Day two of our private Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations
Having taken our weekly dose of Lariam yesterday (malaria prophylaxis), I had a number of horrible dreams in the night. At one stage I woke up screaming for David to release me from a fishing net which was dragged me under water and I was convinced I was drowning. In reality my foot was tangled up in the mosquito net. Panic over, but after being mostly awake through yet another night (I've only had around six hours sleep in total over the last three nights), I am feeling a little weary this morning when the alarm goes off at 05:30.
We are greeted by the sun gently creating a warm glow reflecting in the river as we go for a coffee before an early game drive. The air is already warm and the sun is not yet above the horizon.
I ask the askari (tribal security guard) about the noise I heard in the night which sounded like a cat. “That is a cat” he replies with a wry grin. There was I hoping for some exotic animal. Oh well.
Setting off on a game drive before the day has completely broken, we head straight to the place where we saw the dead donkey last night – the kill has been moved, but there is still no sign of the predator. We also return to the spot we supposedly saw a leopard yesterday, but still nothing.
The third of our Samburu Special Five appears this morning - the East African oryx, also known as the beisa, a species of antelope similar to the gemsbok, which lives in this arid semi-desert area. One of the more unusual attributes of the beisa is its ability to store water by raising its body temperatures in order to avoid perspiration.
In the distance we can see a number of vultures and eagles circling above a bush, and guessing there has been a kill, John heads that way.
African White Backed Vulture
He is right. A young male cheetah saunters out from the undergrowth as we approach, then joins his two brothers in the shade for a bonding session.
If you look carefully, you can see the blood on the side of his face and forelegs from having just eaten.
"Let me clean that up for you"
With the big cats out of the way, the birds of prey feast on the remains of the kill.
African White Backed Vulture
We have the cheetahs to ourselves for a good 20 minutes, but after John has radioed the other drivers, up to 25 vehicles turn up, so we leave them to it and move on in search of the next animal encounter.
We startle a hare
The Somali ostrich is native to south-eastern Ethiopia, across most of Somalia, Djibouti and northern Kenya. Though generally similar to other ostriches, the skin of the neck and thighs of the Somali ostrich is grey-blue (rather than pinkish), becoming bright blue on the male during the mating season. The neck lacks a typical broad white ring, and the tail feathers are white.
I am not sure I could tell the difference without seeing them side by side, so I take the experts' word for it.
Somali Ostrich - number four of the Samburu Special Five
Another congregation of safari vehicles draws us to the side of an escarpment. Facing into the sun, with the hillside being in the shade and a lot of dust hanging in the air, it is hard to pick anything out. For a while I am just looking at stones.
Then I see it: a leopard! (with thanks to Photoshop for helping to make it a much clearer picture post-processing)
She jumps up on a rock, then slopes off into the undergrowth.
For ages all I can see is rock (again), with the occasional movement of a tail behind the shrubs. Then she re-appears – or maybe she was there all along and I just didn't see her.
As she moves in and out of our sight, I become aware that there is not just one leopard, but TWO.
After playing with her cub for a while, they both settle down, curled up on the rocky hillside.
They remain out of sight for quite some time, and we are just starting to drive off when they re-appear and begin to climb up the rock-face.
We stay and watch them until they have climbed all the way to the top and disappear into the bush once more. What an amazing encounter! This really is the best leopard sighting ever for us! With all the excitement, I offer no apologies for the number of photos of these cute little kitties I have posted here.
Time for some other animals:
Grévy's Zebra - the last of the Samburu Special Five
Now considered endangered, it is believed that a mere 2,500 specimens of the Grévy's zebra remain in the wild; against some 750,000 of their most widespread zebra cousins, the Plains Zebra.
Named after Jules Grévy, then president of France, who was given one by the government of Abyssinia in the 1880s, the Grévy inhabits just parts of Northern Kenya with some isolated populations in Ethiopia.
