hyenas

Green sea

I thought we were fortunate when the decision was taken for me to work at Intona ranch in the Transmara as this would enable us to frequently drive through the fringes of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, the northern extension of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and the jewel of the Kenya wildlife areas.

In fact, I had no idea of the joy that this decision would bring to our lives, something we only came to understand later on and even now the great memories of our time there still linger.

To be able to soak up the immensity of its grass plains during the various seasons was indeed a privilege. We swallowed dust traveling during the dry season on roads that, when the wet season arrived, you would be skidding all over even applying the best wheel control possible! We camped in the open with no fences many times in different places and enjoyed lots of different experiences over the years, some of them I did not do today. It was there where we started to learn “the ways of the bush” with our friend Paul [1].

Even considering that we were not strictly inside the reserve most of the time, the wild animals took the centre stage as you could not fail to find them, even if you wished to! [2] At its most empty the Maasai Mara plains would be dotted with Thomson’s gazelles, zebras, topis, kongonis and the resident wildebeests. As a good friend put it while looking mainly at the herd of Thomson’s gazelle: “they look shoals of tropical fish”.

The elephants and buffaloes were always making an appearance and of course, the lions -our favourite predators- were present, first as random finds and later less so when we knew their territories and places they favoured. The spotted hyenas could be counted in dozens and they were very common and we frankly took them for granted and never looked for them as they were always there!

But when the wildebeest and zebra migration arrived from the Serengeti, the plains were so full of animals that it was even difficult to drive because of the animal density! You would also hear them all the time as they were everywhere, always on the move, even while having their young. Sights and sounds difficult to imagine (and to forget!) unless you have been there!

Apart from their main migration Serengeti-Maasai Mara, they had “mini migrations” within the Maasai Mara. Often, we thought that their motives were to look for fresh grass, but we came to realize that they followed hints we could not get, and we often thought that they were playing a game of follow the leader!

During those times of abundance predators somehow became more obvious and numerous as many would come in pursuing the migration. In particular the packs of spotted hyenas would be seen very often as well as lions, now not only the prides we were somehow familiar with but other nomadic individuals that came and went with the migration.

Gnus at sunrise

We spent hundreds of hours watching lions, searching for leopards, waiting for cheetah to go for the chase, trying to second-guess packs of spotted hyena while chasing their prey or watching the hippo antics at the several pools in the Mara River, while keeping an eye for the opportunistic crocodile to take the unaware drinker.

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Some of the few black rhinos we encountered in Kenya. These were at Amboseli National Park.
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Visiting this wildlife paradise also offered the chance of seeing the Maasai pastoralists walking on the various tracks, red specks in the vast distances, apparently oblivious to the myriads of animals surrounding them, their full attention on the welfare of their own animals.

As expected, over the years we lived through many events, luckily nothing that went wrong could not be righted and that was a very important condition to enjoy our experiences. I will try to narrate to you some of the anecdotes that took place during that time that I still remember so many years later.

I already described my journey to the Transmara that included passing through the periphery of the reserve [3]. There was a tar road from Nairobi to Narok, the Maasai capital and the last town to load fuel and any last minute items you forgot, although the choice was not that great. There was, however, a chemist and a restaurant where you could have “nyama choma” (roasted beef) with ugali (maize meal) easily and fast or, if you were feeling picky, the more elaborate chicken and chips (oil-soaked) for which you needed to wait quite a while longer. Your commensals would be mainly Maasai that were only too happy to have you with them after having deposited their spears and “rungus” (wooden throwing clubs or batons) nearby.

We never stayed there longer than a couple of hours and, usually we would drive through after refuelling. The stop at the petrol station was, at first, nothing out of the ordinary. However, later on we started noticing that the minibuses also stopped there, and, during the pause, they offloaded their passengers. The wealthy among the latter took their safari to Kenya very seriously and dressed better than the real hunters with clothes from famous brands!

The road from Narok until you reached the Maasai Mara Game Reserve proper was about 130 km, depending where in the reserve you would go. The first 85 km to Aitong were rough, dusty and corrugated but never muddy as it was a well consolidated road. But it will hammer your suspension severely.

A series II Land Rover we saw there holds our most extreme record of suspension destruction we have seen. It was returning to Narok with still about 20 km to go and it came towards us zigzagging badly. We moved off the road and stopped to let it pass. It was crawling to get back to Narok with the front spring leaves (on both sides!) sticking up the front of the car, as high as the bonnet, I believe soon to come out with unknown consequences, its crew looking rather anxious!

From Aitong you followed straight on through a smaller track, gentler on your car but dusty most of the time and muddy during the rains. Luckily, either when going there for work in the strong LWB panel van Land Rovers or in our kombi first and then our SWB Land Rover, we never broke down and had only punctures and mud-related delays.

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Going out of Narok. Maasai cattle drinks at the dam while the traffic goes by. Note the red VW kombi, the dominant minibus at the time.

During the first three or four years the VW kombis were the kings of the tourist minibuses and there were hundreds of them moving people to and from Nairobi so spares and service were available all over. Incredibly, later, VW introduced a new model and it was immediately apparent that it had a few shortcomings. Its large back doors kept opening and even bending so the owners resorted to welding them all around to avoid the problem with the result that loading them became a challenge!

We had a first-hand experience with one of those new models when we were following it at a distance to avoid the dust. At some stage we saw its right back wheel starting to separate from the car! We slowed down expecting a serious accident, but the wheel continued parallel to the car.

