Kenya

Anecdotes with a friend

I will not tire repeating that Alan Young was the principal driving force behind the research on Theileriosis in Africa and I still regret its untimely passing in 1995 that resulted in a crippling blow to our progress in the understanding and controlling the disease in Africa.

Apart from being very intelligent, Alan was a “hands on” researcher that enjoyed fieldwork and a good laugh. During the few years we shared in Kenya there were a number of great working moments and achievements as well as some amusing ones. As this is not a scientific blog, I will share with you some of the latter that I still remember.

Although he was always writing and publishing scientific papers and work was his passion, Alan still managed field trips and he loved to visit Intona. As I described before it was Alan who brought me to the ranch in the Transmara for the first time after my first trip to Mbita Point with Matt [1].

Alan inspecting the cattle at Intona ranch.

I needed his expertise to protect cattle against Theileriosis so I could stop applying acaricides to them for my trial. He was always busy following up immunized animals, a procedure that required many hours behind a microscope checking lymph and blood smears to detect early signs of the disease and take appropriate action.

Luckily, we had a cohort of well-drilled KEVRI and ICIPE technicians that would stay at Intona monitoring the cattle as well as the tick work I was involved. Some of them were the protagonists of some incidents that I believe are worth narrating.

During one of my first trips from Muguga to Intona with Alan and the herdsmen, in particular a very funny one called Ben, we left Muguga at about 09:00hs. Not a very early start but the herdsmen needed to wait for the Government’s cashier to give them their per diem for the days they would be in the bush. This meant that we needed to stop on the way to get their provisions for the entire spell that they would be out.

So, after getting cooking oil, ugali [2] and cabbages, we stopped to fill-up the car at the main Nairobi to Kampala road. Alan dealt with the fuel, I did nothing but walk about while the herdsmen went off to get paraffin for cooking.

After a while we were ready to depart. While Alan waited for the change from the cashier I got in the car and noted a rather overwhelming paraffin smell. Thinking that one of the herdsmen containers was still dirty in the outside I kept quiet thinking that it would soon dry up and the smell would stop.

Alan came in and he immediately detected the strong fumes and asked the herdsmen at the back of the Land Rover to check their paraffin containers. They both replied that all was in order so we moved on with our windows open. However, as the stink continued, Alan decided to stop about a kilometer further to have a look. He was not amused when he found that Ben was clinging to his plastic paraffin can. Alan noted that he was trying to block a leak with his finger! It was necessary to return to the petrol station to get a new container before the journey resumed! Luckily, over the long journey we shared a great laugh with Ben over the issue.

Once my work started at Intona I was there often and regularly to manage the tick trials I was running. Kiza, the resident veterinarian at the ranch, supervised Alan’s work but also looked after the numerous Murumbi’s pet dogs that kept him very busy. The arrangement with the cattle was that Kiza would radio Alan in case of any complication was detected.

So, during one of my stays at Intona, Alan turned up to deal with some abnormal cattle temperature readings. I was at a particular busy time and did not know what was taking place so here I reconstruct the story from the various participants.

The monitoring of cattle immunized against Theileriosis included recording daily body temperatures and taking blood and lymph node smears to check for parasites in both tissues. There was a book where these findings were recorded daily.

At that particular time, John, one of the hard working KEVRI staff, was in charge of monitoring the cattle. Immediately upon arrival Alan asked for the book where the daily cattle temperatures were recorded and started to go through it with Kiza and John himself. The issue was that, for the last four or five days there were some unusual temperature readings, different from the earlier trend. The experienced Alan smelled a rat so he asked John to repeat the temperature checking for that day to compare with those in the book and see if he could detect anything.

After the request, an inordinate amount of time elapsed before John started checking the animals and, eventually, he came to reveal that all the thermometers had broken and that, over the days in question, he had taken “temperature estimates” of the animals based on how they felt to the touch under the tail area!

Later on, when things settled down, over a beer Alan narrated the event to me and he was very amused to the point that he coined the term “John’s finger test” to describe what had happened! Although we never quite knew about the real procedure employed by John, we had a good laugh and both his working mates and us forever teased John about this incident.

This anecdote of a time when we were applying identification ear tags to cattle at Muguga confirms that I was not the only one that had difficulties to understand Alan. We were using new ear tags and noted that we had forgotten the special pen to write on them known as the Magic marker as it would write on plastic and the paint would last long.

So, Alan asked one of the older workers called Ernest to bring it. After about twenty minutes Ernest had not yet returned although the office was quite near. Alan and I were getting anxious and wondering what happened as this was a routine procedure and we needed to get on with more important work.

When I was about to go and check we saw Ernest walking very slowly towards us trying not to spill the water from a plastic washbowl. We looked at each other fearing some “cock-up”; the term we normally used for these eventualities. Alan echoed my thoughts when he asked Ernest “why did you bring this if we asked you for the magic marker?” “Oh”, Ernest replied, “I thought you wanted “maji moto”, KiSwahili for hot water. The delay was now clear and he rushed to get the pen while we both burst out laughing.

After a few years I completed my FAO assignment but remained in Kenya as a scientist with the ICIPE and my collaboration with Alan continued although my work had shifted to cattle resistance to tick infestations. I continued visiting Intona with a new experiment that required the building of a special paddock.

It was very important that the wild animals were kept out and the cattle inside the paddock for the trial to succeed. We were not only dealing with African buffalo that were common at the ranch but also with elephants that at times would literally walk through Intona and we knew that they would not be stopped by a normal fence!

Building the paddock.

paddock

The paddock being used.

So, Alan had the idea of setting up a strong paddock with an electric fence. Alan was traveling frequently to the USA at the time and brought a couple of solar powered electric fence units capable of delivering 11,000 Volts pulses of very low amperage (safe as high Amps are the ones that could kill you) but the high Voltage will “only” hurt you!

solar units paddock expt intona

The Solar-powered units for the fencing.

Solar powered fence.tif copy

The solar powered electric fence unit installed in a protective box.

 

The day came to connect the fence so that the trial could start. We needed to confirm that the solar-charged batteries were delivering the correct electricity current according to the manual. For that purpose the equipment came with a very fancy tester that Alan would use. We had left the unit charging from the day before as advised by the makers.

Although it rained most afternoons, because of the influence of Lake Victoria, there was sunshine from sunrise to about 17:00 hs, enough for charging the batteries. So, Alan, the herdsmen and myself, after listening to the pulse clicks at the unit, went to the fence to finally test its power.

Alan applied the terminals to the wire and, before I go on, I must tell you that what took place happened very fast so I may have missed some details as I was looking at the reading in the tester. I believe that first there were some sparks but in any case, the tester disappeared from my field of vision together with Alan that proffered a rude epithet while being thrown back from the fence and falling on his bump!

“Pole sana”[3] said the herdsman and I also muttered a rather useless “oh, sorry!” Alan sat on the ground, rubbing his right hand that was still holding the charred remains of the tester! Our concern about his wellbeing evaporated the moment that Alan burst out laughing and we all relaxed learning that he was still his usual self even after the shock!

Probably the rain that fell the day before had had some impact in the transmission of the electricity pulses that, somehow, got to Alan and not to the tester. From that day on we assumed that the fence was powerful enough and no further checks were ever performed again for lack of volunteers and a tester!

While performing field trips with Alan he kindly lent me his Land Rover as part of our collaboration until some years later ICIPE finally decided to buy a similar one for our work.

Alan’s car was heavily used, as we not only traveled to Intona but also Busia and Laikipia to name the most common ones. Although I never noticed it, years later during a visit while I was already out of Kenya, I managed to meet with some of our former herdsmen who as one of the events they remembered was that we had been carrying Chang’aa, an illegal drink! I was astonished when they explained me how it happened.

Alan’s Series III Land Rover had two jerry cans fitted at the front of the car. As we considered carrying petrol there too dangerous in case of an accident we kept the cans empty and, frankly, we forgot about them.

