Memoirs

Episodes of my life in Africa.

Matlakusa

You will recall that on 20 August 2014 I published a post titled “A tusk task” (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/a-tusk-task-2/) where I presented the finding of ab elephant bull that, as far as I could tell, had not been identified before. I called this animal the “Balalala tusker” as we saw it near the Balalala area at Kruger National Park.

A month later in “Unraveling the tusker mystery” (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/unraveling-the-tusker-mystery/). I reported that I got confirmation that what we had seen was indeed a new tusker that “will definitely escalate him to the top of the list when the time for the naming review comes and hopefully at that time he will be confirmed as a new bull and named“.

The naming process took a while during which I kept asking the Emerging Tuskers Project (ETP) of the Letaba Elephant Hall of the Kruger National Park for progress but I had no news for over two years. When I was starting to lose hope, on 28 June 2017, I received an e-mail from the ETP that I reproduce below.

Dear Julio,

I am sure you are convinced by now I had forgotten you. I am sorry this process took so long… I finally got the media release and approvals done and I can formally tell you now that your bull is named Matlakusa. 

It proved quiet an interesting story in the end, as once we had identified your bull as a new bull, we noted that with one of our other new bulls some of the submissions characteristics matched your bull better and we actually managed to split these sightings far more accurately after the great series of images you and another contributor provided so it actually helped link the two new bulls and discover a completely new bull and a new area for him as well.

Below is the link to the website as well as the info for Matlakusa (this is a summary of the info that is on file with the project), if you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact me.

https://www.sanparks.org/parks/kruger/elephants/tuskers/emerging.php#matlakusa

Origin of Name: ‘Matlakusa’ from tlakusa, in Tsonga meaning to ‘raise, lift up’, this is a large open pan and bore-hole, alongside the eastern border, southeast of Malonga in the Kruger National Park and links to this bull’s large home range. 

Range: Northern and Far Northern KNP. 

Special Features: This bull’s ivory closely resembles that of Xindzulundzulu, that it is fairly symmetrical, straight and widely splayed with a shallow curve from a side profile. The left ear holds the defining characteristics that separate these two bulls, there is a R5.00 sized hole in the tip of the lobe as well as an area of damaged cartilage at the top give a large v-shaped ‘collapse’ in the ear. A very small u-shaped notch and two R0.20 holes are visible on the middle of the lobe but only at close inspection and with the ears extended. The right earlobe had a R0.50 sized hole towards the bottom of the lobe that has recently been torn and is now a u-shaped notch with a small hole towards the inner lobe above this. Other than this the lobe is fairly clean edged. A small protrusion of skin is visible on the trunk at the top adjacent the left tusk. Visible from a side profile is a growth on the left foreleg behind the leg just above the joint.

General: Initial images of this bull from Joël and Di Roerig were identified as Xindzulundzulu due to his ivory shape. Later in 2014 a full series of images submitted by Julio de Castro [1] between Shingwedzi and Balalala created a dilemma as at the time as Xindzulundulu was known to only be local to Shingwedzi and a new bull was suspected. Additional images by regular contributor Frans van Achterbergh submitted showing his left and right side allowed the defining characteristic’s to be seen and to be able to determine that there were in fact two separate bulls. This revelation allowed two previous sightings one of which was by Ian & Deirdre Outram and the other by Forum member Lion Queen both in 2012 that were both previously thought to be Xindzulundzulu but could not be confirmed as the locations did not make sense and defining characteristics in these images were not very clear. However the receipt of the 2014 submission with clearer images could confirm these identifications. Several other images placed with Xindzulundzulu’s monitoring file could now also be separated out as being those of Matlakusa and in 2015/6 it was decided that sightings of him were sufficient to name the bull confirming his status.

Kind Regards

Kirsty Redman, Interpretive Officer, Nxanatseni Region, Kruger National Park, South African National Parks.

As you can imagine we are delighted that our contribution assisted the ETP to identify Matlakusa and separate it from Xindzulundzulu as a new tusker.

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Matlakusa showing off its ivory!

We look forward to find Matlakusa again during our next safari to the KNP next week. We hope that Matlakusa will continue to live its peaceful life for many years to come and that its ivory stays with it, where it belongs!

[1] the Bushsnob.

 

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Gonarezhou three years later. Northern area

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our tent.

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The veranda of our tent.

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The setting.

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

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

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

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The view of the Runde river.

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

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The Chilojo cliffs. Gonarezhou’s landmark.

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Another view of the cliffs.

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

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A female Greater kudu watches us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A male namaqua dove.

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

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Close up of the rock monitor.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

First blood

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

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

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We knew that a large pride lived in the area.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A better photo once we stopped.

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A better take once we stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Lion skull

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Young Borana cattle at Intona undergoing tick resistance testing.

While visiting Godfrey at Laikipia to buy cattle for my Intona ranch trials, I was of course invited for a cup of tea by him and his wife. We sat in the veranda to enjoy the afternoon and talked about our activities for a while. It was soon time to go so I thanked them and stood up to leave. Then I noticed the skulls!

