intona

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!

Embed from Getty Images

 

Although I tried to phone Godfrey to thank him for the gift, I never managed to talk to him again.

 

[1] We saw the consequences of this while camping at Aberdares National Park in my earlier post. See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2017/08/04/bad-lions/

[2] My surname has always been complicated as it is “de Castro” and not “De Castro” as the Spanish-speaking world wishes to write it. While this is a minor issue, in Africa it became more interesting as the “de” was normally dropped and then I became “Castro”, “Caster” or my favourite: “Castrol”

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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/

 

 

Black tea in Maasailand

There are incidents in life that have a strong influence in the future and although the improper use of a microhaematocrit centrifuge may not be the commonest of examples, it had an impact on mine.

In short, while working at a colleague’s laboratory in Muguga, I forgot to place the inner lid over the blood-filled capillaries. The result of a short spin -I switched the machine off immediately- was a bloodstain at tummy height all around, including the people present! Basil, the Head of the Laboratory while watching his own red mark at waist level, made only one comment in the best British understated style: “Julio, you need a PhD” and abandoned the room leaving me alone to clean up the mess!

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My usual “laboratory”, quite far from Basil’s!

Basil’s words sunk in my mind and I decided to attempt a PhD as, clearly, I needed more scientific training, in addition to learn how to properly use a microhaematocrit centrifuge! Through a Muguga colleague I managed to get in touch with Cambridge University in the UK where I was -to my surprise- accepted. Unfortunately my initial enthusiasm got quickly dampened when I learnt about the university fees and the option was quickly discarded.

After more enquiries I learnt that I could do a PhD as an external student at my former Department of Applied Zoology of the University of Wales. So, very soon, I had organized the study at a small fraction of the cost. Luckily Ian, a Lecturer and friend from the Department, agreed to be my external supervisor while my ICIPE colleague Robin kindly agreed -apart from being my tick ecology teacher- to take on the day-to-day supervision of my work.

The rules of the PhD were very strict and they included a visit by the external supervisor to Kenya. Fortunately, Ian planned to present a scientific paper at an International Protozoology Conference[1] held in Nairobi in 1985 and the time was very suitable for the review of my work.

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Ian, right, and a smart Bushsnob attending the Conference.

Most of my fieldwork was carried out at Intona ranch[2] in the Transmara. So, when the time for Ian to come to oversee my work, apart from the more routine visits to the main ICIPE office in Nairobi and to our Muguga laboratory, the exciting part was a trip to Intona itself. In those days, the Transmara area was an uncommon and rather exciting destination in Kenya.

As usual, the trip required some organizing, particularly as I did not wish to give a bad impression to my Supervisor during his only review of my work! I got authorization from the always kind Murumbis to stay at the main house at the ranch and to get their staff to look after us.

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The main house at Intona ranch.

The one-day journey to Intona was an enjoyable one as we drove by the Maasai Mara Game Reserve where animales were always very abundant and then crossed the bridge over the Mara river to climb the Oloololo escarpment through Lolgorian to, finally, get to the ranch where we settled down and spent the next three days looking at our trials and analyzing my data.

Images of the journey, above and, below, some of the work we reviewed at Intona ranch.

The afternoon of the day after arriving, knowing that Ian was a great tea drinker[3], I decided to treat him to some five o’clock tea at the house’s back verandah where there was not only a beautiful view of the parkland and wildlife surrounding the house but also some very snug chairs.

I asked the cook to use some good Kenya tea I had brought for the occasion and we sat to chat, waiting for the fresh brew to arrive. We did not wait for long before the teapot came with the necessary milk and sugar. Tea was served while we contemplated the various art objects that decorated the verandah while the cook -trained by Sheila- discreetly withdrew.

I poured the tea and the milk and drank it while enjoying the both the taste as well as the view while Ian drank his. We talked about the journey and the animals we had seen, particularly during our stopover at the Maasai Mara but also during our trip when close to Intona. Seeing that Ian had finished his cup, I offered him more. To my great surprise, he politely declined!

When I insisted, making a comment about the tea being good, Ian mentioned that he found it with smoky flavour that he found rather unusual and too strong to his liking. Then I realized that our milk supplier was a Maasai lady from a manyatta nearby and, when I had a look at the milk, I confirmed that I had overlooked a detail: the milk was grey with a rim of dark froth!

With my apologies, I confessed to Ian that, in my enthusiasm to treat him to a proper “cuppa”, I had overlooked that our milk came from the Maasai who added a few pieces of charcoal to the milk gourd! Although Ian did not change his mind regarding drinking a second cup, he was very amused about the reason for the smoky flavour.

