Kenya

Working in the Northern Fontier District

After my FAO Fellowship ended and I joined the ICIPE and my work shifted towards the understanding of the resistance that some cattle have against ticks. Some colleagues there were working on a tick vaccine while I was given the task of exploring the natural resistance that is observed among cattle in the field.

At the time there were reports of animals that were refractory to ticks while the opposite also happened, a few animals in the herd carried most of the ticks and culling them was recommended to reduce tick populations in the long term. We needed tp prove this in Kenya, in an area free of Theileriosis as the work demanded to stop the application of chemicals to kill the ticks.

Boran bull Mutara copy

Beautiful Boran bull.

After discussions with colleagues and with the agreement of the Government of Kenya’s veterinary authorities it was agreed that we would focused our work on Mutara Ranch in Laikipia District where the Agricultural Development Corporation had the National Boran Stud. They were prepared to let us work on a group of one hundred young bulls to determine their resistance status.

After the trial preparation period we started with the work that lasted for six months. We got a number of interesting results that confirmed the hypothesis that tick distribution in the herd was normally distributed with a few bulls carrying few and lots of ticks while most were somewhere in between.

mutara

Working. From left to right Mark, Henry, Joseph, Bushsnob, Gitau and the other Henry.

So, we decided to compare our list of best ranked bulls for tick resistance with those of the Farm Manager for physical quality and body built. Our best animals for tick resistance did not match those regarded as best by the Manager! Although this was not what we expected and a disappointment as it was clear that selection would take a longer route than anticipated, the geneticists and statisticians unanimously agreed that the consistency of the results merited continuation[1].

We then entered in collaboration discussions with geneticists from Texas’ A&M University in the United States to expand the work and, with them, planned a series of follow-up trials. Unfortunately, the research group dispersed and myself and another of the collaborators departed from Kenya and the work stopped there.

In addition to doing very interesting work, my regular visits to Mutara gave me a great opportunity to explore some areas of the Northern Frontier District, a fascinating area that I mentioned in my previous post. These safaris follow next!

 

[1] Results of the work are published and those of you with a scientific mind can access the publication. See:https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337857245_Towards_the_selection_of_cattle_for_tick_resistance_in_Africa

 

The Northern Frontier District (NFD)

A decision made in 1925 by the British Colonial Office in London turned the NFD of Kenya into a buffer zone, to curb the influence of a southern influx from the horn of Africa of both Muslims from Somalia and Christians from Ethiopia. The buffer zone excluded all European settlements and missionaries.

When Kenya became independent in 1963, the Somali-inhabited areas included in the NFD struggled to unite with the Somali Republic resulting in the detention of its leaders by the Kenya Government. Severe unrest followed known as the “Shifta period”. During this time the area was closed to visitors until the end of the 70’s due to security concerns but, by the time we arrived, it had been open for a couple of years without known incidents.

Agro-ecological-zones-AEZs-of-Kenya_W640

Kenya’s agroecological zones showing the predominance of semi-deseric and desertic areas.

The region had a semi-arid and hot desert climate with infrequent rains that vary on a yearly basis. The exception being the extremely fertile southwestern area where the Tana River supplies water to farmers. The NFD was a massive wild area combining small farming communities, huge private ranches, and conservation projects within Samburu and Maasai lands. It extended further north to even wilder lands and deserts with some little known people such as the Turkana and El Molo to name some.

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01

Samburu manyatta.

This was the country that Wilfred Thesiger trekked while he lived in Kenya [1]. Thesiger, who passed away in 2003, is often referred to as the last of the old-time explorers, having lived a life reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling and Lawrence of Arabia. He lived in Maralal until his final days.

The NFD still offered a real sense of freedom and adventure and the far away northern views of Mount Kenya reminded us that we were far away from home! Wild animals still roamed outside protection areas. Several species of gazelles, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, Somali ostrich and all kinds of predators including hyenas, lions and leopards were still in sizeable numbers and elephants were abundant.

Ol Olokwe 1 copy

Ol Olokwe, a dominant feature in the southern part of the NFD.

It is not possible for me to describe all the places that the NFD had to offer to avid visitors like us. We visited a few great places but the privilege of traveling across arid and hot lands inhabited by people that still kept their -for us- amazing traditions while being able to find wild animals anywhere were an irresistible offer.

We had enjoyed visiting the Samburu region protected areas (Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba National Reserves) and enjoyed them as, like Tsavo, these offered a different environment that it was new to us.

samburu black bellied bustard 1

A black-bellied bustard at Samburu.

Luckily, not too long after having visited the NFD I winded down my work at Intona Ranch in the Transmara and started working on the resistance of Boran cattle to ticks at a ranch in Laikipia. This change in the geographic focus enabled us to combine the work with travel in the area.

It was like this that, apart from re-visiting the Samburu region we also traveled to Wamba and the Kerio river valley (see https://bushsnob.com/2019/12/31/spanning-the-kerio-river/) and, later on, organized a safari that included Koobi Fora in the eastern shores of lake Turkana via Maralal, the Chalbi dessert and Marsabit as well as a camel trip along the Milgis River, a beautiful watercourse that winds its way through the Matthew’s Range and the Ndoto mountains.

I will, in the next posts, deal with the places and activities mentioned.

 

[1] Thesiger, W. (1994). My Kenya Days. London: Harper Collins, 224p. He has also written two classic books of travel and exploration, “The Marsh Arabs” and “Arabian Sands,” and a engrossing autobiography, “The Life of My Choice.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spanning the Kerio river

In the lake Baringo area the Kerio, one of the longest rivers in Kenya, coming from the Amasya Hills (on the equator) and west of lake Bogoria, flows towards the north through the fertile Kerio valley between the Tugen Hills and the Elgeyo Escarpment. It continues its way to the north through semi-arid country where it has carved narrow valleys, some very deep. Then, it enters in the southern end of lake Turkana. Together with the Turkwel river it contributes to almost all the river water that flows into lake Turkana.