Four or five lion skulls were blanching on top of their house roof and Godfrey explained that they had been there for years. Some had been taken from lion carcasses found at the farm but others were from animals that needed to be destroyed as they would become “cattle-eaters” and be too much of a nuisance in a cattle ranch. Being a conservationist he expressed regret at this but it was necessary as trans location was not always advisable or even possible [1].

Without thinking much, before I left, I mentioned that if he ever had one skull too many, I would love to have it. He promised to remember my request and we soon parted company, as I needed to get back to Nairobi to organize the transportation of my recently acquired cattle herd.

For a few weeks after buying the cattle I was extremely busy organizing the two simultaneous trials in Muguga and Intona ranch to pay attention to anything else. So, when Veronica, our Muguga secretary, told me that Mr. Godfrey had called, I made a mental note to call him back but soon forgot about it. A couple of days later, I was at the office when a new phone call came, this time from Godfrey’s secretary. I picked up the phone to hear “Are you Mr. Castro?” [2]

I knew I had paid for the cattle so I was taken by surprise by the call. “Speaking” I said, “Mr. Castro, I have been calling you for a few days” she said rather too sternly I thought, “Could you please come to the office to collect a parcel that Mr. Godfrey left for you?” and added, “I do not know what is in it but it smells terribly”. I thanked her and rushed to their office in Nairobi having a fairly good idea of the contents…

The parcel was rather large and it was indeed very stinky! I thanked the relieved secretary and walked out. As I moved through the building, people let me pass while looking at me with expressions that varied from disgust to amusement but no one, not even the security guards approached me. I was clearly perceived as someone who could do with a bit of soap and water. The situation reminded me of boarding a public bus as a veterinarian in Uruguay after performing some post-mortem work. I could always find a an empty seat as people would keep clear of me and my “perfume”.

Although used to strong “natural” smells, as fast as I could, I got home. I unwrapped the parcel in the bath and a letter slipped out of it. It was signed by Godfrey and it said that this young male lion had roared nicely for a while until one day it decided to have a go at his cattle and in one night it killed several of them. He could have lived with that but the lion repeated the attack the following night without any obvious reason as it had plenty of beef to chose from already! So, unfortunately, he had to shoot it.

It was a great skull that I still keep today, together with the “covering” letter that I know I still have somewhere! I cleaned it thoroughly and boiled it for hours to get it totally clean. I was lucky that no one at the block of flats where I lived complained as the smell was still not nice!

As the skull is packed somewhere, I present you with an embedded picture for you to appreciate that they are really designed with emphasis on the eating rather than on the thinking!

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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”

Bad lions

Sometimes, because of the amount of work I had, we could not travel far during weekends and even when going to a place relatively near, our arrival would get delayed. Short safaris of this kind included lakes Naivasha, Nakuru and Bogoria, Amboseli and the Aberdares. We had visited the Aberdares National Park on day trips earlier but these had only given us a very superficial view of the park. This time we planned to spend one night camping and to explore the park a bit more. Unfortunately I had work to do and we could not leave before lunchtime.

Reading our Kenya guide [1] had prepared us for what we would face and I quote: “Steeper, starker and with denser rainforest, the Aberdares (save for the South and North Kinangop) were less settled and farmed than Mount Kenya. For this reason too, they sheltered Mau Mau strongholds, kept flora and fauna intact… and so warranted preclusion as a 228 square-mile National Park in 1950.” Hoping that all the Mau Mau had gone by the time we arrived, we got some charcoal and fresh plums from the roadside vendors near Limuru and went on.

We drove on tarmac towards lake Naivasha and turned eastwards just in front of the Longonot volcano. More from our guide: “Rainfall -80 inches p.a.- makes the steep tracks often impassable… if rain or mist waylays you en route, do not despair: the ‘black cotton’ may spin your car uncontrollably but is seldom deep. So rather than dodge the wheelruts… grit your teeth and stay in them, hard in second gear. They will keep you moving roughly frontwards and, even when waterlogged, should not bog you down.” I enjoyed the author’s sense of humour and thought on the power of our kombi’s engine!

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The Aberdares mountains from afar.

By the time we reached South Kinangop it began to rain and things started to get tricky. All the guide had said was true to the point that turning around would have been a risky manoeuvre! So, as usual, aware that our kombi had a good clearance, we decided to continue and skidded along for the remaining distance until, rather late, we managed to arrive at the gate. I think it was the Matubio gate but I am not sure. Despite our tardy arrival, the ranger let us entered. He probably saw the car’s mud and our look of desperation and thought that we could do with a altruistic welcome!

He mentioned that there was a campsite nearby that we could occupy so we paid and went on, following his directions, hoping to find the campsite soon. We were still driving in the dark after 20 minutes so we realized that we had missed the recommended campsite. Luckily, the rain had stopped but the way was still slippery and slow. We pushed on looking for a suitable spot where to pitch our small tent (at that time we had purchased a second hand mountain tent that although suitable for this occasion, it left us rather “exposed” to the potential night visitors!).