Although I knew that a few drops of cow urine were also added as a preservative to the milk, I did not mention it to Ian!

 

 

[1] The VII International Congress of Protozoology Held at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, Nairobi, Kenya, 22-29 June 1985.

[2] 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/

[3] His favourite saying was: “Whenever there is a crisis, have a cup of tea. Many times the problem goes away after that”.

Memories – A fishing trip

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

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Intona cattle kraal

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

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

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The Migori in flood. We fished from these banks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thomas and the fish!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Not just dinner

Kenya became independent on 12 December 1963 when Kenyatta became its first President and Odinga the Vice President. Not surprisingly, in 1965 Kenyatta and Odinga fell out, and Murumbi (Joe) was named Kenya’s second Vice-President for a few months until he resigned in December 1966[1].

As described before, I became involved with Joe through the work we did with Alan Young on tick and tick-borne diseases. He wholeheartedly supported our work. As with all scientific work, a substantial amount of time was spent writing research proposals in order to get the funds to continue with the research. Once the funding is secured, donors visit your field sites to see for themselves the activities being performed with their funds, the conditions of work, applications, progress, etc. These visits are critical for the future of your investigations and that was the way that they were also understood at the institute I was with. This meant that all should go smoothly and a good performance was expected.

I had several such visits but none as important as the final evaluation of our tick programme in the mid 80’s. Laboratory and field work came under the magnifying glass and, as it is quite normal our results were mixed. My part of the bargain was going well as we had good collaborators and achievable goals. Our partner with the highest profile was of course Joe and, in addition, nature was a great partner. Soon the donors knew that Intona ranch and its surrounding area -including the Maasai Mara- were beautiful areas worth a visit and this was good for us and we used it to our advantage!

The organization of a “high level” visit needed lot of work as guests would usually fly to the Maasai Mara where I would meet them and look after them until the following morning when we would climb the Oloololo escarpment and drive about three hours to Intona, hoping that the rains were light and we did not get stuck in the various tricky spots we needed to cross and spoil our trip! Usually our journey would take us to the manyatta (Maasai dwelling) of the Maasai Chief to inform him of our visit and to our GTZ collaborators, if applicable. The visit would last two days during which our work was shown and presented and future prospects discussed in detail. We were of course very fortunate that Joe and Sheila (his wife) allowed us to put them up in their magnificent house.

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Joe and Sheila’s house at Intona ranch, Transmara, Kenya

During this particular visit Joe and Sheila were at Intona. They normally flew directly to the ranch, together with their dogs! Aware of the importance of the occasion they kindly offered to organize a dinner for our guests. This was not an everyday event, but I had joined them for dinner a few times before and I knew that it would be a formal occasion with excellent hospitality and very good food.

The day of the visit arrived and I collected our visitors from Kichwa Tembo Camp, located close to the Oloololo escarpment and, after a game drive that they thoroughly enjoyed in the surrounding area of the Maasai Mara

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The Wildebeest moving through the reserve.

-that I knew very well- we spent the night there to leave early morning for Intona. The road was good and, once there, we devoted the rest of the day to visit our field activities. They seemed pleased with what they saw. I was also pleased and looking forward to the dinner to close a long day.

The Intona area is under the influence of the near lake Victoria and it frequently rains for a short spell in the afternoons. As a consequence the sun sets in a cloudy sky resulting in the most glorious and colourful sunsets. Aware of this Joe positioned the house in such a way to be able to make the most of them by having a wide west veranda where we congregated often to talk and have a drink before dinner. That day it was no exception and we joined Sheila and Joe for sun downers and polite conversation until Sheila, the perfect hostess and a very experienced one, announced that dinner was ready. While walking to the dining room she came close and whispered: “Julio, we have a new cook that came with us from Nairobi, I hope it will perform as he has excellent recommendations”. Knowing her standards I had no doubts and told her so.

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A view of Intona ranch in the Transmara parkland.

The dining room had a door to the kitchen and another one to the enormous and beautifully decorated sitting room. It had the most exquisite antique wooden table and chairs and antique rugs, most probably of Afghan origin, covered its floor. I knew from past dinners that under the rags at the place where Sheila sat there was a bell that she will press in order to call for assistance from the staff. This was her “secret weapon” that enabled her to coordinate things so perfectly that the guests would be amazed. Needless to say that it was a candlelight affair with lots of silverware and crystal!

When the first course came, brought by staff dressed in white with purple fezzes, it was a brownish coloured soup that looked rather disappointing. Trying it did not improve its look: it had a strong curry flavour and it was chilled! “I hope you like our Mulligatawny soup” said Sheila while she gave an approving look to the new cook that was overseeing the dinner from a discreet distance. Your concerns about the soup dissipated the moment your spoon found some submerged resistance that transformed itself in a spoon tip full of cranberry jam. The combination was simply amazing!