We then noted that the wheel had the axle attached to it still and this saved the car from a more serious accident giving it some stability albeit precarious. We hooted and made light signals but the driver did not stop and, eventually wheel and axle went their own way, and the minibus entered the bushes and came to an abrupt stop!

This was the beginning of the end of the VW domination and the start of the Toyota and Nissan era!

But not only the new VW kombis suffered from the “open backdoor syndrome”, we did too! It happened once we were returning from the reserve in our Land Rover and suddenly, we felt a welcome breeze, quite an improvement from what the small windows and front vents provided.

It was not until most of our cargo had gone that we noted that our -rather wide- backdoor was open. Perhaps we had driven two hundred metres like but it was sufficient to offload most of our belongings, including our cool box, tent, chairs, sleeping bags and personal luggage that rested in the middle of the road. Luckily no cars were coming behind us and we managed to pick up all the stuff. We needed a new cool box though!

Unfortunately, during the same journey when perhaps we were in a hurry or more casual than usual, we also lost our double mattress that “flew” from the roof. That was a great loss as it had been specially cut to fit within the roof rack if you wished to sleep in the first floor during hot nights. We only noted its absence after we arrived home and I am sure that there was a happy Maasai couple that slept comfortably from then on!

Another inattention led us through a more interesting situation. While driving during the rainy season, as we were prone to get stuck and also to find people stuck, we always carried a thick jute rope that, depending on its last use, it would be tied up either to the front or the back of the car and rolled up there as it was usually very muddy and also it occupied lots of space inside our short Land Rover.

Somehow, during one of our game drives the rope, that at the time happened to be at the back, became undone and, inadvertently, we were dragging it behind the car. We would have discovered this in due course but as it happened, a third party did it before us!

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A lion pride, similar to the playful one.

The pride of lions we found resting around a termite mound, like pussycats do, unusually, started following our car. Things started to unravel when a few seconds later we felt a light jerk and, when we stopped we could see that about four or five cubs and three lionesses had grabbed our rope and were busy trying to kill it while being dragged by us.

Trying to free ourselves, we stopped and re-started but the lions, clearly in a playful mood, still held on! With no other option, as we were not going to get out of the car to chase them off, we continued driving slowly for a while with them behind until they started leaving the rope to return to their friends that had not bothered to leave their resting place.

The abundance of lions offered good opportunities to watch them hunting, either spectacularly chasing their prey or setting up ambushes and waiting for the possible victims to walk past. Sometimes their job was made easy by the victims’ accidental contribution.

One early afternoon we witnessed an unexpected kill while watching one of the large prides resting. Most of the lions were snoozing or just resting under the shade when suddenly we saw that some lionesses stirred and instantly they were fully alert before we knew what was happening.

Scanning the area, we saw a young warthog running towards the lions, unaware of their presence until it found itself among them and, by then, it was too late. Although the lions had eaten, they could not resist a chase and a couple of lionesses went for it. As the warthog was coming at a speed, it managed to avoid the attackers by swerving around them as these animals are very fast on short runs and the lionesses were full of meat.

Unfortunately for the warthog, after managing to cross a rather large pride it almost bumped on a large male lion that all it had to do to catch it was open its mouth! That was the end of an intrepid but careless warthog.

While on the subject of warthogs, we loved them running with their tails up as if having radio aerial to keep in touch with each other! As it sometmes happens, driving through a narrow track we surprised a family of warthogs that crossed in front of us. Unfortunately, one of the piglets (despite having its antenna up!) got separated from the others and started running on the other side of the road trying to reunite with its siblings.

We stopped to let it do it and then we heard a rather loud “swooosh” and saw the huge shape of a Martial Eagle coming straight and fast towards the separated youngster. The eagle hit the piglet with its talons and held on to it while the poor victim squealed and squirmed trying to get away. Then the eagle tried to take off and flew a few metres with its prey but it soon dropped it. The piglet hit the floor running in the direction where we had last seen its family. The eagle did not chase it but I guess that the unlucky warthog could not live too long after such an attack.

The opportunism of the eagle still amazes us. It must have been watching the warthogs either from a nearby tree or flying above them when the incident happened.

It is well known that cheetah -due to the need to see where they step when they reach high speeds- are diurnal hunters. The Maasai Mara offered them perfect ground to reach their top speeds while chasing their favourite prey ther, Thomson’s gazelles. We did find cheetah sometimes and were lucky to witness a couple of chases, one of which ended successfully.

This particular cheetah was a female and, after strangling its prey and resting, it started to emit high pitch calls that were answered by the arrival of two very young cubs that she allowed to play with the dying gazelle and, after a while, the female killed it and started to feed. It ate quite a bit of the hindquarters and only then allowed its cubs to try it although I think they were still too small to eat too much meat.

After a while of watching the trio we noted the approach of a large spotted hyena, clearly attracted by the commotion and the smell of death as it usually happened there. Clearly the hyena was stronger than the cheetah and its cubs were also at risk.

We expected the cheetah to yield and move away as it had eaten a good part of the animal already. It did not happen! Following some signal from their mother, the cubs vanished, and the cheetah stayed to face the intruder. We feared for its life as the hyena was clearly stronger and appeared determined to fight. Amazingly, the cheetah almost doubled its size as it bristled. Then, the new “super cheetah” went for the hyena.

