Episodes of African history connected to wildlife or guides, hunters, explorers

Capybara smuggling

John was the Head of the Department of Applied Zoology at the University College of North Wales when I was studying for my MSc in Animal Parasitology in Bangor. He was a very kind and patient man that supervised and supported my Dissertation. During that time we met often to discuss my work.

We talked a lot about South America and Uruguay as he was curious to learn about my part of the world. It was during one of these conversations that he expressed his interest on capybaras as he was amazed at the existence of such a giant rodent. He was so keen on these animals that he asked me if I could get him a skull! I took note of his wish but I did not have much chance of getting one for him, away from South America. Even if I would have been there, capybaras are rare in Uruguay.

After a few days I remembered my uncle Lito in Salto, Uruguay. Years earlier he had studied architecture somewhere in the UK. When he came back to Uruguay, he became a very successful architect as he brought in new designs and techniques. His main hobby was to navigate the Uruguay River. With his wife they traveled extensively not only up and down the main river for many years and they also explored a number of its tributaries. It was during one of these trips that they discovered a beautiful spot up the Guaviyú River, one of the tributaries, south of Salto.

He got permission from the ranch owners to camp in the spot at will and he spent a lot of his annual holiday time camping in the woodlands. After retirement he prolongued the time he spent there to a couple of months every year. Luckily I had a chance of joining him at the camp a couple of times and we enjoyed fishing and walking while talking about several issues. I recalled that he once mentioned that there were capybaras in the area.

jc and capyb in hole

The Bushsnob waiting for his turn to enter the bathtub.

So, as uncle Lito offered my only chance for a capybara, I decided to write to him asking if he knew whether it would be possible to get one. I knew that it was a very long shot and I soon forgot all about it. I was really busy writing and typing my work (no word-processing computers in those days!) and damaging my back in the process.

While studying at Bangor, we stayed at Llanfairfechan, a small village nearby where, luckily, we have found Elsie, a great landlady that adopted us as family. So I was rather concerned when one day the usually placid Elsie came in a very agitated state to tell me that the Postman had brought something for me that she thought required my presence!

Curious, I followed her downstairs. The postman had an unwrapped brown paper in his hands that I could see had been a parcel once upon a time. He then said: “I believe this is for you” and presented me with the remains. “It was open for Customs inspection”he said before leaving.

After thanking him I focused on the open package, It contained a very white skull and a letter and it was definitely addressed to me! As soon as I saw the incisors I immediately recognized the large rodent skull and realized that my uncle Lito had done it and I had John’s dream in my hands!

The letter from uncle Lito explained that, after a few days of receiving my request, he had found a dead capybara while wondering in the woodlands. As this was too good an opportunity to ignore, he had collected the skull for me. Afterwards he had consulted a vet friend who recommended him to clean it by boiling it. This he did until the bone was clean until he judged that it was safe to send it to me!


A capybara skull. Source: Illustrierter Leitfaden der Naturgeschichte des Thierreiches, 1876. Original caption: “Fig. 29. Kopfskelett des Wasserschweines (Hydrochoerus capybara. Erxl.) i obere Schneidezähne, ï untere Schneidezähne.” Translation (partly): “Skull of a capybara (Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris), i upper inscisor, ï lower incisor”. Originator: Unknown.

I took the skull to John the following day and explained him the situation as well as recommending him to boil it again to be on the safe side. At first he looked at the bone blankly until he realized what it was and then he was extremely surprised and pleased to have it and, for the first time he actually embraced me to thank me, a rare occurrence as physical contact is not usual among British people.

The following day back home I was still typing when the landlady came again to tell me that the postman was at the door again! “What is is this time”, I thought while following her to the door. This was a “deja-vu” as the same man was there! This time he handed over a small sealed plastic bag that, on later inspection, contained the lower jaw! Now the skull was complete and John was even happier when he received the missing part.

I recommended him again to boil it and eventually the complete skull was proudly displayed in his office.

Two dhows

Traveling to the warm Kenya coast was an attractive break from working inland in the cooler and often cold highlands. After trying a few options, the preferred choice was to rent a house for a few days at Watamu and, from there, to explore the surrounding area or to enjoy the beach for my wife and practice windsurfing for me. But that is another story.

Our first visit to the coast included staying at a rather hot camp in Diani beach that we did not repeat. During that visit we explored Mombasa and we got lasting impressions of its ocean and coastal area, particularly Fort Jesus and the old Mombasa harbour.

While at the Mombasa harbour, apart from the ubiquitous fishing boats we saw some larger vessels that seemed to be dedicated to cargo activities. It was also the first time that we saw (or learn of) dhows. These, rather elegant vessels anchored some distance away from the shore and surrounded by smaller boats that were busy offloading them during the cooler hours of the day.


The Kenya coast in the 80s.

To add to their rather romantic reputation, we also learnt that these sailing boats, with their main masts pointing forward and lanteen sails, would use the trade winds to commute between Africa and Asia with exotic cargo.

I found pictures of the dhows recently while looking for images to place in my Instagram page. As the photographs were originally taken as slides with a film camera and later on scanned by myself, I was checking them critically to decide on their quality for the intended use. It was during this process that I noted the names of the dhows: Nawalilkher and Tusitiri.


Nawalilkher in the 80s.


Tusitiri as we saw it in the 80s.

Curious, I Googled the names to see if, by any chance, they were still with us. To my surprise I not only found them but learnt that they seemed to be still in “active service” forty years after I took the pictures and probably quite a few more from the time they were built.

I then contacted the owners and they confirmed that the vessels were the same after looking at my photographs and I got some interesting information.

Nawalilkher is now a floating restaurant with the Tamarind Group and they call it “Nawali” for short. The dhow was refurbished to a five star cruising restaurant now moored at the Mombasa Tamarind jetty. The vessel can accommodate seventy commensals for dinner, leaving room for dancing on the night cruises. It sails everyday except Sunday for both the day and evening cruises. Unfortunately, the company would not let me use their pictures to illustrate this post and referred me to their web site for more information[1].

Tusitiri, nicely restored, is sailing as an exclusive floating lodge along the Indian Ocean coast, owned by the Enasoit Collection[2]. It is believed that it was bought by its present owners around 1995 in Lamu where she was also originally built. I was also assured that the dhow is being treasured by them and is very much loved as I can see by the way it is being kept. It mainly stays within the Lamu archipelago but it has gone as far as Mozambique and she is considered by its owners as “…without doubt the most beautiful dhow on the East African coast”.


The restored Tusitiri sailing somewhere at the Kenya coast. Picture credit: The Enasoit Collection.


A great picture of the restored Tusitiri. Picture credit: The Enasoit Collection.

I must admit that I am quite pleased to have found the dhows again and clearly it is worthwhile to follow up certain things, as you never know where your search will take you.


