Lion skull

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Young Borana cattle at Intona undergoing tick resistance testing.

While visiting Godfrey at Laikipia to buy cattle for my Intona ranch trials, I was of course invited for a cup of tea by him and his wife. We sat in the veranda to enjoy the afternoon and talked about our activities for a while. It was soon time to go so I thanked them and stood up to leave. Then I noticed the skulls!

Four or five lion skulls were blanching on top of their house roof and Godfrey explained that they had been there for years. Some had been taken from lion carcasses found at the farm but others were from animals that needed to be destroyed as they would become “cattle-eaters” and be too much of a nuisance in a cattle ranch. Being a conservationist he expressed regret at this but it was necessary as trans location was not always advisable or even possible [1].

Without thinking much, before I left, I mentioned that if he ever had one skull too many, I would love to have it. He promised to remember my request and we soon parted company, as I needed to get back to Nairobi to organize the transportation of my recently acquired cattle herd.

For a few weeks after buying the cattle I was extremely busy organizing the two simultaneous trials in Muguga and Intona ranch to pay attention to anything else. So, when Veronica, our Muguga secretary, told me that Mr. Godfrey had called, I made a mental note to call him back but soon forgot about it. A couple of days later, I was at the office when a new phone call came, this time from Godfrey’s secretary. I picked up the phone to hear “Are you Mr. Castro?” [2]

I knew I had paid for the cattle so I was taken by surprise by the call. “Speaking” I said, “Mr. Castro, I have been calling you for a few days” she said rather too sternly I thought, “Could you please come to the office to collect a parcel that Mr. Godfrey left for you?” and added, “I do not know what is in it but it smells terribly”. I thanked her and rushed to their office in Nairobi having a fairly good idea of the contents…

The parcel was rather large and it was indeed very stinky! I thanked the relieved secretary and walked out. As I moved through the building, people let me pass while looking at me with expressions that varied from disgust to amusement but no one, not even the security guards approached me. I was clearly perceived as someone who could do with a bit of soap and water. The situation reminded me of boarding a public bus as a veterinarian in Uruguay after performing some post-mortem work. I could always find a an empty seat as people would keep clear of me and my “perfume”.

Although used to strong “natural” smells, as fast as I could, I got home. I unwrapped the parcel in the bath and a letter slipped out of it. It was signed by Godfrey and it said that this young male lion had roared nicely for a while until one day it decided to have a go at his cattle and in one night it killed several of them. He could have lived with that but the lion repeated the attack the following night without any obvious reason as it had plenty of beef to chose from already! So, unfortunately, he had to shoot it.

It was a great skull that I still keep today, together with the “covering” letter that I know I still have somewhere! I cleaned it thoroughly and boiled it for hours to get it totally clean. I was lucky that no one at the block of flats where I lived complained as the smell was still not nice!

As the skull is packed somewhere, I present you with an embedded picture for you to appreciate that they are really designed with emphasis on the eating rather than on the thinking!

 

Although I tried to phone Godfrey to thank him for the gift, I never managed to talk to him again.

 

[1] We saw the consequences of this while camping at Aberdares National Park in my earlier post. See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2017/08/04/bad-lions/

[2] My surname has always been complicated as it is “de Castro” and not “De Castro” as the Spanish-speaking world wishes to write it. While this is a minor issue, in Africa it became more interesting as the “de” was normally dropped and then I became “Castro”, “Caster” or my favourite: “Castrol”

Magic realism?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines magic realism as “painting in a meticulously realistic style of imaginary or fantastic scenes or images”.[1] I thought that magic realism was the stuff of some writers in our presently far land of South America such as García Marquez or Borges. My mind changed yesterday morning.

We found the wooden baboon behind the garage when we returned to our house in 2013. As the place had been rented to various tenants during our twelve-year absence, neither us nor Stephen-our caretaker- know how it got there. Although ugly, it has been allowed to stay as we are somehow fond of it.

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So, yesterday when my wife shook my otherwise placid lunch hour by shouting “Look! Nero is chasing a baboon!” It took me a while to react and join her at the kitchen window, too late to actually see our dog breathing down a large and furry baboon’s neck across our driveway! However, I did spot the primate after it managed to climb a tree next to the garage. Although this gave the monkey a pause to rest, it soon jumped off and ran again with the dog in hot pursuit until, after a second, it was lost behind the garage.

By the time we managed to get out of the house and arrive to the seen, all that remained was a very agitated dog but there was no trace of the fugitive. We climbed to the vantage point that enables us to look at our neighbour”s garden but we saw no further signs of the baboon. It all happened so fast that I started to believe that it did not happen. For obvious reasons I will omit my wife’s reply when I hinted this to her!

Then, with the corner of my eye I saw the wooden baboon and understood it all. We had noted that over the years he had been gradually eaten by termites and transformed into a dry mud-filled wooden husk and I am convinced that yesterday it was the exact time when its spirit left the shell to go wherever baboon souls go, before the next rainy season finally dissolves its crust into oblivion! Unluckily for the soul, the dog saw it and hastened its departure.

I am convinced that this is what took place but, please note that I have not shared my explanation with anyone, yet…

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/magic realism

 

Bad lions

Sometimes, because of the amount of work I had, we could not travel far during weekends and even when going to a place relatively near, our arrival would get delayed. Short safaris of this kind included lakes Naivasha, Nakuru and Bogoria, Amboseli and the Aberdares. We had visited the Aberdares National Park on day trips earlier but these had only given us a very superficial view of the park. This time we planned to spend one night camping and to explore the park a bit more. Unfortunately I had work to do and we could not leave before lunchtime.

