lions

The Tuli block

For many years I have wondered how the Tuli block came to being. How could such a perfect semi-circle be added to the border between Zimbabwe and Botswana? Why not just follow the Shashe River all the way?

The Tuli block (tip of the pencil) at the south-west corner of Zimbabwe.

Apart from seeing it in the map, we had driven through the Tuli block a few years back when travelling to South Africa. So, we decided to go and explore it. With little knowledge about the area on the Zimbabwe side, apart from comments that it was a hunting block, we decided to return to visit the Northern Tuli Game Reserve (NTGR) in the eastern part of Botswana.

Briefly, based on the history of the block from http://www.notugre.com, the first European explorers and missionaries arrived early in the 16th century and the area was used for hunting, trading and mission work among the peoples then living here. In 1890 Cecil John Rhodes commanded the “Pioneer Column” to annex Matabeleland and Mashonaland for the British Crown and established Fort Tuli (in Zimbabwe). At the same time, the Bangwato and Matabele tribes of the area were involved in a power struggle for the land until Chief Khama of the Bangwato tribe won control in 1895.

It was Chief Khama that, with other Chiefs went to England, saw the Queen, and stopped Rhodes ambitions. An agreement was reached that only the Tuli Block be given to the British South Africa company for their use to build the rail link and that later it would be divided into farms to protect the Bangwato and Botswana from the expansion of the Boers from the Northern Transvaal.

Much more recently, in the late 50´s and early 60´s, probably realizing that the area did not have much potential for livestock (my comment), ranchers in the area decided to literally “block” their lands into a large area for wildlife conservation and tourism. Today, 36 properties form the NTGR with an area of over 70 thousand hectares.

Clearly, the NTGR is much less known that the classic Botswana wildlife areas we had visited earlier such as the Makgadigadi and Nxai pans, Chobe National Park, Moremi Game Reserve and the Kalahari reserves, to name the main tourist areas. However, our aim was to see how the Tuli block was.

We usually are independent travellers but this time -strangely- we arranged the trip through a travel agency. Our search for accommodation quickly ruled out the well-known lodges such as Mashatu and Tuli for economic reasons but we found a much more reasonable place called Serolo Safari Camp located in the NTGR where we booked self-catering accommodation (see: https://tulitrails.com/?page_id=38).

So, with the NTGR as our first destination, we put into practice one of the advantages we saw when we bought a house in Zimbabwe: to be able to travel to several neighbouring countries. We headed South-east, first to Bulawayo for the night and the following morning drove the 100 km to the border at Plumtree and then to Francistown, just a further 90 km into Botswana.

We were happy to see that very few people intended to cross the border that day and we made plans for an early arrival in Francistown that would allow us more time for shopping. Things did not work out as planned… However, before I give you more details, let me explain that, this time, I travelled with two passports: the old one that would expire while we were in Botswana and a new one that I obtained a few days earlier, aware that this would happen.

Our visa for Zimbabwe was expiring the very day we crossed, and it was in my old passport. I was not concerned as I expected that the immigration would have looked at my visa in the old passport and place my exit stamp in the new one. It was not to be! The officer, insisting that the old passport was still valid, placed the exit stamp in it and, immediately I knew we were in trouble!

My fears were confirmed when we arrived at the Botswana side of the border, sited after about 2 km of “no man’s land”. A kind immigration officer explained to us that the Zimbabwe immigration should have stamped my new passport! So we were sent back! We were about to know something I had always wondered: how do you go back half-way through a border crossing! Well, the answer is with difficulty!

We turned around and, of course drove against the flow of traffic all the way back trying to be extremely friendly and greeting people and saying “sorry” every time we faced a car coming head-on towards us, not expecting to find a car going the other way. Eventually we arrived back at Zimbabwe, did a completely illegal manoeuvre to get the car pointing towards Botswana again and, trying to appear as calm as possible, we entered the building, again.

We explained the situation to the immigration officer that was still reluctant to stamp my new passport until a higher authority gave its clearance. Clearly the answer was positive so, after quite a wait, my new passport was stamped, and we managed to complete our crossing without further difficulties.

We arrived at Francistown later than expected, and rushed to buy the essential stuff for our self-catering stay at Serolo Safari Camp as well as getting new Botswana SIM cards, an essential item these days! Despite being a Sunday, we managed and, after a restful Sunday night at Francistown and a good breakfast on Monday, we headed for the NTGR, located at about 290 km to the South-east. We drove up to Serule and we turned for Bobolong and later Mathathane. Soon after the asphalt ended, and we headed in the direction of Platjan, the border post with South Africa, and turned into our camp following the signposts.

The area was very dry but, unlike other areas of Botswana, it was quite hilly and rocky although some greenery in the distance revealed the passing of the Limpopo River, not that far off. We both thought that it would be difficult to spot game in this terrain, but we decided to wait and see and continued until we got to the camp a handful of km farther on.

It was very hot but the camp had some magnificent large trees that provided with good shade, particularly around the central part known as the lapa [1]. There were five not so shaded tents overlooking a ravine where we were told game passed and one concrete hut at the back, not so nice as it overlooked the tents’ car park! Our hearts sunk when we were told that this was the accommodation for self-caterers. We looked at each other and knew that we would not stay there. It was a change or looking for another place to stay!

We presented our concern to the manageress and, after a few phone calls a solution was found. Another couple would be moved from a tent to the self-catering unit with the lure of the latter having air conditioning and we could have their tent, provided we paid the difference between self-catering and full board that, luckily, was not very high. We accepted.

Our tent.

I would call Serolo a no-frills lodge that could host a maximum of ten people on full board and two more on self-catering so it was never crowded. Staff were extremely kind and attentive and we enjoyed the cooking of Kennedy, the Chef, that managed to produce some truly good food in the bush.

We were not allowed to go on game drives in our car, but the accommodation included two game drives per day. To our horror, we needed to be at the lapa by 05:30 hours for the morning drive. Luckily, the afternoon one started at the very civilized time of 16:00 hours, after having enjoyed a “high tea”.

We are not used to be driven as part of a tourist group, so we needed to adjust to the new methodology. We did this with some degree of difficulty as clearly the aim of the drive was to find big cats, particularly leopards. Elephants were watched from a distance and birds were almost ignored. Luckily the intense heat made driving on an open car very bearable.

By the second game drive it became apparent that the area was more restricted than we expected, and we just repeated our route day after day. Part of the drive touched the Limpopo River with its beautiful riverine forest. There we saw abundance of impala and greater kudu grazing under some truly large trees. Ficus and Acacia species were the outstanding ones and we contemplated them in awe while enjoying their dense shade during the heat of the day. As it was the dry season, the river was not flowing (at least on the surface), but we saw still some large pools and probably abundant water under the sand.