After our praise of the soup ended, the staff came back to collect our plates and this time the new cook looked happy and smiley, “the success with the soap was a boost for him” I thought while noting a serious-looking Sheila. By the time the roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes was brought in, the cook was definitely too happy and talking loudly to the visible embarrassment of our hosts. Sheila, used to deal with the highest-ranking world figures, ask to be excused and went to the kitchen, an unusual event. In the meantime, we enjoyed our roast that was really excellent.

Soon, Sheila came back announcing that all was well although she could not hide her concerned expression. We understood her fears the moment the cook opened the door of the kitchen when the staff came to collect the plates. The cook proffered, rather loudly, his hopes that we enjoyed the main course while trying to keep steady. By then we could not help noticing the strong alcohol whiff and knew that the worse had taken place! The spirit meant to go into the cooking had been “diverted”!

Although the guests and Joe were rather amused, Sheila was visibly upset! She excused herself again and went to the kitchen. We could not help overhearing a loud argument or rather Sheila’s shouts! There was a door banged and the sounds of a scuffle. She came back; her usual cool almost lost and red on her face. As an experienced host, she re-gained her composure fast and invited us to move next door to the sitting room for coffee and liquor. I stayed back with her as the guests and Joe moved out and Sheila -unseen by the guests- looked at me as if asking for support and understanding. I made my best “do not worry” gesture and moved to the sitting room together with the guests. She remained behind.

Intona sitting room copy

We all sat in the ornate sitting room and overlooked the cook’s episode, listening to Joe. Although soft spoken, he was a great host and a very engaging story teller with great tales and anecdotes from his many years in politics. We listened for quite a while until more noises coming from the kitchen area hinted that all was still not well and then Sheila reappeared –now with a grimace- to announce that the cook would like to say good bye to the guests! “Oh, no”, I thought, “is the situation that bad!”

The cook appeared escorted by the night watchman and a couple of staff and boisterously said “bye-bye!!!” but did not move and tried to say something but what came was a rather loud burp followed by another “bye-bye!!!” After this performance he was immediately manhandled out of the room, still saying “bye-bye!!!” and waving at us until the door was closed behind the group. I still vividly remember his final wave just before the door was shut! Confronted with this final act, even Joe was briefly embarrassed while the guests and I were quite amused!

The following morning Sheila and Joe were leaving for Nairobi and, as usual, I escorted them to the plane to assist them with their luggage, dogs and other items that they needed to take with them. They were sorry for what had happened. I felt very bad to have put them in this situation and explained them that I was very grateful for their hospitality and, to their obvious relief, I also told them that the donors were very pleased with the work and also very proud to have had the opportunity to have met them and enjoyed their hospitality, including the cook incident.

Before closing the door of the plane I spotted the cook. He was seated at the very back, looking penitent. I could not decide if his rather sombre looks were a consequence of his hangover, Sheila’s morning sermons or a combination of both!

The next time I was invited for dinner at Intona there was a new cook!

 

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/joseph-zuzarte-murumbi-1911-1990/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/06/22/joe-1/ in this blog.

Skewered Maasai chicken

When I was there in the 80’s the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Kenya had established various partnerships with universities and research centres outside Africa. I was involved with the collaboration with the University of Neuchâtel on tick pheromones. The idea was to explore ways of attracting ticks to pheromone-baited traps and, with the addition of a tickicide[1], to destroy them.

Bont ticks male (left) and female. A bad picture.

Bont ticks male (left) and female. A bad picture.

The composition of the aggregation pheromone of the Bont tick[2], one of the important cattle ticks, had just been discovered. It was a mixture of three chemicals that were available commercially. This offered us a good opportunity to test this compound in the field. Ernest was the scientist from Neuchâtel that would work with me at Intona ranch where natural populations of the tick occurred.

Ernest was a very enthusiastic and good-humoured Swiss that had a hearing problem as a consequence of firing cannons during his military service in the Swiss Alps, forgetting about wearing earmuffs! Luckily, we got on well from the start. So, armed with the necessary research tools, we departed for Intona to spend a few days doing fieldwork.

As a precaution, we did take a few ticks from the tick colony in case the bush ones would not cooperate! Crossing the Maasai Mara Game Reserve was never disappointing and, as usual, we spent a night there on the way to the Transmara where Intona was located. Ernest was delighted being able to see the plains game and we wee also lucky to spot elephants, lions and hyenas.