As the hyena did not retreat, a prolonged face-off over the half-eaten gazelle followed but the cheetah would not back down either. Finally the hyena decided that what was left of the prey was not worth it and scampered off. Once alone, the cheetah returned to its normal size again, called its cubs and resumed feeding on the gazelle until most of their hindquarters, its richest part, were gone.

At that time in the Maasai Mara there was good “bush solidarity” and people would exchange information on their sightings. I confess that at first we relied a lot on the tourist vehicles from the various lodges to find game without asking them and by following them at a prudent distance.

As we started to learn our ways we gradually stopped this practice but we kept finding very helpful people that gave us great information. The Manager of the Mara Buffalo Camp was a good example. Apart from letting us camp in the area and use the lodge “facilities”, he was also a good source of information.

Through him we learnt that a female leopard had come to inhabit in a rocky gorge nearby. The animal was, unusually, very relaxed and allowed vehicles to approach her. The Manager, very excited about the find, asked us to follow him to show us where it lived and we obliged. We found it rather easily and from then on “Leopard gorge” as we called it became a constant feature of our trips to Intona ranch as, invariably, we would do the detour that went through the gorge to see if we could spot the leopard.

After a while the leopard disappeared and we did not see it until, a fortuitous encounter with Jonathan Scott at Kichwa Tembo. Exchanging news, he told us that he was following a female leopard with cubs and explained where to find it. “In any case”, he said, “if you miss her, you will spot my car!”

A few days later, we found Jonathan’s green Land Cruiser before we could spot the leopard and then, nearby, we spotted the three leopards. The mother was putting up with her bothersome cubs and their rough play. The cubs were still very young and rather dark, and they enjoyed climbing rocks and trees in a never-ending active mood. I took all the pictures I could and soon run out of film!

After a while we needed to continue our journey to so we went to thank Jonathan for such a great tip. I made a passing comment of how great it was to watch the animals and that I had taken lots of pictures. His reply clearly marked the difference between a real pro and an amateur like me “I did not take any today because the light is not right”. I kept quiet and eventually bought his great book on the leopard [4] to enjoy the pictures I could never had taken but with the nice feeling that we knew both, author and subject!

While on the issue of the rare observation of leopards we did have another close and surprising encounter. With our friend Luis, we had been driving over the plains for a while when we decided to stop for a rest and a bite. So, we parked under a nice tree near a rock ledge and we were eating when an agitated driver of an open safari vehicle came to tell us that we had stopped under a sleeping leopard! We checked and, effectively, it was resting above us. Luckily it had ignored the three large monkeys sitting, eating, drinking and talking below.

So these was a collection of brief observations and experiences we went through during our many visits to the fringes of the Maasai Mara and the reserve itself. More lengthy adventures follow soon.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2017/01/25/camping-in-kenya-maasai-mara-game-reserve/ and related posts.

[2] Southern Africans say, with a tinge of jealousy, that animals seem to be tied to pegs on the ground, so visible they are compared with their game watching in the “jesse”.

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/05/31/traveling-to-intona/

[4] The well-known photographer and author that was based at Kichwa Tembo at the time, working on his books. “The Leopard’s Tale” is about this female leopard. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Scott_(zoologist)

Hyena bubblegum

There are four hyena species: the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) has the widest distribution and lives in North and East Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, the aardwolf (Proteles cristata) is an insectivorous mammal, native to East and Southern Africa and rarely seen.

The Brown hyena (Hyaena brunnea) is found in Namibia, Botswana, western and southern Zimbabwe[1], southern Mozambique and South Africa. It is currently the rarest species of hyena.

The spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) also known as the laughing hyena is found in Sub-Saharan Africa. They were extremely abundant in the Kenya bush, more so than the smaller striped variety. The latter we only encountered rarely but we got to “know” their spotted cousins quite well!

Hyenas in general have a bad reputation as the villains of the bush, considered as mean and dirty scavengers and even their sexuality has been doubted accusing them of being hermaphrodites! Hyenas are scavengers and as such the play an essential role consuming dead animals, particularly with their ability of cracking hard bones. They are also superb hunters and often lions feed from animals killed by spotted hyenas!

A hyena performing its carrion-eater role.

I have watched them hunting wildebeest and Thomson’s gazelles in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve and admire their ability to select the prey and run after it through the vast herds without losing it and taking turns to chase their selected prey until they tire it, immobilize it and kill it. No kill, except perhaps a cheetah kill, is carried out in a “clinical” way and, admittedly hyenas tend to tear their victims apart, a gruesome sight but part of nature.

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Hyena chase. One of the mos dramatic events in the bush.

They are highly intelligent, social animals that can be dangerous to humans as they can weigh up to 90 kg and are armed with large teeth capable of crushing bones. Their jaws have a bite force of 1100 psi, stronger than both lion (650 psi) and tiger (1050 psi) [2]. In all our years camping, we have always treated them with great respect and, although we hear them almost every night and have had them real close, we have never had a problem with them.

Camping anywhere in Kenya you were likely to hear the unmistakable whoop call of hyenas after dark. They walk through the bush and they pass near camps in search of food and they also “check” dustbins, not only at campsites but also in human dwellings. As an aside, the best known example of hyenas coming close to humans takes place at Harar in Ethiopia (See: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/2079781.stm) and more recently, spotted hyenas are getting closer to Addis Ababa suburbs (https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26294631) the same way that foxes inhabit London (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/shortcuts/2013/feb/11/urban-foxes-fact-fiction).

