Intona Ranch

Upset Maasai

Intona 2 and Tommi copy

Tommi checking the cattle at Intona ranch.

As I mentioned in earlier posts about my work in Kenya, Tommi was one of the herdsmen working with me. Regrettably he passed away in a car accident a couple of years after I left Kenya, the sad consequence of a very common event in that country where unsafe public transport claims an excessive number of innocent lives.

Tommi frequently accompanied me to Intona ranch with great pleasure as for him it meant “going home”. He was not exactly from the Transmara area as he came from Narok but he was close enough to the Maasai around Intona to feel well among them.

This was a great contrast to herdsmen belonging to other ethnic groups, such as Benson above, that did not relish spending time in Maasailand. This was particularly obvious among the Kikuyu workers that could not wait for me to relieve them from their duties and take them back to their homeland. I still remember their voices getting louder as soon as the Kikuyu escarpment came into view after Narok! We, outsiders, do not often realize how foreign parts of a country can be to other nationals, product of some arbitrary divisions decided by their colonizers.

In the case of the Maasai people, their territory got split between Kenya and Tanzania when the straight line from lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean coast was drawn as the border between these two countries. Eventually the line did not end as a straight one. This was not the consequence of Queen Victoria giving Kilimanjaro to her grandson Wilhelm to meet his complaints of not having a high mountain in Tanzania as it is often believed, but part of the treaty of Heligoland through which Germany abandoned some places in the Kenya coast, receiving in compensation the Island of Heligoland in the North Sea.

Night watchmen Benson adn Tommi Intona copy

The herdsmen and cattle guards. Benson in blue and Tommi in white.

The herdsmen lived at a tented camp at Intona and their presence attracted both vervet monkeys and baboons. Over the years that the camp was there the monkeys gradually became more cheeky as they got used to taking food from the camp. This was an annoyance to the herdsmen and Tommi in particular took exception to the primates’ shenanigans.

Tsavo W baboon best copy

Mwizi’s relatives.

There was one particular individual that Tommi identified and called Mwizi that in Swahili means thief. He was able to recognize that particular animal and he maintained a long feud with it. The baboon seemed to know this and kept a wide berth from the man! For a few months a truce seemed to have been worked out but one day Mwizi overstepped the mark. (!!The baboon took advantage of a distraction and broke open Tommi’s bag of maize meal spilling its contents all over the tent.!!) This was the proverbial straw and the last act of misbehaviour that would be would tolerated.

Tommi decided to take exemplary action against the intruder. Before I tell you what happened, let me tell you that the Maasai social structure is based on a system of age-sets. This applies primarily to men, as women become members of the age-set of their husbands. Successive age sets, at about five year intervals, are initiated into adult life during the same period forming a cohesive and permanent grouping that lasts throughout the life of its members.

The age sets go through successive milestones that are celebrated as ceremonies. Among these are, to name a few, Emuratta (circumcision), Enkiama (marriage) and Eunoto (warrior-shaving ceremony)[1].

Tommi, like all Maasai boys had undergone their circumcision and became Sipolio (recluse). This is an important step into manhood (and warrior-hood) and, after this somehow dreaded event, the newly circumcised boys roam around the countryside dressed with dark garments and armed with bows and arrows. They shoot blunt arrows at girls as part of their social interaction. They also use the same arrows to kill small birds that they skin and place around their heads, together with ostrich feathers. During this time they acquire excellent skills with the various weapons.

In view of the above it is not difficult to imagine that Mwizi’s fate did not look good. I was not aware of the development of this feud at the time so its finale took me by surprise. After a day’s work, I was getting ready for a wash and tidying up my own camp when I heard the commotion, or rather Mwizi’s screams. It is not normal to hear a baboon screaming unless there is some kind of danger, so, expecting some leopard-mobbing, I rushed to the place where the screams where coming from.

There was no leopard but another kind of drama was unfolding. Tommi, looking upset, was circling a tree near the cattle kraal. Once closer, I realized that he had managed to tree the baboon and he was about to execute his revenge. He carried a few stones and he was trying to get the best angle from where to throw them at Mwizi! I felt sorry for the beast but the events moved too fast and the adrenalin was flowing on both sides so I could only watch from a distance, keeping my own head down!

I imagine that some stones had flown before I arrived and this explained the baboon’s alarm calls. The first stone I saw Tommis’s throw at the terrified beast missed it by a few inches and, Mwizi moved to the top of the tree. At that time Tommi said “I got it now” and threw another stone that must have passed a couple of cm from the baboon that now offered a clear view. This was too much for the monkey that was now in a serious panic with the consequence that it emptied its bladder first and soon afterwards the rest followed.

I have mentioned earlier that I do not like baboons while camping but I could not help feeling sorry for the poor creature so I did the unthinkable: I negotiated with Tommi on behalf of the victim! I managed to calm Tommi down and he agreed to leave the terrified animal alone. Seeing that the siege had relaxed, Mwizi climbed down in a flash and disappeared into the bush.

Vervet monkeys and baboons continued to visit our tents and behave in their usual opportunistic ways taking food items from us so we really needed to take care at all times. As I could not recognize individual baboons, I took Tommi’s word that Mwizi was not among them and that it had migrated to another troop in the Transmara, away from its deadly enemy.

 

 

[1] Among the many books describing the Maasai culture I would like to recommend “Maasai”, written by Tepilit Ole Saitoti and illustrated by Carol Beckwith.

Javelin throwing (almost Olympic games)

The view of the Mara triangle on the Maasai Mara from the Oloololo escarpment on the way to Intona ranch.

