Lions Among Thorns

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

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

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

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

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

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Taita Hilton - safari vans come and go

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Spiky Squares #7

Maasai Mara Landscape ~ A Warrior’s View

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

Dances with warriors

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

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

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

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

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

copyright 2019 Tish Farrell

Continues HERE

 

Lens-Artists: Landscapes

 

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

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

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

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

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Lens-Artists: Blending in or standing out

Thursdays Special ~ Profile Of The Leonine Kind

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We came upon the Maasai Mara’s famous Marsh Pride on a morning game drive out from Mara River Camp. It was August – as close to winter as Kenya gets – the skies leaden, the plains parched and dusty, the whole place waiting for the short rains that will not be happening for another two months; and perhaps not at all. In fact this trip had started out from Nairobi in thick fog, and descending the Great Rift escarpment was even more hair-raising exciting than usual.

But to get back to the lions. The pride was resting up in home territory, most of its members – mothers and cubs – scarcely visible in the grass. For one thing they were the same colour as the vegetation. For another, it is what lions do – disappear in twelve inches of grass.

As we drove nearer we spotted this male. He was pacing through the grass, roaring. This was answered by another male some distance away. It seemed they were busy marking out their patch. They ignored us anyway, which was comforting, though I have to say that lion-roars, especially ones at close quarters, make your spine resonate, and not in a good way.

Another hair-raising exciting moment then.

We watched them for a while from the safety of the safari truck, then left them to it, the roars following us down the track. By which time  we were  wondering if we were really there at all. Out in the African wilds it mostly feels like dreaming.

 

Profile:     Panthera Leo

                    Simba in KiSwahili

Weight:    Males 420-500 lb/110-135 kg

Length:     Males 5-7 ft/2.5-2 m

Lifespan:  Males 12 years

 

Thursdays Special: Profile

Please visit Paula to see her fantabulous shot of a snowy owl.

Luminous Lions in the Maasai Mara

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It’s as if the East African landscape only becomes itself at sundown and sunrise; is only visible to us humans in steeply angled light. It reminds me of the magic painting books I had as a child: nothing but white pages, the images barely descried, a palimpsest of silvery lines. All is blank then; staringly dull. But take a pot of water, and ply a paint brush across the page, and all springs astonishingly to life. Everywhere bursting in colour.

Out in the bush the wild life anyway lies low during the midday hours.  And even if you could see them, the equatorial sun flattens the vista. You lose a sense of scale and distance. Even a magnificent eland spotted in the Great Rift at noon can look strangely unimpressive.  Just a big antelope then.

Kenya’s game parks and reserves are vast – hundreds of square miles. The animals are not fenced in although, increasingly along the borders, farming (large and small scale) encroaches on grazing grounds and migration routes. But this lack of containment means you can drive around a game reserve for hour after hour and see nothing but thorn scrub; or the retreating rear end of a warthog if you’re very lucky.

But then the sun begins to set, and you are out with a local driver-guide who knows where to look; and the light turns rose-gold, and the land puts on its best colours. And what was distant, and unfocused takes on form and clarity. Out of mind-numbing absence, and hours of searching, emerges this big-cat presence…

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Of course they were there all along. Only now they let us see them. Apart, that is, from the big male who is still hiding in the grass behind his mate. It’s another piece of bush magic, how a 500-pound big cat can disappear in twelve inches of grass. Can you spot him?

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Ailsa’s travel theme: luminous

Some don’t like it wet, and a case of sub-teen rebellion big cat style

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First off I should say these aren’t the best of  photos. They were taken on a dullish, August day in the Maasai Mara, and out of the back of a dusty Land Rover. But it’s a nice little glimpse of ‘I’m-a-big-boy-now’ rebellion of the lion kind.

It was the she-lion’s odd behaviour that attracted our attention. We drove towards the swamp to see what was going on. The rest of the Marsh Pride was lying up in the long grass a good half mile away, but here was a lone adult female walking about in a distracted manner, and with no attempt at concealment. She was also calling…and looking…

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And calling…

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We drove around the swamp. And then we could see what she couldn’t…

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Junior. He, in fine nonchalant style, was busy exploring. He could hear Mom all right, but he was darned if he would show himself. In fact he just kept going…

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…in the opposite direction…

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Ooops! Not looking where we were going…

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But it gave him a good excuse: “Was just getting a drink of water, Mom.”

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We left them to find one another, although I reckon Junior was in for a big cuff round the ears. Meanwhile, here’s the big lion, he was thinking he already was – Dad.

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This post was inspired, somewhat tangentially, by Jennifer Nichole Wells One Word Photo Challenge: wet Drop in to her blog to see other bloggers’ responses.

Lions before the storm

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Before the storm we fall in with lion –

six scions out from the pride.

Unmaned, cub-spotted, they slump amongst thorns,

smug in their big-cat skins.

They know we’re here.

So now we’re adrift on the storm’s swell:

coming like lambs to lay down with lions?

Caught in their lure we listen to their breathing;

the rise and fall of soft flanks.

Our breath marks time.

Waiting – till a drift of rainfall stirs them.

Watching – till they they rise to make their kill.

 

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

Jennifer Nichole Wells: OWPC Storm

Hyena Heist in the Mara

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First light on the Mara plains, and the Marsh Pride lionesses have eaten well. In the night they have killed a giraffe and are resting up near the remains of the carcase.  The peace doesn’t last though. And it isn’t us who are bothering them.

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Other predators are moving in on the leftovers.  First a black-backed jackal comes trotting by, watches hopefully from the side-lines. Her chances are looking slim…

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…already the heavy mob are moving in – a pack of spotted hyenas.

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As I said in an earlier post, hyenas do  not only scavenge, they are powerful hunters with jaws like demolition-crushers. And despite their lop-sided gait, their feet with blunt, non-retractable claws, are well adapted for the long-distance chase. They can take down a wildebeest and eat and digest the lot (apart from horns and rumen) within 24 hours. They will also eat anything, including the faces of sleeping humans caught out without sufficient night-time protection. This was a commonly reported horror while we lived in Kenya.  In consequence they are East Africa’s most successful large predator, apart from politicians, that is.

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Here, one of the pack has made a rush on the kill and escaped with some leg bones, but it doesn’t look as if sharing is on the hyenas’ menu.

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The lionesses go on watching, alert in that laid-back kind of way that cats do so well. The remnants are not worth fighting over. When the time comes, and bellies are empty, they will make another kill.

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copyright 2014 Tish Farrell