Kenya Diary Continued: Of Kingfishers, Monkeys And More sightings Of the ‘Phantom’ Crocodile

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21 February 1994

To Kiboko again.

We left Mbabane Road at about ten and headed for Pangani to to pick up Dorothy, Graham’s assistant. She had been on a trip home, and travelled back to Nairobi on the overnight bus from Kisumu, a five-hour trip. She was feeling rough, so could Mr. Farrell please pick her up from home instead of her coming into the office?

And Pangani, a Nairobi estate just off the Thika by-pass, is a pretty rough place to live these days. The avenues of Asian-style art deco bungalows are sadly dilapidated, the stuccoed walls infested by a black blight and their lawns sacrificed to piles of rubble and rubbish and broken vehicles.

Dorothy  tells me she has to hide her handbag when she gets off the bus from work, or else be threatened by knife-wielding street boys. “Can you believe it, Tish?”

She has a flat in a small grey concrete apartment block. It looks a little run down, standing in a rough dirt compound with a washing line, behind a very battered corrugated iron gate. There is a wooden food kiosk integral with the front perimeter wall and Dorothy was leaning against the counter chatting to the mama who runs it when we arrived. She had all her bags to hand though, and by ten thirty we were leaving Nairobi behind. Beyond the ugly grey block-built compound of the Persil factory, the Athi Plains floated in a pale gold and blue haze.

There had been a week of unexpected rains. Neither the tail end of the short rains, nor the start of the long rains, announced the KBC weatherman. Do NOT start planting yet! Here and there the coarse grassland had sprouted new growth and many of the acacias through upland Ukambani were again white with catkin blossom. Here too the young men were out in force along the roadside, and with outspread arms urged us to stop and buy their produce – rosy pomegranates and boxes of small green papaya.

But down on the lowland plains through Sultan Hamud and Emali there was a sorry sight: acres of maize, stunted and browning and with no hope of a crop. And barely two months since we had seen the Akamba families out on their rich red plots, hoeing the rows of luxuriant seedlings, a hive of busy optimism. Now it was a wasteland, the earth dry and hard. Soon the hoped for crop would be little more than tissue paper leaves, a brittle rasping in the plains wind.

*

As we bumped up the drive to Hunter’s Lodge there was the usual sense of relief at arriving. And as usual the lodge slumbered in its habitual green study. The sun shone down on the red pantiled roof of the guest rooms and a large wooden key fob hung from the keyhole of every bedroom door. There were no other guests.

In the car park the black-barked acacias that are susceptible to the ravages of enormous staghorn beetles were in flower and the air was filled with the scent of orange blossom. We struggled with our bags, baskets and boxes to our upstairs room and quickly retreated to the veranda.

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“Turn down the wild life” says Graham. In a nearby thorn tree six superb starlings, all flashes of electric blue and russet, were in the midst of a frenzied exchange. The air was fizzing with insect call. The endless twittering of the nest-building golden weavers welded to the audio mesh of neurotic intent. As counterpoint there was the occasional judder and crash of a truck leaving Kiboko, the kroo-kroo of pink doves, the wailing bark of the shamba dog guarding the vegetable plot, a loud splash from the pied kingfisher as it broke the still surface of the pool. Graham was right. It was all much too loud.

Out on the bar terrace John greeted us warmly. He had been on leave back in Maasailand and we had not seen him for a while. I asked him how his family was. He said everything was fine with them. There had been three days of rain and now the cattle had grass once more. The Maasai who had migrated into his area in search of water had returned to their own land. Yes, everything was fine now. I said I had heard that many Maasai were on the verge of starvation in Kajiado. John replied that things had been bad for them.

22 February

We wake early at Hunter’s Lodge, just before dawn when the raucous clamour of large and hungry heron chicks pierces the consciousness and the Nairobi-bound lorries begin to rumble through our dreams. The night shift of piping frogs and resonating bugs suddenly gives over to a new day of weaver bird business. Barely is the sky paling and already the little canary-coloured birds are hard pressed by the procreational imperative: find papyrus reed, strip frond, take to building site, weave loop, pull knots tight, make nest the very best, get a mate. But if all should go horribly wrong – foundation stems shaky, neighbourhood unsuitable, overall structure suspect, then there is a ruthless reversal: unpick the stitches, shred the globe, start all over again in another location. A visiting tsetse fly expert told me that the male weaver may build as many as twenty nests in the course of the breeding season, all to try and please his mate.

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In the early morning the pool is as clear as glass, the golden limbs of the fever tree closely replicated in a watery medium. Now is the time of the kingfishers. The blue jewelled pygmy skims low over its surface with the resolution of a tiny heat-seeking missile; its cousin the giant, on the other hand, prefers an approach from the vertical, and plummets out of an overhanging branch with all the delicacy of a large rock. The technique is effective though and he emerges with a silvery fish, only to be pursued the length of the pool and back by his medium sized cousin the pied. Meanwhile, looking on from a branch of peachy flowered thevetia, is the greyhooded kingfisher, complaining loudly to all and sundry with the stridency of a disturbed blackbird’s alarm call. Then he too is gone, in a flurry of cobalt blue on black.

Across the water the Akamba fundis make an early start on the politician’s summerhouse. It proceeds slowly and the tap-tapping as the new grey tiles are fixed in place on the octagonal roof punctuates the weaver chatter.

Politician's house across the pool

Somewhere in the depths of the acacia wood resound the fluting notes of the golden oriole. Bright gold on black, it is a bird that is rarely seen. At least I have not seen one since we were last in Kenya. But the echo of its call haunts the memory long afterwards.

*

As usual Graham left for work well before eight. I lingered over my breakfast in the empty dining room, empty that is except for the young waiter who lurked behind the old upright piano and seem fixed by my every manoeuvre. In the end I asked him for another pot of tea to give him something more positive to do.