The view of the Mara triangle in the Maasai Mara from the Oloololo escarpment on the way to Intona ranch.

Despite our busy work schedule we did not work on Sundays. We took the morning to explore Intona and its surrounds as there were always interesting sightings, particularly in the area towards the Migori river forest.

A flooded Migori river at the back of Intona ranch.

A flooded Migori river at the back of Intona ranch.

A notable tree in the Migori river forest.

A notable tree in the Migori river forest.

After lunch and seeing that there was not much to do I hatched the idea of a spear-throwing contest and mentioned it to Ernest. “What about an international spear throwing competition this afternoon?” “We can have participants from Africa, América and Europe, almost like the Olympic games”, I added. Ernest happily agreed and I got on with the organizing.

Apart from Ernest and myself there were also a Ugandan veterinarian and Kikuyu and Maasai assistants, admittedly both Kenyans but from different ethnic groups. “After all, we are in Maasailand” I thought and we should find a suitable javelin” “Let’s find a good spear and get the throwing field organized,” I said as I was already walking towards the herdsmen camp to arrange the details. “Tommi, I need to find a good spear” I said before I said good morning, and added, “I have an idea”.

He and the other herdsmen knew me by now and they smiled in anticipation. Tommi assured me that he could easily find the right tool as there were Maasai nearby that he knew. Good news!

A similar spear to the one used in our competition.

A similar spear to the one used in our competition.

While Tommi strolled through the bush in search for the spear we walked about to find a suitable field where the competition could take place. We found a good site and placed some distance marks while we waited for Tommi’s return. I also went around the farm inviting participants to the event. I managed to engage Joseph (Kikuyu, Kenyan) and Kiza (Ugandan) in addition to Tommi (Maasai, Kenyan), Ernest (Swiss) and myself (Uruguay). We had an international field!

By the time Tommi returned after lunch we were all ready and waiting. He brought a sturdy looking spear that we judged suitable for the task although it was rather long and heavy. It had a long metal blade, a wooden middle part and along steel rod at the end. It was time to start to get done before the daily 17:00 hours shower!

Ernest and helpers examining an animal for ticks.

Ernest and helpers examining an animal for ticks. The herdsmen tent can be seen in the background.

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A heavy Bont tick infestation on a heifer at Intona ranch.

All participants agreed at the onset that measurements would be done in paces. It was thought that equal throws were unlikely and the need for laser-aided technology[1] was thought not to be required. No bets were allowed, as just by looking at the competitors, an inexperienced observer should have been able to guess who the favourites were! This did not come to our minds while we warmed-up.

As the start of the competition approached, the tension increased and, by the time we drew our throwing terms, it was almost unbearable… For some reason Uruguay went first, followed by Joseph the Kikuyu representative, Switzerland was third, Kiza, the Ugandan fourth and, a fitting finale, the last to throw was Tommi, Maasai. It may as well as he was the “host country”.

Aware that I would not win I argued in favour of some try throws to get the right balance of both body and javelin but, regrettably for me, the other competitors (unkindly in my opinion) refused arguing that this was not in the rules (?). So, resigned to my fate I grabbed the spear and got ready to do my best. It felt heavy and rigid. I threw it and, the second it left me I knew that there were problems with both direction and distance. It was a rather poor show that landed a long way from the cattle boma and far from my possible personal best. “I have never had any strength in my arms” I said, trying to feel better. “about 20 paces is not too bad for my age”.

Joseph was quite fit although he was from a relatively well off Kikuyu family and this was beginning to show around his midriff. His throw was better than mine but stopped at 26 paces. Ernest, the Swiss researcher turned athlete improved my mark by a couple of paces and Kiza, the man from Uganda, despite his relatively small size, did much better than all at about 30 paces. A big smile lit his face, as usual and a lesson to us all that size is not that important but good technique is!

It was the turn of the Maasailand representative, the final competitor. He was perhaps the most relaxed participant and the one that was enjoying the tournament the most! From the moment he picked the spear we all new that the competition was over! We exchanged resigned glances and head shakes and got ready for an Olympic humiliation! We tried our best to disrupt his throw by talking to him but, he just smiled and replied to our remarks without losing his composure.

He held the spear naturally, balancing its weight by instinct. Almost without running and with a fast and wide arm movement he threw it, almost unexpectedly and even casually. The spear flew high vibrating with a “swiiiiiiisshhhh”. It went beyond our throwing field and over the cattle boma. We lost sight of it but run in the general direction where we last saw it to see how far it had gone. Behind the cattle boma it was the herdsmen camp so, when we fail to find it inside the boma we got more worried and started looking around the camp. There was no trace of the spear anywhere and the camp looked normal. For this we were reassured as at least there were no casualties!

We looked around the tent, near the fireplace, chairs, table, up the trees and all over: no spear! Nothing stuck on the ground, nothing visible up the trees or stuck anywhere. “Another mystery of the African bush”, I thought, or some Maasai magic I was not aware of?

As there was no point in arguing in favour of declaring the throw void on account of it having gone beyond the throwing field or even worse, on account of the disappearance of the instrument, we declared our Maasai warrior the undisputed winner. The absence of the spear meant that there was no possible revenge. This came as a relief as a change of the result would have been unlikely!

I apologized to Tommi for having had the idea that has led to the losing of his borrowed spear and offered financial compensation for his loss. He said that he had thrown it and lost it so I did not need to worry. He will eventually find it he said. I expressed serious doubts but gave him the benefit of the doubt and, as the rain was starting, I moved to our tent.

