My Travels: Brothers and Sisters in the Mara

Cats are my favourite animals. Their behaviour is similar across the spectrum, from domestic cats to lions. Well, similar except in mating.

The first lioness we saw in Naboisho was well hidden on a rocky slope covered with bush. She groomed herself and then moved on, out of sight. The buffalo grazing below the slope in the lush green of the wetland was more impressive. Their bovine eyes gazed peacefully out at the car, chewing cud. Yet they were more feared by hunters.

The next viewing was more impressive. In the Masai Mara Reserve we got excited.

“There’s a lion” we all shouted in unison. He was walking through the tall grass towards a rocky outcrop.

“There’s another lying on the granite cap. Get ready for a head rub”, said Marius. It’s easy now that I know these two are brothers, and when I think of my cats when they meet after a day out, they also rub heads. But I did not expect these two lions, the one who still had to walk one hundred meters to the hill, and climb it, to rub heads.

The one lying down roared. It was solid sound in our ears we were so close. You could touch the vibration. The first lion was now in the scrub to the right. He disappeared. We waited. The crest was covered in scrub for about thirty meters, and the granite opening was just big enough for two lions to lie. “Get ready for the head rub”, repeated Marius, checking his camera settings. In a flash the brother came out of the bush into the warm soft morning light, and they rubbed heads then lay down. Just like cats.

Brothers in the early morning sun

The next impressive sighting started with a lioness that seemed to be hunting a herd of wildebeest in Paradise Plains.  We watched her for a while but moved off because there were too many vehicles. Onesmus was looking the other way and spotted the same male leopard on a slope we had seen him on a few days before.  “Leopard” was all he whispered, and we drove off.

We lost the leopard but found two more lionesses walking in a nearby valley. They stopped, one on a termite mound, to roar. They were walking towards the lioness that was hunting. They tackled each other like kittens playing, and then called again. The hunting lioness answered and one of the two lay down, paws stretched out in front of her. “She’s waiting for the hunting lioness”, said Marius. “Get ready for a jump.” I had seen this before in my cats so I knew what to expect but the lens I had trained on the lioness was too big and I missed the action. The three turned around to walk up the valley, and were joined by the two brothers in the early darkness of evening. The females continued playing with each other as they made their way up the valley to crest. The males roared gently every now and then.

As I said, cat behaviour is similar across the spectrum except when lions mate. More about that tomorrow.

Sisters playing

Conversations about Photo Albums

Who would have thought in those days of Polaroids and slides, when a film roll came with 20 or 36 pictures, that we would be looking at photographs on a computer screen?

I have two computer folders of old photographs my father had scanned in, some from slides and some from prints. Each folder has just over five hundred pictures, some ordered and labelled but most just anonymous.  There are places and buildings and people and animals. Some are badly taken, poor focus or needy exposure, but some are absolute classics, and belong in the National Geographic.

Sometimes I look at big thumbnails, other times I go through full screen slideshows. I recognise quite a few people, and can tell you who they are and how we are related, or what route the friendship took with my father. Some people remained steadfast friends to the end; some of the very old are still alive. Others came and went, blowing with the wind, changing direction when principles were cast in stone. The old photographs capture them quite prominently, while the real friends seem to be in the background. Real friends are always in the background, for that background is the fabric of our lives.

There are photographs from Athens, Jerusalem, Alberton and Paris. There is a picture of the Eiffel Tower with its mast in the clouds. Except for Jerusalem all the places especially Alberton and the outskirts of Athens seem open, with ground for people to look over and let their eyes roam freely. That is no more, as the buildings have crept closer together and higher up. The roads were simple in those days, like rivers finding their way with the flow of people. Now they are channels, forcing us in a direction we may not want to go.

There are pictures of christenings, simple lunches, picnics and sheep on the spit. There is a lot of dancing: in the garden, in the fields, in houses and in the kafeneio. There are many pictures with glasses and bottles raised in celebration, but no one seems drunk. They are all really happy to be together and free to live.

The animals include some of our old pets, rabbits in Greece, donkeys in the village and stray dogs and cats around the old house. The animals are all skinny and generally unkempt, except the rabbits that were being fattened up for a stifado.

I can imagine someone going through my photographs in fifty years time. I have eighty eight thousand digital photographs at the moment. It would take that person a few months to go through those, and see the people and places that I have seen. There are some good photographs, but I am not sure if they tell as good a story as the old slides my father had digitised.

A screen shot of my father's pictures

Conversations about Stray Dogs

Greek dogs, especially village dogs, are essentially neglected and often tied up by chain to a tree or spike in the ground. They grind the sand into a fine dust in concentric rings around the origin of the chain. They are fed scraps whenever the owners remember and are not thought of if the owners go away for a day or two or even weeks. Fresh water never exists; perhaps an old bucket might hold dirt specked algae ridden liquid for them.

There are also many stray dogs in the village. They are as thin and mangy as the chained up dogs, as hungry, yet they have their freedom. They are abused, kicked at, shot at even; so they are wary of humans. The skulk along the roads, moving into vacant land and bush where ever possible, a mixed pack sometimes. They seem to never fight with each other, having defined territories and aware that the need to survive is more important than ego.

When you walk from Kakouri to Levidi past Agios Nectarios there are few no houses and it is a wild valley compared to the main valley of Tripolis which is cultivated and has wine farms and dilapidated farm out buildings and many more churches. The villagers think you are crazy to walk, when you can drive, and then warn you about the dogs., There is always a story about someone being attacked by dogs and a child almost dying, the parents losing their job because of the stress and medical costs and then getting divorced, or some such catastrophe. The details change but the catastrophe remains. I have seen foxes and rabbits walking back in the late afternoon from Levidi, as darkness rolls off the tall shadows cast by the mountains. No great catastrophe.

When we first went to the village as children, accompanied by my grandmother, dogs were anathema. We were not allowed to feed them, touch them or play with them. She chased them away with her South African “voertsek” and a kick or waved fist. As the years passed, and so did she, my mother started feeding some strays scraps on the corner opposite our house. She had to be careful, because the divorced couple still faced with medical bills and the injured child and their family, or a similar type, would frown on my mother’s actions and spread rumours in the village of four hundred people that my mother wanted the child dead so that’s why she feeds the dogs. The logic amongst those philosophers astounds me sometimes.

As the years went by my mother started buying dog cubes at the supermarket in Tripolis. There were not always supermarkets there, it is a recent phenomenon. And dog cubes arrived even later. About that time my father built the garage with a separate gate to a small vegetable garden, and my mother started feeding her dogs regularly in that space. She was like a Mother Theresa for the dogs.

Even when my father used to go alone to the village, he would emulate her and buy the cubes at the supermarket and feed the dogs in the garden.

My mother feeding her strays