Just before sunrise outside the Maasai Mara Reserve. These lionesses had eaten well during the night, but now as day dawned the hyenas were moving in to take what remained of the kill. More of this story and photos at Hyena Heist in the Mara HERE.
I’ve written of our long ago Christmas stay on Lamu Island HERE. We stayed in Shela village, an ancient Swahili settlement, two miles along the beach from the more ancient Stone Town, now a World Heritage Site. Our rooftop room in the Island Hotel gave me wall to wall views of surrounding village rooftops. The smartly made-over ones tend to belong to Europeans who have come to the island to lotus eat or to run small hotels.
Lamu lies just off the Kenya mainland near the Somali border. It was once one of a chain of Swahili city states situated along East Africa’s Indian Ocean seaboard from Kismayu in the north, to Kilwa down in Mozambique, and including the islands of Zanzibar. These Bantu-Arab settlements had their origins around 800-900 CE, and their growing wealth and prestige during the Middle Ages depended on the Arab dhow trade – the exchange of African slaves, ivory, leopard skins, mangrove poles for oriental silks and rugs, porcelain, dates, treasure chests. Kilwa was also the nexus for the export of African gold from the Shona city of Great Zimbabwe.
The ocean trade depended on the cycle of monsoon winds to carry the dhows to and from the Persian Gulf. If winds were missed then, crews were stranded for months along Africa’s shores, though this gave the captains a chance to repair storm-ravaged boats, and crews the spare time to do some concentrated liaising with the locals. This, then, was the world of Sinbad (Sendebada in KiSwahili), the Basra merchant-adventurer who made many such voyages in a bid to restore his fortunes. His stories, too, have their origins in the 9th century, around the time many of the city states were making their first appearance as permanent harbour-settlements built of quarried coral rag.
Now that the Arab dhow trade is long gone, and the prosperity of the Swahili city states pretty much forgotten, Lamu islanders’ main income tends to be tourism related. The recent trend, then, of private European investment in small, perfectly formed guest houses, involving the thoughtful restoration of the many of the old merchant houses, is probably no bad thing. In recent years, too, there has also been great community enthusiasm to find new ways to promote and share the island’s unique cultural heritage with visitors.
Lamu’s Stone Town has long and famously hosted the religious Maulid Festival, celebrating the birth of Mohammed, but there are many secular events through the year, including the famous New Year’s Day dhow race; donkey racing; sport fishing contests, and cultural, art, yoga and food festivals. In many ways it may remain a deeply conservative community but, by all accounts, still very much a welcoming one. And apart from anything else, in over twenty years I have not forgotten the absolute deliciousness of Lamu’s fish samosas and mango smoothies.
copyright 2018 Tish Farrell
This week Paula’s set us a very different kind of challenge. She asks us to show her a zoomed in – zoomed out image. I’ve applied so much zoom to this photograph that the detail is abstracted. I rather like it – the patchwork quilt effect. It is a view of smallholder farms at Escarpment, just north of Kenya’s capital Nairobi. I was out with Graham (in his capacity as Smut Survey Team Leader) looking for outbreaks of a fungal infection on fodder grass. You can read the full story at an earlier post Looking for Smut on Kenya’s Highland Farms. Escarpment was one of the locations we surveyed, and living up to its name, it lies on the easterly elevation of the Great Rift Valley.
(Click on the image for a larger view). The old volcano in the Rift is Longonot, and the zigzag of road seen faintly to the right of the valley bottom takes you to Lake Naivasha. Even now, after so many years away from Africa, this view stops my breath. And then I find myself breathing in – thinner air at 8,000 feet – whiffs of dust, thorn trees, diesel, roasting maize at a roadside trader’s hearth…
Hippos can be very disagreeable at the best of times, and downright murderous if you upset them. They are probably at their most peaceable in the water, but that does not mean that they may not capsize a passing boat if they’ve a mind to. They spend the night hours grazing on shore, and consume huge quantities of grass, around 100lb (45kg) a night.
These Lake Naivasha hippos especially like the close-cropped lawns of the lakeside hotels, so it’s not good idea for guests to go wandering around the gardens after dark. The hazard reduces towards daybreak when the grazers usually return to the water, not liking to be caught out in the sun despite having their own in-built skin care product – a red oily secretion that protects them from dehydrating and overheating.
