Gnus and Oxpeckers

The morning light was now superb: the kind where even a stained trash can looks wonderful. And instead of such mundane subjects I had before me a bunch of wildebeest, intent on feeding. Wildebeest and zebras can feed together because the picky wildebeest takes only the leaves of grass, whereas zebras don’t minding picking up the less nutritious sheath and stem. This pickiness is also the reason why wildebeest have to keep moving with the seasons.

What was that on the back of one of the gnus? I cast about for the name; yes, an Oxpecker. My night of reading was coming in handy. There were two varieties and I had to figure out which. The beasts were far away, and I had no tripod. I would have to zoom out as much as I could with my pre-breakfast shakiness. As I took the photo, The Family had already noted the round yellow patch around the eyes: this was the red-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorhynchus). Although it has been noticed pecking at open wounds on large mammals, its diet is almost completely made up of insects. Under controlled conditions it has been seen to be extremely efficient at keeping cattle free of ticks. We would later see the yellow-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus africanus). These two species are found in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa down to Zambia. The yellow-billed live largely in West Africa, and the ones we saw are perhaps among the easternmost part of the population.


Shaky sunrise

The sun rose soon after our encounter with the trio of lions. The sky brightened through a series of colours, and the darkness around us could soon be resolved into grass and road. Strangely shaped peaks rose out of the horizon.

Zebras had begun grazing already. Zebras tend to eat all parts of grass, leaves, sheath, and stem, but their stomachs are not designed to digest the sheath and stem completely. A foal stood on the road and looked intently at us. The light was still so low that I had to use a long exposure. I liked the fact that it allowed me to capture the motion of the foal’s head as it tried to assess us. Its legs were planted firmly on the ground, so it had no intention of running, but the movement of its head showed that it was curious about us.

In the semi-light at the edge of the road we spotted a spectacularly spotted bird. The legs were long, was it a courser? No, its knees gave it away. A thick-knee. Its identification gave me a little trouble later. It can be nothing but the Spotted Thick-knee (Burhinus capensis), although its eyes look dark in this photo, and not yellow. I put that down to the bad light we saw it in. It is a common bird, found right across sub-Saharan Africa all the way down to the cape, which inhabits all ecologies except the forests of the Congo region.

It had already turned out to be an interesting morning. And now, as the sky brightened, we spotted a lioness in the distance, near the horizon. We noticed the movement as it rose from where it had been sitting. I nursed a secret hope of seeing a chase or a kill. But no. It sat down again. It remained alert, with head poking out of the grass. It certainly looked like it wanted to eat, but we decided to move on.

Lion night

Sound carries a long way at night, I reassured myself as I lay in bed studying a field guide to East African birds, listening to the roar of lions. I was tired, and we had planned a game drive before sunrise. I fell asleep quickly in spite of unidentified blood curdling squeaks and the deep roars and coughs of lions. The Family had fallen asleep long before the grasslands came alive with their inhuman song. We woke up to an alarm, and got ready to leave. Stephen was ready with the Landrover, but we seemed to be the only people awake. We drove out as someone opened the gates of the lodge. Birds had been waking in the trees near the gate, but the rest of the grassland was silent. Barely five minutes from the lodge something came at us from out of the darkness.

Stephen has spotted it already and come to a halt. A full-grown male lion walked towards us along the track. I was up with my camera. “Can I open the window?” The Family whispered. Stephen said that it was okay. The lion walked past the open window at a distance where The Family could have reached out and touched it. But ahead, another lion was coming our way. And behind it, a third. In complete silence we saw them walk slowly past our purring Landrover. There was no one else around. Only the three of us had seen these three male lions walk past us in the darkness, close enough to touch.

Food from Kikuyu and Kisii

When I first tasted Mukimo (featured photo) it was a completely new dish to me. I tried a little by itself: starchy, with the flavours of the vegetables and beans mashed into it. It was clear that it was supposed to accompany something. I added a little grilled meat, and the combination tasted good. I’d just recreated a Kikuyu dish, but don’t give me too much credit. I’ve had enough meat and potato in parts of the world not to recognize what a starchy mash would go well with. The servers were not too helpful, since they would say “Kenyan” to every question about the provenance of the food. I later found that Mukimo probably started with the Kikuyu people near Mount Kenya and has now spread pretty much across Kenya.

When you travel your enjoyment of food can improve tremendously if you learn to take new food on its own terms. In Kenya it is not new flavours that you need to appreciate, it is the degree of wetness of the food. In Kenya one has to learn to appreciate the dryness of Mukimo with Nyama Choma (roasted meat) or Ugali (cornmeal porridge) with Sukuma Wiki (kale).