[1] See: http://www.tamarind.co.ke/tamarind-dhow/

[2] See: http://www.enasoit.com/


Acknowledgements and credits

John and Lulu Clark, Managers of Tusitiri Dhow, The Enasoit Collection for the information and use of Tusitiri pictures. Pictures of Tusitiri by Robin Moore Photography and/or Stevie Mann Photography.

Akoko Vivian of Dhow & Rest Reservations of The Tamarind Group confirmed the identity of Nawalilkher and assisted me with useful information.

Memories – A fishing trip

Thomas was one of our Maasai askaris[1] at Intona ranch. He liked cattle so, in addition to his guard duties, he often volunteered to take them for grazing. This was welcome as he was fearless when it came to walk in the bush and dealing with the buffalo herd that often intermingled with our cattle. It was rather amazing to see the herdsmen and Thomas separating our cattle from the buffalo herd!

Intona cattle grazing

Intona cattle kraal

Thomas was a very friendly young man and he got on very well with the other workers so, when I proposed to the workers to join me in a fishing trip, Thomas was very keen on the idea and he came along.

During the time of the fieldwork I often travelled to Intona ranch over the weekends, as I also needed to spend time working in Muguga on the laboratory trial during the week so time was short. Although there was some work to be done on Sundays, we tried to keep this to a minimum so that we had time off to rest and relax. Being rather restless I was always looking for some activity to do during this free hours. For this visit I had brought some fishing gear as I wished to try my luck in the Migori river, one of the boundaries of Intona ranch.


The Migori in flood. We fished from these banks.

The Migori river water ends in lake Victoria after it joins the Gucha river forming the Gucha-Migori river basin. During every trip that we came to Intona via the Maasai Mara we crossed the Migori river bridge about 10 km before we arrived to Intona ranch. The area was well forested and there were a number of large fig trees in its vecinity making it a very attractive area as the shore of the river before the bridge was open grassland and seemed safe from the presence of buffalo, the main danger in the area.

It was in this bend by the river that we often saw a sounder of Giant Forest hogs[2] (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) grazing in this clearing. As these dark grey animals were a rare sight, it was a highlight of the journey for me whenever we spotted them, as they were quite tolerant of our presence with their impressive size, the males being about 100cm high and up to 190cm long with a mass ranging from 180 to 275 kg. Their name honours Richard Meinertzhagen who shot the type specimen in Kenya and had it shipped to the Natural History Museum in England in the early 1900s.

This “hog spot” is what I chose for our fishing expedition as, apart from catching fish, I also hoped to get a glimpse of these animals towards the evening. Our fishing targets were Clarias gariepinus or African sharptooth catfish. We had fish them earlier in the Mara river just outside of the game reserve and I saw no reason for them not to be in the Migori.

After fruitlessly digging for earthworms at various places in the bush I remembered Mrs. Murumbi’s greenhouse and garden at the main house and, after a short commando sortie we managed to get a handful from the large compost kept there.

The final preparation for the fishing trip was to run a tutorial on the basics of fishing as none of my companions had done this before, as they did not come from fish-eating ethnic groups. Aware that it had taken me some time before I could master the proper use of rod and reel, I decided that I would handle these equipment and prepared a couple of hand lines for my companions to use. We chose an open field and, after a while I judged that the team was as good at fishing as it could be so we went.

We left before lunch and took some food and non-alcoholic drinks for lunch and my companions were quite excited at the prospect of trying a new activity. Thomas in particular could hardly control his excitement and this somehow dented my understanding that the Maasai did not care for fish. Maybe Thomas was the exception?

After a quick lunch under the shade it was time to try our luck. I gave hand lines to Thomas and Joseph, I kept one rod and gave the other one to Mark. As expected, the earthworms were attractive as I felt them biting as soon as my hook landed.

Somehow, Thomas got lucky and hooked something that after a short struggle with a rather thick hand line happened to be a reasonable catfish. After a short squabble he soon had it out of the water and his happiness at his feat was incredible. It held the fish with both hands looking at it and laughing while talking to it. He said that he would eat it, something I found strange but, busy with my own fishing, I did not pay much attention. So, Thomas departed to clean his fish. We continued fishing and had some bites that, regrettably, resulted in clean hooks.


Thomas and the fish!

After a while we noted Thomas’ absence but, distracted by our own fishing, did not think much of it. After a while longer of not seeing him and knowing that many dangerous animals were present, we stopped fishing and went searching for him. Joseph went one way and I took another path thinking that like that we increased our chances of success.

After walking perhaps 100 m following the river I saw Thomas seating down against a tree and I called him but did not reply. I called him again but still no reply so I assumed him to be sleeping and got closer to wake him up and then I saw his unsheathed simi[3] and the pool of blood. He had a bad cut in the palm of his right hand that was bleeding profusely and he was very pale.

I shook him and he opened his eyes and, still smiling, looked at me. He was weak but alive and, lifting his wounded hand above his head, I helped him to walk towards the car, calling Joseph to come and help. He appeared and, between both of us, we took him to the car and drove him with his hand bandaged and up outside the car towards the Lolgorian seeking medical assistance.

Maasai lived rather dangerous lives. Not only they fought often among themselves with serious consequences but also, as I described in an earlier post, they were constant skirmishes taking place at the time with the Kisii ethnical group that was moving into the Transmara. As if this would not be enough, they walked through the bush where many dangerous animals dwell. Although they do not fear them, they often suffer the consequences of encounters with wild animals, in particular with African buffaloes as these animals camouflage well and attack by surprise and without notice.

This way of life explained why the Lolgorian clinic was very busy that Sunday afternoon. Concerned about Thomas’ condition, I entered the hospital running and went straight to the emergency room asking for a doctor. A nurse pointed me to an European young guy in white that I assumed – correctly as it turned out – that he was a doctor.

I hastily mentioned that I had an injured person that needed his help and he gave me a rather tired look and motioned to me to look around. In my haste I had not paid attention to the “waiting room”! There were at least five people waiting before Thomas. A couple looked sick with malaria but the others were suffering from various traumatic accidents. I remember one that was holding his bloodied abdomen and another that had almost severed his large toe. It was clear that Thomas would need to wait.

Without much ado the doctor asked me to help him and I spent that Sunday afternoon cleaning wounds and helping him to stitch the severed toe and to close an abdominal wound caused by a buffalo horn! I was shocked by how stoic people were throughout the proceeds and this included Thomas’ stitching, comparatively a minor affair.

After finishing with Thomas, we thanked the doctor and left. During the return journey with a much more recovered Thomas, we learnt that while gutting the fish he had tripped and fell. During the fall his right hand had slipped over the length of the simi’s blade and had cut his hand very deeply.

