Camping

Nebbiolo wine

Our son visits us in Zimbabwe every year during his holidays and we usually include his favourite place, Mana Pools National Park, as part of the holiday. This year we managed to get a good spot at Nyamepi campsite, just a few metres from the mighty Zambezi river.

We had not yet set up camp and we knew that we were in for a bit of “camping fun” as one of the large elephant bulls found in the park was walking about the campsite making a clear statement of who are the owners of the place.

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DSC_0424 copyWhen we saw it chasing one of the camp attendants we knew that it meant business! Luckily the charge was just a show of dislike and the man got away. The elephant walked after him into the park staff houses and nothing more was heard.

We had also been warned that monkeys and particularly baboons were worse than usual and fast becoming a real problem in the camp so we decided to ask the park for help and they allocated a guard to keep them off our tents as they have the habit of destroying them for no apparent reason! We were rather surprised when our guard came and we recognized him as the same man that was chased by the elephant earlier! Clearly they had some unfinished business among them. However, as his present terms of reference were to keep baboons and vervets away, we decided to give him a chance and we were not disappointed.

Although Mana Pools offers many attractions, we link it to elephants. I have already written in this blog about Big V and Boswell as two of the most notable of the pachyderms here. We did not spot them during our first afternoon drive but, when returning to camp in the evening, we noted that three large elephant bulls were there but we could not see them very well. However, this was nothing unusual as they are normally in camp!

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We took some of our travel tiredness away through great bush showers and it was a refreshed team that tackle dinner preparation. Of course we always enjoy a good barbeque so our son took over as he is the expert while my wife’s territory is bush pasta dishes and mine, well, I keep them merry and busy… Eventually we sat at the table to enjoy some great T-bone steak (rare) and sausages. Our son had, as a special treat, brought a couple of wine bottles from Italy and we decided to go for the Nebbiolo the first night keeping the stronger Barbaresco for a later occasion.

Nebbiolo is the grape also used for the better known Barolo and Barbaresco varieties, all from the Piedmont region of Italy. Its name comes from “nebbia” which is fog in Italian, a frequent phenomenon in the region.

Elephants, despite their size, walk in almost total silence so when we noticed the three bulls, they were within ten metres from us, just at the edge of the circle of our camp light. We knew that they were feeding on the acacia pods from the apple-ring acacia (Faidherbia albida) on the ground so we ignored them and continued enjoying our food and drink. Suddenly we heard one of them head-butting one of the acacia trees closeby and we had a shower of pods around us on which the three colossi started to feed. So far, nothing new.

However, after a while we saw that one of them stopped feeding and came under our light. Now, to see an elephant at such close quarters is rather impressive and we stopped eating wondering what would happen next while reassuring ourselves that it was only interested in the pods. Just in case, we started coughing and knocking our glasses gently to let it know we were there!

The bull, clearly the boldest of the three, took a couple of more steps towards our table! We still -but just- kept our cool while continuing making various noises to make it change its mind but, eventually, the giant was so close that my wife and son stood up and moved a couple of metres behind the table. They were wise. We all know that elephants are large but, when you meet them at close quarters, seated and at night they are really humongous!

My attempt at holding the fort lasted for a few more seconds but my nerves left me when it took another step towards me despite my companions’ efforts at stopping him by banging pots and other noisy objects. I joined wife and son at a prudent distance: the other side of the table! As behind us was the river, we were really in a tight spot! All we could do now was to watch!

While the other two elephants remained a few metres back, our visitor took a final step and it literally leaned on our table. Its trunk delicately sniffed our dinner and I thought “End of table and dinner!” but it did not touch anything. However, at some stage its trunk went to my plastic wine glass, placed its trunk over it and spilled it, probably as a protest for the poor quality of the wine ware?

The spilling of the wine was the turning point of the visit and the elephant swiftly moved towards our tents. There it tried to walk between them. As the latter were separated by a one-metre gap the potential outcome was not good. “Gosh” my son said, “if it walks through there our tents are gone!” However, realizing the situation, the elephant luckily backtracked and moved off to join its two patient mates that were still watching the proceeds from a distance.

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Our tents with one of the camp dwellers in the background.

Consulting the internet I learnt that the Nebbiolo wine has complex aromas, including roses, cherries, truffles, and mints and there can also be traces of tar, tobacco and leather. Clearly one or more of them were attractive to the jumbo.

Once the elephants moved away we resumed our dinner. Luckily the wine bottle was intact and I could refill my glass! During the next couple of days, the Nebbiolo, perceived as the new “elephant target”, was until its sad end, carefully corked and locked away in the deepest recesses of our car only to be opened after the “elephant all clear” announcement was made.

