Night surprise!

At night, returning to our bungalow at Swimuwini after a hot shower I took a detour to investigate what looked like a small pond. From a distance I shone my torch in the general area and I froze in my tracks. There was a crocodile there!

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Without moving I maintained the light on the reptile’s head -all I could see- and I not only saw it moving but also its eyes shone under the torch’s light! “This is amazing” I thought while watching the beast. I dropped my towel and other shower implements and slowly approached the pond in the dark until I estimated to be close enough to have a good view. Then I switched on my torch again.

To my relief it was a false alarm but a clever ruse nevertheless! Someone had somehow placed a tree trunk semi-submerged in the pond with the intention of making it look like a croc. Whoever he/she was succeeded with me! The movement and shiny eyes were not fiction as the head was a resting place for a bunch of toads [1] that were using the wooden croc as their resting place!

 

I returned to the bungalow and the following morning I came back to the pond for a better look.

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During the day the trunk was more obvious but less so when the toads were on it adding some greenish colour and movement to it!

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Luckily it was a wooden croc but it was nice as it offered a good opprtunity to see the toad’s interaction and to take some nice pictures of the batracian colony.

 

[1] From Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frog). “The use of the common names “frog” and “toad” has no taxonomic justification. From a classification perspective, all members of the order Anura are frogs, but only members of the family Bufonidae are considered “true toads”. The use of the term “frog” in common names usually refers to species that are aquatic or semi-aquatic and have smooth, moist skins; the term “toad” generally refers to species that are terrestrial with dry, warty skins”.

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Place of many elephants

It is clear that the more places you see, the more you learn and the more you realize the little you know! Enough of philosophical exertions and focus of the post, I hear you thinking!

Climbing Wrights’s tower to look at the Mwenezi river below spurred my curiosity about who Mr. Wright was but also about the general area where the Gonarezhou[1] National Park is located. The Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park and Conservation Area was created on 9 December 2002. It took another four years for parts of the fence separating Limpopo in Mozambique and the Kruger national parks to be removed allowing important movement of game across the hitherto fenced area. Things move slowly in conservation!

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Wright’s tower.

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The sign in Wright’s tower.

Although in April 2014, Mozambique and South Africa signed a memorandum of understanding on biodiversity conservation and management of the area, particularly addressing rhino poaching in the Great Limpopo area, Gonarezhou is lagging behind in this integration. There are, however, fresh hopes that the unique agreement, signed in 2016, between the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority to form the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust may facilitate further integration.

Allan Wright was a district Commissioner in Nuanetsi, the District where Gonarezhou is. He arrived to the area in 1958 and declared himself to be an “ardent conservationist”. After a quick exploration of the topography, soils and plants found in the area he was convinced that it was “…From and agricultural point of view the whole area was in the lowest category, almost a wasteland…”.

So, the plans to divide it into farms for African farmers were gradually scrapped and his intentions made clear when he proclaimed:

Before me, as far as the eye could see, was the vast, empty Gonakudzingwa Purchase Area – ’empty’ only in the human context for it teemed with animal life … the great wilderness looked mysterious, haze blue, inviting. What a heritage! What a wonderful national park this south-east corner of Rhodesia would make.”[2]

So, Mr. Wright managed to persuade the then Government of Rhodesia not only to spare the area from farming but also to give him funds to develop it. He describes his time at Nuanetsi in two books [3]. Mr. Wright’s efforts survived the years to come after his retirement and eventually crystalized in the creation of the Gonarezhou National Park in 1975.

Considering the Gonarezhou in the larger context of the Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park and Conservation Area, the point where the borders of Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe meet is known as Crook’s Corner. Suspecting that the name had its reasons, I investigate it further and this lead to the unraveling of some interesting facts!

It was because of its “tri-national” characteristic that Crook’s Corner attracted a number of outlaws that found the facility of moving among the three countries very advantageous. Apparently, the exact location of Crook’s Corner is on an island very close to the place where the Luvuvhu River flows into the Limpopo, near to the Pafuri area of the Kruger National Park.

Although there were other brigands, Stephanus Cecil Rutgert Barnard placed it in the world map. Barnard sought refuge there from his illegal activities related to hunting and poaching, two activities very difficult to tell apart in the 1900’s. “The one who swaggers as he walks” that is what his Shangaan nickname Bvekenya meant, arrived there in 1910.

Bvekenya’s derived his living from hunting and or poaching mainly elephants for ivory as well as illegally recruiting labour for the mines (known as blackbirding) as well as trading animal skins. It was a tough life, persecuted by police and exposed to malaria! Bvekenya functioned illegally over vast large tracts of Portuguese East Africa and Rhodesia, successfully running his ivory past the law.