With a much-recovered Thomas we arrived to the fishing spot at dusk where, before we collected all our fishing gear abandoned earlier, we had the privilege of watching the gian forest hogs! Thomas, now feeling strong again, collected his fish and, laughing again, assured us that he was going to eat it!


[1] An askari (from Arabic) was a local soldier serving in the armies of the European colonial powers in Africa. The term is still used today to informally describe security guards.

[2]  Listed as of “Least Concern” as they are relatively widespread, it is acknowledged that there is a general decreasing trend for the species across its range. In Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan Giant Forest hogs live also in very fragmented populations.

[3] A short sword used by the Maasai people with a leaf-shaped blade. It is kept in a scabbard made of wood and covered with rawhide.

The battle of lake Tanganyika

While in Pretoria searching for the SMS Königsberg’s gun I saw an entry from Guadalupe, a Facebook friend, narrating her enriching experience of a few years back on board of the MV Liemba in lake Tanganyika. This inspired me to add a second part to the story of the gun of the Königsberg that actually includes the use of another one in the Battle of Lake Tanganyika. I hope you enjoy it.

In 1914 East Africa was the gem in the German imperial crown. It was strategically positioned to offer deep-water ports for the German Navy actions against British shipping in the Indian Ocean. It also enabled Germany to control the Great Lakes of the East African Great Rift Valley that splits the continent from north to south. The 644 km long lake Tanganyika had a particular strategic value as Germany and the Allies (Britain and Belgium) shared its shores.

The Germans controlled the lake with the aid of two small ships: the Kingani and the Hedwig von Wissman, although Belgium and Britain also had some ships as well. The following, in addition to other small craft, motorboats and dhows, was the composition of the respective vessels capable of carrying guns at the lake at the outbreak of WWI:

Germany: Hedwig von Wissman (60 ton passenger boat), Kingani (45 ton), (Graf von Goetzen, 1200 ton, under construction, launched on 9 February 1915).

Britain: Good News (The first steamship on Lake Tanganyika, launched in 1885), Cecil Rhodes (launched in 1900). Both these vessels were laid up with their engines removed, but were capable of being brought back into service and armed.

Belgium: Alexandre Delcommune (90 ton), Dix-Tonne (a powered river barge), Baron Dhanis (700 ton, awaiting construction).

Aware of the influence that controlling the lake would have on land operations taking place in the region, John R. Lee, a private game hunter conceived an idea that was, to put it mildly, mad to those that did not know the region as well as he did. Surprisingly, he managed to convince the British Admiralty and the idea became a plan! The Admiralty at the time was too concerned with the war in Europe to get too analytical of a minor episode that would take place in the “heart of darkness”!

The outlandish idea involved attacking the German ships in the lake with faster, smaller and therefore more maneuverable vessels. Lee found two wooden 12-metre motor launches equipped with a 100 HP motor each that could propel the boats through the water at a good 19 knots (about 35 km per hour) that were selected for the mission.

The launches had to be transported from London to the Cape by sea, by rail from the latter, through Elizabethville (today’s Lubumbashi), to Fungurume, the end of the rail line. From then on, it would be through broken terrain where there were no roads. The plan was to go through this last part of the journey through a combination of man, oxen and steam tractor power as well as a few km on a narrow gauge railway. The last leg would be travelled by river and then to the lake! The justification for this almost lunatic itinerary was that other possible routes were either too difficult to keep secret or too obvious and therefore vulnerable to a German attack!

Not being part of the Navy, Lee was hurriedly given a Navy position so that he could be part of it. Despite this, he could not be put in charge of the operation so the Admiralty needed to find an operation leader from within its ranks. The Admiralty did not wish to appoint a serving Commander as these were badly needed for the naval war closer to home so the search was difficult as suitable candidates were very few.

In view of the difficulties to be encountered during the expedition, efforts were made to find an officer of the Royal Marines, a selected branch of the Royal Navy. It is reported that the Officer selected examined the proposal and declared it as a “mission impossible” and refused to accept it! Lt. Commander Geoffrey B. Spicer-Simpson, dealing with Navy administrative matters was seated close to the place of the meeting and overheard the discussion. As soon as the meeting ended, he volunteered and he was accepted immediately and perhaps rather hastily as his service record was far from good.

At the start of his military career he had been responsible for his destroyer colliding and sinking a Liberty cargo ship and, later on, when given a second opportunity to show his worth, one of his gunboats was torpedoed in broad daylight while at anchor under his gaze while he entertained certain ladies on shore!

With the appointment of a Commander, the Naval Africa Expedition was born!

Soon Lee was sent to Africa to prepare the ground while Spicer-Simpson dealt with the organizing in Britain. The latter had a complex personality and, as many British commanders before him, he was an eccentric character. He was a bold, well-built and aggressive man but also enthusiastic and friendly. He was an unorthodox man and this would have qualified him entirely for an assignment such as this. He also had a tendency to be a loudmouth and wasted no time, after Lee’s departure, to start promoting the expedition as his own idea!

Still in London the weirdness of Spicer-Simpson started to show when it came to choose the names of the launches. He proposed “Cat” and “Dog” but the Admiralty rejected them with some trepidation. Unfazed, he put forward “Mimi’ and “Toutou”[1] and, amazingly, these were acceptable provided that “HMS”[2] was put in front of their names as it was customary in the Royal Navy!

Spicer-Simson departed London with a selected group of naval personnel (28 in total participated in the expedition) aboard the Llanstephen Castle on 15 June 1915 and arrived at Cape Town on 2 July, after a voyage of 9,700 km. From there, as planned, the launches were taken 3,700 km by railway to the rail-head at Fungurume (south of the then Belgian Congo), north of Elizabethville (present day Lubumbashi) in the Belgian Congo. The expedition arrived there on 26 July.

The difficulties really started at Fungurume. This was the stretch of the route that Lee had worked on for several months. The 240 km overland to Sankisia, was the most difficult through terrain ranging in altitude from 600 to 1,800 metres over the Mitumba Mountains. Lee had cut a track through the bush that crossed 140 rivers and gorges, building over 100 bridges! He had also arranged for two steam traction engines from Southern Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) to meet them at the Fungurume rail head. They were to haul the boats on their trailers for this part of the route. Managing only a few kilometres each day, the journey took over a month. Although the usefulness of the steam engines is questionable, they created a strong impression on the local inhabitants!

They eventually arrived at Sankisia on 28 September and from there they did 28 km by narrow gauge railway to Bukama. From there they took the launches down the Lualaba river for 740 km. The launches navigated using their own power for part of the route but the rest was done by placing them on lighters (platforms for shallow water). Finally, the expedition arrived to the small Belgian harbour of Lukuga on the western shore of Lake Tanganyika.