That night, while we were having our dinner we herd loud talking and laughing at the workers camp next door and went to have a look. The spear had been found! In its wild trajectory it had gone through both the flysheet and the tent and it was embedded in one of the herdsmen’s camp beds, luckily empty at the time of the event! I felt great relief that nothing had happened and a lesser one that the spear could now be returned to its owner!

I cannot remember how I explained the tent holes to my senior managers. Maybe I did not and it just remained as normal “wear and tear”!

Transmara, Kenya circa 1986.

[1] I do not think it was available at the time, anyway!

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.

mmara hyena 2

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!

Life and work in Kenya: Intona

The work at Intona Ranch involved the organization of a six-month field trial, a first for me. Luckily Alan had a system in place for his own trials and I just “piggybacked” on what he had created. As he was the Head of the project he kindly supported my work very generously and enthusiastically. He lent me his work Land Rover, herdsmen and the routine disease monitoring system. I needed to add the tick burden evaluation part by bringing in my own people to carry it out. Visits were required for monitoring purposes and to replace personnel every two weeks. As mentioned earlier, I had employed two people: Kimondo and Tommi. The latter was a Maasai who was no stranger to the Transmara and although he was not as hardworking as Kimondo his local knowledge would prove of immense usefulness. We were a good team!

Routine monitoring of experimental cattle is key.

The team. At the time doing routine monitoring of experimental cattle. From left to right: Chege, Kimondo, Tommi and Benson.

The work would consist in the creation of two groups of cattle immunized against Theileriosis by Alan and his group. This would enable me to stop applying tick-killing chemicals (acaricides) to one group while the other would be maintained with strict tick control. The comparison on their live weight gain and the tick species and burdens observed would enable me to estimate the expected losses that the ticks themselves would cause to the cattle. Clearly it was only a start but something that had not been possible to assess before.

Cattle being dipped.

Cattle being dipped.

Liveweight gains were an important parameter in the trials.

Live weight gains were an important parameter in the trials.

Now I needed to find the right cattle for the trial and get them to Intona. This required some planning and involved travelling to Laikipia in Northern Kenya. I was searching for Boran, a Bos indicus breed as these would remain at Intona ranch once the trial ended and we knew that Joe would be very keen on them.

The cattle of Intona Ranch.

The cattle of Intona Ranch.

We did not take any chances...

We did not take any chances…

Gilfrid[1] had his ranch beyond the slopes of Mt. Kenya in Laikipia and he had the cattle we needed. I organized a “cattle-buying” trip. Luckily in Alan’s Land Rover, I departed for Laikipia with Kimondo and Tommi to assist me on the journey. A large lorry followed us to carry the animals. We drove past Murang’a with its amazing vegetable offer, Nyeri and Nanyuki on the slopes of Mt. Kenya. The views beyond Mt. Kenya into the very dry Northern Frontier District were worth stopping to take in. At Nanyuki we went West towards Rumuruti, gradually descending from the mountain into nomadic grazing land to finally arrive at the ranch. Gilfrid was waiting with the cattle on display for us to choose what we needed. The selection done, over a cup of tea we agreed on the final price and payment and then loaded the animals on the lorry. As the latter was slower than us, we agreed on the route to follow and told them to depart before us, as we were hoping to arrive at Nakuru to spend the night there.

We lingered a bit longer talking to Gilfrid while he showed me his ranch. He was clearly an interesting “character” and drove a “Hang over”, due to a modification he made to the back badge of the Range Rover! Returning to the house I saw three or four skulls on the roof of the verandah. I realized that they were lions’. Gilfrid explained that they had been “cattle-eaters” that needed to be shot, as they killed far more animals than they needed to eat. “I tolerate losing a few cattle but not that one lion needlessly kills ten cattle in one night!” he asserted. However, he reassured me that lions were still plentiful in the area and that he loved to hear them roaring in the evening, provided that they kept away from his cattle! I could not help asking for one and he promised to remember me the next time a lion overstepped the mark[2]. He agreed and after a while we said our farewells, as I needed to catch up with the lorry. I liked Gilfrid and would return to him for more cattle in the future.

After about an hour, the cloud of volcanic dust in front of us indicated that we were approaching our truck. As I positioned the car to overtake it and its dust plume, I saw a grid on the road that I just managed to avoid by braking and swerving to one side. Recovered from the sudden jolt we came close to the lorry again. “What on earth is going on!” I muttered while I tried to make sense of what I saw. The back door of the lorry was missing and a line of cattle were looking at me! The sudden appearance of the grid on the road suddenly became clear, it was in fact its back gate! I started hooting and flashing my lights hoping that the driver would stop. He ignored us or did no hear us so I took the risky decision of overtaking it to stop it from the front. The maneuver was not easy as it was a narrow dirt road but somehow I managed, probably helped by my stress!

We agreed that as soon as the lorry stopped we would jump out to stop the animals from jumping off and scampering into the endless savannah, as there are no fences in that part of Kenya! Luckily we managed to stop the lorry before any of the animals jumped and, while the herdsmen held the animals in check, I rushed back to collect the back gate that, luckily, somehow fit inside the Land Rover! I mentally thanked the cattle for being wise and verbally the herdsmen for keeping them at bay. The gate fixed, we resumed our journey with our car in the lead.

We managed to get as far as Kericho where we watered the animals and made sure that all was tightly secured before we retired for a fully deserved rest. As the lorry was much slower than us, we also agreed that it would depart at dawn towards Kisii and onwards until Kilgoris and eventually to Intona Ranch. I was really exhausted both physically and mentally and managed to count about three cattle jumping before I crashed into sound sleep!