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As I was eating my toast a troop of vervet monkeys came into the garden. It is really their garden – the parked vehicles, the crazy golf course and the seesaw provided solely for them to play on. There were several very small infants among them and they were leaping excitedly round the branches of a low bush, exactly like children in a bouncy castle. Next they romped across the sparse lawn, bowling each other into soft balls.

After breakfast I walked across to get a better look at these tiny leaping monkeys, and then it became obvious that two of the smallest were twins. They looked at me with curiosity, black beads on little pansy faces, barely an inch and a half across. But mother was wary and she gathered them up hurriedly, one tucked under her belly, the other grasped in the crook of her arm, then nimbly sprinted up into a thorn tree. There she indecorously shoved another monkey aside so that she could take up the best vantage point along the main bough.

She had not retreated too far, just enough to be out of reach and now she watched me closely, clasping her twins tightly all the while. But one offspring was not at all keen on all this mother-hugging confinement and he slipped from her grasp, ended up hanging upside-down from the branch. Mother tried vainly to retrieve him by pressing up on his head with a soft leather palm. He squawked his disapproval at such overbearing maternal interference and hung on fiercely. But mother was not to be outfaced. She handed the good nestling child to a neighbour and with both paws hoicked up the disobedient one. Now the twins well and truly sorted.

Half an hour later the troop appeared below our balcony. They were chewing on dried banana skins. Some swung up into a young fever tree that was hung with weaver nests. Slender fingers reached inside a grass globe, explored the soft mossy shelf for a tiny delicate blue egg, and tore the nest from its moorings. All that weaver bird effort wasted in a second’s mischief. The weavers were distraught and set up a clamour. If it was not vervet monkeys, it was thieving shrikes. So much tension here in the endless eat-be-eaten cycle. The pool is not the peaceful resort that the casual human glance suggests. It is a battle ground where innumerable insects, fish, birds, mammals struggle second by second for a chance to reproduce.

And now of course, there was also the crocodile to consider. It turned out that others (besides Peter Giles and me) had now seen it. Sometime in January its lurking presence had at last impinged on the consciousness of the locals. Now they believed in it, and as a consequence its days were numbered. John told us the wildlife rangers had been called in to despatch it, but so far they had been unlucky. I supposed its existence was not exactly an asset in a hotel garden. And crocodiles had had a bad press during the prevailing drought. Their usual fish diet diminished by the shrinking rivers, they were resorting instead to attacking farm stock and had even taken children who had gone to fetch water. Furthermore, they were well known to be mixed up in the nefarious activities of witches, especially those operating along the Tana River who would commandeer the crocodiles at night and, bestriding their scaly backs, use than as their means of private transport for crossing the dark waters. Much more macho than a broomstick, if not so wide-ranging in their application.

In the early afternoon, after Graham had returned to the field station, I was in my usual spot on our room balcony, reading. The flash of white plumage of a lone sacred ibis suddenly distracted me. It flew in and alighted beside the pool just below me. I watched it move along the lawn edge, entranced by the rhythm of its silent probing, the slender curved bill piercing the ground for hidden grubs. On the bank, a yard or so in front of it was another bird, a shy night heron, stalking insects. It was bothered by the presence of the ibis, not caring to be followed. I picked up the binoculars for a better look at them and suddenly realised that in my sights, between bird and bird and seemingly staring right at me, was a pair of lacklustre reptilian eyes. The crocodile! It was moored right at the water’s edge and I wondered how long it had been there without my noticing it.

This time I would get a photograph. I stole down the steps and tiptoed across the grass. But at the very moment when I had composed the frame, getting the crocodile’s full length glinting in sunlit waters, was about be press the button, it spotted me and hurled itself across the pool for the cover of the reed bed, churning up clouds of sulphur-smelling mud as it went. Gone. I cursed my clumsiness.

But that night Graham got his chance to see it too. We were sitting on the balcony playing Scrabble. The sun had almost disappeared and the pool looked grey and cold. A breeze was whipping the usually still surface into glinting corrugations. As Graham considered his verbal manipulations I stared at the ripples. And there it was, over by the reed bed where I had seen it disappear earlier. All that could be seen was the top of his knotty snout; waiting, waiting for his prey in darkening waters, a fragment of floating bark.

…to be continued.

related: Once in Africa: Everyday Moments At Hunter’s Lodge…Until the Crocodile

001_thumb[1]A rare moment of complete emptiness: the Mombasa highway just north of Hunter’s Lodge

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

 

Once In Africa ~ Everyday Moments At Hunter’s Lodge…Until The Crocodile

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When I ran away to Africa in February 1992, Hunter’s Lodge at Kiboko was the first place Graham took me to. Then it was a run-down safari lodge, developed in the 1960s-70s from the erstwhile home of great white hunter, John Hunter. We were told the place had had its heyday back then. Asian and expatriate European families would drive out from Nairobi to spend the weekend there and also, before the nearby highway was paved, it was a very welcome place to break the red-dusty, hour-on-hour, gut-wrenching drive from Nairobi to the Mombasa coast.

In the time we spent there – and it was pretty much our second home during that year, and again at the end of 1993 (the Kiboko field station where Graham’s team of Kenyan researchers were monitoring methods of Larger Grain Borer control was just  next door) – we were always surprised if we arrived at the Lodge to find someone else staying there.

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To me it seemed like an oasis, and indeed John Hunter had meant to be one. He had once known the spot as a popular elephants’ watering hole on the Kiboko River, and so had decided to dam the watercourse to create a small lake to attract bird life. This was the place he had chosen to end his days after a life’s-work of ivory hunting, celebrity safari running, and game control work for the colonial game department.

