Maasai Mara

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/

 

 

 

First blood

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

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

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We knew that a large pride lived in the area.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A better photo once we stopped.

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A better take once we stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Camping in Africa. Kenya (Spotted cat)

During one of the trips to the Transmara, while camping next to the Mara River, I had the surprise visit of the Manager of the Mara Buffalo Camp. As this had never happened before, I prepared to hear that I was not allowed to camp near the camp anymore so we stopped setting up our camp and went to meet him. I was wrong. He was a friendly Swiss that came to give me some good news.

He explained that at a rocky outcrop nearby there was a female leopard with two cubs that, unusually for East Africa in general and the Maasai Mara in particular, was very relaxed and let you watch her and her cubs without getting scared by human presence. He even offered to take us there at that precise moment if interested as he was taking a friend with him  for that purpose. We instantly forgot what we were doing, jumped on the car and followed him!

After driving towards the reserve, we arrived to a rocky gorge where there was a cave high in the rocks where, to our great surprise we found a small leopard cub resting at the entrance. He said that the mother may have been hunting or, perhaps, sleeping inside, together with the other absent cub. We could not believe our luck and after waiting for a while we thanked our Swiss benefactor profusely and left him in contemplation as we still needed to set up camp, cook and rest to continue with our journey the following day.

The leopard and her cubs became an added attraction to our frequent journeys to the Transmara and we found her again a few times during subsequent trips until one day she disappeared. For a few weeks we did not know what happened to her until, again by chance, found her again later, together with Jonathan Scott. The now well known photographer, film maker and book publisher was not that well known then as he was starting his rather successful stay at the Maasai Mara.

Jonathan was watching a female leopard with young cubs with all his equipment on the ready as the cubs played and the mother rested up a rocky outcrop. We learnt that it was the same female and after that encounter we saw her a few more times. The trick was to find  Jonathan’s green car  when driving through the general area where the leopard dwelled! It was clearly easier than looking for her!

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Relaxing…

I still recall one day when we found the leopard family in a very playful mood up and down a beautiful fig tree. It was such fun to watch them at play that I only stopped taking pictures the moment I ran out of film! I was really excited and very pleased with the pictures I had taken, although in those days you needed to wait until they were developed to see the results.

Before leaving, we approached Jonathan who we had met also at Kichwa Tembo Camp earlier and, feeling pleased with myself, I made a comment on how great what was taking place was and mentioned that I had taken lots of pictures as it was a fantastic opportunity. Jonathan listened to me and then gave me a reply that I have had in my mind since then: “I have not taken any pictures because the light is wrong”.

My heart sunk and I left crestfallen and in disbelief. When back in Nairobi the moment of truth of the pictures came I must confess that Jonathan had been right. Although some pictures were “rescuable”, the majority showed cat silhouettes against the sky! Later on, when I got Jonathan’s books I realized what he meant that day as the quality of his work is frankly superb!

As for us, despite our poor pictures, the memories remain and they at least serve the purpose to bring these back and to stimulate me to write posts such as this one!

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Surprised in the open.

Camping in Kenya. Mara River fishing

Although I do not like eating fish, I am what the British fishing community know as a “coarse fisherman” and I have been engaged on this activity all my life, although I do not fish much these days. At the time we were in Kenya I was already returning the fish, unless someone would be interested in eating them. Tobias, Paul’s camp hand, was such a guy and if he was around there was no way that a fish would escape his attentions and invariably it would end up in the sufuria[1]!

Tobias was from the Luo ethnic group that dwells around lake Victoria both in Kenya and Uganda and, naturally, they eat fish in contrast to the Kikuyu and Maasai that very rarely, if ever, consume them. The rare event of a Maasai herdsman fishing with me was described a while ago in this blog[2] although whether he would have eaten the fish or not will never be known!

As only driving with your eyes closed would stop you from seeing animals while traveling through the Maasai Mara area, sometimes, for a change, we decided to just chill out around camp and on occasions, try our hand at fishing in the shadowy Mara River. We were able to do this as, by virtue of being outside the reserve, we enjoyed freedom of movement within the limits of common sense and/or lessons learnt!

