hyena

Camping in Kenya. Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

We “learnt” lots of the secrets of camping in Africa from our friend Paul, another veterinarian working at Muguga, Kenya. Soon we had broken the barrier of “camping among the beasts” as most campsites in Kenya were unfenced. We often visited Paul during his long spells residing in the bush while working in the various national parks and/or in the fringes of parks and game reserves.

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One of Paul’s camp sites in the Maasai Mara. His camp hand Tobias is on the left.

It was great fun and we soon started to go at it alone. Preparations included the procurement of a few second hand camping items that, apart from a small tent, a couple of chairs and a foldable table, included a large frying pan with an extremely long handle, as my wife did not and still does not enjoy cooking at the fire. For working purposes, I could use a large ICIPE tent that added great comfort to our outdoor lives.

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While in Kenya we practiced “basic” camping!

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Working camping was still basic but we had the advantage of a large tent.

Our most frequent camping destination was the Maasai Mara where not only Paul often worked but it was an area I needed to drive through on my way to Intona ranch in the Transmara where I was working with ticks and tick-borne diseases as explained earlier[1]. Luckily my work took us there regularly as I needed to supervise the on-going observations as as well as to bring new personnel to be stationed at the ranch.

Camping in the Maasai Mara very often involved close encounters with different animals and you needed to be alert at all times as elephants and buffalo were present in large numbers, in addition to the normal and harmless savanna dwellers such as giraffe and the various antelopes. Although leopards were quite rare, the place was a predators’ playground.

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Near Kichwa Tembo Camp, Maasai Mara.

The Mara-Serengeti area is world famous for the annual migration of wildebeest and zebra and luckily we witnessed this unique event several years (in fact we watched it every year while in Kenya!). The richness of easy prey is matched by an equal abundance of predators. Lions were a common find and spotted hyenas were really plentiful. So, our camping regularly had some exciting moments, particularly after dark!

From the start we learnt that we were safe (well, as safe as we could be) while inside our tents and we were always extremely careful when moving around camp, particularly when light started to fade. Although some friends preferred to keep fires burning all night, we did not but whether this has an effect on nocturnal visitors I do not know. All I know is that rhinos are believed to stamp out campfires, a fact I could not corroborate as rhinos were already few in the 80’s[2].

Helen was the daughter of a well-known veterinarian from the UK that had come to spend some time in Kenya[3]. We met her at a social event and, as she was looking for opportunities to travel around, I invited her to join my wife and I on one of our regular trips to the Transmara. She immediately accepted the offer.

So, as arranged, we picked Helen up one early morning as the journey was a long one over rough roads and we wanted to arrive to the shores of the Mara River, adjacent to the Maasai Mara, early as this would enable us to go for a short game drive with Helen.

I had an agreement with the Mara Buffalo Camp to stay close to them and I was also kindly allowed to use their facilities. Usually we would arrive at our Mara margin campsite with just enough light left to set-up camp, dine and go to bed. Sometimes our departure from Muguga would get delayed and we would arrive after dark and needed to set up our tent with the car lights!

We would then spend the following day driving to Intona where we would usually camp in the ranch for two or three nights while the work was done and return without stopping all the way back to Nairobi because I had another on-going trial in Muguga and time was quite short.

The journey with Helen went as planned and we arrived in good time. After setting up camp, by mid afternoon we went for a game drive to show some of the beautiful Maasai Mara and its animals to her. We saw most of the usual plains game but failed to find any predators, apart from the ubiquitous spotted hyenas that were extremely common in the area.

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A spotted hyena dealing with a wildebeest carcass.

Tired from the long journey and the additional game drive, our dinner was a quick affair and we were in our tents rather early as we had another journey the following day whose duration was difficult to predict as we needed to negotiate some bad roads that were often muddy and slippery.

While laying on our camp beds, as usual, the lions started to roar far away and we called Helen’s attention towards them. She was very excited to hear them but soon our exchanges got interrupted by sleep.

I am not sure at what time the lions’ roars woke us up but probably it was midnight or perhaps later. We could hear several lions getting closer as their growls gradually got louder. We estimated that they were probably coming along the river although we could not be sure. I did not wish to open the tent door to have a look for fear of attracting unwanted attention so we could only imagine the lions approaching our camp!

