Safari

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!

l naiv july 82 after being stuck

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.

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Our kombi during the rains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My wife looking for footprints.

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Being cautious at a Kakamega forest bridge.

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

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

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

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

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The great experience of riding on the roof!

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Young wife and Bushsnob posing on the Land Rover!

 

 

 

Camping in Africa. Kenya (Spotted cat)

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

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

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

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

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

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Relaxing…

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

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

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

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

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Surprised in the open.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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!

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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!

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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

The wait

Entering the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) we were given instructions on how to manage the place. Technically, we should drive at a maximum speed of 50 kph and deflate our tyres to 1.5 BAR to better navigate the severe corrugations. We were also advised to wait for the animals at the waterholes rather than drive long distances over this very dry park.

In fact, despite my initial doubt, was useful because of the way the park is. On the South African side, the KTP has two basic roads: one follows the Auob[1] dry river and the other one the Nossob[2] dry river in a North to South fashion.[3] The rivers and the roads that accompany them meet at Twee Rivieren where the main camp of the park is located.

The dry riverbeds were not the expected sand rivers we see elsewhere but rather wide grassy valleys beyond which is the -inaccessible- Kalahari. Water for the animals is provided by waterholes that were sunk by the (Union of) South Africa to provide their troops with water in case South Africa wanted to use the area to invade South West Africa (Namibia). The waterholes are at roughly ten km intervals and most animals congregate around them.

Wherever you stay, you tend to drive a lot over the same stretches of roads to go and come back to camp every day so the recommendation of “sitting and waiting” at waterholes made sense. In some you have a constant parade of herbivores such as gemsbok, wildebeest and springbok as well as large number of birds such as various pigeons, sand grouse, sociable weavers and quelea. Jackals were the main predators we saw.

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At other waterholes we waited long spells for something to happen to no avail. After a while of looking at an empty place I got bored and I could not help thinking that surely the animals were at the next hole! After waiting a bit longer, this line of thought became a conviction and my unrest grew to such a point that my wife needed to coerce me to stay using her strongest argument: “I am not cooking tonight”.

After our stay in Nossob camp, on our way to Twee Rivieren, we stopped at yet another empty waterhole. As we had seen nothing in the previous two we had visited, we were looking carefully at the surrounding area as well as to the actual water hole. I was the first to see it and, surprised, said “look, a hyena coming”.

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My “hyena”…

My wife looked and, as usual but rather excitedly, she corrected me “it is a leopard” almost at the same time that I realized my error.

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dscn0009-copydscn0004-copydscn9998-copyA leopard it was! A large male, that walked passed us and, arriving at the water it crouched to drink to placate its thirst. After a few minutes it walked off, marking a few key spots as it went slowly up the bushy riverbank. We followed it and saw it on and off as it walked up the dunes until we did not see it anymore.

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The leopard withdrawal followed closely by gemsbok.

At that precise time a car arrived to join us. When they asked what we were watching and we told them that a male leopard had just moved off from the water three minutes ago, they were stunned and I did not blame them and I did not dare to show them our pictures either!

The leopard fleeting visit not only helped us to consider the KTP a great place but also further justified the waiting strategy at the waterholes. It also stressed the fact that a few minutes can make a huge difference and there is no amount of planning and organizing that can replace your good luck!

 

[1] Meaning bitter water.

[2] Meaning dark clay.

[3] The Auob last flowed in 1974 and the Nossob in 1964.

Doomed bug

In the evening, after returning from a game drive, the traditional endeavor is to have a shower, taking advantage of the excellent facilities that exist in all camps at the Kruger National Park. I, as usual the gentleman, let my wife go first while I kept busy selecting the best pictures to free some valuable memory card space in the always full camera.

That evening at Satara Rest Camp my wife praised the shower quality so, as soon as I was done with the pictures, I hastily took my turn. It was an experience I was not ready for. No amount of tap opening would produce hot water and a cold shower has never been in my agenda, not even in the hottest deserts! Swearing at the new solar power water-heating technology, I aborted the mission and put back my dirty clothes. As usual, my wife overlooked this hazard while -I am sure- suppressing yet another chuckle…

Those who had shared safaris with me would not be fussed about this kind of event taking place. “I have had a good dust shower during the game drive and, after all, animals roll themselves in the dust for a reason!” I was reasoning with myself when my wife called me for dinner. Confronted with her usually outstanding delicacies, I soon forgot about my dusty condition and, after enjoying the meal, my frustration rapidly faded and soon it was time to sleep.