As it was true for all the great European expeditions in Africa, the burden of achieving what appeared as impossible fell on the nameless Africans rather than on the hyped Europeans! Not only the Africans carried a load of 27 kg on their heads but also hundreds of others eased the way ahead and provided much of the sheer brute force that was required to pull the launches. They did this chanting as the moved, finding a different rhythm for the various different activities performed!

Spicer-Simson had taken complete control of the expedition from Elizabethville where he had sacked Lee as soon as they met in a bar accusing him of insulting the Belgian while drunk, and generally revealing details of the Expedition to the public. Lee was ordered to return to Cape Town to await disciplinary action and, sadly, the brain behind the expedition, disappeared from the history books!

A new difficulty, however, lurked at the lake. Unknown to the British, the Germans, also aware of the critical importance of lake Tanganyika, were significantly more battle ready than had been previously thought. At Kigoma, they were busy assembling a new ship! The Goetzen was designed and built to serve as a passenger and cargo ferry in conjunction with the Ostafrikanische Eisenbahngesellschaft (East African Railway Company). It was then disassembled and shipped in 5,000 boxes to Dar es Salaam in German East Africa and taken from there by train to Kigoma.

Spicer-Simson had a good dose of luck. The absence of rain during the entire overland expedition was a very fortunate event and not the only one during the campaign. The fact that the skies opened up the moment Spicer-Simson set his feet in the lake was considered as a miracle to the supersticious local population even if the Europeans considered it a coincidence! His figure grew in stature and his eccentricity and actions greatly contributed to this.

Spicer-Simpson had his body covered in esoteric tattoos that he displayed often by walking about shirtless and wearing a skirt! The latter created a lot of speculation on whether it was a kilt, a kikoi[3] or a sarong. However, Spicer-Simpson himself – totally unconcerned- explained that his wife made various skirts for him, and that he found them very practical for tropical conditions. From then on the Belgians knew him as “Le Commandant á la Jupe” (The Skirt Commander).[4]

Soon after arriving, Spicer-Simson decided that the harbour at Lukuga was in an unsuitable position and built another one some distance away. By 23 December 1915, the boats had been launched on the Lake and soon afterwards kitted and ready for action. They were armed with a respectable little 3-pounder mounted forward on each, and a machine-gun mounted aft. Fully kitted the Mimi and Toutou averaged only 13 knots, less than the 19 that had been estimated, but yet far faster than the German steamboats, and therefore retaining a good tactical advantage.

On Christmas Eve all was declared shipshape and ready. They need not wait as the following day there was information that the Kingani was close and that it had slipped within range of the coastal battery once or twice trying to detect what was taking place on the enemy shore.

The first action of the Battle of Lake Tanganyika indeed took place on 26 December. At 09.00 hours while the Expedition members were at Mass, the Kingani was spotted about 13 kilometres from Lukuga steaming towards the southwest. Spicer-Simson calmly waited for the religious service to end and the Kingani to pass before ordering his flotilla to give chase as they knew that the Germans’ only gun was at the fore. With their superior speed, Mimi and Toutou attacked from the stern and port respectively until they managed to disable the Kingani killing its Captain and a few of the crew. The Kingani surrendered after eleven minutes and it was towed into the British harbour where it was repaired and fitted with a 12-pounder gun on her fore. No losses were experienced on the British launches but the latter structures suffered from the gun’s vibrations and needed repairs. The episode was followed with great excitement by thousands of lakeshore local inhabitants and Spicer-Simson’s image started to grow!

Later, the expedition received a message from the King that said: “His Majesty the King desires to express his appreciation of the wonderful work carried out by his most remote expedition.” Spicer-Simpson’s ego was boosted.

The Kingani was renamed “Fifi”, surely another of Spicer-Simson’s initiatives! With this latest addition to the British flotilla, its firepower was substantially increased. At the same time, the SMS Graf von Goetzen (Goetzen for short) was launched on 5 February 1915, armed with one of the 10.5 cm Königsberg guns. The latter would give the Germans a great advantage in firepower against British and Belgian forces.

Only on 8 February 1916 the Germans started looking for the missing Kingani and the German Commander -on board of the brand new Goetzen- ordered the Hedwig von Wissman to find out what had happened to her. So, the following day she was seen from the lakeside off Lukuga, following a similar course to the Kingani.

Mimi and Fifi were launched (Toutou was being repaired at the time). Although the Hedwig could outrun the Fifi, Mimi closed in and opened fire, avoiding the superior fire power of the German boat while allowing Fifi to catch up and, after about three hours, a shot of Fifi’s 12 pounder gun hit the boiler of the Hedwig and stopped it. The crew had no other option than scuttling it and surrender.

The day after Hedwig’s destruction the Goetzen went looking for it and when Spicer-Simpson saw it armed with the 10.5 cm bow gun from the Königsberg and being twenty times the size of Fifi, he realised that he could not attack it with his undersized forces with any chance of success or survival. So, at the end of February he went looking for a larger ship that could match the Goetzen.

He failed and returned to the lake crestfallen and sure that the domination of the lake still hanged in the balance despite his earlier successes. The final chapter in this saga -if there is still need for one- was that, unknown to Spicer-Simpson, the guns of the Goetzen had been removed as they were needed by the German ground forces.[5] So the ship was only armed with dummy wooden guns, with only a small working gun.

A stalemate now developed with the Goetzen armed with wooden guns and Spicer-Simpson, unaware of this, unwilling to attack a much larger and better-armed foe. The Belgians attacked the Goetzen by air but with no serious damage was done. While this took place the Allies were gradually winning the war on land and by July 1916 they threatened to isolate Kigoma leading the Germans to abandon the town.

The task of scuttling the Goetzen was given to the same engineers who had assembled it two years earlier. They decided, on their own, that they would try to facilitate a later salvage so they covered all engines with a thick layer of grease. They then filled it with sand and sunk it carefully on 26 July, in a depth of 20 metres near Katabe Bay.

With the Goetzen gone, the naval battle for the Lake was over and Spicer-Simpson and his small expedition became war heroes and medals and promotions were granted.

If, as my friend Guadalupe, you happen to travel across lake Tanganyika and spend time having a good look at the structure of the MV Liemba, you may discover German words written on its steel work. It is even possible that you may even spot the word Goetzen (Götzen) among the writing.

The MV Liemba is no other than SMS Graf von Goetzen that was refloated by the British and it is still transporting people and cargo up and down the lake. It transported Lord Baden-Powell’s widow from Northern Rhodesia (today Zambia) after his death on 7 January 1941 and more recently, in May 2015, it was hired by the United Nations to evacuate 50,000 refugees fleeing from Burundi.

The Goetzen/Liemba is the last floating ship of the German Navy of WWI and I am sure that its long life had something to do with two things: the impressive sight of the Königsberg gun that deterred the British from attacking it and the careful way the German engineers sunk her in 1916!