In the area we regularly camped there were a couple of nice grassy spots from where we believed that fishing could be attempted. The problem was that we knew that crocodiles were plentiful in the River and there was no doubt that they were lurking anywhere under the muddy waters. We had already seen them in action snatching wildebeest during their river crossings. Clearly in this setting, fishing would be a hazardous sport.

After careful consideration we chose a nice opening in the riverine forest that not only offered a good view of the river but also towards our back, an important consideration in the Maasai Mara as dangerous animals were also around us inland! As there were no trees nearby we could handle our fishing gear without major mishaps. I have the innate ability to get carried away with the fishing and end up “hooking” a few trees! Although there were lots of hippos cruising up and downriver, we did not consider them a major problem.

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A view of a Mara River hippo pool to show the colour of the water.

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The aftermath of a wildebeest river crossing.

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The Mara River bridge on the way to the Transmara. A lorry and us wait for a herd of Maasai cattle to cross.

So, one of the trips to the Transmara coincided with Paul doing some work with wildebeest on malignant catarrh, a viral disease that affected cattle, and we decided to try fishing. I brought fishing gear and cow liver so we were ready to try our luck. Our intended target was the common and ubiquitous African catfish (Clarias gariepinus). Immediately a worldwide event was born as we represented three Continents: Europe (Britain), represented by Paul, Africa (Kenya, Luoland), represented by Tobias while I was the America representative from Uruguay. Similar to the spear throwing competition earlier[3], it was an intercontinental fishing tournament!

The river was at its normal and flowing gently so that was favourable. What was not were the abundance of submerged trees and branches that poised great difficulties to a normal line recovery. The consequence was severe loss of equipment and we were soon running out of hooks and our lines were getting shorter! In addition, I spent lots of time disentangling my line from the trees that seemed to jump towards me every time I would try to get my bait in the water!

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The Mara River from the DC3 when it did regular flights between Nairobi and the Maasai Mara.

A fish bite was invariably followed by frantic efforts to recover the line in an attempt to get it out while avoiding it getting entangled in the various branches and water plants. However, if you were lucky or perhaps unlucky? and hooked a large fish, the task would become much more difficult as the fish would try to escape by getting inside the branches. In addition, there was the “crocodile problem” as the reptilians would be alerted by the fish splashes and immediately come to “investigate” and get our fish so fast recovery was a must to avoid losing our trophies as those lost “en route” to anything such as snags or crocs would not count.

Paul did quite well and caught more than me. However, Tobias was the star and clear winner. He probably knew things we did not, through years of fishing “for the pot” during his early years near lake Victoria. His technique was simple, almost too simple. He chose to use a hand line and threw it very close to the shore. In this way, he avoided a lot of the snagging and did not suffer too badly from line and hooks losses like us wazungu[4]. He will then wait a short while and pull them out, almost unfairly easily!

mmara-camping-with-catfish-and-tobias-copy

Tobias and the Bushsnob with some of the spoils.

Tobias was delighted, not so much for having won the contest but, much more importantly for him, for having the possibility of feasting on fish for a few days! Although later on we tried the catfish, Paul and I agreed that they tasted like we imagine the Mara River mud would do and, luckily for Tobias, we declined further offerings.

 

[1] Saucepan in Kiswahili.

[2] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/memories-a-fishing-trip/

[3] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/11/05/javelin-throwing-almost-olympics-games/

[4] In Kiswahili, white man. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mzungu

Camping in Kenya. Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

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.

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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.

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While in Kenya we practiced “basic” camping!

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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[1]. 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.

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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[2].

Helen was the daughter of a well-known veterinarian from the UK that had come to spend some time in Kenya[3]. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

lion-eating-topi-m-mara-copy

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!

lions-killing-zebra-m-mara-2-sepia

A zebra kill at the Maasai Mara.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/07/08/life-and-work-in-kenya-intona-2/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/intona-ranch1/

[2] I leave the research about whether this is true or not to you as Google does not seem to give a straight answer.

[3] Years later, her father was the External examiner of my PhD Thesis.

