zebra

Lake Naivasha

We went to lake Naivasha often as it was an easy weekend out of Nairobi and I still have vivid memories from those visits.

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View of the lake.

Usually we drove down the rift valley wall, passed the catholic chapel built by the Italian WWII prisoners after 50 km, then the junction to Narok and the Maasai Mara (B3). Further we found Mt. Longonot, the volcano on the left and kept driving, already seeing the shiny blue lake in the distance framed by fertile cultivated farmland with the spectacular backdrop of the Mau escarpment.

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Lake Naivasha in the distance on the left behind which is the Mau escarpment.

Gustav Fischer, a German naturalist, found the lake it 1883, while heading north and before the then hostile Maasai found his expedition and forced him to turn back! However, the Europeans kept coming and, after Joseph Thomson arrived, the colonization of the area followed.

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A few kilometres ahead we would drive through the small town of Naivasha and soon we were at the lake. Although sometimes we stopped at the upmarket Lake Naivasha hotel or the Safariland lodge for a refreshment, a bite or simply to soak-up under the shade of their Yellow-barked acacias (Vachellia xanthophloea) [1] or Fever trees. The latter name given by the first pioneers when they blamed them for catching malaria well before the role of mosquitoes in its transmission was known!

Usually we kept driving by the lake to our final destination, the modest Fisherman’s Camp up in a dry hill where at first we “camped” with our rather basic gear under the scanty shade and thorny company of the candelabra trees (Euphorbia spp.)! It was while driving towards this camp that Mabel spotted the “antelope up the tree” [2].

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Our early camp! Note the use of the car seat and absence of chairs that did not dampen our enthusiasm.

After our first rather tentative and exploratory visits, we got to know the area better and participated in a number of activities, many of which with our friend Paul that had a rubber dinghy, an ideal vehicle to explore the lake. It goes without saying that fishing was one of the main activities we practiced at the lake that had been seeded with black bass (Micropterus salmoides) and that it was “crocodile-free”.

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Our first fishing attempt fn a rowing boat from Fisherman’s camp.

These adult black bass feed on crayfish, small fish and frogs and we caught them with a variety of lures and spoons and every fisherman has its favourite. I was not a great bass fisherman and did not find them good fighters compared with the Dorado (Salminus spp.) I used to catch in Uruguay before our Kenya days. Despite this I never refused an invitation to fish and we had great fun doing it. Paul, conversely, was good at fishing in general and had no difficulties getting bass also.

I lacked practice with my casting that very often ended up with my lure entangled in the shore reeds, a feat that I maintain even today and my family expects it from me when we go out to fish! It was during one of these “failed” casts that my green frog-like lure landed on land, even beyond the reeds.

As usual Paul started to make a rude comment but before he could complete it, a long green snake went for my plastic frog! Startled, I pulled and recovered it while we laughed at the incident. I then re-casted to the same spot and, again, the snake attacked it for a second time. This time I was ready so, to avoid hooking the aggressor, I withdrew the lure and continued casting to a different spot.

Although usually we did not catch many bass, sometimes we did and, after a while, we looked for some added entertainment and threw some fish to the very common fish eagles to catch. These birds were usually perched at more or less regular intervals along the lakeshore, in their territories.

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After our best day fishing in Naivasha.

They position themselves high up the trees and there are always watching, not only for fish but also any movement in the water or potential prey of any kind. So, throwing a fish overboard almost instantly called their attention, and before it had moved too far, the eagle will come and take it. This was great fun to watch and we decided to photograph it for posterity!

The idea was to get one eagle at the exact moment that it grabbed the fish with its talons or while lifting it from the water! Easier said than done. I was chosen as the photographer and Mabel and Paul were the observers that would tell me when to shoot as, with my eye in the viewfinder, I could not see very well the eagle approaching.

We used a lot of fish and, needless to say, after several tries I have dozens of pictures of a floating fish or water splashing. The best I could manage is one with a brown blob on the left that was an eagle’s tail! After that attempt, we abandoned the idea and decided to eat the fish!

On one of these fishing trips we witnessed a Fish Eagle attack a Goliath Heron while it was flying a few metres from us. I do not know the reasons for the aggression but the result was unusual. The attack took the heron by surprise and in its effort to avoid the attacker it dived but, being too near the lake surface, it crash-landed on the water rather awkwardly.

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A Goliath heron in flight. The world’s largest living heron with a height of 120–152 cm and a wingspan of 185–230 cm.

Herons, unlike ducks and geese are waders and not built for take offs from water. Worse still, it was totally soaked. So it floated there for a while like a “goliath crested grebe”. Luckily the eagle lost interest and there were no crocodiles at the lake so, once it recovered its wits, it swam rather fast considering its long legs! It soon reached the shore and it just stood there among the papyrus, drying itself with extended wings!

