Christmas

Magical time

This Christmas we decided to spend it in Zimbabwe, camping at Masuma dam and Robins Camp in Hwange National Park.

Our camp at Masuma.

Already in the rainy season our expectations of a green Hwange were confirmed, a marked change from our usual visits that take place in September, during the dry season. We also knew that the animals would not be so dependent on the permanent water holes and that they would be scattered in more remote and unreachable areas of this very large park. Finally, there was a good chance of having daily showers. Despite these drawbacks, it was a suitable time and place for a family reunion so, we took the challenge.

We prepared well for a wet camping experience adding a large awning to our usual dry season gear and packed our rainproof jackets, just in case. As it happened, the latter precautions were only useful for the first two days when we had a couple of showers as, luckily for us (but not for the park!) the weather continued being dry over us although there were some spectacular rainstorms around us.

We counted twenty-three hippos and about half a dozen crocodiles at the dam as well as a large population of geese (both Egyptian and Spurwing) as well as a few Knob-billed ducks. The few resident Senegal thick-knees were there, busy protecting their nests against the threatening advances of the monitor lizards.

Senegal Thicknee vs. Monitor lizard. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

Numerous impalas, waterbuck and greater kudu frequently visited the dam, mainly to graze on its now lush green shores as they were drinking in safer places, avoiding the dam´s crocodiles. So, we did not witness any of the crocodile ambushes to drinking herbivores that we had witnessed before (See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/ and related posts). Below there are pictures of some of the animals we saw:

Although the elephants did not come in the we see in September, they still came, particularly during the days when fresh water was pumped into the dam, either they had a way of knowing this by the pump noise or they exhibited an amazing sense of smell! The later is more likely as the pumps are operated by solar energy and they are quiet!

Although we spent many hours at the water edge, we failed to see any predators coming for a drink or a possible kill. We did see a couple of young lions mating near Kapula Camp, and a family of two lioness with four cubs and a male on a buffalo kill, just opposite the Shumba picnic site. We heard them and hyenas almost every night at camp and Mabel heard the unmistakable rasping cough of a leopard while it walked up and down the new (rather weak) fence that now encloses the picnic area.

We had some nocturnal excitement on our first day. After midnight Flori and her boyfriend Giacomo (new at camping in Africa) were rudely awakened by very loud banging noises coming from the ablution area. The following morning a large hole was found in the fence through which an elephant had entered the enclosure, probably in search of clean water. His adventure got interrupted by the appearance of the camp attendant that stopped it from doing more damage. The elephant retreated, not through the entry hole but crashing the gate!

We needed to work hard to find large game but luckily had more luck in the bird department. We were able to watch and photograph a shaft-tailed wydah, a bird that we had not seen for years. We also watched several bee-eaters, rollers, and orioles, among other small birds. We were happy to see several groups of ground hornbills, including one feeding their young at a nest.

Finally, on Christmas day we had some of a reward for our efforts. Flori, Giacomo and I went to have a look at Little Toms, a small stream near Robins Camp. I did not have much hope to find anything special based on earlier experience. I was wrong! Perhaps two hundred metres before we got there, we caught a glimpse of many elephants in and around it. Although we approached the water very slowly, to our dismay, they started to move back to the bush.

We were disappointed but we remained very still and quiet, waiting. After a few minutes of uncertainty, a few of the larger animals turned and started to come back. Soon we had a couple of hundred back at the water.

As I am not able to do justice to what we witnessed, I present you with two videos that Flori and I took of this truly magical thirty minutes!

A general view of the elephants at Little Toms.
Amusing young elephants.

Christmases with lions

I remember at least two year-end holidays spent in the Maasai Mara.

The fact that we camped outside the reserve gave us some liberties and sometimes we returned late to camp. That particular Christmas eve we were ending our game drive and looking forward to our Christmans eve dinner when we bumped on a group of six lionesses walking through the plains, clearly hunting.

As this offered a great opportunity because of the number of game present in the area, I managed to convince Mabel that it was a good idea to follow them for a while to see whether we could watch a kill. She reluctantly agreed.

After following them for a while, darkness fell and we realized that, oh surprise, we were lost again!

Unable to return to camp we decided to continue with our plan and kept following the lionesses and, to avoid interfering with the hunt, we kept the lights of the car off and navigated under increasing darkness until we only had the moonlight. We did switch our lights on sporadically to see where we were going and to avoid losing our quarry.

Suddenly the lionesses started trotting and soon we lost them. My attempt at finding them took us through some stony ground until we came to one where the bottom of our car touched the rocks and we got stuck on rocks!

Getting out of the car to jack it up was not an option so I revved the engine and moved the car backwards and forwards until with a metal tearing noise the Land Rover jerked backwards and we were free.

We were now alone as the lionesses had continued with their hunt and disappeared into the thicket! It was clear that our optimistic project had come to its (natural) end and we had no idea where we were!

Wisely for once, we decided that setting up our small tent and sleep in the open surrounded by lions (and other beasts of the darkness!) was out of the question so the decision was taken to slowly look for a flat piece of land, stop the car and settled down for our Christmas eve night.

Searching the car we found water and a panettone [1] baked by Mabel! We did not wait for midnight to celebrate Christmas but opened our bottle of water and toasted while we cut slices of panettone that we finished. After our improvised dinner we started listening to the lions roaring around us, probably also celebrating a successful hunt that we had just missed to witness. We thought that, after all, it was a good way to spend the night!

