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!
I mentioned earlier that our friend Paul was working on animal diseases at various places, including the Maasai Mara Game Reserve where he was investigating the epidemiology of Malignant Catarrh fever. Apart from collecting placentas  he was also collecting blood samples to ascertain the presence of antibodies against this disease among the wildebeest population.
When I had time on my way to Intona ranch via the Maasai Mara or over weekends we joined him to spend time together enjoying the bush, which also included enjoying helping him with his work!
Clearly, to bleed the animals there was the need to immobilize them and this was done by firing a dart that in fact was a flying metal syringe that, on impact with the animal, would have a tiny detonation that would push the anesthetic into the animal. Although interesting, the procedure had risks as an accidental inoculation to a human was life-threatening and a syringe loaded with the antidote was prepared every time we went out.
The effect of the immobilizing drug was very fast and the animal would lie down within a few minutes. During that time, we needed to follow the animal until it started to slow down and finally stopped and became recumbent. Then, there was no need for much holding, as it did not struggle.
After finishing the work and removing the dart, we would apply a gentian violet spray to help with the healing of the small wound as well as to alert us that the animal had already been captured. Then we would inject the antidote intravenously and we literally jumped back as the animal will immediately recover, stand-up and move off as if nothing had happened! This was essential when darting animals in a place notorious for its large predators that were always on the prowl.
Although I had a chance to dart a few animals, I mostly drove as the work needed a two-person team to be performed. I needed to learn how to drive in order to come within “shooting” distance of the animals. You needed to come obliquely as not to start them and then stop the car to allow the shooter to do the job. Breaking a branch or even a twig was sufficient to have to start all over again!
The shoulder was your target. Being in the centre of the animal you would still hit the neck if it went back or the flank if it happened to go forward. Although this sounds simple, sometimes the dart would go over or under the animal or it would jump and the dart would miss it. A missed shot meant an interruption of the work until the dart -usually half-buried in the grass- was recovered. Project resources were limited and a dart was costly. Luckily they had a coloured flight stabilizers that helped locating them.
Although the work proceeded smoothly, there was one instance when things did not go as planned.
At a time that most of the wildebeest had traveled to the Serengeti, there was a need to get some samples despite the low number of animals present. The work involved a lot of searching until individual animals were found and then approached for them to be darted.
After a lot of hard work we managed to dart one adult male that we processed fast to continue looking for others. We covered a lot of bush but found that the animals were particularly jittery and difficult to approach. Eventually we got a female and continued trying to the last one for the day.
During mid-afternoon we found another male, we darted it and started to follow it waiting for it to go down. After a while -surprised- we saw that it would not go down as expected. We followed it and then when it turned we saw the gentian violet spray we had left on it when we had darted earlier!
Clearly, the animal was still under the influence of the antidote and the new dose of tranquilizer would only slow it down but it was not enough for it to lie down. We were in a fix as we could not leave it in that condition and more tranquilizing drug was not advisable.
Desperate situations demand desperate solutions so I volunteer to ambush it by hiding behind a bush while Paul drove it towards me. I thought it would require the same effort as holding a young steer, something I had done this before so I estimated it doable. After all, I only needed to hold it for a sufficiently long time to allow Paul to come and help me, overpower it and remove the dart.
We found a suitable area with woodlands on both sides and I hid behind some bushes with some rocks behind me (to prevent unwanted visitors surprising me) and waited. Although I did not see the car, I heard it coming closer so I got ready for the animal to walk in front of me and then jump to get it.
To my surprise, before I could move, quite a large head (much larger than I expected) was sniffing me! Despite my surprise I reacted by grabbing the animal’s neck hoping to keep it still. As I started being dragged over the plains of the Maasai Mara I realized that I had underestimated the strength of a male wildebeest, even a drugged one!
I soon lost my footing and remained hanging from my embrace of its rather muscular neck. The neck of a wildebeest from a car window is one thing but to actually try to span it with your arms while the creature runs, although groggy, is another one.
After about three leaps, my grip slackened and I ended up grabbing one of its front legs. My hold was rather short-lived as I was now under the beast being dragged, stepped on and knocking me against all ground irregularities. I let it go and stayedlying on the ground recovering from the ill treatment received.
I was not really hurt but a bit knocked and soon recovered and sat-up to wait for Paul while removing a few thorns from my arms and legs. Paul took a while to come as he was laughing so much at the scene! I understood his mirth as it must have been quite a funny act to watch!