Eventually we found a flat moor and decided that it would do. I started to manoeuvre the kombi careful, avoiding getting into the mud as much as possible until I considered it to be on level ground. I was about to leave the car when I heard a loud “Stop!” coming from my wife. I looked up and, in the headlights of the car, there were about 8 adult lions watching us. They looked rather huge and very white considering the heavy rain we had experienced. As they were also dry, it was clear that they had come out from their rainproof shelter very recently. They started to walk towards us, not the usual behaviour from lions, we thought!

There were four adults and four almost full-grown individuals. The latter were the ones showing the greater interest on us! “We better move off”, my wife said firmly and, almost before she finished her sentence, I was reversing the car, hoping that we were not on soggy ground. We managed to put some distance from the lions and they stopped coming so I turned around and we departed. We drove a few more km until we considered that we were sufficiently far from the lions and then we held a short discussion regarding our camping options. It went something like this: do you want to sleep in a tent?” I said. “No” was my wife reply. Another short family discussion leading to an immediate agreement!

I removed the back seat of the kombi and put it outside while my wife was heating up some pre-prepared food we had brought as we normally did to make our camping lives easier. We dined sitting at the floor of the car and, when we were ready to sleep, we placed our mattresses on the floor. The place looked almost comfortable! While the rain started again we got into our sleeping bags and dozed off almost immediately. I briefly thought about being bogged down the following morning but I was too tired to care and convinced myself -easily- that that would be tomorrow’s problem, and I was gone.

The cold woke me up after midnight! It was a chill that was coming from my back so I started to assess the situation when realized that my wife was also awake. “Did you hear the lions?” she asked. “I would have done if my teeth would not shatter so much” I replied. Then they roared again so near that I was amazed with myself at not having heard them earlier! I felt well as we were better better sheltered than we would have been inside our small tent! But our metal cage was incredibly cold! Eventually, we managed to stick some carton and newspapers between the metal floor and our backs and this, plus putting on all suitable clothes made the trick and soon the roaring faded and I woke up well after dawn, unusually without the need of a night visit to the toilet!

The rain not only had stopped but the sun was shining. A good look at the surrounding grassland did not reveal any lions so we could perform our postponed bodily functions, re-assembled the car seat and have a much needed breakfast under the sun. We felt well and decided to look for the lions now that there was good lighting. We drove backwards and forwards for a while but failed to see anything. Disappointed we decided to explore the park further and enjoyed its beautiful vistas and amazing waterfalls and rivers.

Soon it was time to start our return and, as usual, wishing that we could remain longer, we started our return. We had driven a few km when, as usual, my wife spotted something walking in the same direction we were driving. The animal was about 100m in front of us. We checked it with the binoculars and it was a black cat, smaller than a leopard! We drove slowly on and got a good view before it veered into the bush and disappeared. Its size and shape gave it away as a black caracal, an unusual sight.

We knew that melanistic animals did occur in the Kenya highlands and we had seen black Augurd buzzards earlier during the day.

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A melanistic Augurd buzzard in the Aberdares.

We had also heard about black leopards that were sometimes spotted there but the caracal was special!

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The only snapshot possible of the Black serval just before it disappeared.

Our Kenya guide, however, added some light to the find: “Besides golden cat, bongo and Giant forest hog, the Aberdares’ rarities are Black leopard, Black serval and Black genet… Spotted lions remain unquestionably a legend”. The guide did not mention whether “huge white lions” were also mythical as we were sure that the ones we found the night before were unspotted and real!

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A normal serval cat at Nairobi National Park.

Our trip back was dominated by the conversation about the lions and the Black serval. We enjoyed the good weather and we got to our house in Tigoni in good time. Days later, consulting other wildlife enthusiasts, we learnt that a number of “problem lions” that killed livestock had been relocated to the Aberdares and that this had sparked quite a degree of controversy as it made walking in the park a dangerous activity now. To make matters worse, it was believed that these lions were less wary of people than their “wild” relatives and were not afraid of approaching humans!

We were of course unaware of this bit of rather important information at the time of our visit and lucky we saw them before they found us! During late visits we spotted the lions again and they did not look as white and huge as the first time.

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Later we saw the warning signs.

[1] Tomkinson, M. (1981). Kenya, a holiday guide. Ernest Benn Ltd, London. 144p.

The Kombi falls

I will be unfair if I would not say a few words about our VW Kombi. It seems that these days these vehicles still attract quite a lot of attention among car lovers. Although I never saw it in this light at the time we had it, they dominated the minibus market and most of the Kenya safari companies used them. Then VW came up with a new model that was not as good for rough roads as their back doors became undone and needed to be welded to keep them shut! Very soon afterwards the Japanese minibuses replaced them.