Reading our Kenya guide [1] had prepared us for what we would face and I quote: “Steeper, starker and with denser rainforest, the Aberdares (save for the South and North Kinangop) were less settled and farmed than Mount Kenya. For this reason too, they sheltered Mau Mau strongholds, kept flora and fauna intact… and so warranted preclusion as a 228 square-mile National Park in 1950.” Hoping that all the Mau Mau had gone by the time we arrived, we got some charcoal and fresh plums from the roadside vendors near Limuru and went on.

We drove on tarmac towards lake Naivasha and turned eastwards just in front of the Longonot volcano. More from our guide: “Rainfall -80 inches p.a.- makes the steep tracks often impassable… if rain or mist waylays you en route, do not despair: the ‘black cotton’ may spin your car uncontrollably but is seldom deep. So rather than dodge the wheelruts… grit your teeth and stay in them, hard in second gear. They will keep you moving roughly frontwards and, even when waterlogged, should not bog you down.” I enjoyed the author’s sense of humour and thought on the power of our kombi’s engine!

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The Aberdares mountains from afar.

By the time we reached South Kinangop it began to rain and things started to get tricky. All the guide had said was true to the point that turning around would have been a risky manoeuvre! So, as usual, aware that our kombi had a good clearance, we decided to continue and skidded along for the remaining distance until, rather late, we managed to arrive at the gate. I think it was the Matubio gate but I am not sure. Despite our tardy arrival, the ranger let us entered. He probably saw the car’s mud and our look of desperation and thought that we could do with a altruistic welcome!

He mentioned that there was a campsite nearby that we could occupy so we paid and went on, following his directions, hoping to find the campsite soon. We were still driving in the dark after 20 minutes so we realized that we had missed the recommended campsite. Luckily, the rain had stopped but the way was still slippery and slow. We pushed on looking for a suitable spot where to pitch our small tent (at that time we had purchased a second hand mountain tent that although suitable for this occasion, it left us rather “exposed” to the potential night visitors!).

Eventually we found a flat moor and decided that it would do. I started to manoeuvre the kombi careful, avoiding getting into the mud as much as possible until I considered it to be on level ground. I was about to leave the car when I heard a loud “Stop!” coming from my wife. I looked up and, in the headlights of the car, there were about 8 adult lions watching us. They looked rather huge and very white considering the heavy rain we had experienced. As they were also dry, it was clear that they had come out from their rainproof shelter very recently. They started to walk towards us, not the usual behaviour from lions, we thought!

There were four adults and four almost full-grown individuals. The latter were the ones showing the greater interest on us! “We better move off”, my wife said firmly and, almost before she finished her sentence, I was reversing the car, hoping that we were not on soggy ground. We managed to put some distance from the lions and they stopped coming so I turned around and we departed. We drove a few more km until we considered that we were sufficiently far from the lions and then we held a short discussion regarding our camping options. It went something like this: do you want to sleep in a tent?” I said. “No” was my wife reply. Another short family discussion leading to an immediate agreement!

I removed the back seat of the kombi and put it outside while my wife was heating up some pre-prepared food we had brought as we normally did to make our camping lives easier. We dined sitting at the floor of the car and, when we were ready to sleep, we placed our mattresses on the floor. The place looked almost comfortable! While the rain started again we got into our sleeping bags and dozed off almost immediately. I briefly thought about being bogged down the following morning but I was too tired to care and convinced myself -easily- that that would be tomorrow’s problem, and I was gone.

The cold woke me up after midnight! It was a chill that was coming from my back so I started to assess the situation when realized that my wife was also awake. “Did you hear the lions?” she asked. “I would have done if my teeth would not shatter so much” I replied. Then they roared again so near that I was amazed with myself at not having heard them earlier! I felt well as we were better better sheltered than we would have been inside our small tent! But our metal cage was incredibly cold! Eventually, we managed to stick some carton and newspapers between the metal floor and our backs and this, plus putting on all suitable clothes made the trick and soon the roaring faded and I woke up well after dawn, unusually without the need of a night visit to the toilet!

The rain not only had stopped but the sun was shining. A good look at the surrounding grassland did not reveal any lions so we could perform our postponed bodily functions, re-assembled the car seat and have a much needed breakfast under the sun. We felt well and decided to look for the lions now that there was good lighting. We drove backwards and forwards for a while but failed to see anything. Disappointed we decided to explore the park further and enjoyed its beautiful vistas and amazing waterfalls and rivers.

Soon it was time to start our return and, as usual, wishing that we could remain longer, we started our return. We had driven a few km when, as usual, my wife spotted something walking in the same direction we were driving. The animal was about 100m in front of us. We checked it with the binoculars and it was a black cat, smaller than a leopard! We drove slowly on and got a good view before it veered into the bush and disappeared. Its size and shape gave it away as a black caracal, an unusual sight.

We knew that melanistic animals did occur in the Kenya highlands and we had seen black Augurd buzzards earlier during the day.

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A melanistic Augurd buzzard in the Aberdares.

We had also heard about black leopards that were sometimes spotted there but the caracal was special!

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The only snapshot possible of the Black serval just before it disappeared.

Our Kenya guide, however, added some light to the find: “Besides golden cat, bongo and Giant forest hog, the Aberdares’ rarities are Black leopard, Black serval and Black genet… Spotted lions remain unquestionably a legend”. The guide did not mention whether “huge white lions” were also mythical as we were sure that the ones we found the night before were unspotted and real!

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A normal serval cat at Nairobi National Park.

Our trip back was dominated by the conversation about the lions and the Black serval. We enjoyed the good weather and we got to our house in Tigoni in good time. Days later, consulting other wildlife enthusiasts, we learnt that a number of “problem lions” that killed livestock had been relocated to the Aberdares and that this had sparked quite a degree of controversy as it made walking in the park a dangerous activity now. To make matters worse, it was believed that these lions were less wary of people than their “wild” relatives and were not afraid of approaching humans!