The rest of the driving was done through dry, often bare earth areas with patches of Mopani trees (severely damaged by the elephants). Several rocky formations were clearly ideal places to find leopards but, unfortunately, we had to be satisfied with klipspringers. Our drivers tried hard to find cats and they often drove through rough roads that involved a lot of low gear efforts by the aged Land Rover Defenders used by the camp.

A curious female greater kudu.

It was in the hilly area that we spotted five lion cubs, the offspring of two resident lionesses that were sired by one male lion. Later, we found one of the females resting by an old eland kill, showing signs of being very hot. Mabel caught a glimpse of the second lioness but the rest of us did not see it. During a later drive, we found the male lion resting and surrounded by the other members of the family. Probably the whole group was together, but we could not see them in great detail as they were far and hidden by both rocks and bushes on the other side of a gorge where we could not get to.

A young lion watching us from the rocks where they stayed.
A hot and sleepy lioness.

During the second day of game driving, we found an injured male impala. One of its hindlegs was in an unnatural position and it was unable to stand up. Interestingly, a black-backed jackal was lying down a couple of metres away. We agreed that the impala’s future appeared grim as it would have been an easy prey for a leopard or hyena, and we thought that the jackal was waiting for a larger predator to arrive and benefit from the leftovers. After waiting for a while, we left the pair and made a note to return in the evening, but we run out of time, and we did not know what happened until the following day.

First thing the following morning we returned to the impala and found it dead and the jackal (we assumed it was the same we saw the previous day) was feeding on it. Although we cannot know how the events unfolded, judging by the injuries that impala showed, I believe that it was killed by the jackal during the night. Jackals are ruthless killers, often tackling prey much larger than themselves.

The black-backed jackal feeding on the impala.

We saw elephants at a distance and our drivers seemed to be very wary of them keeping a good distance, perhaps because of the cars being open. Oone night a few elephants visited the waterhole adjacent to the lapa and leopards walked past the camp a couple of times but, of course, we were out on a game drive when that took place!

Elephants watched from a distance.

Oh, I forgot about the Tuli block semicircle. Well, it was not easy to find out the reason but, eventually I did. It happened in 1891 when then Mashonaland districts were established and Tuli was given jurisdiction over a 16km radius of the village, a perfect disruption to what otherwise would have been another river border between two countries!

[1] A lapa is usually an open structure that generally consists of a thatched roof sitting on wooden poles. These are usually used as entertainment areas in southern Africa.

Signs in the sand

The Covid pandemic left a backlog of bookings in most national parks in Africa and Zimbabwe was not an exception. For this reason we could not get our yearly spell at Masuma dam in Hwange National Park (HNP). We did manage to get a few nights at Kennedy 1 and Main Camp followed by four more nights at Robins Camp in the northern part of the park.

This time we were lucky to have our two children with us, our son´s girlfriend Pat and a couple of friends that visited Africa for the first time, Brenda, and Roberto from Spain. We rented another car to accommodate all of us and the rather impressive amount of luggage, camping gear and food that we took with us.

As usual when traveling to the HNP we divided the trip in two parts. During the first day we got to Bulawayo traveling at a slower pace than usual to allow our visitors to see the place as well as to adjust to driving on the left side of the road. We got to the Hornung Park Lodge (http://www.hornung-park-lodge.com/) where we were hosted by its friendly owner Fredi (Rita was away). The lodge is very nice and quiet, and we were treated very kindly by our host.

The following day, after an early breakfast we moved on and managed to arrive at Kennedy 1 in mid-afternoon to set up our camp. As we needed four tents, preparations took quite a while before we had our camp ready. The two new tents and additional gadgets brought by our children took some time to assemble and we finished just before nightfall.

Yellow hornbills watching us preparing our camp.

At my ripe age I refuse to sleep on the ground, so I carry a camp bed for these occasions. Its assemblage is now “infamous” with the family as it requires quite an effort. So much so that four of us climbed on it while trying to fit all pieces together, something that finally happened with a “twang” that indicated success! This time there were no injured fingers.

While camp was being prepared, we noted many lion footprints in the sand and Terence, the nice and young camp attendant, informed us that lions had visited the camp during the night and that they were still close by. Despite our efforts to break the news of the footprints gently to our first-time campers in Africa, the idea of “sleeping with lions” did nothing to build up their confidence on the protection offered by the tents. The situatiation did not improve when they saw the condition of the camp perimeter fence!

Ground hornbills and a crimson breasted shrike visiting our camp and surrounding area.

After we were done with the camp it was too late to look for animals so we focused on dinner. As usual Mabel produced an amazing dish of pasta with pesto and green peas, and we uncorked a bottle of South African red to end a great bush day hoping for a great bush night. We were not disappointed as the hyenas called early and then the lions roared frequently, just to reminded us that we were staying on borrowed ground!

The following morning, surprisingly Kennedy 1, 2 and Ngweshla had no elephants and almost no other game. Luckily a male ostrich decided to perform some kind of solo courtship that included the usual wing balancing act with the addition of mad fast runs of a few hundred metres each that showed its speed but that seemed rather useless in the absence of a female! Perhaps it mistook pour car for a potential partner?

Rather surprised by the absence of large game we headed back to our camp. We were lucky to find a couple of young adult lions that, like us, were coming to Kennedy 1 for a drink. We stayed watching them until late in the afternoon until it was time to return to camp for a BBQ followed later by more lion roaring, still respecting our space.

All pictures were taken by our son Julio A.

Kafue National Park (KNP)

With an area of 22,400 square kilometres the KNP is the largest in Zambia, 35% of all the area devoted to parks in the country and the fifth in size in the whole of Africa. It started in 1920 as a Game Reserve as an effort to protect the then dwindling wild animal population.

Map of the KNP. Credit: Nanzhila Safari Camp.

In 1950 it was declared a National Park named after the river basin where most of its land is found. It was only gazetted as such in 1972, the year that the construction of the Itezhi-tezhi dam started. In 1957 Norman Carr [1] was appointed its first Wildlife Warden, post that he will keep until 1960. His appointment coincided with the finalization of most of the eleven accommodation facilities of the park namely Ngoma, Nanzhila, Kalala, Itumbi, Chunga, Mapunga, Lufupa, Moshi, Treetops, Lushimba and Ndulumina.

The KNP hosted most of the animals found in Southern Africa [2] but it was not a place where you expected, in general, to find high densities of game because of the size of the park. To make matters worse, at the time we were in Zambia, the Angolan rebels had almost exterminated the game in the mid-eighties and carried the meat, ivory and other animal parts west from Zambia. The Park was not very popular with tourists in contrast with other options such as the South Luangwa National park and others.

