Bush stories and anecdotes

The heart of the blog, where I present observations, accounts, funny stories, etc.

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

 

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/

 

 

 

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!

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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!

 

 

 

Rude plants

While living in Bolivia, in the early part of this century, someone told me a story of the war when Bolivia lost its exit to the Pacific Ocean to Chile. It was apparently during this conflict that a Bolivian General[1], aware that his chances of winning the war were dimming, tried to cheat the incoming Chilean ground forces by dressing the cactuses present in the area with the uniforms of the Bolivian army, pretending that his men were more numerous than they really were! The ruse failed and we all know that Bolivia is now a landlocked country!

I have had the story in my mind since then and recently, when I tried to confirm it by Google for this post, I failed to find any reference to it! In any case, it is a good way of starting to tell you about one of the most emblematic plants that populate parts of the Andean Puna[2], the Cardones [3]. We had a chance to see many of them during our trip to Cachi (Salta Province) that traversed the Los Cardones National Park.

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A view over the Los Cardones National Park. Amazing place!

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A Cardon forest as far as the eye can see.

The park has an area of 65,000 hectares and it was created in 1987, to preserve a sector of Andean biomasses including the Puna, Pre-Puna and related dry forests. It ranges in altitude from 2,700m (Tin-Tin valley) to 5,000m (Malcante hill). Although it only gets an annual rainfall of less than 200mm, its aridity does not stop many plant and animal species to thrive there, too many to mention here but well described elsewhere [4].

Apart from the cardones there are other interesting finds in the area. In the plant world the Jarilla (Larrea divaricata) provides the cardones with needed shelter for them to grow under its protection until reaching suitable size to continue its growth alone.

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A cardon growing under the protection of a Jarilla.

Another amazing plant found at higher altitudes is the haermaphroditic Yareta (Azorella compacta) also known as pasto de piedra [5].This plant is literally a vegetable stone whose leaves develop into an extremely compact and hard mat that reduces heat loss in order to survive. The result is a very rare plant that looks like a giant moss. Of extremely slow growth, some of the specimens in the Puna are estimated to be over 3,000 years old! Unfortunately, because of its slow growth and its traditional harvesting for firewood, it is becoming scarce.

The guanaco (Lama guanicoe) population is not as large as I expected and we only saw three or four groups of these special camelids. Their observed scarcity is apparently the consequence of the competition for food from thousands of feral donkeys (Equus asinus) that once got established there and continue to multiply despite past efforts to control them through culling schemes that will need to be reinstated to give the guanacos a chance to expand. Unfortunately, my pictures of both guanacos and donkeys are still in the deep recesses of my now comatose hard disk!

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Guanacos ahead!

Puma (Felix concolor) are present and they predate on the young of both guanacos and donkeys. Luckily, they are seen with certain regularity and the park is one of the areas where the visitor can, if lucky, spot these beautiful cats.

The dead from both donkeys and guanacos are fed upon a number of scavengers among which the condor (Vultur gryphus) is the most prominent and best known. These veritable flying colossus of about one metre in height have a wingspan of three metres or, to be more graphic, a line of about a dozen school children standing side by side! With such wings they can only be superb flying birds, capable not only to cover great distances but also to reach amazing heights.

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A condor flying overhead.

I was pleasantly surprised to be able to spot (of course after my wife!) quite a number of condors flying high in the very blue sky. Showing similar skills to African vultures, condors are not easy to spot on the ground as they inhabit and nest in difficult terrain. I am proud to announce, though, that I was able to contribute to our condor observations by spotting a far away nest with a fledgeling! I made sure that my companions noted this but, as usual, my effort was largely ignored.

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Although mammals and birds are really fascinating, the cardones were the real stars of the show for me. These very thorny plants are everywhere and they can occur singly, in groups or form true forests that reach as far as the eye can see. Although the majority were very rude by showing me their middle finger, some were polite and welcoming. Admittedly the latter were very few! Clearly, nature comes in all shapes and moods!

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A rude cardon!

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Exasperated by so much plant rudeness the bushsnob attempts at giving some back…

 

The cardones start their life under the protection of the Jarilla bush and they produce their first flowers at about fifty years old. These white flowers are known locally as “pasacana” that gives the species name to the plants. The flowers are eaten by animals and people and it is estimated that when the plants reach 3m high they are three hundred years old so some of the ones we spotted must have been much older, probably near one thousand and I never stop from being amazed when watching such creatures that can exist for such a long tie and still look like they would continue being there for another millennium.

 

[1] I was told that it was President Melgarejo.

[2] Basically a very dry, cold, high and silent area by the Andes mountains.

