Cat Hats Trophy

The conservation area in which our camp is located covers tens of thousands of acres and is managed very competently by our chief warden. His is one of those roles that would be impossible to contain within a job description and covers land management, community work, wildlife welfare and ensuring that the camps adhere to the conservancy code of conduct.

As he knows we will be with guests at particular times of the day he mainly communicates via texts, some of which have been very cryptic.

‘It’s possible that a naked man might be running through your camp in the next two minutes.

This turned out to be a herdsman who, when caught by rangers grazing illegally through a conservation area, had panicked and caused a mini stampede amongst his cows, one of whom had stood on his shuka [wrap-around blanket that the Maasai wear] which meant the herdsman continued his frantic run without it. An unusual number of our female guests showed a remarkable interest in using the binoculars in the mess tent that afternoon.

A couple of months ago he sent us:

Have you got any room in your freezer for a lion’s head?

A lioness had died in a suspected case of poisoning and the head needed to be stored until it could be collected and tested by the relevant people in Nairobi. D was really hoping that someone would annoy him over the following days so he could do a bush version of the oft-quoted Mafia threat.

Then, today lunchtime:

‘Is anyone’s guest missing a hat? We’ve found it next to the Simba lion pride, a bit pawed but still ok.’

D read out the message to our guests who all confirmed that their hats were safely on their heads. Then:

‘On second thoughts; are any of the camps missing a guest? The good news is; we’ve found their hat.’

Did you know?

A common guest habit is to assume that, because D and I live in a tent for 8 months a year, we are a little bit dim. Last night a guest very kindly took it upon themselves to tell me who the president of Kenya is.

Now, I’m not the most politically astute person in the world and I would struggle to tell you the name of the president of Mali, for example. [Just had to look it up; Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. See? Now I even know who the president of Mali is.] It would however take a special person not to know the name of the president of the country in which you reside.

The hospitality challenge is of course to react politely when someone tells you something that you’re very likely to already know. What I want to do is slap my forehead in a dramatic manner and yell, “KENYATTA?!You’re sh*tting me?” and then make the guest listen whilst I list lots of facts about their home country; “So, in England you’ve got the Houses of Parliament and you have a Prime Minister, David Cameron, that’s right. Now let me tell you all about the Queen ‘cos I read a 200-word paragraph in the front of a Lonely Planet Guide on the plane and am therefore now something of an expert.”

A hare’s death

The half-wildcat (that is half-tolerated in camp by The Wonder Dog) brought a freshly-killed scrub hare into the tent at one o’clock this morning and hid it under our bed. I got out of bed at the sound of the first crunch and gently and respectfully carried the poor dead creature outside so that the cat could finish its meal al fresco without disturbing us.

The cat didn’t get the point and half an hour later brought the hare back under the bed. I got out of bed again and, imperceptibly less respectfully, moved the slightly stiff creature outside but a bit further away.

Cat didn’t get the point. At 4am this morning, in an attempt to get the creature far enough away to deter the cat from bringing it back, I found myself standing naked in the moonlight on our verandah swinging the completely rigor mortised hare around my head like the Olympic hammer before releasing it, whereupon it flew through the cool air like no hare has flown before, landing twenty feet away with a thump(er).

Watership Down it wasn’t.

Leopards have the decency to eat their kills in trees

Leopards have the decency to eat their kills in trees

Food Mountain

Just sitting at my desk in our office tent trying to recalculate the food budget for the next week.

Four new guests arrived today, all of whom swear that they enjoy low fat and sugar-free diets.

Without wishing to be rude, their claimed dietary restrictions have not, um, manifested physically in the way you would expect.

The chefs and I watched in amazement as they piled their plates high from the lunchtime buffet table. A pasta dish that would normally comfortably feed fourteen people ran out after these four new guests had filled their plates. The chefs ran up to the kitchen tent to prepare some more whilst I wondered if we’d not explained things properly and they thought this was to be their only meal of the day.

We sat outside in the shade of the trees, with flycatchers, weavers and eagles fluttering, tweeting and gliding respectively above the farmhouse-style lunch table. However, none of this caught my eye today as I was distracted by the piles of food on the plates.

Worried about keeping within my food budget over the forthcoming days and how I was going to justify extra expenditure to the camp’s owners, I considered trying to collect photographic evidence.[“Oh, sorry! Thought I saw a very rare bird sitting on YOUR MASSIVE PILE OF PASTA.”]