Despite what I thought it was a brave attempt, the problem remained. The wildebeest was still groggy and vulnerable and it carried a valuable dart! We needed another plan as the animal was trotting just a few metres from us. So, plan B was hatched that would involve my cattle-lassoing skills I had acquired in Uruguay.
With the car’s towing rope I improvised my lasso and placed myself between the front of the car and the bull bar where I could keep in place while I could use both hands as I could not use a lasso with only one. I was a bit unstable on my perch but decided that it will have to do. As a precaution I tied the end of the improvised lasso to the bull bar.
As soon as the car approached the beast I threw my improvised lasso until, after the third or fourth try, I managed to get it from the horns. That was not my idea as I aimed for the neck but it will have to do. Seen that the lasso was firm I signalled Paul to slow down and stop. The animal continued trotting as far as the rope allowed it and then, gradually, we pulled it to bring it close and finally managed to extricate the dart, spray it again (this time on the other side as well) and, with some difficulty but with the aid of a wire, remove the lasso from its horns.
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 .
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!  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.
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.
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 . 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.
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!
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  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.
Sometime after our first enthusiastic attempt at camping in the Maasai Mara , I got to know Paul, a virologist working at the Kenya Veterinary Research Institute in Muguga as part of a veterinary team of the then Overseas Development Agency . Paul had been a student of Sir Walter Plowright, one of the discoverers of the vaccine against Rinderpest . Then he was the mainly working with the latter as well as Bovine Malignant Catarrhal fever (BMCF) .
At that time he was spending time in the field investigating the epidemiology of BMCF as well as the serious outbreaks of Rinderpest that were still present in East Africa.
The well known picture of rinderpest in South Africa in 1896. From Wikimedia (Public domain).
Our friendship started by having our lunches together “al fresco” under the Muguga sun and, after a few weeks, he invited me to come with him camping for a few days in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. A while earlier, Paul had received reliable information from the chief game warden that the first few wildebeests -of the hundred of thousands present- were starting to drop their calves. It was early in the year and he needed to get there to get samples of wildebeests’ placentas as part of his studies. As I was still waiting for a decision regarding my work, I readily accepted.
So, we drove to the Maasai Mara in Paul’s series III Land Rover that had a few reinforced parts, including a bulletproof windscreen and a very hard suspension! Paul had permission to camp anywhere in the reserve and he had already selected a spot where he had established his base. During his absences the camp was looked after by his assistant, the do-it-all Tobias, a Kenya Government employee, that always accompanied Paul when camping .
The camp during the day.
The campsite at night with Tobias and Paul. The fridge is at the back on the left of the picture.
I believe the camp was located in the Mara triangle but I do not remember its precise location except that it was a very secluded area in a clump of trees. There were two tents, a smaller one for Tobias and a large one that was where Paul stayed. On one end of the tent there was the “sitting room” and kitchen while the other was the field laboratory. As it was a large tent, we were very comfortable. Paul’s pride and joy was his Australian portable gas fridge that enabled him to keep reagents and veterinary drugs as well as food (and a couple of Tuskers) so that he could stay in the field for a few days!
Sunrise at the camp.
The trees around camp in the evening.
The fact that we were in the middle of the bush with no fences and no other humans nearby was, at first, rather unsettling for me and I put this to Paul. He explained that he had learnt from his own experience and that of other wildlife veterinarians and field workers that animals will normally stay clear of your camp. He added that exceptions did take place but that serious accidents were extremely rare provided you did not interfere with your the wild inhabitants. “It sounds incredible but the tent will protect you against almost all animals” he said and this has been our camping creed ever since and -so far- it has not failed us.
Our task for the few days we were together was to start the collection of tissue samples from wildebeest placentas to attempt to isolate the BMCF virus. With this in mind, by the end of the first day we had located the vast herd of wildebeest and we had prepared the necessary equipment to be ready to start working the following morning before dawn.
The wildebeest migration from the Oloololo escarpment.
We started our journey in the dark and in twilight we began to drive cross-country across the plains among the wildebeest until we got to our destination: a vantage position on top of a hillock. Once at the top while daylight improved we prepared our observation post by setting up a small table and chairs as well as our binoculars and a telescope.
Gnus at sunrise
A herd of zebra that accompanied the wildebeest.
Paul searching for calving wildebeests.
Trying the telescope.
After some time the sun emerged and bathed the savanna with its yellowish light. What was revealed had already been announced by the intense noise that we were already hearing as thousands of wildebeest bleating, moaning and snorting.
We also heard zebras barking and braying as they were also there mixed with the wildebeests, sharing their grazing.