He was a speak-his-mind Scotsman who had been among the earliest arrivals of white settlers in what was then the British East Africa Protectorate (later Kenya Colony). In the 1920s and ‘30s he hunted with the likes of Denys Finch Hatton and Bror Blixen who considered him an elder statesman in all matters of stalking and bush-craft. On his own admission, he had cleared the Kiboko-Makindu location of over 1,000 rhino. He had also helped rid the area of its elephant population – this to protect colonial sisal and orange plantations and the farm plots of the local Akamba people in the native reserve further north. In his day, the colonial ambition was to develop the agricultural potential of East Africa to help pay for the very expensive railway the British government had built from Mombasa to Lake Victoria (built 1895-1901). Ideas about game conservation did not begin to take hold until 1948, and even then some colonial administrators were still likely to see Kenya as their personal hunting ground.

Hunter’s Lodge, then,  was a place of many resonances, currents and undercurrents, many I only unravelled later; am still unravelling.

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Our day there began with breakfast at 7 am in the dining room with the surprising ‘ogival’? doors front and back, presumably part of the original Hunter home. By that time the weaver birds in their papyrus clumps were at full chirp, the storks in their fever tree roosts honking and bill clattering, the pied kingfishers taking up diving positions. By then, too, the vervet monkeys would be eyeing up their options: our veranda door carelessly left ajar, the possibility of later pickings in our room should access prove feasible?

In the dining room where we rarely saw anyone but Reuben, the old Akamba waiter, who unfailingly asked us if we would have eggs with our breakfast. We never did, and only realised very much later that every day we had stayed there, we had been charged for a full three course English breakfast. Usually we had wheat flakes with milk that had been boiled. We learned to take a plastic tea strainer with us to sieve out the skin. The milk was delivered by local Maasai women, who would arrive at the kitchen door in all their red and beaded regalia. The tea always had a sulphurous taste from the local spring water. The boiled milk didn’t help much.

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Graham left for work at 7.30 and for the next five hours till he returned for lunch (chips or cheese sandwiches) I wrote, read, wandered the garden, and watched. Time there was like a waking reverie, a guided meditation, never being anywhere but ‘in the moment’. Since few guests came, the hotel staff had a routine that did not involve providing hospitality. I watched the daily comings and goings of the garden workers – the sweeping, mowing, the tending of the vegetable shamba. I’d hear the bell that summoned all the staff to their tea-break, leaving no one at all around.

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Sometimes I chatted with Joyce the chambermaid. I also watched the goings-on at the bungalow across the pool, said to be the home of a local politician. And I learned to identify many local birds. There were said to be over 200 species in the vicinity. One day a lone pelican dropped in. That was a surprise. Sometimes the giant kingfisher would perch on the thorn tree by our room. Then there were the tiny malachite kingfishers – brilliant little jewels of birds. The greyhooded kingfisher was the one I saw most often.

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Around 5.30 Graham would return from work, and we’d go to the pool terrace for tea. At some stage we were usually joined by the Lodge’s disconsolate peacock (its mate had been eaten by a python). The bird invariably tried to eat the sugar. Later we would return to the terrace for supper – Tusker beer, steak and chips. There was never much choice. If we were lucky, John the Maasai barman would be on duty. He was always very charming, and always had an awful lot to say on pretty much any topic.

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And now here’s an excerpt from the Kenya Diary, written on our return to Kenya after 9 months in Zambia. It includes a far from usual occurrence at Hunter’s Lodge:

20 December 1993

Monday morning and we are off to Kiboko again, out on the dusty Mombasa highway, dodging lorries and potholes, heading for the southern plains. We remark upon the vistas of unaccustomed lushness as we leave Nairobi behind. There have been good rains, and the wooded slopes of upland Ukambani beyond the Machakos turn, are as green as we have ever seen them. And even down on the semi-arid flatlands of low-lying Sultan Hamud and Emali the dark ochre soils seem bloated with wholesome moisture and the promise of a good maize crop.

The locals clearly think so too, for they are out in the fields in force, husbands, wives, grandmothers, children all busy weeding the leafy, foot high seedlings; some guiding a pair of yoked oxen and earthing up the new crop so as to husband every drop of rain, a rich man with a tractor preparing his acres. It is a hive of industry, the bright primary coloured cottons of the women’s kangas and headscarves against the brown and green striking up impressions of carnival optimism.

And for my part I long to thrust my hands into that warm humus-smelling soil and plant out lusty seedlings of courgettes and broad beans, crisp lettuce and cherry tomatoes. I picture a healthy crop of vegetables lying newly plucked in my basket; savour their freshness. But it is only a pipe dream. For it is scarcely so easy, especially here where expected rains may fail and in a few days the hard-nurtured crop be burned to a crisp and blown away with the parched soil. And so as we pass by, we wish them good fortune and good rains, these hard-working hopeful smallholder farmers.

South of Emali the farm fields give way to low thorn scrub. In our previous 1992 trips we had only ever seen it as thickets of thorny shafts and barbs. But now the spikes and spines have burst into luscious greenery, a wrap of verdant baize on every scaly twig, and a delicate flowering of ivory catkins, of golden mimosa pompoms and pink and yellow lanterns that yield a heady scent of orange blossom. From time to time their perfume is drawn in through our open windows and makes a change from the more usual blasts of truck fumes. And amongst all the fresh new greenery, forging its way up through the low trees and shrubs are spires of purple wild flowers and on the open grassland carpets of Parma-violet mauve and forget-me-not blue.

It is just past midday and overhead the sky is as perfect as the glaze on eggshell china. The sun burns. Our journey takes less than two hours, even with all the trucks, but when we turn off the highway at the Akamba woodcarvers stalls at Kiboko and negotiate the roughly made up drive to Hunter’s Lodge, see the low white building with its red pantiled roof and flagstaff standing in the shady garden, there is always a sense of relief, a release of barely held breath. It always seems too like a home-coming, though goodness knows why for there is rarely anyone there to greet us unless Joyce is on duty or John the Maasai is about. Usually we just get the key and tumble into our room with all our belongings and collapse on the brown candlewick-covered bed. Listen to the seamless twittering of golden weavers, the raucous calls of marabou storks and herons way up in the rafters of the fever trees.