If you thought a zebra was a zebra (or a horse in pyjamas as my friend Lyn calls them), you'd be wrong. The three species (there is a Mountain Zebra as well) are very different: while the Plains and Mountain zebras resemble horses, the Grévy’s zebra is much more like its close relative, the 'wild ass'. Compared with the other zebras, the Grévy is taller and has larger ears. The main difference, however, is in the stripes as shown below:
(This illustrative poster was seen (and photographed) in the grounds of Marwell Wildlife)
On the subject of stripes – each zebra's pattern is unique, in much the same way our fingerprints are. While zebra stripes are dazzlingly striking to the human eye (and camera – I love photographing zebras!), the big cat predators view the world in black and white only, so those stripes are excellent camouflage in the tall grass!
So, the eternal question – are zebras white with black stripes or black with white stripes? The answer to this question comes down to perspective. Many zoologists would say that a zebra is white because its stripes end towards the belly and the belly is mostly white. Others would say that a zebra is black because if you shaved all the fur off a zebra the skin is mostly black. Not that I have any intention of shaving a zebra...
So, we have now managed to see the Samburu Special Five: the Beisa Oryx, the long necked Gerenuk, Reticulated Giraffe, Somali Ostrich and Grévy's Zebra. Result!
There is much more to Samburu National Reserve than just the Special Five of course.
Let sleeping lions be
White Browed Sparrow Weaver
Red Billed Hornbill
Eastern Chanting Goshawk with kill
Suddenly a grinding noise starts to appear from underneath the car, sounding like sand caught in the brake drums. We stop and John gets out, checking all around the car. There is nothing obvious. What is obvious is that being outside the car while surrounded by wild animals (I can still see the elephants nearby) is risky business. David and I keep a close eye out for any predators.
I somehow don't think this Lilac Breasted Roller posts any threat to John's safety though.
David gets in the driver's seat and revs the engine while John listens out for the sound from the back, front, left side, right side, underneath.....
Not being able to find anything particularly amiss, we continue on our way, keeping an ear out for the disturbing sound, which worryingly appears and disappears intermittently. Not a good sign for the off-the beaten-path thousand-mile-journey ahead.
I am surprised about the relative small size of the oryx: for some reason I imagined it to be bigger than the zebra, more like the size of an eland.
The tiny Dik Dik
Black Faced Sandgrouse
Surrounded by birds and animals of the African bush, we stop for a while and enjoy a late breakfast which we brought with us as a picnic box from the lodge.
White Headed Buffalo Weaver
I love the way these guys hold their tails straight up when they run. So cute! That is if you can actually call a warthog cute. I have to admit they have the sort of face only a mother can love.
White Browed Sparrow Weaver
The dry season may be good for watching the animals, but it is bad for the dust, which gets into everything: the car, my nose, eyes, mouth, the camera, my clothes, skin, bags... maybe even the drum brakes?
I would dearly love to see a gerenuk stretching its long neck and eating from the top of one of these bushes, as they do, but this one doesn't seem to want oblige, however long we hang around.
One of the primary focuses of this tour is ethnology, concentrating on the minority groups who live in the north west region of Kenya: learning about their lifestyle, their customs, their culture, their modus vivendi.
The people of Kenya are an eclectic mix, with some 70 or so different tribes, each with its own unique culture. Which ethnic group you belong is still the most important factor in social, work, business and political life. Political parties, for example, are largely based on tribe and less on ideology.
In this region, the main group we encounter is the Samburu, who inhabit a large area in the north of the country. Leaving the national park behind, we head for a small manyatta (village) near Archer's Post. John negotiates a price for us to visit their village, which also includes being able to take photographs. I am particularly interested in that aspect as sneaking covert shots of the locals is a definite no-no in this region, and I have been itching to take pictures of the colourful people I have seen as we have been driving through the villages.
The Samburu, also known as the 'Butterfly Tribe' for the bright colours they adorn themselves with, are enchantingly distinctive and mysteriously remote, having maintained the authenticity of their culture by guarding their ancient customs and traditional existence proudly, largely defying modern trends. Migrating from Sudan in the 15th century and settling in this area, the Samburu were not particularly affected by British colonial rule as the British did not find their land useful or attractive.