Chang’aa, also known in various languages as kali, kill-me-quick, Kisumu whisky, maai-matheru, machozi-ya-simba and others, was (and still is) the name given to distilled spirits in Kenya and the manufacture, commerce, consumption or possession of it was, at the time, illegal and punishable with heavy fines and even up to two years in prison! [4].

So it resulted that the guilty herdsmen would buy Chang’aa in the field, place it in the jerry cans and “import it” under the cover of our work to Nairobi where they would, I imagine, sell it for a handsome profit!

So, without our knowledge, our Land Rover (and us!) was used as a “mule” in the rather clever operation! I never had the chance to comment this with Alan as I learnt about it after his passing so I am not sure that he ever found out about it.

Alan and I shared the passion for soccer. While this should not surprise you in my case, as I come from Uruguay but for someone from Northern Ireland, not a great soccer nation, it was remarkable at least in my book. We shared our soccer interest with Walter, the then Director of KEVRI, Muguga, and this was a frequent topic during our many morning tea breaks at the Institute. Walter was the Chairman of one of the main teams in Kenya, AFC Leopards, but also followed football worldwide.

In 1989, living and working in Ethiopia, I attended one of the FAO Expert Consultations on Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases in Rome where I met Alan and, during the meeting, we learnt that there was a football match the coming Sunday. The meeting was ending on Friday so we agreed that, return flights to Africa permitting, a soccer match of the Serie A League was a must.

Because I could speak some Italian I dealt with the organization of the outing once both checked that our flights would leave on the Sunday night. So, I confirmed that Lazio, one of the two teams from Rome, was playing Fiorentina (from Florence). The game would take place at the Stadio Olimpico, the main arena in Roma built for the 1960 Summer Olympic Games.

I still remember that it was Sunday 21 May 1989 when, before lunchtime we left the Sant’ Anselmo hotel in the Aventino area of Rome and walked to the bus stop as advised by my Roman contacts. The bus was empty as the stop was the start of the line and, seated, we were soon on our way. About half way a crowd of Lazio tifosi (fans) dressed for the occasion and carrying lots of flags and banners filled the bus. They were many and about half of them were left behind when the doors were closed!

We were really packed, almost worse than in a Kenya minibus! Surrounded by people dressed in their team’s pale blue shirts I felt like going to a match where the “celeste” (pale blue) of Uruguay was playing! After a while the tifosi started to jump all together and to move sideways… We look at each other in disbelief and grabbed whatever handle we could, as the danger of the bus toppling sideways was a real one!

Feeling like survivors, we were the last leaving the bus. It was about an hour earlier and it was filling fast. We approached the usual ticket sale points and they were all closed, except for the really expensive ones. We were in trouble, as we had not planned for such expenditure! Far from giving up, we looked for a quiet corner and counted our cash realizing that it would be either soccer or lunch! Luckily we already had the return bus tickets.

Without hesitating we agreed to skip lunch so two starved and penniless people entered the grand stand that afternoon! The attraction for me was that Rubén Sosa, a Uruguayan that had a distinguished career as a fast attacker with a great goal scoring ability and exact passing. He is considered by many as one of the best soccer players Uruguay has produced in the second half of the 20th Century!

The match was even and entertaining until early in the second half Lazio was awarded a penalty that Sosa converted into a goal and Lazio won. The people in the stadium went wild and, when he was replaced at the 89th minute, got a standing ovation (that included us!). We were really happy and the occasion gave me good ammo to tease Alan in the future about my South American origins!

 

[1] https://bushsnob.com/2015/06/01/intona-ranch1/

[2] KiSwahili for white maize flower, the staple food in Kenya.

[3] “Sorry” or “very sorry” in KiSwahili means

[4] Kenyalaw.org/kl/fileadmin/pdfdownloads/…/Changaa_Prohibition__Cap_70_.doc Consulted on 25/11/2018.

Picnic in the Rift Valley

For months Paul mentioned the idea of going for a picnic to the Rift Valley. He claimed that along the Narok road there were a number of large acacias that would offer the necessary shade while we could not only enjoy watching game but also looking across this vast depression presided by the Longonot and Suswa volcanoes.

Rift valley from Kinangop

The Great Rift Valley seen from the Kinangop area.

rift longonot 2

Mout Longonot.

Eventually we were convinced and one Sunday morning we gathered at Paul’s house to travel to the chosen picnic area. Apart from Paul and us other participants were Timothy and his fiancée Jill and a few other friends that filled Paul’s long-wheel base Land Rover. We were not only humans in it as Timothy (the egg cleaner of my earlier post! [1]) decided to take along his red setter called Bitch despite our advice to the contrary!

So, we took the rather dangerous old Naivasha Rd. down the Kikuyu escarpment and eventually branched off towards Narok. Once at the bottom of the Great Rift Valley we started looking for the appropriate spot.

lorry on naiv road...

An accident along the Kikuyu escarpment near the bottom of the Great Rift Valley. A frequent occurrence then.

After a few km we spotted the “selected” trees and headed for them across the dry savannah where a few Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles stopped browsing to briefly watch us and try -unsuccessfully- to determine our intentions (we were not entirely clear either!) but soon decided to ignore us. As we got closer to the special trees we noted -with some concern- that they had already been booked: flocks of sheep and goats were stationed under all trees we saw!

Picnic Narok rd copy

The occupied trees…

Aware that coexistence with small ruminants over a picnic would be rather difficult we set off to find the owners of the animals to negotiate with them for one tree. We soon found them nearby as they left one of the trees to meet us. A small committee left the car to meet with them and then, the unexpected struck!

The moment we open the car doors, Bitch took off at full speed! And behind her Timothy also departed trying to stop her shouting “Bitch, stop! Bitch, stop!” to no avail. Bitch had spotted game animals and she would not miss the opportunity to get one!

As we stopped hearing Timothy’s shouting first and then watched his silhouette disappear in the horizon, we decided to focus on our negotiations with a pair of Maasai boys that felt rather intimidated by us!

rift valley picnic 1 2

After a while the herdboys could not resist their curiosity and the flocks also came in!

Despite our language barrier they soon understood our request and agreed to release one of the trees for us to have our picnic.

Bitch and Timothy quickly forgotten we started to get ourselves comfortable and assembled our temporary “al fresco” banqueting area. As the tree had been used for generations of Maasai livestock it did not only reeked livestock but also its soil was composed by tons of compacted dung! So much for the idea of the shady tree!

Luckily we noted that the shade was starting to cover some of the adjacent grassy area so we placed our table and chairs where we calculated the shade would be as time went by and we were prepared to follow it.

rift valley picnic 2

The picnic area being moved following the shade.

After an exploratory walk in the surrounding area we finally settled down to drinks and some food. The chat was animated and we did wonder about Bitch and Timothy’s whereabouts (for a few seconds!). Luckily, about an hour after lunch we saw a speck on the horizon and a debate started of whether it was Timothy or some other Maasai people. After a while, through the binoculars, we identified Timothy. He eventually arrived, walking slowly and carrying the dog on his arms (not because of love for the dog or because it was injured but because he did not have a leash and he was fed-up with the dog running away every time she spotted a moving animal!)

While we waited for Timothy to recover and while he locked Bitch inside the car, we decided to engage ourselves into some target shooting (some of us still believed then to be “white hunters”!!!). Paul kindly sacrificed an old white enamel plate that we placed on the tree as our target. Then we lined up all chairs so that we would shoot from a similar distance.

rift valley picnic 1

The Bushsnob failing to ht the target watched by female participants already chuckling.

As good gentlemen (?) we started shooting from a short distance to give the ladies an opportunity to hit the plate before we moved farther away and things became more difficult. So, the shooting started. Surprisingly, all the men missed the target and most women except my wife that had rarely handled a gun in her life (but has good eyesight!).