We picnic on the veranda. There is so much to watch, the endless high-tension cycle of hunting, prowling, stalking, making a kill, keeping alive, courting, mating, rearing, being hunted – ripples across the pool. After lunch Graham goes off to the field station. I doze within the green cocoon, mesmerised by strands of reflected light until the sun begins to slip through the trees. And suddenly, at the day’s end there is a flurry of heightened purpose amongst the bird-life: swifts, swallows and martins duck and dive over the water in a frenzied pursuit of insects; three bright white and black pied kingfishers fly fast and low over the green surface; the russet speckled giant kingfisher, the size of a young rook and with a beak like a pile driver, plummets from a nearby acacia into the pool, exploding the glare with a mighty crash; there is a flight past of sacred ibis; the eerie hkaa, hkaa hkaa-ing of their cousins the hadadas; and in the fading light a tiny crimson-bibbed and azure helmeted sunbird pierces the trumpet flowers of the thevetia and sips up the nectar concealed within.

All afternoon, across the pool, the local fundi has been working on the new summerhouse in the garden of the Akamba politician’s bungalow. It is octagonal, open-sided with a low wall and a conical tiled roof supported on slender round columns. It will be lovely when it is done. Other men have been cutting the grass with pangas; their hearts were not in it though and they made small progress, but than what is the hurry? The sun is hot, there is always tomorrow and anyway the owner of the house rarely comes. There is a diversion too. Five Maasai women call round to speak with one of the men; all with shaved heads, all shoulders draped in red cotton shawls of identical shade. They lay down their heavy loads at the garden gate, plastic bottles of water, which they have been carrying on slender backs supported by a leather head-strap. They stop for a while chatting, a cluster of exotic birds, then take up their burdens once more and set off in single file along the track that skirts the garden and strikes out into the bush.

Meanwhile I sit in my own private box, watching the pageant unfold, watching as the setting sun casts a low glow through the (earlier) shadowy recesses of the acacia wood so that it takes on all the seeming insubstantial qualities of a back-lit drop from the set of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But instead of Cobweb and Mustard Seed, a small troop of baboons takes the stage, swings up through the branches, the low light dancing off the coarse hairs of tawny coats. I watch them for a few minutes, while they try to make up their minds whether a raid on the politician’s garden is a viable proposition. Then there is the low rumble of a Land Rover as it comes to rest in the gravel car park below our room. Graham is back. It is time for the interval and a pot of strong Hunter’s Lodge tea out on the terrace by the crook-backed bridge.

21 December

It’s true. I’ve seen it. There really is a crocodile in the Hunter’s Lodge pool; a touch of melodrama and a real-life villain for the piece. Peter Giles (Graham’s former boss) thought he had spotted one, but no one really believed him.

I was busy writing a letter, out on the veranda. Beyond its shade the lawn and pool were full-lit by afternoon sun. It was hot and sultry out there and I was glad of the breeze that funnelled through the open stable doors of our room and out to where I was sitting.

Suddenly there was a commotion of weaver chatter on the branches of the young thorn tree where they were busy building nests. The little tree was right at the water’s edge. I scanned it for incident. Nothing unusual there, but there was in the pool below it. Just off the clipped lawn and heading in an easterly direction cruised the snout, head and shoulders of a partially submerged crocodile. Not massive by any means but perhaps a good four feet long. My heart pounded with thrill of it as I rushed and fumbled for the camera. It had taken me eighteen months to finally convince Graham of the existence of the giant kingfisher, and only then by showing him the beast in action; he was hardly going to believe in the reptile sighting without some sort of proof. I hurried out of our room, down the open staircase, past a chambermaid occupied with the task of sweeping up the unremitting cascade of leaf and twig from the acacias. Round the end of the building where the remnant fairway sign announces ‘hole number 3, 43 yards’, across the sloping turfy lawn (more cautiously now) and down to the water’s edge, camera at the ready.

But there was not a sign of him. Completely disappeared. I patrolled the lawn edge, walked round to the terrace and stood out on the crooked bridge for several minutes and scanned the waters with binoculars. He had gone, submerged, made wary perhaps by the sudden rash of visitors who were now laughing and shouting out in the gardens. I returned to my veranda and was so engrossed in seeking out the disappearing crocodile that I did not at first notice the vervet monkey who had crept into the bedroom over the stable door. But I caught sight of him on his way out. He was making off with half a loaf (tomorrow’s lunch) tucked under his arm. And just to add insult to injury, it turned out that the wretched little creature did not even really like bread. A few minutes later I saw it abandoned, impaled on a branch of the acacia tree outside the veranda.

But more surprising than any of this, when Graham arrived back and I told of the crocodile, he was almost as excited as I was; took no convincing at all. When I tackled him over the gross inconsistency of his confidences in my wildlife sightings he told me that of course he believed in the existence of the crocodile; after all it was a corroborative second sighting, wasn’t it? But what about the giant kingfisher, I asked, ruffled. Oh that’s quite different, says he; only you had seen it! I refrain from biting his ankles and we repair to the terrace for afternoon tea.

Later, after dark we return there for a glass of Kenyan beer. We sit in the dim spotlight of a single lamp strung up in the thorn tree. We hear the cackle of bush babies away in the gloom. The fireflies wink on their course across the pool. A rangy cat trots nervously through a pool of light and disappears across the lawn. The young bow-tied barman sorts through his receipts. A waiter sprawls in a garden chair away in the shadows. There are no other customers. We are happy to be here.