Unpredicted friends and unforgettable dates

The morning of Saturday 17 July 1982 (I remember this day well!) we got up early to pack our car with camping gear for a safari to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. We had booked the Sand River campsite for a couple of nights.

We were about ready to go when, totally unexpectedly, someone walked into our front garden! It was a messenger from the Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation coming to deliver a telegramme, the first we had ever received! As we had no working telephone in the house (and cellular phones were not yet invented!) a telegramme was almost the ultimate in urgent communications. Being far from home, it also carried a dose of dread as it could carry bad news from home. So, with wonder as well as some trepidation I read it, trying to prepare for the worst.

Its contents were surprising and shocking but good! It read: “We arrive tomorrow” and it was signed by two of our best friends: Nazar and Aurora. That was that, not even a date! We were thrilled that they had finally decided to come to Kenya. We knew they were travelling to Piediluco, Italy to accompany their son Juan José that was rowing at the 1982 World Rowing Junior Championships representing Uruguay and we had insisted that they extended their journey to visit us although we knew that this would be very difficult for them!

Our initial elation turned into mild panic when the fact that they could be at the Jomo Kenyatta International airport (JKIA) at the time of reading the telegramme sunked in! Expecting the worse we immediately drove to JKIA as we knew that most flights from Europe would arrive by mid morning. We were on a rather blind chase and during our journey we did a lot of speculation, not only about their arrival but also on contingency planning regarding our planned safari.

Our fears that they had arrived the day before and were stranded at the airport unable to communicate were unfounded and perhaps exaggerated as a thorough examination of the arrival area gave no results. Unable to get any passenger information from the possible airlines we decided to stay put and wait. After about an hour or so, a few flights from Europe arrived within thirty minutes. We crossed our fingers and, eventually, we were rewarded when our friends emerged looking dazzled at what they were seeing around them but otherwise unaware of our earlier dilemma and very happy to see us.

It was an emotional reunion and, after an exchange of the usual family news, I casually announced that we were aware of their long journey but that we were off to the Maasai Mara, leaving as soon as possible. As expected (they had no real choice!) they gallantly accepted the invitation and, after passing by our house to finish our packing, we set off with their luggage still unopened!

Nazar, had a tiring trip, and he was also suffering from a gut complaint. His time during the journey to the Maasai Mara was spent drinking abundant amounts of warm cola and going into episodes of slumber until, by the time we got to Aitong, a few hours later, he started to talk nonsense with me, a sure sign of his slow recovery. Aurora, on the contrary, was wide awake and did not miss detail, asking questions all the time and gaining in excitement as we moved from Nairobi to the Kikuyu escarpment, the breathtaking Rift Valley views, Narok and beyond into the great green plains of the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem.

Because of our late departure, I drove non-stop and despite the rough road, we managed to get to the gate in time to get to the Sand river camp by the Mara river at dusk. Without delay we started unpacking and finished setting up camp using our car headlamps, as was the norm with us then.

While this was on going, our friends watched, not moving too far from the car, still rather confused with their situation. Our work was cut short, as already in Nairobi they had decided to sleep in the car. Luckily for them, removing the second seat of our loyal VW Kombi was relatively easy so soon they had their nest ready. As soon as we finished with the car arrangements my wife had heated our ready-made dinner brought from home and, although we still had a lot to talk about, we were so exhausted that we went to sleep early.

Camping at the Sand River was ever exciting as there were always plain game in its neighborhood, particularly wildebeest and zebra that, somehow enjoyed crisscrossing the Mara river offering, apparently unnecessary opportunities to their reptilian predators. Their presence also attracted lion and hyena so there were always nocturnal happenings! That night was quieter than expected but still the hyenas came close to camp, their calling amplified by the river. We did not fail to hear lions roaring in various degrees of proximity, above the constant wildebeest snorting and zebra whinnying. Thinking on our friends’ time in the car, we paid the price for our rather busy day and passed out before long.

mmara hyena 2

The following morning, recovered, I got up early as usual and prepared tea and coffee waiting for the other fellow campers to show life signs. My wife emerged eventually but no movement was detected inside the car! A quiet inspection of it showed it to be unscratched. Its windows were totally foggy and I had some concern about whether our friends have had enough oxygen inside there as the car was tightly shut!

