Safari

Working in the Northern Fontier District

After my FAO Fellowship ended and I joined the ICIPE and my work shifted towards the understanding of the resistance that some cattle have against ticks. Some colleagues there were working on a tick vaccine while I was given the task of exploring the natural resistance that is observed among cattle in the field.

At the time there were reports of animals that were refractory to ticks while the opposite also happened, a few animals in the herd carried most of the ticks and culling them was recommended to reduce tick populations in the long term. We needed tp prove this in Kenya, in an area free of Theileriosis as the work demanded to stop the application of chemicals to kill the ticks.

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Beautiful Boran bull.

After discussions with colleagues and with the agreement of the Government of Kenya’s veterinary authorities it was agreed that we would focused our work on Mutara Ranch in Laikipia District where the Agricultural Development Corporation had the National Boran Stud. They were prepared to let us work on a group of one hundred young bulls to determine their resistance status.

After the trial preparation period we started with the work that lasted for six months. We got a number of interesting results that confirmed the hypothesis that tick distribution in the herd was normally distributed with a few bulls carrying few and lots of ticks while most were somewhere in between.

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Working. From left to right Mark, Henry, Joseph, Bushsnob, Gitau and the other Henry.

So, we decided to compare our list of best ranked bulls for tick resistance with those of the Farm Manager for physical quality and body built. Our best animals for tick resistance did not match those regarded as best by the Manager! Although this was not what we expected and a disappointment as it was clear that selection would take a longer route than anticipated, the geneticists and statisticians unanimously agreed that the consistency of the results merited continuation[1].

We then entered in collaboration discussions with geneticists from Texas’ A&M University in the United States to expand the work and, with them, planned a series of follow-up trials. Unfortunately, the research group dispersed and myself and another of the collaborators departed from Kenya and the work stopped there.

In addition to doing very interesting work, my regular visits to Mutara gave me a great opportunity to explore some areas of the Northern Frontier District, a fascinating area that I mentioned in my previous post. These safaris follow next!

 

[1] Results of the work are published and those of you with a scientific mind can access the publication. See:https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337857245_Towards_the_selection_of_cattle_for_tick_resistance_in_Africa

 

The Northern Frontier District (NFD)

A decision made in 1925 by the British Colonial Office in London turned the NFD of Kenya into a buffer zone, to curb the influence of a southern influx from the horn of Africa of both Muslims from Somalia and Christians from Ethiopia. The buffer zone excluded all European settlements and missionaries.

When Kenya became independent in 1963, the Somali-inhabited areas included in the NFD struggled to unite with the Somali Republic resulting in the detention of its leaders by the Kenya Government. Severe unrest followed known as the “Shifta period”. During this time the area was closed to visitors until the end of the 70’s due to security concerns but, by the time we arrived, it had been open for a couple of years without known incidents.

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Kenya’s agroecological zones showing the predominance of semi-deseric and desertic areas.

The region had a semi-arid and hot desert climate with infrequent rains that vary on a yearly basis. The exception being the extremely fertile southwestern area where the Tana River supplies water to farmers. The NFD was a massive wild area combining small farming communities, huge private ranches, and conservation projects within Samburu and Maasai lands. It extended further north to even wilder lands and deserts with some little known people such as the Turkana and El Molo to name some.

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Samburu manyatta.

This was the country that Wilfred Thesiger trekked while he lived in Kenya [1]. Thesiger, who passed away in 2003, is often referred to as the last of the old-time explorers, having lived a life reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling and Lawrence of Arabia. He lived in Maralal until his final days.

The NFD still offered a real sense of freedom and adventure and the far away northern views of Mount Kenya reminded us that we were far away from home! Wild animals still roamed outside protection areas. Several species of gazelles, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, Somali ostrich and all kinds of predators including hyenas, lions and leopards were still in sizeable numbers and elephants were abundant.

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Ol Olokwe, a dominant feature in the southern part of the NFD.

It is not possible for me to describe all the places that the NFD had to offer to avid visitors like us. We visited a few great places but the privilege of traveling across arid and hot lands inhabited by people that still kept their -for us- amazing traditions while being able to find wild animals anywhere were an irresistible offer.

We had enjoyed visiting the Samburu region protected areas (Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba National Reserves) and enjoyed them as, like Tsavo, these offered a different environment that it was new to us.

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A black-bellied bustard at Samburu.

Luckily, not too long after having visited the NFD I winded down my work at Intona Ranch in the Transmara and started working on the resistance of Boran cattle to ticks at a ranch in Laikipia. This change in the geographic focus enabled us to combine the work with travel in the area.

It was like this that, apart from re-visiting the Samburu region we also traveled to Wamba and the Kerio river valley (see https://bushsnob.com/2019/12/31/spanning-the-kerio-river/) and, later on, organized a safari that included Koobi Fora in the eastern shores of lake Turkana via Maralal, the Chalbi dessert and Marsabit as well as a camel trip along the Milgis River, a beautiful watercourse that winds its way through the Matthew’s Range and the Ndoto mountains.

I will, in the next posts, deal with the places and activities mentioned.

