so our safari lacked a few essentials we have learnt to love over the years we have spent camping in comfort.

We did not have a table, chairs or mattresses. Luckily we were able to borrow four sleeping bags, basic cooking utensils, cutlery and crockery and, wisely, the ladies decided to stuff four pillows (borrowed from Muguga House!) at the last minute! The rest, we thought, would be overlooked by our enthusiasm and excitement at camping in the open surrounded by wild animals!

The trip started on a Friday morning traveling about 30 km in the wrong direction as we needed to catch a matatu (packed public minibus) to Nairobi to get the car only to go back to Muguga to load it and start our journey. Kevin drove all the way as I had not driven a right hand drive car yet.

Although he drove rather fast to get to our destination before closing time, the trip went well. We got a bit of a scare when, trying to save petrol, he switched the engine off during a long descent and both the power steering and the brakes stopped working! Luckily this only lasted a few seconds until the engine re-started and all functions returned to normality! After a rather long journey, we arrived to the Maasai Mara rather late but luckily we managed to get in before the closing time and reached the Sand River campsite rather late.

Although we all had assembled tents before, putting up the large tent for the first time in the dark was a bigger challenge than we had anticipated. There was a lot of trial and error and, after our best combined effort we were very pleased when we managed to get something with a V shape erected that served the purpose for us to rest our tired bones after a quick supper.

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From left to right: Ranjini, Kevin and Mabel (kneeling down) and a good tent badly assembled!

That night we herd grunting noises very close to our tent. Although we were sleepy and tired the situation demanded some discussion as, at times, the situation became rather nerve-wrecking with the grunts coming from an animal or animals very close to the tent! After a while we unanimously decided that buffaloes were responsible for the noise, as we had seen them nearby earlier on. Today I believe that we all knew which animal was responsible but that we took the decision for our own peace of mind and refuse to accept that there were lions inspecting our camp!

Lion grunts

Despite the nervous start of the night we slept through and, luckily, we were in a good enough shape in the morning. When we saw the way our tent looked, we had a good laugh and decided that it was worth spending some time reassembling it to manage to close its zips fully! We finally managed to get it more or less in shape and to close it.

We decided that it was time to explore the area searching, as any first comers to the Maasai Mara, for lions. However, before departing we walked to the dry river bed to check for spoor. The overwhelming lion spoor we saw left us in no doubt of the kind of night visitors we had.

We drove many kilometres through the bush, got lost a few times and, finally to our delight, we found a couple of sleeping lions. Although the objects of our desire hardly moved, they made our day!

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Our first lions.

Again, we returned to our camp very late after our drive to prepare supper. Unfortunately, while we were cooking we heard Ranjini saying that she had just lost her contact lenses in the grass, just outside the tent while trying to clean them. We postponed supper and all joined efforts in search of the tiny lenses in twilight. After a while, luckily, Mabel’s eyes came to the rescue and she, miraculously, found both of them stuck to some blade of grass!

That evening we also heard our first hyena call and we could also herd lions roaring in the distance. Our British friends knew both sounds from the BBC documentaries. We believed them.

Hyenas calling.

Lion roar

That night the grunting took place inside the tent and it was equally disturbing to everybody except me, the cause of the noise. My snoring was such that both Ranjini and Kevin were planning to wake me up (or worse!) when we had a partial tent collapse that solved the problem as we all woke up and my roaring, apparently, ceased!

Although this first camping was very basic and limited in what we saw, it wetted our appetite for the bush and showed that there was a lot to explore in Kenya and that you did not need to pay a fortune to do it. We promised ourselves that, as soon as our finances allowed it, we would get camping equipment and start going out to enjoy beautiful Kenya.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/02/22/pink-bogoria/

 

 

 

Grabbed at Chitake

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General views of the Chitake springs

We returned to the Chitake springs in the Zambezi valley exactly three years since our first visit [1]. This time we went alone, my wife and I and, luckily again, we managed to secure the very sought after Campsite 1 (we booked it one year ahead of time!).

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Aware of the “fun nights” that you spend in this amazing place, we prepared ourselves for any eventuality taking our “heavy duty” tent and planned to park our car near one of its entrances as our emergency exit, following the advice of our son, a bit worried about the “oldies” being alone in the wilderness!

