Kenya

Baby in trouble

There were lots of topi (Damaliscus lunatus jimela) and kongoni (Alcelaphus buselaphus), also known as hartebeest, roaming the Maasai Mara and they would calf at the same time as the wildebeest so we would see them with their newly born calves while looking for the wildebeests giving birth.

During the course of darting wildebeest we removed snares whenever we saw animals with them.

On one of these occasions we saw a very young kongoni, probably one or two days old that was not only on its own but also very restless. Through the binoculars we saw that it carried an arrow on its forehead! It was most probably a Maasai arrow that was shot from behind the animal and entered the top of the skin of its head going through and it was hanging on its face, bothering him.

As Paul judged the animal too young for darting we decided to catch it to remove the arrow! The idea was to chase it with the car until we were close enough to jump out to grab it and remove the offending weapon. As the car we were driving only had seats at the front, we decided that Mabel (wisely not too interested in our antics!) would stay enjoying the sunshine on some nearby rocks.

We then removed the doors and we were ready for action and started to approach our target slowly. The strategy was to get close to the small calf and then -again- I would jump on it, immobilize it and then remove the arrow. We thought that it would tire fast and enable us to ghrab it.

After a while pursuing it we realized that our “tiring hypothesis” was wrong and the calf had much more energy than we anticipated. We would drive close to it but, just before I could jump on it, it would accelerate again or do a zig-zag movement that would leave us facing in another direction.

We drove an inordinate time, up and down the plain and we were close to get it a few times but it will always avoid us at the last second. drove up and down and passed in front of Mabel a couple of times. Eventually, during one of these turns it entered a rocky area where its mother had gone and we could no longer follow it. So, defeated we returned to collect Mabel.

She was not amused. During our absence she stopped following our fruitless activity not to place herself under the sun but to keep an eye on some lions that she had spotted some distance away so she remained very still to avoid attracting their attention. She had tried to stopped us while we passed by by shaking her arms and she was not amused when we told her that we thought she was greeting us!

Luckily the lions were full of wildebeest!

Wild rodeo

I mentioned earlier that our friend Paul was working on animal diseases at various places, including the Maasai Mara Game Reserve where he was investigating the epidemiology of Malignant Catarrh fever. Apart from collecting placentas [1] he was also collecting blood samples to ascertain the presence of antibodies against this disease among the wildebeest population.

When I had time on my way to Intona ranch via the Maasai Mara or over weekends we joined him to spend time together enjoying the bush, which also included enjoying helping him with his work!

Taking a blood sample while Mabel looks on.

Clearly, to bleed the animals there was the need to immobilize them and this was done by firing a dart that in fact was a flying metal syringe that, on impact with the animal, would have a tiny detonation that would push the anesthetic into the animal. Although interesting, the procedure had risks as an accidental inoculation to a human was life-threatening and a syringe loaded with the antidote was prepared every time we went out.

The effect of the immobilizing drug was very fast and the animal would lie down within a few minutes. During that time, we needed to follow the animal until it started to slow down and finally stopped and became recumbent. Then, there was no need for much holding, as it did not struggle.

After finishing the work and removing the dart, we would apply a gentian violet spray to help with the healing of the small wound as well as to alert us that the animal had already been captured. Then we would inject the antidote intravenously and we literally jumped back as the animal will immediately recover, stand-up and move off as if nothing had happened! This was essential when darting animals in a place notorious for its large predators that were always on the prowl.

Although I had a chance to dart a few animals, I mostly drove as the work needed a two-person team to be performed. I needed to learn how to drive in order to come within “shooting” distance of the animals. You needed to come obliquely as not to start them and then stop the car to allow the shooter to do the job. Breaking a branch or even a twig was sufficient to have to start all over again!

A dart placed at the right spot.

The shoulder was your target. Being in the centre of the animal you would still hit the neck if it went back or the flank if it happened to go forward. Although this sounds simple, sometimes the dart would go over or under the animal or it would jump and the dart would miss it. A missed shot meant an interruption of the work until the dart -usually half-buried in the grass- was recovered. Project resources were limited and a dart was costly. Luckily they had a coloured flight stabilizers that helped locating them.

Although the work proceeded smoothly, there was one instance when things did not go as planned.

At a time that most of the wildebeest had traveled to the Serengeti, there was a need to get some samples despite the low number of animals present. The work involved a lot of searching until individual animals were found and then approached for them to be darted.

After a lot of hard work we managed to dart one adult male that we processed fast to continue looking for others. We covered a lot of bush but found that the animals were particularly jittery and difficult to approach. Eventually we got a female and continued trying to the last one for the day.

During mid-afternoon we found another male, we darted it and started to follow it waiting for it to go down. After a while -surprised- we saw that it would not go down as expected. We followed it and then when it turned we saw the gentian violet spray we had left on it when we had darted earlier!

Clearly, the animal was still under the influence of the antidote and the new dose of tranquilizer would only slow it down but it was not enough for it to lie down. We were in a fix as we could not leave it in that condition and more tranquilizing drug was not advisable.

Desperate situations demand desperate solutions so I volunteer to ambush it by hiding behind a bush while Paul drove it towards me. I thought it would require the same effort as holding a young steer, something I had done this before so I estimated it doable. After all, I only needed to hold it for a sufficiently long time to allow Paul to come and help me, overpower it and remove the dart.

We found a suitable area with woodlands on both sides and I hid behind some bushes with some rocks behind me (to prevent unwanted visitors surprising me) and waited. Although I did not see the car, I heard it coming closer so I got ready for the animal to walk in front of me and then jump to get it.

To my surprise, before I could move, quite a large head (much larger than I expected) was sniffing me! Despite my surprise I reacted by grabbing the animal’s neck hoping to keep it still. As I started being dragged over the plains of the Maasai Mara I realized that I had underestimated the strength of a male wildebeest, even a drugged one!

I soon lost my footing and remained hanging from my embrace of its rather muscular neck. The neck of a wildebeest from a car window is one thing but to actually try to span it with your arms while the creature runs, although groggy, is another one.  

After about three leaps, my grip slackened and I ended up grabbing one of its front legs. My hold was rather short-lived as I was now under the beast being dragged, stepped on and knocking me against all ground irregularities. I let it go and stayedlying on the ground recovering from the ill treatment received.

I was not really hurt but a bit knocked and soon recovered and sat-up to wait for Paul while removing a few thorns from my arms and legs. Paul took a while to come as he was laughing so much at the scene! I understood his mirth as it must have been quite a funny act to watch!

Despite what I thought it was a brave attempt, the problem remained. The wildebeest was still groggy and vulnerable and it carried a valuable dart! We needed another plan as the animal was trotting just a few metres from us. So, plan B was hatched that would involve my cattle-lassoing skills I had acquired in Uruguay.

With the car’s towing rope I improvised my lasso and placed myself between the front of the car and the bull bar where I could keep in place while I could use both hands as I could not use a lasso with only one. I was a bit unstable on my perch but decided that it will have to do. As a precaution I tied the end of the improvised lasso to the bull bar.

