I was invited out for a meal by my next door neighbours last night. I had a beer on the verandah to begin with, watching the sun set over the lagoon, now carpeted by a green algae bloom. V called us in for a starter of butternut squash soup with homemade bread. This was followed by chicken breast stuffed with Italian cheese and prosciutto, Hasselback potatoes with carrots and mushrooms. For dessert, there was a molten chocolate brownie with runny chocolate sauce inside and surrounded by raspberry coulis. I ws stuffed.
It’s not often that I have a banquet like this. We had some entertaining conversation and everyone began to feel tired (even though it was before 9pm). I accepted a gift of leftovers and picked up my super Lenser torch. Outside the front door, a security light came on and the coast looked clear.
It is less than 40 metres to my home. I walked carefully, shining my torch to search for animal eyes in the dark. Just as I left the track, I came face to face with a bull elephant, about ten feet away. My torchlight may have blinded him or shocked him as he was chewing on a bush. I beat a hastier retreat than I should have (the correct procedure is to keep your eyes on the elephant and move backwards slowly). To my shame, I called out, “Alastair, there’s a f~@#ing elephant in my garden!” I need to be more “bush savvy.
We waited a few minutes, tracking his movements with our torches. He could be browsing on bushes for hours. Alastair was upbeat, “At least he’s keeping down the vegetation around the house.” I considered going back inside his house and having a cup of tea, but then we wouldn’t have a clue where he was when I tried to venture home again. Victoria offered to make up a spare bed.
Just then, the big bull moved across the track away from my bungalow. Alastair kept him in view with his torch while I nipped back home through the bushes, giving the elephant a clear berth. Phew.
Baboons. Need I say more? At least a hundred of the little blighters, making mischief. But animals have priority on the roads, so I waited until they had crossed.
The road was badly cut up by trucks driving through the muddy sand. There were lots of pools on the track, but the deepest had been partially filled in with old bricks to provide a better grip for the tyres. The big dirt road had several streams running across it, creating gorges which needed careful negotiation. As I reached the tarmac road, a lorry came into view. The passengers in the back were waving frantically at me. I didn’t realise I was so popular, I thought, until I turned the corner and saw a large bull elephant ripping tasty branches from a roadside tree. So they were trying to warn me.
Normally when you see one elephant, you can be sure that there are others nearby. But lone bulls do venture off on their own, so I wasn’t too alarmed. I drove slowly towards him but couldn’t resist a few photographs. Just to prove the veracity of the story, of course.
Further along the road, I saw bushbuck and puku antelopes, as well as another mob of baboons. The village hasn’t changed much. A few new shops here and there, more potholes in the road to the bridge and a new restaurant, which I will have to visit soon.
More churches have been built beside the back road to the clinic. The Obama Bar has closed during the day and its courtyard is a haven for grazing goats. But at night it remains highly active. The clinic road is worse and I passed the rear of a sign saying, “Road Closed Turn Right.” The clinic has a new HIV/AIDS block in shimmering white, built by US aid (PEPFAR). The clinic now deals with 875 patients living with HIV without the fortnightly visits from the district hospital.
The maternity block has finally got an electrical connection so it can function as intended. The consultation rooms look cleaner, water flows from the taps and there is soap. The only towel is the one I donated in 2014, which looked rather grubby. I wiped my hands on the seat of my trousers.
The staff who knew me were delighted to see me again. The new health workers welcomed me back and we chatted about the good old days. “But the drug situation is worse now. We have less medication now than we had when you were last here, doc.”
People in the Ministry of Health must be worried about the increase in malaria cases in this district. We are adopting a proactive strategy of testing and treating anyone who lives near all new patients found to be suffering from malaria. Unfortunately, heavy rain has made it almost impossible to get to remote areas to carry this out. It will be an interesting experiment.
The clinic now runs two community clinics a week, in which I will participate, as well as a schools inspection and health education programmes (sexual health is on the agenda again).
I had the afternoon free to visit South Luangwa National
Park today. The Zambian Wildlife Authority guards on the gate were glad to see
me again and we had a long chat about what has flown under the bridge since we
last met. But the Luangwa River is extremely full flowing under the bridge into
the park. It is almost overflowing. This has been the first “proper”
rainy season for ten years, with precipitation every couple of days.