Once when we were Zambia, on a guided walk in the Luangwa Valley, we encountered a huge bull who was late returning to the river, and couldn’t find an accessible way down a steeply shelving bank to the water. He was so furious he decided to charge us. (See Grouchy Hippo, Laid Out Lions.) And this is perhaps one of the most surprising things about hippos, given their bulk and tonnage – their land speed capability. They can clock 18 mph at the gallop and easily outrun a human over short distances.
As to good points – they do go in for much companionable honking and grunting when a group is submerged together for the day’s wallowing. It is one of those Africa sounds that imprint on the consciousness – once heard, never forgotten.
Thursday’s Special: trio Now go head over to Paula’s to see her unforgettable puffin trio.
P.S. Hippopotamus – the name is derived from the Greek meaning river horse. Hippos have no horse connections but are distantly related to pigs.
copyright 2018 Tish Farrell
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.
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
In December 1993 we returned to Kenya after nearly a year spent in Lusaka, Zambia (Graham had been overseeing the distribution of European Union food aid during a period of extreme drought in southern Africa). For much of the preceding year he had been in Kenya working with a team controlling Larger Grain Borer, a crop pest introduced to Africa in consignments of U.S. food aid. (Short-term emergency assistance can too often lead to unintended long-term chronic consequences). The reason for returning to Kenya was to wind down the LGB project. Predator beetles had been bred and released in affected areas; it was time to let them do their work and leave Kenyan scientists to monitor progress. We were thus not expecting to be in Kenya long, but somehow that ‘not long’ stretched to January 2000. For some of those years I kept a journal. Here is the first entry:
Sunday 19 December 1993
Our first trip out to the Nairobi National Park since our arrival back in Kenya. We had thought of it often while we were away. Of stately giraffes. Yellowing plains beneath the hazy blue of the Ngong Hills (the four peaks said to be the knuckles of a giant’s clenched fist). Groves of fever trees along the Athi River.
Now we have returned well prepared with map, camera, binoculars and a picnic. But as we pull into the main entrance on Langata Road we see that there have been changes since our last visit: the stand of tall eucalyptus trees that lined the approach have been felled, and their ground carved up, exposing the red raw earth of a building site. It looks as if a new wildlife service administration block is nearing completion. We had heard about Richard Leakey’s large loans from the World Bank: this must be one of the newly funded enterprises. But at the entry gate little has changed ; there are still negotiations over the size of the Land Rover and its appropriate tariff and much accompanying paperwork. It is worth it though. As residents, a day’s pass costs us a mere two pounds thirty pence.
Once through the main gate we drive slowly through open woodland and dense shrubby undergrowth. Judder over the sleeping policemen meant to slow you down because it is quite likely that a giraffe will step into the roadway here. Even on to the asphalt. And the presence of a tarmacked road in a game park always takes me by surprise. But in this instance it was probably laid for the benefit of dignitaries going to the famous ivory burning ceremony in 1989. It took place just a kilometre or so within the park, a big show involving President Daniel arap Moi setting light to the retrieved tusks of nearly 2,000 poached elephants, an act intended to demonstrate Kenya’s commitment to conservation. There is a monument to mark the event and a picnic site where you may get out of your car and feel the grasslands wind on your face. The Athi Plains stretch out below.
But it is not a wilderness view by any means; perhaps even challenges the sincerity of the grandiose ivory burning gesture. To the north, where a hundred years before there were only empty plains, city high-rises glint in the sun. Directly behind the wire fencing of park boundary there are more recent developments: grey-stone apartment blocks whose half-built elevations have all the charm of a post-war bomb site. Then as we turn towards the plains a large passenger jet takes off from nearby Jomo Kenyatta airport and soars into the blue above us. It seems an unlikely spot for game watching.
But just as we are turning on to the dirt road, a blue Land Cruiser approaches and pulls up beside us. The driver is English. His accompanying family look red-faced and querulous. He, though, is excited. “There’s a lion back there guarding its kill. Just follow the track. There’s a group of four trees. He’s under the one nearest the road.” He pauses. A wrinkle of doubt. He has clearly had a hard morning with cross children. “If you’re interested?” He adds, half query, half-throwaway remark.
We are. We drive off – full of hope. Will the lion still be there?
We drive slowly, scouring a landscape dotted with low bushes, hoping the four stunted thorns will make themselves obvious in this terrain of few landmarks. They do. A stone’s throw from the track lie the remains of a large antelope. But there is no sign of the lion. Any other time we would have driven on, but being forewarned we pause for a better look.
