travel

Tick hunting

Our tick (and later tick-borne disease) studies took us to different places of south-western Ethiopia “officially”, so we took advantage of these trips to get to know the area we were living. In our selected sites (Arjo, Bedele, Metu, Gambela and Fincha’a) the project had purchased some cattle from the local farmers, and they were keeping them for us to assess tick numbers at monthly intervals.

Fincha’a was located 295km north of Bedele, after driving through Arjo. This was a long drive that we did a couple of times. At 2300m Fincha’a was a rather cold and also damp place.

Working at damp Fincha’a.

The latter was probably explained by the existence of a dam that, for a while after its inauguration in 1973, was the largest hydro-electric project in the country. The visit I recall took place during the rains and it rained all the time we were there! This did not help our work nor our potential sightseeing!

A shy boy under a reed “raincoat”.

Despite the bad weather, along the road leading to the town we started seeing tall structures built with very long wooden poles and erected by the side of the road. On the top they had a little house and we were very puzzled by them, guessing that they had some religious significance but unsure of their real meaning.

The structures near Fincha’a.

We got to Fincha’a under rain and, while we checked in our rather basic hotel, my colleagues went to arrange for the tick work to be carried out the following day. The hotel was a basic affair to put it mildly with walls that enabled the sounds from the three rooms on each side of us to be heard! However, aware that that was the best hotel (and probably the only one?), we decided to make the best of it.

The hotel did not offer dinner so that we had to venture on the street to find an eating place and we ended up at a small restaurant where we were the only customers! Luckily it was a really warm place both because of the welcome we got from the family that owned it and thanks to the cooking that was taking place inside. Soon, after chasing the chickens away from the room, we joined in the kitchen activities and learnt a few things.

Mabel trying their hand at cooking under supervision.
Dinner arrived.
Mabel grinding the coffee after dinner.

Apart from food-related information, the lady informed us that the tall wooden structures we had seen were erected by local hunters that would travel east towards the Nile to hunt and, on return, they would build these “shrines” where the buffalo skulls would be placed on display to show their ability. I haste to add that I have not been able to confirm this information beyond what I was told at Fincha’a.

We ate hot (both temperature and taste) local food and had a reasonable night sleep. The following morning, we did our work under rain (not a very pleasant activity as the water runs down your back…) and we were soon on our way back to Bedele, looking forward to our warm and dry bungalow.

We also often travelled East, following the B50 road that, at the time, I did not know it had a name! After about 115km from Bedele we arrived at Metu where we did not stop until we discovered that there were some Cuban doctors working at the Metu hospital.

Passing through Metu.
Spices at Metu market.
Assorted goodies.

They were part of the well-known contingent of doctors from the island that are found in many places in Africa, often in areas that no one else wishes to be! We learnt that among them many specialities were covered and this boosted our confidence in case of a health problem as the facilities that existed in Bedele were rather limited. Luckily, we only visited them socially and we did not need their services.

Their presence was clearly justified judging by the number of people suffering from serious diseases that we found on the road. Apart from the blind being led by holding sticks by young relatives, many young boys and girls showed cases of tinea (ringworm) and scabies. These were mostly treated with Gentian violet with the consequence of lots of purple-stained heads around! Goitre was rather common and even severe cases of elephantiasis could also be seen.

Following the road to the south-east we would come to Gore, a larger town that became known as it was the capital of Ethiopia for a short while. It happened during the Italo-Ethiopian war fought between 1935-1937. In 1935, the Italians attacked from their colonies of Eritrea and Somalia without declaring the war. After conquering Aduwa, they seized Aksum [1] and then moved on Addis forcing Emperor Haile Selassie to leave the country (taking the gold of the Ethiopian Central Bank with him!).

Before leaving he ordered that the capital of Ethiopia to be moved to Gore and appointed his cousin Ras Imru Haile Selassie as Prince Regent during his absence. The latter fell back to Gore to reorganise and continue to resist the Italians but his efforts were fruitless and Gore was occupied at the end of 1936. Ras Imru, with his forces trapped between the Italians and the Sudan border surrendered and he was flown to Italy and imprisoned on the Island of Ponza. So that was Gore’s claim to fame although the town did not have much to show for its history.

Leaving Gore behind, we would drive another 150km west on a wide, dusty and mostly downhill road full of curves following the course of the Baro river towards the Sudan border. The road offered magnificent scenery where we often stopped to stretch our legs and have a look a the rather clean waters of the river.

The heavy relief lorry traffic aiming for the refugee camps in the border with Sudan did not help our progress. Going towards the refugee camps in the Gambela area loaded, they would come back with the trailers “piggy-backed” on the same tracks, the first time I saw this really clever saving technique.

Eventually, full of dust and rather edgy with the road and its traffic, after crossing a large bridge over the Baro river, we would arrive to the town of Gambela, a completely different seen when compared with where we were coming from as Gambela, at 526m was a tropical area, particularly when arriving from Bedele located at almost four times that height!

The bridge over the Baro river in Gambela. Credit: T U R K A I R O / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Gambela, located at the confluence of the Baro river and its tributary the Jajjabe was founded because of its location on the Baro river, a tributary of the Nile, which was seen by both the British and Ethiopia as an excellent highway for exporting coffee and other goods from the fertile Ethiopian Highlands to Sudan and Egypt.

Already while crossing the river it was apparent that everything was different but most of all the people that inhabited the area. Although there were some from the highlands, most of them as a result of the ruthless resettlement schemes, this was the territory of the Anuak and the Nuer, people that we had not seen before in the country.

The Anuak belong to the Luo Nilotic ethnic group. They are primarily found in villages situated along the banks and rivers of southeastern South Sudan as well as southwestern Ethiopia, especially the Gambela Region. Group members number between 250,000 and 300,000 people worldwide, many of them following Christianity. The Anuak are an agricultural people, although most families keep some livestock. They are keen on fishing and they set up temporary fishing villages in times of fish abundance.

Anuak fishing in the Baro river.

The Nuer are also of Nilotic origin and inhabit a similar area than the Anuak. Their language belongs to the Nilotic language family and they are closely related to the better known Dinka ethnic group. They are pastoralists who herd cattle and the cattle define their way of living.

Both races are very tall [2] and we often watched them in amazement playing basketball at night (too hot during the day) in the local open courts in Gambela thinking that they would be sought after by the National Basketball Association (NBA) and not knowing that they had done so. Manute Bol, a Dinka of 2.30m (one of the tallest players in the history of the NBA), had been playing for the Washington Bullets since 1985!

