Kenya

Lake Magadi

The rotten egg smell of the ostrich egg post [1] brought back memories of lake Magadi and its malodourous beauty.

After a few months in Kenya we got to know a few people interested in nature and we connected with them immediately. Most were working around Nairobi (Kenya Agriculture Research Institute, Muguga and the International Laboratory for Research in Animal Diseases, Kabete). We were all agriculture or livestock specialists that shared an interest in nature.

A sunny Sunday we were invited to a day trip to lake Magadi. We knew nothing about the place so, after some enquiries, we learnt that it would be a picnic at the lake and that bird watching would be high in the agenda. We had not done any bird watching as such in our lives so we lacked binoculars, bird books, etc. but we accepted so we could start learning new ways.

At the time we did not know it but, after this first expedition, we visited the lake frequently. It was an ideal one-day outing from Nairobi in view of the relative short distance from Nairobi(106km), the picturesque nature of the journey and the wildlife that could be seen both en route and at the lake itself.

Lake Magadi, nested at 580m of altitude is close to Lake Natron in Tanzania and it is located in a volcanic rock fracture in the Rift Valley, itself a gigantic fault that runs for about 6,000km from Lebanon in the North to Mozambique in the South.

EAfrica rift

The Great Rift Valley. By USGS (http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/dynamic/East_Africa.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

We left Nairobi early following the lake road that skirted the Ngong hills, a true landmark where Karen Blixen’s farm was located (now her homestead is a museum). The moment you had the Ngong hills on your right, the immensity of the Rift Valley opened up in front of you. A rugged succession of hazy mountains gradually took your eyes to the bottom of the valley and, on a clear day, the amazing view of Kilimanjaro with its snow in the equator will frame the postcard vista.

view from ngong hills

The spectacular view of the Rift Valley from the Ngong hills.

From there you started a descent that traversed Maasai country while getting increasingly dry and hot. Manyattas peppered the area and encounters with Maasai going or coming from watering points with their cattle were a common occurrence. I recall our friend Paul -later on- saying that the road would made an ideal cycling trip because of its downhill trajectory towards the lake.

A few km before arriving to the lake, Tony, one of our friends, stopped the car for a bit of exploring. Apparently, during an early visit, they had “discovered” some fossilized elephant remains that he wished to show us. Some of us followed him looking for the bones while others spotted some interesting bird and immediately forgot everything else and focused on the feathered creatures. This was my introduction to the rather focused birdwatchers ethnic group!

We did found the elephant bones. I thought they were rather disappointing but kept the opinion to myself! The stop was good to drink lots of water as the temperature was now well above 30oC and we were still quite a distance from the bottom of the valley and it was not yet lunchtime. Although some of our co-travellers had iced cold water (freezing the jerry cans prior to the journey) we drank ours at ambient temperature (no coolbox yet in that trip!). This became our normal water temperature while on safari, as it would give us independence from fridges and ice.

We continued our trip and, suddenly and surprisingly, we viewed a large flat pink expanse below us. We were looking at the lake and, as it was the dry season, it was almost totally covered in white and pink soda.

magadi 1

Subsequent visits during wetter times showed a much “lake-like” lake, despite the scarcity of its yearly rains, an average of 470 mm per year [2]. During this time, a thin (less than 1m) layer of brine covers much of the saline pan, but this evaporates rapidly leaving a vast expanse of white and pink salt that cracks to produce large polygons.

We came to the entrance gate already hot and smelling the strong sulfur gases that emanated from the lake and that would be a constant whenever we visited it. The gate was in fact the entrance to the Magadi Soda Company where we registered our arrival. Further on we also re-registered our intended route at the Magadi Police station, a mandatory requirement in case you got lost (we have to pass by again on the way out for our names to be stricken off the register so that a search party was not sent for us).

The lake is saline and alcaline and covers around 100 km2 being in reality a pan. The water precipitates vast quantities of trona (soda ash, also known as sodium carbonate) to a depth of up to 40m. From these large deposits the soda ash is extracted and used mainly in glass-making, chemicals, paper, detergents, and textiles. The Magadi Soda Company (now part of the Tata company) was created in 1911 to exploit this wealth.

Luckily for the company, the trona deposits are recharged mainly by saline hot springs that reach temperatures of up to 86 °C and their exploitation -at least during the early days- did not have a significant impact on these deposits. During our times in Kenya the soda ash was being carried by railway to Kilindini harbour in the Indian Ocean from where it would get exported.

magadi 2 2

Only once we found a train leaving the Malawi Soda facility.

The plan of our first trip was to do the “trip around the lake” that started crossing the first causeway with open water and then follow the road until we entered some bush cross-country driving to rejoin the road and return to Magadi town again.

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A basic map of Lake Magadi showing in blue the trip around the lake.

It was during this part of the journey that we came up to our firs giraffe carcass, blocking the way. Its cause of death unknown but already as dried as biltong!

dead giraffe magadi round the lake rd

The dry giraffe.

Lake Magadi hosts a great variety of water birds, including flamingoes, yellow-billed storks, different egrets and herons as well as smaller ones, including the interesting avocets. See [3] for some of the birds that can be found there. I do not recall whether we saw the Chesnut-banded Sandplover or Magadi Plover (Charadrius pallidus venustus), restricted to almost only lakes Natron and Magadi but our friends probably did. If not very spectacular, it was a rather unique little bird that we spotted in subsequent visits.

magadi yellow billed storks fishing darkened

A pair of Yellow-billed storks fishing in lake Magadi.