Although we have heard their laugh, the most heard is the whoop call repeated a few times while moving about in the dark at a prudent distance from your camp. They rarely enter the circle of light of a campsite while you are there but they can come close once you get inside your tent and switch the lights off.

Crocuta_crocuta_whoop_notation copy By Johnston, Harry Hamilton, Sir, 1858-1927 - The Uganda protectorate, Public Domain, https-::commons.wikimedia.org:w:index.php?curid=23401588

The spotted hyena call. Credit: Crocuta_crocuta_whoop_notation copy By Johnston, Harry Hamilton, Sir, 1858-1927 – The Uganda protectorate, Public Domain, https-//commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23401588

As I mentioned earlier I used to camp at Intona and it was there that I had hyenas every night and learnt to be careful with them. I immediately learnt not to leave anything edible (including my shoes) outside for the night as there were several animals keeping an eye on me!

The first time I camped there, sometime after I went to bed I could hear something sniffing all around the tent and realized that I was being checked for edible stuff! I calmed down when I realized that it was only a white tailed mongoose. However, the following morning both my butter and sufferier (saucepan in Ki-Swahili) were gone! Although I never found the former, careful search revealed a discarded alluminium bubblegum ball lying on the grass some distance away from the camp, a show of the hyenas’ jaw power! I learnt not to leave my utensils outside!

Care to keep edible stuff inside the car helped to keep a truce between us and our night visitors, including the hyenas. However, mistakes from our part had bad consequences. This is what happened while camping at the Sand River campsite in the Maasai Mara when, in the middle of the night we heard loud noises and noted that our cool box (left out by mistake) was being carried away!

With Mark, one of my herdsmen, we ran some distance searching with torches and found an untouched frozen chicken, still wrapped from the supermarket, lying on the sandy river bed! We followed the noise and the trail of bacon rashes, milk cartons and soda and beer bottles until we caught a glimpse of the offending hyena that was carrying the rather large cool box in its mouth!

Fortunately, when we shone our torches at it, the box was dropped and the intruder took off! The chewed cool box, minus one handle (used to carry it by the intruder), was still useful for that trip after a good wash but the deep teeth holes it had were too many and it was discarded after returning to Nairobi.

Sometimes hyenas call your attention when busy doing their own business, not necessarily associated with your presence. I recall a couple of incidents while camping at the Mara Buffalo Camp in the Maasai Mara.

One night, after dinner Mabel and I were getting ready to retire to our tent when we started hearing hyenas laughing and a loud squealing coming from the Mara river area, some distance from our camp. We assumed that a warthog was caught and it was responsible for such a loud noise so we jumped in the car and went to investigate.

When we approached the source of the crying we realized that whatever it was, was on the other side of the river so we decided that it was not worth pursuing our investigation. We were turning around to get back when we heard the loud trumpeting of an elephant approaching. Soon, a very agitated cow elephant made an appearance running up and down on our side of the riverbank without paying any attention to us.

We shone the torches to the area where the trouble was and through the bushes saw a small elephant being kept at bay by several hyenas. Clearly the situation of the youngster was getting more desperate by the minute and so was our anxiety growing! Eventually, the female elephant found a suitable place, jumped into the water and crossed the river. It surprised the hyenas that it chased all over the place and reunited with its calf. The hyenas stayed around for a while still laughing loudly but the elephants were soon gone and so did we after such a good ending for an exciting evening entertainment!

The next incident, I am afraid, does not have a good ending. We were arriving from Nairobi following a road near the Mara river towards our usual camp site next to the Mara Buffalo Camp when we noticed a sitting giraffe. Unusually it was still seated when we approached it and it did not get up. Clearly it was sick or wounded and not in good shape. Aware of the predator numbers that were in the area we decided that we would come back later in the afternoon to investigate.

We heard them before we saw them. A pack of about 30 hyenas were laughing while feasting on the freshly killed giraffe. It was a true pandemonium as the hyenas -probably from several clans- competed for a place at the large carcass that was literally swarming with hyenas. Mesmerized we watched until the day light allowed and then with the car lights until a good amount of the giraffe had gone and returned to camp feeling sorry for the unfortunate victim.

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The sick giraffe as we saw it in the morning.

The following morning, just before departing for Intona ranch, we returned to the place and only found a few scattered broken bones and a few vultures searching for some remains that the hyenas had left behind.

 

[1] A surprise to me was to learn that this species also occures in the Mana Pools National Park area, reported by Seymour-Smith, J.L. and Loveridge, A. J. (2015). Mana Pools National Park Predator Survey. Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.

[2] See: https://themysteriousworld.com/most-powerful-animal-bites/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A brave camping attempt

Although I had camped once before in Bogoria with Richard and Philip [1] our first attempt at spending a couple of nights under canvas took place at the Sand River campsite in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. This pioneer effort took place way before I knew I would be working at Intona ranch in the Transmara, something that would require lots of driving through the Reserve as well as camping for many years.

We were still staying at Muguga House then and we hatched the idea together with Kevin, a young forester that was had arrived to work a short time at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) a sister organization of the Kenya Veterinary Research Institute, both of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI).

Aware that his time in Kenya was limited, Kevin wished to visit the well-known Maasai Mara before returning to the UK so he was the main promoter of the idea. He managed to convince our friend Ranjini to come as well so we created a four-person team for this rather new undertaking.