After declaring her winner of the first round -with badly hidden embarrassment- the men took the decision of moving further back in the belief that they would recover from the earlier setback. We all missed again but, when the turn of my wife came, we all heard the “ping” of the lead shot hitting the plate! Beginning to feel uncomfortable with the state of affairs we moved back quite a long distance for the final round.

Do I need to tell you that the only “ping” we heard again came from my wife’s shot? After that the men suddenly lost interest on the shooting and developed a sudden curiosity for birds. The ladies had a good laugh and celebrated among themselves.

So a great picnic day ended leaving us with the memories of Timothy chasing his dog and my wife hitting the bull’s eye every time! The latter event is still remembered today by the participants, almost forty years later!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lake Magadi

The rotten egg smell of the ostrich egg post [1] brought back memories of lake Magadi and its malodourous beauty.

After a few months in Kenya we got to know a few people interested in nature and we connected with them immediately. Most were working around Nairobi (Kenya Agriculture Research Institute, Muguga and the International Laboratory for Research in Animal Diseases, Kabete). We were all agriculture or livestock specialists that shared an interest in nature.

A sunny Sunday we were invited to a day trip to lake Magadi. We knew nothing about the place so, after some enquiries, we learnt that it would be a picnic at the lake and that bird watching would be high in the agenda. We had not done any bird watching as such in our lives so we lacked binoculars, bird books, etc. but we accepted so we could start learning new ways.

At the time we did not know it but, after this first expedition, we visited the lake frequently. It was an ideal one-day outing from Nairobi in view of the relative short distance from Nairobi(106km), the picturesque nature of the journey and the wildlife that could be seen both en route and at the lake itself.

Lake Magadi, nested at 580m of altitude is close to Lake Natron in Tanzania and it is located in a volcanic rock fracture in the Rift Valley, itself a gigantic fault that runs for about 6,000km from Lebanon in the North to Mozambique in the South.

EAfrica rift

The Great Rift Valley. By USGS (http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/dynamic/East_Africa.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

We left Nairobi early following the lake road that skirted the Ngong hills, a true landmark where Karen Blixen’s farm was located (now her homestead is a museum). The moment you had the Ngong hills on your right, the immensity of the Rift Valley opened up in front of you. A rugged succession of hazy mountains gradually took your eyes to the bottom of the valley and, on a clear day, the amazing view of Kilimanjaro with its snow in the equator will frame the postcard vista.

view from ngong hills

The spectacular view of the Rift Valley from the Ngong hills.

From there you started a descent that traversed Maasai country while getting increasingly dry and hot. Manyattas peppered the area and encounters with Maasai going or coming from watering points with their cattle were a common occurrence. I recall our friend Paul -later on- saying that the road would made an ideal cycling trip because of its downhill trajectory towards the lake.

A few km before arriving to the lake, Tony, one of our friends, stopped the car for a bit of exploring. Apparently, during an early visit, they had “discovered” some fossilized elephant remains that he wished to show us. Some of us followed him looking for the bones while others spotted some interesting bird and immediately forgot everything else and focused on the feathered creatures. This was my introduction to the rather focused birdwatchers ethnic group!

We did found the elephant bones. I thought they were rather disappointing but kept the opinion to myself! The stop was good to drink lots of water as the temperature was now well above 30oC and we were still quite a distance from the bottom of the valley and it was not yet lunchtime. Although some of our co-travellers had iced cold water (freezing the jerry cans prior to the journey) we drank ours at ambient temperature (no coolbox yet in that trip!). This became our normal water temperature while on safari, as it would give us independence from fridges and ice.

We continued our trip and, suddenly and surprisingly, we viewed a large flat pink expanse below us. We were looking at the lake and, as it was the dry season, it was almost totally covered in white and pink soda.

magadi 1

Subsequent visits during wetter times showed a much “lake-like” lake, despite the scarcity of its yearly rains, an average of 470 mm per year [2]. During this time, a thin (less than 1m) layer of brine covers much of the saline pan, but this evaporates rapidly leaving a vast expanse of white and pink salt that cracks to produce large polygons.

We came to the entrance gate already hot and smelling the strong sulfur gases that emanated from the lake and that would be a constant whenever we visited it. The gate was in fact the entrance to the Magadi Soda Company where we registered our arrival. Further on we also re-registered our intended route at the Magadi Police station, a mandatory requirement in case you got lost (we have to pass by again on the way out for our names to be stricken off the register so that a search party was not sent for us).

The lake is saline and alcaline and covers around 100 km2 being in reality a pan. The water precipitates vast quantities of trona (soda ash, also known as sodium carbonate) to a depth of up to 40m. From these large deposits the soda ash is extracted and used mainly in glass-making, chemicals, paper, detergents, and textiles. The Magadi Soda Company (now part of the Tata company) was created in 1911 to exploit this wealth.

Luckily for the company, the trona deposits are recharged mainly by saline hot springs that reach temperatures of up to 86 °C and their exploitation -at least during the early days- did not have a significant impact on these deposits. During our times in Kenya the soda ash was being carried by railway to Kilindini harbour in the Indian Ocean from where it would get exported.

magadi 2 2

Only once we found a train leaving the Malawi Soda facility.

The plan of our first trip was to do the “trip around the lake” that started crossing the first causeway with open water and then follow the road until we entered some bush cross-country driving to rejoin the road and return to Magadi town again.

DSCN1821 copy

A basic map of Lake Magadi showing in blue the trip around the lake.

It was during this part of the journey that we came up to our firs giraffe carcass, blocking the way. Its cause of death unknown but already as dried as biltong!

dead giraffe magadi round the lake rd

The dry giraffe.

Lake Magadi hosts a great variety of water birds, including flamingoes, yellow-billed storks, different egrets and herons as well as smaller ones, including the interesting avocets. See [3] for some of the birds that can be found there. I do not recall whether we saw the Chesnut-banded Sandplover or Magadi Plover (Charadrius pallidus venustus), restricted to almost only lakes Natron and Magadi but our friends probably did. If not very spectacular, it was a rather unique little bird that we spotted in subsequent visits.

magadi yellow billed storks fishing darkened

A pair of Yellow-billed storks fishing in lake Magadi.

Apart from birds the lake and surrounding area is also home to Wildebeests, Somali Ostriches, Beisa Oryx, Zebra, Grant’s gazelles, Gerenuks and of course Giraffes among other species of herbivores and browsers. But these are not the only interesting animals that inhabit the rather inhospitable lake Magadi!

In its hot springs some special fish find their living despite the high temperature and salinity of the water! Alcolapia grahami a species of the Cichlidae family has adapted to live in this rather harsh environment. It is not the only case as another three species inhabit Lake Natron a few km to the south in Tanzania: Alcolapia alcalica; A. latilabris; and A. ndalalani. Of interest is that there is no overlapping among the species present in each lake.

The now vulnerable A. grahami, most commonly seen in the southern shoreline hot spring pools where the water temperature is less than 45°C, have developed the ability of excreting urea instead of the usual ammonia of the teleost fish as they are not able to diffuse ammonium into such an alkaline media. As they feed on cyanobacteria of high N2 content, this is -apparently- important. They also have the greatest metabolic performance ever recorded in a fish, in the basal range of a small mammal of comparable size [4]. They are also an important indicator organism for global warming.

Coming back to our trip, after our stop for Police registration, we moved on and passed by the company’s brown golf course. It was interesting to see golfers moving about on a brown and grassless course where the holes were places with “browns” and a few dust devils thrown in as well! Since its establishment in 1931 this unique 9-hole course where you drive over donkeys and cows. It does not charge fees and it is open year round!

Maasai Magadi causeway.tif

Maasai boys driving their sheep and goats through one of the lake’s causeways.

It soon became clear that day that lake Magadi is one of the hottest and least hospitable places on earth. The water is undrinkable for humans and animals quench their thirst at selected areas where salt contents are low. We soon run out of water but, luckily, we found a water trough for cattle use on our way back from where we replenish our water and had a badly needed and refreshing wash!

Magadi tony and bock LRs

Stopping for the water trough.

