Rift valley

Traveling to Intona

While in Kenya in the 80s, periodic trips to the Transmara were required to run the tick and tick-borne disease fieldwork. At the beginning we took turns with Alan (Alan Sidney Young) for visiting the area but gradually -as I learnt the ropes- he delegated the work to me. As a consequence -not at all undesirable- my trips became more frequent and I found myself driving to Intona every two or three weeks, depending on my other commitments at Muguga.

We needed to personally check the on-going field work and to collect the data gathered on a daily basis by our herdsmen that we would later analyse when back at Muguga. Luckily we also had a veterinarian on the ranch that Joe [1] had employed before I arrived. His name was Kiza and he was a refugee from Uganda that really helped a great deal with our work and he would radio us if there were any issues that needed our presence and, in that case, either Alan or myself would travel to the ranch to deal with them.

Equally important was to replace our field workers as we had a roster that we needed to maintain. In particular the Kikuyu workers found their stay among the Maasai rather trying and they were always ready to go home! After a while I realised that the trip to Maasailand was almost taken as a trip to a foreign country by them, used to stay in the highlands and to cultivate their land. As the trip to Intona progressed, their conversation became less animated! The reverse was also true, they became happier as we got closer to their home area, particularly the moment the Kikuyu escarpment came into view on the eastern wall of the Rift valley.

The trip would start in the early morning from Tigoni (later on from Nairobi) via Muguga where I would collect the herdsmen on duty for the period. Then there were two obligatory stops: at the local market near Muguga for them to buy vegetables, mainly humongous cabbages to prepare the ugale “relish” [1]. Cabbages would keep well and they were very popular. The next stop would be to load fuel at the junction with the main road (Nairobi-Kampala). Only then we were ready to go.

During the rainy season we would follow the tarmac through Nakuru, Kericho and Kisii to Kilgoris and then to Intona. Only the last 40km were dirt but passable most of the time. This way would offer superb views of the Rift Valley and its lakes (Naivasha, Elementaita and Nakuru) as well as its volcanoes (Longonot and Suswa).

We would also cross the large and tidy tea plantations of Kericho where we would normally brake the journey to stay at the colonial Kericho Tea Hotel. Need I say that the tea was probably the best I have ever drunk.

The dry weather route to Intona would take us North through Uplands and then we would start winding down the Kikuyu escarpment, pass the small Catholic church built by the Italian prisoners of WWII to continue until we branched off towards Narok. We then traversed the Great Rift Valley from East to West. In those days the savanna was dotted with antelopes and the only signs of human presence were a few small shambas [2] at the start of the road and, a few km further on, a satellite station with its giant white mushrooms.

The road skirted the lava flows from the dormant Longonot and Suswa volcanic cones and then we would climb the opposite wall of the valley where, a few km later we would get into Narok. The latter was, as expected, a predominantly Maasai town and it was the last large town on the way to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve and beyond, where we were going. We usually re-fuelled and bought the last needed items there before continuing our journey

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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.

Out of Narok we would follow the road past Aitong –where the early trials against theileriosis were carried out by Matt and co-workers before my arrival- and continue skirting the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, effectively the northern continuation of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, until we reached the Mara River bridge. If time allowed we would go on, otherwise there was a nice camping spot by the Mara River, next to the Mara Buffalo Camp (prior to the bridge)  where we would spend the night under canvas.

While I camped, the workers would stay at the Drivers’ accommodation at the Camp, courtesy of its Swiss Manager that would let us use it. I usually invited the workers to come to my camp in the evening for a drink and noted that there were always an extra pair of people that would come with them.

The first time this happened I thought that they were taking advantage of my hospitality and I was surprised as I did not expect this from them. I was immediately proven wrong when, as soon as they arrived to my camp, the two “escorts” would turn around and return to the lodge only to return to fetch the workers one hour later. When I asked why two people came I was told that they feared the animals too much so that they would not walk alone in the dark under any circumstances!

The Mara River is the main natural barrier for the migration of wildebeest and zebra in the Maasai Mara/Serengeti ecological system. It ends its course at Lake Victoria with an approximate length of 400km after its origin in the Mau Escarpment in Kenya.