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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.

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.

Camping in Kenya. Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

We “learnt” lots of the secrets of camping in Africa from our friend Paul, another veterinarian working at Muguga, Kenya. Soon we had broken the barrier of “camping among the beasts” as most campsites in Kenya were unfenced. We often visited Paul during his long spells residing in the bush while working in the various national parks and/or in the fringes of parks and game reserves.

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One of Paul’s camp sites in the Maasai Mara. His camp hand Tobias is on the left.

It was great fun and we soon started to go at it alone. Preparations included the procurement of a few second hand camping items that, apart from a small tent, a couple of chairs and a foldable table, included a large frying pan with an extremely long handle, as my wife did not and still does not enjoy cooking at the fire. For working purposes, I could use a large ICIPE tent that added great comfort to our outdoor lives.

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While in Kenya we practiced “basic” camping!

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Working camping was still basic but we had the advantage of a large tent.

Our most frequent camping destination was the Maasai Mara where not only Paul often worked but it was an area I needed to drive through on my way to Intona ranch in the Transmara where I was working with ticks and tick-borne diseases as explained earlier[1]. Luckily my work took us there regularly as I needed to supervise the on-going observations as as well as to bring new personnel to be stationed at the ranch.

Camping in the Maasai Mara very often involved close encounters with different animals and you needed to be alert at all times as elephants and buffalo were present in large numbers, in addition to the normal and harmless savanna dwellers such as giraffe and the various antelopes. Although leopards were quite rare, the place was a predators’ playground.

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Near Kichwa Tembo Camp, Maasai Mara.

The Mara-Serengeti area is world famous for the annual migration of wildebeest and zebra and luckily we witnessed this unique event several years (in fact we watched it every year while in Kenya!). The richness of easy prey is matched by an equal abundance of predators. Lions were a common find and spotted hyenas were really plentiful. So, our camping regularly had some exciting moments, particularly after dark!

From the start we learnt that we were safe (well, as safe as we could be) while inside our tents and we were always extremely careful when moving around camp, particularly when light started to fade. Although some friends preferred to keep fires burning all night, we did not but whether this has an effect on nocturnal visitors I do not know. All I know is that rhinos are believed to stamp out campfires, a fact I could not corroborate as rhinos were already few in the 80’s[2].

Helen was the daughter of a well-known veterinarian from the UK that had come to spend some time in Kenya[3]. We met her at a social event and, as she was looking for opportunities to travel around, I invited her to join my wife and I on one of our regular trips to the Transmara. She immediately accepted the offer.

So, as arranged, we picked Helen up one early morning as the journey was a long one over rough roads and we wanted to arrive to the shores of the Mara River, adjacent to the Maasai Mara, early as this would enable us to go for a short game drive with Helen.

I had an agreement with the Mara Buffalo Camp to stay close to them and I was also kindly allowed to use their facilities. Usually we would arrive at our Mara margin campsite with just enough light left to set-up camp, dine and go to bed. Sometimes our departure from Muguga would get delayed and we would arrive after dark and needed to set up our tent with the car lights!

We would then spend the following day driving to Intona where we would usually camp in the ranch for two or three nights while the work was done and return without stopping all the way back to Nairobi because I had another on-going trial in Muguga and time was quite short.

The journey with Helen went as planned and we arrived in good time. After setting up camp, by mid afternoon we went for a game drive to show some of the beautiful Maasai Mara and its animals to her. We saw most of the usual plains game but failed to find any predators, apart from the ubiquitous spotted hyenas that were extremely common in the area.

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A spotted hyena dealing with a wildebeest carcass.

Tired from the long journey and the additional game drive, our dinner was a quick affair and we were in our tents rather early as we had another journey the following day whose duration was difficult to predict as we needed to negotiate some bad roads that were often muddy and slippery.

While laying on our camp beds, as usual, the lions started to roar far away and we called Helen’s attention towards them. She was very excited to hear them but soon our exchanges got interrupted by sleep.

I am not sure at what time the lions’ roars woke us up but probably it was midnight or perhaps later. We could hear several lions getting closer as their growls gradually got louder. We estimated that they were probably coming along the river although we could not be sure. I did not wish to open the tent door to have a look for fear of attracting unwanted attention so we could only imagine the lions approaching our camp!

After a few more minutes of stillness during which my wife and I waited with bated breath, the visitors arrived, preceded by loud roaring a few seconds earlier and followed by the noise of “flying hooves”. The rumpus did not last more than a couple of minutes as, apparently, the lions were -we also assumed- going for a herd of zebra and/or wildebeest although we did not hear them calling. We did hear a few items being knocked over in the process and then the animals left, luckily.

