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.

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

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

Looking Down On Lamu

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Roof Squares 20

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

Great Rift Zoom-In ~ Thursday’s Special

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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.

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(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…

Thursday’s Special: zoom in/zoom out

Three Hippopotamuses Or Should That Be Hippopotami? Either Way, It’s Hard To Type ~ Thursday’s Special

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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

Most Beloved ~ The Elephant Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then…

And then…

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

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

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

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

And so we wait.

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

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

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

Daily Post: Beloved

Once When We Were In Africa At The Foot Of The Ngong Hills…

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.

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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.

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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

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Yellowing Africa Memories And Shades Of Dark Safaris

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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.

Uganda Railway and aristratic game resort

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.

Uganda railway poster

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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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