While on the issue of water, years later, while having a picnic under one of the few acacia trees present around the lake, a Maasai elder approached us quietly and asked for some water. Without hesitation, one of our friends gave him a glass that the old man guzzled. Surprising all of us the man spat the water and started to jump while trying to hold his teeth, and shouting what we could understand as “baridi, baridi, baridi sana [5]!”

Without thinking, our friend had given him a glass of water from the frozen water can and the poor man, clearly used to drink water 40 degrees warmer, could not take it! After a few seconds he burst out laughing at the event while water at ambient temperature was supplied to him. This time he enjoyed it and he stayed with us for the rest of the picnic, sharing our food.

After our welcomed encounter with the cattle trough it was time to return to Nairobi. The heat had been intense and we felt really “desiccated” so it was with great relief that we took the road back that now climbed to the coolness of Nairobi where we arrived after night fall.

It was the introduction to one of our favourite weekend outings during the several years we spent in Kenya.

magadi

Magadi landscape 1

Magadi landscape 3

 

[1] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2018/08/17/ostrich-eggs/)

[2] https://en.climate-data.org/location/103801/

[3] Resident birds: Lesser Flamingo, Greater Flamingo, Chestnut-banded Plover, Speckled Pigeon, Eastern Violet-backed Sunbird, Somali Golden-breasted Bunting, Cut-throat Finch, African Mourning Dove, Red-billed Firefinch, Red-billed Quelea, Yellow-spotted Petronia, Chestnut Sparrow, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Slate-coloured Boubou and Blue-naped Mousebird. Fischer’s Sparrowlark, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and Greycapped Sociable-weaver. Visitors; Black-winged Stilt, Little Stint, Little Egret, Grey-headed Gulls, Yellow-billed Stork, Cape Teal, African Spoonbill, Kittlitz’s and Spur-winged Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Common Greenshank and Pied Avocet.

[4] Wood, C. M. et al. Mammalian metabolic rates in the hottest fish on earth. Sci. Rep. 6, 26990; doi: 10.1038/srep26990 (2016).

[5] “Cold, cold, very cold” (In KiSwahili).

 

 

Spot the beast 48

Trying to find pictures to illustrate the coming posts on our Kenya days I found this rather old and rare gem for you to look at. It is easy.

m mara leop 3

I posted the image more for its rarity than for its difficulty. This young leopard was spotted near the Mara Buffalo Camp in the mid eighties. I still remember that the camp manager told me where to find the mother and the two cubs. This is one of the cubs in the cave they used to inhabit. Luckily they stayed there for a while and we managed to see them several times.

The first picture above was taken from a distance. It shows a relaxed leopard that, the moment we got closer, became more alert.

m mara leop 2

m mara leop 1

The pictures are poor but I believe worth it.

Nairobi National Park (1981-8)

In the eighties, when we [1] lived in Kenya, many people regarded the Nairobi National Park (NNP) as a large zoo next to Nairobi. I must admit that for a while I belonged to this group. I did not think that to see the Jomo Kenyatta Conference Centre (the tallest building then) from the park was a nice sight.

After a couple of years, again Paul, luckily convinced me of its value and I realized what a great privilege it was to have such a large area of wilderness a few minutes drive from our houses! So, following his advice, we bought a one-year pass to the park. The pass was stuck on our Land Rover windscreen and it enabled the car (and its occupants) to visit the NPP as many times as we wished!

It soon became one of our favourite places to visit! We also brought lots of people [2] there. Often we would collect our guests from the airport and drive through the park (in through the East Gate and out through the Main Gate). During the drive across the East African plains guests had a chance of encountering a number of interesting animals only hours after arrival.

Except for elephants, the park would offer all other animals that you wished to see in Africa. As far as I recall, although we saw a Serval cat we never spotted a single leopard there over the many years we stayed in Kenya. However, there was much compensation, as you will see.

As mentioned earlier in this blog [3] it was the first “field visit” I did with my late former boss Matt. In addition to visiting it with Paul, we also went there very often with Luis, another good safari companion from Argentina with a passion for bird photography. With him we also shared a few rather late (some very late!) departures from the park after having overstayed watching some interesting event! I must add that the rangers were very kind to us and finally accepted our obvious excuses such as an engine malfunction or a puncture! We never slept inside the park!

NBO Nat Park with Matt vultures

My first kill as seen it in the NNP when I first went there with my former boss, the late Matt.

Normally, the best predator-prey interactions start taking place when you are told to leave the place so, overstaying was the only way that we were capable of watching lion hunting while the light faded and eventually night fell. Although it often got too late to watch the complete act, we were lucky to see some interesting things. Excuses related to engine malfunction and punctures worked for a few times. However, as the rangers started to know us, they tolerated our tardiness!

Luckily, there were also interesting happenings during daytime. It was at NNP that we had our first encounters with black rhinos that were not hard to find once we learnt where their favourite browsing spots were.

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The now rare black rhino as seen in Amboseli National Park.

Late mornings were also interesting as the resident cheetahs would be looking for their favourite prey, the Thomson’s Gazelles. With patience, we were privileged to observe them hunting at speed in front of our eyes!

There is nothing like visiting a place frequently to get a good idea of where the potential for action was.

Hippo Pools was not only attractive due to the resident hippo and the sightings of the rare African Finfoot (Podica senegalensis) but also because you could leave your vehicle and walk along the river, although this exposed you to some close encounters with naughty Vervet Monkeys and Baboons. Although now it seems funny, I still vividly recall my first visit when stupidly (to be mild with myself) I was carrying some bananas as snacks and, after no more than two steps a rather large baboon surprised me and easily took all the bananas before I could even feel scared of the surprise assault by my primate cousin.

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Often we enjoyed a few picnics at the main viewpoint followed by short siestas overlooking the Leopard cliffs or the Athi River towards the South of the park. As it was hot, often the windows or sliding door of the kombi would be open. This was the usual procedure until I stopped. It happened one day that my wife was not reading in the front of the car as usual but she was watching the leopard cliffs some distance away from the car.

That day I did not wake up normally but something interfered with my slumber. On guard, I stayed quiet but I could hear noises inside the car and smell something strong! Immediately I realized that a few baboons surrounded me! The moment I moved and shouted at them, mayhem followed! They all tried to get out through the open window at the same time with the consequence that I witnessed a short baboon exit jam! Eventually, after a lot of jumping, screaming and scratching they escaped but not before leaving behind the consequences of their fright… and some of my money went into a good car wash!

In two instances we saw lions hunting warthogs. The first one was as soon as we entered the park through the East Gate. A lioness was clearly hunting on the road and as she started scurrying we saw a warthog running for its life a few metres ahead. We stopped to watch as the lioness was closing in on the fast running hog. The moment the lioness was about to grab it she tripped and fell heavily on her back while a very scared warthog disappeared in the tall grass! As events unfolded too fast for me, I only managed a bad picture of the lioness after she sat on her haunches to see the warthog run away!

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A bad picture of the lioness looking at the warthog after her fall.

The second time the warthog was not lucky and, from the main viewpoint, we watched a lioness stalk its prey near the small dam. She caught it and killed it fast and then she left it so we managed to get quite close and -through the binoculars and camera zooms- see the teeth holes she made on the animal’s neck. Before the hyenas could find the warthog she returned with her two young cubs.

Another, more personal, encounter with a lioness took place under very different circumstances. At the time we lived in Tigoni, about 35km away from Nairobi and, as my wife worked in the city, everyday after work I came from Muguga to collect her to go back to Tigoni. The day in question there was an important donor reception at Duduville, the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology HQ located in Kasarani. It was clearly too far to go back home to change our clothes, get back for the function and home again at night so I hatched a clever plan: after picking up my wife we would drive to the NNP to kill time and change into our formal clothes there.