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A young-looking Bushsnob posing with the kombi after driving through a muddy Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

The Kombi had, like any vehicle, good and bad features. My first concern was safety, as I had never driven a car with the engine at the back and I felt rather vulnerable in case of an accident, particularly the way driving in Kenya was in those days! I also needed to fit seat belts, surprisingly absent in a UN vehicle! Its lack of 4WD was another rather serious drawback and I recall several instances of getting stuck in places that a 4WD would not even have skidded!

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My wife (red shirt) and our friend Aurora resting after pushing the kombi out of the sand at Naivasha. July 1982.

One particularly bad instance was at Amboseli National Park when, trying to approach the swamp to get a better view of an elephant, we ended up into soft black cotton soil. This kind of mud sticks to your wheels filling their threads so your tyres soon become smooth! Fed-up of fruitlessly attempting to get the car unstuck I placed our BBQ grid under one of the wheels to see if I could get some better grip. It was good and bad. We got out of the spot but the grid got somehow ejected with such force into the thicket surrounding the swamp that we never found it again and had to cook our chicken on a stick that night!

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Stuck again! This time on a rainy day at Tsavo West National Park. My wife -with the raincoat- and Paul lifting and digging to place the spare under the wheel to get some grip.

It also had the rare ability of losing traction and stopping while driving slowly over a gully or when crossing a culvert diagonally as its chassis somehow would get twisted leaving one wheel in the air spinning hopelessly! In order for the car to move again it needed the assistance of one passenger to stand on the back fender and sometimes to jump in order for the offending wheel to grip and the car to move. While this was not a great problem, imagine doing it on a ditch full of muddy water!

Snapping the clutch cable was another “Kombi special”. As you can imagine, this cable needed to transmit my left foot’s instructions for quite a distance before it reached its destination so it was a weak feature and one that left us stranded. Luckily only once. Eventually, apart from learning to fit a new cable and carrying a spare, I learnt to operate without the clutch thanks to Joseph, one of the Muguga herdsmen that taught me how to start it and drive it without a clutch! I would engage second gear and then start the engine. The car will shudder, shake and jump forward until it got going. After a while you could change gears upwards if you knew the right speed. Changing downwards was not easy so stalling at stop signs was unavoidable! Although not a long-term solution, it would get you back home or to the mechanic.

On the side of its virtues, it had great ground clearance, a reliable engine that never had a problem despite its mileage and, being two of us, it also had lots of space to carry supplies and materials for my work as well as to take all of our gear on safari (and that is a lot and increasing!). Removing the second seat we could sleep inside if the circumstances so demanded. Its sliding door made for great game watching; particularly driving around lakes (with the door facing the lakeshore, of course) enabled superb birding.

I drove the car intensely between Tigoni, Nairobi and Muguga during the week and all over Kenya during the weekends. That particular morning I had come to Ranjini´s house to bring her some vegetables that I got for her in the Limuru market, close to Tigoni. The clutch cable had snapped while entering her house but then there was worse to come…

Ranjini worked as a scientist with the then Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development of the British Government attached to the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) in Muguga where she also lived. We had met while sharing accommodation at Muguga House, KARI´s visitors hostel [1].

“Clutchless” I crawled into her garden and did a jerk-stop. Although I carried a spare cable and I woud have been able to fix it then, it was not a short exercise as its calibration took a while and I needed to get back home. Further, we had plans to travel far in a couple of days so it needed proper fixing. So, having given Ranjini her shopping I assured her that I would be fine and left her rather worried by means of another jerk-start departure.

With my mind focussed on keeping the car going I forgot to fasten my seatbelt, an essential precaution when driving in Kenya. I was going very slowly down Ranjini’ s driveway when I decided to buckle up. I had never noticed that particular pine tree but I am sure that it had been there for many years and not moved much so it was not the guilty party! Neither had I seen its protuberant roots reaching towards the driveway. I still did not that day, I only felt them!

Everybody know that buckling up in movement is not recommended. It requires a few seconds of focusing your mind on the belt as well as some handless driving. A lot can happen over those few seconds. I remember feeling the left wheel rising over the roots and, as I tried to break, the car shuddered, stalled and stopped. However, in a bewildering feat, it gradually started to tilt towards mi side. My surprise quickly turned to panic and then resignation: the car was falling on me in slow motion.

My immediate thought was to try to stop it by sticking my hands through the window but -luckily for me- events happened faster than my thoughts and a thump followed by a shower of spanners, driving licence, car book, nuts and bolts and all things that one carries in a car’s shelf fell on me! The Kombi was now securely resting on its right side and only the door separated me from the ground that I could touch as my window was down.

It was an upset Bushsnob that emerged through the passenger’s window! Once outside I could contemplate my sublimely stupid achievement and promised myself never to try the seat belt trick while driving again. To say that I was also embarrassed when I walked back to Ranjini’s house is an understatement. She had just sent me off and closed the front door and I there I was again! I am sure that she thought I had forgotten something. When I told her what had happened, her expression changed dramatically! “Are you all right?” she asked with genuine concern. I told her that I was fine and invited her to come and have a look at my masterpiece!

