Mara Hippos ~ Sleeping Like Tops

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It is fairly uncommon to catch hippos like this – snoozing ashore, though they may do it on sand banks in rivers. Their usual routine is to spend the night in the bush, roving far and wide and chomping masses of grass. Then at first light they start returning to the river so they can be well submerged in their watery territory before sun up. Their hides are  2 inches (5cm) thick, and although a red oily secretion gives some protection, they are very susceptible to over-heating and drying out. It can thus be fatal to find yourself between a river and a hippo intent on swift immersion.

We had our own alarming charging hippo encounter on the Luangwa River when we were living in Zambia. That story is HERE.

These particular sleeping hippos were caught on an early morning game drive, around 7 a.m. We drove right by them along a secluded stretch of the Mara River flood plain. Not an eye’s blink from any of them.

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And the origins of the saying: to sleep like a top?

My Dictionary of Phrase and Fable tells me it relates to the children’s toy, the traditional wooden spinning top. Once well whipped into action, there is a point when the top seems perfectly still and silent.

And here’s an early 17th century usage:

“O for a pricke now like a nightingale, to put my breast against. I shall sleep like a top else.”

The Two Noble Kinsmen a play attributed to a John Fletcher – William Shakespeare collaboration.

 

Square Tops #5

A Topi On Top

Topi can be found across Africa in various local races or subspecies. They also look like Coke’s hartebeest, but are distinguished by their handsome damson coloured thigh patches – very fetching on their chestnut coats. The males are keen on showing themselves off by posing on top of termite mounds – keeping an eye on their females (usually 10-15) and showing would-be rivals that they are on the look-out.

Square Tops #4 Becky has a very special ‘square top’ this morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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copyright 2020 Tish Farrell

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

Tales From The Riverbank ~ Breakfast With Hippos

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With all that is presently going on in the world, a visit to the old Africa album and the banks of the Mara River seems like a soothing thing to do – a bit of virtual safari-ing. It’s handy too because this week at Lens-Artists, Amy at has given us ‘river’ as the theme.

For six of the seven years we lived in Kenya (this was in the 1990s) we somehow managed not to go to the Maasai Mara. Then in our final year we went three times,  always staying at the small Mara River Camp below the Esoit Oloololo escarpment, guests of the Koiyaki Lemek Maasai group ranch wildlife trust. It was Godfrey Mwirigi who lured us there. We came to know him at  Elmenteita where he managed Lord Delamere’s Camp, but one morning in early May 1999 the phone rang in our Nairobi house. I mention this because the phone ringing was an unusual event; it was an instrument that rarely functioned.

It was Godfrey on the line. After the usual exchange of greetings I told him he sounded hazy. ‘I’m ringing from Mara River Camp,’ he says. Now I’m even more astonished – phoning all the way from the Maasai Mara when trying to ring up the next door neighbours was often impossible. He told me he had just started his new job as manager there and when I asked him how it was going he says, ‘Fine. Fine. I can see hippos from my office. It’s lovely here. We’ve had no rain yet and there’s plenty of game.’ It sounded like an invitation. It had to be an invitation. So two weeks later we set off to see him – Saturday morning flying by Fokker Dash on the regular domestic plane service out of Wilson Airport in Nairobi, whence, having negotiated the usual city traffic turmoil and checked in, the flight took only 40 minutes from city centre to touch-down on the plains’ landing strip. We were there almost before we were ready for it. Banking over the nearby marsh beside the landing strip I spotted elephants. Amazing!

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A safari truck was waiting beside the landing strip to pick us up, the camp driver and assistant manager, Tito there to greet us. Tito told us the Mara River Camp would be a further 40 minute drive over rough tracks, and she apologised for the state of them. We bumped along beneath the escarpment, following the ox-bow meanders of the river, its banks wooded with acacias, wild olives, crotons, cordia, and Kenya greenheart.

 

The camp itself was on a river bend, twelve large tents set under the trees. The soundscape filled with bird-chatter and the grunting of hippos, the air lemon sweet from cordia blossom. As it turned out Godfrey was astonished to see us. He flew from his office with open arms. The tour company had mixed up our names and he was expecting a Mr and Mrs Graham. He then told us that he couldn’t have come to meet us from the plane as he’d had visitors. Important ones. The Maasai elders who jointly owned the 300 square miles of ranch in which the camp stood had come to check out the new manager, to see if he came up to scratch. I asked what would happen if they didn’t like him. ‘They are very powerful,’ said Godfrey, meaning a swift transfer out. This seemed unlikely, however. I had caught sight of the departing wazee, one an imposing grizzle-headed ancient wrapped in a red blanket. The members of the little delegation were all smiling as they walked away.

