Sunday 27 August 2023



Many years before I came to Kenya Mike started an incredible project bringing American students to live in traditional Samburu dwellings - which resemble igloos, built of wattle and daub.

He had learned their language which I understand is derived from “Maa”, the language of the Maasai people.

After fifteen years, about three years after I came to Africa, he decided it was time for a change. He had visited Maasai Mara a few times and had made contacts within the Kenyan Department of the Environment and got a lease to use a plot of land there as a base while conducting a census of the wildlife in the area. He used an Ordinance Survey map (very precious) to identify a perfect site - where three different habits joined. He reckoned correctly that it would connect him with a much greater variety of species. It was on an ox-bow of a tributary to the main river. Plenty of shade trees and the twenty-foot deep, usually dry, ravine around three sides reduced the probability of wild animals wandering in.

A comfortable tented camp was created with a big mess tent and enough accommodation for twenty people. As I remember it he was constantly accompanied by a spear-carrying Turkana warrior, Lokoi. Mike also spoke Turkana! He told me that on one occasion he was walking into some dense woodland and he heard a “whoosh” as Lokoi’s spear passed his ear - followed by thuds as the spear hit a buffalo which then collapsed. The buffalo had been camouflaged in the shade and would certainly have charged him. Buffalo actually kill more humans than snakes or crocodiles. Only mosquitos are more deadly! 

The ground in the Turkana region is incredibly hard and rocky and I still remember Lokoi’s glee if asked to dig a hole in the soft turf at the Mara campsite.

Mike bought two ex-army Mercedes lorries, one 3-ton and one 5-ton. The latter was equipped with balloon tyres and I loved driving it because it could cross soft ground easily and without damaging the turf. Mike had a Land-cruiser but was looking for an extra guide with a 4WD so took me on. 15 visitors from the New York Zoological Society came over for a month and every day would divide up between the four vehicles and be assigned a quadrant to survey. We each had a copy of the precious map and an enlarged master copy was put up in the mess tent. We would zigzag across our sector and use clipboards to record numbers of impala, zebra, wibdebeasts, etc. When driving my LandRover I would have one companion. The LandCruiser took three, the 3-ton took five and the 5-ton six. The back of the lorries had the canvas sides rolled up and mattresses and cushions on the floor in the back.

I had one memorable encounter with a herd of maybe 20 elephants. Most herds are run by matriarchs and this was no exception. I very gently crept towards them and when we were maybe 100 yards away she charged us - trumpeting furiously!! I stopped and she stopped. She sniffed the air between us and then slowly backed away. When she had rejoined the herd I resumed my slow approach. The next charge was at 50 yards - just as furious but with the same result. The 25 yard charge had less conviction and ten minutes later we were creeping along in low gear alongside the herd looking almost like a member of the family. My NYZS crew in the back had maintained a stunned silence all through this experience but then I heard an awed stage whisper from the back “How the hell did you know that would work?” I cheerfully replied I had no idea - because I had never done it before!

We all carried folders with a page for each lion we knew (identified by Mike’s scheme of ear clocks!) We would mark their location and at tea time update the position of each using a named pin on the master map, leaving a coloured dot according to which pride they were in. Each week a line was drawn around the pride area and Mike was responsible for identifying that pride areas are not static - as conventional wisdom had it - but were dynamic! And between the pride areas there was a 1km “buffer zone”, a corridor that never had pride lions but did have bachelor males, hyenas, jackals etc!

I became very good at spotting hidden wildlife - including snakes - but I surprised myself when I stopped, went “PSST!”, (SOP), and pointed to what I thought was a snake moving in long grass. As I followed the line of what I thought was its body I suddenly realised it was the tail of a leopard. Very, very unusual to see a leopard in the long grass during daylight and it sighed, got up, loped to the nearest tree and leapt gracefully up to lie on a high branch - its normal daytime spot!

One day I spotted movement and stopped. Whenever I stopped all chat ceased and all eyes started scanning to see why I had stopped! After a few puzzled moments someone whispered to me “What?”. I left a dramatic pause then whispered back “Mice!”. Even longer pause - then I had point because they were so small no-one else could locate them. To be honest this was the only time I’ve made such a tiny identification.

Mike had taken on a young American student, Jerry, as an intern. One morning I was woken at dawn by what sounded like a train going through the camp. I stuck my head out just in time to see the back of a buffalo charging out of the camp. Unusually (most wildlife don’t like the scent of humans) it had grazed into the camp during the night and had charged Jerry when he got up to go to the latrine. Fortunately he was very athletic and shot up a tree! As I turned my head away from the exiting buffalo  I heard leaves rustling and looked up to see Jerry 20 feet above me!