The Chitake river with its springs is one of the wildest areas left in Southern Africa. There are only two campsites open to the public (although we learnt that a third campsite can be booked at Nyamepi in Mana Pools). There is also a campsite for tour operators near Chitake 1. This arrangement ensures that you are unlikely to see many people around! In addition, most of the exploring is done on foot so no much driving needed either.

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The fact that water seeps from the ground on a daily basis supports a population of game animals that dwell nearby. There are numerous buffalo, zebra, greater kudu and impala that in turn feed predators such as painted dogs, hyenas, leopards and lions. In addition there is a substantial elephant presence that files daily along the dry riverbed towards the water source.

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Buffalo at Chitake.

Campsite 1 is about two metres from the usually dry river bed and to be there waiting for “events” is an unforgettable experience that not all are prepared to take. We have camped all our lives and taken precautions in Kenya and other “open” camping places.

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The access to the river from Chitake 1.

We did not feel endangered and we knew that the only possible cause of problems would be the lions that were present in the area and we know that they respect tents. Our main concern was about the time you spend at camp in the dark as the camp is surrounded by thick bush. In particular nocturnal physiological needs were a worry as we needed to reach our long drop a few metres away!

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Our possible nocturnal target…

We arrived in the afternoon and spent some time to locate our camp in a spot as safe as we thought possible within the camping area.

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Considering the camping options.

As we had food already prepared, we were in for an early night. We set up our camera trap to “see” what was lurking in the dark around us and went to sleep. The night passed off rather calmly at camp although we heard the elephants walking nearby on the way to the water and the hyenas calling early during the night. We were probably tired and sleep came easily.

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The camp. The car was kept near the tent exit.

We were up early the following morning and all appeared well. We checked the camera trap and confirmed that there was life around our camp.

After that we decided to have breakfast prior to a short game drive as there are not many roads around the area. Then we noted that our 5-litre water container had disappeared! It was one of these supermarket transparent bottles that we had as a back-up in addition to the 40lts we had brought as Chitake does not offer any.

Although we searched the surrounding area, we failed to find the bottle! We could only speculate on the possible culprits. We discarded human interference, as thieves would steal more valuable stuff from the camp. We rejected the baboons as they do not move at night. That left us with the hyenas as the possible culprits. We heard them and saw their footprints at camp. In addition, we had had encounters with them earlier in Kenya and they can get very cheeky! We decided that the latter were likely to be the culprits but the enigma remains.

Our short morning drive took us to a bunch of vultures feeding on the remains of an impala that had clearly been killed earlier that morning. About twenty White-backed were scuffling for the few remaining meaty bits while a couple of Lappet-faced waited for their time to tackle sinews, tendons and the like.

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The rest of the day remained peaceful, contemplating the various animals coming down to drink at the springs from our camp chairs located at the riverbed that -luckily had good shade. While there we were assaulted by tabanids and tsetse flies so we needed to use large amounts of repellent and still we got hammered!

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My wife contemplating the springs from the shady riverbed.

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Tsetse and other biting flies collected from the floor of the car.

Hundreds of impala came to drink in the morning and they were joined by small groups of greater kudu and zebra. When we saw a large dust cloud rising behind the gorge where the springs are, we knew that the buffalo had arrived and they were soon at the springs satiating their thirst. Quite a sight!

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A herd of impala in the distance (the shadow at the back that looks like a predator is in fact a baboon)

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After the dust settle we could see the buffalo drinking.

As usual the day went fast and it was soon time to prepare for the evening. We were encouraged by the relative quietness of the earlier night and hoped to sleep well.

We were mistaken…

There were some early indications of trouble when, as soon as it was dark, several hyenas started to call from different places along the river. When we heard them laughing we knew that they had become excited for some reason, probably a kill although we were in no condition to discover the cause!

From the tent we started hearing elephant movement. We spotted several family groups walking rather nervously and trumpeting frequently showing that they were also nervous. As it was getting late we retired to our tent. I went to sleep soon afterwards as I have a reputation to live up to!

