Top Tembo Mama ~ Among Lewa’s Elephants And Other Animals

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The elephant on the left is the matriarch of this little family group of six adult females and three infants. She is giving us the once over before concluding we are no threat to her charges. In elephant world, the matriarch rules; she is the keeper of the family knowledge; the guide and decision maker. She will also kill any creature that is deemed a threat.

Following on from yesterday’s post on Lewa Downs Conservancy, here are some notes from that trip. We’re out on a morning drive with Kevin our expert guide:

By now it’s late morning and we’re down by the swamp. The waterbuck stare out at us, and as we follow the track that skirts the reed bed we come upon a herd of oryx. They’re very shy though and won’t stay.

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Kevin drives on towards a clump of fever trees, now following elephant prints along the track, and as we reach the acacias there is a lone old bull, large as life and very close.  Too close? When it comes to elephants the warning signs to look out  for are ears spread and trunk up and to the side. But we’re not bothering him. He views us serenely through long lashes, shakes his battle torn ears, ambles alongside the truck for a while then wanders off.

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Graham meanwhile spots a group of elephant across the swamp and Kevin sets off for a better view. For a while we park on the track, torn between watching brilliant carmine bee eaters in one direction and the little herd in the other. The elephants are about fifty yards away in the fever trees, and I think that’s close enough, but no, Kevin is eyeing up the lie of the land, picking out a line of solid ground. Soon we are parked with swamp on our right and elephants on our left.

At first the matriarch adopts an intimidating stance, but then changes her mind. Our presence in no way interrupts tree browsing and bottom scratching, and no attempt is made to shield the youngest calf from our view. We watch for ten minutes or so, listening to the taptapping of a nearby woodpecker, the call of hadada ibis, spot a vervet monkey watching us watching the elephants. Then Kevin decides it’s time to leave them in peace. As we pull away over the rough ground we’re left with the musky, goaty, muddy smell of elephant in our nostrils.

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Square Tops #21

Kudu Family Heading For The Top Of The Trail

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This sunset view of retreating greater kudu was taken at Lewa Downs, a private nature conservancy on the northern foothills of Mount Kenya near Isiolo. The reserve is 62,000 acres, and was once a colonial cattle ranch. The descendants of the original settler family still own the land, but now their focus is on wildlife conservation, upscale tourism, improving the lot of local communities and helping to protect surviving members of Kenya’s black rhino population.

When we visited years ago we stayed in  the small Lerai tented camp run by the same outfit whose camps we stayed in at Mara River and Elmenteita, i.e. fairly low key by comparison with Kenya’s super luxury safari ‘camps’, and aimed more at visitors with dedicated interests in wildlife, particularly ornithologists and professional wildlife photographers.

We flew up there in a Kenya Airways Twin Otter 20-seater plane. (Kenya’s internal aerial bus service is brilliant). There were only two others aboard and, after running through the safety procedures, the co-pilot leaned out of the cockpit with a bowl of boiled sweets and a cheery ‘pass it back!’ The next moment we were sprinting off the tarmac at Nairobi’s Wilson airport and banking over the nearby national park where small groups of wildebeest were gathered along city perimeter fence. So even before the safari is properly begun there’s a little wildlife spotting to do.

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Next we whipped up the Great Rift, the old volcano Longonot in the valley bottom, the smallholdings, tea and coffee farms of Limuru up on the eastern escarpment. And in no time we were over Nyandarua, the Aberdares Range, and looking the dark snow-streaked spires of Mount Kenya in the eye. In fact in the same amount of time it had taken us that morning to get through Nairobi’s traffic jams to the airport we had covered the couple of hundred kilometres to Lewa.

