Elsa

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lake Naivasha

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

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View of the lake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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After our best day fishing in Naivasha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elsamere.

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

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

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

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

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A colobus mother and baby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The zebra being restrained with Mabel approaching.

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Posing before the action.

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

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

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

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

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

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A Maasai group ranch.

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1] Former Acacia xanthophloea.

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

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

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

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

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