Without thinking clearly, the following morning I went straight into the shower convinced that the (solar!) water heater should have recovered during the night. After a while of running cold water I remembered that the night sun only shines much further North and only at certain times of the year! Hearing my resumed loud protestations my wife intervened and informed me, rather casually, that for some reason in this shower the hot water tap was on the right hand side!

Feeling rather stupid I tried opening the other tap and hot water immediately gushed out and I had a great shower during which I voiced all my conceivable praise for solar water heaters…

The story, however, does not end there. Before leaving the bed to go into the shower, I smelled something really unpleasant in my bed. Thinking that it was probably the residual effect of my unwashed status, I did not know the truth until I returned to the bedroom to dress up, and spotted a rather large stink bug crawling out of the sheets!

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First sighting of the bug.

Although I do not know what took place during the night while I shared my sleep with the invertebrate, the latter was in poor condition and it sadly died a few minutes later! Luckily I managed to record its last living minutes so that I can show them to you.

There was no doubt in my mind that overnighting with me in my “showerless” status had taken care of it!

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Unfazed by the temporary bug relationship, the bushsnob, sporting at least a clean shirt continued with his activities.

An antisocial lion!

Bush lions are normally tolerant of vehicles, even the open tourist ones. The only aggression we have seen was related to times when mating was taking place and the male normally leaves no doubt about how close you should be! The situation can be different on foot when the utmost care is needed where these cats are concerned to avoid accidents.

While checking in at Main Camp in Hwange National Park, we were warned of the existence of a new lion: Mopani[1]. The lion, explained a sign placed at the booking desk by the “Lion Project”, came from an area devoid of tourists and it was aggressive, charging vehicles! Siduli, another male, and two females accompanied it. We were also shown a video taken from a tourist vehicle being chased by Mopani and learnt that one of the females was in heat and mating with one of the males. We thought that Mopani’s progeny was assured and planned to keep our distance from him!DSCN9991 9.04.30 PM copy

The lions had taken residence around the Main Camp area so we were delighted at our luck, as we were sure not to miss them! “Cecil may have gone but in comes Mopani!” was our thought!

Although recently arrived from a longish trip, the possibility of spotting one of our all time favourite animals made us drop our luggage at the lodge and drive off in search of lions. We found the two females at Dom pan. They were clearly different: a paler one and a darker one. The latter appeared to be the older of the two.

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After watching them for a while, a male came out of the bushes and greeted the darker one while the other moved away a short distance. Were we about to witness some mating? Not so as Mopani, who we assumed was the dominant male, only rubbed heads with the female and then moved off in the direction it came from, leaving the female pair alone until the day ended and it was time to get back to our lodge before the mandatory return time of 18:30hs.

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We did not need to plan our next day activities as finding the lions again and spending time watching them was the only option! As a friend of mine says, “we slept in a hurry” and we were up before 06.00hs. No need for alarm clocks! We drove straight to Dom pan, as we believed that they would not have gone very far from there. On our way we realized that several migratory bird species were present at Hwange at the time. These were Crowned Cranes, Abdim and Woolly-Necked Storks, African Kites and Amur Falcons to name but a few!

We had little time for bird watching as the lions had killed a young elephant at Dom pan during the night and the two lionesses were feeding on it! After this find, most of our activities during the visit centred round Dom pan where we spent a lot of our time. We watched the lionesses feeding and interacting for several hours and I present you with a number of pictures and a video, as these are better than words. We only left them to return to the lodge for lunch and a rest.

When we came back during mid-afternoon, only the paler lioness was by the carcass. A search of the surrounding area revealed two lions laying together a few hundred metres from Dom. They were the mating pair: the darker female and a male that, to our surprise carried a radio collar. As we doubted that Mopani had one, it could only be Siduli. Clearly the lion that acts most ferociously towards cars is not necessarily the dominant when it comes to affairs of the heart! It was then clear that the male we had seen the day before was Siduli and that Mopani was hidden from view somewhere! But where?

Luckily my wife was with us as, if there was someone that could spot it, it would be her. And spot it she did, to our amazement, again! The wild-looking Mopani had been lying low under some bushes, unseen by anyone (except my wife) until then. It remained unobserved by our fellow game-spotters with the exception of another lady that clearly shared my wife’s eyesight. We thought it better that it remained unseen and got used to cars if it is to remain in a tourist area so we did not reveal its whereabouts.

As Mopani was still not willing to socialize and remained sulking under a bush, we focussed on the others. Mating in lions is a long-lasting affair as the pair remains together and mating takes place often for a few days, while the female is still receptive to the male[2]. This was clearly the case, as they remained “occupied” for the rest of the time we were at Hwange. That left the other lioness guarding the elephant carcass and Mopani hidden from view! After a while it was time to move off.

