Our almost-spring has reverted to winteriness today, so it’s back to the old Africa album for Square 22 and a bit of midday heat. Am imagining too the smell of the bush – spicy sundried grasses and hot peppery earth – and in my head the seamless kroo-krooing of doves. And because it has amused me ever since I heard it from a tipsy guide in Zambia, I make no apologies for repeating it again here: when it comes to zebras’ butticles, he told us, each has its own unique set of stripes. He further suggested that this was how the offspring recognised their mothers. I have no idea if this is true, but am happy to go along with it if only for the butticles, since they sound more decorous than buttocks and so have remained discriptor of choice in the Farrell household when referring to that particular part of the anatomy. And anyway, zebras do sport such very handsome ones.
Not the best photo, I know. I cropped it so you can just about see what is going on in the papyrus to the right of the pelican. i.e. the rear end of one of Lake Naivasha’s hippos going ashore and the roaring, open mouth of another hippo who is objecting to the intrusion. Hippos have whopping teeth and tusks, and quite apart from being grouchy with each other, they also kill quite a few humans, especially fishermen. They are at their best when mostly immersed in water, and their surprisingly tender hides well protected from the heat of the sun. But even so, it always pays to be wary.
A glimpse of some of Lake Naivasha’s rich bird life (apologies for grainy old ‘out-of-Africa’ shot).
The lake is fed by underground rivers and is Kenya’s only freshwater lake among its Great Rift string of soda lakes. Many of the fresh flowers bought in Europe – roses as well as carnations – are grown in corporate-owned flower factories around the lake shore. Their presence has created jobs and some social services (e.g. company funded primary schools and clinics) for local people, but there are big costs too: too much water abstraction that has shrunk the lake and pesticide and fertilizer run off that have threatened fish stocks. There’s a good little video (7 mins) focusing on these problems and showing more of life around the lake HERE.
Even locals said that anything could happen in Kenya. And so one Lake Naivasha morning, when I thought I was alone in the wilderness outreaches of an old safari lodge, I was both surprised and unsurprised when a young man stepped out from the papyrus swamp clutching two bunches of carnations. Fifty bob, madame, he said after the customary greeting. He seemed nonplussed when I started to laugh.
“Do you always keep your carnations in the papyrus,” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“What, waiting for people like me?”
“Yes,” he said.
This exchange seemed to seal the deal. I didn’t even bother to haggle. And although I have no idea why I would have 50 bob on me in such a place, I bought a bunch. Given the general lack of wazungu humanity in that particular location, I also wondered how long he had been waiting for the likes of me to come along; or how long he would have been prepared to wait for a customer. Or if I was just the unexpected thing that happened to him, rather than he to me. (You could tie yourself in knots second guessing). The rest of the lodge guests, I knew, were male entomologists, engaged all day in seminars and workshops; only I was free to wander about the hotel grounds buying flowers for which I had no particular need.
For the rest of this story see: Carnations, Crooks and Colobus at Lake Naivasha
This photo documents my first real-life encounter with lions. We were on a Saturday afternoon drive in Southern Kenya when some game rangers flagged us down and asked us if we’d seen the lions. They then headed off into the bush in their truck and we followed – in a Peugeot 304 saloon.
I’d only been in Africa a few days, a camp follower in the Team Leader’s Team (aka Graham’s Outfit). He was there working, as in serious crop protection entomologist, hot on the trail of larger grain borers (LGB), an alien species of wood-boring beetles imported into Africa on American food aid in the 1980s. The pest’s original home is in Mexico where it had grown a taste for maize, a proclivity it brought with it to Africa where it causes havoc in grain stores up and down the continent. The greatest incidence seems to be along the line of rail, doubtless due to beetle escapes from goods wagons hauling grain upcountry from East African ports.
Anyway, the Team Leader had business up in the Taita Hills, interviewing smallholder farmers to gauge how far these nasty dudus had spread. It is beautiful country on the way to Taveta in Tanzania – and the setting for much of William Boyd’s An Ice-Cream War and thus once the front line in the First World War guerrilla conflict between the forces of British East Africa (later Kenya Colony) and German East Africa (Tanganyika). And being rather remote, there was nowhere handy to stay apart from the 5 star Taita Hills Hilton. Oh dear, the trials and tribulations of exotic travel. The lovely Kenyan manager even forced a suite upon us (well stocked fridge, Air Con, swish bathroom and all).
The hotel also has its own game reserve, formerly a colonial sisal plantation run back to bush. To the south lie the plains of the Serengeti grasslands, to the north the vast expanse of the Tsavo game reserves. It is thus a wildlife gem, and you can stay there too, in an extraordinary stilted creation inspired by the traditional homesteads of the local Taita people, though rather oddly constructed using congealed cement sacks which instead reminded us of sand-bagged gun emplacements and so presumably with an intentional nod to the ‘Ice-Cream War’.
Not a thing of beauty then, but providing magnificent viewing of the wildlife, especially elephants which, in our time, would come in the night to drink at the ornamental pool within the lodge’s basement bar – a whole herd only a few feet away. At dawn you can walk along the raised walkways between the rooms and watch Kilimanjaro make its brief morning appearance, floating high above the horizon like a magic carpet mountain. The next time you’d look it would be gone – poof! Only a clear blue sky.
