Tales From The Riverbank ~ Breakfast With Hippos

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With all that is presently going on in the world, a visit to the old Africa album and the banks of the Mara River seems like a soothing thing to do – a bit of virtual safari-ing. It’s handy too because this week at Lens-Artists, Amy at has given us ‘river’ as the theme.

For six of the seven years we lived in Kenya (this was in the 1990s) we somehow managed not to go to the Maasai Mara. Then in our final year we went three times,  always staying at the small Mara River Camp below the Esoit Oloololo escarpment, guests of the Koiyaki Lemek Maasai group ranch wildlife trust. It was Godfrey Mwirigi who lured us there. We came to know him at  Elmenteita where he managed Lord Delamere’s Camp, but one morning in early May 1999 the phone rang in our Nairobi house. I mention this because the phone ringing was an unusual event; it was an instrument that rarely functioned.

It was Godfrey on the line. After the usual exchange of greetings I told him he sounded hazy. ‘I’m ringing from Mara River Camp,’ he says. Now I’m even more astonished – phoning all the way from the Maasai Mara when trying to ring up the next door neighbours was often impossible. He told me he had just started his new job as manager there and when I asked him how it was going he says, ‘Fine. Fine. I can see hippos from my office. It’s lovely here. We’ve had no rain yet and there’s plenty of game.’ It sounded like an invitation. It had to be an invitation. So two weeks later we set off to see him – Saturday morning flying by Fokker Dash on the regular domestic plane service out of Wilson Airport in Nairobi, whence, having negotiated the usual city traffic turmoil and checked in, the flight took only 40 minutes from city centre to touch-down on the plains’ landing strip. We were there almost before we were ready for it. Banking over the nearby marsh beside the landing strip I spotted elephants. Amazing!

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A safari truck was waiting beside the landing strip to pick us up, the camp driver and assistant manager, Tito there to greet us. Tito told us the Mara River Camp would be a further 40 minute drive over rough tracks, and she apologised for the state of them. We bumped along beneath the escarpment, following the ox-bow meanders of the river, its banks wooded with acacias, wild olives, crotons, cordia, and Kenya greenheart.

 

The camp itself was on a river bend, twelve large tents set under the trees. The soundscape filled with bird-chatter and the grunting of hippos, the air lemon sweet from cordia blossom. As it turned out Godfrey was astonished to see us. He flew from his office with open arms. The tour company had mixed up our names and he was expecting a Mr and Mrs Graham. He then told us that he couldn’t have come to meet us from the plane as he’d had visitors. Important ones. The Maasai elders who jointly owned the 300 square miles of ranch in which the camp stood had come to check out the new manager, to see if he came up to scratch. I asked what would happen if they didn’t like him. ‘They are very powerful,’ said Godfrey, meaning a swift transfer out. This seemed unlikely, however. I had caught sight of the departing wazee, one an imposing grizzle-headed ancient wrapped in a red blanket. The members of the little delegation were all smiling as they walked away.

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[From the Kenya diary]

After lunch under the trees – battered lake fish and vegetables, Godfrey comes to join us on the riverbank for a spot of hippo watching. In a few weeks he has made himself at home here though his actual homeland is on the faraway flanks of Mount Kenya. I remember that when he took over as manager at Elmenteita camp he had to take the safari guide’s exam and learn to identify some 600 species of birds. I ask if there will be more exams now he has a new habitat to get to grips with. He laughs and says mammals are his next assignment, though he has two years grace before he needs to go in for the silver medal exam. Below us the hippos snort and blow, sometimes submerging completely, then rearing up like whales, bottoms first, or doing their fearsome yawns which show the teeth that can bite a tough old crocodile in two, especially if it has designs on one of their babies.

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Godfrey begins to tell us about his other recent Maasai experiences, and for a moment we see that in some ways he is as much a traveller in Kenya as we are. The Maasai, he pronounces, are very interesting people with some very unusual customs. For instance the day before a group of women had come singing and dancing into the camp, and because rural Maasai rarely speak Swahili he had to ask Tito, who is Maasai, to explain what was going on. She told him they were there to collect money, because they were all childless women who needed to go to the elder for a blessing. This man had to be paid, but after the blessing had been duly delivered, the women would be free to consort with any man they chose in the hopes of conceiving a child.

Poor Godfrey was trying to get away with donating only a hundred shillings, in harambee (Kenya fund-raising) fashion, but they invaded his office waving twigs and saying it was not enough. Five thousand bob (£50) was what they needed. And it was only after a lot of persuading that he managed to convince them that he truly didn’t have it. They told him they would go off to other camps and try there. When they had gone Godfrey told Tito that if he’d known they were coming he would have gone to his tent, but she only laughed and said they would have looked for him there too.

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The view across the river: Maasai lads minding their herds below the escarpment.