The next thing I remember was that something grabbed my ankle and it was shaking and pulling me! For the few hundredths of a second (or less, I do not know) that it takes to move from being sleep to some kind of alertness I thought I was a goner and that the dreaded time of being taken by a wild beast had finally come. My wife’s voice brought me back to reality: “There is a leopard there!” I muttered “Where?” thinking that it was inside the tent and taking me! I then realized that she was responsible for holding my foot on her third attempt at waking me up!

The picture soon became clear. With one hand she was keeping the torch light on the leopard through the tent window while, with her free hand, she had been shaking me for a while to alert me about the leopard sighting!

I must admit that it took me a while to recover from the severe fright and once I made sure that all my organs were functioning as expected -including my eyes- I looked where I supposed to and stared at the disappearing leopard’s eyes on the riverbed, a few metres away.

My rude awakening took place after 3 am and we were still awake listening to the sounds of the wild after an hour. I then learnt that my wife had not slept much as the leopard(s) had been calling every once in a while and she had been trying to locate them on the riverbed (from the tent of course!). In addition there were some noisy little mice digging under the tent that she tried to fend off by hitting them through the canvas as well as hearing the monotonous calls of the Fiery-necked Nightjar (Caprimulgus pectoralis) in the distance. This bird is capable of up to 110 repetitions of its call believed to say “Good Lord, deliver us” before stopping![2].

The following morning, as expected, we were not up early. After a leisurely branch we did spend time examining the abundant spoor at the riverbed but we did not detect any signs of a kill. We confirmed that the leopard(s), as my wife mentioned, had walked up and downstream. We also found plenty of hyena and painted dog spoor as well as lots of new signs of elephant over their “highway” to and from the springs.

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Checking for activity and spoor at the dry river bed after the long night!

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Elephant footprints next to the Bushsnob’s Croc.

 

The camera trap pictures showed hyenas as well as several elephants walking during the night.

Later on, while exploring the area by car, we found a group of five hyenas resting under a shade. The same as us they were suffering from sleep deprivation as they were clearly some of the culprits of the noisy night resting!

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We spent the rest of the day exploring the river bed on foot and luckily, it appeared that all animals -including us- were drained from the previous night as the last night we spent at Chitake was peaceful and my wife recovered her lost sleep while I did my usual trick of instantly dozing off.

 

[1] See https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/09/23/chitake/

[2] Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa. iPhone and iPad Edition. Version 2.4. Southern African Birding.

 

 

Nebbiolo wine

Our son visits us in Zimbabwe every year during his holidays and we usually include his favourite place, Mana Pools National Park, as part of the holiday. This year we managed to get a good spot at Nyamepi campsite, just a few metres from the mighty Zambezi river.

We had not yet set up camp and we knew that we were in for a bit of “camping fun” as one of the large elephant bulls found in the park was walking about the campsite making a clear statement of who are the owners of the place.

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DSC_0424 copyWhen we saw it chasing one of the camp attendants we knew that it meant business! Luckily the charge was just a show of dislike and the man got away. The elephant walked after him into the park staff houses and nothing more was heard.

We had also been warned that monkeys and particularly baboons were worse than usual and fast becoming a real problem in the camp so we decided to ask the park for help and they allocated a guard to keep them off our tents as they have the habit of destroying them for no apparent reason! We were rather surprised when our guard came and we recognized him as the same man that was chased by the elephant earlier! Clearly they had some unfinished business among them. However, as his present terms of reference were to keep baboons and vervets away, we decided to give him a chance and we were not disappointed.

Although Mana Pools offers many attractions, we link it to elephants. I have already written in this blog about Big V and Boswell as two of the most notable of the pachyderms here. We did not spot them during our first afternoon drive but, when returning to camp in the evening, we noted that three large elephant bulls were there but we could not see them very well. However, this was nothing unusual as they are normally in camp!

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We took some of our travel tiredness away through great bush showers and it was a refreshed team that tackle dinner preparation. Of course we always enjoy a good barbeque so our son took over as he is the expert while my wife’s territory is bush pasta dishes and mine, well, I keep them merry and busy… Eventually we sat at the table to enjoy some great T-bone steak (rare) and sausages. Our son had, as a special treat, brought a couple of wine bottles from Italy and we decided to go for the Nebbiolo the first night keeping the stronger Barbaresco for a later occasion.

