Elephant Totos Playing Up

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These photos are from our last trip to the Maasai Mara before we left Kenya – this after nearly eight years as ‘displaced persons’. It was late December and our family from the UK had come out to join us in millennium celebrations. Everywhere there was talk of the ‘dreaded bug’ – mass panic of how on the stroke of midnight New Year’s Eve 1999 all world intercommunications and computer functions would be scuppered. At such times one definitely knew there was more common sense to found among animal kind than with humanity.

We had left camp on an early morning game drive. Dan our driver-guide had brought a picnic breakfast of mammoth proportions and it was he who decided to stop the truck and break into the hard boiled eggs and pastries just as a large herd of elephants was passing by.  They came so softly, footfalls ever muffled by the large cushions of fat that elephants have in their heels. You could smell them though – the musky, muddy smell that is like nothing else. The adults seemed to be moving as one, a measured ambling pace with no deviation. Only the children weren’t quite coming to heel.

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For most of the year female elephants and young live in small matriarchal groups while the adult males pursue a separate existence in their own loose-knit herds. But come the rainy season, all these small groups may gather into a single large herd as they set out looking for fresh vegetation.

They couldn’t have cared less about us; gave not one sign that they had even registered our presence. Later, as it was going dark and we were returning to camp, we met the herd again. Dan stopped the truck and the herd moved around us, close enough to touch. They moved like shadow-ships through the Mara twilight. At such moments you tend to find that you’ve forgotten to breathe.

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Square Up #14

Gave Up Flying, Took Up Running

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You can see the city high rises in the top left behind the hen ostrich. She is standing in Nairobi National Park (some 40 square miles) which nudges up against the perimeter of Kenya’s capital, including the industrial zone and the main airport highway. In our time, the park still had an open wildlife corridor to the south, though even then there were problems of settlement encroachment. These days too, there is another kind of incursion – in the form of a super-duper elevated Chinese railway that cuts across the park on tall concrete pillars. This line replaces the old Uganda railway built right across Kenya by the British administration between 1895-1901, also known in its day as the Lunatic Line.

The colonial railway cost British taxpayers a lot of money, and was built entirely to satisfy UK strategic interests (i.e. not at all for the benefit of local populations). In order to recoup the cost, settlement by British gentlemen and especially members the ‘officer class’ was actively encouraged. It was envisaged they would engage in large-scale ranching and planting along the line of rail and produce valuable cash crops for export.

In the early 1900s the chaps who came out to British East Africa all had notions of making big fortunes. One of those notions involved ostrich farming, or rather ostrich feather farming, since those airy plumes were just then in high demand for ladies’ hats. These same chaps also knew that some other chaps down in South Africa had made it rich from feather production.

Unfortunately the  ostriches of British East did not prove especially accommodating within what turned out to be a very small window of opportunity. One way to set up business was to collect eggs from the wild (a single nest might have twenty or more eggs) and then incubate and rear the chicks. But then robbing a nest could be hazardous; ostrich parents are fierce guardians, taking it in turns to protect their offspring. (N.B. a kick from an ostrich can break a man-leg).

Early settler Lord Delamere thought to speed up operations by recruiting a cohort of mounted Somalis to organise an ostrich drive across the open plains of his Rift Valley estate, thereby separating flocks of part-reared chicks from the hens and driving them towards the farm dairy where farmhands, stationed behind thorn trees, had been charged to grab any passing chick and imprison them. It did not go well. Even ostrich chicks can wrestle.

And then the captured adult cock bird proved most unbiddable, even with a sock over his head (an approach that was supposed to calm him down). He was last seen sprinting across the plains, still be-socked, having broken from his pen. And by the time all this had been gone through, the bottom had dropped out of the hat feather market because some idiot had invented the motor car wherein ladies’ plumed headgear proved most unsuitable and was apt to blow clean away.

All of which is a bit of a deviation from the point I intended to make. Ostriches may not fly, but they can certainly run: over 40 mph (70kph). The fastest birds on the planet. Just look at those legs in the next photo. They also come with huge, clawed feet attached.