As soon as the car approached the beast I threw my improvised lasso until, after the third or fourth try, I managed to get it from the horns. That was not my idea as I aimed for the neck but it will have to do. Seen that the lasso was firm I signalled Paul to slow down and stop. The animal continued trotting as far as the rope allowed it and then, gradually, we pulled it to bring it close and finally managed to extricate the dart, spray it again (this time on the other side as well) and, with some difficulty but with the aid of a wire, remove the lasso from its horns.

A rather dishevelled bushsnob posing with the exhausted wildebeest, waiting until it recovered fully.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/09/01/learning-to-camp-among-the-wildebeest/

Deep sea fishing

Watamu was one of the best places for deep sea fishing in the African side of the Indian Ocean so, a group of male friends (bushsnob included) decided to travel there a weekend to try our luck, despite the displeasure of the wives that were left behind!

We left Nairobi on a Friday afternoon in a rather luxurious car for that time, a Peugeot 604 belonging to one of my friends. As the trip was organized at the last minute, we did not have any bookings for a fishing boat but we were sure to find one ready to take us. We were spending our two nights at the Ocean Sports Club and there were lots of fishermen with boats for rent there.

My friend drove fast -too fast for my taste- but the car responded and we got to Ocean Sports before sunset. Later, at the bar, we managed to find a boat for the next day that would take us fishing. The idea was to fish from 06:00hs to 16:00hs and to share all expenses between the four of us.

So it was that, full of anticipation, we got up before sunrise and drove to the harbour from where our fishing boat operated. To prevent seasickness I took a strong dose of dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) and I was ready to go.

We traveled quite a distance until we did not see land anymore. I was fine as I also avoided looking close to the boat but far away. Although I did not feel seasick, I felt half-sleep because of the drug for a good part of the morning until I started to regain consciousness. Nothing, however, prepared me for the inhaling of the engine fumes at the back of the boat and we soon decided to travel at the front, at least until the fishing started.

Once we reached the right place that I must say looked like any area of the sea we had sailed through, we slowed down and a number of rods with the expected large reels chained to the boat were thrown while we solemnly drew straws to determine the order of the fisherman in the “hot chair”, the one with the best chances of getting strikes.

I had the shortest so if the fishing was bad, I may not even had a chance to fish! However, it was fun to be there anyway. Luckily I was wrong because at some stage we went through a shoal of tuna when all rods had fish in them and chaos followed as they were running in all directions and the lines got badly entangled!

I had one in one of the rods and quickly learnt that in the sea, as compared with a river, there is practically no bottom and the fish can run for many metres aiming for the deep, something that was disconcerting at first but I got used to after a while.

Soon lines broke or needed to be cut and only one of us managed to land a tuna while the crew aptly guided us on what to do in a situation like this and quickly repared the damage as they were clearly used to this kind of incidents.

The ultimate goal of the trip was to catch a large marlin as these beautiful gamefish are known to be present in these waters. We agreed that we would attempt marlin fishing later but before we would try for other species such as falusi (dorado), kingfish, tuna, bonito and barracuda to name a few of the most common. If we were lucky we could catch sailfish but they were not easy.

After a couple of hours fishing my friends had caught their fish, including a sailfish, a truly beautiful fish. By then it was very hot and the situation was not too good as one of my friends was sick on starboard while a member of the crew was suffering from diarrhea and he was occupying the bow. that we, politely, left empty until he recovered.

That was the situation when I started my turn, under a strong sun, sweating and waiting, focused on fishing to avoid seasickness or worse!

After about an hour of nothing happening I saw the unmistakable head of a sailfish with its open bill breaking the surface of the sea towards the back of the boat and I shouted “look, there is a sail…!” but I could finish the sentence as a fish took off with my lure! It was the very sailfish I saw that had taken my lure and I only realized what it was when it jumped entirely outside of the water. (I could not find any pictures of this fishing trip and I failed to embed one from Getty with the new WordPress editor!, sorry).

Sailfish leaping, just thrown the hook, the one that got away. Credit iStock by Getty Images.

The fish fought well, jumping repeatedly and, after about thirty minutes I landed a 37 kg sailfish, the biggest fish I have caught! I would have loved to put it back (as we normally do with all fish) but I was explained that all fish caught would go to a local fishing community that would sell it to the Watamu lodges so I had no option.

Although later we trolled deep seeking to hook a marlin by using a humongous hook with a whole -although small- tuna as a bait, we failed. However, we returned to port with some glory and displaying the fish flags that indicated our catch!

That evening at the bar our fish grew to amazing proportions … We were tired, sunburnt and quite dehydrated so, after a light meal and drinking lots of water and some beer we were ready to go to bed.

The following morning we left for Nairobi, again, at a high speed. too much for me as the car was quite loaded and it was very hot. So we drove until Voi when a red light was noticed but it was ignored by the driver as, apparently, it often appeared often for no apparent reason.

By the time we got near Mtito Andei with still 233 km still to go, the car lost power and we crawled into Mtito Andei where we stopped. Thick blue smoke was coming from the engine compartment and it got worse when we opened the bonnet as the engine was boiling! We waited for it to cool down but it would not start again and we suspected that it had ceased.

We then decided that the car should be left there for it to be recovered the following day and we decided to wait for the next Akamba bus to Nairobi that only appeared when it was already dark. We arrived at Nairobi at midnight and Mabel was not amused with my performance and explanations and it took her a few days to calm down!

Lamu’s baby

Cristina (not her real name) was a Spanish lady that used to come every year to participate in a UN conference and spend a few months in Nairobi. We got to know her through some of Mabel Latin colleagues at work and, somehow, we ended up being invited to her apartment for dinner so that we could meet her baby.

At she was already in her later forties we were puzzled about the baby and it was with some degree of curiosity that we turned up in her house. She greeted us and then said, pointing to a young man of clear Swahili origin “this is Mohammed, my baby!” and then she burst out laughing. It was not rare in Kenya that older European women would develop a relationship with younger men when spending time at the coast but for us it was quite a shock at the time.

During dinner, Mohammed who was from Lamu happened to be a very nice young guy that insisted that we visited Lamu and that he would look after us there.

So, the day came when we decided to travel to Lamu island and we flew on a small plane from Malindi to Manda island where the airport serving the Lamu archipelago is located. The plane flew quite low and followed the coast line over lovely areas on the sea with different shades of blue and green as well as large areas of mangrove forests and what looked like very dry areas inland.

As part of the ticket they put us on a boat and took us across the channel to Lamu itself. Approaching Lamu was already amazing as it slowly it sunk in that this was a different place from anywhere we had been earlier. The buildings on the seafront with their arcades and open verandas provided a visual impression of times past and I thought that the early explorers and adventurers must have faced seen similar sights when they first arrived to the Kenya coast.

Lamu from our “house”.

We landed at the harbour hoping that Mohammed would be there as we had arranged earlier. So when people came to ask what we needed or to offer assistance I said that we were waiting for Mohammed. That was not a clever thing to say as, within a minute we were surrounded by “Mohammeds” offering all sorts of services!

Lamu harbour.

Eventually, after a while, the “true” Mohammed came so, laughing, he welcomed us and took us to the place where we would stay. It was a family house and we were given the first floor with a roofless bedroom that opened into an inner patio surrounded by walls and a toilet with a bucket of water. At that time there were only a handful of hotels in Lamu and most visitors stayed in private houses.