Only then we remembered Helen! We shouted at her telling her not to move from her tent but, although we tried to get an answer from her, we failed. Concerned, I shone the torch in the direction of her tent and I was relieved to see that it was still intact although I could confirm that some of our belongings had indeed suffered the consequences of the tresspasers!

As the animals moved off, we gradually relaxed and decided to leave things for the morrow as Helen was surely fine and tidying up the camp could wait. I only hoped that she would not decide to go to the toilet before daylight. So it was back to a rather fitful sleep but nothing else disturbed us that night.

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The Oloololo escarpment as a spectacular backdrop for a zebra herd, Maasai Mara.

The following morning, while water was on the fire, we gathered table, chairs, towels and a few other minor items while we checked the abundant footprints in an attempt to unravel the events of the night. The conclusion was that several lions had been there chasing zebras through our camp as we failed to find wildebeest prints. The kill, if any, had taken place somewhere else and we decided to look for it afterwards on our way to Intona.

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One of the prides resident near our camping area in the Maasai Mara.

While we were busy around camp, we heard “Good morning” and we saw Helen emerging from her small tent. Only at that point I paid attention to her tent and felt relieved that it was still intact. It was one of these mountaineering jobs, low on the ground and of a bright blue colour! Helen looked well rested and asked us what we were doing. “We are looking at the spoor, trying to understand what happened last night” I replied. Helen gave me a look of confusion and said: “why, what happened? I slept all night and even did not go to the toilet!”

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A male lion feeding on a topi kill at the Maasai Mara.

I was quite relieved by her ignorance of the facts and felt tempted not to say anything but I thought the truth should be voiced so I told her the whole story. Her eyes got larger as I talked and at first she had doubts about my story so I had to show her the footprints of the various animals and, eventually, she believed me and she was both concerned but also disappointed to have missed the action!

Although we took a detour looking for a possible kill nearby, we failed to find any traces of neither prey nor predators, although we knew they were watching us!

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A zebra kill at the Maasai Mara.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/07/08/life-and-work-in-kenya-intona-2/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/06/01/intona-ranch1/

[2] I leave the research about whether this is true or not to you as Google does not seem to give a straight answer.

[3] Years later, her father was the External examiner of my PhD Thesis.

Unpredicted friends and unforgettable dates

The morning of Saturday 17 July 1982 (I remember this day well!) we got up early to pack our car with camping gear for a safari to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. We had booked the Sand River campsite for a couple of nights.

We were about ready to go when, totally unexpectedly, someone walked into our front garden! It was a messenger from the Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation coming to deliver a telegramme, the first we had ever received! As we had no working telephone in the house (and cellular phones were not yet invented!) a telegramme was almost the ultimate in urgent communications. Being far from home, it also carried a dose of dread as it could carry bad news from home. So, with wonder as well as some trepidation I read it, trying to prepare for the worst.

Its contents were surprising and shocking but good! It read: “We arrive tomorrow” and it was signed by two of our best friends: Nazar and Aurora. That was that, not even a date! We were thrilled that they had finally decided to come to Kenya. We knew they were travelling to Piediluco, Italy to accompany their son Juan José that was rowing at the 1982 World Rowing Junior Championships representing Uruguay and we had insisted that they extended their journey to visit us although we knew that this would be very difficult for them!

Our initial elation turned into mild panic when the fact that they could be at the Jomo Kenyatta International airport (JKIA) at the time of reading the telegramme sunked in! Expecting the worse we immediately drove to JKIA as we knew that most flights from Europe would arrive by mid morning. We were on a rather blind chase and during our journey we did a lot of speculation, not only about their arrival but also on contingency planning regarding our planned safari.

Our fears that they had arrived the day before and were stranded at the airport unable to communicate were unfounded and perhaps exaggerated as a thorough examination of the arrival area gave no results. Unable to get any passenger information from the possible airlines we decided to stay put and wait. After about an hour or so, a few flights from Europe arrived within thirty minutes. We crossed our fingers and, eventually, we were rewarded when our friends emerged looking dazzled at what they were seeing around them but otherwise unaware of our earlier dilemma and very happy to see us.

It was an emotional reunion and, after an exchange of the usual family news, I casually announced that we were aware of their long journey but that we were off to the Maasai Mara, leaving as soon as possible. As expected (they had no real choice!) they gallantly accepted the invitation and, after passing by our house to finish our packing, we set off with their luggage still unopened!