Nebbiolo is the grape also used for the better known Barolo and Barbaresco varieties, all from the Piedmont region of Italy. Its name comes from “nebbia” which is fog in Italian, a frequent phenomenon in the region.

Elephants, despite their size, walk in almost total silence so when we noticed the three bulls, they were within ten metres from us, just at the edge of the circle of our camp light. We knew that they were feeding on the acacia pods from the apple-ring acacia (Faidherbia albida) on the ground so we ignored them and continued enjoying our food and drink. Suddenly we heard one of them head-butting one of the acacia trees closeby and we had a shower of pods around us on which the three colossi started to feed. So far, nothing new.

However, after a while we saw that one of them stopped feeding and came under our light. Now, to see an elephant at such close quarters is rather impressive and we stopped eating wondering what would happen next while reassuring ourselves that it was only interested in the pods. Just in case, we started coughing and knocking our glasses gently to let it know we were there!

The bull, clearly the boldest of the three, took a couple of more steps towards our table! We still -but just- kept our cool while continuing making various noises to make it change its mind but, eventually, the giant was so close that my wife and son stood up and moved a couple of metres behind the table. They were wise. We all know that elephants are large but, when you meet them at close quarters, seated and at night they are really humongous!

My attempt at holding the fort lasted for a few more seconds but my nerves left me when it took another step towards me despite my companions’ efforts at stopping him by banging pots and other noisy objects. I joined wife and son at a prudent distance: the other side of the table! As behind us was the river, we were really in a tight spot! All we could do now was to watch!

While the other two elephants remained a few metres back, our visitor took a final step and it literally leaned on our table. Its trunk delicately sniffed our dinner and I thought “End of table and dinner!” but it did not touch anything. However, at some stage its trunk went to my plastic wine glass, placed its trunk over it and spilled it, probably as a protest for the poor quality of the wine ware?

The spilling of the wine was the turning point of the visit and the elephant swiftly moved towards our tents. There it tried to walk between them. As the latter were separated by a one-metre gap the potential outcome was not good. “Gosh” my son said, “if it walks through there our tents are gone!” However, realizing the situation, the elephant luckily backtracked and moved off to join its two patient mates that were still watching the proceeds from a distance.

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Our tents with one of the camp dwellers in the background.

Consulting the internet I learnt that the Nebbiolo wine has complex aromas, including roses, cherries, truffles, and mints and there can also be traces of tar, tobacco and leather. Clearly one or more of them were attractive to the jumbo.

Once the elephants moved away we resumed our dinner. Luckily the wine bottle was intact and I could refill my glass! During the next couple of days, the Nebbiolo, perceived as the new “elephant target”, was until its sad end, carefully corked and locked away in the deepest recesses of our car only to be opened after the “elephant all clear” announcement was made.

Bad lions

Sometimes, because of the amount of work I had, we could not travel far during weekends and even when going to a place relatively near, our arrival would get delayed. Short safaris of this kind included lakes Naivasha, Nakuru and Bogoria, Amboseli and the Aberdares. We had visited the Aberdares National Park on day trips earlier but these had only given us a very superficial view of the park. This time we planned to spend one night camping and to explore the park a bit more. Unfortunately I had work to do and we could not leave before lunchtime.

Reading our Kenya guide [1] had prepared us for what we would face and I quote: “Steeper, starker and with denser rainforest, the Aberdares (save for the South and North Kinangop) were less settled and farmed than Mount Kenya. For this reason too, they sheltered Mau Mau strongholds, kept flora and fauna intact… and so warranted preclusion as a 228 square-mile National Park in 1950.” Hoping that all the Mau Mau had gone by the time we arrived, we got some charcoal and fresh plums from the roadside vendors near Limuru and went on.

We drove on tarmac towards lake Naivasha and turned eastwards just in front of the Longonot volcano. More from our guide: “Rainfall -80 inches p.a.- makes the steep tracks often impassable… if rain or mist waylays you en route, do not despair: the ‘black cotton’ may spin your car uncontrollably but is seldom deep. So rather than dodge the wheelruts… grit your teeth and stay in them, hard in second gear. They will keep you moving roughly frontwards and, even when waterlogged, should not bog you down.” I enjoyed the author’s sense of humour and thought on the power of our kombi’s engine!