After a few more minutes of stillness during which my wife and I waited with bated breath, the visitors arrived, preceded by loud roaring a few seconds earlier and followed by the noise of “flying hooves”. The rumpus did not last more than a couple of minutes as, apparently, the lions were -we also assumed- going for a herd of zebra and/or wildebeest although we did not hear them calling. We did hear a few items being knocked over in the process and then the animals left, luckily.

Only then we remembered Helen! We shouted at her telling her not to move from her tent but, although we tried to get an answer from her, we failed. Concerned, I shone the torch in the direction of her tent and I was relieved to see that it was still intact although I could confirm that some of our belongings had indeed suffered the consequences of the tresspasers!

As the animals moved off, we gradually relaxed and decided to leave things for the morrow as Helen was surely fine and tidying up the camp could wait. I only hoped that she would not decide to go to the toilet before daylight. So it was back to a rather fitful sleep but nothing else disturbed us that night.

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The Oloololo escarpment as a spectacular backdrop for a zebra herd, Maasai Mara.

The following morning, while water was on the fire, we gathered table, chairs, towels and a few other minor items while we checked the abundant footprints in an attempt to unravel the events of the night. The conclusion was that several lions had been there chasing zebras through our camp as we failed to find wildebeest prints. The kill, if any, had taken place somewhere else and we decided to look for it afterwards on our way to Intona.

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One of the prides resident near our camping area in the Maasai Mara.

While we were busy around camp, we heard “Good morning” and we saw Helen emerging from her small tent. Only at that point I paid attention to her tent and felt relieved that it was still intact. It was one of these mountaineering jobs, low on the ground and of a bright blue colour! Helen looked well rested and asked us what we were doing. “We are looking at the spoor, trying to understand what happened last night” I replied. Helen gave me a look of confusion and said: “why, what happened? I slept all night and even did not go to the toilet!”

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A male lion feeding on a topi kill at the Maasai Mara.

I was quite relieved by her ignorance of the facts and felt tempted not to say anything but I thought the truth should be voiced so I told her the whole story. Her eyes got larger as I talked and at first she had doubts about my story so I had to show her the footprints of the various animals and, eventually, she believed me and she was both concerned but also disappointed to have missed the action!

Although we took a detour looking for a possible kill nearby, we failed to find any traces of neither prey nor predators, although we knew they were watching us!

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A zebra kill at the Maasai Mara.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/07/08/life-and-work-in-kenya-intona-2/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/intona-ranch1/

[2] I leave the research about whether this is true or not to you as Google does not seem to give a straight answer.

[3] Years later, her father was the External examiner of my PhD Thesis.

Ngweshla cold

“Is it too hot in Africa?” is the question I get asked most often by people in Latin America. They have the image of lush forests and the very hot places of Central and West Africa, white man’s grave. I think they do not believe me when I tell them that Southern Africa can be bitterly cold at times. Frankly, I was also surprised when, on arrival, I found how cold it could get!

Muguga and Nairobi in Kenya and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia were cold, the latter very cold but Lusaka, technically in Southern Africa, was rather warm, sometimes even too warm. It was while living in Lusaka that we organized our first safari to Sinamatella in Hwange National Park in early 1991. We camped there during a weekend of July and it was so cold that we had to ask the game rangers to lend us blankets to outlast the bitterly cold nights. I We were there with our baby daughter and I still remember my wife’s concern of not being able to keep her warm! Survive we did but, clearly, we forgot about it.

In comes Ngweshla Picnic site, located in the Sinamatella area, during July! As we were moving through various camps we took small tents so that we could assemble and disassemble them without too much trouble. I hasten to add also that our new nylon tent was “untested” as we had just bought it for the trip.

It was warm when we set up our camp after arriving at Ngweshla in the late morning. After lunch we went on a game drive to explore the area and, although we planned an earlier return, as usual we got delayed following a hungry-looking hyena on the prowl. The sun was setting by the time we got back to camp and there was a chill in the air already. Stupidly we had forgotten to organize our campfire so we did not bother and planned a quick dinner and an early night instead.