We immediately started watching the animals looking for arched backs and tails held horizontally, signs of a calving animal. It was not an easy job as we needed to scan thousands of animals that were constantly on the move! We had spent a couple of fruitless hours watching the animals with the only satisfaction of feeling the warmth of the sun on our backs. Then I heard Paul shouting, “there is one starting to calf” and added “let’s go”. I followed him having seen nothing!
We drove down our knoll rather fast. While Paul held to the steering wheel I held tight to every bit of the Land Rover that would resemble a handle as we hit stones and ruts that would have destroyed most cars’ suspensions. It was not a careless race but rather that our attention was fixed on not losing our “patient”.
We drove among a sea of animals and, luckily, Paul kept his bearings and eventually we found the animal. Well, in fact there were two as the calf had been born and it was a steaming miniature of its mother already struggling to stand up, drink the vital colostrum and start running to avoid predators.
We waited at a prudent distance until both animals moved away and then we descended on the placenta that was left on the grass. We have found our first placenta and took the necessary samples. We were very happy and celebrated this by taking pictures of the event as well as burying a long stake with a number to indicate the area of collection so that a GPS reading could be taken later.
We returned to our viewing point and continued watching. We waited for a long time without spotting another calving. At some stage we saw a clearing appear among the sea of wildebeests. It became gradually wider resembling the wave a boat makes when going fast on still water and then we saw that a male lion was walking through the vast herd that -amazingly- simply stared at it and just moved the minimum distance from it. “It is better for the wildebeest to know where the lion is!” Paul explained. A sighting that I will not forget!
It was clearly still early in the calving season and that first day we only got a second sample in the afternoon.
The following day, although we did not get the expected storm of births, more females were calving and the collection of samples did not require so much watching from the hill but rather slow driving among the animals looking for calving signs and then to wait for them to release the placenta to collect what we needed.
The next day our work took a competitive turn. As the calving increased, more predators started to appear, particularly the spotted hyenas that in the Maasai Mara are rather abundant so we needed to move fast to beat them to the placentas and even while one of us collected samples, the other kept an eye on hyenas, just in case!
One of our ‘competitors”!
Sadly, after a few days we needed to return to Muguga to deal with the samples we had collected so we left that true animal paradise and great work and started our drive back through the vast plains of the Maasai Mara to the Kenya highlands where Mugug and Nairobi are located.
Although I was unaware then, the fact that Paul continued to do field work there and that I (often with Mabel) started to work at Intona ranch and needed to drive past the edge of the reserve, gave us ample possibilities to meet and share lots of time in the bush where we continued learning the ways of the bush and contracted the “bush camping disease” from which we still suffer today!
 Today’s Department for International Development (DFID).
 Following the break-through finding of J. T. Edwards in the 1920s that the infectivity of the rinderpest virus could be attenuated and used to immunize animals for life, in 1956-7 W. Plowright and R. D. Ferris obtained a stable, attenuated, and non-infectious virus, ideal for a vaccine. This was cheap to produce and safe and its use eventually -after lots of very hard work in the laboratory and in the field- led to the global eradication of rinderpest in 2011.
 Wildebeests carry a lifelong infection of BMCF but are not affected by the disease that is passed from mother to offspring and shed mostly in the nasal secretions of wildebeest calves under one year old. Wildebeest-associated BMCF is transmitted from wildebeest to cattle normally following the wildebeest calving period.
Trying to find pictures to illustrate the coming posts on our Kenya days I found this rather old and rare gem for you to look at. It is easy.
I posted the image more for its rarity than for its difficulty. This young leopard was spotted near the Mara Buffalo Camp in the mid eighties. I still remember that the camp manager told me where to find the mother and the two cubs. This is one of the cubs in the cave they used to inhabit. Luckily they stayed there for a while and we managed to see them several times.
The first picture above was taken from a distance. It shows a relaxed leopard that, the moment we got closer, became more alert.
We “learnt” lots of the secrets of camping in Africa from our friend Paul, another veterinarian working at Muguga, Kenya. Soon we had broken the barrier of “camping among the beasts” as most campsites in Kenya were unfenced. We often visited Paul during his long spells residing in the bush while working in the various national parks and/or in the fringes of parks and game reserves.
One of Paul’s camp sites in the Maasai Mara. His camp hand Tobias is on the left.
It was great fun and we soon started to go at it alone. Preparations included the procurement of a few second hand camping items that, apart from a small tent, a couple of chairs and a foldable table, included a large frying pan with an extremely long handle, as my wife did not and still does not enjoy cooking at the fire. For working purposes, I could use a large ICIPE tent that added great comfort to our outdoor lives.
