Safari

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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m mara leop 1

The pictures are poor but I believe worth it.

Killer banana

The incident I will narrate took place during our last year’s trip to the Mabuasehube area of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in Botswana. As the observation was being published, I delayed its writing until this took place on 8 July 2018 [1]. For easy access I have also inserted the published document (Hornbill predation) as a PDF file under Pages in this blog.

Let me start by saying that if you find the Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills likeable, you may need to review your stand after you read this piece.

While at Camp No. 2 at Monamodi Pan in October 2017 we were startled by the dryness of the place. Birds from the surrounding area will immediately come to drink in any water that we had around the camp. Common visitors were Southern Grey-headed Sparrows (Passer diffusus) but Cape Sparrows (Passer melanurus), Violet-eared Waxbills (Uraeginthus granatinus) and Sociable Weavers (Philetairus socius) were present in large numbers.

Pic 1

There was a constant stream of birds drinking at the waterholes.

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Birds looking for food and water around our camp.

In addition, a few Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills (Tockus leucomelas) were residents at the camp and were regularly seen on the ground.

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Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills scavenging around the camp.

At mid-morning during the second day of our stay some of the small birds suddenly flew off where they were foraging in a response usually observed when there detect danger such as an attack by a predator.

They all flew away but one! A Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill had caught one of the adult Southern Grey-headed Sparrow and it was in the process of killing it by violently shaking it and thrashing it against the ground. We were startled as we did not expect this to happen.

Pic 3F

Picture by Frank Rijnders.

Pic 4

The sparrow died fast and the hornbill started removing its feathers and then it took its victim up a nearby tree where it continued defeathering it by vigorously hitting and rubbing the sparrow against the tree. Interestingly, there was no panic reaction or mobbing of the predator by the small birds that returned to the water only after a few minutes.

Pic 5

Pic 6F

Picture by Frank Rijnders.

After about 30 minutes the hornbill decided that the victim was naked enough for it to be swallowed!

Pic 7F

Picture by Frank Rijnders.

Pic 8

Although it was known that the Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill’s diet included “a wide range of invertebrates and small vertebrates” such as nestlings of Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea) the list does not mention predation on adult birds [2].

It is possible that the observed behaviour was incidental. However it seems realistic to expect that the hornbill was prepared to take advantage of the chaos created when large numbers of birds gather at waterholes or are distracted when foraging together to catch their prey unaware.

So, like with the observed carnivory in hippos [3] the present observation may not be nice but, again, it goes to show how nature works.

 

[1] https://journals.uct.ac.za/index.php/BO/article/view/500

[2] Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG 2005. Roberts – Birds of Southern Africa. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund.

[3] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/hippos-from-hell-the-videos/

 

My thanks go to Biodiversity Observations for publishing this observation.

Forever in doubt!

This event took place in August 2008, when I was not aware of the existence of blogs and even less that I would be writing one! It took place at our farm in Salta.

It all started with the death of a steer at a neighbour’s farm on the 17th of that month. The animal’s hide was removed on the 18th and left to rot. Over the next couple of days a number of Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus), Southern Crested Caracaras (Caracara plancus) and Chimango Caracaras (Milvago chimango) were seen feeding on it during the day. On the 20th we saw a fox and a tawny wild cat on the road, near the carcass but we were not able to identify them. As things were getting interesting and as we were used to waiting for hours for predators and scavengers at carcasses in Africa, we made a point of returning that night to see what could spot.

At about 21:30hs my wife and I drove to the area and pointed the car headlights towards the carcass, as unfortunately we did not have a spotlight. While I was maneuvering to get the best illumination of the dead animal, my wife -already known for her keen eyesight- said almost shouting with excitement “There is a large cat feeding!” I stopped the car and brusquely moved towards her seat to get a better angle.

What I saw left me amazed. At about 30 metres from us a large cat was crouching on the other side of the carcass, apparently feeding on it. It looked at us three times and bounded off towards the bushes. As we could not follow it with our lights, we could not see if it was spotted or not. What we both agree is that it was a large cat (at least the size of a large leopard) with a rather sizeable and rounded head that we saw clearly as it stared at us. That was it! Although we both knew that seeing a jaguar (Panthera onca) in this area was extremely unlikely, we were both convinced that this was what we saw.

Embed from Getty Images

We knew that the chances of seeing it again that night were not high and, after a while, we returned to the farm, about 1.5 km away. We were so excited that we invited relatives staying with us at the time and our children to come back to the spot with us but failed to see it again!

The following morning we checked the area around the carcass for footprints but the soil was too hard and we failed to find any around the carcass or in the area we saw it moving towards, where there was a small stream.