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Square Up #13

Always Up For A Spot Of Breakfast: Superb Starling

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A surreal image – over-exposed so you can see the colours of this Superb Starling, one of Kenya’s commonest birds. But surreal in other ways too. Did we really eat breakfast on the shores of Lake Elmenteita and share it with such birds. (See previous post). On fine days the tables were set out under the fever trees. The soundtrack: incessant chatter of Speke’s weavers from their thorn tree colony by the camp kitchen, fluting call of the black headed oriel, squabbling of babblers, warbling of robin chats, distant grunting of flamingos out on the lake.

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Under the fever trees. Can you spot the superb starlings?

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Delamere Camp reception and dining room

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The ‘Sleeping Warrior’ an exploded volcanic cone on the western lake shore, Eburru hills beyond.

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Kenya is of course a serious bird watcher’s paradise. The capital Nairobi boasts a species list of 600 plus. And if I were there now, even if equipped with only the digital zoom of a modest ‘point and shoot’, this blog would be bursting with wonderful bird photos. An irritating thought. For most of the time we lived in Kenya I had only a little Olympus-trip – which was great on landscapes and immobile subjects, but otherwise limited when it came to wildlife photography. Here are my better efforts from Elmenteita: a black headed oriel, glossy starling,  grey heron with egrets, Speke’s weaver, Abdim’s stork and greater flamingos.

Square Up #4

Up And Away ~ Flamingos Take Flight

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It is distinctly shivery in Shropshire just now, the wintery weather set to stay for a couple of weeks at least. And so as ever when the parts are chillier than is altogether comfortable, thoughts turn to the old Africa album and days when we lived in warmer climes. Christmas and New Year are the hot season in Kenya, following on the short rains (a term that these days belies their frequent flooding capacities).

Lake Elmenteita in the Great Rift Valley was one of our favourite getaway spots, only an hour or so’s drive north of Nairobi. The shallow soda lake is the breeding and feeding ground for  both greater and lesser flamingos (it’s mostly the former you see in this shot).

The small tented camp where we stayed nestled among fever trees at the foot of the East Rift escarpment, below the Aberdares range. I took the photo just as the early morning sun rose above the heights and lit up the flamingos. Of course this scan from an original photo doesn’t quite do the scene justice, the crispness lost in translation. But you get the gist. It’s still very lovely. Though come to think of it, this part of the Rift was very chilly at dawn: jumper and jacket and wellies required, so not so different from my usual Shropshire outdoor garb.

For those who want to know more about this extraordinary place plus a spot of Kenya’s colonial history see my earlier post:

On watch at Elmenteita: the lake that blows away

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Today I’m  doing a two-in-one post for Becky’s January Square Ups, and Lisa’s Bird Weekly. Please pay them a visit.

 

Square Up #3

Bird Weekly This week Lisa at Our Eyes Open wants to see birds with long wing spans.

Did We Dream Great Zimbabwe?

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Great Zimbabwe inside the great enclosure

I’m thinking we did dream it. These vintage scenes look unreal. I remember it as a perfect day, though more drowsy English summer – the sort we like to think once happened – than an actual African afternoon. It was July, southern Africa’s winter, the daytime temperatures cool enough for me to be wearing my Zambian cotton jacket, at least in the shadows within the Great Enclosure. Strangely, we had the ruins to ourselves, us and our two companions. For a time, before starting our exploration, three of us had sat outside on the grass, our backs against the enclosure’s monumental, drystone wall. The air was still; the granite warm.

We were living in Zambia at the time, but were on a two-week road trip across Zimbabwe. This ancient African city was a high spot on the itinerary. Yet the conversation below the great wall wound on; quite unrelated to the place we were. Crickets chuntered. Time passed. A sense of treading water. Soon we would have to move on to find somewhere to stay for the night. It was all unknown territory. We had nothing booked. There was a moment when I thought if I don’t break free of this reverie, my one-time chance to see this place will be lost. It almost was.

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Great Zimbabwe general view

Amy at Lens-Artists asks us for precious moments. It was hard to choose from our eight-year stay in Africa. It often felt we were present for all of it – all senses always switched full on. But Great Zimbabwe was certainly one of highest high spots. I still have that jacket too, stitched by hand from cloth bought in a Livingstone store, near Victoria Falls.

