Camping

Signs in the sand

The Covid pandemic left a backlog of bookings in most national parks in Africa and Zimbabwe was not an exception. For this reason we could not get our yearly spell at Masuma dam in Hwange National Park (HNP). We did manage to get a few nights at Kennedy 1 and Main Camp followed by four more nights at Robins Camp in the northern part of the park.

This time we were lucky to have our two children with us, our son´s girlfriend Pat and a couple of friends that visited Africa for the first time, Brenda, and Roberto from Spain. We rented another car to accommodate all of us and the rather impressive amount of luggage, camping gear and food that we took with us.

As usual when traveling to the HNP we divided the trip in two parts. During the first day we got to Bulawayo traveling at a slower pace than usual to allow our visitors to see the place as well as to adjust to driving on the left side of the road. We got to the Hornung Park Lodge (http://www.hornung-park-lodge.com/) where we were hosted by its friendly owner Fredi (Rita was away). The lodge is very nice and quiet, and we were treated very kindly by our host.

The following day, after an early breakfast we moved on and managed to arrive at Kennedy 1 in mid-afternoon to set up our camp. As we needed four tents, preparations took quite a while before we had our camp ready. The two new tents and additional gadgets brought by our children took some time to assemble and we finished just before nightfall.

Yellow hornbills watching us preparing our camp.

At my ripe age I refuse to sleep on the ground, so I carry a camp bed for these occasions. Its assemblage is now “infamous” with the family as it requires quite an effort. So much so that four of us climbed on it while trying to fit all pieces together, something that finally happened with a “twang” that indicated success! This time there were no injured fingers.

While camp was being prepared, we noted many lion footprints in the sand and Terence, the nice and young camp attendant, informed us that lions had visited the camp during the night and that they were still close by. Despite our efforts to break the news of the footprints gently to our first-time campers in Africa, the idea of “sleeping with lions” did nothing to build up their confidence on the protection offered by the tents. The situatiation did not improve when they saw the condition of the camp perimeter fence!

Ground hornbills and a crimson breasted shrike visiting our camp and surrounding area.

After we were done with the camp it was too late to look for animals so we focused on dinner. As usual Mabel produced an amazing dish of pasta with pesto and green peas, and we uncorked a bottle of South African red to end a great bush day hoping for a great bush night. We were not disappointed as the hyenas called early and then the lions roared frequently, just to reminded us that we were staying on borrowed ground!

The following morning, surprisingly Kennedy 1, 2 and Ngweshla had no elephants and almost no other game. Luckily a male ostrich decided to perform some kind of solo courtship that included the usual wing balancing act with the addition of mad fast runs of a few hundred metres each that showed its speed but that seemed rather useless in the absence of a female! Perhaps it mistook pour car for a potential partner?

Rather surprised by the absence of large game we headed back to our camp. We were lucky to find a couple of young adult lions that, like us, were coming to Kennedy 1 for a drink. We stayed watching them until late in the afternoon until it was time to return to camp for a BBQ followed later by more lion roaring, still respecting our space.

All pictures were taken by our son Julio A.

Zimbabwe (post Covid)

The two years we spent confined to our farm in Salta, Argentina, increased our desire to come back to the African bush. Luckily, we got vaccinated and, gradually restrictions were lifted and we started planning our exit from there by the end of 2020.

To get from Salta to Uruguay, apart from crossing the Argentina-Uruguay international border you need to traverse four Argentinian provinces: Santiago del Estero, Chaco, Corrientes and Entre Ríos (each one of them about the size of Uruguay!). Usually, the trip is long but trouble-free but during the pandemic situations differed in each province and it was only in September 2021 that all places were open to private cars, if you carried a negative PCR.

Eventually we found ourselves in Uruguay where we spent a month with the family before journeying to Rome to visit our daughter and later to Spain to have a long desired family Season holidays.

Finally, the 8 January 2022 we left Europe and travelled to Harare where it was great to see Nic, Gabriela and Ana Lucía again as all our earlier plans for travelling in Zimbabwe with them were dashed by the pandemic. So, we soon found ourselves plotting some joint safaris to recover the wasted time!

After searching for options and considering that we are in the rainy season, we settled for meeting at Masuma Dam in Hwange National Park. With Ana Laura, a Mexican visiting friend, they would come from Victoria Falls. We would travel earlier and spend a few days at Robins Camp [1] where we got a good special offer for a few days stay.

As usual when we travel to Hwange, we spent a night in Bulawayo after driving the first 440km. The next morning we continued to the park by following the main road to Victoria Falls. Although the trip was rather uneventful, we noticed that our car engine coughed a few times while on the road to Bulawayo but it kept going. We did not think much about it as we thought that the car was suffering from some fuel dirt accumulated over the two years we did not use it.

As we were going to the southern part of the park, this time we turned into Hwange town. We found that the area adjacent to the park is now dominated by coal mining and these activities had changed the road layout. As a consequence, while traversing the various mining fields, a sight belonging to the industrial revolution rather than today’s modern world, our Google maps stopped showing us our road and we took a wrong turn.

After a few kilometres we realized that we were heading back to Hwange town! We stopped one of the coal-laden lorries and the driver confirmed that we needed to go back and follow the road until we reached a boom that would be open for us to cross. To make matters more interesting, our car started to misfire again, something I attributed to the rough road shaking the fuel tank and sending dirt up the fuel line.

A superficial check-up, as it is normal in these cases, did not show anything obviously amiss (meaning that the engine was there!) so we decided to go on as the fault was not constant. After negotiating the boom, the road reappeared in our Google maps and then we followed it until we got to Sinamatella to report our arrival. Another 60km further we finally reached Robins camp, almost at gate closing time!