The information we got was that one of the gorges known as the Cheploch gorge was so narrow that it could have a leg on each side while watching the river gushing through on its way to lake Turkana! We thought that it was a good reason to explore an area we did not yet know.

So, once we were in lake Baringo, we extended our trip and drove about through Marigat and Kabernet to reach the “famous” gorge. Marigat, our first populated area after about 20 km was then a small and dusty town inhabited by people from the Tugen, Njemps and Pokot communities who are mainly pastoralists. We passed it and went on to Kabarnet, 40 km further on where, despite sounding like a wine-producing area, we did not see any vines, unless they used papayas for the brew!

It was in the road from Kabarnet to Iten that the Cheploch gorge was found, just after the village of Ainamoj where the road crossed the river. The river had really carved a very deep gorge, estimated at 70m deep and very narrow, but not narrow enough to span it and even if it would have been, looking down at the river’s strength, I would have declined the offer!

kerio valley kerio river

The gorge at the time of our visit. Looking at the picture today, I thought I could have spanned it!

However, the gorge was indeed amazing and the trip worthwhile as it took us to one of the “secret” areas of Kenya at the time.

While writing this post I learnt that, after our departure, an “industry” had developed by local people not to help you to span the river but of divers offering to jump from the edge of the gorge for a fee!

A rather different seen today!

Although in 2016 the Government stopped this activity after one of the divers died [1], it resumed a while later and it is still taking place as there are videos dated May 2019 that show the jumpers in action as there are visitors that continue to pay to see people risking their lives!

 

[1] See: https://allafrica.com/stories/201601190899.html Accessed 21/11/19.

 

 

 

 

Samburu and Buffalo Springs

Less than one quarter of Kenya can be considered as fertile land, the rest are dry areas ranging from dry bush to straight desert. Apart from the dry and sem-dry areas in the south, the north occupying almost fifty percent of Kenya is arid and with much less human presence when compared with the fertile areas.

It is in these areas that you find a number of pastoralists that keep livestock and, together with them there is wildlife, some of it unique to this area. A number of protected areas were created to keep these animals among which the gerenuk (Litocranius walleri) and the endangered reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata) and Grevy’s zebras (Equus grevyi) are the stars.

samburu-kenya-park605x499

Credit: http://www.kenya-travel.org/kenya-parks-and-reserves-kenya-safaris © copyright All right reserved. Photo Andre Brunsperger.

Although Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves were the most visited, there were others such as Kora, Marsabit and Lake Turkana National Parks (the latter including Sibiloi National Park, Central and South island) and the Shaba National Reserve that we also visited but more on that later.

Whether you passed east (via Embu) or west from Mt. Kenya (via Nyeri) the trip was fascinating. You first will drive through the very fertile areas located in the then Central Province such as Murang’a and then start a climb that will take you through the cold slopes of the mountain from where you will then catch the first glimpse of clear skies. A stop to take in the view was a must but it had to be accompanied by putting on warmer clothes and even a rain-proof jacket for a few minutes while admiring the view as cold drizzling was common there!

The view was breathtaking as the arid scrubland speckled with kojpes extended as far as the eye could see anticipating warmth while you were still freezing. You were looking towards the Northern Frontier District and beyond, many hundreds of kilometres away there will be the borders of Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. The road would then start its downhill way and soon you would remove your added layers of clothing and eventually reach Isiolo.

I always considered Isiolo as the gateway to the north as well as the end of the tarmac. It was not more than a few buildings that included a market, a mosque, a church a bank and a craft training centre. It was the last town of any size to refuel and, if lucky, buy those things that you may have forgotten to pack in Nairobi, now 270 km to the south. At the time we did not require special permits to proceed as the Shifta (rebels) were calm.

From then to the north you would join a very wide, reddish and straight, army-like, road that had bad corrugations, seemingly endless. This road would take you through an area that was home to several northern pastoralist ethnic groups that managed to keep livestock in this harsh environment in particular the Samburu, close relatives of the Maasai.

The Samburu had been drawn to this region by the existence of the Ewaso Ng’iro, northern Kenya’s biggest river, for watering their herds. This large river -for Kenya standards- and its tributaries flow north -through Laikipia- from the Aberdare range and Mount Kenya in the central highlands. The Ewaso Ng’iro then turns east before dropping out onto the sandy plains of the Samburu ecosystem from where it continues through the semi-desert to end in the large and seasonal Lorian swamp.

The wildlife is plentiful here as several species of game congregate in the thick acacia and doum palm (Hyphaene thebaica) forest along the riverbanks to drink and enjoy the shade. With emphasis on the protection of the river, the Samburu (104 km²), Buffalo Springs (131km²) and the less well-known Shaba National Reserves were created.

At Samburu we invariably camped by the Ewaso Ng’iro River, close to the Samburu Game Lodge that was located at a sandy beach in the site where the elephant hunter Arthur Neumann’s [1] camp was located. The lodge was as luxurious as handy for us as we could use its ablutions facilities when returning from our dusty and hot game drives.

The lodge also had a bar overlooking the sandy and shallow river that meandered through where several crocodiles were seen basking under the sun during the day. We used to come for a drink in the evenings and soon understood the relatively close positioning of the crocs, they were fed huge chunks of meat and about a dozen would come to grab them a couple of metres from the patrons. The latter were separated by a wall about one metre high where a sign on our side said “Danger crocodiles” and on the other “Danger people”! A couple of these crocodiles were among the largest I have ever seen and clearly dominated during feeding time.

The lodge hanged a goat carcass at a platform up a large tree, an offering to leopards that unfortunately never made an early appearance as we needed to leave at dusk to get to our camp before nightfall. However, we did hear them often at our camp located quite close from the lodge.

Open bush country dominated most of Samburu but there was a riverine forest made of acacias, figs and doum palms fifty to two hundred metres wide along the river. The river snaked through, often shallow with clear sand banks so that large animals could wade it quite easily while hippos and crocodiles place themselves under riverside overhangs. Elephants often dig wells in the dry riverbed to find water, wells that are shared by other wild animals as well as the Samburu domestic herds in times of drought.