It seems that Bvekenya was a bit of an oddball, to put it mildly and, during the twenty years that he operated in the region, based at Makhuleke, he carried out a number of interesting exploits, from taming a herd of eland for milking to praising lose the beacon indicating the frontier so that he could move it to “migrate” his camp to a different country according to which one was after him! A larger than life character that T.V. Bulpin immortalized in his book “The Ivory Trail” [4].

More amazing still were Bvekenya’s conservation ideas that led him to suggest the creation of a Trans-frontier park at that time (1900!)! It would take over one hundred years before the politicians in the various relevant Governments agreed on the issue and it is still unfinished!

Bvekenya’s hunting ground included the present Gonarezhou National Park. In that general area he shot a number of large elephants for their ivory. It is believed that he was not a careless hunter and that, before killing an animal, he would check the dung with his Shangaan trackers to ascertain the age of their quarry. Only elephants that had passed their prime would be shot and then nothing was wasted as the meat would be consumed by the local people.

Despite his hunting experience Bvekenya was mesmerized by the sight of a particular animal known as “taller than the trees” in the local Zulu language: Dhlulamithi! Bvekenya met this very large tusker while hunting somewhere in Gonarezhou or nearby, at a muddy pan. The bull elephant towered over the large herd he was with. The ivory that Dhlulamithi carried touched the ground while it walked, leaving grooves in the sand behind its path! Bvekenya attempted a shot at the giant but, luckily for Dhlulamithi, a younger bull that walked in front of it at the fatal moment was hit and Dhlulamithi got away unscathed.

Bvekenya never forgot Dhlulamithi and, while still hunting and or poaching other animals, he kept following it. It took Bvekenya many years to find it again and when he did, towards 1929, he had it in his rifle sights but did not shoot the animal exclaiming “Let it live”.

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Tusk size and shape varies with the areas. This bull in Hwange National Park carries thick but rather short tusks.

Whether this took place or not is an issue of debate as other chroniclers claimed that Bvekenya -an inveterate commercial ivory trader- would not have missed such a tusker. This thesis is supported by the appearance in 1932 -a few years after Bvekenya ‘s retirement- of two humongous tusks that were claimed to be Dhlulamithi ‘s that were eventually auctioned in London. The tusks weighed 73 and 73.5 kg and their origin is unclear. They are meant to be now at a London Museum.

Luckily, there still are elephants carrying heavy ivory roaming in the Kruger National Park and, with patience they can be found at the various watering points, particularly in the Northern part of the park [4]. Whenever I see one of these colossuses I hope that Dhlulamithi ‘s genes are still present in them!

These two “friends” were leaving one of the waterholes in the north of the Kruger National Park.

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Masthulele seen at the Letaba river  (Kruger National Park), together with the tusker below, the largest tuskers I have seen so far.

If lucky, next time I see these colossuses I will remember this story and hope that what I see still carries Dhlulamithi’s genes that will be passed to future generations.

The above, seen by the bushsnob in 2014, is no longer an unknown tusker! (In this regard, see: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/a-tusk-task-2/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/unraveling-the-tusker-mystery/ and the next post coming soon!)

 

[1] “Place of many elephants” is the Shona language is the more accepted meaning of Gonarezhou. It is also translated less often as “sacred place of the elephants” or “elephant’s tusk”.

[2] Quoted from from Wolmer, W. (2007). From Wilderness Vision to Farm Invasions. Conservation & Development in Zimbabwe Southeast Lowveld. James Currey, Oxford. 247p.

[3] Wright, A. (1972). Valley of the ironwoods: A personal record of ten years served as District Commissioner in Rhodesia’s largest administrative area, Nuanetsi, in the south-eastern Lowveld (unknown publisher) and Wright, A. (1976). Grey Ghosts at Buffalo Bend, Galaxie Press. Both books are out of print.

[4] Bulpin, T.V. (2011). The Ivory Trail. Protea BoekhuisEds., 4 edition. 240p.

 

Postcript: Apart from T.V. Bulpin’s The Ivory Trail book I recommend to visit the following links that will provide you with more detail, if interested:

https://www.africahunting.com/threads/the-legend-of-dhlulamithi.15191/

http://www.pendukasafaris.com/history/remembering-bvekenya-country-life-february-2003/

 

Spot the beast 28

I am pretty sure that you did not spot the “beast” in one or two pictures I inserted in the impala lilies slide show that was part of the post Gonarezhou three years later. Southern area that I published on 3 September 2017.