While in Kenya we practiced “basic” camping!
Working camping was still basic but we had the advantage of a large tent.
Our most frequent camping destination was the Maasai Mara where not only Paul often worked but it was an area I needed to drive through on my way to Intona ranch in the Transmara where I was working with ticks and tick-borne diseases as explained earlier. Luckily my work took us there regularly as I needed to supervise the on-going observations as as well as to bring new personnel to be stationed at the ranch.
Camping in the Maasai Mara very often involved close encounters with different animals and you needed to be alert at all times as elephants and buffalo were present in large numbers, in addition to the normal and harmless savanna dwellers such as giraffe and the various antelopes. Although leopards were quite rare, the place was a predators’ playground.
Near Kichwa Tembo Camp, Maasai Mara.
The Mara-Serengeti area is world famous for the annual migration of wildebeest and zebra and luckily we witnessed this unique event several years (in fact we watched it every year while in Kenya!). The richness of easy prey is matched by an equal abundance of predators. Lions were a common find and spotted hyenas were really plentiful. So, our camping regularly had some exciting moments, particularly after dark!
From the start we learnt that we were safe (well, as safe as we could be) while inside our tents and we were always extremely careful when moving around camp, particularly when light started to fade. Although some friends preferred to keep fires burning all night, we did not but whether this has an effect on nocturnal visitors I do not know. All I know is that rhinos are believed to stamp out campfires, a fact I could not corroborate as rhinos were already few in the 80’s.
Helen was the daughter of a well-known veterinarian from the UK that had come to spend some time in Kenya. We met her at a social event and, as she was looking for opportunities to travel around, I invited her to join my wife and I on one of our regular trips to the Transmara. She immediately accepted the offer.
So, as arranged, we picked Helen up one early morning as the journey was a long one over rough roads and we wanted to arrive to the shores of the Mara River, adjacent to the Maasai Mara, early as this would enable us to go for a short game drive with Helen.
I had an agreement with the Mara Buffalo Camp to stay close to them and I was also kindly allowed to use their facilities. Usually we would arrive at our Mara margin campsite with just enough light left to set-up camp, dine and go to bed. Sometimes our departure from Muguga would get delayed and we would arrive after dark and needed to set up our tent with the car lights!
We would then spend the following day driving to Intona where we would usually camp in the ranch for two or three nights while the work was done and return without stopping all the way back to Nairobi because I had another on-going trial in Muguga and time was quite short.
The journey with Helen went as planned and we arrived in good time. After setting up camp, by mid afternoon we went for a game drive to show some of the beautiful Maasai Mara and its animals to her. We saw most of the usual plains game but failed to find any predators, apart from the ubiquitous spotted hyenas that were extremely common in the area.
A spotted hyena dealing with a wildebeest carcass.
Tired from the long journey and the additional game drive, our dinner was a quick affair and we were in our tents rather early as we had another journey the following day whose duration was difficult to predict as we needed to negotiate some bad roads that were often muddy and slippery.
While laying on our camp beds, as usual, the lions started to roar far away and we called Helen’s attention towards them. She was very excited to hear them but soon our exchanges got interrupted by sleep.
I am not sure at what time the lions’ roars woke us up but probably it was midnight or perhaps later. We could hear several lions getting closer as their growls gradually got louder. We estimated that they were probably coming along the river although we could not be sure. I did not wish to open the tent door to have a look for fear of attracting unwanted attention so we could only imagine the lions approaching our camp!
After a few more minutes of stillness during which my wife and I waited with bated breath, the visitors arrived, preceded by loud roaring a few seconds earlier and followed by the noise of “flying hooves”. The rumpus did not last more than a couple of minutes as, apparently, the lions were -we also assumed- going for a herd of zebra and/or wildebeest although we did not hear them calling. We did hear a few items being knocked over in the process and then the animals left, luckily.
Only then we remembered Helen! We shouted at her telling her not to move from her tent but, although we tried to get an answer from her, we failed. Concerned, I shone the torch in the direction of her tent and I was relieved to see that it was still intact although I could confirm that some of our belongings had indeed suffered the consequences of the tresspasers!
As the animals moved off, we gradually relaxed and decided to leave things for the morrow as Helen was surely fine and tidying up the camp could wait. I only hoped that she would not decide to go to the toilet before daylight. So it was back to a rather fitful sleep but nothing else disturbed us that night.
