And It’s Not Only A Pelican…

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Not the best photo, I know. I cropped it so you can just about see what is going on in the papyrus to the right of the pelican. i.e. the rear end of one of Lake Naivasha’s hippos going ashore and the roaring, open mouth of another hippo who is objecting to the intrusion. Hippos have whopping teeth and tusks, and quite apart from being grouchy with each other, they also kill quite a few humans, especially fishermen. They are at their best when mostly immersed in water, and their surprisingly tender hides well protected from the heat of the sun. But even so, it always pays to be wary.

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A glimpse of some of Lake Naivasha’s rich bird life (apologies for grainy old ‘out-of-Africa’ shot).

The lake is fed by underground rivers and is Kenya’s only freshwater lake among its Great Rift string of soda lakes. Many of the fresh flowers bought in Europe – roses as well as carnations – are grown in corporate-owned flower factories around the lake shore. Their presence has created jobs and some social services (e.g. company funded primary schools and clinics) for local people, but there are big costs too: too much water abstraction that has shrunk the lake and pesticide and fertilizer run off that have threatened fish stocks. There’s a good  little video (7 mins) focusing on these problems and showing more of life around the lake HERE.

Spiky Squares #13

Shopping In The Papyrus At Lake Naivasha

Even locals said that anything could happen in Kenya.  And so one Lake Naivasha morning, when I thought I was  alone in the wilderness outreaches of an old safari lodge, I was both surprised and unsurprised when a young man stepped out from the papyrus swamp clutching two bunches of carnations. Fifty bob, madame, he said after the customary greeting. He seemed nonplussed  when I started to laugh.

“Do you always keep your carnations in the papyrus,” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“What, waiting for people like me?”

“Yes,” he said.

This exchange seemed to seal the deal. I didn’t even bother to haggle. And although I have no idea why I would have 50 bob on me in such a place, I bought a bunch. Given the general lack of wazungu humanity in that particular location, I also wondered  how long he had been waiting for the likes of me to come along; or how long he would have been prepared to wait for a customer. Or if I was just the unexpected thing that happened to him, rather than he to me. (You could tie yourself in knots second guessing). The rest of the lodge guests, I knew, were male entomologists, engaged all day in seminars and workshops; only I was free to wander about the hotel  grounds buying flowers for which I had no particular need.

For the rest of this story see: Carnations, Crooks and Colobus at Lake Naivasha

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Spiky Squares #8

Lions Among Thorns

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This photo documents my first real-life encounter with lions. We were on a Saturday afternoon drive in Southern Kenya when some game rangers flagged us down and asked us if we’d seen the lions. They then headed off into the bush in their truck and we followed – in a Peugeot 304 saloon.

I’d only been in Africa a few days, a camp follower in the Team Leader’s Team (aka Graham’s Outfit). He was there working, as in serious crop protection entomologist, hot on the trail of larger grain borers (LGB), an alien species of wood-boring beetles imported into Africa on American food aid in the 1980s. The pest’s original home is in Mexico where it had grown a taste for maize, a proclivity it brought with it to Africa where it causes havoc in grain stores up and down the continent. The greatest incidence seems to be along the line of rail, doubtless due to beetle escapes from goods wagons hauling grain upcountry from East African ports.

Anyway, the Team Leader had business up in the Taita Hills, interviewing smallholder farmers to gauge how far these nasty dudus had spread. It is beautiful country on the way to Taveta in Tanzania – and the setting for much of William Boyd’s An Ice-Cream War and thus once the front line in the First World War guerrilla conflict between the forces of British East Africa (later Kenya Colony) and German East Africa (Tanganyika). And being rather remote, there was nowhere handy to stay apart from the 5 star Taita Hills Hilton.  Oh dear, the trials and tribulations of exotic travel. The lovely Kenyan manager even forced a suite upon us (well stocked fridge, Air Con, swish bathroom and all).

The hotel also has its own game reserve, formerly a colonial sisal plantation run back to bush. To the south lie the plains of the Serengeti grasslands, to the north the vast expanse of the Tsavo game reserves. It is thus a wildlife gem, and you can stay there too, in an extraordinary stilted creation inspired by the traditional homesteads of the local Taita people, though rather oddly constructed using congealed cement sacks which instead reminded us of sand-bagged gun emplacements and so presumably with an intentional nod to the ‘Ice-Cream War’.

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Not a thing of beauty then, but providing magnificent viewing of the wildlife, especially elephants which, in our time, would come in the night to drink at the ornamental pool within the lodge’s basement bar – a whole herd only a few feet away. At dawn you can walk along the raised walkways between the rooms and watch Kilimanjaro make its brief morning appearance, floating high above the horizon like a magic carpet mountain. The next time you’d look it would be gone – poof! Only a clear blue sky.

