Flamingos At Dawn On Lake Elmenteita And Remembering Paul Kabochi

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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.

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Paul Kabochi wildlife expert and ethnobotanist 1942-2003

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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.”

For more of his story…

 

In the Pink #27

On watch at Elmenteita–the lake that blows away

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The light changes every second across the lake. From dawn till dusk there is always something to watch at Elmenteita in Kenya’s Great Rift. There are over 400 species of birds to spot for one thing – among them the endangered white pelican that breeds there. The main stars, though, are the surely the huge flocks of flamingos, both lesser and greater varieties, that turn swathes of the lake to rose-petal  pink. Even a passing glimpse  from the nearby  Rift highway  is enough to catch the breath. A pink lake – how can that be?

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We came here often while we lived in Nairobi, staying at Delamere tented camp on the lake shore – a quirky, step-back-in-time establishment within its own nature reserve. The camp, itself was wholly unobtrusive -16 large tents, each sheltered by a thatched canopy and set out beneath fever trees that, here and there, hosted a sturdy canvas hammock.

The tents were functional – two wood-framed beds, simple cupboards, rattan chairs all locally made. They came, too, with a plain little bathroom attached out back – running water, flush loo and shower – all facilities that would still be an unobtain-able luxury to millions of Kenyans. Inevitably, knowing this added to the discomforting ‘them and us’  awareness that accompanied us pretty much everywhere. 

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For us wazungu, then, Delamere Camp was an idyllic spot. I once spent a week here by myself while G was at a conference. There were no other guests for most of that time, external and internal tourism having been hit both by El Nino rains that had caused weeks of havoc, and by widely reported bouts of pre-election violence.  Manager, Godfrey Mwirigi, treated me as if I were his personal house guest.

I thus spent my days and nights being driven around Soysambu nature reserve in a safari truck with zoologist, Michael Kahiga as my expert guide, or taken on early morning bird walks through  the bush, or on late afternoon hikes up through the sage-scented leleshwa brush to Sogonoi cliff-top to watch the sun set over the lake with a glass of wine in my hand. This, the daily late afternoon pilgrimage to the sun-downer cliff, was a pleasing piece of  hospitality thought up by  Paul Kabochi, the camp’s ethno-botanist. I have written about him in an earlier post, but here he is again on the lake shore at dawn.

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On this solitary sojourn I was sorry to find that he was away setting up another camp. He is a man whose great fund of knowledge is sadly missed, and I would have been glad to have had another chance to speak with him.  Instead, I talked to Godfrey about tourism. He kindly ate his meals with me so that I did not have to  sit in the dining room alone.

Between times, hot water bottles and extra blankets appeared like magic in my bed, or indeed in the truck for the evening game drives. (Nights in the Rift can feel frosty). And all the time I watched and watched until my brain ached with sensory overload.

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The camp overlooked the lake and the remnant volcanic cone that has long been known by the Maasai as the Elngiragata Olmorani, the Sleeping Warrior.  During colonial times it acquired a further name – Lord Delamere’s Nose, this apparently in tribute to the impressive dynastic proboscis of the third baron Delamere who, in the early 1900s, and as one of the first pioneer colonists, acquired  19 hectares (46,000 acres) of shore-land around the  the east, north and west of the lake.

His brother-in-law, Galbraith Cole, son of the Earl of Enniskillen, farmed the southerly shores at Kekopey. He was a man who was later exiled from British East Africa because he shot dead one of his labourers for stealing a favourite sheep. He later sneaked back to Kekopey disguised as a Somali, and his mother, Countess of Enniskillen successfully pleaded his cause. At the age of 48, and looking out over the lake, he shot himself, unable to bear the constant pain of his rheumatoid arthritis.

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The descendants of these early settlers still live and retain most of their lands (including estates at nearby Lake Naivasha). In fact the only way to gain access to Elmenteita is to book into one of the exclusive safari lodges that now stand on the land that belongs to these old colonial families. This sense of British aristocratic exclusivity inevitably strikes a sour note. Doubtless these landowners will say they are custodians and that, without their dutiful care, the place would be wrecked by ramshackle trading operations and squatters, and the wildlife decimated.