We were of course unaware of this bit of rather important information at the time of our visit and lucky we saw them before they found us! During late visits we spotted the lions again and they did not look as white and huge as the first time.

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Later we saw the warning signs.

[1] Tomkinson, M. (1981). Kenya, a holiday guide. Ernest Benn Ltd, London. 144p.

The Kombi falls

I will be unfair if I would not say a few words about our VW Kombi. It seems that these days these vehicles still attract quite a lot of attention among car lovers. Although I never saw it in this light at the time we had it, they dominated the minibus market and most of the Kenya safari companies used them. Then VW came up with a new model that was not as good for rough roads as their back doors became undone and needed to be welded to keep them shut! Very soon afterwards the Japanese minibuses replaced them.

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A young-looking Bushsnob posing with the kombi after driving through a muddy Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

The Kombi had, like any vehicle, good and bad features. My first concern was safety, as I had never driven a car with the engine at the back and I felt rather vulnerable in case of an accident, particularly the way driving in Kenya was in those days! I also needed to fit seat belts, surprisingly absent in a UN vehicle! Its lack of 4WD was another rather serious drawback and I recall several instances of getting stuck in places that a 4WD would not even have skidded!

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My wife (red shirt) and our friend Aurora resting after pushing the kombi out of the sand at Naivasha. July 1982.

One particularly bad instance was at Amboseli National Park when, trying to approach the swamp to get a better view of an elephant, we ended up into soft black cotton soil. This kind of mud sticks to your wheels filling their threads so your tyres soon become smooth! Fed-up of fruitlessly attempting to get the car unstuck I placed our BBQ grid under one of the wheels to see if I could get some better grip. It was good and bad. We got out of the spot but the grid got somehow ejected with such force into the thicket surrounding the swamp that we never found it again and had to cook our chicken on a stick that night!

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Stuck again! This time on a rainy day at Tsavo West National Park. My wife -with the raincoat- and Paul lifting and digging to place the spare under the wheel to get some grip.

It also had the rare ability of losing traction and stopping while driving slowly over a gully or when crossing a culvert diagonally as its chassis somehow would get twisted leaving one wheel in the air spinning hopelessly! In order for the car to move again it needed the assistance of one passenger to stand on the back fender and sometimes to jump in order for the offending wheel to grip and the car to move. While this was not a great problem, imagine doing it on a ditch full of muddy water!

Snapping the clutch cable was another “Kombi special”. As you can imagine, this cable needed to transmit my left foot’s instructions for quite a distance before it reached its destination so it was a weak feature and one that left us stranded. Luckily only once. Eventually, apart from learning to fit a new cable and carrying a spare, I learnt to operate without the clutch thanks to Joseph, one of the Muguga herdsmen that taught me how to start it and drive it without a clutch! I would engage second gear and then start the engine. The car will shudder, shake and jump forward until it got going. After a while you could change gears upwards if you knew the right speed. Changing downwards was not easy so stalling at stop signs was unavoidable! Although not a long-term solution, it would get you back home or to the mechanic.

On the side of its virtues, it had great ground clearance, a reliable engine that never had a problem despite its mileage and, being two of us, it also had lots of space to carry supplies and materials for my work as well as to take all of our gear on safari (and that is a lot and increasing!). Removing the second seat we could sleep inside if the circumstances so demanded. Its sliding door made for great game watching; particularly driving around lakes (with the door facing the lakeshore, of course) enabled superb birding.

I drove the car intensely between Tigoni, Nairobi and Muguga during the week and all over Kenya during the weekends. That particular morning I had come to Ranjini´s house to bring her some vegetables that I got for her in the Limuru market, close to Tigoni. The clutch cable had snapped while entering her house but then there was worse to come…

Ranjini worked as a scientist with the then Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development of the British Government attached to the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) in Muguga where she also lived. We had met while sharing accommodation at Muguga House, KARI´s visitors hostel [1].

“Clutchless” I crawled into her garden and did a jerk-stop. Although I carried a spare cable and I woud have been able to fix it then, it was not a short exercise as its calibration took a while and I needed to get back home. Further, we had plans to travel far in a couple of days so it needed proper fixing. So, having given Ranjini her shopping I assured her that I would be fine and left her rather worried by means of another jerk-start departure.

With my mind focussed on keeping the car going I forgot to fasten my seatbelt, an essential precaution when driving in Kenya. I was going very slowly down Ranjini’ s driveway when I decided to buckle up. I had never noticed that particular pine tree but I am sure that it had been there for many years and not moved much so it was not the guilty party! Neither had I seen its protuberant roots reaching towards the driveway. I still did not that day, I only felt them!

Everybody know that buckling up in movement is not recommended. It requires a few seconds of focusing your mind on the belt as well as some handless driving. A lot can happen over those few seconds. I remember feeling the left wheel rising over the roots and, as I tried to break, the car shuddered, stalled and stopped. However, in a bewildering feat, it gradually started to tilt towards mi side. My surprise quickly turned to panic and then resignation: the car was falling on me in slow motion.

My immediate thought was to try to stop it by sticking my hands through the window but -luckily for me- events happened faster than my thoughts and a thump followed by a shower of spanners, driving licence, car book, nuts and bolts and all things that one carries in a car’s shelf fell on me! The Kombi was now securely resting on its right side and only the door separated me from the ground that I could touch as my window was down.

It was an upset Bushsnob that emerged through the passenger’s window! Once outside I could contemplate my sublimely stupid achievement and promised myself never to try the seat belt trick while driving again. To say that I was also embarrassed when I walked back to Ranjini’s house is an understatement. She had just sent me off and closed the front door and I there I was again! I am sure that she thought I had forgotten something. When I told her what had happened, her expression changed dramatically! “Are you all right?” she asked with genuine concern. I told her that I was fine and invited her to come and have a look at my masterpiece!

