Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Storytelling and Stuck in the Maasai Mara

The Saskatoon Storytellers Guild met last week for their usual 3rd Friday gathering. Our host this month chose “Stuck” for our theme. As she pointed out in her mail this could have many contexts and meanings and I think even she was surprised at the range and variety of stories that came out of it.

There were folks who had been stuck for words, or on a single word; folks stuck in traffic, or whose car batteries had failed in remote spots. Of course stuck in snow and ice cropped up – we do live in Saskatchewan. There was even an unfortunate younger sibling who had been taken to the outhouse (biffy, long drop) and had gone through the hole with near-disastrous consequences! Another sibling had been the subject of a prank when someone had coated a chair with contact cement!

My effort at a stuck story took me back four months to our family trip in Kenya. In December we were in the Maasai Mara and having a wonderful time doing the tourist thing. Part of the experience inevitably involved a game drive and so off we headed into the park. The rains had been heavy and I later learned that there had been none heavier since 1961. Luckily we had a very experienced driver and guide and so the black cotton soil held no terrors for us. Black cotton is a thick gumbo, glue-like substance. I have seen combine harvesters stuck in the stuff.

As we crested over s slight rise we saw, in the stream crossing below, a Toyota van thoroughly mired. Our crew hopped out and went to chat with the driver. Next thing we had backed out and made a loop across another, less sticky spot. 

We came back to the mired van and after much discussion, the employment of a towrope and some engine revving the van popped out like a champagne cork. 

 While the crew were working away I had a chat with the single tourist, a middle-aged Welshman who had been on his dream safari. He said that this was the tenth time he had been stuck that morning and then I found out why. The van was a 2-wheel drive version. I did not tell him that no one in his right mind would take a 2WD off-road anywhere in Kenya, let alone in the Mara, on black cotton, during the rains.

We parted our ways, wishing the Welshman luck and in no time our guide had seen a lion’s whisker under a small bush. Of course we went over to take a look and saw a single female with her young cub half hidden between her body and the bush.

Naturally our grand daughters thought this was “cute” and we spent some time and several photo frames recording the scene for posterity.

Suddenly the pair of them looked away from us to something behind our 4WD. Lo and behold the Welshman and his driver were just about up our exhaust pipe. After a few minutes we headed away and went on the search for the next excitement. Ben had told us that a pair of rhinos was known to be in this region of the park. The lion was just a bonus.

We looked back to see how the van was doing, only to see its wheels spinning in the muck. We did not turn back to pull or push. Not with mama lion only five metres from the vehicle.

We soon found the rhino, hanging out no more than a kilometre or so from our lion pair. Of course the cameras got rolling again. For me it was a real treat as I had put immobilizing darts into something over a hundred of them in former times, so it was a pleasure to just enjoy the spectacle.  To our relief we found that the Welshman and his driver appeared just behind us.  I did wonder how many more times they got stuck that day.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Big Bustards

There are at least eight species of bustard (yes you read that correctly) in Africa and if you include the korhaans from southern Africa and its neighbours then the numbers climb to about a dozen. The largest of all is the kori bustard (Ardeotis kori) , which is certainly the largest bird on the continent capable of flight.

The males weigh in at about 13.5 kg, but may be heavier, even up to 20 kg. The largest specimens may top a metre in height. The females are somewhat smaller. I have seen them, usually as singletons, in many areas of Kenya and Uganda, as well as further south in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa

I saw these three together at Borana, which lies to the north of Mount Kenya. (Number 3 is in the background and the focus is fuzzy, but it is there!

They are grassland birds and only seem to fly occasionally. They seem to prefer to walk and as they do so one can see them searching for food. You can find a short Youtube video from Tanzania’s Ngrongoro crater that shows a pair of them.

My late father, who was a keen wing shot, described his efforts to bag one during World War II told me that it was very difficult to get them on the wing but on the one occasion that he did so, and got it, there was enough meat to feed the entire officer’s mess. 

There is another very large bustard that ranges across Europe and into temperate Asia. It is known as the great bustard (Otis tarda) and there seems to be a lack of agreement among scientists as to which is the two is the larger.