After lunch an interesting experiment took place. One of the new guests ordered a bottle of Bitter Lemon. If you’re not familiar with this drink; I imagine the accountants at the Coca-Cola company who make Bitter Lemon are more troubled by the invoices for sugar than they are by the invoices for lemons… Despite this, I watched one of the ladies attempt to add some more sugar to the bottle using a teaspoon.

I don’t think anyone’s attempted to add sugar to 100% sugar before and some sort of molecular-level reaction occurred, causing a lemony Mount Vesuvius.

The waiters performed the clean up heroically.

A difficult dinner last night; we’re hosting a group of twelve Americans in their seventies and eighties. Although there are a few friends in the party, most met for the first time in Nairobi three days ago.

Everyone has their story to tell, and it’s clear that some of these stories must be told at any cost. One lady, let’s call her Dorothy, will not stop talking. She segues effortlessly from one subject to the next without pause. Last night’s dinner was twenty minutes late as the waiter couldn’t find a gap in Dorothy’s monologue long enough to announce the menu. In the end I just yelled rudely, ‘DINNER IS SERVED!’

There was a little dance around the dinner table as the other guests tried to second-guess where Dorothy was going to sit and moved accordingly. Myself and two guests from Alabama lost the game of musical chairs and we sat at one end of the long table with Dorothy. The collective sigh of relief from the others blew out the candles.

Through sign language and telepathy the couple from Alabama, Cecilia and Robert, and I decided that our tactic had to be to not let Dorothy start talking otherwise the game was lost. Unfortunately, Dorothy is nobody’s fool and had started on her chosen topic of tennis before we’d unfolded our napkins and relit the candles.

After a twenty minute discourse on the merits of a grass surface over clay, the situation was desperate. I could see from their eyes that the Alabama two had lost hope of ever escaping; Robert handed me a note for me to pass onto their children.

I was struck by inspiration and leapt from my seat, “Oh my GOD!” I yelled, “I can smell burning!”

I dashed out of the dining tent to investigate hoping that the couple would play their part and use the distraction as an opportunity to stop talking about bloody Roger Federer.

When I returned to the table it had clearly not gone entirely as I hoped and I was disappointed to hear Dorothy say, “… so my friend has bought me tickets for the Open, we’ve gone together for the last twenty years…” but it turned out Cecilia and Robert had plumped for another tactic; Dorothy was going to carry on talking and they were both just going to talk over her. It resulted in a very bizarre three-way conversation about growing rhubarb in the southern states of America, the merits of getting tickets for the Australian Open and the state of the Danish monarchy.

It was unconventional but I thought I was handling it well until I said, “Are they fruits or vegetables?” to Cecilia who I thought was the one talking about rhubarb but it turned out that she was the one talking about the Danish royal family.

I was forgiven and learned an interesting fact about Bluetooth.

Summit to Say?

A few guests who stay with us are travelling on to climb Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Most are accepting of the fact that this remarkable feat has been achieved by others throughout history, indeed, it’s highly likely that it’s being climbed at this very minute.

However, two British guests likened their plans to that of Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller.

The boring smug buggers managed to sneak in the fact that they were climbing Kilimanjaro into every conversation.

Me: Would you like some tea? Coffee?
Them: Hello? Climbing Kili next week, we’ll be drinking tea and coffee then!

Me: Goodnight then, sleep well.
Them: Hello? Climbing Kili next week, we can sleep anywhere!

Me: Ooh, look at the full moon!
Them: Hello? We KNOW, climbing Kili next week when there’s no full moon!

They also bored the other camp guests who stopped including them in their conversations as game drive viewing was open to unfavourable comparisons.

“You saw two leopards together in a tree? Oh, we’re much more interested in landscapes; we’re looking forward to the view from Kilimanjaro.”

They even left a little complaint in the visitor’s book; ‘Would have liked to do more walking as we’re climbing Kilimanjaro next week.’

"Flying? We're flying over Kilimanjaro next week."

“Flying? We’re flying over Kilimanjaro next week.”

 

New to the Game

It’s interesting being an expat in a country such as Kenya. Everyone is desperate to demonstrate their own expertise in the wilderness, urban or otherwise. The expats who’ve been here longer will treat you as if the day your plane landed was the day you were born.

On safari; “That’s an elephant.”

On the beach; “Be careful in the sea, there are tides.”

When shopping; “You’ll need a trolley.”

Wildebeest Weather

A day which launched on an uneven keel when we were asked, “who’s the worst guest you’ve ever had?” by the worst guest we’ve ever had, was righted by an hour of very heavy rain; a puddle-filling 32mm.