When we were ready to go the next day, the lorry had already left as arranged. We headed for Kisii following the tarmac, expecting to find our lorry on the way. We got there and didn’t find it so I assumed that they must have continued towards Sotik, the next town so I proceeded to that destination. Still no lorry! I could not believe that they had already passed Sotik so I retraced my steps looking for it, as it was likely that they had stopped on the way and I had missed them. This proved to be a mistake as we still found nothing on the way back and by this stage I had lost too much time to catch up to it on the road!

My first and rather distressing thought was that my cattle had been stolen! There were lots of stories of cattle rustling taking place in that region of Kenya at the time and I had been warned about them prior to our departure. Not sure about which Police station to report the theft to, I decided to leave that as a last resort and instead pushed on to get to Kilgoris as this was our final meeting point before we took the rougher road to Intona Ranch.

We drove silently all the way and arrived at Kilgoris in the late afternoon, rather crestfallen and upset with myself for having been so careless. As Kilgoris is a small place, if the truck was there we would be able to see it, so we entered the town with a glimmer of hope. “There it is” exclaimed Kimondo and there it was, our lorry was almost the first vehicle we saw, parked at the prearranged meeting point in the town square. As expected, the lorry was totally surrounded by Maasai that were keenly watching our cattle. Through Tommi I learnt that they were really excited and very complimentary about our rather lovely and fat Boran yearlings! My worries increased again with the knowledge that Maasai believe that all cattle belong to them!

We finally found the driver at a nearby shop and told him of our adventure. Happy to see us again, he laughed at our obvious travel miscalculation. He had left Kericho earlier than we thought, as he was not sure of the condition of the road and got to Kisii and then Sotik with ease. Seeing this, he decided to push on to Kilgoris to save time and to arrive there before nightfall as I had recommended to him. He got to Kilgoris early, parked the lorry and waited! He shared my wariness about the curiosity shown by the Maasai crowd and we agreed that his “tout” would sleep on the lorry to avoid any nocturnal mishaps!

I was relieved to see that things were back to normal and I treated everyone to some “Nyama choma[3] and “ugali[4] and then went to the hotel to sleep. The place was rather basic, prepared for a Maasai clientele but I did not mind and slept soundly as we were reunited with our “lost” cattle!

The following morning we drove in front and, luckily, the road was dry. We reached Intona ranch without further disasters. The field trial could now start!

[1] See: http://suyiantrust.wildlifedirect.org/author/gilfrid-powys/

[2] See “Lion Skull” later in this blog.

[3] Barbequed beef.

[4] Maize meal.

Back to Nairobi[1]

The return trip from Intona ranch took us through the attractive Transmara parkland where its green natural grasslands were splattered with islands of forest, usually associated with large termite mounds. These forest patches coalesced at times to form larger wooded areas, particularly when linked with a river. Talking about rivers, we crossed the Migori where Alan said a group of Giant Forest Hogs (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) -a Transmara “special”- could be seen grazing in a forest clearing next to the road[2]. Other common game was plentiful, crisscrossing the road almost continuously. Alan informed me that the wildebeest had crossed the Mara River and were grazing in the area of the Mara triangle and some would climb the escarpment towards the Transmara. I was happy to know that we were heading in that direction!

Migori river in flood.

Migori river in flood.

A large tree near the Migori river.

A large tree near the Migori river.

The dirt road took us through Lolgorian where two GTZ German animal health specialists were supporting the Government of Kenya by giving veterinary assistance to the Maasai. We stopped to greet them as Alan had some ground-breaking collaboration going on with them, as mentioned in the earlier post. It was the first time I saw a small field laboratory that could deal with most relevant diseases while keeping work simple and straightforward. It was known as “ILRAD II”[3], an irony that Alan found very funny although it took me longer to understand the humour behind it!

Maasai working with their animals at Kilae, near Lolgorien.

Maasai working with their animals at Kilae, near Lolgorien.

A Maasai heifer. Note the heavy branding.

A Maasai heifer. Note the heavy branding.

ILRAD II (outside).

ILRAD II (outside).

ILRAD II (inside).

ILRAD II (inside).

After that enlightening visit we continued and passed a religious mission where Father Frans Mol lived and worked. Although we did not stop, I met him on other occasions and learnt of his erudition when it came to the Maasai people.[4]

Moving on and still in the Transmara we came to the “red hill” an infamous stretch of road. “When it rains, it is like driving on a bar of soap” said Alan and added, “I hope it is dry today”. He went on: “Because of the proximity with Lake Victoria, it rains almost everyday here so it is tricky at the best of times!” “That is why you should leave in the morning as to avoid the afternoon rain”. Alan continued: “You should engage 4WD and advance slowly in second gear. If the car starts sliding off the road all you can do is to stop and hope that the car stops and that you can straighten it again”. And then laughing: “I know people that have spent the night here!”

A common occurrence at the Transmara!

A common occurrence at the Transmara!

Luckily we managed it without problems and then we came to a stretch of black cotton soil that looked menacing to me as it was fairly water-logged. However, we slowly moved forward and even gathered some speed, as the wheel ruts were deep enough to prevent us from going off the road and our only option was to go straight. The road became better and then we found large wheat and barley plantations where the Maasai had leased their land to commercial farmers.