Like other species they once occupied much wider ranges and we know that the Great Bustard occurred on England’s Salisbury Plain is historical times, having been extirpated in about 1832. An active program in the UK led to their reintroduction in 2004. One can visit the release site, details here. You can see footage of these huge birds at the centre by linking here. Perhaps the most striking thing about the film is the remarkable display by the males, during which the head almost disappears in a mass of white feathers that puff up from the throat. At the same time the tail fans out, again revealing a mass of white. All this is to attract females. I have only witnessed a bustard display once, in Kenya, but unfortunately I did not have a movie camera, so I cannot share it with you.

Wherever the great bustard of Eurasia hangs on, from Portugal eastwards, it only does so in small numbers, often in protected areas.  Much of the decline has been due to changes in agriculture and human development, not only houses, but roads and other infrastructure.

Great bustards also feature on stamps. The 1994 Hungarian 1.50 florint stamp showed a single bird and there was a 1.10 koruna stamp issued in Slovakia in 2011 depicted two great bustards. I found this image on a stamp website here.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Flamingos, salty water and salt mining in Africa

Another collection of pictures from Africa. This time it’s birds and more particularly, flamingos. With two exceptions they come from Kenya. The last two are from Uganda and Namibia. Even the Kenya ones are not all from the same spot.

It is, or was, Lake Nakuru that was always famous for the masses of these striking birds. Indeed it was said that there were, at times, over a million of them on the lake. That has changed dramatically. I took this picture over 40 years ago, and there appear to be more birds than water.  

On our visit there in December we saw very few, maybe a couple of dozen at most. 

We did see thousands, standing, feeding and flying at Lake Baringo, the next-most northerly lake in the chain that appears in the Rift Valley. The storm clouds had gathered in dark masses about the eastern wall of the Rift as we stood and marveled at the sight. The photos at Baringo were taken by one of thre three of us with cameras. Our daughter Karen, her husband Robert, or me.

These pictures do nicely show the difference in both size and bill colour between the Lesser and Greater species. On the left they are all Lessers. The fully dark beak with its small dark pink spot near the tip shows clearly On the right a single Greater, with his pink bill and dark tip stands out. The lesser also has a pinker hue to the body feathers.  How obliging of them to stand so still for the camera.

Feeling the cold?

I’m not sure if this one was feeling the cold, but he/she does seem to have a scarf around the neck.

Sart your engines!

Near the finsih line

They are truly spectacular when they fly as the colurs stand out.

On previous trips we have also seen them at Lake Elementaita, the next lake south from Nakuru. The hill in the middle background is known as the Lord’s nose. The nasal shape does not show up well in this view, but the Lord name is a reference to Lord Delamere the famous, or infamous, English settler whose ranch, Soysambu, covered most of the land you can see beyond the lake, including the hill. Soysambu is now a conservancy and borders on Lake Nakuru National park effectively extending the area set aside for the purpose.

There are other lakes in the Rift Valley system, and of course the Rift divides into two arms. During our many trips with veterinary students to Uganda and the western arm, or Albertine Rift, we saw small numbers of flamingos in Queen Elizabeth NP, but not in the big lakes named in the 19th century for members of the British Royal family – they are Edward and George. We did seem them in the salt lake nearby, most frequently in Lake Katwe. The birds were never in huge numbers but perhaps because they saw so many humans mining the salt on a daily basis they were quite unconcerned about close approach. 

These pictures show a few of the saltpans that provided about half the village residents with their income. You can see a single bird at the very bottom right of this wide view of the pans. I can assure you that it has not been “Photoshopped” in. I even wonder if the photographer realized that she/he had snapped this single bird.

The briny water is trapped in pans about ten metres across and allowed to evaporate. As the salinity increases so the salt precipitates and can be harvested. You can see big piles of light or dark salt, some covered in plastic, stacked on the pan edges. The pans are individually owned and are traded for substantial sums of money or passed down in families. This is the only place in the world that I have ever visited where rain is simply not wanted. Indeed it is considered impolite to even suggest that the rainy season is approaching. Rain means less evaporation and the risk of spoilage or loss of a hard-won harvest.


These pictures were taken by me or one of the 79 students who joined me on those memorable trips, but I have no idea who. We shared thousands of photos every year, so thank you someone. I wrote about those Uganda teaching trips in The Trouble With Lions.

My wife and I had not expected to see flamingos a long way further south, so, in 1997 we were pleasantly surprised when we saw them at Walvis Bay, wading, feeding and stretching in the river estuary at low tide just south of this Namibian city. The one at left centre is graciously stretching his wings to give us a spectacular view.