We walked to the beginning of the driveway and we had a clear vision of the Kombi peacefully resting on its side! She gasped and while she recovered, I asked her if Njuguna, her gardener, was around. She immediately called him. He came and joined the unbelieving crowd expressing his regrets.

“Njuguna, please give me a hand to put it up again” I said estimating that most of the weight should be on the underside and therefore not too difficult to bring the car back to its normal position. Looking somehow doubtful he came along. Although I did not look at Ranjini, I am sure that her expression had changed to amusement! I could not blame her.

The effort required to put the car upright again was easier than I thought and the car bounced on its wheels as it got upright again. Apart from a broken side mirror and a few small dents and scratches on the side, the car was in good condition and driveable. I thanked Njuguna, said farewell to Ranjini, buckled-up, jerk-started it and drove off, still upset at my stupidity.

It was only weeks after the event, after I had replaced the mirror and got the dents painted that I could see the funny side of this rather freakish accident that even today I find rather incredible. I regret not having a picture of the car and the faces of my rescuers when they saw it to show it to you. It was all memorable and -in retrospect- quite funny!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/kenya-muguga1/

 

 

 

Spot the beast 26

We are very pleased to be back in our marvelous garden in Harare, always full of interesting findings.

Because of the prevailing cold weather combined with the very good rains Zimbabwe had, most garden creatures are still keeping a low profile. However, as usual, my wife called me the other day to see what she had found. This is what she spotted:

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I know, it is a very easy one! However, when you look at the young shoots of the jacaranda where my wife found it, it would have been almost impossible for you to see it as it was for me in real life! This is the picture and I assure you that the chameleon is there somewhere!

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Only the eyes reveal it below!

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Finally, a proper picture of the beast in question. I really like its rolled up tail!

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Kenya memoirs – Buying cattle

Once it was decided that my experimental work in Kenya would take place in Muguga and Intona ranch in the Transmara, I needed to get cattle. I was lucky that there were suitable animals available at the Kenya Veterinary Research Institute (KEVRI) at Muguga that I could select for my work there but I still needed to get the necessary animals for Intona.

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The Muguga animals came from the KEVRI herd.

As I needed young cattle with no exposure to ticks and tick-borne diseases [1] I needed to go North where I could find them in an environment that would not allow the ticks to thrive. The purchased cattle would also have to be acceptable by Joe Murumbi [2] the owner of Intona ranch as, after the trials were completed, the cattle would remain there. That was not an easy choice! However Alan, helpful as usual, suggested that I bought Boran cattle from a ranch at Laikipia in Northern Kenya. He had purchased animals from there earlier and found them suitable. He immediately put me in touch with Godfrey, a rancher that bred Boran in Laikipia and I arranged with him to get there to chose about 30 young cattle.

Within a couple of days I had visited the farm and bought the animals. I also arranged that I would come to collect them a few days later, as soon as I could get transport organized. After my return I made enquiries among the veterinarians at KEVRI and found a lorry company that was prepared to go to Laikipia and then carry them all the way to Intona in the Transmara, a journey of about 700km that was not straight forward.

I would accompany the lorry throughout the trip to make sure that it would get there and to make sure that the cattle were well treated. I agreed with the company’s owner that I would get an experienced and responsible driver that knew the route and I also checked the vehicle to make sure -as far as I could- that it was in good nick and that it was suitable for the number of animals that we needed to transport.

I prepared the trip very carefully as I was spending a lot of my budget on this purchase. The final plan was that I would travel with Tommi, my Maasai herdsman (see the “Angry Maasai” post) and Mark, a young Kikuyu that I had also employed to assist me with the cattle work. They would keep me company, help with the cattle as well as performing communication duties on KiSwahili, Kikuyu and Maasai languages, just in case!

I planned a conservative itinerary that, leaving very early from Muguga would see us all the way to the ranch at Laikipia (260km), load the cattle and proceed as far as Nyahururu (160km) to spend the night there. During the following leg of the trip we would get to Kericho (170km) to spend the second night and finally travel from there to Intona via Kilgoris (110km). It was the “long way” to get to Intona (the normal one being through the Rift Valley, via Narok and Lolgorian) but, apart from the two ends -Laikipia and Intona- the roads were tarred and the loaded lorry would face less risk of a breakdown.

Despite all the planning, the departure got delayed! The lorry did not turn up on time and when it did, about an hour late, the driver handed me a letter. It was short: the experienced driver was sick with malaria so they had sent me a replacement! The new driver was praised and the company owner was also apologetic. Despite this “bad omen”, it was all set so I decided to continue with the planned operation.

Despite our late start we managed to get to the ranch, load the cattle and get back to Nyahururu. It was night by the time we drove into this highlands town as, to our late departure a rather bizarre incident delayed us further. While on the road about 50km after leaving the ranch through a dirt road I was in the front when, suddenly the lorry came to a grinding halt while flashing its headlights. I immediately turned back to see what the matter was and, as soon as we drove past the lorry, my heart sunk. There was no tailgate and we were being watched by a few Boran cattle about to jump off the back of the lorry! That would have been a disaster as in that part of the country there are no fences and probably the animals would have run away!

Luckily, before they could estimate the jumping height, Tommi and Mark were on them and managed to stoped them and to hold them onboard while I retraced our steps to look for the gate. I found it about 200m behind the truck. The securing bolts had vanished. I loaded the large and heavy gate as well as I could into the back of the Land Rover and drove back. Without hesitation, with the use of the ubiquitous piece of wire, it was soon secured back in its place. It was now probably safer than before, particularly against theft as it would be impossible to open it without a long struggle!

