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!

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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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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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Whatever’s Going On Up There?

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Looks like Owl has been on a festive-season bender and is yet to recover his wits (as in wits-de-woo?). He’s supposed to be on duty seeing off pigeons, and every now and then a human climbs the church tower to put him in a fresh, deemed intimidating pose. Clearly he’s not seeing much from under his Santa hat. Even Weather Cock is giving him the cold shoulder. Even the local doves are having a good laugh – hoo-hoo-hoo, they chortle. I caught them at it just a few minutes ago as I walked back from a trip to the shop.

Well! The things that go on in Much Wenlock. One could faint with the excitement of it all.

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Wake Up, Chickens!

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This cockerel had worked himself up into quite fury. None of the other hens and ornamental cockerels in the garden were paying  him a blind bit of notice. Pfft. This called for a spot of high-speed strutting, hence the blurry image…

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At least the daisies were standing to attention even if no one else was…

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These photos were taken a couple of springs ago at Arley Aboretum beside the River Severn, an almost local beauty spot, and a place with plenty of scope for upward gazing among majestic trees.

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Iced Up

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Yesterday we woke to an all-over frosting, every outdoor surface bristling with ice crystals. This led (once well wrapped up) to a long prowl around the Farrell estate to see what caught the eye. I was rather taken with the Echinops seed head over the garden fence. It made me think of ice lollies, or sherbet on a stick. The fence looked pretty enticing too, and behind it the dead-flower spikes of lemon balm.

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Having The Upper Hand…Or Would That Be Beak?

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In recent days there has been a bit of a coup over in the crab apple at the top of the garden. Mama Blackbird has staked her claim to the crop. In fact the other morning I caught her seeing off the male blackbird in a most aggressive manner. No quarter given there then. He went off in a fluster.

Back in early December it was he who was King of the Crab Apples.   There had been no frost or snow to soften the fruit, and he was finding the going tough, adopting a fencer’s lunging stroke to slice off shreds of fruity flesh. Once in a while he’d (accidently) end up with a whole mini-apple wedged in his beak, too hard to scrunch in one pincer movement. Next would come a rapid descent to the garden path to sort himself out. Once or twice I thought he was in danger of choking, and wondered what the procedure might be – to unchoke a blackbird.  But then he hopped back on the fence and, if birds can cough, he coughed a few times and returned to lunging.

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And so now all is clear. There was naturally a very  good reason why Mama Blackbird was biding her time, waiting for wintery weather to make easy pickings of the apples .

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Apple Sorbet on a stalk. Mine! All mine! says Mama Merle.

 

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Signs Of Squirrel-Dupery? Who knew?

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Grey squirrels don’t hibernate, though they are said to do less scampering in wintery weather, and when it is very cold, they will curl themselves up, using their tails like duvets.

These photos were taken before the snow when the big oaks at the top of the Linden Field were alive with squirrel-kind seeking out acorns. They were also pretty busy after the snow, doubtless seeking out their respective stashes. But here’s the thing. It seems they are a sneaky lot and will make a big pretence of burying nuts in particular places to fool other squirrels. The little dupers.

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Becky has a wonderful sun for us today.