The Oloololo escarpment as a spectacular backdrop for a zebra herd, Maasai Mara.
The following morning, while water was on the fire, we gathered table, chairs, towels and a few other minor items while we checked the abundant footprints in an attempt to unravel the events of the night. The conclusion was that several lions had been there chasing zebras through our camp as we failed to find wildebeest prints. The kill, if any, had taken place somewhere else and we decided to look for it afterwards on our way to Intona.
One of the prides resident near our camping area in the Maasai Mara.
While we were busy around camp, we heard “Good morning” and we saw Helen emerging from her small tent. Only at that point I paid attention to her tent and felt relieved that it was still intact. It was one of these mountaineering jobs, low on the ground and of a bright blue colour! Helen looked well rested and asked us what we were doing. “We are looking at the spoor, trying to understand what happened last night” I replied. Helen gave me a look of confusion and said: “why, what happened? I slept all night and even did not go to the toilet!”
A male lion feeding on a topi kill at the Maasai Mara.
I was quite relieved by her ignorance of the facts and felt tempted not to say anything but I thought the truth should be voiced so I told her the whole story. Her eyes got larger as I talked and at first she had doubts about my story so I had to show her the footprints of the various animals and, eventually, she believed me and she was both concerned but also disappointed to have missed the action!
Although we took a detour looking for a possible kill nearby, we failed to find any traces of neither prey nor predators, although we knew they were watching us!
The return trip from Intona ranch took us through the attractive Transmara parkland where its green natural grasslands were splattered with islands of forest, usually associated with large termite mounds. These forest patches coalesced at times to form larger wooded areas, particularly when linked with a river. Talking about rivers, we crossed the Migori where Alan said a group of Giant Forest Hogs (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) -a Transmara “special”- could be seen grazing in a forest clearing next to the road. Other common game was plentiful, crisscrossing the road almost continuously. Alan informed me that the wildebeest had crossed the Mara River and were grazing in the area of the Mara triangle and some would climb the escarpment towards the Transmara. I was happy to know that we were heading in that direction!
Migori river in flood.
A large tree near the Migori river.
The dirt road took us through Lolgorian where two GTZ German animal health specialists were supporting the Government of Kenya by giving veterinary assistance to the Maasai. We stopped to greet them as Alan had some ground-breaking collaboration going on with them, as mentioned in the earlier post. It was the first time I saw a small field laboratory that could deal with most relevant diseases while keeping work simple and straightforward. It was known as “ILRAD II”, an irony that Alan found very funny although it took me longer to understand the humour behind it!
Maasai working with their animals at Kilae, near Lolgorien.
A Maasai heifer. Note the heavy branding.
ILRAD II (outside).
ILRAD II (inside).
After that enlightening visit we continued and passed a religious mission where Father Frans Mol lived and worked. Although we did not stop, I met him on other occasions and learnt of his erudition when it came to the Maasai people.
Moving on and still in the Transmara we came to the “red hill” an infamous stretch of road. “When it rains, it is like driving on a bar of soap” said Alan and added, “I hope it is dry today”. He went on: “Because of the proximity with Lake Victoria, it rains almost everyday here so it is tricky at the best of times!” “That is why you should leave in the morning as to avoid the afternoon rain”. Alan continued: “You should engage 4WD and advance slowly in second gear. If the car starts sliding off the road all you can do is to stop and hope that the car stops and that you can straighten it again”. And then laughing: “I know people that have spent the night here!”
A common occurrence at the Transmara!
Luckily we managed it without problems and then we came to a stretch of black cotton soil that looked menacing to me as it was fairly water-logged. However, we slowly moved forward and even gathered some speed, as the wheel ruts were deep enough to prevent us from going off the road and our only option was to go straight. The road became better and then we found large wheat and barley plantations where the Maasai had leased their land to commercial farmers.
Soon we got to the edge of the Oloololo Escarpment. I can claim to be many things but a poet is not one of them, so I am not able to describe the view that unfolded below us. It was a green sea that extended as far as you could see. In it you could just make out vast numbers of animals; those forming long lines were wildebeest and zebra while the small specks were Thomson’s gazelles. A few elephants could also be seen together with an almost black and compact herd of buffalo. This sight will be with me until I die! I asked Alan to stop for a while so that I could take in the view a bit longer while stretching our legs. While watching the green marvel, Alan explained that we were looking at the “Mara Triangle”. He pointed out the Mara River to me as well as where Tanzania and the mythic Serengeti were.
