Colobus

Lake Naivasha

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

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View of the lake.

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

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

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

lake naivasha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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After our best day fishing in Naivasha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elsamere.

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

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

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

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

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A colobus mother and baby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The zebra being restrained with Mabel approaching.

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Posing before the action.

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

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

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

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

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

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A Maasai group ranch.

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1] Former Acacia xanthophloea.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Monkeys!

Colobus Elsamere Naiv

A female Black and White Colobus and baby. They are not a problem!

I always tell people who visit us in Africa to read a vey small and little known book called “A window onto Wilderness”, a jewel of a book that compiles reports from East African rangers and wardens giving you a feeling for the way things were over 50 years ago. Why do I mention this? Because what we see while on safari is just a peep into that “wilderness window” that then closes, but only for us! The events that we were lucky to witness still go on after we are gone. The same tusker that was feeding on Apple ring Acacia pods while we were in Mana Pools will still be there today while I write these lines, feeding on the pods that have fallen since our departure! Hence the fundamental importance of caring for these fragile ecosystems with all our might and the rather “over-used” cliché of “leave only our footprints behind”.

Wild animals only get close to humans seeking some benefit. Old lone buffalo bulls find hang around camps to gain protection from predators, carnivores take advantage of livestock and scavengers are after the rubbish pits.

Monkeys, both Baboons (Papio sp.) and vervets, (Chlorocebus sp.) have rather well developed brains and great agility, a good combination. Their lives are spent in the African bush (both trees and ground) where they feed on various types of food, being omnivorous like us. The proximity to humans offers them easier pickings so they raid crops and food. Coming back to the start of this post, we enter into the “monkey window” every time we go to stay at a wild place. They are ready and waiting for us!

It does not matter how many times you have been in the bush or how often you remind yourself to be aware of monkeys, they always catch you by surprise as they are –unbeknownst by us- stalking you for the first opportunity! This is what happened to us on our recent trip to Kruger, despite our extensive bush experience. While we were unpacking the car, a vervet took our powder milk and spilled it all around our lodge!

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Vervet monkeys grooming.

Although entertaining and endearing, monkeys are wild animals and therefore potentially dangerous. I recall my wife walking alone in Mzima Springs (Tsavo West National Park, Kenya) in the mid eighties when a few vervets started threatening her and, when she showed her surprise mixed with fear, they became more vicious until the game rangers chased them off. It was a bad experience that she still remembers.

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Vervet monkey eating what it should!

In addition to monkeys being daring, humans are stupid! I belong to the latter bracket… There is a place in Nairobi National Park, Kenya where you can leave the car and walk along the Athi river to watch the hippos and other game. It is a welcome chance to stretch your legs. The first time I visited the place it was mid morning and I was carrying a few bananas for our later lunch. Not for long… The moment I left the car I felt a pull and the bananas were gone! When I regained my wits, a male vervet was up a fever tree looking at me while holding all the bananas (I think it had a smile on its face!). A similar event happened to a good friend of ours (also a relative!) that lost her wallet in a similar manner and had to endure a “rain” of its contents and collect them carefully… “Please throw my VISA card now, Good, now my drivers license, good…’ and so on until all the contents and the wallet itself were scattered throughout the hotel garden!

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Young baboons keeping an eye on humans…

More dramatic was a similar incident -involving me of course- that happened at the Man Eaters petrol station, on the way to Mombasa from Nairobi. In that area yellow baboons (Papio cynocephalus) are found, thinner and leaner than their cousins the olive baboons (Papio anubis). They walk freely about the station. We stopped to re-fuel and I got out of the car to open the petrol cap without thinking that I had a packet of crisps in my hand. Again, before I became aware of it, a baboon (almost as large as me) confronted me and helped itself to my crisps. I resisted to no avail and I am convinced that in the scuffle that followed, it slapped me so that I would learn to surrender them quickly next time! Although funny now, it was rather scary at the time it happened!

On another occasion, the saying ‘like father like son’ comes to mind, unfortunately for my son. For the first time in my children’s 8 and 9 year old lives, their mother had gone on a trip to Rome and left them with me in Harare. This was apparently quite a traumatic experience for them, and although she was only gone for a fortnight, her absence was felt profoundly by all. Their older cousin, who stayed with us for a year was also with us, but thankfully faring better than the two monsters. After a week of countless tearful episodes and desperation on my part, I thought to distract them from their mother’s absence by taking them to the nearby Haka Park. Although not an animal ‘hotspot’ Haka park is a nice break from the nearby city and permits walking and climbing.