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The Aberdares mountains from afar.

By the time we reached South Kinangop it began to rain and things started to get tricky. All the guide had said was true to the point that turning around would have been a risky manoeuvre! So, as usual, aware that our kombi had a good clearance, we decided to continue and skidded along for the remaining distance until, rather late, we managed to arrive at the gate. I think it was the Matubio gate but I am not sure. Despite our tardy arrival, the ranger let us entered. He probably saw the car’s mud and our look of desperation and thought that we could do with a altruistic welcome!

He mentioned that there was a campsite nearby that we could occupy so we paid and went on, following his directions, hoping to find the campsite soon. We were still driving in the dark after 20 minutes so we realized that we had missed the recommended campsite. Luckily, the rain had stopped but the way was still slippery and slow. We pushed on looking for a suitable spot where to pitch our small tent (at that time we had purchased a second hand mountain tent that although suitable for this occasion, it left us rather “exposed” to the potential night visitors!).

Eventually we found a flat moor and decided that it would do. I started to manoeuvre the kombi careful, avoiding getting into the mud as much as possible until I considered it to be on level ground. I was about to leave the car when I heard a loud “Stop!” coming from my wife. I looked up and, in the headlights of the car, there were about 8 adult lions watching us. They looked rather huge and very white considering the heavy rain we had experienced. As they were also dry, it was clear that they had come out from their rainproof shelter very recently. They started to walk towards us, not the usual behaviour from lions, we thought!

There were four adults and four almost full-grown individuals. The latter were the ones showing the greater interest on us! “We better move off”, my wife said firmly and, almost before she finished her sentence, I was reversing the car, hoping that we were not on soggy ground. We managed to put some distance from the lions and they stopped coming so I turned around and we departed. We drove a few more km until we considered that we were sufficiently far from the lions and then we held a short discussion regarding our camping options. It went something like this: do you want to sleep in a tent?” I said. “No” was my wife reply. Another short family discussion leading to an immediate agreement!

I removed the back seat of the kombi and put it outside while my wife was heating up some pre-prepared food we had brought as we normally did to make our camping lives easier. We dined sitting at the floor of the car and, when we were ready to sleep, we placed our mattresses on the floor. The place looked almost comfortable! While the rain started again we got into our sleeping bags and dozed off almost immediately. I briefly thought about being bogged down the following morning but I was too tired to care and convinced myself -easily- that that would be tomorrow’s problem, and I was gone.

The cold woke me up after midnight! It was a chill that was coming from my back so I started to assess the situation when realized that my wife was also awake. “Did you hear the lions?” she asked. “I would have done if my teeth would not shatter so much” I replied. Then they roared again so near that I was amazed with myself at not having heard them earlier! I felt well as we were better better sheltered than we would have been inside our small tent! But our metal cage was incredibly cold! Eventually, we managed to stick some carton and newspapers between the metal floor and our backs and this, plus putting on all suitable clothes made the trick and soon the roaring faded and I woke up well after dawn, unusually without the need of a night visit to the toilet!

The rain not only had stopped but the sun was shining. A good look at the surrounding grassland did not reveal any lions so we could perform our postponed bodily functions, re-assembled the car seat and have a much needed breakfast under the sun. We felt well and decided to look for the lions now that there was good lighting. We drove backwards and forwards for a while but failed to see anything. Disappointed we decided to explore the park further and enjoyed its beautiful vistas and amazing waterfalls and rivers.

Soon it was time to start our return and, as usual, wishing that we could remain longer, we started our return. We had driven a few km when, as usual, my wife spotted something walking in the same direction we were driving. The animal was about 100m in front of us. We checked it with the binoculars and it was a black cat, smaller than a leopard! We drove slowly on and got a good view before it veered into the bush and disappeared. Its size and shape gave it away as a black caracal, an unusual sight.

We knew that melanistic animals did occur in the Kenya highlands and we had seen black Augurd buzzards earlier during the day.

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A melanistic Augurd buzzard in the Aberdares.