The rain makes the grass and leaves grow, so it is more difficult
to see game and birds. But it is so incredibly beautiful that it is known as
the “emerald” season. The main laterite roads are passable, but dirt
tracks are treacherous. I don’t want to get stuck in the mud in the first week
I am here. There were ominous rain clouds in the distance and it seemed likely
that there would be a shower before the end of the day.
The roads do provide a dry way for some animals. Zebras
prefer not to risk walking through swampy grassland for fear of crocodiles, so
they trot along the road. Mating lions like to avoid soggy bottoms, and don’t
care if the tourists are gawping at them. Actually, there are very few
tourists. I only saw three other vehicles seeing animals in the park.
First stop was fifty metres from the bridge, where a pair of hippos were grazing just down the bank of the road at the edge of the bush. They are often shy, but these two were just stuffing themselves with lush grass. The flow is so rapid in the Luangwa river that the hippos and crocs prefer to stay in lagoons. A kilometre further along the main road, the lagoon at Mfuwe Lodge was a carpet of green water hyacinths. I could just see the nostrils and eyes of another hippo as I was watching a Jacana (lily trotter).
I spotted an African Grey Hornbill in a tree at the side of
the road. There were the usual zebras, elephants, baboons, warthogs, waterbucks,
impala and puku, but no giraffes. I heard a male woodland kingfisher perched on
a dead branch, singing gloriously with his mate perching just below him. He was
probably boasting about his new match to another male across the forest who was
returning his call.
Although long-tailed starlings are very common, they are exceptionally beautiful with their iridescent plumage. I saw my first lilac-breasted roller, no doubt the first of many and an open-billed stork. The yellow-billed storks are ubiquitous at present. The white feathers on their backs develop a rosy tinge at this time of year.
Because of poor roads, I could not reach the oxbow lake,
Luangwa Wafwa, which is one of my favourite places. I turned around and headed
for Wa Milombe via Zebra Drive. I saw a group of pied kingfishers diving
repeatedly at a roadside pool, as well as lots of antelope. Wa Milombe savannah
plane is now a lake surrounded by swamp. To drive back to the main road, I had
to negotiate a river crossing. I could see a young crocodile waiting in
anticipation but it was raining heavily by now and I didn’t want to get my
camera wet taking a decent photograph. This one will have to do.
Sometimes there is no alternative; you just have to buy a pig in a poke. We had arrived in Nanyuki for the Memorial Day weekend and booked into the African-style Town and Country Hotel. I asked the receptionist if there was a reliable guide for the Conservancy. She gave me Mohamed’s card, so being a trusting chap, I telephoned him. We fixed a (pretty steep) price, for which he would guide us, using a 4 wheel drive vehicle, staying in the park all day starting at 6am.
At 6:15am the next day we were outside the hotel, freezing cold, stamping our feet to keep warm, waiting for Mohamed. A flash black SUV pulled up and Mohamed greeted us. I should have realised something was wrong when I saw an image of Muammar Gaddafi applied to the rear window. Sadly, he couldn’t guide us because he had been engaged to take an expedition up Mount Kenya. Then a rent-a-wreck maize burner stopped by the storm drain. This was to be our vehicle. Even in the dark early morning, we could see it was rubbish. I asked Mohamed about the driver. “He’s very experienced,” he said. “Yes, but can he guide us?” “He’s a trained guide,” he replied. “Does he even speak English?” I asked. “Of course!”
We piled into the car and I had grave misgivings. The springs in the seat were shot (as was the suspension) and having shut the door, I couldn’t get out. The side windows had been covered in black, plastic film, presumably to add an air of mystery or to keep out the heat during summer. The film was peeling away and strips would tear off as I wound the window up and down. If you are going to see wild animals, you don’t need dark windows.
The driver had difficulty getting the car into reverse, presumably because the synchromesh was knackered. We drove off down the main road in the wrong direction. When I pointed this out, the driver said we needed fuel. The fuel gauge wasn’t working so we had better fill up now.