In the morning, as usual, we laboriously climbed the Oloololo escarpment and stopped to admire the breath taking view of the Mara triangle from its highpoint. The almost aerial view that it offered was really thrilling, even for me, a regular visitor to the area. Lines of wildebeest could be seen in the distance as well as dark patches that indicated buffalo herds. As I knew he would, Ernest loved the view. After spending a long while in contemplation, it was time to continue our long journey.

Maasai cattle at the Mara River bridge on the way to the Transmara.

Maasai cattle at the Mara River bridge on the way to the Transmara.

Following the escarpment the road was bad as usual but luckily this time it was dry. However, we needed to stop a few times, not because of getting stuck or having mechanical problems, but because Ernest was amazed at how bad the road was! “Ooohh no, please stop!” he would shout and then get out of the car to photograph it even before I managed to stop. Clearly he was comparing the Transmara tracks with the Swiss roads!

Stuck on the way to Intona on a rainy day.

Stuck on the way to Intona on a rainy day.

Eventually, after a few halts, he got used to the rough road but, being a very active person, his attention drifted to other things. As all first time visitors to the Transmara he took a great interest on the Maasai people and their cattle, a normal sight in the area for me but quite so for guests. As the Maasai were not keen on pictures, we did not stop.

Maasai herdsman on the way to Intona.

Maasai herdsman on the way to Intona.

Maasai Manyatta (dwelling).

Maasai Manyatta (dwelling).

Maasai children looking after livestock.

Maasai children looking after livestock.

After about half an hour of hard going I heard “Stop” coming from Ernest as we approached a large muddy pond by the side of the road. While I stopped the car he rummaged in his rucksack from where he extracted what looked like an over-sized hypodermic syringe and a tumbler. I was not sure of what was going on and limited myself to watch, together with our herdsmen travel companions. “This is a Swiss water filter that will make any water suitable for drinking” he said as we were walking towards the mud and the terrapins swam away in fear! He added “It is recommended by the Swiss Tropical Institute, so it must be good!”

Without further ado he sucked water into the syringe and, once it was full, it poured into the glass. The water was indeed crystal clear! “You see,” he said, showing the glass. I must confess that it was an impressive feat as the puddle was truly a thick chocolate mud and I had not seen such a contraption before! Ernest offered the water to us and, when we all politely declined, he drank it himself before I could stop him, fearing for the consequences on his guts.

After praising the quality of what he had just drunk, he repeated the operation once more. This time one of the herdsmen agreed to try it and he agreed that it was indeed OK if with a bit of a muddy taste. “The filter must be getting clogged,” declared Ernest, “I must clean it when we get to Intona”. I refrain from commenting on the cost-effectiveness of the device and we resumed our trip, clearly ready for innovation.

Eventually we arrived at Intona ranch. It was almost dark so we rushed to assemble our tent, had an early dinner and went to bed as we both felt the long two-day trip.

The following day we started our work early and spent most of the day carrying out several trials that were quite successful. In the afternoon we decided that we would have roasted chicken for dinner so while Ernest continued working I went with Tommi, my Maasai assistant, in search of dinner. Eventually we managed to persuade a Maasai lady to sell us a cockerel.

Our prospective dinner was killed by me and plucked by Ernest. The size of its talons were unequivocal indicators of its seniority and its leanness qualified it as a Maasai chicken long-distance runner! Its muscular condition spoke of speed and endurance at the service of survival! Oblivious to all this, Ernest assembled a boy scout-like contraption with branches where, after impaling the chicken, it would be rotated over the fire. We invited our herdsmen to join us and they prepared their traditional “ugali[3]” to go with it.

The cooking of the chicken took a very long time. Ernest kept stabbing it and declaring that it was cooked but still tough. The lengthy turning process led to inexorable shrinking and darkening until it was declared fit for human consumption. The cockerel had turned into a “toasted baby chicken”. I saw the herdsmen exchanging doubtful glances over their Tusker beers, a bad omen!

Ernest cut it into equal pieces and -luckily- Joseph placed large chunks of ugali to go with it. Tommi bit the first piece and I heard a “Taargh” coming from him that became a clear “tough!” once he managed to swallow it. Bad news coming from a Maasai! Ernest agreed on its toughness but declared that it tasted like real chickens did a long time ago in Switzerland so he was happy! As for the rest of us, we could have done with a second runner Maasai chicken!

Transmara, Kenya, circa 1986.

 

[1] Also known as an acaricide, a substance that kills ticks.

[2] Amblyomma variegatum (the Bont tick) transmits Cowdria ruminantum that causes a deadly disease of ruminants known as Heartwater.

[3] From Swahili, maize flour cooked with water to a thick porridge. It is the staple food in Kenya.