Many of you have seen these photos before, but I’m sure you don’t mind another look. I’m also reprising the text of a long-ago post for those who want to know something about the ruins.

Great Zimbabwe

No one knows exactly why this great African city  was abandoned. For some 350 years, until  around 1450 AD,  Great Zimbabwe had been a flourishing merchant centre that drew in from the surrounding country supplies of gold, copper, ivory, animal skins and cotton. The city’s entrepreneurs then traded these goods on to the Swahili city states of Sofala and Kilwa on the East African coast. (You can read more about the Swahili HERE). In return, the traders brought back luxury goods including jewellery,  Chinese celadon dishes and Persian ceramics.

The city’s ruins cover 80 hectares, its many stone enclosures commanding the southern slopes of Zimbabwe’s High Plateau watershed between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers. The site is well watered with good grazing throughout the year. It is above the zone of the deadly tsetse fly that can infect both cattle and humans with sleeping sickness; and the plateau’s granite scarps provide plentiful building stone and other raw materials.

Even so, these favourable circumstances do not explain why this settlement rose to such particular prominence. Great Zimbabwe was not a singular phenomenon. Contemporary with it,  and across the High Plateau region, are the remains of at least a hundred other mazimbabwe (houses of stone) settlements. Several were large enough to have been the capitals of rival states. Others may have been satellite communities occupied by members of Great Zimbabwe’s ruling lineage.

So who were the city’s builders?

During Zimbabwe’s colonial times, and until independence, the  Rhodesian government actively supressed  evidence that Great Zimbabwe was built by Africans.  Many of the other stone ruins were destroyed or re-purposed by European settler farmers. The official view claimed that the city was Phoenician, and that the Queen of Sheba’s fabled kingdom of Ophir had been discovered. Archaeologists, however, have long demonstrated  that it was the cattle-owning Karanga Shona who built Great Zimbabwe. The first phase of stone building began around 1100 AD. Thereafter, the city’s rising fortunes and successive building phases suggest its increasing control of the ancient High Plateau trade routes to the Swahili cities of Sofala and Kilwa.

Gold was the key commodity, and it is likely that it was Great Zimbabwe’s successful cattle production that provided it with the trading power to secure gold supplies from mines some 40 kilometres away. The more prosperous the city became, the more sophisticated its demonstrations of prestige. In around 1350 AD  the Great Enclosure of finely dressed stone was built. This huge elliptical structure with its mysterious platform and conical tower is thought to be the royal court. There is no indication that the walls were defensive. This was  a regime confident in its power and authority.

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Peter Garlake’s reconstruction of the Great Enclosure Platform from Life at Great Zimbabwe,  Mambo Press 1982

Then why did the city decline?

There are various explanations: the people had let their herds overgraze the land; they had cut down all the trees; there was a prolonged period of drought as may happen in southern Africa. But somehow none of these theories quite explain why, after 350  flourishing years, a community of perhaps 20,000-plus people should simply pack up and leave. Did all these farmers, herders, miners, craftspeople, soldiers, traders, accountants, court personnel and the city’s rulers  leave on a single day, or did the city die slowly?  The archaeological evidence does not say.

But we do know there were disruptive external forces. In the 15th century the Portuguese invaded the Swahili coastal city of Sofala. They were on the hunt for gold and so pressed inland with Swahili guides. Their interfering presence drove the trading routes north, giving rise to the Mutapa state. This new state may well have been founded by people from Great Zimbabwe. Certainly by the time the Swahili traders were coming up the Zambezi to trade with the Shona directly, the old trade route through Great Zimbabwe was no longer used. At this time, too, we see the beginning of another Shona city state: the construction of the stone city at Khami near Bulawayo in southwest Zimbabwe. In the following centuries this became the centre of the Torwa-Rozvi state whose other major cities during the 16th and 17th centuries included Naletale and Danangombe.