The antelope is lying in the shadow of the little tree. We scan the scene with binoculars. Nothing. But just then a mighty tail flicks up above the grass. Graham turns off the car engine, and in the next moment up comes a mighty head to go with the tail. He fixes us. Yellow eyes. Yellow mane. Then his head flops back into the grass and once more he is invisible. We wait and decide to eat our sandwiches – pastrami and horseradish. Perhaps the lion catches a scent of them for suddenly he is on his feet. He is massive. He is staring at us. He is heading our way. A frisson of fear, despite the sheltering Land Rover. But no. He has merely risen for a stretch. Then he returns to his tree and sits down with his back to us, a posture that reminds me of the yellow labrador I once owned. The similarity is, of course, misleading. Then down he flops. An occasional tail twitch, a momentary fix of an eye, a large yellow lion stretched out in a clump of bright yellow daisies. We leave him in peace and drive on.
And it is hard to register such sightings. Are they real? Here we are out on a Sunday morning drive. We have just picked up the newspapers from the street vendor, driven past crowds of citizens on their way to church, are barely beyond the city limits. We are not at the zoo, nor in a contained English safari park. The animals that browse and hunt here are wild; they come of their own accord. For although the boundaries with the city are well fenced, there is still an open corridor to the south-west which allows the game access to and from the Maasai Mara. And as we push on along the dirt road we see Maasai giraffes with their lacy butterfly markings, strung out along a low gully, peacefully browsing the short-rains greenery of the acacias. And behind them, towering on the skyline, the garish blue and red construction of the Carnivore restaurant’s water splash.
It puts you in a quandary. Part of you yearns to recreate the illusion of out-of-town wilderness,. Perhaps a planting of quick growing gum trees to screen the areas of urban spread. But then, despite their commonplaceness here, eucalyptus are not natives, and they might just suck the plains dry of their precious moisture. Some indigenous forest trees then. But they would take longer to establish. Would have to be fenced off from the foraging herbivores until they reached maturity. And anyway, how could you possibly blot out the airport and the cement works?
Leave it as it is then; an ungainly halfway house between the natural world and city living. As outsiders we would rather see the plains teeming with wildlife and no ugly signs of human enterprise and industrial development. But it is too late for that. And besides, who are we to complain? Our empire-building forebears had their chance to manage well and wisely this land of plenty. And for the most part they ignored both the needs of its wildlife and, more particularly, the needs of its indigenous peoples.
So no, we have no room to criticise.
All we can do today is be grateful that we can drive out to the Athi Plains in our car and see a lion, or watch the quiet grazing of wildebeest, gazelle, eland, kongoni, zebra and know too that there is always a chance that we may just spot a family of cheetahs out hunting, or come upon a reclusive rhinoceros browsing quietly. But that within an hour we can be back inside the well-tamed confines of our suburban Nairobi garden, drinking a cup of tea. But perhaps it seems too convenient, too small a challenge; almost as “easy” as the early white settlers had it, when they looked out of the newly installed drawing room windows to find a pride of lions stretched out on the veranda.
copyright 2018 Tish Farrell
There are the experiences we had, and the ones we think we had: so many versions of the ‘truth’. And much like conscious memory, the Kodak negative from which this image comes, is much degraded; the colours distorted. I’ve had to do some de-saturating to reduce the negative’s livid cast. Not very successful, but the result, I think, is all my own ‘Out-of-Africa-nostalgia’ effect.
Naturally my writer-self loves the romance of this and related yarns of the old safari era. And yet these are not the real story. They never were. That’s one of the problems with nostalgia, particularly the Anglo-African variety. It’s usually a longing for something that never was. It was the kind of longing that brought British settlers of the gentry class out to East Africa in the first place. Anything would grow there, they said. Fortunes would be made. And until the predicted riches rolled in – from ostrich feather farming, flax, wheat, coffee and tea – the hunting potential for the sporting man (and sometimes woman) was limitless – herds of wild game from sky to sky, and a country full of cheap household servants and farm labourers. And all so handily available just when home supplies of both (animal and human) were on the wane.
Here’s a poster of the time, pre-1920, summing things up. The similarity to a Punch Magazine cartoon was apparently deliberate.
As railway advertisements go, this one truly takes the biscuit, and on so many fronts. Please note the very small print towards the bottom: ‘Arrival of the first Cook’s excursion and the result of carefully preserving the big game’. Also I’m not sure what the bipedal beast behind the train is meant to be. It looks like a bear to me. Perhaps he came with the aristocrats, captured on one of their North American shooting expeditions – also popular at the time.