 

[1] Thesiger, W. (1994). My Kenya Days. London: Harper Collins, 224p. He has also written two classic books of travel and exploration, “The Marsh Arabs” and “Arabian Sands,” and a engrossing autobiography, “The Life of My Choice.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spanning the Kerio river

In the lake Baringo area the Kerio, one of the longest rivers in Kenya, coming from the Amasya Hills (on the equator) and west of lake Bogoria, flows towards the north through the fertile Kerio valley between the Tugen Hills and the Elgeyo Escarpment. It continues its way to the north through semi-arid country where it has carved narrow valleys, some very deep. Then, it enters in the southern end of lake Turkana. Together with the Turkwel river it contributes to almost all the river water that flows into lake Turkana.

The information we got was that one of the gorges known as the Cheploch gorge was so narrow that it could have a leg on each side while watching the river gushing through on its way to lake Turkana! We thought that it was a good reason to explore an area we did not yet know.

So, once we were in lake Baringo, we extended our trip and drove about through Marigat and Kabernet to reach the “famous” gorge. Marigat, our first populated area after about 20 km was then a small and dusty town inhabited by people from the Tugen, Njemps and Pokot communities who are mainly pastoralists. We passed it and went on to Kabarnet, 40 km further on where, despite sounding like a wine-producing area, we did not see any vines, unless they used papayas for the brew!

It was in the road from Kabarnet to Iten that the Cheploch gorge was found, just after the village of Ainamoj where the road crossed the river. The river had really carved a very deep gorge, estimated at 70m deep and very narrow, but not narrow enough to span it and even if it would have been, looking down at the river’s strength, I would have declined the offer!

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The gorge at the time of our visit. Looking at the picture today, I thought I could have spanned it!

However, the gorge was indeed amazing and the trip worthwhile as it took us to one of the “secret” areas of Kenya at the time.

While writing this post I learnt that, after our departure, an “industry” had developed by local people not to help you to span the river but of divers offering to jump from the edge of the gorge for a fee!

A rather different seen today!

Although in 2016 the Government stopped this activity after one of the divers died [1], it resumed a while later and it is still taking place as there are videos dated May 2019 that show the jumpers in action as there are visitors that continue to pay to see people risking their lives!

 

[1] See: https://allafrica.com/stories/201601190899.html Accessed 21/11/19.

 

 

 

 

Samburu and Buffalo Springs

Less than one quarter of Kenya can be considered as fertile land, the rest are dry areas ranging from dry bush to straight desert. Apart from the dry and sem-dry areas in the south, the north occupying almost fifty percent of Kenya is arid and with much less human presence when compared with the fertile areas.

It is in these areas that you find a number of pastoralists that keep livestock and, together with them there is wildlife, some of it unique to this area. A number of protected areas were created to keep these animals among which the gerenuk (Litocranius walleri) and the endangered reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata) and Grevy’s zebras (Equus grevyi) are the stars.

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Credit: http://www.kenya-travel.org/kenya-parks-and-reserves-kenya-safaris © copyright All right reserved. Photo Andre Brunsperger.

Although Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves were the most visited, there were others such as Kora, Marsabit and Lake Turkana National Parks (the latter including Sibiloi National Park, Central and South island) and the Shaba National Reserve that we also visited but more on that later.

Whether you passed east (via Embu) or west from Mt. Kenya (via Nyeri) the trip was fascinating. You first will drive through the very fertile areas located in the then Central Province such as Murang’a and then start a climb that will take you through the cold slopes of the mountain from where you will then catch the first glimpse of clear skies. A stop to take in the view was a must but it had to be accompanied by putting on warmer clothes and even a rain-proof jacket for a few minutes while admiring the view as cold drizzling was common there!

The view was breathtaking as the arid scrubland speckled with kojpes extended as far as the eye could see anticipating warmth while you were still freezing. You were looking towards the Northern Frontier District and beyond, many hundreds of kilometres away there will be the borders of Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. The road would then start its downhill way and soon you would remove your added layers of clothing and eventually reach Isiolo.

I always considered Isiolo as the gateway to the north as well as the end of the tarmac. It was not more than a few buildings that included a market, a mosque, a church a bank and a craft training centre. It was the last town of any size to refuel and, if lucky, buy those things that you may have forgotten to pack in Nairobi, now 270 km to the south. At the time we did not require special permits to proceed as the Shifta (rebels) were calm.

From then to the north you would join a very wide, reddish and straight, army-like, road that had bad corrugations, seemingly endless. This road would take you through an area that was home to several northern pastoralist ethnic groups that managed to keep livestock in this harsh environment in particular the Samburu, close relatives of the Maasai.

The Samburu had been drawn to this region by the existence of the Ewaso Ng’iro, northern Kenya’s biggest river, for watering their herds. This large river -for Kenya standards- and its tributaries flow north -through Laikipia- from the Aberdare range and Mount Kenya in the central highlands. The Ewaso Ng’iro then turns east before dropping out onto the sandy plains of the Samburu ecosystem from where it continues through the semi-desert to end in the large and seasonal Lorian swamp.