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Soon we were flying low over the marsh buzzing zebra before putting down on the dirt landing strip whose only permanent structures then were a windsock and a thatched hut. Our transport, an open green safari truck, sped towards us in a cloud of pink dust. Kevin, our guide for the two-day stay, greeted us with a big grin. We found out later that his family were originally from Tanzania, his people the Chagga who live on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, and are renowned for their capacity for running up the mountain. Kevin also turned out to be a very passionate ornithologist, especially interested in the European migrants that were just then visiting Lewa. A bit of an irony I thought: a case of the reversed ‘exotic’ when he became, to my mind, rather over absorbed by the presence of a migrant tufted duck. That’s not what we came to see! Here’s some more of what we did see:

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A reticulated giraffe, one of the three main giraffe races in Kenya. It is mostly found in the northern districts.  This photo’s for Brian at Equinoxio. (The weird colour flashes are due to poor film processing at the time).

Our guide:

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Square Tops #20

Kenya’s Treetops Hotel

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Mention of Treetops in Kenya’s Aberdare National Park inevitably brings up residue of British colonialism, and in particular the extraordinary connection with the UK’s present monarch. The original Treetops was little more than a 1930s bungalow-affair, a rickety contrivance lodged in the branches of an ancient mugumo tree, a species of wild fig which happened to be very sacred to the local Kikuyu people.  Princess Elizabeth spent the night there in February 1952 and, as the well trammelled narrative goes: she went up the tree as a princess and came down a queen, although it was only later in the day that she was informed that her father, George VI had died.

Here’s the original Treetops where the royal party stayed, taken from the book by its builder, Eric Sherbrooke Walker, Treetops Hotel.

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The Sherbrooke Walkers, like most of the early settlers in British East Africa, were of the officer-gentry-aristocracy class. Eric Sherbrooke Walker had served in the Royal Flying Corps during World War 1, followed by a stint in military intelligence with the White Armies in Russia during the Bolshevik uprising wherein he earned the Military Cross and other honours. After the war, during America’s prohibition era, he took up rum running off the West Indies and made enough money to marry Lady Bettie, daughter of the Earl of Denbigh. They then set off on an adventurous trip across East Africa, which soon left them short of money and in turn led to the notion of setting up their own country house hotel.

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In 1926 they pitched up in Nyeri in the forested highlands of Kenya’s Central Province, bought 70 acres from the colonial government, and set about creating the genteel Outspan Hotel. By the end of 1927 they had built ten rooms and opened for business for the New Year of 1928.  The big attraction to their settler guests, who though well-heeled usually had very primitive facilities on their African farms, were rooms that came with private bathrooms and running water. So began a successful enterprise of country inn-keeping in the English manner but with views of snow-capped Mount Kenya and the Aberdare range thrown in.

The 1920s was the era of the grand East African shooting safaris when the likes of Bror Blixen, Denys Finch Hatton and John Hunter acted as Great White Hunters for extravagant entourages of European (especially British) royalty and Indian maharajas. But by the 1930s, many safari goers had begun to turn their attention from trophy hunting to big game photography – an activity greatly promoted by American adventurers and film makers, Martin and Osa Johnson.

And it was this new craze that prompted the Sherbrooke Walkers to create Treetops. Small parties of guests could spend the night in the top of the mugumo tree and watch elephants, rhino and forest hogs lit up by a spotlight, do more early morning game watching over tea and biscuits before being transported back to the Outspan for hot baths and breakfast. As a unique combination of eccentric British-gentry-rustic with elephants thrown in it could not fail. As more and more visitors wanted to stay there, so rooms were added, and more props put in to hold up the tree branches.

And then in 1954 the original Treetops was burned down. This was during the so called Mau Mau uprising when it apparently became a target for the Land and Freedom Army. Later the place was rebuilt and added to over the years. The header version dates from September 1996, the fourth iteration under the ownership of Block Hotels. When we went I had been spending previous week alone at the Outspan, which still served as ‘base camp’ for Treetops,  while Graham was at a seminar at the nearby Aberdares Country Club. He then joined me for the trip to Treetops.

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In a letter to my aunt written shortly afterwards I told her that were among a party of 99 – (Israelis, Koreans, an international museums outing, and 40 retired Americans from the Friendship Club) all of us being ferried into the Aberdare National Park in a bus, and then deposited in the bush so we could walk the last few hundred yards to Treetops – ‘a rustic fortress between two waterholes’ was how I described it back then. Before we set off Dishon, the ranger who met us pointed out the well timbered refuges along the path, to be resorted to in case of charging buffalo or elephant. He was also carrying a rifle.