When I spoke to our neighbor about this, I had the feeling that he thought I was joking but finally the concept sank in and he considered it as an impossible occurrence. After searching on the Internet I came across a publication that dealt with the distribution of the Jaguar[1] and decided to contact the author.

Below I translate our exchange.

4/12/2008

Dear Mr. Perovic,

Maybe this message surprises you but I have a farm in El Gallinato, Salta and wished to consult you about the possibility of having seen a Jaguar in this area. The coordinates of the place are: 24°40′ 23.10″S and 65°21′ 35.99″W.

In this place in August of this year a cow died and, aware that in Africa carnivores are spotted many times feeding on dead animals at night, we went with my wife to see what was feeding on it and we were surprised to see a large cat with rounded ears and green eyes that looked at us a couple of times, ate a bit and left. Regrettably we only had the car lights and a small torch that did not help us much to see the body. It looked rather dark but we do not know if melanistic specimens are present here or not. Around this area we have already seen wild cats and a puma but we do not publicize this to avoid hunters finding out and finishing off the few that may be around. Of course we returned to the carcass the following night but we only saw dogs feeding.

As I found your work on the distribution of the jaguar in the Argentinian North West, I thought that you would be interested in this information. I would also like to know if what we saw could have been a Jaguar or if it is that we are too old and having visions!!! Maybe some day when we are in Salta we could meet.

Kind regards.

His answer came the following day:

Dear Julio,

Many thanks for your message. Regarding your query, regrettably, I must tell you that is unlikely that it was a jaguar, I do not say impossible as one should never loose hope that their distribution will increase again to its original area which included the El Gallinato. But I do not think that nowadays it could have been a jaguar.

Regarding the article you mention, (although old) you would note that sites close to El Gallinato are mentioned (the mountain road towards Jujuy). These are data on footprints and some other signs, but regrettably 8 or 9 years have passed during which we cannot find new evidence.

I reside in Vaqueros and travel frequently to Jujuy (I am from there) in the mountain road. At the moment I work with jaguar and other cats (that are just as important as the one you saw) in several places, but mainly in the Yungas and Andes highlands.

If you wish when you pass through Salta, you could write and we could talk about this, about things that need to be taken into account about the predatory attitude of the different species, and I could also give you some useful material.

I thank you for your interest and initiative.

Many thanks and I remain at your disposal for any doubts you may have.

Greetings.

Pablo

Although we had a couple of additional e-mail exchanges, I have not yet met Pablo. I was in Rome at the time of the exchanges and in the past and present our visits to the farm were (and are) always short for time as there is always other more urgent and or important things to do!

Thinking back, perhaps the situation called for the probably first and last use of my “yaguareté” (jaguar) caller that I had acquired earlier in the Beni of Bolivia with the absolute guarantee (from the seller!) that it would attract jaguars! Luckily, the contraption remained forgotten in a corner of our farmhouse!

Incredibly ten years have passed since the sighting and, although I take in what Pablo said, writing this post brought back the memories of the large cat we saw that night whose identity will probably always remain unexplained for us!

 

[1] Perovic, P.G. and Herrán, M. Distribución del Jaguar en las Provincias de Jujuy y Salta. Noroeste de Argentina. (http://www.jaguares.com.ar/datos-personales/distribucion/distribucion-noroeste.html)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Kombi falls

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

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

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

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

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

Tsavo W stuck with paul rossiter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

Buying a car

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

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

n kinangop safari rally kombi

Our kombi during the rains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mabel on l rover...

My wife looking for footprints.

Land Rover Kakamega forest

Being cautious at a Kakamega forest bridge.

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

turkana safari

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

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

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

Land Rover M Mara with Mc on top

The great experience of riding on the roof!

jj y mc en amboseli 8.45.15 PM

Young wife and Bushsnob posing on the Land Rover!

 

 

 

Camping in Africa. Kenya (Spotted cat)

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

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

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

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

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

Leopard M mara tree copy

Relaxing…

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

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

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

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

Leopard M mara sitting cropped copy

Surprised in the open.

Super moms

This post has been adapted from the Spanish original that appeared in the magazine Muy Interesante. I am grateful to the magazine for publishing the article and those readers interested in it can find it @ http://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/fotos/vida-y-curiosidades-de-los-guepardos

After writing “A chase”[1]. late last year, I did research on cheetahs and found some useful information that I used to prepare “Super moms” and later I realized that I had forgotten that I had written “A chase” earlier! So now, I think that the present post follows it nicely as it offers what I hope is interesting facts on the cheetah, one of the most beautiful animals on this earth.