Kevin did most of the footwork for the trip, Ranjini borrowed some stuff from other colleagues and I borrowed a large and strong tent from our laboratory in Muguga. We rented the 4WD car we could afford and ended up with a Subaru van. Unfortunately, we could not pack lots of things in it so our safari lacked a few essentials we have learnt to love over the years we have spent camping in comfort.

We did not have a table, chairs or mattresses. Luckily we were able to borrow four sleeping bags, basic cooking utensils, cutlery and crockery and, wisely, the ladies decided to stuff four pillows (borrowed from Muguga House!) at the last minute! The rest, we thought, would be overlooked by our enthusiasm and excitement at camping in the open surrounded by wild animals!

The trip started on a Friday morning traveling about 30 km in the wrong direction as we needed to catch a matatu (packed public minibus) to Nairobi to get the car only to go back to Muguga to load it and start our journey. Kevin drove all the way as I had not driven a right hand drive car yet.

Although he drove rather fast to get to our destination before closing time, the trip went well. We got a bit of a scare when, trying to save petrol, he switched the engine off during a long descent and both the power steering and the brakes stopped working! Luckily this only lasted a few seconds until the engine re-started and all functions returned to normality! After a rather long journey, we arrived to the Maasai Mara rather late but luckily we managed to get in before the closing time and reached the Sand River campsite rather late.

Although we all had assembled tents before, putting up the large tent for the first time in the dark was a bigger challenge than we had anticipated. There was a lot of trial and error and, after our best combined effort we were very pleased when we managed to get something with a V shape erected that served the purpose for us to rest our tired bones after a quick supper.

camping ranjini kevin

From left to right: Ranjini, Kevin and Mabel (kneeling down) and a good tent badly assembled!

That night we herd grunting noises very close to our tent. Although we were sleepy and tired the situation demanded some discussion as, at times, the situation became rather nerve-wrecking with the grunts coming from an animal or animals very close to the tent! After a while we unanimously decided that buffaloes were responsible for the noise, as we had seen them nearby earlier on. Today I believe that we all knew which animal was responsible but that we took the decision for our own peace of mind and refuse to accept that there were lions inspecting our camp!

Lion grunts

Despite the nervous start of the night we slept through and, luckily, we were in a good enough shape in the morning. When we saw the way our tent looked, we had a good laugh and decided that it was worth spending some time reassembling it to manage to close its zips fully! We finally managed to get it more or less in shape and to close it.

We decided that it was time to explore the area searching, as any first comers to the Maasai Mara, for lions. However, before departing we walked to the dry river bed to check for spoor. The overwhelming lion spoor we saw left us in no doubt of the kind of night visitors we had.

We drove many kilometres through the bush, got lost a few times and, finally to our delight, we found a couple of sleeping lions. Although the objects of our desire hardly moved, they made our day!

Maasai Mara lions

Our first lions.

Again, we returned to our camp very late after our drive to prepare supper. Unfortunately, while we were cooking we heard Ranjini saying that she had just lost her contact lenses in the grass, just outside the tent while trying to clean them. We postponed supper and all joined efforts in search of the tiny lenses in twilight. After a while, luckily, Mabel’s eyes came to the rescue and she, miraculously, found both of them stuck to some blade of grass!

That evening we also heard our first hyena call and we could also herd lions roaring in the distance. Our British friends knew both sounds from the BBC documentaries. We believed them.

Hyenas calling.

Lion roar

That night the grunting took place inside the tent and it was equally disturbing to everybody except me, the cause of the noise. My snoring was such that both Ranjini and Kevin were planning to wake me up (or worse!) when we had a partial tent collapse that solved the problem as we all woke up and my roaring, apparently, ceased!

Although this first camping was very basic and limited in what we saw, it wetted our appetite for the bush and showed that there was a lot to explore in Kenya and that you did not need to pay a fortune to do it. We promised ourselves that, as soon as our finances allowed it, we would get camping equipment and start going out to enjoy beautiful Kenya.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/02/22/pink-bogoria/

 

 

 

Grabbed at Chitake

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General views of the Chitake springs

We returned to the Chitake springs in the Zambezi valley exactly three years since our first visit [1]. This time we went alone, my wife and I and, luckily again, we managed to secure the very sought after Campsite 1 (we booked it one year ahead of time!).

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Aware of the “fun nights” that you spend in this amazing place, we prepared ourselves for any eventuality taking our “heavy duty” tent and planned to park our car near one of its entrances as our emergency exit, following the advice of our son, a bit worried about the “oldies” being alone in the wilderness!

The Chitake river with its springs is one of the wildest areas left in Southern Africa. There are only two campsites open to the public (although we learnt that a third campsite can be booked at Nyamepi in Mana Pools). There is also a campsite for tour operators near Chitake 1. This arrangement ensures that you are unlikely to see many people around! In addition, most of the exploring is done on foot so no much driving needed either.

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The fact that water seeps from the ground on a daily basis supports a population of game animals that dwell nearby. There are numerous buffalo, zebra, greater kudu and impala that in turn feed predators such as painted dogs, hyenas, leopards and lions. In addition there is a substantial elephant presence that files daily along the dry riverbed towards the water source.

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Buffalo at Chitake.

Campsite 1 is about two metres from the usually dry river bed and to be there waiting for “events” is an unforgettable experience that not all are prepared to take. We have camped all our lives and taken precautions in Kenya and other “open” camping places.

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The access to the river from Chitake 1.