There was a magnificent game drive that meandered along together following the river during which at every turn was a surprise, particularly herds of waterbuck, elephants, reticulated giraffes and other interesting animals not to mention many interesting birds such as Black-capped sociial and chestnut weavers, Golden-breasted starlings, Palm-nut vultures, Red-bellied parrots, Rosy-patched bush-shrikes, Von der Decken’s hornbills and Vulturine guinea fowls to name only a few.

vult guinea fowl tsavo...

Vulturine guinea fowl.

It was also not rare to find herds of camels, sometimes intermingled with wild game such as waterbucks, in the fringes of the park!

To get to Buffalo Springs we would drive through the semi-arid area of the park where we would find Beisa oryx, Grant’s gazelles, Dik-diks, Gerenuk, Grevy’s zebra and Reticulated giraffes, the latter often seen necking.

Predators were present but difficult to spot although we found lions rarely and we were lucky to find a Grant’s gazelle killed by a cheetah female and cubs.

samb 3

Cheetah family with Grant’s gazelle kill. A lucky find in thick bush.

Buffalo Springs “special” was a natural fresh water pool of crystal clear water where it was a great pleasure to swim to cool off and leave behind some of the dust accumulated during the day.

SamburuBuffaloSprings86

Enjoying the pool at Buffalo Springs.

It was a popular place, frequented by lot of visitors and the stream feeding it was very small. It then seemed to us amazing that crocodiles could be found there. However, that was exactly what happened to the young son of a Muguga veterinarian colleague in 1972 that, while walking around the spring, was grabbed by the leg by a -luckily- small crocodile. The fast reaction of the parents that fended off the attacker saved the son that, despite this, needed quite a long treatment in Nairobi to recover from the badly lacerated leg [3].

 

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Henry_Neumann

[2] Unfortunately the formerly natural swimming pool is now closed due to the presence of the occasional crocs and the presence of predators by the waterhole.

[3] See: http://www.crocodile-attack.info/node/5681

 

 

 

 

3WD!

We first visited Meru National Park invited by our friends Ken and Betty and, as we still did not have our own car, travelled -with our friend Ranjini- in the back of their Land Rover. Despite this, our excitement at being able to get out of Muguga House as well as exploring Kenya, made the trip quite bearable.

Meru NP Tana River circuit copy

Ken (right) and Robin and his wife Janet (back) discuss the route while Mabel enjoys the open air drive!

Meru National Park was located east of Meru town, 350 km from Nairobi with an area of 870 km2. It was a well-known park with plentiful rainfall resulting in abundant grasslands and swamps where rich wildlife roamed, particularly elephants, buffalo, reticulated giraffes, gerenuk and the rare gravy zebras, apart from the usual large carnivores.

Our start was not auspicious! Our friends had booked the Leopard Rock bungalows by the Murera river but forgot to bring the voucher that proved it! After a long discussion we assured the camp manager that we would vacate the place if other visitors arrived with the same bookings we had. This argument worked and we were finally allowed in and spent the weekend there as no one came, of course.

meru np leopard rock lodge copy

It was a short trip and its highlight was a long drive to the Tana river where we had a couple punctures on the way but, luckily, we carried two spare wheels and all needed tools. I also recall that, for some foolish reason, we walked across a shallow area of the river and I saw a small greenish fish swimming past my legs. When I realised that it was a small crocodile, I hastily retreated to dry land while warning the rest of the waders that followed my example!

Once a stronghold for elephants, by the time we visited they were getting scarce although we still saw them in large numbers but, according to our friends, their numbers had declined. At that time, if any black rhinos remained there must have been well hidden in the hills although I even doubt that!

3 - Meru copy

What we did see were some of the reintroduced white rhinos that were being herded by armed rangers during the day and penned at night to protect them against poachers. They were rather tame and behaved like cattle so we took the opportunity to collect some interesting ticks from them!

A while after this first visit we learnt about George and Joy Adamson and Elsa and that they had raised the lioness in Meru National Park and this added another interest to re-visiting the park: to find the former “home” of George and Joy Adamson.

Despite gaining worldwide fame because of Elsa the lioness that Joy immortalized in her books “Born Free”, “Living Free” and “Forever Free” that narrate Elsa’s life. Joy was an amazing painter that travelled all over Kenya painting the various ethnic groups and her beautiful portraits are on displayed at the Kenya Museum.

She married George Adamson, known as “Bwana Game’ with who she shared part of her life until they parted company. Joy went to Shaba where she was working with leopards until she was eventually and sadly killed in 1980 by a former worker. George settled in Kora National Park for many years until he was also sadly killed by poachers in 1989.

We enjoyed the place and decided to go there again. This time we camped near the Leopard Rock where we had stayed before. Our camp was simple as we only had managed to acquire the basic items but it was enough for our needs at the time.

Camping Meru NP.tif copy

The aim of the trip, apart from exploring the park further, was to find Joy Adamson’s camp and Elsa’s grave. As we only had general directions, we set off early, as we were not sure of how long it would take us to drive almost to the farthest area of the park.

meru-kenya-park643x688

Map of Meru National Park. Credit: http://www.kenya-travel.org/kenya-parks-and-reserves-kenya-safaris © copyright All right reserved. Photo Andre Brunsperger.

At first the going was good as we were on the main road to the southeast but soon we entered a narrow track that did not seem to be very much used. This did not surprise us because the Adamsons had been there several years before and not many people was clearly visiting the park and even fewer of them travelled in this direction.

After driving through a typical MMBA (More and More of B… Africa!) road that seemed endless for about four ours we stopped for a lunch break. We pondered our situation and and decided to continue for another hour and, if we still did not find anything, to admit defeat and start our return to base. Three quarters of an hour passed when we came to a steep descent leading to a dry riverbed that we could not climb and we found ourselves buried in deep sand.

meru stuck - MC

The kombi was very good in many respects but rather hopeless in sand so all we could do was to dig! Before we started to work we had a very good look to the riverine bush to make sure that there were no dangerous surprises there. Once we checked, we got to remove sand under the wheels by hand. We then lifted the car and placed the spare wheel underneath to get some grip. So it was dig and lift, move the car a few centimetres forward, dig some more, lift and move some more until we were close to success when, with a loud “crack”, the jack screw snapped, clearly abused by so much use!