Nazar, had a tiring trip, and he was also suffering from a gut complaint. His time during the journey to the Maasai Mara was spent drinking abundant amounts of warm cola and going into episodes of slumber until, by the time we got to Aitong, a few hours later, he started to talk nonsense with me, a sure sign of his slow recovery. Aurora, on the contrary, was wide awake and did not miss detail, asking questions all the time and gaining in excitement as we moved from Nairobi to the Kikuyu escarpment, the breathtaking Rift Valley views, Narok and beyond into the great green plains of the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem.

Because of our late departure, I drove non-stop and despite the rough road, we managed to get to the gate in time to get to the Sand river camp by the Mara river at dusk. Without delay we started unpacking and finished setting up camp using our car headlamps, as was the norm with us then.

While this was on going, our friends watched, not moving too far from the car, still rather confused with their situation. Our work was cut short, as already in Nairobi they had decided to sleep in the car. Luckily for them, removing the second seat of our loyal VW Kombi was relatively easy so soon they had their nest ready. As soon as we finished with the car arrangements my wife had heated our ready-made dinner brought from home and, although we still had a lot to talk about, we were so exhausted that we went to sleep early.

Camping at the Sand River was ever exciting as there were always plain game in its neighborhood, particularly wildebeest and zebra that, somehow enjoyed crisscrossing the Mara river offering, apparently unnecessary opportunities to their reptilian predators. Their presence also attracted lion and hyena so there were always nocturnal happenings! That night was quieter than expected but still the hyenas came close to camp, their calling amplified by the river. We did not fail to hear lions roaring in various degrees of proximity, above the constant wildebeest snorting and zebra whinnying. Thinking on our friends’ time in the car, we paid the price for our rather busy day and passed out before long.

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The following morning, recovered, I got up early as usual and prepared tea and coffee waiting for the other fellow campers to show life signs. My wife emerged eventually but no movement was detected inside the car! A quiet inspection of it showed it to be unscratched. Its windows were totally foggy and I had some concern about whether our friends have had enough oxygen inside there as the car was tightly shut!

My fears were unfounded as, eventually, a hand started to remove the fog from the side window and the smiling faces of our friends showed gradually behind the glass. Eventually they left their protective and damp metal cage to join us for a rather late breakfast and they shared their mate[1].

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Nazar offers a mate to the photographer.

As usual with first time visitors, they have heard nothing the whole night as they had slept like logs! We finally had a chance to finish exchanging pending news at leisure.

Fortunately they were fast to adjust and gradually they became used to our ‘bush ways” joining us on a couple of game drives during which they greatly enjoyed what they saw. The frequent appearances of the imprudent hyenas and the lions roaring were not conducive to us persuading them to abandon their cage the following night and they still preferred their airtight environment to the risks of camping in the bush. We understood them well as it had taken us longer than that to get used to camping “al fresco” surrounded by wild beasts!

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Our friends relaxing at the Mara Serena lodge.

We returned to Nairobi after two nights. This time they were able to appreciate their surroundings much better, including the always-interesting sight of the Maasai people and their manyattas and livestock and they were delighted with the daylight return journey.

Later on during the week we showed them Nairobi and the wonderful Nairobi National Park and later travelled to Nakuru and Bogoria for a view of the Rift valley, its hot springs and flamingoes. Luckily, they loved the experience but time passed very fast and it was soon time for them to depart, too soon for us!

Their plane left back to Europe at midnight on Saturday 31 July 1982 so we took them to the airport early and made sure that they went through all the departing procedures early until the time came to leave them once they have checked-in to return to Tigoni late at night. Unused to driving at night, we negotiated several road blocks that we thought too many but, as we drove a car with red diplomatic plates, our going was smooth and we got home safely.

The following morning we had arranged with our friend Ranjini to go to the Nairobi National Park so we travelled to Muguga through back-roads to fetch her. Once there she announced that an attempt to overthrow President Moi’s government had taken place at midnight and that there were serious confrontations going on in Nairobi between the Police and students! Apparently, a group of soldiers from the Kenya Air Force had taken over the Voice of Kenya[2] and announced that they had overthrown the government!

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A bad picture I took of Moi’s cavalcade before knowing the risks involved!

We thanked Ranjini for the news and quickly turn around heading for home as fast as we could! During the journey we met a large military convoy ready for war heading for Nairobi but we did not know what their stance was at the time! Luckily they ignored us and we, the sole occupants of the road by now, got home safely where we remained -listening to the BBC radio for the latest news- for the following three days until it was confirmed that the attempt had failed[3].