The hyena moving.

The hyena moving.

Elephant antiques delayed us...

Elephant antics further delayed us…

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A truly funny stand off!

A truly funny stand off. The jackal looks really tiny!

By the time we had our dinner it was clear that it would be a cold night so we skipped showers and we went to bed early as the tents seemed to be the only warm place at the time. Following the routine I got into my soft pile inner bag and then into the 15°C sleeping bag. I normally sleep in my underwear but, this time, I left my socks on as a special measure! My wife, more cautious, was well covered in her pajamas and even a polar hat!

One of our small tents.

One of our small tents.

If there is one thing I am good at it is sleeping even on the floor with a thin mattress! So waking up in the middle of the night came as a surprise. The latter turned into mild panic when I could not feel my legs. I quickly went through the list of conditions that can leave you paralyzed from the waist down and, before I completed it, I realized that I was suffering from leg numbness due to cold or, put into more simple terms, I was frozen from my butt down, mainly at the back of my legs!

“This is ridiculous” I thought and proceeded to adopt a foetal position placing the warmer front of my leg against the cold back of the other in quick succession. This seemed to work at first but, although I regained the feeling in my limbs, they ended up warmer but far from ideal. My butt remained sub-zero. I beat it with my hands and, painfully, it also warmed up albeit slowly. The situation was bad as I was still far from being warm enough to go back to sleep.

While considering my predicament the little warmth I achieved clearly activated other organs apart from my brain and I felt the need to fulfill nature’s call! “This is great”, I thought while holding on and hoping against hope that I would go back to sleep. All this was taking place while listening to my favourite podcast of the “Two Mikes” in TalkSPORT as there is no Internet at Ngweshla. The topic at the time was how, Rod Stewart’s new wife, concerned about the impact of tight jeans on his reproductive gear, forced him to have cold baths to preserve them! I removed the earplugs immediately as this was not the kind of talk that a person in my current condition needed. Bathing in cold-water gave me uncontrollable shakes and this was not conducive to my bladder control!

To avert a wet disaster inside the tent I summed up my courage and left my tepid bags and put a jumper on and then placed my partially mobile lower extremities into my jogging pants. I was ready to face the cold so I proceeded to open the two tent zippers gently so as not to wake my wife up. My mind focused on my bladder control, I forgot to take a torch, a very useful thing when walking around a campsite at night as the moon was long gone!

Luckily my legs responded somehow and I made a mad rush to the toilet. It was evident that the outside temperature was unbelievably low although I was in no condition for estimates! In the dark and with my bladder nearing bursting point, the slippery step prior to entering the toilet was not in my mind. Earlier in life I had suffered the consequences of the lack of grip of my otherwise very comfortable Crocs clogs and this drawback was re-confirmed as soon as I landed on the smooth tiles of the toilet entrance. I am sure that my semi-numb legs contributed to me losing my footing to land on my cold bum. Luckily there was a buffalo skull placed next to the step for decoration and, providentially, it interrupted my mad bum race!

Miraculously I was unharmed and managed to relieve myself in time. The adrenaline burst of the fall had managed somehow to offset the cold I was feeling and I was slightly warmer by the time I re-entered the tent when I heard “hua wash fat nush” coming from the direction of my wife. I asked her to repeat her message as she was speaking through her nose, the only organ she had outside of her “cocoon”. She was keen on knowing what the noise had been and I reassured her that a buffalo had not mauled me but that I had fallen on the skull of one but survived!

After comparing notes on the temperature situation both inside and outside the tent with her and agreeing that it was in fact freezing I re-entered my sleeping bag, this time fully dressed with the addition of a sleeveless jacket wrapped around my bump not only to stop it from re-freezing but also as an added cushion to alleviate its soreness! Fortunately I felt much better all round despite my tender derriere and I managed to go back to sleep.

The following morning there was no early morning game drive and we remained inside the tents until the sun was up and strong. When we surfaced from our tent we met our son sunning himself. He also froze to death in his tent, despite his recently ended five years in Edinburgh.

Do I need to tell you that the next two nights we slept fully dressed and that I took my torch with me when going to the toilet at night?