We walked to the beginning of the driveway and we had a clear vision of the Kombi peacefully resting on its side! She gasped and while she recovered, I asked her if Njuguna, her gardener, was around. She immediately called him. He came and joined the unbelieving crowd expressing his regrets.

“Njuguna, please give me a hand to put it up again” I said estimating that most of the weight should be on the underside and therefore not too difficult to bring the car back to its normal position. Looking somehow doubtful he came along. Although I did not look at Ranjini, I am sure that her expression had changed to amusement! I could not blame her.

The effort required to put the car upright again was easier than I thought and the car bounced on its wheels as it got upright again. Apart from a broken side mirror and a few small dents and scratches on the side, the car was in good condition and driveable. I thanked Njuguna, said farewell to Ranjini, buckled-up, jerk-started it and drove off, still upset at my stupidity.

It was only weeks after the event, after I had replaced the mirror and got the dents painted that I could see the funny side of this rather freakish accident that even today I find rather incredible. I regret not having a picture of the car and the faces of my rescuers when they saw it to show it to you. It was all memorable and -in retrospect- quite funny!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/kenya-muguga1/

 

 

 

Kenya memoirs – Buying cattle

Once it was decided that my experimental work in Kenya would take place in Muguga and Intona ranch in the Transmara, I needed to get cattle. I was lucky that there were suitable animals available at the Kenya Veterinary Research Institute (KEVRI) at Muguga that I could select for my work there but I still needed to get the necessary animals for Intona.

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The Muguga animals came from the KEVRI herd.

As I needed young cattle with no exposure to ticks and tick-borne diseases [1] I needed to go North where I could find them in an environment that would not allow the ticks to thrive. The purchased cattle would also have to be acceptable by Joe Murumbi [2] the owner of Intona ranch as, after the trials were completed, the cattle would remain there. That was not an easy choice! However Alan, helpful as usual, suggested that I bought Boran cattle from a ranch at Laikipia in Northern Kenya. He had purchased animals from there earlier and found them suitable. He immediately put me in touch with Godfrey, a rancher that bred Boran in Laikipia and I arranged with him to get there to chose about 30 young cattle.

Within a couple of days I had visited the farm and bought the animals. I also arranged that I would come to collect them a few days later, as soon as I could get transport organized. After my return I made enquiries among the veterinarians at KEVRI and found a lorry company that was prepared to go to Laikipia and then carry them all the way to Intona in the Transmara, a journey of about 700km that was not straight forward.

I would accompany the lorry throughout the trip to make sure that it would get there and to make sure that the cattle were well treated. I agreed with the company’s owner that I would get an experienced and responsible driver that knew the route and I also checked the vehicle to make sure -as far as I could- that it was in good nick and that it was suitable for the number of animals that we needed to transport.

I prepared the trip very carefully as I was spending a lot of my budget on this purchase. The final plan was that I would travel with Tommi, my Maasai herdsman (see the “Angry Maasai” post) and Mark, a young Kikuyu that I had also employed to assist me with the cattle work. They would keep me company, help with the cattle as well as performing communication duties on KiSwahili, Kikuyu and Maasai languages, just in case!

I planned a conservative itinerary that, leaving very early from Muguga would see us all the way to the ranch at Laikipia (260km), load the cattle and proceed as far as Nyahururu (160km) to spend the night there. During the following leg of the trip we would get to Kericho (170km) to spend the second night and finally travel from there to Intona via Kilgoris (110km). It was the “long way” to get to Intona (the normal one being through the Rift Valley, via Narok and Lolgorian) but, apart from the two ends -Laikipia and Intona- the roads were tarred and the loaded lorry would face less risk of a breakdown.

Despite all the planning, the departure got delayed! The lorry did not turn up on time and when it did, about an hour late, the driver handed me a letter. It was short: the experienced driver was sick with malaria so they had sent me a replacement! The new driver was praised and the company owner was also apologetic. Despite this “bad omen”, it was all set so I decided to continue with the planned operation.

Despite our late start we managed to get to the ranch, load the cattle and get back to Nyahururu. It was night by the time we drove into this highlands town as, to our late departure a rather bizarre incident delayed us further. While on the road about 50km after leaving the ranch through a dirt road I was in the front when, suddenly the lorry came to a grinding halt while flashing its headlights. I immediately turned back to see what the matter was and, as soon as we drove past the lorry, my heart sunk. There was no tailgate and we were being watched by a few Boran cattle about to jump off the back of the lorry! That would have been a disaster as in that part of the country there are no fences and probably the animals would have run away!

Luckily, before they could estimate the jumping height, Tommi and Mark were on them and managed to stoped them and to hold them onboard while I retraced our steps to look for the gate. I found it about 200m behind the truck. The securing bolts had vanished. I loaded the large and heavy gate as well as I could into the back of the Land Rover and drove back. Without hesitation, with the use of the ubiquitous piece of wire, it was soon secured back in its place. It was now probably safer than before, particularly against theft as it would be impossible to open it without a long struggle!

