Maasai Mara

Baby in trouble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luckily the lions were full of wildebeest!

Wild rodeo

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

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

Taking a blood sample while Mabel looks on.

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

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

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

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

A dart placed at the right spot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paris-Maasai Mara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lioness watching the wildebeests.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gnus at sunrise

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

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Some of the few black rhinos we encountered in Kenya. These were at Amboseli National Park.
m mara baloon 1.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A lion pride, similar to the playful one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The joys of camping

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Mabel with some company while camping in the Transmara.

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

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Traveling through the Amboseli National Park.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The buffalo herd at Nairobi National Park.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A cute babbon youngster before becoming a camping menace!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A brave camping attempt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lion grunts

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

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

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

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Our first lions.

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

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

Hyenas calling.

Lion roar

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

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!

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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!”

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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!

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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.