There was no question of lifting the car by human power so all we could do was an all out effort to move forward. Aware of the importance of this really “final” attempt, we removed all obstacles from our wheels and placed lots of branches in front of them to gain some more traction and, with Mabel pushing hard, I accelerated remembering to keep the wheels straight.

The car hesitated at first but then it somehow gripped firm ground and we managed to climb to the other side of the steep crossing. Elation was still pending as we were now free from the sandy patch but on the wrong side of the river! Aware that we have wasted about two hours getting the kombi across the river and unsure of where we really were we, unanimously, agreed that it was wise to start of return to base if we were to arrive in daylight.

So we drove on until we found a spot where we could turn the car around safely and started our return and attempt to cross the river again! We approached it, stopped and went down to level up the road and tried to make it firmer and cleared it from stones and anything that could interfere with our crossing as well as filling in the deep ruts we had left.

Then we moved the car back a good distance from the crossing to gather good speed and went for it with seat belts on and Mabel hanging on for dear life. As planned we went down fast and hit the bottom of the river with a bump but still had enough momentum to cross the sandy patch and the the car had enough power to grip firm ground and climb the opposite bank before stopping somehow sideways among thorn bushes on the other side. We had made it through!

Despite the rough crossing the car showed no visible damage and we drove it back to the track to start our return journey. We now celebrated and toasted with water while rested to allow the adrenaline levels to return to normal before moving again!

After that it all went well but only for a couple of kilometres. Then I started noting that the car did not respond well to my steering movements and then I noted a puncture in the front wheel on my side! Clearly stopping among thorn bushes had a price. “On top of everything, we now need to change a wheel” I said but Mabel reminded me that our jack had broken!

We tried to lift the car to fit stones underneath but failed so we were now in real trouble and our only hope was that anothe car would come our way and help us to change the wheel. I was thinking that this was a hope rather than a real possibility when I had an idea…

We had suffered earlier when the kombi, being long, would bend when crossing a ditch diagonally, often ending up with a wheel in the air and inmobile. Although this was unimportant when a front wheel was concerned it would stop the car when a back wheel turned in the air and needed someone to jump on the fender to get the wheel to grip!

I decided to use this “frame-bending” ability that had annoyed me in the past to our advantage. I went for a 3WD!

I sat on Mabel’s seat and she went to back seat behind me so that the right side of the car had no passengers, hoping that this would keep the punctured front right wheel in the air! We prepared ourselves and tried it. The car responded well with only a few occasions that the wheel rim touched the ground due to some large pothole.

Encouraged by our first few metres, we continued slowly as I only had control over one front wheel. The going was slow but we were moving in the right direction while we hoped that we would not have another puncture! We crawled back to our camp well after sunset where we could not avoid an ear full from the rangers that became milder once we explained what had taken place and showed them how the wheel was!

The following morning, still on 3WD, we drove to the park’s workshop and the mechanics were quite amused to see us coming with the driver on the passenger seat!

The wheel was repaired as we carried a spare tube (the original tube was now black powder!). The few protruding wires of the tire’s steel belt sticking out in several places, including inside the tire, were nicely clipped and a patch placed to cover their endings and it became our temporary spare. In any case, with no jack, a spare would not have been of much use! Luckily we did not needed it and got home without further mishaps.

Years later we learnt that the available maps of Meru National Park like the one we carried were inaccurate as they had been prepared while the roads were being constructed. We felt somehow vindicated for not having found the Adamson’s camp.

We visited the park again with a large group of friends and camped by a beautiful river with clear waters where we swam in the shallows and fished. It was idyllic we thought during the first day and then at night we heard several gun shots and we got quite concerned as we realized that it was probably poachers going for the elephants.

That was our last visit and we learnt that gradually things deteriorated as many animals were lost to poachers. Sadly, in 1989 about thirty poachers came and gunned down in their pen five of the white rhinos we usually saw despite the rangers rather heroic defense that got two of them severely wounded.

Those were the bad days of Meru that extended well into the 90s. Then, things started to improve and in 2002, eight white rhinos were moved to Meru from private ranches in Kenya but, sadly, the poachers menace is still a real one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aberdares and The Ark

“The nearer to Nyeri the nearer to bliss” remarked Robert Baden-Powell, best known for having started the Boy Scout movement. In 1939 he and his wife Olave moved to a one-room cottage named Paxtu, now a small Scouting museum located on the grounds of the Outspan Hotel. He died two years later and was buried at St Peter’s Cemetery in Nyeri.

At that time the owner of Outspan also owned the Treetops Hotel, approximately 17 km out in the Aberdares Mountains, often visited by Baden-Powell and made famous when Princess Elizabeth became Queen on the night of 5 February 1952 and the renowned hunter Jim Corbett, her bodyguard at the time, wrote the now famous lines in the visitors’ log book: “For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen – God bless her”.

There was another well-known hotel in the Aberdares, the Ark, built literally in the shape of Noah’s Ark, and -like Treetops- beautifully situated overlooking waterholes in the Aberdares National Park.

Aberdares 2 5.32.37 PM-001 copy

The Aberdares National Park is a part of the Aberdares mountains located east of the East African Rift Valley about 100 km north of Nairobi with an altitude of 2-4,000 metres. Established in May 1950, the park covers an area of 766 km2. Nicknamed ‘Scotland with lions’, the park is very rich on mountain peaks that go up to 4000 metres to its deep valleys where crystal clear streams run with numerous waterfalls, moorland, bamboo and rainforests at lower altitudes. The streams run through ranges that are often covered in mist and heaths and they have been seeded with trout.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Although bongos (Tragelaphus eurycerus) were already a very rare sight, a number of other interesting species made up for this. Leopards -including black ones- were known to occur and lion had been relocated from cattle ranches further north. Elephants and buffalo were common and there were also giant forest hogs and a number of rare antelopes such as the suni (Neotragus moschatus) and the mountain reedbuck (Redunca fulvorufula).

aberdares jc copy 2

It was also a great place to see black and white colobus and sykes monkeys, apart from over 250 species of birds and it was common to spot black Augur buzzards as melanism was a feature of the park and we were very fortunate to see a black serval cat walking on the road in front of us.