My fears were unfounded as, eventually, a hand started to remove the fog from the side window and the smiling faces of our friends showed gradually behind the glass. Eventually they left their protective and damp metal cage to join us for a rather late breakfast and they shared their mate[1].

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Nazar offers a mate to the photographer.

As usual with first time visitors, they have heard nothing the whole night as they had slept like logs! We finally had a chance to finish exchanging pending news at leisure.

Fortunately they were fast to adjust and gradually they became used to our ‘bush ways” joining us on a couple of game drives during which they greatly enjoyed what they saw. The frequent appearances of the imprudent hyenas and the lions roaring were not conducive to us persuading them to abandon their cage the following night and they still preferred their airtight environment to the risks of camping in the bush. We understood them well as it had taken us longer than that to get used to camping “al fresco” surrounded by wild beasts!

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Our friends relaxing at the Mara Serena lodge.

We returned to Nairobi after two nights. This time they were able to appreciate their surroundings much better, including the always-interesting sight of the Maasai people and their manyattas and livestock and they were delighted with the daylight return journey.

Later on during the week we showed them Nairobi and the wonderful Nairobi National Park and later travelled to Nakuru and Bogoria for a view of the Rift valley, its hot springs and flamingoes. Luckily, they loved the experience but time passed very fast and it was soon time for them to depart, too soon for us!

Their plane left back to Europe at midnight on Saturday 31 July 1982 so we took them to the airport early and made sure that they went through all the departing procedures early until the time came to leave them once they have checked-in to return to Tigoni late at night. Unused to driving at night, we negotiated several road blocks that we thought too many but, as we drove a car with red diplomatic plates, our going was smooth and we got home safely.

The following morning we had arranged with our friend Ranjini to go to the Nairobi National Park so we travelled to Muguga through back-roads to fetch her. Once there she announced that an attempt to overthrow President Moi’s government had taken place at midnight and that there were serious confrontations going on in Nairobi between the Police and students! Apparently, a group of soldiers from the Kenya Air Force had taken over the Voice of Kenya[2] and announced that they had overthrown the government!

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A bad picture I took of Moi’s cavalcade before knowing the risks involved!

We thanked Ranjini for the news and quickly turn around heading for home as fast as we could! During the journey we met a large military convoy ready for war heading for Nairobi but we did not know what their stance was at the time! Luckily they ignored us and we, the sole occupants of the road by now, got home safely where we remained -listening to the BBC radio for the latest news- for the following three days until it was confirmed that the attempt had failed[3].

It was lucky that our friends just managed to get away (a while) before the Kenya airspace was closed and that they were over the clouds when all this happened! They remained unaware of their narrow escape until we met them back in Uruguay a year later when they listened to us in disbelief!

 

[1] Traditional South American caffeine-rich infused drink, prepared by steeping dried leaves of yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) in hot water and is served with a metal straw from a shared hollow calabash gourd and shared among drinkers.

[2] From 1989 it became the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.

[3] The coup failed. The Air force pilots that meant to bomb State House dropped their bombs over Mount Kenya and eventually, after ruling Kenya for a few hours, Hezekiah Ochuka, a soldier in the Kenya army, escaped to Tanzania. He was eventually extradited back to Kenya, found guilty at a high profile trial that involved both Oginga Odinga and Raila Odinga, and eventually executed in 1987.

 

Not just dinner

Kenya became independent on 12 December 1963 when Kenyatta became its first President and Odinga the Vice President. Not surprisingly, in 1965 Kenyatta and Odinga fell out, and Murumbi (Joe) was named Kenya’s second Vice-President for a few months until he resigned in December 1966[1].

As described before, I became involved with Joe through the work we did with Alan Young on tick and tick-borne diseases. He wholeheartedly supported our work. As with all scientific work, a substantial amount of time was spent writing research proposals in order to get the funds to continue with the research. Once the funding is secured, donors visit your field sites to see for themselves the activities being performed with their funds, the conditions of work, applications, progress, etc. These visits are critical for the future of your investigations and that was the way that they were also understood at the institute I was with. This meant that all should go smoothly and a good performance was expected.