We started our descent and eventually crossed the Mara River at the bottom of the Escarpment. We passed Kichwa Tembo Camp and then deviated into the Maasai Mara Game Reserve to have a look at the animals before continuing on the way to Aitong, Narok and Nairobi. The place was magnificent and we saw vast numbers of wildebeest and zebra grazing as well as other animals roaming around. A special mention to the Thomson’s Gazelles that are ubiquitous in the Maasai Mara; they are an integral part of the ecosystem. The best description I have heard about these gazelles came from Paul, my Mentor in FAO, who visiting the place for the first time, told me that they look like shoals of tropical fish!
Zebra with the Oloololo Escarpment in the background (I will remove the dirt from the sky when I learn to do it!)
Maasai cattle at the Mara river bridge.
Cattle drinking at Narok dam. Note cars used at the time: VW Kombi, Land Rover Series III and Land Cruiser 50 Series!
As detailed at the Intona ranch post the return journey only served to strengthen my conviction that I should work at Intona ranch, something that with the help of Alan, Matt could be persuaded to accept, thus allowing me the privilege of driving through the Maasai Mara Game Reserve on the way!
 I did see them very often in this spot where they were quite tolerant of my presence and could watch them during long spells.
 The International Laboratory for Research in Animal Diseases was a state of the art large facility located at Kabete, near Nairobi. Today is known as the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).
 Fr. Frans Mol MHM, affectionately known as the ‘Apostle to the Maasai’ worked at the Ngong Diocese covering most of Maasailand. He authored several books such as: Lessons in Maa: a grammar of Maasai language (1995) and Maasai Dictionary: Language & Culture (1996).
 We were at the very spot where Out of Africa’s famous final scene was filmed! Watch the movie and you will get the idea of what I saw in 1981!
It took a while to disassemble the tent and to collect our scattered belongings; including the unwashed suferiers where the soon to be legendary and much talked about Chicken a la Rusinga had been created, surely for one and only time in the universe! We were late, packed the car in a rush and, rather casually, left Mbita Point for our rendezvous with Alan in Kilgoris. I would remain with Alan to visit his field trials and collaborators while Matt returned to Nairobi, probably to attend some important meeting (read trout fishing) over the weekend.
We got to our meeting point, an open field in Kilgoris, meant –at some point in future- to be the village’s main square but currently occupied by grazing Maasai cattle and found Alan waiting for us. A few dukas were found around the field that were clearly taking care of Maasai needs: lots of red cloth and assorted veterinary drugs among other essentials such as Tusker beer. Just across the road was the “Kilgoris Nylon Day and Night Club”, a name that took me a while to digest! Despite its interesting name, we refrained from exploring it and preferred to miss lunch. What we would have found in it will remain shrouded in mystery. Alan welcomed me and, after a quick exchange of news and greetings Matt went his way and we headed for Intona ranch.
The meeting point with Alan.
Alan was a chain smoker of menthol cigarettes, he stammered in an Irish accent, had an easy laugh that he combined with rubbing his gold and gray goatee. As we moved on, it became evident that Alan was not concerned about potholes and I was treated to the unique experience of listening to his mostly one-way conversation while bumping around on a rough road. Luckily we were in a Land Rover Series III, an almost unbreakable vehicle.
Although I focused fully on Alan’s conversation I still needed to guess a lot of what he said. I learnt that he was born in Northern Ireland and studied parasitology in London. He had come to Kenya in 1968 where he remained since, with a few short spells back home. He was a great supporter of the infection and treatment method to protect cattle against this scourge and he had helped Matt to develop it. I also learnt that collaboration was everything for him and that he was already talking to me as if we were already working together. This was excellent after my earlier experience in Mbita Point. Things were looking good but I still needed more details. “That is the purpose of this trip”, I thought, and continued listening. Our budding friendship was further boosted when we discovered our shared passion for soccer and the fact that Alan knew and liked some of the Uruguayan soccer players of the day, particularly Rubén Sosa.
He explained that he first came to the Transmara to collaborate with a veterinary GTZ project near Lolgorian –another small Maasai town- where they had done some pioneer epidemiological studies on theileriosis. The fact that this information was available enabled him to select the prevalent Theileria parasites to be used for the immunization of cattle in the area, including Intona ranch. This breakthrough meant that tick control could now be relaxed and even stopped altogether. This, Alan said, would enable me to compare dipped and not dipped cattle subject to natural field tick challenge and, in this way, ascertain their impact to achieve my goal.