We did not feel endangered and we knew that the only possible cause of problems would be the lions that were present in the area and we know that they respect tents. Our main concern was about the time you spend at camp in the dark as the camp is surrounded by thick bush. In particular nocturnal physiological needs were a worry as we needed to reach our long drop a few metres away!

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Our possible nocturnal target…

We arrived in the afternoon and spent some time to locate our camp in a spot as safe as we thought possible within the camping area.

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Considering the camping options.

As we had food already prepared, we were in for an early night. We set up our camera trap to “see” what was lurking in the dark around us and went to sleep. The night passed off rather calmly at camp although we heard the elephants walking nearby on the way to the water and the hyenas calling early during the night. We were probably tired and sleep came easily.

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The camp. The car was kept near the tent exit.

We were up early the following morning and all appeared well. We checked the camera trap and confirmed that there was life around our camp.

After that we decided to have breakfast prior to a short game drive as there are not many roads around the area. Then we noted that our 5-litre water container had disappeared! It was one of these supermarket transparent bottles that we had as a back-up in addition to the 40lts we had brought as Chitake does not offer any.

Although we searched the surrounding area, we failed to find the bottle! We could only speculate on the possible culprits. We discarded human interference, as thieves would steal more valuable stuff from the camp. We rejected the baboons as they do not move at night. That left us with the hyenas as the possible culprits. We heard them and saw their footprints at camp. In addition, we had had encounters with them earlier in Kenya and they can get very cheeky! We decided that the latter were likely to be the culprits but the enigma remains.

Our short morning drive took us to a bunch of vultures feeding on the remains of an impala that had clearly been killed earlier that morning. About twenty White-backed were scuffling for the few remaining meaty bits while a couple of Lappet-faced waited for their time to tackle sinews, tendons and the like.

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The rest of the day remained peaceful, contemplating the various animals coming down to drink at the springs from our camp chairs located at the riverbed that -luckily had good shade. While there we were assaulted by tabanids and tsetse flies so we needed to use large amounts of repellent and still we got hammered!

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My wife contemplating the springs from the shady riverbed.

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Tsetse and other biting flies collected from the floor of the car.

Hundreds of impala came to drink in the morning and they were joined by small groups of greater kudu and zebra. When we saw a large dust cloud rising behind the gorge where the springs are, we knew that the buffalo had arrived and they were soon at the springs satiating their thirst. Quite a sight!

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A herd of impala in the distance (the shadow at the back that looks like a predator is in fact a baboon)

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After the dust settle we could see the buffalo drinking.

As usual the day went fast and it was soon time to prepare for the evening. We were encouraged by the relative quietness of the earlier night and hoped to sleep well.

We were mistaken…

There were some early indications of trouble when, as soon as it was dark, several hyenas started to call from different places along the river. When we heard them laughing we knew that they had become excited for some reason, probably a kill although we were in no condition to discover the cause!

From the tent we started hearing elephant movement. We spotted several family groups walking rather nervously and trumpeting frequently showing that they were also nervous. As it was getting late we retired to our tent. I went to sleep soon afterwards as I have a reputation to live up to!

The next thing I remember was that something grabbed my ankle and it was shaking and pulling me! For the few hundredths of a second (or less, I do not know) that it takes to move from being sleep to some kind of alertness I thought I was a goner and that the dreaded time of being taken by a wild beast had finally come. My wife’s voice brought me back to reality: “There is a leopard there!” I muttered “Where?” thinking that it was inside the tent and taking me! I then realized that she was responsible for holding my foot on her third attempt at waking me up!

The picture soon became clear. With one hand she was keeping the torch light on the leopard through the tent window while, with her free hand, she had been shaking me for a while to alert me about the leopard sighting!

I must admit that it took me a while to recover from the severe fright and once I made sure that all my organs were functioning as expected -including my eyes- I looked where I supposed to and stared at the disappearing leopard’s eyes on the riverbed, a few metres away.

My rude awakening took place after 3 am and we were still awake listening to the sounds of the wild after an hour. I then learnt that my wife had not slept much as the leopard(s) had been calling every once in a while and she had been trying to locate them on the riverbed (from the tent of course!). In addition there were some noisy little mice digging under the tent that she tried to fend off by hitting them through the canvas as well as hearing the monotonous calls of the Fiery-necked Nightjar (Caprimulgus pectoralis) in the distance. This bird is capable of up to 110 repetitions of its call believed to say “Good Lord, deliver us” before stopping![2].

The following morning, as expected, we were not up early. After a leisurely branch we did spend time examining the abundant spoor at the riverbed but we did not detect any signs of a kill. We confirmed that the leopard(s), as my wife mentioned, had walked up and downstream. We also found plenty of hyena and painted dog spoor as well as lots of new signs of elephant over their “highway” to and from the springs.

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Checking for activity and spoor at the dry river bed after the long night!

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Elephant footprints next to the Bushsnob’s Croc.

 

The camera trap pictures showed hyenas as well as several elephants walking during the night.

Later on, while exploring the area by car, we found a group of five hyenas resting under a shade. The same as us they were suffering from sleep deprivation as they were clearly some of the culprits of the noisy night resting!

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We spent the rest of the day exploring the river bed on foot and luckily, it appeared that all animals -including us- were drained from the previous night as the last night we spent at Chitake was peaceful and my wife recovered her lost sleep while I did my usual trick of instantly dozing off.

 

[1] See https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/09/23/chitake/

[2] Roberts VII Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa. iPhone and iPad Edition. Version 2.4. Southern African Birding.