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Mara river in the Maasai Mara and inhabitants.

The river is the main water source for the large population of grazing animals both wild and domestic as it always carries water, despite its flow getting reduced in the dry season. More recently (after our departure) changes in land use that have caused decreased vegetation cover are triggering a faster run-off of rainwater and flooding has become more common, particularly in large parts of the Tanzanian Mara basin.

For the journey I never drove anything but a Series III Long Wheel Base Land Rover (the two door van type) and these were hard to ride but truly unbreakable. Despite traveling alone most of the time, I never broke down over the many years I did this trip. After a few journeys, I got to know the people at Kichwa Tembo Camp (Elephant’s Head in Ki-Swahili), one of the camps close to the Mara River bridge, and they were very kind repairing the occasional punctures that were my only concern!

After crossing the Mara River where there was usually a Maasai cattle traffic jam and, during the wildebeest season quite a number of wildebeest as well (both alive and drowned at the river), we climbed the Oloololo escarpment and, once at the top, we had a compulsory stop to take in the magnificent view.

Below us was the Mara triangle where the green ribbon of the Mara River could be clearly seen snaking its way towards lake Victoria. When the wildebeest were in the Mara the savannah was dotted with thousands of wildebeests and zebras walking in long lines as far as the eye could see. The scene of the poster of “Out of Africa” was filmed from the Oloololo escarpment, looking at the Mara Triangle below.

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The Mara river with the Oloololo escarpment at the back, seen from the air.

As we still had some way to go, we moved on on the now flat top of the Oloololo escarpment. After a few km the road would pass through wheat fields. This unexpected sight was the result of some Maasai communities that had leased their land to commercial farmers. Once we passed the wheat the road became a track that with great luck it would be dry and rough but more often wet.

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Harvesting wheat in land leased from the Maasai.

The area was waterlogged and driving was through sticky mud. The car wheels would get into two parallel from where you could not deviate! So, while you kept the car crawling in second gear you hoped that no one would be coming from the opposite direction as the crossing would invariably end with one (or both) stuck!

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Stuck on the way to the red hill on a Land Rover station wagon that I rarely used and about to use the spare to lift the car from the muddy hole.

It was on one of these wet drives that we met a Peugeot 504 [3] buried and, after lots of digging, pushing and pulling, we managed to get it going. Unfortunately while doing this we got stuck! I looked at the occupants of the Peugeot for their solidarity but all I saw was their backs and, oblivious to our requests of help, they ignored us and drove off leaving us to dig ourselves out for quite some time and therefore to arrive very late to Nairobi.

Further on the road had another infamous section: the red hill. As its name indicates it was a steep climb over a red muddy hill with a smooth and innocent-looking surface that when you were on it it was like driving on a gigantic soap. The car, despite the 4×4 would skid the way it felt like and all you could do was to hope that it would stop before going down over the side that looked like the end not only of that journeys but of all journeys! To go very slowly and to stop as soon as the car started to skid was the only way to negotiate it but it was not easy and required total focus.

If you were successful over the swamps and the red hill then you were almost there as, from then on, the road would be firm and you would arrive to Lolgorien. This was a small village where the German Technical Cooperation Agency (GTZ) had its veterinary project in support of the Government of Kenya. It was there that Gerhardt, a veterinarian, and Anne Marie, a laboratory technician, worked.

Past collaboration between them and Alan on the epidemiology of the cattle diseases in the Kilae area nearby, that gave Alan the idea of immunise cattle against theileriosis and brought him to Intona ranch.

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Gerhardt and Anne Marie bush lab. An amazing place in its simplicity and efficiency.

Gerhardt and Anne Marie successfully ran several interesting activities in support to the Maasai communities and they had an amazing field laboratory where they had all essential equipment, operated by generator and or batteries, as there was no electricity there at the time. It was a revelation for me to see how advanced work could be done under really basic conditions [4].

After passing Lolgorien the road did not offer great challenges but it was important to arrive at Intona before dark. Wild and domestic animals were very numerous while driving through the Maasai Mara and still plentiful once you travel through the Transmara and it was still common to find both Maasai livestock and herds of zebra, wildebeest and gazelles on the road! As the area was wooded, their presence was more hazardous as they would appear suddenly in front of the car!