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Taita Hilton - safari vans come and go

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Spiky Squares #7

Maasai Mara Landscape ~ A Warrior’s View

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I’ve written about the Maasai Mara in other posts. Here’s an excerpt from a piece that was long-listed in the Brandt Travel Guide competition ages ago:

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Night on the Mara River – darkness wraps round, close as a Maasai’s blanket.  It is cold, too, on the river’s bend. We press closer the campfire, our white faces soon roasting red. No one speaks. There’s too much to listen for. A hyena whoops across the water?  It sounds close. It sounds unearthly, sending shock waves through vulnerable bones – mine, conjuring packs of predators, out there, circling our ring of light. And even as I think it the Maasai are on us.  Six warriors, spears in hand and naked to the waist.  Their leader tosses his ostrich-feather head-dress that looks like a lion’s mane.  He is fearless.  He is lion.

Then the singing starts, a nasal falsetto that resonates through time and space – the winds’ whine through Mara grasses.  The Maasai girls trip lightly into the firelight, their wraps like flames – yellow, red; close-cropped heads hung with beads; chins jutting forward as the crescent necklets – tiny beads so patiently strung – rise and fall on skinny chests.  The moran start to leap – higher, faster.

Their dance fires the blood as it was once meant to in the days when the young morani proved their courage by killing a lion; but we see the collecting box left discreetly in the grass.  These kids are from the nearby settlements, but before I unravel the question of exploitation – theirs or ours – the dancers pounce, dragging us into a conga, pastoralist-style.  I let the Maasai girl take my hand.  She’s about fourteen years old and she is boss. After all, this is her land – the big skies and the rippling oat grass, and our small camp in the outer reserve remains there only on her clansmen’s say-so.  The hand that grips mine is small and hard.

So I follow her, graceless in the rhythms I cannot fathom, wend with the snake of dancers on and round the camp. The dancers know we’re squeamish and should not be put at risk, so we stray no further than the firelight’s edge, never crossing the bounds of the vast out there.

And of course, being on safari, and staying at a luxury, tented camp, we have been taken to visit the vast out there. We went earlier that day and naturally, being tender wazungu, we ventured only in daylight, with the rising sun at our back, and we went, not on foot, but in the Land Rover whose solid sides we were sure would protect us from too much closeness with the wilderness.

copyright 2019 Tish Farrell

Continues HERE

 

Lens-Artists: Landscapes

 

Remembering December Colours In East Africa ~ Thursday’s Special

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December is usually the time of the short rains in Kenya. I say usually because these days the tropics are especially affected by climate change so nothing is certain when it comes to weather. It is also the hottest time of the year, and in the upcountry regions, the season for planting. Here on Lamu Island (above) it is also tourist time, although the year we spent Christmas there it was scarcely crowded. This  photo was taken on Christmas Eve as the sun was setting. There were about six other people on the beach. Earlier that day we had arrived in a sudden squall which made the dhow crossing to Lamu from the air field on Manda Island a touch exciting. We visitors all huddled under the awning while the stalwart captain kept us on course across a choppy, foggy strait.

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Most of our Christmases were spent on Tiwi beach south of Mombasa. Not a busy place either. Here’s the sunrise over the lagoon at Maweni one Christmas morning long ago.

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And some ageing views of the lagoon in head-on sunshine:

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Thursday’s Special ~ please visit Paula to see her colour prompts. As you might conclude, they include aquamarine, cyan and golden.

Chilling Out Cheetah Style And Some Timely Wildlife Good News

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Much of the wildlife news from Africa – as per mainstream media – is almost invariably negative. Of course I don’t argue at all with the need to focus public attention on the poaching of rhino horn and elephant ivory – not if it will put pressure on the nations (China, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam especially) that fund and fuel this wretched trade. But perhaps the overall effect of such reporting is to give people the idea that African nations do not care for their wildlife. This is not true. Such reporting also often overlooks the absolute heroism of African wildlife rangers (both men and women) who night and day risk their lives to defend their national parks and reserves against poacher predation, often within conflict zones such as DR Congo.

A nation like Kenya has vested interest (public and private) in maintaining and protecting its vast and varied wildlife areas. Tourism is a major income earner, although tourists themselves may at times pose a significant threat to the nation’s environment, both natural and cultural, as their every want is catered to. Also the majority of Kenya’s population are smallholder farmers and most game parks have few boundaries. The wildlife goes where it will, and one elephant can destroy a farming family’s livelihood in a few minutes of chomping and stomping about the place. Elephants kill people too.