We visited the KNP a few times, spending sometime in the southern part of the park, closer to Lusaka, visiting the Itezhi-tezhi area where we did some boating and stayed a couple of times, mainly when we wished to get out of Lusaka to a place relatively close to it. However, the area was popular and did not offer lots of game so we did not visited it very often.

I must clarify that we still had our Kenya memories of very large numbers of game in our minds and the KNP appeared as an empty park to us despite it being recovering from the earlier heavy pouching.

We did travel to the northern part of the park as it was not too far from our project area at Lutale in Central Province. We stayed at Ngoma lodge that, at the time offered basic facilities and catering. Luckily, its staff made up for the lack of luxury as they were very friendly and particularly kind to our children. We drove many kilometres through the bush in search of game but our reward were a few elephants that were not very approachable. On a positive note, we found the rare Roan antelope (Hippotragus equinus) and I even managed to get a (bad) picture of a bull!.

Our first sighting of a Roan antelope.

We were non-plussed by the KNP for about a year and we had decided to leave it and devote ourselves to explore other areas. At that time a friend recommended as to visit the Lufupa Camp, situated in the northern sector of the park.

We decided to spend a long weekend there and we were rewarded. The camp, beautifully sighted near the confluence of the Lufupa and Kafue rivers, was an area rich in floodplains, broad-leaved woodland, abundant riverine vegetation and “dambos” [3]. Around Lufupa we saw more wildlife than we had spotted in the rest of the park. Plain game such as zebra, buffalo, greater kudu and impala were present as well as the Roan antelope as mentioned above.

We also saw a few elephants that did not reside there but moved through at times. In addition, bird life was also abundant around the camp with some rare species found there, namely Pel’s fishing owl, African finfoot and Half-collared kingfisher. Despite these plusses, we were happy to learn that Lufupa’s fame was built on its frequent leopard sightings particularly during the night drives organized by the camp.

A lone elephant at the KNP.

Once there and after spending our first day driving around in search of game, we booked a night game drive. We left our young daughter with Annie at camp and we joined “MAP” Patel [4] in search of the elusive leopards, a cat that we had rarely seen during our years and Kenya and never in Ethiopia. We noted that MAP talked little and he seemed to be on a mission: to find leopards. He stood next to the driver with his hunting gun while intensively watching the dark bush. We also noted that he had the ring finger of his right hand missing and I seem to recall that he told us that he had lost it to a leopard on a game drive a while before. No wonder he was so alert!

I remember that first night drive as a long and rather uneventful. We were not yet used to night drives so, we focussed intensively on the illuminated circle of the searchlight and we soon got our eyes tired. In addition, it became cold as time passed and leopards were not easy to spot that night. Luckily, towards the end of the drive and when -being unprepared- we were getting very cold, the other car that had gone out with us radioed to tell MAP of the location of a leopard. We joined them and saw our first “Zambian” leopard that we soon lost when it walked into thick bush.

We enjoyed that first experience at Lufupa and we kept planning to return. This took place during the visit of Mauro, my father-in-law, from Uruguay with who we shared a few trips around Zambia. With him, Flori (daughter) and Annie (nanny) we went to Lufupa for a second time, looking forward to sighting leopards again. We were not disappointed.

During the first day of game viewing we were returning to camp for lunch when one of the drivers stopped us and told us the location of a couple of cheetah. Without hesitation, lunch was postponed and we drove in the direction that we were told, hoping that the cheetah would still be there and that we would find them.

Luckily, Mabel saw them immediately and we had a great time watching them until they decided to disappear in the bush. That evening we booked a night drive. This time we were with a different guide but in radio contact with MAP’s car. As soon as we left the camp, we found two large male lions walking on the road and we stayed with them for a long while as they seemed to be hunting.

We followed the two large males for about five kilometres while they took advantge of the road and marked lots of bushes as it often happens. This was our first experience with lions at very close quarters in an open vehicle at night and I must confess that it was very exciting not only for my father in law but also for us!

When they decided to move out of the road and into the thicket I expected that we would continue our errand but MAP did not have it and he went straight into thick bush after them and we followed. After about half hour the pair entered into an area of thick bush that was too much, even for MAP! Somehow we -miraculously for me- soon were back on the road and again focussed on leopards. We drove for a while until we bumped on a lonely female that we watched until it was time to return to camp as it was getting late and, again, rather cold. That day remains in our memory as the one when we saw the three large cats!

On that trip, for the second night drive we joined MAP himself and he lived up to his reputation. We found six leopards in various spots during the drive. The last one was hunting and MAP decided to wait and see what happened. He stopped the car and switched the search lamp off. Gradually our eyes adjusted to darkness helped by the available moonlight. The leopard was about twenty metres from an impala when we first spotted it and it was completely still.

After waiting for half an hour, the predator had slowly crept forward and it was now at about four metres from the impala. The latter remained totally unaware of the danger and, unbelievably for us, continued grazing and looking the other way. We were getting excited and whispered to each other that the attack would happen any time.

We waited for the attack with bated breath but, amazingly, the leopard kept approaching until its nozzle was almost touching its prey! At that point, the impala either saw it or caught the leopard’s scent and it took off! While relaxing from the tension we were under, we made comments about the incredible sight we have just seen, and MAP explained that this is the way leopards often hunt and the event we witnessed was a rare one as the leopard missed!

The following video illustrates an accelerated but similar situation to what we witnessed that night except that “our” leopard failed to get its prey. Although it shows a kill, I believe that you will take it as a natural ocurrence in the normal predator-prey relationship in real life.

After that night Lufupa was included in our list of best places we ever visited. Regrettably, we did not return to it but plan to do it as soon as we can. The idea is to combine our return with a visit to the Busanga plains, a swampy area fed by the Lufupa river and also located in northern KNP. Busanga was and still is a great area for game viewing. In particular there are large numbers of puku (Kobus vardonii) and red lechwe (Kobus leche) together with many other ungulates. To make the place even more attractive, it is also one of the best areas to witness the epic confrontation between lions and buffalo. We cannot wait for the Covid 19 pandemic to go away!

[1] See:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Carr – Consulted on 16/6/2021.

[2] See: https://www.zambiatourism.com/destinations/national-parks/kafue-national-park/ – Consulted on 16/6/2021.

[3] “A dambo is a class of complex shallow wetlands in central, southern and eastern Africa, particularly in Zambia and Zimbabwe. They are generally found in higher rainfall flat plateau areas and have river-like branching forms which in themselves are not very large, but combined add up to a large area. Dambos have been estimated to comprise 12.5% of the area of Zambia. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dambo (Consulted on 18 June 2021).