We drove to the Nyamandlovu pan as our daughter is very partial to elephants. Despite the abundance of drinking water all over the area, we were extremely lucky to witness the visit of a herd of about fifty animals that, as usual, appeared suddenly as if the product of a magic tree-to-elephant metamorphosis. The result was about one hour of one of the greatest shows on earth: elephants enjoying life at a water hole! There were about five family groups, each led by a matriarch and composed of its progeny, including some really young and tiny babies that were the centre of our attention.

The elephants not only drank but also entered the water where many were seen frolicking about and playing as only elephants are able to do among wild animals! It seemed to us that the latter were at risk of drowning while entering the water with their huge siblings and that they were under even more danger while swimming among them! Somehow they managed to keep their tiny trunks above the water and their mothers were extremely protective and they were always in close contact and ready to assist them!

The three resident hippos felt very uncomfortable at this sudden disturbance and two moved to the very centre of the pan while the third moved to the shore where it put up brave stance against the elephants, only to return to join the others as it was not at all respected by the excited pachyderms! Again, a picture gallery and videos are better than my limited power of description to let you know what took place.

The elephants’ joyfulness in the water delayed our return so we only drove past Dom pan, catching a glimpse of the lions who unwittingly startled a herd of 30 odd elephants intent on drinking from the pan, who retreated in a cloud of dust as soon as they caught sight of the lionesses. We arrived late at the gate where we were told off by a rather grumpy lady game ranger! The justification for our tardiness did not go far with her, clearly used to all sorts of excuses from people arriving late to camp!

The following morning, as expected, the lion pair continued their courtship, the pale female was still guarding the carcass and about fifty vultures (white-backed, white-headed, hooded and lapped-faced) were waiting on the side-lines for her to leave it. While in waiting, the Lappet-faced vulture was seen having a snack by pulling and cutting the dry tendons and sinews from an older dry elephant carcass that other vultures also shared once it opened up the hard bits!

Mopani, the antisocial, still preferred to remain out of sight! We can only hope that he starts turning into a more car-tolerant lion by accepting their presence as part of his daily life. Who knows, maybe one day he could become Cecil’s successor.

 

[1] To name wild animals or not to name! This is the question… for which I have no clear answer!

[2] Both leopards and lions have the same mating procedure. They can mate as often as every fifteen minutes for up to five days. This is the consequence of weak sperm and mating-induced ovulation.

Moonlit Elephants

As usual, things did not go according to plan! Masuma dam -in Hwange National Park- had changed slightly. A small and shallow bay had been formed to the benefit of the thirsty animals, in particular the impala, who could now drink in relative safety as the crocodiles could not ambush them like last year.

The new drinking place made it safer for animals to drink. Philosophically, the crocodiles decided to sun themselves.

The new drinking place made it safer for animals to drink while the crocodiles wait.

This change in the architecture of the dam meant that the crocodiles (we counted six of them) were almost invariably sunning themselves on the banks of the dam in an apparent forced fast. There is no need to be concerned about them not eating, as they are able to survive long periods without food.

Hippo conversation!

Hippo discussion.

The sixteen hippos were also there. They behaved as one expects hippos to behave: most of the day time spent inside the water coming out for a “service” (sun, the occasional mud wallow and attention from oxpeckers) by lunch time and going out of the dam in the evening to graze. To achieve this they were forced to queue for sometime to squeeze between the drinking elephants! They spent most of their energy chasing each other inside the water snorting loudly and they were quite adept at showing us the end results of their digestion!

Hippos involved in "social" defecating...

Hippos involved in “social” defecation…

We arrived at Masuma at lunchtime. We spotted a few elephants drinking on the opposite side of the dam but no fresh water was being pumped in.

Elephants drinking before the pump was turned on.

The camp attendant anticipated my question telling me that lions were walking around the dam the night before and he did not dare to walk to switch on the pump! Needless to say that I obliged when he asked me for a lift to get there! While driving, keeping an eye for lions without seeing any, I learnt that a donor was providing diesel for the pump. “Once the pump is on the elephants will come” proclaimed the camp attendant after the engine started puffing. He also informed me that a full tank of diesel would operate the pump for twelve hours. “Twelve hours would take us through most of the night”, I thought while I mentally thanked the benefactor and hoped that the camp attendant was correct in his prediction.

All shyness lost when getting close to the water!

All shyness lost when getting close to the water!

Fortunately, as predicted by the camp attendant, the first elephants started to arrive within an hour of our return! Whether they smelled the fresh water or associated the pump noise with fresh water I could not say but the latter seems the most likely. The fact was that they made a beeline for the pipe producing the fresh water, ignoring the rest of the dam if possible! However, as the place got more and more crowded, the incoming families had to wait until those that had arrived earlier satiated their thirst or enter into the dam and drink less clean water.