Aberdares mel serval-001

Black Serval.

Aberdares mel augurd buzzard-001

Melanistic form of Augur buzzard.

We usually camped at the park’s public campsites. These were frequently visited by very tame bushbucks that, interestingly for me at the time, carried heavy tick loads on their ears.

bbuck Aberdares copySome of the falls offered an opportunity of a refreshing shower that Mabel took often although I did not as the water was truly freezing for me!

aberdares 1-001 copy

Towards the end of our stay we decided to try one of the lodges, either fame and character at Treetops or the more luxurious Ark. Because of availability we went for a weekend at the Ark. We booked a special -read cheap- package to stay two nights during the low season when more rainfall meant more water available and the game was less dependent on the artificially fed waterholes and saltlicks of the Ark.

The lodge was built in 1969 and many “famous” guests have stayed there: President Tito, Geraldine Chaplin, Peter Scott and Hugh Hefner to name a few. It also had it share of royalty as Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands and the Danish royal family.

We got to the Aberdares Country Club mid afternoon after driving from Nairobi. Although we spent a rather short time in it, we realized that it was worth of a proper visit and we did return later to enjoy its manicured lawns and gardens and to look at Rena Fennessy’s bird pictures [1].

After about an hour we were taken to the Ark by minibus and we arrived after 18 km driven through beautiful forest until we went through the Ark’s gate to enter the park. A short distance later we were left at the entrance of the hotel, a wooden walkway that brings you to the Ark.

It was a while before dinner so we settled in our room, small but comfortable. It had a system of communication through which you could be warned if something interesting arrived at the waterhole after you had gone to bed so you could decide whether to get up to go and watch or not.

After settling in it was time to explore the lodge. There were a number of areas where you could watch the water holes -at that time almost empty of interesting game- and we chose what we thought was the nicest to return later. It was a large window that allowed unimpeded views of the swamp and, those who so desired could also go outside to enjoy the view from a balcony.

While we explored the Ark we immediately realized that the stay was going to be memorable, but for the wrong reasons, a large school party had decided to fill lots of the lodge’s sixty rooms!

So, we had our dinner surrounded by children while the teachers and parents made frantic efforts to keep things under control but failing to do so, at least to my taste! I was quite upset thinking that I had paid good money to enjoy the place one time and found it full of kids, particularly when silence is critical in this kind of places that are in fact large and glorified game hides!

After dinner we marched to our chosen window onto wilderness only to find the room packed with kids shouting the names of the few animals that ventured out of the forest and into a very noisy water hole. Clearly only the desperately thirsty showed up!

We were a few adults in the lodge wishing to see special animals and all we could do was to exchange resigned looks with each other as the situation was hopeless! If we had any expectations that the children would go to bed early, they soon dissipated as they had come to enjoy the place their own way and were determined to stay awake to the bitter end!

As expected, we did not see much coming to the water that night and the next apart from some elephants and a few antelope that were always hanging about the water edge. We also realized that there was no point in complaining to the teachers as there was not their fault but that of the hotel managers that should not have mixed a large school party with a few paying adults.

As soon as we got back to Nairobi I went straight to the booking office of the Ark and, after presenting my case in rather strong terms, I was given a full refund for our stay. However, this did not really compensate for what we had anticipated to be a memorable stay and ended up being a disappointment. We did not return.

 

[1] Rena Fennessy created art for most of the post independent East African countries for about 25 years. She also drew birds and animals for field guides while creating her own artwork of East African wildlife and scenery. No much information is available about her. She lived in Nairobi and was possibly British.

 

Safari Rally

Soon after our arrival we heard about the Safari Rally, one of the yearly attractions that Kenya had to offer and that had been going since 1953 as the East African Safari Rally and as the Safari Rally from 1974, a few years before the breaking up of the East African Community.

Although we could not watch the race on our arrival in 1981 we learnt that the Kenyans Shekhar Mehta and Mike Doughty won it. The pair seemed unbeatable, as they had already won in 1979 and 1980.

By 1982 we had our car and we decided to follow the rally with daily trips to a couple of places near Nairobi as well as watch the cars arrive in Nairobi at the end of the rally. We studied the route of the three stages and selected areas near Kajiado and in the Kinangop plateau.

Without experience on watching races of this kind, we thought it wise to leave early to find a good and safe spot. We also carried our safari chairs and food and water to last us for the whole day. The rally was held when the long rains were meant to begin so you either had a dry or a wet rally. It was dry that year so our concern with potential mud traps did not came up until in later editions!

We learned a few things about the rally that first time. Seeking some excitement we searched for a place where we could see the cars coming from far and that, close by, would offer a bend or a culvert that they needed to do some exciting turning or a nice jump.

n kinangop safari rally kombi

A good and safe vantage point to watch the rally.

As we were in the selected area early, we had sufficient time to drive for a while until we perched on a high slope that offered a great view where we set up our camp and waited. Gradually the place started to fill up with other visitors in cars but also of people on foot coming from the surrounding areas. The latter really enjoyed seeing and hearing the powerful cars driving past as, in those areas there was no much traffic otherwise. I was also amazed that there were no accidents as people, unaware of the danger, placed themselves in large numbers in exposed spots, very close to the cars!

We waited for a couple of hours and then the crowd -quite a sizeable one by then- started to stir and soon we could also see the dust plume far away. The first car was coming so I prepared myself to take my first “speed priority” shot at a fast moving car from a good spot, near the road.