References consulted

Foden, G. (2005). Mimi and Toutou Go Forth: The Bizarre Battle Of Lake Tanganyika. Penguin, 256 p.


Magee, F. (1922). Transporting a navy through the jungles of Africa in war time. National Geographic Magazine 62, 331-362.

Shankland, P. The Phantom Flotilla. Mayflower, 127p.


[1] The names mean Meow and Fido in Parisian slang.

[2] Her Majesty’s Ship.

[3] A Swahili word for a piece of cotton cloth with coloured bands, worn wrapped around the body as a sarong in the Malay Archipelago.

[4] I could not help remembering a great read by Mary Russell “The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt: Women Travellers and Their World”.

[5] The Königsberg gun taken from the Graf von Goetzen continued serving the German Army during its campaign against the allied forces until September 1916 when, at Korogwe, it was captured and later displayed in the Belgian Congo (today D.R. Congo).


SMS Königsberg’s gun

Apart from nature I am also interested in African history so this is the first post that I dwell on the issue to tell you about an interesting series of somehow related events that took place in East, Central and Southern Africa during World War I (WWI). I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I did searching for information and writing it.

We spent last week in Pretoria, having a break from Zimbabwe, and doing some needed shopping. While there I took the opportunity to visit the Union Buildings not to meet the President of South Africa but to check on a piece of artillery that I once read it was there. Luckily, after checking the various guns placed there, I found it and it prompted me to write this post.

IMG_5019 copy

Wrong gun. One of the guns at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

Let’s go back in time to the 1900’s, most precisely 1906 when the SMS Königsberg was launched and became the lead ship of her class of light cruisers in the German Navy. It was named after the capital of the then East Prussia and it was armed with a main battery of ten 10.5-centimeter (4.1 in) as well as other smaller guns.

In April 1914, the Königsberg was sent to German East Africa to take over patrol duties along the Indian Ocean coast. Its crew prepared for a tropical spell and many brought hunting guns to enjoy this activity that was common at the time. It arrived in Dar es Salaam on 5 June and its size and impressive appearance gained it the nickname Manowari na bomba tatu, or “the man of war with three pipes” among the local people.

The arrival to the area of the HMS Astraea, Hyacinth, and Pegasus of the British Navy (probably related with the deterioration of the situation in Europe) created concern in the Germans who, suspecting that the intentions of such unexpected visitors were to blockade the Königsberg in the German East African capital, on 31 July 1914 it went out to sea as soon as it could. The Königsberg, being a faster vessel left the three slower British ships behind until it broke contact and continued to Aden where news of the start of WWI reached it.

Ordered to attack British merchant ships, the cruiser remained in the Indian Ocean and sunk the SS City of Winchester, a merchant ship and only civilian casualty. Coal availability soon became the Achilles’ heel of the cruiser but somehow it got enough of it to enable it to seek refuge into the Rufiji River delta, recently surveyed by the Germans, as its engines were in need of an overhaul.

Aware of the presence of HMS Pegasus in the area, the Königsberg left its hiding place in a sortie and surprised and sunk the Pegasus on 20 September 1914 in what is known as the Battle of Zanzibar. After this event both the Königsberg and its loyal supply ship the Somali entered the delta of the Rufiji River to wait for the needed repairs that were to be carried out in Dar es Salaam.

While the two German ships were camouflaged inside the delta, following the Pegasus defeat, three more British cruisers; HMS Chatham, Dartmouth, and Weymouth arrived to the area and located the Königsberg and the Somali. However, not knowing the way into the delta, they were unable to steam into the river to attack them so they decided to set up a blockade. The battle of the Rufiji River had started!

The British attempted by air and sea to destroy the German ships but failed, as they could not get close enough for their guns to be accurate and the planes brought in were not able to cope with the heat. Seeking a safer position, the German ships moved further into the delta. However, the situation was deteriorating as the Germans were experiencing, apart from shortages of coal, scarcity of ammunition, food, and medical supplies. To the impossibility of escaping from this tropical prison, diseases such as malaria started affecting the crew so the moral fell to an all time low.

A short-lived hope was brought about by a plan to re-supply the Königsberg through the arrival of a German merchant ship loaded with supplies and pretending to be Danish in the hope to get through the British blockade. As the freighter approached East Africa, Königsberg prepared to come out fighting to meet it. Sadly for the Germans, the ruse was discovered and the “Danish” ship forced aground. Although still safe from their enemies, the Königsberg and the Somali were trapped!

To break the stalemate the resourceful British brought two monitors, the Mersey and Severn. These large gunboats of shallow draft were built before the start of WWI for the Brazilian Navy and taken over by the British at the onset of the war. As their intended use was the Amazon River, they were considered suitable to enter the Rufiji River and their voyage from the UK justified!

On 11 July 1915, the two monitors got close enough to severely damage the Königsberg, forcing her crew to scuttle it. The guns were removed and converted into field artillery pieces and coastal guns and, together with the ship’s crew, joined Lieutenant Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s guerrilla campaign in East Africa. One of these guns remained with the German Navy as it was mounted on the SS Graf von Goetzen in the German fleet in Lake Tanganyika.

Could that gun been the one seen at the Union Buildings at Pretoria? It may be but it is unlikely, as it is believed that it was taken to the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo). It is also believed that the gun at Pretoria is a hybrid of pieces coming from several different guns. Further, the plaque stating it to have been captured by South African forces at Kahe, East Africa on 21st March is also almost certainly inaccurate as the “Kahe gun” was blown up and severely damaged by the Germans before being captured.

The story of the Pretoria gun ends here. However there is a follow up that started with the mounting of the gun on the SS Graf von Goetzen, a participant in the Battle of Lake Tanganyika. However, this is the subject for the next post!


Note: The fate of the ten guns of the Königsberg have been thoroughly investigated and an outstanding report can be found @ http://s400910952.websitehome.co.uk/germancolonialuniforms/militaria/koenigsberggun.htm. I acknowledge this site for some of the information contained in this post.






Fire down below

After a few months after our arrival in Kenya in the 80’s[1] we eventually left the Muguga House hostel for Tigoni where we rented a large house belonging to the Harvey family. Tigoni is about 40km northwest of Nairobi, on the eastern side of the Rift Valley at over two thousand metres of altitude. Indigenous forest islands still remained then, among the large tea plantations. Several animal species still inhabited the area, the most notable being the conspicuous Black-and-white Colobus monkeys during the day and the bush babies at night, with their loud and somehow scary calls.

tigoni house

The land at the back of the house had no fence or wall (imagine that today!) and therefore we were able to walk towards the nearby stream located about two thousand metres down hill.