Soon we got to the edge of the Oloololo Escarpment. I can claim to be many things but a poet is not one of them, so I am not able to describe the view that unfolded below us. It was a green sea that extended as far as you could see. In it you could just make out vast numbers of animals; those forming long lines were wildebeest and zebra while the small specks were Thomson’s gazelles. A few elephants could also be seen together with an almost black and compact herd of buffalo. This sight will be with me until I die![5] I asked Alan to stop for a while so that I could take in the view a bit longer while stretching our legs. While watching the green marvel, Alan explained that we were looking at the “Mara Triangle”. He pointed out the Mara River to me as well as where Tanzania and the mythic Serengeti were.

We started our descent and eventually crossed the Mara River at the bottom of the Escarpment. We passed Kichwa Tembo Camp and then deviated into the Maasai Mara Game Reserve to have a look at the animals before continuing on the way to Aitong, Narok and Nairobi. The place was magnificent and we saw vast numbers of wildebeest and zebra grazing as well as other animals roaming around. A special mention to the Thomson’s Gazelles that are ubiquitous in the Maasai Mara; they are an integral part of the ecosystem. The best description I have heard about these gazelles came from Paul, my Mentor in FAO, who visiting the place for the first time, told me that they look like shoals of tropical fish!

Zebra with the Oloololo Escarpment in the background (I will remove the dirt from the ski when I learn to do it!)

Zebra with the Oloololo Escarpment in the background (I will remove the dirt from the sky when I learn to do it!)

Maasai cattle at the Mara river bridge.

Maasai cattle at the Mara river bridge.

Cattle drinking at Narok dam. Note cars used at the time: VW Kombi, Land Rover Series III and Land Cruiser 50 series!

Cattle drinking at Narok dam. Note cars used at the time: VW Kombi, Land Rover Series III and Land Cruiser 50 Series!

As detailed at the Intona ranch post the return journey only served to strengthen my conviction that I should work at Intona ranch, something that with the help of Alan, Matt could be persuaded to accept, thus allowing me the privilege of driving through the Maasai Mara Game Reserve on the way!

 

[1] Follows “Joe”.

[2] I did see them very often in this spot where they were quite tolerant of my presence and could watch them during long spells.

[3] The International Laboratory for Research in Animal Diseases was a state of the art large facility located at Kabete, near Nairobi. Today is known as the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

[4] Fr. Frans Mol MHM, affectionately known as the ‘Apostle to the Maasai’ worked at the Ngong Diocese covering most of Maasailand. He authored several books such as: Lessons in Maa: a grammar of Maasai language (1995) and Maasai Dictionary: Language & Culture (1996).

[5] We were at the very spot where Out of Africa’s famous final scene was filmed! Watch the movie and you will get the idea of what I saw in 1981!

Joe [1]

The trip to Intona ranch with Alan described in the post “Intona Ranch” put me in contact for the first time with Joseph (Joe) Murumbi and his wife Sheila. After this first encounter I shared many evenings with them at their beautiful if rather outlandish house. They had built it after retirement following the style of the houses found at the Kenya coast. It was a large house with many bedrooms, a large and complete kitchen and a sitting room bigger than a basketball field!

Although I stayed at the house several times, because of the work I was doing I normally camped at the ranch, as I preferred to keep my independence. Work started early and my timetable was rather different to their retired pace.

When we met, Joe had already suffered a stroke. He was recovering but still maintained the fire in his eyes and remembered a lot of stories of his life that he shared with Alan and me. They were very fond of Alan and they also got to like me. It helped that I was a veterinarian. They had a few dogs (5 or 6) that always had something wrong with them, despite the efforts of Kiza, their Ugandan resident veterinarian. Joe was always very supportive of our research and took a keen interest in our trials and their results! He could not wait to apply them on his cattle and those of his Maasai neighbours.

Although I will tell you more of my relationship with Joe and Sheila in future posts, I have a few reminiscences of our relationship that I will mention here.

Joe loved his cattle and he experienced great joy in going to the kraal in the evening to see them coming in. He was fair but tough with his employees and, as expected, he was feared by them on account of being a mzee[2] who had held power but also because of his short temper! I am sure his eyes had something to do with it as well, as he had a powerful look when fired up by anger or enthusiasm.

Sheila, conversely, did not care about cattle much. She loved plants and was a keen gardener. She kept a lovely greenhouse, which housed a collection of the orchids found at Intona and served as a nursery for the already beautiful garden and internal patios of the house.

The "Dutch Masters" paintings in the background, the picture was taken from the place Joe used to sit.

The “Dutch Masters” paintings in the background, the picture was taken from the place Joe used to sit.

They both shared an incredible passion for culture and art and the house was a true museum of African art although there were several large paintings that I attributed to “Dutch Classic painters”. The sitting room I mentioned above was literally filled with art. Wood and metal carvings, masks, ancient trunks, antique chairs, oriental rugs, and large paintings decorated the place.

murumbi mask 1

murumbi mask 2

murumbi lamu chair

murumbi mask

murumbi chest

And then there was his library! A large room with bookshelves all round and where all his diplomas, decorations and memorable photographs were kept. A young Joe could be seen in the company of Kenyatta, Nkurumah, Kaunda and Nyerere to name but a few. There was a large one of Joe with Haile Selassie and several more with other European leaders that he rubbed shoulders with during his political life. Clearly he had kept selected items after all his donations of books and documents to the Kenya Government.[3]

Although Joe was very enthusiastic about showing some of his unique books (he had all the first editions of the works by most African explorers, to name what I recall today!) his real joy was to open the many drawers that hosted his immense, comprehensive and very valuable stamp collection. He was very proud to show me some of the “specials” he possessed, including most of the first African stamps and even some of the earliest British ones that -apparently- were extremely rare and dear! Not being a collector myself, I listened and enjoyed his keenness more than anything else.