As the dust got close we could actually see the numerous and very strong lights that they carried and I had no doubt that the car coming was from the rally so I shot and got covered in dust at the same time! To add insult to injury, after the event I realized that it was a support car! Another lesson learnt: support cars look just like the real ones minus a number on the door!

1982 saf rally altonen opel

The dust of Altonen’s support car!

Eventually we watched the “real thing” or rather the first one of the race because, after the first car drove past, a succession followed in hot pursuit and the dust cloud got fed by each one of them and spectators’ visibility was severely reduced. I could not believe how the drivers could see the road, leaving alone trying to overtake! I took some poor pictures. Luckily, once the aces past, gaps between cars increased while speed decreased so we could actually see some of the cars!

Once most of the cars passed we could initiate our return home. We thought we had breathed and eaten dust but there was much more to come while driving home among a convoy of motorists doing the same. There were still some of the slowest cars coming and this added an extra touch of adventure to our trip.

Finally, the duo Mehta-Doughty won for a fourth time that year but our hearts were with Robert Collinge and Mike Fraser that were racing in a “normal” Range Rover! After a gallant race where they had all sorts of problems (I believe they hit a cow and lost their bonnet) but still they managed to arrive in 6th. place, a great achievement, still remembered in rally circles.

1982 north kinangop safari rally collinge's r rover

The Collinge and Fraser’s Range Rover minus bonet going for the finish line.

Apart from the big rally teams, individual entries were also present and they relied on friends for repairs and to bring fuel and spares to strategic places in order to continue with the race! For those private participants just to arrive was a great achievement and we witnessed scenes charged with emotion when the crew of a private participant embraced celebrating their arrival at the end of the third stage, regardless of the position, with true sport spirit.

We did follow the rally in subsequent years but nothing compared to the first one in 1982 and we eventually stopped but not before having a test of a wet rally in 1985 where things dramatically changed as cars did not cover you in dust but in mud and water! A video below illustrates the point.

Credit: vipersan1 from Youtube.

During that rally we also learnt that it was one thing to drive through a muddy road before the cars passed and another very different and frustrating to try and return home with our kombi VW. We got stuck a few times! Things were not made any easier when some clever Kenyans started to “improve” existing potholes both lengthwise and in depth so that, once you fell in “their” mud trap, they would push you out for a small fee! African entrepreneurship at its best!

 

Windsurfing with hippos

As you will learn later, I took up windsurfing during our holidays at the Kenyan coast but I never got beyond the beginner’s level, basically due to lack of practice.

There are two fresh water lakes in the Kenya Rift Valley, Naivasha and Baringo. The former is a weekend destination for many people in Nairobi that we use to call “water babies”. The lake was not a reserve and it was open to people to sail and fish at will while staying in the various luxury hotels spread along its shores [1].

Lake Baringo is much further away to the dry north and to get there requires quite an effort and it is not really suitable for a weekend break. We visited it sometimes as a stopover when heading for other destinations and perhaps twice as our final destination.

Lake Baringo has an area of 130 square kilometres and the Molo, Perkerra and Ol Arabel Rivers are the rivers that feed it. It has no known outlet but it is believed that its water seeps through the bottom into some underground current where it finds an impermeable layer. There are over 470 species of birds there, occasionally including migrating greater flamingos as well as a Goliath heronry located on a rocky islet known as Gibraltar that is an amazing sight!

baringo island camp

Island camp.

The lake was believed to bee free from Schistosoma parasites and also that its crocodilian inhabitants, because they were not disturbed, also did not bothered swimmers and sailors. The hippos, however, were “normal” and it was advised to give them a wide berth, as there were quite a number, particularly near the shores. Despite this potential danger the local Njemps fishermen moved about the lake in tiny boats and rowed with some special paddles that they fitted in their hands!

baringo best

Young Njemp rowing in the lake.

We always camped at Robert’s Camp and we spent time walking and driving around the lake in search of some of the rare birds that were present there. One occasion we shared the camp with some colleagues from Muguga that were keen on sailing and they had also brought their windsurfing gear.

They insisted that I borrowed it to have a go. I put forward the excuse of the low temperature of the water trying not to mention my concern for the hippos and, to a lesser extent, the crocs but they insisted.

I had seen the abundant hippos present at the lake and pointed this out to them but they convinced me that, as far as they knew, there had never been an accident with either hippos or crocs. Seeking consolation in the way the Njemps fishermen move around the lake, I thought that the windsurfing table must have been at least twice the size of their boats and, therefore offer more protection in case of an attack.

So I bit the bullet and ventured into the lake! It all went well starting in the open water, far from the shore and eventually my friends, seeing that I would manage on my own, went on sailing, faster than me and soon I was forgotten by all!

JC windsurfing from slides 1 copy

Preparing to start.

After about an hour of sport, not being really used to it, I got tired and decided to head back to our camp. This meant coming closer to shore where the hippos were! Luckily I managed to sail in the right direction and eventually I got within a short distance from our camp. Now I needed to get there! This was easier said than done.

Between me and the camp there was a shallower area that could only be negotiated through a narrow canal and there, in the middle of it, a pod of hippos were doing whatever hippos do when they are inside the water as a family!

I was in a tight spot and quite concerned! I decided to do an exploratory approach to the beasts to see how they would react to my presence and then stop. I did so at about twenty metres from them and they replied with some grunting but nothing else happened. I took this as a half-hearted warning to the semi-naked human that was approaching them.

The situation was becoming tricky but in what I now regard as a foolish (but rather courageous) move, decided to go for it and gathered speed, trying to keep to the side of the channel where I saw no hippos.

Although I thought I was going fast, I am sure I would have been dead meat if the hippos wished to go for me. Luckily, they only watched me pass and snubbed me by showing me their fat rear ends! Eventually I managed to hit the coast at full speed and felt very relieved.

JC windsurfing from negatives 1 copy

Going for it.

