pheromones

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!

Hyenas and planet-gazing

The morning after the Maasai chicken dinner a good breakfast was in order! We prepared bacon and eggs to compensate for our austere meal of the night before. In an attempt at avoiding another fasting episode I offered to take over the next dinner and to roast the beef we had brought from Nairobi.

Camping at Intona ranch.

Camping at Intona ranch.

After breakfast, another day of routine field trials followed, as we needed to do many replicates of our tests in order to confirm the results. We worked without stopping until late afternoon when we decided that we had done enough and it was time for a shower and to prepare dinner. As a South American I am ashamed to confess that I am fearful of horses and prefer to keep a good distance from them. That is not all, I am a real disaster at barbequing! Therefore, on the occasion I struggled through and I made sure that the food was abundant and we ate our fill.

The night was truly spectacular. The relative short distance of Intona ranch from Lake Victoria meant that it rained very often. It poured in late afternoon and then the sky cleared at dusk. The consequence was that the rains cleaned the air and the night sky was always very sharp.

Ernest and I stayed awake until late talking and contemplating the pristine sky. We talked about many issues, occasionally stopping to listen to the night sounds, in particular the spotted hyena calls getting closer to our camp. Getting gradually bolder they moved close to the periphery of the light of our camp fire. I reassured Ernest that this was a normal event when camping at Intona and that “normally” hyenas would not be aggressive.

Despite the good time we were having, we have had a long day and we felt very tired so soon we went to bed. As soon as we were inside the tent we heard something sniffing all around our tent. A white-tailed mongoose was seen scurrying away when we shined our torches. That small mystery solved, it was back to bed, hoping that sleep would come soon.

Not so. This time it was a loud crush outside the tent that also merited investigation. This time a hyena was the culprit! The beast had grabbed a dirty pan and had taken off at speed. We run after the beast but it was a futile effort and came back to bed thinking on resuming the search for the pot in the morning.

mmara hyena 2

A Brown hyena with wildebeest carcass in the Maasai Mara. Its cousins visited us nightly at Intona.

While thinking and hoping that normality would return, I finally fell sleep. Again, it did not last long. It may have been 03:00 hs when I heard Ernest opening the tent door zip. My first thought was that his gut had finally lost the fight against the filtered water drunk on the way in! In addition, aware of the hyenas I remained awake although without moving, hoping to go back to sleep immediately. No chance! Ernest came back and started to shake me up shouting “Wake up, the sky is perfect to look for planets!” I felt like slaying him but, remembering his partial deafness and on account of his contagious enthusiasm, I made the mistake of getting up!

By the time I managed to go out of the tent, Ernest was already looking through the binoculars, identifying the various noteworthy celestial bodies, accompanying his successive discoveries with shouts of joy! Although I had enjoyed contemplating the night sky both in Uruguay and in Kenya, I have never been that interested in astronomy. However, he convinced me to look at Jupiter (a small orange sphere) and even managed to see Saturn and what I though were its rings! Finally Ernest’s excitement subsided and we managed to hit the camp beds again, this time until the sun was up!

The large ball of crunched aluminium that we found about one hundred metres from our tent was not the remains of a recent asteroid that had narrowly missed us but all that remained from our cooking pan after the hyenas had squished it to get its juice.

Although our cooking options suffered another severe setback we still managed to produce some pan-less and chicken-less dinners during the following days!

Skewered Maasai chicken

When I was there in the 80’s the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Kenya had established various partnerships with universities and research centres outside Africa. I was involved with the collaboration with the University of Neuchâtel on tick pheromones. The idea was to explore ways of attracting ticks to pheromone-baited traps and, with the addition of a tickicide[1], to destroy them.

Bont ticks male (left) and female. A bad picture.

Bont ticks male (left) and female. A bad picture.

The composition of the aggregation pheromone of the Bont tick[2], one of the important cattle ticks, had just been discovered. It was a mixture of three chemicals that were available commercially. This offered us a good opportunity to test this compound in the field. Ernest was the scientist from Neuchâtel that would work with me at Intona ranch where natural populations of the tick occurred.

Ernest was a very enthusiastic and good-humoured Swiss that had a hearing problem as a consequence of firing cannons during his military service in the Swiss Alps, forgetting about wearing earmuffs! Luckily, we got on well from the start. So, armed with the necessary research tools, we departed for Intona to spend a few days doing fieldwork.

As a precaution, we did take a few ticks from the tick colony in case the bush ones would not cooperate! Crossing the Maasai Mara Game Reserve was never disappointing and, as usual, we spent a night there on the way to the Transmara where Intona was located. Ernest was delighted being able to see the plains game and we wee also lucky to spot elephants, lions and hyenas.