The National Parks office at Sinamatella. Unfortunately, the camp is derelict at the moment.

We had not seen Hwange as green as it was now since an earlier visit in 1999 at about the same time, when it was not only green but also very muddy and we got stuck in a couple of spots trying to reach some of the waterholes around Robins. The dense tree growth and very tall grass did not bode well for animal viewing. In fact, we only saw a handful of zebras and a few impalas, and we only heard an elephant when it trumpeted, scared by our car and giving us a fright back. Luckily, it did not charge!

To see the park so green added to our enthusiasm for being back as it seemed that trees were re-growing after the heavy damage that the elephants had given them during early severe dry seasons. Despite the abundant of vegetation, almost entering Robins camp we spotted a leopard walking on the road Infront of us.

It was probably a young adult by its slender appearance and it wasted no time in disappearing in the tall grass. We enjoyed a moment of joy at such a find at the end of our journey that we thought bode well for our stay. It also made us forget, albeit briefly, of our spluttering car engine!

Five minutes later, at the camp, we mentioned our encounter to the National Parks lady ranger in charge of the Robins office who expressed her surprise. Before we left the office she said: “Please, come back tomorrow so that you can enter this in our sightings book!”

We settled down at Robins and we were its sole guests, so we had all attention to ourselves for the first two nights and then four more people arrived! Our room was not luxurious but it was what we needed after the long journey.

A view of Robins camp. The tower, where the small museum is found can be seen behind the trees.

The presentation of the room offered some lovely details such as the great towel arrangements with our bath towels, courtesy of Ntombizodwa, our kind room attendant.

Herbert George Robins [2] farmed in this area until his death in 1939 when he bequeathed his 25,000 acres “to the people of Southern Rhodesia” He lived alone, with his loyal staff and great Dane dogs. At the start of WWI, he bought “Little Tom’s Spruit” in the northern part of HNP today (Little Tom today). Although despondent with his purchase at first, Robins persevered and managed to keep 1700 head of cattle between 1915 and 1925 when he decided to convert his cattle ranching into a game reserve that was very popular at the time.

This initiative greatly helped the establishment of Hwange National Park (HNP). A controversial figure, Robins fought for Rhodes’ British South Africa Company against Lobengula in 1896 and in 1902 ventured into the then Belgian Congo and Angola in search of minerals and diamonds. Eventually, Robins paid the price for this adventure suffering from sicknesses related to the hardship he endured.

Robins was, undoubtedly, a character with his abundant bushy beard that gradually turned white as the years passed. He was not concerned about what he wore and did not change his clothes often. He was frequently seen with a knitted white cap, a pyjama shirt, khaki trousers and high boots. He would wear an old Stetson and shoes when going to town!

A small museum still keeps some of Robins belongings and the large telescope and pictures of him looking down a microscope indicate that he was involved in some studies or observations although I do not know of what precisely although astronomy is an obvious one.

Gradually Robins became tired with the visitors and their attitude. In addition, his health was deteriorating and, in 1933, he signed a document donating his land to the Government and he got more isolated. He eventually died on 28 June 1939. His homestead became the present Robins Camp and he was buried in the camp.

Robins grave at the camp.

Although we visited the camp briefly in 1991 while living in Zambia, we only stayed in Robins about eight years later. We returned to the camp in 2018 when its renovation was being completed by its present private management. Unfortunately, the new camp could only function fully for about one year when the Covid 19 pandemic shut all tourism activities in Zimbabwe.

We found the lodge very comfortable, and we had a room with a double bed and en suite toilet. The abundant hot water coming from a solar geyser. The garden was kept in great shape and, although there is a waterhole nearby, being the rainy season, the grass was very high to see much in terms of animals coming to it.

We were looked after by very helpful staff headed by Lazarus, the new Manager. He kindly let the camp mechanics to help us to keep the car going. So, after a few scares when it just stopped, we kept going, hoping that it would not die at a remote place as we did not see another visitor driving around during all the time we were there!

The park in general had a new look for us because we are now at the end of the rains and the foliage and grass were rather exuberant, in marked contrast with our earlier visits during the height of the dry season. The roads to Little and Big Tom’s were too muddy until our third day at camp when we were told that it was possible to reach the former.

We toured the area following the track that crossed several swampy areas with treacherous black cotton soil that had been used by elephants during the rain and transformed it into an elephant road where the car juddered along while we tried to avoid the deeper footprints. We knew that the elephants were there but we could not see them because of the tall grass so we focused on saving the car! Amazed by the depth of some of the footprints, we stopped to peer down some of them and it was clear that the ellies had been buried up to their bellies.

Rather frustrated with Little and Big Toms, we decided to explore an area known as Salt pans where we had better luck. Although elephants were still absent, we (or rather Mabel) spotted two cheetah and a few hyenas as well as many vultures feeding on a buffalo carcass by the salty water. So, there was action at that spot!

The salt pans.

Coming back to the camp (rather late as usual) I was startled by Mabel telling me the usual “stop!” followed by “reverse” to what, also as usual I replied, “what is it?” “I saw a cat in the grass”, she replied. I reversed looking for a large cat but did not see any, but she had seen it and she now had it in her binoculars. “I think it is a wild cat” she said [3]. I still could not see anything although I had now stopped looking for a lion!

“Knowing you, you will need to look through the roof hatch to see it” she said. I manoeuvred inside the car to perform this operation at my age! Eventually I managed to get in place and, following Mabel´s instructions, I just saw a brownish outline in the grass that, after intense observation through my binoculars became a small cat, slightly larger than a domestic cat! It was indeed an African wildcat (Felis lybica).