As if being shown the library by Joe himself would not have been enough, I was given the green light to roam free through his still vast book collection. This I did and spent long hours browsing through the many special books and documents that it housed. Among several, I particularly recall opening a proofreading specimen of Peter Beard’s “The End of the Game”[4] and finding inside it an exchange of letters between Joe and Peter about the book and its presentation! This was one surprise I remember but I have forgotten many, I am afraid!

Intona hosted a number of wild animals that intermingled with the cattle. Impala, Zebra and Topi were very common and herds of buffalo resided in the ranch. Lion were often heard but rarely seen (probably scared of the Maasai around us!) but a family of Cheetah resided at the ranch and were often seen. Spotted Hyenas were heard every evening and I was surprised if they did not visit my camp at night!

Buffalo herds often grazed in the meadows and frequently mixed with the cattle. Surprisingly they did not trouble the herdsmen, behaving like cattle but keeping their distance. The solitary males were a different issue and walking about Intona required great care as these rogues would seek shelter inside the clumps of forest that dotted the green grasslands at the ranch and come at you with anything but good intentions!

Buffalo were the main danger to watch out for while orchid collecting, an event that Robin -my good colleague from ICIPE- used to perform. As this involved entering the clumps of forest, it was a rather dangerous hobby. Luckily Joe had a hand-operated fire siren that a helper carried and used to scare the buffalo by sounding it before we entered the thicket. We were lucky not to encounter any buffalo, as I was doubtful of the effectiveness of the siren! Or maybe they ran away in the opposite direction? We did have a few scares when warthogs would crash out of their previously quiet resting areas because of our racket. We got a few adrenaline highs but fortunately they never came straight at us!

Alan’s closeness to Joe and Sheila meant that they relied on him for help at all times. I believe they saw Alan as the son they did not have! Their friendship was so close that once when Joe needed to go for an operation in the UK, Alan travelled with him! Alan did not travel alone, he had a most unusual companion: a nail-studded power figure[5] which was apparently rather expensive and Joe needed to sell it in the UK to cover the expenses of his medical intervention. So Alan was entrusted to fly with the sculpture for which I believe they booked a seat next to Alan! I do not know more details other than that Joe came back in better shape!

Joe greatly enjoyed having us for a drink in the evenings to talk about our work and tell us some of his stories. So we were often invited. Sheila was a great hostess and looked after us as if we would have been her newly discovered relatives! One of those occasions coincided with a rare and probably one of the last trips to Intona by road in his Range Rover. He mostly travelled by plane with the dogs!

On that occasion Joe was really upset about the condition of the road. The latter was really bad during normal times but at that particular occasion was impossible and -almost- impassable! Joe had a temper and that was the first time I saw him losing it! He was so upset that, after telling us about it, he picked the phone and started to call. At the time, Telephone calls from Intona were “difficult” to put it mildly so he insisted a few times until he managed to get through.

Despite his speech difficulties he managed to gather sufficient strength to speak in clearly strong terms and in Swahili. After a while his tone changed and, before he hung up, he burst into a hearty laugh. Still laughing and while shaking his head he said “That was Daniel[6] on the phone” and added “I was complaining to him on the conditions of the road and do you know what he replied?” he said looking amused “Joe, you know that I travel by helicopter!” I will keep Joe’s comments to myself!

 

[1] Follows Intona Ranch

[2] An elder in Swahili

[3] Ref. to details of his donation to the GoK

[4] Full title of the book

[5] See: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/online_science/explore_our_collections/objects/index/smxg-105001

[6] Daniel arap Moi was President of Kenya from 1978 to 2002. He succeeded Joe as Vice-President after Joe’s resignation in 1967.

Intona ranch[1]

It took a while to disassemble the tent and to collect our scattered belongings; including the unwashed suferiers where the soon to be legendary and much talked about Chicken a la Rusinga had been created, surely for one and only time in the universe! We were late, packed the car in a rush and, rather casually, left Mbita Point for our rendezvous with Alan in Kilgoris. I would remain with Alan to visit his field trials and collaborators while Matt returned to Nairobi, probably to attend some important meeting (read trout fishing) over the weekend.

We got to our meeting point, an open field in Kilgoris, meant –at some point in future- to be the village’s main square but currently occupied by grazing Maasai cattle and found Alan waiting for us. A few dukas[2] were found around the field that were clearly taking care of Maasai needs: lots of red cloth[3] and assorted veterinary drugs among other essentials such as Tusker beer. Just across the road was the “Kilgoris Nylon Day and Night Club”, a name that took me a while to digest! Despite its interesting name, we refrained from exploring it and preferred to miss lunch. What we would have found in it will remain shrouded in mystery. Alan welcomed me and, after a quick exchange of news and greetings Matt went his way and we headed for Intona ranch.

The meeting point with Alan.

The meeting point with Alan.

Alan was a chain smoker of menthol cigarettes[4], he stammered in an Irish accent, had an easy laugh that he combined with rubbing his gold and gray goatee. As we moved on, it became evident that Alan was not concerned about potholes and I was treated to the unique experience of listening to his mostly one-way conversation while bumping around on a rough road. Luckily we were in a Land Rover Series III, an almost unbreakable vehicle.