On day Mike asked me to drive about 30 miles to another oxbow campsite to collect two scientists who were coming over to give a talk about their research. As I recall, Laurence talked about hyenas and Bob talked about baboons. They shared our evening feast before their talks and Laurence was very charismatic and dominated the conversation - in a very enjoyable way. I was intrigued that when they delivered their talks he was quite dry and almost boring while Bob suddenly came to life and was really fascinating. Someone asked about baboons’ diet and he said that they are described as herbivores and he had never seen them hunting but he had recorded a couple of incidents where they had apparently accidentally encircled a small gazelle and suddenly, without any obvious signal, switched into a hunting pack. It always ended badly for the gazelle! Another behaviour he had recorded was mutual grooming and at one time he saw ten baboons in a line each grooming the one in front! Very efficient. He had also realised that they were ranked so each one was grooming a bigger one and the biggest boss was just chewing grass whilst being groomed. At one point the baboon grooming the boss seemed to touch a sensitive spot - and was rewarded with an instant smack from the boss. As quick as a flash the second baboon turned and passed the smack on - and it went all the way down the line - then normal service was resumed! They stayed the night and the next day I took them back. Their oxbow had no shade - but did have an extra-ordinary 360 view for miles in all directions over grasslands. They had three tents, one each with a mess tent in the middle. They offered me tea and biscuits which I happily accepted. I knew that the ravine around their site was a border, they were inside the park and the oxbows on either side were outside. I also knew that the opposite oxbows were campsites that could be booked. I asked how often they had neighbours and they said, happily, never - because there were seven more which were closer to the road that led into the park and most folk camped near the road. At which point an overlander lorry rumbled along and parked in the opposite site. The driver got out, threw down a mattress, turned on a tinny transistor radio (playing “Nakupendaa Malaika” (- a big hit - you can hear it on YouTube) and went to sleep. It was really, really annoying. After a couple of minutes Laurence got up, went as close as he could and called across “Excuse me?”. Tried again, slightly louder “Excuse me!!” No response. Laurence actually swelled up like a regimental sergeant major (I know this species very well and have been a CSM) and bellowed “TURN THAT DAMNED RADIO OFF OR I WILL COME OVER AND SHOVE IT UP YOUR ****!!” As his last expletive echoed away there was a huge explosion - of thunder - as a blast of lightning hit a kopje (rocky outcrop) about half a mile away! The driver shot up into the air, grabbed the offending radio in shaking hands and turned it off. Laurence walked back, sat down, lifted his teacup and said “What were we saying?” I said “That was very impressive!” He shrugged modestly, “It’s not difficult - but it does drain one’s batteries!”

At the end of one rotation Mike and a driver took the visitors back to the airport and went to restock our larder. They were due to return the next day but the river flooded and we were cut off. We had one mouldy cabbage left and were seriously considering how to snare an antelope in order to survive! Then we heard an engine, it was a big LandCruiser from a well known luxury safari company. It was the advance crew and they moved two oxbows down and very efficiently set up camp. Jerry and I hiked over to be greeted warmly and offered tea and biscuits by the campfire. I knew a few of the guides and asked the crew who their boss was as I knew a few. I didn’t know his name and was wondering if he might look kindly on visitors begging for rations. Shortly afterwards he rolled up in his magnificent LandCruiser, parked, got out, saw me, ran over with outstretched arms bellowing “HOW WONDERFUL TO SEE YOU - YOU WILL STAY FOR SUPPER?” It turned out he had six very large, very loud, very old American ladies in his care and they were driving him mad. We had a magnificent feast and dutifully took on story-telling duties to give him a break.

 Alison was running a wonderful kindergarten in Nairobi while I was gallivanting around. We arranged for her to fly down for a weekend. There was a grass airstrip about twenty miles from our camp. It served two or three permanent luxury tented camps, the most famous being “Governors’ Camp”. When she landed there were two minibuses from the camps - but no sign of me! The river had flooded again and I had to make a two-hour detour to get to her. The minibus drivers wanted to give her a lift but she insisted she was fine - after all, she would be collected by me! They reluctantly drove off and she sat happily on her case with a welcoming smile. Slowly she realised that the grass strip actually had no boundaries. (The minibuses would drive up and down before the plane was due to drive off the impala and gnus!) 

And now the wildlife were returning to graze. Little dik-dik, gazelles, impala, even a giraffe. After an increasingly nervous half-hour she heard the sound of an engine coming from the opposite direction to the camps - a 4WD - and she started wording her thoughts to share with me . . . Then she realised the driver was bigger than me - was wearing a smart uniform with pilots’ wings - and had an extraordinary handlebar moustache. He was actually a balloon pilot. They would set off early, in still air, and when they landed the following ground crew would feed his passengers a champagne breakfast and pack up the balloon while he set off on his own, back to camp. 

He pulled up. “Awfully spiffing to meet you - may I buy you a drink?” She fluttered her eyelashes and agreed and set off to Governors’ Bar. When I found them three cocktails later I tapped her on the shoulder and said “Hello love, I’m sorry there was a detour”. She said “Hmph!”, turned back to Captain Fantastic and said “As I was saying . . . “

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