Kilgoris was a Maasai town, Alan explained, the shambas we could see in the outskirts belonged to the Kisii people. The latter became less frequent as we moved out of the populated area and the landscape started to open up to a savannah ecosystem where Maasai cattle grazed, looked after by the usual herd boys or elders. The countryside was punctuated by brown manyattas, giant brown mushrooms scattered at regular intervals.
A manyatta is where the Maasai live. A strong thorn bush fenced area designed to keep all predators out and themselves and their livestock protected within, mainly during the night. Inside the enclosure there are any number of huts made of a rounded frame of branches and built with a mixture of mud and cattle dung. Most cattle are kept in the enclosure but there are smaller sub-enclosures for sheep and goats or animals belonging to the different dwellers of the manyatta. Cattle are heavily branded and their ancestry thoroughly known by their owners.
“I know you will not believe this”, said Alan, “but there is a war going on here. The Kisii are moving in to occupy the Maasai grazing land”. He went on: “the Kisii will eventually win and this beautiful place will get all planted with maize!” Looking around, I found this really unbelievable but I trusted Alan.
The mention of a war made me wary and I started to look for warring parties lurking behind the bushes. After a while of not seeing anything unusual I said with hope in my voice: “Luckily, I see nothing so there must be a truce at the moment.” Alan laughed heartily with profuse goatee rubbing and, after hitting a few more potholes, he explained that the fighting was in the bush and normally not obvious. He added: “the Kisii cultivate the soil and gradually they are being given land. The Maasai resist and there are frequent skirmishes and then the Government intervenes to bring back some degree of calm”.
A view of Intona ranch in the Transmara parkland.
Nearer to Intona ranch there was only lush green savannah with large tree islands. I noticed that these islands were always associated with bulky termite nests and I started wondering which appeared first, the trees of the termite mounds? I decided in favour of the trees. And then I saw the first game: a herd of Impala, shiny and healthy. Later, Topi and Zebras appeared to add a wild touch to the ever-present Maasai cattle. There were also Baboons and Vervet monkeys and a large number of Warthogs.
The manyattas in this area had significantly more dramatic thorn enclosures and the presence of large predators such as Lion, Leopard and hyena came to mind as the reason behind the need for greater protection, but I learnt from Alan that cattle rustling was rampant and probably more of a concern than predators. Clearly the Maasai were not taking any chances with their beloved livestock. This was in sharp contrast with their seemingly casual bearing when walking in the bush only carrying a spear and a simmi with a few throwing sticks, their feet clad in recycled car tire sandals. They appeared to be carrying very light luggage considering all predators that were around, not to mention the on-going war!
Maasai visitors with spears, bow and arrows and throwing sticks.
The Transmara District that we were traversing is close to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve and the latter is the northern extension of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The Transmara is split into two by the Migori River with its riverine forest. It is here that, with luck, the Giant Forest hog (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) can be spotted. A native of forest habitats in Africa, it is considered the largest wild pig, at over two metres in length and one in height, reaching more than 200kg of weight. Discovered by Richard Meinertzhagen in 1904, who shot the type specimen in Kenya. Another special of the area is the Blue Flycatcher (Elminia longicauda), a lovely cerulean blue bird with a beautiful tail-fanning display.
“Julio, remember that Maasai do not like to be photographed and they can get very agitated and even aggressive”, said Alan. “Why is that?” I asked with surprise. “I do not know for sure” came the reply. I started learning that he was not too interested in any issues apart from theileriosis!
During the trip I decided that I would work with Alan and started developing a plan to convince Matt that this was the best idea. Rather sleep-deprived by Matt’s snores, and despite the jerks and bumps, I dozed off. I woke up startled by the sudden stop. I prepared for a surprise attack by the warring parties! However, the herd of Wildebeest and Zebra in front of us did not look dangerous. They were frolicking about as only wildebeest can as they moved back into the parkland.
Alan decided to follow them so that I could observe them better and take a few pictures as he liked photography. We drove off-road following them and got some good shots. When we decided that we had enough good pictures and turned back we realized that we were lost in the green labyrinth. The workers travelling with us were of the Kikuyu ethnic group. They were foreigners like us and therefore as lost as we were! We drove rather aimlessly for a while following a few cues we thought correct but the road was nowhere to be seen.
Lost in the bush with Alan, prior to finding our Maasai “saviour”.
In one of our turns we found a Maasai elder who asked us for a lift! We gladly obliged and he jumped in. In a mix of English and Swahili we asked him to take us to the road. He sat next to me, half on my lap, as we were already three in the front seat of the Land Rover. We were ridiculously close to the road and were brought back to it immediately. Our saviour stayed with us as, apparently, we were going in the same direction!