The find took place at the Park reception in Mabalauta and I am giving you a second opportunity to discover the beast below:

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A rather large praying mantis -head down- was patiently waiting for its lunch. It was spotted -as usual- by my wife that pointed it to me. After searching for it for about five minutes I gave up as I was unable to see it as it was immobile and blended well with the lily’s branches!

Gonarezhou three years later. Southern area

After our accidented Chipinda Pools stay, we got to Mabalauta in mid afternoon. By that time we were already famous, expected and treated like VIPs (or silly old folk?)!

A booking was indeed ready for us at the reception but, on arrival to the Swimuwini camp itself we noted that our favourite bungalow was available. Negotiations follow as it was more expensive and finally, through an additional payment, we secured it.

Not only the bungalow was comfortable but it was beautiful. It had a great view of the vast expanse of the Mwenezi River below and it also had its own “resident” baobab next to its entrance.

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Our bungalow by the river and the views from it, below.

It even had the added and valuable bonus of a bush cellular phone signal! We have learnt that cellphone signals are often found at weird places such as under the third marula tree facing the river or by placing your phone inside a cut out shampoo container hanging on the pole holding the entrance gate of a camp! In this case, the signal was obtained in the center of the backrest of the middle veranda armchair and, capriciously, nowhere else! So we were connected.

Fungisai, the camp attendant we knew from the last time, was still there as helpful as usual. This time she sported a bigger smile and she was very happy with the new park management as they were getting things done fast and their salaries were now being paid in time. There was a busy atmosphere around camp with the garden being refurbished and the various bungalows re-built. A look at the ablution block’s brass fittings’ condition further testified to the staff willingness to get on with the work!

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Taking good care of the brass fittings!

This time we had electricity and hot water at the ablutions block provided by a donkey boiler (also known as a Tanganyika boiler in East Africa) that worked great but that will soon be replaced by solar heaters. After enjoying its abundant hot water, we agreed with my wife that there are no better showers than these albeit their environmental friendship can be argued!

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The donkey full blast.

Swimuwini (Place of baobabs) is one of the nicest national park camps we have ever stayed. It is not only small and beautiful but not many people stay there. For the first two nights we were alone and only then one more family arrived the third night. I believe that this will soon change when the on-going refurbishing work gets completed.

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We spent some time exploring the camp admiring its plant and animal life. There are four bungalows that come with their own baobabs and a super tree is located at the staff village. In addition, the camp is splashed with impala lilies (desert roses in East Africa) that come in all shapes and sizes and are incredibly beautiful.

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Another special of Swimuwini is the herd of Nyala (Tragelaphus angasii) that daily walks through the camp grazing and browsing on their way to and from the Mwenezi river. We remembered a rather large male from our previous visit but now, apart from it, there are at least two more young males and about ten females and young. They are tolerant of humans so we could approach them on foot and take a few pictures before they disappeared in the thicket behind the camp.

We drove many km carefully looking for game (we all know that my wife can spot anything that is there!). Impala were plentiful again but no Greater kudus were seen. A herd of about a dozen giraffe kept a prudent distance and they were seen mainly drinking in the distance down at the Mwenezi river (see above). This time we only heard jackals but did not see them but spotted three young hyenas walking around camp.

We saw a few elephant bottoms crushing through the brush and, eventually, caught a glimpse of two at the Nyamugwe pan. The sighting lasted for a minute perhaps and they were off! Clearly, despite the new management, it will still take time for the elephants to tolerate humans as it is clearly spelled at the sign that is found in Wright’s tower down the Mwenezi river, close to Malipati.

 

DSCN0225 wright tower Gon Aug 17 copyThe camp offered further entertainment in the evening as the baobab crumples were the home of bats that would come out and hunt for insects under our veranda light.

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The first night the camera trap -a great new addition to our safari gear- pictured a genet looking for left overs around our bungalow. In the camera we saw that it had started visiting our place between 19:30 and 20:00 hours so we decided to wait for it during the second night. We were immediately rewarded with several visits and a few (bad) pictures!

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Albeit small, the Mabalauta section of Gonarezhou offers a nice drive along the river where a few river pools can be visited. Rossi pools offer a great view of the river where patience is rewarded with the arrival of different animals to the water. While you wait you will find entertainment counting the crocodiles either swimming or basking under the sun and, when the wind stops and the ripples settle, tilapia shoals can be easily seen moving about in the shallows while tiger fish patrol the deeper green pools in search of prey and the occasional terrapin surfaces to take a lungful.

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Rossi pools.

A couple of kilometres further down the river the rather ugly Wright’s tower offers another nice view of the river. Searching for the origins of the tower I learnt that Allan Wright was a District Commissioner that was largely responsible for the establishment of the Gonarezhou National Park in 1975 so he probably built the tower [1].