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Related: The Way We Were ~ More From The Kenya Diary

Amy at The World Is A Book sets Lens-Artists’ challenge #7: Everyday moments

Most Beloved ~ The Elephant Child

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The fervour of elephant love should never be underestimated. Look like a threat to an elephant child and death will surely follow. But in peaceful surroundings, and from safe quarters, the way a matriarchal group shepherds and protects their young is marvellous to behold. The header photo was taken in the Maasai Mara in 1999 from a safari truck, but the account below is of a scene witnessed in 1992, one night at Kilaguni Lodge in Tsavo West national park. Some of you will have read this piece before, but then I think it’s worth retelling. You can’t say too much about elephants, can you:

Night comes swiftly in the African bush but never quietly. As the sun drops behind the Chyulu Hills, so the pipe and whirr of frog and bug ratchet up a few decibels. It is like a million high tension wires being pinged and twanged. If you listen with both ears it can drive you mad. Likewise, if you allow yourself to succumb to the night’s sticky heat and the hypnotic scents of thorn flowers, then do not be surprised when the sudden scream of a tree hyrax stops your heart.

But we are not going mad. And our hearts are just fine. We think we have cracked this Africa lark. Well sprayed with insect-repellent, all accessible parts covered as can be, anti-malarials ingested, it seems safe to sit out on our veranda at Kilaguni Lodge  and do some night-time big game watching.

Below our room is a barren stretch of red volcanic earth, and a water-hole lit up by two search lights. The illuminated circle that the lights create is like a stage set. It seems we are seated in a mysterious wildlife theatre waiting for the cast to appear.

The contrast is disturbing. By day, this self-same set is furnace red, littered with volcanic spoil; it is the haunt of the cadaverous-looking marabou storks and the occasional zebra. By night, all is softer, surreal. You feel you might dissolve through the light into perpetual darkness; for out there the night goes on forever, doesn’t it?

And so we go on gazing at the scene. It takes some time to realize that small groups of impala are emerging from the gloom. Their stillness is mesmerizing. Perhaps they are not there at all.

And then…

And then…

The impala are wary. You can almost see the charge of anxiety ripple through the herd. We hold our breath and stare into the dark behind the lights.

And then we see them – black hulks gliding through the thorn trees. Elephants. They have come so silently, walking always on tiptoes, their heels cushions of fat to muffle their footfalls. Slowly they move in from the bush. Even in the dimness beyond the pool, their hides glow red, irradiated by the igneous dirt they have blown over themselves.

In the wings the elephants pause. It is hard to say how many are there. After a few moments two peel away and the rest of the group retreats again into darkness. Two large matriarchs now head for the pool. At the water’s edge they part, and in matched strides stake out the water-hole from opposite directions. There’s an angry trumpeting when an impala fails to withdraw fast enough, and only when the entire bank is clear do the elephants go down and drink. Yet  they have hardly taken a couple of gulps when they move back and take up guard duty, one at each end of the mud bank.

We are transfixed. We cannot fathom the plot, but note that, despite the elephants’ aggressive stance, there has been a concerted gracefulness to their routine. It crosses my mind that the great choreographer, Balanchine, once made a ballet for elephants. Now we see they have dances of their own.

And so we wait.

Slowly the rest of the group reappears, moving as one in the tightest huddle. As they enter the spotlight we understand. Tucked safely between the legs of four large cows are three infants. Like precious celebrities surrounded by an escort of heavies, the youngsters are guided to the water. There, with tiny trunks they cannot quite control, they drink their fill. The whole thing takes only a few minutes. Then, with this life-and-death task accomplished, the sentinels re-join the group, and the small herd leaves as silently as it came, melting into the backdrop.

For the rest of this piece see earlier post The Tsavo Big Game Show – It’s A Dangerous Pursuit

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

Daily Post: Beloved

Peroulia Dreaming 7 ~ Son Of Poseidon Checks His Shell Phone?

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Well he has to be some sort of Greek god, doesn’t he? For one thing I can tell you he wasn’t wearing a stitch beyond the sarong slung round his neck though you will have to take my word on that.

We had walked down to Peroulia Beach in hopes of some good photos. It had been gloomy all afternoon after short sharp showers. Only at sunset did the sky clear and the last light bathe the Messenian Gulf in shades of famille rose. It was all rather astonishing – a pink-blushed azure sea. And if at first the son of the deity was doggedly wading backwards across this seascape, presumably making a video on his phone and thus proving rather irritating to those of us who wished to take a photograph, when he turned to check his creation I decided he very much added to the scene.

Daily Post: scale

Peroulia Dreaming 6 ~ Phragmites Sunrise

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I kept returning to photograph these grasses at the Iconpainter’s Villas. Every time I was struck by the plumed silhouettes against sea and mountains and sky. Yet it was several days before it occurred to me snap them in monochrome. I’m glad I did. I had Paula in mind when I took this photo too, so a big thanks to her for this week’s challenge ‘shape’ and thus the chance to post it.

 

Black & White Sunday

Peroulia Dreaming Part 1

It was hard to leave, yet if we had stayed longer we might never have come home. We drank light, red wine pressed this summer from the ancient Greek Agiorgitiko grapes grown at our door, ate olives picked last autumn from the garden trees, laced our food with fragrant oil, drizzled honey over little clay pots of fresh yogurt, bit into sun-warmed figs, breathed in lavender, rosemary, oregano, rose geranium, then gazed, quite mesmerised, over the olive groves to the sea and the blue spine of the Taygetus Range. And then forgot. Everything.

We were here for seven days. On the Peloponnese (Πελοπόννησος) – the place where legend has geographical existence and the gods once roamed and made mischief. One of the gateways to the underworld is at the foot of the Mani penisula, another is at Lerne (Λέρνη) in the Argolis, where Heracles also slew the multi-headed serpent Hydra. Before that he had been in Nemea, slaying the Nemean lion. This is also the area from which Agiorgitiko vines are said to originate, and so the wine is also dubbed Blood of Hercules since it is believed to have fortified the hero before he vanquished the big cat.