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30 May

Extraordinary. I’m up and dressed by 5.30 a.m. Now is the time for hippos to return the river after a night spent browsing far and wide, and it is a foolish person who finds himself standing between a hippo and the river. They are of course intent on being submerged before the sun can overheat their sensitive skins. Round the camp the hippo slipways to the water are mostly on the far bank and I watch the huge hulks pass like ghosts through the woodland, a mother nudging her baby, before they start edging slowly, slowly, ever-so-slowly, down a deep gully and into the water. Thus does the long day of snorting and blowing and wallowing begin.

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31 May

Up again before 6 a.m. Am aware of Graham’s astonishment even though he pretends to be asleep. I go hippo spotting until it’s time for my 7.30 wilderness walk with Daniel. The sun is just lighting up the river and steam rises off its slow–moving surface. This morning the hippos are ‘late going home’, as Godfrey puts it, with only two so far immersed and two others beached along the bank apparently dawn-bathing. I see the big shapes moving through the woodland. In front is a mother with a small round calf. It is not anxious to go down the hippo-chute. She nudges its bottom with her nose, and small as it is (though clearly sure of what it does or doesn’t want) it turns round and nudges her right back. For a long time they make no progress, and then the way is blocked by a big male who takes a good fifteen minutes to negotiate the gully. But then I suppose when you’re as big as he is, any untoward gathering of speed down the bank could end up with terminal burial in the river mud.

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The walk along the riverbank with Daniel is uneventful. We look at plants, and see a little bee eater with its lime-green back, an immature augur buzzard, a yellow bishop. The sun is hot by 8.30 and I’m feeling hungry, but Daniel is determined to take the outing seriously. He’s brought some of his reference books too. ‘It’s not very often we get guests who are interested in plants,’ he says. ‘It’s easy to forget what you’ve learned without practice.’ To prove the point he picks a piece of the plant whose name I ask but he doesn’t know and slips it inside his Flowering Plants of East Africa book, for future identification. I forget about breakfast and continue to set him floral challenges.

On the way back to camp we see leopard prints on the track. ‘Oh yes,’ Daniel says. ‘They come round the camp at night.’

It’s nearly nine when we arrive back. I find Graham and Godfrey having a leisurely breakfast with the hippos, who are by now all safely ‘home’ in the river; or they are until one huge beast suddenly emerges and climbs ponderously back into the wood. This behaviour is so unusual we pick up the binoculars for a closer view and see that his hide is covered with bleeding scratches. It’s hard to imagine what might have caused them, other than a serious tangle with an acacia thicket. Godfrey says the fish are probably irritating the wounds, hence the unexpected exit.

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Graham and Godfrey

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Happy days!

 

Lens-Artists: River

A Funny Thing Happened This Morning ~ And Not Just Lockdown

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So that was two things that had never happened before: to wake up this morning to find the nation was in lockdown and then to see a red-legged partridge atop the garden shed. Well I ask you: a partridge on the old privy roof. How odd is that. Given the choice, partridge are usually ground-hugging birds, more inclined to run than fly whenever threatened. They even make their nest on the ground.  In any event, I have never seen either the birds or their nests in our vicinity before.

So it struck me as an irony that just as we humans were being ordered to isolate and stay indoors, here was this bird breaking bounds, and elevating itself in order to advertise readiness for a spot of socializing. Much scanning of the field and earnest calling then ensued.  It anyway gave me plenty of opportunity to take these photos. I do hope it finds a willing mate to make a nest with.

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After The Flood ~ The Primrose Path

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After our sunny blue-sky Monday, Tuesday was back to dank and gloom. Undaunted, though, we decided on another local jaunt, this time to the nearby River Severn and the historic settlement of Jackfield, a couple of miles downstream of Ironbridge. This old industrial enclave was once the centre of the 19th century decorative tile manufacture – two vast factories, Maw & Co and Craven Dunnill that once shipped their products down river and thence around the world to grace the walls of palaces and grand public edifices.

These days the remains of the Craven Dunnill works are given over to the Jackfield Tile Museum, part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, while the remnant buildings of Maw & Co house craft workshops and apartments and the very pleasing Tile Press Cafe which was where had lunch – halloumi toasties with lots of salad.

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Part of the former Maw & Co decorative tile factory now used for workshops and small businesses.

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February had seen some massive flooding along the Severn Gorge, and we were glad to see the river was pretty much back in its bed, though still flowing fast and furious and above usual levels. Turbid was the word that came to mind as I took this muddy shot.

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One of the worst and serial casualties of Severn flooding is the traditional old pub,  The Boat Inn.  It stands in a hollow below the footbridge to Coalport, and its front door records nearly a century of flooding. This year’s deluge was one of the worst, making third place under the 19 feet 5 inches of February 1946, and just above the 1947 flood of 19 feet 1 inch. In fact the 1940s saw 4 really bad floods, with the next worst in 1966, so this extreme excess of water is by no means a new event.