Our night at Nyahururu was very cold as usual but -luckily- uneventful. Despite the low temperature I did get up at midnight to make sure that truck and animals were still there. As usual the hotel’s watchman was sleeping and as usual immediately woke up to report that all was well. Feeling really cold I went fast back to bed and slept soundly until morning.

We left early for our second leg that would take us to the beautiful tea-planting area of Kericho. All was going well until we had a puncture. We told the lorry to go on as we were sure to catch up with it after the wheel change. So, as soon as we fitted the spare we moved on expecting to find the truck anytime. However, as we drove for a while we realized that although by then we should have found the truck, we had not! Eventually we entered Kericho “truckless” and worried!

We fruitlessly drove around Kericho, not a very large town then, and, empty-handed, decided to retrace our way for a few kilometres. Still no truck! As there were no cellphones, we had no way of communicating with our lorry so it was a despondent group that checked in our hotel that evening. We had no idea of what had happened and we could only hope that we would find the truck in the morning. We guessed that the driver must have gone past Kericho in the hope of covering more distance while he could but this was pure speculation.

I would not lie to say that my dreams were of cattle counting as I did not sleep very well that night. I blamed myself for not stopping the lorry to wait for us to change our wheel. Anyway, the night eventually over we set off towards Kilgoris, still searching for our lost truck! The more I drove without seeing the lorry, the more the idea of cattle theft became fixed in my brain but I kept quiet, hoping that I was wrong.

After driving to Kisii without luck, my hope of ever seeing the lorry started to fade fast! We got to Kilgoris and drove all over this small town and failed again to get any results. As Kilgoris was (and probably still is) a quiet Maasai town, we thought that a cattle-loaded lorry would be the town’s main attraction. Those who Tommi asked had not seen anything so we were convinced that the lorry had not been there!

We were parked at the Kilgoris “plaza” finding out how to get to the Kilgoris Anti Stock Theft Unit of the Kenya Police to report the incident when we heard a loud engine noise and our lorry (with our cattle still on it) suddenly arrived! I was so relieved to find it that I felt no longer any anger and I knew that I would be close to the lorry for the last 20km to Intona!

The driver was clearly as comforted to find us as we were to see him! He explained that, after overtaking us, he decided to pass Kericho and spend the night at Sotik, 50km further on, as this would save him travel time. He admitted that this was a mistake and he felt truly sorry. I accepted his apology and decided that it was time to move off towards Intona. We still had the final distance to cover through an often muddy track and I wanted to reach the place before nightfall to offload the cattle so that they could rest, eat and drink after such a long journey.

Luckily the road was passable and we managed to reach the ranch still with some minutes of daylight left that enabled us to see that all animals were in good condition despite their three-day ordeal.

They soon settled at the ranch to the constant admiration of our Maasai neighbours and visitors as well as some hitches [3]. They were not beautiful animals but an essential part of my field work.

I had never felt as exhausted in my entire life than that night at Intona ranch. Luckily I had a comfortable bed at a nice house to spend the night and recover.

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

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Murumbi’s house at Intona, where I spent the night.

 

 

[1] The Brown Ear Tick Rhipicephalus appendiculatus vector of theileriosis caused by Theileria parva.

[2] See: “Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi” under pages in this blog. https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/joseph-zuzarte-murumbi-1911-1990/

[3] See: “The cattle are gone”. https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/07/19/the-cattle-are-gone/

 

 

Buying a car

By the time I completed my FAO “Andre Mayer” assignment I was already involved in collaborating with other colleagues of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) on the on-going work on the resistance of cattle to tick infestations. With Robin we had achieved good results so ICIPE was interested in the continuation of my work. As I enjoyed both, being in Kenya and the work I decided to stay as a research scientist of the Tick Programme, still led by Matt. Some time afterwards Matt became Deputy Director until his untimely and sad passing on 3 August 1985.

The end of the FAO assignment not only meant writing a final report but also the return to the local FAO Office in Kenya of our beloved VW kombi. At the time we lived in Tigoni, 30 km far from Nairobi, and a car was a necessity for my wife to get to her job at the Commercial Office of the Embassy of Argentina in Nairobi and for me to get to Muguga from where I would be working. ICIPE did not offer cars to its employees and all cars were managed through a car pool that I would only be able to use for field trips when booked in advance.

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Our kombi during the rains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My wife looking for footprints.

Land Rover Kakamega forest

Being cautious at a Kakamega forest bridge.

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

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

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Stuck on arrival at Koobi Fora lake shore and being pulled out by Paul.

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Through Amboseli dry lake. Well, rather wet that time, hence the picture to show this rather unusual situation!

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The great experience of riding on the roof!

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Young wife and Bushsnob posing on the Land Rover!