Later he travelled across the northern Peloponnese in pursuit of the Ceryneian Hind and the Erymanthian Boar, while in the west he diverted the rivers Alfeois and Pineois to clean out the monumentally filthy Augean Stables. (Don’t you find it pleasing to know these fantastical events occurred in real places).

This is also the land of the Bronze Age Mycenaeans – they who were the builders of palaces, cities and tholos tombs – their centre the city of Mycenae in the north-east – until their mysterious disappearance in 1100 BCE. Homer’s tales in the Iliad have their beginnings here too, in Sparta, whence Paris eloped with Helen, and set off the whole bloody conflict that was the Trojan War.

In the Common Era, and especially from the early Middle Ages, the shores of the Peloponnese suffered serial conquests, falling under Byzantine rule twice, invaded by Slavs, Franks, Ottoman Turks (twice), Venetians (twice) – all of whom, one way and another, have left traces of their passing. And yet for all this and the many following upheavals, including the War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire in 1821 -1832, and the Civil War of 1946-49, one has the sense, at the very heart of things, that the Greeks have, and always will, remain true to their authentic selves. They live for, and of, and by land. For many, that living may be tough, and especially by cosy 21st century standards, but still they live well. You sense this as you wander the lanes past the ramshackle farms with their litter of tractor parts and decomposing cars. And here we come to the crux of the matter – the smiles and exchanges of kalimera (good morning) as we pass: for if the true measure of a civilised people is their capacity to welcome strangers, then the Greeks continue to show us the way. Indeed, many of us could learn a great deal from them.

Samuel Butler (1774-1839) - The Atlas of Ancient and Classical Geography  Project Gutenberg

Samuel ButlerThe Atlas of Ancient and Classical Greece, Project Gutenberg

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But in case you are wondering where exactly was the location of our collective forgetting – we were staying above Peroulia Beach, among the olive groves between Kombi and Harakopio villages, 6 km north of Koroni (Κορώνη) on the easterly tip of the westernmost peninsula. Our little house at the Iconpainter’s Villas had a veranda that looked east on the Gulf of Messinia and the mountains of the Mani across the water, and south to Koroni – a hillside fishing village hugged around its harbour, the promontory behind dominated by the monolithic bastion of a huge fortress built by the Venetians in the 13th century and added to by the Ottomans in the 16th. Perhaps I’ll take you there in the next post. But be warned: it is a fair hike through the olive groves.

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

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More Dallying In The Dingle ~ Encounters with Rare Bird, Twitchers, A Goddess And A War Horse ~ And That Was Only for Starters…

Nor was it the kind of day when one might expect any of these things to cross one’s path. Truth was I was in a bit of a stew on Saturday morning. He who dismantles wooden builder’s pallets and shares my house was off to Shrewsbury on a half-day’s book-binding course. I thought this very excellent. It always makes a good change putting things together rather than taking other things apart (otherwise known as pallet scrattling, although I should add that some of the scrattled pallets have been recycled into various sizes of book press and spine stitching frames so, unlikely as it sounds, there is congruence between the two activities).

The reason I was in a bit of a stew was because I had decided that, since he was headed for the big bad town, albeit to the suburbs, he could drop me off somewhere near the centre for a few hours’ shopping. The source of my concern was that scrattling and binding skills do not necessarily add up to a navigational facility. I was thus at pains to devise routes that could be followed in my absence. And no, we do not have Sat Nav. And yes, I think it’s time we did.

Except, if it had not been for my overanxious machinations, which made for a simple non-deviating route for him, and a long walk for me, I would not have opted to be dropped off by the Porthill Bridge, one of the town’s several Victorian suspension bridges (Shrewsbury is on a hill within a loop of the River Severn), and I would not have had all these unexpected encounters in Shrewsbury Quarry, otherwise known as the town park.

Here’s the footbridge. It’s rather fine, apart from the earth-tremor sensation when you reach the middle:

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And here’s the  first glimpse of The Quarry once you’ve recovered from vertigo:

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And another view looking towards the river, complete with Victorian bandstand:

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As you can see the park is mostly swathes of grass crisscrossed by pleasing avenues. The riverside walk is the nicest, and enables you to access one end of the town from the other without meeting a car, though watch out for the bicycles. For two days in August (this year the 11th and 12th), Shrewsbury Flower Show covers the whole park. In fact it is quite a legend –  the world’s longest running flower show. It has its origins in the medieval guildsmen’s annual celebrations – more of which in a moment.

For now please conjure tents, pavilions and marquees, a floral riot of three million blooms, some astonishing displays of vegetables, the bandstand bursting with serial military bands, and each day topped off with a stupendous firework display.

Uphill from the bandstand is one of several gateways into the Dingle as mentioned in the last post. This submerged garden with its small ornamental lake was made from an abandoned stone quarry back in Victorian times, but today’s planting very much celebrates the life and times of Percy Thrower, Britain’s first TV gardener who was Superintendent of Shrewsbury Parks 1946-1974.

I only went in there by chance. I’d walked across the park to take a photograph of the bandstand and, by the time I’d done that, I’d rather forgotten about going shopping. Then I began to notice a gathering of chaps all clad  in dark coloured anoraks. They were down by the Dingle pool and armed with photographic lenses as big as rocket launchers. There was air of enthusiast-expectation – as in train-spotters waiting for the Flying Scotsman to steam by. Twitchers, I thought: they who pursue rare breeds of birds to add to their list of rare birds already spotted. I looked from lenses to ornamental pool and back again. They clearly hadn’t lugged in all that kit to snap the Dingle ducks. They could leave that to me:

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I stared at the island in the pool, the spot on which every lens was trained. All I could see was part of a white-grey undercarriage of what appeared to be a largish bird. It was standing very still, most of it hidden in a rhododendron. My first thought, bizarrely, was ‘penguin’ and for a daft few moments I wondered how a penguin could possibly have arrived in Shropshire. Climate change? Surely not.