When my colleagues returned to collect the table I was already relaxed and kept the incident of the hippos to myself.

baringo

Evening at lake Baringo.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/11/23/lake-naivasha/

Mount Kenya

mt kenya 2

Mt. Kenya (5,200m), the second highest mountain in Africa after Mt. Kilimanjaro (5,900m) could be seen from some parts of the Muguga road on a very clear day as if inviting us for a visit. It was a rugged mountain with snow and three main peaks: Batian (5,199m), Nelion (5,188m) and Lenana (4,985m). They are named after Mbatian (a Maasai Medicine Man), Nelieng, his brother, and Lenana, one his sons.

mt kenya way to shaba 1

In 1849 Krapf found the mountain, located a few km south of the equator, following a similar story of the finding of Kilimanjaro described earlier. It was Krapf who gave the mountain the name “Kenya”, likely to derive from the words KirinyagaKirenyaa and Kiinyaa which mean “God’s resting place” in the language of three of the main ethnic groups that live around the mountain: Kikuyu, Embu and Kamba respectively. The mountain gave the country its name.

mt kenya best

Mount Kenya surged approximately three million years after the formation of the East African rift valley and it has suffered the impact of erosion resulting in what we see today: weather-beaten slopes, valleys and shrinking glaciers. Mount Kenya is the main water catchment area for two large rivers in Kenya: the Tana, the largest Kenyan river and the Ewaso Nyiro than runs north through very dry country.

The vegetation in Mt. Kenya changes with altitude. Around the base of the mountain we saw fertile farmland extending as far as you could see and I recall the amazing horticultural wealth of the Murang’a market where, among an enormous amount of horticultural produce, I have seen the largest cabbages! Unfortunately, althogh necessary, it was clear that the agriculture frontier was gradually encroaching the forests.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The nature of the forests found in Mt. Kenya depend on rainfall and whether they grow in the south- or north-facing slopes. Above the forest there is a wide band of almost pure bamboo and above it we find the timberline forest with smaller trees. The heathland (wet) and chaparral (dry) zones start at about three thousand metres. The former, located in the wetter part has giant heathers while the latter is found in the drier areas and it consists mainly of grasses.

As we continue our virtual climb, the temperature fluctuations increase to extremes and the air’s oxygen decreases and we enter into the most known place of the mountain: the Afro-alpine zone, an area with several endemic plant species such as giant groundsels (senecios) and giant lobelias. After this there are glaciers and rock in the areas that the latter had retreated and no vegetation is present there.

Not being climbers or hikers we had a limited interest in mountains and preferred to spend our time in the more manageable lower grasslands of Kenya. However, we decided to give it go.

During our first visit to Mt. Kenya we entered through the west of the mountain, through the Naro Moru gate, one of the busiest. Although we intended to camp near the gate, we decided to go up the mountain on a exploratory trip through a road that got progressively worse until we reached a point where the kombi’s torque and the altitude became even and there we stopped. It was already late so we decided to spend the night in the car, cold and wet, not appreciating the beauty of the place.

meru mt kenya lodge walking

Icy stream.

The following day we managed to turn the car around in the mud and descended to more manageable roads where we had some joy by watching the vegetation and views of the peaks that, luckily, were uncovered that day. We returned to Nairobi and we promised ourselves to come back.

We did return another year. This time we followed a different route on the eastern side through the Chogoria gate that led to our bungalow at the Meru Mt. Kenya Lodge. It was freezing but luckily there was hot water although the firewood was wet and to make a fire was quite a job. It soon became misty and we could not see anything around us, apart from the buffaloes that apparently found the bungalows a protection against predators!

meru mt kenya lodge getting there 1

Avoiding a tree recently pulled down by elephants on the way to Mt. Kenya.

The following morning the buffaloes had gone and the mist lifted so we decided to go for a guided hike to Lake Ellis and suffered the effects of altitude and cold. This was the country where “Icy Mike” an elephant that lived (and died) at 4,400m, an unusual event as it demands very high energy consumption, not typical of elephants and that is still unexplained.

meru mt kenya lodge lake ellis

Lake Ellis.

Like the first, the second visit was not a great success and it was the end of our attempts at ‘enjoying’ the mountain. We left early and got to Nairobi in time to go to the Fox Drive In cinema to enjoy a good movie and an Indian dinner and, later, a hot shower and a rest. We decided that we had done enough and that from then on we would watch Mt. Kenya from a distance and enjoy it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lake Nakuru [1]

Being 160 km from Nairobi made Lake Nakuru a favourite weekend escapade as it was well known for its prolific bird life. Unfortunately but at the same time inevitable, the strongly alkaline 62 km2 lake was an island inside farmland and its borders were clearly under pressure from the rural dwellers next door as well as from the town of Nakuru looming nearby and threatening this true bird paradise with its effluent. However, at the time of our visits the park offered unique birding opportunities.

nakuru 1-- 13 6 82

A view of the lake from one of the viewpoints.

The explanation of why there are soda lakes is geological. Rift valley volcanoes spewed alkaline ashes rich in sodium carbonate that the rainwater carried to the lakes. Those without drainage allowed the sodium to accumulate and the water became alkaline. All alkaline lakes are near a volcano: Lake Natron (Tanzania) and Lake Magadi (Kenya) are near Shombole and Olorgesailie respectively, lake Elmenteita near Eburu crater, lake Nakuru near Menengai crater and lake Bogoria near the Laikipia volcanic escarpment.

 

nakuru 01

Approaching the lake shore.

Lake Nakuru National Park, including the lake itself, has 188 km2 and it was created to protect the soda lake that gives it its name and that lies in the center of the Rift Valley following the arrival of more than 1.5 million of flamingos to the lake in 1960. In 1961 the famous American bird artist and author Roger Tory Peterson called the massed flamingos on the lake “the world’s greatest ornithological spectacle” and this prompted the authorities to declare it a National Park in 1963, mainly as a bird sanctuary.

