Historical

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

Lion skull

field-100nn-test-intona-copy

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”

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.

m mara kombi

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!

l naiv july 82 after being stuck

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!

Tsavo W stuck with paul rossiter

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.

Experimental cattle Isolation unit copy

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.

n kinangop safari rally kombi

Our kombi during the rains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mabel on l rover...

My wife looking for footprints.

Land Rover Kakamega forest

Being cautious at a Kakamega forest bridge.

turkana safari 6

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

turkana safari

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

turkana safari 3

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!

Land Rover M Mara with Mc on top

The great experience of riding on the roof!

jj y mc en amboseli 8.45.15 PM

Young wife and Bushsnob posing on the Land Rover!

 

 

 

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!

Capybara

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.

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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.

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Nawalilkher in the 80s.

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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”.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

https://weaponsandwarfare.com/2015/08/08/the-naval-africa-expedition-and-the-battle-for-lake-tanganyika/

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.

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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.