Taking The Broad View ~ Mara Grasslands

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In the rainless months it is the oat grass that gives the Mara plains their golden hue. The small trees with their sculpted looks are desert dates, mulului trees, much browsed by all the local herbivores.

These photos from the Farrells’ old Africa album were taken outside the main Maasai Mara National Park, below the Oloololo Escarpment on territory owned by related Maasai families, locally referred to as a group ranch. Visitors pay a daily fee to group ranch elders. We were lucky to be able to make three trips there while living in Kenya.

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Life in Colour: Gold

Lens-Artists: Going wide

Vintage Zimbabwe

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Late 1992-3 and we were living in Lusaka, Zambia, Graham on secondment from the Natural Resources Institute in Kent to the European Union Delegation – his job to manage the logistics of food aid deliveries to drought-stricken parts of Zambia.

These were exciting times. As we arrived, long-term presidential incumbent, Kenneth Kaunda (he who had led Northern Rhodesia to independence in 1964) had recently ceded to Frederick Chiluba, the first elected president after the return to multi-party democracy. Which sounds positive, but it also involved the International Monetary Fund structurally adjusting the nation, causing hikes in staple food prices, and stopping free schooling and medical care for the poor so they could become even more hard done by.

Then there were the international corporations who continued not to pay taxes on their exploitation of Zambia’s copper mines. Then Kenneth Kaunda’s army officer son, Rezi, had thoughts of starting a coup and was said to behind much of the criminal activity in the capital, and then over in the neighbouring Congo (or so the story went) President Mobutu had neglected to pay his army thus causing them to come on regular night-raiding missions to the diplomatic quarters of Lusaka.

One could have become very anxious, but actually, none of this was my experience of Lusaka. It always seemed rather sleepy under the wide blue skies of breezy white clouds, the locals ever quick to smile and share a joke.

Anyway by July ‘93, winter in southern Africa, we thought we needed a holiday, and headed south for the then peaceably prosperous neighbour-state of Zimbabwe. We drove on near empty roads all the way to Harare. Back then that city  seemed like a wonderland, the epitome of sophistication compared to Lusaka where the downtown stores had empty shelves and all seemed stuck in a 1950s time-warp.  And after Harare we set off across Zimbabwe – nothing booked ahead – empty roads. The only downside was a gloomy day or two when we were in Hwange National Park and my little camera could not cope with low light levels. Still, it just about managed to capture the elephants under this very large acacia. They turned up while we were eating our picnic lunch.

Photo: Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.

Tree Square #29

A pair of bright sparks

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No apologies for showing this yet again. But the biting April wind here in Shropshire has driven back to the ‘old Africa album’ for a bit of warmth. And anyway, what can be more brightening than the sight of elephant babes. This photo was taken early one morning, on our last trip to the Maasai Mara. Happy times. Eight years in Africa gone in a flash.

Bright Square #22

Vintage Views: The International Nairobi Agricultural Show

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The agricultural show can most probably be counted as one of the more useful left-overs from the colonial occupation of African nations. Back in 1995 when these photos were taken I remember being struck by a rural farmer’s glowing comment in a newspaper interview. He said he had to travel a great distance to attend the Nairobi show every year, but it was worth it. The exhibition stands were his university, he said.

I could believe it. The amount of expert advice available at every turn was indeed impressive, and I speak as someone brought up on agricultural shows: my father was a grain merchant for a farmers’ cooperative and my memories of the various company stands were weighted rather more towards alcohol delivery than education.

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Of course the Nairobi show is also about selling and public relations, but I remember being particularly diverted by the National Archives stand which was showing 1950s newsreel footage of Land and Army so-called Mau Mau uprising; also by the Kenya Automobile Association’s  novel pitch to drum up membership; and by the glorious conformity of the cabbage display put on by a seed company. And of course there was all manner of entertainment to be had: shopping, snacks, a helter skelter, close encounters with camels, ripping performance from the military band: all the fun of the fair in fact. And you could get your shoes cleaned with the ‘world’s  no.1 shoe polish’, then have a swish new hair do in the next-door salon.

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Life in Colour: Yellow   This month Jude at Travel Words is asking us to think about yellow. Please pay her a visit.

Dreaming Upstream Zambezi

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There were many things we saw and did while living in Zambia and Kenya that were hard to process – even head on; even when fully present. It was as if the actuality dial in one’s brain kept sliding out of tune, sparking dissonance: am I here or am I simply observing myself here, courtesy of an imagined translocation from the pages of some hyper-real travelogue. I mean to say, how could I possibly be taking a sundowner boat ride up the Zambezi. How had I come to this place where I never expected to be?

We were living in Lusaka, Zambia, at the time. That posting had been unexpected too, notice given only on the day we exited Kenya after ten months there. Suddenly Graham was on another short-term attachment, this time to the EU Delegation, managing the distribution of food aid to drought-stricken villages. Then one day an old school friend, en route from the UK to New Zealand, wrote suggesting he and partner make a visit, but he could only get incoming flights to Harare. OK said G. We’ll drive down and pick you up.