[4] Muhammed Ahmed Patel alias ‘MAP’ was an outstanding police officer and commander of the anti-theft squad of Lusaka with a reputation of being a tough and fair cop and a great human being. At the time of our visits to Lufupa Camp, he guided, and he had a reputation of being able to smell leopards. A hero for many, he died in 2012. See: https://www.facebook.com/InMemoryOfMapPatel/?ref=page_internal (Consulted on 17 June 2021).

The Didessa river valley

Once we realized that traveling beyond the project area required permits and fuel that was not easily available without almost begging it from the Bedele Administrator, we decided to spend our time exploring the area around Bedele.

The way to Arjo.

After a few trips we discovered that the road leading to the near town of Arjo crossed the Didessa river and its lovely valley and we chose it as our prime destination for day trips and we spent several Sundays there, birdwatching, walking, fishing or just relaxing with a picnic.

The beautiful Didessa river.

The road to Arjo was one of the roads that crossed the Didessa, the other one being the road between Jimma and Bedele that crossed it again near the town of Agaro. However, this trip was much further, and the road was quite busy.

The Didessa river is a tributary of the Abay River. It originates in the mountains of Gomma, flowing towards the northwest to its confluence with the Abay. It drains about 19,630 square kilometres and in the early 1900 it was a favourite place for elephants, attracted by the young shoots of its abundant bamboo forest.

Although there were no elephants left when we were there, the river still had hippos that we used to see often although they clearly did not like to see us, rather wary of humans as they were not protected inside a national park!

Our initial visit was after the first rainy season that we spent in Bedele and we went for a picnic with Janni and baby Winand (her son). It was a very quiet affair that opened up our appetite to return on a more adventurous approach.

One of our first visits to the Didessa.

We did this soon afterwards and learn a few things.

Being adventurous, we decided to enter an unmarked track that seem to follow the river with the hope that we would get closer to it at some stage while we kept an eye for wildlife. While driving we noted that the road was getting softer and that the tsetse flies were becoming more abundant as we advanced.

A close-up of the tsetse flies.

As the road was now a swamp and the tsetse flies were becoming too numerous for comfort, despite the heat we closed the windows while looking for a place to turn around to avoid having to reverse all the way back!

Tsetse flies were quite abundant!

Although we just escaped death by exsanguination by the flies, the road kept worsening and eventually, we could not go forward anymore. We were stuck in wet black cotton soil, a bad medium to get buried in!

Stuck and trying to get out.
The situation getting worse!

After digging a couple of hours and lifting the car to use the spare wheel to at least have one wheel on a firm surface, the car moved, and we managed to reverse fast miraculously keeping to the track as I am a bad driver on reverse gear. Luckily, soon we were on firmer ground and we were able to turn around and depart from this truly mud trap.

Reversing to get out of the mud.

Although we got out of the mud, we did not escape the flies and we were beaten really bad, something that reminded me of a similar situation in the Nguruman mountains of Kenya that I described earlier (see https://bushsnob.com/2019/07/01/the-nguruman-escarpment/).

Tsetse bites were quite bad.
More bites.

That day we decided that we would stick to the main road that, in any case was wild enough as there was almost no traffic, apart from a few horse riders or the occasional group of people bringing a sick or dead person from the rural area to the Bedele clinic or cemetery, depending on the circumstances. Life for the farmers was very tough!

Riders going to a celebration.
People walking on the Arjo road, probably taking a dead villager for burial.

It was on that road that on two occasions we met some of the true “wild” lions we had seen. The first time Mabel spotted a lioness and when we returned to the spot a while later, -very luckily- we found a female and two cubs. We were truly impressed as we did not expect to find them in that area despite the presence of some large tracts of forest. I am sure that there were not many wild lions in that area of Ethiopia at the time!

Some of the forested areas goint to Arjo.
Luckily I managed to photograph a lioness before it disappeared in the thicket.

Arjo was also one of the project’s tick observation sites and we would cross the bridge quite often when going to our tick sites. Every time we crossed it, I made a comment to my Ethiopian colleagues that we should try our hand at fishing one day.

So, the fishing day arrived once the rains were over and the level of the river had gone down to enable us to reach a place below the bridge from where we could throw our lines. I only had beef as bait and that was what we used as I did not know what to expect. I hoped that crocodiles were not abundant!

The fishing expedition included Solomon, both of us and Tilahun, another veterinarian working with the tsetse and trypanosomiasis project. He was probably the most enthusiastic of the group! We casted our chunk of meat down the river and waited while we talked and enjoyed a good picnic. Fish were quiet and fishing was quickly forgotten until one of the reels started to scream and Tilahun got it and, eventually, brought in a reasonable fish.

An excited Tilahun (left), Solomon (holding the fish) and the bushsnob with the rod, celebrating the catch!
Weighing the fish back home.

It was the only fish we caught that day (and in that place for that matter) but it was enough for us to enjoy the rest of the afternoon, particularly Tilahun that I think had never caught a reasonable sized fish before!

We took it back to Bedele as our companions wished to eat it and I weighed. It was 3.75kg but I am not sure of how it tasted!

The fish.

I believe that we caught a Labeobarbus bynni, a species that can reach 80 cm in length and that inhabits the Nile river system feeding on crustaceans, insects, molluscs and organic debris, including our meat!

Christmases with lions

I remember at least two year-end holidays spent in the Maasai Mara.

The fact that we camped outside the reserve gave us some liberties and sometimes we returned late to camp. That particular Christmas eve we were ending our game drive and looking forward to our Christmans eve dinner when we bumped on a group of six lionesses walking through the plains, clearly hunting.

As this offered a great opportunity because of the number of game present in the area, I managed to convince Mabel that it was a good idea to follow them for a while to see whether we could watch a kill. She reluctantly agreed.

After following them for a while, darkness fell and we realized that, oh surprise, we were lost again!

Unable to return to camp we decided to continue with our plan and kept following the lionesses and, to avoid interfering with the hunt, we kept the lights of the car off and navigated under increasing darkness until we only had the moonlight. We did switch our lights on sporadically to see where we were going and to avoid losing our quarry.

Suddenly the lionesses started trotting and soon we lost them. My attempt at finding them took us through some stony ground until we came to one where the bottom of our car touched the rocks and we got stuck on rocks!

Getting out of the car to jack it up was not an option so I revved the engine and moved the car backwards and forwards until with a metal tearing noise the Land Rover jerked backwards and we were free.

We were now alone as the lionesses had continued with their hunt and disappeared into the thicket! It was clear that our optimistic project had come to its (natural) end and we had no idea where we were!

Wisely for once, we decided that setting up our small tent and sleep in the open surrounded by lions (and other beasts of the darkness!) was out of the question so the decision was taken to slowly look for a flat piece of land, stop the car and settled down for our Christmas eve night.