Apart from birds the lake and surrounding area is also home to Wildebeests, Somali Ostriches, Beisa Oryx, Zebra, Grant’s gazelles, Gerenuks and of course Giraffes among other species of herbivores and browsers. But these are not the only interesting animals that inhabit the rather inhospitable lake Magadi!

In its hot springs some special fish find their living despite the high temperature and salinity of the water! Alcolapia grahami a species of the Cichlidae family has adapted to live in this rather harsh environment. It is not the only case as another three species inhabit Lake Natron a few km to the south in Tanzania: Alcolapia alcalica; A. latilabris; and A. ndalalani. Of interest is that there is no overlapping among the species present in each lake.

The now vulnerable A. grahami, most commonly seen in the southern shoreline hot spring pools where the water temperature is less than 45°C, have developed the ability of excreting urea instead of the usual ammonia of the teleost fish as they are not able to diffuse ammonium into such an alkaline media. As they feed on cyanobacteria of high N2 content, this is -apparently- important. They also have the greatest metabolic performance ever recorded in a fish, in the basal range of a small mammal of comparable size [4]. They are also an important indicator organism for global warming.

Coming back to our trip, after our stop for Police registration, we moved on and passed by the company’s brown golf course. It was interesting to see golfers moving about on a brown and grassless course where the holes were places with “browns” and a few dust devils thrown in as well! Since its establishment in 1931 this unique 9-hole course where you drive over donkeys and cows. It does not charge fees and it is open year round!

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Maasai boys driving their sheep and goats through one of the lake’s causeways.

It soon became clear that day that lake Magadi is one of the hottest and least hospitable places on earth. The water is undrinkable for humans and animals quench their thirst at selected areas where salt contents are low. We soon run out of water but, luckily, we found a water trough for cattle use on our way back from where we replenish our water and had a badly needed and refreshing wash!

Magadi tony and bock LRs

Stopping for the water trough.

While on the issue of water, years later, while having a picnic under one of the few acacia trees present around the lake, a Maasai elder approached us quietly and asked for some water. Without hesitation, one of our friends gave him a glass that the old man guzzled. Surprising all of us the man spat the water and started to jump while trying to hold his teeth, and shouting what we could understand as “baridi, baridi, baridi sana [5]!”

Without thinking, our friend had given him a glass of water from the frozen water can and the poor man, clearly used to drink water 40 degrees warmer, could not take it! After a few seconds he burst out laughing at the event while water at ambient temperature was supplied to him. This time he enjoyed it and he stayed with us for the rest of the picnic, sharing our food.

After our welcomed encounter with the cattle trough it was time to return to Nairobi. The heat had been intense and we felt really “desiccated” so it was with great relief that we took the road back that now climbed to the coolness of Nairobi where we arrived after night fall.

It was the introduction to one of our favourite weekend outings during the several years we spent in Kenya.

magadi

Magadi landscape 1

Magadi landscape 3

 

[1] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2018/08/17/ostrich-eggs/)

[2] https://en.climate-data.org/location/103801/

[3] Resident birds: Lesser Flamingo, Greater Flamingo, Chestnut-banded Plover, Speckled Pigeon, Eastern Violet-backed Sunbird, Somali Golden-breasted Bunting, Cut-throat Finch, African Mourning Dove, Red-billed Firefinch, Red-billed Quelea, Yellow-spotted Petronia, Chestnut Sparrow, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Slate-coloured Boubou and Blue-naped Mousebird. Fischer’s Sparrowlark, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and Greycapped Sociable-weaver. Visitors; Black-winged Stilt, Little Stint, Little Egret, Grey-headed Gulls, Yellow-billed Stork, Cape Teal, African Spoonbill, Kittlitz’s and Spur-winged Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Common Greenshank and Pied Avocet.

[4] Wood, C. M. et al. Mammalian metabolic rates in the hottest fish on earth. Sci. Rep. 6, 26990; doi: 10.1038/srep26990 (2016).

[5] “Cold, cold, very cold” (In KiSwahili).

 

 

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Spot the beast 48

Trying to find pictures to illustrate the coming posts on our Kenya days I found this rather old and rare gem for you to look at. It is easy.

m mara leop 3

I posted the image more for its rarity than for its difficulty. This young leopard was spotted near the Mara Buffalo Camp in the mid eighties. I still remember that the camp manager told me where to find the mother and the two cubs. This is one of the cubs in the cave they used to inhabit. Luckily they stayed there for a while and we managed to see them several times.

The first picture above was taken from a distance. It shows a relaxed leopard that, the moment we got closer, became more alert.

m mara leop 2

m mara leop 1

The pictures are poor but I believe worth it.

Nairobi National Park (1981-8)

In the eighties, when we [1] lived in Kenya, many people regarded the Nairobi National Park (NNP) as a large zoo next to Nairobi. I must admit that for a while I belonged to this group. I did not think that to see the Jomo Kenyatta Conference Centre (the tallest building then) from the park was a nice sight.

After a couple of years, again Paul, luckily convinced me of its value and I realized what a great privilege it was to have such a large area of wilderness a few minutes drive from our houses! So, following his advice, we bought a one-year pass to the park. The pass was stuck on our Land Rover windscreen and it enabled the car (and its occupants) to visit the NPP as many times as we wished!