And so began a fantastic make-shift safari – out of Zambia into Zimbabwe – crossing the border (and downstream Zambezi) at Chirundu then heading south for Harare. Then on further south through Masvingo to Great Zimbabwe. After that a loop west and north through Bulawayo, the Matopos and Hwange National Parks and back to the Zambezi and the Zambian border at Victoria Falls. And so one evening we found ourselves on a sundowner cruise, ambling upstream between Zimbabwe and Zambia. But then again perhaps that wasn’t really me.

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I couldn’t end this final ‘up’ post in Becky’s inspiring month-long challenge without a downstream view too. Look out! Here we go – up and over the knife edge – Victoria Falls – Mosi-oa-Tunya – The Smoke That Thunders. Way-haaaaay…

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Square Up #31  A big big thank you to Becky for helping to keep our spirits up all through January

Giddy Up, You Slow Coach Camels!

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It was meant to be a diverting event between the horse racing at Nairobi’s Ngong Racecourse. Officers from Kenya’s Police Anti-Stock Theft Unit were demonstrating their mounted expertise by racing their camels. The camel units usually operate far away in the arid zones of the Northern District, patrolling the border with Somalia, so perhaps the genteel and leafy ambiance of the Jockey Club enclave did not enthuse the camels.They certainly took much urging to leave the starting line and then, having started, there was little inclination to finish. An underwhelming contest then, though it added to the many and varied goings on of a Nairobi racing weekend.

The Ngong races are a hangover (pun retrospectively intended) from British colonial settler days when, for a week around Christmas, farmers left their lonely farms and ranches and gathered in town to let their hair down. For many it was a drunken spree, at least if you are to believe Evelyn Waugh’s 1931 account in Remote People. I’ve quoted from it before but it’s worth a second go:

I found myself involved in a luncheon party. We went on together to the Races. Someone gave me a cardboard disc to wear in my button-hole; someone else, called Raymond, introduced me to a bookie and told me which horses to back. None of them won…

Someone took me to a marquee where we drank champagne. When I wanted to pay for a round the barman gave me a little piece of paper to sign and a cigar.

We went back to Muthaiga and drank champagne out of a silver cup which someone had won.

Someone said, ‘You mustn’t think Kenya is always like this.

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I see from the internet there has been plenty of racing at the Ngong Racecourse during January. These days it is a well ordered multi-cultural affair. I’ve also just had a quick trawl through the Kenya Jockey Club’s Facebook photos but found no sign of camels. Obviously lacking in appropriate competitive attitude.

 

Square Up #30

Six Word Saturday

Lions Resting Up

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This photo records my first close encounter with lion-kind. I still find it hard to believe I was there.  I’d not long arrived in Kenya, not so much tourist as camp-follower to Graham who was out there on a short-term consultancy. He had recently returned from Mexico where he’d been studying the habits of the Larger Grain Borer (LGB), a tiny maize-devouring beetle which had been imported into Africa from the Americas in a cargo of food aid. The alien beastie had by the 1990s spread across the continent along the lines of rail and road and was busy infesting grain stores in Taita near the Tanzanian border and also in Ukambani in southern Kenya.

Graham was there to provide technical support to a British funded project that was planning to introduce a predator-specific beetle to control the LGB spread. For several months we had no home base. Instead there was an endless back and forth along the Mombasa highway between Nairobi and the coast, Graham spending two or three days at a time at research sites in Kiboko, Taita Hills and Mombasa. I went along for the ride.

At the coast we stayed in beach cottages. At Taita there was a rest house in the hills, but when it was booked up, we stayed at the extraordinary Taita Hills Hilton, a four-star safari lodge in the middle of nowhere. It came with its own private small game reserve, a former colonial sisal plantation run back to bush. (For anyone who’s read William Boyd’s An Ice cream War  this was the territory – between the Mombasa railway and the Taveta border).

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And so, one Saturday afternoon when Graham had finished working, we took ourselves for a game viewing drive around the Taita reserve. Left to our own devices we would not have seen the lions. But some rangers on patrol stopped us. ‘Have you seen the lions,’ they said. No? ‘Come. Follow us.’ They hived off into the bush in their sturdy truck. We followed (carefully) in the works’ Peugeot 307 saloon (!) And there they were, two lions under a thorn bush. Who’d have thought it!

Square Up #17

Elephant Totos Playing Up

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These photos are from our last trip to the Maasai Mara before we left Kenya – this after nearly eight years as ‘displaced persons’. It was late December and our family from the UK had come out to join us in millennium celebrations. Everywhere there was talk of the ‘dreaded bug’ – mass panic of how on the stroke of midnight New Year’s Eve 1999 all world intercommunications and computer functions would be scuppered. At such times one definitely knew there was more common sense to found among animal kind than with humanity.