And so into history…

Of course with the Portuguese incursions comes the first documentary evidence. From the early 1500s Zimbabwe’s royal courts enter the historic record in the accounts of the Portuguese conquistadores. In 1506 Diogo de Alcacova writes to his king, describing a city  of the Mutapa state

“called Zimbany…which is big and where the king always lives.”  His houses are “of stone and clay and very large and on one level.” Within the kingdom there are “many very large towns and many other villages.”

The Portuguese historian Faria y Sousa also describes the King of Mutapa’s great retinue which included the governor of the client kingdoms, the commander-general of the army, the court steward, the magician and the apothecary, the head musician “who had many under him and who was a great lord”. Also noted were the vast territories over which the king ruled, the revenues and subject kingdoms of the king’s several queens.

And suddenly we have a true glimpse of what this land called Zimbabwe might have looked like in the past, a bustling, mercantile, metropolitan culture, supported by gold miners, farmers, cattle herders and craftspeople. And so it remained until well into the 18th century, albeit with a shift of Shona power to the southwest and the Torwa-Ruzvi state as the Portuguese presence caused increasing instability. Then in the 19th century came new invaders – the Nguni, the Ndebele and the British.

This centuries’ old heritage of royal courts is not a picture that the likes of Cecil Rhodes or, the later Rhodesian government of Ian Smith ever wanted anyone to see. And so in the end this is not so much a story of a city abandoned by its people, but of a people wilfully excluded from their past.  In 1980 when Zimbabwe became an independent state, some of this past was reclaimed: the new state took its name from the first great Shona city, and  adopted for its flag and coat of arms, an image of one of the city’s ceremonial soapstone birds. These are small steps forward, but there is still a long way to go before the world sees the indigenous histories of the Africa continent in their true perspective, or acknowledges their intrinsic cultural worth.

 

References: The classic work on the excavations of the city is Peter Garlake’s Great Zimbabwe 1973. For an overview of the mazimbabwe culture see Innocent Pikirayi’s The Zimbabwe Culture  Alta Mira Press 2001. For a broader historical perspective Randall L. Pouwels The African and Middle Eastern World, 600-1500 Oxford University Press.

 

Lens-Artists: Precious moments

Feeling Kinda Growly

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We found ourselves driving through the midst of the Mara’s Marsh Pride at high noon, its members surprisingly active given the usual lion habit of spending the day lying around. They had made a kill, an antelope of some kind, and the ‘under-lions’ were still eating: one very elderly male and three females – while the dominant male prowled the perimeter, exchanging grunt-like roars with another male who was lying in the grass. They seemed quite unconcerned as we stopped to watch, no interruption to the grunt exchange caught here in the photo. Rather puts one in one’s place in the animal scheme of things.

 

KindaSquare #24

Exemplars Of The Stripy Kind

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The light was almost gone when we came upon this gathering of Grevy’s zebras. They are the largest and most northerly members of the zebra family, distinguished by their large round ears, close-set stripes, and plain white undercarriages. They inhabit the dry savannah and bush of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia.

When we spotted them again there was too much light – full on midday sun. But you can see the tip of Mount Kenya in the background. Astonishing to know it is 17,000 feet tall and that this is all you see of it from Lewa Downs.

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KindaSquare #23

Kindness To Rhinos

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Read any huntin’ shootin’ travellers’ accounts from Kenya’s colonial days and you’ll have rhinos charging from every bush. A single day’s trek through the wilderness could yield half a dozen such hair-raising encounters. Rhinos can be very dangerous, and exceedingly unpredictable, but it makes me think. In times before British aristocrats turned the plains of Tsavo into their private hunting grounds, or game control officers decreed rhino clearance a matter of  necessity, rhino numbers must have amounted to tens of thousands. Big Game Hunter, John Hunter, claimed he’d dispatched over one thousand in the course of his shooting career, this mostly to free up settlement land. A single man and one who loved wildlife!

In the 1970s there were said to be 20,000 rhinos in Kenya. Then came poaching. Numbers plummeted to three hundred. Finally enlightened conservation initiatives were begun in the 1980s and numbers are now above 700, with protected populations in several of the national parks. One thriving private initiative is Lewa Downs in Northern Kenya – a former colonial ranch transformed into a wildlife conservancy. It’s an enterprise of breath-taking scale – not only securing vast rangelands for animals (including 169 black rhinos), but also working with local communities to improve livelihoods, health care and education.