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Even in my home town in Shropshire we are still ruled by such feudal argument. ‘Keep Out’ signs exclude the people of Much Wenlock from the ancient Priory parkland that is  now owned by one family. In Great Britain we take for granted (or are even unaware of) the power of the self-appointed, self-aggrandizing elite who own most of our countries’ lands.  I imagine, though, that many people would be surprised to know that super-squiredom is also alive and well  in East Africa.

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Before the British annexed East Africa in the 1890s, and all the (deemed) unoccupied territory became the property of the British Crown, and the locals obliged to stay forever  on the land where the British happened to find them,  land usage and territorial ownership was a much more fluid affair. For instance, up in the Rift highlands, and going back hundreds of years, the Kikuyu farmers had negotiated the legal acquisition of new land with the indigenous Okiek hunters, whom the Kikuyu judged to be the land’s original owners. Over the centuries this process of colonisation caused an occupational creep: as land became exhausted or overcrowded, so clan scions left their fathers’ homesteads and sought out fresh territories for their own families to cultivate. It is a similar story over much of the continent as the Bantu agriculturalists sought fresh ground.

As the boundaries of  allotted farm and pastureland nudged further into the Rift, so there was competition and conflict with the pastoral Maasai. The herders anyway believed themselves masters of the Rift, shifting up and down it as need for fresh grazing and water dictated. The farming communities with whom they traded and inter-married also at times presented an alluring target. This was inspired by the cattle herders’ belief that Enkai, the creator, had bequeathed all the cattle on earth to the Maasai. For young warriors intent on proving their courage and amassing cattle to augment family honour, armed cattle raids on their farming neighbours were a matter of necessity.

It is interesting, then, that colonial aristocrats such as Delamere, who established large stock ranches in the Rift, were inordinately admiring of the Maasai, seeing them as nature’s aristocrats. It is also tempting to put this down to a congruence of world vision: recognition of a mutual case of droit du seigneur? In fact in those early days, Delamere was the only white man for whom the Maasai would deign to work, although this did not stop them from making off with large numbers of his sheep and cattle.

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That the Rift was once Maasai territory is indicated by the many place names – Naivasha, Nakuru included – that are European renderings of Maa originals. Elmenteita derives from  ol muteita,  meaning  “place of dust” and, from time to time, this shallow soda lake does turn to dust.  At the best of times it is only around 1 metre deep. It shrinks and expands depending on the rains. But when not blowing away to dust, it extends over some 19-22 square kilometres.

The alkaline waters are rich in the crustacea and larvae that the greater flamingos feed on, and in the blue-green algae that the lesser flamingos syphon up through the top of their bills. The former have white plumage with a pink wash; the latter are more the colour of strawberry ice cream. Both honk, and grunt and mutter in a continuously shifting mass. All night you can hear them as you lie awake in your tent.

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A view to dine for: Losogonoi Escarpment and the lake shore

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But it is not only the bird life that make this place so special. The traditional ‘big five’ may be lacking in this part of the Rift, but it is still home to Rothschild giraffe, eland, buffalo, zebra, ostrich, impala, gazelle and a host of smaller game – aardvark, zorilla, porcupine, African wildcat. Since our time in Kenya much has changed at Soysambu. In 2007 the private Delamere Estate began operating as a not-for-profit conservation organi-zation called Soysambu Conservancy.

Delamere Camp has long gone. In its place is a new enterprise, the very expensive Serena Elmenteita Luxury Camp, a sort of out-of-Africa manifestation with bells on, the kind of set-up that intrudes a different kind of exclusivity on this piece of Kenya. But then of course there’s always the usual argument: that the provision of luxury on this scale does at least provide many, many jobs for Kenyans. Across the lake, however, something of the original Delamere Camp ethos has been re-created at the Sleeping Warrior Eco Lodge and Tented Camp – all within the Soysambu Conservancy.