Searching the car we found water and a panettone [1] baked by Mabel! We did not wait for midnight to celebrate Christmas but opened our bottle of water and toasted while we cut slices of panettone that we finished. After our improvised dinner we started listening to the lions roaring around us, probably also celebrating a successful hunt that we had just missed to witness. We thought that, after all, it was a good way to spend the night!

Panettone. Credit: Codice1000 at Italian Wikipedia [Public domain]

Things started to lose their glamour when the time came to sleep as we did not carry blankets or sleeping bags with us so it would be a chilly night. I had ceded the front bench of the car to Mabel and I tried to find sleeping room at the back of our short wheel base Land Rover, an impossible task despite throwing out all hard objects through the back door. Despite this, there was still very little room there and, after trying a foetal position and then sitting with my back against the front seat without luck I must have passed out as I woke up with the first light.

But our troubles were not yet over!

It was a lovely Christmas day and we soon realized that we had driven inside the reserve and had spent the night at an area we knew and from where we could see the Mara Serena Lodge.

The Mara Serena lodge.

And then we got our Christmas presents: a female black rhino came walking slowly towards us, followed by a really small calf, very cute and playful. I believe that it had been named “Toto” (child), one of the attractions of the reserve at the time.

A female back rhino and her calf, the same sight that we found in the Maasai Mara on Christmas morning.

Unfortunately for us, with the rhino came the reserve rangers that were guarding it 24/7 and they drove straight at us as we were rather obvious and there was no way that we could have driven into the park to be there at that time in the morning! We told them that we had lost our way the day before and decided to spend the night where we stopped. Luckily, they understood our explanation of how we ended up there and pointed us the way back towards the area we had left our camp.

We wished each other a Merry Christmas and parted our ways, they keeping an eye on the rhinos and we, stiff but happy at the way that Christmas had finally arrived although we did not see our lion hunt.

The following year we decided to have a comfortable Christmas holiday and we started early to save to be able to spend it at Kitchwa Tembo, the tented lodge close to the Mara River bridge where I used to get help with punctures and fuel while traveling up the Oloololo escarpment on my way to Intona ranch.

So, when the time arrived we booked seats in the daily flights between Nairobi and the Maasai Mara that were carried out by means of an Airkenya Douglas DC 3 plane that would take about 45 minutes to complete a journey that by road would take the best of one day!

A Douglas DC3 taking off. Credit- Arpingstone / Public domain

We boarded the plane at Wilson airport and we sat really looking up so when the plain started taxiing I immediately started thinking how could the pilot see the runway looking up! Luckily, once we started our take off the tail came up very rapidly and we became horizontal, and a few seconds later we were noisily airborne.

Our route took us over the Ngong Hills – former home of Karen Blixen, of Out of Africa fame – and then beyond the edge of the Rift Valley, magnificent views. After a while the pilot announced that we were flying at 10,500 feet and drinks were offered. Conversation was difficult as the two engines were quite noisy but it was a small price to pay for our first flight in an antique plane!

We approached the narrow paved strip at Musiara and the strong shiver indicated that we had lowered our landing gear and a smooth touchdown followed. Ten minutes later, after loading more passengers the plane hopped a few kilometres over the river to the Kichwa Tembo strip where, after checking that no animals were on the runway, we landed and boarded open vehicles that took us to our tent.

Walking in camp was “interesting” as a number of old male buffalo resided in the camp, probably seeking protection from lions so we were given a strong warning not to walk alone in the evenings but get one of the “askaris” to accompany us. These were Maasai warriors employed by the camp for this purpose.

Christmas Eve at the camp was quite different from the one we spent the previous year. The festivities started early with loud shouts of “elephant!, elephant!” by the staff while we were getting ready to have a cup of tea before our afternoon game drive. We rushed to a prudent distance and witnessed how a young female elephant and her calf walked among the now empty tables pulling table cloths and spilling crockery all over the garden until, clearly satisfied, they walked away leaving behind a devastated garden.

The incident, we were told, was quite common and the solicitous staff quickly re-assembled the tables and, soon and “elephantless” we could have our tea drinking. Once we finished, we went looking for game. This was a new experience as, for once, I could spend all the time looking for game rather than driving. The friendly guides knew the area and they showed us all the usual game, including elephants, lions and buffalo. We returned at sunset and enjoyed good showers and got ready for dinner.

We ate while waiting for midnight and we were treated to a great singing and dancing show by the camp staff that managed to create a really merry atmosphere, fun to watch and to participate. It was funny to see the staff of the lodge in Maasai costumes dancing around.

Eventually we celebrated Christmas with a glass of champagne and retired to our extremely comfortable tent, escorted by our usual askari that was now himself after having been a great dancer earlier.

Later that night we had high drama as it was obvious that lions also wished to celebrate the Season holidays in style and, apparently, they had gone for a buffalo. We heard the struggle and bellows of the “victim” for quite a while until silence returned and we assumed that the buffalo was a goner.

We anticipated an interesting game drive the following morning prior to our return flight but, although we found a pride of lions, we did not find a dead buffalo so we assumed that the animal -if that was what happened- had managed to escape!

Too soon the time came for our departing flight and we boarded the plane, together with other fellow tourists. Our return trip to Nairobi essentially retraced our outward journey and it was rather spectacular to see our approach to the Rift valley wall that, luckily, we climbed and soon we landed with tires squeaking on the Wilson’s tarmac runway. Our “antique” flight was successfully over.

Unfortunately, in 1992 one of Airkenya’s DC-3 was damaged in a landing accident at Musiara, luckily without any victims. Although that plane was not repaired but rather shipped back piecemeal by road to Nairobi, the service continued until 1997 when the DC3s were replaced by newer planes.

[1] Panettone is an Italian type of sweet bread loaf usually enjoyed for Christmas and New Year in many Latin countries. It required a well processed dough and it contains, among other possibilities, candied fruits, raisins and various nuts. It is served in wedge shapes, vertically cut, accompanied, in Uruguay, with cider, prosecco or champagne.

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!

Paris-Maasai Mara

The title does not refer -luckily- to a new extravagant car rally but a tale of a French couple, friends of Paul, who arrived from Paris in the morning and that same night they were camping in the Maasai Mara, after driving all the way from Nairobi!

By chance, we arrived that same afternoon and found them looking rather bewildered after enduring not only the overnight flight but, the long rough ride afterwards following Paul’s rather ambitious programme! The camp this time was a few km downstream from the Mara Buffalo Camp -where we usually camped- and only a faint track led to it. It was a nice place, the Mara river very close and the Oloololo escarpment, the same I climbed every time I needed to go to Intona, at the back.