Our night at Nyahururu was very cold as usual but -luckily- uneventful. Despite the low temperature I did get up at midnight to make sure that truck and animals were still there. As usual the hotel’s watchman was sleeping and as usual immediately woke up to report that all was well. Feeling really cold I went fast back to bed and slept soundly until morning.

We left early for our second leg that would take us to the beautiful tea-planting area of Kericho. All was going well until we had a puncture. We told the lorry to go on as we were sure to catch up with it after the wheel change. So, as soon as we fitted the spare we moved on expecting to find the truck anytime. However, as we drove for a while we realized that although by then we should have found the truck, we had not! Eventually we entered Kericho “truckless” and worried!

We fruitlessly drove around Kericho, not a very large town then, and, empty-handed, decided to retrace our way for a few kilometres. Still no truck! As there were no cellphones, we had no way of communicating with our lorry so it was a despondent group that checked in our hotel that evening. We had no idea of what had happened and we could only hope that we would find the truck in the morning. We guessed that the driver must have gone past Kericho in the hope of covering more distance while he could but this was pure speculation.

I would not lie to say that my dreams were of cattle counting as I did not sleep very well that night. I blamed myself for not stopping the lorry to wait for us to change our wheel. Anyway, the night eventually over we set off towards Kilgoris, still searching for our lost truck! The more I drove without seeing the lorry, the more the idea of cattle theft became fixed in my brain but I kept quiet, hoping that I was wrong.

After driving to Kisii without luck, my hope of ever seeing the lorry started to fade fast! We got to Kilgoris and drove all over this small town and failed again to get any results. As Kilgoris was (and probably still is) a quiet Maasai town, we thought that a cattle-loaded lorry would be the town’s main attraction. Those who Tommi asked had not seen anything so we were convinced that the lorry had not been there!

We were parked at the Kilgoris “plaza” finding out how to get to the Kilgoris Anti Stock Theft Unit of the Kenya Police to report the incident when we heard a loud engine noise and our lorry (with our cattle still on it) suddenly arrived! I was so relieved to find it that I felt no longer any anger and I knew that I would be close to the lorry for the last 20km to Intona!

The driver was clearly as comforted to find us as we were to see him! He explained that, after overtaking us, he decided to pass Kericho and spend the night at Sotik, 50km further on, as this would save him travel time. He admitted that this was a mistake and he felt truly sorry. I accepted his apology and decided that it was time to move off towards Intona. We still had the final distance to cover through an often muddy track and I wanted to reach the place before nightfall to offload the cattle so that they could rest, eat and drink after such a long journey.

Luckily the road was passable and we managed to reach the ranch still with some minutes of daylight left that enabled us to see that all animals were in good condition despite their three-day ordeal.

They soon settled at the ranch to the constant admiration of our Maasai neighbours and visitors as well as some hitches [3]. They were not beautiful animals but an essential part of my field work.

I had never felt as exhausted in my entire life than that night at Intona ranch. Luckily I had a comfortable bed at a nice house to spend the night and recover.

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The Boran cattle enjoying the green grass at Intona. The ear bags were part of a test to assess their resistance to ticks.

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Murumbi’s house at Intona, where I spent the night.

 

 

[1] The Brown Ear Tick Rhipicephalus appendiculatus vector of theileriosis caused by Theileria parva.

[2] See: “Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi” under pages in this blog. https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/joseph-zuzarte-murumbi-1911-1990/

[3] See: “The cattle are gone”. https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/07/19/the-cattle-are-gone/

 

 

Buying a car

By the time I completed my FAO “Andre Mayer” assignment I was already involved in collaborating with other colleagues of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) on the on-going work on the resistance of cattle to tick infestations. With Robin we had achieved good results so ICIPE was interested in the continuation of my work. As I enjoyed both, being in Kenya and the work I decided to stay as a research scientist of the Tick Programme, still led by Matt. Some time afterwards Matt became Deputy Director until his untimely and sad passing on 3 August 1985.

The end of the FAO assignment not only meant writing a final report but also the return to the local FAO Office in Kenya of our beloved VW kombi. At the time we lived in Tigoni, 30 km far from Nairobi, and a car was a necessity for my wife to get to her job at the Commercial Office of the Embassy of Argentina in Nairobi and for me to get to Muguga from where I would be working. ICIPE did not offer cars to its employees and all cars were managed through a car pool that I would only be able to use for field trips when booked in advance.

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Our kombi during the rains.

We required a car that would not only be able to do our daily “rat race” but also to be able to take us and, more importantly, bring us back from the many safaris we had in mind! So, after considering the ideal and the possible we decided to go for a short-wheel base Series III Land Rover. Both series II and III Landies were common in Kenya at the time and I have had ample opportunity to test them during my many trips to Intona without a hitch.

We needed to find the car fast, before handing back our kombi so we immediately started to check the classified adverts in the Nairobi newspapers. For a few days we only saw vehicle offers that were either too expensive for us or suspiciously cheap to be in the desired condition. Eventually, after about a week of searching, we found an advert that offered one, very reasonably priced, considering that it was a 1975 model and that the price included a number of useful camping items!

We phoned the seller and agreed for a visit the following morning, as we were rather anxious to get the car. At the agreed time we were driving through Lenana road near the Hurlingham area looking for the car, when suddenly there it was, being washed by the house’s gardener. We drove in and walked straight to the car. The gardener greeted us and allowed to have a good look at it. It was a real beauty and I would not let it go. While I was sitting inside looking at the gear levers, another car drove in and I thought “Oh dear, there comes another buyer with more money!”.

