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

Soit Olololo Escarpment

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.

hippo on the bank

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Graham and Godfrey

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Happy days!

 

Lens-Artists: River

Lamu ‘Roof-light’ And A Room With Many Views

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It’s back to the old Africa album for some rooftop views of Shela village on the East African island of Lamu. The photos are accruing vintage status, taken with a non-digital camera (Olympus trip) many Christmases ago when home for us meant Nairobi.

Many of you will have seen them before. We were staying in the grandly named ‘penthouse suite’ of the long gone Island Hotel, four floors up in the palm thatched rafters. The ‘penthouse’ status meant much empty space, basic cold water shower and loo, a too-narrow-for-two Lamu bed, a couple of locally made chairs, and best of all, windows on three walls. I have never had so many good views all at once. There was a breeze too off the nearby Manda Strait – always a blessing in the sticky hot season.

And of course this open-to-the-elements facility also came with a soundtrack – radios, family chatter, clattering saucepans, babies crying, cockerels crowing, cats yowling and donkeys hee-hawing. And if at night sleep happened at all, then all too soon there came the dawn call to prayer, the sonorous tones of Allahu Akbar  –  all of village life welling in our roof space like sea-sounds in a shell. It was utterly mesmerising. Perhaps we dreamt it.

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Taking a Lamu dhow into Stone Town. Another kind of window.

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Related posts:

A brief introduction to the Swahili culture of the East African seaboard The Swahili

The original post about our long-ago Christmas trip Lamu Dreaming

copyright 2020 Tish Farrell

Lens-Artists: Window with a view

January Light #14

Back To The Old Africa Album ~ All Manner Of Waiting In All Sorts Of Places

Hwange National Park - elephant crossing our path

It’s always best to wait when an elephant decides to cross your path. This particular elephant crossing episode happened in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. The photo was taken in July, southern Africa’s winter. The bush country was tinder dry and the skies overcast, and the nights chilly. We were living in Zambia at the time and had driven down for a couple of weeks meandering. Zimbabwe is a very fine country for a spot of meandering.

Harare night guards waiting to go on duty

This photo was a piece of pure happenstance. I’d just walked out of the post office somewhere in down-town Harare. These security guards were waiting to start the 6 o’ clock night shift. I was invited to take their picture. A treasured shot.

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Lusaka agricultural show - Dog Show

We’re in Lusaka, Zambia for this dotty photo. One of the institutions that the colonial British left behind in the African territories they invaded is the annual agricultural show. These days it is a big family day out for Zambians and but oddly also includes (mostly for members of the European and Asian communities) a dog show. Here we see entrants in the terrier class waiting for the all important judging moment. I seem to remember it was the Manchester terrier (far right) that got the first prize rosette.

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Lusaka agricultural show - kids

Kids doing what kids do everywhere – hanging out in hopes something interesting might happen.

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Lusaka agricultural show - African cow

A patient zebu bull waiting for his moment in the judging ring.

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Woodside shopping centre, Lusaka. Parking boys waiting for their guarding fee from the car owner. All over the continent, where millions of young people are unemployed, this is how some lads make a living.

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Kamwala roadside furniture market

Waiting to make a sale: Kamwala furniture market, Lusaka. We bought most of our big household items, beds, chairs etc,  from roadside craftsmen. They made good stuff, a lot of it from recycled shipping crates, or by simply repurposing reeds and timber from the highway verges. I miss this way of life. It’s how we should be living: local produce, locally sold by the people who made it, and no need to drive to the out-of-town shopping mall; and none of it shrink-wrapped in sheaves of plastic.

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We’re in Nairobi now, at the Ngong Racecourse. These are members of the Kenya Police Anti-Stock Theft Unit who operate in the arid northern district. This was supposed to be a race, but the camels couldn’t summon the enthusiasm – either to start or to finish. So here we are waiting for them to pass the finish post.

The Ngong Races are another hangover from  colonial times, wherein the institution of ‘Race Week’ was laid on over the Christmas period to provide white settlers with the excuse to come to town, get totally blotto and so escape the lonely toil on their isolated farms. These days the races are popular with Nairobians from all walks of life, though a glimpse of the members’ enclosure and of the memsahibs in their big hats might make you think you’d landed at an English county race meeting.

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Waiting for the next race.

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Race Day is also very much a family event, so there is lots to keep the children amused: face painting, donkey rides, ice creams and Mr. Magik doing tricks.

races_0004 - Copy (3)This little boy does not seem too impressed: waiting for magic to happen perhaps.

Lens-Artists: Waiting Amy set this week’s challenge. Go and see how she has interpreted ‘waiting’.

Remembering December Colours In East Africa ~ Thursday’s Special

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December is usually the time of the short rains in Kenya. I say usually because these days the tropics are especially affected by climate change so nothing is certain when it comes to weather. It is also the hottest time of the year, and in the upcountry regions, the season for planting. Here on Lamu Island (above) it is also tourist time, although the year we spent Christmas there it was scarcely crowded. This  photo was taken on Christmas Eve as the sun was setting. There were about six other people on the beach. Earlier that day we had arrived in a sudden squall which made the dhow crossing to Lamu from the air field on Manda Island a touch exciting. We visitors all huddled under the awning while the stalwart captain kept us on course across a choppy, foggy strait.

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Most of our Christmases were spent on Tiwi beach south of Mombasa. Not a busy place either. Here’s the sunrise over the lagoon at Maweni one Christmas morning long ago.

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And some ageing views of the lagoon in head-on sunshine:

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Thursday’s Special ~ please visit Paula to see her colour prompts. As you might conclude, they include aquamarine, cyan and golden.