It was lucky that our friends just managed to get away (a while) before the Kenya airspace was closed and that they were over the clouds when all this happened! They remained unaware of their narrow escape until we met them back in Uruguay a year later when they listened to us in disbelief!

 

[1] Traditional South American caffeine-rich infused drink, prepared by steeping dried leaves of yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) in hot water and is served with a metal straw from a shared hollow calabash gourd and shared among drinkers.

[2] From 1989 it became the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.

[3] The coup failed. The Air force pilots that meant to bomb State House dropped their bombs over Mount Kenya and eventually, after ruling Kenya for a few hours, Hezekiah Ochuka, a soldier in the Kenya army, escaped to Tanzania. He was eventually extradited back to Kenya, found guilty at a high profile trial that involved both Oginga Odinga and Raila Odinga, and eventually executed in 1987.

 

Showering “al fresco”

As days passed the temperature at Mana Pools continued to rise. The morning of the 19th of September it was already oven hot at 06.00hs so the decision on what to do was easy as the moving car seemed to be the coolest option available. We planned a longish route as we wanted to re-visit a rather remote dry river bed close to the Rukomechi area. When the hot wind started to blow dust on us we knew that it was time to leave the camp!

We skipped breakfast but took all necessities with us to stop and enjoy it on route near the Zambezi as the drive offered a few nice shady spots. We drove until a place known as Vundu[1] point and stopped there to break our fast after a couple of hours of slow driving and enjoying the wilderness.

A gaggle of Spur-wing geese (parents and five young adults) were at the riverbank and slowly walked away as soon as we left the car.

Some of the Spurwing geese.

Some of the Spur-wing geese.

One of the adults.

One of the adults.

The heat could be felt despite the thick shade provided by the gigantic sausage trees of the riverine forest but this did not seem to bother a lone and open-mouthed crocodile basking on one of the riverbanks nearby.

Breakfast over, we moved on reaching the dry Nyakasanga river an hour later. We crossed its sandy bed and drove a while thinking that we would get back to the Zambezi but, as it is often the case, we had misread the map and in fact we were moving away from it! So, after searching for cell signal up a tree (my wife) and taking a few pictures of a baobab tree, it was time to get back to camp for lunch at an oven-like Gwaya camp.

In search of that elusive cellphone signal!

In search of that elusive cellphone signal!

The baobab tree.

The baobab tree.

The heat and dust were still waiting for us when we made it back by 13.00hs as we got further delayed examining a rather large fungus we found on a tree trunk!

A large fungus.

Fungus close-up. The bluish circle above is Nature's.

Fungus close-up. The bluish circle above is Nature’s work.

After a very light lunch it was a question of surviving the heat and dust (mainly for my wife!). She decided to have a cold shower at the small toilet/shower cabin and to remain there, away from the heat and dust for the rest of the afternoon, until the temperature dropped. She did not mind sharing the place with its tree frogs occupants. There were at least three of them and one insisted in staying under the WC plastic seat. We removed it everyday for fear of crushing it and placed it on a tree outside but it was back the next day!

My wife's vantage point!

My wife’s vantage point!

As usual, it was siesta time for me, despite the heat and dust. It was quite a feat but I managed a few minutes! The siesta over and feeling heat-hit, I hanged my sun-heated shower (I do not like cold showers!) from a tree behind our tent, open the tap and started to enjoy the refreshing feeling of water being poured over you in the open air.

I had showered for a couple of minutes and I was busy soaping myself when I heard my wife calling me, pointing towards the back of the camp. An elephant was walking, apparently, in my direction! As elephants do that all the time at Gwaya, I continued with my shower as I still needed some cleaning to do!

The elephant coming (I forgot to leave my hat on...).

The elephant coming (I forgot to leave my hat on…).

After a minute I looked again and the pachyderm was much closer! It left me in no doubt that I was the object of its curiosity! “I cannot believe this” I thought and, thinking that the soap smell was the lure, I started removing the foam and placed the soap back in its box. “#$@&%*!” I thought, seeing no change in attitude, “the blipping elephant is coming for the shower water having the whole Zambezi behind me!” I closed the tap and remained immobile and soapy[2].

It came quite close...

The elephant came very close. Luckily it stopped a couple of metres away and it had a long look at me. As it was also naked, I did not feel any embarrassment, only moderate panic and an immense wish to survive in order to remove the soap from my body and continue living.

Although I am sure that “the look” it gave me was brief, it felt long. Eventually the elephant slowly moved off as it clearly decided that my “manhood” was -naturally- no challenge to his “elephanthood”! I even thought I heard a jeering noise coming from the curious pachyderm as it walked away! My relief at its withdrawal was short-lived. The water got finished and I had to remove the remaining lather with what I wanted to avoid: cold water!