Paul was busy with his field work, so we came at the right time for him and we agreed to take care of the French contingent the following morning. In any case, they managed to speak some English and we knew some French words from our high school so we were sure that we would understand each other as, after all, both our languages branched off from Latin.

We waited to start our morning drive until the French were ready, which was earlier than I expected. So, soon after sunrise we set off hoping, as usual, that we would be lucky with our game drive. The wildebeest migration was in full swing and I planned to drive in the general direction of Governors Camp and be back for lunch.

By then we knew how to enter into the reserve through the “back door” and also, through Paul, we also knew the general area where the wildebeest were grazing at that time. Finding the wildebeest increased the chances of meeting large predators, particularly lions and that is what most first time visitors to the Maasai Mara wish to see.

The drive was slow as everything was new for our guests and we needed to stop for them to take snapshots of most animals that for us were rather commonplace but we understood how they felt and happily obliged. After a while we spotted the first wildebeest and soon we could see the expected large herds. We stopped to take the view in and continued driving slowly, following the woodland’s margins where the cats could be hiding.

After going for about an hour Mabel spotted a lioness. We were lucky and we stopped to watch it and to take a few more pictures. The lioness was quite active and obviously hunting so we joined her in watching the wildebeest stopping the car at a prudent distance and searching for more lions that we suspected should be around.

The lioness watching the wildebeests.

We whispered to our visitors what we thought it may happen next and we waited. After a few minutes she stood up and, undetected, walked towards the grazing wildebeest and hid in long grass, still looking towards the wildebeests. We kept scanning the surrounding area and soon we caught a glimpse of another lioness some distance away.

It seemed that the lions were coming from several directions, preparing an ambush. We calculated where the hunt could take place and slowly drove towards it still leaving a wide berth for the animals to move without interference. We switched off the engine and stopped, being the only witnesses of what was happening.

We did not have to wait too long before the what it was a peaceful scene transformed itself into a chaotic one when suddenly the bush burst with wildebeest running in all directions around us and some of them nearly bumped our car in their zest to run away! Luckily there was no dust and we spotted five or six lionesses chasing wildebeests.

Some followed wildebeests that had run into the woodlands but a couple of them run in the open. Soon we heard the agonic bleats of a wildebeest and I drove straight to the area while I heard shouts of “oh là là”, “quelle chance!” and other expressions of amazement by our Gallic visitors.

We were also excited as to watch a hunt is not an everyday event, even in the Maasai Mara, and we watched as two lionesses were busy suffocating a wildebeest by a hold in its throat while other lions, that had chased other wildebeests and failed, were trotting towards the ongoing kill. Soon, not only the females we had seen earlier but the whole pride, including adult males and young of different ages, were vying for position at the carcass and as often happens, started licking the dying animal and even feeding.

After a few minutes a couple of cars arrived but we were well placed and we spent about an hour watching the lions feast in all detail. As usual, fights broke out when the dominance of some individuals was challenged and the stronger took “the lion share”! We watched the scene mesmerized for a long while until the meat starting to run out.

Although the arrival of a few spotted hyenas and black-backed jackals was interesting, we resumed our drive I thought “after this, what else can we find that is more exciting?” but continued searching hoping that the visitors, that 48 hours earlier were in busy Paris had arrived for the first time in África and watched what some people that live there for years never manages to find!

We realized that lunchtime had passed unnoticed and we, unanimously, decided that we were not hungry so we agreed to drive following the Mara River to get to the hippo pools that were not too far. There we spent time observing hippos and the huge crocodiles that shared the pools with them. Judging by their girth, the latter were benefitting from the wildebeest presence and their frequent river crossings.

Engrossed watching animals we did not notice that a storm had gathered and we were somehow surprised to note the first raindrops. After a while the sight of the pools were obscured by the rain. Although it was a welcome thunderstorm, I knew that the kombi, although with a good clearance, did not have 4WD and therefore it was not a mud-wise vehicle. So, I took the decision to return to camp before it was too late, strongly suspecting that it was too late already!

I knew that the roads would soon be very sticky and as it started to get dark, I regretted that we have not paid more attention to the time and the weather. We moved a few kilometres back still under the rain and there was a lot of thunder and lightening. Things were not getting any better.

Rapidly, the road became a quagmire that forced me to gradually slow down to avoid skidding off it. Eventually I was forced to engage second and first gear as the going became laborious and I knew by previous experience that we were in trouble. We continued, just, and eventually the black cotton soil stopped us while the rain did not show signs to stop.

A quick and rather wet inspection revealed that one of the back wheels was stuck while the other spun uselessly. Under heavy rain I got one of the French to stand on the fender to get the wheel to grip while Mabel and the French lady pushed. I moved at full throttle with the French guy hanging on for dear life and splattering the “pushers” with black mud until I reached a drier, higher spot. I waited for the helpers to clean up and get back in the car to resume our journey. Luckily it was not too cold.

We continued to move on, push, wait and go again for a while and we managed a few more kilometres before we were stuck again and now, it was dark and we needed the car lights to see the road. I noted that our friends were not so excited leaving the car to push in the dark! Their fears were justified and now the “m” word started to be heard very frequently!

Somehow, we had enough adrenaline to keep us going and I managed to get the car up to a good speed, more than it was prudent but necessary to keep our momentum. At that time, we met a line of wildebeest on the road and I needed to slow down to avoid a head-on collision. I managed to avoid all of them but one. This particular beast came running from the side and hit us with one of its horns, leaving a deep dent all along the kombi, a scar that remained there from then on as a reminder of that trip!

Luckily, the rain decreased and the risk of getting stuck diminished but we realized that we were lost! Being dark did not help to find our bearings (we are hopeless at finding places, anyway) as we had passed a number of bush tracks any of which could have been the correct one. Then we realized that the storm was now our best ally. Every time that there was lightning we could see Oloololo escarpment and we knew that it ran parallel to the Mara river and that the camp was close to the river!

So we drove in that general direction, hoping to come to some known terrain, a difficult thing at night. Then, Mabel spotted a beam of light in the sky that we could not read at first but then Mabel speculated that it was Paul with his strong torch trying to pinpoint the camp for us.

We decided that a light meant human inhabitants so, without any arguments, we headed for the light. At some stage we recognized the track that led to our camp and we arrived a few minutes later, soaked wet, muddy and very tired.

After washing ourselves as well as we could and getting dry clothes, we met for a quick dinner heated under the tent’s flysheet as the rain was still falling on and off. Paul had heard an engine and thinking that we could be the only ones driving at night, decided to shine the torch saving us from an otherwise sure night in the bush.