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It was also in this general area that S.C. ‘Bvekenya’ Barnard, the notorious hunter and poacher roamed during the early 1900’s avoiding the police by moving to different countries around Crook’s corner the point where the borders of Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe converge. Bvekenya’s errands have been immortalized by T.V. Bulpin in his book “The Ivory Trail”.

But that is a different story.

 

[1] Allan Wright described his time in Nuanetsi District in his books Valley of the Ironwoods. A Personal Record of Ten Years Served as District Commissioner in Rhodesia Largest Administrative Area, Nuanetsi, in the South-Eastern Lowveld (1972) and Grey Ghosts at Buffalo Bend (1976) both now out of print.

 

 

Baobab Teenager

Last week, driving around Chipinda Pools in Gonarezhou National Park, we spotted this baobab that reminded me of a youngster when growing so fast that the clothes that fit today do not tomorrow! It seems that the young and growing baobab needs another pullover to cover its belly!

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In fact, elephants had damaged the base of the tree and the absence of bark contrasts with the intact part of the trunk that shows a healthy coppery colour further up.

Elephants badly damage baobabs, particularly when food and water are scarce as they get the latter from the soft trunk. Lots of baobabs are damaged in this way and the problem is particularly noticeable in Gonarezhou.

The examples below are from Tsavo West National Park, Kenya in the eighties and Mana Pools National Park a couple of years back.

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Baobab damaged by elephants in Tsavo West National Park.

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Another damaged baobab, this time at Mana Pools National Park.

Gonarezhou three years later. Northern area

We were last in Gonarezhou National Park almost three years ago and I wrote about our impressions then [1]. This time the idea was to try the Chipinda Pools Tented camp so we booked ourselves there for five nights from 21-26 August.

Interesting developments had taken place during our absence. The management of the park had changed when on 30 June 2016 the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority signed an agreement for the creation of the Gonarezhou Trust. The latter represents a new management style for a National Park in Zimbabwe, aiming at running the park in a sustainable way on a long-term basis.

The first thing we noted was that the park can now be only booked at the Chipinda Pools office and not at the Harare Reservations office as all other national parks. Despite the distance from Harare (about 500km), the process was smooth and I soon arranged for our stay through an exchange of messages via Messenger and e-mail that ended with an advance payment to secure the bookings.

The trip went smoothly and we were not stopped at Police checkpoints at all despite the rather long distance! After Chiredzi we turned towards the park and drove through land managed by the Malilangwe Trust [2]. We wondered at the time if they would have accommodation that we could try another time [3]. We were soon at the Chipinda Pools gate where we produced our booking at the reception to a friendly lady.

As the checking of our papers was taking a while we took the opportunity to read some of the posters that explained the work on the various predators that is being carried out at the park. Our reading got interrupted when we heard the lady saying, “I have bad news!” As you can imagine, she was successful in calling our attention so we were with her in a second while we heard her adding: “Your booking is for the 21st all right but of September, not August!” and she handed me over the voucher I had given her moments before! While my heart was sinking, I confirmed my error and cursed myself for not checking the booking earlier!

It was about 16:30 hours so my wife and I looked at each other and both said the same thing: “Maybe we will need to see if Malilangwe has a lodge after all!” However, before playing that last card I asked whether there was any chance of putting us up for the night at the staff camp and then decide what we did the following morning as it was now too late to depart. I felt that I was wasting my words as the lady was on the phone and ignored my plea!

As we could not hear her conversation in the office, we waited, unaware of what was going on. The uncertainty lasted until she hanged up and informed us that she had just confirmed that the camp was full as it was time for school holidays in Zimbabwe. We were clearly in a tight spot and awaited again while she made another call before finally declaring gravely: “Sorry, no luck, we are full”.

At a loss, my jerk response was “So, we go back to Harare”, feeling rather upset with myself but ready to accept the situation and go away. Then, to our astonishment she burst out laughing as only Africans can do! “I was joking,” she said, “a colleague is coming to see if what we have would be OK with you”. After recovering from narrowly missing a heart attack, I calmed down and -internally- celebrated her sense of humour and I even managed what I thought it was a smile but probably it was a smirk!

Eventually we were shown into one of the tents that are normally used by researchers that happened to be empty. We were told that, unfortunately, we needed to share the ablutions with other people. We were so delighted with the offer that we immediately accepted it as it was for the duration of our booking! We noted that we even have our own painted dog couple residing at the tent although they were papier-mâché ones!

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Our tent.

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The veranda of our tent.

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The setting.