We retraced our bald tyre tracks and turned off down a side road towards the Conservancy. Ol Pejeta is 90,000 acres of bush and savannah, sitting astride the equator between Mount Kenya to the east and the Aberdare Mountains to the west. It is a privately-owned, not for profit, wildlife conservation project. The sun was just rising behind Mount Kenya when we drove in through the main gate.
The guard at the entrance told us that we couldn’t pay using plastic. The machine wasn’t working. We needed to go online to book tickets. Yerrright. Suspecting a scam, we told him we’d pay on the way out when the machine was working. Our driver did a deal with the guards and he got regular updates on his phone about the locations of the best sightings.
Within a few kilometres, we realised that our driver was not a guide. Like John Snow, he knew nothing. Having worked for six months in South Luangwa Valley in Zambia, I could point out the animals and give a bit of a commentary. We had an enjoyable morning spotting black rhinoceros (120 in the park), elephants, zebra, giraffes and lots of different antelopes. We saw some birds, too. A kori bustard, ostriches, francolin, quail, various ducks and geese, grey crowned cranes, storks, ibis and spoonbills.
As the day warmed up, the driver took us to see the Chimpanzee Sanctuary at Sweetwaters. This seemed like a concentration camp with a viewing tower which looked like it could house a searchlight and machine guns. One sad chimp was eating leaves under a bush and another was close to the electrified fence. He looked miserable. Jane Goodall set this up in collaboration with the Kenya Wildlife Service in 1993 to house orphaned and illegally trafficked chimps. There are 39 chimps in two troops, on either side of the Ewaso Nyiro River. Before the torrential rains swept away some of the fencing keeping the hippos out, a ranger would take tourists on a bush walk through the forest. This wasn’t possible now, so we drove to Hippo Hide car park and walked along the river looking for hippopotami. After about half a kilometre, we met some tourists returning from the hide – no hippos.
The driver’s phone started ringing. Lions had been sighted. We joined the queue of vehicles jockeying for position to see a lioness who was crashed out in some long grass. She showed a spike of interest when a family of warthogs filtered through the trees in the distance, but then flopped down again as she didn’t rate the chances of pork on today’s menu.
The vehicle’s reverse gear was getting increasingly difficult to engage. The driver had to stop the engine, force the gear stick into reverse, depress the clutch and start the engine again. Manoeuvring in tight spots was extremely difficult.
We had lunch in the park – steak and chips, not impala or eland – and watched a storm approaching across the savannah. The driver was getting impatient, so we drove off to several dams (lakes, really) where there was a solitary hippo, that we could only see when it came up for air. It made a move to the lake shore, but was spooked by a family of waterbuck.
We drove past a farm within the conservancy which had long-horned Ugandan cattle. In the distance we spotted a group of rhino. The last male Northern White Rhino had died of old age and frailty less than three months ago. There are still two female NWRs, so a Southern White Rhino male was brought in to cross-breed, but no pregnancy resulted. Maybe some genetic engineering will help. They are asking for donors – for cash, not genetic material – to do a bit of Jurassic Park-style cloning.
The rhinoceri were a family group – mum, dad and baby. We stopped to watch on our own for fifteen minutes before the phone squawked again. More lions. We roared off, but missed them as they had wandered down to the main gate for closing time.
Finally we left the park before it began to rain. The credit card machine was still not working. We showed the senior guard our diplomatic cards proving we were residents and paid him the fee for the vehicle, driver and three tourists. It was not quite as much as I had paid Mohamed. We drove out of the gate and stopped. The driver went back to “explain to the guards that they had their pricing system wrong, because Friday counts as weekend rate if it is a national holiday.” Very suspicious. I thought he went back to get his cut of the cash. We didn’t get any receipt, of course.
By now it was dark. The lights on the vehicle were not good, but this didn’t stop the driver from putting his foot down and racing along the rutted dirt road, back to town. Despite the clapped-out vehicle and the lack of expert guidance, we had really enjoyed ourselves. It was time for a pseudo-French meal at Le Rustique, much better fare than the beans, rice, cabbage and chapatis we eat at Embu.