Written by Michelle Werrett, [Website: michellewerrettruralwriting.wordpress.com]
My visit to Lolldaiga Hills Ranch in February 2018, was a visit to my dear friends, Robert and Susie. It was wonderful to spend time with them, to stay in their cedar-log home with an atmosphere rich as African honey and a temptingly abstractive library, and to see the ranch. I quickly fell in love with the land.
One morning I took a rattly, smelly, cantankerous Toyota and, with a little persuasion, drove it to the Valley Dam in the southern valley of the ranch. I parked overlooking the water and sat on the roof from where there was so much to see. A family of Common Warthog poked about at the far end of the dam on my right and the water was abuzz with noisy wildfowl. Egyptian Geese, Little Grebes, various snipe and duck, all had something important to add to the general hubbub. A Black-winged Stilt waded in the shallows, elbowing along on long, scarlet legs, dipping his slender bill into the soft mud.
As I watched the birds I saw a tall figure emerge from the trees on my left. A big bull Reticulated Giraffe walked slowly into view, then saw me and froze. He was there for some time, clearly wary because of my presence. He was on his way to the water but now waited to see what I might do, his slender blue tongue exploring soft nostrils with careless agility. He watched me. It seemed a long time before he moved forward to the water’s edge opposite me. Still longer before he summoned the courage to lower his head to drink. He was really large with swollen pale legs, his black tail swept the ground and his coat was faded. He looked old. At length he spread his forelegs wide apart, bracing his body in a position that looked awkward and ungainly, possibly even painful with the stiffness of old age. As he lowered his soft caramel lips to meet the water, sunlight ricocheted from the faceted, shimmering surface to flicker across his belly in patterns that reflected the reticulations over his flanks and back. He drank several times, always carefully keeping his feet dry.
I heard a snort and heavy tread and turned to see a herd of Plains Zebra move around behind me to approach the dam on my right. Their stripes dazzled the eye, confusing sight so that each animal was lost among the lines, each contributing a pattern as unique as a fingerprint to the tessellated sketch of the herd. They plunged into the dam over their hocks, eagerly splashing through mud and water with none of the caution of the dry-footed Giraffe. After drinking they moved back ashore and rolled in the dust with a lot of nickering, whinnying conversation.
The Giraffe was still on the opposite shore, drinking at intervals between periods of watching all that was going on around him. He appeared to look intently at something away on my right and soon another Giraffe appeared from that direction. This one was smaller, darker, with more sharply defined markings and wearing Oxpeckers on his neck like jewels. As he approached, the old Giraffe turned away from the water and walked towards him. They moved towards each other in purposeful strides and I expected them to meet either in friendship, rivalry or something. I was quite unprepared for the way they passed without a glance, each without altering his pace and with no sign of recognition whatever. The darker Giraffe came to the pool to drink and the old one just kept walking until he was out of sight.
A gigantic, prehistoric leviathan lumbered out of the trees on the opposite bank of the dam. An old bull buffalo, like a rock swelling from the earth, slowly came to drink. He waded into the dam and sunk his broad muzzle into the water almost to his eyes. His right horn was broken off at around half the length of his tattered ear and his left horn had been raggedly smashed off close to his skull. The massive boss swelled, cauliflower like, over his brow. He raised his head and gazed contemptuously in my direction. What he could see I don’t know but he must have known I was there because the wind was all in his favour. However, he apparently decided I was of no consequence and subsequently ignored me.
A pretty little Hoopoe, with black and white patterned body and pinky-brown head and shoulders, flitted through the acacia scrub and landed on the grass beside me, erecting his black-tipped crest as if he were opening a fan.
The Buffalo’s back was like grey granite, grained with black guard hairs. His bulk obscuring any muscle or skeletal form, he looked more rock than animal. Having drunk his fill he unhurriedly shambled back up the bank. He paused above the water line and rubbed his massive brow into the ground, walking forward a few steps ploughing his boss into the damp earth, so that when he raised his head smears of wet soil plastered his face. Then he rolled. Sturdy legs waved in the air with a brief loss of dignity as the colossal bull immersed his whole body in red, porridgy mud. When he rose from his soiling-pit, his body oozing wet, dripping ochre-red, he was even less animal, even more mineral element of earth.
On Friday I set out just as dawn was rimming the eastern horizon with light, and the stars were still visible overhead. I fired up the open sided Landrover and drove down to the staff quarters to fetch Julius, a Lolldaiga ranger.
We saw three Smith’s Dik-dik running around bushes in small circles. One of these mini antelope stayed within view, moving in a series of jinks and stops. He finished his last burst of speed with legs heading away, but his body folded double, watching us intently through bright, black eyes below pin like horns.