So: elite settlerdom in East Africa seemed a fine idea. And as long as the European lower classes were kept out, the incomer Indian labourers and traders kept in their place (these mostly the survivors of the 18,000 ‘coolies’ imported from India in 1896 to build the Mombasa-Uganda Railway), and the local Africans did the field work for minimal pay while their own traditional hunting practices were outlawed, then, by Jove and St. George, it would be paradise on earth. The British East Africa Protectorate (Kenya Colony after 1920) was, and forever would be, a dedicated White Man’s Country. A lordly sporting estate writ large. The happy hunting ground of new white landowners who believed that only they, gentlemen (and under certain circumstances, gentlewomen) had the god-given right to hunt. All the game was theirs.
But hang on a minute. In this safari story the real protagonists are invisible, or overlooked, deliberately excluded; these, the many African hunters and expert trackers who facilitated the pursuits of their white overlords on the imperial safaris of the early 20th century; they who risked arrest for the crime of poaching if they dared to hunt for their own pot as their people had done for countless generations before the British invaded.
It is not for nothing that the settlers referred to their African workers as boys, reducing them to beings of little or no account. From such aristocratic notions of superiority and entitlement – a mind-set that persisted among many until Independence in 1963 – does the modern state of Kenya derive. In some ways little has changed. Ever since Uhuru, the post-colonial rulers (and with a similar sense of dynastic entitlement) have been intent on commandeering all resources for themselves, and ignoring the needs of those they rule.
But back to the aging photo of magnificent beisa oryx. It was taken nearly 20 years ago. The Farrells were, in the manner of Kenya’s well-honed, post-colonial tourism model, ‘on safari’; flown in a twenty-seater plane – out of Nairobi and into Lewa, winging left at Mount Kenya. Touching down on the airstrip cut from bush you could spot elephant and the strangely foreshortened view of Mount Kenya’s summit.
Our destination was a small tented camp in Laikipia, northern Kenya, a three night sojourn out in the wilds. I should say at once that when we stayed at the Lewa Downs safari camp it had not accrued the expensive, life-style look it has now, nor the uber-nouveau-colonial glamour of Lewa House and its secluded guest cottages. (Prince William apparently proposed to Kate Middleton while staying there as a family guest). In our day we had a big green tent, one of a dozen. There was a small shower room and WC attached, and the whole lot camouflaged by a thatched canopy. When the flaps were back we could lie in our bunks and gaze at miles and miles of Africa and inhale the sweet aromatic scent of thorn brush. The accommodation was simple and functional although we naturally thought a tent with its own clean, running water and a flush loo was a great luxury. But then as many travellers in Africa before us, and in pursuit of our own pleasure, we chose to ignore any moral issue associated with this provision. The camp was otherwise low-key, mostly set up to attract birding photographers, and one of several similar small camps run by the East African Ornithological Society.
The camp we stayed in occupied a small corner of the Lewa Downs estate, once a colonial cattle ranch staked out from former Maasai grazing territory in 1922 under the British government’s post-war Soldier Settlement Scheme. The colonial administration’s plan at that time was to double the colony’s European population. Meanwhile the Africans’ side of the story was as follows. All Kenya’s indigenous peoples had to live on their allotted tribal reserves unless they were working for Europeans. They could not acquire land outside the reserves. All men over the age of sixteen had to wear the kipande pass book containing their work record. All Africans paid poll and hut taxes, which had just then been increased to recoup costs from the European war effort. Taxation also had the aim of impelling Africans into the labour market. Africans who had served in the Great War were not eligible for the new settlement land (10,000 soldiers, 195,000 porters of whom 50,000 had perished).
For Europeans, however, that it is to say for ‘men of the officer class’, there was on offer by lottery or at cheap rates, large blocks of land in the fertile Central Highlands and the Laikipia Plateau below Mount Kenya. Officials apparently believed that such men, newly returned to civilian life and most with little or no practical farming experience, would in an untried African environment, produce export quantities of cash crops. This trade in turn would fund the upkeep of 600 miles of now largely purposeless, but very expensive Mombasa-Uganda railway that the colonial administration had built between 1896 and 1901. (Also known as the Lunatic Line).