 

 

 

Camping in Africa. Kenya (Spotted cat)

During one of the trips to the Transmara, while camping next to the Mara River, I had the surprise visit of the Manager of the Mara Buffalo Camp. As this had never happened before, I prepared to hear that I was not allowed to camp near the camp anymore so we stopped setting up our camp and went to meet him. I was wrong. He was a friendly Swiss that came to give me some good news.

He explained that at a rocky outcrop nearby there was a female leopard with two cubs that, unusually for East Africa in general and the Maasai Mara in particular, was very relaxed and let you watch her and her cubs without getting scared by human presence. He even offered to take us there at that precise moment if interested as he was taking a friend with him  for that purpose. We instantly forgot what we were doing, jumped on the car and followed him!

After driving towards the reserve, we arrived to a rocky gorge where there was a cave high in the rocks where, to our great surprise we found a small leopard cub resting at the entrance. He said that the mother may have been hunting or, perhaps, sleeping inside, together with the other absent cub. We could not believe our luck and after waiting for a while we thanked our Swiss benefactor profusely and left him in contemplation as we still needed to set up camp, cook and rest to continue with our journey the following day.

The leopard and her cubs became an added attraction to our frequent journeys to the Transmara and we found her again a few times during subsequent trips until one day she disappeared. For a few weeks we did not know what happened to her until, again by chance, found her again later, together with Jonathan Scott. The now well known photographer, film maker and book publisher was not that well known then as he was starting his rather successful stay at the Maasai Mara.

Jonathan was watching a female leopard with young cubs with all his equipment on the ready as the cubs played and the mother rested up a rocky outcrop. We learnt that it was the same female and after that encounter we saw her a few more times. The trick was to find  Jonathan’s green car  when driving through the general area where the leopard dwelled! It was clearly easier than looking for her!

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Relaxing…

I still recall one day when we found the leopard family in a very playful mood up and down a beautiful fig tree. It was such fun to watch them at play that I only stopped taking pictures the moment I ran out of film! I was really excited and very pleased with the pictures I had taken, although in those days you needed to wait until they were developed to see the results.

Before leaving, we approached Jonathan who we had met also at Kichwa Tembo Camp earlier and, feeling pleased with myself, I made a comment on how great what was taking place was and mentioned that I had taken lots of pictures as it was a fantastic opportunity. Jonathan listened to me and then gave me a reply that I have had in my mind since then: “I have not taken any pictures because the light is wrong”.

My heart sunk and I left crestfallen and in disbelief. When back in Nairobi the moment of truth of the pictures came I must confess that Jonathan had been right. Although some pictures were “rescuable”, the majority showed cat silhouettes against the sky! Later on, when I got Jonathan’s books I realized what he meant that day as the quality of his work is frankly superb!

As for us, despite our poor pictures, the memories remain and they at least serve the purpose to bring these back and to stimulate me to write posts such as this one!

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Surprised in the open.

Snakeworld

The place still exists. It is located a few km outside Harare, on the Bulawayo Road. We do not go there often nowadays. In fact, we have not visited it since we returned to reside in Harare after my retirement in 2013.

However, in the late 90’s we brought our children there a few times. The idea was to familiarize them with the various reptiles they were likely to find in Africa and avoid or at least minimize the “yuck” factor.

I still remember our first visit when we were fortunate to meet George, one of the guides working in the place. He was a small skinny man probably in his late forties. George only had one arm, his left. My recollection is that he had lost it after the bite of a cobra but the rest of the family believes that a crocodile was responsible for the loss. I am sure I am wrong!

The first time he guided us through the reptile collection it left such an impression that, whenever we came back for a visit, we looked for him as our chaperone. It was well worth it. He was not only extremely kind and patient with our children, but had a natural way of putting them in “direct contact” with the various reptiles. With him they handled for the first time varios beasts such as the resident monitor lizard, chameleons and a number of harmless snakes.

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A chameleon from our Harare garden.

What really made the visit to Snakeworld different was George’s guided tour through the successive enclosures that hosted the snake collection. These were a succession of glass windows where the various African snakes were on display. You started from the various non venomous snakes and gradually worked your way through a crescendo in poison severity that reflected on our level of excitement.

The tour started with a quick walk through the harmless beasts. As some of these had already been handled, they attracted mild interest.

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Mating Spotted bushsnakes at Masuma dam, Hwange National park.

The exception were the African pythons, located at the end of the “non-poisonous” wing. Their enclosure was large and populated by a few specimens, one of which was especially large if not very active. The ability of these snakes to kill and swallow prey much larger than themselves by virtue of being able to stretch their jaws was the main comment George made about them.

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African rock python. Picture By Yinan Chen (www.goodfreephotos.com (gallery, image)) [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

While moving to the “poisonous” wing a few metres on, George prepared his audience for what was coming giving facts about the various snake teeth arrangements and various venoms.