The wildlife is plentiful here as several species of game congregate in the thick acacia and doum palm (Hyphaene thebaica) forest along the riverbanks to drink and enjoy the shade. With emphasis on the protection of the river, the Samburu (104 km²), Buffalo Springs (131km²) and the less well-known Shaba National Reserves were created.

At Samburu we invariably camped by the Ewaso Ng’iro River, close to the Samburu Game Lodge that was located at a sandy beach in the site where the elephant hunter Arthur Neumann’s [1] camp was located. The lodge was as luxurious as handy for us as we could use its ablutions facilities when returning from our dusty and hot game drives.

The lodge also had a bar overlooking the sandy and shallow river that meandered through where several crocodiles were seen basking under the sun during the day. We used to come for a drink in the evenings and soon understood the relatively close positioning of the crocs, they were fed huge chunks of meat and about a dozen would come to grab them a couple of metres from the patrons. The latter were separated by a wall about one metre high where a sign on our side said “Danger crocodiles” and on the other “Danger people”! A couple of these crocodiles were among the largest I have ever seen and clearly dominated during feeding time.

The lodge hanged a goat carcass at a platform up a large tree, an offering to leopards that unfortunately never made an early appearance as we needed to leave at dusk to get to our camp before nightfall. However, we did hear them often at our camp located quite close from the lodge.

Open bush country dominated most of Samburu but there was a riverine forest made of acacias, figs and doum palms fifty to two hundred metres wide along the river. The river snaked through, often shallow with clear sand banks so that large animals could wade it quite easily while hippos and crocodiles place themselves under riverside overhangs. Elephants often dig wells in the dry riverbed to find water, wells that are shared by other wild animals as well as the Samburu domestic herds in times of drought.

There was a magnificent game drive that meandered along together following the river during which at every turn was a surprise, particularly herds of waterbuck, elephants, reticulated giraffes and other interesting animals not to mention many interesting birds such as Black-capped sociial and chestnut weavers, Golden-breasted starlings, Palm-nut vultures, Red-bellied parrots, Rosy-patched bush-shrikes, Von der Decken’s hornbills and Vulturine guinea fowls to name only a few.

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Vulturine guinea fowl.

It was also not rare to find herds of camels, sometimes intermingled with wild game such as waterbucks, in the fringes of the park!

To get to Buffalo Springs we would drive through the semi-arid area of the park where we would find Beisa oryx, Grant’s gazelles, Dik-diks, Gerenuk, Grevy’s zebra and Reticulated giraffes, the latter often seen necking.

Predators were present but difficult to spot although we found lions rarely and we were lucky to find a Grant’s gazelle killed by a cheetah female and cubs.

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Cheetah family with Grant’s gazelle kill. A lucky find in thick bush.

Buffalo Springs “special” was a natural fresh water pool of crystal clear water where it was a great pleasure to swim to cool off and leave behind some of the dust accumulated during the day.

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Enjoying the pool at Buffalo Springs.

It was a popular place, frequented by lot of visitors and the stream feeding it was very small. It then seemed to us amazing that crocodiles could be found there. However, that was exactly what happened to the young son of a Muguga veterinarian colleague in 1972 that, while walking around the spring, was grabbed by the leg by a -luckily- small crocodile. The fast reaction of the parents that fended off the attacker saved the son that, despite this, needed quite a long treatment in Nairobi to recover from the badly lacerated leg [3].

 

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Henry_Neumann

[2] Unfortunately the formerly natural swimming pool is now closed due to the presence of the occasional crocs and the presence of predators by the waterhole.

[3] See: http://www.crocodile-attack.info/node/5681

 

 

 

 

Aberdares and The Ark

“The nearer to Nyeri the nearer to bliss” remarked Robert Baden-Powell, best known for having started the Boy Scout movement. In 1939 he and his wife Olave moved to a one-room cottage named Paxtu, now a small Scouting museum located on the grounds of the Outspan Hotel. He died two years later and was buried at St Peter’s Cemetery in Nyeri.

At that time the owner of Outspan also owned the Treetops Hotel, approximately 17 km out in the Aberdares Mountains, often visited by Baden-Powell and made famous when Princess Elizabeth became Queen on the night of 5 February 1952 and the renowned hunter Jim Corbett, her bodyguard at the time, wrote the now famous lines in the visitors’ log book: “For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen – God bless her”.

There was another well-known hotel in the Aberdares, the Ark, built literally in the shape of Noah’s Ark, and -like Treetops- beautifully situated overlooking waterholes in the Aberdares National Park.

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The Aberdares National Park is a part of the Aberdares mountains located east of the East African Rift Valley about 100 km north of Nairobi with an altitude of 2-4,000 metres. Established in May 1950, the park covers an area of 766 km2. Nicknamed ‘Scotland with lions’, the park is very rich on mountain peaks that go up to 4000 metres to its deep valleys where crystal clear streams run with numerous waterfalls, moorland, bamboo and rainforests at lower altitudes. The streams run through ranges that are often covered in mist and heaths and they have been seeded with trout.