It was a lady and she came straight towards us. “Who are you?” she said. Her tone rather unfriendly I thought. “I am interested in the Land Rover and, as we agreed with your husband, I believe, we came to have a look at it” I replied. “I am not married and the car is not for sale!” she replied still rather curtly. At that moment I realized that our anxiety to find the car we needed had got the best of us and, seeing the car, we drove in without looking at the house number! Feeling foolish (yes, another time!) and after apologizing profusely to the now calmer lady owner, we departed in haste. I regretted tha the gardener may have got an “ear full” because of our carelessness.

Apart from being upset at our mistake I was feeling rather disappointed as I really liked the car and I was fully aware that the possibilities that the one we were to see would be in a similar condition would be rather difficult. However, now carefully checking the house numbers, we drove a couple of blocks down the road and found the right house.

This time the owner was waiting for us and brought us to the car while telling us that they were selling it as they were returning to the UK and would not take the car as it was a left hand drive (LHD) model, designed to drive on the opposite side of the road. That was a disadvantage that explained its low price. Aware of this shortcoming we decided to look at it as we were there. It looked like a well-kept car, worth having.

My wife and I held a short consultation and decided that, considering our situation, the car would be suitable and arranged to get our mechanic to check it the following day. He confirmed that it was sound so we bought it. The price (Stg 1,500) included two petrol tanks and two jerry cans, various mechanical tools, a roof rack where a tailor-made mattress would fit perfectly and then it would be covered by a frame with a thick canvas that would be a veritable, though home-made, rooftop tent and one that would shelter us a few times on safari.

The issue of being a LHD never bothered us as, not being a fast car, the difficulties of overtaking at speed were rare. The car only misfired once after crossing a flooded river and its ignition system dried by the ubiquitous “fundi”, it went well again. I still have the jerry cans and the roof canvas. Unfortunately, the mattresses flew off undetected during one of the crossings of the Mara plains during an ill-fated journey during which -heavily loaded for some reason- also the back door failed as it popped open scattering all our belongings for a stretch of road until I managed to stop the car to collect them!

It was still a success at sale time when leaving Kenya in 1989 to go to Ethiopia. We sold for twice what we had paid for. The only time when we have made money for one of our used vehicles!

mabel on l rover...

My wife looking for footprints.

Land Rover Kakamega forest

Being cautious at a Kakamega forest bridge.

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On the way to Koobi Fora in Turkana with Else and Paul.

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Again, during the trip to Koobi Fora with Paul’s Land Rover.

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Stuck on arrival at Koobi Fora lake shore and being pulled out by Paul.

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Through Amboseli dry lake. Well, rather wet that time, hence the picture to show this rather unusual situation!

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The great experience of riding on the roof!

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Young wife and Bushsnob posing on the Land Rover!

 

 

 

The nasoni of Rome [1]

Rome is packed with attractions, some of them world famous and others less so but not less interesting. We have all heard about or visited some of its famous fountains such as the Trevi fountain, Turtle Fountain at Piazza Mattei, Fountain of the Frogs at Piazza Mincio, the big fountain on the Janiculum Hill and the Fountain of the Four Rivers at Piazza Navona to name some of the better known.

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The fountain of the four rivers, Piazza Navona.

While the above have great cultural and ornamental value there are other water fountains that, although not great looking, serve the purpose of delivering free ice-cold water to the city inhabitants and visitors. These are the small drinking fountains that are found all over Rome supplying water non-stop.

There are 2,500 drinking fountains scattered all over the city, and almost 300 of them are inside the city walls. Although there are a few exceptions, they mainly follow a standardized model known by the locals as nasone/a because of the drinking spout on its side.

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Technical drawing of a drinking fountain. Scheda Tecnica del Nasone Fontanella di Roma. Released into the public domain by its authors via Wikimedia Commons.

These simple but clever contraptions allow the water to run continuously through their “noses” but blocking the end of the spout sends water in an arch that is ideal for drinking as well as for surprising the unaware visitor with a summer splash!

The 100 kg and 100 cm high nasoni are in place from 1874. They are made of cast iron and marked with the ubiquitous S.P.Q.R. that, in Latin, means Senatus Populus Que Romanus (the Senate and the People of Rome), the official city “logo” that also appears in many public buildings.

Most drinking fountains are found near the outdoor markets and plant and flower vendors and it is very common to see their water overflowing buckets and other containers placed under their water stream. The purity of the water is assured by the Azienda Comunale Energia e Ambiente (ACEA) [2] through over 250,000 tests a year [3].

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Picture of nasona by User: Lalupa (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

A novelty for us during this visit to Rome was the discovery of the “nasoni maps” put together by various organizations such as the ACEA itself that presents the public with a map of the nasoni in the historical centre of the city and beyond. [4]

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A “special” nasone with a bottom plate that enables pets to drink!

The constant flow of almost ice-cold drinking water the year round in Rome through the nasoni (and even the non-drinking water from the fountains) has always been a mystery for me. Writing this post I learnt that the water comes from the Peschiera reservoir through a 130 km aqueduct that runs deep underground. Although the underground element would be important for the coldness of the water, there should be something else keeping it so cool. I did not find a clear answer until our friend Donatella told me that the water is always moving and therefore it has no time to warm up. I believe that she hit the nail on the head and solved the mystery to my satisfaction!

The 16 million cubic metres of water that flow into the nasoni‘s drains and other fountains everyday are -apparently- recycled for watering gardens, cleaning factories and other non-drinking purposes so it does not go to waste. However, it is an immense volume of water! So, trying to get an idea of the amount that has gone through Rome’s drinking fountains since their establishment in 1874 I did a quick and dirty calculation:

143 years x 2500 nasoni x 16,000,000 litres/day x 365 days = 2,087,800,000,000,000

or two quadrillion, eighty-seven trillion, eight hundred billion litres or 2,088 cubic km of water yielded. Frankly, the result did not tell me much as the volume was impossible for me to grasp! So, as usual in these cases, I looked for a comparison and found that such an amount of water would have almost fill up lake Victoria with its 2,700 cubic km! I am not sure that this assessment is any use to anyone but at least it lays my mind to rest until I start working on the next post!