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And here’s what it looked like last month, photo courtesy of The Shropshire Star on-line:

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It’s hard to contemplate the horror of being on the receiving end of so much water. The inn sits at the lowest point of the settlement and apparently floods from behind as well as to the front. The flood inside then holds the front doors shut against the outside flood! We felt so sorry for the licensees. There was not much sign of life when we walked by. Hopefully it will be back in action soon.

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The inn sign gives a big clue as to the business of the past. This is one of the big trading barges (Severn trows) that used to ply the River Severn. Until the railway arrived, trows provided ideal means of transport for the Ironbridge Gorge ceramics industries, including porcelain from the Coalport China Works just across the river – much smoother by boat than by 19th century roads.

For some fascinating old photos and more history from Jackfield please visit From Shropshire And My Shins Are Sharp blog.

Wandering back to the car past The Boat Inn’s neighbouring cottages we didn’t see much obvious sign of flood damage there, only the clump of celandines and primroses by a cottage gatepost which seemed like a sign of hopefulness and recovery. Here they are again.

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Yesterday Was A Blue Sky Day

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It seems the hyperactive Polar Jet Stream has been responsible for the last few months excessive weather events in the northern hemisphere. This particular ‘river in the sky’ (there are others) apparently rips across the globe between the Arctic and the sub-tropical zone at the height of a trans-Atlantic plane. It can be up to 3 miles thick and between 1,000-3,000 miles long. And at this time of year it travels between 300 and 400 miles per hour. You can find out all about it at The Jet Stream.

Anyway last week the weather person promised us a break from its more obvious machinations, and said we were in for some bright, cold weather starting Monday.

And so it happened. Yesterday we woke to wall to wall blue sky, sunshine, fluffy clouds and coolly crisp air. And no rain! So to boost any signs of flagging spirits and counteract the effluent spewed daily by our mass media we set off for the wide open loveliness of Attingham Park for a big dose of fresh air and some brisk exercise.

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When we arrived there we found several hundred other people had had the same idea.  Hoards of mothers-and-toddlers, multitudes of dog owners with multiple canines, and a whole bunch of ‘at risk’ age-group folks like us. The several car parks were almost full to bursting.

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The National Trust staff, mostly volunteers, were their usual welcoming selves, and soon all the visitors were well dispersed across the parkland. In places around the deer park, where there are several gates to deal with, I noticed that everyone we met was opening them with their elbows and in like manner holding them open for others. At which point I decided it truly was impossible to get a complete grip on how one should react to this current Covid-19 drama.

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As I’m writing this I can hear the rumble of the farmer’s tractor in the field behind the house, monster arms of the spraying gear outstretched, giving the emerging crop a food boost. At the front of the house the traffic is still dashing by to Telford. Earlier I spotted Mr and Mrs vicar passing by on their daily dog walk. They stopped to chat with other walkers. The postman delivered the post.  People (some exceedingly aged since that’s a significant feature of Wenlock’s demographic) have been walking by into town to do their shopping…

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So yes. I was glad we went out yesterday. There was still quite a lot of flood water standing in the park, but the hawthorns and willows were bursting green. The daffodils were out. I found a crop of violets complete with butterfly. We saw a pair of ravens, making their cronk-cronking calls and doing a spot of aerial somersaulting. Jackdaws were cavorting; blue tits twittering, and the fallow deer looking frisky. And then of course we also saw the 650-year-old Repton Oak (see previous post). So much to be pleased about. Lots to be thankful for and wonder at.

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copyright 2020 Tish Farrell

#EarthMagic

Still Going At 650 Years Old

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Today we paid our respects to this very elderly oak tree. It has been growing in Attingham Park in Shropshire since the 1370 where it is now under the care of the National Trust and fondly known as the Repton Oak since it was already a veteran in 1797 when garden designer, Humphrey Repton landscaped the parkland for the Barons Berwick.

But just think of the span of human history it has lived through. When it popped shoot and radicle from its acorn Edward III was still on the throne, and the Hundred Years War between England and France was only half done. By the time it had grown to a sturdy sapling Geoffrey Chaucer was thinking of writing The Canterbury Tales and the peasants were in revolt against the draconian levels of taxation (raised to fight the war that did not end until 1453 and was actually the 116 years war).

The oak tree is still a great presence in the landscape though sadly its innards are decaying. But this is not all bad news since it provides an important haven for the rare Lesser Stag Beetle whose larvae feed on the rotting wood at the centre of such ancient trees.

A national treasure of a tree then: arboreal emblem of stalwart resilience. We must remember to pay another visit when it’s in leaf.

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#EarthMagic

Organized Chaos In Rookery Wood

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As with cloud-watching over Wenlock Edge, so with keeping an eye on things at the rookery behind the house. It’s endlessly fascinating: a visual meditation if you like. One thing that happens after the rooks return each twilight after the day’s foraging in the fields, is that there’s a general settling in the treetops. The roost is also shared with a large number of jackdaws. For a time after the general homecoming all seems peaceful, just some low-level muttering between fellows.

And then for no obvious reason (at least not to me) there’s a mass explosion from the wood, followed by a great whirling and swirling, which then may, as spring approaches, evolve into a full-on balletic extravaganza.

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Cohorts of rooks and jackdaws divide and swoop, re-gather, execute a Mexican wave, divide and swoop on and on. The show may last for several minutes. If you happen to be walking over the field when it happens, as I was last night returning from the allotment, it can be almost elevating; the sense of avian energy lifting your heels from the earth. Wheeee-eeeesh!  Let me join in.

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But then, just as suddenly, it all stops. The birds alight in the wood, and all is quietness again. Perhaps it never happened.

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A small helping of earth magic for challenging times.

 

Lens-Artists: Chaos

Daffodils!

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Today I’m thinking we need to find joy in the small things around us. So here are some of my garden daffodils, still spritely despite onslaughts of wind and downpours.

It’s all too easy to be laid low by the news headlines. The mass media is having an field-day of fear-mongering and finger-pointing. They should be ashamed of themselves. Fear disempowers. It is highly contagious. It makes situations many times worse than need be. Vigilance and common sense are our best protection AND sources of straight forward information. The World Health Organization provides daily worldwide updates along with full details of Coronavirus as they are learned.

Spirits up, everyone!

Reflections From The Edge

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Twilight over Wenlock Edge and in my office roof-light; captured by opening the window to the horizontal and placing my little digital camera on the back of the frame. Click and there you have it – the Edge between two sky-worlds; cat’s-eye watchers looking on?

 

Lens-Artists: Reflections Thanks to Miriam at The Showers of Blessings for this week’s theme.

 

Windmill Hill From Many Angles

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‘A good photograph is knowing where to stand ‘   Ansel Adams

This week Patti at Lens-Artists wants us to think about changing our perspective as we compose our shots. She prefaces her post with this very helpful quote from the great Ansel Adams. It’s certainly a tip worth chalking up in VERY BIG letters on the memory blackboard.

Of course there can be other options –  lying down for instance, which is what I was doing to take the header photo. Then there’s the matter of choosing the time of day, which will then affect where you stand (or lie). Different seasons may well provide new angles. And also the setting of your chosen subject. So with these notions in mind I thought I’d post a gathering of my Windmill Hill photos, taken over the last few years.

Of itself, the windmill is a rather underwhelming subject, and I have ended up taking masses of very flat looking photos. I have discovered that it helps to get beneath it somewhat, whether lying down or finding a good spot further down the hill. I’ve also found that late afternoon light can produce a bit more interest – even mystery. This next photo is my Wenlock version of Daphne Du Maurier’s thriller tale Don’t Look Now. Who is that swiftly retreating little figure in the gloaming?

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Here’s one of the more ‘obvious’ shots. The cloudscape and perhaps also the sun/shadow on the stonework add the main interest:

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Another thought is that even when you’ve fixed on a particular subject, it’s always good to scout around it, to see what else might catch your eye/have some bearing on the composition. E.g. one of the important things about Windmill Hill, besides the windmill, is the fact its hill is an ancient limestone meadow – a rare escapee from the effects of industrial agriculture. So come early summer I’m often lying down, in the next photo among the pyramid orchids, soapwort, white clover and yellow ladies bedstraw. There’s an added benefit too – the close quarters inhalation of bedstraw fragrance. Aaaah! No wonder it was used in mattresses for women brought to bed during childbirth.

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And in late summer my eye is on the knapweed and the great array seeding grasses:

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Midsummer sundown

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And then there are the autumn shots. A few years ago a bunch of small horses used to be brought in at summer’s end to graze the meadow. Then sadly their owner could no longer keep them and they had to be sold. For the past two years the Windmill Trust has had the hill mown and harrowed instead. This new approach has created a massive increase in orchids:

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Winter:

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And then there are the views from Windmill Hill:

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Bunking off games? The William Brookes School is at the foot of the hill.

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Windmill Hill can be a very sociable place. It’s a favourite spot for Wenlock’s dog walkers. There are other gatherings too: windmill open days, summer orchid counting; and in the next photo we are gathered during a solar eclipse when the world turned very still and cold and ethereal:

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Last but not least, here are some long-distance views from Townsend Meadow behind our house. The final photo also shows the oil seed rape in full bloom and a corner of the William Brookes School:

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Lens-Artists: Change Your Perspective

 

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