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But there were no alarming encounters. In fact we saw no sign of any big game while were there, only the red billed hornbill that sat on the tree outside the dining room, baboons, buck and warthogs.

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The rooms were tiny, more like cubby holes, and the building was very noisy. Many of the elderly women guests were up all night. When I could not sleep around 2 a.m. I got up and found them, of all things, putting on their make-up in the ladies’ communal washroom. When the  actual ‘wake up’ call came at 6.30 a.m. the place was surrounded by an Aberdares fog. And so it seemed that whatever romance there might once had been was quite lost. The best bit was driving out of the park through the Kikuyu smallholdings. Out of the stands of maize came files of school children in coral coloured sweaters and jade green dresses and shorts, trotting off early to the local primary school.

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I gather from looking at the current website that Treetops is under new management and the number of rooms much reduced in order to provide en suite bathrooms. It all looks very luxurious, but somehow also misses the point, the batty English tree-house charm of the original. Though whether that was ever at all an appropriate installation in the African highlands is another question.

 

Square Tops #9

More From The Mara ~ Near And Far Beneath The Oloololo Escarpment

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When we lived in Kenya we made three trips to the Maasai Mara, staying not at one of the luxury hotels inside the national park reserve, but at the small Mara River Camp. The camp’s landlords were the Maasai themselves, the Koiyaki Lemek Wildlife Trust, whose clan elders jointly owned three hundred square miles of plains grazing – albeit a tiny pocket of the Maasai people’s original rangeland i.e. the entire run of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Such jointly owned remnant land holdings are known as group ranches, though they not ranches as Europeans understand the term. Here clan members and their families live, tending their herds while also claiming daily game viewing revenue from the foreign visitors staying at the camp.

And in case anyone thinks staying outside the national park might be second best, it wasn’t. In fact there was so much wildlife to see everywhere, there was no need to go into the park proper. Die hard conservationists like to contend that wildlife and humans don’t mix, that humans have a detrimental effect on habitat. This attitude has caused, and will continue to cause extreme hardship to the world’s remaining traditional communities, people who actually know very well how to care for their own natural resources.

But back to our first game drive beneath the Oloololo Escarpment.

We set out from camp at 3.30 p.m. in a re-purposed Land Rover: six seats in the back, one per window and three viewing hatches cut in the roof. Daniel Mahinda, our driver-guide, was keen to please us. When he asked what interested us most Graham said ‘grasses’. A surprising answer in ‘big game’ territory. He had recently finished his doctoral thesis on smut disease in Napier grass, an important local fodder crop, but I suspected he was being a touch facetious. I had stopped him from taking a nap, saying he could not sleep through Africa. And he had grudgingly agreed. But, looking back, I should have left him in our riverbank tent – to be serenaded by grunting hippos. The crop protection project he was running in Nairobi  was often very stressful, and for all kinds of reasons that could never be foreseen. Probably the last thing he needed was to be bumped around in the back of a Land Rover.

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Daniel (on a later December trip) with our niece, Sarah and distant elephants

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Anyway, Daniel took Graham at his word. Grasses it would  be.  This is what I wrote back then:

As we drive up the rocky valley out of camp there are several stops while Daniel picks us some red oat grass (characteristic of the Mara plains), pyramid grass, Maasai love grass and Bamboo grass. Then we stop to taste the leaves of the muthiga tree (the Kenya greenheart) which are very bitter, and Daniel says the tree’s twigs make good toothbrushes and the bark has medicinal properties – good for sore throats and toothache.

We look at the white tissue paper flowers that hug the ground and the tall sunbird plants (Leonotis leonotis) and the invasive thorn apple (Datura stromonium) and then Daniel picks us a pink flowering spike and says it is called devil’s whip. We also look at the clouds of white butterflies that are clustering round the thorn tree blossom. Then we forget about plants for a while and consider the sooty chat (a small bird that is a Mara speciality) and watch a huge breeding herd of impala. Then we drive along the meanders of the Mara River looking at baboons.