I’ve written about the Maasai Mara in other posts. Here’s an excerpt from a piece that was long-listed in the Brandt Travel Guide competition ages ago:
Dances with warriors
Night on the Mara River – darkness wraps round, close as a Maasai’s blanket. It is cold, too, on the river’s bend. We press closer the campfire, our white faces soon roasting red. No one speaks. There’s too much to listen for. A hyena whoops across the water? It sounds close. It sounds unearthly, sending shock waves through vulnerable bones – mine, conjuring packs of predators, out there, circling our ring of light. And even as I think it the Maasai are on us. Six warriors, spears in hand and naked to the waist. Their leader tosses his ostrich-feather head-dress that looks like a lion’s mane. He is fearless. He is lion.
Then the singing starts, a nasal falsetto that resonates through time and space – the winds’ whine through Mara grasses. The Maasai girls trip lightly into the firelight, their wraps like flames – yellow, red; close-cropped heads hung with beads; chins jutting forward as the crescent necklets – tiny beads so patiently strung – rise and fall on skinny chests. The moran start to leap – higher, faster.
Their dance fires the blood as it was once meant to in the days when the young morani proved their courage by killing a lion; but we see the collecting box left discreetly in the grass. These kids are from the nearby settlements, but before I unravel the question of exploitation – theirs or ours – the dancers pounce, dragging us into a conga, pastoralist-style. I let the Maasai girl take my hand. She’s about fourteen years old and she is boss. After all, this is her land – the big skies and the rippling oat grass, and our small camp in the outer reserve remains there only on her clansmen’s say-so. The hand that grips mine is small and hard.
So I follow her, graceless in the rhythms I cannot fathom, wend with the snake of dancers on and round the camp. The dancers know we’re squeamish and should not be put at risk, so we stray no further than the firelight’s edge, never crossing the bounds of the vast out there.
And of course, being on safari, and staying at a luxury, tented camp, we have been taken to visit the vast out there. We went earlier that day and naturally, being tender wazungu, we ventured only in daylight, with the rising sun at our back, and we went, not on foot, but in the Land Rover whose solid sides we were sure would protect us from too much closeness with the wilderness.
copyright 2019 Tish Farrell
December is usually the time of the short rains in Kenya. I say usually because these days the tropics are especially affected by climate change so nothing is certain when it comes to weather. It is also the hottest time of the year, and in the upcountry regions, the season for planting. Here on Lamu Island (above) it is also tourist time, although the year we spent Christmas there it was scarcely crowded. This photo was taken on Christmas Eve as the sun was setting. There were about six other people on the beach. Earlier that day we had arrived in a sudden squall which made the dhow crossing to Lamu from the air field on Manda Island a touch exciting. We visitors all huddled under the awning while the stalwart captain kept us on course across a choppy, foggy strait.
Most of our Christmases were spent on Tiwi beach south of Mombasa. Not a busy place either. Here’s the sunrise over the lagoon at Maweni one Christmas morning long ago.
And some ageing views of the lagoon in head-on sunshine:
Thursday’s Special ~ please visit Paula to see her colour prompts. As you might conclude, they include aquamarine, cyan and golden.
Lions are the past-masters when it comes to both standing out and blending in – this week’s photo challenge from Ann-Christine at Lens-Artists, which sent me rifling through the old Africa Album for some good examples. These were all taken in Kenya’s Maasai Mara back in another lifetime. The header shot shows both leonine proclivities – the art of showing off and of disappearing in foot-high oat grass. I think there are at least three lions in this shot. In the following close up you can see one of them – just right of the lioness’s left ear. Probably a male.
But what about this next shot – can you spot the second lion? Course you can, now you know what to look for:
And here’s a different kind of concealment – the whole pride in a gully; their concentrated gaze suggesting thoughts of dinner and where they might find it.
It looks like a mirage, I know – not helped by aging photo/collapsing scanner syndrome. But even when I was taking it, it was hard to believe I was there. This despite some very particular sensations that still lurk in my memory – the sting of soda in nose and eyes (Elmenteita is one of the Great Rift’s soda lakes) plus the pungent whiff of flamingo guano, and under foot, the slimy droppings-rich mud along the shore. There was also the noise – the continuous honking of the birds as they jostled among rich algal pickings.
On one of my dawn visits to the lake shore, I bumped into Paul Kabochi. Or rather he bumped into me. He had driven a Japanese bird enthusiast down to the lake to take photos.
Paul Kabochi wildlife expert and ethnobotanist 1942-2003
As I said in an earlier post: “Paul Githinji Kabochi was a man I am lucky to have met, and I mourn his tragic loss in what was, for him, the strangest of accidents. He was a true path-finder, and not only for the likes of me, a traveller, wanting to experience the African bush with someone who knew it intimately, but also for august naturalists such as David Attenborough. Paul had been one of the expert guides during the making of The Life of Mammals, and his special knowledge was often called upon by the BBC’s outpost in Nairobi.”
Yesterday Ark at A Tale Untold posted a striking sundowner photo of Hadeda ibis over Johannesburg. You can see it at the link. And I told him I missed their mournful call heard at dawn and dusk over our Nairobi garden. He said he was sure I still had it in my memory. And I said yes, I’d written an ode commemorating same. He suggested I post it, and then generously said if I needed photos to borrow his. So here we are: photos by Ark, words by Tish:
Ibis [Hagedashia hagedash]
At dusk, at dawn
the flatlands waul
of roving Hadedas;
that shy by day
on tropic lawns,
probe skinflint soils
with sickle bills
that wink out grubs.
dull, shifty types.
But then –
a sift of light –
dun coverts cast
for glancing green.
It’s hkaa-a hkaa –
Hadedas take flight.