In other words conservation has an awful lot of human angles beyond the protecting of particular animal species  and their habitats. And while some species may be under threat, it seems that others such as the Cape Buffalo are causing problems by their rising numbers in small reserves. So: just to cast a brief light on the work of the Kenya Wildlife Service (and you can follow this link for more details) here is a current progress report.

Perhaps of greatest importance to the world at large is that in October Kenya’s effort in combatting wildlife trafficking, in particular ivory poaching, was acknowledged at the 70th meeting of the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Also in October the Kenya Wildlife Service hosted its Annual Carnivore Conference which explored the impact of the increasing spread of human populations into carnivore habitat. A quick scan of the topics covered give vivid insight into the multifarious issues involved at the big cat – herder-farmer interface.

And then a week ago Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife, Najib Balala launched the National Recovery Plan For Giraffes. He pointed out that while attention has been focussed on rhino and elephant losses, many species of plains game have been increasingly under threat. Giraffes, in particular, are targeted for the bush meat trade. Climate change and loss of habitat are also issues. (I did a post about  giraffe loss and their conservation a couple years ago). It’s good to see some concerted action between government and nongovernmental wildlife organisations.

Some cause for optimism then, though we can’t be as laid back on the matter as these cheetahs seem to be about my intrusion into their afternoon nap time.

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copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

Time Square #4

Lions ~ Now You See them, Now You Don’t

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Lions are the past-masters when it comes to both standing out and blending in – this week’s photo challenge from Ann-Christine at Lens-Artists, which sent me rifling through the old Africa Album for some good examples. These were all taken in Kenya’s Maasai Mara back in another lifetime. The header shot shows both leonine proclivities – the art of showing off and of disappearing in foot-high oat grass. I think there are at least three lions in this shot. In the following close up you can see one of them – just right of the lioness’s left ear. Probably a male.Mara lioness 2 (2)

But what about this next shot – can you spot the second lion? Course you can, now you know what to look for:

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And here’s a different kind of concealment – the whole pride in a gully; their concentrated gaze suggesting thoughts of dinner and where they might find it.

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Lens-Artists: Blending in or standing out

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

Tales From Hunter’s Lodge ~ Further News Of The Crocodile

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23 February 1994

This morning when I peered over our balcony rail I could see a pair of well-polished black boots and the shiny black barrel of a rifle propped against the veranda wall of the room below us. A wildlife ranger come to hunt the reptile. I wandered down for a word and found not one, but two young men, both smartly kitted out in Kenya Wildlife Service uniforms. I asked them if they had come for the crocodile.

Probably because I was a mzungu and therefore presumed fervent in my desire to protect absolutely all wild creatures no matter how inconvenient or deadly their presence may be to the locals, their response was defensive. They were clearly expecting an argument: “Crocodiles are very dangerous,” said one. “The manager is very worried about his staff and their children. It will have to be killed.”

I did not disagree, but told them I had seen it a number of times. “And weren’t you frightened?” I said I wasn’t. They seemed so surprised I did not like to tell them I had also been running around after it trying to take a photograph. It would have sounded most foolhardy and eccentric after what they had said. I left them to their watch, wondering who would get a shot first, me or the rangers. I hoped it would be me.

As I sat up on my balcony I was convinced that they would have no luck that morning. I had only seen the crocodile after lunch. Anyway, it did not matter. Soon there was much chattering down below. Rose the chambermaid had arrived and was doing her level best to distract the rangers from their quest. She did so for a good hour or more. Nor was it idle chitchat, although there was much laughter. From the snatches of conversation that were in English. I gathered that she was conducting an evangelical crusade; she had a captive audience and, as a born again Christian, more than enough zeal to win a hearing from even the most obdurate of unbelievers. And not only was she extremely eloquent, but she was also very handsome. Already she was broaching the subject of the sort of man she would marry. A smart young woman.

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16 March 1994

As has become the habit, we collected Dorothy from Pangani en route for Kiboko. There had been rain in the night and the gaping potholes in the roads of the estate’s shopping centre were now red-mud lakes. The women vegetable sellers sat along the broken pavements, in front of them their produce – neat pyramids of tomatoes, red-skinned onions, mangoes, small pink potatoes. A girl stared at us from the clinic doorway; the pile of refuse on the corner of Dorothy’s road sweltered in the humid atmosphere.

The drive from Pangani followed the network of ring roads that take you to the south side of the city without hitting the centre. It was hair-raising. We dodged matatus that either pulled up or pulled out in front of us without warning, sometimes barely a hair’s breadth of leeway, all over-laden with passengers and luggage. Then we nearly collided with a man pushing a wide handcart that lurched along the broken tarmac on wobbling wheels. The sea of traffic swept round the large walled island that serves Kariokor Market (the place for kiondos, the local sisal shoulder bags, and used truck tyres), and on into Haile Selassie, the heartland of the tea and coffee trade. Here humanity and motor vehicles jostle for space and it is all push and shove beneath the looming post-war warehouses of ‘the cup that cheers’.