I had several such visits but none as important as the final evaluation of our tick programme in the mid 80’s. Laboratory and field work came under the magnifying glass and, as it is quite normal our results were mixed. My part of the bargain was going well as we had good collaborators and achievable goals. Our partner with the highest profile was of course Joe and, in addition, nature was a great partner. Soon the donors knew that Intona ranch and its surrounding area -including the Maasai Mara- were beautiful areas worth a visit and this was good for us and we used it to our advantage!

The organization of a “high level” visit needed lot of work as guests would usually fly to the Maasai Mara where I would meet them and look after them until the following morning when we would climb the Oloololo escarpment and drive about three hours to Intona, hoping that the rains were light and we did not get stuck in the various tricky spots we needed to cross and spoil our trip! Usually our journey would take us to the manyatta (Maasai dwelling) of the Maasai Chief to inform him of our visit and to our GTZ collaborators, if applicable. The visit would last two days during which our work was shown and presented and future prospects discussed in detail. We were of course very fortunate that Joe and Sheila (his wife) allowed us to put them up in their magnificent house.

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Joe and Sheila’s house at Intona ranch, Transmara, Kenya

During this particular visit Joe and Sheila were at Intona. They normally flew directly to the ranch, together with their dogs! Aware of the importance of the occasion they kindly offered to organize a dinner for our guests. This was not an everyday event, but I had joined them for dinner a few times before and I knew that it would be a formal occasion with excellent hospitality and very good food.

The day of the visit arrived and I collected our visitors from Kichwa Tembo Camp, located close to the Oloololo escarpment and, after a game drive that they thoroughly enjoyed in the surrounding area of the Maasai Mara

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The Wildebeest moving through the reserve.

-that I knew very well- we spent the night there to leave early morning for Intona. The road was good and, once there, we devoted the rest of the day to visit our field activities. They seemed pleased with what they saw. I was also pleased and looking forward to the dinner to close a long day.

The Intona area is under the influence of the near lake Victoria and it frequently rains for a short spell in the afternoons. As a consequence the sun sets in a cloudy sky resulting in the most glorious and colourful sunsets. Aware of this Joe positioned the house in such a way to be able to make the most of them by having a wide west veranda where we congregated often to talk and have a drink before dinner. That day it was no exception and we joined Sheila and Joe for sun downers and polite conversation until Sheila, the perfect hostess and a very experienced one, announced that dinner was ready. While walking to the dining room she came close and whispered: “Julio, we have a new cook that came with us from Nairobi, I hope it will perform as he has excellent recommendations”. Knowing her standards I had no doubts and told her so.

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A view of Intona ranch in the Transmara parkland.

The dining room had a door to the kitchen and another one to the enormous and beautifully decorated sitting room. It had the most exquisite antique wooden table and chairs and antique rugs, most probably of Afghan origin, covered its floor. I knew from past dinners that under the rags at the place where Sheila sat there was a bell that she will press in order to call for assistance from the staff. This was her “secret weapon” that enabled her to coordinate things so perfectly that the guests would be amazed. Needless to say that it was a candlelight affair with lots of silverware and crystal!

When the first course came, brought by staff dressed in white with purple fezzes, it was a brownish coloured soup that looked rather disappointing. Trying it did not improve its look: it had a strong curry flavour and it was chilled! “I hope you like our Mulligatawny soup” said Sheila while she gave an approving look to the new cook that was overseeing the dinner from a discreet distance. Your concerns about the soup dissipated the moment your spoon found some submerged resistance that transformed itself in a spoon tip full of cranberry jam. The combination was simply amazing!

After our praise of the soup ended, the staff came back to collect our plates and this time the new cook looked happy and smiley, “the success with the soap was a boost for him” I thought while noting a serious-looking Sheila. By the time the roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes was brought in, the cook was definitely too happy and talking loudly to the visible embarrassment of our hosts. Sheila, used to deal with the highest-ranking world figures, ask to be excused and went to the kitchen, an unusual event. In the meantime, we enjoyed our roast that was really excellent.

