Saturday, 9 February 2013

#002 Lion Tracking In Lewa Downs

From the first time, as a young boy, I watched a David Attenborough film of Cheetah chasing Thompson's gazelle in the Serengeti, Africa has captivated my imagination. Several years later I was lucky enough to make my dreams come true on a Tanzanian safari.

At the time, I thought this would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip, after all safari is not cheap and it took quite a bit of saving up. But as the aircraft turbines roared over Kilimanjaro on the homeward bound flight, I realised a had left a little of my heart swirling in the red dust of East Africa. I knew, somehow, someday, I would...I must, return.

Fast forwards to now; as a Mountain & Expediton Leader and I have lead several expeditions to east and southern Africa, journeyed through wilderness of jaw dropping beauty, climbed amazing peaks and observed wildlife in many game reserves and national parks.

My passion for these special places still burns just as strong as the first time I stood on the edge of Ngorongoro Crater and saw the vision of a real life Eden before me. Many of my friends know of my enthusiasm for the subject, especially when oiled with a single malt (preferably Talisker).

So, with the imminent danger of boring them with another story, I'll share this one with you from 2008. It is very topical as Lewa featured prominently in BBC documentary 'Africa' (with the wonderful David Attenborough) and also included 'Elvis' the black rhino.


I braced myself as our Landcruiser rattled along the serrated track.  Its wheels alternately cutting into the dark volcanic sand then bouncing over consolidated gravel.  A cold draught blew over the plain and gusted through the open sided vehicle.  Shivering, I shrunk deeper into my fleece jacket.

Back in camp, everyone else had forgone the early wake up call and remained tucked under their warm blankets.  Their reticence was entirely forgivable as most of us had competed in the Safaricom marathon the previous day.  It is the only event of its kind held inside a game reserve and this year the start had been delayed by fifteen minutes while rangers ushered a lion away from the course.

During the race, the cool morning was quickly replaced by temperatures so hot that the very air felt like it was on fire.  My early speed was slowly ground down until I was running in battle of attrition.  The Kenyans, naturally, were all miles ahead.  Some had already completed the course in a little over two hours.  For the final six miles I had mostly run alone, a solitary figure in a wilderness paradise.  My legs were shredded, but pride gave me the motivation to turn on the gas, allowing me to claim the distinction of the seventh non-Kenyan to cross the finish line.
I had run the marathon to raise funds for Tusk Trust, a charity which, for the past twenty years, has instigated a quiet revolution in conservation practice.  Tusk’s key thinking is that to achieve effective conservation of wildlife and habitat, one must recruit the support of communities and invest in education.

In partnership with Tusk, the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and its outreach programmes have dramatically reduced poaching in a vast area of Northern Kenya.   Rhino numbers have been given a chance to recover and elephant can once again follow their ancient migration routes.  Lewa is also a refuge to the critically endangered Grevy’s zebra.
This was the final morning before returning home and I didn’t want to miss any opportunity to see more wildlife.  Above, a myriad of constellations were ushered away by the first rays of dawn and a warm pink alpenglow touched the frost shattered pinnacles of the mountain guarding the southern horizon.

We approached a white rhino with calf only a few weeks old, gambolling ahead of it’s mother.  William cut the engine, allowing me to capture a few frames in the glorious light conditions.  The only sound was a gentle rustling of tinder dry straw grass serenaded by the cool breeze.  A Pangani Longclaw, conspicuous by its bright orange throat plumage, perched on a nearby branch of whistling thorn.  His speckled chest feathers gently ruffled to retain heat.
The radio cracked into life and William held a brief discussion.  He then turned around to face me.

“Would you like to track some lion?”  he asked.  “There is a ranger not far from here.”

“Yes, absolutely,”  I answered with enthusiasm.

Equipped with radio receiver casually slung by a leather strap over one shoulder and large calibre rifle, just in case, the ranger was waiting patiently for us beside the track, as if time had no relevance.  He wore the khaki uniform of the wildlife conservancy but his tall proud stature and ear lobes stretched into hoops belied his Samburu roots.  He introduced himself as Nyekundu.

“Why ‘red’?”  I asked.

“I was named after a red cow,”  he replied in all seriousness.  Just like the Masai, cattle form an integral part of Samburu culture, indicating wealth and status.

Soon he spotted a clear set of cat prints leading towards a nearby hill.  But, while traversing over the broken, rocky ground we lost them.  So, William drove us to the top where the views were unencumbered with vegetation.  Still finding no sign in the immediate vicinity, Nyekundu switched on the receiver box and held up his aerial.  It looked much like one used with a small television.  An audible blip interrupted the static on his receiver box indicating the direction of our lion. 
We remounted the Landcruiser and headed down onto the rolling plains.  In the lee of the hill, the air was still and hot now that the sun had arced higher into the cobalt blue sky.  I removed my jacket and rolled up my shirt sleeves.  Periodically, Nyekundu stood on the footplate checking his ‘blips’ and from their gestures I guessed he and William were debating the best line of approach. 

There was an abundance of game in the valley where Grevy’s zebra, giraffe and waterbuck all grazed on last of the lush grass, awaiting the return of long rains.  We stopped again but this time I could hear that the signal was weaker. 

“Hold on,”  William said, as he turned the vehicle around and slowly steered across rough scrub towards a thicket of fever trees.  We appeared to be travelling around the perimeter of a near impenetrable mass of vegetation, tangled with thorny acacia.  The aerial was held aloft and we were rewarded by a loud ‘blip’.

“The lion is in that bush,”  Nyekundu quietly informed me.

I strained my eyes but could see only leaves.  William drove around to the opposite side.  Still nothing.  But then as my vision adjusted from the bright sunlight to the recesses of the bush, I saw a brief shake of twigs.  It was a cub!  Then I saw the lobe of a large fawn coloured ear and an unblinking amber eye burned through the shade.  The cat wearing the radio transmitter was a lioness.  She was laying on her belly with huge cupped paws stretched forwards.  We had found her and her young litter, in a place where she would be untroubled by other game during the heat of the day and out of sight of most humans. 

We all sat contentedly watching the cubs play.  Photography was pointless, the lair was too well obscured for any shots to be worthwhile. This did not matter.  The enjoyment was in seeing the results of Nyekundu and Williams’ field craft.  They had combined traditional tracking skills with contemporary technology in a way that was both immeasurably enjoyable and informative. 

William was back on the radio.  “The camp manager is worried you’ll miss breakfast.”

“Let’s stay for just a few more minutes,”  I grinned.  “I can do breakfast any day of the week.”
Footnote: Sadly, since originally writing this piece in 2008; across the continent Rhino are once again under unprecedented threat from poaching, with an average loss of one rhino per day. A statistic which I find utterly shattering. If you are able, please give what support you can, even if it is to spread the word, about the essential work done by Tusk Trust in ensuring that Africa's wildlife is still here for all our tomorrows.



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