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Elsamere.

Some time later we discovered Elsamere, a beautiful house by the lake shore that belonged to Joy Adamson, hence named after the famous Elsa the lioness. It was run by the Elsa Foundation after Joy’s sad demise a few years earlier. Because of our work we were admitted there and it was very affordable. It was a wonderful experience to stay in such a nice house where Joy had lived. In addition, the personnel really pampered us and served very good food. As a curiosity, Elsamere was next to the Djinn (Gin!) Palace, made “famous” by the Happy Valley crowd years before our arrival [3].

Jock Dawson [4] had been recently designated Honorary Game Warden of Naivasha and lived with his wife Enid very near Elsamere where they had some magnificent Spotted Eagle Owls in their garden. Through Paul we got to know them and spent time in their very interesting company and joined him on a number of activities related with his work as Game Warden.

At Elsamere there were still some animals from the time of Joy Adamson, most notably the Black and White Colobus monkeys that -unusually- would come down from the trees to visit us and feed in the lawn. It was great to see them often and to approach them closely as they were used to human presence. We had great views of females with tiny (woolly white) babies!

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Enid, Mabel and Jock watching the black and white colobus’ antics.

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A colobus mother and baby.

Apart from the monkeys there was also an orphan Zebra, once a baby, that was now a fully-grown animal that maintained its playful nature without realizing its size. So its favourite trick was to surprise guests and try to bite them -soetimes with success-  or engage them in “zebra-play”. Not surprisingly, the decision was taken to relocate it to Nakuru National Park.

The operation was simple as the zebra was easy to catch by the people that fed it daily so we soon ended up with a sedated and tied-up zebra in the back of a Land Rover with Jock at the wheel and Paul and I at the back, with the rather large zebra. It all went well until about half of the journey when our cargo started to wake up as it was under mild sedation.

There was no much room left at the back so when it became more and more restless we asked Jock to go faster but the Land Rover would not cooperate and we were forced to manhandle the zebra to keep it down until we reached our destination! Once there, we rushed out of the car, lucky to have avoided being kicked to death!

At some stage in Elsamere there were American scientists studying animal behaviour and one day they returned with the news that they had seen a lame zebra in one of the areas they were studying. The leg was quite swollen and Jock suspected that it had been snared.

Off we went to have a look and confirmed that it was indeed a wire that was embedded on the foreleg, just above the hoof and the decision was taken to dart the zebra to remove it.

We left the car so that Jock and Paul would do the chasing and darting and re-joined them to help holding the animal while the wire was removed. The animal recovered quite quickly.

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The zebra being restrained with Mabel approaching.

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Posing before the action.

Naivasha was also known for its flower plantations and thousands of carnations were exported by plane to the European market every week but Naivasha also had buffalo and they are herbivorous and enjoyed carnations! So, Jock had received a complaint from a farm nearby that they had suffered a “visit” by a few buffalo that were busy chomping the flowers that were meant for Europe!

Under the circumstances, the only thing that could be done was to destroy the intruders with the hope that the rest would move away to the uninhabited bush higher up in the hills.

That is how I participated in my only African hunt ever as part of a group of curious onlookers that followed the hunters at a prudent distance. Although I did not care for the hunt, it gave the great opportunity to see how the trackers worked while following their quarry. We walked up and down the dry hills for a couple of hours until the order came to stay still and quiet. We then heard a few shots and two of the offending buffalo had been killed and their meat would be shared among the workers of the carnation estate and other nearby villagers.

Our exploring of the lake took us on the road that goes around it, first climbing ridges to get to a small lake separated from the main body of water called, very originally, the Small lake! In this place, away from visitors, hippos abounded among the papyrus and under the shade of a dense yellow-bark acacia forest. It was here that the Great White Pelicans were also found.

Following the lake shore towards the north, we discovered an area that was more remote with abundant game as well as where the Maasai grazed their cattle, often organized into group ranches [5].

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A Maasai group ranch.

We were in posession of a secret. We had been told that there was a Secret lake in the area and that to reach it we needed to enter through an unmarked farm gate! Eventually we found the entrance and went in. We followed a very narrow track uphill and, suddenly, below us we saw a small crater full of water the colour of pea soup.

The lake was fringed by large yellow-barked acacia trees and it seemed to be fed by rain water although the existence of springs could not be ruled out.