 

 

Hyenas and planet-gazing

The morning after the Maasai chicken dinner a good breakfast was in order! We prepared bacon and eggs to compensate for our austere meal of the night before. In an attempt at avoiding another fasting episode I offered to take over the next dinner and to roast the beef we had brought from Nairobi.

Camping at Intona ranch.

Camping at Intona ranch.

After breakfast, another day of routine field trials followed, as we needed to do many replicates of our tests in order to confirm the results. We worked without stopping until late afternoon when we decided that we had done enough and it was time for a shower and to prepare dinner. As a South American I am ashamed to confess that I am fearful of horses and prefer to keep a good distance from them. That is not all, I am a real disaster at barbequing! Therefore, on the occasion I struggled through and I made sure that the food was abundant and we ate our fill.

The night was truly spectacular. The relative short distance of Intona ranch from Lake Victoria meant that it rained very often. It poured in late afternoon and then the sky cleared at dusk. The consequence was that the rains cleaned the air and the night sky was always very sharp.

Ernest and I stayed awake until late talking and contemplating the pristine sky. We talked about many issues, occasionally stopping to listen to the night sounds, in particular the spotted hyena calls getting closer to our camp. Getting gradually bolder they moved close to the periphery of the light of our camp fire. I reassured Ernest that this was a normal event when camping at Intona and that “normally” hyenas would not be aggressive.

Despite the good time we were having, we have had a long day and we felt very tired so soon we went to bed. As soon as we were inside the tent we heard something sniffing all around our tent. A white-tailed mongoose was seen scurrying away when we shined our torches. That small mystery solved, it was back to bed, hoping that sleep would come soon.

Not so. This time it was a loud crush outside the tent that also merited investigation. This time a hyena was the culprit! The beast had grabbed a dirty pan and had taken off at speed. We run after the beast but it was a futile effort and came back to bed thinking on resuming the search for the pot in the morning.

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A Brown hyena with wildebeest carcass in the Maasai Mara. Its cousins visited us nightly at Intona.

While thinking and hoping that normality would return, I finally fell sleep. Again, it did not last long. It may have been 03:00 hs when I heard Ernest opening the tent door zip. My first thought was that his gut had finally lost the fight against the filtered water drunk on the way in! In addition, aware of the hyenas I remained awake although without moving, hoping to go back to sleep immediately. No chance! Ernest came back and started to shake me up shouting “Wake up, the sky is perfect to look for planets!” I felt like slaying him but, remembering his partial deafness and on account of his contagious enthusiasm, I made the mistake of getting up!

By the time I managed to go out of the tent, Ernest was already looking through the binoculars, identifying the various noteworthy celestial bodies, accompanying his successive discoveries with shouts of joy! Although I had enjoyed contemplating the night sky both in Uruguay and in Kenya, I have never been that interested in astronomy. However, he convinced me to look at Jupiter (a small orange sphere) and even managed to see Saturn and what I though were its rings! Finally Ernest’s excitement subsided and we managed to hit the camp beds again, this time until the sun was up!

The large ball of crunched aluminium that we found about one hundred metres from our tent was not the remains of a recent asteroid that had narrowly missed us but all that remained from our cooking pan after the hyenas had squished it to get its juice.

Although our cooking options suffered another severe setback we still managed to produce some pan-less and chicken-less dinners during the following days!

On silent feet

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To write these lines I needed to sit down and in so doing, I sat on a snake! Luckily any concerns you may have about my derrière are unnecessary as said snake was made of rubber. Yes, I know, I should not be playing with toys at my age but some of us are take longer to mature!

Baboons and vervet monkeys are a menace while camping in Africa, and Mana Pool’s lodges are no exception to the rule. We learnt that rubber snakes are a good deterrent so we alwayscatter a few around our area while on safari. They work well and we have had fun watching monkeys perform panicky gravity-defying summersaults while screaming in terror after spotting them! I will come back to the topic of monkeys and camping in the future, so for now I turn back to Mana Pools.

In my earlier post I mentioned that in Mana Pools you are able to go about freely on foot. Funnily enough, you often come into much closer contact with wild animals while in your lodge or campsite than when walking in the bush. The former (named by the Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority) is a small house with one or two bedrooms, a kitchen and a toilet.

Mbuvvee? , our lodge.

Mubvee, our lodge.

Solar lamps provide lighting and there is a freezer, a gas cooker and a BBQ place. The ubiquitous Tanganyika boiler -firewood operated- provides ample hot water while the vervet monkeys and baboons come free of charge!

The lodges are well positioned, only a few metres from the river bank providing great views of the Zambezi. The sunsets over the river were spectacular as usual.

The Zambezi river from the lodge.

The Zambezi river seen from the lodge grounds.

At the time of our visit the sundowns were made even more dramatic by the bush fires raging on the mountains opposite us, across the river in Zambia. Most nights the hills were decorated with crisscrossed fire garlands that devoured the dry brush voraciously and added drama to the view.

The sunset and bushfires.

The sunset and bushfires.

 

A bad picture of the burning hills.

A view of the burning hills (apologies for the bad picture).

Usually we are at the lodge in the morning (before leaving for a walk or game drive), lunchtime (when you are not in the bush) and in the evening (always). It is during these times that you have the closest encounters with wild animals.

In the early mornings we were woken up by loud birdcalls that made going back to sleep rather difficult. The din came from the goings on of a colony of white fronted bee-eaters (Merops bullockoides) that had their burrows in the banks in front of our lodge. With them were also a large number of the much bigger southern carmine bee eaters (Merops nubicoides), adding more colour to the scene while basking under the morning sun in the treetops above our lodge (a magnificent sight).