About to start working. The picture shows a rather tall gentleman on the right!

The Nuer receive facial markings (called “gaar”) as part of their initiation into adulthood. These consist of scarification that varies within their subgroups, the most common among men being six parallel horizontal lines cut across the forehead although dotted patterns are also common. The scarifications helped me to distinguish people from the two groups and enabled me to greet them properly in their language, “male” to the Anuak and “derejote” to the Nuer.

I will come back with more experiences from Gambela in future posts.

[1] Italian soldiers found one of the Axum obelisks (stelae) (King Ezana’s) fallen and broken in three sections, one of about fifty obelisks in the city of Axum at the time of the discovery. In 1937, it was taken as war booty and moved to Italy after being cut into five pieces and transported by truck to Massawa from where it was shipped to Naples. It was then taken to Rome, where it was restored and erected in front of the Ministry of Italian Africa (later the headquarters of the FAO) where I saw it (pic is already in Media and I found it looking for Rome). It was eventually returned to Ethiopia in 2005.

[2] See: Chali, D. (1995).  Anthropometric measurements of the Nilotic tribes in a refugee camp. Ethiopian Medical Journal 33: 211-7. Among other things, the study concludes that “…The mean height of Dinka men (176.4 +/- 9 cm) and Nuer men (175.7 +/- 9 cm) were significantly higher than that of Anuak men (171.7 +/- 8 cm) and Shilluk men (172.6 +/- 6.1 cm). This study confirms that the Nilotics in Southern Sudan have slender bodies and are amongst the tallest in the world and may attain greater height if privileged with favourable environmental conditions during early childhood and adolescence, allowing full expression of the genetic material…”

We travel to Addis

After a while of being in Bedele and, once the work had progressed sufficiently well, it was time to return to Addis to deal with a number of personal as well as work issues. This trip was repeated a few times over the couple of years we were in Ethiopia, an average of once a month so, probably we visited it about twenty times and we got to know the road quite well.

As I already mentioned, travel was a slow affair that required great care because of the abundant pedestrians you would meet all over. It was a day trip to get there and we would then install ourselves at the Harambe Hotel, quite an experience. The hotel was a rather basic eight-floor cement and glass building [1]. I tried to check how it was today but I could not find a web site for the hotel. It does appear in Tripadvisor though but what it says there is not too good. It has only one review: “Terrible”!

Clearly, today we would not stay there but at the time, being the base for the “Bedele people”, compelled us to accept the system that was in place and we decided that we were able to survive there, a decision we questioned every time we visited it!

It would be unfair to dwell only on the problems as the hotel had a few good points. The absence of communication facilities between Addis and Bedele meant that we always arrived without a booking but we always found a room. Whether this meant that we were given some kind of priority treatment or that the hotel was half-full most of the time I will never know.

Being the base of the people from Bedele meant that all messages would be delivered to us there. It was also well sited and it became the fourth angle of my work square, the UNDP and FAO offices and the Ministry of Agriculture being the other three.

In addition, it had the advantage of being within walking distance from the few shops that offered the food we needed and, immediately after our first arrival, a young boy (with a small stick) appointed himself (or it was placed by the hotel) as our “beggar-chaser” and waited for us to come out to walked with us all over the place [2].

Entering the hotel the dampness and the smell of carpets in need of a good cleaning hit you hard but, luckily, you adjusted to this rather fast. The receptionists were nice and the situation improved once we became known and we even got access to fridge and freezer to store our food, after some protracted negotiations.

Several times we rejected rooms because of various reasons such as strong urine or damp stench, doors that did not lock or lumpy mattresses. At first, we rejected a couple because of the cockroaches but soon we discover that they were part of the hotel perquisites and that a certain population level was to be expected.

However, there were some rooms that were truly cockroach breeding grounds and these became Mabel’s worst nightmares. I recall it vividly getting up at night, turning on the lights of the bathroom and seeing hundreds of them rushing back to their hideouts! Soon, after uselessly trying to find a cockroach-free room, we made a list of our “liveable” ones and we requested these at the reception. This was an important breakthrough!

The breakfast was another sad affair, served on the rather dark and stinky first floor restaurant with a very poor service and rather plain food. For this reason, we made the point of -as far as possible- not having luch or dinner at the hotel. In this way, provided that we kept the midnight curfew in mind, we got to know a few places to eat out.

“Why did you keep coming back to it?” you may ask yourselves and I could not really give you an answer as we often ask the question ourselves! However, we kept coming back and it added more experience to our lives.

Work in Addis meant various kinds of meetings that, at least, were not equally monotonous. Those with UNDP meant constant defensive statements while the ones with FAO, naturally, were more helpful. The Director of the Veterinary Services was a tough cookie, arrogant and authoritarian and neither the Director of the Bedele Laboratory (an extremely kind and nice man) nor myself (or both combined) could do much to score points with him.

However, the really difficult meetings were those that took place every six months, the tripartite ones. As the name indicates, these involved the donor (UNDP), the implementing agancy (FAO) and the recipient government. The only advantages of these was that they brought the Veterinary Department closer to FAO to defend us against the incisive questions of the donor. Luckily, we survived these meetings and the funding was maintained as originally planned.

On the first journey, apart from work problem solving and getting food, we needed to get a 220v to 110v transformer for our printer as I had bought it from the US without realizing its voltage. We were pointed out to the Merkato as our best option and on a Saturday we set off to get one as well as a drill chuck key as the one for my drill had disappeared during the move from Kenya.

To say that the Merkato was large would be an understatement, it was humongous and incredibly crowded and dynamic. Despite this, there was no apparent danger despite seeing very few policemen and we felt quite comfortable walking about, some of the very few “ferengis” (foreigners) we saw at the time.

Italy, under fascism, invaded Ethiopia in 1936 and two separate markets were planned to segregate the Italians from the Ethiopians. The Arada would be for the former while the Merkato was developed for the rest of the population and, naturally this is the one that still survives as a very vibrant place and reputed as the largest open air market in Africa, no mean feat!

It will be impossible for me to describe the Merkato and I present you with one of the videos that I found interesting to give you the dimension and dynamics of the place. Although it is a more modern Merkato, I believe that it still maintains its character. There are other videos on the subject also worth watching.

Credit: Wildlife Israel Yuval Dax. I recommend that you watch it with at least 720p.

Needless to say that I easily found my needed hardware items before our attention got diverted to the countless craft shops offering the most amazing silver and gold as well as beautiful baskets and Ethiopian textiles. I will go back to these on a later post with more details.