Lamu Old Town is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. Its houses are simple structures built in coral blocks and timber from mangroves with interesting inner patios and elaborately carved wooden doors and furniture.

Swahili chair in Joe Murumbi’s house.

That weekend we explored the place and saw that the old Lamu had maintained not only its architecture but also its social and cultural character. We learnt that it had been there for over 700 years and that it was an important place for Islamic education and Swahili culture.

The streets were very narrow and, apparently, its tortuous arrangement has its origins in Arab traditions of land allocation and urban development but the outstanding features of the town were the doors that were beautifully carved.

Lamu door. Credit: Justin Clements / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0). Not modified. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lamu_door.jpg).

The Lamu doors were well known in Kenya and I had already seen them at various places in Nairobi and, particularly at Intona ranch where Joe Murumbi had built a house following the style of the coastal houses and they had fitted Lamu doors to it. Joe had told me that these doors were the result of artistic influence from various cultures that intermingled at the coast such as Swahili, Arabic, Persian, Indian and European.

Lamu wooden door. Credit: Nite_Owl / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0). Not modified. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lamu_wood_door.jpg

With the exception of a rather new-looking green Land Rover pick-up belonging to the District Commissioner, there were no other cars in Lamu but enough pollution was provided by donkeys that were all over and left their dung and aroma everywhere. Aware of the high donkey traffic and the alleged contamination of the water supply, during a cholera outbreak they decided to introduce the diapers for donkeys. However, the residents did not support the project and it was abandoned.

However, the diaper idea stayed alive and it made a come back 30 years later if Wajir when, in 2016, the authorities forbade the entrance of “diaperless” donkeys into the town [1].

Of course we had some beach time while in Lamu and, declining the offer of moving by donkey, we walked following the coast towards the south to Shela, avoided the expensive Peponi Hotel, and stopped at one of the beaches where we were alone and able to enjoy the warm waters of the Indian Ocean undisturbed.

Mabel and baobab at Lamu.

Being a Muslim town, no alcohol was available (not an issue for us) but we discovered a new drink: lassi! This was the sweet variety based on yogurt, different fruits and what makes it special: spices! The drink is very popular in the Indian sub-continent where several kinds are on offer.

Lamu market.

The following HSBC commercial (that I do not endorse in any way here!) is an excellent example of the discovery of lassi by an outsider!

The time in Lamu was too short and we were soon boarding the plane back carrying a strong impression that we had just been privileged to live a historical experience rather than a holiday and the memories of this trip would last for ever.

[1] See: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36398592

Credit: Justin Clements / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0). Not modified.

The Kenya coast

The next visit following our train journey ended up at Diani beach, south of Mombasa. We stayed at a tented camp right on the beach called Nomad’s Tented camp. The only place we could afford. It was only a weekend with little time and I found the tents at the camp too hot although the sea had a truly wonderful temperature for my taste.

I must confess that beaches are not my seen as I was soon sticky and full of sand as well as bored of too much resting! Sea food was good and this somehow compensated for the rest. As expected, however, Mabel loved it so I knew that we would come back often!

The coast of Kenya has been somehow separated from the mainland by the nyika, a Swahili word meaning bush or perhaps dry bush to explain better what you find over hundreds of kilometres between this area and the Kenya highlands to the west. Not surprisingly then, before the Lunatic Express was built, the coast looked east beyond the Indian Ocean and traded with the Arabs for slaves and ivory and with India for spices.

Luckily we managed to visit most of the areas south of Malindi as well as the island of Lamu further north. So it was that over the following years we discovered a new and different Kenya, tropical and hot with nice beaches of warm waters and with a hitherto unknown world for us: the coral reef.

What we knew at the time as the Kenya Coast Province was replaced in 2013 by four counties from north to south: Lamu, Tana River, Kilifi and Kwale. Irrespective of the political arrangement there are 1,420 km of Indian Ocean shores, enough to get lost.

We started from Mombasa, the most important town. It developed in an area where there was a gap in the reef barrier that enabled ships to anchor in deep waters. It still is the main harbour of the country known as Kilindini or “place of deep water”.

Mombasa is a colorful city where several races, cultures and religions coexist in apparent harmony in a warm and tropical environment. We only got a superficial knowledge of the place and drove under the four elephant tusks or Moi avenue, the city’s hallmark.

Moi avenue.

We visited its fascinating, smelly and noisy market and Fort Jesus, an imposing defense structure with 2.4m thick walls with “re-entrant” angles. The latter make every face protected by crossfire and very difficult to storm. Despite this, the fort changed hands repeatedly over time!

Mombasa’s Fort Jesus.
The sea from Fort Jesus.
Fort Jesus.

We also spent time at the old harbour where we were lucky to see still being used and where we saw a number of fishing boats as well as several dhows anchored there. It was during that occasion that we spotted Nawalilkher and Tusitiri (see:  https://bushsnob.com/2017/01/29/two-dhows/).

A dhow.

After that first approach to the south coast we learnt about the beauties of the northern coast so we decided to explore it and discovered the “local Airbnb” of those times in the shape of Kenya Villas that had a number of beach houses to rent at Watamu. This area became our base from the first time we stayed there as we greatly enjoyed it and visited it often getting to know the nicest houses.

One of the houses we rented at Watamu.

The arrangements were on a self-catering basis but most houses came with a cook and maids that pampered you, as usual. The best feature of staying there was the service of fresh sea produce that was delivered to your door everyday. Delicious fresh snapper fish, live crabs and lobsters at reasonable prices that allowed you to enjoy these delicacies, usually beyond us. Fish in coconut sauce and lobster thermidor were included in our home menu during those visits.

There was however a few hazards even if you did not get robbed as happened to a friend of us in one of these houses. Coconut falling sounds silly but to get hit by one of these weighing 1.4 kg falling from 20 metres can cause a major injury [1]. This was, all things considered, a risk worth taking as- if you survived and got the coconut, its juice was one of the most refreshing drinks I have drunk.

Apart from milk, coconut palms provide coastal communities with coconut shells for various utensils, oil, leaves for the makuti roofs in the shape of tiles, wood for housing and coconut flesh for eating either raw, dried or toasted.

While in Watamu, a small fishing town, we often traveled to Malindi, 23 km north, a town with a strong Italian influence where we had more shopping options. It was also attractive for its good pasta and pizzas and even -despite the heat- ice-creams. It was loaded with tourists, mostly from Italy that flew in charters directly to the coast, a practice that has now been reduced because of security concerns.

Malindi was where Vasco da Gama picked up his pilot to navigate with the monsoon winds to India. Both Malindi and Watamu offered lots of exotic food and local specialities such as halwa, a sticky and sweet dessert made of brown sugar, ghee (clarified butter), rose water, and cardamom sometimes garnished with pistachio, almond slithers and sometimes toasted sesame seeds that we always bought at the local markets, risking a severe increase in our calories count!

It was true that the beaches were great but the biggest discovery for us was the coral reef, one of the richest ecosystems of animal origin in the planet with thousands of colors and shapes. The Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve protected the coral gardens. Although some were further off into the ocean, there were coral gardens a few hundred metres from our rented house!