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naivasha secret lakeA steep walk down the crater, following a track made by the Maasai when taking their animals down to the lake allowed you to reach the water edge. The Maasai were known to bring their cattle to this little lake as, apparently, its mineral-reach water would do them good, a fact corroborated by Tommi, the Maasai herdsman that worked with me at Intona. He came from this area and he knew of the existence of the lake and the curative properties of its water [6].

We did go all the way round the lake once but this had little more to offer and we decided that we better continued frequenting Elsamere and its surrounding area where we enjoyed our closeness to nature with comfort.

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Small farmers in the rift valley on the way to Naivasha.

 

[1] Former Acacia xanthophloea.

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2014/08/24/green-eyes-in-the-wild-2/

[3] A classic book about the Happy Valley era was written by James Fox: White Mischief. Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition 320p. The book was made into a movie of the same title by Sony Pictures in 2011.

[4] A well-known professional hunter who transformed himself into a respected conservationist after Kenya banned hunting in 1977, and -after his time in Naivasha- headed the Rhino Rescue Trust in Nakuru. Unknown to me at the time but of interest is that Jock inherited the only gun that belonged to Dennis Finch-Hatton, Karen Blixen’s lover. After Jock’s death in 2004 his son took the gun, minus the case, to the UK. For the specialized, the gun was a .450 3 1/4″ Nitro Express by Charles Lancaster. John Ormiston (a UK gun trader) bought a case with the initials D F-H (Dennis Finch-Hatton) and looked for its missing contents for years until he bought the gun in 2009 to for £ 27,000 at an auction in the UK. For more details see: https://www.africahunting.com/threads/the-450-double-rifle-of-dennis-finch-hatton.40240/

[5] Group ranches are defined as a livestock production system where a group of people jointly hold title to land, maintain agreed herd sizes, and own livestock individually but herd them together. Boundaries are demarcated and members are registered. See: http://www.focusonland.com/countries/rise-and-fall-of-group-ranches-in-kenya/

[6] Today the Crater lake is a game sanctuary where you are charged a fee to enter and there are walking paths and camping sites near it.

 

 

 

First blood

To witness a lion kill is, despite its perceived cruelty, a highlight for the safari lover. We have been lucky to witness several kills and many more attempted kills during the many years that we have visited the bush. But the first one is the one that remains most vividly imprinted in your mind, particularly if it happens in full view and you witness it from a few metres away.

It happened in the Maasai Mara in the early 80’s, during one of my first camping experiences with Paul. We happened to be driving along monitoring the wildebeest movements when we saw a zebra limping badly. At close quarters it was clear that the animal had -somehow- damaged a front leg. Aware that wounded animals did not last long because of the large predator population in the area, we decided to wait for a few hours to see what happened.

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We knew that a large pride lived in the area.

At some point the zebra -a group of 8 to 10- stopped grazing and started to move. We followed. I was at the time sitting on the roof rack to have a better view of the plains so it was me that spotted the reason for the zebra nervousness. They had spotted a lioness watching them from a distance. The intentions of the predator were clear as she was walking in a general direction that would -eventually- get to the group of zebras. Excited, I prepared my camera and waited.

After a while we realized that in fact there were several lionesses and that, somehow, we were in fact used as part of a pincer movement from the huntresses! After about thirty minutes slowly following the zebras, we saw them break into a trot and, before we could see much more, they were galloping so we moved faster while trying to anticipate the event.

Suddenly we saw that the hunted were trying to avoid a second lioness that, after moving for quite a distance through a donga [1], was cutting diagonally and at full speed towards them. Things were now accelerating and so did the car and my heart while I held on to the roof rack while trying not to lose my camera or falling off myself!

The zebra were now at full gallop when, suddenly, they scattered in all directions, I am sure that this had something to do with confusing the chasers. However, as expected, the injured zebra was the target, being slower than the rest so the lioness -now joined by two more some distance behind her- was closing in. So were we, despite the irregularity of the terrain that was no obstacle for our excitment!

Soon it was clear that, despite the zebra’s final spirited effort, the chase outcome was a foregone conclusion as soon as the lioness reached the zebra and managed to place one paw on its rump, the zebra lost its equilibrium and crashed down to the ground while the lioness immediately reached for its throat. Luckily there was lots of grass and no dust so we could observe the action clearly. After a few seconds another lioness arrived and helped the first one to anchored the zebra down.

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My first picture from the moving car shows the moment the second lioness joins the kill. A third one is seen coming in the background.

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A better photo once we stopped.

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A better take once we stopped.

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Mesmerized by what I was watching and photographing, I was still on the roof rack by the time we stopped to watch them only a few metres from them! Although they were clearly not interested in me, somehow I managed to dive into the car through the open window (not easily done with the sliding window of a Series II Land Rover but clearly possible under duress!). Once inside, I continue to watch the action and take more picturees. We were both speechless while more lions kept coming from various places to join the kill.