Then I began to feel a touch offended on behalf of the putative penguin, and with all the peering that was going on. I decided I would not ask the twitchers what they were waiting to see, but do a circuit around the pool and see if whatever it was would reveal itself on my return. That seemed more fair, less paparazzi-like.  And if it didn’t appear so be it. Poof. Talk about taking moral high ground.

Next it was the tulips that caught my eye, as in the previous post, but you can see them again:

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And then I said hello to Percy Thrower, and wished I had a bucket of soapy water  to give his face a good wash: dirty birds!

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And next I wandered round to the Shoemakers’ Arbour, a place that used to intrigue me as a child. No adult back then seemed able to explain exactly what it was. The plaque on the wall of the structure says that, what looks like a piece of romantically contrived garden architecture,  was in fact the gateway to an arbour built by the Shrewsbury Guild of Shoemakers in 1679. It also tells me that it was originally sited across the river in Kingsland, but moved to the Dingle in 1877. There is no further explanation, though presumably the reason it was rescued was precisely because it made a nice piece of romantically contrived garden architecture.

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On the pediment (see also the header photo) are the remnant images of Crispin and Crispian, the patron saints of shoemakers:

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But what I wanted to know was – what was all this stuff about guilds and arbours, and what did shoemakers do inside them anyway – get well and truly cobbled?

Later, after a little delving, I discovered that celebration and jollification were indeed the purpose, and all part of the annual town celebrations, the very same that gave rise to the present day Shrewsbury Flower Show.

So the story is this.

Across the River Severn from the Quarry is a part of the town called Kingsland (now an enclave of grand Edwardian houses and Shrewsbury School). In the late middle ages it was common land administered by the town corporation. Here the town’s guilds would erect arbours for an annual gathering. In the early days these arbours were wooden framed pavilions, but by the 17th century the guilds were allowed to build permanent single storey structures – much in the style of medieval feasting halls. Each also had a cottage with a court and hedged garden.

On show day – always the second Monday after Trinity Sunday – and after the guilds had processed through the town, all would repair to their various arbours for much merrymaking. Here too each guild would entertain the mayor and his officers, and one imagines that the worthies may well have been legless by the time they had visited all eleven guild arbours.

The Shoemakers’ Arbour thus shared the ground with, among others, the guilds of bakers, tailors, carpenters, glovers, weavers and joiners. You can read more about medieval guilds here, but they were basically trade associations, or cartels formed by skilled artisans with the intention of guaranteeing craft standards and setting wages somewhat like a trade union.

Now that’s all sorted, back to my wander round the Dingle, and just in case you are now imagining a large rambling place, it truly only take five minutes to walk round if you don’t stop to look at things. Which makes it all the more odd that after I’d moved on from the saintly shoemakers I found myself in a part of the garden I did not remember. (How could that be? I spent so much of my youth in this place.) Anyway, I had taken a little off-shoot from the main path, and this brought me to a small pool. And here she was: Sabrina – the River Severn’s very own goddess:

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Sabrina is her Roman name, but the two main stories associated with her are of pre-Roman origin and told by 12th century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth. The Celtic tale tells of three sisters, water nymphs who meet on Plynlimon (Pumlumon in Welsh), the highest point of the Cambrian Mountains in mid-Wales. They each decide to pursue their own route to the sea. One sister wants to reach it as quickly as possible and sets off due west, so forming the Ystwyth River. The second sister prefers the rolling hill country, and wends her leisurely way, so becoming the Wye. And the third, Hafren, takes the longest route of all, 180 miles, and becomes the Severn. She wants to have a good look at all the fine towns and cities and stay close to the haunts of humankind.

Hafren is the Welsh name for the River Severn. A single ‘F’ is pronounced as ‘V’ in Welsh. She is the Welsh goddess of healing.  And the other story about her is rather grim. It is very ancient, and tells of an early English king, Locrinus, who marches to the North England to fight off the invading Huns. Amongst his prisoners is a German girl, Estrildis, with whom he falls in love. But he is pledged to Gwendolen, and a king must keep his promises. Being king though, he also devises a way to keep Estrildis as his mistress, and for seven years hides her away from his queen in a subterranean dwelling. They have a child of course – Habren or Hafren.

And then Locrinus makes a big mistake, and runs off with his beloved. The enraged Gwendolen raises an army and marches against him. He is slaughtered and Estrildis and Hafren are ordered to be drowned in the Severn.  In tribute, however, to the guiltless child, the queen orders that the river be named after her. So there we have her: Hafren, Severn, Sabrina.

The notions of her healing powers may go back to earliest Celtic times, since we know that water played an important part in the Celts’ spiritual thinking. The Romans too honoured watery places and often adopted the deities of the occupied peoples. You will find a more detailed and fascinating discussion of the  myths and legends associated with the River Severn HERE

The statue was carved by Peter Hollins of Birmingham in 1846 and donated to the people of Shrewsbury by the Earl of Bradford in 1879.

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By now I’m back with the twitchers. Can you spot a couple of them? But there is still nothing happening on the penguin front and I am now diverted by a life-sized iron horse, and can’t think how I missed her on the way into the Dingle. There she is amongst the municipal rows of polyanthus, the town’s commemorative tribute to Flanders Field of the Great War, and of course to all the brave horses who served man and country.

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But suddenly things are stirring behind me. The twitchers are all a flutter. Hey-up! I hear. The penguin must be on the move.

I’m disappointed though. I’m only armed with a little Lumix, so these next shots are pretty poor, though good enough to show that the penguin theory was indeed very silly.