We drove north, my hands cold on the exposed steering wheel, and were well past Baboon Rock in the northern valley of Lolldaiga Hills Ranch, when the sun rose above the hills and the morning began to warm. As we went we saw many kinds of antelope and birds, lots of Plains Zebra and a herd of at least forty Impala, all held by one splendid buck.
There were many Kori Bustards – big, grey, serious looking birds, with dark bodies and lighter necks that look far too heavy to fly. When the males display, puffing up their necks to enormously bloated proportions, they can be seen standing importantly, white and conspicuous from a great distance.
At the foot of the hills in the north west of the ranch, an Aardwolf ran through the scrub and tall, long-necked Gerenuk bounded through bush so thick I couldn’t see them well. A Grevy’s Zebra made his way slowly through scrub. The Endangered Grevy’s Zebra is taller and heavier than the Plains Zebra, with narrower stripes, a white belly, long stiffly erect mane and big, round ears. Miraculously surefooted Klipspringer danced about on the near vertical rock face like ballerinas. These dainty antelope are so well camouflaged they look almost translucent against the rock.
Swinging back south along the foot of the northern hills, we saw a Tawny Eagle sitting on an Acacia thorn. A massive, regal bird, gazing imperiously over his hooked beak, we watched him for a while until he slowly lifted into the air on powerful wings, with primary feathers spread like fingers.
We continued south for a while until Julius spotted fresh Lion padding on the track, heading the same way as ourselves. Two Lion had walked side by side and had been followed by a Hyaena , Julius pointed out. The Hyaena pads were like those of a largish dog, the round Lion pads the size of my open hand.
We continued to drive slowly, each watching our respective sides of the track for the often sharply defined padding. After half a mile or so, the spoor left the track heading off to our left into thick cover. In a short distance we found a way to drive off track and penetrate the scrub, in the depths of which was a small dam. Although diminished and muddy, there was still some water available, enough for a Grey Heron to be standing sentinel over the murky pool. The Lions would probably be lying up in the shade near this dam, where they could drink and possibly ambush other animals similarly attracted to the water. Julius thought there was a good chance they would remain there for the day. It was too thick for us to find them so we left them to their repose, unseen but satisfactorily ‘harboured’.
Julius and I went out several more times, hoping that we might find the Lion. Once, on the track close to where we had followed the padding on Friday, Julius caught me looking optimistically at stale padding and told me sadly that it was simply more of the tracks we had found last time. I really knew that, and wishing it to be fresh could not renew it. Whilst we saw many other fascinating and beautiful animals, the Lion proved elusive.
Monday was my last full day on Lolldaiga Hills Ranch and, since a walk was planned for the next morning, my last dawn game drive. I awoke to the sneering, whooping laughter of Hyaena and got dressed quickly while it was still not yet light, swallowed hot coffee, fired up one of the Landrovers and left.
When I met Julius he told me he had heard Hyaena and Lion near Baboon Rock only five minutes ago. This was encouraging news and we set off in good spirits. We found a group of Spotted Hyaena above Canary Dam in the central area of the ranch, a lame one first, then more including a female with cubs, seven or eight in total, perhaps. While we watched them from the opposite side of the valley, Julius explained that Hyaena would watch Lion, wait for them to kill and then attempt to take the carcass from them. If we watched the Hyaena they may lead us to Lion.
However, after watching the Hyaena for some time it became clear they were settling down for the day and there was no sign of Lion. We drove around the dip valley and Campi ya Simba, central Lolldaiga Hills Ranch, where Smith’s Dik-dik, Reticulated Giraffe and Impala browsed amongst the Olive and Cedar scrub. This area of small hills and intimate valleys is mostly wooded and offers perfect cover for all kinds of animals although they are difficult to see.
We drove out on to a grassy hilltop, where the Aberdare Mountains in the south-west were pale on the horizon, and were confronted with a herd of African Buffalo, their wickedly curved horns gleaming glossy black in the early light. The biggest bull strode forward to challenge the intrusion, his nose lifted questing for scent, demanding explanation. He walked towards us aggressively as if looking for a fight. Behind him, every horned head was turned in his support.
I engaged reverse gear but Julius told me not to worry, not to move. ‘They will not attack the vehicle.’ He reassured me. ‘They cannot.’We held our position and, as Julius said, they did not attack. Probably his last remark was the only reason they didn’t. Had they been able, they looked as though they would have liked to. A lot.