It was another feat by Mabel that spotted such a small and well camouflaged animal in thick grass while driving at 40 kph! While watching the cat, we were surprised that it tolerated my spastic movements inside the car that took place about four metres from it, I became convinced that Mabel can find anything. When I asked her the (silly) question of how she saw it, she simply said “I saw its ears”. I had nothing much to add apart from admiring her eyesight yet again.

Before departing Robins we got the fuel filters cleaned and we set off to find our friends Nic, Gabriela, Ana Lucía and a friend of theirs from Mexico called Ana Laura. We headed for Masuma dam, our favourite place in Hwange where we had spent some amazing times in the past [4].

Before leaving Robins, a kind driver gave us the contact of a mechanic at Sinamatella that he was sure would help us and, expecting an issue with the filter, I asked our friend Nic to bring a new one from Victoria Falls. So, I got in touch with Musa the mechanic and arranged to meet him the following day at Masuma dam to see what could be done with the engine before returning to Harare.

So, we travelled to Masuma still suffering from the spluttering engine, but we got there and met our friends at the right time to set up our camp for the next four nights. Because of the absence of visitors, we were allowed to camp overlooking the dam and there we set up our tent as well as Ana Laura´s. Despite not having experience camping in Africa, she was very relaxed and survived the experience without hitches.

Gabriela, Ana Lucía and Nic slept on their car roof tent, and they had the advantage of moving their “bedroom” to a place of their liking. Apart from some excellent Mexican tortillas brought by Ana Laura, food was mainly pasta (by Mabel) and barbeques (by Nic). As usual, the smell of the roasted meat attracted hyenas that called nearby but too shy to approach us, to Ana Laura´s disappointment that had not seen them before.

The dam was the fullest and greenest we had seen. As usual the hippos were there but, unusually, we saw very few elephants (not more than twenty the whole time!) and those that came did so very briefly and drank as far from the viewing platform as they could!

We entertained ourselves watching other animals, particularly a small flock of Crowned cranes that had taken residence at the dam and that, every so often, flew across it, probably in search of food. However, the absence of elephants drinking day and night while disappointing was a good sign that there was abundant water and food all over and that they had dispersed throughout the park.

Eventually Musa the mechanic arrived and dealt with the car. It was “bush mechanics” at its best! Apart from being nice, he came with the necessary tools and soon he had diagnosed the problem: the second filter was too old and blocked (it was not replaced at the recent service) and the diesel would not flow through it normally. Anxiously I asked if he could fix the problem to what he replied, “If the problem is between the tank and the engine, Musa can fix it, if not we are in trouble”. He did mend it and the car is still going well at the time of writing, a month later.

Game drives still did not show elephants but one morning we had a beautiful view of a leopard, again spotted by Mabel, that was relaxing on a rock by the side of the road but still hard to be seen. Unfortunately, Nic, Gabriela and Ana Laura, not surprisingly, drove through despite my attempt of calling their attention flashing the car lights. Luckily, their daughter Ana Lucía was with us during that drive and enjoy the sighting as she was looking forward to finding a spotted cat!

A close up of the young leopard.

On the day of departure, it was our time to miss a pair of lionesses spotted by our friends. When they told us what had delayed them, we immediately turned around and, following their indications, we found them resting under the shade of the mopane bushes. I am not sure how we missed them this time!

Portrait.

From Hwange we drove to the Matopos National Park, a place we have visited in the past and that we usually overlook despite its beauty. We stayed two nights at the nice Big Cave lodge [1] that offers an amazing setting, having been built on the actual rocks and making use of them as part of the buildings.

The Bushsnob writing this post at the lodge.

The service was excellent and the staff helpful and pleasant. Our room offered a magnificent view to the rocky hills, particularly beautiful at sunset (see above).

We had our sundowners high up on the hot rocks that were, apparently, very good to relax the tired backs of those who tried laying on them between beer sips. That, combined with some great sunsets followed by some amazing stargazing when the clouds allowed, had a positive impact on the team members.

Mabel, the Bushsnob, Ana Lucía, Gabriela and Ana Laura enjoying sundowners on the “warm rocks”.

We drove into the game area of the park mainly looking for rhino and found a rock formation known as “The mother and child” and later a group of rangers on patrol. We arranged to take two of them with us to try to find some white rhino that they had seen earlier that day. They went off on foot looking for the animals while we waited for their return having our lunch.

Mother and child. An amazing rock formation at the Matopos National Park.

Eventually one came back to inform us that the animals had moved. We parted company with the now “lone ranger” as he was sure that his companion would return to find him there. He was right as we found the second ranger walking back towards his colleague a couple of km further.

We left for Harare, as usual, wishing that we could stay longer and we made it back without problems, our car preforming normally after Musa´s intervention.

[1] The opinion about Robins Camp (https://www.robinscamp.com/) and the Big Cave (https://www.bigcavematopos.com/) reflect our independent views and they are not an endorsement from our part.

[2] Data on H.G. Robins taken from Haynes, G. (2014). Hwange National Park. The forest with a Desert heart. The Hwange Research Trust. Gary Haynes, 2014; all rights reserved. 226p. This is the best account of the creation of Hwange National Park that I had seen.

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2022/03/31/spot-the-beast-82/

[4] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/10/08/elephants/, https://bushsnob.com/2019/10/09/dust/

The Chongwe confluence revisited

Mauro, my father-in-law that went with us to Lufupa in the Kafue National Park, loved fishing so we thought it would be a good idea to take him to the Chongwe confluence, after our earlier interesting fishing trip with our friend Chris [1]. Apart from fishing, he was also keen on camping, and, after all, we had acquired a rubber dinghy and we were also eager to use it again on a fishing trip.