Needless to say that my wife watched all this and forgot about the heat and dust. So did I!

Gwaya camp, Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, September 2015.

 

[1] A Vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis) is a catfish reaching up to 150 cm in length and 50 kg of weight.

[2] Although the elephant is shown naked, pictures of the bushsnob “al fresco” are omitted to keep this blog PG.

Chitake

Chitake Springs are located in the southern part of Mana Pools National Park, about 50 km from the Zambezi river. During the rain the Chitake river flows into the Rukomechi river and the latter feeds the Zambezi. From the end of the rains in April these rivers dry up leaving only the springs as the sole source of water for a large area around them. The springs flow intermittently and at least once every 24 hours for some geological reason deep inside the earth. This natural wonder, therefore, attracts many animals both, prey and predators, from many kilometres around.

As if this would not be a sufficient attraction, this general area has important deposits of dinosaur bones. In particular, fossils of Coelophysis rhodesiensis are present as well as mega-prints (90 cm in diametre!) of the herbivore Brachiosaurus aswell as Allosaurus‘s footprints. This is apparently important as it shows that the Chitake area was also an area of prey-predator interactions during the Jurassic period! As interesting as this may sound, we did not search for these but it may be the subject of another trip!

We first learnt of Chitake through sad news. In late 2010 Pete Evershead was killed by lions while having a shower in the evening. Other friends that visited a couple of ears ago talked of animals walking very close from their roof tent. This left a very strong impression in them and they were very excited when they told us that they survived Chitake!

We were fortunate to get a booking in Chitake 1 campsite, by the actual springs. As this is a wilderness area (not even the entry road to the springs is signposted!) to camp there means to be on your own as there are only two campsites for private users in addition to one for tour operators. You also need to be self-sufficient in all needs, including water.

There is only one track -the entry road- that extends to the baobab hill (where Chitake 2 campsite was before it was moved to a nearby place) so this is not a place for game drives but a true wild bush experience where you sit and wait for the animals to come to the water when it flows or you walk if you know what you do!

The place sounded In addition, being older has made us more cautious so, not having a roof tent, we decided that we could sleep inside the car. We rehersed the flattening of the seats to convert it, if not in a double bed, into a reasonable place for a couple to sleep. We organized our belongings so that they could be placed in a small tent, on the front seats and on the roofrack. We were satisfied with the arrangements and ready to go…

Almost at the last minute we invited another couple to join us. Tom and Chizuki had never visited Chitake despite having lived in Zimbabwe from the late 90s so they seized the opportunity. They agreed with our idea of sleeping inside their car and we arranged to meet a couple of days before our departure to finalize the details. At that meeting it transpired that they could not convert their car into a bed so we all agreed to camp in the normal way. I was relieved as we have always slept in tents, even in places where animals were in large numbers in Kenya, reserving the car for “in extremis” situations… I will cover these in future posts.

Our camp and occupants.

Our camp and occupants.

We arrived to Chitake in mid afternoon and set up camp early so we would be well prepared for the night, having the lions always in the back or our minds! After we were satisfied we explored our surroundings on foot and saw that the springs were about 100 metres from us and they were flowing.We sat in the dry river bed and waited. In one moment there was nothing at the water and then as if by a miracle, a group of elephants, buffalo or impala would be drinking! As night fell, the water was still flowing and the animals still coming down to drink.

The elephants suddenly appeared (and disappeared!).

The elephants suddenly appeared (and disappeared!).

After an early dinner we retired to our tents for a well deserved rest. Lions did roar as expected. They were far from us, probably following the buffalo some place else. We slept well, being careful when getting up for pit stops during the night. The morning after saw us all happy to see that the four of us survived our first night at Chitake and decided to celebrate this with a good -and healthy- breakfast!

The water had stopped flowing during the night so only baboons were walking in the dry river bed.

Sand and baboons.

Sand and baboons.

We decided that we would do a bit of exploring so we went to the actual springs where we could see a number of different footprints and a couple of carcasses (one buffalo and one elephant) that were responsible for the rotten smell that we could sometimes feel, depending on the wind direction. We then crossed the river and drove for a few km until reaching the baobab hill.

After spending some time with the baobabs we returned, crossed the river again and drove on towards the exit as we had seen an open area where we thought cheetah may be found. We saw the usual warthogs and the ubiquitous impala. Then our friend Tom amazed us by spotting a painted/wild dog lying down at about 100 metres from the car! An amazing sighting. In fact there were three of them.