It soon became one of our favourite places to visit! We also brought lots of people [2] there. Often we would collect our guests from the airport and drive through the park (in through the East Gate and out through the Main Gate). During the drive across the East African plains guests had a chance of encountering a number of interesting animals only hours after arrival.

Except for elephants, the park would offer all other animals that you wished to see in Africa. As far as I recall, although we saw a Serval cat we never spotted a single leopard there over the many years we stayed in Kenya. However, there was much compensation, as you will see.

As mentioned earlier in this blog [3] it was the first “field visit” I did with my late former boss Matt. In addition to visiting it with Paul, we also went there very often with Luis, another good safari companion from Argentina with a passion for bird photography. With him we also shared a few rather late (some very late!) departures from the park after having overstayed watching some interesting event! I must add that the rangers were very kind to us and finally accepted our obvious excuses such as an engine malfunction or a puncture! We never slept inside the park!

NBO Nat Park with Matt vultures

My first kill as seen it in the NNP when I first went there with my former boss, the late Matt.

Normally, the best predator-prey interactions start taking place when you are told to leave the place so, overstaying was the only way that we were capable of watching lion hunting while the light faded and eventually night fell. Although it often got too late to watch the complete act, we were lucky to see some interesting things. Excuses related to engine malfunction and punctures worked for a few times. However, as the rangers started to know us, they tolerated our tardiness!

Luckily, there were also interesting happenings during daytime. It was at NNP that we had our first encounters with black rhinos that were not hard to find once we learnt where their favourite browsing spots were.

Rhino Amboseli dusty copy

The now rare black rhino as seen in Amboseli National Park.

Late mornings were also interesting as the resident cheetahs would be looking for their favourite prey, the Thomson’s Gazelles. With patience, we were privileged to observe them hunting at speed in front of our eyes!

There is nothing like visiting a place frequently to get a good idea of where the potential for action was.

Hippo Pools was not only attractive due to the resident hippo and the sightings of the rare African Finfoot (Podica senegalensis) but also because you could leave your vehicle and walk along the river, although this exposed you to some close encounters with naughty Vervet Monkeys and Baboons. Although now it seems funny, I still vividly recall my first visit when stupidly (to be mild with myself) I was carrying some bananas as snacks and, after no more than two steps a rather large baboon surprised me and easily took all the bananas before I could even feel scared of the surprise assault by my primate cousin.

Tsavo W baboon best copy

Often we enjoyed a few picnics at the main viewpoint followed by short siestas overlooking the Leopard cliffs or the Athi River towards the South of the park. As it was hot, often the windows or sliding door of the kombi would be open. This was the usual procedure until I stopped. It happened one day that my wife was not reading in the front of the car as usual but she was watching the leopard cliffs some distance away from the car.

That day I did not wake up normally but something interfered with my slumber. On guard, I stayed quiet but I could hear noises inside the car and smell something strong! Immediately I realized that a few baboons surrounded me! The moment I moved and shouted at them, mayhem followed! They all tried to get out through the open window at the same time with the consequence that I witnessed a short baboon exit jam! Eventually, after a lot of jumping, screaming and scratching they escaped but not before leaving behind the consequences of their fright… and some of my money went into a good car wash!

In two instances we saw lions hunting warthogs. The first one was as soon as we entered the park through the East Gate. A lioness was clearly hunting on the road and as she started scurrying we saw a warthog running for its life a few metres ahead. We stopped to watch as the lioness was closing in on the fast running hog. The moment the lioness was about to grab it she tripped and fell heavily on her back while a very scared warthog disappeared in the tall grass! As events unfolded too fast for me, I only managed a bad picture of the lioness after she sat on her haunches to see the warthog run away!

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A bad picture of the lioness looking at the warthog after her fall.

The second time the warthog was not lucky and, from the main viewpoint, we watched a lioness stalk its prey near the small dam. She caught it and killed it fast and then she left it so we managed to get quite close and -through the binoculars and camera zooms- see the teeth holes she made on the animal’s neck. Before the hyenas could find the warthog she returned with her two young cubs.

Another, more personal, encounter with a lioness took place under very different circumstances. At the time we lived in Tigoni, about 35km away from Nairobi and, as my wife worked in the city, everyday after work I came from Muguga to collect her to go back to Tigoni. The day in question there was an important donor reception at Duduville, the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology HQ located in Kasarani. It was clearly too far to go back home to change our clothes, get back for the function and home again at night so I hatched a clever plan: after picking up my wife we would drive to the NNP to kill time and change into our formal clothes there.

As planned, we entered the park in late afternoon and we stopped in a discreet area to proceed with our clothes change. While my wife was dressing up in the car, I got out to change my trousers! In the process I moved a short distance from the car with such bad luck that I walked straight towards a lioness that was resting -possibly sleeping-  under the cover of a bush!

We shared the shock of the encounter. Seeing me attempting to fit in my trousers, the lioness took off and it was out of sight in a flash while I, holding my trousers as well as I could, managed to get into the kombi. “What are you doing?” said my wife that, focussing on her make up by means of the rear view mirror, had missed my critical encounter. “Lion” was all I could gasp while trying to recover from the scare. This was the first and last attempt at changing clothes in the NNP.

Among the herbivores, the giraffes were unique as they browsed on the various acacia species present and a number of hourglass trees confirmed their presence.

However, it was the buffalo that were very interesting. I believe that there was one herd of buffalo and the first time we found it we noted that they not only were very tolerant of vehicles but also very curious. Their curiosity reminded me of our steers back in Uruguay. We soon learnt that if we stopped the car and waited they would come very close to inspect our car. Although they never touched it they did smell it and spend quite some time very close to us.

buff nnp 5

This was repeated every time we saw them and it enabled me to observe them at close quarters. During the dry season they carried very heavy tick infestations of the Zebra ticks (Rhipicephalus pulchellus) and the poor creatures used the whistling thorn bushes in an effort to dislodge them.

Buffalo with ticks copy

A close-up to show you the ticks on the margin of the years and eyes of this female buffalo. No wonder they were rubbing against thorn bushes!

So, naturally, whenever we saw the buffalo we did our “buffalo trick” and waited for them to surround us without thinking much. So little we thought about it that when two lady friends from Uruguay came to visit for their first time in Africa, we took them to the NNP after the airport and that time -luckily- we found the buffalo. As a couple of hundred of these rather large and fierce-looking animals started to approach us, nervousness increased and comments started to flow. “What are they doing?”; “Julio, they keep coming”; “This is not dangerous?” and others until they openly showed their alarm and started charging me with “attempted murder”! To their relief, after a short while, I started the engine and the herd moved calmly away while we left them, taking with us two very agitated friends! Many years later they still remembered the experience as one of the most exciting they have ever had in their lives!

Several birds nested in the park and migratory storks and kestrels would visit on their way to their final destinations. Apart from Crowned cranes and Ostriches at least a pair of Secretary Birds, my favourite bird of prey, nested at the NNP. These birds -nowadays quite rare- had built a basic twig platform on a rather low bush. Their location enabled us to see their fledglings being fed and to follow their progress until they were eventually able to join their parents criss-crossing the savannah areas of the park in search for snakes and other prey.

Two rather unlikely finds have remained in my mind up to today. The first one was the sighting of a large carcass on a small hill. Nothing unusual about finding animal remains in a National Park you may rightly think. I would agree with you fully except that the dead animal did not match any of the park wild inhabitants! The remaining hide was uniformly brown with some long hairs. Luckily, despite its decay, the examination of the remaining bones revealed that it was a horse!

At first I tried to convince myself that it was impossible but the find could only be an adult horse! Only later I realized that I had veterinary colleagues that kept riding or polo horses in residential areas bordering the park and, the same way that lions often got out of the park and caused problems for the residents there, I am convinced that a horse somehow entered the park and it was killed.

The second encounter was mentioned in my earlier blog [4]. We came to an area the size of a tennis court looked as if it had been ploughed. Curious we continued driving and scared a couple of lionesses. As things were getting interesting we continued and almost bumped into two massive dead male buffalo. The first thought was that they were killed by lightening but it was the wrong season for this! Again, looking more carefully they were facing each other and, although already decomposed, the position of their horns indicated that they were locked!

locked buffs cropped

We then not only understood the earth scars but started to speculate on the cause of death. The most likely scenario was that they got exhausted from fighting and succumbed to stress combined to lack of water and then the lions found them and took advantage of the situation to fill their bellies! We will never be sure of what happened but it had all the signs of a mighty struggle.

So, these are the few anecdotes I recall from our amazing time we spent at this great place.

 

[1] Every time I reminisce (when we …) about our African past I remember that once I heard that people like us belonged to the “whenwe” tribe. Looking for this now, I learnt that the name was given to the more nostalgic members of the 1980’s arrivals from the then Rhodesia to South Africa. See: https://newint.org/features/1986/01/05/briefly

[2] Apart from friends I did this trick with donors visiting our projects.  I still believe that this “introduction” to the country improved our funding!

[3] Kenya: The Beginnings (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/08/bush-flying/).

[4] Locking of horns (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/locking-of-horns/).

 

 

 

 

 

Collision

The fall of the VW kombi [1] was not the only car mishap I was involved in during my Kenya driving life. There was another more serious one that was not amusing.

It happened one morning that I was driving my brand new Peugeot 504 going to work. I needed to turn right from Fifth Ngong avenue into Jomo Kenyatta avenue, a normally risky move as it meant crossing the traffic to get to the left traffic lane heading towards the city centre.

As usual I waited for a gap and went for it. The moment I entered the large avenue I saw (too late) a small motorbike coming rather fast towards me. I had no time to change anything and in horror I watched the bike and its occupant hit me on my side of the car! Very luckily for him (in retrospect), the rider flew over the bonnet landing heavily on the tarmac on the other side.

Shocked, I helped the rider to get into a passing car to be taken to the hospital while we agreed that I would look after the vehicles and wait for the Police and his brother to collect the bike. While waiting, my landlord drove past and gave me encouragement while recommending me his lawyer as, according to him, he had gone through issues like this a few times! When I told him that I was charged with dangerous driving, in my view a terrible thing, he dismissed it explaining to me that that was the usual charge when there was an injury.

After dealing with the vehicles and the Police I visited the bike rider in hospital and found him, despite having an injured arm, in good spirits and being discharged. He was not only shaken by the experience but also for not having a Driver’s License!

Although the civil details were dealt with between the insurance companies, according to Kenya Law, a court case was set where I needed to appear to hear my case. I had some earlier experience appearing in court as a witness when my cattle feed was stolen [2].

As the date of my meeting with the Kenyan Justice drew nearer I went to see the lawyer my landlord recommended me. His studio was in a rather affluent area of the city. After hearing me for a couple of minutes he dismissed me arguing that he was too busy at the time (probably my case was too small for him!) and he recommended me Dr. Shah [3], an experienced lawyer. I noted that the latter’s office was sited on a less elegant part of Nairobi.

I drove to Dr. Shah’s office and met him that same morning. I explained what had happened and also that the accident had been my fault. He accepted to represent me but he recommended me not to accept the charges and plead “not guilty”. Although I resisted, at the end he convinced me arguing that “no lawyer would represent a guilty person”. I finally gave in and agreed to employ Mr. Shah to represent me. The USD 50 fee seemed reasonable at the time.

As it is normal, the day of my case the Court was brimming with people. Things were to happen in Court No. 2. It was another case of “controlled chaos” a common situation in many places where, despite apparent confusion, things do happen. The room was filled to capacity by about fifty people of all ages and sexes. Facing the public sat the judge, a small lady dressed in a black robe with the rather odd white wig.

My lawyer and I sat next to the bike driver and his own lawyer, both of Indian descent. The lawyers knew each other, of course. While a case was on-going a clerk came to inform us that our case would be the next so we waited in silence for a few more minutes. While waiting I was worried and nervous and I realized that I knew I was guilty despite the lawyer’s argument and also that it was too late to change things!

Eventually our turn came, the charges were read and I was asked to plead. As instructed by my lawyer I said “not guilty”. As soon as I said this I regretted and somehow I felt that the Judge did not like it. She then informed us that the case was adjourned to about two months in the future. That was too much for me as I wished to finish the business.

I asked the Judge to wait a minute and she agreed. I then called my lawyer aside. I told him that his job was terminated. I then returned to my post and asked to talk directly to the judge. She agreed and then I changed my earlier plead to “guilty”. I was not sure that this was possible but she accepted it and passed sentence.

She said that as it was my first offense and that, considering the circumstances of the accident, she would reduce the charge to “careless driving”. She indicated that I needed to pay a fine of about USD 20!

I was very relieved and congratulated myself for changing my mind. I left the room and met my lawyer. Although he was still unhappy, he agreed that the outcome had been good. I paid him what at the end accounted to more than double the fine and went home with a clear conscience!

 

[1] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2017/07/29/the-kombi-falls/

[2] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/cattle-feed-on-wheels/

[3] Not his real name.

Pink Bogoria

All the Kenya lakes have their own unique characteristics and attractions. To pick one as “the best” is impossible, at least for me. However, lake Bogoria was one of our all time favourites when it came to a short break. You did not go there to find the Big Five but in search of tranquility and to enjoy the views and bird fauna. It was here that I spotted my first and only three-banded courser (Rhinoptilus cinctus).

Credit John Gerrard Keulemans [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Three-banded coursor

Three-banded courser. Credit John Gerrard Keulemans [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

It was also a special place for another reason. It was my first camping experience in Kenya. It happened over a weekend with Muguga House colleagues Richard and Phillip. Of the outing I recall that we departed on a Saturday to return the following day. We left rather late as Richard had lots of work to do to keep the tsetse parasitoids in his lab going. A late departure meant that we could not enter the park that day and needed to camp outside the gate.

As I had no tent and only a borrowed camp bed, I slept “al fresco” as it was -I was told- a very arid and dry area. I still recall the thousand of honking flamingoes flying overhead throughout the late afternoon and well into the night.

Luckily I woke up with the first raindrops and before getting soaked -together with my bedding- I managed to enter Richard’s car. After a while I realized that it was going to be a tough night. The location of the hand brake made sleeping across the front seats of a packed Toyota Corolla impossible.

I slept in a seated position and the following day I was very tired and with a few aches. Despite my condition, the few hours we spent there were enough to appreciate the beauty of the place and to remember to come back.

Lake Bogoria is a volcanic lake framed by green-blue hills. Its waters are greenish saline (up to 100 g/L total dissolved salts) and alkaline (pH:10.5). It lies in the Kenyan portion of the Rift Valley, south of Lake Baringo and a little south of the equator. It is a rather shallow body of water that is no deeper than 10m of depth. This rather small lake of 34km long by 3.5km wide has been protected since 1973.

NASA's World Wind program copyright 2010

Lake Bogoria from the space. Credit: NASA’s World Wind program copyright 2010

Lake Bogoria’s beauty is already evident at first sight! After climbing one of the several red hills you need to negotiate to get there through the Emsos gate a misty dark green body of water framed by pink startles you at first until you realize that the pink borders are tens of thousands oflesser flamingoes (Phoenicoparrus minor) with a smaller number of greater ones (Phoenicopterus roseus).

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The first view of Lake Bogoria.

While greater flamingoes feed on invertebrates, mollusks and tiny fish, l and insect lesser flamingoes feed primarily on Spirulina algae which grow only in very alkaline lakes. Although blue-green in colour, the algae contain the photosynthetic pigments that give the birds their pink colour. Their deep bill is specialized for filtering tiny food items.

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A view from the eastern shore.

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Moving pink islands.

These birds were part of the largest world population of flamingoes that migrated among several of the Rift Valley lakes such as Natron, Magadi, Nakuru, Elmenteita and Bogoria. For some reason, the latter is one of their preferred stopping places. At the time the flamingoes seemed to commute mainly between Bogoria and Nakuru although their breeding took place mainly on the caustic lake Natron in northern Tanzania.

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Lesser flamingoes.

A few months after my first safari and following my wife’s arrival lake Bogoria was one of the first places we visited once we got our VW kombi and some camping gear. At first we camped at the Acacia campsite on the southwest shore but soon we realized that either camping at the Loburu hotsprings on the western shore or at the Fig tree campsite in the southeast were nicer alternatives.

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Loburu hotsprings with immature lesser flamingoes in the background.

The southern end of the lake is almost separate from the remaining body of water towards the north but for a small channel in the eastern section. It is in this area that large numbers of flamingoes were often spotted. It was a photographer’s paradise and I still remember a friend’s great idea of taking pictures of the birds in full moon only to arrive at the lake when there was a full eclipse!

Although staying near the Loburu hot springs added a few extra degrees l to an already high temperature, the various steam jets and hot water rivulets around camp contributed to make it an interesting and misty place. Although walking among the hot springs was hazardous, it was quite an experience and its water greatly facilitated the needed camping dish washing!

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Hotsprings and flamingoes.

The springs are quite powerful and they create short streams that feed the lake and some had formed cones while others gave raise to small pools, some over two metres deep and very hot as the temperature of the springs varies between 39 and 98.5 °C . Unfortunately, instances of severe burning of campers falling in had occurred by the time we got there!

Our favourite camping ground was the Fig tree camp, a very shady area under a patch of magnificent fig trees that provided the necessary thick shade. The camp was traversed by a clear stream coming down from the Siracho escarpment just above the area. We sometimes drank from it in cases of need as a good friend assured us that it was clean water. It did taste great but a few years later we were in for a surprise: we discovered that higher up in the hills it went through a local village!

We spent many cool nights under the trees but there was one exception that, apart from cool it was “entertaining”. Unknown to us the rather large resident baboon troop had decided to spend the night up the fig trees above us! This had probably happened during earlier stays and it had gone unnoticed. The night in question, at about midnight, all hell broke loose as something seriously scared the baboons, possibly a leopard although we never saw it. We only suffered the consequences.

It seemed that the entire troop was above us! Their fright caused a number of them to violently empty their bowels and bladders. I leave the results of this barrage to your imagination! I will only tell you that the aftermath was a smelly night and lots of washing of our camp, including the car windscreen the following morning! There must have been lots of baboons! After that experience we learnt to sacrifice some shade to avoid a repeat of this situation!

During the earlier visits to lake Bogoria it was still possible to drive all around the lake and we did this a couple of times before the road collapsed. The most memorable of these round the lake tours took place with our friends from Uruguay Nazar and Aurora when we drove north from the Fig tree camp and we could slide the kombi door open to really enjoy the view. The drive was special as it offered great views of greater kudus that used to dwell on the eastern area of the lake where they could browse to their liking.

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Going round the lake would also enable you to see many of the more hidden hot springs as well as the some of the special features such as the Kesubo Swamp to the north. However, the geysers and hot springs along the bank of the lake were, apart from the flamingoes, the most interesting features.

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Kesubo Swamp to the north of the lake.

Unfortunately in recent years the population in the two key east African lakes, Nakuru and Bogoria, have been adversely affected by suspected heavy metal poisoning, while its primary African breeding area in Lake Natron is currently under threat by a proposed soda ash plant. So, despite still being the most numerous species of flamingo, lesser flamingoes are classified as near threatened due to its declining population and the low number of breeding sites, some of which are threatened by human activities.

 

 

 

 

 

Desperate ingenuity

Have you ever lived in a country with no embassy from your own? And if the whole continent has only three and the nearest is four thousand km away? Then, to ask you if you ever lost your passports in such a situation would probably be too much!

Well, this is what happened to us in Kenya so forgive me from what I needed to do to get out of that rather tight spot!

It was the end of 1983. My FAO fellowship was ending and we were getting ready to travel home to Uruguay -via Rome- after spending the last two years in Kenya as I have described in earlier posts.

We normally kept our passports at a safe place but we needed them to buy our tickets. It was during the second visit to collect our tickets that the worse thing that could have happened did happen: we lost them! It was only at that time that the location of the Uruguayan diplomatic representations became important to us! A couple of phone calls later (no internet then!) the news sunk in:

Johannesburg was the closest hope!

Luckily we had passport copies and our Uruguayan ID cards stored at home and we also had our Kenyan ID cards. While we could stay in Kenya (for a while at least), we could not do this indefinitely and absolutely not to travel on the 9 January 1984 as we had planned!

Although we immediately reported the loss to the Kenya Police, the passports had vanished and it looked like our journey had also gone down the drain as well! Before giving up hope completely, we decided to contact the Embassy of Uruguay in Johannesburg. We thought that in view of our “special” situation and the fact that we still have our original ID documents, a solution could be found.

After a frustrating phone call where I was repeatedly told that they would have had no problem issuing new passports but that we were required to be present in person in the embassy I gave up as they could or would not wish to understand that we were not able to travel from Kenya to South Africa without our passports!

My second hope -FAO- did not last long either as the Representative in Kenya -although very accommodating- could not help either. However, a couple of days later he told me that he could get FAO in Rome to arrange for our “special” entry to Italy [1]. That was some good news, albeit small.

Now we “only” needed to leave Kenya!

I can assure you that desperate situations enhances your imagination to find a solution. No, we did not walk at night all the way to Johannesburg to get our passports. Instead we decided that the most practical option was to tackle the Kenya Immigration authorities for a way out.

I booked an appointment and, not to go empty-handed, I decided to “prepare” a letter from the Uruguay Consulate in Rome as supporting documentation. I hoped that it would be not only a useful -and hopefully convincing- document but also a paper where stamps could be placed!

So, armed with our passports’ copies, Kenya IDs and the fake letter we ventured in the unknown recesses of the Kenya Immigration Department…

After going through a few offices as can be seen in the picture below, somehow we managed to get the needed clearance to leave the country! Very happy with the achievement but trying to be 100% safe, we found out the name of the officer that was to be at the airport at the time of our departure and we went to the airport to meet him and explain our predicament in person.

Clearly, the fact that we had the authorizations on the letter and also that we were leaving the country helped a lot and he kindly reassured us of our certain departure during his shift.

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The original authorization on top (19/12/83) by the boss of the office that instructs his junior to endorse the English translation instructing the responsible for shift 1/C to allow us to leave. We then went to meet the latter on 29/12/83 to get his agreement in person and finally departed on 9/1/84.

Luckily on the departure date Kenya Airways was on time and we managed to depart. The rest is history as we entered Italy, renewed our passports and continued our journey home to Uruguay, returning to Kenya a while later, now as a scientist with the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology.

 

[1] I never found out the conditions of our entry but we were probably refugees!!!

 

Simba’s Bush Baptism

By 1985 we had saved enough money to be able to buy a new vehicle. At the time in Kenya –and in Africa in general- the only car to buy was a “Simba” (lion in kiSwahili) for its lion logo: a Peugeot 504.

Simba's twin brother:sister? Mendizabal Tsavo copy

Our 504 arrived later. It was a great car. Here we are at Tsavo West National Park with friends. Photo by Bushsnob

We agreed with our friend Paul that we both will order similar cars to get a discount that we did not in the end! For some reason his arrived first and it was a very excited Paul that turned up that Friday afternoon in his Simba with exactly 34 km on the clock to invite us to a safari to the Sasumua dam for the following day. This dam, located on the Sasumua stream, supplied water to Nairobi and it had been stocked with rainbow trout during the colonial times. Some very large trout were still being caught, although rarely  at the time. However, Paul did not lose hope of landing one of them [1].

The dam was located in the South Kinangop highlands where the scarcity of oxygen and the almost constant drizzle seemed to combine to lower the ambient temperature to almost unacceptable levels for us. It was, however, ideal weather for people of Northern Europe and Paul, being British did not mind it! My wife and I were not very keen on trout fishing but Paul explained that the idea was to test the new car going the “back way”. He did not specify the details but mentioned that we would stay in a Government of Kenya forestry lodge, close to the dam. Aware by now of his “innovative” ideas, we readily agreed.

We already had some experience at the dam with Paul and his Avon rubber dinghy. We had gone there earlier in search of trout and also to test a new anchor that Paul had brought from the UK. The anchor, he said, was specially designed to take a great grip at the bottom. Although we did not fish anything, we confirmed that the anchor was indeed very effective. Somehow the thinner “release” rope broke and eventually we needed to cut the anchor rope in order to be able to return home from our firm anchorage in the centre of the dam! But let me go back to the present story…

We left early the next morning, ready for the back road trip, the cold weather and the fishing. The back road was, I believe the Thika Gatura road, probably quite rough even today. To make matters worse we realised that there has been quite heavy rain in the area the night before. However, we decided to go on. From the junction to Karangi the road became quite narrow and soon it was just a narrow path. However, this was the right road, according to the map (and our wishful thinking!).

After a few kilometres driving through a slippery but still passable track we met a mud hole of about fifty metres in diametre where clearly a herd of elephants had wallowed probably the night before and their tracks entering and leaving the mud pool and going into the forest could clearly be seen. We stop to evaluate the obstacle and to take a critical decision. Careful scouting revealed that there was no elephant threat but also no way round it.

I am not sure why but we (Paul and myself) agreed that we could cross it. My wife, as usually outnumbered, was resigned to her fate! We agreed that all we needed to do was to reverse for a good distance and enter the mud hole fast enough so that our inertia would carry us to the opposite side. We were almost sure that the car would grip sufficiently dry ground to enable us to go through.

We reversed for about 150 metres and came rather fast –maybe too fast- so that we went a bit deeper than wished on first contact with the mud but, luckily, the car nose lifted above the mud and the car continued its movement towards the other shore. I believe that there was an element of buoyancy in this manoeuvre that Peugeot was not aware of… Whatever the reason, we crossed, just, and we were able to move on. “Oh, Oh” said Paul, “the speedometer stopped working!” Although this was bad news for a new car, it was not surprising after what we had gone through and, as it was of no relevance for our present situation, it was largely ignored after a couple of brief polite comments.

Encouraged by our success we moved on as going back was no longer an option! We continued our advance on the muddy track that was now cutting through thick forest. After a few kilometres we came to a bend and a junction and deep truck ruts appeared. Despite Paul being a good driver, soon the car’s belly was resting on the road and our back wheels could not turn anymore. To make matters more entertaining, it started to drizzle!

I hate getting my head wet and I could not find my hat! So getting wet we inspected the situation. It was bad! Jacking it up was not an option as 504s did not have good jacks and the latter, instead of lifting the car, would have become buried in the mud.The only possible solution would be to push the car back, and then again gather speed while my wife and pushed it forward hoping that it would gather enough speed to go through the muddy spot. But first we needed to unstuck the car and push it backwards! That took some doing as we had no shovel, but eventually it moved to the relief of our “wet selves”!

Paul -after all he was the owner of the creature- decided to go for it and my wife and I positioned ourselves in a place we calculated some extra push would be needed. Paul came fast and we joined our energies to the car’s to no avail. After a short meeting we concluded that the only chance was for my wife to drive and Paul and I to push. This had a small drawback: she had not driven very often and -in addition- she was not familiar with this particular vehicle. As there was no time for her to learn more and we were properly stuck, we had no choice. We explained the expected move to my wife and positioning the car for her, we placed ourselves to wait for our turn to push the moment she passed by.

Before I go on, I have some relevant additional information. I have always had a weight problem and only a few years ago I managed to get on top of it. However, at the time of this safari I was trying to lose weight through the Scarsdale diet. After five days I had lost a couple of kilogrammes but I was feeling a bit weak. That Saturday was day six and the menu recommended the consumption of as much fruit salad as you wished with coffee/Tea/diet Soda/water. Only dinner -if we were ever to have it- would bring some “real” food in the shape of roast turkey or chicken!

Kindly -and luckily- my wife had prepared a very large bowl of fruit salad and I tacked into it trying to increase my sugar level for the push. While I added energy to my weakened body, Paul explained my wife again what she needed to do. When the instructions and my refuelling were complete we were ready to go.

My wife, following the instructions, started the car and soon engaged second gear coming flat out towards us, clearly barely controlling the car and with a scary look on her face! Luckily, with the wheels well into the furrows there was little to deviate from! When the car started to slow down both Paul and myself pushed as hard as we could and, to our relief, it came unstuck! We had a brief instant of joy before we realized that the car did not stop and continued on its way, leaving us behind! We jumped and gesticulated wildly for my wife to stop until, finally, it stopped when it got lodged in a nearby bush. My wife got out visibly shaken and upset so we refrained from any comments. I collapsed in a mixture of exhaustion and mirth.

After a while, Paul -visibly pleased that we were unstuck- inspected his no longer new car for any additional damage while my wife and I sat nearby. She was trying to recover from her nerve-wrecking experience and I was tacking into the fruit salad bowl in search of sustenance! Eventually Paul announced that the car was fine and that we should move on as we were now after lunch and -according to his “GPS-less” calculations we still had a long way in front of us.

We moved on but things were still not looking good as we entered a forest concession and there were more ruts and mud ahead. As expected, after a few kilometres of what I would define as “heroic driving” by Paul, the car’s belly started touching the road and eventually it accumulated lots of mud underneath until it became hopelessly stuck, sitting on its belly! This time no amount of fruit salad consumption would have helped, as the situation was really hopeless. We were on a tight spot and the rain continued to soften the red mud!

While busy discussing our rather desperate situation, my wife interrupted us and told us to be quiet. “I can hear an engine”, she said. I could not but -as usual- she was correct and after a while we could all hear it. It was a slow revs engine and a long way away. However an engine meant a possible pull and -while waiting for it- we decided to open a Tusker beer to celebrate our luck and wait for the help coming.

The old red tractor arrived slowly pulling a trailer loaded with logs and puffing blue smoke. We did not need to say anything to his elderly driver. We were blocking his way anyway! Quietly, he unhooked the trailer and manoeuvred the tractor in front of the car. He then tied a wire to its underside from the three-point linkage and started to pull gently until the car moved. While Paul sat in the car my wife and I jumped on the tractor. The pull lasted for about ten kilometres until we reached a point where the forest estate ended and with it the groovy road. The old man untied us and assured that we should be fine from there to Sasumua. He turned back while we could not thank him enough!

We set off gingerly and managed to cover quite a distance through a now more populated area. The rain had been heavier heree so this time we just got stuck in mud. I had finished my fruit salad and did not have any strength left so I went for some solid food knowing that my Scarsdale gain –or rather loss- was going down the drain. Luckily this time there was people nearby and we managed to walk ,still under the rain, to a small village where we explained our predicament.

As usual they listened attentively and respectfully and eventually informed us that they had charged Safari rally drivers KShs 1000 to get them out and that this was their fee. We tried to explain that we were not rally drivers but fishermen but we only managed a small discount! We did manage to agree that payment would be the moment we were clear of the obstacle. The push was a formality as all able men from the small village came and we were out and also out of pocket at the same time.

By looking back at the mud hole I could not help feeling that we were probably the victims of a mud hole “improved” by the villagers by making it deeper and wider to make an additional income from Safari rally “victims”. I had seen this earlier in Maasailand and I could expect the same or better from the Kikuyu ingenuity to make some extra cash.

We eventually got to the high, cold and wet dam at night. We were very cold and soaked wet but we managed to find the forest huts and, luckily there was dry firewood. Soon we had a roaring fire going and we soon warmed up, ate well and had a good early night sleep.

Fishing the next day was the usually futile affair but somehow made enjoyable by having survived the earlier day’s ordeal. Luckily the return road was good tarmac and asphalt and only then Simba could demonstrate why it was so famous in Africa at the time!

On the positive note for Paul, the speedometer was not working so the car kept being new for quite some time!

 

[1] He eventually land one that was actually close to the Kenya record!

 

 

First blood

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

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

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We knew that a large pride lived in the area.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A better photo once we stopped.

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A better take once we stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Lion skull

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Young Borana cattle at Intona undergoing tick resistance testing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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”

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.

Aberdares mel augurd buzzard-001

A melanistic Augurd buzzard in the Aberdares.

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

Aberdares mel serval-001

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!

nnp serval-001

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.

aberdares jc copy

Later we saw the warning signs.

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