So I packed the three in the car along with a picnic lunch and headed to the park, where we whiled away the morning in tear-free style. When lunch time came around, we decided on a suitable picnic spot with a cement table and benches and settled down to eat. My daughter and I munched happily on our sandwiches while my nephew wandered about in his usual style and my son decided to sit at the next table over. As he appeared content as well, I left him to his own devices and continued to satisfy my hunger and keep an eye on the much more likely problem starter, my nephew. He was very much like a monkey himself with his affinity for trees and innate ability to climb almost anything (to my wife’s horror).

As lunch continued, my attention was drawn away from my son, probably by my much more talkative and bossy daughter, until suddenly we all heard an outraged howl. We turned in time to see my son having his sandwich snatched by a cute-looking vervet monkey, who then proceeded to sit in front of him and munch on my son’s former lunch. After an attempt to regain control of his lunch, which ended almost before it began with the monkey baring its teeth and chittering angrily (to our great amusement) my son proceeded to grab the remaining sandwiches and lock himself in the car. From the safety of the car he peered out of the window angrily (at us or at the monkey, I am not sure) while he proceeded to eat another sandwich in a monkey-free zone. Needless to say he endured quite a bit of teasing on our way home thanks to his assumption that the monkey was only after his company when it approached him!

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My son recovering from his duties as “monkey-chaser” at a camping site.

Baboons can be destructive as well, something I have also experienced and witnessed. My first hand experience happened when we were camping at Amboseli National Park in Kenya. I closed the sliding door of our VW kombi only to discover that a baboon was inside! Finding itself locked up it panicked and went “bananas” jumping all over the car and screaming its head off. Thankfully it was a young animal so it did not defecate and urinate as much as a fully grown animal would have done! It is sometimes amazing to see what can take place in a few seconds as I opened the door as fast as I could! It took long to clear the mess… Similar to the occasion when we camped at the fig tree camp in Lake Bogoria under a troop of baboons that made sleeping very difficult as they kept waking up throughout the night and screaming as if attacked by a leopard!!! They also pelted us with muck!!!

However, baboons can be even more destructive, something we learned while camping at Serondela in the Chobe National Park in Botswana. Our neighbours were clearly European tourists, judging by the neatness of their campsite. All items had a place and it was a stark contrast with our disorder! We came back in the evening and found the couple -we later learnt that they were Germans- looking at a heap of canvas and nylon where their tent had been before the baboons smelled the food that they had left inside. From then on, they slept in the car!

The last anecdote worth telling also took place in Kenya in the mid eighties at Meru National Park. Again, on arrival and while unloading our cars of the food needed for the three-day stay, our butter was taken, together with most of our tomatoes, although we managed to rescue a few that were scattered in the bush around the campsite. As these were damaged and already “touched” by the thieves, a lady friend and my wife decided to lay a deadly trap for the culprits, using the recovered tomatoes. The idea was to fill them with chili and black pepper and leave them out for the taking. This process demanded more work, skill and care than the preparation of our dinner, as the fruits needed to be hollowed and then stuffed with the deadly paste (oil was used to join the ingredients). Once the three or four tomatoes were ready, they were put in full view of the vervets while we watched, waiting for their response and hoping for them to learn a good lesson for the future! They took them almost instantly but what followed was not what was expected! The cautious thieves, after tasting them with the tips of their tongue, detected the trap and, immediately took all tomatoes to the nearby river, washed them carefully and shared them with their friends, to the anger of the female humans…

Although humorous, this account should serve as a lesson: animals are wild and must not be fed. It does not matter if they look cute and or entertaining, do not feed them. By so doing you are awarding them a death sentence as they will eventually need to be destroyed because they become too brave!