It transformed our dry and crispy part of the Mara eco-system into a veritable lake and cheered up the herds of wildebeest beyond measure. As wildebeest aren’t the most expressive of creatures, I’ve made quite an assumption here.

Unfortunately, the rain had its dark side as well. All laundry is hand-washed in camp and sometimes not all the soap powder is rinsed out. This becomes apparent in rain when clothes get wet and start lathering up at inappropriate times. One of these times was today as I handed a guest an umbrella and she caught sight of my feet and shrieked. I looked down to find myself in my own personal ankle-deep bubble bath, a sea of frothy soap suds, with more running down my legs.

“It’s from the clothes,” I quickly explained to the horrified guest, lest she think I suffered from a soap-dispensing affliction, like a wishy-washy superhero with possibly the least impressive superpower available; a soaper-hero, if you like.

To recover from the embarrassment, my very clean ankles and I set sail on the plains in our Land Rover and found this wildebeest cleverly concealing his joy at the rain.

Pure, unadulterated joy, wildebeest-style

Pure, unadulterated joy, wildebeest-style

The Tortoise and the Zebra

Two of our new guests had sleepless nights because of an unseen herd of large creatures munching away at grass near their tent throughout the night. They shared their misfortune with us this morning before their 6am game drive.

"They said what?"

“They said what?”

“Probably zebras,” explained D, thinking this because a) there were zebras everywhere last night, b) there’s zebra poo everywhere this morning, c) there are zebra hoof prints surrounding the guest tents and d) the askaris said they saw zebras overnight. D pointed out the overwhelming evidence to the guests who said in all seriousness, “Oh no, we don’t think it was zebras. No, we’ve been talking about it all night, we’ve worked out what it was – it was tortoises.” So, in the minds of our guests herds of giant tortoises went marauding through camp last night – we’re lucky to be alive…

Lost in Space and Translation

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During a camp safety briefing with some honeymooning guests we asked the husband what he did for a living. He casually replied that he bought and sold meteorites for the San Francisco 49ers (an American Football team). Both D and I were impressed yet confused – why would a football team need meteorites? Certainly, why would a football team need so many that you’d actually need to employ someone to be in charge of the purchase and sale of them?

It then dawned on us that we live in a tent far, far away from all things modern and we assumed that the acquisition of comets for sports teams must now be a commonplace occurrence.

Not liking to remain ignorant, we pressed for more details over the next few days but his responses to our questions didn’t really make sense and our confusion continued.

Undaunted, we made a special effort in pointing out constellations in the clear night sky and, as luck would have it, there was a Perseids meteor shower when these honeymooners were in camp. We set up the telescope each evening and asked the guest all about what we were seeing.

Strangely, he didn’t appear interested in what we were showing him and didn’t seem that willing to share his knowledge. In fact, as the days progressed it became obvious that he was making his own special efforts to avoid us.

On the honeymooners last day in camp, some new guests arrived and over the lunch table the American Football meteorite-buyer was again asked what he did for a living.

“Huh, good luck in getting any info out of him,” I thought to myself.

But then, to my dismay, I heard the honeymooner clearly explain to the new guest that he bought and sold media rights.

I was horrified; the honeymooning couple must have thought we were deranged. We could imagine them going to bed every night after dinner, the husband absolutely bemused; “Why do they keep asking me questions about the moon? And what’s with the telescope?”

Had a comment from a guest today who, having fallen in love with the landscape and the wildlife, confessed that she would love to do what we have done; to leave a former life behind to live and work in the wilderness. Alas, she said, it would be impossible for her to do what we have done, for, she said, “I have a proper job in London.”

Owlet

During our inspection around camp this morning, D and I spotted a small bird sitting in an acacia gerrardii. I ran to the mess tent to grab the camp copy of Stevenson & Fanshawe’s Birds of East Africa.

I flicked through the pages, trying to identify the stranger. “It’s like a mini owl” said D, “with a pissed off face.”

I found a suitably angry-looking candidate on page 204, pearl spotted owlet, and started reading aloud the supposed characteristics.

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“It says here, partially diurnal, check, call starts with a long series of short piped fwoo-fwoo-fwoo…notes.” At that precise moment the owlet uttered that very call. “Often mobbed by small birds.” As I read out that line, a small murmuration of superb starlings mobbed the owlet, which flew to a farther branch.