After remaining motionless for some time, gradually the tension eased and the Buffalo began to relax. Just one or two at first, they slowly began to drop their glare and to move back into cover. The big bull lumbered away with an air of disgust. Cows and younger bulls remained longer, watching us with snorting disdain until I quietly restarted the engine and slowly drove away.
Further down the valley we found Reticulated Giraffe and stopped to watch them for a while. A group of 25, some browsing, others just standing around in the open, three swinging their knobbly heads across each others necks. Tall and supple, their tactile, gentle buffeting seemed like friendly banter. We watched them until it was time to go back for breakfast.
Later on after lunch, another visitor, Jeffrey, announced that he would like to go the the North East corner of the ranch, and asked if I would like to come. Together with Julius we went. We drove out through the open savannah across the northern plain which I love with its space and heat, dusty tracks and the few dams strongly attractive to wildlife.
A group of Elephant beside a dam were plastered in wet mud and had clearly been playing in the water. There was a female with a very small calf and a few others, one with longish tusks, around seven or eight in total. Reaching up with muscular trunks, they carelessly tore substantial branches from trees, nibbled at the leaves and discarded them.
We saw a big Lanner Falcon sitting on top of an Acacia thorn where he waited patiently whilst we looked him up and compared him with a Saker Falcon in Jeffrey’s bird book. We decided he was definitely Lanner.
Elegant, doe-eyed Gerenuks picked around the Acacia scrub, standing on hind legs to stretch their long necks up into the canopies to take leaves beyond the reach of other gazelles, their large ears hanging down like goats. The name ‘Gerenuk’ means ‘giraffe necked’ in Somali, which is an apt description. A couple of them cantered away on long, slender legs, as fine boned as thoroughbreds.
We paused at beehive makers huts, where a man was spitting the bark away from logs around a foot across and perhaps three feet long. He binds the bark back together, with slices of wood in place at the ends enclosing hollow centres to act as beehives which are hung in trees. A Black Eagle soared out from beetling cliffs above.
The sky lowered and blackened in the south as we picked our way through the Acacia scrub looking for a track. Elephant cows and calves browsed around us. A rainbow arched over the eastern hills, broader and brighter than an English rainbow and much more vibrant, like all things African. A few drops of rain, too little to dampen the dust, drew a spicy-rich sigh of longing from the parched land.
We found our way across the dry riverbed at last, back onto recognisable tracks and headed towards home. The sun was dropping towards the hills and it would be dark in an hour.
Passing the area where we had found lion tracks on Friday stirred our memories and revived hopes of finding them again. To my disappointment there was no sign of any fresh ones, nor had we seen any such tracks anywhere else on our travels.
Suddenly, Julius called out ‘Stop! Stop, go back, go back.’ Jeffrey obligingly brought the landrover to a halt and crashed the gearbox around, looking puzzled. Julius said, ‘Lion!’ We reversed up to a gap in the scrub and we could see them. Three Lions lying on the wall of a small dam. We stopped to get a proper look at them and then drove cautiously off the track into the scrub to see how much closer we could get. A male Lion and two lionesses were lying on the bare earth bank on the far side of the small, not quite dry dam. The Lions seemed quite unconcerned so Jeffrey decided to try to drive closer and began to move forwards. I suddenly saw movement on my right and put out my hand to press his arm as I said quietly, ‘Stop. Look: cubs!’ Only a few feet from our wheels, two cubs were coming towards us along the edge of the dam. Jeffrey stopped again and we watched in wonder as the fluffy youngsters gamboled gambolled and stumbled about on short, spotty legs. “I’m surprised their parents are so unconcerned.’ Jeffrey remarked. I agreed with him, but wondered whether there was actually a real parent somewhere else, watching us with greater concern. I kept looking all around, watching the scrub on all sides, but no other Lion materialised.
The male Lion was probably not of great age. His mane was relatively small and the same colour as the rest of his coat. He was stretched out in peaceful repose and did not move the whole time we were there. Only the lioness on the right stood up once, stretched, and turned over to lie on her other side. Otherwise there was no indication that the family’s rest had been disturbed.
The cubs had a good look at us but obviously decided we were no fun and went back to their games. They toddled across the cracked earth of the dam bed, stalking each other, stalking a stilt in the oozing mud and eventually climbing up the bank on the far side of the dam to join the adults. They clambered right over the unprotesting male Lion to reach the recumbent female on the left who appeared to be their mother.
Darkness was enveloping us rapidly as we decided to leave the family in peace. Jeffrey reversed out the way we had come in and gunned the Landrover up over the rough tracks back to the house, our progress hastened by thoughts of whiskey and soda beside the blazing fire.
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