A Sunday that we were not camping in the bush, we invited our friend Ranjini for lunch and,  afterwards, we decided that going down to the river was a good idea to help digest our food. So, armed with our binoculars and wearing long trousers to protect ourselves from thorns and ticks, we set off. About half way down the red and slippery hill our “private” path joined a “public” wider lane where the local inhabitants went about their business rather than fun walking like us.

tigoni hse bfast 1

We soon arrived to the stream and, after walking about the area for a while; we found a shady spot where we decided to have a small walkers consultation to decide our next steps. The ideas put forward were whether to continue up the other side of the ravine or to return the way we came and enjoy a cup of tea at home. The latter was gaining consensus when, without warning, a fire started in my ankles and started spreading up my legs. I saw no smoke but noticed that I was standing in the middle of a colony of siafu![2]

The nasty meat-eaters, amazed by their lucky find, were not wasting any time in processing it! Without wasting a second and forgetting about being normally shy (?), I downed my trousers in a flash (excuse the pun) and checked my hurting parts. What I found was not encouraging: a few dozen soldier ants had climbed up the inside of my trousers. While some had already locked their jaws on my pink flesh, others were still going “upwards”…

Yelling “siafu!!!” to alert my companions, I started to grab and remove those still trying to reach tender places and, only when I smashed them all, I focused on removing those that had already bitten me and were going nowhere. This is easier said than done! Pulling them in a hurry (what else can you do?) only makes their bodies detach, leaving their heads with their rather outsized jaws still embedded in you! While this was going on, my companions, luckily looking the other way, moved off fast and left me alone to deal with the aggressors. Before they moved off, I caught a glimpse of their expressions that did not help. Instead of seeing sympathetic concern or at least indifference towards my predicament, they were amused! I am still trying to forgive them for this!

It was in the middle of my painful struggle when I became aware that I was still being watched. I turned around and saw that my antics had gathered some public! A growing bunch of Kikuyu kids were carefully watching me. Once discovered, they started to make comments, pointing at my nakedness and, worse of all, they laughed loud! I was clearly a “first” for them but that failed to amuse me. I told them -mainly with gestures aided by my basic Swahili- to go away. They only moved back a couple of paces, unwilling to stop watching the sight of their childhood: how a half-naked muzungu[3] “danced with ants”.

(Almost) embarrassed and in a desperate effort at damage control I immediately lifted up my trousers. Although this calmed down the young Kikuyu crowd, it did nothing to placate my traitorous companions’ enjoyment of the scene of my distress! So, ignoring everybody, with a great effort I put on my best neutral face, and started walking back to the house, still bringing with me a considerable number of large ant jaws for later extraction.

Despite my rather unpleasant experience, siafu are not a bad thing as they control a number of otherwise harmful pests for crops and their storage. They also take care of other undesired beasts such as ants, roaches, spiders, and everything else that crawls or creeps. Later, while busy un-plucking mandibles my thoughts did focussed of their beneficial side but, although I could somehow see it, it did nothing to relieve the consequences of my encounter!


[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/06/30/life-and-work-in-kenya-muguga1/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/kenya-muguga1/

[2] Siafu (in Swahili) are members of the Dorylus genus, also known as driver or safari ants. They are army ants between 1-15 mm in length found primarily in central and east Africa in large colonies (up to several million individuals). They move in columns as they travel from their lair to the hunting field or they spread when actively hunting by sensing the carbon dioxide that insects and animals breath out. Aggressive soldiers protect the colonies.

[3] A common term used to refer to “white” people.

Horse Power

That there are horses in South America should not be a surprise to anyone. These beasts were introduced by the Spaniards in the 1600’s and they have been adjusting to their new environment and multiplying ever since while becoming invaluable in many agriculture-related tasks.

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The bushsnob pointing towards Carmelo at the origin of the River Plate in Punta Gorda.

Carmelo is located in the South-West of Uruguay, just downriver from the joining of the rivers Paraná and Uruguay, the start of the river Plate, “discovered” in the 1500’s. This is the place I was born and I am a proud member of this small town, full of character and characters. Carmelo is the only city in Uruguay founded by our national hero: José Artigas, a man far too advanced for his time.

It is here that a well-known barber, after having won the small local lottery, closed the shop and went home to rest. Before leaving, he placed a sign on the door that read: “CLOSED DUE TO EXCESS OF CASH”.

Carmelo was two hundred years old on 12 February 2016 and I happened to be there to enjoy the celebrations. I was an adolescent fifty years ago when its one hundred and fifty years were commemorated and I still keep some memories from that time.

I recall that we had an excellent home delivery system for many services, mainly food items but other services as well. The fishermen (no fisherwomen then) would carry their catch hanging from stick tripods and shout “Pescadooooor!”[1] while walking through the many streets of the town, selling their catch to the housewives that would wait for the calls to come out of their houses and argue the price for, usually, half a fish. There were also knife sharpeners, pot welders and kerosene-stove fixers doing their rounds either on foot or on bicycles.

There were also lots of horse carts. They came in various models: open or closed, with rubber or wooden wheels each delivering their goods: fruits and vegetables, meat, bread, firewood and milk. In particular I recall the time my mother got extremely upset when she found a small fish in the milk that was rather enthusiastically watered down from a small stream by the milkman! There were also carts to collect your refuse and those unwanted objects from your home.

Fifty years have passed and the horse carts are still here, together with the odd knife sharpener still playing its tuneful whistle up and down the musical scale to announce its arrival! They all contribute to build Uruguay’s reputation as the greenest country in South America[2].

In light of the above, I was not surprised when I read an article[3] found by my wife describing the vegetable sellers of Baltimore in the USA. Although they look more “upmarket” ours also have a few notable features worth mentioning!

Today, horse carts (from one to three horse power!) ride through the streets of Carmelo offering a variety of home-delivery services. Over the years they have incorporated notable improvements: better brakes and more asphalt-friendly rubber wheels, the accompanying dogs are better trained: they now trot under the carts rather than after them! Other notable advance is the displaying on the carts of cellular phone and even e-mail addresses where they can be called!

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A 1-HP model used for bread delivery.

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A more rugged 2-HP version.

Apart from those selling fruits and vegetables and the bakers, there are also others that can bring you firewood or building materials as well as removing unwanted items from your home such as rubble and rubbish. There is even a category that I would call “Man With a Cart”, able to perform tailor-made tasks for the customer.

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The tool of the “Man With a Cart” Note the cellphone No. on the horse’s harness!

One, belonging to someone that went to primary school with me, is usually parked a few paces away from home waiting for customers. I spent some time watching it. The first thing I noted was that the horse was in good nick and “parked” unrestrained! It carried orange traffic cones to demarcate its working space as well as a spade and a luggage-carrier on one side and gardening tools on the other. In addition it had its own feed bucket for the horse and canvas and tying ropes to secure its potential cargo.