After walking for a while we heard some shouting and, curious, we went to see what was up. We arrived at an open area with lots of rubbish accumulated where a goat, sitting on its haunches and sporting a rather large “beer belly” was enjoying a beer straight from the bottle. Unfortunately, I could not find a video of this particular customer but there is one of another drinking a soda [3]. Times definitely have changed!

The first visit to Addis soon came to an end and it was time to return to Bedele and, as usual, once we got there and a week later we learnt that our new car had arrived so we needed to get back to Addis to get it but that is another story!

[1] For images of the hotel see: https://www.google.co.zw/search?q=harambee+hotel&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj505uihsPrAhUmK7kGHRz-Bg8Q_AUoAXoECBoQAw&biw=1280&bih=598#imgrc=2DrjOr18N62w0M

[2] This may sound unacceptable for many today but I can assure you that the famine and poverty in Ethiopia at the time were such that people asking for food and/or money were in such numbers that they would stop you from walking!

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5VCuFyatAk

To Bedele, loaded

To get petrol for a journey in a war economy was not just filling up at a petrol station. It required the application for petrol coupons and getting them through a heavy government bureaucratic process as these were treated like golden sovereign coins by the Ministry of Agriculture’s administration.

Once that was achieved, a travel permit was necessary. Personal details were passed to the administration and that took a couple of days to be processed. Finally a small paper written in Amharic with a few stamps and signatures was given to me and we were ready to go.

Before departure, we were warned of a dangerous behaviour of pedestrians in some areas of Ethiopia where people would cross the road in front of your car at full speed apparently for no reason and, apparently, wishing to kill themselves. However, the real motive was the belief that thesepeople were closely followed by some kind of “evil spirit” and by the tight crossing the spirit would get ran over and therefore the person would be cleansed. Another extra precaution to be taken for the journey to the little known.

We loaded our Hilux pick-up and departed early in the morning as I knew that the journey was a long one. The cats in their double travel box were placed on the back seat and it left little space for anything else apart from a few clothes bags and the cool box with our lunch and drinks.

The back was also packed chock-a-block with all the rest of our essentials. These included fridge and cooker as well as food stuff to last us for a month, cutlery and crockery, camp beds, bedding, camping chairs, music centre and other essentials that were required to spend a couple of months until the rest of our belongings arrived. We also took a couple of water jerry cans and, during the journey, made up a list of items we still needed but that we were not sure to find in Bedele.

We selected a Saturday for our journey and realized, too late, that it was a bad choice as Saturdays were market days and there were lots of people moving about, particularly on the road we were using. Although the large crowds thinned somehow as we left Addis, they reappeared whenever we approached some of the populated areas such as Wolkite, Woliso and, further on, Jimma.

The road to Bedele, near Addis.

The trip followed the main road west of Addis, a rather busy and new road for us so our progress was slow. This was not helped by the habit of people to walk on the road –as seen in India- and the number of livestock that was free ranging. Of interest were some moving grass mounds that turned out to be donkeys heavily loaded with teff straw and grass to feed the abundant and free ranging livestock. There were many and they did not seem to obey orders very well, forcing us to hoot very frequently and take evasive action.

Loading!
Near Bedele.

The landscape was rather denuded from trees and the fields were being planted with teff (Eragrostis tef) the main crop of Ethiopia from which the injera I described earlier is made of. Farmers were busy planting and lots of them were seen on the fields. Then in a field we saw a circle of about twenty adult people crouching holding hands in a circle. We slowed down and, to our surprise, we witnessed our first and only communal defecation we have ever seen! Whether this is a common occurrence or something rare I cannot say!

The Ethiopian revolution was celebrated with colourful arches spanning the length of the road. These were rather substantial near Addis but they started to diminish in hierarchy as we moved on and, although approaching Jimma they revived, again, from there to Bedele these were almost absent or rather poor efforts that suggested to me that the revolution was not a priority in the interior.

Passing through Wolkite, on the way to Bedele.
Some of the beautiful large houses at Wolkite.

We arrived to Jimma late afternoon and decided to spend the night there at one of the few hotels available, I believe that it was called the Jimma Hotel. It was a rather basic facility but suitable for our needed rest. Dinner had a rather limited menu that consisted of chicken and chips or spaghetti with tomato sauce. We chose the latter, a clear consequence of the years of Italian occupation of parts of Ethiopia. We were the only commensals so the waiters literally fought to serve us and you needed to be careful as they would take away items from your table before you had finished with them!

Unfortunately, the pasta was not memorable but, tired and hungry, we were somehow satisfied and decided to retire early. On arrival to our room, Mabel remembered that she was told that the beds in some of these hotels had more wildlife than the countriside! So, apart from bringing the cats to our rooms, we slept inside our sleeping bags not before she attacked all invisible creepy crawlies with a white insecticide powder from our FAO medical kit that I hoped it was not DDT! In any case, it must have been effective as we slept like logs, hopefully not because of its fumes.

Mabel controlling insects by physical means!

The following morning, after a simple breakfast, we had a tour of Jimma, looking for fuel that was severely rationed. Eventually we arrived at one petrol station that took our Government fuel coupons and we left the asphalt to take the 140 km of the rather rough road to Bedele that would become familiar to us.

We drove for about two hours through farmland and then the landscape became forested and I knew that we were close to Bedele. We crossed true forests of large and ancient flat top acacias (Vachellia abyssinica) and we could see the coffee bushes thriving under their shade. We were arriving to the true origin of the arabica coffee!

After our afternoon arrival we needed to present ourselves to the political authority of Bedele to who we handed over our travel permit. The man examined our paper carefully and, after a while, he declared “your wife is not included in the permit and I need to ‘capture’ her and keep her at the police station”. I reacted strongly explaining that we were coming to live at Bedele and to work for the United Nations. The man seemed unimpressed by my arguments and remained unmoved, clearly full of his own importance!

Becoming rather worried I left Mabel with the political guy and drove to the veterinary laboratory to explain the situation to the Director who was really mortified by the situation and, immediately, came to our rescue. Luckily, after a short discussion (in Amharic), the Director announced that we could go with him and that we would go to the police the following day and inform them of our arrival.

We thanked the political administrator profusely for his understanding and left with the Director who took us to our bungalow and left us to unpack and organize our house before nightfall.

As agreed, the following morning I visited the police station accompanied by the Director and the Administrator of the laboratory. There we met with the political delegate of the previous day. A protracted discussion followed and, eventually, the Director (who was the only person that spoke English) explained to me the outcome.