The camp was composed of four tents with a communal kitchen and ablutions nestled by a small stream that flowed into the Save river a couple of hundred metres down the river. The camp was well shaded and it was very well kept. We finally settled down while noting that the tent had large windows closed only by mosquito mesh and curtains so we prepared for a cold night and we were happy to have our sleeping bags with us!

That night, now relaxed, we enjoyed our dinner and, after reinforcing the provided bedding with our own warm bags, went to bed for what I thought it was a well deserved rest while congratulating ourselves that we managed to survive a potential disaster. Later during the night, we heard lion roaring while it walked by our camp and we were happy to be smug in our strong tent! The following morning we learnt that there was a lone male lion stationed near camp at the time. Despite the lion living next to camp, we did not see it, unfortunately.

We spent the day exploring the area and we took a recommended route that brought us along the Sililijo stream. As soon as we left camp we climbed a hill and had a great view of a large tract of the park through which the Runde river meanders its way towards its meeting with the larger Save river.

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The view of the Runde river.

Soon we had left the Runde river behind and, after a route that was rich in game we re-joined it near the Chilojo Cliffs, Gonarezhou’s famous landmark.

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The Chilojo cliffs. Gonarezhou’s landmark.

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Another view of the cliffs.

Among the animals we found on the way were elephants, buffalo, giraffe, impala, greater kudu and eland. Yet again we admired the numerous baobabs and realized that the plentiful rains have had a positive impact on the vegetation cover as the park was very bushy. This, of course, had a negative impact on game spotting but we did not mind that at all as it was clear that the game numbers are on the increase!

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A female Greater kudu watches us.

After enjoying a picnic by the cliffs, followed by the mandatory bush siesta we waited a while longer for elephants to come to the river but, as they did not come, we decided to return to camp. As usual, we underestimated the distance and we arrived rather late as we took a wrong turning and, near the camp, we got charged by a loud trumpeting lone elephant bull that we just managed to see. The animal was very nervous and it kept coming towards us until we finally managed to avoid it and safely get back to camp. Later we learnt that the elephant was scared because of the proximity of the male lion.

We arrived tired and looking forward to a shower, dinner and bed. However, the appearance of the game ranger in charge of tourism, stopped us in our tracks. He was the bearer of more bad news: our tent was needed for some unexpected visitors! He asked us if we would mind moving to the Mabalauta area in the southern part of the park where there was room for us at Swimuwini Camp. Aware of the well known saying “beggars can’t be choosers”, we immediately and gladly agreed and convened that we could leave at about 09:00 hours the following morning.

The next day, before departure, we had a chance to talk to other guests that told us that it was possible to drive to the Mabalauta area through the park and that it was a nice and scenic drive. This was good for me as I also wished to have a look at a place called Lion pan as, years back, I was told that it was -obviously- good for lions… So, thanking the management for their hospitality we departed at a leisurely pace towards our new camp, about 100km south.

Our drive was, as expected, interesting although we did not see many animals. A rock monitor (Varanus albigularis) that crossed the road and a Purple roller (Coracias naevius) were the only animals of note we saw although there were plenty of hornbills and other common birds as well as a few squirrels. We found elephant spoor but no sign of the pachyderms anywhere. Unfortunately we missed the GPS point where we should have turned East for the Lion pan so we decided to explore it the next time we come.

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A river on the way to Mabalauta in the south of the park.

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Most pans had water, product of the excellent rains of last year. This one is on the way to Mabalauta in the south of the park.

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A male namaqua dove.

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The rock monitor that slowly crossed the road showing us its rather long tongue.

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Close up of the rock monitor.

[1] See https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/gonarezhou-national-park-safari-diary-day-1/ and the two posts that followed.

[2] See: http://www.malilangwe.org/

[3] After returning to Harare I learnt that they have a lodge called Singita Pamushana Lodge.

 

 

 

 

Spot the beast 27

We got back from Gonarezhou National Park yesterday evening and I have a lot to do before I am able to post anything yet! However, there is always time for a “Spot the beast” to keep your minds active until I can get mine starting!!!

This was the view from our tent at Chipinda Pools in the park. I am sure that you will agree with me that is a very nice spot: a river with a bit of water, lots of trees and lianas and the light filtering through the foliage.

There is a beast somewhere there (the reason why I took the picture) that it will take you some time to find, I think.

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DSCN0121 copyIt is a male bushbuck that came down for a drink and we saw it (or rather my wife, again) spotted when it was climbing back to spend the rest of the day wherever the bushbucks do this.

(Please be aware that it was walking so the second picture shows it after it walked a about a metre to the right of the first picture)

 

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.

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