Then he spotted a few more heads under another bush nearby! When the heads became full dogs, we realized that there were pups, six of them and half grown. At some point they all trotted towards the adults and the latter stood up for the usual greetings. We counted five adults and six pups. After their profuse greeting they all dashed off as if starting a hunt although we did not see any possible prey. We tried to follow them but lost them almost immediately. Giving up on the painted dogs we drove on to the junction with the main road and started going back to camp.

The dogs were again at the same spot! Surprised we stopped to watch and confirmed that there were the same! While watching, again, all pups dashed off as if on a hunt, followed by one or two adults and, after a while, got back to the starting point. This exercise was repeated three times. The observation was a topic of discussion for a while as some thought it was a kind of hunting rehearsal while others -including myself- thought that the pups were just being either hungry or hyperactive!

After that interesting encounter we got back to camp to face another night at Chitake, now more relaxed as we had survived the first!

A "Chitake special"! An Eastern Nicator looking for insects in the undergrowth.

A “Chitake special”! An Eastern Nicator looking for insects in the undergrowth.

A carmine bee-eater.

A carmine bee-eater.

Watched at Shumba

In Hwange National Park you are allowed to camp at picnic sites. The understanding is that you can have the place for yourself from 18:00 to 06:00 hours but other tourists can use the facilities during the day. This is not a real problem, as during that time you are outside the camp game watching. This was the case for us during the six nights we spent at the camp from the 11th to the 17th of October 2014.

Things started off well! On arrival and about one km from Shumba, we met two lionesses moving through the bush clearly intent on their goal, as they did not even look at us. We watched them for a few minutes before they disappeared. It was a fitting start to our stay at a camp aptly named Shumba (Lion in the Shona language).

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One of the lionesses spotted near the camp. Note how dry it is!

We had chosen Shumba Picnic site after scouting a number of potential sites during our visit to Hwange last year. It is about half way between Main and Robbins Camps and somewhat removed from the main tourist area and it also had its own dam with permanent water. It was also shady, had good facilities and a Picnic Attendant looking after the place. The constant pump engine noise (located too close to the site) was particularly bad, especially when the wind blew from its direction towards us. However, the availability of water close to the camp attracts many animals and offsets this annoyance. Among the animals seen were elephants, buffalos and zebra, with some elephants browsing very close to us on a daily basis. There is a small viewing platform at the dam from where animals can be watched in relative comfort and safety.

Shumba dam

Shumba viewing platform.

On arrival, through the Picnic attendants, we learnt that the colony of Dwarf mongooses (Helogale parvula) that used to live in the trunk of the large fig tree (Ficus spp.) for a few years had moved away to another burrow nearby, outside the camp. This was disappointing, as I had come prepared for pictures of mongoose life at close quarters!

mongooses small 2013

The Dwarf Mongooses seen in 2013.

The area was extremely dry and the moment we filled the birdbaths, lots of visitors started to come, making me forget about the Mongoose’s absence. Apart from the ubiquitous starlings and hornbills we had a small flock of Southern Pied Babblers (Turdoides bicolor), a rare bird -near endemic- that I saw for the first time. We also saw Redheaded Weavers (Anaplectes rubriceps) and what I believe to be a Bennet’s Woodpecker (Campethera bennettii), all drinking from the birdbaths.

babbler small

Southern Pied Babbler.

weaver small

Redheaded Weaver (an unidentified Starling on the left)

woodpecker small

Bennet’s Woodpecker

We set up our camp under a large African Ebony tree or Jackalberry (Diospyros mespiliformis), aware that the fence that at some stage protected the campers at the site was no more and all that remained were a few broken wires and posts. However, camping in the open was not new to us, as we did not have fences in Kenya! Apart from the fig and ebony trees, the camp also has Russet Bushwillows (Combretum hereroense) and a couple of Rain Trees (scientific name unknown)[1].

Although the dam at Shumba is almost your “private” dam, the flow of animals takes place mainly after dark, when mainly elephants come to drink. While this makes the nights entertaining from the “bush sounds” point of view, it is not easy to see the animals. believe me when I say that there was a lot of noise as elephant families and lone bulls interacted. Occasionally, elephants would be seen chasing each other and we suspect that some fighting also went on. We have seen evidence of clashes on our earlier visit in the form of chunks of ivory seen by the dam.

broken tusks at Shumba copy

Broken tusks photographed at Shumba in 2013.