Another new thing I came across in the same spread was a green I first unthinkingly identified as Sukuma Wiki. It wasn’t. The pleasantly bitter leaf was labelled Managu. I piled more on my plate. Every time that she would see the same three or four varieties of leaves in a shopping basket, my grandmother used to reminisce about fourtenn varieties of leaves which could be bought in the market in what she called “my days.” I guess some of those stories have influenced my habit of trying out every kind of edible leaf I see.

This one comes from the Solanum family and is eaten right across sub-Saharan Africa. I would have hesitated to buy Solanum, since some of the deadly poisons that one knows come from this genus. But this iron-rich variety is considered to be so nutritious that pregnant women are advised to eat it in quantity. I guess this was a local Kisii preparation, not only because we were close to the Kisii homeland, but also because it was named in the Gusii language. Interestingly, it was cooked with another edible Solanum mixed into it: tomato.

Half a day in the Mara triangle

A bend in the river Mara lay a little way down from the hotel that we were in. This part of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve was called the Mara Triangle, and lay pretty far from the main entrance to the reserve. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, and left for a game drive soon after lunch.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Although we spent a long time waiting for wildebeest to cross the river, an iconic sight, we managed to see quite a variety of wildlife that afternoon. The slideshow above has a selection of what we saw: from butterflies to lions.

The crossing

“Hurry up and wait” seems to be the perfect motto for wildebeest gathering up the courage to cross a river while looking, literally, for greener pastures. But once they get going everything happens fast; like the “moments of terror” part of the old aphorism about war. We’d spent a couple of hours of wonderful late evening sunlight, testing our patience against that of gnus. When the light began to fail the river crossing began. At dinner that night the story was that a gnu lost its footing and fell into the river, and the herd followed. Whatever it was, the crossing was panicky. Wildebeest thrashed in the water, upstream from a pod of ill-tempered hippos.

“Couldn’t they have done this twenty minutes ago?” I grumbled as I snapped off a series of shots. As a hippo yawned widely in front of the panicky herd of gnus, I got a photo which, in better light, I would have been proud of. It was all a little too blurry and pixellated to be a great photo, and with the landrover rocking, I was unable to control the camera enough for the long exposure required here.

A panicky herd of gnus is quite a phenomenon. They keep running forever. I think their high-strung temperament must be taking a toll on their life expectancy; in zoos they have been observed to live twice as long as the average in the wild. Nor can all of this difference be attributed to predation. I saw one wildebeest looking around desperately, slowly tracking back towards the river. This uncharacteristic behaviour probably meant that she had lost a calf. It had either been taken by a crocodile or was lost in the stampede.

The rest kept running. Even when they came to the road where our landrover was parked, they wouldn’t halt. They would only change direction and keep running. Panicky, high-strung are too mild to describe what they are. I think they wouldn’t run over a lion and kill it, but they could come close enough to one to be picked off.

As we saw them running off into the sunset, they kicked up masses of insects which, in turn, brought along several insectivorous birds. This would have been a midnight snack for the birds, since they had settled down almost an hour before. What a chain of events, I thought; that’s part of what a grassland ecosystem means.

The border

The Serengeti plains dominate most pictures of Africa’s wilderness in our culture today, perhaps driven largely by the ease of making movies there. It is possible that Howard Hawkes’ movie, Hatari!, starring John Wayne has something to do with it. It was made almost exactly when Tanzania and Kenya became independent, and may have been seen as a template for earning precious foreign exchange. Having seen the iconic movie at an age when I was not sure whether I preferred to be human or rhino, it was only a matter of time before I came to the gates of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve.

The district around the reserve is one of the last remnants of the Maasai expansion of the 19th century. As we approached the reserve we saw more and more of the Maasai, recognizable by their colourful shukas (the blanket worn around their shoulders). The Maasai are symbolic of the great changes that colonialism brought to Africa. In spite of their reputation as killers of lions, the Maasai beliefs in the sacredness of soil ensured that they lived in equilibrium with their new lands. The territorial expansion of a small population also made sure that their impact on the land remained small.

As at Njoro, my house looks over the Rongai Valley and, as at Njoro, the Mau Forest broods in resigned silence, close on the edges of fields fresh robbed of their ancient trees.
—West with the Night, Beryl Markham

They have not fared well since the beginning of the 20th century. The desperation with which the people around the gate of the reserve tried to sell us hand-crafted wood or beaded jewellery was an indicator of their marginal existence. The Maasai counted their wealth in cattle, and were completely dependent on it for food. Now, with land fenced off, and wealth having a different function, the Maasai are still having trouble reconciling their faith and traditions with the twenty first century.