The fig tree, “signpost” to Intona ranch.
Finally we got to a large fig tree on our right, the entrance to Intona Ranch and there the Maasai left us with our thanks. The ranch was still unfenced and largely undeveloped at the time. Its border was marked by a plough furrow! Alan drove through the ranch and showed me the crush pen, weighbridge and cattle boma. The latter was a large wood and barbed wire fortress. He also showed me the ranch personnel quarters and other back up installations such as the generator house and store. “The cattle are out grazing”, said Alan, “they will not come back until dusk so let´s take the personnel to their camp and then go to meet Joe and Sheila” he added. During the journey I had learnt that Joe was in fact Joseph Murumbi, an important retired politician. His mother was Maasai and he was given the land by them.
Cattle and facilities at Intona ranch.
The herdsmen camp at Intona ranch.
After about a kilometre a very large white house appeared, looking like a palace to me at that point. It looked newly built and was as beautiful as it was out of place. Its construction –I learnt from Alan- followed the Swahili style found at the Kenyan coast, complete with carved wooden doors brought all the way from Lamu and surrounded by a high white wall. We parked in one of the lateral entrances, announced our arrival and were shown in.
A large white house appeared in the distance!
We walked into a very large rectangular living room, its walls covered with art objects. The chairs were large and made of forged iron, including the one where a coloured person with Indian features sat, atop lots of cushions and surrounded by small dogs. I guessed him to be in his late seventies. He stood up with some difficulty and came to greet us with a warm look on his face.
He was Joe. “How was the safari?” he asked and added: “they tell me the road is rough but I do not drive any more so I do not know”. Alan made a comment about the road and introduced me, explaining who I was and the reasons for my visit. Joe welcomed me and invited us to sit, while ringing a bell. Soon a white middle-aged woman in crutches came in. Joe introduced her to me as Sheila, his wife. As it was late afternoon some Tuskers were produced for us. “You must be tired Julio”, she said, “coming all the way from Mbita Point”. “We will have dinner very soon as Joe goes to bed early” she added.
Over the beer I gathered that Joe had a special interest in books, largely fired by his Goan father. “I have many books” Joe said “and art” he added. I also learnt that Joe was recovering from a stroke and that Sheila’s hips were in a bad state and that she needed an operation soon.
Dinner was a simple affair and we soon retired to our bedrooms. Alan´s had a microscope and piles of stained slides that he needed to examine, so he proceeded to check the health of his experimental cattle. I unpacked my belongings and feeling very tired I went to bed, leaving Alan with the microscope and the ubiquitous Tusker at hand.
The following morning Alan woke me up before sunrise as we needed to check the cattle before they went out for grazing. We did not see our hosts as they were resting when we left. Daily body temperature, blood and lymph node smears are routine monitoring activities when working with theileriosis. That day we also had to tag a few animals. We needed to write on the tags with a special pen known as the “magic marker”. Alan asked one of the herdsmen -Ephraim- to fetch it. He went to look for it while we went to look at the cattle boma. This was an enormous 3-metre tall barbed wire enclosure where Joe´s cattle were kept, together with the experimental cattle. After inspecting it we went back to the crush pen to continue with the work but Ephraim was not back yet! Alan asked what was happening and was told that “he is coming”, the usual reply in these situations. Finally, after Alan’s patience was almost gone Ephraim appeared carrying a basin with hot water! When Alan saw this, he became quite angry. “What is this?” he asked. “What you asked for” replied Ephraim “maji moto“. The incredulous look on Alan’s face was very funny to see, and suddenly he laughed at the confusion and all the tension disappeared everyone joined in! Magic marker was mistakenly taken for magi moto, Swahili for hot water!
Alan watching the cattle leaving the boma.
Our work completed, we left the following morning, driving through the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. I loved the place! We crossed the Mara River on our way and had the chance to see the aftermath of the Wildebeest river crossings: a solid mass of dead animals being feasted upon by crocodiles and vultures, after the remaining beasts successfully continued on their migratory route.
The aftermath of a wildebeest crossing of the Mara river.
Seeing that natural marvel for the first time created a very strong impression on me. I believe that it was then that my life took a turn that would make me stay in Kenya and Africa. I decided that I would do all I could to persuade Matt that I should work at Intona ranch and, on my way to it, have the privilege of driving through the Maasai Mara Game Reserve!
A hot air baloon flies over a rather dry Maasai Mara.