Soon, Sheila came back announcing that all was well although she could not hide her concerned expression. We understood her fears the moment the cook opened the door of the kitchen when the staff came to collect the plates. The cook proffered, rather loudly, his hopes that we enjoyed the main course while trying to keep steady. By then we could not help noticing the strong alcohol whiff and knew that the worse had taken place! The spirit meant to go into the cooking had been “diverted”!

Although the guests and Joe were rather amused, Sheila was visibly upset! She excused herself again and went to the kitchen. We could not help overhearing a loud argument or rather Sheila’s shouts! There was a door banged and the sounds of a scuffle. She came back; her usual cool almost lost and red on her face. As an experienced host, she re-gained her composure fast and invited us to move next door to the sitting room for coffee and liquor. I stayed back with her as the guests and Joe moved out and Sheila -unseen by the guests- looked at me as if asking for support and understanding. I made my best “do not worry” gesture and moved to the sitting room together with the guests. She remained behind.

Intona sitting room copy

We all sat in the ornate sitting room and overlooked the cook’s episode, listening to Joe. Although soft spoken, he was a great host and a very engaging story teller with great tales and anecdotes from his many years in politics. We listened for quite a while until more noises coming from the kitchen area hinted that all was still not well and then Sheila reappeared –now with a grimace- to announce that the cook would like to say good bye to the guests! “Oh, no”, I thought, “is the situation that bad!”

The cook appeared escorted by the night watchman and a couple of staff and boisterously said “bye-bye!!!” but did not move and tried to say something but what came was a rather loud burp followed by another “bye-bye!!!” After this performance he was immediately manhandled out of the room, still saying “bye-bye!!!” and waving at us until the door was closed behind the group. I still vividly remember his final wave just before the door was shut! Confronted with this final act, even Joe was briefly embarrassed while the guests and I were quite amused!

The following morning Sheila and Joe were leaving for Nairobi and, as usual, I escorted them to the plane to assist them with their luggage, dogs and other items that they needed to take with them. They were sorry for what had happened. I felt very bad to have put them in this situation and explained them that I was very grateful for their hospitality and, to their obvious relief, I also told them that the donors were very pleased with the work and also very proud to have had the opportunity to have met them and enjoyed their hospitality, including the cook incident.

Before closing the door of the plane I spotted the cook. He was seated at the very back, looking penitent. I could not decide if his rather sombre looks were a consequence of his hangover, Sheila’s morning sermons or a combination of both!

The next time I was invited for dinner at Intona there was a new cook!

 

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/joseph-zuzarte-murumbi-1911-1990/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/06/22/joe-1/ in this blog.

Lions suckling

A letter about unusual lion behaviour in the Serengeti National Park[1], brought back memories of our own observations in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya, in the 1980’s.

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A picture of the letter to Getaway.

As it can be seen above, the letter describes that, a couple of tourists on a photographic safari, witnessed a lioness kill a wildebeest cow and her calf. Afterwards the lioness suckled the cow, then consumed the calf and returned again to suckle and lick the milk from the now dead female.

While in the Maasai Mara one evening we witnessed a lioness kill a topi[2]. While the lioness was busy strangling the animal, two cubs appeared on the scene and, without hesitation, went directly to the Topi’s udder and suckled the animal for a few minutes.

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A Topi in their typical “watching” stance.

Eventually the animal died and the cubs stopped suckling and joined the mother at eating it. We did not see he lioness suckling.

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The cubs we saw suckling were larger than this one.

The explanatory reply from Brian Jones, a very knowledgeable person on raising lions at the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre (South Africa) among other activities, confirmed that lions do lick carcasses, a fact that I can also corroborate through personal observations. As he made no mention of the suckling of prey by lions, I decided to write to Brian to let him know of our own observations and somehow reinforce the tourists’ observations. The following is a record of our exchange:


16/11/2015

From:              Julio de Castro <juliojdecastro@gmail.com>

To:                  Moholoholo <moholorehab@wol.co.za>

Dear Mr. Jones,

Reviewing old magazines I saw your comment of a couple of years ago (Getaway, May 2013, p.13) to a sighting of a lioness suckling and licking a wildebeest female in the Serengeti National Park.