It was during one of these occasions that we came across a herd of sheep and goats that suddenly decided that the grass was greener across the road. As much as I tried to avoid them, I knocked the last sheep when, suddenly it changed its small mind and decided to turn back! The herdboy in charge run away fast before we could talk to him. Tommi (himself a Maasai) laughed and said that he must have been truly scared and run to inform his father so we waited while the animal laid motionless in the  middle of the road.

As predicted, Soon his father appeared with a grave expression, followed by the boy a distance behind. A discussion between Tommi and the sheep owner followed and I was eventually informed that I was asked to pay a large sum to compensate for the loss while Tommi advised me not to accept it. I shook my head vigorously and the negotiations continued and things were heating up when, as suddenly as unexpectedly, the sheep moved, stood up, shook his head and run into the bushes to join its mates! We were all taken aback by the development and we burst out laughing at the situation to the clear relief of the boy, the responsible of the sheep! We agreed to only compensate the owner for small injuries and left fast in case the animal fell again not to get up!

The area around Intona had a high number of people injured in encounters with wild animals. Although the rivalry between the Maasai and lions may have accounted for some, buffalo caused the great majority. It was therefore not uncommon that, having motorised transport, we would be asked to take some injured person to the nearest hospital. In addition, cattle rustling was quite common and the Police (Anti Stock Theft Unit) were a tough lot and two or three times I needed to carry prisoners and even dead rustlers (corpses).

Back to the trip. After Lolgorien we would eventually cross the Migori River that flows in a south-westerly direction from south-west Mau joining the Kuja River in Central Kadem and ends in lake Victoria. On a lucky day, turning the bend before the bridge you could watch a family of the rare Giant Forest Hogs (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) grazing in the meadows by the water edge. They were mostly indifferent to the car and allowed us to have a good look before they slowly retreated into the riverine bush.

A few km further we would get to the large fig tree that indicated the entrance to Intona Ranch and soon cross the one plough furrow that was all that indicated its boundary! It was a full day drive but not all was over as I still needed to set up camp, have a shower, dinner and then get good sleep to recover from the long journey to be up the following morning at the crack of dawn to work with our cattle.

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The Intona fig tree.

Intona was under the influence of Lake Victoria and it usually rained in late afternoon. This was preceded by the most spectacular cloud formations and amazingly beautiful sunsets when the sun would go down through the cracks of enormous cloud formations. The drama would even increase when the burning of the land, prior to the rains, would take place. This would stain the sky with a red tinge that would give the landscape an eerie appearance, as the reddish sun rays would filter through the forest. If you were lucky, you could spot a flock of the large Silvery-cheeked hornbills returning to their roosting places by the Migori River.

The return journey would start as early as possible, after finishing the work with the cattle, always done during the early morning to enable them to go out grazing with the rest of the herd. There were two reasons for an early departure: avoid the afternoon rains while still on the dirt roads, either in the Transmara or in the Maasai Mara as well as to arrive in Kikuyuland before dark.

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Coming back from Intona we take a rest after reaching the Oloololo escarpment. The muddy waterbag hanging from the mirror tells the story of the journey.

The herdsmen that were due to go home did not need to be reminded and they were ready well before departure time as they missed their places and families. The ones that remained looked rather gloomy and, although I reassured them that I will return in two weeks, their moods remained somber until our leaving.

Mid afternoon would normally find us refuelling at Narok and, without wasting time, go on and cross the Rift valley. As the trip progressed the herdsmen would become more talkative and the moment that the Kikuyu escarpment came into view, they became excited and happy and they would start talking and laughing among themselves, no doubts planning their stay with their families.

Eventually we would climb the escarpment and enter in what was then still known as the “Kikuyu Reserve” to deliver the herdsmen to their homes. This was a long and tortuous drive through dirt roads to find their houses and, eventually when I was alone, the way out! As I am not too good at bearings, this would often take the wrong turn and get lost in the increasing darkness, delaying my return even more!

Although I never had a problem driving through the area, I recall an opportunity when I was driven by one of the ICIPE drivers that refused to drive inside it. He was from the Luo ethnic group, traditional enemies of the Kikuyus. He asked me to leave him at a shop on the main road and I drove, delivered the herdsmen and fetch him for him to drive me back!