The meeting had decided that Mabel’s omission from the Travel Permit was a serious mistake but also that we were allowed to stay. I was recommended to make sure in future that we were both included in our travel permits. I agreed wholeheartedly knowing full well that it was an impossible task but I was happy that I could now focus on my work.

To Ethiopia!

As mentioned earlier [1] it was 1987 and we were still enjoying our work and life in Kenya. However, it was becoming evident that our modest savings would never secure our future, so we started looking for better opportunities. Regrettably, we could not find suitable work in Kenya, otherwise we would probably still be residing there today!

In mid 1988 a great opportunity with FAO appeared in Ethiopia at a place called Bedele of which neither we nor most of our friends had ever heard of before. Most but not all. Jim [2] however, had and immediately told me that Bedele was in western Ethiopia and also that it was “out in the sticks”, not a very encouraging start!

Later on I learnt that Andy, a tick expert from Zimbabwe -working in Nairobi- had just been in Ethiopia for a consultancy that included a short visit to Bedele itself. He confirmed that it was far from Addis Ababa and rather remote, but an interesting place where not much work on ticks and tickborne diseases had been done although the need for it was there.

When I asked him about the living conditions, he mentioned that he had stayed at the station where I was going to live -if I accepted the offer- for two years and mentioned that the area was very beautiful. “Do the bungalows have a garden” I asked, “the whole of Ethiopia will be your back garden!” was his reply. That left me rather concerned!

As the need for my services was rather urgent, before accepting the long-term position and while we prepared to leave Kenya, I offered to travel to Bedele to familiarize myself and to supervise the on-going work. I also carried the “Family terms of reference” that included the evaluation of our future accommodation, availability of supplies and other critical issues to survive in a remote place. Regarding the house, I was to draw a plan that, back in Nairobi, would be submitted to an architect friend so that we could take the relevant furniture and appliances.

So it was that I arrived at Bole airport in Addis Ababa on a two-week consultancy mission. The change between Kenya and Ethiopia was very dramatic as I was entering a country where a civil war had been raging from September 1974 when the Marxist Derg removed Emperor Haile Selassie from power and Eritrea had started fighting for its independence.

Bole looked like a military airport being used by civilian flights, mainly Ethiopian Airlines. There was no “yambo” welcome or smiling faces anywhere but armed soldiers with surly faces! I had arrived to my first communist dictatorship led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, a ruthless leader.

Realizing that things would be different I was very happy to be greeted by people from FAO. They took me to the Ghion hotel where I would stay until I traveled to Bedele, a small town in Western Ethiopia where FAO had built a Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory with a focus on trypanosomiasis and tickborne diseases.

So it was that, after the necessary protocol meetings that took a couple of days, I had the necessary travel permit that would allow me to travel to Bedele. The letter was written in Amharic and I could only hope that it gave the right information about my trip as the only thing that I could understand was my name! However, when I realized that the country’s Chief Veterinary Officer and the Director of the Bedele Laboratory were traveling with me, I relaxed.

We left early in the morning and traveled very slowly in a westerly direction. Getting out of Addis Ababa was indeed a complex operation as there was no clear exit road and people used the tarmac to walk to their destinations with their livestock, sharing the road with the motor vehicles. Our speed increased somehow once we left the city as the people numbers decreased for a while (only to increase near every populated area!). Despite this, almost permanent hooting was required in order to advance.

Driving from Addis Ababa to Bedele on a Sunday required patience!
There is a donkey somewhere under the leaves!

The trip took us through rather barren land dominated by teff fields [3] and the occasional trees, very occasional. The latter were really what remained of them after most of their branches had been chopped for fuel and only a green tuft remained, something I had not seen before.

Teff with yellow meskel flowers (Bidens macroptera or pachyloma?) in the forefront of the picture.

Near Jimma, the capital of the large Kaffa province and about 350 km from Addis Ababa, the landscape became greener and trees became more abundant. That coincided with the end of the tarmac and the start of a consolidated but very rough and dusty road, from where we continued towards Bedele, located in the province of Illubabor. We reached Bedele after a long 140 km journey from Jimma and, by the time we got there, presented our travel credentials for clearance by the local member of the Government and found food and accommodation, we were really tired and we slept soundly!

The following morning was cool and sunny and this enabled me to appreciate that Bedele was mainly a one street town set up in a rather well forested area. Bedele, also known and “Buno Bedele” was reputed to be the origin of the coffee and you could easily see the beautiful flat-top acacias with the coffee bushes growing under their shade.

During my visit I learnt that the work was mainly following an already on-going routine that required the collection of ticks from cattle at different locations both to get to know the species and to understand their population dynamics. The study was led by a scientist that had suffered a severe health problem and needed to be evacuated and unfortunately was unable to return.

I realized that I could handle the proposed work and hoped to stimulate other research activities and, hopefully, attract more funding to continue the work beyond the two years planned.

During the visit I met the Ethiopians that would work with me and I was impressed about their dedication as they had kept the work going despite having remained on their own for a few months by now. I accompanied them when they went to their study sites and I realized that Ethiopia was a really special place, difficult but full of new things for me that I judged we would enjoy.

During that time, I also leant that Jan and Janni, a couple from The Netherlands working on trypanosomiasis also lived at the station and we would share our time there although they were on holiday during the time of my visit. Our house was next to theirs and when I saw it I understood fully Andy’s remarks that my garden would be “the whole of Ethiopia”!

Our two-bedroom bungalow, the same as the remaining seven others, had a small kitchen, a sitting area and a toilet that included a shower two bedrooms. I duly measured all rooms and made a floor plan that hoped it would be useful to plan our future house. Supplies, however, looked a more complicated affair. Petrol was rationed and, apart from good coffee, food was available at a basic butchery and the Saturday market. Clearly we needed to prepare for “importing” our foodstuff from Addis Ababa at regular intervals.

Although the work offered both positive and negative aspects, after the visit I judged that the former outweighed the latter and I decided that we should give this new adventure, both professional and personal, a try and our adventures there will be the subject of the following posts.

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2015/09/29/harvesting-from-the-effort1/

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2019/11/13/pythons-and-social-life/),

[3] Eragrostis tef, native of the Horn of Africa, is a cereal grass with tiny seeds of less than one millimeter of diameter. It is cultivated for its tiny seeds “injera“, a sourdough-risen flatbread is made and also for its straw to feed livestock.

The Lunatic Express

Our first journey to Mombasa was not by car but by train. We took the train that run everyday leaving Nairobi at 19:00hs and arriving at Mombasa the following morning at 06:00hs. We were advised to buy First Class tickets as these gave you access to a sleeping coach.

The Ugandan railway was born in the late 19th century, when European countries were engaged in the “scramble for Africa” and the British were worried about German expansionism in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and French interests in Sudan. It was an imperative undertaking for Britain (to keep its interests in Egypt) to have access to the source of the Nile, Lake Victoria.

Connecting Britain’s territories on the Kenyan coast to the shore of lake Victoria in Uganda by rail was considered the solution. The project created such a clamour in the British Parliament that it ended up known as the “Lunatic Line”, a name given to it by Charles Miller, who wrote its history [1].

However it was Henry Labouchère, writer and politician, that in 1896 attacked the then Foreign Minister Curzon’s backing of the idea with a satirical poem that called the project “a lunatic line” [2]

A train on bridge of the Uganda Railway leading from Mombassa to Nairobi; insert in lower right-hand corner shows the train at Mau Summit. Credit: United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division.

Despite dissidence the British government marched on with the plans, and sent Sir George Whitehouse to build the railway. Work on the one-metre gauge railway commenced in the port of Mombasa in May 1896 and thousands of workers were recruited from India to start construction on the railway and all the materials, from sleepers to steam engines, were brought from Britain.

Soon the Lunatic express ran into severe trouble such as the lack of water at Tatu and the man-eating lions that threatened to halt construction at Tsavo. However, five million pounds (today £ 660 million) and about 2,500 dead workers later, in 1901 the railway line arrived to Kisumu (then Port Florence) in the shores of Lake Victoria.

The building of the railway was an amazing feat of engineering that succeeded in joining the British protectorate of Mombasa to the colony of Uganda, uniting the disparate ethnic groups in between and consolidated a country today known as Kenya!

The train gained a “romantic” fame with the early settlers and visitors alike as migration to Kenya was promoted in Britain with the hope that the commercial traffic that this would create would pay back such a high investment.

A poster promoting the Uganda Railway. Picture taken by bushsnob from a copy of the poster acquired in Kenya at the tme of the journey.
Theodore Roosevelt and traveling companions mount the observation platform of the Uganda Railway. Credit: Wikimedia, Public domain.

Luckily, when we got to the Nairobi Railway Station with its grey arches and the Nairobi sign hardly legible, the railway’s cost was not remembered and the man-eaters were not interfering with the running of the train. We soon found our names written on cards attached to the outside of our carriage and we boarded.

Locomotive with fuel tanks in Kampala. Credit: Iwoelbern / Public domain.

The old brown-leather padded carriages were very clean and the seats comfortable. After settling in we waited for the train to move but before this happened, the in the Sleeping car assistant came to check our tickets and to ask us if we wished to have dinner at 21:30hs or at 22:30hs.

As we were feeling hungry we chose the first shift and a few minutes afterwards we heard the whistles of the Stationmaster and the loud horn of the train while we felt the pull of the locomotive and heard the steadily increasing chugging sound and then we were moving!

Slowly we moved through the station and then gradually away from it and, still slowly, through the outskirts where most people ignored us but some returned our greetings and some children shouted “muzungu!, muzungu!”[3] at us. Gradually it gathered some more speed and the the clickety-clackety sound of the wheels passing over the fish plates that join the rails started to become more frequent and we were on our way, faster now!

After a while it was time to move to the dining car and we were impressed by its neatness and luxury. The car was lined with brown-red leather and old fans gently turned moving the air inside the carriage.

Clearly dinner was a serious affair. Waiters, wearing fezzes and white gloves helped us to find our table and be seated at our reserved places. The first course of the three-course menu was immediately brought. It was a hot soup that would be followed by fish and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and potatoes. Dessert was fruit crumble with excellent custard sauce.

We declined the freshly brewed Kenya coffee offer for fear of not being able to sleep. All dishes and drinks were served on crockery embossed with the logo of the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation, which had been defunct since 1977 but that were still in use!

Dinner over, as new commensals were arriving, we left, satisfied with our meal. We arrived at our cabin to find it transformed into a bedroom with immaculate starched sheets and pillows monogrammed with the same East African Railways logo. The change was such that I went out to check if we were in the right cabin!

Mabel slept soundly but I had difficulties as my bed was placed across the track so to say and every time that the train changed speed I would roll backwards and forwards and I feared falling until its speed stabilized again. The whistle sound and the brakes’ hiss and screech when the train slowed down did not add to my comfort either!

So, although the train was great from the historical and glamour sides, it was not a sleep coach for me. Lucky Mabel woke up just before we entered Mombasa!

The early morning arrival in hot and sticky Mombasa, coming from the rather cold and cloudy Nairobi, was like a miracle that truly brought me back to the early days of the train. The station was like a beehive with people vying with each other to get our luggage and offering you tropical fruits and all sorts of other goods! It was clearly a station with special character.

Once outside the station, the light was unbelievable and we needed to spend sometime adjusting to it to be able to find our transport that would take us to our hotel where I could have a “morning siesta” to recover my lost sleep while Mabel enjoyed the Mombasa markets under the tropical heat.

Unfortunately, after our time in Kenya, the railways service from Nairobi and Mombasa gradually deteriorated [4] and started running increasing delays and it could take the train 24 hours to do the journey we did in less than 12. Often the train would breakdown in truly dark areas or, if lucky, you could be stranded at Voi or other stations until repairs could be carried out. Although it still had a romantic touch, it was wearing thinner and it was just a question of time until its final journey.

When a new train known as the “Madaraka Express” started to be built by the Chinese, the fate of the Lunatic Express was sealed and it has then been replaced for a train that now takes 4.5 hours to get to Mombasa.

The train started to operate in May 2017 but, as the Lunatic Express it has also been the target of severe criticism due to its high cost of £2.5 billion, Kenya’s most expensive infrastructure project since independence [5] and comparatively even more expensive that the Lunatic line!

We have no desire to take the new train but prefer to still remember that we were lucky to taste the last voyages of what was one of the classic trips the world had to offer.

Footnotes

[1] Miller, C. The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism. Head of Zeus Editor. Kindle edition. Originally published by Futura; First Thus edition (1977).

[2]
What it will cost no words can express; 
What is its object no brain can suppose; 
Where it will start from no one can guess;
Where it is going to nobody knows;
What is the use of it none can conjecture;
What it will carry none can define... 
And in spite of George Curzon's superior lecture,
"It is clearly naught but a lunatic line."
See: https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2001241674/end-of-road-for-first-railway-that-defined-kenya-s-history

[3] White person in Ki-Swahili.

[4] For a recent (2016) description of the Lunatic express deterioration see https://www.1843magazine.com/features/the-lunatic-express

[5] The end of the lunatic express: https://www.emirates.com/zw/english/open-skies/6336316/the-lunatic-express-is-no-longer

To the cradle of mankind – The return

Someplace in the Chalbi desert

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The vastness of the area.

Too soon the time to leave Koobi Fora arrived and we headed back to Nairobi. Luckily we would still visit a couple of unknown and hopefully interesting places. We planned a different route that would take us across the Chalbi desert to Marsabit National Park and then to Nairobi, via Archer’s Post and Isiolo and the start of the asphalt.

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A stop on the way.

The road was very rough and, after a while we started having punctures, first in the trailer, then Paul’s car had two more and, finally, we had one. We were in a tight spot as we had no more spares and from then on, we would need to disassemble them to patch the inner tubes, a hard job with large wheels such as those of the Land Rover, particularly pumping them back to the needed pressure!

We continued our journey and after a while got to a vast expanse of cracked red soil where soon became the only feature we saw. We had arrived to the Chalbi desert, a little known desert outside Kenia. We planned to cross it assuming that we would be able to follow the wheel marks from earlier vehicles as we carried no electronic orientation devices then. Despite following a few tracks that, luckily, soon ended nowhere, we managed to get to a promising track although we did not find anyone to consult!

We were still crossing the Chalbi when dusk caught up with us. We then decided to leave the main track to get the full desert experience while be less conspicuous to potential unwanted visitors. The evening was very warm and there was not a drop of wind and just nothing apart from reddish sand as far as we could see, except for a lone zebra skull. It was a totally new experience.

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The redness of the Chalbi desert with the lake behind.

We did not bother to set up tents and judged that no mosquitoes would be alive there so we just slept on our camp beds, after a tinned dinner. The biggest disappointment of the day, apart from having to change four wheels, was that our watermelons kept on the roof racks for a night like this, were rotten and we could not enjoy them after having saved them for days! Laying on our beds, we witnesses one of the most incredible skies we have ever seen and we watched it mesmerized until sleep defeated us.

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The cracked earth of the Chalbi desert.

The following morning, the discovery of our fifth another puncture, this time in the trailer delayed us for about an hour while we did the repair. Although we still had no spares, we trusted -rightly this time- that we would get to our next destination without another puncture. We managed to negotiate the Chalbi successfully and soon we found ourselves back at a track that we believed looked respectable enough to take us to the Marsabit mountain and its homonymous National Park.

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On the way to Marsabit.

Our spirits soared when we saw spotted the outline of a large mountain in the distance that could only be Marsabit. It was and, as we approached it, we could see its green hue becoming sharper after every kilometre we traveled. We were soon climbing and the green vegetation was quite a novelty after spending almost a week without seen much in terms of trees! So, we entered Marsabit National Park and went straight to the Park Headquarters to leave our tires to get mended and then to a nearby hotel for a cold drink, just refraining ourselves from rolling on the lush green grass of the garden!

The mountain was a true oasis with a large forested area where elephants dwelled. In particular it had been the home of one of the most famous elephants known, Ahmed, the King of Marsabit that carried very large tusks that prompted President Jomo Kenyatta in 1970 to declare it a national treasure and was given special protection against poachers in the form of 24 hours custody by two hunters.

By the time of our visit Ahmed was dead (it died in 1974) but his fame was still very much alive and we were familiar with its shape and tusks from its monument at the Kenya National Museum in Nairobi. Ahmed was a loner and quite evasive and the stories about him became mythical after several years. It is said that when it died at the age of 55, the King was leaning against a tree, resting on his tusks.

Marsabit was a great stop and we explored its lush green forest and lakes without seeing any of Ahmed’s offspring but getting refreshed by its greenness before embarking on the final leg of our journey. We had still about 260 km of very corrugated road in front of us before we would get to the better road at Isiolo.

To Nairobi

Refreshed after so much greenery and with the full complement of fuel and repaired tires, we started our descent from Marsabit on the wide and corrugated road army-built that would eventually see us through to Isiolo. After a while we reached flat ground and we started meeting a succession of truly large herds of cattle moving north, we imagined towards Marsabit in search of greener pastures. There were thousands of animals being herded by nomadic people, probably Rendile.

After about 100 kilometres we passed Laisamis, a small settlement with a Catholic church dedicated to St George and continued our journey south with us leading the way. The driving on such corrugated road with a trailer was a new experience for us and a rather hard one as the trailer was still very heavy.

All went well for a long while until suddenly the trailer violently veered to the right forcing me to correct to the left to keep the car on the road and from then on I lost control and the next thing I remember is that we abandoned the road and started a mad race through broken terrain and thorn bushes until the car came to a halt by getting lodged into a low and very thorny acacia where we rested luckily still on our four wheels with the trailer at a right angle.

We, luckily managed to miss the deep “dongas” that crisscrossed the bush but we were lodges so deep inside the bush that we were not able to open the car doors. Luckily help, in the shape of Paul and his brother arrived soon and hacked the branches enabling us to get out of the car. “I saw a large cloud of dust and then you were gone” Paul said adding “I am glad that you managed to keep things on their wheels”. I replied that I had done nothing to achieve this as I have had no time to do anything once I lost control!

Regardless of how the despiste? took place it was a lucky one and, after quite a lot of maneuvering, we managed to get back on the road and resumed our trip with no obvious damage to the car or the trailer.

This time Paul went in front and we both drove carefully, having realized that things can go wrong in just a fraction of a second. The remaining 100 km passed very slowly but, eventually, we approached the familiar settlement of Archer’s Post.

Perhaps it was the anxiety of getting back or maybe he just forgot but Paul entered Archer’s Post quite fast and forgot that there were a few respectable bumps to slow the traffic down. He hit the first bump and, realizing that there was a second one, he tried to brake but still hit the second one rather fast with disastrous consequences.

Now it was our time to watch events from the rear and witnessed how, after hitting the first bump the u-bolts the hold the back axle to the car’s body went and the wheels were bouncing rather than turning. The second bump completed the damage by dislodging the axle completely and the car stopped with one rear wheel under the car and the other one behind at a right angle to the car!

We pushed the car to the side of the road knowing that we have finally found some serious trouble and, with the high-lift jack, attempted to lift the car and bring the axle to its original location. Among the tons of spares we had new u-bolts but, although we brought the axle back, we needed to lift the body and for that we needed a bottle jack that we did not carry with us!

Refusing to believe that we could not repair the car we wrestled with it fruitlessly for about an hour under the curious gaze of members of the public and having declined help from an African gentleman wearing a blue overall, probably a mechanic. We decided that we should borrow the essential jack from the Catholic Mission nearby but we went there and, being the end of the year holidays, no one could assist us.

Empty-handed and crestfallen we returned to the car to find that the ladies we had left behind, showing their practical approach, had discussed our situation with the gentleman with the overalls who had assured them that he fix the car. Beaten, we concurred and negotiated for assistance with him.

Once we agreed, the gentleman disappeared and returned with just three tools: the bottle jack, one large spanner and a long steel tube. We looked at each other with Paul and shook our heads. However, we decided to wait and see. It was immediately obvious that the man was indeed a bush mechanic and he knew what he was doing.

After removing the broken u-bolts with his spanner he lifted the body of the car with the jack and he used the steel tube as a lever to gradually align the axle until the new u-bolts could be fitted! So, after about an hour we were on the road again not without thanking the bush mechanic profusely and settling our account well beyond our earlier agreement.

Mobile again but unable to reach Nairobi on the day we decided to spend the night in Samburu National Park so we got to one of the camps near the entrance. We had a very pleasant surprise as our good friends François, Genevieve and her mother Paula were camping there and we joined them at their camp in Samburu to enjoy some of their fresh food and to share our tins with them!

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The survivors and friends at the end of the journey in Samburu Mational Park. From left to right: Francois, Paul. Else, Paul’s brother, Bushsnob, Genevieve, Mabel and Paula.

It was the 31 December 1986 and we started the New Year in the bush before continuing home the next day, this time with a smooth drive all the way to Nairobi.

 

 

 

At the cradle of mankind

We saw the camp way before we got there and, involuntarily speeded up to finally arrive and have a break in our journey. Our entrance was far from a triumphal one. We got to the camp near the shore of the lake where the track suddenly changed into deep sand and we got buried as our car was not able to pull the trailer in the sand. Despite unhooking it, it would not bulge and, worse still, when Paul tried to help, he got also stuck.

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Stuck on arrival at Koobi Fora.

Too tired to dig them out we decided to leave them for later when the day was cooler. So, we walked to the camp and did a few trips bringing our luggage. Luckily messages sent to the camp via the National Museum of Kenya had arrived and they were waiting us so our bandas were ready and very well equipped and comfortable so we could have a shower and relax during the rest of the day.

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Relaxing at camp.

Later on we decided to tackle the cars, more out of embarrassment than real need.

With the help of a few camp hands, we succeeded and we were ready to re-enter the camp now as a proper expedition, after a quick wash in the lake to freshen up. While digging our cars we learnt that the Koobi Fora sand spit was the best area for fishing and we had decided to try our luck the following morning and, with this in mind we had an early night as we were rather tired after a busy day.

Early the following morning we assembled the boat and a party ventured into the lake, heading for the sand spit as advised. The idea was to do trolling with our largest lures in search of Nile Perch or Tiger Fish as we had done in Lake Victoria, hoping to catch some sizeable fish.

We knew that the lake had a large population of crocodiles, some of them truly humongous, and that some of the lake dwellers hunted them [1]. Crocodiles were not new for us so, as usual we kept an eye for them but did not worry too much.

The sight that waited for us at the sand spit was as unexpected as frightening. The people at the camp had omitted that the place was the parking area where the they enyoyed their daily sunbathing. The whole length of the spit, between two and three hundred metres, was “green” with crocodiles.

In view of this unexpected and rather perturbing find, we decided to keep our distance from the area and fish some good distance away. As we approached the spit the crocodiles started sliding into the water, an even more unsettling situation as now we could not see them!

Despite this, we stuck to our plan and fished, perhaps at a greater distance from the sand as previously thought. We trolled along the spit and, every time we passed, the crocodiles -clearly with large mouths but small brains- kept jumping into the water only to climb back again on the sandy spit once we had passed! We trolled the whole morning but only caught a couple of small Nile perch and one Tiger fish. We were not impressed and decided to come back in the afternoon.

The lake has no outlet and water levels are kept by a delicate combination of the river waters, volcanic springs, rain (if it ever falls!) and evaporation. We noted that the water was a bit cloudier in this area, probably due to the entry of the Omo river from the north and we thought that this interfered with the fish seeing our lures. A good excuse for our failure!

The afternoon fishing, again, did not live up to our expectations and we only had a couple of bites but the fish got away. Busy fishing somehow we forgot the rather predictable crocs an we nearly came to grief when the boat shuddered violently and unexpectedly! A fraction of a second later, looking back we saw a commotion in the water and a large crocodile turned and showed itself clearly! The beast, I believe as shaken as us, crash-dived and disappeared.

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Sunset view of the sand spit and one of its occupants…

Luckily we did not hear any hissing so we assumed that the rubber dinghy was intact and, to our great relief, we saw no obvious damage. However, the crash shook us badly and, unanimously, decided that we had fished enough and that it was time to return to land doubting whether we hit the crocodile by chance or it came towards us with bad intentions or just got too close while having a look.

The crash with the crocodile rather than our rather poor fishing anecdotes dominated our conversation during and after the trip and, at the time, we did not of any one that had had a similar experience although today a few can be seen in YouTube.

That afternoon, after resting, we decided to have a swim in the beach shallows where we had seen people bathing earlier. While we were washing ourselves at dusk we detected a circle of red eyes at a distance and we withdrew rather fast from the water, ending our wash with buckets of water, quite away from the lakeshore!

Before we left Koobi Fora, we had a walk along the sand spit and, although we did not find any new hominids to make us famous, we saw the crocodiles from a different angle and we realized their true sizes and were rather impressed despite having seen many during our bush life. We also found lion footprints and decided that the wiser move would be to return to camp where we were informed that there was a lioness that “specialized” in hunting crocodiles.

That afternoon we packed our cars and got ready to start our return to Nairobi after a rather exciting time at the camp.

 

[1] Graham, A. and Beard, P. (1990). Eyelids of Morning: Mingled Destinies of Crocodiles and Men. Chronicle Books. 260p.

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gaboon viper

From the moment I learnt about the existence of the Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica) it entered, together with the Pangolin, in my “Hall of Fame” of animals I would like to see in the wild. I saw it “live” for the first time at a snake park in Tanzania and my interest increased.