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Although bongos (Tragelaphus eurycerus) were already a very rare sight, a number of other interesting species made up for this. Leopards -including black ones- were known to occur and lion had been relocated from cattle ranches further north. Elephants and buffalo were common and there were also giant forest hogs and a number of rare antelopes such as the suni (Neotragus moschatus) and the mountain reedbuck (Redunca fulvorufula).

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It was also a great place to see black and white colobus and sykes monkeys, apart from over 250 species of birds and it was common to spot black Augur buzzards as melanism was a feature of the park and we were very fortunate to see a black serval cat walking on the road in front of us.

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Black Serval.

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Melanistic form of Augur buzzard.

We usually camped at the park’s public campsites. These were frequently visited by very tame bushbucks that, interestingly for me at the time, carried heavy tick loads on their ears.

bbuck Aberdares copySome of the falls offered an opportunity of a refreshing shower that Mabel took often although I did not as the water was truly freezing for me!

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Towards the end of our stay we decided to try one of the lodges, either fame and character at Treetops or the more luxurious Ark. Because of availability we went for a weekend at the Ark. We booked a special -read cheap- package to stay two nights during the low season when more rainfall meant more water available and the game was less dependent on the artificially fed waterholes and saltlicks of the Ark.

The lodge was built in 1969 and many “famous” guests have stayed there: President Tito, Geraldine Chaplin, Peter Scott and Hugh Hefner to name a few. It also had it share of royalty as Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands and the Danish royal family.

We got to the Aberdares Country Club mid afternoon after driving from Nairobi. Although we spent a rather short time in it, we realized that it was worth of a proper visit and we did return later to enjoy its manicured lawns and gardens and to look at Rena Fennessy’s bird pictures [1].

After about an hour we were taken to the Ark by minibus and we arrived after 18 km driven through beautiful forest until we went through the Ark’s gate to enter the park. A short distance later we were left at the entrance of the hotel, a wooden walkway that brings you to the Ark.

It was a while before dinner so we settled in our room, small but comfortable. It had a system of communication through which you could be warned if something interesting arrived at the waterhole after you had gone to bed so you could decide whether to get up to go and watch or not.

After settling in it was time to explore the lodge. There were a number of areas where you could watch the water holes -at that time almost empty of interesting game- and we chose what we thought was the nicest to return later. It was a large window that allowed unimpeded views of the swamp and, those who so desired could also go outside to enjoy the view from a balcony.

While we explored the Ark we immediately realized that the stay was going to be memorable, but for the wrong reasons, a large school party had decided to fill lots of the lodge’s sixty rooms!

So, we had our dinner surrounded by children while the teachers and parents made frantic efforts to keep things under control but failing to do so, at least to my taste! I was quite upset thinking that I had paid good money to enjoy the place one time and found it full of kids, particularly when silence is critical in this kind of places that are in fact large and glorified game hides!

After dinner we marched to our chosen window onto wilderness only to find the room packed with kids shouting the names of the few animals that ventured out of the forest and into a very noisy water hole. Clearly only the desperately thirsty showed up!

We were a few adults in the lodge wishing to see special animals and all we could do was to exchange resigned looks with each other as the situation was hopeless! If we had any expectations that the children would go to bed early, they soon dissipated as they had come to enjoy the place their own way and were determined to stay awake to the bitter end!

As expected, we did not see much coming to the water that night and the next apart from some elephants and a few antelope that were always hanging about the water edge. We also realized that there was no point in complaining to the teachers as there was not their fault but that of the hotel managers that should not have mixed a large school party with a few paying adults.

As soon as we got back to Nairobi I went straight to the booking office of the Ark and, after presenting my case in rather strong terms, I was given a full refund for our stay. However, this did not really compensate for what we had anticipated to be a memorable stay and ended up being a disappointment. We did not return.

 

[1] Rena Fennessy created art for most of the post independent East African countries for about 25 years. She also drew birds and animals for field guides while creating her own artwork of East African wildlife and scenery. No much information is available about her. She lived in Nairobi and was possibly British.

 

Pythons and social life

We first met Jim and Silvana during our first trip to Magadi [1] where they were part of the ILRAD [2] group that invited us. After that I visited him frequently at ILRAD as he was always ready to receive me and to talk. He always gave me sound advice during my early career days for what I am grateful.

Our friendship grew and at some stage he invited us to his birthday party at his house in ILRAD. The latter had a beautiful campus, similar to that of some American universities and the houses were scattered in it but not too far from each other. As Jim and Silvana were a popular couple, the party was attended by lots of people, most of them unknown to us at the time.

It was midnight and the party was at its best, dancing away to good and loud music. Suddenly, I noted some interruption to the dancing and I spotted a gentleman, cladded in pajamas that was walking fast towards the music source and, without saying anything, it lowered its volume almost to make it inaudible. After this, he turned around and walked out the same way he had come muttering something like “I need my sleep”!

The dancing stopped not only because we were feeling surprised and amused but also because the music had died! Jim reacted immediately and, totally unconcerned, he went back to the music player and raised the volume to the maximum -louder than before- and asked us to continue dancing. There were no more interruptions and we had a great party!