[3] Spanish for cacti of the species Trichocereus pasacana.

[4] Chebez, J.C. (2012). Noroeste. Guia de las Reservas Naturales de la Argentina. Editorial Albatros. pp. 88-93.

[5] Spanish for stone grass.

 

Apunado [1]

I am well aware that one of my numerous weaknesses is not being able to handle heights. I am not talking about vertigo here but high altitude and the absence of O2. During our five years spent in the Bolivian highlands we realized that our family has two clear gene lines when it comes to live in high places. While I am pathetic, my wife does not bat an eyelid when it comes to highness.

While there we also had ample time to discern that the genes ruling altitude resistance are passed independently to your offspring. Our son inherited his mother’s altitude resilience while our daughter had the bad fortune of getting, among several of my bad traits, the one of very low altitude tolerance!

We were of course oblivious to this pairing until we arrived to La Paz in 2001. While my wife and son enjoyed a quasi-normal daily life, my daughter and I acquired a greenish skin tinge and felt sick most of the time until we reached a kind of equilibrium at 3,400-3,800 m in La Paz where we spent most of our time. The situation improved remarkably when we discovered that sleeping with a window opened increased the oxygen content of our bedroom although the temperatures decreased dramatically.

However, as soon as our travels took us to higher places such as Potosí at 4,070m our precarious balance got tilted in favour of the altitude and our discomfort would come back. It was enough for us to see the “Cerro Rico [2]” in the distance to start feeling unwell! Conversely and to our great annoyance, wife and son continued with their usual unresponsiveness to altitude!

During our recent trip to the Calchaqui valleys in Salta I had a “reliving” of that experience. We drove from our farm in the Gallinato (1,300m) to Cachi. This meant a climb to areas of higher altitude that crosses a really picturesque area and the road goes through a number of mountain passes and climbs to finally reach the Puna. On the way we passed through the Los Cardones National Park [3] (3,350m) to finally reach Cachi, a nice village in the confluence of the Cachi and Calchaqui rivers, located at 2,300m and framed by mountains, including the “Nevado de Cachi” [4] above 5,000m.

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Going through Los Cardones National Park.

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The Nevado de Cachi from the distance.

It was after the 180km drive, and parking the car at the hotel that I felt the start of my predicament and I had difficulties reaching the reception! The headache came without warning, suddenly and, although it was not the worst I had suffered, it was bad enough. Together with a general feeling of malaise comparable to that of a strong cold, it lingered on for the rest of the day and you could not ignore it. The combination was not conducive to enjoying my stay and by dinner time I felt truly dreadful!

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I was already apunado when I arrived at the hotel entrance in Cachi.

It was time to consider the options at my disposal. Remembering old advice from Bolivia I decided to have a light dinner in the shape of a garlic soup (I could refrain from kissing my wife good night for once!). In addition, I discussed my predicament with the locals and they advised me to chew coca leaves -legal in these parts- as this would make me feel much better.

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Coca leaves for chewing.

Of course I knew of coca, having supervised alternative development projects in Bolivia aiming at substituting coca growing for other forest-related activities. I am also aware of the controversy that surrounds the issue of coca and cocaine so I was reluctant at first. However, I had already seen large number of people “coqueando”[5] in Salta so I decided to take the plunge and chewed the dose I was recommended to take: about four leaves! Regrettably, the only clear effect I noticed was that my tongue went to sleep before the rest of my body and I could not detect or see any advantage in the chewing!

Disappointed by the lack of reaction of my organism to the “hoja milenaria”[6] I decided to cut my losses and retire to bed well before my companions. While walking to my room I went through the ABC of altitude sickness control: sleep alone, eat little, walk slowly and drink lots of water. It was then that I realized that the latter was the obvious cause of my trouble as, during the long drive I had –for some reason- not drank the water amount that I normally take.

I reached he room and drank as much water as I could hold. I also took one gramme of paracetamol for the now splitting headache and went to bed. Sleep came immediately and –luckily- the following morning I was as good as new. I returned the remaining coca leaves to the hotel management with thanks and I managed to feel well for the rest of the holiday and explore the attractions of the area in good health while drinking profusely to avoid being apunado again!

 

[1] In Spanish, someone with altitude sickness.

[2] Rich hill in Spanish. Potosí‘s landmark from where the Spaniards extracted tons of silver, activity that continues today.

[3] The park is named after the cardon cactus, Echinopsis atacamensis.

[4] Snowy mountain of Cachi in Spanish.

[5] Chewing coca leaves.

[6] Millenary leaves in Spanish, another name for coca leaves.