Clearly the flamingoes, both the lesser flamingoes (Phoenicoparrus minor) and the greater ones (Phoenicopterus roseus) were still the main attraction at the time of our visits and they alone justified the trip although the park had an amazing bird wealth as well as several interesting mammal and plant species. The lesser flamingo, by far the most numerous, had dark pink plumage as well as a magenta beak with a black tip. The greater flamingo was larger and had a pink bill and a whitish-pink plumage.

nakuru 13 6 82 mabel

Mabel watching the flamingoes.

From afar and from the various viewpoints that surrounded the lake they could be seen as a wide pink ring enclosing the lake’s water and flying over the water continuously changing positions. Approaching the shore the ring would start vibrating and soon transformed itself in tens of thousands of birds feeding, displaying, fighting, taking-off, landing, being attacked by predators from both land (baboons and hyenas) and air (birds of prey of all sorts).

Flamingoes Nakuru copy

Lesser flamingoes.

Surprisingly the two flamingo species do not breed in Nakuru and they are only there to feed, their numbers largely determined by food availability and this, in turn, depends chiefly on rainfall. If conditions are not right they move to other rift valley lakes, notably Bogoria.

The lesser flamingoes feed almost exclusively on the free-floating algae that grow only in alkaline water. These algae, known as Spirulina, had grown over thousands of years and the millions of flamingoes that feed on them are the final result. With their heads upside-down, their tongues pump the water that gets filtered in their specially modified spongy beaks trapping the algae. To thrive they need about 150g of food per day, that had been calculated to be a total of 150 metric tons per day to feed the more than a million birds that constituted the Kenya bird colony!

The greater flamingo, much less numerous, fed on shrimps and small fishes and they were present in most lakes, including sometimes in the freshwater ones.

For some visitors the lake was as beautiful as treacherous. The road around the lake was an innocent looking track made of volcanic ash and soda that, although it was dry, it was in fact very soft and muddy below. Some motorists ignored the warning signs and their car wheels would break through the thin crust and sink. They would then find themselves helplessly buried in soft and sticky ash and it was not unusual to find abandoned cars waiting for the park authorities to be able to enter with a tractor to recover them!

Although we admired the flamingoes, the great white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus) were our favorites. Their numbers estimated at nine thousand, they stayed apart from the flamingoes and mainly grouped at the southern end of the lake at the appropriately named Pelican Corner where, in a horse shoe formation dipping their heads in unison they would feed on Alcolapia grahami, an alkaline-tolerant fish very close to the Tilapia species. The group surrounded and gradually forced fish into shallow and warmer water, flapping wings and plunging bills to catch them along the way.

But it was flying that they were truly astonishing. When the air’s temperature started to increase they would take off and, like the vultures do, find the right upward-moving thermals and climb until they reached the right altitude and then they would move on like a squadron of bomber planes, hardly beating their wings towards other lakes such as to Naivasha to the south. Although they can be seen as ugly on land, they are one of the most graceful birds I have seen flying!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Bird life was so prolific and abundant (more than 450 species of birds had been recorded at the time we were there) that a challenge we aimed for when we felt active enough was to get up early in the morning and return for “brunch” having spotted one hundred different species! Perhaps because we were not “true” birdwatchers we never achieved this goal but it was not rare to arrive at 80 species and above every time we attempted it!

Lake Nakuru is very picturesque as it is surrounded by several volcanoes: to the north is Menengai crater, northeast the Bahati hills, east by the Lion hill, south by the Eburu crater and west by the Mau escarpment. The road around the park was a great way of seeing the lake and its many features as well as seeing how close the farmers were on the other side of the fence!

It was a long drive to complete the circuit as the lake has a surface of 62 km2. The road went through rocky hills and our favourite were the Baboon cliffs that, in addition to the strong hyrax urine smell, offered great views across the lake. It was from there that we watched the pelicans fishing and flying.

bushbuck

Defassa waterbuck in Nakuru.

Defassa waterbuck predominated in the areas of high grass and hippos were present in the northeastern corner of the lake where the alkalinity of the water was lower because of the entry of fresh water from the Njoro river and other springs. There was a small pod of hippopotamus living in that area. Nakuru was also a good place to see Bohor reedbuck and black and white Colobus monkeys.

Rotschild’s giraffes were successfully reintroduced in the late 70s and a rhino sanctuary was started in 1987 that was managed by our friend Jock, the one that we had met in Naivasha earlier. Unfortunately, despite several invitations, we never visited it as we were getting ready to move from Kenya at the time the sanctuary started.

The absence of lions and the few buffalo present made the park safe for limited walking and, although spotted hyenas would visit your camp nightly, they never troubled us and, over the several years we visited the park, we only saw a leopard once from the car while driving after sunset.

nakuru buffaloes best

Some of the few buffalo we spotted in Nakuru.

nakuru 01.jpg

We always camped near the main entrance at a grassy campsite under the shade of very large yellow bark acacias (Vachellia xanthophloea) in the company of the beautiful black and white colobus monkeys as well as the less pleasant visits of vervet monkeys and baboons. The place provided great freshness and I recall spending long hours writing scientific papers there while Mabel put up with me walking about the camp always finding entertainment and finding interesting things to watch.

When our Uruguayan lady friends Elcira and Marta came to visit us in Kenya as part of their life-long world-trotting, Nakuru was the place we took them camping, precisely because of its safety and the spectacular sight of the thousands of flamingoes and other birdlife. It was a great success and we spend a long time watching the flamingo antics [2].

Nakuru has diverse vegetation including woodlands with sedge marshes, dry and seasonally flooded grasslands, and various types of dry wood and scrubland that occupy the land between the lake waters and the escarpment and ridges. Of note are the patches of large yellow bark acacia woodlands as well as the nicest Euphorbia candelabrum forest near the Lion Hill Camp.

 

[1] The meaning of Nakuru: “the place of the waterbuck”; “the place where the cows won’t eat”; “the dusty place”, “the shifting place”; “the place of smoke”; “the place of the dust devils” See: https://archive.org/stream/cbarchive_101865_meaningofthenamenakuru1960/XXIII_No.7__104__303_1960_Kirby_djvu.txt

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/09/08/the-joys-of-camping/