The “intruder” was, as expected, one of Jim’s neighbours, an administrative manager, to who our friends -as it was customary at ILRAD- had informed about the party and even invite, together with his wife! It took a few months for the relationship to improve to the levels prior to the party!

Jim and I shared a liking for snakes, a taste that our wives did not share. He wished to keep a pet python but it was difficult to get one as there were no pet shops. We then decided that we needed to go on a “snake-catching safari” sometime, knowing full well that snakes are very elusive animals and that the chances of finding one while actually looking for it was almost zero! So, the snake-catching safari become something like a running joke between us.

One day, when Silvana was in Italy visiting her family we decided that we had waited long enough for the outing and a Sunday morning we departed for the lake Naivasha area. Mabel joined us, despite her strong dislike of snakes of any kind. We decided to walk around the lake and focus our search by following a dry river bed that headed for the Hell’s Gate area.

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A view of the area we chose for our snake catching safari.

After enjoying the walk for about two hours we stopped for lunch. While eating we discussed our plans for the afternoon and decided to continue walking for a while longer and keep checking near some small water pools where we reasoned that a thirsty snake would come to drink! Although Jim was equipped to catch a snake, it was all rather light-hearted.

We arrived to an area where the river had carved a deep ravine that offered some shade and, suddenly I saw Jim running while shouting “there is a snake there!” We followed him and then saw a shinny and small snake resting in a wet part of the ravine. Jim was on it immediately and caught it with his tongs.

Truly unbelievably Jim had found the python! Admittedly it was a very small one but it was a recently moulted African rock python (Python sebae). Jim was extremely pleased while I helped him to bag it. The snake was accommodated in a large terrarium and well looked after as Jim cherished the snake!

He kept the python several years while it grew in size and I often included looking at the snake during my visits to ILRAD. After a while he needed to increase the size of the terrarium and, eventually, the snake grew to such a size that it required to be transported to an empty room in one of the laboratories where it became a great attraction until it was donated, I believe, to the Kenya Museum snake display!

Apart from catching a snake, we continue socializing together and it was with Jim and Silvana that a rather forgettable incident where I exceeded my alcohol tolerance limit took place, although there were attenuating circumstances…

It happened after a long and tiring return trip driving all the way from Intona Ranch with my boss Matt during which we got badly delayed by torrential rain at the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. Eventually, with Matt walking through the mud and water in front of the car guiding me through we managed to negotiate the worst patches of the road and eventually got back to Nairobi although later than planned.

Because of the delay, we were forced to come straight to a reception organized by a chemical company to welcome another Paul, their Technical Director from their “mother” company in the UK. Later on, he would become the Director of ICIPE’s Tick Programme and, therefore, my boss!

The company was an important player regarding ticks and tick-borne diseases so Matt considered essential to attend so we did, straight from the bush! I can still hear him chooek-chooeking around in his water-saturated shoes while walking around meeting people, as usual without a care in the world, wearing his usual green cardigan and laughing!

I was very thirsty and needed a drink so I picked a glass of a cocktail offered to me, sweet and refreshing. I repeated the dose a couple of times more. Less than an hour later I noted a slight weakness in the knees that, at first I attributed to the long drive. However, the situation got worse and realized that the nice drink was a bit of an alcoholic time bomb so I stopped and went for water (what I should have done from the start). Although I was not a teetotaler, I normally did not (and still do not) drink much alcohol. However, after such a long and waterless drive I was very thirsty.

Luckily, before too long, Mabel came to collect me with clean clothes to go for the next social activity that I had totally forgotten. We had arranged to go for dinner to the “El Patio” restaurant with Jim and Silvana. This was a Spanish-style restaurant that we all liked.

Although my situation had not improved, we drove to the restaurant and, we ordered paella for four with some Spanish wine that I did not touch, staying with water.

I am not sure if it was the sight and smell of the Paella or the heat inside the restaurant or a combination of both that tilted the balance against my alcohol metabolism and I started feeling increasingly worse so, without touching my food, I decided to leave the table and go out seeking fresh air and that was a mistake as -apparently- oxygen increases your blood alcohol levels and makes you drunk!

I now felt really bad and needed to find a secluded spot in the garden to be sick and then, my condition improved, sat in the car to wait for Mabel.

I insisted that I could drive despite the protestations of my wife. However, when I was unable to reverse the kombi from the parking place, I conceded defeat, moved to the passenger seat and allowed myself to be driven the long way to Tigoni by her. Apparently during the whole journey I moaned and groaned until at some stage I passed out and, frankly do not remember if I slept in the car or I managed to walk into the house!

Afterwards, the “El Patio safari” replaced the “snake catching safari” as our running joke!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/09/10/lake-magadi/

[2] International Laboratory for Research in Animal Diseases (today International Livestock Research Institute).

Tsavo National Park

Background

After a while being in Kenya we decided to explore the Tsavo National Park. Eventually, after the first rushed trip that gave us a feel for the area, we returned to both Tsavo East and West in several opportunities.

The journey to either of the two park sections was very picturesque as the Mombasa road follows the Athi river with the Yatta plateau, the world’s longest lava flow (290km) that runs along the road and also forms the western boundary of the park. On clear days Kilimanjaro could be seen towards the southwest and then the Chyullu hills (to which I will return later on when dealing with Tsavo West) will make an appearance on the right.

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Kilimanjaro from the distance on a clear afternoon.

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The amazing Chyullu hills with its hundreds of small volcanoes.

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Giraffes by the Mombasa road.

Tsavo National Park was gazetted as a wildlife reserve by the Kenya colonial government in 1949 despite not being the best wildlife area in Kenya but by virtue of being an area of arid scrub too dry for agriculture and, being infested by tsetse flies -vector of trypanosomiasis- also unsuitable for livestock and, largely without human habitation.

David Sheldrick became its first Warden and, apart from dealing with the problem of armed poachers, he developed the original infrastructure of the park while studying the elephants’ behaviour and food needs, and, with his wife, Daphne, rescuing and hand-rearing vulnerable elephants, rhinos and antelopes. After his premature death Daphne established the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in his memory that runs the well-known Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi.

The park occupies 22,812 km² of the 41,000 km² of the original Tsavo ecosystem, 13,747 km² and 9,065 km² for the East and West sections respectively [1]. At its inception it was rich in wild animals with about 45,000 elephants and 8,000 black rhinos. Regrettably, after its creation, pressure from the climate and the surrounding human population interfered with elephant movement and brought about a gradual loss of the woodlands due to the high numbers of elephants and the area was transformed into grasslands, good for other species but less so for browsers like rhino and elephants.

The deeper the white man went into Africa, the faster the life flowed out of it, off the plains and out of the bush…vanishing in acres of trophies and hides and carcasses” wrote Peter Beard in his now classic book “The End Game” that highlighted the Tsavo crisis and that anyone interested in nature should look at and read [1].

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Examining elephant bones with Luis.

So, a severe collapse of the elephant and rhino population followed, particularly the black rhinos. By the time we started going to Tsavo the black rhino had already banished. There were rumours that some had sought refuge in the most remote areas of the park but we never saw any.

I will deal with the two parts of the park separately (starting with Tsavo East) as they both offer their own interesting features.

Tsavo East National Park

Usually we entered the park at the Manyani Gate and travelled through it on our way to the beaches in the Indian Ocean. Sometimes we stayed at the National Parks’ accommodation at the Aruba dam when we were late to complete the traversing of the long distance inside the park.

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A stop for Luis to photograph an interesting bird.

Before you reached the Manyani Gate we travelled through the territory where once the man eaters of Tsavo ruled. Two lions stopped the construction of the railway in the Tsavo River for nine months and killed more than a hundred workers since March 1898. “The Man-eaters of Tsavo” written by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, who was in charge of the work and shot them, is a fascinating read! [2]

In his book Patterson wrote: “. …Two most voracious and insatiable man-eating lions appeared upon the scene, and for over nine months waged an intermittent warfare against the railway and all those connected with it in the vicinity of Tsavo. This culminated in a perfect reign of terror in December 1898, when they actually succeeded in bringing the railway works to a complete standstill for about three weeks… Their methods then became so uncanny, and their man-stalking so well-timed and so certain of success, that the workmen firmly believed that they were not real animals at all, but devils in lions’ shape…”

We came face to face with some of the man-eaters but they presented no danger to us as they had been stuffed with straw for years at the entrance of the Muthaiga Country Club in Nairobi.

Before arriving to the Manyani Gate we usually stopped for re-fueling at the Man-eaters’ Motel stop where there was a memorial that commemorated the event. It was precisely there that I had my life-threatening encounter, not with a man-eater lion, but with a huge baboon that snatched my packet of crisps! [3].

Once you turned at the Manyani Gate the road was rather monotonous until you arrived at the Galana river where we usually stopped to look at the Lugard falls where the river passes through volcanic rock, carving a narrow path that had created a series of rapids and falls as the water flows faster. It was named after Frederick Lugard [4], who passed this place on his way to Uganda.

Most of the times we continued following the river towards the coast (a more interesting drive than the usual way via the Mombasa road) but, a couple of times we deviated south towards the Aruba dam, built in 1952 across the Voi River, a reservoir created to provide water to the game and birds. There we spent a few nights during which we found it difficult to sleep because of the noise the elephants made while coming to drink.

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Early group travellers from Germany.

Tsavo East is a good place to see fringed-eared oryx grazing on the open plains. The very shy lesser kudu could also be spotted during the early morning when they were away from the thicket. Rarer still was the finding of the long-necked gerenuk standing on its hind-legs to reach the sparse foliage of trees and bushes in the arid environment.

Although there were still elephants at the time of our visits, they were “diluted” because of the size of the park. For the same reason lions were also difficult to bump into. However, when you did you were in for a surprise as the males were maneless [5] and probably its ancestors were of the man-eating variety!

The “baldness” in these lions is attributed to an adaptation to the thorny vegetation in the park as their hair could interfere with their hunting. As their colleagues in Tsavo West that live in a similar environment have normal manes, I personally believe that their baldness, as in humans, is due to high levels of testosterone that may also explain its aggressive reputation.

 

[1] As a comparison, the Kruger National Park has an area of 19,485 km².

[2] Lt Col. J. H. Patterson in Chapter II of his classic book “The Man-eaters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures”, published by MacMillan and Co. Limited, London in 1919. If you are lazy, you can ruin a good read and watch the 1996 Hollywood-style movie “The Ghost and the Darkness” (Paramount) with Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas.

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2016/06/07/mean-kin/

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Lugard,_1st_Baron_Lugard#Exploration_of_East_Africa

[5] See: https://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/hay-leonas-con-melena-521461839096

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond our means

Our son and girlfriend gave us a totally unexpected and amazing present: two nights at the Victoria Falls Hotel, an unheard of luxury for our usual camping standards! So, before continuing to camp at Hwange National Park we took the “colonial plunge”. However, we had a small problem: as the booking was a surprise, we were not prepared to face such serious and traditional establishment!

Our start could not have been more promising as the Head Concierge (Duly Chitimbire) received us as VIPs by the main entrance and then everything worked out very smoothly until we were comfortably settled in our room, located a few steps from the Larry Norton Gallery on the ground floor. We had visited the place to commemorate the birth of our son in 1991, a few years after David Livingstone found Mosi-oa-Tunya (smoke that thunders) in 1855 and stayed in that same area of the hotel.

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The VIP reception.

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Entrance to the Larry Norton gallery.

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The stairway to the upper floor.

After leaving our belongings we started to explore this real museum of Zimbabwe colonial history. We took advantage to visit the various public rooms as staying guests, unlike previous recent visits that we were outside visitors. We admired the main Palm lounge with its incredible dried plant display and the adjoining Bulawayo lounge with its show of historical artefacts and Punch caricatures of important colonial personalities including Cecil Rhodes and Frederick C. Selous, all presided by a painting of King Lobengula above the fireplace.

Our plans to enjoy the opulent seven-course degustation menu and dancing to a live band at the Edwardian-style Livingstone Room (voted the seventh finest Restaurant in the World by The Daily Meal in 2013) were immediately dashed when we read the notice on the door saying “Strictly no safari wear, shorts, sandals or sneakers.” A very quick mental inventory of our luggage (geared for camping) confirmed our poor preparation on this department and saved us some money!

This restaurant is a reminder of the hotel’s glorious past that started in 1904 when it was opened to take care of the personnel of the railways when they arrived at Victoria Falls. At that stage it was a 16-room wood and corrugated iron roof building that has now increased tenfold. Interestingly, steam for the laundry was produced from the boiler of a scrapped locomotive![1]

After WWII a Royal visit took place in 1947 and the party took over the entire hotel, which was not as large as today. At that time the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) started a mail and passenger service from Southampton to the Vaal dam near Johannesburg in South Africa with Solent S45 class flying boats. These great hydroplanes flew at 338 km per hour at low altitude stopping in Sicily, Luxor, Kampala and Victoria Falls [2].

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Details of the Solent planes.

The twice-weekly flights offered an innovative way of traveling and the visitors would land upstream from the falls to spend time at the hotel in a stop that became known as the “Jungle Junction”, hence the name of one of the hotel’s restaurants.

Exploring the garden and admiring the view of the falls and the bridge spanning Zambia and Zimbabwe, located where Rhodes wished so that the falls’ spray would wet the train carriages, took a lot of our time. The humongous mango trees offer abundant shade to the guests and the bushsnob took advantage of the latter to perform his siestas, surrounded by an international crowd!

Although the famous baobab known as the Big Tree is found at Victoria Falls, its hotel colleagues failed to impress the bushsnob.

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Baobab dwarfed by the bushsnob.

However, the large and solitary msasa tree [3] (Brachystegia spiciformis), usually part of the Miombo woodland, estimated to be 200 years old appears as a very impressive frame to the magnificent view of the falls area from the hotel lawn, usually visited by monkeys and warthogs as well as Hadada ibises.

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Flags at half-mast at the entrance due to the death of former president Robert Mugabe.

Before visiting the falls, we extended our walk to the hotel’s surrounding area including the Victoria Falls railway station located nearby in the hope of seeing some of the steam trains that are still functioning. As the tracks are easily accessible, we hoped to flatten a few coins by placing them on the rails. We were unlucky as the next train was expected late in the evening when we had a dinner appointment at a traditional restaurant.

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However, a walk revealed a couple of steam engines and old carriages being restored for future use.

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Unfortunately during the walk the bushsnob lost the soles of both walking shoes and this jeopardized the plans of a visit to the falls.

 

The last hope of reaching them was boarding the 1920’s hand-worked rail trolley service that replaced rickshaw rides! Unfortunately, we suffer another blow as it has been out of action since December 1957!

So, we had no other consolation than to join the other guests at the lovely Stanley’s Terrace and order high tea following the British tradition stretching back to the mid-1700s. [4] Luckily, despite its strictly formal beginnings, the affair at the hotel allowed guests dressed for safari and even sole-less! We enjoyed a range of savoury and sweet treats with an excellent Zimbabwean tea served on fine silverware, bone china, and vintage cutlery and crockery whilst relaxing looking forward to our camping experience at Hwange National Park, our familiar treat!