The arrival of the first elephants took place at about 14.00 hours. By then we had already set up camp so we were ready for one of the greatest sights on earth: herds of thirsty elephants coming to drink! Your eyes get tired of gazing towards the confines of the bush that surrounds the dam and you need to stop for your eyes to rest. A few seconds later, when you resume your watch there they are as if they magically appeared in front of your eyes! They come out of the bushes in what appears to be a slow motion walk.

The miracle continues as more come into sight. Their slowness does not last long as, with raised trunks, they sniff the fresh water and their pace gets gradually faster as they approach it. It all ends with them breaking into a run to cover the last few metres, the baggy trousers that are their back legs flapping! Their run ends at the water’s edge where they drink showing their pleasure by shaking the water with their trunks and spilling it all over the place while drinking. Sometimes their run takes them into the water where they not only drink but also proceed to frolic like young humans!

Smelling us!

Smelling us!

Although we are used to seeing large herds of thirsty herbivores coming to a water source, they do so in a rather apathetic way. There is nothing like that when thirsty elephants smell water and I can assure you that their emotions show!

Once in the waterhole, their immediate thirst abated, the animals become quiet while making the best of the available water. They do vie for the best position but they do so rather discretely. Normally the larger animals occupy the best spots. These are bulls that come either singly or in small groups and join the drinking party for a while and then leave the way they came: on their own as normally they only join the female family units when there is one on heat.

At sunset, the show continued unabated.

At sunset, the show continued unabated.

Sunset with elephants dusting themselves.

After bathing it was dusting time to cool off.

Occasionally youngsters manage to squeeze in between the tusker behemoths and timidly at first but quite boldly later manage to stick their small trunks into the right spot to get a share of the fresh flowing water. Loud squealing indicates when one of them oversteps the mark and is put back in its place with a shove! Adults show each other respect and only rarely do their interactions go beyond posturing. Overt aggression rarely takes place, and on the occasions that is does, it is normally short-lived. After an initial head clash, often quite violent, one of the rivals withdraws tail up and maintains a prudent distance thereafter! We saw this happening a few times at Masuma.

It is usually a rather gently affair.

It is usually a rather gently affair.

On occasions, however, things do go badly as shown by the chunks of ivory found at waterholes. The most extreme outcome I have ever seen is the skull with a hole made by a tusk on display at the Letaba Elephant Hall in the Kruger National Park. Wapiganapo tembo nyasi huumi” in Swahili means “When elephants fight the grass gets hurt”, a very accurate proverb to describe what you see in these situations! We saw quite a serious confrontation at Kennedy 2 dam near Ngweshla but, luckily, one of the bulls gave up before things got out of hand and the dust eventually settled.

Ocasionally things get out of hand.

Ocasionally things get out of hand.

Their great strength is evident.

Their great strength is evident.

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Eventually they separated.

Eventually they separate and the “loser” moves off .

The elephant parade at Masuma continued throughout the whole afternoon and well into the evening. They paid no attention to the noisy arrival and departure at dusk of large numbers of banded grouse.

Elephants drinking at sunset.

Elephants drinking at sunset.

We stopped watching them for a while to have dinner but their noise stayed with us, as the herds were a few steps from our elevated camp. With dinner over it was time to go back to observe them again with the fading light. They were clearly wearier and their trunks rose more often to smell us and confirm our presence. Belly rumbling also became more frequent and louder. I was aware that the latter is believed to be a communication method among elephants but I did not know that the rumbling moves from animal to animal in a herd, in order to make sure that it reaches the last individual in the herd. Fascinating stuff!

A night picture of the dam with drinking elephants. I applied the Picasa "I am feeling lucky" command to get light into the picture.

A night picture of the dam with drinking elephants. I applied the Picasa “I am feeling lucky” command to get light into the picture. Even the stars can be seen better!

The original picture, above.

The original picture, above.

After a long while we were getting ready to go to bed when the moon started to illuminate the bush across the dam so we decided to wait a while longer. It was well worth it! The moon was almost full and it cast an eerie light over the moving dark grey masses. Absorbed by this rare vision we remained on the watch and for a while forgot our sleep. We stayed with them until they started to move off and only a handful of bulls remained until about 2 am. It is probable that their withdrawal matched the end of the pump’s diesel and their departure brought calm to the dam and we could enjoy a silent African night for a while until the lions started to roar in the distance!

The following morning, apart from the fresh droppings, nothing gave away what we had witnessed a few hours earlier.