In fact things have not been going well with the Delamere family. The sheer mention of the name has been enough to evoke great fury among many Kenyans. In 2005 and again in 2006, Thomas Cholmondeley, sole heir of the 5th Baron and Soysambu’s manager, admitted to shooting dead an African. The first case involved a plain clothes officer working for the Kenya Wildlife Service, apparently on the Soysambu farm to investigate a poaching incident. Cholmondeley says he thought the man was robbing his staff. Action against him was dropped.

In the second case, he caught a group of poachers with a dead impala, and said he was shooting at their dog when he fatally wounded one of the men. Later he claimed it was his friend, Carl Tundo, who had shot the poacher, and that he was covering for him. The whole sorry story was featured in the BBC Storyville film Last White Man Standing. Later the charge of murder was changed to manslaughter, and in any event Cholmondeley spent 3 years in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, Kenya’s toughest jail. To many, though, it was thought to be far too lenient a sentence. The high profile media coverage also  reminded  millions of landless Kenyans that certain individuals had in their sole possession unimaginably vast estates. The old skeletons of racism and colonial oppression came rattling out of the cupboard to fuel the general furore, as the poacher’s widow asked for justice.

And so what in the end are we left with – a beautiful place enmeshed in tales of human intrigue, slaughter and misadventure.

I know I was lucky to spend so much time there when I did, and to see it through the eyes of the Kenyan naturalists who were my guides. I hope that many of them still work there – for Serena or Soysambu. They taught me how to watch out in that landscape: to recognize tracks of genet cat and mongoose, to poke through the little piles of dik dik droppings that marked this tiny antelope’s territory, to identify a black-breasted apalis or shy tchagra, to listen for the calls of the red-fronted tinkerbird, to know that an infusion of bark from the muthiga or Kenya Greenheart tree is good for toothache and stomach upsets, and most especially not to fall into aardvark holes as I was walking through the thornscrub.

Finally then, a few glimpses of Soysambu’s beautiful creatures.

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Photos from bottom up:

Superb starling comes to breakfast

Waterbuck females

Dik Dik (one of the smallest antelopes, slightly larger than a hare)

Saddlebill stork, impala in the background

Eland (the largest of Africa’s antelope) and ostrich

Burchell’s zebra

Rothschild giraffe

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© 2014 Tish Farrell

A Word A Week Challenge for more stories

Paul Kabochi, Path-finder, Pharmacist 1942-2003

 

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It was dawn on the muddy shores of Lake Elmenteita in Kenya’s Rift Valley, and I was walking alone, listening to the endless grunting of flamingos as they grazed the algae-rich water. Suddenly a safari truck swung out onto the mud flats. A Japanese tourist jumped out and began taking photographs of the distant flamingos. His driver and guide Paul Kabochi, also got out, moving more softly as was his way. He  came over to me while his guest went on shooting. “Hello,” he said. “What are you doing here?”

It wasn’t a question that expected an answer; it was just Paul being Paul, the wry smile, and the glittering eyes that missed nothing. On several visits to Elmenteita’s Delamere Camp he had taken me out on dawn walks, and he had been our guide on night drives around the Soysambu estate.  And so, as I had my camera with me, I asked him to pose by the lake, which he was more than pleased to do.

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.

I first met him on the afternoon ethnobotany walk run by Delamere Camp to keep guests amused until the night drive around Lord Delamere’s private estate (now Soysambu Conservancy). That day, on the walk, we did not get beyond the camp grounds. There were too many plants that required our attention.

Paul knew about the medicinal properties of both indigenous and introduced plant species. I remember him telling me to pick some lavender from the bush outside the camp dining room when I told him I had a headache; this after ascertaining whether it was “a headache of the stomach, or of the weather.” He told me to make tea with it. On other occasions he also explained how he treated skin cancers with a mixture of, among other things, baked sodom apple (Solanum family) and avocado. Then there was the little blue flowered Wandering Jew (Commelina) that was especially good for clearing adolescent acne. He also once told me that he had successfully treated a typhoid outbreak in the locality with decoctions of (I think) fever tree bark.  He meant to write a book, imparting all he knew, but when I last met him he was struggling with finding ways to fund the venture.