 

[1] Ugali, a polenta-like dish-  is the main food in Kenya and other African countries. Maize flour is used and prepared using boiling water to form a semi-solid paste, served with a meat stew and/or vegetables known as relish.

[2] Shamba in East Africa is any field used for growing crops. (https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/shamba)

[3] At the time, a 504 was “the car” to have in Africa and it was commonly known as “Simba” (lion in Ki-Swahili) for its symbol in the front grille.

[4] Known sarcastically among us as “ILRAD 2” comparing it with the International Laboratory for Animal Diseases of those days, a multi-million USD state of the art institute based in Kabete, Kenya.

 

 

 

 

 

Family planning

It was during the already described picnic in the Rift Valley[1] that I first came across the Maasai method of birth control in sheep!

You will recall that when we arrived to the tree we had selected, it was already “booked” by Maasai boy herders and their sheep and goats. We eventually managed to get a tree for our picnic albeit reeking of sheep and goats urine and covered in faecal pellets!

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The occupied trees…

It was during our negotiations with the herders that I noticed that a ram was actively pursuing a ewe that was clearly on heat. After a while the female accepted the male and the ram mounted her. At that time I realized that the latter was wearing a leather apron that -like a reverse chastity belt of medieval times- stayed between its penis and the ewe’s vagina, frustrating the act!

Maasai Birth control picnic tree rd to Narok

Earlier I have pondered on how the Maasai and other pastoralists synchronised their lambing to happen at the right time when the flocks included males and females grazing together. My conclusion was that it was due to the ewes not going on heat until the right time. To see this rather clever contraceptive method gave me another reason for the animals having their lambs at the right time.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/09/30/picnic-in-the-rift-valley/

Pink Bogoria

All the Kenya lakes have their own unique characteristics and attractions. To pick one as “the best” is impossible, at least for me. However, lake Bogoria was one of our all time favourites when it came to a short break. You did not go there to find the Big Five but in search of tranquility and to enjoy the views and bird fauna. It was here that I spotted my first and only three-banded courser (Rhinoptilus cinctus).

Credit John Gerrard Keulemans [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Three-banded coursor

Three-banded courser. Credit John Gerrard Keulemans [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

It was also a special place for another reason. It was my first camping experience in Kenya. It happened over a weekend with Muguga House colleagues Richard and Phillip. Of the outing I recall that we departed on a Saturday to return the following day. We left rather late as Richard had lots of work to do to keep the tsetse parasitoids in his lab going. A late departure meant that we could not enter the park that day and needed to camp outside the gate.

As I had no tent and only a borrowed camp bed, I slept “al fresco” as it was -I was told- a very arid and dry area. I still recall the thousand of honking flamingoes flying overhead throughout the late afternoon and well into the night.

Luckily I woke up with the first raindrops and before getting soaked -together with my bedding- I managed to enter Richard’s car. After a while I realized that it was going to be a tough night. The location of the hand brake made sleeping across the front seats of a packed Toyota Corolla impossible.

I slept in a seated position and the following day I was very tired and with a few aches. Despite my condition, the few hours we spent there were enough to appreciate the beauty of the place and to remember to come back.

Lake Bogoria is a volcanic lake framed by green-blue hills. Its waters are greenish saline (up to 100 g/L total dissolved salts) and alkaline (pH:10.5). It lies in the Kenyan portion of the Rift Valley, south of Lake Baringo and a little south of the equator. It is a rather shallow body of water that is no deeper than 10m of depth. This rather small lake of 34km long by 3.5km wide has been protected since 1973.

NASA's World Wind program copyright 2010

Lake Bogoria from the space. Credit: NASA’s World Wind program copyright 2010

Lake Bogoria’s beauty is already evident at first sight! After climbing one of the several red hills you need to negotiate to get there through the Emsos gate a misty dark green body of water framed by pink startles you at first until you realize that the pink borders are tens of thousands oflesser flamingoes (Phoenicoparrus minor) with a smaller number of greater ones (Phoenicopterus roseus).

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The first view of Lake Bogoria.