As we had all gone through a lot over the last 12 hours and we started to mix languages, we decided that a camp bed was needed and we retired to our tents, still under the rain. Fortunately, our tents have kept the rain outside so soon we fell sleep with the memories of the day still fresh in our minds.

Regrettably we needed to return to Nairobi the following morning but not before sharing a good breakfast with Paul and his friends during which, well rested and calmer we re-lived our experiences, and we agreed that we had lived through a very lucky day indeed.

Green sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gnus at sunrise

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

m mara rhino and calf...-001 8.55.16 AM 8.56.48 AM
Some of the few black rhinos we encountered in Kenya. These were at Amboseli National Park.
m mara baloon 1.jpg

Visiting this wildlife paradise also offered the chance of seeing the Maasai pastoralists walking on the various tracks, red specks in the vast distances, apparently oblivious to the myriads of animals surrounding them, their full attention on the welfare of their own animals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lion pride M Mara 6.54.19 AM copy
A lion pride, similar to the playful one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The joys of camping

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Mabel with some company while camping in the Transmara.

As my work at Intona ranch in the Transmara took me through the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, I was often taking visitors with me to the bush. There were those related to my work and friends that came for the fun of it. The former included technical colleagues and representatives from our funding agencies. The latter were of great importance and often they flew directly to Intona or to an airstrip near a camp called Kitchwa Tembo in the reserve, a kind of luxury camping. I would then collect them and I was careful to take them at least on one game drive before climbing the Oloololo escarpment towards Intona. I am not sure if the donors appreciated my work or the time spent on safari but the end result was that we were always well funded!

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Traveling through the Amboseli National Park.

Travel to the bush for pleasure is not everyone’s game. Some of our friends never came, others came once and a few repeated the experience. Fear of wild animals and/or creepy crawlies, lack of ablution facilities, sleeping on the hard ground and cooking with smoke were some of the excuses put forward to decline our invitation.

As much as I tried to convince them that a tent was a safe place to spend the night among wild creatures of all sorts, that nearby lodges offered luxurious toilets, that we did have a gas stove that avoided getting smoked out and mattresses to soften the ground, they still did not come.

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A recently moulted puff adder, one of the few snakes that you may encounter while camping.

However, not all my preaching fell on deaf ears and we did find a few good companions. Ranjini, with who we shared our very first camp in the Maasai Mara, often joined us and the same did Luis (Mabel’s boss). Ranjini was very accommodating and enthusiastic. Further, she had an unfounded faith in our skills when it came to negotiate difficulties. However, she enjoyed joining us and we had a few memorable trips to Northern Kenya with her. This included a memorable visit to Mt. Elgon when she inadvertently closed the tap of our car’s second petrol tank, an episode that had me a couple of hours frantically trying to determine why no petrol would reach the carburetor!

Luis was very keen on bird photography and a lover of large campfires “to keep the beasts away” as he put it despite my arguments to the contrary, not based on ecological grounds but rather that the fires advertised our position to both two- and four-legged potential visitors. He was an assiduous companion with who we shared many bush moments, including a lunch break in the Maasai Mara interrupted by a kind tour operator that came to tell us that we were sitting below a cliff from which a leopard was lazily contemplating us! Luckily the wise animal abstained from disturbing three feeding apes!

Later on came Genevieve and François with who we also shared a few adventurous trips (https://bushsnob.com/2019/02/28/a-short-trip-to-ngorongoro-contributed/) and a few other trips in Kenya and beyond. I still laugh when I remember François’ anger with his Isuzu Trooper that would often let him down! It was with them that we had our only experience at -unwisely- camping only under our mosquito nets at Shaba Game Reserve. Although we survived it, we did not repeat it!

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Camping in the Ngorongoro with Francois, Geneviève and Paula (her mother). Picture by G. Mery.

Of course, the very few visitors we had from Uruguay had no option but to come with us whether they liked camping or not. I described one of the experiences already (https://bushsnob.com/2016/04/25/unpredicted-friends-and-unforgettable-dates/) and this was also the case of my father’s cousin Marta and her friend Elcira, both retired, that also came for a visit. Having good retirement conditions they traveled all over the world and, somehow, we managed to convince them to visit us in Kenya! Although they traveled on their own to the Kenya coast, later on they joined us in trips to Nakuru and Tsavo National Parks as well as our frequent detours into the Nairobi National Park.

They were great examples of adaptable people. Marta agreed to travel seated on a camping chair tied with rope and elastic hook ties at the back of our SWB Land Rover as only three people could travel in the front. She braved the trips to both Nakuru and Tsavo sitting on canvas and she enjoyed every minute of them.

I still recall a few moments we shared such as the overt emotion they showed when, on their first morning at the Kitani bandas, they had a surprise crystal clear view of mount Kilimanjaro! Unfortunately their pleasure was offset that same evening by a serious scare when we were seating at the verandah after dinner trying to identify the different night noises while shining our torch at the various visitors such as genets, mongooses and hyenas. All of a sudden we heard a very loud and close elephant scream that made them slide their chairs back, stand up and attempt to run to their bedroom! A rather understandable response to something that also scared us and -eventually- ended in great laughter.

At Nairobi National Park we found a herd of buffalo and, aware of the curiosity of these animals, I stopped the car and told them to keep quiet to allow the buffaloes to approach. When they were almost touching the car, Marta could not hold her excitement anymore and said loudly “you want to kill us!” That caused a buffalo stampede and I started laughing but she was not amused!

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The buffalo herd at Nairobi National Park.

At Nakuru National Park, one of the safest camping places at the time, we set them up in separate tents to spend the night with some privacy only to discover that they emerged from the same tent the following morning saying that they felt safer being together as they heard too many animals outside!

Camping was a strong experience for Sara, Ernesto and their two kids, some of the rare Uruguayans living in Nairobi. We took them to the Maasai Mara for a weekend and stayed at the Mara Research Station, where, being a scientist, you could camp for free. It was the rainy season and the grass was rather long at the camping area so we spent sometime cutting the grass before we could set up our camp.

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This picture from the Kruger National Park reminds me of what I saw at the Mara Research Station!

I noted a large number of elephants grazing and browsing some distance away and hoped that they would not come closer but I did not mention them to avoid alarming our friends. I realized later that I made a mistake. As the trip had been long, we had a quick dinner and retired to our tents early. Unfortunately, the elephants -against my hope- decided to approach us. I could hear them all around us pulling the grass and braking branches while their bellies rumbled.

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Elephant feeding overhead in Mana Pools National Park. A similar situation to that in the Mara Research Station.