So, to make the outing worthwhile, I took a Friday off so that we could spend an extra day in the bush. In addition to Mauro the group included Flori (at the time six months old) and Annie. The two latter members would sleep at the back of the car, just in case.

By the time of the trip, we were familiar with the road, not only from the trip with Chris but also because we had visited the Gwabi [2] Fishing camp in the shores of the Kafue River and spent a couple of weekends fishing there. The camp allowed you to launch your boat and, after a few kilometres down the Kafue River you could reach the Zambezi River and enjoy its quiet beauty.

This time, as with Chris, we left the road leading to Gwabi and turned towards Chiawa, crossed the Kafue river in the men-operated pontoon and continued to the Chongwe, hoping to remember the way but certain that, as long as we kept the Zambezi river on our right, the Chongwe River would block our route and there would be the camping area.

The going was slow as the road after the pontoon had deteriorated and presented us with a few ditches that were challenging but that we managed to cross to the amazement of Mauro that was not used to rough riding! We got to the camp in late afternoon. The grass at the campsite was -again- very tall and, although we could hear the river, we could not see it! Conversely, we could clearly see the elephant family that was busy feeding on the trees surrounding the camping area. The latter were very tolerant of our presence, and they gradually moved away a few metres. In that way we coexisted for as long as we were there.

Once Mauro recovered from the proximity of the elephants and the grunting of the hippos nearby we cut the grass until we had a good area for camp, and set up our tents. We finished just before darkness and, as we had carried our dinner cooked from home, I told Mauro that it was now time to try some evening fishing while dinner was made ready.

Carefully, we walked to the shore through the tall grass and arrived at the river that was, conveniently, clear of grass and offered a good area to fish from. We placed some large chunks of meat on our hooks, casted close to the shore and waited for the action to start.

While fishing with Chris, I had learnt that, apart from tiger fish, the Zambian rivers also harboured other predatory fish, among them the Vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis), a kind of catfish that could reach truly large sizes. The largest Vundu recorded reached 55kg [3] but there could be references of larger ones but I did not find them.

A small Vundu recently caught at Kariba, Zimbabwe.

Enthusiastic, I explained to Mauro what we were after, comparing the Vundu to fish that occur in the River Plate so that he could get the idea. He immediately shared my excitement. After a few more minutes Mabel called us for supper. Our hunger was stronger than our will to fish so, we secured the rods and put the “line out” alarms and joined the rest of the party to get some food.

We had not been at the table more than five minutes when we heard the unmistakable “zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz” of one of the reels that indicated that a fish was taking line fast.

We ran towards the shore, I grabbed the rod and pulled to try to hook the culprit. My effort made no difference and the “zzzzzzzzzzzzz” continued so I increased the drag but it made only small difference and still I was losing line. Soon all the line would had gone out and break. Mauro was as shocked and as impotent as I was and we were both getting ready for the final jerk that would mean a broken rod or a cut line when, suddenly, almost at the end of the line, it stopped. Relieved, I tried to reel in some line to have some in reserve in case another run would come. The line did not move. “Mauro, we have a really huge vundu. Please bring the torch to see where the line is” I said while holding the tense rod.

Light on the line revealed that it was nearly horizontal! The fish had stopped at a considerable distance from us and I suspected that the line had got caught on a submerged tree. Further manipulations, including the trick of pulling the line and suddenly releasing it failed to solve the problem. We pulled the line as much as we thought it prudent with no results and, eventually, we decided to leave it until the morning and go with the boat to try to recover the fish. We finished dinner during which the fish became the only topic of conversation.

After dinner, while sitting by the fire the speculation continued about the size of the fish and how we were going to tackle it the following day until, we were silenced by the unmistakable call of a leopard [4] very close to us! We were explaining Mauro that there was a leopard close when the hyenas added their own calls, adding theirs to the leopard’s.

Postponing our bedtime we hastily moved to the car to go and have a look. Although we saw hyenas, we failed to see the leopard and we returned to camp. While Mabel and Annie were putting Flori to sleep and Mauro aranged his tent, I opened my copy of “Fishes of Kariba” by Dale Kenmuir in pages 84-85 (I had opened the book a few times there so it always opened there!) and I re-read the description of theVundu behaviour “…powerful fighters and if not using the current to assist them will often ‘hole up’ somewhere. Hence you need a stout road and heavy breaking strain line to land one. Common baits are blue-mottled soup, liver, ox-heart, fish fillet, or bird entrails…try the Zambezi … (if not required for eating, please throw them back!)”. Convinced that we definitely have one holed up somewhere, I went to sleep trying to develop a plan to recover it.

The following morning started with the checking of the rod but the line had been cut during the night so we did not know what was at the end of it. After putting new line in the reel it was time to assemble the boat. We needed to pump its air tanks with a foot pump and install the floorboards, engine, etc. After about an hour we finally started our day of boating in the Zambezi with a full crew.

We spent the day trying to fish but sightseeing in the Zambezi was our first priority. We enjoyed cruising slowly through the river trying to avoid getting stranded on the frequent and shallow sand banks. We watched crocodiles in the water or basking in the sandy shores, their mouths opened releasing heat. We also spotted a few male buffalo enjoying the freshness of the shallows and seeking relief from the itching of the many parasites they usually carry.

The stars of the show, however, were the hippos. We came across a number of large pods engaged in their social activities and announcing their presence grunting from a distance so that we could avoid them without problems. We respected them greatly after an experience we had with a large male in lake Naivasha (Kenya). We were boating in a shallow part of the lake when a lone hippo appeared out of the blue and charged us. We had a very narrow escape pushing the boat to a deeper part before it caught up with us! We remembered this incident every time we saw hippos! However, if watched from a prudent distance, they are very entertaining.