It seems that, although the Baltimore horse and buggy fruit sellers seem to be gradually going out of business, those in Carmelo are only adapting to the changing times and they will probably still be here in fifty years time.

While I can easily see drones taking over the fruit delivery in Baltimore (and the rest of the USA!) I predict that Amazon will sub-contract their goods delivery to our greener -if slower- horse powered Man with a Cart if it wishes to keep its act “green” in Uruguay.


[1] “Fishermaaaan!”

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/03/uruguay-makes-dramatic-shift-to-nearly-95-clean-energy

[3] http://www.greatbigstory.com/stories/the-last-generation-of-baltimore-s-street-sellers

Lions suckling

A letter about unusual lion behaviour in the Serengeti National Park[1], brought back memories of our own observations in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya, in the 1980’s.

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A picture of the letter to Getaway.

As it can be seen above, the letter describes that, a couple of tourists on a photographic safari, witnessed a lioness kill a wildebeest cow and her calf. Afterwards the lioness suckled the cow, then consumed the calf and returned again to suckle and lick the milk from the now dead female.

While in the Maasai Mara one evening we witnessed a lioness kill a topi[2]. While the lioness was busy strangling the animal, two cubs appeared on the scene and, without hesitation, went directly to the Topi’s udder and suckled the animal for a few minutes.

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A Topi in their typical “watching” stance.

Eventually the animal died and the cubs stopped suckling and joined the mother at eating it. We did not see he lioness suckling.

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The cubs we saw suckling were larger than this one.

The explanatory reply from Brian Jones, a very knowledgeable person on raising lions at the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre (South Africa) among other activities, confirmed that lions do lick carcasses, a fact that I can also corroborate through personal observations. As he made no mention of the suckling of prey by lions, I decided to write to Brian to let him know of our own observations and somehow reinforce the tourists’ observations. The following is a record of our exchange:


From:              Julio de Castro <juliojdecastro@gmail.com>

To:                  Moholoholo <moholorehab@wol.co.za>

Dear Mr. Jones,

Reviewing old magazines I saw your comment of a couple of years ago (Getaway, May 2013, p.13) to a sighting of a lioness suckling and licking a wildebeest female in the Serengeti National Park.

In the 1980’s, while working in Kenya, one evening in the Maasai Mara we witnessed a lioness kill a Topi. While the lioness was busy strangling the animal, two cubs appeared on the scene and, without much hesitation, went directly to the Topi’s udder and suckled the animal for a few minutes. Eventually the animal died and the cubs stopped suckling and joined the mother at eating it. I do not recall if the death of the female Topi coincided with the cubs stopping to suckle. The cubs were about 6 months old or older (not suckling babies).

I have also witnessed lions licking wildebeest and zebra prey (mainly in the abdominal area) but I believe that there are two different phenomena, one is the deliberate suckling of a female prey and another is the licking of a dying/dead animal, including males.

I hope you find this interesting and look forward to your comments.

Kind regards.

Julio de Castro


19 November 2015

From:              Moholoholo <moholorehab@wol.co.za>

To:                  Julio de Castro <juliojdecastro@gmail.com>

Good morning Julio,

Thank you very much for your e–mail.

So interesting to hear of your experience witnessing the cubs trying to suckle from the Topi – really amazing!!!

Probably the smell of milk and I’d say the Topi must have had a youngster!!

Yes the licking of a dead animal is normal. I  have often seen even cheetah licking their pray before eating!! I have a few tame Cheetah and they lick my friends on their arm, I tease them by saying “they always lick their prey before they eat them” (ha, ha).

Thank you so much for sharing your experience, it always a story I can tell to other folk.

All the Best


I thank Brian for his time to reply and his valuable contribution. Please visit http://www.moholoholo.co.za/ to see the valuable work that the Centre performs.


[1] Koetze, R. Unusual sighting. Getaway (Letters), May 2013, p.12.

[2] The Topi (Damaliscus lunatus jimela) and the Tsessebe (D. lunatus lunatus) are sub-species of D. lunatus.

Javelin throwing (almost Olympic games)

The view of the Mara triangle on the Maasai Mara from the Oloololo escarpment on the way to Intona ranch.

The view of the Mara triangle in the Maasai Mara from the Oloololo escarpment on the way to Intona ranch.

Despite our busy work schedule we did not work on Sundays. We took the morning to explore Intona and its surrounds as there were always interesting sightings, particularly in the area towards the Migori river forest.

A flooded Migori river at the back of Intona ranch.

A flooded Migori river at the back of Intona ranch.

A notable tree in the Migori river forest.

A notable tree in the Migori river forest.

After lunch and seeing that there was not much to do I hatched the idea of a spear-throwing contest and mentioned it to Ernest. “What about an international spear throwing competition this afternoon?” “We can have participants from Africa, América and Europe, almost like the Olympic games”, I added. Ernest happily agreed and I got on with the organizing.

Apart from Ernest and myself there were also a Ugandan veterinarian and Kikuyu and Maasai assistants, admittedly both Kenyans but from different ethnic groups. “After all, we are in Maasailand” I thought and we should find a suitable javelin” “Let’s find a good spear and get the throwing field organized,” I said as I was already walking towards the herdsmen camp to arrange the details. “Tommi, I need to find a good spear” I said before I said good morning, and added, “I have an idea”.

He and the other herdsmen knew me by now and they smiled in anticipation. Tommi assured me that he could easily find the right tool as there were Maasai nearby that he knew. Good news!

A similar spear to the one used in our competition.

A similar spear to the one used in our competition.

While Tommi strolled through the bush in search for the spear we walked about to find a suitable field where the competition could take place. We found a good site and placed some distance marks while we waited for Tommi’s return. I also went around the farm inviting participants to the event. I managed to engage Joseph (Kikuyu, Kenyan) and Kiza (Ugandan) in addition to Tommi (Maasai, Kenyan), Ernest (Swiss) and myself (Uruguay). We had an international field!

By the time Tommi returned after lunch we were all ready and waiting. He brought a sturdy looking spear that we judged suitable for the task although it was rather long and heavy. It had a long metal blade, a wooden middle part and along steel rod at the end. It was time to start to get done before the daily 17:00 hours shower!

Ernest and helpers examining an animal for ticks.

Ernest and helpers examining an animal for ticks. The herdsmen tent can be seen in the background.

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A heavy Bont tick infestation on a heifer at Intona ranch.

All participants agreed at the onset that measurements would be done in paces. It was thought that equal throws were unlikely and the need for laser-aided technology[1] was thought not to be required. No bets were allowed, as just by looking at the competitors, an inexperienced observer should have been able to guess who the favourites were! This did not come to our minds while we warmed-up.