For this reason, although we passed by “our” dam at every opportunity, our game searching forays took us to other dams such as Masuma, Deteema and Mandavu where animals can be seen during the day in larger numbers. The latter, a large dam, had a bush luxury if you wish to keep in touch with your offspring: a spot with cellphone signal! It was not under the Jackalberry tree as it is in Sirheni Bush Camp in Kruger National Park but exactly between the metal poles of a gate at the the picnic site!

Cell signal Mandavu

The telephone signal is found at a very precise spot, marked by a holder made of a plastic bottle!

The first evening at Shumba my wife heard a whistle coming from the trees when going towards the kitchen. Subsequent search revealed a large owl perched on a high branch. As we did not wish to blind it with our torches, we refrained -with some difficulty- from trying to identify it further that night. Early the following morning the search for the owl took place and it was found! It was an immature Verreaux or Giant Eagle Owl (Bubo lacteus) that was clearly too young to fly and still confined to the trees in our camp. It was watching us!

enlarged first view small

Our first sight of the owlet.

Although it was already sizeable it still had lots of juvenile soft feathers. In marked contrast, its wings were already very large compared with its body and looked completely feathered by now. It did not move much and when it did, it walked and jumped between various branches or flew very short distances. It did not remain in the same place every day either and showed great interest in what we were doing. Taking good pictures of it was difficult as it was usually high up in the trees and against the light.

owl with wings low small

The youngster was seen to lower its wings. Was it for heat dissipation or to rest them?

The bird was there for the duration of our stay and it would be quiet mostly, whistling on occasion. We did not see it coming down to drink from the birdbaths or show any interest in the other birds. Said birds were not seen mobbing the youngster either.

owl on roof tom small

Perched on top of the kitchen (Photo by Tom Milliken)

Upon further reading I learnt that the female owl lays two eggs and the first one hatching is the one surviving when food is not enough for two owlets. The new birds leave the nests at about two months of age and can fly two weeks after this. They remain rather inactive for three months after that and only start getting their own food after that time, at about five months of age. Probably the owlet we saw was still within the three months of “low profile”.

wings open tom small

Flexing its rather oversized wings! (Photo by Tom Milliken)

The third morning I woke up earlier than normal, at about 0545 hs, and heard deep grunts like “hru, hru-hru-hru, hru, hru-hru” emitted continuously[2]. Thinking that the young owl was calling I went out of the tent to see what was happening and saw an adult owl that soon flew off. I followed it outside the camp but lost it as it flew off. The parents were keeping an eye on our youngster! Later on we found a dead mole rat under a tree, a sign that the adult had brought food to the youngster! The mole rat was not eaten though.

Friends came to stay with us on the fourth day after travelling from Harare to Shumba in one day! They arrived in late afternoon and rather tired so we helped them setting up their tent. This was easy as it is very easy to set it up. However, my sigh of relief was premature when the inflatable mattresses were produced. I felt obliged to offer my help with the hand pump. Hard work followed until; eventually they were had the required pressure. That completed, we spent the rest of the evening chatting and had an early dinner.

Once in our tent, we noticed some night moves in the adjacent tent and some talking as well but we refrained from asking anything until the following morning as things calmed down after a while. Apparently one of the mattresses had suffered from a puncture(s) during an early safari by their children and it had deflated during the night with the result that one of our friends gradually “descended” to floor level and, subsequently, had a literally hard night!

Spotting the young owl perched in a good place for photography made us forget the bad night and improve the spirits. My friend is a good photographer and had just bought a camera with the latest technological advances and took some excellent photographs that he kindly lent to me to illustrate this post. This was despite him not being very familiar with the camera that -as usual with modern gadgets- had a manual the size of the bird book!

scratching by Tom small

A great picture showing its diagnostic pink eyelids. Photo by Tom Milliken.

Two days later, again during early morning, we had another visit by one of the parents that repeated the call described above. It was rather shy and did not stay too long, flying away after a short while. Later on we found what appeared to be a Teal on the ground, based on the plumage of its back. Further identification was difficult, as the head and breast of the bird had been eaten, presumably by the youngster.

By the time we left Shumba a couple of days later, the young owl was starting to fly short distances and at some stage we thought it had gone. However, its whistling gave it away and we found it again, perched above our tent inside the tree’s foliage, probably seeking protection from the heat. We expect that soon the owl will become completely independent from its parents and start its own life. We hope to find its siblings next year!

 

[1] I do not wish to mislead you to think that I know about trees. Thankfully some forester placed nametags on the tree trunks. Unfortunately the Latin name for the Rain Tree was disfigured.

[2] A good recording can be found at http://www.listentoafrica.com/audio/wildlife-giant-eagle-owl-14092009/