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

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

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

In Search Of Lost Time At Elmenteita ~ Back To The Old Africa album

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Flamingos at dawn on Lake Elmenteita, Kenya

What better way to spend wet and windy days than trawling through old photos: scenes of times past when we lived in Kenya. So all thanks to Tina at Lens-Artists who this week sends us off on a treasure hunt through the photo files. Images may include sunsets, sunrises, birds, mountains, expressive portraits and a host of other things – in combination or otherwise. For the full list, follow the link at the end of the post and be inspired by Tina’s own treasure-hunted photos.

Meanwhile, I’ve chosen photos taken at different times but in a single place where we often stayed – a tented camp on the shores of Lake Elmenteita – a 2-hour drive up the Great Rift Valley from Nairobi. The camp had gone now, but the 46,000 acre wildlife sanctuary that surrounds the lake may still be visited. It is now the Soysambu Conservancy, the land still owned by Lord Delamere, whose grandfather, in the early 1900s, was one of first British colonial settlers in Kenya.

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The Eburru massif is still volcanically active. The light here changes every second.

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The pioneering Delamere ranch at Elmenteita was never successful, the soil too thin on volcanic bedrock and lacking in vital minerals, a fact well known to local Maasai herders who had long avoided grazing their cattle around the lake. Their name for the place could have offered further clues. In Ki-Maa Elmenteita means ‘place of dust’, their oral accounts telling of times when the lake blew away completely, leaving only a dust-plain.

These days the water levels rise and fall, but in any event the lake is both shallow and intensely alkaline, being one of a string of soda lakes along the floor of Kenya’s Great Rift. The waters are rich in crustacea and insect larvae which support large flocks of Greater Flamingos, and also blue-green algae that keep even larger numbers of Lesser Flamingos well fed. On rocky islands beneath the rugged cones and scarps of the Eburru massif pelicans breed.  While around the lake, in marsh and acacia scrub, some 450 bird species have been spotted. The sanctuary is also rich in all manner of plains game: gazelle, eland, impala, waterbuck, zebra, giraffe, warthog, dik-dik, buffalo. And then there are monkeys, aardvarks, spring hares, zorillas, porcupines and rock pythons.

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My memories of course are forever fixed in the 1990s, and as an antidote to the kind of nostalgia-wallowing that inevitably overlooks the modernising needs of Kenyans, I should just mention that the volcanic steam vents of the southerly Eburru hills are now being exploited on an industrial scale to generate geothermal power as part of Kenya’s greener, cheaper energy initiative.

Now for my ‘treasure’ trawl:

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Who scattered  those rose petals on the lake?

I’m including this photo because it shows that East Africa can have very dull weather, often for weeks in July, August and September when it can also be quite cool. The bush is very dry during this period – the main rainy seasons being the short rains in late October – November and the long rains late March – June: if they happen, that is; some years they miss altogether. This last year there have been life-threatening deluges across East Africa. The other striking feature here is the exploded volcanic cone across the lake, traditionally known as the Sleeping Warrior, but also dubbed Delamere’s Nose on account of the original pioneering lordship’s hooter that so impressed the locals.

People portraits:

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Paul Kabochi, camp ethnobotanist and medical herbalist. There was not much he did not know about the wilderness, the ways of its wildlife and the healing properties of plants and trees. His  animal tracking expertise was often called on by the BBC in the making of wildlife documentaries. The times I spent with him, walking through the early morning bush, or out on night drives, are fused in my heart.

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Paul Kabochi and Jo Bickerton on an ethnobotany walk.

I think it was at this point that Paul invited my sister to stick her finger in the top of a harvester ants’ nest. Jo, newly arrived in Africa, but quick as a flash, balked and suggested he might stick his own finger in the nest. This is not the best of photos, but I love the body language: total engagement in more senses than one.

An unexpected portrait:

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This tiny Kirk’s dik-dik is not much bigger than a hare. They are rarely spotted during the day, so I was lucky to see this one; even more that he stayed to have his photo taken.  Unlike most larger antelope, dik-diks live in monogamous pairs, staying closely together, the male marking their territory with dung middens and secretions from the  conspicuous glands at the front of each eye. Each couple generally avoids  their immediate dik-dik neighbours, though when boundary disputes do occur they can lead to fierce combat between the males.

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Lens-Artists: Treasure Hunt

 

Dubai Desert: Early Morning Strobelight

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It was about 5 a.m. and I had not slept all night. Desert sand is very hard on the hip bone, with or without a custom-made scoop-out beneath it. And our pop-up tent offered no defence against the loud snores of Geoff, our Tanzanian guide, who was sleeping in the open back of his Land Cruiser. But to walk out of the camp alone and up into the high dunes and watch the sun rise over Al Hajar –  instant rejuvenation remedy.

More desert views in the previous post.

January Light #20

Dreaming In Africa

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Long ago when we lived in Africa and far away on Manda Strait in the Lamu Archipelago, Captain Lali dreams. It is late afternoon, the day after Christmas Day, and we have been sailing in Mzee Lali’s small dhow, out exploring the reef and catching a fish or two for a seaboard lunch that will be cooked on a little jiko stove, and served with freshly chopped coleslaw. Even wide awake it seemed like a dream to us.

I’ve posted this photo several times before, as some of you will know. The way time is speeding up, it’s rapidly assuming vintage status. So here’s an ancient Swahili tale to go with it, also one I prepared earlier:

There came a time when Sendibada signed on with a strange sea captain. The next day, as dawn was breaking, the ship cast off, a strong breeze filling the lateen sails, and bearing them swiftly out to sea. But towards noon the wind died, and the boat drifted, becalmed, on still waters.

At this, the captain strode out on the bridge, and began to utter words that Sendibada could not fathom. He stared and stared for, to his astonishment, the ship began to rise, graceful as an egret taking flight. Sendibada grinned. He liked a good adventure, and now it seemed this strange captain of his was none other than the most powerful magician.

Up into the clouds they soared, flying, flying until at last they saw a faraway red spot. But little by little the spot grew, until at last Sendibada saw it was a city in the sky, and that every house there was made of copper. Soon they set down in the harbour and, as the crew made to go ashore, from every quarter, lovely girls came out to greet them, bearing on their heads copper trays laden with the most delicious fruits and sweetmeats and tender roasted morsels.

And so it was that much time passed, the ship’s crew enjoying month after month of this most gracious hospitality. Sendibada, though, was growing homesick, and said as much. Now the magician gave him a round mat and told him how to use it.

Sendibada followed the instructions, placing the mat on the ground and seating himself upon it so that he faced the direction of his home town. Then he spoke the foreign words that meant: Behold! We shall all return to it . And at once the mat rose into the clouds, and faster than a diving hawk, set Sendibada back on the beach just outside his home town.

copyright 2019 Tish Farrell

The Copper City  retold from a translated text in Jan Knappert’s Myths and Legends of the Swahili

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Related posts:

Lamu Dreaming

Quayside Lamu

The Swahili

Lens-Artists: Dreamy  This week Ann-Christine is hosting Lens-Artists’ Saturday challenge. If you want to join in, please tag your post ‘LENS-ARTISTS’ and add a link to the challenge post. Or just visit their lovely blogs and be inspired:

Patti https://pilotfishblog.com/

Ann-Christine aka Leya https://lagottocattleya.wordpress.com/

Amy  https://shareandconnect.wordpress.com/

Tina https://travelsandtrifles.wordpress.com/