As planned, we entered the park in late afternoon and we stopped in a discreet area to proceed with our clothes change. While my wife was dressing up in the car, I got out to change my trousers! In the process I moved a short distance from the car with such bad luck that I walked straight towards a lioness that was resting -possibly sleeping-  under the cover of a bush!

We shared the shock of the encounter. Seeing me attempting to fit in my trousers, the lioness took off and it was out of sight in a flash while I, holding my trousers as well as I could, managed to get into the kombi. “What are you doing?” said my wife that, focussing on her make up by means of the rear view mirror, had missed my critical encounter. “Lion” was all I could gasp while trying to recover from the scare. This was the first and last attempt at changing clothes in the NNP.

Among the herbivores, the giraffes were unique as they browsed on the various acacia species present and a number of hourglass trees confirmed their presence.

However, it was the buffalo that were very interesting. I believe that there was one herd of buffalo and the first time we found it we noted that they not only were very tolerant of vehicles but also very curious. Their curiosity reminded me of our steers back in Uruguay. We soon learnt that if we stopped the car and waited they would come very close to inspect our car. Although they never touched it they did smell it and spend quite some time very close to us.

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This was repeated every time we saw them and it enabled me to observe them at close quarters. During the dry season they carried very heavy tick infestations of the Zebra ticks (Rhipicephalus pulchellus) and the poor creatures used the whistling thorn bushes in an effort to dislodge them.

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A close-up to show you the ticks on the margin of the years and eyes of this female buffalo. No wonder they were rubbing against thorn bushes!

So, naturally, whenever we saw the buffalo we did our “buffalo trick” and waited for them to surround us without thinking much. So little we thought about it that when two lady friends from Uruguay came to visit for their first time in Africa, we took them to the NNP after the airport and that time -luckily- we found the buffalo. As a couple of hundred of these rather large and fierce-looking animals started to approach us, nervousness increased and comments started to flow. “What are they doing?”; “Julio, they keep coming”; “This is not dangerous?” and others until they openly showed their alarm and started charging me with “attempted murder”! To their relief, after a short while, I started the engine and the herd moved calmly away while we left them, taking with us two very agitated friends! Many years later they still remembered the experience as one of the most exciting they have ever had in their lives!

Several birds nested in the park and migratory storks and kestrels would visit on their way to their final destinations. Apart from Crowned cranes and Ostriches at least a pair of Secretary Birds, my favourite bird of prey, nested at the NNP. These birds -nowadays quite rare- had built a basic twig platform on a rather low bush. Their location enabled us to see their fledglings being fed and to follow their progress until they were eventually able to join their parents criss-crossing the savannah areas of the park in search for snakes and other prey.

Two rather unlikely finds have remained in my mind up to today. The first one was the sighting of a large carcass on a small hill. Nothing unusual about finding animal remains in a National Park you may rightly think. I would agree with you fully except that the dead animal did not match any of the park wild inhabitants! The remaining hide was uniformly brown with some long hairs. Luckily, despite its decay, the examination of the remaining bones revealed that it was a horse!

At first I tried to convince myself that it was impossible but the find could only be an adult horse! Only later I realized that I had veterinary colleagues that kept riding or polo horses in residential areas bordering the park and, the same way that lions often got out of the park and caused problems for the residents there, I am convinced that a horse somehow entered the park and it was killed.

The second encounter was mentioned in my earlier blog [4]. We came to an area the size of a tennis court looked as if it had been ploughed. Curious we continued driving and scared a couple of lionesses. As things were getting interesting we continued and almost bumped into two massive dead male buffalo. The first thought was that they were killed by lightening but it was the wrong season for this! Again, looking more carefully they were facing each other and, although already decomposed, the position of their horns indicated that they were locked!

locked buffs cropped

We then not only understood the earth scars but started to speculate on the cause of death. The most likely scenario was that they got exhausted from fighting and succumbed to stress combined to lack of water and then the lions found them and took advantage of the situation to fill their bellies! We will never be sure of what happened but it had all the signs of a mighty struggle.

So, these are the few anecdotes I recall from our amazing time we spent at this great place.

 

[1] Every time I reminisce (when we …) about our African past I remember that once I heard that people like us belonged to the “whenwe” tribe. Looking for this now, I learnt that the name was given to the more nostalgic members of the 1980’s arrivals from the then Rhodesia to South Africa. See: https://newint.org/features/1986/01/05/briefly

[2] Apart from friends I did this trick with donors visiting our projects.  I still believe that this “introduction” to the country improved our funding!

[3] Kenya: The Beginnings (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/08/bush-flying/).

[4] Locking of horns (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/locking-of-horns/).

 

 

 

 

 

Collision

The fall of the VW kombi [1] was not the only car mishap I was involved in during my Kenya driving life. There was another more serious one that was not amusing.

It happened one morning that I was driving my brand new Peugeot 504 going to work. I needed to turn right from Fifth Ngong avenue into Jomo Kenyatta avenue, a normally risky move as it meant crossing the traffic to get to the left traffic lane heading towards the city centre.

As usual I waited for a gap and went for it. The moment I entered the large avenue I saw (too late) a small motorbike coming rather fast towards me. I had no time to change anything and in horror I watched the bike and its occupant hit me on my side of the car! Very luckily for him (in retrospect), the rider flew over the bonnet landing heavily on the tarmac on the other side.

Shocked, I helped the rider to get into a passing car to be taken to the hospital while we agreed that I would look after the vehicles and wait for the Police and his brother to collect the bike. While waiting, my landlord drove past and gave me encouragement while recommending me his lawyer as, according to him, he had gone through issues like this a few times! When I told him that I was charged with dangerous driving, in my view a terrible thing, he dismissed it explaining to me that that was the usual charge when there was an injury.

After dealing with the vehicles and the Police I visited the bike rider in hospital and found him, despite having an injured arm, in good spirits and being discharged. He was not only shaken by the experience but also for not having a Driver’s License!

Although the civil details were dealt with between the insurance companies, according to Kenya Law, a court case was set where I needed to appear to hear my case. I had some earlier experience appearing in court as a witness when my cattle feed was stolen [2].

As the date of my meeting with the Kenyan Justice drew nearer I went to see the lawyer my landlord recommended me. His studio was in a rather affluent area of the city. After hearing me for a couple of minutes he dismissed me arguing that he was too busy at the time (probably my case was too small for him!) and he recommended me Dr. Shah [3], an experienced lawyer. I noted that the latter’s office was sited on a less elegant part of Nairobi.

I drove to Dr. Shah’s office and met him that same morning. I explained what had happened and also that the accident had been my fault. He accepted to represent me but he recommended me not to accept the charges and plead “not guilty”. Although I resisted, at the end he convinced me arguing that “no lawyer would represent a guilty person”. I finally gave in and agreed to employ Mr. Shah to represent me. The USD 50 fee seemed reasonable at the time.

As it is normal, the day of my case the Court was brimming with people. Things were to happen in Court No. 2. It was another case of “controlled chaos” a common situation in many places where, despite apparent confusion, things do happen. The room was filled to capacity by about fifty people of all ages and sexes. Facing the public sat the judge, a small lady dressed in a black robe with the rather odd white wig.

My lawyer and I sat next to the bike driver and his own lawyer, both of Indian descent. The lawyers knew each other, of course. While a case was on-going a clerk came to inform us that our case would be the next so we waited in silence for a few more minutes. While waiting I was worried and nervous and I realized that I knew I was guilty despite the lawyer’s argument and also that it was too late to change things!

Eventually our turn came, the charges were read and I was asked to plead. As instructed by my lawyer I said “not guilty”. As soon as I said this I regretted and somehow I felt that the Judge did not like it. She then informed us that the case was adjourned to about two months in the future. That was too much for me as I wished to finish the business.

I asked the Judge to wait a minute and she agreed. I then called my lawyer aside. I told him that his job was terminated. I then returned to my post and asked to talk directly to the judge. She agreed and then I changed my earlier plead to “guilty”. I was not sure that this was possible but she accepted it and passed sentence.