While greater flamingoes feed on invertebrates, mollusks and tiny fish, l and insect lesser flamingoes feed primarily on Spirulina algae which grow only in very alkaline lakes. Although blue-green in colour, the algae contain the photosynthetic pigments that give the birds their pink colour. Their deep bill is specialized for filtering tiny food items.

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A view from the eastern shore.

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Moving pink islands.

These birds were part of the largest world population of flamingoes that migrated among several of the Rift Valley lakes such as Natron, Magadi, Nakuru, Elmenteita and Bogoria. For some reason, the latter is one of their preferred stopping places. At the time the flamingoes seemed to commute mainly between Bogoria and Nakuru although their breeding took place mainly on the caustic lake Natron in northern Tanzania.

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Lesser flamingoes.

A few months after my first safari and following my wife’s arrival lake Bogoria was one of the first places we visited once we got our VW kombi and some camping gear. At first we camped at the Acacia campsite on the southwest shore but soon we realized that either camping at the Loburu hotsprings on the western shore or at the Fig tree campsite in the southeast were nicer alternatives.

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Loburu hotsprings with immature lesser flamingoes in the background.

The southern end of the lake is almost separate from the remaining body of water towards the north but for a small channel in the eastern section. It is in this area that large numbers of flamingoes were often spotted. It was a photographer’s paradise and I still remember a friend’s great idea of taking pictures of the birds in full moon only to arrive at the lake when there was a full eclipse!

Although staying near the Loburu hot springs added a few extra degrees l to an already high temperature, the various steam jets and hot water rivulets around camp contributed to make it an interesting and misty place. Although walking among the hot springs was hazardous, it was quite an experience and its water greatly facilitated the needed camping dish washing!

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Hotsprings and flamingoes.

The springs are quite powerful and they create short streams that feed the lake and some had formed cones while others gave raise to small pools, some over two metres deep and very hot as the temperature of the springs varies between 39 and 98.5 °C . Unfortunately, instances of severe burning of campers falling in had occurred by the time we got there!

Our favourite camping ground was the Fig tree camp, a very shady area under a patch of magnificent fig trees that provided the necessary thick shade. The camp was traversed by a clear stream coming down from the Siracho escarpment just above the area. We sometimes drank from it in cases of need as a good friend assured us that it was clean water. It did taste great but a few years later we were in for a surprise: we discovered that higher up in the hills it went through a local village!

We spent many cool nights under the trees but there was one exception that, apart from cool it was “entertaining”. Unknown to us the rather large resident baboon troop had decided to spend the night up the fig trees above us! This had probably happened during earlier stays and it had gone unnoticed. The night in question, at about midnight, all hell broke loose as something seriously scared the baboons, possibly a leopard although we never saw it. We only suffered the consequences.

It seemed that the entire troop was above us! Their fright caused a number of them to violently empty their bowels and bladders. I leave the results of this barrage to your imagination! I will only tell you that the aftermath was a smelly night and lots of washing of our camp, including the car windscreen the following morning! There must have been lots of baboons! After that experience we learnt to sacrifice some shade to avoid a repeat of this situation!

During the earlier visits to lake Bogoria it was still possible to drive all around the lake and we did this a couple of times before the road collapsed. The most memorable of these round the lake tours took place with our friends from Uruguay Nazar and Aurora when we drove north from the Fig tree camp and we could slide the kombi door open to really enjoy the view. The drive was special as it offered great views of greater kudus that used to dwell on the eastern area of the lake where they could browse to their liking.

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Going round the lake would also enable you to see many of the more hidden hot springs as well as the some of the special features such as the Kesubo Swamp to the north. However, the geysers and hot springs along the bank of the lake were, apart from the flamingoes, the most interesting features.

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Kesubo Swamp to the north of the lake.

Unfortunately in recent years the population in the two key east African lakes, Nakuru and Bogoria, have been adversely affected by suspected heavy metal poisoning, while its primary African breeding area in Lake Natron is currently under threat by a proposed soda ash plant. So, despite still being the most numerous species of flamingo, lesser flamingoes are classified as near threatened due to its declining population and the low number of breeding sites, some of which are threatened by human activities.