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).
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
Our almost-spring has reverted to winteriness today, so it’s back to the old Africa album for Square 22 and a bit of midday heat. Am imagining too the smell of the bush – spicy sundried grasses and hot peppery earth – and in my head the seamless kroo-krooing of doves. And because it has amused me ever since I heard it from a tipsy guide in Zambia, I make no apologies for repeating it again here: when it comes to zebras’ butticles, he told us, each has its own unique set of stripes. He further suggested that this was how the offspring recognised their mothers. I have no idea if this is true, but am happy to go along with it if only for the butticles, since they sound more decorous than buttocks and so have remained discriptor of choice in the Farrell household when referring to that particular part of the anatomy. And anyway, zebras do sport such very handsome ones.
Spiky Squares #22
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’.
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.
Spiky Squares #7