Although I focused fully on Alan’s conversation I still needed to guess a lot of what he said. I learnt that he was born in Northern Ireland and studied parasitology in London. He had come to Kenya in 1968 where he remained since, with a few short spells back home. He was a great supporter of the infection and treatment method to protect cattle against this scourge and he had helped Matt to develop it. I also learnt that collaboration was everything for him and that he was already talking to me as if we were already working together. This was excellent after my earlier experience in Mbita Point. Things were looking good but I still needed more details. “That is the purpose of this trip”, I thought, and continued listening. Our budding friendship was further boosted when we discovered our shared passion for soccer and the fact that Alan knew and liked some of the Uruguayan soccer players of the day, particularly Rubén Sosa.

He explained that he first came to the Transmara to collaborate with a veterinary GTZ project near Lolgorian –another small Maasai town- where they had done some pioneer epidemiological studies on theileriosis. The fact that this information was available enabled him to select the prevalent Theileria parasites to be used for the immunization of cattle in the area, including Intona ranch. This breakthrough meant that tick control could now be relaxed and even stopped altogether. This, Alan said, would enable me to compare dipped and not dipped cattle subject to natural field tick challenge and, in this way, ascertain their impact to achieve my goal.

Kilgoris was a Maasai town, Alan explained, the shambas[5] we could see in the outskirts belonged to the Kisii people. The latter became less frequent as we moved out of the populated area and the landscape started to open up to a savannah ecosystem where Maasai cattle grazed, looked after by the usual herd boys or elders. The countryside was punctuated by brown manyattas[6], giant brown mushrooms scattered at regular intervals.

A Manyatta.

A Manyatta.

A manyatta is where the Maasai live. A strong thorn bush fenced area designed to keep all predators out and themselves and their livestock protected within, mainly during the night. Inside the enclosure there are any number of huts made of a rounded frame of branches and built with a mixture of mud and cattle dung. Most cattle are kept in the enclosure but there are smaller sub-enclosures for sheep and goats or animals belonging to the different dwellers of the manyatta. Cattle are heavily branded and their ancestry thoroughly known by their owners.

“I know you will not believe this”, said Alan, “but there is a war going on here. The Kisii are moving in to occupy the Maasai grazing land”. He went on: “the Kisii will eventually win and this beautiful place will get all planted with maize!” Looking around, I found this really unbelievable but I trusted Alan.

The mention of a war made me wary and I started to look for warring parties lurking behind the bushes. After a while of not seeing anything unusual I said with hope in my voice: “Luckily, I see nothing so there must be a truce at the moment.” Alan laughed heartily with profuse goatee rubbing and, after hitting a few more potholes, he explained that the fighting was in the bush and normally not obvious. He added: “the Kisii cultivate the soil and gradually they are being given land. The Maasai resist and there are frequent skirmishes and then the Government intervenes to bring back some degree of calm”.

A view of Intona ranch in  the Transmara parkland.

A view of Intona ranch in the Transmara parkland.

Nearer to Intona ranch there was only lush green savannah with large tree islands. I noticed that these islands were always associated with bulky termite nests and I started wondering which appeared first, the trees of the termite mounds? I decided in favour of the trees. And then I saw the first game: a herd of Impala, shiny and healthy. Later, Topi and Zebras appeared to add a wild touch to the ever-present Maasai cattle. There were also Baboons and Vervet monkeys and a large number of Warthogs.

The manyattas in this area had significantly more dramatic thorn enclosures and the presence of large predators such as Lion, Leopard and hyena came to mind as the reason behind the need for greater protection, but I learnt from Alan that cattle rustling was rampant and probably more of a concern than predators. Clearly the Maasai were not taking any chances with their beloved livestock. This was in sharp contrast with their seemingly casual bearing when walking in the bush only carrying a spear and a simmi[7] with a few throwing sticks, their feet clad in recycled car tire sandals. They appeared to be carrying very light luggage considering all predators that were around, not to mention the on-going war!

Maasai visitors with spears, bow and arrows and throwing sticks.

Maasai visitors with spears, bow and arrows and throwing sticks.

The Transmara District that we were traversing is close to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve and the latter is the northern extension of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The Transmara is split into two by the Migori River with its riverine forest. It is here that, with luck, the Giant Forest hog (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) can be spotted. A native of forest habitats in Africa, it is considered the largest wild pig, at over two metres in length and one in height, reaching more than 200kg of weight. Discovered by Richard Meinertzhagen in 1904, who shot the type specimen in Kenya. Another special of the area is the Blue Flycatcher (Elminia longicauda), a lovely cerulean blue bird with a beautiful tail-fanning display.

“Julio, remember that Maasai do not like to be photographed and they can get very agitated and even aggressive”, said Alan. “Why is that?” I asked with surprise. “I do not know for sure” came the reply. I started learning that he was not too interested in any issues apart from theileriosis!

During the trip I decided that I would work with Alan and started developing a plan to convince Matt that this was the best idea. Rather sleep-deprived by Matt’s snores, and despite the jerks and bumps, I dozed off. I woke up startled by the sudden stop. I prepared for a surprise attack by the warring parties! However, the herd of Wildebeest and Zebra in front of us did not look dangerous. They were frolicking about as only wildebeest can as they moved back into the parkland.

Alan decided to follow them so that I could observe them better and take a few pictures as he liked photography. We drove off-road following them and got some good shots. When we decided that we had enough good pictures and turned back we realized that we were lost in the green labyrinth. The workers travelling with us were of the Kikuyu ethnic group. They were foreigners like us and therefore as lost as we were! We drove rather aimlessly for a while following a few cues we thought correct but the road was nowhere to be seen.

Lost in the bush with Alan, prior to finding our Maasai

Lost in the bush with Alan, prior to finding our Maasai “saviour”.