We did not only watch animals but also attempted to fish but with not much success. We only had one good strike and, following Murphy’s Law, it happened while I was passing a cup of tea to Mauro and this interfered with the right response so the fish jumped and got away expelling the lure some distance away, luckily in the opposite direction from our boat.

We got back to camp in the afternoon, with time to start a fire and be better prepared for our second attempt at catching the -so far- elusive Vundu, a much talked about subject during the day! Again, we used sizeable chunks of beef well secured in our hooks. When we were satisfied with our preparations, I threw the first line at about 20 metres from the shore.

As soon as the meat hit the water, something stirred the water nearby and started moving. Then I saw more movement and about five greenish heads with long snouts converging towards my line! I reeled in frantically, trying to bring in the meat before the crocodiles grabbed it and run, trying to avoid a repeat of the events of the previous night! Clearly, the crocs were faster than the Vundu and the mistery of the night before was cleared: a croc had taken the meat, swam away, and stopped to eat it on one of the small islands that dotted the river nearby.

We abandoned night fishing as it would have been only good to fatten the crocs while Mauro was still shockedwith the concept of fishing with crocodiles. After a while we shared a good laugh with Mabel that, for a while, let us know that our fishing reputation had been dented.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2021/05/05/the-chongwe-confluence/

[2] I was informed at the camp that a “gwabi” in the local language means an area where the river gets wider and the current reverses creating a swirl where -apparently- fish like to be.

[3] See: https://www.fishbase.se/Summary/SpeciesSummary.php?ID=2319&AT=vundu Consulted on 27 June 2021.

[4] A leopard call closely resembles the sound of a hand saw cutting a log and, as the lion roar, it is unmistakable.

Hooked! A short fishing story

Often beer and fishing go together although I am not sure that drinking had anything to do with this story that happened to a fishing friend that I will call Phil. He loved to go for tigerfish as many people in Southern Africa do.

Tigerfish are placed by many among the best freshwater game fish in the world, together with salmon, bass, trout and the South American dorado among others [1]. Being one of the top predators of the African rivers, it is always on “hunting mode”, looking for prey, mostly smaller fish although some have been seen catching swallows in flight [2] and probably will also catch swimming birds.

The bushsnob with a tigerfish caught in Zimbabwe.

It is no surprise then that their aggressivity is used to catch them by means of shiny and colourful lures that are either cast and retrieved or trolled behind the boat until they are taken by the fish. When this happens, you react by strongly pulling your rod, hoping to hook it. The latter is very difficult to achieve because the fish has a very bony jaw that resists the sharpest of hooks.

The consequence is that often the fish feels the hook, jumps outside the water, violently shakes its head and dislodges the lure that goes flying, often back to the water where sometimes it attempts to catch it again as soon as it hits the water, apparently indifferent to the hooks! Sometimes, however, it lands on the boat and, rarely it can even hit you as if the fish would aim the lure at you!

So it was that one Friday, not thinking on all of the above, Phil and friends traveled to the Chongwe confluence to spend a weekend in search of tigerfish. They stayed at the same place we were with our friend Chris and on Saturday morning, very early, they were in the water. After a while Phil had a good take and he stroke. The fish reacted jumping out of the water and, as I mentioned, shaking its head managed to dislodge the lure.

That in itself would have been frustrating for Phil but it got worse. Before he could move, the lure came flying straight at him, more precisely to his face. One of the hooks got embedded in his upper lip from where the rather large lure hanged while Phil screamed in pain as lips are very sensitive areas of our bodies.

Being brave and trying not to spoil the fishing for everybody, he held the lure up to avoid it pulling from his lip while a friend carefully cut the line and then detached the lure, leaving only the hook in his lip. A quick check revealed bad news: the hook had gone in beyond the barb. Phil, bravely, tried to pull it out but, as expected, the pain was too much. He decided to leave it in place and put up with the pain to enable his friends to continue fishing.

After a while, the pain was getting worse so they decided to return to camp to attempt to remove it on firm ground. Soon it was clear that the hook would not go back out and the movement only made matters worse. It was then that Phil decided to have a final attempt at removal by pushing it so that it would go through the lip and they could cut it. He nearly fainted with pain and all further attempts were abandone hoping that leaving it alone would decrease the discomfort to tolerable levels.

Soon it became apparent that Phil could not put up with the discomfort any longer and, unanimously, they decided to return to Lusaka to see a doctor that could remove it and end Phil’s misery. Although the journey back was rather tough, the actual removal of the hook took the doctor about ten minutes and Phil did not even end with a scar to show for his predicament!

This rather unusual and rather unpleasant event did not dent Phil’s fishing drive although I believe that he remembers it (as I do) whenever he hooks a tigerfish!

[1] See: https://igfa.org/game-fish-database/ and https://pescariasa.com.br/english/top-13-species-of-freshwater-fish-in-world-sport-fishing/

[2] G. C. O’Brien, F. Jacobs, S. W. Evans, N. J. Smit (2013). First observation of African tigerfish Hydrocynus vittatus predating on barn swallows Hirundo rustica in flight. Fish Biology 84, 263-266.

Spot the beast 70

To change a bit, I offer you a rather different “spot” today.

One of the main attractions of Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe (apart from the river, the light, the various campsites, the wild dogs, the elephants, the lions and I stop there naming just a few!) is to be able to walk through the park despite it holding the Big 4 (sadly the rhino is no longer there).