These were home to hundreds of coral and fish species and other life forms too many to describe. Although we never saw turtles, manta rays or whale sharks, they did exist there and proof of that is the manta ray that “flew” over a friend’s boat while he was fishing for the pot at the Watamu lagoon!

In addition, our friend Ken hobby was the coral reef fish and, for years, he towed his wife Betty on a car inner tube behind him as he swam along the reef in search of fish![3]. He was a very good source of information on what to look for and where.

These true gardens could be enjoyed by walking from the beach during the low tide, renting a glass-bottom boat from one of the hotels there, snorkeling or diving. Usually during most mornings the tide was low and this enabled us to explore the reef, either from the comfort of a glass-bottom boat or by the more energy-consuming snorkeling while swimming slowly over the reef.

Although there were a few fish to be avoided such as the stone, scorpion (lion) and jelly fish, the view compensated for the risk that was low if you were careful not to touch anything.

Immersed in this new world we lost all sense of time and space and often floated a long way from the coast and we had a laborious return although with no great risks as we had good life belts and there were no strong currents there. The problem was the sun as no sun block would keep you covered for such a long time!

We wore a t-shirt and a life jacket that took care of your back but not the legs and I paid the price the first time when in the afternoon post-snorkeling I could hardly walk as the back of my legs were badly burnt and in the evening I could not bend my legs. There it was when I learnt why people at the coast wear kikoys wrapped around their waist as this lessens your burns rubbing against tighter clothing.

We continued exploring the coral reef during every visit but during the periods of high tide, while Mabel enjoyed the sand, sea and sun I started to get bored, as usual in any beach. So, after a while of looking for entertainment I hatched the idea of windsurfing and, with my Muguga colleague Robin, we decided to buy one on a 50:50 basis and keep it at the coast with some friends of his.

Luckily the windsurfing equipment came with a manual so I studied it and immediately went for a try as it seemed simple. About four hours later I came back to the house bleeding from several cuts inflicted by the coral as well as a few bruises and loudly declared that I will offer my share of the artifact for sale from that day, not exactly in those words though.

Mabel kept quiet while I ranted freely and simply told me that my problem had an easy solution: to go for lessons at the nearby Turtle Bay hotel where there was bound to be someone teaching how to do windsurf! I must admit that out of pride I pretended to dismiss the idea but that same afternoon, while the tide was up and the wind blew, I walked to the hotel and booked an intensive course for the next day!

I was happy to see that the teaching was on a windsurf simulator on firm ground and that soon I was able to master the technique’s basics and then I was told to go back and attempt to stand on the table minus the sail so I spent time gettin on it and falling until I was too tired to go on.

The following day, as indicated, I went for my final lesson with my windsurfer and I was fitted with a new much smaller sail and then I saw some sea action. With a smaller sail things were easier and eventually I was ready to go around the turtle rock at the bay and return to be given the green light to sail on my own!

It was in this way that windsurfing entertained me from then on while Mabel enjoyed the beach in peace.

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

[2]See: Bock, K. (1978). A guide to the common Reef Fishes of the Western Indian Ocean. Mcmillan Press Ltd., London & Basingstoke.

The Lunatic Express

Our first journey to Mombasa was not by car but by train. We took the train that run everyday leaving Nairobi at 19:00hs and arriving at Mombasa the following morning at 06:00hs. We were advised to buy First Class tickets as these gave you access to a sleeping coach.

The Ugandan railway was born in the late 19th century, when European countries were engaged in the “scramble for Africa” and the British were worried about German expansionism in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and French interests in Sudan. It was an imperative undertaking for Britain (to keep its interests in Egypt) to have access to the source of the Nile, Lake Victoria.

Connecting Britain’s territories on the Kenyan coast to the shore of lake Victoria in Uganda by rail was considered the solution. The project created such a clamour in the British Parliament that it ended up known as the “Lunatic Line”, a name given to it by Charles Miller, who wrote its history [1].

However it was Henry Labouchère, writer and politician, that in 1896 attacked the then Foreign Minister Curzon’s backing of the idea with a satirical poem that called the project “a lunatic line” [2]

A train on bridge of the Uganda Railway leading from Mombassa to Nairobi; insert in lower right-hand corner shows the train at Mau Summit. Credit: United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division.

Despite dissidence the British government marched on with the plans, and sent Sir George Whitehouse to build the railway. Work on the one-metre gauge railway commenced in the port of Mombasa in May 1896 and thousands of workers were recruited from India to start construction on the railway and all the materials, from sleepers to steam engines, were brought from Britain.

Soon the Lunatic express ran into severe trouble such as the lack of water at Tatu and the man-eating lions that threatened to halt construction at Tsavo. However, five million pounds (today £ 660 million) and about 2,500 dead workers later, in 1901 the railway line arrived to Kisumu (then Port Florence) in the shores of Lake Victoria.

The building of the railway was an amazing feat of engineering that succeeded in joining the British protectorate of Mombasa to the colony of Uganda, uniting the disparate ethnic groups in between and consolidated a country today known as Kenya!

The train gained a “romantic” fame with the early settlers and visitors alike as migration to Kenya was promoted in Britain with the hope that the commercial traffic that this would create would pay back such a high investment.

A poster promoting the Uganda Railway. Picture taken by bushsnob from a copy of the poster acquired in Kenya at the tme of the journey.
Theodore Roosevelt and traveling companions mount the observation platform of the Uganda Railway. Credit: Wikimedia, Public domain.

Luckily, when we got to the Nairobi Railway Station with its grey arches and the Nairobi sign hardly legible, the railway’s cost was not remembered and the man-eaters were not interfering with the running of the train. We soon found our names written on cards attached to the outside of our carriage and we boarded.

Locomotive with fuel tanks in Kampala. Credit: Iwoelbern / Public domain.

The old brown-leather padded carriages were very clean and the seats comfortable. After settling in we waited for the train to move but before this happened, the in the Sleeping car assistant came to check our tickets and to ask us if we wished to have dinner at 21:30hs or at 22:30hs.

As we were feeling hungry we chose the first shift and a few minutes afterwards we heard the whistles of the Stationmaster and the loud horn of the train while we felt the pull of the locomotive and heard the steadily increasing chugging sound and then we were moving!

Slowly we moved through the station and then gradually away from it and, still slowly, through the outskirts where most people ignored us but some returned our greetings and some children shouted “muzungu!, muzungu!”[3] at us. Gradually it gathered some more speed and the the clickety-clackety sound of the wheels passing over the fish plates that join the rails started to become more frequent and we were on our way, faster now!

After a while it was time to move to the dining car and we were impressed by its neatness and luxury. The car was lined with brown-red leather and old fans gently turned moving the air inside the carriage.

Clearly dinner was a serious affair. Waiters, wearing fezzes and white gloves helped us to find our table and be seated at our reserved places. The first course of the three-course menu was immediately brought. It was a hot soup that would be followed by fish and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and potatoes. Dessert was fruit crumble with excellent custard sauce.

We declined the freshly brewed Kenya coffee offer for fear of not being able to sleep. All dishes and drinks were served on crockery embossed with the logo of the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation, which had been defunct since 1977 but that were still in use!