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The arrival of the male. The white foggy marks are the windscreen wipers.

My romantic view that a lion kill was a clinical affair where the victim dies fast and in shock was shattered. The zebra took several minutes to die, while the whole lion pride arrived and some of them started to lick it while the animal was clearly alive although in deep shock by now. Eventually it expired and we were fortunate to have enough time to observe the interaction of the various members of the pride, including the arrival of the male that came “straight to the kill” and scattered all others while positioning himself near the hindquarters, ready to enjoy the best cuts!

We only left the scene at nightfall as -luckily- we knew the area well. The lions -mainly the younger- were still feeding while most of the adults were now doing nothing but washing themselves and then resting belly-up. We heard the jackals and the hyenas starting to call and soon they were approaching to the carcass that, by now, was more than half eaten. Thinking on seeing how it would be the following morning, we memorized a few features to be able to come back to the area that happened to be outside the reserve.

The following morning, we arrived to the spot but had difficulties to find the kill. Only after a careful search we stumbled upon the zebra’s clean skull and a couple of bones. That was all that remained from what yesterday had been a living zebra! Luckily, about 500,000 migrated every year intermingled with the wildebeest so one less was not going to make too much of a difference!

 

[1] In Africa, a narrow steep-sided ravine formed by water erosion but usually dry except in the rainy season.

Camping in Kenya. Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

We “learnt” lots of the secrets of camping in Africa from our friend Paul, another veterinarian working at Muguga, Kenya. Soon we had broken the barrier of “camping among the beasts” as most campsites in Kenya were unfenced. We often visited Paul during his long spells residing in the bush while working in the various national parks and/or in the fringes of parks and game reserves.

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One of Paul’s camp sites in the Maasai Mara. His camp hand Tobias is on the left.

It was great fun and we soon started to go at it alone. Preparations included the procurement of a few second hand camping items that, apart from a small tent, a couple of chairs and a foldable table, included a large frying pan with an extremely long handle, as my wife did not and still does not enjoy cooking at the fire. For working purposes, I could use a large ICIPE tent that added great comfort to our outdoor lives.

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While in Kenya we practiced “basic” camping!

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Working camping was still basic but we had the advantage of a large tent.

Our most frequent camping destination was the Maasai Mara where not only Paul often worked but it was an area I needed to drive through on my way to Intona ranch in the Transmara where I was working with ticks and tick-borne diseases as explained earlier[1]. Luckily my work took us there regularly as I needed to supervise the on-going observations as as well as to bring new personnel to be stationed at the ranch.

Camping in the Maasai Mara very often involved close encounters with different animals and you needed to be alert at all times as elephants and buffalo were present in large numbers, in addition to the normal and harmless savanna dwellers such as giraffe and the various antelopes. Although leopards were quite rare, the place was a predators’ playground.

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Near Kichwa Tembo Camp, Maasai Mara.

The Mara-Serengeti area is world famous for the annual migration of wildebeest and zebra and luckily we witnessed this unique event several years (in fact we watched it every year while in Kenya!). The richness of easy prey is matched by an equal abundance of predators. Lions were a common find and spotted hyenas were really plentiful. So, our camping regularly had some exciting moments, particularly after dark!

From the start we learnt that we were safe (well, as safe as we could be) while inside our tents and we were always extremely careful when moving around camp, particularly when light started to fade. Although some friends preferred to keep fires burning all night, we did not but whether this has an effect on nocturnal visitors I do not know. All I know is that rhinos are believed to stamp out campfires, a fact I could not corroborate as rhinos were already few in the 80’s[2].

Helen was the daughter of a well-known veterinarian from the UK that had come to spend some time in Kenya[3]. We met her at a social event and, as she was looking for opportunities to travel around, I invited her to join my wife and I on one of our regular trips to the Transmara. She immediately accepted the offer.

So, as arranged, we picked Helen up one early morning as the journey was a long one over rough roads and we wanted to arrive to the shores of the Mara River, adjacent to the Maasai Mara, early as this would enable us to go for a short game drive with Helen.

I had an agreement with the Mara Buffalo Camp to stay close to them and I was also kindly allowed to use their facilities. Usually we would arrive at our Mara margin campsite with just enough light left to set-up camp, dine and go to bed. Sometimes our departure from Muguga would get delayed and we would arrive after dark and needed to set up our tent with the car lights!

We would then spend the following day driving to Intona where we would usually camp in the ranch for two or three nights while the work was done and return without stopping all the way back to Nairobi because I had another on-going trial in Muguga and time was quite short.