As we headed out of town on the Mombasa highway we were soon aware of a strong police presence, an armed officer stationed  under every roadside thorn tree; near the airport approach road the flags were flying. Later, we discovered that President Moi was expected to pass that way. He was scheduled to meet the arriving Sudanese President, General Omar Hussan Al-Bashir. Out along a ridgeway, and leaving Nairobi’s industrial concrete wasteland behind, strode a young Maasai herdsman, red shuka shawl draped over his shoulder. Ahead of him trailed a file of motley coloured cattle, their pied shades a smaller variation of the white and grey and black clouds that swelled on the skyline behind them. Africa’s two worlds.

There was much game to be spotted on the Kapiti Plains. Thompson’s gazelle were grazing so closely to the road that at first I thought they were goats. Then, beyond a stretch of whistling thorns I spotted the head and neck of a giraffe. The rest of it was lost from view. It was striding out along a gully that ran parallel to the highway. Soon we were passing several more elegant necks and heads, all south-bound. And then at last, a hundred yards from the road, a gathering of eighteen fully emerged giraffes; as many as we had ever seen at one time and with the russet hides of the reticulated variety that we had not seen before. When giraffes move with intent like this – the loping gait – they seem to dance to rhythms that only they can sense, but you long to join in with. Alongside were kongoni and ostrich too, and we were not even in the park.

Down on the lowland plains the skies were grey. The wasted maize crop from the December planting still clung to the crusty soil, rows of skeleton stems. On some of the plots men were out with ox teams ploughing in the aborted effort. The long rains were expected, and soon it would be time to take another turn of the roulette wheel and sow the seed for the next maize crop.

At lunchtime Hunter’s Lodge simmered gently in the heat. Even the weavers were subdued. As we drew up in the car park we noticed a small overland truck parked right down at the pool edge, the travellers’ washing lines strung out between two acacias and bowed down with wet T-shirts. Out in the water, wading thigh deep were two young Akamba boys, wielding their fishing rods and casting their lines as they went. We had never seen anyone in the water before and we knew then the wildlife rangers had been successful and the crocodile killed.

The afternoon was sultry and I sprawled on the bed and slept. Later Joyce called in with some fresh towels. She told me she had just come back after two months leave at her home in Kibwezi. This small township is about half an hour’s drive south from Kiboko, but if you have to depend on a matatu for a lift, then it is too far and too expensive for her to travel to work each day. And so her husband, who works for the forestry department, lives at Kibwezi with their oldest boy who has just started school there, and Joyce lives with her three year old son in a single room of the staff quarters at Hunter’s Lodge. Sometimes her husband comes to visit at weekends. When I said that it must be hard to live separately like this, she laughed and did not seem to think so.

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Before bed that night we went down to the terrace bar for a soda. Only the manager and the barman were there. It was  as if we were stepping onto an empty stage after the play was done. Yet there was still a sense of drama. The empty white bentwood chairs on the empty lawn glowed faintly at the  edges of the light cast by two lamps hitched up in the acacias. Across the pool, fever tree branches reached out from the darkness. A lone firefly winked on its steady course over black waters. A bush baby cackled, piercing the soundscape of cricket and frog call. Up above, the sky seemed to be bursting with every star in the universe. On the northern horizon the sheet lightning flickered, fitful bursts of a failing element. Against the stars we could just make out the ghosts of bats’ wings as they wafted silently. It was the sort of night you swear you will never forget, but always do.

17 March

The fundi is still at work across the pool, carefully placing the grey fluted tiles on the summerhouse roof. He has a radio on – Congolese rumba rhythms issue faintly. Today there are two young women at work in the garden. One is raking up the dead grass. She wears a turquoise blouse over her kanga wrap and her hair is braided into corded rows from forehead to nape. The other girl barrows the debris away to a far corner of the property. Her hair is close cropped and she has on a brown and orange kanga. Flashes of vivid colour on a parchment-pale landscape; cobalt blue darts of the greyhooded kingfisher as it sweeps the lodge lawn for insects.

It is only 10 a. m. and already it is hot. The girls work slowly, pausing often to exchange a few words. The air is spiced with the scent of the tiny sun-baked acacia leaves that fall in drifts; the chatter of weavers is overlain by the more intense whine of insects. This is how I remembered Hunter’s Lodge all the time I was in Zambia; this was how it was on the day I first came here, two years ago.

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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.

007

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

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