Dinner over, as new commensals were arriving, we left, satisfied with our meal. We arrived at our cabin to find it transformed into a bedroom with immaculate starched sheets and pillows monogrammed with the same East African Railways logo. The change was such that I went out to check if we were in the right cabin!

Mabel slept soundly but I had difficulties as my bed was placed across the track so to say and every time that the train changed speed I would roll backwards and forwards and I feared falling until its speed stabilized again. The whistle sound and the brakes’ hiss and screech when the train slowed down did not add to my comfort either!

So, although the train was great from the historical and glamour sides, it was not a sleep coach for me. Lucky Mabel woke up just before we entered Mombasa!

The early morning arrival in hot and sticky Mombasa, coming from the rather cold and cloudy Nairobi, was like a miracle that truly brought me back to the early days of the train. The station was like a beehive with people vying with each other to get our luggage and offering you tropical fruits and all sorts of other goods! It was clearly a station with special character.

Once outside the station, the light was unbelievable and we needed to spend sometime adjusting to it to be able to find our transport that would take us to our hotel where I could have a “morning siesta” to recover my lost sleep while Mabel enjoyed the Mombasa markets under the tropical heat.

Unfortunately, after our time in Kenya, the railways service from Nairobi and Mombasa gradually deteriorated [4] and started running increasing delays and it could take the train 24 hours to do the journey we did in less than 12. Often the train would breakdown in truly dark areas or, if lucky, you could be stranded at Voi or other stations until repairs could be carried out. Although it still had a romantic touch, it was wearing thinner and it was just a question of time until its final journey.

When a new train known as the “Madaraka Express” started to be built by the Chinese, the fate of the Lunatic Express was sealed and it has then been replaced for a train that now takes 4.5 hours to get to Mombasa.

The train started to operate in May 2017 but, as the Lunatic Express it has also been the target of severe criticism due to its high cost of £2.5 billion, Kenya’s most expensive infrastructure project since independence [5] and comparatively even more expensive that the Lunatic line!

We have no desire to take the new train but prefer to still remember that we were lucky to taste the last voyages of what was one of the classic trips the world had to offer.

Footnotes

[1] Miller, C. The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism. Head of Zeus Editor. Kindle edition. Originally published by Futura; First Thus edition (1977).

[2]
What it will cost no words can express; 
What is its object no brain can suppose; 
Where it will start from no one can guess;
Where it is going to nobody knows;
What is the use of it none can conjecture;
What it will carry none can define... 
And in spite of George Curzon's superior lecture,
"It is clearly naught but a lunatic line."
See: https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2001241674/end-of-road-for-first-railway-that-defined-kenya-s-history

[3] White person in Ki-Swahili.

[4] For a recent (2016) description of the Lunatic express deterioration see https://www.1843magazine.com/features/the-lunatic-express

[5] The end of the lunatic express: https://www.emirates.com/zw/english/open-skies/6336316/the-lunatic-express-is-no-longer

Fishing in Kenya

In the 19th. century, the United Kingdom started distinguishing two kinds of fishing: freshwater game fishing that includes salmonids (salmon, trout and char) usually caught using fly-fishing and coarse (rough) fishing that refers to angling for freshwater fish inhabiting warmer and stiller waters (rough fish), except the salmonids, caught by other techniques. It was believed that only game fish made as good eating.

Not being British, I regard this as an academic issue but I am not interested in fly-fishing, having tried it, so I -proudly- fall under the coarse fisherman class. This condition gives me a license to fish anywhere and I am happy with that!

Several of my friends and colleagues in Muguga, Matt, Robin and Paul, were fly-fishers although the latter enjoyed coarse fishing as well and I have already narrated our exploits in Corrientes[1], the Mara River[2] and in Naivasha[3] to name a few.

The fact that I did not do fly-fishing did not stop me from accompanying my friends when they invited me to go to the trout-fishing spots around Nairobi, the Aberdares and to the Sasamua dam.  Although Matt invited me to go fishing for trout, I never made it with him. I did go with Robin but this river fishing was unexceptional, apart from some unexpected encounter with the odd elephant in the thicket!

I also accompanied Paul a couple of times, including the weekend when we tried his car[4]. He used to go often to the Sasamua dam where, according to the connoisseurs, some truly large trout lived. On one of these occasions, after fishing from the dam wall without success, we boarded the rubber dinghy to fish in the open water. It was drizzling and I tried to persuade him otherwise but he was looking forward to try his newly acquired folding grapnel anchor.

As expected, the fishing was bad and we got soaked but the anchor did work, too well. It got hold of the bottom of the lake immediately but, when we tried to retrieve it, it got stuck and the second rope to pull it from the front snapped so that was  fool-proof anchor that operated with two ropes, one to fold it and one to retrieve it. An interesting contraption.

A folding grapnel anchor.

To his credit, Paul kept going to the Sasamua, despite the odds and, eventually while fishing on his own he caught a rainbow trout that came very close to the Kenya record! It is the largest trout I have seen in the flesh! He was, justifiably, very pleased with his trout. Not only he got a fibreglass cast made but also he kept it in the freezer to show it to his friends! It was eventually eaten at one of his birthdays.

For an attempt at true coarse fishing we traveled to Lake Victoria in search of the introduced Nile Perch (Lates niloticus), one of the largest freshwater fish, it can reach a length of 2 m and weigh up to 200kg! We were aware that the latter were difficult to get but our hopes were high.

Nile Perch was introduced in Lake Victoria in the 1950s. Its introduction was ecologically disruptive and the subject is well known[5]. However, we were not going there in a “damage assessment” mission but to try and get some out of the water!

Nile perch drawing. Credit: Nile_perch Attrib- Boulenger, George Albert; Loat, L. [Public domain].

Working at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), I could arrange accommodation at the institute’s research station (the same that was being built when I visited with my boss Matt years earlier), and we booked it for a weekend when rain was not expected.

Rusinga island seen from Mbita point.

We prepared the strongest tackle we had and took Paul’s rubber dinghy to have our own fishing experience. We left Nairobi early and after a long drive through Nakuru and Kericho, we got to our accommodation quite late and tired but looking forward to the next morning.

The start was the pumping of the boat by the lakeshore. This was a true public event and we were not short of volunteers to step on the pump and get the boat ready. We explained the onlookers of all sexes and ages that we were going to fish Nile perch or in their Luo language, mbuta. This caused quite a lot of excitement and anticipation for our return with the fish. People in Kenya were very hopeful!

The boat ready, we left the beach, taking great care not to enter the water as Schistosomiasis (also known as Bilharzia) was known to be a problem in this area. We sailed towards the east part of Rusinga island, where I was meant to work according to the original plan of FAO! Being a less populated area we thought that the fishing would be good. We decided to troll at about 100m from the shore using our largest lures.

We fished the whole day apart from a break for lunch and a rest and returned to Mbita Point empty-handed before sunset. We did not get a single fish bite and the anxious crowd that waited for our fish were rather crestfallen and soon left while we pulled the boat out to a safe location.