The railway’s original purpose was to provide access to land-locked Uganda, then believed to be the future source of vast natural resources. There were strategic reasons too. In the last decades of the 19th century, during the big European land grab of Africa, relations with Germany had become increasingly scratchy, and especially over possession of Uganda. British paranoia raised the spectre of the Germans sabotaging the source of the Nile at Jinja in Uganda, thereby scuppering Britain’s major shipping lanes in the faraway Suez Canal which relied on Nile water. Once thought of, only a railway would serve to bring troops swiftly to the scene to defend the vulnerable head waters.
Africa 1914 (St. Francis High School website)
Twenty years later, these functions unrealised or redundant, only large-scale European settlement would make the best of a bad job. Along with this ‘House that Jack Built’ mode of thinking was the idea that veteran officers, used to handling men, would be well fixed to manage and ‘civilise’ (i.e. instil discipline in) African labourers, this despite knowing nothing of their employees’ traditions or way of life or their language. Also if things went wrong at some future time, an uprising for instance, the officer chaps would usefully know how to handle a gun and not be afraid to use it.
As I’m writing this, I’m thinking that it sounds like a very bad joke with a dollop of Wodehouse daftness thrown in. But this is how the British Empire did things in East Africa. They were not prepared to invest in indigenous Africans, but they were prepared to take a punt on the ‘right sort’ of Europeans of whose farming prowess they knew not one single thing.
Roll forward 96 years…
Today Lewa Downs is still owned by descendants of the Craig/Douglas families who began the ranch. But now, and in cooperation with local indigenous communities, and the Kenya government, the owners use their 62,000 acres not for farming, but to protect threatened wildlife. Among their wards are populations of black and white rhinos whose territory is watched over around the clock by vigilant rangers, and whose horns are defended from poachers by armed Kenya Police Reservists.
It is an award-winning, avowedly non-profit-making enterprise that has set out to demonstrate that up-scale tourism can serve both wild life conservation and local community development. Other funding comes from donation and sponsorship, and a big proportion of the total income is spent on community projects including clinics, education, water management schemes, and low-interest loans to kick-start women’s small businesses.
Anyone who stays at Lewa Conservancy can be guaranteed unforgettable experiences – the full-on African wilderness, magnificent game viewing in breath-taking country, the chance to see how some of the tourist dollars are being spent. There are bush breakfasts, night game drives, camel riding, and star bathing. It would seem to be the 21st century eco-socio-sensitive take on the self-serving champagne safaris of the 1920s and ‘30s when white hunters – John Hunter, Bror Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton et al – ran commercial shooting expeditions for the elite of Europe, India and America.
And while the trophies these days are photos and memories, and not elephants’ feet, tusks and antelope heads, and while the safari guests’ presence may help to fund laudable causes, and not the free-booting life-styles of maverick aristocrats and misfit adventurers, still the packaging of today’s safaridom evokes something of the old elitist romance. If we don’t watch out it clings like a parasitic infection and blinds us to the many ironies.
But have a look for yourself at what the Lewa Conservancy is doing for people and wildlife. The model is not without its critics. Other settler descendants have pointed out that big landowners who stayed on in Kenya after Independence have been increasingly under pressure to start sharing their acres if they were not seen to be doing something very useful with them. The Craigs and their management team seem to have come up with quite a solution. The safari story continues…
copyright 2018 Tish Farrell
One of the truly useful institutions we Brits left behind in the African countries we invaded is the Annual Agricultural Show. We went to both Kenyan and Zambian versions, and found them hugely popular events, still held on their original dedicated show grounds. Nor are they simply about entertainment, shopping and crop and stock competitions, although there is plenty of all of these to be had. I remember one Kenyan smallholder being quoted in the national press. He had travelled many miles to attend the Nairobi show, and at some expense. ‘But,’ he said, ‘this show is my university. This is where I come to learn how to improve my farming skills.’
And as we wandered round we certainly found plenty of advice to hand, much of it rendered in model farm lay-outs. There was also that year’s exhortatory slogan to spur all to action: “Feed The Nation And Export”. And there were promotional exhibits for small-scale battery chicken rearing, camel raising, the Post Office and family planning. Even the National Archives had a small pavilion in which they were showing 1950s film footage from the Land Freedom uprising aka Mau Mau. The Young Farmers were showing off their crop growing and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (the place where Graham had his office) also had a big stand with plenty of experts to provide farmer guidance.
Welcome to Nairobi’s 1995 Agricultural Show: