Top Tembo Mama ~ Among Lewa’s Elephants And Other Animals

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The elephant on the left is the matriarch of this little family group of six adult females and three infants. She is giving us the once over before concluding we are no threat to her charges. In elephant world, the matriarch rules; she is the keeper of the family knowledge; the guide and decision maker. She will also kill any creature that is deemed a threat.

Following on from yesterday’s post on Lewa Downs Conservancy, here are some notes from that trip. We’re out on a morning drive with Kevin our expert guide:

By now it’s late morning and we’re down by the swamp. The waterbuck stare out at us, and as we follow the track that skirts the reed bed we come upon a herd of oryx. They’re very shy though and won’t stay.

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Kevin drives on towards a clump of fever trees, now following elephant prints along the track, and as we reach the acacias there is a lone old bull, large as life and very close.  Too close? When it comes to elephants the warning signs to look out  for are ears spread and trunk up and to the side. But we’re not bothering him. He views us serenely through long lashes, shakes his battle torn ears, ambles alongside the truck for a while then wanders off.

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Graham meanwhile spots a group of elephant across the swamp and Kevin sets off for a better view. For a while we park on the track, torn between watching brilliant carmine bee eaters in one direction and the little herd in the other. The elephants are about fifty yards away in the fever trees, and I think that’s close enough, but no, Kevin is eyeing up the lie of the land, picking out a line of solid ground. Soon we are parked with swamp on our right and elephants on our left.

At first the matriarch adopts an intimidating stance, but then changes her mind. Our presence in no way interrupts tree browsing and bottom scratching, and no attempt is made to shield the youngest calf from our view. We watch for ten minutes or so, listening to the taptapping of a nearby woodpecker, the call of hadada ibis, spot a vervet monkey watching us watching the elephants. Then Kevin decides it’s time to leave them in peace. As we pull away over the rough ground we’re left with the musky, goaty, muddy smell of elephant in our nostrils.

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Square Tops #21

Kudu Family Heading For The Top Of The Trail

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This sunset view of retreating greater kudu was taken at Lewa Downs, a private nature conservancy on the northern foothills of Mount Kenya near Isiolo. The reserve is 62,000 acres, and was once a colonial cattle ranch. The descendants of the original settler family still own the land, but now their focus is on wildlife conservation, upscale tourism, improving the lot of local communities and helping to protect surviving members of Kenya’s black rhino population.

When we visited years ago we stayed in  the small Lerai tented camp run by the same outfit whose camps we stayed in at Mara River and Elmenteita, i.e. fairly low key by comparison with Kenya’s super luxury safari ‘camps’, and aimed more at visitors with dedicated interests in wildlife, particularly ornithologists and professional wildlife photographers.

We flew up there in a Kenya Airways Twin Otter 20-seater plane. (Kenya’s internal aerial bus service is brilliant). There were only two others aboard and, after running through the safety procedures, the co-pilot leaned out of the cockpit with a bowl of boiled sweets and a cheery ‘pass it back!’ The next moment we were sprinting off the tarmac at Nairobi’s Wilson airport and banking over the nearby national park where small groups of wildebeest were gathered along city perimeter fence. So even before the safari is properly begun there’s a little wildlife spotting to do.

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Next we whipped up the Great Rift, the old volcano Longonot in the valley bottom, the smallholdings, tea and coffee farms of Limuru up on the eastern escarpment. And in no time we were over Nyandarua, the Aberdares Range, and looking the dark snow-streaked spires of Mount Kenya in the eye. In fact in the same amount of time it had taken us that morning to get through Nairobi’s traffic jams to the airport we had covered the couple of hundred kilometres to Lewa.

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Soon we were flying low over the marsh buzzing zebra before putting down on the dirt landing strip whose only permanent structures then were a windsock and a thatched hut. Our transport, an open green safari truck, sped towards us in a cloud of pink dust. Kevin, our guide for the two-day stay, greeted us with a big grin. We found out later that his family were originally from Tanzania, his people the Chagga who live on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, and are renowned for their capacity for running up the mountain. Kevin also turned out to be a very passionate ornithologist, especially interested in the European migrants that were just then visiting Lewa. A bit of an irony I thought: a case of the reversed ‘exotic’ when he became, to my mind, rather over absorbed by the presence of a migrant tufted duck. That’s not what we came to see! Here’s some more of what we did see:

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A reticulated giraffe, one of the three main giraffe races in Kenya. It is mostly found in the northern districts.  This photo’s for Brian at Equinoxio. (The weird colour flashes are due to poor film processing at the time).

Our guide:

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Square Tops #20

Top Heavy?

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You will need to peer into these hazy photos to see the subject of this post: Kenya’s rural wives hauling fodder grass and maize stalks to feed their cows. And the reason for this particular form of haulage is down to the fact that smallholder farms are indeed small – a few acres or less, and there is little or no pasture for grazing. Farm stock is thus kept in pens, quite roomy ones, and their food brought to them.

While we were living in Kenya I remember reading some UN or similar study on the carrying capacity of African women. It basically said that the loads they habitually bore were physically impossible in relation to the bearing potential of their bodily framework. So here we have it: women working miracles.

It further makes me think of the biblical contention that the first woman was made from Adam’s rib. Clearly this is wrong. These farming women anyway are built from some naturally occurring version of high-tensile steel. In every sense they are the backbone of the nation. I even have some statistics for that too. A few years ago I was writing a school textbook on Kenya, which caused me to discover that 75% of Kenya’s daily food was produced by women smallholder farmers. I don’t expect this has changed much.

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The rural wife’s back has a lot to bear then. Much time may be spent each day seeking out wood for the cooking fire. There is water to be got from the stream or water point; the field to hoe; animal food to be gathered; spare produce to take to market; the baby to take to the pharmacy. There may also be much bending over an open hearth preparing meals, the family wash to pound in a bucket, and a broom to be wielded while sweeping out the house and the compound.

‘It is our days’ career,’ a young Kikuyu woman once told me when we met on a farm path. I was ‘labouring’ with clipboard and tape measure, helping Graham with his smutted Napier grass survey. She was bent double under a pyramid of grass for her dairy cow. When I remarked on the huge load, she gave me a lop-sided grin from beneath a canopy of green stems. In perfect English she spoke those five small words – unending hard work endured with good grace.

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And of course things have been changing.  Many educated women have made it their cause to return to their rural communities as educators, legal activists, medical workers and agriculturalists to improve women’s lives and livelihoods. Equally, country women have their own ideas about what they need and how this should be achieved. Women’s development groups, local missions and churches all have their part to play in airing ideas and giving women the skills, confidence and, most important of all, access to financing that will allow them to start new enterprises and so gain independence from traditional constraints. And one thing’s for sure: in the matter of ‘backbone’ the farm wives have been well and truly tested.

Square Tops #11

Kenya’s Treetops Hotel

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Mention of Treetops in Kenya’s Aberdare National Park inevitably brings up residue of British colonialism, and in particular the extraordinary connection with the UK’s present monarch. The original Treetops was little more than a 1930s bungalow-affair, a rickety contrivance lodged in the branches of an ancient mugumo tree, a species of wild fig which happened to be very sacred to the local Kikuyu people.  Princess Elizabeth spent the night there in February 1952 and, as the well trammelled narrative goes: she went up the tree as a princess and came down a queen, although it was only later in the day that she was informed that her father, George VI had died.

Here’s the original Treetops where the royal party stayed, taken from the book by its builder, Eric Sherbrooke Walker, Treetops Hotel.

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The Sherbrooke Walkers, like most of the early settlers in British East Africa, were of the officer-gentry-aristocracy class. Eric Sherbrooke Walker had served in the Royal Flying Corps during World War 1, followed by a stint in military intelligence with the White Armies in Russia during the Bolshevik uprising wherein he earned the Military Cross and other honours. After the war, during America’s prohibition era, he took up rum running off the West Indies and made enough money to marry Lady Bettie, daughter of the Earl of Denbigh. They then set off on an adventurous trip across East Africa, which soon left them short of money and in turn led to the notion of setting up their own country house hotel.

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In 1926 they pitched up in Nyeri in the forested highlands of Kenya’s Central Province, bought 70 acres from the colonial government, and set about creating the genteel Outspan Hotel. By the end of 1927 they had built ten rooms and opened for business for the New Year of 1928.  The big attraction to their settler guests, who though well-heeled usually had very primitive facilities on their African farms, were rooms that came with private bathrooms and running water. So began a successful enterprise of country inn-keeping in the English manner but with views of snow-capped Mount Kenya and the Aberdare range thrown in.

The 1920s was the era of the grand East African shooting safaris when the likes of Bror Blixen, Denys Finch Hatton and John Hunter acted as Great White Hunters for extravagant entourages of European (especially British) royalty and Indian maharajas. But by the 1930s, many safari goers had begun to turn their attention from trophy hunting to big game photography – an activity greatly promoted by American adventurers and film makers, Martin and Osa Johnson.

And it was this new craze that prompted the Sherbrooke Walkers to create Treetops. Small parties of guests could spend the night in the top of the mugumo tree and watch elephants, rhino and forest hogs lit up by a spotlight, do more early morning game watching over tea and biscuits before being transported back to the Outspan for hot baths and breakfast. As a unique combination of eccentric British-gentry-rustic with elephants thrown in it could not fail. As more and more visitors wanted to stay there, so rooms were added, and more props put in to hold up the tree branches.

And then in 1954 the original Treetops was burned down. This was during the so called Mau Mau uprising when it apparently became a target for the Land and Freedom Army. Later the place was rebuilt and added to over the years. The header version dates from September 1996, the fourth iteration under the ownership of Block Hotels. When we went I had been spending previous week alone at the Outspan, which still served as ‘base camp’ for Treetops,  while Graham was at a seminar at the nearby Aberdares Country Club. He then joined me for the trip to Treetops.

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In a letter to my aunt written shortly afterwards I told her that were among a party of 99 – (Israelis, Koreans, an international museums outing, and 40 retired Americans from the Friendship Club) all of us being ferried into the Aberdare National Park in a bus, and then deposited in the bush so we could walk the last few hundred yards to Treetops – ‘a rustic fortress between two waterholes’ was how I described it back then. Before we set off Dishon, the ranger who met us pointed out the well timbered refuges along the path, to be resorted to in case of charging buffalo or elephant. He was also carrying a rifle.

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But there were no alarming encounters. In fact we saw no sign of any big game while were there, only the red billed hornbill that sat on the tree outside the dining room, baboons, buck and warthogs.

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The rooms were tiny, more like cubby holes, and the building was very noisy. Many of the elderly women guests were up all night. When I could not sleep around 2 a.m. I got up and found them, of all things, putting on their make-up in the ladies’ communal washroom. When the  actual ‘wake up’ call came at 6.30 a.m. the place was surrounded by an Aberdares fog. And so it seemed that whatever romance there might once had been was quite lost. The best bit was driving out of the park through the Kikuyu smallholdings. Out of the stands of maize came files of school children in coral coloured sweaters and jade green dresses and shorts, trotting off early to the local primary school.

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I gather from looking at the current website that Treetops is under new management and the number of rooms much reduced in order to provide en suite bathrooms. It all looks very luxurious, but somehow also misses the point, the batty English tree-house charm of the original. Though whether that was ever at all an appropriate installation in the African highlands is another question.

 

Square Tops #9

Adopting The Horizontal In The African Bush

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Ostrich and the Ngong Hills

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Over at Travel Words Jude is running a photo challenge to help us develop our compositional skills. April’s topic is ‘lines’ and each week Jude asks us to consider them in particular ways. This week it is horizontal lines. Here’s what she says:

“This week’s assignment – Look for horizontal lines. In a photograph, horizontal lines in particular need to be completely level across the frame, because your viewer’s eye will perceive even a slightly skewed horizontal line as uncomfortable to look at or just incorrect.”

For obvious reasons I haven’t been out and about finding likely vistas, but as I’ve been rummaging through my old Kenya photos, I’ve noticed that things horizontal feature quite a lot. I don’t actually recall if I was registering this at the time of taking the photos, since apart from the Elmenteita view, the others were happenstance shots.  Anyway, I thought I’d post them for interest’s sake.

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Impala and rooftops of park rangers’ quarters, Nairobi National Park

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Lake Elmenteita at dawn

Flamingos at dawn on Lake Elmenteita

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Hippos going with the flow in Lake Naivasha

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Travel Words: Photo Challenge April Lines #1  Please visit Jude to see her examples of horizontal framing. Lots of pointers and ideas.

Flat Top Thorns And A Giraffe

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The Flat Top Acacia or umbrella thorn is characteristic of Kenya’s wooded grasslands, especially in gullies. It tolerates drought and degraded landscapes and in traditional communities has long served in all manner of useful ways. It provides wood for fuel and charcoal making, and poles for house-building; the frondy branches make good goat fodder; the tiny puffball flowers feed bees; the bark produces edible gum; the roots are nitrogen-fixing; and the tree has medicinal qualities. My Kenyan tree book however tells me that, though quick growing and wonderfully shade providing, it is not a good idea to plant this acacia around your homestead since its branches tend to fall off.

This photo was taken in Nairobi National Park on the edge of the city centre.

Square Tops #7

Mara Hippos ~ Sleeping Like Tops

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It is fairly uncommon to catch hippos like this – snoozing ashore, though they may do it on sand banks in rivers. Their usual routine is to spend the night in the bush, roving far and wide and chomping masses of grass. Then at first light they start returning to the river so they can be well submerged in their watery territory before sun up. Their hides are  2 inches (5cm) thick, and although a red oily secretion gives some protection, they are very susceptible to over-heating and drying out. It can thus be fatal to find yourself between a river and a hippo intent on swift immersion.

We had our own alarming charging hippo encounter on the Luangwa River when we were living in Zambia. That story is HERE.

These particular sleeping hippos were caught on an early morning game drive, around 7 a.m. We drove right by them along a secluded stretch of the Mara River flood plain. Not an eye’s blink from any of them.

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And the origins of the saying: to sleep like a top?

My Dictionary of Phrase and Fable tells me it relates to the children’s toy, the traditional wooden spinning top. Once well whipped into action, there is a point when the top seems perfectly still and silent.

And here’s an early 17th century usage:

“O for a pricke now like a nightingale, to put my breast against. I shall sleep like a top else.”

The Two Noble Kinsmen a play attributed to a John Fletcher – William Shakespeare collaboration.

 

Square Tops #5

A Topi On Top

Topi can be found across Africa in various local races or subspecies. They also look like Coke’s hartebeest, but are distinguished by their handsome damson coloured thigh patches – very fetching on their chestnut coats. The males are keen on showing themselves off by posing on top of termite mounds – keeping an eye on their females (usually 10-15) and showing would-be rivals that they are on the look-out.

Square Tops #4 Becky has a very special ‘square top’ this morning.