We are assigned a guide called Lende, although he says we can call him Simon. Lende speaks good English after having studied at university in Nairobi - paid for by Pontac Productions after he starred in the German movie 'The White Masai' which was set and filmed in this area. However, he didn't like the bright lights of the city, preferring to come back here to Samburu country and live with his family in their manyatta.
The Samburu are semi-nomadic pastoralists who herd mainly cattle but also keep sheep, goats and camels; moving them from one place to another in search of fresh pasture and water. Each time they move, they build temporary huts from tree branches, mud, cow dung and grass in compounds called manyattas, in which they live; keeping their cattle in corrals fenced by thorny branches as can be seen on the right in the picture below.
The entire compound is surrounded by a barrier made from thorny bushes. The number of entrance gates in this fence denotes the number of married couples who reside within the manyatta: each family have their own gate through which they bring their cattle back each night to keep safe from predators.
When the rainy season comes (it has not rained for four months now), they have bits of plastic which they weave in to the roof over the top of the huts to keep them dry inside. The interior consists of three rooms: a bedroom for the parents and another in which the children sleep; with cow skins used as mattresses. The third room is the kitchen. I really can't imagine how hot and claustrophobic that would be: some of the smaller huts are barely five feet tall, and the temperature outside is 35 °C. Crouching over a fire in such a tiny room at those sorts of temperatures, not to mention all the smoke...
Brightly coloured traditional cloths, called shukas, wrapped loosely around their bodies, are worn by both men and women. The most colourful costumes are reserved for the moran – the warriors – who also keep their long hair in braids. Not sure where the warriors are today as all the men we see wear their hair short, or tied up in a kind of hairnet - or maybe that is their braided hair in the nets?
While the elaborate beaded necklaces and intricate jewellery the women wear may look beautiful, they are much more than mere decoration - the colours and patterns indicate the girl's status and wealth: red necklaces for unmarried women which is changed to multicoloured once they have wed. The shape and colour of the necklaces are deeply symbolic too: the rise of the concentric circle is indicative of the volcanic cones in Samburu country, green represents fresh grass for the cattle, blue denotes the desert skies, red is an emblem of life giving blood, and black is illustrative of the colour of their skin.
Single young men also adorn themselves with necklaces, but once they marry the jewellery is passed down to a younger brother or cousin.
The first part of the initiation rite of passage for a young boy - “first pain” as Lende calls it – is the extraction of the bottom middle tooth. The boy must not cry, flinch or even blink; if he does he will bring shame on himself and his family, become ostracised from the village or possibly even stoned to death.
Said to date back to 1400BC, this board game is found in towns and villages all over Africa, the Middle East and beyond. The rules of mancala are complex and vary from region to region and sometimes even game to game, but the aim is to 'steal' all your opponents pieces.
In true tourist style, the people of the village perform a couple of short (thankfully) dances for us, including the traditional 'jumping' by the men. Kenya's iconic image of a jumping warrior is not only part of the dance, but also illustrates to all how gifted each man is. The jumps, known as adumu, are part of a number of rituals that make up the the ceremony in which the junior warriors, or morani, graduate to the ranks of manhood.
The village care for a number of orphaned children whose parents have been killed by lions and other predators while out in the bush tending to their animals. The children perform for us by reciting the alphabet and numbers in English; followed by the ubiquitous request for sponsorship. David performs for the children (and confuses them) by reeling off the alphabet backwards.
To me, the most interesting part of the whole experience at the manyatta, is the demonstration of how they make fire. Here is how to do it in case you want to have a go at home:
First take a stick with small dents hollowed out. Fill one of the dents with some sand for friction and a very small amount of dry grass.
Find some zebra or elephant dung as this is better than cow droppings for dryness and ease of burning. Separate the dung by hand into fine particles.
Using a long stick with a rounded end, rub your hands together as rapidly as you can.