Watch the video and be amazed.

https://youtu.be/b8YGoV5obhk

 

KindaSquare #22

So Hard To Like Hyena-Kind, But…

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…they are interesting animals, though you certainly would not want to meet one at close quarters. That they are purely scavengers is a myth. They are powerful killers too, and don’t mind the odd human. The spotted hyenas in the photo (taken early one Mara morning) are the largest of the three hyena species, and come with the strongest bone-grinding jaws of any land predator. They live in clans of 5 – 30 individuals and recognise one another by scent.

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Further interesting features include the facts that females are larger than males. They remain in their natal clan for life, are dominant over the males while the largest, most aggressive of them rules over all hunting and territorial defence tactics. The dominant female’s sons outrank all other clan members, and remain in the clan longer than their male age-mates. In the end, though, all the males born from clan females eventually leave to live in nomadic male groups until they can join a new unrelated clan, though this only happens after a trial period wherein they must demonstrate appropriate submissiveness to the new female boss.

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They look ungainly creatures, so low-slung-short-legged in the rear, but this shambling appearance is deceptive too. They can break into a gallop, and sustain speeds of up to 30 miles per hour (48 kph) over distances of  a mile and more. They will chase down adult wildebeest and zebra until the prey is exhausted, and then duly disembowel them. Many pounds and kilos of meat will be gobbled at one go, and every bone crushed and consumed to extract the marrow. I remember once in Zambia, on a pre-dawn drive seeing a hyena so well fed, it could barely drag its stomach home to its den. I’ve read too, that these contents will be turned around within 24 hours, giant meat-grinder style, and the end product droppings quite white from all the processed bone.

Hm. I’m not winning over friends for hyenas, am I?  Still, they do clear up the place when in scavenging mode, as they are in these photos, though the lions were not keen to share their leftovers. But then hyenas, along with other predators, doubtless also help to keep herd animals healthy by recycling the weakest members, and the pursuit itself, predators on the hooves of herbivores, may have a key role to play in the maintaining  the Serengeti-Mara eco-systems.

These grasslands of 10,000 square miles support a million and a half wildebeest, which every year, along with large herds of zebra, migrate between wet- and dry-season pastures. Zimbabwean ecologist, Alan Savory, contends that a key role of predators is to keep herbivores bunched and moving, and that this in turn ensures the continuous sustenance and recovery of the grasslands that in turn support the herds. A virtuous circle then.

So: hyenas do have their place in the natural order of things. All the same, I think I’ll end this post with a photo of the lions who were most determined not to share even though they had  clearly had a very good breakfast:

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KindaSquare #21

Kinda Chilling Cheetah Style

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They look like tears, the mascara-esque markings running from a cheetah’s eyes. It’s one of the ways you know that you are not looking a leopard in the face, which is usually a good thing if lack of distance is an issue. Cheetahs are anyway more agreeable, at least to human kind, with attacks in the wild apparently unknown. Their paws are more like dog than cat paws, though they do have a vicious dew claw which they use to snag and trip their prey, mostly small antelope of the Thomson’s gazelle variety.

Female cheetahs, like leopards, lead solitary lives except for mating or cub rearing. There can be six cubs in a litter, which places high demands on a mother’s hunting skills. The cubs are weaned at three months, but at around six months she starts teaching them hunting techniques, catching and releasing young gazelles for them to practice on. Even so they remain dependent on her for another year, the family’s hunting range extending as much as 400 square miles.

The species is of course famed for its astonishing speed – up to 70 mph (112 kph) at full tilt and with a stride of 23 feet (7 m). Though it’s hard to imagine this particular cheetah has any thoughts of imminent ‘lift off’. She simply lay there, quite ignoring me, while I leaned out of a truck took her picture. Though after a bit she did get up and demonstrate the ‘cat stretch’. Oooh ye-ees. Feel that spinal column flex and lengthen.

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KindaSquare #20