As the start of the competition approached, the tension increased and, by the time we drew our throwing terms, it was almost unbearable… For some reason Uruguay went first, followed by Joseph the Kikuyu representative, Switzerland was third, Kiza, the Ugandan fourth and, a fitting finale, the last to throw was Tommi, Maasai. It may as well as he was the “host country”.

Aware that I would not win I argued in favour of some try throws to get the right balance of both body and javelin but, regrettably for me, the other competitors (unkindly in my opinion) refused arguing that this was not in the rules (?). So, resigned to my fate I grabbed the spear and got ready to do my best. It felt heavy and rigid. I threw it and, the second it left me I knew that there were problems with both direction and distance. It was a rather poor show that landed a long way from the cattle boma and far from my possible personal best. “I have never had any strength in my arms” I said, trying to feel better. “about 20 paces is not too bad for my age”.

Joseph was quite fit although he was from a relatively well off Kikuyu family and this was beginning to show around his midriff. His throw was better than mine but stopped at 26 paces. Ernest, the Swiss researcher turned athlete improved my mark by a couple of paces and Kiza, the man from Uganda, despite his relatively small size, did much better than all at about 30 paces. A big smile lit his face, as usual and a lesson to us all that size is not that important but good technique is!

It was the turn of the Maasailand representative, the final competitor. He was perhaps the most relaxed participant and the one that was enjoying the tournament the most! From the moment he picked the spear we all new that the competition was over! We exchanged resigned glances and head shakes and got ready for an Olympic humiliation! We tried our best to disrupt his throw by talking to him but, he just smiled and replied to our remarks without losing his composure.

He held the spear naturally, balancing its weight by instinct. Almost without running and with a fast and wide arm movement he threw it, almost unexpectedly and even casually. The spear flew high vibrating with a “swiiiiiiisshhhh”. It went beyond our throwing field and over the cattle boma. We lost sight of it but run in the general direction where we last saw it to see how far it had gone. Behind the cattle boma it was the herdsmen camp so, when we fail to find it inside the boma we got more worried and started looking around the camp. There was no trace of the spear anywhere and the camp looked normal. For this we were reassured as at least there were no casualties!

We looked around the tent, near the fireplace, chairs, table, up the trees and all over: no spear! Nothing stuck on the ground, nothing visible up the trees or stuck anywhere. “Another mystery of the African bush”, I thought, or some Maasai magic I was not aware of?

As there was no point in arguing in favour of declaring the throw void on account of it having gone beyond the throwing field or even worse, on account of the disappearance of the instrument, we declared our Maasai warrior the undisputed winner. The absence of the spear meant that there was no possible revenge. This came as a relief as a change of the result would have been unlikely!

I apologized to Tommi for having had the idea that has led to the losing of his borrowed spear and offered financial compensation for his loss. He said that he had thrown it and lost it so I did not need to worry. He will eventually find it he said. I expressed serious doubts but gave him the benefit of the doubt and, as the rain was starting, I moved to our tent.

That night, while we were having our dinner we herd loud talking and laughing at the workers camp next door and went to have a look. The spear had been found! In its wild trajectory it had gone through both the flysheet and the tent and it was embedded in one of the herdsmen’s camp beds, luckily empty at the time of the event! I felt great relief that nothing had happened and a lesser one that the spear could now be returned to its owner!

I cannot remember how I explained the tent holes to my senior managers. Maybe I did not and it just remained as normal “wear and tear”!

Transmara, Kenya circa 1986.

[1] I do not think it was available at the time, anyway!

Hyenas and planet-gazing

The morning after the Maasai chicken dinner a good breakfast was in order! We prepared bacon and eggs to compensate for our austere meal of the night before. In an attempt at avoiding another fasting episode I offered to take over the next dinner and to roast the beef we had brought from Nairobi.

Camping at Intona ranch.

Camping at Intona ranch.

After breakfast, another day of routine field trials followed, as we needed to do many replicates of our tests in order to confirm the results. We worked without stopping until late afternoon when we decided that we had done enough and it was time for a shower and to prepare dinner. As a South American I am ashamed to confess that I am fearful of horses and prefer to keep a good distance from them. That is not all, I am a real disaster at barbequing! Therefore, on the occasion I struggled through and I made sure that the food was abundant and we ate our fill.

The night was truly spectacular. The relative short distance of Intona ranch from Lake Victoria meant that it rained very often. It poured in late afternoon and then the sky cleared at dusk. The consequence was that the rains cleaned the air and the night sky was always very sharp.

Ernest and I stayed awake until late talking and contemplating the pristine sky. We talked about many issues, occasionally stopping to listen to the night sounds, in particular the spotted hyena calls getting closer to our camp. Getting gradually bolder they moved close to the periphery of the light of our camp fire. I reassured Ernest that this was a normal event when camping at Intona and that “normally” hyenas would not be aggressive.

Despite the good time we were having, we have had a long day and we felt very tired so soon we went to bed. As soon as we were inside the tent we heard something sniffing all around our tent. A white-tailed mongoose was seen scurrying away when we shined our torches. That small mystery solved, it was back to bed, hoping that sleep would come soon.

Not so. This time it was a loud crush outside the tent that also merited investigation. This time a hyena was the culprit! The beast had grabbed a dirty pan and had taken off at speed. We run after the beast but it was a futile effort and came back to bed thinking on resuming the search for the pot in the morning.

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A Brown hyena with wildebeest carcass in the Maasai Mara. Its cousins visited us nightly at Intona.

While thinking and hoping that normality would return, I finally fell sleep. Again, it did not last long. It may have been 03:00 hs when I heard Ernest opening the tent door zip. My first thought was that his gut had finally lost the fight against the filtered water drunk on the way in! In addition, aware of the hyenas I remained awake although without moving, hoping to go back to sleep immediately. No chance! Ernest came back and started to shake me up shouting “Wake up, the sky is perfect to look for planets!” I felt like slaying him but, remembering his partial deafness and on account of his contagious enthusiasm, I made the mistake of getting up!

By the time I managed to go out of the tent, Ernest was already looking through the binoculars, identifying the various noteworthy celestial bodies, accompanying his successive discoveries with shouts of joy! Although I had enjoyed contemplating the night sky both in Uruguay and in Kenya, I have never been that interested in astronomy. However, he convinced me to look at Jupiter (a small orange sphere) and even managed to see Saturn and what I though were its rings! Finally Ernest’s excitement subsided and we managed to hit the camp beds again, this time until the sun was up!

The large ball of crunched aluminium that we found about one hundred metres from our tent was not the remains of a recent asteroid that had narrowly missed us but all that remained from our cooking pan after the hyenas had squished it to get its juice.

Although our cooking options suffered another severe setback we still managed to produce some pan-less and chicken-less dinners during the following days!