When he was not acting as guide for Delamere Camps, he had his own clinic in Rumuruti, and was also called on from time to time to consult at the prestigious Nairobi Hospital.

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Lake Elmenteita looking towards the exploded volcanic crater known as The Sleeping Warrior. Large numbers of flamingos come to feed here, but it is more important as a breeding ground for white pelicans. Like many of the Rift lakes, the water is exceedingly alkaline. This particular lake is also very shallow, being only around 1 metre deep. At times it has been known to disappear altogether, leaving a dusty basin. The name comes from the Maasai ol muteita meaning dust place.

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There were around twenty ‘thatched-roof’ tents – all with bathrooms. On cool evenings we would return from the night drive to find hot water bottles in our beds.

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Paul was responsible for many of  the features that made staying at the Elmenteita camp so special. One of them was the tree house he built in a fever tree, and on whose roof terrace he is standing in the photo above. Small numbers of guests could spend the night there in the hopes of spotting the leopard that came to drink at  a nearby water hole. We stayed there once, but saw no leopard. Instead we were kept awake by chattering tree squirrels who spent all night raiding the sugar bowl which we had carelessly left uncovered. The night drive out there, though, had been fun. We had seen both a zorilla and an aardvark. And in the morning the camp staff drove up with a full hot breakfast, so we could dine on the roof amongst the bird call.

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Paul said he came from the Ndorobo community, or Ogiek, a small, but remnant population of hunter-gatherers, who traditionally lived by honey gathering and hunting. These slight-framed people were possibly among the indigenous inhabitants of East Africa before the arrival of the Bantu farmers and Maasai pastoralists. Many became assimilated with the newcomers, adopting their languages, but there are still groups living in the forests of the Mau Escarpment, where they struggle to have their rights acknowledged by the Kenyan Government. Top on their list of priorities is preserving their forest domain, now constantly under threat from agriculture.

Before he became a guide, Paul worked for many years as an animal trapper for the National Museums of Kenya, capturing animals for museum study and display. He told me that he and his party had once been set on by bandits while he was trapping up in remote and arid Turkana. The works Land Rover was stolen at gunpoint and they were left to die. He survived on that occasion, but blamed the loss of many teeth on the days of near starvation in the wilderness.

In the years before he died, Paul was working down at Taita Ranch near the border with Tanzania. There he liaised with film crews and scientific expeditions of all kinds, giving them the benefit of his wisdom and wit. It was on the 8th February 2003, while he was out alone, and on foot, tracking dwarf mongoose, that he was surprised by a lone elephant and killed. It was some years after the event that I heard what had happened, and oddly, too, from a friend of a friend in rural Shropshire, someone whose sister lived in Kenya and whom I met while she was briefly over in England on a visit. It was a strange way to discover this sad news. Even now, I find it hard to believe that someone as smart and wily as Paul Kabochi could have been caught unawares by an elephant. They have such a strong smell for one thing, and he was not a man to take anything for granted.

Many academic research papers have been dedicated to him, but I notice, as time passes, internet  references to Paul Kabochi grow fewer. This makes me wonder, too, about the loss of all his pharmacological knowledge. I know he had children, but did he pass it on? In 2000 German documentary film maker Ralf Breier made a short film about Paul. Its English title is ‘Animal Magician’. Now that’s a film I would like to see.

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The photo above was taken from the Sundowner Look-out, above Lake Elmenteita.This was another of Paul’s ideas: that in late afternoon guests would either walk or be driven up to the cliff top behind Delamere Camp. There they would be given a few roast ‘bitings’ of game meat and a beer or soft drink, and sit on tree-stump seats and watch the sun go down. We have sat up there and viewed this scene with some of our dearest friends. Now I  look at the photo and think of Paul Kabochi. It is hard to think that he is not still treading softly along Africa’s wilderness trails. 

© 2013 Tish Farrell

 

P.S. Delamere Camp is no more. Much of the former Delamere estate at Soysambu is now part of the Soysambu Conservancy. The soda lakes of Elmenteita and nearby Nakuru are now World Heritage Sites.

 

 

Nakuru is the next lake up the Rift from Elmenteita.