Southern carmine bee-eaters basking in the sun.

Southern carmine bee-eaters basking in the sun (please note the smaller white-fronted bee-eaters on the right of the picture).

The white-fronted bee-eaters were very active and most likely involved in courting and nesting. A bit of reading when we returned to Harare revealed that mixed colonies of these two species are common. I also learnt later that these birds are colonial but also cooperative. The latter means that many individuals of both sexes play a role as helpers* and that they may switch from breeder to helper and back to breeder many times over a lifespan.

White fronted bee-eaters at the bank.

White fronted bee-eaters at the river bank. Their borrowed nests are below.

Every morning the carmine bee-eaters, after being sufficiently warmed by the sun, flew off for the day on unknown errands, and returned in the afternoon. Unfortunately I could not tell if these birds were also nesting in the banks but I suspect so.

The proximity of our lodge to the water’s edge provided us with a continuous parade of animals without having to move too much. These included some really huge crocodiles as well as buffaloes, hippos and elephants: they were on both sides of the channel that ran in front of the lodge. It was wonderful to see elephants wading to reach the opposite shore only to return once they ate their fill of their favorite vegetation.

Elephants crossing the channel.

Elephants crossing the channel (note the two termite nests in the background).

It was during the first lunch hour -a bit too hot to go looking for animals- that, after a light salad lunch, I prepared myself for my usual short siesta. I placed myself under the shade of an acacia tree that provided ample shade (and pods!) and prepared myself for sleep while reading my book. It was warm but there was a soft breeze, which resulted in the perfect cool spot. These were ideal conditions and I was even prepared for a monkey-attack, just in case…

The bushsnob prepared for a "monkey-proof" siesta!

The bushsnob prepared for a “monkey-proof” siesta!

It all started with my wife becoming very agitated at the exact moment that I had duly dropped my book (on my face) and entered the “drifting off” stage of my nap! Her alert call brought me back to life. Before I could proffer my -I am sure expected- complaint, I heard a soft “Don’t move and look” I knew then that I should do as I was told! My eyes were filled with an elephant!

Thankfully its attention was solely on the Acacia pods.

Thankfully, its attention was solely on the Apple ring Acacia pods.

I froze -purely out of fear rather than bushsnob wisdom- as the elephant was three metres away from me and still approaching! I immediately noticed that, although very close, it was after the pods on the floor and oblivious to its surroundings including me! With a super human effort, given my panic-driven semi paralytic state, I lifted my feet off the ground as it could have otherwise, unintentionally stepped on my bare feet (ouch…). The sight mesmerized me! Finally, it came to about a couple of metres and looked at me “Now I am history” I thought. However, it simply raised its head as if saluting me and continued with its feeding, slowly ambling past with the only heralds of its presence the crunching of pods, the rattle of those discarded and the occasional soft huffs of its trunk as it searched for more.

It was coming in my direction...

It was coming in my direction on silent feet…

The amazing thing about elephants is that despite their size, you will not hear them unless they want you to. While walking on tarmac elephant footpads make a whisper-like ‘chuff’, similar to the sound produced when one brushes a hand over the fabric of a pillow; on dusty earth they are virtually silent. At night, they silently walk through your campsite while browsing without disturbing anything. Finally, although I often trip over the tent ropes, I have never had an elephant doing so day or night!

As my knees had suddenly turned into jelly, I did not move, even after it passed and not even when my wife’s “order” was issued: “That was close! Get up quick and take a picture of it before it goes away” When I managed to collect all my wits and do a mental inventory of the condition of my various body parts, it was too late and I could only see its backside moving off. Although we have had these kind of encounters before this was a very close one and it is quite an experience to be literally “face to trunk” with a fully-grown male elephant! The siesta was abandoned, this time for a good reason!

This was not the only occasion that this happened during our stay at Mana Pools but I describe it to you so that you have an idea of our interactions with wildlife at the park. More than one tusker visited us everyday and a few family groups walked around the lodge during the day and night. They were even rude enough to try to spoil our BBQs!

The bushsnob just discovered the bomb dropped by the "terrorist" elephant and he is horrified thinking on cleaning the mess.

The bushsnob just discovered the bomb dropped by a “terrorist” elephant and he is horrified thinking on cleaning the mess (the faeces were almost pure Apple ring Acacia seeds!).

In addition to the pachyderms, a lone hippo kept us company everyday as it fed on the pods. It would arrive after sunset and we would hear it chomping while it walked about. Although it occasionally entered the circle of light provided by our lamps, it preferred to stay in the dark. This meant that every now and then, we would have to locate it as it was an additional hazard while walking around our lodge (particularly when going to the BBQ area or the water boiler) to avoid the danger of bumping into it!

My wife keeping an eye on our hippo visitor during a day visit.

My wife keeping an eye on our hippo visitor during a rarer day visit.

A least one spotted hyena also did its food-run every evening. We did not think that hyenas were around as we did not hear them but they were afoot operating silently in the darkness! The lions were, quite to the contrary, rather close and very loud. They were heard, as my wife put it, “all night long” and a lioness and two cubs passed by while the occupant of our next-door lodge was having his morning coffee!

* Birds (normally juveniles and sexually mature young birds of both sexes) that remain in association 
with their parents and help them raise subsequent broods.