She said that as it was my first offense and that, considering the circumstances of the accident, she would reduce the charge to “careless driving”. She indicated that I needed to pay a fine of about USD 20!

I was very relieved and congratulated myself for changing my mind. I left the room and met my lawyer. Although he was still unhappy, he agreed that the outcome had been good. I paid him what at the end accounted to more than double the fine and went home with a clear conscience!

 

[1] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2017/07/29/the-kombi-falls/

[2] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/cattle-feed-on-wheels/

[3] Not his real name.

Pink Bogoria

All the Kenya lakes have their own unique characteristics and attractions. To pick one as “the best” is impossible, at least for me. However, lake Bogoria was one of our all time favourites when it came to a short break. You did not go there to find the Big Five but in search of tranquility and to enjoy the views and bird fauna. It was here that I spotted my first and only three-banded courser (Rhinoptilus cinctus).

Credit John Gerrard Keulemans [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Three-banded coursor

Three-banded courser. Credit John Gerrard Keulemans [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

It was also a special place for another reason. It was my first camping experience in Kenya. It happened over a weekend with Muguga House colleagues Richard and Phillip. Of the outing I recall that we departed on a Saturday to return the following day. We left rather late as Richard had lots of work to do to keep the tsetse parasitoids in his lab going. A late departure meant that we could not enter the park that day and needed to camp outside the gate.

As I had no tent and only a borrowed camp bed, I slept “al fresco” as it was -I was told- a very arid and dry area. I still recall the thousand of honking flamingoes flying overhead throughout the late afternoon and well into the night.

Luckily I woke up with the first raindrops and before getting soaked -together with my bedding- I managed to enter Richard’s car. After a while I realized that it was going to be a tough night. The location of the hand brake made sleeping across the front seats of a packed Toyota Corolla impossible.

I slept in a seated position and the following day I was very tired and with a few aches. Despite my condition, the few hours we spent there were enough to appreciate the beauty of the place and to remember to come back.

Lake Bogoria is a volcanic lake framed by green-blue hills. Its waters are greenish saline (up to 100 g/L total dissolved salts) and alkaline (pH:10.5). It lies in the Kenyan portion of the Rift Valley, south of Lake Baringo and a little south of the equator. It is a rather shallow body of water that is no deeper than 10m of depth. This rather small lake of 34km long by 3.5km wide has been protected since 1973.

NASA's World Wind program copyright 2010

Lake Bogoria from the space. Credit: NASA’s World Wind program copyright 2010

Lake Bogoria’s beauty is already evident at first sight! After climbing one of the several red hills you need to negotiate to get there through the Emsos gate a misty dark green body of water framed by pink startles you at first until you realize that the pink borders are tens of thousands oflesser flamingoes (Phoenicoparrus minor) with a smaller number of greater ones (Phoenicopterus roseus).

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The first view of Lake Bogoria.

While greater flamingoes feed on invertebrates, mollusks and tiny fish, l and insect lesser flamingoes feed primarily on Spirulina algae which grow only in very alkaline lakes. Although blue-green in colour, the algae contain the photosynthetic pigments that give the birds their pink colour. Their deep bill is specialized for filtering tiny food items.

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A view from the eastern shore.

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Moving pink islands.

These birds were part of the largest world population of flamingoes that migrated among several of the Rift Valley lakes such as Natron, Magadi, Nakuru, Elmenteita and Bogoria. For some reason, the latter is one of their preferred stopping places. At the time the flamingoes seemed to commute mainly between Bogoria and Nakuru although their breeding took place mainly on the caustic lake Natron in northern Tanzania.

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Lesser flamingoes.

A few months after my first safari and following my wife’s arrival lake Bogoria was one of the first places we visited once we got our VW kombi and some camping gear. At first we camped at the Acacia campsite on the southwest shore but soon we realized that either camping at the Loburu hotsprings on the western shore or at the Fig tree campsite in the southeast were nicer alternatives.

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Loburu hotsprings with immature lesser flamingoes in the background.

The southern end of the lake is almost separate from the remaining body of water towards the north but for a small channel in the eastern section. It is in this area that large numbers of flamingoes were often spotted. It was a photographer’s paradise and I still remember a friend’s great idea of taking pictures of the birds in full moon only to arrive at the lake when there was a full eclipse!

Although staying near the Loburu hot springs added a few extra degrees l to an already high temperature, the various steam jets and hot water rivulets around camp contributed to make it an interesting and misty place. Although walking among the hot springs was hazardous, it was quite an experience and its water greatly facilitated the needed camping dish washing!

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Hotsprings and flamingoes.

The springs are quite powerful and they create short streams that feed the lake and some had formed cones while others gave raise to small pools, some over two metres deep and very hot as the temperature of the springs varies between 39 and 98.5 °C . Unfortunately, instances of severe burning of campers falling in had occurred by the time we got there!

Our favourite camping ground was the Fig tree camp, a very shady area under a patch of magnificent fig trees that provided the necessary thick shade. The camp was traversed by a clear stream coming down from the Siracho escarpment just above the area. We sometimes drank from it in cases of need as a good friend assured us that it was clean water. It did taste great but a few years later we were in for a surprise: we discovered that higher up in the hills it went through a local village!

We spent many cool nights under the trees but there was one exception that, apart from cool it was “entertaining”. Unknown to us the rather large resident baboon troop had decided to spend the night up the fig trees above us! This had probably happened during earlier stays and it had gone unnoticed. The night in question, at about midnight, all hell broke loose as something seriously scared the baboons, possibly a leopard although we never saw it. We only suffered the consequences.

It seemed that the entire troop was above us! Their fright caused a number of them to violently empty their bowels and bladders. I leave the results of this barrage to your imagination! I will only tell you that the aftermath was a smelly night and lots of washing of our camp, including the car windscreen the following morning! There must have been lots of baboons! After that experience we learnt to sacrifice some shade to avoid a repeat of this situation!

During the earlier visits to lake Bogoria it was still possible to drive all around the lake and we did this a couple of times before the road collapsed. The most memorable of these round the lake tours took place with our friends from Uruguay Nazar and Aurora when we drove north from the Fig tree camp and we could slide the kombi door open to really enjoy the view. The drive was special as it offered great views of greater kudus that used to dwell on the eastern area of the lake where they could browse to their liking.

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Going round the lake would also enable you to see many of the more hidden hot springs as well as the some of the special features such as the Kesubo Swamp to the north. However, the geysers and hot springs along the bank of the lake were, apart from the flamingoes, the most interesting features.

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Kesubo Swamp to the north of the lake.

Unfortunately in recent years the population in the two key east African lakes, Nakuru and Bogoria, have been adversely affected by suspected heavy metal poisoning, while its primary African breeding area in Lake Natron is currently under threat by a proposed soda ash plant. So, despite still being the most numerous species of flamingo, lesser flamingoes are classified as near threatened due to its declining population and the low number of breeding sites, some of which are threatened by human activities.

 

 

 

 

 

Desperate ingenuity

Have you ever lived in a country with no embassy from your own? And if the whole continent has only three and the nearest is four thousand km away? Then, to ask you if you ever lost your passports in such a situation would probably be too much!

Well, this is what happened to us in Kenya so forgive me from what I needed to do to get out of that rather tight spot!

It was the end of 1983. My FAO fellowship was ending and we were getting ready to travel home to Uruguay -via Rome- after spending the last two years in Kenya as I have described in earlier posts.

We normally kept our passports at a safe place but we needed them to buy our tickets. It was during the second visit to collect our tickets that the worse thing that could have happened did happen: we lost them! It was only at that time that the location of the Uruguayan diplomatic representations became important to us! A couple of phone calls later (no internet then!) the news sunk in:

Johannesburg was the closest hope!

Luckily we had passport copies and our Uruguayan ID cards stored at home and we also had our Kenyan ID cards. While we could stay in Kenya (for a while at least), we could not do this indefinitely and absolutely not to travel on the 9 January 1984 as we had planned!

Although we immediately reported the loss to the Kenya Police, the passports had vanished and it looked like our journey had also gone down the drain as well! Before giving up hope completely, we decided to contact the Embassy of Uruguay in Johannesburg. We thought that in view of our “special” situation and the fact that we still have our original ID documents, a solution could be found.

After a frustrating phone call where I was repeatedly told that they would have had no problem issuing new passports but that we were required to be present in person in the embassy I gave up as they could or would not wish to understand that we were not able to travel from Kenya to South Africa without our passports!

My second hope -FAO- did not last long either as the Representative in Kenya -although very accommodating- could not help either. However, a couple of days later he told me that he could get FAO in Rome to arrange for our “special” entry to Italy [1]. That was some good news, albeit small.

Now we “only” needed to leave Kenya!

I can assure you that desperate situations enhances your imagination to find a solution. No, we did not walk at night all the way to Johannesburg to get our passports. Instead we decided that the most practical option was to tackle the Kenya Immigration authorities for a way out.

I booked an appointment and, not to go empty-handed, I decided to “prepare” a letter from the Uruguay Consulate in Rome as supporting documentation. I hoped that it would be not only a useful -and hopefully convincing- document but also a paper where stamps could be placed!

So, armed with our passports’ copies, Kenya IDs and the fake letter we ventured in the unknown recesses of the Kenya Immigration Department…

After going through a few offices as can be seen in the picture below, somehow we managed to get the needed clearance to leave the country! Very happy with the achievement but trying to be 100% safe, we found out the name of the officer that was to be at the airport at the time of our departure and we went to the airport to meet him and explain our predicament in person.

Clearly, the fact that we had the authorizations on the letter and also that we were leaving the country helped a lot and he kindly reassured us of our certain departure during his shift.

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The original authorization on top (19/12/83) by the boss of the office that instructs his junior to endorse the English translation instructing the responsible for shift 1/C to allow us to leave. We then went to meet the latter on 29/12/83 to get his agreement in person and finally departed on 9/1/84.

Luckily on the departure date Kenya Airways was on time and we managed to depart. The rest is history as we entered Italy, renewed our passports and continued our journey home to Uruguay, returning to Kenya a while later, now as a scientist with the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology.

 

[1] I never found out the conditions of our entry but we were probably refugees!!!

 

Simba’s Bush Baptism

By 1985 we had saved enough money to be able to buy a new vehicle. At the time in Kenya –and in Africa in general- the only car to buy was a “Simba” (lion in kiSwahili) for its lion logo: a Peugeot 504.

Simba's twin brother:sister? Mendizabal Tsavo copy

Our 504 arrived later. It was a great car. Here we are at Tsavo West National Park with friends. Photo by Bushsnob

We agreed with our friend Paul that we both will order similar cars to get a discount that we did not in the end! For some reason his arrived first and it was a very excited Paul that turned up that Friday afternoon in his Simba with exactly 34 km on the clock to invite us to a safari to the Sasumua dam for the following day. This dam, located on the Sasumua stream, supplied water to Nairobi and it had been stocked with rainbow trout during the colonial times. Some very large trout were still being caught, although rarely  at the time. However, Paul did not lose hope of landing one of them [1].

The dam was located in the South Kinangop highlands where the scarcity of oxygen and the almost constant drizzle seemed to combine to lower the ambient temperature to almost unacceptable levels for us. It was, however, ideal weather for people of Northern Europe and Paul, being British did not mind it! My wife and I were not very keen on trout fishing but Paul explained that the idea was to test the new car going the “back way”. He did not specify the details but mentioned that we would stay in a Government of Kenya forestry lodge, close to the dam. Aware by now of his “innovative” ideas, we readily agreed.

We already had some experience at the dam with Paul and his Avon rubber dinghy. We had gone there earlier in search of trout and also to test a new anchor that Paul had brought from the UK. The anchor, he said, was specially designed to take a great grip at the bottom. Although we did not fish anything, we confirmed that the anchor was indeed very effective. Somehow the thinner “release” rope broke and eventually we needed to cut the anchor rope in order to be able to return home from our firm anchorage in the centre of the dam! But let me go back to the present story…

We left early the next morning, ready for the back road trip, the cold weather and the fishing. The back road was, I believe the Thika Gatura road, probably quite rough even today. To make matters worse we realised that there has been quite heavy rain in the area the night before. However, we decided to go on. From the junction to Karangi the road became quite narrow and soon it was just a narrow path. However, this was the right road, according to the map (and our wishful thinking!).

After a few kilometres driving through a slippery but still passable track we met a mud hole of about fifty metres in diametre where clearly a herd of elephants had wallowed probably the night before and their tracks entering and leaving the mud pool and going into the forest could clearly be seen. We stop to evaluate the obstacle and to take a critical decision. Careful scouting revealed that there was no elephant threat but also no way round it.

I am not sure why but we (Paul and myself) agreed that we could cross it. My wife, as usually outnumbered, was resigned to her fate! We agreed that all we needed to do was to reverse for a good distance and enter the mud hole fast enough so that our inertia would carry us to the opposite side. We were almost sure that the car would grip sufficiently dry ground to enable us to go through.

We reversed for about 150 metres and came rather fast –maybe too fast- so that we went a bit deeper than wished on first contact with the mud but, luckily, the car nose lifted above the mud and the car continued its movement towards the other shore. I believe that there was an element of buoyancy in this manoeuvre that Peugeot was not aware of… Whatever the reason, we crossed, just, and we were able to move on. “Oh, Oh” said Paul, “the speedometer stopped working!” Although this was bad news for a new car, it was not surprising after what we had gone through and, as it was of no relevance for our present situation, it was largely ignored after a couple of brief polite comments.

Encouraged by our success we moved on as going back was no longer an option! We continued our advance on the muddy track that was now cutting through thick forest. After a few kilometres we came to a bend and a junction and deep truck ruts appeared. Despite Paul being a good driver, soon the car’s belly was resting on the road and our back wheels could not turn anymore. To make matters more entertaining, it started to drizzle!

I hate getting my head wet and I could not find my hat! So getting wet we inspected the situation. It was bad! Jacking it up was not an option as 504s did not have good jacks and the latter, instead of lifting the car, would have become buried in the mud.The only possible solution would be to push the car back, and then again gather speed while my wife and pushed it forward hoping that it would gather enough speed to go through the muddy spot. But first we needed to unstuck the car and push it backwards! That took some doing as we had no shovel, but eventually it moved to the relief of our “wet selves”!

Paul -after all he was the owner of the creature- decided to go for it and my wife and I positioned ourselves in a place we calculated some extra push would be needed. Paul came fast and we joined our energies to the car’s to no avail. After a short meeting we concluded that the only chance was for my wife to drive and Paul and I to push. This had a small drawback: she had not driven very often and -in addition- she was not familiar with this particular vehicle. As there was no time for her to learn more and we were properly stuck, we had no choice. We explained the expected move to my wife and positioning the car for her, we placed ourselves to wait for our turn to push the moment she passed by.

Before I go on, I have some relevant additional information. I have always had a weight problem and only a few years ago I managed to get on top of it. However, at the time of this safari I was trying to lose weight through the Scarsdale diet. After five days I had lost a couple of kilogrammes but I was feeling a bit weak. That Saturday was day six and the menu recommended the consumption of as much fruit salad as you wished with coffee/Tea/diet Soda/water. Only dinner -if we were ever to have it- would bring some “real” food in the shape of roast turkey or chicken!

Kindly -and luckily- my wife had prepared a very large bowl of fruit salad and I tacked into it trying to increase my sugar level for the push. While I added energy to my weakened body, Paul explained my wife again what she needed to do. When the instructions and my refuelling were complete we were ready to go.