Gardening in the wild (I)

After I was offered a job in Ethiopia in 1988 and while still in Kenya, in my anxiety to know where we were getting to, I contacted a consultant that had just been there to get preliminary information. We knew each other quite well and he was frank with me. “The place is beautiful” he said, and he added “if you can get there with your car in one piece! We blew a tire, went off the road and had a near miss as we hit a large rock that stopped us from going down a steep slope”. I am sure he was enjoying this -probably the look on my face- when he added “but don’t let me put you off!” Trying to digest this and making fruitless efforts to hide my discomfort, I asked for details about the living quarters and the work. He complied with the latter and then said: “You are lucky as you will have a very large garden”. This somehow lifted my spirits and then he finished me off by saying: “the whole of Ethiopia will be your back garden!” I refrained from more questions…

 

Contemplating our "enlarged' garden with a visiting friend.

Contemplating our back garden with a visiting friend.

So we prepared for self-sufficiency through gardening! We bought seeds and tools and this was the beginning of our gardening experience in Africa. Our first visit to the local market confirmed that we had taken the right decision. There was a market every Saturday where farmers brought their produce, often walking very long distances over very hard terrain. A look at their feet clad in the ubiquitous sandals made from car tires vouched to that! Clearly their farming efforts were not directed towards the “forengis” (foreigners in Ethiopia) and fresh vegetables were rare. You could find tomatoes and, occasionally, onions. Both were sold by rows of farmers (mostly women) seated behind piles of 3 to 5 fruits. Attempts at buying all the tomatoes offered by any one of the sellers -through a kind Oromo interpreter- provoked a strong negative response as they were only happy to part with one or at most two units. That meant that to get a kg you needed to negotiate with about six farmers! A time consuming exercise!

 

A local market.

A local market.

There was also a number of produce that was utterly unknown to us and I do not even recall their names or use. I do recall seeing Oromo potatoes (Coleus edulis) and ensete (Ensete ventricosum). The former is widely consumed in Oromia and we did enjoy them steamed or boiled. The ensete is an important contributor to food security in the region and “kocho” was on offer. This greyish paste is prepared from the fermented pulverised trunk and inflorescence. This is a delicacy consumed at weddings and other important feasts. We did eat it occasionally but it did not leave a lasting impression.

Through her dedication, after a few months, my wife had transformed our backyard into a vegetable haven that was the topic of conversation in the laboratory. There were tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, lettuce, spinach, beans, peas and various spices. We were enjoying our fresh produce!

We discovered Seven year beans (scarlet runner beans) in Ethiopia.

We discovered Seven year beans (scarlet runner beans) in Ethiopia.

My wife tendering the garden.

My wife tendering the garden.

This lasted until the monkeys discovered it! To enlighten you, we were dealing with two main species: the vervet (Chlorocebus aethiops) and the mantled guereza (Colobus guereza), also known as black and white colobus. We loved watching them in the wild but not in our garden. The vervets were the main menace but the colobus, a hervivorous species, would also come down from their normal arboreal habitat to enjoy our garden. It is one thing to deal with small pests (insects, mollusks) and another one to control birds and/or mammals! To make matters worse, monkeys have quite developed brains, are very daring and they arrive in troops! After the first rather devastating visit, the superior primates -us- needed to deploy appropriate measures to prevent this from happening again! Clearly, we were not able to take pest protection measures applied in developed countries (enclosing the garden in chicken wire, flash guns, etc.). We had a problem and needed to act fast!

 

Colobus monkeys keeping an eye on the garden.

Colobus monkeys keeping an eye on the garden.

We did not invent anything new when we decided to consult the local farmers to seek their wisdom on the problem. At the end of the “expert consultations” we came to the conclusion that the best and probably only acceptable solution was to scare them. So, following their advice, we needed to find someone to watch our garden. It is common to see planted areas being watched by farmers from small raised towers from where they can see the crop area and take measures to scare pests away, such as stone throwing, shouting, running after them and other measures that vary according to the intruder. It is a different thing to scare monkeys flock than to chase away an elephant or a hippo!

Acting as per the recommendations, we proceeded to find the suitable candidate by consultating with other neighbours. We were fortunate to find a young relative of one of the veterinarins that was presented to us as the solution and he was duly employed to carry out the task. After this measure, although the monkeys at first continued to besiege our garden, they soon gave up and moved off.

A Vervet monkey feeding on stolen produce.

A Vervet monkey feeding on stolen produce.

Once this major problem was dealt with successfully, vegetables were produced in abundance as the climate there is very favourable for plant growth with an average temperature of 18°C and an annual rainfall of about 1800mm and insects were not a major problem.