Gabon_Viper_P9240109- Picture taken by deror avi on 24th September 2006. [Attribution]. From Wikimedia Commons (2/11/190

It is a species found in the rainforests and savannas of sub-Saharan Africa. Later on, reading about it I realized that it also collects a few gold medals. It is of course highly venomous and the largest member of the genus Bitis. With its record 5 cm fangs it is capable of innoculating the largest volume of venom of any snake! It measures in average between 80–130 cm, with a maximum total length of 175 cm and its body is rather large.

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Gabon_Viper_P9240109- Picture taken by deror avi on 24th September 2006. [Attribution]. From Wikimedia Commons. Downloaded on 2/11/19.

Luckily for us bush walkers they are usually nocturnal, slow moving and placid and are very tolerant, but, if threatened they can side wind and even hiss. As they ambush their prey that can be up to rabbit size, their slowness is not an impediment and they are one of the fastest snakes when they strike!

C.J.P. Ionides (1901-1968), the well known snake catcher of East Africa, would capture them by first touching them lightly on the top of the head with his tongs to test their reactions. Most did not react angrily and he would grasp them from their necks with his hands while supporting their bodies with the other and then bag them where they stayed rather calm!

As I mention Ionides, one of my favourite African historical characters, I should mention that he estimated to having caught a few thousand Gaboon vipers, and he measured the number of black mambas caught in hundreds and the green mambas in thousands. [1].

You would agree with my decision to look for them when, in the late 90s, I learnt that they were present in Zimbabwe as these snakes are rare in southern Africa. Even in Zimbabwe they can only be found in the Honde valley, located in the Eastern Highlands, between the Nyanga Nationl Park and Mozambique, in the Gleanegles forest reserve.

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So, last week we went in search for the Gaboon viper despite the misgivings of Mabel who I managed to convince that there were many orchids there that she could look at while I searched for the snake. Of course she did not believe any of it but still agreed to come!

“…After driving through the beautiful Honde Valley and the Eastern Highlands Tea plantations you arrive at … Aberfoyle Lodge … situated in a very special part of Zimbabwe. With rolling tea plantations, riparian forests and the Nyamkombe river surrounding the lodge, you feel as though you are in an oasis of true serenity…” [2] The description is accurate as you really enter into a “different” Zimbabwe with strong similarities with the Kericho area in Kenya but with much less human presence.

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Tea was established in Zimbabwe in the Chipinge area in the 1920’s and the first tea at Aberfoyle was planted in 1954 and we saw sections of the plantations that have been there from 1960-61. The present Aberfoyle lodge was the Club for the tea estate. Originally planned as an Italian villa, lack of resources and the Zimbabwe civil war changed plans and it was finally built in a simpler way and completed in 1960.

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Our first thoughts were that, although the tea plantations are rather spectacular, lots of trees must have been removed to achieve this! However, reading about how the plantations were done, the damage to the forest was more from tree cutting for fuel for the factory rather than for planting tea. This was not because owners were ecologically minded but because it was cheaper to plant in open areas than to clear the forest.

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Later, the Gleaneagles mountain reserve -located between the tea plantations and the Nyanga National Park- was created to preserve what is left of the forest. In addition to tea, coffee was also planted and most of it removed and there are also pepper plantations and new ones of macadamia trees.

We stayed at the self-catering Hornbill House, part of the Aberfoyle lodge, a house once upon a time occupied by a farm manager and excellently positioned on a hill that offered great views not only of the undulating tea plantations but also of the far off mountains. To the west Mtaka, Kayumba and Dzunzwa peaks and to the east the rugged Tawangwena in Mozambique. They were mostly shrouded in smoke from the frequent bush fires as it was very hot and dry.

As we were new in the area we thought it was a good idea to join guided walks and so we went with the lodge’s birding guide Morgan who did not flinch when I asked to go looking for Gaboon vipers! He only quietly replied: “We will try”.

In fact, we went also looking for birds as the area is renowned for having several unique bird species but we placed a ban on little brown jobs (LBJs).

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Morgan and Mabel looking at a “No LBJ”!

I am quite sure that by now you have realized that, despite the efforts of Morgan and myself, the snake watching trip failed although we covered a few miles looking for it and threading carefully on the leaf-covered floor. I am pretty sure that no snake was to be found, otherwise Mabel would have found it miles before we would have done!

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The forest floor offered excellent camouflage for our target snake!

Luckily, thanks to Morgan’s skills and despite the LBJs ban, we saw a number of very interesting birds apart from Palm-nut vultures (Gypohierax angolensis) that nest near the 9-hole golf course of the lodge. Despite being residents we only saw their nest and the birds very far away like white and black dots.

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Narina’s trogon.

We had better luck in our forst walks. We found a few Narina’s trogon (Apaloderma narina) in several places and also sightings of White-eared barbet (Stactolaema leucotis), Grey cuckooshrike (Coracina caesia), Blue-spotted wood dove (Turtur afer), Blue-mantled creasted flycatcher (Thrococercus cyanomelas), Red-capped robin-chat (Cossypha natalensis), Livingstone’s turaco (Tauraco livingstonii), Red-throated twinspot (Hypargos niveoguttatus), Dark-backed weaver (Ploceus bicolor) and Green-backed woodpecker (Campethera cailliautii).

Two views of a Cardinal woodpecker, pale flycatchers having a bath, Narina’s trogon, and brown-hooded kingfisher.

We also enjoyed finding a number of butterflies along the paths we walked. We saw a few swallowtail butterflies and, thanks to Morgan, we found them congregated by the … River that traverses the tea estate. It was just amazing to watch these beautiful creatures fluttering and sucking up some nutrients at one particular spot. Unforgettable!

 

The visit was very enjoyable despite having failed to achieve its primary objective as we not only saw several bird species for the first time but also because discovered a real gem of an area in this amazing country.

As for the snake failure, it only fuelled my hunger to find it in the wild but, in the meantime, I will invite friends on Sunday to visit the ones at Snakeworld in Harare to see them there and get them out of my system, at least for a few months until we return to the Honde next year!

 

[1] Although rare, two books deal with his life, Margaret Lane’s ” Life with Ionides” written in 1964 and published by Readers Union; Book Club edition and his autobiography “A Hunter’s Story” published in 1966 by W.H. Allen. If found, both are worth reading!

[2] See: https://www.aberfoylelodge.com/

 

Note: This post is not meant as an endorsement of the Aberfoyle lodge and it only contains the opinion of the author who was a paying guest there.

 

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].

tsavo east mendizabal and ele bones

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.

Mendizabal Tsavo copy

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.

Tsavo e lugard falls turist german truck

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