The first dangerous ones were the boomslangs that only awoke mild interest on the youngsters. Conversely, I found their beautiful bluish-green colour and arboreal habits really fascinating and to see them brought to my memory and incident that happened a few years earlier while camping in Chobe National Park with our very young kids. We were sitting at our camp during lunchtime waiting for the heat to subside when, without warning, a green bundle landed between us with a thump. It was a boomslang that had just caught a lizard and clearly lost its balance! Almost before we could recover from our severe fright the snake re-climbed the tree and it was gone in seconds, only its bluish tinge and typical scales made me guess its identity.

But let’s go back to Snakeworld.

The twig snakes with their great ability to mimic -yes you guessed well- twigs, are always attractive as you can spend a few minutes before spotting them among the branches, even when you know they are there, looking at you!

While waiting for us to find them, George would give information about the biology of the various snakes, their distribution, conservation status and prey. Through him we learnt that Eastern Zimbabwe (the valley of the River Honde) was the place where the most dangerous snakes were likely to be found.

Then we moved to the final part of the exhibit, where George gave facts about each snake species. The latter ended with a statement about their lethality and this was the real “pièce de résistance” of the visit!

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A rather green boomslang. Picture by Day & Haghe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While boomslangs and twig snakes would kill you if they could get hold of some part of your body, death would occur after days of agony. The situation was more dramatic with the few that followed.

The gloated-looking puff adders with their excellent camouflage and slow slug-like displacement were striking as I could understand that stepping on one would be the most likely snake accident that could happen, as George confirmed.

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A freshly moulted and slow-moving Puff adder goes for a swim at the Sand River, Maasai Mara, Kenya in the 80’s.

The “cobra parade” started with the most common Egyptian cobra, that would kill you in a couple of days if not treated. We were getting anxious to continue but he would walk a couple of displays on and stop again showing us what looked like water stains inside one of the glass panels. Pointing at some beautiful terracota coloured snakes, he would explain that they would blind you if they would manage to hit your eyes with their spray of venom. I immediately remembered Alan and Joan Root filming spitting cobras in “Two in the Bush” where Joan wearing glasses was the target of a large spitting cobra while Alan filmed the scene! Two in the Bush is a great documentary worth watching!

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Young Spitting cobra pictured by bushsnob in Bushwhackers Camp, Kenya in the 80’s.

After the cobras it was the turn of the mythical mambas. The beautiful and deadly green mambas were first and they took us aback, honouring their names by sporting the most wonderful and shining pale green colour. George would explain that these were rare in Zimbabwe but rapidly lethal if not treated by the right anti-venom. We were all in awe at their almost “smiley” face that made them look deceivable friendly. “Luckily they live up trees”, George said to calm things down ‘but if beaten, you only last a couple of hours” he concluded.

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Green mamba. By Picture taken by deror avi on 24th September 2006. (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons.

The black mambas were unnerving, not black but grey and reaching a size both in thickness and length that is not what you expect. Clearly an impossible foe to escape in the field if angry as, George told us, they can reach a speed far greater than a running human! Luckily, like most snakes, they are shy and move away way before we know they are there. “Do you enter their cage?” I asked George. His answer was short and clear: “No. If bitten you would only last a short time, maybe one hour”. “In South Africa, the black mamba’s bite is known as the kiss of death”, he added. The atmosphere was getting tense!

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Black mamba. Picture by TimVickers (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Trying to control our excitement and imaginations we came to the last window where we could not see anything. When George pointed it to us, a humongous and colourful snake suddenly came together. One very large Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica), its thickest part like my forearm and with a large head, lied totally immobile in front of our eyes.

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Gaboon viper. Picture taken by deror avi on 24th September 2006. (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons.

Adorned with the most beautiful colouring, waiting to explode in a strike that would take care of its prey. Its colouring consists of a succession of cream coloured sub-rectangular splotches running down the center of the back, interspaced with dark brown hourglass markings with yellow edges while its sides have a series of fawn or brown rhomboidal shapes, with light vertical central bars.

Although its colouring seems to be rather obvious, it gives the snake an excellent camouflage on its tropical habitat littered with tree leaves. George, showing it his utmost respect, mentioned that this snake was only found in the Eastern Lowlands but that it was -luckily- rather uncommon. He also mentioned that the one we were looking at had been at Snakeworld for many years and that it was extremely aggressive. Then he added: “we call it two steps”. Although I realized why, our kids immediately asked him the reason. That was what George had been waiting for! “You get bitten by this one and you can only walk two steps, then you die”.

Although I am not able to confirm his statement, the snake was massive and at the time I could imagine that the amount of toxin it could inoculate through a good bite would be very large and rapidly lethal[1]. I can assure you that George’s “two step” statement had an impact on the family and to listen to George saying it again become one of the reasons to return to Snakeworld.

As time goes on we mature things. In our case we have incorporated George’s “step” scale into our own family “bush language” and, in the rare cases we spot a snake, the immediate comment is “was this a two-step one or a ten-step one?” I must admit that we get lots of amusement with what follows.

 

 

 

[1] The Gaboon viper is the world heaviest viper with two-inch long fangs! Not surprisingly, it dispenses the highest amount of venom of any snake. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaboon_viper