Keep going until you see smoke. Where there is smoke, there is fire.
Empty the glowing embers onto your dung and carefully blow on it. Pile up more dung and grass to create a proper flame.
Voilà! You now have fire!
In this short video you can see the whole process:
The Samburu make fire twice a day, morning and evening, and usually just one person will start the fire and others will come here to collect some for their own kitchen.
Saying goodbye to the Samburu villagers, we make our way back towards the park again, only to find the road completely blocked by a carefully placed roll of barbed wire. Fearing it to be a trap by some of the renowned 'bandits' of the area , John is not willing to take a chance so goes back for reinforcements.
Making sure the local car complete with an armed guard goes in front of us to investigate, John cautiously keeps well back when they get out of the vehicle to remove the road block. I sneak a couple of photos covertly from the back seat of the moving car hoping no-one will notice, but as you can see, they are pretty blurry and of low quality. I am sure they help convey the jittery atmosphere though.
A tense few minutes for sure, but no 'bandits' appear; we breathe a large sigh of relief and go on our way for more game viewing.
A 'Tower of Giraffes' - yes, that is the collective noun for giraffes.
Check out those ears!
African harrier Hawk
Having now seen all the Samburu Special Five, I have set John another challenge: I want to see the gerenuk in its typical pose on its hind legs eating leaves from the top of a bush. This is the best he could do, as the antelope jumps down as soon as we move in for a better view.
We return to the lodge with the rest of the day at unexpected leisure – John needs to go back to Archer's Post to get a mechanic to investigate the noise coming from the car before the long, remote journey over the next few days. Sounds a very good plan to me.
After a lovely lunch of fish in sauce and beef casserole, we chill with a drink in the grounds of the lodge. Yesterday we were six people for dinner in the restaurant but this morning two people moved on, leaving just us and two German birdwatching gents as the remaining guests.
We have the swimming pool all to ourselves this afternoon apart from a red headed agama lizard sunning himself on the stone wall.
Our free afternoon goes something like this:
David looking for birds - of the feathered variety
Yellow Spotted Petronia
Red Winged Starling
The black faced vervet monkeys amuse us for ages with their shenanigans: running around on the roof of the chalet next door (I heard them on our roof in the night too), balancing on the bannisters and jumping into the hammock, swinging around for a while, then repeating the whole thing. They seem to be having such a lot of fun!
As we are enjoying a pre-dinner drink (in the dark) on our little balcony, one of the askari guards – armed with a spear – comes to tell us not to walk alone to dinner as there is an elephant in the camp. Although the lodge is surrounded by an electric fence, it is still possible to enter the grounds from the river front. Providing the elephant is peaceful and not causing any problems, they would rather let it go about its business than upset it. Makes sense.
John joins us for dinner and explains how the noise we heard from the car was the prop shaft bearing. Unfortunately they didn't have the required part in the small town of Archer's Post, so he had to go all the way back to Isiolo to make sure the car is in tip top condition and ready for the journey across the northern wasteland of Kenya. He has only just got back!
As a treat, we enjoy a very nice South African wine with dinner tonight, and just as I have taken a photo of David with the bottle, my flash gun gives out an angry sizzling sound, a puff of smoke and a strong smell of burning. Oh dear.That's the end of my flash photography on this trip.
The firepit has been stoked up this evening in order to keep the rogue elephant away from the restaurant.
After dinner we toast marshmallows while we finish off the wine. Everyone packs toasting forks and marshmallows when they go on holiday, right?
Photo using my mobile phone
Ever since our visit visit to the continent in 1986, I have been captivated by the African sky. Rarely do you see so many stars anywhere, largely as a result of very little light pollution. The sky appears to me so much bigger in Africa than it does back home, and I can sit and gaze at it for hours. I make a feeble attempt at astrophotography tonight, but there is too much light in the camp, and too many trees around for it to be successful.
Purely for medicinal reasons: to help me sleep through the terrible nightmares (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed.
Cheers and welcome (back) to Samburu.