In the morning, as usual, we laboriously climbed the Oloololo escarpment and stopped to admire the breath taking view of the Mara triangle from its highpoint. The almost aerial view that it offered was really thrilling, even for me, a regular visitor to the area. Lines of wildebeest could be seen in the distance as well as dark patches that indicated buffalo herds. As I knew he would, Ernest loved the view. After spending a long while in contemplation, it was time to continue our long journey.

Maasai cattle at the Mara River bridge on the way to the Transmara.

Maasai cattle at the Mara River bridge on the way to the Transmara.

Following the escarpment the road was bad as usual but luckily this time it was dry. However, we needed to stop a few times, not because of getting stuck or having mechanical problems, but because Ernest was amazed at how bad the road was! “Ooohh no, please stop!” he would shout and then get out of the car to photograph it even before I managed to stop. Clearly he was comparing the Transmara tracks with the Swiss roads!

Stuck on the way to Intona on a rainy day.

Stuck on the way to Intona on a rainy day.

Eventually, after a few halts, he got used to the rough road but, being a very active person, his attention drifted to other things. As all first time visitors to the Transmara he took a great interest on the Maasai people and their cattle, a normal sight in the area for me but quite so for guests. As the Maasai were not keen on pictures, we did not stop.

Maasai herdsman on the way to Intona.

Maasai herdsman on the way to Intona.

Maasai Manyatta (dwelling).

Maasai Manyatta (dwelling).

Maasai children looking after livestock.

Maasai children looking after livestock.

After about half an hour of hard going I heard “Stop” coming from Ernest as we approached a large muddy pond by the side of the road. While I stopped the car he rummaged in his rucksack from where he extracted what looked like an over-sized hypodermic syringe and a tumbler. I was not sure of what was going on and limited myself to watch, together with our herdsmen travel companions. “This is a Swiss water filter that will make any water suitable for drinking” he said as we were walking towards the mud and the terrapins swam away in fear! He added “It is recommended by the Swiss Tropical Institute, so it must be good!”

Without further ado he sucked water into the syringe and, once it was full, it poured into the glass. The water was indeed crystal clear! “You see,” he said, showing the glass. I must confess that it was an impressive feat as the puddle was truly a thick chocolate mud and I had not seen such a contraption before! Ernest offered the water to us and, when we all politely declined, he drank it himself before I could stop him, fearing for the consequences on his guts.

After praising the quality of what he had just drunk, he repeated the operation once more. This time one of the herdsmen agreed to try it and he agreed that it was indeed OK if with a bit of a muddy taste. “The filter must be getting clogged,” declared Ernest, “I must clean it when we get to Intona”. I refrain from commenting on the cost-effectiveness of the device and we resumed our trip, clearly ready for innovation.

Eventually we arrived at Intona ranch. It was almost dark so we rushed to assemble our tent, had an early dinner and went to bed as we both felt the long two-day trip.

The following day we started our work early and spent most of the day carrying out several trials that were quite successful. In the afternoon we decided that we would have roasted chicken for dinner so while Ernest continued working I went with Tommi, my Maasai assistant, in search of dinner. Eventually we managed to persuade a Maasai lady to sell us a cockerel.

Our prospective dinner was killed by me and plucked by Ernest. The size of its talons were unequivocal indicators of its seniority and its leanness qualified it as a Maasai chicken long-distance runner! Its muscular condition spoke of speed and endurance at the service of survival! Oblivious to all this, Ernest assembled a boy scout-like contraption with branches where, after impaling the chicken, it would be rotated over the fire. We invited our herdsmen to join us and they prepared their traditional “ugali[3]” to go with it.

The cooking of the chicken took a very long time. Ernest kept stabbing it and declaring that it was cooked but still tough. The lengthy turning process led to inexorable shrinking and darkening until it was declared fit for human consumption. The cockerel had turned into a “toasted baby chicken”. I saw the herdsmen exchanging doubtful glances over their Tusker beers, a bad omen!

Ernest cut it into equal pieces and -luckily- Joseph placed large chunks of ugali to go with it. Tommi bit the first piece and I heard a “Taargh” coming from him that became a clear “tough!” once he managed to swallow it. Bad news coming from a Maasai! Ernest agreed on its toughness but declared that it tasted like real chickens did a long time ago in Switzerland so he was happy! As for the rest of us, we could have done with a second runner Maasai chicken!

Transmara, Kenya, circa 1986.

 

[1] Also known as an acaricide, a substance that kills ticks.

[2] Amblyomma variegatum (the Bont tick) transmits Cowdria ruminantum that causes a deadly disease of ruminants known as Heartwater.

[3] From Swahili, maize flour cooked with water to a thick porridge. It is the staple food in Kenya.