While walking is a great way to explore the park you must be careful as, often, you do not see the animals until you are too close for comfort and you need to be prepared to respond appropriately. This is one of the cases that seems incredible until it happens to you.

Imagine that you are walking there now, what can you see?

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What look like tree trunks, suddenly become legs and they start moving!

You had just disturbed the siesta of a large elephant and it is coming your way!

You realized that it is a bull elephant but the most important thing at that time is to back down slowly and start taking pictures through a zoom lens!

Paris-Maasai Mara

The title does not refer -luckily- to a new extravagant car rally but a tale of a French couple, friends of Paul, who arrived from Paris in the morning and that same night they were camping in the Maasai Mara, after driving all the way from Nairobi!

By chance, we arrived that same afternoon and found them looking rather bewildered after enduring not only the overnight flight but, the long rough ride afterwards following Paul’s rather ambitious programme! The camp this time was a few km downstream from the Mara Buffalo Camp -where we usually camped- and only a faint track led to it. It was a nice place, the Mara river very close and the Oloololo escarpment, the same I climbed every time I needed to go to Intona, at the back.

Paul was busy with his field work, so we came at the right time for him and we agreed to take care of the French contingent the following morning. In any case, they managed to speak some English and we knew some French words from our high school so we were sure that we would understand each other as, after all, both our languages branched off from Latin.

We waited to start our morning drive until the French were ready, which was earlier than I expected. So, soon after sunrise we set off hoping, as usual, that we would be lucky with our game drive. The wildebeest migration was in full swing and I planned to drive in the general direction of Governors Camp and be back for lunch.

By then we knew how to enter into the reserve through the “back door” and also, through Paul, we also knew the general area where the wildebeest were grazing at that time. Finding the wildebeest increased the chances of meeting large predators, particularly lions and that is what most first time visitors to the Maasai Mara wish to see.

The drive was slow as everything was new for our guests and we needed to stop for them to take snapshots of most animals that for us were rather commonplace but we understood how they felt and happily obliged. After a while we spotted the first wildebeest and soon we could see the expected large herds. We stopped to take the view in and continued driving slowly, following the woodland’s margins where the cats could be hiding.

After going for about an hour Mabel spotted a lioness. We were lucky and we stopped to watch it and to take a few more pictures. The lioness was quite active and obviously hunting so we joined her in watching the wildebeest stopping the car at a prudent distance and searching for more lions that we suspected should be around.

The lioness watching the wildebeests.

We whispered to our visitors what we thought it may happen next and we waited. After a few minutes she stood up and, undetected, walked towards the grazing wildebeest and hid in long grass, still looking towards the wildebeests. We kept scanning the surrounding area and soon we caught a glimpse of another lioness some distance away.

It seemed that the lions were coming from several directions, preparing an ambush. We calculated where the hunt could take place and slowly drove towards it still leaving a wide berth for the animals to move without interference. We switched off the engine and stopped, being the only witnesses of what was happening.

We did not have to wait too long before the what it was a peaceful scene transformed itself into a chaotic one when suddenly the bush burst with wildebeest running in all directions around us and some of them nearly bumped our car in their zest to run away! Luckily there was no dust and we spotted five or six lionesses chasing wildebeests.

Some followed wildebeests that had run into the woodlands but a couple of them run in the open. Soon we heard the agonic bleats of a wildebeest and I drove straight to the area while I heard shouts of “oh là là”, “quelle chance!” and other expressions of amazement by our Gallic visitors.

We were also excited as to watch a hunt is not an everyday event, even in the Maasai Mara, and we watched as two lionesses were busy suffocating a wildebeest by a hold in its throat while other lions, that had chased other wildebeests and failed, were trotting towards the ongoing kill. Soon, not only the females we had seen earlier but the whole pride, including adult males and young of different ages, were vying for position at the carcass and as often happens, started licking the dying animal and even feeding.

After a few minutes a couple of cars arrived but we were well placed and we spent about an hour watching the lions feast in all detail. As usual, fights broke out when the dominance of some individuals was challenged and the stronger took “the lion share”! We watched the scene mesmerized for a long while until the meat starting to run out.

Although the arrival of a few spotted hyenas and black-backed jackals was interesting, we resumed our drive I thought “after this, what else can we find that is more exciting?” but continued searching hoping that the visitors, that 48 hours earlier were in busy Paris had arrived for the first time in África and watched what some people that live there for years never manages to find!

We realized that lunchtime had passed unnoticed and we, unanimously, decided that we were not hungry so we agreed to drive following the Mara River to get to the hippo pools that were not too far. There we spent time observing hippos and the huge crocodiles that shared the pools with them. Judging by their girth, the latter were benefitting from the wildebeest presence and their frequent river crossings.

Engrossed watching animals we did not notice that a storm had gathered and we were somehow surprised to note the first raindrops. After a while the sight of the pools were obscured by the rain. Although it was a welcome thunderstorm, I knew that the kombi, although with a good clearance, did not have 4WD and therefore it was not a mud-wise vehicle. So, I took the decision to return to camp before it was too late, strongly suspecting that it was too late already!

I knew that the roads would soon be very sticky and as it started to get dark, I regretted that we have not paid more attention to the time and the weather. We moved a few kilometres back still under the rain and there was a lot of thunder and lightening. Things were not getting any better.

Rapidly, the road became a quagmire that forced me to gradually slow down to avoid skidding off it. Eventually I was forced to engage second and first gear as the going became laborious and I knew by previous experience that we were in trouble. We continued, just, and eventually the black cotton soil stopped us while the rain did not show signs to stop.