Alarmed and disappointed, we discussed the situation over dinner and following Mabel’s down to earth advice, decided that, despite our intention to do the fishing ourselves, we should swallow our pride and consult some “experts”. We knew that a new company was starting to bring sport fishermen from the Maasai Mara by plane and we decided that meeting them was advisable as our fishing time was running out.

The following day, after finding our the whereabouts of the fishing company, we boated straight to their camp. Luckily they had no clients that weekend so all guides were present at camp and they kindly gave us some useful advice that I still remember: “Fish by trolling near the white rocks” and added “you will find the rocks easily and these are the best spots”.

We had boated past these rocks that had been “whitewashed” by the guano of countless cormorants stopping there to sun themselves after fishing. We realized that the Nile perch would also feed on the same fish, coming from the deep.

Clearly these rocks were the obvious places and we had overlooked them! We wasted no time and as fast as the small engine could take us, we did a beeline to the first rocks. Luckily it was a Saturday and a market day so, although the canoes were there, the fishermen were at the market and the lake was empty.

We caught a small Nile perch on our very first troll! Although it was not of spectacular proportions, it was a Nile perch.

One of the first Nile perch I caught.
Mabel and her fish with others on the bottom right.

By lunchtime we had all landed fish and returned to shore to weigh them at the fishing camp and we gave them some to thank them for the information given to us. They were very happy as fish is the main item of their diet.

Thanking them again, we re-started our fishing and trolled near some other rocks where we caught a few larger fish, closer to the “real thing” although we did not have a balance to ascertain their weights.

We also tried our luck to fish them from the shore and Paul managed to hook one, although -luckily-not too large as to bring it in would not have been easy with the tackle he had.

This time our return to Mbita Point was very different as we came with fish that we gave to the waiting crowd that were immediately cut up and shared. Our mood had also changed and we slept dreaming with our catches!

The following day, during our long return journey we had lots to talk about!

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/01/28/a-fishing-expedition/

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2017/02/05/camping-in-kenya-mara-river-fishing/

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

[4] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/01/21/simbas-bush-baptism/

[5] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nile_perch#Lake_Victoria_introduction

To the cradle of mankind – The return

Someplace in the Chalbi desert

turkana safari chalbi desert...

The vastness of the area.

Too soon the time to leave Koobi Fora arrived and we headed back to Nairobi. Luckily we would still visit a couple of unknown and hopefully interesting places. We planned a different route that would take us across the Chalbi desert to Marsabit National Park and then to Nairobi, via Archer’s Post and Isiolo and the start of the asphalt.

Turkana safari Land Rovers copy

A stop on the way.

The road was very rough and, after a while we started having punctures, first in the trailer, then Paul’s car had two more and, finally, we had one. We were in a tight spot as we had no more spares and from then on, we would need to disassemble them to patch the inner tubes, a hard job with large wheels such as those of the Land Rover, particularly pumping them back to the needed pressure!

We continued our journey and after a while got to a vast expanse of cracked red soil where soon became the only feature we saw. We had arrived to the Chalbi desert, a little known desert outside Kenia. We planned to cross it assuming that we would be able to follow the wheel marks from earlier vehicles as we carried no electronic orientation devices then. Despite following a few tracks that, luckily, soon ended nowhere, we managed to get to a promising track although we did not find anyone to consult!

We were still crossing the Chalbi when dusk caught up with us. We then decided to leave the main track to get the full desert experience while be less conspicuous to potential unwanted visitors. The evening was very warm and there was not a drop of wind and just nothing apart from reddish sand as far as we could see, except for a lone zebra skull. It was a totally new experience.

Turkana Chalbi desert with skull copy 2

The redness of the Chalbi desert with the lake behind.

We did not bother to set up tents and judged that no mosquitoes would be alive there so we just slept on our camp beds, after a tinned dinner. The biggest disappointment of the day, apart from having to change four wheels, was that our watermelons kept on the roof racks for a night like this, were rotten and we could not enjoy them after having saved them for days! Laying on our beds, we witnesses one of the most incredible skies we have ever seen and we watched it mesmerized until sleep defeated us.

turkana safari chalbi desert 1...

The cracked earth of the Chalbi desert.

The following morning, the discovery of our fifth another puncture, this time in the trailer delayed us for about an hour while we did the repair. Although we still had no spares, we trusted -rightly this time- that we would get to our next destination without another puncture. We managed to negotiate the Chalbi successfully and soon we found ourselves back at a track that we believed looked respectable enough to take us to the Marsabit mountain and its homonymous National Park.

turkana safari 2

On the way to Marsabit.

Our spirits soared when we saw spotted the outline of a large mountain in the distance that could only be Marsabit. It was and, as we approached it, we could see its green hue becoming sharper after every kilometre we traveled. We were soon climbing and the green vegetation was quite a novelty after spending almost a week without seen much in terms of trees! So, we entered Marsabit National Park and went straight to the Park Headquarters to leave our tires to get mended and then to a nearby hotel for a cold drink, just refraining ourselves from rolling on the lush green grass of the garden!

The mountain was a true oasis with a large forested area where elephants dwelled. In particular it had been the home of one of the most famous elephants known, Ahmed, the King of Marsabit that carried very large tusks that prompted President Jomo Kenyatta in 1970 to declare it a national treasure and was given special protection against poachers in the form of 24 hours custody by two hunters.

By the time of our visit Ahmed was dead (it died in 1974) but his fame was still very much alive and we were familiar with its shape and tusks from its monument at the Kenya National Museum in Nairobi. Ahmed was a loner and quite evasive and the stories about him became mythical after several years. It is said that when it died at the age of 55, the King was leaning against a tree, resting on his tusks.

Marsabit was a great stop and we explored its lush green forest and lakes without seeing any of Ahmed’s offspring but getting refreshed by its greenness before embarking on the final leg of our journey. We had still about 260 km of very corrugated road in front of us before we would get to the better road at Isiolo.

To Nairobi

Refreshed after so much greenery and with the full complement of fuel and repaired tires, we started our descent from Marsabit on the wide and corrugated road army-built that would eventually see us through to Isiolo. After a while we reached flat ground and we started meeting a succession of truly large herds of cattle moving north, we imagined towards Marsabit in search of greener pastures. There were thousands of animals being herded by nomadic people, probably Rendile.

After about 100 kilometres we passed Laisamis, a small settlement with a Catholic church dedicated to St George and continued our journey south with us leading the way. The driving on such corrugated road with a trailer was a new experience for us and a rather hard one as the trailer was still very heavy.

All went well for a long while until suddenly the trailer violently veered to the right forcing me to correct to the left to keep the car on the road and from then on I lost control and the next thing I remember is that we abandoned the road and started a mad race through broken terrain and thorn bushes until the car came to a halt by getting lodged into a low and very thorny acacia where we rested luckily still on our four wheels with the trailer at a right angle.

We, luckily managed to miss the deep “dongas” that crisscrossed the bush but we were lodges so deep inside the bush that we were not able to open the car doors. Luckily help, in the shape of Paul and his brother arrived soon and hacked the branches enabling us to get out of the car. “I saw a large cloud of dust and then you were gone” Paul said adding “I am glad that you managed to keep things on their wheels”. I replied that I had done nothing to achieve this as I have had no time to do anything once I lost control!

Regardless of how the despiste? took place it was a lucky one and, after quite a lot of maneuvering, we managed to get back on the road and resumed our trip with no obvious damage to the car or the trailer.

This time Paul went in front and we both drove carefully, having realized that things can go wrong in just a fraction of a second. The remaining 100 km passed very slowly but, eventually, we approached the familiar settlement of Archer’s Post.

Perhaps it was the anxiety of getting back or maybe he just forgot but Paul entered Archer’s Post quite fast and forgot that there were a few respectable bumps to slow the traffic down. He hit the first bump and, realizing that there was a second one, he tried to brake but still hit the second one rather fast with disastrous consequences.

Now it was our time to watch events from the rear and witnessed how, after hitting the first bump the u-bolts the hold the back axle to the car’s body went and the wheels were bouncing rather than turning. The second bump completed the damage by dislodging the axle completely and the car stopped with one rear wheel under the car and the other one behind at a right angle to the car!

We pushed the car to the side of the road knowing that we have finally found some serious trouble and, with the high-lift jack, attempted to lift the car and bring the axle to its original location. Among the tons of spares we had new u-bolts but, although we brought the axle back, we needed to lift the body and for that we needed a bottle jack that we did not carry with us!

Refusing to believe that we could not repair the car we wrestled with it fruitlessly for about an hour under the curious gaze of members of the public and having declined help from an African gentleman wearing a blue overall, probably a mechanic. We decided that we should borrow the essential jack from the Catholic Mission nearby but we went there and, being the end of the year holidays, no one could assist us.

Empty-handed and crestfallen we returned to the car to find that the ladies we had left behind, showing their practical approach, had discussed our situation with the gentleman with the overalls who had assured them that he fix the car. Beaten, we concurred and negotiated for assistance with him.

Once we agreed, the gentleman disappeared and returned with just three tools: the bottle jack, one large spanner and a long steel tube. We looked at each other with Paul and shook our heads. However, we decided to wait and see. It was immediately obvious that the man was indeed a bush mechanic and he knew what he was doing.

After removing the broken u-bolts with his spanner he lifted the body of the car with the jack and he used the steel tube as a lever to gradually align the axle until the new u-bolts could be fitted! So, after about an hour we were on the road again not without thanking the bush mechanic profusely and settling our account well beyond our earlier agreement.

Mobile again but unable to reach Nairobi on the day we decided to spend the night in Samburu National Park so we got to one of the camps near the entrance. We had a very pleasant surprise as our good friends François, Genevieve and her mother Paula were camping there and we joined them at their camp in Samburu to enjoy some of their fresh food and to share our tins with them!

SamburuTousNY87 copy

The survivors and friends at the end of the journey in Samburu Mational Park. From left to right: Francois, Paul. Else, Paul’s brother, Bushsnob, Genevieve, Mabel and Paula.

It was the 31 December 1986 and we started the New Year in the bush before continuing home the next day, this time with a smooth drive all the way to Nairobi.

 

 

 

At the cradle of mankind

We saw the camp way before we got there and, involuntarily speeded up to finally arrive and have a break in our journey. Our entrance was far from a triumphal one. We got to the camp near the shore of the lake where the track suddenly changed into deep sand and we got buried as our car was not able to pull the trailer in the sand. Despite unhooking it, it would not bulge and, worse still, when Paul tried to help, he got also stuck.

Turkana safari Land Rovers jc and pr copy

Stuck on arrival at Koobi Fora.

Too tired to dig them out we decided to leave them for later when the day was cooler. So, we walked to the camp and did a few trips bringing our luggage. Luckily messages sent to the camp via the National Museum of Kenya had arrived and they were waiting us so our bandas were ready and very well equipped and comfortable so we could have a shower and relax during the rest of the day.

turkana koobi fora

Relaxing at camp.

Later on we decided to tackle the cars, more out of embarrassment than real need.

With the help of a few camp hands, we succeeded and we were ready to re-enter the camp now as a proper expedition, after a quick wash in the lake to freshen up. While digging our cars we learnt that the Koobi Fora sand spit was the best area for fishing and we had decided to try our luck the following morning and, with this in mind we had an early night as we were rather tired after a busy day.

Early the following morning we assembled the boat and a party ventured into the lake, heading for the sand spit as advised. The idea was to do trolling with our largest lures in search of Nile Perch or Tiger Fish as we had done in Lake Victoria, hoping to catch some sizeable fish.

We knew that the lake had a large population of crocodiles, some of them truly humongous, and that some of the lake dwellers hunted them [1]. Crocodiles were not new for us so, as usual we kept an eye for them but did not worry too much.

The sight that waited for us at the sand spit was as unexpected as frightening. The people at the camp had omitted that the place was the parking area where the they enyoyed their daily sunbathing. The whole length of the spit, between two and three hundred metres, was “green” with crocodiles.

In view of this unexpected and rather perturbing find, we decided to keep our distance from the area and fish some good distance away. As we approached the spit the crocodiles started sliding into the water, an even more unsettling situation as now we could not see them!

Despite this, we stuck to our plan and fished, perhaps at a greater distance from the sand as previously thought. We trolled along the spit and, every time we passed, the crocodiles -clearly with large mouths but small brains- kept jumping into the water only to climb back again on the sandy spit once we had passed! We trolled the whole morning but only caught a couple of small Nile perch and one Tiger fish. We were not impressed and decided to come back in the afternoon.

The lake has no outlet and water levels are kept by a delicate combination of the river waters, volcanic springs, rain (if it ever falls!) and evaporation. We noted that the water was a bit cloudier in this area, probably due to the entry of the Omo river from the north and we thought that this interfered with the fish seeing our lures. A good excuse for our failure!

The afternoon fishing, again, did not live up to our expectations and we only had a couple of bites but the fish got away. Busy fishing somehow we forgot the rather predictable crocs an we nearly came to grief when the boat shuddered violently and unexpectedly! A fraction of a second later, looking back we saw a commotion in the water and a large crocodile turned and showed itself clearly! The beast, I believe as shaken as us, crash-dived and disappeared.

turkana sunset in k fora croc.jpg

Sunset view of the sand spit and one of its occupants…

Luckily we did not hear any hissing so we assumed that the rubber dinghy was intact and, to our great relief, we saw no obvious damage. However, the crash shook us badly and, unanimously, decided that we had fished enough and that it was time to return to land doubting whether we hit the crocodile by chance or it came towards us with bad intentions or just got too close while having a look.

The crash with the crocodile rather than our rather poor fishing anecdotes dominated our conversation during and after the trip and, at the time, we did not of any one that had had a similar experience although today a few can be seen in YouTube.

That afternoon, after resting, we decided to have a swim in the beach shallows where we had seen people bathing earlier. While we were washing ourselves at dusk we detected a circle of red eyes at a distance and we withdrew rather fast from the water, ending our wash with buckets of water, quite away from the lakeshore!

Before we left Koobi Fora, we had a walk along the sand spit and, although we did not find any new hominids to make us famous, we saw the crocodiles from a different angle and we realized their true sizes and were rather impressed despite having seen many during our bush life. We also found lion footprints and decided that the wiser move would be to return to camp where we were informed that there was a lioness that “specialized” in hunting crocodiles.

That afternoon we packed our cars and got ready to start our return to Nairobi after a rather exciting time at the camp.

 

[1] Graham, A. and Beard, P. (1990). Eyelids of Morning: Mingled Destinies of Crocodiles and Men. Chronicle Books. 260p.

 

To the cradle of mankind – Background and preparations

Koobi Fora takes its name from a ridge located on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana in the territory of the nomadic Gabbra people and within the Sibiloi National Park. In Gabbra, Koobi Fora means a place of the commiphora and the source of myrrh [1].

The ridge contains mainly Pliocene/Pleistocene sediments (clay, silt and sand stones) that have conserved fossils of terrestrial mammals, including early hominid species.

In 1967 Richard Leakey’s flight to the Omo region the pilot flew over lake Turkana to avoid a thunderstorm. Although he expected the Koobi Fora area to be volcanic rock, he spotted sediments and later, during another visit by land, he saw tools and fossils that led him to establish the Koobi Fora Base Camp on a large sand spit projecting into the lake near the ridge.

Lake_turkana Credit NASA

Lake turkana in Northern Kenya from a satellite. Credit: NASA.

In 1969 Leakey’s team found a cranium of Paranthropus boisei that created great enthusiasm. Three years later the skull of Homo rudolfensis (KNM ER 1470) was uncovered and after another three years a Homo erectus skull was found. (KNM ER 3733) and a second -intact- one in 1978 (KNM ER 3883). Leakey wrote a number of books on the subject of the evolution of man that made him world famous [2].

Leakey’s books were very popular at the time we were in Kenya and reading them was probably what hatched the idea of a safari to the area to see where the fossils had been found as an excuse to explore the area of lake Turkana, immortalized in the book “Journey to the Jade Sea” [3].

Lake Turkana, a brackish soda lake, is found in Northern Kenya where its 48 km of width, extends for 256 km from north to south in the border with Ethiopia. Volcanoes surround the green lake. Some like Nabiyotum Crater in Southern island are truly beautiful but there are several in the southern part of the lake where the Kerio and Turkwel Rivers enter it with fresh water.

turkana safari 5

Some of the beautiful volcanic cones at the lake.

The lava flows surrounding the lake are often too hot to touch, the winds blow with gale force and the beautifully green lake was home to nomadic ethnic groups such as the Turkana and El Molo and it also offered -apparently- good fishing as well as a very large population of very large crocodiles!

We knew that the lake was rich in crocodiles (estimated at 22 thousand), fish, bird life and scenery, particularly its stark volcanic hills and still rather untouched by “civilization” so that Turkana fishermen did not need clothes! Count Teleki “discovered” it in 1888 describing it as with “beautiful water… clear as crystal…” but the name he chose, Lake Rudolf, is no longer in use.

The lake offered, therefore, a number of interesting challenges that we could not resist. Three factors influenced our decision, two were related to our friend Paul who, at the time was befriending Else, a lady working at the National Museums of Kenya and the visit of his brother from the UK. Through Else we got the green light to visit Koobi Fora so, the preparations for the trip could begin.

The third concerned to both Paul and I and it was the apparently amazing fishing that you could have in Lake Turkana as no one knew why Nile Perch there reached 90kg and over and the tiger fish fought so much!

We agreed that we would travel in tour two Land Rovers but when we estimated the amount of food, water and gear we would need, we despaired, as, although both cars had roof carriers, they would be too overloaded to withstand the expected rough journey. We were stuck!

However, Paul found a solution in the shape of a disused trailer that was at Muguga that he could use and that, importantly, it had the same tires than our cars. It was a long metal contraption looking (and being!) very heavy but it was our only option so we took it from the yard where old cars were kept for a sale that never took place, and towed to Paul’s house, our temporary centre of operations.

The journey would take several days and the planned itinerary would take us through Maralal, South Horr. Loyangalani, North Horr, Koobi Fora, Chalbi desert, Marsabit, Samburu and, finally, Nairobi

We were fortunate that Paul had a small gas fridge that would enable us to carry some perishable food for a few days although we added, apart from the normal cool boxes with normal ice packs, one with dry ice to be opened after a few days during the journey.

Mabel and Else developed the menus and food and they got involved in careful calculations so that we had enough eggs and bacon, cooking oil and fresh and preserved fruits as we were not sure of how much we could get on the way.

Luckily Mabel had by then accumulated good camping experience and we relied on her to do the planning. As time was very long and the area very hot, she decided to place our “last” fresh stuff in the dry ice cool box to be opened on day five. After these final supplies were over, it would be tinned food.

Apart from having the Land Rovers in the best condition possible according to their ages, Paul and I dealt with fuel and other car essentials as well as the necessary camping and fishing gear. We prepared our tents, sleeping gear, camping chairs and tables, making sure that all necessary bits and pieces were there, including mallets and spades as well as some charcoal for the areas where no firewood was obtainable.

The safari stuff mountain grew by the day and the inclusion of the fishing gear did not help. As this was considered as one of the highlights of the trip the rubber dinghy was added, together with engine and petrol. Aware that the lake harboured large fish such as Nile Perch and Tiger fish we took heavy fishing gear, hoping that it would be enough for the expected fish fights.

We also needed to carry sufficient water and fuel. Although we would be able to find both on the way, we settled for 80 litres of petrol. As far as water was concerned we only took 40 litres as the water of the lake was considered as mildly alkaline and drinkable in an emergency.

We took four spare wheels, as we could share them and we also collected what we thought was a rather comprehensive set of tools and a rather large assortment of essential spares that included everything we thought our cars might need during the estimated 3,200 km of the return journey, without counting local travel.

Security reports were essential before venturing into this area and we learnt that it was good at the time although the occasional incursions by bandits known as “Shiftas” could not be predicted. We decided that this was good enough and decided to risk it.

The final moment of truth came when Else got the permit to enter into the Koobi Fora area and use the accommodation that had been built there by Richard Leakey and the National Museums of Kenya. We had then, like Julio Caesar, crossed the Rubicon and there was no way back!

However, there was one more step before we were ready to go. We knew, from the experience of other visitors, that we should expect very strong winds, particularly in the vicinity of Mt. Kulal, the mountain of the winds! We decided that we needed a barrier and we borrowed a rather large and heavy lorry tarpaulin that we intended to use as a wind barrier by tying it between the two cars.

So, the Friday before our departure we decided to have a “Windbreak setting up rehearsal and dinner party” that had more of a party than a rehersal for the setting up of the tarpaulin!

However, afterwards, we felt we could handle the voyage.

 

[1] See: https://www.museums.or.ke/koobi-fora/ consulted on 21/11/19. My addition: Commiphora, is the most species-rich genus of flowering plants in the frankincense and myrrh family,

[2] Origins (with Roger Lewin) (Dutton, 1977); People of the Lake: Mankind and its Beginnings (with Roger Lewin) (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978) and Making of Mankind (Penguin USA, 1981) among others.

[3] Hillaby, J. (1973), Journey to the Jade Sea. Academy Chicago Publishers. 206 p.