The vast majority of cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) live in Southern and Eastern Africa and also in some parts of Iran.

MAP OF CHEETAH DISTRIBUTION

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Areas with high (red), medium (brown) and low (pale brown) population density. In pink is its original range. Map credit: Attribution: By Al Pereira puis traduit par Deliryc64 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

It is one of the great cats although it has unique characteristics that place it in its own genus describing that its claws are semi-retractile unlike other felids that can retract them totally. While the latter use their claws to climb trees and tear flesh, cheetahs’ have a grip function to favour their acceleration, similar to the sprinters’ shoes.

foto-1Young cheetah in the Nairobi National Park, Kenya.

Although its taxonomic location is being reviewed at the moment, its closest relatives are the puma (Puma concolor) and the jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi). These three species together form the Puma lineage, one of eight that make up the Felidae family.

Since its discovery in 1775 by von Schreber the population of cheetahs has declined dramatically to the present situation. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that there are 6,700 adult and young animals distributed in 29 sub-populations and it is classified as a vulnerable species.

The cheetah needs large tracts of land and is currently heavily threatened by the loss of habitat due to the advance of the agricultural and industrial frontier. In addition, unlike the leopard (Panthera pardus) that can adapt to live close to people, the cheetah, a timid animal, is unable to do so.

 

Its relative docility and tolerance to humans has contributed significantly to its decline. Apart from being hunted as trophies, since the time of ancient Egypt, four thousand years ago, they were captured and kept as pets. This custom is still maintained today as they are displayed as status symbols and used for hunting in several countries. The consequence of this is that these animals have disappeared from much of their habitat.

In addition, these animals are very vulnerable in the wild because of the way they obtain their food. Cheetahs use their great speed to hunt but to be effective they need open spaces and excellent visibility since a false step can mean an injury that may condemn them to hunger since they are too timid to steal prey from other animals.

Female hunting springboks in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

The hunting of their prey, medium-sized gazelles, begins with their stalking until they reach a distance of between one and three hundred meters. From that moment a real “life race” between hunter and prey starts. After three leaps the cheetah is already about 45kph and during the chase it can reach over 110kph in short stretches. This makes it the fastest mammal on earth as we all learn at school but also one that enjoys an exquisite elegance of movement.

foto-3

Resting after hunting and strangling a Thomson gazelle in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. See the teeth marks on the gazelle’s neck.

When it reaches the prey it makes it makes it trips it and, after it falls down it chokes it and kills it quite fast. The cheetah, usually exhausted after the chase needs to catch its breath and it only starts feeding after a while that can be as short as five or as long as fifty minutes. At that time it is common for other larger predators to steal its prey. Knowing that this can occur at any time, the cheetah eats fast and much, starting with the muscular hindquarters and it is able to eat up to 10kg of meat from a sitting.

foto-4

Eating a Thomson’s Gazelle.

The “public” life of the cheetah not only exposes them to losing their prey because of the interference of irresponsible tourists that, eager to obtain a better picture, interfere with their hunt but they can also lose one to two quarries every ten to stronger predators and, in some places, losses can reach up to fifty percent.

Cheetahs breed throughout the year and females ovulate when they have sexual contact with the male. For this reason their pups may be from different fathers boosting genetic diversity, an important factor in shrinking animal populations.

They gestate for almost three months and between three and five cubs are born, although in rare cases up to eight offspring have been observed. It is easy to imagine that for an animal that relies on speed to eat, being pregnant adds another complication to its life.

Cheetahs, especially females with cubs need to hunt almost daily and they are constantly monitoring their surroundings from a vantage point that can be a termite hill, a tree[2] and even a car!

This behavior not only allows them to detect possible prey but also prevent attacks on their offspring by lions, leopards and hyenas that would not hesitate to kill them. Failure to hunt either due to natural shortages or human interference may also mean that the cubs would starve.

foto-5-copy

Four cheetah cubs with prey. National Park of Nairobi, Kenya.

Fortunately for the species, there are females that manage to breed the vast majority of their cubs and these are known as “super mothers.” Some even raise the cubs of other females! These super moms are not only successful hunters who manage to kill prey on a daily basis but that also know how to protect their offspring from predators.

One of these females called “Eleanor” is well known in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania for having raised 10% of all the cheetahs that today live in the South of that huge park. This finding is one of the important achievements of the Serengeti Cheetah Project, led by researcher Sarah Durant[3].