I continued reading, “Has it got intimidating yellow eyes?” The owlet’s gaze fell upon us and both D and I were intimidated.

I’d never come across such an obliging bird and even D was unusually enthusiastic, “It’s like Jumanji – everything you read out happens.”

We turned back to the owlet, it was jumping up and down on the thorny tree, egging us on to read more, “Read the bit where I have copious amounts of sex, read that bit.”

Well well well…

“I think I can see him at the bottom.”

At certain times of the year we’re populated by guests from the US who are combining a family safari with charity work. The interesting thing is that they all seem to be doing the same thing, namely digging wells for water and building schools.

There are so many people carrying out these charitable works that it’s a mystery that the rural landscape isn’t dotted with wells and schools, wells and schools. It must be a precarious life out there for the wildlife; cantering in a carefree manner across the acacia-dotted plains, congratulating themselves on not smashing into the classroom that wasn’t there on Monday before pitching headfirst down a brand new 100ft well.

Ants and The Wonder Dog

Having sticky feet proved unfortunate

Having sticky feet proved unfortunate

Ants have invaded the camp in their millions. This is causing problems for everyone, not least The Wonder Dog. He now has approximately 10 seconds to eat his biscuits in the morning before the ants start carrying his bowl away. I’ve been given roughly 6,348 different pieces of advice on how to keep ants away; the latest experiment involves covering a piece of A4 paper in glue and placing it under the food bowl in the hope that the ants would get stuck to it and TWD could eat his biscuits in peace. This hasn’t worked. The ants are light enough to skip over the glue without a care in the world and the dog is now stuck to a piece of A4 paper.

I gain a little satisfaction from noting that some of the glue has transferred to the feet of the ants which means it’s taking them longer than usual to carry the bowl away and they’re collecting the dust from the tent floor as they go.

Advice no. 6,349: talcum powder. Apparently ants can’t walk through it. At least if it doesn’t work I will have cured nappy rash in the local colony.

A little bit crapper than Mufasa

A little bit crapper than Mufasa

We knew they were going to be trouble the moment they arrived. Rather than leaping enthusiastically from the Land Rover they surveyed our camp with dismay from within the vehicle before stepping carefully out, unsuccessfully picking their way through the dust and scat.

A three-generational vineyard-owning family from California, they looked like they’d packed for a cruise; tiny pointed shoes, hair immaculately dyed and styled, delicate little Hermes scarves. The wives looked high-maintenance too.

When I introduced myself to one of the ladies, she limply took my hand; “You guys have Wi-Fi, right?” When I said no, she looked over her shoulder and called to the rest of the family, “They’ve not got it here either. What are we going to do?”

The thirteen of them stood in front of us, looking vaguely panicked.

The first lady turned back to D, “Well, do you have a TV room at least?”

The panic spread to us; these guests were here for four nights and had booked all of our six tents.

“Well, hopefully you’ll be out on too many game drives to worry about TV,” said D continuing to introduce himself to the mixed group.

The smallest of the four children, a girl, tugged at the shiniest of the adults; “I don’t want to go on another drive.”

“Wait until you see the lions and elephants,” D said, “you might even see hippos in the river.”

One of the other mothers stepped forward and spoke gently to D as you would to a simpleton; “We saw a lion on the way from the airport,” she said, “we don’t need to see any more.”

Knowing it was going to be a long few days for all of us, we introduced them to the non-existent facilities of the camp before leading them to their tents to reveal the hair dryers, bathtubs and minibars that the camp also doesn’t have. In the face of their disappointment, it seemed churlish to point out the flushing toilets.

They remained unmoved by the beauty of the camp, scared of the few bugs that made an appearance, bored by game drives although the wildlife did its best to impress; leopard, cheetah, lion, elephant and rhino all made an appearance during their game drives, despite them only being out of camp for an hour a day.

“So did you choose to work out here?” asked one of the daughters, implying that I was an victim of a lesser-reported human trafficking ring; condemned not to a sordid life as a sex-worker in Soho but to live in the wilderness and talk to guests until I could have my passport back. It was clear which she considered the worse fate.

On their fourth and final day, D and I walked down to the dining tent to make sure that the family had everything they needed. It was 4pm, a time when guests would normally be out on game drives; traversing the grassy plains and escarpments before watching the sunset in all its glory.

As we approached the tent we could hear music.

Whilst bona fide lion cubs, warthogs and hornbills went about their lives only kilometres from camp, we found the family huddled together watching Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ on the grandson’s iPad.

Hakuna matata…