In the 1980’s, while working in Kenya, one evening in the Maasai Mara we witnessed a lioness kill a Topi. While the lioness was busy strangling the animal, two cubs appeared on the scene and, without much hesitation, went directly to the Topi’s udder and suckled the animal for a few minutes. Eventually the animal died and the cubs stopped suckling and joined the mother at eating it. I do not recall if the death of the female Topi coincided with the cubs stopping to suckle. The cubs were about 6 months old or older (not suckling babies).

I have also witnessed lions licking wildebeest and zebra prey (mainly in the abdominal area) but I believe that there are two different phenomena, one is the deliberate suckling of a female prey and another is the licking of a dying/dead animal, including males.

I hope you find this interesting and look forward to your comments.

Kind regards.

Julio de Castro

http://www.bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com


19 November 2015

From:              Moholoholo <moholorehab@wol.co.za>

To:                  Julio de Castro <juliojdecastro@gmail.com>

Good morning Julio,

Thank you very much for your e–mail.

So interesting to hear of your experience witnessing the cubs trying to suckle from the Topi – really amazing!!!

Probably the smell of milk and I’d say the Topi must have had a youngster!!

Yes the licking of a dead animal is normal. I  have often seen even cheetah licking their pray before eating!! I have a few tame Cheetah and they lick my friends on their arm, I tease them by saying “they always lick their prey before they eat them” (ha, ha).

Thank you so much for sharing your experience, it always a story I can tell to other folk.

All the Best

Brian


I thank Brian for his time to reply and his valuable contribution. Please visit http://www.moholoholo.co.za/ to see the valuable work that the Centre performs.

 

[1] Koetze, R. Unusual sighting. Getaway (Letters), May 2013, p.12.

[2] The Topi (Damaliscus lunatus jimela) and the Tsessebe (D. lunatus lunatus) are sub-species of D. lunatus.

Javelin throwing (almost Olympic games)

The view of the Mara triangle on the Maasai Mara from the Oloololo escarpment on the way to Intona ranch.

The view of the Mara triangle in the Maasai Mara from the Oloololo escarpment on the way to Intona ranch.

Despite our busy work schedule we did not work on Sundays. We took the morning to explore Intona and its surrounds as there were always interesting sightings, particularly in the area towards the Migori river forest.

A flooded Migori river at the back of Intona ranch.

A flooded Migori river at the back of Intona ranch.

A notable tree in the Migori river forest.

A notable tree in the Migori river forest.

After lunch and seeing that there was not much to do I hatched the idea of a spear-throwing contest and mentioned it to Ernest. “What about an international spear throwing competition this afternoon?” “We can have participants from Africa, América and Europe, almost like the Olympic games”, I added. Ernest happily agreed and I got on with the organizing.

Apart from Ernest and myself there were also a Ugandan veterinarian and Kikuyu and Maasai assistants, admittedly both Kenyans but from different ethnic groups. “After all, we are in Maasailand” I thought and we should find a suitable javelin” “Let’s find a good spear and get the throwing field organized,” I said as I was already walking towards the herdsmen camp to arrange the details. “Tommi, I need to find a good spear” I said before I said good morning, and added, “I have an idea”.

He and the other herdsmen knew me by now and they smiled in anticipation. Tommi assured me that he could easily find the right tool as there were Maasai nearby that he knew. Good news!

A similar spear to the one used in our competition.

A similar spear to the one used in our competition.

While Tommi strolled through the bush in search for the spear we walked about to find a suitable field where the competition could take place. We found a good site and placed some distance marks while we waited for Tommi’s return. I also went around the farm inviting participants to the event. I managed to engage Joseph (Kikuyu, Kenyan) and Kiza (Ugandan) in addition to Tommi (Maasai, Kenyan), Ernest (Swiss) and myself (Uruguay). We had an international field!

By the time Tommi returned after lunch we were all ready and waiting. He brought a sturdy looking spear that we judged suitable for the task although it was rather long and heavy. It had a long metal blade, a wooden middle part and along steel rod at the end. It was time to start to get done before the daily 17:00 hours shower!