In one of our turns we found a Maasai elder who asked us for a lift! We gladly obliged and he jumped in. In a mix of English and Swahili we asked him to take us to the road. He sat next to me, half on my lap, as we were already three in the front seat of the Land Rover. We were ridiculously close to the road and were brought back to it immediately. Our saviour stayed with us as, apparently, we were going in the same direction!

The fig tree,

The fig tree, “signpost” to Intona ranch.

Finally we got to a large fig tree on our right, the entrance to Intona Ranch and there the Maasai left us with our thanks. The ranch was still unfenced and largely undeveloped at the time. Its border was marked by a plough furrow! Alan drove through the ranch and showed me the crush pen, weighbridge and cattle boma[8]. The latter was a large wood and barbed wire fortress. He also showed me the ranch personnel quarters and other back up installations such as the generator house and store. “The cattle are out grazing”, said Alan, “they will not come back until dusk so let´s take the personnel to their camp and then go to meet Joe and Sheila” he added. During the journey I had learnt that Joe was in fact Joseph Murumbi, an important retired politician[9]. His mother was Maasai and he was given the land by them.

Cattle and facilities at Intona ranch.

Cattle and facilities at Intona ranch.

The herdsmen camp at Intona ranch.

The herdsmen camp at Intona ranch.

Intona cattle kraal cropped

After about a kilometre a very large white house appeared, looking like a palace to me at that point. It looked newly built and was as beautiful as it was out of place. Its construction –I learnt from Alan- followed the Swahili style found at the Kenyan coast, complete with carved wooden doors brought all the way from Lamu and surrounded by a high white wall. We parked in one of the lateral entrances, announced our arrival and were shown in.

A large white house appeared in the distance!

A large white house appeared in the distance!

We walked into a very large rectangular living room, its walls covered with art objects. The chairs were large and made of forged iron, including the one where a coloured person with Indian features sat, atop lots of cushions and surrounded by small dogs. I guessed him to be in his late seventies. He stood up with some difficulty and came to greet us with a warm look on his face.

He was Joe. “How was the safari?” he asked and added: “they tell me the road is rough but I do not drive any more so I do not know”. Alan made a comment about the road and introduced me, explaining who I was and the reasons for my visit. Joe welcomed me and invited us to sit, while ringing a bell. Soon a white middle-aged woman in crutches came in. Joe introduced her to me as Sheila, his wife. As it was late afternoon some Tuskers were produced for us. “You must be tired Julio”, she said, “coming all the way from Mbita Point”. “We will have dinner very soon as Joe goes to bed early” she added.

Over the beer I gathered that Joe had a special interest in books, largely fired by his Goan father. “I have many books” Joe said “and art” he added. I also learnt that Joe was recovering from a stroke and that Sheila’s hips were in a bad state and that she needed an operation soon.

Dinner was a simple affair and we soon retired to our bedrooms. Alan´s had a microscope and piles of stained slides that he needed to examine, so he proceeded to check the health of his experimental cattle. I unpacked my belongings and feeling very tired I went to bed, leaving Alan with the microscope and the ubiquitous Tusker at hand.

The following morning Alan woke me up before sunrise as we needed to check the cattle before they went out for grazing. We did not see our hosts as they were resting when we left. Daily body temperature, blood and lymph node smears are routine monitoring activities when working with theileriosis. That day we also had to tag a few animals. We needed to write on the tags with a special pen known as the “magic marker”. Alan asked one of the herdsmen -Ephraim- to fetch it. He went to look for it while we went to look at the cattle boma. This was an enormous 3-metre tall barbed wire enclosure where Joe´s cattle were kept, together with the experimental cattle. After inspecting it we went back to the crush pen to continue with the work but Ephraim was not back yet! Alan asked what was happening and was told that “he is coming”, the usual reply in these situations. Finally, after Alan’s patience was almost gone Ephraim appeared carrying a basin with hot water! When Alan saw this, he became quite angry. “What is this?” he asked. “What you asked for” replied Ephraim “maji moto“. The incredulous look on Alan’s face was very funny to see, and suddenly he laughed at the confusion and all the tension disappeared everyone joined in! Magic marker was mistakenly taken for magi moto, Swahili for hot water!

Alan watching the cattle leaving the boma.

Alan watching the cattle leaving the boma.

Our work completed, we left the following morning, driving through the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. I loved the place! We crossed the Mara River on our way and had the chance to see the aftermath of the Wildebeest river crossings: a solid mass of dead animals being feasted upon by crocodiles and vultures, after the remaining beasts successfully continued on their migratory route.

The aftermath of a wildebeest crossing of the Mara river.

The aftermath of a wildebeest crossing of the Mara river.

Seeing that natural marvel for the first time created a very strong impression on me. I believe that it was then that my life took a turn that would make me stay in Kenya and Africa. I decided that I would do all I could to persuade Matt that I should work at Intona ranch and, on my way to it, have the privilege of driving through the Maasai Mara Game Reserve!

A hot air baloon flies over a rather dry Maasai Mara.

A hot air baloon flies over a rather dry Maasai Mara.

[1] Follows “Chicken a la Rusinga”.

[2] Swahili for a general store shop.

[3] Red was the dominant colour for the Maasai “tunics” at the time.

[4] Sadly he died on 15 March 1995. I placed his Obituary in the Pages section.

[5] Swahili for cultivated land or vegetable garden.

[6] Maasai for house.

[7] Short, double edged Maasai sword.

[8] Kraal in Swahili.

[9] See Pages for more info. The next post describes more of my relationship with Sheila and Joe.