A quick and rather wet inspection revealed that one of the back wheels was stuck while the other spun uselessly. Under heavy rain I got one of the French to stand on the fender to get the wheel to grip while Mabel and the French lady pushed. I moved at full throttle with the French guy hanging on for dear life and splattering the “pushers” with black mud until I reached a drier, higher spot. I waited for the helpers to clean up and get back in the car to resume our journey. Luckily it was not too cold.

We continued to move on, push, wait and go again for a while and we managed a few more kilometres before we were stuck again and now, it was dark and we needed the car lights to see the road. I noted that our friends were not so excited leaving the car to push in the dark! Their fears were justified and now the “m” word started to be heard very frequently!

Somehow, we had enough adrenaline to keep us going and I managed to get the car up to a good speed, more than it was prudent but necessary to keep our momentum. At that time, we met a line of wildebeest on the road and I needed to slow down to avoid a head-on collision. I managed to avoid all of them but one. This particular beast came running from the side and hit us with one of its horns, leaving a deep dent all along the kombi, a scar that remained there from then on as a reminder of that trip!

Luckily, the rain decreased and the risk of getting stuck diminished but we realized that we were lost! Being dark did not help to find our bearings (we are hopeless at finding places, anyway) as we had passed a number of bush tracks any of which could have been the correct one. Then we realized that the storm was now our best ally. Every time that there was lightning we could see Oloololo escarpment and we knew that it ran parallel to the Mara river and that the camp was close to the river!

So we drove in that general direction, hoping to come to some known terrain, a difficult thing at night. Then, Mabel spotted a beam of light in the sky that we could not read at first but then Mabel speculated that it was Paul with his strong torch trying to pinpoint the camp for us.

We decided that a light meant human inhabitants so, without any arguments, we headed for the light. At some stage we recognized the track that led to our camp and we arrived a few minutes later, soaked wet, muddy and very tired.

After washing ourselves as well as we could and getting dry clothes, we met for a quick dinner heated under the tent’s flysheet as the rain was still falling on and off. Paul had heard an engine and thinking that we could be the only ones driving at night, decided to shine the torch saving us from an otherwise sure night in the bush.

As we had all gone through a lot over the last 12 hours and we started to mix languages, we decided that a camp bed was needed and we retired to our tents, still under the rain. Fortunately, our tents have kept the rain outside so soon we fell sleep with the memories of the day still fresh in our minds.

Regrettably we needed to return to Nairobi the following morning but not before sharing a good breakfast with Paul and his friends during which, well rested and calmer we re-lived our experiences, and we agreed that we had lived through a very lucky day indeed.

To the cradle of mankind – Getting there

Lake_Turkana_vicinity

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

Day 1 – Nairobi to Maralal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 2 – Under Mt. Kulal

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

turkana safari camping kulal area 2

After the struggle, the tarpaulin became our floor!

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

Day 3 – Dry river-bed in Sibiloi National Park

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

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

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

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

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Mabel at the entrance of the Sibiloi National Park.

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

3WD!

We first visited Meru National Park invited by our friends Ken and Betty and, as we still did not have our own car, travelled -with our friend Ranjini- in the back of their Land Rover. Despite this, our excitement at being able to get out of Muguga House as well as exploring Kenya, made the trip quite bearable.

Meru NP Tana River circuit copy

Ken (right) and Robin and his wife Janet (back) discuss the route while Mabel enjoys the open air drive!

Meru National Park was located east of Meru town, 350 km from Nairobi with an area of 870 km2. It was a well-known park with plentiful rainfall resulting in abundant grasslands and swamps where rich wildlife roamed, particularly elephants, buffalo, reticulated giraffes, gerenuk and the rare gravy zebras, apart from the usual large carnivores.

Our start was not auspicious! Our friends had booked the Leopard Rock bungalows by the Murera river but forgot to bring the voucher that proved it! After a long discussion we assured the camp manager that we would vacate the place if other visitors arrived with the same bookings we had. This argument worked and we were finally allowed in and spent the weekend there as no one came, of course.

meru np leopard rock lodge copy

It was a short trip and its highlight was a long drive to the Tana river where we had a couple punctures on the way but, luckily, we carried two spare wheels and all needed tools. I also recall that, for some foolish reason, we walked across a shallow area of the river and I saw a small greenish fish swimming past my legs. When I realised that it was a small crocodile, I hastily retreated to dry land while warning the rest of the waders that followed my example!

Once a stronghold for elephants, by the time we visited they were getting scarce although we still saw them in large numbers but, according to our friends, their numbers had declined. At that time, if any black rhinos remained there must have been well hidden in the hills although I even doubt that!

3 - Meru copy

What we did see were some of the reintroduced white rhinos that were being herded by armed rangers during the day and penned at night to protect them against poachers. They were rather tame and behaved like cattle so we took the opportunity to collect some interesting ticks from them!

A while after this first visit we learnt about George and Joy Adamson and Elsa and that they had raised the lioness in Meru National Park and this added another interest to re-visiting the park: to find the former “home” of George and Joy Adamson.

Despite gaining worldwide fame because of Elsa the lioness that Joy immortalized in her books “Born Free”, “Living Free” and “Forever Free” that narrate Elsa’s life. Joy was an amazing painter that travelled all over Kenya painting the various ethnic groups and her beautiful portraits are on displayed at the Kenya Museum.

She married George Adamson, known as “Bwana Game’ with who she shared part of her life until they parted company. Joy went to Shaba where she was working with leopards until she was eventually and sadly killed in 1980 by a former worker. George settled in Kora National Park for many years until he was also sadly killed by poachers in 1989.

We enjoyed the place and decided to go there again. This time we camped near the Leopard Rock where we had stayed before. Our camp was simple as we only had managed to acquire the basic items but it was enough for our needs at the time.