We had also heard about black leopards that were sometimes spotted there but the caracal was special!

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The only snapshot possible of the Black serval just before it disappeared.

Our Kenya guide, however, added some light to the find: “Besides golden cat, bongo and Giant forest hog, the Aberdares’ rarities are Black leopard, Black serval and Black genet… Spotted lions remain unquestionably a legend”. The guide did not mention whether “huge white lions” were also mythical as we were sure that the ones we found the night before were unspotted and real!

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A normal serval cat at Nairobi National Park.

Our trip back was dominated by the conversation about the lions and the Black serval. We enjoyed the good weather and we got to our house in Tigoni in good time. Days later, consulting other wildlife enthusiasts, we learnt that a number of “problem lions” that killed livestock had been relocated to the Aberdares and that this had sparked quite a degree of controversy as it made walking in the park a dangerous activity now. To make matters worse, it was believed that these lions were less wary of people than their “wild” relatives and were not afraid of approaching humans!

We were of course unaware of this bit of rather important information at the time of our visit and lucky we saw them before they found us! During late visits we spotted the lions again and they did not look as white and huge as the first time.

aberdares jc copy

Later we saw the warning signs.

[1] Tomkinson, M. (1981). Kenya, a holiday guide. Ernest Benn Ltd, London. 144p.

Camping in Africa. Kenya (Spotted cat)

During one of the trips to the Transmara, while camping next to the Mara River, I had the surprise visit of the Manager of the Mara Buffalo Camp. As this had never happened before, I prepared to hear that I was not allowed to camp near the camp anymore so we stopped setting up our camp and went to meet him. I was wrong. He was a friendly Swiss that came to give me some good news.

He explained that at a rocky outcrop nearby there was a female leopard with two cubs that, unusually for East Africa in general and the Maasai Mara in particular, was very relaxed and let you watch her and her cubs without getting scared by human presence. He even offered to take us there at that precise moment if interested as he was taking a friend with him  for that purpose. We instantly forgot what we were doing, jumped on the car and followed him!

After driving towards the reserve, we arrived to a rocky gorge where there was a cave high in the rocks where, to our great surprise we found a small leopard cub resting at the entrance. He said that the mother may have been hunting or, perhaps, sleeping inside, together with the other absent cub. We could not believe our luck and after waiting for a while we thanked our Swiss benefactor profusely and left him in contemplation as we still needed to set up camp, cook and rest to continue with our journey the following day.

The leopard and her cubs became an added attraction to our frequent journeys to the Transmara and we found her again a few times during subsequent trips until one day she disappeared. For a few weeks we did not know what happened to her until, again by chance, found her again later, together with Jonathan Scott. The now well known photographer, film maker and book publisher was not that well known then as he was starting his rather successful stay at the Maasai Mara.

Jonathan was watching a female leopard with young cubs with all his equipment on the ready as the cubs played and the mother rested up a rocky outcrop. We learnt that it was the same female and after that encounter we saw her a few more times. The trick was to find  Jonathan’s green car  when driving through the general area where the leopard dwelled! It was clearly easier than looking for her!

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Relaxing…

I still recall one day when we found the leopard family in a very playful mood up and down a beautiful fig tree. It was such fun to watch them at play that I only stopped taking pictures the moment I ran out of film! I was really excited and very pleased with the pictures I had taken, although in those days you needed to wait until they were developed to see the results.

Before leaving, we approached Jonathan who we had met also at Kichwa Tembo Camp earlier and, feeling pleased with myself, I made a comment on how great what was taking place was and mentioned that I had taken lots of pictures as it was a fantastic opportunity. Jonathan listened to me and then gave me a reply that I have had in my mind since then: “I have not taken any pictures because the light is wrong”.

My heart sunk and I left crestfallen and in disbelief. When back in Nairobi the moment of truth of the pictures came I must confess that Jonathan had been right. Although some pictures were “rescuable”, the majority showed cat silhouettes against the sky! Later on, when I got Jonathan’s books I realized what he meant that day as the quality of his work is frankly superb!

As for us, despite our poor pictures, the memories remain and they at least serve the purpose to bring these back and to stimulate me to write posts such as this one!

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Surprised in the open.