Historical

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

Place of many elephants

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

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

DSCN0235 copy

Wright’s tower.

DSCN0225 wright tower Gon Aug 17 copy

The sign in Wright’s tower.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tusker wange waterhole

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

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

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

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

masthulele 2

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Advertisements

First blood

To witness a lion kill is, despite its perceived cruelty, a highlight for the safari lover. We have been lucky to witness several kills and many more attempted kills during the many years that we have visited the bush. But the first one is the one that remains most vividly imprinted in your mind, particularly if it happens in full view and you witness it from a few metres away.

It happened in the Maasai Mara in the early 80’s, during one of my first camping experiences with Paul. We happened to be driving along monitoring the wildebeest movements when we saw a zebra limping badly. At close quarters it was clear that the animal had -somehow- damaged a front leg. Aware that wounded animals did not last long because of the large predator population in the area, we decided to wait for a few hours to see what happened.

Lion pride M Mara 6.54.19 AM copy

We knew that a large pride lived in the area.

At some point the zebra -a group of 8 to 10- stopped grazing and started to move. We followed. I was at the time sitting on the roof rack to have a better view of the plains so it was me that spotted the reason for the zebra nervousness. They had spotted a lioness watching them from a distance. The intentions of the predator were clear as she was walking in a general direction that would -eventually- get to the group of zebras. Excited, I prepared my camera and waited.

After a while we realized that in fact there were several lionesses and that, somehow, we were in fact used as part of a pincer movement from the huntresses! After about thirty minutes slowly following the zebras, we saw them break into a trot and, before we could see much more, they were galloping so we moved faster while trying to anticipate the event.

Suddenly we saw that the hunted were trying to avoid a second lioness that, after moving for quite a distance through a donga [1], was cutting diagonally and at full speed towards them. Things were now accelerating and so did the car and my heart while I held on to the roof rack while trying not to lose my camera or falling off myself!

The zebra were now at full gallop when, suddenly, they scattered in all directions, I am sure that this had something to do with confusing the chasers. However, as expected, the injured zebra was the target, being slower than the rest so the lioness -now joined by two more some distance behind her- was closing in. So were we, despite the irregularity of the terrain that was no obstacle for our excitment!

Soon it was clear that, despite the zebra’s final spirited effort, the chase outcome was a foregone conclusion as soon as the lioness reached the zebra and managed to place one paw on its rump, the zebra lost its equilibrium and crashed down to the ground while the lioness immediately reached for its throat. Luckily there was lots of grass and no dust so we could observe the action clearly. After a few seconds another lioness arrived and helped the first one to anchored the zebra down.

mmara lioness killing zebra copy

My first picture from the moving car shows the moment the second lioness joins the kill. A third one is seen coming in the background.

mmara lioness killing zebra 7 copy

A better photo once we stopped.

mmara lioness killing zebra 7 copy

A better take once we stopped.

Lions killing zebra m mara 7 copy

Mesmerized by what I was watching and photographing, I was still on the roof rack by the time we stopped to watch them only a few metres from them! Although they were clearly not interested in me, somehow I managed to dive into the car through the open window (not easily done with the sliding window of a Series II Land Rover but clearly possible under duress!). Once inside, I continue to watch the action and take more picturees. We were both speechless while more lions kept coming from various places to join the kill.

mmara lioness killing zebra best 3 copy

The arrival of the male. The white foggy marks are the windscreen wipers.

My romantic view that a lion kill was a clinical affair where the victim dies fast and in shock was shattered. The zebra took several minutes to die, while the whole lion pride arrived and some of them started to lick it while the animal was clearly alive although in deep shock by now. Eventually it expired and we were fortunate to have enough time to observe the interaction of the various members of the pride, including the arrival of the male that came “straight to the kill” and scattered all others while positioning himself near the hindquarters, ready to enjoy the best cuts!

We only left the scene at nightfall as -luckily- we knew the area well. The lions -mainly the younger- were still feeding while most of the adults were now doing nothing but washing themselves and then resting belly-up. We heard the jackals and the hyenas starting to call and soon they were approaching to the carcass that, by now, was more than half eaten. Thinking on seeing how it would be the following morning, we memorized a few features to be able to come back to the area that happened to be outside the reserve.

The following morning, we arrived to the spot but had difficulties to find the kill. Only after a careful search we stumbled upon the zebra’s clean skull and a couple of bones. That was all that remained from what yesterday had been a living zebra! Luckily, about 500,000 migrated every year intermingled with the wildebeest so one less was not going to make too much of a difference!

 

[1] In Africa, a narrow steep-sided ravine formed by water erosion but usually dry except in the rainy season.

Lion skull

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!

Embed from Getty Images

 

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.

field-100nn-test-intona-copy

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

t-mara-intona-ranch-j-murumbi-1-copy

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.

northern frontier 1

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.

boats-mombasa-harbour-8-16-03-pm-copy

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.

dow-mombasa

Nawalilkher in the 80s.

lamu-7-sepia

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”.

vamizi2012_1115cr-copy

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

sea14_highres-copy

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.

migori-flooded-cropped

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.

maasai-that-got-cut-with-fish-migori-river-copy

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).