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[From the Kenya diary]

After lunch under the trees – battered lake fish and vegetables, Godfrey comes to join us on the riverbank for a spot of hippo watching. In a few weeks he has made himself at home here though his actual homeland is on the faraway flanks of Mount Kenya. I remember that when he took over as manager at Elmenteita camp he had to take the safari guide’s exam and learn to identify some 600 species of birds. I ask if there will be more exams now he has a new habitat to get to grips with. He laughs and says mammals are his next assignment, though he has two years grace before he needs to go in for the silver medal exam. Below us the hippos snort and blow, sometimes submerging completely, then rearing up like whales, bottoms first, or doing their fearsome yawns which show the teeth that can bite a tough old crocodile in two, especially if it has designs on one of their babies.

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Godfrey begins to tell us about his other recent Maasai experiences, and for a moment we see that in some ways he is as much a traveller in Kenya as we are. The Maasai, he pronounces, are very interesting people with some very unusual customs. For instance the day before a group of women had come singing and dancing into the camp, and because rural Maasai rarely speak Swahili he had to ask Tito, who is Maasai, to explain what was going on. She told him they were there to collect money, because they were all childless women who needed to go to the elder for a blessing. This man had to be paid, but after the blessing had been duly delivered, the women would be free to consort with any man they chose in the hopes of conceiving a child.

Poor Godfrey was trying to get away with donating only a hundred shillings, in harambee (Kenya fund-raising) fashion, but they invaded his office waving twigs and saying it was not enough. Five thousand bob (£50) was what they needed. And it was only after a lot of persuading that he managed to convince them that he truly didn’t have it. They told him they would go off to other camps and try there. When they had gone Godfrey told Tito that if he’d known they were coming he would have gone to his tent, but she only laughed and said they would have looked for him there too.

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The view across the river: Maasai lads minding their herds below the escarpment.

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30 May

Extraordinary. I’m up and dressed by 5.30 a.m. Now is the time for hippos to return the river after a night spent browsing far and wide, and it is a foolish person who finds himself standing between a hippo and the river. They are of course intent on being submerged before the sun can overheat their sensitive skins. Round the camp the hippo slipways to the water are mostly on the far bank and I watch the huge hulks pass like ghosts through the woodland, a mother nudging her baby, before they start edging slowly, slowly, ever-so-slowly, down a deep gully and into the water. Thus does the long day of snorting and blowing and wallowing begin.

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31 May

Up again before 6 a.m. Am aware of Graham’s astonishment even though he pretends to be asleep. I go hippo spotting until it’s time for my 7.30 wilderness walk with Daniel. The sun is just lighting up the river and steam rises off its slow–moving surface. This morning the hippos are ‘late going home’, as Godfrey puts it, with only two so far immersed and two others beached along the bank apparently dawn-bathing. I see the big shapes moving through the woodland. In front is a mother with a small round calf. It is not anxious to go down the hippo-chute. She nudges its bottom with her nose, and small as it is (though clearly sure of what it does or doesn’t want) it turns round and nudges her right back. For a long time they make no progress, and then the way is blocked by a big male who takes a good fifteen minutes to negotiate the gully. But then I suppose when you’re as big as he is, any untoward gathering of speed down the bank could end up with terminal burial in the river mud.

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The walk along the riverbank with Daniel is uneventful. We look at plants, and see a little bee eater with its lime-green back, an immature augur buzzard, a yellow bishop. The sun is hot by 8.30 and I’m feeling hungry, but Daniel is determined to take the outing seriously. He’s brought some of his reference books too. ‘It’s not very often we get guests who are interested in plants,’ he says. ‘It’s easy to forget what you’ve learned without practice.’ To prove the point he picks a piece of the plant whose name I ask but he doesn’t know and slips it inside his Flowering Plants of East Africa book, for future identification. I forget about breakfast and continue to set him floral challenges.

On the way back to camp we see leopard prints on the track. ‘Oh yes,’ Daniel says. ‘They come round the camp at night.’

It’s nearly nine when we arrive back. I find Graham and Godfrey having a leisurely breakfast with the hippos, who are by now all safely ‘home’ in the river; or they are until one huge beast suddenly emerges and climbs ponderously back into the wood. This behaviour is so unusual we pick up the binoculars for a closer view and see that his hide is covered with bleeding scratches. It’s hard to imagine what might have caused them, other than a serious tangle with an acacia thicket. Godfrey says the fish are probably irritating the wounds, hence the unexpected exit.

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Graham and Godfrey

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Happy days!

 

Lens-Artists: River

All Quiet In The Mara?

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

copyright 2019 Tish Farrell

Lens-Artists: harmony

Elephants In The Acacias

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I have elephants on my mind today. Last night when we were trawling YouTube it threw up a mesmerizing BBC  film about the desert elephants of Mali’s Sahel. It was made back in 2001, and followed a research project that involved fitting radio collars to 8 elephants (a very tricky pursuit) and tracking them and their herd over a 700 mile migration route, from water source to water source, as they crossed the desert lands of Mali and Burkina Faso. A subsequent trawl on the web suggests the research is ongoing under the auspices of Save The Elephants. The film is well worth viewing, and this is the link to the Daily Motion version: The Lost Elephants of Timbuktu 2001.

Spiky Squares #23

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