My wife, following the instructions, started the car and soon engaged second gear coming flat out towards us, clearly barely controlling the car and with a scary look on her face! Luckily, with the wheels well into the furrows there was little to deviate from! When the car started to slow down both Paul and myself pushed as hard as we could and, to our relief, it came unstuck! We had a brief instant of joy before we realized that the car did not stop and continued on its way, leaving us behind! We jumped and gesticulated wildly for my wife to stop until, finally, it stopped when it got lodged in a nearby bush. My wife got out visibly shaken and upset so we refrained from any comments. I collapsed in a mixture of exhaustion and mirth.

After a while, Paul -visibly pleased that we were unstuck- inspected his no longer new car for any additional damage while my wife and I sat nearby. She was trying to recover from her nerve-wrecking experience and I was tacking into the fruit salad bowl in search of sustenance! Eventually Paul announced that the car was fine and that we should move on as we were now after lunch and -according to his “GPS-less” calculations we still had a long way in front of us.

We moved on but things were still not looking good as we entered a forest concession and there were more ruts and mud ahead. As expected, after a few kilometres of what I would define as “heroic driving” by Paul, the car’s belly started touching the road and eventually it accumulated lots of mud underneath until it became hopelessly stuck, sitting on its belly! This time no amount of fruit salad consumption would have helped, as the situation was really hopeless. We were on a tight spot and the rain continued to soften the red mud!

While busy discussing our rather desperate situation, my wife interrupted us and told us to be quiet. “I can hear an engine”, she said. I could not but -as usual- she was correct and after a while we could all hear it. It was a slow revs engine and a long way away. However an engine meant a possible pull and -while waiting for it- we decided to open a Tusker beer to celebrate our luck and wait for the help coming.

The old red tractor arrived slowly pulling a trailer loaded with logs and puffing blue smoke. We did not need to say anything to his elderly driver. We were blocking his way anyway! Quietly, he unhooked the trailer and manoeuvred the tractor in front of the car. He then tied a wire to its underside from the three-point linkage and started to pull gently until the car moved. While Paul sat in the car my wife and I jumped on the tractor. The pull lasted for about ten kilometres until we reached a point where the forest estate ended and with it the groovy road. The old man untied us and assured that we should be fine from there to Sasumua. He turned back while we could not thank him enough!

We set off gingerly and managed to cover quite a distance through a now more populated area. The rain had been heavier heree so this time we just got stuck in mud. I had finished my fruit salad and did not have any strength left so I went for some solid food knowing that my Scarsdale gain –or rather loss- was going down the drain. Luckily this time there was people nearby and we managed to walk ,still under the rain, to a small village where we explained our predicament.

As usual they listened attentively and respectfully and eventually informed us that they had charged Safari rally drivers KShs 1000 to get them out and that this was their fee. We tried to explain that we were not rally drivers but fishermen but we only managed a small discount! We did manage to agree that payment would be the moment we were clear of the obstacle. The push was a formality as all able men from the small village came and we were out and also out of pocket at the same time.

By looking back at the mud hole I could not help feeling that we were probably the victims of a mud hole “improved” by the villagers by making it deeper and wider to make an additional income from Safari rally “victims”. I had seen this earlier in Maasailand and I could expect the same or better from the Kikuyu ingenuity to make some extra cash.

We eventually got to the high, cold and wet dam at night. We were very cold and soaked wet but we managed to find the forest huts and, luckily there was dry firewood. Soon we had a roaring fire going and we soon warmed up, ate well and had a good early night sleep.

Fishing the next day was the usually futile affair but somehow made enjoyable by having survived the earlier day’s ordeal. Luckily the return road was good tarmac and asphalt and only then Simba could demonstrate why it was so famous in Africa at the time!

On the positive note for Paul, the speedometer was not working so the car kept being new for quite some time!

 

[1] He eventually land one that was actually close to the Kenya record!

 

 

First blood

To witness a lion kill is, despite its perceived cruelty, a highlight for the safari lover. We have been lucky to witness several kills and many more attempted kills during the many years that we have visited the bush. But the first one is the one that remains most vividly imprinted in your mind, particularly if it happens in full view and you witness it from a few metres away.

It happened in the Maasai Mara in the early 80’s, during one of my first camping experiences with Paul. We happened to be driving along monitoring the wildebeest movements when we saw a zebra limping badly. At close quarters it was clear that the animal had -somehow- damaged a front leg. Aware that wounded animals did not last long because of the large predator population in the area, we decided to wait for a few hours to see what happened.

Lion pride M Mara 6.54.19 AM copy

We knew that a large pride lived in the area.

At some point the zebra -a group of 8 to 10- stopped grazing and started to move. We followed. I was at the time sitting on the roof rack to have a better view of the plains so it was me that spotted the reason for the zebra nervousness. They had spotted a lioness watching them from a distance. The intentions of the predator were clear as she was walking in a general direction that would -eventually- get to the group of zebras. Excited, I prepared my camera and waited.

After a while we realized that in fact there were several lionesses and that, somehow, we were in fact used as part of a pincer movement from the huntresses! After about thirty minutes slowly following the zebras, we saw them break into a trot and, before we could see much more, they were galloping so we moved faster while trying to anticipate the event.

Suddenly we saw that the hunted were trying to avoid a second lioness that, after moving for quite a distance through a donga [1], was cutting diagonally and at full speed towards them. Things were now accelerating and so did the car and my heart while I held on to the roof rack while trying not to lose my camera or falling off myself!

The zebra were now at full gallop when, suddenly, they scattered in all directions, I am sure that this had something to do with confusing the chasers. However, as expected, the injured zebra was the target, being slower than the rest so the lioness -now joined by two more some distance behind her- was closing in. So were we, despite the irregularity of the terrain that was no obstacle for our excitment!

Soon it was clear that, despite the zebra’s final spirited effort, the chase outcome was a foregone conclusion as soon as the lioness reached the zebra and managed to place one paw on its rump, the zebra lost its equilibrium and crashed down to the ground while the lioness immediately reached for its throat. Luckily there was lots of grass and no dust so we could observe the action clearly. After a few seconds another lioness arrived and helped the first one to anchored the zebra down.

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My first picture from the moving car shows the moment the second lioness joins the kill. A third one is seen coming in the background.

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A better photo once we stopped.

mmara lioness killing zebra 7 copy

A better take once we stopped.

Lions killing zebra m mara 7 copy

Mesmerized by what I was watching and photographing, I was still on the roof rack by the time we stopped to watch them only a few metres from them! Although they were clearly not interested in me, somehow I managed to dive into the car through the open window (not easily done with the sliding window of a Series II Land Rover but clearly possible under duress!). Once inside, I continue to watch the action and take more picturees. We were both speechless while more lions kept coming from various places to join the kill.

mmara lioness killing zebra best 3 copy

The arrival of the male. The white foggy marks are the windscreen wipers.

My romantic view that a lion kill was a clinical affair where the victim dies fast and in shock was shattered. The zebra took several minutes to die, while the whole lion pride arrived and some of them started to lick it while the animal was clearly alive although in deep shock by now. Eventually it expired and we were fortunate to have enough time to observe the interaction of the various members of the pride, including the arrival of the male that came “straight to the kill” and scattered all others while positioning himself near the hindquarters, ready to enjoy the best cuts!

We only left the scene at nightfall as -luckily- we knew the area well. The lions -mainly the younger- were still feeding while most of the adults were now doing nothing but washing themselves and then resting belly-up. We heard the jackals and the hyenas starting to call and soon they were approaching to the carcass that, by now, was more than half eaten. Thinking on seeing how it would be the following morning, we memorized a few features to be able to come back to the area that happened to be outside the reserve.

The following morning, we arrived to the spot but had difficulties to find the kill. Only after a careful search we stumbled upon the zebra’s clean skull and a couple of bones. That was all that remained from what yesterday had been a living zebra! Luckily, about 500,000 migrated every year intermingled with the wildebeest so one less was not going to make too much of a difference!

 

[1] In Africa, a narrow steep-sided ravine formed by water erosion but usually dry except in the rainy season.