 

 

[1] A man with a big nose. Nasone/nasona are the masculine/feminine nouns and nasoni the plural.

[2] Municipal company for Energy and Environment

[3] https://www.acea.it/

[4] https://www.acea.it/it# or http://www.colosseo.org/nasoni/inasonidiroma.asp

 

 

Christina O

Back in Rome after our Sorrento trip we went to stay with our friends Donatella and Carlo at their Appia Antica house, always a great pleasure and one that we always look forward to do. Although back in Rome my mind was still set on finding out what the two vessels anchored at Sorrento were!

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The “mystery vessels” anchored near Sorrento.

I remembered that I had used a ship-tracking web site [1] to follow a cargo ship bringing a car from Japan to Mozambique and I decided to give it a try to see whether it would help me to identify them. Bingo! As soon as I checked for the activity around Sorrento, it was easy to find them as they were the only two stationary vessels at the time. Their names were the Royal Clipper and the Christina O so, I immediately searched the web and this is what I found.

The Royal Clipper is a passenger cruise ship operated by Star Clippers to carry passengers on holiday around the world. In autumn and winter it visits the Caribbean while in spring and summer it sails from Barbados to Lisbon and Rome and then it does Mediterranean itineraries departing from ports including Lisbon, Rome and Athens.

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Photo by Orlica (Own work) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The ship is interesting as it has a steel hull and five tall masts in a design that follows that of the Preussen, a famous five-mast German sailing ship built in 1902 and known by sailors at the time as the “Queen of the Queens of the Seas” that unfortunately was lost in 1910 at Crab Bay after a collision. The Royal Clipper is the largest “true sailing ship” built since Preussen and the largest square-rigged ship afloat [2]. It carries over one acre of sails (5202 m2) operated mechanically by a rather small crew for its size!

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Photo credit: by Orlica (Own work) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The interesting information that I got about the more spectacular of the two ships encouraged me to continue my naval mystery-solving work. What I found for the Christina O was extremely interesting although I must admit that even before checking the web, being from the “baby boomer” generation, I have guessed what yacht it was although not its many features and history.

The Christina O is today a private yacht that once belonged to Aristotle Onassis, the billionaire Greek-Argentinian businessman. It is considered as one of the most legendary yachts afloat with an amazing history, full with high society life, politics and romance. It was aboard this yacht that Ari (as Onassis was known) and Maria Callas, had their colourful and stormy romance that lasted for over ten years.

Maria Callas still is perhaps the most famous soprano the world enjoyed and she earned the nickname of “La Divina” (the Divine) for her singing style. Her relationship with Ari ended and then he married John Kennedy’s widow Jackie, a long-time friend and their wedding took place onboard of the yacht. Previously, the Christina (the name that Ari gave the yacht) hosted the wedding celebrations when Prince Rainier of Monaco and actress Grace Kelly wed in 1956.

The super yacht was a symbol of great power at the time of Ari’s life It had many important visitors and a few really illustrious ones including, apart from Callas and Jackie, Winston Churchill, Richard Burton, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Grace KellyElizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Rudolf NureyevFrank Sinatra, and John F. Kennedy!

Onassis next to the original Christina.

The yacht was originally the HMCS Stormont, a Canadian anti-submarine frigate launched in 1943 that, after serving as a convoy escort during the Battle of the Atlantic and being a support ship at the Normandy landings, was purchased in 1954 at scrap value of US$34,000 by Onassis who subsequently re-named it Christina after his daughter and spent USD 4 million to convert it into probably the most luxurious super yacht of its time!

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HMCS Stormont: Picture taken by an employee of the Canadaian Government, and greater than 50 years of age [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

After Ari’s death, Christina -his daughter- donated the Christina to the Greek government as a presidential yacht. Then the yacht got its third name: Argo but, regrettably, it was allowed to deteriorate until it was purchased in 1998 by fellow Greek shipping magnate John Papanicolaou who spent USD 50 million to recover it re-naming it Christina O in honor of the by then deceased Christina.

Among other amenities, the Christina O was fitted and still has a master suite (now known as the Onassis suite), eighteen passenger staterooms, and numerous indoor and outdoor living areas, all connected by a spiral staircase. The aft main deck has an outdoor pool with a minotaur-themed mosaic floor that rises at the push of a button to become a dance floor. There is also a helipad on the promenade deck. At 99 metres long she is still among the top 50 largest yachts in the world.

Since Papanicolaou’s death in 2010, Christina O was rented for private charters and cruises and in 2013 was placed for sale at a price between USD 21 and 32 million [4]. Despite all the money invested on the yacht it has not been sold because of its overhead expenses.

In 2005 she was placed for charter with Camper & Nicholsons International, the oldest yacht brokerage company in the world. At present Christina O cruises the Mediterranean during summer, clearly including Sorrento! while in winter the yacht travels to the Caribbean. It costs €560,000 (Approximately USD 592,500) per week plus its expenses.