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What we have here is Nycticorax nycticorax – a Night Heron, and indeed a most unusual visitor on UK shores. It is more usually found in warm, tropical regions and I think the first and  last one I saw was at Hunter’s Lodge in Kenya. I didn’t wait to see if the penguin it was prepared to reveal itself fully. I decided the clue was in the name. The entry for Night Heron in my Field Guide to Birds of East Africa says: ‘Mainly nocturnal, keeping to dense waterside cover by day.’

But at least the mystery is solved. I cut back across the Dingle, skirting around Percy’s ‘parks & gardens’ flower beds, the tower of St. Chad’s on my horizon:

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And out again in the Quarry, I next find myself joining in with an ‘Anti-Austerity’ – Labour Party Rally outside the Horticultural Society’s park lodge . Here are people who want to stop cuts to state schools that are lowering teaching standards and to protect all that is good about the National Health Service. I look around the assembled crowd. They look like decent people. Their words are sincere, heartfelt. I stick around and do some clapping. Shopping? What shopping?

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

 

 

 

Thursdays Special ~ Profile Of The Leonine Kind

Marsh Pride male 1

We came upon the Maasai Mara’s famous Marsh Pride on a morning game drive out from Mara River Camp. It was August – as close to winter as Kenya gets – the skies leaden, the plains parched and dusty, the whole place waiting for the short rains that will not be happening for another two months; and perhaps not at all. In fact this trip had started out from Nairobi in thick fog, and descending the Great Rift escarpment was even more hair-raising exciting than usual.

But to get back to the lions. The pride was resting up in home territory, most of its members – mothers and cubs – scarcely visible in the grass. For one thing they were the same colour as the vegetation. For another, it is what lions do – disappear in twelve inches of grass.

As we drove nearer we spotted this male. He was pacing through the grass, roaring. This was answered by another male some distance away. It seemed they were busy marking out their patch. They ignored us anyway, which was comforting, though I have to say that lion-roars, especially ones at close quarters, make your spine resonate, and not in a good way.

Another hair-raising exciting moment then.

We watched them for a while from the safety of the safari truck, then left them to it, the roars following us down the track. By which time  we were  wondering if we were really there at all. Out in the African wilds it mostly feels like dreaming.

 

Profile:     Panthera Leo

                    Simba in KiSwahili

Weight:    Males 420-500 lb/110-135 kg

Length:     Males 5-7 ft/2.5-2 m

Lifespan:  Males 12 years

 

Thursdays Special: Profile

Please visit Paula to see her fantabulous shot of a snowy owl.

Kenya’s Prolific Green Highlands ~ Thursday’s Special

napier grass on the Rift

Prolific

Nothing could have prepared me for my first glimpse of Kenya’s fertile uplands all  those years ago when I ran away to Africa. I’d flown out from Paris on the overnight Air France flight to Nairobi. It was my first long-haul flight, a good eight hours, and I did not sleep a wink despite being served a very delicious small-hours’ supper, and having a whole row of seats to myself.

I was pent up with the prospect of meeting up with Graham, whom I had not seen for some weeks, rather than wondering about my destination. Quite ridiculous I know. I was flying blind, having done not a scrap of  research on Kenya. In fact I had set out armed with only my brother-in-law’s comment: you’ll either love it or hate it; there’s no in between.

And so early one February morning as the great jumbo jet slid down the valleys of Central Province towards Nairobi, I could scarcely believe my eyes. Volcanic hillsides unfolded beneath us – every scrap of earth burgeoning green to their summits, the patchwork plots of Kenya’s smallholder farmers. Before we set down at Jomo Kenyatta International I was already in love. I did not know then that this was the start of an eight year affair with a land that could not be more different from my Shropshire homeland. I am still infected.

Some years after this arrival, when Graham was combining his project work at Kenya Agriculture Research Institute with some field work for his doctorate, I had the chance to visit many of those highland farms and meet the farmers and see at first hand the kind of crops that they were growing so prolifically – maize, tea, bananas, fodder grass, squash, beans, potatoes, plums, apples, cabbages and kale. This photo was taken on one of these expeditions, and like me it has aged somewhat. But it was the first image I thought of when I read through Paula’s list of word prompts as this week’s Thursday’s Special. Do drop in there to join in the ‘pick a word’ challenge.

For more of my Kenya story see also:

Valentine Day’s Runaway

Looking for smut on Kenya’s Highland Farms

Luminous Lions in the Maasai Mara

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It’s as if the East African landscape only becomes itself at sundown and sunrise; is only visible to us humans in steeply angled light. It reminds me of the magic painting books I had as a child: nothing but white pages, the images barely descried, a palimpsest of silvery lines. All is blank then; staringly dull. But take a pot of water, and ply a paint brush across the page, and all springs astonishingly to life. Everywhere bursting in colour.

Out in the bush the wild life anyway lies low during the midday hours.  And even if you could see them, the equatorial sun flattens the vista. You lose a sense of scale and distance. Even a magnificent eland spotted in the Great Rift at noon can look strangely unimpressive.  Just a big antelope then.

Kenya’s game parks and reserves are vast – hundreds of square miles. The animals are not fenced in although, increasingly along the borders, farming (large and small scale) encroaches on grazing grounds and migration routes. But this lack of containment means you can drive around a game reserve for hour after hour and see nothing but thorn scrub; or the retreating rear end of a warthog if you’re very lucky.

But then the sun begins to set, and you are out with a local driver-guide who knows where to look; and the light turns rose-gold, and the land puts on its best colours. And what was distant, and unfocused takes on form and clarity. Out of mind-numbing absence, and hours of searching, emerges this big-cat presence…

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Of course they were there all along. Only now they let us see them. Apart, that is, from the big male who is still hiding in the grass behind his mate. It’s another piece of bush magic, how a 500-pound big cat can disappear in twelve inches of grass. Can you spot him?

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Ailsa’s travel theme: luminous