We had left camp on an early morning game drive. Dan our driver-guide had brought a picnic breakfast of mammoth proportions and it was he who decided to stop the truck and break into the hard boiled eggs and pastries just as a large herd of elephants was passing by.  They came so softly, footfalls ever muffled by the large cushions of fat that elephants have in their heels. You could smell them though – the musky, muddy smell that is like nothing else. The adults seemed to be moving as one, a measured ambling pace with no deviation. Only the children weren’t quite coming to heel.

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For most of the year female elephants and young live in small matriarchal groups while the adult males pursue a separate existence in their own loose-knit herds. But come the rainy season, all these small groups may gather into a single large herd as they set out looking for fresh vegetation.

They couldn’t have cared less about us; gave not one sign that they had even registered our presence. Later, as it was going dark and we were returning to camp, we met the herd again. Dan stopped the truck and the herd moved around us, close enough to touch. They moved like shadow-ships through the Mara twilight. At such moments you tend to find that you’ve forgotten to breathe.

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Square Up #14

Gave Up Flying, Took Up Running

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You can see the city high rises in the top left behind the hen ostrich. She is standing in Nairobi National Park (some 40 square miles) which nudges up against the perimeter of Kenya’s capital, including the industrial zone and the main airport highway. In our time, the park still had an open wildlife corridor to the south, though even then there were problems of settlement encroachment. These days too, there is another kind of incursion – in the form of a super-duper elevated Chinese railway that cuts across the park on tall concrete pillars. This line replaces the old Uganda railway built right across Kenya by the British administration between 1895-1901, also known in its day as the Lunatic Line.

The colonial railway cost British taxpayers a lot of money, and was built entirely to satisfy UK strategic interests (i.e. not at all for the benefit of local populations). In order to recoup the cost, settlement by British gentlemen and especially members the ‘officer class’ was actively encouraged. It was envisaged they would engage in large-scale ranching and planting along the line of rail and produce valuable cash crops for export.

In the early 1900s the chaps who came out to British East Africa all had notions of making big fortunes. One of those notions involved ostrich farming, or rather ostrich feather farming, since those airy plumes were just then in high demand for ladies’ hats. These same chaps also knew that some other chaps down in South Africa had made it rich from feather production.

Unfortunately the  ostriches of British East did not prove especially accommodating within what turned out to be a very small window of opportunity. One way to set up business was to collect eggs from the wild (a single nest might have twenty or more eggs) and then incubate and rear the chicks. But then robbing a nest could be hazardous; ostrich parents are fierce guardians, taking it in turns to protect their offspring. (N.B. a kick from an ostrich can break a man-leg).

Early settler Lord Delamere thought to speed up operations by recruiting a cohort of mounted Somalis to organise an ostrich drive across the open plains of his Rift Valley estate, thereby separating flocks of part-reared chicks from the hens and driving them towards the farm dairy where farmhands, stationed behind thorn trees, had been charged to grab any passing chick and imprison them. It did not go well. Even ostrich chicks can wrestle.

And then the captured adult cock bird proved most unbiddable, even with a sock over his head (an approach that was supposed to calm him down). He was last seen sprinting across the plains, still be-socked, having broken from his pen. And by the time all this had been gone through, the bottom had dropped out of the hat feather market because some idiot had invented the motor car wherein ladies’ plumed headgear proved most unsuitable and was apt to blow clean away.

All of which is a bit of a deviation from the point I intended to make. Ostriches may not fly, but they can certainly run: over 40 mph (70kph). The fastest birds on the planet. Just look at those legs in the next photo. They also come with huge, clawed feet attached.

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Square Up #13

Up And Away ~ Flamingos Take Flight

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It is distinctly shivery in Shropshire just now, the wintery weather set to stay for a couple of weeks at least. And so as ever when the parts are chillier than is altogether comfortable, thoughts turn to the old Africa album and days when we lived in warmer climes. Christmas and New Year are the hot season in Kenya, following on the short rains (a term that these days belies their frequent flooding capacities).

Lake Elmenteita in the Great Rift Valley was one of our favourite getaway spots, only an hour or so’s drive north of Nairobi. The shallow soda lake is the breeding and feeding ground for  both greater and lesser flamingos (it’s mostly the former you see in this shot).

The small tented camp where we stayed nestled among fever trees at the foot of the East Rift escarpment, below the Aberdares range. I took the photo just as the early morning sun rose above the heights and lit up the flamingos. Of course this scan from an original photo doesn’t quite do the scene justice, the crispness lost in translation. But you get the gist. It’s still very lovely. Though come to think of it, this part of the Rift was very chilly at dawn: jumper and jacket and wellies required, so not so different from my usual Shropshire outdoor garb.

For those who want to know more about this extraordinary place plus a spot of Kenya’s colonial history see my earlier post:

On watch at Elmenteita: the lake that blows away

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Today I’m  doing a two-in-one post for Becky’s January Square Ups, and Lisa’s Bird Weekly. Please pay them a visit.

 

Square Up #3

Bird Weekly This week Lisa at Our Eyes Open wants to see birds with long wing spans.