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2017/02/02/a-chase/

[2] For a rather extreme example see: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/tree-cheetahs-2/

[3] For interesting information on the subject see: http://www.tanzaniacarnivores.org/

Camping in Kenya. Mara River fishing

Although I do not like eating fish, I am what the British fishing community know as a “coarse fisherman” and I have been engaged on this activity all my life, although I do not fish much these days. At the time we were in Kenya I was already returning the fish, unless someone would be interested in eating them. Tobias, Paul’s camp hand, was such a guy and if he was around there was no way that a fish would escape his attentions and invariably it would end up in the sufuria[1]!

Tobias was from the Luo ethnic group that dwells around lake Victoria both in Kenya and Uganda and, naturally, they eat fish in contrast to the Kikuyu and Maasai that very rarely, if ever, consume them. The rare event of a Maasai herdsman fishing with me was described a while ago in this blog[2] although whether he would have eaten the fish or not will never be known!

As only driving with your eyes closed would stop you from seeing animals while traveling through the Maasai Mara area, sometimes, for a change, we decided to just chill out around camp and on occasions, try our hand at fishing in the shadowy Mara River. We were able to do this as, by virtue of being outside the reserve, we enjoyed freedom of movement within the limits of common sense and/or lessons learnt!

In the area we regularly camped there were a couple of nice grassy spots from where we believed that fishing could be attempted. The problem was that we knew that crocodiles were plentiful in the River and there was no doubt that they were lurking anywhere under the muddy waters. We had already seen them in action snatching wildebeest during their river crossings. Clearly in this setting, fishing would be a hazardous sport.

After careful consideration we chose a nice opening in the riverine forest that not only offered a good view of the river but also towards our back, an important consideration in the Maasai Mara as dangerous animals were also around us inland! As there were no trees nearby we could handle our fishing gear without major mishaps. I have the innate ability to get carried away with the fishing and end up “hooking” a few trees! Although there were lots of hippos cruising up and downriver, we did not consider them a major problem.

m-mara-hippo-pools

A view of a Mara River hippo pool to show the colour of the water.

mara-river-after-the-wbeest-crossing

The aftermath of a wildebeest river crossing.

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The Mara River bridge on the way to the Transmara. A lorry and us wait for a herd of Maasai cattle to cross.

So, one of the trips to the Transmara coincided with Paul doing some work with wildebeest on malignant catarrh, a viral disease that affected cattle, and we decided to try fishing. I brought fishing gear and cow liver so we were ready to try our luck. Our intended target was the common and ubiquitous African catfish (Clarias gariepinus). Immediately a worldwide event was born as we represented three Continents: Europe (Britain), represented by Paul, Africa (Kenya, Luoland), represented by Tobias while I was the America representative from Uruguay. Similar to the spear throwing competition earlier[3], it was an intercontinental fishing tournament!

The river was at its normal and flowing gently so that was favourable. What was not were the abundance of submerged trees and branches that poised great difficulties to a normal line recovery. The consequence was severe loss of equipment and we were soon running out of hooks and our lines were getting shorter! In addition, I spent lots of time disentangling my line from the trees that seemed to jump towards me every time I would try to get my bait in the water!

m-mara-air

The Mara River from the DC3 when it did regular flights between Nairobi and the Maasai Mara.

A fish bite was invariably followed by frantic efforts to recover the line in an attempt to get it out while avoiding it getting entangled in the various branches and water plants. However, if you were lucky or perhaps unlucky? and hooked a large fish, the task would become much more difficult as the fish would try to escape by getting inside the branches. In addition, there was the “crocodile problem” as the reptilians would be alerted by the fish splashes and immediately come to “investigate” and get our fish so fast recovery was a must to avoid losing our trophies as those lost “en route” to anything such as snags or crocs would not count.

Paul did quite well and caught more than me. However, Tobias was the star and clear winner. He probably knew things we did not, through years of fishing “for the pot” during his early years near lake Victoria. His technique was simple, almost too simple. He chose to use a hand line and threw it very close to the shore. In this way, he avoided a lot of the snagging and did not suffer too badly from line and hooks losses like us wazungu[4]. He will then wait a short while and pull them out, almost unfairly easily!

mmara-camping-with-catfish-and-tobias-copy

Tobias and the Bushsnob with some of the spoils.

Tobias was delighted, not so much for having won the contest but, much more importantly for him, for having the possibility of feasting on fish for a few days! Although later on we tried the catfish, Paul and I agreed that they tasted like we imagine the Mara River mud would do and, luckily for Tobias, we declined further offerings.

 

[1] Saucepan in Kiswahili.

[2] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/memories-a-fishing-trip/

[3] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/11/05/javelin-throwing-almost-olympics-games/

[4] In Kiswahili, white man. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mzungu