Daniel says there are about fifty in the troop with three alpha-males, and adds that they’re not averse to tackling a Thomson’s gazelle. We see those too. Then there is a grove of muthiga trees with every trunk bearing a series of scars (old and new) from where, over the years, small pieces of bark have been removed to make dawa (medicine). The Maasai are usually far from clinics, and so rely greatly on herbal remedies both for themselves and their cattle.

Soon after this we see elephants – first two males, one who shakes his big head aggressively as we draw near. We pause briefly for photos before driving across the marsh to see a family group whose matriarchs and young don’t mind us watching them for a while.

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By now it is late afternoon and Daniel has been doing a lot of talking in Swahili on his  truck radio. He sets off with purpose across the open grassland. After a while we see two stationary safari trucks on the horizon. We bump over tussocky ground towards them and pull up beside a swampy bank, and there they are – simba. Cubs and lionesses idling in the grass. The drivers confer over their radios, and once agreed that no hunting is in progress we move in closer. At first Daniel pushes along a grassy peninsula away from the pride and we wonder why, for all we can see is grass. But he knows where he’s going. And when a young adult lion raises his big head, I am stunned. Anyone on foot would scan this meadow-like terrain and not have one inkling that the lions were there. When the head goes down, he is gone: lost from view in twelve inches of grass.

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Daniel tells us there are six cubs, survivors from a litter of ten, the other four having died because the hunting has been poor; but, he adds, the wildebeest migration is about to start and these six now look likely to survive. We watch eleven big and small lions till the light fades to grainy grey and then leave them in peace. On the track not far from the camp we see a pair of bat-eared foxes – ‘Very rare,’ says Daniel. They eye us anxiously before trotting away into the grass.

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copyright 2020 Tish Farrell

Lens-Artists: Distance  This week Tina sets the challenge. One of the safari guide’s key skills is knowing when it’s best to keep a distance and especially when it comes to elephants and lone buffalo.

Dreaming In Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

copyright 2019 Tish Farrell

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

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Related posts:

Lamu Dreaming

Quayside Lamu

The Swahili

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

Patti https://pilotfishblog.com/

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

Amy  https://shareandconnect.wordpress.com/

Tina https://travelsandtrifles.wordpress.com/

All Quiet In The Mara?

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This week at the Lens-Artists, Tina explores the concept of harmony. There are of course many ways of thinking about it  – physically and metaphysically, in terms of colour, music, flavours, composition, structures, relationships, (angelic choirs even). My first thought, though, was of the East African plains: harmony in the sense of the natural cycle of things; every species occupying its niche within the grasslands ecosystem; harmony with edge since eating and being eaten also come into it. This photo, taken at sundown, could also be seen as harmony – at least from the human perspective – a case of the pathetic fallacy perhaps: disparate creatures roaming and grazing peacefully together in the  wilderness idyll, all bathed in golden late-day light. On the other hand, and I am not absolutely sure about this,  but there could well be a hyena on the prowl – the tiny brownish entity, slightly dog-like, a zebra and a half in from the right, and just below the bough of the right hand thorn tree. Harmony about to be interrupted then.

copyright 2019 Tish Farrell

Lens-Artists: harmony

Beneath The Sheltering Thorns

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Our almost-spring has reverted to winteriness today, so it’s back to the old Africa album for Square 22 and a bit of midday heat. Am imagining too the smell of the bush –  spicy sundried grasses and hot peppery earth – and in my head the seamless kroo-krooing of doves. And because it has amused me ever since I heard it from a tipsy guide in Zambia, I make no apologies for repeating it again here: when it comes to zebras’ butticles, he told us, each has its own unique set of stripes. He further suggested that this was how the offspring recognised their mothers. I have no idea if this is true, but am happy to go along with it if only for the butticles, since they sound more decorous than buttocks and so have remained discriptor of choice in the Farrell household when referring to that particular part of the anatomy. And anyway, zebras do sport such very handsome ones.

Spiky Squares #22

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