The obsessive concern with wildlife leads insidiously to the degradation of the human population.
—North of South, Shiva Naipaul

We paid our entrance fee to the park and passed easily through the gate into the reserve. But for the Maasai tribesmen, this barrier has become as impermeable as any international border since the area was declared a game reserve in 1961. I would rather have a sanctuary for wildlife than not. But as the border opened to us and we passed through into a dream of another century, I had enough knowledge of history to know that this refuge was made necessary by the colonial greed which cleared forests across the world and replaced them by tea and coffee plantations, and enough knowledge of animals to know that many antelopes, lions, elephants, and leopards can live in forests as well as in grassland.

The incredible excitement of watching Wildebeest gathering to cross a river

Wildlife documentaries are full of savage photos of intrepid wildebeest springing away from the slavering jaws of crafty crocodiles as they cross the Mara river in search of food and freedom. The truth is different. It is hours and hours of boredom, as indecisive gnus hurry up to wait. The photos here cover the last two hours of daylight waiting for a crossing.

As we left our lodge there was a buzz about wildebeest gathering at the river. We made our way there, and got a position near a bend.

There was a crowd of a few hundred wildebeest already, and more were coming in.

After half an hour of standing around, one animal decided to take a closer look at the water. There were hippos and crocodiles.

It came back up.

More waiting.

Some zebras have joined the gang.

Most of the herd has moved back.

Are there more humans than wildebeest here?

Quite a crowd.

Now the zebras investigate the river.

Those at the back begin trying to slink off.

More waiting! I suggested to The Family that we go see some giraffes and come back later. The withering look I get convinced me that getting bored is the safest course of action. That was when I started watching hippos.

River horses

We sat in our land rover in front of the Mara river where a bunch of wildebeest were gathering. They take a long time to make up their minds about whether to cross or not, and after a few hours’ wait you could just see the crowd thin out and disappear. I found looking at them quite boring. The river took a bend just to the left of where we’d parked. There was a bloat of hippos right in front of us, and another bloat almost out of sight around the bend. The nearer group was mostly submerged, but as in uffish thought I stood, one of the monsters raised its head above the river and smiled. “What a charming smile,” I said. “That? You are crazy,” replied The Family. She was quite upset with my suggestion that we go away to look for other animals for a while.

Hippos are territorial in water, and mark out a stretch of a river as their own. I’ve not seen a border skirmish among hippos, even in a documentary. So when a second hippo surfaced and started trying to bite the smiler, I guessed that it must be play. Hippo bloats have a single bull, but are otherwise mixed. I hadn’t seen them often enough to gauge whether these two were adults or juvenile. The fighting or play went on for a while, giving me something to photograph. The pair would spend a lot of time trying to bite and block with their jaws, but one or the other would sometimes submerge and reappear on the other side of its rival and try to bite it on the rump or side.

It is hard to believe that anything could be related to hippos, but when I found that their closest relatives are whales, I thought that it makes sense. Based on DNA studies, it is thought that Cetaceans and the Hippo lineage separated around 55 million years ago. At that time the atmosphere was 5 to 8 degrees Celsius warmer than today. It is known from fossils that hippos evolved in Africa. The oceans would have been rather high, and part of the modern range of the Hippopotamus was under water then. But what is even stranger is that hippos are (somewhat more distantly) related to antelopes, and like them have three chambered stomachs. I guess that is why hippos have to leave water to eat. It would be interesting to go on night safaris to see hippos grazing on grass.

Above the rift valley

45 million years ago the continental plate of Africa began tearing into three. About an hour’s drive westwards from Nairobi you get to see the long crack where the Somali plate is separating from the Nubian plate. We took the B3 Escarpment road and stopped at a gap between souvenir shops. It was early in the morning, and sun had not yet burnt the chill out of the air. We stood in the way of the upward rushing air and looked out at that enormous valley, thinking of the grasslands teeming with wildlife, and how in another 45 million years it will be part of the sea separating the continents of Nubia and Somalia.

I looked around at the shops around us. Several sold the usual carvings and paintings. But there were a few which sold sheepskin. I’m sure that this wouldn’t last long in the humidity and warmth of Mumbai. But some of the shops had nice paintings of animals. For that matter, the railing separating us from the long drop to the valley was also painted. We admired them and moved on.

The road drops steeply to the floor of the valley after this, and both of us kept looking out at that enchanting view. On the way back, a few days later, I noticed the distinctive flora of this region: the very tall African candelabra (Euphorbia ammak) also known as the Candelabra spurge. Just before the road climbed steeply I saw a church which looked totally out of place. As I took the photo, The Family noticed a signboard which said that it had been built by Italian prisoners of war during the second world war. That gave me a little handle with which to tease information out of the net. It seems that B3 was built by these same prisoners. The search also led me to a book called No Picnic on Mount Kenya, which is an account by one of the prisoners, Felice Benuzzi, who broke out of his camp to go and climb Mount Kenya. It is quite a read.

I leave you with a superb photo captured by The Family from our car as we made fitful progress through the horrendous traffic on B3 in the evening.