I am rushing to book it for next year, trusting that I will get sufficient friends to join us on our next visit to the Mediterranean…

 

[1] https://www.vesselfinder.com/?imo=5076705

[2] http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com

[3] https://www.yachtcharterfleet.com/luxury-charter-yacht-23156/christina-o.htm

[4] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/aristotle-onassiss-yacht-christina-o-put-up-for-sale-8682877.html

If you are still interested on more details on the Christina O, this page is useful: http://www.mychristinao.com/

 

 

 

Sorrento

After our brush with history and ruins, it was time for a bit of hedonism so we headed for the Amalfitan coast and Sorrento in particular. To visit the latter was my idea as I had nice memories of an earlier visit we did in the 90s. It was a slightly more relaxed Bushsnob at the steering wheel but only because of the impeccable navigation of my daughter and the crisis control of both her and my wife!

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The mighty Vesuvius. Picture credit: Jeffmatt at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Eventually we turned off the main road and I drove the final part through a stretch of road only suitable for one Ape[1] at the time, unaware of whether it was a one-way path while praying that no other car or even an Ape would come the other way! After 2 km of suspense and after pruning a few trees, we arrived and I even managed to park the car out of the way under the direction of our host. The road was suitably called Via Nastro Verde (Green Ribbon road) as it was framed by all sort of trees, including the famous Sorrento lemons, the raw material of the not less known Limoncello.

Airbnb described the flat as being located on the hills above Sorrento with an easy access to the town via a path downhill. The place was at a farm and the view of the bay of Naples breathtaking at first and, once you manage to regain your wits, very interesting.

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The view of the Bay of Naples from our window.

Close to lunchtime, after having exhausted the ample supply of hazelnuts and cherries left by our host we judged that our settling in was over and it was time for exploration. The Bushsnob agreed to scratch his siesta and to accompany the other members of the party for a descent to Sorrento, so far a nice sight well below us. We looked for and found the path so we started our descent. Somehow, a friendly brown dog got attached to us and, although we attempted to chase him away, it somehow liked us and stuck to us.

The path was as well signposted as steep as it consisted of 2 km of steps. Although it was tough on the elderly, we managed to negotiate it quite well, guided by our recently acquired guide dog that -insanely in my view- kept running down and and then up the steps all the time, making me feel even more tired. Once we reached town with our knees trembling but still functional, things improved and our eyes could be lifted from the path to look around.

The first thing we noted was that the dog was still with us! Feeling guilty but realizing that trying to chase it away was not an option we decided to put up with its company for the rest of the day if necessary and that if this persisted, we would bring it back to our hilltop whatever our means of transport. The dog meantime was clearly unaware of our plans and, after walking for a couple of blocks, it found his own lowlands relatives or acquaintances and joined them to spend the rest of the Saturday in good company.

Somehow relieved that the dog issue resolved itself, we wandered around the city that, being a Saturday and in summer, was rather crowded and we were surrounded by shoppers at all times. My Sorrento memories already started to crumble during the first couple of hours!

Having tested the way down and found it hard on the knees we firmly decided that going up the hill at night was not an option. We then decided that our return would be by bus so, in mid afternoon, we walked to the station only to find that the last bus to our destination was departing in a couple of hours as it was a weekend. Clearly, we would travel back by taxi as an early dinner was not on the cards.

After spending some time at the central and popular Piazza Tasso and visiting the 14th century Saint Francis church, we decided to explore the Marina Grande to find a place for a seafood dinner by the sea as -wisely- we judged that the closer Marina Piccola from where all ferries operate would not be the right place, somehow.

As usual in Italy, lots of people had similar thoughts to ours with the result that Marina Grande’s restaurants were rather full when by the time we arrived. After having a look at the offer, the fact that Sophia Loren was a patron of the Di Leva Five Sisters restaurant clinched our decision and we took a table next to the beach. Although Sophia was not there at the time (she was clearly unaware of our presence), we were served by one of the sisters who knew her and we even managed to meet another three of the sisters. Both food and service were excellent. Curiously, a later look at Trip Advisor showed that the restaurant only had 2.5 stars and some very rude remarks by mainly foreign customers!

Dinner and ice cream over, a taxi was called and off we went, all the way up the hill to our flat. Of course we did not know that the way back for vehicles was over 20 km so we needed more money to pay for the taxi than for a dinner for three! So the result of the first day at Sorrento was not good and by the time I went to bed I had no hopes for a fun Sunday!

As usual I woke up early and spent a long time watching the sea below us and following the ferries coming and going to destinations such as Naples and Capri. Then I noted a large yacht anchored a few hundred metres from the Marina Piccola. Although I did not have binoculars -for the sake of travelling light- I could see that it was some kind of a luxury yacht such as those that belong to the royal families and I decided that it belonged to one of them.

Sunday was a relaxed day and, as expected, did not offer anything special apart from a “mongrel-less” walk down to town, an early dinner and a bus return for a Euro 1.50 fare! The second day at the city did nothing to improve my sinking feeling that Sorrento is not what I thought it was. Later on, talking to friends we learnt that weekends are not the best time to visit the place so I got somehow more enthusiastic but not enough to return there for a while.

The following morning, the day of our departure, I -again- got carried away with sea contemplation and immediately noted another vessel that had arrived during the night or early morning. It had lots of masts so I decided that it was one of the many tall ships that tour the world that had decided to join us at high-living. It added more interest to the already superb view.

My contemplation was cut short when I realized that it was time for our trip back to Rome as we had a time to return our car. Not all was lost though as in Rome we would spend a couple of weeks in the company of our daughter and good friends although only part-time as they are working.

It was an uneventful return journey, but the view of the Bay of Naples -the highlight of the visit- and the images of the ships anchored at the bay stayed in my mind. I then decided that I would investigate them further but you will need to wait for the next post to find out if my efforts borne fruit…

 

[1] The Piaggio Ape (bee in Italian), is a three-wheeled light commercial vehicle produced since 1948 by Piaggio and now by Piaggio India. It is a common vehicle used by Italian farmers as it allows them to negotiate very narrow roads.