Camping Meru NP.tif copy

The aim of the trip, apart from exploring the park further, was to find Joy Adamson’s camp and Elsa’s grave. As we only had general directions, we set off early, as we were not sure of how long it would take us to drive almost to the farthest area of the park.

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Map of Meru National Park. Credit: http://www.kenya-travel.org/kenya-parks-and-reserves-kenya-safaris © copyright All right reserved. Photo Andre Brunsperger.

At first the going was good as we were on the main road to the southeast but soon we entered a narrow track that did not seem to be very much used. This did not surprise us because the Adamsons had been there several years before and not many people was clearly visiting the park and even fewer of them travelled in this direction.

After driving through a typical MMBA (More and More of B… Africa!) road that seemed endless for about four ours we stopped for a lunch break. We pondered our situation and and decided to continue for another hour and, if we still did not find anything, to admit defeat and start our return to base. Three quarters of an hour passed when we came to a steep descent leading to a dry riverbed that we could not climb and we found ourselves buried in deep sand.

meru stuck - MC

The kombi was very good in many respects but rather hopeless in sand so all we could do was to dig! Before we started to work we had a very good look to the riverine bush to make sure that there were no dangerous surprises there. Once we checked, we got to remove sand under the wheels by hand. We then lifted the car and placed the spare wheel underneath to get some grip. So it was dig and lift, move the car a few centimetres forward, dig some more, lift and move some more until we were close to success when, with a loud “crack”, the jack screw snapped, clearly abused by so much use!

There was no question of lifting the car by human power so all we could do was an all out effort to move forward. Aware of the importance of this really “final” attempt, we removed all obstacles from our wheels and placed lots of branches in front of them to gain some more traction and, with Mabel pushing hard, I accelerated remembering to keep the wheels straight.

The car hesitated at first but then it somehow gripped firm ground and we managed to climb to the other side of the steep crossing. Elation was still pending as we were now free from the sandy patch but on the wrong side of the river! Aware that we have wasted about two hours getting the kombi across the river and unsure of where we really were we, unanimously, agreed that it was wise to start of return to base if we were to arrive in daylight.

So we drove on until we found a spot where we could turn the car around safely and started our return and attempt to cross the river again! We approached it, stopped and went down to level up the road and tried to make it firmer and cleared it from stones and anything that could interfere with our crossing as well as filling in the deep ruts we had left.

Then we moved the car back a good distance from the crossing to gather good speed and went for it with seat belts on and Mabel hanging on for dear life. As planned we went down fast and hit the bottom of the river with a bump but still had enough momentum to cross the sandy patch and the the car had enough power to grip firm ground and climb the opposite bank before stopping somehow sideways among thorn bushes on the other side. We had made it through!

Despite the rough crossing the car showed no visible damage and we drove it back to the track to start our return journey. We now celebrated and toasted with water while rested to allow the adrenaline levels to return to normal before moving again!

After that it all went well but only for a couple of kilometres. Then I started noting that the car did not respond well to my steering movements and then I noted a puncture in the front wheel on my side! Clearly stopping among thorn bushes had a price. “On top of everything, we now need to change a wheel” I said but Mabel reminded me that our jack had broken!

We tried to lift the car to fit stones underneath but failed so we were now in real trouble and our only hope was that anothe car would come our way and help us to change the wheel. I was thinking that this was a hope rather than a real possibility when I had an idea…

We had suffered earlier when the kombi, being long, would bend when crossing a ditch diagonally, often ending up with a wheel in the air and inmobile. Although this was unimportant when a front wheel was concerned it would stop the car when a back wheel turned in the air and needed someone to jump on the fender to get the wheel to grip!

I decided to use this “frame-bending” ability that had annoyed me in the past to our advantage. I went for a 3WD!

I sat on Mabel’s seat and she went to back seat behind me so that the right side of the car had no passengers, hoping that this would keep the punctured front right wheel in the air! We prepared ourselves and tried it. The car responded well with only a few occasions that the wheel rim touched the ground due to some large pothole.

Encouraged by our first few metres, we continued slowly as I only had control over one front wheel. The going was slow but we were moving in the right direction while we hoped that we would not have another puncture! We crawled back to our camp well after sunset where we could not avoid an ear full from the rangers that became milder once we explained what had taken place and showed them how the wheel was!

The following morning, still on 3WD, we drove to the park’s workshop and the mechanics were quite amused to see us coming with the driver on the passenger seat!

The wheel was repaired as we carried a spare tube (the original tube was now black powder!). The few protruding wires of the tire’s steel belt sticking out in several places, including inside the tire, were nicely clipped and a patch placed to cover their endings and it became our temporary spare. In any case, with no jack, a spare would not have been of much use! Luckily we did not needed it and got home without further mishaps.

Years later we learnt that the available maps of Meru National Park like the one we carried were inaccurate as they had been prepared while the roads were being constructed. We felt somehow vindicated for not having found the Adamson’s camp.

We visited the park again with a large group of friends and camped by a beautiful river with clear waters where we swam in the shallows and fished. It was idyllic we thought during the first day and then at night we heard several gun shots and we got quite concerned as we realized that it was probably poachers going for the elephants.

That was our last visit and we learnt that gradually things deteriorated as many animals were lost to poachers. Sadly, in 1989 about thirty poachers came and gunned down in their pen five of the white rhinos we usually saw despite the rangers rather heroic defense that got two of them severely wounded.

Those were the bad days of Meru that extended well into the 90s. Then, things started to improve and in 2002, eight white rhinos were moved to Meru from private ranches in Kenya but, sadly, the poachers menace is still a real one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.