Panettone. Credit: Codice1000 at Italian Wikipedia [Public domain]

Things started to lose their glamour when the time came to sleep as we did not carry blankets or sleeping bags with us so it would be a chilly night. I had ceded the front bench of the car to Mabel and I tried to find sleeping room at the back of our short wheel base Land Rover, an impossible task despite throwing out all hard objects through the back door. Despite this, there was still very little room there and, after trying a foetal position and then sitting with my back against the front seat without luck I must have passed out as I woke up with the first light.

But our troubles were not yet over!

It was a lovely Christmas day and we soon realized that we had driven inside the reserve and had spent the night at an area we knew and from where we could see the Mara Serena Lodge.

The Mara Serena lodge.

And then we got our Christmas presents: a female black rhino came walking slowly towards us, followed by a really small calf, very cute and playful. I believe that it had been named “Toto” (child), one of the attractions of the reserve at the time.

A female back rhino and her calf, the same sight that we found in the Maasai Mara on Christmas morning.

Unfortunately for us, with the rhino came the reserve rangers that were guarding it 24/7 and they drove straight at us as we were rather obvious and there was no way that we could have driven into the park to be there at that time in the morning! We told them that we had lost our way the day before and decided to spend the night where we stopped. Luckily, they understood our explanation of how we ended up there and pointed us the way back towards the area we had left our camp.

We wished each other a Merry Christmas and parted our ways, they keeping an eye on the rhinos and we, stiff but happy at the way that Christmas had finally arrived although we did not see our lion hunt.

The following year we decided to have a comfortable Christmas holiday and we started early to save to be able to spend it at Kitchwa Tembo, the tented lodge close to the Mara River bridge where I used to get help with punctures and fuel while traveling up the Oloololo escarpment on my way to Intona ranch.

So, when the time arrived we booked seats in the daily flights between Nairobi and the Maasai Mara that were carried out by means of an Airkenya Douglas DC 3 plane that would take about 45 minutes to complete a journey that by road would take the best of one day!

A Douglas DC3 taking off. Credit- Arpingstone / Public domain

We boarded the plane at Wilson airport and we sat really looking up so when the plain started taxiing I immediately started thinking how could the pilot see the runway looking up! Luckily, once we started our take off the tail came up very rapidly and we became horizontal, and a few seconds later we were noisily airborne.

Our route took us over the Ngong Hills – former home of Karen Blixen, of Out of Africa fame – and then beyond the edge of the Rift Valley, magnificent views. After a while the pilot announced that we were flying at 10,500 feet and drinks were offered. Conversation was difficult as the two engines were quite noisy but it was a small price to pay for our first flight in an antique plane!

We approached the narrow paved strip at Musiara and the strong shiver indicated that we had lowered our landing gear and a smooth touchdown followed. Ten minutes later, after loading more passengers the plane hopped a few kilometres over the river to the Kichwa Tembo strip where, after checking that no animals were on the runway, we landed and boarded open vehicles that took us to our tent.

Walking in camp was “interesting” as a number of old male buffalo resided in the camp, probably seeking protection from lions so we were given a strong warning not to walk alone in the evenings but get one of the “askaris” to accompany us. These were Maasai warriors employed by the camp for this purpose.

Christmas Eve at the camp was quite different from the one we spent the previous year. The festivities started early with loud shouts of “elephant!, elephant!” by the staff while we were getting ready to have a cup of tea before our afternoon game drive. We rushed to a prudent distance and witnessed how a young female elephant and her calf walked among the now empty tables pulling table cloths and spilling crockery all over the garden until, clearly satisfied, they walked away leaving behind a devastated garden.

The incident, we were told, was quite common and the solicitous staff quickly re-assembled the tables and, soon and “elephantless” we could have our tea drinking. Once we finished, we went looking for game. This was a new experience as, for once, I could spend all the time looking for game rather than driving. The friendly guides knew the area and they showed us all the usual game, including elephants, lions and buffalo. We returned at sunset and enjoyed good showers and got ready for dinner.

We ate while waiting for midnight and we were treated to a great singing and dancing show by the camp staff that managed to create a really merry atmosphere, fun to watch and to participate. It was funny to see the staff of the lodge in Maasai costumes dancing around.

Eventually we celebrated Christmas with a glass of champagne and retired to our extremely comfortable tent, escorted by our usual askari that was now himself after having been a great dancer earlier.

Later that night we had high drama as it was obvious that lions also wished to celebrate the Season holidays in style and, apparently, they had gone for a buffalo. We heard the struggle and bellows of the “victim” for quite a while until silence returned and we assumed that the buffalo was a goner.

We anticipated an interesting game drive the following morning prior to our return flight but, although we found a pride of lions, we did not find a dead buffalo so we assumed that the animal -if that was what happened- had managed to escape!

Too soon the time came for our departing flight and we boarded the plane, together with other fellow tourists. Our return trip to Nairobi essentially retraced our outward journey and it was rather spectacular to see our approach to the Rift valley wall that, luckily, we climbed and soon we landed with tires squeaking on the Wilson’s tarmac runway. Our “antique” flight was successfully over.

Unfortunately, in 1992 one of Airkenya’s DC-3 was damaged in a landing accident at Musiara, luckily without any victims. Although that plane was not repaired but rather shipped back piecemeal by road to Nairobi, the service continued until 1997 when the DC3s were replaced by newer planes.

[1] Panettone is an Italian type of sweet bread loaf usually enjoyed for Christmas and New Year in many Latin countries. It required a well processed dough and it contains, among other possibilities, candied fruits, raisins and various nuts. It is served in wedge shapes, vertically cut, accompanied, in Uruguay, with cider, prosecco or champagne.