Ernest and helpers examining an animal for ticks.

Ernest and helpers examining an animal for ticks. The herdsmen tent can be seen in the background.

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A heavy Bont tick infestation on a heifer at Intona ranch.

All participants agreed at the onset that measurements would be done in paces. It was thought that equal throws were unlikely and the need for laser-aided technology[1] was thought not to be required. No bets were allowed, as just by looking at the competitors, an inexperienced observer should have been able to guess who the favourites were! This did not come to our minds while we warmed-up.

As the start of the competition approached, the tension increased and, by the time we drew our throwing terms, it was almost unbearable… For some reason Uruguay went first, followed by Joseph the Kikuyu representative, Switzerland was third, Kiza, the Ugandan fourth and, a fitting finale, the last to throw was Tommi, Maasai. It may as well as he was the “host country”.

Aware that I would not win I argued in favour of some try throws to get the right balance of both body and javelin but, regrettably for me, the other competitors (unkindly in my opinion) refused arguing that this was not in the rules (?). So, resigned to my fate I grabbed the spear and got ready to do my best. It felt heavy and rigid. I threw it and, the second it left me I knew that there were problems with both direction and distance. It was a rather poor show that landed a long way from the cattle boma and far from my possible personal best. “I have never had any strength in my arms” I said, trying to feel better. “about 20 paces is not too bad for my age”.

Joseph was quite fit although he was from a relatively well off Kikuyu family and this was beginning to show around his midriff. His throw was better than mine but stopped at 26 paces. Ernest, the Swiss researcher turned athlete improved my mark by a couple of paces and Kiza, the man from Uganda, despite his relatively small size, did much better than all at about 30 paces. A big smile lit his face, as usual and a lesson to us all that size is not that important but good technique is!

It was the turn of the Maasailand representative, the final competitor. He was perhaps the most relaxed participant and the one that was enjoying the tournament the most! From the moment he picked the spear we all new that the competition was over! We exchanged resigned glances and head shakes and got ready for an Olympic humiliation! We tried our best to disrupt his throw by talking to him but, he just smiled and replied to our remarks without losing his composure.

He held the spear naturally, balancing its weight by instinct. Almost without running and with a fast and wide arm movement he threw it, almost unexpectedly and even casually. The spear flew high vibrating with a “swiiiiiiisshhhh”. It went beyond our throwing field and over the cattle boma. We lost sight of it but run in the general direction where we last saw it to see how far it had gone. Behind the cattle boma it was the herdsmen camp so, when we fail to find it inside the boma we got more worried and started looking around the camp. There was no trace of the spear anywhere and the camp looked normal. For this we were reassured as at least there were no casualties!

We looked around the tent, near the fireplace, chairs, table, up the trees and all over: no spear! Nothing stuck on the ground, nothing visible up the trees or stuck anywhere. “Another mystery of the African bush”, I thought, or some Maasai magic I was not aware of?

As there was no point in arguing in favour of declaring the throw void on account of it having gone beyond the throwing field or even worse, on account of the disappearance of the instrument, we declared our Maasai warrior the undisputed winner. The absence of the spear meant that there was no possible revenge. This came as a relief as a change of the result would have been unlikely!

I apologized to Tommi for having had the idea that has led to the losing of his borrowed spear and offered financial compensation for his loss. He said that he had thrown it and lost it so I did not need to worry. He will eventually find it he said. I expressed serious doubts but gave him the benefit of the doubt and, as the rain was starting, I moved to our tent.

That night, while we were having our dinner we herd loud talking and laughing at the workers camp next door and went to have a look. The spear had been found! In its wild trajectory it had gone through both the flysheet and the tent and it was embedded in one of the herdsmen’s camp beds, luckily empty at the time of the event! I felt great relief that nothing had happened and a lesser one that the spear could now be returned to its owner!

I cannot remember how I explained the tent holes to my senior managers. Maybe I did not and it just remained as normal “wear and tear”!

Transmara, Kenya circa 1986.

[1] I do not think it was available at the time, anyway!