After a while of listening to the pachyderms I heard Ernesto asking softly “what is that noise?” My reply was, perhaps, not the best “elephants” I said trying to sound confident to calm them down, something I clearly failed to do and I could hear them talking among themselves and hear movements inside the tent. “We are scared!” they said nervously and asked “can we go to the car?” I explained them that they were safer in the tent and that they must not go out, not even to the toilet! Luckily, the elephants soon walked away and they started to relax although I did not enquiry about their ablution needs.

The following morning, they looked very tired and they were not very happy at first until they saw the lovely place we were in and the elephants in the distance when all was forgotten! However, they never completely forgave me as they were convinced that I did it all intentionally! Despite this initial scare, they repeated the experience with us at Tsavo West, a much more sedated outing as there were not so many animals around the camp there.

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From left to right: Luis, Sara, Ernesto, the bushsnob and Mabel camping at Tsavo West. Clearly Luis built the fire!

Camping did put us in close proximity to wild animals, as none of the campsites we frequented were fenced.

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A cute babbon youngster before becoming a camping menace!

By far the biggest nuisance that awaits the camper in Africa is the monkeys both vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) and baboons (Papio spp.). Although the latter can be rather destructive to tents and other gear, the former can be a real menace when it comes to steal your food. They are the masters of opportunism and surprise and a distraction of a few seconds is enough for them to strike.

We suffered many incidents with monkeys. Most of them were annoying but there were also some that were quite amusing. Unseen to you the vervets would be stalking you from the trees above to descend on you while unpacking your car and snatch any item that looks attractive to them. In this way you risk having an eggless or “butterless” camping experience that could leave you quite frustrated!

I have seen people running after monkeys in anger in a futile attempt at recovering their lost food while the thieves eat their booty well beyond their reach! I have thrown all kinds of objects to them in a rage when they had taken items from me but I have never managed to hit one and I have been personally “assaulted” a couple of times. Although I admit that I deserved both, at the time it was not funny. Vervets snatched our lunch bananas from my very hands in the hippo pools at Nairobi National Park and throw back the peels at me and a rather tall baboon took my packet of chips at the Man-eaters fuel station near Tsavo!

Of course the fault does not lie with the monkeys but with the habit by inexperienced campers and/or tourists of feeding them. After that the animals expect food and if they are not given it, they search for it. This gradually turns them into thieves that eventually will need to be destroyed by the parks’ authorities when they become too much of a nuisance!

Apart from monkeys we often had to deal with other possible dangerous visitors to our camps and the possibility of meeting them was directly proportional to their density. For this reason most of the incidents took place in the savannahs of Amboseli National Park and the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, than in the rather dry Tsavo West or Samburu National Parks.

I will deal with the spotted hyenas in a separate post and I will also tell you some experiences we had or learnt of encounters with elephants, in my opinion, the most intelligent animals that you are likely to encounter while camping.

I will also strike the black rhinos off the list as they were already on a severe decline at that time to be a bother to us. In any case, their reputed fame for putting out campfires is -apparently- not true! I heard of this while in Kenya and then saw it when I watched “The Gods Must Be Crazy” movie [1] but it is not a confirmed fact.

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Some of the few black rhinos we encountered in Kenya. These were at Amboseli National Park.

Although the buffalo have a well-deserved reputation as some of the most dangerous of the wild animals, they rarely approached our camp area. However, they can be deadly if found on foot as, particularly the lone males, will attack you without hesitation. People that had gone through the experience (and survived it!) declare that they had no idea how they managed to climb the tree they did and that often they have great difficulties to climb down once the danger is over!

The experience of hearing lions roaring at dusk and at night is unforgettable as, I believe, it awakens some ancestral fear in us. Near the Mara river area lions were abundant and we got to know the prides that lived there and we were aware that we were camping in their land! One thing is to see lions from the safety of your vehicle and another, rather different, is to know they are “there somewhere” in the dark of the night!

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At night you always think that what is coming is the largest lion you have seen!

We heard lions roaring in various degrees of intensity every night we camped in the Maasai Mara. Sometimes they would roar while there was still daylight, particular when it was over cast. However, most often they called after sunset and we heard their call reverberating loudly against the Oloololo escarpment. The situation often became “interesting” once we had retired to our tent to sleep.

Once in the tent we would hear the lions while reading as we both enjoy this very much. Normally their roaring will be only in the background but at times they would get closer. It was interesting how our feeling of enjoyment at hearing them far off would gradually fade and soon turn into apprehension as they moved near!

At times they would roar real close and we could also hear their breathing! Those were the times when we became really worried but stuck to our belief that the tent would protect us. Despite our apprehension, the lions were walking or running through our camp and paid no attention to us. So, after a few agitated nights we gradually relaxed and became more convinced that we were safe inside the tent and waited for the lions to walk away.

However, it is easy to narrate these experiences now, from the comfort of the armchair but a different thing is to live through them!

Just to illustrate that things can, albeit rarely, go awry, I will narrate a story of what happened to a former wildlife veterinarian that worked in Kenya and left while we were there. He had taken two lady friends camping in the Aberdare National Park. They were already inside the tent, preparing to spend the night when they heard some grunts that were attributed to a duiker. Later, in the early hours of the morning something crashed on their tent and brought part of it down. The vet’s reaction, thinking that an animal had accidentally bumped on their tent was to shout something like “out of here!” while his lady companions were rather terrified. Eventually, through a slit of the tent door he saw a large male lion that, fortunately, got away -roaring- when he shone the torch into its eyes. Although sleeping after such an encounter was difficult, they stuck together and stayed in what remained of the tent until the morning without further ado.

During the evenings we spent together by the campfire Paul told us the story of Hannu (not his real name) a retired and veteran Finnish veterinarian that was studying fluke control in Kenya. Paul had invited him to share his work as he did with me.

Hannu happened to be quite deaf and, because of his age, he needed to pass water a couple of times at night, a hazardous exercise when camping! Aware of the situation Paul kept an eye on him just in case. One night, while Hannu snored, lions started roaring close by. Paul was aware of the fact that Hannu would go out of the tent after midnight so he made an effort to stay awake to stop him if necessary. The lion roaring became quite loud and, suddenly, the veteran sat up in bed and shouted, “that was a lion!” and went back to sleep, forgetting his need to pass water and leaving Paul sleepless for a long while!

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A large hippo enters the water through a well trodden path. Those are the ones to avoid while camping!

Although hippos will normally keep clear of your camp, the fact that many of the camp sites are located near water puts you in close proximity with them and if you sited your tent in the middle of one of their paths you may suffered the nasty experience of one bumping into your tent when walk to their grazing area.

 

[1] See: https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/do-rhinos-put-out-fires.116998/and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gods_Must_Be_Crazy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A brave camping attempt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lion grunts

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

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

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

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Our first lions.

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

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

Hyenas calling.

Lion roar

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

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

 

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