The journey with Helen went as planned and we arrived in good time. After setting up camp, by mid afternoon we went for a game drive to show some of the beautiful Maasai Mara and its animals to her. We saw most of the usual plains game but failed to find any predators, apart from the ubiquitous spotted hyenas that were extremely common in the area.

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A spotted hyena dealing with a wildebeest carcass.

Tired from the long journey and the additional game drive, our dinner was a quick affair and we were in our tents rather early as we had another journey the following day whose duration was difficult to predict as we needed to negotiate some bad roads that were often muddy and slippery.

While laying on our camp beds, as usual, the lions started to roar far away and we called Helen’s attention towards them. She was very excited to hear them but soon our exchanges got interrupted by sleep.

I am not sure at what time the lions’ roars woke us up but probably it was midnight or perhaps later. We could hear several lions getting closer as their growls gradually got louder. We estimated that they were probably coming along the river although we could not be sure. I did not wish to open the tent door to have a look for fear of attracting unwanted attention so we could only imagine the lions approaching our camp!

After a few more minutes of stillness during which my wife and I waited with bated breath, the visitors arrived, preceded by loud roaring a few seconds earlier and followed by the noise of “flying hooves”. The rumpus did not last more than a couple of minutes as, apparently, the lions were -we also assumed- going for a herd of zebra and/or wildebeest although we did not hear them calling. We did hear a few items being knocked over in the process and then the animals left, luckily.

Only then we remembered Helen! We shouted at her telling her not to move from her tent but, although we tried to get an answer from her, we failed. Concerned, I shone the torch in the direction of her tent and I was relieved to see that it was still intact although I could confirm that some of our belongings had indeed suffered the consequences of the tresspasers!

As the animals moved off, we gradually relaxed and decided to leave things for the morrow as Helen was surely fine and tidying up the camp could wait. I only hoped that she would not decide to go to the toilet before daylight. So it was back to a rather fitful sleep but nothing else disturbed us that night.

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The Oloololo escarpment as a spectacular backdrop for a zebra herd, Maasai Mara.

The following morning, while water was on the fire, we gathered table, chairs, towels and a few other minor items while we checked the abundant footprints in an attempt to unravel the events of the night. The conclusion was that several lions had been there chasing zebras through our camp as we failed to find wildebeest prints. The kill, if any, had taken place somewhere else and we decided to look for it afterwards on our way to Intona.

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One of the prides resident near our camping area in the Maasai Mara.

While we were busy around camp, we heard “Good morning” and we saw Helen emerging from her small tent. Only at that point I paid attention to her tent and felt relieved that it was still intact. It was one of these mountaineering jobs, low on the ground and of a bright blue colour! Helen looked well rested and asked us what we were doing. “We are looking at the spoor, trying to understand what happened last night” I replied. Helen gave me a look of confusion and said: “why, what happened? I slept all night and even did not go to the toilet!”

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A male lion feeding on a topi kill at the Maasai Mara.

I was quite relieved by her ignorance of the facts and felt tempted not to say anything but I thought the truth should be voiced so I told her the whole story. Her eyes got larger as I talked and at first she had doubts about my story so I had to show her the footprints of the various animals and, eventually, she believed me and she was both concerned but also disappointed to have missed the action!

Although we took a detour looking for a possible kill nearby, we failed to find any traces of neither prey nor predators, although we knew they were watching us!

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A zebra kill at the Maasai Mara.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/07/08/life-and-work-in-kenya-intona-2/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/intona-ranch1/

[2] I leave the research about whether this is true or not to you as Google does not seem to give a straight answer.

[3] Years later, her father was the External examiner of my PhD Thesis.

Growing up

In November 2014 I shared with you the finding of a “River Plate zebra” youngster.[1]

Although I walked almost daily -when in Carmelo, Uruguay- through that area, I did not see it again so I had almost forgotten it. That is why I was pleasantly surprised when this week, almost two years later, I saw a similar animal, now almost an adult and still “approachable”.

At first sight I was convinced that it was the same horse. However, comparing today’s pictures with those above (from 2014) I had some doubts as the coloration had somehow changed. Although I would be surprised that another animal such as this could exist in my town, I consulted some “experts” with who I share beach afternoons and I was assured that changes in colour do take place when the animal grows.

I did not dare to get close and ask her if she was the same I saw in 2014. I was fearing “horse bite” and -much more importantly- possible rude comments from some readers, particularly those from “down under”. So, I only managed to take new pictures of her from a prudent distance and speculate on its real identity.

Growing up has somehow changed her but it is still an eye-catching animal!

 

[1] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/11/13/almost-a-zebra/