 

[1] It stopped functioning only in 1996!

[2] See: https://www.tothevictoriafalls.com/vfpages/tourism/flyingboats.html

[3] In Shona language.

[4] This is an afternoon meal, usually served between 15-16hs. and served at the dining room table contrary to the ‘afternoon tea’, served in comfort while the guests are on chairs or sofas.

Boswell’s genes

Three years back I wrote a post about a really iconic elephant in Mana Pools known as Boswell [1]. At the time I mentioned its ability to reach heights that other elephants (and even giraffes if they would exist in Mana Pools) cannot by stretching and standing on its hind legs. I showed a rather bad set of pictures that I took on an island in the middle of the Zambezi river and regretted that the animal did not “perform” closer to us.

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Undoubtedly Boswell is the best known of Mana Pools’ elephants and it one of the classic sights of the park.

My brother Agustín and his wife Gloria had visited us in Zimbabwe in the late 90s and, to our delight, they decided to come back this year. As we had taken them to Hwange National Park and Victoria Falls in their previous visit, we decided this time to visit Mana Pools for game viewing and Kariba to attempt to fish for vundu.

In the previous visit we failed to find any lions at Hwange despite our great efforts so one of the goals at Mana was to find wild lions. Fortunately we achieved this goal and spent sometime watching them. As lions are normally sleeping and these were not the exception, we soon decided to move on and return later to see if they decide to be more active.

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Luckily, after a while in the distance we saw the unmistakable shape of Boswell and we noted that it was slowly walking towards the river and we happened to be on its path. We placed the vehicle in a discrete spot not to interfere and waited for its arrival. Luckily we were alone! Boswell was accompanied by a few more elephants, two adult but younger males, a couple of females with babies and a young male.

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Boswell.

Mana Pools was extremely dry as last year’s rains had largely failed so there was little greenery apart from the large trees. Further, the preferred food for the Mana elephants, the pods of the Apple-ring acacia (Faidherbia albida), we not yet mature so we were curious to see what would Boswell do.

As usual the very relaxed group came really close and when they were under a Sausage tree (Kigelia africana) Boswell started to lift its trunk clearly sizing it up.  Clearly satisfied with what it saw it started to stretch, arched its back and it was on its hind legs trying to secure a good grip on a branch! I desperately grabbed the camera and shot while it remained standing. After sometime we heard a mighty crack and down the elephant came with a huge piece of the tree!

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Boswell starting eating the large branch while keeping the young males away by a combination of aggressive gestures, vocalisations and, with the too daring, pushing and shoving and some trumpeting as well. It did not liked to be disturbed during its meal! Conversely, he did allow the young females some bites and did not mind if the youngster came really close to him to feed, the latter often getting between its legs!

After a while, although there was still greenery left on the branch, it moved on leaving part of its bounty behind and, while it started to find another arboreal victim, the followers got busy finishing the spoils.

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The event was repeated a couple of times slightly further from us and trickier to photograph. As the group continued its placid sojourn towards the water we moved off, very pleased with our luck and trying to explain this to our visitors.

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Perhaps we had driven five km when we found another elephant, much smaller, also feeding. We then watched in disbelief when it also stretched and stood only on its hind legs! We made a comment to a safari car that was watching the action with us and the driver told us that this particular elephant was known as Harry! We were really lucky and elephants was the conversation at camp that night, despite the visits by vervets, baboons and hyenas!

The following morning, following the tip of a kind tour driver we found a large group of lions at a dry river bed and, after watching them for a while, we continued our game drive. While commenting on the very few greater kudu that we had seen we spotted an elephant standing on two legs. As we saw it from its back we thought it was Boswell again as we could see a radio collar. In fact it was a much smaller male that clearly knew how to look for the tender leaves of the Mana Pools’ trees!

The final act in this saga was yet to unfold when we were about to end the game drive and go back to camp for a well deserved branch. A dust cloud called our attention and we saw two elephant bulls clearly settling some kind of dispute. After a while we saw that one of the contenders gave up and moved off at a speed.

The “victor” stayed put and after a few minutes it decided to look for some food. It was at that time that we saw it well and the large notch on its left ear identified it as “Big V”, another of Mana’s “specials” that we have seen stretching to bet acacia pods before[2].

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So it was Big V that delivered the final act when it also decided to go for some juicy branch and, lo and behold, before we knew it it was also standing on its hind legs!

We were now really impressed with the Mana Pools elephants and agreed that we have had our quota of elephant stretching while we can happily confirm that Boswell has been able to pass its genes to its heirs that will keep future visitors to Mana Pools amazed at their feeding habits!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2016/08/17/boswell/

[2]: See: https://bushsnob.com/2016/08/31/big-v/

Too close!

During our recent visit to Mana Pools National Park we saw a Yellow-billed stork (Mycteria ibis) feeding in one of the pools that give the name to the park. This was nothing strange as we often see these birds in that pool.

What was unusual was that the stork was feeding very close to a semi-submerged crocodile of a size that could have gone for it!

What else can I add? My immediate thought was that the stork meat must be so bad tasting that this is its best defence!